Documentary Review: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

Also known as: Black Magic (Australian TV title)
Release Date: April 22nd, 2005 (limited)
Directed by: Alex Gibney
Written by: Peter Elkind, Alex Gibney, Bethany McLean
Music by: Matthew Hauser
Cast: Andrew Fastow, Jeffrey Skilling, Kenneth Lay, Gray Davis, Bethany McLean, Peter Coyote (narrator)

Jigsaw Productions, 2929 Productions, HDNet Films, Magnolia Pictures, PBS, 110 Minutes

Review:

Watching this documentary, I couldn’t believe that the Enron shit was over a decade and a half ago. Man, time flies but it was a hell of a story and I’m glad that this was so well presented and thorough, allowing me to revisit the story with even more insight than what was known when the news of this first started breaking.

For those that don’t know about the Enron scandal, how old are you? I kid, geez. Everyone is so sensitive now.

Anyway, this goes through the history of the company, how it was formed, all the big players that helped to turn it into a cabal of vampiric bastards, the relationships of well-known political figures to the company, as well as the fallout of the scandal itself.

A lot of the people interviewed in this documentary were either directly involved in the company or were the people that worked to uncover their shady practices over the years.

Seriously, if you don’t know the story it’s certainly worth learning about. If you do know it, however, there’s still a lot of information to sink your teeth into and there were connections and reveals that either I had forgotten about over the years or I just didn’t know about back in the early ’00s.

Solid, through and through, this is well produced and a pretty enthralling film for those into financial and political scandals.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: other business crime documentaries.

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: 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: Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle (2013)

Original Run: October 8th, 2013 – October 15th, 2013
Directed by: Michael Kantor
Written by: Michael Kantor, Laurence Maslon, J. David Spurlock
Music by: Christopher Rife
Cast: Liev Schreiber (host), Mark Waid, Stan Lee, Adam West, Joe Quesada, Grant Morrision, Lynda Carter, Jeph Loeb, J. Michael Straczynski, Geoff Johns, Zack Snyder, Chris Claremont, Larry Hama, Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Tim Daly

Ghost Light Films, National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS, 3 Episodes, 55 Minutes (per episode)

Review:

A few years ago, PBS did this three part documentary series on the history of comic books. It was hosted by Liev Schreiber, which was really cool, and featured a ton of creators, as well as notable celebrities who have played some of the iconic comic book characters in television and film.

The history of comic books is incredibly vast. Narrowing down what to cover in three episodes, each of which ran just under an hour, couldn’t have been easy but the people behind this did a good job of focusing on the important stuff. I wish there was more time given to the challenges of the Comics Code Authority but that’s probably boring subject matter to most modern fans.

Superheroes spends a lot of time talking about the creation of Superman, Batman and the early heroes that would be at the forefront of DC Comics. They then spent some time talking about Stan Lee and his creations, which helped to put Marvel on the map. To my surprise, even though they didn’t spend much time on it, they covered some of the story that lead to the formation of Image Comics in the ’90s, which was the biggest thing in comic books during my most formative years as a comics fan.

I wish that this would have been bigger than it was. Three episodes just weren’t enough. This could have easily been one of those 10-part Ken Burns style documentaries with two hour episodes and they still wouldn’t have run out of material. I’m hoping that someone does do a comic industry documentary like that at some point; it’s long overdue.

But at least we live in a time where this wonderful medium isn’t considered low brow shit. It’s become a respected art form and format for storytelling. A lot of that has to do with the success of comic book movies the last few decades but at least fans don’t have to feel like they need to hide their fandom when out in public anymore.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics and recent comic book documentaries Chris Claremont’s X-Men and The Image Revolution.

 

Documentary Review: Touching the Wild: Living with the Mule Deer of Deadman Gulch (2014)

Release Date: April 16th, 2014
Directed by: David Allen
Cast: Joe Hutto

Rubin Tarrant Productions, 52 Minutes

Review:

*Written in 2014.

Touching the Wild was a pretty stellar installment of PBS’ Nature series. In fact, it is now one of my favorite episodes of all-time in this show’s 30-plus year run.

It follows Joe Hutto as he lives with the mule deer of the Deadman Gulch area of Colorado. It chronicles how he gained their trust over years and became a part of their lives, families and societal structure.

Man, this was a pretty emotional documentary. It is hard not to get swept up in the feelings Joe conveys throughout this 52 minute film. And what is great about this documentary is that it just features Joe, telling his story, telling the story of all the deer and how it has effected him every step of the way.

From a science standpoint, Touching the Wild is pretty profound in that it delves deep into mule deer behavior, their way of life and shows a more intimate and up-close view than what has ever been seen before.

Deer are pretty private creatures that want nothing to do with humans. This shows how close a man can get however and it blurs the line between species – showing the true nature of these animals, their heart, their ability to trust and their ability to treat something unlike them, as one of their own.

And this is currently streaming on Netflix.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Other installments of PBS’ Nature series.

Documentary Review: American Cinema: Film Noir (1995)

Release Date: 1995
Directed by: Jeffrey Schon
Music by: Thomas Wagner
Narrated by: Richard Widmark
Hosted by: John Lithgow

PBS, 54 Minutes

Review:

I have been casually watching episodes of PBS’ documentary television series American Cinema. Since I have been watching a ton of film-noir movies for Noirvember, one of my favorite cinematic celebration months, I had to dig up the episode Film Noir. Luckily, it is streaming on YouTube, as many old PBS documentaries are.

What makes this cool when compared to other film-noir documentaries is that it doesn’t explain away the style or the elements that make noir. It focuses more on talking head interviews of actors, directors and scholars who simply just discuss film-noir. While the interviewees are alone, it still plays more like an open forum of ideas and thoughts on the noir style and its importance in American filmmaking.

It was a really nice touch that Richard Widmark, my choice for a 1950s Joker if ever there was a serious Batman movie made back then, got to narrate this short documentary. I also enjoyed seeing John Lithgow host the episode, even though he is way too young to have been in classic film-noir. But Lithgow is certainly a guy that understands film and the important things in the long history of the art.

Film Noir is one of my favorite episodes of the American Cinema series but then again, I have a strong bias in favor of noir. Ultimately, though, this is a really good educational piece on the style and its significance.

Rating: 8/10

Documentary Review: American Experience: War of the Worlds (2013)

Release Date: October 29th, 2013
Directed by: Cathleen O’Connell
Music by: John Kusiak
Narrated by: Oliver Platt

WGBH, PBS, 52 Minutes

Review:

The PBS television documentary series American Experience did an episode that covered the famous Orson Welles radio broadcast of War of the Worlds.

For those who don’t know, this broadcast convinced many Americans that New Jersey was being invaded by violent Martians. The radio program was done in the style of fake newscasts and those who tuned in too late to hear that this was a performance, were swept up in these fake news reports and thus, widespread panic ensued.

When I was a kid, I heard this story and I couldn’t understand how people could be duped like that. It made me think that people in the 1930s were morons. Living in the world today, I can now see how something like this would have been possible. The documentary also does a fine job outlining how this happened and the points it hits make a lot of sense.

Part of the documentary is made up of dramatizations and actors playing the roles of people who commented on the crazy incident from their historical point of view. These segments were filmed like typical talking head interviews and were there to add some context in regards to the public perception of the event.

Being a fan of Orson Welles, it was cool getting a lot more insight on this incident than just the basic story. It delved into the early production of the broadcast and also the aftermath and how well Welles handled the press and was able to have a huge career after this.

I really enjoyed this documentary and it is actually available on Netflix, at the time of this posting, anyway.

Rating: 7/10