Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Catching up: What's up with Docs

Sorry for the delay in posting. Like I said, with a wedding coming up and some busy times at work, my entries may be a bit sporadic for the near future. But I'm looking forward to really getting back at it this week. In addition to this entry, I'll have a review of the Ed Helms comedy "Cedar Rapids" on Friday and my belated second entry in "The Directors" before Sunday--hopefully I can also get the third entry in to make up for it. Next week I'll be looking at the Farrelly Brothers' latest attempt, "Hall Pass."

Right now, I'm trying to go through my stack of films from 2010 and catch myself up. Over the last few weeks I've been immersing myself in documentaries and then, over the three day President's Day weekend, I'll be going back into more narrative features.

Perhaps it's my journalism background, but documentaries may be my favorite genre of film. I get sucked into a good doc so easily and the best ones often have characters and plots that you would find too outlandish in most fiction films. Films like "Hoop Dreams," "The King of Kong," "Hell House" and "Young @ Heart" are films that have moved me, made me laugh or made me meditate on things much deeper than many scripted films.

So approaching documentaries wasn't really a chore for me. And, with the exception of one, all of these were released in 2010. So here are my short thoughts on a few that I've seen recently.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010, dir. Banksy)

This funny, fascinating film from notorious street artist Banksy surprised quite a few people when it was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar over the likes of "Waiting for Superman" and "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work." But the film's sheer cleverness--which left many leaving the theaters to wonder just how real it is--makes it one of the most entertaining docs of the past few years.

To say too much about the journey that Frenchman Thierry Guetta makes in this film would ruin the fun. Guetta, a man with a video camera always in his hands, started documenting street artists around the world many years ago under the guise of creating a documentary. With his exuberant, albeit clumsy and overbearing, nature, many of the artists--including the famous Banksy--allowed him to video tape their work, reasoning that the temporary nature of street art (which is cleaned away by police shortly after it's discovered) could benefit from the permanence of film. Much of "Exit Through the Gift Shop's" first hour is spent watching these artists covertly work at night, guerrilla Rembrandts armed with spray paint and ladders. Guetta meets the jackpot when Banksy--whose work has appeared in London, the West Bank and Los Angeles--agrees to let him videotape him at work, and Guetta captures the moment street art turns into a gold mine for collectors.

If this were all the film was about, it would still be interesting. But a twist in the film's final half hour lends a new level of intrigue as Guetta tries his own hands at street art. It's these final moments that have left many wondering whether the film is as true as it claims to be or if Banksy is pulling one over on the audience. The crew stands buy the film's claims and others have verified that the events of the end actually happened, but I still can't shake the feeling that Banksy quietly pulled the strings on everything Guetta finds himself at the center of, pulling one huge prank on the art and film worlds. But we'll likely never know--the artist is famously reclusive--and that gnawing question gives the film a wonderful jolt of energy.

"Exit Through the Gift Shop" is surprisingly funny, particularly watching Guetta stumble around at night with the artists, knocking over paint buckets and falling from ladders. It also shines the spotlight on street art which is so often mistaken simply for graffiti and vandalism but has creators just as serious about their work as anyone whose paintings end up in a gallery. It asks serious questions about the impact of money and fame on an art form that hinges on anarchy and rebellion and, in the final passages, makes us ask questions about whether something that mimics the work of others and demands a profit can truly be considered art...and if not, how do you justify those guidelines in a field that is supposed to have no rules at all?

"Exit Through the Gift Shop" is extremely watchable, particularly for those who usually shy away from documentaries because they find them staid and boring. It feels dangerous in places, hilarious in others and entertains even as it poses questions that won't easily be dismissed when the credits roll.

Restrepo (2010, dir. Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger)

Don't let the National Geographic production tag fool you: "Restrepo" is far from a boring, clinical look at war.

