Together Together


A truly odd couple.

(2021) Comedy (Bleecker Street) Patti Harrison, Ed Helms, Rosalind Chao, Timm Sharp, Bianca Lopez, Nora Dunn, Fred Melamed, Vivian Gil, Tig Notaro, Julio Torres, Evan Jonigkeit, Sufe Bradshaw, Travis Coles, Jo Firestone, David Chattam, Heidi Méndez, Ellen Dubin (voice), May Calamawy, Greta Titelman, Tucker Smallwood, Terri Hoyos, Ithamar Enriquez, Gail Rastorfer. Directed by Nikole Beckwith

Our biological clocks tick inexorably. Our time is limited and if we want to have kids, there is a time where we’ve got to buckle down and get to parentin’ if we’re going to do it at all. Not having a partner at that point in life isn’t necessarily the obstacle it once was.

For middle-aged app designer Matt (Helms), he hasn’t had any sort of romantic relationship in eight years but he REALLY wants to be a dad. He decides to go the surrogacy route and that’s how he meets Anna (Harrison). She’s a barista in a coffee shop in San Francisco (where Matt also lives) who has been estranged from her family ever since a teenage pregnancy led to her dropping out of high school and giving up the baby for adoption. She wants to break out of the rut her life has settled into and knows that she needs to complete her education – complete with college degree. The money she makes from having a baby would essentially be able to pay for getting her life back on track. She considers it a fair trade-off.

For Matt, being in control of things has been the secret to his success and at first he can’t help but be a bit of a control freak when it comes to Anna’s pregnancy, giving the stink eye over dietary choices and pushing for her to get clogs (“pregnancy shoes,” as he calls them). At first, Anna is annoyed by his intrusion into her life, but she soon begins to see inside the surface and realizes that Matt is really a nice, kind man who is looking to fulfill a life goal and on his own terms. That’s something they have in common.

Gradually the two form a bond, whether it is Anna showing up at a decidedly uncomfortable baby shower, or binge watching episodes of Friends with Matt. As the big day looms on the horizon, the two are constantly attempting to define their relationship and the boundaries therein. It’s not always easy.

In lesser hands this would have been a sappy rom-com with Matt and Anna falling in love and having a happily-ever-after but these are not lesser hands. Beckwith shows a deft touch with comedy and as she also wrote the script, a good deal of insight into parental urges and the nature of inter-gender friendships. Unlike the main premise of When Harry Met Sally, Beckwith not only supports the idea that men can be friends with women without a sexual element involved in the relationship, but that the friendship can be as deep and as fulfilling as a romantic relationship (I happen to agree with her). That friendship is at the center of the film.

For that reason, the movie is remarkably schmaltz-free. The emotions that come up are generally earned and feel organic. The two squabble from time to time, but it’s ot the cute squabbling of rom-coms but the honest disagreement between two adults who see things differently. Harrison, who most people know from Shrill (if they know her at all), is brilliant. Her performance here is compared to Melissa McCarthy’s in Bridesmaids in the sense that it is a breakout of a gifted comedian who is ready to become a major star, and I think Harrison could have that kind of success.

Helms has become a steady performer, excelling at playing decent guys and so he does here. You can’t help but be drawn to him, even though at times he is a bit overbearing (Matt, not Ed Helms). Watching Ed Helms work has always given me the feeling that he’s the kind of guy you want to be friends with. That’s a good skill to have for an actor.

The movie has some terrific supporting performances, ranging from Notaro as a therapist that both Matt and Anna see, Melamed and Dunn as Matt’s parents, Torres as Anna’s gay co-worker, and especially Bradshaw as an ultrasound technician who gets to witness Matt and Anna’s squabbles.

Maybe the best thing about the film is its ending, which takes place appropriately enough in the delivery room. Cinematographer Frank Barrera keeps the camera tight on Harrison’s face and Harrison gives him good reason to. Her expressions are beautiful and bittersweet, and the ending is about as perfect as a movie ending can be, fitting the tone of the film perfectly and providing a graceful coda. This was a movie that was far better than I had a right to expect it to be, and I recommend it highly.

The movie is currently playing the Florida Film Festival and can be streamed (by Florida residents only, unfortunately) at the link below, but be of good cheer – it is getting a national release a week from today (as this is published). So no excuses…

REASONS TO SEE: Helms and Harrison have excellent chemistry together. There is surprising depth in the comedy. Looks at surrogacy from an unusual angle.
REASONS TO AVOID: The humor might be too low-key for modern audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity including female reproductive references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harrison’s mother is Vietnamese and met her father, a U.S. soldier, during the War. They eventually got married and had seven children of which Patti is the youngest.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema (through April 25)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Baby Mama
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Mapplethorpe

Lily Topples the World


Great art requires patience.

