Documentary Review: Grizzly Man (2005)

Release Date: January 24th, 2005 (Sundance)
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Written by: Werner Herzog
Music by: Richard Thompson
Cast: Werner Herzog (narrator), Timothy Treadwell

Discovery Docs, Real Big Production, Lions Gate Films, 104 Minutes

Review:

Grizzly Man is a documentary by Werner Herzog. It follows the life and tragic death of Timothy Treadwell, who was killed and partially eaten by grizzly bears along with his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard.

Herzog, like in his other documentaries, weaves a wonderful tale out of extraordinary events and a very interesting character. This is one of my favorite Herzog documentaries, as it showcases a man, who many believe was out of his mind, and his crossing the line into living among the wild.

Timothy Treadwell was certainly eccentric and you can clearly see that, as much of the film is made up of the home movies Timothy shot while living with Alaskan grizzlies over thirteen summer seasons. One could bring his sanity into question and as the film went on, the less I liked the guy and thought he was off of his rocker. Did he deserve to die? No, but his incessant stupidity at being “one with the bears” eventually lead to him being one with the bears’ digestive track.

The videos that Timothy shot of the bears over the course of his time with them is nothing short of exceptional but he died for his work and very idiotically so. I understand passion but I also understand mental illness and I’m not saying that he was mentally ill but he certainly wasn’t all there and lived in a fantasy world where he thought he could tame the wild and thrive in it and among its apex predators. Even with thirteen years experience, one day the wild had enough of Timothy Treadwell.

This is a tragic story regardless of how you feel about Treadwell. In the end, I am glad I got to go on the journey and see things through his eyes, even though he wore rose-colored glasses.

And there is an awesomely epic bear fight about halfway through the film.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: Encounters at the End of the World, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Into the Inferno, The White Diamond and Into the Wild.

Documentary Review: River of No Return (2012)

Release Date: April 18th, 2012
Written by: Kathleen Wisneski
Music by: Chris Biondo, Lenny Williams

Rubin Tarrant Productions, PBS, 54 Minutes

Review:

*written in 2015.

River of No Return was a pretty enjoyable episode of PBS’ long-running show Nature.

This episode or short film, as that’s what it is, follows biologist Isaac Babcock and his wife Bjornen on their “honeymoon”. Newly married, they set off on a year-long adventure to Idaho’s “River of No Return” where they observed the behavior of wolves, an animal that Isaac has carefully studied for over 13 years at the time of this journey.

The film is light-hearted and fun and it shows the rugged wilderness of Idaho in a way that I haven’t yet experienced. Isaac and Bjornen weather the elements and travel on foot to all the places that they expect to find the wolves they’re there to observe. The elements are often times harsh and Bjornen struggles with her arthritis but ultimately, they are able to accomplish their goal and capture the wolves on film for the viewer to enjoy.

I feel like the 50 minute or so running time was a bit short for two people who went on a year-long adventure but it is pretty customary of PBS’ time constraints for their Nature series.

If you like wolves, this definitely worth a watch. It is currently available on Netflix.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: Other PBS Nature episodes.

Documentary Review: Way of the Puck (2006)

Release Date: April 29th, 2006 (WorldFest Houston)
Directed by: Eric D. Anderson
Written by: Eric D. Anderson
Music by: Brian Hawlk, Santiago Step

Creative Ape, 81 Minutes

Review:

Way of the Puck is one of many documentaries to come out in the last decade or so that follows a very small segment of the nerd world. Like The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters or Special When Lit, this movie showcases a group of elite players in a competitive niche hobby. The focus of this documentary is air hockey.

The movie does a good job at following around the different characters and showing their personalities. It also paints an interesting picture of competitive air hockey. It even makes a decent argument about how air hockey should be considered a sport by those outside of its tiny inner circle.

The problem, with the film, like air hockey, is in the end, it just isn’t that interesting. Where the films mentioned earlier were about retro arcade games and pinball, it worked for those films because video games and pinball are more interesting subject matter than air hockey. Yes, air hockey is fun to a degree but there is a reason why, since the late ’70s, air hockey tables tend to remain vacant while dozens swarm around video game cabinets and pinball machines.

