Tag Archives: documentary

Way late review: Indie Game: The Movie

30+ years ago the tech startup out of a garage was made legendary thanks to two Steves – Jobs and Wozniak. Today’s version may be best summed up in indie video game developers. And while there is much to romanticize about the “two guys in a garage” mythology, Indie Game: The Movie does its fair share to pull back the curtain and reveal the sometimes mind wrecking journey such a creative venture can be.

There are two games in the making. One is Fez, whose development is led by Phil Fish. The other is Super Meat Boy, developed by the duo, Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes. The discussion about what an indie game is and the short history behind it provides context for those unaware. Within that, the developers provide their thoughts on what drew them into indie games, juxtaposing the massive studio efforts with those of the two men teams we observe. There is a naivety expressed about the pureness of indie game development; as if big budget game developers only want to make money while their indie counterparts eschew money for the sake of their art. The truth probably lies somewhere in-between those extremes.

The creation of software, even one as visual as video games, is not incredibly exciting. The mundane makes up 99.99% of the work. Some might argue I was a bit conservative with that percentage. Credit goes to the filmmakers, Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, for making the process come alive on the screen. Particularly interesting was watching how Fish meticulously designs every pixel of his art until it’s just right. McMillen provides a quick overview on basic video game design, with some relevant drawings and animations thrown in to make the topic come to life.

In between getting to know the developers and being flies on a wall as they press forward with their games, there are interesting takes on the process, industry, and much more from Jonathan Blow, creator of one of the first big indie hits, Braid. Blow provides a presence of “been there, done that” and puts into perspective some of the raw emotions we see on screen from the other guys as they slave away to deliver the goods. Blow’s calm, cool mannerisms on the screen are in sharp contrast to the near nervous breakdowns we see from Fish, McMillen and Refenes. In these moments of emotional exhaustion and panic the romantic picture of two guys triumphantly changing the world with their tech creation is exposed for what it is – myth.

In order to put into a fuller perspective indie game development, it would have been nice if there was at least one representative of those who’ve tried to make a go of it but didn’t succeed, or at least failed to meet expectations. Jonathan Blow provides great insight, but he cannot speak as one who took his shot going out on his own and failed. That is not to say that Indie Game romanticizes its topic as a result. But providing a look at failure and the insights learned from those who’ve failed would help put into better perspective what the creators of Fez and Super Meat Boy face.

Since the film captures development of the games in the process of being made, the suspense is hard to miss. Whether the stakes are as high as these guys think they are, the very real possibility of being crushed by legal action or a broken promise from a large corporation feels threatening as the story unfolds. The frazzled looks and the near breakdowns on screen only increase the tension. And while it may seem laughable when put in perspective, the confession by Fish that he’ll kill himself if he doesn’t finish Fez is completely believable after hearing how his personal life during the process is crumbling around him and he’s poured everything he has into the project.

The happy ending is not quite so happy. One story is left incomplete, simply because a documentary needs to decide at some point where its story ends. The sense of accomplishment in the other story, both by sales numbers and reaction from players, is countered with the inevitable let down from reaching the goal of an incredible journey never quite living up to the ever inflating expectations.

A beautifully shot film with a near perfect soundtrack, Indie Game: The Movie is a tribute to its subjects. The end result is a well told story that embraces the insanity of the creative process and captures the magic that comes about as a result of that endless tension that nearly breaks the games’ creators.

 ★★★★½ 

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

Way late review: Better This World

Activist documentaries are quite the rage these days. Everyone has their cause and some think that cause is worth documenting as a movie. Most of these movies are of little interest to me. For example, If a Tree Falls was nominated for an Oscar in the best documentary category and I was convinced that if the Academy handed the little gold guy to that snoozer then it was proof that those in the Academy love trees more than they love good movies. Harsh, I know. Every once in a while a documentary covers a politically charged topic and I like it. Better This World isn’t one of those. It is a documentary I love.

