SIFF Advance: THE LONG HAUL: THE STORY OF THE BUCKAROOS

Directing: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

I guess I need to stop approaching local productions with low expectations by default. That’s the ignorant thinking of an old fool, who doesn’t see how the world has changed.

Now, to be both fair and realistic, one thing that really hasn’t necessarily changed is that one does not expect great cinematography from a documentary. This is a genre that usually features static shots of talking subjects intercut with some kind of archival footage that is often amateur by definition — not the stuff of high production values. A true exception to this general rule comes in the form of The Long Haul: The Story of the Buckaroos, which focuses on, of all things, a group of male strippers of diverse body types doing performative cowboy masculinity at Seattle’s own Can Can.

Director Amy Enser began filming in 2014, and offers a portrait of what was, then at least, the five core guys performing in the show, how they got to be involved, how it changed their lives, how the show itself evolved. As I write this, I find myself wondering if the show even exists anymore: the Buckaroos website appears to be out of date; no live dates any more recent than 2016 can be found anywhere; their social media links feature no posts any more recent than 2016 either. Maybe I should have stayed for the entire Q&A after the SIFF world premiere screening of this film after all.

Well, whatever, the film tells a compelling, often delightful, certainly colorful, and by turns sexy and funny story about these guys who play a fictional group of long haul truck drivers. Or cowboys. Construction workers. You get the idea. You’d think the movie would generate interest in their live shows, assuming those shows still existed. Maybe the hunky red head who was the driving force behind the show’s creative decisions, who retired from the show after ten years of performing in it during filming, was a harbinger of its end?

The film itself offers no insight as to the fate of the show itself, but rather stands as a unique, refreshing take on performative sexuality, as seen through the gaze of a female director. This is markedly different from how any movie about female strippers by a male director could ever even hope to be. It certainly has a more egalitarian vibe to it. Any many of the group’s dance numbers are featured, impressively shot with swooping camera movements and vivid lighting.

It’s not super surprising that the group of men in this show is not super diverse in terms of ethnicity — all but the one black man are white — but, there is something to the diverse array of body types on display: some guys more conventionally attractive than others; one a bit skinny; one who weighs 280 pounds, who gets some of the greatest cheers from the crowd. None of them is especially chiseled. Most of them are straight, but with an unusual comfort engaging with naked male sexuality. What Amy Enser’s direction shows is how these guys prove that anyone can be sexy if they just know how to own it. Different performers are seen talking about how working in the show helped them overcome shyness or body image issues. These are not things you see men talking about a lot.

So The Long Haul turns out to have a lot more depth to it than you might expect from a movie about, to greatly oversimplify it, a bunch of male strippers. I went into this expecting something fun, but a lot more breezy and superficial. I left it impressed by some actual substance. This isn’t just some time filler. I would actually recommend watching it, however you might find it in the hopefully near future. I had a great time with it and am confident you will too.

Can you feel the heat?

Can you feel the heat?

Overall: B+

SIFF Advane: ENORMOUS: THE GORGE STORY

Directing: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

This would have been more accurately called “The Gorge Amphitheatre Story,” as it focuses almost exclusively on the history and cultural impact of the famed music venue, which is situated with a memorably stunning view of the Columbia River Gorge. Director Nic Davis does include a minute or two at both the beginning and end of the film with a geologist from Central Washington University, who shares a few geological details about the Gorge that are, frankly, far more interesting than what singers or band played the Gorge at which times between 1988 and now.

For instance, he notes that in contrast to the Grand Canyon, which took millions of years to form as it was carved out by the Colorado River, the Columbia River Gorge was formed mostly by cataclysmic floods occurring at the end of the last ice age, between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago. What! That’s an infinitesimally smaller window of time, and cataclysms are fun! Tell me more!

Alas, Enormous: The Gorge Story tells virtually no more about the formation of the Gorge itself, and is instead the story of the amphitheater built there by a young couple also operating a winery in the area, at the time with a capacity of 3,000. It has been enlarged and improved over time, now has at least two side stages and hosts many music festivals year round, has a currently capacity of 27,500, and is managed by Live Nation.

Nic Davis interviews several people with either notable or unique histories with the venue: a longtime event photographer; a woman who spent twenty years as a regular there with her sister who passed away; a few musicians of varying levels of fame, including a guitarist from Pearl Jam and the guru (or godfather? whatever) of Northwest music festivals, Dave Matthews himself. This guy has been headlining a full weekend of music every Memorial Day Weekend for many years now.

