Music Documentary Alert! ‘Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice’ Review

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CREDIT: Greenwich Entertainment

Starring: Linda Ronstadt

Directors: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: PG-13, Because Rock Stars Must Be At Least PG-13

Release Date: September 6, 2019 (Limited)

There’s a section in the documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice that focuses on the singer’s relationship with Jerry Brown during his first stint as California governor in the late seventies. The superficial differences in their lifestyles probably confused some observers. But to Ronstadt and Brown, the attraction surely made self-evident sense, as I imagine they shared some fundamental liberal values, values that made perfect sense to her as a human being. In one clip, when an interviewer suggests that her political views (which we see as anti-nuclear war and anti-racism in this moment) are controversial, she objects by countering, “I don’t think my political views are very controversial. Who likes nuclear warfare?”

That same sense of self-evident certainty is one of the major vibes of The Sound of My Voice. Ronstadt’s voice was so powerful and versatile right from the start of her career that nobody could ever possibly stop something like “You’re No Good” from being a hit. Nor was the boys club mentality of rock ‘n’ roll ever going to prevent her from being a rock star, nor could fuddy-duddy traditionalism keep her from bridging the gaps between, rock, country, and even Latin music. This may be a standard documentary survey of a musician’s career, but when the notes are undeniably so right, you can’t help but surrender to them.

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is Recommended If You Like: Linda Ronstadt’s music, of course

Grade: 3 out of 5 Stone Poneys

The Wettest Documentary Review Ever: ‘Aquarela’

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CREDIT: Stine Heilmann/Sony Pictures Classics

Starring: H2O

Director: Victor Kossakovsky

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: PG for General Aquatic Danger

Release Date: August 16, 2019 (Limited)

Water. Water water water water water water water.

That’s what’s promised and it’s certainly what’s on display in Russian director Victor Kossakovsky’s wet, unique, and uniquely wet documentary Aquarela. Water sustains all life on this planet, so in a way, it also sustains all cinema. But when it stands on its own at number one on the call sheet, does it hit the spot? To be fair, I will have to personally assess a score of “incomplete” on that question, as will most people who end up seeing Aquarela. It was shot at a practically unheard rate of 96 frames per second, four times the standard 24, and there aren’t many theaters with the capacity to project at that rate. So it will be screened at 48 frames per second, which is itself quite rare.

The idea here is to show a montage of H2O in its most overpowering forms (huge waves, flood waters, glaciers cracking apart) and remind humans that we’re at the mercy of the all-consuming forces of nature. On a technical level, Kossakovsky’s accomplishment is unimpeachable. But in terms of the content he’s chosen to include, it all feels so haphazard: here’s a car crashing below ice here, here are some animals stuck in floodwater there, here we go to a close-up of a waterfall.

The king of documentaries that offer a survey of the non-living world in images is the 1982 time-lapse classic Koyaanisqatsi, and Aquarela does not come close to being the hypnotic achievement that Godfrey Reggio gave us. Instead, we start off with a sort of rake joke-style comedy of errors on ice and then somehow make our way to a nameless series of crashing waves. In other words, Kossakovsky hasn’t discovered anything new about water by making it the star of the show, but surrender to the experience, and maybe it can lull you in the right way.

Aquarela is Recommended If You Like: Staring at the ocean all day

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Floods


Movie Review: The Fly-on-the-Wall Documentary ‘The Brink’ Gets Up Close and Personal With the Dangerous and Anti-Entertaining Steve Bannon


CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures

Starring: Steve Bannon

Director: Alison Klayman

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: Unrated

Release Date: March 29, 2019 (Limited)

Steve Bannon is eminently convinced about the righteousness of his crusade. I make that conclusion based on how he generally carries himself and on how much access he gave to a documentarian who clearly does not believe in his cause. That open-door approach is a double-edged sword for Alison Klayman’s The Brink, though, as it allows for plenty of (potentially) illuminating footage, while also underscoring how unpleasant it is to spend an hour and a half with Bannon. While he does have his fans, he is objectively not an engaging personality.

The Brink follows Bannon’s efforts to spread his gospel of nationalism and economic populism throughout the United States and around the globe. What is most striking in this portrait, at least to me, is how much his supporters get excited when they are in his presence. It isn’t that I disagree with these people’s politics (although I definitely do), but rather, I am confounded by how much they do not know (or don’t believe) that Bannon is not known for his charm. Klayman’s fly-on-the-wall approach does not change this perception, although I will concede that if you spend enough time with Bannon, you can detect a sort of demented folksiness. The point of The Brink is to tease out the xenophobia inherent in his crusade, and it conveys that thesis effectively enough, but it is locked in a soulless yin-yang with its black hole of a subject that drains away much of the potential for audience catharsis.

The Brink is Recommended If You Like: Spending an hour and a half with an unmagnetic personality with dangerous ideas

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Torchbearers

Movie Review: ‘Apollo 11’ is a Stunning Feat of Archival Documentary

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Starring: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins

Director: Todd Douglas Miller

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: G for Gravity Defiance

Release Date: March 1, 2019 (Limited)

Documentaries featuring restored archival footage are having a moment. Peter Jackson’s box office hit They Shall Not Grow Old got in the trenches of World War I. The Oscar-nominated short A Night at the Garden uncovered a 1939 Nazi rally in New York City. And now Apollo 11 puts us right alongside the crew of the same-named 1969 lunar mission. As a technical achievement, it is stunning and confounding. Every frame is made up of 70 mm film footage that was shot at the time but never previously released to the public. The richness and clarity of the visuals are breathtaking. How it all remained a secret and in such good condition is surely beyond most mortals’ comprehension.

The you-are-there sensibility is so thorough that there is even time to check out the snack bar set up for the crowds gathered to watch the launch. In that regard, it is reminiscent of the seminal 1960 Direct Cinema doc Primary. But it differs insofar as Apollo 11 director Todd Douglas Miller adds a few showy editing flourishes. Occasionally he arranges a series of shots in comic book-style panel arrangements, calling to mind Ang Lee’s Hulk, of all things. Also adding to the mix is Matt Morton’s intensely looming score. I like both of these elements on their own, but I wonder if they are saturating the already plenty powerful raw footage. But no matter what, the awe and beauty on display is unmistakably evident, serving as reassurance that humanity can still find inspiration by looking up to the stars.

Apollo 11 is Recommended If You Like: Primary, They Shall Not Grow Old, First Man

Grade: 4 out of 5 Launch Sequences

This Is a Movie Review: They Shall Not Grow Old

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CREDIT: Warner Bros./Imperial War Museum

My favorite part of They Shall Not Grow Old is the featurette after the end of the movie in which Peter Jackson lets us in on the restoration process. It makes me wish that all making-of special features played on the big screen, or at least the ones for the most technically ambitious movies. I almost would have preferred an hour and a half of the behind-the-scenes footage to the actual documentary. But of course, I needed to see the thing itself for the making-of to have its fullest oomph. And it’s not like it’s a bad doc. Indeed, when They Shall Not Grow Old switches to color, it is just about as thrilling as when The Wizard of Oz makes that same vivid transition. The other big value is the peek into a past culture when teenage boys were so eager to enlist at the first sign of war. Society is so profoundly different now. Not that I want it to go back to the way it was. Rather, I am glad we have this first-hand document in such good quality to viscerally show us both how deadly and how disgusting the trenches were.

This Is a Movie Review: Human Flow

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CREDIT: Amazon Studios

I give Human Flow 3 out of 5 Evil People Sent Into Space: