Movie Review: Class Action Park (2020)


Title: Class Action Park
Release Date: August 27, 2020
Director: Seth Porges, Chris Charles Scott III
Production Company: Pinball Party Productions | Strategery Films | Warner Max
Summary/Review:

As a kid growing up in Connecticut, ads for Action Park were constantly on the tv and radio, but my requests to go there were denied.  My mother was not fond of driving to New Jersey nor did our family budget have much room for visits to theme parks.  It was only until years later that I learned that I may have dodged a bullet since Action Park had such a reputation for guests getting injured and sometimes killed.  In fact, back in the 80s, I remember New Jersey’s other theme park Great Adventure having the reputation for danger since several teens were killed in a fire and one person fell off a roller coaster.

Class Action Park features interviews with former employees and guests of Action Park mixed with archival news footage and old home movies.  The general theme of the movie is “can you believe how dangerous this place was” and the strange nostalgic feeling of having survived it.  The jokey tone of some of the commentators is placed at odds with survivors of people who died at Action Park, with the ending of the film actually featuring the most uncomfortable contrast of narration and film.

The villain of the piece is Gene Mulvihill, a shady investor in penny stocks who opened Action Park as a summer activity at his ski resort in 1978.  Action Park was a pioneer of the modern waterpark, so a lot of the rides were  experimental to begin with, but Mulvihill refused to hire professional ride engineers and often redrew the plans himself to make them more extreme. If the rides weren’t dangerous enough, the park was run almost entirely by teenagers with underage drinking and drug use common among the staff.  Mulvihill’s libertarian emphasis on freedom and profits with his callous disregard of people injured and killed at the park becomes emblematic of the USA in the Reagan Era.

I found this movie to be interesting in how it showed how the most unbelievable aspects of Action Park came to be and persisted.  But I also don’t think it is a very well-made documentary.  For one thing, it could’ve used a wider of variety of commentators as the handful involved said mostly the same things.  Also, the frequent reuse of b-roll footage throughout the movie feels lazy and unprofessional.  Still it’s an interesting movie to watch if you’re curious about how an experiment in pure libertarianism in Greater New York City went horribly wrong and why regulations may be good, actually.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)


Title: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse
Release Date: November 27, 1991
Director: Fax Bahr | George Hickenlooper | Eleanor Coppola
Production Company: Zaloom Mayfield Productions | Zoetrope Studios
Summary/Review:

Having revisited Apocalypse Now for my Classic Movie Project, I also had to rewatch this movie which is one of my favorite in the small genre of Filmmaking Fiasco Documentaries along with Lost in La Mancha. Francis Ford Coppola famously went over budget and over time in shooting this film.  But that just scratches the surface of the problems the cast and crew endured, which included a typhoon that destroyed the sets, the helicopters hired from the Philippine military going off to suppress a rebel uprising, and the film’s star Martin Sheen suffering a heart attack.

The film was made with video and audio recordings made by Eleanor Coppola behind the scenes while filming, and is intercut with interviews with the cast and crew.  The most harrowing discovery of the documentary is that when Sheen was filming his character’s scene where he breaks a mirror and covers himself in his own blood, none of that was scripted and he was actually having a mental breakdown captured on film.  Francis Ford Coppola himself suffers self-doubt and anxiety while seemingly falling into a monomania about completing the film that parallels the character of Colonel Kurtz.

It’s a very unsettling window into the harrowing experience of making a classic film and some of the ethically questionable practices behind it.

