Tag Archives: Documentary films

O.J.: Made in America-2016

O.J.: Made in America-2016

Director-Ezra Edelman

Starring-Various

Reviewed October 8, 2017

Grade: A

Simply put, O.J.: Made in America is one of the greatest documentary films that I have ever scene- if not the best. The level of detail that is thoroughly explored without being over-inflated is to be marveled at. In fact, it is much more than a documentary, it is more a chronicle of one of the most talented professional athletes and one of the most controversial figures of our time. The piece dissects not only O.J. Simpson and his tumultuous life, but also how race, wealth, and celebrity factored into the infamous trial that took over the world in 1994. Basically, this story tells of the examination of the rise and fall of an American sports hero.

At seven hours and forty three minutes in length, I had no intention of actually committing to watching the entire saga, surmising that I could easily obtain a good grasp after watching only one disc, but it needs to be viewed in its entirety to be fully realized and appreciated. The documentary is an ESPN production and part of the 30 for 30 series plays out more like a mini-series, with multiple chapters (five in total) encompassing the entire chronicle. The title of O.J: Made in America is of vital importance and a powerful reason for the success the documentary achieved as film makers question whether many factors were instrumental in making O.J. Simpson what he became rather than creating merely an overview of the events.

An immediate positive, and successfully got me immediately intrigued, is how the documentary begins in present times, O.J. Simpson, now imprisoned and presumably at a parole hearing, he is asked about his duties in the prison and how old he was when he was first arrested- the answer is age forty six, when he was accused of murdering his wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman. The documentary then immediately returns to Simpson’s humble upbringing in the ghettos of San Francisco and how, through scholarships, was able to attend and become a major star at University of Southern California in the mid 1960’s.

What I adore most of all about O.J.: Made in America is that it is a multi-faceted story. Instead of a straight up biography about the troubled celebrity, the film-makers instead choose to balance the documentary with related stories about racial tensions. Certainly, a chronological approach is taken when it comes to Simpson- yes, we learn his skyrocketing trip to super-stardom as a college football player and then professionally as a Buffalo Bill. We are educated of his achievements in commercials, films, and various endorsements, but the documentary relates this to what America made O.J. Simpson into- a beloved star.

Finally, the documentary explains his relationship and marriage to Nicole Brown and the dreaded death and subsequent trial that was sensationalized beyond belief. Lots of time is spent on the trial portion with oodles of interviews ranging from the prosecution- Marsha Clark, Gil Garcetti- as well as numerous friends and relatives of both Simpson and Nicole Brown. An astounding seventy two interviews were conducted.

Surprising to me at first, but making total sense in retrospect, is how the issue of race relations, especially in Los Angeles, have an enormous amount to do with the O.J. Simpson murder case. Film-makers draw many wise comparisons to the history of poor relations between blacks and the Los Angeles Police Department and certainly, the documentary explores the Rodney King incident from the late 1980’s and poses a crucial question- was O.J. Simpson found “not guilty” as a way of exoneration for Rodney King? More than one juror has admitted she refused to find O.J. Simpson guilty and send a black man to prison.

O.J.: Made in America is a superb, well-rounded, concise, and brilliant study of a troubled man- deemed a hero, who obviously had a dark side. The excellent documentary wholly explores his life and provides a fair, unbiased assessment of the events and the thoughts and opinions of those surrounding the case. It is a sad story, but one that is told in brilliant fashion.

I Am Not Your Negro-2016

I Am Not Your Negro-2016

Director-Raoul Peck

Starring-Samuel L. Jackson

Reviewed August 19, 2017

Grade: B

I Am Not Your Negro, a 2016 documentary created by director Raoul Peck, chronicles an unfinished manuscript written by social critic James Baldwin, entitled Remember This House. The memoir is a series of recollections by Baldwin, who died in 1987, of his experiences with famous civil rights leaders, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers.

Released in a year that saw similarly racial themed documentaries such as 13th and O.J.: Made in America emerge, all were recognized with award nominations in several year end ceremonies. If comparisons are drawn, 13th, the most similar in theme to I Am Not Your Negro, is the superior piece. While interesting, the latter did not quite grip me as much as the former. Still, I Am Not Your Negro is worth a watch if nothing else than to understand and be exposed to the continuing battle for racial equality in the United States.

The documentary itself teeters around discussion and back-story of all the leaders mentioned. Lots of location shots are used, as well as speeches made by and old footage of each of the men. A high point are interviews by Baldwin himself, and his insight about his own racial experiences, both positive and negative. Each of the leaders, King, X, and Evers receive roughly the same amount of screen time and the best part is Baldwin’s own dealings with each man.

I enjoyed immensely the multitude of scenes featured of racial history in cinema and the harsh reality is that blacks have not been given their due until quite recently in how their characters are portrayed. As recent as the 1950’s and 1960’s, and arguably later than that, blacks were demeaned or treated as nothing more than secondary characters. Worse yet, some were portrayed for laughs or as caricatures.

A startling admission comes from Baldwin himself. Having been an enormous John Wayne fan as a child, and reveling in the joy of his films, it was a harsh reality to understand that the Indians in Wayne films, seen as the “bad guys”, were really Black Americans- therefore himself. Certain films Baldwin watched were viewed through the innocent eyes of a child- real life was harsher.

Unnecessary is the narration by Samuel L. Jackson and the actor being a well known name, distracted from the message being told. Jackson seems to read Baldwin’s words as if he were acting, and Baldwin and Jackson are two very different types of men, so the result is disjointed.

The most important takeaway that I Am Not Your Negro left me with is a crucial one- better understanding of the historical plight of the Black American and how far the United States has come in better racial equality. Even more important, however, is the realization that we still have so much work ahead of us as a nation to ensure even better race relations and this is a sobering message.

Fire At Sea-2016

Fire at Sea-2016

Director-Gianfranco Rosi

Reviewed August 12, 2017

Grade: B+

Fire at Sea was honored with a coveted 2017 Best Documentary Feature Oscar award nomination, but despite this high achievement, was met with largely negative reviews from its viewers- this is not as surprising as it might seem. Furthermore, the documentary was also the Italian entry for the Best Foreign Language film category, but was not chosen. In this way, the piece is rather a hybrid between a “typical” film and a documentary, making it all the more unique in itself.

