Category Archives: Documentary



Director-Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Scott’s Review #1,274

Reviewed July 7, 2022

Grade: A-

Flee (2021) has the distinction of being the first film that is a documentary, an animated movie, and also classified as international since it was made in Denmark. It was nominated in all three categories for icing on the cake at the Academy Awards.

It’s a unique telling of one man’s journey out of war-torn Afghanistan as a refugee and his eventual safe destination of Denmark. He eventually goes to Princeton University in the United States.

This is pretty impressive for a man who could have easily died in Afghanistan before he even had a fair shot.

The film also depicts stories of his family and his realization that he is gay is made further complicated because of the country he is born in.

Flee contains beautiful graphics and art design and shifts focus from the present-day to the past and back again and includes real-life footage of various soldiers and battles (hence the documentary status).

It’s one of a kind and a tremendous effort, though I longed for a bit more of the LGBTQ+ storyline, and was curious for a glimpse of what the real-life figures looked like, which usually comes at the end of a biography-type film.

In this case, it never did.

But the gripe is small potatoes when stacked against the meaning and inspiration that Flee provides.

The focus of the story is on Amin Nawabi who wrestles with a painful secret he has kept hidden for over twenty years, one that threatens to ruin the life he has built for himself and his soon-to-be husband, Kasper.

Recounted mostly through animation by director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, he tells the story of his extraordinary journey as a child refugee from Afghanistan.

Because of the animation, I was at first thrown by Flee since it starts with the interviewer and interviewee having a conversation. In a traditional documentary, we would see the two people face to face but instead, we hear their voices in animated characters.

I quickly got used to this and it’s the way the film is throughout. The real-life characters like Amin’s family and future husband are all animated and real human beings never appear except for the newsreel-type footage.

Surprising, and also a deepening of the story is when Amin admits that he initially lied about his family all being dead. The reason he does this is out of instinct and a survival technique (for both him and his family).

Flee is perfectly paced at one hour and thirty minutes. There is ample time to discuss and showcase Amin’s decision to leave Afghanistan and the terrible journey his mother and sisters were forced to endure.

They traveled by boat from Russia to the safety of Sweden as human traffickers.

What a horrific way to escape a country especially as many stories of deaths due to suffocation follow human traffickers.

Amin is a man of secrets and anyone who has ever harbored some out of desperation will assuredly relate to Amin’s plight.

He keeps many even from his husband to be and the viewer can understand his secrecy and deep-seated fear of a return to Afghanistan and certain execution.

His story is tragic and courageous but I yearned to know more about his life with Kasper. How did they meet? Did Amin have trouble realizing his homosexuality? He mentions that he was a ‘different’ child and openly wore girls’ dresses but how else did he deal? What obstacles did they or do they continue to face?

There is a beautiful scene where he comes out to his understanding brother and sisters but I guess I wanted more.

Visually, the graphics are modern and edgy. The different countries of Afghanistan, Russia, Sweden, and Denmark all take on distinctive identities and the animation during the boat sequences is quite nerve-racking.

If a standard documentary can provide adequate emotion and storytelling, the way the filmmakers decided to make Flee (2021) is remarkable and worthy of praise.

For those desiring a humanistic story of one man’s valiant plight, Flee will leave you very satisfied.

Oscar Nominations: Best Animated Feature, Best Documentary Feature, Best International Feature Film

Fahrenheit 9/11-2004

Fahrenheit 9/11-2004

Director Michael Moore

Starring Michael Moore

Scott’s Review #1,093

Reviewed December 22, 2020

Grade: B

Reviewing a political documentary about a president considered incompetent pre-Donald Trump is a tough task. Can anyone rival Trump’s incompetence?

In the United States circa 2016, the proverbial shit hit the fan as no other controversial figure had ever set foot in the White House.

Let’s hope that’s as bad as it gets.

To watch a documentary that ridicules George W. Bush knowing what we now know with the widespread notion that we would love Bush back in the office makes Fahrenheit 9/11, directed by liberal filmmaker Michael Monroe, dated and rather superfluous.

It’s still a good watch, but it was better in 2004.

But ever the professional, I will soldier on and review this documentary with gusto and try to remember the time it was made and the issue at hand.

The United States was a tragic war zone in 2001.

I am salivating at the thought of a Moore-helmed follow-up documentary about Donald Trump, considered the worst United States president of all time.

In a clever play on titles, Moore would release Fahrenheit 11/9 in 2018 and unleash a documentary tirade on the 45th president, but only at halfway through his term.

Released only halfway through Bush’s reign, Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) focuses on the devastating events of 9/11, hence the title, while questioning the how’s and why’s Bush found himself in office. The main point is how he bungled the response to 9/11 and his selfish and inept focus on Afghanistan and Iraq.

The documentary is a good piece of work and a history lesson.

To elicit controversy, and it did, Moore bravely and brazenly calls out the reasons why the United States was the target of terrorism. The events leading up to the gruesome day are chronicled, with bombast and humor, sure to provoke debate among viewers not aligned politically.

But, Moore’s documentary is not a debate. It’s a one-sided attack on Bush. Anyone with a firm “The United States is the greatest country in the world” will not like the experience, and Moore knows this, teetering carefully around mockery.

The cover art is brilliant, featuring a sly Michael Moore holding hands with a goofy-looking Bush, a shit-eating grin on his face. This implies that Bush was carried along throughout his term and helped to win the presidency.

The title in bold red emergency letters amid the White House background tells you all you need to know about the tone of the documentary.

Republicans will despise the work.

Helpful to the documentary is that Moore narrates it, adding a good dose of sarcasm and wit to the myriad of verbal insults he hurls at the former president.

If one isn’t familiar with Moore, his hoodie and baseball cap look and garish Michigan accent cement his “regular Joe” persona, though he is intelligent beyond belief.

Moore’s commentary isn’t only a way to smack Bush upside the head, but there is substance here. He angrily points out the interminable amount of time it took Bush to abort storytime on 9/11 and drag his ass to a camera and microphone to address the startled nation.

The point of Fahrenheit 9/11 is to label Bush as a dangerous and flawed president and describe why. The motivation is clear- it’s an attack on Bush pure and simple. But it’s hardly sour grapes or dark and dreary. Moore instills humor and an exposé on the multitude of gaffs Bush made and adds appearances by Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleeza Rice.

Should he be the president? Hell no! This comedy makes the fact that he was easier to absorb.

At just over two hours of running time, the documentary feels slightly long. I got the point of it quickly enough and had my fill around the ninety-minute mark- the ideal length for this genre. The rest feels like overkill and redundant, though I get Moore’s point of hammering home the necessary discussion points.

I’m not sure Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) needs more than one viewing to absorb its point. It’s a well-made documentary slanted to Moore’s political leanings. But, the points made are relevant, thoughtful, and factual.

For a tribute to the World Trade Center attacks, this is not a good reason to watch.

For a proper dissection of why they occurred and where the United States goes from here (in 2004 anyway), the documentary is a solid watch.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood-2018

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood-2018

Director-Matt Tyrnauer

Starring-Scotty Bowers

Scott’s Review #1,048

Reviewed August 3, 2020

Grade: B+

Based on the scandalous tell-all novel from 2012, “Full Service”, a clever play on words of the fetishist subject matter, Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood (2018) is a juicy, entertaining documentary about one man’s experiences managing the deepest and darkest secrets of Hollywood’s glamorous A-list stars.

The documentary is gossipy and dripping with saucy details and is also a titillating affair, grabbing hold of the viewer and leaving them wondering who did what with whom?

Any audience member who doesn’t desire to learn the sexual appetites of greats like Katharine Hepburn and Carey Grant is either lying or repressing themselves.

Scotty Bowers, who served as an unpaid pimp from the 1940s through the 1980s is today a spry ninety-something-year-old who gets around like a man in his seventy’s and even climbs a ladder now and then (carefully!).

He served in the United States Marines during World War II and decided to go to Hollywood directly after, landing a job at a gas station, eventually owning it. He and closeted military friends became confidantes and aids to stars preferring same-sex entanglements.

Scotty, clearly either bi-sexual or “gay for pay” is now married to a woman.

