Strong Island

One family’s testimonial with the judicial system leaves them reeling from racial prejudice and severe incompetence, in the documentary ‘Strong Island’. Winner of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Award for Storytelling, the film directed by the victim herself, Yance Ford, takes place In April 1992, on Long Island NY. William Jr., the Ford’s eldest child, a black 24 year-old teacher, was killed by Mark Reilly, a white 19 year-old mechanic. Although Ford was unarmed, he became the prime suspect in his own murder. Ford chronicles the arc of the family across history, geography and tragedy; from the racial segregation of the Jim Crow South to the promise of New York City; from the presumed safety of middle class suburbs, to the maelstrom of an unexpected, violent death. A deeply intimate and meditative film, Strong Island asks what one can do when the grief of loss is entwined with historical injustice, and how one grapples with the complicity of silence, which can bind a family in an imitation of life, and a nation with a false sense of justice. ‘Strong Island’ is not rated.

Whether you’ve ever been subjected to racial bigotry or lawful mishandlings, a film like ‘Strong Island’ shapes the kind of reflective glance at our own world that only seems to be getting worse with time and educates the viewer on perhaps a side of the moral coin that they may not be privy to. The best kind of documentaries are the ones that hold the responsibility of teaching firmly in its grip and doesn’t alienate one side or the other when telling its story. To say that this is the perfect film for the perfect time is kind of a given, but what really throws another log onto the flames of enticement for Ford’s presentation is how she articulately crafts the two subjects hand-in-hand and rapidly erases the line of separation dividing his two subject matters. Every story in life deserves to be told, but Ford’s rushes to the front of the line by presenting unfolding drama from this decades old case that is even still unfurling before our very eyes. In this manner, the film steals a piece of your soul that it has no intention of giving back, and Netflix strikes the hot iron once again with a documentary mystery with all of the fixings.

Through 106 minutes of versatility in material, the film surprisingly holds a lot of depth that doesn’t stay rested on just being a one-note intention. Through the first act of the film, we are introduced to this family who while living through segregation in upper New York, are often polarized in demanding more for their circumstance. This area of the film is particularly compelling because it presents an angle that is already easy in understanding the disposition that this family takes in from a society that isn’t changing fast enough. Kind of like being a victim long before the worst has begun. From here, the middle act of the movie lays out the pivotal night in question and what led up to it. This is where the film feels the most informative because there’s lots to understand about this scenario that does and does not play out well for the Vance family. Thankfully enough, he is such a credible filmmaker and supreme storyteller that he never lets something that doesn’t cater to his narrative get in the way. Everything is presented with underlying honesty, and that’s something that I greatly appreciated from this film. What is most surprising perhaps, is how deep this film proceeds through the closing minutes, soaking in the pain and misery of a group of people left behind from a night that changes them all. One scene shows Yance crying into a towel, and the sound the emotes from this scene is shattering to the point that it instantly stirred goosebumps up my arms. I’m honest when I say there are motion picture films that don’t taste as riveting in the thick layer of melodrama that ‘Strong Island’ leans on, proving again that what is real impacts further, an ideal that this film goes to the well on frequently without it ever drying up.

Vance keeps the production simple enough for this presentation, choosing to focus more on strength in story than rich graphics and effects that can sometimes cloud the focus of an informative documentary. The decision to have pictures and letters appear and disappear at the effect of hand movements feeds more into the mentality of the storytelling experience, making us feel within the confines of those who are taking us through the journey. The music by Hildur Guðnadóttir and Craig Sutherland isn’t relied upon too heavily, just really for those scenes when it peaks the shock factor in the true disgust of this case as told, but I would’ve been fine without it for the surrealism that it occasionally breaks within this realm. Without question though, the single best decision that Ford chooses is to shoot these interviews so closely, leaving little room to look away or feel distracted. He does this as a means to an end so that we spot first hand the kind of reactions that our narrators play to, and if it is true that the eyes are the windows into the soul, then the pain and anguish of decades rises to the surface by this truly valuable decision to aim close.

The interviews too, added plenty of emotional firepower in transcribing how the loss of one has rocked a few. The set up of such are always in that one-on-one perspective with the director himself, relating more to an interview feel of authenticity rather than simply having each speaker talk to the camera. While the entirety of these guests are enjoyable enough and add plenty of differing perspectives to the events that they cover, the film definitely sizzles the strongest when Yance himself takes the reigns and commands an emotional rollercoaster of a person who changed more than anyone over the course of this loss. Through that angle, we meet and come to know a born woman who embraced life as a man, a sense of direction for the film that very few were expecting, but one that feels rewarding in reaching through to yet another demographic of African American audience who take this in. Through these eyes, it’s clear that Yance not only lost a brother, but also his lone confidant in his blossoming sexuality. This builds the siblings as something much more, and certainly outlines the light-hearded framing of William Jr that it builds up for itself. Yance’s focus remains unfazed in finding clarity within himself, something that comes at a bit higher of a price for the film itself.

THE VERDICT – ‘Strong Island’ is a gut-wrenching, somber, and hearty depiction about racial divide and segregation that never stops beating its message of injustice. Through its impeccable focus and free-range approach, Vance handcrafts us through a butterfly effect of consequences that stem from one terror-filled night of misunderstanding, questioning what could have been without the fear of racial tensions. Most importantly, it’s an intimate deposition into the kind of paralyzing aftermaths that comes with grief, and will leave you unsettled for pulling back the curtain of truth from those who have been plagued to tell it.

9/10

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power

The former Vice President of America is back at it again, this time with dire urgency for his cause riding high amongst a new naive president. ‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power’ takes place more than A decade after ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ brought climate change into the heart of popular culture in 2006. In this riveting and educational follow-up that shows just how close we are to a real energy revolution, Vice President Al Gore continues his tireless fight, traveling around the world training an army of climate champions and influencing about international climate policy. With the elected four year incoming of president Donald Trump, Cameras follow him behind the scenes in moments private and public, funny and poignant, as he pursues the empowering notion that while the stakes have never been higher, the perils of climate change can be overcome with human ingenuity and passion. ‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power’ is directed by the team of Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen, and is rated PG for thematic elements and some troubling images.

Whether you like or dislike Al Gore and everything that he stands for politically, you must applaud the man for taking such a general interest in standing up for the well being of our planet when no one else will. In ‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power’, Gore continues that march with a 95 minute lecture on where we as a society have advanced or decreased in progress over the last decade when it comes to solar energy, climate change, and overall infrastructure for those countries not as fortunate as the bigger ones when it comes to spending. I myself did enjoy the first film, and found this one to be an equally insightful piece, despite some problems with the structure of the documentary that definitely peaked out some less than honorable intentions creatively with where the film’s material should be firmly planted. For anyone who hasn’t seen the first film, nor knows much about overall climate change, this movie will be A competent enough companion piece to opening your eyes for the first time about the urgency of time running out with each passing year. A fact that Gore himself narrates passionately throughout the picture in an unapologetic front.

As a host, Gore certainly feels like the right man for the job. Since losing the 2000 presidential election, Al has taken a stance in witnessing first-hand the kinds of problems shaping our world that other political figures have turned a blind eye to. Over the course of this picture, his narration, shaped with some exceptional editing work behind the lens, details in full the kind of warning signs that are plaguing our world if we refuse to act quickly, and it certainly feels effective coming from someone who not only spoke at a few conferences over those ten years documented in the film, but also wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty in searching out the truths of these problems first hand on land. My only problem with Gore as a figure is that the documentary itself might be better fleshed out if it spoke to the audience through just voice narration, and not so much visual narration because it can at times feel slightly distracting when the film pauses its progress to document several pieces of Gore’s history as a political figure, and current day patron to those with a similar cause. Quite too often, the film kind of becomes The Al Gore Show, and that’s fine from a man with so much passion for the causes, but If I wanted to watch an informative documentary on the 43rd Vice President of the United States, I would seek one out first hand.

I did mention briefly that the technical work of this picture definitely does a service to understanding and captivating the mind-sets of everyone watching at home, and the overall aesthetic work feels very rich for a documentary presentation. The camera angles used in capturing the polar icecaps melting effects, as well as the historical stock footage from landscapes like India, Africa, and even Miami, Florida who have all been ravaged by free-flowing water, serves a greater purpose in supporting fact in a visual capacity, and it couldn’t be put together any more impactful than that. Also, the musical score from composer Jeff Beal certainly adds an element of impending doom to go hand-in-hand with Gore’s lectures, while channeling the ominous tones of an epic disaster flick that really feeds into A ‘life imitating art’ kind of feel. Typically I review around ten documentaries a year, and while this one isn’t the best overall, I can tell you that it is an early favorite for technical mastery of that particular field. For sight and sound, you couldn’t ask for A better experience that (like our own world’s shifting) never stops moving around us.

As an independent voter, one of the jobs that I take seriously as a film reviewer with films like these are if they cater into a political party’s agenda, and with that I give you the single biggest sting that this movie’s final grade will take on its audience. If you’re Democrat, you won’t feel a thing, but for the rest of us there’s the obvious dropping of responsibility method that Gore pokes and prods at with the sensitivity of an electric eel. How do I determine it propaganda? Well, the film has no qualms about singling out presidents Bush Jr and Trump for their roles in ignoring policy that could otherwise save some of these disaster problems, but then completely ignores president Obama entirely for what role he played during these events. Considering the disasters that this film captures are over the last ten years, and Obama was president for eight of those ten, it lacks the responsibility of pushing the envelope further in asking the kinds of questions where that Democratic president was when the Indian people were being rushed from their homes after terrifying tsunamis. To hammer this home, there’s even a message in the closing credits to vote smart, an ideal that doesn’t really need a reminder in this kind of film. Speaking of pushing the envelope, the film doesn’t present a countering side to all of the ground work that Gore is laying out. During the third act, we’re shown a big city in Texas who has gone 100% Renewable energy, but the question remains why other cities haven’t leached onto this method. I feel like the film drops the ball immensely in provocative journalism, leaving us all with only one side of the renewable argument. Even if the answer is as simple as companies lining their pockets with cash, that side deserves to be exposed, but directors Shenk and Cohen are a bit too clean cut to tug at that tempting string, even if it is the best thing for the direction of the film.

THE VERDICT – ‘An Inconvenient Sequel’ isn’t inconvenient, it’s just simply ignorant of the entire opposing argument that it only hints at in the shadows. This sequel is effective enough in providing the material through haunting imagery, as well as mind-stirring facts, but lacks the grave urgency of the Academy Award winning first film that sealed up all of the angles without getting its hands dirty in the political spectrum. There’s plenty to enjoy about Shenk and Cohen’s informative piece from an awakening perspective, and if you are part of this cause it is definitely a must see, just expect the material of the planet as well as the political.

