What’s Up Doc?

Because it has been so chilly in the Northeast the past week, I haven’t been hitting the cinema like I normally do. The idea of going anywhere that isn’t absolutely necessary isn’t all that appealing; I’d rather just stay curled up on my couch. It helps that there also isn’t anything currently out that I am dying to see. I already managed to check off the big movies that I was anxiously anticipating before this cold snap set in.

However, my temporary hibernation hasn’t been a complete waste as I’ve been able to delete a lot of programs that were sitting on my DVR and put my somewhat dormant Netflix subscription to good use (you honestly do NOT want to know how long Jesse and Celeste Forever sat on my Blu-Ray player; it’s an embarrassment and it wasn’t even that good of a movie). By happenstance, most of what I watched in the last week was documentaries; I have a tendency to multitask when I watch movies/programs at home, but documentaries really demand your full attention. I can “watch” an entire episode of The Big Bang Theory without even really looking up at the TV, but the docs that I had saved on my DVR were waiting for a time when I could really commit to watching them. Once I watched a few, I was down the documentary rabbit hole and continued to seek them out on Netflix Instant after I cleared out the supply that I had stockpiled. They were a diverse group of films that covered a lot of different topics, yet all of them had something interesting to say.

Blackfish – This is perhaps the most famous of the documentaries that I watched; it is currently on the short list of docs that are in contention for an Oscar nomination this year and has made some waves (pun intended) recently as several celebrities have cancelled their performances at SeaWorld in its aftermath. The film takes a look at the tragic incident in 2010 when a SeaWorld trainer was killed by an orca named Tilikum and examines what may have contributed to the incident.  Tilikum had a checkered behavioral history that was ignored and was subjected to restrictive conditions that may have made him more likely to lash out. Blackfish was not nearly as sensational as I had thought it was going to be, but was a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of how the animals at SeaWorld are treated and the safety measures (or lack of) for the trainers; the insight of the former trainers was especially enlightening. I am already a bit leery of zoos and circuses in general and Blackfish didn’t do much to dissuade that opinion.

Pearl Jam Twenty – Watching this Cameron Crowe film about one of my favorite bands has been a long time coming; I almost went to a screening for this on my birthday a few years ago (but decided that going to the movies wasn’t a very exciting way to celebrate) and this has been sitting on my DVR for almost 2 years after it aired on PBS, waiting for the perfect time to watch it. I’m glad I waited to savor this documentary about the first twenty years of Pearl Jam as it rekindled my love for the band. I’ve never stopped liking Pearl Jam and have purchased everything that Eddie Vedder has ever done, but Pearl Jam Twenty reminded me that I don’t listen to the band nearly enough. Even though I have been a fan of the band since I was 15, I still learned something from the film. I was not as well versed in the Pearl Jam origin story as I thought and the band members were very open about their struggles and their history. And it’s nice to know that Vedder still makes my inner teenager swoon. I don’t think you necessarily have to be a fan of the band to enjoy this film, but if you are a fan it is a much watch.

Brooklyn Castle – I have found that I am a sucker for documentaries that feature competitions of things that normally don’t seem very exciting; Spellbound, King of Kong and Mad Hot Ballroom were all riveting, but on paper scrabble, video games and ballroom dancing don’t necessarily have the makings of a gripping documentary. However, all these films managed to take fairly small stories and make you really care about the participants and outcomes. The stakes may appear relatively small, but you are totally invested. Brooklyn Castle, a film about a chess team in a public school in NYC, can be added to the above list, but its small story also connects to a larger one – the recent recession and the funding cuts to public schools. The chess team that serves as the focus of the film routinely wins national championships, but is struggling to survive as more and more extracurricular activities become the victim of increased budget cuts. You can’t help but fall in love with the kids featured in the film and worry for their future – some are struggling with the pressure of the chess team while others are struggling with the stress of trying to map out their future and a way out of their current socioeconomic status.  I don’t know how to play chess, but I was completely enthralled with these kids and what this game meant to them.

