I have a lot of documentary movies on my watchlist, so throughout the Blogging A-to-Z Challenge I will be posting bonus documentary movie reviews, as time allows.
Title: Attica Release Date: October 29, 2021 Director: Traci Curry, Stanley Nelson Production Company: Showtime Documentary Films | Firelight Films | Topic Studios Summary/Review:
I remember learning about the uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in Western New York, and the ensuing massacre, in the documentary series Eyes on the Prize II in the 1990s. This movie offers a far more in-depth examination of the tense four-day standoff in September 1971. Interviewees include surviving former inmates, guards, family members of the hostages, members of the observers committee who helped with negotiations, and journalists who covered the event. This includes John Johnson, a Black reporter from ABC News in New York who I remember seeing on tv when I was a kid.
What’s fascinating about this story is how after the initial uprising the Attica inmates quickly organized a society with elected leaders, medics, latrines, shelters, and a security force. While still quite chaotic, over a thousand people who probably never worked together before quickly organized an effective system of governance. I had also not know of the role that Islamic inmates played in protecting the hostages. The most heartbreaking aspect of this story is that the Attica inmates put together a set of demands to address the abuse in the prison that were deemed reasonable by the observers committee and yet the prison authorities (backed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller and ultimately President Richard Nixon) refused to budge. Ultimately they chose to retake Attica with excessive force, allowing the correctional officers to carry out bloody revenge. Even the lives of the hostages were expendable and they murdered nine of them.
Even fifty years later, this movie is a powerful indictment of incarceration in the United States and the virulence of racism that undergirds it. This movie is unflinching in its depiction of the violence of the Attica massacre so take the content warnings at the start of the film seriously if you are so inclined. But I think a lot of people like myself need to see this and be made uncomfortable to fully understand the brutality of racist institutions in American history and the American present.
Title: Synecdoche, New York Release Date: October 24, 2008 Director: Charlie Kaufman Production Company: Sidney Kimmel Entertainment | Likely Story | Projective Testing Service | Russia Inc. Summary/Review:
When you watch a Charlie Kaufman film, you know things are going to get weird. This was the first film Kaufman directed as well as wrote after writing the screenplays for movies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a theater director whose life begins to crumble after his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) leaves him taking their young daughter. Not only does Caden suffer various physical ailments but he becomes obsessed with staging a large-scale dramatic work inside a massive warehouse.
Caden isn’t a very appealing person but seems to attract the attention of a lot of attractive younger women (male writer’s fantasy?) Hazel (Samantha Morton) is a woman who works and the theater and lives in a burning house who is attracted to Caden and becomes kind of a lifelong companion. But Caden actually marries the actress Claire (Michelle Williams). Then he hooks up with Tammy (Emily Watson), the actress playing Hazel. Finally, Ellen Bascomb (Dianne Wiest) takes over playing Caden and directing the play.
If that sounds confusing, the whole play becomes a simulacrum of Caden’s life with the actors and real life figures commenting on and interacting with the actors. And yes, then they need to get actors to play the actors. I get what Kaufman is doing here, reflecting on the meaning of life and mortality, but the film can get tedious and disturbing. Then again life – and death – can be tedious and disturbing. Roger Ebert recommended watching this movie multiple times. Maybe I’ll return to this film, but I find on my first viewing of Synecdoche, New Yorkthat I veer between finding it profound and finding it pretentious.
Title: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Release Date: March 19, 2004 Director: Michel Gondry Production Company: Anonymous Content | This is That Summary/Review:
The premise of this film is made clear in the trailer: After ending their troubled relationship, Clementine (Kate Winslet) uses a service provided by a company called Lacuna to erase all memories she has of her ex-boyfriend Joel (Jim Carrey). When Joel discovers what she’s done, he decides to erase her from his memory as well. The brilliance of the movie is that knowing this does not spoil the movie, and in fact the opening scenes defy the moviegoer’s expectations. In fact, the movie plays with chronology to support the central idea of memory being lost. It all works in visually presenting a metaphor of how the mind works while Joel’s experience makes him realize that memories, even the bad ones, are what defines him.
Carrey and Winslet are great in their roles and their performance captures both the little things that are great about a romantic relationship as well as the little irritants that can build up and cause a relationship to fail. The typically manic Carrey is reserved, even introverted as Joel, but even as the film’s straight man his comic instincts are well served, especially when he has to play his character as a child.
The supporting cast is mainly the crew of Lacuna who turn out to be a messed-up and unprofessional bunch. Stan Fink (Mark Ruffalo) is the technician assigned to erasing Joel’s memory who uses the time to invite his girlfriend and Lacuna receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst) over for marijuana and sex. Mary meanwhile has a crush on Lacuna’s director Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) who has skeletons in his own closet. And Patrick (Elijah Wood) is the creepiest of all, using knowledge gained from the procedure to pursue women.
This is an excellent movie and I’m glad I revisited it after many years. Bonus points for having significant scenes set on the frozen Charles River.
