Category: Documentary


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The Forever 27 Club is an organization nobody wants to be part of. So many stupidly talented artists have thrown their lives away and died at young ages because they lost battles to addiction, depression, and their own inner demons. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and others that aren’t as well-known. Of course, another one of the most famous members of that particular club is classic rock/blues legend Janis Joplin who’s ferocious voice and pure, raw talent helped to define an era. Listening to Janis Joplin sing is the act of experiencing honest and overpowering emotion, and this is coming from someone who’s always found her to be one of the more over-rated stars of the classic rock era. 1974’s documentary tribute to the late icon, Janis, made me appreciate her talent more than I had in the past even if its structure is a little disjointed and unfocused.

Never incorporating typical documentary narration, Janis looks at the life of Port Arthur, Texas, born Janis Joplin through rare concert footage as well as archival interviews that no one has probably seen since they aired on TV forty years ago. You also get some more personal peeks into Janis’s life such as her 10th year high school reunion (she would be dead less than a year later) as well as some studio rehearsal. And, with the concerts, you see several wonderful performances in Canada. You see her truly legendary performance at the Monterrey Pop Music Festival as well as one of her songs from the original 1969 Woodstock (most of those performances have already been well-chronicled in the Woodstock concert film). And along the way, you get a picture of how sad Janis was beneath it all.

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I would say that somewhere around 75% of the film is concert footage so if they chose bad performances, the whole movie would crumble. Thankfully, that isn’t the case. While the performances in this film don’t quite match the level of classic concert movies like Stop Making Sense or Woodstock, it’s still an awesome showcase for Janis Joplin’s goose-bumps inducing voice. In fact, my only complaint about the performances of the film is that my favorite Janis Joplin song isn’t one of them (“Me and Bobby McGee” which is a studio version heard over a photo montage at the end of the film). When Janis sings and she’s really grooving on a number, it would give me chills. And, I was also pleasantly surprised by how good her backing band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, was at laying down a psychedelic groove. If you can’t tell, I miss psychedelic rock.

My only real complaint about the film (other than the fact that there was nothing absolutely perfect about it like Stop Making Sense) was a series of structural complaints. If the movie wanted to be a concert film, it should have been a concert film. If it wanted to be biographical, it should have been biographical. If it wanted to be both (which is clearly what it was trying to do), it should have done a better job of balancing things out. As I said, roughly 75% of the film is concert footage and it makes all of the interviews and found footage seem so awkward when it finally does show up. It certainly doesn’t help that none of the archival footage seems to add much to the audience’s understanding of Janis. Though there is one segment where she’s on a talk show talking to the host after an awesome performance where you find out that despite her clearly sad interior, Janis also had a wicked sense of humor.

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I’ll keep this review short cause I’m still really buzzed on cold medicine. And I have no idea when I’m going to feel any better. Hopefully tomorrow. I especially hope that I’m feeling at least somewhat better tomorrow because I have an Ingmar Bergman movie to watch from Netflix, Through a Glass Darkly, and clearly I want to be in my best frame of my mind to watch something from the great masterful Swede. Anyways, if you’re a fan of Janis Joplin, this will be a fun look at some footage of her performing that you may not have seen before. If you’re not a Janis fan, you probably won’t need to go out of your way to watch this particular film (which is currently available to watch instantly on Netflix), but for fans of classic rock and one of the great blues singers of the classic rock era, Janis is worth your time.

Final Score: B+

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review. This is the first film in the block of movies that will compose reviews 401-450. And, boy, it could have barely started on a better note)

I am not a religious man. I was when I was younger, but after seemingly endless bull sessions with intellectual friends in dorm rooms and apartments, I realized that I always wanted to believe in God or a higher power more than I ever really did. And, as an adult, any experiences in my life that I would describe as “spiritual” have come from moments of exposure to pure, unadulterated beauty: the first time I listened to Ágaetis byrjun by Sigúr Ros, the time that I was front row for a Bon Iver concert, the magical sing-along of “Hey Jude” at this year’s Bonnaroo, standing atop the mountaintop at the Oracle of Delphi. If spirituality exists, it is indistinguishable from beautiful, once-in-a-lifetime moments that define high-points in our lives. Before today, I can probably only name two films that were spiritual experiences for me, The Tree of Life and Synecdoche, New York. Leave it to German director Werner Herzog (Stroszek), a cinematic philosopher if there’s ever been one, to add another film to that list.

Werner Herzog is somewhat of an enigma, and for those who’ve seen his classic films like Grizzly Man or Stroszek, it’s easy to see why he is both so confounding and exceptionally talented. Similar to Ingmar Bergman, Herzog’s films are driven by philosophical, existentialist questions. Though unlike Bergman (whose interests were in God and religion and sexuality), Herzog is very much interested in man’s doomed pursuit to conquer or supersede nature. His great early films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God or Fitzcarraldo all examined men bent on conquering the great unknown and failing or paying an outrageous price for their hubris. Herzog is both in awe of the beauty of nature and simultaneously terrified by its horrors and raw power. His thoroughly unromantic view of the world around us puts him in stark contrast of the majority of his fellow documentarians (though Herzog also makes narrative films). Yet, by capturing both the untapped beauty of Antarctica as well as its unmatched power of destruction and danger, Herzog’s 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World is an almost peerless act of documentary film-making.

