Documentary Film Reviews

Quick Look: PRAY AWAY

Coming off a Tribeca Film Festival Best Documentary Feature nomination in 2020, director Kristine Stolakis’ Pray Away has quickly become the definitive film on the dangerous and phony religious practice of attempting to “cure” people of being gay. 

While it doesn’t catalog the (many) suicides subsequent to immersions in anti-gay “conversion therapy,” Pray Away doesn’t shy away from showing the pain and damage done by the arrogant leaders of these misconceived programs. 

The historical and ever-draped veil of the church facilitates all kinds of abuse, of course. Through Stolakis’ focus on the Orlando-based, Christian interdenominational entity branded Exodus International, we see pastors and other congregation members practicing psychology—more accurately pseudo-psychology—without licenses or training. Their motivations are older than scripture: money, power, and sex. 

Access-wise, the filmmakers impress with interviews of six former Exodus executives. All have renounced their former organization and its practices. Their voices convey the fascinating dynamics by which they went from passionately promoting conversion therapy to adamantly advocating against it. 

The documentarian’s strategy of building the film around the half-dozen ex-Exodus leaders is a wise one. What else could set the two sides in contrast clearer than the stories of those who have converted away from conversion? 

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Documentary Film Reviews


From South Florida documentarian Lance Oppenheim comes the cringiest film of the year. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Some Kind of Heaven offers moments when it does feel bad. It opens with a sequence of shots that are intended to illicit this response: “Wow, look at those old people doing THAT!” Synchronized swimming, synchronized golf carts, and dancing—lots of dancing.

Later, the director turns his lens, in close-up, toward four elderly residents of The Villages, the world’s largest retirement community. This is where the surprises emerge. Some of these older folks are boozing, drugging, sexing, lying, cheating, manipulating, criminal people. All under the rather easy facades of kindly retirees.

Oppenheim’s fishbowl approach gives the film its candidness, but also feels a bit like cheating. The director keeps hidden two major parts of each subject’s life: their history and their family. So, The-Villages-as-Disney-World-for-seniors metaphor appears that much more tawdry. The residents might be doing whatever the hell they want, but watching them do it puts us in the unfortunate position of cringing voyeur.

Still, there are thought-provoking moments in “Some Kind of Heaven.” The old “What is the meaning of life?” comes to mind, but also, “How does that meaning change throughout the stages of life?” Though its strangeness is sometimes manipulated into place, the documentary is pleasantly strange. If Jim Morrison had lived and become a filmmaker, his work might look something like this.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Documentary Film Reviews


In time for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday comes this marginally important, if mostly pedestrian, documentary from director Sam Pollard (The Talk: Race in America, 2017). It centers on FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s malignant and downright creepy obsession with the great American orator and patron saint of the civil rights movement.

MLK/FBI also spends a chunk of time on things (which many already know) that made King human and not a saint. It strangely agrees, in that way, with Hoover’s belief that MLK’s extramarital affairs are something of great interest. Pollard does include interviews with scholars and veterans of the movement who state that King’s philandering does not, in their minds, change or irretrievably taint the man’s legacy.

The film’s greatest weakness lies in its reliance on footage that is by now cliche in this genre. Pollard augments the familiar, yet beautifully restored, archival photography with clips from various then-contemporary “G-Men” movies. These semi-humorous clips neither offer true comic relief nor fit well with the overall tone.

Pollard’s perspective in the proceedings is unclear. He seems to miss important details, like King’s bigger vision in the speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” here presented as strictly an anti-war lecture. At the same time, the director fails to present the voices of the anti-war movement, thus tacitly endorsing the horrific blowback MLK received after his speech at Riverside Church in New York, exactly one year before he was assassinated. The viewer is left wishing the film had addressed how misled Dr. King’s war-hungry detractors were and how terribly misunderstood “Beyond Vietnam” was at the time—perhaps still is.

