The Business of Birth Control


Reproductive autonomy or a death sentence?

(2021) Documentary (Bobb) Holly Grigg-Spall, Joe Malone, Lisa Hendrickson Jack, Karen Langhart, Rick Ammon, Sara Gottfried, Emily Moonbeam Varnam, John O’Dea, Rick Langhart, Kelsey Knight, Aviva Romm, Jolene Bright, Lara Bridon, Alisa Vitti, Vicki Spratt, Ørvind Lidegaard, Chelsea Vonchaz, Sara Hill, Julie Holland, Gessie Thomson, Erika Schwartz, Ashley Malone. Directed by Abby Epstein

 

One of the things that turned out to be an epochal turn of events for women was the availability of hormonal birth control. With birth control, it gave women the freedom to determine when and if they got pregnant. It allowed them to have careers and plan their families around finances rather than the other way around. Most feminists look at birth control as a watershed development in feminism.

Doctors prescribe birth control to women for many non-reproductive issues; painful and/or irregular menstruation, skin issues, PCOS and endometriosis, among other things. But is it the panacea that it is made out to be? Studies are beginning to show that it is not, linking hormonal birth control with increased susceptibility to depression (even leading up to suicide), autoimmune disease, cervical cancer and potentially fatal blood clots.

With reproductive rights under fire threatening to turn back the clock on women’s bodily autonomy, it might be misconstrued to release a documentary on the dangers of birth control at this moment, but according to director Abby Epstein and producer Ricki Lake (the former talk show host), the movie is not meant to fill a political agenda but to give women potentially life-saving information.

The side effects of hormonal birth control is not something that is really being discussed. Most women on the left are afraid that the right could end up hijacking the conversation about reproductive rights and using the facts in this documentary to say “See?!? Birth control is BAD!!!” And folks, that isn’t the case, nor are the filmmakers saying that hormonal birth control is the ONLY option for women. In the final act of the film they actually list several other methods that are currently available that are less potentially harmful.

One of the film’s talking points is that Big Pharma has made a fortune on birth control and continues to; in fact, the companies that developed hormonal birth control were aware of the potentially fatal side effects going back to when they were testing the product back in the Fifties (they tested in Puerto Rico because they didn’t want to test the product on white women). The Nelson pill hearings, back in the early ‘70s, uncovered some of these abuses but have been mainly swept under the rug until now.

The filmmakers talk to body literacy advocates, the bereaved parents of young, healthy women who died due to the side effects of the pill, and feminist activists who want women to have safe choices for birth prevention. The testimony is sobering and compelling. Particularly heart wrenching is the testimony of Joe and Dana Malone, and their  daughters Ashley and Morgan, discussing the death of Brittany Malone, a healthy, vivacious young woman who collapsed while at a nightclub with her sisters. Blooc clots in her lungs had gotten into her heart, causing her to have a number of heart attacks. Put on life support, she was eventually pronounced brain dead.

The film also portrays the FDA as an agency that is less interested in protecting consumers than it is in expediting the process of getting products into the marketplace. When Malone and fellow parents of women whose lives were cut short by their use of birth control advocated black label warnings on birth control packages to warn women about the porentially fatal side effects, they were fought tooth and nail by the drug industry. It is interesting to note that the potentially fatal side effect for Viagra – long-term erections – have always been well-publicized by the drug industry.

This is an eye-opening film and should be viewed by every woman and every parent with a daughter who is becoming of an age when sexual activity is a possibility. It isn’t enough to just accept what your doctor has to say – a large percentage of women feel their doctors don’t listen to them about their own reproductive health according to studies – but they need to understand what their options are and insist on them. It is always a good idea to know what you are putting into your body and what it can potentially do to you. It can literally be a matter of life or death.

REASONS TO SEE: Tackles a subject rarely talked about. A sobering gut punch. More damnation for Big Pharma, knowing the potentially fatal side effects and not adequately warning anybody. The family of Brittany Malone give particularly compelling testimony.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little talking-head centric.
FAMILY VALUES: There is adult subject matter, sexual content and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly 50% of all women who start hormonal birth control from an early age will face increased incidents of depression.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Doc NYC online (until November 28)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Business of Being Born
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Objects

The Invisible Man (2020)


Don’t look now…

(2020) Thriller (Universal) Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Harriet Dyer, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie, Renee Lim, Brian Meegan, Nick Kici, Vivienne Greer, Nicholas Hope, Cleave Williams, Cardwell Lynch, Sam Smith, Zara Michales, Serag Mohammed, Nash Edgerton, Anthony Brandon Wong, Xavier Fernandez, Amali Golden. Directed by Leigh Whannell

 

One of the unexpected side effects of #MeToo is that women are beginning to take back horror. Until recently, they were cast mostly as victims waiting to be slaughtered by a monster or a human monster. Yes, the final girl thing was a bit of a sop, but it was clearly understood that putting women in jeopardy had a sexual element to it. Horror films were often an allegory for how women were perceived in our culture; virtuous and plucky (final girls were almost never sexual) or sexy and not too bright, or at least prone to panicking when the chips were down, playing right into the killer’s hands – often literally.

