The Queen of Versailles (12/15/12)

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The Queen of Versailles follows the lives of one of the richest families in the US as their fortune falls from under them during the economic downturn.

David Siegel is the owner of the largest time-share business in the United States. He has become insanely wealthy from his business ventures and along with his former beauty queen wife, Jackie, the two plan on building the largest single house in the country at over 90,000 sq. feet, nicknamed Versailles. Before the sprawling mansion can be completed, the real estate bubble bursts and the Siegel family, along with their 8 kids and many dogs, are hit hard financially. This documentary follows the Siegels during their rise and fall.

The Queen of Versailles is an interesting documentary because while the economic hardships that befall the Siegels add a different layer to the film, it seems the original intent was simply to show how a family this wealthy lives. If you’ve ever wondered “what kind of people could afford to build a 90,000 sq. foot mansion?” The Queen of Versailles has your answer.

Most of the film centers around Jackie, who I believe is 48 but acts like she is still in her late teens. Her kids run rampant, as do her dogs, and outside of David, the family has no regard for their money as if it comes from a faucet. Oddly, Jackie came from very humble beginnings but has lost herself in the lifestyle of being so incredibly rich. When the business begins to falter, the family is unable to cut back – mind you, they are still incredibly wealthy – and live even a remotely modest life.

In the same way that reality television is so fascinating, The Queen of Versailles is a train wreck. It’s a great little documentary that has deservedly gained lots of press and is surely a contender come awards season. The Siegels are easy to hate but also incredibly humanized at times. There are certain scenes with the family that could take place in a small shack somewhere, but instead take place in a huge mansion in Florida. I was glued to the screen during The Queen of Versailles and I almost want a trashy reality television series to come out of it, because I’d watch that too.

I give it 4 shots of Versailles, USA out of 5.

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Bill Cunningham New York (9/25/12)

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Bill Cunningham New York is a documentary about an iconic New York Times fashion photographer.

Bill Cunningham has worked for the New York Times for decades and is most well known for his “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” fashion photography columns. We follow Bill as he rides his bicycle around New York city taking photographs of fashion trends that he finds interesting. Most of the fashion Bill photographs is strange, colorful, and unique but he says himself that he takes pictures of things he likes. Living a modest life outside his work, Bill is the man to please for many of New York’s high society and yet he is merely doing what he enjoys.

Bill Cunningham New York is one of those documentaries that is about very little but manages to entertain for the entire length of the film. Bill is a unique man that has literally been doing the same things since the 1960s. He doesn’t claim to be a force in fashion and yet the people that are fashionistas clamor to be featured in his columns.

While I couldn’t care less about fashion or fashion trends, it really takes a backseat to Bill himself in Bill Cunningham New York. We follow Bill as he will be evicted from his tiny, filing cabinet filled apartment in Carnegie Hall. We see him riding his bicycle around town. We learn that he was once a hat maker and we even see clips of him from the 60s or 70s doing exactly what he is doing now. In fact, Bill even uses a 35mm film camera in this digital age. Above all though, is Bill’s extreme dedication to his work. One could say that his job has consumed him, but that doesn’t seem to be a fair assessment since it seems to be one thing that he enjoys more than anything else in the world.

Documentaries about quirky individuals ride a very fine line between showcasing their subject and poking fun at them and Bill Cunningham New York treats Bill with a great amount of respect while not omitting his quirks or flaws. As a man set in his ways, you will likely be charmed by Bill as the fashion setters of New York City have been. BIll Cunningham New York will likely endear you to Bill by the end.

I give it 4 Bill Cunninghams (doesn’t he look a bit like Clint Eastwood?) out of 5.

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The Invention of Dr. Nakamats (6/6/12)

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The Invention of Dr. Nakamats serves as a brief biography about the world’s most prolific inventor that you’ve never heard of.

Dr. Yoshiro Nakamatsu (aka Dr. Nakamats) is a brilliant mind and an eccentric fellow that currently holds the world record for having the most patents. While The Invention of Dr. Nakamats is about the man himself, it is not always the most flattering of him. While Dr. Nakamats holds many patents and invents many things, their usefulness is debatable and Dr. Nakamats’ opinion of himself may be his greatest invention.

