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Saturday, June 6, 2015

Should You See It? Reviewing 5 of the Biggest Documentaries of 2015

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (HBO)
Directed By: Andrew Jarecki
Release Date: February 8, 2015
Should You See It?: Absolutely

Brief Description: The Jinx is a six part documentary true-crime series regarding the infamous real estate mogul Robert Durst. While it is, obviously, not technically a movie, it is a compelling documentary that works better as a limited event show rather than a movie. It seems that many documentaries don't work as a one-and-a-half / two hour film and work better as either a short film or a TV show, yet are forced to package itself as a full-length movie in order to maximize profits. The most obvious example that comes to mind is the epic 1994 film Hoop Dreams- which follows the lives two black basketball players from the inner city of Chicago through all four years of their high school career. The film is great, but it's too long (its run time is 170 minutes). It should have been a TV series limited event, but based upon the viewing habits of Americans 20 years ago, it was a documentary film. The Jinx would be too compact as a full length documentary, but is perfect as a six episode event.

The Jinx is a fantastic series because it follows around a compelling sociopath- Robert Durst. The access that Andrew Jarecki was able to get (multiple one-on-one interviews) is incredible and you're both horrified at the actions of this man that you're watching, but you just can't help but be glued to your TV screen because of how charming Durst is. You learn about the three murders Durst was accused of committing and Andrew Jarecki has an incredible sense of storytelling. I know Jarecki has been criticized for messing with the timeline of events, but he did so because he's a master of story and plot. We like to assume documentaries should just be events as they occur, analogous to the news, but we expect the same arc and tropes in our documentaries as we do in our feature films, and Jarecki knows this and used this to his advantage to create one of the best documentaries of the year.

BONUS: Capturing The Friedmans (Snag Films)
Directed By: Andrew Jarecki
Release Date: July 18, 2003
Should You See It?: Yes, immediately after you finish The Jinx

Brief Description: Obviously this film did not come out in 2015, but I saw it this year thanks to The Jinx and after you see the HBO series, hop on over to Snag Films and pay a dollar to see Andrew Jarecki's first film. While filming a story about the most popular clown in New York City, Andrew Jarecki stumbled upon one of the most horrific crime stories of upstate New York. Arnold Friedman was the father of three boys living in Great Neck, New York when all of the sudden he, along with one of his sons, were accused of molesting dozens of young boys while teaching a computer class out of their home. The police interviewed multiple victims who all claimed they were victims of bizarre sex games. Similar to The Jinx, Jarecki not only has incredible access to his subjects (the Friedmans videotaped almost everything while Arnold and his son were awaiting trial) but was able to use his incredible storytelling skills to tell a compelling story about whether any of these crimes actually took place and the dangers of mob mentality. Does Jarecki mislead the audience by choosing to release important details as the story moves along? Sure, but he does so because he's a filmmaker telling a story that everybody needs to see. Capturing The Friedmans is extremely dark, but it's also a great film that you should watch.

I Hate Christian Laettner (ESPN)
Directed By: Rory Karpf
Release Date: March 15, 2015
Should You See It?: Yes, if you're any sort of sports fan

Brief Description: ESPN's 30 for 30 series has a knack for pumping out these really good documentaries. They never really make these transcendent holy-shit-best-film-ever documentaries, but they don't make pieces of shit either. I've said "wow, that was really good" after many 30 for 30 films and I Hate Christian Laettner is no exception.  The film follows NCAA basketball star Christian Laetnner during his four years at Duke University, and tells his story through a pretty creative framework of disproving the five main reasons people seem(ed) to dislike Laettner. There are so many stories to tell regarding NCAA basketball during the early 90's (see ESPN's The Fab Five) and all of these stories are fascinating. They make you sympathize with people you wouldn't expect to, humanize villains, and tell really interesting stories. I'm most certainly not a basketball fan and the only way I'll care about NCAA basketball is if my alma mater The Fighting Illini do well, but I still care about sports and I think all sports fans will be able to enjoy this film.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (HBO)
Directed By: Alex Gibney
Release Date: March 29, 2015
Should You See It?: Only if you don't know anything about Scientology

