Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Netflix Files: Documentaries 3

I am sick of politics so....
Documentaries Reviewed
  • WORD WARS (2004)


NETFLIX: Taking on rampant American consumerism with a focus on Christmas shopping, the Rev. Billy (Talen) and the Church of Stop Shopping go on a cross-country journey to save citizens from the Shopocalypse in this hilarious documentary produced by Morgan Spurlock. Reminding shoppers of the true meaning of Christmas, Reverend Billy exorcises demons at Wal-Mart's headquarters and preaches his message at the Mall of America and Disneyland.

Reverend Billy is not your conventional minister. With his bleached blond hair and white suits, he's taking the gospel to shopping malls. Reverend Billy’s mission: to save people from racking up credit card debt for Christmas gifts. Along with traveling choir of anti-consumer activism, WWJB has almost nothing to do with theology, using the concept only as a prop for "Reverend Billy" and his message that holiday shopping has become an orgy for the credit-happy masses. Rev. Billy's Swaggart-esque persona is hilarious but annoying at times, but he's good at drawing the curious. He's also good at annoying police and security guards as he exercises his First Amendment right to free speech (turns out there is no such right on Disneyland's Main St.).

The idea of the Church of Stop Shopping is amusing, but unfortunately this film doesn't dig deep enough into the issue. It gets the point across in the first half-hour, then spends another hour just showing variations of the same stuff in different cities. At one point, someone criticizes the group, saying the people in the choir are all probably on welfare, and the people in the choir scoff at it... but the film doesn't give us anything to refute that - the focus is always Rev. Billy, so interviews with choir members are rare. This message could be considered honorable if it wasn't trivialized by the radical examples and stupid stunts of Bill Talen as the pretend Reverend. I mean we are all a nation of consumers. If we all sifted through Talen's radical theatrics and attempts at martyrdom long enough to follow his message, our economy could be hurt.

Although produced and "presented" by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), WWJB exchanges the wit and charisma found in Super Size Me for strutting spectacle and attention-seeking mockery. WWJB is a more nebulous and feels a tad overlong.

WORD WARS (2004)

NETFLIX: Follow four "word nerds" through their fastidious preparations and smaller tournaments that lead to the national championship Scrabble tournament in San Diego in 2002. These men are highly motivated (obsessed, even) and are not above uttering a few four-letter words when the going gets tough. Our favorite: Joel Sherman, a true dork with acid reflux trouble (he constantly quaffs Maalox) and no other discernible job besides playing Scrabble.

Word Wars is fascinating and a really great film that follows the eccentric, obsessed players of Scrabble Tournaments. If you like documentaries about "odd" characters living quietly among us then you'll enjoy this. Nothing heavy, just 90 minutes spent with some people who live in the world of the game Scrabble, and the tournaments surrounding it. These interesting characters show their desire, or need, to arrange their lives around this game.

Although Scrabble is why these men are battling to reach San Diego and play in the 2002 national tournament (Grand Prize, $25,000), it's their bizarre lifestyles and complete obsessiveness with Scrabble that really caught my interest. Living off of smaller tournament wins -- just a few thousand dollars at best -- and then, maybe, winning the $25,000 grand prize in San Diego, even the best player is living off of less than $35,000 a year! And he still has to pay for his travel, motels, meals, etc., at all of these events. Which begs the question, "How can they survive simply by winning Scrabble tournaments?" The easy answer is that they can't. Although there was never any mention of it, I'm sure that many of these players live off of the welfare system and, probably, their families. I'm sure that many of them also have regular psychiatric visits and are on appropriate medication for multiple personality problems. Interestingly, it is BECAUSE of these incredibly bizarre behaviors that you, the viewer, actually become vested in what happens to them like when they get angry with themselves and each other, smoke pot or drink medication to settle themselves down, or refuse to find a job and make a sustainable living outside of Scrabble play. All of these things made for a strangely interesting viewing experience. Not because of the Scrabble games, but because these are seriously flawed people playing it obsessively.

Although Scrabble, of course, is the prime overarching element of "Word Wars", this film is really about the nature of obsession. The documentary's four subjects seem to vacillate between knowing the whole scrabble obsession seems weak and stupid and taking it as seriously as ever. These four probably don't generate a whole lot of dignity in their other settings (e.g. the stand up comedy scene or Baltimore's ghetto), but at the scrabble table, their lives have meaning. The final scene/montage, where the national winner receives his due, is as moving as any similar sports movie theme. "Word Wars" is a hidden-gem well worth your time.

For me, "Word Wars" had the unusual appeal of not only being about the game of Scrabble, but actually about people . Four expert players Joel Sherman, Joe Edley, Marlon Hill and Matt Graham., are profiled in this fascinating -- yet at times sad and disturbing -- film. While there are many nice, truth-telling touches in the film -- the between-game camaraderie, the anagramming and word-defining visuals, the marathon sessions, Joel singing and playing piano -- the director spends too much time on the players' eccentricities and, for three of them, the relative squalor in which they live. In fact, Edley, the most "normal" of the foursome (having a wife, a family and a steady job with the National Scrabble Association) is given the least amount of screen time. As a result, the viewer is left with the mis-shapen opinion that all competitive Scrabble players are "word nerds" with limited social skills outside of their own clique.

This documentary held my attention throughout not because the main characters are heroic, but because the filmmaker captures the camaraderie and humor among the competitors. The film is an enjoyable journey, following the four men who freely admit their obsession to the game and recognize their place in the world. The film's clever and seamless use of graphics enhances the film, giving definitions of words as they're played on the board, and rearranging a group of letters into words. Clearly, a Scrabble fan made this movie. In the end, it's the competitors' love of the game, and the friendships that play out between them, that make this an interesting and entertaining ride.

