DOC-UARY: 31 DOCS IN 31 DAYS – PART TEN
Reviews by Chris MacKenzie
28 The Final Member – 4 1/2 Shaky Camera Lenses (Out of 5)
The Icelandic curator of the only penis museum in the world has gathered a male organ from every mammalian species on the planet. Except Man.
Thoughts: I will preface my review by saying this movie is directed by a friend of mine. Having said that, “The Final Member” really is one of the best docs I’ve ever seen. There are some documentaries that just get lucky. Once you’ve begun filming your subject, it’s impossible to guarantee you will find a compelling narrative, amazing characters, and riveting turns to your story. But the skill of the documentarian is to see these things as they happen, stay on top of them, and craft the events into something as satisfyingly engrossing as even the best feature film. “The Final Member” does this better than any other doc I’ve watched this month.
Unfortunately, because this doc is not publicly available, I don’t want to say too much about it. I will say its central theme: the legacy we leave behind, is woven perfectly throughout the three main characters story lines. I don’t know how the world of selling/screening stuff works well enough to know what else I can and can’t say. Zach was kind enough to let me watch it, and I will say it will break my heart if this documentary isn’t someday widely available. It looks like it’s had some screenings, so keep your eyes peeled. I will bug Zach to keep me posted on where/when you can see it.
29. Whore’s Glory 3 1/2 Shaky Camera Lenses (Out of 5)
With footage shot on three different continents, this is an increasingly unflinching look at living life as a prostitute and (specifically, in this film) the women who live it.
Thoughts: This movie may have been the toughest to watch of everything I saw. Constructed as a self described triptych, the first third of the movie takes place in one of Thailand’s innumerable full-service gentlemen’s clubs. Surprisingly, the first third of this film doesn’t take as strong an anti-prostitution view as you think it would. While the female subjects of this doc do lament certain aspects of the job (smelly customers, too much competition, over-endowed johns) the problems anyone has (aging, romantic relationships, wanting a better job) are given equal weight. The lives of these women feel like the life of any other young girl trying to make it in the big city, which left me feeling a bit puzzled as to the film’s intent and/or interest in really documenting this world. This section of the film mostly focuses on the selection process, the girls getting ready, the men making their choice, and the final negotiations that go on before the client is put in an elevator and sent upstairs. But as the doors to the elevators and bedrooms close, so does our view.
The next section of this documentary contains footage shot in a brothel in Bangladesh. The slick party club atmosphere of Thailand is gone, replaced by an enormous, multi-story labyrinth of rooms so tiny you’d expect to see them on a train. The hallways are crowded with animals, sleeping children and, of course, girls, most of whom are harassing, and even physically dragging, men into their beds.
We are now deeper into this world and the images of this chaotic brothel are shocking. Off-camera, one prostitute cries uncontrollably as the women who manage the girls scream down the hall at her for always causing trouble. When we finally see the girl, who really is just a girl, she has obviously been punched in the mouth. As shocking as the image we stumble upon is, the fact that there isn’t the slightest note of sympathy in the manager’s tone seems unfathomably callous. Instead of providing any type of motherly concern, the woman berates the girl, who is still sobbing too hard to even speak, finally throwing her out with nothing but the clothes on her back.
This middle third of the film is beyond sobering. The conditions in which these women work feels like a glimpse of what hell must be like. Amazingly, in the midst of all of this chaos, the movie has insightful, even touching, interviews with the women who work there. However, instead of making you feel better about what’s going on, getting to know these young women magnifies your heartbreak when you realize that in another world, any other world, these intelligent and personable women would have led significantly more successful lives.
Believe it or not, the last third of this movie, filmed in Mexico, is even more difficult to watch. While the previous section stayed outside closed doors, the last third of this movie crosses that line. In what can only be described as a drive-by brothel, car loads of men creep past a long line of women seductively posing in the doorways. The men who seem to be only too eager to roll down their windows and brag to the cameras about what they like to make the women do, refer them by number. The women in this section proudly brag, in horrifying detail, about the skills they possess. Most seem so intoxicated on one or several substances that they can barely stand. All battle the depression that accompanies addiction, and some even display the mania that can only be described as completely losing it. But their “what the hell do I care?” attitude means the filmmakers (no doubt for the right price) are allowed to have the door, for the first time, closed behind them. I won’t describe those scenes, as I’m sure you can imagine what happens, but the most striking thing about them is watching this numb woman turn it on, and then turn it off, as soon as the john’s twenty minutes and allowed positions have been used up. Since the beginning of the film we’ve been keenly aware of the business aspect of this life, but seeing an actual “transaction” really shakes you. No matter what we were shown in earlier parts of the film, by extension, we know this moment, often repeated 4,050 times a day, is the reality of these women’s lives.
By the end, it becomes obvious that the film’s almost pro-prostitution beginning is the set up for the gut punch we end on. However, because the music picked for the movie’s soundtrack tries way too hard to be sexy, it takes us longer than it should to realize the direction this movie is going to take. I was very close to turning it off at the beginning because the movie started out feeling like a tourist video for Thailand’s Red Light District.
Still, I admired the movie for challenging the belief that prostitution is a “necessary evil.” It makes a strong case that despite what most societies say, prostitution isn’t necessary, and beyond that, the women trapped in this world are not evil.
30 Paper Clips – 3 Shaky Camera Lenses (Out of 5)
When a school in rural Tennessee wants to understand the enormity of the Holocaust, they collect six million paper clips, one for every person of Jewish faith killed by the Nazis.
