Posts Tagged “Documentary”

2010

August 10, 2010
HBO
USA
English
87 Minutes
Documentary
Jeffrey Blitz [Spellbound; The Office; Parks And Recreation]

Everyone knows that playing the lottery is a ridiculous way to spend money. The opening stat says that “people” believe there’s a 1 in 6 chance of winning, when the statisticians will tell you that the chances are more like 165 Million to 1. And yet, even with these stats, some people play their state’s lottery every single week. In fact, compounding the irrationality of the enterprise, when the jackpots get up over $100 Million, even more people buy tickets, even though their chances become slimmer the more people who play. I last bought a ticket when some co-workers and I went in on about a hundred tickets when everyone was talking about the huge payoff. I knew there was no chance, but: 1) it was a social thing to do; and 2) just imagine how sucky it would have been had all of them won after I chose not to play. That was something I couldn’t accept.

This film follows a half dozen winners who illustrate the maxim “be careful what you wish for.” They are all a bit wacko, except maybe the couple who lost all their friends and moved from Pennsylvania to a waterfront mansion in Florida after claiming a $110 Million jackpot. They tried to continue life normally, but it just couldn’t happen. Conversations about waking up in the morning for a hated job or about where the cheapest gas was available no longer meant anything to them. Friends would stop talking when they approached. One woman who was a friend of the couple said that every day she wishes it were her and she stays up at night wondering why it wasn’t. They’ve kept some of the thousands of letters they received about business opportunities and donation ideas. Their two teenage kids remember not being allowed to leave the house for the few months afterward for fear of kidnapping.

We should all have such trouble, right?

Another Pennsylvanian winner bought 400 pairs of identical pants when he found a style he liked. He didn’t say no to any offers for business partnerships, he promised his family a million each, he built a hilltop mansion that was so poorly designed that he couldn’t add drywall for fear of its collapse. He bought more than one limo. Then his siblings sent a hitman to kill him and someone sold him a car with all the chassis bolts cut off hoping he’d kill himself in it. He now lives in the storeroom of a supply company owned by a friend. And he appears happier for it.

There’s the heartwarming story of a Vietnamese man who won the Powerball with co-workers and could buy his family in America as well as Vietnam a huge house. He and his wife tear up while describing their escape by rickety boat.

And then there’s a cat man who is clearly not mentally stable, put off dating and friends to help his parents with their business. After they both died, he became a crazy cat man hoarder whose property was about to be condemned so full of coke bottles and cats that you couldn’t move around in it. Down to his last three bucks he bought lotto tickets and won around $6 million. He has a friend who sort of counsels him on what to do and makes all interested women speak to him first. Under his supervision the man moves to a better house, but one year later finds himself at a motel that rents rooms by the hour where he appears to feel more comfortable. It’s $200 a week and his day seems to consist of talking to his motel neighbors and feeding about a dozen cats at a local body shop. Oh yeah, and he spends money on strippers and other back-of-the-alternative-weekly companionship.

Everyone interviewed (even the woman who continues to play but has never won more than $1,000) seems to think that there’s something larger at work than random chance. Even the Berkeley mathematician. He, of all people, should know never to play, but he attributes his success to the state of “theta brain activity” he went into to get glimpses of numbers, which he wrote down in a book and played for 18 months until those numbers hit. Even he seems like a wacko. His wife, having no more use for him after his win, divorced him and took half his winnings.

I’m not sure that viewers will have their behavior changed by watching this film. If you think it’s stupid to play now, you’ll probably come out of the experience with that view solidified.

There is a prank played on a guy (first seen on THE FRESH PRINCE OF BELL-AIR) whereby his friends show the guy a tape of the previous numbers with a new lottery ticket. And then they film it. He jumps all over the room to the degree where a heart attack might not be out of the question. So that guy can tell people that he knows what its like to win the lottery. Though he has no cash to show for it.

7.2 IMDB

LUCKY

Tags: ,

Comments No Comments »

2001

March 20, 2010
Netflix
USA
English / Spanish
80 Minutes
Documentary
Davis Guggenheim [NYPD Blue; ER; The Shield; Deadwood; An Inconvenient Truth; It Might Get Loud]

5 Teachers. 180 Days. Our Children’s Future.

As a high school teacher myself, this is the documentary that I want to show people so they can see what sort of challenges we face every day at work. I don’t just mean the many people I speak with who are confident that “anyone” can teach. I mean the supportive ones who have no idea how the dynamics of a classroom can change in an instant. This has much more truth than the heralded French film, THE CLASS, which was praised for its authenticity. While that film was more realistic than most classroom-set films, and was allegedly work-shopped for a year, it doesn’t come close to THE FIRST YEAR.

Five teachers, representing five different grade levels are featured. We meet all of them on the first day of their first year. They all work in Southern California, most thanks to the Teach For America program. A smiling teddybear from Illinois teaches kindergarten, a bilingual white man from a family full of teachers has a 4th grade class, a woman lets us into her 6th grade class, a community activist teaches 11th grade ESL social studies, and a fiery woman moves from classroom to classroom dragging her suitcase full of lesson plans and teaches social justice.

I told myself I’d give this film 10 minutes. It didn’t take that long to get me. The brief running time is divided up with different title cards. “First Day”, “Who gives up first?”, “I have a child I’m concerned about”, and so on. Lest the audience think that every day is fabulous and hugs are given all around as life lessons are learned, each teacher deals with at least one kid who is disruptive to all the others. This proves to be the most interesting portion. At least for me. The incredibly patient kindergarten teacher navigates budget cuts and pitiful staffing numbers while fighting for a doll of a boy with a severe stutter and speech problem. He also begins home visits when parents don’t show up for their conferences.

My school has a night where the parents are invited to come to school and follow their child’s schedule. I can assure you that the ten parents or so who show up each period have children who will try hard and be no trouble behaviorally the entire year. It’s the other kids I worry about. As this man pleads and begs and makes phone calls and opens his classroom early to help, the viewer can’t help but wonder exactly when he’s going to give up. A homophobic outburst in the social justice class requires an intervention, a boy with anger management issues takes the other 30 kids off task, another boy laughs during a serious ex-gang member presentation after the speakers say “what if they were aiming for you but hit your mother instead, would you be laughing then?”

It’s inspiring and honors the profession. It is also propaganda which is actively trying to recruit new teachers. Because there are five subjects followed in the 80 minutes, and because we are seeing brief periods of a full school year, we don’t ever see a “normal” day in a classroom. There are often days where everything goes well. There are days when teachers hide in their cars to sob. And there are days when all the extra preparation in the world wouldn’t have resulted in alert students engaged with the subject matter.

That film is still waiting to be made.

7.2 IMDB

The First Year @ Amazon

THE FIRST YEAR

Tags: , , ,

Comments No Comments »

2010

March 7, 2010
Cinequest 20
USA / Poland
Polish / English
83 Minutes
Documentary
Steven Meyer

Is there really another worthwhile documentary to be made about the Holocaust? This brief, interesting documentary says that there is. This one follows survivors of a less well-known concentration camp called Maidanek, where participants of the Warsaw Uprising were sent. This one lacked a railroad track so the prisoners were marched from the town’s station into the front gates of the camp after traveling for days with no food or water. This camp was also unique in that prisoners were given time in a field which was in between two barracks. Another difference was that it seems as if the Nazi guards made no secret of the ultimate fate of the inmates. At other camps, prisoners on their way to the showers were told to neatly arrange their personal items so that they could find them when the shower concluded. No such charade went on at this camp. Knowing that all the gold and money they had brought to bribe the guards wouldn’t secure their freedom, the prisoners then began burying these items in the field to keep them out of the hands of the Nazis.

The film is a mixture of survivor stories and a methodical archeological dig, as well as a story about the red tape of modern Poland. It’s no shock when items are found (what sort of documentary would it have been if these stories of buried treasure proved unfounded), but hearing about a couple’s buried wedding rings or an entire family’s supply of gold is much different than seeing these items being unearthed. The items are cataloged and the survivors get a chance to hold them, struggling to see tiny inscriptions in some of them.

A post-script tells us that less than 1% of the area has been excavated.

It has become no easier over the years to watch an elderly survivor of a concentration camp walk back through the gates of the camp that killed their entire family. Sobs and memories flood back and we can somehow see their pain. Most were the only one of their large extended families to survive World War II.

Not particularly uplifting, but worth seeing.

—–

The Cinequest Program Said:

When facing even the most dire of situations, the strength of the human spirit prevails.

In 1943, thousands of survivors of the Warsaw ghetto uprising were taken and held in the Maidanek death camp. There, a revolution of a different kind would occur. Realizing they were being selected for death, the inmates, in an act of defiance and bravery, secretly buried their personal possessions so that the Nazis could not take and use them to support their war effort. Sixty-three years later, an international team of survivors and experts from around the world convened for an archeological expedition to unearth the hidden treasures.

Director Steven Meyer’s inspirational Buried Prayers is a beautiful homage to the human spirit and our necessity to survive and fight against those who attempt to take our humanity away from us. And what they discover lying six inches beneath the long-untouched earth are not just relics, but incredibly powerful stories of hope.

—–

BURIED PRAYERS

Tags: , ,

Comments No Comments »

2008

July 21, 2009
Press
USA
English
97 Minutes — August 21, 2009
Documentary / Music
Davis Guggenheim [Relativity; NYPD Blue; ER; The Shield; Deadwood; An Inconvenient Truth]

Jimmy Page. The Edge. Jack White.

Guitar players have no reason to read any further. Take the day off work or school, and find the loudest movie theater you can. Go ahead. The film was made for you. It’s like “guitar porn.”

Led Zeppelin fans, I’m about to say something to you that will make you stop reading and head to your nearest theater. Non-fans probably won’t know why it’s a huge deal when I tell you that Jimmy Page will take us to see the hallway / staircase where John Bonham recorded his “WHEN THE LEVEE BREAKS” drum parts. Off you go, now.

Jack White fans. Unfortunately, due to my, er, age, I need to report that I have absolutely no frame of reference for White or The White Stripes or any of the other half-dozen bands he plays with.

