Category Archives: Genre: Documentary

Amy (2015)

Artwork courtesy of Sydney artist Hubert Widjaya

I was recently on a 3-hour flight and there was nothing good to watch in the TV or Movie sections, so I tapped into the Documentary category to try my luck. And there, like an oasis in the desert, was Amy, the critically acclaimed doco on the tragic life of Amy Winehouse, the troubled jazz singer who died from alcohol-related causes in 2011, at the age of 27.

To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of Winehouse or her music, so I didn’t really know much about her at all except she had a big hit with Rehab and later turned into the butt of jokes for her drug and alcohol addiction. Whenever I saw her on TV or magazines she looked awful, and the natural inclination is to just shake your head and judge her based on what you see — a young woman with he world at her feet but is throwing it all away.

Perhaps with that common negative perception in mind, director Asif Kapadia (Senna) goes to great lengths to show us who Amy Winehouse truly is, behind all the fame and all the tabloid photos — and the picture he paints is a heartbreaking one.

It begins with Amy’s childhood from a broken family and how she came to become a recording artist, then traced her meteoric rise to stardom with Back to Black in 2006 and her descent into darkness thereafter. Depression, self-destructive tendencies, alcohol and drug abuse, and bulimia plays a major role all the way through, and by the end of the 128-minute film I felt like it was almost inevitable that things turned out the way they did. It was as though her darkness and her ability to write great music — music I came to appreciate as the film progressed, especially the personal, cutting lyrics — came hand in hand and fed off one another.

I was utterly amazed by how comprehensive and detailed the movie is. Of course there is archived footage of her live and studio performances, interviews and news clips, but a significant part of the documentary is made up of home video footage — seems people in her life have enjoyed filming her since she was a kid — giving rare insights into her character when she isn’t in front of media cameras. There are also extensive interviews with all the key influences in her life, from parents to best friends to boyfriends to to collaborators to idols to managers and label execs — and all of them are frank and raw.

Almost the entire film is chronological, which tracks her growth and progression, both in musical style and personality. I really enjoyed the footage of her live performances with the lyrics popping up on screen, which always reflect the current stage of her life perfectly. Great job by Kapadia in stringing together all these different pieces to build such a compelling story.

You do get a sense that Kapadia is trying to evoke sympathy — or at least empathy — for Winehouse, but he doesn’t exactly give her a free pass either. The blame goes around, from her absent then excessively present father to the love of her life, Blake Fielder, who is perhaps her most lethal and irresistible drug. These negative influences in her life don’t absolve her of responsibility, but it does help us understand why she ended up the way she did. Winehouse has simply always been weak-willed and needed someone to rein her in — she desperately wanted it — and without that support she would keep gravitating towards self-sabotage.

At the end of the day, Amy is a remarkable documentary, not just because of how much rare and valuable footage, images and sounds it contains, but also the impressive storytelling and filmmaking from Kapadia, who delivers Winehouse’s pain and unique talent with the respect it deserves and the emotional punch it needs. Even though I wasn’t all that interested in Winehouse before, I still think it is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a long time, and I’m rooting for it to win Best Documentary at the Oscars next month.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Citizenfour (2014)


For a couple of months in mid-2013, my daily reporting work revolved around Edward Snowden, the ex-NSA contractor who spilled the beans on the unfathomable level of US surveillance on its own citizens and people around the world. The story was first broken by The Guardian after Snowden contacted journalists Gleen Greenwald and MacASkill, but what few people knew at the time was that there was a documentary filmmaker, Laura Poitras, hanging around throughout the entire scandal.

Citizenfour is the product of all those hours Poitras, who won the Best Documentary Oscar for it in February, spent on the Snowden affair. Poitras was there when Snowden was hiding away at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, and captured large amounts of footage that was condensed down into some captivating interviews and conversations for the purposes of the film.

To be fair, the project pretty much fell into her lap because it was Snowden who first contacted her back in January 2013, in an exchange that formed the opening scenes of the film. She had already been working on a doco about post-9/11 government surveillance, and Snowden felt she would be the perfect candidate to record the political atomic bomb he was about to drop.

The Snowden affair has polarised the public. There are those who hail him as a hero for uncovering unconscionable conduct on the part of the US government, while others call him a traitor and want him punished for treason. Putting aside personal beliefs on what he did was right or wrong or 50 shades of grey (I have mixed emotions about it myself), Citizenfour has also polarised the public. There are those who found it absolutely compelling, while others were bored out of their minds.

I can see where both sides are coming from. I think this is a film where the viewer needs to have some level of interest in the subject, be passionate about the ideas behind it, and perhaps even know the background enough to realise how remarkable the footage is they’re seeing on screen. Those exclusive up-close-and-personal interviews and footage of Snowden are gold, and Poitras knows it. She obviously has an agenda, or else she wouldn’t have been making a doco about government surveillance, though she does a good job of letting the footage speak for itself rather than ram a political message down the audiences’ throats. By crafting the story chronologically, the narrative unveils almost like a political thriller, and the explanations are simple enough, for the most part, that viewers should be able to understand, or at least have a basic grasp of, the surveillance concepts described throughout the film.

