2010 Documentary Round-up: Part 1

The Art of the Steal8/12/2010

A chronicle of the decades long conflict to keep the legendary art collection at the Barnes institute housed at a remote location in a suburb outside of Philadelphia.  This documentary certainly did a very good job of informing me about a story I had never heard about before.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that the film is clearly rather biased about its subjects, which is fine, but I don’t think I agreed with it at all and I didn’t find it very persuasive either.  The root argument you have to agree with in order for this movie to persuade you is the notion that it’s inherently wrong not to honor a decades old will that isn’t going to directly benefit any particular individual.  It seems the filmmakers insist that the city of Philadelphia should ignore an excellent opportunity for no reason other than to keep a fifty year old grudge of an old and long dead bastard alive.  I don’t really see it that way and the movie makes no attempt to really reach anyone who isn’t already on board with that premise. 

**1/2 out of Four

 South of the Border11/20/2010

Oliver Stone isn’t particularly famous as a documentarian, but his sensibilities do translate fairly well into the medium.  This was a useful look into Hugo Chavez and a variety of other leftwing Latin American leaders that are changing the way politics is done in that region.  This is not at all a fair and balanced look at the issue, but then again neither is the coverage in the mainstream media.  Stone says right from the get go that this is simply meant to show the exact opposite side of the propaganda against these leaders, and that seems fair enough to me.  What is not so acceptable is the sheer lack of information here.  The movie is a scant 80 minutes long, and that is not remotely long enough to do more than scratch the surface, especially given the large number of leaders he decides to interview in the second half.  For a feature length documentary, that’s just not good enough.

**1/2 out of Four

 William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe11/24/2010

This is a documentary about the famed activist/lawyer William Kunstler, made by his daughters.  It has already been added to the fifteen film shortlist for the Best Documentary Oscar.  The film is, for the most part, a straightforward work of biography.  Kunstler himself does prove to be a very interesting person and his life is, in its own way, very inspirational to those interested in making social change.  However, this does not have a particularly new set of insights about the man.  Pretty much the only thing that differentiates it a little is that it’s made by his daughters, but that’s not really a great strength of the film necessarily.  Watching it, I felt like it was a documentary more worthy of PBS than theaters, and was thus unsurprised to learn that the film was actually made to be exactly that. Still, the guy’s a pretty interesting dude.

*** out of Four

 Smash His Camera11/25/2010

This documentary is ostensibly a profile of the famed paparazzo Ron Galella, but it’s also an examination of American paparazzi culture as a whole.  Galella comes off as a rather likable guy, but the film ultimately has a pretty ambiguous take on the subject.  The filmmakers did not hesitate to interview people that view Galella as a ”creep,” but Galella himself is pretty good at defending his trade.  It also examines a court case between Galella and Jackie Onassis which asks some pretty interesting questions about freedom of the press.  Finally, the film also takes the photography itself seriously and asks if these celebrity photos can be viewed as art.  The subject never quite emerges as something of the most incredible importance, but it analyzes it well.

*** out of Four 

The Lottery12/1/2010

The film that is likely to go down as “that other 2010 film about charter schools,” this is being completely overshadowed by the higher profile documentary on the same subject, Waiting for Superman.  I’ll say right up front that I’m a major skeptic when it comes to charter schools.  There’s no denying that they’ve had some success in limited capacities, but I have serious doubts that they can ever work on a system-wide scale, and frankly I don’t take the anti-union sentiment that seems to follow these places very well.  I’m not, however, dogmatic in my views; in essence I’m exactly the kind of person that this kind of project should be trying to persuade and frankly I think it completely failed on that front.  The movie is very good at telling the audience that charter schools are great and that the teachers union is bad, but does almost nothing to back up the claims.  What I needed was the nitty gritty, I wanted to hear exactly what differentiates these schools from normal public schools and why the much vilified teachers union is supposedly to blame.  I didn’t get it.  Instead I got a lot human interest pieces about cute kids that serve little purpose other than to emotionally manipulate the audience during one of the sick public lottery spectacles that these schools have decided to put on.

*1/2 out of Four

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