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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > TV Mini-Series > History > Racism > Immigrants > Law > Environmental Disaster > Exploitati > Bill Moyers – Becoming American: The Chinese Experience (2003/Acorn/Athena DVDs)/Dirty Energy (2013/Cinema Libre DVD)/Girl Model (2012)/Photographic Memory (2012/First Run DVDs)/The Queen Of Versaille

Bill Moyers – Becoming American: The Chinese Experience (2003/Acorn/Athena DVDs)/Dirty Energy (2013/Cinema Libre DVD)/Girl Model (2012)/Photographic Memory (2012/First Run DVDs)/The Queen Of Versailles (2012/Magnolia Blu-ray)


Picture: C+/C/C+/C+/B-     Sound: C+/C/C+/C+/B-     Extras: B/C+/C+/C-/C+     Main Programs: B+/B/C+/C+/B



Now for a new group of intriguing documentaries…



The oldest is Bill Moyers – Becoming American: The Chinese Experience from 2003, which manages in three hours to tell us about the tenuous and sometimes ugly history of the Chinese in the U.S. and how they often paid the highest price to be here.  From being used to build the first transcontinental railroad to suddenly being the first people of any kind to be purposely excluded form being in the country to being called on to fighting the Japanese and Axis powers in WWII to further racism and disrespect, we get a rich cross-section of stories about how Chinese immigrants more than earned their way to be here (and then some) and make Chinese Americans a permanent, great part of the United States.


Moyers shows are always top rate, but this one affected me in ways I was not expecting, telling stories too many would like to forget and should never be forgotten.  I would love to see an update, but this set includes another nice illustrated booklet with valuable text, while the DVDs add weblinks, text bio on Moyers and a sister series of great interviews with key Chinese Americans that is in three episodes that should definitely be seen after the main mini-series.



Bryan D. Hopkins’ Dirty Energy (2013) is an examination of the awful, unreported effects of the disastrous British Petroleum/Halliburton Deepwater Horizon oil spill a few years ago with comparisons to the Exxon Valdez disaster (including how the company, now ExxonMobil) kept going to court to get the financial damages they owed reduced.  Will BP eventually do the same, especially when they are spending millions on phony commercials that act like the oil has miraculously disappeared when it is still all overt the place?


Many clips are shown, many fine people just trying to make a living and have a life are interviewed, as well as scientists explaining the actual effects of what happened and is still happening.  It is an ugly but familiar story, though this one is so bad that only rivaled by Japan’s recent nuclear catastrophe, is so big that happy commercials are not going to make this one go away.


It is also the low point of the first Obama term that he did not nationalize operation and immediately send something (or someone) down to close off a leak that should have never happened.  I am also so disappointed with BP itself, though this will sound odd, I had more respect and higher expectations from them and that they would allow this to happen and do more to cover themselves than fix the problem immediately and set new high standards for being responsible adults is just disgusting and if corporations are considered a person, they should act more human.


This is wrong, unacceptable, unnecessary and leaves another permanent scar on the planet and all of us.  Why people are not angrier all around about this among other such events is a problem, but getting mad is not good enough and only gets you so far.  Having a culture (like we did in the 1970s briefly) that rejects this kind of thing highly is what we need to get back to.  Even if BP pays beyond its $20 Billion agreement like ladies and gentlemen should, the oil dispersants are causing horrific mutations in life around the area and even if they managed to get and incinerate all the oil drenched dead animals off camera, the genetic damage is actually more disturbing.


Extras include a trailer, specific piece on how shrimp have been genetically damaged (no eyes, oil in their bodies and much worse) and a piece looking at the disaster three years later.



The David Redmon/Ashley Sabin documentary Girl Model (2012) seems like it might be an expose on how hard it is for young ladies to be in the business, but it turns out to be uglier and sadly more predictable showing a disturbing portrait of overseas exploitation of young ladies that should not be going on and is not an isolated case by any means.


We meet former model and talent scout Ashley, who is now trying to find new faces for the agency she works for, run by a man with what turns out to be a checkered past in Siberia, though we don’t learn about him or Ashley in full until much later in the 77 minutes of what should have been a longer work.  They are recruiting young ladies for photo shoots in Japan and talk about how they need gals as young as 13 to be models because the country likes younger and skinny models.


You know you are already in trouble when the models all look too young, unhappy, cold, sad and even so skinny that they might be on drugs.  Nadja becomes the main pick and they’re of to Japan with the potential promise of wealth, fame and success.  But the fact that we have not heard of the agency or these people along with the opening images is a red alert something is wrong.  Then the owner talks about taking models to the morgue to show them what could happen to them if they do not find success in modeling or how they could land up if they do nothing with their lives, but to say this is underhanded and a form of psychological terrorism is an understatement.


