Mark Landsman's spirited Thunder Soul offers a heaping helping of uplift while documenting the past triumphs and recent reunion of a predominantly black Houston high school's singularly accomplished jazz stage band. The movie is a celebration of that ensemble, a group of African-American teens from a high-risk neighborhood who, during the 1970s, won nationwide competitions -- and even released popular records, including a top seller titled "Texas Thunder Soul" -- under the guidance of their indefatigably inspiring teacher/bandleader. You can read my Variety review here.
Jeanette Maier's real-life misadventures have been so borderline incredible -- she was busted by the FBI in 2001 for operating, with her mother, an upscale New Orleans bordello where she employed her daughter -- that she already has inspired a sensationally titled TV movie (The Madam's Family: The Truth About the Canal Street Brothel, which CBS aired in 2004 on -- no joke -- Halloween). In The Canal Street Madam, documentary filmmaker Cameron Yates pursues the story behind the story in a sympathetic account of Maier's life and crimes. You can read my Variety review here.
Not so much an authoritative study as an avid fan's mash-up, American Grindhouse is a sprawling but amusing CliffsNotes-like history of various disreputable subgenres -- everything from nudie cuties to sci-fi cheapies, blaxploitation melodramas to blood-soaked splatter pics -- that define exploitation cinema. You can read my Variety review here.
At least twice during The Ride, documentary filmmaker Meredith Danluck's behind-the-scenes look at competitors, entertainers and other participants on the Professional Bull Riders circuit, announcers warn cheering crowds: "This is not a rodeo!" No bull: The man-vs.-beast matchups depicted here appear to be, quite literally, death-defying encounters -- for the riders, if not the bucking bulls -- and even audiences who neither know nor care anything about the sport will be enthralled. Outside the arenas, however, pic often dawdles as Danluck spends too much time with some subjects, not enough with others. You can read my Variety review here.