League of Denial – As a sports fan, I can’t say that I was shocked by the implications of this Frontline documentary about the NFL and concussions, but it sure makes it harder for the league to say that they were unaware of the potential damage. I love football, but it is an inherently violent game and has only become more so with the increasing size and speed of the men playing. I know purists don’t want any additional changes to how the game is played and decry the “softening” of the sport, but it’s clear after watching this program that at the bare minimum it is an issue that deserves a lot more consideration. I was not inclined to let my potential kids play football anyway, but now I can really understand why many current NFL players have said that they would discourage their children from playing as well. As moms are wont to say, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt and League of Denial raises some serious questions about how many players are hurt and the long lasting impacts of multiple concussions.

Room 237 – This was easily the wackiest of the documentaries that I watched, as it focuses on the multiple conspiracy theories related to Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining. While none of the participants in the documentary – who are heard but never seen – debate that on the surface that the film is an adaptation of Stephen King’s book, they all have different theories about what the film is really about. Each of the participants believe that Kubrick was also trying to tell another story with his depiction of  terrifying events at the Overlook Hotel finding clues within the film to his deeper meaning. Some think that the film is an allegory for the plight of Native Americans, while others think that the film is some sort of confession by Kubrick as to his role in faking the footage of the moon landing in 1969. Needless to say, I think most of these people are plum off their rockers, but they do raise some interesting points about the possibility of there being clues hidden in the film. Most of what they cite as “evidence” could be pretty simply explained away as continuity errors, but I am not familiar enough with Kubrick’s body of work to know if there is a history of him telling a “shadow story” or hiding Easter eggs that have alternate meanings. I’ve seen and enjoyed The Shining, but basically took at it face value. Frankly I think these people have way too much time on their hands, but even if I thought they were slightly crazy it was fun to hear them provide their proof to justify their flights of fancy. Interestingly enough, many of them grasped on the same clues to justify wildly different hypothesis. Who knew that a window in an office held was the touchstone for unlocking so many hidden mysteries. This is a weird film and the production value is terrible – they use a lot of stock footage and loop parts of the film over and over – but by the end I was tempted to re-watch The Shining to see if I could uncover any mysteries.

After this latest documentary binge, I’m inclined to seek out more of the genre. I’ve always liked documentaries, but haven’t gotten around to watching many of them in my quest to stay up to date on more mainstream films for the blog. As we enter January and February, when studios typically dump films that they aren’t particularly hopeful for, I may have more time to stop and further indulge my documentary preference. They force me to slow down and focus and are almost always educational is some capacity. I’m glad that there has been some miniscule silver lining to this dreadfully cold weather.

Have you seen any documentaries recently that tickled your fancy? Give us your recommendations in the comments below.

The Return of 30 for 30

I love documentaries. They are among one of my favorite genres of filmmaking. Nine times out of ten, if you look to see what is cluttering up my DVR, it is usually a string of documentaries that aired on PBS that I’ve just never gotten around to watching or I wasn’t yet in the right mood for. There is just something about watching a story unfold and knowing that it is based on real people and real incidents that make them so powerful. Of course, a documentary is one version of the truth and can be shaped by what is omitted and the viewpoint of the director. Nothing should just be taken at face value. But even with that slight caveat, they are a medium that can be both entertaining and informative. People think that documentaries are boring and tend to skip them. I’m here to say that if they are done well, they are anything but boring. I’m always especially intrigued by documentaries that take something small and make them compelling; you wouldn’t think that one man’s quest to set the highest score on Donkey Kong would be all that riveting, but I’ll be damned if King of Kong isn’t one of my favorite documentaries. If you haven’t seen it, definitely check it out. It’s really good stuff.

Back in October of 2009, the sports network ESPN was celebrating the 30th anniversary of being on the air. To commemorate the occasion, they decided to create a series where they would commission filmmakers to make 30 different documentaries about events that had happened in the world of sports in the 30 years that ESPN had been on the air. The idea came from ESPN columnist/blogger Bill “The Sports Guy” Simmons and further cemented in my mind that he just might be my soul mate (minus the whole rooting for Boston sports teams foolishness and the fact he already have a wife and kids). The caveat for the documentaries were that they should tell stories that haven’t already been told or that aren’t very well known; these would not be a rehash of some of the big stories in sports, but would rather shine a light on some of the smaller or forgotten sports stories over the last 30 years. The project attracted many top tier filmmakers and covered varied topics including the 1992 Little League World Series, the friendship between tennis players and rivals Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, and the rise and fall of the SMU college football program.

