24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Documentaries

L.A. Film Festival: A musical mystery in 'Searching for Sugar Man'

June 18, 2012 |  8:00 am

In 1970, a Detroit-based singer-songwriter who went by the one-name moniker Rodriguez released an album titled “Cold Fact.” A collection of frank, politically minded folk songs, the record earned favorable comparisons to the work of Bob Dylan and stellar reviews -- Billboard gave it four stars. Despite the acclaim, it was a commercial failure. A follow-up, “Coming From Reality,” suffered a similar fate. Rodriguez was dropped from his label and faded into obscurity.

Except in South Africa.

Half a world away, “Cold Fact” slowly amassed a cult following, and in the unlikeliest of events, protest music penned by a poor, inner-city Mexican American poet became a cultural touch-point for a young generation of white liberals disillusioned by the repressive policies of South African apartheid. Rodriguez’s fans knew little about him, however -- only that he had committed suicide onstage during a concert performance.

INTERACTIVE: Cheat Sheet -- Los Angeles Film Festival

The documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” which screens Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live as part of The Times-sponsored Los Angeles Film Festival, follows the efforts of two South African fans -- one, a former jeweler-turned-record store owner, the other a journalist -- to uncover the truth about the mysterious performer who, as people in the film say, was “bigger than the Rolling Stones.”

The stranger-than-fiction tale of how an artist could become a superstar in one country while remaining a complete unknown elsewhere fascinated first-time feature filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, a Stockholm-based television director and producer who stumbled across the story during a six-month research expedition in 2006.

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‘Wish Me Away’ follows singer Chely Wright's coming-out story

June 13, 2012 |  2:17 pm

Chely wright
For numerous actors and musicians who have come out as gay, the experience has proved to be a celebration of individuality and honesty, with little or no visible career damage. But not so for country music sensation Chely Wright.

Wright burst onto the country music scene in 1994, and was named top new female vocalist by the Academy of Country Music in 1995. Fueled by such hits as her first Top 40 country single, 1997’s “Shut Up and Drive” and, two years later, the No. 1 smash “Single White Female,” Wright’s albums have sold more than a million copies in the U.S. alone. But all the while she harbored a deep secret, and a fear that revealing herself to be a lesbian would have severe professional consequences. As it turned out, her trepidation was not unfounded.

Wright’s challenging journey is examined in the documentary “Chely Wright: Wish Me Away,” which opens in L.A. on Friday. The film is also currently available on video-on-demand and for rental on iTunes.

Becoming the subject of a feature film was hardly on Wright’s mind in 2007 when, after considering suicide, she embarked on an arduous yet carefully orchestrated path to coming out. That included writing a memoir (“Like Me,” published in 2010) and recording a series of emotionally raw video diaries.

But when Wright was introduced to filmmakers Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf — a lesbian couple whose 2006 documentary “Be Real: Stories From Queer America” had greatly impressed Wright — she decided to place her still-unfolding saga in their hands. The result was an intimate, three-year collaboration.

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Cannes 2012: Ken Burns' 'Central Park Five' explores famous crime

May 25, 2012 |  3:06 pm

David McMahon, Sarah Burns and Ken Burns

New York Mayor Ed Koch called it “the crime of the century.” TV newscasters talked angrily about perpetrators who “blazed a nighttime trail of terror” that culminated in the savage beating and rape of a jogger in Central Park on April 19, 1989. It was one of the biggest media stories of its day, and as it turns out, everything you remember about it is wrong.

That is the premise of “The Central Park Five,” a careful, thoughtful and devastating new documentary directed by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns that is premiering out of competition at Cannes.

Five black and Latino teenagers confessed to the rape of the white jogger and served prison sentences ranging from almost seven to 13 years. Compelling new evidence, including an ironclad confession by the actual rapist, led a New York Supreme Court justice to vacate the sentences of those teenagers in 2002. In plain English, these young men were completely innocent.

