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Documentary

The Queen of Versailles

The Queen of Versailles

These people are you superiors in every possible way.
Don't doubt it for a second

dir: Lauren Greenfield

It takes a certain kind of character to handle being wealthy and powerful. Few people have the stones for it. It’s not for common mortals like us to be rich and famous, no. We would buckle under the tremendous weight of such awful responsibility. The rest of us peasants should be grateful that we don’t live under the dread of such burdens.

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a downside for these brave people. They have to develop heroic defence mechanisms to protect themselves from the harshness of reality and the envy of the lower orders. As an example, you might have noticed that whenever a celebrity or wealthy person does something obviously, demonstrably wrong, then any criticism levelled at them is dismissed as hate from the “haters”. Haters, you see, are the envious, poisonous masses who dream up all sorts of untrue perfidy in order to bring down their betters. It’s the only explanation.

It’s the only way to make sense of a reality that previously seemed to bend to your every whim. If things always seemed to go your way because you were powerful and top of your game, and that your self-directed wilful free ride somehow ends, it’s because of the haters. It can’t be because you did something wrong, ever. It can’t be that you were complicit in a corrupt system, never that.

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The Imposter

The Imposter

Gaze into the eyes of a psychopath, and despair

dir: Bart Layton

At their worst, documentaries cover something that happened in the most turgid, lifeless manner possible, sending the facts even further out of reach and serving the self-interests of people trying to impose their horrible view of humanity all over the rest of us.

At their best, they illuminate the confusion that confronts all of us in the face of not what happened at particular points in time, but why. It’s not the sole purpose of documentaries to answer questions, or to say “This, then this, then this”. Sometimes they succeed best when they still leave us wondering “what the hell were these people thinking?”

The Imposter is a documentary about something that really happened, in which most of the facts are not in dispute. Let’s say 99% of the facts are not disputed. With the family involved, and the imposter of the title, none of them are denying that any of this happened. What none of them can genuinely answer is the “why” of it all, and that doesn’t detract from the experience in the slightest.

A boy goes missing in Texas, in the 1990s. A ‘boy’ in Spain is found by police, who claims, eventually, to be the missing Texan boy, Nicholas Barclay.

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Samsara

Samsara

I wouldn't get into a fight with her if I were you

dir: Ron Fricke

How do you even review something like this? It ends up saying more about the reviewer than the movie reviewed.

Samsara isn't a sequel to Baraka, the amazing, awe-inspiring 'documentary' from the 1990s that I've watched a billion times and whose soundtrack I've listened to even more. It's a continuation of Baraka, same director, same incredible 70mm film footage, same globe-trotting footage and same blissful lack of narration.

While I've seen Baraka so many times that it's become like the wallpaper of my skull, it exists in a pre-review time, before I was ever presumptuous enough to start thinking critically about films, about film as a medium, and, even worse, before I had the gall to start writing about them.

Samsara supplies me with a curious opportunity: How do you write about something that has no (obvious) narrative or story, which isn't really documenting anything other than how awesome-looking some bits of the world are, and which it's almost impossible to describe beyond saying stuff like "And then there's a shot of the Pope's arse, and then there's a narwhal, then there's a glacier, then there's a guy picking his nose at Roppongi Station, then there's a massive sand dune and then" which I could do for thousands of words and still get no closer to capturing its point or essence?

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Inside Job

dir: Charles Ferguson
[img_assist|nid=1396|title=Liars, fibbers and whoremongers, oh my|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=408|height=605]
With documentaries, sometime it’s the content, far more so than the quality of how it’s put together, that’s the defining element deciding whether it works or not. Sure, I am the first person in human history to point out that documentaries tend to veer between polemical and propagandistic, so it’s the most obvious thing to point out ever, but it’s far more true of this ‘genre’ than any of the others. There’s usually far less revelation, and far more letters-to-the-editor aggravation.

