A while back I reviewed the documentary film The Ackermonster Chronicles – a documentary film telling the life story of Forrest J. Ackerman. The film conveyed Ackerman’s life in a way that I compared to people talking about Ackerman at a wake, telling stories about his life, and in my view it didn’t quite get across why, necessarily, Ackerman was historically important or significant. George Harrison: Living in the Material World, from director Martin Scorsese uses the same style of presentation, but gets that point across better. (more…)

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Back when I was getting actively into gaming again, I started reading Knights of the Dinner Magazine, and some issues of Dragon Magazine when I could. In those issues of the magazine, I encountered ads for Dwarven Forge, a company making miniature dungeon terrain out of really durable material, what I presume is plastic resin, called Dwarvenite. It was incredibly well sculpted, beautiful to look at, and as a high school and later college student, I couldn’t even begin to hope to afford it, never mind to have space for it. But I really wanted to be able to be in a game that used it.

Fast forward to a few years ago when I finally got in a long-running game again, and much to my delight, my GM owned pretty much all of the Dwarven Forge terrain that had come out to date – so I was able to play with it and experience using it first hand – and it was great. And then I learned about a documentary on Netflix about the guy who started Dwarven Forge, and I decided I had to check that out. I didn’t know exactly what it’s tone would be. However, thus far Netflix had not steered me wrong on the documentary front, so what the hell?

The Dwarvenaut is a interesting documentary – as both an character study of Stefan Pokorny, the founder of the company and one of the sculptors of the terrain the company puts out, and a brief snapshot of what draws people to Roleplaying games. That said, the film is tends strongly more towards the former than the latter. Stefan talks about what drew him to RPGs and we get some interviews with people, often industry luminaries, about what drew them to RPGs – but while the documentary goes to GenCon and other locations we don’t get much of an opportunity to talk to newer roleplayers about why they play, and what draws them to the products that Dwarven Forge makes.

The framing “narrative” as much as there is one, is based around the launching of Dwarven Forge’s third kickstarter, for their City Terrain set, after their earlier “Dungeon” and “Cave” sets. In particular, there are some concerns that due to overpromising on the kickstarter, if they don’t raise $2 million, they will end up going bankrupt. The “will they or won’t they make the goal” part of the

The profile of Stefan is far more engrossing – getting into not only what motivates him as a person who is into roleplaying (specifically designing a product that would motivate people to play in person instead of online), but also as an artist. There’s an scene in the film where Stefan goes back to Venice, where he spent some time after he graduated from art school, and he talks about the wear on the stones and about the stories those buildings must have scene – and that speaks volumes of the artistic motivations behind the Dwarven Forge terrain.

The film also does an amazing job of presenting Dwarven Forge’s terrain, visually. We get some really well shot closeups of the terrain, with lighting and dry-ice fog that makes it look like a miniature from a fantasy movie (and that’s not a bad thing – this is a product that you can buy after all). It kinda makes for a really strong advertisement for Dwarven Forge’s products, which is not what I expected from this documentary.

It’s an engrossing film. I don’t know if it’s one that I’d necessarily add to my collection, but it was definitely worth watching. The film is currently available for streaming on Netflix, and also on Amazon on DVD and Digital.

If the The 8-Bit Generation was a documentary that had the unpleasant habit of painting over the truth of Jack Tramiel’s run on Commodore in an appeal to fans of the Commodore 64, Viva Amiga is a documentary that makes a much more sincere attempt to appeal to fans of the Commodore Amiga, in terms of their love for the system. However, due to a runtime that goes over just one hour, it’s attempt to serve two masters – telling the story of the Amiga itself along with the story of the devotees who adopted the system and who are keeping it alive to this day – leaves the film under-serving both.

I understand that this is a documentary that was funded on Kickstarter, and you can only make as much documentary as you have money for. However, it tries to serve two masters and serves neither well. There are really interesting portions of the documentary with great development stories. There’s the story of how the Amiga almost didn’t come out, and they took out a loan from Atari – then headed by Jack Tramiel, with the Amiga Hardware and OS as collateral – and they got bought-out by Commodore at the last minute, with the CEO of Commodore personally delivering the loan payment to Tramiel just to twist the knife a little bit more (perhaps explaining why The 8-Bit Generation chose to downplay the Amiga, considering the film’s view on Jack Tramiel).

