documentary

Review: Oscar-nominated documentary shorts (…that I actually saw…)

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Review: Oscar-nominated documentary shorts (…that I actually saw…)

I figured I’d sneak in one last post for the 2017 Oscars. Last year I saw all the nominated documentary shorts, which was a first for me. Normally the documentary categories are when I get up to use the restroom or grab a snack, but last year I actually cared who won. So I figured I’d do the same this year.

I was mostly successful. This year’s nominations were on the depressing side, but well-made, timely, and I think very important, especially considering the current political environment.

One of them I didn’t watch. Because reasons. (But maybe not the reasons you’d think.)

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Academy Awards 2016: Five more films

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Academy Awards 2016: Five more films

I admit it: at the Awards viewing parties I usually use the Feature Length Documentaries section as a chance to get up and stretch my legs, take a bathroom break, and snag an appetizer, because most of the time I haven’t seen any of the nominations. Not this year. This year I watched all of them.

What did I learn? What with two of the films discussing troubled musicians, one about the Mexican drug war, one about Ukrainian military opening fire on protestors, and one about an Indonesian man confronting his brother’s murderers, I learned that cheerful, upbeat documentaries aren’t Oscar Bait.

All kidding aside, there are some really good films up for the Award. Read on for some (very brief) (I promise) (well, mostly) rundowns of each; which one I liked best, and which one is likely to get the Award.

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Academy Awards 2016: Last Day of Freedom

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Academy Awards 2016: Last Day of Freedom

Since I’ve been trying to watch a lot of the Oscar-nominated documentaries this year (just because it’s the one category I usually skip completely) I looked at Last Day of Freedom, the story that Bill Babbitt tells about the brother he delivered to the police. At just under 34 minutes, it’s not an easy film to watch. But I can see why it was nominated.

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Academy Awards 2016: Amy

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Academy Awards 2016: Amy

“I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous. I don’t think I could handle it.”

This was the movie I watched only because I had to, because I’d watched all the other documentaries nominated for an Oscar this year, and I didn’t want to leave one out. I’ve never been a huge fan of Amy Winehouse’s music, and I hadn’t felt particularly sorry for her: one more talented musician who wasn’t prepared for how hard fame can be. One more person who snuffed themselves out too young.

I don’t have any patience with stories about how hard the life of a celebrity can be (eye roll) so I was surprised at how much I liked the film. Created from news footage, concert videos, studio shots, and personal film from phones and camcorders, it paints a very detailed picture of her life, train wrecks and all. I didn’t want to like the movie, but I did anyway.

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Review: I Know That Voice!

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Review: I Know That Voice!

Animation has always been a part of modern culture. It pushes the limits of film and story telling with thousands of hand drawn images falling in perfect secession in front of a camera and capturing the imagination of both young and old. The world wouldn’t be the same without animation, and animation wouldn’t be the same without some of the greatest actors that no one has seen.

Thankfully due to I Know That Voice! the voices of the world’s favorite cartoon characters can be matched to a face and their talent can be admired. Caught often in their natural habitat, the documentary explores the history and the hard work that voice actors have put into their craft.

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Exporting Raymond

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Exporting Raymond

I have often referenced “Everybody Loves Raymond” as the sort of tepid, mediocre sitcom that muscles out the hipper cool ones I love that get cancelled.  It’s not terrible, it’s inoffensive, but, in my mind, pedestrian.  I never watched it — I saw scenes here and there, even referenced in other movies, and just never took a shine to it.  This is not true for many millions of American TV viewers.  After seeing this film, my similarly-biased companion and I agreed that we had a newfound appreciation for what Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal was doing and what he achieved in the nine years that Everybody Loves Raymond was on the air.

Exporting Raymond is Rosenthal’s documentary about the culturally illuminating process of having the Raymond concept be remade as a Russian sitcom.  Many popular American sitcoms get picked up and made over in the native tongues of their new adoring fans.  “The Nanny” was a hugely international phenomenon, with versions popping up all over the globe, East and West.  I don’t mean subtitled reruns, I mean full new productions with native cast, writers, crew, everything.  Unlike “The Office,” which only had to bridge minor comedic & attitude divides between its parent nation of England and its current host America, “Everybody Loves Raymond” ends up going through quite a transformation in order to play to Russian audiences.