On the other hand, if you don’t really know about the story or if government surveillance doesn’t bother you one way or another, Citizenfour could come across as a bit of a drag. There are typed conversations re-enacted on computer screens, which rarely works in fictional movies, and long conversations about technical things and legal ramifications. Even if they recognise that it is a well-made film about an important topic, audiences could find sitting through all the court hearings toward the end too much to handle.

For me, the interest came less from the topic and more about the subject, Snowden himself. From the moment his identity became public, Snowden has been written about ad nauseam, but this film offers the first real opportunity for people to decide for themselves what kind of person he is. And honestly, I think the film confirms my suspicions that there’s just something off about the guy. He’s clearly intelligent and articulate, and I don’t doubt he believes what he is doing is right, though Snowden does come across as someone with a messiah complex that’s not too far off from the vibe of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. You just have to wonder about his motivations when you know he had the foresight to contact a documentary filmmaker months before he knew the whole thing would blow up.

Having said that, I like him a lot more now after having watched John Oliver’s recent interview of him in Moscow (the Snowden section begins from about the 13:40 mark).

Anyway, Citizenfour is a film everyone should see because of what it is about, but Poitras has not made it a film for everyone. While I acknowledge its importance, the skilful filmmaking, and marvel at the footage of Snowden the film managed to capture, Citizenfour was a relative disappointment for me, especially given all the critical accolades and the fact that it was regarded by the Academy as the best doco of 2014. I never found it boring like some others have, but the film was not quite as fascinating or as thrilling as I had hoped it would be. Perhaps the Oliver Stone dramatization currently in the works, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden and Melissa Leo as Poitras, will be able to bridge the shortfalls.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Manny (2014)


Considering what great material the filmmakers had to work with, Manny, the new documentary on eight-weight-class Filipino world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, should have been a sure-fire KO. Instead of delivering the haymakers fans would have loved to see, however, the film ended up pulling its punches all the way through, resulting in a thoroughly unsatisfying experience that barely scratches the surface of both the man and the sport.

On its face, Manny ticks all the right boxes for a sports documentary. A poor Filipino kid from the gutter is forced to box from a young age to put food on the family table, and in the process develops a talent and ferocity that would take him to the very top of the sport. Amid the career highs (such as his superstar-making pummeling of Oscar de la Hoya in 2008) and lows (his KO loss to Juan Manuel Marquez in 2012, for instance) there are celebrity interviews and “rare” public and behind-the-scenes footage, all with the familiar voice of Liam Neeson narrating the script.

But despite an explosive start highlighting Pacquiao’s knockout loss to Marquez, Manny soon settles into conventional documentary mode and begins to skim over the stuff that would have made the film fascinating. It touches on all the things we already know about Pacquiao’s life outside of his major fights — the humble beginnings, the rise through the weight ranks, the movies and singing that came with the stardom, the foray into politics, and the apparent “religious awakening” he would experience a few years ago — but without ever getting to the “good stuff” simmering beneath the surface.

Yes, it was cool to see highlights of his training and big fights — Barrera, Morales, De la Hoya, Hatton, Cotto, Margarito, Marquez — in high definition, and it was fun to see celebrities like Mark Wahlberg, Jeremy Piven and Jimmy Kimmel talk about him, but all of these things felt superficial.

I wanted to see more footage of Manny’s daily life; I wanted to hear more about the dirty business of boxing and the disputes between his promoter Top Rank and Golden Boy; I wanted to hear about all the venomous groupies that feed of his money and all the cash he literally gives away; I wanted more depth on Manny’s dark side — the gambling and the drinking and the womanizing. It would be unfair to say the film completely ignores these issues, though it barely takes more than a jab at them. The approach by directors Leon Gast (who won the Oscar for the Ali documentary When We Were Kings) and Ryan Moore was to just touch upon all the touchy things and gloss over them quickly before moving onto the more positive aspects of Manny’s existence.

The best parts of the movie are when we see people close to Manny talk about him, from adviser Michael Koncz and ex-conditioning coach Alex Ariza to his long-time coach Freddie Roach and promoter Bob Arum. The bits with the most emotion actually all involve Pacquiao’s wife Jinkee, the only person who appears to be giving it to the viewers straight. But unfortunately, these flashes of genuine insight into Pacquiao are few and far between.

Perhaps it’s because I already know too much about Pacquiao for Manny to teach me anything new. To be honest, even the 24/7 documentaries produced by HBO before each Pacquiao fight offer more about he subject than this documentary. I just think the film would have been so much more interesting had it dared to venture deeper into things such as Alex Ariza’s unceremonious dumping from Pacquiao’s team and the subsequent feud he developed with Roach and Koncz (not discussed at all), questioning how and what really caused the negotiations with Floyd Mayweather Jr to break down multiple times (nothing apart from a couple of clips anyone could have dug up on YouTube), and some sort of definitive statement about all the allegations of performance enhancing drugs (the elephant in the room).

Even the chronological depiction of Pacquiao’s career missed important chunks. Although the footage is out there, the film ignores Pacquiao’s earlier losses before Morales and his world title fights at the lighter weight class, and completely skips his less inspiring bouts against Joshua Clottey and Shane Mosley. I know it’s hard to follow every bout of Pacquiao’s long career, but pretending that some important events of his life don’t even exist makes me question the filmmakers’ objectivity and decision-making.

