Welcome to an all-documentary edition of Uncle Z's movie reviews! All the following purport to be collections of true actual-factual materials, and in some cases they are. In others, though, eeeeehhhhh, not so much.
American Grindhouse (C, 2010) The history of sleazy exploitation films and the way they were distributed is charted in this well-done documentary. If you're a real fan of this kind of movie then you're not likely to find much that's any big news to you, but you'll still enjoy seeing clips from hundreds of these movies and hearing interviews from filmmakers like John Landis, Hershell Gordon Lewis, Larry Cohen, Joe Dante, Walter Hill, and others. An important part of your education as a worthwhile human being if you're not familiar with such films.
Trailer available here.
American: The Bill Hicks Story (C, 2010) If you're a fan of genius, ground-breaking comedian Bill Hicks, then you've probably read biographies on him and everything in this documentary will be familiar to you. Hicks is one of those figures that those of us who are into him are reaaaaally into him, so we tend to want to know everything we can. But, even if you're familiar with the info, it should still be a very welcome and overdue production, covering the full extent of Hicks' career and featuring segments from his friends and family. Much of the film is animated from photos, and it's effective but overused. There are enough clips from Hicks' act to provide a fair representation (and hopefully spark any newbies to seek out more), and the second DVD contains some more rare clips. Very informative, well done, and a must for fans (which should be everybody).
Bigfoot: The Mysterious Monster (C, 1976) aka Mysterious Monsters. One of those Schick Sun Classics documentaries from the '70's that you either love or hate. I love 'em, and this is one of the best. Peter Graves narrates the exploration of the existence of Bigfoot. He starts out talking about the Loch Ness Monster and showing photos and films which he claims proves Nessie's existence conclusively. This neatly dispensed with (and if you disagree with him you just SHUT UP because it's REAL, it JUST IS!), Graves interviews witnesses and scientists, and numerous Bigfoot encounters are re-created by a guy in a pretty good Bigfoot costume. We're shown plaster casts of footprints which Graves says should be proof enough ("Footprints should be permitted to establish the existence of a creature if fingerprints can be used to hang one!"). He also presents audio tapes of Bigfoot babble, and consults psychic Peter Hurkos. The climax is, of course, the Patterson film, which graves accepts as proof, case closed, and goes on to determine what kind of animals they are. The science here is specious, but it's entertaining if you're interested in the whole cryptozoology thing, and it has a definite '70's charm. "Bigfoot is as much a part of our life as the gorilla or the Loch Ness Monster."
Whole thing starts here:
Big Rig (C, 2007) Fascinating documentary on truckers that will change the way you look at the trucks you share the highway with. Dozens of truckers are featured talking about their business and how tough it is to make a living doing it, even though the service they provide the country is crucial; it'd be hard to find anything in your house that wasn't carried on a truck at some point, yet hardly any citizen gives the job the respect it deserves. The truckers interviewed are male, female, black, white, young, old... but most are very likeable and all worth listening to, and even though they don't spend a whole lot of time with any one driver, the filmmakers have chosen their footage well and you get a good sense of the personality of each subject, and therefore what seems like a good sampling of the profession as a whole. The DVD has lots of extras, too. Recommended.
Whole thing starts here:
Blonde Captive (B&W, 1931) Silent anthropological footage narrated by Lowell Thomas; I hope they paid him well to read off all the horribly strained, laborious jokes and the racist comments. Explorers search for evidence of surviving Neanderthals in Australia and the South Sea islands. Mostly they check out which girls are pretty and which aren't (it's clear they don't like black girls). A lot of dancing natives are shown no matter where they go. They find a lot of sea turtles, steal their eggs, and butcher one of the turtles so they can watch it's ripped-out heart keep beating. They watch a boomerang-maker and then there are boomerang jokes for the rest of the movie. A dugong is butchered and its severed head examined. A chief knocks out a boy's front teeth as a rite of manhood. And they finally find an ugly guy and declare him to be a Neanderthal. Plus they discover a blonde white woman who got shipwrecked there years before and became part of the tribe; she doesn't seem to be a "captive" since she has no desire to go back with them. Interesting, but badly dated mondo-type film full of embarrassing racism.
Death: The Ultimate Mystery (C, 1975) Speculative documentary in which a guy (the voice of Cameron Mitchell and the glimpsed-from-the-back body of a guy who looks like Muammar Gaddafi) has a near-death experience and becomes fascinated with death and what may lie beyond it. He goes around interviewing people and visiting sites like the tombs of Egypt and the mummies of Guanajuato. He talks to people who've supposedly died and visited Heaven or Hell, and sits in as people recount past lives under hypnosis, and then goes on to verify details they've given as "proof" of an afterlife. It's all very scam-laden and pretty dull, and isn't any kind of "Faces of Death" -- there's nothing graphic in it other than a couple of slightly-gruesome war photos. It all comes across as phony and manipulative, and is unconvincing as a "documentary" when the conclusion is so obviously contrived.
