Deliver Us From Evil

Dir: Amy Berg, 2006. Documentary.

You don’t have to have or understand religion in order to understand spirituality. Most everyone has a source of reason or a spirit of life that feeds our quest for a healthy existence and is the foundation of our morals. Whether it comes from deities or an inner muse, every person who decided to remain a part of this world has their own way of defining purpose. Deliver Us From Evil deals with the corruption of such spirituality in the Catholic Church.

This is a brave and gut-wrenching documentary about the corruption of faith among the youth and families of several parishes in California. It touches on a sickening truth - that some years ago, the Catholic Church re-formed its guidelines which allowed a priest to get married and have children, as the resulting male sons would inherit his assets instead of the church. Now removed from the option of finding romantic adult peers, an alarming number of Catholic hierarchy, many of whom were sexually abused in childhood, now see children as their sexual peers.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 16, 2010 3:52pm

Citizen King

Dir: Orlando Bagwell and Noland Walker, 2004. Documentary.

The story of the Civil Rights Movement was almost made for television. It was done in front of TV cameras and acted out for the the television news audience. Much of the time the goal was shining a light on the abuse black Americans were suffering at the hands of the racist Southern political structure. Unfortunately, unlike say, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement does not have a very long list of important films about it. There have been solidly crafted films like Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, but like most of them it’s actually about white people (the FBI v.s. the KKK. Now remind me again, which side are we supposed to root for?). Ironically, the best film inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement is a foreign one, Bloody Sunday, the Paul Greengrass docudrama about the massacre of Irish protesters by British troops.

The epic PBS documentary series, Eyes On The Prize, has become the bible of everything you could ever want to know about the Civil Rights Movement, but unfortunately due to licensing and rights issues, it has gone out of print on VHS and is only now available for educators. Luckily two of its producers, Orlando Bagwell and Noland Walker, also wrote and directed Citizen King for the PBS series, American Experience. And at under two hours it manages to tell a lot of the Martin Luther King, Jr. story with the perfect mix of archive footage and talking heads.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Mar 16, 2010 2:09pm

The Thin Blue Line

Dir: Errol Morris, 1988. Documentary.

Two men are in prison for the rest of their lives. One is Randall Dale Adams, an average man who appears rational, patient, and has had no distinct trouble with the law. The other is David Ray Harris, a young and destructive delinquent on death row after many years of trouble with the law. On November 28, 1976 their paths crossed in an act of gratitude and friendlessness when Adam had car trouble and the then 16-year-old Harris offered him a ride. By morning, a police officer would be shot dead and the trial to decipher which of them is guilty is enough to plot an entire trilogy of thrillers.

Documentaries are a strange breed of cinema, outlined by rules and guidelines set forth in order to produce "cinéma-vérité." This quest to give the audience "truth" leaves absolutely no room for bias, or theatrics for that matter. That is of course until Errol Morris came through with The Thin Blue Line, a documentary that successfully argues the innocence of a man and eventually leads to his release. After all, once you put a camera up to any situation, you are in some ways distorting truth. Morris simply adds reenactments and colorful visuals to the frame in order to give an appropriate feel to a film documenting a crime and the lousy justice department that attempts to solve it.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 8, 2010 4:55pm

Billy the Kid

Dir: Jennifer Venditti, 2008. Starring: Billy Price. Documentary.

"I know I’m unique. I don’t let it go to my head, though. I’m just someone who was born different than others. I’m not black, not white, not foreign. I’m just different in the mind."

Meet Billy Price. Not your average 15 year-old high school-student. Everyone knows Billy, but no one really knows him. Billy is the guy that sits in the cafeteria by himself. He’s the one that looks a little bit funny. He talks funny. Billy has dreams of becoming the Terminator or even Gene Simmons. Most would consider Billy to be overly sensitive or even a bit socially inept. Personally, I think he’s just misunderstood.

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Posted by:
Travis King
Apr 16, 2009 2:33pm

Patti Smith: Dream Of Life

Dir: Steven Sebring, 2008. Starring: Patti Smith & Others...Documentary

OH TO DREAM... Patti Smith: Dream Of Life falls in the realm of documentary, I suppose, but really I'd like to call it a "musical document" for the sake of this writing and my own personal flare for "adjectivery." I never would have "dreamed" I would be into a film about Patti Smith [it's true]. For whatever reason she had never really made a blip on my radar outside of her popularized "G-L-O-R-I-A."

