Yep, SXSW is over and we're still wiping the BBQ off our clothes; here's a round up of reviews for some documentaries we managed to catch while in Austin all of which should be hitting theaters later this year.
"Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times"
Few old media institutions are respected and revered to the degree that The New York Times is. Throughout turbulent technological upheaval, it has remained the steadfast bearer of news and opinion, and even throughout scandals and missteps, the name New York Times still really, you know, means something. In other words: it's great documentary fodder. The paper's great and occasionally spotty reputation is why "Page One: Inside the New York Times" seems like such a compelling documentary proposition. It's also why the movie feels like it falls so short.
Originally titled "Page One: One Year Inside the New York Times," the name was shortened because there's not a marquee on the planet that could squeeze all that in, and because the movie plays so fast and loose with chronology (watch, miraculously, as a news reporter gains and loses weight from one scene to the next). Instead of seeming like 'One Year,' "Page One" just feels like a grab bag of potentially big stories for a finite amount of time, but rarely do you get the progressive ebb and flow of what it would be like to show up at that beautiful building in midtown everyday.
The stories "Page One" chooses to focus on, though, are fairly substantial, and all the while there's a knowing nod to the potential of the entire format, exemplified by the wonderfully tenacious David Carr, who, with his gravelly voice and spine like a question-mark, undeniably steals the show. For a movie that chronicles the development of the Wikileaks story, the downfall of media titan the Tribune Company, and honestly confronts its own past including the paper's coverage in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, David Carr --hissing at a Vice Magazine reporter that just because he wears "a fucking safari hat" doesn't make him a journalist -- walks away with the film's most memorable moments.
Part of being a good journalist is recognizing a story when you come across one, and it's a wonder that the filmmakers (led by director Andrew Rossi, a producer on "Control Room"), while obviously observing what a character Carr is, didn't just make him the focus of the film. Through Carr we could have gotten a pointed examination of the direction print media is headed, with focus that is sorely missing from the film itself. "Page One" is still an enjoyable documentary, especially if you want to cheer whenever print media has some small triumph, but it's neither the comprehensive peek behind the curtains that it wants to be, nor the probing, personal story that it could have become. [B]
We didn't see this one coming: "Buck," a documentary about horse whisperer Buck Brannaman, who served as inspiration for the best-selling Nicholas Evans novel and the Robert Redford film adaptation (where Brannaman served as a technical advisor), turned out to be one of the most touching and genuinely affecting films we saw during SXSW.
"Buck" serves as both a winning portrait of the man at work, as we watch him travel to different ranches around the country on a grueling 9-month schedule that keeps him away from his wife and daughters, and a look at what events in Buck's life shaped the man that he is today (a man, he admits, he's always working on.) The lessons Buck espouses, about kindness and listening and patience, could easily be applied to a tempestuous human relationship and not a bucking colt, and Buck's own story of perseverance and personal growth is something that's inspiring, and not just in the made-for-cable-y way that some people will make it out to be.
The big reason the movie works so well is that Buck himself is such a character. With his plainspoken drawl, which is perfectly timed to make the listener hang on every word, whether he's giving a tip on how to saddle your horse or exposing some awful truth from his abusive childhood, he gives off the aura of a mystic cowboy, a sage of the American west. Whether or not he is any of these things is sort of beside the point, you believe him anyway and listen and watch just as intently.
Director Cindy Meehi, too, gives the movie some nice widescreen scope, and knows exactly how to cut the film together so that, whenever things border on the draggy or repetitive, she cuts away to a open vista, which gives the movie an incredible amount of texture and visual depth and adds some variety to the movie's rhythm. Meehi also knows how to structure the film, which could have been tough giving the ambling nature of her subject. Still, a startling encounter with a wildly aggressive horse provides a fitting climax to a film about a man trying to silence the storm, both internally and in the majestic animals he cares for. Rarely are films this inspirational, and this free of sugary sentimentality. [B+]
While Errol Morris has been about as consistent a filmmaker as we can imagine, his subject matter of late has veered towards the terribly serious, tackling subject matter like the Vietnam war ("Fog of War") and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal (the unfairly overlooked "Standard Operating Procedure"). While these recent films have been just as involving as his early work, they left little room for the absurdist humor that has defined much of his canon (things like the pet cemetery expose "Gates of Heaven"). So it's with a great sigh of relief to report that "Tabloid," the director's newest film, is also one of his best. And one of his funniest.
The so-bizarre-it's-got-to-be-true tale of Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming beauty queen who, in the mid-1970s, and with the accompaniment of a bodyguard and private pilot, flew to England to abduct her Mormon lover. This abduction was followed by imprisonment and rape (her raping him). In the media firestorm that followed, Joyce became one of England's biggest tabloid queens, with every step she took meticulously catalogued by the press.
Accounts of what went on are told "Rashomon"-style by a series of interviewees, chief among them Joyce herself (her pilot, a British newspaperman and a former Mormon missionary, are also interviewed extensively). Joyce comes across as sweetly nutty, a hopeless romantic with a worrisome streak of extreme paranoia, particularly against the Mormon Church. But the satellite players are more than happy to fill into the larger story of Joyce McKinney, coming together to create a narrative that Morris is more than happy to follow, with compelling, often laugh-out-loud results.
As the movie continues, it becomes less and less predictable (the McKinney tale isn't as widely known stateside, mercifully), with a final twist that is as strange and oddly adorable a twist as any Hollywood screenwriter could come up with (it's too good to give away here, sorry). While the film could have just as easily concluded when the tabloid fodder dried out, Morris pushes things forward, chronicling the latest misadventures of Joyce with his typical clear-eyed attention to detail and winking nod to its absurdist undertones.
Morris is in top form here, weaving the fabric of deceit, half-truths, and outright lies, into a hilarious, heartbreaking, confounding jambalaya that clearly examines the way we tell stories, and how those stories take hold in the public consciousness. "Tabloid" is just as good as anything the documentarian has done before, if not better. Rarely has he been this captivating, or this outright bizarre. [A]