Documentary Review: Spielberg (2017)

Release Date: October 5th, 2017 (New York Film Festival)
Directed by: Susan Lacy
Cast: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Richard Dreyfuss, John Williams, J.J. Abrams, James Brolin, Bob Balaban, Tom Hanks, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote, Leonardo DiCaprio, Harrison Ford, Oprah Winfrey, Frank Marshall, Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Robert Zemeckis, Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, Dustin Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tom Cruise, Eric Bana, Daniel Craig

HBO Documentary Films, Pentimento Productions, 147 Minutes

Review:

This was a pretty stellar documentary for fans of not just Steven Spielberg but filmmaking and film history in general.

It reminded me a lot of the 2001 documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures, in that this spent a lot of time breaking down most of the key movies in Spielberg’s oeuvre.

Every segment here was rich, detailed and featured interviews with some major directors, actors and producers. But the film also gets into Spielberg’s personal life and how real life experiences influenced his movies.

This was a lengthy documentary, just as the Kubrick one was and rightfully so. In fact, this could have been the length of a ten part, two hour apiece Ken Burns documentary and I still would have been fully engaged.

Spielberg’s career has been long and full of at least a dozen classic films that will be remembered forever. Each segment could’ve been it’s own documentary film and it actually kind of sucks that a few films were mentioned but not given as much detail, most notably A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, the Jurassic Park sequels and some of his production work like Back to the Future.

Still, this is pretty thorough and there is so much to unpack and take away from this. It is one of the best documentaries on a filmmaker’s life and career.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: other documentaries on specific directors but this reminded me a lot of Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures.

Documentary Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

Release Date: January 19th, 2018 (Sundance)
Directed by: Morgan Neville
Music by: Jonathan Kirkscey

Tremolo Productions, Focus Features, 93 Minutes

Review:

This was a highly lauded documentary when it came out at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. I heard about it almost immediately but I didn’t get to see it till now, as it is streaming through HBO, which I happen to have at the moment.

I grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood but then, what kid in America didn’t? But because of this, I always felt close to Fred Rogers. I mean, he was a part of my daily life during my developmental years and I continued to see him often, as younger kids in my family also grew up watching the show.

It was really nice seeing this, as it does take a real intimate look at the show and Fred Rogers, the man. This does a great job of being both a biography film of Rogers personal life, as well as a behind the scenes look at the show’s development, production and legacy.

I learned a lot about Rogers and who the man was. I, like most people, always wondered if he was a character or if he was just being himself. Now I have no doubts that the man we all grew up with was the authentic Fred Rogers.

The documentary gives a lot of speaking time for several people from Rogers’ professional and personal lives. All of them had nothing but love and admiration and while that may make the skeptic wonder as to whether this was just some sort of puff piece or not, I think that Rogers truly touched everyone around him.

I love showbiz documentaries but this was a rare gem in that it delved into a part of showbiz that isn’t really examined.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: other recent biographical documentaries featured on HBO.

Documentary Review: David Bowie: The Last Five Years (2017)

Release Date: January 7th, 2017 (UK)
Directed by: Francis Whatley
Music by: David Bowie
Cast: David Bowie (archive footage), Michael C. Hall, Sophia Anne Caruso, Toni Basil

BBC, HBO, 90 Minutes

Review:

I own more David Bowie records than any other musical act. I actually own every single album in some form or another. I have almost all of them on CD, except maybe two, I have many on tape and in recent years, I’ve come to own many of them on vinyl. He is, hands down, my favorite recording artist of all-time. Hell, in the nearly 50 years that he released albums, there isn’t even one that I find mediocre.

So when Bowie died, it was a big blow to me. Sure, I’ve felt it pretty hard when other artists have died but Bowie felt immortal and there was something about his long and storied musical history that touched me in ways other artists couldn’t.

Not to sound sappy but it took some time before I felt like watching this. I finally got around to it and I was really happy with how this documentary turned out, as it covers Bowie’s life in his final five years. Granted, it does go back further than that and spends some time talking about his Reality Tour in 2003.

The documentary features interviews and insight from a lot of the people that worked with Bowie during his last few years. There are no interviews with family but that’s okay, as this came out about a year after his death and I’m sure it was a bit too soon for them to feel as if they should chime in.

The interviews are all pretty solid and informative, though, and they really paint a picture of the man’s later years, how he was still passionate and how he viewed things like fame, especially later in life.

This goes into the production of Bowie’s later albums, music videos and a stage musical that he wrote and produced.

For Bowie fans, this is definitely worth a watch. If anything, it will make you miss the man, his infectious charisma and his pure, unlimited talent.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: other recent music documentaries: Gimme Danger and A Band Called Death.

Documentary Review: Ferrell Takes the Field (2015)

Release Date: September 12th, 2015
Directed by: Brian McGinn
Music by: John Jennings Boyd, Brian Langsbard
Cast: Will Ferrell

Funny or Die, Gary Sanchez Productions, Major League Baseball, HBO, 49 Minutes

Review:

This is a documentary of something real but being that this is focused on Will Ferrell, he plays it up almost as if it’s a mockumentary. I get that he feels the need to be funny but I think this would have been cooler had it actually documented this event with a more realistic approach.

Still, this is fairly entertaining.

I’m pretty sure that HBO wanted to make this into more of a spectacle for ratings purposes and I guess it works for Ferrell fans.

This short film follows Will Ferrell as he plays ten different positions for ten different Major League Baseball teams over five Spring Training games in the Cactus League. The purpose behind the stunt is so that he can raise money for cancer charities.

For fans of baseball, especially Spring Training, this is pretty cool to watch, as you see Ferrell travel Arizona and visit different ballparks. Being a Floridian, I would have rather he done this in the Grapefruit League but Arizona is cool too.

