Sunday, December 4, 2022


Sorry it's been so long since I've posted recently. Even by my stutter of a standard, I seem to not be able to get out as much as I'd like to recently. Much of this is just me being busier lately. In the case of my movie reviews, well, I just haven't been writing them, because most of the movies that I've been watching lately have just been too old. For several reasons I don't review every film I'm watching anymore, and frankly if a movie is over two years old, I just don't review them, and frankly, due to a couple different flukes in my viewing queue, I haven't watched a lot of films that I required myself write a review on. Nowadays, I usually post a new batch of movie reviews every ten films I watch, no matter what, but in this case, I had seen so few recent films that I decided that I should at least have a minimum of five films reviewed before I post, so it took a little longer than normal. 

Speaking of getting to films older than a couple years, yes, I've seen the new Sight & Sound's poll results. To say the least, I'm a little surprised, but I really don't know, in general what to make of them. Mainly because, well, I'm never actually seen "Jeanne Dielman...". Yeah, usurping both "Vertigo" and "Citizen Kane", on this, much more eclectic and yet, strange list from the BFI of their once-a-decade polls of Critics and Filmmakers of the greatest films of all-time, Chantal Ackerman's "Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles" was named the greatest film of all-time. I've only seen on Chantal Ackerman film, her last feature, "No Home Movie" a documentary she made about her mother, a Holocaust survivor, documenting the end of her passing, which was completed shortly before Akerman took her own life. Honestly, I don't have much of an opinion on that film either, partly because the version I watched was only available in French with no English subtitles, and while I did fail four years of French in high school and college, I can't say I grasped as much of it as I could, but also it was a bit of a disturbing film in general, especially knowing that she would commit suicide shortly after...- honestly, while I'm aware that, like some of her contemporaries like Agnes Varda, another female filmmaker who did incredibly well on this list, as did many other minority and female filmmakers, (This is the first time since "The Bicycle Thief" in 1952 that a foreign-language feature has won the top honor, and the first time ever  that a female director has topped the list.) they're known for some more avant-garde work, especially regarding documentaries that self-insert themselves into the film, but yeah, I suspect that that's not a particularly great or representative to look at Akerman's career. "Jeanne Dielman..." is definitely a movie I've heard about and thought would show up on this list, but, yeah, number one is very surprising, but I won't say more than that until I finally get around to it. 

There's more than a few movies that I indeed haven't watched yet, which is good, I mentioned in my earlier post about my thoughts on the list, which you can read here, that I find the results of everybody who voted, far more interesting, and they do inevitably publish the ballots, and the complete results of the polls and not just the top 100, and I prefer them, because I like to see what else gets on there so I can now have more stuff to watch. I don't when I'll inevitably be getting to "Jeanne Dielman..." I'm sure she's about to bump up my list and a bunch of others sooner than later though. As for other random thoughts on the list, eh, I don't get how "Sherlock, Jr." topped "The General" in terms of Buster Keaton films. I called all three films "The Portait of a Lady on Fire", "Parasite" and "Moonlight" getting in, which they did, and I'm proud of that. (And now, I didn't delete "Get Out" from being on there. Also called "The Searchers" falling out of the Top Ten, I did okay on the predictions all things considered.) Frankly it's not a list I would make, but it's a mostly good list. The only films I've seen that I genuinely think are just lousy are WONG Kar-Wai's "Chungking Express", (And frankly I'm not huge on "In the Mood for Love" either which broke the Top Ten), Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West", which I get making the directing list honestly, but critics, really? It's 2 1/2 hours of boring before something happen, I think it's pretentious, just pick "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly", the Leone film people actually like, and Andrei Tarkovsky's "The Mirror", which- I'm sorry, I love Tarkovsky, but do not get the appeal of "The Mirror" at all. Especially the Directors who loved it, what the hell? 

