Undefeated is such a well-meaning, heart-on-its-sleeve documentary that one feels morally obligated to write words in praise of it. In fact, anyone admitting to a dislike of the film runs the risk of being called a heartless crank. Having scored a 2011 Academy Award nomination in the Best Documentary category, it’s safe to say that Oscar voters are not in the camp of doubters and naysayers.

There is, after all, so much to appreciate in directors Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s film about a North Memphis high school football coach and his hardscrabble Menassas Tigers’ 2009 miracle season. The documentary vividly profiles each of its four principal subjects: There is the compassionate and voluble coach Bill Courtney, whose commitment to his players borders on saintly; the troubled Chavis, battling anger issues as he seeks to be a mature team leader; the sweet-tempered O.C., blessed with superior talent but struggling with academics in his quest for a scholarship; and “Money,” an honors student and undersized lineman with a never-say-die attitude. Read the full review here


The Ground Truth

After viewing Patricia Foulkrod’s profoundly moving “The Ground Truth,” I kept wrestling with the question, “Is this a documentary or a fantastically put-together PSA urging veterans’ rights?” Foulkrod approaches her subject matter with the even-tempered poise of a documentary maker, but make no mistake: This is an angry film. “The Ground Truth” profiles the wartime experiences of several veterans as they struggle to re-adjust to civilian life and with the VA bureaucracy, which persists in making their lives hell as they seek help for their mental and physical wounds.

As such, “The Ground Truth” is not a deliberately laid out, documentary-like inquiry into that vast, messy, internally contradictory quagmire called “the truth.” You won’t find comparisons between, say, incidences of psychological trauma among veterans of the current war and those returned from WWII or Vietnam, complete with a gamut of old-school veterans, military historians and analysts. Foulkrod does proffer the token psychologist and neuro-specialist to back up the soldiers’ stories with empirical reasoning. But, for the most part, she keeps the spotlight on a cross-section of Iraq veterans, and the stories they need to tell. The Ground Truth, in my opinion, skates the boundary between documentary and polemic, but not in the hammer-to-the-head manner of Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight. Without the intrusion of graphics or charts, she foregrounds the words and personalities of her haunted, impassioned subjects. The result is perhaps the most important protest statement yet committed to film since the outbreak of war three-and-a-half years ago.

“The Ground Truth” takes us step-by-step through the veterans’ entire tour-of-duty experiences. There are passages here that feel repetitive and others in which a flurry of provocative ideas are only glanced over. But, at 75 minutes, this material is brilliantly, compactly structured. And it doesn’t matter where you stand on the war (though it’s almost impossible to be anything but vigilantly pessimistic about the Bush Administration’s motives behind it, and the prospects of any peace in the region for generations yet). Indeed, it’s irrelevant, because Foulkrod’s concern is the psychological and spiritual toll that this war has taken many of its veterans.

Unlike other wars, the enemy in Iraq doesn’t announce itself, dressed in fatigues, arrayed across some battle line. The enemy, instead, is all around you, camouflaged among the innocent men, women and children who inevitably fall prey to the crossfire in the streets. The intense guilt and paranoia, as much as the veterans’ physical scars, inform a great deal of “The Ground Truth’s” first-person accounts. It’s heartbreaking to learn what these veterans and their families must cope with each day, but Foulkrod makes sure to alchemize our pain into focused rage as, one by one, her interviewees speak out against the military establishment’s indifference or unwillingness to address their situation.

These soldiers aren’t passive victims, either; many have sought to communicate “the ground truth” of this war to the American people. Veterans Kelly Dougherty and Paul Rieckhoff, for instance, have founded groups such as Iraq Veterans Against the War, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Soldier-artist Sean Huze writes plays on the subject. Others like Aidan Delgado, Demond Mullins, and Camilo E. Mejia are among today’s most vocal anti-war critics. Mejia perhaps most poignantly captures the activists’ creed when he says, in effect, that there’s no greater freedom than the freedom found in following one’s conscience. Foulkrod astutely ends her film on that note, conveying a message about the liberating power of protest, and the socially crucial need for each of us to follow our inner voice, in wartime and beyond.

Grade: A

Written/Directed by: Patricia Foulkrod
Cast: Herold Noel, Robert Acosta, Sean Huze, Kelly Dougherty, Nickie Huze, Denver Jones, Joyce Lucey

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

Near the close of Errol Morris’ documentary, “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” the eponymous 87-year old former Secretary of Defense quotes a few lines from T.S. Eliot that aptly and poignantly sum up the documentary’s theme of moral reflection. “We shall not cease from exploration,” McNamara says, “And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” That he chokes back tears while pondering the profound truth of that passage speaks volumes about the gravity of such reflection for McNamara and about his ambivalence for the place that he has returned to.

That place in which he now finds himself and on which he reflects, I think, is his conscience, his own sense of humanity. It has, over his lifetime, taken its share of beating and bending in the service of realpolitik, but, in the end, we are encouraged and even inspired to find that McNamara’s conscience is in good order. From his days helping to strategize the “efficient” destruction of Japan in WWII on through his tenure as Kennedy and Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, presiding over the imbroglios in Cuba and Southeast Asia, McNamara’s explorations have taken him through some rough existential territory, in a century split apart and scarred by moral chasms.

“The Fog of War” is more than a history lesson and a biography of a fascinating American thinker. As McNamara parses through the political events and crises that enmeshed his career, the movie becomes a deeply felt testament of a man struggling to wring meaning and redemption out of history’s hard, unyielding surfaces. He may defend or rationalize everything from the firebombing of Tokyo to the necessity of escalating tensions in Vietnam, but he is just as quick to heap criticism—whether explicitly or veiled in his troubled ambivalence—on himself as he ponders America’s complicity in the 20th century’s great conflicts, and his own involvement in them.

Morris structures “Fog” as eleven segments, each exploring a different facet of McNamara’s notions about the morality of war and human nature. As they relate directly to his life and career, they become a primer for understanding his character, his evolving thought and, indeed, his humanism. Woven elegantly around McNamara’s interview are enriching archival newsreels, photographs, taped conversations and beautifully, often lyrically, staged recreations. It is Morris’ tried-and-true aesthetic, a probing, mesmerizing style which matches up so well with McNamara’s enormous intelligence and charisma as to make “Fog” his most satisfying work since “The Thin Blue Line.”

Indeed, for more than its sobering view of warfare and humanity, I was struck by “Fog of War’s” power as an intimate character study. McNamara, with his rarefied intellect, may seem at first, above the common fray. But, in the end, he is like all of us who struggle to reconcile with our own pasts and live by our principles so that, on arriving where our journeys began and seeing that place anew, we may be at peace with what we find.

Grade: A

Directed by: Errol Morris
Cast: Robert S. McNamara

Jesus Camp

Documentary collaborators Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp opens, and returns periodically to, a series of wonderfully evocative images of Middle America–Missouri, to be exact–with its lush green swaths of open land, cloud-swept skies, and that most precious of commodities for all of us in the L.A. basin, clean air. But whatever charm the place might have is quickly poisoned by the fact that it’s also a hotbed of Christian fundamentalism. Ahead of mid-term elections, Jesus Camp is a frightening but finally unilluminating portrait of right-wing America–an America that claims a significant part of the nation’s heartland, and has our legislature and judiciary by the balls. To impress that latter point, Ewing and Grady make the nomination and confirmation of the conservative Justice Samuel Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court a running theme across their film, reminding us of the Religious Right’s effective commandeering of power.

Jesus Camp gives us a glimpse of evangelist homes and mega-churches where children are indoctrinated into an extremely literalist Christian mindset. It’s a movement whose ideology is as aggressively intolerant as that of any Islamist madrasah, and whose pastors are our homegrown equivalents of the radical mullahs. This is a parallel that Jesus Camp doesn’t have to try hard to draw out, because it practically does so on its own in the person of self-styled children’s pastor Becky Fischer. Like her Islamist counterparts, Fischer and others in her trade seek to mold their pre-adolescent congregants into miniature soldiers, armed with a missionary zeal bent on converting America into a coast-to-coast Crystal Cathedral. At one point, the pastor references the indoctrination of Palestinian children into adopting radical Islam as a justification for the evangelical mission in America.

Fischer presides over Kids on Fire, a Christian camp in which children are initiated into the full package of extreme right-wing thought. They pray over a life-sized cutout of George W., they speak in tongues and go into conniptions. They speak passionately about “finding Christ,” about stamping out abortion, and galvanizing their generation with the Christian spirit. Even ordinarily, I’d find such talk disturbing, but from the mouths of 8-, 10-, 12-year-olds, it’s downright scary.

The problem with Jesus Camp, though, is that leaves the matter there, in shock-value 20/20 territory, without taking a more sophisticated look into this phenomenon. From liberal Air America radio host Mike Papantonio, an observant Methodist, we get a nominal counterweight, an appeal for religious moderation. But it’s a shout in the wind, because Ewing and Grady focus their attention largely on the Christian fundamentalists – an unfortunate choice because extremism in any form, apart for its power to incite fear, is intensely boring. By nature, zealotry is monolithic and unmoving, rather than dynamic and evolving so it does not stand up to dramatic treatment per se. Watching these morally co-opted, religiously manic youngsters, I wanted Jesus Camp to provide a voice to answer for their fragile psychologies, or input from non-evangelist parents concerned about the effect people like Fischer are wreaking on their communities. I wondered how an intelligent, incisive documentary maker indigenous to this milieu would’ve treated this subject because, to my mind, that would’ve made for a more socially constructive final product.