Rating:  ***1/2

Silent Movie Day Movie Reviews


In honor of National Silent Movie Day I watched several silent shorts:

 

Title: The Great Train Robbery 
Release Date: December 1903
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Production Company: Edison Manufacturing Company
Summary/Review: This 12-minute film was perhaps the first blockbuster motion picture. In latter days it was credited with lots of innovations that weren’t actually true, but it is undeniable that it was a big hit.  And the basic imagery of outlaws holding up a train is quite persistent. The version I watched had hand-colored segments that make it feel painterly.  And of course, who can ever forget the iconic shot of Justus D. Barnes firing his gun at the camera!
Rating:  ***1/2


Title:The Immigrant
Release Date: June 18, 1917
Director: Charles Chaplin
Production Company: Mutual Film Corporation
Summary/Review: Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp joins the tired  poor, huddled masses immigrating to America.  There’s not so much of a plot as a series of set pieces, first aboard a ship sailing to New York, and then in a New York restaurant where the broke Tramp struggles to pay for a meal.  In both scenes, he tries to charm a fellow immigrant (Edna Purviance).  Eric Campbell plays a big and tough waiter.  There are a lot of good gags in this movie with a warm and sympathetic portrayal of the travails of the immigrant experience.
Rating: ***1/2


TitleThere It Is
Release Date: 1928
Director: Harold L. Muller
Production Company: Educational Pictures
Summary/Review:  Charles Bowers is not as well-remembered as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd but work in the same genre of slapstick comedy during the silent film era.  This movie is almost entirely visual jokes and hard to summarize without spoiling the gags.  Suffice to say, a family in New York finds strange things happening in their house due to the “Fuzz-Faced Phantom” (Buster Brodie) and decide that the police will not be good enough so they call Scotland Yard.  In this case, it is an actual yard in Scotland where men in full kilts roam around. Charley MacNeesha (Bowers) is sent to investigate with his partner MacGregor, a stop-motion animated bug.  So many weird things happen in 19 minutes.  The primary Black character spends the entire film trying to leave which plays into the stereotype of easily-spooked African Americans, but then again getting out of that house seems wise.  MacNeesha is also extremely cheap, so more cultural stereotypes.  This movie is fun to watch to see absurdists humor from a century ago that seems to anticipate Monty Python.
Rating: ***


Title: The Cameraman’s Revenge
Release Date: October 27, 1912
Director: Władysław Starewicz
Production Company: Khanzhonkov
Summary/Review: If MacGregor stirred your passion for stop-motion animated bugs, then this movie is for you!  All the characters in this 12-minute short are animated insect specimens.  Mr. and Mrs. Beetle each are having affairs with other insects.  An angry grasshopper, who is a camera operator and projectionist, films it all.  So if a movie where insects canoodle while a voyeur watches them through a keyhole is your jam, then this movie has been there for you for almost 110 years!  This one is delightfully weird.
Rating: ****


Title: New York 1911
Release Date: 1911
Production Company: Svenska Biografteatern
Summary/Review: My grandmother was born in New York on May 1, 1911.  Sometime in the same year a Swedish production company filmed this travelogue of Lower Manhattan.  As travelers on this journey, we arrive by ferry and then travel around the city streets, sometimes by streetcar.  Despite the constant change in New York, the bridges and many buildings are very recognizable.  The absence of automobiles is the best part of this vision of New York where the streets are dominated by pedestrians and streetcars.  Although we do spend some time observing a white family packed into an open-air motorcar with a Black driver.  This film is only 9 minutes long but it’s a remarkable document of a place and time.
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Summer of Soul (2021)


Title: Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Release Date: June 25, 2021
Director: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Production Company:Onyx Collective | Concordia Studio | Play/Action Pictures | LarryBilly Productions | Mass Distraction Media | RadicalMedia | Vulcan Productions
Summary/Review:

Summer of Soul is a documentary created from long-lost film footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival held in 1969 in Mount Morris Park (a few years before it was renamed Marcus Garvey Park).  The festival was held over six Sundays in the summer of 1969 to celebrate Black music and culture at a time of rising crime, drug abuse, and urban riots. The Harlem Cultural Festival was supported by Mayor John Lindsay, one of the last liberal Republicans who had a lot of support for New York’s Black voters, and the concerts seem to fit into his vision documented in the book Fun City.  However, the New York Police Department refused to participate in one of the concerts leading the Black Panther Party providing security.

