The twelfth edition, of what prior to 2013 was known as SILVERDOCS, almost never was. In need of a presenting sponsor, at the last minute, AT and T came to the rescue. The result: in terms of content and quality, nearly all of the seventeen films screened by this reviewer were more consistently highly rated compared to any of the previous twelve documentary festivals. There were some changes such as the departure of long-time Festival Director Sky Sitney in February who was ably replaced in the interim by filmmaker Christine O'Malley (Word Play, If You Build It). And after some grumblings by long time Silver Spring residents and film goers, all three of the AFI Silver Springs screens were back in action to present, with few exceptions, at least one showing of the 84 features that were selected from over 2,000 submissions. Also, downtown DC venues were made more desirably accessible by replacing the Natural Museum of American History with the Naval Heritage Center, which allowed attendees to easily walk between screening locations in The District. However, traveling back and forth from Silver Spring using Metro, although better than transit via automobile, still made it more difficult for the dedicated festival attendee intent on seeing maximum screenings if it involved Silver Spring and DC theaters.
(3) Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory
(4) Keep On Keepin' On
(5) Dinosaur 13
Below are the reviews in alphabetical order of the 17 films I screened. (NOTE: The Audience Award for Best Feature went to "An Honest Liar" by directors Justin Weinstein & Tyler Meaom (reviewed below), and the Audience Award for Best Short went to "Beyond Recognition: The Incredible Story of a Face Transplant” by director Sam Thonis)
My least favorite film was interesting in conceit but failed to resonate in the final analysis. Director Doug Block made extra cash filming weddings. He wondered, after filming the number in the title over two decades, as to what had happened to those seemingly blissful couples down the marital road? After recontacting several of the couples who agreed to update us on how it all turned out, we receive the myriad of answers that will surprise no one - single, married, or divorced. Like one of the reality shows plastered daily on television, we get to be voyeurs as we witness each of the major factors that lead to 50% of all marriages ending in divorce court: infidelity, finances, dealing with child rearing - even mental illness. In other words, most of the lovely challenges married couples inevitably face after the fun and frivolity they experience on Day 1 and after the honeymoon ends. A Rabbi friend of the filmmaker sums it all up beautifully when he intones, “The wedding is the easiest day to make happy. You've just thrown a ton of money and liquor at it. Marriage is harder. When you throw money and liquor at it, it makes it worse.” The doc tells us nothing new about this peculiar human condition, except prompting us to question why humans continue to pursue marriage despite the low odds of it working. Other than being a must-see for all those preparing for this journey (and good luck with that!), I cannot recommend spending 92 minutes of your life watching these couples - unless you are a true fan of reality TV. The HBO-produced doc started airing on the cable channel June 30.
My third favorite film won this year's Audience Award at Sundance and the Best Documentary Award at the Milan International Film Festival. At the conclusion of its expeditious 74 minutes, you will know why it was the favorite of the crowds at Robert Redford's annual independent film fest. You will smile, laugh and cry more than just a few times as you witness the amazing discovery social worker Dan Cohen shared with first-time filmmaker Michael Rossati-Bennett. When Dan asked Michael to accompany him for a day to witness what he discovered when he placed I-Pod headphones on dementia and Alzheimer patients, the director ended up spending three years to produce this amazing and important document. It seems music was the key that unlocked memories and emotions thought forever lost among such patients. Music it seems connects to a portion of the brain that is not affected by the ravages of these diseases - and the results are astounding. The solution is a simple one: just provide each of the over 16,000 nursing facilities with $40 I-Pods. Not that simple - despite the fact that our government is willing to spend thousands on sometimes ineffective anti-psychotic drugs. As Dr. Bill Thomas, a gerontologist and advocate for long-term care reform states in the film, “The health care system imagines the human being to be a very complicated machine. We have medicines that can adjust the dials, but we haven’t done anything medically speaking to touch the heart and soul of the patient.” The good news is that about 500 institutions currently have I-Pods added to their therapies. The bad news is that there is still a long way to go to provide awakenings for the remainder of dementia and Alzheimer residents in the remaining facilities. Although the doc is not as slickly produced as other films in the festival, its message and the joy these souls exhibit will stay with you long after you see the final credits. Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory begins a platform U.S. release beginning July 18.
