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Thank God for Documentaries Now!

June 12, 2016


Miss-Sharon-Jones-DIFF-Review-ImageLet’s quickly review the new wide releases from Hollywood this weekend: a movie based on a video game I’ve never played (Warcraft, but I haven’t played a video game since Galaga, and I doubt they’re going to turn that into a movie) and two sequels to films I had no interest in seeing the first time around (The Conjuring 2 and Now You See Me 2 — I’m not sure which is scarier, a horror film or a movie about magicians).

Summer isn’t just the silly season for movies — it’s the stupid season. Which is why I say: Thank God for documentaries. And film festivals, for that matter, because I’ve seen five remarkable non-fiction films at a pair of recent fests in the Tri-State area: the Montclair Film Festival and the Greenwich International Film Festival.

Let’s start with the only of these five films that’s already been released in theaters: Weiner.  As in Anthony Weiner, the disgraced New York congressman who disgraced himself even further when he ran for Mayor of New York and was faced additional revelations that he’d sexted pictures of his weenie to women who are not his wife: Huma Abedin, one of Hillary Clinton’s closest aides.

Directors Josh Kriegman (who once worked for Weiner) and Elyse Steinberg had remarkable access to Weiner as the scandal was spinning out of control, and they’ve fashioned a thrillingly complex portrait of a politically gifted and passionate man brought down by his own narcissism. Abedin emerges as an even more fascinating character — a fiercely loyal “Good Wife” who no doubt identifies on a deep level with her boss yet allows the camera to film her in moments of uncomfortable intimacy. Political junkies will devour Weiner, but you don’t need to be a C-SPAN addict to find this film utterly riveting.

Oscar winner Barbara Kopple (American Dream) rivals the Weiner team for amazing access with Miss Sharon Jones, her moving account of the Brooklyn soul singer extraordinaire and her grueling battle with cancer.  I wept through nearly this entire film, not just because of Jones’ courage but due to the dedication of her manager, Alex Kadvan, and members of her band, the Dap-Kings. Kopple captures exhilarating live performances in environments ranging from a church to NYC’s Beacon Theater, where Jones made a halting yet ultimately triumphant return to the stage after enduring chemotherapy. You don’t have to be a Dap-Kings worshipper to get caught up in the drama of Jones’ life, but anyone who sees this film and doesn’t emerge as a Sharon Jones fan should get your pulse checked because you are dead inside.

The same can be said of anyone who sees Life, Animated (which played at both Montclair and Greenwich and will be released in theaters and on VOD on July 1) and doesn’t leave a puddle. Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams mixes original animation with the inspirational story of Owen Suskind, an autistic young man who learned how to communicate through his love of Disney cartoons. Whether you think Disney is truly a Magic Kingdom or an Evil Empire, you can’t deny the emotional impact of this portrait of a profoundly loving family — Owen, father Ron, mother Cornelia and brother Walter.

Another film that played at both festivals, Sonita, tells the timely story of an Afghan refugee in Iran, a teenage girl who dreams of a career as a rapper while facing the harsh reality that her family wants to sell her as a bride. Director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami clearly earned the trust of  Sonita Alizadeh, filming her as she pastes her face onto Rihanna’s body in her scrapbook and risks her life as she travels back to her homeland to try and obtain the passport she needs to find freedom.

Finally, there’s Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg. Director Marshall Fine — a fellow film journalist who proves himself an impressive moviemaker — makes a convincing case for the 74-year-old stand-up as a comic figure every bit as important as his contemporaries Richard Pryor and George Carlin. In addition to timelessly hilarious clips from Klein’s many HBO specials (he did the pay network’s first, in 1975) and recent footage that shows he’s still got it, Fine offers sincere testimonials from such Klein acolytes as Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Ray Romano.


I’m not sure if these five films prove that truth is stranger than fiction — the trailer for Warcraft look pretty darn strange to me. But if you’re looking for smart entertainment this summer, you’re more likely to find it in a documentary than, say, that Dwayne Johnson-Kevin Hart comedy with the year’s most misleading title, Central Intelligence.

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  1. Sean P Carlin permalink

    Thanks for publicizing these, Bruce! Good filmmaking of any genre is in desperate need of promotion these days; unfortunately, Hollywood’s “stupid season” now runs from January through Christmas…

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