Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Documentary Review: Muscle Shoals

Currently available for streaming
on Netflix as of 7/30/14
Muscle Shoals is an unlikely story. This dinky little town in Alabama in the deep south, in the 1950's through the 1980's churned out hit record after hit record because one man had a vision and a talent for getting a certain sound out of musicians. That man, Rick Hall, was a white southern man who was able to produce and engineer #1 hits from black, southern soul singers. He named his studio FAME Studios.

It's a remarkable story. Back when the only places to find a studio to make your hit record was New York, Chicago, or LA. Rick Hall and his studio musicians, eventually named "The Swampers", were carving out this sound in Muscle Shoals, Alabama that was launching careers and #1 records Wilson PickettJames and Bobby PurifyAretha FranklinClarence CarterOtis Redding Arthur Conleyand Percy Sledge, just to name a few.

The film explains how these white boys were able to get these sounds out of some of the greatest Soul legends of all time. Almost like they could understand soul music before anyone knew what it was. It didn't make any sense that Rick Hall had that sound inside of him, being raised a poverty stricken white boy in a state that was pretty oppressive to blacks.

Eventually "The Swappers" figured they could go out on their own and they left Rick Hall and set up shop on the opposite end of the small town. Hall was not happy, and told them they would never make it. They did struggle, mainly after Cher was their first customer, and her recording was a big bomb. And it seemed bleak, until a tiny band from England called The Rolling Stones wandered into their studio for a couple of days. Out of their session came "Wild Horses", and "Brown Sugar". And the Muscle Shoals sound was complete. They began to have many successes with  Lynyrd Skynyrd,TrafficElton JohnBoz ScaggsWillie NelsonPaul SimonBob DylanDr. HookElkie BrooksMillie JacksonJulian Lennon and Glenn Frey.

And Rick Hall's success continued as well as he successfully moved into pop and country music and recorded hits for too many groups to name.

I had a blast with this documentary from start to finish.. Being a huge fan of soul music I was lost in the studio stories and the music itself, as well as just amazed at the fact that none of this great sound could have happened if it weren't for these southern white boys who were thinking beyond what was acceptable at the time.

I give this documentary... 5 stars!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Documentary Review: Thin

Available for streaming on
Amazon Prime as of 7/28/14
Thin is a 2006 film that is set in a rehab facility for people suffering from eating disorders. The story centers around just a few of the girls at an in-patient treatment center.

Director   decided to not have any narration, and just let the cameras roll. So, except for a few narrative scripts on the screen we have to fill in the gaps by what the girls are actually saying to each other and to their caregivers.

It almost feels like a really long episode of MTV's The Real World with a little bit of anorexia and bulimia thrown in. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But it made it seem a little shallow when it comes to understanding the actual disease.

What I got from this film is that an eating disorder is a mental disorder. The girls will lie, cheat, and steal to get their fix. In this case their fix is the high they feel from purging, not eating, or over exercising. They want to get better, for the most part, but their obsession and compulsion combined with a horrible body image simply will not allow them to just use will-power to make it work. I can hear people yelling at their screen "Just eat!!!". But if only it were that easy. I can relate to them some with the hypochondria and "bad thought" OCD that I had on a very minor scale in my younger days. It's not a switch you can just turn off.

It makes for compelling viewing. But it felt like watching addicts trying to kick heroin for 90 minutes. And if you are an Emetophobic like I am, Caution: You will see people vomit numerous times during this film.

Eventually all 4 of the girls who are the main subjects are forced to leave the facility either because their insurance runs out, or they were breaking the rules of the facility, which, of course, are very strict.

I don't want to spoil anything, but at least one of the post-scripts at the end of the film is very sad. But there are some that are happy as well.

Overall the film did a lot of the right things that compel you to want to watch to the end. There were some things that maybe could have been done better. For instance they gave very little camera time to the girls that seemed to be causing no trouble, and were actually benefiting from the program. To someone who is suffering from an eating disorder it may have left you feeling pretty hopeless. But then again, that may not have been the point of the film. Watching someone who avoids drama, and excels at getting better doesn't get you awards at film festivals.

