Documentary

Review: The Nightmare

Jun 05 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219463:42422:0[/embed] The NightmareDirector: Rodney AscherRelease Date: June 5, 2015 (limited, VOD)Rating: NR Rather than rely on scientific rigor or consultations with medical professionals, The Nightmare is more about the experience of sleep paralysis and what it means to the people who suffer from it. The focus on individual voices rather than experts makes The Nightmare similar in some ways to Ascher's previous documentary, Room 237, which was about conspiracy theories and off-beat critical interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Each segment of The Nightmare is generally the same: a subject recounts his or her experience with sleep paralysis, and Ascher recreates the hallucinations with actors, generally culminating in a mini-horror set piece of some kind rife with Dario Argento color schemes and creepy sound design. What distinguishes each experience is the individual interpretations and descriptions of the sleep paralysis sufferer. In one of the most memorable of these horror tableaux, a giant three-dimensional shadow creature hunches over the bed. It's so tall, this shadow, that it has to stoop in order to fit in the room. The only distinguishing feature about it are red eyes and fangs. In the distorted voice of nightmares, the shadow tells the dreamer, who's frozen and staring up into its eyes, "You're going to die." He's told this repeatedly. He can only listen. It's a menacing moment, and there's something about the angles of the room and the vulnerability of the dreamer that makes it an effective horror spectacle. But it's more than mere spectacle, which comes back again to the importance of the individual voices of The Nightmare. Dreams are so personal, and while therapists and sleep specialists can help uncover the neuroses and the neurology that influences them, the visceral experience of dreaming is always something private until someone chooses to share it, and even that can fall short. Think about when friends recount their nightmares, but the terror seems foreign to you because of the difficulty of relaying the physical and intensely psychological experience. The Nightmare recreates the visceral space of bad dreams, and the voices of the subjects add the personal dimension that heightens the terror of being helplessly at the mercy of our minds--it makes a personal experience participatory. Keeping expert analysis out of The Nightmare also helps relate the personal discoveries and struggles that people with sleep paralysis experience, as if they're finding touchstones and footholds in the real world to make sense of their interior lives. Inevitable references are made to horror movies and science fiction movies with similar imagery--A Nightmare on Elm Street, Communion--and there's brief mention of the various manifestations of sleep paralysis hallucinations around the world. All these people, all over the world, throughout history, terrified but not alone in this helplessness. That's almost comforting, at least until the next episode of sleep paralysis. When I interviewed Rodney Ascher about Room 237, he referred to The Shining as a machine for spontaneously creating synchronicities and coincidences, which also seems like a nice way of describing the way we try to make sense of dreams, in this case bad ones. When confronted with something so existentially dreadful that's rooted in the unconscious and subconscious, there's an attempt to make sense of it somehow. The dream might point to some greater psychological or spiritual need (maybe these aren't separate concerns). We get to ask, "Why did I dream about x-thing?" or "Why did y-person do this to me?" or, ultimately, "What does this mean?" If we couldn't ponder meaning or create meaning from this mental matter, that would be absolutely terrifying.
Review: The Nightmare photo
So much for a good night's sleep
Sleep paralysis is a condition that affects people in a liminal state of consciousness between sleep and wakefulness. When it strikes, a person is unable to speak or move. Several people who discuss their own experiences with...

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Not Crying

Trailer for Batkid Begins cuts so many damn onions


Also looks like an interesting doc
May 21
// Matthew Razak
All the feels. Batkid Begins opens in select theaters on June 26. You'll probably start crying before the end of the trailer though.

Review: Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World

May 14 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219427:42372:0[/embed] Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World (Dark Star: HR Giger's Welt)Director: Belinda SallinRelease Date: May 15, 2015 (limited)Rating: NRCountry: Germany/Switzerland Dark Star: H. R. Giger's World is a fans-only sort of film. His art is striking, imposing, especially given the sheer size and scope of it. Even Giger's oversized art books like Necronomicon I or Necronomicon II--essential texts for fans of dark fantasy who came of age in the 80s and 90s--can't begin to convey the scale. In one room of the Giger Museum, the walls are covered in an ornate tableau of pale cyborg women worshiping Baphomet; a recurring motif of columns topped with the heads of babies look like rows of necrotic phalluses, and any gap in a wall is a potential mechanoid vagina. The film doesn't give much of a scaffold of appreciation for non-Giger fans, though, or any sense of his position as a figure in the underground and punk/new wave movement, or just how many people have been influenced by his creations. The archival footage that shows Giger creating his artwork is more illuminating than the comments from friends and family. The commentary about his art is the same series of platitudes that have been said about Giger for years: darkness, a technological and organic blend, ugly eroticism, the night of the soul. Even as a fans-only proposition, Dark Star tells Giger fans things they've known for years rather than adding new dimensions or depth. When we see a young Giger work, there's excitement even if the footage is familiar. He allows images to spray out quickly from his subconscious onto paper through an airbrush. He doesn't sketch ahead of time but simply lets the images flow from him, as if any additional intermediary between brain, ink, and surface would occlude the process of rendering his multi-textured dream world. It's a tragic counterpoint to the elderly Giger. Gargle-voiced and hunched over, his demeanor suggests he's been hobbled by a stoke in old age. He struggles to sign his name, and his speech has a labored quality. He wanders his home, which is domestic in some parts and Giger-esque in others. I wish Dark Star had explored the Giger house and its layout in greater detail since it seems like his home is his entire world; it's not Harlan Ellision's eccentric abode (aka The Lost Aztec Temple of Mars), but it does have a train track and a dining room fit for xenomorph royalty. For some artists, the space in which they work is a manifestation of the interior world that makes the work possible. The only art Giger creates for Sallin's camera is a pencil sketch of a familiar form--the delineation of a phallus maybe, the suggestion of a passage possibly, the general enticement of sex. But the sketch is only a wireframe rather than a fully realized idea. Giger may be in pain as he speaks, which is why so much of the talking is done by others for him in the documentary. He smiles, though, and when Giger smiles, there's a genuine warmth to it. It's like watching the last glimmers of light in a darkening room.
H.R. Giger's World Review photo
A fans-only look at H. R. Giger that may disappoint Giger fans
H. R. Giger passed away a year ago this week. His biomechanical art is instantly recognizable--Egyptian and yet otherworldly, simultaneously erotic and repulsive; a combination of flesh, alloy, suppurations, and vertebral for...


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Look of Silence Trailer

The trailer for The Look of Silence offers a glimpse at one of the best films of 2015


A follow-up to The Act of Killing
May 08
// Hubert Vigilla
Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary The Act of Killing was one of the best films of 2013. The film examined the Indonesian genocide from the point of view of the killers, and in the process provided a chilling look at the way hi...

