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I'm too young to have seen the original "Cosmos" series hosted by Carl Sagan, which ran on PBS way back in 1980. However, I saw my share of nature and science programming in a similar vein as a kid, and enjoyed them. Lots of "Nova" and "Nature," and various educational documentary shorts screened in school or on museum trips. So I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from the new "Cosmos," which is inexplicably airing Sunday nights on the FOX television network, and being produced by "Family Guy" creator Seth McFarlane.

Well, maybe McFarlane's involvement isn't so inexplicable. "Cosmos" stands out from the rest of the crowd for its use of lots of CGI special effects, and there have been animated segments in each of the three episodes that have aired so far. The visual spectacle goes a long way in helping to keep my interest in the science lessons delivered by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Though Tyson makes for a very engaging lecturer, the American television audience wants shiny CGI, and boy do they get it. Gorgeous shots of celestial bodies are constantly displayed for us to marvel at. In the second episode, prehistoric creatures and microscopic structures are rendered for us in loving detail with computer animation. There's lots of green screen work, as Tyson interacts with a spiffy looking "ship of the imagination" and takes a walk on a giant "cosmic calendar."

So far the material has been great. The first episode covered a lot of astronomy concepts I was already pretty familiar with and had seen other programs cover in a similar, though less snazzy fashion. The second and third were more interesting for me because it was my first exposure to some of the concepts and ideas. I especially liked the use of the domestication of wolves into dogs as the lead-in to the discussion of evolutionary mechanisms and the development of life on Earth. I assumed from the title that "Cosmos" was only going to cover space exploration, but it looks everything related to science is going to be fair game, with outer space serving as a jumping-off point to get into all kinds of different topics. Personally, I'm hoping that we get into the climate change debate in future episodes.

I have a few nitpicks about the production, most of the them pretty minor. The longer 2D animated segments done with Flash look a little cheap next to all the CGI. Last night's program used a lot of it to relate the history of Isaac Newton's writing and publishing of the "Principia Mathematica," and the famous coffeehouse wager between Edmond Halley and Robert Hooke regarding planetary motion. In shorter doses these segments are all right, but the longer ones just highlight how stiff and limited the animation is. Also, the show tends to get carried away with the pageantry. This is especially evident with the full blown orchestral score, composed by Alan Silvestri, which tends to sound much too concerned about being big and impressive. They could stand to tone down the fireworks a bit.

"Cosmos" stands out as an anomaly on network television because it is so high-minded and so ambitious. I don't think there's been anything comparable since the "Planet Earth" documentary series, and even that didn't have the same pointedly educational aims. While I've been enjoying "Cosmos" and applaud its creators and the FOX networks for airing it, I can't help but be mystified as to how the new show managed to happen in the current television landscape. Is Seth McFarlane's leverage so great that he get a thirteen-part science documentary on primetime solely as a passion project? Is someone at FOX purposely trying to pursue loftier programming choices as a new tactic in light of their "American Idol" numbers cratering?

I have to bring up the fact that FOX's news organization has traditionally been very right-wing and anti-science. And of course, the new "Cosmos" is already drawing fire from anti-evolution folks, particularly after the second episode which devoted a good amount of its screen time to laying out the case for natural selection and directly addressed some anti-evolution positions. The cognitive dissonance going on is pretty breathtaking, even though FOX News and the other FOX subsidiaries have always had very little to do with each other. I have to say it's nice to get something so pro-science in a year where we're seeing a resurgence of Bible epics at the box office and the culture war shows no signs of abating.

But I'm getting off track. If "Cosmos" does well, will it mean more prime time documentary series in the future? Will the networks be inspired to create more educational programming? I'd love to see the production values of "Cosmos" or "Planet Earth" applied to history and culture programs. Or more regular science and technology programming, focused on current developments in a variety of different fields. There's been a lot going on recently that could use more attention and support.

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It's turning out to be a very good year for documentaries. There are two recent ones that couldn't be more different in subject matter or execution, but they both use some similar techniques and bring up some of the same questions about the nature of documentary filmmaking. The first is "Stories We Tell," Sarah Polley's exploration of her origins and the complicated history of her family. Polley conducts interviews with relatives and friends to construct her narrative, and then uses actors and period sets to recreate scenes from the past to fill in the details.

The second is the far more sobering "The Act of Killing," where filmmakers Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and an anonymous third director interview Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, revered Indonesian leaders who in the 1960s were directly responsible for the death squads that wiped out as many as two million Communists and accused Communists. Like Polley, the filmmakers in "The Act of Killing" are interested in how their subjects perceive themselves and their own version of events. They ask Congo and others to reenact the killings as they wish for film, and this later leads to the creation of these elaborate film fantasies that reflect their troubled psyches.

"Stories We Tell" is a small film, a family history that one of Polley's sisters chides will probably be of no interest to anyone besides the people who appear in it. However, I found the film fascinating as it explores a family secret that has had a very different effect on all the different people who have been a part of it or were affected by it in some way. The subjects are interesting, lovely, and loving people, who it's easy to get attached to very quickly. It's not only the stories themselves, but the way they are presented, and the interrogations of the documentary form that continuously pop up during the narrative, almost like a running subplot. Many of Polley's family express doubts about the nature of the documentary and how she is going about it. One thinks that the inclusion of so many different viewpoints is completely unnecessary and questions why Sarah should be the one who gets to decide the shape of the story as it's presented to others.

The truth is not only a subjective thing in "Stories We Tell," but a shifting, amorphous one too. We can see this most clearly with Michael Polley, Sarah's father, who provides the bulk of the film's narrative and emerges as the central figure in the story. We see his views on some things change as the documentary progresses, and his version of events likewise adjusts as a result. New pieces of information are constantly being added, putting information we already knew if a different context. Different perspectives bring contradictions but they also present a fuller, richer picture of the whole. At first it seems odd that Sarah Polley's own version of the narrative hasn't been included until of course, you realize that the film is her version of the narrative, her attempt at finding a cohesion amongst all these different stories. The recreated video footage, appropriately aged so that it doesn't appear to be recreated at first glance, are her interpretations of what other people have told her. And of course, her editorial choices are vitally important.

"The Act of Killing," by contrast, only has one side of the story. With the victims long dead, it's only the perpetrators who can provide illumination on the events that took place during the purges. It's chilling, and often bizarre in the beginning, when we are introduced to these men, who have suffered no negative consequences at all for the their actions. On the contrary, many have grown rich and powerful over the years and are speak openly about the atrocities they committed. Initially there is no remorse, and hardly a glimmer of self awareness from any of the subjects. Anwar Congo demonstrates his execution techniques with horrific nonchalance. I've seen some debates regarding whether the film's subjects were perhaps misled into participating in the project, and didn't have a full understanding of what the documentary would entail. However, they're so open and so forthcoming about their experiences, practically all the filmmakers have to do is roll the cameras.

However, as the recreations are staged and Congo and the others have to face up to what they have done, they do begin to question the documentary's aims and their own perceptions of the past. One wonders how the public will perceive them after seeing the film. Others reveal that they understand that what they did was wrong, and have struggled with it. Congo himself only reaches an epiphany after Oppenheimer becomes more vocal in challenging his assumptions and engaging with him. Perhaps the most startling and memorable sequences are the fantasy film segments that are put together at the direction of the interview subjects to reflect their view of what happened. One has elaborate musical sequences with brightly costumed dancers. Another stages an interrogation like a scene from a gangster film. Congo fancies that he resembles Sidney Poitier.

"The Act of Killing" is a far more difficult watch, but it's unquestionably a powerful and important piece of work, presented in a way that is unique. It's also a film with potentially very serious consequences, as many of the people who appear in it are still very powerful in Indonesia. I've never seen a film where so many of the crew, including one of the directors, chose to be credited only as "Anonymous."
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"Leviathan" is a documentary that chronicles life aboard a North Atlantic fishing vessel. It's inevitable to want to make comparisons to the Discovery Channel show, "Deadliest Catch." However, "Leviathan" has no orienting narration and no context at all is provided, aside from a brief Biblical epigraph. It does not identify the ship or any of the crew by name, and we don't get any of their backstories. It does not follow a conventional narrative or really any kind of narrative at all. Because of this unorthodox approach, some have classified "Leviathan" as an experimental film.

What "Leviathan" does do is to plunge the viewer into the thick of the action, immersing them in all the sights and sounds of life on the ship and the surrounding ocean. We begin at night, while the fishermen are bringing in their catch. It's difficult to make out what we're looking at, but images become more distinct and recognizable quickly. Nets and traps are hoisted from the sea. Then fish fill the screen, often spilling over the edges. The camera is placed at the level of the deck in many scenes, so every rush of water or new wave of incoming fish threatens to overwhelm our field of vision. The sound of the ocean and the ship's machinery is inescapable, drowning out the few bits of offhand chatter from the sailors.

The idea here is to capture the sensory experience rather than rely on the momentum of a standard dramatic narrative. Shots linger on what we might usually consider incidental things, like fish heads being washed off the deck, or an unlucky bird momentarily trapped by some of the equipment. The ship becomes a microcosm of drama and struggle. The human beings aboard are not neglected, shown going through their regular daily routines, but always with a clinical eye and a necessary distance that allows the audience to view their behavior in more objective terms than we usually see. Mundane actions like working, cooking, and showering are highlighted. In a humorous moment, there's also a lengthy shot of one sailor watching an episode of "The Deadliest Catch," with stone-faced scrutiny.

And then the camera turns to look at what's going on off the ship, and this is where the visuals go from intriguing to sublime. The cameras travel over the surface of the water and beneath it, taking in the natural world. However, this is not a series of serene beauty shots edited together with soothing music, but a rough, often jarring exposure to the elements and the wildlife. The cameras bump and jostle along, sometimes only catching glimpses of fish and birds at strange angles. However, the movement of the cameras become part of the experience, so much so that the viewer often forgets to wonder how the filmmakers are achieving the unique shots that we see.