That’s changing, as yesterday’s horror review illustrated, and it’s even more true of this film, inspired VERY loosely by the 1897 novel of H.G. Wells. Cecilia Kass (Moss) is trapped in an abusive relationship by a controlling billionaire who keeps her under 24/7 surveillance. Pushed to her absolute limit, she plots her escape, aided by her sister Emily (Dyer) who picks her up when she flees from the high-tech home she shares with her domestic partner Adrian Griffin (Jackson-Cohen), just barely getting away. Emily drives her into San Francisco where she bunks with her good friend James (Hodge), who happens to be a cop, and his teenage daughter Sydney (Reid).

Then word reaches her that her ex has committed suicide, and his creepy brother Tom (Dorman) gives her the news that he left her a sizable inheritance, enough to help Sydney with her college plans and to give her some financial relief. Too good to be true, right?

Right. Soon strange things begin to happen, merely annoying at first and growing exponentially more disturbing. Cecilia gets the feeling she’s being watched, and her paranoia only increases. Soon she seems to be coming unhinged, unglued, or at the very least, having a complete breakdown. But WE know that there is something else going on. After all, we saw that knife floating around by itself. We saw the footprints in the carpet. Is it Adrian’s ghost, or something more tangible – and ultimately more terrifying?

As horror films go, this one is long on tension but short on scares. In fact, I think it would be justifiably be considered more of a thriller than an out-and-out horror film, although there are definitely some horrific elements – they are just few and far between.

Whannell seems more intent on making a point than creating a legitimately scary movie. Fortunately, he has one of the best in the world at playing emotionally fragile characters in Elisabeth Moss (who will always be Zoey Bartlet to me) and she gets to exercise that particular skill to near-perfection here. She is certain that something sinister is going on and tells her circle of friends so, but nobody believes her. It’s no accident that her last name is Kass…could be short for “Cassandra.”

She gets some good support from Hodge (who will always be Alec Hardison to me) as the kindly but skeptical cop and Reid (who will always be Meg Murry to me) as the savvy teen. Dorman (who will always be John Tavner to me) lends sufficient creepiness as the late tech billionaire’s brother.

Part of the problem is that we don’t get much of a sense of who Adrian is. He’s essentially brilliant, vindictive and cruel, but we never really get to know much more than that. I tend to like a little more depth to my villains, even if they are ostensibly dead for most of the movie. Plus, there are few scares and that is a bit of a letdown, considering Whannell’s pedigree (he has been involved with two major horror franchises) and the fact that this is using the title of a classic horror movie. The audience can’t help but expect a horror movie when they sit down to watch.

Jilted expectations aside, the movie does a fair job of making its points about how women are portrayed, and although at times Moss can get a bit shrill she still makes a decent enough heroine, particularly in the mega-satisfying denouement. However, I can’t honestly say that the movie made a connection with me and thus I can’t in good conscience give it anything more than a very slight recommendation which is being damned by faint praise indeed.

REASONS TO SEE: Nobody is better than Moss than getting women on the edge of hysteria.
REASONS TO AVOID: The villain was not really developed properly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some pretty intense violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was originally intended to be part of the Dark Universe, Universal’s classic monster-oriented shared cinematic universe, but after the box office failure of The Mummy, the concept collapsed and Universal opted to go with individual stories rather than having a shared background.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Cinemax Go, DirecTV, Google Play, HBO Max, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hollow Man
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Continuing Adventures of Six Days of Darkness!

Pure Grit


Sharmaine Weed doing what she loves.

(2021) Documentary (Bankside) Sharmaine Weed, Savannah Martinez, Brandon Weed, Charity Weed, Kashe Weed, Amari Bercier. Directed by Kim Bartley

 

Native Americans in the 21st century face many challenges, not the least of those they have faced since European colonizers came to steal their land from them. They seek to retain their cultural identity while fitting in to a modern world. They do that while living on reservations where economic opportunities are extremely limited, where most live in poverty and where many are plagued by alcohol and drug addiction.

For Sharmaine Weed, a Shoshone living on the massive Wind River reservation in Wyoming – “God’s country” as she puts it early on in the film – escape is through bareback horse racing. This isn’t the type of racing you see at Churchill Downs; it is extremely dangerous, as Sharmaine found out firsthand when her sister Charity rode for the first time, and suffered grievous injuries leaving her disabled. Sharmaine took a year off to help care for her sister, and her sister’s daughter.

She is back riding now, for the first time since her sister’s injury, and sporting a new girlfriend – Sharmaine is one of the few lesbians on the reservation – Savannah. The two are very much in love. But things at home are getting rough; her younger brother Kashe is turning abusive and Savannah wants Sharmaine to move to Denver. So Sharmaine gets a job out there and puts together enough money to buy a horse to run the summer racing season. Sharmaine looks at it as an opportunity for a fresh start – but things don’t run entirely to plan as they generally have a habit of doing.