6/10

Risk

How much of your own life are you willing to ‘Risk’? Laura Poitras, Academy Award winning director of CitizenFour, returns with her most personal and intimate film to date. Filmed over six years, Risk is a complex and volatile character study that collides with a high stakes election year and its controversial aftermath. Cornered in a tiny building for half a decade, Julian Assange, the founder of Wiki Leaks, is undeterred even as the legal jeopardy he faces threatens to undermine the organization he leads and fracture the movement he inspired. Capturing this story with unprecedented access, Poitras finds herself caught between the motives and contradictions of Assange and his inner circle. In a new world order where a single keystroke can alter history, Risk is a portrait of power, betrayal, truth, and sacrifice. Risk currently has no rating, but does have scenes of peril against our cast.

Over the last five years, Laura Poitras has quickly become one of my absolute favorite documentary directors, and a lot of that has to do with her unbias sense of direction with who and what details her pictures. She’s someone who is fortunate enough to be there live and in person when the breathtaking events of a government that is supposed to have our best interests fouls up, and often lets those events tell the stories for themselves without steering the audience in one direction or another. Risk is the latest of that momentous roll by Laura, as she depicts an ambitiously wide scope of six years to depict the events that surround the infamous leader of the WikiLeaks. As an entertaining and educational piece of filmmaking, Risk falls just short of its CitizenFour predecessor because of its jumbled narrative that doesn’t just focus on that central figure, but also of Jacob Appelbaum part in espionage intelligence, and at times basic reveals that offer very little in the way of shocking revelations. From a technical standpoint, it’s as good as any documentarian working today, weaving its way in-and-out of a world of great fear and uncertainty, with a mellow-dramatic musical score to follow. But if you’re watching Risk for the same kind of shock value that CitizenFour adorned as the single best documentary of 2014, then you will be left feeling a little empty.

Right off of the bat, we’re positioned to understand that this is Assange’s story to make or break. What I dug about this particular angle is that Poitras’s film shows an unusually honest side of its supposed protagonist, refusing to hide the sour tastes in bites that we get from being slightly too close to his on-going conversations. This is a man and character that feels very human in that regard, so there’s very little in the way of manipulation to make him into something that he is so clearly and evidently not. It did take me some time to envelope myself into this particular story in the same way that I did Edward Snowden’s in CitizenFour, but if you wait long enough, the second act pays off with an unsettling cloud of paranoia that engulfs Assange like a poison. In this regards, I found the second half of the movie much more intriguing than the first, especially when this particular chapter of the WikiLeaks saga played into last year’s presidential election. Once again, Poitras chooses not to endorse either candidate, and her stance on both being equal devastations to the world’s well-being is one that I commend greatly for her putting her work before her own political admirations.

Props also to the subtle musical accompanyment that feels slightly influenced by composer Trent Reznor during one of his many collaborations in David Fincher movies. The ominous and eerie organ tones used in Risk audibly paint the kind of ambiguous dread and secrecy that hide behind the uncovering of each technological advancement that serves as a positive and a negative to our likeness. The movie also has strong editing, complete with narration from a particular scene to stretch the impact of those lasting words on each and everybody in the room’s reaction being played on camera. This is brilliant because these scenes don’t just play to one general impulse, but rather a dozen because the human feedback to discovering such betrayal doesn’t just rest on a single emotion. The establishing shots of Hong Kong, Egypt, Washington D.C and every other location that the events take place in are also capturing of the global scale impact that Assange’s trysts have taken effect of. Because of this, Laura paints a canvas of uncertainty that will really make the audience question just what kind of swept-under-the-rug details that their leaders are keeping from them.

As for the problems that I alluded to earlier, Poitras juggles two stories that while they are related in business sense, couldn’t be more different in directional pull. Assange is very much dealing with the snowball effects of his whistleblowing antics catching up to him, yet Appelbaum drops in occasionally to distribute the knowledge of countries whose internet usage is being banned by their governments. I certainly see the common link between their stories, but Appelbaum’s subplot often feels like it doesn’t fit into this particular narrative, trimming and cutting down Assange’s arc that definitely serves as the meat and potatoes of the movie. Another aspect that pales in comparison to that of its CitizenFour counterpart is the proof in the pudding, as well as the shocking reveals that will undoubtedly push audiences over the edge in one direction or the other. Poitras has usually never missed her mark as extreme as she has here, but it always feels like the strongest acts to this story are the ones that we hear about in passing. Ones that could certainly be illustrated better in capturing the essence of the development even further. Because of that, things do tend to feel rushed in this brief 86 minute offering that has only so much time to convey the information.

THE VERDICT – Risk manages to be capable enough of telling its own controversial plot with government mingling, but falls just short of capturing the riveting unfolding of events that made CitizenFour a must watch. Even still, the production quality does a solid enough duty in bringing chills and uneasiness to the audience at home, and Assange is the kind of credible protagonist who doesn’t have to be maneuvered one way or the other of the moral spectrum, instead opting for the human side of characteristics. Despite the clever title, this is as informative and as mind-bending of a documentary as you will watch this year. Very few films have this kind of gravitational pull. Check it out.

