The Most Unknown


Jennifer Macalady explores a new world.

(2018) Documentary (Motherboard/Abramorama) Jennifer Macalady, Davide D’Angelo, Axel Cleermans, Luke McKay, Rachel L. Smith, Victoria Orphan, Jun Ye, Anil Smith, Laurie R. Santos, Emelie Caspar, Brian Hedlund, Joseph Garguglia, Erik Cordes Chris Gates, Warrick Roseboom. Directed by Ian Cheney

 

These days, science isn’t the sexiest career choice as it was in the glory days of NASA or at the beginning of the computer revolution. Scientists are looked upon with suspicion and even disdain by much of the general American public, which says less about science and scientists than it does about America and the political landscape of the country at present.

But even though there are fewer college students going into science majors and careers in the sciences, that doesn’t mean there is a lack of excitement in the varied fields. This is something of a scientific experiment courtesy of the science journalism arm of Vice News, taking nine scientists, all of them working on some of the most basic and important questions ranging from what would life on other planets look like, how does the brain create consciousness, how are stars and planets created and what is the nature of time. Each scientist journeys to a different place in the world to meet up with a scientist in a different field; the resulting conversations are lively, and more importantly, accessible to the layman.

We are introduced to microbiologist Jennifer Macalady who journeys to Italy to meet physicist Davide D’Angelo who in turn heads to Brussels to meet cognitive psychologist Axel Cleermans. He heads to Nevada to meet up with astrobiologist Luke McKay. McKay’s assignment is to go to Hawaii to meet astrophysicist Rachel L. Smith. She gets to go on a deep dive off of Costa Rica with Cal Tech geobiologist Victoria Orphan to explore the life forms in a methane seepage. She in turn meets physicist Jun Ye in California to see the world’s most accurate atomic clock. He heads to the UK to meet neuroscientist Anil Smith who then heads to the office of cognitive psychologist Laurie R. Santos who eventually goes full circle to the Italian caves where Macalady is working.

Their enthusiasm is infectious and inspiring; their passion is undeniable but these are not movie scientists rocketing in all directions willy nilly without restraint; these are dedicated professionals who are absolutely obsessive about doing this right. They are methodical and patient, knowing that these questions won’t have easy answers and therefore will require time and determination in order to find te right direction. Some of them, like D’Angelo who is exploring the mystery of dark matter, isn’t sure that he’ll find answers in his own lifetime but he’s confident that answers will one day be found and that he will help find either by steering future researchers onto the right path or at least away from the wrong one.

Some of the images here are mind-blowing, including marine life that consumes methane and helps keep our planet’s atmosphere from becoming toxic or the glowing isotope that powers the atomic clock. The filmmakers go to all sorts of locations from the black rock desert of Nevada, the jungles of Costa Rica, the Atomium in Brussels and gleaming laboratories all over the world.

If there is a fault here, it is that there might be too many conversations plugged into an hour and a half. In some ways this might have worked better as an episodic series with a half hour to an hour devoted to each of the nine segments. However, if the only fault you can find in a documentary is that there isn’t enough of it, the filmmakers are doing something right.

This is a documentary that just might inspire you to take science more seriously, or at least appreciate the process more. Certainly these scientists are anything but arrogant, idiosyncratic or hidebound, nor are they loose cannons. They are fresh-faced, enthusiastic, passionate about their work and brilliant. They never talk down to each other nor the audience; the result is that you get caught up in their enthusiasm. Maybe I as a layman will never understand the importance of dark matter or be as passionate about cave slime but I can be very happy that somebody is.

The film is currently playing the Quad Theater in New York and will be making a limited run in various theaters and festivals around the country. In August, it will be heading to Netflix. There will also be additional material made available at that time. Keep an eye out for it – this is worth seeing both as an educational aid for young people and for adults who want to feel inspired by science.

REASONS TO GO: This may be the most effective advertising for a career in science since Cosmos. Some of the footage is truly remarkable. The film looks into some really basic but important questions. The science is explained in a relatable manner.
REASONS TO STAY: The film doesn’t get as in-depth into the conversations as you might like.
FAMILY VALUES: Although there is brief mild profanity, this is truly suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Macalady was also featured in the 2012 science documentary The Search for the Origin of Life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Ice
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Grace Jones: Bloodfight + Bami

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Logan Lucky


Logan Lucky gives you the most Joe Bang for your buck.

(2017) Heist Comedy (Bleecker Street) Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Katie Holmes, Daniel Craig, David Denman, Farrah Mackenzie, Seth MacFarlane, Charles Halford, Hilary Swank, Brian Gleeson, Jack Quaid, Katherine Waterston, Dwight Yoakam, Sebastian Stan, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, LeAnn Rimes, Macon Blair, Ann Mahoney. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

 

When Steven Soderbergh announced he was retiring from directing Side Effects in 2012, a lot of film buffs – this one included – were disappointed. Soderbergh had been for more than 20 years one of the most fascinating and interesting directors ever since emerging from the indie ranks. He’d directed huge blockbusters and small intimated films but the time had come for him to hang it all up.