And finally, for U2 fans, I’ll give you two reasons: 1) You will see “The Bulletin Board” at Mount Temple Comprehensive School; and 2) In Edge’s kitchen, he will put an old cassette in a player, mutter “not sure what this is”, and we will hear a 4-track recording of an early run through of “WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME” complete with extra high-hat, and Bono in the background counting out “4-5-6! 4-5-6!” to the rest of the band trying to figure out Edge’s rhythm structure. A perfect edit takes us whooshing to the Slane Elevation show just as the lights come on, and as I sat there in open-mouthed amazement, I realized that none of us have seen that show on a big screen before.

If you’re a student of musical history, the director, Davis Guggenheim, could scarcely have found three better guitarists to follow. James Patrick Page is 65; David Howell Evans is 47; and John Anthony Gillis (more on that name later) is 34. Page was there for the very birth of heavy metal, 60s Prog Rock, the era of the sessions guitar player, and his band had their own plane, “The Starship”, some 30 years before U2’s Elevation Air took off. Edge proves to be a good tour guide on the political influence of music, how punk rock made attitude as important as musicianship, and the cost of sonic perfection. White leads us through a depressed Detroit, hearing in blues music from the 1930s an expression at the anger he felt in the late 1980s when you were looked down on if you could play an instrument.

I need to get my own prejudices out of the way.

1) U2 is my favorite band. I’ve seen them more than 50 times, my first show being in 1984 in San Francisco. I have never waited for an autograph from any other celebrity of any kind, but I have waited for the band, both backstage, and at hotels. When I talk to close friends, many of whom I’ve met because of our love of the band, we still marvel that somehow, way back, we chose the “right” band to fall in love with. My first show was 25 years ago, and I’ll be seeing them again in October. Same lineup. Bigger stadium. Still the biggest band in the world. One of the things I love about them is that they are, by far, the best example of a band being larger than the sum of its parts. To a ridiculous degree. Any one of the four of them on their own or in a different band would probably not inspire any of the adoration they now claim. Except, maybe Edge.

2) John Bonham died when I was 13 years old. People sometimes play that “What single concert do you wish you could have attended?” game. Music fans answer all over the place, Elvis’s ’68 Comeback Special, Beatles on Ed Sullivan or at Shea Stadium, The Who when Keith Moon was alive, that Motown TV show where Michael Jackson first moonwalked, Springsteen Born In The USA Tour at the Meadowlands, the Nirvana Unplugged show. U2 fans usually say Red Rocks or Point Depot New Year’s Eve or Live Aid. If I could go back in time, I’d go to a Led Zeppelin concert from 1977 or so. I’m not even sure it’d be a good show. Back then, people sat in chairs to listen to the 20-minute laser-aided compositions, while inhaling god-knows-what. (In March, 1975, they played a version of “DAZED AND CONFUSED” that lasted a butt-numbing 43 minutes.) But to just be in the room with them. What was that like? I’ve been in the room with U2 before and that was pretty cool. Much like U2 is greater than the sum of its parts, Led Zeppelin is probably not-quite-as-great as the sum of its parts. Because those parts are spectacular. John Paul Jones is a far better bassist (and keyboard player) than Adam Clayton will ever be. Bono has only recently challenged Robert Plant, in his prime, as a vocalist (though not lyricist—Bono wins there.) And John Henry Bonham is the best drummer that will ever live. Period. End of sentence. I had a Zeppelin poster over my bed until I graduated from high school. There is one important thing that Led Zeppelin and U2 have in common. When John Bonham died, there was never even a conversation that the band would go on without him. Can you imagine three of the members of U2 touring with anyone else but the fourth? Me neither.

3) I probably have one White Stripes album. As I went in to IT MIGHT GET LOUD, I thought that Jack was one of those “trying-really-hard-to-appear-to-not-be-trying-really-hard-to-be-cool kids. Why the hat, why the bowtie, why the old-fashioned car, why live in Tennessee? I must say I came out feeling the most differently about him, as he was the one I knew the least about. He also has the most to overcome. Page, Edge, White. One of these things is not like the others. Yet.

The conceit of the film is that three guitarists from different eras, with different backgrounds, and different styles, would come together in a warehouse to talk about their love of the guitar and music in general. And they’re bringing their guitars (and guitar techs—Dallas Shoo gets plenty of screen time.) This is referred to in the press notes as “The Summit”. Seeing three professional guitarists discuss their craft would probably be compelling enough, even if two of them weren’t my favorites. But this Summit is only a small portion of the film, and not the most exciting part. For those viewers looking forward to a concert recital by the three men, you may be disappointed.

We will spend a great deal of time with each of the three individually, in hometowns, guitar shops, next to record players, surrounded by amps, and in the backs of cars as they each take us on their own musical journey. While this can be seen as self-indulgent on Behind The Music, none of them come across as conceited. Which is weird because they’re superstar guitarists. The difference here, I think, is that they are reminiscing on behalf of the guitar. The participants know that the guitar itself is the star, not the player. We will visit places and hear songs important to the courtship of each man and his guitar. This isn’t a film about stardom; it’s a film about musicians.

It might be a good time to point out that we will never really hear one of the three say that they’ve been influenced by either of the other two. Edge won’t tell stories of playing along with Zeppelin records, White won’t even acknowledge that the other two exist, claiming instead to study early 20th Century Blues. But each of them will, to an incredible degree, give praise to dozens of players who came before them.

We get no clue as to whether or not the three men even like each other’s music. And this proves to be a help to the film, not a hindrance. There is no hero worship here (except by us and the director) and the three men have such different styles that none of them could be accused of stealing from either of the others. But it also leaves the meeting between the three as sort of cold. This was the first time any of the three had met, and it didn’t appear to be the beginning of any musical collaborations. In fact, I don’t think there is any way in hell that the three of them went out for a beer afterwards. I’d be surprised if any of them had spoken with any of the others since the film was completed. Again, the guitar is the focus, not the individual.

The credit sequence at the beginning tells you just about all you need to know about the direction the film will be traveling. With titles that mimic a guitar font somehow, we are treated to close-ups of shiny frets, razor sharp strings, and smooth, polished curves of guitars. If instruments can be made into porn, Guggenheim has done it. A Page voiceover says, “caress it like a woman,” and damned if the director didn’t sex-up the instrument with loving angles.

The first scenes are of Jack White on what I assume to be his Tennessee farm. A cow moos as he picks up a single string, a coke bottle, and a piece of wood. This MacGyver move results in a quick slide-guitar performance. This build-your-own aesthetic is something that is very important to Jack White.

We next see the three men headed towards The Summit. White and Page are in the back of town cars, while U2 fans will be proud to watch Edge drive his own Mercedes to the meeting. In Los Angeles, Edge has the home court advantage. The three men are probably being prodded from off camera about what they expect to happen. White sarcastically says “we’ll probably have a fistfight” and “I’m hoping to steal everything they know about guitar playing.” Edge is excited and hopeful. Page says “we’re bringing our guitars, so there’s no telling what could happen” and then says of Edge, “he is a sonic architect”, which is as good a description as I’ve ever heard for him.

Since this is basically a documentary about guitars, drama must be manufactured and we see a super-slow-motion shot of the three men, in unison, walking up three different stairs to the raised platform where the summit will take place. Begin and Sadat wish they would have been photographed as lovingly. Hands are extended, still in slow-motion, smiles are exchanged, and we leave the warehouse and go back in time.

Jack White is all about “overcoming” a musical instrument in order to get it to do what you want. He is also about cultivating an image. It’s no mistake that the White Stripes only used red, white, and black—White got the idea from both the Coca-Cola logo and the Nazi flag. White is sometimes a hard man to like. The biographical sketch we get in this film probably requires some fact-checkers before we take it as truth. He was the youngest of ten kids, growing up outside of Detroit, under poor circumstances. He had a seven by seven foot bedroom and in that bedroom were two drum kits, a reel-to-reel, and all his records. He claims to have slept on a mat laying diagonally between bass drums. Unlike the other two, White’s growing up story in the film is animated. We don’t see a childhood home, and in fact, White doesn’t give us a tour of many important places to him. At the time, he played drums because two of his older brothers were already playing guitar. Also, White says, “I have no interest in playing guitar because everyone else is.” He gets a job in an upholstery shop and he and his manager form his first band. His first guitar is payment from a thrift store for borrowing his van to move. He loved it. An interest in old blues music was born, and to this day, he claims that the Son House song, “GRINNIN IN YOUR FACE” is his favorite song of all time. The song features a man singing and stomping his foot and that minimalism appealed to White. He seems to choke up when he plays that song for us while holding the roughed-up album sleeve.

For some reason, White’s story includes a 9-year-old kid, dressed exactly as White is, learning about music from present-day White. Not sure who’s idea this was, but Old White kicks a Montgomery Ward guitar and then Young White does the same. This Montgomery Ward guitar will be one of many old, out-of-tune, and low-cost musical instruments that White collects.

He formed the group The White Stripes with his ex-wife Meg White. When they married, he took her name. While I’m in favor of his feminism in this move, he negates all of my good feelings when the press notes still refer to “his big sister Meg.” But when it comes to the music itself, I can set aside his dress, his cooler-than-thou-ness, and his “authenticity”. Because he says things like “making music should be a struggle” and “sometimes I put the organ four steps away instead of five so I have to run faster to get there.” And then he said something that will make U2 fans stop in their tracks. He claims that when the White Stripes toured, neither he nor Meg knew what the first song was going to be. They’d go out. And try something. And if that didn’t work, they’d stop and try something else.

There is concert footage of White in various bands, and he is really good. I know, newsflash, right. But he has a soulful, bluesy thing going that he has no right to have. The filmmakers captured a guitar solo during a show in Austin where White was so into the music that he didn’t realize (or did he?) that his fingers were bleeding all over his guitar. He was literally bleeding for his music. At a different show somewhere in the Northwest, a single camera is behind an amp, facing the crowd. It follows Jack as he plays and the crowd is jumping and pumping their fists and he’s manically playing and jumping around and then he turns and begins singing and the place goes nuts. White’s stage setup is substantially smaller than either of the other two participants as you might imagine.

Jimmy Page is seen as a 13-year-old kid playing the song “MAMA DON’T WANT TO SKIFFLE ANYMORE” on the British TV show “All Your Own” in 1957. One of the biggest laughs of the film is when a cracked-voice Page answers the hosts question about his post-school plans with “I want to do biological research.” And then the fun for Zeppelin geeks really begins.

