Posts Tagged 'Documentaries'

Documentary Monday~~Bigger, Stronger, Faster*

TitleBigger, Stronger, Faster*


Awards–Nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, 2008

Nominated for the Feature Film Award at the Prism Awards, 2009

Summary–Takes a look at steroid use in America, especially among celebrities and athletes.  The film is made by Chris Bell, and follows him as he struggles with whether or not to use, especially since both of his brothers do.

My Thoughts–I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this film or not.  I don’t know a lot about the topic, and aside from being a baseball fan, don’t really think too much about steroids.  My opinion is that if they are illegal, then nobody should be using them and also, it is cheating.  I thought it was interesting that one of the big questions this film asks is, “Should they even be illegal?”

Chris Bell is the director and narrator of the film.  He talks about how Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hulk Hogan, and Sylvester Stallone were all his heroes.  He spent a lot of his high school years bodybuilding and getting buff to be like his role models.  Of course, later in life he realized that they were all on steroids at one point.  Chris thinks steroids are morally wrong and after trying it, decided that he wouldn’t use them.  But both of his brothers use them on a regular basis.

The documentary spends a lot of time talking about how the negative effects of steroids have been blown out of proportion.  It is pointed out that all drugs have negative side effects and potential pitfalls.  Also, tobacco and alcohol are legal even though they are harmful when used and cause thousands of deaths every year.  One statistic they mention is that deaths related to steroids in one given year were only 3.  From the info they provided, I can understand why it is a little bit silly for someone who possess anabolic steroids to be classified as a federal drug criminal.

I do, however, think that they should not be allowed in sports.  One of the most depressing things about this documentary is how many people said “everybody does it, so that’s why I did it.”  He talks to people from so many different sports and they all say the same thing.  It kind of broke my heart a little bit.  It really is true when the narrator says “Steroids are as American as apple pie.”  Sigh.

There are a lot of things addressed in this film (my one complaint is that it did feel a little long) but all of it is tied in with Chris’ struggles with his family and their decision to use steroids.  The interviews and discussions with his family members really added a lot to the topic and made it more personal.

Final Verdict–Well-made, interesting film that will never let you look at your favorite athletes in the same way.


Documentary Monday~~Sound and Fury

TitleSound and Fury


Awards–Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, 2001

Nominated for Best Documentary at the Independent Spirit Awards, 2001

Won the Freedom of Expression Award from the National Board of Review, 2000

Summary–Follows the story of a two related families who are considering cochlear implants for their children.  One of them is an infant, Peter, who was born to parents who can hear.  The other is his cousin Heather, who has grown up in an all deaf family.

My Thoughts–This was a really good film, but parts of it were hard to watch.  It is a very emotional story where people feel very passionate about their views, so there is a lot of arguing.  I am not big on confrontation or fighting, so some of the family discussions were hard for me to watch.

The main focus of the film is a 4 1/2 year-old girl named Heather whose parents and siblings are all deaf.  She is interested in getting a cochlear implant which would allow her to hear so it will be easier for her to interact with other children who are not deaf.  Her parents have very mixed feelings about the idea because they are worried that she will stop identifying with the deaf community and lose herself in the hearing world.

Heather’s infant cousin Peter (their fathers are brothers) is born deaf and his parents really want to get him an implant as soon as possible.  Peter’s maternal grandparents are both deaf and think that this is not the right choice for their grandchild.

One of the good things about seeing all the arguing amongst family members is it really helps to illustrate what a huge impact these implants have on the deaf community.  Many of the older deaf people in the film seemed to be opposed to them, while the majority of the hearing people seemed to think it was the only way to go.

I admit that I fell into that category at first.  I thought, well, of course I would want my child to be able to hear.  But after listening to Heather’s parents discuss their fears and seeing how great it was for Heather when she went to visit the deaf school, I began to rethink my position.

This is a good film to introduce you to the topic because there are good arguments on both sides of the issue.  I’m so glad I watched it because I was only vaguely aware that this surgery even existed.  I also enjoyed watching everyone speaking in sign language.  I almost never get to watch people signing, and I am always so impressed with how beautiful the language is.

Final Verdict–This is a good, emotional film that will make you really think.  It’s impossible to watch it and not think about what you might do in the same situation.


