Tag Archives: NR

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: Floored

After watching Floored, a documentary about old-school traders on Chicago’s exchange floors, I wonder (once again) if there is much difference between gambling and trading commodities.

One can’t help but notice the subjects of the film, struggling to adapt to the new ways of doing business (computer vs. in-person trades), resemble professional poker players. They wear odd clothes to distinguish themselves on the floor. They are driven by the thrill of making major money in a split second. They thrive in a high stress environment where reading faces and feeling the vibe of the room can be just as important as the math behind it all. Telling these men that their livelihoods is now going to a world dominated by computers is like telling a pro poker player all the money is in online poker. With that one revelation their worlds get flipped upside down. And that reality is the one that Floored examines in its last act. Along the way are fascinating characters, stories, and insights into a world that most of us never get to see, nor will we in the case of the manic days of trading on the floor.

Being a fan of Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker, where he tells his story of working at Salomon Brothers in the ’80s, made me particularly interested in watching Floored once I discovered it thanks to Netflix’s recommendation. I was not disappointed. A relatively short film (77 minutes), it wastes no time getting into the insanity of trading floors, including a brief but helpful explanation of what all those crazies yelling at each other in the middle of a pit do. Unbeknown to me, many of those in the pit put up their own money in the trades. That fact alone leads to some intense pressure.

Let there be no doubt, the love of money drives these guys. They are every bit materialistic as they are thrill seekers. Regrets are not expressed by the sadness of losing oneself in insatiable greed or the loss of fellow traders to suicide. No, regrets from these men are often about not staying ahead of the game, either by adapting to the change to computer trading or missing out on some great trades.

Stories of fights after trading hours breaking out include one where two traders take it out to the parking lot. After trading a few blows, one of the traders swings while the other ducks and the punch lands through the window of a car. The trader with a bloody, glass filled hand asks the other for a ride to the hospital. The request for a ride is refused. Mind you, the trader telling this story (the one who refused to give a ride) is eccentric to say the least. We meet him at his house where he shows off an endless display of taxidermy animals he’s killed over the years. Bonus points for putting some of them on wheels, including a giraffe. While giving a tour of the place, this former floor trader states that it’s not any fun if you can’t get killed. I think he was referring to hunting wild animals, but I think his motto applied to his approach to trading.

There is little sympathy in the end for those who find themselves on the way out as a new crew takes their place in the form of analysts, computer scientists, and mathematicians. The game is being played by better players. Too bad that same game is one where most of us are blindly invested.

 ★★★★★ 

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

Way late review: Beauty Day

Beauty Day DVDBefore Youtube and before Johnny Knoxville and his crew there was Ralph Zavadil, aka Cap’n Video. A local access cable show in St. Catharines, Ontario, Cap’n Video existed in obscurity until Zavadil’s alter ego attempted one too many dangerous stunts. And it is that stunt, a botched plunge into a covered pool off a shaky ladder, which opens the documentary Beauty Day.

Not being a fan of watching people put themselves through bizarre, dangerous and often times disgusting stunts, I was hesitant to watch a documentary about one of the early pioneers of the genre that now dominates the web and fills far too many TV channels. Much to my surprise, Beauty Day is far more than a story about Cap’n Video. It is a well told story of a character you wouldn’t believe existed in real life, proving the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction.

Zavadil nearly loses his life after the pool plunge stunt. Had it not been for a neighbor hearing the crash, Cap’n Video would have been in the next day’s obits. While I would assume these antics are done purely for the attention they might gain, the film portrays a more nuanced motivation. Cap’n Video was Zavadil’s attempt to live life to its fullest, albeit in his own odd way. The show and its title character were his way of acting out creatively, escaping a dead end job at the local factory.

Interesting characters make or break any film, documentaries are no exception. But what puts Beauty Day over the top are director Jay Cheel’s choices of music, editing, and cinematography. Very little of the documentary is typical of the genre. Opening with the stunt that ended Zavadil’s show and nearly ended his life is bold. Even the opening title sequence is noticeably different, as it is bright blue with bold white typography. And the use of video grids early on is a great way to further entrench the viewer with the vibe of the Cap’n Video show of old while establishing the unique aesthetics of the documentary itself. Even talking head interviews are interesting, as the first one to show on screen is Ralph with his alien looking light helmet on his head talking about the accident while smoking and drinking. The use of 2:35 aspect ratio for everything but clips from the television show adds to the cinematic feel.

The challenge I’ve noticed character studies like Beauty Day have is they’re never quite sure how deep to go into the story of the character. Sometimes the director tries to dive in deeper and is rejected (see Bill Cunningham, New York), other times the director gets the access to go deeper but fails at painting a complete picture (e.g. Buck) of the subject’s life. Beauty Day succeeds at giving a much fuller picture of Zavadil’s life story while still maintaining a connection to the show that gave him minor celebrity status.

There is a richness to the narrative. We learn about a man who survived cancer as a child and then went on to produce a one-man stunt show which almost led to his death. We see the parallels of a former girlfriend’s experience on the motorcycle racing circuit with that of Zavadil’s life, the revelation of a daughter he didn’t realize he had until later on in life, and witness an attempt to create a 20th anniversary Cap’n Video.

Beauty Day is refreshingly honest. There is a nervous energy about Ralph Zavadil that is hard to not get wrapped up in. At the same time, Ralph is human and the film never tries to hide that. It would be easy to portray him as a misunderstood genius of self-destructive stunts or a troubled soul we should feel sorry for, but instead we get a look at the good, the bad and the stuff that falls somewhere in-between. And all of this is done with a sense of humor and unique style that adds up to a fine film.

