Tag Archives: documentary

Way late review: The Queen of Versailles

There were many dynamics at play with the 2008 market and housing crash. Talk of greedy bankers, incompetent credit ratings agencies, spineless politicians and policy makers have been and continue to be the focus as we get some (small) distance between the events that resulted in a near economic collapse. Missing in all of this is the consumer side of the equation. Main Street. The innocents. You and me. Except we’re not so innocent. Money was (is?) cheap and our desires for more and more rarely subsides. Taken to the extreme this vicious cycle of cheap money and an endless appetite for more results in a couple like David and Jackie Siegel. Timing is everything. Lauren Greenfield happened to already be filming the Siegels building the largest single family home in the United States when everything came crashing down. The result is The Queen of Versailles, a documentary capturing the story of the little guy through the eyes of the biggest of the little guys.

David and Jackie Siegel came from modest families. David built his timeshare company, Westgate Resorts, from the ground up. He employs thousands of people in order to sell mostly middle class families on renting a dream they can’t afford to own. Westgate builds incredible resorts on money they borrow from banks, then they sell mortgages on the rooms for a week per year to families who could never afford such luxurious vacation pads otherwise. Those families pay a monthly amount over many years to pay for a vacation stay once a year for the rest of their life. One room in a resort essentially provides 52 mortgages. Westgate then turns around, bundles these mortgages and sells them as investments. At one point, David Siegel’s son is on screen pumping up his sales staff. He tells them that they are saving lives. He equates timeshare sales people to doctors, nurses, firemen, etc. He does this with a straight face as he rattles off some study which shows people who take a week vacation once a year live longer than those who don’t. Even houses made of cards need someone to care for them. In this case care comes in the form of twisted logic.

Jackie got a computer engineering degree and went to work for IBM out of school. Her achievement was short lived as she decided there was little glamour in writing code so she decided to marry money instead. After being in an abusive marriage, Jackie found David via a beauty pageant. The two have six children plus one adopted niece on Jackie’s side of the family. The former beauty queen and her husband decide they need more room with such a big family so they go about building a 90,000 monstrosity of a home inspired by Versailles and the finest buildings Vegas has to offer. In the process of building their dream house the economy comes to a screeching halt.

What starts off as a tale of decadence turns into the story of just what the housing market crash looked like, from the top of the food chain to the bottom, all through the eyes of a difficult to like billionaire couple. The lack of money flowing freely means David Siegel is suddenly underwater on his prized property in Vegas. He personally backs every loan the company takes out which means he is liable for hundreds of millions of dollars. And since he’s saved nothing, he and his family’s life of continued luxury is at severe risk. The trickle down impact of this is seen in one of the family’s nannies and their driver. Both depend on the Siegels for paychecks and as the banks lay the hammer down on the timeshare mogul, the ability for David to pay a household staff dwindles. Layoffs at Westgate come fast and furious, with thousands losing their jobs. No one is safe. Yet through it all, Jackie is shown to be both aware yet oblivious all at once. On the one hand she is quick to recognize a childhood friend’s desperate need for money to catch up on mortgage payments and writes a check on the spot. On the other hand, she continues to spend money like there is no tomorrow. She’s shown in one moment to be completely cognizant of her drastically downsized staff’s struggles and in the next she humiliates them with some offhand comment like, “Well, at least you won’t have to clean this place”, referring to her version of Versailles going up for sale.

As the film progresses, David’s patience grows shorter. He spends every waking hour puzzling his way out of massive debt. His dream house is on the market for a mere $90M. His company is shrinking. The banks want him to liquidate everything but the shirt on his back. And to top it all off, his family is driving him mad with their lack of awareness of what is happening to them. Towards the end of the film David’s nearly non-existent patience is put to the test by his family and he loses it. It’s an amazingly intimate moment which shows just how fragile the mortar is which holds the Siegel household together.