In that speech and elsewhere, MLK offered a grand vision for America and it’s one that’s worth revisiting for its timeliness right now. Perhaps like nothing else, King’s vision helps put BLM in perspective. Black lives matter as much as White lives, he might say. His edict of nonviolence would contrast starkly with the violent, authoritarian attack on the Capitol. Beyond that, his was a vision that America still cannot afford to ignore.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Documentary Film Reviews

Film Review: Maria By Callas

The Diva Callous

French professional photographer Tom Volf, in his documentary debut, falls for the temptation of “letting the subject tell the story” (hence the title of the film). The task is easier to imagine than it is to accomplish, and by his unwavering devotion to the subject’s perspective, he loses everyone else’s. We are left with a sort of myopia that, contrary to the director’s intention, puts the object of his obvious affection in a harsh, incessant light.

For one, Maria by Callas betrays the soprano’s intermittent loathing of her career as an opera singer. Asked in an early interview about her motivation, she immediately goes to “destiny,” adding that she “would have gladly given it up at any time.” She confesses that she knew little else but singing from the age of 13 to 40. So, for the first two acts, we see Callas, not as an artist visited by muses, but as a singing laborer who was put to work by “destiny”—a euphemism for her mother.

From a tender young age, it was impressed upon Callas (mostly by her mother) that what she had that was special, and that she could offer the world, was her voice. In a fairy tale, that might lead to only good things. In real life, it says, “Never mind your heart. Never mind your mind. Develop your vocal cords.” This is the great tragedy hidden within this film, and it’s a part of the story that Volf seems unaware of, or perhaps prefers to ignore.

Yet, it ties into the most rewarding sequences—the ones later in the documentary and later in Callas’ career—where she exudes an internal light and a glint finally appears in her eyes. Why the change? Though Volf might not like to acknowledge it, her comfort in her own skin comes when she has broken free from singing (and become free of her close friend and sometimes lover, Aristotle Onassis).

We focus on these internal struggles, because of the choices Volf made. His obsession with the diva isn’t the main problem. It’s that, for at least the first hour, he expects—demands—that you share his fascination. This he indicates through clip after clip (vintage footage) of Callas doing nothing but exiting cars and smiling coyly at the camera. It feels like dozens of times, over and over. There can be no other message: “Isn’t she amazing!?”

If the chanteuse seems self-absorbed, part of the fault lies with the filmmaker. Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words is the full title, and Volf is unrelenting about it. The result might be different if his subject were a fantastic storyteller, but he should know that she’s not nearly that. It couldn’t be clearer that his decisions were clouded by his infatuation.

By my estimate, ten minutes of the two-hour runtime is enjoyable and/or enlightening. Callas mentions her fondness for Romantic-period composer Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835), and a vintage clip of her singing one of his arias shows her really giving herself to the music. Musically, it’s her finest moment in the film.

It happens that I am a fan of opera, and I have never been drawn to Maria Callas’ voice. This documentary did shed some light for me on why that is. As I mentioned earlier, she was thrust into a singing career while missing some of the nurturing of a healthy childhood. Besides the resulting, underlying resentment within her, she sounds overprotective of her heart.

Her voice’s center of gravity seems located above her chest, resulting in a throaty quality. Most often, her emphasis and phrasing sound like they come from her neck upward. It’s a brusque, dry tone that matches her predominant moods and personality traits as depicted here.

But I don’t want to give the impression that Maria by Callas is a documentary steeped in music. Fans of opera or instrumental classical music won’t find much to delight over. If anything the poor-quality featured recordings underscore the jarring qualities of her voice. The bulk of what Volf presents feels like (looks like, sounds like) tabloid fodder. To enjoy this movie, you have to buy into the cult of celebrity, with all the silly beefs, breakups, makeups, rumors, “styles,” “fabulous” comebacks, Kennedys, Onassises, blah, blah, blah.