Page gets out of a car at Headley Grange, a former workhouse outside of London. Page once claimed that the estate was haunted, and I don’t know if it’s true or not, but Robert Plant wrote the lyrics to “STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN” there in a single day, and Peter Gabriel likewise had no trouble with writer’s block as he wrote most of “THE LAMB LIES DOWN ON BROADWAY” there with other members of Genesis.

Now, Page is an old man, with a goofy grey near-mullet. He is a bit of a caricature of a retired country gentleman, bumbling about his estate, remembering the good old days when he ruled the music world. But it can’t be overstated what a production genius he once was. There are things he did in the late 60s and early 70s with no technological help that are still being used today in music recording. He believed in the maxim: distance equals depth. One of the most famous things that he did was to set up microphones both right next to the amps, as usual, but then he’d place a second microphone some 20 feet away from the first and mix the sound to be right in between the two. The sound of the room and the natural echo were just as important as the notes in many cases. He changed recording engineers for each Zeppelin album–he was completely hands-on as a producer. This changed on Zeppelin’s final studio album, “IN THROUGH THE OUT DOOR” when the rest of the band would be happy if Page would come out of his drug stupor long enough to record anything. Page’s genius resulted in guitar sounds that weren’t like any others, and more importantly, he took the sheer strength and power of John Bonham and made him into the cornerstone of the band.

Page takes us inside the house and says, “this is the entryway, and there’s the staircase. This is where Bonzo recorded WHEN THE LEVEE BREAKS.” Page looked all over the house for the right spot for echo and power and found it at the bottom of the staircase in the front hallway of Headley Grange. The microphones hung down from the second floor and everyone left the room and John Bonham played. Page claps his hands to listen for the same echo and recalls that after Led Zeppelin IV came out, bands began putting their drummers in all manner of industrial setting. Elevator shafts, cement basements, etc. all trying to capture the same sound.

We next find ourselves in Page’s country house as he plays us some of his records. This is giggle-inducing. Page saying, “listen to this part” and “that was extraordinary” while playing air guitar to old 50s and 60s hits. I couldn’t help but notice that on the shelves behind Page are all of the Zeppelin box sets that you were too poor to afford back in the 80s when they came out. Page will play “RAMBLE ON” in his living room.

Jimmy sits on an old chair in his backyard and plays a beat-up old mandolin. He’s playing “THE BATTLE OF EVERMORE,” outside, by himself and it sounds magical. During the Page portion of the movie, we see plenty of black and white footage and hear of the pain he went through once he realized that he was just a guitarist for hire. He would be called to this studio and that, without any connection to the songs he was playing. His skill made him much sought-after, but he gave it all up after one session where he realized he was playing guitar with the Muzak orchestra. In response, he formed The Yardbirds. The many years past have not lessened Page’s anger at the rock press, especially for their response to Led Zeppelin IV. “One paragraph—that album had Stairway and Levee and Misty Mountain Hop and Rock And Roll—and they could only write one paragraph.”

Bono-haters will be happy to know that he doesn’t appear on camera saying anything. Fans will recognize the first clips we see of Edge as he does Yoga on the roof of his Miami hotel while holding a Blackberry. We then go to Hanover Quay where Edge and Dallas try to lead us in a tutorial on the effects pedals. It takes both men to change the music to the exact sound Edge was looking for. If it wasn’t clear before this film, no Dallas Shoo, no Edge. Seriously. It’s to the point where Dallas can read his mind. Edge fiddles with something, Dallas stares, trying to remember this exact setting for the next time Edge wants it. Edge plays a bit of “GET ON YOUR BOOTS.” He also plays “ELEVATION” without any pedals and then with the full court technology press. Edge will play guitar at Hanover, at his house, at the warehouse, and on the Irish coast.

In Edge’s kitchen, he’ll pull out the 4-track of “WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME.” He’ll give us a tour of Mount Temple School, including Mr. MacKenzie’s music room, where Edge says the band pushed the chairs to the side and tried to make a ruckus. He also jumps up on the stage-like platform where the band would play early gigs. He jokes that he stood at stage right for a reason he can’t remember “and I have been ever since.” And then, set your watches, because you will see the early single “STREET MISSION” on the big screen in all of its big-hair glory. And, though it may require rewinding when the DVD comes out, a full five-minute ear to ear smile is seen on the face of the once-jovial Larry Mullen. Edge is filmed all over Dublin, providing his own voiceover. He’s on the docks at sunrise, and these scenes are interspersed with the October photo shoot on those same docks.

Edge remembers the lengthy guitar solos of the 1960s and 70s and how self-indulgent they seemed. We see a schematic of an electric guitar and Edge describes how he and his brother, Dick built it, right down to wrapping the magnets. He was an electronics geek even at a young age. He recalls first with frustration the fact that Top Of The Pops was the only TV show that Irish kids could watch to learn about and hear new music. Then he turns downright giddy when he remembers seeing The Jam perform on the show. Twice the same year. His life would never be the same. No longer was musicianship more important than attitude. Suddenly, the fact that the band couldn’t really play their instruments was no longer a detriment to their breaking big.

Edge recounts a trip to New York City with his family. “People looked and talked just like they did in the movies,” he says. He saw a guitar in a window and went in to play it. Here’s your U2 pullquote: “Twenty minutes in that store defined the sound of the band. I thought, this better work.” While we watch an animated guitar, amp, and effects pedal, Edge explains how he discovered that creative use of echo could fill in notes when he wasn’t playing any, resulting in a much more full sound. How he takes away notes from chords, making them more clear. This is the part that U2 cover band guitarists will rewind over and over again on home video.

Edge takes us to the house where the “WAR” album was written and some demos recorded. He was full of anger about the “Troubles” and was concerned that he couldn’t express that anger with his guitar. Bono said something to the effect of “Go off and find it, Edge” or something else equally Bonoesque. Edge goes on at some length about looking at trees in an orchard and suddenly realizing that this group of trunks and branches and chaos was actually lined up in perfect clarity. Or something. Edge’s introspection resulted in “SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY.”

And yes, towards the end of the film, Edge stands in front of the very bulletin board where a young Larry Mullen, Jr. placed a notice looking for students to join his band. Edge reflects thoughtfully on what would have happened if he hadn’t responded to that first notice. He says he’d still be playing guitar, but with whom?

They each get to perform for the other two at the Summit. Edge will play Elevation while the other two look on. (He gets credit for the title saying “This might get loud for a second” as he fiddles with his equipment.) White will play something as well, but the real fun, and my favorite moment of the entire film is when Page stands up, while the other two remain in their comfy leather chairs. Page coolly rips into “WHOLE LOTTA LOVE” and Edge jumps to his feet like a tweener at a Jonas Brothers concert, his smile huge, his eyes pinned to the fingers of Jimmy Page. White is a bit cooler and leans in, tapping his foot, and also staring. The two of them appear to be trying to decipher the mystery of the universe. Edge is standing and actually moving slowly towards Page while he plays, his over-sized brain taking in every nuance of the song. It was the coolest.

All of these individual stories of the three guitarists are divided up with footage of the warehouse and songs from each of them, and old clips and there are chapter titles for each new section. The editing is pretty perfect, showing us modern day images juxtaposed with how the person looked when they were just starting out. We hear the voices of the participants, see rare photos, and have the privilege of listening to dozens of songs. (Final stats: Page: 18; Edge: 20; White: 17)

The best chapter titles say simply “Edge’s Explorer”, “Jack’s Kay”, and “Jimmy’s Strat.” And then we hear about how the love affairs started. It’s always difficult to capture creativity in a film, but this one does a pretty good job. Each man asks “what if I…?” at specific points in his life, and that decision, coupled with hard work, gave them each a very lucrative career.

For a rock guitarist, Edge is by far the most normal of the three.

Page used to wear purple silk dragon-adorned pajamas, for pity’s sake. Page used a violin bow, Page had a double-guitar for “STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN,” Page bought the house of Aleister Crowley, Page used an actual theremin onstage, Page had a thing for barely teenage girls. White wears bowties and vests and guyliner, and took the last name of his former wife who he still refers to as his “Big Sister Meg.” Edge is thoughtful and polite and self-deprecating and by my estimation, we see much more of Edge and hear much more U2 music (Bass Trap! Passengers! One Tree Hill! Tomorrow!) than from the other two musicians.

We are left with three very different people doing the same job. Page and his cohorts in Led Zeppelin were responsible for many heavy metal clichés which are still laughed at today. Both the double-necked guitar and violin bow that Page required were mocked by the quintuple-necked bass and violin v. violin solo in Spinal Tap, (a clip of which we see). The “self-indulgent guitar solos,” as Edge refers to them, were a staple of Zeppelin shows. (Wait until you see the clip of a concert by the Edgar Winter Group.) Edge claims to have cried while watching Spinal Tap because he knew it was truthful. Punk rock itself can be seen as a response to Zeppelin and Queen and Yes and every other band who created 15-minute songs when a 2:30 Ramones masterpiece would do. Page brings this double-neck guitar to the Summit and see if you agree with me that Edge is sort of laughing at it as Page explains how it was necessary in order to quickly switch from acoustic to electric during “STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN.”

By the same token, Edge’s tutorial on his effects rack and several dozen pedals is immediately followed by White saying, “technology is the enemy of creativity.” White built a guitar in front of us and Edge needs his own carbon offset to play his. White fronted a two-piece band, and claims his favorite song was made by a man stomping and singing the blues. However, White enlists a guitar tech to mount a harmonica microphone inside one of his guitars so that he can grab it and sing through his amp. So he’s not the tech-hater he claims to be. White will bring this guitar to the Summit.

Page was often thought to be the single best guitar player in Britain, playing on many, many songs as a session player. White studied the old bluesmen. Edge admits to not having a particularly deep musical knowledge. Of the three men, (let the e-mails start), Edge is clearly bringing up the rear in terms of guitar virtuosity. Even the choice of songs the three men play with each other at the Summit tell us something about their proficiency.

The Page song the three play is “IN MY TIME OF DYING,” a masterpiece of slide guitar. This performance alone is worth the price of admission as Page slides like a master, Edge somehow harmonics it up, and White finds the blues. White’s song is “DEAD LEAVES AND THE DIRTY GROUND,” and he barks out orders to the others as they play. The Edge song chosen is “I WILL FOLLOW,” which Page and White could probably play with their eyes closed, but which wouldn’t sound like Edge. Edge has overcome musical ability with musical uniqueness. There are guitarists who sound like Page and White, but none who sound anything like Edge.