At the end of the day, Manny is a film that’s more hagiography than documentary. It feels like it has been made by the same people who follow Pacquiao around all day telling him how great he is (they’re what netizens described as “Pactards”). Pacquiao is an interesting, charismatic sportsman who deserves a better biography than what he got here, and this was never more apparent when listening him spew out the awkward lines they wrote for him at the end of the movie.

Having said all that, Manny remains in a position to succeed because of Pacquiao’s immense popularity and fortunate timing — as the long-awaited showdown between him and Mayweather appears to be  getting somewhere at last. Maybe after they finally do fight each other someone else can make a more compelling documentary that can do Manny Pacquaio justice.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Blackfish (2013)


OK, so the whale is a mammal, but that doesn’t change the fact that Blackfish, a documentary directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is one of the best documentaries — scratch that — one of the best films, of 2013, and really should have been nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the upcoming Academy Awards. Last year I was deeply angered after watching The Invisible War, about sexual assault in the US military; this year I was mesmerized and traumatized by Blackfish, a cautionary tale on the dangers of keeping killer whales in captivity for the sake of entertainment.

The film focuses on the killer whale Tilikum, an orca that has been in captivity for 30 years and is still held in SeaWorld Orlando, where he performs daily. Even though this is a documentary, it’s still best to go into it knowing as little as possible, so I won’t go into the orca’s history as it would spoil some of the revelations in this film, which unfold masterfully thanks to a well-written script. The documentary is powered by a series of interviews with former SeaWorld trainers and people who worked at the now-defunct Canadian Sealand, where Tilikum once resided, as well as testimonials from whale experts, catchers and the like. There is also a lot of excellent footage of the whales, including their capture, training and performance videos, making this feel like a very complete documentary with no major missing pieces.

The central argument running through Blackfish is that whales are fiercely intelligent, highly evolved and emotional creatures that should not be held in captivity, and if you do, you are doing it at your own peril. The film paints orcas as animals with humanistic emotions, and argues — in a skillful and non-manipulative way — that holding them against their will in dark, tiny tanks for most of their lives (sometimes under substandard care), starving them to train them to perform tricks, separating their offspring from them, and allowing them to be subjected to abuse from other whales, is deeply inhumane and immoral. It is no wonder why some experts say that it makes the whales psychotic and turns them into ticking time bombs, and it’s hard to blame them when they eventually lash out out of frustration.

It is a film that is difficult to watch at times for so many reasons. It breaks your heart watching the whales howl in agony when they are separated from their family, when they are being “treated” by staff, or when you see the bullied calves battered and bloodied by their larger peers. It’s also agonizing watching the brutal attacks of the whales on their trainers, knowing that there is little anyone can do to save them from the jaws of these 5,000kg+ beasts. It can get really emotional watching the interviews of the trainers who worked with the whales, not to mention the loved ones of those trainers who lost their lives because of their jobs. And of course, it can be infuriating listening to the SeaWorld reps spinning their PR stories. I found myself going through a roller coaster ride of emotions during this film and was almost moved to tears several times.

The subject of the film is interesting enough, but Cowperthwaite should also be commended for her filmmaking, which can often be understated for documentaries. Blackfish is an engrossing work that ticks all the right boxes — it serves an important purpose by bringing someone to our attention that we might not have otherwise been aware of, it tells a story in an interesting and captivating way, it’s entertaining, and it is capable of stirring up your emotions.

I remember going to SeaWord (I think it was in Hong Kong) as a kid and being wowed by the experience, and drinking the SeaWorld kool aid which suggests to us that the whales love what they do and have wonderful relationships with their trainers. Blackfish argues that this could not be further from the truth.

Having said all that, I should point out that Blackfish does have its fair share of critics, who argue that the film distorts the facts and completely ignores the positive work that SeaWorld does (including rescuing animals before freeing them and donating millions to conservation and research). One interviewee said he believes his interviews were seldom used for the film because what he said, which is largely in support of SeaWord, did not fit in with the filmmakers’ agenda. And let’s be honest, Cowperthwaite clearly did have an agenda — but then again, so do all documentary films — and it’s hard to deny that she did a great job in promoting it. However, it should also be noted that not all the claims are against SeaWord (it’s more a general critique of the industry and past practices), and most importantly, SeaWorld repeatedly turned down opportunities to be interviewed for the film, and therefore opportunities to state their side of the story.

Regardless of what you think about holding whales in captivity for the sake of entertaining people at theme parks, one thing is for sure if you watch Blackfish: you will never look at theme parks such as SeaWorld in the same light again. I urge everyone to watch this brilliant documentary, read up about both sides of the story, and decide for yourself.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Linsanity (2013)


I too was caught up in all the Linsanity madness as much as anyone else when it started in February 2012 (actually, probably more so because I was writing about it every day for work). A Taiwanese-American underdog in the NBA, and a Harvard graduate, no less, who had been undrafted, sent to the D-League multiple times and was about to be cut for a third (and probably final) time before a miraculous string of record-breaking performances made him the biggest headline in New York, and later, the whole world. It was a story too good to be true, and everyone absolutely loved it.

And therefore it came as no surprise that someone decided to make a documentary about the phenomenon that has come to be known as Linsanity. The impressive thing about this film, however, is that director Evan Jackson Leong decided to make the film when Lin was still a student at Harvard, well before he became a household name.