Then Ashley has many moments of amazing denial, amazing explanations that things like prostitution & rape happen to these potential models, but the industry is corrupt and she has nothing to do with it, even though she admits her agency often (unintentionally?) is advertising these gals for sexual servitude, but that it is somehow not her intent, as she is just trying to buy her “little house” and have a baby on her own.  More ironic moments result, but not enough of an expanded portrait of what is going on here does as this documentary does not go far enough.


At least it does not trivialize what is going on and is at least informative, but this is a very serious and underdiscussed subject and I was hoping for more.  Having two directors likely does not help, but neither does not adding more context, holding back what could have been one of the year’s best documentaries.  Eight bonus scenes, most of which should have stayed in the final cut, are the only extras.



Ross McElwee has given us satires and looked at other aspects of life, but Photographic Memory (2012) is a more personal work where he has to find out how his terrific relationship with his son started to go sour as the son became a teenager.  His solution is an odd one; find out what he was like at his son’s age.  It never for a moment occurs to him that being somewhat this self-indulgent might be the reason his son pulled away from him to begin with by putting himself into a cultural wall that leaves his son becoming withdrawn into some drug use, his friends and too much texting, e-mails and cell phone calls.


Though we learn much about his family, his authentic concerns about his son and their lives, instead of staying with his son or trying to do more with him, McElwee decides to fly to France and rediscover what happened to people form his life decades ago!  How can this help him with his son to fly half way around the world?  Not enough, though he continues to express his concerns, then veers off into comparing shooting film to HD video, still and motion pictures with good points, but just another distraction from the more immediate concern.


I am not a big fan of McElwee’s work, but he is a distinct voice, yet what does not work about him becomes apparent here as he is being autobiographical in ways I bet he does not realize or would not want to be.  This runs 87 minutes and is one of the oddest such documentaries I have seen made about a family crisis issue.


Extras include text on McElwee and a Photo Gallery.



Last and definitely not least is Lauren Greenfield’s The Queen Of Versailles (2012) which starts out as a look at a very wealthy family, but happens to also capture their spectacular decline and fall.  David Siegel is the founder and owner of the largest privately held time share, an idea that he got from someone at the beginning of the 1980s whom he turned down and brought the idea to him.  He cut the guy out, stole his idea and became filthy rich.  He eventually married a blonde beauty queen named Jackie 30 years younger than he and they were happy together.  You even see them early on in 2000 in Florida celebrating the election of George W. Bush in n event he took “mysterious responsibility” for.


This would come back to haunt him.  By 2008, he is building the biggest private home in the country and maybe the world called Versailles, inspired by the couple’s trip to France and from sketches they made on slips of paper.  Mind you, this will be bigger than the Aaron Spelling house that was sold recently after his passing.


Then it happens.  The economy tanks, they have been spending like cash is endless, he has not saved anything and thinks go swiftly downhill form there.  No Republicans or anyone else famous he met comes in to help him, including anyone from Planet Hollywood, whose Las Vegas location is in his newly built skyscraper there.  Then the banks start to circle the wagons after decades of cheap easy money and want to take everything!

So what does his wife do?  Goes out and keeps spending money, even if she also lands up at places they never would like Wal-Mart.  I’ll save the rest for you to see, but it is an amazing portrait of everything bad about Reaganomics and becomes a portrait of the ultimate backfire (some would say karma) as everything that can go wrong does, everything falls apart and you never feel sorry for anyone except those who were being used by the Siegels to begin with.  This is a must-see documentary and priceless portrait of an America people are finally starting to reject.  Incredible!


Extras include priceless Deleted Scenes and a Theatrical Trailer.




The 1.33 X 1 color image on Moyers is from analog NTSC videotape with stills and old film footage mixed in, looking good for its age, could not look much better than it does and amazingly actually looks as good as the anamorphically enhanced 1.78 X 1 image on Model and Memory (also mixing older footage and some of the newer footage only looking so good for whatever reasons), plus better than the aliasing error and digititis-ridden anamorphic 1.78 X 1 image on Energy.  That leaves, as expected, the 1080p 1.78 digital High Definition image transfer on Queen looking the best, but it too has some analog video footage plus new footage that is not always 100% because of the circumstances in which it was taped.


The lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo on all the DVDs sound fine for what they are, but Energy has audio problems that it even knows since more audio than usual is subtitled, but unfortunately not enough, plus sound mixing issues pop up a few times.  That leaves the DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) 5.1 lossless mix on Queen the expected sonically superior presentation, but location audio issues and points where the sound is mono in current taping or old analog video footage holds it back.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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