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My Name Is Bill W. (1989)
there's something sketchy
I first learned of Alcoholics Anonymous probably in seventh grade. I didn't think much about it until I saw an episode of Penn & Teller's show: they called the organization a fraud that essentially uses religion to lure people in, and hasn't changed its methods since its founding. There was even "Birds Anonymous", a Sylvester-Tweety cartoon in which Sylvester has to go to a meeting that helps cats break their bird addiction (it's widely considered the most creative of the Sylvester-Tweety cartoons).
So "My Name Is Bill W." focuses on the founder of Al-Anon. I guess that Bill Wilson had noble intentions. Nonetheless, the movie goes a little far in lionizing him. It's also grating to see James Woods on screen, knowing what a lunatic he's turned out to be (Amber Tamblyn revealed that he came on to her when she was sixteen). JoBeth Williams put on the best performance in the movie, as Bill's long-suffering wife.
I guess that the movie at least tries to do the right thing, but it's hard to view AA as a saintly entity.
In the Park (1915)
low-key early Chaplin effort
Since we're most used to seeing Charlie Chaplin addressing class issues and mocking Hitler, his early work might seem low-key. "In the Park" depicts a series of antics in a city park. Funny stuff, but nothing spectacular.
Tender Mercies (1983)
redemption in relationships
Robert Duvall won an Oscar for his role as a burnout country singer trying to redeem himself through love in Bruce Beresford's "Tender Mercies". The movie is as much about Texas and the music scene there as it is about its protagonist. All sorts of things will go down in this man's life, but he has no choice but to keep moving forward.
It's one of the most well acted and well directed movies that I've seen, with some truly complex characters. Duvall, along with Tess Harper, Betty Buckley (the gym teacher in "Carrie"), Wilford Brimley, Ellen Barkin and others put in their all. Great one.
Bruce Beresford later directed "Driving Miss Daisy".
Flying Elephants (1928)
Laurel and Hardy, right before they were
One of the last movies in which Laurel and Hardy appeared before they officially became a team was "Flying Elephants", casting them as cavemen vying for a woman. Stan and Ollie were still perfecting their routines, so the comedy here isn't what we're used to for them; there's a lot of bonking heads with clubs. It's enjoyable enough for its brief run time, but just remember that it's more low-key than most of Laurel and Hardy's work.
I bet that more people live like this than we realize
We've heard a lot about refugees in the past few years. There have been images of people trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, or pouring into Lebanon and Jordan, or other things like that. The reality on the ground for them is horrible beyond belief. This topic gets addressed in Nadine Labaki's "Capharnaüm" (also rendered Kafarnaum, called "Capernaum" in English). It concerns Zain, a Lebanese boy who befriends Yonas, an Ethiopian immigrant boy.
Shot in a naturalistic style, the movie offers a rough look at their existences. Zain comes from a dilapidated part of the city but has run away from his parents, while Yonas lives with his mother in a cramped apartment. People flee their homes in search of a better and safer life, and then terrible things happen to them in their new homes. It's a heartbreaking movie, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. Let's hope that Labaki keeps making these sorts of movies.
No telling how many people this happens to worldwide (and it looks likely to increase).
A Day's Pleasure (1919)
National Lampoon's Chaplin Vacation
One of Charlie Chaplin's early shorts casts him as the father of a family out for a trip and experiencing a series of mishaps. "A Day's Pleasure" is low-key compared to his most famous works, but manages to incorporate some funny stuff, namely the chair and the tar. To my knowledge, Chaplin's first movie that really focused on political issues was "The Kid", which addressed poverty head-on (although I don't know if "The Idle Class" got released first).
Anyway, enjoyable for its brief running time.
Going the Distance (1979)
the XI Commonwealth Games, held in Edmonton in 1978
Being someone who doesn't live in a commonwealth country, I don't pay attention to the Commonwealth Games. That made Paul Cowan's Academy Award-nominated "Going the Distance" even more of a treat. It's a 90-minute documentary about the XI Commonwealth Games, which got held in Edmonton in 1978. The documentary focuses on a variety of athletes - divers, runners, cyclists - from an assortment of places (Kenya, New Zealand, Isle of Man). There's also a coach who's a total jerk. There will be champions and also-rans, failures and successes, but the games must go on. It looks like one fun experience.
