Thursday, April 07, 2005

Recent-ish documentaries: Gunner Palace, Sunset Story, Los Angeles Plays Itself, Dust to Glory

In many ways, documentaries make the case for distribution via digital video. I don't like digital video as a rule - I've yet to see a DLP projection that can compare with 35mm projection, and when we hear about how much more convenient it is - well, I don't mind Time-Warner or AMC being put out a little if it means my $8 movie ticket looks good. They are large corporations that can handle it.

But little independent filmmakers shooting a documentary? The cost of striking a 35mm print may be a large fraction of their budget, and the cost of striking multiple prints to do a pseudo-nationwide release as opposed to just shipping one print hither and yon may be prohibitive. And national, if not international, is the way it is now - word-of-mouth moves much faster than the postcards boutique houses leave for the taking nowadays, and you've got to strike while the iron's hot.

Also, one can't help but notice that both Sunset Story and Dust to Glory sport 2003 copyrights, and Sunset Story, at least, chronicles events of 2000, and yet it's just now reaching theaters and television. It's no more "breaking news" than most documentaries, but I have to wonder if digital distribution might have allowed Laura Gebbert to get her movie into theaters quickly enough that Irja Lloyd could have seen it that way. It would also likely give documentarians a chance to move onto new projects quickly by making movies easier and quicker to sell and book.

Of course, this assumes that there's dissatisfaction with the current system. I may not know what I'm talking about.

Gunner Palace

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

They say a lot of things about war. One of my favorites is that it's long periods of boredom punctuated by brief moments of terror. There's a lot of the boredom in Gunner Palace, and not so much of the terror. Part of that is just a matter of only being able to put together the footage you shoot, but part is that directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker aren't yet seasoned filmmakers, and though they've got some good film, they don't yet seem to have the skills to make a great movie out of it.

It doesn't help that this movie about American soldiers in Iraq is made and released in contentious times, and isn't quite enough of a straight-ahead, keep the editorializing to ourselves presentation to avoid being a target. It's close, and in fact it's close enough that what looks like the directors' ideology coming through could just be random noise rather than insidious. After all, just because Rumsfeld is a lightning rod for controversy doesn't make playing clips of him speaking automatic criticism.

Read the rest at HBS.

Sunset Story

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 March 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

Sunset Story is a nice little movie. At seventy-three minutes in length, it's on the short end of features, and despite being filled with people holding strong opinions, it isn't out to convince its audience of anything. Director Laura Gabbert's documentary doesn't have a whole lot to say other than that Lucille and Irja were friends, even though they met extremely late in life. Knowing this probably won't change the way I see the world, but it's the sort of knowledge that does make one's life just the smallest bit better.

Lucille Alpert and Irja Lloyd are residents of a Los Angeles retirement home called "Sunset Hall" who arrived within two weeks of each other some years before. Founded in 1923, the institution's charter is to cater to the needs of elderly "free-thinkers". Lucille (95) and Irja (80) have both always been activists, and their minds are still sharp: Lucille devours multiple newspapers every morning, while Irja still takes herself to protests, wheelchair and all ("I was a teenager during the Great Depression and I'm still marching for the same things!"). We meet other residents of the home, with subtitles briefly describing what they did before retirement (Lucille was a social worker and Irja a special education teacher), and I suspect Ms. Gabbert originally intended to make a movie about aging radicals as a concept, only later deciding to focus on the friendship these two share.

Read the rest at HBS.

Los Angeles Plays Itself

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagement)

We've all done it. We've all gone to a movie, or rented a DVD, and had our belief happily suspended, maybe even scolded our neighbor about not being able to overlook some minor technical detail, and then been jolted out of it because the city on the screen, which claims to be our hometown, is obviously some other city (or vice versa). Or maybe a car chase will jump from one side of the city to another. Or maybe it just becomes clear that the director doesn't get the place like we do.

Hey, it's happened to me. I'm anticipating a bit of unintentional comedy when I see Fever Pitch this weekend, despite the filmmakers' best intentions. But I'm pretty sure I'll never make a three-hour movie about how Hollywood has misrepresented Boston, the way Thom Anderson has opted to educate us about Los Angeles.

Read the rest on HBS.

Dust to Glory

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 April 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Preview)

I'm not a car person. I have relatives who are fans of stock-car racing, but I tend to see that as watching other people drive all afternoon and not get anywhere. I tell friends and family members that owning a truck is wasteful. I not only don't own a vehicle of my own, but I never bothered to get my driver's license. With all that said, I found Dust to Glory, a chronicle of the Baja 1000 cross-country race, to be a ton of fun.

See, even if I don't like dealing with automobiles myself, I do like speed. I stand in awe of raw mechanical power, and can't really conceive of having control of one of these cars/trucks/motorcycles without killing someone (probably myself). There's also something delightfully pure about the race itself: Anyone can enter, from a pair of locals in a twenty-year-old Volkswagen Beetle to a sponsored team in a million dollar "trophy truck". The thousand mile race has the same start and end points, but the actual course changes from year to year, and always includes a bunch of different terrain, from mountains to beach, rolling dunes to extremely loose silt.

Read the rest at HBS.

Next: Movies from exotic Germany, Canada, and England.

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