Bartley spent three years shadowing Sharmaine and her patience pays off in a rich portrait of a family trying to stay afloat in difficult conditions and specifically of a young woman with fire, passion and determination who has her sights set on a goal, but is pragmatic enough to recognize that it isn’t worth sacrificing everything for. She is aware of the traps that reservation life offer – the despair, the alcoholism, the drug addiction – and she manages to avoid them, largely because of her dogged refusal to surrender to them. Her love for horse racing also carries her through, and she’s good enough at it that she can survive and thrive in that world.

Her relationship with Savannah is complicated; Savannah is six years younger and is still just barely old enough to drink legally. Her mind is still on things that Sharmaine has long since moved beyond (if they were ever important to her in the first place), and that puts a strain on their relationship. Savannah wants to enjoy life; Sharmaine wants to build something permanent. It’s not always the love that makes a relationship strong; sometimes it’s a matter of being on the same page in life. There’s nothing wrong with a young woman of 21 wanting to party, dye her hair, and in general be concerned more about less vital things. There is also nothing wrong with a young woman of 27 turning her eyes to the future. We’ve all been in relationships with people who wanted different things with their life. Maybe we loved those people with a passion, but a viable relationship just wasn’t possible.

Bartley does her own cinematography and it is often breathtaking. Horses leaving tracks in the Wyoming snow, drone shots of the endless prairie, the Weed family out hunting and fishing together. We quickly understand that the hunting isn’t done for sport; this is how the family puts food on the table. That they thank the animals they kill for their food for providing them with sustenance is a part of their cultural heritage.

We rarely get such an intimate glimpse at reservation life, and this one is a particularly thorough one. We can see the willingness to fight in Sharmaine’s eyes as she does her damnedest to make a life for herself that is free of drugs and alcohol. The movie could have used a little bit of work on the editing; some of the story progresses in a kind of an uneven manner. The film could have used a smoother flow to it and some of the transitions are a bit abrupt.

The movie is an Irish-American co-production, and is making its North American premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival in California today. Unfortunately, that particular film festival doesn’t have a streaming component, so you will likely have to wait until the movie makes an appearance at a festival near you, which it should do in the Fall or Spring. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up on one streaming service or another shortly after that. This is a strong movie about a person you can’t help but admire and I strongly recommend it.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot. Inspiring and intense.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story doesn’t flow as naturally as it might.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Wind River reservation, where Charmaine and her family live, is the seventh largest in the United States, and is home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Rider
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Learning to Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs and Englishmen

The Secret of Sinchanee


This is one serious dude.

(2021) Horror (Vertical) Tamara Austin, Steven Grayhm, Nate Boyer, Laila Lockhart Kraner, Rudy Reyes, Chris Neville, Margarita Reyes, Mark Oliver (voice), Kathleen Kenny, Skylar Schanen, Elena Capaldi, Ricky Barksdale, Jacob Schick, TJ Millard, Don McAlister, Emmett Spriggs, Bryanna Nadeau, Jesse Goddard, Trystyn Roberts, Donna Tierney-Jones. Directed by Steven Grayhm

 

It is a shameful fact that the Europeans who came to colonize the Americas often clashed with the Natives who were here first. The interlopers behaved deplorably, making promises they had no intention of keeping, spreading diseases among the native indigenous population and when all else failed, massacring them outright. Not all Europeans treated the first nations poorly, of course, but enough did to create a schism between original inhabitants and colonists that has continued for morethan four hundred years.

Will Stark (Grayhm) is a tow truck driver who suffers from insomnia. He has returned to his home in Massachusetts to dispose of his father’s property, after his father passed away. However, selling the house is no easy task; it is a house, as they say, with a past, and an unsavory one at that – Will witnessed the murder of his mother and sister in that house when he was a child. The townsfolk consider him an odd duck; his father had schizophrenia and Will is showing signs of the condition as well, experiencing strange visions. Of course, the lack of sleep might account for that, too.

But there are other disturbing things going on. A woman for unknown reasons abandons her car in the middle of a cold night and wanders out into the snow to freeze to death. When her body is discovered, it appears as if she has been branded with peculiar symbols. Detectives Carrie Donovan (Austin) and Drew Carter (Boyer) are investigating the case, and they, like Will’s house, have a history – they also have a child together, young Ava (Kraner).

As Will begins experiencing more strange occurrences in the house, Detective Donovan is finding that the case of the murdered woman is leading her increasingly towards the supernatural. She finally meets with a Native American shaman named Solomon Goodblood (Reyes) who tells her about the Sinchanee, a tribe that lived in the area that had shown remarkable resistance to the diseases that the white settlers brought to the area. This apparently annoyed the heck out of a pagan cult called the Atlantow who were bound and determined to destroy the Sinanchee and turned their death spirit against them. The Atlantow will not be satisfied until every last remaining Sinchanee is wiped out. Guess who has Sinchanee blood running in their veins? Yup…Will, Carrie…and Ava.

First-time filmmaker Grayhm opts to tell Will and Carrie’s stories concurrently. This is a tactical error, as it lengthens the film unnecessarily. There’s also an awful lot of unnecessary business in the movie, which takes a long time to get going and once it does, doesn’t really pack the kind of excitement that the slow buildup would required as a payoff. Grayhm, who also wrote the film, uses a lot of horror movie tropes which don’t add luster to the story.

