Friday, May 28, 2021

JUSTICE FOR TEAM ROCKET! MY COMPLETE UNCENSORED THOUGHTS ON "POKEMON": A Minor Re-Examination Of The Worst Television Show of All-Time.

So, about a week or so ago, I got unexpectedly caught up in a discussion over "Pokemon". A few people didn't agree or understand the perspective where I came from on it. They mentioned a few things about saying a lot without saying much.... which is true enough. I mentioned how I always associated it making American television air, around the same time when "Looney Tunes", more specifically, "The Bugs Bunny & Tweety Show" getting canceled from network television, which was around the same time, and I always considered that a heretic crime that's forever altered daytime and childhood television for the worst ever since. That said, I was criticized for several points, one of which was that I had a surprising lot to say for a show that I clearly hadn't seen much of, which I found hilarious, 'causing I was holding back what I really thought about "Pokemon".

So, perhaps I should express myself more clearly? What do I really think about it? Well, to give my brief thoughts....

(Deep breath)

"POKEMON" IS THE WORST, MOST OFFENSIVE, IDIOTIC, IRREDEMABLE PIECE OF GARBAGE EVER PUT ON TELEVISION!

The fact that it's still around and still popular is nauseating! Literally, no other TV show has offended all concepts of good taste, good children's programming, and good television. No other blatantly obvious toy advertisement has ever so forcefully forced it's toy products in my face so artlessly and ineptly, and not even for a product that makes any goddamn sense or has any redeemable quality in either it's play or in its execution of its concept. It represents everything wrong with Saturday morning cartoons, but like ten times worst then I ever thought I could be ever offended by! Watching this show feels like somebody physically trying to forcibly tie me down and force open my eyes open "A Clockwork Orange"- until I give in and bought their stupid toys for fear of my IQ being eroded from having to listen to any more of this inane, inexcusably bad show. Anybody who likes it, should be taken away from the human race as soon as possible so that we don't regress as a species, and anybody whose ever let their kids watch it, should've had them forcefully taken away from them and sent to new loving home, while they spend at least twenty years in jail thinking about the horrible abuse they inflicted on them by allowing them to watch television this obscenely bad!!!!!

(Deep exhale)

So-um, eh, I'm in the negative column on this show, to put it lightly.

That said, though, perhaps that initial reading of the text, from however many-ish some-odd years ago, might be a little bit misguided and outdated. I've been told that I'm wrong about this periodically by several friends and acquaintances of mine, some that even I respect, and more then a few times by Child Protective Services, who have so vehemently disagreed with my position that I've been warned never to call them again or face legal consequences... Perhaps I need to give it another shot. So, instead of responding to that thread again, I did that, very reluctantly, but I gave "Pokemon" another shot.

I didn't have too much in my immediate schedule to do or watch, so I decided that in some downtime between the other stuff I did, that-eh, you know what, it's on Netflix and available through other streaming avenues, maybe I should watch a few more episodes of the series. See, if there is some supposed redeeming values and morals to it. Some kind of legitimacy to "Pokemon", not as something I would enjoy but maybe as a fictitious world in which some good stories could be told, that I could see why others would enjoy it. I didn't watch everything, there's like way too many episodes of this series to go through all of it in a short time, but I think I watched a decent amount to see the gist of the series.

So, I spent a free hour there, a free hour or two there, watching "Pokemon" when I had the chance for a few days or so, and now, after thinking it over very carefully, and after giving it a fairer shot..., my original opinion, it still stands. In fact, I probably would say it's worst now then I first thought, 'cause OMG, this is fucking rancid! Not because of how I associate it with Looney Tunes becoming a relic of a past era in my mind, that was my issue, and especially in hindsight a totally unwarranted and unfair comparison to make. but because, Jesus, what in the-, what the fuck is this?!?!?! Nobody should ever watch this! This is the single worst made-up universe I have ever seen! This is the single worst anything I've ever seen! There is no lower level to my barrel that's more bottom then this!

Why are kids as young as ten going on long adult journeys with no supervision and out to capture and control a bunch of animals through battling those small, and why is this fucking insane-ass sport even treated like goddamn currency in this universe?!?!?!?! Why aren't these Pokemon revolting against these people! The character and dialogue are mostly lazy bad exposition, the main character Ash, is,- he's just awful. Like literally, he's terrible; he wants to be this trainer but he doesn't study or try to learn or even prepare a plan, he just wants to collect and fight his Pokemon until he usually lucks into wins, and gets declared great by everyone around him, even though clearly he isn't skillful or knowledgeable in this damn thing, not compared to literally everyone else. He clearly is an egotistical moron who keeps injuring his little animals by putting them in horrible situations for them (Not that this whole world isn't a horrible situation, BTW, why are some of these Pokemon in labs and others free like animals; are they like clones or mutants, some of these... Science is another thing really disturbing thing about this world.), even when he's offered help and guidance he keeps insisting on doing it on his own, which makes him, just stupid, why?! Take the fucking help?! Who are you trying to impress!?!?! Why do you have to do all this shit on your own for?!?! I'm told there's some moral lessons, but all I see is, if you're an obnoxious obsessive prick who can change his mind on things instantly, sometimes with literally no real inciting reason, then you too can,- can run the Pokemon world, whatever?!?! (Yeah, I get the idea that he's supposed to be the self-insert for the audience learning, but he's still too stupid to live! If he's so excited and waited his whole life to start becoming a 2nd generation, mind you, Pokemon trainer, shouldn't he be a little more knowledgeable about this, and not just be like every other idiot kid who I had to suffer being around in school. (Sorry, but Ash is a bad call and a bad protagonist.)

Yeah, I stand by my stance on it; this is utterly unwatchable dreck on a brain-meltingly stupid level. Looking at it now, it reminds me why I hate most of those RPG card games, those Magic the Gathering types- where you have to keep collecting rarer and rarer cards to attack; it's not an equal game of skill that everyone can play, it's about collecting so much of the game that you utterly destroy everyone else, that's no fun to anybody trying to get into a game. It's like playing poker, but everybody has extra aces if they need them but you! That's no good lesson for kids. I swear to god, this should've been banned from public consumption and we've should've been a lot more people upset about it's existence. If you actually got benefits or personal or emotional insight from this, then I have to seriously question how and why you didn't have that kind of insight before, or just presume you didn't or still don't know what personal or emotional insight is..., 'cause my god...., I always hated this, and knew instantly it was offensively bad, but holy hell, I am instantly reevaluating other things that I thought were crap and seeing them in a much better light because of how horrendous godawful this truly is! I have no frickin' idea how I'm the only one who treats this material like the absolute worst thing of fucking thing of all-time that it is! It absolutely, positively, is the absolutely worst thing I've ever seen, and the fact that it's promoted and advertised to kids is just like, horrific on so many levels!

(Long deep exhale)

That's what I thought of the first season or so anyway.

I mostly watched episodes from that season, but I also skipped around and looked for other episodes and later runs of the franchise as well... I won't say it ever gets good, I doubt it does, like I said, I didn't watch enough to make that judgment, but, I will say that, it technically gets better. Sometimes a lot better, some of the later seasons even look like some really nice animation, (The animation was also bad technically on the show, but honestly, that was always the least of my issues.) and some later series, which I suspect are reboots even have main characters I don't want to choke the second I see them. They even have stories that are actually somewhat well-told and compelling. Good main characters too, like the main girl in the "Diamonds and Pearls" series, who seems fairly smart and observant about Pokemon, she's creative in how she gets out of situations, thinks well on her feet, knows her shit, and is way more mature then Ash ever friggin' seemed. Yeah, compared to the first seasons, okay I kinda get why, in later seasons, some people, myself included, could watch them, and, let one's kids watch them, and not have their kids taken away for letting them do so.... (So, yeah, alright, maybe that Judge was right and I do owe those families an apology...)