Hearts and Minds (C, 1974) Powerful documentary on the failure of the Vietnam war is packed with images that have become iconic (an execution in the street, a little girl running naked down the road after being napalmed). It's almost bizarre to see how wrong-yet-convinced some people were about what was happening now that time has added perspective. You see people nobly motivated to do wrong things by what they honestly felt was patriotism. At the time this was a controversial, possibly-troublemaking film, but time has borne things out and now it's more of a moment in time... and maybe a document that says mankind never really learns anything, because we're still making the same mistakes, chasing the same delusions. Lots of footage of bombings and testimonials from soldiers (both pro- and con-) are mixed with what American officials say and what Vietnamese villagers say.
I Am Comic (C, 2010) Documentary on stand-up comedy interviews dozens of comics to analyze what drives comics to do what they do (it's apparently another drug), how comedy works, and what happens when it doesn't work. Much of the film centers on Rich Schiedner, a big comic from the 80's (you'll remember him when you see him) who gave it up for years and got the bug again while helping with the documentary. His new material's pretty weak but he gets by on being really likeable; you want him to do well so you pull with him through some bum jokes. You see a ton of comics but don't spend enough time with any of them to learn much about them, but you do get to see Carlos Mencia finally admit he's a joke thief. No major insight but very interesting if you're interested in the stand-up thing.
Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown (C, 2008) Very informative and entertaining documentary on the life and work of H. P. Lovecraft, edited together from interviews with Lovecraft experts and writers and filmmakers who were influenced by him. It's interesting just to see these writers, some of whom are favorites of mine, such as Peter Straub, Ramsey Campbell (who's very engaging and bounces up and down when he talks), and Caitlin R. Kiernan. Other interviewees include S. T. Joshi, Neil Gaiman, John Carpenter, Guillermo Del Toro, and others, all informative. Stephen King is sorely missed in this. The documentary runs about 90 minutes, but the DVD includes over 70 minutes of other interview excerpts which are as interesting as the rest, so it's really nearly three hours of knowledgeable discussion, which should make any Lovecraft fan very happy.
Marjoe (C, 1972) Expose of the evangelist racket with famed preacher Marjoe Gortner, who'd been preaching since age four even though he never believed a bit of it. He explains that it's all showmanship geared toward getting the rubes in the audience to give more money (which he gets by the sackful). The whole tent revival thing is shown to be little different from a traveling carnival, running emotional con games to make as much cash as possible. Marjoe made the movie because he wanted to get out of the racket (and he did go on to act in a lot of low-budget horror and sci-fi movies) and was feeling a little guilty about fooling people, but he doesn't come across as a bad guy, really, or to have contempt for his audience -- he's just an entertainer providing a specialized form of entertainment (which is all religion really is), ad the audience is getting the good show and the catharsis they were paying for, even if it's not sincere. People are only fooling themselves with religion, so it's hard to have much scorn for Marjoe when he's helping them do what they want done. You have to wonder if a lot of the audience isn't just playing a role, too, because it's fun to be part of the show. The film would be better if they spent more time talking to Marjoe, because it's too padded with "performance footage"; even though it's interesting to watch audience members acting crazy and flopping around in spiritual fits (doing their own acts, methinks), it gets old after a while. Overall, though, this is nicely made and worth watching. Glory je to Besus!
Mau-Mau (C, 1955) Exploitative documentary on the efforts to stop a violent secret society that was set up to resist white cotton growers in Kenya. The Mau-Mau terrorists raid both white farms and native Kikuyu villages which have refused to join the Mau-Mau cult. When captured, the Mau-Mau force the natives to swear to a magic oath that will result in a terrible curse if they disobey the laws of Mau-Mau, which includes being sent to kill people. Since the natives believe in the magic, they dare not break the oath. Wisely, the anti-Mau-Mau faction works out their own counter-oath to break the curse. Mau-Mau atrocities are documented, complete with burned and hacked corpses that are pretty gruesome for the time. The natives don't get great treatment from the whites, either, however; they're pushed around, their villages are bulldozed, they're overcrowded, and they're fed cheap, non-nutritious balls of wet cornmeal and used as labor. And, of course, Christianity is pushed on them, which isn't a lot different from what the Mau-Mau were doing. But they also help them develop their industry and fight off the also-oppressive-but-much-more-violent Mau-Mau thugs. This was originally made as a sociological-type documentary and got nowhere, but sleaze merchant Dan Sonney put it on the exploitation circuit, playing up the nudity (of which there's very little) and "sex rites" (none) and thus finding an audience. NBC's Chet Huntley narrates and gives it extra legitimacy.
Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project (C, 2007) John Landis directed this documentary on famed insult comic Don Rickles, and it's more of a celebration than anything meant to be informative; Rickles' past and career is discussed but more as incidental stories than any carefully-charted-out timeline. Lots of people in the stand-up business and from Rickles' movie career give soundbites, such as Clint Eastwood, James Caan, Sarah Silverman, Jay Leno, Billy Crystal, Joan Rivers, Bob Newhart, Chris Rock, and others. They talk about working with Rickles and how he's actually a really nice guy. Most interesting, of course, are the clips with Rickles himself talking, clips from roasts and The Tonight Show, and bits from his current nightclub act. It's good but leaves you wanted to see more of Rickles' material, which is hilarious.
Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue (C, 2010) Documentary covering the history of horror films from the silent days to modern torture porn, nothing the most important films and what motivates people to make and to see these films. For any real horror fans there won't be much new here, but seeing our favorite thing discussed by the likes of Roger Corman, John Carpenter, George Romero, Larry Cohen, and others, is lots of fun, and it'll serve as a teaching aid for anyone who isn't familiar with the genre, if you can get them to watch it.
The Real Cannibal Holocaust (C, 1974) aka Nuova Guinea, L'isola dei Cannibali. Gruesome Italian mondo documentary on tribes in New Guinea and their bizarre, gory, and all-too-often incredibly stupid practices. The tribesmen get extreme piercings and crude tattoos, jam sharp clusters of grass up their noses to incite bad "purifying" nosebleeds, and practice cannibalism (one scene starts to depict this but abruptly cuts away, apparently due to missing footage, which is frustrating in a movie promising such scenes). We do get shown the bludgeoning and butchering of a dozen or so pigs, which is pretty tough to watch. Then we see wedding ceremonies, ritual scarification, and primitive mummification practices in which corpses are smoked. A couple of tribes war over a fake battle enacted for tourists, which got out of hand. A widow has a finger chopped off as a mourning rite. Despite the exploitative English title, there's not really a "cannibal holocaust" -- the cannibalism is implied and, I suspect, misrepresented. Despite that, this is a worthy find for fans of mondo movies or those wanting to see real-life gore (which is tamer than the stuff shown in its infamous fictional namesake). Scenes of maggot-eating later showed up (in a much-degenerated condition) in the cheap rip-off Death Faces, and scenes of a bloated corpse being given a funeral (also degenerated as if filmed off a screen) were inserted into the weirdly-padded Night of the Zombies, aka Hell of the Living Dead.
Shoah (C, 1985) The title means "annihilation." This is a massive nine-hour documentary on the Holocaust by Claude Lanzmann, who doesn't use any atrocity footage, just talks with people who lived through it and visits the sites of the camps as they were at the time of filming. He interviews Jews who survived the camps (including the only two survivors of Chelmno), Polish people who lived in the area and witnessed what was going on, and a couple of Germans who were camp guards. Those last two were cheated into appearing, filmed with hidden cameras after being promised their identities would be kept secret. Lanzmann lies to their faces, but it's hard to have much sympathy for them. Lanzmann interviews one of the only survivors of Chelmno, who was a little boy at the time, and all the locals still remember him because the Germans used to get him to sing military songs. Some of his Christian friends, standing with him in front of a church, enthusiastically explain to the cameras that God punished the Jews for killing Christ. The survivor stands among them, enduring it; he's endured worse. A barber (who reminds me of Eli Wallach a bit) at first seems unflappable but breaks down crying as he recounts cutting the hair of victims (some of whom were friends and neighbors) as they went into the gas chambers. You hear eyewitness accounts of children and old people being taken to the "infirmary" where they were shot in the neck and thrown into a body pit. Again and again it's emphasized that the Germans took great pains to keep the Jews from knowing what was going to happen to them, because a panic might lead to chaos or resistance, which would slow down the efficiency of the death factories they were running. They explain that in the gas chambers the Zyklon-B would rise from the floor and the Germans would turn the lights out in the chamber, and the people would climb on top of each other to get to the better air. The ones on the bottom would be crushed in a puddle of blood, shit, and vomit. Even though just hearing these things are horrifying enough, I still recommend supplementing this with Night and Fog or PBS's Memory of the Camps to get a real look at what happened; as detailed and dogged as Lanzmann is at demanding details, you won't fully get it until you see those piles of bodies, which Lanzmann foregoes in favor of a lot of footage of trains. He also visits the sites of the camps as they were at the time of filming; Chelmno looks like an empty field, and Treblinka is just a few huge abandoned stone gas chambers like giant mushrooms in a field. The cameras go into the Auschwitz ovens, and follow train tracks. In a chilling moment an old conductor makes a cut-throat sign as the train pulls into Treblinka, just as he used to do to try to warn the Jews of their fate there. The last hour or so deals with resistance fighters in the Warsaw ghetto. It's a grueling film, both in subject matter and in length, but an important one.
If you wanna try sitting at your computer for 9 hours, go for it...
And now, just a lil' note: next month is Halloween month, and, while this is a blog about nothin' and everything, you may have noticed we tend to have a fondness for horror. So, there are plans to post some original horror short stories here for Halloween, so you can look forward to that. And I encourage all our readers to try to get a horror short story written for Halloween, too. Writing is good for you! So, do it! I've got about half of one written, and it may end up being kinda long. If it works like I want it to, though, it'll be creepy as dreaming a rotting clown is crawling around your bedroom floor in the dark and waking up to find muddy hair and teeth all over the place. Yeah!
Meanwhile, for much shorter writing, you can follow me on Twitter, and Kicker of Elves as well, and we will tell you funny stuff, promise! Or at least we'll try... I flub a few now and then, or so Favstar leads me to believe.