All of this is interesting enough, to be fair. And the musicians all uniformly appreciate the incredibly scenic nature of the venue, now widely considered to be one of the most beautiful in the country. That said, considering the eclectic number of festivals directly connected to the venue that do get mentioned — Sasquatch, Paradiso, Watershed — a curious number of them do not.

I have my own personal, unique history with this venue myself, just as presumably many Washingtonians and Northwesterners do. The first concert I ever attended was The Cranberries in 1996, at The Gorge. The second one I ever attended was one year later, at Lileth Fair. Granted, Lileth Fair is not directly associated with The Gorge generally speaking, but that 1997 concert there was the first stop of the first tour that festival ever did.

Perhaps there were some rights clearance issues. There’s a hint that may be the case in a shot of a newspaper article, with much of the text blurred — including the name Tracy Chapman, beneath a photo of her not blurred. And she was one of the acts at that 1997 Lileth Fair concert. Then there are Lollapalooza, Ozzfest, countless Phish concerts, and more — again, not directly associated with the venue, but worth mentioning as having been hosted by it several times. None of these things are mentioned at all, which gives Enormous a bit of a feeling as though certain details are curiously omitted. The run time of this film is all of 64 minutes, so it’s not like they were pressed for time.

Before seeing this, I imagined Enormous: The Gorge Story might be one of the few documentaries I would say are worth going out of your way to see in a theatre, what with the grand vistas being so much the point. Shots of the Columbia River itself, and the Columbia River Gorge, are both used sparingly and often repeated. You’ll get just as much out of this movie watching it on your TV at home. Being such a very local production and with such a short run time, I’ll b surprised if this gets any kind of general release in theatres anyway.

To be clear, however, what does get included is still compelling. In terms of what narrative this film has, nothing included feels wasted, and it’s over too quickly for you to get bored. It will certainly appeal to fans who love to see concerts at this venue, of which there are a great many. If you have no more than a cursory interest in the Gorge Amphitheater, though, you won’t have cause for any more than a cursory interest in this movie.

The show is spectacular no matter where you look. Well, if you’re actually there, anyway.

The show is spectacular no matter where you look. Well, if you’re actually there, anyway.

Overall: B

SIFF Advance: TRIXIE MATTEL: MOVING PARTS

Directing: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

I seem to have a thing for seeing movies with a connection to a world I’m not a part of. Ironically, maybe, the world of fandom to which I belong is that of film itself, which becomes my one portal into other interests I have little to no time for. As in, I have literally seen exactly one episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. It was at a viewing party in a gay bar in New Orleans during the week of Mardi Gras in 2014. The show was five years old at the time, and as many years have passed since then.

I have since gained only a cursory knowledge of who Trixie Mattel even is, let alone Brian Firkus, who created the Trixie persona. That cursory knowledge comes pretty much exclusively from gifs and clips shared by queer people I follow on Twitter. This documentary, though, Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts, has certainly piqued my interest. I might even buy her two folk albums, Two Bids and One Stone, many songs from which we see performed in the film.

The many existent fans of Trixie will already have knowledge of what is presented in the film, most notably her friendship, professional partnership, estrangement and ultimate reconciliation with fellow drag queen Katya Zamolodchikova. This is a very compelling part of Trixie’s story, and the reconciliation element could have used a little more fanfare in the film’s narrative. As presented here, it’s somewhat disappointingly anticlimactic, as though Katya being back in Trixie’s life is just an afterthought in the sequence of vignettes representing the past couple of years in Trixie’s life.

Aside from the Katya stuff, though, Trixie is perfectly compelling in her own right — Brian Firkus every bit as much so. In a noteworthy scene, Brian, not in drag, ponders the impact Trixie has had on her fans, many of whom tell her they relate to her as people who have battled depression. Brian notes that he jokes about being sad, but he’s neither depressed nor a sad person, per se. That, I could relate to. It made Brian very endearing to me.

There’s also something refreshingly average about Brian, when he’s out of drag. He’s far from ugly, but arguably just as far from the chiseled muscle boys gay culture fetishizes. It underscores the skill and talent that goes into the extraordinary transformation into Trixie Mattel, every single thing about her elevated and exaggerated.

I did find myself thinking about what might ultimately set Trixie Mattel apart from any other perfectly good drag queen. Surely, a documentary every bit as compelling could have been made about, say, any other contestant from RuPaul’s Drag Race. Details could be singled out about their backgrounds just as moving, or heartbreaking, as Trixie’s. For example, when Brian is doing a radio interview by phone, and confirms that the name “Trixie” comes from the malicious nickname given to Brian as a child by an abusive stepfather.

