Category Archives: documentary

The Queen and the MPAA

Thanks to the wonders of Netflix, I just saw two movies of note.

Finally saw The Queen with the amazing Helen Mirren. The Queen of the title is the very much living Elizabeth II. The film centers around the events following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. It’s a quiet film really. The reason I would suggest everyone run and rent this is because of the astonishingly powerful performance of Helen Mirren. The filmmakers wisely chose to focus on a couple of the members of the Royal Family. They also cleverly used news footage of Diana in a montage fashion that was very effective. Well worth seeing.

This Film is Not Yet Rated is a totally different kind of film. After the death of the Production Code, the MPAA was formed. This is the body that determines what rating a film gets.

Which I have to admit is an issue I haven’t paid much attention to. I’m over 17 and I don’t have kids. I can’t remember the last time I actually noticed what rating a film got. As a lot of the filmmakers interviewed in this documentary explain, a rating can determine how much money the film makes or what type of audience sees their movie. The wrong rating can, in short, be the kiss of death.

So who are the people who rate the movies? What is their process? What are their specific decisions?

No one really knew – at least until this documentary.

And really, even after this documentary, it still seems like the Vatican is a more transparent and accountable organization than the MPAA. Which is my chief objection to it. I am not opposed to a ratings system. Frankly, I think there’s a place for it in America today. What I do object to is that this organization operates like a Star Chamber. There is no reason why the raters at the MPAA need to be anonymous. Nor should it be unaccountable.

And it is.


Wordplay is a brilliant little documentary about crossword puzzles. Yep, that’s right crosswords, Will Shortz, the people who do them, the people who make them, and the people who gather every year in Stamford, Connecticut to compete at solving them.

I got the film through Netflix not knowing anything beyond that it was about crosswords and that two of my friends had it in their queues. I like documentaries. I like crosswords. I thought, hey, let’s give it a shot.

First off it’s masterfully edited by a man named Doug Blush. If anyone had told me you could have a riveting 2-3 minute sequences with a guy showing how a crossword is made, I would have said they were crazy, but he did it. Filmmakers Patrick Creadon and Christine O’Malley did a terrific job with this film. They managed to get Jon Stewart, the Indigo Girls, Mike Mussina, Bob Dole and Bill Clinton to provide interviews. The top crossword contestants are articulate and witty and interesting in and of themselves. The topic itself is cool. I had no idea how much art goes into constructing a crossword puzzle.

Plus, and this is what I love about this movie. So many different people in all walks of life solve crosswords. As Shortz comments, it’s a solitary pursuit, but at the same time (this is me saying this here), it’s a common pursuit. I have really special memories of my parents and I fighting over the Sunday paper or talking about the clues. I’m by no means a master at them, but I struggle along in my own way and enjoy the process.

The extras on this DVD are almost as good as the film. I particularly loved the stories behind 5 different NY Times crosswords – how they were made and what was different about them.

One of the most engrossing and fun films I’ve seen in a long time.

Music and Murder

Picked up two movies from a discount bin a couple of weekends ago. Totally different types of films too.

Mad Hot Ballroom is a charming if light documentary about a program that incorporates ballroom dancing into elementary schools. It’s a neat idea in and of itself. The filmmakers follow three different schools as they prepare for a final citywide competition. A lot of the reviews were critical about the focus on the competition in lieu of focus on the children. I can see the point. This is not a hard-hitting documentary and I have to wonder if the filmmakers made a conscious choice to go this way. It probably was more marketable if only because it had a recognizable/Hollywoodesque plot. It is still worth seeing, however.

On the other end of the spectrum was Capote. The focus of the film is on Truman Capote’s research into the Clutter murders (two ex-cons broke into a Kansas farm house in the erroneous belief there was money and brutally murdered an entire family) that eventually became his “non-fiction novel,” In Cold Blood. Capote is masterfully portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, which seems like weird casting. Hoffman is a stocky 5’9′; Capote was 5’3.” But he nails it. Catherine Keener plays Harper Lee and in a throwaway role, Chris Cooper is the local state police chief.

It’s a thought-provoking and somewhat disturbing movie. Capote feels drawn to one of the killers (Clifton Collins Jr.) whose life has marked parallels to his own. Nonetheless as he pours literally years into writing the book, he comes to realize that for a successful ending, he needs the killers to die.

You can never be too rich or too thin

Or can you?

HBO has a documentary out called simply “Thin.” I heard about it when I was at the Dr’s office and read an article about it in People (yeah, I know, not very high-brow, but it was between that and some fish and game mag). Thin concerns four young women who suffer from eating disorders as they are being treated at Renfrew. It’s a fascinating documentary, harrowing at times–the worst bit is toward the end where Brittany (the youngest of the four subjects who at under 100 pounds wants to lose 40 more) is in her last group therapy session. Three of the subjects have been active in forums and such, but I can’t find out what happened to to Brittany, whose interviews still haunt me.

Really, really worth seeing.