While you might think that it's impossible to find this documentary, it's available on the National Film Board of Canada's YouTube channel. I wish that all the Academy Award-nominated documentaries and shorts were available on YouTube if they're not going to be available on video or DVD.
Is it safe to call Ramy Youseff Islam's Philip roth?
Ramy Youseff's "Ramy" deals not only with the problems faced by the Muslim community, but also on the various neuroses common therein, much like how Philip Roth focused on the neuroses common in the Jewish community. Basically, they both addressed all the craziness in their respective communities.
But most importantly, it looks at the discrimination that Muslims suffered after 9/11. Good show.
Watership Down (1978)
be careful of what you do
In the 21st century, we've become used to knowing animated features as lighthearted stories, often based entirely on star power. Some are at least enjoyable, some make you feel as if a power drill is getting shoved into your head. But they all share the quality of being perfectly acceptable for the tykes.
That's what makes Martin Rosen's "Watership Down" so interesting. This is NOT a kiddie flick. Quite the opposite, it's got some intense scenes. Moreover, the recent report that a million species are at risk of extinction makes the theme of the rabbits having to leave their home to do human-induced destruction all the more relevant. To be certain, the rabbits face further threats once they leave, just like refugees do.
I understand that Richard Adams's book has gotten seen as an allegory for the struggle between freedom and tyranny, reason and blind emotion, and the individual and the corporate state. That struck me as accurate. If in fact you decide to show it to the little ones, it could serve as a good lesson about the contrast between democracy and fascism, but be forewarned that this is anything but an anodyne movie. It contains some of the most shocking scenes ever featured in a cartoon. I do recommend it for the mature audiences.
This Is Us (2016)
renewed for three more seasons
I just binge-watched the first season of "This Is Us". Basically, the show is about life and the human condition. The experiences that the protagonists have reflect the real world. The plot gravitates between funny and sad, threatening and soothing, but the show always has something to say. It's not the best show ever, but the people involved in the production deserve ample praise for participating. Good one.
First Reformed (2017)
Paul Schrader often directs movies about people on self-destructive paths, and his Academy Award-nominated "First Reformed" doesn't relent. Ethan Hawke plays a minister whose conscience starts to get to him when environmental issues come to his attention. Whatever you think of how they told the story, it brings up important issue. I recommend it, but be forewarned that it's going to depict some harsh things and will almost certainly disturb you.
The Black Pirate (1926)
swashbuckling for the win
Douglas Fairbanks was one of Hollywood's top stars of the 1920s, but I've only now gotten around to seeing one of his movies. "The Black Pirate" is mostly impressive for the early use of Technicolor, but even beyond that it's a fun movie. Admittedly, it looks a little corny in the 21st century, but it must've been something to behold back in the day. With no shortage of derring-do, it's one that you're sure to love. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
PS: Director Albert Parker eventually moved to England where he opened an actors' agency office. One of his clients was a young Helen Mirren.
Knock Down the House (2019)
AOC is the real deal
The 2018 midterm election in the US congress was notable for bringing to office a number of young and ethnically diverse women. Leading the pack was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a bartender from New York who is now pushing a Green New Deal (to establish an eco-friendly energy grid). "Knock Down the House" looks at her campaign and those of some other women running. The documentary's point is not whether they won, but about the issues that they raised in their campaigns. For example, West Virginia's Paula Jean Swearengin (running for senate in the primary) noted Joe Manchin's obeisance to the coal industry. In Ocasio-Cortez's case, her pamphlets noted the date of the primary as well as her policy positions, which her opponent's pamphlets didn't.
I would've liked it if the documentary had also focused on Ilhan Omar's campaign, but other than that, it's a fine piece of work, and should be required viewing for anyone who cares about getting out the vote. Definitely see it.
The Darkest Minds (2018)
How could this have gotten negative reviews?
I understand that "The Darkest Minds" got negative reviews when it got released. I can't imagine why. It's got a good story and good execution. Maybe the critics didn't like the performances. I, for one, like how they did it. Do see it. Not any sort of masterpiece, but worth seeing.