Making matters worse, when the filmmaker finally gets around to music, he chooses to furnish subtitles with the footage of Callas performing leading roles. The verbiage, verging on banal as it is in most operas, adds nothing but annoying distraction. If, in regular conversation, words communicate only 10 percent of the message, how much information can they possibly provide on top of the action on stage, the sets, the singing, and the full orchestra playing? “The love lasted only one day. The love lasted only one day. Love!” Only the type of person who would whine, “I can’t understand what they’re saying” could be pleased.

Nor does Volf deal particularly well with the issue of enlarging images from original Super 8 film. I understand going for a gritty or unfinished look, but do we really need to see the word “Kodak” zip across the screen 50 times and sprocket holes all over the place? It’s not even a novel style, really.

Finally, another unintended consequence of the “in her own words” approach when the subject died in 1977: If you’re going to make a documentary, now you’ve locked yourself into archival footage only. Volf adds in a (mostly unconvincing) narrator to read from Callas’ letters, diaries, and the like. This style isn’t inherently bad. Here, though, it feels like you’re stuck in a superfan’s musty attic, and you know that he’s not letting you out until he shows you every last photograph and yellowed press clipping related to his obsession. It’s stuffy and claustrophobic. There’s concern about mold spores and air quality. Is it getting really warm in here? I’m sweating. And the nostalgia’s making my head spin.

2 of 5 stars

Documentary Film Reviews

Film Review: Monrovia, Indiana

Children of the Corn

Documentarian Frederick Wiseman delves into the heart of the “heartland”
by Andres Solar

“In thee, O Lord, do we put our trust in days long past,” says a member of Monrovia’s Masonic lodge, reading an invocation at an induction ceremony in director Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary. The prayer goes right to the foundation of this small Corn Belt community. Almost nothing is brand new or challenging, and history (the proverbial “days long past”) is king.

The Boston-native Wiseman’s wise, sprawling portrait of rural America even includes footage of a high school class on the school’s own… history of athletics (?), I suppose would be the name of it. Here, the director contrasts a middle-aged, male teacher’s extended excitement about a teen basketball player from 30 years ago with a shot of an unapologetic yawn from a female student.

So, as we take this trip to south-central Indiana, we are rewarded with humorous fragments like that, and always with something upon which to meditate. Like the still photographer who captures images that pique their curiosity—though they might not know exactly why—Wiseman shoots first and asks questions later. That there is something to the footage is enough, and there always is.

Things that you just don’t hear in the city, like “This is a place that could benefit from some population.” Declared by a growth-and-development leader at a town council meeting. We attend a handful of these gatherings of uptight locals, and the absurdity of some of the proceedings is ponderous. Wherein they deal with questions like, “Who’s responsible for building the missing piece of road into and out of the new development?” and “When is a fire hydrant not really a fire hydrant?”

In producing and directing over 40 feature films to-date, Wiseman (Ex Libris: The New York Public Library [2017]) has become a specialist in demonstrating that no place on Earth is boring. His holistic, patient, expositionally quiet approach allows any conflicts, curiosities, quirks to emerge organically.

We witness the values of a White town of less than 2,000 people: fear of God, fear of encroachment, football, football history, the local high school, tribalism, White males over 40. Also, apparently, since the invention of the internal combustion engine, Monrovia has never been the same—or different. The murmur of a gasoline motor or the clatterracket of a diesel is never more than a minute away.

Partly because the community is so grounded in the past, and partly because the director chose not to shoot inside any homes, Monrovian citizens sometimes seem on auto-pilot. There’s a “going through the motions” demeanor with some, and with others a mild confusion, like “I don’t know what to make of this… situation, sermon, carnival, etc.” It adds up to a lack of soul, not in the filmmaking, but in what Wiseman depicts. We do see some joy, on the faces of a couple of gossiping teens, and we admire the spirit of the tractor auctioneer: “C’mon, let’s sell some combines!” he shouts, thus earning the “Most Boisterous Character” award.

At another council meeting, about the road to the new development of “151 homes,” it’s fascinating how some of the members talk about their fear of Black people moving in, using code words exclusively. “Negative police runs” really means “rising crime.” “Population density attracts…” really means “Black people will move in.” “Had an effect on our schools” really means “desegregation.” This is pro-level dog-whistling, folks!

