194-195: The War Room, There Will Be Blood

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194: The War Room

Political documentaries tend to often be very polished and dictated by the rules of the party the documentarian is following. The War Room is a different kind of beast and probably one of the last of its kind. It started out as a simple doc following the managers of Bill Clinton’s campaign to become the President of the United States. At that time he was considered to be an outsider, some redneck from Arkansas who didn’t stand a chance in the highest political arena imaginable. As time moved on Clinton started to grow into a political force to be reckoned and the people behind the scenes and their unorthodox way of working became something of legend. The War Room tells their triumphant story and it is totally riveting. It is hard to put my finger on what it is that’s so compelling about it. Is it the unlikely friendship between the manic passionate James Carville and the calm calculated George Stephanopoulos? Is it the unprecedented look behind the scenes of a political campaign? Probably both. The War Room will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the last truly honest depictions of political maneuvering.

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195: There Will Be Blood

Something very strange happened the first time I watched There Will Be Blood. All through the opening sequence I heard a very annoying piece of music that was totally out of whack with the original soundtrack. It was very distracting, but I powered through. I found There Will Be Blood to be a very powerful piece of work even if the first sequence still bothered me at the end. For years I dreaded returning to Paul Thomas Anderson’s opus, just because of that experience. Now, years later, I returned to There Will Be Blood and miraculously the opening was devoid of any annoying double soundtracks and it was a lot better than the first time I watched it. Now I could take in this brilliant movie from A to Z without distractions and what an experience it is. Daniel Day Lewis’ performance is compelling as anything he has ever done, the photography by Robert Elswit is spellbinding and the music by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is hypnotic and the conclusion will have you reeling in your seat. I still think Magnolia is Anderson’s best, most complete movie, with There Will Be Blood a strong second.

167: Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope

I’m a geek, a nerd, a fanboy, or whatever you want to call it. I am not ashamed of it, nor should I be. Some people like other things and I like Star Wars. However, I have never been to the San Diego Comic-Con. I have been to Star Wars Celebration VI, so that cancels out some of that shame. The annual San Diego Comic-Con functions as a sort of sanctuary for people like me: people who like things other ‘normal’ people might frown upon. Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope provides a glimpse into the world of Comic-Con, a world that is totally incomprehensible for many.

A word of warning: this is in no way a historical record of the San Diego Comic-Con. Some history is provided at the beginning and a comment may be included here and there about the old days, but that’s all you’re going to learn about the Con itself. This is a love letter to the people attending the convention and not the convention itself.

In Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope we follow several people who attended San Diego Comic-Con in 2010. There is the veteran salesman from Mile High Comics who laments the change in focus from comics to entertainment in general at the convention. Then there is the costume builder who wants to show off her newest creations based on video game Mass Effect. Two aspiring comic artists travel to San Diego to try their luck at landing a job with a comics publisher. And finally a young couple of which the male half has a surprise for his girlfriend. We see how these people go about their days at the convention in search of whatever they are looking for.

Spurlock paints a loving picture of Comic-Con. He obviously likes the convention and he wants other to do so as well. He enlists a great number of people (famous and non-famous) to provide context in front of a white screen. They tell you the convention is a great experience for everybody there and that you can actually be yourself (or dress up as somebody else) without feeling you have to check yourself at every moment. Having been to Star Wars Celebration I can certainly sympathize with that sentiment. It is a wonderful experience to not have to check yourself at the door and finally geek out for three or four days. Of course, in a perfect world these would not have to be necessary, but we’re not entirely there yet.

There is one small complaint I have for Spurlock (who actually doesn’t appear at all). There is not enough of the documentary. At nearly ninety minutes I feel some of the people we follow don’t get enough room to tell their story. For example, the story about the comics seller who has to contend with a change in climate at the convention is a very interesting one. The convention has been focusing a lot more on movie and television promotion and less and less on what the convention was built on: comics. Sales have been declining and with the emergence of digital comics it would be interesting to see how that story played out. Maybe something someone can take on as a subject for a future documentary?

