The Social Dilemma


The digital trap.

(2020) Documentary (NetflixTristan Harris, Jeff Seibert, Bailey Richardson, Joe Toscano, Sandy Parakilas, Guillaume Chaslot, Lynn Fox, Aza Raskin, Alex Roetter, Tim Kendall, Justin Rosenstein, Randy Fernando, Jason Lanier, Roger McNamee, Shoshana Zuboff, Anna Lembke, James Lembke, Mary Lembke, Jonathan Haidt, Cathy O’Neil, Rashida Richardson, Renee DiResta, Cynthia Wong. Directed by Jeff Orlowski

Like it or not, the Internet has become a part of the basic fabric of our lives. You are reading this on a computer or net-enabled device; there is no paper version of Cinema365 unless you happen to print out a copy of this review (and why would you want to do that?) so this is the only way to read what you’re reading. How’s that for meta?

But as much as we like to think that social media is a means of connection, it is also a means of division. This devastating documentary by the guy who brought us Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral shows us another way that our humanity is crumbling. It is ironic that much of this message will be contributed through the same social media platforms that have caused the issue in the first place.

Orlowski brings us interviews with former executives from such social media platforms as Facebook, Instagram, Google and Twitter as they discuss how what they thought was a force for good had a flip side. The monetization of the social media platforms led to the aphorism that “if the service is free, then you are the product” as algorithms determined what your interests are and tailored your experience to them. Certainly, that led to a kind of marketplace mentality – spend, spend, spend! – but also to something much darker as we began to build our own bubbles in which we are being fed misinformation designed to reinforce that bubble, leading us to the situation we are in now – so divided upon ideological lines that the results of the next election are likely to bring bloodshed regardless of who wins.

Illustrating this, we are shown a fictional family with three young children; a college-age daughter who has begun to reject what social media represents, a middle school age daughter who has become obsessed with getting likes for her posts, and a teenage boy who has begun to be influenced into extremist beliefs. It’s chilling how easily it can happen and so many of us have seen it happen within our own extended families.

The main interview subject here is Tristan Harris, the former design ethicist for Google who has emerged to become “the closest thing to a conscience for Silicon Valley.” He admits to being naïve about the possible consequences of his work for big tech, and as a result advocates now for regulating social media in the same way that broadcast and print media is regulated, or once was.

In fact, most of the experts interviewed here are for regulation and feel that a libertarian self-regulation solution isn’t practical. What is really telling is that when asked about letting their middle school-aged children having smart phones, every single expert said they would not allow it.

Social media has given us an increase in depression and suicide among teens, a rise in bullying (of the online variety) and most distressing, a rise in extremist hate groups emboldened to come out of the shadows and create an online presence that influences both the left and the right.

None of the information here isn’t available elsewhere, but I can’t think of another source that has put this information in a more digestible, logically laid-out manner. The whimsical “inside the kid’s mind” sequences showing how the algorithms work felt a little out of step with the rest of the documentary which does drag a little bit in the middle, but the last 15 minutes definitely pack a powerful punch. Every parent should see this and everyone who spends more than an hour a day on social media should as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Thought-provoking and eye-opening. Presented in a very logical manner. An inside look at how social media molds policy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets bogged down a bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, suggestive material and some adult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “like” feature on Facebook was designed to provoke a release of endorphins, which contributes to the addictive nature of social media.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews; Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Web Junkie
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles

Ronnie Wood: Somebody Up There Likes Me


Portrait of an artist at work.

(2019) Music Documentary (Eagle RockRonnie Wood, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Rod Stewart, Peter Grant, Malcolm McLaren, Charlie Watts, Imelda May, Damien Hirst, Mike Figgis, Sally Wood. Directed by Mike Figgis

 

Ron Wood, co-guitarist of the Rolling Stones alongside Keith Richards, stands out in rock and roll history as one of the finest and most influential blues rock guitarists to ever come out of Great Britain. He has been in bands with Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart, performing in such groups as the Birds (not the American psychedelic band), the Small Faces, the Jeff Beck Group and of course, the Stones – arguably the world’s greatest band.

