Inspiration from Becoming Bulletproof, Lizzie Velasquez, He Named Me Malala; laughs courtesy of the National Lampoon, Patels
How do you experience joie de vivre when just living life is arduous? Two new documentaries answer that question in ways that may leave you awestruck and in need of tissues.
Becoming Bulletproof, from director Michael Barnett, is the deeply-moving story of a group of disabled and able-bodied actors and filmmakers who work together to create a short film. A.J. Murray, an aspiring actor with severe cerebral palsy, is the joyous center of the documentary, a radiant presence who offers words of startling eloquence in the midst of making the Western Bulletproof.
No less inspiring a figure is Lizzie Velasquez, the subject of another new documentary available this weekend, A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story. Velasquez, a 26-year-old Texas native who was born with a rare medical condition that makes it nearly impossible for her to gain weight,
Velasquez endured a childhood of teasing and ostracism which only got worse when, at the age of 17, she discovered a trending video on the internet that called her the "world's ugliest woman." The film shows how she triumphed over that wrenching experience, becoming a witty and entertaining public speaker who has led a spirited anti-bullying campaign.
A Brave Heart is available on iTunes, Amazon video, and DVD following its theatrical run.
Becoming Bulletproof is playing from Oct. 2-Oct. 7 at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills, after a one-week run in New York. Director Michael Barnett will be joined by members of the cast (including, I hope, A.J. Murray) for a Q&A on Friday after the 7:20pm screening, and on Saturday following the 2:40pm and 7:20pm showings, and on Sunday following the 2:40pm showing.
Morgan Spurlock's production company has acquired the film, which means it should get a wider theatrical release in the future. In the meantime, anyone who would like to set up a screening of the film where they live can do so free of charge by contacting the filmmakers.
The trailer below, in truth, doesn't do justice to how extraordinarily touching, funny and emotional the film is. Ted Danson is among the celebrities who are doing their best to get word out about the documentary, writing, "I will drag everyone I know to experience this film because I know they need to see it & they will thank me for it afterwards."
As if Becoming Bulletproof and A Brave Heart were not inspiration enough, this weekend sees the release of a documentary about another extraordinarily inspiring person, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.
He Named Me Malala from Oscar-winning director Davis Guggenheim will play in limited release before going wide on October 9th.
Malala, now 18, survived an assassination attempt in her native Pakistan by a Taliban gunman angry over her campaign to promote the education of girls. Despite nearly losing her life she has gone on to expand her efforts on behalf of girls' education and human rights.
Additional documentaries opening this weekend or expanding to more theaters:
>Sherpa directed by Jennifer Peedom. The harrowing tale of the 2014 tragedy on Mt. Everest that claimed the lives of more than a dozen Sherpa guides. The Los Angeles Times hails the film for its "visual magnificence" and "unforgettable characters."
Sherpa is playing in New York at Cinema Village and in Pasadena, Calif. at the Laemmle Playhouse 7.
For those wanting something lighter, a documentary expanding this weekend explores the origins and influence of the National Lampoon, the Harvard-born comedy operation that created Animal House and the Vacation movies.
>Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon directed by Doug Tirola opens at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles, a week after it debuted in New York. The film is also available on iTunes and VOD.
Director Tirola and Lampoon veteran Chris Miller will do a Q&A after the 7:30pm screening on Friday; Tirola will be on hand for a Q&A after the 7:30pm screening on Saturday. He will also introduce the 9:50pm screenings on Friday and Saturday.
>We Weren't Just Bicycle Thieves. Neorealism directed by Gianni Bozzacchi. An exploration of the extraordinary flowering of Italian cinema in 1940s with the Neorealism movement. Rossellini, Visconti and De Sica were among the masters of the cinematic style characterized wide landscapes and black and white photography and stories of the common man or woman against the crowd.
We Weren't Just Bicycle Thieves includes the participation of Martin Scorsese, the late Nobel Prize Winning-author Gabriel García Márquez and Oscar-winning director Bernardo Bertolucci, who charmingly recalls his reaction to first seeing De Sica's Ladri di biciclette [The Bicycle Thief].
The documentary opens today at IFC Center In New York and on Oct. 9 at Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills, Calif.
