The Post’s critics highlight original movies that are being streamed and made available on demand. Here are this week’s picks.
If you happened to catch the screening of “Medora” last month at the E Street Cinema, then you know how stirring this sports documentary is. Luckily, all the friends you’ve been raving to about it can catch it on-demand. And they should. Think “Hoosiers,” “Hoop Dreams,” “The Blind Side” with a dash of “Nebraska” thrown in for economic relevance, and you begin to get an idea of a film that may hew to some time-honored conventions, but gives them energy and heart that feel unique.
Directors Andrew Cohn and Davy Rothbart (familiar to “This American Life” fans as the publisher of Found Magazine) visited Medora, Ind., over the course of the 2010-11 basketball season, during which its tiny high school of 72 students competed against teams from consolidated schools 10 times its size. As the film opens, Medora is dead last in the standings and the team’s first-year coach is delivering a withering locker-room speech to a group of dejected players. The filmmakers zero in on a few, to reveal teenagers struggling not just on the hardwood, but against unemployment, poverty, absent or troubled parents and a 21st century America that seems to have left them behind.
Cohn and Rothbart never hit those larger sociological points too hard, allowing the thwarted dreams and slowed rhythms of once-booming Medora to reveal themselves gradually. Asked to describe the town — once a center for farming, automotive parts and brick manufacturing — one resident flatly says, “Closed.” But they love their basketball team, fighting mightily against consolidation with other schools. “When that school goes, this town goes right behind it,” one Medoran observes.
While the players navigate their rocky season — with the seniors contemplating futures that include the military, seminary and technical college — “Medora” exerts an unshakable hold. No spoilers here, but there won’t be a dry eye in your house. Thanks to filmmakers of unfailing sensitivity, as well as protagonists of exceptional character and resolve, “Medora” earns every tear. -- A.H.
Unrated. Contains brief profanity and some adult themes. 100 minutes. Available via www.medorafilm.com and iTunes.
Since its founding in Los Angeles in 2002, the live show known as “Mortified” — in which adults read aloud from their old high-school diaries, letters and poems in front of a paying audience, to alternately hilarious and poignant effect — has become a worldwide phenomenon. Washington’s Town nightclub hosts regular “Mortified” events several times a year, and chapters have opened up in places as far-flung as Malmo, Sweden.
There’s even a new documentary, “Mortified Nation,” which serves as a good introduction to the show and to its strange charms, both to audiences and to those who volunteer to embarrass themselves on stage.
The charm of the show as a form of entertainment is obvious after a few minutes of watching “Mortified Nation,” which features extensive clips of performers in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and elsewhere, reading from dog-eared journals. It’s just funny to hear real people share the same real — yet often ridiculous — fantasies, fears, hopes and neuroses that characterized our own teenage years. Less obvious, and certainly more interesting, is the question, as articulated by a participant in the film, “Why would somebody do that?” — meaning subject themselves to that kind of public ridicule.
Of course, the actual emotional transaction that occurs between audience and performer is closer to communion than humiliation. That point is made by several of the film’s interview subjects, a number of whom opine on the psychological, emotional and even spiritual benefits of the show. It’s a kind of “Roto-Rooter for the soul,” in the words of Lol Tolhurst, a founding member of the Cure and a musician with the L.A. show’s house band, the Mortified After School Orchestra.
Although the live version of “Mortified” bills itself as comedy, the event, as shown in the film, inspires more than laughs. Two gay performers in “Mortified Nation” share moving passages from their youthful writings that mix real pathos with the only-in-hindsight humor of their struggles to come out.
“Mortified Nation” is genuinely entertaining, but also subversively profound and surprisingly moving. The easy part is the humor, which comes from the disconnect between readers’ current and former selves. It's almost as if the live shows are time machines, allowing the people on stage — and those in the audience — to meet the ghosts of people who no longer exist, except on paper.
The thing is, as the film makes brilliantly clear, those juvenile shadows from the past do exist. They exist deep inside the grown-up storytellers on stage. And they also exist, in some harder to define, yet universal way, inside those of us listening. -- M.O.
A YEAR IN BURGUNDY
You’ll need more than a passing interest in wine to appreciate “A Year in Burgundy.” While the documentary follows seven winemaking families, the movie isn’t about people. The grapes really are the star of the film.
As the title suggests, writer-director David Kennard spent four seasons in France, chronicling the process of planting and harvesting grapes, sorting, smashing and, finally, drinking the result (with all of the attendant slurping noises).
The movie follows Martine Saunier, a French-born, San Francisco-based wine importer who specializes in Burgundy wines and makes several trips to France annually. Some of her associates include Lalou Bize-Leroy, the persnickety “queen of Burgundy,” and a range of vintners who take varied approaches to winemaking, from academic to artistic.
Overlaying the movie’s brilliant images of natural splendor is a nearly constant narrator, which gives the movie a peculiar feel, like that of a nature documentary. Early on, the disembodied voice feels necessary, as the speaker explains the history of wine in the region. But later, it seems as if the cast of impressive professionals could fill in the blanks.
Even so, there is something strangely fascinating about watching winemakers scrutinize each grape even as their business rests precariously on the whims of Mother Nature. If nothing else, “A Year in Burgundy” will give wine fans a fresh appreciation of how much work it takes to make that glass of pinot noir so deliciously complex. -- S.M.
Unrated. Contains nothing objectionable. 91 minutes. In English and French with subtitles. Available via Amazon Instant, iTunes and Vudu.