Tag Archives: Documentary

The B-Side

14 Jul

‘The B-Side’ Brings Pioneer Cambridge Photographer Elsa Dorfman Out From Behind The Camera

A portrait of Elsa Dorfman from July 2007. (Courtesy Neon) 

The latest documentary from revered local filmmaker Errol Morris is essentially a love letter to his longtime friend and fellow Cantabrigian, Elsa Dorfman.

“The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” profiles the life of the woman who spent more than 30 years profiling others in her studio. She was a pioneer of photography, best known for her 20×24 inch Polaroid portraits. Given that Morris’ lens has been trained on such diverse and idiosyncratic subjects as pet cemeteriesrenown cosmologist Stephen Hawking and an off-kilter Holocaust denier, “The B-Side” may seem something of a whimsy by comparison, but it’s Morris’ most intimate and warmest output to date.

Elsa Dorfman. (Courtesy Neon)
Elsa Dorfman. (Courtesy Neon)

Morris first met Dorfman when she photographed his son — then 5, now 30 years old — and has had the urge to make this film for some time.

“I’ve known Elsa a long, long time,” Morris says in a conversation with Dorfman on her back patio just outside Harvard Square. “I had the idea for this movie for a while, and when I told Elsa she was skeptical.” Continue reading

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I Am Jane Doe

12 Feb

A Portrait Of American Avarice, ‘I Am Jane Doe’ Brings Backpage Controversy To The Screen

Jane Doe 3 and her mother in Boston during the filming of "I Am Jane Doe." (Courtesy R. Schultz/50 Eggs)closemore

For anyone with a young daughter, the testimony by victims of human trafficking and their families in the new documentary “I am Jane Doe” will come as a bone cutter. Others too will be palpably moved and more so, outraged by the willful complicity of Backpage in helping relegate underaged girls into a purgatory of prostitution, drugs and physical abuse.

If you’re unfamiliar with Backpage (owned by the revered alternative newspaper company Village Voice Media), it’s a service like Craigslist where people exchange goods and services like sofas, cars, housecleaning and sex (disguised as escort services) with great autonomy. That freedom comes as a result of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (ironically also known as “Great Internet Sex Panic Act of 1995”), which essentially grants online providers impunity for the content posted on their sites by third parties. That said, illegal sex solicitation — minor or not — has to be reported, but Backpage instituted a policy of circumvention to knowingly sanitize posts so they would not get flagged by enforcement authorities, as noted by a former employee whose voice and identity are disguised in the film. Continue reading

Lo and Behold

21 Sep
In Lo and Behold, famed director Werner Herzog takes a look at the digital world's effect on our own reality

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

In Lo and Behold, famed director Werner Herzog takes a look at the digital world’s effect on our own reality

In 10 micro chapters, Werner Herzog, the director of the classic odysseys Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Aquirre, the Wrath of God(1972), tackles the internet, its rise, and the perils and promise of a connected world. The scope and the questions are nothing new — “Who is going to be liable if a computer makes a mistake?” Herzog asks about self-driving cars — but the filmmaker’s laid-back yet probing style and quest for getting at the human condition is nothing short of infectious, viral, if you will.

The segments, with pointed titles like “The Internet of Me,” “The Glory of the ‘Net,” and, of course, “The Future,” each delve into a different facet of the internet, be it historical or conjecture. Herzog buffers most of the blips with the Dickian question, “Does the internet dream of itself?” The segments that provoke the most are the segments that tackle the downside of being connected. One woman tags the Net as a “manifestation of the Anti-Christ.” The underscoring of that is a family who lost their daughter in a car accident, and the pain that the graphically snapped photos from the scene inflicted on them during their grieving as they were unleashed out onto the web, ever proliferating, unretrievable and unstoppable.

That tale of tragedy becomes the sad underbelly to hypertext inventor Ted Nelson’s optimistic allusion to water as a metaphor for flow of connectivity. Other notable talking heads in the documentary include convicted hacker Kevin Mitnick, and Pay Pal and Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk. Continue reading

De Palma

23 Jun
Brian De Palma has directed over 25 films in his career, including Scarface, the cult classic starring Al Pacino

Brian De Palma’s career has been a veritable roller coaster of highs and lows. Carrie was a blockbuster, Bonfire of the Vanitieswas a bomb. Mission: Impossible kickstarted a long-running franchise, Life on Mars crashed and burned. More curious perhaps is how some of De Palma’s less successful films are now warmly embraced many years later, with some even ascending to cult status, Blow Out, Scarface, and Body Double to name a few.

Fellow filmmakers and De Palma acolytes, Noah Baumbach (Squid and the Whale and Frances Ha) and Jake Paltrow (Gwyneth’s bro) have crafted a fond rewind of the storied director’s life with their documentary De Palma. In the doc, Baumbach and Paltrow go through each of the director’s films in chronological order and get the suspense-thriller auteur’s perspective on the politics of makings of those movies and the fine line between a masterpiece and disaster.