Documentary Monday~~The Wonder of it All

TitleThe Wonder of it All


Awards–Won Best Documentary at the Rhode Island International Film Festival

Summary–This film explores what it was like for the men who landed on the moon during the Apollo missions.  It includes interviews with several of the 12 astronauts who walked on the moon from 1969-1972 and original NASA footage.

My Thoughts–I am fascinated by everything that has to do with space.  I wanted to be an astronaut when I was little, but then one of my teachers told me that I should pick a more realistic career (yeah, I had some pretty *awesome* teachers).  The fact that only 12 men in history have ever walked on the moon totally boggles my mind.  And the last man to set foot on the moon did it in 1972!!!  I honestly thought we had gone back since then, but apparently I am not that bright.

This film is composed of interviews with 7 of those 12 men.  They talk about how they first got involved with NASA (most of them can’t really describe it, they just feel like they got lucky) and the beginnings of the Apollo program.  I will admit that this first part was a little slow.  It started out with a bang when Eugene Cernan said that Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade was scary because “we didn’t know tiddly-winks about space.”  Heehee.  I love it when grownups use fun words.  🙂  It kind of got a wee bit boring after that, but it picked right up when they started talking about their time on the moon.

It was so fascinating to hear them talk about their time up there.  These are men who have experienced something that no one else has, and you can tell by the way they talk about it that they know how special it is.  They spend a lot of time talking about how tightly scheduled their time on the moon was.  They were not allowed time to goof off or marvel at the view, because they had task after task that they had to perform.  But each one was able to take a moment to reflect on the enormity of the situation.

There is some great footage of someone (I can’t remember who) hopping along the surface singing “I was strolling on the moon one day…”  And Charlie Duke talked about how he started jumping up and down just for fun and ended up falling on his back, which could have been really dangerous.

One reason I am glad that I watched this documentary is that I had never even heard of any of these guys, except of course for Buzz Aldrin.  The other astronauts interviewed accomplished just as many amazing things as Buzz and Neil, but no one knows who they are.  I now feel better knowing that I am a little more informed than I used to be.  (Now I can list off all the astronauts on Apollo 13 without batting an eyelash, but of course they were not included because they did not land on the moon.)

Final Verdict–If you are interested in space or NASA related things, this is something you should watch.  If that’s not your cup of tea, you should probably skip this one.


Documentary Monday~~Man on Wire

TitleMan on Wire


Awards–Won tons of awards, most notably the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2009

Summary–Tells the amazing story of Philippe Petit, a Frenchman who in 1974 wire walked between the tops of the Twin Towers.

My Thoughts–I will start by saying that this documentary is very good.  It won the Oscar, so it has to be great, but I was a little let down by it.  I liked it and all, but the trailer really builds it up to be “THE GREATEST MOVIE IN THE HISTORY OF EVERYTHING EVER MADE!”  Well, let me tell you a little secret–it’s not.  It is really good and enjoyable to watch, but it is not the nail-biting, suspenseful roller-coaster ride that is suggested by the critics’ comments.

The film goes back and forth between interviews with Philippe and his cohorts, home video footage they shot back in France, and recreations of the big event.  Philippe mentions that the first time he ever saw a picture of the Twin Towers he knew that he had to wire walk between them.  He spent a lot of time dreaming about the day he would do it.  I loved hearing about just how much planning was involved in order to accomplish his feat.  He needed a whole team of people to help him set up the wire and prepare for the big event.

I really enjoyed all of the talk about how they had to study the World Trade Center and learn how to get in and out and which elevators to use.  They would NEVER be able to get away with things like that in today’s world, with all of the crazy security things we have set up in buildings like that.  It is sort of sad to think that in keeping ourselves safe, we also prevent people from doing amazing things like Philippe did.

It was really interesting to hear the story of all of the events leading up to the actual walk.  There were so many things that could have gone wrong, and some things that really did go wrong that could have stopped them at any moment.  Just the fact that they were able to get the wire set up between the buildings before someone caught them is incredible.

There are two things about this documentary that I found disappointing.  First of all, there is no actual video of Philippe’s great accomplishment.  There are photographs, but no video.  I found it funny that there seems to be endless footage of Philippe and his cronies frolicking about and being silly in a meadow in France, but nobody had a video camera handy when he did his biggest stunt ever.

