For the third consecutive year I will be participating in the Blogging A to Z Challenge in April. The basic gist is to post something every day of the month (excepting most Sundays, but this year it includes April 1st, fool!), on something starting on each letter in the alphabet in alphabetical order.
It’s a lot of fun, and if you have a blog you should consider participating. You can sign up here: http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/2018/03/master-list-sign-ups.html More information on WordPress, Twitter, and Facebook.
In 2016, I documented my home neighborhood of Jamaica Plain in Boston in JP A to Z.
Last year, I practiced using my new camera by taking an original photograph every day (yes, I failed to post a Z).
And now my theme for 2018. I like watching documentary movies. I have a long Netflix queue full of documentary movies. So I’m going to watch and review a documentary every month of the challenge. From A to Z.
Release Date: October 13, 2016
Director: Christopher Guest
Production Company: Netflix
Christopher Guest returns with a new “mockumentary,” this time set at a competition of sports team mascots from around the world convening in Anaheim. Those of you who’ve watched movies like Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss or Robin Hood: Men in Tights may recognize the feeling I had of watching something that resembles the beloved movies that preceded them but just don’t have the laughs. I think one reason is that there seems to be less of an attempt by Guess and co to make this look like a documentary, and it feels more scripted. Secondly, while community theater (Waiting for Guffman), a dog show (Best in Show), or a folk music concert (A Mighty Wind) are all set in reality that’s familiar, I don’t think there really is international mascot competition, and even if there is one, everything in this movie is designed to make it look totally fake. Finally, there’s a cynical feel to the movie overall where the sense I got is that your supposed to think all of these people are losers and be happy to see them fail. The conclusion is all the more odd when Tom Bennet’s character puts on a lovely performance as Sid the Hedgehog. The scene doesn’t go for the big laugh that’s expected and nothing prepares one for the fact that this movie is actually trying to have heart. The sad part is that a lot of the regulars returning for Mascots (Guest, Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, et al) really seem to be trying, but just missing the mark. Only Chris O’Dowd consistently made me laugh, perhaps because he was playing the character who clearly didn’t care.
Title: Captain America: The First Avenger
Release Date: July 22, 2011
Director: Joe Johnston
Production Company: Marvel Studios
The Marvel Cinematic Universe adapts the origin story of how the earnest but weak Steve Rogers becomes the superhuman warrior Captain America. It’s nicely done mix of a World War II historical drama (especially the sets of 1940s New York City) with pure fantasy of futuristic technology mixed in. Is there a term like “steampunk” that applies to the World War II era.
My big criticism of Marvel movies is that they tend to overdo the fights, chases, explosions, etc. to the point that they lose any sense of what’s at stake. But I think Captain America strikes a nice balance of quieter scenes developing Rogers’ character and his relationships with Bucky and Peggy, intermixed with well-choreographed action sequences.
There are a lot of parallels in the plot to last year’s Wonder Woman film – a superhuman and a ragtag crew of soldiers venture behind enemy lines in a World War and stop the production of a superweapon – and even though Captain America came first, I think Wonder Woman is still a better movie.
I don’t know why I never did this before, but I added a page to the bar of links at the top of this blog’s homepage with a list of all the Movie Reviews I’ve written since this blog went live in 2006. So, if you’re looking for ideas on a movie to watch, or you watched a movie and want to know what I thought of it, this is your one-stop shopping.
Hey, I didn’t advertise this, but did you notice that I tried to watch and review a movie every day in February? I didn’t quite make it, but added quite a few movies to this list. There will be more movie fun coming up in April.
Title: Hidden Figures
Release Date: December 25, 2016
Director: Theodore Melfi
Production Company: Fox 2000 Pictures
This historical drama tells the story of 3 of the 20 or so African-American women who worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center in the 1960s as “computers,” mathematicians who performed vital calculations during the early days of the space race. Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), considered “the brain” even among her peers, is assigned to the all-white, overwhelmingly male Space Task Group to use her skills in analytical geometry to calculate flight trajectories for the Mercury program. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who has the talent to become an engineer, goes to court in order to fight the Jim Crow laws that prevent her from attending a University of Virginia engineering program at a local whites-only high school. And Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is the de facto manager of the women in the human computers group without the title or the pay. When she learns that an IBM mainframe will eventually replace her group, she sees it as an opportunity to to teach herself FORTRAN and retrains her colleagues as programmers, eventually being officially promoted to supervisor of the Programming Department.
