Posts Tagged ‘Documentary’

MOVIE: Virunga (2014)

November 27, 2014

virungaThis incredible documentary uses the story of a group of dedicated park rangers in charge of defending the land and wildlife — particularly the mountain gorillas — of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as a way to illustrate the heinous costs, in both human and animal lives, wrought by ruthless resource exploitation from the West. (Wow, that was a really long sentence. Sorry about that. Stay with me here; I’ll try to do better.)

It opens with a brief history of that exploitation, starting with colonization and running through the present day, where greed, particularly corporate greed, continues to fuel countless wars within and without. The latest round involves a British oil company called SOCO and what they believe to be a major source of untapped oil underneath the park.

Virunga National Park is the last remaining home for the world’s mountain gorillas, a population of about 800. The movie introduces us to several of the park’s rangers, including one of the men who helps run a gorilla orphanage that, at the time of filming, was the home to four young gorillas whose parents had been killed by poachers.  Poaching remains a huge problem in Virunga — not just of gorillas, but also of elephants and other creatures — and is very tightly tied to war on all sides.  Rebel groups in particular have long used poaching, as well as illegal mining and drilling (especially of metals used in electronics), as a source of revenue for weapons and supplies.

For this reason, as well as the obvious environmental ones, DRC long ago prohibited any sort of resource exploration/gathering within its national parks.  This lock-down, however, has intensified the frustrations of those desperate to exploit the valuable ores and wildlife believed to be in those parks, especially in Virunga. Many of them apparently blame it on the gorillas themselves, as well, another thing that has fueled continued poaching in the park. If protecting the gorillas is why we can’t drill for oil, the theory would go, then obviously all we need to do is make it so there are no more gorillas to protect.

Woven together with the story of the gorillas and their protectors is the story of the latest round of war in the region, led by a rebel faction known as M23.  A reporter talking to an M23 leader learns the group is interested in partnering with SOCO — the suggestion is that M23 would be willing to combat the park rangers and secure access, however illegal, to the park, as long as SOCO promises to give them a share of any oil profits that come as a result.

Based on the reporter’s later (undercover) liaisons with a SOCO representative, it sounds as if SOCO is perfectly game, which might be the most horrifying part of this entire film.  The representative, as well as a British security contractor who works for the company, both suggest to the reporter that SOCO routinely pays contractors to work with local rebels, paying them off in order to keep going about their business without any trouble. In other words, SOCO is perfectly willing to break the law and help fund war, as long as they get to  grow ever richer.  As much as I struggle to believe a company as large and as Western as SOCO could get away with something like that, it gets depressingly a lot easier to do when it’s followed by the SOCO representatives talking about the locals, the rangers, and the gorillas themselves — expendable, all.

As the film progresses, M23 begins closing in on the region, and the documentary culminates with an incredibly tense final 20 minutes, in which we hear the bombs coming closer and closer, and then finally erupting in the park.  A young gorilla falls ill and a vet cannot be called in to help him. By the next night, the mountain gorilla population of DRC is 799 instead of 800.  (Watch the park ranger’s face as he describes this loss — see if you can keep your heart from breaking right along with his.)  The local villagers flee, but the park rangers grit their teeth, hoist their weapons, and prepare to defend to the death the land and the creatures they love — knowing full well that “to the death” is absolutely likely, because they will be both out-manned and outgunned by M23. Yet, there isn’t a moment’s hesitation in any of them; it’s what they were put on Earth to do, one of them says. He was born to serve a purpose; he was born to protect those gorillas from his own species, and that is what he will do until he can’t do it any longer.

While I was watching this incredibly moving film, I kept thinking one thing over and over: that mankind is both the worst and the best thing that ever happened to Planet Earth.  I suppose it could be argued it is merely the worst — after all, the examples of the “bests” in this film all come from men fighting the destruction wrought by other men.  But I couldn’t help but think: what a tremendous gift good people are.  So tremendous. I want to be good like that too. And if everyone in the world could watch this film and come away feeling the same thing, my god, what a difference could be made.

Virunga recently became available on Netflix streaming; I’m not sure you can currently find it anywhere else. Seek it out, though, because it’s not only worth watching, it’s worth supporting. Very highly recommended!

[Netflix it]

Genre: Documentary
Directed by: Orlando von Einsiedel



MOVIE: Bound by Flesh (2012)

September 1, 2014

boundbyfleshThis fascinating documentary uses the true story of the Hilton Sisters, famous conjoined twins from the early 20th century, as the framework for a presentation on the history of “freak shows” in America.

Born in 1908, the sisters, Daisy and Violet, were immediately rejected by their mother, who, upon seeing them literally “joined at the hip,” decided they were a punishment from God and would have nothing to do with them.  Her boss at the time, a woman named Mary Hilton, had offered to buy the twins from her, surely seeing in them right away the potential to make a few bucks. The mom agreed, and the sisters were taken away.

Mary owned a pub and immediately set the infants up in a back room, charging admission to come and gawk at them.  The moment they were old enough to start learning how to be entertainers, she had them take lessons in singing, piano, saxophone, tap dancing, and more, and began making them perform on stages across England by the time they were about 3 years old.

Her husband, Myer Meyers, got custody of the girls when Mary died, and immediately began a campaign of physical and emotional abuse to keep them in line. He forced them to perform almost constantly, limiting their exposure to others who might cause them to question their experiences.  For years and years, the girls were stars — isolated, lonely stars — ultimately branching out into vaudeville (and later burlesque), where they performed with a huge range of giant stars, including Harry Houdini and Bob Hope.