Tribeca Review: Monty Python: The Meaning of Live

Apr 26 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219309:42350:0[/embed] Monty Python: The Meaning of LiveDirectors: Roger Graef and James RoganRating: NRCountry: United Kingdom  I'm on the younger side of New York film critics. I'm certainly not the youngest (not anymore), but I know a whole bunch of critics more than twice my age. And that means that many of the people who I saw The Meaning of Live with were alive when Monty Python was big, and a fair number of those were probably old enough to remember them. Those people were laughing at the film for different reasons than I was. Those people were laughing because they were seeing sketches they knew by heart for the hundredth time, though with the added quirk of thirty years. Monty Python is no longer made up of spring chickens. They're older, grayer, and feeling the effects of those first two things. Going between clips from back in the day and the modern iterations, the sketches themselves haven't changed much, but the people definitely have. Seeing John Cleese in a wig as a young man was funny. Seeing him in a wig as an old man is freaking hilarious. The film isn't just about the stage show, though. It's also about the past, about their time in Britain and then going abroad. It's about what led them to split up in the 80s and then return in the 2010s. It's about the entire Python timeline. And it's all fascinating, because they're fascinating people. And they're funny. I mean, of course they're funny, but that doesn't make it any less noteworthy. Watching them talk and interact, seeing how they do this thing and then talk about what they did, it's all enjoyable because they're just enjoyable to watch. Near the end of the trailer, John Cleese is in a hallway and he trips over his own feet. He's on camera, but he's not doing it for the audience. He's doing it for the two workers in the hallway with him. He turns it into a bit, doing it a few times, just to get some laughs out of the people who are doing all of the thankless work to get him up on stage. It's a wonderful moment, and it makes you fall in the love with man yet again. The Meaning of Live feels like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, even though it's professionally done. The camera people honestly aren't that great at their job, and frequently try to find focus as everyone involved walks around. It looks kind of guerilla, to be honest, and that's unfortunate. Even if the show that's being filmed has some technical hangups, there's no excuse for the film to as well. Moments of brilliance were obscured in a camera operator's inability to find focus. I've filmed things like this before, and I know how difficult it is to do this job, but that doesn't excuse it. They should have been on point. Because everyone else was.  Whether you could recite Monty Python sketches in your sleep or just have vague memories of hearing someone discuss a holy hand grenade, there's something in this movie for you. You don't need to know Monty Python to find their story fascinating. I expect you'll get more out of it if you do, but it's hardly a requirement. Really, the only thing you need to bring is a sense of humor. And that shouldn't be a problem. If Monty Python can't make you laugh, then you're definitely dead inside. 
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Always look on the bright side
Even though Monty Python ended their run in the 1980s, they're still curtural icons. Even for people like me, born after their disbanding, films like Monty Python and the Holy Grain (though less their Flying Circus roots...

Tribeca Review: Thank You for Playing

Apr 22 // Hubert Vigilla
Thank You for PlayingDirectors: David Osit and Malika Zouhali-WorrallRelease Date: TBDRating: TBD Just seeing Joel on screen is heartbreaking. It's the way his eyes cross, which seems troubling, not a routine case of strabismus that lots of kids have. A whole flood of emotions winds up in the content of That Dragon, Cancer. The first-person experiential game allows players to push Joel on a swing, to feed ducks with Joel at sunset, to catch Joel coming down a slide as he giggles--it's his real laugh. There are also visits to the clinic, mournful walks through dark rooms of the house, and even a metaphorical flourish of indoor rain, like something out of a Tarkovsky movie magnified to Biblical proportions. While That Dragon, Cancer offers a space to participate in the life of the Green family, it also conveys a sense of helplessness. There's only one outcome to all of this. Ryan and Amy are people of faith, and it seemed that an underlying pain of their situation is how God could let this happen. I never sensed that their faith was in question--it's something stable--and the game and the documentary convey the frustration of trying to find hope when none seems possible. For instance, in the design of the game, Joel's face lacks features. By not particularizing Joel's face, it opens up the possibility for a more universal experience of the loss. Yet there's also the facelessness of the real Joel. He should be verbal at his age and have more of a personality, but his development has been stunted. Ryan says that he loves his son, but he doesn't really know him and he'll never get to really know him. Directors David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall play a difficult balancing act since their film is both a making-of documentary about That Dragon, Cancer as well as a chronicle of a family's sadness along the lines of Kurt Kuenne's Dear Zachary. There are times when the making-of aspects of the film feel at odds with the heartache in the Green family, but they're generally all of a piece. Art gets made to address an experience, so the creative process of making That Dragon, Cancer is an essential interpretive component to the movie. There's little division between lived life and creative life. There's a scene in which Ryan records some dialogue for the game. His lines seem like private poetry if you just read them as words on a screen: "Fear is cancer's preservative; cancer's embalming oil. And you, oh Accuser, are Fear's oil salesmen." He reads his lines again, this time with something to wrap his hands around, like he's choking the Devil, or cancer, or his anxieties, or death itself. He reads with so much conviction, and he brings to life all of the ineffable emotional stuff that his words alone can't convey. There's another important function to art that comes across in both That Dragon, Cancer as well as Thank You for Playing: it's to remind others that no matter what, whether in joy or in grief, we are not alone.
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Love letters, memorials, videogames
There are moments of Thank You for Playing that are so painful because the documentary feels so personal. It's about Joel Green, a boy with terminal brain cancer, and how his parents try to cherish the little joys in life whi...

Tribeca Review: The Birth of Sake

Apr 21 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219229:42341:0[/embed] The Birth of SakeDirector: Erik ShiraiRelease Date: TBD Rating: TBD A second family is essential for the brewers at Yoshida Shuzo. (The brewery has produced Tedorigawa label sake since 1870.) They spend an entire season at the brewery tending to the sake rice, waiting for the precise moment of fermentation, stirring vats or letting them sit still and bubble. They eat meals together, they sleep in on-site quarters, they party together, and they toil. All the while, the camera lovingly considers the winter outside and the activity indoors, making the rice and steam both a counterpoint and a complement to the falling snow. It's not food porn, it's food poetry. The general sentiment from the brewmasters and Shirai is that the brewing process is almost like raising a child. (Hence The Birth of Sake rather than The Making of Sake.) When they're away from their baby, we see the various men in isolation and get to understand the kind of necessary camaraderie that builds through this rearing of sake. At one point, some of the older brewmasters bathe together. In another context, these men ought to be retired, but at Yoshida Shuzo, they're like brothers playing in the tub. There's a generational divide in the sake brewing process, which reflects a change in Japanese drinking habits just as much as the way that most traditions fade generation by generation. The primary seller for Tedorigawa is much younger than the veteran brewers, and he spends his off-season traveling the world to promote the brand. Sake is his life, but he's had to feel his way around the changing market for it. He shares some wine with his fellow brewmasters, and the differences in their palettes are apparent with the first swirl and sniff. The other young brewmasters, when off work, hang out with the other young brewmasters, and they talk about dating women, though maybe "girls" given the teenage tenor of their conversation. The cycle of making sake would get in the way of those plans. It's the difference between a job and a calling, which leaves the future of the craft in question. Shirai captures both the beauty and the melancholy of the sake brewing process, and it's fascinating that The Birth of Sake never feels forced in its various observations. That's probably because the brewmasters have such fondness for what they create, and for the family that's created because of it.
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The brotherhood of brewers
At a certain point in Erik Shirai’s documentary The Birth of Sake, it becomes apparent that the film isn't just about the art of making of sake. This is common in movies that are about making something—food, art, ...