Before viewers pass judgment and think of Scotty as merely a pervert or sexual deviant looking for favor with the stars, a closer examination reveals the heroism of a man such as Scotty.

Without him, many stars and their sexual conquests would have had no outlet to express themselves or their sexuality. While hidden and contained, they were allowed some brief freedom to be themselves and explore desires otherwise left unfulfilled leading to further depression, drug use, or suicide.

Closeted gays had to endure enough as it was.

The director of the project, Matt Tyrnauer, wisely segments the Hollywood portions of the documentary into two sections, the then and the now. He explains how different the industry was in the 1940s when a scandal or an outing would have ruined a star’s career.

While those in the scene were “in the know” and cavalier about the tastes of a Hepburn or a Grant, the small-town public would have cast stones.

Now, as shown, things are very different, and a bevy of entertainers are out and proud. As Scotty, yes still working at ninety years old, makes appearances at book signings and meet-and-greets, he occasionally skirmishes with an upset fan who feels Scotty’s revelations will hurt the star’s surviving family members.

I feel that truth is truth and have no issues with the stories or any doubt that the secrets Scotty spills are true.

The personal side to Scotty is left murky. An admitted opportunist left unclear is Scotty’s true motivations. He is a humorous man and laughs at his wisecracks, fondly driving down memory lane with former hustlers.

His wife adores him but prefers not to read his book or pay much attention to his life before he met her since he never admitted this side of himself. Some tension exists between the pair but is it merely bickering or unresolved tensions bubbling beneath the surface?

The documentary lags slightly when it spends too much time and energy on Scotty’s hoarding obsession. He owns a house filled with stuff collected over the years leaving it uninhabitable.

After a couple of separate occurrences related to this issue, I thought to myself, “who cares”? as it parlays too far from the delicious topic at hand.

As of July 2020, Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood (2018), the documentary, has been purchased to be developed into a feature film based on Bowers’ life. Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name-2017), is hired to direct.

An acclaimed director familiar with telling a truthful and poignant LGBTQ story will assuredly do wonders to bring honesty and delight to the silver screen. One can hardly wait.



Director-Ljubomir Stefanov, Tamara Kotevska

Starring-Hatidze Muratova

Scott’s Review #1,045

Reviewed July 27, 2020

Grade: B+

Honeyland (2019) is an important documentary for anyone who cares a wit about the environment, or for those who don’t but should, experience it.

The setting is the rural mountains of Macedonia, an area probably on nobody’s radar yet comes a terrific story, nonetheless. The key takeaways that the filmmakers want the audience to get are those of greed, overindulgence, and the need for conservation to be a hot topic, a worthy little something of the utmost importance.

The piece has the honor of being the first documentary to be nominated not only for the Best Documentary Oscar but also for the Best International Feature award. The need to receive dual nominations is a mystery to me as the documentary is as straightforward as one can be minus the need for any narration.

Unclear is if this is the reason for both nominations. It won neither, losing to American Factory (2019) and Parasite (2019), respectively.

The focus is on a middle-aged woman named Hatidze, who lives inside a cave in the village as a caretaker to her elderly mother. Not only does she feed and bathe the bedridden matriarch, but she is the keeper of wild bees in her village.

She periodically embarks on a journey into the city to sell honey that she collects from the beehives. The honey is of top quality and she can sustain a living based on a good reputation. A kind man even gives her a free fan to give to her mother to help keep the flies away during the intense summer heat.

One day, a rambunctious family of seven arrives to live next door to Hatidze. They are energetic and noisy, but she bonds with them, especially one of the sons. Hatidze teaches the father how to produce honey like she does and warns him to only use half of the honey or else it will upset the bees and cause problems.

Needing money, the man is pressured to produce more and succumbs to the request only to accidentally kill Hatidze’s bees causing a rift in their friendship. She is heartbroken and angry.

A few reasons to recommend Honeyland are the frequent camera shots that capture moments.

Reportedly, it took three years to film, and over four hundred hours of the footage used to come up with an hour and a half of running time. The best scenes are gorgeously shot and feature Hatidze in close-up moments.

As she gazes into the sunset or prompts her mother to eat bananas for nourishment, the lines on her face express her myriad of emotions. She longs to be married, a missed opportunity, and wonders how her life might have been different had she.

Hatidze’s village will be a novelty to most viewers and she lives in a world that no viewer will have to experience. This is a positive reason for viewers to expose themselves to this other world.

With no electricity, no water, no nothing, she makes do with what little she has and bears no ill will. The neighbors finally pack up and leave, exhausting their short-lived good fortune, and Hatidze is left alone to endure a hard winter.

When her mother finally dies, she succumbs to tears, the burden lifted from her but an endless feeling of grief and uncertainty.

Honeyland (2019) offers a powerful message of the temptations of greed and the ramifications this can have on others who simply wish to live in peace. It brings the viewer into a strange world unfamiliar and dire to nearly everyone. It centers on one woman’s endurance, courage, and tenacity to simply live her life the only way she knows how one foot in front of the other.

With gorgeous cinematography, the documentary is very slow-paced and not an easy watch but mirrors the pace of life in the harsh mountains of Macedonia.

Oscar Nominations: Best International Feature Film, Best Documentary Feature

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Documentary

For Sama-2019

For Sama-2019

Director-Waad al-Kataeb, Edward Watts

Starring-Waad al-Kataeb, Hanza al-Kataeb

Scott’s Review #1,044

Reviewed July 25, 2020

Grade: B+

The wonderful thing about documentaries is that a viewer can absorb and learn something they have not been exposed to and know little or nothing about.

Aware via news outlets of unrest in Syria, For Sama (2019) personalizes and humanizes the battles as the film chronicles the life of a young Syrian woman and her husband, both rebels and he a doctor, with a young daughter born and raised amid the war-ravaged city of Aleppo from 2011-2016.

For Sama is horrifically brutal and unkind at times, but to soften the experience would be to do an injustice to those on the front lines living with war every day.

The viewer should see firsthand the inhumanity and terror imposed on innocent civilians before they are cavalier to what the effects of war are.

The film bravely shows both human suffering and death including dead children. Waad al-Kataeb wrote, produced, co-directed, and stars in this brutal yet hopeful production.

She also narrates it.

Waad al-Kataeb focuses on five years living in Aleppo, Syria before and during the infamous Battle of Aleppo, a major military confrontation between the Syrian government and its opposition.

She is a marketing student when the documentary begins and highly intelligent. Waad al-Kataeb meets and falls in love with Hamza, a skilled doctor whose wife has already fled for safety leaving him behind.

Waad gives birth to her first daughter Sama and navigates motherhood all while the conflict begins to engulf the city.

Waad and Hamza work at one of the few remaining hospitals in the city, facing daily agonizing decisions whether to flee to safety or stay behind to help the innocent victims of war. Despite having Sama and later becoming pregnant again, they cannot bring themselves to leave as it would be abandoning those who rely on them. The documentary features their friends who also stay on, refusing to leave the city they still love.

The group tries for brief moments of pleasure, sitting around and chatting, all while the constant threat of bombings is a daily occurrence.

Intriguing is that For Sama is told from the perspective of the female. This is unusual in the war genre, whether it be a film or a documentary feature as more common is for it to be male-driven.

When she provides narration, Waad gives off a warmth and a kindness that is tough not to fall in love with. She cares for Sama, never knowing if today will be their last day alive.

In one frightening moment, Waad quickly gives Sama to another person to hide when the bombs start hitting the hospital, determined that Sama’s life might be spared if she is thought to be an orphan, rather than the spawn of hated rebels.

Props must be given for getting this project off the ground and released, rewarded with wide acclaim and recognition. In a country as volatile as Syria, how inspiring to have someone like Edward Watts, an English filmmaker, able to follow through with For Sama. Amazing is how some footage especially during the bombings was spared.

Waad explains how determined she was to film as much as she possibly could, even during very personal moments. In the most heartbreaking scene, a pregnant woman is injured during a bombing and her lifeless baby is born.

After minutes of real-time uncertainty, the baby finally coughs and gags and is alive. Watts and Waad go to horrific depths to show how close the baby comes to dying and the scene is fraught with sadness and finally relief. I have never seen moments as chilling as these in any documentary.