The signature sequence of the film is a long shot where the camera is being pulled along by some unseen mechanism, and keeps plunging in and out of the roiling water. Under the surface, the sound is muted and the image is murky. Things move more slowly and the frame often feels empty. Above the water, it's chaos aurally and visually. The sky is full of gulls and other sea birds who have been attracted by the fishing operation. Filmed from below, they look like an endless mass, and their calls are deafening. As the camera goes back and forth between these two extremes, we are better able to appreciate how they contrast with each other.

I've never seen another nature documentary like this, one that makes aesthetic choices that are so different from the expected norm in order to create an intensely tactile and engulfing film. "Deadliest Catch" certainly has its good points, but there are too many reality show devices in play to really let you get a sense of the rhythm and atmosphere of life on its vessels the way that "Leviathan" does. I've never seen birds the way they appear in this film, or the doomed fish sloshing around on the deck in wretched limbo. Above all the soundtrack stays with me, the chugging engines and motors, the hundred different manifestations of the ocean, and the screaming gulls.

I've seen several reviews insist that the only way to see "Leviathan" is on the big screen, with a full surround sound system, so you really get the full effect of all the sensory bombardment. They have a good argument, but I found "Leviathan" a perfectly good watch at home on my laptop. It's very easy to get sucked into the movie, to the point where I would hesitate to characterize this as a casual watch. It's certainly nothing that requires much investment or brain power, but it's definitely an experience that needs the viewer's full attention.
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You can't be a hardcore movie fan for long without running into someone who has come up with their own personal elaborate theory about a certain favorite film. All serious movie fans do this to some degree - I certainly do, looking for different interpretations and readings of films the same way that academics analyze certain works of literature. There are whole fields of film theory and film studies that examine what films say about the societies and cultures that produced them. However, there are always those fans who take things a little too far, who fixate on certain ideas or theories and then will go to extraordinary lengths to prove that they're right.

The documentary, "Room 237" features six of these people. We never see them, but we hear them speak at length, about the secrets that they believe that they have uncovered in Stanley Kubrick's beloved 1980 horror film, "The Shining." One believes that Kubrick inserted clues that point to his involvement in supposedly faking the moon landing. Another sees coded references to the massacre of Native Americans. Another finds Holocaust parallels. Another works out that the Overlook Hotel has impossible architecture, and thinks the story is a new take on Jason and the Minotaur. "Room 237" presents their arguments, with lots of visual aids taken from "The Shining," Kubrick's other films, and archival footage. Some of the theories are very entertaining, but few are very convincing. Almost all the big "Ah-HA!" moments can be chalked up to coincidence or artistic license taken for completely unrelated reasons.

Does this mean that "Room 237" is a failure? I don't think so. While I don't believe it offers many new insights on "The Shining," what it does do successfully is give you an interesting picture of these obsessive “Shining” fans. Several of them are clearly quite intelligent and well-educated, having done massive amounts of outside research to support their fantastic claims. They all appear to have expended considerable amounts of time and energy watching “The Shining” over and over again, looking for more clues. One segment of “Room 237” is devoted to someone who decided to watch the film run backwards and forwards simultaneously, with the images superimposed on top of each other, to look for any interesting results. He finds some neat moments where the pictures line up in curious ways, and of course he would – people who go looking for hidden conspiracies and secret messages always manage to find them.

It’s fascinating to see how these people have developed their own odd relationships and histories with the movie, treating it quite differently from the way that academics and film critics analyze films when they take them apart. The fans believe that Kubrick, the great stickler for detail that he was, intentionally included these secret signs and messages, and wanted them to be found. Academics often consider the intent of the directors and writers of a film to be irrelevant, looking instead for themes and conventions that reflect unspoken social mores and assumptions. Critics, including yours truly, tend to see unusual elements as stylistic or storytelling choices. Is architecture of the Overlook Hotel impossible? If it was done deliberately, it was probably to increase the viewer’s disorientation. Or maybe it was just a case of continuity errors. Even Stanley Kubrick wasn’t perfect.

The question becomes, not whether any of the theories presented in "Room 237" hold any water, but why "The Shining" has managed to inspire such wild mysteries and mythologies around it. My guess is that it has to do with the notoriety of "The Shining" itself, not just for being an especially effective and multilayered horror film, but for the stories about the intense behind-the-scenes drama during the film's prolonged production, and especially for the involvement of Stanley Kubrick. This was a director who was a perfectionist, who did demand 127 takes of the baseball bat scene, and who not only had the "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" pages typed out by his secretary, but also additional ones in different languages for international versions of the movie. If there was any director likely to put obscure secret messages in his work, surely it was Kubrick.

"Room 237" adds to his myth. Those gullible souls predisposed to believe in conspiracy theories will eat the stuff up, and I expect that "Shining" fans will appreciate seeing the little things they never noticed pointed out - the recurring Native American motifs, the television missing a cable, and who was that other man in the office during the interview? But it's plain to see when a skiing poster is just a skiing poster, and a movie is just a movie. "Room 237" is a lot of fun, but it may also make you wince at some of the convoluted reasoning that the six “experts” employ. Contrary to what the marketing may tell you, this is not a documentary about “The Shining.” It’s a documentary about the most extreme fans of “The Shining,” and that in its own way, is a far more frightening thing.
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A pair of interesting documentaries on the subject in internet activism popped up on various streaming services recently: "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" and "We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists." I enjoyed both for different reasons, but one is clearly superior to the other by a wide margin.

First, "We Are Legion," which is a documentary about the recent activities of the hacker group known as Anonymous. I've done some basic reading up on the activities of Anonymous, and the documentary does a decent job of fleshing out events I was already familiar with, like their origins on the 4chan boards and the campaign against Scientology. It was nice to see some of the faces behind the screen names, and some of the interviews were illuminating. If you're not familiar with Anonymous, the first section of the film gives a nice little primer on what they're all about and provide details on some of their greatest hits.

However, where things get a little more slippery is after Anonymous attracts the attention of the authorities, and people start getting arrested. "We Are Legion" puts itself firmly on the side of the Anonymous members, glorifying their exploits and trying to justify their actions. It is particularly one-sided in how it looks at some of the Anonymous members who have been outed and unmasked, painting them as persecuted activists. The documentary also touches far too briefly on the emergence of LulzSec, a splinter group of Anonymous that embarked on a destructive hacking campaign in 2011 and 2012.

By taking the stance that it does, "We Are Legion" avoids asking the most interesting questions about Anonymous's brand of internet activism, dubbed "hacktivism" here. What's the distinction between a hacktivist and a criminal hacker who just causes chaos for fun? The group's rise in popularity and visibility seems like an accident, and maybe the group's altruistic streak will prove to have only been temporary. And if the young, photogenic kids who the filmmakers interviewed aren't to blame for the group's crimes, then who should be? Anonymous is purportedly a leaderless collective, after all. The lack of criticism doesn't sit right, especially since I've seen far more balanced, in-depth coverage of Anonymous's activities from other sources.

I think that's why the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, comes off as a far more satisfying documentary subject. Here is a man who is operating entirely out in the open, who is committing his audacious protests against a repressive government in the view of the entire world. Ai Weiwei is known as a contemporary conceptual artist, but he clearly fits the profile of an internet activist, as he has learned to harness the power of the internet to aid him in many of his projects, and his work is often highly politically charged. Unlike Anonymous, there's no shirking of responsibility or hiding behind screen names. His fame actually protects him in many cases, making it more difficult for the authorities to target and suppress him.

"Never Sorry" often feels like a cat-and-mouse game between Ai Weiwei and the Chinese government. The artist provokes through his art, and the government retaliates. The stakes are high. We watch as these incidents escalate, particularly after the creation of an installation commenting on the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Filming becomes a challenge for the documentary crew, with access more and more limited until Ai Weiwei 's blog is shut down and the man himself detained. At the same time, the documentary maintains a strong focus on the creation of Ai Weiwei's art. Significant portions of the film are devoted to observing the development of some of his most famous exhibits, including the celebrated sunflower seed installation at the Tate Modern.

It would have been easy to paint their subject as a saint, but in profiling Ai Weiwei, the filmmakers don't neglect the less savory parts of his character. The man is immensely likable, but pains are taken to ensure that he remains a human being in the eyes of the audience. And ultimately, his eccentricities, his hypocrisies, and his moments of weakness just make his creativity and his bravery all the more remarkable. The documentary makes a strong case for Ai Weiwei being one of the most important artists working today, whose fame could not have been possible without the internet.

Last year I wrote about a group of documentaries where the subjects played with identity and reality, including "Catfish," where Internet anonymity and infamy were used for nefarious purposes. "We Are Legion" and "Never Sorry," feel like the flip side, where we see the potentially positive effects of these same forces. What's particularly interesting is that both of these stories are still very much ongoing. Anonymous is still active, and Ai Weiwei is still working, having recently released his own "Gangnam Style" parody.

Does this mean there's the possibility of sequels to these docs? I sure hope so.
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In the mad rush of the oncoming awards season, I've been neglecting the television world, as evidenced by the fact that I spent last night guiltily scanning through about two months worth of "60 Minutes" episodes that I'd missed, including the entire run-up to the recent election. Last year my "too much to watch" posts helped me do a lot of catching up. So here are a new batch of television shows that have been sitting on my "to watch" list for a little too long. Network television hasn't been too good to me lately, but the cable offerings seem endless.

"Key & Peele" - I knew the Comedy Central sketch comedy show was on to something big when clips of their sketches started being passed around, and I started hearing serious comparisons to "Chapelle's Show." Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are both mixed race comedians, and while their material explores a lot of racial issues, it's far from all they're capable of. The "Bullying" sketch is a good example of this, with its insightful deconstruction of a common trope. That said, I like their "Luther, Obama's Anger Translator" sketches the best.