“The Central Park Five” does more than go over this territory. Using extensive interviews with the five men and their families, it shows exactly how this disturbing miscarriage of justice happened. It also reveals a theme that Ken Burns feels runs through many of his documentary projects: “When you look under the surface of American history, it's always race.”

Burns is best known not for theatrical documentaries but for PBS series about subjects such as jazz, baseball and the Civil War. This project started not with him but with his daughter Sarah, who nine years ago had a summer internship with a Manhattan law firm that was handling a civil suit against the city for violation of the Central Park Five's civil rights.

She met several of the young men and was “moved by their story and by what lovely people they were, not hardened or angry.” The story so stayed with her that Burns decided that instead of going to law school she would turn her interest into a book, also called “The Central Park Five” and published by Knopf in 2011.

While she was writing, her father and McMahon (her husband and a producer for her father) were, in Ken's words, “looking over her shoulder” and getting drawn into the possibility of telling this story on film.

The co-directing credit for Sarah was, the senior Burns is sure to point out, “not parental largesse” but a reflection of the fact that “the three of us made this film co-equally.” Added McMahon, “three is a good number in the editing room, which is where films are made.”

Sarah Burns' relationship with the five meant, she said, “they were all in. They wanted to tell their story.” Four talk on camera while the fifth, who has moved out of the state and lives under a different name (“a self-imposed witness protection plan,” said McMahon) is heard but not seen.

Harder to convince were relatives of the five, who experienced more of the public hatred and condemnation that resulted when, in Ken Burns' words, “the media swallowed the story like an LSD trip.”

“They remained incredibly raw,” said McMahon, while his wife added: “The families were the ones on the outside, the ones who suffered, were ostracized and ignored. They were much more skeptical.”

Even more skeptical were the New York City police and the prosecutors from the district attorney's office. No one was willing to go on camera and talk about the case.

“There's a real omertà, a code of silence from prosecutors. They rarely speak, plus there was a good deal of hiding behind the civil suit,” which is ongoing, said Ken Burns.

The most fascinating aspect of “The Central Park Five” is its examination of how people can be psychologically manipulated into confessing to crimes they did not commit, a phenomenon also explored in another recent doc, “Scenes of a Crime.”

“People don't understand this. It sounds irrational — they sit in the comfort of their living rooms and think, ‘I would never do that,'” said Sarah Burns. “But these were practically children, they were so young and so naive.” And they also were in the hands of experienced interrogators, people who were so good at their jobs, McMahon said, that a military interviewer told him: “I could get Mother Teresa to confess to anything.”

The “Central Park” co-directors are hoping for a theatrical release for their film before it goes to PBS in 2013 or 2014, in part to create publicity to put pressure on the city to settle the civil suit with the five.

“These are men with a life so interrupted, a gap we can't imagine,” Ken Burns said. “My mother died when I was 11 and that hole was the defining moment in my life. It led to what I do for a living: I wake the dead. I would love it if some wise soul would whisper in the mayor's ear, ‘Just settle.' To have these men made whole again in some way would be great.”


Cannes 2012: Nicole Kidman is 'not interested in being safe'

Cannes 2012: Actor Norman Lloyd remembers Hitchcock, Renoir

Cannes 2012: China has a dangerous liason with a classic

— Kenneth Turan, reporting from Cannes, France

Photo: "The Central Park Five" directors, from left, David McMahon, Sarah Burns and Ken Burns, at the Cannes Film Festival. Credit: Loic Venance/AFP/GettyImages.

In new documentary, snapshots of photojournalists on the job

May 7, 2012 | 10:30 am

The hourlong film  “Deadline Every Second,” which is to screen Tuesday at UCLA, follows a dozen Associated Press photographers on assignment in eight countries, covering such events as the Tour de France, the British prime minister leaving 10 Downing Street, wildfires in Southern California, a New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden and Good Friday services at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Tara Todras-Whitehill, one of the 12 photojournalists featured in the documentary "Deadline Every Second," has a unique perspective on luck.

