Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

Searching for Sugar Man


On an episode of the Film Vault podcast a few weeks (months?) ago, Bryan Bishop was raving about Searching for Sugar Man – a documentary about a mysterious musician from the 1970s.

Rodriguez was a Hispanic musician from an unknown location who released two albums that were commercial flops in the early 70s. After minimal success, he was dropped from his label and seemed to vanish into obscurity. He was semi-famous for lighting himself on fire and committing suicide on stage. Or was it pulling out a gun and shooting himself while on stage?

Trying to figure out the story of Rodriguez, a few fans from South Africa started a website to try to find more information about the mysterious man they call Rodriguez. In 1998, the daughter of Rodriguez contacted some of the people that had been searching for him. Their family had utterly no idea that Rodriguez was a huge musical star in South Africa (one person interviewed said he was bigger than Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones).

That’s all the further I’m going to go with the plot simply because I don’t want to spoil anything else for you. If you are a fan of music and/or documentaries, though, I have a hard time believing you won’t find this 86 minute movie well worth your time. The soundtrack – featuring the music from Rodriguez’s two albums from 1970 and 1971 – is really, really good. I was constantly surprised at how good the cinematography looked. Hard for me not to recommend this one…


out of 10


01 2013

Winnebago Man

Six years ago, a man named Jack Rebney became an internet phenomenon for his infamous outtakes from a Winnebago promotional video from the 80s. Director Ben Steinbauer wants to track down the famous (infamous?) salesman to find out what has happened to him, but runs into a series of walls. Eventually, with the help of a private detective, Steinbauer is able to contact and setup an interview with a man the internet has proclaimed “the angriest man in the world” in his remote home in the woods in California. At first, Rebney is very calm and polite and claims to have no care in the world for his popularity on the internet.

Upon returning home, Steinbauer receives a phone call from Rebney admitting that he had been a phony in their first encounter and was really upset about the video. Steinbauer again goes to visit Rebney who recently has become blind.

Rebney is the single most cantankerous person I’ve ever seen. He uses the f-word like Picasso uses the paint brush. Yet, despite his prickly personality, there is something genuinely sweet about this crazy old man. Besides that, the scratchy 80s video that the film is based upon is side-splitting.

The film is, for the most part, well made. There are a few questions that are left open. There are areas that are left untouched – I’m not sure if this is because Rebney wasn’t cooperative or because they weren’t asked. There are a few interesting tangents involving how viral videos have made life miserable for other internet celebrities. I think a more interesting movie would have been to have a few different subjects with the shared storyline of the downsides to becoming an internet icon. Overall, though, if you can get beyond the foul language, it’s a movie that will make you laugh and is definitely worth a peek.


out of 10


10 2012

Spirit of the Marathon

Spirit of the Marathon is a 2007 documentary about six runners training for the Chicago Marathon. The runners range from contenders to win the race (Deena Kastor and Daniel Njenga) to competitive amateurs, first timers, and back of the packers. All six runners share a common bond of loving running.

Watching Spirit of the Marathon, a few things stood out to me. First of all, the movie is extremely well made. You can tell they had a little bit of a budget and access with cool things like crane shots, overhead shots, etc.

The second (and most important) thing that stood out about this movie is the love of the marathon. I haven’t run a marathon in over 5 years. After about five or six really good years of running, my own running has wavered due to many reasons (increased responsibilities being a dad/husband/coach/employee, etc.). In the past year, though, I’ve really recommitted to my running. As I was watching this movie, I could see on the screen some of those things that I love & hate about running that sometimes can be difficult expressing to others.

The marathon is a race that you is difficult to describe if you haven’t gone through it. It would be like explaining what the color blue is to someone who is color blind. Running a marathon is equally the most miserable and soul-filling experience I’ve ever done. I simultaneously love it and hate it. There is no denying the race is painful (understatement of the year?) whether you are a five hour runner or, as is shown in the movie, a world class runner such as Deena Kastor. The sense of achievement of not only finishing a marathon, but everything that came before it with the training is hard to describe unless you’ve been through it.