The cinematography by Logan Fulton is very scenic in a wintery way and does make the movie look good. Grayhm also does a good job of creating a tone for the movie, which is right about two hours long and should have been at least a half hour less. One way he might have accomplished this is by combining the two storylines, having Carrie and Will working together. It might have streamlined the story which is badly in need of it.

In these politically correct times of woke expectations, I wonder about using Native American legends as a framework for a horror movie, even if the legends are spun from whole cloth. There might be some who take offense to it…but then again, basically we’re in an era where everything causes offense by one person or another; so, what are you gonna do? I get the sense that Grayhm was fairly respectful of Native American culture in general, although that’s not really for me to say – not being of that ethnic group. But I think it would have been more respectful to make a better movie about native mythology just as a general rule of thumb.

REASONS TO SEE: Does a good job of creating a tone.
REASONS TO AVOID: Should have streamlined the story considerably.
=FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The company Will works for in the movie actually exists in Massachusetts, although that is not their office used in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Redbox, Vudu
=CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wendigo
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Many Saints of Newark

Toxico


An image that is no longer far-fetched.

(2020) Science Fiction (Level 33) Jazmin Stuart, Agustin Rittano, Victoria Cabada, Sebastián Carbone, Marcelo D’Andrea, Miriam Elizabeth de Luca, Betiana Frias, Martin Garabal, Lucila Garay, Francisco Gutiérrez, Alejandro Jovic, Carlos Lin, Lucila Mangone, Silvia Estela MIerez, Marcelo Mininno, Claudio Molfino, Gabriel Horacio Pallero, Santiago Podestá. Directed by Ariel Martinez Herrera

 

It may sound familiar at first glance. A massive pandemic; stores being denuded of their wares by a panicking populace; people in increasingly bizarre masks; rumors of conspiracies and suspicion of possible cures. It’s hard to believe that the screenplay for this film was written in 2016 and the movie sat on the shelf for a year before being released in 2020.

Laura (Stuart) and Augusto (Rittano) are a couple caught up in a pandemic. Rather than causing respiratory issues, this disease causes massive insomnia, leading to mass psychosis. The two decide to get in their motor home – which might be an ancestor of the TARDIS as it seems much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside – and get out of Dodge while they still can.

But their relationship is a stormy one and a revelation by Laura turns their trip on its ear. In the meantime, the streets begin to empty out and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell reality from insomnia-induced hallucination. Is this the end?

There is a good deal of symbolism (the movement of a turtle, symbolizing the slow flow of time in a quarantine) as well as a surreal sense of humor. This Argentine film is well-acted, with Stuart and Rittano giving their characters just enough authenticity to seem real. Both are fallable and don’t alwys act heroically and from time to time their bickering can lead to an awkward feeling as you might get when you go to a dinner party and the host couple gets into an argument. You get that feeling that you want to be anywhere but there, and that’s not always a good feeling when you’re watching a movie.

There is a lot of interesting surreal imagery – a guy in a hazmat suit shreds on electric guitar; another hospital tech weeps uncontrollably while a doctor searches for some paperwork and then throws himself out of a window – which make for interesting asides but don’t always contribute to the overall whole.

I’ll admit that we’re talking personal taste here, but overall the movie is a bit too out there for me, but I get that for some folks that’s more of a recommendation than a caution. For those of you who like their movies different and challenging, this might well be a hidden gem for you. For those whose tastes are a bit more mainstream – like myself – this might be a tougher sell.

REASONS TO SEE: A surreal piece that the pandemic-weary might relate to.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too oddball for my tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is drug use and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Herrera’s debut feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Spectrum, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Contagion
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Escape from Mogadishu

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain


Sometimes, having it all isn’t enough.

(2021) Documentary (Focus) Anthony Bourdain, Ottavia Busia Bourdain, David Chang, Helen M. Cho, Josh Homme, Eric Ripert, John Lurie, David Choe, Morgan Fallon, Doug Quint, Lydia Tenaglia, Christopher Collins, Tom Vitale, Philippe Lajunie, Alison Mosshart. Directed by Morgan Neville

 

It is not unusual that we feel we know those television personalities whose career give us an idea of their temperament and style. We spend hours and hours with them; isn’t that a form of knowing them? Not always. I’ve read many comments by people who viewed this documentary about the late travel/food program host, former chef and bestselling author Anthony Bourdain that “Tony would have liked this,” or “Tony would have approved of that,” despite the fact that they didn’t know him and likely never stood face to face with the guy. This, even after those who DID know him say at least a couple of times during the film that television Tony was a different person than off-camera Tony.

The movie, from Oscar-winning documentary auteur Morgan Neville, chronicles his rise from a dishwasher in New York to a cook to a chef who was convinced by the wife of a friend who worked for a publishing firm that his writing style would sell a lot of books. Thus came Kitchen Confidential, a trailblazing non-fiction look at what goes on in the kitchen of high-end New York brasserie. Bourdain, who had managed to kick a heroin habit, but merely transferred his addiction from one thing to another.

