‘Zappa’ Provides the Story of the Man Behind the Mustache

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Zappa (CREDIT: Roelof Kiers/Magnolia Pictures)

Starring: Frank Zappa and Friends

Director: Alex Winter

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: Unrated (But I’d Go with a Light PG-13, for Semi-Indulgent Rock Star-ness)

Release Date: November 27, 2020 (Theaters)

Zappa is like a lot of rock docs, but different. Which makes sense, as its subject is Frank Zappa, who was in many ways very similar to other rock stars, but in other ways, very different. Directed by Bill & Ted star Alex Winter, Zappa follows the standard playbook by relying upon archival clips mixed with interviews with the people who knew the man, while establishing its unique appeal through unlimited access to the Zappa family trust. If you’re a fan of Behind the Music and its ilk, you will surely find something to enjoy here. If, however, you prefer that documentaries try to be at least a little formally inventive, you might be disappointed by the straightforward approach. But it’s impossible to be completely let down by the story of someone who absolutely refused to be pinned down by any categorization.

Zappa the Film keeps pounding away at the message that Zappa the Man was full of contradictions. Unlike so many other rock stars, he was totally straight-edged when it came to drugs, though he supported decriminalization. There was a thoroughly goofy streak to his artistry, but he was also constantly giving off a self-serious vibe. He mixed rock with jazz, or jazz with rock, and whatever else was bouncing around his head, but it would be too simplistic to consider his discography any clearly defined fusion of those genres. As one interviewee perfectly sums it up, “What the hell is it? It’s Zappa.” After watching this movie, you probably won’t be able to peg him any more easily than before, and that’s kind of the point.

Those contradictions extend right through to Zappa’s personal life. This film is no hagiography. Many times, it had me thinking, “Zappa was an interesting guy, but I wish he had been a better husband and father.” In one clip, he pretty much justifies his infidelities by saying that he is a human being who spends plenty of time on the road. We do see his love for his wife Gail and their four kids, but it seems like he tends to get bored of them after a while. It’s ironic then that perhaps the biggest hit of his career was the novelty track “Valley Girl,” a collaboration with his then 14-year-old daughter Moon that more or less defined a stereotype.

Frank Zappa gave the world plenty that we should be thankful for: weird and undefinable music, anti-censorship crusades, appreciation for his musical forebears. But as always, it’s important to be aware that the story behind all that is a lot messier than we might want it to be.

Zappa is Recommended If You Like: Contradictions

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Mothers of Invention

Romanian Documentary ‘Collective’ Gets Incisive on a Tragic Scandal

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Collective (CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures)

Starring: Journalists, Doctors, and Government Officials

Director: Alexander Nanau

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: Unrated (It would probably be a PG-13-level for graphic medical images)

Release Date: November 20, 2020 (Theaters and On Demand)

I have a confession to make: I didn’t realize that Collective was a documentary until after I finished watching it. (The press notes had touted it as Romania’s Oscar entry for Best International Feature Film, which I had neglected to realize could include docs.) I’ll go ahead and turn that into a compliment by saying that I was impressed by its strong sense of verisimilitude. That’s not always easy to accomplish when telling a true story on screen, whether it’s in the form of a docudrama or an actual documentary. Collective presents a story of government and corporate corruption and medical malfeasance in Southeastern Europe, but if you’ve been alive  anywhere in the world in 2020, you’re surely acutely aware of the scourge of those ills no matter where you live. The fight to expose all of the terrible decisions is kind of Sisyphean, but it’s reassuring to know that there are still people who are willing to fight that fight.

The tragedy that sets everything off is a fire at a Romanian nightclub that killed about a couple dozen people from burns and smoke inhalation, with the number of the dead more than doubling in the hours and days following the conflagration. It quickly becomes clear that a lot of these deaths could have been prevented if not for common dangerous practices at the medical facilities, as multiple fatalities are tied to disinfectants that were diluted to save money, thus allowing bacteria to spread to dangerous levels. We discover what this means in quite stark terms with the shot of a human body crawling with maggots on a hospital bed. Amidst it all, a group of journalists keep asking the questions that need to be asked for the public to hear. They’re hardened by the corruption, but not numb to it; widespread incompetence is the day-to-day muck they know that they have to wade through.

