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Entries in Documentary (14)

Friday
Dec072012

Only the Young

This week isn’t a particularly big week for movies. There’s only one major release—a romantic comedy starring Gerard Butler that, if it’s like his last genre endeavor, The Bounty Hunter, is bound to fail—and only a few little nothing movies that will barely see the light of day. Two of those movies share similar approaches. The documentary Tchoupitoulas follows a few young boys around as they discover New Orleans nightlife and are forced to come-of-age and it’s fairly awful, never coming close to anything even remotely insightful. However, Only the Young, a film that follows a group of punk skater kids around is decidedly different. There is real depth here, both in the characters and in the emotional pull of the film.

The two main subjects are a couple of high school kids named Garrison and Kevin. They live in a small desert town in California and they love to skate. In fact, they spend almost all their time together doing just that. For years, they’ve been inseparable and despite some bumps in the road, including an awkward kiss Kevin shares with Garrison’s ex-girlfriend, Skye, they remain close. This is the heart and soul of Only the Young. It’s about two boys who don’t really know where their lives are heading or where they’ll be in 10 years, but, frankly, they don’t care. They live in the moment, rarely showing signs of sadness or fatigue. They cherish every moment together and brighten up when one sees the other coming.

But their personalities are deeper than a mutual bond they share with each other and it all hearkens back to Garrison’s unwillingness to harbor any resentment towards Kevin when he kisses Skye. He cares too much for his friend to do so and he genuinely wants him to succeed. When Kevin qualifies for a skate contest, but then fails to place, Garrison, even at his young age, doesn’t ridicule his friend like many would. He instead talks of how proud he is of Kevin for even getting to that point. Skaters and punk rock kids are always seen as rebellious and godless, but that’s not necessarily the case (as seen when Garrison and Kevin head out with a religious organization to a local skate park and try to spread the gospel through skateboarding). These kids are surprisingly selfless and profoundly mature.

Perhaps the best example of this maturity comes during an interview with Skye when she discusses a time when she was still with Garrison. She speaks highly of him, stressing the importance of a real connection, someone you can have fun with and love without getting physical. She then suddenly reveals that Garrison never even kissed her, which may sound strange to us, but it didn’t bother her. As she says, she’s had enough kisses to know they don’t mean much unless there’s something special behind it. Did I mention these kids were still in high school?

Only the Young is about friendship, teenage anxiety, romance, growing up, moving on and it even puts faith (and the struggle with it) in greater context in the back half of the film. The problem is that at only 70 minutes, less if you don’t include the credits, it doesn’t take the time it needs to fully explore these themes. They’re definitely there and they’re easy to recognize, but too often they’re sped through, usually right when they’re starting to nail some bigger meaning. Nevertheless, the film is infinitely more interesting than one might expect it to be. What often happens when putting real life kids on camera is they act out, trying to impress rather than acting normally. Rarely does it feel that way here and when emotion seeps through, particularly with the effervescent Skye, who is dealing with a father in jail, a heroine addicted mother and the foreclosure of her grandparents’ home, it’s real. Only the Young looks pretty simple on the surface, but when you step back and put all the pieces together, it proves itself to be something quite special.

Only the Young receives 4/5

Friday
Dec072012

Tchoupitoulas

Documentaries are supposed to give viewers a glimpse at life. They’re supposed to show a section of the world that they may not be familiar with or a highlight a group of individuals that are interesting enough to follow for a couple hours. But simply pointing your camera at locations and people does not derive meaning or create interest. In recent years, this was most clearly seen with 2010’s horribly overrated Babies, which somehow managed to fool its gullible viewers into thinking it had some profound meaning. This week’s newest documentary, Tchoupitoulas, is largely the same. There’s nothing interesting, fun, funny or meaningful about it and it’s a complete bore, only slightly better than Babies and slightly worse than getting a root canal.