Veteran British filmmaker Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) presents Wood in all his working-class glory, the kind of guy you’d want to hang out with at the pub into the wee hours. His dad had the same kind of bonhomie, often falling asleep in random gardens on his way home from the pubs, not quite sober enough to make it all the way to his own door.

Figgis assembles a pretty impressive array of interview subjects, including three of his fellow Stones (although, oddly, there is very little footage of Wood performing with his current band, a rendition of “When the Whip Comes Down”) and Stewart, accomplished blues singer Imelda May (who performed with Wood early on in her career), alongside artist Damien Hirst (Wood is an accomplished painter as well) and, curiously, notorious Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant who had little if anything to do with Wood’s career, although he asks after Wood during an archival interview with Figgis and former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren (both Grant and McLaren have since passed on). Wood’s third wife, Sally, briefly appears to admit that she prefers her husband sober, although he is a pretty good drunk – Wood had the reputation of keeping things together even when sloshed. Wood’s first two wives and six children aren’t mentioned, nor is his session work.

Which is where the film falls down. We are given broad brush strokes, but few details, so overall the work looks a little bit like a house painter interpreting Manet. One wonders if there were logistical concerns here that prevented further participation from ex-wives, kids, or perhaps a rock historian or two to assess Wood’s place in rock and roll history, which is considerable. The movie is a scant 82 minutes and it felt like Figgis could have added another 20 minutes comfortably. This is one of those rare films that doesn’t overstay its welcome but quite the opposite; it leaves before you’re ready for it to go.

There is some terrific archival footage which is really the main reason some of his fans will want to check this out; the interview between Figgis and Wood is clearly a couple of old mates getting together and reminiscing, although Wood doesn’t spend much time in self-reflection. His philosophy of life is summarized in a Yogi Berra quote – “if you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Wood has led an interesting life and a charmed life – after having lung surgery following a half century of heavy smoking, his doctors told him he essentially had lungs that were as good as if he had never smoked at all. Wood’s delighted refrain was “It’s like a get out of jail free card – somebody up there must like me.” Plenty of people down here like him too, and for good reason; you just wouldn’t know it in this curiously uninformative documentary.

REASONS TO SEE: A chronicle of an interesting life.
REASONS TO AVOID: It’s a little disjointed and curiously incomplete.
FAMILY VALUES: This is a fair amount of profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wood was invited to join the Rolling Stones after Brian Jones passed away, but his manager turned down the opportunity without informing Wood (until much later) because he already had a gig with the Small Faces, so Mick Taylor took the job. When Taylor decided to leave, the invitation was once again offered and this time Wood accepted.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Who: The Kids are Alright
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Social Dilemma

DTF


Fun in the sun in L.A.

(2020) Documentary (GravitasAl Bailey, “Christian,” Neil Jeram-Croft, Nathan Codrington. Directed by Al Bailey

 

Finding love has never been easy, other than once parents made arranged marriages for their children so the kids really didn’t have to do anything but show up at the wedding, then endure thirty years of marriage to someone they may or may not like. Later, when that wasn’t an option anymore, we hung out in bars, dated people from school, work and church, did whatever we could to meet that perfect someone. Sometimes, a friend or relative would make an introduction.

The digital age would make it easier, you might think but anyone who is a recent veteran of the dating wars will tell you it’s, if anything, harder. Dating apps more often than not hook you up with people who have fibbed about themselves, and finding love in the age of Tinder has become something of a minefield.

Al Bailey, an English filmmaker, had introduced his friend, a long-haul Scandinavian airline pilot who is called “Christian” – not his real name for reasons that will become eminently clear in a moment – to the woman that Christian eventually married, but after her tragic death, decided to make a documentary about the difficulties airline pilots face in finding love. He proposed to follow Christian around on a series of dates made through Tinder in a series of cities around the world, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Hong Kong. Al was hoping that one of these dates would lead to lasting happiness for his friend.