The movie does a good job of showing all the surrounds the marathon. Watching Spirit of the Marathon, you are subjected to a little bit of history of the marathon (as well as a history of each of the featured runners) along with a view of everything that goes into the training and preparation from long runs every weekend to preparing your outfit, bib, race chip, and food the night before the race. You experience the excitement moments after the gun goes to the agony almost every runner is feeling about 20 miles later. The filmmakers have done a fine job showing and conveying all of the emotions that surround the experience of running a marathon.

If you are not a runner, you probably aren’t going to enjoy this quite as much as I did. However, if you are a runner and you can relate to the love/hate relationship with running, Spirit of the Marathon is well worth a watch.


out of 10

Check out the trailer here


10 2012

Ballplayer: Pelotero

Miguel Sano is the object of Ballplayer: Pelotero - a documentary about baseball in the Dominican Republic

Earlier this summer, I was feeling rather down on my Minnesota Twins. I was checking out TwinDaily (which I check, quite ironically, daily) hoping to read about some great prospects (mainly: Miguel Sano) that are going to save the Twins and turn them back into World Series contenders three years from now. I was really interested when friend of the blog (and former little league coach Seth Stohs) posted a review of Ballplayer: Pelotero, a documentary that focused highly on gem of the Minnesota Twins farm system Miguel Sano. Instantly, I wanted to see the movie, but kept dragging my feet. I’ve nearly purchased it no fewer than 10 times on iTunes. One time, I was planning to purchase to watch it on a bus trip only to find out I didn’t have enough free space on my phone to watch it.

Finally, since it was added to Netflix two weeks ago, I got around to seeing Ballplayer: Pelotero. It’s a story about how the Dominican Republic baseball system is set up. Currently, around 20% of the major league is made up of players from the Dominican Republic including stars like Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Hanley Ramirez, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Ubaldo Jiménez, José Reyes, Sammy Sosa, Vladimir Guerrero and many more. However, the Dominican baseball system is setup very differently than it is here in America. Players are signed once they turn 16 on July 2nd. Big signing bonuses are handed out to the most elite prospects with everyone else grabbing whatever signing bonuses they can. Kids enter training camps in their early teens and spent hours training in hopes of one day impressing a major league team at tryouts. Most of these kids are poor and can’t afford to pay for training, so deals are struck among the trainers – often also the agent for the players – who often receive up to 35% of the signing bonus in exchange for the past few years of training.

Ballplayer:Pelotero focused on two major prospects. Miguel Sano (called Miguel Angel throughout most of the movie), trained by Vasilio Tejada, is thought of as the prize prospect in all of the Dominican Republic likely to receive the largest signing bonus in DR history. Jean Carlos Batista, trained by Astin Jacobo, is thought of as an elite prospect who hopes to get a signing bonus in the $1.5 million range.

Quick tangent – I don’t pretend to be a great baseball talent evaluator, but I couldn’t have been more impressed with Miguel Sano. His swing reminds me of Manny Ramirez… it is just looks good to the untrained eye.

As July 2nd nears, Miguel Sano and his family is informed that he is being investigated by the MLB for possibly lying about his age. Name and age falsification have been a major problem for years in the Dominican Republic (google “fausto carmono name”, “miguel tejada age” or “david arias”). New rules have been put in place where a player who is found to have lied about their age will be suspended for a full year. Players, in search of the biggest signing bonuses possible, along with families, trainers, and many others will falsify documents or, in some cases, completely swap families in order to appear to be younger than they are.

I won’t spoil what happens in the movie, but the age concerns play a huge part in the final third of the movie. Of course, we know Sano winds up with the Twins and has destroyed the minor leagues thus far.

My lone complaint about this movie is I think they could’ve added one more scene at the end of the movie. Show Miguel Sano living in the United States. Talk to him about what changes there are playing professional baseball. They easily could’ve added 20 minutes about his first professional season which would’ve allowed the movie to come a little more full circle.


out of 10

Watch the trailer:


10 2012

9.79* – 30 for 30

I’m a huge follower of track and field (as evident by my blog RunLoft). The very first summer Olympics I remember was the summer of 1988. Besides being old enough to know what was going on for the first time (7), my little sister was adopted from Seoul, South Korea just 8 weeks earlier. Our family took a particular interest in the opening ceremonies and just about everything that surrounded Seoul because we were so starved to see what Sara’s home country looked like. It was the first (of many) Olympics that would become required viewing in the Hanson household.

