An Animated Documentary About a Refugee? Thank You, ‘Flee’!

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Flee (CREDIT: NEON)

Starring: Amin Nawabi

Director: Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Disturbing Corruption and Poor Living Conditions

Release Date: December 3, 2021 (Theaters)

In the days leading up to my viewing of Flee, it was always the Red Hot Chili Peppers that popped into my head whenever I said the title to myself. But of course, this movie has nothing to do with a certain rock ‘n’ roll bassist, so this information is kind of irrelevant, but I like my readers to know where my mind was at when they’re reading my reviews. And Flee had that mind captivated to the point that Flea no longer occupied my headspace pretty much immediately.

Instead, this Flee refers to the act of fleeing, which a man by the name of Amin Nawabi has had to do quite a bit over the course of his life. He’s an Afghan living in Denmark by way of Russia, with a few other bumpy stops along the way. We meet him at a point in his life when he’s finally able to stay in place much more than in his younger on-the-run days. This stability has helped him to open up and tell his story to his friend Jonas Poher Rasmussen, who went ahead and directed this film. Most of Amin’s journey was unrecorded at the time (save for a few fortuitous pieces of security footage), so Rasmussen resorts to animating the tale along with a soundtrack of Amin recounting his memories. The end result is basically a vibrant and heart-tugging artistic therapy session.

Like countless other refugees, Amin and his family are just trying to escape the threat of violence in their homeland. And then like just about everyone else in post-Soviet Russia, they have to make their way through the muck of chaos and corruption (which is of course more suffocating for outsiders). And on top of all that, Amin is coming to terms with his queer identity after growing up in a country that doesn’t even have a word for “gay.”

But Flee is far from an unrelenting horror show. There are moments of sheer joy, particularly through Amin’s pop culture touchstones. He’s enamored with a certain musclebound Belgian action star, and whenever he gets to watch some kickboxing on TV, it’s fully infectious. There are also a couple of lovely music-fueled bookending scenes, as a young Amin listens to a-ha’s “Take on Me” on his Walkman, while towards the end his first trip to a gay club is soundtracked by Daft Punk’s “Veridis Quo.” He made it through, I’m glad I got to hear his story, and I bet you will be, too.

Flee is Recommended If You Like: 80s synth pop, Queer acceptance, Jean-Claude Van Damme

Grade: 4 out of 5 Fake Passports

‘Julia’ is on Fire

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Julia (CREDIT: Sony Pictures Classics/Screenshot)

Starring: Julia Child and Friends

Directors: Julie Cohen and Betsy West

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: November 12, 2021 (Theaters)

The beginning of the Julia Child documentary Julia features footage of Ms. Child in the kitchen to the tune of Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic hard rock classic “Fire.” Which had me going, “Awww, yeah!” I love that sort of juxtaposition! The rest of the movie is a fairly typical biographical documentary, what with its mix of archival footage and interviews with family, friends, and fans. But that opening has me wondering about other potential mashup ideas: the Barefoot Contessa set to Metallica, perhaps? Emeril Lagasse chopping away while Phish jams on? The Swedish Chef bork bork-ing as Yoko Ono howls with abandon? Chime in if you’ve got any other ideas!

Grade: 3 Chopped Fingers in the Beef Bourguignon

Todd Haynes Heads Down to ‘The Velvet Underground’

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The Velvet Underground (CREDIT: Apple TV+)

Starring: The Velvet Underground, Nico, and Friends

Director: Todd Haynes

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: R for Rock ‘n’ Roll Language, Sex, and Drugs

Release Date: October 13, 2021 (New York)/October 15, 2021 (Apple TV+)

What would you hope to get from a Velvet Underground documentary directed by Todd Haynes? I imagine that’s what potential viewers of the documentary appropriately entitled The Velvet Underground are asking themselves. It’s certainly a question I asked myself before watching. After all, Haynes and Lou Reed’s crew are both known for doing things a little differently in their respective fields. So I’ll use this review to let you know what I was thinking and then how the movie lived up to or didn’t live up to those expectations. (I guess that’s what movie reviews usually are!)