(2021) Documentary (Wheelhouse Creative) Lily Hevesh, Will Smith, Katy Perry, Lucy Belvin, Shane O’Brien, Mark Hevesh, Danny Lichtenfield, Aaron Kyro, Brian Cen, Yong Wa Kim, Lucas Dotson, Catherine Hevesh, Chris Wright, Nathan Heck, Jason Epnick, Tiffany Szeto. Directed by Jeremy Workman

 

In this era of social influencers and instant YouTube stars, one of the biggest is Lily Hevesh. With over three million subscribers and more than a billion views of her more than three hundred videos, she has become a YouTube celebrity. What does she do for this fame? She knocks down dominos.

Actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that. She refers to it as “domino art” and even that sells it a bit short. She sets up dominos in complicated lines and structures, utilizing architectural and engineering skills as well as aesthetic ones. Putting these installations together takes a great deal of patience and a light touch. The dominos are not the standard black with dots kinds, but colored pieces that form figures and words and cause viewers to ooh and aah when they are knocked down.

You’ve probably seen some of her videos on social media without knowing it was her – she goes by the name of Hevesh5 online – and many of her peers who also create domino art were quite surprised to discover that she’s a young woman – the niche field is dominated by men. There is no doubt, however, that Lily is one of the very best at what she does, if not THE best.

The documentary picks up with her freshman year at Rensselaer Polytechnic University, where the freshman class is delighted to discover that they have a celebrity among them. Lily’s eventual roommate Lucy Belvin is shocked to discover that the celebrity is her roommate – Lucy was unfamiliar with her channel before she met Lily. We eventually discover that Lily was adopted at age one from a Chinese orphanage by a white couple in New Hampshire; Lily was raised in a largely Caucasian environment, to the point where she describes that she would do double takes when seeing Asian faces because they would be so rarely glimpsed when she was growing up.

She developed her fascination with dominos at a young age and started her YouTube channel at nine, where it steadily increased until it became the juggernaut it is today. Her one to three minute videos show a good eye for camera movement and an understanding of the physics of toppling, which unfortunately doesn’t translate so much to the documentary which often captures the dominos from the wrong angle, or the dominos pass out of frame. Also, Workman often puts music over the toppling dominos; Lily’s videos allow you to hear that lovely clicking of the falling dominos.

After a year at RPI, Lily came to the conclusion that college would not be the path to what she wanted to do, which was to further develop her YouTube channel and her brand, translating to her own line of competition toppling dominos. To do so, she attends a number of toy fairs hoping too hook up with manufacturers, most of whom pass because they see her dominos as more of a niche market. But her persistence and determination are inspiring.

Besides that, she’s just a charming subject, very genuine indeed. She truly appreciates her fans who in turn treat her with hero-worship, which she reacts with compassion. I would have liked to have gotten some insight as to her feelings about the recognition but that’s a question that’s never asked. In fact, a lot of questions don’t get asked here. Instead, we are treated to ten different large-format installations that get toppled from all over the world, including one on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and her many appearances at conventions for YouTube content creators. I didn’t think it would be possible to end up being bored with domino toppling, but that happens here. Even Lily would be the first to tell you why she keeps her videos at three minutes apiece.

I don’t think that Workman, who had previously done the excellent documentary The World Before Your Feet, intended to make this a documentary about domino toppling, but the insistence of putting so many installations into the 90 minute run time turns it into just that. The most interesting parts of the movie are those that center on Lily’s journey, her reams and ambitions and what makes her get out of bed every morning. I wish we could have seen more of that.

The movie is currently playing at the Florida Film Festival where Florida residents can view it virtually by going to the link below. Currently without a distributor, the movie will doubtlessly be making the estival rounds throughout the spring and summer but I think it likely it will find a home with some distributor and end up with either a limited theatrical run or maybe even a spot on PBS or Discovery Plus. In the meantime, you can view Lily’s YouTube channel here and subscribe to it if you wish.

REASONS TO SEE: As fascinating as the domino art is, Lily’s story about finding her identity and creating a brand for herself are much more so.
REASONS TO AVOID: Spent too much time on toppling dominos and not enough on Lily’s story.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lily was responsible for the domino toppling scene in the Will Smith movie Collateral Beauty.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (through April 18)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Levitated Mass
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Looking for a Lady with Fangs and a Moustache

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street


Just another day at the office.

(2021) Documentary (HBO Documentaries) Joan Ganz Cooney, Jim Henson, Jon Stone, Joe Raposo, Caroll Spinney, Holly Robinson Peete, Sonia Manzano, Roscoe Orman, Bob McGrath, Matt Robinson, Frank Biondo, Christopher Cerf, Lloyd Morissette, Nick Raposo, Emilio Delgado, Dolores Robinson, Fran Brill, Matt Robinson Jr., Polly Stone, Kate Stone Lucas Directed by Marilyn Agrelo

 

When Sesame Street debuted on PBS in 1968, there was likely nobody expecting just how massive the seismic shift it was to create in American television would be. Essentially since the moment television began broadcasting kid’s programming, the soul aim for those shows was to sell breakfast cereal and toys to kids.

