Tag Archives: brightest young things

True Story Film Review

My review of the film True Story

True Story, the debut of director Rupert Goold, is based on Michael Finkel’s 2005 memoir of the same name. Finkel was a star reporter for the New York Times, who quickly fell from grace and when it was discovered that a Sunday cover story he wrote on modern-day slavery was a little too loose with its details. Finkel (Jonah Hill) retreats to his hometown in Montana to regroup and attempt to rebuild his reputation and career, a feat that proves to be rather difficult. The proverbial “journalistic equivalent of a lottery ticket” falls into his lap: Christian Longo (James Franco), a fugitive accused of murdering his wife and three children, is apprehended in Mexico, where has been calling himself Mike Finkel of the New York Times. Fortuitous and strange, could Mike’s literary redemption come at such a sordid price?

That’s the question True Story attempts to thresh out. This is not a courtroom procedural, a cat-and-mouse game, or a CSI-episode-turned-film. If you are looking for a whodunit, this is not it. In fact, while in some ways, Edward Norton and Richard Gere’s cinematic relationship in Primal Fear is reminiscent of Finkel and Longo’s, this is not an exploration of “look how clever and deceitful sociopaths are.”


Maybe True Story *is* about “the truth” and how elusive that actually is. As a character study, the film is incredibly compelling. James Franco’s acting is especially superb: in his tete-a-tetes with Mike, Franco is the very embodiment of the word “mercurial.” Forget two-faced–he’s three faced.  Polar opposite emotions literally flitter across his face every second. He’s chilling, sincere, introspective, alluring, repulsive, calculating, heartless… it is all there. In their push-and-pull relationship, it seems that both men are learning more about themselves, actually. We get the sense that the excuses Finkel offers to himself for why he lied in the story are as much of a sham as Longo’s. The film suggests that though the gravity of their transgressions is nowhere near the same caliber, both of them know a thing or two about being a pariah.

True Story explores the idea of culpability in a really interesting way. There is no doubt that Finkel, to a much lesser degree, has a bit of a narcissist in him, but the film really wants us to denounce his ambition and point to it as the proverbial cause of his downfall in a Shakespearean sense (e.g. his fatal character flaw). Yet, Finkel’s actions make a good bit of sense: faced with the prospect of never writing again, he latches on to the one story that someone Longo picks *him* to tell. There is the rub: both men are using each other and need each other. Longo needs to sow the seed of doubt about his guilt and Finkel needs a sensationalistic take on a story literally plugged from the headlines. He needs this “scoop” no less than Longo does.

The portrayal of the journalist in True Story suffers from the same wide-eyed aggrandizing that is ubiquitous in just about every film and TV show on the subject (heck, House of Cards, anyone?). We are supposed to sympathize with Finkel because he only fibbed a little on the details to make the story trenchant enough to make a difference in the lives of the children’s lives he covers. In other words, he does this out of noble motivations. Yet, it would have been no less impacting had it stuck to the truth. In a particularly ironic exchange between Longo and Finkel, Finkel asks Longo why he picked his name to use on the run. “Because he wanted to see what it was like to be Finkel,” he responds. Why not use any other more anonymous name? Well, because Finkel’s name is just that. What a jab to Finkel’s ego and a wry nod to the viewers! What’s in a name? Clearly, one is famous only when one is infamous. Nobody but the most die-hard acolyte would have recognized Finkel’s name.

The push-and-pull relationship between Finkel and Longo is incredibly compelling to watch. If one goes in with the anticipation of watching a character study rather than a crime thriller, True Story would ring true and engrossing.

Merchants of Doubt

My review of Merchants of Doubt

“Fake it, till you make it so,” might be one of the many truisms apropos for Merchants of Doubt, the new documentary by Food, Inc. director Robert Kenner, based on Naomi Oreskes’ and Erik M. Conway’s book of the same title. The film examines a group of spin doctors who make a living convincing the public to doubt science in favor of corporate-backed fiction. These silver-tongued faux-pundits introduce (unreasonable) doubt on topics as diverse as acid rain, cigarettes, toxic chemicals, the ozone layer, and climate change, obfuscating the real issues and influencing public opinion. Their modus operandi: “Discredit the science, disseminate false information, spread confusion, promote doubt.”