The lackluster comments are undoubtedly due to both the very slow pace and the way the documentary is jagged- interspersing snippets of story not seeming to go together with the main message. Compounded by the sheer length of the film (one hour and fifty four minutes is very long for a documentary), the work will not go down in history as a rousing crowd-pleaser. But it is an important film.

The story tells of a group of modest individuals inhabiting a tiny Sicilian fishing island named Lampedusa, located somewhere between Sicily and Libya. The island is prominent for being a rescue area for migrants forging a treacherous journey from African countries (mostly Libya and Sudan) to the island for safety and medical treatment. It is implied that the migrants do not actually stay on the island for very long, but rather Lampedusa serves as a temporary sanctuary. It is not explained where the migrants go or what happens to them after medical treatment.

After a slightly tedious start, I began to become immersed in the various stories and began to appreciate the slow pace- I actually found this calming. We see snippets of the ordinary daily events of the residents: a young boy and his friend carve faces out of cactus plants, later the boy experiences an eye exam and is told he needs glasses- later we see a lengthy scene merely of his family eating pasta. We also get to know a resident doctor, grandmother, disc jockey, and scuba diver.

Admittedly, I began to wonder what a young boy preparing a sling-shot, or a grandmother preparing sauce,  had to do with the main content of the documentary- that of migrants coming to the island. Then I realized that director Gianfranco Rosi is telling a human story and witnessing the ordinary Lampedusa citizens going about their lives is in strong contrast to the fleeing and terrified migrants. I was able to put all the pieces together.

Told without narration and with the dialogue in Italian containing  sub-titles, additional unique aspects to the project, Fire At Sea is unusual, but I admired its important message.

The most powerful scene in the film is a quiet one- a resident doctor describing his experiences with the migrants. He professes how any decent person should help any needy souls and describes the grisly task of performing autopsies on the people (many women and children), who do not survive the harried journey across the Mediterranean Sea- many dying of hunger and thirst or being burned by the diesel fuels from the tiny boat they are stuffed into. His long, yet powerful account will move one to tears.

This testimonial by the doctor speaks volumes regarding the current influx of needy individuals, mainly from Syria, who need help from both neighboring countries and countries far away. Some have been kind and have let individuals into their countries, while others have shunned the migrants (namely in 2017 the United States). The honest account from the doctor summarizes the message of humanity that Fire at Sea represents.

Another powerful scene emerges towards the end of the documentary as several African men are rushed from their ship to another ship and tended to by rescue individuals. Sadly, the barely alive, yet conscious men are not long for this world as a few minutes later we see a series of body bags lined up containing the expired men. This tragic realization speaks volumes for the need for such humanistic individuals as some who reside on Lampedusa.

Fire at Sea, the title a World War II reference to the fiery waters that the residents could see from a far distance during that time, is a story that is worth watching. It provides a lesson in kindness and good decency and a reminder that some people are just good, generous souls, all but willing to help those in need. We can all learn from this documentary.

13th-2016

13th-2016

Director-Ava  DuVernay

Reviewed August 5, 2017

Grade: B+

Hot on the heels of her successful feature film Selma (2014), director Ava DuVernay follows up with another race relations piece- this time with an informative documentary entitled 13th, after the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, freeing slaves and banning slavery.

The documentary, however, brings to the surface, loopholes to the constitution, and how progress has been too slow for black people following the Civil war and into modern times. It looks at the escalating incarceration rates of the United States black population over the years. and how the prison system as a whole has been used as both a money-making system and as a way of controlling minorities.

The United States prison system is examined throughout the documentary and gets off to a compelling start as we hear an audio clip of former President Barack Obama inform us that the United States has five percent of the worlds population yet twenty five percent of the worlds prisoners, a direct message to those convinced that the United States is the greatest country in the world. This powerful message sets 13th off right as we begin a journey into why the statistic exists.

I thoroughly enjoyed the high production values that the documentary offers, including modern graphics as the numbers of the incarcerated blacks came on screen in an edgy way. 13th does not feel dated or monotone as some documentaries do. Rather, it feels creative and nuanced with interviews and news clips of events such as the Civil Rights movement to Depression era footage and to very modern day footage so that over a hundred years of history is represented.

A great add on to 13th is the chronological path through history that the viewer experiences, beginning with the Civil War and ending with 2017- with the unpopular Donald Trump as President of the United States. In fact, the gloomy implication is that, with the current (2017) presidency, the minority population is still repressed and discriminated against by many political figures and that they are still largely feared and blamed for the “perceived” high crime rates.

DuVernay’s major point of her documentary is that many political figures use “scare tactics” to influence voters to vote a certain way and throughout history voters have fallen for this measure time and time again. She wisely goes through history and dissects several presidents terms and individual campaign messages. Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush Sr., and Obama are heavily featured. I loved this aspect since it was like a fresh history lesson for me and how the times have not only changed, but in some ways stayed the same.

13th avoids being too preachy, and, to its credit, presents “both sides of the aisle”. There are some who feel that political figures tough take on crime is not meant to repress minorities- a few of these folks are interviewed and given time to explain their viewpoints, but the film is largely left-leaning in tone and views- the negative portrayals of Trump, Nixon, and Reagan, are proof of this.

Enjoyable are interviews with prominent activists such as Angela Davis, leader of the Communist Party USA, and a woman with close ties to the Black Panthers. Considered a radical in her day (the 1960’s), the documentary features clips of her interviews both then and now. Current political figures Van Jones and Newt Gingrich are featured giving 13th a crisp, modern, and relevant feel to it, rather than a period of time long ago.

Overall, I found 13th to be an educational and historical lesson in the challenges and the race issues that people of color have dealt with over the years and how their world is still effected by current legislation and decisions by political figures (mainly white), who hold all of the cards and repress people who speak out against them.

