Julia directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, who were nominated for best documentary feature for RBG in 2019, chronicles the life of American icon and chef Julia Child. Much like RBG this is an extremely paint by numbers documentary that does not offer the audience anything new. In fact, I would suggest that the majority of audiences would be better off reading Julia Child’s wikipedia page, watching the 2009 Julie & Julia feature based on Julia’s life or reading her autobiography, which she co-authored with her nephew, called My Life in France. I am certain that all those alternatives will provide much better value for those that want to get to know Julia.
The biggest misstep is that everything we see in this documentary is surface-level and predictable. First, we get to know Julia before she became a culinary icon. Then we explore Julia’s role in the Office of Strategic Services during WWII. Next, the filmmakers discuss the time she spent in France, her subsequent success and love for food. Unfortunately, all these events are glossed over and there is no clear throughline that makes this documentary flow as a cohesive piece, nor did it keep me interested.
The more I watch documentaries and get to cover them for the website the more aware I am that I want something different. A simple summary, archival footage, and testimonies throughout the documentary often do not add anything new to stories. I unquestionably believe Julia’s story and stories like hers should be told. For example, In an interview about the film to The Wrap the directors mentioned how the pandemic had brought them closer to Julia. Perhaps focusing on more unconventional points like these or trying to tie Julia’s story to the present would have made a more compelling narrative.
How do you review or critique a documentary that has been publicly disavowed by its main subject? This was my biggest challenge when it comes to this review. As soon as I finished watching what I thought was an okay documentary I was alerted, by my editor, Taylor Baker, to this article on the LA Times in which Alanis Morissette decries Jagged as a story she did not agree to tell. Alanis states that she “was lulled into a false sense of security and their salacious agenda became apparent immediately upon my seeing the first cut of the film”.
As far as documentaries go this one is pretty standard. The documentary starts with an introduction from director Alison Klayman saying how making this feature was making her middle school dreams become a reality but she does not elaborate further on her connection to Alanis or her music. After this brief introduction, we are presented with a standard documentary montage that traces Alanis birth in Ottawa, Canada, her rise to fame, and explosion into stardom which coincided with the release of her third studio album Jagged Little Pill (JLP) in 1995. Sprinkled throughout we have testimony from high school friends, music producers, and band-mates reminiscing about their time together on tour and commemorating the 25th anniversary of the album’s release.
My biggest qualm with this documentary was how certain aspects of Alanis’ life and career were glossed over. During her on camera interviews, during several occasions, Alanis mentioned how the transition from Ottawa to Los Angeles and the challenges that came along with. What we see on screen seems to suggest that this move affected her deeply. Yet simultaneously what we’re seeing on camera does not go into a lot of detail. Alanis mentioned how she was pressured to lose weight, maintain a certain image, and she even references alleged statutory rape incidents when she was around 15. All these things are presented without much context and what we see on camera does not allow Alanis to fully explain her own story or how these incidents impacted her life and career. Another issue I had was the complete lack of detail paid to the impact Alanis had and continues to have on female artists in the music industry. Aside from 45 seconds where we see Taylor Swift and Beyoncé performing some of Alanis’ songs, her impact in the industry especially for female artists is almost entirely forgotten.
Documentaries are supposed to be personal but I have a hard time reconciling how this feature is supposed to work after being publicly disavowed by its main subject. All the statements I have read so far do not go into detail into how Alanis’ story diverges from what we see on screen. At the time this article was published no comment has been made by the film’s director or producers regarding these differences. In the end, I wish the doc had explored more than just JLP. I understand it’s supposed to be a commemoration of the 25th edition of the album but it could have been so much more nuanced and painted a fuller picture of what Alanis is all about. Most of all I support artists having a say on how their story is presented. I cautiously recommend that you watch this documentary and read supporting material to have a better understanding of the controversy surrounding the film.
Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over co-directed by Dave Wooley, making his feature directorial debut, and David Heilbroner immortalizes a legend, humanitarian, and artist we all know as Dionne Warwick. While there is nothing particularly innovative or different in this feature it still managed to capture the allure, talent, and heart of one Dionne. Punctuated with archival footage of Dionne, amateur nights at the Apollo theater, and “testimony” from the likes of Elton John, Snoop Dog, Alicia Keys, Gloria Estefan, Bill Clinton, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, and Smokey Robinson one can start to understand the magnitude and impact this woman had in the music world and beyond.
While one can infer that influence Dionne has in American culture the movie does a poor job of contextualizing it for the audiences, especially those who are unfamiliar with her work. This is particularly true when the movie talks about her experiences in the racially segregated South. Likewise, the documentary also overlooked Dionne’s ability to read music, understand complex melodies, and how she did not fit into one box. Dionne always had this uncanny ability to navigate among soul music, R&B, and pop that I wish was further explored in the documentary.
Dionne is much more than raw talent. She’s pure skill, technique, and a person who is in full control of her voice. As a person and artist Dionne was always sure of herself which surely contributes to her continued success. This documentary is the perfect introduction for those looking to learn about Dionne Warwick but it definitely lacks that something extra for die hard fans or those who are already familiar with her story.
Comala starts with a denial. The documentarian is interviewing his mother, and she says “no” over a dozen times in reference to whether or not her husband was a hitman. We can’t tell if she’s in denial or just doesn’t know about who he was. It’s an engrossing opening that feels personal. What follows is meandering film that deteriorates when attempting to convey meaning that haphazardly buoys up in the end during a subsequent introspective interview once again with his mother.
Gian Cassini forces perspective from external lighting sources. Casting a single beam of light on carefully laid out images adorning a table. They mean nothing to the viewer. He the looks into a MacBook at other images. They to are absent any force. Emotional or narrative. Gian then uses a projector to project a couple of those images onto his face, in an attempt to convey thoughtful intent. What we actually get is a shabby, incongruent, choice that lacks any tact and causes distrust in addition to dislike of our storyteller.
It’s easy to see why this first time film was shelved for three years. It stumbles around from meticulously staged shots that reek of unsubtle meaning, to personal handheld interviews with family members and friends of Gian’s father, and neighborhood walks through old haunts. Rather than Comala being a story about a man, the hitman the interview starts out with, it’s about the filmmaker. His childhood and how he sees himself. It rings hollow, as a boy who’s not yet a man trying to figure out who and what he is from external sources rather than his own actions. A large ego can ruin a good film, at minimum that’s the case here. There will surely be films of great quality and merit in the future that explore histories of violence among family members in Mexico, this is not that film.
In a wide shot, a guy with long grey hair wearing a yellow shirt, denim overalls, a beige blazer and a beret shuffles across a large gravel lot. The camera pulls back as he walks towards it. The lot is empty, and all there is around are cheap storefronts.
He’s walking towards the Roaring ‘20s, a Las Vegas dive bar that’s about to close down for reasons that are only briefly alluded to – it sounds like gentrification is the culprit – and he’s one of the bar’s colorful regulars that the Ross brothers spend their film observing in vérité fashion on the bar’s last day. From opening through last call and closing time, the doc is a loose, casually ruminative hang-out with friendly drinkers as they lament the closure of their neighborhood watering hole, appreciate how they’ve become like family to each other, and muse generally about the state of the world (the setting is pre-election 2016).
…except that it’s not exactly a documentary, at least in a conventional sense. It resembles one in its fly-on the-wall mode of observation, but the bar we see isn’t even in Las Vegas, and the people we watch are mostly non-professional actors. Does that matter? The Ross brothers don’t think so – the film never openly confesses to its deception. I don’t think it matters much to me either. What we see is partially contrived, but the sentiments, about the community and togetherness to be found in hole-in-the-wall establishments and the sadness in a good thing coming to an end, ring true. And actors or not, these folks are hilarious.