While overlooked in American cultural history, the festival has become known as “the Black Woodstock” in comparison to the more famous weekend-long festival held in rural New York State the same summer.  I’d argue that the Harlem Cultural Festival had a far better slate of musical talent than Woodstock, and most definitely the stage and sound conditions in Harlem allowed for the artists to provide better performances.  The Harlem Cultural Festival can also be compared to the Wattstax (itself a riff on “Woodstock”) festival held in Los Angeles in August 1972 which is more well known partly due to the 1973 documentary film.

Questlove drew on 40 hours of concert footage, which was really impressively filmed, and also uses contemporary archival footage to complement the concert scenes.  Issues of concern in the Harlem community, and by extension Black Americans at large are discussed in line with the musical performances include the ongoing Civil Rights struggle, the rise of the term “Black” to replace Negro and the growing Black Pride and Pan-African movements, as well as the Apollo 11 moon landing that occured on one of the Sundays and did not impress concertgoers who were interviewed.

The movie also features interviews with participants and spectators of the Harlem Cultural Festival reflecting on the artists and their performances.  The 5th Dimension, a vocal group whose songs can be cheezy but nonetheless irresistible, talk about how their sound was derided in the Black community as sounding “too white.” But the group gets a warm reception from the throngs at the Harlem Cultural Festival and have never sounded better to my ears.

The Motown ideal of a group of men in tailored suits who perform with precision is challenged by Sly and the Family Stone.  The band not only has women playing instruments but it also has a white man on the drums, and a rather leisurely approach to dress and performance times.  Sly and the Family Stone appealed to the younger generation of Harlemites and were able to cross over to the counterculture.  I think that they are the only act that also performed at Woodstock, and near the end of Summer of Soul is a performance of “Higher,” a song that’s also significant in the Woodstock documentary.

Each of the six Sundays had a different musical focus so there’s a great diversity of musical styles including gospel, blues, soul, jazz, Afro-fusion, and funk. Performers who appear in the film include Stevie Wonder, Max Roach, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers, David Ruffin (just after going solo from The Temptations), Gladys Knight and the Pips, B.B. King, Hugh Masekela, Nina Simone, and Tony Lawrence (the singer and concert promoter who organized the festival).  I like what Questlove has done in creating a document that provides the context and larger social issues related to the Harlem Cultural Festival.  But I’d also love to see a straight-up concert movie featuring all of these great artists.

Rating:  *****

TV Review: This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist (2021)


Title: This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist
Release Date: April 7, 2021
Creator : Colin Barnicle and Nick Barnicle
Director: Colin Barnicle
Episodes: 4
Production Company: TriBeCa Productions
Summary/Review:

I generally avoid True Crime media, but I am borderline obsessed with the theft of 13 works of art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.  I’ve read a book about it and listened to a podcast, and now I’ve watched this 4-part Netflix documentary. The documentary does a good job of reiterating the main points of what is known about the crime.  It’s good get the visuals to go with the story, such as diagrams of the museum that show where the thieves operated. And then there’s a mix of archival news footage with present-day interviews with many key figures, from museum guards to the museums director.

While being a very entertaining documentary it’s also highly sensationalist (which naturally adds to the entertainment value).  There’s a lot of building up of potential suspects before revealing that they couldn’t possibly have commited the crime.  The same footage is played over and over again, most hilariously a “dramatic reenactment” of a couple of high school students walking piggy back down Palace Road before the crime. The creators of the film are happy to rely on the false Hollywood image of Boston as a mobster-infested playground of vice. A lot of people commenting on the documentary are loving the Boston accents and characters which really don’t exist in present day Boston. In short, it’s a fun way to spend a couple of hours, but take it with a grain of salt.