When movies exploded onto the entertainment scene, the sisters managed to land a couple of roles — starring in the cult hit Freaks and also a film loosely based on their lives (Chained for Life).  But their acting career never took off, for understandable reasons, and by the early 1950s, as vaudeville jobs began to dry up, Daisy and Violet found themselves reduced to performing their by-then very outdated acts at drive-in theaters screening one of their films, where they were often at best ignored and at worst hooted from the stage.

Though medical advances had long ago made it possible for them to be separated, they had always refused, something I completely understand, being a twin myself (never conjoined, but I would find it difficult to sever by choice any element of the bond my sister and I have).  Their later years were filled with semi-sordid staged marriages for media attention, an unwanted pregnancy that led many to speculate openly and graphically about what sex with a conjoined twin would be like, and final careers as clerks at a small-town grocery store.

As the sisters rolled into their 40s, they suddenly found themselves essentially penniless — a succession of greedy managers had walked away with nearly all their income and they’d lived a party-hardy lifestyle for many years as well.  The last few years of their lives, they lived reclusively in a small town in North Carolina, where they depended largely on the kindness of their neighbors for subsistence.  They never made it to their 50s.

This engrossing film tries to present both sides of the sideshow/freak show coin — the nasty, exploitative side, and the side in which terribly disabled people were given the chance to attain a degree of autonomy they would likely never have seen if not for their willingness to turn themselves into exhibits for entertainment.

It’s hard to say what the lives of the Hilton sisters would have been like without Mary Hilton’s eye on their market potential — if they had been loved by their mother, would that have been enough to make a happy life for them?  Or would they have merely been seen as “freaks” and rejected by others anyway, with none of the upsides of celebrity and fame?  They certainly had happy years, as well as hard ones.

I suppose that’s the question the film ultimately leaves the viewer with, really — was it worth it?  I wonder how they would’ve answered, and I’m sorry we’ll never really know. The story of their death is certainly a heartbreaking one, as well as a testament, again, to the intensely powerful bond of being a twin. “At least they had each other” seems kind of trite, except, you know what? It sure makes a difference.

Very interesting documentary about two very interesting young women living in a very interesting time.  Recommended!

[Prequeue at Netflix | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Documentary
Director: Leslie Zemeckis

LEGO Double Feature: The LEGO Movie (2014) and Beyond the Brick: A LEGO Brickumentary (2014)

August 14, 2014

legomovieI saw The LEGO Movie last February and loved it so thoroughly much I decided to hold off on reviewing it and make one of the characters a Boyfriend of the Week.  I wanted to tie the write-up and the review into one big metaphoric LEGO brick I then metaphorically pitched through your metaphoric windows with a gigantic, delightful metaphoric crash.

BUT, as these things do(n’t), that didn’t end up coming together.  Poor MetalBeard; loved and forgotten, all in a span of only about 5 months.  That just ain’t right. (Though, alas, it is all too common — I have 7 (!) unfinished write-ups right now and I can’t seem to focus my attention on any of them long enough to wrap them up!  So many Boyfriends, so little time for foolin’ around!)

Delaying the review, however, ended up being kind of lucky, because when the Seattle International Film Festival came around again this year, I got a chance to see a new LEGO documentary called Beyond the Brick, which was even BETTER than The LEGO Movie, making this pretty much the most perfect double-feature write-up of blissfulness ever.

These two films have two things in common (aside from the obvious theme): they both star a mini-fig, which is awesome because minifigs are my favorite part of LEGO (Beyond the Brick is narrated by Jason Bateman in LEGO form, which is just about the most delightful thing of all time, and The LEGO Movie’s stars are all mini-figs, of course), and both are incredibly funny and completely charming.

Okay, that’s three things. Stop checking my work, nitpickers!

The LEGO Movie was the film I saw first, so let’s start with that one.  It was a huge, delightful surprise!  I was expecting a full-on kid movie, and instead, what I got was a movie very obviously written by someone more or less my age.  The pop culture references were spot-on for my generation, and even the inside jokes about LEGO were things adults were much more likely to pick up on than kids.  Judging from the audience I saw it with, I’m not alone in this, either — the kids in the theater were giggling, but the adults were absolutely roaring.

The plot is nothing unique — it’s about an accidental hero and the buddies who make his heroism possible — but the plot isn’t the point; the characters and the humor are the point, and the point is an incredibly great way to spend 100 minutes of your time.  All the little details are fantastically fun, and the “moral” of the story, that being creative is awesome!, is a great reminder for movie watchers of all ages.  If you’re a fan of interlocking brick systems — or even if you were when you were a kid and you’ve never looked back since — dollars to LEGO croissants, you’re going to get a big kick out of this movie.  And that’s all I’m going to say about it, because I don’t think I need say anything more. IT IS GREAT.

beyondthebrickBeyond the Brick, on the other hand, is not only entertaining, but also utterly fascinating.  This documentary tells the story of the origins of The LEGO Group, which began as a toy company in Denmark in 1949, manufacturing toys made primarily out of wood (like, little wooden ducks on wheels, for example). Then one day, while at some kind of toy expo, the owner saw a demo of a plastic molding machine and got a really great idea.

Since the dawn of the basic 2×4 brick, these toys have been used for a variety of things completely unrelated to play. Engineers and architects use LEGO to build models of new structures, math professors use them to illustrate problems (how many unique configurations can you make with 3 2×4 bricks, e.g.), and they’re used by artists to create all kinds of amazing, creative works (you’ve probably seen Nathan Sawaya’s stuff before).

