Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Documentary December Quick Picks and Pans

Marwencol (2010) Jeff Malmberg’s brilliant documentary is a fascinating profile of one man’s search for inner peace and meaning amidst chaos. After suffering a horrific beating which left him physically and mentally damaged, Mark Hogancamp took a novel approach on his long road to recovery. His coping mechanism: creating an intricately detailed miniature village, populated by the people (represented by dolls) who live in his real-life town of Kingston, New York. In the fictitious village of Marwencol, Belgium, set in a perpetual WWII, Mark spins ongoing scenarios, where the residents contend with wartime violence, love triangles and intrigue. The central character is a grizzled American G.I., representing Mark’s idealistic vision of himself. Often sad, sporadically bittersweet, Marwencol is an engrossing exploration of an imperfect battle to find happiness and healing (even if he can’t control much of his situation, Mark can control this tiny part of the world).

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

In the Realms of the Unreal (2004) Meet Joseph Darger (or more accurately, his work), a reclusive hospital janitor who created an epic 15,000-page story over the course of his lifetime. Director Jessica Yu brings his story to life with narration by Dakota Fanning and Larry Pine (who recites selections from Darger’s writings), accompanied by animated versions of his unique illustrations. The narration is supplemented by interviews with the few individuals who knew him. Through these various means, we gain a rough composite of an intelligent, isolated man who had trouble fitting into the world or relating to other people. Through his voluminous story, he created a rich fantasy world, depicting an ongoing battle between good and evil, featuring young girls as his protagonists. It’s an intriguing, occasionally disturbing look at the hidden world one man fashioned, away from prying eyes.    

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017) Writer/director Alexandra Dean introduces us to the Hollywood actress we thought we knew. You get the usual celebrity biographical elements, which chronicle the Austrian-Jewish émigré’s ups and downs in Hollywood, controversies, failed marriages, etc., but with an important twist. Through pictures, film clips, and interviews with friends, family and admirers, we learn about her first love – inventing. In 1942 she developed a method of secured communication, called “frequency hopping” which ultimately became the basis for today’s common technologies, including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Unfortunately, due to sexism and short-sightedness, she failed to receive the credit (and monetary compensation) she was due. Bombshell is a cautionary tale about a book being judged by its cover – a story that sadly needs to be repeated in today’s less than enlightened age.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Kanopy

Motel (1989) Filmmaker Christian Blackwood travels throughout the American Southwest, to uncover the stories behind the anonymous budget lodgings we often take for granted along the road. The film is primarily structured around three profiles (a fourth profile, about a motel next to a drive-in, seems to have been cut short). In the first segment, we visit a slightly run-down motel in Santa Fe, New Mexico run by three independent middle-aged women. In one humorous scene, they re-enact a botched robbery attempt. The film continues with the Blue Mist motel in Florence, Arizona, situated across the street from a state penitentiary, featuring interviews with the wives of a few of the inmates, along with the motel’s gruesome history. In the concluding segment, we’re introduced to Marta Becket, a former professional dancer and proprietor of the 1920s-era Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, in Death Valley, California, where she runs a one-woman stage show. After watching Motel, you’ll likely wonder how many stories about these overlooked bits of Americana remain untold. You may never look at your town’s Motel 6 the same way again.

Note: It might take some digging to find this film. I was fortunate enough to find a copy at my local video store (the DVD-ROM, appeared to have been sourced from a VHS recording).

Rating: ****. Available on: N/A

Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997) Kirby Dick’s warts-and-all documentary about Bob Flanagan, BDSM performance artist and lifelong sufferer of cystic fibrosis, is not for the squeamish, but surprisingly life (and death) affirming. Flanagan is candid about his losing battle with the debilitating disease, leaving no stone unturned to describe the ravages to his body (In one scene, he uses a plastic model to illustrate the effects on his system). Sick is unflinching and unsentimental in its depiction of Flanagan’s performances, which involve inflicting pain and pleasure in equal doses. To many viewers it might seem that he’s only exacerbating his suffering, but how he manipulates his body is his way of exercising control, even when he can’t change the progression of the very thing that’s slowly killing him. It’s also an unconventional love story, as we hear from his wife, Sheree Rose, who chronicles his life and death, and is an active participant in his performances.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Vampira and Me (2012) R.H. Greene’s affectionate documentary covers the short rise and long fall of actress/model Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira. Built around a lengthy interview that the director conducted with Nurmi for another project, the film augments her recollections with vintage photos and the few surviving minutes of footage from her landmark 1950s TV show. Through these piecemeal elements, Greene provides a good composite of Vampira (based, in part, on Charles Addams’ character Morticia), and her pioneering show, which challenged the repressive norms of the era. The film also briefly illustrates Nurmi’s unsuccessful lawsuit against the producers of Elvira’s Movie Macabre (the parallels are too close to ignore). Despite the career setbacks and missed opportunities, Nurmi is surprisingly animated and upbeat in her interview segments, suggesting a strength and resilience that transcends her bitterness. Vampira and Me is a heartbreaking profile of someone who tasted fame, and deserved better than to be cast aside as a footnote in television history.  

Rating: ***½ stars. Available on Amazon Prime and Kanopy

The Search for Weng Weng (2007) Australian filmmaker/video store owner Andrew Leavold traveled to the Philippines to find out what happened to diminutive movie star Weng Weng (aka: Ernesto de la Cruz), who appeared in a handful of movies (including the cult James Bond parody, For Y’ur Height Only), and suddenly vanished. Through his quest, Leavold meets a few of the actors and film crew who worked with Weng Weng. His search eventually leads him to an interview with the notorious Imelda Marcos (who has fond recollections of hosting the performer at some of her movie industry parties). Unfortunately, many of the interviews seem based on hearsay, with sometimes contradictory information, and we never get to hear from the husband/wife producers who exploited Weng Weng. As a result, we’re left with a flawed profile of the actor, who faced discrimination and limited opportunities due to his 2-foot, 9-inch stature. At this point, however, this is probably the best biography we’re likely to get.  

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Bad Reputation (2018) This fun, albeit superficial profile of one of rock’s pioneering female singers starts out strong and fizzles in the second half. It’s at its best discussing Joan Jett’s early days in The Runaways (although bandmate Lita Ford is conspicuously absent from interviews), including sexism, poor critical reception and her DIY approach to marketing. It’s too bad the film loses its way somewhere around the midpoint, spending a little too much time with her manager, and not nearly enough time discussing the songwriting process. Bad Reputation suffers from a haphazard, unfocused structure, hopping around as if topics were added at the last minute. Some of the choices for interviewees are also less than inspired, as if the filmmakers just chose whomever was available that day. It’s less than it could have been, but Jett’s fans might want to give it a look.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Hulu


  1. Another nice eclectic collection, Barry!
    Though it's Vampira and Me that I must see!

    1. Thanks, John! It's a solid, albeit sad doc. Maila Nurmi really got a raw deal from Hollywood.