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King of Chinatown

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King of Chinatown

I like documentaries. Not enough to pick them out on my Netflix queue, but enough that I do not mind watching them in class or running across them on TV. So when my friends Celeste, Andy, and Fred told me they were going to watch the “King of Chinatown” documentary at PAX East, I thought I would tag along.

I am ever happy I did. The documentary by Psycho Crusher Productions caught professional gamer Justin Wong’s journey at an incredible and controversial time.

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Star Wars ‘Fan’aticism Taken to a Whole New Level

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Star Wars ‘Fan’aticism Taken to a Whole New Level

The documentary Jedi Junkies is concerned with a broad scope of the Star Wars culture that is beneath the surface of the mainstream. Incorporating surprisingly insightful commentary (especially when juxtaposed with the slightly unprofessional look of the editing) from psychiatrists and psychotherapists on the condition of those who are obsessed with, or collectors of all things Star Wars, mediocre and/or amusing footage from Star Wars fanfilms, and the adventures of a traveling band of New York-based duelers trained in the seven styles of lightsaber combat, this film has something for everyone.

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The Dungeon Masters

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The Dungeon Masters

For one year, between GenCon 2006 and 2007, filmmaker Keven McAllester followed three deeply committed dungeon masters through their everyday existence. These DMs are old-school, table-top dice-rollin’ Dungeons and Dragons leaders, writing scenarios and living the lives of folks who find this specific form of engagement with the world the most comfortable. Non-gaming life is a struggle for subjects Scott, Richard, and Elizabeth. They seem to have large deficits in their real lives that are compensated for by the games. It’s far too simplistic to write off Dungeons and Dragons as a form of escapism or even control for them. It almost becomes a life model but it does afford them really the only control over their lives.  Read more after the break.

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Freakonomics

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Freakonomics

If you have not read the book on which this documentary was modeled, I urge you to do so. Authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have taken a ton of data and decided to look for the hidden causalities behind seemingly apparent correlations. If you’re familiar with the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you might know the related tenet of belief that as global warming decreases, incidents of piracy increase. “Well those can’t be related,” you think, and they probably aren’t (unless increases in piracy are directly tied to the industrial activity that causes the rise in global warming) — but this is a perfect example of the kinds of seemingly unrelated facts and the misapplication of correlative-only evidence that these guys examine. For example, in the 1950’s, ice cream was a suspect in the polio epidemic because cases of polio increased in summer — just like ice cream consumption! It’s clearly bad science to then assume ice cream causes polio, but in the midst of a scare, people will cling to any answer they can wrap their minds around. As the past decade or so has shown, this lack of critical thinking can be very dangerous and unhelpful. These guys love to take apart the data and find the real culprits. They don’t take sides or advocate for any sorts of solutions to the problems or results they find, they just love to uncover the connections in the data.

Freakonomics, being a film, skims through many bite-size topics which might seem fluffy but gain solidity with the book. Explanatory segments are fun, easily digested animations or re-enactments, and the topics reveal whole worlds of methods of data collection and interpretation. The over-arcing message, or really theme, is that in terms of causalities, motives matter as much, if not more so, than actual behavior and incentives are a way to discover causes and make real change. In terms of the former, a simple example would be that if you’re the kind of person who is so concerned about parenting your child correctly that you buy 10 books on child-rearing, you’re already set up to be a better parent than one who figures it will work itself out — even if you don’t actually read the books. As for the latter, causes of trends or change may be difficult to suss out until you examine the incentive a group might have to behave the way they do. Levitt (an economist and professor) and Dubner (an author and journalist) apply their considerable skills of analysis and presentation, and then invite professional documentarians in to make it work as a movie.

Freakonomics the movie is a nice introduction to the book, but on its own feels almost like an opinion piece (despite their vehement refusal to choose a platform, such as with the correlation between legalized abortion and lower crime rates). Whet your appetite with the film and then read the book; if you read it already, enjoy the guest filmmaker interpretations and feel a little smarter.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 10/1/10
Time in minutes 85
Director Heidi Ewing, Alex Gibney, Seth Gordon, Rachel Grady, Eugene Jarecki, Morgan Spurlock
Studio Magnolia