Other scenes feature young boys whose playmates or siblings have just been killed by bombs and their emotional exhaustion and grief. Thankfully, the documentary tries to add as many moments of human connection through what laughs and good times can be mustered when fear is the main ingredient of daily life.

For an experience baring the ugliness of war, the constant fear, and peril, and a humanistic story of raising one’s child during frightening times, For Sama (2019) also shows the love and dedication to one’s flesh and blood and the beauty of spirit and perseverance during tragic times.

It is heartbreaking, humanistic, and inspiring.

Oscar Nominations: Best Documentary Feature

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Documentary


Hitchcock/Truffaut -2015

Director-Kent Jones

Starring-Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher

Scott’s Review #933

Reviewed August 21, 2019

Grade: B+

A documentary about film and film-making is a worthy watch for any rabid lover of cinema, and when the subject at hand is Alfred Hitchcock, any fan must certainly chomp.

I remember Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015) appearing at my local independent theater at the time of release but missed my chance to see it.

The misstep having been undone, the work is fine, and the result is an abundance of riches, serving as a fly on the wall for those wishing to listen to two geniuses speak, or merely observe the clips of great films and revel in the creativity.

Already possessing a hefty knowledge of Hitchcock does not dull my perspective a bit, nor do I take for granted the appreciation served.

For an entry-level fan of the director, or of French film director, Francois Truffaut, the title is a must to add to one’s “to see” list.

The documentary serves as inspiration and fulfillment for cinema lovers. Billed as side-by-side directors in the title, the documentary treats Hitchcock as the teacher and Truffaut as the student, especially given the age difference between the two men.

Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock in 1962 during a lengthy week-long discussion that took place in a windowless Hollywood office, where the former soaked up the latter’s knowledge and points of view like a sponge.

Truffaut was already a well-regarded filmmaker at the mere age of thirty-two, with gems such as The 400 Blows (1959) already under his belt.

Truffaut then wrote a book about the conversations with Hitchcock, and director Kent Jones brings it to life in documentary form, telling his audience why the book had a tremendous impact on cinema, as well as teaching the audience a thing or two about the movies.

The production is an analysis in film-making from technique to style to clothing, and actors, and anything and everything in between. The main crux though is the technique Hitchcock used to create tension and suspense, manipulating the audience every step of the way.

A plethora of his films are featured which is a personal joy to see, but most importantly the documentary is clever enough to build to Hitchcock’s most memorable sequence of all, the shower sequence in Psycho (1960), the director’s most recent film, and now, easily his most notorious.

Hollywood titans such as Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Wes Anderson, and Richard Linklater, arguably geniuses, explain the influence that Hitchcock provided them.

Listening to these formidable directors whimsically praise and dissect Hitchcock’s analysis and explain he led to their blossoming is a wonderful aspect of the documentary.

Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015) is a treat for die-hard fans of Hitchcock or Truffaut- or both.

Through its conversations and interviews with other famous directors, it shows the heavy influence and never-ending love and appreciation for an ingenious suspense director and an equally unique French New Wave director.

A thirty-two-year age difference separated the two men, but they appear as natural as close colleagues.

Great minds do think alike.

Free Solo-2018

Free Solo-2018

Director-Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Starring-Alex Honnold

Scott’s Review #920

Reviewed July 17, 2019

Grade: B

Free Solo (2018) is a documentary that takes a standard approach style, offering a traditional, yet informative piece about the perils and triumphs of rock climbing.

More precisely, termed “free soloing”, a dangerous feat involving the lack of ropes or any safety harnesses, one false misstep can (and has) resulted in death.

The film balances a nice humanistic approach of the featured daredevil with his girlfriend and camera crew’s perspectives.

Having personally scolded the Oscar Academy (in my mind anyway) for omitting the wonderful Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) from the five documentary nominees, a “WTF” moment on nomination day, Free Solo would not be my choice as the winner, with RBG getting the honor from the choices provided.

RBG is the timelier and more important of the bunch, given the current state of United States political affairs, but Free Solo has been crowned the champion.

The likable young man at the forefront of the feature is Alex Honnold, a modest athlete from the west coast, United States, in his early twenties.

He has a low-key, almost morose personality and is his person, shunning organized holidays like Halloween because he “doesn’t want someone else telling him when to have fun”. He is thoughtful and introspective and even a bit odd having sought climbing at a young age and never looking back.

Apparent is how he is not necessarily seeking fame and fortune but has nonetheless become respected in his chosen profession, explaining that it is more a calling than any attempt to show off or boast of his achievements.

As he admits to always wanting to climb the dangerously steep and world-famous rock, the 3,000 foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park… without a rope, he is also concerned about the pressure of performing for camera crews and the responsibility that entails.

The documentary stresses this point as Alex bails from the climb on his first attempt.

Throughout the documentary, the filmmakers choose to focus on tidbits of the story around his loved ones, specifically his girlfriend and mother, offering their perspectives of his dangerous activities.

This is a nice added touch and gives heart and layers to the story making it more humanistic than simply watching an unknown person rock climb for an hour and a half.

The audience gets to know Alex throughout the piece, therefore, making us care more about the peril he goes through as he attempts to triumph.

The production is superlative and quite engaging, especially throughout the climbing sequences. Vast shots of the amazing views from the giant rock are plentiful and astounding making the viewer feel as if he or she is also climbing the treacherous monument but breathing a sigh of relief when realizing the safety of a sofa or chair is the preferred option.

Seriously though, the camera work is a huge appeal of Free Solo and undoubtedly the primary reason it won the Oscar statuette.

The negatives to Free Solo are only slight and perhaps due to my lack of appeal to rock climbing. During the documentary, I kept asking myself why on earth Alex would attempt to achieve the feat and what possible purpose it would serve.

From that angle, my attention tended to wander from time to time so the people with a passion for adventurous experiences would be the target audience.

Secondly, there was nary a doubt in my mind that the final moments would result in Alex successfully reaching the pinnacle of his career safely despite the concerns of the crew that he could fall to his death at any moment. Sensible reasoning assured me the project would not have been released if tragedy had occurred.

Free Solo (2018) offers a solid and conventional documentary with enough outdoor sequences amid the standard interviews to satisfy all. The finale, while predictable in showing Alex’s successful climb to Mount, is photographed exceptionally well and professional in spirit.

The documentary suffers from some predictability issues and a lack of any real cliffhanger (pun intended) but feels fresh and celebrates the human spirit in a big way.

Oscar Nominations: Best Documentary-Feature (won)

Fahrenheit 11/9-2018

Fahrenheit 11/9-2018

Director-Michael Moore

Starring-Michael Moore

Scott’s Review #817

Reviewed October 5, 2018

Grade: B+

Controversial filmmaker Michael Moore, who has been at the helm of other topical and lively works does it again with a politically charged documentary called Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018).

Known for other substantial offerings like Roger and Me (1989), Bowling for Columbine (2002), and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), the left-wing activist continues his aggressive and thought-provoking ways with a very good effort.

After the gloomy and divisive 2016 United States Presidential election, it seems inevitable for Moore to create another politically infused documentary.

This important point in history is the primary focus of his work. Moore asks and analyzes two very important questions- how did we get here? and how do we get out?  In pure Michael Moore controversy, he adds a couple of expletives for good measure.

The documentary itself does begin with the surprising, and (to most), now dire buildup to the 2016 election with clips of Hillary Clinton’s assured victory and election night festivities interspersed with the expected loss of Donald Trump.

The Republican party was not crazy about Trump as a candidate and the unexpected victory due to the electoral college rule left the United States shocked, appalled, and in a state of peril.

Moore does not simply create a documentary about the election though. Instead, he crosses into territory including the creation of a dictator (Trump) and how this man’s rise to the presidency mirrors Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1930’s Germany.

Hitler used a sense of fear and populism among the German people to his advantage and successfully created an “us versus them” mentality.

Trump is doing the same with sour and hateful propaganda.

The documentary feels very personal to Moore, as many of his others do. Fahrenheit 11/9 spends a good deal of time exploring the Flint, Michigan (Moore’s hometown) poison water situation and the ensuing cover-up by the Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder.

