Friday, July 31, 2009

Last Days

Gus Van Sant's Last Days is a film about the death of Kurt Cobain. While the name of the main character has been changed from Kurt to Blake and the setting of the suicide changed from a greenhouse in Seattle to a greenhouse in upstate New York, there's no mistaking this film is the product of Van Sant's imagination pursuing the final, lonely moments of the great '90s icon. Rock biopic fans seeking a traditionally gratifying plot should run as fast as they can from this movie and see Rock Star or Sid and Nancy instead; Gus Van Sant's methodology is all about the slow, oppressive creep of time.

One shot lingers excruciatingly long on some random foliage outside Blake's (Michael Pitt, The Dreamers) mansion. In another, he makes cereal. Then he sits on a bench for awhile. Or mumbles dialogue to a Yellow Pages ad salesman played by a real-life Yellow Pages ad salesman. Or gradually collapses while watching a Boyz 2 Men video. Meanwhile, Blake's parasitical hangers-on are slightly more animated, occupying his chilly house and clearly on their way to becoming as existentially destitute as he.

Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon appears, pretty much reprising an interventionist role she must have played with the real-life Cobain, but this rock star is far beyond rescuing from the brink. Later, when Blake ventures into town to see a punk show, he is cornered by an acquaintance played by Harmony Korine, who tells him a hilarious story about playing Dungeons and Dragons with Jerry Garcia. Where the accumulation of small moments like these don't add up to much drama, they create a pervading sense of dread and sad inevitability. In his life, Cobain railed against all that was phony and hyped; by crafting a visual poem resolutely defiant of rock star spectacle, Van Sant honors the late singer as sincerely as he can, by keeping it real.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Born into Brothels

Born into Brothels is an inspiring look at the transformative journey of a group of extraordinary children in Calcutta’s red light district. Voted Best Documentary by the National Board of Review and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Born into Brothels, which was produced and directed by New York based filmmakers Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, also garnered over 20 major film festival awards including the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and the Best Documentary Award at the Seattle International Film Festival.

A tribute to the resiliency of childhood and the restorative power of art, Born into Brothels is a portrait of several unforgettable children who live in the red light district of Calcutta where their mothers work as prostitutes. Zana Briski, a New York based photographer, gives each of these youngsters a camera and teaches them how to take pictures, simultaneously causing them to look at their world with new eyes. Together with Ross Kauffman, Briski captures the magical way in which beauty can be found in the most unlikely of places and how a bright and promising future becomes a possibility for children who previously had no future at all.

Touching and heartfelt, yet devoid of sentimentality, Born into Brothels defies the tear-stained tourist snapshot of the global underbelly. Briski spent years with these children and became a part of their lives. Their photographs are prisms into their souls, rather than anthropological curiosities, and a true testimony to the power of the indelible creative spirit.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog is a master filmmaker. Stretching back decades, genres, languages, styles and scope, he continues to be a pioneering creative force. Encounters at the End of the World is the newest reminder of his skill, and joins the growing list of ecologically/environmentally centered documentaries gracing us, the most famous being Davis Guggenheim/Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.

Herzog's Encounters is a somewhat meandering trip to the Southernmost place on Earth, inspired by footage of Antarctica's marine world taken by a friend of his. From the early images of crammed passengers on a cargo plane to the buckethead testing of what to do to get to the outhouse in a blinding blizzard to absolutely stunning footage of underwater life to a wayward penguin's seemingly suicidal venturing into mountainous country, Herzog has fashioned together a commentary on life in one of our harshest environments and the quality and experience of what it is like. An ethereal, primal musical score accompanies the picture, which is narrated by Herzog, like his fabulous Grizzly Man, but more muted and ponderous.

But the film in not merely a Discovery Channel opportunity to remind us of the staggering beauty that rests so far away, so deep and unhospitable. Though the Discovery Channel produced or funded it, Herzog infuses, through interviews of people who find themselves shaken down to this vagabond paradise, a philosophical questing that appears both wonderfully progressive and positive, to his own harsh expression of human futility.

Click here to visit the official site.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Next World - Future Life On Earth

What will our future look like? Floating cities, flying to work and traveling in cars capable of operating underwater? And how will technology advance to make use of our natural resources to help feed our growing population in such areas as food, water and electricity?