On a whole I really enjoyed Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, although I don’t really understand the title. There is not all that much Star Wars in the movie to begin with and the title feels more like pandering than something inspired. Don’t let that deter you from watching this fine documentary, though. Maybe someday I will have the opportunity to attend a San Diego Comic-Con, until then Phoenix Comic-Con will do.

> IMDb

161: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

I love sushi. I have eaten lots of it during the years. I have eaten sushi in Tokyo and I have visited the Tsukiji Fish Market where just about every piece of sushi in that area comes from. If I had my way the secret of sushi would stay with me and me alone so I can enjoy it again and again for the rest of my life. Well, let’s not get carried away here. I was a little bit afraid of watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi, because it was surely going to tell me the sushi I have been eating over the years has been totally inferior and I have more work to do in finding the perfect sushi. As it turns out even Jiro doesn’t make the perfect sushi, if we are to believe him.

In Jiro Dreams of Sushi we get a rare look behind the scenes of one of the most (if not the most) prestigious sushi restaurants in the world. It seats only about ten people, the price tag is usually $300 a plate and you have to reserve a spot months in advance. Oh, did I mention it can be found in a subway station. Yeah, try that in New York. Jiro has been making his (almost) perfect sushi for seventy years now and isn’t thinking about retiring. He has his oldest son next to him (the other one got his own restaurant in Roppongi Hills) and a small army of devoted apprentices in the back to prepare everything for him according to the most precise measurements and quality demands.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a beautiful documentary about art. Not the kind of art we are used to referring. This is food art at its finest. Like the way the chef at the former El Bulli used to create pieces of art from food. Jiro does the same thing, albeit in a much less showy fashion. As is to be expected from a Japanese chef he doesn’t create garish dishes with tons of junk added to the sushi like so many people do here in the U.S. He makes nigiri, and nigiri only. A bit of perfectly cooked rice, a small dollop of wasabi, a slice of incredibly fresh fish and a lick of soy sauce. It’s mouthwateringly brilliant in its simplicity.

There is nothing in Jiro Dreams of Sushi that jumps out at you. As it should be. It is a documentary about an unassuming chef who lives to perfect his art. The movie reflects this in mesmerizing fashion. I was hooked for the entire runtime. Of course it helps that I love sushi and that I have been to some of the places shown in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but that’s not all of it. This is a very well made documentary across the board. It is moving, it is funny, it is informative, it makes you want to go to Tokyo to book a table at Jiro’s restaurant to experience his sushi first-hand. The only negative element Jiro Dreams of Sushi has left me with is the perception that all the sushi I will eat for the rest of my life will probably never measure up to Jiro’s sushi.

> IMDb

146: A Married Couple

Sometimes a marriage isn’t meant to be. Allan King’s documentary A Married Couple illustrates that in a very accurate manner. In it we witness the relationship between Billy and Antoinette Edwards, their little boy Bogart and their dog. During seven weeks we follow them during their daily routines and see how their personalities start to clash more and more. It is a painful, infuriating and incredibly candid look at an institution that often is perceived as something beautiful and sacred, but which in reality can become a prison for some people.

I had a hard time watching A Married Couple. I am not one to constantly discuss everything with my wife and watching Billy and Antoinette go at it for much of the movie feels very counter intuitive to me. Sometimes things can be left unspoken, in my opinion. Especially Billy began to get on my nerves really bad. His constant struggle with Antoinette to regain his power over her seemed to me to be very petty and annoying.

Then I started to think of A Married Couple more and particularly in light of the period it was shot: the end of the sixties. This was a period of great upheaval in the relationships between man and woman. Women started to assert themselves more and more and demanded more and more equality. This must have been hard on the men who were raised in the last period when men were still kings. They brought in the money, they called the shots. Billy was very much a part of that generation and to relinquish some of his power to his wife must have been hard on him. This doesn’t fully excuse his behavior, which is at times was obnoxious enough to make me want to reach through the screen to slap him over the head.

