I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, most of which will be 90 minutes or less. It’s a goal increasingly unlikely to be met, but I persevere.
Title: The Go-Go’s Release Date: January 24, 2020 Director: Alison Ellwood Production Company: Fine Point Films | PolyGram Entertainment Summary/Review:
This is a bog standard rock documentary with lots of archival footage intercut with talking head interviews with the subjects in the present day. That said, the archival footage is pretty good, the interviews feature candid thoughts, and this is the story of The Go-Go’s, an amazing band that I nevertheless didn’t know much about before. The Go-Go’s rose out of the late 70s Los Angeles punk scene to hit it big in the early 80s as groundbreakers in New Wave music and women in rock in general.
The band hit it big right at the point in my childhood when I was at the age that I started paying attention to popular music so I feel lucky that I never knew a time when a woman’s rock band didn’t exist. The Go-Go’s were the first all-woman rock band where they wrote their own songs, played their own instruments, and hit Number One on the Billboard album charts (an accomplishment that they still hold alone). You will be reminded of this fact numerous times while watching this documentary. But as great as this accomplishment it is, the weight of being a Go-Go was heavy on all the band’s members as they were forced into an endless cycle of touring and promotion.
The band’s problems are not an unusual story in rock and roll. Drummer Gina Schock and bassist Kathy Valentine seemed to be hurt most in the process as they resented that the songwriters – guitarist Charlotte Caffey and rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin – made a lot more money from publishing rights, or that lead vocalist Belinda Carlisle got a lot more popular attention. Original members of the Go-Go’s Margot Olavarria and Elissa Bello are also interviewed about the unfortunate manner in which they were dismissed for more talented musicians. Substance abuse is also a problem. It took the arrival of Paula Jean Brown in 1985 as a substitute for Wiedlin for someone to recognize that Caffey had a serious heroin addiction.
Much like the Pixies, the members of the band are just not able to communicate with another which allows problems to exacerbate. Even in the present day interviews it is clear that they haven’t worked out their problem even though the band has reunited several times. The documentary says very little about anything after The Go-Go’s initial breakup in 1985 (and doesn’t even mention that they recorded an album in 2001). Its a bummer that such a great band ended up having such a short initial run. Imagine if they had been still been together as elder stateswomen for the alternative music boom in the 1990s? Nevertheless, The Go-Go’s were a great band for the time they had and this documentary makes me appreciate them all the more.
I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.
Title: Wild Nights With Emily Release Date: April 12, 2019 Director: Madeleine Olnek Production Company:P2 Films | UnLTD Productions | Salem Street Entertainment | Embrem Entertainment Summary/Review:
Debunking the myths of Emily Dickinson, Wild Nights with Emily depicts actual events from her life as a romantic comedy. Molly Shannon stars as Dickinson with Susan Ziegler portraying Dickinson’s long-term romantic partner Susan Gilbert. Amy Seimetz also stars as Mabel Todd, who posthumously published Dickinson’s poems, modifying them to hide that she wrote love poems addressed to Susan. There are a number of gags that will appeal especially to English majors, such as a singalong to the tune of “Yellow Rose of Texas.” Overall it’s a fun and clever film that shows the real Dickinson was much more interesting than the myths.
I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.
Title: Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer Release Date: September 29, 1975 Director: Thom Andersen Production Company: New Yorker Films Summary/Review:
Created as a student film by Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself), this documentary covers the contributions of Eadweard Muybridge as a pioneer in motion pictures. Muybridge created a means of capturing motion through an array of cameras and trip wires to take multiple photos in sequence. Over the years 1882 to 1893, he photographed 100s of subjects including various animals, men, women, and children performing various actions for scientific study. These were collected in a massive portfolio called Animal Locomotion: an Electro-photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements.
The movie is narrated in a clinical tone by Dean Stockwell and offers a short biography of Muybridge (he killed a man!), a catalog of his works, some tantalizingly few details about the identity of the people in his photos, and some reflection on how they were often nude despite the strict mores of the era. The film also notes that despite pioneering motion pictures, he had little effect on cinema. By the 1890s, new cameras using reels of film swiftly made Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope obsolete. I suppose it could be argued that Muybridge provided the antecedent for the animated GIF!
This is fascinating and well-made documentary that provides a look into some odd but groundbreaking research of the late 19th century.
Author: Howard Bryant Title: Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original Narrator: JD Jackson Publication Info: HarperAudio (2022) Summary/Review:
Rickey Henderson is a man of contrasts. He was one of the great baseball players of all time, breaking multiple records, and then playing another decade seemingly never wanting to retire. And yet football was his favorite sport which he really wanted to play instead of baseball. He worked hard to develop his game and yet he got a reputation for lackadaisical play and missing games. His flashy style of play earned him the enmity of the conservative, white sports media but the love of young fans especially in the Black community. His approach to baseball of aiming to get on base by any means and scoring runs was looked down upon by the experts of the time who valued batting average and power, but was vindicated by the Sabermetric approach that came into vogue in the 2000s right as Rickey was retiring.