Brief Description: Alex Gibney (Catching Hell, Enron: The Smartest Men In The Room, Taxi to the Dark Side) is probably the greatest documentarian working today, which made Going Clear that much more disappointing. Scientology is an easy target because of its perceived wacky and odd beliefs, but luckily the documentary doesn't dwell too much on that. What it does mainly explore is how L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of this religion, created Scientology solely to make money and about how the religion's current leader, David Miscavige, is basically a comic book super villain who commits human rights violations under the cover of religious freedom. As a person who mainly knew about Scientology from an episode of South Park, Going Clear taught me things I didn't know. Unfortunately, it did it in a package I kinda feel like I knew about thanks to news clippings and random Facebook status' on my news feed. Not only did I expect more knowing this was an Alex Gibney joint, I expected more based upon the hype. Scientology as an organization and David Miscavige are ginormous pieces of shit, but basically I'd get the same experience from watching this movie as I would had this been a Last Week Tonight with John Oliver segment- and frankly it would have worked better if it was.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (HBO)
Directed By: Brett Morgen
Release Date: April 24, 2015
Should You See It?: Yes, but I can see you not liking it

Brief Description: I absolutely loved Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck; however, I am also unabashedly a huge Nirvana fan. I grew up on Kurt Cobain's lyrics and it was an unforgettable experience getting inside the mind of a troubled genius. Francis Bean Cobain gave filmmaker Brett Morgen full access to her father's things- which included his diaries, artwork, and unrecorded songs- and in turn Morgen gave the audience a look at what it what like being an awkward kid that nobody wanted to all-of-the-sudden the biggest rock star on the planet. Don't get it twisted, this is not a documentary about Nirvana the band, this is a documentary on what it what like to be Kurt Cobain.

The reason this film is not for everybody is not the fact that you might not be a fan of Nirvana, it's because getting inside the head of a man who was this deeply troubled and depressed is not exactly the most enjoyable place in the world. However, I found the entire film fascinating. And I'm glad this film exists, because Kurt Cobain is such an important and influential person in this history of rock and roll, that this particular story needed to be told. I always found it hypocritical how Kurt Cobain could claim to hate the mainstream culture yet continue to be such a major part of that, and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck explores that dichotomy.

Hot Girls Wanted (Netflix)
Directed By: Jill Bauer & Ronna Gradus
Release Date: May 29, 2015
Should You See It?: Surprisingly not

Brief Description: Hot Girls Wanted is a Sundance-premiered documentary produced by Rashida Jones (Parks and Rec, I Love You Man) about the amateur porn industry. It's supposed to be a scathing look at this particular portion of the porn industry as you feel for these exploited young and impressionable girls; however, the final product fails to accomplish this goal.

Riley is an average guy who brings girls to his Miami home for free through various Craigslist ads and acts as their pimp, so to speak, to get these girls jobs in the porn industry. The film follows around a handful of these girls as they aspire to be famous porn stars. The problem with Hot Girls Wanted as a film is that there is no real villain here, and there should be an obvious one considering the subject matter. Riley is a likable, if not boring, guy and the girls appear to be smart enough to fully consent to the gigs they agree to. There are aspects here and there where the film genuinely creates pity for these actresses, especially in a segment that highlights a particularly popular yet grotesque set of videos delicately called "facial abuse", but fails to do so over the course of the entire film. I most certainly am not advocating that I wanted to see young girls brutalized by a terrible industry that exploits them, but if this amateur segment of the porn industry is truly as bad as the film claims it is, then it failed its mission. The reason Hot Girls Wanted and other documentaries like it exist is to show the unintended consequences of our actions, but what we ended up getting was basically an HBO-style version of "Teen Mom".