Inside Job seeks to illustrate for us what went on and wrong in the lead up to that recent minor economic kerfuffle you might have heard about or lost your job over, charmingly referred to as the Global Financial Crisis. The most important word in that phrase is not the first one, anti-globalisation crusaders, or the last one, catastrophists and doomsayers. It’s the middle one, because, as Matt Damon’s soothing and scolding voiceover articulates for our benefit, it was the goblins of high finance, abetted by cowardly governments that were the ones that did the dirty.

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Catfish

dir: Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost
[img_assist|nid=1389|title=Catfish are not tasty. Do not click on the fish.|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=338]
The lifeblood, the cornerstone, the fundamental currency of documentary filmmaking is credibility. The subjects, as in, the people being interviewed don’t have to necessarily be credible, since there are a lot of quality documentaries about dishonest or deeply delusional, misguided people (the Aileen Wuornos: Selling of a Serial Killer doco, Fog of War, Tyson, Mr Death: the Rise and Fall of Fred Leuchter Jr), so I have zero problems with unreliable interviewees.

The people who we have to trust as being credible are the ones making the documentary. Michael Moore squandered a lot of the goodwill his earlier documentaries engendered in the public once revelations as to the level of ‘creativity’ involved in putting together his various screeds, manipulating facts and the depiction of events to buttress his arguments, came out. Also, he's a bit of a hypocrite, but his documentaries have forcibly improved in the interim.

The people involved in this documentary don’t strike me as being very credible, honest or forthright in their depiction of events. It doesn’t completely torpedo the doco, because, after all, it’s about dishonesty. I just would prefer it if the makers could be a tad more honest than the fabulist at the core of this story.

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Restrepo

dir: Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington
[img_assist|nid=1354|title=War is... something or other|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=299]
Back, way back in the dim, distant reaches of last century, there was a war in a little-known and already forgotten place called Korea. The battle was between the noble South supported by the United States (and other allied nations of course), and the evil and horrible Northern Communists supported by the terrible Chinese. There were many battles, much slaughter, even towards the end of the war. The Battle of Pork Chop Hill in April of 1953, not only resulted in the slaughter of many noble soldiers, but resulted in a war film that made the careers of a lot of shiny Hollywood dickheads. It showed how random death on the battlefield can be, and how countless soldiers can die horribly because someone far from the front lines commands some men to hold a seemingly strategically important hill.

The supreme irony comes when soldiers who have given almost everything to defend a position, who’ve seen all their buddies die for it, can be told to retreat from the position because of some other strategic need or because it’s decided that, in retrospect, it wasn’t really that important, or that some other hill was the really crucial one that’ll win the war.

Cue scream of forlorn and impotent rage in the face of the universe’s cold disinterest.

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Exit Through the Gift Shop

dir: I’m not sure, though Banksy is credited.
[img_assist|nid=1265|title=About time, too.|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=583]
They call it a documentary, but I don’t think you can take anything that transpires in it at face value. It seems like it’s the story it claims to be, but that could all be bullshit.

After all, Banksy is involved.

The parts that are undeniably ‘real’ focus on street art, which is the contemporary term describing graffiti, or whatever you call it when people paint, spray-paint, creatively deface or otherwise do anything in public which inflicts their eyesores on the general public for a brief period of time.

The thing is, if you’ve seen any of the stencil stuff that’s sprung up in the last ten years, the stuff that looks like it was painted but is really stuck on, it’s Banksy.

Banksy didn’t necessarily do it himself, and in fact it’s very unlikely that he did it in your city, unless you live in London, whereby it’s a possibility. But his stuff, his concepts, his radical juxtapositions and provocations, spread across the world like a virus.

His stuff, and I know how pointless it is saying this, is brilliant. I’ve known of his stuff, living and working as I do in the inner city, where his stuff is pasted over everything, for much of the last decade, but I knew next to nothing about the man. Now, after watching this flick, I know even less.

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Fog of War, The

dir: Errol Morris
[img_assist|nid=1011|title=Get off my lawn or I'll carpet bomb your village|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=336]
When you look upon the face of a man in his 80s, you tell yourself
that you can almost read his life in the lines and contours thereon.
At least that's the illusion I had watching this award-winning
documentary by Errol Morris about Robert McNamara. He's hardly a
household name around the world, but more than a few people should
remember the man who was the Secretary of Defense in the States during
one of the most turbulent times in the country's history. Although one
could argue the times were no less turbulent then than they are now.

