Edward Snowden’s eye opening reveals about the invasion of privacies that our very government takes is front and center in this documentary that is presented as more of a real life movie unfolding before our very eyes. In January 2013, Director Laura Poitras was most of the way into making a film about surveillance in the post-9/11 era when she started receiving encrypted e-mails from someone identifying himself as “citizen four,” who was ready to blow the whistle on the massive covert surveillance programs run by the NSA and other intelligence agencies. In June 2013, she and investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald flew to Hong Kong for the first of many meetings with the man who turned out to be Snowden. She brought her camera with her. The film that resulted from this series of tense encounters is one hundred percent breaking news in the history of cinema. As someone who read plenty about the Snowden saga of last year, i found enough in “CitizenFour” to feel like i never heard anything about the story. Poitras has an agenda for the truth, and it’s spellbounding the events she was lucky enough to capture when the camera was running. What was originally refreshing for this documentary as opposed to others, is that Poitras doesn’t need side by side interviews to narrate the story. She lets the lens do the talking, and the reveals are incredible even for someone who knows how dirty this regime can be. I don’t think there is a film this year or this decade that will open your eyes more about the freedoms we are losing. Events like 9/11 made it possible for these higher ups to succeed in getting these laws passed to invade the privacies of e-mail, cell phones, and any form of electronic communication. I won’t ruin the film for those of you interested in checking it out, but i left the theater feeling a little tense, and it’s in that respect that the film is scarier than anything a horror film could ever bring you. Whether you consider Snowden a traitor or hero or something in between, it’s not relevant. The movie is impactful in its immediacy of action needed, and terrifying in its implications. It took a ton of bravery for Snowden to come forward with this information, and the films ending foreshadows that this might only be the beginning. The impact of a movie like “CitizenFour” i believe will last for decades. It’s a film that will never allow you to going back to living with your eyes closed. I commend Poitras and Greenwald for continuing forward in their search for the truth when the walls around them are coming down. The camera work is sharp, the sound is perfect, and the editing deserves a noteworthy praise of it’s own. The e-mails exchanged between Poitras and Snowden are shown during the film and are narrated by Laura herself. The text is shown while different spy agency locations are shown in the background. This gives the audience a feel for how big empowering this problem really is. It would be easy enough to tell us about these places, but Poitras does her homework and shows us that this is one nightmare that extends beyond someone’s dreams. “CitizenFour” is every bit alarming as it is informative. It’s the tip of the iceburg in a discussion about what else might be going on behind closed doors.
Director Jeremy Snead takes us on an 8 bit journey with this documentary about the history of video game culture in America. The first half of the film starts off on a high note with a descriptive albeit brief timeline lesson on the past and present of video game history. It’s in that aspect that the film would’ve gotten a passing grade from me. The film is 100 minutes long, so there is plenty of time to be descriptive through every decade of video game culture. Instead, the second half of the film turns into a commercial with Snead being the biggest salesperson. The documentary has the kind of feel where it’s Us Vs Them in terms of the lovers and haters of this multimedia. During this time, it feels more like a special on the Game Network and not so much a movie/documentary. There is a lot of focus on the future of gaming, and there is nothing wrong with that. But for me personally, i gave the film a chance because i wanted an in depth learning experience on the gaming systems that i grew up with. The timeline focus of the film is also done very sloppy because instead of going chronologically they go back and forth creating a chopped up revision of history. The whole thing just feels unfocused and repetitive by the time the final scenes hit. I would rather know more about the creation of some of these games and less about the growing popularity of gamers by dismissing the sterotypes of them being nerds. If i were to recommend this to one type of crowd it would be for new gamers who picked up their controls in a dedicated fashion over the last five years. Anyone else, this information won’t be anything new or informative to them. This documentary will only give those fans the motivation for them to invest more of their hard earned dollars into a profession that hasn’t even reached 1/4 of it’s technological potential. The touching up of the 8 bit Nintendo games on this feature makes them look better than ever before. It almost doesn’t feel like the same games we used to play with the restoration to the pixelated genre. The narration by actor Sean Astin is done very well with a lot of pie graphs to match his statistics in the opening ten minutes. Astin’s job becomes kind of pointless as the film goes on because the documentary is taken over more by interviews with people who work in the gaming industry slinging mud to the opposite side. There are also appearances in interviews by Zach Braff, Wil Wheaton, and Chris Hardwick speaking on their favorite video game memories. Overall, Video Games The Movie is a lot like my experience with games. The nostalgia factor is nice, but i couldn’t care less about the future of the new technology. The games that will live on forever are the ones that stepped out on a time when the game world almost died after the Video game crash of 1983. This documentary gets a failing grade from me because it has trouble figuring out it’s true identity. I will not leave you the reader going home without a recommendation though. If you can find it, The Discovery Channel released a special a couple years ago called Rise of the Videogame that is leaps and bounds better than this one. Check that out to get a great history on video games that isn’t a war between the companies.
