Movie Review: The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks (2022)


Title: The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks
Release Date: March 15, 2022
Director: Reginald Harkema
Production Company: Blue Ant Media
Summary/Review:

This two-part documentary on Amazon Prime Video is tied in with the release of a new season of The Kids in the Hall, the first in 27 years!  I’m not going to review that series but if you’re a fan of the Kids in the Hall, watch it because it’s excellent and they haven’t missed a step.  The documentary features interviews with all five Kids – Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney,  and Scott Thompson – as well as producer Lorne Michaels, writer Paul Bellini, and celebrity fans like Mike Myers and Eddie Izzard, among others.  It also is rich in archival footage and clips from various KITH all projects.

I learned that Dave & Kevin were the closest partnership in the group and had started performing together in Toronto.  Meanwhile Bruce and Mark began working together in Calgary before moving to Toronto.  The four of them formed the Kids in the Hall (which Mark wanted to call The Audience) and then Scott Thompson willed himself into the group.  I also learned that Scott had survived a mass shooting at his school in Ontario as a child which has informed his work.  KITH also made a miniseries in 2012 called Death Comes to Town which I’d never even heard of.

This is a solid and informative documentary.  But it does strike me as an extremely conventional approach for a documentary about an unconventional comedy team.  At least Paul Bellini wears a towel during some of his interviews.

 

Rating: ***

Documentary Movie Review: Val (2021) #atozchallenge


Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Documentaries starting with the letter Documentaries starting with the letter V that I have previously reviewed include: that I have previously reviewed include:

TitleVal
Release Date: July 23, 2021
Director: Leo Scott and Ting Poo
Production Company: A24 | IAC Films | Boardwalk Pictures | Cartel Films
Summary/Review:

What would it be like if you had a movie made of your entire life?  Actor Val Kilmer answers that question in this unique documentary made out of home hundreds of hours of movie footage he shot starting in childhood.  I remember really liking Kilmer early in his career when he starred in Top Secret! and Real Genius, and always wondered why he didn’t do more comedy.  He became more famous for his roles in movies like Top Gun and The Doors, and starred as Batman in one of the 90s version of that franchise.

Today, Kilmer’s voice has been damaged by throat cancer. He wrote the narration for the film which is read by his son Jack, who sounds startlingly like a younger Val.  In this film we see the surprisingly sophisticated movies he made as a child with his brother, his theater training at Julliard, and his ongoing frustration with a Hollywood system that has little use for his style of acting.  This has given him a reputation as a troublesome actor, although there are also many actors and directors who’ve enjoyed working with him.  The movie also delves into his personal life and doesn’t always show him in the best light.

This is a kind of fascinating movie which I think is more than your typical celebrity biography, but also an examination of an actor’s life.

Rating: ***

Documentary Movie Review: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (2016) #atozchallenge


Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Documentaries starting with the letter Documentaries starting with the letter N that I have previously reviewed include: 

Title: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You 
Release Date: January 21, 2016
Director: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Production Company: Loki Films | Thirteen/WNET
Summary/Review:

Several years ago I read Norman Lear’s autobiography Even This I Get To Experience, and this documentary is basically a companion piece to that book.  There isn’t much to the film that wasn’t covered by the book, but with its subject being someone who worked in a visual medium it’s great to see what they are talking about. There are some issues that came up in writing the book, such as Lear’s relationship with his father, that he came to see in a different way.  He also admits that one of his oft-repeated family stories was a lie.

Lear, of course, was the tv producer responsible for creating sitcoms like All in the FamilyThe JeffersonsGood TimesSanford and SonMaude, and One Day at a Time. All of these shows attempted to show realistic families dealing with issues of the day in an honest (but funny) manner that had never before been done on television and rarely has been done since.  The documentary focuses almost entirely on Lear’s tv career in the 1970s with a little bit about his activist work for People for the American Way tacked on the end. The movie has a bit of fluff including recurring scenes of a child actor wearing Lear’s trademark hat representing Lear’s “inner child” and coming off as mawkish.  Otherwise it’s a straightforward and solid documentary but I think someone who was as revolutionary to the the tv medium as Lear deserve a more revolutionary documentary.

Rating: ***

BONUS DOC: Documentary Movie Review: My Name Is Pauli Murray (2021)


Title: My Name Is Pauli Murray
Release Date: September 17, 2021
Director: Betsy West and Julie Cohen
Production Company: Participant |  Storyville Films | Drexler Films
Summary/Review:

This documentary makes the convincing argument that Pauli Murray (1910-1985 – a lawyer, civil rights activist, women’s equality activist, Episcopal priest, and author – should be more well known. Murray also privately wrote about gender identity in a way that today would be considered transgender or nonbinary.  (Note: the people in the documentary use she/her pronouns for Murray, and I will use them in this review, although they/them pronouns could also be used).