The film, which gets its name from Tchoupitoulas St. in Louisiana, follows three brothers as they discover New Orleans nightlife for the first time, though for no real reason. They just decide to go there and a whole lot of nothing happens. The film makes brief pit stops in an attempt to spice things up a bit, including in the prep room of what appears to be a strip club, but it never explains their significance, aside from the broad portrayals of New Orleans eccentricity the film is trying to capture. It also makes stops at a club where a rapper performs in front of an enthusiastic crowd, a restaurant where an innocently flirtatious waiter serves up oysters and even a few park benches where men feud and the homeless sing the blues, but what this has to do with the story of three young kids discovering New Orleans nightlife, I have no idea.

Presumably because the kids aren’t old enough to enter into many of New Orleans’ more colorful establishments, they are repeatedly left behind in favor of the filmmakers’ own extraneous exploration, but such a tactic is contradictory to the movie’s very own synopsis. One can’t help but question what the point is. What story is the film trying to tell? Is this a coming-of-age tale where these three kids are thrust into an unusual situation and forced to grow up due to the hardships and perversions they’re witnessing? Or is this simply a point-and-shoot movie with no real goal? Based on the evidence here, I’d go with the latter. Anybody can point a camera at some unsavory characters and call it a documentary, but it takes something extra to actually make it so.

Eventually, the kids board what looks to be an abandoned steamboat and sneak around for no decipherable reason (nothing says New Orleans like an abandoned steamboat). I suppose they’re hoping to find something interesting, much like the movie itself. Also like the movie itself, they don’t. They just walk around, look at some things and then leave. Not once in its blissfully short hour and 20 minute runtime does Tchoupitoulas muster up any sense of reason, feeling or insight. It coasts along on a thin premise and, perhaps unsurprisingly, creates an even thinner film from it. There’s nothing to admire here and, unless you’re in dire need of sleep, no reason to turn it on.

Tchoupitoulas receives 1/5

Friday
Oct122012

How to Survive a Plague

Documentaries are wonderful, but it’s sometimes difficult to get in the mood to watch them, especially when they’re about something as emotionally complex as AIDS, like this week’s How to Survive a Plague. As amazing of a documentary as it is, you know in the back of your mind before sitting down to watch that it’s going to be gut wrenching, depressing and angering, but please don’t let that deter you. How to Survive a Plague is an important film that is put together with passion and care. Even if you don’t know anyone with HIV, this is a must see.

Told almost entirely with footage and interviews shot during the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s and 90’s, How to Survive a Plague follows a group called ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a group comprised primarily of the gay and lesbian community, many of whom suffer from the AIDS disease, that fight for AIDS stricken people by lobbying for better healthcare, hoping to find a cure in the midst of a plague. Keep in mind that this was a time when the LGBT community was treated even worse than they are now, to the point where one person, when talking about the AIDS virus and the gay men inflicted with it, comments that they deserve it simply for being who they are. Although its central focus is AIDS and the struggle to get proper treatment, this film is also about discrimination, homophobia and gay rights.

But its thematic focus doesn’t stop there. It also touches on ignorant and irresponsible religious teachings, shown most effectively when the Catholic Church, right at the height of the AIDS epidemic, spoke out against condoms, saying they were immoral and ineffective against disease. To this day, the Church still considers such sexual safety precautions as evil. It’s a mentality that goes against the very idea of valuing life. They’re claiming to be helping people when, in reality, they’re spreading harmful lies that inevitably led (and still lead) to unnecessary infections and death.

The reason this movie works as well as it does is because it’s not limited just to the time captured onscreen. All of its themes are issues that are still ongoing and the film, perhaps unknowingly, creates correlations between that time and today, like during (mostly) peaceful demonstrations where those dying with AIDS, those who were being turned away from hospitals by doctors who refused to diagnose their illness and who were being charged an unreasonable $10,000 a year for preventative drugs, marched in protest to a government that wasn’t doing enough to help and a capitalist society that valued money over human life (2,000,000 people, those who can’t afford preventative treatment, still die from AIDS every year, just to put that into perspective). It’s not unlike the recent Occupy Wall Street protests, where the innocent speaking out about against an unjust system were thrown in jail while those responsible and those with the power to do good did equal amounts of nothing. (And let’s not forget the chanting of “Health care is a right!” that speaks volumes in today’s political climate.)