There is one pretty key thing, it turns out. Trixie Mattel isn’t just a personification of Dolly Parton on acid. She’s a bona fide, accomplished musician — something rare among drag queens, who traditionally lip sync to other people’s prerecorded music. Brian Firkus is actually a songwriter, and a pretty good one. He’s not half bad as a singer, either.

Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts tracks Trixie’s rise to midlevel fame, both as a losing contestant and then a winning contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and then as a touring comedian-musician performing in venues all over the country. I found both Trixie and Brian so endearing, essentially being introduced to both through this film, that I might actually buy a ticket if Trixie ever comes back to Seattle.

The self-proclaimed “best folk singing drag queen” . . . is not wrong.

The self-proclaimed “best folk singing drag queen” . . . is not wrong.

Overall: B+

HAIL SATAN?

Directing: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

To say I have mixed feelings about the documentary Hail Satan? is a bit of an understatement. I’ve long been an avowed atheist, though not a particularly militant one, but I have a clear enough memory of my conservative, religious, Christian upbringing to know how triggering everything about this might be to plenty of people — including, quite plausibly, multiple people I know personally who might deign to read this very review.

And therein lies the rub. The “Satanic Temple,” as an embodiment of “modern Satanism” stands for objectively reasonable activist goals. Who in their right mind would read their “Seven Tenets,” without associating them with the Satanic Temple, and disagree with any of it? The first one includes the phrase “in accordance with reason”; the second references “the struggle for justice”; the third is about physical autonomy.

Clearly this organization understands how, culturally, they are playing with fire. The bummer of it all is how reasonable their arguments are, yet how lost their arguments are going to get as they provoke the system by exposing institutional hypocrisy.

And make no mistake — the hypocrisy is epidemic. In one of only two mentions of religion in the United States Constitution, it states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In what universe does the erection of a monument to the Biblical Ten Commandments on State government grounds not violate that clause? (Side note: one of the interview subjects in Hail Satan? notes that the prevalence of such monuments on government property across the country can be traced back to a publicity stunt promoting the 1956 motion picture The Ten Commandments. Yes, really.)

So Hail, Satan? not only tracks the beginnings and evolution of the Satanic Temple as an activist organization with rebellious ritualistic leanings toward blasphemy-as-a-statement, but its push to get local municipalities to erect their own statue of Baphomet, basically a goat-headed angel with two adoring children flanking him, next to any Ten Commandments monument on government property. Their arguments, which is objectively a pretty airtight one, is that it aims to celebrate the religious pluralism — as opposed to, in one man’s words, “Christian supremacy” — on which this country was founded.

There is, of course, multiple elements of ridiculousness to all of this. Could anyone as effectively make the same arguments without invoking what a majority of this country regards as the world’s greatest embodiment of evil? How can these people expect to be taken seriously? Well, by using faith-based laws agaist those who passed them, they have managed it — by getting the Oklahoma state legislature to back off on erecting the Ten Commandments on their Capitol grounds; by getting the Phoenix City Council to abandon their sixty-year tradition of doing a religious invocation before sessions when the Satanic Temple requested to be a part of it. You should see the footage of the local citizenry addressing the City Council in opposition of the Satanic Temple being allowed in. Some of them look literally hysterical.

A key question is asked one of the interview subjects: “Do you think most people think you’re kidding, or that you’re evil?” I would expect most of the otherwise reasonable conservatives I know would come down on the latter option. I also know plenty of people on the spectrum between atheism and secularism, though, and probably most of them would expect these people are perpetuating an elaborate hoax, having fun at the expense of the religious community.

If nothing else, this film illustrates how “Satanic” peope’s earnestness should not be underestimated. It’s often said these days that modern Satanists don’t literally believe in a “Satan,” but rather regard him as a symbol of rebellion against tyranny. These are people who organize work to the public good, such as the local Arizona chapter that adopted a highway (although they pick up litter with extended pitchforks, a nice touch). These are people who are very serious, and are by and large very friendly.

That’s not to say they are not without their dark rituals, which, if Hail Satan? is any indication, just offer a more offbeat kind of community to people that they lose by rejecting more conventional religion. Perfectly valid points are made about the perversity of many Christian rituals (wine representing blood, eating of flesh, etc). That said, there’s a somewhat delicious irony to the leader of the local Detroit chapter being rejected from the national organization for falling too far out of line with their organizational principals. A Satanist calling for the execution of the president? That’s a step too far! To be fair to the Satanic Temple, they really are a nonviolent institution, something codified into their ethics. Those Detroit Satanists can pour wine over naked bodies in ritual ceremonies all they want, but advocating actual violence of any kind — let alone against the president — is unacceptable. Think of their reputation!

