Archive | June, 2010

Doc Days:Round 1

29 Jun

In case you didn’t know, I’m a fan of the documentary genre.

Whether its propaganda or vivid story telling, there’s something to be said about the unusual appeal of documentaries. Voyeuristic insights to a world unknown to viewers can either bring good or bad feelings. You can enlighten your audience, bring facts to life that had been the secrets of boardrooms, executives, and conspiracy theorists. Then there’s true to life stories of other people-in your backyard or halfway around the world. Their story is laid bare, at the feet of the viewer. There is no agenda, no propaganda, just a person and their life. I enjoy these documentaries the most as they don’t usually illicit the ire of gut-wrenching-call-your-senator-films. They are more passive, no matter how disturbing the subject, And while it may hurts to watch fellow humans go about their day-to-day lives in chaos and pain, there’s an unspoken understanding that you must finish the documentary. Every award-winning documentary has its redemptive ending.

Here are some of the documentaries that I have come across recently. All of them of wonderful to watch and I highly recommend them. They are not in any particular order, just haphazardly thrown into a sort of list for easy reading. Enjoy them on Netflix instant watch!

“The Business of Being Born”

Most convincing argument I’ve seen yet on the natural birthing unit. Unlike a Michael Moore film-you certainly get both sides of the story from experts in each field. From the Doctors of NYU teaching hospitals to (shout out) Boston University School of Public Health’s expert on maternal health to the midwives battling stereotypes, it’s an all-out war for women’s right to choose…how they birth. Sobering statistics flash in the beginning in order to set up the crisis by the numbers. We are the country with the 2nd worst mother and child survival rate, yet spend more than double all the other countries on delivery. That’s right. It’s more expensive to have a baby here, than anywhere else in the world. As the medically trained midwives point out, birthing is something women have been doing since the start of civilization. Why not take it back?

Bonus Doc Points: Freaky medical history. Natural birth is rough. C-section is rough. But, how about being “induced” into a labor so horrific, women lost their minds and had to be strapped onto a bed. For days, until the baby came on its own. There’s a great little bit about how hospitals have used unwitting women and children as ginea pigs for new medications, all in pursuit of the 20 minute delivery. With C-sections at an all time high (well over 40%), it makes you wonder what other procedures and medications have doctors been passing as safe medicine.


“Food, Inc.”

Do you know what’s in your food? That’s probably a good thing, because it’s actually rather sad and unpleasant. Yet another “blame it on the CEO” documentary, but I can feel it’s justified outrage. Food poisoning is at an all time high, with hundreds and thousands of cases ending in hospital visits (and in some cases, death). Farmers are being forced to take on debt just to support their business, so they fall into an indentured servant model of worker. The FDA is allowing genetically modified foods into the market, with little or no testing. Disgusted yet? I haven’t even gotten to CAFOs and the darken caverns that house chickens so unhealthy they collapse from having their breast too enlarged. I’ll have a side of genetically modified potatoes fried in the poly-saturated corn oil, please. And make it Super Sized.

Doc Bonus: It takes you into the farms, through the chicken shit, over the cow dung, and past the meat packing to bring you the gritty truth. Uncensored. Not for the squish nor faint at heart. But necessary for anyone who defends an industry that treats their employees as poorly as their product. In one troubling scene, a big chain name squashes any attempt by its workers to form a union by purposefully hiring illegal immigrants-from their Mexican hometowns- bringing them into the States, then after a period of time, calling Immigration Services to pick up their own employees and their families. Meanwhile, the company is already recruiting and hiring just south of the boarder. Just like a factory.


“Born into Brothels”

Now for the documentary to steal your heart. A photographer on assignment, takes on the daunting task of photographing in India’s poverty-stricken red light district. Soon after her arrival, she notices the brothels and blocks that are the stomping ground of pimps and whores are also the playground for their children. Still stuck in a sort of untouchable limbo, these kids are neglected and largely uneducated with little hope to escape their fate of “joining the line” of prostitutes, pimps, and drug addicts. As heartbreaking as it is to see them plead to the camera themselves, I can’t imagine what the photojournalist must have felt. She becomes an advocate on their part, aggressively campaigning for their acceptance into boarding schools and teaching them how to photography. It is in their photography, the mixture of childish delight fights against the dark seedy backgrounds of their pictures. The group of children in rags flying kites above their homes when their mom is “working.” Taking pictures while running through the slums in  order to escape the death threats of their photo subjects. They may not have noticed during the filming, but these are snapshots into their own lives.