Your first question might be, “So? Industries hire PR people to promulgate their point of view. That’s how PR works.” Yes, well, Merchants of Doubt shines a light on much murkier and shadier territory you might not have considered before—this is an incestuous cadre of “experts” who are bedfellows with just about every industry in need of white-washing of nefarious activities. In addition, plainly put, these spin doctors are NOT doctors: none of them have Ph.D.s or any sort of scientific qualifications making them worthy of opining on the topics. As Marc Morano, one of the most ubiquitous of the lot, states, “I am not a scientist, but I play one on TV.” Funny, if it were not hair-raisingly scary.

Merchants of Doubt begins by examining the tobacco industry. Knowing all along about the dangers of their product, the industry at first focused on convincing the public that cigarettes are perfectly safe and non-addictive. Once that jig was up, they framed the issue as “don’t take away our freedom.” As tobacco’s lead spin doctor Peter Sparber (who posed as a fire marshal, no less, while on big tobacco’s payroll) put it “If you can sell tobacco, you can sell anything.” And indeed, he did, moving on to other industries in need of his special brand of hucksterism. Big tobacco was also responsible for the decades-long egregious use of flame-retardants on furniture: this furniture sprayed with a toxic chemical that imperiled thousands of firefighters, because making a self-extinguishing cigarette would be “much more difficult.”

Turning its lens on climate change next, the film demonstrates the deleterious effect that presenting the issue as a scientific debate had both on public opinion and political outcomes. In the book, science historian Naomi Oreskes conducted an analysis of all the scientific papers published between 1992 and 2002 on global warming and found zero papers disagreeing with the fact that global warming is anthropogenic and due to increased greenhouse gases. In other words, there was a resounding and prevailing scientific consensus. Yet, scientists like Fred Seitz and Fred Singer founded front organizations and think tanks like Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP), with nebulous enough names to grant an air of legitimacy, to further global warming skepticism and a conservative viewpoint.

Merchants of Doubt asks the very germane question of what these doubt-peddlers gain from their activities. Sure, the remuneration is nice. But Seitz and Singer were scientists during the Cold War – the film suggests there is an ideological component, too – and they frame these debates being about government interference, an attack on a way of life. This could also explain why libertarians, as a group, are such intense climate change deniers, or so Merchants of Doubt posits.

But back to the faux “I play a scientist on TV,” pundits. The film seems to exonerate the media from blame in this whole quagmire, but aren’t 24-hour news channels, reliant on “debates” for 90% of their programming front and center in this mix? Why are scientists pitted against people like Morano in a “debate?” What kind of a debate could possibly take place between a scientist and a talking head?  Merchants of Doubt points to the increased personalization of something that should really stay in the professional: for example, Morano routinely releases the email addresses of climate scientists so they may receive death threats and ad hominem attacks totally unrelated to their actual work. The Cato Institute publishes climate change-denying reports that are literally identical copies, stylistically, of the report released by NOAA. All of the above point to the kind of desperate and base tactics that far eclipse mere PR.

Merchants of Doubt certainly offers a probing look into something that isn’t “business as usual,” or at least shouldn’t be. The cadre of fake scientists/spin doctors, thanks to 24 hour conservative channels like Fox News, has been frighteningly successful in steering public sentiment toward a corporate-backed political outcome. The implications of this are much further reaching than just exposing the public to biased-by-their-very-nature public relations yarns. While the film could have used a much tighter editing hand to keep it on track (not to mention that the gimmick of having a magician explain how magic works to draw an analogy is heavy-handed, at best), it does expose something we might not have thought much about, which is why is it that climate change deniers continue to have a political floor for their opinions to be listened to at all.

Ballet 422 Film Review

My review for Ballet 422

Ballet 422 chronicles 25-year-old choreographer Justin Peck’s choreographing of the New York City Ballet’s 422nd ballet. Black Swan this is not, nor should it be, but while cinema verite at its finest, the film dances around any real engagement with the viewer.  Austere and skeletal, it tends to run a bit like a dancer’s diary. There is nothing here to draw a “lay” audience in and little to indicate story-telling on the director’s part.

Jody Lee Lipes offers a behind-the-scenes look at one of the world’s most prestigious dance companies. Justin Peck has two months to create the piece for the company’s winter 2013 season. A member of the Corps de Ballet, he is also a dancer; in fact, in the final scene, where we see him leave the premiere of his piece to change into his dancer’s costume is a wry nod to superheroes of all ilks.