Considering this pairing of director and subject matter, I expected something a little off-kilter. After all, Haynes’ last music-focused cinematic effort was the sort-of biopic I’m Not There, in which several distinct actors more or less played Bob Dylan. The focus with The Velvet Underground is a little more straightforward, but only when compared to how weird Haynes has been in the past. This is mainly a talking heads doc, but there’s fun in filling out the frame, with liberal use of split-screen providing the visual cortex much more to process than a simple camera on somebody’s face. Interview clips are paired with archival footage, lending the presentation a dollop of free-associative flair.

Overall, The Velvet Underground the documentary feels like a history lesson presented by the band members themselves, or as much as that can be the case with a few of them having passed. If, like myself, you’re not already a Velvet Underground expert, you’ll come away learning some new factoids, like how much Lou Reed cared about de-tuning the guitars and that their collaborator Nico made a splash in the Fellini film La Dolce Vita. Those are the sorts of takeaways that are typical of music documentaries, though less typical of Todd Haynes films. But that’s not necessarily a criticism. I knew from the jump that this wasn’t trying to be another I’m Not There, and that’s okay. It doesn’t need to be that; instead, it can do something like capture the droning energy of the Velvet Underground classic “Venus in Furs,” and it proves itself perfectly capable of pulling that off pretty well.

The Velvet Underground is Recommended If You Like: Rock ‘n’ Roll history, General transgression, Detailed epilogues

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Boots of Leather

‘The Rescue’ Embeds Itself Within the Thai Soccer Team Cave Rescue

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The Rescue (CREDIT: National Geographic)

Starring: Junior Soccer Players, Cave Divers, Thai Navy SEALs

Directors: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: PG for Dangerous Situations

Release Date: October 8, 2021 (Theaters)

If you want to experience very high levels of vicarious stress, then I recommend watching The Rescue. If that sounds awful, know that you’ll also be rewarded with plenty of inspiration! This documentary tells the story of the Thai soccer team that was trapped in and subsequently rescued from a cave in 2018. The operation lasted a few weeks, and while the film lasts less than two hours, you really get a sense of just how long the boys were waiting to be freed. The whole time I was watching, I just wanted it to be over. I knew the major details about the story, so I could rest assured that it was going to be a happy ending, but that didn’t make it any more bearable. That’s not a criticism about the filmmaking; on the contrary, the fact that I could experience that much secondhand claustrophobia and still be enthralled speaks to the power of the presentation.

The Rescue is about once-in-a-lifetime ingenuity fueled by whatever hope is available, all undergirded by the question “What does the impossible look like?” An international team of the best cave divers in the world is assembled. If anybody can retrieve the boys safely, it’s these guys, but their assessment is that it will be the most difficult job they’ve ever had to pull off. With poor visibility, lowering oxygen levels, and rising water levels that are only going to get higher with the looming monsoon season, the task is urgent and requires levels of expertise that have quite possibly never been utilized. Solutions are made up on the fly that theoretically sound like terrible ideas to the people capable of pulling them off, but they’re certainly better than doing nothing.

I can tell you this with genuine certainty: I won’t be doing any spelunking anytime soon. Not that I was planning on doing that before watching The Rescue, but now I have something I can point to if anybody ever asks me why I’m so against it. Maybe I’ll dip my toe in a cave or two, but never so far that I can’t see where I entered from. But thank God there are people on this world who feel very differently than me about this. As this documentary demonstrates, we kind of need them.

The Rescue is Recommended If You Like: your documentaries inspirational and death-defying

Grade: 4 out of 5 Tham Luangs

Do Yourself a Favor and Check Out the Questlove Documentary Jawn ‘Summer of Soul’

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Summer of Soul: Sly Stone (CREDIT: Searchlight Pictures)

Starring: The Performers and Attendees of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival

Director: Questlove

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Rock ‘n’ Roll

Release Date: June 25, 2021 (New York and Los Angeles)/July 2, 2021 (Expanding Theatrically/Hulu)

The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival is widely known as “Black Woodstock,” and if you watch the Questlove-directed concert documentary Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), it’s pretty obvious why. Two landmark music festivals, held in the same summer, in the same state, only about 100 miles apart. One of them has enjoyed one of the biggest footprints in American cultural history. The other was permanently relegated to the dustbin … until now.

