Documentary Review: Spaceship Earth (2020)

Release Date: January 26th, 2020 (Sundance)
Directed by: Matt Wolf
Music by: Owen Pallett
Cast: various

Stacey Reiss Productions, Impact Partners, RadicalMedia, Neon, 113 Minutes

Review:

I was pretty stoked to see this documentary when the trailer came out but honestly, it was really disappointing.

This seemed like such a wasted opportunity to tell a great story about the people and all the shenanigans around Biosphere2, including the people behind the project, its genesis and how everything panned out.

This was a story that was a big part of my life around middle school age, as I had a science teacher that was obsessed with it and gave us constant updates while also having her curriculum kind of tie to the Biosphere2 experiment.

I actually had no idea how interesting the story actually was until seeing this and learning about the group and how they came together, a quarter of a century before being locked up together in the world’s first biodome.

Sadly, the documentary doesn’t seem to dig deep enough in its nearly two-hour running time. It just scratches the surface and gives you some insight. It even has the real people in the film giving their accounts of events. However, this really needed more meat and because of that, should have probably been expanded into a multipart series.

I left this feeling like I knew the story but the real details were glossed over and I didn’t get to feel like I really knew these people, as much as I should.

Still, this was interesting enough to justify its existence and it was a decent way to spend two hours but I know that there is a lot more to the story that we didn’t get and that left me unfulfilled and underwhelmed.

Rating: 6/10

Documentary Review: World of Darkness (2017)

Release Date: May 11th, 2017 (Germany)
Directed by: Giles Alderson
Written by: Kevin Lee
Cast: various

Figi Productions, Luckyday, 89 Minutes

Review:

After recently watching a good documentary on Dungeons & Dragons, I wanted to watch this, as it’s about a role-playing community I was more involved in.

In fact, I was involved in a relationship about twenty years ago that found itself wrapped up in this game’s orbit quite a bit. It was fun for the time and even though I wasn’t a die hard player or fan, I enjoyed those in the community I got to know and I really enjoyed the original PC game.

That being said, this is a good recount of the history of the White Wolf company and the fans who loved their products. It also goes into how White Wolf sort of fucked themselves and pissed off those loyal fans, essentially sabotaging future growth and brand loyalty.

I remember when all the shenanigans started and while I didn’t understand (or pay attention) to all the details back then, I do remember how pissed off a lot of people were.

This is an interesting documentary because the story of White Wolf is an interesting one. However, beyond that, this plays like many of the other documentaries about niche fandoms.

Also, it didn’t interview some of the company’s former die hards that felt betrayed. Sure, some people here were miffed by it and added their two cents but I felt like the issues were addressed and quickly brushed under the rug and dismissed, looking forward into the future and what the White Wolf IP rights holders hope will be a lucrative business once again.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: other documentaries about table top gaming, video games and specific fandoms.

Documentary Review: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

Release Date: March 25th, 2007 (Dallas International Film Festival)
Directed by: Seth Gordon
Written by: Seth Gordon
Music by: Craig Richey
Cast: Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, Walter Day

Large Lab, Picturehouse, Dendy Cinemas, 79 Minutes

Review:

“I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs. I play video games, which I think is a far superior addiction to any of those other ones.” – Adam Wood

Back when this came out in 2007, I was enthralled by it. In fact, I bought the DVD and watched it quite a bit, which is strange for me in that it’s a documentary.

However, this true story is just as good as a great work of fiction. Sometimes life is stranger than fiction or at least, more interesting than it.

In the case of Donkey Kong rivals Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell, we were given something so human, endearing and intriguing that it rivaled the best films of its year of release. Strangely, it didn’t even get nominated by the Academy for Best Documentary.

I guess movies about middle-aged dudes playing retro video games isn’t as politically and socially starved for as movies about dolphins, rainforests and some old, hermit dude that spent his entire life crafting a violin out of garbage. No, this is actually more important than all of that as it shows the triumph of the human spirit and how even a regular Joe can overcome the odds and topple a giant and a system that’s working against him.

Steve Wiebe is a hero and you truly get a sense of that while watching this. On the flipside of that, Billy Mitchell is one hell of a villain and his personality and charisma rivals that of the greatest heel managers in professional wrestling history. At the same time, looking passed all of Mitchell’s shady shenanigans, you can’t not help but like the guy. He’s f’n charming and he’s doing his damnedest to protect his legacy, even if that means cheating and using his power and influence to great advantage.

This is just a fantastic story about a guy that is great at something, finally stepping up to get recognized for it, while the man who feels threatened by him, does everything he can to hold him down. Who will win? You have to watch this and find out.

The King of Kong is heartwarming and heartbreaking at different points. But most importantly, it is one of my favorite documentaries ever made.

Rating: 9.25/10
Pairs well with: other video game/gaming documentaries like Chasing Ghosts and Special When Lit.

