Exquisite character study makes for one of the year's best movies
"Sound of Metal" (2019 release; 120 min.) brings the story of Ruben. As the movie opens, Ruben is at his drum set, live in concert along with his music partner (and lover) Lou, and delivering a fericious drumming sound. At times the sound is muzzled. The next day the two drive to the next show, where in the middle of their set, Ruben seemingly loses much of his hearing, throwing him in a fot of panic and helplessness. Ruben visits an optomologist, who cinformes that he's only, got 24% of his hearing left... At this point we are 10 min. into the movie, but to tell youmore of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll jst have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the feature length directing debut of wrriter Darius Marder ("The Place Betond The Pines"). Here he examineswhat happens to a professional musician who faces a career-threatening obstacle, namely a quasi-complete loss of hearing. If you expect a move about heavy metal music, you will be sorely disappointed (except for the initial 5-10 min.), The film focueses on Ruben's options, and how he can reach them. I am not spoiling anything that a good part of the film deals with Ruben "learning how to be deaf" (as listed on the daily allocation of tasks in the deaf community where Ruben ends up. We experience te movie's sound as times as Ruben is hearing it (much of it muzzled and incomprehensible), and at times as the regular workd experiences it. The movie is subtitled start to finish. Riz Ahmed delivers a pwerful lead performance as Ruben (he took extensive drumming lessons, and also learned sig language). Olivia Cooke plays Lou. Late in the film there is a small but notewrthy part for French actor Mathieu Amalric (as Lou's father). All in all, I found this fuilm to be a gripping character strudy from beginning to end, and surely one of the best films I have seen this year.
"Sound of Metal" premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival (yes, over a year ago) to immediate claim, and was supposed to roll out in US theaters earlier this year. Then a little thing called COVID-19 wrecked the movie industry. The movie finally was released in limited cities last weekend for a 2 week run, at which point it will start streaming. The Saturday matinee screening where I saw it turned out to be a proviate screening as I was the only person in the theater. The 12 screen theater looked pretty much like a ghost town, and I honestly don't see how these thaters can continue to opearate like this. Upon leaving the theater, the guy who sold me my ticket asked me how the movie was. Yea, that's how many tickets he had been selling selling that he still remembered me. Meanwhile, if you are in the mood for an exquisite character study of wht it is like to experience being deaf, I'd readily suggest you check this out and draw your own conclusion.
"Transhood" (2020 release; 96 min) is a documentary about transgender kids. As the movie opens, we are informed that "over the course of five years, four families decide to share their stories." We go to "Kansas City" as we are introduced to Jay (12),. Leena (15), Avery (7) and Phoenix (4). All but Jay are transitioning from boyhood to girlhood. Along the way we also learn that Kansas City Is the "epicenter of transgender violence". At this point we are 10 minutes into the movie.
Couple of comments: this is the latest documentary from producer/writer/director Sharon Liese ("High School Confidential"). Here she gives us a behind the scenes look at what it's like to grow up transgender, both for the kid at issue and for the family. Not surprisingly, it's hard and at times heartbreaking.. "I felt isolated, and I lost friends and family", comments one parent. Asked why a mother is supporting Jay's transition, she replies: "I'd rather have a happy trans boy than a suicidal daughter." Later on Avery, then 12, pleads for understanding and compassion: "We are not an exotic species, we are human!", wow. The documentary works best when looking at the bigger social issues. Keep in mind that this barely scratches the surface of the lives involved, given that five years of four families is reduced and sampled in just 96 minutes. But in the end it is a minor quibble.
"Transhood" premiered this weekend on HBO and is now available on HBO On Demand and other streaming services. If you have any interest in LGTBQ issues or are simple in the mood for a very moving documentary, I'd readily suggest you check this out Andrea your own conclusion.
Assessing the life and works of psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis
"Crazy, Not Insane" (2020 release; 117 min.) is a documentary that takes a closer look at the life and works of noted psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis. As the film opens, she explains why she became interested in examining serial killers: "It's like a chance to interview Hitler". Later on she ponders: "Why don't I murder? why don't you murder?" We then go back in time, as Lewis, upon graduating from the Yale School of Medicine, by happenstance becomes involved with juvenile delinquents, and makes a startling discovery that shows a physical difference in the brains of homicidal vs. non-homicidal delinquents... At this point we are 10 min. into the movie.
Couple of comments: this is the latest film from long-time documentarian Alex Gibney, who just recently released the excellent "Agents of Chaos", and whose prior work also includes 2013's "The Armstrong Lie" and 2015's "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief", among many others. Here he takes a closer look at the (for some: groundbreaking, for others: controversial) work by Dorothy Lewis in the filed of understanding what makes serial killers do what they do. The documentary takes a good half hour to really get going, but after that, we are knee-deep into the core issue: do you accept/believe in the concept of multiple personality disorder, also known as dissociative identity disorder, or not? There are plenty of video clips from Lewis' work in the late 80s-early 90s when Lewis came to the forefront of this issue. It makes for at times fascinating viewing, and while it is pretty clear where Gibney stands in all of this, he gives plenty of space to both sides of the argument. I must say that, given Gibney's considerable reputation as one of the premier documentarians of this generation, I had expected something more, and that this does not rank among his very best work. Not that I think that "Crazy, Not Insane" is "bad" or anything. It's just not a heavyweight like some of his best documentaries.
"Crazy, Not Insane" was scheduled to premier at this year's SXSW festival in March. Then a little thing call COVID-19 changed the world as we know it (SXSW was canceled). The movie finally premiered at this year's Venice Film Festival in September, and started showing on HBO earlier this week. It is now available on HBO On Demand and other streaming services. If you are a fan of Alex Gibney's work or simply are interested in catching a true crime-reminding documentary, I'd readily suggest you check this out on VOD, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, and draw your own conclusion.
