Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Documentary Double-Whammy

I rarely talk about or review documentaries on this site. Prior to 2010, I only reviewed one: 2008's Waltz With Bashir. Yet this year, while the available offerings (thus far) for foreign language films have been on the underwhelming side, the docs have picked up the slack. Earlier this year I reviewed Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop, and today I've got two more that are worth taking a look at.

Restrepo - dir. Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington:
Despite being released a year later, this Afghan-war doc makes a perfect companion piece to 09's excellent fictional piece The Hurt Locker. Directors Junger and Hetherington follow a US platoon stationed in the Korengal Valley, considered one of the deadliest regions on earth. As one soldier recounts, 4 or 5 firefights a day is standard, with the sloping, forested valley provided plenty of room for Taliban insurgents to surround and attack at any time. While their, the platoon is tasked with establishing a new outpost, pushing deeper into the valley while under fire and trying to find ways to connect to the local populace, in an attempt to put a dent in the Taliban's control of the region. And while this may be a documentary, it has all of the intensity and emotional weight of a fiction piece. We as an audience spend barely any time with Capt. Restrepo, after whom the men name their new outpost, but that's not important. What is is the way Junger and Hetherington are able to capture the whirlwind of emotions that these men go through over roughly a year spent in the valley, fighting and dying together. The result, which mixes in on-the-ground footage with a healthy does of talking-head bits, is a powerful experience, particularly when the talking heads recount the worst part of a three-day operation, only to have the film jump to the actual footage of the tragedy. It's often said that truth is stranger than fiction, but Restrepo is proof that truth can also be just as moving as fiction.

Grade: B+/A-

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work - dir. Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg:
As evidenced by footage of a vocal heckler, not everyone loves Joan Rivers. Yet while there is some self-promotion involved in this bio-documentary of the iconic comedian, the goal doesn't seem to be to convert you. It simply wants to shed light on a surprisingly complex individual's (continuing) journey through show business. As the film traces one year in the life of Rivers' career, we get a behind-the-scenes look at a woman who considers herself an actress first and above all, despite her place as a stand-up legend. And whether you're familiar with the personal details or not, by the time the doc is over, it's hard not to feel like you at the very least understand and respect Rivers a little more, even if you still aren't a fan. Granted, some parts feel incredibly slanted. When the doc covers Joan and Melissa's stint on The Celebrity Apprentice, we hear the pair talk about how NBC will likely edit the footage to make Melissa appear as the "bad guy" in the situation. But we're not shown anything that even begins to resemble the full picture of what happened between Rivers and competitor Annie Duke. So while A Piece of Work may have some incentive to be biased in certain aspects, it's still a surprisingly affecting piece, and an insightful look at how even legends can still have ups and downs in their careers.

Grade: B

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