I didn’t have many problems with Antoinette. She was clearly a young woman (there was an age difference of about ten years) who came into her own and decided to shed some of the dependence she had towards Billy. Something he obviously couldn’t quite deal with for above mentioned reasons. The only thing I wanted her to do was leave. Leave and start over. I know that isn’t the easiest thing to do, especially when you have a child, but living separately in the same house isn’t going to work either.

After watching A Married Couple I decided to dig a little deeper into this infuriatingly compelling movie. It turned out that Billy and Antoinette eventually did get a divorce in 1972,  about three years later. They did try to make their marriage work after seeing what they did wrong according to the movie, but to no avail. Antoinette would later remark that director Allan King did take some liberty when it came to shaping the mood of the movie. She feels there were a lot more positive scenes that were shot during that period, but that King decided to make the movie more dramatic by using the more contentious footage.

This makes A Married Couple the ultimate real-life soap avant la lettre. Today we are inundated with reality television everywhere we look, and no doubt this a manipulated to create the most effective and dramatic presentation of what transpired (if, in fact, it isn’t outright fabricated). Keep that in mind when watching A Married Couple. The truth isn’t always what you perceive. Sometimes you have to read between the lines.

> IMDb

125: Catching Hell

I started playing baseball around 1986 as a young teen. The problem with playing baseball in Holland was the extremely limited access to events in the Major League here in the U.S. There was no internet and hardly any baseball game was broadcast over there. Unless maybe it was a World Series, then it would get a spot in one of the major sports programs on TV. I’m telling you this, because I have been watching the 30 for 30 series from ESPN. I am only a few episodes into it, but already I love it. I am learning stuff about sports events I never even knew about. Events that are still very much in the mind of the American sports fan.

One of these events is the Steve Bartman incident that occurred on October 14, 2003. During Game 6 of the National League Championship Series the Chicago Cubs were on the verge of reaching the World Series for the first time since 1945. The fans were ecstatic, but then a fly ball went into foul territory over in leftfield. Outfielder Moisés Alou ran over to snag the ball, but a fan by the name of Steve Bartman reached out for it and deflected it just before it reached Alou’s glove. This fateful moment sealed the Cubs’ fate and the Florida Marlins went on to score eight runs and ultimately the National League championship. While there were other errors made that facilitated the loss the fans united in chastising Steve Bartman for his collision with fate.

Since 1945 the Cubs have been playing under the weight of what they call the Billy Goat Curse and lifting the curse has been on every Cubs fan’s mind ever since. Steve Bartman was at the wrong place at the wrong time and caught hell for something any fan would have done, because catching an official Major League baseball is a dream of any baseball fan. But I also understand that in the heat of the moment people wanted to lynch Bartman. The tensions ran so incredibly high, that any incident would have sparked some kind of controversy. Having somebody within reach to blame the loss on was a gift from the baseball gods for the people who were there. Blaming a loss on a player remains something remote. They are on the field and disappear into the catacombs after the game. Bartman didn’t have that option. He couldn’t jump onto the field to flee from the irate fans around him. I don’t know if I would have acted any different from the way that entire ballpark was acting. Gibney makes the argument that he was doing something anybody would have done, and that is true, but he was still the one who did it. People who still carry a grudge against Bartman after all these years should, however, rethink their priorities.

Gibney doesn’t just focus on the Steve Bartman incident. He also goes back to 1986 to investigate another baseball incident: an infamous error made by first baseman Bill Buckner. The situation was very much like the one with the Chicago Cubs. The Boston Red Sox were also on the verge of clinching a championship and with that eliminating their own curse they had been carrying with them since Babe Ruth moved to the New York Yankees in 1920. So the expectations were high when the Red Sox were in the lead in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. However, the Red Sox botched their lead by making some crucial errors during that fateful last inning. The last of which was a slow roller that inexplicably went through the legs of Bill Buckner. Because he made the last error everybody focused their rage on him and subsequently made his life a living hell. It took years before the Red Sox finally won the World Series and then they started thinking about forgiving Buckner.

