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.