One thing that can definitely be said about Monrovia, Indiana is that they don’t talk openly about race in public when a camera’s rolling. Now, the question is: Why are these “ordinary citizens” seasoned experts on how to sound perfectly innocent while they discuss keeping Black people out of their town? Generation after generation of training in the skill?

A transporting film, sporting an easy sense of humor, Wiseman’s existential exploration of rural America is as thought-provoking as it is insightful. It’s an observational, unusual documentary that rewards the discerning viewer especially.

In the end, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve been to this town. It feels like a weekend visit to Monrovia, but exactly how the editor-director fits it into just under two and a half hours is remarkable for its subtlety. One sees so much in so little time, that it seems like some clever sleight of hand, but the artist’s special sense of time feels real.

When Wiseman takes you somewhere—a diner, a wedding, a street fair—he always takes a look back at the place when you’re leaving. That is part of what makes the experiences feel complete, thereby giving the impression that you entered, saw and heard what was to be seen and heard, and then left. Repeated dozens of times, the sense is that you really have visited a lot of places and seen a lot of people. The insights you gain as you go are of the rarest kind.

4 of 5 stars

Documentary Film Reviews

Film Review: Hale County This Morning, This Evening

 by Andres Solar

After being run through the Internet’s grotesque, churning, stainless-steel pigeonholing machine (see “framing” below), this highly sensitive documentary gets described as “a movie about how black people live in Hale County, Alabama.” Or, cringingly worse, simply a “black film.” It’s difficult to think of anything more frustrating and disappointing than efforts to segregate the arts. The truth is that this is a work about Black folks and it’s for everyone. It is the latter, or I don’t know what is.

Except in moments when he allows a child in a shot to play with the lens, or during a casual interview in a car, Hale County This Morning, This Evening cinematographer-editor-director RaMell Ross and his camera seem wholly invisible to the subjects, even in the closest closeups. Sometimes eerily so. As a member of the community in which he filmed—and as a basketball coach at nearby Selma University—Ross’s wide access is understandable. The height and depth of his access, as well as his uncanny photographer’s timing, though, speak to his considerable talents.

Those also include a remarkable, uncommon sense of space, a lyrical style of editing and, of course, an eye for images which he captures like a master painter. Though it could be called a photographer’s film or, more accurately, visual poetry & sound art, the kinetic energy and power of Hale County… ought not to be underestimated. It’s cinematic through and through.

Gently guiding you into a position of meditating observer, Ross eschews nearly all conventions of a documentary. He does employ a couple of established techniques of general film language, like the match cut and the L-cut for sound (when the sound from one scene carries over into the next one). Other than that, it’s a new way to see the world through cinema, and it could not be more effective. From this vantage point, we get to know the stoicism of the people, their moments of sheer joy and sorrow (explained and unexplained), and our own.

Early on, Ross poses a question via title card: “How do we not frame someone?” This, one might think, is counterintuitive for a cinematographer-director whose job it is, ordinarily, to think about how to frame everyone in his photocompositions. But Ross seems to have kept his question top of mind throughout shooting and editing. The idea being that, as an artist, when you “frame” someone, you might also frame them in the other sense of the word: set them up for something they didn’t do or, more often, make them out to be someone they’re not. In other documentaries about poor or middle-class people, the edges of the frames might show a ten-foot-high chainlink fence or some lousy housing. Here, notice exactly how the filmmaker goes about not framing, and how he finds deeper truths that way.

As with all great art, there’s a spirituality to Hale County This Morning, This Evening. It offers the finest, most immediate insights on a people and on being human. What’s more, it offers healing for the soul and for humanity. I’d like to think that a double feature of Hale County… and Moonlight (2016), screened for all 350 million people in America, could wipe out racism for good. If only, somehow, we could all rise up and experience that.

4 of 5 stars