Woody Allen: A Documentary (2012) Review

4 08 2012

Copyright 2012 Whyaduck Productions

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2 (for Allen fans)

Most of you that know me personally, know that Woody Allen ranks as one of my all-time favorite filmmakers.  The first Allen film I ever saw was Purple Rose of Cairo soon after it came out on cable in the late 1980s, and from then on I was a fan.  I think the neurotic behavior that is evident in my own personality is infinitely relatable to his humor and films.  As I got older, I began watching more of his backlog and loyally viewing his new films each year at the theatre; yes, both the good ones and the bad ones.  I would estimate that I’ve seen 90% of his repertoire, including some of the early films that he just acted in and movies like Scenes from a Mall that he didn’t write or direct, but appeared in.  Over a long vacation to the northwest in 2000, I read the Eric Lax biography, and I have skimmed through several others from time to time since.  So, when this expansive documentary on his life and career came out last year by director Robert Weide, it immediately fell on my radar.

The film covers literally every facet of Allen’s life and has interviews with actors, friends, family, collaborators, parents, almost any willing participant they could find to comment on Allen’s work and life.  Furthermore, there are many segments of interviews that were shot with Allen himself, including his taking the crew on a tour of the neighborhood he grew up in in Brooklyn.  At well over 3 hours, we see Allen’s life from a boy in Brooklyn to comedy writer to acclaimed filmmaker evolve.  Outside of the amazing interviews, there is a plethora of behind-the-scenes footage from his films, rare photos and other interesting audio and video segments that help tell his story.  Nearly all of his films are featured, and though this film doesn’t tarnish Allen in any way, they didn’t omit a section regarding the scandal between he and Mia Farrow in the 1990s.

If you are a Woody Allen fan, this is a must see.  If not, it may not be your cup of tea.  Whether you love him or hate him though, it’s undeniable that his posterity and longevity as a filmmaker are quite an achievement, and along the way, he has given us more than a fair share of brilliant films in the canon of American Cinema.  Furthermore, few auteurs from any era can claim an ability to make us laugh, as well as engage in deep dramatic content.  Just think, Allen gave us Banannas as well as Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors.


Dear Zachary: A Letter to His Son About His Father (2008)

11 04 2012

Copyright 2008 MSNBC Films

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Maddie wanted to watch this one on Netflix Instant Watch.  I read the description, and was not at all interested; however, once she started playing it, I found myself straying from the iPad to the television screen within a couple minutes.

Without giving too much of the story away, this film chronicles the journey of documentary filmmaker Kurt Kuenne in compiling video footage of his childhood friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby, who was the victim of a suspicious murder.  Bagby’s assailant was thought to be his estranged girlfriend at the time, Dr. Shirley Turner, 12 years his senior.  After the murder, it was found that she was pregnant with Bagby’s child, Zachary, whose name is where the title derives.  Through interviews with family, friends, colleagues, extended family and others, this film tries to piece together the pieces of Bagby’s life for his young son, as well as analyze the crimes of Shirley Turner.

Kuenne borrows heavily from the style of Errol Morris in his presentation of the facts in this film, and it works wonderfully.  I have always felt the Morris style exudes a sort of narrative progression to real life events that keeps the viewer not only informed, but also entertained and engaged in the subject matter.  There are surprises along the way, and the case becomes more and more involved as the film progresses.  Furthermore, being that the filmmaker was a childhood friend of the victim, this movie carries a very personal and heartfelt vision throughout.  Rather than being just a wallflower to the events, as many documentaries are, Kuenne uncovers elements about a man that was like a brother to him, which makes the filmmaker himself an engaged participant in the story.

This is a beautifully done work that advocates a powerful message.  I will warn that it is almost impossible to watch this film without eliciting a strong emotional reaction.  Even the least emotional of people will likely have a hard time keeping dry eyes through this movie.

Senna (2010) Review

27 01 2012

Copyright 2010 Working Title Films

★ ★ ★ ★

I came across the name of this documentary in looking over an Empire Magazine article on Oscar snubs.  Since the film was released in many parts of the world in 2010, but still many others in 2011, the line as to whether or not it could qualify this year has apparently been a point of contention.  Though I don’t know a lot about Formula One racing, though I am a huge fan of automobiles in general, the reviews I read led me to giving this one a shot on Netflix Instant Watch.

Ayrton Senna was a Brazilian kart racer that migrated to Europe for kart racing, and eventually, found his way into Formula One racing at the age of 24.  Throughout the 1980s, he became one of the sport’s best competitors and a three-time Formula One World Champion.  His feuding on and off the track with French driver and three-time World Champion Alain Prost helped bring further popularity to the sport, and his personal calm demeanor and humility made him a fan to many outside the sport as well.   In his native Brazil, he became somewhat of a personal treasure during Brazil’s crushing economic and political turmoil of the late 1980s and early 1990s.  His death in 1994 at the age of 34 from a crash brought increased attention to the dangers of Formula One racing and instilled new guidelines to help keep drivers safe.