Like many historical dramas, a number of supporting characters are fictional or composites, but in Hidden Figures that helps keep the focus on our three leads. Similarly, historical facts are fudged with a lot of details compressed or presented out of order, but again for a movie its more dramatic to have John Glenn request that Katherine Johnson verify the IBM’s calculations while he’s heading to the launch pad rather than a few days earlier. As a humanities person, I’m also grateful that they dumbed down all the mathematics in a way I could understand, while simultaneously realizing that the best minds at NASA would not have been discussing such basic issues at Langley.
All three leads are well-acted and I appreciate that they show three very different ways that these women responded to the hurdles placed before them and achieved their goals. Kevin Costner puts in a decent performance as the leader of the Space Task Group, who seems motivated to desegregate Langley less out of a sense of justice, and more due to it causing delays. Kirsten Dunst plays Vaughn’s casually racist supervisor who eventually grows to respect her, kind of a stock character, but keeps it subtle enough.
A fun part of this movie is how much it parallels one of my all-time favorite movies, The Right Stuff, with some scenes and dialogue being exactly the same but from different perspectives. Hidden Figures is also a great historical film that I think I’ll enjoy revisiting, and especially important for making the story of Johnson, Jackson, Vaughn, and others at NASA so well known.
Title: Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne
Release Date: 14 May 2014
Director: Michael Edwards
Production Company: Jasmine Avenue Holdings with The Five Stones Group
Born in the Belgian Congo to a Congolese mother and Belgian father, Augusta Chiwy was brought to Belgium at the age of 9 and was adopted and raised by her aunt. In December 1944, she was training to be a nurse in Leuven, and traveled home to celebrate the holidays with her father and aunt in Bastogne. At the time, the town seemed secure in the hands of American troops, but within days, the German offensive put Bastogne at the edge of the Battle of the Bulge.
US Army physician John Prior set up an aid station in Bastogne and recruited a Belgian nurse Renee Lemaire (later remembered as “The Angel of Bastogne” following her death by a German bomb) and Chiwy to help care for the wounded soldiers. Chiwy helped bring comfort and healing to the wounded with some of the most traumatic injuries, and helped Prior retrieve casualties from the battle field. Chiwy and Prior developed a mutual admiration during the month they worked together, and keep in touch by writing letters over the years.
Otherwise, Chiwy and her contribution during the war was overlooked. The center focus of this documentary is British military historian Martin King, who spent years trying to piece together stories he’d heard of an African nurse in Bastogne and finding out if she was still alive. The movie is obviously a labor of love, and evidently low budget, but the story of Chiwy and Prior is beautifully illustrated with pencil sketches, supplemented by archival photographs and film. The strange thing is that King does finally find Chiwy in Brussels, but she is hardly shown except in a small portion at the end of the movie and for the majority of the film she appears in she doesn’t speak. It’s entirely possible that Chiwy did not wish to be the focus of attention, but it seems awfully odd that she never gets the chance to tell her own story.
Still this documentary offers a glimpse into her heroic life and makes sure she won’t be forgotten.
Title: Iron Man
Release Date: May 2, 2008
Director: Jon Favreau
Production Company: Marvel Studios
This origin story of Iron Man begins with weapons manufacturing heir, billionaire, genius, libertine, and all-around a-hole Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) traveling to Afghanistan to demonstrate his latest weapon for the US military. His convoy is attacked and Stark is wounded and captured by an organization of international warlords called The Ten Rings. They force Stark to build them a weapon, but instead he builds a prototype of the Iron Man suit which he uses to escape. Stark returns to the United States and announces that his company will no longer be producing weapons, and instead he dedicates his life to building…. a powerful weapon: a new Iron Man suit.