Further, the documentary bounces all over on the user side of things. There’s a few seconds discussion of modern Amiga user groups, and a few seconds of discussion of how it was used in video production back in the ’90s (with 2 seconds of footage from Babylon 5), and a couple minutes of discussion of use of the Amiga in electronic music, giving the implication that there’s room for, if not a much larger documentary, then at least more time in this documentary on the modern Amiga user scene – especially considering that part of the point of the film is that there is a modern Amiga user scene,  and that the platform is still a living, breathing viable platform.

It feels like there was enough material here a 90 to 120 minute documentary, but for various reasons, possibly in part due to the amount of Kickstarter funds brought in, there was only enough room for the hour that we got. It’s a bummer, and, honestly, I wouldn’t mind seeing a Viva Amiga 2.

Viva Amiga is available on DVD and Digital from Amazon.com.

I like retro computing – I grew up on Apple II computers at my school and an Atari 800 computer at home, with a Commodore 84 & Atari ST at the houses of relatives so in addition to watching YouTube channels dedicated to old computers and games like PixelMusement and Lazy Game Reviews, I also love documentaries about the history of computing like Triumph of the Nerds and Revolution OS (which I think I reviewed on a previous blog, but which I am currently unable to find). When I found about about this particular documentary on the history of Commodore, I was very interested in checking it out.

The 8-Bit Generation focuses almost exclusively on Commodore computers, with a perspective from within the company, and in particular from the view of Jack Tramiel and his boosters within Commodore. From the view of this documentary, with Jack at the helm, Commodore can do no wrong, and their opponents could do no right. Apple never gained any real market share while Commodore dominated the market (Wrong – the Apple IIe was solid rival for Commodore), Atari had no 3rd party publishers and actively fought them for the PC (Wrong – their main opposition to 3rd party publishers was on the video game console front, they had plenty of 3rd party developers and publishers for PC), and once Jack was ousted from Commodore, they never accomplished anything ever again (Wrong – The Amiga says “Hi!”). Particularly damning is the claim that Atari didn’t get VisiCalc until a year after Commodore did, which is clearly false.

It’s really rather disappointing. While the documentary has interviews with Tramiel himself, I get the strong impression that the reason the director was able to get these interviews in the first place because they were already a booster of Tramiel.  The majority of the interview footage comes from Commodore employees and Tramiel supporters, with the only exceptions from that being a brief interview with Howard Scott Warshaw about Atari Corporate culture (which appears to lean towards the 2600 and the home games division), and an tragically even more brief interview with Steve Wozniak.

For a documentary that bears the title of The 8-Bit Generation, and which does give a fair amount of time on the MOS Technologies 6510 processor architecture, it is a very strong disappointment that the film wears its slant on its sleeve, and I think it’s very much to the detriment of the film. I’d really have enjoyed a more even-handed take on the various systems from this computer generation, with a serious take given on, for example, the TRS-80 and the TI-99. Instead, we get a pep rally for the Commodore 64, with some flagrant mis-truths. I wanted to like this documentary, but I cannot recommend it in the slightest.

If you do decide to get this documentary in spite of my recommendation to the contrary, it is available from Amazon.com.

A while back I reviewed Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution, a documentary on one of the more prominent albums to come out of the second part of the career of The Beatles studio-only era. A little before that documentary came out, Ron Howard came out with his own documentary on the Beatles, covering their touring years, from when they got big in the UK, to their US tours, and finally becoming dissatisfied with touring.

Some of these stories aren’t entirely new – a lot of this is covered through a lot of histories of Pop Music, Rock Music, and the Beatles themselves. What makes this documentary different is the extensive interviews of the surviving Beatles in the documentary. Additionally, when it comes to the reaction of fans, and the experience of going to these concerts, the documentary also gives time to minority voices, to African American fans who were able to go to their concerts in the South because the Beatles required that the audience be integrated, along with fans in the North (specifically New York)

That said, there are some things that were omitted that I wish had more coverage. There isn’t much discussion of the Beatles Cavern Club years, outside of a mention that a concert promoter spotted them at the club and brought them to play a few gigs in Hamburg. And there isn’t much discussion of the point where The Beatles switched from playing smaller venues to more… conventional audiences, to crowds of girls screaming so loud that they couldn’t hear themselves play.

This last is something of a bummer because there’d never been anything quite like that before, and I don’t think there’s been anything quite the same since. Not even the Boy Bands of the ’90s and 2000s got the same reaction as the Beatles did. The documentary also doesn’t give a sense of the pace – a switch is slipped and all of a sudden everything has changed. Even if this did happen overnight, somebody had to have looked into why this happened overnight. This is the kind of thing that people write doctoral dissertations about – in music, in business, and in human psychology.

