Documentary Review: Hillsborough (2014)

Release Date: April 15th, 2014
Directed by: Daniel Gordon
Music by: Tim Atack, Joel Beckerman
Narrated by: Ryan Van Ness III

ESPN Films, BBC, 121 Minutes

Review:

*written in 2014.

Hillsborough is a film that kicked off a new series of 30 For 30 on ESPN. It is the first part in the Soccer Stories run, which were released over the last few months in order to build for the World Cup, which itself just started a few hours ago. I plan on reviewing the whole series in its complete form but since this part stands out as a film, where the other parts are half hour episodes, I felt it deserving of its own review.

This film told the story of the Hillsborough disaster, which happened on April 15th, 1989 in Sheffield, England. For those who don’t know, this tragedy happened during a game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest and saw the death of 96 people who were crushed to death in the standing room only pens of the stadium. Following the tragedy, families of the victims have been seeking justice for decades but been denied it.

Hillsborough gives a pretty solid rundown of everything that happened leading up to the tragedy and everything that happened during and after, painting a very clear picture of what actually went down years after media spin and corruption tried to weave a different story.

The film was beautifully edited and presented, the interviews were conducted very well and I felt like the people involved, who had been victimized by this disaster were able to get some form of closure and peace by being able to be involved in this project while getting out their individual stories.

As a film, it was one of the best 30 For 30 chapters ever produced. It’s a definite must see for fans of the ongoing ESPN series or fans of real football (or soccer as we Americans call it).

Documentary Review: The Last Gladiators (2011)

Release Date: September 9th, 2011 (TIFF)
Directed by: Alex Gibney
Music by: David Kahne

Locomotion Pictures, 94 Minutes

Review:

*written in 2014.

I just recently came across a hockey documentary on Netflix’s streaming service called The Last Gladiators. The film was about some of the biggest goons in the NHL during the 80s. The film covered several players but primarily focused on Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, who mostly played for the Montreal Canadiens and won a Stanley Cup with them in 1986.

Nilan is one of the toughest guys to ever play the game and didn’t care if he was facing another tough guy or someone towering over him. He appeared to have no fear and was willing to scrap with anyone on the ice that got in his team’s way. He was a dominant enforcer and built up one hell of a reputation in an era where fighting wasn’t as controlled and stifled by the rules as it is now.

The director Alex Gibney, who won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, does a pretty good job of painting a clear picture of hockey culture and the role of an enforcer that the uninitiated can follow. It starts like a highlight reel of classic fights while the backstory is laid out and finishes up with a tragic story that is still incomplete, leaving you with a sense of hope for the main attraction of the film, Chris Nilan.

I wouldn’t call this a great sports documentary but I would say that it was thoroughly engaging and did a proper job of showcasing goon culture respectfully. Especially in an era where more and more busybody know-it-all idiots are calling for a ban to fighting in hockey.

Documentary Review: Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles (2014)

Release Date: December 10th, 2014
Directed by: Chuck Workman
Music by: Elliot Goldenthal (composer, stock music)

Calliope Films, Wheelhouse Creative, Cohen Media Group, 95 Minutes

Review:

Orson Welles was a one of a kind master behind and in front of the camera. His first motion picture is considered the best film of all-time by a lot of people. It is hard to argue against it, as it is a true classic masterpiece.

This isn’t just about the film Citizen Kane, though. This is a documentary that follows Welles’ entire career and life and talks to key people from his life on the personal and professional sides.

I have been a fan of Welles ever since discovering his work when I was a teenager. I saw Citizen Kane in my high school film studies class and I was drawn in when most of the other kids in my class seemed sort of uninterested. Too many kids were in that class because they thought they would just watch movies all day and earn an easy A.

Magician is the premier documentary on Welles, at least that I have seen. It is well organized, the interviews do their job and paint a good picture and Welles’ charm when he pops up to talk about himself and his work, shows just how charismatic and engaging the man was. The Dos Equis guy has nothing on Orson Welles.

I liked the behind the scenes segments on Welles’ films and his professional struggles with the Hollywood system. I loved seeing indie filmmakers like Richard Linklater pop up in this documentary to point out that Welles really was the first true indie filmmaker even though he had to create and express his vision within the major studio system.

Orson Welles is legitimately one of the most interesting people to have existed in the twentieth century. This film does a good job conveying that through Welles’ own words and the words of others.

Documentary Review: American Experience: War of the Worlds (2013)

Release Date: October 29th, 2013
Directed by: Cathleen O’Connell
Music by: John Kusiak
Narrated by: Oliver Platt

WGBH, PBS, 52 Minutes

Review:

The PBS television documentary series American Experience did an episode that covered the famous Orson Welles radio broadcast of War of the Worlds.

For those who don’t know, this broadcast convinced many Americans that New Jersey was being invaded by violent Martians. The radio program was done in the style of fake newscasts and those who tuned in too late to hear that this was a performance, were swept up in these fake news reports and thus, widespread panic ensued.

When I was a kid, I heard this story and I couldn’t understand how people could be duped like that. It made me think that people in the 1930s were morons. Living in the world today, I can now see how something like this would have been possible. The documentary also does a fine job outlining how this happened and the points it hits make a lot of sense.

Part of the documentary is made up of dramatizations and actors playing the roles of people who commented on the crazy incident from their historical point of view. These segments were filmed like typical talking head interviews and were there to add some context in regards to the public perception of the event.

Being a fan of Orson Welles, it was cool getting a lot more insight on this incident than just the basic story. It delved into the early production of the broadcast and also the aftermath and how well Welles handled the press and was able to have a huge career after this.