"How To with John Wilson" (2020 release; 6 episodes of about 25 min. each) is a TV documentary mini-series from John Wilson on the daily life and times in New York City. As Episode 1 "How To Make Small Talk" opens, Wilson ventures out of his apartment to make small talk with random people, and ends up talking to a guys who describes his job as a child predator catcher. Wilson accepts the guy's invitation to venture to his house in Pennsylvania to see how that actually works. It is the beginning of a journey down the rabbit hole... At this point we are less than 10 min. into Episodes 1.
Couple of comments: New York writer-producer-director John Wilson has been making "How To" documentary shorts for YEARS, going all the way back to 2013's "How To Clean A Cast Iron Pan". Now he has been given the opportunity to do so for a much wider audience, but his method and manner has remained the same: starting with a very ordinary premise, and then observe and follow wherever it leads him, no matter how strange (at times). I loved Episode 2 "How To Put Up Scaffolding", where Wilson reflects on why so many buildings in New York have scaffoldings, and how people deal with it. It leads him to attend the scaffolding annual industry convention in New Orleans. Just watch! Episode 3 "How To Improve Your Memory" is equally intriguing, starting with that simple premise which eventually leads him to a guy who advocates the Mandela Effect. The what, you say? Just look it up. Wilson ends up at the first West Coast Mandela Effect conference in Idaho... Episode 4 "How To Cover Your Furniture" starts with a look at why certain people have plastic cover on their furniture, which then leads into an altogether bizarre if not baffling episode (sorry, I can't say more). This show surely is not for everyone, but if you are interested and open-minded enough to explore "something different", then this will be right up your alley. Please note that this mini-series' title "How To with John Wilson" actually never appears in any of the episodes, but only in promotional spots.
"How To with John Wilson" premiered on HBO several weeks ago, and the initial 4 episodes are now available on HBO On Demand (where I caught it the other day) and other streaming services. The last 2 remaining episodes will air in the next couple of weeks. If you are in the mood for an off-beat documentary series on the ordinary and not-so-ordinary life of people, I'd readily suggest you check this out, and draw your own conclusion.
Dark opening episode promises tough territory ahead
"Murder on Middle Beach" (2020 release; 4 episodes of about 55 min. each) is a TV documentary mini-series regarding the murder of Barbara Hamburg. As Episode 1 "Mom's Dead" opens, it is "March 3, 2010", and the local TV reporter informs the viewers that a body was found on Middle Beach Rd., in Madison, CT. The body is of a 48 yr. old woman, Barbara Hamburg. We briefly hear of Barbara's mother, sister, and her son Madison (who wrote, produced and directed this mini-series). We then go to "2013 Three Years After the Murder" and Madison is talking to his dad (Barbara's ex-husband), who confesses that "She had a life I had no idea she had"... At this point we are 10 min. into Episode 1.
Couple of comments: Madison Hamburg makes his feature length debut with this very personal look back to his mom's life and times, and yes, murder. While Episode 1 contains the usual "happy" memories of the couple's early years including the birth of their 2 children, it becomes also clear that several things just feel off (check the ex-husband's 2013 comment I mentioned, for starters). The opening episode is not only surprisingly plot-heavy almost from the get-go, but it also feels very dark, as if a lot more bad stuff is going to be revealed to us the viewers. Of course I'm not going to spoil anything, just watch! This feels like a labor of love from the son, who has spent years (literally) on this project. I must say that this opening episode drew me in almost immediately, and I can't wait to see how it's all going to play out in the remaining three episodes. Must-see true crime TV!
"Murder on Middle Beach" premiered this weekend on HBO and Episode 1 is now available on HBO On Demand and other streaming services. New episodes air Sunday evenings at 10 pm Eastern. If you are a fan of true crime or simply love a documentary well made, I'd readily suggest you check this out, and draw your own conclusion.
TV documentary mini-series reassesses the legacy of Ronald and Nancy Reagan
"The Reagans" (2020 release; 4 episodes of about 55 min. each) takes a new look at the legacy of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. As Episode 1 "The Hollywood Myth Machine" opens, Reagan is in the White House taping a TV commercial for his 1984 re-election campaign. Ronald Reagan Jr. comments "My father was a strange fellow to be president of this country." We then go back in time to "1937" when Reagan, then 26 yrs. old is signed by Jack Warner to a studio contract. With the help of Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons, it is the beginning of a how "the story became the reality", as the Reagans' daughter Patti Davis puts it. At this point we are less than 15 min. into Episode 1.
Couple of comments: please do not confuse this documentary mini-series with the same titled (and controversial) CBS mini-series from 2003. It is equally important to note that this series is not just about Ronald Reagan, but it is just as much about Nancy Reagan. Episode 1 is fascinating for a number of reasons, none more so to understand how Ronald Reagan, who grew up a Democrat, eventually evolved into a Republican, and not just any Republican, but a Barry Goldwater-type conservative at that. Reagan changed from being a union guy to an all-out pro-business/anti-union guy because it was politically convenient. Episode 1 also examines how Nancy became the rock in Reagan's life that would propel him to the presidency. Episode 1 concludes with Reagan's stunning victory in the 1968 California governor's race. Can't wait to see the remaining 3 episodes. By the way, I immigrated to this country, arriving from Belgium in Washington DC for graduate studies in 1983, yes smack in the middle of the Reagan two term presidency. I was welcomed by this country with arms wide open, and I've lived in the US ever since. Fast forward to 2016 when this country elected a blatant racist and xenophobe to the White House. Thankfully now fired by the American people.
"The Reagans" premiered this weekend on Showtime, and Episode 1 is now available on SHO On Demand and other streaming services. New episodes air Sunday evenings at 8 pm Eastern. If you have any interest in politics or in the history of this country, I'd readily suggest you check out "The Reagans" documentary mini-series, and draw your own conclusion.
Oh-so-serious murder redemption drama simply misses the mark
"Levity" (2003 release; 101 min.) brings the story of Manual Jordan. As the movie opens, Jordan is attending a parole hearing, 20+ years after he brutally killed a 17 yr. old boy. Much to his (and our) surprise, he is released. He returns to the city where it all happened, and by happenstance strikes up a relationship with the preacher of a community center, where he gets free room in return for doing custodian work. Then one day, Jordan runs into the now 40-ish yr old. sister of the 17 yr. old boy he killed... At this point we are 15 min, into the movie.
