Reviews by Chris MacKenzie

Last summer I got a Netflix account so I could catch up on the best TV show on the planet: ‘Breaking Bad’. But after devouring everything they had, I began to cruise the vast selection of titles for more things to watch. I noticed that instead of catching up on other TV shows I was behind on, I started watching documentaries.
Watching documentaries allowed me to disconnect some over­active parts of my brain, while nourishing others that are clearly underfed. While watching a documentary, I never found myself thinking about how it was written, or worse, asking myself, “Where else have I seen “What’s­his­face, that guy in the shirt.” As an LA multi­hyphenate, this was a rare experience, and one I found myself seeking out more and more often.

I don’t remember what initially inspired me to decide on doing a documentary a day, but it felt like a do­-able resolution, and as I came to find out, exactly what the doctor ordered.

The first sign that I was onto something good was when I posted a Facebook update asking for documentary suggestions. Friends from all corners of my life had suggestions, at last count over 150 suggestions, on what they’d seen and liked. With this as my starting point, I unplugged my fiction brain and began watching stories in which one was never asked to suspend disbelief.

oscar_0-250x163Subconsciously, I’m pretty sure it was my contrarian nature that pushed me to watch all of these documentaries in the midst of Movie Award Madness. While people seem as excited as ever about the Oscars this year, there wasn’t much that felt compelling to me. I thought “Skyfall” was a mess. I thought “Les Miz” was as good a cinematic adaptation as you could make with movie stars who had no business being in it. This year’s other cinematic darling, “Silver Linings Playbook,” seemed interesting, but for some reason I couldn’t get past its pitch: “What if People Magazine’s ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ pretended to be bi­polar?”

While I do think Hollywood uses this time of year to over­congratulate itself, I also recognize that it’s probably me who is burned out on all those “really amazing” movies that no one is ever going to watch again after the envelopes have been opened.

Luckily, I figured this out in time, and this month of documentaries has recharged me for all movies. In fact, if I can find a screener (my SAG dues were late), I will reserve judgement and gladly watch “Silver Linings Playbook.”

The following reviews don’t have a solid or consistent structure. I tried not to put any spoilers into the ones that had great twists, but there’s no guarantee that reading these won’t ruin the movie for you in some way.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi 1. “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” – 4 Shaky Camera Lenses (Out of 5)
This documentary profiles the dedication, techniques, and philosopy of octogenarian Sushi master Jiro Ono and his sons.

Thoughts: The filmmakers did a good job of making the documentary as simple (yet complex) as the sushi Jiro and his sons make. It is a somber meditation on what it’s like to focus your every waking moment and thought to one pure pursuit. This one goal proves so intense, yet so elusive, that it becomes multi­generational.
While I found this documentary riveting, I would say the soundtrack overwhelms the film a few times. Additionally, the inconsistent use of titles in the sushi “glamour shots” is annoying. It seems like they felt the need to “add stuff” when the point, and the beauty of the movie, is how refinement and simplicity are the soul (and goal) of genius. That, and you gotta work hard. Really, really hard.

But those are tiny criticisms. The access they were granted, along with the stunning visual element (lots of slo-­mo to get lost in), make this a great movie. I still have NO idea why that poor guy has to spend so much of the movie slapping a stack of seaweed paper on a little barbeque, but I have no doubt it’s pretty damn important.

Knuckle2. “Knuckle” – 3 Shaky Camera Lenses (Out of 5)
A feisty look at a long­standing feud between two clans of Traveling Irish.

Thoughts: I’m totally fascinated by the world of Irish Travelers. While this doc doesn’t delve into that so much as an ongoing feud between two (closely related) clans of Traveling Irish, it still peeks deep enough behind the curtain to be satisfying.

There is a ton of sloppy bare­knuckle boxing in parking lots between pasty, fat Irish men of all ages, but the movie is less about the fighting, and more about the ridiculous peacock­strutting that is “manhood.”

Again, the filmmaker gets great access, following this feud and its bouts over the course of ten years. Unfortunately, the voice­over the director provides, detailing HIS journey through all of this, is pretty thin compared to these guys­ scared shitless and settling scores started by their fathers. I’d like to give special acknowledgement to the poor person who subtitled this documentary. The accents are so thick and mumbled, that the subtitles offer *approximate* translations of what’s being said­ – no easy task. But the subtitles are right on and do a great job of “translating” Traveling Irish into English.

Queen of Versaiiles3. “Queen of Versailles” – 3 1/2 Shaky Camera Lenses (Out of 5)
This is a great documentary that encapsulates the last ten years of our nation’s economy. The story follows the collapse of an easy-­money millionaire’s fortunes, and by extension, his entire world.

Thoughts: In what starts out as a slam-­dunk indictment of blind American greed, the filmmakers give the subjects more than enough rope to hang themselves. However, after the ten­thousandth glaring irony goes unnoticed by them (the head of the family brags about being personally responsible for getting the architect of this now­-dead economy elected), I actually began to feel sorry for these people.

I certainly didn’t feel sorry because they can’t sell their “largest private residence in the world,” or because their shady, high-­pressure TimeShare company is flat­lining, or even because their dogs (and possibly kids) now poop in the dining room. I felt sorry for them because it’s always troubling to see any human plummet to their lowest,­ whether it’s deserved or not.

Eventually, this film becomes an indictment of us all. A seemingly c­lever storyline, the millionaire’s wife visiting her cash­-strapped childhood friend, bookends nicely with what we’ve assumed only the wealthy are dealing with. While not overtly stated, I felt it showed that the human nature that caused our current woes isn’t exclusive to the top income brackets. While it is easy (and fun) to hang the problems of our current economic state on corporate greed, we all benefited from the boom, and are all now paying the price for an impossibly over­-optimistic economy.

But for all the moral lessons this film teaches, it’s the characters that make it so engrossing: The staunch patriarch, who is equal parts post-Depression boot­-strapper and morally void 80’s Geckonian. The constantly weeping Filipino nanny, who has left her own loved ones behind to care for the family’s massive, mostly­faceless brood. The “bad seed” cousin who comes to live with them­ and to no doubt corrupt all eight of her cousins. But in the end, the most memorable character, and the emotional core of the film, is the family’s extensively­-remodeled matriarch. Through her, we see in excruciating detail – that perfect moment when the deer in the headlights says, “Wait a minute… Are those headlights?”

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, “Knuckle” and “Queen of Versailles” are available on NETFLIX.

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