Ballet 422 really does not offer us even a modicum of psychological insight into any of the characters. There are no interviews, no insights. In fact, even though putting on a ballet in 2 months is clearly a Herculean task, this is hardly palpable here.  We never get a sense of the enormity of Peck’s or the dancers’ accomplishments.

Peck appears somber most of the time, and smiling is hard to come by in this film, on all sides. Uber-seriousness rules the day. This makes for a very isolating feel to the documentary. It’s almost claustrophobic. It is hard to see why we should care about any of the characters, devoid of any information about any of them. An upside is that we are not presented with the dictatorial, (megalo)maniacal choreographer trope that seems to be the hallmark of most art films (i.e., Whiplash).

What is perhaps even more frustrating is the purposely-choppy flow of the film. We only get glimpses of rehearsals, glimpses of costume design, glimpses of the orchestra. And in the end, we do not even see the entire ballet.

Ballet 422 does offer an intimate, albeit limited, look into an art form of breathtaking beauty.  Sadly, there is dearth of insight into the creative process or into the thoughts of any of the performers or Peck himself. Austere and stiff; it suffers from an odd determination to make even the most graceful and awe-inspiring clinical. In a sense, because we do not see too much of the struggle, it risks diminishing Peck’s and the dancers’ accomplishments. If the mark of the professional is to “make it look easy,” then Ballet 422 should receive ample accolades. In all other regards, this runs like nothing more than the skeletal, scribbled notes of someone putting something together.



Human Capital Film Review

My review of Human Capital

Looking for some sort of parable on the divide between the haves and have-nots or trenchant social commentary on the evils of the spoiled rich? Human Capital comes up short. If you’re looking for a not-thoroughly-boring whodunit that also riffs a bit on the ol’ “eat the rich” trope, you might have some better luck finding that here.

In Human Capital, the destinies of two Italian families become intertwined after a hit-and-run accident that kills a bicyclist. Director Paolo Virzì adapts Stephen Amidon’s 2004 novel, Human Capital, into a story told from the perspective of three of the main characters.

One of the families is spectacularly rich; the other… hopes to become so via its tenuous association with the spectacularly rich. That’s about the extent of the social commentary in the film.

The two families meet after their children begin dating. Buffoonish real-estate agent Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) is portrayed in a rather caricature-like way as a blustery, uncouth, wanna-be-nouveau-riche. Cultured he is not, but he knows an opportunity when he sees one, or so he thinks. He buys into the exclusive hedge fund of Giovanni (Fabrizio Gifuni), the father of his daughter’s boyfriend. At the point, it is impossible for the audience to suspend any kind of disbelief as the next plot development is literally emblazoned on the screen in a giant flashing neon sign. (No) surprise—he is not going to get rich quick.

Human Capital doesn’t stray too far from familiar stereotypes. The rich family are not particularly loathsome–their lives are what we would expect.  Carla’s “slammed” days consist of shopping, getting massages, and pet art restoration projects.  To its credit, the film actually shines in that regard. We are not asked to think, “Oh, they are rich, but LOOK how unhappy they are.” We don’t get the sense that they are particularly unhappy. We do understand, however, that their being inured to this lifestyle is actually a sort of a liability: when it looks like when they might lose even a fraction of their enormous wealth, they appear hopelessly childlike, lost, and incapable of living the life of “normal people,” almost as though they have forgotten how to.

On the other hand, as far as thrillers go, Human Capital is quite a good one! It is not at all apparent who hit the bicyclist and from that perspective, it does hold the viewer’s interest. Serena (Matilde Gioli), Dino’s daughter, is, as a character, the most compelling and well-developed. Unlike just about everyone else in this film, she seems to be the only one with a backbone and passion for, well, much of anything. An added bonus–the quirky art dude might get the girl and not the rich heir.

In a somewhat heavy-handed way, Human Capital showcases how the one percent really cannot at all relate to the life of the ninety-nine percent. Literally and figuratively removed from the rest of society, they appear woefully stuck in their glass palaces. At least the film does not seek to elicit our pity for them. The value of Human Capital is certainly not in its novelty or cleverness, as there is no emotional richness to be found here. It certainly does offer a good bit of suspense and entertainment, which makes it definitely worth checking out.

Timbuktu Film Review

My review of the film Timbuktu

Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu is social commentary subtly woven into a beautifully-painted, lush-yet-measured allegory. At times harkening to an early Clint Eastwood western, this is a polemics-free look on film at life under conservative Islam.