Occasionally, these protests go a little overboard, though I hesitate to call them extreme since they never got violent, but the AIDS protesters do obscure their message a bit with some of their more uncouth tactics. However, when rare moments like these, where you start to feel yourself sympathize less with them, are followed by a cop running over one of them with a horse and beating them with a baton, that wavering feeling immediately corrects itself. These people were dying and they were being ignored, criticized and harmed for speaking out. When that miracle treatment rolls around that allows those infected to manage the disease and live long, happy lives, a simultaneous feeling of joy and sadness overwhelm you, joy for those who had beat it and sadness for those who fought so hard, but couldn’t.

How to Survive a Plague is an emotionally heavy film and in spite of its difficult subject and sad moments, it’s ultimately hopeful and life affirming. Due to its construction, the film’s visuals are grainy and ugly, but the insistence on using almost entirely old footage effectively transports you back to a time of hostility, anger, sadness and fear. At times, it feels as if you’re really there fighting alongside them. If nothing else, the film is a call to action, both to find cures for diseases that continue to destroy and to not devalue the worth of a life, whether it is a gay or straight one.

How to Survive a Plague receives 4.5/5

Friday
Jun152012

Gerhard Richter Painting

As a film fan, as someone who looks more at what a movie is trying to say than anything else, I tend to see wisdom in movies that others simply find boring. For instance, I could go on for hours over how wonderful I thought The American was, despite the fact that nearly everyone else who saw it hated it, because I saw something more in its seemingly simple façade. I’m sure there are people out there who can do the same for Gerhard Richter’s paintings, which are highlighted in this week’s succinctly titled Gerhard Richter Painting, but I found little to nothing special about what he was doing. At least as presented in this film, his process is purposeless and unfocused, to the point where it feels like anybody given the same tools could do the same thing.

The famous German painter is known for dabbling in all different kinds of art, from abstract to photorealistic, though the former is focused on in this movie. His approach begins with a blank white canvas. He then takes a paintbrush and begins colorizing it, with no intention on creating anything distinct. After that, he takes what seem to be giant, canvas-sized glass panes with any combination of colors on it and drags it over his work, mixing the colors in an unordinary visual style. After doing this a few times, he just stops, not because he’s reached any goal in mind, but because he simply doesn’t feel like there’s anything left to do.

The paintings in Gerhard Richter Painting make up no discernible image. They’re literally the result of random splotches of paint mixed together, a fact Richter alludes to at one point in the movie, saying that he doesn’t necessarily think while painting. He just starts somewhere and ends somewhere else. He admits that he doesn’t like paintings he can understand, but he fails to realize one thing. Not everything you can’t understand is misunderstood. Some things you can’t understand because there’s nothing to be understood.

Throughout the film, you wait for some statement or analysis of his paintings to be made, but it never comes. The filmmakers are not interested in dissecting the importance (or unimportance) of his work and instead regard everything he says and does as brilliant, which is an uninteresting and one sided approach for a documentary. When they ask Richter himself what his paintings mean, he says he can’t really explain it. When he tries to, he never says anything convincing, spouting out pseudo-intellectual psychobabble and hitting keywords like there are checkboxes next to them. My favorite moment like this comes when Richter has a visitor to his studio. As she looks at one of his paintings, she remarks how it has no gimmicks. It “just has the things that happen to be there.” Well, every physical thing in existence “has the things that happen to be there.” That statement barely qualifies as an observation of his work, much less an interpretation.