Life, Animated-2016

Life, Animated-2016

Director-Roger Ross Williams

Starring-Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind

Reviewed July 9, 2017

Grade: B+

Autism is still a baffling disease to many people (myself included) since I know nobody personally who is afflicted with it and, before watching this documentary had many questions. How wonderful to see a documentary that not only teaches the viewer about autistic people, but presents a wonderful story of how Disney films helped an autistic child into a world of normalcy with the aid of loving parents. Life, Animated is an empathetic film with a positive and inspirational message.

The production is based on a 2014 novel, written by journalist Ron Suskind, entitled Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism, in which Ron tells the story of his son Owen and how Disney films helped him communicate with the outside world. The documentary, however, is told from Owen’s perspective, through childhood years into adulthood. The story incorporates not only Owen’s challenges with autism, but also his love life, relationship with his brother and parents, and various other autistic people he has come to bond with. He also was fortunate enough to be invited to Paris, France to speak at a conference.

How Owen, an energetic and “normal” three year old, suddenly shrunk into himself and away from the rest of the world is mysterious, but also how autism works. Owen’s parents, baffled at the sudden change in Owen’s behavior, did the dutiful parental actions of doctors and studies, but, in essence, helped Owen on their own. When Ron, on a lark, and with some desperation, began speaking in the voice of a Disney character, Owen sprung to life like magic.

The film will please fans of Disney films since Owen lives and breathes the various classic movies, immersing himself in their worlds and memorizing scenes and dialogue alike. Specifically, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast are heavily featured as reference points.

As a teenager, Owen sadly was tormented by school bullies, which caused him a setback. Fortunately, through his creative mind, he began to write stories and come up with his own characters as a sense of relief from everyday stress. The film intersperses various drawings of Owen and his family throughout, adding a creative edge to the documentary.

The documentary wisely does not state that Disney films will cure anyone with autism, but rather Owen’s love of these films served as a stimulus to bring him back to life. Presumably any autistic child could find a source or something he or she loves, to help build self esteem and achieve skills.

I highly recommend Life, Animated to anyone with an autistic child, sibling, relative, or friend, or anyone seeking an empathetic experience and a heartwarming tale of achievement. From a film perspective, the documentary is clear, concise, and to the point, with videotaped images of Owen’s life as a child through adulthood. Life, Animated received a 2016 Best Documentary Oscar nomination.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work-2010

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work-2010

Director-Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg

Starring-Joan Rivers, Melissa Rivers

Reviewed June 18, 2010

Grade: A

I found Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work to be a great documentary. For fans of Joan Rivers the film is obviously a treat, but for people unfamiliar with her, it is an amazing journey into her personal life, and we see her at her most vulnerable.

At the time of this documentary, she was a very busy seventy-seven year old entertainer. The film exceeds as it shows not only her stage persona, and her quick wit, but a more intimate, personal side to the woman. According to Rivers, the makers of the documentary were allowed free reign of what made the final cut, with no approval by Rivers.

Joan Rivers must be the hardest working, driven, seventy-seven year old alive. Not only is she the foul-mouthed, hysterical comedienne most know her as, but she also has an insecure, sensitive side that few see. Moments of this documentary are hysterical, others are heartbreaking. As she is heckled in a crappy club in the mid-west by a man offended by her jokes, Rivers lashes out at the man, and later shows a sense of regret as she speaks to the camera.

The documentary is basically set-up as a year in the life of Joan Rivers mixed in with her forty plus years in showbiz, how she got her start, breaks, etc. We experience the pain she felt when her husband committed suicide, forcing her to take almost any job as a way to pay her bills.

This is a documentary that reveals much, much more than the public sees her as. It is an intimate portrayal of a courageous woman that few wholly see. I loved it.

Inside Job-2010

Inside Job-2010

Director-Charles Ferguson

Starring-Matt Damon

Reviewed December 7, 2010

Grade: A-

Directly derived from the financial crisis of 2008, Inside Job explains what led up to, the factors involved in, and who is responsible for the 2008 crisis. The documentary is very important to see- if nothing else but a lesson in greed and corruption.

It is mainly divided into segments to make it less confusing and the content is easily digestible. The basic concept here is greed, and how people are predisposed to being greedy. Those responsible for the crisis and the subsequent effects on millions of people attempt to defend themselves and what they did to the end- sadly they are still in power, as immoral human beings as they are.

Many times the interviewer will either catch the subject in a lie or leave them tongue tied- one subject even threatens the interviewer. There is a sense of satisfaction that erupts as they squirm and attempt to quickly think of ways to evade the questions.

Inside Job shows how Wall street is incredibly powerful, and how most politicians are puppets, who are influenced greatly by them. It is a sad and discouraging documentary, but incredibly honest and thought provoking. I left the theater feeling angry and depressed, but feeling that the filmmakers do an excellent job of educating the viewer to the woes of the world.

Narrated by Matt Damon, Inside Job is one of the best documentaries I have seen in recent years.

Exit Through the Gift Shop-2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop-2010

Director-Banksy

Starring-Banksy

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Reviewed January 19, 2011

Grade: B-

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary from 2010. I am a fan of documentaries if the subject matter interests me. The topic of this documentary is street art, which is not especially appealing to me, but it is also nice to be open to new experiences and perhaps learn a thing or two.

Bansky, who both directed and starred in the documentary, is the main feature and his story is told. We meet a man from Los Angeles, who carries a camera with him wherever he goes. Through his cousin in France, he decides to do a documentary on street artists. He is fascinated by the mysterious and secretive, Bansky, until he manages to one day meet him. He then begins to film Bansky’s street art activity. So the documentary actually has some plot and is not the standard type of documentary.

Some claims that the film is actually staged and a bit of a hoax have run rampant, but have not been proven.

I respected this feature as a nice, telling, documentary, but it dragged a bit, which may be the result of my limited interest in the topic. Great for anyone into street art.

