Greetings! Have you ever wondered if a movie's worth blowing the money on to see at the theater or what to add next to your NetFlix queue? Then you've come to the right place! Enjoy!

"The Legend of Cocaine Island" Review

 Someone says early in the beginning of Netflix's bizarre documentary The Legend of Cocaine Island that "the difference between Northern fairy tales and Southern fairy tales is that Northern ones begin, 'Once upon a time,' while Southern ones begin, 'Y'all ain't gonna believe this sh*t.'" And that aptly describes the Southern fairy tale that is told in this documentary.

 We are introduced to Rodney Hyden, a beefy fellow living his best life as a general contractor in Florida running a successful firm with 80 employees, doing big projects. He had a giant McMansion in the best neighborhood (which pleased his status-obsessed wife), a pool, a Harley, all the big boy toys the good life provides. Then the 2008 Crash wiped him out. With a million dollars in debt, the firm went under, they lost the house, etc. and ended up moving to a far less affluent patch of land where they lived in a double-wide trailer for quite some time as they tried to rebuild their lives. (A major failure of this film, like too many documentaries, is we never know what years events take place.)

 One of his new neighbors is an aging local hippie named Julian who has told a story to everyone in the area over the years about the time he was walking on a beach on a Puerto Rican island and discovered a duffel bag floating in the ocean stuffed with 70 lbs. of cocaine, eventually burying it. With a street value of over $2 million, it sure would be a windfall to whomever could find it, dig it up, get it back to the mainland, and traffic it and Rodney figures it should be him.

So he teams up with a stupid junkie named Andy (who appears as himself wearing a big cowboy had and sunglasses to disguise himself and comes off like a dumber version of Steve Zahn's character in Out of Sight) and a drug dealer named Dee (who wears a cap and skull bandana), the latter who hooks him up with Carlos (played by an actor) who runs a plane service and can transport the stash to Florida for a cut. 

The first trip down is a comedy of errors as Andy forgets his methadone and spends the whole time puking in the room and Rodney didn't even have a shovel and couldn't figure out where to buy one, the lack of Walmarts making that too difficult. A second trip with medicated Andy and a shovel is stymied by rock-hard soil which thwarts the obese guy and junkie. Figuring there was no way to make it happen, Rodney gives up until Carlos offers to retrieve it for a larger cut. All Rodney needs to do is give him the treasure map he'd put together with Julian's help. Rodney is naturally leery of getting ripped off, but what they heck, it's not like he was going to be able to get it himself.

It would be spoiling to say whether they are able to find the cocaine or not, but suffice to say things get extremely crazy and the clear naivete of Rodney comes back to bite his ample ass good and hard. Some serious questions are raised about what certain parties may have done (see below trailer for mine) in this caper, but it all somewhat works out in the end.

 Shot in a semi-docudrama format with some of the real people reenacting their stories mixed with talking head bits, The Legend of Cocaine Island gets a little drawn out and stylistically precious for its own good in spots - why do we need moodily-lit slow-motion footage of Rodney's daughter's marching band if it's not a Zach Snyder movie? - but the shaggy dog story is compelling enough to make the wander worthwhile.

Score: 8/10. Catch it on Netflix. 




Turn back if you don't want to be spoiled!



OK, when the issue is raised about whether the drugs were even found and the poor photo showing it vs. what was admitted as evidence, the anonymous DEA (or HSA) guy waves it away claiming that when they dug it up, they didn't have good cameras with them, they're just cops, so they used camera phones. However, if this was a DEA sting operation the whole time, why would they need to go out at night to dig it up. It was near a U.S. wildlife preserve and they were the Feds, so why not go out in daylight with heavy equipment and dig it up? 

 Perhaps Andy is being paranoid in positing that they fabricated the whole case and didn't even find the buried bag, but something definitely feels off and kudos to the judge to find a way to keep Rodney's dumb ass out of prison for a decade for a crime he couldn't even have been charged with if the government hadn't done all the work for him.

"Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell" Review

 Unlike my excessively long review of 69: The Saga of Daniel Hernandez, this review of the new Netflix documentary on The Notorious B.I.G., Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell, will be much more concise due to the fact I got my annoyance at pop music out in the other piece and I don't have any major animus towards the subject. 

