As part of my continuing effort to get caught up on reviewing all of the movies that I’ve seen so far this year, allow me to offer up 6 very quick reviews of 6 very different documentaries that I’ve recently seen. Two of these documentaries — Buck and Senna — are still playing in theaters. The other four — American, Exporting Raymond, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Resurrect Dead— are all available On Demand and on DVD and Blu-ray.
1) American: The Bill Hicks Story(dir. by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas)
This heartfelt documentary about the life of the late comedian Bill Hick and it shows why his defiantly anarchistic humor is even more relevent today as it was during his heyday. Here, his story is told through the use of cut-and-paste animation and it’s surprisingly poignant. I didn’t know a thing about Bill Hicks before I saw this film but I was crying by the end of it.
2) Buck (dir. by Cindy Meehl)
Buck is a portrait of both the real-life horse whisperer Buck Brannaman and the various ranchers and horse owners who come to his various “clinics.” The documentary covers Brannaman’s own abusive childhood and shows how he managed to turn the worst circumstances into something good. The film works best when it just allows the charismatic Buck to talk about his life and his beliefs. It’s less succesful when Hollywood phony Robert Redford pops up to talk about his feelings towards Buck.
3) Exporting Raymond (dir. by Phillip Rosenthal)
This is an interesting documentary in that it manages to be both entertaining and annoying at the same time. Phillip Rosenthal was the creator of one of the most oddly durable sitcoms of all time, Everybody Loves Raymond. In this documentary, which was directed by Rosenthal, we watch as he goes to Russia and deals with the resulting culture clash as he tries to adapt Raymond for Russian television. If you’re like me and you’re fascinated by all the behind-the-scenes production aspects of television and film, then you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this documentary. Unfortunately, Rosenthal himself is a bit too self-satisfied and, often times, he comes across like an almost stereotypical “ugly American.” There’s something annoying about watching a wealthy, American television producer going over to a country that’s perpetually on the verge of self-destruction and then bitching about how ugly all the buildings look.
4) The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (dir. by Morgan Spurlock)
In The Greatest Move Ever Sold, Morgan Spurlock sets out to make the “Iron Man of documentaries,” a documentary that is completely and totally funded by product placement. The documentary itself becomes about Spurlock’s attempts to find the corporate sponsors needed to make his documentary and the results are often hilarious and the film does succeed in getting you to think about how we are constantly bombarded with advertisements. At the same time, this is also a good example of a “Who cares?” documentary. Spurlock shows us how advertising works but he never really convinces us that it’s as big a problem as old toadsuckers like Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky seem to think. In many ways, Morgan Spurlock is a more likable version of Michael Moore in that he primarily makes documentaries for people who already agree with him.
5) Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (dir by John Foy)
This is a fascinating documentary about the mysterious Toynbee Tiles. The Toynbee Tiles are, to quote Wikipedia, “messages of mysterious origin found embedded in asphalt of streets in about two dozen major cities in the United States and four South American capitals.” That message is:
IN Kubrick’s 2001
ON PLANET JUPITER.
These tiles first appeared in the 1990s and they’ve remained a perplexing unsolved mystery. Nobody’s sure what the mysterious message means, who wrote the message, or even how the tiles were embedded into the asphalt. This documentary is about not only the mysterious tiles but also the men who have, over the years, become obsessed with them and how that obsession has gone on to effect their own perception of reality. The movie even offers up a plausible theory of who is responsible for the tiles. Seriously, this is one of the most fascinating documentaries that I’ve ever seen.
6) Senna (dir. by Asif Kapadia)
Senna tells the life story of Ayrton Senna, a Brazilian formula one racer who was the world champion for three years before his own tragic death during a race. I have to admit that I don’t know much about Formula One racing and, as a result, I had some trouble following Senna. But Senna, seen in archival footage, is a charismatic and sometimes enigmatic figure and the racing footage is both exciting and, occasionally, frightening.