RiverRun 2015: Spotlight on Black Documentaries

19 04 2015

RRFor their 2015 program, the RiverRun International Film Festival has used their spotlight section to shine a light on black filmmakers who defied the odds and carved a spot for themselves in the film industry from 1971-1991.  Let us not delude ourselves, however, into thinking that the challenges disappeared 24 years ago.  They still remain.

This gap between the makeup of audiences and the diversity behind the camera still exists, and it manifests in the RiverRun lineup itself – particularly with narrative films.  (There are quite a few directed by females, though, so at least there is some progress!)  But among documentaries featured in this year’s program, the black experience in America receives a very thorough examination through four distinct films.  Regrettably, I missed a fifth, “Fresh Dressed.”

Here are just a few of the riveting, compelling, informative, and enlightening documentaries playing RiverRun in 2015.


AltheaThere is no catch-all definition for what a documentary has to be.  But, generally speaking, the subject (if human) usually gets the chance to define his or herself in their own words if alive in the era of video recording.  “Althea” does not fit this general conception of documentary.

Rex Miller’s film mostly features interviews with contemporaries of tennis star Althea Gibson, known for being the first black player to win Wimbledon, but hardly any footage of her actually talking.  Perhaps little footage exists, yet it still feels odd that others are practically the sole artists of Althea’s portrait.  Other people bring their own set of biases to the table, and these must be considered and filtered through for accuracy.

Then again, maybe such an iconoclastic approach is what Althea would have wanted for a documentary about herself.  In the brief runtime of “Althea,” Miller and his interviewees effectively establish Althea as a woman who bristled with middle-class norms and was not keen on taking a page from the respectability playbook.  This approach is fairly interesting, though I remain a little unconvinced of its effectiveness.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Black PanthersAt least when I saw Stanley Nelson’s “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” the film proudly blared the support of PBS in the opening credits.  What followed over the next two hours perfectly matched the widely recognized criteria of that brand of documentary.

Nelson’s well-researched tome on the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party in America feels like an entire book’s worth of information packed neatly into an easy to watch film.  He manages to capture the eccentric personalities involved, both in terms of those making the party appealing from within and those seeking to smear it from outside.  Nelson also expertly contextualizes the movement within the larger picture of the 1960s and the Civil Rights battles.

If there is any criticism to level at “The Black Panthers,” it is that the product stays safe.  Nelson never veers outside the prescribed PBS formula, and, as a result, his film seems guaranteed a spot in every university library.  But watching the film, I yearned for a bold choice or some real spontaneity.  Nelson never makes a misstep in the documentary, although that precision comes at the cost of excitement and edginess.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

“Tales of the Grim Sleeper” is probably the best Werner Herzog documentary that Herzog didn’t make.  In fact, had director Nick Broomfield spoken with a hint more German in his accent, I probably would never have questioned who was directing the film.

Broomfield goes on a journey with his camera and microphone (and the audience, by extension) to assess the damage done by a sociopathic serial killer in South Central known as “The Grim Sleeper.”  The official record only counts ten victims, but many believe he exterminated close to 200 women and hid their bodies in a landfill.  Since most of the women he killed were drug addicts or prostitutes, the police were largely complicit since he achieved their unstated aims.

From a boots-on-the-ground perspective, Broomfield gains a pretty comprehensive picture of the depravity exhibited by Lonnie Franklin, the man arrested in 2010 for the Grim Sleeper’s crimes.  In order to gain this perspective, he gets in the car with an intelligent prostitute to snowball his way into an accurate sample of those affected.

Every bit as scary, though, is the system of indifference and ignorance built in South Central Los Angeles that allows someone to get away with such heinous crimes for so long.  Broomfield is masterful in connecting the micro of the Grim Sleeper with the macro of the black experience in America and dealing with institutions which often hold them in little regard.  He draws these lines mostly through expository narration that tells what is hard to show.  By the end of his “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” Broomfield leaves us outraged, disgusted, and more knowledgeable.

3 1/2 Minutes

3 1:2 MinutesIn 2012 and 2013, much of the nation’s attention turned to Florida where George Zimmerman faced trial for shooting unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.  Many used the case as an opportunity to shed a light on the state’s dubious “stand your ground” laws, although the connection of the statue to Zimmerman was erroneous as his legal team plead self-defense.

