KATHY GRIFFIN: A HELL OF A STORY

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

As a general rule with these reviews I write, as has been the case ever since I began posting them in late 2004, I would only write them for movies I have seen in a theatre in their original theatrical release. The documentary / comedy special Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story is kind of a different beast, or at least a middle-ground one: I did indeed see this in a theatre, but only as a one-time-only Fathom Events screening. It doesn’t matter what I say about it, you won’t have any opportunity to go to a theatre to see for yourself.

In the end, it hardly matters. Presumably this standup movie will eventually be available some other way soon enough, if not streaming then available digitally somewhere for purchase. And the only relevant information there is for a reader right now is this: if you’re a Kathy Griffin fan, you’ll likely have a great time watching this. If not, you won’t be missing anything by skipping it. And that last part is not even directed at the deranged Trump supporters who have sent her countless death threats; their propensity to either ignore or hate-watch her goes without saying. I’m even talking about the neutral observer, who might even agree that she was given a raw deal. Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story is straight up fan service, through and through.

The film features a long prologue that lasts maybe twenty minutes, itself much more of a short documentary about Kathy Griffin and her career immediately following her infamous 2017 photo holding up a fake, bloody Donald Trump head. It depicts Griffin’s world tour she took when she could not book any U.S. gigs, and frankly, this portion of the film is insanely contrived.

It pains me to have to say this. I count myself among Kathy Grffin’s longtime, loyal fans, and that’s what makes the beginning of this film all the more disappointing. This is a woman who has never made any bones about the hustle that has always been her career, and I still respect her for it; I don’t fault her for milking everything she can for all it’s worth. But there are moments here that just plain feel disingenuous. Does she really need to turn the camera on herself when she’s supposed to be emotionally at rock bottom? Does she not realize that when a move she makes is transparently in the service of a money-making venture, the “emotion” on display rather loses its impact?

Griffin occasionally has her boyfriend holding the camera, talking behind it. In one scene, she’s broken down crying, apparently on an airplane between cities, and he consoles her from behind the camera. It’s entirely possible what he says to her was not rehearsed — or at least the product of being directed — but, his delivery sure makes it sound like it was.

I did not realize as I watched this that most of it was just a film of one of Kathy Griffin’s standup theater gigs, basically a film version of yet another one of her record-breaking number of standup specials. Watching this extended documentary prologue, I expected most of the whole movie to be this, perhaps intercut with clips of her stage performance. I really began to worry about how good this movie was really going to be. The overall quality — the cinematography, the editing in particular — is really not of the caliber of a theatrically released film. It immediately became apparent why this was a one-time-only theatrical presentation. It would have been far more appropriate on cable, but of course Griffin mentions at every opportunity how she still has no bidders for TV standup specials anymore.

But! Much to my relief, the documentary portion ends, and A Hell of a Story moves into straightforward standup footage of a performance at a single, Santa Monica venue, and in Griffin’s own, spectacularly singular way, she does just that: tell a hell of a story. And she does it incredibly well.

The “standup special” portion of the film is a hard turn from the documentary stuff, where Griffin may be much more obviously rehearsed, but now in her element, she comes across as genuine. She’s also very funny, and she gets into all manner of detail about all the crazy shit that’s happened to her. It’s this part, which lasts much longer, which makes it required viewing for the loyal Kathy Griffin fan. She is a comic whose many signature traits include rambling, and yet she always manages to circle back to the point or the story at hand. Her complete set is a lot more structured than it might seem at first glance.

She even gets into a significant bit about hanging out in Sydney with Stevie Nicks — a star I have personally long idolized — and Chrissie Hynde. It’s one of the most delightful stories she tells, among many delightful stories included here. It does include bits about Stevie Nicks being among the few people to come to her defense, as a whole lot of this show does — and it’s well known how far more people Kathy Griffin thought were her friends either abandoned her or actually went out of their way to twist the knife.

Kathy Griffin is transparently a born performer, and it’s plain to see the stage is where she is meant to be. Hopefully it will continue to be for decades to come — even though she’s already 58 years old at the time of this recording. It’s genuinely a joy to watch her doing both what she loves and what she does best, which is making people laugh through observations of the ridiculousness of our world. When it comes to A Hell of a Story, though, what she clearly is not born to be is a documentarian. Or perhaps to be more fair, director Troy Miller isn’t. This film starts like a TV special lower-mid-level quality, with some things onscreen that are strangely suspect. Thankfully, getting through it is well worth the wait, because the complete standup show that follows, for anyone who has gone out of their way to watch it, is something that truly delivers everything you could want from it.

I say this with love, Kathy: stick to what you’re good at.

I say this with love, Kathy: stick to what you’re good at.

Overall: B-

TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM

Directing: A
Writing: A
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A

Here I am, writing a review of a movie about a massively well-known, globally respected novelist whose books I have never read. Not a single one of them.

What I can still tell you with authority is that the film, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, is excellent. Some might even call it perfection. If not perfection, then certainly revelatory. I don’t think I have ever watched a movie before that made me think, Why the fuck have I never read any of her books? We all have cultural blind spots; I won’t exactly feel bad about that. I will still acknowledge this is a big one for me.

Also: reading the work of a brilliant author is one thing. Getting to know her as a uniquely self-actualized person is quite another — so much as can be done in a two-hour run time, anyway. Morrison is a strikingly intelligent woman, clearly as sharp as she’s ever been, at her current age of 88 years. I wonder how much of that is just practice, decades of exercising the muscles of her intellect? She talks about how she is “smartest” in the early morning hours, and has little interest or ability in writing after noon. Keeping that up must be a great exercise.