I give this documentary...3 stars

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Documentary Review: The Battered Bastards Of Baseball

Available For Streaming On
Netflix As Of 7/19/14
The Battered Bastards Of Baseball is a documentary that is just dying to be made into a major motion picture.

Here's how Major League Baseball works. The large MLB teams have "farm teams" that are AA and AAA which are different tiers of minor leagues, where they can groom or weed out players to see if they have the chops to play in the big league. This is how MLB wants it, and they don't like outsiders coming in and messing with their good-ol'-boy club.
Portland had one of these minor league teams. Attendance was low, and interest in the team was poor, so the powers that be decided to pack up and get out of there.
Bing Russell who was a fairly famous Hollywood Actor (He was the sheriff on Bonanza) decided to fill the void by creating an independent minor league baseball team. Independent meant that they were not associated with any major league team. He owned the team and paid them out of his own pocket. How did he find players to play for the meager pay that they would receive? Well, he put an ad in the Portland newspaper for open tryouts. And he found several Major League rejects. These were players that for whatever reason were not selected by MLB teams even though they had true talent.
Everybody thought they would flop. They didn't.. They won games, and they brought baseball back to Portland in a big way.. they played with no plan, they were lots of antics on and off the field, and more importantly they started filling the seats. They started setting attendance records.. some that still hold today.

I won't spoil anymore of the story, but let's just say that MLB was not amused and felt very threatened by their success.

This is one of the best documentaries I've seen in a long time. It is so much fun to watch these guys talk about their love for the team, for the game, and for Bing Russell. Oh, and you might recognize the name of Bing's son.. Kurt Russell. Kurt was on the team. His interviews in this film are fantastic, his insight is helpful and compelling. The most compelling part is watching MLB get in a heap by their antics, and their ability to be successful while breaking the shredding the major league rule book.
I think the trailer will spark better interest than what I can say about it...

I love this documentary. I give it 5 stars...

Go watch it today!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Documentary Review: The Good Son: The Life Of Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini

Available For Streaming On
Netflix As Of 7/17/14
I've had The Good Son on my Netflix watch list for about a month. I was looking forward to it. So today I took time and watched it from start to finish.
Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini is a former boxer who captured the nation because of his meager upbringing, and his ability to win fights. Actually his father Lenny "Boom Boom" Mancini was a boxer as well. Lenny was just about to make a major name for himself when he got drafted. He ended up getting the purple heart during WW II for a battle injury. Although he recovered and came home and was able to fight again.. he was never the same and retired.

But his son, Ray, was poised to take over boxing as the next big thing. And he did just that. In 1982 he won Lightweight Title and became a world champion in the WBA.

But upon his first defense of the title he fought Duk Koo Kim. He battered Kim for 14 rounds before he KO'd him. Unfortunately Duk Koo Kim suffered brain damage during the fight and as a result he died 4 days later.

This documentary is a narrative of Mancini's life and how he never fully recovered from the emotional trauma of killing a man in the ring.

The documentary is a little bit on the weak side. It is a tragedy. A son lost his father. However the director leaves us wanting to know more about the actual event.

The finale is a meeting arranged by Duk Koo Kim to meet with Ray Mancini and clear the air of hard feelings. But the meeting lacks a lot. Low on emotion, drama, and compelling scenes. It seems kind of anti-climatic. The language barrier may have been part of the problem.

What The Good Son does have is heart. It turns out that Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini and Duk Koo Kim were kind of cut from the same cloth. They had some striking similarities. In fact, under other circumstances might have been friends.

I also found Ray hard not to like. He was articulate, and kind. His story is compelling. It's just a shame that the documentary left us out of some info that might have drawn us into the story in a deeper way.

I give this documentary.... 2 stars

Friday, July 11, 2014

Documentary Review: 7/7: One Day In London

Currently available for streaming on Netflix
as of 7/11/14
7/7: One Day In London is about the London bombings that took place on July 7th, 2005. The series of coordinated attacks killed 52 people and injured more than 700.