There is a clinical, procedural approach to the material in Collective that is quite dry, but it gets the point across. There’s a lot of talk about “pyocanic bacteria,” surely more than in any other movie I’ve ever seen. (You might think that surely this tone would have tipped me off to the fact that this was a documentary. I guess I just assumed that this was the Romanian way, or at least the way of director Alexander Nanau.) If you’re tired of getting outraged at the scandals in your own country but still want to be angry, Collective offers you plenty to get worked up about. It won’t assure you that this world will be fully redeemed anytime soon, but you might come away a little optimistic that redemption is somewhat possible at some point in the future.

Collective is Recommended If You Like: Real-life journalists doggedly reporting on the worst of humanity

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Epidemiologists in the Pocket

The History of a Meme Feels Good, Man in the Documentary ‘Feels Good Man’

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Feels Good Man (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

Starring: Matt Furie, Pepe the Frog, 4chan

Director: Arthur Jones

Running Time: 92 Minutes

Rating: Unrated (I Would Put it at a PG or PG-13)

Release Date: September 4, 2020 (On Demand)

After he’s all been put through, Pepe the Frog somehow still feels good, man. That’s the nature of a meme that hangs around for a while. It may get stripped of context and remixed to no end, but at its core, it still maintains some piece of its essential self. And Pepe has been on quite a journey, as laid out in Arthur Jones’ documentary Feels Good Man. He began his life as an anthropomorphic amphibian with big eyes and a wide grin in cartoonist Matt Furie’s comic Boys Club. His visage was then adapted into various Internet subcultures, particularly on the image posting forum 4chan. Bizarrely enough, that led to him being co-opted into a symbol of the alt-right, and he broke through into mainstream culture in a big way when he became associated with Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Soon thereafter, he was designated as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. Meanwhile, Furie was left in this maelstrom to struggle to regain control of his creation.

Feels Good Man works best when it functions as a deep-dive investigation into how Pepe got to where he is today. Furie reveals the origins of Boys Club and how Pepe’s signature catchphrase arose from his propensity to drop his pants all the way to the floor while relieving himself. Internet experts and cultural scholars explain how memes spread online and what memes even are in the first place. A 4chan veteran lets us in on NEET (“Not in Education, Employment, or Training”) culture as we discover how 4channers became a significant segment of Trump’s coalition. Oh, and also did you know that celebrities like Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj have shared images of Pepe on social media?

The segments of Feels Good Man that focus on Furie attempting to transform Pepe into something positive again are more frustrating, not necessarily because of any filmmaking decisions but due to the Sisyphean nature of this pursuit. Simply put, the world has been flooded with so many versions of the alt-right Pepe, and there’s no drainage system that can work fast enough to fully counteract that. That also makes it tough for the documentary to have a full sense of context when the focus is on the present. Really, that’s a struggle faced by any documentary that focuses on the here and now. In a way, Feels Good Man is about that struggle, as the context of Pepe becomes impossible to fully keep track of. But then at least a glimmer of hope emerges as Furie secures some legal victories and Pepe is reborn as a symbol of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. His story isn’t over, and that weirdly makes me feel optimistic about humanity.

Feels Good Man is Recommended If You Like: People who understand the Internet explaining the Internet

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Memes

New Documentary Says, Dear Wrestling: ‘You Cannot Kill David Arquette’, Wrestling Fires Back: Chew on This

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You Cannot Kill David Arquette (CREDIT: Super LTD)

Starring: David Arquette

Directors: David Darg and Price James

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: R for Wrestling Blood and Man-Butt

Release Date: August 28, 2020 (Drive-In Theaters and On Demand)

I don’t want to kill David Arquette! But it sure seems like some hardcore wresting fans do. A bit of essential background: while Arquette was promoting his 2000 wrestling comedy Ready to Rumble, he was given the WCW World Championship belt, which apparently was a historically unpopular decision. That’s the instigating factor for the documentary You Cannot Kill David Arquette, in which we see the star of Scream and Eight Legged Freaks attempt to actually make a legitimate go of a grappling career. For most of his public life, he’s been dismissed as a total goofball lightweight, and he doesn’t refute those accusations. Instead, he absorbs them as he attempts to transform into something else.

