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For extended list, doc news, trailers and 'best in categories', please see www.thedochierarchy.com
For more, including a Top 100 of All-Time, please see www.thedochierarchy.com
If I've missed out on obvious one, best to assume I just haven't seen it yet!
For Top 100, please see www.thedochierarchy.com
Failing to rise to the heights of Hoop Dreams
Nestled against the Atlantic in West Africa, Senegal is a long way away from the chapels and gyms of up-state, private American high schools. Nevertheless, a factory line has been established for just that journey. SEEDs Academy, located in the country's capital Dakar, is a program for the nation's elite teenage basketballers, founded and overseen by a scout for the Dallas Mavericks. A proved success, recruiters from well-funded schools all over the States trek to SEEDs to find the star capable of driving them to championship success. Anne Buford's 'Elevate' introduces four such graduates offered scholarships to the US, tracing their passage from the dusty Dakar streets to the well-manicured lawns of the American educational elite.
Perhaps conscious of the need to differentiate 'Elevate' from Steve James' inimitable 'Hoop Dreams', Buford works hard to highlight the cultural leap taken by the young men, rather than focusing purely on the broader goal of NBA stardom. Cutting back and forth between up-state New York and the streets of Senegal therefore, the pressure of settling in is shown in a stark light. Assane, a softly-spoken giant at 7'0, is shown shuffling nervously in and out of compulsory chapel services, withdrawing to his room to pray silently, his Muslim faith a rarity among the WASP population. Aziz, initially shown as the charismatic leader of the SEEDs group in Senegal, is a shell of his former self in the US, awkwardly misinterpreting his teammates well-intended questions and forced to eat away from his colleagues during Ramadan. Personally, these insights are the film's high-point, the intrigue being how they adjust to a foreign world and culture - away from the court - and only then, how those adjustments affect their on court performance.
Unfortunately, James' shadow returns as each of the men begin to suffer setbacks to their dreams (a knee injury to Aziz almost hauntingly similar to that suffered by William Gates) and their resolve is brought into question. Somewhat programmatically, the knee injury is followed by a relatively benign montage where Aziz is shown looking disconsolate on the bench as his team go on to lose game after game without him. Why this is important I'm not sure. Furthermore, Buford does not help herself by deciding to track four subjects, rather than a more manageable two or three. Hoop Dreams was almost twice as long as Elevate, and only had the two subjects in Agee and Gates. In Buford's case, the extended cast leaves Elevate feeling short and rushed.
Maybe it is too harsh to view Elevate in the shadow of Hoop Dreams, but the comparisons are inevitable and necessary. Ultimately, in such a comparison, Buford's effort comes up well short.
American Teacher (2011)
A missed opportunity.
Ambitious in scope and sweet in nature, American Teacher ultimately fails to convince the viewer of the validity of its central argument. Funded by a non-profit called The Teacher Salary Project, the film attempts to argue that the root of America's education crisis lies in a workforce (3.2 million in 2010) who are undervalued and therefore driven away by the combination of a lack of financial support and a lack of respect for the teaching profession. American Teacher's solution? Fairly simply, pay them more.
Rhena Jasey, one of the five teachers documented, offers the most convincing case. A young Harvard graduate, she decided to take a job in teaching to the bemusement of her peers, all of whom had jobs in lined up in law, finance and medicine with starting salaries well in excess of her own $35,000. Smart, grounded and at ease in her classroom, 'Ms. Jasey" is the kind of teacher we'd all want for our children, and the inference is made that if public schools could offer more competitive salaries and promotion prospects, more of Jasey's ilk could be attracted to a career in the classroom.
Thankfully, more evidence is found to support the argument than merely Jasey's own testimony. Graphics (if you've ever seen Waiting for Superman, they are frustratingly similar) are rolled out to lament the United States' current education problems vis-a-vis the rest of the world. Finland is once again held up as the exemplar, a state in which teaching is the most sought-after profession and, coincidentally or not, a state where teaching salaries match up competitively with any other line of work. If the film has our attention at this point, it lets itself down through a combination of not answering the obvious question - where is this money to be found? - and allowing itself to be quagmired in the sob stories of the current class of underpaid teachers.
