Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Cove Documentary Review

      The Cove has long been on my list of movies to watch, if only for how much controversy it created when it was first released. I have to say, I can see what the uproar was about; sentient beings slaughtered for no real purpose, Japanese fishermen portrayed as heartless assholes, and a septuagenarian activist being arrested all make for a compelling, stranger than fiction type story.
      The burning question in this Cinéma Vérité documentary is whether the filmmakers will be able to document what goes on in a sheltered cove in the Japanese town of Taiji. The stakes are high; if the team is caught doing even the slightest thing wrong they will be arrested and banned from the town of Taiji. Through interviews, footage collected by a series of activists, scenes of the filmmakers working through how to achieve their goal, and the coveted cove footage itself, a grisly story is unraveled to a horrifying conclusion.
      Waters red with blood seems like a far-fetched biblical notion, but in the cove we see that for the fishermen of Taiji, it is a casual reality. Of course, compelling imagery like this was set to be the climax of the film, but it was still entertaining and informative to watch the filmmakers brainstorm about how to properly camouflage their cameras, how to evade Taiji security, and where to prioritize filming. At points, The Cove becomes an environmental heist film, where evasion and counter-intelligence are key.
      However, The Cove also does a nice job of laying out the history of dolphin round-ups and slaughter. Richard O’Barry makes a particularly compelling character with his extensive resume of dolphin training and experience. It’s these credentials that make the obviously biased film seem reasonable; Mr. O’Barry’s presence assures the audience that both sides of the debate have been considered (and even lived). Plus, who can resist a penitent man at the end of his life?
      As we learn that dolphin intelligence is comparable to ours, hear that one of the dolphins who played the beloved Flipper committed suicide because she could no longer stand being in captivity, and see a dolphin fighting to breathe and escape despite fatal wounds, whatever iciness in our hearts regarding dolphins is melted (really, was there ever any ice there at all?), and we are firmly behind Richard O’Barry, silently cheering him on as in the final scenes he confronts the International Whaling Commission and the people of Japan.

      The makers of this documentary perfectly edited their story to build upon itself and cause considerable emotional investment. I highly recommend it, though when you watch The Cove, be sure to take a few minutes afterwards to enjoy that determined, hopeful spirit that the filmmakers so carefully crafted for their conclusion. Disappointingly, aside from garnering awards and attention, this documentary did little in real life to help the plight of cetaceans migrating past Taiji, a cold reminder that all the inspiration in the world is worthless if it doesn’t lead to action.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Lost in La Mancha Documentary Review

      Terry Gilliam is an innovative, imaginative, over-involved filmmaker who I admire immensely, but even I was taken aback by the amount of effort he put into his yet-to-be film based on Don Quixote. The documentary Lost in La Mancha chronicles the doomed production of a film which had a finished script, cast actors, and extensively developed puppets, costumes, and sets. It boggles my mind that a project with that much work put in to it could be canceled, but as the filmmakers reveal throughout the movie, things fall apart, and disasters snowball quickly.
      The burning question behind this observational documentary is what caused a production with so much promise to fall apart? Though even the briefest description of the documentary lets the viewer know that Gilliam’s work will be thwarted, I found myself tense and hoping that the high stakes of making a movie would be achieved. The filmmakers took the role of fly on the wall, and so we were privileged to see Gilliam meeting with his crew, the development of the elaborate props and set pieces, and the sheer devotion Gilliam puts into his filmmaking. As we follow along in pre-production, it quickly becomes clear that they’re on a schedule with no room for error. There’s no slush fund, no extra days of filming, no back-up plan. It’s do or die for this crew, and it’s gut-wrenching to watch events unfold.
      Personally, I loved this documentary, as it was a quick little peek into the world of filmmaking when things go wrong.  The story was told in a linear fashion, with almost no interviews, so the audience feels almost like they’re a production assistant or personal aide on set, privy to every misfortunate coincidence and bad decision. Though no one is particularly inept at their job or easily to blame, it quickly becomes clear that a lack of organization or a unified plan pushed this production to the edge. After that one rainstorm and a primary actor’s health problems were enough to seal its fate as failure.
      It was sad to see how quickly the magic of creation can be boxed, labeled and stored. Fantastic costumes and life-size puppets were all packed up in what could only have been a matter of days, and Terry Gilliam was left to fight an insurance company for ownership of his script. While that makes sense in terms of financing a film and designating ownership of a creative project in order to see it fully realized and to make a living from it, it seem ridiculous that the man who wrote the script ended up losing his right to make something from it. On the other side of the coin are all the investors who lost a phenomenal amount of money when this film went through to production before being shut down.