Oh yeah, the Directors Poll also came out, and for the second consecutive year, they put Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" at number one. "Jeanne Dielman..." made five there, but the list has got it's own quirks. Lot more Scorsese and Kurosawa and a few oddities. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" getting in must mean; I never did think about it, but I guess that film is a movie that I can see a lot of directors relating too. (As a writer, my favorite Charlie Kaufman script is "Adaptation.") If anything, I think this means they polled a greater, more eclectic group of critics and scholars and the directors' poll was a little bit less eclectic and hence the subtle but noticeable differences from the list, but top-sheets results aside, they're interesting lists so far, but trying to get meaning out of it other than, "Oh wow, I should see/go back and rewatch this movie", or "That movie", I think is missing the point. Right now, "Jeanne Dielman..." is number one, and that's the moment we're at right now in the zeitgeist, you can like it, you can hate it, I don't care, I don't think BFI or the pollsters themselves care either, but that's where we're at and that's all you need to know. We'll see where we're at in ten years time and what to make of it then. 

Oh, as to the film's I'm reviewing here, eh, honestly, it's a small and weak group. I mean, I guess it's not quite that, but maybe it feels this way 'cause most of the films I didn't review weren't exactly ones I would be licking my chops to do so, one way or the other. It's been a lot of blah lately. The best film I can recommend that I've seen lately is the documentary, "That Way Madness Lies..." a horrifying documentary by "60 Minutes" producer Sandra Lackow about about having to deal with her brother as he descends deeper and deeper into untreated schizophrenia and how it impacts both him, her, and her family as the medical system seems to be only be able to do something, once he checks himself into therapy, or until he acts out so badly that the law has to come and intervene. It's a stunningly powerful film about the disease and how exactly and suddenly it can change people and the kinds of horrors that come from having to deal with it, in your own family. It's streaming on Kanopy at the moment, and it's definitely the movie that I've been thinking the most of lately. It shows the lack of the ability to get people the help they need, especially when they don't think they need it, can really lead to disaster along the way, and how it effects everybody. Like, how the police become more terrified because of how they fear he'll do something crazy that ends up on the news, and especially with lax gun control regulation, you wonder how many mass shootings could've and should've been prevented if people who were legit dangers to society, were put into treatment, even against their will,.... It makes you think and care the most, very powerful film. 

Let's get to the proper reviews now: 

PARALLEL MOTHERS (2021) Director: Pedro Almodovar



Pedro Almodovar is so distinctive a filmmaker, that while I can instantly recognize any film of his from a single shot, it's stunning how often he can still manage to surprise me. Not necessarily in terms of what film he makes, although, really, he's always kinda stunned us with that, but in how there's so many very recognizable aspects of his films. The romantic settings, his parade of great Spanish actress that he rotates through his films, his tales about women and the struggles for their place in the world, the tales about men and how they struggle with their place in a greater world, usually regarding how they're treating women, somehow, or just his regularly campiness when he just wants to have fun, that I think we don't always analyze him from every possible perspective. For instance, while I don't think there's any real argument that he is Spain's most famous and prolific filmmaker, I don't think we bring up much that, he indeed is, a Spanish filmmaker. In that he's from Spain and, Spain has a history....

It's actually got a pretty complicated present too, but the main thing to know at the moment, is that Spain is full of unmarked mass graves. Remnants of General Franco's fascist reign, and right now, and I won't go into every detail of it, but the Spanish Civil War was pretty damn brutal and destructive. There's so many mass graves in Spain that there are maps outlining them and Spain is currently in the middle of a process of actually trying to dig up a lot of these graves and identifying the bodies and give them burials. Or, just, you know, make the history known.

This is probably why "Parallel Mothers" begins with a photoshoot for an archeologist. Arturo (Israel Elejalde) is the archeologist that a renowned photographer named Janis (Oscar-nominee Penelope Cruz) is photographing. She's intrigued by Arturo and also, she's trying to get a mass grave unburied in order to find the remains of her great grandfather. She has her reasons, and during the talks about the excavation details, she and Arturo have an affair. He's married at the time, and she's approaching her 40s quickly, so she decides to be a single mother like her mother had. Arturo doesn't like this, but this doesn't get in the way of the excavation plans, which are slow-going as their paperwork, permissions and preparations that need to get done for that. 

Meanwhile, she ends up having her baby and meeting a fellow new mother Ana (Milena Smit) while at the hospital, as they share a room while they're heading into labor. She even becomes close to Theresa, (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) Ana's mother, who's an old-time actress who still works mainly in theater. Janis's mother died young of an overdose while Ana's mother is more prolific, she wasn't around much either growing up and isn't really around now, even with her presence. 

Eventually, after both parents give birth, Janis and Ana's friendship, turns into a relationship. I'm reluctant to reveal some of the revelations in the movie between that though. Without giving anything away, on the surface, you could read what happens as a nature vs. nurture debate being played out, but I think that's too simple for this film, and generally too simple for Almodovar. (Although one of my favorite films of his, "Volver" literally has a built-in excuse for what happens in the film being that the town is fully of crazy people, so maybe I am giving him too much credit.) And with the Spanish Civil War, reliving and rewriting the past, and all these talks of absent relatives and parents, I suspect there's a much more powerful metaphorical message going on here. 

Come to think of it, one of Almodovar's biggest, but more subtle themes is transformation. The literal process of going from one thing to another. "The Skin I Live In" is a pretty literal version of this, but think about "All About My Mother" about a mother exploring the world that her gay son lived in after he had passed from AIDS, and how the experience changes and evolves her. Or how in "Volver", characters who are presumed dead soon start living as literal ghosts haunting the town. At one point Ana confronts Janis about her obsession with the mass grave and her family. She's much younger, and hasn't lived through Franco's Spain, and more importantly is to separated from it to be effected by it. That was a major transforming in the country of Spain, but Janis herself insists that one doesn't get over the pain and suffering of one's ancestors and the country doesn't heal itself either until it's confronted with it's past. That seems illogical on the surface, but I don't know, I once remember seeing an interview with the great Joel Gray talking about going to Germany for the first time, and just getting off the plane making him uncomfortably sad, being the son of Jewish parents, he could tell right away that something felt wrong there. 

I'm not kidding when I talk about Spain just having tons of mass graves, literally all over the country, and most of them, are just there, unmarked and unnoticed. If you're not looking for them, you won't see them, but once you realize they're everywhere you can't like, not see them. "Parallel Mothers" on the surface seems to be about two mothers who gave birth around the same time, but I think the time aspect is much more cerebral. Even the movie itself has sequences shown out of chronological order, to give us a sense that events aren't always linear, and sometimes time does revolves and seem out of touch, as life goes on, the past is still being relived and even linear time itself can somewhat get caught up in it sometimes and "Parallel Mothers" is a story about why and how when that happens, we really need to, and should, get things right, in order to get back on the right track, whatever that may be. 

SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RING (2021) Director: Daniel Destin Cretton


(Scratches head)

So, not too long ago, I actually watched an episode of "Avatar: The Last Airbender" for the first time. I know, I'm way late on it, and frankly I wasn't even planning to watch it at all, but I kept thinking about how some of the criticism of "Raya: The Last Dragon" included a lot of people talking about how similar it was to the TV series, and frankly the interest finally wore me out, so I watched it, and..., well, I don't know exactly what I was expecting but absolutely, "Raya..." is a complete ripoff of it. 

Now, "Raya..." is still a good movie, my thoughts on the film itself haven't changed, and I only watched the one or maybe two episodes, I forget now and I don't want to double-check my Paramount Plus subscription in the meantime, but it did put it in another context for me. That said though, even without having finally watched "Avatar: The Last Airbender", I can't help but think that I've seen, just a lot of Chinese magical realism mythology based stuff lately. I'm not entirely questioning why, I get why, it's part of their heritage, both culturally and literally, and by literally, I mean, through their literature. Not just modern stuff, and modern films made by mostly Americans at that, but stories like "Journey to the West" for instance, have a deep resonance in their culture. Things means stuff there that frankly, I don't quite understand. On the surface, of course a Marvel superhero of Chinese heritage would be intimately familiar and connected to this culture, hence a piece of work like "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings", I totally understand that, and think that if you're going to create a superhero that appeals to this audience, this is the direction to go. 

