Posts Tagged ‘documentaries’



April 21, 2008

Sharkwater Review

Pirates of the Carrib- err - Cocos Islands.


Length: 89 min

The Truth Will Surface.
You’ll never look at sharks the same way again.

Précis: Exciting ‘grass-roots’ documentary about sharks and the profit-hungry world that is destroying marine ecosystems.

Review by Matt:

Beware of sharks! But not because they’re looking to take a chomp out of you. They’re not. Beware of sharks because they’re under threat and they’re a key part of our crucial ocean ecosystems. In fact our entire oceans – which feed people, balance our climate, and support Earth’s beautiful marine biodiversity – are in serious trouble. In the documentary Sharkwater (which debuted in 2006 but has since been touring in limited release around the world), Canadian underwater photographer and self confessed shark-lover Rob Stewart takes a passionate look at these issues, with a particular focus on illegal and unsustainable fishing practices. Stewart spent eight years making his film, starting out with a simple project documenting sharks in their habitat. But as he discovered more about the “illegal fishing mafia” and the criminal trade in shark fins, his film unexpectedly took a turn. Soon he had gone from filming underwater, to filming the underworld. Stewart’s conservationist ethic also led him to team up with Paul Watson and his rebel environmentalist group “Sea Shepherd” – who gained particular notoriety in Australia in 2008 following clashes in the Southern Ocean with Japanese whalers (activists boarded a Japanese vessel and Paul Watson also claimed to have been shot by the Japanese coastguard). Stewart’s Sharkwater is both a tale of adventures and clashes on the high seas, as well as an educative picture about sharks and the oceans.

Sharkwater begins by dispelling some myths about sharks, the so-called “monsters of the deep”. Stewart’s narration tells us that death-by-shark is actually very rare compared to humans dying from skirmishes with other beasts, such as tigers, elephants and soda machines. Throughout the film, Stewart validates this by constantly swimming with – and occasionally hugging – his shark friends. Beautiful footage of sharks and other rich marine ecosystems is juxtaposed with disturbing facts about humankind’s efforts to destroy them as fast as possible with practices such as long-line fishing and “shark finning – a brutal and wasteful practice in which the fins are cut from a shark and it is dumped, often alive, back into the ocean. Sharkwater swells in act two as Stewart’s project collides with the perpetrators of these marine crimes. Literally – for he tours with Sea Shepherd and their “can opener”-equipped battle ship off the coast of Costa Rica, where he clashes with illegal fishers, authorities, and even the frightening “shark fin mafia”.

Sharkwater is a luscious spectacle, taking us to exotic locations such as the Galapagos and Cocos Islands to see the beautiful and rare creatures there. Unfortunately, this is also a film about irresponsible greed, so sensitive viewers be warned that it has a “wildlife warning”: it shows these beautiful creatures suffering as well. Our filmmaker’s adventures are also interspersed with other bits and pieces about sharks and fishing, such as interviews with eco-activists and a Chinese shark fin distributor. Technically, Sharkwater is not brilliantly made. It is a bit fragmentary, occasionally repetitive, and it could have been more lucid in parts. But this hardly detracts from the experience of the film; there is a lot of great stuff to see and learn in there.

Sharkwater does get out its key ecological message clearly. Shark populations have been depleted by 90%, marine ecosystems are under threat, and destructive fishing continues. There’s a legitimate debate to be had about whether the tactics of Paul Watson and Sea Shepherd are the best way to combat these ecological crimes (the magnificent ocean-defenders Greenpeace, for example, don’t condone Sea Shepherd’s tactics, themselves committed to non-violent direct action only), but there’s no doubting that we need to take some serious action. There’s also no doubting the passion and commitment of Rob Stewart, who gave so much time and braved a lot of danger (the poachers, not just the sharks!) to bring us this exciting and revealing documentary. It is basically a one-man, grassroots documentary and it would be better if more films like this were distributed. Sharkwater is definitely worth seeing, both for those who are interested in ocean ecology and especially for those who need some inspiration to get out and do something for our planet.



March 26, 2008

The King of Kong review
King of Kong

Matt: Four and a half

Length: 79 min

Don’t get chumpatized.

Précis: Compelling documentary about super arcade-game players and an epic good vs evil battle to decide the holder of the Donkey Kong crown.

Review by Matt:

Just imagine that you hold the world record score for classic 80’s video game “Centipede”. Oh, the heady feeling of worth! As Walter Day, the World Arcade Gaming Referee, said of his own efforts at this record, “I wanted the glory, I wanted the fame, I wanted the pretty girls coming up to me saying ‘Hi, I hear you’re good at Centipede'”. Ok, now imagine that you hold the world record score for “Donkey Kong“. Oh ho! The pixelated jewel in the 80’s video game crown! “Donkey Kong” is the tour-de-force of classic gaming and you’ve just rocketed into the stratosphere of arcade fame and fortune!

Wake up, little gamer. As the new documentary The King of Kong will show you, you’re not getting these records and the “Donkey Kong” groupies will never be yours. For there is already an almighty battle going on between Earth’s gaming gods. As this documentary begins, California’s Billy Mitchell is the undisputed king of classic gaming, holding the records for “Pac-Man”, “Donkey Kong Jr” and, of course, “Donkey Kong”. Like the genius super-nerd Boris Grishenko in Golden Eye, Billy is all nerdish swagger. At least Boris’s cocky lines were scripted (“Admit it! You’re hot for my hard drive!”); Billy is a real life egotist whose gaming success and burgeoning hot-wing sauce business have swelled his ego (and seemingly his mullet) to Kong-sized proportions. To put it simply: jerk. And behind Billy is a whole squadron of gamers working at emulating his success. Watching this world of obsessive hobbyists you realize pretty quickly that you have to be a stand-out oddball before you’re going to take any of these records.

