Documentary Review: Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade (2007)

Release Date: January 22nd, 2007 (Sundance)
Directed by: Lincoln Ruchti
Cast: various

Men At Work Pictures LLC, 90 Minutes

Review:

After revisiting The King of Kong for the first time in years, I wanted to also revisit this, as it’s a very similar documentary that came out just before that more famous one.

While this isn’t the near masterpiece that The King of Kong is, it ties directly to it and its story and frankly, this plays like a prelude or a setup to that movie.

This goes through the history of arcade gaming and also covers the legends that rose up in the early days, their records, their effect on pop culture, as well as the creation of Twin Galaxies, the organization that records and maintains world records in arcade gaming. I believe they also keep records for console and PC gaming but it’s the arcade side of things that inspired them to exist in the first place.

There is a lot in this documentary about Billy Mitchell, who was pretty much the villain in The King of Kong story. It also features nearly all of the key people and legends that played a part in that film.

While this isn’t as good as The King of Kong it does feel like a necessary companion piece to it, allowing the viewer to have a deeper, richer experience in getting to know these people and their interesting, competitive and sometimes cutthroat subculture.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: The King of Kong, which this truly plays as a preface to.

Documentary Review: Circus of Books (2019)

Release Date: April 26th, 2019 (Tribeca Film Festival)
Directed by: Rachel Mason
Written by: Rachel Mason, Kathryn Robson
Cast: Karen Mason, Barry Mason, Rachel Mason, various

Netflix, 92 Minutes

Review:

I saw this pop up on Netflix, so I figured I’d check it out, as I generally enjoy the documentaries they distribute through their streaming service.

I wasn’t disappointed, as this is a really interesting story about a religious Jewish family who opened up a gay porn store, which also became a gay porn film studio and distributor. The store rose to prominence within the Los Angeles gay scene in the ’80s and would also reach far beyond its home city.

This kind of hit close to home, as I’ve been around gay culture since my teen years. The scene in southern Florida is big and even though I’m straight, I’ve always had gay friends and also lived with a pretty legit drag queen for a bit. The era that the bulk of this story took place in just brought a lot of those great memories back.

Beyond the nostalgia, this is an intriguing story about really interesting, good people. It’s hard not to love the family that started this store and it’s just as much a love letter to them, as it is the store itself.

I especially liked how interesting the father was with his backstory and the road that life took him on, leading up to becoming a straight, religious, family man that owned a gay book store.

This also examines the impact that owning the store had on the family as a whole in an age when it was considered really taboo. I liked meeting the kids, getting their take on all of it and how they grew up with this “moral” cloud over their religious upbringing.

It was also really cool seeing people from the L.A. gay community talking about the store and what it meant to them during really difficult times in their lives.

This really hits you in the feels and it’s unfortunate that the store, during the filming of this documentary, was falling on real hard times due to the world evolving away from the old mediums of pornography thanks to the Internet.

While this documentary was made by someone within the family, it’s not in any way inauthentic or dishonest because of that. In fact, it made the experience more intimate and meaningful.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: other documentaries about LGBTQ cultural history, porn and small business.

Book Review: ‘Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian, Vol. 2’ by Roy Thomas

The first volume of this book series covered issues 1-51 of the original Marvel Comics Conan the Barbarian series. This volume covers issues 52-100.

These two books are written by Roy Thomas, the legend that wrote the Conan comics. These basically serve as his commentary on his stories.

In fact, when I go back and read old issues, I’ve picked these books up to read his insight before revisiting them.

Thomas has always been one of my favorite comic book writers and the Conan franchise has always been one of my favorite IPs. So having these books is pretty damn cool and I’m actually pretty thankful that something like this was written, compiled and published.

I already reviewed the first one and all the positives I had to say about it also ring true for this volume.

All in all, these are great, resourceful books that allow you to understand Thomas’ inspiration, his stories and these characters on a level much deeper than just the comic book page.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: Roy Thomas’ historic run on Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian.