The largely working-class city (already decimated by numerous GM layoffs) faced a public health emergency due to lead contamination.

So that the subject matter is not completely dour and depressing (though admittedly I was depressed watching most of the documentary, for personal reasons), Moore gleefully adds in some humor.

As a camera shot of the director lumbering towards the Snyder headquarters to confront him about the poisoned Flint water and the Governors reported cover-up, a Snyder employee refuses to drink the water Moore insists is directly from Flint and therefore must be safe.

Moore later waters the lawn of the Governors home with a giant fire hose when Snyder refuses to be interviewed.

To be fair, as liberal-minded as Moore is, he is not afraid to call out members of his party- the Democrats. He shames President Obama for once appearing in Flint, viewed as a “saving grace” for the city folks, only to pretend to drink a glass of Flint water, while insisting it was safe to drink.

Moore surmises that this stunt so turned off the people of Flint that they stayed home on election day, causing Clinton to lose the state of Michigan.

Moore has perhaps never made a more relevant or emotional documentary than he has with Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018). In a tumultuous time in the United States history, his documentary is quite opportune to implore people to care about what is going on.

With the 2018 mid-term elections looming, the country is again at the forefront of a pivotal moment in history. Moore’s timing is flawless.

Faces Places-2017

Faces Places-2017

Director-Agnes Varda, JR

Scott’s Review #816

Reviewed October 3, 2018

Grade: B+

Fans of French culture, landscape, and sophistication will assuredly enjoy Faces Places (2017), a documentary that explores art and creativity.

With both humorous and touching moments, the work explores the friendship between two different artists of vastly opposite ages.

Some scenes of Paris and especially the French countryside make this a personal treat.

The documentary begins by showing its two main characters, thirty-something JR, and eighty-something Agnes Varda, beforehand not knowing one another, missing each other in a coffee shop.

Both share their passion for images expressed in different ways- photography and cinema. They each enjoy expressing regular people’s stories by creating lavish portraits and exhibiting them on houses, barns, and the like.

Both Varda and JR co-directed this documentary.

When deciding to view Faces Places, I did so with the anticipation that I would be treated to sightseeing-type glimpses of both Paris and the surrounding areas- possibly even the south of France or Niece or Burgundy!

Paris, however, gets short shrift but this can be forgiven as rural France (not known as a tourist hotbed) is featured mostly. We experience many local French people living ordinary lives, but bringing something treasured to the film.

As Agnes and JR cavort around the rural roads in his pickup truck they stop in small towns where they have heard of an interesting story.

In one town a farmer works alone and supports his village- a superhero of sorts, while in another town an old woman who has lived in the same house for decades is honored by Varga and JR as they brandish her portrait on the exterior of her house. The woman is tearful and emotionally touched.

The dynamic between Agnes and JR is the high point of the documentary.

With more than one generation between them, they begin as acquaintances, but their bond flourishes and grows as the documentary moves along.

Think-the relationship between Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort featured in the 1971 masterpiece Harold and Maude, save for the romantic element. In a touching moment, JR introduces Agnes to his quite elderly grandmother and the two women hit it off tremendously.

Varda is particularly interesting to me for her contribution to 1950’s French New Wave cinema.

Her usage of location sequences and non-professional actors was unconventional at the time and highly influential. In a tender scene, Varda attempts to visit friend Jean-Luc Godard, but he refuses to see her, evidently now living as a recluse.

Faces Places (2017) is a rich and soulful experience, one with enough imagination and creativity to inspire its viewers.

Perhaps not offering as much of the vast French landscape as I had anticipated, instead, the documentary offers a lesson in the importance of life.

With a startlingly connected duo, contributing a whimsical approach to their passion, the result is an inspirational journey that everyone can enjoy.

Oscar Nominations: Best Documentary-Feature

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Documentary Feature (won)



Director-Betsy West, Julie Cohen

Starring-Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Scott’s Review #810

Reviewed September 10, 2018

Grade: B+

In the aftermath of the tumultuous 2016 United States Presidential election that still resonates in 2018, making a documentary about one of the most senior members of the U.S. Supreme Court is perfect timing.

The eighty-four-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg is featured in this production, as the inspirational woman’s early life, rise to the top, and views on the current Trump administration are discussed, offering a fleshed-out chronicle of the inspirational figurehead.

Directed and produced by feminists Betsy West and Julie Cohen, an enormously wise move, in my opinion, much of the focus is on Ginsburg’s trailblazing reputation and her achievements with gender-discrimination law.

The point is made more than once that Ginsburg, with her tiny stature, pulled-back hair, and thick glasses, was not to be taken seriously in a world of men. The woman being of serious demeanor, she nevertheless was successful at proving herself against many odds.

The documentary wisely places most of the emphasis on the current Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her life as a youngster, her parents, family, and friends are all discussed in detail, but the heart of the film is positioned at the here and now.

This can only be assumed because of the volatile and relevant current political state and the importance of the Supreme Court in its current state of conservative leanings.

Ginsburg is now the furthest left-leaning judge- a point the documentary stresses not without some urgency.

The documentary begins as we see “RBG”, as she has adoringly been come to be known, working out with her trainer. At age eighty-four, this is remarkable and overall encompasses her hard work ethic- inside and outside of the courtroom.

The film stresses her endurance and dedication to the job. One family member comments how Ginsburg will frequently work until four in the morning, staying up all night, and will then sleep for sixteen hours- to play “catch-up”.

RBG- the film- shares sweet moments alongside the legal courtroom facts, so that it is not over-saturated by too much legal jargon and terms.

A nice touch is a focus on Ginsburg’s husband- a lively, boisterous, and comical man who balances his wife’s mannerisms and characteristics perfectly. According to many sources in the documentary they are a perfect match- this portrays a more romantic (and needed) element to the overall story.

Ginsburg was granted the highest honor during President Clinton’s term- a pivotal time in United States history- when the Supreme Court took more of a left of center turn.

Presently, in 2018, the Court has harshly swayed in the other direction, making Ginsburg a tremendously instrumental figure. In the documentary, the courageous lady astutely points out that she “will do the job as long as she can do the job”.

RBG (2018) is an incredibly important documentary in an incredibly tumultuous time. Not only are women’s rights, specifically Roe v. Wade, in serious trouble, but the country is also in danger of taking a stark turn right and thereby taking the country backward.

Leave it to a dear eighty-four-year-old woman with courage for miles to be leading the charge for freedom and the progressive movement. The years ahead will tell us how this all turns out, but the documentary excels at relaying its vital importance.

Oscar Nominations: Best Documentary-Feature, Best Original Song-“I’ll Fight”

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?-2018

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? -2018

Director-Morgan Neville

Starring-Fred Rogers

Scott’s Review #783

Reviewed July 5, 2018

Grade: A

As much as I enjoy the documentary genre, it has somehow never been close to the top of my favorites list. Many films of this ilk are very good, providing some relevant facts about a subject matter perhaps taboo to me, but sometimes they are somewhat interesting, few are great.

Along comes a documentary that is emotional, inspiring, and lovely. Won’t You Be My Neighbor (2018), based on the life of Fred Rogers is simply great.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? chronicles the life and rise to popularity of a kindly, mild-mannered man from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with a simple message of kindness towards children.

Beginning as a local television personality, the show he created centered around children and producing positive messages for them.

Universally known as Mister Rogers, the documentary explains his determination, eventual fame, his ability to enrich lives, and his need to introduce heavy subject matters to children in order to expose them rather than shelter them from it.

In today’s tumultuous time’s boy is he missed!

Having fond memories of watching the PBS television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, the program offered a feast of creativity in every half hour.

Featuring the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, a magical trolley would transport the viewer to a world of puppets (voiced by Rogers). Other poignant moments occurred when Rogers would sing the catchy theme song at the top of every show. The episodes were filled with simple yet important messages of self-acceptance, diversity, and kindness towards others.

At the conclusion of each episode Rogers would sing the song “It’s Such a Good Feeling” in such a way that any child watching would feel secure, loved, and embraced.