Bryant interviewed Rickey and several important people in his life, including his wife Pamela. His life story is tied to his hometown of Oakland, a segregated city where the Black children found an outlet in the community sports leagues that produced a great number of professional sports stars. One of these was Billy Martin, a cantankerous figure who became a mentor and friend to Rickey as his manager in Oakland and New York. Bryant follows Rickey’s career through 4 stints with the Oakland A’s, a troubled period with the Yankees, and a final decade as a nomad playing for any team who would have him. Highlights include winning the World Series in the 1989 and 1993 and the AL MVP in 1990.
I can’t say that you really get to know Rickey Henderson from this biography. Despite his outsized personality, he’s a very private person, and one who seems detached because of he worries about his lack of education showing as well as his inability to remember names. But I think Bryant does a brilliant job regardless of telling Rickey’s story. His career coincides with a time in baseball when free agency made the star players multi-millionaires and Black players like Rickey were no longer willing to show deference to the white owners and media. I’ve always liked Rickey and this book just makes me like him more.
Becoming Manny: Inside the Life of Baseball’s Most Enigmatic Slugger by Jean Rhodes
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis
Author: John Hawkins Title: Conscience and Courage: How Visionary CEO Henri Termeer Built a Biotech Giant and Pioneered the Rare Disease Industry Publication Info: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press (2019) Summary/Review:
This is a book I read for research at work. It is a biography of the Dutch-born Henri Termeer who emigrated to the US to study at UVA’s Darden School of Business. He then entered into the emerging biotech industry the blossomed in the Boston and Cambridge area in the 1980s. Termeer joined the startup Genzyme Corporation in the early 80s and soon rose to president. (Personal note: when I first moved to Boston in the late 90s I worked as a temp at Genzyme).
Termeer focused Genzyme on orphan diseases so-called because even though they are life-threatening illnesses they affect fewer than 200,000 people and thus there is not a lot of people and resources put toward treating the diseases. Termeer’s patient-focused approach won him accolades due to the life-saving nature of Genzyme’s treatments. But the success came with the high costs of research and development, expensive ingredients, and only a small number of patients to share the costs of some of the most expensive drugs in the world.
Title: Weird: The Al Yankovic Story Release Date: November 4, 2022 Director: Eric Appel Production Company:Funny or Die | Tango Entertainment Summary/Review:
The long-awaited biopic of comedy/parody musician “Weird Al” Yankovic is appropriately weird. Daniel Radcliffe stars as Yankovic depicting all the sordid details of Weird Al’s rock & roll lifestyle: attending illicit polka parties as teenager, the (de)mentorship of Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson), his lurid affair with Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood), his drunken rage when Michael Jackson steals the music to his original song “Eat It,” and ultimately his reconciliation with his disapproving parents (Toby Huss and Julianne Nicholson). Some of the things depicted in this movie are even true, if not perhaps factual.
This is a fun movie that parodies biopics of musicians in much the same way Yankovic parodies pop songs. Radcliffe is clearly having a great time and has no shame indulging the silliness. Wood is somehow more Madonna than Madonna and steals the screen when she is around. I also enjoy the many Easter eggs and cameos by current celebrities portraying celebrities of the 70s and 80s. Seeing them all together at a party scene makes me remember that in those days, Weird Al wasn’t really all that weird.
Title: Gandhi Release Date: 30 November 1982 Director: Richard Attenborough Production Company: Goldcrest Films | International Film Investors | National Film Development Corporation of India | Indo-British Films Summary/Review:
I saw Gandhi in its first run in the movie theaters which means I must’ve been 9-years-old at the time. That seems young to watch an epic historical drama, and it may be the only movie I ever went to with an intermission. But Gandhi resonated with me perhaps due to some combination of being a history geek inclined towards social justice and a budding cinephile. I saw the movie a few more times on tv but it has been more than 35 years since my last viewing.
I wondered if the movie would hold up since a lot of movies that received lots of awards in the 1980s are less well-regarded. There’s also the fact that the movie about a seminal figure in Indian history is directed and produced by British and American filmmakers. I did get the sense that throughout the movie the perspective is coming through white characters – a priest, journalists, politicians, and a pilgrim – which tends to keep Gandhi at a remove. Also the biggest criticism I’ve seen about this movie, with which I agree, is that it makes Gandhi too perfect. This has the unfortunate effect of making the characters around him look bad, even villainous, especially Muslim leader and founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Alyque Padamsee).
Despite these failures in cultural competence, I feel that Attenborough and co. were really trying their best to make a film that does justice to the life and movements of Mohandas K. Gandhi (Ben Kingsley). Kingsley performance is excellent and the cast features many top-notch Indian, British, and American actors, even in small roles. Compressing six decades of Gandhi’s life and the larger Indian independence movement into 3 hours is hard but the film has several memorable set pieces that I’ve remembered over the years, from the horrific Jallianwala Bagh massacre to Gandhi and his wife Kasturba (Rohini Hattangadi) sweetly recreating their wedding ceremony for a couple of reporters. The movie is also impressively filmed with beautiful cinematography framing intimate moments between a couple of characters ranging to massive crowd scenes.
So I’d say that Gandhi has held up and is a worthwhile introduction to his life and the history of India and Pakistan with issues that still reverberate to this day.
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.
Title: Val 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.
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 Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Sanford and Son, Maude, 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.