Soon after, though, the state of Florida saw another case that actually did involve the controversial law.  Michael Dunn gunned down Jordan Davis, an unarmed black 17-year-old, over loud rap music blaring in a gas station parking lot.  Dunn’s defense argued that, under “stand your ground,” his perceived threat of violence from asking Jordan to turn down the music justified his use of deadly force.  Had a jury sided with this rationale, it would have even further reduced the duty to retreat and essentially declared open season on any target of conscious or implicit biases.

I think of myself as someone pretty tuned into the news, but I can honestly say I had never heard of the Jordan Davis/Michael Dunn case before watching “3 1/2 Minutes,” Marc Silver’s documentary that follows every turn from the bullets discharged to the verdict handed down.  Even in just 90 minutes, I felt more emotionally engaged with and personally invested in the trial than any other.  Much of this comes from the stark juxtaposition between the harrowing heartbreak of Jordan’s parents, poignantly captured by Silver, and the callous insensitivity of Dunn’s common sense racism.  (At one point, Dunn absurdly compares himself to a victim-blamed rape survivor.)

Whether intentionally or not, Silver provides a pretty accurate portrayal of our era of “racism without racists.”  Dunn’s lawyer makes sure that race is not allowed to factor into the trial, but it seems fairly evident that he relied on coded racial appeals like the “thug” stereotype.  One commentator makes the excellent point that such an epithet is our time’s equivalent of the N-word, and with the media churning out these stock characterizations, it becomes the default lens for many people secluded in single-race enclaves.

Hopefully, films like Silver’s become more widely seen in order to fill the hole currently occupied by these unfortunate images.  “3 1/2 Minutes” will replace fear and suspicion with compassion and love.

REVIEW: The Wolfpack

18 04 2015

The WolfpackRiverRun International Film Festival

Crystal Moselle’s documentary “The Wolfpack” begins with her subjects, the Angulo Brothers, reenacting the cult film “Reservoir Dogs.”  As opposed to many directors who rip off Tarantino for artistry or edginess, these budding filmmakers use the material as a means for understanding the world.  Like a real-life Plato’s Cave, the children used the cinema as their window into the reality outside the Lower East Side housing unit to which they were confined.

The story of their lives would make for a fascinating cult horror flick; the Angulo family patriarch is an anarchic Hare Krishna devotee who thinks he can begin an isolated utopia in his tenement block.  Instead, Moselle finds a humanist biography as she documents their forced introduction into society.   “The Wolfpack,” albeit with a somewhat confusingly jumbled timeline, finds moments of beauty and wonder as they interact with the mundane.

At times, though, I found myself wondering if Moselle puts them under the microscope like specimens for examination rather than letting them be relatable humans.  She does dwell an awful lot on the strangeness of their situation (admittedly, a source of great fascination) and squanders a chance to explore a deep philosophical quandary brought to light.  Cinephiles will recognize the ways in which the Angulo brothers internalize and appropriate lines from their favorite movies, but “The Wolfpack” in general lacks the reflexivity to analyze the ways in which fictional realities influence the one in which we live.

What do movies mean for those who have no other way to learn about humanity?  The question still intrigues me, and I hope that other filmmakers will pick up the baton left behind by Moselle and “The Wolfpack.”  Her mission was likely to tell the story of her subjects rather than explore film theory, so not providing an answer to these types of issues does not ruin her documentary.  Nonetheless, I would still love an answer from someone at some time… B2halfstars

REVIEW: Cut Bank

17 04 2015

Cut BankIn Matt Shankman’s “Cut Bank,” a tiny town has to deal with baby’s first murder investigation.  The young Dwayne McLaren, played by Liam Hemsworth, just happens to film his girlfriend Cassandra (Teresa Palmer) when a Native American pulls out a gun and shoots a postman (Bruce Dern).  The murder threatens to unravel and disrupt a number of co-dependent facades necessary to maintain a sense of peace in the small Montana locality, apparently the coldest in the country.

These implications involve a sheriff (John Malkovich), a shop owner (Billy Bob Thornton), a strange visitor (Michael Stuhlbarg), and an eager postal inspector (Oliver Platt).  The cast is far more impressive than the characters they play, though.  With little development of their personalities and far too many cooks in the kitchen, “Cut Bank” never quite finds its center of gravity.

