Mini Movie Review: “Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives” (documentary)

Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives
Documentary, 2015.
3/5*

Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives doesn’t intend to teach you much; it’s basically a love letter to Adrian Bartos and Robert Garcia, who hosted “The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show” from 1990 to 1998, on the Columbia University radio station, WKCR. (You can learn a lot more from this NY Times article.)

I watched this documentary on Netflix over the weekend, and I liked it enough to recommend it, with some warnings: This isn’t an entry-level rap documentary. If you don’t already know the fundamental difference between a DJ who makes music, and a DJ who talks between playing tracks on the radio, this documentary won’t be for you. If you don’t already know the difference between rap and lyrical hip-hop, this won’t explain it. If you’re not intimately aware that the 90s rap scene in New York was unlike anywhere else in the world, well… you get the idea.

Stretch and Bobbito were the gatekeepers of, and introduction to, a whole generation of rap music, discovering (to name a few) Jay-Z, Nas, Notorious B.I.G., and Ol’ Dirty Bastard before they were signed. They showed a light on now-legendary artists before they got airtime anywhere else, elevating the careers of Cypress Hill, Eminem, and the Fugees, among others. If you understand the gravity of these events, then this movie will bring together dozens of names, familiar — and fading — artists who’re happy to recount the moment where the radio show changed their lives. You’ll get to see and hear freestyling clips from a range of artists, mostly unrecorded anywhere else.

There’s a lot of clips, some laughs, and a few quick moments of secret lore that are well worth watching, but the documentary avoids exploring the relationship between the two men behind the show in any real depth. We hear that Stretch didn’t like Bobbito getting all of the credit, and both of their musical tastes evolved in different directions, but that’s it. These two were important to the history of rap music in a big way, and yet… we don’t know any more about them than we did at the beginning. We just know that everyone loved them, because they assembled a bunch of people to say that, and no one who didn’t.

So, don’t watch it to learn anything about the show’s creators. Watch it for over an hour of largely-unseen video of some of the greatest rappers to come out of New York in the early 90s. It’s worth it for that, I promise.

Mini Movie Review: Meet the Patels

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With the help of his sister (Geeta V. Patel – amateur cameraperson, roommate, and occasional voice of reason), actor Ravi Patel chronicles his journey to find a suitable wife in this documentary. It was picked up by a distributor after being entered in a few film festivals; it won the Audience Award in L.A. On a production level, it’s not great, though the shaky handcam is balanced out by crisp animation and slick packaging (clearly added by a later producer). The film’s insightful, though in a limited way: Ravi shows some of what an American-born Indian might go through to find a spouse, but during the process, he never really commits to finding someone new, since he’s already got someone in mind. Because it’s clear from the beginning that he would rather be with his ex, Audrey, there’s no dramatic tension, and no real possibility he’ll fall in love with anyone else.

The problem arises not from the difficulties of finding a suitable wife, but because Ravi doesn’t want to tell his Indian-born parents that Audrey is white. Instead, they break up, and she moves progressively farther and farther away from him while he’s simultaneously searching the Internet for a “proper” Indian wife who’ll appeal to his American taste.  If you aren’t familiar with the ways a Patel in the US can find a wife – arranged marriages, matchmakers, dating websites, family conventions, and biodata sheets passed around by the mothers of potential dates – that part of the film is interesting. I wish there was more of a focus on that part of Ravi’s search, but each snippet is brought back, time and again, to Ravi’s internal conflicts (Audrey vs. what he thinks his parents want, what he thinks he should want) and Ravi’s clear need to be honest with everyone involved.

In the end, Meet the Patels is less about Ravi’s family, and more a letter to his first love: “Here’s the process of me figuring out I was an idiot,” the movie seems to say. Once he’s decided to introduce them, his parents very quickly agree that having a white American girl for a wife is much better than no wife at all. None of his feared “drama” arises at her identity, and only a little at his deception (quickly forgiven), proving Ravi should have just told them in the first place.

That’s true of most conflicts, though, isn’t it?

Overall, it’s cute, somewhat informative, and buoyed by Ravi’s charming family. Worth watching, but you can safely do other things while it’s on.

3/5*

Watch it on Netflix.

Mini Movie Review: Inspired To Ride (2015)

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“It just kind of settles in that you got to realize you got to run your own race. And it’s between me and me you know, me and my thoughts. Me, how far I can push myself, and, um, I don’t think I’ve really reached that yet.” – Brian Steele (USA)

Inspired To Ride  follows a handful of people as they embark on the inaugural Trans Am Bike Race in 2014 – a 4200 mile race across 10 states, without support teams, stages, or stopping other than to sleep as little as possible*. The filmmakers focus on the male winner, Mike Hall, and the female winner, Juliana Buhring, an endurance writer, cult survivor, and author, who starts out the race by crashing over her handlebars, and ends it by coming in 26 days faster than the next woman to finish. Her story is incredible, but in truth, they all are, and the filmmakers treat them all the same, whether interviewing the lead racer, or a disabled veteran (not part of their race, but biking along the same road for a while) they happen to run into along the way. Everyone has something profound to share.