"The Hour" - British period drama about the production of a newsmagazine show, starring Ben Wishaw, Ramola Garai, and Dominic West. It's often described as a counterpart to America's "Mad Men," since it takes place during the 1960s and covers some of the same thematic ground. However, what really caught my interest was that the primary subject matter, something that seems oddly old-fashioned these days: investigative reporting. Also, Peter Capaldi from "In the Loop" gets an arc in the new series, and he's worth seeing in anything.

"The League" - Having become enamored with the mumblecore charms of Mark Duplass, and having noticed that his wife Katie Aselton and several of his other collaborators are in the cast of "The League" with him, I need to check this FX sitcom out. I'm five seasons behind and I have no interest in fantasy football, so this is probably a lost cause, but I want to at least give it a try. FX has several oddball, cult shows that have slowly sucked me in one by one, including "Louie" and "Archer." This might end up being the next one.

"The Newsroom" - New Aaron Sorkin show! With all-star cast full of actors I like! Pounce! Alas, this is an HBO production, which means a long, maddening waiting period for the DVD sets to arrive. I've been hearing mixed reactions for months, particularly on the subject of the romantic relations between the main characters played by Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer. It wouldn't be an Aaron Sorkin show without some controversy, now would it? Along with "The Hour," it's also nice to see the heroic side of the news media again, even if it's only aspirational.

"Project Runway All Stars" - I was totally caught off guard by Lifetime immediately following up the last season of "Project Runway" with the second season of "All Stars," putting me several weeks behind at the time of writing. Yes, it's a guilty pleasure, but I can't resist. The catfighting, the creative madness, and those crazy, crazy clothes suck me in every time. And the best part about "All Stars" is that there's no "getting to know you phase" with the contestants. You can just dive right in - and this season has both Wendy Pepper and Ivy Higa! And Andre!

"30 for 30" - An ESPN documentary series on sports, marking the 30th anniversary of the network. As I've said before, I'm not usually one for sports, but you can't ignore the caliber of the directors who participated in this series: Barry Levinson, Albert Maysles, Barbara Kopple, Alex Gibney, Steve James, John Singleton, Morgan Spurlock, and many more. The series started airing in 2009, and several of the installments have found their way to Netflix, so I'll probably start with those.

And "The Wire." I swear that I'll stop putting it off and watch the series in 2013. Wait. I got all the way through "The Sopranos" and "Mad Men" this year. Why should I feel bad?

Also, I want to give a quick shout-out to the one television podcast that I've found this year to be indispensable: Firewall and Iceberg, where television critics Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg review and discuss the best and worst of TV. I originally wanted to write up a post on television podcasts to go with the one I wrote for movie podcasts, but I haven't found anything remotely in the same league as these guys, so that didn't happen. I feel a little bad about appending this recommendation to the end of a sort-of related post, but I also can't think aof anything more appropriate.

Happy watching!
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I saw the last half hour or so of "Baraka" a long time ago, and I couldn't figure out what it was supposed to be. There were all these images of concentration camps, a funeral on the Ganges river, Whirling Dervishes, ancient stone images, beautiful landscapes, and starry night skies. I couldn't piece together any kind of narrative, but I kept trying to. What was it all about? What did it all mean? A decade later I finally saw the whole movie, and found some answers.

Read more... )
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How do you watch a none-and-a-half hour documentary about the Holocaust? Not all at once. I watched an hour or two a day over a week or so. Some days it was a slog, and some days I felt like I could finish all the remaining hours at once, but I'm glad I didn't. Getting through such difficult subject matter required keeping a distance from what was happening onscreen.

There have been many documentaries about the Holocaust. The most famous is certainly Alain Resanis's "Night and Fog," a thirty-minute short released in 1955 that reveals some of the most graphic footage of what was found at the concentration camps. "Shoah" contains no such material. There is no imposed narrative or commentary. The film consists entirely of interviews with survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators in the 1970s, decades after the end of the war. Director and interviewer Claude Lanzmann often has to rely on interpreters, making the interviews very lengthy and slow, but the stories are strong and harrowing. He crosses continents to find his subjects, a barber in New York, Polish villagers still living near Treblinka, and reluctant ex-Nazis in Germany.

The total lack of historical footage and dramatizations are key to the film's impact. Lanzmann does include contemporary footage of the concentration camp sites and the railroads that carried the Jewish prisoners to their deaths. It's sobering to realize how quickly all traces of the horrors have been erased, with only a few memorials to acknowledge their existence. The camp at Chelmno, which is the focus of the early hours of "Shoah," is mostly empty green fields and patches of forest. An SS solider, with the help of a map, must fill in details of the notorious Treblinka for us from memory. It's all too apparent that the interview subjects have also grown old, and each first-hand account becomes all the more precious.

Contributing to the length of "Shoah" is Lanzmann's thoroughness. When examining the railway system that brought prisoners to the camps, he interviews surviving prisoners, railway workers, guards, and Polish villagers who saw the trains pass. Even the most incidental accounts turn out to be revealing. Did the Poles know what would happen to the Jews at their destination? Did people try to warn them, or was it considered too risky and futile? A German bureaucrat, responsible for keeping the system running, is happy to describe all the particulars of how the transports worked, but denies any knowledge of the exterminations.

I appreciated that "Shoah" spent much of its time on less dramatic, almost mundane stories. There are some highly emotional ones in the mix, especially toward the end. People break down recalling atrocities, and a few have to be coaxed by Lanzmann onscreen to continue. Yet others, particularly the bystanders, seem largely untouched by what they witnessed. One of the most affecting interviews is one of the final ones, where a resistance member recounts sneaking out of the Warsaw ghetto, and being stunned to discover that the rest of the city was still functioning normally, in stark contrast to the mass starvation and violent oppression of the Jewish population.

In this way, the film provides one of the clearest pictures of how the Holocaust was carried out, and the impact of the events on those who directly and indirectly involved. Perhaps the most fascinating part of "Shoah" is not the oral history itself, but how the interview subjects have chosen to deal with the past. Some ignore or try to forget what happened. Some recontextualize and try to place themselves in the best light. Almost all the bystanders and perpetrators agree that there was nothing they could have done to help matters individually. And then there are the few, chilling moments, where someone tries to rationalize what happened.

"Shoah" was released in 1985, forty years after the end of WWII. It has since been almost another thirty years, and even the youngest survivors of the Holocaust are now in their 70s and 80s. Most of the interview subjects have died, and the historical importance of the documentary becomes greater with each passing year. I greatly prefer Lanzmann's approach to the more direct, confrontational style of "Night and Fog," which was perhaps too self-aware of the importance and the immenseness of what it was showing the world. "Shoah" is far quieter, focusing on the individuals, on personal tragedies and remembrances.

But what it did that was so monumental, what I don't think any of the other Holocaust films have managed to do to this extent, was add to the historical record instead of simply revealing or revisiting it. "Shoah" was not an easy watch, but it was nine-and-a-half hours well spent.
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"The Sweatbox," is a documentary about making an animated film, that was completed roughly around 2001, premiered at a film festival, and had a limited run in exactly two theaters before it all but vanished off the face of the earth for over a decade. Nothing in the documentary is controversial or contentious. It's probably not even going to be particularly interesting except to a certain subset of film historians, animation lovers, and Disney geeks. However, it does capture a certain piece of Disney history the company is not keen on acknowledging: the troubled production of "Kingdom of the Sun."

The back story goes something like this. Back in 1997, Sting was approached about writing songs for a new South-America themed Disney animated musical, to be directed by "The Lion King's" Roger Allers. He agreed to do the project on the condition that his wife, filmmaker Trudie Styler, was allowed to document the process. Disney fans will know that "Kingdom of the Sun" was originally meant to be a sweeping epic patterned off "The Prince and the Pauper," but ultimately it reached theaters six months late, reworked as a zany buddy comedy, and renamed "The Emperor's New Groove." The six songs that Sting wrote were reduced to an abridged opening number and a song over the credits. The missing songs only remain on the film's soundtrack, as they were written for an entirely different movie than the one that was actually released.

Since Trudie Styler was given unprecedented access to the film's production, she wound up having a front row seat to all of the film's behind-the-scenes woes. There were delays in production. Early versions of the film didn't test well. A new director, Mark Dindal was brought onboard who often worked at cross purposes with Roger Allers. Finally, Allers quit and the entire film was drastically overhauled. "The Sweatbox," named after the pressure-filled screening room where the in-progress animated footage was reviewed, was completed shortly after "The Emperor's New Groove" was released in theaters. The documentary, which runs a pretty brief 84 minutes, is actually longer than the completed feature, which is an even briefer 77 minutes. Of course, Disney owned the rights to Styler's film and made sure that it was seen by only very limited audiences. It was never publicized, never released on home video, and never made available to the general public except in heavily edited form.

Until now. A few days ago, someone leaked a workprint of "The Sweatbox" to the internet, where it has been making the rounds on filesharing and video sharing sites. As a Disney fan, I'm ecstatic. I never expected the film to resurface, considering how notoriously uptight Disney is about its public image. It was only in 2010 that a mostly candid documentary about the beginning of the Disney animation Renaissance of the 90s, "Waking Sleeping Beauty" was put together by a few Disney veterans with the company's blessing. That documentary was about Disney's successes. "The Sweatbox," on the other hand, was made during that period when things at Disney Animation were really starting to go wrong. Disney fans disagree about when the Renaissance ended and the downward spiral began, but for me the turning point was the Disney films that were released right around the year 2000: the awful "Dinosaur," the uneven "Fantasia 2000," and "The Emperor's New Groove," which was, ironically, a perfectly good movie. After following the rumors of the film's endless troubles for years, I saw "The Emperor's New Groove" in theaters in December, 2000 to wind down after finals, and loved it.