7/10

Weiner

A documentary about the infamously disgraced U.S Congressman seemed like a great idea. Now Anthony Weiner finds himself in hot water after a scandal is brought to light. The film follows Anthony and his wife Huma Abedin, beginning with his time in Congress and his 2011 resignation after photos of his bulging underwear appeared on Twitter. The bulk of the film is about his 2013 campaign for Mayor of New York City. At first his campaign is going well, with many New Yorkers willing to give him a second chance as reflected in polls putting him at or near the top of a crowded field. Then additional examples of his online sexual activity surface, including explicit text conversations with women that occurred well after his resignation from Congress. The mood of the campaign switches from exuberance to pain. Intimate views are captured of Weiner, his wife and his campaign staff struggling with the new revelations and the media firestorm that ensues. In only a couple of instances is the camera asked to leave the room. The result is a compelling portrait of a man, a woman and a political campaign in crisis. “Weiner” is written and directed by the duo of Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, and is rated R for adult language and sexual material.

“Weiner” is an insider look at the very pressures of a promising candidate and what kind of price has to be paid when said candidate’s dirt comes to light. Kriegman and Steinberg keep the cameras running during some heavily troubling times for Anthony when one scandal after another breaks, and are wise enough to step back and let the story write itself. The fact that there is zero narration or directional storytelling here, speaks volumes to the stigma that there’s no story more compelling than real life. What’s truly marvelous here is that there really are no heroes in the game of politics. Every character that weaves in and out of this story, from the nasty high-pressured press to the Weiner family themselves, everyone garnered some kind of negative reaction from me. This is a troubling PERSONAL time in a young man’s life, and it took everyone he knew and loved down with him. There’s nothing more harmful to a politician than when they’re caught in a lie, and the scandals in “Weiner” are perhaps among the most polarizing to a campaign in modern history.

Two things to me always make for the most insightful of documentary experiences: A real life unexpected event that is unfolding before the viewer’s very eyes and the even accuracy told from both points that gives an equal opportunity to find your own views on the subject. On the latter, nothing here feels one-sided or leading to the audience at home, and because of that I felt myself feeling very trusting in the kind of documentation that this duo were presenting in front of my very eyes. The main protagonist (If you can call him that) makes a lot of mistakes in his campaign to be president, and I really found myself at times agreeing with the same hateful public that shunned him. When the documentary started, I wanted to believe that Weiner’s scandal wasn’t that big of a deal as long as his politics were great. Boy was I wrong. On the former, this picture has great timing to always be in the right place at the right time. It’s almost unbelievable how well paced the timing is of this team, but it certainly is a credit to their work and desire to tell an accurate story; the very downfall of a once promising figure who had a couple really bad days. The price for fame isn’t always a positive one. Sometimes it comes with a tag that will change the life of that person forever. If I had one problem with the presentation of this documentary, it would be in the sound mixing/editing. With some poor long range microphones, it’s very difficult to pick up what a couple of strangers on the street said to Weiner in passing by. Subtitles would’ve made this problem non-existent, but because there are none in the movie, this required a couple of rewinds in my copy of the film, that really interrupted the flow of such a well paced dramedy of Shakespearian proportions.

The tone is one of great dark humor and borderline satire because of how ridiculous the material is for someone who is fighting for our personal freedoms. There’s certainly an air of irony when someone who should know better doesn’t, and that feeling resonates throughout the entirety of this 96 minute film. Capped off by a subtly appropriate musical score by composer Jeff Beal, a man well versed in the scoring of documentaries after his musical accompany in 2014’s “Blackfish”. Here Jeff plays next to the very unfolding nightmare that plagues Weiner. Never so much as to overstay his welcome, Beal offers soft tones that blend well to the humor playing out. Some of my favorite scenes with the music are ones of reflection with Weiner. This can be seen several times when he is either asked a question by the camera person or offered a moment to reflect in the very damaging ways that he hurt his own campaign.

From start to finish, we really see so much air removed from the sails of this promising political figure, and that goes even further when you see the destruction of this public eye family. Weiner’s wife Huma is certainly given her own metaphorical fork in the road, when she is given an ultimatum by her own political party midway through the film. Slowly, you start to see that trust that she has for her husband start to dissipate, and it left me feeling worried for the very foundation of this family, considering I know very little of their current day status. A political campaign can be salvaged and live to fight another day a couple years down the line, but the well-being of this family is where I found myself most concerned within this world, and never once did it disappoint in adding another layer before a big climax that focused on the final day of the election for New York City mayor. Weiner himself feels like two different people from start to finish. Early on, I felt myself charmed by his imposing demeanor to take on the issues that others weren’t passionate enough to face, but by the end of the movie it was a whole different story. I found several things to fuel the fire for my distrust of this man, and in that two-way sense, it feels very much like every politician you come across. You always wait for the other shoe to drop with these guys, and drop it does hard in this picture.

Overall, “Weiner” is a vote for real-life drama that unfolds at fast-flowing levels downhill, like lava that its characters just can’t run from. Elevated by sharp insightful editing, as well as the message of cautionary treading, “Weiner”, like the character in question, is a train-wreck that you simply can’t look away from. It’s a political thriller too amusing to be a television show, but too educational not to be recorded.

