Tag Archives: Documentary

“An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power”

LOUISA: 1.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

If you want to feel like you’ve been sitting in one of Al Gore‘s slideshow-heavy environmental lectures for two hours, then by all means go buy a ticket to “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.” This boring follow-up to David Guggenheim’s controversial 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” has all the charm and engagement of watching paint dry (in this case, it’s watching slide presentations, graphs, and former Vice President Gore repeatedly change his boots).

Climate change is an important issue for all humans and saving our planet should be near the top of our to-do list, but bland movies like this one are not the best way to spread the message to the masses.

Parts of the film are persuasive enough, yet there’s no big bombshell and more often than not, directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk unsuccessfully try to tie climate change to some of the most ridiculous events ever (sorry, but repeated massive rainfalls, the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, and his presidential loss to George W. Bush all being attributed to global warming? This is why conservatives hate those of us on the Left). Most with a brain, no matter on which side of political spectrum you fall, will heartily call bullshit on some of the statistics or far-reaching scare tactics presented here.

If the idea behind this film is to mobilize and inspire the younger generation to care about climate change, then sorry Al, you ain’t gonna do it with a snoozefest like this. It’s a thoroughly mediocre movie that’s nothing more than a talking head documentary with charts and stale photography — there’s no flair whatsoever. The film feels like Cohen and Shenk either never had or have lost all passion for the material.

The most compelling story line here is Gore’s visit to Paris for the climate accord but even that gets confusing when we are shown phone call after phone call after phone call between him, a solar company executive, and what I think were government policy wonks (it’s unclear). Everything is so choppily presented that while you can follow along, there’s zero engagement in anything and the international climate policy he’s attempting to change isn’t presented in a clear manner.

The bulk of the doc seems hell bent on scolding climate deniers and responding to skeptics than presenting clear, sound science on the issue. (For the record: just in case anyone thinks I’m one of these skeptics, I am not. I fully support all efforts to combat this serious issue).

As much as I respect Gore and as important environmental causes are to me personally, I must call a dud when I see it.

 

Save

“Obit”

LOUISA: 3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

There’s a bittersweet component that dominates “Obit,” a documentary about the talented journalists working the Obituary desk at The New York Times; a group of writers who themselves are employed by a dying industry. They are all saddled with the stigma of writing about death when in fact, they are writing about a celebration of life.

If you’ve ever read any of the obituaries in The New York Times, then you’re most likely a fan of their always eloquent and oftentimes entertaining send-offs of a notable figure’s legacy. There are those who quickly turn to that section of the paper, diving head first into the 500 to 800 word write-ups just to see who has recently died. Some of your friends and relatives will find you most peculiar, taken aback by your seemingly macabre fascinating with reading the often scorned section of any newspaper. But those in the know will understand how a well crafted and compassionate obituary can leave a respectful, lasting tribute to a person’s legacy. That’s what makes these writers so special.

The story of these unsung journalists is told through a combination of file footage, photographs, and interviews, looking back at some of the most influential people to warrant their own coverage in the paper, from superstar Michael Jackson to Pope John Paul II to little known influencers of history like William P. Wilson (the television consultant who prepped John F. Kennedy for the game changing 1960 debate with Nixon). The stories about the deceased are often just as interesting as the writers themselves, and the concern of balancing facts with an entertaining composition is one with which the writers constantly struggle.

Most Times readers will gleefully enjoy putting the names with the faces of the bylines they see each week, as veteran obit writers Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox, and William Grimes are interviewed at length. The subjects are both authoritative and strange, each brimming with a certain idiosyncrasy that it takes to be assigned to the obit desk. The unexpected star of the film is keeper of the “morgue” (aka the paper’s massive photo and news clippings archive) Jeff Roth. This guy needs his own documentary, as the most entertaining scenes in this movie are of Roth simply thumbing through stuffed drawers and giving a no-nonsense (yet fascinating) tour of cabinet after cabinet of historical treasures, including yellowed photographs and now-antique documents.

As a writer by profession myself, I would’ve liked to see more of the writing processes showed instead of just brief glimpses into a typical day in the life of a Times obituary writer. (It did make me chuckle to see some of the same methods are employed by writers of all pedigrees, from zoning out with a headphone concert to procrastinating coffee runs to hours just staring at words on a computer screen until your brain can conjure that perfect sentence). The documentary also could benefit from a deeper exploration of the challenges surrounding the evolution from the ink and paper news industry to the gotta-have-it-now internet-based immediacy. It’s the rare occasion when there’s a pile of stress or a pressing deadline due to a sudden, surprise death, but it does happen. (The fact that the paper keeps hundreds of advance, pre-written obits on hand is also compelling — if also a little grim).