The film centers around Dr. Nakamats’ 80th birthday but he gives an oral account of his life story and clips are shown of various awards and ideas of his over the years. In preparation of his birthday party, there are several scenes with a hotel manager fighting over changing the name of the ballroom to incorporate the name “Nakamats”. When the hotel manager is unbending in the ability to do this, it’s a great blow to Dr. Nakamats and his fragile pride.

At a very lean 58 minute runtime, The Invention of Dr. Nakamats is almost too short but perhaps it is long enough to not overstay its welcome. The documentary had me laughing, both with and at the subjects, and I was glad I watched it. While Dr. Nakamats is not quite the level of infomercial inventors like Ron Popeil, there are some inventions that are so ludicrous you’ll be left scratching your head. His method of inventing is also one of the most bizarre things ever.

The Invention of Dr. Nakamats is an interesting documentary that I would recommend to everyone. Whether or not you like Dr. Nakamats himself becomes almost irrelevant by the end because you don’t need to like him to enjoy watching. The Invention of Dr. Nakamats is a bit weird and irregular as a documentary, but that’s OK, so is Dr. Nakamats.

I give it 4 self-defense wig patents out of 5.

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Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (5/5/12)

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Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is an interesting documentary that covers the comedian/talk show host’s tour after being fired from the Tonight Show.

For the course of approximately seven months, Conan O’Brien took over as the host of the famed Tonight Show on NBC. Jay Leno, the previous host, was pushed into an earlier time slot on a failed premise. As ratings tanked, Conan was asked to push the Tonight Show further into the night. After refusing to do so, he was fired and Jay Leno was given his old job back. After losing his job and receiving a handsome payout and a few months of free time, Conan O’Brien took himself on tour with a musical comedy act. This documentary covers that tour in its entirety and bookends with his Tonight Show gig ending and his show on TBS starting.

While known as a funny guy, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is often times not funny, showing a bit of the darker side of the man. To be fair, he works non-stop for months and pushes himself well past the limits of what could be considered “sane”. It’s an intimate look into Conan himself, as well as his staff, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was meant for Conan fans only, all others need not apply.

As a teenager, I would watch Conan during his Late Night spot and I am a huge Simpsons fan as well. I consider myself to be a fan of Conan and his work but this documentary just didn’t jibe with me. I enjoyed watching it and I laughed a few times but I was left disappointed. A lot of it is Conan complaining about something or other, which, while interesting documentary work, wasn’t very entertaining to me.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is still something I would recommend to anyone that has watched Conan, followed the Tonight Show debacle, or someone just looking for a documentary to watch. For those of you unfamiliar with Conan, it would be a tough sell. It’s not as funny as I hoped, but the content may not be intended to be riotous, despite the taglines on the cover art.

I give it 3 Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien’s out of 5.

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Cropsey (3/2/12)

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I discovered Cropsey while searching for something interesting on Amazon’s Prime Instant video section. It is a documentary about a local Staten Island, NY urban legend of a man that kills children. Apparently everyone growing up on Long Island knew the story because parents would tell kids as a deterrent to stay out of the woods or travel to unsafe places. The documentarians try to connect the dots to make the tale of Cropsey tie in to a real person.

Now, I have never been to Staten Island and had never heard of the tale of Cropsey or the trial of the real man, Andre Rand, so I went into the film completely fresh.From a narrative standpoint, I thought the documentary jumps from idea to idea a bit too frequently. It starts off strong, giving the background for the urban legend and also the horrifying conditions of the now defunct Willowbrook State School on Staten Island. When Andre Rand became a suspect in the kidnapping death of a young girl, the film starts finger-pointing instead of looking at things objectively. There is also a weird stretch about satanic cults that I didn’t quite follow.

The people in Staten Island are convinced that Andre Rand killed several children, and we get some background into who he is and his trials and also why it looks like he was involved in those murders. It is interesting to have the tie to a local urban legend as well, but ultimately I was left with an amateurish take on an interesting topic. It left me wanting more, but only because I was not pleased with how it was presented. Cropsey is somewhat interesting, and if you know of the story you might get extra mileage out of it but it is not a very compelling movie in the end.

I give it 2 Geraldo Rivera news segments out of 5.

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