Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Documentary Watch: Lions and Nilsson and schools, oh my!

Over the past week I've gone on a nonfiction kick, watching a number of documentaries on the big screen and the small.

The Elephant in the Living Room: The best of the documentaries was the one that has gotten the least national attention, but that ought to change. It's a riveting look at the ownership of exotic pets, and the film was shot mostly in Ohio. It focuses primarily on two people. One is an Oakwood police officer who finds it is his unfortunate specialty to catch everything from cougars to deadly snakes. The other is a man who owns two fully grown lions he keeps in a pen in his back yard. By turns informative, heart-rending, astonishing and even suspenseful, it's a must-see. Its writer and director is Michael Webber, a West Middletown native.  GRADE: A

The Tillman Story: We thought we knew the story of Pat Tillman, the NFL player who gave up his football career to serve in the military and was killed in Afghanistan. This documentary reveals that there's a story even beyond the revelation that he was killed by friendly fire. And it's not only about the blatant chicanery in the cover-up of the circumstances of his death. More importantly, it's about the determination of his outraged family, and about the loss of an eminently decent,  unassuming man who never wanted all the attention he got in death. GRADE: A-

Waiting for "Superman" - The best-known documentary turns out to be the weakest of the lot, which is not to say it's bad - it's just not quite as revelatory as it thinks it is. To its credit, it presents startling statistics over just how badly our educational system is flunking, and it offers compelling evidence that a central problem is that the world has changed much faster than the schools. I especially appreciated the demonstration that good education can be achieved in even the poorest of neighborhoods. It's too bad  director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) tries to wrap the movie up in bow and give it a neat ending by implying that charter schools are the answer. Sometimes they are, sometimes not - but the film makes a clear case we've got to start somewhere. GRADE: B+

Who is Harry Nilsson: To most people Harry Nilsson was the guy who sang "Everybody's Talking" and "Without You" - neither of which he wrote. To Beatlemaniacs like me, he was also John Lennon's drinking buddy/partner in mischief. This documentary, talking to everyone from Yoko Ono to Eric Idle to Brian Wilson to Randy Newman, shows Nilsson to be a supremely gifted talent who never got the full credit he deserved in life - partly because he was so self-destructive. Still, this documentary sets the record straight on his resonant influence. It's available on Netflix streaming. GRADE: A

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