If you only know of Arquette through his most well-known movie roles, you will certainly see a new side of him here. Not an entirely new one, though. He still very much has an eager-to-please puppy-dog vibe through and through. And the hulking physique he adopts feels more like a shiny coat of paint rather than a full-on metamorphosis. But the impression that really lingers is the obsessive motor that drives Arquette to his core. He mentions at one point how he hates growing up, but I think what he really hates is letting go. Once he has decided who he is going to be and where his journey will take him, he literally cannot see any obstacles in his way to that goal

There’s a point in YCKDA when Arquette is finally going full-bore in the ring, with his face relentlessly covered in blood, and I cannot help but wonder: why? Why put yourself through that? Is it truly worth it? I know what Arquette’s answer is, and I know that it is very different from mine. That assumes, though, that he even bothers to stop and ask himself these questions, instead of just plowing forward with blinders on. Stories like You Cannot Kill David Arquette frighten me. That might be on purpose. It’s tough to watch what Mr. Arquette is putting himself through, but I do believe that he’s calling out to all of us to take witness of him.

You Cannot Kill David Arquette is Recommended If You Like: The bloodiest parts of The Wrestler, the gnarliest circuits in pro wrestling, Famous people putting themselves through a gauntlet

Grade: 3 out of 5 Heel Turns

‘Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies’ Provides Exactly What it Promises

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Starring: Veterans of Cinematic Nudity

Director: Danny Wolf

Running Time: 130 Minutes

Rating: Unrated (But Take a Guess What It Would Have Been Rated)

Release Date: August 18, 2020 (On Demand)

You might look at the title “Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies” and bemoan, “Isn’t that just the way to be academic and stuffy and take all the fun out of a pleasurable topic!” But you should know that pretty much all the nude scenes that are discussed are shown in their full, uncensored glory. If on the other hand you’re worried that this endeavor is a little too prurient for its own good, then it should be said that this is far from a Mr. Skin-style supercut (although it’s worth noting that Mr. Skin founder Jim McBride is an executive producer). There are PLENTY of interviews to contextualize what all these examples of cinematic bare skin have meant for the individuals involved, the industry in general, and society at large. We all have bodies, and private parts on those bodies, and those parts have been featured in movies for as long as movies have existed, so it’s worth discovering the stories behind those parts.

Skin clocks in at a dense two hours and ten minutes, which sounds like it might be a bit overloaded for a documentary that’s just a mix of talking heads and film clips. But director Danny Wolf and company have about a hundred years of history to cover. No chapter is lingered upon or indulged in any longer than it needs to be. As a piece of entertainment, this thing just cooks. Nobody is shy about sharing what they have to say, and what they have to say is interesting and illuminating. Actors who have famously appeared nude like Pam Grier and Borat‘s Ken Davitian (and many others) provide illuminating storytelling, while critics and film historians identify contextual landmarks, like the looming specter of the Hays Production Code or the first appearance of pubic hair in a mainstream film.

If this is an underlying question to this whole pursuit, it is the eternal one: when is cinematic nudity essential, or at least justifiable? The answer that multiple interview subjects offer is, “when the movie calls for it.” Which is fair enough, but also decidedly non-specific. The objections to onscreen nudity that we see raised throughout this historical survey are a mixture of perfectly reasonable and protective, hyperbolic and hypocritical. Overall, Skin posits that nudity is a foundational fact of cinema. As society has evolved, so have movies, and so therefore has nudity in the movies. Perhaps an examination like this documentary can help ensure that all future onscreen nudity will be the kind that everyone can feel comfortable with and enjoy.

Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies is Recommended If You Like: Intolerance, And God Created Woman, Psycho, Blow Up, I Am Curious (Yellow), If…, Greetings, Drive, He Said, Midnight Cowboy, Women in Cages, A Clockwork Orange, Alice in Wonderland (1976), I Spit on Your Grave, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Showgirls, American Pie, Something’s Gotta Give, Borat, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Fifty Shades of Grey

Grade: 4 out of 5 Private Parts

‘John Lewis: Good Trouble’ Has a Compelling Subject, But It Needs to Go Deeper

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John Lewis: Good Trouble (CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures)

Starring: Congressman John Lewis

Director: Dawn Porter

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: PG for Reminders of Real-Life Prejudice

Release Date: July 3, 2020 (Theaters and On Demand)

If you want to demonstrate how the American civil rights movement that reached its apotheosis in the 1960s continues to this day, you could do much worse than making a documentary about John Lewis. This man marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, and he’s gone on to represent Georgia in Congress for over 30 years. Over the course of his life, he’s been present for important change that has already happened, and he continues to fight for important change that still needs to happen. Just showing footage of where he’s been and where he’s headed ought to be galvanizing, especially in a time of a great national reckoning with race. But John Lewis: Good Trouble never fully captures the fighting spirit of its subject.