When TV producers Christopher Collins and Lydia Tenaglia heard that Bourdain was planning a follow-up book in which he would travel the globe, experiencing new cuisines and new cultures, they knew it would make a great TV show and so it did, and A Cook’s Tour became a hit. This led to No Reservations on the Travel Channel, and then his final show, Parts Unknown on CNN. We see how quickly Bourdain took to Vietnam, falling in love with the country and its food, joined on that episode by his old Les Halles boss Philippe Lajunie. We see him exploring the France of his boyhood with his brother, and later with his close friend Eric Ripert. We see how affected he was by conditions in pre-earthquake Haiti, and the amazing episode in Beirut that was interrupted by the beginning of a war that devastated the capital.

We also see the darker side of Bourdain; his relentless personality, the tantrums he throws when things aren’t going the way he thinks they should be, his occasional dark moods. We also hear from Bourdain himself that he yearns for a “normal” family life which he briefly had with his second wife Ottavia and his daughter Arielle, but his brutal travel schedule made that all but impossible. As his relationship with Ottavia ended, he took up with actress/director Asia Argento (daughter of horror legend Dario), and his addiction seemed to transfer to Asia. When she came out as a victim of Harvey Weinstein, Bourdain went all-in with #MeToo, ending some long-term friendships over things that had been said or done decades earlier (the film doesn’t mention that Argento herself was accused of sexual assault shortly after Bourdain passed away).

If there is a villain in this piece, it is Argento, at least in the eyes of those close to Bourdain and Neville. She directs some episodes of Parts Unknown and disagreements with her leads to the dismissal of a long-time camera operator for Bourdain, an action very out of character for the notoriously loyal host. But tabloid reports of Argento carrying on with another man, leading Bourdain to explode to one of his producers, “A little discretion, maybe?” in disgust days before Bourdain hung himself in a hotel room in Alsace, his body discovered by Ripert who doesn’t talk publicly about the incident.

Bourdain is barely a presence in the last half hour of the movie. We see a thousand yard stare, Bourdain glowering at the camera. Mostly, that portion of the movie is about his friends and family who break down, the wound still fresh two years (three as the film is released) after his death on June 8, 2018. Having had a close friend who took their own life, I can say that even a decade after she passed I still feel her absence keenly.

For some portions of the film, Neville recreated Bourdain’s voice using a Deepfake A.I. program. In those instances, the A.I. was using e-mails and other sources of Bourdain’s written correspondence, but still some found it to be skirting the line ethically. Bourdain’s widow, Ottavia Busia, firmly denies having given Neville permission to re-create her late husband’s voice after Neville told GQ magazine that he had received permission from her. Some have looked at this as a blurry ethical line; I suppose it’s no worse than staging a scene for a documentary, but at least those dramatic re-creations tend to be announced in the credits, which is something Neville should have done here.

The movie doesn’t dwell on the suicide so much as on the way Bourdain changed the lives of those who knew him, and on how all of those who watched his shows viewed travel. If there’s one thing Bourdain taught me, it was the importance of experiencing things as immersively as possible. When you go to a place, don’t limit yourself to all the tourist locations, the chain restaurants. Truly see a place, how the locals live, and eat what they eat. Travel, as Bourdain has said many times, changes us.

I don’t claim to have known Bourdain at all, other than what I saw of him on TV – and I did watch his shows, as a travel junkie and a foodie. I loved his acerbic wit, his self-deprecating snarkiness and his brilliantly descriptive narration. He was unlike anyone else on TV in that he didn’t seem to give a crap about what he was supposed to be like. He just did things the way he thought they ought to be done. Sadly, he had demons that haunted him throughout his life – I wouldn’t be surprised if he was undiagnosed bipolar, frankly – and never seemed to find the happiness that he yearned for. Maybe that’s the real tragedy of Anthony Bourdain.

REASONS TO SEE: Lots of amazing footage. Clearly an emotional subject for his friends two years after his death.
REASONS TO AVOID: Towards the end of the film, Bourdain is less of a presence.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title of the film comes from a Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers song.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Fin

Audible


High school football is high school football no matter who plays it.

(2021) Documentary Short (Netflix) Amaree McKenstry-Hall, Jalen Whitehurst, Lera Walkup, Ryan Bonheyo, Jamal Johnson, Teddy Webster. Directed by Matthew Ogens

 

This new documentary on Netflix is only 38 minutes long. It’s one of those rare cases where you leave a movie feeling that you wish it had been longer.

The film follows Amaree McKenstry-Hall, a senior on the football team of the Maryland School for the Deaf. This is one of the most successful teams in the country having had a 47-game winning streak snapped as we begin the film. McKenstry-Hall, clearly a leader on the team, tells his team to keep their heads high – not to let one loss define them. They have one game left in the season – and it happens to be the homecoming game.

This is more of a slice of life film than a “triumph over adversity” film, although that element is certainly there. We never see the homecoming game or how it turned out. Instead, we see Amaree dealing with his deafness, feeling isolated at home – he was not born deaf but became dear after a childhood illness. His father left the family soon afterwards, but as we see in the film is starting to rebuild his relationship with his son after years of crime and jail led to a spiritual reawakening and a desire to make amends. The relationship between the two is fragile, but improving.