We enjoyed watching FloJo, Janet Evans, and Matt Biondi. I recall watching Roy Jones, Jr demolish somebody from South Korea only to be robbed of his gold. But one specific event stands out to me even to this day – the men’s 100 meter dash. It was a showdown between Carl Lewis – the flamboyant and cocky pride of America against the stoic (and beaked out of his brains) Ben Johnson of Canada. Anyone who has see the race knows Ben Johnson came out of the blocks like a freight train and sprinted ahead of the field for gold. Over the next few days, it came out that Ben Johnson was, in fact, doped to the gills and the gold was awarded to Carl Lewis.

The movie is a look at the final. All 8 finalist are interviewed along with prominent officials and coaches. Although the film certainly vilifies Johnson, his coach Charlie Francis, and his doctor Jamie Astaphan, there also is the cloud of drug use suspected from other competitors, as well. Basically, the doc shows the first days of the current day we live in where just about every professional athlete is suspicious. Drug testing officials and coaches tell stories of mass drug test failures, diluted urine samples, and masking agents.

I saw a majority of the film 9.79* on BBC (1 hr version opposed to 90 minutes for the 30 for 30 version) a week before the London Olympics this year. I was impressed with the look and quality of the doc and especially the fact they got so many people, including all 8 competitors, to be so candid about the race that changed sports culture the way we know it.

Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson, the two central figures in the race, don’t disappoint in the film. After watching the various versions of the film twice, I don’t know whether I really like Carl Lewis or not. There certainly is a likable quality about him and he’s more of an open book that I thought he would be. The brutally honest commentary from Lewis – for example when the still-brash Lewis says “[before he started doing drugs]…Johnson just wasn’t that talented” – was really enjoyable. At the same time, the documentary (perhaps unfairly?) paints him as a possible drug cheat who didn’t get caught (even when he did get “caught.”) Johnson, on the other hand, is certainly a cheat. There are a few confusing scenes where he admits to all his use and then follows it up by blaming a friend of Carl Lewis for spiking a drink. Johnson, somewhat surprisingly to me, comes across as somewhat likable despite his flaws.

9.79* probably isn’t the greatest of the 30 for 30 films, but it’s definitely in the upper echelon. Director Daniel Gordon has done a fabulous job making the definitive documentary about one of the single biggest sporting events of an entire decade.


out of 10


10 2012

The Long Green Line

Joe Newton is to high school cross country as Bob Hurley is to high school basketball. As the coach of a suburban school in a large metro region, he’s been there forever and, in the words of DJ Khaled, all he does is win.

As the 2008 documentary about his York (IL) cross country team The Long Green Line shows, though, Coach Newton cares much more about winning. As he shows many times throughout the documentary, he has the intensity and fire of Bobby Hurley combined with the love and compassion of Dick Vermeil. The Long Green Line follows Joe Newton and the York cross country team during the 2005 season as they attempt to win the school (and Newton’s) 25th state title.

The stars of the movie aren’t necessarily the top 7 (out of 221) boys on the team who wind up runner at the state meet. In fact, John Fisher (an autistic kid with a lot of love for his cross country team) and Connor Chadwick (one of the slowest kids on the team who suffers from cerebral palsy) are as important to both the team and the movie as the fastest kids.

In the middle of the season, Coach Newton kicks off one of his top 7 runners. Shortly thereafter, two of his top 7 runners are arrested (and, of course, kicked off the team) for causing millions of dollars in damage in a starting a house fire the past summer. His top two runners, twins Matt & Eric Dettman, contract a viral infection late in the season and are running nowhere near their best.

The movie has everything you want from a documentary. A great central character, an interesting storyline, and an unforeseen plot twist make this story worth watching for sports fans. Created by first-time director (and former York student) Matthew Arnold at times looks really professional, but has a few sequences that look rather shaky and/or amateurish. Given the lack of budget and lack of experience, it’s probably to be expected (I, for one, have made a movie on a low budget that at times looks less than ideal). As a whole, though, he’s done a fantastic job of conveying an interesting story about a legendary coach.


out of 10


10 2012

Broke – 30 for 30

Last night saw the return of ESPN’s rightfully acclaimed 30 for 30 documentary series. Director Billy Corben, who also director one of my personal favorite documentaries on the first go-around (“The U”), explore how such a high percentage of athletes who makes unbelievable fortunes wind up literally broke.