Thoughts: The mere idea behind this documentary makes me well up. In a world where history is just something that happened before you were born, and a number like six million seems only kinda big, the effort this school undertook brought a palpable understanding of the Holocaust’s magnitude.
Unfortunately, this movie had a very journalistic feel to it. Most of the story is told from an “after the fact” perspective. We don’t feel like we’re witnessing anything so much as hearing the story of how it happened. Obviously, any movie that deals with this subject is worthy of watching, but I just didn’t find it as emotionally engaging as a movie like “Forgiving Dr. Mengele.”
That said, the flood of goodwill these kids created in taking on this task is astounding. In dealing with the overwhelming boom they saw after countless news outlets and celebrities heard about what they were doing, they learned a valuable lesson about compassion for others.
31. The Hollywood Complex – 3 Shaky Camera Lenses (Out of 5)
A detailed look into the herd of child actor hopefuls and their families who descend onto the Oakwood Apartments every year for pilot season.
Thoughts: This film does a good job of showing what life can be like for an actor of any age, but it really excels by focusing on the unique world of kids. Hollywood loves to push the “anyone with a dream can make it” message, but with kids, that message seems more attainable and can happen in an instant. By the time an actor is in their teens, there are several factors that can distinguish one from another. But from baby to tween, the differences are less obvious. While credits still matter, chances are there aren’t any three-year-olds with MFAs. It is this level playing field that makes this story so fascinating. Everyone has their eyes wide open for the next precocious, soulful, or hilarious tot who will go on to make bazillions of dollars. It’s kind of refreshing to see that even the most seasoned of pros has zero ability to guess who will be famous and who won’t.
The movie follows several kids through every aspect of the quest to become the next Dakota Fanning or Miley Cyrus. We see them experience everything from overbearing stage moms and scam artists, to the wide eyes of casting directors and agents when they find someone with a “special” spark. The kids in the movie come from a variety of backgrounds, and it felt like some families were overpraised while others were a bit too demonized. It seemed the film was trying to make the point that there is a good and bad way to go about bringing your kid to Hollywood, but it doesn’t really tackle the question of, “Why do it in the first place?”. Your child may be adorable, wise beyond her years, or the family ham, but those are all things that can be satiated on a smaller scale with local plays and shows. This movie (possibly unintentionally) made me realize what these people are truly after is money and “fame.” I guess it’s not that surprising, considering the town to which they are flocking, but it also seems a shame to tie your kid’s talents to grownup expectations and results. Still, most of the kids profiled in the movie are even more gung-ho about doing this whole Hollywood thing than their parents are, and no one seems forced to pursue it. However, it doesn’t make it more palatable, because in the end, the parent is a parent, not an enabler.
But for someone who’s spent the last fifteen years in the same trenches, it was good to see another actor’s perspective on “the business” and actually helped me examine my own perspective on it all.
Thoughts: It has been a long month. A long month with lots of documentaries. As I raced to get my last few in, I lost count and thought I was going to come up one short. Sick of planting myself on my couch and watching Netflix, I agreed to go over to my girlfriend’s family’s house to enjoy some time with them. Just my luck, as we sat down to watch a movie together, this Katy Perry doc popped up as an option on our screen. I have to admit we were all a little ashamed that we all wanted to see it, but it wound up being pretty good. First, a warning, if you do not like Katy Perry, you are probably not going to like this movie. I can’t say I’m a huge fan, but I also don’t write off all teenie-bopper pop music put out these days. Sometimes it’s the only thing that gets me through the last three minutes and seventeen seconds of a run on the treadmill. (PLEASE don’t tell AC/DC!)
But what appears to be the fluffiest concert doc ever released actually has a lot of interesting insights into the world of a mega-superstar. Like them or not, the one thing it’s tough to argue about a teen pop star is her work ethic. This doc details a lot of the hard work Perry put in to get where she is, as well as the Herculean efforts she puts in to stay there.
Anyone who has performed knows there are days when you just don’t feel like it. Many of those days are shown in this movie. I don’t think it was their goal to show what no doubt was one of Katy Perry’s worst years ever, but in the end you appreciate the candid nature of what you’re shown. I found myself really respecting the level at which she works, and the dedication she puts in to making a good show every night.
The most striking image in it for me was her sobbing over a crumbling marriage as she ascended a lift onto stage to perform for literally thousands of fans. It would be too easy to say she “phoned it in” or that she was being fake and burying her grief. It became obvious to me that performing was one of the few places where she could forget what was happening and appreciate all that she had. I have made my living as a performer for twenty years, and it is an uncanny truth that going onstage and performing always makes you feel better. Whether it is sore muscles or a broken heart, there is an analgesic in performing. The (probably inevitable) dissolution of Katy’s marriage to Russell Brand takes over the second half of the movie, but it doesn’t come off as a gossipy exclusive. You can read TMZ for the gory details of what happened, but Katy Perry is to be commended for letting viewers see the very human toll that divorce takes on even those who seem to “have it all.”
Well, there you go, 32 documentaries in 31 days. A huge thanks to the Movie Guys for posting these wildly inconsistent reviews. I guess I should try to sum up what this month meant to me, but I don’t know if I see a clear thru-line. I guess the one thing I would say, as simple as it sounds, is to make sure you seek out documentaries. In devoting an entire month to doing this on a (mostly) daily basis, it’s incredible the sheer number of documentaries out there, and the smallest search will yield unforgettable results. These are not movies which are usually placed in front of us the way mainstream films are. However, a little digging (and a Netflix account) can yield some very eyeopening perspectives on the world. Thanks for reading.
“Whore’s Glory”, “Paper Clips”, “Hollywood Complex” and “Katy Perry: Part of Me” are available on NetFlix.