The narrative follows Lin from his childhood days when he displayed incredible talenting playing AAU ball with his brothers, then onto his highly successful high school career before landing a spot at Harvard because no Div 1 school would offer him a scholarship. After leading Harvard to one of their best seasons ever, Lin had ambitions of being selected in the NBA draft, revealing that he believed his best chance was being picked by the Knicks in the second round (he “crushed” that workout, in his words). Of course, he missed out on getting selected completely, but was fortunate to be invited the Mavs’ summer league, where he went toe to toe with No. 1 pick John Wall. He then signed with the local Golden State Warriors, and the rest is pretty much general knowledge.

Anyway, I did enjoy it, but I must admit I liked the subject a lot more than the film itself. Linsanity, as it turns out, is a fairly run of the mill documentary where the drama and excitement is nearly entirely attributable to the true story itself as opposed to the filmmaking. I had expected to see a lot more exclusive footage and interviews, as well as a deeper look into Lin’s personality and especially his well-publicized religious beliefs. Instead, I was treated to a huge chunk of well-edited game footage, though a lot of it — mainly the college and NBA highlights — I had already seen before in the actual games or on YouTube.

To be fair, there is some interesting stuff in the film, such as the interview with Lin’s parents and brothers, and especially listening to his father explain how the family got into basketball in the first place. The portion of the film dedicated to Lin’s lowest point, when he was sent to the cutthroat D-League, is perhaps the most insightful part of the 88-minute running time. But to be honest, if you know Jeremy Lin’s story pretty well like I do, it’s likely you’re not going to get a whole lot out of this documentary. The subjects you know are going to be tackled — like the discrimination, the racism, the taunting, being repeatedly overlooked, etc — are all broached as expected, but there really wasn’t anything I hadn’t already seen or read elsewhere. That’s when more exclusive interviews, or even just a fresher approach, would have been welcome. I kept waiting for some revelatory comment from Lin, his family, friends, teammates or enemies, or even just a new angle on things, but it was all ended up being relatively tame and cliched.

The film also skimped on the awkward end of Linsanity, when Lin’s knee injury ruled him out of the team for the remainder of the season and the fact that he later copped flak for not playing because he was not 100%. The subsequent controversial contract negotiation with the Knicks, which turned ugly and essentially forced him to Houston as a free agent, was essentially overlooked. I know that is not the glamorous side of Lin’s story but it’s an important one that should have received more attention.

Nearly a year after Linsanity came and went, and with Lin now just a “regular” starter in Houston, Linsanity doesn’t quite have the effect and impact it would have back had it been released a year or so earlier. On the other hand, one could argue that the film comes too close after Lin’s success, and it would have been better to wait even longer, maybe another year or two, to be able to properly reflect on what an amazing time it was.

At the end of the day, Linsanity is an entertaining film because it is about one of the most extraordinary underdog stories in sports history. Even if you’ve seen it all before, you’d be crazy not to get pumped up all over again by rewatching some of Lin’s greatest moments during his incredible run. That said, I suspect it is a film that is most suited for audiences who have only a faint idea of Linsanity; for people who know the story well, there isn’t a lot of new things to see or learn, and the documentary filmmaking is just too typical and sanitized to give Lin’s story that extra edge it deserves.

3.25 stars out of 5

Final Post-Oscars Movie Blitz

I’ve reviewed every Best Picture nominee from this year’s Oscars, so now I will get the rest of the Oscar-related reviews over and done with in one fell swoop. The five films below all missed out on a Best Picture nomination but were all nominated for at least one other award.

The Master (2012)


Nomination(s): Joaquin Phoenix (Best Actor), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Best Supporting Actor), Amy Adams (Best Supporting Actress)

I was a little disappointed in The Master because I am incredibly fascinated by Scientology (and this was supposed to be a veiled depiction of its founder, L Ron Hubbard) and I love all three leads and writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, who blew me away with his previous effort, There Will Be Blood.

Joaquin plays an ex-soldier who is sex-obsessed and a drunk. He stumbles across a cult called The Cause, ruled by Hoffman and his wife, played by Adams. He gets involved in the cult but has trouble following rules and keeping his emotions in check because he is so damaged.

While it was skillfully made, carefully paced and driven by three of the best performances of 2012 (in particular the lads), The Master was more about how and why people get sucked into cults (in general) rather than a Scientology expose. It is artistic and intentionally slow in parts, much like There Will Be Blood, but lacks the same edge-of-your-seat tension and explosiveness. For me it was just a little too flat and detached to pull me all the way into the story.

3 stars out of 5

PS: Maybe I was expecting too much, or maybe I was just thinking about this whenever I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman and couldn’t take him seriously.

The Impossible (2012)


Nomination(s): Naomi Watts (Best Actress)

I was wary of this film as I’m usually wary of tear jerkers, but this turned out to be one of the better ones, and not just because it’s based on a true story. Well, the true story involved a Spanish family caught in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but the filmmakers decided to turn them into a British family. I didn’t have a problem with that — they had to do what they had to do to sell film.

The movie works better if you don’t know how it ends, so if you haven’t seen it, avoid finding out. The special effects and the make-up are amazing, and the moment the tsunami hits is as realistic (and terrifying) as you could have hoped it to be.

