Movie Review: 56 Up (2012)

We’ve finally reached an installment of The Up Series that I previously reviewed on this blog when it first came out, so I included that original post after some thoughts from this viewing.

The first thing I noticed is that Michael Apted has broken the pattern of Tony first/Neil last and it really does shake things up, especially if you’re watching all these movies in a row.  More importantly, nearly 50 years into the project, a stunning 13 of 14 people participated in making this film, the best participation ratio since 1977!

Sue may have the least drama of anyone and most laid-back approach to these films.  Her children are grown and her responsibilities working at the University of London continue to increase (despite Michael Apted always pointing out that she never attended university). She’s been happily engaged to Glen for 14 years, and has taken up amateur drama performances.

Paul and his wife Sue are now working at an assisted living village.  They have  lots of grandkids who all appear on bikes. They visit their daughter Katie in England, the first member of the family to graduate university.

Neil is still representing his village in Cumbria and serving as a lay minister at his church.  He feels strongly about setting the record straight on past installments of The Up Series and wants to be recognized for his writing.

Peter returns for the first time since 28 Up! He explains how the media frenzy in response to his comments on the Thatcher administration kept him away.  In the meantime, he’s found work in the civil services, married, and has two kids who are now teenagers.  He and his wife play in an Americana band called Good Intentions.

Jackie remains optimistic despite going through some hard, hard times. Her ex-husband Ian died and her mother-in-law is terminally ill. Her benefits have been cut and the government said she should be able to work despite her disability.  She has a newborn grandchild and all three of her sons offer their insights in interviews.

Suzy & Nick -The best part of this episode is the seemingly unlikely pairing interviewed together.  They’ve been corresponding for some time and Nick believes that they have a lot in common due to their rural upbringing. Nick has a lot of deep insight into the value of the project. Suzy hates it but has a weird loyalty.

Symon and Vienetta’s children and former foster children have a lot of good things to say. Somehow Symon is very busy and laid back simultaneously.

Bruce is still doing well with Penny and two sons. We see them goofing around while camping and playing cricket in Oxford. We learn that they are a non-farting family.

Lynn’s prediction that the pennypinchers would cut funding to her department at the library and lay her off came true.   The whole family is hit hard by the recession and her husband has to go back to work after retiring.  Lynn cares for a grandson full-time after he was born premature.

John and Andrew are profiled together although sadly they are not brought together in person, which seems like a missed opportunity.  I don’t want to say that anyone’s life is boring but there’s seems to have changed the least.  John is still active in practicing law, supporting charities in Bulgaria, and still cranky about The Up Series.  Andrew is still working in a corporate legal department and his sons are grown up.  Unlike John, he believes there is still as class system.

Tony is now more famous than Buzz Aldrin, at least in London cabbie society.  The recession affected their Spanish vacation village and he did not open sports bar. Tony and Debbie are caring for a granddaughter whose mother is dealing with mental health issues. Tony makes several “I’m not racist, but…” types of comments and Michael Apted calls him out on it. The film ends with Tony visiting old haunts in the East End, and the Olympic Stadium built on the site of his old dog racing track.


Panorama of the Mountains

Title: 56 Up
Release Date:
14 May 2012
Michael Apted
Production Co:
ITV Studios
United Kingdom
Rating:  *****

Seven years ago, my wife and watched a box set of the first 6 movies in the Up Series, then went to a local art moviehouse to see the then current release 49 Up.  In about a week of binge-watching we became acquainted with the lives of 14 individuals from England who since they were seven years old have had their lives documented every seven years.  We’ve been eager to catch up with these participants and finally were able to watch the most recent installment.

