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How was this Oscar nominated?
27 January 2020
The Oscar category of best documentary feature has been maddening in its inclusions and exclusions over the decades. How can a film like this forever be called a nominee when breathtaking works of art like "Shoah" and "The Thin Blue Line" were never even invited to the party?

"Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life" is a bizarre film in that it carries itself as an examination of a person whose artistic talents and works themselves are apparently beyond criticism. If this documentary is to be believed, Ayn Rand is the foremost thinker, novelist, screenwriter, philosopher and person of all time. The film consists of archival footage and photographs intercut with original interviews with people who are either identified as her friends or who have photographs of Rand displayed around them. You'll be about 30 minutes into this thing before you realize that they are all worshippers of her and the narrator is in on it, too. The whole thing feels like a cult initiation that acts as if her work and lifeview had no flaws whatsoever and anyone who criticized her in her time simply didn't get it.

I'm amazed a film this straightforward in style and completely unentertaining would be nominated for what carries weight as the top documentary prize in the movie business. Thankfully, it didn't win but the fact it was up shows how deep Rand's message that the wealthy and successful have somehow been victimized and underappreciated in American society resonated at the top of The Academy's membership.

This is the type of film that would be fine as an afternoon filler on the A&E channel back in the day but as a serious piece of journalistic, documentary filmmaking? No way.

The only positive things I can say about it are that the archival elements are comprehensive as biographical tools and the new interviews are cinematically shot. But all the subjects are so glowing in their appreciation for Rand that it renders them wholly uninteresting as subjects.

It's all a shame, too, because a serious, critical look into Rand's life and work could make for an interesting film. After all, here was an immigrant who acted completely against most expected notions of femininity of her era and found a way to be successful and reach an audience that continues to grow decades later. A more objective documentary that had more respect for its audience's brain would've been a much more lively piece of cinema than a 2.5-hour commercial.
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Country (1984)
Underrated, gritty gem
7 January 2020
A good farm film should be as grimy as the main characters' fingernails after a day in the field and that's exactly what "Country" is. I was impressed by the tenderness of the acting and the unvarnished nature of the writing. This is one of those kitchen-sink dramas where voices are hardly raised and tears fall silently, without a scene being made by the character who is letting them go.

Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard are two of the finest actors of their generation and they prove it further here. Lange produces some moments of genuine strength that will inspire you and real vulnerability that will move you, all without ever taking it over the top. The whole feeling of this film is even and sure handed, even though it deals with some heavy subject matter like toxic pride and unethical lending practices.

Wilford Brimley also turns in one hell of a performance here as Lange's father. His mannerisms are so real and his powerful eyes just make his presence magnetic in every scene he's in.

"Country" is a must see for fans of movies that tell a great story without flare or easy answers.
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A lot to absorb
21 November 2019
There are two things nobody can deny after watching this movie: it's a beautiful piece of filmmaking and Daniel Johnston is a lot to take.

The artist at the center of this movie has a soul that swings from gentle to aggressive on a dime but the former seems to be the case much more often. His music is unique and truthful and touching, with the segments where we hear his songs being real highlights. I also found the glimpses into his recording style, such as when we see a weight bench that's been turned into a ramshackle studio, to be inspiring for anyone who wants to express themself but doesn't have access to expensive equipment. Johnston proves over and over that where there's a will, there's a way.

The film itself is absolutely gorgeous, with the camera finding ways to make everything from a carnival ride to a dish of corndogs to a stack of cassette tapes look like stunning imagery. There was some real skill and vision that went into the making of this film, which elevates it above other music docs.

This is much more a movie about mental health and the dangers of an artistic temperament than about Johnston's process and performance style but there are plenty of great glimpses into his career for fans who are just discovering his overwhelming catalog.

Check this one out. Just don't expect an easy watch or even one that will have you tapping your feet along with a story of great triumph.
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A high point for Spheeris
19 November 2019
I'm a big fan of the Decline series and Spheeris has always had a great grip on the lifestyle and passion behind rock and roll as the focal point of the trilogy. While Decline III is undoubtedly the most depressing of the series, it is probably also the best.

While the other two movies were mostly about musicians and aspiring musicians, Decline III is more about the followers of musicians and their devotion to the lifestyle of the punk movement. This film is much more about homelessness than music and attempts to show why some young people are drawn to the nomadic life of a punk. The people Spheeris interviews all seem lost but they share a deep bond with each other as well as a pessimistic life view brought on by traumas of their childhoods that include abuse and degradation.

What Spheeris does successfully is showing how beautiful the souls of these people are. In many ways, you can see the punks in this film as anti-heroes who stand for positive values like inclusion, equality, free thought and non-violence, despite society's desire to paint them as violent troublemakers. She gets down into the muck with them, spending a lot of time asking real questions and showing their daily way of life, all the time showing how the punk lifestyle is less about music than philosophy.