Timbuktu, recently nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar category and the first film from Mauritania to earn that honor, takes place in Mali. Occupied by Islamic fundamentalists (they call themselves jihadists), the already-pious Muslim community living there is plunged into a new, rigid world order thoroughly unfamiliar to them.

The opening scene of machine guns destroying ancient African relics is  understated. The scene of a woman singing while she is being lashed for music-making (one of the many forbidden activities under the new regime) is equally so. Children playing soccer with a ghost ball (because soccer, too, is forbidden) is yet another haunting rendering of quiet resistance even in the face of the stripping of all that is sensory.

The protagonist in the film is cattle herder Kidane who lives peacefully in the dunes with his wife Satima, his daughter Toya, and Issan, their twelve-year-old shepherd. When one of Kidane’s cows is killed by Amadou, the fisherman, for its encroaching into his nets, Kidane is entangled in a life-or-death net of his own. Kidane’s character also shines a light on the lives of desert nomads like him—people increasingly buffeted by the crashing waves of whatever political tides reign in the region. All of his neighbors have left; living in the desert offers Kidane’s family a certain degree of freedom but also puts him in tremendous peril, under a rule determined to erase his culture, even though many of the Islamist recruits are his own people.

In town, the people suffer, powerless, under the regime imposed by the jihadists. Laughter, music, soccer, cigarettes, and not wearing gloves while in public for women, are just a few of the verboten things. Every day, the religious police patrol the city and pass violent sentences on anyone daring to break the laws. What is remarkable about Timbuktu is the way that the people respond to this draconian state: for example, a woman asked to wear gloves while selling fish simply explains to the militants that it is not practical for her to wear gloves while doing her work. There are no histrionics here, just quiet dignity as everyone seems to be equal parts confused and resigned to what has happened to this place they used to call home.

The absurdity of the ideology is made apparent without much fanfare. When a mother asks what justification there is for one of the jihadists marrying her daughter without the consent of her parents, the courts tell her that the man in question is, “pious and according to Sharia, if a man is pious, he should be given a bride.” One can’t help but see that even the enforcers of this state of terror seem to have no rhyme or reason for their behavior.

Timbuktu Timbuktu presents the jihadist occupation in a surprisingly subdued way, with little reliance on emotionality from any of its characters, yet it is not devoid of emotional pull. The scenes are carefully composed, with a desert blues cadence to them. The line between singing and howling/wailing in pain is blurry. Perhaps its greatest strength is how it renders the disruption of living under such turmoil seem so ordinary—something superimposed on the people there like a foreign cloak on the already pious fabric of their society.

BYT’s Top 14 Movies of 2014 Guide

Top 14 films of 2014

Director Dan Krauss’ The Kill Team is an absolutely enthralling tour-de-force documentary that stares unblinkingly down the ugly, dirty face of war, offering a sobering look at its specters. There are no heroes to be found here, only the very banality of extreme violence. As Specialist Adam Winfield says, “There are no good men left here.” The Kill Team is the story of a platoon that made headlines in 2010 after it was discovered that 5 soldiers in the group had essentially murdered 3 innocent Afghani civilians “for sport.” The film focuses on Specialist Adam Winfield who had attempted to alert authorities to the “kills” taking place, only to himself be charged by the Army and face a lengthy prison sentence. The absurd dichotomy of someone being labeled a whistle blower and a murderer in the same breath lies at the crux of The Kill Team’s main argument: the military can be a ruthless machine that often victimizes its own, not just the enemy. The terrible face of the “war on terror” is made poignantly human here: “The constant pressure to having to kill and being shot at is overwhelming. It is impossible not to surrender to the insanity of it all.”

Point and Shoot Documentary Review

My review of Point and Shoot

If I could summarize Point and Shoot in one sentence, it would be “Indulgent, self-absorbed man-child fights a war he has no stake in, and comes out the same, unchanged man-child.” Director Marshall Curry pieces together this documentary on Matthew VanDyke, a twenty-something Baltimorean who sets out on a “crash course in manhood” journey to North Africa and the Middle East, eventually ending up as a fighter in the war to oust Gaddafi from Libyan rule.

Any hopes the viewer might have of learning something about that region or that conflict are dashed at the altar of VanDyke’s ego. This is not a travelogue; it’s the VanDyke show, which would be fine if our protagonist was moderately more engaging.