Most folks won't recognize the name James Randi. That is, unless you place “The Amazing” in front of it. Following in the footsteps and using the techniques of Harry Houdini, the world-renowned magician and escape artist has been performing his craft for over half a century. However, he has also been dedicating his life investigating charlatans such as psychics, faith healers, and the like. Co-directors Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom spend a good portion of the film early-on recanting the life of the Toronto-born magician who ran away from home at age 17 to join a carnival. However, when they start focusing on his incessant campaign against those people who lie and deceive, but do not admit it, the narrative really revs up the interest. In particular were Randi's focus on exposing psychic Uri Geller and faith healer Peter Popoff. Randi was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show in the early 70's and was consulted by Carson's staff to help expose the spoon-bending psychic who was gaining national fame. (Interestingly, despite Geller's trickery being clearly exposed to a national audience, he continues to thrive to this day and surprisingly makes an appearance for the film.) Popoff 's trickery and the manner in which he was uncovered are much more compelling since his shameless deception played on people's emotions as well as their pocketbooks. However, the film finally questions whether Randi was actually being deceived in his personal life, after meeting and falling in love with Jose Alvarez 25 years earlier. At the age of 81, the magician publicly announced his homosexuality but now had to deal with the possible deportation of the much younger Alvarez who was charged with identity fraud. The film flows and is tightly edited so that those 92 minutes fly by. I would have liked the directors to explain Geller's appearance and motivations in the documentary and also finally explain the relationship between Randi and Alvarez. However, in the final analysis, unanswered questions are the basic elements at the root of the film about a magician. An Honest Liar was the winner of this year’s AFI Docs Audience Award.
My favorite film at the festival is this thoroughly entertaining movie that involves deception of another kind: art forgery. And the captivating twist is that the art forger has absolutely no interest in financial gain - only notoriety. Mark Landis is a peculiar dude who has an equally unusual talent: he is so capable of recreating masterpieces by great artists such as Picasso, Matisse, etc. that, over 30 years, 46 notable museums across the U.S were willing to accept and display them without meticulously examining their authenticity. A Cincinnati registrar, Matt Leininger, whose self-proclaimed obsession (OCD?) to uncover the source of the forgeries ended up costing him his job at the museum, exposed Landis after seeing the same painting in different museums. Although Landis is clearly psychologically challenged, the film is chock full of humor. For example, Landis chuckles as he reads a laundry list of his diagnosed maladies - which one would think would drive a person to the nearest bridge. Also, the methods he employs to disguise himself, such as dressing as a priest, are hilarious. Or “aging” the backs of frames holding his forgeries by pouring instant coffee on them. Priceless. Except, of course, to the myriad of duped institutions. The final irony is revealed in the last reel when the Cincinnati museum where Leininger was employed actually presented Landis with his own exhibition of his forged works. His meeting with his nemesis at the exhibition is a fitting climax to one of the best films of the year. Co-directors Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker have created a lovingly touching and humorous tribute to Landis that is so heart-felt that, in the end, you will be rooting for this troubled gentleman to succeed while wondering what motivates his actions and why he doesn't create original work with his own signature. A wonderful score by Stephen Ulrich accompanies a great soundtrack that complements a film that will, assuredly, have you gasping, smiling, and laughing-out-loud throughout. My early pick for a Best Documentary nomination by The Academy. Oscilloscope is distributing the film and plans a platformed national release beginning September 19.
Greg Louganis won four Olympic medals over two consecutive games and is considered the greatest Olympic diver of all time. Yet, despite his boyish good looks and his historic accomplishments, his face has never appeared on a Wheaties Box. In fact, he never received the financial windfalls from Corporate America - unlike many of his counterparts. Director Cheryl Furjanic has painted an intimate portrait of the athlete (which had its World Premiere at AFI Docs) which may offer an explanation as to why. It is not breaking news that Louganis is gay (which was revealed in his 1995 Best Seller, Breaking the Surface); however, what was not known at the time was that he had HIV when he slammed his head on a diving board and bled in the water during a preliminary dive during the 1988 games. The extreme angst Greg experienced is covered in the narrative. However, I would have liked a more detailed focus on the obvious moral issue of why he decided not to reveal this fact to the other athletes who may have been exposed to the virus in the water instead of merely glossing over the occurrence. Despite that, the film is nicely edited and interestingly follows Greg's life from being adopted, to his Olympic accomplishments, to dealing with almost continuous financial and medical hardships, to his being selected as a mentor to the U.S. diving team at the London 2012 Olympics.
