Hearts of Darkness

Dir: Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper. Starring: Francis Ford Coppola. English. Documentaries.

Francis Ford Coppola said of Apocalypse Now at its 1979 premiere in Cannes, “The way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little we went insane.” That madness is what you see in Hearts of Darkness, an extraordinary documentary about the film’s torturous, quixotic shoot.

With her own crew, Coppola’s wife Eleanor documented her husband’s protracted struggle to complete his epic about the Vietnam War; her footage is the basis of Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper’s feature. She came away with an intimate picture of the feature’s near-catastrophic progress, or lack thereof. Shooting in the Phillipines, Coppola replaced a lead actor after filming began; saw helicopters on loan from Ferdinand Marcos’ army diverted to fight rebels in a real civil war; witnessed the destruction of a main set in a ruinous typhoon; and was forced to halt production when one of his key players suffered a near-fatal heart attack. And then the volatile Marlon Brando showed up, overweight and unprepared for his role as the monstrous Colonel Kurtz.

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Posted by:
Chris Morris
Dec 19, 2007 4:09pm

I Think We're Alone Now

Dir: Sean Donnelly, 2008. Documentary.

You've always heard stories of stalkers and people who honestly believe that they are seriously destined to be with certain celebrities. In a sense, our culture has encouraged such activities. Since the beginning of the film industry and, in the last century with musicians, celebrities in the performing arts have been followed by paparazzi and fans with little escape from the public eye. In almost every grocer there are magazines filled with false or accurate news of some star. The biggest market seems to be teen magazines and their readers who can become more involved by sending in fan mail, etc. This kind of activity eventually fades and these young people stop being fixated. I Think We're Alone Now follows two individuals who became obsessed with a singer way past their youths, and despite their oddness, quite organically.

Tiffany Darwish, referred to as simply Tiffany, had a singing career in the '80s and was a pop icon, though her popularity fizzled out within a few years. Some of her songs still receive radio play and are known by just about everybody. The title of this documentary shares the name of perhaps her most popular song, a cover of Tommy James & The Shondells, and one that is of great importance to one of the subjects in the film.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Feb 25, 2011 12:36pm

Inside Job

Dir: Charles Ferguson, 2010. Documentary.

"A guerrilla war is an intimate affair, fought not merely with weapons but fought in the minds of the men in the villages and in the hills, fought by the spirit and policy of those who run the local government."

--W.W. Rostow, address to the first graduating class at the U.S. Army Warfare School, Fort Bragg, June 1961 This documentary should be seen by everyone. In my opinion, it is one of the best documentaries to expose the roots behind the global economic crisis of 2008. It should be seen, analyzed, and discussed by as many people as possible. While I don’t agree with some of the conclusions made in the film—for example, minimizing the structural crisis inherent within capitalism while overemphasizing the lack of government financial regulations as a major source of the crisis—it convincingly demonstrates the real-life horror when the Milton Friedmans of the world take over: socialism for the rich, free enterprise for the rest. One only needs to look at Wisconsin right now to see this at work. Having won an Oscar for Best Documentary this year, Charles Ferguson’s film builds and yet departs from previous documentaries on the topic: Casino Jack and the United States of Money (directed by Alex Gibney, 2010) and Collapse (directed by Chris Smith, 2010). There is so much to say about Inside Job. However, for me, the most interesting part of the film is the section where Ferguson challenges some of the professors involved in the “inside job” that created the global financial meltdown at a cost over $20 trillion, resulted in millions losing their jobs, homes, etc. He interviews people like Professor Frederic Mishkin at Columbia Business School, and its Dean, Glenn Hubbard; Martin Feldstein, a Professor of Economics at Harvard University; and many more. (Larry Summers and Laura Tyson both declined to...

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Posted by:
Jose Palafox
Mar 9, 2011 5:10pm

Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers & Their Times

Dir: Peter Jones & Mark A. Catalena, 2009. Starring: Dorothy Chandler, Harry Brant Chandler, Norman Chandler. Documentaries.

It drives me crazy when people say that Los Angeles has no history. I have no idea what that means because I don’t think I’ve ever been to an American city as steeped in its illustrious glittering and haunted past as L.A. It’s a history that is certainly taken for granted and poorly managed—it seems every year brings with it another historic landmark that bites the dust here—but the city (and really the entire country) have been so shaped by L.A.’s past that you will never be able to exorcise all the ghosts here. There are too many of them. And the people who ran the city from its inception made decisions whose results we are still burdened with today.