But then, a pixel of hope. Enter everyday guy Steve Wiebe. He is gentle and likable. A school teacher. Wife. Little kids. Some hard luck in life that robbed him of reaching his true potential. His humility is like a salve to the hot-wing-sauce hubris over in Hollywood. Steve’s been practicing at the “Donkey Kong” machine in his basement and amazingly he has a chance at beating Billy’s once untouchable record. Through interviews, archival footage, and footage of the key events, The King of Kong follows Steve’s quest to claim the title. It also presents the scheming of the Mayor of Jerk Town and his minions when wind of the would-be usurper reaches ‘Gaming Record Headquarters’ (yes, that’s what Billy calls his apartment).

Oh, the result is grand excitement! Pointing the lens at this weird niche of reality has given The King of Kong drama, twists, heroes and villains that great fiction writers would struggle to emulate (‘A Fistful of Quarters’ is a great subtitle for this battle of good and evil). I mean, man, what is with this Billy guy? Stroking his goatee, wearing the American flag, pulling the strings on his little puppet disciples. He is Vader. Or that Russian guy from Rocky IV. And Wiebe is the real-life Rocky, pounding the joystick instead of the punching bag, up against the odds. It doesn’t matter if you find “Donkey Kong” as boring as a teenager’s blog, the story very quickly becomes about overcoming the odds and conquering injustice. Suddenly it’s damned important that that little Mario guy jumps those barrels and dodges those springs.

It might only be a video game high score, but King of Kong uncovers so much about rivalry and the reactions of those whose egos are piqued that it is a microcosm for all kinds of humanity’s challenges. All the world is a Funspot arcade tournament. You don’t need to be a gamer to enjoy the eccentric and extreme personalities, the tension, and the wrestling-like side-taking that King of Kong documents. It’s a fascinating portrait of a subculture and a David and Goliath drama that makes compulsive viewing. And, if you are a gamer, look upon your gods with both envy and disgust.


Laughs: Some, at the curious antics of obsessive gamers. The self-proclaimed “Mr Awesome” is a prime candidate for your laughs.
Tears: Some tears on the faces in camp Wiebe, and possibly a few on yours. If you have any kind of love for JUSTICE that is…
Deaths: It’s a bloodbath. About a million Marios, one thousand Pac-Men, hundreds of centipedes…


SICKO (2007)

November 25, 2007

Sicko review

Matt: Four Stars
Tracy:Four Stars

Length: 124min


This might hurt a little.
Get well soon.
What seems to be the problem?
For many Americans, laughter isn’t the best medicine – it’s the only medicine.

Review by Matt:

Hey USA! Start running a fair and humane health care system, you utter sicko! That’s the message Michael Moore is hollering in his new critical documentary Sicko. Moore’s back in his favourite role as the good hearted iconoclast-of-the-conservative. He leads a support cast of everyday mistreated citizens against the irrepressible villain: the corrupt, capitalist USA. This time Moore has America’s ill and undernourished health system in his sights.

This might sound a bit like a good versus evil fantasy tale. In some ways it is. Michael Moore’s productions always have an element of constructed-ness about them. This has been the case ever since the set pieces he ran in his old television shows such as The Awful Truth and TV Nation (Moore has spoken about ‘racing health care systems’ in mock time-trials in TV Nation and being forced by the network to ‘doctor’ the results so that the USA didn’t show so poorly).

The same sense of constructed-ness is here in Sicko. While I actually enjoy it, I can see how it leads critics to question the veracity of Moore’s films. For example, as Moore pretends to set off to Guantanamo Bay with a boatload of needy patients (to access the Cuban health care system), you wonder how these scenes were really put together. Or as Moore reveals that he anonymously (until the film’s release that is) donated money to help the health of the leading anti-Moore campaigner, you have some trouble believing Moore is genuinely that Buddhist. The film’s style provides a lot of ammunition to vehement Moore haters who can denounce it for not being three-dimensionally analytical about the intricacies of health care systems. It even supplies enough ammo, apparently, to fuel a recent feature length documentary dedicated to Moore-bashing called Manufacturing Dissent. (incidentally, the title parodies a brilliant and essential book by Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent).

For me, Moore’s style is fine. You have to take it for what it is. He’s a showman and he’s trying to be funny, entertaining and satirical about important issues. It’s just that his slapstick is merged into a documentary that also carries heavy criticisms and a deep message. But it’s easy to distinguish the tone in the film, and once you’ve got it, I think the messages that he communicates are sound.

They are big picture messages. Sicko is telling us that the health care system in the USA is sick. It has become this way because of something fundamentally perverted at the core of American society. Moore is pitching a message about compassion and humanity and urging us to think how things can improve. Personally I embrace these messages and I’m grateful that Moore is spreading them to a wide audience in an entertaining and palatable way. In any case, the film stands as a defiant counter-message to the brainwashing conservative propaganda that we’re pumped with for most of our lives – Moore shows some of this in his film too (the rhetoric of politicians and the AMA, advertisements etc). Sicko’s style is partly a reaction to dominant orthodoxies, and its strategy is understandable. Like Marx said, the habit, tradition and accumulated mis-education of generations ‘weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’. And, as Howard Zinn says, you can’t be neutral on a moving train. You have to confront those corrupt messages.

Overall, although the veneer of entertainment slightly smears the fundamental messages in Sicko, its humour and staging is mostly funny and enjoyable. It softens a tough topic. The film still outs the corporate, capitalist sicko that is poisoning us like some greedy virus. I’m glad Michael Moore is fighting that cause, and Sicko is another of his good films. We should watch it, think about it, talk about it, and take action.