Monday, December 27, 2021

Documentary December Quick Picks and Pans

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl Poster

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993) Ray Müller’s fascinating documentary delves into the life of pioneering filmmaker/Nazi sympathizer Leni Riefenstahl, who made the notorious propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935). Now age 90 (at the time of this film), Riefenstahl looks back at her career, while discussing her present-day creative pursuits. Despite the three-hour glimpse into her life, she remains something of a mystery, thoughtful and reflective, yet staunchly unrepentant about her past. It’s a disturbing portrait of an undeniably talented but morally bankrupt artist, who refuses to equate her films with making a political statement or acknowledge her role in creating a propaganda tool. Despite her well-documented complicity with the Nazis, she denies any wrongdoing, claiming that she had no knowledge of the extent of their atrocities. What emerges is a nuanced profile of an artist that goes beyond black and white depictions, neither condemning nor condoning its subject. Instead, we’re left with the disconcerting notion that evil is something not quite tangible, but no less damaging.  

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Don't Think I've Forgotten Poster

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (2014) Director John Pirozzi chronicles the rise and fall of rock music in Cambodia in this compelling, often heart-rending story (told through interviews with friends, relatives, and surviving performers). We learn about performers such as Sinn Sisamouth, Pen Ran, and others who rose to notoriety in their home country, only to find that their music was outlawed once the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975. The film presents us with a good primer on a largely unknown music scene that was nearly erased from existence. Most importantly, it’s a history lesson that’s not discussed enough in the west, about a country that endured a tug-o-war between superpowers, only to be torn apart by an oppressive regime and genocide.

Rating: ****. Available on Kanopy and Tubi

Eadweard Muybridge: Zoopraxographer Poster

Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975) While it only runs a brief 59 minutes, this profile of pioneering photographer, Eadweard Muybridge’s most notable accomplishments never seems too long, nor too short. Narrated by Dean Stockwell, the film covers the creative life of Muybridge, who started out on a more conventional route with landscapes and portraits, before making his claim to fame – motion studies of animals and people. Over the years, Muybridge refined his painstaking process, involving custom-made equipment and three batteries of multiple cameras. While the man himself remains an enigma, filmmaker Thom Andersen lets the photographer’s work speak for itself.   

Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Kanopy

Grass Poster

Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925) Years before they made a smash with King Kong (1933), filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack traveled with Marguerite Harrison to document the nomadic Bakhtiari people’s migration to more fertile lands in Iran. We witness the tribe’s incredible resilience, as they endure their arduous 48-day trek over snowy mountains and traverse the perilous Karun River, with 50,000 people and 125,000 animals. The spectacular photography underscores the vastness of their endeavor, as they battle the elements and odds for a better way of life. 

Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Kanopy

Happy Happy, Joy Joy Poster

Happy Happy, Joy Joy – The Ren & Stimpy Story (2020) Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood explore the world of Ren & Stimpy’s troubled creator, John Kricfalusi, chronicling the animated show’s tremendous popularity. We hear from many of the animators and colleagues who worked with Kricfalusi to create the highly influential Nickelodeon show. Cicero and Kimo don’t shy away from the unsavory details behind the scenes, with the staff being subjected to the creator’s exacting vision and verbal abuse, or his megalomaniacal tendencies (which eventually caused him to be fired from his own show). It’s an engrossing look at the collaborative nature of producing a hit animated show, along with the hours of pain and suffering that go into creating it. Cicero and Easterwood acknowledge Kricfalusi’s lasting contribution to animation, while never letting him off the hook about his transgressions (including a relationship with an underage fan/aspiring animator), which brought his career to a halt.

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

The Final Member Poster

The Final Member (2010) Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math’s entertaining film shines the spotlight on Sigurður Hjartarson, who runs the world’s first phallological museum, in Iceland. Hjartarson has acquired a comprehensive collection of specimens from numerous species (from hamsters to sperm whales), but securing one from a human has eluded him, so far. Now, it’s down to two candidates: Páll Arason a 95-year-old Icelandic explorer (and self-professed lady’s man), and Tom Mitchell a 60-year-old American (who named his penis “Elmo”), who’s willing to part with his member while he’s still alive. It’s a race against time to see who will donate first, in this often very funny, and occasionally poignant meditation on mortality and leaving one’s mark. 

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

F for Fake Poster

F for Fake (1973) Director Orson Welles’ final film (that he personally completed) is an examination of con artists. Welles examines the career of infamous forger Elmyr de Hory, who created works of art virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. His exploration leads to de Hory’s biographer, Clifford Irving, a successful con artist in his own right, who passed off a fabricated biography of Howard Hughes as fact. It’s Welles at his most playful, performing sleight-of-hand magic tricks, and discussing his early career, namely his biggest con, the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938. F for Fake raises the question, what’s truly authentic if you can fool the so-called experts? 

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

Happy People Poster

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010) Co-directors Dmitry Vasyukov and Werner Herzog (with narration by Herzog) follow a group of trappers who live in the remote village of Bakhtia, and hunt in the Taiga region of Siberia. It’s a vast, unforgiving landscape, typified by harsh winters, and only accessible by boat (in the spring and summer months) or helicopter. The trappers live simply, without most modern conveniences, enduring the four seasons with pragmatic resolve. “Happy” is a relative term, however, as we learn about the plight of the region’s indigenous people who are slowly vanishing, along with their customs and artwork. While the film never quite captures Herzog’s signature touch, his sober narration serves as our guide to this story of survival and perseverance. 

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD, Kanopy and Tubi

Heavy Metal Parking Lot Poster

Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986) The title says it all. In 1986, documentarians John Heyn and Jeff Krulik took a video camera to the Capital Center arena in Maryland, to observe fans waiting for a Judas Priest concert (many of whom appear to be in various states of inebriation). It’s only a scant 16 minutes, but that’s long enough to encapsulate a moment in time when there was nothing more important than hanging out with your best buddies and rocking out to your favorite band. Part of the short film’s charm is imagining whatever became of the (ahem) colorful individuals interviewed. 

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and YouTube


  1. Does voice actor Billy West come up in Happy Happy Joy Joy? I don't know his attitude towards it now but, several years ago, he avoided talking about Ren & Stimpy because he didn't have anything positive to say. He developed the voices for both characters but then John K., reportedly, decided he would take on Ren's voice and pretty much stole the character and the pay cheque away from West. I guess West got the last laugh as he took back Ren after John K. was removed from the show.

    1. Hmm... It doesn't surprise me that West didn't want to talk about it, considering the production's checkered past. However, they did indeed interview him (along with several recipients of John K's abuse) for the film. It's well worth taking a look.