That is not to belittle their situations, but to question why three-quarters of the film was spent describing the anguish caused by the current system and only a quarter spent on the actual solution proffered, particularly when the former is known (if ignored) while the latter is supposedly novel. 'American Teacher' is well-intentioned, and its subjects are as selfless as they are important, but when addressing a matter of policy, you can't allow the details to be lost in the emotion.
This was a missed opportunity.
Less biopic than soapbox.
Towards the end of Astra Taylor's 'Zizek!', the Slovenian philosopher is convinced by his son to put the Lion King on TV. As the child squeals with excitement, Zizek throws his head back, turns to the camera and laments 'oh now he's going to act all narcissistically amused'. Without delving into the inner-workings of Zizek's scholarship, for such a pursuit is so far beyond the means of this writer it would be a joke to even attempt it, the off-hand remark goes some way to encapsulating the enigma and eccentricity of the renowned Lacanian/Marxist author.
The film itself probably struggles between providing a platform for Zizek to opine on modern society, and in doing so alienating the 99% who won't truly understand what he has to say (*puts hand up*), and delving into the psyche of a truly remarkable mind. One does not have to be a philosophy major to marvel at the language Zizek uses and the speed at which he constructs arguments and rattles off examples that ground his work in our quotidian existence. At just 71 minutes, there is no harm in the being restricted to the latter, but there is a certain frustration in being taken to the verge of understanding an argument and then abruptly swept off to a different corner of Zizek's scholarship.
The filmmaker's synopsis describes Zizek! as: 'Never ceasing to observe the paradoxes that underpin our perception of reality, little goes untheorized over the course of the film, particularly Zizek's recurring themes -- ideology, belief, revolution, and love.' Beware the creative license taken there, for much goes untheorized, but expect to be provoked to think. Be switched on if you want to watch it.
Marathon Boy (2010)
Losing sight of what really matters.
Forced into the hands of renowned Judo coach Biranchi Das by a mother unable to look after him, Budhia Singh was an ordinary, if especially foul-mouthed, child, with a particularly bleak future. Ordered to run laps of the judo area by Das one morning, the three-year old Singh did not stop until his coach returned hours later; expert enough to recognize sporting talent when he saw it, Das took the young tearaway under his arm and set course for Olympic success. Gemma Atwal's Marathon Boy is the tale of how the coach's dream was cruelled at every step by over-zealous child welfare officials, a corrupt political establishment and Das' own narcissism.
Atwal's documentary is not neutral; early on she establishes herself firmly in camp with Das, who without accepting a cent from state coffers, operates a Judo school that also functions as an orphanage for slum children like Budhia Singh. The relationship between coach and protégé is shown to be warmer and more intimate than the description proffered by Child Welfare officials, who are quickly drawn by the frenzied media attention to Singh's exertions (he had run numerous marathons by the time he turned 4). Banning the state's young star from running, but allowing him to stay in the custody of his coach (soon-to-be father), the state challenges the machismo within Das. Unfazed, he refuses to accept the end of the Olympic dream - but whose dream is it really? Does Singh, at 4 or 5, really know what Olympic participation would mean, other than pleasing his coach? Drawing on footage from over five years, Das is portrayed as the flawed hero at the heart of a saga that quickly grows out of hand. His own friends and family essentially narrate the footage revealing the relentlessness with which he attacks the officials that prevent Budhia from running and, by extension therefore, prevent Das from having the last laugh in his running battle with the authorities. In a state and society so clearly corrupt and unwilling to accept such open brinkmanship, Das' fate looms well before he is in fact killed.
The tragedy, as the film's final shots of Budhia in a private school and with a sporting scholarship show, is the blatant pettiness of the whole struggle. Das fell victim not to the state but his own ego. The state did not wish to see Singh's ability curtailed, nothing would please them more than a local sporting star; they wished only for Das to admit his subservience to officialdom, something he was unwilling to do. Does he deserve admiration for his courage, if that was what it was, to stand up to a system that desired such obsequious behaviour? Or is the real tragedy, as I believe, that he couldn't look past the loss of face to see that it was in both his and Budhia's best interests to accept the state of affairs, however morally corrupt? I'll be following Budhia's fate closely. Regardless of who coaches him, the boy can really run.
Concluding Thought: Agassi, Woods, Beckham...they all started at similar ages. Singh's flaw was not his age, it was his sport. We look upon the exertions of running somehow differently.