If you’ve never been a fan of De Palma and his blood-covered output, you’ll at least walk away with respect for the director who, in the documentary, comes across as an amiable raconteur with a huge heart for the filmmaking process as he warmly takes you behind the scenes to show you the tricks of the trade and the taxing challenges of working with mega egos. Continue reading

Weiner

28 May
If you ever watched the riveting behind-the-scenes documentary “The War Room,” you’ve already seen a man snared by scandal mid-campaign. The speed bump Gennifer Flowers dealt Bill Clinton en route to a landslide victory in 1992, however, pales in comparison with the 20-car pileup Anthony Weiner is responsible for in “Weiner,” a beguiling look into the paradoxical and self-destructive nature of a man who, while earnest in his desire to serve the public, remains unable to shake a sex-trolling persona infamously known as Carlos Danger.052716i WeinerThe filmmakers, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, must have thought they had a lock on a picture of redemption, with a congressman felled by scandal looking to come back as mayor of New York. Given what’s on the film, Weiner sounds the part, talking charismatically about the quality of education and the ability to earn a wage equal to living in New York. It doesn’t hurt that the seemingly resurgent pol has a wife who’s a senior aide to Hillary Clinton ramping up her political machine for a 2016 presidential run. Continue reading

A Small Good Thing

15 Apr

What makes a good life? Health, love, money, career success? Turns out it’s happiness, which encapsulates elements of those others, and the balance of which that equates to equanimity – or so that’s the basis for Pamela Tanner Boll’s documentary “A Small Good Thing,” which gets a screening Monday at the Cambridge Friends School.

Boll, who lived in Winchester for most of her adult life and collected an Academy Award as executive producer on the 2004 documentary “Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids,” came up with the concept to explore the meaning of a life well lived after looking inward at her own existence. “I felt like I had so many great things in my life,” she said in interview. “I had a good family, great sons, a nice home and I had been able to find work that was meaningful, but I also felt I was, however, getting too stressed out and busy. I felt like I was becoming one of those people who says, ‘I’m so busy with work, I don’t have time’” to socialize.

Surely championing documentary voices for more than a decade has contributed. “I come across so many amazing stories and I help them get to the screen,” she says. But it’s a tough business to make a go at. “Born into Brothels” cost less than $500,000 to make and made $8 million at the box office – most eaten up in distribution and marketing. Her own film cost a bit more than “Brothel” to make and is clearly a labor of passion, as is true with most documentaries.  Continue reading

Rolling Papers

24 Feb

<i>Rolling Papers</i>

Back in 2014, weed-wanting residents of Colorado were able to fire up the bong and feel the burn legally when the state became one of the first in the Union to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. As reefer madness swept the Rockies, the rest of the nation sat and watched pensively. It wasn’t the second coming of same-sex marriage in terms of divisiveness, but there was controversy and bilious outrage—just check out some of Nancy Grace’s shrill prophecies of lawless mayhem. Rolling Papers, Mitch Dickman’s somber, oft snarky documentary, doesn’t quite deal with the cornerstone legalization so much as the Denver Post’s decision to appoint a marijuana editor to provide journalistic coverage of the budding industry and culture emerging from the shadows of the black market.

The film’s focuses on Ricardo Baca, the newly minted editor of the “Cannabist” column (which later becomes a break out magazine section-cum-website), who registers as a relatively somber and reflective soul given the high nature of his subject. Pontifications about what to write about when penning pot-life pieces abound. Ultimately, the format boils down to reviews of the various strains and blends—think of it like a film or food review about getting baked—and lifestyle exposés of the different kinds of users and the ways that legal weed now melds into their lives. One such staff blogger, Brittany Driver, is a mom with a toddler, which doesn’t sit well with a fellow Post editor who covers child abuse and likens the prospect to parenting on a six-pack of beer.

Dickman’s film is a bit like its subject—smoky, comfortable and unfocused. While the narrative adheres tightly to Baca and the debut of the column, it also ventures a bit further afield, touching on broader issues like the erosion of journalism. Unfortunately, it does so without providing much additional context or insight. Another germane yet under-explored topic includes the use of medical marijuana and the positive effects it’s had (replete with a few testimonials), but then the film jumps to a sextet of charismatic brothers who hit it big in the medicinal sector, tersely branding them opportunistic charlatans, before jumping back to Baca and his staff. It’s a disjointed head scratcher that at times makes you feel like you need to be sampling the goods to be in on the game.

The film’s most fired up when Ry Prichard, the cannabis nerd (a term he was awarded in the pages of Rolling Stone) brought in to backfill for Driver’s inexperience, is clicking away close ups of bodacious buds and giving them the taste test. His sharp comic wit and voracious love for all things green and oily, becomes a necessary offset to the other, more dour personas who grace the screen.

Ultimately,, the biggest reason Rolling Papers fails to fully ignite lays in its inherent lack of conflict. Baca’s well backed by the paper’s brass, so we know “The Cannabist” isn’t going anywhere. Much of the tension comes through Driver’s anxiety over job security, an investigative piece that busts a regulated seller for shilling weak shit (near nonexistent levels of THC) and the disappointment of having Whoopi Goldberg signed on to pen a column, only to have her change her mind. If you check out the website, you’ll get a smattering of weed reviews and a lot of pictures sent in from happy partakers. It’s a fun, yet thin footprint, one that Dickman the filmmaker doesn’t bother to go outside the lines to explore. High times in high altitudes doesn’t necessarily spark an interest for those not at the party.