Restrepo-2010

Restrepo-2010

Directors-Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger

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Reviewed February 14, 2011

Grade: B-

Restrepo is an informative documentary concerning a group of American soldiers sent into Afghanistan to battle the Taliban. Film makers spent one year in the life of this group of men, documenting their experiences, pains, losses, and joys throughout. Camera crews follow them almost non-stop.

The most interesting aspects of this piece are the camaraderie that is evident among the soldiers- a bond that is a brotherhood of sorts. Friendships that develop in the midst of peril that will undoubtedly never be broken or tarnished. Certainly, the fear and worry that these soldiers go through- under the constant uncertainty of attack, far away from their families, is powerful.

Slight gripes are the redundancy of the subject matter of the documentary itself. Seemingly endless are the projects developed surrounding one war or another. I freely admit this is an important matter, but while watching Restrepo, I could not help but feel that I have seen other incarnations of the same documentary before- not to mention in mainstream film. The war experience is a popular story to tell.

I also got the sense of an us against them mentality to this documentary, which is not always a good thing. More about the relationships with the “good” Afghanistan people might have been nice. Overall, though, a decent, interesting documentary.

Sweetgrass-2010

Sweetgrass-2010

Director-Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor

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Reviewed February 26, 2011

Grade: F

While generally I am an advocate and champion of the film documentary- I always love to learn something new- Sweetgrass had a strange effect on me- simply put-I despised the film. Even if the subject matter is such that it does not particularly interest me, it will usually garner at least some recognition and praise for what it is.

Sweetgrass is a documentary about a group of sheepherders from Montana transporting their herd to another location- it was unclear to me why the sheep were being transported or where to, but I assume rather close by. The documentary contains no narrative and little dialogue except one of the sheepherders ranting and raving about how tough it is to be a sheepherder, all the while smoking incessantly.

Most of the time is spent literally watching sheep and sheep and sheep and sheep- and still more sheep wandering about and drifting down a mountain range.  Then we see still more sheep moving about. As my mind began to wander, I began to wonder if the sheep were a metaphor of some kind. Then some dogs and horses were thrown in for good measure.

The location scenes are nothing special and after a brief five minutes of appreciation of the gorgeous landscape I was over it.

At 1 hour and 45 minutes in length- way too long for a documentary that moves along at a snail’s pace- it is about an hour too long for my tastes.

After pondering the film, my only determination is that the film makers were hoping to give the viewers a real-life slice of what it is like to be a sheep herder- snore! I would have much rather experienced interviews and commentary with some merit on the subject.

Worse than the redundancy of the pacing, the constant mistreatment of some of the sheep is inexcusable and really has no bearing on the topic at hand- which I confess to being unsure what the point of the documentary even was- other than as a cure for insomnia. Sweetgrass is a complete waste of time.

What Happened, Miss Simone?-2015

What Happened, Miss Simone?-2015

Director-Liz Garbus

Starring-Nina Simone

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Reviewed October 25, 2016

Grade: B+

Nina Simone, who died in 2003 at the age of seventy, was an iconic singer and pianist with a musical style all her own. As important as her soulful musical creativity, Simone was also a civil rights activist during the restless 1960’s, and was outspoken about black power and racial discrimination- leading to much controversy. What Happened, Miss Simone tells her story in a thorough, rich fashion.

Executive produced by her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, who is interviewed throughout the documentary, the piece is standard fare, using a multitude of interviews and performances by Simone. We experience her upbringing in North Carolina, her acceptance into the prestigious Juilliard, her families reliance on her for money, and her years of struggle performing in dingy night clubs.

I loved seeing the old clips of her performances- they are raw, gritty, and full of something special- poetic almost. Simone had trouble relaxing as she gave every ounce of energy in her shows and knew no other way to be.

Simone is like no other and the documentary does not need to explain this point- her performances tell it all. Not one to phone in a performance and arguably not really “performing” at all, Simone was as real as they come- immersing herself into her music – and often times seeming to drift off into another reality.

As an activist, Nina Simone is shown to be controversial- not against supporting violence by blacks against whites in the name of freedom. Simone had tumultuous relationships with both her husband and daughter- having claimed to have been beaten repeatedly and forced to work.

Clear comparisons to other singers such as Aretha Franklin are explored, but there is an edgy element to Simone that others singers of that day did not have- she had a style all her own and did not “play the game” to achieve her success- instead choosing to only be true to herself. This is not a slight against Franklin, but the documentary states that if Simone had been happier, she might have had more commercial appeal, but would she have been satisfied with that? I doubt it as she was an intense soul.

Shocking to me are claims of physical abuse vocalized by her daughter, but this is explained away as a result of her mental illness and not herself at times. Prescription drugs and diagnoses were not what they are now in those days.

From a critical perspective, the documentary delivers what it is supposed to- an overview of this amazing talent- warts and all. We basically see her from child until retiree, and cannot help but pity her in a way because of her apparent mental illness, which caused her not always to be the charming celebrity we would want her to be. What Happened, Miss Simone helped me to learn something fresh about an artist I was unfamiliar with and that is what a documentary should do.

Catfish-2010

Catfish-2010

Director-Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman

Starring-Henry Joost

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Reviewed March 8, 2011

Grade: A-

I loved this movie/documentary! I know some people were disappointed with the twist towards the end, but I thought it was interesting and made the film quite compelling- a surprise ending if you will. The shaky documentary style filming adds to the intensity.

The plot revolves around a young photographer, Nev, who strikes up an online Facebook friendship with an 8 year old artist- very risky, yes, but they discuss art and paintings. They chat regularly. Nev lives in New York City, while Abby lives in Michigan. Nev’s brother Ariel is shooting a documentary and thinks it would be perfect for the pair to drive to Michigan and meet Abby. Once they do, they are in for a surprise as the web of circumstances that follows make the film creepy, eerie, and mysterious.

Obviously, I do not want to give any more away, but Catfish is an interesting, well thought out story, which apparently is a true case. The presentation of the film is wonderful.