The trouble with Good Trouble, particularly for any viewers who are generally tuned into the trends of cinema and current events, is that the topics it touches upon are covered more thoroughly in other recent documentaries. If you want a historical outline of what has led to so much of America’s racial prejudice, check out Ava DuVernary’s 13th. Or if  you want to be on top of voter suppression, Slay the Dragon is essential viewing. Good Trouble, on the other hand, works mostly as a reminder that these problems exist. It’s nice to know that Lewis is still around in these battles, kicking up the sort of stir that the title refers to, but the inspiration can go only so far if you already knew that about him.

There is one interesting episode that covers the 1986 Congressional election. In the Democratic primary, Lewis squared off against Julian Bond, a close friend and fellow African-American activist. It was a bitterly fought contest in which Lewis implied that Bond used cocaine and emerged victorious thanks to his strong performance among white voters. The strain among these two clear allies must have been significant and surely dramatic enough to devote more than the few minutes that Good Trouble allows it. The fact that the film so quickly switches back to focusing on Lewis’ accomplishments doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s meant to cover up any faults so much as it comes off as cinematic carelessness. Even the most righteous among us have complicated stories; Good Trouble struggles to make that clear.

John Lewis: Good Trouble is Recommended If You Like: Biographical inspiration, but don’t mind some repetition

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Marches

Original Streaming Movie Catch-Up: ’13th’ Quickie Review

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Every good civil rights movement needs its cool cucumbers that get you jazzed up and grinning from ear to ear. So when I finally sat down to watch 13th, I was on the lookout for folks delivering total zingers while refusing to let The Man get them down. That prayer is answered about a half hour in when Van Jones responds to an asinine comment from Grover Norquist about the infamous 1988 Willie Horton attack ad with a terse “Thanks, Grover.” Going forward, I would recommend that as a meme-ish stock response to anyone who refuses to acknowledge the part that race plays in the institutional failings of American criminal justice.

As galvanizing as that moment is, it is not where Ava DuVernay ultimately leads us with her documentary survey of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery only to create a new form of slavery. It is a thorough diagnosis of the problem of how American prisons have perpetuated a de facto form of subjugation for people of color. Knowledge is the first step towards fixing a problem, but 13th ends on a bleak note that suggests that this particular social ill might just be too intractable to ever fully remove. Simply put, it’s in the most profitable interests of certain powers to permanently designate as criminal a significant segment of the population. But maybe there is room for some small hope that there could be a chance for a sliver of change. I watched 13th in 2020, amidst the rage of the most intense civil unrest of my lifetime, and it actually seems like some people in power are now actually considering taking revolutionary measures to address the problem. That undoubtedly has to happen if this country wants to work its way out of all the devil’s bargains it’s made.

Political Documentary ‘Slay the Dragon’ Has an Important and Timely Message About Gerrymandering That We All Need to Hear

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CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures

Starring: Activists and Unaccountable Politicians

Directors: Barak Goodman and Chris Durrance

Running Time: 101 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Politics as Usual

Release Date: April 3, 2020 (On Demand)

There’s a presidential election, as well as many other elections, happening in these here United States in the year 2020 AD. And there is also very real concern that not everyone who wants to cast a legitimate vote will be able to or that their voice will be counted the way that it is supposed to be in a democracy. A worldwide pandemic is certainly no help here, but there are other problems that have been around for much longer. One of the biggest issues, which the documentary Slay the Dragon would very much like us to be aware of, is gerrymandering. I’ve already seen this topic explained elsewhere plenty of times, but it’s useful to have it all detailed again in one feature-length package. Especially because 2020 is a census year and the next round of redistricting is scheduled to happen in the near future.

In case you haven’t been following this subject closely, gerrymandering is the practice of manipulating the boundaries of political borders for the purpose of gaining a political advantage that might not be what we citizens like to refer to as “fair.” In recent years, a bunch of oddly shaped districts have popped up with nicknames like “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck” that attempt to make some sense out of their geographic improbability. Gerrymandering has also resulted lately in Republicans gaining a majority of seats in certain state legislatures despite Democrats winning more votes in total statewide.

