Doc Review: “Superheroes”

Tonight, Michael Barnett’s “Superheroes” is the latest film to premiere as part of HBO’s Summer Series program of new documentaries. A sufficiently fascinating look at real-life costumed crusaders (like a true “Kick-Ass”) around the U.S., it wasn’t produced by HBO, so it’s great that the doc is airing on the cable network in general, let alone was chosen as part of this weekly spotlight. Obviously the geek niche appeal figures into the deal since it’s hardly as well-crafted as some of the other titles included in the series this year (it does look a whole lot better than “Sex Crimes Unit,” at least). But as silly as much of it is, there are a lot of great points made beneath the surface of the characters’ showcases. For real real-life superheroes, I recommend you seek out Steve James’ “The Interrupters,” but this doc is worth checking out too.

I excitedly started following “Superheroes” in early January, in anticipation of its Slamdance unveiling. From there I reviewed the doc for Cinematical, in which I noted it’d be popular enough through VOD and online outlets. HBO is an even greater place for it to debut. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

The film doesn’t exactly mean to make fun of the characters, but it is easy to laugh at much of what they do and say in the film. Some, like Master Legend are sillier and less intelligent than others. But I have to admit to feeling guilty in finding humor in their idiocy, just as I’m led to feel at the end of ‘Dinner for Schmucks.’ It’s okay, though, since a lot of the RLSH represented don’t seem to mind being viewed as a joke as long as they’re visible and can thereby bring awareness to the causes they’re fighting for.

Often ‘Superheroes’ comes off as also being more about the problems of the world than the costumed crusaders on screen. Through people like “Zetaman,” “Life,” “Mr. Extreme” and the simply named “Super Hero,” we are made to think about the issues of homelessness and violent crime, as well as police corruption and bureaucracy that lead to the necessity for these RLSHs to pop up in cities across the nation.

Watch the film’s trailer and a bunch of clips after the jump, and hopefully you’ll tune in tonight at 9pm for more.

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In Theaters: “Magic Trip”

Just when the festival-goers are anticipating the third Alex Gibney film of the year (hockey doc “The Last Gladiators,” which bows at Toronto next month), regular folk finally get to see the Oscar winner’s first (on the big screen): “Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place” debuted at Sundance back in January and is now hitting theaters in NYC, San Francisco, Berekely and Santa Cruz. Other engagements start next weekend and continue through October (see play dates here). Check out the trailer here.

Co-directed by Alison Ellwood, the doc chronicles Kesey’s cross-country road trip with his Merry Pranksters and their rainbow-colored bus, Further, in 1964. It has actually been on VOD for over a month now, so I guess this isn’t the first time regular eyes have their chance to see it. Anyway, I reviewed the flick back in March from the Miami International Film Festival, and here’s an excerpt:

I don’t see the point. Is its supposed to be a Kesey biopic? Another unneeded celebration of the 60s? A pseudo adaptation of Wolfe’s book? I guess we can later appreciate this doc more once an actual dramatic adaptation of “Electric Kool-Aid” is produced as promised/threatened.

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Doc Review: “Koran by Heart”

Tonight Greg Barker’s “Koran by Heart” debuts on HBO. It’s a competition doc — this year there’s a bunch — but it’s so much more, and I highly recommend it. Here’s an excerpt from my review of the film at Spout:

The fact that it’s not necessarily a display of comprehension does correlate Koran recitation to spelling bees, making “Koran by Heart” more akin to “Spellbound” than most competitive docs likened to Jeffrey Blitz’s 2002 exemplar. But the contest here is also a metaphor for contention among Muslims throughout the world regarding proper observance of the text and Islam in general. Many of the competitors, including the three that Barker focuses on, do not speak Arabic. So while they may have an understanding of the teachings of Islam, they don’t know what they’re literally chanting when they recite the text in the Arabic language. Equate this with followers of any religion who either don’t fully know or fully obey the doctrine of their faith. Or, to followers who believe and live one way that is perceived as ignorant or incorrect by other followers. The irony of the analogy, however, is that there is only one perfectly accepted way to recite the Koran.

The film premieres as part of HBO’s summer doc series at 9pm. It’ll also be on demand and on HBO GO through 9/11. See it.