Fighting the system you helped establish
In 2003, Russian oil magnate Mikhael Khodorkovsky was arrested on charges of fraud by the Putin government. The owner of oil giant Yukos, one of the largest companies to emerge from the privatisation of Russian state assets during the 1990s, Khodorkovsky later had a prominent and public role as a financier of the Russian opposition in the 2000s. Quickly found guilty, the oligarch was sentenced to nine years in prison, later extended to twelve. From prison, Khodorkovsky has waged a campaign in Western media to raise awareness of the injustice of his incarceration and the corruption of the Russian political system that permitted such a turn of events.
Cyril Tuschi's 'Khodorkovsky' is part-biopic, part-criminal investigation, seeking to uncover (against substantial odds) both who the real Khodorkovsky was and whether his well-publicised trial was political posturing on the behest of Putin or an accurate reflection of the murky dealings of the Russian oil industry - an industry borne out of the questionable auctions of the Yeltsin government in the 1990s. Khodorkovsky, in a manner similar to his fellow oligarchs, acquired Yukos in 1995 at one such state auction, paying well below the market value. Soon acquiring a reputation for being a perennial corporate governance abuser, Yukos (and its billionaire owner) underwent a volte face at the turn of the millennium. As it's transparency began to encourage immediate investment. the share price saw a swift upward turn. Simultaneously, on the advice of an American PR firm, Khodorkovsky launched "Open Russia', investing $100 million in Russian education projects. By 2002, Khodorkovsky was both the world's richest man under 40 and the symbol for sound civic governance in a Russia still blighted by corruption and inequality.
Though rich and powerful enough to brush shoulders with the oil magnates of the world, Khodorkovsky's mistake was to take that attitude, that perceived arrogance, and impose it upon a Russian political elite not yet ready to accept their subservience to the new business elite. Specifically, Khodorkovsky butted heads with Putin, ignoring the President's plea for the select group of oil oligarchs to stay out of state politics entirely; associating himself closely with the opposition to Putin's iron-fisted rule, Khodorkovsky emerged as a powerful motor to the campaign offering a increasingly popular alternative. His days were numbered.
Though no saint himself, Khodorkovsky's arrest and incarceration emerge as a representation of everything still wrong with Russian politics. The cronyism expected of the Russian oligarchs in return for ease of operation betray the long road left to transparency, for which Putin remains a sturdy barrier. For as long as he remains behind bars (and Putin remains in power), Khodorkovsky may question his decision to return to Russia (many others sought exile around the same time), but there is hope that he will use the experience to justify a run for office once released. Until then, he waits.
Concluding Thought: Brilliantly paced. Difficult, complex topic rendered manageable.
Bombay Beach (2011)
Need a quantum of solace?
Once a saline oasis for the Californian elite, Bombay Beach is one of a number of former resort towns dotted around the inland Salton Sea, fashioned in 1905 when heavy rainfall caused the Colorado River to breach its banks. Fish were first introduced in the 1930s, and by the 1950s the tourist trade was booming; Sinatra would perform in the area and Eisenhower would also make an appearance. By 1970 however, the former hotspot was deserted. Rising water levels had destroyed much of the infrastructure, and further investment dried up entirely. Har'el's 'Bombay Beach' explores what is left of the town, a refuge for the lost, the senile and the sick. And yet, in their desire to escape the reality of that where they have come, Bombay Beach recoups its image as a destination of choice, of value - it may not offer much, but its inhabitants seek the solace and contemplation its isolation offers.
Love Free or Die (2012)
It's not the size of the man, it's the size of the fight in the man.
In 2008, the Anglican Communion met in Lambeth, England for their decennial conference. All consecrated Bishops were invited to the assembly bar one, New Hampshire's Gene Robinson. As the Communion's first (and only) gay bishop, not only was his invitation withdrawn but he was actively and forcibly prevented from participating in any part of the conference (including, in one farcical scene, entering Canterbury Cathedral). Unwavered, Robinson journeys to the UK to publicise his forced isolation, speaking at fringe events around the Conference.