Couple of comments: this movie is the labor of love from writer Ed Solomon ("Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure", "Super Mario Bros.", "Now You See Me", etc.). Solomon also directs (the only movie he ever directed). The story of a convicted murderer seeking redemption is as old as the street itself, so the question is whether this movie brings a different angle or new perspective. I'm afraid the answer is a clear no. In fact, it's worse than that. The movie takes itself oh-so-serious, without any palpable or compelling reason. And it's not for a lack of trying from the all-star case. Billy Bob Thornton is Jordan. Morgan Freeman is the community center preacher. Holly Hunter is the murdered boy's sister. Worst of all, Kirsten Dunst plays a troubled youth who is completely full of herself, and then some. Just insufferable. I wish I could be more positive about his film, but alas, I can't. Bottom line is that at no point in time I felt emotionally invested in any of the characters, and hence at no point in time did I care for this movie one way or another.
I missed "Levity" when it came out in theaters in 2003, and frankly had never heard of it when I saw on HDNet TV's schedule the other day. Based strictly on the all-star cast attached to this film, I decided to watch it. I shouldn't have. No wonder Solomon never directed another film after this. Of course you shouldn't take my word for is, and hence I'd suggest you check it out, and draw your own conclusion.
Utterly predictable cop drama saved by Chadwick Boseman
"21 Bridges" (2019 release; 100 min.) brings the story of Andre. As the movie opens, Andre is a 13 yr. old boy attending his dad's funeral. His dad, a proud NYC cop, was killed in the line of duty. We then go to "19 Years Later" and Andre is now a NYC cop himself, "because it's in my DNA". Meanwhile two baddies are planning to rob a restaurant that is storing a huge amount of cocaine. Alas, things go horribly wrong when cops show up at the very same time... At this point we are less than 15min. into the movie but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is one of the last movies from superstar Chadwick Boseman, who shocking passed away from cancer this summer. He produces and stars in this utterly predictable New York cop drama, where there isn't a single event or twist that will make you go "ohhh! I didn't see that one coming!". The minute JK Simmons arrives on the scene, you know he's just a bad cop, dirty to the core. Sienna Miller, as Andre's reluctant partner, tries the best she can with the weak material that she is given. Indeed, the poor script is what fails this movie, I mean, the movie feels complete after an hour and then drags along for another 40 minutes, strictly by the numbers In the end, what saves this movie is watching Chadwick at work and feeling his big screen magic.
"21 Bridges" arrived in theaters exactly a year ago, when nobody had ever heard of a little thing called COVID-19 and we had no idea that Boseman was battling cancer. It now feels like a different era altogether. I didn't see the film back then as it just didn't look at that good to me. But when I saw scheduled on Showtime the other day, I just had to see it. Glad I did to see a great actor one more time before it all came crashing down. RIP Chadwick Boseman, you are missed.
Let me state upfront that I have seen "Full Metal Jacket" more than once over the years, but I can't recall when the last time was. I'm guessing it's been at least 15 years ago, if not more. Frankly, I remembered very little of the movie's specifics (mainly the "drill instructor" scenes). On top of that, I am a huge Staley Kubrick fan and admirer. When I noticed a few days ago that this film was on Showtime's schedule, I did not hesitate and eagerly looked forward to seeing it again, which I did just yesterday..
"Full Metal Jacket" (1987 release; 116 min.) is in fact two movies into one. The first one could be called "Drill" and covers the opening 45 min., and the second one could be called "Deployed" and covers the remaining 70 min. of the movie. But for 2 reoccurring characters, these 2 films stand on their own. "Drill" is nothing short of brilliant, with Lee Ermey's overpowering performance as the senior drill instructor front and center (Ermey was of course a real life Marines drill instructor and supposedly adlibbed major parts of his performance). But "Drill" really has nothing to do with the Vietnam war as such. "Deployed" is set in Vietnam, but here also I found little connection with the Vietnam War, as the series of platoon incidents that are presented here could've happen just as well in WWII or the Korean War. The fact that the entire movie was shot in England doesn't help. Yes, the performances are top-notch, and yes, the (Oscar-nominated) script is tight, but this film is really on the same theme as "Dr. Strangelove" as anything, namely the absurdity of war, rather than taking a close look what happened specifically in Vietnam. Compare this to, for example, The Deer Hunter, or Platoon, or Apocalypse Now (perhaps the most Vietnam-centric of them all).
Is Full Metal Jacket a bad movie? Of course not. But neither is it, in my (very subjective personal) opinion, among the very best of Kubrick's films. I totally understand and respect that others may have a different opinion on this. In any event, I enjoyed watching this for what it is.
High stakes inner city HS football documentary series
"The Cost of Winning" (2020 release; 4 episodes of about 28 min. each) is a TV documentary mini-series about the life and times of the football team at St. Frances Academy, a Baltimore inner-city, almost all black, Catholic high school. As Episode 1 opens, we are reminded that as a result of other high schools (who coincidentally are almost all white kids) refusing to play St. Frances any longer, St. Frances is now forced to play a national schedule. We are also reminded of the devastation and violence that has wrecked Baltimore's inner city for years and years. Then we are introduced to the kids themselves... At this point we are 10 min. into the opening episode.
Couple of comments: this is the latest sports documentary produced by Michael Strahan. Here his production team takes a closer look at the role of football as a possible way out of the inner city for a bunch of kids. The football program has no resources of its own and instead relies on the generosity of (co-head coach) Biff Poggie, who struck gold as a former hedge fund manager (Poggie says he spends roughly $300,000 a year on the program, paying literally for everything from coaches to housing to travel, you name it). But even more amazing are the background stories of the kids themselves, who battle incredible odds to make something of themselves. At one point, the kids are at practice on a nearby street (they don't have a stadium or regular practice field) listening to Poggie, when you then clearly hear 3 gunshots being fired nearby. Just another day in the neighborhood. If I have any criticism of "The Cost of Winning", it's that 4 episodes totaling about 2 hrs. are not nearly enough, and hence at times this mini-series feels rushed.