Murray was raised by her grandparents in Durham, NC, as part of a large mixed-race family that supported her breaking with conventional gender norms of the time.  Starting in the 1930s, Murray was active in protesting segregation on buses and at lunch counters, and attempted to gain admittance to  University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in a widely-publicized case.  Instead she attended law school at Howard University where she was the only woman in the class and finished at the top of the class.

Over her career, Murray would work for a prominent law firm and served in organizations such the Workers’ Defense League (WDL), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and co-founded the National Organization for Women (NOW).  She was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, and her writings and ideas influenced Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  Her concept of “Jane Crow” fostered a women’s equality movement alongside the civil rights movement in the 1960s.  She became the first African-American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1977.  And she wrote poetry.  And all of this is just scratching the surface.

This documentary is a good introduction to a person who should already be famous and whose ideas shaped the world we live in today.

Rating: ****

Documentary Movie Review: Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché (2021) #atozchallenge


Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Today, I’m cheating a bit and using the subtitle because I had more “P” movies that I wanted to watch than “I” movies. Documentaries starting with the letter Documentaries starting with the letter I that I have previously reviewed include: 

Title: Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché
Release Date: 27 February 2021
Director: Celeste Bell & Paul Sng
Production Company: Generation Indigo Films | Polydoc Films | Tyke Films | Velvet Joy Productions
Summary/Review:

I’ve only recently become acquainted with the music of the seminal UK punk band X-Ray Spex so I was eager to watch the biography of the band’s lead vocalist and songwriter, Poly Styrene.  The film is narrated by her daughter Celeste Bell and themed around Bell sorting through the artifacts of Poly Styrene’s career several years after her death in 2011, and reconciling the mother she knew to the punk icon.  Actor Ruth Negga provides the voice reading from Poly Styrene’s diaries.

Born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, Poly Styrene grew up feeling isolated as a mixed race child in class conscious England.  Inspired by seeing the Sex Pistols, she formed a band which she fronted with her unique voice and anti-fashion styles. The themes of consumerism and artificiality are frequent both in her music and in this story of her life.  She reacted negatively to fame which intensified mental health issues.  Poly Styrene’s career as a punk musician was short but the movie also focuses on her later life, especially her time in the Hari Krishna movement.

I’ve read other reviews that note that a lot of the material in this movie is featured in other documentaries on X-Ray Spex.  But coming to Poly Styrene’s story new I found it to be a brilliant introduction to her life and career.

Rating: ****

Documentary Movie Review: Howard (2018) #atozchallenge


Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Documentaries starting with the letter Documentaries starting with the letter H that I have previously reviewed include: 

Title: Howard
Release Date: December 28, 2018
Director: Don Hahn
Production Company: Stone Circle Pictures
Summary/Review: Lyricist, playwright, and stage director Howard Ashman is remembered for his key role in the Disney Renaissance, applying the practices of musical theater in using songs for storytelling in animated films.  This documentary is featured on Disney+ and as a result may focus a bit too much on Ashman’s Disney career.  But it does spend some time with his background and early career, particularly his success in adapting Little Shop of Horrors into a hit off-off-Broadway musical in a theater he had built himself. The better part of the film focuses on Ashman’s game-changing work on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.   It also tells the story of Ashman’s tragic death, tragic not just because he died young of a horrible disease, but also because he felt it necessary to hide that he had AIDS from most of the world.  This is a straight-forward documentary featuring voiceover commentary from family, partners, friends, musical colleagues, film stars, and Disney honchos.  It’s a good introduction to the short but brilliant career of a man who’s left a large musical legacy behind.
Rating: ***

BONUS DOC Movie Review: Frank and Ollie (1995)


I have a lot of documentary movies on my watchlist, so throughout the Blogging A-to-Z  Challenge I will be posting bonus documentary movie reviews, as time allows.

Title: Frank and Ollie
Release Date: October 20, 1995
Director: Theodore Thomas
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Theodore Thomas Productions
Summary/Review:

I hadn’t planned it, but most of the documentaries I’m watching for A to Z are serious, social justice issues stuff.  So it’s nice to tune into Disney+ for some lighter fare.

Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were animators and directors for Walt Disney Animation from the 1930s to the 1970s.  They became known for their ability to animate characters with vibrant emotions.  The movie focuses on their parallel careers at Disney, takes time to explicate some key character moments in Disney animated features, and talks about their multi-decade bromance.  At the time this movie was made, Frank and Ollie were octogenarians who were not only best friends but nextdoor neighbors.  This is some very sweet and wholesome content!

Rating: ***

Recent Movie Marathon: Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)


Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title : Judas and the Black Messiah
Release Date: February 12, 2021
Director: Shaka King
Production Company: MACRO | Participant | Bron Creative | Proximity
Summary/Review:

Judas and the Black Messiah is a biographical story of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, and Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), an FBI informant who infiltrated the Party.  The result of O’Neal’s work was the coordinated  assassination by the FBI, Chicago Police, and Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office  of Hampton while he slept early on the morning of December 4, 1969. The movie also depicts the budding romance of Hampton and Black Panther Party member Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), who would give birth to their child only 25 days after Hampton’s death.

