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Nuit et brouillard (1955)
Even if you think you've seen it all...
I've seen an awful lot of Holocaust documentaries (both for scholastic purposes and for writing research), and thought I'd seen everything that could shock me by now. Then I watched "Night And Fog." It's truly amazing how much poignant footage can be captured in a slight 31 minutes. Yes, there are plenty of familiar scenes for those of us who know our history (and who've seen the excellent BBC series like "Nazis: A Warning From History" and "Inside Auschwitz"), but there are moments in "Night..." that genuinely took my breath away, such as a lingering shot of a building whose sole purpose was to store the hair shorn from prisoners and later sold by the Nazis to wig makers and the like. That scene kicked me in the gut as hard as, if not harder than, the more familiar one we've seen of the warehouse full of shoes taken from prisoners before they went to their deaths.
Short, to the point, astonishingly well shot, and gut-wrenching. I agree with the other reviewers who've said this should be mandatory viewing in history classes. If more documentaries could pack the punch that "Night And Fog" has done, perhaps history would be less likely to repeat itself. A must-see.
Confessions of a Superhero (2007)
A glimpse of a VERY different world (+ some additional viewing recs)
I rented this doc after reading about it on the blog of a former Hollywood Blvd "character" (you can catch a glimpse of her as "Fiona," the princess from "Shrek," early in the film). This woman made life on the strip sound bizarre, fun, surreal, heartbreaking, beautiful, life-changing, dramatic...and this film backed up her claims. Most of us, as tourists, don't give a second thought to the costumed characters who pose for photos in the hope of getting tips, but once you see this film, that will change.
As the other reviews indicate, the main thrust of the story here centres around four of the most popular characters that haunt the Mann: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and The Hulk. Among the many things I wasn't expecting was how well these four performers seem to know each other; I guess I hadn't thought about how much bonding goes on when you're braving the crowds of tourists for several hours a day. It's interesting to see the filmmaker allow each performer to opine about the others, in addition to providing their own backstory and their reasons for how and why they ended up in a superhero costume.
The film is funny, touching, sad and eye-opening. I can't think of any demographic who wouldn't find these people and their lives - so different from what most of us know! - interesting to watch. The fact that the viewer gets emotionally invested in these characters' stories is a testament not only to the film but to the people themselves.
There are also some genuine surprises about the off-the-street lives of the four players, ranging from Superman's story about his movie star mom to the sordid pasts (violence, drug use, marital trouble, homelessness and more) they're all trying to escape. It's equal parts tragic and hopeful.
If you enjoyed this one, the same blog source who alerted me to its existence also recommended two others: "The Reinactors" (dir. David Markey), and "The Ambassadors Of Hollywood" (dir. Archie Gips & Matthew Hunt). Both apparently feature more of the Superman we met in "Confessions..." and also revisit the others, as well as introducing us to a few (like Jack Sparrow, Chewbacca and Elmo) of whom we only caught a glimpse this time around. I'm keeping an eye out for both documentaries, as "Confessions..." was decidedly compelling enough to make me want to know more about the folks behind the masks. See it for yourself and I suspect you'll agree.
A must-see ONLY if you're a die-hard Cassel fan.
This is one of the more bizarre movies I've ever seen, and that's saying quite a bit. As the blurb tells us, a group of rough-and-tumble college kids are out clubbing on Christmas Eve when they're persuaded to spend the holiday at the country house of a pretty girl; after getting ejected for a bar fight, they all pile into a car and off they go. Horror movie tropes tell us this isn't going to end well, of course, which is what keeps us at least mildly interested.
I won't say much more about the plot, as it's fairly self-explanatory as you watch things unfold (although the writers/directors don't seem to worry too much about making things make sense to the viewers - there's no backstory or explanation about the strange, creepy fringe characters, but perhaps it's not necessary). Vincent Cassel is nearly unrecognizable as Joseph, the insane-right-off-the-bat gardener, especially compared to some of his more recent roles (I'm thinking his suave, sexy ballet master in "Black Swan," or his Russian gangster in "Eastern Promises," for example), and he really makes this movie all on his own. His strange obsession with Bart, one of the college boys, is quite disturbing to watch, especially once we find out what his true intentions really are. You can't help but perk up with interest, dread and morbid fascination every time Crazy Gardener Joseph is on screen.
All in all: Not a great movie by any stretch, but passable as a creepy horror film, and Cassel is THE reason to see it. If you're already a fan of his, put this in your rental queue. If you're not, this role may repulse you enough to never want to watch him in anything else!
The Iceman Interviews (2003)
Bone-chilling crimes laid bare. So honest it's painful.