It’s fun seeing Ferrell interact with real MLB players and managers but as a documentary, this doesn’t do much to make me care about his charitable work and the true meaning behind this publicity stunt. I’m glad that Ferrell and company looked to be enjoying themselves but something more organic and natural probably would have benefited the film’s audience and the charitable work more.

I get that Will Ferrell is a funny guy but he didn’t need to be “in character” from start to finish. Show your human side, man. Be natural for once and show the world why this actually means so much to you. We can still laugh along the way because the humor still would have surfaced.

Rating: 5.5/10
Pairs well with: Will Ferrell’s sports comedies.

Vids I Dig 001: Fear, Loathing, and Comics at the Basement Sale

The Pittsburgh Comics Gang investigates the New Dimension Comics Basement Sale – a bi-annual event during which a trove of over half a million comics is opened for public perusal and consumption.

Video by Julie Sokolow

Featuring the artists:
Ed Piskor (Wizzywig, Hip Hop Family Tree)
Jim Rugg (Street Angel, Afrodisiac)
Tom Scioli (Godland, American Barbarian)
Jasen Lex (The Aweful Science Fair, Gypsy Lounge)
with
Todd McDevitt (Owner of New Dimension Comics)
Amanda Bowen (Archivist at New Dimension Comics)

Documentary Review: Leaving Neverland (2019)

Also known as: Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson and Me (UK)
Release Date: January 25th, 2019 (Sundance Film Festival)
Directed by: Dan Reed
Music by: Chad Hobson
Cast: Michael Jackson (archive footage), Wade Robson, Jimmy Safechuck

Amos Pictures, HBO, Channel 4, Kew Media, 236 Minutes, 182 Minutes (UK)

Review:

So, yeah… I had to watch this because there has been so much controversy around this documentary.

First off, if you take this documentary at face value and don’t go through the details with a fine tooth comb, it’s pretty convincing and pretty damning. But like all documentaries, this one had its agenda and it had to hit its points home without there being any counterpoints to what was presented as “fact”.

To be blunt, this is incredibly one-sided and hopefully, people are astute enough to see the forest for the trees, even if the two alleged victims that are featured in this documentary come off as genuine. And I do think they do come off as genuine or they are just damn good actors and deserve every Oscar next year.

I’m not saying that the victims are lying and I don’t want to doubt them, assuming their stories are true. But there are a lot of holes and when looking at the facts that are presented here, some of them don’t line up with details that are already public knowledge.

One example I should point out, is that Jimmy Safechuck’s mom says that she danced for joy when Michael Jackson died in 2009 because he couldn’t sexually abuse anymore children. However, Safechuck never told his mom that Jackson abused him until he was inspired by Wade Robson coming forward in 2013. And this is just one of several things that don’t add up when you take these victims’ stories at face value and look at other important factors like the actual timeline of events.

This was a compelling documentary and I am certainly not dismissing the possibility that Michael Jackson sexually abused children but if the victims’ stories are to be believed, there are a lot of plot holes and details that need to be ironed out.

The biggest problem, is that I can’t take any of this at face value because looking beyond this documentary as entertainment, which is what it is designed to be, as fucked up as that is, these stories come apart when you do any research beyond what is laid out and spoon fed to the audience for four whopping hours. But then, you can see that things don’t add up just within this movie, if you are actually paying attention to the finer points. Plus, the movie isn’t exactly clear on the dates of events it discusses, except where something happens around an event known by the mass populace like the release of an album or actual trials.

I’m not on either side of the debate here. However, it is pretty damn weird that Michael Jackson spent so much time with kids behind closed doors without parents around. But even if Jackson was a predator, the fault really lands right in the parents’ laps.

I don’t want to doubt the story of any victim but we live in a country where you are innocent until proven guilty and when details don’t add up or make sense, that’s more than enough for me to dismiss whatever story is being sold to me.

This was shoddy filmmaking where the film’s own director shot himself in the foot by not catching contradicting details. It was agenda driven, didn’t offer up anything fair and balanced and presented no real evidence other than the stories of two victims, stretched to an ungodly length.

Rating: 5/10
Pairs well with: various other documentaries about Michael Jackson.

Documentary Review: Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary (2017)

Release Date: January 13th, 2017
Directed by: John Campopiano, Justin White
Written by: John Campopiano, Justin White
Music by: Douglas Harper, Kurt Oldman
Cast: Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Mary Lambert, Miko Hughes, Blaze Berdahl, Brad Greenquist, Stephen King, Heather Langenkamp

Ocean’s Light Productions, 75 Minutes

Review:

Sometimes documentaries about movies are better than the movies themselves. While some people love Pet Sematary, it’s not one of my favorites. But since I just revisited it and reviewed it, I wanted to check out this documentary about its creation.

I love documentaries about filmmaking and storytelling. So this was right up my alley.

What’s really interesting about this is the backstory about the novel and what inspired Stephen King to write it in the first place. Also, the novel’s story is pretty neat too, as it goes into how the publisher wouldn’t put it out due to it featuring the death of a child. But ultimately, the book did see print and eventually led to the film, which also went through some of its own issues in getting green lit.

Unfortunately, Fred Gwynne died a few years after the movie came out but this documentary still rounds up the entire cast apart from the great veteran actor. I loved hearing them share their experiences.

This also delves into the impact the film’s production had on the small Maine community where it was filmed.

One of the highlights for me, was the production footage and photos of the behind the scenes stuff from constructing a spooky house to how they did the make up and special effects, as well as rounding up a lot of the key behind the scenes people to talk about it at great length.

In a way, this actually made me appreciate the finished film more than I did before seeing what went into it being produced. So maybe I’ll watch it again soon.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: Pet Sematary and Pet Sematary Two, also any Stephen King movies from the ’70s through ’90s.