Also, I was really enjoying the movie until it came to the end.  After he got out of jail (because that’s what happens when you do crazy things, you go to jail) he randomly runs off and has sex with a beautiful stranger (groupie) who is waiting outside the jail.  WTF???  I would normally frown upon this type of behavior, but he was in New York with his longtime, very serious girlfriend who had helped him through the whole process, so it really pissed me off.  So my opinion of him pretty much hit rock bottom after that, because I don’t care how high you are flying because you are awesome, that is no excuse for being a cheating bastard.

Final Verdict–This is a good film, that I would recommend to any fan of documentaries, even though I didn’t LOVE it as much as everyone else seems to.


Documentary Monday~~Waiting For Superman

TitleWaiting For Superman


Awards–Won Best Documentary from the National Board of Review, 2010

Won Best Documentary Feature from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, 2011

Won the Documentary Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, 2010

Summary–This film takes a look at the education crisis in America today, interviewing leading members in the education field.  It also follows several students who are trying to win coveted spots at the best schools in the country.

My Thoughts–This was a really hard movie to watch because it was so upsetting.  The filmmaker (Dennis Guggenheim, who did An Inconvenient Truth) focuses on the real problem that exists in our schools today.  The numbers and facts he throws out are so startling that I literally sat there gaping at the tv with my mouth open.  (I kept chanting, thank God I’m not having kids, thank God I’m not having kids.)  Test scores are going down, down, down and the current fixes do not seem to be working at all.

The documentary looks at certain schools throughout the country that are doing things right.  The view taken by these schools and the filmmakers is that good teachers make good schools.  Basically, there are some crappy teachers in this country, and because of the way the teacher’s union contract is set up, there’s nothing we can do to get rid of them.  Now I know that now is not a good time to be hating on teachers.  I for one think teachers have one of the hardest jobs in the world and think they should be making CEO level salaries.  But let’s face it, some teachers really suck.  We’ve all had at least one (hello, high school chemistry teacher!).

One example of just how messed up the system is, happened a while ago when some students used a hidden camera to record teachers reading the paper at their desk and putting a student’s head in a toilet.  The principal of the school fired the teachers, but then had to hire them back with a year’s back pay because it violated their contracts to fire them.  I’m sorry, but if you are terrible at your job, your boss should be able to fire you no matter what your contract says.

Anyway, moving on from that little rant…the really heartbreaking part of the film involves several students from horrible neighborhoods who are trying to get into some of those awesome schools that are really working.  Hundreds to thousands of children enter lotteries around the country to fill the tiny amount of spots available.  Tears were rolling down my face at the end of the film as the kids and their families sat waiting for their number to be called.

Final Verdict–This is a fantastic movie that every parent and teacher should watch.  I am neither, but I still found it heartbreaking and touching.


Documentary Monday~~Helvetica



Awards–Nominated for the Truer Than Fiction Award at the Independent Spirit Awards, 2008

Summary–Experts in the field of typography and graphic design discuss the history and eventual dominance of the Helvetica typeface.

My Thoughts–I hope all those words I used in the summary were right.  This documentary was filled with so much terminology and information that I was only halfway familiar with, so I might not have used it all correctly 🙂

I do an awful lot of reading throughout a typical day, but I almost never think about the typeface I am seeing at any given moment.  The only time I have ever really thought about it was at Amber’s amazing program during Phoenix Rising (woohoo go Amber!!).  This documentary was really fascinating to me because I guess I had never thought about the fact that people have to “make” fonts.  I think my favorite part of the whole thing was when someone talked about their process for creating a new typeface.  He said that he would start with the “h” because it has height and a whole bunch of other important characteristics that I can’t quite remember.  Then he would move on to a letter like “o” that had the rounded element and see how they looked next to each other.  So cool!

I also really loved how they kept showing numerous street signs and ads and everything else under the sun in little montages that all used Helvetica.  I see it every day in things like Target, Energizer, and Gap, but I would never really have recognized it until now.

The film talks about how Helvetica is like air or off-white paint; you don’t really notice that it’s there but it does the perfect job that it is supposed to.  There is a bit about how the typeface originated in Switzerland and literally means “the Swiss” typeface.  Then it goes on to discuss how views of Helvetica have changed over the years.

This is a topic that I didn’t know very much about and certainly don’t think about very often, so I learned a lot while watching.  Now I am watching TV and I am totally seeing it pop up all over the commercials!

Final Verdict–If you are a nerdgirl (or nerdboy) you will appreciate this in depth look at a simple (or is it?) typeface.