Eventually the film falls into the common trap that derails most documentaries and becomes a lengthy parade of talking heads. The story lacks a polished flow and the ending is a little too abrupt, but director Vanessa Gould successfully conveys the story of a group of obit writers in a creative and slightly unexpected way. As each writer attests onscreen, their jobs aren’t really that sad or depressing but coming to work every day sure does make them think about mortality a lot. Weber himself takes to reminding the audience that “there’s nothing you can do about dying, by the way.”

As far as newsroom docs go, this isn’t as intriguing as “Page One” but it still manages a lovely exploration of the true craft of writing and is a film that all journalism junkies should seek out.

“Born in China”

LOUISA: 4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Born in China,” the newest documentary from DisneyNature, lands squarely in the middle of the series. While it’s much better than “Bears” and “Wings of Life,” it doesn’t quite reach the heights of “Oceans” or “African Cats.” The Disney-fied story pushes the importance of family and the academic information is brief and spread a bit thin, but it’s still a wonderful educational tool for kids and adults alike.

John Krasinski does a great job as the narrator this go ’round, expressing an adept mix of empathy, humor, and authority. The storytelling format is the same as some of the past films in the series (telling the story in chapters bookmarked by the four seasons) and focuses on three different animal families, all given human-like personas and names so you’ll instantly become attached. This time it’s overprotective panda bear Ya Ya and her new baby Mei Mei, a group of golden snub-nosed monkeys and the outcast Tao Tao, and tenacious mama snow leopard Dawa and her two cubs. Along the way, there are glimpses of chiru (Tibetan antelope), red pandas, and yaks.

To make the film more exciting, there are some obviously clever editing choices that are pieced together in a way to create tension or action sequences (if you can call a hawk nearly picking off an infant monkey for dinner an action piece). Otherwise, it’s a brilliant cinema verite look at the vast, unspoiled terrain and fascinating animals of China. This film is worth seeing for the incredible footage of the snow leopards alone.

The film starts and ends with a harmonious spiritual tone, with majestic slow motion photography of red-crowned cranes taking flight. According to Chinese folklore, natives believe that whenever a crane takes to the sky it carries the soul of a deceased animal on its wings, thereby completing the circle of life. After this somber intro, suffice it to say that it doesn’t end well for one of the families; it’s a moving scene of such tragic beauty that I found myself sobbing uncontrollably. But that’s nature, right?

Parents should be aware that there are some substantial themes at play here and while the film is rated G, it still may be unsettling to some youngsters. You may find it prudent to talk to your kids about symbiosis, general biology, and the food chain before taking them to the theater. This is an absolutely wonderful tool for teaching the younger generation about respect for the environment and the animals that inhabit our planet, and I do not want to discourage anyone from taking a family trip to the movies to see it.

As with all DisneyNature documentaries, “Born in China” has astonishing, impressive camerawork that will at times leave you breathless and in tears from the chills of the sheer beauty of it all. The original score by Barnaby Taylor is as elegant, memorable, and breathtaking as the photography. Be sure to stay through the credits for a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. I’m sure you’ll also be super jealous of the folks whose job it is to shoot these movies.

Sundance Review: “Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press”

LOUISA: 3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

When the online tabloid blog Gawker made the decision to post a sex tape featuring wrestler Hulk Hogan, a multi-million dollar lawsuit brought privacy rights in respect to the First Amendment into the spotlight. In the timely documentary “Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press,” director Brian Knappenberger investigates the freedom of the press and the danger it faces by coexisting with wealthy financiers who bankrolled the Gawker lawsuit as well as political interference from our new President.