But there were visionaries who thought TV could do more. Producer Joan Ganz Cooney and director/writer/producer Jon Stone thought that kids – who already by then were spending an enormous amount of time glued to the boob tube – could be educated instead of merely regarded as mini-consumers in the making. And it was their bright idea to use the same sorts of techniques that Madison Avenue was using to sell kids on learning the alphabet, their numbers and important life lessons.

This was a revolutionary change in thinking and this documentary shows how they came to accomplish just that. Utilizing a well-regarded but largely unknown puppeteer named Jim Henson and his Muppet creations – which had been used for adult humor on late night TV, or to sell beer (and they show the hilarious clips of the Muppets doing just that) – and a perfect symbiosis was created. Because this was theSixties, Cooney was very invested in the Civil Rights movement and wanted to show an integrated neighborhood, and because her program was aimed at lower-income children who were at a disadvantage when it came to getting a good education, the setting was one her target audience could relate to – an urban street.

With a wealth of behind the scenes footage as well as contemporary and archival interviews, we hear from the principle players including composer Joe Raposo who wrote the iconic “It Isn’t Easy Being Green,” and the human actors who played the adult residents of Sesame Street. Their recollections are tinged with nostalgia and a hint of rose-colored glasses filtering out the more unpleasant things, but it was obvious that these people and the dozens who worked on the show cared very much about the show’s mission, and ultimately for each other. They refer to it as a second family, and that is obvious in the care taken with the work.

There are some hilarious moments of backstage tomfoolery, as well as moments of pathos – the cast explaining to a distraught Big Bird that one of the characters, Mr. Cooper, had died which he is at first unable to understand. It is a bittersweet moment and for Da Queen and myself, incredibly moving. It was obvious that the cast was deeply affected because the actor who played Mr. Cooper, Will Lee, had himself passed on and in a way, they were able to process their own grief by helping Big Bird with his own.

The movie essentially covers the 20 year period from the show’s inception to Henson’s funeral in 1990, so there are a lot of characters and things not covered here. The tone is more than a little hagiographic; even the one instance where there was some negativity – the first actor who played Gordon, Matt Robinson (father of Holly Robinson Peete) had developed an African-American muppet named Eugene, who spoke in what could be termed a “ghetto dialect.” This proved to be unpopular – surprisingly enough, with the black demographic – and the character was quietly phased out. Matt, stung by the rejection, eventually exited the show.

But mostly all is sunshine and rainbows on Sesame Street. For those who grew up watching the show, this is bound to bring the warm fuzzies, particularly since many of those who grew up with the show then got to experience it again as parents with their own children, as Da Queen did (she was four years old when the show came out and firmly in the target audience).

While television continues to use it’s vast power mainly to sell to consumers, Sesame Street became the rare instance of committed people with a good idea shepherding the idea to fruition, and having that idea make a big difference. Three generations of kids have learned their A-B-Cs at the lap of the show, and new episodes continue to be filmed for HBO, the company who made this documentary so I suppose the positive tone would be inevitable. However, the documentary is extremely informative and will bring out fond memories for anyone who found out how to get, how to get to Sesame Street.

REASONS TO SEE: Will definitely have all the feels for people of a certain age group. Gives a great deal of insight into the making of the show. Very emotional in places.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very much on the hagiographic side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mississippi’s public Television station initially refused to air the show because it depicted a racially mixed neighborhood. A commercial station picked up the show which proved to be extraordinarily popular with the local children, forcing the PBS station to relent.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (through April 18)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: <em?97% positive="" reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Lily Topples the World

Tiny Tim: King For a Day


The life of Tiny Tim wasn’t an easy one.

(2020) Music Documentary (Juno) Herbert “Tiny Tim” Khaury, Weird Al Yankovic, Justin A. Martell, Susan Khaury-Wellman, Johnny Pineapple, Richard Perry, Wavy Gravy, Bernie Stein, Eddie Rabin, Ron DeBlasio, Bobby Gonzalves, George Schlatter, Jonas Nekas, Artie Butler, Milt Friedwald, Martin Sharp, Harvey Mann, Tulip Stewart. Directed by Johan van Sydow

Tiny Tim exists, for the most part, in the national zeitgeist as an oddity of the 1960s, dismissed as a one-trick pony with his elfin smile, ukulele and falsetto vocals. He would die in 1995, mostly forgotten, playing in restaurants, circuses and middle school auditoriums, a sad figure living on the limelight that had long since faded away.

Stardom is a potent, addicting thing and Tiny Tim, bourn Herbert Butros Khaury, was a junkie. The son of a Jewish mother and an Arab father – an almost unheard-of combination back then and even so still today. His parents really didn’t know what to make of him, and were generally unsupportive of his ambitions and even when he had become a big star, were less than enthusiastic about his career choice.