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After seeing underwater footage from a friend (Henry Kaiser who scored Grizzly Man) from the Ross Sea in Antarctica, Werner Herzog accepted an invitation from the National Science Foundation to visit the South Pole to make a documentary, though in his own words he wasn’t interested in making another film about fluffy penguins. Herzog’s interests are more psychological (though he certainly captures the overwhelming beauty of Antarctica). As much as Werner Herzog is intent on documenting nature at its purest and most unspoiled by man, he also wants to know about what kind of men and women would be driven to leave the rest of the world behind and expose themselves to the hardships of the bottom of the world. Interacting with the inhabitants of McMurdo Station (which Herzog seems to relish sounding similar to the word murder), Encounters at the End of the World is a fascinating portrait of the outsiders who found a community in this isolated terrain.

All the while, Herzog (who, along with his cinematographer was the entire cast and crew) provides a wry running commentary. One of the most surprising elements of the film is how funny it can be in a dark and sardonic way. One almost can’t be sure if Herzog is making fun of some of his subjects. Knowing the man’s philosophy about the murderous nature of, for example, the jungle, he certainly doesn’t empathize with those who try to romanticize their surroundings. But, at the same time, it’s also clear that Herzog is fascinated by these men and women. And when he finds a compatible soul in a glaciologist who speaks of the murder and violence of the microscopic world beneath the ice, you get a glimpse of two men conversing who have both stared into the abyss and been terrified but drawn in even further by what they’ve seen.

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I speak of the film as spiritual for a variety of reasons. Part of it is the overwhelming beauty of the film. Herzog doesn’t romanticize nature. He doesn’t idealize it. But, he also can’t deny the haunting beauty of the world beneath the ice in the Ross Sea or the luminescent structures haunting a tunnel formed by steam vents near an active volcano. Another part of the spiritual nature of the film (which reminds me of the ending of Synecdoche, New York) is Herzog’s agreement with many scientists that man (whether through our own stupidity or the inevitable corrections of nature) has limited time on this planet and this frozen wasteland will outlast us because even if we destroy it in the short term, we will disappear and it will return. There is a particular sequence where Herzog has conversed with the fatalistic glaciologist and they dive beneath the surface. There was something incredibly humbling and awe-inspiring about that journey into a world where humanity simply isn’t meant to be. It was otherworldly and alien, and a reminder that there is so much of the universe that humanity will never experience.

Herzog’s decisions on how to score the film border on genius. The film utilizes a nearly liturgical, spiritual score of chanting and organ-driven hymns of some kind, and when they are beneath the ice (I can’t even begin to stress how haunting those sequences were) or in the steam tunnels, the score kicks into high gear and Herzog has the wisdom to shut up and just let the power of the scenery do all of the speaking necessary. And there’s a moment about midway through the film where Herzog visits a camp of scientists studying the seals that live in the area and they begin discussing the nearly inorganic sounds that these seals make to communicate. One of the scientists compares it to Pink Floyd, and it’s nearly accurate. Were these not some of the most respected scholars in their fields talking, I would have thought Herzog was pulling a fast one on us and just playing unsettling electronic music rather than recording seal calls. It’s almost beyond belief.

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If you have even a passing interest in documentaries or nature, you owe it to yourself to watch Encounters at the End of the World. I fear that I’ve made the film sound too cerebral and that I may scare some viewers away from watching this powerful film. The intellectual and philosophical nature of the film is there if you want it (I certainly did), but if you just want to bask in the gorgeous and haunting scenery, you can do that as well. Encounters at the End of the World, like many of the best films, operates on a multitude of equally fascinating levels. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this film will stay with me for a long time, and I hope to return to its alien and exotic world many times in the future.

Final Score: A

 

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There are two criteria by which I judge the effectiveness of a documentary. Either it moves me emotionally (Children Underground, Undefeated) or it makes me think about the world in new ways (Road to Guantanamo). I’m not sure if a film has ever moved me as much as the 2011 Best Documentary Feature Oscar winner, Undefeated, and if a viewing of The Road to Guantanamo doesn’t leave you incensed about the handling of aspects of the War on Terror, you’re brain dead. Following one season in the life of one of the nation’s most respected high school football programs, Go Tigers! is a more cerebral experience than its spiritual successor, Undefeated, and if it never hits the emotional heights of Undefeated, it may have something more valuable to say.

Undefeated is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen (it’s currently a strong contender for the best, period), and so it’s almost unfair of me to compare Kenneth Carlson’s Go Tigers! to that much-beloved film. Though both films share the structure of following three players through one season (Undefeated also focused on the coach), Undefeated was far more focused on the personalities and emotional growth of the four subjects it portrayed. It was an intensely emotional  and character-driven ride. Go Tigers! is more detached and driven by the meaning of the football town to the team where it plays as well as what type of priorities would produce such a consistently excellent football program.

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In Ohio (and arguably the nation), there is no bigger football program than Massilon, Ohio. Having played for 105 seasons when the film begins, the Masillon Tigers are the oldest high school football team in the nation and easily one of its most successful. Football isn’t just a game in Massilon, Ohio; it’s a way of life. The town lives and dies on the success of the football program, and after a 4-6 season, the town is in a rut. The Massilon school system is on the verge of financial collapse, and if the town can’t pass a levy to salvage the schools, the school’s will have to make devastating cuts across the board. And, in the eyes of the coaches and teachers and players, the only way to convince the town to raise the taxes for the levies is for the high school football team to have a successful season.