They also thankfully got rid of a lot of the in-your-face music sequences and other superfluous side-garbage that's technically not new even for "Pokemon", or children's shows but in the early seasons, it somehow feels truly worst then any other time I've seen that kind of stuff on children's programs. I don't know why exactly it was always worst in "Pokemon"; I've seen the technique in other shows decades earlier, even in shows I still like and admire, but...- perhaps it's just because it's such a bombastic sell job...? Like it's always presuming that we just like "Pokemon" without really trying to sway us to like it?! Like, other shows that would suddenly have characters rapping to a music video of the clips of their show or have little trivia games to and from the commercial breaks, always seemed like they were trying to connect you to other aspects of the material. Asking you to join in with them, and early "Pokemon" seasons sequences like these just feel like Ronald McDonald trying to come through the TV and grabbing you buy the throat and saying, "Go buy McDonald's! Go buy McDonald's! Only, with Pokemon, which, like,- I know I'm not a gaming guy in general, but at least I'd know what "McDonald's" was before the clown grabbed at my throat. (Thank god there's streaming now, 'cause there's a lot of fast forwarding through some really questionable ideas, especially with the music and trivia segments.)

"Pokemon" is both trying to simultaneously explore the entire "Pokemon"-based world through this Ash character as he raises his main Pokemon Pikachu and through all the other Pokemon and Pokemon-related characters he meets, but it also seems to expect us to know and like the world of Pokemon to begin with, without giving us any reason or explanation why we should. (Not that they could make this thing appealing....)

Actually, let me take that back 'cause this criticism isn't fair; my introduction to the franchise is through this, this ungodly TV show; I was not familiar at all with the video game, which apparently came first. I honestly always thought this was a card game first, I was so confused by this thing and why it was this multimedia phenomenon so suddenly.... (Yeah, I might've just missed this, but I really don't remember "Pokemon" being that popular, at least in America, before the cartoon series came out.)

Maybe that's what I'm missing here... Even still, there were video game based and inspired cartoon series before and to all their credit, none of them ever felt like they were just trying to sell me the game, or the toy. I mean, a lot of those shows sucked anyway, but there was always something more off with Pokemon compared to those. Like, I knew to never to take the "Super Mario Bros." TV shows or "The Legend of Zelda" ones seriously and as representatives of or in relation to the games, even as a kid. They took the characters and aesthetics and essentially just created some random regular short animation episodes and they were bad, but they were also essentially harmless. Even something like that "Sonic the Hedgehog" Saturday morning show, which is actually a good show (I liked the other Sonic too from that time as well) while complex in its narrative, never felt like I was being a forced to play the games the show's were based, I felt like I was being told a story. "Pokemon" never gave off that kind of vibe that I shouldn't be caring quite a bit about it, quite the opposite. (And I guess technically that worked, 'cause I do end up caring a lot about it, just not the way that they wanted me to care.)

Now, my favorite animated series franchise based on video games is the Carmen San Diego shows, both the original "Where On Earth..." series from the '90s and the recent Netflix reboot, are some of my favorite animated series of all-time, but those are educational games first of all, so I never felt like my brain was trying to eat its own tail watching them, but also, they were mystery-based. There is a "Player" character in both adaptations, but they were never attempts at self-insert protagonists like Ash is supposed to be. They also weren't that particularly accurate to the games themselves. I mean, I guess "Where on Earth..." was basically just finding clues and globetrotting 'til you caught Carmen, but that's kinda just naturally how a mystery goes and the fact that we had detective characters themselves within the narrative, also meant that, it felt more like watching "Murder, She Wrote"- or, maybe not that show, but a normal mystery story. (For the newer series, it was probably more "The Fugitive" then anything else.) Also, they weren't trying to be exactly like the games anyway, and that to me is a benefit; movies and TV shows either based on games or trying to tell their story like video games, are usually crap, 'cause what works in a first person medium, like a game, doesn't work when you're observing them as a third person.

"Pokemon" is a fantasy story, that seems to want to keep it's first person storytelling. At least, that's what it clearly seemed like, after I played the game.

Yeah, after watching all these episodes, and still ranting and raving; I decided to try the game, which yeah; I did grow up with a Nintendo, but not a Game Boy, so I never heard of this. I found an emulator of-eh, I think it was "Pokemon Red", the first "Pokemon" game to hit America, and yeah, it's very similar to the original first season television series. I tried for about an hour or 90 minutes, before I just got tired of walking around and trying to figure out where to go.

I'm not a natural fantasy-adventure gamer to begin with; there's exceptions, but I don't really enjoy most of these kind of fantasy games, and I especially don't on early Nintendo systems. I'm the one who never liked playing "The Legend of Zelda" as a kid for the same reasons, I felt it was just annoying, trying to find shit when I'm trying to shut my head off. I like them better then say, old DOS adventure games which required me to use my imagination, but this is a genre of video game that I don't think made sense until the technology was good enough to really give us a more three-dimensional worlds and worldviews to explore, like N64 or Sony Playstation; I certainly would be throwing my Game Boy out a car window if I had to play this on there. (Or, in my case, a Sega Game Gear.)

So my judgment is suspect here in terms of being a game reviewer, but that said, is it a good game to begin with? (Shrugs) Maybe. I can't speak to the dozens of other "Pokemon" games, but this first one, um... well, I certainly didn't like how when it was scrolling Professor Oak's introduction to the world of Pokemon that, it specifically gave me the notes that in this world, "For some people, Pokemon are pets. Others use them for fights."

Ehhhhhhhhh, for those who aren't in the camp that the premise of the whole franchise is flimsy and has some truly disturbing undercurrents in it, just to let you know, that early, early line in the beginning of the franchise, doesn't help. I'll get to the more elaborate thoughts I have in that regard later, but-eh, this leads to other questions... For instance, where's the "Pokemon" game where I'm just raising a Pokemon as a pet? Cause, in the game, I have to have my Pokemon fight in order to evolve, which makes no sense if they can just be pets too; like, can't they grow as they eat and drink and age as they go, as pets?! And don't say that's stupid and wouldn't be an entertaining game either, 'cause there's a bunch of games even back then, that were just raising a pet. I remember Tamagotchis; I didn't get those either, but even those, I kinda just shrugged off as 21st Century versions of The Pet Rock, and those games actually have you interacting and raising your pets like a pet, and I could definitely see how one can learn a lot of early childhood lessons from those.

Now, as to the show, they strayed from this idea of retelling the story of the video game the longer the particular series seemed to go, apparently, which is probably for the best, especially since I think it's kind of a bad idea in general to try to tell the story that way to begin with also. It's one thing to set something in the world of the game, it's another to recreate the game entirely, and that seems to be what the majority of the early episodes were doing. They even went out of their way to replicate the names and details of the city, and frankly, I can't think of a game where I would ever think that's the best approach to adapting it. For one, I'd just  be replaying the game, so if I liked the original game, I'm just bored waiting for the things I know are coming up, and if I don't like the game, then they're just recreating a hellish experience for me, and on the other other hand, if I don't know the game at all, then especially for these early seasons, I'm just confused as to my everything's so accepted in this world, and even if I did seem somewhat interested..., doing that with this game in particular....

Um..., okay how can I explain how this feels... Uh, maybe, if I can find this clip..., it'll be the miracle of miracles if I do, but; c'mon Youtube, don't fail me now....

(Twenty minutes later)

And, yes! It's here! Okay, I can actually show this and not have to explain it too much....