>Prophet's Prey directed by Amy Berg. Many people probably vaguely remember Warren Jeffs as the leader of the Fundamentalist branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), which follows the original precepts of Mormonism -- namely "plural marriage." He's been stewing in prison in Texas for a few years after his conviction on sexual assault charges. So it's safe to forget about him, right?
Amy Berg's film shows why neglecting to pay attention to Jeffs would be a bad idea. Yes, it does show him wanly confessing at one point to being a fraud, but he later took that back and is more powerful than ever according to experts to study the FLDS.
Jon Krakauer, who wrote the book Under the Banner of Heaven, is a key voice in the film. So is Sam Brower, who has been keeping a close eye on the FLDS for years. Ron Howard and Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment are among the producers, along with Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. Recording artist Nick Cave provides narration and music with Warren Ellis.
Prophet's Prey is playing this week in Mormon country -- Salt Lake City, Utah, as well as Chicago, DC, San Francisco, Denver, Phoenix and Mesa, Ariz, See full theater listings here.
Premium TV channel Showtime will air the documentary later this year.
>The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, directed by Emmy-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson, expands to more cities this weekend, including Oakland, Calif., birthplace of the Panthers. It opens across the bay in San Francisco as well, and in Berkeley, San Rafael, Calif., and Providence, Rhode Island. It continues to play on screens in New York, LA, Miami, DC, Philadelphia, Baltimore and other cities.
Nelson's film is a meticulous exploration of the origins of the The Black Panther Party, which began in opposition to the traditional, non-violent Civil Rights Movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr. The group's militant posture (members openly carried weapons at rallies, as permitted at the time by California law) quickly drew the attention of the FBI, which did everything in its power -- legal or otherwise -- to squash the group.
>Meru, directed by storied mountain climber Jimmy Chin and his wife, filmmaker E. Chai Vasarhelyi, can be viewed as a kind of companion piece to Sherpa. Chin has climbed Everest, but his documentary is about the effort he and two companions made to scale Mt. Meru in Northern India, a mountain considered much more difficult to summit than Everest.
Meru expands this weekend to theaters in Reading and Harrisburg, PA, Columbia, MO,, Concord, NH, Bloomington, IN and other locations.
>Unlikely Family directed by Russ Kirkpatrick opens in Tulsa, Oklahoma. According to a description on imdb.com, the documentary "depicts a progressive church family coming together in the most unlikely of places [Tulsa, OK]. The film follows a group of people rejected by mainstream churches, society, their families, and their jobs because of divorce, sexuality, and ignorance of religion."
>Meet the Patels directed by siblings Geeta Patel and Ravi Patel. A "real-life romantic comedy," this documentary about love and pre-arranged marriage has been the top non-fiction film at the box office for the last two weeks.
Meet the Patels is now playing in New York, LA, Chicago, Atlanta, DC, Dallas, San Diego and most major cities; it expands its cinematic footprint this weekend to many smaller cities. Click on this link to see where.
>The Creeping Garden directed by Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp is now playing at Film Forum in New York. It opens October 9 in Toronto, Valencia, Calif. (CalArts), Seattle, New Orleans and Columbus, Ohio.
The film is described as a "real-life science-fiction story about slime moulds and the people who work with them."
>Jafar Panahi's Taxi directed by Iranian-born filmmaker Jafar Panahi. Opens in New York after playing at both the Telluride and Toronto film festivals.
>Shout Gladi Gladi directed by Adam Friedman and Iain Kennedy. Meryl Streep narrates this documentary shot in Malawi and Sierra Leone about a woman who has made it her mission to save African women and girls from obstetric fistula, a medical condition that "can turn them into reviled outcasts."
Shout Gladi Gladi opens in New York, playing for one week at Village East and in Beverly Hills, Calif. at the Laemmle Music Hall, also for one week only. It is set for very brief runs next week in San Francisco, DC and Seattle.
>This Changes Everything directed by Avi Lewis, based on the book by Naomi Klein. The documentary is described as "an epic attempt to re-imagine the vast challenge of climate change." In other words, global warming is an existential threat, but it offers us a chance to radically rethink our economic system. Shot over four years in nine countries and five continents.
This Changes Everything plays this weekend in Ottawa, Ontario, Montreal, Quebec and Calgary, Alberta, expanding to more Canadian cities in the coming days. It opens at the Sundance Cinemas in West Hollywood, California on Oct. 16.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.