Category Archives: Documentary

War Dogs

war dogsNote: This is the first part of a review double-header!  Jesse sent two recommendations in a single shot so I’m reviewing them at the same time.  Click here for the other review.

What Jesse said:

Two movies for you to watch: War Dogs, and Manchester by the Sea. Very different but excellent flicks. War Dogs is so absurd it will make you laugh and then wonder if the grownups really are in charge… also, it was funny ’cause it’s true (based on a real case). Manchester by the Sea was a pretty intense slow burn. Casey Affleck plays the main character. Watch out for the BAHS-ton accents. Family drama.

Mike’s verdict:

When does telling the truth ever help anyone?

This is not my kind of movie and I knew it right from the beginning. A ‘true story’ about arms dealers, Afghanistan, and the US government – it’s going to be fairly predictable and I have no doubt about Jesse’s ‘absurd’ label.  Indeed, guns, drugs, war, and banking movies are always the same kind of absurd: someone essentially good makes a series of obviously terrible decisions for the good of family or to get a friend out of a jam, or to just be comfortable for once in their life.  This movie fits the pattern perfectly and it means that there are no surprises as the plot develops.

Granted, that doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining.  The kid from all the Shailene Woodley movies is okay as the naive ‘good guy’ just trying to get ahead. But I initially had trouble accepting him in the role because the life he starts with doesn’t seem that bad.  Jonah Hill is definitely effective as the unsavory partner. He seemed very similar to the character he played in The Wolf of Wall Street, but without the excess.  I can’t say that I liked either character very much; certainly not enough to be on their side.  I knew things would go poorly for them and I didn’t care.

On the other hand, Bradley Cooper‘s role is intriguing.  It’s a fairly small role in terms of screen-time, but he manages to steal the show.  I’d like to see a prequel about him that sets up the Albanian connection and perhaps presents a clearer justification for his involvement in the subsequent scheme.

In most other ways, this movie was entertaining enough to continue watching, but not so interesting that I would be upset if I was interrupted mid-viewing and had to stop watching.  This last thought explains how it is that I managed to watch three quarters of the film before it finally dawned on me that I had actually already watched it once before.  It must have been on the second or third leg of a really long flight because I obviously slept through most of it the first time.

In any case, I did not fall asleep during the second viewing and I was reasonable entertained all the way through.  I even enjoyed the sparse but well chosen music.  There’s always a danger with this type of movie to use overly aggressive music to reinforce themes, but that wasn’t the case here.

Overall,  War Dogs isn’t a great movie, but it isn’t a bad one either.  I was entertained and I think that’s all I would ask of it.

6/10

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The Big Short

the-big-short-movie-posterWhat Jesse said:

You need to watch The Big Short. Fantastic movie about the 2008 economic meltdown that manages to infuse just enough humour to balance the insanity of the world being on the brink of economic disaster. Christian Bale is amazing in it. Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell… awesome. My favourite scene involves an odd discussion between Carell’s character and a ‘dancer’ about real estate. So much cringe.

Mike’s verdict:

At first I couldn’t understand why Jesse cared to watch a film about banking. Sure, it’s got some notable people but it’s still about banking!  Then it all became clear – his favourite dreamy Brad is in this.  Funny how Jesse mentioned all those other notables but left out Brad Pitt again.  At least in this one Pitt’s role is fairly subdued; and he’s actually believable as the jaded banker turned rich hippy who hates the game but will play it again anyway if you just ask him. Classic Pitt.

This film is an odd format.  It starts out almost feeling like a documentary, but only partially. It flips back and forth between wanting to be a history lesson, indicting the banking industry for its lack of humanity, and a funny story about tangentially connected funny characters who have no respect for the forth wall. And it kind of works.

With such a complicated subject as the basis of the plot, there would inevitably need to be some means of clarifying exposition – and the writers decided to take the easy road: pause the movie and give the explanation.  It works, because as jarring as these moments are, they are handled brilliantly by the characters who not only break the fourth wall but also introduce unrelated cameos from celebrities being themselves.

Jesse is right about Christian Bale; his character is so believable that by the end I felt like I knew him – his awkwardness is completely authentic without being over the top. Steve Carrel’s angry jerk who just cares too much has a rocky start, but eventually becomes a highlight as well.

It’s not all good though: the narrative is choppy at times, making it hard to follow the connections as they as developed.  A number of scenes feel like they happen in the wrong order, but not in an intentional way.  And then there are the magical Jenga blocks that go from tower to pile to tower again without any help.

The discussion with the ‘dancer’ isn’t nearly as interesting as Jesse suggests.  The only cringing on my part was at how forced the scene felt – it doesn’t fit into this film at all and I suspect Jesse has other reasons for enjoying it…

About the halfway point I realized the biggest issue with this film:  I was much less interested in the story or characters than I was in trying to understand the mechanics of the financial crisis. How come all these people saw the problem, independently, years ahead of time, but nobody did anything to stop it?  How does debt become an investment? How do banks even keep their multi-level fraud schemes straight?  The social math is just fascinating.  But this movie won’t answer those questions – it feels like it will, but it won’t because it’s not a documentary. It’s entertainment.