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‘The Sparks Brothers’ Review: Weird Band, Great Documentary

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The Sparks Brothers (CREDIT: Anna Webber/Focus Features)

Starring: Ron Mael, Russell Mael, and Plenty of Their Biggest Fans

Director: Edgar Wright

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: R for Language (That I Remember Being Pretty Mild, Honestly)

Release Date: June 18, 2021 (Theaters)

What separates a Behind the Music-style biography from a truly feature-worthy documentary? Attitude, for one thing. And Ron and Russell Mael (aka the pop/rock duo known as Sparks) have got plenty of attitude. A friendly attitude, that is! But inscrutable nonetheless. The Edgar Wright-directed The Sparks Brothers posits that you could look these brothers up on Wikipedia and still know nothing about them. That’s more than a bit of an exaggeration, as their actual Wiki page is a healthy length for a band that’s been around for 50+ years. (It’s about as long as, say, Edgar Wright’s.) But it becomes clear pretty quickly that that contention is hardly meant to be literal. The real story of Sparks is that they’ve remained perpetually under the radar despite their impressive influence and proflicacy to the point that plenty of music lovers have never heard of them. And even among their biggest fans, they are – and will probably forever be – a mystery.

The structure of this film is hardly groundbreaking as far as music documentaries (or documentaries in general) go. Vintage performance clips are mixed in with interviews of the musicians and their colleagues and fans. But that ostensible normalcy is perfectly fine, as the subjects themselves are just so confounding. They don’t appear to live on this planet Earth with the rest of us, or if they do, it’s within a different sort of dimension entirely. Really, how do you explain a Hitler mustache-sporting keyboard player and his moptopped singer brother that seemingly everybody loves and who have been at the forefront of so many of the major historical trends in popular music? If you’re Edgar Wright, you make a whole dang movie about them so that people like myself who never knew about them before can witness the wonderful world of Sparks.

One major thread running through The Sparks Brothers is the idea that people don’t take comedy in music very seriously. Performers who are decidedly comedic tend to be relegated to the novelty act heap. And indeed, the comedy is a major part of Ron and Russell’s appeal, which helps explain why some of the interviewees include the likes of such professional funny people as Mike Myers, Patton Oswalt, and Scott Aukerman, as well as Comedy Music Extraordinaire himself, “Weird Al Yankovic.” As far as Sparks go, they haven’t exactly had a Yankovic-style career; instead, they’ve existed in some sort of no man’s land that seems like a parallel universe version of major rock ‘n’ rollers like Rolling Stones or Talking Heads or even Prince. This is not a tragedy, far from it. All signs point to them being quite content with the life and career they’ve lived. So check out their story, and I bet it’ll bring a smile to your face.

The Sparks Brothers is Recommended If You Like: Any of the popular music from the 60s to today

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Sparks

‘Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It’ is Just a Documentary That Decided to Be About Rita Moreno

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CREDIT: Roadside Attractions

Starring: Rita Moreno, and Friends

Director: Mariem Pérez Riera

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Casual Hollywood Cruelty

Release Date: June 18, 2021 (Theaters)

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is your typical celebrity biography documentary, though the subject is far from your typical celebrity. She was the third person ever to EGOT, after all! So obviously respect must be paid. We get to know the skeleton of her story via interviews with the 89-year-old living legend herself, as well as some of her closest friends and collaborators. She had struggles early in her life, as she dropped out of school at 15 and became the breadwinner for her family. She also had struggles throughout her career, as she endured sexism and harassment and navigated Hollywood’s notorious habit of racism by employing what she refers to as the “Universal Ethnic Accent.” She also had some romantic encounters that came and went along the way (Marlon Brando comes up a fair bit), and there’s that one project that looms large above them all (West Side Story, of course). Once again, this is typical celeb profile fodder through and through, but it’s worth paying attention to, because Moreno has endured, clear-headed and still full of energy.

