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Entries in Documentary (14)

Friday
Mar022012

Undefeated

In the world of cinema, sports stories are common, derivatively so. Regardless of whether they are fictional, inspired by true events or documenting actual true events, they all seem to follow the same formula, but it’s a formula that works and has proven itself to time and time again. Last year’s The Fighter and 2009’s The Blind Side proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt with multiple Oscar nominations and positive word of mouth. Although the new documentary, Undefeated, follows the same trajectory of those films—kids in a rundown neighborhood overcome their hardships to achieve success—there’s something about it that makes it seem unlike anything that has come before. It’s inspiring, heartfelt and truly wonderful. This isn’t some manipulative, manufactured Hollywood tale. This is a real, deeply human experience and it hits you hard. I haven’t felt such emotional joy in a long time and if you’re willing to give this film a chance, I’ll bet you’ll feel the same.

The Manassas Tigers high school football team of North Memphis in Tennessee has never won a playoff game. In their 110 year existence, not once have they been able to say they were among the best in the area. Undefeated is about that—a team who, under the supervision of volunteer Coach Bill Courtney, finally begins to achieve success—but it doesn’t limit itself to on the field antics. Courtney doesn’t just take it upon himself to turn the football program at the school around. He implants himself in these kids’ lives and teaches them to respect each other, molding them into the people he knows they can be.

These kids have had a rough time growing up. Almost none of them have parents who have graduated college and most have relatives serving jail time. Their neighborhood is a shantytown, populated with run down houses and trash littering the street. They have no money and struggle to get by. They start fights over trivial matters, like someone sitting too close to them, and their attitudes are sometimes hateful, to the point where cops won’t even allow them to shake hands with the opposing team after a game in fear of a fight. It’s easy to look at them and conclude that they’re more likely to end up behind bars themselves than have a winning season.

It would be easy to fall into a life of crime when surrounded by so much negativity, but there’s one thing that keeps these kids from deviating too far from the path of nobility: football. As crazy as it may seem, especially with a team who hadn’t been able to achieve much of anything in past years, football means everything to some of them. It keeps them busy, motivated and off the streets. It gives them a sense of camaraderie and ignites friendships, even though their care for each other sometimes dissipates into petty squabbling.

But every time a conflict breaks out, Coach Courtney is there to fix it. His words are powerful and he manages to calm them down and correct them, even at the cost of his own sanity. He wants to win games, of course—what coach doesn’t?—and he amps his kids up for that purpose, but his intentions go so much deeper. He shapes their lives and teaches them the importance of unselfishness and kindness. He personally intervenes whenever he can because, in a way, he considers himself a father to them, a figure many of them don’t actually have. After six years coaching that team, Coach Courtney may not have an overall winning record, but he’s nevertheless the type of coach all coaches everywhere should strive to be like.

Undefeated is a movie worthy of tears, but not out of sadness. This is a hopeful movie and it shows just how great we as humans can be when we show a little bit of compassion for those around us. Aside from a couple seniors who ended up going off to college (and one playing for the Southern Mississippi football team), I have no idea where these kids are or where they will end up, but the film leaves you with unflinching hope that they’ll continue with the lessons they’ve learned from Coach Courtney and make something of themselves. If even one of them does, Courtney will have done something truly amazing and it all begins with what you see in this film. Undefeated is intense, exciting, emotional and wonderfully uplifting. It’s not to be missed.

Undefeated receives 5/5

Friday
Aug192011

Senna

It’s astonishing how few people watch documentaries, but it’s offensive how many refuse to. There are those who say documentaries are boring and preachy. They don’t want to look at talking heads and be told how to think. To those people, I say watch Senna. There isn’t a more exciting, action packed and, ultimately, heartbreaking movie to come out this year and, yes, it’s a documentary. We’ve all seen movies about greed, corruption and backstabbing, but not like this. This isn’t some fictional tale from the mind of a Hollywood screenwriter. It’s real and that makes it all the more enticing.

Senna is about the life of three time world champion, Brazilian Formula One racecar driver Ayrton Senna, largely considered one of the greatest racers to ever grace the track, and it follows his trials and tribulations that eventually led to his death in 1994. It’s a deep and personal look into his life, defining him as a man of convictions; in God, in family and in himself. It explores his personality traits as well, showing him as a humble and kindhearted, though imperfect and occasionally arrogant, man whose stubbornness eventually led to his demise.

Senna presents all this with a staggering amount of old footage. Every shot, except for perhaps the early title card sequence, comes from existing footage; there isn’t a talking head in sight. If not for the voiceovers, it would be easy to forget this is even a documentary. It certainly doesn’t feel like one. Unlike most documentaries, it doesn’t tell us his story. It shows it. You’ll get to see the emotion in his face and in those around him. You’ll realize when someone is keeping a secret and when someone is overwhelmed with sadness. The greatest actor in Hollywood can try, but will never be able to capture what you see here.