Having said all of this, I’m not entire sure that the film will work for everyone. Fans of any of the three men’s music, or the guitar itself will have themselves a ball. Musical historians can find something to enjoy in the way that music has evolved from 1957 until today. But for those who see the trailer and think they’ll be treated to a concert by the three men, think again. We see relatively little footage from this heralded meeting. Most of the information is compiled during the individual portions. The warehouse also features a box of records that we never hear. We can only hope that a DVD extra will be the complete warehouse meeting including songs listened to and played and any demonstrations the men did for each other.

When I walked out of the theater, I realized that my face was hurting because I had been smiling so much while watching it. I may have shouted (or at least mumbled) at the screen. You rarely get a chance to see musicians you love on a large screen, so it’s right to feel a little giddy when you can. I would suggest something that I normally never do. Go see this in the loudest theater with the biggest screen you can, even if you normally avoid the chains like a plague, as I do. This film needs to be felt and experienced. Don’t wait for the DVD.

7.3 IMDB [102V]

IT MIGHT GET LOUD

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Comments 2 Comments »

2008

July 20, 2009
HBO
Canada
English
90 Minutes
Documentary
Paul Saltzman

Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954. Charleston High School in Mississippi finally integrated their single high school in 1970. In that year, the seniors had two proms. One for the white kids and one for the black kids. And that’s the way it continued until Charleston’s most famous resident, Morgan Freeman, offered in 1999 to pay for a single prom, provided it was integrated. He was turned down. So he tried again in 2008. This time the schoolboard and the seniors themselves said yes.

The high school has 415 students, 70% of whom are black.

The documentary crew gave cameras to a dozen or so students, probably the most outspoken of the group. All of the kids were fine going to an integrated school and living in an integrated town. At least all of the ones who appeared on camera. One white senior male was photographed behind a screen for fear that his family would see him brazenly say things like “I’ve had white lovers and black lovers and it’s what’s inside that counts.”

Whenever something comes up that speaks for the other side–that is, the racist side–the cameras aren’t there to capture it and we see events unfold with animation. People in this town may be racist, but they also are careful. A white girl claims that a black girl threatened her and then brought a gun to school the next day. We hear from the black girl but the white one is nowhere to be found.

A prom committee is formed and rules are established. One white girl resigns from the committee because she would not be attending the mixed prom, though she would go to one if it were white-only.

Meanwhile, the townspeople are reacting. We hear from several parents, who remember their own segregated proms. We meet one white senior girl (who looks to be about 14) who openly talks about her black boyfriend (who looks, maybe 15). They aren’t particularly demonstrative at school. They don’t hold hands in front of people, and neither has ever been allowed to visit the other one’s home. They claim to be in love, and with West-coast 2009 eyes, they seem like a naive, though cute couple. But to people stuck in the past in Mississippi, they might just represent the downfall of the human species.

The woman’s father is by far the most open about his thoughts on their relationship. He is one of those “you can either love me or hate me. I hope you love me, but if you don’t, keep to yourself and I’ll do the same” type of southerners. He claims to have plenty of black friends, but he feels like his girl will be hurt when she gets out into a real world that won’t approve of her boy choice. The boy’s parents take a more “be careful” approach. The man tried to punish his daughter by grounding her and taking her cell phone, but she stayed with the boy. As the school’s sole interracial couple, the prom has extra meaning for them.

We need tension, and it comes in the form of some parents paying for and holding a white-only prom after all. A meeting is held in someone’s house and two of our interview subjects recount being there and hearing a father say “no black boy is going to rub up all on my daughter at a dance” and they take off denouncing the meeting and the prom. Some white kids refuse to go, but others don’t. And the ones who went received much less scorn than I would have expected. They took dates to a party to which an entire ethnic group was excluded. And they didn’t feel particularly bad about it.

The white parents hire a lawyer who speaks to the film crews in their stead. He begins saying things that make them look worse while trying to make them look better. One obvious question for a lawyer is “why won’t those parents speak to us?” To which he replies “They don’t want to appear racist.” By holding a white-only event, they don’t want to appear racist. Nice.

Clips of Freeman driving around, clips of kids worried about dresses and tuxedos and big enough limos and whom to go with begin to take over. Beauty parlor scenes, texting, music apprehension. It all seems pretty normal.

One thing that isn’t easy to see is that just about everyone we see in town is poor. These kids come out of trailers and walk down milk crate steps while dressed in beautiful, colorful outfits. It seems like the town much more alike than the older generations would lead you to believe.

The film is most successful in documenting an anachronistic town, with a single small high school, who can’t seem to get their head around racial diversity and interaction, more than 50 years after the Supreme Court ruled on the matter.

8.4 IMDB

PROM NIGHT IN MISSISSIPPI

Tags: , ,

Comments No Comments »

1999

July 17, 2009
Netflix DVD
USA
English
82 Minutes
Documentary
Christine Fugate

From housewife to porn star.

A documentary about Stacy Valentine, a porn star from the late 90s. “Encouraged” by her husband, she sent nude photos of herself to a men’s magazine which printed them and then flew her to Mexico for a nude photoshoot with some Adonis. Upon her return to her small town in Oklahoma, she packed up her things, and left her husband and town behind to start her new life in Los Angeles.

There are a whole slew of documentaries like this, both full length, and as a part of HBO’s Real Sex or some other titillating cable series. Besides the obvious, the reason I continue to watch them is twofold: 1) are there really any well-adjusted, non-abused or addicted women who get into porn; and more importantly, 2) How does a porn actor or actress ever have a normal romantic relationship. Most of these kinds of documentaries try to answer both questions. PORN STAR: THE LEGEND OF RON JEREMY; WADD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JOHN C. HOLMES; SEX: THE ANNABEL CHONG STORY; THINKING XXX all tried.

As to question 1, this film claims that while Stacy was adopted (gasp, so was I) and her father had a temper, she was never abused in any way. She also claims to love sex (as every porn star in recorded history has claimed) and be good at it. Although it’s easy to hide, her wholesomeness makes me believe that she has no drug addictions. In fact, she’s sort of a square.

As to question 2, that’s where this film is pretty well-done. At the beginning she’s interviewed on her bed and she says that if she’s horny, she goes to work and if she wants someone to talk to after work, she has her cats. But towards the end, she’s tried to start a relationship with another porn star, Julien (who I did recognize, the pool of men in the business being much smaller than the pool of women). They seem, dare I say, cute together. Both dumber than dirt, both look every bit the porn star they are. They talk about handholding being more intimate that intercourse, and how they don’t care if their work involves sex. There is a scene towards the end that could only happen in the adult business. For the first time, Stacy agrees to shoot a scene with Julian and another man. The other guy goes first and we zoom in on Julian as he watches the woman he claims to love having sweaty sex with another man. Though he knows that it’s just work, the look on his face is heartbreaking. He literally curls up in a fetal position with a pillow on his lap, unable to perform while his wife acts like she’s having the best sex of her life. They break up soon afterward, though he appears to really care about her.

Another angle this film tries to hit is Stacy’s complete lack of esteem about her body, which is a pretty important part of being a porn star. She got her first boob job soon after marriage and the film includes three pretty gross scenes of breast reduction, liposuction, and lip augmentation. She is never satisfied, thinks that she’s fat, and often laments that her co-stars won’t be aroused by her body. How weird for a person who is in the most exposed vocation on earth to be so unsure about how she looks.

Stacy seems like a nice enough young woman. Her mother is aware of her chosen profession and even accompanies her to the AVN awards in Vegas. When Stacy is shut out of the five categories she’s nominated for, you’d think her life were over. Equally upsetting to we the viewers, when she wins Star of the Year at a knockoff parallel Cannes Film Festival for porn, she can hardly contain her joy and rushes back to the hotel to call her mother back in Oklahoma “Mom, you are talking to the Best New Starlet of 1998!” Exactly how does a parent respond to such a call?

We watch her at conventions where men have no trouble just putting their hands on her, and we see her arrange a date with a rich fan. She comes back and throws the money in the air, just like in a Hollywood romance.

A post-script tells us that she left porn after four years and got a job as a “model recruiter” at Penthouse.

6.9 Metacritic
6.4 IMDB

Girl Next Door @ Amazon

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR

Tags: , ,

Comments No Comments »

2009

July 16, 2009
HBO
USA
English
45 Minutes
Documentary
Alexandra Pelosi [Journeys With George; Friends Of God: A Road Trip With Alexandra Pelosi]

After being exiled from his home and the church he built, the former minister tries to redeem himself and rebuild a life for his family.

Something happened while I was watching this short documentary that I never expected to happen: I started feeling sorry for Mr. Haggard. Of all the social issues that are dividing our country, the one that I have the most trouble with, above all else, is the group of people trying to stop gay people from having the same rights as straight people. Adoption, marriage, and leading a church. Racism, abortion, creationish, etc, all take a back seat in my mind to two adults in love. How do you legislate that?

Before seeing this, Haggard was a hypocrite who spoke out against gay equality while having an ongoing relationship with a male escort. This documentary shows us some of his early sermons on the topic and in retrospect it’s easy to snicker at him as he explains the great danger of homosexuality. A particularly awkward speech he gave ten years ago mentions that a buddy and he were knocking on doors while going about the lord’s good work, or whatever, and they suddenly found themselves in the parking lot of a gay bar. Someone called out to them “are you two together?”, then we see the audience at the sermon bust out laughing like it was the craziest thing they’ve ever heard. Can you imagine? Two men being a couple? Madness?

But here’s the thing: Haggard seems like a charismatic, slightly dorky, leader of people. If he encourages you to do things, I bet that you do them. He is still strongly religious, still reads the bible, and is still almost superhumanly honest. Some of the questions Pelosi asks (and she is great at this in all her films) are so on point, that the subject can’t help but answer with the first thing on his mind. He doesn’t sugarcoat what he did or his “struggle” or when the news came out that he was “completely cured of his homosexuality” that Haggard himself never said it, but one of his former co-pastors did. He knows he isn’t “cured” and he may not believe that being gay is “curable”. He continually talks about the sins he’s committed, his wife seems pretty cool and supportive, his kids are exactly like every other kid, though probably more understanding as the family is banished from the State of Colorado and forced to live in loaner houses, a residence hotel, and then a tiny apartment.

