Archive for the Documentary Category

A Long Wait for Eight

Posted in Action, Comedy, Documentary, Drama, Mystery, Oscar-nominated with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2010 by ericstraus

Oh, my poor neglected movie blog.  It’s so sad.  But I decided to give it some holiday cheer with this condensed review of the last films I’ve seen.  Enjoy.

Invictus – The true story of the South African national rugby team, and the events that transpired following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and his becoming South Africa’s president.  Morgan Freeman is terrific as Mandela, and Matt Damon is equally good as the captain of the rugby team.  With South Africa hosting the 1995 rugby World Cup, Mandela believes that if the team can win, it will help unify the nation.  It’s a good story, and the performances are the highlights of the film.  The rugby match at the end is too drawn out, and extends the movie longer than necessary.  But overall it’s an inspiring story.                                                                                                                                                                           Final Grade for Invictus:  B


The Ghost Writer – A tale of suspense from director Roman Polanski, the film follows the adventures of an up and coming writer, played by Ewan McGregor, as he is tasked to ghost write the autobiography of a former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) with a shady background.  As McGregor uncovers more information about Brosnan’s past, the more dangerous things become.  It’s a well-made film – suspenseful, great acting, and a nice twist at the end.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Final Grade for The Ghost Writer:  B+


Date Night – Steve Carell and Tina Fey play a married couple with kids, who decide to infuse some excitement in their dull lives by stealing another couple’s dinner reservations.  Wacky hi-jinx ensue, as the mistaken identity premise runs its course via gangland shootouts, car chases, etc.  With two comic geniuses like Fey and Carell, this film should have been way funnier.  There are humorous moments throughout, but not enough to sustain 100 minutes of film.                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Final Grade for Date Night:  C+


Prince of Persia: Sands of Time – Based on the seemingly ancient video game Prince of Persia, this digitally dominated film tells the tale of Prince Jake Gyllenhaal, who does nothing but leap, jump, tumble, climb and fight all over Arabia, attempting to save the world from villain Ben Kingsley.  The film stays true to the game in that the character really does jump everywhere.  I think Gyllenhaal spends 90% of his screen time in the air.  Overall it’s not a great movie – but the action is actually quite good, the story moves along quickly, and for a mindless popcorn film, it’s pretty good.                                                                                                                                                                                                                Final Grade for Prince of Persia: Sands of Time:  B-


The Last Station – This performance-driven drama tells the story of the last days of Leo Tolstoy, celebrated and revered Russian author.  Christopher Plummer is really good as Tolstoy, and the fabulous Helen Mirren is, of course, a real treat as his wife Sofya.  We get a glimpse at how truly revered Tolstoy was, and the story plays out with great intrigue.  Paul Giamatti is great as a Tolstoy devotee trying to manage his affairs, butting heads with Sofya over Tolstoy’s finances and his estate.  The acting is superb, the drama holds your interest, and if nothing else, the film provides a great education on Russian culture and politics shortly before the Communist Revolution.                                                                                                 Final Grade for The Last Station:  B+


Iron Man 2 – Usually sequels (especially superhero action sequels) fail to live up to the original.  Iron Man 2 is unique in that it is more entertaining and has a better story than its predecessor.  Robert Downey Jr. is back as Tony Stark, the eccentric billionaire who created the Iron Man suit to fight crime worldwide.  Since the first film, Iron Man has basically brought peace to the world, as criminals cannot compete with Iron Man’s technology, a technology that the U.S. government is constantly trying to get its hands on.  Mickey Rourke plays a Russian prisoner whose father was spurned by Stark’s father, and now seeks revenge by recreating the Iron Man technology that his father helped develop for Stark’s father.  Sam Rockwell is marvelous as the slimy, egomaniacal defense contractor that enlists Rourke to help him get the technology into the government’s hands.  The action is fantastic, the story well written, and Downey’s performance is great.  With all the bad superhero movies that Hollywood produces, it’s nice to see a good one.                                                                                                                                          Final Grade for Iron Man 2:  B+


Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage – Obviously if you do not like the music of Rush, you would have no interest in this film.  But even if you just have the slightest bit of interest, this documentary will blow you away.  Incredibly honest, revealing and even touching, the film explores the band’s beginning, middle and end with no lack of detail, interviewing a slew of current artists, showing footage of the band members’ home movies, and numerous concert performances.  I thought I knew just about everything about Rush, and this film showed me how much I was missing.  It was just humbling to hear musicians like Billy Corgan, Gene Simmons, and Les Claypool describe what they love about Rush, and realize that it’s all the same reasons I love them so much.  But this was not a “fluff” film at all – the negative aspects were not shunned, such as how Rush turned off a chunk of their fan base in the mid-80’s by experimenting with new synthesizer-driven sounds.  I can’t emphasize enough how complete and telling this film is.  Again, if you have even the slightest tingling of an interest in this band, you must see this film.                                                                                                                                                                                                   Final Grade for Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage:  A+


Robin Hood – This re-imagining of the classic Robin Hood, a prequel of sorts, stars Russell Crowe as Robin Longstride, an expert archer in King Richard’s army returning from the Crusades.  When King Richard is killed in France and Robert Loxley is murdered trying to return the crown to England, Longstride uncovers a plot by one of Prince John’s henchmen to allow England to be invaded by King Philip of France.  Longstride takes Loxleys’ identity and returns to Nottingham, meets Marion and helps defend England against conflict from within and from the outside.  The story is pretty good, as is the action.  Ridley Scott directed the film, and there are many similarities to the last Scott/Crowe film Gladiator.  But it’s entertaining enough, and the end creates the premise for how Robin Hood became an outlaw and lived in Sherwood Forest.  Cate Blanchett is very good as Marion, and it was nice to see Max von Sydow still alive as Marion’s father…who knew?                                                                                                                                                                                           Final Grade for Robin Hood:  B


For Music Fans, “This Is It”

Posted in Concert film, Documentary with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2010 by ericstraus

Whatever you might think of Michael Jackson’s personal life, whatever you believe about his legal entanglements, one fact is undeniably true: he was one of, if not the greatest performer in music history.  If you aren’t convinced of this, you will be after seeing “This Is It,” the documentary made shortly before his death.  The film chronicles the rehearsals for what was going to be billed as Jackson’s final shows, and as the footage shows, it would have been something beyond memorable.

The songs are all terrific, from the great tunes off the “Thriller” album like “Beat It,” “Human Nature,” “Billie Jean,” and of course the title track, to his beginnings with the Jackson 5 on “Stop the Love You Save,” and “I’ll Be There,” to anthems like “Black or White” and “Man in the Mirror.”  The choreography holds true to the moves we all became familiar with from Jackson’s videos – we all know what someone is talking about when they say they can do the “Thriller dance.” 

We are shown clips of the video footage that was to be used as introductory material for the performances.  For “Smooth Criminal,” Jackson had digitally inserted himself in old Bogart and Edward G. Robinson crime films, running from machine gun bullets and jumping through glass windows.  The “Thriller” intro video was shot in 3D, with zombie hands reaching into the audience while Vincent Price’s creepy narration from the original track streams throughout; we get to see Jackson and director Kenny Ortega cueing actors during this part.

There are some nice glimpses of Jackson’s rehearsal style.  He is a perfectionist to say the least, but never comes off as a “diva.”  He certainly gets frustrated at points, but never projects himself as being mean or cruel.  Some of the more amusing moments come from Ortega suggesting things to Jackson in a very clear, detailed manner; his wealth of respect for Jackson is obvious.

The emotional aspect of the film is one of feeling sad that such an icon has passed, and that no one will ever get to see the actual show that we see being rehearsed.  This is addressed in the opening of the movie, as the words on the screen tell us the decision to release this footage was “for the fans.”  Jackson’s songs are truly iconic, as was he, and there is no doubt that this show would have been monumental; music fans will be grateful for this peek behind the scenes, but will be disappointed that the final product will only exist in our imaginations.  But Jackson was all about imagination, so in some bizarre way, it all makes sense.  If you’re looking for one comprehensive way to capture Michael Jackson the performer, this is it.

Final Grade for This Is It: B+

Inside the Aquarium: Phish 3D

Posted in Concert film, Documentary with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2010 by ericstraus

This review of the film “Phish 3D” will be from a film standpoint.  For a review from a musical standpoint, please visit my music blog.

3D seems to be the big thing these days – all the blockbusters are released in 3D format.  I saw “Avatar” in 3D, and it didn’t really add anything to the film.  So when I heard that Phish was releasing a concert film in this format, I was skeptical as to the necessity.  But after seeing the movie, not only did the 3D work really well, it was essential to the overall experience.