That said, as a westerner who's gone through, way too many of these damn Marvel films at this point, and has just become completely numb to this insipid onslaught  of overly-pervasive superhero culture, I just cannot make myself care about it here. I think in a different context this material might've intrigued me, in very much the same ways that stuff like "Raya..." or "Avatar: The Last Airbender" or even something like the "Kung Fu Panda" sequels have. The best parts of a fantasy story are of course, the discovery of the world at large. And, if this wasn't a Marvel movie I might be intrigued by the world here. 

Shang-Chi or Shaun (Simu LIU), is the son of Xu Wenwe (Tony LEUNG), the leader of the Ten Rings and Ying Li (Fala CHEN) the Guardian of Ta Lo. Ta Lo, is a-eh, basically it's a "Land of the Lost" for Ancient Chinese mythological creatures. Unlike, most of those other aforementioned Chinese-based recent tales, this film takes place in modern day, and naturally, the modern MCU universe. Now, the Ten Rings, are, well, ten rings, but they apparently grant it's owner immortality, and they're also, like, an organization that's started by the father who's taken over and topples various kingdoms and other world powers....- I don't quite get it to be honest. In fact, the fact that the rings' origins are still kinda vague actually made me like one of the movie's two post-credits scenes where the discussions was about what exactly they were and what they were doing. Anyway, Shaun had long left the family but he and his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), who doesn't know any of his past, suddenly get called back in, believing that the sudden attacks on him and Katy are about Ta Lo, and a belief that his mother, who was killed when he was young, might still be alive and in the hidden myth-filled land. 
Now, this first involves collecting his sister Xialing (Meng'er Xhang), who's taken over the Ten Rings organization has been running an underground fight club in Macao. After that, they find they their aunt Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh) in Ta Lo, where they confront their father who's trying to re-collect the ten rings in order to possibly contact his mother. 

Like, on paper, this can be compelling, in of itself, but of course, at this point, nothing is Marvel is in of itself. In my mind, I see a lot of this story, and I'm thinking, "Black Panther" did this so much better. "Black Panther" created a secret world, and that world had a lot greater meaning to it, it was a futuristic world where an African society existed in modern day that was free from all the atrocities of colonialism, and we can see how a so-called dark continent would've naturally progressed on it's own, without Western influence. But Ta Lo, is just a place with a bunch of Chinese mysticism creatures. It's a link to a past, and frankly it's only done because, this is the Marvel movie with the Asian superhero. This is why I'm thinking back so much on "Raya..." and "Avatar...", it's not that these are bad stories in of themselves, but, when it's the default..., and you keep feeling like you're running into it....- 

I don't know, maybe it's just that it's Marvel. It's funny how all the MCU films are on Disney+ at the moment and Disney owns them as well, but the thing is, Disney as a brand can get away with this. Introducing us to different people and lands through their most basic and infamous cultural iconography and stories, it's basically been their brand since the beginning. I don't even like, "Mulan", either version, I might add, but with those films and when they do dive into the cultures and peoples of places that, for the most part, haven't been predominantly featured in western media, Disney, the brand, makes these tales feel like they have more gravitas and importance. These stories that Disney puts their label, that they tell, feel like we're being taught their culture by people through their most important tales and narratives. Marvel, on the other hand, is a brand focused on forcing everything to be around, superheroes. Fighting bad guys who try to take over the universe. Everything, no matter what they do, whether it's good or bad, has to be centered somehow, around these continuous properties and,- frankly that framing makes this film, far less interesting and compelling. I mean, I've sat in front of Marvel films before staring at my watch, waiting for the misery to end, but none that I've ever been so troubled by for the lack of interest I have in them, and none for a film that really should be a lot better. I can admire the attempt, and I think clearly, the film wanted desperately to be something bigger, but, eh, this just gets thrown onto the pile of all the other MCU films to me. Just another origin story retelling, only this one uses up old ideas and tropes from several other origin stories I've heard many times before, many times by Marvel themselves, and the nearest I can tell is that they think their brand is equivalent to Disney and they can just simply make a movie to satisfy every demographic they can and it'll automatically, well, not necessarily be good, but automatically have that same kind of resonance and power that Disney's label has. And that's the arrogance that I felt with "Shang-Chi..." that totally turned me off. 

