Eye-Opening Documentaries

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
November 14, 2013 12:00 AM
2 Comments
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The Sweethearts Sax Section © 2013 - The Girls in the Band

The sheer number of documentaries being made, and released, these days is daunting. Some are frankly amateurish or cover subjects that aren’t worthy of feature-length exploration, but others are truly out of the ordinary. I’m a latecomer to The Girls in the Band, but I’m happy to report that it’s making a return engagement to several Laemmle Theatre screens this Friday in the Los Angeles area.

I’m a sucker for stories about vaudeville, big bands, and jazz, but by any measure Judy Chaikin’s loving documentary is a standout. She not only chronicles the careers of forgotten female musicians but places them in the continuity of jazz in the 20th and 21st century. The interviews with such hearty veterans as Clora Bryant, the late Marian McPartland and Peggy Gilbert (among many others) are priceless, and the vintage film and television clips are icing on the cake. But this is no mere nostalgia trip: it’s a valuable examination of our musical culture that comes right up to the present day, celebrating such talented women as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Mary Lou Williams, Melba Liston, and Toshiko Akiyoshi. Watching The Girls in the Band is a rewarding experience; I’m glad it’s getting another round of exposure on theater screens. Learn more HERE.

Linor Abargil in Jerusalem Photo Courtesy of Brave Miss World

Brave Miss World by Cecilia Peck is a compelling, empathetic profile of a gutsy Israeli woman, Linor Abargil, who has taken a shattering chapter in her life—suffering a brutal rape just before being crowned Miss World—and used it as a springboard to help other women around the globe. She encourages them to speak out and free themselves of the shame so many feel after being violated…yet, as we learn, she is still fighting her own emotional battles. Peck’s intimate portrait showcases an unusually forthright woman who is both crusader and victim. Brave Miss World is still touring the film festival circuit, and opens Friday at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino, California. You can watch the trailer and learn how to consider sponsoring your own screening HERE.

Mumia Abu-Jamal Photo by Lou Jones - Courtesy of First Run Features

The growing number of reports detailing miscarriages of justice, and the work of groups like The Innocence Project, shed new light onto criminal cases that once were considered open-and-shut. The Central Park Five, made by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, is one explosive example of this. Hollywood even dramatized such a story in the underrated Hilary Swank vehicle Conviction. At one time, if I’d heard the phrase “cop killer” applied to someone I would have written him off without a second thought. Stephen Vittoria’s impassioned feature Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary goes past the headlines to document an inflammatory case involving a radical journalist who continues to ply his trade behind bars. Mumia Abu-Jamal also refuses to allow bitterness to overcome him, even after endless years on Pennsylvania’s Death Row. You don’t have to agree with Abu-Jamal’s politics to admire his work ethic—or his eloquence. This is truly an eye-opening experience. The film is currently available on DVD through First Run Features and is also available for download on iTunes.Visit the website to learn more.

Jason Becker on stage Photo Courtesy of Opus Pocus Films

Last year I served as president of the jury at the Biografilm festival in Bologna, Italy. My fellow jurors and I agreed that the “best in show” was a remarkably well-told account of a unique human being: a young guitar phenom whose career was cut short by Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Despite doctor’s dire  predictions, Jason is still very much alive years later, thanks to his own will power and the tireless efforts of his family and friends. Jesse Vile’s life-affirming Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is available on DVD from Kino Lorber, and is also available for streaming on iTunes.You can learn more and watch the trailer HERE.

I only wish I had time to watch more documentaries, which thanks to new distribution streams are so readily available. For now, I’m happy to spread the word about these four, which are well worth your time.

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2 Comments

  • P. L. Silverman | November 28, 2013 11:13 PMReply

    another movie. actually a short subject. it's cool to read that you are a 3-Stooges fan. have you heard about the missing "Curly version" of MALICE IN THE PALACE (1949)?

  • mike schlesinger | November 15, 2013 11:09 PMReply

    Absolutely a banner year. Two more worthy of mention: I KNOW THAT VOICE, a joyous doc about voice-over actors, especially those who work in cartoons, and HERBLOCK: THE BLACK AND THE WHITE, about the seminal NY Times political cartoonist.

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