The era of smog-filled skies will be over, because fewer of us will be driving cars. There will no longer be the use for cars and roads as we'll be piloting environmentally friendly personal vehicles between cities and under the seas. And we will never be lost again thanks to GPS-driven virtual mapping. Then again, with teleportation we will not need to travel at all.

And, best of all, we'll all have more time to enjoy the astounding advances of our near future, because we'll all be living longer. A lot longer. Find out what we can expect to see in the future in this well produced documentary.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Deliver Us From Evil

A devastating investigation into the pedophilia scandals tearing apart the Catholic Church, Deliver Us From Evil begins by looking into one priest, Father Oliver O'Grady, who agreed to be interviewed by journalist/filmmaker Amy Berg. O'Grady's genial calm is at first ingratiating, until he begins to describe his crimes with an unsettling sociopathic detachment.

But O'Grady's blithe interview is only half of the story, as the documentary also unveils how church superiors covered up O'Grady's crimes and shuffled him from diocese to diocese in northern California, finally placing him in an unsupervised position of authority in a small town, where he sexually assaulted dozens of children; the video deposition of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney is a grotesque portrait in brittle denial.

What makes Deliver Us From Evil crucial viewing, however, are the remarkable interviews with a few of the victims (now adults) and their parents, whose stories are wrenching and riveting. With the support of a priest seeking to reform the church, two of the victims actually go to the Pope, seeking some form of help in addressing O'Grady's crimes. This stunningly potent documentary combines raw feeling with lucid and persuasive discussions of the reasons for--and disturbing breadth of this crisis within the Church.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Standard Operating Procedure

It's impossible to talk about Standard Operating Procedure without referencing Taxi to the Dark Side. Fortunately, both documentaries are vital to any discussion about US military interrogation techniques. While Alex Gibney's Oscar winner uses the death of an Iraqi taxi driver as a framing device, director Errol Morris and writer Philip Gourevitch (We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families) examine the issue through visual evidence (they also collaborated on a book of the same name).

While Gibney concentrates on Bhagram, Morris focuses on Abu Ghraib, but his self-described "non-fiction horror film," which features a dramatic Danny Elfman score and slow-motion reenactments, runs along two tracks. First, he aims to find out what happened at the infamous institution. Along with the photographs and video footage, he speaks to the guards and the brigadier general who oversaw their operations, including former army specialist Lynndie England, who has all the charm of Aileen Wuornos (so memorably immortalized in Monster). As in his Thin Blue Line, accounts contradict other accounts.

In Morris's world, absolute truth doesn't exist; it's up to viewers to decide which subjects seem most reliable. This leads to his parallel goal, which is to question the reliability of imagery. Photography was prohibited at Abu Ghraib, so he identifies the responsible parties, the reasoning behind their rule-breaking, and the stories behind the most incendiary pictures. If less emotionally engaging than Gibney's feature, Standard Operating Procedure is just as essential--and every bit as disturbing.

Click here to visit the official site.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Gonzo - The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Many of the documentaries I will be posting over the next month or so will be ones that won industry awards in 2008..."Gonzo" definately falls into this catagory. Bad boy journalist Dr. Hunter S. Thompson - equally famous for his railings against the Nixon administration in the pages of Rolling Stone and his well-chronicled personal adventures with drugs, alcohol and the Hell's Angels -was an iconic counter-cultural hero of the 1960s and '70s.

After Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side, Hunter S. Thompson seems like an odd subject for Alex Gibney to take on. Unlike the Enron executives or Baghram guards, the gonzo journalist didn't bilk old ladies out of their savings or torture Iraqi citizens. Nonetheless, the director's follow-up to the Oscar-winning Taxi shares an interest in the uses and abuses of power.


Gibney recounts the major biographical details, from birth to suicide, but his film really comes alive when he gets to the late-1960s. Though Thompson remains best known for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Gonzo concentrates on his coverage of the 1968 and '72 presidential elections. The author was particularly excited about George McGovern, and chose advocacy over non-partisan reporting. McGovern, Pat Buchanan, Ralph Steadman, Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, and others testify to Thompson's enthusiasm for the South Dakota senator--and hatred for Nixon.