The original tv special in 1964 was almost socialist in its approach, attempting to define how the rigid British class system is ingrained in children at the age of 7.  Since then, it’s become more of a humanist document of the…

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Movie Review: 49 Up (2005)

Title: 49 Up
Release Date: September 15, 2005
Director: Michael Apted
Production Company: Granada Television

Reality television, that is ordinary people who are not professional actors are seen in purportedly unscripted programs, has existed for as long as there has been television (for example, Candid Camera debuted in 1948). When Seven Up debuted in 1964 with 14 seven-year-old children talking about their lives, it added to a growing reality television paradigm.  By the late 1990s, the genre of reality television had exploded in dominance with many new programs, a lot which included some form of competition, innovated in the United Kingdom.

The participants of The Up Series were suddenly seeing reality TV making many people wealthy and famous.  But the cost of having one’s personal life broadcast of the world are dear, and that is something they all are reflecting upon.  John addresses is it most directly, considering The Up Series as nothing more than another form of sensationalism.  In one of the most cathartic moments in any of the films, Jackie calls out Michael Apted for his condescending questions, marginalizing the women participants to domestic roles, and editing to fit a predetermined story line.  Nick acknowledges how important the series is while noting that it still makes him uncomfortable.

This was the first Up film I watched in real time when it was released in U.S. movie theaters back in 2005 (or was it 2006?) shortly after binge-watching the first six movies.  It is also the movie that captures the participants at the age that I am now, 49, which is why I’ve decided to rewatch the series.  For the first time, the movie includes on screen labels depicting which prior episodes that clips are taken from, which is a huge help.  For a lot of these reason, I think this is the best installment of The Up Series to this point.

Tony is in a better place in his relationship with Debbie and is now a loving grandad.  As much as I love Tony I can’t help but be peeved by the disconnect of criticizing the new immigrants to the East End for not sharing English culture while simultaneously getting a vacation home in an all-English enclave in coastal Spain.

Apart from chewing out Michael Apted, Jackie is still raising three sons in Scotland, remaining close with her ex-husband and mother-in-law.  The rheumatoid arthritis is affecting her health but she is focused on what she can do more than what she can’t.

Sue is in love with Glen and they have a new house and a terrier.  Her children are teenagers and she has earned a managerial position at the University of London.

Bruce burned out at teaching in the East End and has moved on to a boys independent school where he sings in the choir and coaches the cricket team.  He and Penny are doing well and he seems quite content.

Paul got therapeutic help to deal with lack of confidence while Susan is working as an occupational therapist. He focuses on his grandchildren and running marathons

Suzy continues to be in a strong marriage with Rupert as their children start moving away.  She states that she’s more happy now than at any time previously in her life, but does not enjoy being part of the films and wants to bow out.

Nick suffered as setback at work that forced him to abandon his research.  His accent sounds more American now than when he was younger. He divorced his first wife but has remarried to Cryss, another professor (from a university in Minnesota), and they are doing well.

Lynn is still happily married to Russ with their daughters grown up and their first grandchild. At work she finds herself fighting cost cutting of children’s services at the library, and feeling that she isn’t going to win

Symon and Vienetta continue to do well  and they now have grandchildren. They are also foster parents, taking in children who arrive at Heathrow Airport who have been separated from family. The production brings Paul and his family to London to reunite with Symon and they both talk about their parents in more depth than they have before.

Andrew is still happily married with Jane and has left his law firm for industry.

John is still in law, still interested in politics, still married to Claire, still supporting Bulgarian philanthropy, and still cynical about the whole thing.

Neil has moved again, this time to a small village in Cumbria, where he is serving on county council and is active in his church.  He talks about his relationship with mother improving.

Rating: *****

Movie Reviews: The Mystery of Picasso (1956)

Title: The Mystery of Picasso
Release Date: 18 May 1956
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Production Company: Filmsonor

Part of my love for this movie has to do with circumstances under which I first saw it.  I was visiting San Francisco in 2002 and a restored print of The Mystery of Picasso was showing at the historic movie palace, The Castro Theatre.  Not only did we see a cool movie but got a live organ performance pre-showing.

