Category Archives: Documentaries

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

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: The Heavy Metal scene.

Director Penelope Spheeris returns to the L.A. music scene this time chronicling heavy metal bands and looking at the lifestyles of those who are in it. This film has a bigger budget, less of a grainy look, and more irreverent than the first installment.

The interviews are again what make the film interesting and I liked how Spheeris brings in a broad scope of people to talk to, which includes members from bands desperately trying to break-in as well as veterans who’ve made it to the top and their many groupies and fans. There’s even an interview with a parole officer talking about the ‘evil influence’ the music has on teens and their attempts at ‘deprogramming’ them, but even then she breaks into laughter when Spheeris asks her about Ozzy Osbourne and his dangerous ‘satanic’ message.

There’s also an interview with a bubble-headed beauty queen at a sleazy strip bar whose name is Cindy D. Birmisa and who talks about wanting to get into modeling and ‘actressing’ and made such a strong impression at being the perfect caricature of a dim-witted blonde that she became the inspiration to Christina Applegate’s character in the hit series ‘Married With Children’. The film’s most notorious scene though deals with W.A.S.P. lead singer Chris Holmes doing an interview while in a pool and completely drunk, but what he says and does isn’t half as interesting as seeing his Mother’s reactions to it who sits poolside.

Like in the first film the living conditions of some of these bands is less than glamorous including seeing several members and their groupies cramming themselves into a small camper, which was their sole ‘residence’. I also enjoyed the segment that cuts back and forth between band members discussing how they take advantage of their groupies while these same groupies talk about how they do the exact same thing to the guys in reverse. Hearing all these wannabe’s discuss how they ‘will succeed’ as rock stars and ‘failure is not an option’ is tarnished only by the fact that we can’t see where they are now and how time most likely has forced them to adjust their outlooks.

I was also fascinated by the fact that the tone in this one had shifted drastically from the first one where anger and rebellion permeated every scene. Outside of their wildly over-the-top ‘80’s hairstyles, which makes the film enjoyable to watch just for that, there really isn’t all that much nonconformity from these participants, or if there is it’s in the most shallow of contexts . Their mission here seems more on becoming ‘rich and famous’ and reaping the benefits of system instead of exposing its many flaws. The theatrics are certainly there, but the essence of what underground rock was truly meant to be about seems to have gotten lost on white suburban kids who simply want to exploit the medium as a quick shot to fame.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: June 17, 1988

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated R

Director: Penelope Spheeris

Studio: New Line Cinema

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: The Punk Rock Scene.

A fascinating and surprisingly intimate look at the L.A. punk rock scene of the late ‘70s. The film starts out by showing footage of several concerts with fans jumping up and down like they are on a pogo stick and getting into violent clashes with other fans by physically attacking each other unprovoked. Shots of various band members in garish make-up, outfits and behaviors are also shown, which could give one the feeling that the state of humanity is truly on the decline, but then the film cuts away and we are treated to interviews of the people involved where we start seeing them as actual multi-dimensional human beings who are simply unhappy with the establishment and fighting to have a voice.

The interviews are the best part and I was impressed with how candid many of them were and the introspection some of them showed with one stating that punk rock was simply an excuse to ‘make an ass of himself and get away with it.’ The most shocking moment comes when you see the sleeping quarters of one of the bands, which was in the closet of some dingy, cramped, graffiti laden room that wasn’t much bigger than a storage closet and housed all the members for a mere $16 a month, which was all they could afford.

Another memorable moment deals with Darby Crash, who died from a heroin overdose before the film’s release, and watching him play with a tarantula spider that he allows to crawl all over him. The final segment dealing with Lee Ving the lead singer of the group Fear spitting at his audience who then spit back before they charge the stage and physically attempt to attack him is vivid.

When John Doe and Exene Cervenka sing the song ‘We’re Desperate: Get Used to It’ you know that they are speaking straight from experience, which is what ultimately makes this excursion so impactful. These aren’t rich rock stars from the ‘burbs with million dollar contracts spouting about hardships they’ve never had. Instead we get people that are at society’s bottom speaking to others who feel the same way and who are desperately looking for an outlet for their aggressions and anger. The interviews with some of the fans are equally enlightening and helps shed light on many of their troubled lives.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: July 1, 1981

Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Penelope Spheeris

Studio: Spheeris Films Inc.