Go Tigers! is told from the point of view of three seniors on the football program. Ellery Moore is a natural leader, but the football program is what’s keeping him out of prison where he’s already served a term in juvie for rape (which he denies, but says prison was what he needed regardless). Danny Studer is a gifted artist whose father is the conditioning coach for the team, and Danny’s been bred for football his whole life. And David Irwin is the star quarterback whose biggest concern becomes not making the necessary pass, but finally passing the ACTs. And whether they want it or not, the fate of the whole town lies on these boys’ (and the rest of the team’s) shoulders.

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The residents of Massilon make the obsession of Friday Night Lights‘s residents of Dillon seem like a passing fancy. Danny and David were both held back one year from entering high school so that they could be bigger to play on the football team, and other than an English teacher, no one has a problem with it. Rather than cut some money from the gargantuanly bloated football program, the town wants to raise property taxes on everyone to save the schools. On the day of the biggest game of the season, the high school band has permission from the mayor to march through any establishment in town they choose. Their stadium looks nicer than many smaller colleges. Football is the king of Masillon.

The film is abound with little tidbits exploring the obsession that Massilon has with football, and it isn’t afraid to ask serious questions about where this town’s priorities are. By framing the film’s actions in a town trying to salvage a financially wrecked school system during a major election, the film poses the obvious question of “would this town be in such a mess if the football program weren’t so large?” It also asks such questions as “Would these boys struggle academically if the football program weren’t their lives from the cradle?” And that last part isn’t hyperbole. The film opens with members of the football team staff/booster squad (it isn’t entirely clear) visiting a woman just after she’s given birth and putting a football in her baby’s crib. They do this for every newborn boy in town.

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I watched this movie several evenings ago, but I haven’t had a chance to review it til now. And, this is my first night back in Morgantown after spending the whole summer back in Philippi. I’ve spent most of today in the process of moving and unpacking. It’s as fun and exhausting as it sounds. The fun part is sarcasm. So, I’m going to draw this review to a close. Go Tigers! may not be as life-affirming and immensely enjoyable as Undefeated, but that’s an outrageously high bar to clear. If you have even a passing interest in football, you should give this film a go. I’m not a huge football fan, and I still found it brilliant.

Final Score: A

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review begins. I have to do two movie reviews today. I watched this Oscar-winning documentary last night before I went to sleep and as soon as I woke up today, my family went to the mall to watch Star Trek Into Darkness. So, if this review for this excellent documentary seems short or rushed, I apologize. )

When I was writing about music in New York City, I found myself overwhelmed with the simple fact that there are an astounding number of talented musicians out there, but unless the cards play exactly right, most of them won’t get noticed in indie music circles let alone gain mainstream exposure. The bands that get famous are the ones that sell and that isn’t always a mark of talent; anyone who’s ever seen the sales numbers of a Nickelback album know that you can make awful, misogynistic music and still sell like hot-cakes. For artists (and I consider myself one as I’m an aspiring screenwriter), we may not make art for money or fame, but we at least appreciate recognition of our talents. When an astonishingly great talent goes totally unrecognized, it’s simply a crime, and 2012’s Searching for Sugar Man chronicles a truly unsung American folk rock artist who spent most of his life in total obscurity not knowing that halfway around the world, he was a cultural icon.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a strikingly voiced and notoriously shy folk singer by the name of Sixto Rodriguez (though her performed primarily under the mononym, Rodriguez) made waves in the Detroit bar music scene with his gritty lyrics of urban poverty and repression and his general anti-establishment atmosphere as well as from his more general talents as a musician and a songwriter. Rodriguez was offered a record deal from Sussex Records where he released not one but two albums. Both records, Cold Facts and Coming From Reality, were beloved by critics and musical insiders alike, but no one in America bought the album and it didn’t sell. Rodriguez was let go from his record label, and he quietly disappeared into obscurity and no one knew whether he was still alive and the rumor was that he had killed himself on stage.

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However, unbeknownst to Rodriguez or even his own record label, his albums became smash hits in apartheid-era South Africa. Some American girl brought the album to the country and before any one knew it, Rodriguez became an underground sensation. His message of personal liberation and recognition of the hardships that minorities and the impoverished faced resonated with a nation suffering under the boot heels of racial segregation and an oppressive regime. Rodriguez’s music was as popular in South Africa as Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. His music was considered by many to be a soundtrack to their generation’s struggles. And, in the 1990s, two fans of Rodriguez make it their goal to uncover the mystery behind their favorite musician, and that’s where the magic of the film really begins.

I don’t want to say much more about the events that unfold in this film because for most Americans, Rodriguez will be a total mystery and much of the pleasure of the film is watching the truth slowly be unraveled. Because there isn’t much period footage for when the investigative aspects of the film took place (the late 90s) and there especially isn’t footage of Rodriguez in his 70s prime (because nobody cared who he was), Searching for Sugar Man plays out mostly through interviews as well as extensive use of Rodriguez’s catalog of music (to display how truly talented he is). The film may not have something grand to say about the human condition, but as a portrayal of the often unrewarding and often non-existent path to stardom, the documentary aptly explores the less glamorous side of an artist’s life in a manner akin to the spiritually similar In the Shadow of the Stars.