Review: “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop”

One of the most accessible docs of the year, “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” opens tomorrow, so I’d like to direct your attention to my review of the film from SXSW, posted over at Cinematical (r.i.p.). Somewhere between “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” and the even more accessible “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never,” the Conan tour film, directed by “Leprechaun 2″‘s Rodman Flender, left me nearly dead from laughing so hard and also a bit dubious. Here’s an excerpt:

Some of ‘Conan’ almost seems unrealistically ingenuous, as if he’s either playing up his cantankerous behavior and biting insults for the sake of Flender’s camera or he’s simply just kidding around regardless of being filmed. There are only a few moments in which it truly comes across that he’s being mean-spirited and his words are met with discomfort rather than laughs (on screen, that is; all these bits are met with laughs from the viewer).

Maybe it’s that I didn’t hear enough of what O’Brien actually says, over the roar of the audience. Or, maybe it’s that, for example, Jack McBrayer, who gets a hilarious heap of derogation from his old boss backstage, appears to be in on a gag rather than truly functioning as the Donovan to O’Brien’s Bob Dylan (other cameos include Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt, Jim Carrey, Eddie Vedder and Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman). But ‘Conan’ isn’t likely more prank than frank, though occasionally it does feel like a better version of ‘I’m Still Here.’

Read the whole thing over at Cinematical. And check out a trailer for the doc after the jump.

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On HBO Tonight: “Bobby Fischer Against the World”

I may have been a little harsh in my headline for my review of “Bobby Fischer Against the World” over at Spout. It’s really not a bad film, just not as focused or pointed as it could have been, I guess. I still found most of Fischer’s story very interesting, mostly thanks to the people telling it through the interview material. If you have HBO and love docs you’ll find some enjoyment in it tonight, 9pm (and subsequently On Demand through 9/11 if you miss the premiere). Here’s an excerpt from my review:

It’s also an interesting doc to watch after either (or both) “The Tree of Life,” with its simplistic dealings with Heideggerian ideas (which someone like Fischer must have shared, even if he didn’t read the philosopher, and I’m not just referring to their mutual Antisemitism), and “X-Men First Class,” which relates to Fischer’s 1972 World Championship win against Boris Spassky in that they both involve exploitation of the Cold War for popular entertainment (in the X-Men universe, were there also evil mutants at play in Reykjavik that summer?). More than a decade before “Rocky IV” and years prior to the 1980 Olympic hockey game between the U.S. and USSR (depicted in “Miracle”), the East vs. West tension played out over a chess board.

Check out the UK trailer, which I posted recently, here.

Must-See: “How to Die in Oregon” Debuts on HBO Tonight!

One of the best docs to come out of Sundance this year — in fact, it took the grand jury prize in the fest’s U.S. documentary competiton — is Peter D. Richardson’s “How to Die in Oregon.” And now you can finally see this tissue-box-depleting film, as it premieres on HBO tonight. Tackling the topic of Death With Dignity, which is a better way of saying physician-assisted suicide, and its legality in Oregon, you’re sure to be either debating or bawling or both by its end. Here’s an excerpt from my review from Sundance:

‘How to Die in Oregon’ features no bells and whistles or big narrative surprises or interesting camerawork that gets most docs notice these days (though the excellent final shot/moment is a distinct and unexpected way to end). All it has, and all it needs, is a controversial topic addressed sufficiently and respectably. It does raise awareness and inspires a conversation. There is not one of us who this moral dilemma and debate could not affect one day. So it will possibly scare you as much as it will rip your emotions. Even if you try to guard yourself up. I’ll be honest, I prepared myself so much to not get upset with the tragedy that I ended up exploding at a moment of sudden joy experienced by one of the characters.

Just go in knowing that pretty much every character you meet will probably die, maybe even on screen. It won’t necessarily keep the tears away, but it might help some.

Watch the trailer after the jump. And either prepare with or afterward visit All These Wonderful Things for a great interview with Richardson.

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Review: “Public Speaking”


What a perfect time for “Public Speaking” to be released on video, one day after the NYC smoking ban was augmented to include beaches, parks and major public areas such as Times Square. Actually, perhaps HBO planned it so Fran Lebowitz would be too distracted by the DVD release to think about her annoyance with Bloomberg. Then again, she does imply in the documentary that she doesn’t go to Times Square, and for some reason I don’t see as much of a beach person. So maybe she isn’t too bothered. Oh, who are we kidding?

