Apollo 11


One giant leap for mankind.

(2019) Documentary (NeonNeil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, Deke Slayton, Clifford E. Charlesworth, Bruce McCandless II, H. David Reed, Charles Duke, Gene Kranz, Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, John F. Kennedy, Janet Armstrong, Patricia Mary Finnegan, Andy Aldrin, Walter Cronkite, Richard M. Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Hugh O’Brian, Joann Morgan, Joan Ann Archer. Directed by Todd Douglas Miller

 

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the landing of men on the moon, NASA sanctioned this documentary, giving filmmaker Miller unprecedented access to their archives, allowing him to use footage that essentially hasn’t been seen before now.

Expertly cut by Miller, the material here is meant to promote the immensity of the task, the majesty of the machines that accomplished it and the heroism of the men who rode inside. The movie succeeds on the first two of these; of the third, it is less successful, giving us little more than glimpses into the astronauts. I suppose if you want to find out more about these men, there are plenty of other places to look. It’s not as if these guys weren’t famous.

One thing about reviewing films that are no longer playing in theaters is that you lose the dimensions that are available for those on large screen formats. If ever a movie deserved to be seen in IMAX it’s this one, where the roar of the engines and the size of the Saturn V really take hold of the imagination. Miller manages to give a kind of “you are there” flare to much of the film, from the chaos of Mission Control (with the audio synched up with the video for the first time, giving us an ear on the various conversations going on behind the scenes) to the in-capsule recordings done by the astronauts themselves, whose footage got them membership in the American Society of Cinematographers back in the day.

Once the lift-off footage is complete, the movie gets a little bit dull; even the very dangerous moon landing itself doesn’t have the dramatic effect of the same scenes done for First Man, the biopic of Armstrong that delighted critics but failed to win a mass audience in 2018. Still, it’s hard not to be impressed with the footage and to get a sense of the times, of the feeling that we could accomplish anything we set our minds to – it’s a mindset the nation has largely lost since then. Considering there are still tinfoil hat-sorts that think the whole thing was a hoax, well, it’s hard to argue with the footage but I suppose they will anyway. In any case, this is wonderfully informational for those who didn’t get to live through the events and for those that did, a nice feeling of nostalgia.

REASONS TO SEE: Some incredible footage. Makes you feel like you were there in the moment.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat dry in the middle. We don’t really get to know the astronauts.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some peril but suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The electronic music score was played entirely on instruments that were available in 1969.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, History Vault, Hulu, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 99’% positive reviews, Metacritic: 88/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apollo 13
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Cuban

The Mighty Atom


Steel chains: breakfast of champions!

(2017) Documentary (SDG) Joseph Greenstein (voice, archival footage), Mike Greenstein, Steven Greenstein, Slim Farman, Pamela Nadell, Dennis Rogers, Dave Yarnell, Edward Meyer, Jan Dellinger, Duane Knudson, Donald Kuhn Jr., John Klug (narrator), Lauren Kornacki, Alec Kornacki, Liz Kornacki, Dan Cenidoza, Paluna Santamaria, Heather Ablodi. Directed by Steven Greenstein

 

In this Internet age, we make heroes of people who do crazy stunts on skateboards, dirt bikes, mountain bikes, or simply taking dumb risks for 15 minutes of Internet glory. Back in the roaring 20s and Depression-era 30s, that particular function was fulfilled by vaudeville and the circus, where stunts of derring-do were routinely performed in theaters all over the world.

Feats of strength were certainly audience grabbers at the time but few could match the marvel that was Joseph Greenstein. Known by his nickname “The Mighty Atom,” he stood 5’4” tall and weighed 148 pounds soaking wet. He is as far from the traditional muscle men as it’s possible to get but he still performed amazing exhibitions that even today can’t be replicated easily. One of his feats was to bend a horseshoe; a modern strongman attempts to do so in a Florida lab but is unable to match what Greenstein did routinely into his 80s.

The movie centers around a 1967 radio interview that Greenstein did for WNBC in New York. The film adds interviews of his sons and grandson, fans and disciples in the muscle man (and women) community, experts on the nature of human bio-physiology and assorted spectators and interested parties. There are some diversions such as a story about a woman who seeing that the car her father was working on had slipped its jack and was crushing him lifted the 1.5 ton car off of him and pulled him to safety.

