Tag Archives: documentary

Movie Review: The Act of Killing

The Act of KillingTitle: “The Act of Killing”

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

If there’s one documentary that will stick with you, it’s “The Act of Killing.” In 1965, the military coup occurred in Indonesia. A purge began, resulting in the mass murder of accused Communists, ethnic Chinese, and others deemed unfit for the “New Order” of now President Suharto. This film follows Anwar Congo, a gangster and founding father of a paramilitary group, as he makes a film where he recreates some of the killings he took part in, but in the style of westerns, gangster films, and the like. Congo claims that he is not remorseful for his actions, but as the filming progresses, the imagery becomes more surreal and nightmarish as Congo begins to come to terms with his actions nearly fifty years before.

This film is haunting, plain and simple. To start, seeing the way these gangsters play around as they lightheartedly reenact their kills (at least in the beginning) is disturbing. As the imagery becomes more nightmarish, it begins to turn into more of a horror film.

It’s also fascinating as the film takes a brief look into Indonesian political life. It’s little wonder that Indonesia is often perceived as being one of the most corrupt nations on Earth. The corrupt in a basic parliamentary election is bald-faced and quite direct, as the candidates are expected to downright “buy” votes. Shakedowns are common-place as well, and we see this happen with no shame. It’s so common that it’s become a part of everyday life.

This film is not easy to watch. It’s troubling. It’s disturbing. But it sticks with you, both for its subject and its courage in confronting what has been called one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century, a mass murder for which there has never been any prosecutions. It’s definitely worth a watch, but be warned that it’s not for the faint of heart, especially when you remember that this is a documentary and not a horror film.

“The Act of Killing” earns 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Movie Review: 20 Feet from Stardom

20 Feet from StardomTitle: “20 Feet from Stardom”

Director: Morgan Neville

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

When you listen to a piece of pop music, we often hear the vocals, drums, guitar, etc. However, an integral part of the musical experience are the backup singers. But who are they?

“20 Feet from Stardom” attempts to answer this question. Following the lives of several of the most popular backup singers, including Darlene Love, Judith Hill, and Táta Vega, among many others, this film chronicles their careers as backup singers and their attempts, in some cases, to have successful careers as lead singers.

It’s a fascinating look into an aspect of music that many of us probably don’t think much about consciously, although we recognize it when it’s pointed out. Profiling these singers and the famous songs they’ve worked on, it makes you say, “Hey, I remember that part!”

This film is highly entertaining, but isn’t quite the feel good documentary that last year’s “Searching for Sugar Man” was, a film to which this one will draw obvious comparisons. The reason I don’t say it’s feel good is that, while entertaining, it is also frustrating when they show how several of these clearly talented artist tried to make it as lead singers and fell flat on their faces. It’s hopeful but frustrating at the same time. The film’s editing also leaves a bit to be desired, jumping between viewpoints or following different personalities without warning, and feeling like you’re in a bumper car getting smacked back and forth at times.

At the same time, “20 Feet from Stardom” shines a spotlight on talent that should be more highly recognized, and as such gives them the recognition they deserve, even if just for 90 minutes.

“20 Feet from Stardom” earns 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Movie Review: Cutie and the Boxer

Cutie and the BoxerTitle: “Cutie and the Boxer”

Director: Zachary Heinzerling

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ushio Shinohara is an avant-garde artist who met his wife, Noriko, in 1969 in New York City. An artist in her own right, she put her career on hold to support her husband. However, after 40 years, as Ushio continues to struggle with his own career with his boxing paintings (where he uses makeshift boxing gloves covered in paint that he then uses to punch a large canvas), Noriko is finding her own creative voice again through a series of drawings called “Cutie and Bullie” that depict their own contentious relationship, and is being recognized for it.

This is actually a very sweet movie. It depicts the struggles, both personal and financial, of a lifelong artist and the toll it takes on his family. After struggling with alcoholism and depression, Ushio still hangs in there through the love and support of Noriko, who sacrifices everything for her love for Ushio. This sacrifice is not without complaint, though, and she does hold some resentment for having to stop her own art career for the sake of her husband.

However, what makes this movie so sweet is that, despite the arguing and complaining and resentment, it’s obvious that the two still love each other deeply, and one probably wouldn’t know what to do without the other. Opposites really do attract.

It’s a very touching story and the audience feels sympathy for both of them. We feel sorry for Ushio because of his struggle to create a legacy and be recognized, and we feel sorry for Noriko for having to put up with Ushio for so long, living in poverty and supporting him. Yet they don’t ask us to feel sorry for them. They’re simply telling their story and don’t really feel sorry for themselves. They recognize that this is what they chose, that this is what they need to do. The editing could use a little more work, as it sometimes feels jumpy and unsteady, but ultimately, the audience will feel that they spent their time watching this documentary well.