This movie is heavy on jingoism, militarism, and boosting the repellent, but popular, myth that the world will be saved by “wealthy geniuses” (see also: Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Bloomberg, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, et al). This movie was made in 2008, a time when many Americans were aware of the lies and corruption behind the Bush Administration’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Tony Stark never objects that the US military is using his weapons against innocents, or the US government has directed the military into unjust wars. Iraq isn’t even mentioned. There is one evil white American character – Stark’s business partner Obadiah Stane (a comically bad one-note performance by Jeff Bridges) – who is shown personally selling weapons to The Ten Rings, but otherwise the good and pure characters and the evil villain characters are purely drawn along ethnic lines.
The movie is well-produced, with clean and entertaining action sequences, and good performances from Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Shaun Toub. But it makes it all the more repellent that “liberal Hollywood” put their best effort and resources behind a right-wing propaganda film. Even worse, it’s the cornerstone on which the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe was built.
Release Date: June 19, 1998
Director: Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Mulan is Disney’s interpretation of the classic Chinese ballad “Hua Mulan,” where a girl takes her aging father’s place when he’s conscripted to war against the Huns. Mulan is a misfit in her society’s traditional expectations of a woman, but with the help of the dragon Mushu – voiced by Eddie Murphy – she’s able to find her place in the military.The great part is that Mulan is able to use her smarts to figure out clever ways to defeat the Huns in battle and eventually save the Emperor.
The animation style that draws on Chinese watercolor rather than real world appearance is a nice touch. It does feel that Disney didn’t bring in their Grade A composers for this movie, though, as the musical numbers are a resounding dud. While it’s a simple tale simply told, especially compared to the other Disney movies of the Renaissance era, but it is a decent movie about family, honor, friendship, and the capabilities of women in a patriarchal society.
Title: Wonder Woman
Release Date: 2017 June 2
Director: Patty Jenkins
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures
Talk about a movie living up to the hype! Gal Gadot puts in a great performance as Diana, the Amazon princess raised among the warrior woman of the island of Themyscira. When the outside world arrives in the form of an American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashing his plane near the island and an ensuing attack of Germans, Diana is drawn to leave home to end the war and defeat the god Ares.
Diana and Steve go to London and then to Belgium in the last days before the Armistice, with a plan to prevent a German plot to introduce a more dangerous form of mustard gas that would kill thousands and extend the war. One of the delightful parts of the movie is the team of misfits Steve puts together to accompany them on their mission: Sameer, the Indian secret agent, Charlie, the Scotish sharpshooter with PSTD, and Chief Napi, a Native American smuggler. The disparate characters alongside Steve and Diana add the “world” to the World War while transcending stereotypes of their cultural background.
There are comical scenes of Diana trying to adjust to the strange, patriarchal world of London, and there are some spectacular visual in the action sequences, particularly the scene in No Man’s Land in Belgium. Gadot may not be the type of actor to deliver a striking soliloquy, but provides a lot of striking subtle touches such as her little smiles as she discover her powers, as well as her convincing portrayal of a warrior. Pine also does a good job as a character who would typically be the superhero, but accepts being second fiddle as well as being full of wonder at Diana defying all that is accepted in his culture.
I have a few nitpicks. While the music in blockbuster films over the past 40+ years has been inspired by John Williams bombastic classical-style score, this movie attempts to break the mold with a score of bombastic prog rock that just doesn’t work, especially in the World War I period. The final battle between Diana and Ares seems unnecessary because it would’ve just made more sense for Diana to discover that humanity is violent on its own (and still worth saving), which is ultimately the conclusion she comes through after a stereotypical CGI-filled battle that just pads the film’s length.
Other than that though, this is a masterpiece. A stunning action film that shows a heroes journey, brings together a lovable group of characters, and makes a convincing case against war. See it now or see it again.