All 4 episodes of "The Cost of Winning" premiered this week on HBO and are now available on HBO on Demand and other streaming services. If you have an interest in high school football, or more importantly, how inner city African-American young men are trying to find a way of of a "cycle" (as Poggie phrases it), I'd readily suggest you check this out (preferably in one binge session), and draw your own conclusion.
Spellbinding 19th century survival drama on the Oregon Frontier
"First Cow" (2019 release; 122 min.) brings the story of Cookie and Lu, two pioneers in the Oregon Frontier. As the movie opens, we are today, and a woman is taking a walk in the woods. Her dog inadvertently discovers the remains of not one, but two human skeletons... We then go back in time to the early 19th century. A guy named Cookie is harvesting mushrooms and bumps into a Chinese guy named Lu. They strike up a friendship... At this point we are 10 min. into the movie but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the latest film from writer-director Kelly Reichardt, whose previous work includes the excellent "Meek's Cutoff" and "Wendy and Lucy". Here she adapts the novel "The Half-Life" for the big screen. I have not read the book and hence cannot comment on how closely firm film sticks to the book. What I can tell you is this: "First Cow" is a spellbinding look at what life was like on the Oregon Frontier in the early 19th century: a slow pace of life, very rural/brutal/harsh living conditions, lots of poverty, and famine. Get the picture? This ain't for the meek or the weak! It feels as if nothing much happens in the film in the first hour, as we simply get to understand the context of these lives. But then in the film's second hour, we understand which direction this is going, and it all becomes spellbinding, but certainly not for anyone in a hurry. Two technical aspects were striking: one, the photography (in a rather unusual 4;3 picture ratio, instead of the typical 16:9 ratio) is stunning. Each and every frame has a purpose. Two, the film's score, even though only incidental, is absolutely outstanding, courtesy of guitarist William Tyler. Last but not least, kudos for the lead performances by John Magaro (as Cookie) and Orion Lee (as Lu).
"First Cow" premiered to immediate critical acclaim at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival (16 months ago), in what now feels like a different era altogether. It was released in theaters literally the week before COVID-19 struck. I had seen the trailer at my local art-house theater here in Cincinnati but the film never made it here, sadly. The movie is now available on SHO On Demand (where I saw it earlier this week) and other streaming services. If you are in the mood for a top-notch indie movie about life out on the Oregon Frontier back in the 1820s, I'd readily suggest you check this out, and draw your own conclusions.
Intriguing 1st episode to UK investment bankers drama/soap opera
"Industry" (2020 UK release; 6 episodes of about 50-55 min. each) brings the story of Harper Stern. As Episode 1 opens, Harper, an African-American young lady, is interviewing for a temporary position at Pierpoint & Co., a prestigious London investment bank. "I've never seen anyone put their IQ on their resume", remarks the snobby interviewer. Harper gets the position, and she and others start their 6 months' countdown towards RIF (Reduction In Force) Day. From the get-go, things are in cut-throat mode at the office. "Act like an owner and make yourself indispensable!" advises a more senior person. Is Harper up for it? At this point we are less than 15 min. into Episode 1.
Couple of comments: this TV mini-series is the brainchild of Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, but more importantly, Episode 1 is directed by none other than Lena Dunham ("Girls"). The opening episode focuses on the intense competition among newcomers to survive in the investment banking world. Why or how Harper Stern ends up at a London investment bank is a question mark (perhaps to be enlightened in a later episode). We watch how these young people (most of the newly hired look to be in their mid-20s) are willing to work day and night (literally) and sacrifice their bodies and their minds to rise to the top, or at least to survive RIF Day. The series production team does a great job in conveying the personal cost of doing so. This TV series is plot-heavy and in fact reminded me of a good ol' soap opera a la Dallas or Dynasty, transposed into 21st century's London. Noticeable is the electronic score, which plays virtually non-stop and is courtesy of Nathan Micay, whom I have not heard of before. Bottom line: I really enjoyed the opening episode, and can't wait to see how all this is going to play out.
"Industry" premiered on HBO earlier this week, and Episode 1 is now available on HBO On Demand and other streaming services. New episodes air on Mondays at 10 pm Eastern. If you are in the mood for a good office drama, if not soap opera, I'd readily suggest you check this out, and draw your own conclusion.
*UPDATE 11/17/20* I've now seen Episode 2, which frankly isn't nearly as good as Episode 1. The story lines focus even more on who is hooking up with whom. And of course the correlating partying and drug use. I mean, literally just about everyone at Pierpoint is doing coke like it's the most normal thing in the world. Speaking of partying and going out to dinner with co-workers, it all feels very... dated (as in: hello, a little thing called COVID-19 changed the world now already a good 8 1/2 months ago). I hope Episode 3 can rebound...
As "Moonbase 8" (2020 release; 6 episodes of about 28 min. each) opens, we are informed that the first manned base on the moon is nearing completion. We then go to "Winslaw, Arizona", where a team of wannabe -astronauts is training at the Moonbase 8 simulator for a possible trip to the lunar base. Turns out it is the team's 200th day of training, and that deserves some gifts and treats. But they have a problem: their water supply runs empty with 3 more weeks to go before the next scheduled supply...
Couple of comments: this comedy TV mini-series is the latest work directed by Jonathan Krisel ("Portlandia"). Here he looks at the funny side of what appear to be 3 subpar wannabe-astronauts who hope to get selected for living on the first manned base on the moon. There are a lot of funny moments as the guys are battling one problem after another (in Episode 1: lack of water; in Episode 2: homesickness and a prowler, etc.). No, this isn't laugh out loud type comedy, but more the chuckle by yourself type comedy. Watch the guys discuss what NASA stands for. Or how they decide to shorten the suite up time. And so on. The series is helped immensely by the chemistry between the three main stars: Fred Armisen, Tim Heidecker and John C. Reilly (of course!). Watch out as well for an appearance by Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, playing himself.