Thankfully, he couldn’t stay away for very long and his retirement only lasted five years. He’s back with this stupid entertaining film that can best be described as Elmore Leonard by way of The Dukes of Hazzard or the unholy lovechild of Oceans 11 and Talladega Nights.

Jimmy Logan (Tatum) is a former football star whose NFL dreams were derailed by a knee injury. Since then, he’s worked whatever jobs he could find, be them in the mines of West Virginia or a construction gig in North Carolina. Through it all he makes the time to be a dad to Sadie (Mackenzie) who lives with her mom Bobbie Jo (Holmes) and her new husband Moody (Denman).

The Logan clan has always been the poster children for the adage “If it wasn’t for bad luck they wouldn’t have any luck at all.” Jimmy’s bum knee comes to the attention of the insurance company who deem it a pre-existing condition and the construction company that Jimmy is working for in the bowels of the Charlotte Motor Speedway has to let him go. To make matters worse, it turns out that Moody is opening up a new car dealership in a distant part of West Virginia and Jimmy is likely not going to see his daughter hardly at all. Moving to be close to his little girl is something he simply can’t afford.

So he decides that he is going to have to finance his life the old-fashioned way – by stealing, and he has a whopper of a plan. He’s going to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a car show when the attendance is low and security is lax. Jimmy can’t do the job by himself so he enlists his war veteran brother Clyde (Driver) who lost his arm in Iraq, and his hairdresser sister Mellie (Keough).

Even that won’t be enough however; he needs a demolition expert and there are none better at it than Joe Bang (Craig). Unfortunately, Joe has had a disagreement with the law and is currently in residence at the West Virginia state penitentiary.. Jimmy and Clyde are going to have to break out Joe so his absence isn’t noticed and sneak him back in so that it’s like he was never gone. Why not just stay out? Because he’s close to his parole date and he doesn’t want to mess it up. Jimmy’s got a plan for that too, however.

Heist movies, when done properly are maybe the most entertaining of all movie genres. Fortunately, this one is done properly. It has a large cast but not too large; it’s got some fairly impressive names in it and a director who knows how to make use of them. The writing is taut and smart and even though much of the dialogue is delivered in thick Mountaineer State accents the pacing moves at lightning speed. There is literally never a dull moment in this film.

I have to admit that early on in Tatum’s career I was not a fan. I’m happy to say that I am now however. He has worked hard and improved almost with every movie; he has learned to improve where he can and on those things he hasn’t improved upon (yet) he makes sure he chooses roles that don’t accentuate his flaws. He has enough onscreen charm to make Leona Helmsley smile through a toothache and of course just about any lady (and quite a few men) will tell you that he’s not so hard on the eyes.

Daniel Craig is a revelation here. Generally he plays tightly wound characters but here he seems to let absolutely loose and have more fun than I’ve ever seen him have with a character, well, ever. With his bottle blonde spiky hair and cornpone accent so thick that it might have been laid on with a trowel, he inhabits the character without fear or inhibition. I would be happy to see a Joe Bang spin-off movie.

Soderbergh excels at these sorts of movies. His Oceans series is proof of that but he knows how to pace a movie to leave the audience breathless. This is about as high-octane as a NASCAR race and the viewer never has to wonder for a moment what’s going to happen next because Soderbergh wastes not a moment in this film. He also infuses it with a jet-propelled soundtrack of roots rock, country and high-octane rockers that hit the audience like a dose of jet fuel.

Now those of a Southern rural background might take offense to this and I can’t say as I blame them. The movie really plays to Hollywood stereotypes as the Southern rubes that are street-clever and get one over on the city slickers It is this kind of disparagement that drove many West Virginians to vote for Trump. Maybe that’s something liberal filmmakers should take a look at objectively.

As it is this is as fun a movie as I’ve seen this summer and after a season of bloated blockbusters and over-hyped disappointments it’s a pleasure to just sit back and enjoy a movie that you don’t have to think about but just have fun with. This has the makings of a sleeper hit if it gets marketed right; sadly, that doesn’t appear to have been the case. A lot of moviegoers don’t know much about this movie whose trailer wasn’t much seen in theaters or on television. Hopefully enough will catch on that this is a fun movie that is everything that a summer movie should be. That should be enough to call an audience out of the heat and into the multiplex.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of material that is right in Soderbergh’s wheelhouse.  The film is blessed with clever writing and a terrific soundtrack.
REASONS TO STAY: Rural Southerners might find the stereotypes offensive.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some crude comments as well as a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tatum and Keough both co-starred in Magic Mike, also directed by Soderbergh.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Baby Driver
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Sidemen: Long Road to Glory

The Final Member


It's grand to be a man!

It’s grand to be a man!