Film critic Roger Ebert lives again in this part documentary part biography about the life of a man who forever changed the film critic career. First of all, i am not a fan of Ebert’s for unjust things he did while giving his reviews for a couple of films on television for the whole world to see. What he did wasn’t important, but it’s just proof that sometimes we as film critics can go over the line when it comes to hating a movie. I am not foolish for even a second though when it comes to giving respect where it’s due. If it wasn’t for him, i am not sure i would even know or care what a film critic was by the age of 15. Along with his partner Gene Siskel, Ebert became big after winning the pulitzer prize for his work in the Chicago Sun Newspaper and going mainstream with the duo’s TV show. What i really liked about this documentary is a couple of things that you won’t always get from most biographies. For one, the story is told in the present during the final days of Roger Ebert’s life. He pushed through a lot of painful days after losing his jaw and facing several surgeries for Thyroid Cancer. This film by director Steve James is a view from a fan’s perspective. That could usually get old quick, but James spares no expense at the hands of his idol by telling the viewers the whole story. Ebert was at times an ego shovanist who would pout until he got his way at a lot in his life. They also show the outtakes of the pure rivalry between he and Siskel, and those clips alone are worth giving this film a look. I can always look at a biography about a deceased person with interest, but i think it takes a lot more guts to give the whole story even when that person is gone. I also dig how the film will show a clip of a movie he reviewed and then show in text his exact words towards that film. It gives viewers some insight on the films he likes and dislikes and explains to you why. I also learned a lot myself that i didn’t know to begin with including his marriage to a black woman and being welcome into a black family. It was cool to get that perspective from his wife, Chaz and hearing the opinions from the point of view of her family. Ebert served as the first positive white influence for not only Chaz, but her sisters as well. Life Itself is the title of Ebert’s autobiography, and that’s appopriate because the film has on screen chapter wording that take quotes directly from his book. One of those quotes and the sole reason for naming it Life Itself is because he always felt that he was the director, writer and star of the film that was his life. He said he never knew how he got casted for such a big role, but it was the perfect one for him. Life Itself certainly opens up my perspectives about the huge influence he had on not only his readers, but Hollywood elite. Sit down interviews are given by Martin Scorcese, Werner Herzog and Rahmin Bahrani. They paint the picture of a 1960’s film reviewer who was always ahead of his time describing the emotions that he felt when he reviewed a motion picture. Herzog even dedicated one of his films to Ebert’s memory. This is funny because there were numerous times when Ebert openly trashed Herzog as a director, but somehow the two were good friends. Scorsese even states that Ebert knew him better as a director than Martin even knew himself. As if you can’t tell, i definitely recommend this film to not only fans of Ebert but fans of film in general. I think there is a story here that needs to be heard about standing by principles when the big money comes knocking, and appreciating what you have before it’s gone. Life Itself doesn’t just focus on a man’s career. It is a full circle portrait of the way Roger Ebert lived his life, with thumbs up.
