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Last Train Home (2010)

Last Train Home

★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Lixin Fan

Imdb Link

Every year, one hundred and thirty million Chinese workers migrate back home to their home towns, the largest human migration in the world.

This documentary, about Chinese workers going home over a holiday season, is very bland, uninteresting, and all together a bit of a mess of a film. Last Train Home may be about this grand event, but it really centers on a single family, traveling home to be together. This is a cool premise, taking a grand event, and giving a more intimate view on the subject matter, however, they picked the most bland family possible to follow. They were not an interesting group of characters. I’m not saying that they should have been like a reality TV show family or anything, but just people that have something interesting about them. An average family will be interesting to watch, somehow they managed to find a family with nothing interesting about any of them. The director of Last Train Home focuses on these characters to give us a more intimate view on the Chinese migration, but instead of feeling close to these people, they still feel just like more faces in the enormous crowds. There’s a shot in the end of the film, where one of the family members walks away from the camera and blends into the crowd, which leads me to believe that possibly having these people be nearly characterless was a directorial choice to give them an equal importance to everyone else in the crowds. If that was a directorial choice, I respect that, but I can’t forgive it. There is a reason why people write compelling characters, and most documentaries focus on interesting people. I will give Last Train Home credit for the way it looks. It’s hard to shoot a documentary with really good cinematography, especially when the documentary mostly focuses on large crowds of people waiting for trains. However Last Train Home managed to look stunning. The composition of shots and shot choices are for the most part always pretty well done, and interesting to look at. Other than that though, I cannot say that Last Train Home was very good at all.

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014)

Jodorowsky’s Dune

★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Frank Pavich

Featuring Alejandro Jodorowsky

Michel Seydoux

H.R. Giger

Imdb Link

A documentary about the greatest movie never made. An adaptation of Dune by filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, which was never made, and yet has had a hugely significant impact on the science fiction genre of film.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is incredibly an interesting topic. A movie that came so close to being made, but just never got there, and yet it remains arguably the most influential film on science fiction. Jodorowsky’s Dune is basically a talking heads documentary, with the added component of lots of storyboards and other parts of the unmade film. I’m usually not a huge fan of talking heads documentaries, but Jodorowsky’s Dune was just so incredibly interesting. It’s not just about a movie that wasn’t made, it’s also about this absolutely insane but brilliant director who has an inspiring amount of motivation. One thing I didn’t expect was for this movie to be so motivational. Jodorowsky gathered this amazing team of actors and crew members, and even though his dream project was never fulfilled, it manages to make you want to get up and do something extraordinary. Looking at all the effort that went into this, the beautiful storyboards, the pages from the script, the concept art, looking at all this hard work that went to waste is definitely inspiring in a strange way. I have never seen a film by Alejandro Jodorowsky, but watching this movie makes me want to go and check out The Holy Mountain soon. I definitely recommend watching this movie if you have any interest in what it takes to get a film made.

180º South (2010)

180º South

★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Chris Malloy

Featuring Jeff Johnson

Yvon Chouinard

Keith Malloy

Imdb Link

A group of mountain climbers make a half year expedition from up north, all the way to Patagonia, where they plan to climb one of the largest, and most difficult mountains around.

Few times have I ever encountered finding a film so absolutely stunning and thrilling, while being completely bored to death by it. I think I know why this contradictory phenomenon happened to me while watching 180º South.  We get to follow a group of explorers, mountain climbers, and surfers, as they make a dangerous sailboat trip down to South America, and then climb one of the most dangerous mountains around. This sounds exciting, and visually, it is. However 180º South has the subtitle of “conquerers of the useless”, which explains everything I dislike about the film. Even though these people go on a huge, epic journey, full of adventure that most people will never experience, it just feels inconsequential. As though even though they took this huge journey, which meant a lot to them, it was useless, it didn’t mean anything. This takes a lot away from the tone of the film, which should have been grand and exciting, inspiring those watching to go out and live a little. Instead, it makes me feel like getting up and going to Mount Everest, or skydiving, or scuba diving the great barrier reef would just be useless. Of absolutely no importance. This coupled with a lazy narration makes the movie a lot more boring than it ever should have been. However, the stunning visuals make up for it. I have never seen a documentary that is so stunning (other than Samsara but I don’t really count that as a documentary). Every shot, from the lighting down to the landscapes, is like a masterful painting to look at. In the end though, 180º South is like a longer, less inspirational GoPro commercial. Full of amazing feats, great camera work, but all of it meaning nothing.

Seven Up (1964)

Seven Up

★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Paul Almond

Imdb Link

A documentary interviewing many different seven year olds, in order to watch them as they grow up.