Louis Ortiz is a single father from the Bronx. In 2008, he found himself unemployed during a time when more than a few Americans were out of work. The timing couldn't have more perfect. Sporting an uncanny resemblance to a presidential candidate, Louis realized that if he shaved his goatee and removed his earring, he may have discovered a new career path. Director Ryan Murdock humorously covers Louis' difficult journey that clearly shows that looking like a president doesn't mean you sound like one as he embarks on learning how to speak and intone like Obama. Starting his “career” in Times Square, he obtains bit parts in music videos and television, travels to Japan and Australia for movie roles and appearance, and even appears onstage at a world peace concert with impersonators of Bono, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama. Louis eventually ends up on a bus tour during the 2012 campaign with a Mitt Romney and Bill Clinton lookalike debating the current issues. Murdock balances the humor and onstage antics with poignant scenes of Louis and his daughter-whom he sent to live with her grandparents in Florida while he pursues his new calling. The only question one is left with: Despite all the work Ortiz has put into his character, will the demand for his services still exist after that second term ends?
My fifth favorite film is the East Coast Premiere of Todd Miller's saga involving ownership of the thirteenth T-Rex discovered on the planet. The previous twelve were less than 40% intact. What made this one special was that this was not only the largest T-Rex ever found, it was over 80% complete. The skeleton was uncovered in 1990 by a scientific team from the for-profit South Dakota's Black Hills Institute of Geological Research. They nicknamed the skeleton “Sue” after Susan Hendrickson, the member of the team who discovered the vertebrae of the dinosaur protruding from a cliff after the rest of her party ventured to town to fix a flat tire and spare. Thinking that it was merely finders-keepers they forked over a measly 5K to the dude who owned the land. After spending two years carefully uncovering and boxing the bones for later display, they found themselves suddenly surprised by dozens of FBI and National Guardsmen. The prized discovery was seized only to languish for years in a university maintenance building while a prolong custody legal battle ensued. It seems the bones were “stolen” from Federal lands that involved regulations Uncle Sam made with Native American Tribes. To make matters incredibly worse, Federal charges were filed for not completing a customs form – for this particular instance when one is not normally completed. What follows from this court battle becomes even more infuriating as the film carefully recounts yet another government injustice involving what is considered by some to be “the greatest paleontological find in history.” Miller weaves the tale using a few minimal re-enactments, fabulous photography by d.p. Thomas Petersen, some terrific archival footage, and a memorable score by Matt Morton. Lionsgate purchased the film (based on the book Rex Appeal: The Amazing True Story of Sue, the Dinosaur That Changed Science, the Law, and My Life by Peter Larson, Kristin Donnan, Robert Bakkerand) and will begin its limited U.S. distribution on August 15.
Sidney Lumet's 1975 acclaimed film Dog Day Afternoon, was based on a true event recounting one of the most bizarre bank robberies ever attempted. Al Pacino portrayed John Wojtowicz, a self-proclaimed pervert from Brooklyn New York, who needed extra cash to fund his lover's sex change operation and in the process caused a media and public circus when New York's finest caught him in the act. Directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren intimately explore the garish character that took his fifteen minutes of fame and made it a career choice, despite his notoriety. (An example: signing autographs in front of the Brooklyn bank he tried to rob after his release from prison.) The directors use multiple video images from 1970's New York gay life movement to help paint the lurid life of a guy whose only redeeming quality is that his robbery attempt in 1972 resulted in one helluva Hollywood movie. Ten years in the making, the documentary includes interviews with John before his death by cancer in 2006 and his mom Terry Basso who lovingly stood by her son to the end. (An eccentric character herself, oddly there are no interviews of them together.) However, John's seediness is front and foremost because the directors allow him to take control of the narrative almost throughout the running time. Like a car crash you cannot look away from, the film did hold my interest. However, I felt a shower was desperately needed after the lights came up. The film, which had its East Coast Premiere at the festival, was bought for distribution by Dafthouse Films and plans a platform release beginning August 8.
Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey (*** ½ out of 4 - 95 minutes)
You might not know the name Aaron Swartz but you might know his work. Creator of the RSS web-based format and the social sharing service Reddit (the sale of which made him an instant millionaire at the age of 19), Swartz was more interested in providing worldwide information access to humanity than in obtaining personal financial gain. His crusade to liberate and provide unlimited Internet information ultimately led him to commit suicide at the age of 26 in January 2013. This is yet another example of government over-zealously hounding and harassing individuals (see Dinosaur 13 above) which, in this case, resulted in the loss of a brilliant mind, innovator, and social activist. Director Brian Knappenberger, whose film last year at the 2013 AFI Docs, We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivist about the group Anonymous, presents a much more sympathetic story here. Swartz's troubles began when he decided to download two million MIT files of scholarly journals that were only available for fees. When Aaron's activities were caught on security cameras, the Feds moved in. After he turned down a three month sentence (Swartz thought that a criminal record would hinder any possible future Presidential aspirations), the government decided to make him an example by doggedly pursing a possible 30+ year imprisonment prosecution as a result. Although Aaron's suicide is never explained (no suicide note was left) one can only imagine that the government's relentless pursuit was the primary cause. Although the doc is shamelessly one-sided, it is important to note that none of Swartz's protagonists, such as prosecutor Stephen Heymann, agreed to participate. The five year project is finely edited and so engrossing and its message so important that you will leave the theater furious that our justice system is allowed to run unchecked when common sense and freedoms should clearly be a part of the equation. The film had its East Coast Premiere at AFI Docs and began its limited theatrical release on June 27.
The winner of The Best Documentary and Best New Documentary Director awards at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival is first-time director Alan Hicks' marvelous story that melds age and talent. My forth favorite film at AFI Docs is this fabulous account of one of jazz's greatest legends, Clark Terry, at age 93, instructing a blind 23-year-old blind piano prodigy, Justin Kauflin, who had a propensity for stage fright. A mentor to Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, Terry's numerous accomplishments include being one of the few musicians to play with both Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands, as well as the first African-American to break the color barrier in the 1960's as a regular member of “The Tonight Show” band. Fabulous archival material is included to help illustrate the enormous talent of the fabled nonagenarian. However, those lengthy meetings between mentor and men-tee are what makes the doc a standout. (A running gag is Clark continuously asking Justin, “What time is it?” when clearly it is in the wee hours of the morning, as each is impervious to time spent when the love of teaching and learning their craft is involved.) The film boasts a terrific producer pedigree which includes Paula DuPre' Pesmen (2010 Academy Award winner The Cove and last year’s Oscar nominated Chasing Ice) as well as seven time Academy Award nominee Quincy Jones – who was initially asked to participate because of his relationship with Terry. When he recognized Kauflin's talent potential purely by chance after appearing at Clark's house during one of the mentoring sessions, Jones signed on as producer and eventually placed Kauflin on a European tour. A special mention also goes to the inventive score provided by Kauflin which just might make you a jazz convert by the time the credits start to roll. Radius-TWC is beginning its limited release on August 8.
The only thing film critic Roger Ebert loved more than movies was, well, life itself. Acclaimed director Steve James (1994's Hoop Dreams) gives us a moving unflinching bio-doc covering the life of the famed Pulitzer Prize winning critic of the Chicago Sun-Times who finally succumbed to papillary thyroid cancer in April of 2013. Based on Ebert's 2011 autobiography of the same name, the film is chaptered and narrated by Ebert like the book and presents the famed critic - warts and all. Two thirds of the film include the usual bio material recounting his early beginnings growing up in working class Illinois then moving on to his years at the University of Illinois editing the college newspaper. When asked to write movie reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times (a job that wasn't an aspiration) a career was born which led to a local PBS show reviewing films opposite Gene Siskel from the Chicago Tribune where those thumbs became an industry trademark. It is those clips and outtakes James presents from their long-running show, as well as their frequent appearance on Carson's Tonight Show, that bring the most pleasure. Despite many attempts by others to duplicate their series, none were close to being as successful or as memorable. His early carousing and later struggles with alcohol are not ignored (he met his wife Chaz Hammelsmith at an AA meeting in 1992), as is his somewhat failed attempt as a screenwriter when he penned the script for Russ Meyer's 1970 campy Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. However, nearly one-third of the movie is spent with Ebert after his lower jaw was removed and observing him in physical therapy and in the hospital while his days were numbered. One scene is nearly unwatchable as you watch him struggling with a suctioning procedure. I question James' decision to include it and other heart-breaking scenes of Ebert struggling to survive. Also, curiously, no mention is made of his co-hosts after Gene died in 1999 of brain cancer. However, that being said, the film celebrates the life of one of our most cherished writers and personalities who continued to communicate through social media while exuding extreme grace and dignity to the very end. The AFI Docs closing night film, Life Itself began its limited theatrical run by Magnolia on July 4.
