The Buskers & Lou


The slack life.

(2014) Drama (RandomMarshall Walker Lee, Megan Carver, Tyler Andre, Margaret Douglas, Robert Thrush, Jordan Wilgus, Steven Felts, William H. Wilson, Nickolas Mitchell, Ethan Zinn-Brown, Luke Potter, The Crow, The Wolf, Wes Lysiak, Skylar Jensen, Shay Bjorndahl, Perla Bonilla, Erin O’Connor, Alexandra Metaxa, Katerina Georgiou. Directed by Alex Cassun

 

Welcome to being a grown-up. I know it’s not something you particularly wanted to do; it just happened. There’s no real prize for getting here and it tends to be a pain in the you-know-where. For your trouble, however, you get free elevated stress levels. Isn’t that nice?

Lou (Lee) returns to his home town of Portland after an absence of an unspecified number of years; his friends are at first happy to see him back but more as a curiosity and Lou isn’t really forthcoming about where he’s been and why he’s back. Some, of course, are happier to see him than others.

Lou had been a street musician, playing for pocket change and using what he made “busking” for what things he needed – mainly food and alcohol. He’s determined not to resume that lifestyle however; he wants a job and a life, but considering that he’s never really had gainful employment before it’s not easy to find anything other than a dead-end minimum wage job which he takes.

Lou is crashing for now in his friend Jackie’s (Carver) van where she also lives; the two are, as friends in close quarters often will, start to get on each other’s nerves. Lou spends time talking to a therapist (Wilson) on a park bench when he’s not trying to navigate the rat race, much to the contempt of his friends.

You see, they are all continuing to busk and live life on their own terms and are all the happier for it. They have an event to look forward to; ten years prior they (including Lou) had buried a time capsule in the yard of a house some of them owned. They have decided to dig it up and are organizing a party, called “The Big Dig” to celebrate it. Lou has been inviting but he is often a no-show for things that he is invited to these days.

I don’t think I’ve seen a movie that made me feel quite so much like a crotchety old man in quite some time. This is a young person’s film dealing with young person’s issues and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Happiness is important to these characters as it is indeed to all of us; most of us in the rat race aren’t necessarily there because we don’t want to be happy. Even mind-numbing make-work kinds of jobs can occasionally give us a feeling of satisfaction and/or accomplishment though.

There is almost a contempt for people who work here at times an that might be irritating to those who actually, you know, work. Portland can be a great place for street musicians but not all of us live there; I get that the artistic mentality is different from that of the working class and just as valid in its own way but I can see how those who work hard just to tread water might be a little bit insulted by this.

The performances are pretty decent considering that the cast is largely locals and unprofessional. I suspect Cassun comes from a musical background because his soundtrack choices betray a really good ear. The problem I had is that I couldn’t get into most of the characters; there was nothing here for me to grab onto and as a result I found myself less and less enthused about finding out what happens to Lou and his friends. By the time the Big Dig rolls around, the mystery behind Lou’s disappearance is revealed (you should be able to figure it out) and I didn’t really care very much about it to begin with.

I try to give low-budget indies a pass for the most part and it’s plain to see that the director invested heart and soul into this film but sometimes that isn’t enough. I need to be invested in the lives of the characters; I need to care about what happens to them. I need to be excited about what comes next. None of that ever happened during the film. As you can tell by the release date, it’s been bopping around the Festival circuit and otherwise sitting on the shelf for five years until Random Media got hold of it for home video release. They believe in the film and maybe you will to once you see it but this was one I never found myself connecting with.

REASONS TO SEE: Tackles the age-old question of happiness versus adulting.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit of a bore.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house where the “Big Dig” takes place is actually the rehearsal space for the Portland-based band Typhoon.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Portlandia
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Them That Follow

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Lamp Light


The look on your face when you’re late for work due to a tunnel collapse.

