Monday, 28 November 2022 15:33

Life on Mars – ‘Good Night Oppy’

We as humans have a tendency to project our own emotions and experiences onto those around us. And that’s not just our fellow people – we’ll anthropomorphize just about anything. Pets, wild animals, even inanimate objects; we have an inherent desire to create those connections.

And yet … sometimes, it’s the right thing to do.

“Good Night Oppy,” the new documentary from Amazon Studios, is a thoughtful exploration of that tendency by way of the Mars rover, of all things. This engaging and surprisingly heartfelt film from director Ryan White takes the viewer along as the rovers Spirit and Opportunity are conceived, constructed and catapulted into the cosmos.

Interviews with some of the major players in the rover program – the engineers who designed them, the scientists who directed them – are interspersed with archival footage from varying points along the two-decade timeline and some recreations intended to give more of a first-person understanding of the rovers’ experience.

It’s the sort of story that would have been compelling enough had the rovers simply fulfilled their three-month mission. Instead, these robots would spend the next decade-plus moving across the surface of the red planet, going above and beyond their original mission again and again. And as the years passed and the rovers kept going, the scientists and engineers on the ground began to view them as not just tools or equipment or machinery.

They were family.

Published in Tekk
Wednesday, 01 June 2022 10:13

‘Facing Nolan’ throws some serious heat

Baseball is a game that is utterly enamored of its own history. No American professional sport is as self-referential as baseball, with an obsession of finding ways to compare the stars of the present with the legends of the past.

But what about those legends for whom there simply is no comparison?

Take Nolan Ryan. If you tried to make him up, no one would believe you. The owner of what many would still argue is the fastest fastball of all time; he was the longtime Guinness record holder, with a recorded fastball velocity of 100.6 miles per hour (though extrapolated to the more accurate measurement tech of today, some estimates have him as fast as 108 at his peak).

Ryan holds all-time career records for strikeouts and walks and no-hitters and 48 others, good and bad. His win-loss record in the majors was 324-292. He pitched for 27 seasons and performed at a high level right up until a career-ending arm injury at age 46 cut things short a couple of starts short of the planned end.

This guy wasn’t a pitcher, he was a goddamned folk hero.

And that energy very much carries through “Facing Nolan,” the new documentary about the pitcher by Bradley Jackson. This is that rare sports doc where we don’t get the “fallen hero/redemption” arc … and we don’t need it. Instead, Jackson simply walks us through a baseball career the likes of which we will absolutely never see again.

Published in Sports

Confession time: I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ever stood on a skateboard. It was an activity that I always admired from afar, but never felt compelled to participate in myself. And yet, even with that limited connection to the sport, I know who Tony Hawk is.

I’m far from alone in that, by the way. Hawk has become a semi-ubiquitous pop cultural figure, an athlete who has transcended his sport in a way that few ever have. Even if you’ve never skated, you know the name.

The new documentary “Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off” – directed by Sam Jones and currently streaming on HBO Max – tracks Hawk’s incredible journey from the homemade ramps and empty swimming pools of late-1970s/early-1980s California to the pinnacle of global superstardom (with plenty of ebbing and flowing along the way). It is a well-crafted portrait of a guy whose singular obsession with the skateboard carried him to dizzying heights.

We hear plenty from the man himself, of course, as well as his family, but it is in the conversations with Hawk’s peers, the guys who came up with him, who performed alongside him, that we get a wider sense of just what his place is within the context of that community. Those interviews – plus the absolute treasure trove of archival footage – result in a compelling and thoughtful documentary.

Published in Sports

Hollywood history is littered with stars, icons and influencers who have left their marks on the entertainment industry. These are people who have used their talents – both in front of the camera and behind it – to change the game and fundamentally alter the landscape.

And yet … has anyone had the level of outsized influence of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz?

It’s a debatable question, of course, but after watching the new documentary “Lucy and Desi,” directed by Amy Poehler and currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, you might well find yourself thinking that the answer is no.

Published in Style

Social media has fundamentally altered the way we interact with one another. The internet has pushed its way into almost every interpersonal connection we make. Our professional relationships, our friendships, even our romantic lives – all beholden to the internet. In many ways, that has proven beneficial.

But not all.

“The Tinder Swindler,” a new documentary streaming on Netflix, looks at what happens when someone proves willing to utilize lies and deception to weaponize dating apps – specifically Tinder – for their own profit … and how that can impact the people who have been deceived.

Directed by Felicity Morris, the film purports to tell the true story of a man who used Tinder to find and seduce women, only to turn around and pull them into a complicated web of lies and half-truths in order to exploit them for their money. Through conversations with two of his victims and some dramatic recreations, the story of an opportunistic grifting Casanova is rendered clear … even if the consequences of his actions are not.

Published in Style

What does it mean to be a pop culture punchline? Specifically, how does an artist deal with the idea that their creative output is sneered at and viewed as somehow lesser by those “in the know” while also being consumed and enjoyed by a significant fandom?

Let’s hear it from a primary source – Kenny G.