"I think I've been pretty lucky so far," she says over the film's opening images of her clad in a flak jacket, helmet and gas mask in the West Bank town of Ramallah, photographing Palestinian protesters clashing with Israeli soldiers. "I've had a couple, like, concussion grenades go off at my feet, but that didn't affect me."

Todras-Whitehill goes on to explain, rather matter-of-factly, how she deals with rubber bullets, tear gas and unruly crowds. She adds, "You sort of have to decide how important the picture is," but one gets the sense that for her and her peers it's always pretty important.

The hourlong film, which is to screen Tuesday at UCLA, follows a dozen Associated Press photographers on assignment in eight countries, covering such events as the Tour de France, the British prime minister leaving 10 Downing Street, wildfires in Southern California, a New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden and Good Friday services at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

"Deadline Every Second" was shot and directed by Ken Kobre, a veteran photographer and photo editor who teaches photojournalism at San Francisco State University.

"I had always wanted to be able to show how daily journalism gets done," said Kobre, 66, on the phone from San Francisco.

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Awareness Film Festival aims to open eyes to social issues

May 3, 2012 |  5:08 pm

Hell and Back Again
Where else but Los Angeles would you find a nonprofit that offers donation-based yoga classes and also puts on its own annual film festival? Heal One World is such an organization, a 501(c)(3) that promotes alternative healthcare in low-income areas and will hold its third annual Awareness Film Festival this weekend.

The festival, which runs Thursday to Sunday, showcases films that explore contemporary social issues, be they environmental, political, spiritual, cultural or health-related.

Founder Skye Kelly was inspired to create the nonprofit after her own positive experiences with alternative therapies (yoga, tai chi, meditation) while recovering from a car accident, and her background in filmmaking shaped her fundraising efforts.

"I thought instead of doing a big charity fancy-schmancy dinner thing, I'd do a film festival and highlight the kind of films I was interested in making."

This year's programming begins Thursday with a screening of Danfung Dennis' Oscar-nominated war documentary "Hell and Back Again" at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Culver City. The film, which follows a Marine as he attempts to re-enter civilian society after serving in Afghanistan, is one of several festival selections about veterans issues; others include "A Brotherhood: Reforged," "Medal of Honor: Extraordinary Valor" and "In Their Boots."

Friday features a sneak preview of "Greedy Lying Bastards," Craig Scott Rosebraugh's documentary about the fossil-fuel industry, and Saturday’s lineup includes a screening of Mary Liz Thomson's documentary "Who Bombed Judi Bari?" about the environmental activist who was initially blamed by authorities for a bombing attempt on her life in 1990 but who was posthumously vindicated by a federal jury. Sunday evening's closing film is Susan Froemke and Matthew Heinenman's "Escape Fire," which explores the widespread problems of the American healthcare system and which screened at Sundance in January.

The festival will also present panels on such topics as filmmaking as activism and making a difference. Most screenings will take place at the Regent Showcase theater in Hancock Park and the Macha Theater in West Hollywood.

Kelly said her ultimate goal with the festival was to open eyes and empower audiences by bringing attention to meaningful causes.

"I don't want to just see the problem," she said. "I want to see what's the light at the end of the tunnel."


Movie review: 'Hell and Back Again'

'Who Bombed Judi Bari?' documentary seeks an answer

Around Town: Marvel legend Stan Lee hosts 'Avengers' screening

-- Oliver Gettell

Photo: "Hell and Back Again." Credit: Danfung Dennis.

Mikhail Gorbachev says DVD can help cool U.S.-Russia relations

May 2, 2012 | 10:23 am



NEW YORK -- Television images accelerated the end of the Cold War and social media toppled several Arab regimes. Can a DVD have a similar geopolitical influence?

Mikhail Gorbachev thinks so.

The former Russian premiere was at New York's Paley Center earlier this week, touting the home-video release of “Cold War,” the massive documentary about the epic conflict.