In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, we’re also introduced to a child psychologist who uses LEGO to help severely autistic children interact with each other and with their therapists.  Kids are put into groups and given a project to build together, each with a specific task.  By following such a direct, clearly defined plan, children who typically have an extraordinarily difficult time engaging with others are able to talk to each other, work together, and create something as a team.  This scene alone makes the film worth the price of admission, if you ask me — what a genius idea, and what an amazing tool for positive change.  TOYS!  They are the best.

The film also has an interesting focus on adult LEGO “play,” too.  It profiles a number of grown-ups famous in the Brick Con (LEGO convention) world for their fantastical creations and structures, as well as people who have created their own LEGO-based businesses, like the Washingtonian guy (a friend of my brother’s, coincidentally) who designs, presses, and sells historical guns and other weaponry (LEGO itself mostly only makes Old West and sci-fi guns).

After all these enterprising adults started to monkey around with the LEGO brand, making their own accessories and builds and even selling some of them for profit, LEGO was forced into a not-so-unusual dilemma in the corporate world: do they go after the people profiting off their brand and sue the pants off ’em?  Or do they embrace the creativity of their fans and try to find a way to work together?

Happily, they went in the latter direction, not only allowing those businesses to continue, but also launching a platform several years ago called “Cuusoo” (Japanese for a concept similar to the word “wish”), in which builders from all over the world design LEGO sets, fans vote on the ones they like the best, and LEGO picks a winner and then develops, markets, and sells the set.  I lack the words to fully express how much I love the whole Cuusoo concept (it’s now called “LEGO Ideas,” by the way).  It’s simply one of the coolest things a huge corporation has ever done for its fans, andpoking around on the site looking at everybody’s designs and voting on my favorites is one my favorite ways to unwind in the evenings (if you have a moment, by the way, register on the site and then vote for the LEGO Hubble telescope, because HOW COOL IS THAT?).

meglegoAll in all, LEGO is sure having a pretty great year on the big screen.  I highly, highly recommend both these movies, especially to all you adult fans out there.  Kids will love The LEGO Movie, to be sure, but you grown-ups will love it even more (unless you have hearts made of plastic). And nobody won’t love Beyond the Brick, because it’s pure perfection. That one isn’t available at the moment, but — best news of all — it’s been picked up by a distribution company  and should be more widely released in late 2014 or early 2015 (according to the producer, who was at the screening I attended answering questions)!  Woo!


[Netflix LEGO Movie | Buy/Rent it on Amazon | Beyond the Brick site]

Genre: Kids, Documentary, Comedy
Cast (LEGO Movie): Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Cobie Smulders, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Liam Neeson, Nick Offerman

MOVIE: Bill W. (2012)

March 15, 2013

billwThis well-made, fascinating documentary tells the story of Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s.  Through reenactments, audio recordings, photographs, and excerpts from letters and diaries, this wonderful film leads us along the route Wilson traversed in his transition from anonymous alcoholic to sober celebrity — as well as the toll that celebrity, and its incumbent responsibilities, took on his body and spirit over time.

Wilson began drinking heavily at a fairly young age; his parents split up when he was a boy and he  struggled through most of his youth with feelings of being separate from others.  By the time he was in his late 30s, his alcoholism was so severe he was facing certain death.  At the time, medicine viewed alcoholism as a symptom of deeper psychiatric issues, and alcoholics were often treated with ineffective horrors ranging from imprisonment to mandatory sterilization to prefrontal lobotomy.  After a sober friend told Bill about the Oxford Group, however, a new treatment program that focused on putting one’s faith in God and confessing one’s sins completely as a path to freedom from drink, Bill checked himself into their hospital and waited for a miracle to happen.

Believe it or not, one did.  Bill told the story of that hospital stay many times over the rest of his life: how he lay in his bed, desperate with despair, and cried out to God, begging for a sign.  His room immediately filled with a bright light, he said, and he “was transported into an ecstasy.”  He was consumed by a sense of “divine grace” in that moment, of great peace.  “Well, for me that was the beginning,” Wilson says in a recording in the film. “A feeling that everything was completely all right, that indeed now I was a part of life at last.  That I had touched the ultimate reality of a loving God. . . And I was free.”

He never drank again.

Though inspired by the Oxford Group’s philosophy and strengthened by his religious experience, Bill found it wasn’t easy to stay sober. On the verge of falling off the wagon one evening at a hotel bar, it occurred to him what he needed to do to keep himself going was work with others experiencing the same struggle. By focusing on helping fellow alcoholics stay sober, he hoped to find the courage to maintain his own sobriety. He began to making phone calls, trying to find other alcoholics he could talk to, and that’s when a friend connected him with a man named Dr. Bob Smith, an alcoholic who was about to lose it all because of his drinking: his medical practice, his family, and his life.

The two men soon became friends and partners, and it was through that partnership that Alcoholics Anonymous was born.  Using some Oxford Group tenets as a platform, Bill W. and Dr. Bob began crafting the now famous “Twelve Steps,” and writing the book Alcoholics Anonymous, known by A.A. members simply as the Big Book.

Innovative not just in his beliefs about alcoholism, Bill was also progressive when it came to his opinions about equality.  As A.A. groups began to spread, debates over the inclusion of women and other minorities, like African Americans, broke out.  Bill quashed every argument, saying the only requirement for A.A. membership was “a desire to stop drinking,” now the third of A.A.’s “Twelve Traditions.” (Dr. Bob, on the other hand, fought Bill on the inclusion of women in the groups, believing men could not get sober when women were around — “Under every skirt there’s a slip,” he was fond of saying. Thankfully, Bill refused to budge, and the issue was settled.)

