“They Shall Not Grow Old” and Peter Jackson’s Recreation of the Western Front

They Shall Not Grow Old is a day-in-the-life of the British soldier during World War I. The documentary from Peter Jackson was commissioned by the Imperial War Museums and 14-18 NOW in association with the BBC to celebrate the centennial of Armistice Day. When these groups approached Jackson, they had only one caveat: Jackson must use their archived WWI footage exclusively. After a think, Jackson decided to restore this old footage using modern production techniques, all towards a singular effort: show us the life of a WWI British soldier.

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“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” – A Mentionable, Managable, and Magnificent Documentary

Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood has been a cultural touchstone for generations of children, your humble blagger included. In Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the edifying force that is Fred Rogers resounds in every scene – despite the man’s typically reserved candor.

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“RBG” – The Notorious American Trailblazer

In RBG, directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West tell the fascinating life story of Ruth Bader Ginsberg in a relatively routine way. Those who watch a lot of documentaries won’t have their hair blown back by any stylistic flourishes or innovations. Instead, RBG is perfectly content with the wheels that have already been invented: archival footage, talking head interviews, and primary sources like court documentation. With these tools, Cohen and West weave together an inspirational tale of an American trailblazer and outright hero: Ruth Bader Ginsberg, second woman to sit on the supreme court and unabashed defender of the rights of minorities – particularly those of women.

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Hot Docs 2017 Over on Cinema Axis

This is going to be a short post to draw attention to the eight screeners from the 2017 Hot Docs Film Festival I was fortunate enough to review over on CinemaAxis.  Below, I’ll link to all of the reviews once they’re posted, but for now I’ll just introduce each film and give a quick synopsis.

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“De Palma” Overflows with Cool Stories but Lacks Cohesion

Filmmakers Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha) and Jake Paltrow (The Good Night, Young Ones) must have had mountains of fun making their documentary De Palma.  The film is something like enjoying a whiskey next to a famed director and engaging in the best conversation of your life.  Baumbach and Paltrow are content to place Brian De Palma in front of the camera, shoot him flat, and let him muse away.  Unfortunately, that’s all they really do.  So, while some of the stories that De Palma relates are interesting, the ultimate effect is a film that feels like a haphazard collection of thoughts, shot in the most bland style possible.  Cinephiles will likely drool throughout at the discussion of filmmaking craft, but unfortunately De Palma holds very little thematic power.

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“Weiner”, Or: How a Sexually Strange Man was Sacrificed to the Public Outrage Machine

Anthony Weiner is a former congressman from New York’s 9th congressional district.  In June 2011, Weiner resigned from Congress amid a sexting scandal that was cheekily referred to as “Weinergate”.   Two years later, a pair of documentarians named Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg were granted access to film Weiner’s campaign in the 2013 New York City mayoral race.  While initially I am sure the pair were interested in a behind-the-scenes look at the logistics of running a campaign, perhaps with a taste of the phoenix rising from the ashes, what they captured was infinitely more interesting.  During the campaign, with the cameras rolling, another sexting scandal involving Anthony Weiner broke.  Kriegman and Steinberg’s fascinating film Weiner documents the resulting media circus, and manages to offer insightful commentary on the bloodthirstiness of the media, the constitution of a politician, and the effect that a man’s failings can have on his family.

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