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The film wouldn’t have worked had Rodriguez’s music not been as powerful as the filmmakers and the various individuals interviewed made it seem. The whole movie is premised on the notion that Rodriguez was essentially as talented as Bob Dylan but simply couldn’t sell. And if he wasn’t that good, the movie would have seemed unnecessary. Thankfully, he is as good as advertised if not better. I was a rock journalist in New York City, and just like movies, I have a pretty prolific knowledge of music. I had never heard of Rodriguez outside of the context of the buzz surrounding this film. His music is phenomenal and reminds me of Van Morrison meets Bob Dylan. From a pure talent perspective, he should have been one of the biggest names of the 1970s, and hopefully, this Academy Award winning film should help make more Americans aware of his existence.

I still need to review Star Trek Into Darkness as well as do some work for Bonnaroo. I’m doing some coverage of the festival for the website that I wrote for in New York City and I have an article due on Friday. I need to work on it because I start a new job tomorrow, and I’m unsure what my schedule will look like for the rest of this week. I’ll leave on this note then. If you have even a passing interest in classic rock and 1960s/1970s folk music, you need to listen to Rodriguez right now. I will be buying the soundtrack to this movie as soon as I get my first paycheck at my new job. And if you enjoy the music and enjoy documentaries, check out Searching for Sugar Man which is a riveting look into a rock icon that never was.

Final Score: A-

 

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Understanding that documentaries rarely make an impact with mainstream audiences outside of Michael Moore films and sports stories like Undefeated or Hoop Dreams, I consider myself to be a fan. Hell, the very first movie I reviewed for this blog was the Oscar-winning opera documentary, In the Shadow of the Stars, and it’s been a love affair with great documentaries ever since (Children Underground, Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Road to Guantanamo just to name a few). The chance to see into another life and another world in a truthful way is something that you don’t often get from fiction (except for anything David Simon makes). However, the key to a great documentary is more often than not (I’ve realized over these last two years) great editing. You can have a fascinating concept, but if you don’t capture the right material (or aren’t choosy enough about what material to present), your film will not succeed to its fullest, and a lack of decent editing is the only thing keeping 2010’s Sweetgrass from reaching the ranks of the great documentaries of this decade.

Because conceptually, Sweetgrass taps into something that few other documentaries really attempt to find. Rather than utilizing subject interviews or voice-over narration or any type of conventional expository structure, Sweetgrass is instead just an hour and forty four minute series of images (with often excruciatingly long shots but more on that shortly) and it expects the viewer to follow along and relate to the trials and tribulations of its protagonists  without being led by the hand in any way whatsoever. And I respect the film for that decision. By removing any sort of barrier between the audience and the subject matter, Sweetgrass becomes a documentary in its purest form by simply documenting. And through this structural decision, Sweetgrass becomes one of the most intimate documentaries I’ve ever watched. Sadly, it is not always one of the most interesting or compelling.

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Sweetgrass follows the very last summer pasture sheep-herding of a massive herd of sheep in a particular Montana mountain range. I actually don’t remember the names of the two main men in the film (and I’ve been taking fairly extensive notes for my reviews again) because they are so often secondary to the images and quest of the film. In fact, the movies goes nearly 20 minutes before there’s any actual spoken dialogue (unless you count the yipping of one of the herders on the ranch). The sheep (as an entire unit) are just as important characters in this film as are the men that are stuck herding them for their summer pasture. And whether it’s the birthing of a new litter, the shearing of the herd before their pasture, young lambs running for the first time, or the inevitable death of sheep at the hands of natural predators, you get sucked into the world of Sweetgrass on the power of image alone.

However, and this is important, Sweetgrass can be slower and more deliberately paced than Eeyore after he’s smoked some barbiturates (I’ve think I’ve made this joke before). There are countless shots in this film that test the patience of even the most patient movie-goers. The film overflows with gorgeous shots of the Montana landscape and memorable images of the sheep herd, but nine times out of ten, the directors/editors chose to just let the scene last at least twice or even three times as long as it should have. I started trying to keep track of the number of times in the film where they just let the camera linger on a scene for what felt like an eternity when nothing was happening (and the shot didn’t progress the themes of the film any more), and I lost count. I’m not sure if I’ve ever watched a documentary that was this hell-bent on ruining a great premise and some great moments with absurdly awful editing.

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For a film that only runs an hour and forty four minutes, Sweetgrass felt like it lasted an eternity. And longtime readers know that I have an endless lover for deliberately-paced, slower films, but the incessant lack of something happening in this film always kept me from fully immersing myself in the world of these ranchhands and sheep in the way that I’m sure the filmmakers intended me to. If you like documentaries, Sweetgrass attempts to do something really interesting, and despite my complaints about the occasional moments of total agony this film put me through, I still enjoyed it and it had enough truly memorable moments to make it worth your while. But if you don’t have any interest in the documentary genre, you should avoid this film like the plague because it will bore the holy hell out of you.