One could almost say from watching this film that McNamara suffers
from a tremendous amount of guilt for his actions as the Secretary of
Defense. Surely he doesn't have deep regrets from his time as the head
of Ford, or his time as one of the highest paid executives in the
world. This fascinating glimpse into history almost seems to be an
extension of McNamara's search for redemption. In fact the method in
which he is filmed deliberately gives proceedings the appearance and
feel of a confessional.

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Oceans

dirs: Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud
[img_assist|nid=1431|title=Oceans. Someone needs to tell them to stop being so smug|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=597]
Oceans. They’re everywhere! And, did you know that they’re full of water?

Very watery waters, apparently. And mostly the water is blue. Sometimes green, sometimes grey, sometimes a mixture of greeny-bluey-grey, but always very watery.

We owe a lot to the oceans. They feed us, naturally, and they’re also where we dump all our sewerage and garbage, as the gods intended, and they also willingly have become the final resting place for murderous / saintly Osamas who’ve outlived their usefulness, but they’re also really pretty. And they’re also chock full of thoroughly beautiful creatures like dugongs, walruses, stonefish and moray eels.

Who could not love the Oceans? They’re practically the puppies/kittens of the solar system. Only a completely dead-inside monster, that’s who. Or the captain of the Titanic, I guess. Or anyone who’s lost a loved one to the Ocean’s watery embrace, I guess as well.

This astounding documentary which has taken its time to get here, and is playing at Cinema Nova (in Melbourne as at 22/5/2011) acts as if people don’t know what oceans are (as opposed to seas, which everyone knows are the oceans’ poor orphan cousins), or that there are fish in them. There’s actually a line of narration that says the following:

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2008 Film Year In Review

dir: Buxbaum or Bixby Ali Van Allen O’Shea

2009

Very late in the game, very late in the year, I have decided to close the lid, as in the coffin lid, on the previous year’s festivities by summarising all of my highly valuable yet worthless thoughts on how I thought the year went movie-wise. You might wonder “why?” whereas I just wonder “why not?”

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Sketches of Frank Gehry

dir: Sydney Pollock
[img_assist|nid=1127|title=Enjoy the afterlife, boys|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=372]
Friends making documentaries about friends sounds like mutual masturbation, but it can work, if you’re into that sort of thing. Your interest level in this movie is pretty much dictated by whether you can enjoy a doco about a famous architect who has designed some pretty kooky buildings. Or not. My guess is that a lot of eyes glaze over before you even finish saying the word architectu….zzzzz

Can you really imagine something as staggeringly dull as a doco about an architect? Unless it’s the architect of the Third Reich, Albert Speer, maybe, or the architect of some badly negligent buildings that fall down and kill people. Otherwise it’s a date with dullsville, you’d be forced to think. Well, force yourself to think a little more, ya deadbeat.

Frank Gehry has architected up some pretty freaky looking buildings. Even if his name doesn’t ring any of your bells, you’ve probably seen images of his crazy constructions all the same. I can’t pretend I knew anything about the guy beyond images of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, that I’d seen, and the kooky episode of The Simpsons where Gehry guest stars and designs a new building for Springfield that gets turned into a surrealist prison. Snitch 4 Life indeed.

Rating:

2007 Film Year in Review

dir: Me

2008

Another great year of movies. Another couple of hundred reviews read by a few bored people online and by harvesting bots trying to find email addresses to send crucial details regarding penis breasting and Nigerian viagra accounts to.

From a film-watching point of view, I was forced by dint of circumstance, in other words, by the entry of my daughter Dawn Matilda into this harsh and occasionally beautiful world, to watch a lot of flicks on DVD (legitimately) and a few via the illegal largesse of the download fairies. I’m not justifying it, I’m not excusing it, I just think that when I can barely make it to the cinema a dozen times due to looking after a baby girl, I am morally justified in watching stuff that I didn’t and you didn’t pay for.