Greenstein’s success wasn’t brought on by muscle mass but rather by mental focus. As a young boy he contracted tuberculosis (which had already taken the life of his father) and he wasn’t expected to live more than a year. He got it into his head after seeing posters of strong men in a local shop that the strength these men possessed might be able to save him. He pleaded with a wrestler in a travelling circus to train him and the man took pity on him and invited him to join. Greenstein spent a few years on the road with the circus learning proper nutrition and how to focus mentally and use that focus to do amazing things.

He eventually returned home to Poland to marry and unable to find work immigrated to Galveston, Texas. There he started his own business – a gas station. Greenstein’s son Mike recalls the time when Harry Houdini, travelling through town, got a flat tire. Greenstein was summoned to change the tire and he did so without the use of tools or a jack. Astonished, Houdini’s manager brought Greenstein to New York to work on the vaudeville circuit and once he began to make some real money, he sent for his burgeoning family which now included six sons.

Besides his size, another unusual feature about Joseph was that he was Jewish and as his grandson wryly relates, there weren’t a lot of Jewish athletes at the time. Greenstein was proud of his heritage and was a devout member of his congregation for the rest of his life.

I will say the movie is entertaining although not vital; the archival footage verifying some of Greenstein’s legendary exploits which included preventing a plane from taking off using only his hair, biting through chains, bending nails, horseshoes and steel bars as well as hammering nails into plywood with his bare hands is absolutely riveting. In the footage Greenstein looks positively grandfatherly and somewhat of an academic which he was; he also marketed salves, lineaments and nutritional supplements that he created himself. He was also well-versed in the science of nutrition long before it became fashionable.

The overall tone is that Greenstein is proof that a human being can do anything he or she put their minds to, even the impossible. It kind of makes me want to go out and see for myself what I’m capable of, not a bad feeling to have after watching a film.

REASONS TO GO: A fascinating look at strength and how much of it is not physical at all.
REASONS TO STAY: Like many documentaries, there is an overuse of talking head footage.
FAMILY VALUES: This is completely suitable for general audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was directed by the grandson of the Mighty Atom.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunesVimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside the Burly Q
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Beguiled (2017)

Hitchcock/Truffaut


The man who is arguably the greatest director of all time frames a point like he frames a shot.

The man who is arguably the greatest director of all time frames a point like he frames a shot.

(2015) Documentary (Cohen) Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, Matthieu Amalric (voice), Wes Anderson, Paul Schrader, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Linklater, David Fincher, Olivier Assayas, Arnaud Desplechin, Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Directed by Kent Jones

Greatness isn’t a title we’re allowed to proclaim for ourselves; it is rather bestowed upon us by those who follow in our footsteps. And, hopefully, an honor bestowed upon a favored few.

Certainly, Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut are worthy of such accolades. Hitchcock, once lauded as the Master of Suspense, was mainly relegated to the standing of a competent director of popular entertainment. It wasn’t until Nouvelle Vague darling Truffaut interviewed him and wrote a book about their conversation that Hitchcock began to be taken more seriously by film cognoscenti.

Much of the documentary is about the conversation between the two legends, with audiotape from the actual interviews that are augmented by film clips and commentary by ten modern directors who are clearly influenced by Hitchcock in particular. I don’t know that the commentary augments the book with much insight other than as to how Hitchcock has influenced modern movies, particularly in how carefully he framed and set up his shots. You might not know it from looking at him, but Hitch was a driven artist who labored intensely to make his vision come to life.

Much has been made of Hitchcock’s disdain for actors and in many ways he used them as living props. He was a visual storyteller more than anything, which makes sense considering he got his start in silent cinema. He worked with some of the great names in Hollywood – Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day, Tony Perkins, Janet Leigh and so on – but for him, they meant little other than how they looked in the shot. He was a master storyteller however and he always got the best from his actors, no matter how much they personally disliked him.

The thing is though; I’m not sure why this documentary exists at all. The book that it is about is a landmark book that essentially provides readers with a Film Directing 101 course and continues to do so to this day. Anyone interested in going into movie production should make it required reading. But the question is what does this documentary give you that you couldn’t get from reading the book yourself?