I really enjoyed this documentary and it is actually available on Netflix, at the time of this posting, anyway.

Documentary Review: I Hate Christian Laettner (2015)

Release Date: March 15th, 2015
Directed by: Rory Karpf
Music by: Joel Beckerman, Phil Hernandez, John Loeffler, Chris Maxwell, David Wolfert
Narrated by: Rob Lowe

First Row Films, ESPN Films, 90 Minutes

Review:

*written in 2015.

ESPN’s 30 For 30 series of films is one of the greatest sports documentary series ever produced. It could be the absolute best but I’ll leave that open for debate.

The latest installment, I Hate Christian Laettner was one of the best films in the series.

For those who don’t know, Laettner played basketball for Duke University during their dynasty run in the early 90s. Duke, perceived as a school of privilege for mostly cocky white guys, was hated by pretty much any college basketball fan that didn’t actually go to school at Duke. Hell, they still receive a lot of disdain and hate from fans, even though they just won their 5th national title last night.

Anyway, Christian Laettner, the star of those early 90s Duke teams, was the focal point of the nation’s hatred. Whether just or unjust, he had to traverse through the sea of venom and perform at an elite level – a level that brought him two national championships, a spot on the original Dream Team and a high lottery pick in the NBA Draft.

This greatly edited film, narrated by Rob Lowe, shows who Christian Laettner truly is. He isn’t the caricature that people and the media manufactured in their minds and in print. It shows this whole story from the perspective of Laettner, his family, friends and his teammates. It paints a story of a kid (and later a man) who had to deal with a tremendous amount of unwarranted and unnecessary adversity. It showed how this affected the people around him. However, it also showed how he took all of it as fuel to burn: leading to tremendous success.

I think this film is more an examination of just how horrible people can be to one another. In a similar way to how Cubs fans treated Steve Bartman in 2003, college basketball fans of that era never really looked at the fact that this was another human being. Maybe that has to do with our celebrity obsessed culture and the way that regular people seem to have a disconnect with people sold to us as stars. Laettner, as the biggest star on the college basketball stage, was an easy target.

At the end of the day, Christian Laettner is a human being and people should just be more decent to one another. All he wanted to do was play ball and win. And truthfully, despite the hate, he had the last laugh and achieved many of his goals.

And he’s richer than most of us.

Documentary Review: Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (2006)

Release Date: May 19th, 2006 (UK)
Directed by: Paul Crowder, John Dower
Music by: Ric Markmann
Narrated by: Matt Dillon

Passion Pictures, Cactus Three, ESPN Original Entertainment, 97 Minutes

Review:

*written in 2014.

I’ve reviewed a lot of soccer documentaries over the last week, in preparation for the World Cup, and this is my favorite film out of the bunch.

If you have ever wondered why soccer is not successful in America, up until recently anyway, this film shows you how it actually once rose to monstrous levels and how it fizzled out quickly. A big reason for the boom in popularity in the seventies was the New York Cosmos and the fact that they brought Pelé to America.

Once In A Lifetime follows several stories, all of which give a pretty solid history lesson on everything surrounding the New York Cosmos as well as the North American Soccer League (NASL). It paints a picture of how unknown of a sport soccer was in the United States before the Cosmos burst on the scene and how they quickly opened the floodgates, leading to an eventual World Cup in the States, as well as the formation of another, more successful professional soccer league, the MLS or Major League Soccer.

This film was well directed and the interviewees let it all out and never held back, which was pretty invigorating with these colorful characters. I only wish that Pelé had participated in the film, it would’ve added a level of royalty to the project. Additionally, Matt Dillon did a solid job as the narrator.

To all the real football fans, watch this documentary and eat it up… seriously. There is a lot here for a 97 minute film but it is all quality and entertaining. You can actually catch this on Netflix, right now.

Documentary Review: Atari: Game Over (2014)

Release Date: November 20th, 2014
Directed by: Zak Penn
Music by: Stephen Endelman

Fuel Entertainment USA, GRAiNEY Pictures, Lightbox, 66 Minutes

Review:

Atari: Game Over is an engaging enough documentary for those who loved playing the various Atari systems before Nintendo came along in the mid-80s.

This documentary follows two narrative paths that weave together.

Initially, it talks about the history of Atari and how it rose to power and then pretty much disappeared. Secondly, it discusses the E.T. game, which many consider to be the worst game ever made. It isn’t the worst game ever made but it seemed to become the scapegoat for Atari’s misfortune. Also, a massive stock of E.T. game cartridges were dumped in a desert landfill and have since become some sort of legendary pop culture treasure, waiting to be unearthed.

Zak Penn takes us on a journey through the history of Atari, while being present for the massive excavation of the landfill, in an effort to see if the game cartridges are actually there. I don’t want to spoil the ending.

Unfortunately, this is a rather short documentary and to be honest, I’d be more interested in a film that tells the Atari story in much more detail than being constantly sidetracked back over to the landfill. While the discovery of the buried E.T. cartridges is sort of the point of this film, it just isn’t as interesting as the Atari story, overall.

Also, the film paints a picture that the video game industry completely crashed and that Atari disappeared and it leaves it like there was some big massive void in the universe. The reality is that Nintendo came along, as did Sega and many other companies. Market share shifted and Atari was no longer a monopoly. Their systems couldn’t compete with Nintendo and Sega and they dwindled away. Consumers ate up Nintendo and were much happier with it. That’s the reality. Also, Atari didn’t just go away, they still made games and had to alter their business model. Atari still exists today.

Atari: Game Over was sloppy and left you grasping for straws. It was enjoyable for its good bits but I felt that it was sort of dishonest and more focused on legends than truth.