There’s a logic there that I hope I won’t be explaining to any prosecutors any time soon. Hey, if they can find a babysitter for me, then I’ll be happy to watch Scary Movie 5 or the next Lindsay Lohan flick in the salubrious confines of a theatre the way the Gods of Cinema intended.

Still, I got to see a fair few films I liked this year, and less that made me want to unleash an apocalypse of jihad and tickle torture on the world.

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Bridge, The

dir: Eric Steel
[img_assist|nid=792|title=Final Destination|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=253]
I know it’s called The Bridge. But don’t go thinking this documentary is actually about the bridge or a bridge. Very deceptive advertising, I guess. There you are at your local Blockburster, hoping to hire a DVD about the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and instead you get this macabre slice of time and life about suicide.

A lot of people have committed suicide from leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s iconic for those seeking to end the miserableness of their existences. They’ll travel from across America to get to the bridge in order to fling themselves off of it with certainty of outcome, thenceforth leading them towards the oblivion they so desperately crave.

In the year that most of this footage derives from, which was 2004, 24 people killed themselves by leaping from this bridge. That’s an average of about one a fortnight. This documentary contains footage of some of these people offing themselves, and interviews with their friends and families.

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2006 Film Year in Review

dir: Andrew Moshos

It was the best of years, it was the blurst of years, to quote Mr Burns from The Simpsons reading something written by one of thousands of monkeys typing away at thousands of typewriters. There were a few really good films this year, a lot of crappy films, but there were a lot of mediocre films too. Mediocre movies are worse than outright shite movies.

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Devil and Daniel Johnston, The

dir: Jeff Feuerzeig
[img_assist|nid=1218|title=Oh, Daniel|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=271|height=400]
Documentaries are great for finding the true stories behind people known for something they did or something they were. Documentaries are also great at illuminating the stories of people for whom obscurity and anonymity would have been a blessing.

Firmly, firmly within the tradition of doco subjects such as Robert Crumb and his insane brothers in Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, the eccentric mother and daughter of Albert Maysle’s Grey Gardens and the indulgent, excruciating self-laceration of Jonathan Caoutte’s Tarnation, The Devil and Daniel Johnston reveals the life and times of an absolute nutter.

Daniel Johnston enjoyed a certain kind of notoriety in the late 80s-early 90s when too-cool hipsters and try-hards like Sonic Youth and the shmucks from Nirvana raised him to public consciousness. Of course he was oh-so-famous in his home town and around his family, but this virtually unknown singer-songwriter became famous mostly because he is crazy.

He started off with promise, of some kind that I can’t really figure out, but degenerated into the darkest pit of manic-impressive madness. He was obsessed entirely with music and becoming a famous musician, but never really seemed to achieve the goal of learning how to actually write or play music properly.

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2005 Film Year In Review

dir: Me

Each year there are nincompoops who'll say it was the worst year in film ever, and each year they'll be wrong. The worst year in terms of cinema was the day Jim Carrey started acting, but other than that,
every year since and after has had plenty of decent stuff to watch, whether it's homegrown, from the States or from the more obscure heathen corners of the world. And for someone like me whose main hobby

Rating:

Enron - the Smartest Guys in the Room

dir: Alex Gibney
[img_assist|nid=941|title=Endless opportunities for ridicule and parody|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=457]
Based on the book The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, this documentary tracks the rise and fall of one of the most fraudulent and corrupt companies in corporate history. That we know of.

Enron’s existence and eventual demise is an incredibly powerful modern tale about the poisonous organisational culture that can exist under the gleaming PR-heavy corporate exterior, the laxity of corporate governance in contemporary business, the ‘embedded’ and tame nature of business journalism, shameless dishonesty and personal hubris.

But it’s also an ode to human stupidity. That so many could be sucked in by such an obvious, nonsensical scam is an indictment of contemporary society. And it makes modern civilisation look dumber as a consequence.

How did it happen? Perhaps people were so completely blinded by greed that they were happy to believe anything as long as the company’s share price kept going up.

The business reporters who would have ordinarily sniffed out and exposed such a fiasco were captive, collaborators in the system, which only seems to keep chugging along if journalists keep quiet about all the glaring illegalities they must surely know about or suspect.