As a sort of teaser for their upcoming summer tour, Phish has released a 2-hour film of highlights from their three-day festival called “8” (in recognition of it being their 8th festival).  “8” took place over Halloween weekend of 2009 in Indio, CA, and featured Phish’s first-ever fully acoustic set, as well as their performance of the Rolling Stones masterpiece album “Exile on Main Street” in its entirety. 

The 3D really puts the viewer at the concert – balloons float by and you feel compelled to reach out and grab them.  The intense light show affects your eyes as though you were seeing it in person.  As the camera tracks along the stage, the perspective makes it seem like you’re standing right there.  This is how 3D should be used, when it’s not being used for jump-out-at-you gags. 

As far as concert films go, “Phish 3D” is a good one.  I’m a fan of concert films – I love seeing the guitar strings being plucked close-up, the furious fingering on the keyboards, and the terrific sound blasting out of the amplifiers.  The song selection for this movie was well-chosen.  For the uninitiated, it’s a good mix of Phish’s styles and influences, as well as some marvelous jamming.  There are a few behind-the-scenes segments, showing rehearsals for some of the Rolling Stones songs, as well as some shots of the other festival activities.

Phish fans came to the theater prepared – glowsticks and balloons floated around the theater, and sometimes it was hard to distinguish between the balloon in front of you and the 3D balloon floating toward you.

This was actually the 4th time I’d seen Phish in a movie theater.  During their final tour of 2004 (after they had announced they would be breaking up), they did a live simulcast of a concert in June, and then their final two shows in Vermont.  The simulcast went to movie theaters nationwide, and the atmosphere was very much like being at the show.  People tailgated in the theater parking lots, people were dancing in the aisles.  But the mood at “Phish 3D” was much mellower, probably because this was not a live performance.  But it was a lot of fun nonetheless, although it did leave me wanting another 30 minutes of footage or so.

So if you have been curious about what a Phish show is all about but haven’t felt motivated to go see them, this film is a great way to get introduced.

Final Grade for Phish 3D: A-

Falling Out of Love with “Capitalism”

Posted in Documentary with tags , , , , , on March 23, 2010 by ericstraus

Michael Moore still has the ability to make engaging, entertaining documentaries as we’ve seen with “Roger and Me,” “Bowling for Columbine” and “Sicko,” but is he losing his edge?  His latest film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” exposes the history of capitalism and our country’s infatuation with it, and how it has led to the current economic nightmare in which we are embroiled.  But Moore’s targets are far from controversial – they are the greedy Wall Street bankers who took all our money and paid their CEOs huge bonuses.  Perhaps Moore is trying to broaden his audience by attacking the obvious, but the impact is lost.

The film certainly does have some though-provoking moments, such is in the opening credits as we see a montage of scenes from ancient Rome mixed in with current images, while the narration describes the reasons behind the fall of Rome, which we see are easily applicable to what’s happening in today’s society.  Or like in the way people usually connect capitalism with democracy, when in fact they can be polar opposites.  Why, he asks, do we demand democracy in our political system, yet we accept a dictatorship at the workplace?

Another interesting aspect of the film deals with religion; Moore speaks with several clergy members about, in essence, what Jesus would say about capitalism.  The overwhelming reply was that Jesus was a Socialist, and that he would not approve of a system that constantly rewards the rich and punishes the poor.

He speaks with congressmen and senators about the system’s apparent failure, but they pretty much tell us what we expect them to tell us (based on their being Republican or Democrat).  We see emotional examples of how workers are beginning to fight back against greedy corporations that close plants while earning record profits, like a window and door company in Chicago.  The workers staged a sit-in until they were paid the money they were owed at the time the business closed; the outpouring of support from the community was immense, and eventually the company gave in and paid them.

Moore creates a convincing argument that during the Reagan years, our country stopped being a democratic union and became a corporation.  Cabinet posts were being filled with CFO’s and other corporate big-wigs from Wall Street institutions, and the country was being run like one giant factory.  He suggests that the only way to fix things is to destroy capitalism and embrace democracy.

Moore is certainly not going to convert anyone by demanding the dismantling of capitalism, but even the blue-collar right wing faction of our society will support his vitriol against AIG, Merrill Lynch, Goldman-Sachs, etc.  And that’s why his message is not as bold and shocking as it has been in previous films.  But he is still a good filmmaker – I just hope his next target isn’t Kim Jong Il.

Final Grade for Capitalism: A Love Story: B-