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First trailer for My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn


A documentary about Refn, by Refn's wife
Feb 16
// Per Morten Mjolkeraaen
It seems documentaries about eccentric filmmakers is the next big thing, as My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn follows suit with last years, Jodorowsky's Dune, when it premiers to VOD platforms and select theatres on F...
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15 documentaries advance for Academy Awards


You probably haven't seen any
Dec 02
// Matthew Razak
Documentary film is awesome, but most people don't rush out to watch it or even have the ability to do that if they wanted. You usually get sucked into a documentary by accident and then you remember how great they can be. So...
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Look of Silence

First trailer for Act of Killing follow up The Look of Silence


Oct 22
// Nick Valdez
Joshua Oppenheimer's Indonesian genocide documentary The Act of Killing was one of the best films of 2013. It was unique in that it forced those who bragged about their killings to reenact them and see it from a different pe...
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Superman bein' Superman

Trailer for The Death of Superman Lives documentary is kookoo bananas


Aug 20
// Nick Valdez
Remember how bad everyone thought Man of Steel was? Could you imagine that film being about six times worse? The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? is a Kickstarter funded documentary that explores a film that near...

Review: Kill Team

Jul 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]215318:39994:0[/embed] Kill TeamDirector: Dan KraussRelease Date: July 25, 2014 (New York, National rollout to follow)Rating: NR  The primary focus of Kill Team is Private Adam Winfield and his family. Private Winfield was the whistleblower who attempted to bring attention to these criminal acts for months. Despite his efforts and his family's efforts, military brass never acted in an urgent way. Private Winfield's own father, who also served and was the reason that Private Winfield enlisted in the Army, reached out to as many professional contacts as he could that might be able to do something. None of these people could help, and many deferred responsibility to other parties. The reason these kills took place was the squad leader, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs. Gibbs is an imposing figure, an all-American freedom machine with the features of a GI Joe. He served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and in addition to his hardcore machismo, there's a major psychopathic and sociopathic streak to him. He looks at the Afghan population as sub-human, and even makes a necklace of index finger bones for his own amusement. As trophies of his kills, Gibbs also gets tattoos, and he encourages those under him to do as he does. Gibbs is never interviewed for the documentary, and it's no surprise that he'd avoid participating in this film since he wouldn't come out of it in any sort of positive light. A few of Private Winfield's fellow soldiers are interviewed, however, and they are so blunt about what happened it adds additional chill to what they say. It's like they're describing trips to the store rather than the murder of innocent people; as if they're talking about others planting grenades and pulling the triggers rather than themselves. It seems like they viewed the peacekeeping side of the mission as tedious rather than essential, while the firefights were where the fun was at. Private Winfield was coerced to murder an innocent civilian himself under threat of death. The rest of his company knew he wanted to reveal what they've done, and they made it known that if he blew the whistle, they'd kill him and make it look like an accident. If  they could make innocent civilians seem like enemy combatants, it wouldn't be so hard to make another murder seem like part of routine combat. Under that kind of duress, Private Winfield had no choice but to comply. His parents were helpless to help, and Army higher ups weren't too concerned. On top of that, Private Winfield's small in stature and even though he has a lot of heart, his rucksack weighs as much as he does. Private Winfield seems like the only person interviewed that shows any remorse about the killings. He recalls the moment and calls it the worst thing in his life. The other troops who are so matter-of-fact describe a kind of compartmentalization of military action and civilian life. Back home, a troop may be filled with angst and anxiety that they try to tamp down as best as they can. They express no desire to kill when on leave, but things are different when back in Afghanistan. Obviously this isn't the case with all troops and the documentary isn't painting everyone who serves in the same light, but Kill Team does a good job of profiling just how dark these impulses can become. Much of the film's focus is on Private Winfield's fate and how his family copes with the legal defense. In some ways this points out part of the film limitations in its exploration of this issue. No doubt a lot of this had to do with access, and director Dan Krauss makes the most out of his time with the Winfields. While some of Private Winfield's fellow troops participate in the documentary, none of their families appear. Part of me wonders how their experiences were and what their personal stories involved, especially in the case of Gibbs's loved ones. Did they notice something wrong? Did they know what was happening? How do they feel now that they know what's happened? One minor issue I had with Kill Team had to do with its presentation, of all things. When Krauss is in documentary journalism mode, the film is brimming with power. The more cinematic flourishes in the film seem less effective, though. The cinematography is nice, but it seems like a bit of a distraction -- a kind of garnish rather than something that complements the content. There's also the slow crawl of text from Facebook chats between Private Winfield and his father, which are more affected than effective. It's a testament to the power of this story, maybe, that I'm critical of a choice of presentation that gets in the way of the facts. Quibbles aside, Kill Team is an important film that may be the first of many to come. Once again, as we're told in the film, this is something that happens more that we think. Other units have engaged in similar actions, and the civilians who witness it are going to harbor deep and legitimate resentments that will be passed through villages, conveyed to the next generation. When more of these stories are revealed and more time has passed when the last troops have left, we may get a larger and more complicated picture of the country and the conflict. The silence can't last for long.
Kill Team Review photo
Examining US troops that murdered innocent Afghan civilians for sport
The war in Afghanistan is the longest military conflict in which the United States has been involved. The operation is nowhere near as successful as hoped, which is part of the reality of fighting a war in Afghanistan, a less...

Review: Particle Fever

Jul 01 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]217974:41645:0[/embed] Particle FeverDirector: Mark LevinsonRelease Date: iTunes (July 1, 2014); VOD (July 15, 2014)Rating: NR And now for a digression: In college, I took a course called "Crazy Ideas in Physics." A fundamental part of that class was essentially a live action role play, where the class was broken up into multiple factions. These factions were pitching ideas to a commission (made up of students) that would then dole out (fake) money based on the legitimacy of the pitch, which by powerpoint presentations and a poster session where the pitches were elaborated, as well as appearances on a television program hosted by Hildy Johnson, the journalist, as portrayed by yours truly. (Yes, I did have a better college experience than you.) The commission was set to look for Revolutionary Ideas in science, physics or otherwise. One of the proposed theories involved a proposal to build a large, extremely expensive machine that would allow us to learn the mass of a neutrino. It had important scientific implications, but the question came up again and again from the members of the commission: what good does it do us as a society? Will the mass of a neutrino cure cancer? Will it incite world peace? No? Then why should we care? Watching Particle Fever reminded me a lot of those "meetings." Thousands of people from over 100 countries spent $6 billion on a giant circular tube that smashes together particles in order to find new particles. The big one that everyone was looking for was the Higgs Boson, which is the particle that gives mass to other particles. Modern physics requires the Higgs Boson to exist, and physicists knew it would be found one way or another, but they didn't know how heavy it was. That question matters, but it doesn't matter to the public. Knowing the mass of the Higgs Boson won't cure cancer. In fact, it doesn't really do anything except disprove a number of theories about the universe. It doesn't prove a single one, or even really clearly hint at a true answer. It just confirms the existence of someone everyone knew already existed. To most people, that wouldn't be worth $6 billion. But to those who really want to understand the world around us down to its most fundamental elements, the announcement that the Higgs Boson has a mass of approximately 125MeV matters a whole lot, and the investment was completely worth it. (And now more money is being invested to find out what's next.) Particle Fever follows several physicists through the current life of the Large Hadron Collider. Some of whom were directly involved in its experimentation, and others stayed on the sidelines. It's a film that's been years in the making, and it's one that may deserve a sequel in a few years when the LHC is booted up again for Round 2. But the LHC itself is the least interesting part of Particle Fever, as is the science in general The film tends to gloss over the technical stuff, going so far as to put a musical interlude on top of an important talk because it would have just gone over everyone's heads anyway. Some things are explained, but if you don't have some grasp on the fundamentals of the universe, you're going to be really confused really quickly. Big points, like the fact that the Standard Model of physics upon which basically all modern knowledge is based is fundamentally flawed, are mentioned but not addressed, and that strikes me as an unfortunate oversight. That point is especially important, since it's the entire reason for the LHC's existence, but it's just sort of shrugged off with a "Gravity's really weak," something that won't make any sense to most people. Yeah, a proper explanation would have added to the runtime, but it also would have made everything a little bit clearer. (As an aside, I found it interesting that so much time was spent on SUSY, by the way, considering that the revelations from the LHC has thus far only served to discredit SUSY theories, something the films admits but doesn't really go into... But that's neither here nor there.) Instead, the thing that really got to me was the philosophy of the whole thing. Each of these physicists comes to the Large Hadron Collider, physically or emotionally, for a different reason, but all of them have made physics their livelihoods. The mass of the Higgs Boson affects all of their careers (and thus their lives) in a meaningful way. And especially in the time leading up to the unveiling of the data, the way they viewed the possibilities of the information was fascinating. I may not have learned any new science, but I learned a whole lot about the outlook of these people who obsess day in and day out over these abstract concepts. None of us will be able to ever really "see" the Higgs Boson or whatever it is the LHC (and its potential successors) reveal next, but there are people who devote themselves to it. Seeing and hearing these incredibly intelligent people talk about this thing that may one day help us quite literally understand life, the universe, and everything. That is what makes Particle Fever worth watching.
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More philosophy than science
I like physics. I probably have as good a grasp of the field as any film critic, and I frequently read articles about things like the Large Hadron Collider and the revelation of the mass of the Higgs Boson and how that revela...