That was the documentary he set out to make. What he ended up with was something very much different as Al realizes that the happy-go-lucky party guy that was so much fun to hang out with was a very different person than he thought he was. Far from looking for love, Christian turns out to be an amoral hedonist with absolutely no empathy for the women he uses so long as they provide him with immediate gratification (DTF is internet-speak for “Down to Fornicate” – except they don’t mean fornicate) and doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process. Christian also has a drinking problem and turns up to work hung over from time to time, which concerns Al (and you as the viewer no doubt) greatly. As Christian proclaims this party lifestyle is common among airline pilots, Al makes a half-hearted attempt to investigate it but doesn’t really turn up anything concrete. I would tend to guess that it’s more a Christian problem than an industry problem; otherwise there would be a whole lot of mainstream media exposes trumpeting the state of affairs. That’s the kind of story that sells advertising – just not from the airline industry.

The more that goes on, the worse Christian’s behavior gets, leading to an incident in Las Vegas that completely changes the tenor of the film. Those who have lived with or been close to addicts are likely to find it unsurprising and sadly familiar terrain, but for those of us who have been fortunate enough to avoid such issues, it might be a bit jaw-dropping. From there, the end is pretty much inevitable.

Bailey is a fairly affable guy and he makes someone that the audience can identify with, dancing merrily with Hare Krishna disciples early on in the film but as the tone becomes darker, the lighter side of Al becomes more like a stern parent as he struggles to rein in the irresponsible behaviors of Christian who often leaves Al and his crew hanging.

Some may be tempted to find alternate modes of travel the next time they have somewhere to be, but again, let me stress that there is no evidence that this kind of behavior is widespread in the airline industry; obviously, given the kind of stress pilots are under to begin with, it’s understandable how some pilots might traverse the primrose path into alcoholism and substance and sex addiction, but one shouldn’t view Christian as anything representative of airline pilots. Hopefully, his employers will have gotten wind of his behavior by now and taken steps to get him the help he needs, or fired his ass if he was unable to stick to it. Addiction is a morass that destroys everything in its path, including careers and friendships, and the movie is as stark a reminder of that as I’ve ever seen.

REASONS TO SEE: A sobering look at addiction. The documentary evolves as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a little hard for those with addicted loved ones to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity including crude sexual references, drug use and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmaker and his subject have not spoken since filming ended.
 BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Courage to Love
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Ronnie Wood: Somebody Up There Likes Me

A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story


Thanks to Bruce Brown, summer never need end.

(2020) Documentary (1091) Bruce Brown, Chad McQueen, Hobie Alter, Mert Lawwill, Jack O’Neill, Kenny Roberts, Wingnut Weaver, Jack McCoy, Don King, Dana Brown, Gordon “Grubby” Clark, Troy Lee, Gerry Lopez, Chris Husband, Mark Martinson, R. Paul Allen, Syd Cole, Wing Lam, Pat O’Connell, Henry Preece, Jose Angel, Wade Brown, Cathi O’Neill, Joey Cabell, Nancie Brown. Directed by Dana Brown

 

In the late 50s and early 60s, surfer culture was a heck of a lot different than it is today; less stoners with long hair on fiberglass boards and more cleancut Beach Boy types with wooden boards. Bruce Brown was a part of that scene and documented it with his seminal documentary The Endless Summer which has rightfully become a classic. He followed up that with On Any Sunday which documented motorcycle racing and riding, again back when most people thought everyone who rode a bike was automatically a Hell’s Angel. Both of his documentaries were not only groundbreaking, they helped popularized two separate sports – surfing and cycle racing – and Brown, perhaps sensing he had done more than most men cold accomplish in two lifetimes, retired from filmmaking until twenty years later when he helped his son out on a sequel to The Endless Summer.

