January 29, 2011
The Art of the Steal (2010) ***1/2
Directed by Don Argott
The Art of the Steal (2010)- Engrossing activist conspiracy doc. Storytelling is better than one sided argument presented. ***1/2 out of 5
There is almost nothing wrong with the film making in this fascinating documentary unpacking the fight between the city of Philadelphia and a group of zealots who believe that the Barnes Collection of art deserves to remain in the Barnes School in a small suburb right outside Philadelphia. The problem lies in the fact that the argument is not as cut and dry as those behind the film think it is. The Barnes Collection is worth tens of billions of dollars. Granted, those Philadelphians who want the collection might have a great deal of financial interest in the tourism that would result if it was moved five miles into the city. Still, though, I found myself uncomfortable with the fact that Alfred C. Barnes desired to limit the public's access to a culturally significant collection of art. Besides, it was Barnes' own damn fault for leaving the collection to a small college who didn't really know what to do with it. The larger argument centers around the supposedly illegal actions of a number of individuals, including Pennsylvania government officials, who went ahead and did the very things that Barnes' last will and testament demanded against. Indeed, there's a slippery slope here concerning the government seizing private property, but the argument can be made that these are special circumstances. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that I wholeheartedly disagree with the position of those behind The Art of the Steal. I'm simply saying that I'm conflicted. That being said, this documentary is really well done, especially considering the convoluted history of the many people who were in charge of the Barnes Collection over the years. Never once was I confused by all the names and the abundance of legal arguments within. There's a twist towards the end involving a suspicious item in the Pennsylvania state budget that perhaps isn't as damning as the filmmakers clearly think. Otherwise, The Art of the Steal gave me a lot to chew on, and though I have yet to come to any real conclusions, I'm all in favor of a film that has me thinking.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2010) ****
Directed by Judith Ehrlich & Rick Goldsmith
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2010)- Ellsberg's a great narrator. Fascinating doc. ****/5
For someone so radical in his political beliefs, Daniel Ellsberg comes across surprisingly grounded. humble and logical. He narrates and is the primary interviewee in this look back at his decision to photocopy and distribute confidential documents exposing the governmental lies behind the Vietnam War. Ellsberg, who worked for the RAND corporation after a civilian stint in Vietnam, is such a fascinating and impressive presence on screen. By the end, the viewer ends up convinced that Ellsberg did not do what he did for his own benefit. Just watching and listening to him, it's clear that he's not a fame seeker. He simply stood up for what he believed in, knowing full well that it might lead to prison. Feature length documentaries live and die based on the subject matter and the way it's presented. The Most Dangerous Man in America chose both perfectly.
Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?) (2010) ***1/2
Directed by John Scheinfeld
Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?) (2010)- Straightforwardly tells of a brilliant & tragic talent. ***1/2 of 5
For some reason, perhaps because of its title, going into this documentary, I was under the impression that Nilsson was a one hit wonder with the song Everybody's Talkin' At Me from Midnight Cowboy who then disappeared into oblivion or died young. Of course, this is far from actuality. Harry Nilsson was one of the greatest and more popular artists of the early 1970s, releasing many different albums and having a number of hit singles including Coconuts, Without You and One. Nilsson was a singular talent who captured the attention of the Beatles, the band that Nilsson idolized. John Lennon called Nilsson the best American musician out there, and this movie does a commendable job showing why that's not necessarily hyperbolic. Ultimately, there's not a whole lot within Who Is Harry Nilsson that you wouldn't find on any above average episode of VH1's Behind the Music, but after watching this tale of the rise and fall of a musical master, I went on iTunes and bought Nilsson's two-disc greatest hits album. I played it yesterday and absolutely loved it. That in itself must say something about the quality of a movie with the mission of exposing music fans to an under-appreciated artist.
Double Take (2010) ****
Directed by Johan Grimonprez
Double Take (2010)- A bit pretentious, but ultimately a fascinating argument for the Cold War as Macguffin. **** out of 5
This is an odd little docu-essay. Double Take bases its exploration on the assumption that if you ever meet your double, you must kill him before he kills you. According to the film, the Cold War took this maxim to its extreme, as two governments brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Perhaps, the USSR and the USA, despite being enemies, were both equally irresponsible, relying on posturing and hubris in order to demonstrate power over the other. Before the nuclear bomb threats, both countries raced into space to be the first to claim responsibility for the next level of human exploration. Believe it or not, the analogy for all this is based on Alfred Hitchcock and a Hitchcock impersonator who narrates the film. At the time of the growing conflict between the US and the USSR, Hitchcock was starting his television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents and releasing the films The Birds and Topaz. The Birds is about man's arrogance in desiring to control nature, an arrogance that can clearly be seen in the events leading up to the Cold War. Topaz, on the other hand, is a literal film about the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. There is an argument within Double Take about consumerism that I didn't quite understand, though considering that the same commercials for Folgers instant coffee played throughout, it's clearly there. Films like Double Take, much like autobiographical docu-essays such as My Winnipeg, The Beaches of Agnes or Of Time and the City, run the risk of coming across pretentious if they end up too indulgent. There was a short documentary film nominated for an Oscar last year called Rabbit a la Berlin, which is a terrible attempt at meditating on the Berlin wall by way of the rabbits who lived in proximity to it. Double Take could easily have been a similar disaster. Thankfully, it's a fascinating and entertaining watch. I have no idea how Grimonprez came up with the idea to compare the Cold War to Alfred Hitchcock and his definition of a Macguffin, but somehow, it all comes together quite nicely.