I was never a Biggie fan because he came out in the mid-1990s when I was starting to get bored by the listless G-Funk weed-out rap of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg after the bright ferocious rhymes of Public Enemy and N.W.A. I didn't care for his fat-tongued wheezy sound for the same reason Beastie Boys MCA (Adam Yauch) bothered me with his raspy growling style: I listen to rap to hear the words and diction is the most important thing. Chuck D, Ice Cube, LL Cool J, Ice-T, Run-DMC, etc. came out of the Eighties when making sure the message was heard; that seemed to become less important in the Nineties and beyond. Most current rap is unlistenable because it's unintelligible to me.

 So despite my benign apathy toward the subject, I found Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell an interesting primer on the earliest days of his rise into a legend of hip-hop. The big selling point is the wealth of video recorded by Big's best friend Damion "D-Roc" Butler. Flanked by interviews with his mother Voletta Wallace, widow Faith Evans, record label impresario Sean "Puff Daddy/P. Diddy" Combs, and others, we see how young Christopher Wallace came up on the streets of Brooklyn, participating in street corner rap battle and slinging crack, whatever makes him money.

 The doc goes into how neighborhood jazz musicians and trips to his mother's native Jamaica exposed him to musical influences which informed his musical styles. It barely touches on his major releases because that material has been covered extensively elsewhere, so this is more for the fans seeking rare footage than those needing a complete biography. The beef between him and Tupac Shakur is confusingly presented because it seemed like they weren't enemies, then it was more a WWE style act, then something more deadly serious, leading to both their deaths; Tupac's in September 1996 at age 25 followed by Big's in March 1997 at age 24, just two weeks before the release of his final album.

To be honest, I don't get the big deal about Biggie and his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2020 off two RAP albums is dubious to me. I mean, N.W.A. his also in and while their ONE meaningful album, Straight Outta Compton, one of the most seminal albums in any genre, let's be real, please. But I'm not going to knock this documentary for that. If you're a fan, check it out; if you want to learn a bit about him, it's OK, but there may be better primers out there.

 Score: 6/10. Catch it on Netflix.

"Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks" Review

The first thing you see when watching Blade Runner is the studio logo header (only one of them compared to the half-dozen today's patchwork-financed films have) for The Ladd Company and underneath it added, "in association with Sir Run Run Shaw." I always thought it was an odd name, though much later learned that Run Run was one of the Shaw Brothers, purveyors of a massive quantity of the movies that came out of Hong Kong up thru the mid-1980s. The culture-changing output of the Shaw Brothers and others is covered in Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks, a fast-paced, informative, but somewhat incomplete documentary on the rise and cultural impact of kung fu cinema.

 Illustrated with countless clips (perhaps too many edited too quickly) from their output, IFaKFK begins with the Shaw Brothers, who cranked out a movie per week from their studio system which had cast members and crews living in company dormitories and working on as many as a half-dozen pictures simultaneously. Looking to bolster their box office, they begin to branch into more violent and bloody martial arts fare, finding much success.

However, for all that success, Run Run had some serious blind spots including passing on signing Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, leaving them free to go to competitor studio Golden Harvest which had been formed by a bunch of Shaw Brothers executives who bridled at the boss's iron-fisted control. 

Naturally, Bruce Lee gets substantial coverage as the first breakout international Kung Fu star. Disgusted at being passed over for the lead in Kung Fu (in favor of David Carradine due to network's concerns over Lee's Elmer Fudd-ish accent), he returned to Hong Kong, signed with Golden Harvest, and became a legend before suddenly dying at only 32 years of age. The "Bruceploitation" films that were rushed out afterwards are covered as well. 

Moving along to the arrival of Jackie Chan (also signed to Golden Harvest) and his stunt-driven comedic films and the influences on the nascent hip-hop culture of the last-Seventies/early-Eighties with moves from the films being translated into breakdance moves, IFaKFK really packs a lot of content, but begins to rapidly glide over the turn-of-the-Millennium resurgence in interest in Asian cinema prompted by the massive success of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Despite having the director of the Ip Man films and the cinematographer of Hero as talking heads, neither film is showcased. There's no sign of Jet Li, bare acknowledgement of Michelle Yeoh, no acknowledgement of Quentin Tarantino's massive homages to 5 Fingers of Death and Game of Death in his Kill Bill films. In the last few minutes they spotlight new countries making breakout movies like Indonesia (The Raid - Redemption) and Thailand (Ong-Bak), but the more time is given to Americans Cynthia Rothrock and Billy Blanks - who went on to invent the Tae Bo fitness system and had the highest-selling videotape ever - at the expense of the past 25-30 years.