20 years later, the documentary still resonates even on a small screen.  Pablo Picasso, probably the first celebrity painter of the mass media age (or maybe that was Dali?) creates original works of art for the camera, illustrating his creative process.  Some of the works are filmed in real time with Picasso using markers with special dyes that bleed through a paper canvas while the camera films from the other side.  Other painting are done using oils and collage and are filmed in a stop-motion style.  All are accompanied by exciting jazz or Spanish guitar, the painting at times seemingly synched to the music.

There’s even a part of the movie where they show “behind the scenes” with Picasso interacting with the director Clouzot and the cinematographer Claude Renoir.  There’s a dramatic scene where Picasso works to finish with only seconds of film left.  I remembered this happening at the end of the movie, heightening the drama, but it actually happens closer to the middle.  I couldn’t find any evidence of alternate versions of the film existing so I must be misremembering.

Anyhow, it’s fascinating how with just a few brushstrokes Picasso can create recognizable figures and a story (generally a painter working in a studio with nude models or bullfighting scenes).  For his ink sketches, I found the more details he added the more gaudy they became.  But the oil and collage work became even more fascinating as Picasso would fully change many details and backgrounds, erase and redesign the figures, thus making several effective variations on a theme.  It kind of makes one wonder how Picasso decided when a painting was “complete?”

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Reviews: Winged Migration (2001)

Title: Winged Migration
Release Date:  12 December 2001
Director: Jacques Perrin, Jacques Cluzaud,  and Michel Debats
Production Company: BAC Films
Summary/Review: Filmed on all seven continents over several years, this documentary captures the wonder of several species of birds carrying out their annual migrations.  Cameras mounted on ultralight planes and other devices make it feel as if you’re flying with the flock.  Minimal narration from Jacques Perrin provides context, but by and large this movie is the majesty and wonder of the birds.
Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Roger & Me (1989)

Title: Roger & Me
Release Date: December 20, 1989
Director: Michael Moore
Production Company:  Dog Eat Dog Films

Roger & Me was one of my favorite movies of my youth and one I find that holds up well revisiting it several decades later.  This was Michael Moore’s first documentary and his most human.  While later films like Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 were important agitprop for their time, Roger & Me holds up best as an actual movie.  This is partly because Moore was not yet famous and thus the subjects of the film had no frame of reference for what to do when Michael Moore crosses their threshold with a camera.  But it is also less scattershot and more focused on a central narrative.

The premise of the film is that Moore is returning to his home town of Flint, Michigan after working in San Francisco.  His return coincides with General Motors’ president Roger Smith closing down several assembly plants in Flint and laying off thousands of workers.  Moore makes it his mission to talk with Smith and bring him to Flint to see the effects of the layoffs, something that proves very hard to do.  In between attempts to locate Smith, Moore interviews ordinary people in Flint as well as city officials and civic boosters attempting to revive the city with increasingly ludicrous plans to replace the auto industry.

The movie is very funny, but not due to Moore.  A couple of jokes he tells in narration fall flat.  Instead the enthusiasm of city officials and celebrities for saving the city with things ranging from an indoor theme park to a prison bring the laughs.  The cockeyed optimism is hard to believe, but the 1980s were a very optimistic time.  Optimism trickled down from President Reagan (see what I did there?) and lead people to believe that famine could be ended with a song or homelessness would be solved by a human chain across the country.  Even the ordinary people suffering layoffs and evictions depicted in this movie don’t have the rage that you would expect to see today.  Of course, they had no idea that things in Flint would continue to get much, much worse.

The Beach Boys’ song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is featured prominently in this movie over a montage of abandoned buildings.  I forever associate this song with this movie, and its appropriate in that the lyrics express hopefulness with an undercurrent of melancholy.  Whatever the flaws of Michael Moore’s later career, and he really did let fame go to his head, this movie remains a masterpiece.

Rating: ****1/2

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

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

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

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

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: