Movie Review – American Animals

American Animals (2018)
Written & Directed by Bart Layton

In 2004, a group of college students in Lexington, Kentucky attempted to steal a rare and valuable edition of John James Audobon’s Birds of America. Over the course of a year, they mapped out the entire library where the book was kept, traveled to New York to meet with a fence, went to the Netherlands to set up a potential buyer, and developed an intricate getaway plan. But, did they actually do all of this? And why do some of them remember it in drastically different ways than others? In this clever weaving of re-enactment and documentary confessional, we see the real-life thieves and their actor counterparts lay out the story of a bizarre and seemingly hopeless heist.

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TV Review – Wild Wild Country

Wild Wild Country (2018, Netflix)
Directed by Maclain and Chapman Way

wild wild country

In 1981 a group of strangers arrived in the barely-there small town of Antelope, Oregon. These were the Sannyasins, followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, an Indian guru who was seeking a site for his new collective commune. They purchased 64,000-acre ranch where they began Rajneeshpuram, their new home. While the Bhagwan stuck close to his vow of silence, his personal secretary Ma Anand Sheela took the lead on being the public face. The residents of Antelope became distrusting of the Sannyasins as a result of their liberal sex practices and cult-ish nature. Things got increasingly worse with both sides gathering up weapons and the Sannyasins seeking to influence local county politics no matter the price.

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Favorites of 2017 – Documentary Films

My Favorite Documentaries of 2017

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These are my favorite docs I managed to catch in 2017, all about fascinating people and topics and all very different.

Too Funny To Fail: The Life & Death of the Dana Carvey Show

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In 1996, I watched the Dana Carvey Show and loved it, this comedy that spoke to me. Well, it didn’t speak to everyone and being on right after Home Improvement put it in a bad spot. This hilarious doc brings back the original cast and writers (Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Robert Smigel, Jon Glaser, and more) to talk with a sense of humor looking back at a show that bombed and bombed hard. Only available on Hulu.

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Movie Review – David Lynch: The Art Life

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David Lynch: The Art Life (2017)
Directed by Jon Nguyen, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Rick Barnes

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For some strange reason, David Lynch is not the household name it once was in the early 1990s. And those who do know the name think of him primarily as a filmmaker. He has some pretty major works of cinema attached to his name: Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive. Twin Peaks is likely the most major work he’s ever released. But Lynch views himself as a visual artist and painter who also makes films. The images he has imported from his paintings into his film work are some of the most stunning, surreal things put on the screen. He’s also an incredibly cryptic director when it comes to talking about his work, preferring not to publicly analyze and dissect it, going to far as to give simple yes or no answers when asked about details in discussion with film critic Mark Kermode.

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Documentaries Watched in 2017 (So Far)

Bright Lights (2016, dir. Alexis Bloom & Fisher Stevens)

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In the Maysles Brothers’ 1975 documentary Grey Gardens we’re introduced to Edith and Edie Beale, a mother-daughter duo that is beyond simply dysfunctional. There are many parallels between the Beales and the focus of this film: Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds. However, the Fisher-Reynolds are the Beales if they had the humility to seek out mental health care and begin the process of repairing their lives. Bright Lights was released in the wake of Fisher and Reynolds’ deaths and refrains from being a somber affair. It is full of life and hope and those sort of dreams of Hollywood you’d expect from one of Debbie’s old films. Fisher provides the biting, snarky wit while also being so open and frank about her trials. There could not have been a more perfect tribute to the late mother and daughter.

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2016: My Favorite Documentaries

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patelsMeet the Patels (2015, dir. Geeta and Ravi Patel)
Ravi Patel is in his 30s and unmarried. So is his older sister Geeta. This fact is driving their parents crazy and they both have ignored their traditional views on the matter. For the purposes of this documentary, Ravi decides to humor his parents and let them lead him down the traditional path of Indian arranged marriage with the stipulation that he get the final say on things. This was funnier than most scripted comedies I saw in 2016 and is feel good while not being pandering or saccharine.

 

 

lampoonDrunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon (2015, dir. Douglas Tirola)
These days I don’t think we quite understand the impact that print media can have on socio-political issues. The counterculture of the 1960s was the percolator for the ideas that took the soft humor of the Harvard Lampoon and transformed it into a truly iconoclastic work of media. The documentary traces those early days to the big time of the late 1970s to present day where the prestige of the Lampoon has been heavily diluted by big Hollywood. There are a lot of problematic people here and the Lampoon is not presented as without flaws.