(2016) Thriller (RandomMason Rey, Joel P.E. King, Kelly Frances Hager, A.J. Sweatt, Chelsea Christopher, Dr. A. Goodwin, Nathan Goss, Rebecca Torres. Directed by Mason Rey

 

There was a joke going around some years ago: Ever have one of those days? Well, I have one of those lives. That can truly be said about Don Gos (Rey), a telemarketer trying to shill for investors into a precious metals company. Most of the people he speaks to aren’t exactly overjoyed to be speaking with a telemarketer which is pretty much true for all of us, even telemarketers. Still, he handles the abuse and the snide comments with as much grace as he can muster.

Afterwards, he gets to go home but not to a loving family but to an empty apartment. Don’s love life is all online with a girl named Olive he’s never met and frankly, considering the way things are going, probably never will. To say the least Don has some self-confidence issues.

On the way to work the next morning he decides to take the scenic route, trying to delay his arrival at the office for as long as possible. Not to He goes through a tunnel – which promptly collapses on top of him, burying him alive inside his car. At first, he thinks this will be a temporary inconvenience but as the hours pass by he realizes that help may well be on the way but it might not arrive in time. The car’s chassis has protected him thus far but the weight of the mountain on the steel encasing hi is beginning to take its toll and it seems only a matter of time before he’s crushed to death.

Don’s beginning to freak out more than a little bit until he hears the voice of a fellow survivor – Gym (King) who is not far away but unable to move any closer. The two get to talking and little by little Don begins to take a hard look at his life and his choices – and particularly to what happened to his marriage and why his wife (Hager) isn’t around anymore.

In this kind of cinematic situation, Hollywood tends to want heroic figures in peril and this surprisingly goes a different route. Not to knock Mason Rey but he is far from the action hero mold; he’s more of an everyman, not in great shape and a little bit too much into geek things. It’s not that he isn’t good looking, it’s just he isn’t the sort that is going to dig his way out of this with a plastic spork and a drinking straw.

I guess you can go as far as to say that this is an “in-action” movie rather than an action movie. All but the first 20 minutes is set in the interior of a crushed car and that doesn’t allow for a lot of camera movement., so most of the film we are stuck staring at Rey doing various things to pass the time, from taking stock of his food and water to drawing figures on the car to trying to dig his way out. There isn’t a lot for Rey to do but chat with the disembodied voice of Gym and that leads us to watch as Don’s grip on sanity begins to get somewhat loose. Rey is compelling given the circumstances but fair warning, some are going to find the film a bit too static.

=And it does move pretty slowly. This is a character study in which we essentially are trapped in Don’s head along with him. There are some flashbacks but for the most part this is the Mason Rey show, which considering he also wrote and directed this isn’t too surprising (if you looked carefully at certain festival screenings he was also selling popcorn in the lobby). Fortunately, Rey has enough presence to back it up so it doesn’t come off as auteur ego.

=There are some plot malfunctions that are a bit glaring; for example, one would think that Don would be in greater danger from asphyxiation than being crushed to death. He does an awful lot of talking which would fill his limited air supply with carbon dioxide but that aspect doesn’t seem to be addressed unless you attribute some of the of the sanity issues to hypoxia rather than stress. In any case, that isn’t made really clear. There are a couple of others but I won’t go into detail as they would constitute spoilers and this is a good enough film that it doesn’t deserve to be ruined by a venal critic trying to make a point.

Yes, this is a film I’d actually recommend with some caveats. It is ponderously slow and is more of a cerebral film than an action-oriented one so even if the buried alive aspect intrigues you, the approach may not be to your liking. Nonetheless there are some compelling features that make this flawed but ultimately satisfying film worth a look.

REASONS TO SEE: Mason Rey is a fairly compelling lead.
REASONS TO AVOID: Awfully slow-moving and not a lot of action.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as you might expect from someone being slowly crushed to death.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film premiered at the Atlanta Film Festival in 2018.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daylight
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Unmasking Jihadi John: Anatomy of a Terrorist

Magic Molecule


A notice of judicial ignorance.