After the scrappy start-up of A.A. and the blossoming of groups across the U.S., the film takes us through Bill’s next 35+ years as an alcoholic in recovery, covering his brutal battles with chronic depression, his experimentations with LSD (an attempt to re-experience the spiritual epiphany that had triggered his sobriety in the first place, he said), and the painful challenges he faced as a reluctant celebrity carrying the weight of responsibility to thousands of alcoholics around the world.

At the end, bed-ridden and dying from emphysema, Bill demanded whiskey, becoming enraged when his request was denied — a vivid, powerful reminder of the film’s opening line, “Bill Wilson was first and foremost an alcoholic in recovery,” and of the lifelong struggle all addicts face.

Bill W. tells the compelling story of the “cunning, baffling, and powerful” nature of alcohol and alcoholism, and the beloved, respected, and generous man so many people today credit with saving their lives.  With Bill as its driving force, Alcoholics Anonymous grew from a handful of men to a worldwide fellowship of over 2 million men and women.  As the film closes, it gives us some more astonishing numbers: 30 million copies of the Big Book have been sold since its publication in 1939, the 12 Steps are now used by over 60 different recovery programs, A.A. is in over 170 different countries, with over 155,000 different groups registered.

As Wilson once said, “No personal calamity is so crushing that something true and great can’t be made of it.”  He could not have been more right.  Highly recommended!

[Rent it at | Purchase the DVD from Page 124 Productions]  (Note: if you use that Amazon link to rent the film, a small portion of the rental fee will go to support SALIS, Substance Abuse Librarians and Information Specialists — this is true for all the Amazon links included on this blog.  This review will be reprinted in an upcoming issue of SALIS News.)

Genre: Documentary
Directed by Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino

MOVIE: The Imposter (2012)

March 2, 2013

imposterThis incredible documentary tells the story of a 23 year-old Frenchman named Frederic Bourdin, who, in 1997, posed as a 16 year-old boy named Nicholas Barclay who had disappeared from San Antonio, Texas 3 years before, and got away with it for an astonishingly long period of time.

The story is told through a series of reenactments (not my favorite thing, but done very, very well here) coupled with interviews with family members of the real Nicholas, whose desperate wish to find their lost loved one led to an almost unbelievable blindness to reality, and Bourdin himself, an extremely mentally ill young man with a lengthy history of identity theft.

Both sides of the story are fascinating peeks into the intricacies of human psychology.  Bourdin was homeless in Spain as the story opens, and decided the best way to get food and shelter for himself was to pretend to be a traumatized child, in the hopes the local authorities would take him in and plop him into the system.

Once in custody, though, it became clear they were going to run his prints if he didn’t give up some kind of identity for them.  Knowing the game would be over the second they did because of his criminal history, Bourdin talks the cops into leaving him along in an office all night, ostensibly so he can collect himself and then call his parents.  As soon as he gets private access to a telephone, he begins making a series of calls to missing persons agencies, posing as a cop who has found a lost child.  Eventually, he ends up connected to the authorities in Texas, who fax over information and a blurry black and white photo of a little boy named Nicholas, who had disappeared at the age of 13 in San Antonio.

As soon as Bourdin gives the Spanish cops Nicholas’s name, the dominoes begin to fall.  The next thing Bourdin knows, he’s hours away from being reunited with his “sister,” who had jumped on a plane the second the authorities had contacted her mother.  The problem?  Bourdin is a dark-haired, dark-eyed, dark-complexioned young man.  And Nicholas?  A blond, blue-eyed Caucasian.  Desperate to keep the ruse going long enough to make it to the U.S., Bourdin dyes his hair (which, bizarrely, none of the cops seem to notice), and invents an elaborate story about a child sex ring that also involved torture in the form of chemical injections to his eyes — which must surely explain the fact they’ve changed color.  Despite how absolutely crackers that sounds, everybody is so blown away to have found the missing Barclay boy that not a single one fails to take Bourdin at his word.

What happens next is even more mind-blowing, as Bourdin returns to Texas with his “sister” and is immediately embraced by the entire family with no hesitation whatsoever.  It’s not until a local PI catches the story on the news and gets suspicious when he sees Bourdin’s photo next to Nicholas’s, that anyone starts to ask any questions (like, for example, “How did our blond, blue-eyed all-American boy turn into a dark-skinned guy with a thick French accent?”  BECAUSE HE HAS A THICK FRENCH ACCENT, FOR PITY’S SAKE!).

From there, the story takes an even crazier turn, believe it or not, and what’s truly bananas about this film’s final twist is that *I* got sucked into believing it at first — Bourdin is THAT GOOD.

And that’s when I started to think about just how incredible all the psychological elements of this whole story truly are.  Not just the family so desperate to find their lost child they can’t see what’s right in front of them, or even the imposter’s incredible ability to justify his evil-genius-style manipulations to himself (a lot of reviews of this film describe Bourdin as a sociopath, but he’s really more a narcissist, in my extremely unlearned opinion), but also my own desire to believe the family couldn’t possibly have been that blind.  That they had to be up to something.  That there was no way a mother wouldn’t know her own son. Even though, really, it makes perfect, human sense the family would react the way they did.  Of course they would.  Of course a mother wouldn’t want to look too closely, to see too much, to risk her boy still being gone.  Of course she wouldn’t.  Of course she would, instead, just close her eyes and BELIEVE.