The Chandler family and their paper, The Los Angeles Times, are a good example of this. From the very beginning the paper was designed as a mouthpiece for the voice of Harrison Gray Otis, an ardent capitalist who used the paper to prop up his friends in the business community and attack his enemies from the world of labor. By using The Los Angeles Times as a forum for attacking unions Otis helped ensure that L.A. would have a cheap supply of labor without threat of these workers organizing. When a group of union members bombed the L.A. Times building and killed scores of Times employees Otis became that much more virulent in his crusade against organized labor. (You can see a monument to the workers who died in the blast erected just after it happened in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.)

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Jul 21, 2010 11:12am

It Came From Kuchar

Dir: Jennifer M. Kroot, 2009. Documentary.

I'm not sure how to begin this, so I'll try to make it linear, though the documentary is nothing but. George and Mike Kuchar are two twin brothers, born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx. I can imagine their birth to be extraordinary; a lighting bolt striking their mother and producing these two electrifying individuals. That didn't really happen, but that's how it plays out in my imagination. At the age of eleven, the two were given consumer-grade 8mm cameras as gifts, but what would later become of those tools is nothing short of spectacular.

This documentary spans across generations of filmmakers and artists, mainly in the New York and San Francisco underground scenes. The interviews consist of those from the two brothers and the various "stars" of their B-movie delights, as well as people like John Waters and Christopher Coppola (brother of Nick Cage), who claim that the Kuchar brothers and their films were their first sources of inspiration. Other clips include archive footage of New York and San Francisco from the '50s to present day, as well as photos and/or interviews of various influential artists, such as Andy Warhol, Guy Maddin, and cartoonists Bill Griffith and Robert Crumb.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Jul 27, 2010 2:17pm

I’m Still Here

Dir: Casey Affleck, 2010. Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Sean Combs, Edward James Olmos. Documentary.

It’s hard to categorize the film I’m Still Here. Simply put, it plays as a documentary that illustrates a man in free fall. To suggest, however, that it is a true documentation of such only serves to perpetuate the myth (as well as the egos of its makers) behind the film itself. On the other hand, the suggestion of truth is what makes this film possible within the ether of today’s stagnant and highly unentertaining… well… entertainment. It’s pointless to over-analyze Casey Affleck’s directorial debut, as in doing so would only allow yourself to be hoodwinked by two very talented satirists who have set out to do just that: orchestrate an elaborate hoax intended to turn the mirror on the Hollywood machine and also shed light on America’s obsession with celebrity.

I’m Still Here is the fictional account of Joaquin Phoenix’s decent into madness. The film opens with Phoenix pacing around the front yard of his Hollywood Hills home while the city glimmers below. The stage is set as Phoenix declares, "I’m living in a self-imposed prison." What we see here within the first three or four minutes of the film is someone who is lost and is trying desperately to find his true identity. That identity comes in the form of J.P., the alter ego and hip-hop artist formerly known as the actor, Joaquin Phoenix.

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Posted by:
Travis King
Nov 4, 2010 3:12pm

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

Man on Wire

Dir: James Marsh, 2008. Documentary.

“If I die, what a beautiful death; to die in the exercise of your passion.” - Philippe Petit

In his youth, Philippe Petit was drawn to climbing, fencing, and riding a unicycle. Balance was a gift, and motivation was endless. When he was 17, while waiting to see a dentist, he came across an article in the paper about two structures that were to be built in New York. The World Trade Center was to be the largest man-made structure, and within him developed a dream to conquer such a building in his own poetic way. Learning to walk a tightrope and gather close friends to help him reach his future goals, Petit set out to train, plan, and discipline himself to walk across a building that was yet to exist.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 25, 2011 11:41am

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

My Flesh and Blood

Dir: Jonathan Karsh, 2003. Documentary.

This film should seriously be a required viewing for everyone who wishes to adopt a child, or has a child with special needs. Though this belief seems to be shared among those who've seen it, I'd even recommend that children of all ages and backgrounds see it as well, especially those with only one parent. I say this because Karsh's directorial debut is able to show us the experience of adopting a child from both the parent's side, as well as the child's. The Tom family case is obviously unique because of the number of children and the range of their disabilities, but the hardships and joys of family life as a whole are universal. Children of single-parent homes can view this film and be given an example of what obstacles their parent must face, both for them and in terms of their own needs.

Susan Tom is a divorced single mother who, while raising her biological children with her former husband, began adopting children from all over the world. In total, her adopted brood tops off at 11. More mind-blowing than the fact that she is raising and caring for this many children alone is the fact that they all have mental and/or physical disabilities. Without a nurse or much help from foundations and social workers, she and her oldest daughters help maintain the house.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Mar 2, 2011 5:53pm
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