Tag: documentary

Review of Jafar Panahi’s Taxi

3 stars

“Taxi” an interesting Iranian sociological stunt

In the first Jafar Panahi film that I watched, with the meta title “This Is Not a Film”, Iranian director Panahi is on house arrest for twenty years by the Iranian government, and he is mostly pacing around his house, talking about how bored he is and apparently trying to kill time. While it may have made some good points about Iran’s oppressive government, it was not very interesting. In fact, the film’s backstory was much more interesting. Panahi filmed himself on an iPhone, then put his footage onto a flash drive smuggled inside a birthday cake that was sent to the Cannes Film Festival. This whole process could have made a fascinating double-meta documentary.

I did not see “Closed Curtain”, Panahi’s following film, but “Taxi” is an interesting semi-documentary, in an even more confined space than “This Is Not a Film”. Until about the last scene, Panahi makes a point to never get out of the cab that he is driving. Basically, Panahi picks up a diverse assortment of passengers, posing as  a cab driver. Despite being more confined than “This Is Not a Film”, “Taxi” is much more interesting and insightful.

“Taxi” is somewhat messy and meandering, since some of the actors are non-professional, and sometimes Panahi’s stunt comes off as contrived and stagy. The first scene is fascinating, showing two passengers in Panahi’s cab with two conflicting, yet familiar sounding, political ideologies. The man in the front recounts a story of a friend who got the tires of his car stolen and replaced with bricks, and says the guy should have been hanged; the woman in the back seat (which I assume was intentional) basically tells him that the man who stole the tires should have been helped instead of punished. They have an intense, fascinating, and somewhat petty argument that gives a taste of how social relations are in Iran.

Later in the film, Panahi picks up his daughter from what seems to be an arts school. She is about ten years old, and is taking a film class. Her film teacher tells her the rules of making a distributable film; she tells her father what the rules are, and this interaction speaks volumes, given Panahi’s trouble with the government for the films he directed. One of the caveats that stuck out to me was “no sordid realism”. His daughter finds this confusing, pointing out that people should not do things that they are not willing to show.

The “taxi” in the film seems metaphorical for Panahi’s confinement,  showing how he can leave the confinement of his own house only to be even more confined in a taxi. The passengers are like his glimpse into the Iranian zeitgeist, only hearing bits and pieces, but never getting the full story. There is much to be said for the craft and thought that has been put into this film, especially given the small space Panahi had to work with.




Review of Best of Enemies

4 stars

“Enemies” a fascinating, poignant, profound documentary

The masterful documentary, “Best of Enemies”, is about the televised debates between Democrat Gore Vidal, and Republican William F. Buckley. They were shown on ABC in 1968, when ABC was considered a dumping ground for lesser programming such as “The Flying Nun”. Their debate would hopefully give ABC more credibility, and it happened to revolutionize television forever.

“Best of Enemies” shows why documentaries can be so much better than fictionalized accounts when it comes to insights into human nature. Both Buckley and Vidal were so much more than they seemed, and this documentary showed their nuances and human complexities more than any fiction account probably ever could.

Buckley and Vidal seemed to have so much in common that their differences were practically an irksome disappointment. They both went to boarding schools, they were both writers, and both had an elevated, aristocratic manner. Yet, it was mostly their sociopolitical views that divided them, and created so much personal animosity between the two.

Since ABC was suffering from a creative void, the network executives thought it would breathe new life into the channel and give it a ratings boost, if they had two people from opposite ends of the political spectrum debate each other’s views; essentially, the verbal equivalent of boxing. Buckley already had his own show, called “Firing Line”, where he debated his guests, who were just about always Democrats.

Buckley and Vidal had a total of 10 televised debates, and there is a point toward the 8th or 9th debate, where they both cross the line into name-calling. I will let you see for yourself, but at that point in the film, their overboard insults truly got under my skin. Gore and Bill were articulate and intelligent in a way that most TV personalities, these days, are not, yet when they needled each other enough, their worst sides would spill out.

Though Vidal and Buckley had their flaws, and were both smug in a way that just about every political commentator nowadays is, the film shows their humanity. I found it rather tragic when it is recalled that when Buckley was older and he was on a talk show, he was shown a clip of the name-calling feud between him and Vidal, and I could sense how ashamed he was, saying “I thought that tape had been burned.”

Following the debates, Vidal and Buckley wrote what could basically have been called smear articles about each other in Esquire Magazine. They went back and forth with lawsuits, and one can sense that on some level they enjoyed this back-and-forth feud. Gore Vidal, though, like Bill Buckley, seemed to hide his insecurity with cold wit and sarcasm. These two men deserved each other.

