Even though most movies are in the same boat in TIFF –in hot pursuit of a distributor- , documentaries have it harder than fiction: No stars to help with the promotion, a history of underperforming at the box office, and topics frequently from outside the mainstream.
One of the cleverest strategies to bring attention to a film was devised by director Jon Shenk. His film The Island President presents the drama of the Maldives, likely the first country to disappear if sea levels continue rising. Shenk brought the chief of state himself to plead his case to an audience. I still have to catch up with that flick, resting on the top of my to-do pile for the rest of the festival.
I did have the opportunity to check Morgan Spurlock’s latest, Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan’s Hope. As usual the tone is light and jokey, but the documentary marks a major departure for Spurlock, who for the first time took himself completely out of the picture. On top of that, the cinematography is crisp and clean, far cry from the VHS look of his early work.
As the title gives away, the film is about the San Diego geek-a-palooza. Originally a point of encounter for magazines and toys collectors, Comic-con now moves millions and it’s regularly used as a launch pad for Hollywood blockbusters. Thankfully, Spurlock focuses on the fans: Two illustrators hoping to break in the business, a costume designer about to unveil a video-game inspired collection, and a broker trying to sell the first number of Red Raven for half a million dollars. He has the best line of the film: “When a woman tells you to grow up, it’s God’s way to tell you to get a new woman”.
The heart of Comic-Con Episode Four lies in two geeks who met in the convention years ago and are now in a relationship. He plans to propose, but can’t free himself from her to pick up the engagement ring. The documentary stays away from easy mockery and celebrates the candor of the fans, while mourning the commercialization of the event. Three slightly misogynistic prairie dogs.
Much more ambitious is Urbanized by Gary Hustwit, a favorite of the Wallpaper crowd. Hustwit niche is design: His first film was about a type font, Helvetica, and was more captivating than it had any right to be. The scope of Urbanized is much bigger: City planning strategies to make urban concentrations more tolerable. In the next thirty years, 75 percent of the world population will live in cities, and it’s expected at least a third will reside in slums. Hustwit takes us around the world to see the most ingenious and successful strategies to restore quality of life to a large metropolis.
More than changing the public transportation system or stimulate the use of buses, Urbanized is about bringing back the idea of community, which was the reason cities were created in the first place. Many of these measures are counter-intuitive: Traffic jams won’t be solved by building more roads. They will only attract more cars and make the commute longer. It’s truly fascinating to understand that every element in the city responds to a strategy and how best laid plans can falter when the human factor gets into play. My only complaint is that Urbanized is way too short. Perhaps the right format for this concept should be TV. Four prairie dogs living in caves bigger than my apartment.
The story of the West Memphis Three, sentenced to death for the murder of three kids, has been told mostly through the Paradise Lost films. The latest one, Purgatory, is by far the weakest, hurt by timeliness (the WMT were freed four days after the film was finished) and lack of new material.
Purgatory spends over an hour repeating the story most of the audience already knows (the teenagers were convicted based on circumstantial evidence and unsustainable allegations of Satanism). Even the news clips are the same from the first two films. It seems like director Joe Berlinger had to pad the film in order to justify a feature length.
However, the few nuggets of new information are a doozy. DNA tests clear the WMT of the crime, but the obtuse judge who has been blocking every appeal since the conviction refuses to hear new evidence. Additionally, allegations of jury misconduct pile-up and a clear suspect emerges: Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the victims. The man in question thought he would hit jackpot by demanding the Dixie Chicks for defamation. Not only he didn’t: By engaging in this process, Hobbs agreed to a deposition that destroyed his alibi.
It’s not in the movie, but you should know that in order to leave jail after 18 years, the WMT stroke a deal with the prosecution for time served. Their innocence may never be acknowledged by “the people”. Two Prairie Dogs who are not themselves when they get angry.
Tomorrow, a movie about Shakespeare directed by Roland Emmerich (2012, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow). Not crazy optimistic about that one.