Doc Bonus: The end. Very rarely does a documentary leave you with a sense of closure. You find out what has happened to the kids you’ve come to know, months after the documentary was filmed.


“Maxed Out”

You don’t need to tell me more Americans are in debt than not. I’m aware. I’m one of them. Millions of Americans are in debt without even realizing it. Though this documentary was released well before the current recession, it is far from being a relic. Sure we may not get free t-shirts when we sign up for credit cards, but credit offers still pour in. Back when I was but a wee junior in high school, I got my first credit card offer. Thank goodness, my mom promptly threw it away, but she only postponed the inevitable, my decline into debt. Oh, and it’s not like I’ve never paid off my card. It’s my student loans, as it’s probably yours too. They will be another economic crisis with student loans (the only loan NOT covered by bankruptcy protection), but we’ll just have to wait and see on that one. My story is not unique, as many of the talking heads in the documentary will tell you. There are the sad stories of people ending their lives over their incredibly large loans, and of companies ending the livelihoods of elder individuals who can no longer juggle medical costs, food, and mortgage. There’s also a look to the collection agencies, some of the most hated people in the world view their job as a game of cat and mouse. We have a crisis after all.

Doc Bonus: My favorite commentator, the professor from Harvard Business School obviously knows her stuff. Forget she’s Harvard brass, and just listen. She makes the most sense of the alphabet mess that is the credit card industry. If anything, this documentary is a great teaching tool to avoid the pratfalls of navigating the landmines of credit card companies. Sort of like the tip to not visit hospitals in July (new residents, new interns, newbie doctors!), but way better.


“This Film is not yet Rated”

Finally, a documentary on film! But, don’t get too excited folks! It’s going to be one bumpy ride! Through the suburbs, studios, and MPAA headquarters we go, dashing sex, homosexuality, and the first amendment along the way. The Production code may be long gone, but another more clever form of censorship stands in its place. Jack Valenti’s rating system is biased, horrifically so. While violence against women is okay at the PG-13 level, a passionate love scene is not. A completely bloody “gore-porn” flick (The “Saw” series) will fly with an R rating, and anything other than hetero-kissing (and it depends where!) will land itself in the same category. Only a certain amount of F-bombs can be said, but only as use as an adjective. A reference to the act of love making F-bombs will land you in the R category. And, its okay for men to masturbate in an R-film, female masturbation is strictly NC-17. Try understanding that without yelling “*#^%@&!+” !

Trailer: All the directors talk about their struggles with the totally unbalanced system and just why you must bow to their requests. Otherwise, you will be forbidden to advertise your movie and certain distributors, theaters, and retailers will refuse to carry anything with a NC-17 rating. No wonder most movies suck, people who aren’t filmmakers are editing the pictures.

Upcoming Docs to do: “Walmart: The High Cost of Low Prices”,”Tales from the Script”, “Grey Gardens”, “Man on Wire”, “Valentino: The Last Emperor”, “I.O.U.S.A”


Cinema in your Library: The Film Snob*s Dictionary

25 Jun

In case of the event that you forget the difference between William Wyler and William Wellman....

Life is too short for resentmeants to fester over this person’s lack of  knowledge over the Iranian New Wave or  that person’s braggadocio over his Mexican-wrestling-pictures expertise. And everyone, it can be agreed, likes “The Wizard of Oz.” Well, except for those who can only tolerate MGM’s visually superior but out-of-print “Ultimate Oz” laser disc edition.

Oh, and the only Tom Cruise movie it’s okay for snobs to like is Ridley Scott’s “Legend.”

In every facet of art, there are the snobs. Modern art snobs, Renaissance art snobs, museum snobs, even dance and music snobs. So, in faithful fandom, film too has its fellow “snobs.” As my handy Encarta describes, a snob is “somebody who looks down on others.” Well, to place yourself on a pedestal requires some sort of accomplishment. For film snobs, that’s appreciating not just the best in cinema, but also the indie darlings no one has heard of and the one camera guy that’s totally unappreciated. Then there’s the cinema trash fans.

Welcome to “The Film Snob’s Dictionary”, a tongue-in-check companion for the average film fan, a person who does not want to sit through that many hours of shitty “chop-sockey” and “–sploitation” films but wants to feel included into the echelons of film snob circles. There’s humor abound, despite the appearance of being a serious dictionary of the strange in cinema.

In film, there is no such thing as an average romance. Still from "Harold and Maude."