After Bruce’s beloved wife Patricia died of cancer, he went into a tailspin, rarely living the farmhouse in which he and his dog Rusty – perhaps the epitome of a free-spirited mutt – spent most of their days. In 2014, eight years after his wife’s passing, his children convinced him to get out and visit some of his most cherished friends on what they euphemistically called “The Heroes Tour,” as most of these people were heroes to Bruce in one way or another. Bruce finally relented and agreed to go – provided he could bring Rusty along.

And thus Bruce went to visit several of his friends throughout the country, including surfing legends Hobie Alter, Henry Preece, Jack O’Neill and Grubby Clark. He also headed over to the homes of motorcycle riders like Mert Lawwill, Kenny Roberts and Chad McQueen, son of legendary actor Steve McQueen who had become close friends with Bruce after Bruce got him to help finance On Any Sunday. Not only were these men great surfers and riders, they were also innovators who invented the fiberglass board, the neoprene wetsuit and other things that helped make them wealthy.

Most of the men and women that Bruce visited on that trip are gone now (Alter had terminal cancer at the time Brown visited him), but their contributions remain. Best of all, we get to remember them as young, beautiful and strong from their appearances in Bruce’s surfing and riding films. Bruce himself is an engaging character and watching him interact with his friends is kind of comfortable; none of them seem to mind that the camera is there. The only time things get uncomfortable is when Bruce is talking about his late wife and abruptly tears up; it is clear that she was the love of his life and that he is horribly lonely without her. His pain is palpable in that moment.

Because the film is directed by Bruce’s son, it can be forgiven if the movie feels a bit hagiographic; this is intended mostly as a tribute from a son to his father and his father’s friends, and to chronicle a life well-lived which is not always an easy thing to accomplish, particularly these days. Don’t go looking for objectivity here, because you won’t find it – nor should you.

But mostly, this is a feel-good movie as the lion in winter visits his friends, reminiscing about the good times and kidding around with each other as if no time had passed at all. These were the beautiful gods of the beach and the track, whose smiles lit up the screen and reminded us that it is more important to do what you love because out lives, as rich as they can be, are also terribly short.

REASONS TO SEE: A story of a life well-lived. Kind of like a home movie – in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: When Brown speaks about his late wife, it can be hard to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bruce Brown passed away in 2017, three years after most of this movie was filmed; his son still lives in the farmhouse along with Bruce’s dog Rusty.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dogtown and Z-Boys
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
DTF

Blackbird (2019)


Taking comfort at twilight.

(2019) Drama (Screen MediaKate Winslet, Susan Sarandon, Mia Wasikowska, Sam Neill, Rainn Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Anson Boon. Directed by Roger Mitchell

 

Most of us fear dying. We are dragged towards it, kicking and screaming, not wanting to go gentle into that dark night. Some of us, conversely, embrace it, death being a comforting alternative to a life of pain and humiliation.
That’s what Lily (Sarandon) is faced with, entering the final stages of ALS, popularly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” She is already having difficulty doing ordinary things, having lost the use of one arm and nearly unable to walk. She is looking at a future of breathing on a ventilator, being fed intravenously and unable to speak. This is not a future she wishes to endure. She wants to exert the last little bit of control she has over life – she wants to end it while she is still able.

This is a decision that she has debated with her family – her husband Paul (Neill), a doctor who has managed to purchase the fatal cocktail that will send her into sleep one last time; her eldest daughter Jennifer (Winslet) who inherited her mother’s control-freak nature without inheriting her warmth; younger daughter Anna (Wasikowska), the family black sheep, whose on-again off-again paramour Chris (Taylor-Klaus) is apparently on-again with her and has accompanied her to Lily and Paul’s extravagant beach house in the Hamptons. So, too has Jennifer’s husband Michael (Wilson), a reciter of minutiae so irritating that Anna has dubbed him “Mr. Dull,” and their son Jonathan (Boon), who has clearly spent a lifetime not living up to his mother’s expectations. Then there’s also Liz (Duncan), Lily’s long-time best friend (dating back at least until college) whose presence Jennifer deeply resents.