Final Score: B

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review. Steam, the digital distribution service run by computer software company Valve for the purchasing of video games, has been running a lot of really good sales this week. I’m also on Spring Break. Combine the fact that I’m buying some AAA video games at absurdly low prices (i.e. Just Cause 2 for $3 and Hitman: Absolution for $5) with the fact that I actually have time to play them cause I don’t have any classes this week, and it’s easy to guess that I’ve been playing a lot of video games this week. I watched this film Tuesday, and I’ve only just now realized that, hey, maybe I should actually review it now)

What is art? Along with “What is the meaning of life?”, it’s arguably one of the oldest and most consistent questions that we’ve asked ourselves as a people. I aspire to both create art (my two as yet unpublished screenplays as well as my third screenplay which is 50 pages in the works) as well as to analyze it (this blog’s reason for existence). And though I think I’m fairly open-minded in my appreciation of artistic endeavors and can appreciate both the high and low-brow, there are still moments where I wonder if what I’m watching is art or if it’s mass-produced industry that happens to exist for entertainment purpose. Out of nowhere seemingly, that question, “What is art and, perhaps, can art be popular?” becomes the glue that holds together the riotously funny and insightful Oscar-nominated documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop.

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In the early 2000s, Thierry Guetta was a French immigrant to Los Angeles living the American dream selling vintage clothes in a bohemian L.A. art district. With his wife and kids, Thierry had achieved success. But Thierry had an odd quirk. No matter where he went or what he was doing, he always carried around a portable video camera. Thierry was obsessed with capturing every minute aspect of his life and had amassed thousands and thousands of tapes of his recordings of his daily life. But, Thierry’s life was changed forever when he took a family holiday to France to visit his relatives and he discovered that his cousin was Space Invader, a rising star in the exploding world of underground, illegal street art. After finding a rush in filming his cousin’s exploits of putting his Space Invaders tag all over Paris, Thierry decides to make a documentary about the street art movement.

However, despite the fact that Thierry’s camera is never far from his hands, Thierry only knows how to record moments in life, not how to make a film. After months and months of following around many of the world’s most famous street artists, Thierry just has footage and nothing else. But Thierry keeps hearing rumors about the existence of an elusive street artist called Banksy, who was pulling some of the most daring and high-profile street art stunts in England. Thierry makes it his mission to meet this shadowy figure, and when they finally do, it’s a match made in heaven. However, Banksy soon realizes that Thierry is more interesting than him, and Banksy makes an actual documentary about Thierry as Thierry tries to become a street artist phenomenon himself, going under his new name, Mr. Brainwash.

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The movie is practically overflowing with fascinating tidbits about this burgeoning movement that Thierry finds himself lost in. Whether it’s the rush of being almost caught by the police or realizing that one of the main supporting people in the film (Shephard Fairey) is responsible for arguably the most iconic political image in decades (the Barack Obama hope poster) or just appreciating the nuances of these people’s art (because this film shows again and again that what these men do is beyond simple graffiti and vandalism), there are almost never any moments in the movie where you aren’t lost in this world you’re being shown. Documentaries are often a type of voyeurism into worlds we don’t see very often, but Exit Through the Gift Shop takes that about a hundred steps further, when you realize that most of the footage of the film is of a man who was a self-professed voyeur.

I wouldn’t be doing my job here if I didn’t mention the serious speculation surrounding the authenticity of this film. There is a popular theory (which I don’t believe because mostly, the evidence suggests its real) that this film is actually a “mockumentary” and a massive prank by Banksy himself, and that Mr. Brainwash is simply an offshoot of the Banksy brand. I don’t really think it’s true but I should bring it up. By the film’s end, when Thierry is on the verge of becoming a street art superstar himself, Exit Through the Gift Shop poses some complicated and thought-provoking questions about the nature of art itself. Though I actually enjoyed Thierry’s art quite a bit (I’m a movie expert though, not an “art in the classic sense” expert), the movie is fairly blunt about how Banksy and Shephard Fairey don’t think highly of his work and that Thierry’s success is somehow illegitimate because it arrived so quickly. I disagree with the film’s conclusions, but the movie still makes a compelling case for it’s opinions.

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I’m going to keep this review brief. I watched the film 48 hours ago (which is usually the point at which my ability to say interesting things about a film diminishes), and I have Argo home from Netflix. I really want to watch it (which should go without saying since it won Best Picture, and Best Picture winners/nominees from the current year take top priority in my blogging). If you enjoy documentaries, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a must-watch. I would argue that it doesn’t have the cross-over appeal that Undefeated had, but even for simple art lovers, Exit Through the Gift Shop is one of the most consistently bizarre and fascinating films I’ve watched in a while.

Final Score: A-

 

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I work a lot this week. I’m not complaining. I get a paycheck and this is one of my last weeks as a manager before I voluntarily step down to just being a part-timer (cause working nearly 30 hour weeks and being a full-time college student does not really equate to academic success). One of the downsides of working and doing school is that I will occasionally watch a movie and then not have time to actually review the film til several days later. I.e., that’s just what happened after I finished the truly excellent Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated. It’s arguably the best documentary that I’ve ever watched, and it deserves a better review than I can give it after not having much time to think about it since viewing it in the wee, wee hours of Wednesday morning.

It’s very easy to make films with schmaltzy heroes that bring deliverance to some underprivileged group. The Blind Side and The Help are both built on fantasy and racial condescension (The Blind Side is a true story but plays hard and loose with the real life facts of Michael Oher). It’s harder to make a gritty, realistic story full of unsympathetic leads and outright bad people (read: Happiness). The hardest type of movie to make though is one with real-life heroes that doesn’t feel manipulative or unnecessary. To make a film with an uplifting message that exists for a reason other than to just make us feel better about ourselves. 2011’s Undefeated clears that bar and sticks the landing.