Film Review: The Fifth Estate (2013)

Also known as: The Man Who Sold the World (working title), The 5ifth Estate (alternative DVD spelling)
Release Date: September 5th, 2013 (Toronto International Film Festival)
Directed by: Bill Condon
Written by: Josh Singer
Based on: Inside WikiLeaks by Daniel Domscheit-Berg; WikiLeaks by David Leigh, Luke Harding
Music by: Carter Burwell
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney, Moritz Bleibtreu, Peter Capaldi, Dan Stevens, Alexander Siddig

Participant, Reliance Entertainment, Dreamworks Pictures, 128 Minutes

Review:

“Man is least himself when he talks with his own person. But if you give him a mask, he will tell you the truth. Two people, and a secret: the beginning of all conspiracies. More people, and, more secrets. But if we could find one moral man, one whistle-blower. Someone willing to expose those secrets, that man can topple the most powerful and most repressive of regimes.” – Julian Assange

Wow! This movie was an utter disappointment and honestly, a fucking disaster!

I should be clear from the get go that the performances were good and the shitty end result of this picture didn’t really fall on the shoulders of the actors. Hell, this film actually has a tremendous cast and that’s why I finally decided to give it a watch despite all the bad things I’ve heard about it since it came out.

I haven’t read the books that were used to write this film’s script but I know enough of the WikiLeaks story to know that this was a lot of bullshit. Also, I’m not sure how you can take such an exciting story and turn it into something this fucking dull! I mean, it’s got to take a real cement brained dullard to make the WikiLeaks and Assange story this damn boring!

Yes, I expected it not to be up to snuff but I at least expected the cast to kind of make up for the film’s technical and narrative shortcomings. Again, the cast is good but everything else is so bad that it barely even matters that they’re there.

In fact, I have to give this film a low score and the final tally is still going to be well below average, even though I gave it two bonus points for the actors.

This was a long, sloppy, boring film. It didn’t look that great and visually came across as really pedestrian. There weren’t any shots that stand out in my mind, as everything seemed to be shot like a television show that was on a tight schedule.

I don’t know how you can make a completely uninspiring movie out of a very inspiring person. But kudos, I guess.

This is shit.

Rating: 4/10
Pairs well with: other films and documentaries about cypherpunk culture and whistleblowers.

Documentary Review: Something Ventured (2011)

Release Date: April 24th, 2011 (San Francisco International Film Festival)
Directed by: Daniel Geller, Dayna Goldfine
Music by: Laura Karpman
Cast: various

Geller/Goldfine Productions, Miralan Productions, 84 Minutes

Review:

I saw this way back when it came out but I remembered it pretty fondly, so I decided to give it another watch when I saw it was free with Prime. Also, I didn’t remember much about it other than I had liked it about a decade ago.

So this goes through the early days of venture capitalism and since that’s something I’m a fan of, I found this pretty interesting. Plus, all these old school O.G. venture capitalists all seemed like pretty good guys and they came off as quite likable.

What’s most interesting about this is that it gives some details on the creation of a lot of iconic companies. It also shows many of these men talk about their failures and missed opportunities.

Ultimately, I liked that everyone sort of wore everything on their sleeve and weren’t afraid of talking about the good and the bad. There are lessons to be learned from these personalities and their trial and error.

This is a fairly short and quick watch and while it is primarily just talking head interviews, everything is superbly organized and presented while the multiple narratives and subjects flow well.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other documentaries on business.

Documentary Review: Grey Gardens (1975)

Release Date: September 27th, 1975 (New York Film Festival)
Directed by: David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer
Cast: Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale, Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale 

Portrait Films, 95 Minutes

Review:

“But you see in dealing with me, the relatives didn’t know that they were dealing with a staunch character and I tell you if there’s anything worse than dealing with a staunch woman… S-T-A-U-N-C-H. There’s nothing worse, I’m telling you. They don’t weaken, no matter what.” – Little Edie

Grey Gardens is very much a product of its time but it was a pretty highly regarded documentary for its day.

While I’ve known about it for years, I hadn’t watched it till now, as I figured it’d be a really depressing look into the lives of two women who went from the height of American society to living pretty much in squalor in their decrepit Long Island mansion, reflecting on their past days of glory.

The film, at its core, is an interesting character study into these two real women. There isn’t really a structure to the film and the directors just let the cameras roll, filming their day-to-day life like a reality television show. Although, more like the early days of reality television, before producers tried to manipulate their subjects into manufactured hostility to grab ratings.

That being said, this is still a sad picture but at the same time, the two women, even in their situation, are endearing and quite likable. But this also shows their naivety about the world that they live in. They’re the products of high society, no longer a part of it and they just don’t seem to have the same instincts as regular people in similar impoverished situations.

We also discover their strange but kind of innocent philosophies about life, love and family.

My only real complaint about the film is that it’s really slow. However, this complaint probably exists because I saw it nearly half a century after it was made and documentary filmmaking has evolved, greatly.