 ★★★★★ 

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

Way late review: Candyman: The David Klein Story

Candy is for kids but the candy business is most definitely not. At least that is the impression I was left with after watching Candyman: The David Klein Story.

David Klein is the inventor of Jelly Belly jelly beans. His story is one of the eccentric entrepreneur who makes magic happen only to see the greatest fruits of his labor go to others. You see Klein sold Jelly Belly to his partners after he was strong armed into doing so. Sure, he made millions on the sale but that is a small consolation prize in comparison to the hundreds of millions made off the product ever since. Still, Klein never comes off as bitter in the documentary. He’s a hard worker with a gentle soul. More Woz than Jobs one might say.

Highly charismatic on camera, Klein makes for an interesting subject regardless of the bitter-sweet Jelly Belly story. His life is full of color and surrounded by no shortage of oddball characters. This is where the first and final acts of the movie excel. Those acts are focused on the man more than how that man lost out on many millions of dollars. It is in the middle that the movie loses its bounce as it bogs down on the intricate details of how Klein ended up selling his magic beans for a cow (as his son put it). The story is of great interest but the lack of getting to know these mostly faceless bad guys who swindled the good natured Jelly Belly inventor removes all the drama. There are probably good reasons these men weren’t portrayed in-depth. I’m sure they wouldn’t be thrilled with the prospects of being portrayed as poorly as their actions earned them. Then again, didn’t Billy Mitchell do just that in King of Kong? And didn’t Joyce McKinney open herself up to the same scrutiny in Errol Morris’ most recent doc Tabloid? I guess not everyone wants to be in a movie.

Even though we feel bad for Klein’s predicament with Jelly Belly there is a sense of joy that remains throughout. The man remains hopeful that not everyone is out to pull a fast one on him. Besides, he’s still making all sorts of candy and selling it to this day. It may not be millions of dollars worth but that doesn’t seem to bother the candyman. He keeps on doing what he does best.

 ★★★½☆ 

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

Way late review: Bill Cunningham New York

Fashion and the industry that revolves around it are not my forte. Therefore it might come as a surprise that I enjoyed Bill Cunningham New York, a documentary that centers on an 80-year-old photographer who captures what people are wearing in New York City. While fashion is Bill’s obsession, the director (Richard Press) obsesses over digging a bit deeper and seeing what makes this man, far past the typical age of retirement, so aggressively pursue his trade.

Much of the doc is spent with Cunningham doing his thing. He pedals his bike around town until he finds a spot he wants to shoot. Then he takes out his trusty 35mm camera and begins to take shots of those on the street wearing things he finds interesting. The end result ends up in The New York Times. In addition to shooting on the street, Bill also attends some of the swankiest parties in town. While paparazzi would likely kill to have his access, Bill is oblivious to the celebrities. His sole focus is on what people are wearing. If it’s interesting, he shoots. If it’s not, he doesn’t bother to pretend he cares one bit. He doesn’t waste the film.

We also learn that Cunningham is a man of principle beyond the ethics of his photography. When moonlighting for Details magazine in its earliest days, Bill refused to take any money for his work. The only thing he demanded was that he get to put out the work he wanted to put out. When Details magazine was sold to the conglomerate Condé Nast, Bill refused even then to take his share in the profits. He argued that by not taking the money for this work he was truly free. No one owns him.

Watching Cunningham work with his NYT art director putting together the collage of photos on the page is entertaining. The give and take between the photographer and the art director is fun. There appears to be no particular rhyme or reason why the page is put together the way it is other than it appeals to Bill’s aesthetics – and the constraints of the printed page. Even those print constraints begin to break as the Times pushes everything online, including a reluctant Cunningham, who records five minutes of audio each week to serve as commentary on his latest published piece.

The admiration for the man and his work is made known through a who’s who line-up of famous and not so famous designers, publishers, celebrities, and the fancy dressers Bill has brought fame to through his pages. Like anyone who is so engulfed in their work, Cunningham has little time to think about the impact he’s had on the industry or those in it. He reluctantly accepts a prestigious award in Paris for his work, but even there he can’t help but take photos of those in attendance to celebrate his award.

One look at Cunningham’s small studio in Carnegie Hall where he lives, or likely just stays long enough to sleep, tells us that Cunningham is not just passionate about his work, he’s obsessive compulsive about it. Barely enough room to walk around the tiny quarters, Bill shows us rows of filing cabinets that hold archives of his work. And he’s been at this for a long time so it’s not an exaggeration to say that there is barely enough room for a tiny cot. And for a man who likes nothing other than to admire and capture what people wear, his own collection of clothing is nearly non-existent. He hangs what little clothing he owns on filing cabinets.

When those who’ve known Bill the longest are asked about his personal life no one has any clues. The man is a mystery to even them. Towards the end of the doc the director does his best to get a fuller portrait of the man he’s been capturing for his film. He asks Bill simple questions about his family, if he’s ever been in love, what role religion plays if any in his life. Bill starts to break down a bit and even cries. Not lost in the tears though, Bill sees the brighter side to life. He confesses that he wouldn’t want to be doing anything different. He contends that his fairly solitary journey through life has afforded him the opportunity to pursue his passion.

Bill Cunningham New York offers a glimpse into the world of a man who does what he does because he loves it. It’s a documentary that does it’s best to dive deeper but realizes that is likely to lead to a very different kind of story, one that misses the passion of Bill Cunningham’s life long work.

 ★★★½☆ 

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