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Undefeated is the truly inspiring, real-life recording of the trials and tribulations of the Manassass Tigers, a struggling inner-city football team in Memphis, Tennessee. The team hasn’t made it to the play-offs in years, and in their entire 110 year existence as a high-school, they’ve never won a play-off game. Volunteer head coach Bill Courtney intends to turn the team around. It’s his sixth year as the team’s coach, and with his current crop of seniors, his odds of making to the play-offs have never been better. But, football is secondary to helping to shape these young boys into men for Coach Courtney, and the Coach always keeps character at the forefront for his young athletes.

Alongside Coach Courtney, the film also paints a painfully honest and intimate portrait of the lives of several of the players on the team. O.C. Brown is the team’s star athlete and the only one with real college prospects. Although O.C. is very poor and lives with his grandmother, one of the assistant coaches allows him to stay at his house to help tutor him so he can pass the ACTs to get into school. “Money” Brown is the brains on the team but can’t afford college and tears his ACL during an early game in the season. And the team bad boy, Chavis Daniels, has a massive chip on his shoulders, but Coach Courtney refuses to turn his back on him even when he crosses the line one too many times.

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My viewing experience of Undefeated for the first time was one of the most emotional experiences of my entire movie-viewing career. It’s not an especially difficult task to make me cry, but to have me uncontrollably sobbing is a feat only a handful of movies have accomplished. Undefeated took me to that place three times and I legitimately spent the last hour or so of the film going in and out of tears. It was the rare film that was both exceptionally honest and true. It didn’t hold back from how awful these kids lives were and what little hope many of them had once high school ended. But when it delivered its moments of uplift, it struck a more emotional chord than I can almost begin to describe.

I’m not sure if documentary film directors are eligible for the Best Director award at the Oscars, but if they are, it’s a crime that Undefeated‘s
Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin weren’t nominated (and the film definitely deserved some type of editing recognition). Though the film is a documentary, it never stops having a cinematic feel, and if you hadn’t told me before hand that this film was a documentary, I would have honestly believed that it was just a very authentic feeling film. The movie carries such dramatic weight and is a seriously visual undertaking that even people who don’t enjoy documentaries should find plenty to attach themselves to in this film.

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I hope it’s clear that I have a lot to say about this movie. It now joins The Tree of Life as arguably the best film of 2011 (and it’s infinitely more accessible than Terrence Malick’s opus), and it simply eclipses every other documentary that I’ve reviewed thus far. The film gets favorable comparisons to Hoop Dreams (which I’ve never seen) if you want more context for the film’s import. But, as I’ve said, I watched the movie before going to bed at like 4 A.M. Tuesday (so technically Wednesday), and while many of the heart-wrenching details of the film have certainly stuck with me, I no longer feel like I can do them proper justice after this extended absence. All you need to know is that this film gets my rare perfect score (though not so rare this week since the last movie I reviewed, The Godfather: Part II, also got this score) and that I don’t give “A+”s away lightly.

Final Score: A+

 

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Perhaps more than any other genre of film, documentary film-making has the chance to enthrall me with stories that would otherwise seem boring or out of my personal wheelhouse of what I define as “interesting.” From Day 1 of this blog’s existence (literally since the first film I reviewed was the wonderful opera documentary In the Shadow of the Stars), documentaries have proven their resilience over and over again. I had dreaded putting in this particular film, 1999’s Speaking in Strings: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, for the two months I’d had it at home from Netflix because a documentary about the “bad girl” of classical concert violin seemed about as interesting as a trip to the orthodontist. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

At the film’s ceneter is gifted violin prodigy, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. An Italian immigrant to the U.S. at the age of eight, Nadja showed an exceptional talent for the violin at the young age. And after studying at Julliard, Nadja won a prestigious violin competition which skyrocketed her to the forefront of the classical violin community. Nadja’s visceral and explosive style garnered her as much praise as it did harsh criticism from the classical music establishment. Like many geniuses, Nadja’s personal life is as explosive and passionate as her music and Nadja’s battles her inner demons of depression, alienation, and loneliness to create her haunting and powerful music.

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The film is almost devastatingly intimate. The film’s non-linear structure threw me off for the first fifteen minutes or so of the film but once I got a feel for how the film-maker (Paola di Floria) was dizzying the film’s audience much the same way that Nadja dizzied her concert hall audiences with her theatrics, I got into the flow of the film. By the film’s end, you feel as if you got an invasively personal look in Nadja’s life. With her suicide attempt, her disaffection with the majority of the world around her, the wounds from being lashed by much of the stiffer parts of the classical musical community, and her abandonment issues, you seem to know Nadja so well and how she turns that pain into such amazing music.

The filmmaker’s decision to make a movie about Nadja must be commended. Because I know how on paper, this film doesn’t sound like much. But whether it’s the regular use of absolutely gorgeous violin music (often performed live by Nadja herself) or interesting personality that takes center stage, Speaking in Strings never bores. It is a constantly engaging meditation on both the price of genius as well as the factors that might create a genius in the first place. As far as individuals that have taken center stage in a documentary that I’ve reviewed for this blog, I’m not sure if one has commanded the screen as much as Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

Final Score: A-

(Quick aside before my actual review. We’re on sort of a hot streak here with reviews. Lots of very good or great films lately. And you have to love it when that happens. Makes me remember why I do this blog in the first place.)

