The last few weeks I’ve been in a documentary watching kind of mood (including rewatching most of my Planet Earth blu-ray set), and I’ve racked up a small list of documentaries that other people should probably check out if the concepts catch their eye.
Brilliant documentary about a group of ex-cons in Chicago who go around rough neighborhoods and quite literally interrupt potential violence, as situations emerge. But it’s not all just folks roaming the streets stopping violence. It also explores as a whole what Chicago’s violence is doing to the community, and especially the kids. Being from (a nice) Chicago suburb, it’s very surprising to learn of all this violence occurring relatively close to where I grew up, that I didn’t have to experience. And it’s very powerful to witness these great people making a direct impact on lowering violence. It’s not just talking about it, or dreaming about it; they are actually *doing* something about it.
There are lots of colorful individuals you meet throughout, from Ameena Matthews (the daughter of of one Chicago’s biggest crime lords of the 70s, now an Interrupter) to Flamo (a paranoid, hilarious, potential violence starter who the Interrupters reach out to). Very powerful stuff throughout. It’s directed by Steve James, a Southern Illinois University alumni (Saluki pride!), who also directed one of my favorite documentaries of all time – Hoop Dreams.
Keith has a better write-up of the documentary here. He was actually in the same room with Ameena Matthews, and didn’t crap his pants!
9 out of 10
Short, fast-moving look at the life of Kevin Clash, who after years of pursuing his dreams, becomes the eventual puppeteer of Elmo from Sesame Street. I know the whole documentary is about being a puppeteer, but I found so much value in this film. It shows how working hard at something this guy loved doing his whole life eventually paid off for him ten fold. Then he proceeds to take his talent and use it only for good, only to give back, and the fact that he pushes young kids who want to be puppeteers to follow their dreams as well brings it all full circle.
The film also chronicles the work/career of Jim Henson, as Kevin begins idolizing him as a child, strives to work with him, eventually does, and stays with him until Henson’s death. While this film is basically pure feel good material, there are tearjerker moments as well. Kevin often brings Elmo to visit disabled and terminally ill children, and while painfully sad, they often come across as heartwarming moments. I loved this documentary. Though, maybe I rated it higher on my list than anything else because I have a soft spot for Muppets.
9.5 out of 10
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
Hilarious behind-the-scenes doc about Conan’s comedy tour, which immediately followed his firing from the Tonight Show a couple of years ago. You get to see Conan without doing any on-screen schtick, which I always find amusing. It’s through things like this that you see how naturally smart and funny the guy really is. Also pretty cool seeing him develop his show, then adjust it as time goes on. A good view of the whole process of it all. It was also great to see him show some rage towards NBC and Jay Leno for what they did to him, he kept a lot of that genuine emotion off camera during the actual ordeal. It really paints the guy as more of a human than you usually see on his talk show. Of course, the whole doc kind of banks on whether or not you find Conan funny (I most certainly do!).
8.5 out of 10
Shut Up Little Man!
Funny chronicle of a cult phenomenon, Shut Up Little Man! follows the story of two guys in 1980s San Fransisco who started to record their loud neighbors during their drunken fights. Recordings of the back and forth yelling between the two drunks got passed around as comedy tapes, and inspired a lot of art focusing on the dialog. The first part of the documentary tells the story, and the majority of the rest is trying to figure out who these guys really are, to great success.
It also explores topics such as the nature of art, the legality and morality of recording people without their consent, and how the tapes would have functioned if they were recorded in today’s YouTube generation. The documentary was at times insanely comical, and at it’s worst – only mildly boring. And those boring moments move on at a decent pace. Some ideas/explorations in the middle seem like a stretch, but the first 30 minutes and the last 30 minutes had my full attention. Good, but not great overall. Plenty of foul, hateful, homophobic language throughout.
7.5 out of 10
Awesome biographical doc about the racing career of legendary Formula One driver Ayrton Senna. The entire doc uses home video and old television footage, and while interviews take place, it was interesting to never see talking heads at any point. It made the whole doc fly by at lightning pace. I’m not someone who knew anything about Formula One racing (or even knew who Senna was) before watching this film, and it completely held my attention. They really provide a full scope of the guy, and portray a real life character arc that seems better than a lot of those those in fiction films.
Senna chronicles his start as a go-kart driver, to his rise-to-fame, to his status as a Brazilian national hero, to his untimely death (in which you have to painfully watch his on-board racing camera for a full minute before he crashes). The action is engaging, the portrayal of Senna is complex, and the editing is at times nothing short of brilliant.
8.5 out of 10
Interesting look into an urban legend from Staten Island, New York about an escaped mental patient dubbed “Cropsey” who kidnaps kids in the woods surrounding an abandoned mental asylum. Then in the 1970s and 80s, kids actually did start to go missing, and the documentary wonders if the urban legend was actually true…
I’m one of those weird people who love looking at footage and photos of creepy abandoned buildings, so in that regard, Cropsey was a delight. A lot of time is spent exploring the abandoned asylum, and the filmmakers make good use of a 1972 Geraldo Rivera expose of the asylum in action to add an additional level of disturbing myth.
This documentary was very successful in creeping me out, I’ll give it that. The problem is, though, most of the film is dreadfully unfocused. It starts off incredibly strong, building up the legend of Cropsey, but then starts to go off in all directions. The film doesn’t know whether it wants to be about exploring urban legends, a history lesson on Staten Island, a “Ghost Hunters” knockoff, a filmmaker’s journey from childhood to adulthood, an awareness piece about the mentally disabled, or a Paradise Lost type court film about the “innocent” yet convicted suspect, Andre Rand.
Cropsey *could* have been awesome for it’s subject matter, but the lack of focus killed it for me in the end. I was still a little uneasy as I went to sleep that night, though…
6.5 out of 10