The Queen of Versailles profiles a hard to empathize with couple who are caught in the tangled web of a market crash. What could have been a condescending look at how the mighty fall, director Lauren Greenfield finds the deeper story by also exploring the stories of those around the Siegel family. No one will shed a tear for Jackie and David Siegel, but most will admit to an uneasy feeling that the beast they attempted to ride is the same one that many of us tried to hang onto, if only to a lesser degree.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: The Thin Blue Line


We can thank Errol Morris for a couple of things in his 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line. First, he successfully exposed some serious flaws in a criminal case which resulted in the death sentence of Randall Adams in Dallas in 1976. His work helped correct this egregious wrong and freed an innocent man from life in prison. Second, we can thank the filmmaker for the proliferation of crime reenactments used ad nauseam by true crime television shows. You gain some, you lose some.

Randall Adams ran out of gas one day and hitched a ride with David Harris. As Adams pointed out, he’s not sure what would’ve happened had he not ran out of gas. What if David Harris wasn’t around? What if Adams refused the ride? His life may have been a lot different as it wasn’t long before Adams found himself in a police station being questioned for the murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood. The officer had been shot numerous times after a routine traffic stop and Adams was said to be the shooter. The real shooter was actually the teenager, David Harris, but the police department and the DA’s office put together a case which pinned the blame on Adams. Harris, being the stand out guy he proved to be, had no problem blaming Adams. After all, Harris was previously bragging about killing a cop, only to take back those statements once the police caught up with him.

Morris’ filmmaking is groundbreaking in a number of ways. First, he reconstructs the events based on testimonies we see on screen. The accompanied reenactments are commonplace today but back then it was controversial. Documentaries can’t do that. They can only show what is captured; at least that was the thinking at the time until Morris punched critics and viewers in the gut by not only using reenactments but using them extensively throughout the 100 minute film. The interviews are shot straight on, with most subjects sitting dead center in the screen and staring down the camera, which was unheard of at the time and still not considered a best practice for interviews. Finally, the soundtrack by Phillip Glass is stylish, unlike those typically used previously for documentaries; especially those dealing with such serious matters.

The interviews are engaging enough but don’t pickup until some of the questionable witnesses make an appearance. Laughter ensues as one woman says she’s always witnessing killings and has a keen eye for such things. Her husband is almost as odd. Turns out the two have a shaky track record for telling the truth. At least one other witness comes on and we discover he’s confident he can identify Adams as the killer but then later learn that he couldn’t see much of anything and was trying to cover up his passenger, a girlfriend his wife wouldn’t be happy to hear about.

With no shortage of reenactments and non-stop interviews, keeping track of all the details becomes a little harrowing. Errol Morris will never be accused of not paying enough attention to detail. This does does not always make for great storytelling though. By the time the film ends it feels as though you’ve consumed enough information to personally prosecute the case against Harris and defend Adams.

The Thin Blue Line will likely be remembered as much for its groundbreaking approach to documentary film making as it will for helping free an innocent man from life in prison. Watching it nearly 25 years since its release makes you appreciate how much of an impact this film has had on documentaries since – quite an achievement.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: The Interrupters

Access is everything. At least it is for many documentaries, where the level of access they get to their subjects plays a large role in the success or failure of the film. Director Steve James gets unbelievable access to those he covers on the streets of Chicago in his film The Interrupters.

CaseFire is a Chicago based group determined to stop the violence that ruins their neighborhoods. Many of the staff are former gang members who have served time in prison and some earned notoriety for their antics on the streets. The goal of these interrupters is to intercede before violence erupts. They do not aim to solve all the world’s problems. Their goal is simple yet tragically complex. Stop the violence. The film closely follows a few members of CeaseFire as they go about their work and along the way a picture of who they are and who they help is developed in a sometimes painful manner. There is little rest for those who find themselves locked in a seemingly endless cycle of violence.

There is no shortage of deeply emotional material and yet the rough edges are never avoided. The easy way out for Steve James would have been to make the CeaseFire crew saviors on the mean streets, with those they “save” serving as mere victims. Instead he allows both those who interrupt the violence and those who are creating it tell their story. They tell it in interviews as they reflect on their past and in the midst of the action. The stories told and shown are frustrating, heartbreaking, filled with anger and spite as well as love and care. No one comes out unscathed.

A film dealing with inner city violence can’t help but avoid the political implications. And while the politics are touched upon, James wisely keeps his focus on the deeply personal examination of those his camera hones in on. There are no easy answers given. Any politician given screen time comes off as rather out of touch in comparison to the reality on display.