Rogers sadly died in 2003- his wife, grown children, and various former cast members relay cherished memories and inspirational stories about the creative genius. Rumored to have had an insecure childhood, he was a champion at insuring children felt worthy and accepted for who they are.

The documentary also shows via news flashbacks how Rogers fought in court for necessary funding.

My emotional reaction surprised me quite frankly. I expected a nostalgic trip back to childhood with flashbacks from the show, some interviews and a jovial good time. Instead, I was utterly blown away by how touching and humanistic the documentary was in addition to the aforementioned expectations.

Sure, old clips (some black and white) brought a flood of memories as puppets Daniel Striped Tiger, Madame, and King Friday XIII, make appearances, but the flood of tears that accompanied the memories was unexpected.

Never at all preachy, the documentary holds the same level of genuine goodness as Rogers does. For audiences watching the film, the question of when someone will well up in tears is the wrong question- it’s how often?

Examples of the most touching scenes are when a young, gay actor is accepted by Rogers for who he is when his own family members do not. A handicapped child confined to a wheelchair sings a heart wrenching duet with Rogers.

Finally, as Rogers gives a commencement speech at a college university a teary graduate explains why he gave her a special preschool education.

Perhaps the most poignant moment occurs in the final moments of the documentary. When many of the film participants are asked to think for just a moment about someone who taught them kindness, whether they are alive or dead, the sequence is monumental in feeling.

A quick foray into the current political climate in the United States is only briefly skated around, carefully so as not to ruin the sweetness of the overall experience.

Director Morgan Neville perfectly paces his documentary so that it never drags.

At one hour and thirty-four minutes, the flow is perfectly structured. The first half is a bit lighter and more fun while the second half culminates with a more serious and introspective tone.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) is a brilliant documentary film and one of the best I have ever seen.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Documentary Feature (won)

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail-2017

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail-2017

Director-Steve James

Scott’s Review #768

Reviewed June 6, 2018

Grade: B+

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2017) is a compelling documentary that received a fair amount of notice after earning an Academy Award nomination.

The straightforward story never dulls nor drags, but rather stays on point by telling a gripping courtroom-style legal thriller of a Chinese family’s struggle to keep their small banking business from criminal prosecution.

The documentary features the Sung family, led by patriarch Mr. Sung who brought the family from China to start a banking business decades ago.

Since then the family has set up roots in downtown New York City launching a community-style bank to help people living and working in the Chinatown section. The bank had come to be tremendously popular and culturally centered as a way to help struggling neighbors and their business has thrived.

The Abacus Federal Savings Bank became the only bank to face criminal charges following the mortgage crisis in 2009.

The documentary argues that this was because the larger banks were untouchable and prosecutors desired to make an example out of the bank because they were an easier target. The documentary wisely presents both sides featuring family interviews as well as the prosecutor’s arguments.

I found Abacus: Small Enough to Jail to move along quite smoothly and at a quick pace. The documentary mainly focuses on the Sung’s- all very driven people.

They reside in upscale Greenwich, Connecticut, and consist of the mother and father and three grown daughters in their twenties and thirties. The daughters are highly intelligent and the entire family is intensely loyal to each other and their business despite scenes showing them bicker over trial strategies and take out lunch.

The documentary mainly chronicles the prolonged five-year ordeal that the Sung’s endured involving a myriad of paperwork, trial dates, and other particulars. All the while the family continues to uphold their business with gusto, but the trial takes quite a toll on the individuals, particularly the elderly patriarch.

It is tough to imagine anyone rooting for a bank, but that is exactly the result.

Director Steve James is wonderful at portraying the Sung family sympathetically in his work. There is never a doubt that he feels they have been victimized and sought after because they are a relatively easy target compared to the big boys of the banking world- J.P. Morgan and Chase are deemed untouchable, which is a large source of the problem and the film’s main objective to show.

Heartbreaking is a scene containing footage of at least a dozen or so Chinese bank employees being led to processing all chained together- chain gang style. This scene, shown relatively early on in the documentary, cemented my support for the Sung’s.

I asked myself, even if they were guilty, why the inhuman and racist treatment? When questioned about the poor treatment of the indicted all the prosecution could muster was that it was “unfortunate”, hardly an apology.

The key element here and the main point of the story is that wrongdoing was committed, but the question asked is if the Sung’s had knowledge of a few of their employee’s shenanigans and I truly think not.

As the documentary explains, the jury had extreme difficulty reaching a concrete decision, which is why the trial dragged on and on. All the while I asked myself, “If the large banks were bailed out with no prosecutions whatsoever why should a mom and pop bank be targeted?”

Steve James creates an unexpectedly fast-paced piece, tough to do with dry financials, spreadsheets, and other banking type particulars, but that is just what he does.

Objectively presenting the facts on both sides and offering a multitude of interviews and courtroom drawings, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2017) is a treat to view and captures a terrible time in United States history and how the undertones of racism still exist.

Oscar Nominations: Best Documentary-Feature

O.J.: Made in America-2016

O.J.: Made in America-2016

Director-Ezra Edelman


Scott’s Review #690

Reviewed October 8, 2017

Grade: A

Simply put, O.J.: Made in America is one of the greatest documentary films that I have ever seen- if not the best.

The level of detail that is thoroughly explored without being over-inflated is to be marveled at. It is much more than a documentary, it is more a chronicle of one of the most talented professional athletes and one of the most controversial figures of our time.

The piece dissects not only O.J. Simpson and his tumultuous life, but also how race, wealth, and celebrity factored into the infamous trial that took over the world in 1994. This story tells of the examination of the rise and fall of an American sports hero.

At seven hours and forty-three minutes in length, I had no intention of actually committing to watching the entire saga, surmising that I could easily obtain a good grasp after watching only one disc, but it needs to be viewed in its entirety to be fully realized and appreciated.

The documentary is an ESPN production and part of the 30 for 30 series plays out more like a mini-series, with multiple chapters (five in total) encompassing the entire chronicle.

The title of O.J: Made in America is of vital importance and a powerful reason for the success the documentary achieved as filmmakers question whether many factors were instrumental in making O.J. Simpson what he became rather than creating merely an overview of the events.

An immediate positive, and successfully got me immediately intrigued, is how the documentary begins in present times, O.J. Simpson, now imprisoned and presumably at a parole hearing, is asked about his duties in the prison and how old he was when he was first arrested- the answer is age forty-six, when he was accused of murdering his wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman.

The documentary then immediately returns to Simpson’s humble upbringing in the ghettos of San Francisco and how, through scholarships, was able to attend and become a major star at the University of Southern California in the mid-1960s.

What I adore most of all about O.J.: Made in America is that it is a multi-faceted story. Instead of a straight-up biography about the troubled celebrity, the filmmakers instead choose to balance the documentary with related stories about racial tensions.

Certainly, a chronological approach is taken when it comes to Simpson- yes, we learn his skyrocketing trip to super-stardom as a college football player and then professionally as a Buffalo Bill.

We are educated of his achievements in commercials, films, and various endorsements, but the documentary relates this to what America made O.J. Simpson into- a beloved star.

Finally, the documentary explains his relationship and marriage to Nicole Brown and the dreaded death and subsequent trial that was sensationalized beyond belief.

Lots of time is spent with oodles of interviews ranging from the prosecution- Marsha Clark, Gil Garcetti- as well as numerous friends and relatives of both Simpson and Nicole Brown. An astounding seventy-two interviews were conducted.

Surprising to me at first, but making total sense in retrospect, is how the issue of race relations, especially in Los Angeles, has an enormous amount to do with the O.J. Simpson murder case.

Film-makers draw many wise comparisons to the history of poor relations between blacks and the Los Angeles Police Department and certainly, the documentary explores the Rodney King incident from the late 1980s and poses a crucial question- was O.J. Simpson found “not guilty” as a way of exoneration for Rodney King?

More than one juror has admitted she refused to find O.J. Simpson guilty and send a black man to prison.

O.J.: Made in America is a superb, well-rounded, concise, and brilliant study of a troubled man- deemed a hero, who had a dark side.