Gibney argues that the fire started to die after Hunter witnessed the brutal treatment of protesters at Chicago’s Democratic Convention. Disillusionment led to an erosion of his talent and an escalation of his self-destructive tendencies. As Johnny Depp, who played him in Fear and Loathing, reads passages from his work, the doctor's friends and family provide a glimpse of the insecure man behind the brash image. Gibney's evenhanded depiction may disappoint true believers hoping for a glorified puff piece, but Thompson's ability to speak truth to power with wit and passion comes through loud and clear.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Flow - For Love of Water

Irena Salinas' documentary is about the global crisis we face as Earth's fresh water supply constantly diminishes. The film presents top experts and advocates to show us that every aspect of human life is affected by pollution, wastefulness, privatization and corporate greed as it relates to fresh water--a natural resource more valuable than oil. The film shows in no uncertain terms that if we continue to abuse our water supply, Earth will become uninhabitable and humankind will become extinct. The investigation points fingers at water companies such as Nestle, Vivendi, Thames, Suez, Coca Cola and Pepsi. This is an extremely important must-see documentary!

From the documentary’s opening moments, director Salinas engages us with a beautifully photographed montage of babbling brooks, rushing waterfalls, melting icebergs and surfer-worthy ocean waves. Over the refreshing images and soothing audio, the title FLOW quickly appears on the screen, followed by its expanded version For Love Of Water. We are then reminded that water is essential for human life and well-being, and we are informed that millions of people--babies, in particular--die from lack of fresh water every year.

Salinas takes us on a worldwide tour of water-related disasters, every one of them the product of human abuse--pollution, privatization and corporate greed, inexcusable wastefulness and, to put it in terms that are simplistic but true, lack of respect for mother nature’s grand design.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Bastards of the Party

Raised in the Athens Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, Cle "Bone" Sloan was four years old when his father died, and 12 when he became a member of the Bloods. Now an inactive member of the notorious gang, Sloan looks back at the history of black gangs in his city and makes a powerful call for change in modern gang culture with his insightful documentary, Bastards of the Party.

Bastards of the Party draws its title from this passage in "City of Quartz": "The Crips and the Bloods are the bastard offspring of the political parties of the '60s. Most of the gangs were born out of the demise of those parties. Out of the ashes of the Black Panther Party came the Crips and the Bloods and the other gangs." Bastards of the Party traces the timeline from that "great migration" to the rise and demise of both the Black Panther Party and the US Organization in the mid- 1960s, to the formation of what is currently the culture of gangs in Los Angeles and around the world.

The documentary also chronicles the role of the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI in the evolution of gang culture. During his tenure from 1950 to 1966, Chief Robert Parker bolstered the ranks of the LAPD with white recruits from the south, who brought their racist attitudes with them. Parker's racist sympathies laid the groundwork for the volatile relationship between the black community and the LAPD that persists today.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Vlad The Impaler

This documentary examines the bloody career of Vlad the Impaler, the 15th-century prince of Wallachia who took no prisoners in his resistance to the spread of the Ottoman Empire. Known as Dracula, he learned the arts of war as a hostage of the Turks, but asserted his independence by working his own disloyal nobles to death and repelling a Turkish invasion by filling the battlefield with 23,000 impaled corpses.

When he came to power, Vlad immediately had all the assembled nobles arrested. The older boyars and their families were immediately impaled. The younger and healthier nobles and their families were marched north from Târgovişte to the ruins of Poienari Castle in the mountains above the Argeş River.

Vlad was determined to rebuild this ancient fortress as his own stronghold and refuge. The enslaved boyars and their families were forced to labor for months, rebuilding the old castle with materials from another nearby ruin. According to tradition, they laboured until the clothes fell off their bodies and then were forced to continue working naked. Very few of the old gentry survived the ordeal of building Vlad's castle. This documentay is a must for those that like to seperate fact from myth.

I'm Back!

After a prolonged absence, I am finally able to get back to my beloved website. I don't want to bore you all with the details...suffice to say I have been going through somewhat of a rough patch lately.

Firstly, thank you to all of my loyal regular visitors. I have read through all of the comments on the chat box and it was nice to see so many well wishers. Thank you for your enduring support!

It will no doubt take some time for me to "hit my stride" again, but I promise that you will see some of the most amazing documentaries here over the coming months.

So without any further adieu...let's get into some great documentaries!