This documentary, which debuted at the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival and is currently playing at the Florida Film Festival, features a good deal of archival footage of Tim’s television performances on the Tonight Show, Dick Cavett, Ed Sullivan and the like. At the height of his fame, he was a national icon who was something of a symbol of the flower power movement but a change in management put his career in the hands of those who would, in the words of his friend Johnny Pineapple, “send him out anywhere if it put a dollar in their pocket.” His career took a nosedive and as quickly as he he became a household name, he declined into obscurity.

The documentary utilizes excerpts from Tim’s diaries (read by Weird Al Yankovic, himself fairly conversant with the fickle finger of fame) which hints at a darkness in the performer’s soul. Apparently a very religious person (he lamented at one point that he felt as “a lost soul in Hell, crying out for help”) with some severe self-image issues as well as a pretty nasty case of depression, he kept his gentle smile and childlike demeanor showing even to the very end. There is also some effective black and white animated sequences.

The overall tone is bittersweet. I don’t know if you could term his life, as Todd Rundgren coined it, “the ever-popular tortured artist effect” but there’s no doubt that his life had more than his share of pain and suffering. If there’s a silver lining here, it does make you re-examine your attitude towards artists who might be outsiders, those whose music might be a bit different. Maybe their music isn’t your cup of tea, and that’s okay, but it should be remembered that every artists, regardless of who they are, put themselves out there and that is something to be respected, not ridiculed. I have to admit that my attitude towards Tiny Tim changed after watching this, and so did my attitude towards people like William Hung and others who may be chasing fame, but even if they don’t achieve it for long, should be treated with compassion rather than derision.

REASONS TO SEE: Truly affecting at times.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fairly typical music doc.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some discussions of child abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tiny Tim’s wedding broadcast on The Tonight Show remains the second largest American television audience of all time as of this writing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (through April 18)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zappa
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

Woman in Motion


Uhura is still alluring.

(2019) Documentary (Shout! Nichelle Nichols, Vivica A. Fox, George Takei, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Reginald Hudlin, Lynn Whitfield, Al Sharpton, Pharrell Williams, John Lewis, Maxine Waters, Martin Luther King III, Rod Roddenberry, Michael Dorn, Benjamin Crump, Michael Eric Dyson, David Gerrold, D.C. Fontana, Deborah Riley Draper, Walter Koenig, Allison Schroeder. Directed by Todd Thompson


Whether you are a fan of the show Star Trek or not, you have to admit that it was historic and changed our culture for good. During its short three season run, it pushed the boundaries of what television sci-fi could be – from essentially kids programming to, for the first time, intelligent adult shows concerning issues that humanity was facing at the moment it aired (many of which we’re still facing) from racism to mutually assured destruction to drug addiction.

Nichelle Nichols was part of that groundbreaking cast. She was one of the first African-Americans to appear in a role that wasn’t subservient or strictly comic relief (although she did provide that from time to time). She took part in television’s first interracial kiss (with William Shatner) which led to many stations in the South to refuse to air the episode; that’s history making. But many of Trek’s even most staunchest fans may not know that her real history making came after the show left the airwaves.

The astronaut program for NASA had been up to that point strictly white men only. While there had been a brief flirtation with admitting women to the program, that effort was eventually discontinued quietly and NASA remained a white boys-only club – and Nichelle Nichols noticed. She told NASA’s chief “I don’t see my people (among the astronauts)” during a convention and as it turned out, NASA listened. They had already been eager to change the demographic of the astronaut program; the problem was, they weren’t getting much interest from the African-American community nor any other minorities for that matter. Nichelle, through her Women in Motion program, was tasked with recruiting astronauts to the program. And in order to talk knowledgeably about the process, Nichols herself underwent some of the tests that applicants go through.

Eventually, she succeeded in bringing enough people of color and women to the program to at least get the integration process started. This documentary on her life focuses primarily on her post-Trek endeavors, although her early history growing up in Chicago, her aspirations to be a dancer and a singer, and her gradual migration to acting are chronicled, as is her career as Lt. Uhura (there’s an amusing montage of Nichols saying her signature line “Hailing frequencies open,”).

But it is also true that the extraordinarily talented Nichols – who has an amazing vocal range, which she demonstrates in several songs sung during the course of the documentary – was criminally underutilized, often relegated to being little more than a switchboard operator. Stung by the lack of development for her role, Nichols was ready to quit – until no less a personage than Martin Luther King, Jr. intervened, urging her to keep at it. The astute Dr. King realized the symbolic importance of Nichols’ mere presence on Star Trek.

The movie, which was the opening night film at last year’s Florida Film Festival, does bog itself down with an overabundance of talking head interviews from all walks of life, including her fellow Trek co-stars George Takei and Walter Koenig, one of the successors to the franchise (Michael Dorn), actors (Vivica A. Fox and Reginald Hudlin), scientists (Neil DeGrasse Tyson), astronauts (Mae Jemison and Bill Nelson) and politicians (Maxine Waters, John Lewis) discuss Nichols and her importance as both an actress and a recruiter for NASA.