Even if you’re not a fan of racing, as is the case with myself, the politics of the sport will keep you enraptured. The corruption behind the scenes is despicable and thrilling at the same time. In one pivotal moment in the film, Senna is stripped of a championship after his one-time partner, Alain Prost, goes behind his back to those in charge. This leads to a dramatic rivalry between the two that spans years and gives us a glimpse into the dark side of Senna. In response, he sabotages Prost in the same race the very next year and, though it’s certainly not the right or noble thing to do, you understand why he does it and you get to see the unhappiness and guilt that follows his actions, giving him redemptive qualities.

Had that guilt not been so evident, his redemption would still be present in his love for his country and his (barely touched upon) charitable work. He was seen as a hero in Brazil, which was suffering through tough times, and his accomplishments meant more for his country than perhaps anybody, including Senna, could have realized. It wasn’t until his death that his importance was truly understood. The tears shed by Brazil’s citizens are evidence enough of that.

Senna sets up what seems like a traditional good guy, bad guy story—Senna is clearly the hero and Prost is his nemesis—but it doesn’t end with the defeat of the bad guy. Our hero dies instead, but there’s no celebrating of Senna’s death by Prost, only mourning. It’s at this moment you realize that, despite all of their flaws, there were no good people or bad people in the film; just people. It’s a very emotional finale, even if you’ve never heard of Ayrton Senna before now (which was the case for me before seeing the movie). Senna simultaneously weeps for a man that had so much more to accomplish and celebrates his life. It’s a must see.

Senna receives 4.5/5

Friday
Jun242011

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop

In June 2009, Conan O’Brien, longtime devotee of NBC, finally nailed his dream job. He was going to be the host of The Tonight Show, the long running late night comedy show begun by Steve Allen and made famous by Johnny Carson. No longer would he be playing second fiddle to Jay Leno, or so he thought. Conan’s version of The Tonight Show (as well as Leno’s new program) weren’t receiving the ratings the network execs had hoped for. In response, they decided to move The Tonight Show back to 12:05am with Leno preceding it in a new half hour show. Conan refused to continue if this happened, arguing that The Tonight Show isn’t The Tonight Show if it is moved into the next day. So Conan and NBC reached a contractual agreement that ended his tenure at the network. He was to step down and not appear on television or radio until September.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is about this transition period, after the fallout and before his resurgence on TBS. If you think it doesn’t seem like a topic with much ground to explore, given that the NBC debacle is common knowledge, you’re mostly right. The film feels less like a probing documentary that gets to the heart of an issue and more like a concert DVD where we get to see our favorite performer behind-the-scenes. And that’s probably because it is. Between television gigs, in the period when he was prohibited from making broadcast appearances, he went on a 30 city tour, humorously called The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour. The film, in its admittedly limited scope, follows Conan through the planning and execution of that show and little else.

However, the reason Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop still works is because Conan is simply funny. He knows how to make people laugh and has been doing it since the 80’s as a writer on shows like Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. He’s a natural comedian who can take random situations and milk them for comedy at every possible chance. Because of this, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is hands down the most consistently funny movie of the year, outshining Bridesmaids and usurping fellow documentary, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

Nevertheless, those looking for a previously unseen side of Conan are going to be disappointed. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop isn’t as emotionally raw as some will expect. While you will hear him say a few choice words not allowed on broadcast television and see the occasional burst of anger, it never feels genuine because that anger never goes further than sarcastic joking. For the most part, Conan stays cool, calm and collected when in front of the camera. Despite vocally detailing his emotional turmoil at the way he was treated at NBC, you never actually see it. Since this is a very pro-Conan documentary, you can’t help but feel like the more controversial footage may have been cut to preserve Conan’s image.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop isn’t the slickest documentary and sports occasionally rough audio that features a faint whirring in the background, but when your movie is as funny as this, the audio and video begin to feel less important. Conan is a performer and, like the title suggests, he needs to entertain. It’s true that documentaries never fully capture real life because its subjects are constantly aware of the camera filming their every movement, but Conan is such an amiable fellow, you get the feeling he’d be acting out backstage with his crew even if the cameras weren’t there. It can’t really be defended as anything particularly special, but Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is flat-out hilarious and is a must-see for Conan fans.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop receives 4/5

Friday
Apr222011

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Morgan Spurlock movies are the Fox News of documentaries. They promise to be one thing, but are really another. Just as Fox News thinks it’s a legitimate news organization, Spurlock thinks his films are legitimate documentaries. Both think they are hitting some deep rooted truths, but neither ever actually do. However, Spurlock’s films, unlike Fox News, are generally not offensive or hurtful and manage to entertain even as they fail to fulfill their promises. Much like his previous two films, Super Size Me and Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?, his latest, titled POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, doesn’t say anything that anybody with half a brain doesn’t already know, but its humor and unique concept make it easy to sit through.