And here’s the part I can’t get my head around. He had sex with a man, he admitted to buying crystal meth. And for those transgressions, he was fired from his job, required to enter treatment, banned from ministering again, and here’s the kicker, forced out of the entire state of Colorado. On who’s authority can a church with 14,000 members tell a man and his family they must leave the state and the church which he founded and led for decades? I’m sure there are bylaws and such that spell out what happens, but wouldn’t a man who has, according to their beliefs, fallen, need his home church and familiar surroundings now more than ever? Isn’t that what Christians are supposed to do?

As an atheist, I’m finished shaking my head while listening to people talk about why theirs is the one true religion. I’ve moved past his or anyone else’s religion. But here’s what I saw: A man who could again be a very compelling leader, a man interested in the downtrodden, who could be an asset to any organization (even a church) that might want him.

At the beginning of the documentary we see scenes from Pelosi’s previous project where Haggard is hugging young men and speaking in front of all male arena crowds and riding his scooter around the huge empire that he’s had a large part in building. We can snicker at the male hugging, but there is no doubt that all the people who speak to him after his sermons or speeches think that he’s the greatest. They can scarcely control their enthusiasm.

Did the punishment fit the crime in this case? As someone who wishes everyone could just bang who they wanted, obviously I don’t understand how big a crime it is to enjoy the company of the same gender. But the way he was treated, after admitting to touching a man, seems just about as unchristian as you can get. They gave him a severance package, they forced him into exile in Arizona, the White House distanced themselves from him, the other evangelical leaders suddenly decided that he never really was that powerful, and he became a story that his former supporters wished they could simply forget.

The greatest post-script possibility of this documentary would be the news that Ted Haggard has started a ministry for all sexual orientations. He could keep the meth out, but let in the gay and the bi and the poly and whatever else consenting adults should be allowed to do. Shouldn’t those children of god have access to the same scripture and fellowship as his initial flock? If you believe this kind of thing, and I don’t, Haggard could conceivably save souls for Jesus. He still has the skill set. Let him lead.

Back to the filmmaking for a second. Pelosi is great at asking the pushy, yet not-rude question. I’ve always felt like her subjects consider her some kind of west coast, liberal Jew, who simply doesn’t know how social graces are followed and they are therefore extra forgiving when she acts in such a forward manner. This film is short, and Pelosi and another person handle all the filming. There are shots in cars and shots on walks in the desert and old clips and explanatory title cards. He really opened up to her and it made him, and his family, a much more sympathetic subject.

7.0 IMDB

The Trials of Ted Haggard @ Amazon

THE TRIALS OF TED HAGGARD

Tags: , ,

Comments No Comments »

THE SIDE EFFECTS OF BEING AMERICAN
2008

Netflix Roku
USA
English
105 Minutes — May 30, 2008
Documentary / Sport
Chris Bell
12 Month Movie Pace: 152

Entertaining documentary about the hypocracy of America’s relationship with steroids. The main facts can be narrowed down to two. 1) What if steroids aren’t actually bad for you; and 2) If they are bad for you, why don’t we better regulate other drugs which are much more dangerous, but used much more widely and therefore encouraged, much less tolerated?

Chris Bell is the middle of three boys born in upstate New York. They come from a big-boned family. The oldest got a nickname early of “Mad Dog” because he got in fights with schoolmates who called him fat. The younger one had a learning disability and ended up with the nickname “Smelly”. They all became obsessed with TV wrestling to the point of putting on shows in their basement and even performing in school talent shows.

Then Mad Dog went to play college football where he was all but ordered to begin taking steroids. Which he has never stopped to this day. He is now 35 or so. He also had a career in the WWF as one of the guys who lets the stars beat up on him in the ring. The director turned 18 and moved to California to attend USC and to work out at the fabled Gold’s Gym in L.A. where his hero, Arnold, used to work out. His dream of WWF glory never panned out. Smelly is also a steroid user and competes in powerlifting competitions. (We see him bench press 705 pounds–unbelievable).

Somehow the Bell boys are a perfect “normal family” example which plays off well with all the well-known examples the director finds of steroid obsession. Bonds, Maguire, Conseco, Carl Lewis, Ben Johnson, Lyle Alzado, Hulk Hogan, as well as porn stars, Air Force pilots, Congressmen, psychiatrists, and medical doctors of all stripes. The medical doctors to a person are confident that steroids are as safe as any other treatment and can’t understand the mania around them. Congress spent more time talking about steroid use in baseball than Hurricane Katrina or health care.

Bell goes to an anti-aging clinic (really a chiropractor) where after a few rudimentary tests, which he does himself, he gets a package in the mail of injectable steroids. He visits researchers, Olympians, parents of teenage suicides, Mexico, a supplement store, and he even creates his own supplements with the help of three day laborers from the local Home Depot. For $4 worth of supplies, he can sell a bottle for $60 and there is absolutely no governmental regulation. He visits a photo shoot for a fitness magazine, he gets two pictures taken ON THE SAME DAY for a before and after mockup. Pouty bad posture before–smiling, spray tanned, shaved, and flexing after (along with some photoshop work).

What I’m saying here is he gets so many different perspectives on the need for Americans to look and perform their best (legally or illegally) that it’s a wonder he kept them all straight. Which he does. A particularly strong argument is the sheer number of prescription drug advertisements we see on TV and why those are fine, but it’s a crime to possess steroids. One lawyer says “Peanuts kill people each year–do we sue God for making them?” We then see a list of reasons for emergency room visits. Alcohol, cocaine, vitamin C, then way down in the 160s, steroids. Deaths by tobacco: 435,000, alcohol: 75,000; steroids: 3.

We see George C Scott in Patton, Stallone in all kinds of things, Arnold in Conan and Predator. What’s a boy in America to do? Even GI Joe has completely changed from a normal looking guy in the 70s to a buffed beast today.

A documentary like this takes a taboo topic and asks “what’s the big deal?” In many ways RELIGULOUS did the same thing.

Very well done.

8.0 Metacritic
7.8 IMDB

Bigger, Stronger, Faster* @ Amazon

BIGGER STRONGER FASTER

Tags: , , ,

Comments No Comments »

2007

June 26, 2009
Sundance Channel
English
85 Minutes
Documentary
Ian Connacher

Documentary about how human’s love and use of plastic, the world’s most versatile substance, is choking the planet. I thought it might make me feel bad about my water bottles, but it goes much deeper. The difficulty of recycling bottles which have different kinds of plastic used for their body and the cap. We look at pristine beaches that are clean, then the next day, covered in washed up plastic. The filmmaker head out to one of the earth’s five swirling ocean sights where plastic congregates due to the currents–something I’ve always wanted to see. It was a four day boat ride, and once they got there, they began collecting items. The actual area of trash is huge–about the size of Alaska, so the pieces were still one-at-a-time and not a huge pile like I may have been expecting. They do take a huge net and drag it behind the boat where it collects tiny pellets of plastic which fish mistaken for eggs. As one of the Greenpeace people say, the ocean looks crystal clear, but is completely full of plastic pellets that animals eat. We go to India where villagers make new items out of old plastic bags. There is a Himalayan village where plastic bags have been outlawed by a forward-thinking panel of elders.

There is some cause for optimism. A guy somewhere in America takes all kinds of trash, even the grossest stuff, and makes it into railroad ties, which last longer than wooden ones. These ties are the exact same size in every country on earth. Another man shreds stuff down into such tiny pieces that it becomes a mulch that plants can thrive in. Two men are shown “eating” a plastic they devised by using plant cells.

Much like the guys in KING CORN tested their own lives and bodies to learn the influence of corn in their lives, the filmmaker in this case gives us a tour of his small apartment and labels all the things made from plastic. I dare you to do it in your own homes. Yikes.

Link to film info is here.

Addicted to Plastic @ Amazon

ADDICTED TO PLASTIC

Tags: ,

Comments No Comments »

THE ANNABEL CHONG STORY
1999

June 15, 2009
Netflix DVD
USA
English
86 Minutes
Documentary
Gough Lewis

This one creates an internal struggle with me that I don’t usually experience. Say you knew a full-fledged feminist. Say she went to law school and then grad school at USC. Say she studied sexology and psychology and then changed her name and then entered the porno world to try and shake it up from the inside. She doesn’t claim to be damaged, she just wants to “take back porn” from all the men who are in control. Not only does she appear in some of it, she sets out to film herself having sex with 251 men in 10 hours or so. It’s not fulfilling sex, it’s in no way erotic sex, but it takes the essence of porn and distills it to a ridiculous degree. Nevermind that a gangbang is by far the most homoerotic genre of filmmaking. There is one woman and dozens of guys all in various states of arousal. It is barely straight. So back to Annabel, or Grace as her mother calls her. She had a sheltered upbringing in Singapore, moved to England, then moved to Los Angeles. She is also certifiably wacky. Sort of like all the real smart people you talk with who are working on a level you’re not privy to.

Her claims of being a well-adjusted woman crack a bit when we learn of a teenage rape and the coldness of being brought up in such a repressive place. This documentary does a really good job of showing us how friends from her former life react to her new life, and whether or not they know how she’s been earning a living lately.

The director commits the sin of entering a relationship with his subject, something that makes staging doc scenes seem like small potatoes. How can you objectively capture someone’s life if you’re falling for them?

Grace is a smart, tiny, attractive, smart girl, who took her talents into an arena few would pick. It is heartbreaking to see her agonize over telling her parents about her new life.

The DVD includes pretty good extras including the film festival circuit whereby she answers questions from the audience. She is combative, but intelligent.

This film wasn’t happy or in any way arousing, but if you’ve ever wondered what sends a woman into porn, this gives you one reason why.

3.7 Metacritic
5.6 IMDB

Sex – The Annabel Chong Story @ Amazon

SEX: THE ANNABEL CHONG STORY

Tags: , ,

Comments No Comments »

2007

June 9, 2009
PBS — P.O.V.
USA
English
84 Minutes
Documentary
Katy Chevigny

7.1 IMDB

Election Day @ Amazon

ELECTION DAY

Tags: , ,

Comments No Comments »

2007

May 29, 2009
PBS — American Masters
USA
English
90 Minutes
Documentary
Arthur Dong [Family Fundamentals]

Informative documentary about the history of Chinese-Americans in Hollywood films. Unlike the Jewish film community or the Black “Race Films” of the early 20th century, Chinese-Americans had few, if any, people who looked like them represented on movie screens. Great old footage and interviews with the pioneers of Chinese-American filmmaking are included. Also included are the examples of white actors pretending to be Asian. I suppose if you lived in the 1940s in Iowa, perhaps you didn’t realize that Charlie Chan didn’t look Asian at all. A nice eye-opener.