Okay, so this is an episode of "Jesse". It was Christina Applegate's first sitcom after "Married... with Children"; she's a young single mother who's got a crush/on-again-off-again thing with the art teacher next door. It was created by the same people behind "Friends"; it lasted two seasons and it's a terrible sitcom. Obviously not "Pokemon" bad or I wouldn't be using it as a positive example of anything, but it was a mess of a show on between "Friends" and "Frasier" so you put up with it despite the show being a complete mess. (Cool theme song though) Anyway, there's this one episode that apparently always stuck with me. It's this episode where Jesse goes on a date with a cute guy to a "club," not realizing that it's not a nightclub, but a D&D club that he's apart of.... and as the date goes on, if you skip to the 15:05ish-to the 16:15ish part, where she learns about how long it takes to get through Level 1 of the game... yeah, that's kinda how this feels like to me. Even if I was somewhat interested, just trying to get into this on a deep enough level to where I would understand enough of it, really doesn't feel like it's worth it, in really any form, including the video game, much less a television recreation of the video game, that I don't have any real control of, and just seems to constantly be bombarding me to care about or have to care about enough to spend money I don't have on it.... (Depressed sigh)

Anyway, speaking of straying from the video game narrative, thank goodness, I did look at one episode of "Pokemon" from season 2 in particular, where Meowth's backstory is told; I was specifically told that if I didn't feel some level of emotions that my soul would be questioned.... So while I skipped around randomly when I did stray from the first season, I specifically went out of my way to watch that one, tsk... um, it's...- (Sigh) well, it's definitely not the worst episode of the show; but-eh...- (Sigh) Alright, I'll just say it, that episode was just "Oliver & Company


I mean, I love "Oliver & Company", so it's not a criticism per se, and it's not exactly a complete remake or anything. Basically, it's taking that kind of story and twisting the details, creatively into a villain origin story and that's admittedly pretty clever. And the idea of Pokemon learning English is kind of a neat way to explained that odd detail fairly well, but I didn't feel emotional towards it at all. Maybe I am "Soulless", but I've also seen that done better in other media and other kids media at that, even back then. (The episodes of the '80s version of Alvin & The Chipmunks", the '80s/early '90s one anyway, where we learned about the Chipettes origin story came to my mind) In fact, I ended up hating Meowth more as the episode went on; I mean, he did all that himself, just to try to convince some other lady Pokemon to get with him, despite her clearly not being interested, time and time again. Take a fucking hint, you dumbass thieving stalker; she doesn't want you! She doesn't want you rich, speaking English, walking on two legs, and certainly not by beating up the one guy who was there for her when she needed somebody! She might be a bitch, but Meowth's just an obnoxious egotistical prick; I don't care that his backstory is somewhat sympathetic, he's an asshole and his motives undermine that whole backstory's sympathy.

You know, who I actually did feel a little sympathy for going through these episodes? Team Rocket. Jesse and James anyway, Meowth can suck it, but them, I genuinely felt sad for them the more I thought about it. I mean, they live in a Pokemon-based universe, where your entire status in life seems to be based around how good you are at training Pokemon, and they suck at it. As far as I can tell, and I tried to do a little research on this, so maybe I'm way off on this reading but I couldn't find a particular backstory to deny this offhand..., but it seems like they became these obsessed robbers and thieves, trying desperately to get Pokemon any way they can, because they don't have anything else in this world. Pokemon is status, it's currency, it's literally everything, and there doesn't seem to be much else. Even those who supposedly have other stuff to do in life, like that first gym master who has a bunch of siblings to take care of, also seem to first, still has to be good at Pokemon, so really, they have no choice but to be these outlandish eccentric villains; it's their only choice in this world. In a real world, where Pokemon wasn't everything, just, a thing, I bet they would be happier and more successful, being computer hackers or birthday party entertainers or something else, but they don't have any other options.

I felt sorry for them. They reminded me of, well me, whenever I was the one person who didn't like something that everyone else did and was ostracized for it back in school, which, happened a lot to me, I might add. And frankly, their situation is way more fucked then I ever was in simply because I hated "Scooby-Doo" or whatever it was that week that everyone loved except me. It's everybody else being so obsessed with Pokemon in this world that leads them to being equally obsessed with Pokemon even though it's not something they're good at or that they should do; I guess they do like "Pokemon" enough to keep doing this, but it's also the only option they're really given. They don't have a chance or really much of an opportunity to be anything else. So yeah, if I had to pick a side in this thing, Team Rocket all the way.

But that just shows how really dumb this world is, that I mostly find the villains the most relatable and sympathetic. I also jumped on the bandwagon in which some consider this show's lesson to be about how owning these pocket monsters and having them fight is basically tantamount to enslavement, and yeah, as I kinda alluded to before, I do see that. I'll admit though, that I think it's a bit of a disingenuous criticism, but then again, I also remember Michael Vick's dogfighting ring scandal happening around this time as "Pokemon" was big,... Honestly, I can forgive people for not seeing it this way, especially if they watch later series or played the video game but once it's been pointed out, I can't un-see it entirely. I get not caring in a video game about it, but when they're really tangible characters in a medium like television and not just, another weapon to circle in and out depending on the situation you walk into, the more disturbing nature of the premise come to the forefront. If you give it, any amount of real thought, it's all very disturbing.... It's always gonna be there in the back of my mind that essentially this game about scooping up field mice in order to watch them try to bop each other's heads off.

That said, let's say that issue I can get okay with, and naturally, if it's done well, you can make any concept and story good if done right, which yes, I believe one can. So, let's say that some of these later seasons are actually decent and worth a damn, overall does that mean that I'm still being too mean on the original?

Well, subjectively, I don't think I'm mean enough to it, but objectively...- Well, that's a more difficult question to answer. On the one hand, I'm kinda just sick of constant reboots of old series, particularly children's series to begin with, even if some of them are better then the originals, or in this case, if future series of "Pokemon" are better then the original. I could be wrong here, but I think these later series aren't so much reboots but just, the same franchise telling a new story with some similar characters, but with new protagonists and the story is more clearly ending at like a season or two, and not potentially something that could run for awhile; similar to other Japanese programs actually. The question in my mind, has to become, was/is "Pokemon" something that was worth rebooting and reinterpreting? Well, again, subjectively I clearly don't think so, but, now that it's been so long, and because society sucks and I've lost this war, then, yeah, sure why the hell not. Try to find something interesting or different or even good in this world and tell other newer stories, find something good that can be pulled out of this world. I can't claim I wasn't thinking about how I would do "Pokemon" if I had to.

Personally, if I absolutely had to give a pitch, my initial re-imagining would be, first to get rid of Ash, 'cause I hate him. They probably wouldn't accept so instead, I'd reconceive Ash, or at least the role of the show's main protagonist that Ash represents. I'd have him being an older young male character, perhaps a 13 or 14 year old, who only recently moved into this Pokemon universe with his family, and have him become an accidental Pokemon trainer, not somebody trying to follow in a family legacy or anything of that sort and then have Misty and the others help guide him through the journey and other new friends and acquaintances that he has to go through and he goes along with it, 'cause, although this version of him, he might not understand or even agree with the practices of this Pokemon world, he understands it empathetically and has formed a loving bond with a Pokemon who enjoys the fighting aspects of being a Pokemon, so he's an older young male who's now reluctantly embarking on this Pokemon trainer journey, not for him, but for his Pokemon who he's grown attached to. It'd be kinda like how a parent wouldn't want their kids playing a violent sport like football or something, but because he's so good at it, and wants to be playing so bad, that they reluctantly do what they can in order to help him get the best possible chance at success at it. So now we have a character who doesn't know the world, but also shouldn't, so it makes more sense when he fails upward and stumbles his way into success sometimes and even though he means well enough and is naturally talented at Pokemon, he needs a lot of help and is willing to take it more and more often from those characters that do know the world..., and so-on and so-forth. That's where I would at least start with this, if I had to create a concept from scratch. Perhaps that is an idea they did later or, or will do later. (Don't worry, I won't ask for credit if they do; I'm not watching it even if they do that.)