Director Igal Hecht presents to us a documentary on one of professional wrestling’s most polarizing figures, The Iron Sheik. For those who don’t know, Sheik was a hated wrestler during the 80’s for his anti-American character. In these educational 90 minutes, we learn everything from the death threats that the character received to the reasons for his madness in 2014. Sheik is still everywhere in today’s news with possibly the most outrageous Twitter page… where he is always saying something with an R rating. I enjoyed this documentary because it is the culmination of 8 years of camera work. The Sheik is followed everywhere from his sad independent wrestling appearances with 100 or so fans to the troubles he had in his own home with family. The arguments with his wife is very tense and at times hard to watch. He suffers through the death of a child and begins down a dark path of drugs that may never find a positive way out. I loved that this wasn’t just a wrestling documentary, and it instead chose to focus a majority of it’s time on the pain mentally and physically that The Sheik suffers through. The documentary showed me that The Sheik might not be as crazy as we thought, and maybe there is some intelligence to the things he does and say. If I had one criticism to this release, it’s the terrible camera work at times. It is a documentary, but a lot of the scenes are very hard to see when following along on the subtitles below. This goes a lot further than out of the room shots because there are scenes where The Sheik is sitting right in front of us and still it’s hard to make his face out. There is also a noticeable gap between the years of 1993 and 2006 in the story. I wish we would’ve learned more about his happenings during this time. Overall, The Sheik is a documentary that is worth a watch for any wrestling fan. I don’t think you have to be a Sheik fan to enjoy this documentary. All wrestling fans alike will laugh and worry for the lead of the picture. If you aren’t a wrestling fan, sadly I don’t see you getting much enjoyment out of this. You have to know the man behind the madness before going in. Otherwise, The Sheik feels like another rambling idiot to you. The Sheik gets a thumbs up from me
A gritty and disturbing look into the American food distribution system and the negative results that follow in a descensitized society. Fed Up is a documentary that looks into the FDA and slides aside the curtain to corruption involving bribery from major snack companies, surgery for overweight children who haven’t even hit their teenage years yet, and the things hidden in these junk foods that aren’t always revealed on the label. To me, Fed Up opened my eyes to the horrors of processed foods like Super Size Me did for the fast food industry. It was really impactful to see the kinds of stacked decks that we as people have of living healthy. Director Stephanie Soetchtig and narrator Katie Couric state the facts on sugars and salts that hurt our body through each individual portion, and what they do over a ten year span. I enjoyed Fed Up for how feeble minded they made our food government administration look. The same group who characterized pizza as a vegetable are clearly guilty for not having done enough to give us better choices in the real world, and safer choices for our children in schools across the country. I do believe that Fed Up is one of those films that needs to be shown in schools to act as a backlash against the brainwashing that TV does to young minds who see colorful characters like Ronald Mcdonald or Captain Crunch and don’t have anything to oppose this with because these big name corporations have so much money and time invested in the products they present. The narration by Couric was outstanding and reflects decades upon decades that she has studied on this particular issue. The facts are presented with graphic animations that are made easily enough for anyone to understand and receive an education to the horrors that we are putting into our bodies everyday. I also thoroughly enjoyed the dancing around the issue approaches to these administration executives who were asked questions on what they have done to eliminate sugars from their products. They come across as big wigs who have absolutely zero involvement of presenting a healthy option to their customers and are only interested in loading their wallets even fatter. One thing that did surprise me about this film that i never really took the time to think about was the effects this will have on our military soldiers over the next fifty years. One out of every three children now face obesity and where will that leave the men and women fighting for our country who don’t have the right genes to combat a disease as powerful as obesity? The lone problem i had with Fed Up is that it gives some decent minor arguments on what we can do to combat these processed foods as to bringing them into our own homes, but it never really has a bigger picture plan. The documentary profiles how popular cigarettes were in the 60’s and 70’s and how countries came together and took a stand against what they called “Cancer Sticks”. Instead of offering a commentary for how we can fight this juggernaut, Couric rather states that it’s impossible to take down something so huge. Sure, there are dietary suggestions that the closing credits offer, but i left this documentary feeling like it’s a losing battle that will only get greater as 60% of our country now suffers from diabetes. That is a bigger figure than ever before. Even with that in mind, Fed Up is the single greatest look at the single greatest terror driving up our death rates. Obesity is greater than cancer now, and it’s time we woke to treat these corporations the same way we do the alcohol and tobacco corporations. I absolutely recommend Fed Up to every one. I guarantee you that everyone will learn at least one thing in this documentary that they didn’t know before. After you watch this film, you will fear the many colorful aisles of a grocery store in the same way you fear looking at your own tombstone before you ever die.
