Monday, January 1, 2018

Documentary December Quick Picks and Pans

Burt’s Buzz (2013) Director Jody Shapiro shines the spotlight on reclusive inventor of various honey-infused products and reluctant corporate spokesperson, Burt Shavitz. The cameras follow him around as he visits Taiwan on a promotional tour, and we witness his unease at his status as an accidental celebrity. Shapiro traces Burt’s humble roots, as he inherited and subsequently walked away from a family business, experienced a second life as a photojournalist in the ‘60s, and eventually adopted a minimalist existence, living off the land. Along with his ex-significant other/business partner, he developed a line of natural products, and quietly built a multi-million-dollar empire.

The twist to the story isn’t how Burt gained or lost millions of dollars, but how he has eschewed the trappings of wealth or material possessions. He seems happiest when he’s away from other people, tending to his small farm and spending time with his dog. It’s an insightful, surprisingly affecting portrait of an irascible, cantankerous loner who fell into something big, but stuck to his ideals. Burt’s Buzz is also an existential meditation on the nature of success, and retaining integrity in the face of it. 

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Amazon Video and Hulu

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988) Penelope Spheeris’ landmark 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization was a warts-and-all examination of the L.A. punk scene. Spheeris returned several years later to scrutinize the world of heavy metal. Even if the follow-up doesn’t seem quite as immediate or as focused as its predecessor, it’s a worthy sequel. This time around, the film looks at the performers, along with a handful of groupies. There are a couple of oddball interviews not directly associated with the music scene, featuring a metal-themed strip club and an out-of-touch probation officer who wants to deprogram kids from the metal lifestyle.

While the second film doesn’t achieve the same balanced approach or depth as the original, there’s much to appreciate. Veterans Alice Cooper (easily the most articulate of the bunch) Ozzy Osbourne, and other metal luminaries are contrasted with the musings of some hopefuls who have yet to make it big. The Metal Years takes a dim view of the excesses in the industry, particularly sexism and alcohol abuse. On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, we hear from some artists who have something worthwhile to say, beyond the trappings of fame, wealth and sex. The film loses direction along the way, with some uncomfortable scenes in an L.A. strip club, with an amateur competition presided over by a lecherous elderly owner/M.C. of the aforementioned strip club. Quibbles aside, it remains an essential snapshot of an era not too long ago, and a cautionary tale about visions of fame, wealth and sex overwhelming the art.   

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2011) Philadelphia-based underground artist Justin Duerr has held a lifelong fascination with the mysterious proliferation of tiles with enigmatic descriptions that have somehow appeared in traffic intersections throughout the northeastern United States and parts of South America. With only a few sketchy clues as his guide, Duerr, along with a couple of other dedicated amateur sleuths try to decipher the purpose of the tiles. They also attempt to discern what would compel someone (or a group of individuals) to embark on such a long-running, cryptic project. They assemble a short list of possible suspects, which appear to yield few tangible results. Their greatest clue, however, leads to an amateur radio show that briefly ran in the early ‘80s. The answers they uncover are not nearly as compelling as watching Duerr and his colleagues follow the trail of bread crumbs to unravel a mystery. Although we may never know the true intent behind the tiles (Conspiracy cult? Mental illness?), John Foy’s documentary is a fascinating trip.

Thanks to the blogger Stabford Deathrage for the recommendation (follow his blog at or on Twitter at @SDeathrage).

Rating ***½. Available on DVD and Amazon Video

Mule Skinner Blues (2001) Stephen Earnhart’s bittersweet documentary spends time with a group of colorful individuals in a Jacksonville, Florida trailer park. The community’s nominal leader, Beanie Andrew, is an aging ne’er do well who dreams of making a horror movie about a swamp ape. He teams up with a middle-aged aspiring horror author to create his dream project. Some other notable denizens include: an elderly country singer (stick around for her music video at the end), a Vietnam vet dealing with personal demons, who still hopes to make it big as a folk musician, and Ricky Lix, a rock guitarist. Their individual stories are amusing and sad in equal doses – for most of them, their exposure on this film is about as much fame as they’re likely to acquire. Unlike the superior documentary American Movie, it’s tough to shake the feeling that Earnhart views his subjects with a modicum of condescension. The film distances us from the subjects, displaying their artistic expression as something laughable. We don’t feel their struggles, as much as view them as specimens for our pity or entertainment.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Cropsey (2009) Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman explore a long-running urban legend in their Staten Island neighborhood about a boogeyman known as “Cropsey,” purported to lurk in the shadows and abduct kids. We soon learn that the legend has a kernel of truth, when Brancaccio and Zeman discuss the case of a local girl, Jennifer Schweiger, who was murdered, while other children remain missing. They trace the facts behind the fiction through interviews with neighborhood residents (some of whom are still searching for the possible victims), vintage articles and clips from news programs. All signs seem to point to Andre Rand, a mentally ill drifter who was incarcerated for Jennifer’s death. But many questions remain. Did they jail the right person, or was Rand a convenient scapegoat for an outraged community? If Rand was responsible, did he act alone, or did he have an accomplice (or accomplices)? What was the link to a religious cult in the area? These questions remain unanswered, and by the film’s conclusion, you get the feeling the filmmakers are just as disappointed as we were. While it’s not quite a “slam dunk” of investigative journalism, Cropsey is worth a watch, if only to remind us that sometimes the monsters of our childhood fears are real.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD, Hulu and Amazon Video           

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