Documentary Review: Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons & Dragons (2019)

Release Date: May 14th, 2019
Directed by: Kevin Slagle, Brian Stillman
Music by: Seth Polansky, Noah Potter

Cavegirl Productions, X-Ray Films, 91 Minutes

Review:

I recently read and reviewed a great book about the art of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise. I had no idea there was also a documentary about the subject, which came out last year.

Coming across this recently on Prime Video, I immediately added it to my queue and moved it to the top of my list.

Overall, this is a damn good film on not just on the art of Dungeons & Dragons but also the history of the game, the company behind it, the key people involved, as well as the players and still growing fandom.

This well well produced, well edited and featured so many wonderful talking head interviews from just about all the key players, that it made this a really enriching experience.

Mostly, this just made me appreciate the hard work, creativity and craftsmanship that went into developing the game and its numerous expansions and spinoffs.

If you love fantasy art and/or the D&D brand, this is most certainly worth your time.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: other documentaries about pop culture art, unique fandoms and gaming.

Documentary Review: Easy to Learn, Hard to Master: The Fate of Atari (2017)

Release Date: February, 2017 (Italy)
Directed by: Tomaso Walliser
Written by: Tomaso Walliser
Cast: Bill Herd, Nolan Bushnell, Manny Gerard, Ray Kassar, Al Alcorn, Ralph H. Baer, Joe Decuir, David Crane, Howard Scott Warshaw, Dannis Koble, Ed Rotberg, David Rolfe, Steve Russel, Chuck Peddle, Steve Wozniak, Eugene Jarvis, Steven Kent, Chris Kohler, Walter Day, Minoru Arakawa

Junk Food Films, 110 Minutes

Review:

I watched this a few years back but for some reason didn’t review it. I’m often times suffering from whiskey-induced Swiss cheese brain.

Anyway, I recently revisited the documentary The Commodore Story: Changing the World 8-Bits at a Time and it got me thinking about this similar documentary about Atari, so I figured I’d revisit it.

For fans of retrogaming, this is definitely worth a watch as Atari’s story is really interesting and full of colorful characters who were actually involved in this documentary.

Like most good documentaries about pop culture things, this one is loaded full of talking head interviews with the people who were there and lived the story.

This goes back into how Atari came to be, what initially inspired it and how they went to the moon and eventually came crashing back down to Earth.

Overall, this is a fun, engaging film about a company everyone should love. Granted, not everyone has a love of old school gaming but there are also people who pay to be pissed on.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: other historical documentaries about the video game industry.

Documentary Review: The Hacker Wars (2014)

Release Date: October 17th, 2014
Directed by: Vivien Lesnik Weisman
Written by: Vivien Lesnik Weisman, Meredith Raithel Perry
Music by: Dicepticon, Christopher Lord, Ytcracker
Cast: Andrew “weev” Auemheimer, Barrett Brown, Jeremy Hammond

Over 9000 Pictures, 91 Minutes

Review:

I heard good things about this documentary quite awhile ago but I never checked it out till now.

I was reminded of it while watching Alex Winter’s Dark Web, so I thought that I should also watch this. Plus, I’ve been watching a lot of similar documentaries, lately, as well as reading several books on cypherpunk culture.

This was an engaging watch but that also has a lot to do with me being fascinated by the subject matter and due to my own personal history within what became the cypherpunk movement.

I liked that this picked a few key people and their situations and focused on them, allowing these hackers and other cypherpunk personalities the chance to tell their own story and espouse their philosophies behind why they do what they do. Whether you agree with their viewpoint or not, it’s still pretty enthralling stuff.

All in all, this was well presented and I thought that it was pretty fair to all parties involved. Out of all the similar documentary films I’ve watched on the subject, this one really stands out because many of the players were actually involved in it.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: other documentaries about cypherpunk culture.

Documentary Review: Deep Web (2015)

Also known as: Deep Web: The Untold Story of BitCoin and Silk Road (complete title)
Release Date: March 15th, 2015 (South by Southwest)
Directed by: Alex Winter
Music by: Pedro Bromfman
Cast: Keanu Reeves (narrator)

BOND360, Trouper Productions, Zipper Bros Films, Epix, 90 Minutes

Review:

As much as I’ve always enjoyed Alex Winter, as an actor, his real talent may be directing, as he knows how to tell a great story, hook you and keep you glued to it until the end.

Deep Web peaked my interest, as I’ve been really invested in cryptocurrencies since the birth of Bitcoin, over a decade ago. With that, I’ve also had an interest in the cypherpunk culture, as I was a shitty hacker in the mid-’90s and maintained my love for that stuff.

This film mainly tells the story about the Silk Road, a deep web superstore for all things illegal. This also goes into the philosophy about it’s creation and sheds light on some of the people behind it while also telling the story of Ross Ulbricht, a young guy that everything was pinned on but was most likely used as a scapegoat and to make an example out of to deter other cyber criminals from similar activities.

There is a lot covered in this film that goes beyond just the Ulbricht case. Additionally, there are a lot of interviews with the people who were there and who worked in this sphere.