Hetherington and Junger (author of "The Perfect Storm") spent a year embedded with a platoon stationed in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, known as the deadliest place on Earth. Each day, the soldiers face incoming fire and attacks and, throughout the course of the film, they lost several of their own to these firefights. The directors get closer than any other filmmaker I've seen and keep the cameras rolling even when the bullets are flying.

It's a harrowing film and one of the most in-depth looks at soldiers' lives that I've ever seen. From the first minutes when a roadside bomb detonates under a vehicle that the cameraman's traveling in, through a tragic shoot-out in the Afghan mountains, "Restrepo" is unflinching and unafraid to show the reality of war.

The film is apolitical, not interested in the "why" of the fight but in the simple fact that the men profiled have chosen to do a job that could cost them their life. The directors never ask political questions, never cut away to "combat experts" and never lose sight of the fact that the film's subject is not the war, but the men fighting it.

I was amazed by how young the warfighters are here. The oldest can't be a day over 30. And we watch as they make quick decisions under fire, nonchalantly play guitar during down time or muse about the circumstances surrounding their deployment. There's a heartbreaking moment when one soldier breaks down in tears upon learning his compatriot has been killed and an intense recollection from another who was injured in an ambush. But the film also captures the day-to-day work the soldiers conduct in Afghanistan, meeting with local elders about building roads, settling disputes over dead cattle or searching villages for insurgents. One sobering moment shows the soldiers reacting to the knowledge that their strike on a village may have injured innocent civilians.

The fly on the wall perspective Hetherington and Junger bring to "Restrepo" causes it to drag in some moments, but it also allows the directors to stay close when chaos erupts. In the end, you probably won't learn much about the war in Afghanistan, but it's impossible to walk away without a renewed admiration for the men who go to hell to support our country.

Catfish (2010, dir. Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman)

Much like "Exit Through the Gift Shop," "Catfish" was surrounded upon its release by whispers that the documentary was a hoax. I found myself asking many of the same questions while watching the film, wondering just how directors Joost and Schulman were able to capture such a ready-for-cinema story on camera at just the right time. It had to be too good to be true.

But like "Gift Shop," "Catfish's" story has been verified. And looking back on the film, I have to say that even that doesn't surprise me in the end...it has the ring of truth to it, the thought that the events are too bizarre to be the work of fiction.

Of course, that means I can't tell you much about this film, as much of its success comes from watching the events unfold with the surreality and tension of a thriller.

Ariel Schulman is a photographer in New York who discovers that a 9 year-old girl has been making very accomplished paintings of his work. Through Facebook and the telephone, he befriends the young girl, her mother and 19-year-old sister, with whom he begins a cyber relationship. And then...well, you'll have to see for yourself.

Without giving too much away, the film provides a very sobering commentary on a culture where lives can be lived solely through social media. What we choose to reveal about ourselves, the personas we craft for our lives on the Internet...it's all fascinating until other people with real feelings gets involved. "Catfish" may be the first documentary I can remember that depended so closely on Facebook, Instant Messenger, Myspace and other online tools to tell its story.

It's a bit of a slow go at the beginning, particularly because Schulman and his friends are not the most interesting or likable of subjects. Wannabe filmmakers who think a bit too highly for themselves, they come off a bit grating and bland. But the film's mystery slowly draws us in and, by the end, the revelations "Catfish" has in store lead to a finale that is uncomfortable, tragic and yet surprisingly human. Schulman's reaction to the truths he learns is commendable and humane, and the final 20 minutes are both heartbreaking and compassionate.

Even if "Catfish" weren't true, it would make a fascinating mockumentary on the subject of Internet relationships. The fact that it's true makes everything that much more powerful.

The Rock-Afire Explosion (2008, dir. Brett Whitcomb)

I never was a Showbiz Pizza kid. Growing up, we had Chuck E. Cheese and Major Magic's, which were the same concept--your parents would take you to get pizza and you'd spend an afternoon playing video games.