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\Finding Vivian Maier (2013, dir. John Maloof, Charlie Siskel)
One of my favorite styles of documentary movies is when the filmmakers present the audience with a mystery and the film is how their investigation unfolds. Here we have John Maloof discovering an overwhelming collection of photographs and negatives then using crowdsourcing to uncover the artist behind the work. I won’t spoil revealing who Vivian Maier is other than you get introduced to an incredibly complex woman with a fascinating story.

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Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014, dir. David Gregory)
If you saw John Frankenheimer’s 1996 adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau and thought the film was just laughably bad you haven’t seen anything. This film details the plans and ultimate failure of the original production, how ex-director Richard Stanley hung around despite being fired, how nature itself turned on the production, and just how such a horrifically terrible movie was made. This works as a nice counterpoint to last year’s Jodorowsky’s Dune as examples of great films that were never made.

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Author: The J.T. Leroy Story (2016, dir. Jeff Feuerzeig)

I’ve never read any of the works written by J.T. Leroy but was vaguely familiar with their existence and autobiographical nature. Leroy was apparently a wunderkind, contacting a few author he liked as a teenager in the 1990s and submitting stories that came from his life as the child of a sex worker and as a transperson. Eventually, Leroy ends up in Italy meeting with Asia Argento to develop a film based on his work. However, something seems off and this documentary unfolds the entire convoluted, shocking, and captivating story of who Leroy really was.

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DePalma (2015, dir. Noam Baumbach, Jake Paltrow)
Back in 2010 I did a two-month long look at the films of Brian DePalma going back to Sisters and up to present day, some films missed along the way but perfect for me to seek out at a later date. This film is simply an interview with the director intercut with file footage and clips from his films. He talks about the film industry and how you try and make the films you want, how you compromise with studios, and how sometimes you just settle for a smaller audience to make the movies you want. If you are a fan of his work then this is an essential film.

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Weiner (2016, dir. Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg)
WTF Anthony Weiner?! I can remember being empowered by the former congressman’s firebrand speeches on the floor of the House. When the news came he was caught up in a sex scandal I, like many who liked him because of his policy views, tried to say we all do regrettable things and hoped he’d get a second chance. With this documentary and more recent news, it’s apparent that Anthony needs serious psychiatric help. In this surprisingly intimate film, we see the relationship between him and wife Huma Abedin as it faces challenges that push it to the breaking point. By the end of the film, it is very obvious his career as a politician is likely over.

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Finders Keepers (2015, dir. Bryan Carberry, J. Clay Tweel)
You’ve seen the news items before. Usually under the banner of “News of the Weird” or tagged onto the end of the 6 O’Clock News as a fluff piece. This documentary takes one of those brief stories and explores the humans behind it. Shannon Whisnat was at an auction and bought a grill. He brought the grill home and found a human foot inside. The story of how this foot came to be in this grill is funny, shocking, and heartbreaking. Finders Keepers explores issues of grief, class, and humanity and truly surprised me with what a complex and touching film it was.

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Tickled (2016, dir. David Farrier, Dylan Reeve)
Much like Finders Keepers, this starts out as a News of the Weird-type of story. Australian journalist David Farrier stumbles upon Competitive Tickling videos online and thinks it’s an interesting enough story to do a piece on and contacts the organization behind them. His reply is full of homophobic vitriol at the openly gay reporter and instead of dissuading him it strengths Farrier’s resolve to uncover what is really going on with these videos. This path brings Farrier and his co-director to the States and reveals a tragic story of the exploitation of the poor at the hands of a wealthy devil.

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Welcome to Leith (2015, dir. Christopher K. Walker, Michael Beach Nichols)
Leith, North Dakota seems an unlikely place for an explosion of tension. When white supremacist Craig Cobb moves to town most residents don’t really know who he is. Once his background and intentions in buying up property are revealed the townspeople, all white save one, unite to push Cobb out. The filmmakers evoke a powerful horror film tone and let the tension simmer on screen. There are some genuinely frightening moments of confrontation at city council meetings between Cobb and the residents. He builds dossiers on these people and uses past tragedies as ways to push their emotional buttons. The film feels incredibly relevant as we struggle to figure out how to occupy the same space as people practicing vile beliefs.

Podcasts You Should Be Listening To #1

I have been a huge fan of podcasts since I discovered them back in 2005. They are a great thing to have if you have a long commute and, if you are super lucky, you have job that let’s you put in earbuds and forget things around you. Here are some that I love to listen to.

