Category Archives: Triple Feature

Three films reviewed in a single, epic post. Especially useful for marathons or movies of similar theme, director, etc.

Doctober Feature #5: Alex Gibney Triple Feature – Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008), and Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)

I’ve seen Alex Gibney be called the “Ron Howard of documentary filmmaking” on numerous occasions over the last few years, with the release of popular and acclaimed docs like The Armstrong Lie (2013), We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2013), and his latest Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015). This title refers to the prolific nature of both filmmakers, and the inevitability of occasional dips in quality and inconsistency.  Both Gibney and Howard have masterpieces and hugely popular films, but both men have also rushed projects or been overly ambitious, resulting in occasionally light, fluffy, or sloppy films being made.  With this said, Gibney is still easily one of the best, most unique voices in the game, and one of the best documentary filmmakers of the 21st century so far.  His films have made a tremendous impact on the documentary world, and on the cultural zeitgeist of our time.  No matter what the reaction to Gibney’s project are, I’m always excited to check out anything with his named attached to it.

SmartestguysintheroomEnron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Starring: Peter Coyote, Andrew Fastow, Jeffrey Skilling, Kenneth Lay, Gray Davis

Alex Gibney’s first major breakthrough in the world of documentary films came with his 2005 film, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.  The film made Gibney famous because of how concise it was, giving audiences an overview of Enron as a company, what went wrong, and who exactly was response for the downfall of a company many thought was too big to fail.  Not only is the film concise in its delivery of information, but it manages to be incredibly entertaining (especially for the subject matter) and in the process pulls no punches.  Gibney’s voice as a documentarian was born with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, quickly making him a commodity in the world of film, and earning him his very first Academy Award nomination.  Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room gives a profile on Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fastow, and the rest of those responsible for the goings-on within the Enron Corporation, a major American energy company through the 1990’s and early 2000’s.  The film covers the stock market bluffs, the controversial ‘rank and yank’ firing system used by the company, the manic CEO’s and executives, misreporting of finances, and Enron’s role in the California energy crisis.  No stone goes unturned, and nobody involved in the quick downfall of the company is safe from the film’s scrutiny.  

In less than two hours, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room manages to deliver more shocking facts, interviews, and entertainment than most modern documentaries could ever hope to do.  The film is edited very sharply, never pausing for too long on any particular subject, but never simply glossing over major moments or figures.  Even those with no prior knowledge of the Enron Corporation or the energy industry of 1990’s America will easily be able to keep up with the film and get a lot out of it.  The music, interviews, video clips, and photographs used throughout the film help move the narrative along, and give you an accurate picture of the times and what was going on at Enron at any given time.  Audio recordings and first-hand accounts of what was going on in and outside of the corporation are riveting, shocking, and incredibly revealing.  Alex Gibney’s Oscar-nominated film does everything it aims to do, and it does it in a very natural, painless way.  When the film’s end credits roll, you will be left infuriated at what took place within the company, and what could have been had such rampant and epic corruption taken place.  In short, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room will move you in ways that you’ll never expect, and have you coming back for more.  This film is highly recommended to all, no matter how interested you may be in the subject matter.

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008)Gonzoposter

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Starring: Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp

Coming just one year after Alex Gibney won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson became Gibney’s first major production to tackle just one single subject. Gonzo tells the story of rock star journalist and writer Hunter S. Thompson, specifically detailing the years between 1965-1975.  It was during this time that Thompson became a cultural icon for his writings on the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club, the hippy movement and counterculture of the late-1960’s, his hatred for US President Richard Nixon, his backing of Democratic nominee George McGovern, the birth of “gonzo” journalism and the publishing of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gibney’s film paints a detailed picture of the time period and features a tremendous amount of interviews by those close to the writer, who help give accounts and paint what kind of person Thompson was.  We hear stories of his rampant alcoholism and battle with drug addiction, his thoughts on American politics and culture of the time, original music by Thompson himself, his infatuation with fame and fortune, and the events and mood leading to his suicide years later.