Obviously, I ate these documentaries up with a spoon. They were not only up my alley, they were up my entire boulevard. As a huge sports fan, this was a marriage of two of my favorite things. They became appointment TV for me and I watched all 30 of them when they aired. They were almost uniformly excellent and I learned a lot; I tend to know a lot about certain sports topics, but not a lot about others. The documentaries that I enjoyed the most told me about things that I knew nothing about. Some of them were incrediblytouching (more than one moved me to tears) and some were tremendously inspirational. Even the few documentaries that I didn’t really enjoy – I wasn’t a fan of Marion Jones: Press Pause, Silly Little Game (on the birth of fantasy baseball) or One Night in Vegas (on the intertwined events of Mike Tyson’s fight in Vegas and the murder of rapper Tupac Shakur) – taught me something.

However – and I can’t stress this enough – you do not have to be a sports fan to enjoy the 30 for 30 documentary series. The documentaries tell the story so well that it doesn’t matter if you know anything about the subject matter beforehand. I know absolutely nothing about NASCAR, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t find the profile of driver Tim Richmond and his death from AIDS fascinating. You don’t have to regularly watch ESPN to get something out of the documentaries; many of the critics who praised these film admitted that they aren’t sports fans but found these documentaries to be very well done and enjoyable. If you enjoy documentaries, you will enjoy the 30 for 30 series, regardless of your sports knowledge. If I could sit through the retelling of the epic collapse of the Yankees against the Red Sox in 2004 (my darkest moment as a sports fan), these documentaries are worth it.

The stories tend to be more about the human aspect rather than the sport itself. My favorite of the series is The Band That Wouldn’t Die, which focuses on the decision to move the Colts football franchise from Baltimore to Indianapolis. There are a lot of stories that could be told about this event, but the filmmaker (Barry Levinson. Yes, that Barry Levinson ) decided to focus on the orphaned Baltimore Colts marching band and their steadfast determination to bring football back to Charm City. While The Band That Wouldn’t Die is clearly about a sports, it’s about more than that. It’s about human emotion, loyalty and resolve. It’s a story that wouldn’t have been told without the 30 for 30 series.

After the 30 for 30 series ended in 2010, ESPN continued to make sports documentaries under the ESPN Films Presents label. Unfortunately, since these documentaries did not air on a regular schedule like the 30 for 30 franchise, I missed a lot of them. The few I did see maintained the high quality of the 30 for 30 experiment. I was particularly enthralled with Catching Hell, as it told the story of the poor Cubs fan Steve Bartman and his alleged interference with a play and how he became a scapegoat for an entire fan base’s frustration and anger. As a baseball fan I remember the incident well, but the documentary really took you inside the hell that poor Bartman’s life became after that game. I hope to see out the rest of the docs that I missed; I take some pride in the fact that I watched all of the original 30 for 30 films and would like to “complete the set” with the films that followed.

Tonight, ESPN will be re-launching the 30 for 30 series with a second batch of films. Dubbed 30 for 30: Volume II, the series begins with the film Broke, which was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival. It will chronicle the phenomenon that has become all too familiar in sports: a player’s instant wealth and then subsequent bankruptcy. I’m looking forward to future installments on the integration of Ole Miss, the murder of a promising basketball prospect and a film on Bo Jackson. 30 for 30: Volume II will be augmented with some video shorts that will appear on the Grantland.com website (required reading for fans of sports and pop culture). The first, “Here Now,” followed Pete Rose as he hawked sports memorabilia and autographs at a Vegas casino and debuted earlier this summer. “Arnold’s Blueprint” is currently showing and focuses on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s youth in Austria and his mandatory military service.

I really cannot recommend these films highly enough. I think 30 for 30 was a wonderful project and I am so glad that they decided to re-launch it. A must view for fans of sports, fans of documentaries or fans of both. Well worth the time that you will invest.

Broke debuts tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET and will re-air on the various ESPN channels and the Watch ESPN app. Check your local listings. The original 30 for 30 films are available on DVD and on Netflix streaming.  To keep up with the latest news on future documentaries, follow @30for 30 on Twitter.