Thursday, January 26, 2012

Man on Wire

Release Date: 2008
Studio: Wall to Wall
Director: James Marsh
Run time: 90 minutes
Seen on: Netflix DVD and Watch Instantly
Recommended:  Yes, it has the pacing of a good heist film.  Won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2008, recommended on CurrentTV's "50 Documentaries to See Before You Die."
Rotten Tomato Rating: 100%
Showing on TV:  Sundance Channel, Wednesday, February 1, 7:25 AM, 12:00PM, 4:40 PM

"Man on Wire" documents the obsession of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit.  His obsession was the yet unfinished World Trade Center Towers in New York City. 

The doc is crafted like a heist movie, combining re-enactments, interviews, photographs, and vintage films.  From the beginning, they discuss how they needed to sneak into both towers in order to string the wire and ultimately walk the line.  The "heist" comparison lends a sense of drama and immediacy to an event over 20 years in the past.  Since the doc combines modern interviews, you know that Petit survived his ordeal.  But one wonders how and why he attempted this feat.

Petit began his interest with WTC after seeing a plan of the towers in a magazine.  He was taken with the visual and wanted to bridge the span.  Petit had already spanned the towers to Notre Dame in Paris, France and Sydney Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia.  However, these had much less difficulties than the World Trade Center.  The WTC had the difficulty of being two separate structures, designed to withstand high winds.  The structures moved with the wind and their roofs were susceptible to high winds.

The doc moves you towards the inevitable point of his walk, but it does not rush you there.  It takes a leisurely stroll, stopping to talk to people on the way, watching Petit train, and re-imagining the hiding and risk they took.  Overall, it was an effective documentary despite the fact that there is no film footage of his walk from the rooftops.  The footage from the ground is combined with still shots to place you on the rooftop watching him.

Fun fact:  Ten years ago, I learned that the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City had a high-wire artist as an artist-in-residence.  Petit is that artist.

Monday, January 23, 2012


Release Date: 2006
Distribution Company: Independent Film Channel
Directors: Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel
Run time: 89 minutes
Seen on: Independent Film Channel; Comcast Baltimore 164, showing again on IFC on Tuesday 1/24 at 7:30 am and 1:45 pm, Available on Netflix DVD and Instant
Recommended: Unremarkable structure despite an interesting premise
Rotten Tomato Rating: 88%

"It is a time of unrest in the realm of Darkon as Bannor of Laconia seeks to bring Keldar, leader of the Mordomian Empire, before a War Crimes Tribunal.

Far below the surface of the realm, the dark elves grow eager to profit from the upheaval brought on by the conflict."
So begins "Darkon."

"Darkon" follows LARP-ers in Baltimore, Maryland.  LARP stands for Live-Action Role Playing.  (Think people dressed up, playing at battles with styrofoam swords.)  The location of its subjects first drew me to this documentary.  I was interested to see if I would recognize any of the locations.  (I didn't, most of the locations were generic suburbia, soccer fields, and forests.)

I found the structure of the documentary to be unremarkable.  It combined home intereviews with participants, battle footage from a hand-held camera, discussions between countries, and aerial shots.  Many of the participants interviewed show a great affinity for their life in Darkon versus their everyday life.  They found their everyday lives mundane and were unable to have the same confidence as their created character.

Overall, I found this a missable documentary.  There was a conflict, but I did not care about the outcome.  It gave the backstory of several characters, but I did not root for one to advance.  I was not able to focus on it in one sitting, but rather small sections over the course of two days.  You won't be missing anything by skipping this documentary.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The World According to Sesame Street

Release Date: 2006
Distribution Company: Participant Productions
Director: Linda Hawkins Costigan, Linda Goldstein Knowlton
Run time: 90 minutes
Seen on: Netflix DVD
Recommended:  Yes, it was interesting to see its devlopment in other countries

This is another doc I watched his past fall.  I saw it even before "Being Elmo."  This doc follows the development process by the CTW or Children's Television Workshop to  It follows the development of programs in Bangladesh, Kosovo, and South Africa.  All international programs are a collaboration between the international department at CTW and groups in the host nation.

The program can be simply a repackaging from the vault at Sesame Street that are redubbed.  They decided on this process for the Kosovo program.  They included both Serbian and Bosnian people in the planning process.  The hope was to influence future generations of children to view the other culture as valid and limit any future conflict.  Unfortunately, active fighting broke out during the planning process and documentary.

They may instead choose the creation of new characters and new streets, which was the case in Bagladesh and South Africa.  The development process to create an internationa Seame Street is intensive.  CTW wants to stay true to the message of entertain.ent and education for children.  However, they also want to reflect and speak to the country's culture.