Regardless of that, it’s still interesting, stepping into these two women’s world for an hour and a half.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: its sequel and the film of the same name that is based on the women, starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore.

Film Review: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Release Date: December 9th, 2013 (Paris premiere)
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Terence Winter
Based on: The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort
Music by: various
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Jon Bernthal, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Milioti, Aya Cash, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, Katarina Cas, Stephanie Kurtzuba, P. J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Ethan Suplee, Thomas Middleditch, Jordan Belfort (cameo), Spike Jonze (cameo, uncredited)

Sikelia Productions, Appian Way, Red Granite Pictures, 180 Minutes, 145 Minutes (cut version), 240 Minutes (rough cut)

Review:

“Let me tell you something. There’s no nobility in poverty. I have been a rich man and I have been a poor man. And I choose rich every fuckin’ time. Because, at least as a rich man, when I have to face my problems, I show up in the back of the limo, wearing a $2000 suit and a $40,000 gold fuckin’ watch.” – Jordan Belfort

Even though I love finance industry movies and the work of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, I didn’t have much urge to see this back when it came out.

Reason being, I read the book and it read like a load of bullshit. Sure, it chronicled a guy’s life but it was so over the top and exaggerated that it read like some narcissistic fantasy where the author was jacking off to his own words about himself.

People then came forth and debunked a lot of the over the top stuff, once the book became popular and everyone was talking about it. The problem with that, was that the movie was already in production and I assumed the script was written and we were going to get the book adapted as-is and not with a dose of reality actually thrown in.

Well, being that I do love finance industry movies, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, I thought, “Fuck it, just watch it to review it.” Plus, I wanted something else to watch after recently revisiting the two Oliver Stone Wall Street movies and the underrated Boiler Room.

I’ve got to say that I was actually impressed by the picture enough that I sort of just turned my brain off and watched this like a normal drama movie and didn’t get fixated on the validity of the source material. At the end of the day, it was an entertaining film that was bolstered by several great performances and the stupendous craftsmanship of Scorsese behind the camera.

Now I can’t say that I liked this as much as 1987’s Wall Street but it is as good as the other great movies that are just beneath it.

In fact, my only real complaint about it was that it was too long. I guess the rough cut was four hours and Scorsese lobbed a whole hour off of it but even then, I felt like a good extra half hour or more could’ve been left out. Granted, I would still watch a four hour Director’s Cut version if Scorsese ever decided to do one. But I think that this beefy story may have actually worked better as a miniseries. I guess you can’t simply throw DiCaprio onto the small screen, though. 

As should be expected, this movie was a beautiful, visual feast. It featured impressive cinematography and even the CGI parts fit well within the overall look of the film. Really, there was just one big CGI sequence when the main characters wrecked their giant yacht at sea.

The film didn’t have a traditional musical score and instead, sprinkled in pop tunes from the years that this film’s story spanned. That was fine with me as it almost went unnoticed.

In the end, I enjoyed The Wolf of Wall Street quite a bit. I don’t think it’ll be one of those films I cherish or revisit all that often like Wall Street but it certainly deserves its fanfare.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other finance industry films like the two Wall Street movies, The Big Short, Rogue Trader, Boiler Room, etc.

Documentary Review: Class Action Park (2020)

Also known as: Action Park (Canada – alternative title)
Release Date: August 20th, 2020 (Florida Film Festival)
Directed by: Seth Porges, Chris Charles Scott III
Music by: The Holladay Brothers
Cast: John Hodgman (narrator), Chris Gethard, Alison Becker, various

Pinball Party Productions, HBO, 90 Minutes

Review:

I wanted to watch this when I first saw the trailer for it months back. However, it was an HBO Max exclusive and I couldn’t get that app on my Amazon Firestick. I’m glad the two parties got that shit sorted out because now I have the app and therefore, access to this cool documentary about a defunct and pretty dangerous theme park.

Action Park wasn’t just dangerous, though, it became a place of legend. So much so, I knew about it in Florida when I was a kid from the few friends that moved to my state from New Jersey or others who had made it up there on a family trip.

The park actually served as inspiration for the Johnny Knoxville starring Action Point, which was a box office bomb but still looked kind of entertaining. I haven’t seen it yet but I might watch it soon after seeing this documentary about the actual source material.