As the title so aptly suggests, the film is an exploration of advertising and product placement that is financed completely through advertising and product placement. It’s a gimmick, sure, but it’s a thoroughly interesting one and it works better than his previous two films where the outcome was evident before the film even began (I could have told you it wasn’t healthy to eat nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days without watching Super Size Me). This time, you never know where the film is going to go and it really becomes a game of “spot the product placement.”

In most movies and television shows, product placement is supposed to be evident enough so that it works, but not so evident that it distracts from the story at hand. In The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, the story is product placement and a hunt for it is encouraged, even required at times. It’s the “Where’s Waldo?” of product placement, if you will, and much of its appeal comes from recognizing when we’re being sold to, which means paying attention to the first block of the film.

As he gains sponsors, dozens of contracts with their own various stipulations come pouring in, demanding certain things in exchange for their money. JetBlue Airways, for instance, requires Spurlock to host an interview while in one of their airplanes. This clause is briefly mentioned early on, but the event doesn’t happen until later in the film and it produces a big laugh for those in the audience who haven’t forgotten the agreements that have been made.

Unfortunately, it’s also at this point that Spurlock begins to lose control of the movie, a fact he sourly vocalizes as he realizes just how many obligations he has to these companies. And that loss of control is felt. When the movie begins, it asks whether or not product placement really works and what affect it has on viewers, but those inquiries are barely even touched upon, much less answered. It begins to feel like Spurlock has unwittingly forced himself into a corner, restrained by the threat of lawsuits. How could he possibly make truthful and unbiased observations about advertising as these companies who have sponsored his film breath down his neck, understandably wanting their products shown in a positive light?

So as a documentary that is trying to make a point, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold fails big time, but as a humorous, somewhat cynical experiment, it hits a home run. One can’t help but laugh as Spurlock pushes products during interviews with anti-advertising advocates that are oblivious to the advertising happening right before their eyes, or when he discusses examples of egregious advertising with an interviewee while sipping a bottle of POM Wonderful’s pomegranate juice. These things, along with Spurlock’s natural charisma and likability, more than make up for the film’s lack of answers. Nevertheless, this could have been one of the best of the year had its final analysis on advertising not been so obvious. “The best I can do is tell you that it’s out there,” he tells us. Well, duh.

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold receives 4/5

Friday
Apr222011

African Cats

After walking out of Disneynature’s newest Earth Day film, African Cats, I had the strangest sense of déjà vu. It was like I had already seen this exact same movie before. Many, many times. It turned out I had and chances are you have too. Hell, anybody who has ever lived through middle school has seen it. A nature documentary about wild African lions is nothing new (especially considering that The Last Lions was released only a month and a half ago), but you can’t fault one for being derivative. These movies set out to show how difficult it can be for them to survive; it’s only natural for them to follow similar paths. So despite my boredom with this topic at this point, I can’t tell you to skip a movie that is this well produced.

African Cats follows a select number of animals as they try to survive in the harsh lands of Africa. There’s Leila, the oldest and most experienced lioness whose final days are fast approaching, Seta, a cheetah whose lonesome life is about to change with the arrival of new cubs, Fang, the leader and protector on the North side of the river, and another lion whose name escapes me, but since it’s arbitrary and made up by the filmmakers anyway, let’s just call him Steve. Steve is the leader of a pack of lions on the other side of the river and is Fang’s greatest threat.

Of course, the only reason any of that is relevant is because of the narration (from Samuel L. Jackson), which, like so many other nature documentaries, opts to tell us what’s happening rather than just show us, even going so far as to give each animal a personality and fill in their thoughts, usually to an exaggerated degree. It’s one thing to say that a lioness is fearful for her cubs as they show her defending them, but it’s something else when you say that a cub thinks his father is “the best dad ever!” Despite dialing down the cutesy narration that pervades these movies (the previous quote is one of the only times you’ll roll your eyes), it makes up for it by overdramatizing everything, like when an invading pack of hyenas begin to “tighten the noose” on Seta and her cubs. The largest offender, however, is the musical score, which is sometimes more fitting for a mystery thriller than a nature documentary. The suspense should be natural in a real world setting such as this, but artificiality usually wins out.

As always, it must be questioned just how much of this is actually authentic and how much is fabricated for dramatic effect, especially after the narration claims a lion has just died even though you can still see it breathing. For all we know, the standoffs are edited together to look like opposing prides are directly across from each other when in reality they could be in two different areas. But again, just like The Last Lions, it doesn’t really matter. The story is negligible compared to the breathtaking visuals from directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey. It may be par for the course for these Disneynature documentaries, but I was yet again dazzled by what I was seeing. From the most grandeur landscape shots to the careful tracking shots of the world’s fastest land animal, African Cats is a sight to behold.

Unfortunately, if you’re looking to learn something, you might be out of luck. If you’ve seen even one other documentary about wild lions (and even probably if you haven’t), nothing will be said here you didn’t already know. This is not a particularly special movie and it does little to differentiate itself from the rest of the pack, but if you want to see a beautifully filmed documentary with plenty of adorable creatures to coo over, you won’t find anything better than this.

African Cats receives 3/5