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Trailer for Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles


Cowabunga!
Jun 12
// Isabelle Magliari
As a young lady whose favorite childhood toys were a garbage bag full of Ninja Turtles action figures and who arrived at the theater for 2007's TMNT dressed up as Michelangelo, I will pretty much sit through anything th...
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New trailer for whimsical soccer movie This is Not a Ball


May 30
// Liz Rugg
Leading up to the 2014 World Cup, (which is taking forever, am I right?) artist Vik Muniz has created the quirky, tongue-in-cheek documentary This is Not a Ball. This is Not a Ball follows Muniz all over the world as he expl...
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Woman replaces the dead with dolls in "The Valley of Dolls" documentary


first Furbies, now this
May 01
// Isabelle Magliari
Filmmaker Fritz Schumann visits the mostly abandoned village of Nagoro in his creepily sweet short documentary The Valley of Dolls. Schumann profiles 64-year-old Nagoro resident Ayano Tsukimi, a woman who constructs lar...

Tribeca Review: Mala Mala

Apr 24 // Isabelle Magliari
[embed]217663:41468:0[/embed] Mala MalaDirector: Antonio Santini, Dan SicklesRelease Date: TDBRating: NR Mala Mala spends its 89 minute run profiling nine key members of Puerto Rico's trans and drag communities. It delves lightly into each of their stories while successfully balancing talking head segments with seemingly candid shots of the nine men and women interacting within the communities they live and work. Mala Mala's unflinching, 'fly-on-the-wall' style of portraying its subjects stands as the film's crowing achievement. Whether they're hanging out at The Doll House (a drag club) or picking up clients on the street, Mala Mala allows its cast to speak their minds, for good or bad, and it's incredibly refreshing.  The film begins with Sandy, a transgender woman, telling the camera about the importance of passing for a woman while working the streets. Sandy acknowledges that, although she has had top surgery done, preserving a certain other appendage does have its disadvantages while trying to lure a john, and that the best solution to this problem is to simply be more beautiful than any biological woman. While Sandy talks, the documentary listens. There is no music to dictate our feelings and most of the segment is uncut, allowing us to observe Sandy while she applies her makeup for the night and jokes good-naturedly about venereal diseases. It would be easy to paint this woman's life in a highly sympathetic light, but when Sandy is allowed to speak candidly, there is a sense that she doesn't at all resent the way she lives. Sandy isn't a pitiable person, and Mala Mala is an outlet through which she can become charming and likable through her own merits.  This sense of honesty is present in all of Mala Mala. If the documentary has any agenda at all, it is only to show the immense love and companionship within Puetro Rico's trans and drag worlds. Whether it's  Paxx's, the only male transgender profiled in the film, flirting coyly with his girlfriend or Sandy nuzzling up to her boyfriend, love in this community beams throughout the film. This sense of unity stems from Mala Mala's utmost respect for its subject matter. It reports on the lives of these people in a matter-of-fact way and does not condescend with sappy music or propagandize with its footage. Struggling though life, especially as an underrepresented and often misunderstood subset of society, is both inspiring and soul crushing, but people do not live solely in these extremes and neither does Mala Mala. Additionally, Mala Mala's clever inclusion of RuPaul and her drag competition, RuPaul's Drag Race, makes this film even more relatable and its message further reaching. As a massive fan of RuPaul's Drag Race myself, I was happily surprised to see season 6's very own drag superstar April Carrión amongst the queens at The Doll House where she excitedly talked about appearing on the show. April and her drag sisters are packing suitcases together, and the scene feels overwhelmingly genuine and joyful. The beauty of being alive in a time when a woman like RuPaul can rise to incredible fame is not lost on April, and it's endearing to listen to her marvel at the massive impression RuPaul has left on the world ("She even has a wax figure at the wax museum in New York!").  This is not to say that Mala Mala doesn't have its upsetting moments. RuPaul's mark on the world aside, the transgender community is still highly marginalized. The documentary spends much time with a young woman named Ivana, the transgender spokesperson for the Butterfly Trans Foundation, and her struggle fighting for equal employment for people who are transitioning. Yet even this seemingly impossible effort is met with success by the end of Mala Mala when Bill 238, which prohibits employment discrimination because of gender identity and sexual orientation, passes.  Over all,  Mala Mala exists as a celebration of Puerto Rican drag and trans life. Directors Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles understand that sometimes showing the triumphs of a marginalized group of people can hold more power than reiterating their struggles alone. The film is powerful because it is not afraid to celebrate something that many still consider taboo. And the best part is, the subjects in this film are comfortable celebrating themselves as well. 
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An emotional, political, and physical transition
Mala Mala is the type of documentary that you feel privileged having watched. The Puerto Rican drag scene and transgender communities are endlessly fascinating, and watching them thrive through Mala Mala's respectfu...