Documentary Monday~~Jesus Camp

TitleJesus Camp


Awards–Won the Special Jury Prize at the Tribeca Film Festival, 2006

Won the Grand Jury Award at the Silverdocs Documentary Festival, 2006

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, 2007

Summary–This film looks at the Evangelical Christian movement in this country and specifically focuses on their ministry to children.  It follows several kids as they go to the Kids on Fire camp in North Dakota.

My Thoughts–I am finding it really hard to talk about this movie.  Whenever people start to talk about religion or politics, somebody is bound to get offended, and this documentary is loaded with both of those things.  I will preface this post by saying that my parents are both Methodist ministers.  I grew up in a Christian house and even went to church camp many times during my childhood.  That being said, this film scared the living sh*t out of me.  It made me terrified and it made me really, really, really mad.  There is one point at the end when the leader of the Kids on Fire camp literally says, “extreme liberals who see this must be shaking in their boots.”  Yes, Becky, yes I am.

First of all, I just wanted to point out that even though I did go to church camp several times, I am not a fan of it.  I always felt emotionally manipulated by a lot of the stuff that happened there (it is very easy to cause someone to break down in tears when they are ten years old and away from home for a whole week).  It also doesn’t help that one of the most traumatizing events in my life happened at church camp.

So since I am bringing all of my own views and biases, I am just going to try to point out a few things that happened in the film and you can judge for yourself on how you would feel about them.

*Becky literally says that she enjoys preaching for kids because they are “so usable for Christianity.”

*There were multiple instances of grownups telling children that evolution and global warming are ridiculous.

*A little girl named Rachel is shown several times randomly approaching strangers to tell them about God.  She goes up to some old guys and says, “If you were to die right now, where would you go?” And they said “Heaven.” And as she was walking away she said, “I think they were Muslims.” and shakes her head.

*So many shots of kids sobbing uncontrollably, shaking, flailing about, and wailing during camp.

*The kids get called up to break porcelain mugs symbolizing the government because the government is corrupt and allows abortion.

*Becky says, “Let me talk to you about Harry Potter….warlocks are enemies of God!!!  If this was the Old Testament Harry Potter would’ve been put to death!!!!!!!!”

*Some boys were having a great time in the cabin at bedtime playing with flashlights and being silly.  Then a counselor busts in and makes them feel terrible for having fun.

Final Verdict–This was really hard for me to watch, but I am glad that I saw it.

Documentary Monday~~Death: A Love Story

TitleDeath: A Love Story


Awards–Won the Bronze Apple at the National Educational Media Network Awards, 1999

Won a Certificate of Merit at the San Francisco International Film Festival, 1999

Won the Insight Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, 1999

Summary–This film by Michelle LeBrun chronicles her husband’s battle with liver cancer just two years after they got married.

My Thoughts–This is not a happy-go-lucky fun film to watch.  Granted, most documentaries aren’t, but this one is really hard.  It begins with the story of how Mel and Michelle met and got married, told through home videos and Michelle’s narration.  After just two years of marriage, doctors found a tumor on Mel’s liver that was over 4 cm big.  The film follows Mel and Michelle through the next six months as they deal with his disease.

I have been fortunate enough not to have a lot of experience with cancer (my grandma recently passed away from pancreatic cancer, but she decided not to go through any treatments) so this was very eye opening.  Michelle had the camera with her through the whole process from the doctor appointments, phone calls to specialists, alternative treatments, and eventual liver transplant.  She remarked in her narration that being behind the lens of the camera gave her something to do while all of this was going on.  Her home movies chronicle the difficult choices they face like whether or not to pursue chemo and a transplant.

Their story is made so much sadder by the fact that they had so little time together.  Mel was 23 years older than Michelle when they got married, but obviously they did not think they would have to do with a situation like this so soon.

Watching this film made me really think about death and the benefits and downfalls of knowing your time was near.  Mel knows that there is a good chance that he will not survive, and it changes the way he thinks about life.  There are times when I think that it would be nice to have some time to get my affairs in order and make sure I had time to say goodbye to all my loved ones, but most of the time I think I would rather just go fast and quick and not have a long drawn out process.

I think the thing that really sums up this documentary for me is a scene near the beginning where Mel asks Michelle, “you ever think about what would happen if I die?”  And Michelle pauses for a moment and then starts to do a little dance and says, “Party…Party.”  But as she’s saying it you can hear the heartbreak behind her words.

