Tag Archive: documentary


Love Etc. (2011): Grade: B-

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Is this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? Love, Etc. is available for rent via the iTunes Store and Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Jill Andresevic

American romantic movies fall into two camps. The first type offers an escapist/fantasized version of romance, where the world looks like the love child of Starbucks and Banana Republic. The lovers are poster children of conventional beauty, and so long as they find each other attractive, chemistry inevitably follows. The story doesn’t bother itself with such petty things like personality and such dilemmas as dealing with what the couple will do once the passion dies off. Examples of this are not difficult to find because EVERY SINGLE FUCKING HOLLYWOOD ROMANCE falls under this camp.

The second type shines a harsh white light on romance and reveals all the ugliness that exists beneath its facade. These films deal with such realities as the dying out of passion in a relationship, lack of chemistry, financial limitations, children, and breakups. The characters in these films look like everyday people (more or less), they lead everyday lives, and they have everyday problems. Sometimes the relationships work and sometimes they don’t. Recent examples of such films are Blue Valentine, Like Crazy, Revolutionary Road, and many of Woody Allen’s movies.

Director Jill Andresevic’s Love, Etc. is a light, frothy documentary that mostly lands in the second camp, but it also gives the film a romantic sheen with its beautiful rendering of New York City. The film follows five stories over the course of one year in the five boroughs. The first story (“First Love”) is about two high school seniors, Danielle and Gabriel, who are in their first serious relationship. The second (“Single”) is about Scott, a single, gay man who bravely decides to become a surrogate dad of twin babies. The third story (“Getting Married”) presents Chitra and Mahendra, a newlywed Indian couple who go through difficulties of Mahendra’s being unable to find a job and the couple’s doubts as to whether they got married too soon. The fourth (“Starting Over”) introduces us to Ethan, a divorcee construction worker who is raising two teenagers while looking for a new partner. The fifth story (“Lasting Love”) is about Albert and Marion, an elderly songwriting couple who has been married for 48 years. As Marion begins to battle dementia and failing health, Albert becomes her caretaker in their twilight years.

Although both Love, Etc. and Crime After Crime (the last film I reviewed, which you can catch here: https://voiceofcinema.wordpress.com/2013/09/22/crime-after-crime-2011-grade-c/) were distributed by the Oprah Winfrey Network, there is a stark contrast in quality between the two films that is indicative of what a lot of money and talent can do to make your film stand out. One of my biggest issues with Crime After Crime was the film’s lack of style, depth, and the educational/corporate video feel the film had. I suspect the reason for this was a combination of lack of funding to produce a more polished looking movie and perhaps the filmmaker’s experience. On the other hand, you look at Love, Etc. and you can immediately tell that the documentary had plenty of money backing it up and it had a highly talented production crew to put it together.

For example, despite this film being her first feature film, director Jill Andresevic has produced award-winning marketing campaigns for Nike, and has made over 40 short documentaries for Cadillac that featured stars like William H. Macy and Jay Leno. Her backers and producers are also highly experienced individuals who have won Emmys, produced independent films for major filmmakers, and who possess a lot of money and connections to have gotten this documentary made. As an additional and interesting note, the memorable music score for Love Etc. was composed by Rob Simonsen, who also scored this past summer’s The Spectacular Now.

More money and more experienced talent does not automatically translate into a better film and the movie landscape is littered with the carcasses of big-budget films made by the best talent money can buy. However, Andresevic and the producers behind Love Etc. had a clear vision of what they wanted their movie to be about, how it would look and sound, and they had the means and experience to bring their vision to life.

Each story in Love Etc. represents the various stages of a romantic relationship (a teenager’s first love, getting married, breaking up, being single, and growing old together). Like Woody Allen back when he still made films in NYC, director Jill Andresevic also uses the city as a character in her film, beautifully rendering the city as a romantic backdrop to these relationships (I’m sure it helps that the executive producer of this film, Jonathan Tisch, is a former chairman of NYC’s tourism bureau).