Psychological insights are hard to come by in this film. We meet VanDyke, a self-professed spoiled only child (his mother still does his laundry and buys his groceries for him), who upon finishing a Master’s degree in Middle East Studies at Georgetown without having ever visited the region, decides to fashion himself into a different person by going on a motorcycle trip to MENA. Seeking to emulate an Australian adventurer he saw on TV (yes, seriously) and not speaking a word of Arabic, he sets out on this journey of self-realization and discovery (it’s OK to groan). There’s one minor detail: VanDyke suffers from OCD, so dirty toilets and spilled sugar send him into paroxysms of ritualistic hand-washing. Yet, even this revelation does not, again, offer us any insight into that illness or into VanDyke. It seems like there are a lot of these “meh” moments in the film, and there is no rhyme or reason for their inclusion.

It is not so much his quixotic quest in and of itself that is the issue of this documentary; it is that in the entire film, we literally learn next to nothing about Middle Eastern culture. While in Afghanistan, VanDyke becomes a war reporter of sorts, making films of the U.S. soldiers there and learning how to shoot a rifle in the process. He makes friends with a Libyan “hippie” named Nuri whom he later joins in Libya during the war.

In Libya, VanDyke is captured by Gaddafi’s forces and sits in a prison for five and a half months. There, too, we are left with the maddening lack of details and insight. Five months is a long time, you would think there would be something more revelatory about the experience than the gloss-over of “it changed me forever.” Instead of returning home after he is released from the jail, VanDyke stays on to fight with the rebel forces in Libya.

This is the part of the film that offers probably the only semi-interesting commentary for the viewer, as it’s a glimpse at what modern warfare really looks like. Shooting rifles aimlessly, incessant shelling, total chaos…at times, it appears sadly cartoonish, like a deadlier version of grown men playing at war and taking photos of themselves with guns. It feels oddly surreal and video-gamish. People die, but they are taken by an unseen enemy.

We also see snippets of news coverage of VanDyke who appears interesting only when posited as “an American fighting with Libyan rebels.” Sadly enough, VanDyke’s nationality is probably the only interesting thing about him.

Ultimately, this is an incredibly disappointing film with a dearth of a message or emotion. It is a glorified selfie slideshow.


The Great Invisible Documentary Film Review

My review of the documentary The Great Invisible

Director Margaret Brown’s documentary The Great Invisible offers an unprecedented look at the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its aftermath. Taut and emotional, this is not a film about corporate malfeasance or environmental doom and gloom. Rather, it is the under reported story of the people on the Gulf Coast who suffered a loss of livelihood that could not be recompensed by BP’s victim benefit fund.

When the Transocean-built Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, it killed 11 workers, injured 16, and caused the largest oil spill in US history. The leak was 80 miles wide, spewing 2.4 million gallons of oil a day. After 87 days, only 176 million gallons—less than a third of the spill—were cleaned.

At the time of the disaster, BP CEO Tony Hayward’s assurances that BP’s priorities were to “eliminate the leak and defend the shoreline,” rang rather hollow and placated no one. In the anxious days following the spill, BP’s cost-cutting practices that sacrificed safety for profit received attention. The Great Invisible shines a light on a much scarier and less known issue —BP’s fellow oil giants are no less reckless. In footage from Congressional hearings, we see that Exxon and all of the other oil behemoths are no better equipped to handle spills than BP. Their emergency plans are all prepared by the same company, Marine Spill Response Corporation, and are all equally outdated and inadequate (referencing walruses in the Gulf Coast, natch).

The film talks about the oil drilling culture, explaining how workers were rewarded by the company for offering any money-saving ideas. On the Deepwater Horizon, there were 26 systems that if redundant could have prevented the explosion, but in an industry where time is literally money, the impetus to save time led to perilous decisions on shortcuts that should have never been taken.

One of the greatest strengths of The Great Invisible lies in its examination of the impact of the spill on the lives of the people working on The Gulf Coast. The film takes us to Bayou La Batre, the home of Alabama’s seafood industry. We meet the shrimpers, oysterers, and oyster and crab shuckers whose lives were destroyed by the spill, and we meet the good-natured Roosevelt Harris, who runs a mobile food pantry to help those in need following the disaster. It’s a trenchant commentary, with people who previously earned a living on the fruits of the ocean literally reduced to poverty.