It's a shame too, there's stuff here I like. I'm a huge fan of Awkwafina, and she was really good here. As was Simu Liu. I don't know Ben Kingsley is here playing some kind of former bad guy-turned-prisoner-turned actor hippie-type...- I guess he showed up as this character in a previous Marvel movie that I've probably seen and do not remotely remember, but, eh, at least he's having fun in this movie. I don't know why it always seems like he's having the most fun in his worst movies, but he's good here for comic relief I guess. And I do think Shang-Chi has a lot of potential as a superhero character; this is probably one of the few times I'm actually panning a movie where I'm actually kinda intrigued by the idea of the sequel. There's some good directions this character can go, both in his own narrative and in the greater MCU world. I like the film's director Destin Daniel Crettin a lot, he made "Short Term 12" and "Just Mercy", both of those are damn-near great films; he's a fascinating filmmaker, and he is Asian-American, and I think he did a decent job technically here. The effects aren't inspiring necessarily, but I thought they were done well; I liked that last sequence with the dragon especially. But, I also feel like this character is probably more interesting outside of the world of Ta Lo than he is inside of it. 

Here's to hoping that, like Superman, Shang-Chi is one of those superheroes for whom the worst and most boring and useless aspect of them is their origin story. 

ALONE (2020) Director: John Hyams


I've very much struggled to begin to describe "Alone", exactly, even though it's pretty straightforward on it's surface. It's a bare minimum horror that you'd think a first-time filmmaker would've made on a budget, but John Hyams, is a director with a pretty extensive resume, even if most of it has been television dramas for the last few decades. Yet, there are clearly some fascinating influences here. 

The opening sequences in particular were incredibly inspiring to me, not as a critic but as a screenwriter, and they're just they very stoic shots, of a woman packing her things into her U-Haul trailer, leaving the plant that she deems doesn't fit, and then walking into her car and driving off. And then staying with her, often inside the car, for a very long, quiet and tense ride. I've actually written in my own writing in a similar scene and it was for a horror film script that also began with a character, "Alone" just driving in their car and away from everything. There's an eerie quietness to it, and I think it's a great idea to start off a horror movie. 

Another interesting idea for a horror movie, two cars driving, and one of them is frustrating the other. I know this, because I've seen Spielberg's "Duel", and at a certain point in the opening, the girl, Jessica (Jules Wilcox) while driving up a mountain on a two-lane road, runs into a driver who seems to be driving in a way that frustrates her and that's when she tries to take things into her own hands at first, but that eventually fails. 

That's when we get the other major influence I was thinking about with "Alone", the single female revenge film. There's actually been quite a few of these films in recent years that are, essentially revenge fantasies to some extent where women end up with a distrustful man, usually and ends up in a situation where they seek out murderous vengeance upon them for being harmed. Some of them I like, Coralie Fargeat's "Revenge" comes to mind, where a character is left for dead in the African desert by rich yuppie assholes and she turns into a killing machine as she survives through the desert. Others I don't. Sarah Daggar-Nickson's "A Vigilante" made my Worst List recently. It was incredibly simplistic tale of an a scorned woman determined to just destroy her abuser. I like the idea of these movies in theory, but in practice, you need more than just, here's an attacker, here's the victim, let's get revenge. In this case, the other driver, known in the credits as "Man" (Marc Menchaca) apparently uses his giant SUV and calm demeanor to kidnap women travelling alone on secluded roads, and taking them to his cabin to sexually and mentally torture until he kills them, and Jessica is his latest victim. Menchaca is very good as a menacing villain who otherwise seems like an average part-time outdoorsman when he's not at home working. During one scene, we see Jessica watching him calmly eat a sandwich while calling his wife and children, definitely doesn't seem like he's acting like there's a girl locked up in his kill room that he's apparently built in his basement. 