Seen as a microcosm of the wider's gay community's struggle for acceptance, Robinson's battle against the odds is fitting. He is in a long-term, stable relationship with his partner, is a loving father to two daughters (from a previous marriage) and has the blessing and love of his own parish, yet continues to both suffer abuse for his way of life, and come up against scriptural barriers to gay progression in the wider Anglican community. Whilst there is a sense of inevitability about the Church's acceptance of a homosexual lifestyle, it still takes courageous and strong-willed advocates like Robinson to drag them into modernity, kicking and screaming if need be.
If one aspect bothered me, it was that aside from calm, if disjointed, excuses from Archbishop Rowan Williams and the tearful explanation of a female Bishop, the question of marrying Robinson's agenda with scriptural authority is not explored in any depth. Director Macky Alston's point may be that Robinson's story is about what is morally right, rather than scripturally acceptable, but when the opposition points so obstinately to Biblical scripture, their case requires addressing.
That said, Love Free or Die is still a powerful proponent of a good cause, and if it succeeds in ensuring the Anglican Communion stays in touch with the reality on the streets, all the better. Robinson's charisma and enthusiasm is infectious, and if his faith were shared by more of his Episcopal or Anglican brethren, the Church would not be seen as the backward, slow-moving institution that many (including Robinson) consider it to be.
How the British have always appreciated true comedy.
Bill Hicks did not live an extraordinary life. Born into a middle-class suburban home with doting parents and overachieving siblings, the teen found his calling in furnishing extraordinary insights into the ordinary life that he, and most other Americans in the 70s and 80s, led. Getting his start as a teen comic in a local Texan comedy club, he was the young upstart coming at issues from a fresh angle, the ease and confidence with which he delivers his jokes distinguishing him as a special talent.
Dropping out of school and chasing the dream in LA, Hicks struggles with failure and fitting in with what the world expects of his humour. Falling into patterns of drug abuse and alcoholism, his comedy mirrored an outlook on life that was not mainstream. He was cynical, he was rash and he was jarring, and for all those reasons, he was an acquired taste. His anti-American routines particularly did not bode well for his career; in an industry where shock is now the norm, Hicks was ahead of his time, but that was to prove little consolation.
Eventually, ousting himself from the cycle of rejection and abuse, Hicks winds up in New York where he gets himself clean and his magical touch returns. Though he never sacrifices his right to say and joke about whatever he wishes (and highlights from various gigs are used as proof of this), in doing so he pushes back against the mainstream tide that flirts with but never embraces him. Diagnosed with cancer in his early 30s, Hicks never receives the true acceptance of the American audience that he perhaps craved, but he died in the knowledge that he stuck to certain values that never let him compromise what he believed in to merely give audiences what they wanted to hear. Many would argue that, in itself, that is a very American value.
Harlock and Thomas' film joins the growing collection of posthumous albums and features that have attempted to reclaim Hicks' image, to wonderful effect. Whether it is guilt for ignoring him whilst alive, America has finally embraced the humour of a man whose only really fame was an ocean away in the United Kingdom. As only a proud American could care enough to write the jokes about the fatherland that Hicks managed, his emotional emigration to the British Isles is as tragic personally as it was a highlight professionally.
If the documentary has a flaw, it is that Hicks wasn't around to truly finish it. This is a half-finished documentary because it was a half-finished life.
Concluding Thought: As a resident of the UK, the portrayal of Hick's success in the British Isles being down to his anti-Americanism is somewhat simplistic. The UK has a wonderful tradition of supporting comedians regardless of background or content, purely because they make them laugh.
How Biebermania might just be justified.
It's easy to lose the real Justin Bieber within the Biebermania that has swept the world, turning most of the young star's concerts into ostensible national events, regardless of location. If a bit of traffic and squealing girls was all it was, most wouldn't mind too much, but Biebermania is not something that you can easily escape. Social media platforms, notably Twitter, have become circle jerks for Bieber fans to reassure themselves that they are still the majority, and therefore cool. In fact, the more one considers the whole phenomenon, the more one has to accept that it is not Bieber that drives or affects the hatred a great many have with him, rather it's the manner in which his fans show their affection.