Take for example the listing for Bud Cort: Gnomish character actor who, during a dizzying period in 1970-71, emerged as one of that auteur-choked era’s most unlikely antiheroes, playing the title role in Robert Altman’s “Brewster McCloud, the colead in Roger Corman’s Gas-s-s-s, and Harold, the youngster who falls in love for a little old lady in Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude.”

And that’s just the excerpt. Hundreds of entries are summarized (or in the case of “I am Curious-Yellow,” explained) in short paragraphs for quick look up and easy to understand. You don’t need a film school certificate to talk to us, we promise.

Above: Art

There’s also fun lists, like how to keep like-sounding names apart and how to tell a difference between films and movies (It’s a MOVIE if it has T & A in it. It’s a FILM if it has penises in it.) Sometimes, the book’s lampooning tone becomes overly apparent, but for the most part, its definitions seems to be whispered with snickering in between. It’s a bit of a  joke that some sects of film fans hold grindhouse genre movies as treasured cinema milestones or how film critics have their own cults (On Pauline Keal: nevertheless inspired fear in her legions of movie-critic acolytes-known as Paulettes-full grown men and women who tremendously sought her unforthcoming approval and pilgrimaged her home in the Berkshires in vain hope of being anointed her heir apparent. )

But that’s part of the appeal for some, to love what no one else does and to claim an obscure subject as their “expertise.” After all, they maybe the ones vying for film snob cred.

You can find the book here or at your lovely public library.

If you have TCM, you can find all these trashy gems and more, at around 2am on Friday nights. Just like what mom said to stay away from.

The Benefits of Seeing Movies Live

21 Jun

One of America's oldest orchestras also boasts Boston's oldest Neon sign. Bet you didn't know that.

Since we’ve been a bit busy (2 weeks too busy) to update, I’ll restart with a lengthy musing. I’ll warn you now, half of this article is about the wonderful evening I shared last Tuesday with the Boston Pops. The other half of my piece is why people should actually go out to watch movies.

It’s like you’re reading two articles for the time of one!

As much as the buy-one-get-one-free option should still be available at movie theaters (double features!), I feel like when I go outside of my house for a movie, I’m already getting an extra freebie with my ticket-the experience.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s beauty in Netflix and DVD nights. The ability to pause the movie, adjust volume, rewind if you missed something, or just saving the hassle of getting out of your pajamas is a luxury not afforded in most theaters. But while a nice night in is fun, there is something special about the way we watch movies. It changes the way we create the memory and the way we “interact” with the cinematic art. Pardon the art criticism jargon, but it fits much too well in my reasoning.

For a little more than the price of a 3-D movie, you can enjoy movies in a way you may have never done so before. That evening I mentioned earlier was one such occasion. A Rogers and Hammerstein I dressed up, I planned the trip, got my tickets to advance, waited in anticipation-and then-“Oh, what a beautiful morning” resonated through the silent crowd who were faithfully mouthing the words. Yours truly, included.

Not to mention I cried when my hero, Robert Osborne, took the stage and started introducing each of the subsequent Rogers and Hammerstein film clips. Mr. Osborne is the host of TCM, my favorite movie channel, and the guy that got me excited about the weirdest, most random stuff they could show on a cable network. Everything from the classics to camp, I’ve seen him introduce it all with trivia and facts that even lacks. Not to mention, he’s also the Oscar’s official biographer. Yes, it’s a legitimate title, one that he created and the Academy approves over. Take that, Leonard Maltin.

So, celebrity film critic introducing some of the most popular classical musicals of all time. Oh, with the Boston Pops. You know, an orchestra? In their own concert hall and with many, many musicians on hand. It’s a big deal. The kind of deal that people come out of their houses for.

And that’s where I find the live events so much more thrilling. It’s the same as listening to your favorite band on CD and then going out to see them live. Pounding music, larger than existence images, and the ticket stub you save afterward. Or have it roll around in your purse/wallet, whatever you’re more prone to.

It’s that experience, starting from the moment you buy your tickets to leaving your seat at the end of the night. The memories of running to catch the bus, or rushing home to taking a shower before the show, whatever. You remember that. Can’t remember what you ate for breakfast a couple days ago? No problem, it just wasn’t memorable. You didn’t run down one of the biggest streets in your city in heels, I did. I dressed up for the “Metropolis” premiere at Coolidge too. Short red dress, 1920’s style, but in flats because I knew I would be standing in line for over an hour. It’s special not because of the miserble woes of uncomfortable footwear or ridiculously long lines. It’s not what your first review of Disney World talks about, its the excitement of getting there, seeing it, enjoying the sounds and smells of music and a fast food meal. Yeah, it’s overpriced and possibly was a headache to coordinate, but you’re happy you did so. It was the experience that made the work okay.