The biggest irony about "The Sweatbox" is that it isn't the shocking expose that Disney seem to think it is. Rather, it's proof that sometimes the creative process is messy, very talented people can go off track, and making one of these films is not nearly as easy as the company like to pretend it is. Some want to bill "The Sweatbox" as the record of a catastrophe for the studio, but I think actually captured the creation of one of Disney's last successes in traditional animation. Though the original version of "Kingdom of the Sun" went down in flames and "The Emperor's New Groove" was considered a bust at the box office, the movie has actually gone on to be one of the most popular of the late-era animated Disney films. It even got its own direct-to-video sequel and a television spinoff. Hollywood has seen a lot of troubled productions and a lot of filmmaking disasters, and in the end "The Emperor's New Groove" actually came out okay, despite all the drama shown in the documentary. I feel badly for Roger Allers and Sting for all their wasted efforts and disappointments. Really, I do. But in the end, I think I'd much rather have the Tex Avery homage with llamas that Mark Dindal whipped up, instead of that big epic musical extravaganza.
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In 1964, the British current affairs program "World in Action," produced by Granada television, devoted a half hour to fourteen children from various different socioeconomic backgrounds, all aged seven. John, Andrew, and Charles were pupils at an elite prep school. Jackie, Lynn, and Susan went to primary school together in a working class neighborhood. Symon and Paul were at a charity home. These children would become the leaders of the country in the year 2000, the narrator informed us, and thus provided a glimpse into the future. In itself, this little documentary short wasn't anything special. The children were interviewed, some together and some separately. They were asked leading and provocative questions which elicited a variety of responses about politics, race, and education. The children were all brought together for one day to interact with each other, first visiting a zoo, then enjoying a small party, and finally amusing themselves at a playground, where the program concluded with the narrator reciting, "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man." All very well and good, but it was what happened next that was extraordinary.

Seven years later, when the children were fourteen, the filmmakers went back to interview all of their subjects. Seven years after that, when they were twenty-one, they did it again. All together, seven documentaries have been produced since 1964, following the children from the ages of seven to forty-nine. A new installment is anticipated later this year, as the remaining participants are now fifty-six. This is the "Up" series, so named because the original "World in Action" short was titled "Seven Up!" and most of the later films follow the same naming convention, with "35 Up," "42 Up," and so on. All but the first have been directed by Michael Apted, and his task has not been an easy one. The children have all grown up and gone on to lead unpredictable lives. There have been marriages, divorces, and children. Two participants no longer reside in the UK. Some have very successful careers, while others have struggled, and a few have required help from the state. In the mix are two solicitors, two in academics, a librarian, a cab driver, a politician, and manual laborers. Nearly all of them still remain in the same socio-economic circles that they started out in, a subject repeatedly discussed in the films.

The original program emphasized differences based on class and opportunities, but the political and social aspects of the series become less and less important as time goes on, and the films become about simply documenting lives. The experience of watching the "Up" series in sequence is extraordinary. It's difficult to form impressions of the children in "Seven Up!" because they're on the screen so briefly. However, as they start growing up, you get to know them and become invested in their lives. Archival footage is mixed in with the new interviews in every installment, often the same clips or sequences of clips, building on each other, so you can see the people's progression through the years. It's always a little jolting when we are re-introduced to another familiar face, suddenly seven years older. The most dramatic changes in appearance happen in the first few films, but major life events happen constantly. Sometime we'll find a participant married to someone different, or living in another country, or the father of five children. After a while, you'll look back at the archival sections, and be able to recognize the adult you've become familiar with in the seven-year-old on the playground.

Watching the "Up" series today, I find the most fascinating thing about it is the way that certain cultural mores and expectations have changed. The films' subjects are from my parents' generation, and all four women in the group got married by their mid-twenties. Two became single parents, really the first generation for which this was a fairly common occurrence. And though class boundaries are still evident, there's clear social mobility in both directions. Tony, from the rougher East End of London, becomes comfortably middle class. Meanwhile Neil, who has the saddest arc in the series, goes from a bubbly little boy in middle-class Liverpool to a homeless itinerant by twenty-eight. At seven, the boys who went to prep school pretty accurately predict the courses of their academic careers, but as adults they remark that this would be impossible for their own children. Of course, some things stay the same for every generation. Everyone seems a little awkward at fourteen, and a little ungrounded and rebellious at twenty-one, and are complaining about the changing times by forty-nine.

And then there are the ethical considerations. Participation in the films is voluntary, and two of the original fourteen have stopped appearing completely, while others have chosen to sit out specific installments. Some seem to enjoy being part of the program, but others dislike the experience and say so. Some spouses appear in the interviews, while others do not. The complaints about unfair portrayals and manipulative editing are constant, occasionally creating dramatic confrontations on camera. It's fair to call the "Up" series akin to reality television, since the documentaries have affected the lives of its subjects, and made a few of them into reluctant celebrities. No one could have predicted the success and impact of the "Up" series, and the seven year-olds couldn't possibly have known what they were getting themselves into. Yet the fact that so many of those fourteen children are still participating in new installments every seven years reflects very well on the filmmakers.

The "Up" series has become one of those miraculous pieces of media that has far, far exceeded its original ambitions. Not knowing about the upcoming "56 Up," I'd assumed the series had stopped when the participants reached middle age, having passed beyond the year 2000 and become the future promised by the narrator in the original short. Now I'm tempted to want it to go on for a few more installments to chronicle the participants becoming older, which is as much a part of life as everything else we've seen on camera. Apted himself is still going strong at seventy-two years of age. Yet I also can't help feeling that these people have all spent enough time in front of the cameras, more than should be asked of anyone. I'd prefer to see a definite end to the series soon, rather than watching it drag on through people's inevitable declines and deaths. Maybe they could get everyone together for one last trip to the zoo or the playground, and then say goodbye for good.
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Some of the most interesting moments in film are the ones that are accidental or unplanned. So it is with the daring Danish documentary, "The Red Chapel," that is so fascinating because it's a failure in many respects. You can tell what the filmmakers intended to do, which was to enter North Korea in the guise of an unassuming comedy troupe, put on a show, and subtly send up and expose the inner workings of one of the most repressive regimes on Earth, "Borat" style. Mads Brügger, who had this bright idea, enlists the help of two young Danish-Korean performers, Simon Jul Jorgensen and Jacob Nossell. Jacob, self-described as a "spastic," suffers cerebral palsy, has a severe speech impediment, and requires the use of a wheelchair for long distances. The trio head off to North Korea for two weeks, and quickly discover that they have have bitten off more than they can chew.

The glimpses inside Pyongyang, polished and perfect for the outsiders, are illuminating. However, it's the clashes among the would-be infiltrators that provide the film with its best moments. Brügger keeps wanting to push the boundaries, more willing to ingratiate himself to their hosts, yet also quick to seek out ways to make situations more awkward and uncomfortable. The other two, especially Jacob, are far more sympathetic to the people they encounter, and are more earnest in trying to fulfill their cover story of promoting cultural exchange. The lies they have to tell to keep up appearances clearly grate on Jacob, who is quicker to try and make friends and enjoy the offered hospitality, despite the unsettling reality of being in a society where the handicapped simply do not exist. Ironically, because of Jacob's impeded speech, he's the only one who can freely voice his opinion throughout, because the North Koreans can't understand his "spastic" Danish.

Brügger's tactics increasingly come off mean-spirited, especially as it is apparent that the North Koreans are easy marks, and fairly helpless in their ability to respond to basic irony and sarcasm. His narration of the documentary provides some sobering context about the reality of North Korea behind the carefully erected facade, but it's largely unnecessary. The way that events unfold, with the North Korean organizers taking over the comedy routine, removing all the Western elements and injecting propaganda, requires no underlining. Brügger's smaller stunts, like wanting to read a nonsense poem to a statue of Kim Il-Sung, are fairly harmless, but when he starts putting Simon and Jacob in positions they're clearly not comfortable with, things start to feel exploitative. Brügger's is accused several times of being cruel, of having no humanity or scruples. However, to his credit, this attitude does lead to some great moments of drama, like a tense blow-up he and Jacob have in the middle of an elaborate anti-American rally.

The more organic developments that tend to be more rewarding. The trio's guide and chief minder during their stay is a woman named Mrs. Pak, who takes a maternal liking to Jacob, remarking a few times that she thinks of him like a son even though they've only known each other for a few days. The sentiment may seem odd, but her emotion is clearly genuine. She affords the filmmakers a close-up look at a true believer, who becomes emotionally overwhelmed by nationalist sentiment, and recites party propaganda with great sincerity. However, the paranoia of the North Koreans is also palpable in every scene, in every passive-aggressive exchange, in every hesitation to answer a difficult question or depart from the official script. The individuals we meet become sympathetic very quickly, which isn't very conducive to Brügger's attempts to paint them as objects of scorn and ridicule.

The larger, sinister mechanics of the North Korean regime, on the other hand, are so pervasive and so omnipresent, that they're impossible to penetrate in any meaningful fashion. The Danes score few victories, and contrary to what the marketing copy says, never manage to pull off anything truly outrageous or subversive while they're in North Korea. On the other hand, if they had, they probably wouldn't have gotten out of the country in one piece, and certainly not with their footage intact. But "Red Chapel" is still an immensely rewarding watch, as the camera captures the filmmakers struggling to deal with an increasingly difficult experience and gradually adjusting their priorities from trying to send-up North Korea to simply surviving it. It's not the film they set out to make, but it certainly came out a compelling, thought-provoking one.
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Since I enjoyed "Waking Sleeping Beauty," an insider's look at what was going on behind the scenes of the 90s Disney animation Renaissance, I thought I'd take in some of the other Disney-themed documentaries that have been made in recent years. I went through a trio of them over the weekend: "The PIXAR Story" from 2007, "Walt & El Grupo," from 2008, and "The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story," from 2009. A couple of points need to made right off. The films were all produced with the cooperation of the Walt Disney Company, giving the filmmakers access to clips and music and other IP, so of course the documentaries are very complimentary towards the Mouse. However, they don't indulge in much corporate cheerleading for Disney, and never play like the thinly disguised commercials that some of the their older projects were - though the PIXAR doc comes close at times. Still, one should take note that all three films were all made by people with close family ties to Disney. "The Boys" coming from the sons of Robert and Richard Sherman is no surprise, but more eyebrow-raising is Leslie Iwerks, daughter of the legendary animator Ub Iwerks, directing "The PIXAR Story," and "Walt & El Grupo," being helmed by Ted Thomas, son of another beloved animator, Frank Thomas. So clearly, there's bias at work here from the outset.