I can appreciate the love and passion of these die hard fans in this film but it isn’t enough to enlighten me or most people. It is a little known hobby and it had its peak decades ago. That doesn’t mean that it can’t survive and thrive within the minuscule segment of society that loves it. But more likely than not, it is a hobby that will die with these guys. But that’s okay. It wouldn’t be the first hobby to fall victim to a fast moving world and its own growing obscurity.

Way of the Puck is a very human film that at least gives these guys a platform to talk to the world. Their message will most likely fall on deaf ears for the most part. But if air hockey makes them happy, then it really should be all they need. If you can find peace and happiness painting portraits on Pop-Tarts, good for you. But don’t expect other people to follow suit.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and Special When Lit.

Documentary Review: Mr. Baseball, Bob Uecker (2014)

Release Date: July 17th, 2014
Cast: Bob Uecker, Tom Berenger (narrator)

MLB Network, 60 Minutes

Review:

The MLB Network recently aired a short documentary about the life of Bob Uecker, as told by him and his friends and colleagues.

For those who don’t know, Bob is the funniest guy in the history of baseball. He wasn’t a great player but he went on to be a great broadcaster and had a good career beyond that, starring in films like Major League and the awesome ’80s sitcom Mr. Belevedere. As a kid, I also remember him showing up in the WWF (now WWE) to add a little flare to their broadcasting staff during Wrestlemania events. He was always funny and always entertaining.

The documentary pretty much interviews Mr. Uecker, Bob Costas, Al Michaels and others who have known Bob well over the years. It covers his baseball career, his broadcasting career and everything else. It even showcases his hilarious appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Mr. Baseball, Bob Uecker is a nice little piece on a Hall of Famer and legend. It’s an intimate and fulfilling experience if you are a fan of this man. I am, so I enjoyed it greatly.

And since there isn’t a trailer available, enjoy one of Uecker’s Miller Lite commercials.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: The Battered Bastards of Baseball, No No: A Dockumentary, Ken Burn’s Baseball.

Documentary Review: Of Miracles and Men (2015)

Release Date: February 8th, 2015
Directed by: Jonathan Hock
Music by: Joel Beckerman, Phil Hernandez, Chris Maxwell, Robert Miller

ESPN Films, 103 Minutes

Review:

*Written in 2015.

This was one on the more recent 30 For 30 films put out by ESPN.

This documentary covered the Soviet Union’s national hockey team during their dominant heyday and showed the famous “Miracle” game from their perspective, which provided a pretty unique take on the event.

Of Miracles and Men starts off by showing us how the Soviets developed their hockey game and the unorthodox approach to coaching that its founder had.

Unable to study the renowned Canadians, who made the sport famous, the Soviets taught themselves how to play from the ground up with no point of reference. Their coach analyzed everything he could outside of hockey and thought of ways to incorporate these things into the Soviet training routine. He took methods from dancing, weightlifting and other places. All of this showed how the Soviets developed such a refined style that was all their own at the time.

The documentary goes on to show the growth of hockey in the U.S.S.R. and how the nation developed immense pride for their athletes and the sport. All of which eventually lead to them playing some exhibition games against Canada.

While looked at as underdogs and not taken seriously, the Soviet team crushed Canada. And then they kept crushing Canada. And then they crushed everyone else, including the United States.

Where here, in America, we are told of the legend of the “Miracle” game from a very pro-American stance. This documentary shows the tale in a much more realistic light and provides the back story in a way that is more fleshed out than any version I’ve ever heard.

In the end, the Soviets weren’t so bloodthirsty about us, as we were of them. In fact, when they lost, they were more upset that they lost and weren’t looking at it as a failed attempt to topple America. In fact, they had toppled us quite a bit before this game and have toppled us after. Truthfully, the Soviets owned America historically. And today, the Russians still regularly kick our ass, even though we have amazing teams year after year.