The trick in Bangladesh was to create the "street." Where the goal in the original version was to represent the underrepresented urban environment, it would not work in bangladesh.  Ninety percent of their population is in rural communitites.  Instead "Sisimpur" reflected a rural town square, complete with tea shop, distant river, and banyan tree.

For international productions, the set was created by local craftsmen.  The puppets were created in the US and shipped overseas.  They took local influences and translated them into lovable Sesame Street characters.  They do not copy current characters, but are unquestionably part of the Sesame Street family.  The Bangladesh production includes a tiger.  The South African production includes an HIV positive human girl.

It was extremely interesting to see how Sesame Street is translated into different languages, cultures, and countries.  My favorite part was seeing the impact of Sismipur on the Bagladeshi children.  Highly recommended insight into the creative process.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Cameraman:The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

Release Date: 2010
Production Company: Modus Operandi
Director: Craig McCall
Run time: 86 minutes
Seen on: Turner Classic Movies Channel 28; showing again Friday 4:15 am
Recommended: Yes, it made me want to watch more classic films
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 96%

This doc describes the career of late British cinematographer Jack Cardiff. He was still working at 91. He said he wouldn't be working for long. "Another ten years and I'll have to take it easy I think."

Jack began as a child actor in silent films. His parents were extras in films. He believed that he attended around 300 schools in his youth, but had an interesting source of inspiration. He was inspired to read, and was mostly self taught.

His interest in art got him chosen as one of the first Englishmen to be taught the new films process of Technicolor. The doc follows the devlopment of his career and British filmmaking as its own art form. It includes interviews with Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, and Martin Scorcese. It contains just long enough clips to tantalize you to watch more. Most of the films I had never heard of, let alone seen.

Examples of his work include Black Narcisscus, The Red Shoes, and The African Queen. Black Narcissus, amazingly all done inside a studio. He describes using light like a painter, in a simple form. The Red Shoes, a film about ballet which does not film the ballet in full, but rather show what is going on inside the dancer's head. This film technique influenced Scorcese in Raging Bull. He created "paintings that moved." He also worked with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen, shot on location in the Belgian Congo.

"No matter how good a camerman thinks he is, he's got to serve the director."

He went on to direct films in the sixties and seventies. Surprisingly, after he directed about a dozen films he went back to cinematography. He even shot Rambo: First Blood Part II and Conan the Barbarian. His transition into the digital age took a lot of the effects out of his hands. He created some of his first effects by breathing on the lens or painting the lens to create the effect of fog.

Jack Cardiff's career spanned the range of film history, from silent films to sound, and from the advent Technicolor to the digital age. Through this documentary, one can see the influence of art on film. This documentary does what all great documentaries should do: inspire me to learn more. I now want to watch his films to see his use of color and light. I want to see the films that were at the forefront of their field.

It also poses an interesting question, "Is film art, even though it is populist?"

Fun fact: the film clappers used at the beginning of a take were used to synchronize the image and sound.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Know Your Mushrooms

Release Date: 2008
Production Company: Sphinx Company
Director: Ron Mann
Run time: 73 minutes
Seen on: Sundance Channel
Recommended: Ok, I watched it while making the previous posting
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 100%

This doc follows wild mushroom gatherers.  It combines exploration to find mushrooms and some amusing animations.  It also includes music by Flaming Lips and The Sadies. 

This doc is an example of one I watched simply to pass the time.  It gave me insight on gathering wild mushrooms.  However, since I do not like any type of mushrooms, this won't be a factor for me.  Sometimes I just watch documentaries to pass the time.  They don't always have to be illuminating or amazing.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Kid Stays in the Picture

The Kid Stays in the Picture
Release Date: 2002
Production Company: USA Films
Directors: Brett Morgen & Nanette Burstein
Run time: 94 minutes
Seen on: Current TV, one of the 50 Documentaries to Seee Before You Die, Available on Netflix DVD
Recommended: Yes.  It was ok,interesting insight behind the scenes of Hollywood
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 92%

"The Kid Stays in the Picture" is based on the autobiography of Hollywood producer, Robert Evans.  I first learned about this through Current TV's "50 Docs to See Before You Die" countdown.  This is not one that I would seek out to watch specifically.  However it gives an interesting insight to the workings of Hollywod.  It follows Evans' career from his lackluster acting career to being head of Paramount Studios.

It is narrated by the only person to tell the story, Evans himself.  The story is told through clips of his acting roles, clips the movies he produced, and photographs.  The technique using the photographs is the most interesting.  They are able to split the photo into the elements of the subjects, foreground, and background.  The elements are then given the 3-Dimensional effects.  It really brings the photos to life.    The doc follows the up and downs of his long career.