But on to the films. "The PIXAR Story" gets a lot of mileage out of having most exciting narrative. The Cinderella story of PIXAR's rise is tremendously interesting stuff, and the doc is great at putting together all the little bits and pieces of early CGI animation history that I've only seen piecemeal from other sources. The archival footage is always great to see, and with the recent passing of Steve Jobs, his appearances are especially poignant. Unfortunately, that all stops after the release of "Toy Story," when an animation nut like me starts noticing that a lot important context, like PIXAR's ongoing battle with Dreamworks' animation division, is barely alluded to. I mean, come on. The biggest challenge with "A Bug's Life" wasn't the crowd scenes or the fear of a sophomore slump, but the fact that Jeffrey Katzenberg was gunning for them with "Antz," which beat "Bug's Life" to the theaters by four weeks. The more recent material is also weaker, containing a lot of aspirational talk for the future of the Disney/PIXAR partnership, which had only just been cemented when the film was finished. There's even a substantial segment devoted to talking up the return of traditional animation, a venture which hasn't turned out so well. Still, "The PIXAR Story" is a fun watch, very accessible, and has a lot of good, geeky animation history in it.

"Walt & El Grupo" will likely only be of interest to real Disney buffs, as it chronicles the 1941 goodwill tour of South America that the US State Department sent Disney and a a group of his employees on, the "El Grupo" of the title. We also get a rather one-sided look at the notorious Disney Studio strike that was going on around the same time, but this is about as in depth as I've ever seen Disney (both man and studio) ever address the subject. Most of the film is taken up with chronicling the trip through Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. Since El Grupo and the people they met in South America are mostly deceased, we have to make do with the second-hand reminiscences of various relatives, giving the whole film the feel of an extended photo album review. With a very meandering, incidental narrative and too many people to follow, the whole middle section has a tendency to blur together. Also, though the trip was considered a success, the filmmakers don't do a particularly good job of convincing us that it had much impact on either Disney or relations with South America. It certainly didn't warrant an entire 107 minute documentary film. To hammer the point home, the animated feature that was produced as a result of the South America trip, "Saludos Amigos," was mostly well-received at the time of release, but it's largely forgotten today, a curiosity item like this documentary.

Finally, "The Boys" certainly features subject matter worthy of examination - the careers of the songwriting Sherman brothers, Robert and Richard. The pair was responsible for many Disney earworms, from the songs in "Mary Poppins" and "The Jungle Book" to "It's a Small World." However, their non-Disney work gets a bit sidelined here, which is a shame. "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" gets a few minutes, since it was one of the most popular and enduring films they worked on, but other late career highs like "The Slipper and the Rose" are glossed over quickly. What's really intriguing is the family drama that frames the whole feature. Richard and Robert Sherman never got along all that well, and were estranged for decades in later life. "The Boys" was put together by their sons in the hopes of mending some fences, but the brothers don't open up much about the fallout or the reconciliation process. Much left unsaid does show up onscreen, however, such as the uptick in recent collaborations between the pair, including work on the new stage versions of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "Mary Poppins." Of the three docs, this is easily my favorite. The execution's a little bumpy, but it's so well intentioned, and so clearly a labor of love, it won me over. And frankly, I suspect I'd like any excuse to revisit the Shermans' catalog.
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Well, no point in dragging this out any longer. Here are my top ten films of 2010. My criteria for eligibility is that a film has to have been released in its own home country during 2010, so film festivals and other special screenings don't count. Picks are unranked, and this year include three foreign films, one animated film, one documentary, one science fiction film, and two fictional films based on real life events. Possibly three. Links lead to the full reviews previously posted on this blog. Here we go.

Exit Through the Gift Shop - The most exciting cinema mystery of the year was guessing which parts of "Exit Through the Gift Shop" were real and which were staged. The identity and intentions of its director, the street artist Banksy, remain a mystery, and so far the real circumstances of the film's creation have too. But that doesn't stop it from being a wonderful primer on the street art movement, a cautionary tale about fame, a satire on doing business in the art world, and a portrait of an aspiring filmmaker who turns out to have only a limited understanding of his subject.

The Illusionist - A labor of love by the French animation director Sylvain Chomet, who turned an unproduced script by the great French comic Jacques Tati into a traditionally animated film. Mostly silent, very subdued, and deeply nostalgic in tone, "The Illusionist" follows the declining career of a master showman in his twilight years, who must bring his act to a close and cede the stage to a new era. Full of small delights and subtle sorrows, that one suspects are more Chomet than Tati, it was nonetheless the best animated film in a very good year for animated films.

The Social Network - They're making a film about Facebook?! A laughable notion just a little over a year ago, but when the filmmakers include director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin, and the cast full of burgeoning young talents like Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, and Armie Hammer, it's no laughing matter. Less a film about the internet than the internet age, and the morality of the generation that spawned it, "The Social Network" may go down as the defining film of an era. Or at least it'll share the title with "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World."

Another Year - Mike Leigh's latest small-scale masterpiece looks at the interactions of an aging British couple with various friends and relations over the course of an eventful year. Why are some of them so happy and some of them so unhappy? Is it luck? A result of their personal choices? Or is it all just a state of mind? For a film where most of the cast is older, and so much misery is dealt out to the characters, "Another Year" is remarkably blunt and unsentimental. For a film that appears so pleasant and amiable at first glance, it has some startling, and perhaps uncomfortable depths.

Dogtooth - Extreme cinema tends to put me off, but Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is interested in far more than sickening his audience. He first creates the proper context, by introducing one of the most twisted families ever caught on film, a microcosm of humanity suffering under oppression. It's hard not to think of the behavior of real world tyrants and governments when witnessing the cruel, often arbitrary schemes of the insane parents being inflicted upon their deeply repressed and ignorant offspring. The violence and sexuality in the film are indeed shocking, but also entirely appropriate.

Incendies - There have been so many films about war and carnage in the Middle East, they can start to blur together. "Incendies," however, is unforgettable. It dispenses with the usual political rhetoric and cuts through cultural complexities to chronicle the tragedy of a single woman's life, that continues to unfold even after her death. The film is a string of small heartbreaks, building up slowly to an emotional climax. Even if the final revelations may not come as much of a surprise, the performances and the skill of the storytelling will still hit you where it hurts.

Inception - We have so few real cultural touchstones anymore, that when a genuine one emerges, it tends to be an event. In the late summer of 2010, "Inception" caught fire and it was everywhere. One of the few bright spots in a season of disappointments, it gave those of us who were sick of watered-down blockbusters a potent reminder of what the right director can do with the full array of special effects available to modern directors. This is Christopher Nolan's best film since "Memento," and contains some of the most memorable images and mind-bending ideas of his entire career.

Blue Valentine - A bleak subversion of the notion of happily-ever-after romance. There's no denying that Dean and Cindy, played by Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, truly fall in love. But whether that love is able to sustain them through the difficulties of marriage, parenthood, and broken dreams is another matter entirely. The film may be best remembered for the MPAA controversy it sparked, and that's a shame. The performances are rich, the filmmaking is deft, and the stark honesty with which director Derek Cianfrance approaches the difficult material is far too rare.

127 Hours - This is my pick this year for the most enjoyable film experience, totally irrespective of the traditional measures of quality. Director Danny Boyle, fresh off his "Slumdog Millionaire" win, turned his attention to the true story of hiker Aron Ralston, who survived 127 hours pinned under a rock in a canyon in the Utah desert. The wildly kinetic style, fast-paced camera work, and fantasy sequences aren't there just to spice up a spatially limited scenario, but to reflect the inner world of Ralston, whose daredevil personality and can-do spirit may have been what saved him.

Poetry - Last year the thriller "Mother" was on my Top Ten list. This year, I'm including another Korean film with very similar themes and a very different approach to them. Lee Chang-Dong's "Poetry" is less about the moral quandry that its elderly heroine faces, than her struggle to gain the self-respect and self-awareness to assert herself when it comes time to make her decision. More contemplative and far less exciting than most of the recent Korean crime films, "Poetry" nonetheless evokes powerful emotions and features a heart-rending performance by its leading lady, Yoon Jeong-Hee.

And finally, I'm instituting something new. I'm adding a Plus One spot, for the best film of the previous year that I didn't get a chance to see before compiling my previous Top Ten list. Instead of bemoaning the fact that some obscure titles, particularly the foreign ones, tend to escape my notice until it's too late, I'm just going to make a little more space for them. So the best 2009 film that would have been on my last Top Ten list if I'd seen it in time is...

The Maid - A Chilean film about a maid, Raquel, who has devoted herself to an upper-class family for so long, she has become overly protective of them and a source of brewing conflicts. When her position is threatened, she goes to extremes to protect her place in the household, which leads to some unexpected revelations. Directed by Sebastián Silva and featuring a great performance by Catalina Saavedra, "The Maid" is refreshingly unpredictable and contains some of the best surprises that a film has managed to spring on me in a long time.
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I promised this list a while ago as a counterpart to my My Top Ten Guilty Pleasure Movies. Enjoy.