As it is, there is nothing in Jesus Camp we didn’t already know, or suspect was happening in America. And for any documentary subject to be worthy of attention, the maker must render it in far more shaded and complex ways that Ewing and Grady manage here. “Jesus Camp” doesn’t just preach to the converted, it bores and frightens them.

Grade: C-

Directed by: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Cast: Lou Engle, Becky Fischer, Ted Haggard, Mike Papantonio

Bukowski: Born Into This

“When you get the shit kicked out of you long enough…you’ll have the tendency to say what you really mean,” states Charles Bukowski in the engaging new documentary “Bukowski: Born Into This.” That terse observation hints at the brutality of Bukowski’s childhood, when his father would beat him with a razor strop. It also affords a context in which to view his famously stripped-down, no-nonsense literature, charged with autobiographical detail, an urgent, acerbic world-view and that balls-to-the-wall take on booze, sex, poverty and the daily grind.

The documentary marks the filmmaking debut of John Dullaghan. The former advertising copywriter felt such a kinship with Bukowski that he devoted seven years to making what is, at heart, a loving tribute to a writer, his craft and, above all, the idea of living and dying by one’s own creed. “Born Into This” manages to peer beyond the Bukowski Myth to arrive at something far more layered and fascinating. Indeed, the portrait that takes shape here is of a soul as much traumatized as toughened by abuse, loneliness and cruelty.

Dullaghan gets a lot of mileage from interviews shot in the 70s and 80s, separately, by director Taylor Hackford and by European TV crews. It’s wonderfully revealing stuff, chronicling his years of rootless wandering and his fifteen years slumming at a local post office, all the while writing poems and stories for small literary magazines. That penniless obscurity contrasts sharply with the latter-day Bukowski, the counter-culture hero, reading his poetry at a San Francisco gathering, taunting his sold-out audience while reaching for a beer in the fridge placed onstage. What’s truly amazing is that, while he may command the spotlight in his later years, Bukowski, the hard-drinking rabble-rouser, is ever-present and spoiling for a fight.

Layered over this are biographical tidbits and Dullaghan’s own intensive interviews with various Bukowski acquaintances. Among the most riveting are his interviews with Bukowski’s publisher, John Martin, and wife, Linda Lee Bukowski. In the late ‘60s, Martin became Bukowski’s devoted publisher, granting him a weekly stipend that allowed him to write full-time. The direct result of Martin’s patronage gave us his novels, beginning with 1971’s “Post Office.” For more intimate insights, Dullaghan turns to Linda, a woman who weathered the Bukowski whirlwind of tantrums and starfuckers, and steered him through the twilight of his life.

This is a lovely mosaic, not unlike 1994’s “Crumb.” In fact, “Crumb’s” editor, Victor Livingston, also edited “Born Into This,” and the documentary benefits from Livingston’s ability at piecing together portraits of intense, enigmatic personalities, and making them feel altogether familiar and human. But it’s Bukowski himself who pulls this documentary together and reminds us of the immensely inspirational force of his strident wit, honest conviction and saying always what he really meant.

Grade: A

Directed by: John Dullaghan
Cast: Charles Bukowski, Bono, Linda Lee Bukowski, Joyce Fante, Taylor Hackford, Michael D. Meloan, Sean Penn

Born Into Brothels

A documentary about children living in Calcutta’s red light district may sound shifty and questionable at first. After all, how many more depictions of poverty in Third World cities (most notoriously, Calcutta) made by mystified and morally aggrieved Westerners can we take? These depictions, as they’ve accumulated in our popular media over the years, have favored sensationalism over intelligence, hence perpetuating Western audiences’ complacent alienation from the Third World–that convenient label we’ve learned to associate with “lesser, poorer” places far away.

The peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America have been traditionally depicted in Hollywood features and TV news segments as too exotically poor for Western comprehension, reducing their identity as fodder for either amusement (“The Gods Must Be Crazy”) or sentimentalism (“City of Joy”). Thankfully, the tide has turned as “Born Into Brothels,” the new documentary by New York-based Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman so vividly proves.

Credit the digital- and internet-propelled leap of the past decade for allowing people to connect with the world’s far-flung corners, developing first-hand relationships with cultures once inaccessible to a commoner. New media has also allowed visual artists to shoot and disseminate their work in ways heretofore inconceivable and budding artists to discover talents they never knew they had. “Born Into Brothels” beautifully illustrates the latter as a group of bright-eyed children, all of whose mothers work “on the line” in Calcutta’s sex trade, learn the fundamentals of photography from Briski herself, a photojournalist. The lessons set off a creative spark among the children, all of whose photographs reveal a vibrancy and an urgent desire for expression unsullied by the grimness of their daily lives.