Seven Up is the first film in the acclaimed Up documentary series, which follows a group of people, and shows them growing up by interviewing them every seven years. This being the first, is obviously special in a way, but also feels incomplete. I know it’ll seem so much more interesting after watching the rest of the films in the series, to be able to watch these people grow up, but you don’t get an immediate effect. It just feels like one small piece of a bigger picture. While the entire picture may be brilliant, the individual pieces of this jigsaw puzzle may not be. It’s just what I’m speculating at this point, but that’s what it seems like from Seven Up. This is by no means a bad documentary, it’s actually quite a good one, and the premise of the series itself is absolutely brilliant. Seven Up may also be pretty well put together as a whole, but there’s something disinteresting about watching seven year olds talk about their life goals for forty minutes. They’re just not interesting people yet, they may develop into that, but at this point they’re just cute kids babbling about how they want to be astronauts or whatever. Overall Seven Up is pretty good, but that’s when you think of it in the context of being a part of a series where you will eventually see these kids grow up, as a stand alone piece I’m not sure I would recommend it. I’ll have to rewatch it after I’ve seen the other films, and maybe I’ll find it to be more insightful after knowing how these kids grew up.

Louis C.K.: Hilarious (2010)

Louis C.K.: Hilarious

★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Louis C.K.

Featuring Louis C.K.

Imdb Link

Louis C.K. performs a concert in Milwaukee.

I’m kind of a fan of Louis C.K.’s comedy, I really do enjoy watching clips of his stand up, and although I can not stand the TV show Louie, I still managed to find something funny in each of the shows. Unfortunately, for this concert documentary, I found it falls in line more with Louie than it does the popular clips I always see of his stand up. I think I’ve discovered why I don’t like Louie through watching this documentary. I used to think that it was because it was filmed and directed in such a strange, trying too hard to be artsy way, but I think Louis C.K.s humor just does not work for me, he’s far too cynical, and his comedy often just comes down to complaining about other people. In Hilarious he must have spent a third of the film just bitching about how people complain too much. Oh the irony. I understand the appeal, but it’s not for me. Again, like I said I usually like watching clips of his stand up, because there is of course some really hilarious moments in his stand up. Overall though, this concert doc was just not my thing. I didn’t laugh as much as I’d hoped, and it really just helped me realize that I’m not a Louis C.K. fan.

Tim’s Vermeer (2013)

Tim’s Vermeer

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Teller

Featuring Tim Jenison

Penn Jillette

Imdb Link

A millionaire becomes obsessed with the idea that Johannes Vermeer used optics to paint, and decides to start painting using the techniques that Vermeer may have used, trying to reconstruct the famous painting “The Music Lesson”

Wow, this is an amazing documentary about art, and further than that it’s an amazing portrait of a man. This film really isn’t about Vermeer as it could have been. This could have been a documentary that revolved around Vermeer, and revolved around the way he made his paintings, but this documentary is more than that. It’s not about Vermeer, it’s not about art, it’s about a man who had a weird passion, and decided to follow it. Tim Jenison is an extraordinary man. He’s a genius, who has obviously always been good at everything he’s ever done, as he says “I’m not a painter” before he proceeds to draw a beautiful painting with the aid of a mirror. Although he does have help, that would still take a lot of talent. Tim is just a talented guy, he’s an interesting subject for a documentary. Many people could get fascinated with the Vermeer-optics theory. But not many people would go out and build a replica of Vermeer’s studio to repaint one of his pictures. It’s incredible to watch the amount of ambition that Tim has. The film is beautiful visually of course as well, the shots are incredible, and of course so are the paintings. The music that goes along with the film is perfectly suited as well. Furthermore, the film is also about how we define art. It’s a very relevant argument in all forms of art. If something is not done in “the traditional way” is it still art? This argument comes up in the film, as many scholars believe that Vermeer could not have used this method, as it would have been cheating, and would not have been art. Tim is not an artist, he’s an inventor, but what he creates is definitely art. All together, I thought this documentary was amazing. It’s a well thought out, well put together doc, that I highly recommend to everyone.

GasLand (2010)

GasLand

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Josh Fox

Featuring Josh Fox

Imdb Link

A midwestern American man, Josh Fox, gets a letter in the mail from a huge natural gas company, asking to lease his land, which launches him into an investigation of the natural gas business, and it’s effects on the water supplies of the areas around where fracture drilling occurs.