If nothing else, Lost in La Mancha is a fable for filmmakers. Our heroes tried to bring something fantastic to life in the name of art, but the moral of this story is that business always wins.

Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage Documentary Review

      I’m sad to say that until watching this documentary I’d never heard of the band Rush. I don’t have an extensive knowledge of rock and roll, but this documentary has made me curious enough to learn more, something incredibly important to me in the mark of a good documentary.
      The filmmakers started right off with showing that Rush is still an active touring band, and that they are musician’s musicians. Anyone who has loved rock and roll enough to make it their profession has not only heard of Rush, but studied their music in order to gain the level of excellence they are at today.  So if all this is true, then why hasn’t someone like me heard of Rush? Like I said, I’m not a hugely devoted fan of rock and roll, but I have a healthy collection of The Beatles, The Rolling  Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and more, so why have I never heard of Rush until now? Cleverly, that documentary asks that very same question before the title credits; if Rush is so great, what kept them from becoming a household name?
      The film was neatly divided into sections whose divisions became clear as the story was told, a film trick which I particularly appreciate because of my love of Ken Burns. In short, though Rush was on the cutting edge of progressive (and eventually the future style of) music, they were perennially unpopular with critics, almost Avant-garde in style, and typically popular with the fringes of society rather than the masses. But these three small reasons quickly fade as the documentary gives healthy examples of their music through all stages of their career. As Jack Black says “their bottle of awesome sauce is huge”.
      I very much appreciated the point of view offered by old home videos made by the Rush members themselves (I assume). We were able to see Alex Lifeson’s parents convince him to finish high school, and Geddy Lee practicing at home while friends hung out with him. The film continued to use vintage footage for old concerts from all their stages of touring, and intercut these and vintage photographs with the band members talking about relevant stories of the time. I also liked that they intercut the same story being told by two or three different people. It was a nice stylistic touch to show that even though the band was made up of distinct individuals with their own perspective, they still were simpatico. The filmmakers also had a nice touch by interviewing the same band members in different settings, a decision that especially paid off with the drummer Neil Peart, who was interviewed at his drum set, with his drum teacher, and outside on the road.

      After watching this film a few times, I’m very impressed by the amount of heart that went into this documentary. Obviously, the band members love what they do, but we also got to see them through the fans’ eyes; which helped us see them for the rock gods they are. I think I’ll get some Rush albums right now.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Tesla Documentary Review

      Tesla; Master of Life is an ambitious biography documentary that tells the story of Tesla’s life and his long-reaching effects on the world. Using a combination of period photographs, vintage footage, animated examples of Tesla’s inventions at work, historical recreations, and filmed interviews, the documentary covers Tesla’s early years, his productive period of invention, and his waning years where he fought popular opinion and lack of funds to continue exploring and creating in the field he loved.
      The documentary does a wonderful job in introducing Tesla, and in showing the audience why he is one of the most important influencers, if the also the most forgotten, of modern technology. A number of Tesla experts (biographers, relatives, scientists, historians, etc.) recounted stories, explained rivalries, and explained Tesla’s eccentricities. Despite our knowledge of Tesla as a forgotten genius, the film managed to create some tension as to the question of whether Tesla would ever be successful in his endeavors. By overlapping created narration by Tesla himself, quotes from writings of the time, snippets from interviews, and guidance from an omniscient narrator, the film tells the story of Tesla’s life, in each of his triumphs and defeats.
      Though the film was divided into subsections, I feel like it could have been more clearly or easily divided, as the events of Tesla’s life seemed to run together, especially as he had many triumphs and defeats. However, this could have been intentional, as brilliance darkened by failure seems to be the main theme of Tesla’s life. He had no drive or interest in business, at least not any that compared with his passion for technological innovation, and so despite his early discoveries in electricity, radio, remote control, extra-terrestrial transmissions, and large-scale wireless transmissions of electricity, Tesla remained penniless, and without any significant scientific recognition or support.
      Often, the visuals of the documentary reinforced the wonders of electricity that Tesla explored. Photographs and films of experiments of the time, along with the requisite shots of lightning, visually elucidated the concepts that Tesla spoke of. The original patent designs and diagrams were a nice inclusion, as they illustrated the inventions we were later shown in period photographs.