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

Woodstock (1970)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Love, peace and music.

During August 15 – 18, 1969 Max Yasgur loaned out his 600 acre farm, which was near the town of Bethal, New York to some concert promoters for an epic 32-act rock extravaganza that has become the cornerstone for the counterculture movement and a major moment in Rock’N’Roll history. Although originally expected to attract only 50, 000 it ended up being more than 400,000 and this movie captures the mood, festivities, and music right up close.

Unlike most documentaries this film doesn’t just turn on the camera and then proceed to let things happen at a sometimes slow and boring pace. Instead it relies on a great use of editing done at the time by an unknown Martin Scorsese, which helps give the film a very polished and dramatic narrative. The dual screen setting allows the viewer to see two things at once and you are given a full view of the occasion as you watch not only the beginning as they construct the stage, but also the massive clean-up of all the debris left afterwards.

The music acts are captured perfectly as director Michael Wadleigh’s use of the camera nicely compliments the energy on stage with a variety of angles and quick cuts. In some ways you feel more connected with the music by watching it here than having been there in person as you are made to feel like you are right next to the performer as they are playing. One of the best moments is Richie Haven’s opening act where you see the broken strings on his guitar, the sweet glistening off his nose and saturating his back as well as a close-up of his mouth where he appears to have no teeth on his upper jaw. Janis Joplin who was known to have an incredible onstage energy is also memorable and is part of the added 45-minutes of the director’s cut. Country Joe Mcdonald is also memorable with his now famous ‘fuck cheer’ and ‘I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag’, which comes complete with lyrics on the screen and a little bouncing ball.

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The film also features different elements than what you would find in most other concert movies including one segment that looks at the cleaning of the many port-o-potties as well as a long drawn out rain storm in which many of the concert goers’ end up sliding through the mud. There is another segment looking at the skinny dippers as well as all the naked children in attendance.

There are some good interviews spliced in although I wished there had been a few more. Some of the more interesting ones include those with the townspeople who despite reports to the contrary where actually excited about the event and supported ‘the kids’at least the ones seen here. I also liked hearing from the attendees as they lined up to take turns at calling their parents on pay phones. The only interview that I didn’t care for was of a young man who used the phrase ‘you know’ so numerously that it really got on my nerves.

The movie is quite long with the director’s cut being almost 4 hours in length and not all of the music acts shown including some of the better ones. However, the film is still quite electrifying and doesn’t end up seeming as long as it is. It is also so amazingly vivid that it gives you the feeling like you were there and something that only happened yesterday instead of forty-five years ago.

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 26, 1970

Runtime: 3Hours 45Minutes (Director’s Cut)

Rated R

Studio: Warner Brothers

Director: Michael Wadleigh

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

Money Talks (1972)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: It’s all about money.

Allen Funt the creator of ‘Candid Camera’ returns with his second cinematic feature all centered around pranks and stunts done on unsuspecting regular people to see just how far they will go when presented with the allure of money. The film examines the deep seated psychological effect that money has in society and how it controls what people do and in some cases what they don’t do.

This feature is an improvement over Funt’s first. Fortunately he keeps the majority of it on a comic level and avoids trying to make unnecessary ‘profound’ social statements. The film is also faster paced and although the music is still annoying it isn’t as bad and has a bit more of a funky beat. Some of the stunts aren’t necessarily all that funny and few become rather redundant and predictable. However, the majority of them I liked and even found fascinating including the one where a woman walks down the street and intentionally allows dollar bills to fall out of a hole in her pocket and drop to the ground behind her and how surprisingly many people would pick them up and chase after her to give them back. The funniest one is where a mild mannered middle-aged woman gets a job answering phone calls for a man who she finds out is a professional hit man. Hearing her diligently taking down an order and answering questions over the price of a hit while trying to mask her shock and remain calm had me laughing-out-loud.

A few of them are definite artifacts of a bygone era including the many relentless attempts a woman goes through to try to retrieve a simple five dollar bill that is lodged beneath a car tire. Another segment has a bare foot hippie girl begging for money on a street sidewalk and her startlingly naïve willingness to go back to a strange man’s apartment who approaches her and says he has shoes for her, which she almost does until Funt and crew advise her not to.

A few of the pranks have celebrities in disguise. My favorite was the one with actress Marian Mercer pretending to be a waitress and asking beforehand how much of a tip the customer planned to give her, so she could plan out what type of service she would give him. The segment where comedian Henny Youngman has no money to pay a hot dog vendor, so instead he tells the irritated man a bunch of lame jokes as ‘payment’ is quite funny and I wished it had been extended longer. Muhammad Ali’s bit isn’t quite as good, but his personality is as engaging as ever.

The film also has some good interviews including an opening bit where a commercial jingle writer comes up with on-the-spot a ditty for the film’s theme, which is not bad. Dominic the knife sharpener becomes almost a show in itself with the flamboyant way that he tries to bargain with Funt over not only how much he should be paid to sharpen his knives, but also for his fee to appear in the film. The interviews with hippies who don’t have jobs and don’t want them could have been more interesting had we seen what happened to them twenty years later and if they were still adamantly in the non-work camp, which I doubt. Funt also interviews his own 6-year-old daughter who is surprisingly more perceptive than you might think.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: August 30, 1972

Runtime: 1Hour 21Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Allen Funt

Studio: United Artists

Available: Amazon Instant Video, Netflix streaming

What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? (1970)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Adult style Candid Camera

Allen Funt was a man who started a show in the 40’s on radio called ‘Candid Microphone’, which would catch everyday people in weird, unexpected situations and then get their reactions. With the advent of TV the show switched to the new medium and called itself ‘Candid Camera’ and it became a hit that lasted well into the 70’s. This movie looks at some of the X-rated gags that were too hot for TV. The majority of them have to do with naked women bumping into unsuspecting men in public and getting their reaction. There are also hidden cameras showing viewers watching this movie and then getting their feedback.

The majority of the film really isn’t all that funny. The reactions of the people are predictable and the novelty of seeing people caught off guard by the sight of a naked beautiful woman wears off pretty quickly. Some of the better moments include an interview with a middle-aged woman who sleeps around with a lot of men and admits that she likes it when they get rough with her during sex as that heightens the excitement. There is also an interview with a seventeen-year-old girl who confides to already having sex with 20 men and feels that it can enhance the marriage by being more sexually experienced and not a virgin. Then the girl’s mother watches the interview and admits that although she did ‘save herself for marriage’ she regrets it and feels that her daughter has a good point. Another funny segment deals with a woman looking to be at least 90 who talks about liking big penises and reading sex manuals that shocks even Funt.

Some of the moments where people don’t react instead of when they do are actually more interesting particularly when various different women find themselves alone in a room with a naked man. Another segment deals with an interracial couple openly making out in public, which at the time was still considered ‘controversial’, while in front of senior citizens who respond indifferently and even ignore it, which if anything gets Funt upset and he tries to goad them a little, but to no effect.

The film’s biggest weakness is that it tries biting-off-more-than-it-can-chew. The ‘Candid Camera’ TV-show was nothing more than a gimmick for laughs and this film should have left it at that level, but instead Funt tries to make some ‘profound’ statement in relation to society’s sexual hypocrisy and changing mores that now seem dated and derivative. What may have been titillating at the time is now stale and boring.

The movie’s musical score is another major problem.  All the songs have a generic ‘Sesame Street’ melody to them and the lyrics of each song narrate what is happening on the screen, which isn’t necessary and condescending to the viewer.

There is also a segment where Funt interviews people on the street asking them if they know how birds have sex, which I found interesting because I never thought about it before and it got me to go to Wikipedia to read about it. However, the film never answers its own question, which I thought was weak. They should have shown some nature footage of two birds ‘getting-it-on’, which probably would have been the most provocative and genuinely fascinating thing in the whole movie.

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My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: February 18, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 25Minutes

Rated X

Director: Allen Funt

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Bugs rule the world.

Basically this is nothing more than a nature film quite similar to the ones you saw in grade school. The only difference here is that it is overblown with silly dramatic elements and ‘scare’ tactics that make it seem much more important than it really is. Pretty much it’s just microscopic photography of bugs and insects as it examines their behavior and the fact that they are more adaptable to their environments than humans and therefore in the long run the survival rate of their species is higher.

When it sticks to the science part it can be interesting and even captivating. Raw nature up close can’t be beat just seeing the basic transformation of a caterpillar to a butterfly is fun. There is also a cool close-up view of a Venus flytrap plant catching its prey and an exciting battle between fighter termites and army ants trying to invade their fortress. There are also an intriguing look at the bee community, fire ants, and the ugly habits of a black widow spider.

Where the film falls apart is when it tries to be this faux documentary and brings in actor Lawrence Pressman to play a fictionalized scientist named Nells Hellstrom. At the time Pressman was just starting out so not many viewers knew that he was actually an actor. Now it is quite obvious and it seriously hurts the credibility of the entire picture. What’s more is that they overplay the whole ‘mad scientist’ bit. They have his hair disheveled, his eyes glazed over and he talks about how his obsession with bugs has cost him many friends and jobs. It becomes laughable especially when you realize all of his ‘major findings’ are rudimentary and generalized.

There is also a segment where they have ‘Candid Camera’-like experiments showing everyday people’s reactions when they come across bugs at unlikely places. Supposedly these are non-scripted, but they come-off more like a set-up. One has a man sitting at a restaurant eating a salad. When he finds a bug in it he merely pushes it away and continues to just sit there. Anyone else would most certainly holler at the waitress and demand a new salad or their money back.

The technology at their research labs looks horribly dated. Their own thesis, which is in the end bugs are superior to man, is really full-of-holes. So what if they are able to survive in a chemically infested polluted environment where man could not. Who would want to live there anyways? Simply watch this film for its nature aspect and tune out the rest of the drivel. Some of the scenes get a bit explicit so don’t watch on a full stomach either.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: June 28, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 30Minutes

Rated G

Director: Walon Green

Studio: Wolper Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray

American Movie (1999)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He needs a life.

Supposedly this is a documentary about all the troubles a young would-be filmmaker has trying to film a low budget independent movie. In actuality it is the rather stark portrait of how elusive the American dream is to the low income citizen and yet how hard they still dream for it. It creates a truly absurd scenario of desperation that could only work if it was real and not the work of fiction.

The film is tightly woven without the extraneous footage one usually finds with most documentaries. We are given a well-rounded look at these people and feel like we know them. There is some question as to whether these subjects are shown so we can learn something from it or just to laugh at them, but either way it is thoroughly engrossing.

Mark Borchardt, the would-be director, is definitely the main attraction. He talks with a heavy Wisconsin accent and is the quintessential ‘pothead’. He is a man, who by his own admission spent his entire adolescence drinking and partying. Now that he must get serious about life, he resists by clinging onto his movie making dreams. His movie idea is uninspired slasher film stuff that is taken from other more successful films. He hopes to duplicate that success and thus ride it’s coattails out of his otherwise woeful existence. He is as empty headed as he looks and sounds. Yet he still puts on a mighty song and dance. He is like an aggressive used car salesman, dishonest politician and ranting street preacher who talks a lot, but says little.

He is surrounded by equally interesting people. You have his Swedish accented mother who passively supports her son in his endeavors, yet reluctantly admits he has no chance. Then there’s cantankerous frail, old Uncle Bill. He is a man who doesn’t talk much, but when he does make a peep it is a doozy. You also have a rather touching bond between Mark and his best friend Mike. A fellow ‘pothead’ who looks and sounds like he is barely functional, yet still assists his friend in all his filmmaking problems even though he himself really isn’t that interested in it.

This thing is literally amazing from start to finish. A few of the gems include: the many, many takes they have to do before old Uncle Bill can say one line of simple dialogue correctly. Then there’s the would-be director himself, who works part time as a custodian at a cemetery, describing his ‘profound’ experience at cleaning up a clogged, messy toilet. There’s even a near comatose friend Mike who breaks out and gives the shrillest special effects scream you will ever hear.

If you like to view people just being themselves then this slice of life comes highly recommended.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: January 11, 1999

Runtime: 1Hour 47Minutes

Rated R

Director: Chris Smith

Studio: Bluemark Productions

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video