Best of Enemies-2015

Best of Enemies-2015

Director-Morgan Neville, Robert Gordon

Starring-William F. Buckley Jr., Gore Vidal

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Reviewed August 19, 2016

Grade: B

Best of Enemies is a 2015 documentary that transports the viewer back in time to the 1960’s, and specifically to 1968, during the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries. I found the documentary to be a nice little history lesson for me  as 1968 was before my time and the timing of my viewing (2016) was perfect as at the time of this review we are in the midst of an intense presidential race. This is an adequate slice of political debate and rivalry- differing ideologies among the central figures.

ABC Primetime news, at that time a floundering network, needed something to attract viewers, and something to compete with competitors, the much higher rated CBS and NBC. This was a time when audiences had merely three networks of news offerings to choose from. The documentary references this fact as the power of the medium of television in 1968 was quite intense and still new. I looked back fondly on the limited choices of networks then, compared to the oodles of offerings now, but everyone watched the same programming, which elicited better conversations the next day it could be argued.

ABC concocted a scheme to bring together two bitter rivals, ultra conservative, William F Buckley, and ultra liberal, Gore Vidal. the pair, obviously of differing opinions, reportedly despised each other and the possibilities electric.

I found the documentary to be very genuine- 1968 was before reality television and mock feuds to garner ratings eve existed. Their heated debates are now legendary and there was authenticity to them. The documentary is told in a structured way- Buckley and Vidal faced off during a total of ten primaries- five for the Republican primary in Florida- five for the Democratic primary in Chicago. Other than their blowups, the conversations crackled with intelligence- both men obviously passionate, and well-educated in their views.

Best of Enemies also gives an overview of both Vidal and Buckley and how they  each had come to achieve their respective fame. Interviews with family members, colleagues, and friends are interspersed in the documentary among the constant barbs between the two as the debates ravaged on.

A monumental moment occurs during the final democratic debate that would cement the loathing between Vidal and Buckley for decades to come. Continuing to debate with a snarky, condescending tone by both, tensions came to a head as Vidal referenced Buckley as a Nazi and Buckley, in turn, called Vidal a queer and threatened to sock him in the mouth. The hatred in the eyes of both men are the central point of the documentary as their rivalry knew no boundaries. The fact that this all took place on live television (before tape delay censors) made it all the more shocking.

Strangely, the documentary chose to use narrated voices by Kelsey Grammar and John Lithgow  as Buckley and Vidal, respectively, for a few segments. I found this rather unnecessary and even distracting. The voices were surmising what each felt at the time and really did not work at all.

A smart, intelligent toned documentary that shows the real birth of political pundits (now a dime a dozen) and the realism that television was at that time period- still rather novel. Today it is filled with outrageous people and those looking for their ten seconds of fame. Best of Enemies shows us the authenticity of television back in the early days and sadly, reminds us what it has now become.

5 Broken Cameras-2012

5 Broken Cameras-2012

Director-Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi

Starring-Emad Burnat

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Reviewed February 25, 2013

Grade: B-

5 Broken Cameras is a 2012 documentary spoken in the Arabic language, which received critical acclaim upon release and heaps of award nominations.

A documentary about a Palestinian farmers- Emad Burnat- recount of Israeli soldiers overtaking his land over the span of several years, it became a Best Documentary Oscar nominee. Non political in his life, he is threatened as the Israelis build a wall through his land, which he refuses to part with.

As important as the subject matter is, it never really captures my attention and I found it to drag a bit, which pains me to say because I was hoping to be really into it given the topic.

This could simply be my opinion since it is a critically acclaimed piece. I would have definitely voted in the far superior Invisible War, from the same year, for Oscar glory.

Searching for Sugar Man-2012

Searching for Sugar Man-2012

Director-Malik Bendjelloul

Starring-Sixto Rodriguez

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Reviewed March 18, 2013

Grade: B

Searching for Sugar Man is a heartwarming documentary that tells the true story of a forgotten rising Detroit rock singer (Rodriguez) from the early 1970’s, rediscovered by South African DJ’s where he is a surprising legend in present times.

The documentary’s main talking point is how an icon can be idolized in one country, while living in utter poverty in another. Thought to be the next great thing in the 1970’s, his two released albums bombed and he subsequently faded into oblivion, until tracked down by the South African DJ’s, curious of his current whereabouts.

An inspiring documentary for any musician or fan of music as Rodriguez is a true artist, not in it for the money type or obsessed with attention nor fame, who finally receives some recognition for his talent. He is a free spirit, reminiscent of Bob Dylan, poet, whose story is a courageous one. Thankfully, this inspired documentary has brought some notice to Rodriguez.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present-2012

Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present-2012

Director-Matthew Akers, Jeff Dupre

Starring-Marina Abramovic

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Reviewed April 7, 2013

Grade: B+

The wonderful thing about documentary features is that they can introduce the viewer to a world of knowledge or provide an experience that you may not ordinarily be exposed to. This is certainly the case for me personally with Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present.

Knowing nothing prior about this inspiring artist, I had no idea who she was going into this documentary and had no exposure to performance art. The film does a great job of telling Marina’s career history, extreme discipline, and the honesty of her work. The documentary is also a biography then, of sorts, as it gives a history lesson of who she is and various obstacles she has hurdled in her life.

Marina is portrayed as an extreme artist and it was a wonderful experience learning about her. Seeing video of The Museum of Modern Art in nearby New York City was a treat since I have been to the museum before.

Pina-2011

Pina-2011

Director-Wim Wenders

Starring-Pina Bausch

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Reviewed May 23, 2013

Grade: C-

Pina, a documentary, is a dedication to famed German choreographer Pina Bausch. The documentary and the way it is made, is a major disappointment.

I respect that Pina is a tribute to an obviously talented artist, but as a documentary itself it is a complete bore. I learned nothing about the art of dance or Pina Bausch herself, as the entire 1 hour and 45 minutes (quite lengthy by documentary standards) consists of a troupe of dancers performing a series of numbers with little or no explanation of what they are doing or what the dances mean.

Mixed in with the dances are brief snippets of commentary from the dancers expressing how sorry they are that Pina Bausch has died.

Nice tribute, but any viewer attempting to learn about the art form or artist are left clueless.