(2018) Documentary (RandomEric Sterling, Ricky Williams, “Freeway” Ricky Ross, Jade Jerger, Lelah Jerger, Mauro Lara, Joshua Camp, Rebecca O’Krent, Steven Figueroa, Dr. Tim Shaw, Matt Herpel, Chris Conte, Cheyenne Popplewell, Steve Gordon, Matt Chapman, Jesse Danwoody, Jim Tomes, Angel Mack, Ashlyn Scott, Zac Hudson, Heather Jackson   Directed by Dylan Avery

 

When people think of cannabis, they think of getting stoned for the most part. They think of midnight munchies and that mellow feeling that weed can bring. However, what they’re really thinking of is THC, the oil in cannabis that is psychoreactive. Not all marijuana has that property.

Hemp is a form of marijuana that is actually far more useful than recreation. Its fibers make an excellent building material; it also contains an oil called CBD that is proving to have some amazing medicinal uses, from controlling seizures to shrinking tumors to relieving chronic pain.

In an era where Big Pharma seems to have a stranglehold on modern medicine, CBD oil has shown to be almost a miracle drug, helping all sorts of people in all sorts of places. However, the stigma of marijuana being a recreational drug has created obstacles to the acceptance of CBD as a legitimate medicinal drug.

There is a lot of ignorance out there about what CBD oil is, and a lot of it is at a legislative and legal level. Even states where the sale and possession of CBD oil is legal (like Tennessee, so long as there is less than 3% THC) have seen raids by law enforcement, shutting down 23 businesses in Franklin County alone for selling something that is absolutely legal in the state of Tennessee.

This documentary presents a parade of anecdotal evidence as to the efficacy of CBD oil. It also presents cases like the Jerger family of Indiana, who were threatened with having their child taken away from them because they were using CBD oil to treat her illness, even to the point where they forced the two-year-old child to have blood draws regularly to make sure that she was taking the pills that she had been prescribed rather than the CBD oil which worked better. Even after the Indiana legislature stepped in, the harassment continued to the point where the family felt compelled to move to Colorado in order to continue the treatment that there daughter needed.

There are a few interviews with experts like Eric Sterling, who helped formulate drug policy back in the “Just Say No” era of Nancy Reagan and who is now an advocate and activist for legalization. There’s also former NFL quarterback Ricky Williams, who used the oil to assist with injuries incurred during his pro football career and who now advocates meditation and yoga along with CBD for athletes and injuries.

The movie is essentially a one hour advertisement for the benefits of CBD oil and in all honesty there’s nothing wrong with that. You won’t find a whole lot of objectivity here. While the film does admit there hasn’t been much study of the properties of CBD oil – and shows at least one grower’s attempts to create a lab in order to do just that – there really isn’t a lot of dissent here; there aren’t any folks who have used CBD oil with little or no effect. Everyone who is onscreen has a miraculous story to tell and frankly folks, it doesn’t work for everyone quite that way. Still in all, the film does offer a lot of anecdotal information, so much that it is hard to ignore. It also, sadly, reiterates that while great strides are being made in reassessing our attitudes towards marijuana both recreationally and medicinally, there are still those in power who have yet to catch up.

REASONS TO SEE: Shows that although attitudes towards CBD is changing, there’s still a lot of misinformation out there.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too many talking heads for a one-hour documentary and a bit on the hagiographic side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some peril and one difficult scene in which one of the men is forced to put an alpaca out of its suffering.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Avery is best known for his 2011 documentary Loose Change.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Weed the People
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Offside

Captain Black


Are you talkin’ to me?

(2017) Dramedy (Random) Jeffrey S. S. Johnson, Linara Washington, Georgia Norman, Charley Koontz, Joaquin Camilo, Kirsten Roeters, Liesel Kopp, Mackenzie Astin, Michael Marc Friedman, Reece Rios, Nico David, Carla Tassara, Robert Maffia, Lauren Campedelli, Dylan Lawson, Parvesh Cheena, Scott Krinsky, Ashley Dowling, Katherine King. Directed by Jeffrey S.S. Johnson

 

Superheroes occupy a unique place in our society. They represent the best within us, the desire for justice and goodness, the noblest aspects of our beings and the achievement of the impossible. We mostly all aspire to be heroic in some way, shape or form – and some of us aspire to the super-powered aspect of heroism.