The few complaints that I had were mainly issues with video and sound quality, but that is to be expected with the equipment that was being used.

Final Verdict–The film is a very personal journey that doesn’t hold back from showing the harsh realities of dealing with cancer.  It’s not something I would ever watch again, but I’m glad that I saw it.


Documentary Monday~~The Pixar Story

TitleThe Pixar Story


Awards–Nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding NonFiction Program in 2008

Summary–Gives the history of the Pixar Company, specifically focusing on the founders (John Lasseter and Ed Catmull) and their dream to make a full-length animated feature.

My Thoughts–I am currently obsessed with everything Disney and Pixar related.  I just recently read the book The Pixar Touch by David A. Price (am I the only person who totally thinks that title sounds dirty?  yes?  well, I am a 12 year-old girl.) so I already knew the whole story behind the company, and I still loved this documentary.  I am so in love with everything that has to do with Pixar, I would literally listen to those guys talk about anything (Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, feel free to call me if you ever find yourselves single…).  I’ve seen their movies a million times and devoured all the commentaries and behind the scenes footage.

This film is actually on the Wall-E 3-disc special edition as one of the extras, so if you want to watch it, you just need to get your hands on that DVD (which of course, I totally own).  The movie is so good and so interesting that instead of rambling on about how much I loved it, I am going to list some cool things that stood out to me.  (As Amber points out, bullet points are awesome!!)

*The film starts out with a very neat montage of animation through the years.  The things included made me all emotional just like that stupid Disney Blu-ray commercial does.  (Don’t ask, it doesn’t take much to make me emotional.)

*John Lasseter (coolest guy ever?) was supposed to make The Brave Little Toaster, but got fired from Disney instead!

*Alvy Ray Smith, one of the co-founders, does his interview with a sleeping cat on his lap!

*The first Toy Story movie almost didn’t get made because Disney wanted it to be all “edgy” and “adult” and the first test of it was terrible.

*In their old facility, the whole Pixar staff would have to evacuate the building on occasion because they were close to refineries that would spew stuff into the air every once in a while.  Now they have the best building ever!!!

*Toy Story 2 totally sucked and they re-did the entire movie in the last 9 months before it was released.  Obviously it didn’t suck after they fixed it.

*Did I mention that Pixar is the coolest company ever?

Final Verdict–If you love Disney, Pixar, animated movies, or computers, you should definitely check this movie out!


Documentary Monday~~Spellbound



Awards–Won multiple film festival prizes and awards

Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, 2003

Summary–This film follows eight children as they prepare for and compete in the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.

My Thoughts–I loved watching Spellbound!!  The National Spelling Bee is the perfect backdrop for a documentary because it has all the elements of a great movie.  There are great characters, heartwarming backstories, triumph, disappointment, and lots of suspense.  The filmmakers did a fantastic job of introducing us to all of the kids first, and then taking us to the competition, which made it that much more heartbreaking when one of them got eliminated.

As I was watching this, I realized just how hard these kids had to work.  Many of them admitted to studying for hours every day (and by hours, I mean like 5-8, not 2-3).  Man, those kids have more discipline than I could ever have.  And not only do these kids have to be disciplined and smart, but they have to have nerves of steel.

I have only taken part in one spelling bee during my life and it was at the county fair in my hometown.  I think I had to have been in 8th grade or something like that.  Now, I consider myself to be a pretty smart gal.  I graduated top of my class in high school and college, and that is nothing to sneeze at, but I totally sucked at the spelling bee.  I think it was only the second word I got that messed me up.  It was the word “title.”  Really pathetic, right?  I totally messed up “title” and “tidal” in my head and I think I spelled it “tidle.”  It was so embarrassing that I never went back to the county spelling bee.  I have so much respect for those kids who get up there and spell words that nobody has ever even heard of!  Also, spelling is easy when you can see the word written out, but having to list the letters out loud……don’t even think about it.

I can’t think about spelling bees now without thinking about one of my favorite Psych moments ever.  Just for kicks, here is Shawn impersonating the spellmaster in the 2nd episode of Psych.


Final Verdict–This is an awesome movie!  The only thing I didn’t like was that I knew that all of the kids couldn’t win.  Watching their disappointed little faces made me so sad 😦