Whenever I see a documentary like this, I wish there would be more documentaries this great, that explore human nature and behavior in ways that fiction cannot. This was truly one of the best films, of any genre, of 2015.


Review of Citizenfour

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3 stars

“Citizenfour” a quietly chilling, riveting documentary

One of the most satisfying aspects of “Citizenfour” is hearing Edward Snowden’s voice. With all of the news coverage I saw and heard about Snowden last year, I never actually heard his voice. Hearing his voice gave him a somewhat more human quality than people merely speaking for or about him.While it may not be a perfect documentary, “Citizenfour” nonetheless shows how documentaries can have so much truth about human nature, whereas a fictionalized film would feel phony and wrong.

Edward Snowden was one of the most talked about public figures of last year, as well as a renegade hero for our times. He leaked information from the National Security Agency (NSA); basically, after 9/11, the NSA started cracking down and spying on people, tracking their every move. This included their phone calls, web searches, texts, and everything we wanted to be private, or thought was private. After a while, though, with the emergence of social media, nothing seems to be private anymore, everything has to be viral or social or whatnot, and if we keep going in the direction we’re heading, the word “privacy”, after a couple generations, is going to sound like old English. In a sense, we have sacrificed so much of our privacy that we are practically begging to be hacked, tracked and spied on.

Most of “Citizenfour” depicts documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras tracking down Edward Snowden, who was working for the NSA, but fled the agency after he leaked their files. The footage that precedes Snowden is fascinating. One scene is of an NSA member being questioned in court about his methods, and denying pretty much everything. I could not help but think that it was opposite day for him, where yes means no and no means yes. Another scene showed the leader of Occupy Wall Street lecturing students about how closely the NSA tracks us, and in a chilling way, what he was describing was reminiscent of the dystopia of “Minority Report”. All of this works very well as a foreboding build-up to the meeting of Snowden himself.

As minimalist as the film is, it summons up more tension than most fiction films this year. Even if some of the film’s shots, such as Edward Snowden quietly typing on his laptop are a little too inwardly placid, the film still has an abundance of power; at a hotel in Hong Kong, Laura Poitras and a writer for Salon.com are interviewing Snowden, and he is revealed as a highly complex human being.

Snowden is brilliant at what he does, yet somewhat humbled. When he finds out that the NSA is coming after him, he is more poised than the average human being would be. I know that I would go into a total freak-out if the NSA were after me, so I admired Snowden’s courage. He seems to be somewhat of a martyr, even though he says is not, sacrificing himself for his beliefs. Toward the end, there was footage of Obama saying that Snowden is “not a patriot”. He may not be one in the absolute sense of the term, but he cares for his country and does not want it to turn into a dictatorship. In a strange way, Snowden is an idealist.

Review of The Crash Reel

4/ 4 stars

“Crash Reel” a tragic, yet inspirational sports doc

“The Crash Reel” may be one of the most profoundly insightful sports documentaries ever made, It is only superficially about sports though. It is about accepting your circumstances, and about being humbled by tragedy. It starts by showing Kevin Pearce, an Olympic snowboarder, falling on his head and suffering a traumatic brain injury. It is the kind of story that would have felt painfully schmaltzy as a fictionalized account, but as a documentary, feels just about exactly right.

Most of the film is about how Kevin recovers from his brain injury, and how he wants to keep snowboarding, but realizes that after his injury, it just won’t work for him anymore. Kevin Pearce has a group of about four snowboarding guy friends, including Shaun White. Truth be told, the guys rattled my nerves a bit at the beginning. They seemed like such hard partying athletes that I was starting to be reluctant to have their company.

When Kevin was injured, he became a more sensitive, more understanding, and more identifiable human being. His brain trauma seemed to represent a kind of rebirth for him that by the end, made me look inside myself, and think differently about my circumstances and the world around me. The last 20 minutes are chilling, yet powerful, making me realize that Kevin could never snowboard again, which he was passionate about, yet he was learning to accept the way things are. 

Kevin’s friends become more compassionate and sensitive as the film goes on too. I could tell that they really cared about him, and they were not going to give up on him. Kevin’s family is also very likable and well-developed. His father is a glass-blower, and later on in the film, we learn that him and his father are severely dyslexic, and glass-blowing and snowboarding are what they enjoy, showing us how people can compensate for their weaknesses. What is heartbreaking is that the one emotional outlet and skill that Kevin had developed was taken away from him.

Kevin also has a brother with Down Syndrome, who has an emotional journey that is just about as interesting as Kevin’s. He does not want to have Down Syndrome, yet in a heartbreaking yet life-affirming scene, both Kevin and his brother come to terms with their conditions at the family dinner table.