Love Etc. does not shed some profound light on a puzzling question that has confounded humanity since the beginning of time. Nor does it intend to, and unfortunately, it seems like the movie critics have punished it for somehow not being ambitious enough. Drawing its inspiration from all of those romantic comedies and reality shows we never get sick of watching, Love Etc. simply gives us the real version of that in a nice Hallmark envelope. In a way, this film serves as a behind-the-scenes for Hollywood romantic comedies and “reality” shows – Andresevic is showing us what the real couples who inspire these movies and shows are like. Some of the stories portrayed are more compelling than others. I for one was unable to get into the teenage relationship and it was exasperating listening to the two teenagers coo over each other and lament how much they will miss each other when they go off to college. On the other hand, the story of the old songwriting couple is a sentimental and warm story that made me wish an entire film was made just about them. When you watch 79-year old Albert stir a can of Campbell’s tomato soup for his wife, Marion, your eyes well up because even in such a mundane thing as stirring soup in a can, you can see how much Marion means to Albert.

Jill Andresevic obviously gained her subjects’ trust to confide in her to reveal intimate details about their relationships. With a combination of lucky happenstance and an instinct to capture true moments, Andresevic provides us with surprising revelations that I would normally only expect a more experienced director to pull off. One such revelation occurs three weeks after Chitra and Mahendra’s wedding. The newlywed couple is sitting on their couch arguing about how little Mahendra does around the house. When they eventually bring up the issue of whether they got married too soon, to my shock Mahendra pretty much admits that the marriage was a mistake! The film is peppered with these moments and Andresevic makes sure that each story receives its equal share of screen time.

Despite how beautifully New York City is captured by DP Luke Geissbühler, I wish we could for once have seen a different city receiving the spotlight. Imagine how beautiful San Francisco or Chicago would have looked through Geissbühler’s eye? The film would have also benefited more if it had spent more time observing the couples engaging in the actions and situations they instead described to the camera in interviews.

I enjoyed watching Love Etc. even if my level of enjoyment was only slightly more than what I would have gotten from a well done reality show on Bravo. As a result, the film does not stay with you once it is over, but at least for the few hours you are watching it, Love Etc. gives you a nice realistic warm and fuzzy escape.

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Crime After Crime (2011): Grade: C+

CrimeAfterCrime_poster-large1Is this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? Crime After Crime is available for rent via Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Yoav Potash

I enjoy trashing messy, big budget action movies like the ones Michael Bay puts out, or bad major studio films from directors who get paid a lot of money for what they do. I do not enjoy trashing movies made by the blood, sweat, and tears of newbie filmmakers who hit the pavement day after day to find organizations willing to throw enough pocket change to fund their film and spend many years and sleepless nights putting their labor of love together. For one, I open myself up to the criticism of, “I didn’t see you making a fucking movie.” Cheap shot, I know, but its one critique I have often heard before. For another, the entire filmmaking process from conception to sale is an indescribably difficult process for any filmmaker. Not that my reviews are widely, if ever, read, but a negative review on the internet makes a bigger impact on these smaller films, which depend more on good word of mouth to even register on the public’s peripheral vision, than the bigger studio films. Finally, when the film you are reviewing also happens to be one that is trying to educate you about something, I am even more reluctant to criticize the film, and am willing to give the film far more leeway in the interest of recognizing the filmmaker’s effort to make us aware of an important social or political issue.

With this in mind, it took me far longer than the 2 milliseconds it normally takes me to decide a Michael Bay movie blows to determine that, despite its important message and the compelling journey Deborah Peagler endured to get out of prison, Crime After Crime is an underwhelming account of that journey. Crime After Crime was a widely acclaimed film that earned a place at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 (no small feat), and garnered 25 major awards (Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, The National Board of Review’s Freedom of Expression Award, the Hillman Prize for Broadcast Journalism, and a New York Times Critics’ Pick). Bay Area filmmaker, Yoav Potash, took over 5 years to put this documentary together with support from the Sundance Documentary Fund, the San Francisco Foundation, the Bay Area Video Coalition, and Netflix, among others. The cherry on top was broadcast and home video distribution by none other than the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Crime After Crime is about the case of Deborah Peagler, a woman from South Central Los Angeles who was wrongly convicted to serve 25 years to life in prison for the murder of her abusive pimp boyfriend, Oliver Wilson. 20 years after her incarceration, two rookie land use law attorneys who knew nothing about criminal law, decided to represent Deborah pro bono, and get her out of prison. Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa, the two unlikely attorneys who took on Deborah’s case, pulled off the near hopeless task of finding long-lost witnesses, smoking gun evidence purposely withheld from public view, and uncovering corruption at the highest levels of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office.