Mike (Johnson) is a manager at a suburban chain restaurant that has a Mexican theme. It’s the kind of place that whenever a patron has a birthday, the staff gather to sing their own version of “Happy Birthday” in a way that people like me cringe at. You’ve probably been to several just like it.

Although Mike seems to be a pretty decent guy, it would be a stretch to say that there’s anything particularly noble or heroic about him. When an obnoxious customer confronts him, he backs down rather than standing up for what’s right. While he’s aware that his neighbor (Kopp) is being abused by her husband, he doesn’t act on it, allowing the abuse to continue even as he bonds with her son (David). He mourns the loss of both his parents but remains estranged from his sister Brie (Roeters).

One night one of his waiters (Camilo) eaves a bag of comic books behind. Intrigued by the four-color covers, he brings them home and becomes immersed in the world of Captain Black, a kind of Batman style of hero, as well as his super sexy partner Kitt Vixen who in one of the movie’s better joke sequences, Mike discovers that there is a porn site dedicated to the character. Still, the mild-mannered restaurant manager begins to find some self-confidence especially as he repeats the Captain’s axiom: “Life is precious. Life is fragile. Be your own ally!” Mike can particularly relate to this given everything happening around him.

For a Halloween party he is inspired to create a homemade Captain Black costume. There he meets a young woman (Norman) wearing a Kitt Vixen costume. The two find a mutual attraction and head out to the garage for a quick, frantic coupling. This seemingly innocent act would turn out to have a profound effect on Mike’s life.

The movie starts off with kind of a suburban vibe, fairly laid back but takes an unexpected turn towards the serious. Johnson, who wrote, directed and starred in the movie, handles both sides of the equation fairly well, giving Mike a good deal of heart but also having him grapple with issues that are very real and very rough. I don’t want to give too much away but suffice to say that the movie will come off as a bit of a warning about one-night stands and the damage that can result from them.

Movies like this have to walk a very fine line; on the one hand it has to deal with a sensitive subject without diluting the impact of that subject but on the other hand, it has to be light enough that the film doesn’t end up drowning in darkness which it could have easily done. The topic is an extremely emotional one and it is handled with emotion, with that emotion given the respect it deserves. It’s a very fine work particularly given that it is the first feature Johnson has done.

I won’t say I was blown away by this film completely; the ending is a bit of a letdown at least for me and some of the supporting characters could have used a bit more depth, but the relationship between Mike and his friend Kris (Washington) is a special, realistic one that enhances the movie rather than detracting from it. It makes me wonder if Washington and Johnson had a friendship outside the movie prior to filming. This is the kind of movie that flies under the radar for no good reason but the lucky ones among us who are willing to take chances may well discover a quality gem. Seek this one out for sure.

REASONS TO SEE: The film starts out unassuming and quiet but turns grim and strange towards the end. Johnson delivers a really good performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending was a bit off-note.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of sexuality and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Johnson is best-known for being the voice in the T-Mobile commercials for the past six years.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Rondo

Destination Dewsbury


Would you pick these men up from the side of the road?

(2018) Comedy (Random) Matt Sheahan, David J. Keogh, Dan Shelton, Tom Gilling, Helen Rose-Hampton, Michael Kinsey, Kevin Dewsbury, Maurice Byrne, Denis Khoroshko, David McClelland, Leslie Davidoff, Michael Fawbert, Margot Richardson, Filip Mayer, Velton Lishke, Sharon Heywood, Sharon Spink, Val Punt, Lauren Woods, Graham Daw, Jane Hollington, Anna Dawson. Directed by Jack Spring

 

Some of my readers in their teens and twenties (assuming I have any) are going to have a hard time relating to this but the friends you are inseparable with in your youth tend to drift away as you get older. Very rare is the case where someone other than family is involved on a regular basis in your life from the time you’re in school to the time you’re middle aged. Still, the fact is that we bring our younger selves with us wherever we go and we tend to revert to them when in the company of friends from our youth. This is particularly true with men.