This film was mesmerizing — I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.  If it had been fiction, I would be ridiculing its absolute absurdity right now, it’s that unfathomable.  But instead, this is an extraordinary true story, which somehow manages to make it seem that much more fantastical.

Highly, highly recommended, though the fact the movie ends with more mystery about what truly happened to Nicholas instead of less is so heart-breaking it may make this film difficult to watch for parents.  If you, like me, are fascinated by the myriad complexities of the human mind, though, this is an absolute must-see.

Update (3/4/2013):  After posting this review on Facebook, a friend shared a link to a fascinating 2008 article from the New Yorker about Bourdin — it now has me back to believing the movie’s “twist” may be true after all!   WHOA, DAWGS.  It also tells some more amazing stories about the cons Bourdin was able to pull off — including another whopper of an identity theft AFTER the one described in this film!  Way to go, Interpol!  The article definitely has lots of spoilers in it, so read it after you’ve seen the documentary if you don’t want anything wrecked for you.

[Netflix it (available for streaming) | Buy it]

Genre:  Documentary
Directed by: Bart Layton

2012 Mini-Review Wrap Up: The Twelve Best Exotic Marigold War Horse Chimpanzees!

February 12, 2013

I was all set to write my last catch-up review for 2012 (finally!) when I realized I actually had FOUR still pending.  Dude!  I want to tell you about The Hobbit and this great book I just read instead!  So, here’s a quick end to 2012 for you!

BOOK:  The Twelve by Justin Cronin.

This book is the sequel to Cronin’s vamp apocalypse novel The Passage, and it’s part two of a planned trilogy.  That I think I’ve officially given up on.  I enjoyed The Passage, but for a few minor complaints, and I reread it right before I read this one last December and enjoyed it the second time too.  But The Twelve is, put simply, a bloated disaster of epic proportions.  Not only does it flip around in time way too much (pick a timeline, already!), but it has waaaay too many wholly unnecessary subplots and characters.  It’s easily 200 pages too long — something a good editor should’ve done something about — and while I liked certain elements of it (like the whole Red Eye population of semi-civilized half-vamps), and I read the whole damn thing, I spent most of it frustrated and and increasingly short on patience.  When I was done, despite the exciting ramp-up there at the end, I felt pretty done.  No interest in part three whatsoever, unless Cronin hires a new editor and the reviews are spectacular.  I’m still glad I read it — there were things I wanted to know and now I know them.  But another gazillion messy pages just won’t be worth the time for the resolution.  I feel resolved enough as it is.  Genre: Horror.  [Buy it]

The Best Exotic Marigold HotelMOVIE: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012)

I watched this movie with my mother, who had never seen Dev Patel in anything and is now a believer!  That boy is so damn adorable!  (I made her watch Slumdog Millionaire as soon as we were done, naturally.)  The cast of this film is astounding — not just good ol’ Dev, but also Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, and Tom Wilkinson, and though it’s weighted down in parts with a touch too much cheese, the joy of getting to see all these people in the same movie more than makes up for the tummy ache.  Each character has a unique, authentic personality (with the exception, possibly, of Maggie Smith, who is always the same character in everything these days and who goes from astounding racist to lover of all things Indian awfully abruptly), and each takes a journey into their “outsourced retirement” that comes to a satisfying conclusion.  Wilkinson’s subplot was particularly touching, and I really, really want to be Judi Dench’s character when I grow up.  This is a delightful film, and a great one to watch with your Mom! Cast:  Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Tom Wilkinson, Celia Imrie, Dev Patel. [Netflix it | Buy it]

MOVIE: War Horse (2012)

I haven’t seen the play this film was based on, so it’s possible it wasn’t really Spielberg’s fault, but dudes, horses, as wonderful and intelligent as they are, are not, in fact, people in animal suits.  The anthropomorphizing in this movie really got in the way of my ability to enjoy it, and Spielberg’s penchant for overwhelmingly artificial sweetness just left both me and my Mom feeling kind of beyuck in general when we were done.  Gorgeous visuals, and both Mom and I are suckers for movies about horses — one of the passions we both shared as little girls.  But this one’s a dud, start to finish.  Cast: Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Peter Mullan, Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irvine, Benedict Cumberbatch.  [Netflix it | Buy it]

MOVIE: Chimpanzee (2012)

This Disney documentary follows the life of an adorable li’l baby chimp named Oscar.  As most animal documentaries do, it begins with the death of the protagonist’s mother, and has kind of a predictable arc that follows.  But the way in which Oscar overcomes his challenge — is truly fascinating and unexpected (in short, he’s taken in not by the other female chimps, who universally reject him despite his near-unbearable cuteness, but instead by the male leader of the group — an incredibly rare thing in the world of chimps and a totally unplanable stroke of luck for the filmmakers).  The scenery can’t be beat, and though I suppose you can accuse this movie of anthropomorphization as well, it feels different when its our closest animal relations, you know what I mean?  Go ahead and call that cute baby boy Oscar.  I’m game.  This would be a great film for kids — though since it involves the death of a mom, you might not want to go too young on this one.  Chimpanzees are so damn cool.  For reals.  Recommended!  [Netflix it | Buy it]

Up next, we enter the present at long last, and there is a return of the Boyfriends!  BELIEVE IT!


