Netflix’s ‘Bobby Kennedy For President’ Documentary Series Is A Portrait Of What Could Have Been [Review]

Netflix has become the new home of the true crime documentary series, the tightly knotted, edge of your seat sort of documentary that has as many cliffhangers as it does chapters (“Making a Murderer” and “Wild Wild Country” most recently). Which is what makes the streaming service’s newest edition, “Bobby Kennedy For President” such an anomaly. Certainly, there is plenty of crime, conspiracy, and murder in the life of the lesser-known Kennedy, but the series, as directed by Dawn Porter (“Trapped,” “Spies of Mississippi”) is more of a PBS docuseries than anything else. At least until the fourth chapter when Porter dives headfirst into the unseemly underbelly of RFK’s assassination and the plots that may have been behind it.

Porter’s series starts off much like Bobby Kennedy’s political career: unmoored and focused on someone else’s fame. The four-part series’ first chapter has the unfortunate responsibility to set the stage and introduce the boyishly good-looking politician in his ascendant years, as he grabbed onto the coattails of his elder brother, Jack, who rose to the highest office in the land. It’s hard to recap just how much is packed into the first chapter, which leaves the hour feeling like little more than exposition to set the stage for the real meat of the story: Bobby’s transformation, after his brother’s death, into the face of the progressive left, a senator from New York, and eventually the Democratic frontrunner in the 1968 presidential primary. What seems most important to Porter to establish early on in the first chapter, is that Bobby wasn’t a saint. He was a ruthless campaign manager for his brother and a hardliner Attorney General who was more interested in getting results than doing things by the books. His shrewdness, according to “Bobby Kennedy For President,” is integral to understand just how large his metamorphosis was into the radical humanitarian he became.

Keep reading…

‘Elvis Presley: The Searcher’ Ignores The Ugly Details In An Attempt To Redeem The King’s Legacy [Review]

There’s only one Elvis. A titanic figure, who, for America’s formative pop culture years, was the biggest and most influential star in the world — bringing rock n roll to the masses and crooning his way through dozens of Hollywood hits. He was, in many respects, the first superstar, blazing a dangerous and lonely trail to the top, where he was vulnerable and isolated. Even today he is Elvis, not Elvis Presley, a persona that grew out of personhood and into the mythology of America.

How, then, do you make a movie about such a legend? How do you whittle down the facts of such a life into something consumable? How do you make sense of his rise and his stardom and his tragedy? The answer, according to Thom Zimny’s documentary “Elvis Presley: The Searcher,” is that you strive to capture the magnetism that radiated from Elvis, and you hope the rest comes along naturally. Unfortunately, for all the joys woven into Zimny’s film, it doesn’t ever feel like the seminal Elvis doc that it wants to be, and even for those viewers without a deep knowledge of The King, nothing feels particularly new or revelatory.

‘The Searcher’ is told in two parts: Elvis on his way to stardom and Elvis fighting to regain his status after returning from his U.S. Army deployment. Still, “The Searcher” is only a little over three hours, which means it packs a lot in very quickly. Elvis was born and raised poor in Tupelo, Mississippi, and got his first taste of music from church. As a teen, his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where his taste and experience with music thrived — nourished in part in the Black blues clubs that he frequently visited.

Keep reading…

‘Alt-Right: Age of Rage’ Is An Unsettling, But Familiar, Portrait Of American Extremism [SXSW Review]

Since August of last year, the so-called alt-right has become an unavoidable tumor on the American conscience. In the wake of the Charlottesville protests, where Heather Heyer was killed by a white supremacist who drove his car into a group of counter-protesters, coverage of, and conversation about, the alt-right has grown tenfold. Profiles of the likes of Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos appeared on front pages everywhere and, at a point, some began to argue that such journalism was normalizing these extremist ideologies. Into this contested landscape comes the documentary “Alt-Right: Age of Rage,” a film that dives headfirst into the fierce and ugly battle of the alt-right and their polar opposite, Antifa, which has spilled from the internet and onto the streets. Of course, the question that has to be asked is: Does anybody want to spend any more time with Spencer and his belligerently bigoted ilk?