I’ve long felt that Hampton is one of the great overlooked activists of American history with a unique  ability to unite people across across racial lines towards common cause.  Had he lived longer (Hampton was only 21 when he was killed), I believe that he and other people he inspired would’ve changed the course of American history for the better.  This of course is why he was targeted in the first place by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) and others who wanted to preserve systems of white supremacy.

Apart from doing an excellent job of telling the story of Hampton and his betrayal with great performances by Kaluuya and Stanfield, and great direction by Shaka King, this movie is deft in its storytelling and characterization. Hampton’s fiery rhetoric while giving speeches is balanced by his quiet moments of love and dedication to the people. O’Neal is treated sympathetically, albeit not without judgement, and you can understand how he was motivated by fear and misinformation.  Even O’Neal’s FBI handler Roy Mitchell (a composite character portrayed by Jesse Plemons) is depicted as sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement and suspicious of Hoover’s unbridled racist antagonism, although none of this prevents him from stopping the plan to assassinate Hampton.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a good introduction to Fred Hampton’s story and touches on many issues that remain sadly relevant today. If you like this movie, I also recommend watching the documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and reading the book The Assassination of Fred Hampton by Jeffrey Haas.

Rating: ****1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: tick, tick… BOOM! (2021)


Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title: tick, tick… BOOM!
Release Date: November 12, 2021
Director: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Production Company: Imagine Entertainment | 5000 Broadway Productions
Summary/Review:

tick, tick… BOOM! is a biopic about Jonathan Larson done in the style of a Jonathan Larson musical, and based on Larson’s own “rock monologue” produced on-stage in 1992.  Andrew Garfield plays the lead role, cleverly renamed as “Jon,” as an ambitious playwright/composer  trying to get his sci-fi musical Superbia produced in 1990, but running into brick walls.  The title tick, tick…BOOM! refers to Jon’s upcoming 30th birthday and his feeling that he’s running out time to make it big in musical theater.  We in the audience know that the real Larson was running out of time as he would tragically die at the age of 35 just before his hit musical Rent made its Off-Broadway debut.

Garfield’s performance is full of charisma and anxiety, and he does not shy away from portraying how Jon’s monomaniacal focus can make him be quite a douche to his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) and best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús). But he never becomes unsympathetic.  In addition to a strong cast, there are a number of cameos by Broadway luminaries, including the original cast of Rent. The music is strong overall, similar in style to the music of Rent, so if you like one you’ll like the other.  The song “Why,” where Jon reflects on his childhood memories with Michael while playing piano in an empty Delacorte Theatre slayed me.

I saw a Rent ages and ages ago and really liked it at the time.  I knew a bit about Larson, but this movie – even if its partially fictionalized – gives me a better appreciation for him as a person and his work.  The director of this movie is Lin-Manuel Miranda, who I’m beginning to realize owes a lot to Larson.  It’s all the more sad that Larson never got to enjoy the same kind of success and admiration that Miranda is experiencing now.

Rating:  ****

Classic Movie Review: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)


Title: Lawrence of Arabia
Release Date: 10 December 1962
Director: David Lean
Production Company: Horizon Pictures
Summary/Review:

Who was T.E. Lawrence and why was he worthy of an extraordinarily-long biopic crafted by David Lean (Brief Encounter, Bridge on the River Kwai)? Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is an enigmatic British Army lieutenant during the First World War whose eccentricities make him a poor fit for the rigid military hierarchy. He’s assigned as an advisor to the Arab troops under Prince Faisail (the very English Alec Guinness who nevertheless looks a lot like the real person) who are revolting against the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence uses this opportunity to try to unite fractious tribes in a Pan-Arab cause and make daring strikes against the Ottomans.  He’s also not above burnishing his own legend.

I’m sure that smarter people than me have written about the problems of casting white actors as Arabs and the “white savior’ narrative in this story so I won’t get into that.  But I will also point out that this film is actually critical of Lawrence, and even more so of his superiors who nakedly betray the cause of Arab independence.  This movie also does a good job of relating Lawrence’s deteriorating mental health as he is shattered by the trauma of war.

There are a lot of great supporting actors in this film.  Among them is Omar Sharif (an actual Arabic actor) who plays a tribal leader Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish.  Initially, Ali is an antagonist to Lawrence but over the course of the film he becomes the voice of conscience as Lawrence goes off the deep end. Anthony Quinn plays a leader of a rival tribe and Jack Hawkins plays Lawrence’s put-upon superior officer.  This is one of these movies that I will need to see on a big screen.  It’s full of Lean’s trademark wide shots of desert landscapes, sunrises/sunsets, and troops riding camels and horses.  All in all it’s a gorgeous yet complicated film!

Rating: ****