This documentary did a great job of building nostalgia for the park it featured. While I personally have no first-hand knowledge of Action Park, the passion and the memories of those interviewed really came through, amazingly.

This goes through the founding and design of the park and it’s slapped together rides, as well as the problems it had, the shortcuts the owner took and all the dark stories that hadn’t been as widely known until now.

It’s the type of place I’d never send my kids to but if I was a kid, you’d bet your ass I’d sneak off and check it out regardless of my parents’ orders.

This was an energetic and endearing documentary and it made me feel kind of left out, as I never got to experience it for myself. Although, I grew up in Florida, the land of theme parks, and I probably won out in the end.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: the content on the YouTube channels Defunctland and Yesterworld, much of which has been featured here in Vids I Dig posts.

Film Review: Serpico (1973)

Release Date: December 5th, 1973 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Written by: Waldo Salt, Norman Wexler
Based on: Serpico by Peter Maas
Music by: Mikis Theodorakis
Cast: Al Pacino, John Randolph, Jack Kehoe, Biff McGuire, Barabara Eda-Young, Cornelia Sharpe, Edward Grover, Tony Roberts, Allan Rich, Albert Henderson, Joseph Bova, Woodie King Jr., James Tolkan, Bernard Barrow, Nathan George, M. Emmet Walsh, Ted Beniades, F. Murray Abraham (uncredited), Judd Hirsch (uncredited)

Artists Entertainment Complex, Produzioni De Laurentiis International Manufacturing Company, 130 Minutes

Review:

“The reality is that we do not wash our own laundry – it just gets dirtier.” – Frank Serpico

The early ’70s were a hell of a great time for the still young Al Pacino’s career. Not only did he star in two near perfect Godfather movies but he also starred in two great films by legendary director Sidney Lumet: Dog Day Afternoon and this, Serpico.

Out of the four films, this may be my least favorite but man, it’s still incredible, holds up exceptionally well and boasts one of Pacino’s greatest performances, as he plays former detective Frank Serpico, who was instrumental in shedding light on the corrupt activities of the New York Police Department of his time.

Pacino carries this film from scene-to-scene but honestly, I don’t think that was a difficult thing for him to do, even in the early ’70s. The rest of the cast isn’t full of well-known actors like his other films from the era, so he really steps his game up here. That’s not to say that the actors in this aren’t talented, they certainly are, you just can’t compare them to the large cast in the Godfather films or the other great character actors that were weaved into Dog Day Afternoon.

The greatness of this motion picture has just as much to do with the direction of Lumet, as it does the acting of Pacino, though. The two men were one hell of a team when they were together on the same project.

Lumet proves, once again, that he is a master craftsman behind the camera. This gritty, too real film has stupendous cinematography from the lighting, shot framing and overall visual tone. This is generally a dark movie but it has a lot of texture to it and life within every frame. It’s brooding and haunting yet it has energy and passion. It’s almost like a cinematic yin and yang, executed to perfection.

Additionally, Lumet just knows how to pull the best performances out of his actors. I’m not sure how involved he was in casting the whole film but I’d have to guess that he was either very involved or used someone that he trusted with his life. Everyone in this is perfect for their role, regardless of its size.

Ultimately, this is a damn good movie in just about every regard. While I found the pacing a little slow in a few parts, everything still felt necessary to the story and the end result is impressive.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: other crime films of the 1970s, especially those starring Al Pacino.

Documentary Review: Citizenfour (2014)

Release Date: October 10th, 2014 (New York Film Festival)
Directed by: Laura Poitras
Cast: Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, William Binney, Jacob Applebaum, Ewen MacAskill

HBO Films, Participant Media, Praxis Films, Radius-TWC, 113 Minutes

Review:

For those who don’t already know the story of Edward Snowden, this does a good job of laying out all the facts and events that led to the situation he finds himself in, today.

While millions of people want him to get a presidential pardon, which I agree with, I think it’s important for those who don’t really know his story to actually learn about it because so many seem to easily accept the “traitor” label that’s been applied to him by those in the former Obama Administration.

What’s best about this, is that it actually stars Snowden. The cameras follow him, as he traverses through the muck while trying to get all the secrets he’s discovered out there.

Additionally, this features those who helped Snowden leak his secrets.

For the most part, this was really good and it makes its point well.

There’s not much to say about the contents of the film, as people really should watch it play out for themselves.

It’s well presented and it at least gives Snowden a voice.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other films on cypherpunk culture, specifically on hacking and leaking. I’ve reviewed many, here.