Documentary

Editor’s Note: This review first ran as part of our Fantastic Fest coverage, but Comic-Con Episode Four hits limited theaters this week. Delivering a massive event with his trademarked smile behind the camera, Morgan Spurlock‘s Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan’s Hope is the kind of joyous celebration that might also serve as a gateway drug for those not initiated into geek culture. It’s a documentary that easily straddles the line between service to those already fascinated by the subject and to those that haven’t ever heard of a comic book. It could have been annoyingly fluffy, but Spurlock has crafted a film that doesn’t just act as advertisement for the largest comic book/multimedia convention in the country. In fact, the question of whether the convention is still faithful to its comic book roots is at the center of the multi-faced exploration that gives the movie much more dimension than it initially lets on. The doc is composed of several stories – a pair of artists looking to break into the business, a costume designer and her crew looking to make a mark, a young couple who fell in love at the event, and a comic book dealer who is trying to justify coming back financially. All are woven together with expert timing (and a fun, comic book style art element that turns them into characters of a different sort).

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Bess Kargman‘s documentary First Position follows 6 young dancers as they train for and compete in the Youth America Grand Prix – which is the most important youth-oriented competition for ballet dancers in the nation. From the trailer, it looks intense. The central question is what these children are giving up in order to excel. One discusses that sacrifice, another claims she’s found the right balance, and still another has a story to tell about murdered parents in Sierra Leone. Yes, it looks intense. And that’s not even counting the dancing. Check it out for yourself:

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Aural Fixation - Large

After exploring the lack of ladies when it comes to the world of composing, I decided to go directly to the source and ask a composer who is currently (and actively) working in the business, and who also happens to be a woman. Miriam Cutler is best known for her work in documentaries such as Thin, Lost in La Mancha and Ethel (which recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January.) I spoke with Cutler not just about her background in music and composing (which is both impressive and extensive), but also about her perspective on the industry as a whole and as a woman working in it. While there may not be many well-known female composers at the moment, they are certainly on the rise. With veterans like Cutler paving the way, it sounds like many composers coming into the industry now are not just men, and it will be interesting to see how this change affects and influences future film scores.

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Moms Mabley was born Loretta Mary Aiken 31 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and 69 years before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” to say nothing of the women’s movement and the sexual revolution. She was a bad ass that spoke her mind and managed to make it funny. Now, according to Variety, Whoopi Goldberg plans on making a documentary of the triple X-rated trailblazer. “She could say stuff that nobody else could say. She talked about homosexuality, she talked about ageism, she talked about racism. She could be really risque, and she did all these great double-entendre jokes and talked about all this stuff without using one bad word,” said Goldberg. The project will be called I Got Somethin’ To Tell You and will chronicle Mabley’s career from the 1930s through the 1970s. It’s an admirable project with a hell of a subject. For just a taste, here’s Mabley asking if you’ve ever heard the one about the woman who asked her husband to buy her a bra:

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Fuji TV, Ridley and Tony Scott are asking that the people of Japan pick up a camera on March 11th to tell their own stories for a massive documentary project being called Japan in a Day. The project will join the growing number of crowd-sourced docs like Life in a Day (which was also produced by Ridley Scott) and the burgeoning world of Post-Tsunami filmmaking (which is in part getting started by Sion Sono). The goal, as with other films like it, is to get a ground-level viewpoint of the everyday in Japan to show the beauty of banality. Videos will be featured on their official Youtube page, and their team will assemble clips into a feature length film for a Fall release in Japan to be followed by an international release sometime later. And what about the people who can’t afford cameras? That’s right – rumors that all Japanese people have bionic, recording eyeballs are false – which is why Scott and Fuji are donating 200 cameras to areas hit hardest by the tsunami so that they can share their stories as well. The production has a trailer/call for films that celebrates the exciting world of walking, waiting, looking around, and otherwise going about your day. Check it out for yourself, and see those all-too-familiar things become poetry:

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The reason that Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope works is because it focuses on the very human story that’s sometimes lost during the event itself. Amidst the sprawling, sweaty mass of storm troopers and manga characters come to life, it’s easy to forget that there are people with hopes and dreams hiding under their latex. When footage was shown at Comic-Con last year, it seemed like it would be a huge explosion of good vibes toward a complex event. When it showed at Fantastic Fest, it proved itself to be sugary, but level-headed enough not to feel like a syrup-chugging contest. No, not everything about Comic-Con is sweet – especially the shifting focus away from comic books and toward other mass media – but director Morgan Spurlock is seasoned enough to know where the real stories are: in the people. Check out the trailer for yourself:

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After last year’s Arab Spring, there will undoubtedly be a host of documentaries and narrative projects with Middle Eastern revolution chanting from their cores. It will be interesting to see how well they stack up against The Reluctant Revolutionary because it should be considered the standard. Sean McAllister‘s tennis-shoes-on-the-ground doc is unexpected in its storytelling and unflinching in its display of the mass murders that cemented the people of Yemen against their leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh. But this story doesn’t start with crowds shouting from tents. It starts with a tour guide named Kais who can only see his business dwindling because of some disgruntled citizens. He’s actively against the revolution for that pragmatic reason, but even as his professional life deteriorates, his understanding and support of the movement dramatically shifts his opinions.

