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Entries in Documentary (24)

Monday
Feb222016

Angel of Nanjing

Angel of Nanjing
Directed by: Frank Ferendo, Jordan Horowitz
Released on: VOD
Grade: 3 out of 5 meatballs
Reviewed by: John Esther

Since September 19, 2003, it has been estimated that Si Chen has saved somewhere between 150-300 lives. Chen is not a doctor. He is not a Hollywood superhero. And he certainly is not, literally, an angel. Chen is a human being who smokes too much, who "can't drink much," but who also cares so much about his fellowman and woman that he voluntarily patrols the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing, China, every weekend, looking for people contemplating death.

On any given day people come to jump off and down 150 meters to "disappear" or "die clean" at the number one suicide destination in the world. (The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is number two). Unfortunately, Chen is not there every day to save lives because he works at Ping-An, a Logistic Company, during the week. Indeed, he often comes home to hear reports of yet another suicide.

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Monday
Feb222016

Jim: The James Foley Story

Jim: The James Foley Story
Directed by: Brian Oakes
Released on: HBO & Sundance Film Festival 2016
Grade: 3 out of 5 meatballs
Reviewed by: John Esther

For most Americans, the introduction to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (AKA ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) came via the video of American journalist James "Jim" Foley. Shaved, dressed in orange clothing and kneeling somewhere in a desert in Syria, Foley was forced to read "Warning to America" before a camera. After he finished reading the forced diatribe against family and country, Foley was beheaded.

The story of how the man met his tragic fate is the subject of director Brian Oakes documentary, Jim: The James Foley Story.

To the documentary's credit it makes it clear from the beginning that this will not be a sensationalized hagiography of the 40-year-old murdered journalist, but about why he did the work and the prices he, and others, paid for it. "The film shows images of war recorded by conflict journalists. It does not show the execution of Jim," the opening credits declare.

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Friday
Oct232015

Heart of a Dog

Heart of a Dog
Directed by: Laurie Anderson
Released on: October 17th, 2015 [Chicago International Film Festival]
Grade: 3 out of 5 meatballs
Reviewed by: John Esther

In her autobiographical documentary, Heart of a Dog, renowned artist-composer Laurie Anderson utilizes 8mm home videos, the artist's own hand illustrations/drawings and musical compositions (old and new), her artwork, and that notable affected voice of hers to offer her own musings on life and death in the 21st century.

Although the documentary is dedicated to Anderson's late husband — the fine, fine, rock 'n' roll legend Lou Reed — surprisingly and thankfully, rather than focus on her relationship with Reed, Anderson uses her rat terrier canine pet, Lolabelle (who died in 2011, a year before Reed), as the springboard for her musings.

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Friday
Oct162015

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
Directed by: Douglas Tirola
Released on: September 25th, 2015 [Limited]
Grade: 4 out of 5 meatballs
Reviewed by: Justin Tucker

My introduction to the National Lampoon brand was as a wee lad watching the Vacation movies with my family, and by the time I became aware of the seminal humor magazine which the films were spun-off from, it was in decline and unavailable to me growing up. Though National Lampoon ceases to exist as a periodical, its impact on American comedy is still being felt today.

The history of National Lampoon is explored in this funny and fascinating documentary by director Douglas Tirola (All In: The Poker Movie). He effectively combines magazine highlights, clips, photos and meaningful interviews with a very large array of people associated with National Lampoon, examining a subversive brood of talented writers, artists and performers whose contributions changed the comedy landscape.

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Monday
Aug242015

Top Spin

Top Spin
Director: Sara Newens, Mina T. Son
Released on: August 21st, 2015
Grade: 3 out of 5 meatballs
Reviewed by: John Esther 

For many Americans, playing table tennis, AKA ping pong, has been an enduring pastime over the years. The difference, however, between recreational fun and those striving for Olympic play is a lot longer than the length of a ping pong table and a lot harder than the speed of a smash hit.

Proving the sport can take on a greater level of skill and commitment than the typical American will see in her or his lifetime, Mina T. Son and Sara Newens' documentary, Top Spin, sheds lights on the great game of table tennis through its three highly likable and highly skilled subjects. These intelligent, well adjusted American kids are not just good, they are seeking a spot at the 2012 London Olympics.  