 While glaringly incomplete in areas, Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks is still a good primer on the history and cultural influence of chop-socky movies.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable. (Currently on Netflix.)

"Some Kind of Wonderful" Review

 I really need to stop watching movies from the late-Eighties that I remember as being OK-to-pretty good because they are not turning out remotely as good as I'd remembered. Previously it was Coming to America, and now it's the John Hughes-written, Howard Deutch-directed 1987 revision of their 1986 team-up Pretty in Pink with the correct ending, Some Kind of Wonderful

As King of the Teen Movies, Hughes had an epic run with Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off on his scorecard, but also had Pretty in Pink mixed in, starring his muse Molly Ringwald, but directed by Deutch because Hughes was busy with the other films. For those familiar with the movie, the original ending had Andie (Ringwald) ending up with Duckie (Jon Cryer) at the prom. But test audiences didn't like that she didn't choose the Human Loaf of Wonder Bread Andrew McCarthy, so they changed the ending to the baffling conclusion we got.

 It must've stuck in Hughes' craw, because Some Kind of Wonderful seems to be a dashed-off do-over swapping in Eric Stoltz as the Ringwald's character, Mary Stuart Masterson as Cryer's, Lea Thompson as McCarthy, and Craig Sheffer as James Spader's rich d-bag character and (SPOILER ALERT!) having the protagonist reject the shallow pretty girl (Thompson) for the tomboy (Masterson) who always loved him. Justice is served for the non-conformists! Right? Not really.

Since I've spoiled the ending, here's why Some Kind of Wonderful is all sorts of terrible. For starters, almost every character is a paper-thin two-dimensional cartoon representing a trope, not a human being. Stoltz's Keith is a Sensitive Artistic Type; Masterson's Watts is Tomboy Rebel Outcast who wears mens underwear, drives a right-hand drive beater Mini Cooper (if they remade it today, she'd be transgendered; which way, I don't know); Thompson's Amanda Jones (named so The Rolling Stones tune can be used twice) is the Vapid Pretty Girl; and Sheffer's Hardy is the Rich A-Hole Misogynist who refers to Amanda as "his property." Hughes' script never misses an opportunity to NOT provide and depth or context to this cutouts. The only one who gets character revelation is Elias Koteas' Skinhead (according to the credits, but referred to as Duncan in the movie) who turns out to have artistic leanings under his rough exterior. 

 That all the actors but Masterson were 25-27 years-old, older than college grad students, playing high schoolers adds to the disconnect. Older actors playing younger is common for work rules reasons - Matthew Broderick was 23 and Alan Ruck was 30(!) in Ferris Bueller -  but Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall were 15 in Sixteen Candles and that made a difference in verisimilitude.

 So our ancient cartoons are here for this plot: Keith is a middle-class kid who works in a garage and whose father (John Ashton) is pressuring him to go to college. While Andie was clearly poor, making her own clothes, living with only her drunk father (Harry Dean Stanton), Keith has both parents and two younger sisters. His best friend Watts (whose accent seems to hail from the Brooklyn part of Los Angeles), is taunted by classmates as a lesbian for her short hair and butch manner, but she clearly has the hots for him. He doesn't notice because he's pining for Amanda, a girl from their neighborhood who is dating Hardy, who comes from the high rent district, drives a Corvette convertible, openly flirts and nuzzles other girls in front of her, but she sticks with him because reasons never fully explained. 

One night, while stalking her conveniently being nearby when Hardy gets caught dealing on another girl. Keith gets the opportunity to ask Amanda out and she accepts. Sure, she just did it in the heat of the moment and rapidly worries about losing her position with her mean girl peers, but she decides to stick it out. The rest of the movie is Keith going fully insane prepping for this date, cashing out his college fund to buy diamond earrings for her while his Dad rightfully loses it and Watts fears she's going to lose the love of her life to the princess. (The locker room comparison scene where Amanda poses in skimpy lingerie while Watts wears formless mens underwear prompted me to snark to the missus, "You know, you could just buy some skimpy panties, too.")

The third act date itself is even more maddening as Keith and Amanda and Watts take turns amping up the passive-aggression. There's no getting to know each other or having them explain their feelings; it's more like illustrating that they're not really suited for each other. I kept waiting for someone to make a speech explaining themselves or their feelings and motivations, but nope. It's genuinely bizarre. Oh, Amanda accepts the earrings after berating Keith for painting a portrait of her and hanging it in a public art gallery for their after-hours visit. 