Nevertheless, Richter is an interesting man when you can separate him from his paintings. He’s mostly soft spoken and seems to talk only when he really has something to say. What he says is generally pretty interesting, perhaps even a bit profound. It’s just a shame the same can't be said for his work. Art can be thought provoking, courageous and controversial and it can tell a story in one picture as grand as an entire film, but Richter’s indiscriminate methods of procuring meaning are lost in a sea of random colors, like a kid given a giant sheet of paper. Many abstract art enthusiasts find something in nothing. I imagine they’ll do the same here, but Gerhard Richter Painting does provide at least one much appreciated service. For those suffering from a serious bout of insomnia, here’s your cure.

Gerhard Richter Painting receives 1/5

Friday
Apr132012

Bully

Bullying has progressed a lot since I was in school. I suppose I could have went to school in a school system that was below the nationwide bullying norm, but I was never physically bullied when I was in school, nor did I witness anyone else get physically bullied. Most bullying happened verbally with name calling. Although that’s still hurtful to many children, including myself, it was just the way school worked. People made jokes at my expense, I made jokes at someone else’s expense and that person made jokes at someone else’s expense. It was a harmless chain reaction that eventually made its way full circle and the pattern kept repeating itself. Nowadays, however, bullies stab, punch, assault and threaten to kill helpless children based solely on their looks or the way they sound. With increased news coverage over recent years, it was only a matter of time before a documentary emerged. Directed by Lee Hirsch, Bully isn’t an entirely successful exposé on bullying in America, but it’s nevertheless an important film that demands change and needs to be seen.

The movie begins with a father recounting the life and death of his son, Tyler. Tyler was never popular in school and was bullied incessantly. He was forced to urinate on himself, he was called horrible names and he was physically abused like none other. One day, he decided enough was enough and he hung himself in his closet, leaving only a note behind for his parents. He was only 17 years old. Cut to Sioux City, Iowa where we meet 12 year old Alex. He’s a meek kid who has no friends and is considered weird by the rest of his classmates. He is the main subject of the film and with good reason. His daily torment is captured on camera and the things you watch happen to him are sickening and unforgivable. While riding on the bus to school, he is choked by kids sitting behind him, stabbed with pencils, punched for nothing and called debilitating names like Fish Face. When someone sits next to him, he asks to be their friend, to which the kid replies that he is going to bring a knife to school the next day and cut his face off. Tyler was bullied so bad that suicide was his only viable option and as you watch Alex, who is only five years from Tyler’s breaking point, you can’t help but wonder if he’s heading down that very same path.

Alex is the heart of this movie and if it’s going to make any change whatsoever, it’s going to come through his story, but Bully introduces a couple other kids nonetheless, to less success. First we meet Kelby, age 16, who lives in Tuttle, Oklahoma. She’s a lesbian who is courageously open with her sexuality, but unaccepted by those around her. She tells stories of people not wanting to touch her and how her classmates actively avoid her. However, her story is only a small snippet in the overall picture and isn’t fleshed out enough to make an impact. Although her stories are sad, we never see what she goes through—the filmmakers have neglected to capture it on camera—and she doesn’t even seem all that upset, despite her admittance that she has tried to kill herself before. Every second she’s on camera she is surrounded by a group of friends and accompanied by her girlfriend. You don’t see the pain on her face the way you do Alex and nothing is shown to convince us of her troubles. Homophobic bullying is an important issue as well (a whole separate documentary could be made about the subject, in fact), but Bully forcefully wedges it in without exploring it.

Later on we meet Ja’meya Jackson, a 14 year old who is facing felony charges after pulling a gun on some students who ridiculed her on the bus. The film tries to make the argument that bullying can lead to responsive violence. That may be true, but no amount of verbal taunting justifies endangering the lives of a bus full of people. Again, the bullying is never shown, only suggested, and with an argument that is already very hard to get behind, this lack of evidence negates an entire section of the film.

Bully has its problems, sure, and its minor stories hurt the film more than they help it, but it’s impossible to watch Alex, an all around gentle soul, go through what he does. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. Nobody should be treated the way he is, yet it’s happening all over the country to children every day. You don’t need to have been bullied in school to walk out of this sobering documentary with a desire to help spark change. All you need is some basic human decency.

Bully receives 3.5/5