But such a film wouldn’t work if it didn’t strike the right emotional cords, and the right emotional cords would not be struck if the performances didn’t hit their mark. In this regard The Impossible delivers because Naomi Watts is stunning as the battered mother, and Ewan McGregor is also very good as the distraught father. The one who links the film together, however, is young newcomer Tom Holland, who plays the eldest son of the family.

I didn’t shed any tears but the emotions did get to me, and that’s already quite an impressive feat because I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.

3.75 stars out of 5

The Sessions (2012)


Nomination(s): Helen Hunt (Best Supporting Actress)

If you want to be crass about it, The Sessions is a true story about a horny disabled guy’s mission to get laid. John Hawkes plays Mark O’Brien, a poet who has lived with an iron lung after being struck down by polio as a child. He is paralyzed from the neck down and requires near-constant care for life’s most basic activities.

Mark has a sharp mind and an even sharper wit, and he’s also a smooth talker, a charmer and a flirt. If he was able-bodied he’d probably be quite a ladies man, which is why he is so frustrated that he can’t get a girlfriend, or simply someone to help him lose his virginity.

Enter Helen Hunt, a “sex surrogate” who specializes in cases like Mark’s. The two have a limited six sessions together, but things don’t turn out the way Mark had envisioned. Naturally, instead of just a physical relationship, both of them undergo emotional changes that will affect their lives forever.

Sounds like an uncomfortable movie, doesn’t it? But The Sessions is poignant and surprisingly hilarious, tackling the sex with humour and wit. It doesn’t shy away from it — Hunt goes the “full Helen” for the first time since The Waterdance in 1992, when she played the girlfriend of a paralyzed writer — but the sessions are skillfully portrayed and have a gentle and lighthearted feel to them.

Emotionally, I didn’t connect with the film as much as I thought I would, but I was still impressed by how funny it was (especially Hawkes’ exchanges with a priest played by William H Macy) and the way director Ben Lewin (a former Aussie barrister!) handled the difficult subject matter.

3.5 stars out of 5

Brave (2012)


Won: Best Animated Film

I had only seen one other animated film nominee and that was Wreck-it Ralph (the others were Frankenweenie, ParaNorman and The Pirates! Band of Misfits), which I liked but thought didn’t fulfill its full potential. If I had to compare the two then Brave would have gotten my vote too.

That said, Brave, while a very good animated film, is not in the same league as former winners such as Toy Story 3 and Up. It’s is an ambitious story set in the Scottish Highlands about a girl who refuses to accept her fate by expressing the desire to not marry, setting off a chain of events that predictably teaches us to follow our hearts before leading to an obvious conclusion.

It has a strong female protagonist voiced by Kelly Macdonald and with Emma Thompson as her overbearing mother and Billy Connolly has her stubborn father. The Scottish accents were finely tuned to ensure audiences could understand them.

Notwithstanding the predictable underlying message and ending, I found Brave generally enjoyable and amusing and one of the stronger Pixar efforts I’ve seen over the years. But if this was the best animated film of the year I think it was probably a relatively weak field.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Invisible War (2012)


Nomination(s): Best Documentary Feature

The Invisible War lost out to Searching For Sugarman for Best Documentary, meaning the latter must be one heck of a film because the former is one of the best and most important documentaries I’ve ever seen.

The film documents sexual assault in the US military, and the stories you will hear are shocking and sickening and will probably infuriate you. It’s not just the assaults, but the trauma the victims have to continue to suffer when they are ignored, blamed and/or ostracized by the military while the perpetrators continue to roam free and even get promoted.

The filmmakers do a fantastic job of letting the facts, the statistics and the victims speak for themselves, and the commendable research and interviews provide a broad spectrum of victims (predominantly female but also male) and loved ones. It’s heartbreaking to watch at times but it’s a film I would recommend everyone to watch.

The film has already sparked some changes in the way the military handles assault cases and will hopefully continue to do a lot more. This is what’s happening to the men and women who serve their country and it’s unacceptable.

Putting aside all the anger, The Invisible War is simply a finely crafted documentary that will keep you engrossed.

4.5 stars out of 5

China DVD Movie Blitz: Part I

As documented on this blog, I visited China a couple of months ago.  Apart from the Great Wall, China is also very well known for its DVD stores.  I visited a couple of these while I was there, and they are amazing.  For some reason, these stores stocked all the latest movies and TV shows some that weren’t even out at the cinemas yet!  And they were all perfectly packaged.  No wonder they say the future of the world lays in China’s hands.

I bought a few to sample and they were the real deal.  Here are my reviews.

The Warrior’s Way (2010)

I saw the trailer for this on the Internets and was intrigued because it was one of those Asian martial arts fantasy films with a Western backdrop.  Led by Korean ‘superstar’ Jang Dong-gun, the film also featured the likes of Hollywood stars such as Kate Bosworth (whom I hadn’t seen since Superman Returns), Geoffrey Rush (talk about a man willing to be in absolutely anything) and Danny Huston.

I can’t really remember much except that the Korean dude was some super swordsman that went to America with a baby, and there were lots of sword/gun fights.  I didn’t expect much from it but I did expect it to be slightly more fun than it was.  Visually it was impressive, even more fantastical than films such as House of Flying Daggers, The Promise and Hero, but like those films the engagement factor was pretty low.

