Documentary Reviews: Obit, Born in China, Banking on Bitcoin, Josh: Teenager Vs. Superpower, Marsha P. Johnson

By | October 30, 2017

Five wildly different 2017 documentaries that are mostly winners, but it’s also kind-of hard to make a bad documentary. 4 times out of 5 you’ll learn something new, and the hardest part may be getting people to watch…

Obit…A documentary about the New York Times that even conservatives can enjoy, this doc follows the obituary section. Now sure, a wonky doc about a team of unglamorous obituary writers probably isn’t at the top of anyone’s must-see list, and it’s true that if you don’t like the concept, there’s not a lot here that will win you over (most of the movie is just different but uniformly unsentimental NYT obit writers talking directly to the camera, explaining their process and decisions, with some clips of different obituaries). But for the more genially macabre minded (it is Halloween season after all), this is a light-hearted and touching look at a downer-subject, that might just make you appreciate what a celebration of life an obituary is. Grade: B

Born in China…The promotional materials make this look a lot like the all-time best Disney nature doc “Bears” (which told a real story about a lone mother bear trying to keep her family from starvation and predators across a perilous trek through Alaska) by focusing on cuddly panda bears, but they actually only make up one-fourth of the central “characters” followed by three other individual families of snow leopards, chirus, and golden snub-nosed monkeys. Ferocious debates about which of these creatures is cutest will emerge, but I personally wish more of the pandas had been featured, especially since one of the storylines has such a downbeat ending, that is refreshingly realistic but will be alienating to smaller kids. Grade: B

Banking on Bitcoin…A fantastic explanation of what Bitcoin is, how it got started, some of the reasons people use it, and a general history of its high points and low points. Your personal view of Bitcoin (high tech swindle or revolutionary central bank killer?) is unlikely to change much, and the additional information provided will likely calcify it—“Ha! Look at those fools losing their money when an exchange goes down!” vs. “See! Look at how much Bitcoin is up compared to where it started!”—and that’s probably a good thing because the film seems fairly agnostic as to whether you use Bitcoin or not, letting most of the major players involved tell their own stories, and making sure the Libertarian-cloud proselytizing gets tempered by counter views. My one complaint is that the movie features too few “man/woman on the street” segments with everyday people trying to figure out how to use it, and the one segment they do feature lets a pretty great question—“If I want to buy groceries with it, how do I get my money off Bitcoin or convert it or how do I pay for things with it?”—go largely unanswered, instead cutting to a highly technical, theoretical explanation that doesn’t really answer the question. Grade: A-

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson…A potentially interesting crime documentary investigating the suspicious “suicide” of transgender-rights activist Marsha P. Johnson is a missed opportunity with this execution. It’s a lot more interesting (and convincing) as a history of transgender activism, including how that didn’t always dovetail with larger gay/lesbian activism, how some of the first activists were treated, and the mafia’s history of profitting off gay night clubs and events (I wish the movie had expanded on this little-known fact). What’s a little less convincing is the actual “investigation” into Marsha’s death which pretty much begins and ends with the vague “mafia-related” idea the movie starts off with, but we don’t really delve into any specifics, and that, sadly, includes into much of Marsha’s life. Was she seeing anyone at the time she died? Could it have been an ex? Could it have been a more directly homophobic killer? If it was the mafia (and there doesn’t really seem to be a case of why it would be), who might have ordered it and carried it out? This does seem to be a great case for a “Making of a Murderer” style expose, but I’m not convinced this telling is it. Still, for the little-known history lesson alone it’s worth-watching. Grade: B-

Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower…Enjoy documentaries like this one (about a Hong Kong teenager desperately trying to fight the good fight against encroaching Chinese tyranny in acquired-Hong Kong) while you can since China seems hell-bent on making sure you don’t see movies like this in the future. It’s an interesting first-person account of rarely-talked about freedoms slipping away, and I think we can relate to Joshua’s struggle, and maybe even find inspiration in it. Even if he ultimately wasn’t successful, the fact that this skinny teenager scared China enough to be jailed for years shows the power one person can have against the most powerful dictatorship on the planet right now. Grade: B+

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