We also discover that Amaree is dealing with the suicide of his friend Teddy Webster, a young man who was taken out of the Maryland School of the Deaf and put into a public high school where he was bullied unmercifully, not just for being hard of hearing (other students would regularly flick his hearing aid out of his ear) but also for being gay. His boyfriend Jalen Whitehurst is a cheerleader on the MSD team, along with Lera Walkup, Amaree’s girlfriend.

As you might imagine, the film utilizes sound design to simulate from time to time what deaf people experience. Not all deafness is the same; some hear absolutely nothing while others hear muffled and distorted sounds. The students can feel the vibrations of the music at the dance (or at a bonfire) and dance to it with the reckless abandon of youth.

If there is one criticism to be made, it’s that the movie really kind of glosses over a lot of important things; the suicide of Teddy Webster is clearly an important element in the story, but it is brought in late and discussed only in generalities. The movie also moves from being about a football team, to being a slice of life for the deaf community, to being about an individual player, to being about bullying and maybe that’s a bit too much ground to cover in a movie just over half an hour long.

This film gives you a better idea of the day-to-day realities of being a deaf high school student; it doesn’t ask for or elicit sympathy, nor does it make the student outs to be any more extraordinary than any young person dealing with an issue. What it does is make them relatable; they are, at the end of the day, like any other kids their age – they love sports, they love music, they love hanging out with each other, they hurt when someone close to them is taken from them, and they worry about their future when they graduate. It is eye-opening in its own way, but I think that the movie at the end of the day reminds us that people with disabilities are no more different than you or I; they just have challenges that you and I don’t experience, and they have long since learned to adapt their lives around them. This one is definitely worth checking out.

REASONS TO SEE: Leaves you wanting more. Incredible sound design.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit unfocused.
FAMILY VALUES: There is discussion of teen suicide and bullying, and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ogens has directed several films in the prestigious ESPN 30 for 30 series.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pahokee
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Surge at Mount Sinai

Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest (Kim Kanonarm og Rejsen mod Verdensrekorden)


The master at work.

(2021) Documentary (Good Company) Kim “Cannon Arm” Købko, Michael Dyst, Mads Hedegaard, Carsten Tommy Lauridsen, Svavar Gunnar Gunnarsson, Michael Trier, Emil Godfredsen, Billy Mitchell, Christoffer Daniel, Morten Riis Svendsen, Rasmus Roten Nadsen, Peter Udby, Mette Zacchariasson, Jesper Øland, Johnny Bonde, Helge Frisenette. Directed by Mads Hedegaard

 

Those of a certain age will remember what it was like to stand in an arcade for hours on end playing videogames with your friends. Our parents despaired of our timewasting activities; it is therefore somewhat ironic that we of that age now despair of the timewasting activities of our children, justifying it with “at least we were out of the house with our friends instead of staring at a screen alone in our room,” conveniently ignoring the fact that we were largely staring at a screen ourselves.

Kim Købko is a 55-year-old Danish grandfather (!) who loves arcade gaming, and he’s pretty good at it; he holds the world record as the movie begins for playing 49 hours straight on a single quarter on the somewhat obscure game Gyruss. His friends are mostly gaming champions as well; Michael Dyst, a published poet and poetry slam veteran, holds record scores on Puzzle Bobble 1 and 2, while physicist Svavar owns some Tetris records to his credit.

Kim realizes that at his age, his physical reflexes will soon begin to deteriorate, as will his mental acuity. He wants to make one more run at a grand challenge; to more than double his own world record by playing Gyruss continuously on a single quarter for 100 hours.

This is much more daunting than it sounds. That’s more than four days mostly standing up, running outside for bathroom breaks, eating while you play (which limits the menu somewhat), taking sleep breaks of 15 minutes only when you’ve built up enough lives so that the game doesn’t end while you are napping. Careful count has to be kept of how many lives are in the bank; the game itself only displays three, while it adds twelve for every million points scored. Too many lives in the bank will also cause the game to end; therefore Kim will need his friends to help him keep track of his lives and keep his spirits up, while monitoring his physical health.

It’s incredibly taxing on a physical level, not to mention mentally; as the hours go on without proper sleep, the mind is affected since the toxins of the day haven’t been dispelled by sleep. People can hallucinate when sleep-deprived, a very bad situation if you’re trying to keep from seeing the dreaded “game over” screen.

Not only does the player need to be in tip-top condition, so does the game. It has to be remembered that these games are over 35 years old; in the electronics world, that’s the equivalent of being old enough to remember the First World War. Finding the electronics needed to keep the game working properly is nearly impossible, and keeping original circuitry operating is a tedious task (we see the grim reality of that as one of the games Kim plays abruptly cuts out during game play which would be a disaster during a marathon game).

