Tag: documentary

Movie Review: Crumb (1994)

As a lover of comics, movies, and art documentaries, it seemed fitting that I watch one of the most acclaimed films to fit all three categories: Crumb. Director Terry Zwigoff follows around talented and somewhat infamous comic artist and illustrator Robert Crumb over the course of a few years, piecing together his life story and impact on the comics industry through artwork and interviews with family, friends, and ex-girlfriends. His own neuroses and somewhat off-kilter passions are exposed, only to be overshadowed by the serious mental health problems experienced by his brothers and mother.

Admittedly I didn’t know much about Robert Crumb before seeing this. I was of course familiar with his art style and had seen some of his illustrations, but I hadn’t actually read any of his comics and always sort of imagined him just as James Urbaniak in American Splendour. The film reveals him to be a funny, bluntly honest kind of guy with some interesting sexual proclivities and a great imagination. His art is wonderfully detailed and expressive, with a lot of focus on drawing women as full-bodied and curvy, which seemed to delight several of the ladies interviewed.

The “hook” of the documentary is definitely the family stuff, which I imagine was unexpected for the filmmakers. His artistically talented older brother- who got Robert into comics in the first place- is a shut-in living with their mother, taking anti-depressants and spending most of his time reading in his room. His younger brother is an artist as well, but paranoid and epileptic, experimenting with painful meditative techniques. His mother isn’t featured much, but the brothers’ talk about her addiction to amphetamines in their youth, and their deceased father is known only as a disapproving monster. Their two sisters declined to be interviewed, suggesting perhaps even more family secrets left untapped.

As a film it’s put together very well, mixing art and interviews and archive footage, along with some of Crumb’s media events and time spent drawing street life in San Francisco. There is definitely something held back, but that makes it all the more interesting to watch. It’s mostly pretty sad, but does claim some redemptive power through the process of making art. I loved the portrait of 70’s and 80’s alternative culture in San Francisco, especially, and the discussion of the development of the underground comics movement, which I actually would have liked to see more of.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: There are definitely shades of Crumb in Marwencol, one of my favorite art documentaries. Check it out.

Movie Review: The Parking Lot Movie (2010)

I missed this at IFF Boston last year, but luckily it’s now on netflix instant. It’s nice when that happens. A suspiciously simple documentary in concept, The Parking Lot Movie focuses on the employees of a parking lot in Virginia. The staff is primarily composed of highly intelligent college students (mainly from the anthropology department), musicians, and artists, all of whom seem to become amateur philosophers and self-taught zen masters through this dull, lonely occupation. Interspersing footage of the guys working at the lot and one-on-one interviews, the film details their experiences combating asshole customers, drunken frat boys, and most of all, boredom. Luckily, these dudes are all really funny.

Much of The Parking Lot Movie can be viewed as an exposé on the service industry in general- I could certainly relate to a lot of their experiences from my various retail positions. These are guys who spend most of their paid hours sitting in a small box, reading, drawing, freestyling, inventing a challenging game with traffic cones, dealing with jerks (and some regular people), and pushing themselves into a meditative state borne from nothingness. Their candid, straightforward discussions and high volume of hilarious jokes make for an entertaining and ultimately enlightening peek into a very particular, often-overlooked occupation. It’s a really cool movie.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: How about Clerks?

Movie Review: Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (2009)

I think I was abroad when Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg came out, and it was highly recommended to me by my grandma (whose taste I trust implicitly), but it was catching some clips of the incredible Gertrude Berg on a “History of Comedy in America”-type special that finally had me see it. Gertrude Berg is, of course, a woman who took over radio and television in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s- also known as “The Most Famous Woman You’ve Never Heard Of”. The daughter of European Jewish immigrants, wife of a successful engineer, and mother of two became a successful writer and actress as creator and star of “The Goldbergs”, a radio program about a Jewish family living in New York City. Its relatable stories and realistic portrayals of Jewish characters made it popular and progressive, but behind the scenes Gertrude had to deal with hurdles of anti-Semitism, sexism, and especially McCarthyism.