"Moonbease 8" premiered this weekend on Showtime, and all episodes are now available at SHO On Demand and other streaming services. These 6 episodes are binge-worthy and best digested in one or two settings. If you are a fan of "Portlandia" or of either of the three main stars, I'd readily suggest you check this out and draw your own conclusion.
I have been watching the annual Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony for years, and have always enjoyed seeing these great artists getting the ultimate recognition. Best of all, these artists perform a mini-set live and some of them have brought some truly memorable moments and collaborations.
"The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 2020 Inductions" (2020 release; 128 min.) opens with some words of welcome by Dave Grohl that "we can't gather in person this year" (due to COVID-19 of course). Ah yes, the little virus that would "magically go away", per the current POTUS who just got fired by the American people. We then dive into the first induction, the Doobie Brothers, who also celebrate 50 years as a band this year. Next up is Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, the king of industrial goth. They are introduced by Iggy Pop. The format of this year's HOF Induction is now clear: introduction, video recap of the artist's achievements, and then closing out with ZOOM thank you(s). Next is Notorious BIG. I was struck when this segment reminded me that he was only 24 when killed, wow. Next up is Depeche Mode, one of my all-time fave bands, and introduced here by uber DM fan Charlize Theron. When watching the archive footage of the very early years, what is striking is how incredibly young the guys area (Dave Gahan was 18 when joining the band in 1980). In the annual obituary remembrance segment, Eddie Van Halen gets a long look. Next induction is of T Rex, introduced here by none other than Ringo Starr, who was a close friend of the band's ringleader/singer/songwriter/guitarist Mark Bolan. T Rex was a one hit wonder in the US for "Get It On (Bang a Gong)" but in the UK and Europe had an impressive string of hit singles and albums. I grew up with these guys during my teenage years in Belgium. So glad to see them recognized and induced into the R&R HOF after all these years. The last artist induced this year is Whitney Houston. Someone please remind me of the rock & roll aspects of her career and music?
It's nobody's fault that this year's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony had to be completely remote and virtual. But all it did was to emphasize what we are missing: the outright joy of being together and celebrate rock music by providing live performances and unexpected on stage collaborations. Let's hope that next year's R&R HOF Induction ceremony will bring back those free-flowing moments.
"The Perfect Weapon" (2020 release; 87 min.) takes a look a the history of cyberwarfare. As the film opens, we are in "2007" and President Bush is contemplating his options on what to do with Iran. Someone mentions to him that in cooperation with Israel, the US is able to plant malware into Iran's nuclear facilities. W. likes that option, which is surprisingly successful. Eventually Iran discovers it, and realizes that it can also use cyber to strike back... At this point we are 10 min. into the film.
Couple of comments: this is the latest documentary directed by John Maggio, whose previous work includes, among others, The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee as well as Panic: The Untold Story of the 2009 Financial Crisis. Here he looks at the rapid rise of a fairly new phenomenon: cyberwarfare, in all of its different forms including ransomware. Starting in 2007, we get what amounts to a Cyberwarfare 101 introductory course, hitting all of the 'greatest hits', including Iran's attack on the Sands casino empire, North Korea's attack on Sony Pictures, Russia's attack on the DNC, the global NotPetya ransomware attack, and culminating with this year's cyber activities by China regarding the coronavirus. The lesson is very clear: it's a brand new world out there, and war is more often than not conducted digitally. This is an okay and mostly an a-political documentary, but not one that blew me away.
"The Perfect Weapon" premiered recently on HBO and is now available on HBO On Demand (where I caught it the other day) and other streaming services. If you have any interest in cyberwarfare or geopolitics, I'd readily suggest you check this out and draw your own conclusion.
A reminder of how immigrants help build this country, year after year
"The Donut King" (2020 release; 90 min.) is a documentary about the life and times of Ted Ngoy. As the movie opens, we are in today's southern California, as we are intro to various donut shops and its owners, talking about (in)famous Uncle Ted, who started it all back in the 1970s. We then go back in time as Ted Ngoy talks about his upbringing in Cambodia, and how he and his wife and kids fled the Khmer Rouge in 1075, ending up in a tent city in California, along with tens of thousands other Cambodian refugees. It's not long after that in Tustin, CA where Ngoy is introduced to donuts to his immediate delight, and he enrolls for donut-making training at Winchell's Donuts... At this point we are less than 15 min. into the documentary.
Couple of comments: this is the debut feature-length film for writer-director Alice Gu. Here she retells the improbable story of Ted Goy, who feels the civil war in Cambodia, only to find his feet in southern California, where eventually builds an empire of donut shops. And that is just the beginning of it! I must admit that I had never heard of this guy, and it was a delight to get to know more about his accomplishments (both successes and failures, I might add). Imagine the audacity of President Ford, imploring Congress in 1975 to open the borders to tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees as the Khmer Rouge is overtaking the last parts of Cambodia. Can you imagine it today? I say this as an immigrant myself (I arrived in the US for graduate studies in the early 80s and eventually settled here). Besides the immigrant story, the documentary of course also focuses on the donut industry. Along the way we learn that there are 5,000 (!) independent/family-owned donut shops in California, of which more than 90% are owned by Cambodian-Americans. Absolutely amazing. The last part of the film focuses on how these shops survive and even thrive in today's age against big corporations like Dunkin Donuts.
"The Donut King" opened this weekend at my local art-house theater here in Cincinnati, fully adhering to all COVID-19 protocols. Not that it mattered, as the early Saturday evening screening where I saw this at was attended dismally (1 other person besides myself). If you have any interest in watching a good ol' fashioned immigration story or are simply a lover of donuts, I'd readily suggest you check this out, be it in the theater (if you can), on VOD, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, and draw your own conclusion.