There’s nothing wrong with an ensemble thriller so long the filmmakers are dedicated to giving each component a fair oiling, and that is definitely not the case in “Cut Bank.”  All these mechanical flaws only find themselves amplified by the lack of conspicuous artistry to distract from the uninspired execution.  This is a pretty standard, cut-and-dry crime flick with little out of the ordinary to offer.  C2stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 16, 2015)

16 04 2015

This Film Is Not Yet RatedWhen I was in eighth grade, I wrote a research paper on the controversies surrounding the MPAA and the ratings system they provide for the film industry.  As you might imagine, the sources on this topic were somewhat limited.  Much of the information I utilized came from news sites reporting on Kirby Dick’s documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” which had been released the previous fall.

It took me a few years after the paper to finally catch up with my treasured source – keep in mind, Netflix and other video streaming services were not common back in 2007 – and it did not disappoint.  Dick’s film, equal parts salacious journalism and savvy social commentary, is an urgent watch for all those who care about censorship and artistry.  By pulling back the curtain on a major force that shapes the content of cinema, Dick’s documentary is a more than deserving “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

The film may be most famous now for the guerilla tactics employed to discern the identities of the members of the mysterious MPAA ratings board; Dick and private investigator Becky Altringer use some rather drastic techniques to get their targets.  This component of the film makes for good entertainment, sure.

But “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” is so much more than just a behind-the-scenes look at an explosive story.  Dick conducts interviews with a number of famous filmmakers who have endured notorious and public battles with the ratings agency which really serve to drive home the idea that this is an issue for everyone.  It affects our entire culture and the art it produces.  The board may claim to be reflecting the society, but they really do more to perniciously shape it.  Just watch for yourself … and hope that one day there’s a sequel.  Ten years ought to be long enough, right?!

RiverRun 2015: a few films to avoid

15 04 2015

RRFor the past few years, I’ve been lucky to attend the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, NC, and see some really great films like “Chasing Ice,” “The Kings of Summer,” and “Obvious Child.”  This year, for what I presume will be my last in the foreseeable future, I get the privilege of covering it from a semi-legitimate press position.

As a result, I have been able to watch a few screeners of films playing the festival.  And … well … I just hope they are not indicative of the strength of the rest of the programming slate.  Because I don’t think I could recommend any of these without some serious qualifiers.

Touching the Sound: The Improbable Journey of Nobuyuki Tsujii

Touching the SoundThe more I have watched and studied film, the less I am able to tolerate cloying and hokey films that go for easy emotional appeal. Yet even before I started taking the medium seriously, I suspect I still would have balked at “Touching the Sound: The Improbable Journey of Nobuyuki Tsujii.” Peter Rosen’s documentary is good-natured and sweet but ultimately lacks any kind of substance or importance that suggests the watch is worth the time.

Barely running over an hour, the film has remarkably little heft and precious little time to build a narrative. It gives scant opportunities to build rapport with the subject, blind pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii, whose remarkable ascendancy to playing Carnegie Hall deserves better treatment than it gets here. Rosen makes his life feel like nothing more than a set of home movies that are not worth caring about unless you know the people in them.

To see this kind of story done right, check out last year’s documentary “Keep On Keepin’ On,” where the young, blind pianist Justin Kauflin receives remarkable mentorship in music and life from the late jazz legend Clark Terry.


Sex EdThe documentary “Sex(Ed)” could have been a fascinating sociological study about the ways in which sexual education films create and reinforce gender differences.  Director Brenda Goodman does a great job providing a historical background on the evolution of these films but stops short from suggesting how they might have led to the situation in which we find ourselves now – a society where we tell women not to get raped but don’t tell men not to commit rape.

Instead, Goodman is all too eager to just make an amusing historical trifle detailing the changing attitudes towards sexual mores in America.  She spends far too long trying to kick up outrage over abstinence education that leaves the youth of today clueless when thrown into actual sexual situations and blows her chance to leave the audience with a real takeaway.

(Also, this film is available to rent for under $4 on iTunes – a third of the price that RiverRun charges its patrons for the screenings.)

This Time Next Year

This Time Next YEARI do have sympathy for all those who suffered tremendous losses in the face of Hurricane Sandy, trust me.  But watching “This Time Next Year,” you would think the subjects of Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman’s documentary had just endured the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia or Hurricane Katrina.  I am not saying that their pain is less painful, only that it seems like the people profiled suffered comparatively minor losses and property damage.

The film slogs along at a dreadful pace that only gets amplified by the crushingly elegiac tone.  I watched the film with a friend from Houston, who had a great suggestion for what these documentarians should have done – hosted a community screening of Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Break.”  Because what’s one thing scarier than Mother Nature’s wrath?  Our government’s systemic disenfranchisement of blacks.