8/10

The Resurrection of Jake “The Snake” Roberts

Jake Roberts

The Snake always bites back. This quote is a summary for the redemption of one man who lost everything on the road to self-destruction. In “The Resurrection of Jake “The Snake” Roberts”, Director Steven Yu and producer Diamond Dallas Page document the rise and fall of one of wrestling’s greatest characters inside and out of the ring. Jake Roberts was on top of the world in the 1980’s, but a series of poisonous addictions and family abandonment left Jake at rock bottom on his deathbed. With the help of Page, Roberts finds himself presented with the chance to get back up after life has knocked him down plenty of times and finally stand proud on his journey to the mountaintop; a chance at putting the touches on the final page of an intriguing WWE story. Along the way, Jake comes to the realization that his ugly habits and lack of clean living has not only taken away his greatest gift inside of the ring, but damn near took his life from his eight children along the way. The documentary is a redemption story for one of wrestling’s most tortured souls who proves it’s not about how many times you get knocked down, but how many times you get back up along the way. The film had a rousing review of positivity from the crowd at 2015 Sundance, where it debuted.

As a longtime wrestling fan, Jake Roberts was one of the very best when it came to in-ring psychology. Pehaps his ultimate downfall was that he was the very character he portrayed on-camera, and there was a lot of demons internally that followed such a lifestyle. Yu visually narrates us through a layered telling of Jake’s backstory that presents us with the shell of a man we have left. That angle is one of many that works effortlessly for the film because it’s every bit as important to showcase what got him to this point. There’s a real sense with the tone of this picture that Roberts might not make it out in positive fashion, but that presents a paradigm in honest storytelling that really catapaults the message of the film. In addition to Roberts troubles, the film reveals the troubles of Page’s failing business venture DDP Yoga and how it saved Jake as much as Jake saved it. Along the way, the two also take in former wrestling bad boy Scott Hall, who upon first impression is even worse off than Roberts. It does make for a clouded focus at times, especially with this being a story supposedly about Jake, but the movie doesn’t stray too far from the main idea.

The movie showcases an all-star team of interviews and spoken words to reveal Jake’s greatest contribution to the sport; the fact that he inspired so many. Chris Jericho, Edge, Steve Austin, and Ted Dibiase are just a few of Jake’s peers who lend their thoughts to one of the most influential men to ever lace a pair of boots. The film would be entertaining enough by its sales pitch of Jake’s brutal but honest road to a seemingly impossible redemption, but the touch of involving other heavy hitters of the ring really cements a legacy by a protagonist who while not the greatest of role models, is someone who reminds us that it’s never too late. Jake is someone who the audience will have trouble ever looking away from. His struggle felt very personal to me because this is someone who was very closely connected to my childhood. Nobody certainly ever wants to see their heroes die, but Roberts lonely daily routine made the documentary that much more urgent. Yu’s best work comes in the stance of not just being another guy with a camera, but a hands-on approach to his characters. Along the way, he serves as Jake’s watchful eye while Page can’t always be there. It’s a constant reminder that Yu does so much more than craft a heartfelt wrestler’s last chance.

As opposed to the 1999 documentary “Beyond The Mat” that left many with ill feelings towards Roberts, “Resurrection” has it’s moral compass in the right place by remembering that Roberts is a person who cries and bleeds like everyone else. The epilogue of such a film overstays it’s welcome by about ten minutes too long in the 96 minute run time, but there is a great sense of closure not only with The Snake, but with Roberts himself. Through a series of great editing and montage clips, Yu forecasts a future that Roberts can build on with positive thoughts. His look into this mind of madness is funny, heartbreaking, surreal, and, for a story about pro wrestlers, surprisingly candid. If you are a fan of old-school wrestling, definitely check it out. Sadly, I don’t feel there is a lot of appeal to an audience outside of that grouping.

8/10

Nintendo Quest

Nintendo Quest

One man’s quest for the holy grail of 8 bit gaming takes him on a cross country road trip to self recollection, in “Nintendo Quest”. In this irresistably charming documentary on Nintendo, gaming enthusiast Jay Bartlett hits the open road with best friend Rob McCallum in hopes of buying the 678 official retail licensed Nintendo games for the Nintendo Entertainment System, in 30 days with no online purchases. Along the way Jay and Rob will discuss Nintendo history, landmark games, box art, music, graphics, game play and reflect on life.

“Nintendo Quest” is being given a limited run in independent theaters across the country, and if you are an 8 bit gaming enthusiast like i am, this is the film for you. The quest for gaming immortality might seem like a joke or laughable goal, but what this documentary taught me was that it’s what’s important to you that drives you to do better and reach for more. For Jay, Nintendo is his greatest passion. What makes his quest even more challenging is the fact that he can’t use the internet to find where the games are that he needs. That gives “Nintendo Quest” a very nostalgic feel for what it is trying to encompass. This was the way things were done in the 80’s and early 90’s, so it’s the only way to communicate to the younger generations of audience members just how difficult it was to own them all.

For a 90 minute run time, the film does try to juggle a lot, with Nintendo history from different gamers perspectives. It’s not that it’s not appreciated, but i would rather McCallum (Best friend and Director) focus more on Bartlett’s quest and some of the challenges that he faced with greedy game shops. The movie does showcase some uphill battles with price negotiation, but for the most part we never see any long winded debates. Everything is kind of pictured in a yes-or-no result, so it feels kind of rushed. There’s too much focus on other people, and not enough on the central protagonist whose quest is the entire reason i sought out this documentary. This would be the only real problem that i had with Rob’s feature, as there is so much more about it morally than just 8 bit memories.