The final book of the series leads to the culminating battle to save Olympus from the Titans in the streets of Manhattan. The book builds well to get to that point with a natural ebb and flow in the narrative between fightin’ and more contemplative stuff. Themes that have been building across all five books play out hre and Percy, Thalia, Grover, Annabeth, Tyson, Clarisse, and Nico all show great character development. I particularly like how Percy plays his reward from the gods.
The Battle of the Labyrinth is another great quest story, this time primarily underground in the mysterious labyrinthe. Annabeth leads the quest with Grover, Percy, and Tyson with an angry and dangerous Nico playing a part as well. The book is well constructed as each characters has a role to play that leads to a specific goal. The war with the Titans begins in earnest with a battle at Camp Half-Blood that concludes the novel.
Book 3 of the series once again features a coast-to-coast quest (literally Bar Harbor, Maine to the Bay Area of California) as Percy Jackson seeks to find his friend Annabeth and the goddess Artemis. The book introduces half-bloods Nico and Bianca di Angelo, features Zeus’ daughter Thalia for the first time, and brings in Zoë Nightshade and the Hunters of Artemis. All of these characters will be significant to the course of the narrative in the ensuing novels. But I feel The Titan’s Curse doesn’t work as well as a stand-alone adventure and feels a bit formulaic. It’s still clever and fun, though.
Author: Rick Riordan Title:The Sea of Monsters: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 2 Narrator: Jesse Bernstein Publication Info: [New York, N.Y.] : Listening Library, 2006. Previously Read by the Same Author: The Lightning Thief Summary/Review:
The second book of ancient Greek mythology adapted as American teenager adventure and drama is just as it’s fun as its predecessor. In this book, Percy and his friends have to travel to the Sea of Monsters (now in the Bermuda Triangle) to rescue Grover and find the Golden Fleece. Adventures include dodgeball with cannibal giants, a ship full of dead Confederates, escaping Circe with the help of Blackbeard’s pirates, and Grover trying to escape marrying the cyclops Polyphemus. This book also introduces the dim but brave and kind Tyson, one of my favorite characters in the series.
Author: Rick Riordan Title: The Lightning Thief: Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1 Narrator: Jesse Bernstein Publication Info: Listening Library (2005) Summary/Review:
Percy Jackson is a troubled preteen whose life is turned upside down when he learns that not only are the pantheon of Greek gods are real, but that he is a demigod (or Half-Blood). The premise is similar to the Harry Potter series but Riordan comes up with some creative adventures and clever worldbuilding. This is also my daughter’s new favorite series.
Title: Sophie’s Choice Release Date: December 10, 1982 Director: Alan J. Pakula Production Company: ITC Entertainment | Keith Barish Productions Summary/Review:
I watched Sophie’s Choice many years ago and then read William Styron’s novel and loved them both. So I was happy to revisit this movie. It’s the story of a young aspiring writer, nicknamed Stingo (Peter MacNicol playing a character much like Styron), who moves from the South to Brooklyn. At his rooming house he meets and befriends the tempestuous couple upstairs of Sophie (Meryl Streep) and Nathan (Kevin Kline).
While Stingo sees Sophie and Nathan as glamorous, they each have dark secrets. Sophie survived the Holocaust in Poland and over the course of the film reveals her shame over her actions there in long flashbacks. Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic which manifests in extreme jealousy and abuse of Sophie. Most heartbreaking is that Sophie, because of her guilt over the past, seems to believe she deserves the abuse. The story ultimately leads to tragedy.
I remember watching this movie the first time and being utterly charmed by Nathan in his early scenes. This time I was more weary because I knew he was an abuser and it the patterns of abuse were more clear to see. Oddly enough, Kline’s portrayal of Nathan is very similar to his portrayal of Otto in the later film A Fish Called Wanda. We can laugh at Otto because he’s in a comedy, but since Nathan is in a drama, he is terrifying.
Meryl Streep’s performance is excellent, of course. She does a great job of portraying a person inexperienced with speaking English as well as the nuances of someone dealing with trauma. I was surprised that MacNicol portrays Stingo since it is very different from his later roles in things like Ghostbusters II and Ally McBeal. The one thing that bugs me about this movie is that when Stingo and Sophie have sex, Stingo narrates it like he’s in a frat boy comedy and he just made a great conquest. It really jars against the tone of the film and makes me wonder if Stingo learned anything from his experience.
My son and I took an overnight trip during spring break to Cooperstown to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. This is my fourth trip to Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame. I have mixed feelings about Cooperstown. On the one hand, Cooperstown is an absolutely gorgeous village and its fun to drive the winding roads through scenic farmland to get to the town and its excellent museums. On the other hands, the story of baseball being invented in Cooperstown is completely fabricated, and places with much better claims on being the place where baseball was invented in New York City, New Jersey, and New England would be a lot easier to get to for most visitors. Cooperstown needs the Hall of Fame more than the Hall of Fame needs Cooperstown.
That being said we had a great time walking through the town that was largely empty of people, visiting the baseball memorabilia stores, and taking in the exhibits at the Hall of Fame. I took a lot of photographs including the plaques of all my favorite Hall of Famers and posted them in this web album.