Documentary Round-Up – March 2021

I Can’t Get You Out Of My Head (2021)
Written & Directed by Adam Curtis
You can watch this series here

I became a huge Adam Curtis fan a couple of years back when I watched his documentary Hypernormalisation. He can articulate the sentiments I feel about humanity’s current state, this looming sense of dread about a very uncertain future. Even better, he can go back in history and outline how we came to be in this state. Hypernormalisation outlined how so much of the world has come to accept capitalism’s sustained misery and just stop believing there can be anything else. I Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, subtitled An Emotional History of the Modern World, expands on that documentary’s ideas. We follow individuals from around the world as their stories reflect more significant movements happening in society.

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Documentary Round-Up – February 2021

Scandalous: The Untold Story of The National Enquirer (2019)
Directed by Mark Landsman

While this documentary is clearly inspired by The National Enquirer’s connections to Donald Trump, that only comes into play in the third act. Most of the film is about telling the chronological story of the tabloid’s rise to prominence and the moment in American culture that sparked its rocket-like trajectory. At the center of the paper’s inception was Generoso Pope, Jr. His father was a New York powerbroker who used his papers to influence politics in the state. His son took over upon his father’s death but went in wildly different directions. He bought The Enquirer and turned it into a reasonably salacious rag that featured gory pictures of the aftermath of car accidents and murders. It was a lot like some of the chan boards are on the internet now, a place for people to get sick thrills.

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Documentary Round-Up – September 2020

Class Action Park (2020)
Directed by Seth Porges & Chris Charles Scott III

In 1978, businessman Eugene Mulvihill opened Action Park in Vernon Township, New Jersey. The park became famous throughout the 1980s and 90s for having some of the most dangerous and ill-conceived rides in the country. For example, there was a waterslide with a vertical 360-degree loop that resulted in people getting stuck or breaking bones. There was the Alpine Slide, a downhill sled ride without rails on a smooth concrete trench that caused numerous injuries and a couple of deaths. The documentary uses tons of file footage of the park, from marketing materials to guests’ personal home movies.

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Movie Review – Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story

Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story (2020)
Written by Ron Cicero
Directed by Ron Cicero & Kimo Easterwood

I was ten years old when Ren & Stimpy debuted, but I was never anything close to a fan. This was simply because I lived in a rural area that didn’t even have cable lines running to the houses on my street. We were a single income household with four kids, so my parents didn’t really see a value in paying for satellite service either. So for me, this whole phenomenon passed me buy despite my being the right age to become enamored with the series. 

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Movie Review – Spaceship Earth

Spaceship Earth (2020)
Directed by Matt Wolf

In 1991 an ambitious project began in the wilderness of Arizona. This was Biosphere 2, a three-acre structure built to be an artificial, enclosed ecological system. Seven biomes were represented inside the Biosphere: a rainforest, saltwater habitat with a coral reef, mangrove wetlands, a savannah, a fog desert, and two spaces reserved for human habitation and scientific work. Eight people from various scientific backgrounds were locked inside Biosphere 2 to create a self-sustaining system, the likes of which could be replicated to enable human colonies on other planets that didn’t have the elements needed to sustain life. Over two years, this crew went through a series of challenges, both with the elements and interpersonally. By the end, there were many questions as to the scientific validity of the whole endeavor.

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SXSW Short Film Festival @ Home – Documentaries Part 2

Quilt Fever ***
Directed by Olivia Loomis Merrion

Here’s something I never knew, Paducah is like the quilt capital of America. The short doc Quilt Fever feels like the seed of a feature-length documentary following women who have taken the annual pilgrimage to the quilt show in said town. We get just the smallest hint of these women’s backgrounds but never the depth I would have liked. This is also a case of a documentary built in post-production. Merrion went out and shot as much footage and interviews as she could and assembled a narrative in editing. This is a very conventional doc, nothing is challenging about the structure. It’s all about the subjects being interviewed and their own natural sweetness and charm.

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Movie Review – The Times of Harvey Milk

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Directed by Rob Epstein

Intersectionality is a word you might hear going around these days. This is the concept of recognizing how people represent multiple identities or how a political issue intersects with various communities and identities. In the United States right now, it’s become time to look at how issues like climate change and a lack of health care have become intersectional issues. The people first affected and most dramatically traumatized by climate change are and will continue to be low income and non-white people. Climate change becomes an intersectional issue, not just merely about cleaning up pollution but acknowledging that our society has allowed groups to become more vulnerable than others.

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My Favorite Documentaries I Watched in 2018

City of Gold (2015) – Directed by Laura Gabbert
I watched this film earlier in the year only to be shocked in July when the news came that food critic Jonathan Gold had died. In this documentary, we get to know the LA Times premiere food writer. There are interviews with the man himself as well as his family, coworkers, and the chefs he has brought into the spotlight. Gold was very well known for helping to promote small immigrant-owned businesses in the Los Angeles area. These entrepreneurs and little old grandmas speak about Gold with tears in their eyes, grateful for how his kind words brought them to a new level of success. While he is gone, his words and influence remain as vibrant as ever.

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Movie Review – American Animals

American Animals (2018)
Written & Directed by Bart Layton

In 2004, a group of college students in Lexington, Kentucky attempted to steal a rare and valuable edition of John James Audobon’s Birds of America. Over the course of a year, they mapped out the entire library where the book was kept, traveled to New York to meet with a fence, went to the Netherlands to set up a potential buyer, and developed an intricate getaway plan. But, did they actually do all of this? And why do some of them remember it in drastically different ways than others? In this clever weaving of re-enactment and documentary confessional, we see the real-life thieves and their actor counterparts lay out the story of a bizarre and seemingly hopeless heist.

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TV Review – Wild Wild Country

Wild Wild Country (2018, Netflix)
Directed by Maclain and Chapman Way

wild wild country

In 1981 a group of strangers arrived in the barely-there small town of Antelope, Oregon. These were the Sannyasins, followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, an Indian guru who was seeking a site for his new collective commune. They purchased 64,000-acre ranch where they began Rajneeshpuram, their new home. While the Bhagwan stuck close to his vow of silence, his personal secretary Ma Anand Sheela took the lead on being the public face. The residents of Antelope became distrusting of the Sannyasins as a result of their liberal sex practices and cult-ish nature. Things got increasingly worse with both sides gathering up weapons and the Sannyasins seeking to influence local county politics no matter the price.

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