Category Archives: Documentary

Free Solo (2018, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin)

Free Solo is ostensibly about rock climber Alex Honnold’s obsession to free solo (climbing alone without ropes, maybe falling to a gruesome death) Yosemite’s El Capitan mountain. You know, from Star Trek V. Does Honnold beat Captain Kirk’s time? You could watch and find out. Or Google.

Only it’s not about Honnold’s obsession because the film takes a year off from the story. So is it about making a movie about Honnold’s preparation to climb El Cap? No. So is it a movie about Honnold? No, not at all. At some point the movie seems to realize Honnold’s not sympathetic at all, even when he’s doing good works (which don’t really figure into his psyche, which would be far more of an interesting subject—how did this affectless person get the idea to start a charity). That discovery of the lack of sympathetic nature comes before Honnold’s girlfriend shows up—but after Honnold says he doesn’t want a serious relationship because it might screw up his climbing—and Free Solo does try to investigate some of his lack of affect. Is it because his amygdala doesn’t register danger? Don’t know, he gets medically questionable MRI and then it’s over. Is it because his mom only spoke French to him as a child? Don’t know, Mom disappears real quick after she shows up (she only speaks English in the movie so Honnold telling the French anecdotes sound specious). Because Honnold’s not a reliable narrator. He’s always lying to his girlfriend, whose interview segments initially seem like they’d be good training for a couples’ counselor but once they buy a house together it becomes the girlfriend’s craven middle class ambitions and Honnold’s utter disinterest. Presumably he’s fixating on his El Cap obsession but we never find out because the film doesn’t get deep with its subject.

Its subject who apparently set up the film project himself for himself. But there’s no ego. Honnold treats the film as an inconvenience, which makes sense. There are a number of rather inauthentic devices directors Vasarhelyi (who’s never in the film) and Chin (who’s in it a bunch) use.

In theory, Free Solo could just be about using amazing camera technology to film this guy free climbing El Capitan for the first time in history but… it’s not. The film’s very shady about how they actually shoot the climb. After eighty minutes of the camera crew being omnipresent, they disappear for the climb itself, even though the cameras are obviously there (and Chin talked to his camera crew all about their placement). But there are lots of cameras. And some really good microphones. At least, there had better have been really good microphones because if they added the sound of Honnold grunting through his climb into the movie? It’d be bigger bullshit than the scenes with the camera crew fretting over possibly recording Honnold fall to his death. They’re not just camera guys, they’re rock climbers and they’re Honnold’s friends. At least as close as he seems to get to friends. They’re going to be really sad if he dies and they’re filming it for this movie.

So the movie ends up being about the camera guys worrying Honnold’s going to fall and die. It’s not about his girlfriend worrying, it’s not about his challenge and achievement, it’s the camera guys feeling like if he dies, they’re partially responsible for turning it into a movie.

But Vasarhelyi and Chin already know if Honnold falls to his death. They know before the movie starts. They present the last third, featuring the footage of his climb, like an exploitative thriller, even hiding where they’ve got cameras and cameramen in the resolution. Wouldn’t it make more sense to showcase Honnold’s ability?

He’s the only guy who’s ever done this climb. This climb, captured on “film,” has never happened before. And they treat it like a chance to terrify instead of champion.

And given Honnold’s really questionable take on reality—he blathers about being a warrior and is a possibly obnoxious vegetarian (but not vegan, so it’s like, what are you bragging about). He’s also an emotionally absent boyfriend, but, hey, his girlfriend likes him… for reasons.

Is there a great movie in Free Solo? With better editors, a more earnest, more authentic narrative distance, not to mention better music… probably. But the filmmakers sit on some amazing climbing footage, which they tease out, set to iffy music by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts and lackluster cutting from Bob Eisenhardt. It’s a bummer.

Especially since Honnold’s probably best observed through a telephoto lens.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin; directors of photography, Chin, Clair Popkin, and Mikey Schaefer; edited by Bob Eisenhardt; music by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts; produced by Chin, Vasarhelyi, Shannon Dill, and Evan Hayes; released by National Geographic Documentary Films.