If you’re like me and know next-to-nothing about Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson may not be the most effective place to start learning about the cult writer and cultural icon.  Though the film is fun to watch unfold due to the chaotic nature of its editing and use of music and sound, the loving interviews, the terrific narration by Johnny Depp, and the amount of archival footage and recordings of Hunter S. Thompson himself, when it ended I felt nothing at all.  This nothingness is the worst possible feeling after watching a clearly lovingly crafted and well-made documentary for two hours.  I felt as if I learned nothing about who Hunter S. Thompson was as a person, what shaped him and influenced him as a writer, what fueled the fires that led to his passionate views, and what lead to his reliance on drugs and alcohol, how it affected his day-to-day life, and how it led to his eventual suicide.  Instead, I was taken on a journey detailing Hunter’s drug-use, his support and hatred for politicians of the era, and the zany adventures that inspired his famous musings, articles, and books.  Unfortunately, none of these topics were particularly interesting to me, as they had no real impact due to my not understanding Hunter S. Thompson as a person.  I appreciated many aspects of Gibney’s Gonzo, but was left cold and terribly disappointed in the end.  I wish I didn’t have to say it, but Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is the biggest disappointed of Doctober 2015 thus far, and is a project that had an incredible amount of potential.  For those interested in an introduction to the subject or Alex Gibney completionists, it’s mildly recommended, but made no real impact on me.

Taxi_to_the_dark_sideTaxi to the Dark Side (2007)

Directed by: Alex Gibney

Starring: Dilawar

Taxi to the Dark Side is Alex Gibney’s Academy Award-winning documentary, released in 2007 and playing an important role in the discussion of America’s use of torture methods to get information out of international terrorist suspects.  The film made Alex Gibney a name to watch in the game, coming just two years after his highly successful Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.  Those two films, coupled with the Academy Award win cemented Gibney’s status as one of the most important documentarian’s of the decade, and has resulted in him directed more than a dozen documentaries since their release.  Taxi to the Dark Side tells the tragic story of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver, who was detained by the forces in Afghanistan, and ended up being found dead less than one week later.  The death – and others like it – was later investigated and ended up producing truly shocking, disgusting information about the use of assault, sensory deprivation, and humiliation.  Taxi to the Dark Side exposes the soldiers and officials who are to blame for the senseless killings of prisoners, and delves into the controversial methods employed by American special forces in the “War on Terror”.  Officers and soldiers who were stationed in the Afghanistan and played a role in the killing of Dilawar and other prisoners are interviewed by Gibney, with many of them giving honest accounts and admitting to their roles.

There’s no wonder Alex Gibney won an Academy Award for Best Documentary so soon into his directing career, with films like this and Enron exposing the horrible things humans are capable of when there is lack of oversight or effective leadership in place.  Taxi to the Dark Side genuinely shocked me with its accounts of torture, inefficiency in the foreign prison system, and the photos coupled with true reports and accounts of the incidents.  Gibney and the officers tell horrifying stories of sleep and sensory deprivation through the use of music and noise (dogs barking, screaming, etc.), alternating heat and cold, and extreme sexual humiliation.  Other accounts tell of officers destroying the legs of a prisoner by repeating kneeing and kicking, and how many officers saw humor in what they were doing.  Not only does Gibney confront and expose those directly involved in the senseless killings, but also the government officials in the Bush administration who supported and saw the necessity of torture of suspected terrorists.  Even though he may be inconsistent at the best of times, Alex Gibney knows how to put a documentary together concisely, giving the important information – but never spoon-feeding the audience.  The film runs at a smooth pace, and never pulls any punches about its subject.  The accounts are incredibly in-depth, and as a result are never easy to listen to or watch unfold.  This is what makes Gibney’s Oscar-winner such an important piece of work, and what makes it a terrific and revealing film.  Without filmmakers like Gibney who are willing to expose incidents and those responsible for these incidents, then the world would be oblivious to these needless tragedies.  This is a documentary that you need to see, whether or not you agree with the idea of torture to obtain information. Taxi to the Dark Side comes highly recommended, and might be Gibney’s masterpiece.

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Doctober Feature #4: D.A. Pennebaker Rocks! (Part II) – 101 (1989), The War Room (1993), and Dont Look Back (1967)

D.A. Pennebaker has made such an impact on documentary filmmaking over his fifty-plus year career, and yet I had never seen a single one of his films until just last week.  It is for this reason that I am writing another feature on the man and his terrific films, as I feel few far too few people my age have seen or even heard of his films.  I look forward to seeking out some of his lesser-known films in the future, and even more so being able to see new works from him, starting with his upcoming film Unlocking the Cage, coming out in 2016.  This feature will cover the film that Pennebaker and partner Chris Hegedus considered their “favorite”, 101 (1989), the Academy Award-nominated The War Room (1993), and finally the film that started it all, Dont Look Back (1967).