[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre:  Comedy
Cast:  Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Tom Wilkinson, Celia Imrie, Dev Patel

MOVIE: Project Nim (2011)

January 3, 2013

[This is another late review from 2012!] WhoaMG.  This is a painful, powerful documentary to watch and, frankly, kind of a must-see for that very reason.  It’s about the life of a chimpanzee purchased as a newborn by a researcher and bounced around from lab to lab most of his life.

It all started in the 1970s, when a psychology professor at Columbia University, Herbert Terrace, bought the chimp for a research project focused on ye olde “nature vs. nurture” question.  Named Nim Chimpsky, after linguist Noam Chompsky, Nim was placed with a human family and raised as if he were a human baby, in an attempt to see if chimps, who have DNA almost identical to ours, could learn to “speak” English fluently (via sign language, obviously, but using grammatical sentence structure and expressing their emotional states and thoughts, etc.).  Nurtured and loved deeply by his human mother — who, weirdly, also breast-fed him — Nim seemed to have the perfect life.  As he grew, he learned many things, including how to dress himself and sign well enough to make simple requests and express some emotional states.

When Nim became a strong and strong-willed teenager, however, everything changed.  Nim was increasingly jealous of his human mother’s husband, and would lash out at him regularly.  Events escalated until, finally, the family had had enough and Nim was suddenly taken away and moved to a huge estate, where another young woman, Laura-Ann, took over his care and education, eventually teaching him over 125 signs.

The bigger Nim got, though, the more confused he seemed to get by the dichotomy between how he was being raised (as a human) and what his insides were telling him (as a chimp).  He would do incongruous things, like caress a cat lovingly one moment and try to violently hump it the next, and he became more and more dangerous to the humans around him.  At one point, he bit Laura-Ann’s arm wide open.  In another incident, as one researcher passed him to another, Nim turned to the new person and viciously ripped open the man’s face, then began to sign the word “Sorry” over and over, clearly startled and distraught by his own behavior.

After the two serious injuries, Terrace decided he’d had enough and called the experiment a failure.  Nim was just a wild animal after all, and even though he could clearly communicate, was smart and loving, and had only ever known life as a human being, Terrace dumped him like he meant nothing to him, selling him to another research facility.

After that, Nim was bounced from lab to lab, with little concern for his happiness or recognition of his unique abilities.  Having never seen other chimps before, Nim didn’t know how to communicate with or relate to them, and the chimps around him in the labs would frequently intimidate and scare him.  Withdrawing into himself,  Nim tried to reach out for human contact, and did make a lifelong friend in one keeper, Bob Ingersoll.  But despite Ingersoll’s love and care (he would take Nim for long walks in the woods, and even let him try out beer and marijuana — oh, you know, it was the 80s!), the best he was finally able to do for Nim was to have him transferred to a sanctuary at last, where Nim lived out the rest of his life alone in a concrete cage with bars along one side.

Though Ingersoll continued to visit Nim after he was transferred to the sanctuary, Nim died there at the young age of 26 (chimps usually live to be 55-60).  Ingersoll’s explanation for Nim’s early death:  1 part stress, 2 parts broken heart.

This film is a wonderful, touching, and gut-wrenching story about a truly amazing creature who was wounded indelibly by the hubris of human beings.  Terrace and his students never bothered to think about the ramifications of failure — of nature taking over as Nim grew — or what they would do with Nim when the study was over and funding disappeared.  Years later, his first human mother came to the sanctuary to visit Nim, and he nearly killed her, still so hurt and confused about her abrupt, heartless rejection of him.

Since Nim’s death in 2000, the National Institute of Health has found the most invasive research using chimps unnecessary and pulled funding from several primate centers.  Nevertheless, over a thousand chimps are still out there in government custody, with only a small number of those sent to sanctuaries each year, most of which are desperately underfunded in the first place.  I’m not actually against research on animals, but I am against thoughtlessness and cruelty.  We have to do better.  Watching this film would be a really good start.  But brace yourselves for a heart-breaking ride, because this movie made me weep like no other.

By the way, if you want to help chimps and support the sanctuaries that take them in to try to give them a better life, there’s a really great organization right here in Washington State that could use your help.  It’s called the Chimp Sanctuary, and it’s located in Cle Elem.  You can meet some of the chimps on their website, and donate quickly and easily right there to help rescue and protect more of these incredible animals.  Even a dollar will make a difference!  Go send them a dollar right now!  And thank you!

[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre:  Documentary

MOVIE: Tabloid (2011)

December 1, 2011

This documentary is about a beauty queen, a pudgy Mormon, a kidnapping-slash-sex-scandal, and dog cloning.  Yep!  It’s an Errol Morris film, all right!

In 1977, Joyce McKinney, former beauty queen, was the subject of the infamous “Case of the Manacled Mormon,” a “sex in chains” scandal that took place in the UK and ended up being major tabloid fodder both there and in the US.  Through interviews with McKinney, a reporter who covered the story, and one of her accomplices, Morris tells us the truly mesmerizing story of a love-struck young woman who fell head-over-heels with a pasty, chubby Mormon gent named Kirk, and went to extremes (putting it lightly!) to get him back when he moved to England for a religious mission.

Convinced he’d been kidnapped by the Mormon church and was being brainwashed, or so she claims, Joyce enlisted the help of her best friend (a guy who was clearly infatuated with her), a bodyguard, and an airplane pilot, flew to England, and kidnapped Kirk at gunpoint.  She then chained him to a bed in a cottage in the countryside and spent three days having sex with him. “Just like a honeymoon,” she tell us with a blush and a tee-hee.