Peter (Sheahan) has watched his life collapse around him in a matter of a few days. His wife has essentially thrown him out, claiming he’s simply not man enough for her – and she has a point on that score. Peter, who is also our semi-reliable narrator, has a spine with the consistency of Jell-O. He is teaching school where he and his mates once attended and he is something of a joke.

That is, until Richard (Byrne) arrives in his classroom to tell him that his son is dying. Richard’s son Frankie (Kinsey) was something of a ringleader for the boys, by far the coolest of the lot and a good friend to them. Peter is shocked – he just spoke to Frankie a couple of months earlier until Richard gently reminds him that it was actually two years ago. In any case, Frankie won’t likely last the week and he wants to see his old friends again one final time.

Therefore, it is on Peter to get the band back together. He knows essentially where he can find them; Gaz (Shelton) has a young family with a daughter who is suspiciously dark-skinned (he and his wife are both white as a December snowbank) while Adam (Keogh) is a banker who is deep in debt to the Russian mob and has been rescued from suicide by Peter’s appearance. Adam is something of a human teakettle – always blowing up at any provocation real or imagined and who can’t complete a sentence without at least one F-bomb in it. He’s an aneurysm waiting to happen. Finally, there’s Smithy (Gilling), a portly man living with his mum who is reduced to speed dating but can’t escape his own awkward nature around women.

The crew decide to head up to Dewsbury, a town up north where Frankie has moved to. This being a comedy, you can bet that things won’t go anywhere near as planned – not even in the same country really, although British critics in their droll manor say that “mishaps ensue.” Those mishaps will include a dropped cell phone in a toilet overflowing with…well, you can fill in the blanks there. Also, a night at a swinger-oriented hotel which sends Peter screaming like a girl into the night. There are also Russian mobsters hunting down Adam with an eye for some spectacular violence, and a bus miscue that sends them careening off-course from the get-go. There is also a veritable cornucopia of bodily fluids and solids that are likely to send the four-year-old in you into helplessness. All that is missing is a sequence of fart jokes.

That kind of humor may not be your cup of tea unless you live with a bunch of toddlers, or essentially have no shame whatsoever. That isn’t the whole of the sort of humor you’ll find here but if you’re looking for wicked Oscar Wilde-type wit, you’re on the wrong bus. This is Benny Hill with an R rating and a penchant for toilet humor.

Initially I really found this unpalatable as the four friends are mainly stereotypes with little development and the humor is a little too low-brow for my taste but a funny thing happened on the way to a scathing review – the film got better. During the last half hour when the boys/men actually arrive in Dewsbury the movie abruptly shifts gears and we begin to see the people inside the stereotypes, particularly in the case of Adam who is devastated by his friend’s terminal condition. All the men seem to grow in some sort of way with the odd exception of Peter – the erstwhile protagonist and narrator – who seems the same essential sad sack he was when the opening credits unspooled. Still, the director and writers manage to explore the nature of male bonding as we age which is a worthy subject indeed.

There are a couple of fight scenes involving the mobsters that take place in dimly lit environments which makes it hard to figure out what’s going on, but other than that the movie is well-shot and makes good use of the locations in suburban England. The film ends on a sentimental albeit bizarre note but nevertheless it’s a good reminder that a good journey is all about reaching your destination – but it is made all the better in the company of friends.

REASONS TO SEE: Improves dramatically during the last third.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too much toilet humor and the fight scenes are badly lit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, violence and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spring was only 21 when he directed this, his first feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon,  Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Chill
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Wild Rose

Reinventing Rosalee


The centenarian on a dog sled.