Slay the Dragon presents a number of folks in this fray who are very invested in changing the current system or keeping it just as it is, thank you very much. The most prominent change agent is 29-year-old activist Katie Fahey, who’s been pushing to ban gerrymandering in her native Michigan along with an initiative to institute a bipartisan redistricting commission tasked to work independently of the elected legislators. She’s a dogged, inspiring young person, and if you stick with her story, you might be able to stay sane as you attempt to hold onto the supposed fundamental principles of a representative democracy. She’s got a lot of doubters trying to shoo her away with bad faith arguments and weaponized cognitive dissonance. If she can remain resilient through it all, then the rest of us who also care about a genuine political system ought to be able to check out the diagnosis of this ongoing illness.

Slay the Dragon is Recommended If You Like: The promise of a system that works for everybody

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Ballot Initiatives

Music Documentary Alert! ‘Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice’ Review

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CREDIT: Greenwich Entertainment

Starring: Linda Ronstadt

Directors: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: PG-13, Because Rock Stars Must Be At Least PG-13

Release Date: September 6, 2019 (Limited)

There’s a section in the documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice that focuses on the singer’s relationship with Jerry Brown during his first stint as California governor in the late seventies. The superficial differences in their lifestyles probably confused some observers. But to Ronstadt and Brown, the attraction surely made self-evident sense, as I imagine they shared some fundamental liberal values, values that made perfect sense to her as a human being. In one clip, when an interviewer suggests that her political views (which we see as anti-nuclear war and anti-racism in this moment) are controversial, she objects by countering, “I don’t think my political views are very controversial. Who likes nuclear warfare?”

That same sense of self-evident certainty is one of the major vibes of The Sound of My Voice. Ronstadt’s voice was so powerful and versatile right from the start of her career that nobody could ever possibly stop something like “You’re No Good” from being a hit. Nor was the boys club mentality of rock ‘n’ roll ever going to prevent her from being a rock star, nor could fuddy-duddy traditionalism keep her from bridging the gaps between, rock, country, and even Latin music. This may be a standard documentary survey of a musician’s career, but when the notes are undeniably so right, you can’t help but surrender to them.

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is Recommended If You Like: Linda Ronstadt’s music, of course

Grade: 3 out of 5 Stone Poneys

The Wettest Documentary Review Ever: ‘Aquarela’

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CREDIT: Stine Heilmann/Sony Pictures Classics

Starring: H2O

Director: Victor Kossakovsky

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: PG for General Aquatic Danger

Release Date: August 16, 2019 (Limited)

Water. Water water water water water water water.

That’s what’s promised and it’s certainly what’s on display in Russian director Victor Kossakovsky’s wet, unique, and uniquely wet documentary Aquarela. Water sustains all life on this planet, so in a way, it also sustains all cinema. But when it stands on its own at number one on the call sheet, does it hit the spot? To be fair, I will have to personally assess a score of “incomplete” on that question, as will most people who end up seeing Aquarela. It was shot at a practically unheard rate of 96 frames per second, four times the standard 24, and there aren’t many theaters with the capacity to project at that rate. So it will be screened at 48 frames per second, which is itself quite rare.

The idea here is to show a montage of H2O in its most overpowering forms (huge waves, flood waters, glaciers cracking apart) and remind humans that we’re at the mercy of the all-consuming forces of nature. On a technical level, Kossakovsky’s accomplishment is unimpeachable. But in terms of the content he’s chosen to include, it all feels so haphazard: here’s a car crashing below ice here, here are some animals stuck in floodwater there, here we go to a close-up of a waterfall.

The king of documentaries that offer a survey of the non-living world in images is the 1982 time-lapse classic Koyaanisqatsi, and Aquarela does not come close to being the hypnotic achievement that Godfrey Reggio gave us. Instead, we start off with a sort of rake joke-style comedy of errors on ice and then somehow make our way to a nameless series of crashing waves. In other words, Kossakovsky hasn’t discovered anything new about water by making it the star of the show, but surrender to the experience, and maybe it can lull you in the right way.

Aquarela is Recommended If You Like: Staring at the ocean all day

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Floods

 

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