It’s not like John Lennon went to bed one night, and then woke up the next morning with hordes of screaming teenage girls outside his window like in Life of Brian (though that is an amusing mental picture). In the same way, it’s not like the Beatles only toured for 2-3 years before retiring. Of their 7-8 year career, they toured for half of it, so the transition of the audience reaction is important, and if it really was an overnight thing, where one day you’re playing to what is basically an ordinary crowd reaction, and the next the audience is in full Beatlemania and sustains that fever pitch for 4 years, that speaks volumes. The same thing if there was something of a build-up to that.

The documentary is still worth watching, but that’s something to keep in mind.

The film is available from Amazon.com – if you do pick this up through that link, I get a referral from whatever you pick up on that purchase.

It’s been a while since I did a review of a music documentary – the last one that comes immediately to mind is a documentary review on the career of Pink Floyd. Well, this year is the year that the Beatles concept album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band has it’s 50th anniversary, and the BBC did a documentary on the album, which also broadcast on PBS, which is where I saw it. (more…)

Movie Poster for Iron Maiden: Flight 666
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“World Tours” are, anymore, a given for most rock concert tours, at least with any performer big enough to get Platinum records. However, I really don’t think that most people “get” what goes into a concert tour that goes around the world – both in terms of the toll on the performers and the toll on the crew. This leads us to Flight 666, a concert film that follows Iron Maiden’s “Somewhere Back in Time” Concert Tour. What makes this tour different from other tours, aside from the Documentary aspect, is that for the purposes of this tour, the band purchased a Boeing 757 to transport the band, the crew, and all necessary equipment from venue to venue, rather than chartering the plane. Why buy instead of charter? Because the lead singer of the band, Bruce Dickinson, is rated to pilot Boeing 757s. (more…)

The movie poster for A Brief History of Time
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I love physics. To be more accurate, I love all the space sciences. This ties in to my enjoyment of science fiction series like Star Trek and Star Wars, and from watching documentary series like Nova on Public Broadcasting as a kid. Plus, like most people, I love underdog stories. So, when I learned about Professor Stephen Hawkings, a physicist from the UK who helped to expand our knowledge of how the universe works in spite of the disease that was slowly destroying him – Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. So, when I learned there was a film based on his book “A Brief History of Time”, where he explained the basics of quantum mechanics to a mass audience. I leaped at the chance to watch it. (more…)

The movie poster for Dear Zachary
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There are 4 kinds of documentary that I like. There are nature documentaries, particularly of the bent of PBS’s Nature, and David Attenborough’s wildlife programs, as well as the work of the National Geographic Society. There are Historical documentaries, particularly stuff like the American Experience, as well as stuff like the Connections series and some documentaries like One Day in September. There are Journalistic documentaries, such as the material from PBS’s Frontline series, and some of the films that are part of the POV series. Then, finally, there are documentaries that I would describe as Gonzo Journalism. Dear Zachary is one those documentaries.

First, I need to clarify something. Michael Moore’s documentaries aren’t Gonzo Journalism. Morgan Spurlock’s documentaries aren’t Gonzo Journalism. Also, you don’t need to be on drugs to make a documentary that is Gonzo Journalism. Ultimately, Gonzo Journalism, as it was when Hunter S. Thompson came up with it, is the idea that someone covering an event, or witnessing an event, cannot not become a part of the event. Thus, rather then attempt to hang on to some form of clinical detachment, you should become a participant in events. The classic example from Thompson’s work isn’t Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but rather Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. (more…)

"The Devil Came On Horseback" Movie Poster
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This review is going to differ from my usual review format, mainly because in this case, the film I’m reviewing, which is a documentary about the Genocide in Darfur, asks a few questions, and I’m going to try to give some opinion based answers.

The Premise:

Brian Steidle was a captain in the US Marine Corps who, after his term of service was up, left the Corps and became an unarmed monitor for the African Union, tasked with monitoring the cease-fire between the Sudanese government and rebel groups. There he observed the Darfur genocide, documenting it with thousands of pictures and hundreds of reports sent to the AUC commanders, which were ultimately classified and ignored. (more…)

Wisconsin Death Trip DVD Art
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I’m back from my little vacation from blogging, and I’m returning with a review of another documentary – and not one from Frontline or another episode of a PBS program (not that there’s anything wrong with that). With historical documentaries these days, film-makers tend to go either the History Channel route (scenes with reenactors inter-cut with talking heads), or the Ken Burns route (narration and readings of writings from the time with possible scenes of reenactors).  This film takes the Ken Burns route, but with different subject matter than the type of material Burns covers.