The Broke 30 for 30 documentary featured interviews with athletes who have seen their personal portfolios take a turn for the worse (Bernie Kosar, Andre Rison, Keith McCants, Curt Schilling, Cliff Floyd, Leon Searcy, Sean Salisbury, and more) along with an assortment of financial advisers, bloggers, coaches, and athletes who’ve managed their money well.

Many of the common athletes you hear about going broke (Mike Tyson, Antoine Walker, Allen Iverson, Michael Vick) are touched upon, but one major disappointment for me was the lack of any real in-depth look at one particular athletes financial history as an example. Instead of really digging in, the movie just glosses over everything without digging in deep.

The documentary is certainly thought provoking and I applaud Billy Corben for getting a bunch of professional athletes (typically among the most prideful people alive) to talk about their financial mistakes. Watching the movie, though, I couldn’t help but feel the same way before I felt before watching this. During the entire 90 minutes, I felt like I was being manipulated into trying to feel sorry for athletes, but I can’t help but think that these guys are either a) dumb, b) poorly advised, or c) both. Of course, the documentary does touch on just that, as well, but I find it difficult to feel incredibly sorry for athletes who are buying thousands and thousands of dollars in jewelry & cars while paying tons of money in alimony and child support. The excuse, used over and over again, is these guys generally come from poor backgrounds and they are young. I made some financial mistakes in my early 20’s, as well. To spend as exorbitantly and irresponsibly as these guys did (and likely do), it’s not altogether surprising that they have the trouble they do once they retire.

This isn’t in the top tier of the 30 for 30 series. Rather, it’s just a solidly average sports documentary that I’m glad I’ve seen once, but probably won’t go back and revisit (as I have with Corben’s “The U”).


out of 10


10 2012

Retro Review: Hoop Dreams

This review was originally published on on May 17, 2005

People always say to me, “when you get to the NBA, don’t forget about me.” Well, I should’ve said back, “if I don’t make it to the NBA, don’t you forget about me.”

Back in 1994, a documentary was released that changed the way that documentaries are viewed. Arthur Agee and William Gates are two of the top 8th graders from the Chicago inner-city who are both recruited to play at St. Joseph’s High School. As the former high school of Isiah Thomas, St. Joe’s is a perennial state power made up of predominantly white kids. The story that unfolds is greater than the filmmakers could have ever predicted. Instead of being a basketball movie, Hoop Dreams turns into a beautiful portrait of two poverty-stricken families who have all sorts of problems. Both Arthur and William have issues with their father – William’s father is all but absent in his life and Arthur’s father might be the most disappointing father’s in movie history. The most memorable scene in the entire movie is a scene where Arthur’s father buys crack within eyesight of Arthur who was playing streetball at the time.
Hoop Dreams is great because every kid can relate to having dreams of playing a professional sport. As that dream starts to fade, priorities fade. The drama that both families go through is interesting and engaging. William becomes a father while still in high school. He struggles to attempt to pass the ACT test. He misses two free throws that would’ve clinched a playoff victory. He undergoes knee problem after knee problem. His brother Curtis, who played college basketball, tries to live his dreams through him. Arthur’s father struggles with drug problems and leaves the family more than once. His mother has problem with money and even gets the power to their apartment gets cut off. His family isn’t able to make payments at the private school so he gets kicked out of school and has to transfer to a city school. He needs to take summer school nearly every year of high school in order to graduate.

Video & Sound
Hoop Dreams was one of the first documentaries to be shot on video. The movie was released theatrically in a widescreen aspect, but it is presented here in the original 1.33:1 format. The video quality looks very average, but it’s much improved from my nearly 10-year old copy on VHS. Considering the source format, this is probably as good as the film ever could possibly look. The sound is also presented in the original 2.0 Dolby track. While it’s not as fancy as your new Matrix dvd, it fits the movie just fine.