Each of these restaurants had its own rock and roll show with animatronic characters up on stage. I grew up loving Major Magic's All Star Pizza Revue, which featured a Walrus, Crocodile, Lion and and a Fox singing "Charlie Brown," "Little Old Lady from Pasadena" and "I want to Hold Your Hand." I loved going there, waiting for the lights to dim and for the show to start and I truly am sad that the restaurants have closed down and my children won't get to have that experience. But, I grew out of it and moved on.

Others haven't. There's a subset of men and women in their late 20s and early 30s who are obsessed with Showbiz Pizza's animatronic band, The Rock-Afire Explosion, several monkeys and apes who sang and danced on stage while kids munched on their pizza. In the early 2000s, Showbiz Pizza merged with Chuck E. Cheese and the Rock-Afire Explosion was phased out to make way for the mouse and his cronies.

This film chronicles the pursuit of Chris Thrash, a 31-year-old from Alabama, who tracks down the last remaining Rock-Afire animatronics and displays them in his house. It also tracks down Aaron Fechter, the creative genius who made millions supplying the shows to Showbiz Pizza and then lost everything when the business grew too fast.

This is the kind of off-kilter doc I live for, dealing with a certain subset the same way "King of Kong" or "Trekkies" does, although "The Rock-Afire Explosion" leans less on comedy and more on nostalgia. I suppose there's humor to be found in a grown man building his own Showbiz Pizza in his backyard or the low class surroundings Thrash lives in (to this day, he only drinks Mt. Dew). But the film is careful never to laugh at its subjects and instead director Brett Whitcomb lovingly captures a small sect of fandom and its yearning for the things of youth.

Why would a man track down animatronic figures from a defunct pizza chain? It's a bit heartbreaking to hear Thrash muse that those were the happiest days of his life, when "thins were a bit simpler." And while there's an interesting story Fechter tells about the rise and fall of Showbiz and the Rock-Afire explosion, what makes this film truly work is the way it captures a culture that's adrift and discontent, longing to relive their childhood and recapture the thigns they loved in their youth.

We live in the age of remakes, and I've seen many things I've loved from my childhood paraded again on the screen. I'll admit it's very easy to want to revisit my past. I've spent hours watching old cartoon introductions on Youtube or looking at photo galleries of amusement parks I went to as a child. Is it any different for another man to collect animatronic figures from the place that he had the best memories of growing up?

There's definitely a restlessness and refusal to grow up in our culture and I fear that the Internet only feeds that--we no longer have to let go. And "The Rock-Afire Explosion" captures that bittersweet nature of growing up while hanging on to nostalgia. It's a beautiful, if minor and quirky, little documentary that I highly recommend to anyone interested in geek culture.

Babies (2010, dir. Thomas Balmes)

Who says there's no such thing as truth in advertising?

"Babies" delivers just what it promises; nearly 90-minutes worth of just babies. Laughing babies. Crying babies. Babies eating, babies playing, babies looking at things. If they made a sequel to "March of the Penguins," it would be this, which I call "Crawl of the Humans."

The film chronicles four babies born at different ends of the world--Tokyo, Africa, Mongolia and the United States. It follows them throughout their first year of life, and the film is basically scene after scene of the babies marveling at the world around them, discovering their pets, snuggling with their mothers and playing with their siblings. There's no narration, no experts to talk to and no overarching examination of baby life. It's pure observation from beginning to end.

Right about now, there are two camps of people on this movie: those who feel that this is going to be the cutest thing they've ever seen and those who feel they will overdose on sap.

And yet, the film is beautiful and hypnotic, an enjoyable way to pass the time that leaves you a little more in awe of the world in which we live. It's fun to watch the babies discover life, but it's even more remarkable to watch these four from around the world and see just how similar they are despite their extremely different surroundings. It's amazing to watch them discover personalities over the course of the year and to see their curiosity grow as they examine their pets, their parents and the world around them. The cinematography is bright and beautiful to look at and fly-on-the-wall view means it rarely feels manipulative or overly-emotional.

Then again, it's a movie about babies. And who doesn't like babies? You're pretty guaranteed with this one, simply from a cute factor.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.