2.5 stars out of 5

Waiting for ‘Superman’ (2010)

This was an interesting documentary about the crippled education system in America.  It was expectedly scathing when it came to public education and the quality of teachers, but for me the most compelling part was watching how various families pinned all their hopes on their child getting into a particular charter school through a student lottery.

I had no idea what charter schools were (basically an alternative to public schools and can have their own system of rules and regulations that hold both students and teachers more accountable for their performance) and I was fascinated by this idea of a child’s entire future riding on luck.  If they get into a charter school, their future looks bright.  If they don’t, they’re stuffed.  That was how the film conveyed it anyway.  As a result, he lottery scenes towards the end of the film had me riveted.

It’s not an exceptional documentary (too many numbers and slow bits) but it’s an important one.

3.25 stars out of 5

The Killer Inside Me (2010)

I’m trying to think of a good feature film with Jessica Alba (in a significant role) that was any good.  If Sin City doesn’t count (because she was hardly in it) then I can’t think of any.

The Killer Inside Me was barely okay.  It stars Casey Affleck as some sick psycho and Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson as the women in his life.  It’s a stylishly shot film set in the 1950s (I think) and has some confronting moments that are brutally violent, but I didn’t get a connection with any of the characters. It was 109 minutes but felt like 3 hours.

PS (SPOILERS): I read somewhere that the film was criticised for being misogynistic, which is stupid.  Watching Alba and Hudson getting the crap beaten out of them was one of the less boring parts of the film.

2 stars out of 5

And Soon the Darkness (2010)

I always wondered why Odette Yustman (star of Cloverfield and The Unborn) was not a bigger star.  Unfortunately, And Soon the Darkness will definitely not make her a bigger star.

Yustman and Amber Heard are two young American girls backpacking in Argentina, in an area where young women have gone missing.  Yada, yada, yada, they get in trouble, stuff happens and people die.

I suppose there were a few entertaining moments in this film (which also stars Karl Urban as the ‘is he the bad guy or not?’ guy) but it was impossible to like either of the annoying girls whose stupidity and lack of common sense made me want to see something bad happen to them.  But then again, if they weren’t so moronic none of the things in this film would have happened.

2 stars out of 5

Post Oscars Film Blitz

I was supposed to review these films one by one, but I really couldn’t be bothered.  So I decided to lump them into a ‘post Oscars’ film blitz, as all of these films were a part of the Oscars.  Kind of.

Here we go…

Rabbit Hole (2010)

I’m not usually into depressing films, but I was in a good mood and thought, why the heck not?  And seriously, they don’t get much more depressing than Rabbit Hole (I haven’t seen Blue Valentine yet, might add it to the list later).

For those who don’t know what it’s about, let’s just say it’s about profound grief and loss, and how to deal with it and move on.  It stars Nicole Kidman in her Oscar-nominated performance, Aaron Eckhart, Diane Wiest and Sandra Oh.

It’s an extremely powerful film, I’ll admit that, and it has some surprisingly amusing sequences, but on the whole, Rabbit Hole is a pretty rough 91 minutes to sit through.  I don’t know what else to say without giving away too much.

As for the performances, I know Kidman got all the kudos, but it beats me how after so many years she still can’t pin down that American accent!  In all honesty, I preferred Eckhart.  I found his scenes more engaging and wondered how Kidman got the nomination and he didn’t.

3.5 stars out of 5

Inside Job (2010)

I rushed out to see Inside Job after it won the Oscar for Best Documentary.  It’s essentially a film that attempts to explain how the Global Financial Crisis (ie the one we’re still recovering from) happened, and tries to apportion the blame to the various parties involved.

Ultimately, despite learning a great deal about the history of the financial markets, the financial instruments, and the GFC itself, I was a little disappointed.  Props for making this film because I know a lot of people (myself included) would like to know just what the heck happened, and how it happened.  However, I did find it somewhat dry in parts and a little too preachy, especially towards the end.  Just listen to director Charles Ferguson’s acceptance speech at the Oscars and you’ll get what I mean.

I am by no means trying to defend the greed and the corruption that plagued the system and led to the collapse, but I think it would have been good to see more of the human side of the crisis.  Rather than simply painting them as the ‘bad guys’ in all of this, I wanted to see what was going through the minds of these bankers and executives as they raked in the money without regard for the consequences — and I wanted to see how the crisis affected the lives of people on all levels of income and wealth.

It was an interesting film and an important one, but apart from a lot of anger and frustration, I didn’t get the deeper emotional connection and understanding I was expecting.

3.5 stars out of 5

No Strings Attached (2011)

This film was obviously not nominated for an Oscar, but the star, Natalie Portman, did win a Best Actress Oscar for another film (Black Swan), so I guess that’s my Oscar connection to justify this film being in the post.

I remember before the Oscars there were people saying that No Strings Attached is potentially so bad that it might derail Natalie’s Oscar chances.  Well, it turned out to be much ado about nothing.  And besides, No Strings Attached was not that bad anyway.  It was just average, which is not horrible considering that most rom-coms these days are.