My flippancy here could easily be presented here as unfair. But, I am also a realist, and the idea of any group openly calling themselves “Satanists” gaining a truly positive reputation in this country is preposterous. The makers of Hail Satan?, such as director Penny Lane, are clearly on their side. The film actually makes a strong case that we all should be. It also falls slightly short of illustrating what good they’re doing by using Satan as a fundamental symbol of their identity. They want their earnestness to be acknowledged, and while they tend to get it from legal scholars, when it comes to the culture at large, they are either laughed at and dismissed, or they are deeply, almost fatally feared. Neither of those responses make any objective sense.

And although Hail Satan? is otherwise very well constructed and presented, I do wish it spent more time acknowledging such questions. It ends on their fight with the Arkansas state legislature over the Ten Commandment on Little Rock government property, and in this case all they manage is the temporary presentation of their Baphomet statue on the bed of a truck during a rally. Evidently, their case against Arkansas is ongoing, but for some reason the credits roll before any clarification on that matter is offered.

Still, for those with an open enough mind to give it a look anyway, Hail Satan? is provocative in all the right ways. Its greatest problem is really the same problem the Satanic Temple has itself: any association with Satan, no matter how “symbolic” it might be, will instill far more fear than actual thought. I’m not sure there has ever been a greater irony than a movie about Satanists being one of the best examples out there of preaching to the choir.

Good luck with that.

Good luck with that.

Overall: B

PENGUINS

Directing: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

It’s been fourteen years since March of the Penguins became the second-most successful documentary in history — and, by an extremely wide margin, the most successful nature documentary in history. It’s been so long. in fact, that plenty of kids who might see the new Disneynature film Penguins won’t even have any idea that other film even exists.

And there is a minor irony in this comparison, because March of the Penguins had originally been released as a French film, with voice actors hired to become mock-characters for the film. There is little doubt that the decision to use Morgan Freeman as narrator for the U.S. release, with no penguin character “voices,” contributed to that film’s massive domestic success. And yet, for Disneynature’s Penguins, Ed Helms is brought on as narrator, and here he actually does semi-regularly take on the voice of the one penguin we follow in this story. It includes a lot of silly humor, but here is where Ed Helms must be commended, because the big surprise here is how well it works.

The humor in Penguins is always silly but it’s never downright dumb, nor does it ever insult the viewer’s intelligence. In fact, although Helms clearly anthropomorphises the animal, none of the footage does. The footage offered here, as in many a documentary before it, makes clear the harsh environments of this particular species, the Adélie penguin.

And this film offers plenty of indelible images of its own. Above-ice angles on Orca whales’ dorsal fins peeking up through holes in the ice. Below-the-surface footage of leopard seals on the hunt. Penguins is pretty clearly aimed at younger audiences, and thus never gets quite as frank about the realities of nature as other documentaries. Still, it does get impressively real, given the context.

The mass migration of hundreds of thousands of penguins obviously means not all of them will survive. For much of this film’s concise, 76-minute run time, I had the feeling we’d never see predator actually catch its prey. It doesn’t happen for quite some time. But then, we finally see a seal wrap its jaws around a penguin and pull it down from the surface of the water.

The story here focuses, though, on a single penguin family, and specifically the male, which is given the name “Steve,” who meets his lifelong mate, “Adeline.” I’m not sure the names were especially necessary, except that I’ll admit to getting a kick out of Ed Helms acting as though Steve, seen in a wide shot alone in a vast expanse of snow, is calling out when he can’t find her: “Adeline! We see them engage in a little bit of mating ritual and then it cuts straight to the eggs, already hatched, needing to be kept warm. Steve and Adeline work together to raise their chicks to a point where they can fend for themselves. Curiously, the chicks themselves are not given names.

I found myself wondering if the filmmakers (co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson; cinematographer Rolf Steinmann) really followed the same exact set of four penguins through an Antarctic spring and summer season, or if they simply cut down their 900 hours of footage to make it look as though they did. It’s impossible to tell these penguins apart, after all. Either way, I surprised myself by how emotionally invested I got. After seeing a leopard seal finally chow down on another random penguin, I genuinely feared one of the nearly-grown chicks might meet the same fate as it was being pursued by the predators. More than once I worried about whether this entire family would make it to the end intact.