0018102e_medium101 (1989)

Directed by: D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, David Dawkins

Starring: Depeche Mode (Andrew Fletcher, David Gahan, Martin Gore, Alan Wilder)

Having known next to nothing about 1980’s new wave rock band Depeche Mode prior to seeing this documentary, you can imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon anecdotes saying that the masterful D.A. Pennebaker considered this his “favorite” film to make.  Prior to making 101, D.A. Pennebaker was in exactly the same boat as I was, he and partner Chris Hegedus (and David Dawkins) knew little to nothing about the popular English band, and yet came out on the other end more than pleasantly surprised.  The film documents Depeche Mode’s highly successful and epic-scale world tour, ending with their 101st (hence the name of the film) and final show on the long tour.  Not only do we get to see Depeche Mode perform hits from popular albums Black Celebration and Music for the Masses, but we get follow a group of contest winners on their way to the show.  Only the way, Pennebaker and crew allow us  to see the band’s rabid fan base, the lead-up to their show at the Rose Bowl, and backstage interaction between band members, crew members, and many interactions between the young contest winners.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the film’s laid back nature and the live performances featured throughout 101, I wouldn’t say that it made me a Depeche Mode fan, unfortunately.  I very much enjoyed a handful of songs and respect the fact that they were able to pack more than 60,000 rabid fans into the Rose Bowl, but unfortunately 80’s new wave and synthpop just isn’t my cup of tea.  Performances of “Strangelove”, “Everything Counts”, and the famous “Just Can’t Get Enough” were highlights in the film.  On top of terrific live performances and focus on the massive live gate in attendance at the Rose Bowl, Pennebaker has a knack for documenting what other filmmakers would consider mundane.  We are treated to band managers and crew discussing t-shirt bills, the live attendance numbers, arguing about whether the Rose Bowl is appropriate for a live music show of such large scale, etc., all of which makes the documentary feel that much more important compared to other contemporary music/concert films.  While I’m not the biggest fan of Depeche Mode, I can absolutely appreciate what Pennebaker, Hegedus, and Dawkins were going for with 101, and I can say without a doubt that Depeche Mode fans will get a lot out of this. Recommended.

The War Room (1993)the-war-room-movie-poster-1993-1020198303

Directed by: D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

Starring: Bill Clinton, George Stephanopoulos, James Carville, Hether Beckel, George H.W. Bush

If there’s any one subject that is more fascinating behind-the-scenes than music, politics is absolutely it.  In The War Room, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus turn the camera to the New Hampshire Primary in the early 1990’s, specifically the campaign managers James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, who are looking to pull out a big win for hopeful Democratic nominee Bill Clinton.  The War Room allows the audience to take a backstage look at attacks on Bill Clinton’s character, specifically the Gennifer Flowers scandal, as well as the other side of things with the false “No new taxes” promise by then-President George H.W. Bush.  Pennebaker and Hegedus show a world rarely seen by the public, especially in the early 1990’s, a world where few people had access to computers, and even less had access to the internet as we know it today.  We see frustrations, campaigns, event planning and coordination, and most importantly we get to see people acting like people.  The War Room takes a look a few very important figures, and paints them as people, not politicians, not campaign managers, just normal, (mostly) lovable people.

If you know anything about me at all, then it should come as no surprise for you that I absolutely adored The War Room.  This look at the behind-the-scenes marketing and coordination of a major American Primary is right up my alley in every possible sense.  Pennebaker and Hegedus manage to show tremendously important events in the 1992 Clinton Campaign, and yet everything is treated with the same weight and levity, whether it’s Gennifer Flowers claiming to have had a love affair with Senator Clinton, or whether it’s James Carville and George Stephanopoulos developing a rapport and joking with one another, and becoming excited and frustrated with certain revelations throughout the campaign.  The War Room is only ninety six minutes long, but I felt like I could have watched the events unfold for another ninety.  The time breezes by with the help of a razor sharp directorial eye from Pennebaker and Hegedus, lovable subjects in Clinton, Carville, and Stephanopoulos (as well as the entirety of the campaign office), and an inherently interesting and important topic in political campaigning.  Throughout the short run-time of The War Room, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus manage to tick every box for me, making their Academy Award-nominated documentary one of their most personal and most important films, and easily my favorite documentary of the bunch. The War Room gets my highest recommendation.

dont-look-back-movie-poster-1967-1020144136Dont Look Back (1967)

Directed by: D.A. Pennebaker

Starring: Bob Dylan

Dont Look Back is quite possibly D.A. Pennebaker’s most critically acclaimed and culturally significant documentary, influencing the next fifty years of music videos, concert films, and documentaries as a whole. Pennebaker’s early film chronicles Bob Dylan’s 1965 London, UK tour, showing live performances, audience interaction, and focuses on Dylan’s inner-circle and on the young prodigy himself.  The film was so critically acclaimed and influential because nothing quite like it had ever been seen before.  Documentary films have been around since the birth of the medium, but nothing quite this raw, focusing solely on a highly acclaimed and incredibly popular cultural icon had ever been produced on this scale.  The film opens up with the music video that would influence generations, Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, which shows the folk singer using a set of cue cards to convey the lyrics of the song to the audience, discarding them rapidly as the song goes on.  On top of the influential and groundbreaking music video, Pennebaker takes a behind the scenes look at Dylan’s tour, showing the folk legend verbally sparring with a TIME Magazine correspondent, interacting with other artists and journalists, signing autographs for young, adoring fans, and interacting with audiences at his lives shows on the tour.