The documentary is different than most documentaries of this nature. What they have managed to do is to avoid giving the terrorists one second of screen time. No names, no recognition whatsoever. Instead we get to hear the stories of heroics from that day, plus how the families have managed to find some way to bring something positive out of the tragedy.

I'll be honest. I like dark documentaries. I love crime documentaries. I like documentaries about tragic events and natural disasters. I am fascinated by forensics and the ability for the authorities to find people who commit horrible atrocities and bring them to justice.. hopefully at the end of the hangman's noose. And I realized that this documentary was not going to be like the others I have watched. But it was a breath of fresh air. The perpetrators of such evil do not deserve to have their names spoken ever again. The people who were killed and injured have families and friends who are able to keep their legacy alive by telling the world their story.

That's what we have here... Stories. We get a brief timeline of the events as the story unfolds, but most of that is to give perspective about how enormous this event was and how many were affected. People who knew they were going to see death and gore and were terrified by that thought, felt compelled to continue towards the scene in order to help those that could be saved. That's being a hero. And it's good to know that people still care enough to help.

The London bombings is often to referred to as the "British 9/11"... and that's what it was. Terror and horror perpetrated by Muslims that believed they were doing the work of Allah. I believe they were dead wrong.

Most American's got so used to seeing violence in the Middle East that we forgot that this is a place that is considered safe for the most part and free from that kind of every day tragedy.

7/7: One Day In London puts faces with a story that we only know in passing. It's a good film. It informs without sensationalism. It's a tragic story, but we only have to read about it.. Some had to live it, and some have to live with it's aftermath every day for the rest of their lives.

I give this documentary... 3 Stars

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Documentary Review: Linotype: The Film

Currently available for streaming
on Amazon Prime as of 7/9/14
Linotype: The Film is a documentary about the type set machine that changed how people get information. It is a very complicated piece of machinery that actually does a simple job.

I had no intention of watching this one. I had other films in my queue that were loaded and ready to go. But the picture on the cover drew me in. It looked like one of those Docs that seems like it might be interesting and then you end up shutting it off about 30 minutes into the dull, droning film that would only be interesting to the few people who have been around the subject.

Not this one. Maybe the machine itself carried the documentary, or maybe it was well produced. It's hard to tell because I was so fascinated by the actual subject that I sat and watched the entire thing from start to finish without becoming bored at any point. 

Before 1884 the only way to mass print books, magazines, or any type of literature was to hand select each letter in a line of type. You then lined it up in a form, and then started on the next line until your page was ready to print.Then you "inked" the metal letters and rolled the paper on it. Then you had to put each letter back in their proper bin so that you can start the whole process over for the next page. Just imagine how tedious that would be. It took hundreds of men, days, months, and years to print Bibles or text books for a generation of readers.

A German-born inventor named Ottmar Mergenthaler and his invention, the Linotype, changed everything. Not without lots of trial and error. This "Rube-Goldberg-like" machine acted  like a typewriter.Actually, more like a typewriter on steroids. One line of type (hence the name Linotype) emerged from the machine just from your stroke of the keys, It actually had to pour molten metal into the mold to make the typeface as you went, but all you had to do was type and it did all the work in a beautiful symphony of moving parts, and genius machine engineering. It's a lot more complicated as it sounds. The machine could do the work of 6 men in a fraction of the time.

Go watch this documentary. These machines are so complicated that it takes years to master using them. But up until the 1980's they were the way newspapers and magazines mass produced the information. This was the Drudge report, TMZ, and Weather Channel all delivered to your front door, on time, sometimes two or three editions a day.

The subject matter here alone could have carried this film. But the documentary is well made at the same time. Mainly the interviewees are just enthusiasts who love this piece of history. And it is just that...history. The computer age killed any need for this machine. So what you have left are people who have a love of Americana, history, and beautiful machinery who are determined to keep the legacy of the Linotype alive. Their passion for the machine is infectious enough to keep you riveted for an hour and seventeen minutes. I highly recommend this film.