I have had this on my DVR since September and just got around to watching it.  Overall it was an interesting watch.  Not highly recommended, it was more of a good way to pass the time.  I also wrote this posting while watching the next doc, "Know Your Mushrooms."

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Hey Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill A Mockingbird

Release Date: 2010
Director: Mary Murphy
Run time: 82 minutes
Seen on: Netflix DVD, Netflix Instantly, PBS' "American Masters"
Recommended: Yes, this makes me want to read the book all over again and buy the documentary
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 77%

This documentary was recommended to me by my Facebook feed. Since I 'Liked' "To Kill A Mockingbird," I get updates and information periodically on my feed. I added it to my list immediately after. This was required reading in high school and has been one of my favorite books ever since.
This documentary explores Harper Lee and the origins of the book. Harper Lee has not granted any interviews since 1964, so the documentary relies on archival interviews and interviews with her friends and family. It also interviews influential celebrities and authors such as Tom Brokaw, Oprah Winfrey, James McBride, and James Patterson.
I had always loved "Mockingbird" since I read it in high school. It became my go-to travel book. I know the story so well that I can read passages from it and be satisfied. It is so well written that one chapter is sufficient to be satisfied and stop. However, I had not fully realized the extent of the book's impact on generations of readers. The doc becomes a fly on the wall and enters classroom discussions. One teacher asks students to talk about the passages that will stick with them. As one student speaks about Tom Robinson's trial, imprisonment, and violent death he says what all of us think, "I keep thinking about it. I think it will stay with me for a long time." Over ten years later, this book has stayed with me "for a long time" too.
The documentary also focuses on the basis for main characters. Atticus was the original focus of the book. The original title of "Mockingbird" was "Atticus." After many years of writing and editing, the book came to be the creation that we know and love today. Nelle Harper Lee's father was a lawyer in Alabama. He was described as being the only person they had ever know that had absolutely no ego. Although Atticus is his own person, shadows of her father are seen in his description. One cannot believe that there is a real person as just and good as Atticus, but as one writer describes, it does not mean that we should not strive to be like him.
This documentary also gives us a greater understanding of the depth of the characters. It shows how Harper Lee's life in Alabama gave a richness and depth of characters. Besides Atticus, one learns the reality of Maycomb, the inspiration for Dill, and the Lee's personal similarities to both Scout and Boo. The doc reminded me of some of my favorite female characters: Scout Finch, Anne Shirley, and Jo March.
Most importantly, the doc shows the impact of the book on celebrities, authors, and school students. It shows how both the book and the movie changed how people thought about racism, their upbringing, and Southern life. One of the most powerful elements of the doc include the reading of select passages. Even these short excerpts remind me of why I love this book.
To prevent myself from rambling about my favorite book, I will leave you with the opening paragraph. If you have not read it, I hope this inspires you to read it for the first time. If you have read it, I hope you will take the time to read it again.
"When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn't have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt. "
This excerpt doesn't even mention the overall theme of racism in the South, yet it has everything to do with the story. A masterpiece of the innocence of youth with the wisdom of justice.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Release Date: 2011
Distribution Company: Submarine Entertainment
Directors: Constance Marks and Philip Shane
Run time: 80 minutes
Seen: Charles Theater, Baltimore, MD, Now showing on PBS "Independent Lens", Available on Neflix Watch Instantly
Recommended: YES! YES! YES!
Rotten Tomato Rating: 93%

I was so compelled to see this documentary that I went to the theater and watched it when it came out. I had never done that before. I went to the Charles Theater around Thanksgiving here in Baltimore and I was pleasantly surprised at how many people were there to see it. Parents took their children to see it as well, due to the Sesame Street topic.

I had read positive reviews about it, and the documentary did not fail. It tells the story of Kevin Clash (who grew up in Dundalk) and his journey to becoming one of the best loved children's characters.

The amazing part of his story is his parents' support of his love of puppeteering from a young age. Young Kevin was inspired by the brown fleece lining of his father's winter coat. To him, it looked like a monkey. After he had created his first puppet from scratch, he then realized that he had destroyed his father's coat. His father's response? "Next time just ask first." His parents' love and support directly influence the his journey to create the beloved character of Elmo.

This documentary blends interviews with fantastic behind the scenes footage of Clash in his modern life and of archival footage of Jim Henson and company. It follows Clash's work in Baltimore, meeting Kermit Love (puppet designer and builder), and ultimate goal of working for Jim Henson. Clash is the only performer for Elmo. There are no back-ups and Clash is the character and persona for Elmo.

The documentary was a fast and fun story. Clash's story is inspiring because of his life-long dedication to the craft and his enthusiasm for the character. His parents supported his desire to become a puppeteer. How does someone you would never recognize become something so iconic?