Between the Folds — there’s room for improvement

So I was really stoked when “Between the Folds” came out last year, I tried to see it twice, and both times the screenings were totally full. It’s the story of origami as art. And how scientists are interested in how origami works.

I was personally interested because I actually like origami, a holdover from a childhood in Japan. Really the only thing I ever fold is paper cranes, and I only do it when I’m feeling sick, because I really believed in that story “1,000 paper cranes” when I was a kid. But, nevertheless, I still like to think I know something about origami.

Also, I was interested because, hello, I’m a science groupie, and every scientist I talk to is totally stoked on origami, so I thought it would be awesome. I love that intersection between art and science.

But I was pretty let down. This just was not awesome at all. It was a bunch of semi-boring interviews, and precious-sounding narration that made origami look less cool than it actually is.

I couldn’t put my finger on it for a while. The interviews sounded like there were interesting soundbites. I still think origami is cool. Why isn’t this documentary awesome?

Maybe it’s that part of artists that take themselves too seriously. Like one guy made weird gnomes as his expression of art, and the interview made him seem like he just had no sense of humor whatsoever – like these artists were just overearnest all the time. It’s strange, their earnestness about their art made them seem – flat. One-noted. And the structure of the film, so modular. Not awesome.

I actually got bored.
I’m giving it a three. I still learned something, and the camerawork and lighting was nice if not overly creative. I just had really ridiculously high expectations.

—3 out of 5 Cheers

—Katy J.

My Apologies to the First Person Narration….

Hello readers, I have an apology to make.

I have mentioned in several blogs how generally off-putting I find first person narration in a documentary, particularly when the narrator is the filmmaker.  I believe that I was in error.   Particularly after watching the vastly compelling Dear Zachary, which is narrated in first person, I feel that I must grovel a bit and apologize to first person narration.

Lately, I have been forced to admit that several of the films I most loved since starting this blog involve first person narration.   I enjoyed Kurt and Courtney, which was entirely narrated by filmmaker Nick Broomfield.  Bigger, Stronger, Faster gets you to care about steroids due to the personal story of the filmmaker.  And while Living Downstream wasn’t narrated by the filmmaker, it was narrated by the author on whom the film was based – and I loved it.

But the most poignant and touching use of first person narration is definitely Dear Zachary.  I don’t think I can properly explain to those who have not seen this movie how effective it is.  The personal voice of the filmmaker lets you experience the unfolding of tragedy along with him, and leads you to care about the characters in such a personal way that at the end of the film you feel as if it has happened to you.  It was an extremely effective way to frame the story, and I don’t think a third person narrator would have done the same job.

So I feel that I need to make an apology to first person narration.  I am sorry that I doubted your usefulness.  I was being an idiot. Early in my documentary career I was exposed to films that used you poorly and that wasn’t your fault.

My eyes have been opened. You are a useful dramatic and structural tool in a documentary filmmaking arsenal.  I look forward to seeing you used by talented filmmakers in the years to come.


–Kathleen (Katy J.)

Errol Morris on Frederick Wiseman

The Silverdocs are coming, the Silverdocs are coming!  The documentary community in D.C. gets a shot of adrenaline every June when one of the world’s best documentary film festivals opens at the AFI Theater in Silver Spring.  Becks and I are counting down till our moment to rub elbows with filmmakers and critique our little hearts out.  A whole film festival dedicated to documentaries, right in our hometown…yes!

This year’s Guggenheim winner is Frederick Wiseman.  This is the big honor of the festival given to an Important Documentary Filmmaker.  It’s the big deal.  And among the other events, one of the major Silverdocs screenings that will be massively difficult to get into will be the special screening honoring his prolific career.

I looked through his list of over thirty films and humbly realized that I haven’t seen a single one of them. How embarrassing.  What will I say to everyone I run into at doc events who will be talking about him?  Quick note on to do list – Must. Watch. Frederick. Wiseman.

And in the meantime, I turn to one of my favorite filmmakers – Errol Morris – who had a recent blog post about the illustrious Frederick Wiseman.  And makes him sound like not just an illustrious filmmaker, but an interesting, surreal, and perhaps irreverant one too.

Frederick Wiseman’s Best Scenes by Errol Morris.

Frederick Wiseman is Found at Zipporah Films.

–Katy J.

Watch Afghan Star on HBO March 18th

In case you missed the opportunity to watch Afghan Star in theaters, here’s your chance to watch it on television. Havana Marking‘s film about the “American Idol” of Afghanistan begins airing on HBO on Thursday, March 18th. This fascinating film profiles a pop television show that elicits death threats for its female contestents, receives more votes than the presidential elections, and gives its long-warring ethnic groups the chance to see each other as something other than enemies. We loved this film when we saw it in theaters, and I’d love to hear what you guys think.