You could call that a dilemma, I suppose: This is fairly typical emotional manipulation by the likes of Disney, thereby arguably compromising the integrity of a true nature documentary. I could not help but find myself enamored with this movie, though — they’re just that skilled at getting you into it. Penguins is an undeniable charmer, by turns dramatic and adorable. After a decade and a half of movies in one way or another about penguins, the subject matter is far from novel, but there is something slightly different to this one’s approach. Anyone who thinks documentaries are dull need only to be shown this one to be proven wrong.

Get ready to be tickled.

Get ready to be tickled.

Overall: B+

AMAZING GRACE

Directing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+
Music: A-

It’s been 47 years since the live recording and release of Aretha Franklin’s 2-million-selling gospel album Amazing Grace. Over two nights at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles, director Sydney Pollack recording twenty hours of footage depicting the recording of all the tracks. As the title cards at the beginning of the documentary of the same name, in theatres currently, we are informed that it was ultimately unfinished due to “technical difficulties” — until now. Director Alan Elliott, with credit as co-director, has finished the project nearly five decades later.

Among others, Aretha Franklin herself is credited as a producer. 76 years old when she died last year (and would still be now), she is 29 in this footage, just a couple of months from turning 30. And watching it now, you don’t have to be intimately familiar with Aretha’s vast body of work — and I am not — to find yourself unsurprised that this woman was a legend. As the title cards also note, just before this recording, she had just had a run of eleven consecutive #1 pop and R&B hits.

The documentary film Amazing Grace features no interviews, and is really nothing more than a fairly standard concert film — just made by a director who, at the time, was a novice when it came to synchronizing sound and visuals with live music footage. The way it looks now, it is well shot, well edited, and suitably focused on a woman with a stunningly flawless vocal ability.

It should be noted that I write this as a longtime atheist, who is nevertheless impressed enough by this woman singing, in this case, nothing but gospel songs. This is not exactly a music genre I typically get into. But, with the Southern California Community Choir behind her, the performances are generally amazing. This in spite of the choir often singing while seated, which I found a bit mystifying.

Aretha’s parents attended on the second night — as did Mick Jagger, who is seen rocking out a couple of times in the audience. Her father, a minister, gets up to speak a few words near the end of the film. Aretha herself has a poised, regal quality to her, even in some seriously dated outfits: On the first night, she wears a semi-billowy jumpsuit that makes her look somewhat like a rhinestoned flying squirrel. The second night, she wears a white and green paisley caftan. In just a couple of instances the footage cuts to her in a brightly colored pantsuit with a red jacket draped over her shoulders; this is only slightly distracting, and presumably just a bit of rehearsal footage.

For the two nights of the performances, they fill the large church audience, filled with people “moved by the spirit.” Reverend James Cleveland, who does a bit of singing with Aretha throughout, encourages enthusiasm in the crowd for the recording when he introduces her. Watching Aretha Franklin sing these songs, I found myself wondering how many takes she typically needed to cut tracks for studio albums. Every singing performance here, done live, is of studio quality.

There is no narrative, per se — Amazing Grace is simply a record of the recording of a live gospel album. But it’s not just any album, and it’s not just any singer. And her performance of the title track, a bit over halfway through the film’s 87-minute run time, is a genuine stunner. This is a showcase for a woman for whom “amazing” is not hyperbole, nor is “grace.”

A woman living up to the title.

A woman living up to the title.

Overall: B+

APOLLO 11

Directing: A
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A
Special Effects: A

It’s not often that I say a documentary should be seen in the theatre, and here I have my second one to recommend in as many months: Apollo 11 consists almost entirely of footage and audio recordings of the Apollo 11 mission as it happened, but that by definition means there are shots — from both space and the ground on Earth — that are a wonder to behold, and can only be best appreciated on the big screen.

There are only two exceptions to this apparent rule of showing only live footage of the mission itself, and they are brief and used very effectively. The first instance, very early on in the film, features three quick archival photo montages of the lives led previously by the first three astronauts who went to the moon: Neil Armstrong; Buzz Aldrin; and Michael Collins. The whole point of this film is its immediacy — in spite of it all having actually happened fifty years ago this year — and director Todd Douglas Miller wisely breezes past it quickly.

The second instance is of footage taken of a tape recorder flipping around in zero gravity, on the return trip to Earth, playing John Stewart’s “Mother Country.” In just one of countless instances of this film’s impeccable editing, we see the original footage, along with the echoing audio from the recorder, and then the film’s sound cuts to the direct sound of the song’s original recording.