The excellent documentary wholly explores his life and provides a fair, unbiased assessment of the events and the thoughts and opinions of those surrounding the case. It is a sad story, but one that is told brilliantly.

Oscar Nominations: Best Documentary-Feature (won)

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Documentary Feature (won)

I Am Not Your Negro-2016

I Am Not Your Negro-2016

Director-Raoul Peck

Starring-Samuel L. Jackson

Scott’s Review #674

Reviewed August 19, 2017

Grade: B

I Am Not Your Negro, a 2016 documentary created by director Raoul Peck, chronicles an unfinished manuscript written by social critic James Baldwin, entitled Remember This House.

The memoir is a series of recollections by Baldwin, who died in 1987, of his experiences with famous civil rights leaders, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers.

Released in a year that saw similarly racially-themed documentaries such as 13th and O.J.: Made in America emerge, all were recognized with award nominations in several year-end ceremonies.

If comparisons are drawn, 13th, the most similar in theme to I Am Not Your Negro, is the superior piece. While interesting, the latter did not quite grip me as much as the former.

Still, I Am Not Your Negro is worth a watch if nothing else than to understand and be exposed to the continuing battle for racial equality in the United States.

The documentary itself teeters around the discussion and back-story of all the leaders mentioned. Lots of location shots are used, as well as speeches made by and old footage of each of the men.

A high point is interviewed by Baldwin himself, and his insight about his own racial experiences, both positive and negative. Each of the leaders, King, X, and Evers receive roughly the same amount of screen time and the best part is Baldwin’s dealings with each man.

I enjoyed immensely the multitude of scenes featured of racial history in cinema and the harsh reality is that blacks have not been given their due until quite recently in how their characters are portrayed.

As recent as the 1950s and 1960s, and arguably later than that, blacks were demeaned or treated as nothing more than secondary characters. Worse yet, some were portrayed for laughs or as caricatures.

A startling admission comes from Baldwin himself. Having been an enormous John Wayne fan as a child, and reveling in the joy of his films, it was a harsh reality to understand that the Indians in Wayne films, seen as the “bad guys”, were Black Americans- therefore himself. Certain films Baldwin watched were viewed through the innocent eyes of a child- real life was harsher.

Unnecessary is the narration by Samuel L. Jackson and the actor being a well-known name, distracted from the message being told. Jackson seems to read Baldwin’s words as if he were acting, and Baldwin and Jackson are two very different types of men, so the result is disjointed.

The most important takeaway that I Am Not Your Negro left me with is a crucial one- a better understanding of the historical plight of the Black Americans and how far the United States has come in better racial equality.

Even more important, however, is the realization that we still have so much work ahead of us as a nation to ensure even better race relations and this is a sobering message.

Oscar Nominations: Best Documentary-Feature

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Documentary Feature

Fire At Sea-2016

Fire at Sea-2016

Director-Gianfranco Rosi

Scott’s Review #671

Reviewed August 12, 2017

Grade: B+

Fire at Sea was honored with a coveted 2017 Best Documentary Feature Oscar award nomination, but despite this high achievement, was met with largely negative reviews from its viewers- this is not as surprising as it might seem.

Furthermore, the documentary was also the Italian entry for the Best Foreign Language film category but was not chosen. In this way, the piece is rather a hybrid between a “typical” film and a documentary, making it all the more unique in itself.

The lackluster comments are undoubtedly due to both the very slow pace and the way the documentary is jagged- interspersing snippets of the story not seeming to go together with the main message.

Compounded by the sheer length of the film (one hour and fifty-four minutes are very long for a documentary), the work will not go down in history as a rousing crowd-pleaser.

But it is an important film.

The story tells of a group of modest individuals inhabiting a tiny Sicilian fishing island named Lampedusa, located somewhere between Sicily and Libya. The island is prominent for being a rescue area for migrants forging a treacherous journey from African countries (mostly Libya and Sudan) to the island for safety and medical treatment.

It is implied that the migrants do not stay on the island for very long, but rather Lampedusa serves as a temporary sanctuary. It is not explained where the migrants go or what happens to them after medical treatment.

After a slightly tedious start, I began to become immersed in the various stories and began to appreciate the slow pace- I found this calming.

We see snippets of the ordinary daily events of the residents: a young boy and his friend carve a face out of cactus plants, later the boy experiences an eye exam and is told he needs glasses- later we see a lengthy scene merely of his family eating pasta.

We also get to know a resident doctor, grandmother, disc jockey, and scuba diver.

Admittedly, I began to wonder what a young boy preparing a sling-shot, or a grandmother preparing sauce had to do with the main content of the documentary- that of migrants coming to the island.

Then I realized that director Gianfranco Rosi is telling a human story and witnessing the ordinary Lampedusa citizens going about their lives is in strong contrast to the fleeing and terrified migrants.

I was able to put all the pieces together.

Told without narration and with the dialogue in Italian containing sub-titles, additional unique aspects to the project, Fire At Sea is unusual, but I admired its important message.

The most powerful scene in the film is a quiet one- a resident doctor describing his experiences with the migrants.

He professes how any decent person should help any needy souls and describes the grisly task of performing autopsies on the people (many women and children), who do not survive the harried journey across the Mediterranean Sea- much dying of hunger and thirst or being burned by the diesel fuels from the tiny boat they are stuffed into.

His long, yet powerful account will move one to tears.

This testimonial by the doctor speaks volumes regarding the current influx of needy individuals, mainly from Syria, who need help from both neighboring countries and countries far away.

Some have been kind and have let individuals into their countries, while others have shunned the migrants (namely in 2017 the United States).

The honest account from the doctor summarizes the message of humanity that Fire at Sea represents.

Another powerful scene emerges towards the end of the documentary as several African men are rushed from their ship to another ship and tended to by rescue individuals.

Sadly, the barely alive, yet conscious men are not long for this world as a few minutes later we see a series of body bags lined up containing the expired men. This tragic realization speaks volumes for the need for such humanistic individuals as some who reside on Lampedusa.

Fire at Sea, the title a World War II reference to the fiery waters that the residents could see from a far distance during that time, is a story that is worth watching. It provides a lesson in kindness and good decency and a reminder that some people are just good, generous souls, all but willing to help those in need.

We can all learn from this documentary.

Oscar Nominations: Best Documentary-Feature



Director-Ava DuVernay

Scott’s Review #669

Reviewed August 5, 2017

Grade: B+

Hot on the heels of her successful feature film Selma (2014), director Ava DuVernay follows up with another race relations piece- this time with an informative documentary entitled 13th, after the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, freeing slaves and banning slavery.

The documentary, however, brings to the surface, loopholes to the constitution, and how progress has been too slow for black people following the Civil war and into modern times.

It looks at the escalating incarceration rates of the United States black population over the years. and how the prison system as a whole has been used as both a money-making system and as a way of controlling minorities.

The United States prison system is examined throughout the documentary and gets off to a compelling start as we hear an audio clip of former President Barack Obama informed us that the United States has five percent of the population of the world yet twenty-five percent of the worlds prisoners, a direct message to those convinced that the United States is the greatest country in the world.

This powerful message sets 13th off right as we begin a journey into why the statistic exists.

I thoroughly enjoyed the high production values that the documentary offers, including modern graphics as the numbers of the incarcerated blacks, came on screen in an edgy way.

13th does not feel dated or monotone as some documentaries do. Rather, it feels creative and nuanced with interviews and news clips of events such as the Civil Rights movement to Depression-era footage and very modern-day footage so that over a hundred years of history is represented.

A great add-on to 13th is the chronological path through history that the viewer experiences, beginning with the Civil War and ending with 2017- with the unpopular Donald Trump as President of the United States.

The gloomy implication is that, with the current (2017) presidency, the minority population is still repressed and discriminated against by many political figures and that they are still largely feared and blamed for the “perceived” high crime rates.

DuVernay’s major point of her documentary is that many political figures use “scare tactics” to influence voters to vote a certain way and throughout history, voters have fallen for this measure time and time again.

She wisely goes through history and dissects several presidents’ terms and individual campaign messages. Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush Sr., and Obama are heavily featured.

I loved this aspect since it was like a fresh history lesson for me and how the times have not only changed but in some ways stayed the same.