The entire film is put together from archive footage.  Though there is voiceover narration throughout from different drivers, commentators, medical staff and others, they never actually appear on screen visually.  It’s amazing the amount of footage that had to have been compiled for this film and the editing of it all together is amazingly precise.  As a viewer, one literally forgets that they are watching an amalgam of old television, stock and personal film and video footage; to the viewer, it’s as if you are watching a narrative film on Senna’s life with him in the leading role.  I’ve never before seen this kind of take on a documentary, but it worked wonderfully and, obviously, is only something that is feasible if a lot of source footage is available.

Maddie, my girlfriend, can’t stand racing or cars nine times out of ten, though I do make her watch Top Gear several times a week and call her beloved car a “pry-us” like they do on the show when bashing the vehicle.  However, even as someone not really interested in the sport of Formula One racing, she really enjoyed the film.  So, that leads me to believe that whether you love racing or could care less, there is something this film has for everyone.  Senna was a smart and very able athlete in his field, but above all a humble and gracious person it would seem, and to see his professional career unfold with the story telling techniques used in this documentary is absolutely magical.

Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011) Review

8 12 2011

Copyright 2011 Participant Media

★ ★ ★ ★

Having worked in the newspaper industry for just under one year in 2008, I am fully aware of the hardships the industry is going through.  The paper where I worked, which was a small tri-weekly 6,000 circulation local paper, had once printed its own papers on site, had a devoted staff and large work area.  During my tenure, the paper was hit with another round of lay-offs, the printing on site was long gone and outsourced to a sister company and we were moved from the town we covered to the sister company’s offices in a larger close-by market.  In the end, our paper was reduced to an editor, sports editor, myself (as News Assistant and later Features Editor) and one full-time devoted reporter.  

This film studies essentially the same problems my little rural North Carolina paper was going through, but at one of the most prominent newspapers in the country, The New York Times.  The Times has long be heralded as one of, if not the, most important newspapers in the world.  Many times, stories that first appear in The Times will appear in other papers two to three days later.  Their reporters have long been the gold standard in the industry and have garnered a slew of Pulitzer Prizes.  In this film, which covers from about 2008-2010, we see the effects of the digital world on this behemoth of a paper.  Lay-offs, uncertainty, astronomical financial loss, all of these are analyzed and touched on by, not only Times reporters, but also people from the digital media industry.  With a focus on The Times’ new media unit, we see the stresses of everyday life in the print industry and how they are trying to cope with what is happening to their industry.  The most important point throughout, however, is that we need good, solid reporting of the news, no matter how it is digested.

When I saw recently that CNN laid off a large number of dedicated photojournalists in favor of free, individual uploaded content on iReport, I almost got sick to my stomach.  A Lamen with a camera phone in their backyard is not reporting.  In these days and times when our country is in dark peril, we need reporters who are going to go out and report our news content with the highest of integrity.  Though it may seem easy to some, good reporting is a skill like any other that takes education, practice and years of trial and error.  To reduce this profession to any 12-year-0ld with a video camera is a disgrace and not the kind of society I want to live in.

I have had two positions since my time at the newspaper and, even though they are more in line with what my degree and core interests are, I think I enjoyed the day to day work of the paper more than either of the other two.  Yet, making a living in the newspaper industry is extremely difficult.  These are trained professionals making less than $30,000 a year much of the time.  I hope a bridge between quality content and the digital spectrum can be reached soon, not only for the sake of my friends in journalism, but for the sake of the content we will receive as the end user.  I realize I have gotten up on a pedestal about this topic, but it is one that is close to the heart.  In regards to the film itself, it is a well done and engaging documentary that I think anyone interested in the state of our newspaper industry should watch.

Special When Lit: A Pinball Documentary (2009) Review

22 11 2011

Copyright 2009 Steam Motion and Sound

★ ★ ★ ★ (for a pinball lover)

I absolutely love pinball and have since I was very young.  There is something mesmerizing about playing a game that is mechanically based, rather than graphics on a screen; there is more control, more connection with the game and, to me, an overall more enjoyable experience nine times out of ten.  Don’t get me wrong, I have also been a heavy console gamer in my day, but pinball definitely holds a very special place in my heart.  Unfortunately, this beloved arcade classic gets a little less attention with each passing year and more and more are disappearing from store fronts as time goes by.  This documentary chronicles not only the history of this wonderful coin operated machine, but also celebrates its legacy.

Through voice over narration, interviews and on location shooting, the film explores the beginnings of pinball, through its heyday, and now into its decline.  It not only explores the opinions of collectors and avid players, but also those who design the machines and owned the arcades in which they were and are played.  Nothing about pinball is left uncovered in this extensive documentary, which turns out being both a blessing and a curse.  I enjoyed how complete a study the film was on its subject, but even I at times was waning a bit during a few of the interviews.