There are also some great, high-energy musical performances that rival the ones shown in the other Decline films in terms of power. Spheeris found a lost generation of kids who were deemed disposable by their parents and society and showed us how smart and gentle they are under a tough exterior.
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18 August 2019
I've watched a lot of nature docs and this is easily right there with the absolute best of them. Colin is a wonderful presenter who is so knowledgeable, compassionate and natural that he could easily take over duties for Sir Attenborough. The shots are stunning and the variety of wildlife shown in a relatively small area is another testament to how incredible our planet is. This movie inspired me so much to go see what lies in my own backyard and nearby wooded areas. I was moved to tears several times by this film's gentleness, which is an uncommon trait among nature docs. Thank you PBS for this wonderful movie.
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Wish it was longer
26 July 2019
The only thing tighter than the band Zappa had on stage for this concert doc is its runtime. This is a guy that was known for his epic, exhausting live shows -- he even tells the crowd in this one that it will be a long one so they should get comfortable -- yet we get less than an hour of music here! This thing could've easily been 3 hours and I would've been thrilled because that's how fun, energetic and incredible this particular band is. If you've seen "Roxy" you saw a totally different type of Zappa band because this one is much more of a rock outfit that can zip through entire medleys at top tempo, never once missing a note and with each member displaying a ton of personality. In fact, I'd say Frank actually has the most boring stage presence of anyone in this film, and that's saying something! I found the interview segments to be distracting and they made Zappa even less endearing. The audio mix isn't as clear for every instrument as "Roxy" is (some of the drum parts get lost) but the guitars sound incredible and are way in your face. If this one had been a little more focused on the music and documenting an entire show it would easily be a 10/10 but it's still a must watch for any Zappa fan as it is.
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Way ahead of its time
27 June 2019
I don't understand the low ratings for this one because it basically laid the blueprint for all urban cop dramas that would follow for decades. You can see so much of "Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue" and even "The Wire" here just in a little rougher form. We spend more time getting to know the main cops off the job as seeing them on the job and we also see the anguish that can go into being a police officer, especially in an area as rough as the Bronx was in the late 70s. The whole cast is terrific, especially Paul Newman who is as effortless as ever. It's the little things that make this movie a joy to watch: the short, playful interactions between the characters in passing moments between action or the bits of peace they get from being in the arms of who they love. There's not really a big case here that the officers are trying to crack and nobody who does anything heinous is shown getting arrested so it's very different than the "good guys always win" kind of cop stuff that had been in movies and TV for 50 years beforehand. But it feels very fresh today. ...except for the music; man, that score sounds so dated for 1981.
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Entertaining AF
24 May 2019
TINA...BRING ME THE AXE!! Is it "Citizen Kane"? Obviously not. But "Mommie Dearest" is one hell of an entertaining movie -- which is something even some of the most acclaimed films can't claim. I've rarely had more fun watching a movie by myself than I did with this one. The timeline is insane because it jumps forward with zero warning and little to no indication to the viewer but that leaves you with a "greatest hits" compilation of the over-the-top moments with little downtime. There's absolutely no plot, so it's more like a character study of Joan Crawford but there's so little work done to develop her character that I'm not sure what to label this movie as, other than A RIDE. Faye Dunaway gives it all she can and, evidently, nobody told her to slow down at all, resulting in a performance that's so massive it makes Al Pacino in "Godfather III" look like Al Pacino in "Godfather I." Turn it on, pour a drink and take the ride.
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Hasn't Aged Well
13 April 2018
Broderick Crawford turns in a fantastic lead performance but I was ultimately disappointed by "All the King's Men," especially given the hype and weight that follow it. If you read the book first, you'll be turned off by how much the script deviates from it in major, obvious ways. But taken on its own, the movie doesn't hold up well for modern audiences largely because it feels too black & white and because of some of the choices made by the performers and the score. The music is terribly overwritten, as is the case with many movies of this era that haven't aged well. Most of the characters are played with some depth, including Willie and Jack, even if the latter is made into too much of a boy scout in this version. But Anne is played as a nitwit with all kinds of dramatic head twisting while that aforementioned score cranks up and makes her scenes feel like the end of the world has come. This movie is terribly sad and its story is a classic meditation on the corruption of power. But of you really think about it, Willie isn't all bad. Even at his worst, he was still building great infrastructure, good schools and a beautiful hospital that would treat people for free. And clearly the people continue to love him. Throwing in the salacious storyline about his boys murdering man just for standing up to him was pointless Hollywood sensationalism. The scenes featuring Willie's speeches and the montages of clips during the time passages are brilliant and still intense but much of the movie sadly feels dated and overdone. After seeing stuff like "House of Cards," this feels pretty safe.
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