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Thursday
Jun182015

One Cut, One Life

One Cut, One Life
Directors: Ed Pincus, Lucia Small
Released: May 15th, 2015 [LIMITED]
Grade: 3 of of 5 meatballs
Reviewed by: John Esther

After the notable documentarian Ed Pincus was diagnosed with a terminal illness (compounded by other illnesses), he reunited with collaborator Lucia Small (The Axe in the Attic) to create a final first-person nonfiction film, One Cut, One Life.

Told by two different, but not too different, points of view, along with the sporadic disapproval of Ed's wife, Jane, One Cut, One Life offers a grand farewell to one of cinema's most important filmmakers and the wife, friend and filmmaker he left behind.

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Monday
Apr062015

An Honest Liar

An Honest Liar
Directors: Tyler Measom & Justin Weinstein
Released: March 6th, 2015 [LIMITED]/DVD TBA
Grade: 4 out of 5 meatballs
Reviewed by: John Esther

Last year writer-director Woody Allen released the feature film, Magic in the Moonlight. The film tells the story of Stanley (Colin Firth), a master illusionist who sets out to debunk the psychic powers of Sophie (Emma Stone), only to become duped himself in the process — yet fall in love with the considerably younger woman (typical), and presumably live happily ever after.

While the film has its moments, Magic in the Moonlight is ultimately predictable, reactionary and incredulous. And, like every single Allen film since his 1992 Husbands and Wives (one of his five masterpieces — along with Annie Hall, Manhattan, Zelig, and Crimes and Misdemeanors), does not merit a second viewing. (Some of the recent films by Allen — once one of America's greatest "auteurs" — do not even merit a first viewing.)

Considerably more liberating, engaging, entertaining and less predictable (unless you already know the film's subject well), yet similar in content, comes Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein's documentary, An Honest Liar.

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Monday
Feb232015

Dreamcatcher

Dreamcatcher
Director: Kim Longinotto
Released on: January 2015 [Sundance Film Festival] / TBA 2015
Grade: 3 out of 5 meatballs
Reviewed by: John Esther

Brenda Myers-Powell is not the kind of person you want to meet at night. It is not that she is a bad or dangerous person or that she is straight up annoying or anything like that. If you run into Mrs. Myers-Powell at night it is most likely because you are living a very troubled life.

Born in 1962, Myers-Powell started getting molested before the age of five. Abused and confused, she had two children by the age of fifteen. At that time, she and her daughters were living with her grandmother and grandmother had bills to pay.

To help grandma out, Myers-Powell did what the ladies across the street from her grandmother’s house did: prostitution. Turning tricks at the age of fifteen, Myers-Powell would remain a prostitute on the streets of Westside Chicago for 25 years. Over those years, “Breezy” was beaten, stabbed, addicted to narcotics and not very present for her two daughters. It took a near-death experience shortly before her 40th birthday to get Myers-Powell to reevaluate her life and get off the streets.

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Friday
Nov212014

Little Hope Was Arson

Little Hope Was Arson
Director: Theo Love
Released on: November 18th, 2014 [Limited/VOD]
Grade: 4 out of 5 meatballs
Reviewed by: Justin Tucker

For East Texas and the rest of the Bible Belt, God is an important part of people’s lives. Some churches have stood over a century and have served as a meeting place for families going back many generations. People have been baptized, married and eulogized within the walls of these buildings.

And just as the people of East Texas believe in a powerful, righteous God, so too is their belief in an evil, malevolent Devil. In 2010, ten churches were set ablaze across three East Texas counties. Families and congregations in the area became fearful — some even believing Satan himself was destroying the churches. The crimes and the ensuing investigation are the subject of Little Hope Was Arson, an engaging, true-life crime story that shows that community bonds strengthen in the face of sinister transgressions.

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Monday
Sep222014

Fight Church

Fight Church
Directed by: Daniel Junge and Bryan Storkel
Released on iTunes/VOD: September 16th, 2014
Grade: 4 out of 5 meatballs
Reviewed by: Justin Tucker

If you remember Sunday school, there’s a story in the Bible where Jacob wrestles with God until the break of day. Jacob is then renamed Israel because he fought with God, prevailed, and is blessed. It is this story from the Book of Genesis that pastor and mixed martial artist Paul Burress takes inspiration for his fight ministry at Victory Church in Rochester, New York.

Preaching from the pulpit in a t-shirt and jeans, he’ll admit he doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional minister. He also recognizes that people may have difficulty understanding how someone can reconcile Christian beliefs with fiercely beating another human for sport. Blessed are the peacemakers and love thy neighbor, right? To him, and many other pastors across the country, MMA is a means to serve God and spread the gospel of Jesus.

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