This documentary satisfied on all levels. First, the subject matter was fascinating. We can all relate to the game of scrabble, as most of us have played it before. Therefore, you understand how the game is played and how tough it can be. Seeing these "masters" play it is like watching idiot savants in action, though. The skills employed in creating words is simply incredible and a fun, fascinating thing to watch. Second, the characters each are unique, with their own flaws, etc., but each with an underlying honesty and endearing quality that made you want to root for each one. You really come to feel like you know the characters and watching them interact with each other seems very real, alive, and true. Lastly, the documentary does a superb job of creating suspense and story out of what could have been fairly boring material, evoking emotion, laughter and concern as the movie progressed.

NETFLIX: After logging on to for a mere 24 hours, filmmaker Michael Ferris Gibson reeled in a bevy of juicy postings from the online bulletin board, including the want ads "Flogging for flowers" and "Will marry gay guy for money." But his documentary really took off when he hit the streets to meet the people behind the postings. Bonus materials include outtakes, an interview with craigslist founder Craig Newmark and director commentary.

The website "" is an online classifieds list which has grown by word of mouth to about 10 million postings a month in nearly 200 cities worldwide (as of 5/06). "24 Hours on Craigslist" follows some of the stories behind the ads placed on Aug. 4, 2003 in San Francisco, where the website is based. Michael Gibson, the director, organized film crews and the musical score through, of course, a Craigslist ad.

Interviews with willing posters are woven together to form a snapshot of craigslist on that particular day. They run the gamut from "drummer seeks room" and "six strollers for sale" to "Indian virgin seeks willing woman" and "will marry gay guy for money." The people behind the ads are definitely interesting, but in the same way that surfing on the website is a random string of interests, offers, and desires, "24 Hours on Craigslist" has a similarly meandering style. The impact of selecting a particular day to focus on is minimal and little on the story behind Craigslist beyond the posts are shown.

A good documentary relies on a few basic guidelines -- focus, likeable or at least interesting characters, and some sort of clear storyline. Craigslist has none of these things. There are too many characters in this film, too many little stories that don't really contribute to the bigger picture, and none of it is particularly engaging unless you have a strong thirst for Internet culture. As a documentary, I unfortunately enjoyed the extras (particularly "Behind the Curtain") much more than the feature, since they filled in the background story of what Craigslist is really all about, including its origin of the email list (sent by Craig), its philosophy, and its future. If you are looking for something deep, you will probably be disappointed. If you like glancing through the classifieds and personals occasionally, you might enjoy being a voyeur on the craigslist community.

There was so much possibility for this project, so very little was delivered. A couple of cute characters appear, but for the most part a random selection of not- particularly-interesting people, and no development of any kind. This isn't a "Big Issue" movie. No political conspiracies, no children in peril. This is simply a glimpse into a single day in the life of not only the people on an online classified ads site, but the citizens of San Francisco.



NETFLIX: Amir Bar-Lev directs this thought-provoking documentary about a precocious 4-year-old artist whose abstract works have drawn critical comparisons with modernist greats such as Kandinsky, Picasso and Pollack -- and whose talents have already profited her more than $300,000. Is her gift with a paintbrush just an illusion, or is she truly an artistic visionary trapped in the body of a child?

My Kid Could Paint That brings to the fore questions of youth exploitation and all but labels modern art and the media's role in it a "con game". The film follows Marla and her family from over night fame and celebrity to the shame of infamy. Little four-year-old Marla, though cute and artistically creative, is not the most fascinating person in this documentary. This film is really about the adults - Marla's parents (the father who pushes her and is suspected of actually doing the paintings, and the mother who is at times reluctant), the gallery owner who helped propel sales, the patrons who fork out a fortune to buy her work, and the media who take turns throwing out words like "prodigy," and then "scam."

This documentary is also an intriguing examination of how humans can so quickly turn on something that seems too good to be true. In this case that something is 4-year-old Marla, who paints stunning, abstract canvases that are several leagues ahead of the visual babble that almost any kid churns out at that age. The problem is that her work is too good, and the world starts suspecting that something sneaky is afoot. After an initial love-fest, a good old-fashioned witch hunt ensues.

There is occasionally the feeling that the film's maker, Bar-Lev, is exploiting the unexpected fall from grace for his own selfish reasons. But there are other times he seems to empathize with the family's pain. He acknowledges that his camera's presence became a part of Marla's story, rather than simply documenting it and eventually altered the purpose of his film as he came to share in doubts about the legitimacy of Marla's status as an artistic prodigy. Overall the film lacks polish -- particularly when the documentatiarn turns the camera on himself.

Regardless of whether Marla or her father is the painter, the documentary raises so many fascinating questions, I was riveted. I was left wondering if Amir Bar-Lev was somehow part of a conspiracy to perpetuate the scam with the Olmsteads or to defame the Olmsteads. If the husband was helping or even outright painting the pictures, how could the mother possibly not know, or was she turning a blind eye? On the one hand, the mother professes to recoil from the spotlight, yet there she is in the stretch limo, front and center on the talk show, allowing herself to be filmed and interviewed. Only when the scandal hits does she start back pedaling and, predictably, shed a tear. (For Marla, of course.) Or maybe at being caught in her own lie. I was also fascinated by the angle of the father living out his own aspirations through his daughter, and in Anthony Brunelli, the gallery owner and himself a painter who is a photo realist who admits his scorn for abstraction. Was this a political statement on his part? All the characters are begging for psychological profiles. Furthermore, why was mainstream media so intent on accepting the story at face value and why was 60 Minutes so seemingly intent on debunking it?

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