Portman’s Emma and Ashton Kutcher’s Adam met when they were teenagers at some camp, and kept bumping into each other over the years.  Then Adam’s dad, played by Kevin Kline, does something despicable and sends Adam into a bender and eventually Emma’s house.  Yada, yada, yada, you know what happens, but they decide to have a ‘no strings attached’ relationship.  And yada, yada, yada, you know what happens in the end.

The film started off promisingly enough.  Director Ivan Reitman (pretty mixed bag as a director) infuses the story with quirky humour and likable characters (essential for a good rom-com).  There are some genuinely amusing moments and one-liners littered throughout, though mostly at the beginning.  Kutcher is kind of always the same — with that cheery, but mopey/dopey looking dude-face, while Portman gets to show her less serious side (with shades of her Saturday Night Live performances?).  The chemistry is there, which I must admit surprised me.

As usual, the rom-com shifts from comedy to romance as it strolls along to the predictable finale, and that’s where No Strings Attached fails to bring something fresh to the table.  And for what is really a sweet film at heart, it is inexplicably and unnecessarily dirty — I blame that on all the Judd Apatow films in recent years.

3 stars out of 5

Love and Other Drugs (2010)

The Oscar connections are getting more tenuous.  Love and Other Drugs features Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, the latter of which…hosted the Oscars this year!

Anyway, this is one of those films that I liked more than I should have.  It was marketed as a laugh-out-loud, silly rom-com about two promiscuous people, but that’s really only half true — because the second half, which is completely different to the first, is kind of a depressing ‘disease romance’ (I just made that up).  To me, both halves were pretty good, even though that does make for a fairly uneven film.

What I liked about the first half was the insight into the pharmaceutical industry and in particular medical reps who try and sell drugs to doctors.  And the start of the Viagra craze is always a fascinating thing to relive.  I think the film handled that part very well.  As for the second half, while the laughs died out quickly, I did find myself unexpectedly moved by the story and the emotions of the characters.

So yeah, I enjoyed it.

3.75 stars out of 5

Burlesque (2010)

Mmm…Cher once won an Oscar, and let’s face it, Christina Aguilera never will.  And it won a Golden Globe (a pre-cursor to the Oscars) for Best Original Song.  Oh, and Cher got a Razzie (the opposite of the Oscars) nomination for it this year!

Using the typical ‘small town girl in big city’ template, Burlesque follows Christina as she finds herself working in a burlesque bar (called ‘Burlesque’) where she’s just waiting to be discovered.  Cher is the owner, Kristen Bell is the rival, Eric Dane is the tempter, and Cam Gigandet is the potential love interest.  Fill in the blanks yourself and toss in a bunch of musical song and dance numbers from Christina and Cher, and that’s the movie in a nutshell.

Is it horrible?  No.  I actually expected a lot less, though I would have preferred it if they just went along for the ride and not taken themselves so seriously (because the unintended effect is quite comical).  At the end of the day, Burlesque is a Christina vehicle, and it certainly shows off her spectacular voice and not-too-shabby acting abilities.  It’s campy, musical and melodramatic, just as you would expect it to be.  And while it’s certainly nothing special, it is better than the Britney equivalent (Crossroads).

2.5 stars out of 5

More Basketball Documentaries: Iverson, Telfair and Bias

Since watching Hooked: The Legend of Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell on YouTube the other night, I’ve suddenly developed an urge to devour mote basketball documentaries.

And thanks to this excellent article on the Top 10 Best Basketball Documentaries of All-Time, I have watched 3 more in the last couple of days!  Here’s what I thought of each of them:

Through the Fire

This is a 2005 documentary which follows the life of Coney Island playground superstar Sebastian Telfair in his final year of high school.  As most probably know, Telfair had committed to attend college at Louiseville, only to reneg and head straight to the NBA (selected 13th overall by the Portland Trailblazers).

Through the Fire is a very solid film, and it’s not only because of the spectacular basketball footage (man, the kid had some serious promise).  The central focus is on Telfair’s background and his tight-knit family, which provides a very raw and emotional surge to just about every scene.  It’s also a commentary on the life of many African-American males growing up in the projects, and how they all hope one day to make into the NBA so they can buy their mothers a new house and give their families a better life.  The secondary characters, such as Telfair’s brothers and his coach, are clearly guys who are trying to live their dreams through him.  There were a couple of really stinging scenes in there likely to either make you sigh or make your eyes watery — especially the climax when Sebastian finally makes it to the NBA.

However, it wasn’t an entirely pleasing or sugar-coated depiction of Telfair’s family.  You do get to see the ugly side of the basketball star and the attitude problems that would continue to plague him in the future (as he keeps bouncing around from team to team in the NBA without ever being more than “average”).  Reading online it amazes me how Telfair can say he supports 17 relatives in his family and yet continue to do one stupid off-court thing after another.  It’s another sad reflection of what happens to some athletes once they finally make it big.


[PS: entire film available in parts on YouTube]

No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson

Love him or hate him, you can’t deny Allen Iverson plays with unparalleled passion and is perhaps, pound-for-pound, the toughest athlete in the history of the game.  Personally, he’s always been one of my favourite basketball stars.  At 6’0″ (in sneakers) and 165 lbs (soaking wet), it amazes me how Iverson could have accomplished all he has in the NBA (MVP, Finals appearance, scoring champ, etc).