INWARDS & INNARDS Wandering around a room partially full of keepsakes and other remnants we find Patti Smith, a curious soul. She states that this film has been in the works for 10 years and that she will not be leaving this room until the film is completed. What follows is a series of explanations and events exploring her inner workings and outer experiences [family, death, art, friends, politics], all obvious, subtle and having an underlying strange honesty to them that seems clearly unique to her. I was impressed. She talks to us about certain objects in the room as if recreating some kind of "show and tell" experience from childhood. Books, photographs, a guitar Bob Dylan once played, her son's baby clothes, her own childhood dress, Robert Mapplethorpe's ashes, artifacts, all surrounding her as she builds a cluttered memory chamber. She brings more into the room throughout the duration. It touches the semi-sweet sadness inside.

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Posted by:
Joey Jenkins
Apr 3, 2009 2:11pm

La Commune (Paris, 1871)

Dir: Peter Watkins, 2000. Starring: Enthusiastic, articulate non-professional actors. French. Foreign/Documentary/Cult.

If there’s one thing the French government doesn’t want people to know about, it’s that for two months Paris was a Socialist state ruled independently from the rest of France. Napoleon III’s catastrophic decision in 1870 to declare war on Prussia for amorphous reasons of power and prestige precipitated France’s ruinous capitulation to the Prussian army, ultimately concluding in a Prussian assault on the capitol. During the siege, working class Parisians suffered the most, falling into destitution as prices of essential goods rose, and becoming increasingly resentful of the seemingly immune bourgeoisie. The government moved to Versailles during the war and, after Napoleon III died in battle, set up a new conservative Republic there. At the end of the siege, the army tried to re-appropriate cannons originally left behind to protect the city from the invading Prussians, which Versailles now worried would fall into the control of anarchist elements of the restless populace. However, Parisians protested the removal of the cannons because they had been paid for with public funds, and the listless soldiers, identifying more with the howling mob than with their well-bred officers, fraternized with the crowd and refused to take the cannon. Revolutionary spirit inflamed the city and La Commune was born. Without outside assistance, regular Parisians set up elections, formed a government with executive and legislative branches, and outfitted a defensive army. The citizens of the Commune created worker owned co-operatives, passed a law separating church and state, and abolished religious schools in favor of secular state education. In two months it was gone.

Director Peter Watkins takes five hours and forty-five minutes to narrate not only the rise and fall of the Commune, but also the inspiration and contradiction at the core of all its ideological rhetoric. Shot on black and white 16mm film in a warehouse in the suburbs of Paris, Watkins recruited non-professional actors to play characters that they could politically sympathize with and then asked them to research the period in detail. He also shot the scenes in chronological order for the benefit of the actors, an almost complete rarity in filmmaking. As a result, the line is blurred between fiction and documentary, and historical re-enactment is enriched by real people devoting themselves to the period doppelgängers they have created. The film is meticulously careful to be historically accurate, portraying without hesitation the shortcomings and shortsightedness of the Commune, as well as their fair-minded and progressive principles. There is, however, one intentional anachronism:  television. Commune TV is the television of “la peuple” and Versailles TV is the propagandist station of the establishment. The government station with its preening, self-serious anchors and cliché theme music intros is far and away the highlight of the film.

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Posted by:
Gillian Horvat
Feb 22, 2009 11:44am

Encounters at the End of the World

Dir: Werner Herzog, 2007. Starring: Scientists, ice, Antarctic wildlife, Werner Herzog’s distinctive narration. English. Documentary.

It’s an uncontestable fact that Werner Herzog is the greatest living director. His latest documentary Encounters at the End of the World may not be as cathartic or controversial as his dramatic features, but it validates Herzog’s ability to personalize every film that he directs with the creation of hypnotic, surreal images, images that despite their otherworldliness symbolize a litany of urgent, undeniable truths. The most famous of these are the 360-ton steamship being pulled over a hill in the Amazon rainforest in Fitzcarraldo, as well as the dancing chicken and interminable ski-lift ride in the finale of Stroszek. People who have seen multiple Herzog films walk away with images they hold personally to them, like amulets; for me it’s Kaspar Hauser standing immobile in the village square clutching a letter that he can’t read. Only a director like Herzog could go to edge of the planet and make a film that is idiosyncratic.

