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

‘Zappa’ Provides the Story of the Man Behind the Mustache

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Zappa (CREDIT: Roelof Kiers/Magnolia Pictures)

Starring: Frank Zappa and Friends

Director: Alex Winter

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: Unrated (But I’d Go with a Light PG-13, for Semi-Indulgent Rock Star-ness)

Release Date: November 27, 2020 (Theaters)

Zappa is like a lot of rock docs, but different. Which makes sense, as its subject is Frank Zappa, who was in many ways very similar to other rock stars, but in other ways, very different. Directed by Bill & Ted star Alex Winter, Zappa follows the standard playbook by relying upon archival clips mixed with interviews with the people who knew the man, while establishing its unique appeal through unlimited access to the Zappa family trust. If you’re a fan of Behind the Music and its ilk, you will surely find something to enjoy here. If, however, you prefer that documentaries try to be at least a little formally inventive, you might be disappointed by the straightforward approach. But it’s impossible to be completely let down by the story of someone who absolutely refused to be pinned down by any categorization.

Zappa the Film keeps pounding away at the message that Zappa the Man was full of contradictions. Unlike so many other rock stars, he was totally straight-edged when it came to drugs, though he supported decriminalization. There was a thoroughly goofy streak to his artistry, but he was also constantly giving off a self-serious vibe. He mixed rock with jazz, or jazz with rock, and whatever else was bouncing around his head, but it would be too simplistic to consider his discography any clearly defined fusion of those genres. As one interviewee perfectly sums it up, “What the hell is it? It’s Zappa.” After watching this movie, you probably won’t be able to peg him any more easily than before, and that’s kind of the point.

Those contradictions extend right through to Zappa’s personal life. This film is no hagiography. Many times, it had me thinking, “Zappa was an interesting guy, but I wish he had been a better husband and father.” In one clip, he pretty much justifies his infidelities by saying that he is a human being who spends plenty of time on the road. We do see his love for his wife Gail and their four kids, but it seems like he tends to get bored of them after a while. It’s ironic then that perhaps the biggest hit of his career was the novelty track “Valley Girl,” a collaboration with his then 14-year-old daughter Moon that more or less defined a stereotype.

Frank Zappa gave the world plenty that we should be thankful for: weird and undefinable music, anti-censorship crusades, appreciation for his musical forebears. But as always, it’s important to be aware that the story behind all that is a lot messier than we might want it to be.

Zappa is Recommended If You Like: Contradictions

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Mothers of Invention

Romanian Documentary ‘Collective’ Gets Incisive on a Tragic Scandal

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Collective (CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures)

Starring: Journalists, Doctors, and Government Officials

Director: Alexander Nanau

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: Unrated (It would probably be a PG-13-level for graphic medical images)

Release Date: November 20, 2020 (Theaters and On Demand)

I have a confession to make: I didn’t realize that Collective was a documentary until after I finished watching it. (The press notes had touted it as Romania’s Oscar entry for Best International Feature Film, which I had neglected to realize could include docs.) I’ll go ahead and turn that into a compliment by saying that I was impressed by its strong sense of verisimilitude. That’s not always easy to accomplish when telling a true story on screen, whether it’s in the form of a docudrama or an actual documentary. Collective presents a story of government and corporate corruption and medical malfeasance in Southeastern Europe, but if you’ve been alive  anywhere in the world in 2020, you’re surely acutely aware of the scourge of those ills no matter where you live. The fight to expose all of the terrible decisions is kind of Sisyphean, but it’s reassuring to know that there are still people who are willing to fight that fight.

The tragedy that sets everything off is a fire at a Romanian nightclub that killed about a couple dozen people from burns and smoke inhalation, with the number of the dead more than doubling in the hours and days following the conflagration. It quickly becomes clear that a lot of these deaths could have been prevented if not for common dangerous practices at the medical facilities, as multiple fatalities are tied to disinfectants that were diluted to save money, thus allowing bacteria to spread to dangerous levels. We discover what this means in quite stark terms with the shot of a human body crawling with maggots on a hospital bed. Amidst it all, a group of journalists keep asking the questions that need to be asked for the public to hear. They’re hardened by the corruption, but not numb to it; widespread incompetence is the day-to-day muck they know that they have to wade through.

There is a clinical, procedural approach to the material in Collective that is quite dry, but it gets the point across. There’s a lot of talk about “pyocanic bacteria,” surely more than in any other movie I’ve ever seen. (You might think that surely this tone would have tipped me off to the fact that this was a documentary. I guess I just assumed that this was the Romanian way, or at least the way of director Alexander Nanau.) If you’re tired of getting outraged at the scandals in your own country but still want to be angry, Collective offers you plenty to get worked up about. It won’t assure you that this world will be fully redeemed anytime soon, but you might come away a little optimistic that redemption is somewhat possible at some point in the future.

Collective is Recommended If You Like: Real-life journalists doggedly reporting on the worst of humanity

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Epidemiologists in the Pocket

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