Nichols proved to be an engaging storyteller, although after filming she was afflicted with dementia which is not evident in the film. It did prevent her from doing much publicity for the film, which is a shame because there is a wonderful warmth here, even despite the seemingly endless parade of interviews. We do see a lot of archival footage of Nichols stumping for NASA as well as a plethora of Trek clips, but this isn’t a movie necessarily for hardcore Trekkers – although they will certainly want to see it.

REASONS TO SEE: Nichols is a wonderful storyteller. She has amazing range as a singer. One truly gets a sense of her inner strength and determination.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly reliant on talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As a child, Nichols took ballet dancers and dreamed of one day becoming one of the first African-American ballerinas; she ended up becoming a singer (and at one time sang for Duke Ellington’s orchestra) and then an actress.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Be Takei
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Mimic

Class Action Park


Throwing sanity for a loop.

(2020) Documentary (Perennial Media) Chris Gethard, John Hodgman (narrator), Jim DeSaye, Jessi Paladini, Ed Youmans, Bill Benneyan, Esther Larsson, Bob Krahulik, Mary Pilon, Mark Johnson, Faith Anderson, Andrew Mulvihill, Tom Shaw, Matthew Callan, Jimmy Kimmel, Brian Larsson, Daron Fitch, Seth Porges, Joe Hession, Mark Malkoff, Eugene Mulvihill, Alison Becker. Directed by Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III

Anyone ever tell you that truth is stranger than fiction? Well, here’s a documentary that’s living proof of that aphorism.

In the rolling hills of Vernon, New Jersey Wall Street penny stock trader Eugene Mulvihill, having been playing a bit fast and loose with SEC regulations in his day job, decided he wanted to build a water park near New York City. Water parks were pretty much new back then in the 80s, and Eugene found a property in the rolling hills of Vernon, New Jersey that was a ski resort. Ski resorts, however, only make money in the winter so he building a year-round theme park would be the ticket. He called his property Action Park.

“Uncle Gene,” as his staff generally called him, didn’t care much for regulations and had the deep pockets of a Wall Street crony to give him nearly limitless resources. He decided to build attractions that were one-of-a-kind and they certainly were that, like Cannonball Loop, a water slide with a loop in it. Gene preferred using non-professionals to design his rides – they were much cheaper than guys with engineering degrees – and the proof of how dangerous the ride was came when an inspection revealed human teeth embedded in the lining of the loop where people’s faces had slammed at high speeds into the top of the loop.

There were cliff diving recreations that had people jumping into a pool that people were swimming in. There was a wave pool with a “death zone” in which people would get swept under (and it became a literal death zone when a couple of people drowned in it). That’s right – people died going to this theme park, seven of ‘em in five years.

But back in the halcyon days of the 80s, parents really didn’t care where their kids were so long as they weren’t bothering them. So in the tri-state area, teens would go to Action Park to test their mettle against dangerous rides, like go-carts that could reach speeds of 50 MPH and came dangerously close to the beer tent – oh, and the legal drinking age was just a suggestion so far as Action Park was concerned.

Mulvihill had a largely teenage staff who weren’t terribly interested in enforcing safety regulations; most of them were too busy getting drunk, high or laid to properly supervise rides. Vinnies from the Shore and from the City would show up at Action Park looking to get blasted and come away with scars of honor. Even the medical shed was a house of horrors; scrapes were treated with a skeevy orange liquid that was so painful that anyone so treated with it who could stay within a painted circle on the ground without writhing in pain outside of it won a prize (which was an Action park pen more often than not).

The filmmakers tell the story through home video recovered from videotapes, old advertisements, talking head interviews (comedian Chris Gethard, a regular at the park in its heyday, is particularly amusing) and animated recreations.

At first, the documentary is hilarious as you can’t believe the bizarre ideas that Mulvihill allowed to be created at his park. But then the Larsson family tells their story and the tone shifts. George Larsson Jr. was a teen with a bright future ahead of him, but while screaming down the mountain at sick speeds on the Alpine Slide, the flimsily built sled he was riding saw its brakes fail and he went head-first into a rock. It turned out that the insurance policy that Mulvihill was carrying was a complete fraud, one he used to launder money out to the Caymans. And when fined, or sued, Mulvihill just refused to pay. It’s amazing he didn’t end up in jail, but he learned from Donald Trump – who was at one time considering investing in the Park – and his powerful connections kept him out of jail. His son, who inherited the park, was one of the talking heads interviewed for the film and while he remembers his father fondly, he also remembers him without sugar-coating.

Ultimately the park shut down as the 80s gave way to the 90s and parental supervision became a little stricter. I think most of those interviewed agree that something like Action Park could never happen again, but I wonder about that. Despite the lawsuit-happy culture we live in, deregulation seems to be something that the conservatives thoroughly endorse; it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that safety regulations for theme and water parks might be struck down just as environmental regulations have been.

This is a fascinating documentary that had me riveted from beginning to end. I lived on the opposite side of the country from Action Park, so thankfully I cut my teeth on theme and water parks that had a bit more consideration for safety. I suspect some remember the park fondly, but I’m reasonably sure that nobody would like to go back to it if they could.