“Cutie and the Boxer” earns 4 out of 5 star.

“Cutie and the Boxer” is available to watch through Netflix as of this writing.

Movie Review: Dirty Wars

Dirty WarsTitle: “Dirty Wars”

Director: Rick Rowley

Writers: David Riker, Jeremy Scahill

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Jeremy Schahill is an investigative journalist with The Nation. “Dirty Wars” is based on his book of the same name where he investigates the secret “kill list” and a hidden military group conduct America’s secret killings in the war on terror.

Okay, so that synopsis sounds a bit over-dramatic. And it kind of is. The film is told and edited in such a way as to make it more of a spy-thriller than a documentary. Seriously, the movie portrays Scahill more like a superhero, James-Bond-style spy than a journalist.

Secondly, a lot of what’s shown in this movie isn’t that secret. If you’ve paid any attention to the news over the last few years, and if you’re seeing this movie you probably have, then none of this is going to come as a surprise to you. I think the producers misread their audience with this one. From the existence of JSOC to the “kill list” of assassination targets, none of this is really that revelatory.

If you’re unfamiliar with the subject, it might be more interesting, although I also wouldn’t recommend this film as an introduction to its subjects. It’s told in such a dramatic style that it will likely scare the crap out of unfamiliar viewers.

That’s not to say it’s bad. It does remind us of an important political subject as well as tells its story fairly well. But the drama is sometimes over the top and, in my opinion, can actually detract from the movie’s message. “Dirty Wars” is okay, but again, it doesn’t really tell us anything that we don’t already know.

“Dirty Wars” earns 3 out of 5 stars.

“Dirty Wars” is available to view at the time of this writing through Netflix.

Movie Review: The Square

The SquareTitle: “The Square”

Director: Jehane Noujaim

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In 2011, the people of Egypt took to Tahrir Square to protest the thirty year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. And it worked. Eventually, Mubarak agreed to step down. The filmmakers of “The Square” chronicle the protests of what is now referred to as the Egyptian Revolution, following a select group of friends and their personal journeys and perspectives during the events captured on film.

To say this is an important film is an understatement. While not what started the Arab Spring, the Egyptian Revolution is often held up as the main example of it. The story this film tells is the disquiet among the nation’s youth with the old military leadership, as well as shows the clashes many had with the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, at one point when the filmmakers returned to Egypt to update their previous footage, the second revolution which ousted Mohamed Morsi, then president, occurred.

In addition, “The Square” happens to be a Netflix property (where it’s available to watch at the time of this writing), which makes this whole thing very new. It is the first Netflix movie to be nominated for an Oscar.

What makes this film unique is that, instead of following the politicians or leaders, or simply using news clip or random people, this film follows a select group of normal people who participated in the protests. It’s a ground-level view not just of revolution but of nation-building as Egypt attempts to find its feet after thirty years of dictatorial and oppressive rule. As Khalid Abdalla, the star of “The Kite Runner” and one of the protesters that “The Square” follows, states, “Politics is not the same as a revolution. If you want to play politics, you have to compromise. And we’re not good at this, at all.”

The film also shows how, even among a group of friends that are protesting together, there can be a huge difference of opinion on where the country needs to go. After Mubarak leaves office and the Muslim Brotherhood begins to flex its political muscle, the group becomes divided. One of the people the film follows is Magdy Ashour, a member of the Brotherhood, who wants his friends to give them the benefit of the doubt, but begins to doubt his own political allegiance when there are reports of violence and questioning whether his own son may be buying into their more extreme elements. His story is probably the most heartbreaking of all.

If I have a complaint, it would be the editing. The film sometimes jumps between scenes and viewpoints without explanation, and it gives the audience the feeling that they’re missing something. It would have been nice to see some smoother transitions between people, as well as some extra background on these events. “The Square” assumes a certain familiarity with the Egyptian Revolution and global politics, but those who haven’t paid attention may feel a bit lost. The filmmakers attempt to put some context to the events they show, but if you’re looking for detailed context, you’ll have to do your own research (I’ve tried to provide some relevant link in this review).

A film of immediate importance, “The Square” gives the important ground-level view of the events in Egypt over the last few years. It is also a call to protest injustice and demand freedom around the world. While not perfect, it is still an excellent documentary of current events, and I would be curious if the filmmakers intend to continue following up with their subjects as the situation in Egypt continues to unfold.

“The Square” earns 4 out of 5 stars.