I admit, I’d never heard of Gertrude Berg or her show, and I’m still not sure why it’s been forgotten today. She was certainly an interesting and determined woman, and it was great to learn about how she accomplished so much at a time when an older Jewish woman wouldn’t be expected to have such independent success. Director Aviva Kempner assembles interviews from relatives, former coworkers, and biographers to create a complex sketch of the hardworking writer. The focus is primarily on her work in media and relationship to her popular character Molly Goldberg, featuring a lot of footage from the different incarnations of the show.

I enjoyed the peek behind the scenes of radio and early television programs, but I regretted that there was less insight into Berg’s personal life. While it was great to hear anecdotes from her grandchildren, I imagine if those closest to her had still been alive there would be a greater range of interview material. As it stands, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is a fascinating look at a unique woman and her experiences in media, but I wish it’d been a bit more in-depth.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Hmm. This really doesn’t ring any comparisons to other movies I’ve seen. I Could Never Be Your Woman offers a look at an older lady writing for television in the contemporary world so that might be a good follow-up.

"You Don’t Piss on Hospitality!" Double Feature: Best Worst Movie (2009) and Troll 2 (1990)

I missed this multiple times in theaters and therefore was eager to snatch it up when it came out on dvd last week. I actually hadn’t seen Troll 2 at the time, but that didn’t stop me from watching a documentary tracking the development and subsequent cult fandom of “the worst movie ever made”. I followed it up with a viewing of the now-infamous audience favorite that it focused on, for a somewhat backwards crash course in the phenomenon.

In 1989 an Italian production company filmed a low-budget horror film in Utah called Troll 2 (so named to capitalize on the mild success of Troll, though this one doesn’t actually include any trolls), employing a group of unskilled actors, a nonsensical script, and a wealth of awful prosthetics. Overwhelmingly panned by critics and viewers, it was quickly forgotten until over a decade later it found a new audience on home video. Gradually a cult developed around the film, soon categorized as the worst ever by sites like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, sparking Troll 2 viewing parties, backyard games, and homemade costumes. Michael Stephenson, who starred as the whiny little boy Joshua, now sets his camera on the cast and crew of the film, documenting their appearance at a series of large-scale screenings across the US and offering a sort of “Where Are They Now?”.

Best Worst Movie does well to focus on the fans as well as the actors and filmmakers, giving an insightful look into the world of cult obsession and the hapless people who make this type of movie. Affable dentist George Hardy, who played the father, emerges as the hero of the piece, going through stages of embarrassment, acceptance, passion, and frustration with the film and its rabid underground popularity, and becoming our host of sorts. The director Claudio Fragasso, and his wife/screenwriter Rossella Drudi become something of a villainous and uncomfortable presence. Claudio seems completely ignorant of how bad his movie is, and doesn’t understand the American fandom- why are they laughing at the parts that aren’t meant to be funny? He believes strongly in his ability to make great films and stubbornly refutes any claims from the actors that the script was confusing and the direction even more so. It’s kind of sad, but pretty humorous.

Taking a focus on the cult obsession behind a bad movie and the people who made it (as opposed to a true “making-of”) is a cool approach for a documentary to take, and the result is a funny and fascinating film that to me is more entertaining than its actual subject.

4.5/5

I think Troll 2 was the last of the big “so bad they’re good” movies I hadn’t seen. It focuses on a suburban family, the Waits, who move to the rural town of Nilbog for a month as part of an exchange program. Mrs Waits’ father recently died and her young son Joshua is still having trouble dealing with the death since he’s constantly popping up as a ghost that only he can see. Turns out the town of Nilbog is populated by shape-shifting, vegetarian goblins who want to turn the Waits and their friends into plants so they can eat them. That’s basically it.