From here on in, the movie is essentially just, get the protagonist into a situation she can't get out of, and then get her out of it. There isn't much else to the film, and that's a strength. We don't learn anything deep about what the Man does this, or we find out something special about the girl, it's basically just a nightmare scenario played out and gotten out of, and that's fine for me if it's done well, and it's done well. There's a good cameo by Anthony Heald at one point that's nice to see and you hoped we'd see more of, but it was not to be. Part of me wishes there was more potential here. I mean, essentially this could've been a more elaborate "Psycho" but mostly it feels like a better-than-average filmmaking exercise. It's a good one, that strangely has moments that make me feel like there was more inspiration than at the surface.

MR. SOUL! (2020) Director: Melissa Haizlip and Samuel D. Pollard


A lot of the story of American television that we have, often ignores, among other things, PBS, weirdly enough. It's always under some threat, usually by the far right, mostly by those who either don't watch it to begin with, or those who do, but want to control it entirely. It also just tends to get ignored. As much as the major networks are struggling right now, they're not in any real fear of having to hold telethons every six months or so in order to keep their shows on the air. The thing is though, while PBS rarely submits to Neilsen for their ratings breakdowns most of the time, they're generally watched by a lot of people and it's actually quite an even breakdown on the American populace who's watching PBS. There's a myth that it's for a certain, more aged and affluent audience, especially their primetime lineups, but that's totally not true, and in fact a lot of the most important and groundbreaking television has either been aired on PBS or produced by them in some way and much of it crossed demographics of all ages and races. It wasn't always that way though; in fact it wasn't always PBS, up until the late '60s it was NET, or the National Education Television, and it wasn't ;til the late '60s when the network was beginning to be put under the microscope by Washington, who didn't like how NET was producing their own content that they deemed to be too liberal and radical. 

What kind of programming was that? Well, there were quite a few news and educational programs, but probably the biggest one was "SOUL!". It's been deemed the first "Black Tonight Show", and I-, until now, never heard of it, although I'm certain I've seen clips from it over the years. The history of African-Americans on television is it's own quite complicated discussion, but basically for most of the early days of television they were non-existent on a regular basis. One actress who worked on "SOUL!" even said that she didn't want to work on television, because she knew she'd just be "Beulah". Also, a lot of NET has kinda either been forgotten, or the stuff that survived like "Sesame Street" and "Washington Week" is now basically morphed into the PBS brand so much that we don't even think of them as starting from a completely separate network. "SOUL!" was a NET program, and it was a showcase for African-American art and talent of it's time, and was the show that often was the premiere debut showcase for artists on national television, as wide-ranging as The Lost Poets to Earth, Wind and Fire. Poetry especially was showcased in a manner that I don't recall ever seeing on television much elsewhere before. Pretty much every African-American name across all literary, popular, political and cultural arts came through there. It's practically a documentation of the 2nd Harlem Renaissance and a first hand view of the Civil Rights struggles through the African-American perspective. 

Honestly, I'm kinda just stunned it exists at all. Especially for Variety shows, African-American-lead series just didn't survive very long. Harry Belafonte's series was canceled after just touching Petula Clark, a white woman, somewhat romantically during a song performance on a show. The only other African-American host I can think of from that time was Flip Wilson, and while that was a Variety Show but it wasn't a talk show, and "SOUL!" predates "Flip", and actually lasted a little longer on the air. Granted, "SOUL!" started locally in New York before it eventually went national though.

The show was produced, and eventually, after they ran out of other options, hosted by Ellis Haizlip. Haizlip wasn't a journalist, or much of a performer; he was mostly a theatrical producer and hadn't done much television before, as neither had most of the staff of the show. Ellis is an interesting character, with his skinny frame and wirey glasses, he looks like he could double for Malcolm X, if not for his Richard Roundtree moustache and he James Baldwin-like cadence, he seems like a strange amalgorithm of the entire era. He's quiet, calm, soft-spoken but speaks intensely when he needs to and seems just the right amount of unprofessional when the situation needs to. He was openly gay, even at the time, and his main objective was simply to present African American art and culture to the public, make sure others like him were on the television screen. He interviewed everybody from Sidney Poitier to Harry Belafonte to even Louis Farrakhan, who basically opposed his entire existence, and knew how to confront him while also seemingly showcasing his immense oratory skills. He didn't shy from confrontational figures, even interviewing George Jackson's mother after his assassination. 