Lily clearly expects a sweet send-off, in the bosom of a loving family ready to send her off with love and joy, but she apparently hasn’t met her own children. Anna is so self-absorbed that she threatens to put a stop to Lily’s plans in order to get to know her mother better before she goes; Jennifer can’t help but criticize every little detail in everyone else and she and Anna are at each other’s throats. Paul takes the high road, but he simply wants peace and knows he’s not going to get it, particularly when a late revelation calls into question everything.

The film has an understandably elegiac tone, borrowed from the Danish film it is remade from (Silent Heart) whose screenwriter Christian Torpe also penned the English-language version. Even the warm tones of Mike Eley’s cinematography doesn’t disguise that we are observing a life in winter, awaiting its end. Then again, this isn’t a movie about death so much as it is about the dynamics of family. This is a family that has had a comfortable life, but has profited little by it.

The attraction here is the cast, and they don’t disappoint. Sarandon has played the dying mom before (Stepmom) and experienced pro that she is, refuses to turn her illness into Camille-like histrionics. She is making her best effort to die with dignity, but she is flinty enough to call her family down to breakfast by grumping “Get down here – I’m going to die today!” Winslet plays a character that is recognizably Lily’s daughter – strong, strong-willed, and yes, a control freak, but she chooses to exercise it by tearing down.

Neill has been one of my favorite actors over the years and his quiet dignity makes his part all the more poignant. Wasikowska, Duncan and Taylor-Klaus manage to hold their own against the Oscar-winning leads and Wilson does a surprisingly good job in a rare straight dramatic role for him. Boon, a relative newcomer, also is impressive in his scenes as the straight-shooting grandson.

This is hard to watch at times in the sense of dealing with a loved one. I found myself wondering if I would be as sanguine if it was my mother who was purporting to end her own life with dignity. I’d like to think I’d support her decision if she felt it was the right thing, but I can’t help wondering if I would handle the situation gracefully. Chances are, not.

This is a movie that inspires reflection, and that is definitely not a bad thing. That said, it isn’t always an easy watch and requires much of its viewer. Also, not a bad thing, but it can be more than the average viewer might be willing to give. Still in all, it is worth the effort to watch if for no other reason for the stellar performances of its cast.

REASONS TO SEE: Some wonderful performances from Sarandon, Winslet and Neill. Lovely cinematography. The family dynamic is the focus of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Kind of a downer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some brief sexual material, drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers initially wanted Diane Keaton in the role for Lily, but eventually Sarandon was cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Here Awhile
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story

Followed


The devil wants your coffee.

(2018) Horror (Global ViewMatthew Solomon, John Savage, Tim Drier, Sam Valentine, Caitlin Grace, Kelsey Griswold, Christopher Martin, Sarah Chang, Karan Sagoo, Ethan Alexander, Terumi Shimazu, Sonia Lopez Pizarro, Thaddeus Ek, Gregory Adkins, Doreen Fox Loughlin, India Adams, Blanca Blanco, Kate Romero, Santiago Postigo, David Nesler, JoAnna de Castro. Directed by Antoine Le

 

We live in an age when anybody can become an Internet star, and it doesn’t necessarily take talent so much as an ability to get noticed in a crowded milieu. Vlogger Mike a.k.a. DropTheMike (Solomon) comes to us from the mean streets of L.A., taking us on a haunted tour of the locations of suicides and murders. However, his numbers aren’t as high as he would like them to be and in order to drive them up so that he can get himself a $250,000 sponsorship, he decides to film a special Halloween edition – from the Lennox Hotel, the most haunted location in the city.

His cameraman Christopher (Drier) who has no problem going to the exteriors of these notorious locations, balks at spending the night inside of one; unlike Mike, he believes in the supernatural. Mike ups the pay and hires Christopher’s crush, Dani (Valentine) to do sound in order to get his DP back into the fold. Add workaholic on-site editor Nic (Grace) to the mix and it’s “let’s put on a show” time, kids.