Directed by Martin Scorsese (“The Last Waltz”), this may actually be one of his most important New York films. Like 2004’s “Lady by the Sea: The Statue of Liberty” (co-directed by Kent Jones), the doc is about one of the Big Apple’s most well-known women. This time, the author and humorous intellectual who hates smoking bans, New York tourism and all manner of modern gadgetry. She discusses these things and more in interviews and speaking events, which are intercut together for a funny stroll through Lebowitz’s mind and history.

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Now on Video: “The End of Poverty?”

My full response to Philippe Diaz’s “The End of Poverty?” can be found in a Doc Talk column on economy-related films from last summer. With the Martin Sheen-narrated doc being released to Blu-ray today (I apparently missed its DVD/VOD drop last month), here’s an excerpt from that post:

Five hundred years seems a lot of time to reverse, but the film is produced in part by the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, which advocates economic justice and promotes the social reform ideas of 19th century thinker Henry George, and therefore there is some of that non-profit hopefulness driving the narrative. The solutions aren’t offered, though, until very close to the end of the documentary, and then they are pretty simplistic and unlikely. I feel like if you showed The End of Poverty? to the suffering peoples of the world, they might just prefer to start a violent uprising. I mean, how else are we to convince the rich and powerful after all these years that what they’re doing and how they’ve been living is unfair? They’d no sooner simply go see a Michael Moore film.

Click on the link above to read the rest. Watch the film in full (with ads) on YouTube after the jump.

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Review: “Scenes of a Crime”

Though I was unable to attend the 2011 Full Frame Documentary Festival this week as planned, partly due to my accreditation being through Cinematical/Moviefone, for which I no longer work, I was able to see this one selection from the program and so am reviewing it as a single piece of Full Frame coverage.

We’ve all seen enough cop shows and legal dramas to have in our head an idea of what police interrogations look like. But those fictions aren’t anything like the reality presented in Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock’s “Scenes of a Crime.” The documentary involves a case of possible infanticide in which two detectives interview a man for ten hours regarding the death of his four-month-old son. Along with excerpts from the video footage of that lengthy examination, the film also presents parts of an interrogation training video and testimonials from the policemen about how they conducted the proceedings and lawyers and expert witnesses commenting on those proceedings. Did the men force a confession out of an innocent person? If so, does such injustice happen often? Those are the main questions the doc asks, and as with other works of its kind it will frustrate, infuriate and/or provoke a lot of discussion.

It takes a lot more than raising familiar doubts about police and judicial practices, however, to make a good documentary. Hadaegh and Babcock (“A Certain Kind of Death”) also construct the story of their film’s case similar to the best of them. While it doesn’t have all the strengths of masterpieces like “The Thin Blue Line” or “The Staircase,” mostly because the case itself isn’t as deep, “Scenes of a Crime” guides us through a narrative in an engaging way, the sort of manner in which developments are revealed to us late in the film that make us, as they did the investigators, rethink what might have happened. I don’t want to call a film like this “edge-of-your-seat entertainment,” of course, but it does what any good court drama or doc does in that it keeps us enough in the dark that we can’t wait to find out the outcome of the trial. Even if we have an expectation, probably one born out of cynicism, what the verdict will be.

To read the rest of this review, head over to Spout.com

Review: “Gun Fight”

There are a few great debates in this country that may never be settled. Abortion is one. First Amendment exceptions is another. The argument over the right to bear arms, though, is one that can’t even have that “may” in there. No kind of evidence, imaginable or unimaginable, is going to come out of nowhere and prove that guns should be permitted, controlled or banned. It’s just always going to be a balance of beliefs and opinion. That doesn’t mean the topic shouldn’t continue to be debated for eternity, and I certainly welcome any documentary that wants to take either side strongly. Unfortunately, there’s this misconception lately that non-fiction films have to be “objective” and include all points of view. It’s a misconception that makes Barbara Kopple’s latest, “Gun Fight,” a major disappointment.

The film, which premiered this week on HBO, has a fairly clear allegiance to the gun control position based on who it follows most predominantly: Virginia Tech victim turned lobbyist Colin Goddard (who also is the focus of Kevin Breslin’s recent Sundance entry, “Living for 32”) and a doctor who’s seen enough bullet wounds in the ER that he’s become an advocate on the issue. These subjects are not characters so much as props on a cluttered stage without a play or purpose. “Gun Fight” simply catches viewers up on issues concerning the Second Amendment, especially since the VT massacre four years ago but also referencing Columbine a lot and, tacked on at the end, an acknowledgment of January’s shooting in Tucson.

To read the rest of this review, head over to Spout.com.