‘Age of Rage,’ of course, is banking on the fact that people are still interested in hearing what the faces of the alt-right have to say. Particularly, what they have to say about their opposition, Antifa — the anti-fascist left-wing activists that act as a counter to the alt-right, who also take up a good chunk of ‘Age of Rage.’ This fierce opposition between the far right and the far left forms the backbone of the film: Spencer and fellow white supremacist Jared Taylor are thematically paired against Antifa activist Daryle Lamont Jenkins and Mark Potok, a former senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, among several others who populate the film. But instead of deeply investigating the complex and often toxic ideology behind the alt-right, the film is more interested in exploring how exactly these groups feel about each other — an interesting but far less gratifying angle.

Keep reading…

‘The World Before Your Feet’ Is A Delightful Stroll Through The Pleasures Of Walking [SXSW Review]

Matt Green seems to get asked a lot what he does for work. The answer, which he repeats well over a dozen times in the new documentary “The World Before Your Feet,” is “nothing.” Not because he can’t, isn’t qualified, or is independently wealthy (though it often feels that way), but because he just doesn’t. This answer, of course, leaves people feeling incredulous. Because how else do you define Matt? Sure, he’s walked across America, from New York to Oregon, and is currently walking every block, sidewalk, bridge, and park in New York City, but if he doesn’t work, who is he?

Matt and his lack of employment is only a small part of ‘The World Before Your Feet’.  Written, produced, edited, and directed by Jeremy Workman, it’s representative of both him and the film, mostly because both seem adamant to defy the conventional rules they are supposed to conform to. Not only does Matt not work, but he doesn’t really have any reason behind why he has undertaken the six-plus-year task of walking every inch of New York. He doesn’t plan on writing a book or turning his experience into anything monetary (though this film seems to be doing that for him), and he claims to lack any guiding philosophical motivation. He’s just doing it because he wants to. “The World Before Your Feet” is similar in that it eschews a traditional narrative: it picks up with Matt in the middle of his journey and ends far before he does, opting for mosaic experiences over anything linear. The point is never to understand Matt or his adventure, but simply to experience it alongside him. And maybe, if we’re lucky, to see New York (or the world) through the loving eyes that he does.

Keep reading…

Netflix Doc ‘Take Your Pills’ Is A Dizzying But Thoughtful Look At The Adderall Generation [SXSW Review]

For a few years now, headlines around the world have made note of the Most Medicated Generation, the millennials who have been prescribed pills for everything from behavioral issues to depression and anxiety. By some estimates, nearly 25 percent of university-aged kids are on some form of prescription drug — a sharp uptick from any previous generation. These facts and figures, of course, make a movie like “Take Your Pills” — a potent but messy documentary — inevitable. It’s inevitability, though, doesn’t make it any less necessary, as “Take Your Pills” takes aim at Adderall and Ritalin and the mind and mood altering realities such drugs have created for millions of Americans — for better or worse.

“Take Your Pills” starts with the obvious: Adderall’s ubiquity on college campuses, both as a necessary prescription drug and an illegal substance that students buy under the table to fuel all-night study sessions and end-of-term finals. For anyone who’s been anywhere near a college in the last decade, nothing about this will be surprising, but the candid nature of the students put on screen is still startling. What’s even more fascinating, though, is the introspection and reflection that director Alison Klayman (“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”) manages to make clear. Adderall, it becomes painfully clear, is not always the super drug it’s purported to be for those who have relied upon it for years — in fact, for many, the person they are on Adderall is not exactly the person they want to be.