One need not have read her work to see how, when Toni Morrison leaves this earth, a great void will be left in her wake — and yet, in contrast to many other people for whom the same could be said, that void will be largely mitigated by her body of work, which is widely beloved (no pun intended).

Morrison, having sat down for multiple long interviews for this film, proves to be a dynamic screen presence. She only has to sit and speak, and she commands attention, all confidence, sincerity and warmth in equal measure, someone quick to express joy while at the same time capable of tapping into deep wells of pain. This is a woman who lacks humility only because she doesn’t need it. There is no particular arrogance in her demeanor; she simply sits comfortably in the knowledge of her skill and talent. She even says in an archived interview from the time of her 1993 win for the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature, “I’m a good writer.” It’s impossible to resent that level of ease of self. Would that more people learned from how she leads by example. The world would be full of happier people.

Watching this movie felt like having my mind cracked open. Admittedly, it did occur to me how naive it could be to allow such grandiose impressions of a person to be made by just one movie, which can easily be edited to make anyone seem in countless ways different than they actually are. Still, it’s easy to trust this impression. The singular energy emitted by Morrison onscreen is not easily faked, and many archival clips reveal it to have been consistent.

As for potential interest in her body of work examined by the film, there is something to be said for the notion of greater specificity evoking greater universality of feeling and empathy. Plenty of widely respected friends and associates are also interviewed (Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Russell Banks, Oprah Winfrey, and several others), they come from varied backgrounds, and Morrison’s unprecedented narrative focus on black women in fiction moved them all in equal measure.

And it’s not like I had never heard of Tori Morrison, mind you. I can still remember when the movie adaptation of the novel Beloved became Oprah Winfrey’s passion project in the late nineties, more than a decade after the book’s initial publication. I actually did see that movie, and I recall easily imagining how the novel was likely the better medium for such a story. A novel, by all accounts beautifully written, could never have the distraction of an actor far too famous to disappear into any role.

There is no doubt in my mind that Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am will delight fans of the novelist — who, I learned from this film, spent the years spanning the publication of her first few books also working full time as an editor at a publishing house, promoting the works of other black women (including the autobiography of Angela Davis), while also raising two sons on her own. Based on my personal experience, it’s just as affecting to those who have never read anything by her, and will render them eager to start. All I have left to decide is which of her novels I should begin with.

An extraordinary woman with an enduring talent.

An extraordinary woman with an enduring talent.

Overall: A

HALSTON

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

It’s a curious exercise, watching a film that clearly expects sympathy for a rich man with ridiculously lavish spending habits.

Full disclosure, I’m not sure I even know who Roy Halston Frowick was before seeing this movie, which merely looked compelling to me when seeing the trailer. I could count on one hand the number of fashion designers I know by name. My fashion choices are limited to Christmas gifts from family, thrift stores, and bankrupt department store liquidation sales. Funny that one of those department stores currently rumored to be on the brink of bankruptcy, JCPenney, was once part of Halston’s first failed business venture, when he attempted to take his brand mainstream in the early eighties and it tarnished his brand with all other high-end fashion retailers.

In writer-director Frédérik Tcheng’s telling of the story of the Halston company being taken over after an acquisition by Esmark Inc., Tcheng brings in many people close to Halston to lament the plummeting amount of control over what had once been his own company. These include several models who once worked for him, a couple of his secretaries, his niece he hired to work for him, even his best friend Liza Minnelli. A couple of them mention an executive from International Playtex (also owned by Esmark) who was brought in to be a new managing director of Halston. One of the interview subjects literally refuses to say his name.

Well, you know what? The guy’s name was Carl Epstein, and based on his interviews for this movie as well as the choices he made regarding Halston Enterprises at the time, I am a fan. Halston’s close friends and family clearly, and okay understandably, resent Epstein for being so intricately involved in Halston’s ultimate downfall. But so far as I can tell, Halston’s personal downfall was really his own doing. This was a man who was not used to anyone saying no to him, and the in comes someone who says, hey wait a minute, you can’t spend a hundred grand just to fly your entire staff to an event abroad, or have your dinners flown on a private jet from New York City to Montauk. Not when you’re not actually in a position to afford these things, anyway, and you’re not even the one truly in control of the company besides.

These things are just common sense. I don’t feel bad about some insanely rich fashion designer, who doesn’t realize his tastes ultimately far exceed his income, being told he can’t keep blowing through cash at the same rate anymore. This movie seems to think I should, and I beg to differ.

Therein lies the underlying issue with Halston, which honestly could have worked harder to make me sympathize with this guy. I have no doubt it actually could have been done. Halston was a gay man born in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1930s who died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 57, on the day of that year’s Academy Awards ceremony. Surely that context informed how his personality developed, coming into riches and fame from humble beginnings and in the end having at least some level of struggle with substance abuse.

I want to know more about that. And Tcheng touches on it, with a brief interlude showing a fascinating old clip of paranoid propaganda about homosexuals and showing negative-film footage (to protect identities) of gay men on a beach, doing literally nothing more salacious than being a little swishy. Footage of Halston included in this film reveals him to have been refined and sophisticated, and also a little effeminate. What was it like growing up for him? What did his parents, his siblings think about him when he was a child? What were his personal relationships like and how do they fit into his getting HIV, and when was he even diagnosed? Halston can’t be bothered with any of these questions, even though they would make for a far more compelling film.

Instead, the arc of the story here is mostly focused on Halston’s rise and fall as a superstar businessman with a taste for excess both in ridiculous business expenses and in entertainment, hanging out with Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor at Studio 54. And plenty of this actually is fascinating, if less personal. It’s just that Tcheng leaves so much out it’s difficult to get emotionally invested in an obsessive (and apparently sometimes bullying) member of the one percent struggling with becoming less rich.

halston.jpg

Overall: B-

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