Janis: Little Girl Blue-2015

Janis: Little Girl Blue- 2015

Director-Amy Berg

Starring-Janis Joplin

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Reviewed- June 19, 2016

Grade: B+

As a fan of Janis Joplin’s classic 1960’s-early 1970’s brand of classic, bluesy, rock n roll, viewing a documentary of the stars life and times was a great experience. The film sheds a bit of light on the mysterious rocker- gone way too soon and with undoubtedly much more to say. Janis was one of the most authentic, real performers of her time. A big voice in a man’s world. Impressive still, is that she wrote all of her songs herself.

The documentary is well put together as it traverses Janis’s early days as an insecure teenager living in rural Texas. Never a beauty, Janis was insecure-as most teenagers are. She was always a pistol and prided herself at being different and outspoken, oftentimes ruffling feathers in her conservative town, especially given the time period. Janis preferred hanging out with males and being “one of the guys”.

An aspect I found interesting about this documentary is the exploration of Janis’s home life- well before she found success as a singer. Taunted in school for being different because she was a painter, and a thinker, she lived in a largely racist town and had conflict with others who were not as progressive as she. Janis’s sister and brother are heavily featured throughout the documentary and explain interesting tidbits about Janis’s home life and conflict with her parents. Sadly, they forged a pleasant relationship, but never really mended fences before Janis’s untimely death.

Her relationships with other rockers of the time are explored and more than one festival performance is shared- giving a glimpse of what type of performer she was- improvised, heart on the line, intense, and brutally honest.

A lost soul with enormous talent and raw capabilities, Janis Joplin is missed, but thankfully we still have her incredible music to carry on with. Janis: Little Girl Blue is a great documentary that gives a cherished overview of the life and times of a tremendous artist.

Bully-2011

Bully-2011

Director-Lee Hirsch

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Reviewed June 12, 2013

Grade: B+

Bully is an informative and topical 2011 documentary on the bullying problem that has plagued the United States in recent years and has thankfully received more attention as a result. Shockingly, bullying has resulted in several suicides, which the documentary addresses.

The documentary mainly deals with a handful of bullied students and tells their individual stories. Unfortunately, too often teachers and school administrators either do not take the issue seriously or attempt to squander the matter to avoid more attention, according to the documentary. This is a nationwide problem in the United States.

I only wish the producers had chosen to focus some attention on the actual bullies for accountability, but surprisingly they did not. This was almost completely glossed over and only the victims featured. It would have been interesting hearing the perspective from the bullies standpoint. Do they themselves have issues at home causing them to bully? Are they bullied by others?

Regardless of this flaw, Bully is a well made documentary that should be seen by anyone with kids and especially all teachers.

The Look of Silence-2015

The Look of Silence-2015

Director-Joshua Oppenheimer

Starring-Adi Rukun

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Reviewed April 18, 2016

Grade: B+

An extremely grim and depressing 2015 documentary, The Look of Silence is a companion piece to 2013’s The Act of Killing. Both focus on the brutal Indonesian genocide of 1965-1966, in which an estimated one million people were exterminated. The documentary tells of the effects on one of the  families who survived, who now must co-exist in the same village as the killers, who remain unpunished because of government corruption. They are still in power.

The documentary is cleverly put together as the central figure watches what appears to be outtakes of the related The Act of Killing on television, and the story is manipulated so that some of the killers do not actually realize they are being filmed for the purposes in which they are.

The main point of view of the film comes from a middle-aged Indonesian man, peacefully living with his wife and daughter, as well as tending to his very elderly parents, the father a torture victim and quite frail, who appears to suffer from dementia. The father is rail thin and the mother cares for him as much as she can. Their life is clearly very tough. For protection,  throughout the documentary, the middle-aged man is unidentified. Through conversation with his mother we learn that his brother (their son) was one of the  “communists” or leftists, who were led to nearby Snake River, tortured, and eventually murdered and thrown into the river. The mother reveals that by some miracle, the middle-aged man was conceived shortly after his brother was killed, thereby saving the parents from suicide because of their grief.

The middle-aged man, under the guise of fitting patients with eye glasses, goes from murderer to murderer (all still alive, very old, and living in the town) and politely quizzes them on their involvement in the Indonesian Massacre. It is unknown whether the middle-aged man is, in fact, a Doctor, or if it is merely a ruse. Interspersed throughout, the interview clips of the murderers on television proudly describing their feats, are shown.

The Look of Silence is a true downer, but also shockingly realistic, sad, painful, and eye-opening.  Unlike many documentaries, we are not shown repeated clips of the events of the 1960’s- the story stays in the here and now. The audience uses their imagination to create what they think happened- this is powerful stuff. In the videos of the killers, they describe in brutal detail how they killed their victims and it is quite sickening to watch. Two men proudly reminisce of the chopping off of a woman’s breast, comparing the ruined flesh to an open coconut,  or slicing off a man’s penis. Others tell of drinking the blood of the victims. Painful to realize is that this is not some horror film, but real life events.

Quite dumbfounding to me was that little or no remorse was shown when the middle-aged man questioned the killers in present time. Some shrugged their involvement off, some got hostile, some denied any involvement. Some, now quite feeble, were accompanied by younger family members unaware of their father’s or grandfather’s past doings. Some appeared quite upset.

The documentary is not filled with spliced together archives or flashy lights or graphics. It is slow paced and plodding and some I fear may find it too slow. The title, The Look of Silence is rather perplexing and makes little sense to the subject of the documentary so I am not sure why it has the title that it does. But that is merely an aside.

As much as citizens of the United States complain and  stress about the political state of affairs or financial matters, we have it quite good, and viewing this painful documentary is a reminder of that. The Look of Silence displays the evil and the ugliness of human beings in the very recent past who show no remorse. In a world filled with ISIS, the documentary is a scary reminder that something like this can easily happen again. This is a sad and morbid reality and this film will stick with you for some time.