Keep reading…

Documentary ‘Cuban Food Stories’ Plays Like An Extended Travel Network Show [Berlin Review]

Cuba, in many ways, has long been a place of lore. An isolated Caribbean island that has been systematically secluded by its ideological foe to the north, Cuba has often been cast as a victim of circumstance, a child caught in a petty argument between petulant parents. But such narratives remove agency, such stories make Cuba a place where interpretation is cast upon it without Cuba itself having much of a say. It is a colonial perspective and one that is becoming ever more fraught. This perception — or at least a small fraction of it — is what the documentary “Cuban Food Stories” seeks to challenge. The film, which aims to catalog the myriad cuisine from around the island, also wants to recast the country as a historied place full of vibrant culture and marvelous uniqueness. For all it’s goodwill, though, “Cuban Food Stories” never feels like anything more than an appetizer to whet your appetite.

Keep reading…

‘Maddman’ Succumbs To The Cult Of Personality Of Steve Madden [DOC NYC Review]

The name Steve Madden is an interesting one. For those who came of age in the ‘90s, Madden’s shoes, with their ridiculous, disproportionate advertisements, their high-fashion style, and their affordable cost were defining and, pretty quickly, ubiquitous. But, in the last two decades, the shoe mogul has been most associated with Wall Street and his notorious transgression: Early in his company’s growth, Madden hitched his wagon to Jordan Belfort — of “Wolf Of Wall Street” fame — and became embroiled in an insider trading scheme. In 2004 Madden was charged, convicted and sent to prison. But, as the new documentary “Madden: The Steve Madden Story” makes clear early on, people don’t exactly know who Madden is, even though he’s the mastermind behind one of the most successful shoe companies in history. It’s exactly what Ben Patterson’s film sets out to correct.

Keep reading…

Where’s The Critique? Overlooking -isms In The Jungle Book And Everybody Wants Some!!

The nuanced art of the review is not one often discussed in the mainstream. Reviews for books and albums and movies are — at their best — read, taken into consideration, and, ideally, embraced or discounted (more often they are simply forgotten). It’s a process that frequently subjects them and their authors to questions of merit and value, but rarely dissects the myriad complexities that make up what it means to review a work of art; critiques are rarely critiqued. (For instance: how often does, say, an Entertainment Weekly or a Rolling Stone analyze the merits of the presumptively intrinsic value awarded a “critical consensus”?)

By its nature, the art of review is inherently muddled. Because, not only is it an art, but it is the art of reacting to art, which — I will needlessly point out — is itself a reaction, of sorts, to life. Meaning, before a word is even written, a review is vastly removed from the inciting incident, that moment of original artistic creation. But, nevertheless, it has and will remain our means of (superfluously?) determining the worth of a given text. So, not only is it confusing but subjective and divisive.

Which is all to say that there is no right or wrong way to write a review. There are schools of thought, standards, systems, recognized rules, ethics, and a plethora of things we unconsciously associate with the reviews we encounter. But I’ve come to notice a lack in reviews. Not in quality or quantity, but in the ability to recognize and confront the –isms that continue to abound in Hollywood films.

For the sake of this argument, I will focus on two films released this year — Everybody Wants Some!! and The Jungle Book — that have concluded their theatrical runs and mostly faded from public discourse.

But before doing so, I should note my personal bias, and thus, another source of dissonance: Richard Linklater, the director of Everybody Wants Some!!, is quite likely my favorite filmmaker working today. In fact, the Before trilogy is my Star Wars (a saying I generously adopted from a friend). I’ve always found Linklater’s work to be thoughtful and evocative. His minor efforts are slight but enjoyable: typically meandering innocuously along with characters chasing moment-by-moment bliss. But his major works, I’ve found, are transcendent philosophical touchstones that helped shepherd me into the world of the thinking and helped shape me — I imagine — into a critical participant in this voyage we call life.

Which is exactly why I was so let down by Everybody Wants Some!!. I went into the theater with sky-high expectations and was met, almost instantly, by a film that reveled in open objectification. My gut reaction — which I know never to trust — insisted that the film was set in the 1980s and that recreating the male gaze was simply part of recreating the accepted, if unseemly, reality of the era. So I waited, assuming that our just-along-for-the-ride protagonist Jake (Blake Jenner) and his buddies would come to a moment of epiphany about such objectification — though, in retrospect, the notion of the film resting atop such an outdated discernment also would have been a letdown.