Ladies and gentlemen, i give you an early favorite for film of the year. It’s very rare that a documentary will hit me in such a way that Kids For Cash does. That’s not to say that i don’t enjoy documentaries, but when compared to the year’s best screenplay films, it never adds up. I think that is about to change with this enraging documentary about the 2007 Kids For Cash scandal that saw many innocent kids under the age of 18 go to jail for minor offenses. The film explores the huge holes in the American legal system and how we are one of the only countries to have no revisions to our original juvenile legal system. This is a film that i feel every parent should watch because it’s about those times when being our children’s protectors is taken from us due to corruption and greed. The story focuses mostly on two judges from Pennsylvania who accepted a 2.2 million dollar bribe from a prison owner to fill his prison in order to get a new prison built and more funding coming through the doors. The judges in question are Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan. One thing that really impresses me about the story that director Robert May tries to tell is that he tells it with both sides debating their points. Ciavarella and Conahan are each given their time to explain why they accepted the bribes that they did, and the only small points that they did wrong. It’s interesting that they take no blame what so ever in sending these kids away and ruining their lives for small things like a stolen bike that the child had no idea was stolen property, a girl creating a fake Myspace page, and a kid getting in a fight at school. While watching this film, you will absolutely despise these two judges and there is no way around that. Without spoiling too much, i can say that one result of a child in particular will get you to the point that you feel like you are this boy’s parent and fighting and yelling against Ciavarella. I am getting off topic, but i promise you that the film itself is very stylishly shot. Screen text throughout the film will always keep the reader side by side with where the story is headed even if you don’t fully understand the legal mumbo jumbo of the lawyers and judges, respectively. There are lots of legal information about ours and other countries around the world when discussing child punishment laws. It paints the picture that even though we are one of the most lucrative countries in the world, and one of the most powerful, we are still years behind on a perfect system. The zero tolerance policy is not a system that will ever work well for children because you can’t compare them to adult criminals. The film goes as far as to explain that the teenage mind will never be fully developed when a child makes a terrible choice. They are literally still being molded into the people they will become one day, and grouping them with murderers and rapists probably isn’t the most logical choice. The background score is done very beautifully as well with lots of mellow tones to accomodate the parents when they tell the horrors of what their children went through. The ending credits are played off to a child choir singing Creep by Radionhead. This is quite appropriate for two reasons. The first is the sad tone coming from the choir voices, and the second is that it’s during that song we learn the fate of the two judges. In his directoral debut, Robert May examines hard hitting details as a result of over a decade of interviews. This is a film that wasn’t made in a year and you have to respect that with how fast films are thrown at the public in the course of a year. Kids for Cash does what any great advocacy doc does: give you the cold hard facts to get you angry and make you want to pay attention so that something like this never happens again. It’s a cruel look at a crime that will never happen again, but baffle you that it ever happened in the first place. No parent can miss Kids For Cash. I am glad that after a 5 month wait i was finally able to catch this film on Amazon Instant Video. INCREDIBLE.
This documentary about George Romero’s original zombie masterpiece shows us the struggles of introducing the world to zombies. It’s hard to understand today just how much Romero went through with trying to get this film into theaters and drive ins because the world as we know it today loves zombies. What i loved about this film was all of the stuff i learned about the cast, what it took to purchase the equipment and the copyright mistake that led to a horror classic possibly losing millions of the take it brought in. This documentary gives us some great in depth interviews with Romero. The master of zombies tells us that no one wanted to give a first time 27 year old director a chance, and how that was his motivation to get the film released. The only thing i didn’t like about this film was how many films outside of the horror world that it took credit for. I don’t exactly think The Godfather trilogy was made because of the negative ending in Night of the Living Dead. It’s a bit of a stretch to claim many cinematic classics, but i see what they were going for. Check it out if you are like me, and a big fan of the Romero zombie epics
A great documentary about the rise and fall of the music sharing giant known as Napster. The film gives a great look into the battles and insight of the Napster employees and the war they fought against music industry giants. I think the story is told very well by both sides of the war, and shows you what the musicians were going through as well. It was also crazy to watch the last ten minutes and see the kind of successes and failures that Shawn Fanning and Shawn Parker accomplished after Napster. I definitely recommend giving this film a chance if you were a teenager like me in 2000 who grew up in a world where the technology was getting faster and smarter. Downloaded has 105 minutes of amazing footage that shows you the kind of world we were dealing with, and the ground that was being laid for internet giants like Facebook, Spotify and Itunes.