My main takeaway from this series is that it is been way too long since I’ve been inside the glorious interiors of the Gardner Museum.  I will prioritize visiting there post-pandemic.  The series also gave us this tweet, which is a work of art of its own:

 

Classic Movie Review: Sans Soleil (1983)


Title: Sans Soleil
Release Date: March 2, 1983
Director: Chris Marker
Production Company: Argos Films
Summary/Review:

Sans Soleil is classified as a documentary but it’s really more of a series of vignettes and video essays arranged in an experimental matter.  It is the work of Chris Marker, creator of the equally experimental La Jetée, who presents himself as a fictional traveler who has sent his film to be described by the narrator (Alexandra Stewart). The original footage is largely from Japan, with a loose discussion of Japanese culture and customs, but also includes filmed in Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Iceland, Paris, and San Francisco.  The San Francisco segment is from a sequence that feels like a non-sequitur as the filmmaker visits sites from Vertigo.   I was up too late watching this film and started drifting off to sleep which I think only helped to accentuate the dreamlike qualities of this strange and wonderful film.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Knock Down the House (2019)


Title: Knock Down the House
Release Date: May 1, 2019
Director: Rachel Lears
Production Company: Jubilee Films | Atlas Films | Artemis Rising
Summary/Review:

In 2018, progressive candidates – especially people of color and women of all races – ran in great numbers for national offices.  Many of them had to face established Democratic incumbents who had grown used to not being challenged in primary elections.  This movie focus on four of them: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Amy Vilela of Nevada, Cori Bush of Missouri, and Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia.

Ocasio-Cortez is now the most famous of the four, and it’s interesting to see high-quality film of her early days of knocking doors and anxieties about running, long before she became the nationally-recognized AOC.  Her opponent, veteran congressional representative Joe Crowley comes off as a bigger jerk than I realized, refusing to attend an early debate, and speaking condescendingly of Ocasio-Cortez in a later debate.

I hope this isn’t consider a spoiler, but Ocasio-Cortez is the only one of the four who won her primary and general elections.  Nevertheless, the experience of the other three women in their campaigns is illuminating.  Vilela is a single mother who lost her daughter Shalynne to a treatable illness that wasn’t addressed because she didn’t have health insurance.  This makes her very impassioned for healthcare for all.  Bush is mobilized by the Ferguson movement to take on the complacent incumbent  Lacy Clay, a member of a family dynasty that has held the seat since 1969.  Swearengin comes from West Virginia’s coal country and is mobilized by the many people who’ve contracted cancer from the poisonous environment.

The movie is a very honest, emotional, and inspirational look at these candidates and their campaigns, even if most of them ended in loss.  The movie definitely documents the beginning of a movement. Swearengin is the Democratic candidate for Senate in 2020 and Bush is again challenging Lacy Clay in the Missouri 1st Congressional District primary.  Hundreds of other progressive candidates are running to against complacent Democrats and downright cruel Republicans. So get out and vote for them!

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Birth of a Movement (2017)


TitleBirth of a Movement
Release Date: February 6, 2017
Director: Susan Gray and Bestor Cram
Production Company: Northern Light Productions
Summary/Review:

This documentary is about William Monroe Trotter, a civil rights leader and newspaper editor in Boston in the early 20th century.  Raised in a well-to-do family and Harvard educated, Trotter advocated for more radical civil rights activism than his peers such as Booker T. Washington.  He participated in founding the NAACP, but ultimately did not find it radical enough.

The documentary is also about D.W. Griffith, the groundbreaking filmmaker, who made the first Hollywood blockbuster in 1915.  Released 50 years after the end of the Civil War and based on a novel  called The Clansman, the film was eventually re-titled Birth of Nation. The movie depicts the Civil War through a sympathetic portrayal of the insurgent Southerners.  The post-war Reconstruction is depicted as a time when bestial, sexually-aggressive Black men (portrayed by white actors in blackface) ran rampant until the Ku Klux Klan restores order.