(2018) Documentary (RandomRosalee Glass, Lillian Glass, Joyce Sharman, Daniel Bouchet, Dr. Robert Huizenga, Neda Nahouray, Eric Lintermans, Elke Jensen, Nancy Caballero, Clay Lee, Douglas James, Robert Stradley, Joe Solo, Yuki Solo, Eleanor K. Wirtz, Paul Sweeney, Miamon Miller. Directed by Lillian Glass

Talking to one’s grandparent (or parent) about their life can be an eye-opening experience. We often forget how rich – and how rough – their life can be. All we see is the relationship and the love, often forgetting that there is a person behind that smile.

Rosalee Glass has had a life that has been harder than most. Born in Warsaw in 1917, she grew up in a Jewish family. In 1939, being a Jew in Poland became a very dangerous thing. She was newly married and pregnant when the Nazi blitzkrieg stormed through Poland. Sensing the writing on the wall, her husband left the country to find some shelter elsewhere. Rosalee later followed him, leaving behind her mother, father and two siblings. She would see none of them ever again and in fact later discovered that all of them were killed during the war, murdered by the Third Reich.

Eventually Rosalee and her husband were rounded up – by the Russians. They were sent to a Russian gulag in Siberia. Nursing a newborn baby became impossible when she wasn’t getting enough to eat and her breast milk dried up. Eventually her child starved to death. She would go on to have three more children but only two survived; her daughter Lillian and her son Manny.

The war ended and Rosalee, Manny and her husband Abraham ended up in a displaced person’s camp. Eventually they were allowed to emigrate to the United States and they settled in Miami where Abraham’s tuberculosis, contracted during the war, came back with a vengeance. He ended up losing the sight in one eye which ended his career as a watchmaker. He and Rosalee ended up going into business with a fabric company which became successful.

When Abraham died and after Manny died, Rosalee found herself wondering what to do with herself. She made the conscious decision to continue living and in her 80s and 90s took up dance lessons, piano lessons, Pilates – even learning how to box. She took up a career in acting and appeared in several commercials. She entered a senior beauty pageant and won Miss Congeniality. She spent her 100th birthday in Alaska riding a dog sled.

Her story is truly an inspiring one and maybe even worthy of a documentary but her daughter was the wrong person to make it. Lillian Glass is a best-selling author, a body language expert and has a doctorate in psychology but she has zero objectivity where her mother is concerned and that’s to be expected. That might make for good home movies or a Power Point slide show at a birthday tribute but it makes for less-than-scintillating documentary filmmaking.

As a first-time filmmaker she makes a number of rookie mistakes, relying a little too much on interviews with her mother who is to be fair an engaging subject and one who can keep the attention of the audience. Rosalee has one of those smiles that bring out smiles in everyone around her and that translates to the screen nicely but we don’t get a lot of different perspectives on who Rosalee is. The daughter’s love certainly shines through but we could have used a bit more objectivity.

The movie makes good use of archival footage and home movies but the movie clips that Lillian uses to illustrate various aspects of Rosalee’s life were at times a bit bizarre. There is also a sequence in which a 90-something Rosalee returns to Warsaw to see where she grew up and the music that accompanies that sequence is far too bombastic – a simple, quieter soundtrack would have enhanced the tone much better.

Rosalee is certainly a worthy subject and it’s no wonder her daughter is proud of her mother but she was clearly unable to view the subject matter objectively and that is absolutely deadly for a documentary and something any savvy audience will notice. What saves this documentary is Rosalee herself; her wit, wisdom, fortitude and good cheer are inspiring and most seniors would do well to take her advice if they haven’t already. However, cinephiles should be aware that they might experience frustration when it comes to the filmmaker, more so than the subject.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some valuable life lessons here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some horrific Holocaust images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won more than 40 awards on the Festival circuit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Sonia
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Cold Blood

Hot Doug’s: The Movie


Hot Dog? Why, yes please!

(2016) Documentary (Random) Doug Sohn, Homaro Cantu, Steve Albini, Carlos Garcia, Barbara Tyksinski Benjamin Roman, Alex August, Steve Labedz, Michael Cantu, Brenda Maher, Octavio Garcia, Jose Luis Garduño, George Serveris, Alex Baez, Dan Sinker, Marco Roman, Michael Helminiak, Christian Garcia, April T.  Directed by Christopher Markos

 

Ah, the humble hot dog. Not even apple pie is as conscientiously American in the world’s imagination. While there are those who see New York City with their ubiquitous pushcarts as the hot dog Mecca, in recent years most outside the New York area would agree that Chicago is the epicenter for hot dog heaven and the Chicago dog the gold standard for dogs.