We love stories about those who get wrongfully imprisoned by the criminal justice system for something they did not do. These stories draw audiences in because they are about the blameless underdog, the Davids who stand up to the Goliaths (the corrupt prosecutors, stone-faced judges, and ignorant juries) and face seemingly insurmountable odds. Films such as The Shawshank Redemption, In the Name of the Father, and A Thin Blue Line exemplify this. Crime After Crime provides an interesting wrinkle to these types of stories in that Deborah Peagler was not entirely blameless. On May 27, 2982, she did, in fact, lead Oliver Wilson, the father of her daughter, to a park in Los Angeles, where two Crip gang members beat Wilson to death. In short, despite how cruel and abusive Oliver Wilson had been to Deborah, and how deserving he probably was of an ass beating, Deborah technically committed a crime under the laws of this country.

This film goes beyond simply asking whether Deborah Peagler served her “debt to society,” because there is absolutely no doubt that she did. Under the Penal Code section and sentencing laws applicable to her crime, Deborah should have only served a maximum of 6 years! The more important question posed by this film is whether Deborah even deserved to have been imprisoned for what she had done. For that, I am going to provide you with a very brief legal background on how victims of domestic abuse are treated under the law.

In 2002, California became the first state to allow battered women convicted of killing their batterers to petition to the court what is called a “writ of habeas corpus,” containing evidence proving that the battering led to the killing. With this petition and their evidence, convicted women could now seek a whole new trial, to reduce their sentence, or try to get some other type of remedy. Because most of these women did not know the law, understand the legal process, or have an attorney, the California Habeas Project was formed to recruit and train volunteer attorneys to help these women file their petitions. This is how the two lawyers in Crime After Crime became involved in Deborah’s case.

Within the first few minutes of seeing Deborah, you immediately sympathize with her. One would expect to encounter an angry, hateful individual pissed at the world for imprisoning her far beyond the number of years required for her crime. After all, here is someone who was (1) regularly beaten and made to become a prostitute by her boyfriend; (2) sentenced to serve more years in prison than what is allowed under the sentencing laws; (3) improperly/illegally prosecuted by a corrupt and powerful Los Angeles D.A.’s office that refused to acknowledge its wrongdoing; and (4) became diagnosed with terminal lung cancer while in prison. Instead, we see someone whose glass is always half-full. Deborah is a survivor and she has transformed her unfortunate circumstance into opportunities to educate herself (she earned two Associate degrees while in prison), and to help others (she has helped many women in prison to read and write). She is a remarkable woman who exudes a strong maternal quality, and who holds a strong belief in God. In getting to know Deborah and her family, you cannot help but imagine what it would be like if your own mother was improperly imprisoned for 26 years, and your entire childhood interaction with her consisted of sporadic, brief meet-ups at the prison.

Deborah’s story is not unique. There are thousands of women who were imprisoned under the same exact circumstances as her. Many of us may have already heard or read similar stories. However, how many cases have you heard of in which someone has managed to receive parole with the help of attorneys who know nothing of criminal law, and after being repeatedly rejected by the parole board and the courts? As an attorney, I can attest to the difficulty of what attorneys Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa were able to accomplish. The result with which Safran and Costa got for Deborah is something that most times is only seen in the movies. Their success is all the more impressive when you consider the fact that they worked with Deborah for 7 years without receiving any monetary compensation and in addition to meeting the various obligations of their regular day jobs. Any attorney looking for a dose of inspiration or motivation should look no further than this film.

Adding yet an additional layer of interest to Deborah Peagler’s story is the corruption and secrecy committed by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office relating to her case. The city of Los Angeles has always been saddled with a reputation of having corrupt politicians and police officers (e.g. the police officers involved in the Rodney King beating, the recent revelations in the city of Bell, etc.), all of which has been memorialized in such films as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. Here, for reasons not fully explored in the film, the D.A.’s office managed to convict Deborah through the use of an unreliable witness and the suppression of evidence. In internal correspondence that were kept secret during Deborah’s trial, even the D.A.’s office admitted that the evidence against Deborah was unreliable. And yet, they were still willing and able to get the court to impose a 25-to-life sentence on her.