Anyway, so yeah, like, "Pokemon"'s still awful, I can't pretend that it's not the most offensive thing to all my critical instincts. There was better out there at the time, and frankly always has been, especially so when talking about it's earliest seasons, which unfortunately was when it was at its most popular.... I think there's genuinely little there that's worth a damn and yeah, I will still look at people like they've got dog turds hanging out of their mouths if they mention being a fan of it or liking it or finding it a good piece of nostalgia from their childhood, 'cause that,- that-..., look, it might now be apart of people's nostalgia, some pieces of their nostalgia past are just bad and not worth remembering, and this is one of them.

Even as a kid, who watched and liked a lot of bad cartoons growing up, this would've banged every get-this-off-my-TV-right-fucking-now nerve I would've had even at my youngest. However, okay, there's stuff in here that's not that terrible and fairly decent once you see how the show's clearly evolved. I still don't think it's a franchise that should've been given that opportunity but yeah, okay like, it's, probably, not technically the worst thing ever. Parts of it actually do look like they're fairly good. I'm not gonna keep going and find out, but yeah, there's my complete, uncensored thoughts on "Pokemon" and how they've changed. I guess I'm glad I gave it a few extra tries overall, and saw why it at least had potential to be good. I did have biases against this show in the way, and I think I did honestly cleared out a lot of them. Obviously, I didn't get converted or became a fan and obviously my opinion hasn't completely changed in terms of the quality of this show, but I'm glad I decided to take the time and flush this out a bit.









Also, why do I have to catch them all?! There's 898 of these, can't I just catch the important ones? What do I need them all for?! Doesn't that sound, just a little obsessive? (Sigh)

Yeah, I need to play a different game.



Tuesday, May 18, 2021

MOVIE REVIEWS #182: "MY OCTOPUS TEACHER", "THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION", "ASSASSINS", "SLAY THE DRAGON", "NON-FICTION", "THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM", "THE APOLLO", "MYSTIFY: MICHAEL HUTCHENCE", and "17 BLOCKS"!

Movie-wise, I feel like this has been a rough few batch for me. Of the nine movies I reviewed this time around, seven are documentaries. Ugh. I rearlly don't plan this, it's just what came up on my list. And the one film I'm not reviewing was also a documentary, one from 2009 called "More than a Game" which was about Lebron James's high school basketball team. It's okay. 

Anyway, not much else going on at the moment. I've got some projects outside of this blog that are beginning to line up, so I'm gonna try to keep focus on that for more, so sorry if this space becomes quieter for the short term. Anyway, let's get to the reviews this week. 


MY OCTOPUS TEACHER (2020) Director: Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed

⭐⭐⭐


I've been inundated with thoughts and hot takes about "My Octopus Teacher" even before the movie won the Best Documentary Oscar this past year. Christy Lemire and Maggie Mae Fish in particular were particularly vocal in how disgusted they are by it, and I recommend looking up both their reviews 'cause they make a lot of good points. Greg Stevens, who runs the Youtube channel Pop Arena, he's the one doing that show-by-show analysis of Nickelodeon, called it on Twitter the "Crash" of the Best Documentary category. Now, I don't agree with that all, mainly because I don't think "Crash" is nearly as bad as everybody says it is, now or then; it's a good movie, it's a worthy winner, it's problems with its depiction of race relations are not nearly as bad as "Green Book"'s problems-, it's not even in the bottom ten of Best Picture winners...- ugh. But I do get where these people are coming from, and yeah, I think was a questionable winner. I'm still recommending it though. 

Mainly because, I think there's some good points to it, and the big one being the cinematography, because my most prescient thought I had while watching "My Octopus Teacher" was that, this movie should be seen in IMAX. Not, theaters, IMAX, specifically, and that's not a thought I've had with any film this pandemic, but yeah, IMAX. Not just for the great nature photography, although yeah, that helps, but imagine seeing scenes of the Octopus as she discovers and observes the camera equipment, laying it's suction-like tentacles all over the screen, but just overwhelming you, washing over you on the largest of large screens. 

Does that make it a good movie? Well, it is, but I think IMAX has always proven to be more adept at showing certain kinds of films and this is definitely one of them. The movie itself, is actually quite unusual for a nature doc. The movie is focused around Craig Foster the South African photographer and environmentalist who decided to do an interesting experiment. Every day he dives to specific part of the coast of Cape Town, and he begins observing, this octopus. He decides to keep doing this, following this octopus and her everyday adventures, which usually isn't much. However as time goes on, and the Octopus and Craig get used to each other, they begin to start to connect. Well, not connect anyway; I guess it's more like Craig is learning about the everyday goings on of the Octopus in the wild? Yeah, admittedly this part is weird if you actually think he's connecting with this octopus, or vice-versa, and if Foster really is genuine in this and it's not just a framing device, then- well, frankly there's no real good scenario for that. 

At one point, the Octopus is scared off and he can't find her for a week so has to search for her. He mentions that to find her, he had to think like an octopus and wonder where exactly she would hide and how, and sure enough that's how he finds her. 

Craig is a bit of a, I don't know,- I mean, he's self-centered and overly impressed with his actions, but I still think the group of environments from "Chasing Coral" were worst, so I guess it didn't bother me as much here. The movie cuts between shots that he recorded of the Ocean and then some interviews scenes of him, at a fairly well-lit table and chair being interviewed. It's-, it's a little odd 'cause he's the only interviewee; I guess I would've preferred just the voiceover. Anyway, we see his passion for saving the Oceanlife and habitats but we see him as he learns about and essentially make friends with this octopus. And they recognize and react with each other, and we get to see them observe each other. I doubt the octopus thought of Craig as his human teacher, but we do learn a bit about how the mind works with this crustaceous creature. 

We see him getting attacked by a shark a few times, one time while trying to hide, the shark manages to mangle off a tentacle, but yes, like the trivia fact states, they do indeed grow back and we see that process. When the shark comes again, we see that she's developed a far better hiding strategy and manages to outsmart the shark the next time. These sequences are quite special and the manner in which Foster approaches learning about wildlife. He dives in every single day and visit with a specific creature and tries to learn from her. Most wildlife docs never seem to approach taking that intimate and personal approach to animals, and do think there's value in this process. We study animals longterm mostly in environments of our making, not out there in actual nature and not usually the same animals over a long period of time. I think the approach the movie takes with this, is misguided, but I think the idea of the approach is at least somewhat sound; it's enough of a hypothesis that we can learn more about creatures using this similar method.

They're almost always general or usually we get some random clips but nothing personal and intimate, well nothing believably personal and intimate. Just for a comparison, I hated "Chasing Coral" because of how much I felt like it was about how much the main human people in the movie cared about saving the coral as oppose to actually being about saving the coral. Here, this is like, the exact opposite of how that movie approach trying to show the importance of maintaining our oceans. 

So for that alone, I'm eager to recommend "My Octopus Teacher". I don't think it's the greatest of these movie, but its unique and interesting and the photography is spectacular. 

I just wish I could've seen this on IMAX; that would've helped make these flaws seem less problematic.


THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION (2020) Director: Radha Blank

⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2

  

The sharpness of the satirical knife firmly being sliced, cut and then twisted inside the New York theater world is like few satirical knives I've ever seen. Uncomfortably sharp if I'm really being honest. It's not slicing at the more traditional shots people would take at this world. I'm thinking of something like "Birdman..." for instance, which more-or-less went after the eccentricities of actors, the absurdities of working on the stage, and of course, the critical world. There's some here, producers don't exactly get off the hook easily, the big hack producer character, J. Whitman (Reed Birney) basically hands hangers-on producer credits when they give their hands to his-eh, pound of flesh, you might say. That said, is he entirely wrong about the changes to the play?! I mean, obviously he is, he's a complete hack, but that doesn't mean he's wrong, wrong, necessarily.

