Reviews of documentaries (part 1)

In part 1 of this series, I’ll review movie-related documentaries I’ve seen over the last 18 months. I’m only including new reviews I haven’t previously shared.

Rewind This! (2013) 
If you are nostalgic for VHS, a must-see. For others I’d say it’s not essential. A lot of it is common knowledge, but the obscure references, Deadly Prey (1987), Everything Is Terrible: The Movie (2009), Best of the Worst Star Search Auditions, Leslie Nielsen’s Stupid Little Golf Video (1997), etc, were new to me.
The doc shows how the industry worked back in the 80s, the evolution of both VHS and Beta machines. Competing for a while, VHS won due to the length of the tapes.
Rental stores were opening up and they needed to fill the shelves with titles. There was a demand, didn’t matter if the films were good or bad. B-movies were making money, because the box was on equal terms with the studio movies on the rental shelf.
They had movie title contests for the employees at a rental store, if you came up with the title that was used, you got $500.
Designing the cover for the VHS box was an art form, and was the way to get you to rent the title. Bad movies had great covers. Frankenhooker (1990) infamously had a talking box that said a quote from the movie “wanna date” when you pressed a button on the box, which increased sales.
Rating 7/10

My Best Fiend (1999) 
Director Werner Herzog goes on a trip, visiting countries he filmed in, looking back on the work he did with Klaus Kinski, a brilliant, troubled actor.
If Klaus Kinski had been alive today, TMZ and the paparazzi would have stalked Kinski night and day in an attempt to capture his craziness. You can’t look away.
Rating 8/10
Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape (2010) 
A fascinating look at the furore the so-called “video nasties” caused in Britain during the late 70s and early 1980s. I wasn’t aware it took so long for age certificates to be assigned to VHS, and I didn’t know distributors and rental owners went to jail and were fined.
The documentary begins by listing 72 video nasties, such as Driller Killer, I Spit on Your Grave, and Cannibal Holocaust. We see short clips, but the films themselves are not discussed in detail.
Surprisingly, these films were freely available to anyone, and kids saw them at birthday parties. This lead to a censorship.
It is suggested the doctoring of reports and censorship by the government was worse than the content of the films. It is also suggested the regulators and police were not knowledgeable about horror films and therefore incompetent.  
The people who defend the ”nasties” are very passionate, so a slight disappointment  it’s only in the last few minutes the arguments for allowing these films to be available is discussed.
The makers of the doc do seem to be supporters of anti-censorship, although the pro-censorship talking heads are given enough screen time for us to make up our own opinion on the matter. It’s really a historical documentary, which asks the audience to question where they stand on violence in film.
A recent extreme horror A Serbian Film (2010) is labelled as too slick, and without the grainy VHS quality it is not as scary, because with the higher quality visuals you can see everything.
Rating 8/10

Video Nasties: Draconian Days (2014)
I also watched the sequel, made by the same people, which looks at the years 1984-1999. If you’re interested in controversial horror films, the doc references, among others, The New York Ripper (1982), Nekromantik (1987), and Child’s Play 3 (1991), the latter is given special attention because scenes in the film were linked with real-life murders.
This follow-up documentary isn’t essential viewing, but it was interesting to see how things changed, underground movements rebelled, and surprising horror movies were still edited by censorship groups in the UK in the 90s.  It’s amazing The Exorcist wasn’t available on home video in the UK for years.
Favorite quote: ”The bbfc were cutting them to the point, it was worthless, there was no horror in them at all”

Rating 7/10

Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream (2005) 
El Topo (1970) became a success by word of mouth, Going to see it at midnight became the thing to do, especially for the counter culture. It became a genre of its own that had a forbidden feeling about it. It was against the system. The movies had to be funny and/or shocking in a surprising way, against the mainstream. Today, everything that was in Midnight movies, is in Hollywood movies (i.e. Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction American Pie, South Park)
El Topo was sold as a midnight ritual, a trip.
According to George A Romero, there was a feeling that the 60s revolution had failed. Made in the aftermath of the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations. Night of the Living Dead (1968) is about revolution, the new society basically swallowing up the old, but the old society don’t see it coming because they are too trapped in their own circumstance. 
Pink Flamingos (1972) could be interpreted politically as a film about rejects being celebrated. Like serial killer Charles Manson got a lot of attention, the characters in the film said thing that frightened you and were Manson-esque. The director says that maybe his mission was to make bad taste a little bit funnier and a little bit more accepted.
Rating 8/10

A Dream Within a Dream: The Making of Picnic at Hanging Rock (2004)
After having watched this, I’m glad the mystery remains intact about the movie.
The author of the novel was asked by director Peter Weir, is it a true story? Joan Lindsay answered: Do not ask me that question again! She did however admit ”it’s based on fact”. Weir also asked her, do you think it’s wide open what happened to these girls? Do you think the girls fell down a hole? Were they abducted by aliens? She replied: ”Any of the above”
To some people, the film is about something lost, hope, promise, potential, romance, suspicion, fear of the unknown, a whodunit. Maybe people are happy to accept it as true, because there’s a longing for those sort of myths in our time.
According to the screenwriter, the story has two major themes, the ill treatment of children, and the anachronism of Europeans in Australia, symbolized in the neo Italian building out in the middle of nowhere. The building is like a great ship.
Rating 7.5/10

Side By Side (2012) 
Narrated by Keanu Reeves. What you see in the trailer is what you get in the film, that is mostly soundbites. So if you want longer interviews with each director, you won’t find it here. Film students, cinephiles, and other people related to the movie business are presumably the key audience. About the pros and cons of recording on film or on digital. Does become a bit technical. The last 30 minutes or so are about 3D, I didn’t know the entire jungle in Avatar was made in a computer.
Favorite quote, by Sin City director: “Technology pushes the art, and art pushes the technology”
Rating 6/10