The rushed final scene, where they end up at Hardy's party knowing he and his pals plan to ambush and clobber him, is a rushed cliched mess of macho posturing and the super-convenient arrival of Duncan's gang keeps the peace. (One of Amanda's friends makes googoo eyes at him because rich snobby girls who disown their friends for associating with the poors secretly want some gutter punk action, I suppose.) Outside, Watts storms off; Amanda decides she wants to be a better person and gives Keith the earrings back, and he catches up to her, discovers he loves her and gives her the earrings, leading to one of the worst final lines ever: "You look good wearing my future." Gag me with a spoon!

I can't recall when I last saw SKoW; surely at least once since its release. I own the DVD, but that doesn't mean I've watched it. But throughout watching it on Hulu, I kept wondering how I failed to notice just how bad it was before. Perhaps it was because I wasn't as perceptive about screenwriting and storytelling or just liked it because I was 19 when it came out and Thompson was real purdy and Masterson reminded me of Go-Go's drummer Gina Schock (who was my favorite Go-Go and whom I remained in willful denial of her orientation until 2020 when it was explicitly stated in their documentary). But as a cranky middle-aged man, it's just dumb and needlessly so.

 I've seen PiP more recently (but not within past 10 years as I see no Dirkflix entry for it), so don't want to go out on a limb and say it's clearly better, but I recall it handling the class and cliques details better and that my major beef was the sellout ending. While Hughes meant SKoW to be a gender-swapped remake of PiP, it ditched all the characters and class that made the first movie resonnate. There were plenty of spots where Hughes could've addressed what the characters were feeling, but passed on all of them, leaving a thin gruel of warmed-over teen rom-com emptiness.

 Molly Ringwald was offered the role of Amanda, but refused because she wanted to move on to more adult roles (yeah, that happened) and apparently that broke her friendship with Hughes and they never worked together again. But why should she have? She'd already made this movie before it was reshot, but it was a hit. It would've been weird to make a lesser version just to correct a mistake audiences didn't care about, if box office take is to judge.

Score: 4/10. Skip it.  

"The Last Blockbuuster" Review

If you're Generation X (the age cohort, not Billy Idol's original band), you witnessed the invention, rise, fall, and near extinction of the home video rental industry within a span of less than four decades. What used to be a weekly ritual of going to get the new releases or just wandering the aisles and picking something with a cool cover and making sure to return those tapes (memorialized as a running gag in American Psycho) to avoid late fees has been replaced with scrolling through the rows of numerous streaming service interfaces looking for something to watch. (Old Busted: "Make it a Blockbuster night!" New Hotness: Netflix and chill.")

 Once the kingpin of video rentals with 9000 stores worldwide in 2004, within a decade Blockbuster was completely gone other than a handful of franchises, three in Alaska and one in Bend, Oregon (a cute inland town home to 94,000 people) and when the Alaska trio shuttered in 2019, Bend's store was officially The Last Blockbuster and now the subject of a documentary which is ironically streaming on Netflix.

 Part history lesson relating the birth of the video rental industry and the rise of the chain; part reminiscence of going there with celebrities including Jamie Kennedy (who got an early career break as part of The Blockbuster Gang), Samm Levine, Adam Brody, Ione Syke); the anchor of the doc is Sandi Harding, the general manager of the Bend store and  "Blockbuster Mom" (because she's hired so many teens as employees over the 17 years she's managed the place) who keeps the blue and yellow flame alive. There's a hanging question whether Dish Network, who owns the trademark, will renew the store's licensing agreement for another year, but as Kevin Smith observes, what would the upside of the firestorm of negative publicity Dish would spark if they killed the store? (Spoiler: They get renewed.)

While it's a breezy and informative documentary which knocks down the misconception that Netflix killed them - while competition didn't help, it was the capital crunch after the 2008 Great Crash which really sank them - it's somewhat padded feeling with a long segment dedicated to comedian Doug Benson (Super-High Me) visiting the store and trolling friend Kumail Nanjiani with a photo of the DVD of his movie The Big Sick there. They could've trimmed it down to a tidy hour.

Score: 6/10.  Catch it on cable. (Currently on Netflix.)