Wasting no time to setup the premise of the film, we’re immediately thrown into the mess that is the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC). Aside from John McCain winning the nomination in 2008, there were protests brewing in St. Paul, Minnesota where the RNC was being held. Right or not, numerous federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies feared these protests were going to escalate into violence, which means trouble in a post 9/11 world. And the trouble comes not only in overzealous protesters but in their government employed counterparts overreacting in the name of security. Mixing protesters weary (at best) of their government with police forces loaded with and prepared to use various weapons on the protesting masses makes for a disastrous recipe. Add on top of that two friends from Midland, Texas, David McKay and Bradley Crowder, with close ties to a charismatic social activist Brandon Darby who encourages his protégés to ratchet up the action, even if it means taking up arms. McKay and Crowder comply by creating molotov cocktails (aka fire bombs) they consider using on strategic non-human targets. The two friends never get that far. Crowder was held in custody from an earlier arrest and McKay had a swat team on him before he could do anything.

The story seems rather straight forward until some key details are expertly revealed throughout the fast paced film. The surprises are too good to spoil. Let’s just say that not everything is as it seems, and not all of it is in favor of McKay and Crowder, who most would assume are handled most sympathetically throughout. The spoilers are so good that there is even one in the credits. I couldn’t believe that one of the biggest reveals was saved for credit rolling material. It’s a gutsy move and one that pays off by leaving the viewer unsettled one last time.

The disturbing results of the US justice system and the paranoid homeland security efforts are on full display. There are no winners, even though it would appear the government wins 90% of the time in criminal trials. The tactics used by the prosecution are underhanded, not to mention the highly questionable actions of those enforcing the laws and catching the suspects. Even so, kudos to the filmmakers (Kelly Duane and Katie Galloway) for not letting the two young men off the hook. Crowder and McKay made some poor choices along the way and thankfully the film allows the friends to make this admission and contemplate a bit on the unfortunate (not to mention unjust) results.

Whether one agrees with their left leaning politics or not, it’s hard not to feel empathy for Crowder and McKay in the latter half of the film. The two twenty-something friends are not simply used as exhibits A and B in a case against the US justice system and overreaching homeland security, they are shown as people who have families and loved ones. The repercussions for Crowder and McKay are deeper than a lost battle for the cause they believe in. These young men are faced with hard prison time away from loving families and friends.

Unlike its counterparts, Better This World makes the most of its activist focused material and tells a compelling story in a manner worthy of the source material.

 ★★★★★ 

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

Way late review: Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles

Chasing down a mystery as the centerpiece of a documentary is tricky. On the one hand, the thrill of the chase should make for a compelling story. On the other hand, solving the mystery may turn out to be a let down if the end result is far less mysterious than it originally seemed. Resurrect Dead finds itself in this quandary.

Kicking off with an intriguing question – who was responsible for all the strange plaques made of tiles with the even stranger message “TOYNBEE IDEA IN Kubrick’s 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER” pasted on streets all across the east coast and parts of South America and what does it mean? – Ressurect Dead races off with a relatively stylish approach to a bizarre puzzle. Director Jon Foy follows a small cast of characters obsessed with solving the Toynbee tiles mystery. Unfortunately for Foy, his cast of characters is filled with only one who holds much interest outside of the task at hand. Not a death knell, but when the film leads in numerous dead ends on its way to answering the question of the who and why behind the seemingly other worldly tiles, the story needs a strong character or two to hold the wandering narrative together. Its no small task and Foy does about as good of a job as one could, given how long he chased this story and the conclusion that was reached.

Justin Duerr is the ring leader. He is front in center as the curious amateur detective trying to crack the case. His own back story holds a fair amount of interest and even parallels that of the main suspect in many ways. Foy may have missed an opportunity to draw even stronger connections between his wild-eyed sherlock holmes and the suspected tiler.

By the time the mystery is solved, or at least as solved as it’s likely to ever be solved, there is a letdown. The big payoff isn’t there and the journey of exploring the major suspects turns up only a few interesting moments. What starts off as a fast paced thrill ride ends more like a tame carousel. Still, the dedication to chasing the story to its end is admirable. And the first third of the movie is as engaging as any mystery, fiction or non-fiction. Sometimes the premise of a documentary is far more intriguing than its end reveals. There is only so much a director can do to remedy that and Jon Foy does his best to put it all together in an entertaining and informative package.

 ★★★½☆ 

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

Way late review: Nursery University

I’m glad I’m not a parent living in New York City. As Nursery University shows us, there are a lot of parents living in NYC who have lost their minds, and it’s all over enrolling their child into the perfect nursery school.

The documentary follows several families in New York City wading through the treacherous waters that are procuring a preschool for your soon to be toddler. Each family comes at it from a slightly different perspective and situation. By the end, it is clear – they’re all lost in the mire. The filmmaker (Marc H. Simon) does his best to maintain composure. While it would be easy to make the subject matter feel like a Christopher Guest mockumentary (think Best in Show), Simon refrains and lets the characters represent themselves on screen – warts and all.

