Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

Taxi to the Dark Side, directed by Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), won the 2007 Academy Award for Documentary Feature. 

The film focuses on the murder of Dilawar, an Afghani taxi driver, who was beaten to death by American soldiers in December 2002 at Bagram Air Base. His death is seen as a precursor to the events at Abu Ghraib in 2003. It is a powerful examination of the United States’ policy on torture and the American justice system.

Taxi to the Dark Side is a gripping and insightful documentary. At times it can be hard to get through but it’s completely worth seeing.

Here is A.O. Scott’s review of Taxi to the Dark Side and the trailer is below.

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Review: Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? (2006)

2004, like any other year, witnessed a multitude of elections throughout the country. But none were nearly as intriguing or important as Jeff Smith’s, a Missouri academic, campaign for the House of Representatives seat being vacated by a 28-year veteran Dick Gephardt. Or at least, that is what Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? leads you to believe.

Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? follows Jeff Smith’s Congressional campaign, that begins as a grassroots movement in St. Louis and grows into a full scale push towards Capital Hill.

Smith presents an impressive resume; he co-founded a group of charter schools in St. Louis and taught political science at Washington University in St. Louis. But he has one fault; he is an unknown academic with a only vision for change and his biggest competition is Russ Carnahan, a member of a Missouri political dynasty.

Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? is truly a great, funny and charming documentary that is at times frustrating. Smith’s surprising run towards Congress makes for great entertainment, By the movie’s end, you’ll find yourself rooting for Jeff Smith, an average American just trying to make some changes for the future.

And like its fictional counterpart released almost 70 years ago, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?,might even help restore your faith in American democracy.

Updated October 20, 2010

Review: Gunner Palace (2004)

In Gunner Palace, director Michael Tucker spent two months filming the American soldiers of the 2/3 Field Artillery, a.k.a “the Gunners”, documenting their lives in Iraq from the end of 2003 into 2004 (roughly four months after the war was declared over). The Gunners reside in what was once Uday Hussein’s pleasure palace. Tucker skillfully combines comments by Donald Rumsfeld, humorous stories told by the soldiers, shocking and gritty images of the war, and the freestyle raps by the soldiers to create a chilling, must-see documentary.

This documentary, foremost, gives the American soldiers perspective on the war and, I feel, that during this time, we often forget or never even knew their opinion on the war. This film is important to at least appreciate and understand their stance on the war. As viewers, we follow the soldiers on nightly raids and we see the strain the soldiers go through when training Iraqi troops, locating IEDs (improvised explosive devices), and dealing with Iraqis who just want the American troops to leave.

While it does not give the Iraqi perspective on the war, aside from informants hired by the American military and the occasional shot of a possible insurgent, the atmosphere is gritty, brutal, and hellish. Most of all, this film shows how real the Iraq war is, something that the news doesn’t and can’t show us. And it cannot not be ignored because it comes from the men and women who have lived through this war.

As one soldier describes towards the ends of Gunner Palace: “When you sit on your couch and you watch the TV, and you go to your 9 to 5 job and you complain about the pizza being late … there’s no way you’re gonna know how to live here. Someone being sympathetic to this? I don’t know if I’d be sympathetic if I wasn’t in the army. After you watch this, you’re gonna go get your popcorn out of the microwave and talk about what I said, and you’ll forget me by the end of this. Only people who remember this is us.”

Updated October 8, 2010

Review: Mad Hot Ballroom (2005)

Anyone can make it, if they learn how to shake it.

What I love more than anything on a Saturday night, is a tremendously good and entertaining film. Mad Hot Ballroom fills the prerequisite wonderfully.

This is a coming-of-age documentary, directed by Marilyn Agrelo, follows three classes of New York City fifth graders as they participate in a ten-week ballroom dancing program. The students learn six dances including the rumba and tango (something I can’t even manage, after eight years of dance classes), in preparation for a final competition at the Wintergarden.

As we watch these children, we see how dance becomes a part of their lives, influencing most of them for the better. And although each one comes from different economic backgrounds, they are all at that awkward stage in life.

Scenes of their dance practices are pieced with discussions between the students about the differences between boys and girls, the heartache of losing, and the joy of finally realizing your dream.

What begins as a cute and lovely tale, swings into your heart and will have you jumping for joy as the eventual winner is announced.

Updated October 7, 2010