Tribeca Review: Maravilla

Apr 22 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]217654:41466:0[/embed] Maravilla Director: Juan Pablo Cadaveira Release Date: TDB Rating: NR I find boxing kind of upsetting. I have no problem with its existence or popularity, but the whole concept of watching people actually hit each other in the face until one of them gets a traumatic brain injury just doesn’t appeal to me. So the first few minutes of Maravilla were difficult, because it’s primarily close ups of the knockout blows that made Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez the champion that he is. But it’s not just the knockout blows but the sounds of the punches. Most people know that Hollywood sounds aren’t actually the sounds that come from a fist hitting flesh. And though boxing gloves bring the sounds a bit more in line, the squishy crunches accompanying the big strikes were clearly pumped up. And while I knew that was the case, it was hard to divorce myself from it, and it took the already-unpleasant reality of boxing and pumped it a notch. But then Maravilla turns away from boxing and moves primarily to the boxer. Sergio Martinez is an Argentinian boxer who won the World Middleweight Championship fair and square before having the title stripped from him due for complicated political reasons. Through a series of events, Mexican boxer Julio Chavez Jr. got the title without ever going up against Martinez. Understandably, Martinez was unhappy about that, and that quest to take on Chavez Jr. is the focal point of Maravilla’s story. If you’re a boxing fanatic, I don’t know how much of this film will be new to you. Maybe you’ve got posters of Martinez above your bed and know everything about his life, but for those who are completely new to his story, Maravilla basically covers all of the important ground. The only question that I left the theater with was how exactly the scoring system worked. When Martinez deals a knockout blow, obviously he’s the winner. But how do they decide who wins when they both finish the fight standing? Turns out, there’s a complicated scoring system that determines it, which is important and something I wish I’d known beforehand. But aside from that, I never really felt like I was lost. Boxing has always struck me as a pretty simple sport, and nothing about Maravilla changed that. But even though the final result may seem pretty simple, what happens behind the scenes is anything but, and that’s why the film is interesting, because it exposes boxing’s interesting politics. Martinez may be the best middleweight boxer in the world, but as far as the big leagues were concerned, he wasn’t a big name. People didn’t know him and they wouldn’t pay for him. And if they couldn’t sell him on pay per view, they weren’t going to put him up against the extremely marketable Chavez Jr. The amount of work they have to go through to make the fight happen, all of it in the public eye, is fascinating. They hold up events, make public insults, and even get Martinez to become an Argentinian dancing star. All of this to bring Martinez to a fight. But Maravilla is a one-sided affair. Although director Juan Pablo Cadaveira talks to people who believe that Chavez Jr. is worthy of the title he was given and that Martinez is overrated, those people are never given the same weight that the pro-Martinez camp are. And why should they be? It is named after Martinez after all, but it feels like the film is trying to present itself as fair when it obviously isn’t. Numerous people are featured in the film, and all of them have something to say. But when Maravilla doesn’t agree with their viewpoint, their words lose their impact, and they may as well not be there at all. It’s just fluff that the film disregards. And that’s fine, but why pretend? When it gets to the big showdown, Maravilla becomes legitimately gripping, but the intensity of the fight is mitigated somewhat by the way the film cross-cuts with footage of Martinez’s family and friends watching on TV from Argentina. In and around the ring there’s a palpable sense of tension that’s missing from the spectating scenes. Perhaps it’s the obviously different cameras that create a jarring effect or maybe it’s the fact that these other people are not really swept up in the pageantry of this enormous spectacle, but every time it cut to Martinez’s mother shouting, I wanted desperately for it to return to the fight. It moved away from the action too frequently and stayed away too long. Even so, I was still invested in the fight, especially since I didn’t know how it would end. The documentary was being made as the fight was being set up, and I believe it would have come out for better or worse, so with each successive round, I gasped and cheered (internally of course) in much the same way that people likely did last June when the fight took place. It didn’t convince me that I should watch more boxing matches, because I still find it an unpleasant sport on concept alone, but now I can understand why others are so enamored. If you are a big fan of Julio Chavez Jr., you’ll probably hate Maravilla, but everyone else will find something to enjoy.
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The politics of punching
One of the most significant differences between a documentary and a film based on a true story is that documentaries can be about things that failed. Documentaries about big events are often started during the setup, and it&r...

Tribeca Review: Super Duper Alice Cooper

Apr 21 // Isabelle Magliari
[embed]217643:41459:0[/embed] Super Duper Alice CooperDirector: Reginald Harkema, Scot McFadyen, Sam DunnRelease Date: April 30, 2014Rating: NR Super Duper Alice Cooper is a bio-documentary focusing on the rise and fall of Alice Cooper: the band and Alice Cooper: the man. From Alice's humble beginnings as an unassuming pastor's son, the film and chronicles each watershed moment of his career from being black booked from venues to becoming a premier rock god by the end of the 1970's. The film starts with the introduction of teenage Alice Cooper, then Vincent Damon Furnier, and his first high school band. Cooper narrates the documentary himself and is both likable and funny, serving as a bright spot throughout a film which unfortunately begins to drag after the first twenty minutes.  The film's plodding place is caused in part by its bizarre visuals, which include concert footage, old photographs, and special effects exclusively. Living legends Iggy Pop and Elton John provide interviews and only their incorporeal voices can be heard as their testimonials are laid over a constantly moving collage of antique photos/film clips/etc. No interviewees' faces are ever shown, Cooper included, and watching nothing but a collage of pictures and video for 86 minutes kills the film's momentum.  And when the film loses steam, the story loses impact. There's a portion of Super Duper Alice Cooper which touches upon Cooper's alcoholism and how it affected his family, health, and musical career. Outside of some well-placed Jekyll and Hyde silent film clips, which cleverly illustrate the break between the Alice Cooper character and the man behind the make up, the film fails to explore the ramifications of his addiction in a meaningful way, instead relying too heavily on goofy-looking effects. To its credit, Super Duper Alice Cooper does try to tell a massive story in a very short amount of time, which is admirably ambitions but ultimately foolhardy. I feel as though the film would have been more successful had it chosen to focus on a single part of Cooper's career, such as his addiction or his first tour as a solo artist. Trying to convey a forty-year story without showing the faces of the people who were personally involves makes this film feel long and, at times, uninteresting. In the end, Super Duper Alice Cooper was informative, and if you're a massive Alice fan then definitely check it out, but I wouldn't rush out to see this film in the theater. Vincent's journey from religious pre-teen to chicken-throwing rock god is a fascinating one, but this documentary feels hollow.
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An ambitious title for a blasé rock doc
As a child, my parents lived and breathed Alice Cooper. My father had a particularly terrifying poster of his made-up, screaming face thumbtacked into the cork-board wall of his office that scared me too much to ever listen t...

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Short trailer for Ukrainian protest documentary Maidan teases tension


Apr 17
// Liz Rugg
Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa's newest documentary Maidan will follow in the footsteps of other uprising and protest documentaries and chronicle the events that happened in Maidan Square in Kiev, Ukraine leading up to ...
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Trailer for Fed Up takes a look at America's food industries


Apr 10
// Liz Rugg
It's no secret that America has some pretty big food problems. Genetically modified crops, fast food, and of course, tons of sugar. In documentary Fed Up, producer Katie Couric takes a hard look at the big businesses behind ...
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Trailer: Heaven Adores You - an Elliot Smith documentary


Apr 04
// Liz Rugg
You've probably heard of Elliot Smith before. Maybe you've heard his music, maybe you've heard about how he died, maybe you've heard about the Elliot Smith memorial mural in Los Angles. Heaven Adores You is a documentary abo...