In the meantime, watch out for a second hurricane that could be formed from the tears of the subjects that were shed in the making of this film.

Proud Citizen

Proud Citizen

Outsiders have been great observers of American culture and society from De Tocqueville to Christopher Nolan.  I was hoping “Proud Citizen,” albeit in a minor key, might continue in that tradition.  Thomas Southerland’s film follows a mild-mannered Bulgarian playwright, Krasimira Stanimirova, whose second place finish in a competition allows her a chance to travel to see her work produced … in small-town Kentucky.  She does not really get much creative input in the production, so Krasimira is mostly just left to wander and wonder.

“Proud Citizen” winds up playing like a lo-fi, mumblecore “Lost in Translation.”  Since I am not a big fan of Sofia Coppola’s polarizing film, the previous sentence may read like a compliment for you even though it is somewhat of a putdown for me.  But I can see what others might enjoy about this film; it is certainly not without its moments.  In a festival stacked with options and a media landscape full of alternatives, though, I would be hard-pressed to say this is a fully worthy recipient of your 90 minutes.

Hopefully I will be back later with some better news to report.

REVIEW: These Birds Walk

14 04 2015

These Birds WalkI can’t help but feel awful criticizing a documentary like “These Birds Walk,” especially from my position of enormous privilege of which the film made me painfully aware. Please do not mistake my critique of the filmmakers as some sort of slight or insult to the subjects they chronicle. (I feel like such a disclaimer is a necessary shield against accusations of heartlessness when talking about orphans in Pakistan.)

“These Birds Walk” is certainly well-meaning, but directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq never translate their good intentions into good cinema. Their 71-minute documentary feels too long for a short subject and too short for a feature documentary. It’s like the rough cut of a student film made by humanitarian world travelers. The film’s voice is not particularly distinct, so it just feels like a quaint travelogue.

Mullick and Tariq train their camera to get a few nice shots and capture some candid moments, but they aren’t enough to propel their enterprise. “These Birds Walk” lacks a consistent story to follow, and the characters are not particularly well-defined enough to carry the film. They also don’t provide much background on the cultural conditions in Pakistan, so any social commentary in the film doesn’t feel very pressing.

Perhaps this duo is capable of making a good documentary in the future, but “These Birds Walk” suffers from too many basic errors to be effective.  C2stars

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival: Days 3-4

13 04 2015

IMG_8479Admittedly, I have been spoiled in my festival experiences, spending the majority of my time at ones that essentially get pick of the litter in their selections (Cannes, Telluride, NYFF).  Never – before attending Full Frame, that is – had I attended a regional festival with a tightly, intentionally selected slate of films.  And, logistically speaking, it was certainly the easiest and most manageable to navigate with most screenings taking place around the same time and mostly within the same walkable space.

I saw no outright duds, which could just as easily be due to my own scheduling and screening.  But their selection was robust and purposeful, balancing a wide variety of topics, tones, and levels of notoriety.  They showed everything from flashy documentaries from well-established directors like the late Albert Maysles, Barbara Kopple, and Joshua Oppenheimer down to some experimental and audacious efforts from no-names.  There were films with big distributors and others that will probably never escape the festival circuit.

Perhaps most notably, there were documentaries that will reach extremely wide audiences thanks to patrons in cable.  Of the eight films I saw projected at the festival (as opposed to on my computer via screener link), a whopping half will be broadcast on television networks – HBO, Epix, Showtime, and the History Channel.

Documentary film still has an audience, perhaps even bigger than ever thanks to the streaming revolution, the wide accessibility of filmmaking technology, and the mainstream success of non-fiction efforts like “The Jinx” and the podcast “Serial.”  While some may lament that very few will get to experience these films in the traditional theatrical setting, I will be glad if the average consumer just sees them and then contemplates their form and content.

The Lanthanide Series

The Lanthanide SeriesI doubt that Erin Espelie’s avant-garde documentary “The Lanthanide Series” will ever be seen outside of the festival context, except maybe on some obscure streaming platform.  And that’s perfectly fine – there’s a place for these films too, and I am glad Full Frame curated this challenging, peculiar object.

“The Lanthanide Series” is part “Koyaanisqatsi” for the digital age, part poem, part visual essay, and part rumination on the very nature of the mediated image and its inherent distortion.  But in regards to its content, it’s a tale about how a few small elements, usually passed over in high school chemistry, are deeply and inextricably woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.