Like any cross country adventure, there are many challenges at home that Jay must face along the way. Putting your life on hold becomes a lot tougher when you are in your 30’s, as opposed to being a child when the only thing that mattered was you and the boob tube. One thing that excelled in creativity about the film, was it’s 8 bit inspired animation for the opening credits, closing credits, and game lists in between. On the latter, McCallum uses some dreamy 8 bit designs to capture how many games Jay has bought, and how many days he has remaining. On top of this, there is a top 20 list of hard to find games that we get to follow along the way. The ending credits were among my very favorite of 2015, as many of the films on screen characters invade a game of “Super Mario Brothers”. It’s certainly an eye pleasing way to a positive stamp of creativity on the documentary genre.

Overall, “Nintendo Quest” is a calling card to the days when gaming was much more time invested by the gaming companies. Everything from the music, to the art design, to the games plots, required an endless stream of imagination, and that is something that the big budgeted games of 2015 could take a lesson from. The film is so much more than just a quest for one manchild’s biggest wish, but an inspiring message to all of us to seek out the things that make us happy. That is a message that i feel gamers and non gamers can relate on. “Nintendo Quest” is available now on Vimeo for $4.99- 24 hour rental, or $11.99- to own.

7/10

Live From New York

Live From New York

The history of one of America’s greatest institutions is told in this behind the scenes documentary. “Live From New York” showcases how Saturday Night Live has been reflecting and influencing the American news stories for 40 years. Director Boo Nguyen explores the show’s early years, with an experiment from a young Lorne Michaels and his cast of unknowns, and follows its evolution into a comedy revolution.

As an avid fan of documentaries, i was looking forward to seeing the treatment given to the longest running television show of all time. What disappointed me was just how basic and safe that this documentary played it, considering there is lots of behind the scenes controversies to be told. It doesn’t exactly educate the audience on anything that we haven’t already heard. This presents the film in a commercial light, more than an experimental one. There are some solid cameo interviews by past SNL cast mates like Chris Rock, Lorraine Newman, and Jimmy Fallon. One truly tragic atmosphere to these interviews is that you realize most of the people being discussed are no longer with us. “Live From New York” didn’t really take us into that lethal seduction of the results of some of the consequences cause by such a fame of being on every television set every week. The movie instead decided to offer nothing for the longtime dedicated viewer, and really focus more on the younger fans who aren’t as familiar in some of the origin stories.

The good news is that a lot of this is done with some of the very best editing background for the details being mentioned in narrated interviews. There is a lot of really culture reflective shots of New York during the time of each era discussion. This, combined with the quick cuts of some of SNL’s most memorable sketches, results in a very nice trip down nostalgia lane for the audience. The movie clocks in at a meager 80 minutes, and i really think this could’ve been stretched with over 40 years of material to speak on. It feels too rushed and even sloppy at times when it skips over generations that could’ve made for the best stories. For instance, i am one of few people who is a fan of the dark ages of SNL. This would be from 1981-1985, and it was during that time that some of the most meaningful struggles were going on. This feature skips over all of that, and treats that era as an unspeakable growth on a blemish free exterior. I know this not because of “Live From New York”, but instead from “Live From New York: An Unauthorized Biography”, the book about some of SNL’s greatest behind the scenes battles. That is what ultimately plagued this film for me; the fact that I know there are better material sources out there to shock and awe. I don’t really care as much about the hiring process for Lorne Michaels first cast in 1975 nearly as much as i care about the drug laced parties that were going on after every show.

“Live From New York” is too clean of a documentary to ever take these kind of risks. It was definitely a project that was played very close to the hearts of those at the show, and it’s a shame that those loyalties really handicapped this project. I would instead recommend the book that i spoke of in this review. This documentary feels like a live episode that is always done on seven second delay. A moral crime discussed to the audience of this documentary as “Lying to our audience”.

5/10

I Am Chris Farley

I Am Chris Farley

Saturday Night Live is a stage for many comedians whose light sailed across the landscape into superstardom. None of those stars were perhaps taken quicker than that of the late great, Chris Farley. ‘I Am Chris Farley’ is a documentary from first time director Steve Burgess about the history of one of SNL’s greatest figures. The 95 minute feature tells Chris Farley’s story, from his early days in Madison, Wisconsin, and at Marquette University, through his work at the legendary club Second City to his rapid rise to the top of the comedy world on “Saturday Night Live” and in hit films like ‘Tommy Boy’ and ‘Black Sheep’. Sharing insights into the beloved funnyman are the co-stars who lived to tell of such a legend. What works about this picture is that it serves as a perfect recommendation for anyone too young to remember when SNL ruled the world. Farley was at the helm of such a time, and it’s evidence how pivotol a point he played during that time. However, for anyone who already knew of Farley’s legendary skits and antics, the documentary is a little bit of a letdown in the informative department. The tales told in various interviews are nice to hear coming from some of Chris’s closest friends, but it feels like we tiptoe around the very problems that the trailer decided to focus on. It’s a little bit of a sloppy effort by Burgess, but what saves his feature is the biographical narration by Chris’s twin brother Kevin. What this does is give the film a look into a man who still lives with Chris’s face. It’s an interesting sight to see that Kevin’s very career is still mentioned in the same shadows of Chris, whether for positive or negative reasons. I also felt that the movie had great editing, complete with lots of intercutting shots of Chris’s memorable skits to play alongside with real life moments similar to the characters he portrayed. I mentioned before that i wish the movie could’ve dove a little more into the volcano of emotional depression that was exploding just beneath the surface of this juggernaut, and something so easy to point out can be seen in television interviews when Farley was at his weakest. I appreciate the effort that was put in from many sit-down interviews with such co-stars as Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, Lorne Michaels, and so many others that don’t accomodate with the easiest of schedules. It’s clear that they made time to tell such tales about their dearly departed friend, and that’s evidence in more than one tear jerking moments. ‘I Am Chris Farley’ isn’t quite the story that the title character deserves, but it is one that can showcase a time when the world was better off with such laughter. The biggest tragedy by the end of this 95 minute offering is that there will be many who make us laugh throughout our lives, but there will never ever be another Chris Farley.