Despite all the acclaimed and influential elements of D.A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back, I’m still not sure exactly how I feel about the film.  To be blunt, Bob Dylan came off exactly how you would imagine a young, outspoken, successful artist might come across in their first major appearance on camera – Dylan was incredibly condescending, rude, and ambitious in his words to the point of pretension (a word I really don’t like to use).  Dylan’s condescension in nearly every appearance he made on screen had a tremendously negative effect on my viewing of the film.  As much as I appreciate the man and what he did for music as a whole, Dont Look Back only decreased my liking for Bob Dylan as a person.  I’m willing to accept the fact that it was because Dylan was young, naive, and influenced by the power he held over youth all over the Western world, but I still can’t entirely look past his behavior in the film.  Despite this, the film did absolutely have some incredibly memorable scenes, including a group of young girls excitedly meeting Dylan, with one exclaiming “pinch me – me dreams have come true!”.  The meetings between Dylan’s manager and journalists were also very interesting to watch unfold, as it’s an element most music documentaries seem to gloss over.  Dylan’s musical performances are highlights as well, as are his quips during the performances.  As much as I disliked him throughout the documentary, there’s no denying just how charismatic and charming the young Bob Dylan was.  When the credits rolled, I was left appreciating D.A. Pennebaker’s influential documentary, but left cold as far as the subject matter goes.  For fans of Bob Dylan, music journalism, and those who hold documentaries in high-esteem, I would implore you seek this film out. Otherwise, you may leave feeling the same way I did.  Dont Look Back is cautiously recommended.

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Doctober Feature #3: D.A. Pennebaker Rocks! Monterey Pop (1968), Jimi Plays Monterey (1986), Shake! Otis at Monterey (1987), and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973)

D.A. Pennebaker is a legend in the documentary film-making game, making history with his early rockumentaries, he helped shape and influence an entire generation of filmmakers.  This and the next Doctober feature will take a look at the man and his most highly regarded films, none of which I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in the past.  This first Doctober (#3) feature will take a look at his early concert films Monterey Pop, Jimi Plays Monterey, Shake! Otis at Monterey, and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.  The next feature (#4) will take a look at the highly acclaimed Dont Look Back, The War Room, and 101.

51lgm6vwcgLMonterey Pop (1968)

Directed by: D.A. Pennebaker

Starring: Otis Redding, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Simon & Garfunkel, the Mama’s & the Papa’s, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Ravi Shankar, The Animals, Canned Heat, Hugh Masekela

D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop has influenced the documentation of concerts and music festivals more than most people could ever imagine.  Coming just one short year after his incredibly successful and acclaimed Dont Look Back, which chronicled musician Bob Dylan (and will be covered in the next Doctober feature), Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop made an immediate and lasting impression on rock journalism and documentary filmmaking.  The film chronicles the Monterey Pop Festival, which was held in Monterey, California in June 1967, featuring some of rock music’s most successful and influential musicians including Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Simon & Garfunkel, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Otis Redding.  The film captures the magic of the festival, the performances, and the social environment of the late-1960’s.  Monterey Pop is a time capsule, and still holds up as an incredible piece of documentary film-making to this very day.

Highlights of Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop include a terrific performance of “The 59th Street Bridge Song” (or “Feelin’ Groovy”) by Simon & Garfunkel, an incredibly energetic and impressive performance by Jefferson Airplane, an awkward but lovable performance of The Who’s “My Generation”, the last major public performance by the soon to be deceased Otis Redding, whose performance will be chronicled a little later in the feature, as well as Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire and smashing it to pieces after his rendition of “Wild Thing”.  Hendrix’s performance will be elaborated on and covered more in depth in Pennebaker’s short film following Monterey Pop.  After the highlights of all these incredible bands playing, we are treated to a lengthy performance by the great Ravi Shankar (albeit maybe a little too lengthy), as Pennebaker’s camera floats around the festival grounds, showing people young and old alike enjoying themselves and taking in the sights and sounds.  Monterey Pop is an incredibly effective time capsule that still feels cool and relevant to this day, it features timeless rock and pop music, high-energy performances, iconic moments, and wonderful visuals.  If you’re a fan of classic rock, concert documentaries, or somebody interested in 1960’s counter-culture, this film comes highly recommended.