Title: The Big Sick
Release Date: June 23, 2017
Director: Michael Showalter
Production Company: FilmNation Entertainment
Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani), a stand-up comedian in Chicago, meets Emily (Zoe Kalzan), a graduate student studying psychology. The date for a few months, but there’s clearly something off in their chemistry, and after a fight about Kumail’s inability to commit to their relationship due to the cultural expectations of his Pakistani family, they break up. When Emily goes to the hospital with a mysterious infection, Kumail is the only one available to stay with her in the emergency room, and ends up having to sign the papers to put her in a medically-induced coma when the hospital is unable to understand what is wrong with her.
Emily’s parents arrive, and Kumail, reconsidering his relationship with Emily, decides to stay with them. Oddly enough, Kumail has better chemistry with Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter) than he ever had with Emily, and the three form a bond over the several weeks that Emily is in a coma. There is a significant amount of awkwardness, but also laugh out loud comic moments, and some darker parts as Emily comes close to death.
Although the story is hard to believe and takes some romantic comedy conventions to the extreme, it is based on a true story. There’s a lot of charm and humor in this movie, and for the first time in 30 years, Holly Hunter has not completely annoyed me, in fact I kind of like her here.
Title: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Release Date: 5 May 2017
Director: James Gunn
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Here’s the rare case of a sequel being a VAST improvement on its predecessor. Vol. 2 actually gives time between the massive action set pieces for the characters to breath, and we get to learn a lot about them and see them grow. This movie does a lot with relationships, Quill and Ego, Gamora and Nebula, Drax and Mantis, and Rocket and … well, everyone who makes him question being part of a team/family, that help flesh out all of these characters. And Yondu, who seemed like a blue-faced parody of Michael Rooker’s character on The Walking Dead in Vol. 1, steals the show as Quill’s real “daddy.” As for those action sequences, they are much better choreographed, and the visuals in the movie on the whole are stunning. There are bust a gut laugh moments and gravitas galore. And Baby Groot is so cyoot! Let’s hope the trend continues and that Vol. 3 is even better.
Title: Guardians of the Galaxy
Release Date: 1 August 2014
Director: James Gunn
Production Company: Marvel Studios
I’ve been meaning to watch this movie since it came out because it’s mix of humor and oddball characters seemed like the type of superhero movie I’d appreciate. I ended up being a bit disappointed. Much like The Avengers, this movie is basically non stop fight scenes, and since our heroes seem to be indestructible, there’s no drama at all among all the violence. Not to mention that the quick-cut editing makes it difficult to understand what’s actually happening at any time.
What makes it frustrating is that Quill, Gamora, Drax, and Rocket are characters who interest me but the movie doesn’t give me much time to get to know them (I have no issue with Groot whom I love unreservedly). Basically, it would be nice to have them stop kicking ass now and then and spend some time developing character and story. Guardians of the Galaxy IS good, but not great, especially after anticipating it so long.
Release Date: 16 February 2018
Director: Paul Hoen
Production Company: Princessa Productions, LTD
The Disney Channel heavily promoted this high school romantic comedy musical about zombies and cheerleaders, and it sounded so awe-sinine we felt compelled to watch it. The story begins 50 years after a zombie apocalypse when technology in a wristband helps prevent zombies from craving brains and basically live as ordinary people, albeit with green hair and pancake makeup. Despite this, there is still severs discrimination against zombies who are forced to live in a run down part of town behind a wall, wear government issued clothing, and have curfews.
Zed (Milo Manheim) is an idealistic zombie excited to be among the first group of zombies allowed to attend Seabrook High School where he hopes to play football. Addison (Meg Donnelly) is the daughter of the mayor and chief of police raised from childhood to compete for a spot on Seabrook High School’s illustrious cheer squad. Zed and Addison meet, fall in love, and help bring the human and zombie communities together through big dance numbers.
The story is of course Romeo & Juliet by way of West Side Story (Addison and Zed sing a song called “Someday” which is an homage to “Somewhere” in West Side Story). There are also influences from Teen Wolf (Zed uses his zombie strength to excel at football and gain popularity), and Addison’s story draws from Pleasantville and other movies about teenagers dealing with small town conformity. There are also true life influences such as the Jim Crow period in the United States, South African apartheid, and the present divide of Palestine and Israel. However, you can’t go to far with those metaphors since the oppressed minorities in this movie were once brain-eating zombies.