The answer is not much. Sure some of the director commentary helps, and Jones – whose day job is as a film historian (he also has collaborated in the past with Scorsese, a well-known film buff) – provides some historical context to Hitchcock’s career. Some of the footage of his older films from the silent era and in England in the 30s was stuff I hadn’t seen. I wish there had been more of it.

Certainly there is plenty of interest here and if you haven’t read the book, this is a fine introduction to it. I read it back when I was in middle school and high school and my lifelong love of film was in part primed by it and other such tomes (The MGM Story, for example) for which I’m duly grateful. However, recommending this has to come with a codicil – read the book. If you have more than a passing interest in movies, you should read it anyway.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating insights to some of his classics. Gives a great director his due.
REASONS TO STAY: Couldn’t ya just read the book? Glosses over most of his films other than Vertigo and Psycho.
FAMILY VALUES: Some images of violence as well as suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The conversations, recorded on audiotape and partially on film, took place over a week in a conference room on the Universal lot in 1962.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hitchcock
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: In the Heart of the Sea

Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police


It rocks to be Sting!

It rocks to be Sting!

(2012) Musical Documentary (Cinema Libre) Andy Summers, Sting, Stewart Copeland, Kate Lunken Summers. Directed by Andy Grieves

In the heyday of MTV, the Police were one of the bands that were essentially made for the music video age. Blonde and good looking, sometimes the fact that they made really good music got lost in the image. Melding a variety of musical forms including (but not limited to) New Wave, reggae, jazz, blues with the occasional burst of discordant noise, they were often unfairly characterized as purveyors of disposable lightweight pop. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Behind the easygoing blonde facade were three strong personalities who often clashed. Bassist Sting was never much of a team player and said so; he would get into heated arguments with his band mates over things ranging from chord changes to which singles were released off of albums. The band member’s egos stemmed from the fact that all three were talented musicians and songwriters in their own rights, and recording sessions often became wars of attrition.

Finally, the band called it a day in 2006 which startled the music press and fans alike; their most recent (and it turns out final) album Synchronicity had been a monster success and they were considered by many to be the biggest band in the world. All went their separate ways, however; Sting to a successful solo career, drummer Stewart Copeland to TV and film composition and guitarist Andy Summers to a string of instrumental albums both solo and with other guitarists like Robert Fripp of King Crimson.

In some ways though, the way the band broke up left both the fans and the band itself feeling a lack of closure so in 2007, partly in honor of the 30th anniversary of the release of their first single “Roxanne” the band announced a reunion tour. It would be a one-time event; as Sting put it, “There will be no album. There will be no follow-up tour.” The tour would be the last hurrah for the band, a way of saying goodbye to their fans one final time.

Summers, prior to the reunion, wrote a book on his time with the Police entitled One Train Later and decided to do a documentary. Copeland, who had taken Super 8 movies of the band on tour, had previously released a documentary entitled Everybody Stares: The Police Inside Out back in 2006 but it wasn’t until well after the reunion had concluded that Summers and Grieve, assuming the director’s chair for the first time after establishing himself as a film editor, assembled both from archival footage of the band as well as newer footage from the reunion tour shot by Lauren Lazin.

Here we hear Summers laconically reading from his book over the images and video. Summers, who these days resembles comedian Eric Idle portraying a rumpled professorial sort, is not the most expressive reader ever; most of the voiceover is monotonic which can lull the viewer to sleep, or at least lead them to lose interest. To be sure, however, he’s a good writer and the prose is well-written.

One drawback is that the film is exclusively from Summers’ point of view. That’s a double edged sword; we get a very definitive, consistent viewpoint throughout, but that’s the only viewpoint we receive. While we hear Sting and Copeland in interviews talking about the band, there’s a kind of facade that is practiced by members of any band which is meant to keep the world at large out of the inner sanctum. Only from Summers do we get any kind of emotional resonance and while that is much appreciated, the film could have used more participation from his bandmates as well.

Grieve, with his background in editing, really weaves the footage from the 70s and 80s nicely in with concert footage from the reunion tour. It’s a nice effect although to be honest the songs don’t really change much in arrangement over time for the most part although once in awhile the band messed about with the arrangements to some of their lesser known tunes. We do get a sense that the divides that split the band up remain intact; they seem to be better friends outside of the band than within it.