The album the song is from was originally released on New Year’s Day 1969; the aforementioned photos were all taken prior to that — so, literally nothing seen or heard in Apollo 11 comes from any time after the mission itself. There are are no interviews, no narration — only the audio from the original footage itself, or from communication recordings. The opening shot is an indelible one: a man walking along a street, dwarfed by the massive, tank-like wheels behind him, which themselves fill the screen — until a cut to a wider shot reveals the rocket itself being transferred to its launch point. How many people even know such a vehicle even exists? I suppose all this time I never thought to consider how they got it there.

There is no narrative arc to Apollo 11 — in fact, this is the first documentary I have ever seen not to give any writing credit at all — and that turns out to be one of its many strengths. Todd Douglas Miller, who also did the editing, lets all the footage simply speak for itself. It’s a document of a particular moment in time, with unparalleled historic import, condensed down to 93 minutes. There is not a single moment wasted, not a lull to be found. This jaw-dropping feat of humanity is enough on its own to be mesmerizing from beginning to end — with particularly thrilling moments, of course: the successful rocket launch; the literal landing on the moon; the safe return to Earth eight days later.

I found myself thinking a lot about the incredible mathematical precision that would have to have gone into all of this. But if you want an “inspiring,” fictionalized version of that angle, just go and watch Hidden Figures. Or if you want rumination on the personal costs of participating in this endeavor — with, granted, Oscar-winning special effects — see First Man. Apollo 11 is not concerned with dictates of emotional responses. Those are left for you to discover on your own, just as they were for the live witnesses to the occasion — of which there are just a few brief shots: crowds camped out to watch the rocket launch, or palpable relief among NASA personnel with each step successfully completed.

Speaking pf special effects, Apollo 11 credits one visual effects artist (Ben Kiviat) and one person with “additional visual effects” (Kevin Allen Caby). There are no discernible effects shots in this film, although I did wonder if there was some restoration work done on some of the never-before-seen footage, much of which is amazingly crisp. There are, however, a few brief interludes of graphics depicting the direction and motion of the spacecraft. They are always simple, straightforward, look precisely like you would expect them to if made by someone in 1969, and are seamlessly integrated into the sequence of events.

Apollo 11 is that rare film where you already know how it ends, and everything that unfolds onscreen is gripping nonetheless. The significance of this event — even by today’s standards but especially those of fifty years ago — truly cannot be overstated, and there may never have been any other film that better illustrates that fact. You leave the theatre marveling at the potential of human ingenuity,

You may think you already know how amazing this really was, but you don’t.

You may think you already know how amazing this really was, but you don’t.

Overall: A

SHARKWATER EXTINCTION

Directing: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

Spoiler alert! Rob Stewart, the Canadian conservationist, shark activist, writer and director of Sharkwater Extinction died during the making of this film, in Florida during an attempt to get footage of a rare species of shark. This might seem a strange thing to lead with, except that it’s a pretty useful thing to know before going in to see this film — and I did not. As a result, I spent a lot of time unfairly judging the movie, wondering why this guy seemed so self-involved. Is this about the sharks he’s trying to save or is it about him?

Then the point of his untimely death arrives in the narrative of the film and I was like, …Oh. Also, there’s a second thing particularly useful to know about Sharkwater Extinction: Stewart had already made a 2006 documentary called simply Sharkwater, to which this was always intended as a sequel. The footage in this film was shot in 2016 and 2017, early on featuring Stewart talking in Costa Rica about shooting “Sharkwater 2.” I had never heard of the initial documentary, but judging by what’s presented here, watching only this film is likely just as effective whether you’ve seen the first film or not.

Curiously, even though obviously Sharkwater Extinction would have had to be finished up by someone else, Rob Stewart still receives sole credit as director and writer. It seems apropos to mention the editor, Nick Hector, who has a long resume of having edited documentary films and television shows as far back as 1986. At a lean 88 minutes, indeed this film is very well edited; with a team of five different videographers, it also features some fantastic underwater footage of wild sharks.

I just found myself wondering, naively, why there was also so much footage of Stewart himself. This film sure makes it clear how fit and healthy he was, much of his time onscreen spent shirtless, sometimes appropriately (he was a diver, after all), sometimes seemingly unnecessarily. I still find myself somewhat cynically suspecting he had a thing for being the center of attention. That said, were he still alive, perhaps he would not have made the choice himself to feature exclusively footage of himself swimming underwater — no sharks — before the title card came onscreen.