"The Forty-Year-Old Version" was written, directed and starring Radha Blank, essentially as herself. It's not exactly her acting debut, she had a small part in a very obscure indy a couple decades ago and recently played, Bessie Smith, interestingly enough, in a time-traveling TV series I've never heard that's, as far as I can tell is the guys who created "The Shield" trying to do their version of "Quantum Leap".... Network television is dying, isn't it.... (Wait, Abigail Spencer's in that "Timeless", what the hell?...] Still, she's mostly been known behind the scenes; she produced that series adaptation of "She's Gotta Have It" and has written several un-or-rarely-produced plays in between sporadic other writing gigs. The daughter of a jazz drummer and a painter, and she herself also has gotten work both as a stand-up comic and like her character in this movie, as a rapper both under the name RadhaMU Sprime. On the surface this autobiographical movie seems to be, mainly about her, documenting her struggles to be a success, but she's been well-known in circles for awhile. in the movie, she was named one of the 30 under 30 Playwrights awards, many years ago obviously, as she's knocking on the doorstep of forty, she's still managing to get meetings, and hell, her longtime best friend, Archie, (Peter Kim) is still her agent, and obviously is still getting her meetings despite opportunities for him to obviously go beyond her, and not just be her Broadway Danny Rose. 

So, what's the problem? Well, the play is bad. Well, it doesn't start from a place that's bad, but the closer she gets to the stage, the more changes have to be made, and the worst it gets. It's not new, it's the kind of thing that happens a lot more often then people realize; I've had it happen to me even. Is it okay? Ehhh, well, it depends..., I mean, a producer telling either of us to cut a few character, eh, that's probably not, in general a bad idea. Telling a black playwright that gentrification isn't just a thing in the ether and is instead to "personify" it by creating a character that the audience can relate to.... Ummmmmm, that's probably not the best approach to criticism of the piece.... That still doesn't entirely mean he's wrong though, but that's because he's a populist Broadway producer. Broadway's audience are the people who can afford Broadway tickets, the upper crust liberal elites who like to hear their own beliefs and biases repeated back to them in entertaining-but-softened ways, often using cultural appropriation as a tool to get them to appreciate art that they would've otherwise found too confrontational, foreign or radical for their taste. Rap music for instance, suddenly being told to tell a story of one of the America's founding fathers, to name a recent obvious example, and it's even noted in this film. Not by a theater world character, but by D (Oswin Benjamin) a younger beats producer, who creates beats to/for anybody who finds him through social media and shows up at his door with some weed.  

Radha decides after decades of pursuing the stage to suddenly start going back to dropping beats and rapping at age 39, is partly mid-life-crisis, partly rebellion, partly just frustration with her current career and how it is difficult for her to get a genuine giant, not even Broadway, just an Off-Broadway production exactly the way you intended and want it, off the ground with the budget you want and with the story you want. (Nevermind that, unusual even compared to other media, it's genuinely stunning just how much the average play and especially a musical goes through several drafts and cuts during workshops anyway, before they actually hit the stage; like, seriously, whether it's a successful production or a flop production, when you hear about some of these stories, it's genuinely dumbfounding that anything on the stage has a remotely coherent narrative.) Radha has a couple false starts in both her rapping and with D, who she does end up with, which directly confronts, both all her false starts with the theater world and these new false starts in her rapping career are frustrating for her as it seems like both creative outlets seem to lack the exact ability to express herself and her full creativity, but both also seems to represent the struggle of all artists, especially older artists to break in. 

Especially in mainstream theater, 'cause that's another undertone of this movie, while Broadway's history is full of what could be considered compromised works to appeal to a mainstream audience, African-American theater is full of great writers who had to find alternative routes to going mainstream, from Lorraine Hanberry to August Wilson to Zora Neale Hurston to even modern day playwrights like Anna Deavere Smith to Ntozake Shange to yes, even Tyler Perry. If Madea couldn't make it to Broadway, what kind of chance does a Radha Blank have without turning a more intimate slice-of-life piece about modern time, into, what it ends up becoming. No wonder, she wants to go into something more real, like rapping. Which itself is also depicted as a corrupted genre as D explains to some of the younger up-and-comers who're using his beats, "What are you even talking about? Are you even trying to tell a story or say anything?" and yeah, as somebody who's always been reluctant to embrace rap, I totally get that. 

"The Forty-Year-Old Version" is one of those rare, way-too-personal raw features that intentionally draws you into subjects and ideas that, may not necessarily make the greatest movie, but it makes you think about everything that the artist is trying to make you think about. It's personal, it's definitely her own vision, but it's not so much about her narrative as it is about all the obstacles in the way of telling that narrative. In that sense, the movie is sort of a meta-miracle in how it takes on and makes us confront those obstacles the way she has to. It's not a perfect movie, in fact I found it quite irksome at times, but in a good way; the way someone like Blank had to be able to force it and her into that uncomfortable zone, which is itself a great common trait of most radical alternative theater. I'm liking it the more I think about it afterwards. 


ASSASSINS (2020) Director: Ryan White

⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2

  

Well, I'll give Kim Jung-Un this, this was a pretty ingenious way to commit fratricide and get away with it. I mean, I've always been a little sketchy of some of those Youtube prank channels and whatnot. It's bad enough that most of them are pretty damn uncreative; I don't think I'm being particularly controversial with that statement, not that most prank shows are creative, but if I was say a young actor or actress trying to make it big, or at least, get a somewhat regular gig then yeah, perhaps I'd participate in a prank show. I certainly wouldn't think that being a part of a prank show would lead me to getting jailed for committing a political assassination. Yet, that's what happened. 

"Assassins" is a fascination modern courtroom docudrama about the assassination of Kim Jung-Nam, the older half-brother of Kim-Jung Un. He had long been living in Macau after a dispute with his father Kim Jung-Il after he was caught in Tokyo trying to take his kids to Tokyo Disneyland. Seriously. Possibly because of Il's wife, who is not his biological mother, informed authorities about this to begin with, and that's a big deal in North Korea, where...,- well, we don't know everything, but there's a long history of local religion and mythology based around the Kim family that helps keep their totalitarian regime intact. However, he made a deal with his father to give up his place in line in exchange to leave the country. 

Since his father's passing though, he's been a constant concern for Kim-Jung Un as, while he's never gone after Un directly, he did have a hypothetical claim to the throne. Plus, he remained in China, where Un couldn't get him, since China basically keeps North Korea going, and if he tried and failed, or otherwise pissed off China, then hypothetically, they could install Nam somewhat legitimately through a government coup. However, he was traveling in Malaysia at the time, and that's when two young women, an Indonesian girl named Siti Aisyah and a Vietnamese girl named Doan Thi Huong came up and they rubbed what they thought was lotion on his face and eyes. It was actually VX Nerve Agent, one of the most potent poisons and chemicals weapons in the world, one that some believe North Korea has been stock piling for years now. 

Yet, despite there being four North Koreans, including a chemist who was living in Malaysia, many of whom they found on the CCTV footage at the Kuala Lumpur airport, and four other identified suspects shown, only these two young women, who were tricked into believing they were just pulling off a rather innocuous prank for a Youtube show, were arrested and tried for murder. In Malaysia by the way, murder is an automatic death sentence, and the prosecution definitely seemed like they were determined to prosecute, and were probably under some kind of North Korean thumb if they were going after only these two. 

