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Entries in Documentary (14)

Friday
Feb182011

The Last Lions

Nature documentaries are a dime a dozen. It may not seem like it, but they pop up rather frequently across film and television, though they rarely get the exposure big budget films (or even other documentaries) do. I suspect the reason for this is that if you’ve seen one on a particular subject, you’ve seen them all. Case in point with National Geographic’s The Last Lions. Although not without merit, this film’s subject matter, lions as they struggle to survive in the harsh lands of Africa, has been seen before in movies like The Desert Lions and it is likely to be done again in the form of Disneynature’s upcoming African Cats. Because of this, the movie finds itself in a sort of conundrum. Those who enjoy this sort of thing have most likely already seen it in other various forms, so there’s really no need to see it again. However, though derivative, one must respect the craft that went into the making of The Last Lions and in that regard, I give it my recommendation.

When watching a story driven nature documentary such as this, authenticity is always questioned. Who knows how much of this thing is authentic and how much unrelated footage was cut together to create the illusion of events unfolding, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s entertaining and informative. The Last Lions is both, even if it fails to stand out from the crowd. The story as presented here follows a lioness that has just lost her mate to an invading pack of lions and is on the move with her three young cubs to avoid the same fate.

Nature is inherently dramatic and that’s the beauty of The Last Lions. Most of the suspense and emotion comes from what’s unfolding onscreen. You’ll clinch up as you watch the momma lion and her cubs wade through crocodile infested waters and you may even feel a tinge of sadness when tragedy strikes, as it so often does in the wild. The only problem comes from the sometimes histrionic narration from Jeremy Irons, which takes the natural drama of the circle of life and ramps it up, making it much more dramatic than it really is. It’s not easy to watch a bloody, battered lion take his last breath and die, but this type of behavior is not out of the ordinary for these creatures. It is everyday life.

The filmmakers use this tactic to try to tack on a feeling of humanity to these lions, to mixed results. It works because it helps to make things more personal—many of us know what it’s like to act as protector and provider for our families—but it also takes away from the true nature of what is happening. Certain lions are presented in the film as villains, but they are doing nothing any other lion wouldn’t. They are fighting for their survival. Instead of simply presenting the footage and information, the film skews it and makes us essentially choose a side, which misses the entire point.

However, I must commend the filmmakers for dialing down the cutesy narration so many other nature documentaries insist on having (like another one of National Geographic’s films, Arctic Tale). Conversely, it’s actually quite grim, which I appreciated. These animals live in an environment that is dangerous and unforgiving so the sugarcoating that persists in other similar films does a disservice to them. The Last Lions, in this regard at least, gets it right.

At the end of the film, the narrator ominously mentions that the remaining lion could be “one of the last wild lions on Earth,” as if the preceding story of a lion going through the motions of your typical wild animal somehow makes a statement on the dwindling lion population. Although it is true that only a small fraction exist today compared to 50 years ago, you wouldn’t know it from watching this film. Aside from the opening and closing words, there’s no true message here, though the filmmakers would like to believe there is.

With so many problems coexisting beside more positive traits (including the as yet unmentioned stellar cinematography), The Last Lions is polarizing. Love it or hate it, I understand both sides. Although I personally think it’s worth a look, it is better suited for lovers of nature documentaries. Everybody else should steer clear.

The Last Lions receives 2.5/5

Friday
Feb112011

Justin Bieber: Never Say Never

What is it about Justin Bieber that makes teen girls across the country go crazy? If that’s a question you’ve been asking yourself, you should probably see Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. While not the best film in the world, it reveals Bieber in ways I never expected to see. Given the nature of many pop stars, it’s easy to assume that Bieber is a manufactured product, but it’s not that simple. The kid has true talent; he can sing, dance and play piano, guitar and drums. He’s not particularly masterful in any of those areas, but combine them and you have something that works. Contrary to what many are saying will happen, I haven’t caught Bieber Fever after watching this movie—his music is still trivial bubblegum pop (and with lyrics like, “Baby, baby, baby, oh. Baby, baby, baby no!” he’s not exactly a visionary)—but I have a newfound respect for the kid.

And that respect stems from the impression he made on me. Using old home videos, the movie shows that he has always had the music bug in him. At a time when he couldn’t have been more than three years old, he was pounding away on chairs with his hands, but not in the hectic way most kids do. He was actually keeping a beat. He became so obsessed with rhythmic sound that he stood around and watched as adults played their instruments and before he knew it, he was sitting behind his own drum set and making music while other kids were still banging pots and pans. Justin Bieber is a prodigy in every sense of the word.