The documentary is unashamedly ambitious, and it mostly succeeds. As with many works that go out on a limb, “The Lanthanide Series” occasionally slips. Yet even when it frustrates, it remains compelling since every image draws curiosity as to its construction and capturing. How exactly director Erin Espelie pulls off each shot makes for a wonderfully perplexing puzzle.

It’s notable that this is perhaps the first film concerned with technology that does not take a gloom-and-doom attitude towards these advances.  Although, Espelie does make expert use of “The End” by The Doors in her sound mix, which does invite comparisons to “Apocalypse Now.”  So maybe that’s a statement in and of itself.

How to Dance in Ohio


In her documentary “How to Dance in Ohio,” director Alexandra Shiva does something that I have not seen since accomplished since “Silver Linings Playbook.”  She uses those who see the world differently to help us understand life more clearly.  Her choice of subjects: teenagers and young adults on the autistic spectrum as they prepare for their spring formal dance.

Shiva shows a whole center that comes in for counseling but focuses on three girls at different stages of development who form the backbone of the narrative.  16-year-old Maredith is just learning how to socialize and step away from just sitting in front of her computer.  19-year-old Caroline is attempting to navigate college classes on her own.  22-year-old Jessica is working to live independently from her parents and hold down a job of her own.  Each girl has some awareness that they are tired of being babied, yet their transition towards adulthood gets stifled by their incomplete social toolkit.


The creative team of “How to Dance in Ohio”

No subject ever gets propped up for easy pity since Shiva treats them all as human beings.  They are not there for us to look down upon or view as some kind of charity case.  We can learn so much more than just about autism and the unique challenges and obstacles faced by those who suffer from it.  We can learn about the very ways in which we all interact socially by paying attention to their observations and listening intently.

Shiva and her team took some heat at the post-screening Q&A from a few viewers who thought the dance existed more for the sake of the film and not for the subjects themselves.  After all, Dr. Emilio Amigo does say that the event is a confluence of the worst factors for those on the autistic spectrum between all the noise and stimuli.  But she was quick to defend her process, and I am convinced that Shiva made “How to Dance in Ohio” with the utmost respect and care for everyone involved.   It shows in the final product, too.

Coincidentally, I wound up sitting next to Shiva at a screening the next day.  (Aren’t film festivals neat?!)  I told her that I loved the film and have been telling my friends to look out for its HBO broadcast; she seemed genuinely touched.  I am glad to help do some small part to help this touching, humane film inspire even more people.

Deep Web

Deep WebI had pretty much ideal screening conditions for “Deep Web” – no preconceived notions and virtually no prior knowledge.  I just saw the general logline when browsing the original announcement of Full Frame’s program and signed up.  Since my knowledge of the deep web was essentially limited to the hacker with the guinea pig on “House of Cards,” I figured I could use a few more hard facts.

As it turns out, I was woefully uninformed about a story with some vast implications for the way we live in an increasingly digital world.  The case of Silk Road, an underground Internet marketplace, could potentially set a precedent for cases involving online search and seizure.  The government is currently prosecuting Ross Ulbricht for running the Silk Road and enabling the purchase of illegal items such as drugs.  Though not included in his formal charges, they have indirectly accused him of involvement in the murder-for-hire schemes that took out would-be whistleblowers for the site.

Proof is tenuous at best, and the FBI has yet to answer the question of how they were able to glean so much information on Silk Road.  Ulbricht’s defense argues that they may have violated his Fourth Amendment rights.  They make a frightening point that, without a disclosure from the bureau, future cases of cybercrime could be decided by previously inadmissible evidence.

What could have devolved into a classic, standard miscarriage of justice story becomes a gripping tale about civil liberties in the Internet era.  Director Alex Winter (of “Bill & Ted” fame) uses “Deep Web” as an instrument to challenge institutions and their attempts to exert hegemonic force to maintain order.  Can the government use any means to reach their desired end?  Who even benefits from those ends anyways?

Ask some of the people interviewed for the movie, and they will say private prisons, pharmaceutical companies, and police departments are the big winners from keeping Silk Road subdued and the war on drugs raging.  For once, these kinds of interviewees do not come across as paranoid conspiracy theorists but rather as deep critical thinkers.

I should note that, technically, the documentary is not even finished.  Winter said he was working to cut in more footage from new developments in the past two weeks prior to the May 31 premiere on Epix.  Count me in as an intent follower of this case from now on.  It is too important to look away from.