The film tells three different stories of shocking information stifling through a series of first person interviews. First is the Hogan story, an exploration of the Gawker lawsuit and the record-breaking $140 million judgment that bankrupted the online media company. Up next is an examination of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel, the man who admitted to secretly bankrolling the lawsuit against Gawker. The third story is also the most compelling: Knapenberger gives us a look inside the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the purchase of that newspaper by right-wing billionaire Sheldon Adelson. This story resonated with me not only because I am from Las Vegas, but it featured a captivating story about gutsy reporters essentially standing up (and fighting) for the freedom of the press when they felt as though their ability to report the truth was being squashed. I wish the entire film had been based on their story. Instead, a good chunk of the film is devoted instead to demonizing Thiel (not that he doesn’t deserve it). While all the stories are well tied together by the ending, this is where the film begins to drag and fall apart a bit.

This is your basic talking head style documentary but it never lacks authority — the film features very credible, well spoken subjects that range from First Amendment judges and political commentators to reporters and columnists. Parts of the film sent a chill down my spine, especially when the Gawker story begins to unfold like a Trump lawsuit playbook; a litigious blueprint where individual reporters are getting sued simply because they do not have the financial means to fight back on their own.

The stories of how the wealthy and powerful are shaping American journalism to fit their needs is more than a little disturbing. Objectivity and freedom of the press is one of the foundations on which our country was based, and its ability to be controlled by those with deep pockets and influential authority is flat out alarming. This film most likely started out as a cautionary tale that suddenly has become very real as our country elected a President who openly and brazenly berates the press for reporting facts. It’s a scary time for journalism indeed, but it’s important to remember that a great subject doesn’t necessarily make a great documentary. Luckily this is a well written, well constructed, and well made film.

“Nobody Speak” ends with a call to action — of sorts. We know it’s up to reporters to dig deeper to expose the truth in our new reality, a society of “alternative facts.” We know it’s up to us as citizens to pay attention. But disappointingly, the film doesn’t give us any clear advice on what we can actually do to ensure the press isn’t met with more roadblocks to their freedom.

This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Save

“Life, Animated”

LOUISA:  2 STARS MATT: 2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

A fascinating subject doesn’t always make a great documentary, and poor filmmaking strains the film “Life, Animated.” The true story of autistic adult Owen Suskind and his family could’ve and should’ve been great, but it fails to live up to its full potential.

As a child, Owen seemed normal but when he turned 3, he suddenly was unable to speak. After years of silence, Owen and his parents (the very sympathetic Cornelia and Ron Suskind) discovered that he could communicate through lines he learned from watching Disney animated films.

Director Roger Ross Williams glosses over the more compelling elements that are presented (the parents dealing with the sudden onset of autism, Owen’s older brother Walter worrying about his role as future caregiver). I realize not every aspect of this family’s story can be covered in one film, but a good filmmaker would’ve recognized these intriguing details and structured their documentary accordingly. There are some truly fascinating anecdotes of Owen’s incredible ability to express emotion and process complex thoughts through scenes from classic Disney movies, and it’s a happy tale to see how highly functioning he is as an adult.

The coming-of-age film is exhaustingly repetitive yet there’s not enough focus in general. The story jumps between Owen’s backstory and his love of Disney movies with his classroom preparations for life as an adult on his own out in the real world. Interspersed between it all are various animated vignettes that don’t really work within the movie’s constructs. The animation is good but unnecessary; I would’ve rather seen the film entirely animated if this was going to be the approach.

“Life, Animated” is just too awkward of a movie to make any meaningful impact on viewers. The story should be uplifting and inspirational, but instead the film feels too uncomfortable in its own skin.

MATT SAYS:

An autistic boy stops speaking at the age of 3. For years, he won’t talk to his parents, his brothers, or the outside world. All that seems to interest him are animated Disney movies. But then, one day, he starts to talk again — by using phrases from the films he loves so much. Gradually, by using movies like “Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid,” his family is able to draw him out of his shell. “Life, Animated” is about this boy (now a young man), his family, and about the challenges of autism.

While “Life, Animated” has an interesting subject for a documentary, at a relatively short running time of 90 minutes the movie is still too long to recommend. The most compelling part of the story — the one I summarized above — is about 1/3 of the movie. Not that there aren’t other aspects of the story that are interesting (there are), it’s just not particularly entertaining.

I learned quite a bit and the movie made me want to know more about what it means to live with autism or with someone who is autistic. So it works as an educational piece. But as a film, it’s just so-so.

“Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made”

LOUISA: 3 STARS MATT:  3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Attention movie lovers: stop what you’re doing and put this documentary at the top of your must-see list. No, not because it’s a particularly well made movie (it’s not), but because if there’s ever been a movie that openly celebrates and clearly translates what it’s like to be a true movie dork to the screen, it’s this one.

“Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made” is a true gem of a subject, especially for those of us who grew up nurturing a love affair with movies. The film chronicles a set of childhood friends from Mississippi (Jayson Lamb, Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala) who spent seven summers of their lives remaking the Steven Spielberg classic “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The kids started the project when they were just 11 years old and they completed every single scene from the film (even changing ages along the way) except for one. Now, 35 years later, the friends reunite to shoot the one missing scene.

The subject sounds great because it is. I found myself rooting for these guys throughout the movie, and it’s really quite inspiring. There are plenty of funny anecdotes from friends, family and the men themselves (some of the homemade special effects, especially the bar that was set on fire, will have you cringe-laughing), and a few famous faces show up to reminisce about when they first discovered the existence of the homegrown remake. There’s plenty to love about this movie and I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises in this review.

Unfortunately, this film (co-directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen) isn’t very skillfully made or well crafted. A lot of this documentary is bogged down with too much self indulgent backstory, lengthy yet vague explorations of the kids’ lives after their Raiders summers, and poor editing (with much jumping around and many tales that go nowhere). There are also several (obviously) staged scenes and sequences that feel like a needless attempt to build more drama than is necessary. I also would’ve liked to see more footage from the actual remake the boys shot (stay for the end credits where you’ll have a scene-by-scene comparison of the original film and their version; it’s an absolute delight).

This documentary is not very well made but that’s okay. The overall crowd-pleasing story of fandom and friendship is fantastic, so much so that even folks who aren’t true movie fans will find plenty to enjoy. Those familiar with “Raiders of the Lost Ark” will like it; those who know the film shot for shot will be super delighted.

MATT SAYS:

Over a period of seven years during the eighties, three kids obsessed with movies get together, summer after summer, to create a shot-for-shot remake of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The resulting film is forgotten for a decade, until it’s unearthed in the early 2000s to become known as “the greatest fan film ever made.”

“Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made” documents the story of those three friends, their experiences in making the film, and the ups-and-downs of their friendship with one another both during and after the years in which they made it. While it’s telling the story of these kids and their movie, the film catches up with them now and chronicles their efforts at finishing now, as adults, the only scene they never completed when they were children: the one where Indy fights the muscular man next to the plane that is moving, propellers turning at full speed.

To a movie nerd like me, I found myself instantly able to relate to these guys. I loved their story and what they were able to accomplish. Scene after scene, I found myself astounded by the lengths to which they went and by what they were able to pull off in making the movie: the special effects shots, the detail in which they storyboarded the film (having only seen it in the theaters once or twice), the sets and scenery. What these kids were able to pull off is nothing short of astounding.

That all being said, this documentary is a good example of why a great subject does not always make for a good movie. The film was not edited well; it used a non-linear format that continually broke up the flow. The filmmakers also didn’t have a particularly good sense of subject, and often spent too much time focusing on story points that were not that interesting while ignoring others that left me wanting to know more. So even though I loved the subject, I did not love the film.

If you’re a movie nerd and have been since you were a kid, you will find much to like here; it’s definitely worth seeking this one out. I just wish the documentary itself was better than it is.

“Weiner”

LOUISA:  4.5 STARS MATT: 3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Chances are, you already know how the story of disgraced former New York congressman Anthony Weiner plays out. You may think “Weiner,” a documentary about the man’s unsuccessful New York City mayoral run, will just be a series of ‘been there, done that’ storytelling. I had the same trepidation going into the screening for this film but instead left the theater having viewed a riveting, engrossing, expertly crafted documentary.

Some viewers may find this film exploitative, focusing too much on Weiner’s personal life that is, quite frankly, none of our damn business. Political junkies (like myself) will delight in this compelling behind-the-scenes peek at the inner workings of a campaign in crisis mode. Watching public relations tactics changing from offensive to defensive is absolutely fascinating, and this timely documentary also tackles the media’s rabid obsession with scandal (and reveals the true power of their public influence when it comes to electing our governing officials).

“Weiner” digs deep in its look at the professional and emotional damage that a political scandal can inflict. Directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, the film obviously started out as a celebratory highlight reel to feature the delight of a disgraced candidate’s comeback. Early scenes in the film are cheerful, filled with boisterous scenes of neighborhood campaigning and percolating with a general ‘yes we can‘ atmosphere. All of this suddenly comes crashing down as we watch, on film, the breakdown of a candidate’s dreams, ideals, and a huge chunk of his personal life.