7/10

 

Red Army

Red Army

7/10

When you look at the Soviet Hockey teams of the 70’s and 80’s, you are instantly met with a feeling of fear. What’s surprising is the country had more crumbling than just the walls seperating this communism run land. The sport of Hockey was around long before the Russians took it to the next level with bone shattering hits and unison ice skating with precision choreography, but it was in that country that Hockey was more than just a game, it was a politically infused fired shot. In Red Army, the documentary from Director Gabe Polsky (Bad Lieutenant), we get an 82 minute look at the most successful dynasty in sports history. Told from the perspective of its captain Slava Fetisov, the story portrays his transformation from national hero to political enemy. From the USSR to Russia, the film examines how sport mirrors social and cultural movements and parallels the rise and fall of the Red Army team with the Soviet Union. What i really loved about this documentary was it’s ability to showcase the darker side of sports during a time when tensions were at their highest with political leaders. It’s true that this team and it’s run to the 1980 Winter Olympic Games have been well documented, but never from the point of what happens after the Americans defeated this dream team of ruthless athletes. That is the area where Polsky focuses on in this film, and it makes for the most compelling of storylines detailing the harsh realities that these players faced when trying to sign NHL contracts to play in America. The on-going tension between Fetisov and his long time coach and adversary, Viktor Tikhonov, crafts a feeling of father Vs Son in the film’s narrative storytelling, even if there is a lack of love between the two. If the film lacks one thing, it’s the more in-depth view into the players adolescence. There is some talk of the Red Academy picking players at an early age in an almost Twilight Zone-esque description, but it never really capitalizes on what psychological effects it had on these boys to be literally ripped from their growing periods and traded everything for a pair of skates. Besides that, it’s hard to find anything to not appreciate about Polsky’s impressive collection of lively game footage, as well as operatic tones in soundtrack score to always keep the action impactful. There are many stories about the American dream, but it would be surprising to find that one of the most hard hitting emotional of the genre comes from America’s biggest enemies during the Cold War. It’s a story that on the surface is about Hockey, but the sport serves as a chess game for the battle between which country’s way of living would reign on. Red Army is greed, passion, betrayal, and most importantly, paranoia. It’s also the best reminder that some dreams take place in a country where they are forbidden.

Soaked In Bleach

Soaked in bleach

5/10

In a year full of Kurt Cobain documentaries, one controversial filmmaker (Benjamin Statler) takes the biggest step in the 21 year mystery of one of rock music’s most legendary figures. “Soaked in Bleach” reveals the events behind Kurt Cobain’s death as seen through the eyes of Tom Grant, the private investigator that was hired by Courtney Love in 1994 to track down her missing husband only days before his body was found at their Seattle home. Cobain’s death was ruled a suicide by a lackluster police department, but doubts have circulated for two decades as to the legitimacy of this ruling, especially due to the work of Mr. Grant, a former L.A. County Sheriff’s detective, who did his own investigation and determined there was significant circumstantial evidence to conclude that foul play could very well have occurred. The documentary certainly has it’s great ideas. Most of which involve many inconsistencies that many investigators have chosen to ignore. Grant’s stance against the city’s police department raises some interesting questions not only in Cobain’s case, but in past cases that have been ruled open and shut. What doesn’t work for the film however, is the laughable dramatization acting, as well as all of his verdicts being pointed at one person; Love. Grant refuses to think that many people may have been involved in Cobain’s death, despite the fact that a lot of his theories are just that; theories. The evidence is certainly there to question a lot of Love’s antics during the week in question, but the story in the film plays off like Grant was present for all of her motivations. I think this would better serve as a special on Dateline NBC or something similar. It all feels like a stretched out version of a one hour news piece. Educational, but not entertaining enough to spend 85 minutes with. I think if the film stands for anything, it’s that this case should be opened back up. The strongest push in this position comes from many now government officials who point out the monumental mistakes made by the city’s biggest suicide. The movie also recognizes the increase in teenage suicides related in one way or another to Kurt Cobain’s death. Ironically, it’s in the areas that have less to do about conspiracies where the movie works it’s message the best. I do think Statler’s project is better put together than the 1997 film, “Kurt and Courtney”. Another film that examines Courtney Love’s motivations, albeit with a little less evidence than Soaked In Bleach had. Despite my grade and negative criticisms towards this documentary, i would still recommend this picture to Nirvana fans. There are a lot of theories about Cobain’s death, and Soaked In Bleach lays them all out on the table in an attempt to get everyone on the same page. Also, give “Cobain: Montage of Heck” a look if you haven’t yet. It’s by far the best music documentary that i have ever seen.