My fascination with true crime doesn't usually extend to the Mafia and the hit men-types. This DVD had me riveted all the same. It's 150 minutes, divvied up into three distinct sections, of delving into the mind of a man who seems incapable of feeling anything whatsoever - remorse, satisfaction, guilt, a thrill - when he murders people. As he says himself, "For the right price, I'll talk to anybody." And we learn that firsthand as we watch the three parts of these interviews. It's baffling to realize there are people out there who go through life experiencing no emotions whatsoever, yet still get married, have kids, hold down jobs, and so on. That is precisely what Richard "The Iceman" Kuklinski did for decades.
While there is some repetition from one part to the next, I was impressed by the documentarians' ability to add and expand with each segment, rather than just trotting out the same facts and confessions. It culminates with an interview by the famed Dr. Park Dietz, which is fitting, as that segment debatably provides the viewer with the most uncomfortable moments as the two men face off. Interestingly, Dietz gives Kuklinski an opportunity to turn the tables and ask the questions, and what he asks is very telling. At one point, after a contentious point is raised, we get a real glimpse of what the Iceman's victims likely faced in their last moments: an anger that burns cold.
There are more than a couple of standout moments during Kuklinski's confessions, ones that I imagine leave a lot of viewers puzzling over the human condition. At one point he expresses...not guilt, exactly, but regret?...over the way he conducted a particular killing. It's hard for us to know if those were real feelings, or if this very smart man had just learned to approximate human behaviour, a skill that surely made him even better at his job.
The segments don't feature an overly graphic display of gore, but between some real crime scene photos and some no-holds-barred descriptions of the Iceman's deeds, I'd say this isn't for the easily offended or the squeamish. But if you're interested in hearing a man bluntly relate his truly horrific crimes (murders he estimates are in excess of 200), and are a student of body language (which is indulged by the very still camera work, always focused on his face while he speaks - particularly fascinating when the Iceman "melts," if only briefly, while speaking of his wife and children), put this in your Watchlist right now.
Shallow Grave (1994)
A glimpse of the greatness that became Danny Boyle, and a fabulous thriller.
I saw this film before "Trainspotting" came out, so I had no clue who this Ewan McGregor fellow was, or what sort of director Danny Boyle would turn out to be. "Shallow Grave" is a great enough film to have sealed the deal for me: I have sought out his work (and have, for the most part, loved it!) ever since.
You've already read vague bits about the plot, I'm sure, and I shan't give away any more than the basics - three roommates and best friends are inseparable until a suitcase full of money, found through some rather unpleasant circumstances (to say the least), causes not only friction and paranoia but also potential for violence, as they each struggle with their own morality over what to do. Do they call the cops and return the cash? Tell no-one what they had to do to keep it, and live the high life? It seems so simple in the beginning, boiled down to a single conversation over a kitchen table, but the complexities of that one decision soon become awfully clear. And as David (Eccleston) says at one point about a camcorder, bought as a new toy by his flatmates, "Yes, you PAID five hundred quid for it, but we don't know what the COST to US will be yet." Eerie foreshadowing, there. And that is where the fun...and fear...all begin.
What follows is a story that manages to ratchet up the tension at a furious pace. The whole film fits into just over 90 minutes, and it is very impressive to see how effectively the entire mood changes as these three roommates begin doubting each other, themselves, their neighbours, the police, and the occasional unfamiliar car parked outside their Edinburgh flat... The fun and hijinx for the trio (and for us, the audience) are brought to a screeching halt, and the rest of the film stays taut, never tipping its hand to let you know what might happen the next time someone comes to their door.
If you've seen and enjoyed Boyle's more recent works ("Millions," "28 Days Later," "Slumdog Millionaire," "127 Hours"...and especially "Trainspotting," as you'll see a LOT of familiar faces who got their start here), go back to this one to see where his true style came to be. It's no surprise at all that he's gone on to Oscar acclaim; he's clearly been building his craft and unique methods for some time. "Shallow Grave" is a fantastic noir-ish thriller, managing to be laugh-out-loud funny in places (the three leads are fabulous, particularly McGregor and Eccleston) and then turning very, very dark on you without warning.
And I must say...the ending alone is worth the ride. ;)
Gacy House (2010)
Imagine the dullest episode of "Paranormal State" combined with the worst "Most Haunted"...
Why, oh, why did I not read any reviews before carelessly putting this into my rental queue?? Please do yourselves a service and don't make the same mistake I did. This isn't even worth a chuckle.
Apparently this is, in fact, "Paranormal Entity 2." I didn't see the first one; to read about it, we're led to believe it's infinitely duller and more derivative of "Paranormal Activity" and others of that ilk than we could've possibly imagined. I believe it. And wouldn't you know it? The opening screen tells us that this is "found footage" on the body of a victim, and "it has been edited into a narrative" to tell us what happened and why there's only a videotape left. Even the font is the same as "PA" and "PA2." The time stamps. Ev-er-y-thing.