It’s been 14 years since the original aired on CNN, 24 46-minute episodes, each tackling a new chapter in Soviet-American relations. A Ted Turner passion project, the series (produced by British documentarian Jeremy Isaacs) takes few ideological positions but instead examines a range of perspectives from east and west, interviewing everyone in the Cold War from world leaders to foot soldiers.

Surprisingly, the series has never been available on DVD, but Warner Bros. Home Video decided to release it now, unedited, as a kind of super-film, as the Cold War is perhaps more at risk than ever of being forgotten.

Appearing on a panel with Turner and Isaacs, Gorbachev, seeming slower and heavier but still quick of mind, said he was particularly concerned about that kind of historical forgetfulness. He said the latest complicated chapter in American-Russian relations — with tensions between President Obama’s White House and Putin’s Kremlin continuing to bristle — could use a dose of the movie.

“We need to make sure this spiral does not reemerge, that we do not reignite another Cold War,” the dean of glasnost said. “And that's why this film is necessary.”

He continued, “We see that another arms race is possible. We see that nuclear weapons still exist in large numbers and they're regarded as real weapons of war.”

Scanning “Cold War” again,  one at first can’t help feeling like there’s something quaint about the whole thing; even amid the mushroom clouds and summit meetings, the stakes seem somehow smaller than we remember them. (The upcoming release of Sacha Baron Cohen's "The Dictator," which makes good sport of the idea of tyranny, may also contribute to this feeling.) Then something like the Cuban Missile Crisis pops up, and it all comes rushing back.

Turner added that he, too, was worried about loose weapons material. “We are in a dangerous situation [because of the weapons]. Let's figure out how to resolve this.… The legacy of the Cold War is not over.” (In that sense, the release has a similar mission as “Countdown to Zero,” Oscar nominee Lucy Walker’s 2009 documentary about unaccounted-for nuclear material.)

Gorbachev also opened up about politics in general, making a curious plea that suggested he understood French voters who chose far-right candidate Marine Le Pen over Nicolas Sarkozy, who has had his share of personal crucibles.

"You saw how elections went in France. The first round gave 18% to a very right-wing lady, and that’s in a country that's very advanced in all respects,” he said. “Should we accuse all those who voted for her, should we accuse those who did not vote for the current people?” he continued. “[Voters] see who builds and who destroys … people see who takes and who steals."

As for his country, Gorbachev, who said he has undergone an ideological "evolution" and now considers himself a Social Democrat, said he believed the controversy in the recent reelection of Putin was overblown. “Even though there was some election fraud, I believe Putin won the election and most of the votes for him were real.”

Gorbachev then made a plea for understanding on behalf of his country's volatile politics. "The democracy you built in 200 years,” he said, “we cannot build in 200 days.”


Linsanity the movie? Jeremy Lin gets documentary treatment

Katy Perry's 3-D documentary to his theaters 4th of July weekend

Angelina Jolie's directorial debut met with protests in Bosnia

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Nixon meets Mao in a scene from the new DVD of "Cold War." Credit: Warner Bros. Home Video

Tribeca 2012: Journey singer doesn't stop believin'

April 21, 2012 | 12:15 pm


NEW YORK -- Just before 1 a.m. on Friday morning, Arnel Pineda walked to the front of a lounge-y space atop a hotel in this city's Meatpacking District. For the last few hours, the deejay had been spinning a typical mix of club hits, to the general indifference of the crowd. But that was about to change.

Pineda, a diminutive man of 44 with jet-black hair and girlishly delicate features, took the mic. His eyes scrunched in concentration, he signaled quietly to the deejay, who cranked up a backing track. Pineda paused a moment, then began belting out the lyrics of Journey's rock anthem "Don't Stop Believin.' "

"Just a small town girl ... "

Jolted by his voice, the crowd stopped its chit-chat. The drinks clinking died down. Then the cheering began.

"Living in a lonely world ... "

The crowd went into a frenzy. Scores of cellphone cameras shot into the air. A woman of about 60 clambered atop a couch to get a better view, her husband looking less worried than he should have been. Then he hoisted himself up next to her.