So this covers special movie events, what about regular movies?

I’m advocating the experience of going out, sharing a laugh with your fellow movie-goers, help some poor college kids in their sad theater jobs. I hate the 3-D craze, the price hikes, the ridiculous amount of sub-par sequels going throughout theater chains that are slowly driving audiences back to the comfort of their On Demand button on their remotes. I don’t blame them. If we’re going to throw down a good $20 of our hard-earned money for some entertainment, it better damn well be an experience.

Now, this is where creativity comes in.

You got to make this fun for yourself. Enjoy the movie, don’t just “go” to it. That sounds like you survived something, and unless you just survived something as horrific as “Jonah Hex,” I don’t see why you can’t have fun going to the movies. Make an adventure out of it, go to a theater you’ve never been to, try walking or going a different route-provided you have the time of course. Make it a date, catch dinner either before or after. Follow the movie with some other excursion. Even the simple act of dressing up for the movies like audiences did back in the day can be fun. Break out the outfit with the tag still on it, invite friends you haven’t reconnected with for a long time. Make it a different experience every time you can.

Life is too short to go see the same picture every week. Switch it up and enrich your experiences; multiply your memories. Because in the end, memories are your own personal movies, but you can only share them with others if they were there to make the memories with you.

Movie Review:”Network” at the Museum of Fine Arts

5 Jun

Peter Finch in his Oscar-winning role as deranged journalist Howard Beale in "Network"

I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s work, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’ Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad.

You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a HUMAN BEING, Goddamnit! My life has VALUE!’ So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell,


I can’t even begin to tell you how eerily these words resonated with modern times; you already know. For some mysterious reason, the film “Network” taps into every fear and suspicious we have about our agenda-driven media, the companies running the country into the ground, and the increased callousness of our fellow mankind.

And then exploits the hell out of it.

Exploitation is the driving evil of this film. A poorly performing news network decides to can its anchor after 25 years. The anchor, reacts appropriately to losing his job: he announces on his last week of broadcast that he will be committing suicide by next week, while on the air. The media blitzkrieg that follows forces the hands of the network to fire him on the spot. But the increased viewership of the show lures the corporation that owns the news network to give him back his job. The increased scrutiny and the madness that surrounds the anchor forces him to a nervous breakdown and one of the greatest rants of cinema history. Viewership skyrockets, and a young programmer for the station gets involved in order to turn the news hour to the media circus that viewers want (complete with a psychic). The network profits off the poor anchor’s demise, firing or rehiring him at any turn of ratings.

You'll never see the news the same way again.

Madness is a great way to describe this movie. Incredibly well written, well acted, and well shot, “Network” earns every Oscar it won back in1977. I would describe it as a cynical satire, as the network seems to have no human decency to what it decides to air. At one point, a weekly series is proposed to cover the violence of terrorists committing acts to further their cause. The network asks them to film it as propaganda for their cause. “Must-see TV” is a mantra to many of the characters you come to fear the most. In a robotic way, they seek for whatever will gain viewership the fastest. The network is just the mechanical extension to satisfy their bloodlust for ratings. At one point in the movie, the programmer has sex with one of her bosses, only to explain to him her proposal of ideas for a new hit show. Extreme, yes, but that’s what may happen when networking is the only thing on people’s minds.

I say the movie is cynical because there is no redemption for this sort of evil. Destroying others is its business, and it does not seem to be coming to an end anytime soon. Sweeps is coming up in November after all.

I highly recommend this movie. As a movie fan, its filled with great actors (Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, and William Holden to name a few), great dialog, and beautifully shot in a dingy pre-Giuliani New York. Those who remember the era would laugh at the old fashions, but its the old technologies that makes this a great period piece. Not much digital in the newsrooms back then, and the older news hounds remember the start of TV news.

The other part of this review, is the experience at the MFA. Yet, another “art” cinema that shows the best in international and independant cinema, as well as classics. The theater is a large room with comfy chairs and is set so every seat is a good seat. Like the Harvard Film Archive, this is an academic theater with no food allowed. The purpose of the theater is to watch the movie with rapt attention. But, the MFA gave its audience something most theaters don’t have access to: an archive of old trailers on original film stock. It was a bit of fun to see the original trailers for movies of that era like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “The Way We Were.” It was definitely worth the visit.

Well, I guess that’s its for me. As Howard Beale said “I just ran out of bullshit.”

For more information on “Network,” check out the page.

For more information on MFA screenings, check out their site.