The Great Invisible extensively interviews Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney put in charge of the administering the 20 billion BP victim compensation fund. The film brings up an important point—that what initially was posited as a plus, which is having “money upfront,” and not requiring the victims to litigate for compensation had a much darker underside—that victims could not sue BP for damages much larger than what the fund assessed. More importantly, this fund really took advantage of the people who suffered the most—those Gulf residents who had trepidation about dealing with “big city folk” and did not have the ability to produce the kind of proof of losses required for them to be compensated. Nearly half of the claims filed were rejected—not because of lack of validity but because of lack of “proof.” How does one prove how much money one has lost from not being able to do what one has done for generations!? As one person poignantly put it, “we do things with a handshake here.” Paper proof was impossible to come by. The shrimpers and oysters shuckers from Alabama received nominal sums of a couple of thousand for a loss of livelihood amounting to much more financially and even more importantly psychologically.

The Great Invisible offers a novel take on the 2010 disaster, one not reliant on talking heads but on the people who suffered the most. It ends with an important point: lease revenue from leasing areas to oil companies is the second largest source of income for the U.S. government after taxes. Currently, there are 3500 oil rigs operating in the Gulf Coast, the largest in history and certainly more than in 2010. The U.S. government routinely earns billions from leasing ocean space to oil companies. How surprising is it then that they stand little to gain from regulating deep ocean drilling!? It is a deep quagmire and one that should definitely not let us rest easy.




E-Team Film Review

My review of the film E-Team

E-Team, co-directed by Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman, is an immersive look into the work of Human Rights Watch’s Emergency Team, a group of people that travel to war-torn countries, document human rights abuses world-wide, and then draw media and government attention to those crimes.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the film is in its insider look at exactly how this sort of work takes place, the perils involved, and the authenticity and rigor expected. More specifically, the team is careful to get thorough (multiple) eyewitness accounts, which preempt questions about the veracity of the reports produced by Human Rights Watch. We meet Anna Neistat and Ole Solvang, a husband-and-wife team, who are literally on the ground as bombs are going off around them in Syria. The viewer gets a keen sense that this is not the fare of an armchair philosopher IR wonk; Anna and Ole do not wait until “conditions are safe” to make their way to the conflict areas.

The film’s portrayal of the civil war in Syria is especially poignant. They smuggle themselves across the Turkey-Syria border in 2013 by literally running across a barbed wire fence. There, they take the testimony of frightened Syrian villagers who huddle with them in an apartment rattled by the explosions outside. The sense of terror is palpable, and the feeling of death ever present. In one of the most moving scenes in the film, a mother who has just lost three of her sons, says, “What is the point of talking?” as she cries. E-Team convinces us that even in the incredibly cynical world of politics, the stories of the people suffering – trapped in a situation beyond their control – have incredibly gravity and that suffering should not go unnoticed just because it is so rampant.

We also meet the E-Team’s other members: Peter Bouckaert, a weapons specialist, and Fred Abrahams, the “father” of the group. Abrahams testified against Slobodan Milosevic at the Yugoslav Tribunal, recounting the atrocities he encountered in Albania. Abrahams’ testimony against the smirking Milosevic is an illustration of what happens when the heartbreakingly human meets with the glib heartlessness of the political. The team’s work aims to simply give voice to those who were forever silenced, to shine light on the hidden.

E-Team, despite its very political matter, stays clear of pontificating asides. In fact, one gets the sense that the kind of work Human Rights Watch does is very much the kind of work that journalists should be doing: documenting stories, gathering accounts of various witnesses, and speaking on issues of concern to all of us as humans. Yet, they seem to be able to do more than journalists can. For example, it is their report on the Assad’s regime use of chemical weapons that spurs UN Security Council action on the issues and negates the rebels being blamed for the attack.

The team also visits Libya to document survivors’ accounts of Gaddafi’s attacks on civilians and protesters in 2011. Here we see how the knowledge of weapons experts like Peter is used to pinpoint who fired what weapons, when, and how. In other words, the film does a great job of illustrating the breadth and veracity of HRW’s reports and the extensive knowledge of the people compiling those reports. The organization’s mission, in its own words, is not necessarily to effect policy change per se but rather to document abuses and alert us to them. Despite the harrowing and dangerous nature of their work, the team members come across as atypically down-to-earth and not even a little bit self-righteous or arrogant. The adrenaline junkie zealot stereotype is not to be found here.