I give this documentary... 4 stars.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Documentary Review: Pretty Old

Currently available for streaming
on Amazon Prime as of 7/7/14
 Pretty Old is another competition documentary. This time we get to see into the world of the Ms. Senior Sweetheart Pageant that takes place in Fall River, Massachusetts every year. If you are over the age of 58 and alive, you qualify!

The film follows a select group of senior citizens who are not ready to spend the rest of their days in the day room at the nursing home just yet. They come to compete in a friendly competition to see who's still got it.

These ladies are frisky, funny, and for the most part full of life. Watching them have a blast is just fun for the viewer. They all compare titanium hips and bionic knees. One lady has no problem telling you that she has had work done on her face. And they all seem to have smiles on their faces from start to finish.

The organizer of the pageant is a man by the name of Len Kaplan who is 78 years old and is the life of the party. During the actual pageant he sings, dances, and plays the kazoo, frontwards AND backwards. He is the man who started the show 39 years ago. He's a lovable man who brings a lot of humor to the film.

The most touching part of the film is a woman named Frances Christian. She's an attractive widow whose husband died of cancer after 34 years of marriage. She reveals in the documentary that she has cancer herself and that it has gotten progressive. She still manages to dance several days a week as a tap dance instructor. Her journey to and from the pageant is emotional and inspiring.

This movie was a fun, and entertaining film. It has character and is compelling enough to keep the audience's attention from beginning to end. Not a lot of emphasis is placed on being invested in the competition. So we don't have a lot of empathy for who may or may not win the actual pageant. But that's okay because the story here is in the message. That message is that getting older doesn't mean you have to resign yourself to staring at a wall at a nursing home. The individual stories are full of emotion and laughs. They may have to do a big dance routine sitting down, but they can still entertain with their attitude and spunk. 

I give this documentary... 3 stars

Yeah, I'm switching to stars.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Documentary Review: Magic Camp

Currently available for streaming on
Netflix as of 7/5/14
I love a good story about competition. There are a lot of great documentaries about competitions that happen around the country for just about anything you can think of... piano, high school plays, golf, weight lifting, arm wrestling, Irish dancing, and even Scrabble, just to name a few.

Magic Camp is about kids who want to be the next David Copperfield. They all have a back story of what brought them into magic. Some of the stories are pretty normal, some are from a place of harsh family conditions and abnormal childhoods.

I, personally am not a fan of magic at all. I enjoy the trick itself and I appreciate the skill of the sleight of hand and distraction techniques to get the audience to buy into the impossible. But there are two things about magic that I am not a fan of, the fact that every "impossible" trick has a logical explanation (Hence why I enjoy documentaries over fictional movies.), and the goofy showmanship that surrounds the magic. (Sparkly outfits, jazz hands, acting as surprised as the audience, flamboyant movements, etc.) But none of that was a factor in my viewing of this film because a good story is universal and is always able to rise above the subject matter. So I decided not to allow my distaste for magic and magicians cloud my enjoyment of the movie.

This was a pretty enjoyable film. The stories were fairly compelling, and the humor was in the characters and their real interactions, and not in any cheesy narration or editing.

That being said, the film was weak in the fact that it put little emphasis on the actual competition. They built up to it, showed you maybe 30 seconds of the acts, and then quickly flashed up who the winners were with zero fanfare or drama that might have gone along with it. The film failed where it's one great strength should have been. Then they gave a post-script entitled "One Year Later..." and they showed us what those kids ended up doing. It was kind of like a build up that should have led somewhere deeper but instead the ending was tossed in as an afterthought. And unless one of the kids ended up doing something amazing or unheard of, then it was a forgone conclusion that I was simply uninterested at that point as to what they were doing a year later. I didn't have enough invested in their characters to sympathize with them.

So, The middle of the documentary ended up being the part that kept my interest whereas the finale left me feeling underwhelmed. A good documentary has an ending that makes you immediately want to recommend it to your friends and family. I didn't have that feeling here at all.

I give this documentary.... 2 out 5