The Oscar’s ‘Kanye moment’

Being a doc-obsessed human being I was watching Academy Awards tonight to find out who won in the Documentary categories. (Well, and for the fashion, and the mindless entertainment value).

It was “The Cove” for Best Feature Doc.  No surprise there.  “The Cove” just broke new ground in its stylistic presentation and story structure.  It was an action film documentary and it was so compelling and scary and amazing.

The surprise of the night came during the Best Short Doc. The winner was “Music by Prudence.” Nominees were Director Roger Ross Williams and Producer Elinor Burkett.  The award was announced and gracefully Mr. Williams, the film’s director, begins his speech “I never dreamed, when I got on a plane to Zimbabwe…” and then in a Kanye-style bitch slap, suddenly was CUT OFF by the red-headed producer who hoists herself onstage and swan dives in front of the microphone.  Dude, what?!

You can see the video at Mediaite

Rumors abound, some say that she and Williams had agreed earlier that he would give the speech, some say they raced each other for the stage.  It sure appears there was some kind of personal issue between the two of them. But it might have worked out of the best. Whatever happened there’s probably more press about the Doc Short Film category due to Kanyeish controversy than anyone would have expected. I mean, when else would MTV blog about a doc that isn’t even about MTV?

See who Roger Ross Williams would have thanked if he had had the chance:

More blogs about here: got the behind the scenes story. – Wow.

Lehigh Valley gets some comments from Williams’ sister, who refers to Ms. Burkett as “Ms. Pain-in-the-Ass”

Nowpublic pulls in some of the twitteryammer about it.

Doc Link of the Week: Cult Docs

Total Film has compiled a list of the Top 18 Cult Documentaries You Must See.

This list has some hilarious and heartwarming favorites including  Heavy Metal Parking Lot and the King of Kong and as well as older docs like The Endless Summer.

There was a bunch of stuff I’ve never seen or heard of – including a wannabe Mountain Clog Dancer (Dancing Outlaw) and a man who died chasing stallions (Zoo).  Where have I been?  I have a lot to add to my Netflix queue!

Five of five cheers!


Nothing but a “Flock of Dodos”

Flock of Dodos Movie Poster

FILMMAKER: Randy Olson
REVIEWER: Katy B. Jones

I was so looking forward to watching this movie, it’s been on my Netflix list for weeks. It’s got stuff I like – sciency goodness, humor, and friend recommendation. The story is about the fight between evolutionists and those nutty folks who want to teach Intelligent Design in science class.

Unfortunately, it had three major “ugh” factors:

1. Ugh for being our second film in as many weeks with a first person narrator. I just generally dislike first person narrators, they’re usually annoying. I didn’t care about his mother, I didn’t care about his background as a scientist, I didn’t care about his friendship with his crew. Get yourself out of the way and tell the story.

2. Ugh, for really poorly directed camerawork. It was shot like a student film – with weird two shots because you just HAD to frame the filmmaker in the shot during an interview, and poor planning during action scenes. If a character so much as wiggled during a sequence, boy, the whole thing was a mess.

3. Ugh, for cleverness at the expense of storytelling. Funny animated dodos aside, there just wasn’t a carefully constructed story. It was just loosely constructed thing with a filmmaker a little too in love with being funny without construction. Really used that poker game gag too much and should have edited more tightly. It was a bit student-filmy.

It was kooky, yes, and clever, yes, Continue reading “Nothing but a “Flock of Dodos””

FILM REVIEW: Anvil: The Story of Anvil

FILM: Anvil: The Story of Anvil
FILMMAKER: Sacha Gervasi

Anvil: The Story of Anvil, by Sacha Gervasi is a film about following your dreams. In 1982, Anvil was a Canadian heavy metal band touring with the likes of Scorpions and Bon Jovi. Then, they dropped right out of the spotlight. For reasons Anvil band members Robb Reiner and Steve “Lips” Kudlow never understood, but you probably will, the band failed to achieve the fame of the other great bands of the time, even while their defining album “Metal on Metal” inspired the generation of metal bands that came after them.