      Overall, this was a nice documentary, though I felt like it didn’t quite take advantage of its rich subject matter. Tesla is a compelling figure, and he lived in an incredibly interesting time period, yet I felt myself occasionally being bored with the film. There is nothing the filmmakers did specifically wrong, and I’d happily give the film a B+ for a job well done, but no ideas or incidents stood out, captured my imagination, or made me want to know more, three things I expect from an excellent documentary.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Truth Behind: Bigfoot

When you eliminate the impossible, whatever is left, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. Using this line of logic the documentary The Truth Behind: Bigfoot proves that the famous Patterson-Gimlin footage of bigfoot is definitely real, sort of.

More than anything on this film, I admire the producer’s ability to find filler material to stretch the run time from the initial study of interest. The producers were able to obtain a copy of the original Patterson-Gimlin film (you know, the shaky 1960s film where bigfoot is huge and hairy and walking away, but turns back to look over his/her shoulder at us, and that’s where the editor always quickly zooms in and freezes). Then, using a high definition camera and modern re-imaging techniques, a Hollywood effects specialist was able to examine high-quality images and evaluate the likelihood of the real deal versus a lurpy guy in a suit.

To be clear, I thought this was a kind of neat and innovative way to re-examine the legend of Bigfoot, and I was interested to see what they found. However, the material generated from this investigation couldn’t be stretched into more than fifteen minutes of run time, but National Geographic (the distributer of this quirky bit of fun) needed a longer episode of their documentary series than that, so something had to be found.

Again, I respect the producer of this for finding so many new takes on Bigfoot. In between building anticipation for the ultimate conclusion from an expert examining the (almost) original footage, the audience was treated to foot cast specialists, experts in collecting hair samples through odiferous deceit, and additional Hollywood effects artists. Unlike the usual Sasquatch hunting expedition though, this crew had interesting, original, and even insightful things to add to the quest for truth. 

I appreciated the push in the program to examine physical forms of evidence, rather than rely on eye-witness accounts and urban legends. Anyone who was an “expert” on Bigfoot had devoted their life, or at least considerable shelf space, to collecting tangible proof of the hairy fellow’s existence. Foot casts, purportedly real and known fakes were examined, hair samples were subjected to rudimentary DNA testing, and even human bone structure and musculature were compared to details gleaned from the cleaned up footage.

Ultimately the burning question in this documentary was left unanswered, as it always must be for documentaries like this to retain their credibility. The Patterson-Gimlin film does appear to be genuine, and the creature it captured was incredibly convincing, if not undeniably real. Like many cryptozoologist pursuits, this was an interesting and entertaining, if not particularly informative way to pass an hour.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Nova: Decoding Neanderthals Review