Zombies is not a great movie, but it’s young actors are charming, some of the songs are good, the dance numbers are impressive, and it’s depiction of segregation and prejudice may be a good introduction for young audiences.
Title: The African Queen
Release Date: 1951 December 23
Director: John Huston
Production Company: United Artists
Happy Valentines Day! Rewatching this movie made me realize it’s the ultimate Rom-Com in which woman decides that their first date should be to cruise down some rapids and torpedo a boat. Wackiness ensues! Seriously though, The African Queen was always a favorite when I was young but it’s been decades since I’ve watched it. The movie loses points for the casually colonialist/racist opening scenes. But once you have Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart alone on a boat, it’s a treasure. These two actors seem to so effortlessly become the characters they’re playing. And the cinematography is spectacular, especially for a color movie filmed on location in 1950. A deserved classic.
Title: Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
Release Date: 2017 June 2
Director: David Soren
Production Company: Dreamworks Animation
The extremely silly and slyly satirical Captain Underpants books are brought to the big screen in the epononymously-declared first of what will be many movies. I’ve enjoyed the books as much as someone who was already an adult when they were first published, but I find the adaptation questionable. Mostly, for a movie with a theme of the importance of laughter, the laughs are few and far between (albeit there are some undeniably hilarious moments). The sense of superhero satire is lost in the final act when it is subsumed to the type of big action adventure climax they’re supposed to making fun of. I give it a “nice try” but know that from the source material there is a better movie to be made.
Title: Cool Runnings
Release Date: 1993 October 1
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
This comedy is loosely based on the Jamaican bobsled team’s unlikely performance at the 1988 Winter Olympics. It is disappointing that with a true life story worthy of movie, that all the characters and most of the details depicted are entirely fictional. That being said, the fictional story has a good cast of archetypal characters: Derice (Leon Robinson) – the talented sprinter with Olympic dreams and endless optimism, his friend Sanka (Doug E. Doug) – the laid back champion push cart racers, Junior (Rawle D. Lewis) – the wealthy kid who is frightened to challenge his father’s plans for his future, and Yul (Malik Yoba) – the tough guy with the heart of gold. Add to this John Candy as a successful American bobsledder who surrendered his medals after a cheating scandal in 1972 and is living in Jamaica working as bookie until Derice recruits him to be their coach. This was the last movie released before Candy’s death and it’s interesting that he’s mostly the straight man and that his performance adds some gravitas to the movie.
Most of the humor comes from the mix of this group of characters working together, with the rest of course coming from the unlikelihood of people from a tropical nation attempting to compete in a winter sport that they’ve never done before. Nothing can top the dialogue when they step outside for the first time in the subzero temperatures of Calgary:
Derice Bannock: Sanka mon, whatcha smoking?
Sanka Coffie: I’m not smoking, I’m breathing!
It is a bummer that in the effort to add more conflict to the already fictionalized story, the Jamaican bobsledders are treated with derision by the other athletes and have to jump through hoops to qualify due to Candy’s character’s history of cheating. Not only is this contrary to real life when other athletes were supportive of the Jamaican team, but it’s also just unnecessary to the narrative. Still it’s a funny, inspirational movie and for an 80s kid very nostalgic – from the bold color patterns on the winter clothing to the inevitable slow clap at the climax of the movie.
Release Date: 2009 February 6
Director: Henry Selick
Production Company: Laika
Coraline has been on my “too-watch” list for some time, so it was good to finally take in this visually stunning stop-motion animated fantasy based on a story by Neil Gaiman. Coraline is a preteen girl (voiced by Dakota Fanning, with the expressions and mannerisms perfectly matching the voice) moved into a strange old apartment building with eccentric neighbors by her inattentive parents. She discovers a small door with a passage to a mirror universe of the apartments where her Other Mother and Other Father live and spoil Coraline with her favorite things, and the sad neighbors are actually spectacular circus performers. It seems a wonderful place even if everyone creepily has buttons for eyes. All is not as good as it seems and Coraline will have to team up with a black cat (my favorite character) and neighbor Wybie, she uses her wits to avoid being trapped in the alternate universe.