Thankfully, for all concerned (except perhaps the real haters), Chu's film focuses on the source of Biebermania, not the effect. Beginning with the first YouTube videos of young Justin strumming his guitar to NeYo, we get the real Justin Bieber story, told by those who were there before love for Justin was determined by how loud they could squeal or how quickly they could get something to trend. His grandparents, who helped raise him, are wonderfully supportive and charmingly unaware of the impact of Bieber's brand. His mother, far younger and attractive than I certainly expected, is as proud as you would expect, and in a media landscape where mothers are often shown to expect so much of their offspring, it's comforting that she really does seem to have her son's interests at heart.
And finally, there's Bieber himself. Thrown into a world and a level of stardom that he surely can't have ever imagined, he doesn't appear yet to have let it sink in. Shown enjoying the company of old school friends and hawking outside a local theatre, Chu manages to establish enough of a link between the Bieber of YouTube anonymity and the Bieber of Madison Square Gardens to convince you that while the brand may grow and develop daily, Bieber himself has not changed. You can manufacture to a point, but can you teach the musical ability (Bieber plays a host of instruments), the charisma, the voice, the showmanship? Probably not.
There is something for everyone in this, it really is a marketer's dream. For the fans, the insight to Bieber, his entourage and his general being will have them buying DVDs. For those who aren't fans, this isn't just a marketing tool, it's an expose about teenage stardom, about the power of viral media and the value of hard work, regardless of age and experience. You might not necessarily be converted to his music, but you'll enjoy the musician (and a musician he is).
Concluding Thought: You can dislike the music, but it's hard to fault the work ethic, the charm and the determination to succeed.
Racing Dreams (2009)
How much is your kids' hobby worth?
"Racing Dreams", Marshall Curry's first foray back into film post-Streetfight, channels Steve James' timeless "Hoop Dreams" in more than just name. Focusing the camera's attention on the soft underbelly of a sport that encapsulates the country's attention, Curry immerses himself in the lives of three stars of the World Karting Association, a known breeding ground for future NASCAR drivers. Editing over 500 hours of footage down into just 93 minutes, the Oscar-nominated director manages to weave a tale of adrenaline-fuelled competition and adolescent drama in equal measure.
The three racing protégés play more than their part. Josh Hobson, the 12-year old defending champion, is the competition's (and his own school's) pin-up boy. The consummate professional, he is shown studying up on drivers' autobiographies, analysing the victory speeches of NASCAR winners for tips on how to thank sponsors (the question of finance is a recurrent and difficult topic) and even driving the sale of raffle tickets at his own fund-raising golf day. Managing to race on weekends whilst preserving a 4.0 GPA, Hobson is the perfectionist who will stop at nothing to increase his chances of achieving his goal of becoming a professional driver.
Annabeth Barnes, 11 years old and the sole female in a competition (and sport) dominated by men, is competing not only with the prejudice of her compatriots, but also with the pressure of a racing family. A third-generation driver, her affable, middle-class parents both work hard to allow her to chase the family dream of becoming a professional driver, but she increasingly finds herself torn by the desire to remain a normal girl and not have to sacrifice time that could be spent with her friends.
Finally, Brandon Warren is the 13-year old competition's renegade. Disqualified for dangerous driving the previous year when set to win the championship, Warren has not had it easy in life. Son to a drug-taking mother and a father in and out of prison, he has been brought up by his stoic grandparents, who do all they can to keep him on the right path. Perhaps the most naturally talented driver on the circuit, Warren's career hopes are cruelled by his prickly image, sponsor's are unlikely to attach themselves to such a personality. Regretfully, this season therefore looms as his last.
Curry's film is edited superbly, with just enough racing knowledge to make the action sequences understandable and just enough off-track, personal drama to open up the drivers to their audience. That said, the film often feels disparate as we jump between the complications and uncertainty in the lives of Brandon and Annabeth, and the all-steam-ahead attitude of Hobson. For the first two, racing is competing with the other issues in their live, Brandon with a deadbeat dad and the prospect of a military career, Barnes with puberty and a disillusionment with constant racing. By contrast, for Hobson racing is his life, his parents may discuss money worries but his father is unyielding in his pledge to mortgage their life away to allow Joshua to chase his dream.
Perhaps it is a sign of a great documentary that it is sufficiently engaging to merit the critique that it deserved two, separate tellings, but that is nevertheless the conclusion drawn.
Concluding Thought: At $5,000 a race, this is one hobby my kids (when they arrive) won't be picking up.