REASONS TO SEE: Laugh-out-loud funny. Jaw-dropping in a “I can’t believe they got away with that” way. Captures the feeling of the Eighties very nicely. Lots of great clips.
REASONS TO AVOID: You might feel a little bit ashamed of yourself for laughing from time to time.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Johnny Knoxville based his movie Action Point on a short film Porges made on Action Park that preceded this full-length feature.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 69/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Action Point
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Behind the Lines: Escape to Dunkirk

After So Many Days


Jim and Sam will play anywhere for anyone.

 (2020) Musical Documentary (Tiny RoomJim Hanft, Samantha Yonack. Directed by Jim Hanft and Samantha Yonack

Making music is something that many of us do in one way or another. It is an expression of our passion, in most cases. To do it professionally requires a different kind of passion; a kind of madness, really. The business of making music is a frustrating and often unforgiving one. Keeping your sanity given the kind of indifference and heartache that often follows in being a professional musician is no easy task.

So, one has to wonder about the husband/wife duo of Jim and Sam. Freshly married in 2017, they found their career was in a morass and their creative juices simply weren’t flowing. Rather than taking a break, which often leads to a much more extended absence than intended, they decided to launch themselves both feet into their mutual career – to play a gig every day for a full year.

So, yeah, you have to wonder if they weren’t a little crazy for even considering the plan. Like the Irish band the Black Donnellys who undertook a similarly difficult venture as documented in An Irish Story: This is My Home, Jim and Sam set out to take the bull by the horns, which had to be daunting when you considered the logistics. Heap onto that the fact that they didn’t plan extensively; when they set out on the road from their Los Angeles home, they had about three weeks of gigs planned and that was it. The road they were on would take them to 14 different countries, particularly Sweden where they had recorded their first EP and had a bit of a fan base, but they also ended up in Eastern Europe and the UK as well.

The two documented their ordeal and created an absolutely wonderful documentary from it. I don’t think that non-professionals will ever get a better idea of the obstacles faced by professional musicians than this film, which shows them in thick and thin; having financial issues and a looming eviction from their apartment, transportation issues, and canceled gigs leading to scrambling to play in front of someone, anyone that they could find, sometimes venturing into convenience stores, restaurants and tobacco shops to play impromptu sets. In one memorable scene, they stop by the side of the road and play for a very attentive herd of cows.

The two captured their gigs on cell phones, and inexpensive video cameras but even so, the quality is pretty good in terms of the cinematography. The two make for compelling subjects, and while they bicker from time to time, they seem to have gotten along extremely well considering the circumstances. Being together with anyone 24/7 for a year can put an enormous strain on a relationship. Hanft said in an interview that the two of them were forced to solve issues quickly, or risk long four-hour car rides angry with one another.

What you will take away most from this documentary, however, is the music which is really very special. Their harmonies are magical and their songs tuneful and full of lovely pop hooks. There are some sprightly uptempo numbers, and some melancholy reflective numbers. If you’re taste is anything like mine, you’ll likely be scrambling to find their music online.

Their solution to their musical malaise is not for every musician, in case you think something like this is going to solve all of your problems. The relationship was tested and so was their passion for their craft. They performed day after day, sometimes in front of indifferent audiences, occasionally nursing colds or the flu, whether they were in a good place mentally or not. While they did things largely on their own, they did have a manager looking out for them (in the film, he’s mainly a voice on the telephone until the final scenes).

“The show must go on” is a bit of an aphorism, but these two took it to almost ridiculous lengths but you have to admire their willingness to go all-in and their perseverance once they did. Whether you agree with me or not, you’ll have their music stuck in your head for a long time after the movie is over.

The movie will continue on the Festival circuit and looks to get a theatrical or VOD release in October of this year. Keep an eye out for it.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is exceptional. An inspirational DIY ethic.
REASONS TO AVOID: There are tantalizing snippets of songs that you wish you could hear more of.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jim and Sam met at a comedy show through a mutual friend; they began writing and performing music together a week later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/31/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Falling Slowly
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Cured

At the Video Store


When VHS was king.

(2019) Documentary (ArgotBill Hader, John Waters, Nicole Holofcener, Alex Ross Perry, Thelma Schoonmaker, Gus Van Sant, Penelope Spheeris, Ondi Timoner, Todd Haynes, Lance Bangs, Ehren McGhehey, Charles Mudede, Danny Peary, Milos Stehlik, Ted Hope, John Sloss, Aaron Hillis, Marty Arno, Zach Clark, Dana Harris, Catherine Tchen. Directed by James Westby

Film critics and film bloggers are also inherently film geeks; we love all things cinematic, whether it be genre films, foreign films, art house mainstays, classic movies, big mindless blockbusters or niche films. For many of us, that love begn in the video store.