The plot is more or less already outlined in the basic summary here. A bunch of "researchers"/ghost hunters decide to spend a night at 8213 Summerdale, which used to be where John Wayne Gacy's house stood. That house was torn down after 26 bodies were found in his basement, but apparently someone built a new house on the lot once Gacy had been executed. Now it's supposedly a hot spot for all sorts of paranormal shenanigans, so naturally a crack team of pseudo-scientists, cameramen and pretty blonde college students feel compelled to go there in hopes of communicating with Gacy's spirit.
There's really not much else I can say, plot-wise. If you've ever seen an episode of "Most Haunted" or "Paranormal State" on TV - or if you've so much as seen a commercial for them - you already know what happens. Things go bump in the night, everyone thinks one member of the team must be making those noises just to freak the others out, then something else happens (lights flicker! doors open and close by themselves! they check the camera footage!) which convinces everyone... Etcetera. For 85 long minutes. There's no gore to speak of; there are no legitimate scares whatsoever. There are night vision cameras in empty rooms. There's a medium-type to bless the house and ask that they be kept safe while they attempt to chat up ol' John. (They even bring in a "pure, white t-shirt" belonging to an adolescent boy to try to tempt Gacy's spirit out of hiding. Yes. Really.) The few "special effects" at the "climax" are beyond lame. There is a lot of hysterical running around because someone saw a shadow, or the fireplace made a banging sound. For eighty. five. minutes.
I am all for a low-budget, clever little popcorn horror film. I'm not a horror snob. I don't need art-house subtitles or buckets of blood or a high-concept twist ending or a "Hostel"-esque torture theme to be scared. What I DO need is a character who's even remotely interesting, or something that doesn't look like it would've failed as a high school drama project. This couldn't pass the muster. ANY muster.
I bet you can guess the ending. You've seen it dozens of times before, but done far better. Really and truly one of the worst movies I've ever seen. Take my word for it: if you spend one minute guessing how it all turns out, and the other 84 minutes doing anything BUT watching this...thing...you'll be a much less resentful person for it. Can you tell I'm bitter? I have nobody to blame but myself! But if I save JUST ONE of you from wasting those precious minutes... Nah, I'll still be ticked off.
Neither informative nor titillating!
I think there's a story buried in these male strip clubs, but the people who put together this documentary didn't expose it.
The interviews with the dancers at this particular Canadian strip joint are strange and often difficult to understand. They're also few and far between; we get a few lines of explanation about why these men have chosen their line of work, how it affects their families and relationships, and how their view of women has changed now that they're paid to entertain them.
Beyond that, it's 90+ minutes of repetitive hip-hop music, onstage dance sequences (you can even pick out identical footage that is reused two and three times throughout the film!), a lot of women screaming, and a few brief glimpses of nudity. There was surely a deeper tale to tell about these men and their clientele; perhaps someone else will tackle the subject at some point and do it justice.
As for this one? Don't waste your hour and a half!
Ônibus 174 (2002)
A genuine attempt to answer the question, "Why?"
This documentary stood out for me from others of its ilk, because it focuses not just on what happened on a bus one summer day in Brazil, but also reaches into the socioeconomic situation at the time and gives us a real glimpse of why a young man would be driven to take people hostage, and how he felt he had no other options outside of a life of crime.
Watching "Bus 174" is like observing a criminal event through a prism. There are countless sides to every element of it. The beauty of Rio de Janeiro is juxtaposed on screen with the horrors as we're taken through the escalation of a hostage situation, all graphically captured by Brazilian TV camera crews. We can see how wide the gulf is between the rich and the poor, even though the lives of each are lived only miles apart in the same city. We are told how inadequately the police force has been trained and equipped to deal with the crime in the city, let alone such a volatile situation. And we're shown how a single bus stopped on a busy thru-way brings an entire city to a screeching halt. With the rich context given to us by the filmmakers, we find ourselves sympathizing with the gunman (Sandro do Nascimento) *and* his hostages. And while we now know how badly it will end, we can't help but hope that somehow Sadro's surrender will be accepted, that he and all of the hostages will make it out unscathed, that history can be rewritten. Tragically, it cannot, and we are shown the moments when lives are lost. We're also left to contemplate how many ways this could have ended differently, and how little it may have taken to do so.
Interviews with everyone, from survivors to police personnel to reporters on the scene, as well as people who knew Sandro during his horrific childhood, are very effective in making us feel as though we too were there during that harrowing 4-hour long encounter. Learning about the gunman's tragic history - what he had to survive to reach even the young age he had when this incident ended his life - and how, in the aftermath, police scrambled to re-frame the incident in their favour, add to the viewer's internal conflict. We're not accustomed to experiencing such empathy for both hostage-taker and victim. That is a major strength of this film: we're allowed to see it from all sides, which makes it that much more heartbreaking in the end.