This is indeed a really bad, really stupid movie. The acting is horrendous, nothing makes any sense, scenes begin and end with little attempt at transitions or flow, and the effects are utterly horrendous. And yeah, it’s pretty funny, but honestly I don’t think it’s that funny. I don’t need to show this to everyone I know or host an annual Troll 2 party. I imagine it’d be really fun to watch with an appreciative audience of course, but watching it by myself with now-raised expectations from the documentary, I have to say it isn’t exactly the “best” worst movie. While a lot of scenes and ridiculous bits of dialogue had me laughing, other parts were just dull. A similar response happened when I watched The Room, and I’m guessing that it’s either my predilection for cheesy sci-fi action in my bad movies, or that most of the people culting out over these movies haven’t seen any other so-bad-they’re-goods, so they don’t know how much better it can get. Either way, Troll 2 is indeed a campy, awful, quotable, funny time, just not quite as great as the documentary would have you believe.

Also Deborah Reed is amazing in it and it’s too bad she’s not in the documentary for some reason.

As a movie: 1.5/5
As entertainment: 4/5

Movie Review: Possible Films, Volume 2

I know I rarely talk about him here, but Hal Hartley is definitely one of my favorite directors. There is a unique atmosphere to his films that I instinctively respond to- the staged choreography, choppy dialogue, repetition, lilting music… There are times when I could spend (and have spent) the whole day watching his films simply because I can’t think of anyone else who makes movies the way he does. I went through my main Hartley phase a few months before starting this blog, so while I’ve seen almost all of his features and shorts, I haven’t re-watched most of them recently enough to have written about them. This weekend I took in Possible Films, Volume 2, a new collection of 5 shorts from 2009 and 2010 made while he was living in Europe. He hasn’t released a full-length feature since 2006’s Fay Grim, so even though I have found his shorts to be hit and miss, I was eager to see anything new from the auteur. I’ll just shortly discuss each one individually.

“A/Muse”
A hopeful German actress travels to Berlin with the intention of tracking down her favorite director, an aging ex-pat who’s stopped making films. She believes she can become his new “muse” and encourage him to make his first German-language film. She stalks his rumored hang-outs and eventually writes him a friendly letter, only to be disappointed by the response. This is a cute one, with Christina Flick single-handedly engaging the audience with her read-aloud letters and emails and generally personifying a well-meaning but delusional young woman. It’s a bittersweet, one-sided romance of sorts.

“Implied Harmonies”
This half-hour documentary details Hartley’s collaboration with experimental Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, who asked the filmmaker to stage his production of “La Commedia”. It’s primarily composed of interviews with the cast and crew members and footage of rehearsals. I know little about opera and I had never heard of Andriessen beforehand, and unfortunately the approach of the film seemed catered to viewers who had some grounding in the subject. I didn’t get much out of it, really, though I did love seeing some footage of the final staging, which involved multiple video projections of overdramatic videos Hartley filmed with the play’s cast.

“The Apologies”
A young American playwright leaves his Berlin apartment for New York, where he’ll be working on a modern musical adaptation of The Odyssey. He lends his place to a German actress preparing for a big audition, and she accidentally overhears an emotional monologue from his ex-girlfriend. This one was my favorite, mainly because of how absolutely adorable the lead actress is (to be honest I don’t know if she’s Bettina Zimmerman or Ireen Kirsch, the two actresses credited don’t have any kind of notation), and for its clever screenplay. I liked the parallels to “A/Muse”, with both involving a lady hanging around in a Berlin apartment, reading things aloud and planning for future theatrical stardom. There were also some good jokes with Nikolai Kinski in the beginning as he brainstorms for his Odyssey script.

“Adventure”
This is another documentary piece focusing on a trip to Japan that Hartley took with his wife, actress Miho Nikaido. It’s composed of both footage of areas they’re visiting (including Nikaido’s family home) and interviews with Nikaido and her family. Hartley remains largely offscreen but inserts himself in narrative subtitles. It’s a bit uneven structurally but does offer interesting insight into their relationship and Nikaido’s career experiences, and I had known very little about such topics before watching it.

“Accomplice”
This is like a three minute credit sequence with footage of Godard. I didn’t really get it.

Further Reading:
Nuts4r2 review