That fact is not readily noticeable to those who have only witnessed his stints on MTV, but the largest thing the uninitiated will be surprised by after witnessing Never Say Never is just how huge he truly is. I knew he was popular, but never realized the magnitude of that popularity. As clips in the film show, his mere presence turns fans out in droves, causing a type of pandemonium that can easily be compared to Beatlemania in the 1960’s. Even if you aren’t a fan of his music, even if you feel about it the way I do, you'll be able to see the joy he brings to his fans. You'll see just how far he goes to please those who love him and when he lets them down, he seems genuinely upset. What Never Say Never does is take a larger-than-life star and make him a normal person. This is not a particularly insightful movie—it rarely deviates from its focus on his then upcoming Madison Square Garden performance—but you get a sense of his true personality, not just what you see on television.

Then again, documentaries never fully capture true life. When a camera is placed in front of somebody, it’s only natural to act out and you can’t help but feel like that is sometimes happening here. Bieber is a 16 year old kid, rambunctious and wild, but when he jumps in a forklift and tries to start it while his security guard stands there and watches, it feels like we aren’t seeing reality. It feels scripted because, unless that security guard is extremely neglectful (which would defeat his entire purpose), this would never happen.

Although a documentary by definition, Never Say Never is also a live concert film, with footage from that big Madison Square Garden performance interspersed periodically throughout. In this regard, it’s not the most streamlined movie you’ll see this year. In fact, it’s sometimes hard to call this a movie at all. It meanders here and there, jumping from Bieber’s upbringing to his rise to stardom and everything in between. It’s more like one of the many music DVD’s you can find at your local retailer and, coincidentally, if this were about anyone other than Justin Bieber, one of those retail stores would be the only place this movie would be available. But I have to admit, Justin Bieber won me over and I’ve come to admire the young man, even if I do think his music is terrible.

Justin Bieber: Never Say Never receives 3.5/5

Friday
Sep242010

Catfish

Hot on the heels of I’m Still Here comes another so called documentary whose authenticity is suspicious, Catfish. And again, while I would urge hesitation on the part of those who have viewed it, I can’t fully say how much of it is fake, if any. Given the concept and ending, of which I can’t divulge, my bet would be on fiction. Chance occurrences as outlandish as this simply do not happen.

If you’ve seen the trailers for Catfish, you’re undoubtedly interested in how it plays out. Critics across the country have claimed that the ending is “a shattering conclusion” and its posters and ads have warned, “Don’t let anyone tell you what it is,” and in not telling you what it is, I’m going to have trouble conveying my feelings towards the film. What I can say is that the ending is not what you expect. Giving off the sense that it suddenly turns into a horror film, the trailer is misleading, one of the biggest misrepresentations of a movie I’ve seen in a long time. In fact, the hype and interest regarding the ending is much ado about nothing. It’s not that shocking, at least in traditional cinematic terms.

But it works in terms of reality. To say why would be giving it away, so proceed with caution, though I’ll do my best to be vague. The film begins with two documentary filmmakers, Henry Joost and Rel Schulman, as they decide to film Rel’s brother, Nev, as he embarks on a relationship with a family that lives hundreds of miles away. Nev is a photographer in New York City and one of his pictures ended up in a local newspaper. Somehow, a Michigan family got a hold of it and had their 8 year old artist prodigy, Abby, paint it. At first, it’s simply a casual relationship; he sends her pictures he has taken and she paints them for him. But as time goes on, he connects with the rest of the family, including Abby’s beautiful half sister Megan. He and Megan, though they have only spoken over the phone and Internet, immediately connect. But soon it seems Megan may not be who she seems, so Nev makes a surprise trip to visit the family and get to the bottom of it.

“Internet” is the key word in that description. In this digital age we live in, everybody is connected through the Internet and falsifying information can be quite easy. In certain ways, we all live double lives. We have hundreds of friends on Facebook and communicate with them daily through status updates and event invites, yet we are only true friends with a select few. The people reading our information online know so little about us that we could make up anything and pass it off as fact. That, put as broadly as I could in relation to the movie, is what makes Catfish work. It’s timely and works on its own terms, even if the ending fails to live up to the hype made by the foolish marketing campaign.