I’m going to put forth a rather unpopular position to hold here in the United States. It’s so unpopular, in fact, that if one is running for President of the United States and holds this policy position, they are essentially unelectable. I don’t believe in the death penalty at all. I used to be ardently pro-capital punishment. It was one of my token conservative beliefs (in the face of my otherwise liberal/European political disposition). Yet, after readingJohn Grisham’s non-fiction crime novel, An Innocent Man, I had a fairly sudden and decisive change of heart. The possibility that a single innocent man can be executed invalidates the entire process, and the class and racial disparities inherent in who is actually executed speaks to an inherent inequality and bias to the system. The rest of the world has realized what a barbaric and uncivilized system it is, but here in America we cling to the archaic practice with an almost religious fervor.

One of my problems with the death penalty in its practical use (let alone philosophical oppositions to having the power to end someone’s life) arises from the nature of our legal system. The vast majority of people involved in deciding whether someone should face the death penalty as well as carrying out the investigation and prosecution of the case are publicly elected officials. Politicians (or in this case prosecuting attorneys and judges) have a vested interest in remaining office. The primary way they do this is by not seeming weak on crime. What’s a great way to seem tough on criminals? Execute as many as possible. The way they are chosen for their job creates a feedback loop that places performing in a manner in line with the image they want to project to their constituency ahead of actual justice. The 1992 documentary film Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer explores both this issue as well as the money and media circus that prevented America’s first alleged female serial killer from having her fair shot at justice.

For those born in the 90s or who haven’t seen Monster or simply don’t remember the deluge of press when Aileen Wuornos was finally executed in 2002, Aileen Wuornos was a prostitute who killed seven men along the Florida interstates between 1989 and 1990. Her claim was that she was acting in self-defense and that each of the men had either raped her or were trying to rape her. British director Nick Bromfield traveled to the U.S. after she had been convicted of the first several of the murders (but not all of them yet) and sentenced to death and interviews her shockingly inept attorney, her adopted mother who is clearly just trying to make a profit off, as well as Wuornos herself. Through footage of the trials as well as evidence obtained showing key figures in the prosecution and investigation profiting off the trial (through film rights), the documentary paints a rather unsettling portrait of Aileen’s failure to receive a fair trial.

There isn’t a question of whether Aileen Wuornos killed those men. She admitted to it. She was apprehended after crashing the car of one of the murder victims (whose body was never found). Her accomplice, Tyria Moore (who was never charged with the crime but the film hints that she profited from film rights as did several key police investigators), had belongings of the victim in her possessions. Honestly, the film doesn’t even make as much of the question of whether Aileen acted in self-defense. I would say she did for the first murder (Richard Mallory) but it’s more questionable with the others. Instead, the film focuses on how so many people ultimately profited from the tragedy of these killings as well as the tragedy of Wuornos’ life period. The adopted “mother” gets a $2500 payment to set up an interview, then tries to stop the interview from happening, and then claims she never got her money in the first place (even though there’s film footage of it happening). You see the deluge of book deals and movie deals and TV deals and the complacency of a system that allows that to happen.

A lot of people seem to take umbrage with the very low quality of the film’s video and that the movie I would imagine started out as an attempt to document the facts of Aileen Wuornos. As you can clearly see throughout the film though, his attempts to do that failed. Nick Broomfield was taken advantage of by Arlene Pralle and Wuornos’ attorney, Steve Glazer, and impeded by law enforcement and the correctional system when they realized he wasn’t painting them in a positive light. So, instead, the film became about the exploitation of Aileen Wuornos by everyone around her as well as her complete inability to receive a fair trial. Since the facts of the case are so well known, taking this approach which instead examines some of the murkier and and less equitable sides of our nation’s legal system makes the film far more interesting in the end than a simple retreading of the facts.

With a history of constant sexual abuse from a young age as well as a history of prostitution from age 11 (just typing that makes me want to cry), Aileen Wuornos lived a troubled and tragic life beyond that which most of us could possibly even begin to imagine. Do I think that she was a danger to society? Yes. She was obviously unhinged in one way or another and likely killed at least one or two of those men not in self-defense (but she likely believed it to be so). Watching the interviews towards the end of her life (which this film doesn’t get to see) clearly shows that. However, she needed mental help. She didn’t need the electric chair (nor, ultimately, what she actually received, lethal injection). Her trial was a travesty of justice, and the people who were supposed to care for her the most just used and exploited her like everyone else in her life. Nick Broomfield captures the tragedy of her victimhood.

Final Score: A-

The power of documentaries to explore sides of life previously unseen is the reason for the whole genre’s existence. Through a simple presentation of truth (or what the editing room produces as truth), you can accomplish more to change social views than any work of fiction could ever hope. Sadly, documentary’s aren’t an especially popular medium of mass consumption and it is rare for a documentary to get a wide release. Especially for films that cover harrowing material such as genocide or poverty, it’s not the sort of life-affirming or action packed material that draws audiences in. Yet, if more people saw films like Gasland or God Grew Tired of Us, perhaps we could have more substantive conversations about these issues. Similar to Michael Winterbottom’s docudrama The Road to Guantanamo, 2001’s Oscar nominee Children Underground will open your eye to a heartbreaking tragedy and injustice in the world that should incense anyone with a soul.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Romania (a former Soviet bloc nation) became a dictatorship led by former Communist Nicolei Ceaucescu. In order to boost Romania’s work force and to become a competitor in the new European economy, Ceaucesucu banned all forms of contraception as well as abortion. This ill-advised policy decision led to an explosion in the population but not a large enough increase in production to feed all of the new children that were being born. Kids were being born but obviously they weren’t old enough to work yet so they weren’t contributing anything to the economy. They were just drags on it. So an already poor Eastern European nation suddenly had even more mouths to feed. Parents couldn’t afford to take care of their own children, and by the time the film was shot in 2001, there were over 20,000 homeless children in the capital alone.

