Category: Social & Cultural Documentaries


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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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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-

 

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

Before people get themselves all in a tizzy over my review of Who Are the Debolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids?, I want to clarify something about the way I look at films. The best movies are timeless. Casablanca is as powerful today as it was 70 years ago. The same thing can be said for The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, or Rebel Without a Cause (obviously with different amounts of time involved). I’m sure there are great films being made today that will be timeless, but I am wise enough to accept that many films I love that seem so relevant now will look silly or naive in 50 years (I doubt I’ll still be writing about movies by the time I’m 73 although I can hope. It’s not that I doubt I’ll still be writing; I just doubt I’ll live that long). Who Are the Debolts? is an inspiring and heartfelt documentary from the late ’70s that seems such a product of its time that I’m afraid I’ll never be able to get the gooey schmaltz of this film out of my TV. I certainly enjoyed the film but it seems so absurdly optimistic and joyful that I can’t help but feel certain elements of it are simply too good to be true and intentionally edited to leave out some uglier truths that assuredly abounded in this film.

The Debolt family, led by Mary and Bob, isn’t your ordinary American family from the 1970’s, though they’d be angry if you told them there was anything they couldn’t do. With Mary’s five children from her first marriage (she was a widow) and one child from Bob’s initial marriage, Mary and Bob Debolt adopted 13 children over the years. Of various races (though primarily Vietnamese orphans from the war) and ages (because they’ve been adopting children for so long), Bob and Mary Debolt took in the kids that no other family wanted. Nearly all of their adopted children suffer from some severe physical handicap or another, whether it’s permanently crippled legs from polio or injuries suffered during the war, blindness, or lacking any limbs whatsoever, these were children that desperately needed love but no one else would give it to them until the Debolts came around. Showing the daily life in the Debolts house when there are still 12 kids living there (the 7 oldest had gotten older and moved out) and the struggles and triumphs of this happy and unique family.

I feel like I have to be the most cynical asshole on the planet to find reasons to criticize this movie which shows two of the most hard-working and loving parents I’ve ever seen. The amount of love in this family’s heart is astounding, and I have nothing but respect for them. It was a struggle as a child when my family opened our home to four foster siblings with no physical defects. I can only imagine how tough it must have been to take in 13 kids who were severely handicapped. And that’s the film’s problem in a nutshell. I have to imagine how tough this was because the film is all about the positive things that happened when this family took in all of these kids. It doesn’t do a very good job of showing how difficult this life must be and just what kinds of sacrifices Mary and Bob had to make in order for this to work out. It just didn’t seem especially realistic. There are moments where you see how rough it is. Watching the young African-American adopted daughter with no arms or legs strap herself into her prosthetic body was heart-breaking as was watching one of their newest children, the blind and crippled J.R., fail to make his way up the stairs, which the family calls “the mountain” because it feels like you climbed a mountain when you finally scale it on your own for the first time. However, too much of the time the movie went out of its way to be sugary-sweet and it lacked any authenticity because of it.

If you’ve ever been part of a family that adopted kids (or were adopted yourself) or you were part of a family that opened itself up to foster care, you should definitely watch Who Are the Debolts? even though the jaded cynic in me has to find flaws in it. It will remind you of just how important it is that we as a society look out for and (most importantly) truly love like our own flesh and blood those who don’t have someone to take care of them. Foster care and adoption are probably the only real ways that I can see myself ever having children because this world sucks too much to voluntarily put someone in it, especially when there are thousands and thousands of kids here in America looking for a nice home that simply can’t find it. It had been a while since I had really dwelt on all of the good that my family was able to do for the foster kids we helped raise, and this movie helped remind me that it was certainly all worth it and that it’s something I want to do when I’m older and have a wife and a secure source of income.