Hedegaard is part of Kim’s inner circle and a fellow gamer at the Bip Bip Bar in Copenhagen, where the group hangs out. As such, he has a deep understanding of the group dynamics and above all the comradery that has developed between them. There is a scene where they visit the grave of Thomas, a member of the group who battled depression and eventually took his own life; he acted as a mentor to Kim and pushed him to go after his dreams, no matter what they might be. While Kim is far too internally-oriented to voice it, you get the feeling that his single-minded pursuit of the record is largely due to Thomas.

While Kim is the central figure in the film, he is not a particularly interesting man. Unlike most of his friends, we don’t get a sense of what he does outside the arcade. If he has a job, we aren’t told what it is. He rarely speaks and when he does, its mostly in a barely audible mumble. Although we are told in the beginning that he is a grandfather, we never see a grandchild or child in the film, nor a wife or even an ex. Apparently if the film is any indication, they aren’t a part of his life. In fact, none of his circle appears to have any sort of girlfriend or partner of any sort.

Hedegaard does give us some background into competitive arcade gaming (legendary arcade gamer Billy Mitchell makes a brief appearance) but also delves into how gaming, music theory and physics share some common ground. These are interesting sequences that are often enhanced by clever animations. Those who aren’t necessarily familiar with arcade games will not feel left out of the loop.

But having an affinity for gaming definitely helps. People get into gaming for different reasons. Most of the guys in this circle of friends can be considered outsiders; guys who don’t necessarily fit in with the popular sorts; they are largely introverts who come into their own only when among themselves. I’m sure you know somebody like that or maybe YOU are just like that. Even if you don’t game, you can relate to folks like this, although something has to be done about their hair. At least one of them went full-on Viking and that just doesn’t work in 2021, dudes.

The movie is currently playing at two prestigious festivals; Hot Docs in Canada, and CPH DOX in its native Denmark. The movie can be streamed from those sites for those who live in those countries; otherwise, keep an eye out for it on the Festival circuit or at your local art house.

REASONS TO SEE: Plenty of gaming history and a surprising amout of quantum physics.
REASONS TO AVOID: Anti-climactic and a bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The average person utters about 16,000 words during a single day. Kim rarely exceeds 250.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Trigger Point

My Fiona


Gemma can smile, but it hides the tears.

(2021) Drama (The Art Factory) Jeanette Maus, Corbin Reid, Sara Amini, Elohim Nycalove, Travis Coles, John Ennis, Ryan W. Garcia, Camille Guaty, April Lang, Thomas A. Keith, Jess Riley, Courtney Hawkins, Sterling Sulieman, Elle Vernee, Ursula Taherian, Boston Beck, Naiia Ulrich, Rachel Zink. Directed by Kelly Walker

 

When someone dies, they leave an ineffable hole in the lives of those around them. Sometimes that hole becomes so overwhelmingly large, its gravitational pull threatens to suck us in completely.

When Fiona (Amini) excuses herself from the desk she shares with her start-up company’s co-founder (and sole other employee) Jane (Maus) with a cherrful “I’ll be right back,” there’s no sense that anything profound is about to happen, but it does. Moments later, Jane is screaming in horror as her best friend lies dying on the ground in front of the building, having hurled herself off the roof.

At the funeral, Jane is numb but there is rage simmering under the exterior. She goes back to the office, searching for a clue as to why her friend did what she did. She connects with Fiona’s wife, Gemma (Reid), offering to babysit their son Bailey (Nycalove) so that Gemma can get back to work. And slowly (but surely), Jane begins to become more a part of their lives, while her own sexuality – she had been straight – begins to come into question as she begins to develop feelings for Gemma. After all, the two women have something important in common – Fiona’s ghost, still looming in their lives as surely as if they’d erected a statue in her honor.

Walker’s first feature film is a self-assured affair that rarely makes missteps. Sure, there are some scenes that feel maudlin and the ending’s emotional payoff doesn’t quite feel earned, and maybe there are a few too many indie film tropes (sad indie music over a montage here, tonal shifts sharp enough to scratch diamonds and so forth) but overall, you have to admire Walker’s choices. She opts for real emotions and real reactions over manufactured ones in most cases and sometimes the rawness hits you in the face pretty sharply.

It helps that she’s assembled a crackerjack cast to realize her vision. Maus, an acting coach and veteran actress best-known for Your Sister’s Sister and Charm City Kings, has magma simmering under a cool exterior. She seems okay, but Jane is SO not okay. From time to time she explodes with powerful and often unexpected ferocity (as she does at the funeral), but there is unexpected tenderness, as in the way she deals with Bailey’s tantrums. Her chemistry with Reid is undeniable and speaking of Reid, Gemma’s grief is mainly less explosive than Jane’s but no less deeply felt. Reid carries Gemma with quiet dignity and increasing frustration as she sees this intrusion on her grief as welcome at first, confusing later and upsetting after that.

Even more impressive than the two women is Nycalove. Bailey is naturally devastated by the death of his mother, and his acting out is completely understandable, albeit uncomfortable to watch at times. It can’t have been an easy task for the young actor, nor for the director in coaxing out a show of emotion like this from a juvenile, but both Walker and Nycalove were up to the task. Kudos to both of them.