Now in their 50’s, drummer Robb Reiner and singer/guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow- keep Anvil alive. In their practice space, with time stolen from their paying jobs of delivering food or contract work and with time away from their wives and children, they rock daily and dream of the day the music industry might care. And if they’ve adopted old man fanny packs worn over their black jeans and bullet belts Continue reading “FILM REVIEW: Anvil: The Story of Anvil”

FILM REVIEW: Valentino: the Last Emperor

FILMMAKER: Matt Tyrnauer

REVIEWER: Katy Jones

Valentino: The Last Emperor

Valentino with his models (image from film's website)

The filmmaker Matt Tyranauer of “Valentino: The Last Emperor” followed the world-famous haute coutre fashion designer Valentino Garavani for the two last years of Valentino’s career – including jets, fashion shows, and his unbelievable gala event – his forty-five anniversary party. Seriously, none of this sounds like the kind of documentary I’d be into. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous meets E’s Fashion Television? And yet, what unveiled was a sophisticated, fascinating portrait of a human being that intrigued and inspired me. Combined with one of the most thoughtful love stories I have seen on screen.

I am no fashionista. My very most fashionable fantasies involve finding the perfect pair of cargo pants. But every human has their own passion. Passion makes for a good documentary subject. Valentino’s passion is bringing beauty to the world through Continue reading “FILM REVIEW: Valentino: the Last Emperor”

FILM REVIEW: Encounters at the End of the World.

Encounters at the End of the World Movie Poster
Encounters at the End of the World Movie Poster

FILM: Encounters at the End of the World

FILMMAKER: Werner Herzog

REVIEWER: Katy Jones

Werner Herzog “Encounters at the End of the World” is an…interesting movie.  Imagine giving a quixotic filmmaker an amazing camera, sending him to Antarctica and letting him wander around aimlessly at whatever thought pops into his head. Viola! “Encounters at the End of the World.” Strangely the most obviously directed and aimless, beautiful and possibly useless documentary I’ve ever watched.

The story begins on the transport plane – wandering about with a fisheye lens.  Herzog narrates – and promises that he will be making a different kind of Antarctica film.  He’s curious about “deeper” questions – like why some ants milk other insects – what? No, I’m serious, that’s his deeper question.

After landing at McMurdo, the launch point for all Antarctic research, he wonders what sort of strange characters he will meet in Antarctica – who goes there and why?  Ah, a plumber, a truck driver, an iceberg geologist!  Shocking to find such people here. Only the iceberg researcher is actually allowed to speak during his interview.  Herzog graciously summarizes the other interview subjects for us, in voiceover, while the subjects are still speaking on screen.  It’s like saying (in heavily accented German) “Dis person talked TOO LONG.”  Wasn’t that what editing was invented for?  So you don’t have to narrate? Is this a comedic element?  Because it’s weird and kind of rude.

So for seven weeks he wanders aimlessly about the South Pole from McMurdo to Mt. Erebus and cuts off at least 50% of the people he interviews.  I have to give him credit for going up to a penguin researcher and asking (German accent), “Ar dere any gay penquins?” and “Ken PENquins go IN-SANE?” – questions which I have never seen asked of any other penguin researcher on film.  It is most certainly not your “typical” film about Antarctica.

While I have some issues with the story, which was really more travelogue than documentary, there is no doubt that the footage is outstandingly beautiful.  Even a sequence of events at a training camp in which the trainees were trained for “white out” conditions by wearing a bucket on their heads was fantastically well-shot and conceived. One of my favorite segments is a conversation with seal researchers who, after shoving a bag over a nursing mother seal’s head and forcibly extracting her milk so they can analyze it, go on to talk about the “Pink Floyd” quality to seal calls swimming in the ocean beneath the ice they stand on.  The shots of these scientists putting ears to ice to listen to seal calls were obviously directed, and yet, strangely appealing.

The most outstanding, eerie, and breath-taking footage was definitely the underwater footage.  Every time the ice covered underwater world was revealed to the camera I could feel my eyes grow large and the critic within me quiet down.  There is nothing comparable to that world.  And the scientists working in that world are astronauts as much as biologists.  One scientist said it was a nasty, violent world, and supposes that this is why mammals evolved – to escape.

I couldn’t quite figure out whether this was a comedy or a documentary.  The characters had kind of a weird mockumentary quality to them.  Like he just picked the craziest people and moments to speak to.  He included such awkward interviews, and then clearly didn’t even find them interesting enough to let the characters speak for themselves.  The moments at the research station McMurdo are occasionally laugh out loud funny.  And he is critical of the station for having luxuries like a yoga class so close to the end of the world.  Um, please come to my small town and criticize us, Mr. Herzog, for trying to make our lives enjoyable.

This film was nominated for last year’s Academy Award for “Best Documentary Feature.”  The previously reviewed “Man on Wire” was the winner that year.  I am glad, because I liked that movie better.

For me, Encounters at the End of the World just didn’t puzzle itself out into anything at all other than man wandering around with camera.  Occasionally, there are great moments in the film.  Occasionally, there are crappy moments in the film.  It all seems so accidental it wasn’t that much fun to watch even for the good moments.

Two out of five cheers.


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