And it is entertaining, but nonetheless disappointing because of everything that it won’t explain.

At the end, I still don’t understand the housing crisis at all; however I am now also very concerned about water.

6/10 – because it failed to live up to my unreasonable expectations.


Transcendent Man

What Jesse said:

Back in my electronic music days I used some gear by a company called Kurzweil. Turns out that the guy who started that company is a fascinating (and rather sad) human being named Ray Kurzweil and there’s a documentary about him called Transcendent Man. The topics covered are quite profound and reminded me of Her starring Joaquin Phoenix. Go watch Transcendent Man. It’s one of those rare movies that manages to be uplifting and depressing all at once. I liked it a lot.

Mike’s verdict:

I’ll agree with Jesse on one point for sure: Raymond Kurzweil is a rather sad human being. Transcendent Man isn’t so much a documentary as it is a biography. It presents the story of a man who, after bearing witness to the slow and all too foreseeable death of his father, becomes terrified by his own mortality. As if that isn’t bad enough, Kurzweil is an engineer – he’s used to thinking about ways to solve problems – and (because he’s an engineer) he doesn’t realize that death is not a problem he can just engineer a solution for.

Kurzweil has spent the better part of his life looking for ways to ensure that the he lives forever. He takes somewhere in the neighbourhood of 200 pills each day – basic supplements and vitamins as well as his own brand of ‘anti-aging’ chemicals. He also has his blood tested every few months to check on his progress. To be fair, at one point Kurzweil was diagnosed with Type-2 Diabetes – definitely a condition to take seriously – and he managed to reverse it. Whether or not he beat diabetes because of his daily drug routine is very much open to debate though.

Of course, Kurzweil doesn’t limit himself to the traditional remedies of medical science. He is, after all, an engineer – and he has been looking at technological advances as the next step to defying death. He’s spent decades inventing and researching in a broad range of fields and he’s witnessed first-hand the way that technology has exploded over the last 50 years. He thinks of the world he was born into, compares it with the world he lives in today and imagines the world he’ll experience in another 50 years. Kurzweil has convinced himself that, within his lifetime, technology will advance to the point that death will no longer be a concern – he just needs to live long enough to make use of the technology.

As a response to his fears, Kurzweil has prophesied a pseudo-religious utopian future where humanity and machines intertwine such that there is no way to distinguish between the two. First science will advance nano-technology to fix everything, then it will advance convergence technology to bridge the gap between mind and machine. Then we will travel the stars.

Eventually, we will be sentient machines and as we spread the universe will ‘awaken’ as a single entity.  He calls it The Singularity but there are corollaries found in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Bahá’í, Buddhism, and nearly all other religions.

As it happens, Kurzweil isn’t just another crack-pot with a vision – he is actually a brilliant engineer who is responsible for, among other things, the CCD flatbed scanner and text-to-speech synthesizers. He is a director of engineering at Google.

And that’s why his story is so sad. Technology is moving at blistering speed, but it’s not going to continue fast enough to save Kurzweil. You know it, I know it, his doctors know it. And on a certain level Kurzweil knows it too. But he lives in a world that wants his delusions to be true – and is constantly recognizing him for his very real accomplishments. Everyone knows he’s crazy, yet despite his delusions he is helping people. His delusions are riding the coat-tails of his otherwise brilliant career.

I would have like to see more dissenting opinions in this film – particularly from technology experts who could speak to the validity of Kurzweil’s beliefs. The producers chose to include interviews with two people who questioned Kurzweil’s prophecy but they were clearly straw-men – one’s argument was lost in his own completing religion while the other came across as the caricatured cold, unsympathetic scientist.

Overall, the film was interesting – I hadn’t ever heard of Kurzweil before and now I know a great deal about his life. But it was slow in parts, and it became clear that the producers didn’t have a lot to work with in terms of presenting Kurzweil’s imagined future. Just as with any other religion, it’s impossible to provide real evidence to justify his utopian predictions so the producers had to rely on clips of his impassioned speeches – entertaining, but ultimately empty. What I would have liked is a documentary discussing the (im)possibilities of the technology he imagines rather than a biography of the man. I’d like to know more from biologists, chemists and other engineers.

I guess that’s a different film though.

6/10


Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape

What Jesse said:

Another cool documentary for you. This time it’s about how in the early 80’s the powers-that-be in the UK thought that a list of about 80 mostly crappy movies referred to as The Video Nasties, was going to corrupt an entire generation of British kids. Complete with hilarious stories of UK Parliamentarians sitting around one day to watch these low-budget horror movies (some became physically ill and most couldn’t take more than a few minutes…), or how because of the confusion of not knowing which exact movies were on “the list” police officers were confiscating titles such as Apocalypse Now or other definitely non-nasty or even critically acclaimed films from the shelves of corner store video shops in England. There were video “burnings”, and some shop owners even did jail time for stocking some of these titles! Nothing like a good moral panic to get the old juices flowing…Crazy doc. Enjoy.