The Term

The Term - picAnything about Putin’s Russia seems like a fascinating topic these days, with the autocrat seemingly unstoppable in his invasion of Ukraine. “The Term” focuses on the voice we rarely seem to hear from – his opposition. Heck, from the news coverage, you would think anyone who dares to disagree with him gets quickly shipped off to a Siberian gulag.

“The Term” starts off promising but quickly devolves into a brutally mechanical routine. Directors Alexei Pivovarov, Pavel Kostomarov, and Alexander Rastorguev model their film’s structure after the instructions on a shampoo bottle: lather, rinse, repeat.

First, we see a scene from the streets of Russia, where Putin dissenters seek to peacefully demonstrate and harmlessly tease his stolid armed guards. Of course, their protestations are often met with an unmerited violent response.

Then, cut to the key personalities working against Putin. Old and young, political and anarchic, each has a different idea as to how the president’s oppressive regime can be toppled.

Finally, to cap off one section and transition to another, the documentarians cull the annals of YouTube to find some ridiculous footage of Putin. Nothing will ever top the pictures of him shirtless on the horse, but him hang-gliding with geese and big game fishing come pretty close.

All these components are worthwhile to watch, but their assemblage does the gravity of the subject a disservice. By the end of “The Term,” I felt much like I do walking out the door after finishing my usual morning rituals. I know what happened, but ask me to recall everything blow-by-blow, and there would be some big gaps.


WesternAmong the documentaries I saw at Full Frame, none felt more like a narrative film than “Western” from the Ross Brothers.  The experience was akin to a very deliberately parsed fictional indie film, and Bill Ross deserves serious commendation for bending time to his will in the editing room.

“Western” always feels taut and escalating towards some kind of breaking point, but that moment will not necessarily come since it is actual reality rather than an invented one.  In the border towns of Eagle Pass and Las Piedras, a fragile, agreeable sense of peace between the two localities seems to be ripping at the seams due to the incursion of gangs and drug violence.  As the events unfold, a rancher, a mayor, and many others have to find some way to make sense of it all.

I would not exactly say I was riveted by the experience, but the Ross Brothers cast some kind of spell over me that kept me intrigued throughout as I tried to figure out what this sorcery was and how they were pulling it off.  It’s the documentary as a landscape, one that captures a wide swath of activity along the border and also manages to get it in a satisfying amount of detail.

Listen to Me Marlon

Listen to Me Marlon

Stevan Riley pretty much hit the jackpot in terms of material from which to compile his biographical documentary of Marlon Brando.  The revolutionary actor’s children gave him access to Brando’s private tapes, which he recorded to make sense of his craft and bring some sense of inner balance.  These audio recordings represent an indelibly intimate look at a man and performer notorious for his inaccessibility.

Listen to Me Marlon” is the end result of Riley’s fusion of the tapes of Brando’s musing with various interviews and archival footage readily available to the public.  Yet I cannot help but wonder if a more interesting documentary might have resulted from relying more heavily, if not exclusively, on the tapes.  Riley rarely delineates when we are privy to Brando’s private thoughts from when he is on the record with a reporter, making for a blurry line between public persona and private self.

Regardless of my preferences, “Listen to Me Marlon” still makes for a fascinating watch.  Riley informs us of Brando’s philosophy on any number of items from screen acting (“the face becomes the stage in close-up”) to romance (“the penis has its own agenda”).   I just cannot help but wonder if a more radical, powerful documentary lurks underneath the surface of one that seems to settle for pretty good.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

Drunk Stoned Brilliant DeadWith a title like “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,” director Douglas Tirola seems to imply four stages or traits will receive equal billing in his history of the National Lampoon brand.  But, from what I observed, “brilliant” trumped the others.  Tirola proves far more interested in hagiography than biography.  He heaps praise on the humorists, then briefly mentions that they relied heavily on drugs and alcohol to do their work.

As for the “dead,” it really only applies to co-founder Doug Kenney, whose passing in 1980 unofficially marked the end of an era.  (Curiously, he never mentions the overdose of John Belushi that occurred two years later.)  The close of the film feels somewhat rushed, as if the crumbling of a towering comedic empire needed to come with a lesson.  But the majority of the documentary is a fun, informative look at how a group of witty writers brought truth through humor during the crisis of authority in Nixon’s America.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 260 other followers