8.4 IMDB

HOLLYWOOD CHINESE

Tags: , ,

Comments No Comments »

A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER
2008

May 27, 2009
Download
USA
English
95 Minutes
Documentary / Crime
Kurt Kuenne [Drive-In Movie Memories; Validation]

By some reports, the most powerful documentary ever viewed by human eyes. Entire theaters full of people sobbing, unable to leave the theater after it was over until composing themselves. I can’t really dispute that claim, though I wonder if the story itself is powerful or the film-making execution. Kurt Kuenne, a local guy, set out to film the story of his friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby so that his unborn son could learn about him. Allegedly, Dr. Bagby was murdered by his off-kilter (duh) substantially older than he girlfriend. The film alleges that she drove from Iowa to Pennsylvania without stopping, all the while calling him from a cell phone. For thirteen hundred miles she drove and called, but he never answered. She shows up, they meet, she shoots him with a gun she didn’t deny owning. Then she drives all the way home again without stopping where she gets on her home phone and calls the man she just killed in order to leave a message on his voicemail thereby establishing an alibi. At first she denies seeing him, then she changes her story to say that she handed him the gun and then drove away, claiming that he shot himself. Five times. In the back. Then she flies to her hometown in Nova Scotia where she announces that she’s pregnant with her murder victim’s baby.

Here’s the thing about this film. Murders happen all the time. This guy was nice enough, sure, and there’s ample footage of him acting in the films of his buddy Kurt when they were boys. And there are groups of people ready to speak to the camera about how warm he was. But what’s different about this story is that almost to a person, man, woman, old, young–when they begin speaking about him, they inevitably begin crying. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. And that’s because there’s much more to this story than we are let in on, but the interview subjects are privy to. In deference to spoilers, I won’t say what it is, but it’s revealed as if it were THE SIXTH SENSE or something.

This is where the controversy arises. This film makes Michael Moore’s work seem positively objective. This film is exactly the opposite of the Maysles Brothers or Barbara Kopple or even Errol Morris. The days of a documentarian simply turning on his or her camera and letting the story tell itself appear to be over. Kuenne has scary music and closeups of words in court documents like “murder” and he does the voiceover and he often sobs while speaking and there are flashes of red and he ridicules governmental officials and the murder suspect with language and footage and attitude. Like Moore does with Bush 43.

So what we end up with is a documentary, about a compelling subject, which is every bit as manipulative as a Ron Howard sweeping-score-telling-us-what-to-think fictional drama.

Make no mistake. I was absolutely riveted. My mouth was agape during several portions. I talked back to the screen. I cried. I yelled. I actually paused the film and walked around for 15 minutes because I didn’t want to learn any more about the story. I can’t remember a documentary making me feel that way. There are hundreds of docs which cause outrage or sadness. But this one sort of grabs the outrage and sadness and anger right out of you while you’re watching. How much of that was due to technical know-how and editing brilliance and how much of it was due to the story itself, I can’t really say.

I can say that you won’t soon forget it and as soon as its over you can argue with yourself about the film-making style that Kuenne employs in the service of his story.

~~
~~

DEAR ZACHARY is the subject of Cinebanter Podcast Number 74. After you’ve seen the movie, listen to the spoiler-filled review by Tassoula and I by clicking the play button right here:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Show Description:
• 00:00 Intro
• 00:32 PUBLIC ENEMIES Discussion
• Break
• 17:39 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 19:27 DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER Discussion
• Break
• 31:06 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 31:41 The Last Five®
• Break
• 55:11 Listener Last Fives (Scott in Florida and Cynthia in California)
• 1:04:02 Credits and Outtake

~~
~~

8.2 Metacritic
8.7 IMDB

Dear Zachary @ Amazon

DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER

Tags: , , ,

Comments No Comments »

2008

May 23, 2009
Showtime
USA
English
87 Minutes
Documentary
Abby Epstein

My wife had a baby a little more than six months ago. This documentary was right up my alley. Because I’m a closeted hippie, I wanted us to get a doula. My wife was skeptical, thinking that I wanted someone else to do the work that I was supposed to do. The breathing, the backrubs, the control in the delivery room. But what I wanted was someone to be her advocate so my wife could concentrate on the whole bringing a new human life into the world thing. She interviewed several and we hired Vanessa (if you’re in Santa Cruz or San Jose and need a Doula, e-mail me and I’ll give you her info.)

I bring our doula up here because one of the first things she asked us was “do you believe your baby knows how to be born?” which was exactly what she should have asked. I’m the guy, I’m not pushing a huge baby through my birth canal, but it seemed weird to me that, though human babies have been birthed for thousands of years with no need for medical intervention, lately in the United States, it seems like childbirth has become some sort of ordeal which needs to be “neutralized” or “made more comfortable”. Again, cave-women leaned against a tree, squatted, and a baby came out.

Of course many of these babies died in childbirth, as did their mothers, but the way that the baby industry has completely gone bonkers in the other direction is cause for some concern. I was shocked to learn how many ways medicine intrudes on the birthing process. Shots are administered, eyedrops put in crying babies’ eyes, umbilical cord cut too early, women placed on back with legs up in complete defiance of their anatomy, painkillers administered into the spinal cord area, and most concerning of all, the rate of cesarean sections increasing every year. In the USA. Not the rest of the world.

What is wrong with us? That’s the question that is taken on in this documentary. Ob/Gyn’s are interviewed, most on the side of medical science, a few on the side of nature. Midwives are heard from, expectant mothers, babies are born on camera, and the magic of childbirth is pretty accurately captured. We spend most of our time in Manhattan which lends a bit of an elitist vibe to the whole thing. Since home births are rarely covered by insurance, we can assume that most of these women had the means to pay their own way. We see organizations fighting with insurance companies. We see stats that compellingly tell the tale that we have a terrible rate of childbirth death for such a rich nation.

In America, childbirth is thought of as just another “quicky procedure” like liposuction or a boob job. Why wouldn’t the modern, busy woman schedule her delivery down to the half-day if she could? Why wouldn’t a woman who takes an aspirin at the first sign of headache also long for the numbness that a epidural can provide?

Because childbirth isn’t an “ordeal” to suffer through. It is probably the most alive a woman can feel. There is a whole bunch of spiritual earth-mother warrior-woman stuff I’m thinking of but won’t write out here. I’ll just say that babies know how to be born. We should as a country stop getting in their way using the medical industrial complex.

It must be said here that had my wife and I tried a home birth, or even a birth center, the complications that we had would have probably resulted in my wife’s death. So the home birth thing isn’t for everyone. But it should be for thousands of women who want to take their power of reproduction back. Labor takes time, don’t let the doctor limit that time. Eyedrops are unnecessary. Birthplans written in clear, polite but firm language, are a must. It is your day, your birth, your health. You get to be in charge.

One note for the squeamish. I didn’t find myself watching this doc through my fingers as I often do when I see other surgical procedures.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch porn and NASCAR to get my penis cred back.

6.3 Metacritic
7.2 IMDB

The Business of Being Born @ Amazon

THE BUSINESS OF BEING BORN

Tags: , ,

Comments No Comments »

A STORY FROM THE DEEP SOUTH
2008

May 23, 2009
PBS — P.O.V.
USA
English
86 Minutes
Documentary
Katrina Browne

7.2 IMDB

TRACES OF THE TRADE

Tags: , , ,

Comments No Comments »

2007

May 1, 2009
Showtime
USA
English
80 Minutes
Documentary / Comedy
Michael Addis

6.3 IMDB

Heckler @ Amazon

HECKLER

Tags: , , ,

Comments No Comments »

2008

April 26, 2009
HBO
USA
English
93 Minutes
Documentary
Carl Deal & Tia Lessin

Oscar Nomination For Best Documentary

7.5 IMDB

Trouble the Water @ Amazon

TROUBLE THE WATER

Tags: , , , ,

Comments No Comments »

2007

March 8, 2009
Cinequest 19
Canada
English
88 Minutes
Documentary
Mike McKeown

Documentary about the World Rock Paper Scissors Society and how they took a child’s game, began to take it seriously as a joke, and how it took over the lives of the brothers who started the society. In the spirit of Spellbound and Wordplay and Helvetica, this is one of those “are these guys serious” type of documentary. Try not to laugh as players lament the loss of the integrity of the game. It takes compelling characters for a documentary to soar and this one has at least half a dozen.

ROCK PAPER SCISSORS

Tags: ,

Comments 1 Comment »

A CHRISTMAS IN TENT CITY–Poor immigrants recall a long-ago Christmas when there was no money. Several colorful paintings are used Ken Burns style. Very short. Sort of a “remember the migrant children” type of film.

DRAG KING–Loud people talking about cars. Old, old cars. They race with boats dragged behind their cars. Not on trailers, just dragging on the ground. One race filmed. Crashing boats and cold cars–funny and “cool” but shallow and very short.

FORCED INTO “COMFORT”, FIGHTING FOR APOLOGY–Korean comfort women. Uses old footage, semi-colorized, and a weird effect with “motion waves” around the movement of the footage. Interviews with survivors. Some very angry. The survivors protest every Wednesday in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Some of the old footage seems extra sinister in light of present-day knowledge.

NAMING PLUTO–Old English eccentric scientists discuss the Planet Pluto. We meet the old woman who initially named it when she was eleven years old. Her father ran the Oxford library at the time. Not much more story here. There is a scientist with an honest-to-god monocle in his eye.

PICKIN’ & TRIMMIN’–A barbershop in Drexel, NC. One man has cut hair for 69 years, his young apprentice for 42 years. Old men talking story. The place is famous for musicians stopping in to play bluegrass in the backroom. Nothing is scheduled, it’s all jam sessions. All are welcome: kids, old people, people passing through. Funny in a down-home, small town way. Has some great music as well. The head old barber keeps a collection of gag gifts which he enjoys showing off. Really a warm film, full of men. There is nary a woman or person of color in the whole thing. Really well done.