SXSW Review: Que Caramba es la Vida

Mar 14 // Nick Valdez
Que Caramba es la VidaDirector: Doris DörrieRated: NRRelease Date: TBD Que Caramba es la Vida is a documentary detailing the lives of several female musicians in Mexico struggling to make a name for themselves within an already packed Mariachi music genre. As the film begins, you see several hundreds of Mariachi men littering the streets of Mexico as they earn a measly ten or twenty Pesos per song (that's less than two American dollars) in order to live their dream as a musician. The documentary follows Maria Del Carmen (or Wendy, as her mother refers to her), a single mother who earns her living each day by singing at the plaza, a mecca of Mariachi music and has to compete for her earnings with chauvinistic men who refuse to let her sing with them.  One of the more interesting facets of Que Caramba is it takes account of different generations of Mariachi women and their different philosophies of the profession. While some of the newer ones notably earn their living off of the music (like Maria, it's the only money they can to count on), a few of the older women label the younger generations as vain and money hungry. It's an interesting dynamic in the film which sheds light that not only do women have to struggle against the men in their culture, but other women as well. While there's a true unity between members of a single group, there is a harshness toward outside groups. To add on to all of this pressure to succeed, some of the Mariachi have to deal with unaccepting parents.  But you see, the genius of Que Caramba is that the Mariachi aren't the only ones given attention. As the narrative expands to later include performers of all types, Que Caramba questions the very necessity of artistry within Mexico's bleak landscape. Throughout the film, we actually get a better picture of Mexico City's faith culture. It's ultimately depressing since each individual believes death is constantly above them, but there's a certain integrity and hope that comes from uniting with that depression and fear to fuel a performance. When each Mariachi performs a folk song, you realize how sad each song is. There's one about bird singing that's especially dark since one of the translated lyrics is "Please wait until I die before you sing again, Little Bird." The stark contrast between dark lyrics and moving, soulful music creates an odd blend of happiness.  These artists perform to accept their lives. All they can do is live day by day, and push forward in their music as a way of both accepting their struggle and mocking it. Each performer, each Mariachi understands that their life choice was a tough one, but they remain in their profession with grace. It's really all they can do when faced with terrible surroundings. And the women who chose to fight an additional layer of darkness are the strongest of all. They do it because that's what they love to do.  Que Caramba es la Vida made me see Mariachi in a way I never have before. My only qualm with the film may be its length and skewed demographic, but hopefully others witness this cultural marvel. It's a universally translated fight to maintain artistry and craft. In order to provide others with happiness, the Mariachi must accept and constantly battle against their bleak world. I'm sure that's a message many can understand. 
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"Bien es mal. Excelente es bien."
Growing up as a young Latino boy in San Antonio, Texas, I've had quite a few experiences with Mariachi groups. There was a Mariachi club in my high school, and on several occasions, my great uncle would hire groups to sing at...

SXSW Review: Doc of the Dead

Mar 14 // Nick Valdez
[embed]217452:41323:0[/embed] Doc of the DeadDirector: Alexandre O. Phillipe Rated: NRRelease Date: March 15, 2014 (EPIX channel)  Doc of the Dead is a documentary, directed by Alexander O. Phillipe and contains interviews from all of the zombie bigwigs (George Romero, Tom Savini, Bruce Campbell, Simon Pegg, and so on). It details the evolution of zombie fandom from the birth of the genre and brings it to the present day. If you've never seen a zombie movie, then you're in for quite a treat as there's plenty of information for your brain to devour. If you're heavily invested in zombies, and know a lot about them already, unfortunately you won't benefit as much from the information presented here. But then again, if you're in the latter camp, Doc of the Dead isn't quite right for you.  While Doc of the Dead is more of an "outsider looking in" type of documentary, it's still a film for the fans by the fans. It's a celebration of the genre and sort of dissects the deeper ideals creeping around. There's the separation between fact and fiction, the aspect of the collective mind, whether or not a zombie apocalypse could actually take place, and the major businesses that have sprung up to capitalize on the zombie mania. That's actually the most interesting aspect of the documentary. When Doc of the Dead begins exploring the people who seek to take advantage of the poor chaps who're so enamored with "survival," it hits a high point. There's a dark side to zombie fandom, the fact that it's so easily bent toward things. But unfortunately these smaller philosophical quandaries aren't fully explored as we sort of zip from one subject to the other.  There are scientific and psychological discussions for the spread of zombie mania, but it never quite dissects the philosophical nature of them. There's no true answer or debate as to why people enjoy them so much. Is it because of an innate fear of death and dressing like a zombie helps keep that fear at bay? Do folks enjoy zombies because everyone secretly holds a desire to be accepted by everyone? Or are people more drawn to the idea of becoming one of the last survivors and "fighting back" because of our intrinsic desire for brutality? Doc of the Dead left me with more questions than answers.  But for those who are even slightly interested in zombies and why the idea of them has become so prevalent, Doc of the Dead is the perfect documentary for you. 
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Dead doc walking
Zombies are some of the most divisive creatures in the horror genre. They've become such a big entity, the zombie film has grown into a genre all its own complete with multiple variations, multiple looks, and multiple medias....

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New, epic trailer for nature documentary Watermark


Feb 25
// Liz Rugg
Watermark is a new feature length documentary about humans' relationships with water, and presumably with our planet on a global scale. Watermark is a collaboration between filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier, a...

