Monday, May 14, 2018

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

King of Kong is a testament to really film in general, in that you can make any story fascinating no matter what it is about. The film focuses on two men playing for the high score of Donkey Kong, that's it, and it couldn't be more entertaining. Now again this is in the whole lies of the documentary form, which I'm not going to get into again here. It is once more though this brilliant construction of a story, worthy of a fictional narrative (which in some ways it is), of a classic underdog story. We follow the outside average man Steve Wiebe as he tries to get his high score against the villainous Billy Mitchell, who seems to even dress to play the part of an villain of an 80's sports movie, who holds sway among the top brass of the video high score community known as Twin Galaxies. That all sounds potentially ridiculous, and perhaps it is, but what a compelling story it tells as the film not only crafts so well this rivalry of personalities through game playing, but also in its vibrant exploration of the world that surrounds that rather specific obsession. The film works as it really paints itself mostly with this broader stroke of the "inspirational sports movie" right down to the musical motifs it uses, however it does balance itself well by garnering enough substance within the pointed interviews, or in Billy Mitchell's case villainous monologues. Is this film all true, hardly, it is a crafted narrative just as a film is, however as a crafted narrative it is a wildly entertaining and interesting one.

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse

Francis Ford Coppola made four masterpieces in a row in the 70's, three of which are cultural touchstones even beyond the limits of cinema. The greatest of those, in my humble opinion, being his final film in the Vietnam war epic Apocalypse Now. A film less about the war in a political or social sense, but rather the madness within man illustrated through war. This was Coppola greatest undertaken in the decade, and he never made another masterpiece, this documentary perhaps tells you why that is, and perhaps also why so many the firebrand directors that came to prominence had some strange moment of clarity all around the same time near the end of the decade. This is not the simple story of a the making of a film, even if it is that, but rather an examination of what it would taken to even endeavor to create a film as ambitious as Apocalypse Now. We see Coppola who is a mad man, here, a mad genius perhaps, but also an exasperated craftsman driven to that madness by his own ambition and the madness needed to fulfill it. Apocalypse Now is not a typical film, and its production matches this which this film examines in particularly intimate detail, as found through footage shot by Coppola's wife, Eleanor. The documentary is fascinating not only in that detail, but as a juxtaposition to the film being made. Much like Willard, Coppola struggles within the jungle attempting to discover meaning, and perhaps like Kurtz tries to wield the elements themselves towards his mad vision. No single person is so simple even beyond Coppola from poor Martin Sheen who suffered a heart attack that Coppola covered up in shooting, the egomaniac that was Marlon Brando, or even Dennis Hopper who once again is a few scenes wonder but now as a man who is perhaps mad enough to be on the wavelength as the production of the film. It is unlikely a film like Apocalypse Now, and this is in many ways an explanation of why. As it not only captures the extremes of the conditions, the struggle, the personalities in terms of hardship, but also the extremes in terms of the daring to take such a excursion. 

O.J. Made in America

O.J. Made in America is a brilliant documentary that was released the same year as American Crime Story: The People Vs O.J. I ponder how the series plays after the documentary, but I only can present my perspective of watching the documentary after the series. Even with this view I can clearly say the greater of the two is the documentary which is more insightful, as to be expected, but is also just as effective in terms of capturing the sheer flamboyance of the titular subject as well as the various characters in and around his trial. The series one could almost describe as "How was he found not guilty", as it carefully examines both the man's life and the racial tensions of L.A. parallel to one another though it carefully, and rather notably shows they do not intersect until the trial where it was so carefully used by Simpson's defense. The trial that was made a circus by the defense team, as well as several other figures, but the defense used constantly to its advantage. Its parallel examination successfully reveals, in such powerful detail, how this led to a rather tragic miscarriage of justice as a by product of festering wounds that it illustrates through its brilliant editing of the past footage along with some particularly remarkable interviews with key subjects at every phase of Simpson's life other than Simpson himself of course. Beyond that though the documentary also does document essentially this grotesque abomination of a celebrity that Simpson becomes. The culmination of that technically within the trial, however unlike the fictionalized series the documentary continues past that point. The last episode focusing on Simpson in exile, caused by the guilty verdict in his civil lawsuit, that leads to a darkly comic epilogue, you'd almost had expected them to want to adapt in a dramatic series. The depiction of Simpson's second crime, only using interviews and security footage, you'd think was out of a comedy as it depicts Simpson and his makeshift gang trying to "steal back" his old property. Where this series is so great is that it makes every facet of the life depicted, and of the city that ends up being behind him, endlessly fascinating as every single small detail contains some strange, if not often rather morbid value in giving a full portrait of this man "made in America".