At first it’s all fun and games, but genuinely spooky things begin to happen, from loud knocks on their bedroom door, to the discovery of body parts in various places in the hotel, to half-glimpsed sightings of people who aren’t there…you know the drill. Eventually, the fear factor is ratcheted up until the crew begin to desert the project one by one and Mike is left to face the unknown alone.

The movie is done in a found footage style, but in a clever way that avoids some of the more annoying tropes of the sub-genre. A framing device of a heavy-breathing presence uploading various segments to the vlog is effective, albeit a bit over-the-top. Then again, horror thrives on over-the-top, the more the better.

There is a subtle, sly satire on the whole vlogging culture. Mike is sufficiently obnoxious – he’s based loosely on real vloggers PewDiePie and Logan Paul – that at times we wish someone would call him on his insensitivity (mostly his mates just give him the eye-rolls of people who are all too familiar with a friend’s remarks, but what are you gonna do) and certainly, there are elements of creepypasta here (most of the denizens of the hotel have that feel. In fact, much of the movie seems to harken back to other movies, from The Shining to The Blair Witch Project to Grave Encounters and so on – you may end up frustrated that so much is borrowed from other films. That doesn’t make the movie any less fun.

Some of the scares are well-executed, but there is a tendency for the scary sequences to be filmed with handheld cameras in dim lighting so that a lot of the sources of the fright are barely glimpsed. I suppose that’s a function of a very low budget – when you can’t afford terrific make-up effects, you hide them by making sure that the audience never gets a clear view of them. I don’t know if that’s what happened here, but that’s where a critic’s mind automatically goes and, I’m sure, many horror fans as well. Also, keep in mind this is one of at least three horror films involving vloggers coming out this month alone.

Still, this is a pretty good horror movie and as were just getting into the season for them, it’s a good start to getting your terror on. The movie played in drive-ins in June and just hit VOD platforms. If you ask your local drive-in (or pop-up drive-in) nicely, they might rent it for you; this is the kind of film that’s perfect for that kind of venue. But it’s not a bad idea to turn the lights down in your bedroom and watch this on your TV screen…or laptop. But if you really want a good scare, do a Google search for the Hotel Cecil. That might just chill you to the bone.

REASONS TO SEE: Some decent scares.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not super original.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some horrific and disturbing images, plenty of profanity, some violence and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Hotel Lennox is based on the real-life Hotel Cecil, where serial killer Richard Ramirez reportedly stayed and committed some of his crimes; also the Meghan Kim incident is based on the story of Elisa Lam, a Canadian college student who disappeared while staying there and whose actions, caught on surveillance video, were similar to that of Meghan Kim; Lam’s body was later discovered in a hotel water tank.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, iScreeningroom, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shining
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Blackbird

Pretending I’m a Superman: The Tony Hawk Video Game Story


Tony Hawk, just like Superman, defies gravity.

(2020) Documentary (Wood Entertainment) Tony Hawk, Steve Caballero, Rodney Mullen, Chad Muska, Jamie Thomas, Aaron Snyder, Scott Pease, Mick West, Jay Bentley, Elliott Sloan, Christian Hosoi, Aaron Homoki, Silvio Porretto, Jordyn Barratt, Walter Day, Nolan Nelson, Keire Johnson, Larry Lalonde, John Feldmann, Chris Rausch, Eric Koston, Cara Beth Burnside. Directed by Ludvig Gür

 

It’s hard to believe now, but it wasn’t all that long ago that skating culture was on the fringes of society; there weren’t a lot of skaters and while they were incredibly passionate and innovative, they didn’t have the kind of numbers that they have today. Skate parks weren’t as prevalent as they are now and professional skaters weren’t household names. Tony Hawk changed all that.

Well, not single-handedly of course, but he had a large hand in it. His Pro Skater video game series caught the imagination of an entire generation; it was one of the best-selling games of its time and inspired lots of young guys (and gals too) to get themselves a board and find their own style.