Those of a certain age group will remember trips to the video store in the 80s and 90s, which started out largely as mom and pop operations until megachains such as Hollywood Video or, more to the point, Blockbuster Video, took over and put a stranglehold on the industry. Ironically speaking, there is but one Blockbuster store left; there are many more mom and pop stores that remain. That’s what karma is all about.

This documentary is a love letter to those mom and pop stores, where the clerks knew the tastes of their customers well enough that they could confidently recommend esoteric or rare movies. They were places where friendships (and sometimes romances) formed, lively debates ensued (“Was Godard better than Truffaut? Discuss!”) and memories were made.

The movie has lots of talking heads, from those who owned the stores that are fondly remembered or better yet, still in business, to those who went on to make an impact in the film industry themselves. There is a bit of the bittersweet in the overall attitude of the movie as Westby engenders a wistful quality to his nostalgia. They were simpler days indeed, before streaming (and to a lesser extent, Redbox) took over. Not that there is anything wrong with streaming, mind you – it’s the next logical step in home video evolution, but it lacks the personal touch of a video store. A computer recommendation isn’t the same as one coming from a teen kid in a Herschell Gordon Lewis t-shirt who knows the difference between Bloodsucking Freaks and Blood Feast and will tell you that the remake of 2,000 Maniacs is crap. An algorithm can only look at your rental habits and make a recommendation based on subject matter; it doesn’t distinguish between a hidden gem and a piece of trash.

The movie does tend to ramble a bit, and there are some curious choices; a musical interlude, for example. There are some original songs that nicely capture the feel for the old video stores, but they do get distracting after a while. Still, everyone who has ever debated the merits of Todd Solondz versus Paul Thomas Anderson will likely find this delightful. Those who could care less about those sorts of movies will likely feel like they are at a party where they don’t know anybody.

REASONS TO SEE: A must-see for film nerds.
REASONS TO AVOID: The musical number was unnecessary and the music was intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES: Some references to sex and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film took six years to make; several of the stores depicted went out of business in the meantime.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Surviving Supercon
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Apocalypse ’45

The Perfect Candidate


Roles in Saudi Arabia are changing.

(2019) Drama (Music BoxMila Al Zahrani, Dhay, Nora Al Awad, Khalid Abdulraheem, Shafi Alharthy, Tareq Ahmed Al-Khaldi, Khadeeja Mua’th, Rakan Abdulrahman, Nojoud Ahmed, Naser Al Algeel, Saeed Almana, Ahmad Alsulaimy, Reem Fahad, Bandar Hadadi, Bandar Alkhudair, Hamad Almuzainy, Ismaee Nasser, Muhammad Shaman, Abdullah Ateeg, Reema Mohammed. Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an enigma to Western minds. While it remains one of the most pro-Western governments in the Middle East, its government remains at times painfully repressive of women, although it did lift the ban on them driving by themselves in 2018 – not even two years ago. Lifting the veil, so to speak, on the lives of women in the Kingdom is no easy matter.

But who better to do so than Al-Mansour, who was the first Saudi woman ever to direct a feature film with the wonderful Wadjda back in 2012. Her protagonist, Dr. Maryam Alsafan (Al Zahrani) has a medical degree and works at a small hospital in a small town near Riyadh. She is constantly belittled by male colleagues, and encounters an elderly patient (Almuzainy) who refuses treatment by a female doctor. When Maryam refuses to back down, her hospital administrator (Hadadi) orders that the man be treated by the male nurses.
Back at home, she helps her sisters Selma (Dhay) and Sara (Al Awad) prepare a Ramadan meal for their father Abdulaziz (Abdulraheem), one of the country’s most gifted oud players. He is still mourning the untimely death of their mother, a beautiful wedding singer whose unusual choice of vocation (for Saudi women, unusual) had made things difficult at times, particularly for the sensitive Sara who disapproves of anything that might bring scrutiny down on the little family.

With Abdulaziz leaving on a national tour, Maryam uses the opportunity to attend a medical conference in Dubai where she is more likely to be noticed and find herself a new, more prestigious job. But there’s a problem; as an unmarried Saudi woman, she needs the permission of her father to travel, and his signature is apparently out of date. Stuck at the airport, desperately trying to get approval to fly to Dubai and with her father unreachable, she tries a cousin (Alsulaimy) to fix the problem. The trouble is, the supercilious administrative assistant won’t let Maryam see him unless she is planning on running for a municipal council office, and she grumpily declares that she is and then is told that her cousin isn’t willing to break the law on behalf, but she decides to make a serious run at it, even though she is told that she doesn’t have a chance in hell of defeating the incumbent. With the support of Selma, an ebullient wedding photographer, and the surly resentment of her younger sister Sara, who remembers the difficulties her mom’s profession brought on the family,

While the movie is ostensibly a drama, it is lighthearted enough so that there’s never a sense of gloom or hopelessness. Things are changing in Saudi Arabia and, apparently, even women themselves seem to think that progress might be taking place too quickly. We see the ladies taking off their niqab – a mask-like veil that only allows the eyes to be seen – in their homes, and gathering in gender-segregated halls in western dress, something unthinkable not so long ago.