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Fahrenheit 9/11

dir: Michael Moore
[img_assist|nid=961|title=Yeah, he's got the secrets of the world in that envelope. Sure he does.|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=363|height=500]
It's a testament to the era that we live in that the more complicated issues of human rights, international diplomacy and the role of the media becomes, the narrower the range and scope of response is becoming. We are either for the terrorists, or against them. We are either fascists who hate everything that is anything than a darker shade of albino, or we are decent folk who hug puppies and love cherub-cheeked children. You either want to destroy every last stinking bit of Mother Nature, or you love the earth and everything in it or on it.

Was the world always so polarised? Do we really believe that there are really only two points of view on pretty much every single topic in existence? That the universe or at least everything on this planet exists in some kind of binary state, so that every molecule of matter and every thought or idea exists in only one of two possible states? It seems like with the increasing number and complexity of the ideas and concepts that permeate civilisation it might be a natural consequence that our vision somehow narrows simultaneously. Confronted with a multitude of competing voices we focus on those sounds that most conform with what we've heard and liked before. Out of the cacophony we hear only the tune we want to whistle ourselves.

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Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

dir: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
[img_assist|nid=958|title=The only monsters involved are monstrous egos|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=354|height=500]
There’s something simultaneously engaging and repellent about a documentary where three of the titans of metal, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett act like bitchy teenage girls. They might be squillionaires, their band could be the biggest metal band of all time, but they’re still incapable of speaking to each other like adults.

I guess they have no need to be adults anyway. When you’re that rich, who needs maturity or reasonableness to get along with other people? You can hire assistants to do everything you need, PR people to handle your fuckups and indiscretions, and psychiatrist super coaches to hand-hold you through every emotionally difficult moment.

Well, it becomes a problem when your band and your management are desperate for another trip to the money well for another hefty load of the cold, hard green. That desire to get paid ensures every step needs to be taken in order to guarantee the product is finally pumped out, even when that product should probably have never seen the light of day in the first place.

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Bukowski: Born into This

dir: John Dullaghan
[img_assist|nid=1018|title=What a beautiful man, eh? On the inside?|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=236|height=341]
The likelihood of you seeing this film and enjoying it depends on whether a) you’ve heard of Charles Bukowski, b) you’ve read and liked the writing perpetrated by Bukowski, and c) you’re happy to watch a two hour documentary about a very damaged, eloquent bastard in a cinema.

You have to weigh this up against likely alternatives, such as instead of watching Bukowski: Born Into This, you could be watching a reality television program where one of the participants is called Hotdogs. How do you live with yourself?

On each of the three points, I am sold, so along I went to watch a flick about this deeply ugly man. Heroically ugly. Child-traumatisingly ugly. Anyone who has read the man’s work and did not know what he looked like might be both surprised and reassured. He looks pretty much exactly as he should. The real ugliness is on the inside though, and that is represented as well, because it cannot help but pour forth.

As a career alcoholic he clearly developed a way of speaking so that, whether drunk, really drunk, fall over drunk or sober, he always sounded the same. Speaking either conversationally or reading his poetry, you can never tell whether he’s drunk or sober. Just to clarify matters a tiny bit more, I doubt at any stage of the two hours that we ever see him completely sober.

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Capturing the Friedmans

dir: Andrew Jarecki
[img_assist|nid=999|title=Playing happy families|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=350|height=544]
And I thought I came from a fucked up family…

What is true in life is rarely shown with such clarity in films: sometimes in the pursuit of ‘truth’, the more information we are given, the more sides we try to understand regarding a conflict, the more elusive that ‘truth’ becomes. No example is as representative of that essential conundrum as this film by Andrew Jarecki, who has managed to make a compelling and disturbing documentary on his maiden voyage.
I know, using the words “compelling and disturbing” about documentaries is about as usually appropriate as saying “intelligent and life affirming” about a film with Adam Sandler or Melanie Griffith in it, but at least in this case it is appropriate, or at least accurate as far as I’m concerned.

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