RARE CHICKEN RESCUE–Heavy-set, unkempt depressive loses his job and goes inside his family’s cottage for “four or five years” and only comes out when the sound of the farm’s poultry (mostly turkeys) make him go outside to investigate. He considers this a sign. They “call” him when he needs to get out of the house. They require his food, his water, his egg incubation skills. He realizes his purpose in life now. He may never trust humans again, but he’ll become a best friend to chickens, going so far as to help sustain them as extinction nears. He goes on a road trip to locate eggs of rare species no one has seen in years. He has paintings of these species in books but has never seen them. Very compelling in its fetishization of chickens. Studio interviews are held while chickens sit on laps. A really compelling documentary, the best of this bunch.

Tags: ,

Comments 1 Comment »

2008

February 11, 2009
Cinequest 19 Screener
USA
English
87 Minutes
Documentary
Bestor Cram

Out Of Darkness, Comes Light.

When the “Man In Black”, Johnny Cash was stationed at an Air Force Base in West Germany, he watched a movie from 1951 called “Inside The Walls Of Folsom Prison,” which so inspired him that he later wrote a song about the prison, located just outside of Sacramento, California. The song, of course, is “Folsom Prison Blues”, which was released on December 15, 1955.

The documentary JOHNNY CASH AT FOLSOM PRISON will make the case that Mr. Cash may have heard an album by a songwriter named Gordon Jenkins who’s song “Seven Dreams” has verses which are a bit too similar to be coincidental. Regardless of Mr. Cash’s influences, the song became a hit, Mr. Cash began performing within the walls of prisons, and it was only a matter of time before he’d perform “Folsom Prison Blues” inside the actual Folsom Prison. He first performed there in 1966, and then on January 13, 1968, he returned with his band, the Tennessee Three, his wife, June Carter, Carl Perkins, The Statler Brothers, a photographer, and a sound recording engineer. There is no filmed footage of the event.

In 1968, Cash was just getting over his drug addiction and was looking for a comeback opportunity. He had been performing at different prisons around the country and writing songs written from an inmate’s perspective. For the Folsom show, he and his band spent the day before learning a song that one of the Folsom inmates had written called “Greystone Chapel.” It was written by a singer-songwriter named Glen Sherley, whose children appear in this film. Sherley was given a seat in the front row and was shocked when the famous singer began strumming the song that he had written.

The parallel stories of Sherley and Cash are quite compelling. One man lived a life in prison and the other got credit for singing as if he knew what it was like on the inside. Cash once told country star Merle Haggard, who spent several years in the late 50s at San Quentin, “people think I’ve lived the life that you actually have.”

The film is fascinating. We hear interviews with Cash’s bandmates, his children, former guards and two former inmates who were there that day. There is rare footage taken inside the present-day walls of Folsom. There are dozens of photographs of the event and some songs that weren’t released on the 1968 album. And somehow, though he died in 2003, we hear audio of an interview that Cash did about the concert.

The album, “At Folsom Prison” was an instant success, quickly selling half a million copies. It resurrected Cash’s career and increased his fan base. If you saw WALK THE LINE, you’ll probably remember the scenes that took place at Folsom as the most exciting of the film. I mentioned above that there is no footage of the show, so director Bestor Cram, finds images for us to see while hearing the fantastic songs.

One that sticks out for me is “25 Minutes To Go” where a condemned man headed to death row is recounting his last 25 minutes. The film uses black and white animation which depicts the words of the song. It’s an exciting song to begin with, that excitement is intensified by hearing it sung in front of inmates who whoop and cheer specific lyrics, and the animation only adds to the power as a man eats his last meal, is visited by a preacher, and begins walking up the steps of the gallows.

Then the sheriff said boy, I’m gonna watch you die;
Got 19 minutes to go;
So I laughed in his face and I spit in his eye;
Got 18 minutes to go.

The inmates go crazy as the song gets louder and louder, and faster and faster, leading to the execution of the character.

Now here comes the preacher for to save my soul;
With 13 minutes to go;
And he’s talking bout burnin but I’m so cold;
I’ve got 12 more minutes to go.

This clip has been posted on youtube, and if it’s still there, the link is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ey3-Rq9p5A

The film is full of these performances and insightful interviews. After 40 years, the impact of this live album is still being felt. When you think of other live albums and how they changed a band or singer’s career, the list really isn’t that long. U2 at Red Rocks. The Who Live At Leeds. Cheap Trick at Budokan. Led Zeppelin, Queen, and Bruce Springsteen had to compile several dates and several venues to gather the right material for their live releases.

Live At Folsom Prison can be held up among the best live albums of all time. Cash needed a hit after reaching rock bottom. The prisoners were excited that anyone, let alone country music royalty was performing for them and Cash chose songs that appealed deeply to the inmates. The film adds interviews with major players, the story of the other musician, inmate Glen Sherley, and we see how these concerts cause Cash to become an advocate for prisoner’s rights. There is footage of him testifying before Congress.

I can’t wait to see this again on a big screen with big speakers.

Johnny Cast At Folsom Prison will be shown at Cinequest 19. Details here: http://www.cinequest.org/event_view.php?eid=497

JOHNNY CASH AT FOLSOM PRISON

Tags: , ,

Comments 3 Comments »

2008

February 7, 2009
DVD
UK / USA
English / French
94 Minutes
Documentary / Crime
James Marsh

1974. 1350 Feet Up. The Artistic Crime Of The Century.

Unbelievably compelling.

The story of a Frenchman–one of those juggler, unicycle, magician, street performer types who felt it was his duty to walk between the World Trade Center towers on a tightrope. He had previously walked on the Sydney Harbor Bridge and between the two towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral.

But the WTC walk required incredible planning, inside men, a bow and arrow, perfect timing, a team for each building, sleeping guards, fake id badges, and a lot of luck. And that was before the guy began his walk. One might ask how a film about a tightrope walk can be made exciting. I would have asked the same thing before seeing it. To make matters (on paper) worse, there is no moving footage of the walk. There are handful of stills only. And yet.

One of the many talking heads in the film is the man himself, Philippe Petit. So we know he survives. And he doesn’t appear to be speaking from prison, so he probably didn’t get a life sentence. And yet. We are riveted as he plans, argues, draws up designs, gathers helpers, and walks between the frickin World Trade Center towers.

Mr. Petit is a show-off. He is a loudmouth, he treats women poorly, he has no respect for the law. Because he feels he has a higher calling. How a walk on a rope can be called art, I didn’t know before watching this movie. But now I do. Petit tells the story of learning of the building of the WTC and believing that it had actually been built so that he could walk between it. It was designed and built so a man from France could come over and perform in between its towers. And as goofy as that sounds, you will believe it once you see it. It is somehow art. There is a beauty and a sense of awe. He appears to be dancing–1350 feet up.

As a story, it needs no extra bells and whistles from the filmmakers. But luckily, the style of the film is also superb. There are a few re-creations, there is enough original footage of training sessions and prior stunts for us to get an idea what it might look like in NYC. There are talking heads who are still angry at each other. And there is Mr. Petit to guide us in his hyper-poetic manner.

I have this thing about jumping off high places into water. A bridge in California, a cliff in Greece, every waterfall in Hawaii. I am afraid of heights but find the challenge of overcoming that fear a pretty cool thing. I’m also one of those people who looks down from a great height and isn’t sure that his legs will walk themselves over the edge against his brain’s instructions. But I was absolutely not prepared for how scared shitless I was when I simply saw photographs of the men planning their caper. They lied their way to the top several times and pretended to take photos of workmen, but were really taking photos of anchor points and such which they’d use later to string the wire. And some of these photos, with Petit at the edge of the building, caused me to shake. I can’t explain it. Photos from the early 70s cause a physical reaction.

At one point in his walk, Petit lies down on the wire. All alone. Silently. At 1350 feet, he lies down suspended between the tallest building in the world. A plane flies overhead.

And strangely, the first word that came to my head was, “beautiful.” I may have been tearing up a bit while saying it.

Just an incredible experience.

My Number 10 for 2008.

Oscar Nomination: Best Documentary of 2008.

8.9 Metacritic
8.1 IMDB

Man on Wire @ Amazon

MAN ON WIRE

Tags: , , , , ,

Comments No Comments »

2008

January 31, 2009
Cinequest 19
USA
English
91 Minutes
Documentary
Don Hardy & Dana Nachman

Some Convictions Are Criminal.

In 1983, in Manhattan Beach, California, the mother of a young boy went to police with a story so repulsive (involving sex, torture, Satan, and the kitchen sink), that the media couldn’t help but take notice. The case became known as the McMartin Preschool Trial and it lasted for seven years, becoming the most expensive criminal trial in American history. The word “McMartin” has now become shorthand for any type of overzealous prosecution using coached witnesses, many of whom are too young to know what they’re saying.

WITCH HUNT is a documentary about a similar set of trials which took place in Bakersfield, California in 1984. A new “tough on crime” District Attorney had just taken office (where, sadly, he remains to this day), and he brought with him bravado and mandatory minimum sentencing. John Stoll was one of the first to be accused. He was a hard-working divorced man who had a swimming pool which his son enjoyed on hot summer days, sometimes with his friends. He is woken up by police and taken to jail, where he is told that his son has accused him of sexual abuse. By the time he is arraigned, two other boys have allegedly come forward and told police the same story.

When something like this happens in a documentary, we find ourselves trying to “read” the man’s face as he explains his ordeal. Does he look like a molester? What exactly does a molester look like? Why would his son say such things if they weren’t true? Isn’t there a child molester behind every tree and broadband internet hookup?

When Stoll gets to prison he finds himself sharing a cell with another accused pedophile whose photo had been plastered all over the newspapers. Looking the other man in the eye, a man Stoll assumed to be guilty, he begins to see a pattern. What makes this pattern different from other molestation accusations, is that the initial accusation came from their very own children. A son accuses his father. Two girls accuse their father. Two boys accuse both their mother and father. Over and over again. Regular, normal, young couples are dragged in front of TV cameras and shown as examples of the molestation wave that appeared to be sweeping the town of Bakersfield, the State of California, and the country at large.

Is there a worse crime than child molestation? While in prison, all of the accused are held away from the rest of the prisoners for their own safety. Children are placed in foster homes, estranged spouses leave town, whispers turn to yelling. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, right?