This documentary does an admirable job of explaining the background; first the state of the sport for skateboarding, which when the game debuted was in a waning phase. Gür also does a good job of setting the stage in the videogame industry. Interviews with pro skateboarders, some who appeared in the game and of course, Hawk himself, lend some context. For example, did you know that Hawk had been approached to lend his name to a video game, but refused because none of the games brought to him were games that he’d want to play himself.

In fact, when you think about it, it seems incredible that nobody really connected the skaters with the videogame audience, even though a lot of skaters were – and are – dedicated gamers as well. Still, I don’t think anybody including Hawk himself could have predicted the hold the game would have on the gamer community and the long-term effect it would have on the sport of skateboarding itself – which as this is written, is actually an Olympic sport. Who could have predicted that?

>Gür wisely doesn’t reinvent the wheel here. The film is brief and informative. If there’s a criticism to be made, it is likely to appeal mainly to gamers and skaters and probably not very far beyond that – and both of those groups tend to prefer gaming and skating to watching documentaries about gaming and skating, but still this makes for informative viewing if you’re looking to find out how skateboarding exploded from being driven largely underground in the 90s to becoming a multi-billion dollar industry that it is today.

REASONS TO SEE: Gives a good sense of the impact the videogame had on skating culture.
REASONS TO AVOID: A very niche core audience.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and some rude gestures.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first two games in the series have been remastered and were re-released in September 2020.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thank You for Playing
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Followed

Behind the Line: Escape to Dunkirk


A horse as a matter of course.

(2020) War/Sports (Picture Perfect) Sam Gittins, Joe Egan, Jennifer Martin, Chris Simmons, Joel Phillimore, Michael Elkin, Tim Berrington, Jake J. Menlani, Ryan Winsley, Toby Kearton, Antonio Bustorff, Guy Faulkner, Sam Newman, Chris Shipton, Mirsad Solakovic, Sammy Measom, Patrick Capaloff-Fowler, Leo Wherrett, Geir Madland, Adam Braddock, James Haynes, Neale Ricotti. Directed by Ben Mole

From time to time, we’ll watch an old movie and sigh to ourselves “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” On extremely rare occasions, we see a new movie that puts lie to that cliché.

It is 1940 and the British army is being pushed back into the channel, seeking to escape at Dunkirk and facing complete annihilation. A group of soldiers are captured in the countryside of France, including Danny Finnegan (Gittins), who happens to be a world champion boxer. The German commandant, who fancies himself a sportsman, recognizes Danny at once at determines to stage an exhibition match between Danny and one of his men, mainly using the bout as an opportunity to impress his superior officer who also happens to be a boxing fan. Danny is loathe to take part, but eventually relents when one of his buddies is brutally beaten by the man he’ll face in the ring.

In the meantime, the soldiers are aware that the clock is ticking. Soon, they’ll be transported to Germany and where escape will be extremely unlikely. The time to get away is now, with Danny’s bout providing a distraction that will allow them to get to Dunkirk before the entire British army is evacuated, but getting away won’t be so easy. They’ll need help, and there a pretty French farmgirl (Martin) with a grudge against the German commander is their only hope – but it will all be for naught if Danny is unable to stretch the fight out long enough for his mates to get away.

This is an interesting genre mash-up between a war movie that harkens back to some of the contemporaneous “stay calm and fight on” films of the postwar era, and the sports movie that could easily be called Rocky vs. the Nazis. Reading this on paper, I admit it sounds a bit ludicrous but writer-director Ben Mole makes it work.

Gittens, who is best known for a recurring role on the British series EastEnders, has an easy screen presence and carries this low-budget affair on his back, largely. Not all of the supporting cast fares as well, sadly; some accents are known to slip in and out of French and German accents, and a few give some fairly stiff line readings. Given the budget constraints, it’s unlikely there was much time for rehearsal and a likelihood that there is a fairly inexperienced cast behind Gittens.