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My Scientology Movie (2015, John Dower)

My Scientology Movie almost ought to be called Our Scientology Movie as much of the film plays like a buddy movie between documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux and ex-Scientology chief enforcer Marty Rathbun. Theroux doesn’t want to make a buddy movie with Rathbun, he wants to go and tour the Scientology campus and interview Scientology head man David Miscavige. Who’s also Tom Cruise’s BFF. But more on Tom Cruise later.

Only Miscavige doesn’t give interviews and Theroux can’t tour the campus. So then he starts talking to the only people he can—ex-Scientologists. He meets up with an actor, Steven Mango, who used to be a member and gives Theroux some of the scoop. Rathbun comes in once Theroux comes up with a plan to make the documentary without interviews of any active Scientologists. He’s going to take existing interview footage of Miscavige (along with leaked, wacky, kind of scary really promotional videos from inside the Church) and hire actors to do scenes as Miscavige. Rathbun’s going to be there to help cast the part, since he was that aforementioned chief enforcer. He got things done for Miscavige. Like hiring private investigators to stalk people. After Rathbun fell out with Miscavige, he left the Church and wrote some tell-alls and pissed them off for years. Including during the filming of this movie. They show up to harass him, which gets to be one of the wackier ways the Church responds to the documentary. On one hand, whenever they’re dealing with Theroux without Rathbun, they threaten Theroux with made-up laws and promises to drop a dime so the cops can come out, read Theroux’s permit, leave the scene. Watching Theroux address the never-identified as Church employees Church employees is fairly disquieting, as the Church employees come off like they’re Bond henchmen. Only Blofeld never shows up. Oddjob never even shows up. Theroux’s biggest back and forth is with a woman hired to pretend to be producing a documentary about “people” and film Rathbun and Theroux from across the street.

Most of the interactions Theroux has with the Scientologists come off like candid camera moments. Not the ones Rathbun has with them—like I said, they’re chill with Theroux with Rathbun, but when Rathbun’s all alone, they go wild. Theroux’s got a reserved take on Rathbun—it’s not a functional buddies buddy flick—but Rathbun comes off really sincere. All of the ex-Scientologists do, especially when they’re trying to show Theroux how stoic they can appear (thanks to all their Church trainings).

So Theroux and Rathbun first do a casting call for Miscavige, eventually going with the utterly fantastic Andrew Perez. Theroux runs a pretty chill in-movie movie production where the actors don’t really seem to worry about much except having a good time; only Perez is always on. He’s always intense. You get to watch him prepare for this performance and then give it. His brief Miscavige “moments” are the tapioca balls in the film’s boba. They’re just so good. It’s immaterial to the film whether or not Perez nails not just “the scene” but his process leading up to it, but he always does. So good.

But even though Theroux’s getting the Church’s attention, it’s not getting him anywhere getting on campus much less an interview with Miscavige. He and Rathbun are just going to have to keep going with their reenactment production. They want a Tom Cruise, because there’s this disturbing promotional video Cruise did for the Church and it’s like couch-jumping then stopping to rip the couch apart with your bare hands and maybe bite a cushion just to be sure. Rob Alter is the Tom Cruise. He’s good too.

And Theroux’s interviewing other ex-Scientologists. One (Marc Headley) takes Theroux (and Movie) on some road trips, which then become a regular occurrence because Theroux really pisses them off whenever he shows up at the movie production company compound.

Like, it’s a Roger Moore James Bond movie. It’s like if they’d done Diamonds Are Forever with Moore. It’s goofy. Then you remember it’s real and it starts getting really scary. Because the Scientologists aren’t out to destroy the world or turn it into a giant diamond or whatever, they’re trying to save it from itself. Movie knows it has to frequently remind it’s real life. It’s not fantasy. At all.

Lawyers get involved, sending Theroux what amounts to a high school trash talk note about his new friend Rathbun. So Theroux tries to respond to the letter and can’t get anyone to take it. So the Church’s lawyers want to send trash talk notes but not receive presumably lawyerly responses?

So maybe it’s like a conspiracy movie spoof and a seventies James Bond movie.

