Sunday, July 20, 2008

The NetFlix Files: Documentaries 2

Documentaries Reviewed:
The Bridge (2006)
The King of Kong (2007)
Hell House (2001)
Car of the Future: Engineering for the Environment (2008)

The Bridge (2006)

Over the span of a year, cameras capture tormented souls attempting to commit suicide by leaping from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Through poignant interviews with family, friends and eyewitnesses, the film reveals a common thread of depression, despair and chronic mental illness. This provocative documentary further reinforces the landmark's iconic legacy as the world's most popular suicide destination.

This is an engrossing and haunting film, though it is a difficult one. It is easy to be repulsed by being made to watch people contemplating suicide, and then, after an agonizing wait, seeing them jump and hit the water. The film does an excellent job of capturing the strange allure of the bridge, while avoiding being either too analytical or overly mystical.

The handling of the suicides in this movie is far more human and considerate than the manipulative handling of so-called reality shows. The director looks at not only the impact of suicide and mental illness, but also the effects of relationships, of living through the day-to-day and not wanting (or not expecting) such events of drama in their lives. The ranges of attitudes regarding mental illness alone are well worth watching this movie for. People who live with regret for their own actions (or lack thereof) or anger at a loved one for leaving them in that way. The suicides in this film are not presented in any way to glorify them. Instead, each and every person who jumps (or who attempts to jump) comes across as scared and confused. The jumper who survives his attempt describes it best when he says how he was determined to die until his hands actually let go of the rail, at which point he knew that he didn't want to die anymore.

Having been on the Golden Gate Bridge myself I can only imagine what it must take for someone to jump. I think the film takes a highly difficult subject that many people should be enraged and shocked by, and treats it more as a story of the survivors and our own confusion towards this compulsion and determination. Alas, these are human beings after all, so we are compelled to find some way to cope with the fact that our own can be so flawed. All in all, "The Bridge" is an absorbing, tragic,haunting, yet fascinating film, though definitely not for everyone.

The King of Kong (2007)

When Steve Wiebe got laid off, he turned to the classic arcade game Donkey Kong for solace; soon, he decided to challenge Billy Mitchell's long-standing record score. So began the bitter rivalry that lies at the heart of this curiously compelling documentary. Providing a history of competitive video gaming and a look at some of the key players, The King of Kong is at its best when revealing just how far Mitchell will go to retain his crown.

For the first 15 minutes, you will probably be chuckling to yourself and wondering how anyone in their right mind could be this obsessed with a decades old video game. Before long however, you will be rooting for these guys (one in particular) to break the next seemingly unbeatable high score. However, by the middle of the movie I found myself caught up in the drama and intensity that exists only within their exclusive circle of competitors, as they struggle to achieve the recognition of their peers.

Billy Mitchell is a rockstar of the arcade world. As a multiple record holder from the 80's, he is being challenged by a great honest and likeable family man, by the name Steve Wiebe. Steve has OCD and is one extremely competitive guy (much like myself). He decided to beat Billy Mitchell's high score in the hardest of the top games, Donkey Kong. Steve Wiebe's obsessive study of the game is absolutely fascinating. Even if you are not personally obsessed with arcade games, you will enjoy this peek inside the cultic subculture of arcade master gamers where there is a world of strategies and conspiracies; spies and investigators; mind games and more. It turns out that Wiebe accepted a computer board from the wrong guy. Was this a vendetta? Was there fraud? Does he win in a live sanctioned environment? I never would have imagined I would be so drawn into this documentary. By the end I was sitting back and cheering him on in a big way. It is horrible to see the manipulation rockstars use, even if arcade rockstars. You will honestly hurt for this man in his sadness and rejoiced in his victories.

King of Kong is a documentary that functions on many levels. It's comedic and quirky, focusing on a niche community in America that has high internal tensions and an odd foundation. The film does not entirely feel like an ethical documentary, as it really demonizes gamer Billy Mitchell (though he certainly assists in the process by being a complete tool). Nonetheless, it is the kind of documentary that can be successful without posing as an entirely objective study. The filmmakers really make Steve Wiebe out to be the hero, and he is. The film is funny, and an interesting study in a community, which definitely does not have a lot of exposure; sects of American life that you know exists but maybe haven't had the chance to delve into. You don't have to be a fan of Donkey Kong, or even video games in general, to be glued to the screen during this compelling documentary about one underdog's quest to obtain the highest score for the titled game

Hell House (2001)

This documentary goes behind the scenes of the Hell House, a multimedia fire-and-brimstone performance designed to give its audiences a glimpse of what awaits those who stray from the path of a strict Christian life. Put on by the youth members of a church outside Dallas, the show draws thousands of visitors each year. The filmmakers follow the rigorous creative process behind the show and paint intimate portraits of many of its key players.