Michael H. Profession: Director (2013)
Michael Haneke is interviewed. He refuses to interpret his own films, and is personally afraid of suffering. The actors describe Haneke as a director who doesn’t want to sweeten his movies in a manipulative way. Haneke seeks honesty even when he doesn’t like something.
In regards to White Ribbon, he does admit the visual memory he has of that era is colored in black-and-white, and the scene when the son asks his sister about death is taken from Haneke’s own life.
“For me it was a matter of telling a story about a group of young people, who apply, in an absolute manner, the ideals preached to them by their parents’ generation. And whenever you take an ideal and apply it in an absolutist way, you make it inhuman. That, is, so to speak, the root of all terrorism.”
Actress Isabelle Huppert (from The Piano Teacher) compares Haneke’s humor to the Austrian tradition, that for her includes writers Karl Kraus and Thomas Bernhard, which unites both darkness, humor and wit. 
Haneke: “The role of music is very ambiguous in the film(The Piano Teacher). On the one hand, it’s extraordinarily beautiful, and on the other it’s horror. You might say Jelinek’s novel is a sort of parody of a classical psychological novel of the 19th century. And the film is a sort of parody of a melodrama, just as Funny Games was a parody of a thriller. I wanted at all costs to avoid making a  psychological film. Because then it becomes a personal case, the specific study of someone who is sadomasochistic, because of what-have-you. This doesn’t interest me. I don’t want to make a film that is a clinical study. I wanted to make an “existential” film, which is obscene, but not pornographic. And I’ve always said, I hope my films are obscene. The obscene is that which transgresses that which is permitted.” 
Haneke on Code Unknown: “Because with words, one is amongst all the difficulties of language. And, of course, Code Unknown is about the difficulty or impossibility of communication. At all levels. (…) Although perhaps it has more speech, which takes as its central theme of not knowing the code of one’s interlocutor. Much talk doesn’t imply communication”
SPOILER: Haneke on The Seventh Continent and Amour: “The Seventh Continent was about unlivable lives, that result in death. Amour is about something else. It’s about people who have very livable lives, and who live them, and do, but due to physical suffering, find themselves obliged to leave” 
Rating 7.5/10

Gambler (2005)  
About Director Nicolas Winding Refn and his bankruptcy after the flop that was Fear X, a film he describes as his best film up to that point, that he had spent three years working on. His journey to get out of his debt is to make Pusher 2 and Pusher 3, sequels to his breakthrough 1996 film. A former drug addict who’s an actor in Pusher 2 complains that he’s not playing himself, which the media claims. The actor is also on the verge of falling back into drugs, and the director helps me to avoid that.
Remarkably Refn is able to make a hit film in Denmark despite the financial  pressures.
Interesting to see movie merchandise in his apartment, likely the violent cinema which inspires him, he has posters from controversial films such as Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Cannibal Holocaust (1980), A Grande Trepada (1985), Winchester 73 (1950).  Refn goes to a shop and looks at posters from You’ll Like My Mother (1972), Revolver (1973), and mentions Sergio Sollima’s Violent City (1970) as one of his favorites.
Rating 6/10

All The Presidents Men Revisited (2013)
With only a superficial knowledge of Watergate, it was interesting to learn, to what extreme lengths Nixon went to cover up his mistakes in the Watergate scandal. He was a complex man, who was paranoid in the white house recordings, and friendly in other situations.The behind-the-scenes about the making of All The Presidents Men surprisingly takes a back seat.
How the pen is mightier than the sword made it a different kind of violent movie, with the enhancement of banging on typewriters. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman also discuss their acting, in which they learnt each other’s lines, so they could make the dialogues sound very natural, and cut off each other’s sentences in an improvisational manner.
But if you know your history, and what subsequently happened about Deep Throat, this probably doesn’t offer any major revelations.
Rating 5/10

Have you watched any of these documentaries? Which is your favorite movie-related documentary? As always, comments are welcome

18 thoughts on “Reviews of documentaries (part 1)

  1. The only one on the list I've seen is My Best Fiend which I have as part of a Herzog-Kinski boxset. It's a great doc. Side by Side is something I want to see as well as Gambler since I am a NWR fan.


  2. @thevoid99: The Herzog-Kinski love-hate friendship is quite fascinating.

    Side By Side was ok, just a bit shallow in my opinion. Gambler is worth seeing since you are a fan of NWR.


  3. I always wanted to see documentary again.

    Michael H. is one my movie wishlist on europe on screen, couldn't see it 😦 seems like a worth to watch?


  4. Those video nasty docs look pretty good, as as so is that one flick about VHS. SIde by SIde is interesting but yeah everything that was in the trailer is in the film. The doc on Michael Heneke would be interested too


  5. @Andina: The Haneke doc is a bit dry and academic, I liked it, don’t know if others would. He talks about The Piano Teacher, Code Unknown, White Ribbon, Funny Games, The Seventh Continent and Amour. I would watch those films first, before you see the doc.


  6. @Luke: It’s pretty amazing censorship was going on in the UK just a few years ago, the first Video Nasty doc is the best. The second not essential. I need to check out Everything is Terrible, looks fun!


  7. @Alex Withrow: Yep, a complex, twisted friendship. Michael Haneke doc is interesting, especially for those who have seen the films that are discussed(which I remember you have)


  8. @TheVern: That video nasties doc was quite unsettling, not for the horror and gore, but for the censorship.
    I expected more from Side by Side, based on the trailer and positive reviews.


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