The multi-award winning writer/director Jessica Yu, whose Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien won the 1997 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject (her 2004 film In the Realms of the Unreal is one of my all-time favorite docs) turns her attention here to world population. Alas, this effort is nowhere near as satisfying as Yu disjointedly attempts to explain away the “misconception” for the reasons the world population growth has exploded over the past 50 years. Focusing on three individuals from diversely different areas on the planet, the question is raised as to what are the real answers behind the population growth (the current world population number of 7 billion is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050) and the validity of those theories. The best of the three segments is the first which concentrates on the exhaustive efforts of a 29-year-old Beijing man to find a mate in a society where men clearly outnumber women. Utilizing the cinematographic skills of documentarian Lixin Fan (2009's Last Train Home), a separate feature could easily be made as Yu concentrates on the crisis faced by Chinese males and the pressures to marry based on traditional mores. The second follows the efforts of a Canadian conservative activist and her crusade to globally spread the anti-abortion gospel. The least successful of the three segments depicts the saintly effort of a Ugandan journalist to locate the parents of abandoned children in a country that has 35 million people and the third highest global birth rate. Interspersed are commentary by global health professor and statistician Hans Rosling who attempts to connect the dots and raise the contradictions. In the final analysis, although the facts he presents are interesting and thought-provoking, they only help to muddle the conclusions. The film is slickly produced and edited with an appropriate score provided by Nick Urata. However, overall, Misconception is a disappointment from a talented filmmaker.
The Search For General Tso (*** ½ out of 4 - 73 minutes)
Inventor extraordinaire Dean Kaman has devoted his life to bettering mankind to such a degree that he decided to forgo any thoughts of raising a family - realizing that time is so precious and fleeting that his complete dedication and attention to his craft is paramount to reaching his goals. Some of his past successes include the home dialysis machine, an insulin pump, and an all-terrain wheelchair. Ironically, what he is best known for is the two-wheel balancing vehicle, The Segway, which he himself considers an overall failure – at least for the moment. However, if his latest project for bringing clean water to the world holds merit, he will not only be canonized but his place in history will be forever secured. The scarcity of pure water, especially in so many underdeveloped countries, is not science fiction and it is a real threat to mankind in general. His portable machine, the SlingShot, is the prototype that might literally save the planet. Director Paul Lazarus spends the first third of the film focusing on Dean's life growing up as the son of EC comics artist Jack Kamen and his corroborations with his surgeon sibling, Bart. Also, time is spent with his FIRST organization which promotes and encourages young people to think outside of the box. However, it is the remaining focus on the extremely personable and communicative Dean and his quest to solve one of mankind's most serious threats that make this more than an infomercial. A movie that was seven years in the making, this is one of the most important intriguing and uplifting character profiles I have seen in recent years. Kaman points out that Americans tend to place athletes, movie stars and musicians on pedestals while those brilliant minds who better the world languish in relative obscurity. Hopefully, enough folks will view this important film and realize that Kaman and his ilk deserve tons more recognition and hero worship.
My #2 favorite film at AFI Docs is this remarkable film by London-based director, and former snowboarder, Orlando von Einsiedel that is part environmental conservatism and part investigative journalism. At the Q and A the director mentioned that his initial intention was to make a positive film about Virunga, a UNESO World Heritage site that is Africa's oldest national park in eastern Congo. It also happens to be the only natural home on earth to the last few hundred surviving mountain gorillas. What he ended up with was a film that was entirely different. After a brief history of the country's bloody colonial past, we are told that, despite an uneasy civil war truce beginning in 2003, fighting between the government and rebel groups has continued in the region resulting in the pillaging of precious park resources. In addition, poachers are still wreaking havoc on the gorilla population. Now, with the discovery of oil beneath Virunda's Lake Edward, the corrupt government has allowed a shady British company (SOCCO) to begin drilling – an act forbidden by International law. However, in the midst of all of this chaos and intrigue are dedicated park rangers and guardsmen intent on preserving this important natural resource. Orlando has populated his tautly constructed narrative with enough good vs. evil personalities and plot lines that would make most Hollywood fiction writers foam at the mouth. The fact that it is all true makes it that more amazing. Between gorgeous scenes of the strikingly beautifully landscape (kudos to the cinematography by the director and Franklin Dow) are exciting battle action shots and hidden camera footage – activities which clearly put the filmmaker and others in mortal danger. Then there are the breathtaking images of those human-like gorillas reacting to the mayhem and carnage around them. The score by Patrick Jonsson is exceptional and a perfect adjunct to the action, as is the editing by Masahiro Hirakubo (Trainspotting) and Peta Ridley. The film, which is worthy of an Academy Award nomination, is opening in 44 countries, including the U.S. in September.
Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger (** ½ out of 4 - 107 minutes)