This is not for the faint of heart. We're not spared much. But "Bus 174" is a documentary after which others should strive to model themselves. It is truly a must-see, as it comes as close as anything possibly can to answering what we always ask after a tragedy: "Why?"
An impressively thorough look at what culminated in one tragic day.
It's now 2011, ten years after the world as we knew it was changed by the attacks on 9/11. We've all seen endless news footage, documentaries, even Hollywood dramatizations of different elements of the tragedy and the subsequent "War On Terror." I was deeply affected by what I saw on 9/11 and have read and viewed a great deal about it since then as a result, so for me to say that this 2-part DVD is probably the best, and most comprehensive, of its kind is significant.
"War On America" gives exhaustive background into the long history between the US and much of the Middle East, focusing particularly on the last couple of decades and what went into the pressure cooker from both sides to make it explode in the way that it has. The documentary spends ample time explaining in detail how the American government came to have involvement with Osama bin Laden long before many of us had ever heard his now infamous name. The conflict of differing values between America and countries including the likes of Afghanistan and Pakistan is shown to us step by step, from its modern-day inception as we know it through the battles on the soil of both sides (the impact the Gulf War had on how America was perceived in the Middle East; the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre; the attack on the USS Cole; etc.). It gives us an excellent groundwork upon which we can begin to understand what factors were at work when 9/11 took place. "War On America" is approximately 105 minutes focusing on this very modern history, and it held information that I'd not come across elsewhere.
"Zero Hour" revisits elements of 9/11 with which most of us are more familiar: it takes us step by step through what each of the terrorists did in the time leading up to boarding those planes, shows us what incredible luck they had on their side to have slipped the noose so many times in order to pull off bin Laden's "masterpiece," and includes interviews with everyone from Intel to survivors to ticket agents who were at the airport the morning of the attacks. It, too, runs about 105 minutes, and in the end it feels as though you've looked at the tragic day from nearly all possible viewpoints.
If you want to watch just one examination of all of the known mechanics behind 9/11, National Geographic's "Inside" is the one you're looking for. It balances what is known with what is not, and manages to paint the fullest picture I've yet to see all in one place.
Mr. Big (2007)
Potentially fascinating, but tainted by bias.
Odds are some of the people interested in seeing this documentary have already seen the "48 Hours Mystery" about Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay, two Canadian teenagers who were convicted of murdering the Rafay family in order to fund their screenplay (which bore frightening similarities to the crime itself). That show only barely touches on this "Mr. Big" character, and it's certainly a subject worth studying further, which this documentary tries to do.
As the summary indicates, "Mr. Big" is not just one undercover RCMP officer who may or may not have coerced the secretly videotaped confessions from Burns and Rafay; "Mr. Big" is a largely unknown and under-the-radar operation used by the RCMP to catch criminals up in carefully orchestrated "organized crime" and then bargaining to get them out of trouble if they'll just confess to whatever the RCMP originally sought when enlisting them in this charade. Now THAT is something that would make Canadians sit up and take notice if it were to hit the nightly news.
The trouble with this documentary is that its maker, Tiffany Burns, is clearly too invested in presenting the wrongs committed against her brother Sebastian (she believes him to be completely innocent, which is his claim as well; some who saw the "48 Hours" investigation might have serious reservations about that) to give a thorough look into "Mr. Big" as a whole. She does conduct a few interviews with other ostensibly innocent Canadians who share their stories of being "railroaded" by the RCMP in the same way we're told Sebastian and Atif were, and those glimpses into the hows and whys behind "Mr. Big" are compelling. But the combination of her bias toward her brother and the lack of access and cooperation she gained from the RCMP (which is understandable when we hear the phone conversation between Burns and the head of the task force; his concern may well be due to the fact that exposure would cost an undercover operation a great deal of effectiveness) leave this feeling a bit lopsided and incomplete. Worth a watch, yes, but we're not afforded nearly enough of a glimpse into this "shadow force" of the RCMP as we would need to make any concrete conclusions. Instead we get more about the Burns/Rafay case (again, understandable, since Ms. Burns had ready access and a vested interest in that area) than about the police unit at all.
If this documentary piques your interest about the case that started Tiffany on the trail, definitely seek out that "48 Hours" episode as well; without it, the viewer ends up lacking vital context that Tiffany was unable to fully bring to the table. Unfortunately it only sheds more light on her brother's case, not on the fascinating and frightening idea that the RCMP has a sub-group whose sole purpose is, to hear her tell it, wresting false confessions out of innocent people. There doesn't seem to be anything out there just yet that can take us further down THAT rabbit hole.