"Triggered" Review

 Taking a break from Oscar bait and epic superheroics, tonight's movie was something the girlfriend spotted on Hulu, a low-budget high-concept South African B-movie called Triggered, a quick and dirty movie which will now receive a quick and dirty review.

Nine high school friends (though that's a loose term for it) are having a five-year reunion (though judging from how old the actors look, it should be more like ten years) out in the woods 30 miles from the nearest town, which is booked solid for a big soccer game. Why the reunion? No idea. So the movie can happen.

After getting to know our gang of characters played by unknown actors - I just thought of them as Smart Girl, Drummer Guy, Much Older Guy, Hot Chick, Mousey Likely Final Girl, Slutty Girl, Those Bro Guys - and rapidly deciding I was cool with all of them dying for being vapid and annoying, the plot kicks in as they are all gassed (how?) and wake up with explosive vests with countdown timers strapped onto them. (Whut?)

Who did this? Their high school science teacher who blames them for the death of his son, a friend of theirs, who had a heart attack at a party they attended. The vests are interconnected and when time runs out, KABOOM! Last one will time on their clock gets to live at which point he kills himself. With their phones gathered and smashed, and times ranging from 35-45 minutes on their clocks, panic rapidly sets in. 

The stakes are ramped up when they discover that if someone dies before exploding, their remaining time transfer to the player closest to the decedent meaning that if they start killing each other, they can gain enough time to win. As they begin to square off against each other and try to unravel why their teacher thought they were to blame, inevitably details parse out which exposes the truth of what happened back at that party. 

And that's the movie. Blood, screaming, murder and death. Fun for the whole family, if you're the Manson Family perhaps. And it's not bad. Oh, it's not exactly good, but it's quick-paced, inventive, and delivers what it lists on the tin: Anonymous young people getting blowed up real good (though more kills are from edged weapons). Elevating things are some genuinely brilliant lines of dialog like when one couple is listening to another couple rutting like rabid minks in a nearby tent, "I can't tell if they're having sex or performing an exorcism." 

Frankly, after slogging through overhyped Oscar bait this week, this was the junk food I needed to cleanse my palette. It is what it is. Enjoy. 

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable. (Currently on Hulu)

"The Trial of the Chicago 7" Review

 Oscar slog continues with The Trial of the Chicago 7, the latest directorial effort by uber-scribe Aaron Sorkin. Loaded with Oscar-winners/nominees and written by Sorkin, it was one of Netflix's power plays for Oscar love this year and scored five noms for Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, and Editing. The problem is that the film is shockingly mediocre and muddled.

 For those younger than the Baby Boom generation, the Chicago 7 were actually eight radical group leaders who where charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democrat National Convention in Chicago. Next to Woodstock, the '68 DNC is one of those events Boomers nostalgically cling to with a death grip in their narcissistic and revisionist historical view that "We changed the world, man, and ended the Vietnam War, man, like wow, man." (Never mind that the war actually ended in 1973 and the American victory was undone by Democrats in the post-Watergate time of 1975 throwing South Vietnam to the North Vietnamese Communist wolves.) So it's natural that any telling of this tale will tickle the fancies of the Academy with their woke mania.

If you're familiar with Sixties radicals - and it's hard not to be considering how the Boomer-run media constantly heralded these guys as icons - you recognize the names of "Yippie" leaders Abbie Hoffman (nominated Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), Students For A Democratic Society leaders Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), and National Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who was Black Manta in Aquaman). There were three other defendants, but these were the rock stars. 

The movie opens in early 1969 with the incoming Nixon Administration's Attorney General, John Mitchell (John Doman), wanting to press Federal charges for inciting the riot which state and the Johnson Administration passed on. He appoints a pair of prosecutors including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has qualms about the endeavor, to lead the fight. The defense is led by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance, who should've been nominated over Cohen).

 Using a flashback structure within the trial, which is a complete clown show due to an judge of dubious mental faculty, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), the movie jumps between the incredibly long trial (it lasted five months) and the events in question. But despite Sorkin's first play and movie being the courtroom drama A Few Good Men and his Oscar-winning The Social Network leaping back and forth from depositions to the creation of FaceSpace (what I call it), The Trial of the Chicago 7 lacks the coherence, focus, and overall Sorkin quality he's typically known for.

