If you like movies about movies, SXSW featured three very different documentaries that should fit the bill. Doc of the Dead, Beyond Clueless and That Guy Dick Miller commit to their varying subjects (the walking dead craze, the modern teen flick, and the working character actor, respectively) to reveal things we may have taken for granted from our entertainment.
Doc of the Dead
A documentary on the zombie’s popularity in pop culture could probably be a multipart series with a full-length film on each one of the elements that have given it rise. Doc of the Dead (from Alexandre O. Phillippe, The People vs. George Lucas) covers as much ground as it can, as quickly as it can, with talking heads from familiar faces like Simon Pegg and George A. Romero intercut with zombie flicks and asides from Red Letter Media and Geekscape.
Doc of the Dead is an entertaining examination of the phenomenon and -- surprise! -- you might actually learn something! The zombie experts featured within have given this subject some serious thought, and almost everyone has a different perspective on this specific boogeyman. There’s some real food for thought in the film from a topic we’d assume had been bled dry. Even scientists and survivalists offer their own take on the terrifying potential of an undead apocalypse. Folks, airborne prion diseases sound like the scariest thing ever.
It all makes for a strong history lesson, peppered with cultural insight, that zips through voodoo, Romero, zombie rules, Resident Evil games, Max Brooks, the post 9-11 horror of 28 Days Later, the “fast versus slow” argument, nationwide zombie walks, and The Walking Dead so quickly you barely even have time to notice nobody even mentions the Italians. Phillippe could probably return to the subject and make a completely different film from all of the zombie-related things he left out. We’re not disappointed, though. Doc of the Dead is a tight little trip through pop horror that offers more than one answer to the question “why zombies?”
(Doc of the Dead premieres on EPIX, Saturday, March 15 at 8 p.m. ET.)
Beyond Clueless is an odd one. Its literal title examines teen films that arrived post-Clueless, and dissects them with the detached play-by-play of a nature documentary. Not to discount any film analysis on bargain-bin junk like Boys and Girls, Idle Hands, Drive Me Crazy and Slap Her, She’s French, but this is like squeezing blood from a stone. Writer-director Charlie Lyne builds his doc out of moments from other films to support insights about teen-movie tropes (cliques, repressed sexuality, conformity) that aren’t particularly insightful.
Narrator Fairuza Balk seems to be reading a college thesis paper out loud over images of films whose place in teen-movie history are questionable at best. Sometimes, as in the film’s two lengthy sexual montages, the movie mimics the kind of work done at found-footage website “Everything Is Terrible” -- a particular style of video-editing experiment that builds thematic mini-stories from unrelated clips. Most of the time, however, it’s asking us to take stuff like The Rage: Carrie 2 and Jawbreaker seriously as important cinema and not crass teen product.
I’ve never seen anything like it, though, so golf claps to Lyne for trying something different with the format. It’s a little like Room 237 for Freddie Prinze Jr. flicks. There’s not much upside in presenting the surface qualities of She’s All That as deeper profound truths about adolescence, but Lyne goes there anyway. At least he picked good music to accompany the show.
That Guy Dick Miller
What started life as a DVD special feature for a German release of War of the Satellites snowballed into a feature film with the help of Kickstarter. Here we are now, with a career retrospective on one Dick Miller, the energetic character actor most familiar to Roger Corman enthusiasts (Miller estimate he had roles in roughly 40 Corman productions) or '80’s kids raised on Joe Dante flicks (Explorers, Gremlins, The Burbs). It’s a light documentary, with more of a focus on the different phases of Miller’s career than as a revealing biopic.
You can’t really criticize a movie for being something it never set out to be, though I was left wanting to know more about the man and his wife, the film’s producer, Lainie Miller. You get a sense of their personal lives in quick asides about the longevity of their marriage or Mr. Miller’s aspirations outside of acting, but mostly it’s a clip show. Filmmakers who worked with Miller reminisce about his body of work with nothing but kind words, and we’re treated to Miller popping up as a Native American in his first cheapie Western or as a scrap-yard owner in a chopped scene from Pulp Fiction. It may be that Miller lets his work define him, so the focus here is almost entirely on the body of work.
It’s a pleasant celebration. The clips are a hoot and animation is used to recreate specific anecdotes to good effect. It’s breezy stuff, and if there’s any one lasting effect that That Man Dick Miller has is that it ends up making you want to watch other movies. It’s a great advertisement for Miller’s work in A Bucket of Blood and Cannonball, in particular. If you happen to catch the documentary, make sure you have a couple of Dick Miller movies handy to turn on once the credits roll.
(Full disclosure: As a fan who wanted to see the eventual product, the author gave to the That Guy Dick Miller Kickstarter campaign. He has no stake in the film’s success.)
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