For me, however, over all it was a very enjoyable experience watching this film and brought back some great memories of some of the wonderful machines I’ve played and mastered in the past.  Now that I am older and pinball machines are no longer in many bars, soda shops and other establishments as they were when I was a young kid (during pinball’s second golden age of the early 1990s), I have decided to, like everything else these days, bring the entertainment home.  I have already ordered my first pinball machine, a Bally Doctor Who that was manufactured in 1992; it is currently being shopped and will be picked up at the end of December to early January.  I’m sure this will be the first of many, knowing my obsessions with things of this nature.  However, there is something lost, as with owning a home theater or pool table, when you don’t have that public environment, the general consciousness, surrounding your playing of the game.

Freakonomics (2010) Review

9 05 2011

Copyright 2010 Cold Fusion Media Group

★ ★

Apparently the book that this documentary is based on by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner sold nearly 4 million copies.  For the sake of reader’s interest, I hope the book was more entertaining and informative than this movie was.

As an interesting concept, the film was divided into four segments and written and directed by several different well-known documentarians including: Morgan Spurlock, Eugene Jarecki, Alex Gibney and Rachel Grady, among others.  There were four major sections overall: one segment on names entitled “A Roshanda By Any Other Name”; one segment on cheating entitled “Pure Corruption”; one segment on crime called “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life”; and one segment on incentives entitled “Can a Ninth Grader be Bribed to Succeed?”

Going in order that they appeared, I found the first segment on naming to be marginally interesting and somewhat entertaining.  However, the majority of the information provided could have been summed up in a sentence rather than 25 minutes of screen time.  The second segment, which featured information on cheating in sumo wrestling, was the worst and it was the longest segment!  I didn’t care at all about sumo wrestling, the economic data they presented or anything else this segment had to offer.  To be honest, I fast forwarded through about 20 minutes of this segment because it was brutal.  The third segment, which dealt with crime in early 1990s, was by far the most interesting of the entire film.  If this segment would have been a stand alone short film, it would have probably won some awards and gotten rave reviews because it was very well presented.  Then, like the first, the fourth segment was only marginal.

Interspersed between the four segments are various interviews with the two authors, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.  Both of them seem really arrogant and condescending in how they present their information.  It’s a shame, because some of the material seemed like it could be really interesting.  After seeing the guys who came up with it, however, it makes it feel like it could loose validity.

I would not recommend wasting your time with this film.  The only part I can recommend would be the third segment.  So, if you are interested in this film, just go to Netflix instant watch and fast forward to about an hour in for that and then just be done with this movie after that.  There are too many other good documentaries to waste your time on this one.

Inside Job (2010) Review

16 03 2011

Copyright 2010 Sony Pictures Classics. Dir. Charles Ferguson

★ ★ ★ ★

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to see this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature, Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job.  The film deals with the events and practices that lead to the economic crisis of 2008-2009 that we are still recovering from.

First and foremost when I watch a documentary, I am interested in how well the film presents the information on the topic it is focusing on.  The shady practices of Wall Street and our capitalist system were presented in great detail in this film from the beginning of Iceland’s financial collapse all the way to our present situations.  Secondly, I watch for how entertaining this educational material is to actually watch and the film’s ability to keep a viewer engaged with the material.  It seems the filmmakers of this film borrowed a bit from Michael Moore with some of the “shock and awe” ways of presenting information and the fun, tongue-in-cheek musical selections interspersed throughout (including Big Time by Peter Gabriel and New York Groove by Ace Frehley).  Some audiences don’t like this approach to a documentary and prefer a straighter, less enhanced presentation of material, but for me personally, I think it helps create a stronger impact and keeps the watchability at a high.

Technically, the film looked great.  It was shot on the RED One digital cinema camera in 4k mode, so the resolution and dynamic range of the interview sequences are quite high for a documentary.  A lot of the “run and gun” segments were shot on the Sony EX-1 which still retains a high visual quality, but not to the level that the beautiful sweeping intro shots of Iceland are on the RED One.  As previously mentioned, I really loved the musical picks they decided to use throughout the film and many of the montage sequences had a nice, machine gun paced editing flow that keeps true to the music video age documentary style we have become accustomed to in the last 10 to 15 years.

Without getting too political in the review, the film’s content is hard hitting and definitely ignited a strong response against how our system is currently run.  However, I will be honest and admit that I am a liberal and this film was made by liberal filmmakers, so there is a certain level of bias.  However, I don’t think anyone could argue after seeing this film that what was happening in our financial markets was right.  Essentially, a few super rich decided to take their greed to a new level which, in turn, has collapsed a global economy.  If nothing else, I think the film wants the viewer to take away one encompassing theme: that the system as it stands today HAS to be changed.  We can’t continue going on in a crippling financial system that, as the Who would say, is “in with the new boss, same as the old boss.”

I haven’t seen many of the other documentaries that came out in 2010, but I can see why the Academy chose this film as the Best Documentary Feature this year.  It’s not perfect and not the best documentary I’ve ever seen, but it’s a good, solid film that deals with a subject that is probably the single most important topic of our time in relation to global tranquility.

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