Cartel Land-2015

Cartel Land-2015

Director-Matthew Heineman

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Reviewed April 17, 2016

Grade: B

Cartel Land is a 2015 documentary film about the Mexican drug war, specifically focusing on vigilante groups in both Mexico and the United States. These groups attempt to combat and thwart drug cartels by using their own illegal efforts. Brutal and ugly, the documentary paints a dark picture of the very real drug trafficking problem and the hopelessness of the situation. Interestingly, the hot button issue of illegal immigration is not explored as the issues are considered separate from each other.

The great thing about documentaries in general is their truthfulness and ability to open ones eyes to a situation in the world in which one may not be aware of or have limited knowledge of. Most people know there is a drug problem in the United States, but Cartel Land successfully educates the viewer to the complexity of the issue.

Various perspectives are explored throughout the documentary: the Arizona Border Recon, led by militant figure, Tim “Nailer” Foley, and the Autodefansas, led by Dr. Jose Mireles, are the vigilante groups in the U.S. and Mexico, respectively. A third perspective, in that of one of the cartel members, the particular gentleman featured, cooks and transports the crystal meth across the Mexican border. Additionally, there are individuals who feel that the police and government are the ones responsible for solving the issues and the matter should be left in their hands.

The documentary does not side with one particular opinion over the other, but rather, paints a controversial picture of the reality of the situation and presents both sides objectively. However, the majority of the screen time do go to the Autodefansas story.

One of the most thought-provoking parts of the documentary, and what initially had me engaged in it, comes at the very beginning of the story. Told from the perspective of one of the cartel members who is interviewed with the backdrop of a nighttime scene, where he cooks the meth he will then deliver, is poignant. Since he transports drugs, he is perceived as a monster. He admits he causes people’s deaths, destruction, violence, etc. He then explains that the cartel members come from poverty- what else are they going to do to make this much money? Or make a living at all? It is an opportunity- who would give that up? This made me think of how complex a problem drug smuggling is and it also laid the groundwork for the viewer to realize that the cartel members may not be the only ones who are bad or crooked. What is the definition of right and wrong? On who’s terms?

Dr. Mireles and another member of the Autodefansas, named “Papa Smurf” are the primary members featured. They started Autodefansas as a way of combating the corrupt Mexican police and government that allow the drug cartel to exist, presumably for profit. Their group of vigilantes brandish militant guns in order to “protect their town” and the inhabitants. An assassination attempt occurs when someone tries to crash Mireles’s plane- he goes into hiding. But we also learn that Mireles is a womanizer, a cheat, and cannot be trusted. Is he making deals for profit on his own? Papa Smurf is in cahoots with the police. Is cash being exchanged?

The Arizona vigilante story is interesting to hear from Foley’s perspective. I observed the group to be uneducated, poor, angry, and filled with racist hatred. This is scary to think that some Americans feel the way they do and it actually made me sympathize with them the least and the drug cartel a bit more. One vigilante compared different races as being like two pit bulls in a cage- separated things are fine, but released from those cages the animals will kill each other. He had no concept of two races being able to live happily amongst each other.

Parts of Cartel Land are quite gruesome and descriptive. In one scene we see a teary mother from the town of Michoacán, who the Autodefansas protect, describe how an entire family of innocent farm workers, including a newborn, were murdered by being hurled against rocks until they died. They were the victims of a revenge scheme enacted against their boss. One pities her and we see the funeral for the newborn take place amid screams of despair from surviving family members. We also see decapitated heads and murdered individuals. It is chilling to think that this goes on in today’s world.

The cinematography is splendid and countless scenes of the Mexican and Arizona landscape are prominently featured. Miles and miles of spacious, mountainous area are shown, and the use of night vision cameras allows for a feeling of being right there with the patrol groups.

The main takeaway from Cartel Land is the subject of corruption. Throughout each story the lines are blurry. Who is corrupt? Who should we sympathize with? Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? The facts are shaded in gray and we know that there are no good groups and bad groups. This documentary teaches the audience that there is a major problem with the drug cartel across Mexico and the United States that has existed for years and will continue to exist for years to come. A lesson learned.

A Decade Under The Influence-2003

A Decade Under the Influence-2003

Director-Ted Demme, Richard LaGravenese

Starring-Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin

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Reviewed April 5, 2016

Grade: B+

Produced by the cable network Independent Film Channel (IFC), A Decade Under The Influence explores the decade of 1970’s film, a decade that was arguably the most creative and liberating to filmmakers and audiences alike. A period in film defined by the directors securing creative freedom instead of the studios, where artists instead of corporations finally ruled the roost. A Decade Under The Influence gives us an overview of the era. Despite some conspicuous omissions, I enjoyed this informative piece a great deal.

The documentary is divided into numerous segments including sections on women in film, the transition into a different period in Hollywood, and the subsequent close of the decade. The interviews are plentiful including a who’s who of stars: Martin Scorsese, Ellen Burstyn, Clint Eastwood, Robert Altman, Julie Christie, Francis Ford Coppola, and numerous other influential directors, actors, and filmmakers. Each individual describes his or her perspective on 1970’s cinema, and personal anecdotes of experiences or challenges are shared.

Ellen Burstyn, for example, describes how the success of The Exorcist afforded her a plethora of other film offers, but all of the roles were of prostitutes, dutiful wives, or women in peril. She needed roles more stimulating than those so she chose to star in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which was a much better written role. What I found a bit sad is how there are still limited, layered roles for women in Hollywood to this day unless one goes the independent film route, which this documentary touts as a savior.

Francis Ford Coppola relays how The Godfather was never expected to be a success, but rather, how he was chosen to direct the film merely because he worked for cheap and was Italian-American. How ironic that the film became such a monumental success and influential to film making as a whole for generations to come.

The documentary, at times, seems like an overview of the decade, with many clips of classic 1970’s cinema interspersed with the talking points. Despite being three hours in length, I still felt that there was so much more that the documentary could have explored. Not surprisingly, the stars granting interviews were granted heavy screen time for their films. The documentary was fine, but could have delved much deeper- I could see a multiple disc set totally ten or more hours dedicated to the decade.