It’s a shame because there is an interesting movie here that explores issues of loneliness and belonging, showing people (characters?) who use the Internet to spice up their drab lives and play others for fools, even if that is not their intent.

The movie, even through its sometimes slow and plodding story, rests on Nev (assuming he is a real person) and he is charismatic and likable. He’s good looking, funny and lonely, even if he pretends not to be. He's the perfect catalyst to set these crazy events into motion.

But in the end, those events won't be crazy enough to live up to the hyped up ending. I fear that may hurt this movie’s reputation because those who see it will be disappointed, as was I, but those who can look past that and discover why it still works on relatable terms to today will find something more, though that bad taste left by the marketing campaign will linger on.

Catfish receives 3.5/5

Friday
Sep102010

I'm Still Here

Two years ago, award winning actor Joaquin Phoenix announced his retirement from the film industry. While no specific reason was given, he stated that he wanted to focus on creating a rap album, which would be produced by Sean “Diddy” Combs. It shocked many. The cinema world was losing a major talent. But in early 2009, videos of Phoenix rapping appeared online and his performances were being filmed by none other than his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck. Speculation arose. Soon after his awkward appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” the public really began to wonder whether or not his antics were real, especially after it was announced that a film of his exploits was being made.

I’m Still Here is the chronicle of those exploits, from his sudden realization that he was unhappy acting—even as himself, the media friendly Joaquin Phoenix—to his tragic (or not) downfall. Rumor has it that when searching for a distributor for the movie, potential buyers were unsure whether or not it was a true documentary or a fictional mockumentary. After having seen it, I share in their uncertainty.

If it is fake, it’s one of the most effective ruses ever put to film. Phoenix is believable as the newly retired actor going through a Britney Spears like collapse and given his proven talent, it’s difficult to judge the film’s authenticity. If forced to choose, I’d bet my chips on it being fake, as most movies of this type are, but it really doesn’t matter. The extent of its fiction does little to save what is one of the most self-indulgent movies I’ve seen in a long time.

My colleague, friend and co-host Kevin McCarthy made an interesting comment after the conclusion of I’m Still Here. He said it was the only movie he could recall that you could review in two ways: from the perspective of it being real and the perspective of it being phony. It’s a situation of, “If it’s real, then…” and “If it’s fake, then…” And he’s right, but no matter how you cut it, it's hedonistic. Throughout its runtime, Phoenix acts like a jerk no matter who accompanies him. An interviewer, close friends and even random folks in his general vicinity receive the brunt of his vile verbal ranting. He is so full of himself that he emotionally shuns even those who have stuck by him and love him. So if I’m Still Here is real, Phoenix himself is self-indulgent. If it’s fake, the movie as a whole is.

For two years now, Phoenix has hid behind a façade, plastering his face all over entertainment media with wild speculation about his supposed career change. His relationships have been damaged and his name tarnished. His role here, if the movie is indeed fake (and for the sake of this argument, it is), is of a man who merely wants to get away from the superficiality of Hollywood and do what he wants. He is essentially playing a fake version of himself who is tired of playing a fake version of himself. The very idea spins heads, but it also comes off as a snarky display of exhibitionism done just for the sake of doing so. It’s an artsy, more acceptable way for the whiny kid inside of him to scream, “Look what I can do!”

Frankly, if you took away all of my criticisms so far and looked at I’m Still Here on the basis of whether or not it works as a movie, it merely evokes a feeling of an overextended YouTube clip, which is fitting seeing as how a good chunk of its content is available on that popular video site. In fact, the best parts of the movie, like the hilarious David Letterman segment and the embarrassing hip hop performance that culminates in his falling off the stage, have been online since this whole escapade began. The unseen content involves Phoenix doing things normal people would avoid, like snorting coke, ordering up some hookers, receiving oral sex from aforementioned hookers and so on.

Again, whether or not he is actually partaking in these activities is up in the air, though I sense it wise to retain some skepticism. Besides, if Joaquin Phoenix really wanted to retire from acting, why make a documentary? Surely he must know, as any actor should, that documentaries never fully capture real life. It’s only natural to act out, even to the slightest degree, when a camera is shoved in your face, a fact that contradicts Phoenix’s supposed desire to retire. So perhaps he shouldn’t leave the film industry just yet. He apparently still has a lot to learn.

I’m Still Here receives 1.5/5

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