At times the budget limitations are detrimental – the sound effects of guns firing sound like little pops rather than the bangs we’re used to in the movies, for example, but for the most part, Mole makes good use of what budget he has. I wish he’d taken the time to choreograph the boxing sequences a bit better; they are often unconvincing and one gets the sense that the actors are winging it a bit.

But don’t let that bother you, particularly if you like movies that appeal to the male of the species. This hits two sets of feels for the movie guy, who sometimes gets underserved these days in our zeal to make filmmaking more inclusive – which is a good thing, by the way, but still there’s a need for these types of movies as well. Keep an eye out for it on your favorite streaming service if your favorite guy is moping about the house and is in need of an infusion of testosterone, or if you’re someone’s favorite guy and you need it. In that case, treat yourself, by all means.

REASONS TO SEE: An interesting mash-up of genres.
REASONS TO AVOID: The boxing sequences occasionally are unconvincing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is both war and boxing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The battle of Dunkirk took place between May 26 and June 4, 1940.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 69/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Victory
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Pretending I’m a Superman: The Tony Hawk Videogame Story

Class Action Park


Throwing sanity for a loop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Musical Comedy Whore


All the world’s an off-Broadway stage.

(2020) Musical Comedy (Breaking Glass) David Pevsner. Directed by Brendan Russo

 

David Pevsner is a Los Angeles-based actor, comedian and singer who has loved musical comedies all his life. Now, some will stereotype him as a gay man for that – and he happens to be gay – but not all gay men know the lyrics to every song in Cabaret. I suspect Pevsner might.

This one-man show, filmed live, is essentially a confessional about his life which has been sordid at times – he for some time worked as a prostitute even as he was singing on Broadway – fun at times and unbearably lonely at other times, but he narrates the details with a keen sense of humor, and an occasionally bawdy tune, accompanied only by a pianist who harmonizes with him from time to time vocally.

This isn’t for those who are squeamish about gay men having sex, because Pevsner talks about it a lot; in fact even if you’re okay with it might have a “TMI” reaction to the monologues overall, but if you bear with it and check your hang-ups at the door (or more accurately, at the streaming site) you might learn something about human nature and maybe even a little bit about yourself.

=Filmed versions of a stage show live and die by how good the audience response is; Pevsner wasn’t blessed with a particularly vocal audience and at times some of the funniest lines are met with dead silence, which doesn’t help matters much. Pevsner is an engaging performer, self-effacing and without any sort of filter. Some of the songs work, some don’t; some of the jokes work, some don’t but there is no denying that this project comes from Pevsner’s heart.

From time to time Pevsner talks about things in life that are painful, some unbearably so – like the first real relationship he was in that despite the obvious love he had for his partner (and still does, if the show is any indication), the relationship became toxic and he had to give it up. I think we’ve all been through that kind of thing – loving someone deeply who was clearly no good for us and having to give it up to save ourselves from falling apart.

Yeah, I get that at times this comes off like a therapy session for a mature queen, but it takes all types to make a world. I’ve been fortunate enough to be friends with a wide range of gay men in my time (living for 20 years in the San Francisco Bay Area makes that almost inevitable) and while not all of them are like Pevsner, some are and the world is a better place with them in it as far as I’m concerned.

=So will you like this? Well, that depends on how open-minded you are about frank discussions of a gay man’s sexual history, and whether or not you like musical comedies your own self, because there’s a lot of singing and it is very much in the vein of modern musicals. I will confess I’m more of a classicist when it comes to musical theater, but there were things about A Chorus Line that I loved and the music is in many ways in that vein, so be forewarned – this is a bit of a niche video, but if you fit into that niche, you’ll find this entertaining and enlightening.

REASONS TO SEE: Funny and poignant in equal doses.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times feels like we’re listening in on a psychotherapy session.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole mess of profanity and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The show was filmed at the Colony Theater in beautiful downtown Burbank, California.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wanda Sykes: Not Normal
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Class Action Park