When caught, Joyce claimed the sex was consensual and that Kirk had fled the Mormon church willingly.  He claimed she kidnapped him and sexually assaulted him repeatedly.  SHE claimed he was only saying that because he was afraid the Mormons would excommunicate him for having premarital sex and then he wouldn’t get to be a god when he died (good lord, Mormons believe wonky things — though, of course, no wonkier than the things other religious people believe, I suppose).  HE claimed she was a crazy stalker who needed to be put in jail.

As the story unfolded, the tabloids latched onto Joyce and wouldn’t let her go.  They began tracking down information about her past, most of which was related to her pornographic photo career, and, according to McKinney, slandered her incessantly in the papers.  Eventually, the UK declined to extradite her for charges, and she was essentially set free.

And then there was that whole thing with her cloned dog Booger. . .  But, well, I’ll let you discover that bit for yourselves.

This film has Errol Morris written all over it, so to speak — his distinctive storytelling style adds a layer of ridiculousness and charm to the entire yarn, which is maybe a little unsettling since, if Kirk’s story is the truth, he was the victim of an utterly horrific crime.  But even while Morris is goofing around, he’s also being an extremely savvy documentarian.  Both sides of the story are presented with equal weight, leaving the viewer completely unsure of the truth.  There was no trial, there’s no real “evidence” Joyce is lying, and so Morris presents the tale with no real point of view.  I had no idea what he thought — he seemed to be merely telling, not judging.  And that, too, is one of Morris’s sneaky, brilliant talents (remember Gates of Heaven?  Same kinda thing.)

McKinney herself is beyond charming, and though her charisma is tinged with an edge of lunacy, she’s still somehow absolutely loveable.  By the end, I was pretty convinced she could’ve committed the crime as accused, but have been completely unaware of the reality of what she was doing.  That is, she’s just bonkers and naive enough to have convinced herself Kirk really loved her and that even though she had to chain him up to keep him there, he was totally into it.

Then again, she’s also just bonkers and naive enough for her version to have been the utter truth.  OR, she’s an incredibly practiced and talented liar.  WHO KNOWS?

Plus, DOG CLONING!  Oh, Errol.  I love you so.

This is a highly engaging, incredibly creative film, and I enjoyed the hell out of it.  I’m really looking forward to watching it again soon, and can’t wait for Morris’s next film, whatever it might be!

[Buy/Rent at Amazon (not available at Netflix: weird!)]

Genre: Documentary
Director:  Errol Morris

MOVIE: African Cats (2011)

November 13, 2011

I wanted to see this documentary while it was still in theaters — after seeing a trailer for it on the big screen, I could tell it was going to be visually stunning.  BUT.  I missed it.  Darn.  Luckily, it’s out on DVD now.  Unluckily, I still don’t have an HD TV, which means I spent the entire film distractedly wishing I did.  Such TVs were built for films like this one, because “visually stunning” ain’t the half of it — this film is absolutely, utterly, completely, awesomely gorgeous.

The “story” focuses on two lion prides and a mother cheetah, all struggling to survive on the African plains with their respective cubs.  The two lion families are constantly warring over territory, while the cheetah mostly tries to stay out of their way and keep her cubs alive (no mean feat when you have to go hunting solo every day, leaving your five newborns to fend for themselves).  The movie features lots of incredible scenery, loads of exciting games of chicken (lion v. crocodile, baby cheetah v. adult lion (SPOILER!  Cuteness wins!), baby cheetah v. upside-down turtle, etc.), and ADORABLE, SILLY KITTENS GALORE.

The narration, by Samuel L. Jackson, is a little on the juvenile side — this is a Disney doc clearly intended for young audiences (and before you ask, parents, there are some hunter/prey scenes, but aside from a little blood-flecked fur-faces post-snack, no gore whatsoever).  Jackson’s slow meter and frequent anthropomorphization got a little bit on my nerves at times, but the animals themselves were so glorious and fascinating, I mostly just tuned him out when he got a little heavy with the cheese.

Definitely a great film for families to watch; I think kids as young as six would probably really dig this movie.  It’s also got a sweet mother-daughter focus, though, again, a lot of that vibe felt very “animals are people too!” to me and I suspect a lot of the behavior Jackson was attributing to the mother-daughter bond was really more instinct than emotion.  But who cares, really?  I kept thinking how great it would be to watch this on Mother’s Day with your kids, so clearly even I got sucked into that element of the story.  I know  MY mom would’ve fought off a crocodile for me, that’s for sure!

Make sure you stay through the credits as they do a super-cute and funny cast and crew listing for all of the animals (though, alas, no blooper reel featuring Jackson, stressed after a long day of recording, exclaiming, “I’ve had it with these mother-frakkin’ lions on this mother-frakkin’ plain!”  How great would that have been?).

Highly recommended, and definitely a film I’ll be renting again just as soon as I upgrade my television set!

[Netflix it | Buy it at Amazon]

Genre: Documentary
Narrated by: Samuel L. Jackson

SIFF MOVIE: Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times (2011)

May 29, 2011

This documentary, my first Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) film of the year (reviews of more coming soon!) covers a lot of ground — everything from WikiLeaks to the sex scandal with Sam Zell, the previous business owner of the Tribune, who, in one clip, argues that newspapers ought to consider offering porn in order to increase sales (great idea, Sam!  NOT!) — and this wide range of topics was, in my opinion, the sign of a lack of focus and organization to the film overall.  That said, despite the fact it’s sort of all over the place, this movie is absolutely fascinating and completely engaging, thanks in large part to its overall theme and its star player, New York Times media columnist David Carr.  Those are the two elements I’ll be focusing on in this review.