Review: 12 O'Clock Boys

Jan 31 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]217219:41185:0[/embed] 12 O'Clock BoysDirector: Lotfy NathanRelease Date: 1/31/2014Rating: NR The 12 O'Clock Boys do their work on Sundays. They meet in the park, 100 or more, and then take to the city streets. On their dirt bikes and ATVs, they ride, hoot, holler, and wheelie. That's the big thing, you see, because the name refers to the fact that, when these people pull back on their bikes, their hands are at 12 and 12. Sometimes it's a lone rider, but more often it's a group of young men showing off their skills and just how little respect they have for law enforcement (one of the few phrases I could consistently make out was "fuck the police"). What they're doing is illegal, and it's illegal because it's seriously dangerous. Although it appears to be less dangerous than one might think. The film was shot over the course of three years, and only two fatalities are shown. 12 O'Clock Boys' main subject is 13-year-old Pug (who ends the film as a 15 or 16-year old, but he looks 11 the entire time), a little troublemaker who just wants to join the bike gang. The son of a former-exotic dancer named Coco and an estranged father (he was in and out of prison for a while and eventually just removed from the picture altogether), Pug's circumstances are undoubtedly difficult. And while that's unfortunate, it doesn't make him an inherently sympathetic character. And that's probably because even though his desire to be part of that gang drives to film, he's a completely flat character. There's no emotional journey here. He wants to be in the gang, and then he rides some bikes and then he is a 12 O'Clock Boy and then his bike gets stolen (which he never actually seems more than slightly annoyed about). He's completely emotionless and doesn't really care about anybody else, listen to his mom, or do anything that makes him feel like a multi-dimensional person. I'm putting that squarely at the feet of director Lotfy Nathan. There are bits and pieces of a character there developed through interviews with other people, but they never really manifest themselves in any meaningful way. Pug skips school basically every single day, and it makes his mother really mad. What does he do during this school-skipping period? I don't know. I want to find out! The film literally never shows him do anything other than look at bikes or ride bikes, and it's pretty unlikely that he spends all day every day looking at and/or riding bikes. He is presumably out and doing things and going places. Possibly even feeling emotions. These are the things that would make him an interesting character. None of them are in 12 O'Clock Boys. Sometimes, the movie feels more like an advertisement for a Phantom high-speed camera than a documentary (much like how Leviathan was little more than a promotion for GoPros). There are dozens of gorgeous shots of these riders pulling back on their bikes and performing these stunts, and they are absolutely the best part of the film. Slow motion is awesome, and filming these guys doing their thing is an excellent use of the technology. You really get a sense of the intensity of the whole thing by seeing the entire process. When three or four wheels are high in the air simultaneously, with other riders flipping the bird and making faces, there's a rush of adrenaline that makes you want to go out and do something dangerous and stupid. Well, not really. But those moments pull you in far better than anything the characters say or do. And I'm sure that some of the problems stem from the fact that I truly couldn't understand what people were saying fully 50% of the time. There are a few subtitles here and there, but they subtitled the wrong sentences. The ones that have them don't need them, and so much else does. Pug's language is totally indecipherable the majority of the time, and he's hardly the worst offender. There are only a couple of characters who speak clearly and concisely, and while I wouldn't want a documentary about people who speak their own brand of English to be redubbed in a language that I can understand, more subtitles would definitely have helped. I've had the same issues with people from the Deep South: my New England sensibilities put up a massive cultural barrier. I expected that it would take a few minutes but I would eventually get it (that's usually how I am with things like that), but for the entire 75 minutes I was straining to understand. Plus, they're using slang that I don't know, and when I'm already having trouble? Forget about it.  I want to like 12 O'Clock Boys, and there are people who will, and I expect that the vast majority of them will be able to understand the characters. I think I'm just too far removed from the culture and the filmmaker's make no attempt to bridge the gap. The film is not an invitation for discussion so much as a matter-of-fact statement: This is who these people are, and if you don't like it or get it, sucks to be you. And while that's not an inherently bad thing, it is alienating, and I think it also does the characters themselves a disservice, because everybody seems so one-note. I have trouble believing that all of these people are actually that uninteresting, simply because people in general are not that uninteresting. But if I'm wrong, and they are such boring people, why make a documentary about them at all?
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Fuck tha police
I've never felt so totally lost watching a film spoken in my own language as I was watching 12 O'Clock Boys. It's bizarre, really, just how difficult to understand many of these characters are. The only close approximation I ...

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The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing returning to theaters in February


You have no more excuses.
Jan 21
// Nick Valdez
The Act of Killing is a stupendous documentary. It's chilling, gripping, and even slightly humorous. I even liked it enough to put it on my Top 15 of 2013 list, and it's got an Oscar nomination now! It's all with good reason....
I Still Belieb trailer photo
I Still Belieb trailer

First trailer for Justin Bieber documentary, Believe


Do you Belieb in life after love?
Nov 18
// Nick Valdez
In a spiritual sequel to Justin Bieber's Never Say Never documentary, Believe, oh wait Justin Bieber's Believe sorry, this documentary catalogs the sad and terrible life of the fallen teen idol. Wait, little girls still like...

Review: The Pervert's Guide to Ideology

Oct 31 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]213180:39102[/embed] The Pervert's Guide to IdeologyDirector: Sophie FiennesRelease Date: November 1, 2013Rating: NR  [Editor's note: The above clip is from The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, not The Pervert's Guide to ideology.] The Pervert's Guide to Ideology is a sequel to Žižek's previous film with director Sophie Fiennes, 2006's The Pervert's Guide to Cinema. They take similar forms: Žižek runs through his divergent thoughts over clips of movies, and even becomes integrated into them. In Cinema, for example, Žižek sits down in Morpheus's green-tinted room in The Matrix and drives a motorboat like Tippi Hedren while discussing The Birds. In Ideology, we open in the alleyway from John Carpenter's They Live. Žižek stands in front of a dumpster as if he's watching Roddy Piper and Keith David off camera. Later, Žižek is hanging out in a recreation of Travis Bickle's apartment in Taxi Driver (or as Žižek calls it, "The Taxi Driver"). He has a breather in the Korova Milk Bar from A Clockwork Orange. He's in a plane looking out the window at the opening shots of Triumph of the Will; on an airstrip where Joseph Stalin was descending from a plane in some Soviet propaganda film (a narrative one, not a documentary.) He's even in a lifeboat at night in the North Atlantic while talking about Titanic. "What am I doing in a lifeboat?" Žižek asks, as if to say "Why am I out here in the North Atlantic? Let me answer that for you," and "Why the hell am I doing something so ridiculous for this movie?" It's a hilarious question. He's obviously on a set, the sky behind him totally black with bright stars. It's like Žižek in a diorama of Titanic (the movie) commenting on the film which is a melodramatic fiction about a real event. Žižek's own lectures and writings are often filled with jokes, and here, he's telling them and inhabiting them. But jokes have that interesting quality where they reveal the wobbliness of language, the strangeness of everyday life, and the weirdness of our beliefs. Like everything else, jokes are a manifestation of ideology. George Saunders wrote that "humor is what happens when we're told the truth quicker and more directly than we're used to," and I think he was onto something. In Astra Taylor's 2005 documentary Žižek!, we got some insight into the way Žižek composes his thought. He jots ideas in flurries and frenzies until they're all down, and then he tries to find the bits that connect them together to form a book. In a way, Žižek's philosophy reminds me of something I once heard music journalist/cultural critic Greil Marcus say about the nature of criticism: it's about letting an idea take hold. There seems like there's some connection there between Žižek's impulses and Marcus's notion. Both have to do with identifying what hooks the mind about an object in culture. For Žižek, he's looking for a path from idea to idea, a back and forth between the object and the culture and vice versa. For Marcus, it's the idea sparked by a cultural object that creates a path toward the writing about that object and the culture that gave rise to it. The Pervert's Guide to Ideology is basically a work of ideological exploration through film criticism -- not the "you should see this, 4 stars" sort of criticism where the value of a work is assessed in a reductive up or down vote, but the "x-movie made me think y-thought" sort of criticism that goes beyond the film and into what it says about the world. (Interestingly, my first encounter with Žižek's work was a piece on Lost Highway he did for some film journal while I was still an undergrad.) Žižek is inside these films because the x-movie/y-thought criticism is about stepping into the film as a cultural artifact and finding real culture in it, and then stepping out of the film back into culture to find film stuff in the world. This may be the prevailing method of lots of contemporary book-length criticism. It's reflective, playful, and at times memoiristic. I'm thinking here of the 33 1/3 music criticism series and the Soft Skull Press movie criticism series Deep Focus (which hopefully isn't defunct). So going back to They Live, it's about what the glasses say about contemporary capitalism and consumerism, and how much it hurts to understand the nature of the veil. Or in The Sound of Music, we're eyeing the sexual tension and fundamental friction of the Catholic structure and what "Climb Every Mountain" is really getting at. In Titanic, what is Žižek doing in that boat? He's calling BS on the idea of Titanic as a romance. If Jack and Rose got to shore alive, they'd have incredible sex for three weeks. After that, Rose would get bored with being lower class and Jack would want to draw someone else, and that would be it. What's Titanic really about to Žižek? It's about a spoiled rich girl who, at a turning point in her life, sucks the vitality out of the lower classes (and James Cameron's idealization of the lower class, no less) in order to reaffirm her own ego. I think he's onto something. Žižek steps outside of film in order to get at a broader look at ideology. He drinks Starbucks and Coca-Cola and talks about slacktivism and Lacanian desire, respectively. There's a fascinating segment about Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, particularly the "Ode to Joy" part, and how various cultures and governments relate to it and make it suit their ideological ends. And of course the riots in London, the Arab Spring, and Occupy get explored a bit in the film since those are current reactions to the prevailing ideology of the West. These real cultural moments help underline one of Žižek's most interesting questions in the film: why is it that so many people in the West can imagine an asteroid obliterating planet Earth but can't imagine changes to a capitalist economy? I don't have the intellectual footholds to engage in a critique of Žižek's thought process in this film, at least not right now. Whenever reading dense material, the analytical machinery in my skull only gets working on the second or third read. In the case of The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, it'll take another watch before I can really parse the arguments. The first time through, I just dazzled at the spectacle of ideas. The audacity of Žižek and the playfulness of Fiennes (and the other way around) are a kind of intellectual Rube Goldberg machine: a series of madcap chain reactions -- history as a process, ideology as inescapable, cause and effect and divergence. There's just something so enthralling about watching ideas take hold. You get a grip on it and continue the ascent, upwards, around and slanted, until you've reached the end. These ideas result in a kind of conclusion that solves nothing but remains invigorating. (Philosophy not as a solution to big problems but as a reassessment and reframing of big problems. Solutions not required.) Like the criticism that invigorates me, at the end I find myself on top of something new that allows me to look at all the cultural stuff around me in a different way. Žižek wants you to make like Maria and climb every mountain because the hills are alive with the sound of global capitalism. [embed]213180:39101:0[/embed]
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Slavoj Žižek climbs every mountain and fords every stream
Slavoj Žižek is one of the most popular public intellectuals in the world, though maybe in a "big in Japan" sort of way. (Most public intellectuals who aren't Noam Chomsky or a member of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism have ...