Jimi Plays Monterey (1986)Shake!_Otis_at_Monterey_FilmPoster

Directed by: D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

Starring: Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell, Noel Redding

If there’s one thing Monterey Pop doesn’t do to satisfy viewers, it’s show more of the incredibly energetic performance by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.  Luckily, D.A. Pennebaker and partner Chris Hegedus managed to capture the performance in it’s entirety, and eventually released it with subsequent video releases of Monterey Pop.  Jimi Plays Monterey is only 48 minutes long, but manages to perfectly capture the spirit of the Monterey Pop Festival, and leaves you wanting even more incredible rock performances.  

Jimi Plays Monterey begins with an art performance by speed artist Denny Dent, painting a terrific portrait of Hendrix himself, setting the tone for the short film about to roll on.  The film then starts with some narration about Jimi Hendrix and about the Monterey Pop Festival, which is something new because Monterey Pop features no narration at all.  Jimi and his bandmates are all ridiculously cool on stage, even to today’s standards.  Jimi, rocking an incredible feather boa, plays excellent renditions of “Foxy Lady”, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby”, and my absolute favorite song in the set, “Hey Joe”.  After this incredible and eclectic set, Jimi treats us to the very memorable performance of “Wild Thing”, followed up by the star-making antics by Hendrix.  There’s an anecdote that says The Who’s Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix both refused to go on after one another, and The Who ended up performing first after a lucky coin toss.  Hendrix, not wanting to be topped by The Who’s own guitar-smashing antics, decided to one-up Townshend by lighting his guitar on fire and in the process created one of the most iconic rock moments in the history of the genre.  It’s pretty obvious who won in that regard, I think.  In order to get the most out of the Monterey Pop documentary, I absolutely suggest you seek out Jimi Plays Monterey.  It’s short, fun, and wild.  Highly recommended.


The talented Otis Redding performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

BONUS: Shake! Otis at Monterey (1987)

Directed by: D.A. Pennebaker

Starring: Otis Redding

D.A. Pennebaker got lucky in a sense with his documenting of the Monterey Pop Festival: The festival would end up being Otis Redding’s final major performance before he was killed in a plane crash at the age of 26, leaving the music world stunned.  D.A. Pennebaker’s Shake! Otis at Monterey was released a year after Jimi Plays Monterey, and has also been included in subsequent releases of Monterey Pop.  The film is only 18 short minutes long, but manages to give an idea of just how charismatic and talented Otis Redding was as a musician and performer.  During the run-time of the short film, Otis plays an incredible rendition of his famous song “Respect”, a terrific cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, and ends with his song “Try a Little Tenderness” as the camera roams the festival grounds, showing loving couple, crying teenage girls, and people generally having the time of their lives at the Monterey Pop Festival.  Otis’ performance is incredibly energetic and had me wanting much, much more.  There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that the world lost something truly special when Otis Redding was taken from us.  If you’re a fan of the legend, or want to get familiar with the music of Redding, then give Shake! Otis at Monterey a shot.  It’s short, sweet, and you’ll be humming his songs for the rest of your day.  Highly recommended.

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973)MPW-54772

Directed by: D.A. Pennebaker

Starring: David Bowie, Trevor Bolder, Mick Ronson, Mick Woodmansey, Angela Bowie

D.A. Pennebaker knows a special appearance when he sees one, which is exactly what Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars ended up being.  David Bowie (who I admittedly don’t know much about) had reportedly grown tired of his eccentric Ziggy Stardust character, and had decided that this outing would be his final public appearance as the character.  D.A. Pennebaker had something of a lucky streak for making documentary film history after his chronicling of Bob Dylan in the highly acclaimed Dont Look Back.  Alongside that film was Pennebaker’s hip look at one of the first ever rock music festivals, the final major performance of Otis Redding, and the star-making outing by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the documentary legend captured one of the first ever “retirement” performances in the history of the medium.  Little did most people know that David Bowie would quickly resurface as more of an established solo act and continue to make glam rock history.