If this were a film about a single man who was wrongly accused, you might come to the “better safe than sorry” conclusion and feel that a prison sentence is probably a good thing. But we see couple after couple after couple being sentenced to hundreds of years in prison and it’s obvious that something else is going on here. Judges are routinely disallowing evidence for the defense, child witnesses are testifying one way, then after court recesses, coming back to testify exactly the opposite way. The press can’t get enough. Husbands and wives are separated permanently. Prosecutors tell juries about photos of acts, which are never seen. Houses are lost, communities broken up.

It is incredibly hard to watch.

The talking heads collected by WITCH HUNT involve most of the accused, and a handful of the children who made the original accusations. One couple, who have moved away from Bakersfield, refuse to show their faces this many years later. The rest of them speak about their legal ordeal with pained eyes as if it happened yesterday. The children, all approaching 30 now, bravely talk about how the trial changed their lives. We hear from former California Attorney General John Van De Kamp whose office was brought in due to the overwhelming workload in Kern County. He begins to see problems with the prosecution’s cases.

We hear over and over again how these working-class men and women believed at every step, the truth would come out and they’d be headed home. One of the couples, during the deliberation, plan to have a victory dinner at a local restaurant. We are as shocked as they are when they are instead sentenced to several hundred years in prison. Surely, someone will come to their aid, the children will recant, the prosecutors will drop the charges, the judge will come to his senses. Not so much.

Every moment we spend with one of the couples, the Kniffens is heartbreaking. There is plenty of footage from the trial, both of them in fashionable 1984 haircuts, both of them looking as normal as the waitress at Dennys and the guy who fixes your car. Mrs. Kniffen, when accused of sodomy, has to have the act itself explained to her by her husband. They were in love in 1984 and continue to be in love in 2008. They sit next to each other during the interview and finish each other’s sentences. There is footage of Brenda fainting to the floor after her sentence is handed down. Scott speaks in the quiet tones of someone who has seen parts of life the rest of us don’t want to visit. After their victory dinner is denied them, they head off to separate prisons. At one point, Scott ends up at San Quentin, surrounded by the most violent offenders California has to offer. Being a convicted child molester is a quick way to a shanking, and he feared for his life every day until his appeal letter was finally read and he was transferred to a less-violent prison.

Thanks to the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara Law School (http://law.scu.edu/ncip/), some of these cases began being reviewed. When a retrial is held after six years of prison, the Kniffens see each other for the first time. Brenda says to Scott that he should be using rogaine, as the years in prison have not been kind to his hairline. The appeal goes on and on–tapes of children being questioned are listened to proving their obvious coaching by both prosecutor and Child Protective Services employees. One by one, they are released. Mr. Stoll was arrested at the age of 41. He is released at the age of 61. He never saw his son again.

I’ve often told people that I have an unnatural fear of being wrongly accused. It makes films like THIN BLUE LINE and TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE and THE VERDICT that much more frightening for me. This film had me shaking my head with worry. Some will argue that it’s better to err on the side of caution. If there’s even the slimmest chance that that person could have been a terrorist or touched a child, isn’t it better to lock them up for the greater good?

I subscribe to the better ten guilty men go free than one innocent man go to jail idea. (See origins of that law school cornerstone here: http://www.law.ucla.edu/volokh/guilty.htm) Part of my public school teacher training in our modern post-Letourneau, post-priest-scandal world (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Kay_Letourneau) stresses the boundaries between children and trusted authority figures. As a teacher, I need to be conscious every day that a few words from a young person could not only change my life, but effectively end it. I hear personal stories from students about the most atrocious things imaginable. The problems exist, but at some point we began to believe that everyone was a predator. A now-ridiculed recent statistic was that something like 40% of teenagers have been propositioned online by a sexual predator. I have taught close to 700 teenagers in my career and not one has ever been the target of one of these people.

The topic makes for compelling television. To Catch A Predator, the NBC entrapment-case-study-in-the-making causes us to cheer as man after man is dressed down by the camera-ready host.

This environment of fear has some side-effects and they are on frank display in WITCH HUNT.

The film is narrated by Sean Penn and perfectly uses Pearl Jam’s Long Road towards the end. There are two ways to review a documentary: the story it tells and the way it tells the story it tells. The story of WITCH HUNT is compelling, scary, sad, and maddening. The way it tells the story is a bit static. Old TV news footage is mixed with modern-day talking heads. There are old family photos which seem to me to look haunting even in upbeat documentaries. I wonder what filmmakers will do 20 years from now when there are no printed photos from which to choose. There is a five-minute portion at the very end, showing us Mr. Stoll’s life since prison, that is creative and powerful and completely different than the sober 85 minutes that came before.

The film breaks no new technical ground (as THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE or WALTZ WITH BASHIR do), but with a story like this, it doesn’t need to.

And how have the lives of the young accusers changed? Drugs, mental health issues, the guilt of sending people to prison.

Surrounded by the sadness of the film, perhaps the saddest moment is when one of the young accusers tearfully admits that he never gave his own son a bath for the first year of his life, so afraid was he of being accused himself of inappropriate touching.

More info on the cases: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kern_County_child_abuse_cases

WITCH HUNT will be shown at Cinequest 19. Details here: http://www.cinequest.org/detail.php?m=1619

WITCH HUNT

Tags: , ,

Comments 2 Comments »

2006

December 31, 2008
Netflix Roku
USA
English
100 Minutes — February 8, 2008
Documentary / Comedy
Ari Sandel

Vince Vaughn, who will forever be remembered for making fratboys across the nation say “you’re so money” in SWINGERS, got some of his buddies together for a tour of 30 cities in 30 days. He talks up a lot about taking his show to the heartland, but five dates are in California, and St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and Atlanta are hardly strangers to stand-up comedy.

On the other hand, I am a big fan of his OCD-inspired fast-talking and the comics he brings along are pretty funny. One of them is Ahmed Ahmed who became something of a poster-boy of an Arab-American trying to make it big in a post-9/11 world. He’s been profiled in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He already has a career. The other three guys are at various levels of struggling. If you thin a 30 day tour into a ten minute act, of course these guys are going to look like comedic geniuses. Vaughn acted as the MC, and did some skits with famous friends (Favreau, Long, Yoakim), but most of the stuff is about the four comics.

Your like or dislike of this movie will be dependent on your interest in stand-up comedy as an artform or a catharsis-in-public for the performers. If you’ve ever wondered if you would have made it on a stage in front of a brick wall (as I often do), it will probably hold your interest. Each of them is shown after a disasterous set where they had a completely different impression of their show than the audience did. One guy yells out “F**k Yeah!” but the comic hears it as “F**k You!”, which completely takes him out of his rhythm. Stuff like that I enjoy–you may not.

Another worthwhile portion is that we meet the parents of several performers and see where they get their sense of humor or lack thereof. Ahmed’s parents are especially interesting as they’re Egyptian immigrants who expect their children (especially sons) to be doctors or lawyers–certainly not a guy who tells swear word jokes for a living. The stuff on the road isn’t new in any way. The boys (minus Vaughn–who has his own back bed) sleep in bunks on the bus. They share single hotel rooms. They get on each other’s nerves. We’ve seen that stuff before. We also only glimpse the towns in which they perform. They visit Graceland and Buck Owen’s Crystal Palace, and the Grand Ole Opry, but I defy you to differentiate between the audiences at these different places.

Doesn’t say very much about the life of an entertainer or the “heartland of America”, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.

5.1 Metacritic
5.9 IMDB

Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show @ Amazon

VINCE VAUGHN’S WILD WEST COMEDY SHOW

Tags: , , , , ,

Comments No Comments »

HARD TIMES, EASY CREDIT AND THE ERA OF PREDATORY LENDERS
2006

November 30, 2008
Showtime
USA
English
90 Minutes
Documentary
James D. Scurlock

The Movie You Can’t Afford To Miss.

6.5 Metacritic
7.4 IMDB

Maxed Out @ Amazon

MAXED OUT

Tags: , ,

Comments No Comments »

2004

November 18, 2008
PBS — P.O.V.
USA
English
57 Minutes
Documentary
Jan Krawitz

7.9 IMDB

BIG ENOUGH

Tags: , , ,

Comments No Comments »

2008

Campbell CA — Camera 7
USA
English / Hebrew / Arabic / Persian / Spanish
101 Minutes — October 3, 2008
Documentary
Larry Charles [Borat; Curb Your Enthusiasm]

~~
~~

RELIGULOUS is the subject of Cinebanter Podcast Number 61. After you’ve seen the movie, listen to the spoiler-filled review by Tassoula and I by clicking the play button right here:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Show Description:

• 00:00 Intro
• 00:32 RELIGULOUS Discussion
• Break
• 27:42 To Sum It Up
• Break
• 28:24 The Last Five®
• Break
• 46:51 Listener Last Five® (12-year-old Charlie)
• 54:28 Credits and Outtakes

~~
~~

5.5 Metacritic
7.4 IMDB

Religulous @ Amazon

RELIGULOUS

Tags: , , ,

Comments No Comments »

2000

September 6, 2008
Netflix Roku Download
USA
English
75 Minutes
Documentary
Vicky Funari & Julia Query

A bit long, even at a brisk 75 minutes. Story of strip club and their efforts to unionize against the wishes of the pretty-progressive-thinking female management. Only in San Francisco. Basically a labor struggle with boobs as an added attraction.

6.2 Metacritic
6.5 IMDB

LIVE NUDE GIRLS UNITE!

Tags: , , ,

Comments No Comments »

2007

July 24, 2008
PBS — Independent Lens
USA
English
88 Minutes
Documentary
Aaron Woolf

You Are What You Eat.

7.0 Metacritic
7.0 IMDB

Tags: , , ,

Comments No Comments »

2007

July 19, 2008
PBS — P.O.V.
USA
Spanish / English
90 Minutes
Documentary
Kieran Fitzgerald

9.2 IMDB

Tags: , , ,

Comments No Comments »

2008

July 8, 2008
HBO
USA / UK
English / French / German
99 Minutes
Documentary
Marina Zenovich

The Truth Couldn’t Fit In The Headlines

7.8 Metacritic
7.8 IMDB

Tags: , , , ,

Comments No Comments »

Written by Michael W. Cummins