The underlying story of Deborah Peagler and her legal journey to freedom is a compelling and inspirational story that has a nice mix of drama, hope, and suspense. Unfortunately, Crime After Crime does not fully explore the various facets of this story on the same scale as a filmmaker like Errol Morris has done with this same subject matter. On a general note, the tone and structure of this film comes off feeling more like something made specifically for instructional use in schools and other institutions rather than a film intended to be shown theatrically. Its progression from Deborah’s story, to the lawyers involved, and finally to the revelations concerning the D.A.’s office is too cleanly outlined as if I was watching an episode of Unsolved Mysteries (sorry for dating myself there with that reference). There is a general lack of spontaneity that the film sorely needed.

Throughout the film, I always felt that filmmaker Yoav Potash was either somehow restrained from delving deeper into his subject matter or he just simply chose not to take that next step to better illuminate the facts and characters of the story. For example, I never got a good sense of what Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa were about. Sure, we learn how Safran’s Orthodox Jewish belief guides him to help those in need, and we learn that Costa had a painful experience in her past that helped her relate to Deborah’s situation. However, I felt there was even more to explore in terms of what these attorney’s lives were like in balancing their family life with their day jobs and their work on Deborah’s case. Related to this was the work of the late investigator, Bobby Buechler. This man has a very interesting background that is never touched upon. It may have been that Buechler wanted to keep his contacts and investigative methods a secret, but I think there was a huge missed opportunity by not spending some time with him and how he obtained his evidence to support Deborah’s case.

Most disappointing is how little the film digs into the levels of corruption at the L.A. District Attorney’s office. Much of this may and probably was due to the lack of resources and access to delve more into this issue, and the risk that Deborah’s case may have been jeopardized if filmmaker Potash decided to pull a Michael Moore on the D.A.’s office. Nevertheless, aside from two moments in which Potash confronts Deputy D.A. Lael Rubin and D.A. Steve Cooley about Deborah’s case, the film just scratches the surface of the corrupt workings of the D.A.’s office.

Crime After Crime is an illuminating account of how dysfunctional our criminal justice system is. Having the facts and law be on your side does not necessarily mean you will gain justice for your client, and this film shows how depressingly common this is in American society. Despite the film’s shortcomings, Crime After Crime is still one that should be watched by not just attorneys and advocates of victims of domestic abuse, but by everyone. Like me, you will probably be shocked to learn that the vast majority of women in prison are there because they killed their partners in response to being abused and battered by them. How California remains the only state to address this problem with its laws (which it only addressed recently in 2002) is just as perplexing as the parole board and District Attorney’s office’s refusal to acknowledge this problem.

conan-o-brien-can-t-stop-originalIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime.

Starring: Conan O’Brien playing Conan O’Brien

Directed by: Rodman Flender

Please understand that I have a lot of respect and admiration for the comedic talents of Conan O’Brien and I rank him among the very greatest late night comedians of television. But, and a big but at that, I absolutely cannot sympathize in any possible way with the comedian’s perceived unfairness in being shafted by NBC in 2010 to be replaced by Jay Leno. Exacerbating my lack of sympathy for Conan is the anemic labor market in 2010 where it seemed (and it continues to a lesser extent today) you were either unemployed, employed with lesser pay, or employed but afraid of losing your job. Conan lost his job too, but he also got to pocket approximately $33 million in the process. So although I felt that NBC made a big mistake firing Conan O’Brien over Jay Leno, Conan was more than compensated monetarily for leaving the network and, in the end, he returned to television with a new show.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a documentary that takes place in 2010 between Conan’s firing from NBC and the beginning of a new chapter in his career at TBS, where he got his own show again. Following his departure from NBC, Conan was contractually prohibited from appearing on television as the host of a program for 6 months. However, nothing in the contract barred him from appearing before a live audience on stage so between April and June 2010, Conan went on a 42-show tour in the U.S. and Canada. The concert tour was called The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour and this documentary follows Conan O’Brien and his posse of writers, musicians, producers, his assistant, and Andy Richter as they tour the country with their show.

Are there qualities that separate those who are very successful in life in terms of power and wealth from everyone else? Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop made me think that there are and those qualities appear to be drive, ambition, and a huge ego. Regardless of whether he was motivated by a need for attention, a need for continual acceptance, or a steady high income, Conan O’Brien is a very ambitious individual. Conan hardly looked back at his two-decade long late night show before he began immediately hatching plans for a comeback. While he was busy negotiating with other networks for a new show, Conan figured “oh, why not” and he decided to launch a concert tour, something which he had never done before. Then to his and everyone else in his crew’s surprise, the concert tour became an instant success. To top that off, a financially successfully and well-received documentary film was also made out of it.