The theme of  Page One is that, despite the increase in news blogs and other technology, we still desperately need traditional newspapers.  Maybe not in print, but fully financed and supported, read, and respected.  In that regard, the movie was completely preaching to the choir for me — not only am I married to a newspaper reporter myself, but I’m also a research librarian, frequently tasked with the daunting, difficult chore of weeding out all the garbage one finds online to find the few trustworthy, dependable sources.  The quest for accurate information is getting harder and harder as the web gets bigger and everybody with a WordPress account decides their opinions are the ones the world needs to hear about (ha ha, get it?  I kill me!).

More importantly, though, people need to realize that solid, vetted reporting costs money.  It costs money and it’s worth paying for.  Listen up.

For the most part, the arguments made in this film, which features interviews with a variety of reporters and writers, were ones I’ve heard a million times before — arguments for traditional newspapers involving concepts like fact-checking, ethical codes, and a striving for bias-free presentation of facts (as opposed to, the film points out, the plainly biased “reporting” at HuffPo and WikiLeaks — it has a lengthy segment about a film clip released by WikiLeaks, for example, that was edited heavily to present their point-of-view.  The New York Times has published a lot of WikiLeaks content, but it vets it all stringently itself before printing, considering Assange to be a “source,” not a “journalist” himself).

But there were a few new ideas (to me, anyway) included here as well.  One of the ones that really struck me was the question: if all we have are news bloggers — amateur or even professional journalists predominantly writing singly or for news groups that are giving that information away freely (and thus, not making any significant money off it)  — who goes overseas to cover wars?  Who pays for that?  Who volunteers to do it?  Who creates the smooth transition between one reporter’s tour overseas and the next’s?

Along the same lines:  how do you cover the President of the United States on the cheap?  Who pays for all those flights to follow him around?  All those hotel rooms?

On a less dramatic, but equally important scale, who covers all those insanely boring city government meetings and tells us about the one important nugget that came out of three hours of tedious torture?  I mean, according to my husband, it’s already hard enough to get “real” reporters to those meetings because newspapers are so understaffed nowadays due to cut-backs and lay-offs.  And when governments, local or national, get to do whatever they want to do without anybody paying attention and telling everybody else what’s going on, BAD SHIT HAPPENS.

David Carr, a long-time reporter and columnist at the Times, stood out in this film not only as a man with an interesting history (he was a cocaine addict for most of his young adult life, and even served time in prison for possession — what he describes as his “textured” youth), but also because he’s smart, funny, and holds no punches when it comes to defending his profession.

For example, in a delightful clip from an episode of Intelligence Squared, Michael Wolff from the web site Newser argued that we don’t need newspapers anymore because sites like his are taking care of the work and offering it to people for free.  Brilliantly, Carr responded by holding up a print-out of Newser’s home page, covered in icons representing about 20 stories.  Then he held up  another copy of the same thing, this time with all the pieces on the page taken from newspapers like the Times cut out — only about two stories remained on a page now full of holes (pretty striking visual aid, if you ask me).

Carr’s point: Yeah, YOU can do this for no charge because WE’RE the ones doing all the work!  This is something a lot of news consumers take for granted these days — because they CAN get information for free, they think they OUGHT to get information for free (something true in the library world as well, with the increasing availability of online journals and books).  But there’s no such thing as a news story that is truly free.  The question is, will people figure that out before newspapers die?  Do we really want to reduce the information we’re able to access to two stories on a site like Newser, written by people with no real oversight, training, or journalistic ethics?

So, what’s the future?  Sites like ProPublica, which does some of its own investigative reporting and also frequently joins forces with mainstream, “legacy” media sources like the Times and CNN to cover larger stories, is one direction we might be heading in — a hybrid model that combines the new ideas of the more “citizen journalism” approach (though most ProPublica reporters are ex-newspaper editors and reporters) and technologies while also maintaining the ethics, methods, and vetting that are the backbone of traditional papers (though Carr would argue here that the Times is already blogging, Tweeting, and more — what the hell else do you want from it, people?).

Who knows — it’s a difficult question, and a challenging time; “a revolution, not a transition,” one reporter in the film says.  All I know is that I fear living in a world where rookies are in charge of reporting the news.  Reporters don’t always get it right, of course, and the film talks in some detail about the impact on public trust when reporters get it really, really wrong (Judith Miller, for example).  But they still work harder, do more, and do it more carefully than bloggers.

The process by which a story makes it onto the front page of the Times is also described in the film, and it’s laboriousness, with editors from every department meeting twice a day to ask questions, check for reliability, double-check sources, and more, ought to be all the proof you need to that real reporting is a valuable public service in a way amateur reporting never will be.  A front page Times story is vetted multiple times before it goes to print, by multiple people.  It’s obviously still not fool-proof, but that doesn’t mean that lengthy vetting process is unnecessary.

We need newspapers.  We need reporters.  Without them, without someone keeping a diligent eye on things who’s trained to explain those things to the rest of us so we can stay informed too, we’re totally sunk as a nation and as a society.  I believe it.  You should believe it too.

Page One’s last showing at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) is tomorrow at 3:30pm (May 30th) in Everett — go buy a ticket and check it out!

When it’s over, you can subscribe to the New York Times here:  I hope you’ll want to.

Now, somebody go get me David Carr’s number.  I need to buy that man a beer.

[Prequeue it at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre: Documentary
Director: Andrew Rossi