Anyway, I initially thought No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (a very new documentary) was about the “trial” of Iverson’s life, through all the ups and downs.of his NBA career  But no, this was actually about the real legal trial Iverson had to go through in high school, when he was charged with assault during a group brawl at a bowling alley.  It’s a fascinating look into racial politics in America, and you get the polarizing views of both the black and white communities.  For those who didn’t know about this dark chapter of Iverson’s past, they really should check it out.

This film was made and narrated by a white guy, so it’s interesting to see through his eyes.  I kind of wished the scope of the film would be broader though, and capture more of Iverson’s illustrious career.


[PS: entire film available in parts on YouTube]

Without Bias

This was the most haunting of them all.  Len Bias was considered the best college prospect in the country back in 1986.  Some scouts believed he was better than the other top prospect, Michael Jordan.  It was hard to argue, considering Bias was taller, stronger, and a better shooter than Jordan at that stage of their respective careers.

However, just two days after being drafted number 2 overall to a Celtics team that had just won the championship, Bias tragically died from a cocaine overdose, cutting short an unbelievably bright future.  It was the biggest news in the history of the NBA until Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive.

This was the documentary that affected me the most out of the three.  Bias was, from all accounts, a clean cut guy who had tremendous talent coupled with the rare determination to work hard and succeed.  He was charismatic and marketbable.  He would have no doubt helped the Celtics create a brand new dynasty (they still made the Finals that year without him).  That’s what makes his death so heartbreaking.  He had everything going for him, but one stupid mistake and it was all over.

Without Bias is filled with dramatic and haunting interviews with Bias (archived footage of course), his family and friends, and even the guy that he was with when he overdosed.  The basketball footage was also impressive, and it wasn’t until I watched it that I realised how good Len Bias was and could have been.  It’s essentially a very sad story (made even more sad by the shock epilogue) with a stern message about drug use and abuse.


YouTube Movie Review: Hooked: The Legend of Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell

Move over Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs The New York Knicks. Move over More Than A Game.  Move over Hoop Dreams (okay, maybe not Hoop Dreams, but definitely the other two). Hooked: The Legend of Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell is now my favourite basketball documentary.

I first heard about the legendary Hook Mitchell several years ago when the film was released (around 2004), but I had totally forgotten about it.  Last night, I somehow re-stumbled across this sad but redemptive documentary on YouTube (the entire film is there in 7 parts) and ended up watching the whole thing.  If you ‘ve ever watched an entire movie on YouTube, you’ll know that the movie has to be really good to sustain your attention.

Hook Mitchell is widely regarded as the greatest basketball player never to make the NBA. His talent and ability on the basketball court is considered unparalleled by some of the all-time greats of the game.  When guys like future Hall of Famers Gary Payton and Jason Kidd and multiple NBA champion Brian Shaw all say that there was no question that Hook was better than them, that’s saying something.  Hook has won countless dunk contests.  He’s dunked over cars and groups of kids.  He’s done 360 dunks over motorcycles.  And he’s only 5’9″.  (Hook started dunking at 5’3″ and was dunking in games at 5’5″!)

So why isn’t Hook Mitchell, the playground legend from Oakland, dominating the NBA right now?

Well, for starters, when the documentary was filmed (around 2003), Hook was serving time in prison for armed robbery.  This is a guy who had all the talent in the world but threw it all away because of a bad environment, bad influences and bad decisions.

For every Gary Payton and Jason Kidd, there’s a Hook Mitchell out there.  Hook could have played for millions in the NBA but didn’t have the self-control and discipline to stay away from all the negative things in his life.  Watching the documentary, you really do feel for him.  Hook’s mother was shooting up in front of him when he was just a toddler, and she was out of his life before he could remember.  His brother was a drug kingpin in his neighbourhood.  He grew up surrounded by crime, gangs, pimps and drugs.  He hardly went to class but his teachers falsified his records so he could play basketball.  Drug dealers gave him a gram of coke for every dunk he performed in a game.  It was as though he never had a chance.

Having said that, Hook had no one to blame but himself.  He had plenty of opportunities to turn his life around.  Others in similar situations (such as Payton and Kidd) have managed to do it.  People that cared about him all tried to straighten his path, but Hook pushed them away.

This documentary by William O’Neill and Michael Skolnik is very impressive.  It’s pieced together by extended interviews with Hook himself (in prison) and those who have shaped his life — including NBA stars Payton, Kidd and Shaw, as well as Drew Gooden and Antonio Davis (one of my favourite players growing up).  There are plenty of highlights of Hook tearing up the courts and throwing down one insane dunk after another.  The footage from Hook dominating the prison leagues is particularly riveting because even at 35 he was doing some amazing things on the court, not just throwing down ridiculous jams but also making even the most difficult moves seem natural and easy.  It makes you wonder the type of beast he could have been had he not been perpetually stoned and instead continued to work on his game.

The film is only 65 minutes and has very little repetition (unlike most other sport documentaries out there).  The interviews are candid and the basketball footage is exciting.  Watching Hook reflect on his life with that deep regret and sorrow in his eyes was particularly moving.  The documentary has a strong message and is ultimately a story of redemption.  Do yourself a favour and watch it now!

4.25 stars out of 5

Here’s the trailer:

PS: For those wanting to find out more, here are a couple of interviews with Hook following the release of the film (IGN and TLChicken) and a SI article.