An example one of the Soviet players gave in the film, is that this is like a fan of Sophia Loren who gets to kiss her. Years later he is still talking about the kiss. However, if you ask Loren about it, she probably doesn’t even remember it.

If anything, this film opens the viewers eyes to the propaganda machine.

In its simplest form, the “Miracle” game was a game played between really young athletes who just wanted to play the game because it was what they enjoyed doing. Athletes who were probably too young or focused on the game, to fully understand what was going on between these two countries politically.

In comparison to other 30 For 30 documentaries, this one fits in the upper echelon in terms of quality. The editing, interviews and narrative were fantastic. I just wish ESPN did more 30 For 30 films on hockey. I think this is only like the third one out of 60 plus films.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: Red ArmyMiracle and The Nagano Tapes: Rewound, Replayed & Reviewed.

Documentary Review: Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train a Comin’ (2013)

Also known as: American Masters: Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train a Comin’
Release Date: November 5th, 2013
Directed by: Bob Smeaton
Music by: Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Kramer (mixer)
Cast: Jimi Hendrix (archive footage)

Eagle Rock Entertainment, WNET Channel 13 New York, PBS, 90 Minutes

Review:

*Written in 2014.

Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train a Comin’ was actually an episode of PBS’ long-running television series American Masters. Even though this is a single episode of a show that has been on for decades, it is itself a film. In fact, it is one of the best biographical documentaries of a musician that I have seen in recent memory.

Obviously the film goes through the life of one of America’s greatest musicians of all-time, some would argue the best. This film has some pretty candid interviews however. Some of the most important and intimate are the old interviews with his father and the more modern ones with his sister, as well as other rock & roll gods and top rock music journalists.

The film gives a lot of insight into the personal life of Jimi, more so than other documentaries that I’ve seen on him. It extensively goes into his time in England, which was some of the coolest stuff in this documentary. The archive footage and performances of Hendrix were pretty amazing and should, from a cultural standpoint, be deemed priceless.

This PBS produced film is definitely worth the 90 minute playtime. It is currently streaming on Netflix.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: Other American Masters documentaries.

Documentary Review: Red Army (2014)

Release Date: May 16th, 2014 (Cannes)
Directed by: Gabe Polsky
Written by: Gabe Polsky
Music by: Christophe Beck, Leo Birenberg
Cast: Viacheslav Fetisov, Vladislav Tretiak, Scotty Bowman, Vladimir Pozner

Gabriel Polsky Productions, Sony Pictures Classics, 84 Minutes

Review:

*Written in 2015.

Gabe Polsky and Werner Herzog, now regular collaborators, worked together on this documentary. Polsky directed and conducted the interviews, where Herzog produced it.

This film follows the story of the Soviet Union’s last great hockey team, as told through their point of view. It follows them through their early days as kids in the system, through international competition, the Olympics, political and social turmoil, as well as their journey to North America and the NHL.

The bulk of the story is told through the eyes of legendary player Viacheslav Fetisov. He is dynamic, charismatic and, at times, an abrasive cantankerous jerk. But he does seem to tell an honest story and expresses his feelings and his tale pretty thoroughly. He’s straightforward and comes with a no nonsense approach, other than poking fun at the director here and there.

The most important thing about this film, is how intimately it portrays these young players relationship with the Soviet Union’s sports system and the hardship and challenges they faced. It also displays their loyalty to their country and the pride they had for playing on the national team but it evolves into their inability to trust their coach and that same system, as it holds them prisoner and doesn’t allow for them to have lives.

Through the broken promises and mistreatment over the years, many of these players eventually left the crumbling Soviet Union for the greener pastures of the National Hockey League in the United States and Canada. It then follows their struggles in the NHL and how these Russians adapted and then changed the game at it’s highest professional level.

This is a thought provoking and fast-paced documentary. It has something for everyone, whether you are into sports, politics or both. Truthfully, it is one of the best hockey documentaries that I have seen in quite some time.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: Of Miracles and MenMiracle and The Nagano Tapes: Rewound, Replayed & Reviewed.