And Theroux—despite having a lot of dry laughs—isn’t out to do a hit piece. Not an exceptional one. He doesn’t get into any rumors, any conspiracy theories, blackmail theories. There’s nothing about how Battlefield Earth is just a thin fictionalization of Church history. Theroux’s really interested in how Church founder L. Ron Hubbard saw himself as a big-time movie director because he directed the Church’s inspirational movies. Theroux’s looking for a Hollywood connection, especially since the “clearing” procedures the film shows (advised by Rathbun) often seem like acting class exercises. Theroux can’t quite get there, but when he can’t make it, it’s not like he falls back to easy targets. He does it straight and… ahem… clear. He tried to make this movie, he couldn’t for these reasons, here’s what he did.

My Scientology Movie raises a whole lot of questions and provides very few answers. Theroux, director (and co-writer) Dower, editor Paul Carlin, cinematographer Will Pugh, they make a great picture. Awesome music from Dan Jones too. Jones never takes anything too seriously and the “sci-fi movie” motif he brings back time and again is more endearing than a dig.

It’s superb.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Dower; written by Dower and Louis Theroux; director of photography, Will Pugh; edited by Paul Carlin; music by Dan Jones; production designer, Alessandro Marvelli; produced by Simon Chinn; released by Altitude Film Distribution.

Starring Andrew Perez (David Miscavige) and Rob Alter (Tom Cruise); presented by Louis Theroux.


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Hail Satan? (2019, Penny Lane)

Hail Satan? starts with a joke and ends with Satanic Temple spokesperson Lucien Greaves having to wear a kevlar vest to a rally because so many Pro-Life, Born Again Christians are making legitimate assassination threats. The opening joke is one of the first Satanic Temple rallies, when they’re goofing on Rick Scott. In the span of five years, the Temple (TST) went from being a prank to getting a theatrically released documentary. TST has gone on to become a tax exempt religion (so head to their website if you want to join and get your kid out of corporal punishment, because Satanists aren’t about any of that shit).

The documentary does a mediocre job tracking the organization’s growth. In the first “act,” as the founders recount its early history, all the interviewees are obscured because death threats from Christians. By the end, when the film’s interviewing regional chapter leaders and so on, those folks are on screen unobscured. Hopefully they’re not getting death threats from Christians.

But the film doesn’t get into the death threats. Someone mentions it before they suit up Greaves with the kevlar for what turns out to be the perfunctory finish of the film. Director Lane directs the documentary’s sporadic narrative without any structure, so it’s not like a “let’s talk about death threats” aside would fit but not talking about them also stays in line with how Lane avoids talking about opposition to the Satanic Temple.

Given the TST members define Satan as the “adversary” not the horned beast or whatnot… Hail Satan? not mentioning how the opponents to the Temple are 1) Christian, 2) dedicated to the destruction of the U.S. Constitution, 3) hypocrites, 4) bad people, 5) whatever else. There’s one montage sequence where Lane shows Christians complaining to a city council about the TST giving the daily prayer but not much else. Sure, the film shows Arkansas senator Jason Rapert as an evil fuckwit, but the guy’s objectively an evil fuckwit. Those citizens ignorantly ranting against Satanism? Lane and editors Amy Foote and Aaron Wickenden made the choice of how to present them. Including using a woman who’s apparently an ESL speaker as a joke.

Lane is more than comfortable to present the Satanic Temple as a necessary good but doesn’t get into why it’s necessary; the documentary does at least silver medal gymnastics to avoid talking about how awful American Christians treat everyone who doesn’t think like them. Lane frequently just uses a one-liner from Greaves to comment on something, which “works” because Greaves has got a great onscreen presence as an interviewee (the film relies on following him so much it ought to just follow him), but it’s a major dodge. Lane’s more than comfortable to use Megyn Kelly as a sight gag but not to actually address why Kelly is able to be used as a sight gag. Because she’s an evil white American Christian.

Of course, Lane avoids a lot of other things too. Frequent interviewee Jex Blackmore ends up excommunicated from TST (for promoting the idea of assassinating the forty-fifth president) and Lane covers it, but then seems to use pre-excommunicated interview material from Blackmore again, which doesn’t seem… right. It’s “fine” in a documentary-sense, like Blackmore signed the releases or whatever, but has her perspective changed since the excommunicating. If it hasn’t, it at least ought to be addressed. Pretty much everything Lane avoids ought to be addressed.