The movie gained widespread acclaim and opposition as Griffith opened it in cities across the country, and even held the first ever film screening in the White House for President Woodrow Wilson.  Knowing that Boston had a history of supporting abolition and Black civil rights, Griffith targeted the city for an opening knowing that success there would lead to widespread distribution of the film.  Trotter organized massive protests against the film’s opening at Tremont Theatre across from Boston Common.  While the protests failed to stop the screening, Trotter’s protests did invigorate a new direction for Black civil rights activism.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: When We Were Kings (1996) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: When We Were Kings
Release Date: October 25, 1996
Director: Leon Gast
Production Company: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment
Synopsis:

On October 30, 1974, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman met in a heavyweight title bout in Kinshasa, Zaire, an event nicknamed “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali, an Olympic gold medalist and heavyweight champion in the 1960s, lost three prime years of his career after he refused to be conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War.  Meanwhile, Foreman, also an Olympic gold medalist, was younger with a strong punch and a history of overpowering wins over the top boxers of the era.

Holding the fight in Zaire was a historic choice as the event became a coming-out party for post colonial Africa.  In addition to the boxing match, which was viewed on tv by a record 1 billion people worldwide, there was a concert featuring top African musicians alongside African American stars like James Brown and B.B. King.  The fight itself is delayed after Foreman injures his eye in training, allowing everyone to spend more time in Zaire.

The documentary captures a fascinating intersection of sport, culture, civil rights, and politics.  There is a great amount of archival footage from the time, including Ali in awe of flying on an airplane with a an all-Black crew for the first time. In addition to the historic film and photographs, the film includes interviews with Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Spike Lee, Malik Bowens and Thomas Hauser who also provide narration for important events.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I was flying home from Great Britain in 1998 and watched this movie on the seatback television on Virgin Atlantic. I was so engrossed that the flight attendant chastised me to turn the screen off since the plane was approaching landing.  I later rewatched it on video so I could find out what happened at the end.

What Did I Remember?:

I think I remembered it pretty well.

What Did I Forget?:

It was less about forgetting things and more that in the intervening years I’ve learned more about Ali, and some of the musical artists and interviewees in the movie so things seemed more significant.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

You don’t have to care about boxing to like this movie.  This documentary captures the feel and excitement of a major event in the history of Africa and really the first big media event that focused on African people and African descendants as the key figures.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

The lack of interviews with Ali and Foreman at the time this movie was made is a big loss. Also, most of the people they did interview were old white men which is kind of jarring with the African diaspora theme.  The movie leans in favor of Ali, which is a bit of a shame since Foreman is a very interesting figure, one who would reinvent his public persona by the time this movie was released in the 1990s.  Throughout the movie, Ali leads Zaireans in the chant of “Ali Bomaye” which means “Ali, kill him.”  One of my favorite parts of the movie is a clip where Foreman says he’d not want people to chant “Foreman Bomaye” but instead “Foreman loves Africa.”

Is It a Classic?:

Yes. This is an all-time great documentary and sports film.

Rating: ****1/2

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with W:

  1. When Harry Met Sally…
  2. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
  3. Winged Migration
  4. The Wizard of Oz
  5. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

What is your favorite movie starting with W?  What is your guess for my X movie (Hint: my “X” movie will actually start with a number and involves a submarine)?  Let me know in the comments!

Documentary Movie Review: Earthrise (2018) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “E” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Previous “E” documentaries I’ve reviewed include The Endless Summer and Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Title: Earthrise
Release Date: April 20, 2018
Director: Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee
Production Company: American Documentaries Inc.
Summary/Review:

This short documentary focuses on the Apollo 8 mission of December 1968. The goal of this mission was to successfully orbit the moon and return to Earth in preparation for the moon landings that would begin the following year.  With NASA’s plan and rigid schedule for getting the spacecraft into lunar orbit and documenting the moon up close, there was no intention of looking back at Earth.

And yet as the astronauts – Bill Anders, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell – became the first people to ever leave low Earth orbit, they began to notice the beauty of the Earth visible in full.  While circling the moon and documenting the surface with photographs, Anders noticed the Earth rising over the moon.  The photograph he took became the most famous part of the mission.

The movie features archival footage of the mission and contemporary news events with the only narration coming from present-day interviews with Anders, Borman, and Lovell. They talk about the significance to them of seeing the Earth from afar.

Rating: ****