I Am Big Bird : The Carol Spinney Story

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8/10

The character of Big Bird has been an icon to the greatest kids television show of all time; Sesame Street. But who is the man underneath the mountain of feathers? For 45 years, Caroll Spinney has been beloved by generations of children as the man behind Sesame Street’s Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, and at 80 years old, he has no intention of stopping. “I Am Big Bird” is a portrait at the backstory of the birth of one of America’s greatest puppets, and a biography of the talent that isn’t seen beneath the surface of the world’s largest bird. As a longtime fan of “Sesame Street”, i really enjoyed this documentary giving the audience a nice peek behind a closed curtain. The film’s greatest strength lies within it’s ability to show that the bird and Carol are one in the same. One scene in particular speaks of vandals tearing apart the Big Bird costume, and Carol’s reaction to seeing this as the equivalent of watching one of his children die. The suit is insured, the show costs were lightly harmed, but yet this man feels hurt from watching something that isn’tliving being ripped apart. That is where the legend of Mr Spinney really resides; it’s a man with a heart of gold who came from an abusive relationship from his father, but didn’t let those tough times determine who he was as a person. Director Chad N Walker (We Must Go) comes across as more than just a casual fan, as he includes a nice mix of show moments, behind the scenes runthroughs, as well as a wide range of past Sesame Street actors from different generations of the show’s history to speak. It makes for the perfect nostalgic treat. It’s all done with agentle, sentimental touch, and it makes for a reflection on such a warm man. Big Bird only works because he is being played by a man who embodied childhood innocence every year of his life. The documentary misses some points to dive a little more into Spinney’s earlier life. There are explanations on his depression, as well as his abusive father, but this picture always feels like it’s missing that one thing to make it compelling to someone who wasn’t a “Sesame Street” fan. There also isn’t as much of a look at Oscar the Grouch as the trailer promised. These things don’t ever hurt the film in the slightest, but i felt that a little more time could’ve been added to the less than ninety minute feature to explore these sides, giving it a wider range of emotional depth. It was cool to see so many of the episodes and scenes that have stuck with me for thirty years, and i would greatly recommend this to anyone inexperienced with how these Jim Henson creations work. It really is a fascinating look to see how physical the part of this eight foot tall bird is for such an aging veteran, but Carol Spinney has no plans to retire anytime soon. As he says in the documentary, “Artists don’t quit painting just because they get old. Why would i quit something that gives me such happiness?” Well said Mr Spinney. You inspire us all to “Push the clouds away”.

 

Kurt Cobain : Montage of Heck

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9/10

21 Years ago, Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of the band at the helm of the grunge music revolution, Nirvana, took his life at the age of 27. The events that led to the depressed state of the musician is still a puzzle that hasn’t been solved more than two decades later. Critically acclaimed documentarian, Brett Morgen (On The Ropes), takes the audience through an artful narration of Cobain’s personal writings and drawings in a life that changed forever when the band became the biggest thing in the world. There is so much excellently done with ‘Montage of Heck’. For any fans of Nirvana, you might be a little disappointed, as this is a look strictly at the life of Cobain. That is one thing that i found refreshing about this documentary. It focuses on one man instead of three when trying to comb through what led to the suicide of one of rock’s most prolific frontmen. Complete with interviews from Kurt’s parents, to Courtney Love, to Kurt’s longtime girlfriend, they paint the clearest picture of a human enigma. Morgen makes some artistic choices that pay off incredibly.He shows us Cobain’s personal still-frame drawings coming to life as a metaphor for the events being narrated over. It gives the picture an almost fairytale-like when combined with Cobain’s narration. The film also takes it’s time informing the viewer on the very emotions that Kurt felt with each passing milestone in his life. Other Cobain documentaries haven’t gone as deep into his journal, as well as never-before-seen photos like this one has. I am a huge Nirvana fan, and some of stillshots had my eyes popping in curiosity as to why they have never made print. The sountrack would normally be obvious in a music documentary about a particular band, but Morgen instead decides to add some creative touches to grunge favorites. He plays ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ as a choir song performed by children, he spins a remix of ‘Heart Shaped Box’ as a piano instrumental, and my personal favorite; recordings of Kurt’s first attempt at crafting songs with only his accoustic guitar and a cheap tape recorder to boot. One particular scene with the ladder has Cobain stopping to answer the phone, and it’s in that authenticity that it never feels like we are watching a movie, but instead right next to Kurt holding the camera. I was so close to giving this film a 10/10, and future watchings may push this film into that immortal territory, but one thing stuck out like a sore thumb in a display of documentary greatness. The film goes into great deal for two hours and twelve minutes, but decides to end abruptly when it reveals that Kurt took his own life. One could interpret that Morgen thinks the audience already knows the story with the after, but i think his legacy post-death is just as important as the story being told. I could’ve used a final word from the people being interviewed, but it never came. Overall, ‘Montage of Heck’ is the greatest musical documentary i have ever seen, and one of my favorite documentaries of all time. Even if you never followed Nirvana, you should see it for it’s peeling of the layers with such a mysterious force who took the world by storm for four flannel filled years. The mystery will never be solved, but Brett Morgen’s patient approach gives the audience the greatest offering of clarity with a film that is a fierce and hammering account of teenage empathy.