Review: These Birds Walk

Oct 30 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]215136:39827:0[/embed] These Birds WalkDirectors: Omar Mullick and Bassam TariqRelease Date: November 1, 2013 (New York), limited release to followRating: NR The Edhi Foundation was started by Abdul Sattar Edhi. The charitable organization has many facets to it, including ambulance service, women's shelters, foster care, nursing homes, and rehab clinics. We see Edhi himself, a man in his late 80s or early 90s, bathing children using buckets and a basin. While directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq could have made a traditional documentary profile on the group and the man -- something inspirational and expected (which I don't mean in a dismissive way) -- Edhi instead says that they can find a portrait of who he is in the work his group does and the normal people that his organization employs and helps. The filmmakers turn their focus on an ambulance driver named Asad and the runaway children of a Karachi orphanage, particularly a boy named Omar. He's seen at the opening of the film rushing toward the Arabian Sea with an excited kind of abandon. I couldn't tell if it was twilight or dawn -- it's that uneasy in-between look of the sky and the light that always throws me -- but Omar's joy is palpable, both in running and in finally hitting the water; it's what being carefree looks like. As the film unfolds, we watch Omar and the other children of the orphanage fluctuate from piety, innocence, vulnerability, and rage. One child leads prayer with due diligence while a few of the other kids slap at each other and goof around. In little conversations between the children, none of whom could be older than 10 or 11 tops, they insult each other and smack each other around but then apologize like brothers. The only adults present are the filmmakers and their camera, which was probably held at abdomen or hip level to help immerse the audience in the world of these kids. I'd briefly mentioned the idea of the observer effect in my review of Matteo Garrone's Reality last week, and I think it's appropriate to bring it up here as well. Even though the vérité doc is meant to capture reality, the mere presence of an observer means that the observed will act differently. (It seems even more likely if the observer has a camera.) There's an extended scene where we watch the runaways play together. Amid the laughter and smiles, Omar sprints back and forth along a corridor, occasionally leaping into the air -- like his small, handmade kite on a short string, this is the closest he can get to a full sensation of flight. But then things get brutal. A skirmish begins between Omar and one of the other kids, which escalates into a full-blown fight. Omar gets pinned and the bigger kid keeps telling him to calm down and apologize. Instead Omar just shouts a muffled, "I'll fuck your sister," his face on the ground. It's so raw, it's so real, and maybe some of it's an act of some kind. I have no doubt these kids get rowdy -- they're expressing a rage of abandonment and bleak future, but also expressing the freedom for boys to be boys -- but I wonder if some of it was played up because someone was actually paying attention to them. In the Q & A after the screening, Mullick and Tariq both acknowledged this, and this kind of acknowledgement is made in These Birds Walk as well. Though they also said that the children have barely seen any films, maybe just one or two Bollywood movies in their lives, so their sense of vamping for the camera is much different than people from the West, or more well-off citizens of Pakistan, I'd imagine. What's interesting is how Mullick and Tariq refuse intervention, let their camera hold the moment, and do their best to observe and do only that. If the moment of roughhousing was initially a kind of acting out for the camera, it suddenly becomes real again -- it's only the moment of roughhousing and suffocation, the second where the camera disappears and there is only the need to break free from being held down. It's a wonder that the directors were able to find some beauty in all this heartache and sadness, which may be another one of those distancing things about documentaries -- we are with the world of the film because we feel a closeness to the subjects but always apart from it through our ability to aestheticize. The children sleep by candlelight, and in that half-lift dark, Omar says a prayer to be reunited with his family. The camera is on him, but he is absolutely sincere about what he's saying. He doesn't countenance the camera. There is only the flame and his wish for family rather than temporary foster care, for real siblings rather than this brotherhood of the lost and abandoned. It's beautiful, it's heartbreaking; we are with Omar but only always watching. Asad, who I mentioned earlier, drives an ambulance for the Edhi organization, but is also charged with picking up runaways and returning runaways to their actual families. We watch different kinds of reunions. One is tearful while the other foreboding. Some of these runaways left their homes because of abuse or neglect, and to return to that home means something far less desirable than the care of the Edhi Foundation. Perhaps returning home is more dangerous than life out on the streets. Omar's family lives in a very dangerous part of Pakistan, one which people would generally avoid given its close association with the Taliban. Yet Asad has to make the trek to return this boy to his home, which should be an answer to Omar's prayers. And yet given the other children, given the reality of Omar's life, I wondered what would happen. Going back to that shot at the sea, we're at a spot in between day and night. Omar asks Asad to stop at a mosque so that he can pray before they continue his return to his family. Once out of the ambulance, Omar takes off running. The camera darts through the crowd trying to keep up. Is he running away again? Is he simply excited? In moments like this, my intellectual concerns about observer effect and the way filmmakers affect reality are moot. This moment -- the excitement and all the ambiguity wrapped up in it -- is true. The camera struggles to capture reality like chasing a runaway kite.
These Birds Walk Review photo
A vérité look at Pakistani runaways and a group that helps them
Many people who hop into documentaries casually expect a certain amount of overt filmmaker guidance -- voiceover narration, talking head interviews, infographics, archival footage; anything to help impart information. Yet the...


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