Docu-Mental

marion dougherty casting by

One of the best anecdotes in the documentary Casting By, which premieres tonight on HBO, relates the start of Warren Beatty’s screen career on a 1957 episode of Kraft Television Theatre. We’re told that like many young actors of the time he modeled himself way too much on Marlon Brando. Then we actually see a clip, and sure enough the future movie star looks and sounds like he’s doing a comical impersonation. Fortunately, within the next five years he would find his own comfortable style and manage to break out in Hollywood in order to become one of his generation’s finest. And apparently we have casting director Marion Dougherty to thank for giving him his first shot. There are a lot of first- and second-hand stories in the film about a lot of actors and actresses’ beginnings. And a lot of rare clips to prove just how terrible or terrific they really were. There’s Jon Voight‘s embarrassing performance on Naked City in 1963, which actually kind of foreshadows most of his later work (personally, I’ve always thought him to be one of the worst in the business). Jeff Bridges talks about how he witnessed audiences literally laughing at his tearful work in 1970′s Hall of Anger. Bette Midler thanks Dougherty for allowing her to hide her Jewishness and play a missionary in Hawaii and earn a paycheck that would finally get her to New York. And then there’s a claim that Michael Eisner, while President and CEO of Paramount Pictures, kept trying to […]

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bill pullman fruit hunters

It would be a stretch to say The Fruit Hunters is the weirdest movie Bill Pullman has ever been in, but it might feature the weirdest appearance by the actor. And yet he’s just himself, apparently a fruit-obsessed man with an orchard in the backyard of his Hollywood home and — this is credited as being revealed in this very documentary — no sense of smell (which is pretty noteworthy in a food doc given the link between smell and taste). Maybe “weird” is not the correct word. That sounds sort of negative. “Strange” is better, if only because it’s not well known that Pullman has such a hobby in rare tree-borne delicacies. Or that it’s a hobby at all. The unknown is typically a great subject for nonfiction films, and this is no exception. How often do we think about the endangerment of fruit varieties? We barely even think about fruit at all, and filmmaker Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze; China Heaveyweight) makes the point early on that we take this type of food for granted  – there’s a joke about it growing on trees there somewhere (in the thought, if not directly in the film). And we tend to just consider the supermarket, still-life and basket basics, such as bananas (specifically the Cavendish, I now understand), apples, oranges, grapes, pears and cherries. Maybe pineapples. Who knew there were things called marang, which is said to taste like marshmallow; ice cream bean, which is actually more like cotton candy; […]

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unmade in china

Documentaries about the production of a movie can go two ways. The film being filmed is completed without a hitch and the studio or distributor puts the “making of…” special on the DVD, or it’s a disastrous shoot and not exactly something executives want to flaunt in the form of a bonus feature. The latter can include docs on films that are miraculously finished (Burden of Dreams; Overnight; Hearts of Darkness) or unsurprisingly unfinished (Lost in La Mancha; It’s All True; the upcoming Death of “Superman Lives”). Either way, there’s usually good reason to isolate all that drama for a separately (or solely) released feature-length work. In the case of Unmade in China, the aim seems to have always been to cover a catastrophe. Director Gil Kofman (The Memory Thief) had already gone to the city of Xiamen to make the movie Case Sensitive, a YouTube-inspired thriller scripted by an American writer and intended for Hollywood but which wound up sold to Chinese film producers. They hired Kofman and a few others from the States to maintain a certain prestige appeal, and the whole thing immediately became a nightmare for the transplanted crew. Soon afterward, Tanner Barklow (producer of recent Oscar nominee The Invisible War) flew over to help chronicle the whole experience.

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californiaskate

The main difference between Exit Through the Gift Shop and This Ain’t California is that the latter’s main character has been revealed to be a fiction. Other distinctions are that it’s about skateboarding rather than street art, that it’s set in 1980s East Germany instead of 2000s L.A. and that it has an energy and spirit that’s far more captivating than Banksy’s Oscar-nominated documentary. Otherwise they share a quality where the “realness” of the story is totally inconsequential given that, true or false, it’s still the same movie and says the same things and makes us feel the same way about its subject matter. I have to admit right away that I “fell for” the whole thing. That’s what happens when you avoid reading about a movie before you see it, I guess. All I knew was that it won a special award at Berlin last year and that it was a documentary about German skate culture. And I fell for it, too, meaning I fell in love with it. I found it to be electrifying, which can’t be ignored now that I know a lot of it is “fake.” Of course, fake isn’t a good word for the film, because co-writer/director Marten Persiel hasn’t necessarily pretended that every person in the film existed or that all the Super-8mm footage is as old as it seems.

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PH-JOURNEY

On separate occasions in the documentary Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, newly hired Journey frontman Arnel Pineda describes his life as a “fairy tale” and a “Cinderella story.” It’s better described as a globalization of the American Dream, a kind of “Mr. Deeds Goes on Tour” narrative where Deeds is now a Filipino discovered somewhat randomly through the world-shrinking magic of the Internet, specifically YouTube. In one of the most distinct moments of the film, a concertgoer admits her preference that the band’s new singer “was from here,” as if outsourcing has ever been viewed as an issue in pop music. What that young woman clearly really meant, in spite of her insistence that she’s not racist, is that she wishes he was not Asian. And it’s this racial aspect of Pineda’s story that is one of the more intriguing parts of the film. Not only is the choice of a Filipino singer, regardless of his vocal talent, met with bigoted criticism around the web (“the Internet giveth and taketh away,” director Ramona S. Diaz told me in a recent interview), but there’s also a kind of reverse racially charged phenomenon at play in the fact that suddenly Journey is a huge hit with Filipino Americans, who are now a large percentage of the band’s live audience just because of Pineda’s nationality.

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