This isn’t the kind of political underdog film that Frank Capra might have made; one gets the sense that Al-Mansour has to tread a very tricky line in order not to be overly critical of her government (she isn’t) while allowing the changes to be celebrated, yet there is certainly an underlying feeling  that more needs to be done. At times the way women are treated is positively medieval.

Both Al Zahrani and Dhay are wonderful performers; Al Zahrani makes Maryam a force of nature when she gets a head of steam going, although early on in the film she is fairly subservient. Dhay, though, is a remarkable burst of fresh air, so joyful and supportive that you’ll want to be her sister too. g

At times, the story moves along at a snail’s pace and there is little in the way of dramatic tension, which you wouldn’t think for a movie with the kind of issues this one raises. It feels virtually sedentary, but perhaps that would have been too much to ask of a Saudi female filmmaker; I imagine she would have to tread fairly lightly if she wants to continue making movies in her own country (although she has established a career in the States as well by now). There are some delightful moments and others that are pedantic; they about even each other out. So, not the triumph that Wadjda was, but certainly not a failure either.

REASONS TO SEE: Al Zahrani is a formidable presence and Dhay injects much vitality into the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times it lacks dramatic tension.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some misogyny on display.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the official Saudi entry in the Best International Film category for the 92nd Academy Awards last spring.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saudi Women’s Driving School
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Uncle Peckerhead

Sputnik


A space oddity.

(2020) Sci-Fi Horror (IFC Midnight) Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondrachuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Anton Vasilev, Aleksey Demidov, Aleksandr Manushev, Albrecht Zander, Vitaliya Kornienko, Vasiliy Zotov, Anna Nazarova. Directed by Egor Abramenko

It is said that in space, nobody can hear you scream; in a Soviet-era research facility slash prison, everybody can hear you scream – they just pretend not to.

It’s 1983 and do you know where your cosmonauts are? It is the last gasp of the Cold War and a Soviet space mission has crash landed, leaving one cosmonaut dead and the other, Konstantin Veshnyakov (Fyodorov) with amnesia. He is brought to a forbidding research facility by Colonel Semiradov (Bondrachuk), a fatherly sort who seems genuinely interested in finding out what happened. To that end, he enlists disgraced psychologist Tatyana Klimova (Akinshina) who cured a young teen of his fears by holding his head underwater. That’s apparently too extreme even for the USSR, so she’s about to experience an abrupt career change when she’s approached by Semiradov to see if she can rescue the memories from the cosmonaut, a national hero.

But it turns out that the hero isn’t alone inside his body. He has an alien hitchhiker, translucent and almost jelly-like, able to fold itself into a much smaller space – say, a man’s esophagus – and come out at night to feed. And what does an alien parasite – or is that symbiote? – eat? Cortisol, the pheromone of fear. And then, he tears off the head of the victim and feeds more conventionally.

Tatyana is determined to suss out Konstantin’s secrets and is remarkably successful, in more ways than she can imagine – she begins to develop sympathy, and then maybe emotional attachment – to Veshnyakov. When it turns out that the government is interested in the little stowaway and has some pretty nasty plans for it, she knows she and Konstantin need to make a run for it, but where can they go that would be safe from the creature inside?

In a lot of ways this harkens back to the creature features of the late 70s and 80s, particularly Ridley Scott’s Alien and the other films (and there are many) that it inspired. The parasite/symbiote is no xenomorph, but it is virtually indestructible and very, very aggressive. Tatyana wants to get the creature out of Veshnyakov without killing him; she is the conscience. Veshnyakov is the id, where the monsters dwell. Semiradov, who comes off something like a Bond villain here, is the cold logic unencumbered by compassion. In a sense, he is as much a monster as the alien.

Abramenko has assembled a slick-looking film that takes good advantage of Soviet-era brutalist architecture and of the horror tropes of the era that the film is set in. It is a bit of a slow burn, but it does heat up until it gets to its preposterous yet nevertheless satisfying ending.

The creature design is off the chain; it’s scary as hell, completely alien but makes logical sense. Akinshina and Fyodorov do good work as the heroic leads, but it is Bondrachuk who really shines as the kindly-on-the-surface-but cruel-to-the-core Colonel, whose absolute loyalty to the state will ring a troubling chord for some who have seen this kind of obsession all too often these days.

This is another great horror film for 2020, a year that seems to be destined to be remembered as a horror film in and of itself. I had a few quibbles – the creature is introduced far too early, robbing it of some of its effectiveness, and the pacing is a little uneven and there are a few too many clichés at work, but overall, this is a stellar horror film that is bound to have you wishing for a brightly lit place to repair to immediately afterward.

REASONS TO SEE: Does a good job building the tension. The creature effects are solid. Spartan production puts emphasis on the story.
REASONS TO AVOID: Reveals the creature far too early.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence, gore and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the performance footage was originally filmed in black and white, but was restored to full color for use in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apollo 18
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Hole in the Ground