“Listening to Kenny G,” a documentary from filmmaker Penny Lane, is the latest installment of HBO’s ongoing “Music Box” series of music-related docs. It’s a surprisingly compelling dive into what it means to be Kenny G, the best-selling instrumental artist of all time and the bane of many a jazzhead’s overwrought aesthetic.

Over the course of 97 minutes, we’re given insight from both sides of the Kenny G debate – a debate that remains surprisingly polarizing considering how long the saxophonist has been part of the pop culture firmament.

Published in Movies

I’ll be honest with you – I’ve never really been much of a music guy. I simply don’t feel the same connection to music that so many people do. It’s not that I don’t like music, mind you. I just don’t need it in the way that true musicophiles do.

That said, I definitely dig a good music documentary. Even without that visceral, cellular-level type connection to the music, the stories behind the music – the people and places and influences that brought that music to life – remain fascinating to me.

As you might imagine, the new Todd Haynes documentary “The Velvet Underground” – currently streaming on Apple TV+ - fits the bill perfectly. To have someone like Haynes, a filmmaker with an idiosyncratic eye and an obvious adoration of music that permeates his filmography, take on one of the most influential rock bands of all time? What kind of wonderful result could we expect?

An apt one, as it turns out, a perfect marriage of documentarian and subject. Haynes proves to be just the right person to capture the frenetic bohemian energy of not just The Velvet Underground, but of their surroundings. The pieces will be familiar, but the whole into which they have been assembled is unlike any music documentary you’ve seen before. In many ways, this film is an experience – an evocative reflection of the band’s place in the cultural zeitgeist.

Published in Movies

Everyone loves Bob Ross.

The soft-spoken host of the long-running PBS program “The Joy of Painting” was an iconic figure to many, a person who celebrated the utility and democratization of painting. His attitude was simple: If you want to be a painter, paint – and then you’re a painter.

Even now, more than a quarter-century after his too-soon passing in 1995 at the age of 52, Ross is a familiar presence in pop culture. Through merchandising and reruns and references across assorted media, he is well-known – even to those who might not have even been born when his popular show was airing.

But in a new documentary, we learn that while he might have been a beloved icon in life, in death, he became the subject of far more contention.

The film – “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed” – is currently streaming on Netflix. Directed by Joshua Rofé, the film looks at the life and times of Ross, documenting his unconventional rise to fame and the people who accompanied him on that rise. And for the first hour, that’s what we get – a very human portrait of a man who is both decent and flawed – but as we go, it becomes clear that something isn’t quite right.

Indeed, when we get to the latter part of the documentary, where Ross’s very legacy – and to whom that legacy rightly belongs – becomes controversial in its own right, well … things get complicated. And one thing is for certain – the chicanery and manipulation that went on behind the scenes was neither happy nor an accident.

Published in Style

There are two kinds of documentaries about famous people – those made from an outside perspective and those made from an inner one.

Outside perspective docs are driven by talking head interviews and other interactions, making an effort to gain insight into a person by engaging with those who knew them. Inner perspective docs are built around the subject’s own perspective, finding their insights via their own introspection.

“Val,” the new documentary about actor Val Kilmer, falls very much into the latter camp. The film, directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott, features Kilmer looking back over the course of his life and career. The actor, whose recent dealings with throat cancer have left him with a tube in his throat and immense difficulty with speaking and being understood, has apparently spent much of his life with a video camera in his hand. The result is a wealth of archival footage – we’re talking everything from childhood on up – that offers a unique and wide-ranging perspective on the life that he has lived.

Interspersed with that archival footage are scenes that follow Kilmer as he lives now – engaging with his kids (his son Jack serves as the film’s narrator, speaking Val’s words) and dealing with the realities of his condition.

“Val” is an interesting dichotomy, a film that manages to somehow be equal parts self-aware and self-mythologizing; the juxtaposition of the person he was and the person he is results in a film that is compelling, darkly funny and – at times – deeply sad.

Published in Style

For two decades, Anthony Bourdain was an icon. From the publication of his 1999 best-selling memoir “Kitchen Confidential” through his evolution to culinary and cultural adventurer in his television work, Bourdain brought a combination of passion, intelligence and no-bulls—t attitude to the zeitgeist. He was coarse and foul-mouthed and utterly fascinated by the world around him, capturing what he experienced with a punk rock intimacy unlike anything we’d seen before.

When he took his own life in 2018 – on location in France to film, no less – people from all over the globe mourned the loss, even as many of them were left both shocked and somehow unsurprised that this was how the end of his story played out.

Morgan Neville’s new documentary “Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain” is an effort to delve deep into the mystique of the complicated figure that was Anthony Bourdain. Through a tight and thorough assemblage of archival footage and interviews, Neville finds a way in, presenting a sort of outsider’s introspection, a look within a man who was often moving far too fast to look within himself.

Through moments poignant, darkly funny and occasionally both, Neville puts together a portrait of a man whose combination of pop cultural wit and charismatic presence turned him into a star, even as he fought against the more shadowy impulses that drove him to reach the pinnacle, and perhaps ultimately, to his tragic demise.

Published in Adventure
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