The Jinx

The Jinx is in many ways a rather weird result of the rather underwhelming fictionalized depiction of the story of Robert Durst All Good Things. A film that found no real insight into the story, and offered a seemingly pointless summation of essentially his Wikipedia page. That film though, which Durst himself apparently enjoyed which says a whole lot, prompted Durst to contact that film's director Andrew Jarecki to offer himself up for the very rare interview. This in turn created a documentary and essentially the second chance for the same director to tell the same story, but now with the words of the subject himself at the forefront. Well what's the difference? Everything. Where the fictional film seemingly had nothing to say The Jinx is an endlessly fascinating examination of a man, and deconstruction of the crimes scenes that followed wherever he went. The series has become known for its unbelievable capture of seeming accidental confession, which is undoubtedly an unforgettable conclusion, however the entire series is the compelling and chilling exploration of it central figure. The idea though is less to show the man's guilt as a possibility, but rather explore that he clearly is guilty, since he clearly is guilty. It never explicitly states this, except the man himself stating the fact, and examines the torrid web of insanity the man's life touches. That includes the missing women, the bizarre and painful childhood of the man, his detachment yet connect to the affluent society of New York, the trial where jurors can accept him as someone who dismembers but somehow is not a murderer, the strange clue of a miss spelling, every facet is indeed worthy of the old stranger than fiction description. What is so remarkable of it all is the detail found through each episode as it unravels this mystery that only becomes all the more of oddity the more you learn from it, with the greatest oddity being at the center as essentially this serial killer who regales you his story in such affable yet unnerving way.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Grizzly Man

Well I'll take this as a chance really just to throw my thoughts on the documentary form itself, which I do believe can't quite be examined as just any old film. A documentary alleges a strict honesty from its name, and its suggest that all that you are seeing is truth. The truth of that is however false. In fact documentaries, due to that very idea, are quite often the least honest of all forms of film. A fictional film, even a based on a true story film, have aspects that already inform the viewer that at the very least this is "not real", whereas a documentary it is said to be all true. It is of course not as most documentaries, at least most of the truly effective ones in terms of being a film, craft their own narratives in the documentary form that will often require more tweaking of the truth than your typical biopic. Again though the key difference here is this claims all to be true. Although this approach, which I actually think one could legitimately could argue is in some ways immoral, usually results in what are seen as the best documentaries, because they are the best films. A film after all is not an information dump it is meant to be an experience. An notable filmmaker in this genre than is Werner Herzog who notably directs both documentaries, and fictional features. His documentaries are notable though as he uses himself as a character in a way, sometimes quite literally on screen, but always as the narrator. This changes his films, and grants his documentaries their own compelling idiosyncrasy. There is perhaps no greater example of this than in Grizzly Man where Herzog follows the story of a nature enthusiast Timothy Treadwell who spent his time in the wilderness literally talking to bears where he was eventually eaten by one. This examination is a requiem by Herzog who strongly contrasts Treadwell as a man with a troubled and pessimistic view of nature. This offers a strange but truly striking insight as Herzog traces the man's life, and his steps, inter spliced with footage shot of the real man among nature. It is a striking juxtaposition with sentiment and values of the documentarian and his subject. As always for Herzog he looks at a man living in an extreme, he neither wholly condemns nor condones. He allows one to see the foolish endeavor, and perhaps the fool who did it, but not without a certain sympathy for the mere idea of a human curiosity, or intention not matter how it is spent.


Creed is perhaps the proof needed to cement Rocky as an illogical franchise in some ways, but also one of, if not the, greatest. The idea of making a seventh film, to continue the story through the son of Apollo Creed could have been, and probably would have been a disaster in the making in most hands. Writer/director Ryan Coogler though manages to not only breath life, perhaps his greatest life, into the character of Rocky played at his very best by Sylvester Stallone here, but also infuse the franchise with a brand new energy through Michael B. Jordan's Adonis "Creed" Johnson. As is so often is the case it is all in the execution. Although it is true that Creed hits some familiar beats it manages to do them in a new way. This isn't merely in terms of fight chorography, cinematography and the direction in general, although that certainly is part of it, but also through the unique, and wholly new examination of Adonis's story of trying to both live up to, and live past his famous name. This combined with also interacting with the aging Rocky delivers a particularly powerful return the idea of Rocky that breaks new ground, but also uses what is already there to craft a rather special return to the underdog. It is the best Rocky film since the original, and I'd almost go further, however unlike the original Rocky that brought us Apollo, the opponent, and some of the other supporting characters are not nearly as rich as they were Rocky. It still stands as quite the achievement as is, and suggests that perhaps with enough talent there are few truly bad ideas for films.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Kingdom of Heaven

Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, the director's cut anyways, is the director's return once again to attempting to re-create the epics of old, something he did not achieve in his Christopher Columbus biopic, but did so with Gladiator. In many ways Kingdom of Heaven is more ambitious than that film though they are certainly both technical marvels. Kingdom perhaps is even more so in that department even. The story though is where the real ambition is in attempting to create a real complexity within the world of crusades. Although there are battles to be sure, the film pays careful mind to create a sense of the various political figures within the realm, and grants perspectives in to not only both sides of the conflict but also the various figures therein. The supporting character and rich, and make up the world well, creating this fuller tapestry, which is also aided by the strong performances behind the characters...for the most part. Now one element though that cannot be salvaged within any cut of the film is in the central figure Balian who is there to give us insight into the journey of a crusader. This is sadly lost through Orlando Bloom's lead performance. Bloom honestly is better here than many of his performances, however the role requires more than just a serviceable leading turn. Balian should drive the film far more than he does because he is made so emotionally flat by Bloom. The idea of the original fuel for the man, his wife's suicide, the murder of his half-brother, the attempt to find his estranged father, the chance for redemption all seem somewhat indifferent elements within Bloom's work, yet could have been captivating in a more capable actor's hand. There is not emotional thrust within his performance, despite Balian having that potential as written, leaving a key factor missing from the film through our hero's journey. The film's other elements though are thankfully strong enough to make up for that lacking element. It does prevent the film from becoming a masterpiece though it remains a considerable achievement.