The troubles manifest early as the scene depicting the first day of the trail drags on interminably to establish what a mess Judge Hoffman is, interrupting opening arguments repeatedly with specious interjections like wanting to make clear to the jury that he is not related to Abbie Hoffman. Ideas are introduced and never followed up upon like Kunstler wanting psychological experts to observe the judge to see if he can be removed for incompetence, but nothing comes of it. Seale's attorney is missing at the beginning of the trial due to a medical emergency and he continually refuses to allow Kunstler to represent him, but it's never explained why he won't do that or why, as the trial drags on, he doesn't retain other counsel.

The performances range from good (Rylance) to adequate (Cohen) to bad (Redmayne, who really didn't deserve his Oscar for The Theory of Everything and always seems pained and mannered). I suspect Cohen's Supporting Actor nomination is because the Academy liked the Borat sequel, but couldn't nominate him for that despite nomination his co-star. 

Sorkin's debut directorial effort, Molly's Game, showed that he was a better writer than director. Here his directorial skills have improved while his writing has plummeted. The mawkish, supposedly crowd-pleasing ending is something he'd spoof, not do seriously. Even his trademark quippy, quotable dialog is absent, with the only memorable line coming as it's revealed how many police and FBI informants were close to the Chicago 7 in the run-up to the riot, "Is it possible there were only 10 actual protesters and 5000 undercover cops?" 

In an article discussing how mediocre this year's Oscar contenders are, someone noted that in any other year, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a movie that would've been made for HBO and forgotten six months later. They had a typo; it was six minutes. 

Score: 5/10. Catch it on Netflix.  

"Nomadland" Review

 With the announcement of the 2021 Oscar nominations this week, thus begins the annual slog to see as many of the nominated films and performances as possible. Having already seen only the appallingly-nominated Sound of Metal so far, I decided to begin with one of the top favorites, Nomadland, which received nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, and Cinematography, four(!) of those nominations going to director-writer-editor Chole Zhao, whose next film will be the year-delayed Marvel Eternals slated for release in Nov. 2021.

 Starring Oscar-nominated Frances McDormand, Nomadland, tells the story of Fern, a widow from Empire, Nevada, a gypsum mining company town that shut down and became a ghost town in 2011. When the company-owned home she and her husband shared was taken from her (as it was for all employees), she stored her possession and moved into a van. We meet her as she parks in RV camp and begins doing seasonal work at an Amazon fulfillment center. (This is a real thing, part of what Amazon calls CamperForce at several of their sites nationwide for the past decade.)

When the work ends after the New Year, she is invited by co-worker and RVer Linda May (nearly all roles are played by real-life nomads as fictionalized versions of themselves) to come to a camp in Arizona where nomad lifestyle guru Bob Wells will be speaking and teaching the ways of the open road. Fern initially demurs, but after one too many cold nights in the van, decides to head south.

 While there, she makes the acquaintance of David (David Straithairn, who by being a recognizable face amongst the civilians telegraphs his importance), who is sweet on her, and Swankie ("herself") as a veteran nomad who thinks Fern needs to learn up on self-sufficiency. Swankie reveals she has terminal cancer and is planning on heading to Alaska to kayak and experience as many good moments as she can before dying.

From there the film follows Fern as she drifts from one area to another, picking up work as she goes - from working as a campground host in the Badlands to a sugar beet harvest elsewhere. She keeps running into David and eventually lets him hook her up with work at infamous South Dakota tourist trap Wall Drug where his son (Tay Straithairn, David's real-life son) appears, begging his father to come home and meet his grandson and stay with them. 

Through it all Fern seems isolated from those around her. While there are moments of community, there is generally incredible loneliness. During a visit to her sister's, we finally get some insight into her personality, that she left home as soon as she could, and when offered a chance to stay with David's family, she bolts, but we never really get what's making her tick. She's not a misanthrope; she was married a long time, but never had children; we mostly learn who she is by others talking about her, not by anything she reveals beyond her actions. 

It's only due to McDormand's quiet, restrained performance that Fern seems tangible despite there not really being a character there. With her self-cut hair and hard mien, we presume things about Fern that aren't otherwise explicit. Frankly, the only surprise about her character was that there was no surprise coming like an Act 3 sucker punch that she's dying of something. 