I think Coraline is spectacular visually and great at creating mood and atmosphere. The story feels a bit thin and Coraline’s game against Other Mother is rushed compared with the rest of the movie and the resolution feels too easy. That being said Coraline is a remarkable piece of art.
Title: Secrets of Underground London
Release Date: 21 May 2014
Director: Vicky Matthews and Gareth Sacala
Not secrets of the London Underground (although there are some) but of 2000+ years of history hidden beneath the surface of England’s capital. There’s a lot of nifty bits of subterranean trivia in this admittedly corny and sensationalist documentary, including:
- ruins of the Roman amphitheater
- Black Death plague pits
- the labyrinthine Chislehurst Caves where miners extracted chalk for rebuilding London after the Great Fire
- the innovative Victorian-era engineering of the Thames Tunnel
- London Underground stations used both as air raid stations and to hide treasures from the British Museum during World War II
- Churchill’s War Cabinet rooms
- the lost Fleet River
- the construction of an expansion of the British Museum into a new space four stories undergroun
Title: NOVA: Iceman Reborn
Release Date: 17 February 2016
Director: Bonnie Brennan
Production Company: A NOVA Production by Bsquared Media for WGBH Boston in association with ARTE France
Ötzi, the 5000 year old mummy found frozen in ice in the mountains along the border of Italy and Austria, is a source of continual fascination. I was lucky enough to visit his resting place at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology during my honeymoon in 2005. This documentary focuses primarily on artist Gary Staab getting unprecedented access to the mummy and using 3D printing to create a sculpted duplicate of Ötzi for researchers and students to learn from. In-between scenes of the sculpture’s creation, scientists offer insights into Ötzi’s last meal, his role in society, his many tattoos (possibly related to a prehistoric healing method), and a genetic analysis that shows him most closely related to Sardinians. There’s even evidence that he suffered from Lyme disease. There’s a lot to learn from Ötzi and it appears that he will continue to offer insights into the human past.
Release Date: 14 July 2015
Director: Callie T. Wiser
Production Company: A Five O’Clock Films Production for American Experience.
This documentary tells the story of the night New York City hit rock bottom, July 13, 1977, when the power went out and the city’s poorest neighborhoods erupted in looting and arson. There’s a lot of great archival footage in this movie, much of it filmed by flashlight and candle lending an eerie sense of a city crowded with people operating in the darkness. The filmmakers eschew experts and show interviews with people who experienced that night – a firefighter, a police officer, shop owners, a man who witnessed looting and arson as a child, and an employee at Windows on the World who witnessed the city lights blink out, and then see the high-class clientele remove their coats and ties and enjoy the free champagne.
The Window on the World stories offer a perspective into the often-forgotten reality that in many parts of New York, the blackout was a convivial occasion and most New Yorkers were unaware of violence occurring in other parts of the city. All the same, this documentary doesn’t do a good job of explaining that looting and arson were heavily localized to particular areas.
On the other hand, the lesson that many took from the blackout back in 1977 – that New York was a dangerous place full of bad people – receives a more nuanced take in the documentary. They do a good job of detailing the effects of white flight, the financial crisis, and the austerity programs forced on the city by the Ford administration had created a sense of abandonment and desperation among the poorest people of the city. Many of the people arrested that night had no criminal record, they just wanted some diapers for their babies. There’s also a curious decision by the NYPD to have off-duty officers report to the precinct closest to where they live, and since police officers didn’t live in the poorest neighborhoods, those areas were left with practically no police protection.
I feel that 53 minutes is not enough time to tell this story. A longer documentary would’ve allowed for more interviews offering more perspectives, more details on how Con Ed caused and recovered from the blackout, and more on the long term outcomes of the blackout (such as the emergence of hip hop). Still it’s an illuminating depiction of New York’s darkest night.