Sad stories permeate with only glimpses of hope. Those who do their jobs as part of CeaseFire appear driven by a need for redemption. Their lives have always been mixed up in the sad stories. Instead of intervening as they do now, in the past they were causing the sadness. Now their perception of reality is different. The reaction is not to lash out in anger but rather to help as many people stuck in their old way of life as they can. The dangerous situations this desire causes are numerous. We learn that only one interrupter has ever been shot doing the work. We briefly meet that gentleman in his hospital bed when Tio Hardiman, the director of CeaseFire, visits. Up until this moment Tio comes off as a confident leader hell bent on making his organization’s goal a reality. Seeing one of his people in significant pain after being shot in the back and foot, causes this strong man to break out of his motivational speaker mode and into that of a teary eyed father who realizes the young man on the bed is around the same age of his sons.

While reality TV has trained most of us to build a cynical force field to what we see on the television, documentaries like The Interrupters pierce our hearts, not with emotional trickery but by displaying slices of life otherwise unnoticed by most.

 ★★★★★ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians

Some like to defend their behavior based on (for lack of a better term) the Robin Hood principle, which is taking from the rich and giving to the poor. It is not uncommon to hear this defense when someone is caught in an illegal activity but the person is known to contribute to their community. Enter Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians minus the illegal shenanigans. None of the blackjack playing Christians come out and say they are modern day Robin Hoods but they also don’t hesitate to express their disdain for the casinos, all while thriving in those very same villainous caverns for their bustling business.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the rationale behind the team of Christians performing their own modified version of Bringing Down The House (or 21 in movie form), the success of the documentary rests on telling a good story with compelling characters. The main narrative is relatively straight forward and well told. A couple of guys learn how to count cards, learn there is money to be had at the blackjack tables, and eventually expand on that revelation by finding investors on the one side and players on the other. Before you know it, there is over a million dollars flowing into the hands of a team of card counting Christians. The method to the madness is all based on math. The theory is you put the odds in your favor by keeping the count on the cards. Every card represents either -1, 0, or 1. The higher the count, the better chances there are that you’re going to beat the house. It’s more complex than that when it comes to placing bets, etc. but the theory is so strong that casinos disallow it. Counting cards is not illegal but the casinos will see you out the door if they think you’re turning the odds in your favor.

The characters making up the team are not so interesting. The team managers come off as smarmy if not outright dull. The players spend most of their time justifying their actions and don’t offer much more than that throughout most of the doc. The only other person who shares much screen time is a game room manager of a casino. He explains the casino’s point of view. There is so much time spent on Christians feeling guilty, or at the very least on the defensive, they explain away their time at the casinos. Little to no time is given to those who oppose their business venture. It’s as if the players are swinging at windmills. Of course there is plenty of real opposition to what this team of statistically driven blackjack playing Christians is up to, but almost none of it is represented on the screen. We’re left with rather mundane personalities running a less than mundane operation.

The guilty consciences never seem to wrestle with the all too real dilemmas their card counting gets them in. Casinos kick them out. They keep coming back. Casinos kick them out even quicker. They come back in disguises. Casinos kick them out some more. They take on fake identities. The cycle continues. There is a lot of talk about accountability within the group and how they couldn’t do this if they all weren’t believers in Jesus Christ. However, no one seems to flinch when they have no choice but to either give up the gig or use deceitful means to continue. There is no choice for most, at least that is how it is portrayed. You do what you have to do. After all, they’re taking down the big bad casinos. Granted, it’s a business, with investors expecting a rather high return on investment (35%). Robin Hood may have messed up when he spread the wealth around. He should have gotten some investors and paid dividends. Eventually the money would get back to those in need.

Possibly the worst moment, which should make every Christian cringe when they see it, is when the team goes on a long losing streak and suspicion of theft within the team heightens. The team has allowed at least one non-Christian to join. The team starts losing and guess where the blame goes? Yep, the man in black. Literally. The non-Christian is shown in a long sleeve black shirt when the accusations are made on camera. The suspicion comes from one particular team member who says God spoke to him and told him the non-Christian was stealing. Bam! Goodbye bad guy. Was he stealing? We don’t know and there is really no way of knowing. Every player is given large sums of cash to bet at the blackjack tables. They track their wins and losses. Who’s to say a loss was to the dealer or the player’s wallet? There is no way to know. And the director doesn’t help shed further light on the mystery. He instead follows a team member who begins questioning his participation on the team. After that we’re left with the team managers hitting the casinos in order to break the losing streak.