The fundamental weakness of the film, though, is that it attempts to transform the non-fiction source book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, about how seniors displaced by the 2008 Great Recession adopted nomadic lifestyles seeking seasonal work, which had already been made into a documentary short called CamperForce, into a dramatic feature film, but using almost exclusively real nomads as the cast around a cypher of a protagonist. Put bluntly, this should've been a documentary or a fully fictionalized film, as the hybrid mix of fascinating real people with weathered faces and genuinely lived experiences clashes with the somewhat rote fictional passages. People like the nomads are a fresh experience in movies; we've seen the drama before. 

Some have tried to impose a political message upon Nomadland, that it's a critique of the exploitation of disposable workers by cruel capitalists, but no one in the movie seems to share this view and many view those punching the clock year after year to pay off mortgages and dying without having lived for themselves as the victims. I think the complaints are just people who want to see things they want to see seeing things.

 While the entire frame of the story itself didn't really gel, what's indisputable is the gorgeous cinematography by Joshua James Richards, who is a relative newcomer, having collaborated with Zhao on two previous films, but should be catapulted into the top ranks with his lush naturalistic photography. Zhao has wisely chosen a ultra-widescreen aspect ratio and Richards fills the frame with creamy "magic hour" light - the soft warm light found at and slightly before/after sunrise/sunset - which bring the truly alien landscapes shown to life and lend to the pseudo-documentary feel of the film. (Look at the trailer to see for yourself.)

Zhao's direction and editing are fine as well. The nomad performers are so natural and at ease that the only real tipoff that they're not actors is that no one who looks like these people are actors. (That's why Straithairn is so jarring when he arrives.) The isolation amidst desolate barren landscapes is well-conveyed in her shots. 

It's a shame that her four nominations (for writing, producing, directing, and editing) are being touted as diversity trophies for a Chinese woman as if what's on the screen isn't simply talent, but something more special because it wasn't a white American male doing it. It's patronizing and divisive, but sadly what our cultural overlords are currently obsessed with. 

While the story itself didn't connect with me, it's not badly told, and I'm definitely intrigued to see what Zhao will do with a giant comic book movie starring Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek. 

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.  (Currently streaming on Hulu.)

"69: The Saga of Daniel Hernandez" Review

I don't know when exactly I lost touch with current popular music, but as a musician and music fan who was alive when hip-hop was invented - I first heard turntable scratching on Malcolm McClaren's Duck Rock album in January 1983 when Herbie Hancock's Future Shock album with "Rockit" came out 7 months later and turntablists who cite seeing the performance on the February 1985 Grammys ceremony as their "Beatles on Ed Sullivan" moment; I first heard the Beastie Boys "Rock Hard" in 1984 when Licensed To Ill dropped in November 1986; I heard "Bring the Noise" before Anthrax covered it; and when Rodney King got clobbered in 1991, it illustrated what N.W.A. was rapping about on "F*ck tha Police" in 1989 - I suddenly realized I had no idea who most of the rap/hip-hop artists were. (Or even the other genres as well.)

Before I stopped watching Saturday Night Live recently there were more and more weeks the musical act was "Who? What's a Migos?" I'd long wondered when rap stopped being "ghetto CNN" (as Public Enemy's Chuck D described rap discussing social issues) to "ghetto Robb Report" recounting the bottles and rims and grillz and hoes and stacks and bling, but little substance. (Of course this is when Donald Trump was name-checked as an icon of aspirational wealth by dozens of rappers before June 2015 when he mysteriously ceased being the guy who mentored Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons and everyone suddenly noticed for the first time that this 69-year-old man who had been in the public eye since the late-1970s was a virulent white supremacist and Nazi simply by changing his party affiliation. Weird how that worked.)

Part of it was that that frankly pop music sucks these days. No, I'm not one of those grumpy old men who isn't hip to what the whippersnappers get their twerk on to and shares the memes on FaceSpace comparing "Bohemian Rhapsody" being written by one person, Freddie Mercury, to "Anonymous Club Banga" written by a committee of six or more people with names like Q-Trawn and lyrics which are just a few words chanted repeatedly because stripper pole anthems don't exactly require Bob Dylan's touch. Every generation feels the younger generation's music sucks, but we've hit a canyon in popular culture where it's not an opinion, but scientifically confirmed objective fact that pop music today is garbage.