Go Tell the Spartans (1978)
the US didn't realize what it was getting into
The most famous anti-Vietnam War movies from 1978 are "The Deer Hunter", "Coming Home" and "Who'll Stop the Rain". Another one was Ted Post's "Go Tell the Spartans". This one takes place in Vietnam right before US troops got fully involved. It makes clear that the US made a bad choice by taking over the French effort. And as always, those at the top were always gung ho no matter how bad things got. To this day, the ultra-hawks insist that we could have "won" the Vietnam War (what would that even mean?). As Michael Moore later noted, the US army hasn't had a military victory in over seventy years.
It made sense to cast Burt Lancaster in the movie, as he had come out against the war (as did Jane Fonda, star of "Coming Home"). We thought that it would permanently end war. Too bad that the war machine was still there. Indeed, at the time of the movie's release, the US was arming South Africa in the latter's version of the Vietnam War in Angola (although that one led to the eventual collapse of apartheid).
The rest of the cast includes Jonathan Goldsmith (known as the most interesting man in the world) and Clyde Kusatsu (of "American Pie").
Oops, there's Notre Dame!
While watching "Madeline", it was a shock to see the Notre Dame, now that the famous cathedral has had a fire that burned out an entire section (miraculously, most of the building remained unharmed).
The movie itself is nothing special. It's all about little Maddy getting into and out of mischief to the chagrin of her ward. Like the books, it'll be entertaining to people below the age of ten. It apparently takes place in the '50s, but all sorts of things don't match up with that. Typical family flick that cares more about being "cute" than about a complex story. The tykes will enjoy the movie, everyone else will roll their eyes at it.
Halloween Is Grinch Night (1977)
Oh Ted, you old trickster!
Right after Dr. Seuss died, I saw an interview with him. He stated that of all his characters, the Grinch was his favorite. His most famous work starring that green misanthrope is of course "How the Grinch Stole Christmas", but another one is the Emmy-winning "Halloween Is Grinch Night". Once again, the Who-hating villain targets Whoville. A noticeable difference between the more famous special and this one is that this one is darker. The previous one was all about the Grinch being a jerk and trying to steal everyone's happiness, but this one depicts him as more evil than just mean. The scene where he lets Euchariah see what's inside the Paraphernalia Wagon might be a little extreme for the tykes (even assuming that it's an allegory for facing one's fears).
But don't get me wrong, this is still a fun short. It was good to see that Dr. Seuss hadn't lost his cleverness. For the record, I have no desire to see the feature adaptations of his works; I only read negative things about the live-action adaptations of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "The Cat in the Hat" (as well as the computer-animated features). Seuss's recently deceased widow Audrey refused to allow any more live-action adaptations of his work after "The Cat in the Hat".
Anyway, cool one.
everyone should know about Robert Johnson
It's a safe bet that all blues fans know who Robert Johnson was. Netflix's "ReMastered: Devil at the Crossroads" looks at Johnson's life and work. Featuring interviews with Keb' Mo', Keith Richards, and even Johnson's grandson, it makes clear that Johnson was one of the greatest musicians of all time. Of course, it also notes the historical context (Johnson grew up in the deep south during the most racist period in our country's history). It's so sad that Johnson's life got cut short; I have no doubt that he would've continued making great music.
Basically, whether or not you're a blues fan, you gotta see this documentary. Pretty much all music in the US has its roots in the blues, and you owe it to yourself to hear Robert Johnson.
Skazka pro len (1976)
The Langoliers got them!
I've been watching a number of Soyuzmultfilm shorts in recent years, including "Skazka pro len" ("The Tale of Laziness" in English). It basically shows people getting exposed to a substance and turning into slackers. Neat stuff. Warnings about slothfulness remind me of "The Langoliers", based on Stephen King's novel. After most of the passengers aboard a flight mysteriously vanish, a nervous remaining passenger claims that they've become victims of the Langoliers, monsters that punish the lazy (but wait until the remaining passengers find out what happened).
Anyway, neat cartoon.
Farewell, My Lovely (1975)
The film noir had been a staple of cinema in the '40s and '50s, depicting all manner of sleaze. Dick Richards dabbled in the genre with 1975's "Farewell, My Lovely", based on Raymond Chandler's novel. Robert Mitchum takes the role of Philip Marlowe, trying to find a man's missing wife. Sure enough, he gets more than he bargained for.