Douglas Sohn was the proprietor of Hot Doug’s, a hot dog in Chicago that was known for its rabid following. The line to get in normally stretched down the block and rare was the day when the average wait to get in wasn’t two hours or more. What made those dogs so special that Chicagoans, who aren’t exactly lacking for places to get a fine hot dog, were willing to endure waits – often in terrible weather – for his?

Sohn recalled that he started his establishment because he wanted a place that used the finest ingredients for their hot dogs. Early on, they stuck to basic frankfurters but eventually Doug decided to get a little wild; first off was the Atomic Dog, laden with spices and peppers. He asked his sausage supplier George Serveris for more exotic sausages and he responded with encased meat (as sausage lovers prefer to call them) from wild boar, rabbit and eventually such off-the-wall items as escargot and foie gras.

No less an authority than the late Anthony Bourdain – best-selling author, classically trained chef, TV host, world traveler and noted hot dog junkie – proclaimed Hot Doug’s one of 13 places you must eat at before you die. When he featured the show on his popular No Reservations program Hot Doug’s was transformed from a local hangout to a global phenomenon. Sure, the high-end hot dogs had a lot to do with it but much of the appeal lay with Sohn himself, who for fourteen years took every order at the front counter, interacting with his customers with goofy charm and a down-to-earth Midwestern sense of humor. He made each customer feel like part of the gang and that attitude carried on to the staff.

It all came to an end on October 3, 2014. Six months prior, the store announced on social media that it would be closing its doors for good on that date. When October 3 rolled around, the line was unbelievable as people waited in line in cold, rainy, miserable weather to get their last fix of Hot Doug’s. It was a testament to Sohn and his staff that although the staff knew well in advance that the run was coming to an end, almost all of them elected to keep working right up until the end.

The documentary clocks in at a brisk 56 minutes and Markos does an excellent job of giving the viewer a “you are there” experience. While there is some behind the scenes kind of stuff and a fair amount of talking heads, most of those he interviews are so engaging (particularly Sohn himself) that he can be forgiven.

Unfortunately, what he delivers in atmosphere he lacks in context. We get little reason for the store’s closing other than “it was time.” We also get no update as to what Sohn is up to now that his store is closed – he’s a pretty young guy so I assume he hasn’t retired on his hot dog earnings. One also wonders about the timing – did Markos know in advance about Sohn’s plans, or was he making the documentary and the closing just happened to occur while he was doing it. It doesn’t feel contrived so I’m inclined to believe the latter but one can’t know for sure.

One of the regular customers at Hot Doug’s summed up his impression of the store thusly: “It was a hot dog stand but it was a damn good hot dog stand” and that is about as fine an epitaph as any eating establishment could ever hope for. The film succeeds in portraying what it was like to enjoy a dog, the stand’s signature French fries cooked in duck fat and a cold beverage in a happening place. Legendary alternative rock producer Steve Albini’s studio was just down the block from Hot Doug’s and he enjoyed the rare privilege of being one of the only clients that could order ahead by fax, allowing the very busy Albini to skip the land although he felt guilty enough about it that when he visited the store on his own he would wait in line with everybody else and proclaimed that part of the overall experience of the joint was in fact waiting in line. While Hot Doug’s is no more, their legend will live on not only in the memories of the Chicago faithful who loved them but also in those who see this documentary and immediately have the urge to go and consume a dog at their local purveyor themselves. What more could you ask of any documentary?

REASONS TO SEE: Really gives you a sense of the time and place. Makes you want to eat a hot dog.
REASONS TO AVOID: Comes off as an infomercial in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Markos previously directed videos for the Obama presidential campaign.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Hot Dog Program
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
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