I've always been a fan of well-done pop music; there is no harder achievement than writing a memorable tune that earworms people forever. When the Spice Girls came out in 1996, I said they were better than Pearl Jam and I wasn't being ironic as that band had disappeared up Eddie Vedder's ass halfway through their Vitalogy album. (They peaked with "Go" on Vs. I will fight anyone who doesn't think that song blazes.) Music snobs felt the early-Aughts garage band boom of definitive article-named bands (i.e. THE White Stripes/Strokes/Hives/Libertines/Vines/Von Bondies/Black Keys/Walkmen/Blah/Woof) "saved rock & roll" from late-Millennium boy bands and Mousekabimbos, but the reality is that Britney Spears and N*Sync saved music from the miserable wasteland that Nirvana created which fundamentally killed rock & roll. 

But something has gone haywire since the mid-Aughts as the pop magic has bled out of pop music. I adored Katy Perry's 2008 album One of the Boys and while I didn't care as much for her 2010 follow-up, Teenage Dream, I can understand why it was popular. But each subsequent album, which have taken 3-4 years to make has been less and less tuneful and more and more generic monotonous "club bangaz" dreck that sounds like the background music for movie scenes set in strip clubs. Somewhere the fundamentals of verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus-chorus got replaced with monotonous "16-bar MPC loop repeated ad infinitum." It's good we've got computers to play these endless loops because humans would fall asleep from boredom if they didn't lose track of where they were with the same progression first.

So with those 600+ words of grousing preamble out of the way to set the stage, we come to 69: The Saga of Daniel Hernandez, the documentary on Hulu - not to be confused with a concurrent Showtime docu-series which appears to cover the same ground - about megastar Soundcloud rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine, a tattooed kid who somehow rode controversial YouTube videos and social media clout-mongering to become a massive star for a few years before it all crashed down and he flipped on his gang member posse to avoid a 47-year stint in the Crowbar Hotel for numerous felonies. Due to his asthma and Hot Fad Plague 2020, he was sprung from jail and finished his sentence at home (while desperate business owners who defied shutdowns were tossed into the pokey). After his release, his snitching has made him a pariah. 

Using interviews with his girlfriend/baby mama (whom he frequently cheated and beat on), his musical associates (whom he betrayed when he outgrew them), and gang pals (whom he snitched on), and quick clips of his videos which have racked up hundreds of millions of views, we learn about Hernandez's hard knock life, growing up without his birth father who left the family, having his stepfather murdered, but hustling first as a fashion designer, then a rapper at the encouragement of a neighborhood rapper who thought the rainbow-haired, tattooed kid behind the bodega counter looked like a rapper. 

Riding the popularity of his videos, he really blew up when he went to Slovakia(!) and got signed to the charmingly-named FCK THEM label and really started making waves. However his propensity for shock value uber alles got him in repeated legal scrapes like when an underage girl was shown performing sex acts in a video, eventually escalating to his robbery and murder conspiracy beefs which made him a singer for the state against his Nine Trey Bloods friends. 

The problem with 69: The Saga of Daniel Hernandez isn't solely that 69's music is.....let's go with not my cup of tea (Narrator: "Dirk thinks it's garbage and his using the N-word every 3-5 words will lose him his Food Network show or New York Times gig."), but that we never really get to HEAR much of his musical output. Most of the time, director Vikram Gandhi shows clips while interviewees talk over them. While writing this review, I went to YouTube to watch "Gummo", his breakout hit (which completely sucks), and it was really the first time I was able to tell that it completely sucked. I'm currently watching the Netflix documentary on The Notorious B.I.G. Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell and it features a lot of videotape recorded by his best friend of Biggie participating in street battles and on stage as he was coming up and you get to appreciate his skills, which 69 doesn't even come close to and I'm saying this as someone who never really got into Big. 

There's also no discussion of how the money works in this Soundcloud age. I know I'm old and out of touch with the new style and that no one buys pieces of plastic with music stamped into it, but some accounting for the economics of hundreds of millions of streams to put phat chedda stacks of Benjis - I know the lingo, fellow kids! - would've been useful.

Since Hernadez's fame may already be past, leaving him washed-up at 24 and with face tattoos that preclude gainful employment in most fields - ya hear that, Post Malone? - I'm unclear why this kid merited two tellings of his story? His music is insanely popular, but not good. He seems dumber than a rock band drummer. I simply don't get it and 69: The Saga of Daniel Hernandez does little to help this cranky old man get hippenwiddet with the jive those new cats are meowing, man. It's somewhat worth watching if only as a window on how debased and pathetic our culture has become. Perhaps that's why I don't know what's going on: There's nothing to know about.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on Hulu.

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