The impromptu musical performance came at a screening after-party for the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of the documentary "Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey." Ramona Diaz's film tells the story of the titular band -- the one of arena-rock radio, "Glee" covers and "Sopranos" finales, but not, it should be said, the band of Steve Perry from the early 1980s (and, briefly, the late 1990s). Diaz's movie instead tells of the current Journey, with its out-of-left-field frontman.

Even in the age of YouTube discoveries and "American Idol"-fueled fame, Pineda's tale stands out. A soft-spoken kid from a broken home in the Philippines, Pineda had been on his own since he was 13, even living for several years on the street. He eventually made a decent if not extravagant living as a musician, singing a mix of originals and covers, for a time in Hong Kong and then in Manila.

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'Ballad of Genesis': Two artists sculpting their bodies into one

April 12, 2012 | 11:00 am

'The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye'

The first time Genesis P-Orridge met his future wife, Lady Jaye Breyer, she put him in her clothes, makeup and a wig to make him look like herself. It was 1993, and the first step toward a personal project of physical transformation they would eventually call “pandrogyne.”

“She told me she saw me as a mirror image of her, and that we were meant to be two halves of one,” remembered P-Orridge, an artist and musician best known for his work in the industrial bands Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV.

That idea became truer than anyone could have imagined, as documented in “The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye,” opening Friday at the Nuart for a one-week engagement. A decade into their marriage, the couple began a process of becoming one another through dress and cosmetic surgery, starting with matching breast implants on Valentine’s Day 2003.

The plan wasn’t for either of them to undergo a sex change in the usual sense. Nothing would be removed from their bodies, Breyer insisted then, only added.

“The body is not sacred. It is, as Lady Jaye used to say, ‘a cheap suitcase.’ And it carries around the real you, which is your consciousness, your mind, your thoughts, your aspirations and dreams,’” said P-Orridge, 62, speaking by phone from New York. “Surely, the container should be as wonderful and amazing and imaginative as you can make it.”

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'Bully' rating: Some, but not all, profanity cut to get PG-13

April 5, 2012 |  5:22 pm

"Bully" documentary

In a turn that allows both sides to claim victory, the Weinstein Co. announced Thursday it had reached an agreement with the Motion Picture Assn. of America to re-cut its unrated documentary “Bully” to land a PG-13 rating. The movie will now go out with that rating when it opens in about 115 new theaters next weekend.

The Times initially reported Friday that the distributor was planning a new version of the movie -- which focuses on the issue of teen bullying through the lens of five families -- so it could nab the lower rating.

The new cut of the Lee Hirsch film makes some concessions to the MPAA: It removes an obscenity that begins with the prefix “mother” in an early scene, along with two other quickly uttered F-words. Audio will be dropped out in all three instances.

But the new cut leaves intact a controversial scene on a school bus in which three F-words are used against a bullied child. The case now represents an exception to the MPAA’s rules; the group typically will impose an R rating on any film with more than two F-words.  

Stephen Bruno, head of marketing for the Weinstein Co., told 24 Frames that “I can say with no stutter that we would have remained unrated if we had to change that scene.”

In an interview, Hirsch said that he felt satisfied by the results. “This was about drawing the line but not being utterly unreasonable,” he said. “What’s absolutely relevant is the scene that we retained. There was one [obscenity in another scene] I didn’t want to give up. But I didn’t want to hold back all the groups that wanted to see the movie, Boy and Girl Scout groups and school groups, that wouldn’t be able to go if we stayed unrated.”

The new rating means that children of any age can see the documentary without an adult. An R rating requires adults to accompany children under the age of 17; a PG-13 simply offers guidance without imposing an age minimum.

The new rating also means that all theater chains — including Cinemark, the nation’s third-largest, which has a policy against playing unrated films — can show the movie.

Weinstein Co. went out with the movie unrated after losing an appeals battle with the MPAA to knock the film down from an R; in the process, the company garnered buckets of free publicity as a grass-roots and celebrity-studded campaign to overturn the initial R rating gained momentum.