13th avoids being too preachy, and, to its credit, presents “both sides of the aisle”. Some feel that political figures tough take on crime is not meant to repress minorities- a few of these folks are interviewed and given time to explain their viewpoints, but the film is largely left-leaning in tone and views- the negative portrayals of Trump, Nixon, and Reagan, are proof of this.

Enjoyable are interviews with prominent activists such as Angela Davis, leader of the Communist Party USA, and a woman with close ties to the Black Panthers. Considered a radical in her day (the 1960’s), the documentary features clips of her interviews both then and now.

Current political figures Van Jones and Newt Gingrich are featured giving 13th a crisp, modern, and relevant feel to it, rather than a period long ago.

Overall, I found 13th to be an educational and historical lesson in the challenges and the race issues that people of color have dealt with over the years and how their world is still affected by current legislation and decisions by political figures (mainly white), who hold all of the cards and repress people who speak out against them.

Oscar Nominations: Best Documentary-Feature

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Documentary Feature

Life, Animated-2016

Life, Animated-2016

Director-Roger Ross Williams

Starring-Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind

Scott’s Review #662

Reviewed July 9, 2017

Grade: B+

Autism is still a baffling disease to many people (myself included) since I know nobody personally who is afflicted with it and, before watching this documentary had many questions.

How wonderful to see a documentary that not only teaches the viewer about autistic people but presents a wonderful story of how Disney films helped an autistic child into a world of normalcy with the aid of loving parents.

Life, Animated is an empathetic film with a positive and inspirational message.

The production is based on a 2014 novel, written by journalist Ron Suskind, entitled Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism, in which Ron tells the story of his son Owen and how Disney films helped him communicate with the outside world.

The documentary, however, is told from Owen’s perspective, through childhood years into adulthood. The story incorporates not only Owen’s challenges with autism, but also his love life, relationship with his brother and parents, and various other autistic people he has come to bond with.

He also was fortunate enough to be invited to Paris, France to speak at a conference.

How Owen, an energetic and “normal” three-year-old, suddenly shrunk into himself and away from the rest of the world is mysterious, but also how autism works.

Owen’s parents, baffled at the sudden change in Owen’s behavior, did the dutiful parental actions of doctors and studies, but, in essence, helped Owen on their own. When Ron, on a lark, and with some desperation, began speaking in the voice of a Disney character, Owen sprung to life like magic.

The film will please fans of Disney films since Owen lives and breathes the various classic movies, immersing himself in their worlds and memorizing scenes and dialogue alike. Specifically, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast are heavily featured as reference points.

As a teenager, Owen sadly was tormented by school bullies, which caused him a setback. Fortunately, through his creative mind, he began to write stories and come up with his characters as a sense of relief from everyday stress.

The film intersperses various drawings of Owen and his family throughout, adding a creative edge to the documentary.

The documentary wisely does not state that Disney films will cure anyone with autism, but rather Owen’s love of these films served as a stimulus to bring him back to life. Presumably, any autistic child could find a source or something he or she loves, to help build self-esteem and achieve skills.

I highly recommend Life, Animated to anyone with an autistic child, sibling, relative, or friend, or anyone seeking an empathetic experience and a heartwarming tale of achievement.

From a film perspective, the documentary is clear, concise, and to the point, with videotaped images of Owen’s life as a child through adulthood.

Life, Animated received a 2016 Best Documentary Oscar nomination.

Oscar Nominations: Best Documentary-Feature

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work-2010

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work-2010

Director Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg

Starring Joan Rivers, Melissa Rivers

Scott’s Review #563

Reviewed December 26, 2016

Grade: A

I found Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) to be a great documentary.

For fans of Joan Rivers, the film is a treat, but for people unfamiliar with her, it is an amazing journey into her personal life, and we see her at her most vulnerable.

At the time of this documentary, she was a very busy seventy-seven-year-old entertainer. The film exceeds as it shows not only her stage persona, and quick wit, but a more intimate, personal side to the woman.

According to Rivers, the documentary makers were allowed free reign of what made the final cut, with no approval from Rivers.

Joan Rivers must be the hardest working, driven, seventy-seven-year-old alive. Not only is she the foul-mouthed, hysterical comedienne most know her as, but she also has an insecure, sensitive side that few see.

Moments of this documentary are hysterical, others are heartbreaking.

As she is mocked in a crappy club in the mid-west by a man offended by her jokes, Rivers lashes out at the man and later shows a sense of regret as she speaks to the camera.

The documentary is set up as a year in the life of Joan Rivers mixed in with her forty-plus years in showbiz, how she got her start, breaks, etc. We experience the pain she felt when her husband committed suicide, forcing her to take almost any job as a way to pay her bills.

This is a documentary that reveals much, much more than the public sees her as. It is an intimate portrayal of a courageous woman that few wholly see.

I loved it.

Inside Job-2010

Inside Job-2010

Director Charles Ferguson

Starring Matt Damon

Scott’s Review #552

Reviewed December 20, 2016

Grade: A-

Directly derived from the financial crisis of 2008, Inside Job (2010) explains what led up to, the factors involved, and who is responsible for the 2008 crisis.

The documentary is very important to see- if nothing else but a lesson in greed and corruption.

It is mainly divided into segments to make it less confusing and the content is easily digestible. The basic concept is greed, and how people are predisposed to being greedy.

Those responsible for the crisis and the subsequent effects on millions of people attempt to defend themselves and what they did to the end. Sadly, they are still in power, as immoral human beings as they are.

Many times the interviewer will either catch the subject in a lie or leave them tongue-tied- one subject even threatens the interviewer. There is a sense of satisfaction that erupts as they squirm and attempt to quickly think of ways to evade the questions.

Inside Job shows how Wall Street is incredibly powerful, and how most politicians are puppets, who are influenced greatly by them.

It is a sad and discouraging documentary, but incredibly honest and thought-provoking. I left the theater feeling angry and depressed, but feeling that the filmmakers did an excellent job of educating the viewer about the woes of the world.

Narrated by Matt Damon, Inside Job (2010) is one of the best documentaries I have seen in recent years.

Oscar Nominations: 1 win-Best Documentary Feature (won)

Exit Through the Gift Shop-2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop-2010

Director Banksy

Starring Banksy

Scott’s Review #531


Reviewed December 1, 2016

Grade: B-

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary from 2010. I am a fan of documentaries if the subject matter interests me.

The topic of this documentary is street art, which is not especially appealing to me, but it is also nice to be open to new experiences and perhaps learn a thing or two.

Bansky, who both directed and stars in the documentary, is the main feature and his story is told. We meet a man from Los Angeles, who carries a camera with him wherever he goes.

Through his cousin in France, he decides to do a documentary on street artists.

He is fascinated by the mysterious and secretive, Bansky until he manages to one day meet him. He then begins to film Bansky’s street art activity.

So the documentary has some plot and is not the standard type of documentary.

Some claim that the film is staged and that a bit of a hoax has run rampant, but those allegations have not been proven.

I respect this feature as a nice, telling, documentary, but it drags a bit, which may be the result of my limited interest in the topic.

Great for anyone into street art.

Oscar Nominations: Best Documentary Feature

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: 1 win-Best Documentary (won)



Directors Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger

Scott’s Review #514


Reviewed November 10, 2016

Grade: B-

Restrepo (2010) is an informative documentary concerning a group of American soldiers sent to Afghanistan to battle the Taliban.

Filmmakers spent one year in the life of this group of men, documenting their experiences, pains, losses, and joys throughout.

Camera crews follow them almost non-stop.

The most interesting aspect of this piece is the camaraderie that is evident among the soldiers- a bond that is a brotherhood of sorts.

Friendships that develop amid peril will undoubtedly never be broken or tarnished.

The fear and worry that these soldiers go through- under the constant uncertainty of attack, far away from their families, is powerful.

Slight gripes are the redundancy of the subject matter of the documentary itself. Seemingly endless are the projects developed surrounding one war or another.

I freely admit this is an important matter, but while watching Restrepo, I could not help but feel that I have seen other incarnations of the same documentary before- not to mention in mainstream film.