One conspicuous omission was of Robert Altman’s Nashville, arguably, the best film of the decade. While it was ever briefly mentioned, and a still frame of a scene from it did appear, I personally felt that it warranted more dissection and discussion. This was more surprising given that Altman was interviewed for the documentary.

Another miss was Halloween, or any mention of John Carpenter films. Halloween clearly influenced many horror films to come and while The Exorcist received heaps of coverage, undoubtedly because star Burstyn and director William Friedkin appear at length throughout the production,. Additionally, in the horror genre, Black Christmas (a highly influential horror film) was not mentioned at all.

A celebration in my favorite decade of cinema, A Decade Under the Influence is a documentary that is a basic must see for fans of 1970’s cinema, or a film student perhaps immersing themselves into the world of great film for the first time.

Amy-2015

Amy-2015

Director-Asif Kapadia

Starring-Amy Winehouse

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Reviewed February 8, 2016

Grade: B

Amy is an informative documentary that tells the story of immensely talented, yet troubled, pop singer, Amy Winehouse.  Her childhood, rise to fame, and ultimate downfall as a result of drug, alcohol, and weight battles, are all chronicled in her documentary. Despite the information, however, I never got the sense that I knew the singer  well and at the conclusion she still seemed mysterious.

Possessing a unique jazz/soul infused sound and a wonderful British accent to boot, Winehouse burst onto the pop scene like gangbusters in 2003 as a talented artist with many layers of genres in her music. A diamond in the rough you might say, and a breath of fresh air in modern music. The fact that she wrote her own songs only added to the level of talent oozing from her. The documentary wisely tells of her upbringing and her abandoned father, who later resurfaced in her life. Her mother, while decent, could not control Amy, who was full of life and energy.

The main crux of the film, however, is to show her difficulty with fame- a sad, tried and true story of celebrities near and dear, artist types, who do not do well with the attention and adoration thrown their way and Amy Winehouse is no different. As her popularity grew, all she wanted was to be left alone and, unfortunately, her life became very public,including her tumultuous relationship with her boyfriend who wound up in prison.

Sadly, Winehouse did not have the best support system and it was alluded to that, perhaps, her father was an opportunist. A tortured, pure artist that sadly wasted away due to outside circumstances. Throughout most of the film she seemed lost or overwhelmed with the success that came her way. In a cruel irony her biggest hit “Rehab” became fodder for late night television comics to poke fun at her.

The documentary itself, while informative, is also quite basic and I felt like I was given more of an overview of Winehouse’s life than a personal introspective. I did not feel like I received a true sense of her inner thoughts and dreams. Yes, she did not want to be famous and it bothered her, but I wanted to see more of the real Amy Winehouse.

Amy is an adequate documentary about the life and times of Amy Winehouse and I finished the piece knowing more about her, but not nearly as much about her as I wished I had learned. A decent effort, but more would have been nice.

Getting Go-The Go Doc Project-2013

Getting Go- The Go Doc Project-2013

Director-Cory Krueckeberg

Starring-Tanner Cohen, Matthew Camp

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Reviewed June 23, 2015

Grade: C

Getting Go- The Go Doc Project is a small budget documentary that focuses on a shy, awkwardly gay college student named Doc, who is completing his thesis project by filming a documentary surrounding an online crush he has developed, via porn, on a New York City exotic dancer named Go. When Doc finally contacts Go and inevitably meets him, the filming of Go’s life begins. From this point a relationship forms, but at what price and what will the turnabout be? The film is okay, but is surprisingly dull as it develops and begins to quickly drag towards the predictable conclusion.

The underlying themes of this documentary are loneliness and obsession from two differing perspectives. Doc, the boring, lonely college student is enamored by the gorgeous, buff, seemingly independent Go. As the two get to know each other, more is revealed about Go, his life-past and present, his hopes, dreams, and fears. Doc is also psychologically explored and the two form an unlikely bond. In this way the film succeeds in teaching the audience that there is more to a dancer than his body and more to a nerd than his brain. Both are complex individuals.

The first half of the feature is fairly interesting. The initial courage that Doc musters up to contact and ultimately meet Go is admirable and I enjoyed seeing what transpired next. Will Go be receptive to Doc or callously treat him as another enamored gay man? When Go agrees to be filmed and his life story slowly revealed, I feel sympathy for him and am intrigued to learn more about him. What was his family life like? Was he abused or victimized as a child, I wondered? Getting Go- The Go Doc Project loosely explores matters like this, though no supporting characters are introduced. Go and Doc and their budding relationship are the only focus. The film then plods for the final 45 minutes with an uninteresting love story that is fairly lacking in the suspense department. Are we to believe the pair will live happily ever after? Not a chance.

Unfortunately, the acting is not great either, especially on the part of Go, played by Matthew Camp. Tanner Cohen is a bit better and the more interesting character of the two, with more depth. He is clearly not comfortable with himself, his body, or even with being gay. However, at this age (early twenty’s) one wonders if the character would even be comfortable with girls had he been made to be straight. The main problem with the film is that the two are mismatched. Despite the fact that they develop a fondness for each other, the audience is aware that this will not last.

Props to the filmmakers for trying something a bit different. In the end, Getting Go- The Go Doc Project starts off well, meanders, and ultimately stalls, but tries hard to present a different type of story and that is not so bad.

The Missing Picture-2013

The Missing Picture-2013

Director-Rithy Panh

Starring-Randal Douc

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Reviewed August 21, 2014

Grade: C+

One question continued to go through my mind while viewing The Missing Picture- is it a documentary or a foreign film? To me it is clearly a documentary, but strangely the film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar yet the Best Documentary Indie Spirit award, which is strange. I hate to say this, but after 15 minutes or so I found the film quite dull. I respect the creative, expressionist clay figures and enjoyed the black and white real life clips of the horrific events from 1970’s Cambodia. But I found the narration as dull as dishwasher.

I watched 45 minutes of the 1 hour and 35 minute run time and deduced that I had gotten the point of the film. It does not take away from the importance of the subject matter at hand, but the presentation could have been a bit more exciting. This is a common occurrence in the documentary genre.