“Bully” opened last weekend in five theaters in L.A. and New York City as an unrated film. It did solid business, averaging $23,000 per screen.

The unexpurgated version of the movie will remain in those theaters this weekend, with the PG-13 print replacing all versions when the movie widens April 13. The MPAA bylaws require a 90-day waiting period between different cuts of a film but make an exception for movies that go from limited to wide release, as “Bully” is doing.

One person familiar with the situation who was not authorized to talk about it publicly said that Christopher Dodd, the former senator (D-Conn.) who runs the MPAA, was instrumental in making an exception on the three F-words, winning out over other personalities at the organization. Hirsch said that there was "an openness [at the MPAA] that had a lot to do with him.”

Asked about the exception via a spokesman, Joan Graves, head of the MPAA division that oversees ratings, released a statement that read, in part:

“Per the standard rating process available to all filmmakers, The Weinstein Company decided to resubmit a new, edited version of 'Bully' to be rated, and the ratings board gave this new version of the film a PG-13 rating for intense thematic material, disturbing content, and some strong language -- all involving kids.”

She continued, “In the case of 'Bully,' the ratings system has worked exactly as it is supposed to: Parents have been kept informed of the content of each version of the film, and they have been given the information they need to make movie-going decisions on behalf of their kids."

The issue has shined a light on the rules of the MPAA, which some critics have said are inconsistent and opaque, particularly when it comes to the issue of language. Hirsch said that he had no interest in turning this into a crusade — his main focus was attracting attention to the teen-bullying problem — but that he did believe this case could affect the practices of the MPAA.

“I think this has given fuel to a conversation that’s long overdue about the double standard when it comes to rating movies,” he said. “People say you can’t change the MPAA. But we’re not throwing something at a brick wall. It’s an organization made up of human beings, and like any other great institution it can be changed to better reflect what people want.”


'Bully' will get re-cut to land a PG-13, sources say

Is 'Bully' a tipping point for the MPAA movie ratings system?

'Bully' got the rating it deserved

 -- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Alex Libby, one of the subjects of the documentary film "Bully," at the premiere March 26 in Los Angeles. Credit: Chris Pizzello / Associated Press

'Bully': Which town wants it more?

April 4, 2012 |  6:44 pm

What city in America can't live without “Bully”?

According to a poll commissioned by distributor Weinstein Co., Cleveland is hot for the documentary— hotter than any other locale.

We don’t know what that says about the best location in the nation, but more than 3,000 people in  the city’s metro area have registered their preference that the company bring the movie there. Close behind  is Indianapolis, followed by Paducah, Ky., and DeKalb, Ill., residents of which think it important that the expose of teen bullying be shown in their towns.  (And here we thought everyone in the Midwest was a sweetheart.)

The poll is being overseen by Eventful.com, a company that conducts national surveys on behalf of entertainment companies to gauge how much a given city wants a movie or performer. Then it reports back to the studio. (Paramount famously used it for its “Paranormal Activity,” then turned the results into a “you demanded it” ad campaign.)

It’s up to studios and promoters how to use the information; in some cases they’ll change their release or live-event strategy as a result, giving a town that might get overlooked in a traditional roll-out an opportunity to make the case that they deserve a stop. Fox used it for its found-footage superhero movie "Chronicle" this year, bringing pre-release screenings to towns that requested them.

In this case, Weinstein Co. will bring “Bully,” which performed will in limited release last weekend, for one-off screenings to the top 10 cities int he Eventful poll, and director Lee Hirsch to the top three. (If cities in the top 10 are already in the company's release pattern, Weinstein will jump to the next spot on the list; you can see the full poll results here.)

"Bully" will open in 50 markets on April 13, regardless of whether anyone in those places demanded it.


"Bully" will get re-cut to land a PG-13, sources say

Is "Bully" a tipping point for the MPAA ratings system?

'Bully' does well in limited debut?

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "Bully." Credit: Weinstein Co.



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