Weiner is married to Hillary Clinton’s long-time right hand woman, Huma Abedin. Huma is one smart, strong and tough woman, but it’s seriously sad to watch a marriage nearing collapse under the weight of a sexting scandal. Whether intentional or not, this film heavily implies spousal emotional abuse. There are many instances where the camera captures a teary-eyed Abedin with her head hung low, crossing her arms and sadly staring off into space. I have much respect for the family for allowing the camera to hang around, even during some uncomfortably tense and very embarrassing personal moments.

Most viewers will know that Weiner (aka ‘Carlos Danger’) is a trainwreck when it comes to his personal life and most know the outcome of the race for mayor, but this film is still completely mesmerizing. The man’s a political survivor, driven with a sincere desire to work hard to make his city great. His policies and beliefs all make sense — so why can’t this guy keep his stuff together and quit sending naughty photos and inappropriate texts? The most compelling scene in the entire film is when he’s asked on camera if he thinks he “has a problem.” Weiner’s candid response is as weighty as it is revealing.

The smart ‘show don’t tell’ angle of this film makes it a winner. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of my personal ‘Hall of Fame’ docs like “Man On Wire,” “Grizzly Man” or “The Act of Killing,” the film is clear, concise, well edited, and a prime example of what all documentaries should aspire to be.

MATT SAYS:

Anthony Weiner is a compelling figure. As a fiery congressman from New York, he fought both loudly and vigorously against corruption in the political system. He quickly rose up the ranks to become one of the more visible legislators in the national spotlight, until a sex scandal caused him to step down and not run for re-election. Then, less than two years later, he decided to throw his hat back in the political ring, running for Mayor of New York City. His mayoral candidacy was going well, until more information came to light about his previous indiscretions – which effectively ended his run.

There’s no question Weiner is an interesting figure and good subject for a documentary. The filmmakers were given what appeared to be virtually unrestricted access to Weiner’s staff and headquarters, not to mention his home. During the film, we witness the ups and downs (but mostly downs) of Weiner’s efforts to clear his name and get back into politics, and we see the tension and strain that his highly public life and indiscretions have caused to him and his marriage to Hillary Clinton’s trusted adviser, Huma Abedin.

While it’s easy to question (as even the filmmakers do at one point) why the former congressman gave them so much access, it’s hard not to be impressed by what the film shows us. The documentarians seem to be present for virtually every major event, and the reactions they are able to capture from Weiner (and, more importantly, Abedin) tell the story so much better than any narrative can.

While the movie is good, except for a few telling shots of Abedin that it captures at important moments, it never really ventures into greatness territory. The choices made in the editing room are a little questionable here. While we get a taste, at the beginning and in a few other telling moments, about what makes Anthony Weiner an interesting political figure, too much of the film’s attention is focused on his scandals. Even though that does result in those insightful moments with Abedin, the emphasis on the scandal at some point begins to feel a bit sordid.

In fact, the movie is walking a bit of a fine line when it comes to the scandal stuff: on the one hand, it seems to be wagging its finger at us for our prurient interest in what Weiner said, when, and to whom. On the other hand, for a film that would ostensibly question why his private sex life should be the business of anyone besides Weiner and Abedin, it sure does spend an awful lot of time exploring those dirty details. The end result is a bit confusing, and more than a little bit off-putting.

“Where to Invade Next”

LOUISA:    4 STARS    MATT:   4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Love him or hate him, Michael Moore is a skilled filmmaker. Unlike his other films, “Where to Invade Next” is aimed at being more educational and thoughtful instead of an inflammatory flame piece against conservatives. Of course there are a few digs at Dubya and others, but the film doesn’t present Obama in the most positive light either.

The mildly sarcastic premise is great: Michael Moore treks across the globe to “invade” countries and “steal” their best social ideas to bring back to America. He explores women’s rights, education, prison systems, drug policies, sex ed, welfare, commerce, workers’ rights and more. The segment on school lunches in France versus in America was at once enlightening and depressing. When Moore shows a table of French school children photos of actual American school lunches, they nearly recoil in horror — and I had the same reaction. Another high point was Moore’s visit to Tunisia, the unlikely site of a women’s rights revolution. He heads to Italy to interview workers and factory owners, Slovenia to talk to college students, Norway to explore their prison system, Finland to visit schools, Iceland for an education on their financial crisis, as well as stops in Portugal, Germany and France.