 

Limetown (Two-Up Productions, Host: Annie Sage Whitehurst as Lia Haddock) http://www.limetownstories.com/

Limetown-logo-SQ-LargeIn the vein of Serial and The Black Tapes, comes this intriguing audio drama. Lia Haddock is an American Public Radio journalist who has a personal connection to an incident that occurred decades ago at neuroscience research facility in Tennessee. Three hundred people vanished without a trace and the government has worked to cover up the truth. As Lia digs deeper, she uncovers a vast horrific conspiracy. A beautiful artifact that immerses the listener in this dark parallel world. Only six episodes with a companion prequel novel in the works.

 

 

Spontaneanation  (Earwolf, Host: Paul F. Tompkins) http://www.earwolf.com/show/spontaneanation-with-paul-f-tompkins/

spontPaul F. Tompkins (Mr. Show, Best Week Ever) hosts this series that is half-interview show, half-improv show. Each episode begins with Tompkins interviewing a celebrity guest. In the second half, the guest offers up a location and Tompkins and his improvisers create a longform improv based on both the suggestion and tidbits from the guest’s interview. These are some amazing improvisers and they produce hilarious comedy.

 

Episode #3 (http://www.earwolf.com/episode/a-secret-society/) – Jason Ritter talks about his Nirvana obsession and insecurity with Choose Your Own Adventure Books

Episode #10 (http://www.earwolf.com/episode/the-student-lounge-at-a-performing-arts-high-school/) – Weeds’ Justin Kirk talks about acting school and the improvisers play out the cutthroat shenaningans behind the scenes of a student play.

Episode #52 (http://www.earwolf.com/episode/the-last-blockbuster-video-store/) – Ghostbusters screenwriter Katie Dippold talks about the reaction to the film’s trailer and we meet a sister-wife cult out to return tapes to the Last Blockbuster Video before their daddy-master gets upset.

 

Hollywood Handbook (Earwolf, Hosts: Hayes Davenport, Sean Clements) – http://www.earwolf.com/show/hollywood-handbook/

HollywoodHandbook_1600x1600_Cover1-300x300Hayes Davenport and Sean Clements aren’t industry douchebags, they just play them on a podcast. Each episode of Hollywood Handbook begins with the duo in media res humblebragging through a story that involves a mid-tier celebrity (think Elliot Gould or Anne Heche). What’s most cringey/captivating about Handbook is how real these characters feel. I’ve never worked in the entertainment industry, but even I can feel the genuine nature of the smarm coming off these characters. The target of their passive aggressive sneers is poor Engineer Cody. A classic duo of episodes are the dueling interviews with comedian Chris Gethard (whose podcast is featured below). Hayes, Sean, and a few friends also made an amazing appearance on Earwolf’s flagship Comedy Bang Bang podcast.

Episode #118 – Chris Gethard, Our Close Friend – http://www.earwolf.com/episode/chris-gethard-our-close-friend/

Episode #138 – Chris Gethard, Sean’s Close Friend – http://www.earwolf.com/episode/chris-gethard-seans-close-friend/

Comedy Bang Bang, Episode #351 (http://www.earwolf.com/episode/cbb-the-movie/) – The Hollywood Handbook crew does a readthrough of their Comedy Bang Bang movie script.

 

Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People (Earwolf, Host: Chris Gethard) http://www.earwolf.com/show/beautiful-anonymous/

Chris Gethard sits in a recording studio and receives an anonymous phone call. He cannotEAR_BeautifulAnonymous_Cover_1600x1600_Final-2-300x300 hang up, the caller can at any time. After one hour the call will automatically end. From this simple premise comes some of the most beautiful and funny human interactions you’ll be witness to. Callers often feel awkward at first, but there is inevitably some moment where they make a revelation about themselves. From there you can’t help but be pulled into the story.

 

Episode #10 (http://www.earwolf.com/episode/4-kids-0-sex/) – 4 Kids, 0 Sex – A male caller got married young and four kids later he and his wife are on the verge of a separation.

Episode #13 (http://www.earwolf.com/episode/married-to-a-monster/) – Married to a Monster –  A female caller talks about learning she was married to a child molester, now imprisoned, and how she deals with letting their son know what is happening.

Episode #15 (http://www.earwolf.com/episode/the-hardest-part-is-that-you-love-me/) – The Hardest Part is That You Love Me – a young woman in the midst of a quarter life crisis talks about her vagabond boyfriend and the tug and pull of being young and dumb with growing up and being responsible.