Criterion dvd’s are always worth the extra schillings. The best extra feature is the commentary featuring Arthur Agee and William Gates. Hearing their side of the story is more than interesting. If you are a fan of this movie, listening to this commentary track should almost be required. Both William and Arthur have wonderful stories and different takes on how things are presented in the scene. One example of this would be when William talks to Coach Pingatore after the season. Ping, as he’s called, tells William he had a good career but not a great career. Williams then points out that he’s second in all-time scoring to Isiah and first in 3-point attempts and 3-point percentage. Both William and Arthur have matured and are able to look at their teenage years through a more objective eye. This really is my favorite commentary track I’ve ever listened to.
The next commentary features the filmmakers – Peter Gilbert, Steve James, and Frederick Marx. It’s very interesting because they talk about choosing the two families along with the joys and difficulties to become almost a member of the families. They realize that they got lucky the story turned out the way it did, but they also had done their research. You can tell this is a very personal piece to each of them. They talk for the whole three hours and I’d be willing to bet they could talk for three hours more.
One feature that’s really worth watching is the Siskel and Ebert piece. I never realized it, but Hoop Dreams was Roger Ebert’s choice for the greatest movie of the 90’s. It was the number one movie of 1994 (the year Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show was released) for both of them. In the feature, they review the movie. Later on, they talk about the drama over Hoop Dreams being left off of both the Best Picture and the best Documentary nominees.
Also included is a 40-some page booklet feature reviews and essays about the movie. My favorite essay is one written by the filmmakers which is kind of a “where are they now” piece.

Closing Thoughts
If this movie were fiction, it probably wouldn’t be believable. The movie runs nearly three hours, but the time seems to fly. I watched this movie on Saturday afternoon then watched the Arthur/William commentary for the whole movie the next day. Monday, I wanted to watch it again, so I watched the filmmakers’ commentary. It truly is one of the greatest movies of the 90’s and the fact that it didn’t win the best documentary Oscar in 1994 is truly one of the greatest crimes in the history of the Academy Awards. You don’t have to be a basketball fan to enjoy this movie. If you are a basketball fan and you haven’t seen this movie, you are robbing yourself of one of the greatest movie watching experiences ever.

Overall Scores
Movie – 10
Video & Sound – 4
Extras – 8
Overall – 9


09 2012


Alex Hopkins (age 12) from "Bully"

Rarely do I watch a movie and immediately afterwards think an entire segment of the population needs to see it. After watching Bully at the Whiskey Creek Film Festival, I can’t help but think every kid who is older than about 10 years old needs to see this movie.

The movie follows five children and families who have been victims of bullying. Alex is 12-year old social awkward kid from Sioux City, Iowa who wants to fit in, but is bullied mercilessly at school and on the bus. Even his little sister is worried about going to his school next year because she’ll be picked on simply for being related to him. Kelby is a 16-year old lesbian from the small town of Tuttle, Oklahoma who’s family has been ostracized by the community. Ja’Meya is a 14-year old girl who was picked on every day on the bus who pulled a loaded gun on her tormentors and was incarcertated. David and Tina Long the parents of Tyler Long – a 17-year old who hung himself after years of bullying – demand accountability from the school officials who ignore their attempts and sparked a conversation within the community about bullying. Kirk and Laura Smalley – the parents of 11-year old Kirk who committed suicide – launched an anti-bullying organization Stand for the Silent.

The documentary attempts and succeeds in bringing light to a very scary subject. Middle school and high school can be downright scary for a normal teenager, but Bully depicts just an awful quality of everyday life for kids who are bullied every day. Bully gives us a look at what life is like for those who are bullied.

Although the movie focuses on five different families, the family from Sioux City, Iowa seems to be the focal point. Alex, who was born nearly 16 weeks before his due date, has trouble making friends. On the bus, he’s stabbed with pencils, told by another kid he’s going to “(effing) end him” with a knife, and he has his head bashed into a school bus seat over and over again. In one absolutely heart wrenching scene, Alex’s mother is trying to convince him that these kids aren’t his friends. Alex, in what is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen on screen, replies “…if they aren’t my friends, who is?”

After the bullying on the bus gets so severe, filmmakers decide to share footage of bullying with the Iowa family and school officials. As I’m watching this, I can help but think how scary it is that the bullying was this bad with a camera crew five feet away on a bus? The family meets with an assistant principal Kim Lockwood who is quick to remedy (but not fix) the problem by letting Alex ride a different bus. When the mother asks why the kids aren’t being kicked off the bus, the assistant principal gets defensive and tells the family “I’ve been on this bus… they kids are just as good as gold.”