There are some nice tidbits here; Summers, for example, was briefly a member of Eric Burden and the Animals prior to joining the Police. He was much older than his mates, who teasingly tried to convince an interviewer that the Summers who played in psychedelic bands like Dantalian’s Chariot and blues bands like Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band was actually the Police guitarist’s father. Another anecdote that was interesting was that the band’s first appearance on the influential British music show The Old Grey Whistle Stop nearly didn’t happen when a can of hairspray exploded in Sting’s face, necessitating a hospital visit to save his eye; he was forced to wear oversized sunglasses for the appearance because of it.

Summers does go into more personal aspects of his life, such as how the marriage to his wife Kate developed and then disintegrated due to his constant touring with the band, how he sunk into reckless behaviors after the divorce and how an interest in photography went from being a hobby into being therapy. Happily, the couple reconciled and remarried and have since given birth to twin boys in addition to the daughter they had during his Police days. These are some of the more compelling moments in the film.

In some ways this is an ego project for Summers but I suspect he’s okay with that characterization; this is more “Andy Summers and the Police” than a fair, balanced portrayal of the band and their music. Summers says, with some pride, “We were allowed (to have egos) because we were really good musicians” without any hint of irony, and deservedly so. This is a band that really never got its critical due during their existence and even less so afterwards. They were more than just a trio of pretty boys that grew out of the punk clubs of England and escaped into pop superstardom; they wrote some amazing songs that still sound good today. I just would have wished for a documentary that was a little less one-sided.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice interweaving of archival concert footage with more recent stuff. Informative.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too Summers-centric in a self-aggrandizing way. Lacks energy.
FAMILY VALUES: Some minor swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The comic book character John Constantine (who appeared in a sadly now-defunct NBC series this past season) was based  visually on Sting.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Some of Summers’ photos appear in a photo gallery; there’s also a Q&A session with Summers from the film’s L.A. premiere, a promo piece on his solo album Mysterious Barricades, an interview with Summers and finally a Summers-made trailer for the film (in addition to the official one).
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $23,262 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental Only), Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Soul Boys of the Western World
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Hitman: Agent 47

Inside the Burly Q


Behind the Burly Q

Margie Hart ponders her career choices.

(2010) Documentary (First Run) Alan Alda, Sally Rand, Lily St. Cyr, Lou Costello, Tempest Storm, Margie Hart, Blaze Starr, Kitty West, June Lee, Lorraine Lee, Vicki O’Day, Sara Jacobs, David Kruh, Dixie Evans, Janet M. Davis, Nat Bodian. Directed by Leslie Zemeckis

 

Before there was internet porn, before there was Playboy there was burlesque. Often people make the mistake of thinking it was all boobs and butts but in reality there was much more to it than that. There were singers, comedians and other performing acts.

Burlesque was considered a step below vaudeville due to the prurient nature of the shows. Burlesque was the province of the strippers, of Sally Rand, Tempest Storm and Lily St. Cyr. It was raucous horns, tassels and pasties. Burlesque theaters were looked down upon in their day, tolerated to a certain extent but thought to be extremely low class.

These days burlesque is undergoing a bit of a renaissance as hipsters are discovering the joys of burlesque comedy and scantily clad women. That’s what makes it a good time to make a documentary about the heyday of burlesque.

Of course it’s a bit of a slam dunk as naked female breasts are generally going to attract plenty of male attention, and there are plenty of bare breasts here. There are also plenty of interviews, some of which are more revealing (in a personal level, get your mind out of the gutter) than others. The problem is that there is so many of them that they tend to blend in all together.

There is a good deal of archival footage but I’d like to have seen more. Talking heads telling stories about life back in the day are all well and good, but I think more performance footage might have been a little more welcome.

Most of the talking heads are the performers themselves, now mostly in their 70s and 80s. There are a few children (Alda’s dad Robert was a straight man in a burlesque act and also provided musical accompaniment) and spouses as well as siblings. There are also some historians and authors to provide some perspective which is needed.

The stories are for the most part pretty fascinating although, to be honest, near the end they began to blend together a little bit. You do get a sense of the camaraderie between the girls as well as the competition between them; you also get a sense that like any job some of it was wonderful and some of it was pretty awful. That there was drug abuse and sexual abuse in the theaters is documented but whether it was to the same degree that exists in modern strip clubs is anybody’s guess – those sorts of things were swept under the rug back then.

Burlesque merits a serious documentary and while this makes an attempt to capture the magic, it simply doesn’t. I haven’t yet seen This Is…Burlesque! which is another documentary on the subject but for the time being, I’m still waiting to find the movie that will truly bring burlesque to life for me.

WHY RENT THIS: Fascinating look at a bygone era and of women who were sexual at a time when sexuality in women was verboten.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Becomes overwhelming at times; too many interviews.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of sexuality, some nudity and some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zemeckis is the wife of director Robert (Forrest Gump) Zemeckis and has produced a burlesque revival show that has played in clubs around the Los Angeles area.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on a burlesque performer reunion in Las Vegas, a timeline of the burlesque theater, a look at the costumes and memorabilia of the era and an interview with director Zemeckis in which the origins of the project are discussed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $23,889 on an unreported production budget; I have a sense that it probably didn’t make money theatrically.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Fantasia 2000

Crazy Love


Crazy Love

Even Linda Riss can't believe her eyes.

(Magnolia) Burt Pugach, Linda Riss, Jimmy Breslin, Bob Janoff, Sylvia Hoffman, Rita Kessler, Berry Stainback, Janet Pomerantz. Directed by Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens

Love is an emotion that can overwhelm even the most rational of us. Under its spell, we turn into gibbering, obsessive freaks that lose all sense of proportion and reality. We descend into a kind of baby-talking, goo-goo eyed madness that is considered part of love’s sweet charm. Sometimes, that madness turns savage.

Burt Pugach was a successful attorney in the Bronx (read: ambulance chaser) in 1957 when he met Linda Riss. On the surface, they couldn’t have been more different; he was sophisticated and charming but far from handsome. She was beautiful but naive, easily swayed by the more worldly Burt.

At first she wasn’t interested, but he was persistent. He was co-owner of a ritzy nightclub in Manhattan and he would take her there to meet celebrities of the day; whenever she walked in the door, the orchestra would play “Linda.” He had his own airplane and a pilot’s license and would take her all over the Northeast and beyond. He gave her lavish gifts. His persistence eventually paid off.

There was just one problem – Burt was already married. When Linda found out about it, she was understandably devastated. Burt protested that he had already been in the process of getting a divorce before he met Linda – why, here were the divorce papers to prove it. However, Linda eventually discovered that the papers were forged.

For Linda, that was the last straw. She called it off between her and Burt and moved on. Burt, however, couldn’t let go; he continued to pursue her despite her repeated entreaties to leave her alone. She met a nice man whom she eventually became engaged to. The thought of Linda with any other man but him drove Burt over the edge, leading him to commit an act so vile, so dreadful that it captured the headlines of its time and even by today’s standards is unusually brutal. It would lead the two of them on an odyssey that would continue long past the tragedy of that day in 1959.

I won’t go into what happened precisely and the consequences of the action. Suffice to say that either you have never heard of Burt Pugach in which case I don’t want to take away from the impact of the documentary by telling you some of the more shocking aspects of the movie in advance, or you are aware of the facts of the case in which case I don’t need to reiterate what you already know.

The filmmakers a former publicist (Klores) and an actor (Stevens) who combine talking head interviews with the principals and their acquaintances, as well as incorporating a wealth of archival footage, grainy home movies and newspaper headlines. In all honesty, the documentary portion is in some ways fairly by-the-numbers.

The best part of the documentary is that the filmmakers choose to weave the story in such a way that you get entangled in it and before long you become absolutely enthralled by it. It becomes a cinematic train wreck in a good way – you can’t take your eyes away. Kudos to Klores and Stevens for allowing the story to take center stage.

It’s the story itself that captivates here and every juicy twist and turn that it takes drops your jaw to the floor anew. I know that truth is stranger than fiction, but this is stranger than science fiction. It reminds you once again that people will do incredible things in the name of love and terrible things in the name of obsession.

WHY RENT THIS: This is a remarkable story that is the poster child for the truism that truth is stranger than fiction.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It is very much a New York story and those who find such things uninteresting will probably be put off by this.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and some frank sexual references, but it is the mature themes of the documentary that make it questionable for younger audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won Best Documentary Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: In addition to 43 minutes of additional interview footage with the principals, there is also a slideshow of Linda’s artwork as well as copies of Burt’s letters from prison to Linda.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Orphan