The movie shows 1940s LA in all its seaminess: gambling, prostitution, corruption, the lot. A far cry from the glamorized images of the City of Angels that we often see. But what I found the most interesting about the movie was Charlotte Rampling's character. If you're used to seeing her only play stern English women, then you're in for a surprise. It's not any kind of masterpiece, but still a perceptive use of that most cynical of movie genres. I recommend it.
Also starring John Ireland, Sylvia Miles (in an Academy Award-nominated role), Harry Dean Stanton and Sylvester Stallone in an early appearance.
police corruption during the Years of Lead
Throughout the 1970s, Italy experienced a conflict that bordered on a civil war. Widespread fighting between left- and right-wing extremists led to massive violence that earned the moniker the Years of Lead (referring to all the bullets fired). There were the Red Brigades on the left and the neo-fascists on the right, with the government often responding mercilessly.
This context helps one understand Elio Petri's Academy Award-winning "Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto" ("Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion" in English). Gian Maria Volonté plays a cop who murders a woman and then has to investigate it. All manner of police corruption comes into play, even as the cop leaves clues leading to himself.
The police corruption should also get seen in the context of all the protests taking place worldwide. The Vietnam War was a major cause - some protesters even reference Ho Chi Minh in one scene - but there was also the indictment of Italy's fascist past, especially since fascist-adjacent people often held positions in Italy's law enforcement. No surprise that a man gets to investigate a crime that he himself committed.
Definitely one that I recommend. Too bad that Petri died so young. I have no doubt that he'd still be making great movies were he alive today.
Ari Aster considers his "Hereditary" more of a family drama than a horror movie. I can see that. It does focus more on grief than on jump scares. It's no comparison to "The Shining" in creating terror (but what movie is?).
There were certainly a few scenes that shocked me. The downsides are the uneven performances and a few things that look kind of silly. But that dollhouse and a couple of tricks that rival Hitchcock in using non-verbal ways to tell the story make for one fine movie. I hope that Aster makes more movies like this.
what a wonderful world it is with Sam Cooke's music
You might not know the name Sam Cooke but you've probably heard at least one of his songs. Probably the most obvious place is a certain movie scene where John Belushi's slovenly student is stuffing himself in a cafeteria. Cooke was behind some of the songs that defined the early '60s.
But there was another Cooke. Oh he was the same man, all right. But he wasn't just the melodious voice singing "nice" songs. He also addressed political issues of the era, and befriended Muhammad Ali. His murder in a motel led to theories that it was an assassination to prevent him from leading a movement.
Netflix's "ReMastered: The Two Killings of Sam Cooke" looks at this. The title refers to the murder, and the recording companies' subsequent efforts to suppress Cooke's political stances so as to make him palatable to white audiences. The viewers can draw their own conclusions about what happened in that motel that night, but let's not forget Cooke's activism. He was a great singer and a great man, if flawed. Not the greatest documentary - it prods you to think some things - but I recommend it.
gay conversion therapy is torture
In the last few years, the controversial practice known as gay conversion therapy - wherein they try to "cure" people of LGBT feelings - has been making news as a number of US states have banned it. "The Miseducation of Cameron Post" shows the horrors experienced by a girl who got subjected to it. The movie's point is that the people who run these camps act as if they're doing something noble, but they're actually just teaching children to hate themselves. No wonder LGBT teens have such a high suicide rate.
I recommend the movie, as it pulls no punches in depicting the cruelty of the practice. There's nothing innocent about gay conversion therapy.
Someone needs to come up with bigot conversion therapy, where drag queens try to convince hate-filled people to stop looking for reasons to fear the "other".
international Hunger Games
There's been no shortage of anti-war movies over the years, but Peter Watkins's "Gladiatorerna" ("The Gladiators" in English) takes a different approach. Rather than showing an obvious war or occupation, it depicts a game in which the world's governments - regardless of ideology or race - force people to fight each other for entertainment. The generals merely sit there and politely converse with each other while the citizens fight; all too realistic. An international version of "The Hunger Games", one might say.
It was fitting that this movie got released at the height of the Vietnam War, but surprisingly it didn't become as famous as one might expect. I happened to find it in my local video/DVD store and decided to rent it. Nonetheless, the unrelenting focus on the futility of war - even seen through the context of a "different" kind of war - makes this a movie that everyone should see. I hope to see the rest of Watkins's movies.
George Harris (the Nigerian officer) later played Kingsley Shacklebolt in the Harry Potter movies.