"Sesame Street" - As a kid, whenever I was home sick from school and still conscious, the television was usually turned to PBS so I could look in on "Sesame Street" and "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." We used to live within range of three different PBS stations that showed everything at different times, so I could expect to spend at least two solid hours catching up with the Muppets and letting a few good old Joe Raposo songs make me feel better. I still can't help scanning the airwaves for "Sesame Street" if I happen to be home on a weekday morning.

"The View" - Yes, I'm one of those people. I originally started watching back when Lisa Ling was on the program out of Asian solidarity, but somewhere along the line I got attached to Joy Behar and Meredith Vieira, and I always enjoy Barbara Walters' visits whenever there's a notable guest. Yes, Elizabeth Hasselbeck makes me cringe, Sherri Shepherd is dead air, Rosie O'Donnell was a disaster, and I'm still not sure if Whoopi Goldberg is all there, but "The View" has somehow managed to stay relevant after all these years, and whenever I catch an episode, I feel a little more plugged into the present.

"I Love the..." - VH1's nostalgia programs can suck me in like nothing else. I've wasted whole weekends reliving the best and worst of 80s and 90s pop culture with various C-grade comedians providing tepid commentary. There's just something fascinating about barely remembered commercials and shows and other cultural artifacts. At least with other backward-looking specials like the AFI Movie countdown lists I can pretend there's something sort of educational or informative about them. With "I Love the 80s" and "I Love the 90s," I know it just amounts to collective navel gazing.

"The MTV Movie Awards" - I have a certain yen for award shows, but I really have no business watching the MTV Movie Awards ceremony. It's always terrible, a collection of vacuous promotions cobbled together into an awards-show format. Occasionally you might get a decent tribute or a few good parodies, but otherwise it's a strangely hypnotic train wreck. As actual awards, of course they have no integrity at all. You can't even call them populist anymore, as the "Twilight" franchise has swept the past three years, signaling that MTV has set its sights square on the adolescent female demographic.

"X TV" - I could fill an entire list with just the wretched anime I've watched over the years, but I think my favorite bad anime has to be the television series based on the CLAMP manga "X:1999." It collects together two group of superpowered people together in Tokyo, and because destiny says so, they proceed to kill each other off in various inventive, over-the-top ways. Occasionally they pause to angst. There's also a movie version that's goes to even further extremes with the big battle sequences, and manages to destroy most of Tokyo in the process. Yay carnage!

"Food Network Challenge" - Hey, a couple of cake decorators have been rounded up to make themed cakes based on PIXAR movies! Lets watch them run around in a panic to create these fantabulous confections, and maybe they'll drop them at the end when they have to move the cakes to the judging platform! I watch a lot of food-themed programming, and "Food Network Challenge" is definitely the most haphazard in every sense. If you've seen one you've seen them all, and with the recent shows the creators have fixed it so that hardly anything gets dropped anymore.

"E! True Hollywood Story" - Yep, sometimes I like the gossip shows too. However, I'm not particularly entertained by individual acts of celebrity debauchery unless they're on the level of a Charlie Sheen or a Mel Gibson. I prefer my dirt nicely aggregated into glossy, hour-long narratives, and if they can work in some nostalgia, all the better. What was really going on behind the scenes during "Growing Pains"? What has Lindsay Lohan been up to for the past year? I don't know why, but sometimes I just gotta know. Hollywood is a never-ending soap opera, and this is its Soap Opera Digest.

"Hoarders" - I gawk. I gape. I secretly feel better about myself and my Dad, who is something of a hoarder himself. The garage may be full of cardboard boxes, but at least he's not as bad as some of the miserable souls on this show. I'm slightly OCD about cleaning, and I always get an odd sort of rush seeing the homes of the hoarders transformed from nightmarish heaps of clutter into livable spaces again. The A&E show doesn't have the budget for the more dramatic, full-scale makeovers that "Oprah" and others have done with hoarders in the past, but they do enough to keep me tuned in.

"Dateline NBC" - Okay, once in a while "Dateline" will come through with some decent pieces, but let's be honest. It's one of the more salacious, dumbed down news magazine shows out there. It doesn't hold a candle to "60 Minutes" or "Frontline," or hell, even "20/20" most weeks. Much of its content revolves around true crime stories, and it's probably best known in recent years for "To Catch a Predator." But I have to say that "Dateline" is very good at what it does, and even as I'm rolling my eyes at the corny narration and musical stings, I still watch all the way to the end.

"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" - I didn't mean for this list to have so much reality television, but I guess it makes sense. I have way higher standards for fictional narratives than I do for documentary and news programs. "SVU" has been bad for a while now and it's been getting worse. Chris Meloni and B.D. Wong are not coming back, and Mariska Hargitay is on her way out too. I miss the early days of this show, when it skirted the edge of good taste, but could be powerful television. Now it's all guest stars and histrionics and trying to out-sleaze "CSI."

But then again, maybe the new cast could help turn things around. I guess I could give them a few episodes...
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The new film about Sarah Palin, "Undefeated," was released a few days ago and is moving into wider release this weekend. I won't be making any efforts to see it, but I wondered what would happen if I did and tried to review it. How does one approach a movie like this? By all indications, "Undefeated" is really a campaign video in the guise of a documentary, even though Sarah Palin has yet to commit to actually running for any office that would require or justify campaigning. So should her movie be analyzed as a documentary or as a piece of propaganda? So many documentaries take positions these days, like the Michael Moore films, is there really any difference?

I guess the concern is that by calling "Undefeated" a documentary, this might give it some sort of undue legitimacy. The term is so broad, however, that it covers a wide array of non-fiction films. Traditionally this does include polemics and propaganda as well as more balanced, measured features. Leni Riefenstahl's notorious "Triumph of the Will" is a documentary - one that seeks to document the rise of the Nazi party from Hitler's point of view. And no, I'm not comparing Sarah Palin to the Nazis. It's just an example of commendable filmmaking coupled with clear political motives. I'm not familiar with the work of director Stephen Bannon, but there's no reason why "Undefeated" can't have serious artistic value in spite of its subject or intentions. On the other hand, dubbing a film a documentary doesn't automatically make it a good one, or a film with much credibility. The title alone is misleading as hell, assuming it's not meant to be ironic, which I doubt.

An interesting wrinkle is that there are two versions of "Undefeated" that will be making the rounds, according to the film's Wikipedia page - the original unedited version that contains clips of anti-Palin sentiments expressed by popular celebrities, and one cut for general release that removes them. Does this automatically make one version better than the other? If the whole point of the film is to celebrate and champion Sarah Palin, then you don't necessarily want to include negative viewpoints for fear of diluting the message. It may be a difficult concept to get one's head around, but most documentaries aren't about showing us the truth, but certain versions or facets of the truth being highlighted by the documentarian. Hopefully these might reflect or add up to the truth, but there are no guarantees. With most documentaries, multiple viewpoints are presented, in order to be more comprehensive and add context. A good propaganda film, however, lasers in on a single, monolithic version of events to support a didactic message.

There's nothing wrong with either approach. The dolphin hunting documentary "The Reef" won the Oscar for positioning an anti-hunting activist as its hero, and skimping on the cultural arguments advanced by those who made their livelihoods from dolphin hunting. Michael Moore won his statuette for his most balanced film, "Bowling for Columbine," that explored the American gun culture but didn't offer up any easy solutions to the problems he uncovered. In both cases, the films presented its subjects and ideas in creative and interesting ways, got viewers engaged, and facilitated discussion. Neither made any attempt to deny that they were pushing a particular position or approached their material with an existing bias. Documentaries built around social justice causes are becoming increasingly popular.

So if you end up watching "Undefeated," you'll be faced with all the usual questions - Do you agree with Sarah Palin's politics? Did she get a fair shake in the media? Does she deserve to be taken seriously? But you can also watch with a more critical eye and look a little deeper. How well are the arguments in the film's constructed? Are the claims rational and believable? Do you feel like you're seeing a fair assessment of the events that took place? How much is the director's ideology informing what you see and don't see? Has enough evidence been presented for the conclusions being drawn? Documentaries, more than any other kind of film, need to be engaged with and questioned, especially when they have an agenda or are trying to sell you something.

I used to have trouble cutting through that surface layer before I began watching documentary films regularly. But in the end it's just another kind of filmmaking, and all the usual criteria used to judge it apply - storytelling, pacing, direction, editing, cinematography, writing, and occasionally even performance. If there were no art, no narrative, and no editorial eye, well, we'd just be watching the news.
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A few weeks ago, I wrote up a post about a trio of 2010 documentaries that blurred the line between fact and fiction - "Exit Through the Gift Shop," "Catfish," and "I'm Still Here." The last of these, the notorious chronicle of Joaquin Phoenix's self-destruction, turned out to be almost entirely created from staged or scripted footage. The creators of "Exit" and "Catfish" have managed to keep secret which parts of their films were real, and which events may not have played out on camera exactly as they did in real life. Now I have two more 2010 documentaries for the list, that don't engage in any line-blurring themselves, but instead examine the act of creating similar elaborate fictions, and the motivations behind them.

First we have "A Film Unfinished," which looks at the creation of the unfinished 1942 Nazi propaganda film "Das Ghetto," depicting life in the Warsaw ghetto. Directed and narrated by Yael Hersonski, the documentary systematically reveals that almost all the footage seen in "Das Ghetto" was staged, often through the violent coercion of the film's subjects. The goal was to show life in the ghetto was pleasant and happy for the Jews, while in truth there was massive overcrowding and most of the population was starving to death. When harsher realities were shown, it was only to insinuate that the more well-off Jews were stingy or unfeeling. The surviving footage from "Das Ghetto" is remarkable in that so much of it looks innocuous, consisting mainly of scenes of normal, everyday life. Yet the Germans often went to elaborate lengths to create these scenes, essentially manufacturing that sense of normalcy out of whole cloth. It's no wonder, as Hersonski informs us, that originally some historians were deceived, and treated parts of "Das Ghetto" as factual.