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Dozens of filmmakers have utilized music from The Chemical Brothers (Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons) for their movies, and the eclectic rave staple even snagged their first gig as film composers for last year’s Hanna and as contributors for Black Swan, but now they’re the subject of a concert doc that looks as fascinating visually as it does aurally. Don’t Think comes from director Adam Smith, who stole a page from The Beastie Boys’ Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! to include both professional camera rig shots and personal cell phone footage of the tranced-out crowd – which seems fitting considering The Chemical Brothers (then, The Dust Brothers) got their start working with The Beastie Boys. Stuff a pacifier in your mouth and check out the trailer for yourself:

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The Best Short Films

Why Watch? Because if you send text messages or use Facebook, someone is making a profit off your information. This short, in the vein and style of last year’s Stuxnet: Anatomy of a Computer Virus is as informative as it is shocking, and as educational as it is visually impressive. Perhaps it’s even more important on a day like today, or maybe it’s the kind of information we should all be armed with no matter what. What will it cost? Only 3 minutes. You’ve Got Time For More Short Films

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Rewind This!

If you love movies as much as we do and you were born sometime before 1990, you probably remember going to your local video store to rent these black plastic things called VHS tapes. You see kids, back in the days before torrents and Netflix, back even before those shiny Blu-ray’s and DVDs, movies came on VHS tapes. They were almost always in full frame to match the aspect ratio of those old bulky tube TVs, they had static and tracking problems and you had to rewind and fast forward to get to different scenes. But what a sight it was to walk into a video store and see shelves and racks filled to capacity with the bright, vibrant cover art of VHS tapes. There are still thousands and thousands of films that were released on VHS that have never seen the light of day in another format. VHS revolutionized the movie industry and three young filmmakers from Austin, TX have banded together to tell its story.

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The Best Short Films

Why Watch? A great story is being told all the time, right under your feet. And because you’ve always wanted to go where you were told not to. With this doc, director Andrew Wonder lives up to his name. He joined forces with urban explorer Steve Duncan to dig around the New York subway system where mere mortals aren’t meant to go. “The following was filmed without consent or permits from the New York City Transit Authority,” pretty well sums up the attitude, and there’s certainly a rush of the illegal right at the beginning, but the overall feel is one of grungy beauty that’s there if we dare to view it. Absolutely phenomenal work here. What does it cost? Just 27 minutes of your time. Trust us. You have time for more short films.

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A director that jumps between the world of fiction and the world of documentaries is a rare one, but Wim Wenders is no ordinary director. According to Christopher Campbell’s excellent interview over at Documentary Channel, the veteran chameleon auteur (figure that oxymoron out) will pivot from the breathtaking dancing doc tribute to choreographer Pina Bausch to the bricks and mortar of architecture. Like Pina, which is in theaters now, the new production will be in 3D. Wenders had this to say, “I have always wanted to do a film about architecture, and I have a lot of architect friends. But that is another subject I never really knew how to approach with film. I realized through Pina that architecture is something that could have a real affinity to this medium. We started shooting already, but it’s at the very, very beginning. That’s going to be my next documentary project in 3D, but I would definitely also do a narrative film in the future in 3D as well.” The good news? This is going to be amazing. The bad news? It’ll probably be a few years before it’s ready. Then again, good things come to those who wait.

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Why Watch? There’s something simple and raw about this footage. In it, Jim Henson takes a group full of puppeteers and Muppets through some numbers (including a musical one). It’s a window into the way the master worked. At least, it’s a view to how he taught, and those methods are all part of the magic that we never got to see because it stayed backstage while the magic took the stage. What does it cost? Just 6 minutes of your time. Check out Muppets Counting for yourself:

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Modern American design and its history have become major preoccupations within contemporary cosmopolitan circles. Gary Hustwit recently finished his third documentary on the subject, Mad Men makes us nostalgically long for clean copy and clear utility, and the death of Steve Jobs brought forth considerations of the important connections between user-friendliness, sleek aesthetics, and the construction of products around human intuition. Making the case that we have still yet to exhaust what continually proves to be a fascinating and increasingly relevant subject, Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey’s historical documentary Eames: The Architect and The Painter traverses the fascinating life of a couple whose contributions broadly determined what modern postwar American life looked and felt like. As narrator James Franco romantically points towards the beginning of the film, Charles Eames was an architect who never got his license, and Ray Eames was a painter who rarely painted. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of their influential lives was that they rarely operated within the confinements of either of these titles. They couldn’t be pigeonholed as architects, marketers, filmmakers, etc,. And as such, their work reflected an impending new world of convergence where art, commerce, and visual culture all became deeply related during the second half of the twentieth century. The many lives they influenced can be evidenced by the occupational variety of well-regarded professional people who lend their sound bites to the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Eames including filmmaker Paul Schrader, TED founder Richard Saul Wurman, and architect Kevin Roche.