(2014) Documentary (Drafthouse) Sigurour Hjartarson, Tom Mitchell, Pall Arason, Peter Halldoresson, Reynir Hjartarson, Petur Petursson, Hannes Blondal, Terry Gunnel, Ari Karlsson, Marci Bowers, Douglas Mason, Siri Hastings, Shahar Tsabari, Lilja Siguroardottir, Jona Siguroardottir, Hjotur Sigurosson, Thorgerdur Siguroardottir. Directed by Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math

Florida Film Festival-2014

Sometimes the subject of a documentary can lend itself to a certain type of humor, which as a reviewer you want to resist. The documentarian after all deserves a sober and dignified review of his or her hard work. Then again, it can be hard not to be cocksure and by extension, possessed of a stiff adherence to a set of hard and fast rules entered into by the reviewer without understanding what they’re getting into.

But this film with the Icelandic Phallological Museum at its center is like that. The Museum is essentially a collection of penises from every species of mammal save one – homo sapiens. Sigurour Hjartarson, better known as “Siggi,”  is the curator.

This unusual collection began as a joke when a friend gave Siggi a bull penis because as a boy, Siggi had owned a cattle whip made from a bull’s penis. Other members followed from different mammals which he stored in his office at the college where he taught history and Spanish. After he retired and moved the collection home, he began to add more and more specimens to his collection. Eventually his wife Jona encouraged him to house the collection in a museum. At first the museum was a bit of a curiosity, located in Reykjavik, but when Siggi couldn’t afford the rent he moved it to a former restaurant in the tiny Northern Icelandic town of Husavik. The villagers initially viewed the new attraction with some suspicion but once they realized that the museum contained nothing pornographic they accepted it.

From there it went from oddity to genuine tourist attraction. Thousands of people flocked to the quirky museum from all over the world, 60% of them women. Still, the museum lacked the crowning specimen from the top of the mammalian food chain. Siggi was in despair; no longer a young man, he had very real concerns about the future of the museum without him. He had his cousin Petur, a doctor, start to quiz patients to see if they would be willing to donate the organ when they were dead.

The trouble was that Iceland is essentially a very small island in terms of population and not everybody wanted to have their most private part on public display for eternity, even after they were dead. However, two people heard about Siggi’s plight and decided to help.

The first was Pall Arason, who already was famous around Iceland. A nonagenarian, in his youth he had been an adventurer and explorer of the highlands of Iceland. He was also a notorious womanizer and decided that such a well-used member should get its due.

The other applicant was a different case entirely. His name is Tom Mitchell and he marches to his own drummer as well. A divorcee living in the Santa Ynez Valley in California, Tom refers to his penis as “Elmo” (so-named as a young man by one of his girlfriends) and is determined that it become the most famous penis in the world. He has tattooed his penis with the stars and stripes so that museum visitors will know that they are looking at an all-American penis and let’s face it; what could be more American than a schlong?

As Tom got more into the idea, he e-mailed Siggi regularly with ideas and suggestions as to how his penis should be displayed. He also sent dick pics of his penis dressed up in costume (I couldn’t make this stuff up). He also decided that in order to be first, he would have it removed while he was still alive.

For a first feature (which this is) this is an amazing documentary. I was not aware that there was a museum of this sort anywhere in the world and when I first found out about the movie, I was sure that I could have gone the rest of my life without having that knowledge.

I was wrong. The filmmakers (and Siggi himself) point out that the penis for whatever reason has become a taboo subject, not just here but essentially everywhere. We can talk about any other body part without blushing more or less but bring up the penis and people start to blush and stammer, yet it is a part of our bodies (for males anyway) just as our heart, our eyes and our hair is. That it happens to be the part of our body which not only urinates but also creates life is simply part of its function, like the lungs oxygenate our blood or our stomachs digest food.

Mitchell doesn’t come out looking too favorable for much of the film, although at the very end we begin to see him as less of an oddball and more of a human being whose motivations for the way he acts and the things he does becomes more clear. I can see how some might view him as an object of ridicule but to be honest I found him to be the most fascinating character in the documentary. To those disposed towards judging him (or anyone else in any documentary for that matter), keep in mind that we are spending (when you tally up all the screen time) less than an hour with these people in order to get a glimpse of a certain facet of their lives. That really isn’t enough time to make any sort of comprehensive opinion on who they are as people.

That said, I found this movie to be something of a celebration of things that are outside our comfort zone. I tend to agree with Siggi that we should be able to talk about the penis without resorting to dick jokes (although a few inevitably show up, not always intentionally) and we should be able to view people who are fascinated with them as something other than perverts.

This is one of the most entertaining documents you’re liable to see this year. I have to admit that I had some trepidation towards seeing this initially – what red-blooded guy will admit to being fascinated by a movie about…well, dicks – but once I sat down and actually saw it I realized this was one of the best documentaries of the year. As a matter of fact, it is one of the most delightful films I’ve seen so far this year.

REASONS TO GO: Uproariously funny. Celebrates the unusual.

REASONS TO STAY: Some might find having so many dicks onscreen a little bit uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES: Obviously the subject matter is not for kids. Also there is some male frontal nudity and some mild foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to the two donors in the film, an Englishman and a German both also pledged to donate their members to the museum.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Magical Universe

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Devil’s Knot