Mike’s verdict:

Let’s get one thing out of the way up front – I am totally, utterly and completely against censorship. I don’t believe that the state should attempt to block the expression of ideas whether they are in print, video, audio, stone tablet or the voice of the crazy guy yelling on the corner. Governments should be free to pay experts to publish information, but they should not block non-experts from publishing as well. That’s not to say that I think most people have valid opinions. They don’t. And I certainly don’t care to actually listen to most people’s opinions. I’m also not under the delusion that everyone has some inherent ‘right’ to be heard, and I don’t think that spilling blue paint on a sidewalk constitutes ‘art’.  What I do believe is that everyone has a responsibility to ignore the opinions they find disagreeable. Don’t like that TV show? – change the channel. Don’t like what’s on the radio? – learn to play the guitar. Don’t want to see naked people killed by chainsaw-wielding maniacs? – don’t rent the video. Don’t want your children to see naked people killed by chainsaw-wielding maniacs? – don’t let them rent the video either. I’d like to live in a world where people think of their interactions with others as governed by personal responsibility – not personal rights.  What’s that? You think you have a right to be heard? Great. The best part of my worldview is that I don’t need to argue with you. You can stand on your soapbox all day – I’m going to get a sandwich.

That being said, I thought this movie was mostly a waste of time. It’s terrible that a group of almost-parliamentarians were allowed to create a panic that allowed corrupt police to put video store owners in jail. Seriously, that is terrible. But I didn’t need to watch endless interviews cut with unpleasant video clips to reach that conclusion. Granted, before watching the documentary I had no idea that this particular moral panic had occurred. But there’s really no difference between this panic and any other that has led to censorship. The film-makers here could have made a 60 second public service announcement and got most of their point across.  This is particularly true now that we have the internet to show us all the unpleasant video we can stand, and nobody able to censor it.

Two and a half decades ago, someone should have stepped in to stop what was obviously unfair treatment of video store owners. And this should definitely go into the history books as one more example (in an extremely long list) of why state censorship is a terrible idea. But there was no need for this lesson in 2010 – nobody was then or is now in any danger of having their ‘right to watch gross movies’ taken away.

I’m pretty sure the film-makers just wanted an excuse to watch all the movies their parents warned them about.

3/10 – But only because I learned a bit of history.


Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!

What Jesse said:

I watched this awesome documentary about the Australian film industry last year and thought it was hilarious. It’s always amusing watching “dignified” high-brow people squirm, and you get plenty of that in this doc about how exploitation films like Mad Max and The Howling became the face of Australian cinema during the 70s and 80s. It seems like in order to compete with big budget Hollywood movies, the only way to go was to go for shock, gore, and all of the over-the-top activities associated with generally bad scripts, hilariously bad performances, and some truly ill-advised stunt work by people who were either incredibly brave/dedicated, or just plain stupid. Enjoy.

Mike’s verdict:

I’m still a little on the fence about reviewing documentaries because there is a very different dynamic between the film and audience compared to traditional fiction-based films. But since there are definite qualities that make documentaries more (or less) enjoyable to watch I’m going to give it a try.

I think that I might have missed the point that the writers were trying to make with Not Quite Hollywood. Before last night, my thoughts on American movies from the late 60s through the early 80s could be summed up as: boobs, gore, and busted cars. After watching Not Quite Hollywood, my thoughts on Australian movies from the late 60s through the early 80s can now also be summed up as: boobs, gore, and busted cars. The only real differenceseems to be the accent.  The writers tried to make the argument that Australian films of the time were somehow ‘worse’ – more boobs, more gore, more busted cars. Maybe that’s true – but I wasn’t convinced. What really came across for me was a feeling that the people involved in Australian genre films had lost their audience at some point after the 80s, and wanted a way to get back in the spotlight. Maybe the film would have come across as less self-serving if it had been written by someone not obviously involved in the subject.

In any case, none of that changes the fact that this film is quite interesting. For me, the most surprising thing was just how closely American culture and counter-culture in the 60s and 70s were mirrored in Australia. Women’s liberation, the sexual revolution, anti-Vietnam protests, the abortion debate: they all feel like very North American subjects to me – obviously because that’s the angle that I learned about them from. Realizing that these issues were being dealt with in very similar ways in Australia (and probably other western countries) at the same time is fascinating. In hindsight it shouldn’t be surprising at all, but perspective  is everything; especially regarding the teaching of history. Placing films on the backdrop of the culture that produced them is eye-opening. It would have been nice to have had more actual comparison with American films though; at least to make the differences more obvious.

While the content of Not Quite Hollywood was definitely engaging, I did find that at certain points I was impatient for the film to move on. The section covering horror/gory films seemed particularly drawn out. It wasn’t a case of the gore being too much, but actually the opposite – eventually I was bored.

In some sense this film actually falls victim to the same issue that its subject matter was criticized for – it tried to be over-the-top, but instead was just too much. A re-edit to bring the film down to an hour and 30 minutes would make it much more accessible.

7/10