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Why Watch? Whether you agree or disagree with the Occupy Movement‘s messages or goals, it’s still fascinating to see how our culture and our political structures are dealing with a mass demonstration in our time. This, clearly (but cleverly) one-sided short documentary takes footage from the latest ouster of the protesters from Zuccotti Park and inserts a stirring, ironical melody behind it. Draw your own conclusions. What does it cost? Just 3 minutes of your time. Check out The Raid on Zuccotti Park for yourself:

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The supplementary title for Werner Herzog’s new documentary about capital punishment is “A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life.” These clauses are placed in a perplexing order that seems, at first, to run in reverse. However, when viewing the film, it becomes abundantly clear why life is not necessarily a linear trajectory that ends in death, with all the mutual exclusivity implied in the assumed separation of these categories. Instead, Into the Abyss argues that death is something one perpetually lives with, especially the certain knowledge of impending death in the case of state-run execution or in the memory of death when one’s loved one has been murdered. The certainty and harsh reality of death not only plagues the prisoner and the victim’s kin, but also profoundly effects a large array of individuals involved directly or indirectly with every heinous crime and execution. The timing of the release of Into the Abyss is worth noting. In September, Troy Davis was executed in the face of massive public protest and significant lingering doubts as to the fairness of his trial. Many anti-death penalty advocates saw the case as a potentially fatal blow for state-run execution, as it illuminated flaws within the system which in turn troubled capital punishment’s logic of justice. A mere two months later, the Troy Davis case has been almost completely forgotten in the public sphere as the news cycle has turned its lenses to Occupy movements and the ongoing reality show known as GOP debates. The […]

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Why Watch? Vinyl collection is a growing trend, and this raw documentary focuses on the personal reasons a handful of collectors give for why they’ve become addicted. It’s a bit raw, but the rough edges actually help it out. This is clearly an independent, student production that doesn’t have time or money for the fancy stuff, and the result is a doc that digs down to the roots of its subject. The short also raises some important questions. Why buy a CD when you can make your own? Does vinyl give a greater sense of ownership than downloading a digital copy? Are we reaching back to the past because we’re broke? And of course, beyond the questions, it features some great music. What does it cost? Just 10 minutes of your time. Check out Finding the Groove for yourself:

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Why Watch? A break from one type of art leads to the love of another. The Made By Hand series is young, but proving itself to be peerless as a documentary series. The second film, after a stunning look at a gin distiller, chronicles how writer Joel Bukiewicz took up the craft of making knives and got really, really good at it. It creates a balance between his old art – creating abstract pieces that might never be seen – for his new one – building practical elements that people can use and admire everyday. Celebrating artisans who make things with their hands is a fascinating, compelling starting point, but the doc itself drops jaws with its sheer beauty and in the execution of its insightful storytelling. What does it cost? Just 10 minutes of your time. Check out The Knife Maker for yourself:

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It’s not that fonts aren’t interesting. They are. To some people. It’s that director/producer Gary Hustwit managed to make them downright fascinating in his documentary Helvetica. He continued that visual lust with Objectified – which explored manufactured things in a way that made assembly lines seem riveting. Even the assembly lines where literal riveting was taking place. Now, his love of objects grows bigger and more complex with Urbanized, a documentary about the design of whole cities and the flow of human beings though them. The trailer displays the same playful-yet-poignant tone of his other projects, and his resume speaks for itself. There’s no doubt that this will be another interesting entry into filmic exploration of the things that we live with (and in and around and on). Check it out for yourself:

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Why Watch? A brief examination of a growing, brass-filled culture. PBS‘s Off Book series is a wondrous mini-doc collection that examines some fascinating parts about our culture and society. In this installment, they get antique without getting rusty with the growing geek movement or art, music, dance and theater that we know (and love) as Steampunk. It’s a joyous window with a small view into the world, and as an October bonus, there’s even talk of a Steampunk Haunted House. Plus, they close out the doc with 7 Things That Are Better Steampunk’d. Yes, Hello Kitty is involved. What does it cost? Just 5 minutes of your time. Check out the trailer for Off Book: Steampunk for yourself:

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