That epiphany never came. Instead what followed was a gratuitous number of lingering ass shots; a scene where a strange man pursues a girl by secretly following her home, then taping notes to her door; and a needless sequence of topless women having sex with (shirtless but never naked) men. To boot: Only one female character is allowed to evolve into a real character; the rest are relegated to remain objects of male desire. To be conservative about it, I was disappointed.

What truly surprised me though, was the unabashed love that critics heaped upon the picture (it carries an exceedingly healthy 87% on the Tomatometer). Nowhere was there so much as a mention of the picture’s depressing portrayal of women. My confusion was only compounded after I sat through Disney’s aimless and offensive The Jungle Book, which managed to rake in the praise (it has an enviable 94%) despite its blatant racism. The success of these two films and the lack of conversation about their overt affronts has left me at a loss: Where is the critique?

For simplicity’s sake, we will ignore why the wizards at Disney deemed such an inexcusable property, based on such an inexcusable book, worthy of remaking, and instead focus on why we aren’t talking about it. (Also, it should be noted that not everybody has ignored the flagrance; Anthony Lane’s review at the New Yorker tackled some of the bigotry The Jungle Book held on to, though such critique seems absent from the conversation surrounding Everybody Wants Some!!.)

The question, of course, is not really where is the critique, but why aren’t we talking about these –isms? Certainly, we are critical of the work of Michael Bay (for all sorts of –isms) and other mindless blockbuster titans who have made their names on reckless abandon and insensitivity (I’m looking at you, Zack Snyder). So what then gives Linklater a pass? Before this year I surely would have been the first in the room to defend any sacrilege to his name. And it is not as though one flub should send him to moviemaking purgatory. So, are we collectively afraid of what will happen if we point out the failings of an indie darling prized for his thoughtfulness and sensitivity? I have the sinking feeling that the answer might be yes. Like it or not, Michael Bay is far removed from the critic crowd, but Linklater, on the other hand, is a critic favorite. Which is not to say that he can’t make a bad film and be called out on it. But rather that a bad film is dismissible. Everybody makes bad films. The objectification of women, though, is a more glaring offense, a charge I think we may be afraid to level at one of our own.

So what then happened with The Jungle Book? Director Jon Favreau went back to his roots with Chef but is certainly still a summer tentpole mainstay, and Disney might as well be the Rupert Murdoch of cinema. So we aren’t ignoring Louie — and his not-at-all-updated rendition of “I Wan’na Be Like You,” a song predicated on the idea of inequality and the assumption of white supremacy — because of any allegiance with his creators. Therefore, I am left to assume that we are too smitten with the nostalgia kicked up by the remake, as though the landmarks of our childhood are above reproach. Didn’t we learn last year, during the fight to remove the Confederate Flag from South Carolina, that nostalgia is not a feeling that should be left uncritiqued?

Certainly, I don’t mean to call for a retroactive boycott of these films (Besides The Jungle Book already reeled in $900 million — plenty to greenlight the inevitable sequel). In fact, I’ve even recommended Everybody Wants Some!!, because, after the clunky and exposition-laden first act, the film really does take off. And, in true Linklater style, I laughed and I longed and, by the end, felt deep pangs of understanding and kinship towards the young men unwittingly gearing up to wrestle with their place in the world — after all, college and baseball only last so long.

What I want really is a conversation. Obviously, certain films are bound to be worse than others, their –isms more flagrant, but all films — different and diverse as they may be, indie or not, nostalgic or not — deserve to be held to the same standard. And understandably, this standard will only continue to evolve as we clumsily lumber in the direction of progress and equality. Which is not to imply that there isn’t work to be done today: just because a film is enjoyable doesn’t negate its ability to pass the Bechdel test, one of the many painfully low bars we’ve currently set ourselves.