Questlove gave a great soundbite at the end, after the show wasn't picked up for renewal after Nixon took over the PBS budget, mentioning how different the landscape of television would've looked if the show had, even like a ten or twenty years run instead of the very brief five years it had. You can basically say that pretty much only in my lifetime, outside of Don Cornelius on "Soul Train" has there been numerous regular African-American and other races and sexes hosts across all of television. Like, I date myself back to when Oprah and Arsenio first hit the airwaves and it was and felt revolutionary and different back then, but that's only because others like Haizlip who should've been given that chance were denied it, or just given it for a brief flutter of a moment before television reverted back to the norm. 

"SOUL!" was written and directed by Melissa Hailzip, Ellis's niece who's been an actress and performer for most of her career before finding her way into documentary filmmaking; this is her first feature and it's a very loving portrait to her uncle putting his and the television show's place in television history back into the context that it should've been all along. 

CHARM CITY KINGS (2020) Director: Angel Manuel Soto


"Charm City Kings" doesn't necessarily do anything new as a coming-of-age story, especially for one about growing up in the inner city, but for what it does, it does well enough. Well, it might not do anything particularly new as a story, but as to depicting and creating a world, it's got enough new wrinkles to capture your attention. For one, it's backdrop is the Baltimore dirt-bike gang scene. At night, the dirt bike gangs run the streets, so much so that police are even told not to chase them down after they break up whatever gathering they're having, not that they can catch them half the time anyway. 

The movie follows a young preteen boy named Mouse (Jahi Di'Allo Winston) whose brother was a member of the Midnight Clique, one of the bigger biker gangs in the city. His brother died young however, and since then, his mother Teri (Teyonah Parris) has been a bit too spread out taking care of him and his younger sister. Mouse has a couple good friends in Lamont (Donielle T. Hansley Jr.) and Sweartagard (Kezii Curtis) both of who also want to get in on the dirt bike culture. He also has a crush on a new girl-next-door, Nicki (Chandler DuMont) who likes taking photographs. 

Eventually, Mouse gets in with Blax (Meek Mill) the leader of the Clique, and he starts skipping school and his afternoon job at a vet's office in order to work at his garage. He even starts getting trusted with delivering bikes across town to other bikers. This, in spite of some pretty clear warning signs that associating with Blax is already a fairly sketchy idea. He gets some warnings from others, including Rivers (William Catlett) a police detective and family friend who he warns to stay away from Blax, knowing about his past.

Like I said, there's not a lot new here. We get the coming-of-age crossroads story, we get the two competing male characters representing Mouse's tendencies to either inevitably go good, or inevitably go bad, and we do see that neither side is completely black and white either. After Mouse gets robbed of one of his bikes by an old rival/friend of Blax, we see Blax go a little too far in trying to get the bike back. And of course being an African-American cop is already full of it's own gray areas, especially in a city like Baltimore which is already known for it's violence. 
There's also an intense scene involving Blax's dog, who is injured and Mouse has to put him down at Blax's request. Mouse is an animal lover and his work at the animal clinic after school, shows that he has a career path outside of the biker gang culture, however he's still wildly drawn to it, even if he knows that the dangers of the world. 

I will say this, the motorcycle work, and the photographing of it, is quite impressive. The cinematography is quite good, and the filmmaking from director Angel Manuel Soto is quite skillful. "Charm City Kings" originally debuted on HBO Max, but it's one of the productions of theirs that recently was taken off of the streaming service as HBO Max begins it's bizarre morphing into, whatever it's next failed form is going to be. I'm not gonna pretend it's the biggest loss from the service, for one, there is a DVD release so you can find this elsewhere legally, but also, while it's an interesting film, it's not exactly the most necessary thing missing from the network that should've been on there, but it was a good film, and it shows this world of the Baltimore dirt bike scene pretty well, and  why it can be appealing to youths in the area as a career or life choice, and how easy it can be to get sucked into that life, and in some cases, how lucky it is for some of them to be able to get out of it.