It’s admittedly an interesting experience to discover the narrator of the story was dead all along, when the film is a documentary. Stewart was clearly passionate about the issues at stake here — namely, the near-eradication of the planet’s millennia-old apex predators in a matter of decades. As I watched each chapter unfold with Stewart and his crews traveling from Florida to Central America to Africa to Southern California, working to expose illegal fishing practices the world over, I wondered about the efficacy of combining his methods with film making.

The methods themselves, to be fair, do seem to make a difference — albeit to varying degrees: part of the point here is that his work focused on in the original Sharkwater helped make shark finning for shark fin soup illegal in most countries around the world, and yet the industry continues to boom due to criminals and massive legal loopholes. In one shot, we see a live shark’s fins get cut off before the shark is tossed back into the water to die. This is, of course, heartbreaking — and it’s a relief not a huge amount of such actions are seen live onscreen. Stewart later gets footage of sharks caught in drift nets near Catalina Island in California, which helps get the practice banned in that state.

The utility of Sharkwater Extinction as a film, when it comes to shark activism specifically, is a bit more of a mixed bag. This film will never see a huge audience, and many of those who do see it will fancy themselves making a difference by doing no more than simply seeing it. The film does serve well as a tribute to Rob Stewart’s unarguably important legacy, which no doubt is a comfort to the loved ones he leaves behind. With that in mind, it might have been useful to make it clearer earlier on that this was as much about him as it was about shark conservation.

I mean, sure, both hammerhead sharks and the film’s director were beautiful creatures, we get it!

I mean, sure, both hammerhead sharks and the film’s director were beautiful creatures, we get it!

Overall: B

THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD

Directing: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+
Special Effects: A-

I guess it may be time for me to stop expressing amazement when a movie is released in 3D and it’s actually done well. They Shall Not Grow Old marks the second time in about as many months that I saw a film I would insist is best seen in 3D (the other being, amazingly, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse). It was perhaps inevitable that technology would advance soon enough to make it worthwhile in the most talented of hands.

A lot of 3D remains a waste of time, mind you — especially if it’s a blockbuster retrofitted with it just to put a pointless premium on ticket prices. Ten years ago, Avatar worked better in 2D, at least in my opinion — most everyone else was wowed by its 3D effects. Perhaps James Cameron’s upcoming sequels will push the format forward by another leap. Given his less than stellar record as a script writer, I’m not holding my breath for a transcendent experience.

So how does They Shall Not Grow Old fit into all this, then? First of all, it’s the first truly impressive documentary I’ve seen in 3D since Pina (2011) — and, like that film, I must stress that the full effect of the experience won’t be nearly the same on a home television screen, I don’t care how large your screen is. Holding the reigns this time is director Peter Jackson, who has a pretty good history of jaw-dropping, cutting-edge special effects. Well, he did with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, anyway. He went in some slightly misguided directions with King Kong (2005) and really went overboard stretching The Hobbit into a trilogy (2012, 2013, 2014), with seriously diminishing returns.

With this far shorter, far more tightly edited documentary — clocking in at a trim 99 minutes — Jackson really gets back on track. It’s cut down from 100 hours of original footage of World War I, archived by London’s Imperial War Museum, which asked him if he could do something original and unique with it. Smartly leaving out any interviews with historians and instead including audio exclusive to remastered tapes of soldiers who lived it, the footage and the testimonials are a visual and oral history (the audio being whittled down from 600 hours of old IWM and BBC interviews) exclusively by those who were there.

That would have been compelling on its own, but Jackson’s film crew went many extra miles in restoring this footage, from correcting the wide variety of film speeds (at that time, all camera footage was shot using a hand crank), to cleaning up the scratching on the pictures, to — perhaps most importantly — colorizing all of the footage from in the trenches.

Some of you might think, Big deal. I’ve seen colorized movies before. Not like this, you haven’t. This is very detailed, painstaking work. Now, I won’t say it’s perfect, and I will even say that the effects here will easily be seen as dated not very many years from now. More projects of this sort will be far more convincing as these techniques develop. As it stands now, this is still unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. In essence, it’s both imperfect and amazing. This footage brings a vividness to the memory of the first World War not seen in decades.

And, given how much World War II overshadows it historically in virtually every single way, it’s kind of easy to forget the true, global significance of World War I — or, as it was known at the time, “The Great War.” It lasted from 1914 to 1918, so it can take a moment to register: oh, right — that war ended a hundred years ago. As it happens, production of They Shall Not Grow Old started in 2014, the centennial anniversary of the war’s start; production finished on the centennial of its finish. This movie is very well timed.