Like Jesus Camp, I found the film difficult to watch and review. The director documents this Texas church's annual haunted house with a surprisingly objective eye: the participants' behavior and attitudes are never praised by the film, nor are they condemned. It would have been easy to edit this kind of material in a way to make clowns out of these people. The Hell House shows staged scenes of people with AIDS, in drunk driving accidents and on an abortion table, all designed to scare in the spirit of Halloween, but with "scared straight" punchline.

Overall, I found the film rather disturbing in parts. Watching these pleasant, smiling people cheerfully condemning people to eternal damnation over issues they clearly are not well informed about was quite chilling. Another part which I found to be disturbing was the extra that showed the "award show" they have with awards such as "best raped girl."

The members of the congregation come across as sincere, passionate believers. Strong feelings are built into the subject matter of this film, so it's not an accomplishment to generate them in the viewer. t I would have been impressed if the filmmakers could have made us understand these people better. The only moment in the film where this happens is when the single father has to deal with his very young son's potentially deadly seizure in the middle of a chaotic morning routine. That guy immediately became my hero and I totally understood his deep faith. That dimension did not appear again in any of the other characters. They all came across and mindless zombies with mob mentality.

This film is at its best when the Hell House workers and organizers are interviewed one-on-one it is interesting to note the personal and spiritual motivations of those who are participating. Some of these people have had bad experiences and have been strengthened by their faith. This documentary allows the subjects to speak for themselves. They explain their beliefs, their reasons and even some of their background. All things that feed into their desire to convert folks to Christianity and to put on this alternative to traditional Halloween haunted houses. However, other people condemn aspects of society (role-playing games, gothic music) that they are very ignorant about. The film drags in the middle, for the construction details of the "hell house" are not particularly exciting to watch. All in all, the film is a very revealing portrait of the people involved in the "Hell House" project, and provides some food for thought.

The scary thing is not the house itself but the reality that these people actually believe in this vengeful idea of God who shows no mercy and can only gain people's faith thru fear.

Yes, there were a few errors (such as the Star of David used as a satanic star) but the overall message of Hell House is exactly what you would expect from a Bible believing church I think the part I enjoyed most was when the people were waiting to enter into heaven or hell and the voice of God said, "Steve, even though your sins were many, you called on my Sons name on your death bed. I heard your cry and your name is in the book of life... There is nothing you could have done that would make me stop loving you." This is the gospel of Jesus Christ. (Which is what they were trying to get across.) You don't have to be perfect. Just believe and call on His name. Everyone makes their own choice. All of the scenes were possible consequences of choices. I guess I don't understand the mass freak-out over hearing the message of how to get free. People are so intolerant of what they perceive to be intolerance.

Car of the Future: Engineering for the Environment (2008)

NetFlix: Brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi -- best known as the hosts of National Public Radio's "Car Talk" -- travel to Boston, Detroit, Iceland and Colorado on a quest to find the perfect car to replace Tom's beloved 1952 MG. Examining wide a range of ethanol, hydrogen, electrical and hybrid technologies, the siblings bring their trademark mix of wisecracking humor and comprehensive automotive knowledge to this engaging installment of "Nova."

First off, Car Talk is one of my favorite shows on NPR, every week I can hardly wait till it comes on the air. This documentary is an enjoyable trip through all the ideas people have for improving auto efficiency and getting us off of fossil fuel. If you've followed the topic there is probably not much new here, but you might learn a thing or two trekking around the car world with two funny guys.

I'm glad they ended with the Chevy Volt. I think this type of car may be the answer. The first 40 miles are all-electric, the next 600 miles run on gas. If you drive less than 40 miles a day and plug in every night, then you'll never use a drop of gas. If you need to drive longer distances, or forget to plug in, the gas engine is always there to back you up. As this program points out, running on electricity produces 40% less carbon emissions than running on gas, even with todays dirty coal plants, so that 40% will only get better. Ialso liked the section on cellulosic ethanol. Plug-in hybrids like the Volt could eliminate about 3/4 of our gasoline consumption, but there is still the gas needed to go over 40 miles per charge, and cellulosic ethanol from switch grass or other biomass would be a perfect way to fill that gap.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

New Blog

So for the past few months I have been blogging about my preparation for my upcoming Triathlon here on this blog ... well I decided to create a separate blog for my training and other sports related stuff so go to !BONK! Confessions of a Would-Be Triathlete.

Check it out....