These photographs are windows through which we are shown the children’s world. In spite of the poverty underscoring their images, we amaze at the innocence and vitality foregrounding them. In that sense, “Brothels” isn’t a study of poverty but an affirmation of the promise of youth. It is also a testament to Briski’s own bravery as she takes on Calcutta’s horrifying bureaucracy to arrange for an education for the children — a permanent escape from prostitution. Even more poignant is the willingness of a few of the children’s parents to share in Briski’s efforts, pointing to a society which, though mired in an oppressive social system, has the presience to imagine a better future for itself. “Brothels” is an absorbing journey over gritty social terrain, driven by a fierce sense of purpose. This is documentary activism at its most galvanized, charged with action and, while often emotional, never bogged down with dewy-eyed sentimentalism.

The fact that “Brothels” — and other recent docs and fictions like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “In This World” and “Maria Full of Grace” — were ever conceived and produced is most exciting of all. There are certainly many downsides to globalization (2003’s “The Corporation” is a bracing eye-opener), but the bridging together of disparate cultures, and the recognition that there are no exotic realities but one reality that we all share are ideals engendered as much out of newly emerging technologies as our newly globalized worldview. The movies born of these ideals are enough to make me believe there’s hope in humanity yet.

Grade: A-

Written/Directed by: Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman
Cast: Kochi, Avijit Halder, Shanti Das

Best Worst Movie

Michael Paul Stephenson’s enjoyable, sometimes fascinating, “Best Worst Movie” chronicles the making of the horror cheapie “Troll 2,” and how, in the twenty years since its critically panned release, this so-called “worst movie ever made” has spawned a significant worldwide cult. Stephenson can claim personal authority with his subject since, as an eight-year-old, he was himself part of “Troll 2’s” cast. By and large, though, he keeps his own opinions under wraps, and lets his documentary’s motley assortment of characters tell the story. Front and center among them is Dr. George Hardy, now a successful dentist in small-town Alabama, who played the lead in “Troll 2.”

“Best Worst Movie,” in a sense, is Hardy’s story as Stephenson’s cameras follow him through a fling with a kind of revisionist stardom thanks to “Troll 2’s” growing internet fan base. We watch as Hardy, a cheerful and unassuming gentleman, reacts with puzzlement then delight at the wild reception he receives nationwide while making appearances at “Troll 2” revival screenings. These opening sections of “Best Worst Movie” feel weakest because they lack tension between the subject and his environment — the stuff of great drama – as Hardy and his movie are met with unbridled adoration by one and all. But, then, gradually, a sense of reality creeps in, and heartbreak as it dawns on Hardy that, beyond a very narrow segment of film buffs, he and his movie are about as well regarded as last week’s leftover pizza. Those moments of realization ground Stephenson’s documentary with a humility and wisdom that give it a resonant, poignant quality, however bittersweet.

Stephenson explores intriguing themes about the nature of bad cinema, about notions of cult celebrity, and why legions of enthusiasts rally around certain admittedly awful movies – of which “Troll 2” seems to be the reigning king. “Best Worst Movie” succeeds in much the same way as recent documentaries like “King of Kong” and “Anvil! The Story of Anvil”; they all reveal and humanize little seen communities in our shared culture, and offer deeply felt answers to pressing questions about fame, success, and finding purpose in life.

For Hardy, the journey to cult celebrity and back offers a hard-won realization that stardom, for all its tempting thrills, can be equally demoralizing. For others in “Troll 2’s” cast and crew, the cult status with which they’ve been conferred is met with various and surprising reactions, from actress Connie Young’s bemused embarrassment to Italian director Claudio Fragasso’s intensely conflicted feelings over being regarded as the maestro of bad cinema. But where Stephenson’s film really plumbs its darkest, richest depths is in the portraits of co-stars Robert Ormsby, Don Packard, and Margo Prey – all of whom seem to be living on the margins, whether retired, withdrawn or recovering from illness. The bare honesty of their personalities speaks both to their courage and to their willingness to share their most private insecurities and regrets.

“Troll 2” is a terrible movie, but it’s the best kind of terrible – unselfconscious and made with utter sincerity, as if the fate of humanity depended on it. Listening to the testimony of the movie’s true believers, from film critics to cult-movie fans, I began to wonder if, on the scale of good to bad – from, say, “Citizen Kane” on one end and “Troll 2” on the other – art from either extremes can and must be appreciated in their own, albeit polar opposite, ways. Whether a brightly radiant star or a powerful, all-consuming black hole, both elicit our awe and our admiration, do they not? Perhaps the anti-masterpiece deserves a place in our hearts as much as the masterpiece.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Michael Paul Stephenson
Written by: Michael Paul Stephenson
Cast: Michael Paul Stephenson, George Hardy, Darren Ewing, Jason Steadman, Jason Wright, Robert Ormsby, Don Packard, Margo Prey, Connie Young, Claudio Fragasso