Edet Belzberg’s documentary Children Underground follows the lives of five children (and glimpses into the lives of some of the other children around them) who, whether as orphans or runaways, live in the subways of the Romanian capital of Bucharest. Cristina is a 16 year old girl, but you’d be forgiven for thinking she were a boy for the film’s first ten minutes. With a bald head and a tough as nails attitude, Cristina and many of the other girls living in the subway station keep their hair short and their demeanor masculine to protect themselves from molestation and rape. Cristina is the leader of her own little group of survivors beneath the train station. The children beg and perform odd jobs in order to find enough money to eat, but more often than not, they purchase a paint known as Aurolac, which they huff to get high so they can momentarily ignore how hungry they’ve become.

The other four children’s situations are just as tragic. Mihai is a smart, sensitive 11 year old boy. He loves poetry and science and excels at the school he attends for the street children. Yet, he is terrified of his alcoholic father and ran away from home and is now just another lost, drug-addicted soul. Ana and Marian are two tragically young siblings. Ana, female 10, ran away from home when her parents were no longer able to feed her and her brother Marian, 8, and she dragged Marian along with her. She too is addicted to huffing the paint, and she and her brother both regularly receive beatings from the other children. The last is “Macarena,” the nickname given to another 15-16 year old girl who has the worst Aurolac addiction of all. She spends the majority of the film walking around in an almost completely oblivious haze as a self-defense mechanism against the cruel and uncaring world she inhabits.

Much like Grave of the Fireflies, it wasn’t more than twenty minutes into Children Underground before I started crying, and I didn’t stop until the credits rolled. Although the film isn’t for the faint of heart, it’s still almost mandatory viewing for anyone who cares about the realities of child poverty in the rest of the world and our moral obligation to keep tragedies such as this from happening. The camera doesn’t flinch from the violence and tragedy on display for a second (but more on why that was a slight problem later). You see 10 year old Ana kicked in the face and then brutally beaten by older children because they accused her of stealing their Aurolac. A grown man mercilessly kicks Macarena in the stomach over and over for crying in the subway. After Mihai and Ana have an argument at a park, he starts cutting himself with deep gashes up and down his arm as penance.

You see the hypocrisy and cruelty of the adult world that turned its back on these kids. Halfway through the film, a nun tries to take Ana and Marian to a home. Before they leave, Macarena follows the nun and begs to be taken as well. When she’s abandoned by yet another adult, she slumps in total despair and wails against her fate. Even after Ana and Marian make it to the home, the people running it determine for seemingly arbitrary and bullshit reasons that Ana and Marian wouldn’t be fit for the home simply because they’ve been in the street for too long. So, they’re dropped back on the streets. A priest walks by the children later in the film and berates them. He tells them that their lot in their life is their fault and it could have been avoided. You see grown-ups walking by with their eyes shut as these children destroy themselves in broad daylight, and almost no one ever stops to try and help them.

The rays of light in the film are rare at best. And it is the people with the least to give that regularly give the most in the film. Because if there’s ever been a scathing portrayal of what happens when a few control most of the wealth, this is it. You regularly get shots of the people living their lives in Bucharest who seem to be managing just fine. Yet, these homeless, starving children are beneath their attention. You see business owners exploit the children for labor but then turn their backs on them as soon as they are no longer useful. It’s the poor social workers who are their only friends in the adult world. It’s the volunteers at the local street children school that protects them. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, a woman living in the mostly destroyed ruins of a building shares her shelter with Mihai. She literally has next to nothing, but what she has, she gives to a child in need.

However, one ultimately has to hold the filmmaker at least partially responsible for some of the terrible things that happened during this film. Unless a camera was left in a hidden place and just happened to capture some of the film’s most horrific moments, Edet Belzberg witnessed truly horrendous acts of violence being committed against these kids and chose to let her camera keep running rather than stop them from happening. Understanding that many documentarians take a “hands-off” approach to film-making, to me there is absolutely no excuse to watch an 11 year old child slicing up his own wrists and not do anything to stop him or to see a group of kids brutally beating a 10 year old girl and not stepping in. By not involving yourself with the subject you’re shooting (especially when it involves at-risk children), it can come off as being exploitative.

The only other problem the film faces is the inexplicable decision to shoot certain scenes in black & white. It seems like a stylistic decision that distracts from the otherwise visceral reality of the film. Because if you can watch this film and not get absolutely sick to your stomach, you are made of ice-cold steel. Despite those two minor problems, Children Underground remains one of the greatest documentary films I’ve ever seen. In fact, it might be the greatest. The only reason it’s not going to get perfect marks is because of those two issues. Few films have left me such an emotional wreck after the film was done. When a film makes me say out loud multiple times “I can’t handle this anymore,” it’s a sign of how harrowing and powerful the film is. So if you ever need your trivial American life concerns put into perspective, Children Underground will remind you just how horrendous life in the rest of the world can be.

Final Score: A