Monday, January 25, 2010

17 Documentaries, 17 Stories

Documentaries are a peculiar species in the kingdom of cinema, placing a camera as an eyewitness to events, places and people that are all too real. Over the past week, here are a few great documentaries I've watched.


Tyson - His words flow out like poetry… or a flurry of jabs. Mike Tyson recalls, in his own words, his journey from troubled, violent teen to heavyweight champion of the world, to troubled, violent heavyweight champion of the world, to troubled adult. James Toback, a longtime director friend of Tyson’s, captures the man we rarely see, someone behind the ear biting and the random threats of violence – a man living closely with fear - all his life. The movie was well received at several film festivals.

When We Were Kings - Held in production limbo for years, this documentary recalls the events surrounding what is probably the greatest boxing match of all time – the legendary bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire, the Rumble in the Jungle. When We Were Kings takes us back to a time when blacks were still struggling for their own freedom and identity, showing the world what they were capable of on the stage of their ancestry. This is about much more than the match itself (the coverage of bout takes less than 1/3rd of the movie); this is about the two men involved, notably Ali, whose mout was as fast as his fists, and whose charisma captivated a generation. The movie won the Academy Award for best documentary. Ali himself, suffering from Parkinson’s, received the award, accompanied by his now-friend Foreman.

Corporate America
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room - The downfall of one of the largest and (at the time, seemingly) most successful companies in the world is, as this documentary tells us, a tragedy: a story of really smart guys who thought they could get away with anything until they lived completely in a fantasy world of their own making. Soon, they considered fantasy reality, even though the opposite was true. And once that world began to crumble, down was the only place to go. It also reflects one of the most savage yet enduring human traits – that of pure, unadulterated greed. And at the other side of this tragedy is the working man, whose money invested over the years in a company they believed in disappeared like smoke.

Capitalism: A Love Story - From Michael Moore’s first film to his latest, I can say that the man’s style has not changed much in 20 years. The film tries to tackle the downfall of capitalism, and how the Heartless Corporation takes advantage of the lives of many hardworking Americans for profit, since in Capitalism, Profit is God. Again using his guerrila style gonzo journalism and his sarcastic, darkly humorous wit, Moore shapes a vision of America and tells us that change is something America desperately needs.

Roger & Me - Michael Moore’s first documentary, Roger and Me tells of the GM (General Motors) plant closing in Flint, Michigan, Moore’s hometown and a place he visits in later films as a testament to America’s eroding social structure. Moore repeatedly tries (and fails) to contact Roger Smith, the CEO of GM, to join him and see Flint as it is – a deteriorating, poverty stricken place whose life has been sapped by corporate downsizing and outsourcing.

Fun and Games

Wordplay - Although Sudoku has supplanted some of its fans, the crossword puzzle still remains a touchstone of man’s sheer inclination to solve something, to literally fill in an empty space. Wordplay takes us to the Americal Crossword Puzzle Tournament, where the best crossword players in the country compete. But beyond the tournament itself, the crossword puzzle community has become a family in the best sense of the world, gathering complete strangers from wildly varying fields into an event that celebrates their singular passion. Along with this, interviews with celebrity crossword puzzle solvers such as funnyman Jon Stewart and former president Bill Clinton give us some insight into this often overlooked activity.

Spellbound - We’ve all seen it on ESPN, right? The Spelling Bee still remains one of the most esteemed American Institutions, which is interesting for a language that is, in this writer’s honest opinion, one of the most contradictory and screwy languages around. Spellbound takes us into the lives of 8 kids from various parts of America, each with their own story to tell, as they aspire to be the champion for that years Scripps National Spelling Bee. Weird kids, outsiders, city kids, kids from the countryside, even normal kids like we used to be, they are a reflection of the American Dream. Even if you can’t spell opsimath or banns or chthonous, give it a try.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters - For more than 20 years, “Video Game Player of the Century” Billy Mitchell held the highest score in the arcade game Donkey Kong, the hardest and most challenging classic arcade game of the 80s. But then, a airplane engineer turned teacher named Steve Wiebe got an even higher score, starting a race and a rivalry to determine who is the true King of Kong. More than the actual game itself, the King of Kong is a story of one guy going against The Man – a story we all can relate to, even if we’ve never jumped a barrel or dodged a fireball in our lives. (My personal Donkey Kong High Score – 31,900 points.)

Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade - If you’re as old as I am (or more) you might have played at least one of these classic games at the local arcade or home console: Pac-man, Donkey Kong, Galaga, or whatever. Chasing Ghosts tracks down the participants in a 1982 Life Magazine photoshoot featuring the best players in the world, in a time when the Video Game Craze of the eighties (before the notorious crash of 1983) was at its peak. But more than the games themselves, the movie paints a portrait of the often interesting people who played them, and the lives they led after the arcades started to cater to a new and different generation of players.

I Got Next (Short Cut) - This independent project is about the professional fighting game scene. While not as prominent as the e-sports scene with first person shooters or real time strategy games, the North American community is large, with tournament attendance numbering in the hundreds. It was taken in the time when Street Fighter IV was released, which caused a resurgence in an old East Coast – West Coast rivalry that has been going on since Street Fighter II was released many many years ago. I Got Next takes us into the various tournaments of Street Fighter and the players that go there, revealing their views, hopes and dreams. A longer cut of the movie is expected sometime this year.

Tetris: From Russia With Love – We know it as the Brick Game. We’ve played it for hours and hours on end. But the story behind this highly addictive puzzle game is quite interesting – a story of corporate one-upsmanship and capitalism vs. socialism, in an era where Soviet Russia was still one big scary place behind an Iron Curtain. And at the bottom of it all is Alexei Pazhitnov, a very humble and down to earth guy who happened to make one of the simplest, yet most addictive games of our time.

Political Stuff

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised - Covering the events of a Coup d’etat that threatened to unseat Venezuelan President (for life!) Hugo Chavez, this documentary reveals how media has the power to influence minds and change history. It also paints an eerily familiar picture of a class struggle between the masses and the middle and upper social classes, a popular revolt instigated by the latter (and supported by the military), and a counter revolt instigated by the former. Sound familiar? I think we had a few of them here in this country…

Outfoxed - If you haven’t noticed the seeming bias of Fox News towards a certain political inclination, then this movie paints quite the damning portrait of it. Personally I didn’t think the channel was that bad before the 9/11 attacks, but that seemed to change as time went on. Media is a powerful thing, and its use and abuse can change events in a big way, making lies look like the truth.

Your Mommy Kills Animals - You ever notice those guys protesting against zoos and whatnot? Yup. This documentary is about the animal rights movement. As it differentiates the animal rights people from the animal welfare people (guys who run shelters or sanctuaries for animals abandoned or lost) It also presents a spectrum of people involved in the rights movement itself, from your normal run of the mill advocate for animal rights, to the guy who insults you for wearing fur on the street to the people who commit acts of vandalism and/or harrassment and violence against people who either indirectly or directly use animals (for example, medical research) or abuse them – with such acts making them the number 1 domestic terrorist group in the US today. Ironically it shows us, despite man’s great compassion, a little glimpse of man’s inhumanity to man.

Other Stuff

Super High Me - Super Size Me, but instead of junk food, we have pot. That’s right. Comedian Doug Benson undergoes an experiment where, after 30 days of not smoking pot, he smokes pot continuously for 30 days. The documentary tackles the issue of the use of Marijuana for medical purposes (in California, a proposition was passed making this legal within the state, although federal laws still have it as illegal) and the various people using pot to relax or ease their pain or whatever. While not as focused in its presentation as Super Size Me was, it does make you think a bit about it.

Trekkies 2 - The Star Trek Fandom is one of the most quirky, yet enduring fanbases in the world, even today. While the first Trekkies focused more on the American Fans, this film tackles the huge international fanbase, where the biggest conventions are held. From Italy to Germany to Serbia, we see fans talking and relishing their love for a science fiction TV show that has been here for (at most) 40 years. We also get a glimpse of some of the people who were featured in the first film, proving mostly that yes, these people do have a life.

My Kid Could Paint That - Marla Olmstead looks, talks and acts like a normal 4 year old kid. But her paintings of abstract art fetch thousands of dollars a piece. The documentary was originally a piece about modern art, where we are asked, what is truly “art?” and who can authoritatively tell us that a piece of shit on a canvas is art or just a piece of shit? But then, things change. Marla’s family is accused of coaching or helping the kid finish her paintings. Once the second part of the movie kicks in, it evolves into this piece where the questions on art apply to the documentary filmmaking process as a whole. As for whether the kid really did it herself or not, the movie leaves it to us to decide for ourselves.