E-Team benefits from incredibly tight editing and crisp cinematography that belies the guerrilla-style film-making usually associated with this genre. The engrossing storyline and behind-the-scenes look at human rights work gives the viewer a lot to appreciate.

Time Is Illmatic Film Review

My review of the documentary Time Is Illmatic

“My poetry’s deep; I never fail.”

Twenty years after the release of Nas’ seminal debut album IllmaticTime Is Illmatic offers us a peek behind the curtains of its creation. Unlike other documentaries of its ilk, this is not the standard fare of the “let’s cram as many famous people as possible to sing paeans to the artistic genius” oeuvre. In his feature directing debut, the former graffiti artist One9 directs this not like a wide-eyed fan boy eager to deify Nas but like a museum curator, looking to recreate a piece of history all hip-hop fans, regardless of their position on Nas, would be curious about. Nas describes Illmatic as a record whose intent was “to make you feel that hip-hop is changing, becoming more real.” He wanted to offer a cinematic look into Queensbridge, New York, of the 1990s. Whether Illmatic is *the* hip-hop record of all time is an irrelevant question; few records have come along that have clearly changed the trajectory of their genres and left an indelible mark, regardless of whether they were the first to do so or the best to do so. Illmatic to hip hop is what DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing is to turntablism.
Time Is Illmatic does not require that its audience pay homage at the feet of hip hop royalty and instead offers a hushed-breath-reverance-free look at the making of one of the important records in hip-hop history.Time Is Illmatic starts with a look at Nas’ upbringing, which had a momentous impact on his career as an emcee. His father, jazz musician Olu Dara and his mother, Ann Jones, raised Nas and his younger brother Jabari, a.k.a. Jungle, in an Afro-centric cocoon of art, books, and music quite divergent from the typical Queensbridge household. Nas himself explains that he did not grow up in need. He eloquently speaks about the impact that his father’s library and worldly orientation had on his rhyming; even his name was a reminder to take pride in his roots (“Nasir. That’s the name of a king!”). His mother nurtured him and taught him to work hard. Even though Nas’ father is often cited as the more artistically influential part of his life, Jungle identifies their mother as the anchor and protector.

Time Is Illmatic does not rely on pundits to analyze the social circumstances Illmatic was borne out of, save for a short cameo by Cornel West who discusses the origin of the projects and why so many African-Americans were forced to live in them. But it nevertheless paints a vivid picture of the milieu. For example, Olu Dara describes enrolling Nas into school as “enrolling him into hell. This was not a nurturing school system.” Their father encourages both Nas and Jungle to drop out of school after the eighth grade, despite protests from their mother, because he wants them to follow their entrepreneurial dreams and be men rather than boys. Nas and his upstairs neighbor Will Young, aka Ill Will, start making music in a serious way in between intense bouts of “baking brownies and taping videos” (how’s that for a hip-hop confession!). The hip-hop scene at the time is fresh, colorful, rich.
Fans of old-school hip-hop will also revel in the film’s coverage of the neighborhood rivalries and MC battles on tracks like Marly Marl and MC Shan’s “The Bridge” and KRS-One’s “South Bronx.”Featuring interviews with Illmatic producers Large Professor, Pete Rock, L.E.S., and DJ Premier, Time Is Illmatic certainly knows how to create the setting in an organic way. They bring to life Queensbridge in 1994 and paint a vivid picture of the “N.Y. state of mind.” Hip-hop has always had a close relationship with space and Illmatic is well-established in that pantheon. Illmatic is a look inside a neighborhood ravaged by crack and violence, one where “any and everybody made money by crack or was impacted by it.” Time Is Illmatic is the story of the Queensbridge projects as much as it is the story of Nas. He reflects emotionally on the personal losses he has suffered and on how most of the people from back in the day are either dead or in jail. Q-Tip also makes an appearance, in which he reflects on the poignancy of “One Love,” which takes the form of a letter to a friend in prison: “Congratulations, you know you got a son. I heard he looks like ya, why don’t your lady write ya?” Nas’ dissection of what the system of incarceration does to a community – the damage it inflicts on families and not just the person in jail – is trenchant.
Time Is Illmatic lovingly and honestly chronicles the making of an album that would influence many generations after its release. Like Olu Dara’s jazz staccatos, it has a clipped, vintagy, Wild Style-esque ethos that has an authentically poetic cadence. By allowing Nas and his family to narrate, it offers a richness that could not have been unearthed in any other way.