Because Hail Satan? only runs ninety-some minutes but the lack of structure makes it feel like two and a half hours. The middle section is just waiting for something to happen. It rarely does. When TST wins one case then loses another, Lane barely addresses the loss. She doesn’t ask her interviewees about it, she just has some quick newsreel footage.

The use of footage is another thing. It’s where Lane’s most comfortable taking jabs at American Christians, usually letting someone else do it, not the film. And Lane doesn’t have to be making a pro-TST documentary—it doesn’t start out as one (when it covers the Temple’s early shenanigans)—but it definitely ends up making one. Some of that positive light is going to be inevitable with the Satanic Temple. Their seven pillars, after all, are just about being good to one’s fellow humans. They aren’t the hateful shit stains. The hateful shit stains are the Christians, who Lane isn’t willing to address, which is the missing half of Hail Satan?

Because the movie just makes the Satanists out to be regular folk (and now a literal oppressed minority), maybe twenty-first century punk slash retro grunge is a little overrepresented but they’re basically just anti-ignorant humanists. Their opposition? Their adversary? The pro-ignorance Christians.

Who Lane takes a swipe at in the editing room with someone else’s footage, someone else’s words.

As is, Hail Satan? is two or three short documentaries lumped into a feature but about half of what it needs to be. It tries to have the Satanic Temple without its adversary and you always need to show the evil. Rapert’s a loathsome, dangerous buffoon, sure, but he’s a poor stand-in for Christianity. Hail Satan? doesn’t flesh out its villains enough; so Christian privilege even permeates a movie about how Satanists are actually the good guys.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Penny Lane; cinematography by Naiti Gámez; edited by Amy Foote and Aaron Wickenden; music by Brian McOmber; produced by Gabriel Sedgwick; released by Magnolia Pictures.


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De Palma (2015, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow)

De Palma is director Brian De Palma talking about his films. He’s talking to the directors, Baumbach and Paltrow, but without ever addressing them by name. De Palma’s filmmakers have zero presence in the film, until the epilogue. Matt Mayer and Lauren Minnerath’s editing is magnificent, especially how they’re usually able to keep De Palma from referencing being interviewed. Because when he’s just talking, De Palma’s a natural storyteller. When he’s being interviewed, he wants to converse. He unintentionally implies De Palma has some specific layers, only it doesn’t. Because De Palma didn’t make the film.

De Palma sits in a chair and talks. He’s usually shot from a low angle and his hands gesticulate with almost three-dimensional effect. Then De Palma cuts to film clips. The film clips are fantastic. They emphasize De Palma’s most startlingly composition as a director, then also looking at his Steadicam shots.

When the film starts and De Palma is covering his student days, he’ll talk trash about people he worked with. He talks trash about Orson Welles not wanting to learn his lines, which was also a problem with Robert De Niro on The Untouchables. Only De Palma trashes Welles while making De Niro’s identical action seem cute. But there are more stories–Cliff Robertson’s no fun, John Cassavetes hates special effects–and then they stop. No more trash talk. Except the “cute” De Niro story.

There’s more focus on the technical aspects of the films and less about how De Palma got them made. It’s cool stuff.

When De Palma talks about his films, he acknowledges his divisiveness but doesn’t elaborate. He’s telling the same stories he’s always told. He’s not searching for some great introspective eureka, he’s doing an interview. He’s proud of some movies, he’s not proud of some others. Bad movies are never his fault. Pauline Kael likes him, he can’t be misogynistic. He likes some excellent classic movies. He doesn’t understand why people don’t like his movies.

De Palma’s a neat introduction to Brian De Palma movies. It’s well-produced but otherwise simply a lengthy pitch reel for De Palma.

It’s also a little dishonest. Paltrow and Baumbach shot the interview in 2010. There are clips from a 2012 film, integrated like De Palma’s talking about it. And it changes how the epilogue plays.

As far as documentary filmmaking goes, De Palma is basically a “professional” YouTube video, which is fine. At least it’s not pretentious. And De Palma’s a fun interviewee.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow; edited by Matt Mayer and Lauren Minnerath; released by A24.

Starring Brian De Palma.


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