Among my favorite documentaries are those that shed light on the inner workings of show business. I am especially drawn to those that give us a peek into those celebrities who keep their lives private. Madonna’s Truth or Dare comes to mind as an excellent example. Truth or Dare chronicled Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition Tour and we got a glimpse into the Material Girl’s insecurities, humor, and compassion that made us connect with the singer. I was hoping to get that same quality with Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, but unfortunately that was not to be the case. Although we bear witness to Conan O’Brien’s anguish over getting fired from NBC and we see how it affects his relationship with his family and crew, I felt like Conan still maintained a distance between himself and the cameras. What we basically got is akin to a stand-up comedian’s routine about his life. To be sure, there are little bits and pieces scattered throughout the film. For example, Conan discusses the effect his anger at NBC has on his family and he admits later on his struggle between his love of show business and balancing that with his family duties. However, by the end of the film, I did not feel like I knew this man any better than I already did based on his late-night show.

At the same time, what we see of Conan O’Brien does not really paint him in a very flattering light. This film does not intend to portray Conan in a particular way, but I came away from this movie thinking of Conan as sort of a jerk (that at least he admits in the film) who claims he is not entitled to anything, but he ends up acting like he is entitled to his own show. It is clear from the film that Conan has a thin skin in dealing with the politics and business of show business as we see from his always stressed out behavior. Even after he completes one of his tour stops and discovers what a rousing success it was, his moment of rejoice is short-lived before he succumbs to fretting about something and fuming about his circumstances.

For a film about a comedian and a comedy tour, I was also surprised by little humor there is in Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop. Its not that Conan isn’t funny. He is always joking around to be sure (and the film shows us just how wickedly smart the man is with the rapid-fire witticisms that seem to come so easily to him), but his constant anger and depression over his situation really dampens the atmosphere and creates a constant sense of tension during the tour. I kept expecting him to blow up into a tantrum at any second (and maybe he did outside the cameras’ views). It is amazing to see how hard Conan works in this film. As the tour winds down, he appears gaunt and absolutely spent. I am surprised he didn’t simply fall off the edge of madness and I can imagine this insanity was exacerbated by the behind the scenes negotiations he and his agent/manager were probably doing to get him a new show.

Many of the best moments in Truth or Dare were the stories behind Madonna’s crew. The lives of Madonna’s tour members and their interactions with each other were equally compelling to Madonna’s own life and experience on her tour. In contrast, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop focuses almost exclusively on Conan and the only thing we see regarding the rest of his tour crew is whenever they are interacting with him. It would have been nice to have heard what others in the film thought of Conan’s raw deal from NBC, whether they were worried about having a job, and how they dealt with being away from their families and regular lives while on tour. Andy Richter, Conan’s sidekick, is barely a presence in the film as he says and does very little.

One thing that Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop does well is show us the grueling and laborious nature of putting on a show. Even one as hastily and cheaply put together as this one. It is tiring just watching the crew travel from Eugene, Oregon, to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, Canada, and the Bonnaroo Festivel in Tennessee. With the exception of his assistant, its not like Conan and his posse are a bunch of 20-year olds with a lot of energy. There is constant retooling of the show to make it better. To add to this laborious effort is the celebrity ritual of having to go out there after each show and greet fans and industry people with whom Conan clearly does not want to meet.

Conan O’Brien is among those few people in this world who must perform. The only place he feels comfortable is on the stage in front of an audience. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is also about this obsession. What Conan O’Brien is unable to stop doing is being on, being a performer, and having an audience. I have known people like this in my life and it is virtually impossible for them not to attempt to attract attention. The film is almost like seeing someone whose air is about to be cut off and he is grasping at the final straw to survive. Conan looks like he is willing to do just about anything he can to keep his audience. Even when he has a night off, Conan still goes out and meets fans, signs autographs, and performs somewhere (like the Harvard talent show).

I did not dislike Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, but I was hoping the documentary would have been inspired by Conan’s ambition and drive to succeed rather than present us with a sloppy assemblage of footage that is really strictly for Team Coco fans. There is much I admired about Conan such as his work ethic, but at the same time, I could not sympathize with someone whose ego and sense of entitlement have completely taken him over.

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