While Gidney is certainly interested in telling Buckner and Bartman’s stories, the main focus of Catching Hell is the scapegoating of a single person to get rid of this unending frustration about a losing team. Why were these two people singled out and blamed for the losses and why were the other players that also made mistakes conveniently forgotten? It is a question that lingers all through the movie and to be honest, nobody really knows an answer. Gibney gives the people involved ample time to explain what happened back then at both incidents and that sheds a light on some of the events, but he never really answers his own thesis in a satisfying manner. But, then again, do we want him to. I think not, a lot that goes into sports is the rabid fandom of people and the strange workings that can entail. It’s a mysterious pastime that unites people in ways they probably couldn’t even explain to themselves. I am not one to start shouting at someone in my every day life, but when I am at a ballgame I let myself go regularly. Sometimes out of frustration, sometimes out of happiness. There is so much drama to get caught up in.

At the very end of Catching Hell Gibney does go into a bit of a preachy mode by letting people tell the viewer that what happened was wrong, that they feel sorry for Bartman, that everybody should look at what happened at that game back in 2003 and make sure it never happens again. While some of this might be true it also comes across as wiping your own nose clean after committing exactly the things they are riling against. Hindsight tends to always be 20/20, so let’s not kid ourselves: if something like this were to happen again in the future people will not react any differently than before. It is human nature and in the heat of the moment anything can happen.

It is also human nature to forgive someone for their mistakes. Gibney shows us that Buckner actually was officially forgiven by the fans of the Boston Red Sox. Eventually he went back to Fenway Park and walked onto the field to throw the first pitch at the Opening Day game in 2008. He got through this ordeal of being scapegoated and can now move forward. The same thing can still not be said of Bartman. He is still living with the burden of being the guy who botched the Cubs’ chances to win a championship and he wasn’t even a player. I am not a Cubs fan, so I can’t speak for those fans, but let’s give this guy a break and focus on the stupid errors the players made during that game. I hope one day this guy gets to walk onto the turf at Wrigley Field to receive some kind of apology from the fans. I really do.

Although it seems like Alex Gibney’s 2011 documentary Catching Hell is a part of the ESPN 30 for 30 series, and therefore shouldn’t be included in this blog, it actually isn’t. It is part of a spin-off documentary series called ESPN Films Presents. It is also longer than a regular episode at 1 hour and 42 minutes and it is listed on the IMDb as a stand-alone documentary.

> IMDb

123: Indie Game: The Movie

It has come up before: I love artistry and I love gaming. I have been following the gaming industry for years now and amid all the bombastic releases–Modern Warfare, Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed–there are always a few very small developers who release games that blow people away with their originality and heart. Great examples of these are Super Meat Boy, Braid and Fez. Three games that show us that there is more to videogames than just shooting people or tending your farm on Facebook. Indie Game: The Movie shows us the story behind these games and it shines a light on the people behind them.

The way Indie Game: The Movie tells its story is great. We follow Super Meat Boy, Braid and Fez at various states in their life-cycle. Braid had been released at the time of filming and we see the impact it has on its developer Jonathan Blow, who couldn’t really handle the way people received his game. Super Meat Boy was on the verge of being released and we see the way Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes cope with the tremendous pressure of setting free their creation and seeing it go out into the world. Fez was still very much in development and had been for several years. Phil Fish, Fez’ creator, very much wants to present his creation (again) to the world, but experiences serious doubts and has to deal with business problems when he really just wants to start promoting his gaming vision.