Holy Rollers is a generally well paced documentary with a solid soundtrack. Unfortunately there aren’t enough interesting subjects and the opportunities to counter the defensive stances from the team are never taken. The story is well told though it doesn’t need more than an hour to tell it. For non-Christians, the film will likely only further suspicions of those who hold to the Christian faith. And for Christians, there are likely to be many conversations and looks of befuddlement as they try to work out exactly what the purpose of the doc was.

 ★★★☆☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: The Elephant in the Living Room

Everyone probably remembers their first pet. That first little komodo dragon, lion cub, spider monkey, puff adder. No? Me either, but there are far more people in the United States who know first hand what it is to own an exotic animal than should. In many states it is not illegal and in some regulations are near zero. The Elephant in the Living Room tackles this fascinating topic, educating on the problem while delving into the complicated issues that arise when people make pets out of wild animals.

Filmmaker, Michael Webber, takes us through the labyrinth that is exotic animals as pets. Our tour guide for most of the film is the confident yet understanding police officer, Tim Harrison. In southern Ohio, Harrison handles endless cases of wild animals turned pets going back to their roots. Owners who lose control of their dangerous friends or simply turn them loose after they realize what was once a cool little jungle cat, alligator, or other wild animal is no longer so cool when it can eat you and your family. There are reports of lions, cougars, bears, and more on the road terrorizing people in their cars. People call about non-indigenous venomous snakes slithering into their garages. One call is from a father who reports that his children have been playing with some sort of python. Harrison comes to the house and finds not a python but one of the most dangerous snakes in the world.

There are no shortage of amazing stories of fatal attacks, near fatal attacks, and close encounters with animals that should be anywhere but in residential neighborhoods. Harrison educates on the problem by browsing one of the popular publications that advertises exotic animals for sale. There he reads endless ads for all sorts of creatures, many of which are listed as free to a good home. The worst kept secret in this dangerous market is that large, dangerous animals can be had for nothing. While some may pay five hundred dollars or more for their pure bred puppy of choice, a lion is free of charge. Harrison and Webber show the insanity of these markets up close by sneaking in cameras to two large shows. One is a reptile show with endless tables packed with reptiles from all over the world, most venomous and in plastic containers you’d expect to purchase food in. The other show is in Amish country, where every type of large cat, primate, and other furry critters are sold to the highest bidder as if they were bidding on livestock. These are legal markets, yet both the sellers and buyers feel the need to keep the cameras away. Speaking of buyers, many of them at the reptile show were children. Mom and dad purchased Johnny an eight foot python that will easily grow to be twice that size or a baby alligator that will one day grow larger than any member of the family.

Once the problem of exotic pets is hammered home from numerous directions, Webber focuses on the story of Terry Brumfield, a man who got in a car accident and whose back and neck are severely damaged. Brumfield struggles with depression. His cure was procuring two lion cubs. The cubs, one male and one female, grow up and Terry finds himself very much attached to the big cats while also struggling to contain them. The male lion escapes one day and terrorizes motorists on the highway. Brumfield is threatened by the law but somehow keeps his lions. Harrison tries to help Brumfield, who feels as though he’s in a no win situation. He doesn’t want to the give the lions up but he doesn’t want them to get out and hurt people. In a surprising turn, Harrison and Brumfield develop a friendship. It is there that we see these two men sharing both a love for animals and conflicted consciences. Harrison knows these lions need to be in a sanctuary where they can run and not be in danger of harming themselves or others. Brumfield has raised the lions since they were cubs. They are his lifeline. Losing the lions means losing life to Brumfield. Their story develops and takes some twists along the way that are fascinating and heartbreaking.

What could have been not much more than an issue documentary turns into a rather sophisticated look at two men involved in the thick of the topic. The human story is what ends up driving the film home and puts it over the top of an already solid educational look at the problem of exotic animals as pets problem in the US.

 ★★★★★ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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