In "Assassins" we get a documentary about the trial, mostly shown from the defendants' lawyers perspective as well as an investigative look at the defendants previous lives and how they ended up in this position. Doan was always trying to be an actress, even once appeared on "Vietnam Idol", and Siti had a rougher but similar path, including working through the illegal sex trade in the country. Both of them recorded their exploits on social media, although neither of them had even met before they were brought together for the assassination attempt. We do see them working and communicating with various figures who, definitely seem like, to someone who wouldn't necessarily know better, like they were doing a Youtube prank show. I feel sorry for these girls, and a lot of empathy for their lawyers who themselvescan barely believe just how surreal the story, and the facts surrounding them is. The law also seems to be fairly stacked against them as well. I don't know if it's the intricacies of Malaysian law or if it was just the prosecution and the judge trying to railroad the girls for most of the trial, but it was definitely a hit. They claimed they couldn't find witnesses that the filmmakers seemed to easily find for instance. They had their whole social media and phone accounts with the people they were working with that can be traced. Even part of the CCTV footage shows that they didn't realize just how deadly and potent the nerve agent they used was, but we only see the footage at first of them heading off to a second floor bathroom trying not to touch any surfaces to wash it off their palms. They're even dressed too noticeably; I don't know what the dress code is for political assassination but a sweatshirt with LOL on it, is probably not it. 

Eventually, Siti shockingly gets her charges dropped right when she was about to testify, apparently under insistence from the Indonesian government. Doan's release had to wait a bit as Vietnam has a fairly good relation with North Korea, both being Communist countries, and she was terrified to testify, which also under law could've easily been considered an admission of guilt, I think; that was weird, but eventually her charges were dropped. 

North Korea and Kim-Jung Un came out okay in all this. It didn't help that Trump among other world leaders seemed to legitimize him as a political head-of-state. Apparently Nam was in Malaysia because he was an FBI informant, although I wonder exactly how much a guy ten years outside of the family would know, but that seemed to be the latest motive for this, Un's latest and success attempt to assassinate him. (Yeah, it wasn't the first one.) "Assassins" is a fascinating, surreal documentary that shows just how perverse, bizarre and brazen a political assassination can be in the modern day and shows just how easily some can be caught into the web as mere pawns, and how the law can struggle to both keep up and not be corrupted or overpowered even in the most stringent of countries. 


SLAY THE DRAGON (2020) Director: Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman

⭐⭐⭐1/2


Boy, was I dreading watching this movie. Not that it's a bad movie or a depressing film or anything, although it can be frustrating, but for mostly personal reason. For one, if you've noticed by now, I watched a lot of documentaries lately and yeah, I'm getting a little tired of them. (Shrugs) It's what's next, can't help it. Also, mainly because "Slay the Dragon" is one of those documentaries where it's a subject that I'm already fairly familiar with, gerrymandering. 

I know some of my readers aren't American and might not know some of the intricacies of the U.S. political system, but one of them is this concept called gerrymandering; it's been around politics forever in America to some degree; it started, most notably in Massachusetts in 1812-ish, where a governor named Elbridge Gerry, when they redrew the district line, they would draw them in such a way where his party would have a notable advantage. One district in particular was so strangely shaped that one cartoonist noted that it looked like a salamander. Now, in America, we take a census every ten years, in general and we use that data for a lot of things, and one of those is to determine how to equally divide up political lines. Which states get the most congressmen and how to divide those congressional districts equally, and well local statehouse districts, and several other delineations as well. This on the surface is reasonable, but the question is not always how they're dividing the state(s), but also who's doing it. That unfortunately depends often, on whoever's running the states themselves. Not every state, and "Slay the Dragon" shows how some states, like Michigan now, are getting rid of that process and using an independent panel drawn from people within the state, but many states often use whoever's currently in power in the statehouses to determine how they draw the lines. Once they have that power, they can do whatever they want, or at least that's how recently some Republican-lead statehouse have been acting, sometimes in complete defiance towards their state's and voters wishes. It's got so bad that in North Carolina, the courts called them out to the point where they where required to redraw their districts, and even that efforts were purportedly riddled with corruption, delays and other obstructed efforts. 

With the Supreme Court leaning more conservative then ever, because of the orange monkey who used to be in office and probably wouldn't have gotten there without some electoral gerrymandering himself (Yeah, I'm going along with Stephen Colbert's attempts to not mention fuckface's name from here on out whenever I have to mention him), the best effort seems to be by people like Katie Fahey, who started the ballot measure in Michigan and change the state's constitution taking it out of the hands of the government. The movie follows Katie periodically, beginning with how Flint was essentially segregated in such a way because the state  as well as the attempts in Wisconsin to the Supreme Court as we follow much of the lawsuits and detail of how that state was essentially, literally manipulated to the point where they could have the Democrats get the biggest percentage win ever in the state and they'd still have the same amount of seats they have now. Which basically happened, there were several states where the Democrats won based on the total vote counts but they ended up losing statehouses, in some cases, losing seats entirely in 2012 and holding steady in future elections despite similar results.

All of this because of gerrymandering, which allows them to do what they want, without concern of them losing their seats outside of primary challenges. 

"Slay the Dragon" does a good job of showing this conundrum, both historically and how modern techniques have made gerrymandering so much more vicious and sophisticated. We do play the game of shapes some districts look like just as much, but technology has made the practice so much more ruthless by those who want power without accountability because they damn-well know that they wouldn't be able to either get it, or keep it afterwards if they had to answer to the voters in a fair democratic election. In fact, it's often that lack of accountability that leads to these more unpopular legislation that's sweeping across the country, almost like it's continuous and directed, like it's a purposeful orchestrated plan, which, it is. That's something else the movie shows us, but it shows it well. "Slay the Dragon" isn't new, but it gives us just enough of the grassroots groundswell that's combatting it, it's a good summary of what it is, how it's effecting us. That's really all we need from a documentary. 

As for me, I hope the next movie I have to watch is something different then another doc.

NON-FICTION (2019) Director: Olivier Assayas

⭐⭐


"Non-Fiction" at this point, feels like another reminder that for reasons that escape me, the French seem far more interested in the day-to-day regulars goings-ons of the French Publishing World, then the Americans do with the American publishing world. Well, I guess technically that's not true, but it sure does feel like it, even in French movies I like, like Michel Haneke's "Cache", some of it can seem a bit odd. I guess there's subject matters of ours that other world countries wouldn't care as much about too though.... I wonder just how "Moneyball" plays in countries where baseball isn't a big deal? I know this movie like much ado about nothing, and Shakespeare's, just, the movie, it's much ado about nothing. 

Well, it's not nothing, nothing, but it's,- yeah, it's French, so whatever it is, it's nothing. You know, I don't normally listen to Mark Kermode's reviews as much as I should; when I'm writing reviews, I tend to look mostly for written reviews from other critics, not to copy their opinions, but to make sure that my initial thoughts on a film aren't completely off-base, like, if I don't like a movie, and a review and I'm like, "Oh wait, this was about the Protestant Reformation; how did I miss that?" kinda thing, but I saw that Mark Kermode had a negative review of this film, and I had to listen, and oh god, is it sooooooooooooo good and accurate, I have to quote it here. 

"French comedy, no laughing matter. Bohemian French artisans drinking, smoking, having affairs, all with no consequences whatsoever...." 

He goes on from there, but god, is he right. And it's so weird too, Olivier Assayas is a very talented filmmaker; he's made some amazing films, "Clouds of Sils Maria", "Personal Shopper", recently; he did that miniseries "Carlos", movies like "Clean" and "Summer Hours" are some personal favorites of mine, but he can also take some weird wrong angles too. "Something in the Air" was kinda off as well, for being a movie that seemed more impressed at itself then it really should've been, and "Non-Fiction" is right up there. 