The 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to the 18th. To learn more about the festival and see this year’s lineup of films and schedule, visit https://tiff.net/
Want to know what we’ve seen, want to watch, or what we each thought the best films were? Reference the Letterboxd Links below!
Pascal-Alex Vincent’s Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist is a love letter to a master gone to soon. Vincent’s direction is notable in it’s unobtrusiveness, gently propelling us with sleek effortless editing along many beats that Perfect Blue, Paprika, Tokyo Godfathers, and Millennium Actress fans already know. Long before this documentary was on my radar I longed to know the master more, to get a deeper sense of his creativity to understand how he came to be an artisan. I also suspected from cursory information that he was too reserved a man to ever give those secrets away.
The beginning of the film lay the groundwork of his life pre-motion animation. His interest in Manga and some of his influences. After that brief introduction we’re introduced to perhaps his most notable film these many years later and what I think is one of the greatest directorial debuts of all time. Perfect Blue. An adaptation of the novel Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. In which an Idol transitions to acting and an obsessive stalker begins to threaten her life. Aronofsky who makes numerous interview appearances in the film tried to get a live action adaptation off the ground in the early 00’s and has cited it as influence for multiple projects, most notably Black Swan.
It then continues along to Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika. Cited and focused on in their order of creation and release. We learn that Kon was including characters from his next would be film Dreaming Machine within the world explored in Paprika. Along the way many collaborators chime in citing shared experiences with Kon, his creative process, work ethic, dual personality, often remarking on Kon’s ethereal personality that even his closest collaborators cite when asked who he was. They don’t really know, they describe what he did and how, but “who” Satoshi the man was seems to escape definition.
The film also details Kon’s television series Paranoia Agent. Which he used to leverage opportunities for burgeoning animators fresh out of college, and to experiment with collaboration. Assigning a different director to each episode he explored numerous ways to detail a coherent story with a revolving door of artists and artisans along the way. Moments of deep emotionality are detailed by a few in the cast and crew, Junko Iwao explains that she was insecure taking the role of Mima in Perfect Blue and that she didn’t want to play a character who’s being beaten for the directors pleasure. Kon opened himself up to her and shared perhaps more than he did with other collaborators that he put himself within the actress, that she was a representation of him as an artist within the industry of Japan feeling exploited and used. His frequent composer Susumu Hirasawa refused to work with Kon on his last project Dreaming Machine, and tearfully wishes he could apologize and thank Kon for believing in him, giving him opportunities, and bequeathing a career onto him that he may not have otherwise achieved.
Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist is a comprehensive and quick look at one of the most influential animators of the century. Though it isn’t one, it does feel a bit like a gravestone that one places their hand on, and drags their finger along in search of understanding what was, and what may yet be that this person had a hand in. Pascal-Alex Vincent should be commended for his work as assembler and director, when you’re detailing a life lost it’s easy to get beleaguered, the quick runtime and filmography backbone to the film propel it along far quicker than one might expect. If you’ve spent time with Kon’s films before, this a great way to appreciate the artisan that made them, and maybe find out which of his projects that you haven’t seen and would like to. If you haven’t seen any yet, this would serve as a lovely introduction.
“What makes us artists continue performing?” asks the beginning of Art Kabuki. It’s a question that has been posed for years and years, but one made more urgent than ever by the recent pandemic, which forced many art venues to shutter their doors even as the public, trapped at home, began to consume more media than ever. One such casualty was kabuki theater in Japan, where all theater performances were cancelled as the country entered a state of emergency.
Kabuki has a long and storied history; it began in the early 17th century and has continued to this day, a mixture of dance and drama with highly stylized performances that require rigorous training, and oftentimes its actors come from a long line of kabuki performers. Its influence has reverberated throughout the world, especially in film, where it inspired everyone from Yasujirō Ozu to Sergei Eisenstein, whose Soviet montage theory relied on certain elements of kabuki, but reading about it in history books is one thing—watching it is something else entirely.
