Tag Archives: NR

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: 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: 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.

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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.

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