      In the Nova natural history documentary Decoding Neanderthals the filmmakers took the role of reporter in telling the story of what happened to the Neanderthals and how that relates to us as modern humans. I enjoyed the presentation, though I thought it could have used some polish, as the structure of the program served not to lead the viewer naturally through an exploration of the subject, but instead to undermine the clarity of the main questions it was seeking to answer.
 Through interviews, close-ups of bones and artifacts, B-roll footage of typical human cultures today, computer graphic images of DNA strands, more B-roll footage of scientists engaged in work, and a few historical recreations of Neanderthals and ancient humans, the documentary set up a strong theme of searching for our roots as humans by examining misconceptions and new evidence about our closest extinct relatives. Edited with a narration voice-over, and typical cutaways to help tell the story or illustrate points, the program did a good job of introducing the stereotypical way most people think of Neanderthals and why this is mistaken.
Building from that well-written introduction, the documentary went on to show new research that Neanderthals had much more sophisticated technology and language than was previously thought. The practical demonstrations of creating the Neanderthal flint stones and the likely method used to extract pitch were particularly effective in showing that though Neanderthals had limited means available to them, they had highly refined methods of creating the tools they needed for survival.
At this point the documentary naturally segued into a discussion of DNA, and how mapping both the human and Neanderthal genomes has allowed scientists to determine that we share DNA with Neanderthals in key areas relating to speech and language. Computer models of DNA were shown to great effect. Even a viewer who only knew of DNA by name could understand the basic function and form of the little strands, as well as understand fairly clearly how it was that scientists came to the conclusion that the DNA of Homo sapiens clearly had some segments of Neanderthal DNA included. I was particularly impressed with how brief the filmmakers managed to make this explanation, but how thorough.
      After this remarkable revelation I expected the program to then look at why modern humans would continue to keep ancient Neanderthal DNA, but instead the film went on to examine further similarities between humans and Neanderthals, including personal ornamentation with paint and beads, possible hunting trophy collection, and forms of ritualistic burial. While the visuals and interviews served to wonderfully illustrate and explain the evidence and artifacts, I was puzzled by the tangent back into material the filmmakers had already covered.
Honestly, looping back on itself didn’t reinforce anything, but rather served to undermine the flow and structure of the film. If this information had simply been included in the similar discussion before the examination of DNA sequencing, I think the documentary would have been stronger and more engaging, as it would have built a sense of wonder and suspense about our previous assumptions of Neanderthals.
Once this tangent was over, the program resumed what I felt like should have been the natural line of questioning in asking what benefits Neanderthal DNA had for modern humans. Though there are many gene sequences left to explore, scientists have been able to determine that important functions in our immune systems are dictated by the sequences of Neanderthal DNA. This shows that our continued survival as a species is aided immensely by keeping these genes, and adds further evidence to back the film’s conclusion that it is likely Neanderthals intermingled with ancient humans and were eventually bred out.
Though I was frustrated by the convoluted story structure, I very much appreciated how the film dealt with loose ends in the research, such as in the production of pitch. Science creates many new questions with each one that it answers, yet the Nova program gave me a sense of closure when it came to the particular question of why Neanderthals matter to us at all. I left wanting to know more, but not feeling unsatisfied.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Whether You're Ready or Not

Writing is hard. I think this every morning when I get off the graveyard shift and push myself to sit down and write for four hours. Lately I've been excusing myself due to feeling tired, needing to ride the bus home, not wanting to plug in my laptop, and other weak excuses that I glom onto like my life depends on it. I wish I could hit the pause button for a while, and only worry about working and sleeping until I've made the money I need to coast for a while. But that's the thing, isn't it? Life keeps rolling along, even if you didn't get enough sleep, or aren't quite ready to work, or just want to sit for a moment. Whether you're ready or not, your life is happening right now.

So here I sit, in a cold restaurant, with a headache, pushing myself to write just a little bit longer before my shift starts and I get caught up in the grind again. Sometimes it feels like life is spinning out of control, what with the dirty laundry, long to-do list, and bills that keep showing up every month, but I try to remember that these are the cogs I need to keep clean and turning in order to enjoy the things I want to, things like dozing in the sun, holding my husband's hand, and yes, even writing in a cold diner. I might not be completely ready for the next twenty-four hours of my life, but it's happening no matter what, so I'm going to do my best to make the most of it.