The odds of getting into a nursery school of any standing are slim. For every open spot there can be over a hundred applicants. Making matters worse is the sticker shock. Numbers are thrown around early in the film that made me wonder if we were talking about college. It was not unusual to pay $20,000 and up for nursery school. Some were as high as $50,000 per year. Nursery school. This is the place where kids go to drool on one another and maybe learn to hold a crayon, right?

Even parents who did not grow up wealthy and in this hyper competitive setting of schooling for tikes have bought into the lie which says your child is ruined if she does not get into the right nursery school. In fact, one consultant (yes, they have consultants for getting into nursery schools in NYC!) made reference to a child getting into the right preschool, which leads to the right kindergarten, grade school, high school, university and eventually lands them a plush job at Goldman Sachs. Remove the first piece to that long chain of schooling and the child never achieves success as a prestigious mover of digits from one electronic account to the other. The documentary captures the insanity of this thinking quite well. Where it falls short is thinking this topic has 90 minutes of entertainment value. Because it aims to be fair and not mock the easily mockable, the second half of the film feels stretched thin. Some of the subjects are fairly likable, none are truly abhorrent, and therefore none are entertaining enough to hold interest for a feature length film. Their plight is not one we can empathize with. We’re left with watching the absurd attempt to turn into suspense about whether Johnny gets into the $30,000 per nursery or the $40,000 nursery.

Tackling a topic that seems surreal to everyone outside of it should be an easy win. It’s unfortunate that the narcissism on display never goes completely overboard to the point where it’s so sad it’s funny. And that is likely the result of a director who holds back on highlighting the truly ridiculous nature of his subject matter and the subjects themselves. Being fair to those who’ve let you film part of their lives is admirable, yet two rather famous documentarians Errol Morris and Werner Herzog prove it’s possible for directors to walk the line between fair and exploitative for great results. Nursery University walks too closely to the safe side and ends up giving an informative and somewhat entertaining film.

 ★★★☆☆ 

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

Way late review: Grizzly Man

Timothy Treadwell and Werner Herzog were made for each other. Unfortunately their meeting meant the death of Treadwell, as Herzog’s Grizzly Man documents Treadwell’s life and death at the paws of the grizzly bears Treadwell felt were his surrogate family.

Knowing how things end makes Grizzly Man an uncomfortable watch, not because we get to see a bear rip a man and his girlfriend to shreds (we don’t), but because a majority of the film is filled with laughs. For example the movie opens with Treadwell talking about being a warrior, a samurai of sorts as bears roam behind him. Seriously? Herzog finds a plethora of odd footage Treadwell shot of himself, the bears, and the rest of nature around him. Perhaps even stranger are some of the role players, such as the coroner whose every movement and word have creepy connotations. Herzog can’t help himself, as even the seemingly mundane pilot who flew the grizzly man in and out of the Alaska wilderness is introduced with a subtitle of pilot and former rodeo performer. And, like most Herzog documentaries, the narrative is done by the director, not only for exposition but to opine. The deadpan delivery makes it hard to know if Herzog is part of the comedy or sincerely trying to make a point.

The fact that Treadwell wanted to be an actor is not surprising. His roughly one hundred hours of footage he shot while out in the wild is filled with manufactured drama. We know this because we’re allowed to see some of the outtakes and setup of various scenes. This doesn’t take away from the authenticity, in fact it raises it. Instead of pretending the grizzly man is pure in his insane pursuit of his large furry friends, a more complete picture is painted of a man losing his sanity but still hoping to make it big someway. Truth is, Treadwell died just about the time reality TV took off like a rocket. Had he been doing his crazy living with the bears routine today there is little doubt there’d be a bidding war for the rights to the show.

In order to balance out the insanity, there are interviews with those gracefully calling Treadwell out on his crossing the boundaries between man and animal. They don’t make fun of him or point fingers but question his misguided mission. These level headed folks seem alien in comparison to those dominating the majority of the film.

A fascinating character study filled with uncomfortable laughs, Grizzly Man succeeds to peel back the layers that make up the life of a man who wanted nothing more than to trade in the painful reality that life can be at times for the fantasy that grizzly bears could be his best friends.

 ★★★★★ 

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