Cinematographer Laura Jansen does some impressive work, both with a swooping spiral shot that circles around the tops of actors before coming to rest, to keeping tight close-ups on the tightly-wound Jane’s face, to some beautiful images throughout the film. My Fiona is not always an easy film to watch and while the short runtime isn’t going to dissuade anyone from watching – in fact, I might have added a few more scenes to develop Fiona’s personality a little more – it does, in fact, bear watching.

REASONS TO SEE: Nycalove gives a realistic portrait of a child grieving and acting out.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes, profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Maus passed away on January 24, 2021 of colon cancer at age 39.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema (through May 2)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pieces of a Woman
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Lady Buds

Better Days (Shaonian de ni)


Bullying is, sadly, universal.

(2021) Drama (Well Go USA) Dongyu Zhao, Jackson Yee, Fang Yin, Ye Zhou, Yue Wu, Jue Huang, Yifan Zhang, Yao Zhang, Xinyi Zhang, Allen Zhao, Xuanming Gao, Xintong Xie, Ran, Luyun Heliao, Bozhan Ju, Yingming Wang, Wellong Li, Zhongyu Guo, Dian Liu, Hu Pang, Xueping Liu, Meehz Chen, Mingyang Zhang, Meixi Wang, Yong Liu, Rumeng Liao. Directed by Derek Tsang

 

I think that it’s a given that people of a certain age – including my own – do not understand just how much pressure is on teens these days, how much they are expected to perform, particularly in certain cultures, from an academic and social standpoint. It is a wonder that everyone below the age of 18 hasn’t had at least one nervous breakdown by now.

In China, there is additional pressure if you can believe it. Getting into a good college is dependent on the student’s performance on a two-day long entrance exam known as the Gaokao exams; they are like the SATs on steroids. High school seniors are drilled endlessly on these exams which determine the placement of students in good universities, or less so. A student’s entire future rides on these exams, as well as the honor of their family and their school. Failure is unthinkable, and kids have been known to crack under the pressure.

One such hurls herself from a third story balcony into the rocky courtyard below, leaving a bloody mess for her fellow students to gawp at and take cell phone pictures of. That is, until her only friend Chen Nian (D. Zhao) lays her jacket over the corpse. It is a tender and decent gesture, but it puts Chen directly in the crosshairs of resident mean girl Wei Lei (Y. Zhao) and her posse of acolytes. Now Chen is being bullied.

It isn’t as if Chen isn’t under extraordinary pressure to begin with. Her mother (Wu) ekes out a living on the edge by selling illegal contraband. One step ahead of the law and about half a step ahead of creditors, she is often absent, leaving Chen to fend for herself and study on her own. “Graduate from a good college and we can escape this hellhole,” mommy tells her on a rare visit. I’m sure that helps Chen study harder, right?

But Chen knows what the right thing to do is, and she puts her nose to the grindstone, but when she sees a young teen boy being beaten savagely, she calls the police. Xiao Bei (Yee) is nothing if not grateful. Even though he never graduated high school and lives as a low-level thug on the streets, he determines to be Chen’s protector. Despite themselves, the two begin to develop strong feelings for each other. Meanwhile, the bullying of Chen intensifies, leading to an assault. The school, focused on the upcoming exams, is ineffectual particularly since Wei Lei’s parents are well-connected. The cops are well-meaning but also ineffectual. So as things escalate, something is bound to go wrong. Can Chen survive in the pressure cooker?

This amazing film almost didn’t make it to these shores. At it’s debut at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, it was suddenly and without explanation, pulled as Chinese censors seemed to take a dim view of the portrait of the way young people are treated (one girl, suspended from school, is smacked around by her father in front of the entire school). There is an unspoken indictment of the Chinese method that promotes excellence at any cost. It also depicts students being crushed by the pressure. It is at the least an unflattering portrayal of the Chinese education system.

But just as inexplicably, the Chinese allowed it to be released and it did marvelous box office just as the pandemic was starting to hit. It’s based on a popular online novel, The film is beautifully shot by cinematographers Saba Mazloum and Jing Pin Yu. What you’re going to remember, however, is the startling performance by Dongyu Zhao, whose sad face is often expressionless, but her eyes and body language tell us everything we need to know. When her friend commits suicide, she is the only one to exhibit any sadness or remorse. It’s stunning work.

But the movie really drags, particularly in the final third where the story jumps around a bit. Much of the movie is told in flashback but we’re not really told by whom – I assume it’s an adult version of Chen as a teacher, but that’s never explicitly said. An opening title card also explains that the problem with bullying is a global one (which it is) and not explicitly a Chinese issue, although given the pressures placed on students I’m sure that contributes to the problem. A closing title card explains that since the movie was set the Chinese government has taken steps to address the problem, including punishing schools and bullies. I wonder if that isn’t treating the symptoms rather than curing the underlying cause of them.

REASONS TO SEE: Raw and intense. Dongyu Zhao gives a wonderful performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly long and occasionally tedious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and mild sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the nominees for the upcoming Oscars for Best International Film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mean Girls
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Tiny Tim: King For a Day