I believe that all movies are best experienced on the big screen, even something as straightforward as Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It. Alas, I did not see this particular movie in a theater (studios are back in the swing of holding in-person press screenings, though not quite at the pre-pandemic rate), and while I wish I had, the Sunday evening that it spent on my television felt appropriate. This very much feels like the sort of in-depth human-interest reporting that you would see on PBS on CBS that tends to air on the first day of the week. If someone told me that this was a series of about ten separate CBS Sunday Morning and 60 Minutes features stitched together to form one feature-length piece, I wouldn’t be surprised, both in the sense that it has the vibe of those shows and because it’s perfectly believable that Moreno would be covered that often on the same program. So if you’re a big Rita Moreno fan and you have the opportunity to make it out to the theater, I recommend it, but if you prefer waiting until you can lounge at home and summon her up on your TV, that’s not a bad option either.

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is Recommended If You Like: Rita Moreno herself of course, Celebrity features on newsmagazine shows

Grade: 3 out of 5 EGOTs

A Day in the Farm Life: ‘Gunda’ Documentary Review

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Gunda (CREDIT: NEON)

Starring: Pigs, Chickens, Cows, Bulls

Director: Viktor Kossakovsky

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: G

Release Date: April 16, 2021 (Select Theaters)

I first stumbled upon Russian documentarian Viktor Kossakovsky’s work a few years ago when I saw Aquarela, which was just an hour and a half of H2O doing what it does. Now his subject matter is fully alive (instead of life-sustaining), as he takes us to the farm in Gunda. Shot in stunning black-and-white cinematography, this is a meditative document of swine, poultry, and bovines going about their day. There’s no on-screen human presence in any capacity, but this isn’t strictly cinema verite. As straightforward as the presentation is, you can sense the pulse of mediation. Watching Gunda isn’t the same as visiting a farm. It may be simple and no-frills, but I don’t think anyone else quite has the capacity to make it the way that Kossakovsky did.

Fair warning: if you’re going to watch Gunda, you absolutely have to be comfortable with maximum levels of snorting. The biggest star of the show is a momma pig who spends a significant portion of the runtime suckling her piglets, and simply put, she makes the sounds that pigs make, and she’s not ashamed to do so. That’s the general vibe of this entire film. Farm animals typically aren’t ashamed to be themselves, but that seems especially true here. While watching, I felt like I was stumbling upon personal moments that I wouldn’t have otherwise have had access to. Or maybe I’m just noticing things that I’ve never noticed before because presenting it all in a feature format forces me to pay attention. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen cows and bulls whipping their tails against each other, for example, but that’s what they’re doing here.

Overall, there’s a bit of unexplainable magic at play in Gunda that makes it all so very compelling. I could do my best to break down how Kossakovsky managed to pull off such stunning cinematography, or take inventory in quotidian terms of everything that the animals get up to over the course of 93 minutes. But I don’t know why a pig walking around in the grass managed to transport me as much as it did. And yet somehow it did, and I’ve gotta respect her for that.

Gunda is Recommended If You Like: A day at the farm minus all the smells

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Snouts

Let ‘Stray’ Introduce You to the Homeless Dogs of Turkey

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Stray (CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures)

Starring: The Homeless Dogs and People on the Streets of Istanbul

Director: Elizabeth Lo

Running Time: 72 Minutes

Rating: Unrated (But It Would Surely Be a G)

Release Date: March 5, 2021 (Theaters and On Demand)

I recently had the pleasure of watching the documentary Stray, which follows a trio of homeless dogs around the streets of Turkey (the country, not the famous answer from Family Fortunes). The runtime clocks in at a perfectly reasonable seventy-two minutes, though I would certainly be happy to spend even more time with these pooches. The three lead mutts are Zeytin, Nazar, and Kartal, who seem to be local celebrities in their neighborhoods, but alas that fame doesn’t mean that anyone is available to offer them a furever home. At least they don’t seem to mind too much; if you let a dog roam, it’s gonna roam!

