ross mcelwee

Sherman

While it’s sold as a comedic Western, A Million Ways to Die in the West is not a very good Western at all. Oh, it may take place in the 19th century American frontier and feature pistol duels, saloon brawls and farming, but its story is completely 21st century romance. The movie is your standard “nice guy loses girl, tries to win her back and discovers a much better girl in the process” affair. The setting is nothing but window dressing. It isn’t even exploited for very many jokes, good or otherwise — and most of the jokes are bad. But there’s one upside to this misaimed move on the part of writer/director/star Seth MacFarlane. He’s put himself in similar thematic territory with an already existing film. And that film does relationships and humor much, much better. Sherman’s March is a supremely strange piece of work. Originally, director Ross McElwee set out to retrace the route General Tecumseh Sherman took on his March to the Sea during the Civil War. Sherman earned the eternal enmity of the American South by ruthlessly razing everything in his army’s path. But McElwee wreaks a very different kind of destruction, endless self-scrutiny. Early on in production, his girlfriend dumped him, and the documentary became something new. In the film, he interviews his family and friends, with a special emphasis on the women he has known and tried (and/or failed) to romance. This offbeat journey takes him and the people he meets through a wide variety of 1980s subject matter, from nuclear war to the career of Burt Reynolds. […]

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ross-mcelwee-charleen

Every month, the online movie streaming service SundanceNow features a program of documentaries curated by Thom Powers (doc programmer for TIFF and other film fests). Typically the program is based around a theme (i.e. food docs, art docs, docs with nudity, etc.), but throughout August this “Doc Club” is spotlighting filmmaker Ross McElwee, a pioneer of first-person nonfiction cinema best known for the classic Sherman’s March. That film is among the selections, along with five other features, including his latest, Photographic Memory, and two shorter early works. It’s a perfect introduction to one of my favorite filmmakers, and it’s also a special treat for those who are already McElwee fans as some of these docs haven’t been too easily seen. And both the subscription and single month deals are pretty great. McElwee is the main character of most his own films, which take viewers through autobiographical tales involving romance, death, fatherhood, Civil War history, the tobacco industry, the Berlin Wall, tragedy and the nightly news and, most famously, the South. But his movies are never entirely about himself, and much of the time he’s hidden behind the lens of the camera anyway. Many other figures in the filmmaker’s life come and go through his work, mainly family members. And then there’s Charleen Swansea, who I consider to be the true star of McElwee’s films, even if she only makes a short appearance. If there was any reason to be disappointed by last year’s Photographic Memory, it was because Swansea isn’t […]

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One of the most difficult Oscar categories for pundits (let alone regular folk) to predict is the one for feature documentary. And this year more than ever it’s going to be hard to pick the five nominees, because changes to the rules of qualification and voting have given the race an extra element of complication: there is no precedent for how things turn out with this particular selection process in place. In a way, it’s a wide-open field with no certainty that higher-grossing films or more issue-oriented titles or discernibly cinematic works have the greater chance at a nod. Some expected the number of contenders to be cut in half as a result of the new rules; instead it grew, much to the chagrin of branch leader Michael Moore. And until the annual shortlist narrows them down to 15, we have 130 eligible films to choose from. But most of those docs aren’t plausible nominees. Many of the kind that Moore gets upset about for paying for a screen rental to qualify aren’t likely to go all the way. So they qualified. Now they have to be good and popular enough for people to notice.

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published: 12.23.2014
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published: 12.22.2014
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published: 12.19.2014
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