"Citizen Bio" (2020 release; 96 min.) is a documentary about the the world of biohacking and related subcultures. As the movie opens, we are introduced to biohacker/free spirit Aaron Traywick, who is found dead at age 28. We then go to "A Few Months Earlier", as Traywick retells of his upbringing in Elsmore, Alabama, and eventually ending up in "Bethesda, Maryland", where his niece and lobbyist gives him a job in a healthcare non-profit. It isn't long before Traywick wades into the biohacking subculture, without any scientific background, promoting various "cures" along the way. At this point we are less than 15 min. into the documentary.
Couple of comments: this is the latest documentary from longtime producer (and here also director) Trish Dolman, whose previous work includes "Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Wilson". Here she looks at the world of biohacking and related subcultures. Never heard of Biohacking? Neither had I, but we get a Biohacking 101 introduction: a subculture of non-scientists who love to (self)experiment outside the mainstream (without FDA supervision) for major diseases like HIV, herpes and so forth. Is this even legal? Just watch. I must admit, I was taken aback by some of this, and frankly confused as to what the heck was going on for a good part of the film. And what exactly led to Traywick's death? All is revealed in due course. I almost gave up on this film halfway through but in the end stuck it out as I wanted to understand what happened to Traywick. But when all was said and done, I felt pretty much unmoved. It's one thing to want to "stick it to the man", as these biohackers clearly feel, but it's another thing when we are talking serious and major healthcare issues undertaken by non-scientists.
"Citizen Bio" premiered on Showtime this weekend, and is now available on SHO On Demand and other streaming services. If you have any interest in biohacking or in shady/edgy healthcare practices, I'd readily suggest you check this out and draw your own conclusion.
"Burning Ojai: Our Fire Story" (2020 release; 41 min.) is a documentary about the 2017 wild fires in Ventura County, CA. As the movie opens, it is "December 4, 2017" and we are immediately plunged into the devastating footage of what we are told is California's largest wild fire up to that point. We then go to "Upper Ojai" as we get to know Michael and Noemie Milano, a recently married couple that is looking for a special place in California to raise their family. They settle upon Upper Ojai, and arrive with their baby girl just a month before the wild fires strike...
Couple of comments: this is a deeply personal account of what became known as the St. Thomas fires. The documentary is directed by Michael Milano, who lived through the experience first hand along with his wife and their baby girl. The documentary is a combination of TV station footage and Michael's own footage, and it makes for a very powerful experience that also sadly is pretty disheartening. The experts weigh in, including climate experts but also the Ventura County Fire Department guys, and the refrain is all too familiar: a lethal mix of strong winds, too much residential construction, and an out-of-date and questionable electricity distribution grid. Your heart goes out to the residents of Ventura County, but with now 3 more years of hindsight, we know all too well that this keep getting worse each and every year with these out of control wild fires. Meanwhile climate change deniers like the current POTUS claim with a straight face that it's all the fault of "local authorities". Yea, right. If there is one criticism I have, it is that at just 41 min. the documentary feels a little rushed. But the footage of the wild fires is what I will remember most of this documentary.
"Burning Ojai: Our Fire Story" premiered on HBO this week, and is now available on HBO On Demand and other streaming services. If you have any interest in better understanding how these wild fires ravage through communities and why a new approach is desperately needed, I'd readily suggest you check this out and draw your own conclusion.
Promising opening episode of the Manhattan murder-mystery whodunnit
"The Undoing" (2020 release; 6 episodes of about 55 min. each) brings the story of Grace Fraser and her family. As Episode 1 opens, we see a boy running in the street towards a shop, and as he enters the shop, he makes a gruesome discovery. We then go to "Two Days Earlier", as Grace, a therapist, is getting ready for another work day. We are introduced to her husband Jonathan, himself a successful doctor, and their teenage son Henry, who attends an elite private school. Later that day, Grace joins a group of ladies who are preparing for a fundraiser for the school. One of them, Elena, has no concerns about breastfeeding her new baby tight then and there in front of the group... At this point we are 10 min, into Episode 1.
Couple of comments: this new TV mini-series is directed by Golden Globe and Emmy Award winning Susanne Bier. The story is based on the 2014 novel "You Should Have Known" by Jean Hanff Korelitz. It basically is a Manhattan-centric murder mystery, so one has to be very careful what to disclose so as not to spoil any of the whodunnit. The opening episode takes its time to let us get to know Grace Fraser, a woman who seemingly has it all: a successful career and a wonderful family. Yet it becomes clear that all isn't necessarily as it seems... Nicole Kidman, now 53, remains stunningly beautiful (and looks easily a good 10 years younger that her age), and is perfectly cast in this role. Hugh Grant, now 60, has long ago lost his youthful appearances and now is a seasoned veteran, showing wear and tear. Reardon School, where young Henry attends, is a fictional school. Bottom line: the opening episode is full of intrigue and this mini-series looks to deliver a lot more fireworks in the remaining 5 episodes.
"The Undoing" premiered on HBO this weekend, and Episode 1 is now available on HBO On Demand and other streaming services. New episodes air Sunday evenings at 9 PM Eastern. If you are in the mood for a highly stylish and good ol' fashioned Manhattan murder mystery, I'd readily suggest you check this out, and draw your own conclusion.
*UPDATE 11/1/20* Just watched episode 2. Plenty of drama and, yes, plot twists. Nicole Kidman shines as she is in virtually every frame of this episode. I'm pretty sold on this now, and can't wait to see how it's all going to unfold in the next 4 episodes.
"American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself" (2020 release; 91 min.) is a documentary about the state of the country. As the movie opens, people are taking selfies in Chicago. "I like pictures of myself", comments one guy. We then start on a 12 month journey around this country, starting in "September 2019" in what now feels like a different era: people lining up in New York to buy the newest iPhone. "Do I need it? I want it!" comments someone. As it happens, it it the very same day of a climate march in NYC. "October 2019" brings us to a Trump MAGA rally in Minneapolis, where things get very ugly very fast, coming on the heels of Trump's mysogynistic, racist and xenophobic comments about US Congresswoman Ihlan Omar (last I checked, an American citizen just like you and me). At this point we are 10 min. into the movie.