Several different sources are used to uncover all the various untruths in the film. The diary of the ghetto's Jewish leader provides a detailed account of the Nazi film crew's efforts to create a list of scenes they wanted, coupled with descriptions of the continued subjugation of the ghetto's inhabitants. Recorded war crimes trial testimony and additional filmed footage from one of the cameramen, Willy Wist, provides the perspective of the German filmmakers. A reel of outtakes and alternate takes, discovered decades after the edited footage, is especially illuminating, as it reveals that not only were many scenes staged, but filmed over and over from multiple angles to achieve the desired effect. The most moving moments come from the survivors of the ghetto, who are shown watching the film and reminiscing over their experiences. Here, the deceptions come across as especially cruel. At the sight of a funeral scene, one elderly woman exclaims in disbelief that Jews were never buried in coffins, as the film depicts. Alternate footage of the actual means of disposing corpses from the ghetto, provides more sobering context.

"A Film Unfinished" does an exceptional job of setting the historical record straight, but it's also a stark reminder of how easily films can lie to us. The happiest and most joyful scenes in "Das Ghetto" were often those filmed in the most horrifying circumstances, or were achieved through unthinkable tactics employed by the filmmakers. The extent of the Nazi effort to rewrite history is monstrous, but familiar. We've seen similar techniques used by so many filmmakers since 1942, sometimes playfully as in Orson Welles' "F is for Fake," sometimes satirically, as in "Borat," and sometimes for far less altruistic purposes. "A Film Unfinished" stands as a cautionary warning of the power of film to warp, or even supplant reality. It's especially dismaying to realize that "Das Ghetto" contains some of the only surviving film footage of the Warsaw ghetto, which was liquidated in 1943.

But, so as not to leave you totally depressed, I also want to write briefly about another documentary, "Marwencol," which also looks at the creation of an alternate, idealized reality, but for therapeutic purposes. Mark Hogancamp, an upstate New Yorker who suffered debilitating brian damage after a brutal attack, created the fantasy world of Marwencol to help deal with his demons. Located in Mark's backyard, Marwencol is an incredibly detailed World War II era Belgian town, populated by dolls that have been modified to resemble the people from Mark's life, including his mother, friends, co-workers, and a neighbor he develops a crush on. General Patton, Steve McQueen, and a witch with aquamarine hair are also residents. Here, Mark plays out various storylines and relationships, with the doll representing himself as the central figure.

Mark treats "Marwencol" as a real place, so the documentary, directed by Jeff Malmberg, often treats "Marwencol" as a real place as well. Several scenes are shot within the reality of the town itself, with the dolls acting out various scenarios like Mark's arrival to the town, a German infiltration, and a wedding. Some of these stories can get a little wild, like Mark running a bar that features staged catfights between Barbie dolls, for the entertainment of the troops. Marwencol is shown to be Mark's way of trying to gain control over his own fractured mind, after the attack robbed him of most of his memories and much of his ability to function normally in society. When the town is discovered and publicized by a local photographer, Mark has to grapple with the idea of Marwencol being a work of art, and decide whether he's willing to share something so personal to him with the rest of the world.

"Marwencol" is a great story about a man's imagination being his salvation, and makes for a good pairing with "A Film Unfinished," because it argues that sometimes the urge to rewrite reality can lead to very positive end results. Both are extremes on the spectrum, of course, with "Exit Through the Gift Shop" and "Catfish" falling somewhere in the middle. All these films tackle the question of what reality is or should be. It's a pressing question in this day and age, where the boundaries are getting more fluid than ever between our fantasies and our real world lives, with unpredictable consequences. I think we're bound to see more documentaries and pseudo-documentaries in the same vein in the future, but after the batch from last year they're going to have a lot to live up to.
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I finished "Catfish" last night, which means I've now seen all three of the 2010 documentaries that drew a lot of attention for featuring events that might have been partially or completely fabricated. The other two are "Exit Through the Gift Shop" and "I'm Still Here," and in the latter case the filmmakers already have fessed up that nearly everything the audience saw in the film was staged or planned well in advance. Thus, "I'm Still Here" cannot rightly be called a documentary proper, but rather must be classified as a faux documentary, or a film done in a documentary style. Those involved with "Catfish" and "Exit" have managed to keep a lid on the truth, though the "Catfish" creators have a lawsuit pending against them involving music licensing fees, which may hinge on whether the film is really a documentary or not.

All three of these films tackle the heady subject matter of false perceptions and distorted reality. "Catfish" charts the course of an online relationship where one of the participants may be misleading the other. "Exit Through the Gift Shop" starts out purporting to be a documentary about street artists and the guerrilla tactics they employ, and then takes a hard left turn into possible fiction when the documentarian decides he wants in on the action. Finally, the most publicized of the three was "I'm Still Here," where Joaquin Phoenix spent well over a year doing his best to convince the world that he was giving up acting to pursue an ill-advised career as a rap artist, and had the results filmed. Staging a personal meltdown as a piece of performance art was a keen idea, but the execution was lacking. In light of recent events with Charlie Sheen, however, "I'm Still Here" now feels bizarrely prescient.

So it's fitting that the filmmakers wound up blurring the lines between fact and fiction in their depiction of these stories. What we see onscreen in "Catfish" and "Exit Through the Gift Shop" seems plausible, but there's the nagging sense that the filmmakers must have staged certain scenes or recreated events that are being passed off as more genuine and spontaneous than they actually are. Could they have really set up some of those shots in "Catfish" so perfectly, and gotten such quality audio on the fly? Was Thierry Guetta's transformation from amateur documentary maker to amateur street artist entirely his own idea? I'm with the skeptics personally. While I can buy that everything in "Catfish" actually happened, and that all the people we see onscreen are the real people who were involved, there are some events in the early going that feel reenacted for the benefit of the audience, perhaps also condensed or altered to fit the narrative. As for Thierry Guetta, the sequence of events in "Exit Through the Gift Shop" makes it very difficult to believe they weren't scripted, or at least outlined.

But does this have any impact on quality? In both cases, I think the tactics end up strengthening the films and their messages. "Exit Through the Gift Shop" pokes fun at the art world, where money and acknowledgment are enough to turn even the most artistically bankrupt individual into a superstar. It's the perception that a certain art style or trend is valuable that gives it legitimacy, and the film offers up the example of Thierry Guetta's alter ego, Mr. Brainwash, as someone who takes advantage of this. Whether Mr. Brainwash is real, or perhaps an amalgam of others, he's a perfect embodiment of what "Exit" views as the worst kind of artist, an unoriginal, derivative leech who profits from hype instead of originality. So while Mr. Brainwash and the events surrounding him may not be entirely authentic, they're certainly representative of an underlying truth. The approach itself can be seen as a teasing poke at the documentary art form and its oft stated aspirations of objectivity.

"Catfish" is a more straightforward, cautionary tale about the anonymity afforded by the internet, but also makes a case that sometimes that anonymity can be beneficial too. After spending eighty-odd minutes making the case for fictions sometimes being as important as truths, it would be hypocritical to begrudge the filmmakers a few tweaks of their own to reality. "Catfish" is undeniably gimmicky, ran a misleading marketing campaign, and the filmmakers come off very amateurish and none too sympathetic at times. And yet ultimately the film turned out to be such an even-handed, gentle exploration of the kind of bad situation we always see mined for its most salacious elements by the media. I found "Catfish" far more subversive and interesting than it billed itself to be, and though horror fans may have been bereft of the anticipated gore and splatter, perhaps not all of them left unmoved.

I liked both films, and after wrestling with it for a while, I respect what Joaquin Phoenix was trying to do in "I'm Still Here," even though it was terrible. We're in an interesting age of filmmaking, where the concept of reality has gotten more fluid and ambiguous. But I wonder if these new line-blurring tactics are really that much more harmful than the misleading editing and poorly supported arguments that other documentaries have offered in the past. I guess I'm not so concerned with what's real in these documentaries as much as I am with what is true.
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When I was younger, I went to a school dance with a group of friends and had a great time. It was only later in the evening, as we were all going our separate ways, that my best friend pulled me aside and explained that there had been drama going on all night between two of my other girlfriends who were fighting over the same boy. I'd been totally oblivious that anything like that was happening, and felt sheepish and little embarrassed. Some of the same feelings came up while watching "Waking Sleeping Beauty," a documentary that chronicles the Disney animation renaissance, from the early 80s up to the release of "The Lion King" in 1994.

As I've mentioned before in many of these blog posts, I was a Disney kid. I was exactly the right age at exactly the right time to be utterly swept up in Disney animation's return to glory in the 80s and 90s, and so became something of a life-long Disney obsessive. I'd read some of the literature about what was going on behind the scenes, and knew that the sugar-coated studio version of events was all a front, but most of the negativity involved the public sparring between Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg that went on during 1994. As far as I knew, everything had been going fine up until that point. So it was jarring to see how bumpy that preceding decade really was for the studio, all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into pushing feature animation up to those towering creative highs, and the personal tensions that were apparent between the three men who were so often the public face of Disney during that period - Eisner, Katzenberg, and Roy Disney.

"Waking Sleeping Beauty" was directed by Don Hahn and produced by Peter Schneider, who have credits on many familiar Disney features. The documentary is made up entirely of archival footage, a good mix of the animators' home movies, still photos, marketing material, news footage, and period interviews. Disney fans will also be gratified to see clips from in-progress versions of the films, recording sessions, and dropped musical sequences. Hahn provides much of the narration himself, but also turns the microphone over to many of the other players involved in order to let everybody have their say, even putting some of the unused audio on the commentary track. Because of the notorious lengths that Disney goes to in order to protect its public image and intellectual property, this is the first time that many of these stories have come to light, and there's still a sense of walking on eggshells at certain points. Perhaps the filmmakers were too close to their subject matter, as they do have a tendency to sentimentalize events and the nostalgia is awfully thick. Notably, Hahn only alludes to the larger fallout from Katzenberg's departure and the painful reversal of fortune for Disney animation that would occur over the next ten years.