The Premise:

The documentary covers 1 year in Jackson County, Wisconsin in the 1890s. During which much of the county, particularly the area around the town of Black River Falls, goes more than a little bit mad. The documentary is told through articles in alocal paper in the county, read by Ian Holm. (more…)

The Theatrical Movie Poster for "For All Mankind"
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The space program has always fascinated me, particularly because my interest in Science Fiction, particularly through series like Star Trek – which in turn lead me to an interest in the space sciences and some terrestrial sciences as well. So, when I heard about a documentary about the space program that I hadn’t seen before, and one that was coming out from the Criterion Collection, I had to check it out.

The Premise:

Using footage from all the Apollo missions (plus a bit of the Gemini missions), the film depicts the journey from Earth to the Moon, to the explorations of the Lunar surface, to finally the trip back home. All of this is accompanied with interview audio from various astronauts in the Apollo program discussing the program, and what it felt like to go to the moon. (more…)

Get Earth: A Documentary from Amazon.com
Get "Earth: A Documentary" from Amazon.com

Most people have heard about the BBC’s excellent documentary series Planet Earth… which I must admit I haven’t seen yet, but I plan to watch in the future. However, first, I’ve decided to review the BBC’s companion documentary for the series – Earth: A Biography. Is the series a worthy companion, while still being able to stand on it’s own for those who haven’t watched Planet Earth, or does it leave something to desired?

The Premise: The documentary follows Iain Stewart, a geologist from the University of Plymouth in England, as he travels the world explaining various concepts on how Earth works – specifically relating to how we got to the earth we have now, from volcanoes and plate tectonics, to ice and the movement of glaciers, to wind and the atmosphere.

(more…)

Get Michael Palins Around the World In 80 Days from Amazon.com
Get Michael Palin's "Around the World In 80 Days" from Amazon.com

Travel documentary series, while at times they can be enoyable, aren’t necessarily my thing. Often times, like Travels in Europe, by Portland native Rick Steves, or Globe Trekker,  the people hosting the show are people who travel professionally – they write about it, and often times they take the time to get to know an area, and thus they have all the tricks and tips to pass along to you to make your stay more comfortable. I’ve also found that these end up making the documentary a little less approachable. They’re being told by an old hand. So, in the course of my travels and travails through Netflix, I found a travel documentary series by Michael Palin – Around the World in 80 days. Being a fan of Monty Python (as is any self respecting geek), I watched it. Now, what did I think about it? (more…)

Purchase The Universe: Season 1 from Amazon.com
Purchase "The Universe: Season 1" from Amazon.com

There have been many excellent documentary series about our cosmos and how it works.  Many of them, particularly Cosmos, Stephen Hawking’s Universe, and The Elegant Universe, have been hosted by noted astrophysicists, astronomers and cosmologists, such as the late Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Brian Green (respectively). They’ve also generally been on public broadcasting, or on channels like the Discovery Channel or The Learning Channel – which focus on science programming. The History Channel has now started running The Universe, a series on our universe and our solar system, how it works, and what it’s like, and how we know what we know about it. So, the question is, is the show on par with the documentaries I’ve already mentioned, or does it kind of fumble the ball like The Dark Ages did?

The Premise

Covering everythng from how our solar system formed, to the properties of the various planets, to the threat to our planet from Near Earth Objects and Gamma Ray Bursts, to The Big Bang and how we learned about it, the show covers a multitude of topics about our Solar System, using visual analogies, computer generation representations of planets, asteroids and events, and interviews with cosmologists, physicists, and astronomers to explain how the universe works. (more…)

Link to get the DVD from Amazon.com
Link to get the DVD from Amazon.com

Thanks to the wonders of “Netflix Watch It Now”, I’ve been able to catch up on some great documentaries that I missed because I don’t have cable. I’ve also caught up on some not-so-great documentaries that I missed because I don’t have cable.  This documentary fits into one of those categories, and I’m not entirely sure which.

The Premise

Covering the period from the fall of Rome to the start of the Crusades, this documentary tries to cover basically all of the basics of European History during this period, using accounts from historians who are experts in the period, as well as footage of actors re-creating life during the period known as the “Dark Ages”.

(more…)

The collapse of Enron is one of those incidents in business history that is certainly going to end up in the history books. The death of what appeared to be on of the strongest companies on the market changed the way the goverment, and the public, looks at business even more then the Dot Com Collapse did. The key here is, though, why? Why did Enron, which by all appearances was one of the strongest corporations on the stock market, collapse like a house of cards? That is the question that this documentary aims to answer.

(more…)