Couple of comments: this is the latest from longtime documentarian Alexandra Pelosi (yes, daughter of). In this film, she takes to the road and documents the state of the union over the course of 12 months. It ain't a pretty picture: when you mix Trump's unrelenting divisive and racist attacks and outright lies about anything and everything with a pandemic the likes we haven't seen in over a century, it proves to be a punch to the gut. Watch the scene in "November 2019" when the film maker interviews people at the Walmart in El Paso, TX which just months before was the scene of a deadly mass shooting by a crazed guy wanting to stop an "invasion" of migrants (Trump's words). Watch the scenes in "May 2020" where New York funeral homes are overrun by COVID-19 deaths. It just breaks your heart. This movie is not easy to watch, as it so accurately reflects/exposes the difficult times this nation is going through in 2020. The release of this film couldn't be timed any better, literally a day after the last presidential debate where Trump declares with a straight face that "I am the least racist person in this room". Yea, he really said that, along with dozens of other fabrications and outright lies.
"American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself" premiered on Showtime this weekend, and is now available on SHO On Demand and other streaming services. If you want to be reminded of what is at stake in the current (yes, current: tens of millions of ballots have been cast already) presidential election, I'd readily suggest you check this out, and draw your own conclusion.
"Surge" (2020 release; 90 min.) is a documentary about the surge of women running for office following the shocking election of Trump in the 2016 elections. As the movie opens, we watch footage of the Women's March in January, 2017, a day after Trump is sworn in, in one of the largest marches ever in history. We then go to "March 2017", as we are introduced to three Democratic women who are first time candidates for the US House of Representatives, all running against incumbent male Republicans: Jana Sanchez (in suburban Dallas), Lauren Underwood (in suburban Chicago), and Liz Watson (in Bloomington, IN). All three literally start from scratch, with no money and no name recognition. At this point we are 10 min. into the film.
Couple of comments: this documentary is a labor of love from co-directors and producers Hannah Rosenzweig and Wendy Sachs. They spend 20 months on the road with these three candidates, and condense it into an hour and a half for our viewing pleasure. I admit I have never heard of any of these three candidates before seeing this film, and of course one of the things that make this enjoyable to watch is to see how it all would turn out (I predicted the correct outcome for two of the three candidates--no worries, I will not spoil). But besides enjoyable, this documentary is equally inspiring, and not just for women (to take solace that they can do this), but equally for men like myself who are tired of the current political landscape where Dear Leader in the White House sets the despicable tone for everyone else and furthermore is interested in only one thing: me! me! ME! Meanwhile "Surge" is not a 10/10 movie (like some many here rate it), nor is it a 1/10 movie (do you want to guess who rated this 1/10?), but somewhere in between. I rate it a solid 7/10.
"Surge" premiered in September on Showtime and is now available on SHO On Demand (where I caught it recently) and other streaming services. If you are interested in the role of women in politics, or are simply wanting to be inspired by what these three candidates take on, I'd readily suggest you check this out and draw your own conclusion.
Insightful documentary on what really happened in Florida in the 2000 elections
"537 Votes" (2020 release; 104 min.) is a documentary that reassesses, now 2 decades later, what really happened in Florida in the 2000 presidential election. As the movie opens, we are in "November, 1999" and life seemingly couldn't be better in the US< with the economy ablaze and Alex Penelas, the 30-something yr. old mayor of Miami, having the time of his life. Then in early January 2000, a 5 yr. old Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez was rescued at sea, the only survivor of an attempt by his mom and others to try and reach the US. It sets in motion what would become a political tsunami... At this point we are 10 min. into the documentary.
Couple of comments: this is the latest documentary from director Billy Corban, whose previous work includes 2018's interesting "Screwball". Here he takes a look back, with the luxury of 20 years in hindsight, what happened in Florida in the 2000 election. I thought it was very illuminating. Frankly the only thing I remember is the US Supreme Court's decision in favor of W. but this documentary explains how the political landscape in Miami was turned upside down by the unexpected arrival of the Cuban little boy. In fact, the initial 35 minutes of the documentary deal with only that. Then just 5 minutes later we are already at "Election Night". The timing of releasing this documentary couldn't be better as the country is bracing what might happen in the upcoming presidential election in less than 2 weeks. Two major thoughts as I watched this documentary: first, even though the opposing sides disagree on much, the tone of it all and the entire political landscape was polite and respectful, in other words, the complete opposite of what is happening today. There is the (in)famous scene in which Gore says: "I strongly disagree with the Supreme Court's decision, but I respect it." Can you imagine Dear Leader in the White House saying this? Second, equally striking, is how the Republican tactics were the same then as they are now: doing whatever they can, legally or otherwise, to suppress the vote as much as possible. It is just absolutely shameful.
"537 Votes" premiered this week on HBO and is now available on HBO On Demand and other streaming services. If you have any interest in politics or are simply curious in a refresher course on what happened in Florida in the 2000 elections, I'd readily suggest you check this out, and draw your own conclusion.
High energy Broadway adaptation of David Byrne's music is thoroughly enjoyable
You may recall that erstwhile Talking Heads front man David Byrne issued his well received 7th solo album called "American Utopia" in the Spring of 2018. Subsequently he went on tour in support of the album, to much acclaim, expanding the album into a career-spanning music set. The idea arose to do a limited Broadway run based on that show, and hence exactly a year ago, "David Byrne's American Utopia" opened for a 3 month run at the intimate Hudson Theater (capacity: 900) on Broadway, Now comes the film adaptation of it.