But at its heart, this is the best look behind the scenes of Disney animation that I've ever seen, and finally helps to humanize many familiar names. It makes so much difference to actually be able to watch video of lyricist Howard Ashman, often described as one of the driving creative forces behind "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Aladdin." He's showered with praise and affection by everyone in the film, but I appreciated the inclusion of some of the not-so-nice incidents too, like Ashman blowing up at "Beauty and the Beast" director Kirk Wise, cheerfully rendered in a series of caricature drawings. The film is also very good at providing important context and little details to many events in the studio's history, such as the failure of "The Black Cauldron" in 1985 being especially bitter because they were trumped at the box office by Nelvana's "Care Bears Movie." And when the animators get kicked off the Disney lot and relocated to Glendale, we're treated to video of them working out their frustrations by re-enacting "Apocalypse Now."

I urge you to see this film on DVD if possible, for the additional supplemental materials. There's at least a good hour of deleted sequences and full versions of certain clips. An encounter with a young Tim Burton, for instance, is absolutely hysterical when you see the whole thing. If I have any beef with the film it's that I wish we could have seen more of the animators. The only people we follow through those ten years, start to finish, are the executives. The narrative would have been strengthened by following one of the artists - possibly Don Hahn himself - through that time period too. Also for anyone who isn't a Disney nut, it's difficult to keep track of everyone in the film. I honestly wondered a few times if someone had mislaid some captions somewhere.

But these are minor quibbles. "Waking Sleeping Beauty" is a rare, candid look at what was really going on in the Magic Kingdom while the world was falling back in love with Disney. Some of it was magic, but a lot of it was shrewd executive brinksmanship, a changed corporate culture, and a small group of people working very, very hard for a a very long time. It's about time we got to see their side of the story.
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There are two kinds of media-fan documentaries. First you have the documentaries that are made about the fans themselves, such as "Trekkies," which explored the "Star Trek" subculture and "Ringers: Lord of the Fans," which charted the impact of the Peter Jackson "Lord of the Rings" trilogy on the established Tolkien fandom. And then there are the documentaries about media properties that have been mounted by the fans themselves, usually without the official involvement of whoever actually has the rights to the films or television shows being examined. I've run several of these floating around the Internet, including fan-made documentaries about "Firefly," "Doctor Who," "Return to Oz," "Johnny Quest," and the "Karate Kid." The two different breeds of documentary frequently cross-breed, such as in the "Troll 2" magnum opus, "Best Worst Movie," or "The People vs. George Lucas," but I mostly want to talk about the latter variety - the documentaries made by amateurs.

One recent example is the fourteen-part "Star Wars Begins" that Cinematical's Erik Davis has been raving about. Its creator, Jambe Davdar, describes it as an "unofficial commentary to Star Wars," which incorporates footage from the original film trilogy with behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, deleted scenes, alternate takes, and bloopers. This is probably the most high-profile fan-made doc out there at the moment, and a unique case for a couple of reasons. Like all fan-made documentaries, "Star Wars Begins" is clearly a labor of love that was meant to fill an informational void left by the official production company. The difference here is that "Star Wars" has had several documentaries covering its creation already. You have Ken Burns' "Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy," and the History Channel's "Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed," each running at least ninety minutes apiece. I even remember "Star Wars" getting a good chunk of an episode of the PBS "American Cinema" installment that covered the "Film School Generation." How much of a void could there be left to fill? For a serious "Star Wars" obsessive, plenty I guess.

Another issue, related to the first, is potential legality problems. All fan-generated work falls into a gray area of intellectual property law, but most rights holders have no reason to go after fan-made-documentaries for obscurities like "Return to Oz," since the potential audience is tiny, the fan documentarians never make a cent, and the rights holders have little economic interest in creating their own documentaries. Also, in America at least, there are various exceptions for critique and informational uses that documentaries have a better case for than most. There's no real harm going on, so there's no reason to cry foul. "Star Wars" is a different matter. The Lucasfilm business empire clearly still has an economic interest in the kind of material covered by "Star Wars Begins," especially the footage that has never been officially released. As I mentioned in a previous "Star Wars" post, George Lucas and company still get a lot of mileage out of releasing bits and pieces from their archives, like the never-before-seen alternate opening for "Return of the Jedi," which will be included with the new "Star Wars" Blu-Rays. It could be argued that "Star Wars Begins" would lessen the value of some of this material by making a good chunk of it so freely available.

On the other hand, this bootleg archival footage has been around for decades, and any "Star Wars" fan worth their salt has seen it already. Lucasfilm is also much looser about fan-generated content than many others. They recognized a long time ago that unofficial, but loving fan films and spoofs like "George Lucas in Love," and "Thumb Wars" help to keep interest in "Star Wars" going. They even help to sponsor the Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards every year now, though IP issues are probably a big reason why the Best Documentary category disappeared after the first year. "Star Wars Begins," which is a very complimentary, positive expression of one guy's passion for the "Star Wars" universe, is in the same spirit as other fan films. So, I expect Lucasfilm will happily ignore it as long as Davdar keeps emphasizing that the documentary is unofficial and doesn't give them a reason to ring up the lawyers.

After all, it wouldn't look very good for Lucasfilm to come down on someone for putting all this time and effort into such a geeky paean to the original "Star Wars." Frankly, I wish some of my favorite media fandoms could generate a documentary like this - or rather, generate the passionate, talented media fans that could generate a documentary like this.
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I was going to blog on the premiere of "Undercovers," which is a fun piece of romantic fluff, but then I stayed up to see Joaquin Phoenix's much-promoted return to David Letterman's show, and I feel compelled to add my two cents.

First, it was a relief to see Phoenix drop the act last night - gone were the beard, the sunglasses, and the mumbling. I'd read a few reviews of the new film at the center of the latest media scrum, "I'm Still Here," that questioned whether the whole rapper persona he'd adopted last year was an act or whether Phoenix had really gone off the deep end. Just about everyone wanted it to be an act, me included, though the saga of the actor apparently self-destructing over the course of the last two years was entertaining in a rubber-necking sort of way. And a grand total of nobody was surprised when co-conspirator Casey Affleck finally spilled the beans.

Letterman claimed that he knew Phoenix's new persona was false and played along during the actor's first appearance on "The Late Show." I'd have been inclined to agree eighteen months ago, but I started having doubts when "I'm Still Here" started prepping for its theatrical release and Phoenix still hadn't come clean about duping his audience. It takes serious dedication to go to those kinds of extremes for any kind of performance, so I have to respect him for putting aside two years of his life and risking his career to take on the challenge. However, I'm still not sure what he was trying to accomplish with the whole charade.

According to last night's interview, Phoenix and Affleck wanted to explore the nature of celebrity and its relationship with the media and the audience. They figured the best way to do this would be to turn Phoenix into a Lindsay Lohan-type walking disaster by staging an elaborate fake disintegration of his career. I can see how the concept has merit, and there are clear precedents for similar stunts from comedians like Andy Kaufman and Sacha Baron Cohen. Heck, Stephen Colbert will be playing Stephen Colbert in front of a U.S. House committee hearing on illegal immigrant farm workers today. And the gullibility of the media is always a fun target.

But in the case of Phoenix and Affleck, I'm not sure I get the joke. By all accounts "I'm Still Here," which Affleck directed, is a fake documentary following Joaquin Phoenix's attempts to start a recording career as a rap artist, in the same vein as "Borat" or "Bruno." Various events like a brawl at a concert were staged with friends, and mixed in with unscripted, unrehearsed material like the Letterman interview. But since the film is still playing it straight, and meant to fuel further speculation about Phoenix's hijinks, it doesn't seem to be the end result of the project. So what is? The media reaction? The follow-up Letterman interview?

I don't think the filmmakers themselves had a clear idea of what they wanted to accomplish, and the execution of the whole scheme left much to be desired. Most of the "I'm Still Here" reviewers were either left repulsed by Phoenix's false persona or else puzzled as to its authenticity. If Phoenix and Affleck were trying to turn the tables on the media and expose its weaknesses, they have yet to succeed. The focus of the film wasn't on the portrayal of Phoenix by the media, but on Phoenix's eccentricities. Now that the hoax has been revealed, there's no ambiguity left to draw curious audiences. And it's hard to be critical of the media for its behavior when they were being so obviously baited.

Sacha Baron Cohen's guerrilla comedy was brilliant because it got people to drop their guard and react in ways that revealed hidden attitudes and hypocracies. "I'm Still Here" only got the media to shine a spotlight and invite others to gawk and speculate. There were hardly any of the usual snide tabloid insinuations you often get with Britney Spears or Paris Hilton. In fact, there was actually very little coverage of Phoenix that I remember, and much of it was various film bloggers hoping that whatever the actor was going through, that he'd come out all right. I don't think that anybody bought the act entirely, which probably contributed to the limited coverage.

I wonder if Phoenix would have found more success if he'd left off some of the more extreme changes to his appearance, like the ZZ Top beard, that signaled that something was up. Or if he'd recruited a more tempting target for the cameras, like Mandy Moore or Hilary Duff or the pop princess of you choice, to stage a more familiar kind of celebrity meltdown. Joaquin Phoenix claimed that the whole idea came from watching reality television and the skewed portrayals of people that it regularly presented as reality. Though he tried his hardest to get the media to skew his actions into something outrageous, in the end it feels like Phoenix did most of the skewing himself. And in the process, he made everyone who expressed genuine sympathy for him feel like a twit.

In any case, it's good to have Phoenix back. And I think we can all agree that David Letterman delivering a comedic smackdown of the whole affair was satisfying catharsis for everybody.


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