If these pooches were wandering the streets of America, I imagine that they would end up in a shelter and quite possibly be euthanized. But Turkey has a no-kill, no-capture policy toward stray dogs, and that sensibility seems to have permeated the general attitude of the Turkish people. The humans that we see in this film accept the dogs as a fact of day-to-day life in much the same way that the dogs accept the humans. Director Elizabeth Lo accordingly offers a straightforward, essentially dog’s-eye view that allows viewers to simply discover this fact of life if they weren’t aware of it already.

While looking over my notes for Stray, I noticed that I happened to have written down on the same page some thoughts about the most recent Puppy Bowl, and I was struck by the juxtaposition of these two very different facets of canine culture. The Puppy Bowl is a beloved annual event in which the dogs are coddled and catered to, with the promise of a permanent residence at the end of it all. Meanwhile in Stray, the pooches are just as much the star of the show, but the resources aren’t quite there for them to have regular lodging. If you’re as much of a dog lover as I am, then you’re liable to fall for both the Puppy Bowl and Stray equally hard, since they’re both about dogs being dogs. And that leads me to the conclusion that I think Elizabeth Lo would like us to draw and that I would happily co-sign, which is that dogs are eternally watching and emulating.

Stray is Recommended If You Like: The philosophy of Diogenes the Cynic, Fights over street meat, Making new friends and running around with them

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Howls

‘Some Kind of Heaven’ Checks in on Retired Life in The Villages

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Some Kind of Heaven (CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures)

Starring: The Residents of The Villages

Director: Lance Oppenheim

Running Time: 83 Minutes

Rating: Unrated (I’d peg it as PG, or maybe a soft PG-13)

Release Date: January 15, 2021 (Theaters and On Demand)

In the beginning of Some Kind of Heaven, one of the residents of The Villages remarks that living in a retirement home is more than a little bit reminiscent of college life. And it’s true. For those who like to spend their golden years this way and are fortunate enough to afford it, it promises a pretty cushy arrangement in which hanging out with your friends requires little more than stepping out your door. Situated in central Florida, The Villages takes the college comparison several steps further with a reputation as “Disneyland for Retirees.” Hanging out with your best buds every day is great; spending each one of those days at the most wonderful place on Earth is pretty dang expensive. With that in mind, Some Kind of Heaven focuses on a quartet of folks who are caught on the margins of The Villages.

For such a sunny setting, director Lance Oppenheim’s documentary takes a rather glum approach, as we witness some of The Villages’ most overcast days (literally and metaphorically). I’m sure that all the residents have their own set of troubles, but I’m willing to bet that we meet the ones burdened with the most upheaval. There’s Anne and her husband Reggie, who’s losing his hold on reality while turning to psychedelic drugs as he tries to insist that their relationship is strengthening. Their story is somewhere in the nexus of delusion and enlightenment. Elsewhere is Barbara, a widow surprised to find herself still working full time, bringing out the melancholy in full force. Then there’s 82-year-old Dennis, who’s not actually a resident but living in his van while he looks for a rich gal and tries to outrun his legal troubles. Some retirees really are just late-in-life adolescents, aren’t they?

I was surprised at the intimacy of Some Kind of Heaven‘s approach. Its subject struck me as more suited to an expansive overview of a unique subculture. Instead, it goes piecemeal in a way that I suspect may have been more suited to a series of half-hour episodes. Regardless of the medium and format, though, the clear-eyed and verite empathy shine through. Our stories and struggles don’t always end quite so smoothly as we may want them to, and the glitzy promises of a place like The Village tend to paper over the more complicated details.

Some Kind of Heaven is Recommended If You Like: Slice-of-life documentaries, Directorly unobtrusiveness, A dog randomly humping a cat during an interview

Grade: 3 out of 5 Retirees

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