"David Byrne's American Utopia" (2020 release; 105 min.) opens with David Byrne sitting on stage by himself and a prop of a human brain in his hand. As "Here" (from the original "American Utopia" album) starts, he explains the various parts of the brain interact, and with that we are off. Soon he is joined by his band, 11 musicians and dancers in all, with 5 of them playing drums and percussions (later in the show Byrne goes at length to explain that the music we hear is live and not on play back). It's not long before we get to the Talking Heads catalog: "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)", "I Zimbra", and "Slippery People" make for a wonderful triple punch that will make you want to stand up and sing and dance along to. Dis I mention that this production oozes high energy? Byrne and the 11 others all wear the same light gray business suit, and all are barefooted (no shoes, no socks, no worries). The film is directed with panache by Spike Lee, who connects perfectly well with David Byrne's music and overall sense of the theatrical. This was obviously filmed at some point during the limited Broadway run last Fall and Winter, meaning before COVID-19 broke and when it was still possible to have a sell-out crowd in Broadway theaters. What a world of difference a year makes. (Broadway theaters are now announced as remaining dark until at least May of 2021.)
"David Byrne's American Utopia" premiered this weekend on HBO and is now available on HBO On Demand and other streaming services. If you are in need of a "pick me upper" in these uncertain times of COVID-10 and an out of control presidential election race, or are simply a fan of David Byrne and his music, I cannot think of a better boost than to watch "David Byrne's American Utopia". Of course I'd readily suggest you check it out for yourself, and draw your own conclusion.
Covering the same NXIVM territory but with different perspective
"Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult" (2020 release; 4 episodes of about 55 min, each) examines the so-called self-help but in reality cult group NXIVM. As Episode 1 "Hooked" opens, we meet India Oxenberg, as she shows us a house and remarks: "I was the first woman in my group of slaves to be branded." She adds: "I was looking for a purposeful life. What happened vs. what I wanted to believe happened?" We then go back in time, and Catherine Oxenberg, of "Dynasty" fame and India's mother, recalls how in 2011 she was invited to an introductory meeting of something called "Executive Success Program" (ESP), and asked India, then 19 yrs. old, to come along. Much to her surprise, Indian agrees and then takes an interest in taking more ESP classes. Catherine reluctantly agrees... At this point we are 10 min. into Episode 1.
Couple of comments: this series is directed by film maker Cecilia Peck, daughter of Gregory, and whose prior work includes the Emmy-nominated "Brave Miss World". Here she covers the same territory as the recently concluded 9 part HBO documentary series "The Vow", but with 2 major differences: (i) Peck gets the full cooperation of India Oxenberg (who refused to cooperate with "The Vow" film makers--she is credited as an Executive Producer for "Seduced"), and (ii) Peck skips over a lot of the details of how this self-help group turned into a cult, and instead zeroes in on what India's personal experiences were in her 7+ years at NXIVM (2011-2018). It's not that one is inherently better or worse than the other. But it's also clear why "Seduced" fits perfectly on the more sensationalist, star-oriented STARZ, while "The Vow" premiered on HBO. From my own (subjective) perspective, I appreciated the time (literally: years) and detailed efforts that the makers of "The Vow" took to unearth and bring together all the pieces of a very complicated puzzle.
"Seduced" premiered this weekend on STARZ and is now available on STARZ On Demand and other streaming services. Even though I already know how it all plays out having seen "The Vow", I still plan on watching the remaining 3 episodes of "Seduced". Why? Because you just can't make this stuff up! Facts are always stranger than fiction. If you have any interest in understanding how a cult actually works, or simply are a fan of the Oxenbergs, I'd readily suggest you check this out and draw your own conclusion.
*UPDATE 10/25/20* I just saw Episode II "Indoctrination", which in fact is better than the first episode. India Oxenberg revisits the NXIVM ol' stomping grounds in New Albany, and retells in excruciating details of the "Jness" courses, where Keith Ranieri purposefully blurs the lines between rape and consent and claims with a straight face that "a victim complaining is being the abuser". Yea, you read that right. One of the cult experts explains that the indoctrination methods used by NXIVM are in the same vein as those used by ISIS. Wow, just wow. Just watch!
*UPDATE 11/1/20* Episode III "Enslaved" is now in the books, and it is by far the most explicit and gruesome episode to date. India Oxenberg details how she is ordered by her master (Allison Mack) to seduce Keith Ranieri, while along the way India is isolated, degraded and psychologically raped. There are no words.
"The Devil Has A Name" (1029 release; 97 min.) brings the story of a Central California farmer's fight against big oil. As the movie opens, we are reminded this is "Inspired by True Events" and we get to know Fred, whose farmland has been in his family for decades. But Shore Oil & Gas realizes that the underground contains valuable resources and desperately wants to buy Fred's land, and it will not stop at anything... At this point we are 10 min. into the film, but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this movie not only stars Edward James Olmos (among many other big names), but he also directed and produced. Edward James Olmos has always been known for his eco and social activism, and this movie is no exception. You can easily feel the good intentions in this "little guy vs. big oil" eco-drama, and this could've made for riveting viewing similar to, say, last year's "Dark Waters". Alas I regret to inform you that this film is anything but riveting. In fact, the film is dreadfully boring, plain and simple, and the reason is obvious very quickly: a terribly weak script is what dooms this movie, with an eco-message that is as subtle as a bull in a china shop. In addition to Edward James Olmos, this also stars David Strathairn (as Fred), Kate Bosworth (as GiGi, a Shore Oil executive), and last but not least Martin Sheen, looking good as the "lawyer who killed the Pinto" who takes on Fred's case.
"The Devil Has a Name" premiered over a year ago at the 2019 LA Latino Film Festival to so-so acclaim, and now is getting a short run in selected theaters. It opened this weekend at my local art house theater here in Cincinnati, which strictly adheres to all COVID-19 protocols. Not that it mattered, as the Friday early evening screening where I saw this at was a private screening: I was the only person in the theater. I can't see this playing n the theater for more than a week, to be honest. If you have any interest in eco-dramas or simply are a fan of Edward James Olmos, Martin Sheen or Kate Bosworth, I'd suggest you check this out, be it in the theater (if you still can), on VOD, eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, and draw your own conclusion.