Ziggy Stardust and the Spider from Mars features incredible performances of famous Bowie songs, including “Changes”, “Cracked Actor”, “Space Oddity”, Suffragette City”, “White Light”, and my absolute favorite “Moonage Daydream”.  The film features incredible lighting and atmosphere, as was standard for David Bowie performances of the time.  Bowie himself goes through multiple wardrobe changes throughout the performance, all of which are visually interesting and fit the highly eccentric Ziggy Stardust perfectly.  Between the song performances, we are occasionally treated to David Bowie and his band backstage, getting ready to perform and just generally hanging out.  A scene showing Angela Bowie, David’s equally interesting and eccentric wife, coming backstage to wish the band luck and interact with them is one of the film’s odd, but sweet, highlights.  Towards the end of the set, Bowie announces this is the “last show he’ll ever do”, to which the audience very loudly reacts with both joy and sorrow.  Ziggy and the Spiders from Mars come on for an encore after the announcement, playing “Rock N Roll Suicide” one last time, and the film soon fades to black.  For somebody who didn’t know much about David Bowie (apparently D.A. Pennebaker was in the same boat as me), Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars packs a huge punch.  The performances and visuals here are incredibly memorable, and I would go as far as saying I’m now a David Bowie fan.  If you’re interested in David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust, or the idea of the “retirement gig” as a whole, check out Ziggy Stardust and Spiders from Mars.  The fun, quick concert documentary comes recommended.

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Doctober Feature #2: Werner Herzog Triple Feature – Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), The White Diamond (2004), and Wheel of Time (2003)

Werner Herzog is one, if not the most, influential documentary filmmaker of our time after a host of incredible and successful documentaries like the incomparable Grizzly Man, Lessons of Darkness, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and his most recent Into the Abyss.  His eye for quirky interview subjects, beautiful scenery, relatively uncovered film subjects, and his penchant for asking really, really, really (REALLY) big questions of the audience have turned Werner Herzog into something of a cultural icon in the film world.  His narration is often lovingly mocked by those in the film community, and comedian Paul F. Tompkins has even made it a regular part of his act on television and podcasts.  The bottom line is that Werner Herzog is incredibly influential, and has given us some of the greatest documentary and narrative films of our generation, and deserves to be discovered by an even wider audience. These three films were blind spots in my viewing of Herzog’s documentary filmography, and even though I had different reactions to the lot of them, I’m incredibly happy that I finally sought them out.  If you’ve never seen a Herzog film, do yourself a favor and see Grizzly Man as soon as humanly possible.  It will change the way you view the art of documentary filmmaking.

Cave_of_forgotten_dreams_posterCave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Directed by: Werner Herzog

Starring: the Chauvet Cave, Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary was originally released in 3D, and I’m very upset that I didn’t have the opportunity to see it as it was originally intended.  In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog takes the audience on a tour of the Chauvet Cave in France, where some of the oldest surviving human art was discovered in the 1990’s.  The cave paintings were created over 30,000 years ago, and are very carefully preserved by the French government.  Due to the sensitive nature and rarity of the paintings, the general public is not actually admitted to exploring the cave, and even Werner Herzog himself was only able to take himself and three others to film the documentary.  Special walkways were created for those permitted into the cave, anything off the path being strictly prohibited.

The cave and the ancient art inside are absolutely beautiful, and it’s hard to imagine that these images were created so long ago.  Alongside the paintings are many bones of the now extinct cave bear, a relic and a major find in themselves.  Herzog manages to find experts in the archaeological field, interviewing them about various items found in the area surrounding the cave, including an ancient wind instrument, as well as a spear of sorts.  These experts in question are ridiculous and quirky and incredibly fun to watch in their brief appearances on screen.  One of the experts in question happens to be a perfume creator, and goes about finding cave openings in the woods using only the power his nose, another is openly mocked by Herzog about his spear-throwing abilities.  It is these interviews coupled with the imagery that makes Cave of Forgotten Dreams an absolute delight.  I would highly recommend this film to both Herzog rookies and seasoned veterans alike.  High recommendation.

The White Diamond (2004)


Directed by: Werner Herzog

Starring: Graham Dorrington, Werner Herzog, Dieter Plage

This is a film I knew almost nothing about before going into it, as it came out a year before one of Werner Herzog’s greatest successes, Grizzly Man. For a film I knew very little about, The White Diamond absolutely took my breath away, and quickly became one of my favorite Herzog documentaries.  In The White Diamond, Werner Herzog and his lovable voice take us on a journey into the dense rainforests of Guyana, a small country in South America.  There we find the film’s subject Graham Dorrington, an engineer who has created a terrific white airship (or blimp) in the shape of a teardrop;his mission is to fly the airship over canopies of the Guyana rainforest.  The film chronicles Dorrington’s past as an aeronautical engineer, covers the history of modern flight as a whole, and explores the beauty of Guyana’s vast rainforests, specifically taking a look at the massive Kaieteur Falls, as well as astounding white-tipped swifts, a species of bird which roost in an unexplored cave directly behind the falls.