This is definitely one of the best documentaries made in the past few years. GasLand is an incredibly well made film, though it may not be the most reliable source of information out there. The style of the documentary is frantic, every shot feels urgent, it has a speed to it that is simply amazing. To be able to craft a film where everything feels so important like it does here, that’s filmmaking talent. I actually would have called it one of my favorite films of 2010 up until about the second half of the film, when I started to see how repetitive the film gets. It seems like everything comes down to “our water can be lit on fire.” which was shocking the first time, and presented as equally shocking every other time, but the impact seems less since it’s been shown multiple times. The fact that it still feels completely original, even at the fifteenth tap water fire, is an accomplishment, but the fact that they show you so many of the same effects of water contamination over and over is certainly not. In addition to this, it’s very one sided. It doesn’t show any incorrect information, but GasLand also does not show both sides of the argument. Overall though, this is a damn good film, it’s just not a great source of info. I really recommend checking this movie out. It’s a great watch, if you don’t mind it getting repetitive.

Catfish (2010)

Catfish

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman

Imdb Link

A pair of filmmakers document their friend’s budding online relationship with a woman named Megan, who may not be who she says she is.

This movie is one I was looking forward to before it came out, it looked like an incredibly intense thriller documentary that would be shocking to watch. Then I forgot about it pretty quickly for about four years until I finally decided to watch it. Well I mean, I was definitely catfished a bit by the trailer. This was most certainly not a thriller, and was not tense in any way, even when things were at their weirdest, and most uncomfortable, it never felt like there was any threat. That said, this movie is still an amazing exploration of internet anonymity, and how far people will go for a lie. This movie is the real Facebook movie, and is one of the best cautionary tales of the internet age. This situation is one of the scariest situations you can get yourself into, and the filmmakers should be glad that it just turned out to be a nice middle aged woman behind the lie, and not some serial killer. Thinking about it, this would actually be the scariest movie ever to film, I mean, you would never know what was coming next, and the whole time, you’re dealing with a woman who you know is completely mentally unstable. It’s a terrifying thought. The film captured that perfectly as well, and though you never really felt nervous, you always were aware of how bad it could go. So really, in conclusion, this movie turned out to be something completely different than what I expected, but even better than what I expected it to be.

Life Itself (2014)

Life Itself

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Steve James

Featuring Roger Ebert

Chaz Ebert

Gene Siskel

Imdb Link

A documentary about the life of famous film critic, Roger Ebert. His years on his TV show, his battle with cancer, his legacy, and his death.

I often read Roger Ebert’s reviews after watching a film, to learn a little more, and just to get more insight on the film, to see if my criticisms about the film are valid. Roger Ebert was my go to critic, and still is, a year after his death. He was the most intelligent film critic out there, and a great person, but despite that, did I expect a film about his life to be as good as it was? No I did not. Life Itself is a masterful documentary. Made by the director of Hoop Dreams, Ebert’s favorite documentary, a nice tribute to Ebert right there. This movie touches on everything that made Ebert a great man, and shows him not just as a great writer, and great critic. But a great human being. You can tell by watching Life Itself that Roger Ebert was just an incredible human being to be around, a smart, witty, kind man. After seeing this, I understand Roger Ebert a lot more, and appreciate him even more. There were a bunch of flaws to the film, mainly it’s music, and sometimes it felt more like a commentated slideshow than it did a documentary. But still, for the most part it was excellent. I haven’t seen Hoop Dreams yet, but after seeing this, I’m really looking forward to it. Life Itself is a movie that would make Roger Ebert proud. Thumbs up.

The Aristocrats (2005)

The Aristocrats

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Paul Provenza

Featuring George Carlin

Gilbert Gottfried

Robin Williams

and like 100 other comedians.

Imdb Link

A talking head documentary in which many comedians discuss the world’s dirtiest joke. The Aristocrats.

Well I was drawn to this documentary after watching Gilbert Gottfried perform The Aristocrats joke on a roast. After this, I was just wondering, what the hell is this? and why do I want to see more? So in searching for another comedian performing the joke, I found this documentary. Now I’m not much of a documentary guy. But this is definitely a new favorite documentary of mine. The Aristocrats is one of the raunchiest, dirtiest, and most shockingly hilarious movies I’ve ever seen. And it is legitimately only a group of comedians doing interviews where they’re asked questions about this joke, which really is an inside joke for comedians. But as they start to tell it, and tell their stories about the joke, we become in on the joke. It becomes funny to us as well, and we start to be able to love the ridiculousness of it. The comedians tell variations on the joke, they describe how they make it their own, they tell us the funniest ones they’ve ever heard. It all just makes for one of the most outrageous, disgusting, and hilarious films in recent memory. I do have to say that the documentarians didn’t really do anything special with the film. It is only talking heads, nothing else. There’s no other footage, it is only interviews. Which is fine, and it works, but it doesn’t push the envelope on how to do things. I don’t think this is a really well made doc, but it’s fun to watch. Also I think I’m gonna start playing the aristocrat game with friends, seeing who can tell the longest, dirtiest version of it. I highly recommend watching this movie. It’s full on YouTube and it is hilarious.