All in all, this is a solid documentary that covers a lot of ground in just 90 minutes. It moved by at a fast pace, kept my attention and ultimately, made me wish there was more to dive into.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other documentaries about cypherpunk culture and cryptocurrency.

Documentary Review: Banking On Bitcoin (2016)

Also known as: The Battle for Bitcoin, The Bitcoin Takeover (working titles)
Release Date: 2016
Directed by: Christopher Cannucciari
Written by: Christopher Cannucciari, Prichard Smith
Music by: Ben Prunty
Cast: Wences Casares, Nathaniel Popper, Gavin Andersen, Naomi Brockwell, Nancy Cannucciari, Michael Casey, David Chaum, Andy Greenberg, Benjamin Lawsky, Jaron Lukas, Blythe Masters, Rakesh Motwani, Rand Paul, Charlie Shrem, Barry Silbert, Nick Spanos, Chris Tarbell, David Thompson, Jeffrey A. Tucker, Paul Vigna, Erik Voorhees, Cameron Winklevoss, Tyler Winklevoss, Alex Winter 

Periscope Entertainment, Downtown Community Television Center, Dynamic Range, Gravitas Ventures, 90 Minutes

Review:

I’ve owned some Bitcoin for awhile and while I generally understand it, it was neat seeing a good, well-produced documentary about it.

This covers the short but very interesting history of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency while also explaining what it is and how it works. The biggest obstacle it faces is the public’s lack of understanding of it. I think that this did the best job it could in trying to speak to the layman.

The documentary also features a lot of people who known what they’re talking about and have been involved in Bitcoin for quite some time.

If the subject matter doesn’t interest you, why have you read this far? If it does, this is well worth a watch.

There’s really not a whole lot more to say other than pointing out that this is one of the best documentaries I’ve come across on the subject.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: other documentaries on crypto currencies and cypherpunk culture.

Documentary Review: Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006)

Release Date: October 13th, 2006
Directed by: Jeff McQueen
Written by: J. Albert Bell, Rachel Belofsky, Michael Derek Bohusz, Adam Rockoff, Rudy Scalese
Music by: Harry Manfredini
Cast: Ed Green (narrator), Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Debra Hill, Malek Akkad, Greg Nicotero, Amy Holden Jones, Stan Winston, Rob Zombie, Sean S. Cunningham, Tom Savini, Betsy Palmer, Harry Manfredini, Felissa Rose, Robert Shaye

Candy Heart Productions, thinkfilm, Starz, 88 Minutes

Review:

For being one of those film history documentaries made by Starz, it’s pretty good.

Granted, this isn’t great and there are much better documentaries on ’80s horror, slasher films and many of the specific movies this one discusses.

As can be expected, this is a series of talking head interviews edited and presented to tell a narrative. In the case of this film, it goes through the history of slasher films from the ’70s and up to more modern times. I kind of lost interest once it got midway into the ’90s but that’s when Scream came out and kind of wrecked the genre.

This does miss a lot and doesn’t even really touch on the things in film’s history that inspired and paved the way for slasher cinema.

It felt like a missed opportunity to examine Italian giallo and how that subgenre of horror (and neo-noir) laid some groundwork for what would become the American and Canadian slasher flick empire.

Still, this was entertaining and I enjoyed it even if I didn’t learn much of anything new.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: other documentaries on ’70s and ’80s horror.

TV Review: McMillions (2020)

Original Run: February 3rd, 2020 – March 9th, 2020
Directed by: James Lee Hernandez, Brian Lazarte
Written by: James Lee Hernandez, Brian Lazarte
Music by: Pinar Toprak
Cast: various

FunMeter, Unrealistic Ideas, HBO, 6 Episodes, 60 Minutes (per episode)

Review:

As a McDonald’s shareholder, a loyal customer for decades and a massive fan of the Monopoly game, this was a story that absolutely intrigued me. So seeing that HBO made a documentary series telling the story of how the McDonald’s Monopoly game was rigged was a must watch for me.

My only real gripe about this is that I never felt like the scheme was all that clear. I understood how they found people to be “winners” of the top tier game pieces (and it was fantastic hearing their stories) but I never clearly understood why the criminals behind the scheme did it in the first place.

Selling these lucrative prizes at a small fraction of what their actual value was, was kind of baffling. I feel like there had to have been a much better way for them to exploit the system and in the end, they got caught, anyway.

Also, I had always assumed that McDonald’s was involved in the shenanigans because the actual story and all the facts weren’t something I delved into before this. I had just always assumed that by giving the pieces to “friends and family members” meant that some McDonald’s exec was just doing that for personal or corporate favors.

This was interesting as hell though and I watched all six episodes in one sitting.

In the end, I’m glad that those who were roped into the scheme, didn’t have their lives ruined based off of the poor circumstances they were in when the schemesters chose them to exploit for their own gain.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: other recent crime documentaries and series.