Despite the incredible visuals and Werner Herzog’s always incredible narration and subtle humor, what makes The White Diamond a special documentary and a film to remember is the story of Graham Dorrington’s cinematographer and friend Dieter Plage, who died on an ill-fated ascent in the experimental airship.  Herzog films Dorrington telling the story of Dieter Plage’s accident and attempted rescue with unblinking and unflinching direction, never underestimating the weight of Dorrington’s words.  The story is incredible, tragic, and heartbreaking, and is easily one of the great moments in documentary film, period.  The White Diamond is one of Werner Herzog’s most underrated treasures, and a film I plan to revisit again for the visuals and the incredible stories featured throughout.  High recommendation.

Wheel_of_time_posterWheel of Time (2003)

Directed by: Werner Herzog

Starring: The Dalai Lama, Werner Herzog

Before the impressive White Diamond came Werner Herzog’s 2003 documentary Wheel of Time, which I knew even less about, but unfortunately wasn’t quite as taken with it as I was with that film.  Wheel of Time is once again narrated by Herzog himself, taking us on a journey to through Asia to meet the fourteenth Dalai Lama, who at the time was suffering from rather poor health.  Herzog covers two ill-fated Kalachakra initiations, one in India, and the next in Austria, presided over by the sick Dalai Lama, as well as the pilgrimage to Mount Kailash in Tibet; considered by many religions to be a sacred place.

Wheel of Time unfortunately didn’t resonate with me the same way previous Herzog documentaries have done, and I can’t quite put my finger on why that is.  The subject material isn’t something I’m particularly interested in, but that hasn’t stopped me before.  I think the biggest reason for my disconnect is Werner Herzog himself, who is incredibly respectful in his chronicling of the ill Dalai Lama, Buddhist traditions, and the Buddhist people themselves.  Not that this respect is a bad thing in any way, but Herzog refrains from using his trademark dark and subtle humor throughout the film’s short run-time, instead opting to cover the events in a much more deadpan style.  Fortunately the visuals throughout the film are more than worth the price of admission, with several breathtaking moments being caught by Herzog’s sharp eye.  One of my favorite scenes featured Buddhist monks on their pilgrimage, giving money to the poor who remain unseen behind a large fence – with the exception of their arms.  Wheel of Time has a lot to say about Buddhism as a whole, and beautifully covers some important and notable ceremonies of the faith, but unfortunately it didn’t move me the way I wanted to.  I enjoyed my time with Wheel of Time, but none of it resonated with me in any way – unlike most of Werner Herzog’s documentary films.  Even though the film did not personally appeal to me, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t still a delight to watch, nor does it mean you won’t get anything out of it.  If you’re interested in Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, give this a shot.  Recommended.

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Doctober Feature #1: The Decline of Western Civilization Parts I-III (1981, 1988, 1998)

Disclaimer: Documentaries are, in my opinion, the absolute most difficult genre to write in-depth about.  These are films about real-life people and scenarios that shed light on various times, subcultures, people, and events, both contemporary and throughout our history.  They often have no narrative to speak of, have no performances to praise or pan, and far more subtle direction than feature-length narrative films.  I’m writing about this trilogy because it moved me in ways that few films have ever done in the past, and because I’m hoping it will reach those who never would have heard of these films otherwise.  These reviews are very much stream of consciousness, so I apologize in advance if that is a problem for you as a reader.

The Declineresized_decline_of_western_civilization of Western Civilization (1981)

Directed by: Penelope Spheeris

Starring: Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Alice Bag Band, Fear, Germs, X, and Catholic Discipline

Thank the gods of film for Penelope Spheeris and her eye for documenting a subculture that nobody wanted anything to do with at the time.  The Decline of Western Civilization is the widely acclaimed and highly influential punk rock documentary by one of the most influential female documentarian of our time.  The film focuses on the Los Angeles punk scene of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, giving impromptu – but always entertaining and insightful – interviews with both influential and forgotten punk bands of the time, including Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, Germs, X, and Fear, along with fans of the genre, club owners, and those who adhered to the punk rock subculture of the time.  The documentary is notable for covering a subculture that was widely ignored by mainstream press of the time, and treating them like any other group.  These people have insightful and intelligent things to say, create brilliant (if chaotic) music, and aren’t afraid to speak their minds about injustices taking place throughout the Western world at the time.

