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Armchair Cinephile

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Documentary round-up

It has been an increasingly exciting time for documentaries in theatrical release lately, which naturally means things are heating up on the DVD front, too. This month sees two recent docs, Spellbound and Capturing the Friedmans, that are already well known to moviegoers. The former is giddy and the latter gutwrenching, but both generate a surprising amount of suspense out of real-life events.

Another big-name release, Winged Migration, had fewer takers in theaters. "Ninety minutes of flying birds?" we asked. "How could it not be boring?" Well, it could feature some of the most captivating images of nature you've seen on film, that's how. The photography isn't just gorgeous, it's astonishing; every few minutes, there's a shot that (for its closeness to unpredictable events or its graceful movement, say) seems nearly impossible. There is very little narration, and what is there strikes a perfect balance between atmosphere and information.

The scripts are clumsier in two features found on I.M. Pei, but the portrait is still worthwhile, sketching out the star architect's career while providing insight that is digestible for the layperson into his motivation and methods; a 49-minute feature on a single, fantastically challenging project is especially involving. Chuck Close: A Portrait in Progress goes another route, assuming you already know a lot about the painter, and simply dropping you into his studio. Like Close's chopped-grid canvasses, the film accrues through bits (interviews with friends, scenes of his unique working habits) that seem improvised and sketchy, but each add to the overall picture. Finally, Michelangelo: Self-Portrait is the most aesthetically and educationally pleasing "portrait of the artist" here: With an actor reading from the sculptor's own letters, the film recounts his apprenticeship and rise to fame, then lets him describe his masterpieces while the camera lingers over them. The Sistine Chapel, with its complicated storytelling pictures, benefits enormously from this approach.

A couple of recent arthouse darlings are available now. One introduces a world hardly heard of: Trembling Before G-D, a minor sensation at Sundance a few years ago, shows what it's like to be both homosexual and a devout Hasidic or Orthodox Jew; most would say it's a contradiction in terms, but the film's subjects struggle to reconcile the dilemma with dignity. Another, Fellini: I'm a Born Liar, gets obsessively caught up in a very public life; it's way too much for novices, but for serious fans of the filmmaker, there's a lot to learn here.

Spellbound, Winged Migration (Columbia/TriStar)

Capturing the Friedmans (HBO)

I.M. Pei, Chuck Close: A Portrait in Progress, Michelangelo: Self-Portrait (Home Vision)

Trembling Before G-D, Flamenco, Waco: The Rules of Engagement (New Yorker)

Fellini: I'm a Born Liar (First Look)

Baby Snakes (Eagle Eye)

Yeah Right! (Rhino Transport)

Belle & Sebastian: Fans Only (Matador)

King of Bluegrass (Straight Six)
It ain't started 'til the fat lady sings: Carlos Saura's Flamenco begins with a voice whose heartache is centuries old - drawn from a globe-spanning gypsy heritage - and dives right into performances, with dances sensual or formal, rhythms spontaneous or well-known, and songs to stop you in your tracks, all photo-graphed against stark silhouetting scrims that allow master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro a lot of freedom. Equally strange sounds, albeit less serious ones, emerge from freaked-out musicians in Baby Snakes, a Frank Zappa-directed concert film that contains some of the weirdest claymation I've seen.

For pure performance documentation, the skateboard video Yeah Right! is as exciting and involving as Saura's film. As in Winged Migration, the camera coasts alongside its subject, but these targets aren't quite as tranquil. The tricks are death-defying enough to delight even a klutz like me, and co-director Spike Jonze slips a few fantastic gimmick segments between the straight stuff.

On the pop music front, Belle & Sebastian: Fans Only is equal part band biography and music video, compiling characteristically cryptic shorts with TV appearances and live footage. Musicians who were pretty camera-shy when they first hit the States are predictably coy here, talking about their dogs and journals as much as their band, which is exactly how fans like it. Jimmy Martin doesn't know the meaning of "coy" in King of Bluegrass, a straightforward bio of the former Bill Monroe sideman who reveals himself to be a bit too exciting for the Grand Ole Opry.

Getting back to Friedmans territory: One of the most chilling docs ever, Waco: The Rules of Engagement is finally on disc. Whatever you think about the Branch Davidians, the government clearly did an awful lot of things awfully wrong in dealing with them, then used the public's disdain for "wackos" as a way to sweep their own mistakes under the rug. That so much wrongdoing has gone unpunished for so long, even with documentation like this out there, is frightening; maybe if Waco came out last year, its well-presented arguments could have been screened in enough mainstream theaters to have more impact. •


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