I'll try to explain the plot here, but it really is so inconsequential that it's hard to even bother caring enough to follow it, so bare with me if I couldn't catch all of this. Alain (Guillaume Canet) is a publisher who's working on publishing the next auto-fiction novel by Leonard Spiegle (Vincent Macaigne). He's writing about his affairs. Alain's having an affair with Laure (Christa Therer), the head of his publisher's digital transition. This movie, thinks and cares a lot about, books' transition to the internet. It talks and discusses it to death; in fact, the original title of the movie was "E-Book" but apparently Assayas thought it was too drab a title for a comedy. It would be a better title for the film, but it wouldn't have made the film better, but really, they talk this to death and boy this make this film feel more dated then its trying to be. I don't get what the obsession; is this still a thing in France that people are obsessed with? Like, I'm believer in traditional media more then most too, but Jesus, like, book, e-book, who cares?! I mean, the author even admits to getting more notoriety for writing his blog then his novels these day. 

Anyway, the author writes about his affairs, um, there's his wife, Selena (Juliette Binoche) an actress, there's a lot of talk about how he change scenes from his book from real life, which... I don't know. So what, if he wrote that he got the blowjob during the premiere of "The White Ribbon" instead of at "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" and why one's a better choice. 

I mean, I'm a writer, I do get these decisions and the process of having to come up with them. Whether to make one reference here and how to make that reference, whether to be really obvious, whether it symbolically makes sense, whether it should symbolically make sense, etc. etc. Like, I'm relatively on board on with most of this, and I get kinda why people would get upset when they clearly see themselves portrayed in a novel in a negative light. Can the movie get me to actually care about any of this though?!?!

I think he's going for Woody Allen, maybe one of his lesser or bad works and how those movies can be about affairs and aristrocratic wealth, but he ends up with something more akin to, bad Nicole Holofcener. Like, the movie this reminded me the most of was "Friends with Money", which is not that similar at all plotwise, but tone-wise, is really this self-involved, obnoxious cliche of what rich liberal artistic superficial yuppies are like, and this is essentially the French version of that. I had a very difficult time watching this, and had to constantly rewind to make sure I didn't miss anything, thinking I had droned off, but I never missed anything. "Non-Fiction" is hopefully an aberrational anomaly for Assayas, who normally is a far more interesting writer/director. If this is his depiction of non-fiction, then by all means, please, tell me lies. 


THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM (2019) Director: John Chester

⭐⭐⭐1/2


There's a genre of film that I always associate originally with "Under the Tuscan Sun"; remember that movie with Diane Lane buying a fixer-upper villa in Tuscany? I don't recall who penned it, although I'd probably guess Richard Roeper, if I had to guess, and term is, "Yuppie Porn". Yeah, it's basically the term for any movie where you have a, somewhat affluent, successful white character who decide to get back to some form of, I don't know, groundedness, I guess. Become one with nature, I guess, or in "Under the Tuscan Sun"'s case, one with Tuscany. 

"The Biggest Little Farm" is essentially a real-life story like that, about a couple who decide to buy and own a fixer-upper farm. Directed by John Chester, the film is a document of his and his wife Molly's first seven years in this endeavor. They bought a farm that was in disrepair and abandoned in Moorpark, California, determined to make it as idyllic and perfect a little farm they could. I'm making fun of this endeavor a bit, but I am actually am glad that people do this, and want to do this. I certainly don't like most modern mass-farming methods that are currently being used, and that their land is heavily surrounded by them. They want to multi-crop farm, they want a bunch of animals, they want to use their manure from the cows and sheep to reform the soil and allow things to grow. Of course, they have some obvious pitfalls. 

Their pig Emma has periodic troubles both when she's pregnant and when she's not. There's flies and maggots in all the cow manure and it's distressing the soil and feeding the birds that are taking the maggots and most of the fruit. There's coyotes there's animals getting sick and fighting.... (Sigh) Honestly, yeah kudos to anybody who voluntarily decides to go into farming. I don't begrudge them at all, and I like that the movie shows and reveals all the pitfalls involved in first-time farmers. And they're not doing it completely blind; they were heavily inspired by Alan York, their friend who inherited the land they're buying and running. He was a known biodynamic farming, for lack-of-a-better-word, guru, and we do see interviews with him as he helped guide them in their farming endeavor and practices during the last years of his life. He passed away after a private long battle with cancer. 

This leaves them on their own and having to learn things the old fashioned ways, through observation and experiment. Like, letting the chicken eat the maggots in the cow manure so that the flies don't eat up and taint the soil. Or how to take care of a baby lamb after his mother passes away while she's still too young to take care of herself. 

In their city life before they embarked on their own Green Acres, which they deemed Apricot Lane Farms. John was an Emmy-winning filmmaker and Molly's a pastry chef  and successful food blogger, one of the better ideas for bloggers then entertainment blogger. They weren't incapable, but they had to do something pretty amazing from scratch. There's brief glimpses of recognizing their dream of finding the perfect idyllic farm, but still nature even if trying to control under the best of intentions and circumstances, will always put up a defense and fight back. 

That continuous struggle is the ultimate appeal of "The Biggest Little Farm," and the movie does both sides of it well; it shows the appeal of farm living and why some would go back to the roots of our land and try to created an idyllic reality out of their fantasy, and it shows the struggling realities of just how difficult that is. I enjoyed the film probably more then I imagined I would, and wouldn't mind a new sequel documentary a few years from now, just to see where they're at and what's happened since.  


THE APOLLO (2019) Director: Roger Ross Williams

⭐⭐⭐⭐


I guess I got what I expected with "The Apollo" but I do feel somehow like I got a little more. Documentaries about specific places, especially famous performance venues, they all kinda have the same pattern to them. They document the history of how it was built, the important moments and people who've matriculated through,... basically a quick bio of why the building is important. Honestly, it's kind of a stale documentary structure. I say a movie at a film festival years ago called "Louder than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story", which is about another famous performance venue, this one in Detroit and was home of some major names as The Stooges and The MC5 as well as every other major rock'n'roll counterculture band of the late '60s and early '70s. It's listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and it's a decent documentary, but eh, I remember thinking about how really minor that location actually was in the grand scheme of things. I'm a pretty big rock'n'roll guy, but I never heard of the place until I saw that doc and I don't think Detroit ballroom when I think of Led Zeppelin or the Greatful Dead or Janis Joplin. Hypothetically, I could take any kind of building of this sort and spit out a documentary about its importance and all the people who've spent a few hours or so there. 

However, "The Apollo" is important and it is different. I knew that ahead of time. I grew up on Amateur Night, watching "Showtime at the Apollo" when it was late Saturday Night and I was too tired to change the channel or turn the TV off. They kept weird hours when I was young. Even before then I had heard of The Apollo Theater. At 253,W. 125th Street in Harlem, it's basically the modern home of African-American performers of all kinds, and it still is. 

We get the history, but I found the most interesting parts of "The Apollo" were the look-ins at those who still work and run the theater, and how much work that process is. It's great to see everybody from Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to Lauryn Hill, who was infamously booed at amateur night, which probably explains way more then it should about her life, but I like the tour guide who showed us everything inside. I like seeing the band practicing for amateur night, and why that night is important to the community. 

The building itself actually started as a white's only burlesque house before Sidney Cohen bought the place and transformed it into one of the biggest first mixed-race venues in the country, catering to the locals in Harlem and being the birth of much of the modern jazz movements in the '30s. A lot of famous performers made their first performances there and several performers test their skills and talents by using the infamously tough stage, big names from Lena Horne to Amy Schumer. Comedy, music, dance, even President Obama, everything that can grace the stage at the Apollo has. 

The theater's had some rough times over the years though.  In the '60s and '70s, the theater was in decline and passed through several owners until '91 when the state of New York bought it and put together the non-profit foundation that runs the building to this day. 