It begins with the naive hopes of incredibly young men volunteering to serve, many so eager to join that they would lie about being the minimum age of nineteen — some of them as young as fifteen. In a sort of dark nod to The Wizard of Oz, the black and white converts to color when things get really horrible: the footage of life in the trenches. By the end of the war, disillusionment has long been set in; there is pointed commentary on there not being any particular celebration when the war was declared over. After all that death — much of which is seen here, a lot of it disturbing, hence the R rating — there is only exhaustion.

The overall effect, especially when seeing many shots of men posing for then-novel motion picture cameras, smiling and unsure of how to compose themselves, is haunting. This is a story of hope turning to naiveté turning to disillusionment turning to complete emotional detachment. I’m not sure Peter Jackson intended this, but it vaguely feels like a harbinger of things us as audiences already know is to come in the world for these people, their society.

The world has changed a truly massive amount in the past 100 years, more so than in any other century prior. Some things never change, though, and the horrors of war is one of them. They Shall Not Grow Old — the title itself more of a dark cloud than a nod to nostalgia — brings a historical record of it to life in a way never seen before.

A post-technicolor look at life in the trenches.

A post-technicolor look at life in the trenches.

Overall: B+

MARIA BY CALLAS

Directing: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B-
Editing: B-

I’m in a curious position when it comes to any critical response to the documentary Maria by Callas, and I have mixed feelings about it — although I suspect I would have mixed feelings even had I known who the woman was before this year.

Okay, so she was apparently arguably the most famous opera singer of the 20th century. What if you’ve never been particularly into opera? Or more specifically in my case, I was all of one year old the year she died, of a heart attack in 1977? It follows that I would have known little to nothing about her.

How many people alive in 2018 do, I wonder? In retrospect, it comes as no surprise that I was the only one in the theatre where I saw this movie who did not qualify for the Senior Discount. And even for those who do: billing this film as the story of Maria Callas “in her own words” is a little misleading. It’s not exactly an autobiography. Although, sure, everything said about her in the narrative is either Callas herself in archive interviews, or her own words as narrated by Joyce DiDonato, there’s something to be said for editing.

Maria Callas, quite obviously, had no part in making this movie. Other people cobbled the story together using her words, which brings along with it their own biases. It’s directed by Tom Volf, his sole directing credit; edited by Janice Jones; all of this done 41 years after Callas’s death. How much can we trust this as an accurate representation of her life, really? They certainly linger on several of her performances, showcasing her undeniable talent while still making the film perhaps 15 minutes longer than it needed to be.

Well, we can regard it as a collection of insights into the woman’s life, at least — and it must be said, even for someone who has never heard of her, there is much to be fascinated by. For one thing, the old footage reveals that Maria Callas was a woman of unparalleled charisma, memorably beautiful and expressive, even in interviews, for many years. There definitely was something special about her, as an individual as well as a talent. She lights up the screen with her face, even in old, grainy, television footage.

It would also seem as though she embodied the essence of a “diva” in very much the old-school sense of the word. Callas was evidently not much of a feminist in her thinking, stating plainly that a woman is best placed at home in service of a husband. She never had children, though, because first her mother and then her first husband pushed her to focus on her singing career, not to waste her incredible voice. She spoke in interviews as though, as opposed to ever being particularly ambitious, she simply sacrificed the traditional woman’s role in favor of “destiny.” As if she just resigned herself to this fate, of a singer adored literally around the world.

One short sequence in particular really stands out. Reporters are interviewing ardent fans who have been waiting in line since the day before, to see Maria Callas in New York City, performing for the first time in seven years. The interview subjects are nearly all young men, and I found myself wondering not just how many of them were gay (pretty much all of them seemed to be), but how many of them even know it themselves. This was a time half a century before the evolution of queer vocabulary we know today, after all, and it occurred to me that perhaps Maria Callas was a gay icon long before the term was coined. She was only one year younger than Judy Garland, and thus one of her contemporaries.

These are the details I found most compelling, but Maria by Callas is far more concerned with controversies regarding high-profile performance cancellations (sometimes mid-show), and in particular her off-and-on relationship with Aristotle Onassis, who left Callas for Jackie Kennedy, then left Jackie to return to Callas again.

Maria by Callas offers a window into a world-famous, stunningly talented opera singer in the 20th century, and it has its insights, but might be most appreciated by those who are already fans of her. In which case, might not it have been better to make this movie in, say, 1978?

Maria Callas steps posthumously into the 21st century and . . . Maria who?

Maria Callas steps posthumously into the 21st century and . . . Maria who?

Overall: B-