Art Kabuki is a filmed performance of a kabuki production; it’s not a documentary, nor an introductory course on the significance of kabuki. It’s a production helmed without an audience, the empty theater a specter looming over a virtual audience. As such, Art Kabuki is quite difficult to place: should it count as a film? Is it still a theater production if there’s no audience? How does the middleman—the camera—change the final product? The film (can you even call it that?) doesn’t attempt to address these questions, because that’s not why it exists: it was made to preserve an art form and living piece of cultural history struggling due to forces outside its control, one whose storied history does not deserve to be ground to a halt. There is no audience, but at the same time, it has a wider audience than ever thanks to the cameras that follow the actors around.
My only prior knowledge of kabuki came from a smattering of film and theater history classes, and as such I cannot properly evaluate the show itself: I was certainly engaged, and at times in awe of the actors’ control over their bodies and facial expressions, but I have no way to critically view the show in comparison to to other kabuki performances. There were some moments that captivated me more than others, and some where my eyes were glued to the screen. That’s really the extent of what I can say with regards to the kabuki itself. I don’t know how the actors stacked up to other kabuki actors, or anything about the costumes, the music, etc.; I only know I enjoyed watching.
I do feel, however, that I can comment on how it was filmed. The amount of care that went into this is extraordinary: the colors look gorgeous, it sounds great, and I can only imagine what it would be like in a proper theater. The editing is precise, bringing out attention to the littlest things—an eyebrow raise, a foot tap—that might otherwise go unnoticed, though sometimes the camerawork overshadows the performers. Still, everything is precisely calculated to show the power and precision of kabuki, and the effect is powerful.
In many ways, the existence of the film is more important than the style of its contents: it preserves an important art form, a cultural touchstone, and proves that even without an audience, even to an empty theater, we still need to create. Art Kabuki is a testament to this drive, a sliver of hope that even if the world crumbles around us, art will persist.
“I went from being the star of the play, to playing the character that was the butt of every joke,” a very begrudging Val Kilmer says as he discusses his first breakthrough at Julliard Acting School. This footage, like most of the documentary, is compiled of six decades of footage Kilmer has recorded throughout his life. After having his vocal medium all but stripped from him, he now turns to the visual medium to tell his story. With direction from Leo Scott and Ting Poo, and narration from Val’s son, Jack Kilmer, Val is telling a story once again. The story of his life.
While the documentary tries to be an act of emotional catharsis for Val, it can be frustratingly vain. Only showing the work he’s put in, and not his own professional issues that gave him a certain reputation. A reputation that many forgot about when signing onto a movie with him because of his beauty. A beauty that may come once in a lifetime. One that propelled him to superstardom. Leading him to be in films that he himself has proclaimed “are hard to explain”, such is the case with the first film he discusses, Top Secret!.
What the documentary does spectacularly is make you see a side of Kilmer that is not often shown, stripping away the beauty of him, to show his personal struggles and backstory to becoming the iconic actor we now know. The journey of which is best shown in the behind the scenes footage for Top Gun. Even admitting that he did not want to do the film. What Kilmer brought to the film changed the way the character was in its original inception. However, by Batman Forever Kilmer’s career, had seemingly outstayed its welcome. The danger that comes with films like Val is the film can cross the border of vanity into boorishness quickly.
By the end of the film, I no longer cared about Kilmer’s career, instead I wanted to see more of his personal life besides the surface level veneer we’re presented. Which still continues to frustrate me even as I write this after the film has ended. Despite all this, the portrait the film presents of its titular subject is fascinating, if not fully interesting. Ting Poo and Leo Scott did a great job of bringing this footage to life and showcasing a controversial, interesting, and vain life of a man who has lost his voice, and are helping him still tell stories, giving him a voice when he no longer has one.