The choice to frame its narrative in this manner creates a surprisingly complete picture of the world of independent gaming and the toll it takes on the minds that think up these brilliant games. Some people who refuse to take gaming serious, because they still think gaming is just for kids, will probably dismiss the musings of these gentlemen as whining. Because, after all, how hard can it be? Very hard, actually. Not to diminish the work of the people at larger gaming companies like EA or Ubisoft, but these guys think up everything themselves, program it (sometimes with one or two partners) and have to carry the burden of their creations on their own shoulders. If that isn’t the very definition of art, than I don’t know what is.

The people I took the most to were the guys behind Super Meat Boy. Their game may not have been the most innovative game out there, the platforming genre has been done a million times before, but their enthusiasm and passion for the project are infectious. Tommy and Edmund make a great duo: Tommy is a bit squirrelly and Edmund is more of a jolly good guy. Their dynamic is fantastic, even though they never share a single moment on-screen. Braid’s Jonathan Blow seemed to be the most introverted of the principals. He really had a hard time excepting the fact that his work of art was going to be interpreted in a different way than he intended it to. He is probably not the first artist to deal with these issues.

Fez’ Phil Fish is kind of a character in the gaming world and it shows here. I had a hard time relating to Fish, because he comes across as someone who likes himself a lot. He clearly shows a deep affection for his creation and wants very badly for others to feel the same way. He is, however, plagued by business problems that could seriously harm the creation of Fez. It is heartbreaking, no doubts there, to see him struggle with these problems, but there was also a lingering feeling in the back of my mind that told me this might be a little bit his own fault. He redesigned Fez three times and the frustration that comes from that was probably what drove his business partner away. I am glad it all worked out for him in the end, but still… Fez was released earlier this year to great acclaim and probably good sales. Let’s hope his next project will be developed a little bit more smoothly.

All of these elements make Indie Game: The Movie an intensely watchable documentary about the anguish of making art. The fact that you have to finish your creation someday and release it to the world is nothing less than putting down your paintbrush and deciding that a painting is done and ready to be hung in somebody’s living room. It is like sending your kids off to school, like Tommy says in the movie, and that is one of the scariest things you will do, I can tell you from experience. I heartily recommend Indie Game: The Movie to gamers and non-gamers alike. It is not only a great story about art and its artists, it is also a damn good one to boot. I’ll be seeing it again.

> IMDb

119: Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest

I have to admit than when I was a kid I was more of a De La Soul fan then a fan of A Tribe Called Quest. Of course I knew about them, and could recite the lyrics to their best known hits (I Left My Wallet in El Segundo, Bonita Applebum and of course Can I Kick It?), but I never got into their records for some inexplicable reason. That’s why I love Michael Rapaport’s documentary Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest so much.

It transported me back to that time when I wouldn’t leave the house without my walkman and cassette tapes to listen to my favorite music as much as possible. It also educated me about a piece of music history I was not entirely familiar with. If you would ask me, that is the perfect combination for a documentary: recognition and discovery. It opened my eyes to the enormous impact these guys had on the sound of hip hop and their background. Their connection to my heroes from way back when, De La Soul, was also new to me. I knew they were part of the same music scene, but not that their proximity was so close.

Director Michael Rapaport, more known as an actor in e.g. Beautiful Girls, spends a large part of his documentary to explaining where A Tribe Called Quest came from, what their influence was on hip hop and what the relationships were inside the group. This is all fascinating and exciting, but it isn’t until we come to more recent times that the real drama starts to play out.

Together with Rapaport, we are witness to the affairs that transpired backstage during the 2008 reunion tour. We learn about Phife Dawg’s life threatening struggle with diabetes and the crippling effect this would have on internal relationships within the band. Rapaport doesn’t judge. He let’s the guys tell their story and it is up to the audience to take sides or leave the struggle for what it is and enjoy the groundbreaking music these guys made. I sure as heck will be getting their albums to make up for my omissions in the past.

> IMDb