The war experience is a popular story to tell.

I also got the sense of an ‘us against them mentality’ in this documentary, which is not always a good thing. More about the relationships with the “good” Afghanistan people might have been nice.

Overall, though, Restrepo (2010) is a decent, interesting documentary.

Oscar Nominations: Best Documentary Feature

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Documentary



Director Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor

Scott’s Review #502


Reviewed October 28, 2016

Grade: F

While generally, I am an advocate and champion of film documentaries, I always love to learn something new, Sweetgrass (2010) had a strange effect on me- simply put-I despised the film.

Even if the subject matter is such that it does not particularly interest me, it will usually garner at least some recognition and praise for what it is.

Sweetgrass is a documentary about a group of sheepherders from Montana transporting their herd to another location. It was unclear to me why the sheep were being transported or where to, but I assume rather close by.

The documentary contains no narrative and little dialogue except one of the sheepherders ranting and raving about how tough it is to be a sheepherder, all the while smoking incessantly.

Most of the time is spent watching sheep and sheep and sheep and sheep- and still more sheep wandering about and drifting down a mountain range.

Then we see still more sheep moving about.

As my mind began to wander, I began to wonder if the sheep were a metaphor of some kind. Then some dogs and horses were thrown in for good measure.

The location scenes are nothing special and after a brief five minutes of appreciation of the gorgeous landscape, I was over it.

At one hour and forty-five minutes in length- way too long for a documentary that moves along at a snail’s pace- it is about an hour too long for my tastes.

After pondering the film, my only determination is that the filmmakers were hoping to give the viewers a real-life slice of what it is like to be a sheepherder- snore!

I would have rather experienced interviews and commentary with some merit on the subject.

Worse than the redundancy of the pacing, the constant mistreatment of some of the sheep is inexcusable and has no bearing on the topic at hand, which I confess to being unsure what the point of the documentary even was, other than as a cure for insomnia.

Sweetgrass (2010) is a complete waste of time.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Documentary, Truer Than Fiction Award

What Happened, Miss Simone?-2015

What Happened, Miss Simone? -2015

Director-Liz Garbus

Starring-Nina Simone

Scott’s Review #499


Reviewed October 25, 2016

Grade: B+

Nina Simone, who died in 2003 at the age of seventy, was an iconic singer and pianist with a musical style all her own. As important as her soulful musical creativity, Simone was also a civil rights activist during the restless 1960s and was outspoken about black power and racial discrimination- leading to much controversy.

What Happened, Miss Simone? tells her story in a thorough, rich fashion.

Executive produced by her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, who is interviewed throughout the documentary, the piece is standard fare, using a multitude of interviews and performances by Simone.

We experience her upbringing in North Carolina, her acceptance into the prestigious Juilliard, her family’s reliance on her for money, and her years of struggle performing in dingy nightclubs.

I loved seeing the old clips of her performances- they are raw, gritty, and full of something special- poetic almost. Simone had trouble relaxing as she gave every ounce of energy in her shows and knew no other way to be.

Simone is like no other and the documentary does not need to explain this point- her performances tell it all. Not one to phone in performance and arguably not really “performing” at all, Simone was as real as they come- immersing herself into her music – and often seeming to drift off into another reality.

As an activist, Nina Simone is shown to be controversial- not against supporting violence by blacks against whites in the name of freedom. Simone had tumultuous relationships with both her husband and daughter- have claimed to have been beaten repeatedly and forced to work.

Clear comparisons to other singers such as Aretha Franklin are explored, but there is an edgy element to Simone that others singers of that day did not have- she had a style all her own and did not “play the game” to achieve her success- instead of choosing to only be true to herself.

This is not a slight against Franklin, but the documentary states that if Simone had been happier, she might have had more commercial appeal, but would she have been satisfied with that? I doubt it as she was an intense soul.

Shocking to me are claims of physical abuse vocalized by her daughter, but this is explained away as a result of her mental illness and not herself at times. Prescription drugs and diagnoses were not what they are now in those days.

From a critical perspective, the documentary delivers what it is supposed to- an overview of this amazing talent- warts and all. We see her from the child until retiree, and cannot help but pity her in a way because of her apparent mental illness, which caused her not always to be the charming celebrity we would want her to be.

What Happened, Miss Simone? helped me to learn something fresh about an artist I was unfamiliar with and that is what a documentary should do.

Oscar Nominations: Best Documentary-Feature



Director Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman

Starring Henry Joost

Scott’s Review #489


Reviewed October 2, 2016

Grade: A-

I loved Catfish (2010) which is a hybrid movie/documentary.

I know some people were disappointed with the twist towards the end, but I thought it was interesting and made the film quite compelling- a surprise ending, if you will.

The shaky documentary-style filming adds to the intensity.

The plot revolves around a young photographer, Nev (Nev Schulman), who strikes up an online Facebook friendship with an eight-year-old artist- very risky, yes, but they discuss art and paintings.

They chat regularly.

Nev lives in New York City, while Abby lives in Michigan.

Nev’s brother Ariel is shooting a documentary and thinks it would be perfect for the pair to drive to Michigan and meet Abby.

Once they do, they are in for a surprise as the web of circumstances that follows makes the film creepy, eerie, and mysterious.

I do not want to give any more away, but Catfish (2010) is an interesting, well-thought-out story, which is a true case.

The presentation of the film is wonderful.

Best of Enemies-2015

Best of Enemies-2015

Director-Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon

Starring-William F. Buckley Jr., Gore Vidal

Scott’s Review #467


Reviewed August 19, 2016

Grade: B

Best of Enemies is a 2015 documentary that transports the viewer back in time to the 1960s, and specifically to 1968, during the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.

I found the documentary to be a nice little history lesson for me as 1968 was before my time and the timing of my viewing (2016) was perfect as at the time of this review we are in the midst of an intense presidential race.

This is an adequate slice of political debate and rivalry- differing ideologies among the central figures.

ABC Primetime news, at that time a floundering network, needed something to attract viewers, and something to compete with competitors, the much higher rated CBS and NBC. This was a time when audiences had merely three networks of news offerings to choose from.

The documentary references this fact as the power of the medium of television in 1968 was quite intense and still new. I looked back fondly on the limited choices of networks then, compared to oodles of offerings now, but everyone watched the same programming, which elicited better conversations the next day it could be argued.

ABC concocted a scheme to bring together two bitter rivals, ultra-conservative, William F Buckley, and ultra-liberal, Gore Vidal. the pair, obviously of differing opinions, reportedly despised each other, and the possibilities electric.

I found the documentary to be very genuine- 1968 was before reality television and mock feuds to garner ratings ever existed.

Their heated debates are now legendary and there was an authenticity to them.

The documentary is told in a structured way- Buckley and Vidal faced off during a total of ten primaries- five for the Republican primary in Florida- five for the Democratic primary in Chicago.

Other than their blowups, the conversations crackled with intelligence- both men passionate, and well-educated in their views.

Best of Enemies also gives an overview of both Vidal and Buckley and how they each had come to achieve their respective fame. Interviews with family members, colleagues, and friends are interspersed in the documentary among the constant barbs between the two as the debates ravaged on.

A monumental moment occurs during the final democratic debate that would cement the loathing between Vidal and Buckley for decades to come.

Continuing to debate with a snarky, condescending tone by both, tensions came to a head as Vidal referenced Buckley as a Nazi and Buckley, in turn, called Vidal a queer and threatened to sock him in the mouth.

The hatred in the eyes of both men is the central point of the documentary as their rivalry knew no boundaries. The fact that this all took place on live television (before tape delay censors) made it all the more shocking.

Strangely, the documentary chose to use narrated voices by Kelsey Grammar and John Lithgow as Buckley and Vidal, respectively, for a few segments. I found this rather unnecessary and even distracting. The voices were surmising what each felt at the time and did not work at all.

A smart, intelligent-toned documentary that shows the real birth of political pundits (now a dime a dozen) and the realism that television was at that time- still rather novel.

Today it is filled with outrageous people and those looking for their ten seconds of fame.

Best of Enemies shows us the authenticity of television back in the early days and sadly, reminds us what it has now become.

Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Documentary Feature