I suspect the goal for the filmmakers was to make a movie that will spark some conversation which I’m sure it will do. After the movie, my wife and I probably talked for two hours solely on the topic of bullying, what can be done about it, and why this movie needs to be shown to kids.

My one major criticism of the film is it didn’t address everything I would’ve liked to seen it address. For one, it doesn’t really interview any of the “bullies” or (more importantly) the parents. I suspect that an inordinate amount of these bullies come from less than ideal home situations (as did a few, but not all, of the kids who were bullied). I really feel like the demise of the “traditional family” is a growing concern that isn’t getting enough attention. Actual parenting of children is no longer one of the requirements of being a parent.

Also, many school officials (especially Lockwood) were vilified in the film. Many of them come off as quite incompetent. Since the film premiered, Sioux City Superintendent Paul Gausman has acknowledged “in that film, you see us fail one of our students.” At the same time, little attention is paid to parental backlash. School administrators, to some degree, have their hands tied. I’ve seen countless situations where one student gets in trouble and instead of supporting the administrators and punishing their child, this new generation of helicopters parents will come back at the school teachers/administrators with great vengeance and furious anger. The message inadvertently sent by these parents to their kids is they can do no wrong. The threaten to pull their kids out of school (a loss of funding for schools) or to sue the school. The end result – the parents do nothing to parent the child, school administration’s hands are somewhat tied, and the situation worsens.

In this review, I’ve only highlighted the family from Iowa, but the other five stories – especially the two in which families lost children to suicide – are haunting, but well told.

Bully may be at times difficult to watch, but it is as emotionally of a movie-going experience as I can remember. I can’t emphasize enough that this is a movie you need to see. The good news is much like how Super Size Me positively impacted the fast food industry, it appears change will come. This past April, the movie was shown to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s senior adviser. I applaud director Lee Hirsch for making not only a beautiful looking, emotionally charged film, but more important something that will hopefully start a conversation to make real change.


out of 10

If you are in the Perham area, this movie is playing tonight (9/17) at 7:00 at the Cozy Theatre in Wadena. I can’t recommend highly enough you go watch this movie and bringing a handful of teenagers with you, as well.

Checking out the trailer below:


09 2012

The Two Escobars

In early 2009, Bill Simmons announced he was involved with a new thing called “30 for 30” at ESPN. It was going to be 30 documentaries made by talented filmmakers about 30 sports stories from the past 30 years (at the time, ESPN was celebrating their 30th anniversary as a network).

When the list of 30 movies were announced, a handful of them seemed somewhat hokey (I wasn’t real excited about documentaries about fantasy sports, the Baltimore Colts band, or the USFL). For the most part, though, I was genuinely intrigued. Once the first handful of documentaries aired and thoroughly impressed me, I knew I’d have to tape all of them.

Fast forward a few months to June 2010. My daughter was born on the opening day of the World Cup in South Africa. Having been a lifelong soccer hater (for the most part), I found myself watching the World Cup every morning when I got up early to care for my daughter. Within about 10 days, I found myself really enjoying soccer. Two weeks after she was born, 30-for-30 released “The Two Escobars,” a film by brother Jeff and Michael Zimbalist.

The film, which explored the deaths of Colombian soccer captain Andres Escobar and drug kingpin Pablo Escobar along with the direct ties between drug-money and the Colombian national soccer team, was absolutely groundbreaking. The interviews with the players and other Colombians really helps human this awful story about a time in Colombian history that was both awful (drugs, violence, etc) and wonderful (soccer).

Unfortunately, the drugs and violence was so bad it managed to ruin the (seemingly) one positive thing going on in the country. Shortly after the murder of Andres Escobar following his disappointing own goal against the USA in 1994 World Cup, many of the players on the Colombian national team decide to retire from soccer permanently. The downward spiral of Colombian soccer and corruption involving drug cartels continue to hang over the country like a black cloud even today.

All in all, it’s quite simply as good of a sports documentary as you are ever going to see.


out of 10


09 2012