The thought provoking material is presented in an enjoyable, scholarly and playful manner that is wildly entertaining as well as highly educational. I kept making mental notes of points to research after the movie was over; I absolutely love when a film teaches me something.

This documentary is funny, sad, inspiring and infuriating. I think you should try to see this movie regardless of your political affiliation. Again, this is NOT a typical Michael Moore movie (it’s not as one-sided or as extremist as “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Sicko,” or “Bowling for Columbine“). If it’s critical of anyone, it’s critical of the American people for our indifference and unwillingness to defy injustice in our own communities.

America is still the greatest country on Earth, but some of our systems are completely broken and we, the people, are the ones who need to demand change. As effectively shown in the film, the fall of the Berlin wall started with a few dissidents with hammers and chisels. A small chip eventually became a larger hole that eventually led to the wall coming down. It’s a  classic Michael Moore advocacy piece: this battle cry to take action will have you motivated to get out there and change the world.

MATT SAYS:

It’s difficult to review a movie like “Where to Invade Next” because a person’s reaction to it may vary based on his or her personal politics. But I’ll do my best.

I went to see the movie not knowing what it would be about. Other than knowing it was a Michael Moore film, I didn’t know what to expect. I was a bit surprised to learn that the movie isn’t really about criticizing the U.S. military-industrial complex (although that criticism is certainly present); instead, the “invasions” refer to Moore visiting other countries to find out what they do right from a social and quality-of-life perspective, and bringing those ideas back to the U.S. And that’s what worked for me about the movie. Instead of simply pointing to things that aren’t working in the U.S., Moore shows us what other countries are doing better than we are. He shares ideas and is constructive in suggesting what we could be doing better for quality of life.

As a film, the movie isn’t quite as well-constructed as some of Moore’s earlier work. It rambles a bit and lacks the laser-like focus of “Roger & Me,” “Fahrenheit 911,” or “Bowling For Columbine.” But what I liked about “Where to Invade Next” is that it isn’t a polemic and isn’t incendiary. There’s no vitriol here. Yes, the picture he paints of life in the other countries he “invades” is a bit idealistic – there are lots of rainbows and unicorns here – but that doesn’t make the suggestions any less worth consideration.

“Where to Invade Next” provides plenty of food for thought and discussion. After seeing the movie, I’m not clear as to what it is I should be doing differently to help bring about this change (vote for Bernie Sanders? vote for Hillary? get out there and protest?), but that doesn’t make it any less worth seeing.

 

Sundance Recap: “Holy Hell”

LOUISA:    2.5 STARS       MATT:    2.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

The unprecedented access to the inner workings of a cult is the biggest strength of this documentary, but even all of that behind the scenes footage couldn’t save “Holy Hell” for me.

Maybe it’s because director Will Allen was a member of the cult himself and couldn’t distance himself from the subject, but I felt like there were so many missed opportunities to examine some deeper issues about the psyche of cults and religion. It’s hard for me to understand how people can be so coerced into following some self-proclaimed guru and even more shocking that some members were enduring such horrible sexual and mental abuse but nobody cried wolf.

The film’s big finale, centering around the eventual disbanding of the cult and a subsequent confrontation of a former member and the leader in Hawaii, is deeply unsatisfying.

This is a mildly interesting documentary that sadly fizzles out all too quickly.

MATT SAYS:

A man spends 22 years filming his own life and personal experiences in a cult named “Buddhafield,” led by a mysterious, charismatic man known only as Michel. In “Holy Hell,” director Will Allen gives us a uniquely personal look into the inner workings of a cult, based on the video he shot for the group while he was a part of it.

Although unique both in its level of access and in its deeply personal connection to the filmmaker, “Holy Hell” is not a particularly well-made documentary. Many questions remain unanswered. The movie fails to shed any real insight into the whys and hows of a cult: what, specifically, attracts people to the group and why do they stay — particularly after the sordid and scandalous details of its leader’s exploitation of the members become public? Why do adults allow themselves to be exploited? What is it in human nature that draws people to groups like this one and why do they refuse to leave even when they know something is very, very wrong? Because it failed to provide any real level of understanding about the answers to the questions, I give it two and a half stars.