Final Score: B

The history of cinema is littered with tales of love gone wrong. It’s full of tales of passion and obsession and violence all committed in the name of that most sacred of human emotions, love. There’s a reason why these films have such universal appeal and are so prevalent. We, as people, are ultimately slaves to that passion and all of the turmoil and tragedy it brings. Perhaps, that is why 2007’s Crazy Love, a documentary about the relationship of Linda Riss and Burt Pugach, was so fascinating. It combines all of the elements of a great film; violence, passion, betrayal; but it keeps it all within the realm of a true story that almost seems to crazy to believe.

In the 1950’s, Burt Pugach began to date a woman named Linda Riss. Burt was a lawyer who worked in Hollywood and was able to show Linda a life that she could only dream of before. However, the relationship is far from perfect. Burt is incredibly paranoid, territorial, and jealous. He is also married. When Linda refuses to have sex with him before they will ever get married, he becomes convinced she is having an affair and forces her to go to a doctor and prove that she is still a virgin. He stalks and follows her. Eventually, she leaves him and the paranoia and conflict escalates. She becomes engaged to another man. Burt has strangers harass and follow her and attack her. It all culminates when he has a group of men throw acid in her face which permanently disfigures and blinds her. He spends the next 14 years in jail and her fiancee leaves her. I don’t want to ruin where this film ultimately heads but if a movie ever made you question what constitutes love, it’s going to be this film. I was shocked, appalled, and yet I couldn’t look away. It was so bizarre and strange.

The film is structured through a combination of interviews with those involved, including an incredibly candid interview with Burt where he doesn’t shy away from what happened in the slightest and is impressively open about the events of the past. The other major foundation of the film is archival footage and video to lay the groundwork of the different historical eras the film finds itself traveling through. It’s put together very well, and the film does a spectacular job of keeping the film’s final twist from you if you weren’t already familiar with the story, as I wasn’t when I watched.

If you are able to sit through documentaries, which I understand some people are unable to do, you have to watch this movie, perhaps for its ultimate shock value alone. I spent the last 20 minutes of the film talking to myself and yelling at the screen for the sheer insanity that I saw unfolding. It’s an incredibly bizarre and ultimately challenging story that you really just have to see to believe.

Final Score: A-

Few careers are as mesmerizing as that of the performer. Whether you’re an actor or singer (or in the film I’m about to discuss’s case, both), there is something positively entrancing about the thrill and rush and power that you can gain from standing in the center of the stage and having the whole world’s eyes on you. Perhaps that is why cinema has been obsessed with itself for so long. There are so many movies about stars and performers that this beautiful documentary about the people in the opera business who aren’t the stars but members of the chorus was so refreshing. You so rarely hear about the little man and his effect in the productions that we love. In the documentary In the Shadow of the Stars, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1991, you get an up close look at the lives of several different members of the chorus of the San Francisco Opera House.

Perhaps, it’s because I have a (slight) background in musical theater, but I found this documentary to be absolutely enthralling. To see people rehearsing and performing and going about even the other aspects of their lives, it brought me right back into the world of performing arts and immersed me in that sense of adrenaline and awe. The film is a combination of interviews with the members of the chorus interspersed with actual performances of their plays and also dress/ regular rehearsals. You become quite attached to the different people who are being interviewed and their stories and hopes and dreams and attachments. It’s a really human picture. One scene struck me as being particularly beautiful. A husband and wife who met each other through the opera sing a song together in their home. And, in any other circumstance, this could have been kitsch and maudlin, but in this film and with this couple, it was so sweet and sincere. It was just deeply touching.

I left the film with an immense desire to go out and watch as many operas as I could. Gosh, the operas showed had such beautiful music and such ornate stage direction and design. It was lovely. I also had a desire to start acting again but that has passed again already fortunately. If you were in theater ever or you simply just love the performing arts but never performed yourself, you need to watch this film. It’s that plain and simple. The only people I wouldn’t recommend it to are uncultured types with no interest in the higher arts. You really owe it to yourself to check this out.

Final Score: A-