“Crash Reel” is filled with pain, yet it is also filled with hope. Like I said earlier, so much of its material is so well-executed because it is actual footage, and it rings so much more true than a contrived, inspirational movie-of-the-week. It showed me how it is harder to find truth with paid actors, and that there can be so much more power and resonance in actual footage.

Review of 20 Feet From Stardom


3/ 4 stars

“20 Feet” a fairly entertaining, yet uneven music doc

“20 Feet from Stardom” is a documentary with infectious warmth of spirit, and charm to spare. This being said, it could have done much more with its subject matter. It is about back-up singers, basically starting in the ‘50’s, with the Raelettes, back-up singers for Ray Charles, and going up to ‘80’s New Wave artists like Sting and The Talking Heads. A problem with the film, though, is that it never feels like it is building up to anything.

Another music doc about neglected talent, “Searching for Sugar Man”, about little-known Detroit folk singer Sixto Rodriguez, was much more thorough, climactic and meaningful. “20 Feet” feels kind of scattered, and it is somewhat repetitive in its message, which it conveys early on. So many of these singers, (who are mostly African-American women) are talented, yet tragically not cut out to be full-on divas.

Most of the singers are immensely likable and have an abundance of personality. Merry Clayton, who is the background singer in The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”, is personality plus, and in her late 60’s, has not lost a bit of her spunk. Even before I knew she was the background voice of “Gimme Shelter”, for the longest time, I wondered who that woman was, upstaging Mick Jagger so well.

All of the singers have good voices, yet Clayton was the only person in the film who seemed talented enough to have a solo career. Some of the women’s voices were not very smooth, yet had a lot of soul, and were good for the kind of music they sang. Toward the end, a woman named Judith Hill, who was a back-up singer for Michael Jackson, had a voice that was not technically bad, but it was a little too commercial, and lacked the power of Merry Clayton, in a way showing how vocal styles of the ’60’s have been softened and lost their power and distinctiveness.

One of the explanations for why women like Merry Clayton did become a solo artist was that there could only be one Aretha. While there is some truth to this statement, it seems a little glib, and it seemed like there would have been a more complicated explanation for why Clayton never hit it big.

I would say that overall I liked “20 Feet from Stardom”. It is charming and inspiring even if it is a relatively superficial look at the music industry. I think I would mildly recommend it, since it is entertaining, but it could have had more of an emotional impact.

The 5 Best Documentaries of 2012 (So Far)

The 5 Best Documentaries of 2012 (So Far)
2012 is turning out to be the year of the documentary. I liked or loved at least 5 of the documentaries that came out this year. In fact this year’s best film so far is a riveting doc about the battle against AIDS. Another doc is about false and mistaken identities; a 60’s/ 70’s Folk singer who mysteriously vanished; victims of rape in the military; and finally a brilliant Sushi chef. One thing these docs have in common is that they are much more powerful than a fictonalized account could ever be. So, without further ado, let the list begin:

1. How to Survive a Plague- Not only the best documentary of the year, but the best film of the year. “Plague” is a moving film about the AIDS epidemic and people doing all they possibly can to fight it and to find a cure for it. Much of it is inflammatory, exposing the bigotry of Senators and clergymen. Much of it is also uplifting, showing the triumph of the human spirit. The human spirit may be a theme in movies that never gets old. I can totlally picture a fictionalized account of this doc being mushy and phony.

2. The Imposter- And now for something completely different; while you could say that “Plague” is about the courage to be completely and utterly yourself, “The Imposter” is the exact opposite sort of doc, about fraud and fakery. A 23-year-old Frenchman poses as a 16-year-old blonde boy, fooling even the boy’s immediate family. The boy had disappeared for about a year, and much of the film is about the speculation and theories of what the family was thinking and how they could have been fooled. The film is edge of your
seat entertainment.

3. Searching for Sugar Man- “Sugar Man” is a fascinating, inspirational, and heartwarming doc about a Folk singer from the ‘60’s/ ‘70’s who goes by the name Rodriguez. He mysteriously disappeared in the ‘70’s and there was much speculation surrounding what happened to him/ where he went. I do not want to give away anything else, because part of the pleasure of the film is the second half, which is not only full of surprises, but uplift as well.

4. The Invisible War-  “Invisible War” is about victims of rape in the military. It is probably the saddest of all  the docs on this list. It is important nonetheless because it shows the effects of rape on the victims in thorough detail. It shows that women do not know who to turn to when they are assaulted, and for men it is worse, because it is emasculating, and they do not even know how to tell their wives.

5. Jiro Dreams of Suhi- This is a doc about a Japanese Sushi chef named Jiro. He develops a profound, rather thorough, philosophy on cooking Sushi, and he talks about his upbringing, which was very strict. What this does is shed light on stereotypes of Asian culture, not entirely disspelling them, but making them more specific and geniune.