Herzog and his cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger (his DP for the majority of his films since Gesualdo) received a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program to travel to Antarctica for several months to shoot footage for a documentary. The director seems to express ambivalence at the beginning of the film about his suitability for the subject, saying that he’s not interested in making a movie about “fluffy penguins.” Ironically, he ends up shooting some of the cutest baby and mommy seal footage I’ve ever seen. It eventually becomes apparent that Herzog’s focus is not so much the landscape as it is the modern day explorers who have come to study the frozen continent. The bleak landmass has become a magnet to a millenarian mixture of scientists, engineers, cooks, survival experts, and ice terrain vehicle drivers who believe that the secret of the earth’s future, and perhaps demise, is hidden in the landscape and wildlife of this frozen desert. Herzog compares these people driven to the end of the map by their dreams to adventurers like Ernest Shackleton and Roald Admundsen, forsaking comfort and civilization to be near the Unnameable.

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Posted by:
Gillian Horvat
Dec 10, 2008 9:41pm

The Cruise

Dir. Bennett Miller. 1998. Starring: Timothy “Speed” Levitch. English. Documentary.

The hook of The Cruise is that most New York tour guides are jaded wage slaves repeating the same statistics and soulless anecdotes to dozens of tourists every day, but “Speed” views his “loops” as an opportunity to communicate the transcendental joy of being alive in New York, a city he anthropomorphizes in different forms, giving the film a second character, and in a sense a plot. Miller operated the camera himself and he manages to shoot New York with a sensual, humble idiosyncrasy worthy of “Speed” himself. The last shot of the film feels a touch contrived, but the presence of the World Trade Center’s erstwhile towers will haunt any viewer.

It’s difficult, and perhaps impossible to impart the appeal of the documentary The Cruise without quoting its protagonist Timothy “Speed” Levitch at some length; this is in itself a disservice to any potential viewer of The Cruise because the poetry of Speed’s erudition is best seen “live”, being delivered spontaneously by the man himself, rather than being read. Speed’s hyper-articulateness must be heard to be appreciated. To listen to Speed’s quotidian orations is to discover a human being who can extemporaneously compose sentences of Jamesian complexity. So fear not, gentle reader. His words are yours to discover.

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Posted by:
Gillian Horvat
Nov 19, 2008 7:45pm

Moog

Dir: Hans Fjellestad. 2004. Starring: Robert Moog. English. Documentary.

Who knew Bob Moog had so much energy and excitement? I mean, I guess you would have to if you were the inventor of the one musical instrument to change the face of music for at least the last forty years! This is an inspiring portrait of the inventor of the Synthesizer--the Moog Synthesizer. The one and only, used by everyone from Jan Hammer to Devo and in many soundtracks including Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Musicians spanning all genres have included the Moog Synthesizer in their repertoire. From Hip Hop to Experimental and Pop to Avant Garde. Almost everyone can agree that Robert Moog invented a masterpiece of equipment when he started playing with sound waves and harnessing electrical currents.

Moog states that he "fell right into it." He was an engineer who stumbled upon an idea that just blossomed. His bright personality, which is clear in the many interviews included in the film, and his love and passion for his creation helped to bring the instrument to prominence. He had a gift for inspiring people. This documentary proves that fact. With multiple interviews by people who knew him or were inspired by him we get a glimpse of the impact this one man, and his invention, had on the way we hear music today. We also get rarely seen footage of the man himself showing off his creations as well as the studios they are built in. We see him interacting with the musicians who adore and love him for what he has given them. And we see his humbleness and reciprocal love for the musicians themselves.

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Posted by:
Grace Bartlett
Nov 19, 2008 4:47pm

The Fog of War

Dir: Errol Morris. 2003. Starring: Robert S. McNamara. English. Documentary.

We hear Robert S. McNamara's voice before we actually see him – then he tells the director, "I don't want to go back and introduce the sentence because I know exactly what I want to say." McNamara is candid, opinionated, and passionate – qualities appropriate and endearing from America's former Secretary of Defense, under President Kennedy and President Johnson.

Here Errol Morris offers us a former leader of America's military force's inside knowledge in our nation's war-driven period from the Cold War to the Vietnam War. Some of the information McNamara reveals is astounding. What moved me was that, in the film, he is emotional and intimate – I felt privileged to be able to hear what this historical figure had to say. He explained the results of our actions in several aspects – from the statistical numbers our position in war has had on our daily lives, the impact of our technological weapons, and his own position on being our Secretary of Defense.

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Posted by:
Tiffany Huang
Nov 8, 2008 4:46pm
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