Though the first film in the trilogy is probably my least favorite due to its impersonal nature and fly on the wall film-making (which isn’t to say it isn’t impressive or will leave an impression, I’m just more taken by more up-close and personal styles), there’s absolutely no doubting or underplaying the influence The Decline of Western Civilization had on music and documentary film in 1980’s America.  The films subjects have a lot of terrific anecdotes, opinions that needed to be heard at the time, and do a great job of showing the world why they shouldn’t be ignored by the world around them.  The music is loud, chaotic, and of an extremely personal nature, but that’s the beauty of punk music; it can either mean everything to you or sound like distorted noise.  No matter what your opinion on punk music and the people in and around it, do yourself a favor and watch Spheeris’ film immediately; at the very least it will expose you to ideas and music you hadn’t given much thought to, and give you an idea of the social environment of the time.  This film is absolutely recommended, and its sequels even more so.

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)

Directed by: Penelope Spheerisdecline-of-western-civilization-2-the-metal-years-movie-poster-1988-1020196006

Starring: Megadeth, Ozzy Osbourne, Steven Tyler, Alice Cooper, Paul Stanley, Chris Holmes, Motorhead, Faster Pussycat, Lizzy Bordon

Taking place five years after the documentary that changed it all, Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization Part II focuses on Los Angeles’ heavy metal scene, a much different animal than the same city’s punk rock scene in the early years of the decade.  Though several jokes are made at the expensive of glam rockers of the time, the film focuses heavily on the glam metal scene, as well as speed and thrash metal.  The documentary features incredible and highly memorable interviews with rock superstars like Ozzy Osbourne, Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, Lemmy of Motorhead, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, KISS’ Paul Stanley, and Chris Holmes of the band W.A.S.P.  The second Decline of Western Civilization puts a huge amount of emphasis on getting into the minds of metal bands and trying to uncover why they live the way they live.  The sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is heavily discussed – and featured – throughout the picture, with many artists admitting to alcohol and drug problems, and telling stories of partying and debauchery.

Spheeris’ second part of the Western Civilization trilogy improves on the original in so many ways (in my opinion), getting much more up-close and personal with the artists, and uncovering why they are the way they are.  The film focuses on established – and often tortured – heavy metal superstars as well as up-and-coming bands who will stop at nothing to stand next to the rock stars they adore and become idols to metal heads around America.  The subjects and interviews through the film are much more compelling this time around, particularly in scenes with Ozzy Osbourne Steven Tyler recounting their less than glamorous moments as rock stars, and admitting to their many faults and vices.  The absolute highlight of the film is Spheeris’ one-on-one interview with W.A.S.P.’s Chris Holmes (and his mother).  Holmes floats around in a pool, talks about being a “full-blow alcoholic”, and pours vodka over his head, mouth, and body all while his mother looks on rather helplessly.  If you’re at all interested in hearing these tales and seeing many now-famous musicians in a rather unflattering light, by all means watch The Metal Years immediately.  It connected with me on a personal level, and managed to surpass the original film.  I highly recommend this film, and would even call it the best film of the incredibly impressive trilogy.

220px-TheDeclineIIIThe Decline of Western Civilization Part III (1998)

Directed by: Penelope Spheeris

Starring: Final Conflict, Litmus Green, Naked Aggression, The Resistance

Though I just stated that The Metal Years was without a doubt the best film of the trilogy, Penelope Spheeris’ final film in the series, The Decline of Western Civilization Part III, is my personal favorite of the bunch.  The film focuses far less on the music scene in Los Angeles (though it is still heavily featured and referenced) and more on the “gutter punk” lifestyle. The subjects of the film are mainly young adults (and teenagers in some cases), who adhere to the punk rock lifestyle, live on the mean streets of LA, are addicted to drugs and alcohol, and who have been abandoned by their parents and mentors.  These “gutter punks” have no real goals in life, nor do they care about what society thinks of them; they’re on this earth to have a good time or die trying.  The interviews with street kids and squatters are hilarious at times, and absolutely heartbreaking at others.  How anybody could not love these kids is beyond me, no matter how “troubled” they may seem on the outside.

The subjects mainly go by their street names like Squid, Hamburger, Pinwheel, and many, many others, and are all funny, resourceful, and surprisingly insightful young people who you grow to adore over the course of ninety short minutes.  By the time the credits rolled, I was begging for more time with them, and was left wondering what came of them in the years to follow.  Spheeris is at her best throughout the film, interacting with and interviewing the teenagers, who seemed to have developed a genuine liking and appreciation for her style and brand of humor.  Due to the nature of the film, I don’t have much more to say about it, but I do want to stress how incredibly fun and personal the third film is.  I was genuinely brought to tears by the end of the film, and have developed a genuine appreciation for Penelope Spheeris and punks worldwide.  See this film, see this entire trilogy if you can, I absolutely can’t recommend it enough.

The Decline of Western Civilization I-III are without a doubt some of the best films I’ve seen in the genre, and ones I’ll be returning to again and again for years to come.  Highest recommendation.

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