"The Apollo" is a worthy document of the building's history and importance and does a little more then that by showing the real inner workings of the building and how it's kept up. The behind-the-scenes stuff of running the building today was more interesting for me then the run-down of the great performers and arts, although I'm always in the mood to hear and hear people talking about Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit". "The Apollo" is a historic building that's home to American history and has remained so to this day. 1.3 million go there every year, and hopefully they'll return to those numbers when this pandemic ends now. 


MYSTIFY: MICHAEL HUTCHENCE (2019) Director: Richard Lowenstein

⭐⭐⭐⭐


INXS's huge popularity in America is one of those things that I missed as a kid. Not that I never heard of them, and listened to some of their music; I've grown up with quite a few of their songs, but they've always kind been a bit of a mystery to me. I knew of them, I knew they were Australian, I knew a bunch of their songs, and I knew that their charismatic, enigmatic lead singer Michael Hutchence, killed himself by autoerotic asphyxiation. Yeah, apparently that myth is not true. He didn't accidentally kill himself, he just, regularly killed himself. His life is actually far sadder then I realized, although it's got some entertaining elements as well.

So, I came into "Mystify: Michael Hutchence" a bit blind, for instance, I didn't expect to see so many home movies of a barely legal, naked Kylie Minogue. (I mean, I was a little startled when I saw home movies of Courtney Love in the flesh in "Cobain: Montage of Heck", but let's fair that wasn't unexpected.) They apparently dated in the late '80s, and to be fair, as an American, Kylie Minogue has always kinda been a fringe figure here. Hutchence was always a compelling figure; he had the magnetism of a new age Jim Morrison. He came from somewhat of a privileged globe-trotting life, but in high he joined this band and they took over Australia and eventually the world. 

He life did start to go downhill. He had some high-profile controversial relationships with some famous people that caused some tabloid fodder. He had a really tragic injury after getting into a fight with some nut on the street, where his head hit the sidewalk and he ended up losing his sense of taste and smell, something that it's particularly damaging to somebody who seemed to have a particularly adventurous lifestyle. His favorite book was "Perfume: The Story of a Serial Killer" a story about a character who has an intimate relationship with his exceptional sense of smell. So, yeah, somebody who did engage with the world as much through all his heart and senses, and yes smells, that could be devastating. It didn't stop him and nobody knew this publicly, but it did linger on the rest of his life. 

INXS's life would continue on long after Hutchence's passing but only to moderate success. The last thing I remember about them was when they participated in a reality show to find a new lead singer..., which I thought was a very questionable; even then I knew Hutchence was too much of a unique force of nature to truly replace. The band does have a strange history itself, starting as a punk/new wave band, which is I'd usually characterize them but transforming into more of a rock'n'roll swing bad, and that combination really helped them breakthrough worldwide in the mid-'80s in America. Nowadays, I guess they're still all-time superstars in Australia on the same level as AC/DC and Midnight Oil, but at least to the general populace in America, I don't think they're full catalog is even available here. Hell, I only remember Michael Hutchence from like, the two or three times VH-1, back when that channel wasn't just complete crap, aired his "Behind the Music" episode. So for me, "Mystify..." probably taught me a lot, but it was also hard to context for me. INXS was in that weird spot where, they're technically a quintessential '80s band, but they didn't exactly die out like most of the decade did with the rise of Grunge, but they didn't succeed much in the U.S. either. They seemed to still be pretty big nearly everywhere else outside the U.S., but we mostly just forgot about them. I'm wondering if that rumor of his passing being because of autoerotic asphyxiation was just something that was rumored or said to just kinda keep his name on the cultural landscape and frankly I think it backfired compared to his actual influence and impact. 

"Mystify..." is a good document of his life and career, and it's certainly an entertaining documentary, with enough behind-the-scenes clips mixed with compilations of old and new interview clips mixed with some footage of them performing and lots of their music. It's everything that a huge Michael Hutchence fan would want as a piece honoring him, and it's a good profile of him for someone who's more in the dark like me. I still wish I had more appreciation for INXS and the Australian music scene in general, which from everything I hear is fascinating, but we somehow keep missing in America. Not sure why that is exactly. 


17 BLOCKS (2019) Director: Davy Rothbart

⭐⭐⭐⭐1/2


"You know, I've been selling drugs all my life. I was locked up for like, a year and some change. But I went right back to selling drugs as soon as I came home. I ain't waiting a month, boom! Selling drugs. We want to be comfortable and our conditions is uncomfortable, and when you're uncomfortable, you make bad decisions. So that's what it is."

I made sure to write that quote down from a late-teens/early-20something Smurf, one of the people we follow for over twenty years in the masterful documentary "17 Blocks", a documentary about a Washington D.C. family and it's multigenerational struggles with drugs, gun violence and poverty, both directly and indirectly. Smurf mentions that statement after spending some time in jail and in his early teens, having resorted to gangbanging and sell drugs on the street. We had already seen him grow up about ten years at that point, and we get to see him grow up another ten years, where he's still in trouble with the law, but is quietly and slowly growing up and getting over both his own addictions and the industry that led him down that path. 

His mother Cheryl is the family matriarch, we originally see her in present day as she's visiting a house that she grew up in; it's not that far from the neighborhood she lives now. She's got three kids, Emmanuel, the oldest, Smurf, the middle child and Denise, the youngest. Cheryl's a longtime drug addict herself, and as her family grows up, she begins to blame herself for much of their decline, particularly Smurf's descent into the life. The drug life and gun violence is constantly surrounding them at the edges of the screen. Eventually, Emmanuel's killed during a robbery attempt that was probably after Smurf, something that, Cheryl does half-heartedly mention to him, in her moments of grief. We see her struggling with her addiction, which we only immediately see her using cocaine, but it's clearly more then that. Emmanuel didn't seem to have any particular vice, in fact, he seemed like the most normal of the bunch. His old girlfriend still comes around after his passing and keeps an eye on some of Smurf's and Denise's kids. She's tried to move on, but he's never gotten over Emmanuel later. 
We also see that Denise has come off fairly well-adjusted, even if she's the one who the burden of all the kids fall onto. We see all of them huddle together in their own little room, waiting for her to make them ramen noodles. 

There's some obvious comparison films here, "Hoop Dreams" is the first really obvious one. To me, the movie reminded me as well of Richard Linklater's "Boyhood". Director Davy Roth knew the family in the late '90s and first started filming them, but he also kept a film camera with them to shoot the day-to-day lives. The thousands of hours of footage were boiled down to the story we have here. The subtext to me, that's never really mentioned or discussed is the political side, the fact that this is D.C. literally blocks from where all the decisions are made and we see how their lives are continually getting worst and little is done  to help improve their situation. From a sociological perspective, this movie feels even more heartbreaking. I can basically just quote that famous speech Furious gives in "Boyz N the Hood" here, and it would still be accurate and true. It's disturbing to think about how much these conditions aren't a consequence but an orchestrated plan to disenfranchisement. 

It's also sad seeing how these peoples' lives were changed from a sudden death. There's clearly something missing in their lives, and yet, for everybody else, this was a regular story on the six o'clock news, of another dead young black man, one that remains unsolved at that, but you know, we didn't have to clean the blood off the walls. 

By the end, we see the new youngest generation, being taught to follow in Emmanuel's footsteps, the former young generation, moving onto adulthood the best they can, and even the matriarch is finally forcing herself to get clean, even going into rehab. Is it any better? Not really, but a little. I think "17 Blocks" in the future is gonna be looked upon as a warning call for the kind of lives we allowed people to live in the future. That's high-minded liberal idealism talking them, for the Sanford and Durant families, it's just apart of life and they're trying to get by, trying not to get caught up in their surroundings and addictions, not letting the streets, the drugs, the violence, or the poverty define them now, or in the future.