There’s a lot of similarities to writing and biking/running long distances, which is part of why that sort of physical effort appeals to me**. There will always be some who tear through the route like they’re on fire, racing ahead of the pack, who push themselves to be fastest, to be first. But the ones who go slower, who fight a battle not of physical prowess but mental determination, they still arrive at the same finish line. They still accomplish something that most people will never do: they set a nearly impossible goal, and they didn’t give up until they’d reached it. Writing is like that. There will always be people who write 4 books in a year or 10,000 words in a day; some days that may be you, and some days, you may feel like you won’t be able to write another 10,000 words in the next year. The ones who stop, eat, rest, stretch, and get back on the bike again – get back to the laptop and the pen – are the ones who have overcome the biggest obstacle any of us face: our own heads.

As they said in the movie, about the riders who’ll see it through until the end, “They give 110%, whatever their 110% is.”

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Joanna Abernathy, on her last ride

For me, the moment with the most impact was the 30 seconds they spent talking to Joanna Abernathy, a 53 year-old high school teacher from Australia, who was riding the same stretch of road on her own as a tribute to Martin Luther King, and the courage to face one’s fears. She gave up the life she felt anyone could have had, and set out for an adventure she wouldn’t be able to completely control, accepting that she would meet new people, try new things. Her trip would take her across the entire United States, almost three months of riding alone. (Sadly, she was struck by a car and killed, only 500 miles from the end of her journey.)

Joanna wasn’t a world-class athlete. She didn’t need to be born someone special in order to accomplish her goals. It wasn’t natural talent or privilege that propelled her forward – it was drive. She wanted something, though, trained for it, and did it, racing against no one else but herself.

We could all do that. Most people won’t, but I know that I will. I am. You should, too.

4/5*

Watch Inspired To Ride on Netflix or Amazon.

* It is not a stage race, the clock never stops from the moment the riders leave the start to the moment that they reach the finish, so it is a long individual time trial. Riders must therefore strategically choose how much time to devote to riding, resting, and refueling each day. Being self-supported or unsupported means that drafting is not allowed, receiving any form of support from other racers, friends, or family is not allowed; all food, accommodation, repairs, etc., must be purchased from commercial sources. – Wiki

** Did you see my review of The Barkley Marathons?

*** Oh, and Brian Steele? Yeah, he’s that actor.

Mini Movie Review: Hot Girls Wanted

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This certainly could have been better, but the Netflix Original documentary is a starter look at the world of amateur porn, for anyone who’s not familiar with how that industry works. It interviews a handful of teen porn “stars”, as well as a broker, a couple of male actors, and one girl’s family. What it does right is show the dirt behind the glam: girls who are young and thin (more important than pretty), who look younger than the 18 years old they’re legally required to be, can have unprotected sex – often degrading, sometimes dangerous – only to be forced out of the industry because they’ve done everything anyone cared to pay for, after only 2 or 3 months. Most of them have to spend so much money on rent and their broker’s percentage and living the “porn lifestyle” to get exposure that by the time they’re washed up, they don’t have anything to show for it except a lifetime of being known as that girl who’s naked online.

Oh, and if you ever watched porn thinking that some random encounter was captured on film, or that a happy, sex-positive couple uploaded their fun for the world to see – well, most times, that’s just what they want you to think.

According to Wikipedia, the film’s focus was changed during shooting, when the filmmakers discovered their original idea wasn’t as interesting; the movie was changed again after it showed at Sundance, to address issues the audience had, and again after viewers took to Twitter to complain. (Also, the broker and two of his performers complained afterward that the film was cut to show “worst case scenarios” instead of the truth.) It has a choppy, slightly lost feeling that could be blamed on all of the changes, or on the directors not having a clear idea of what they wanted to say. Either way, don’t watch it expecting to know everything about the pro-am porn scene. Hot Girls Wanted doesn’t cover the aspects of sex work that can be safe, positive, and fulfilling – and I’ve known enough people in the industry to know that’s possible. This is one perspective, though, so it’s somewhere to begin.

After watching it, the story I was most interested in was the one this movie doesn’t cover: one of the actresses gets into porn as a way to escape her small town and controlling parents, but ends up with a boyfriend who’s ashamed of her work, so she quits to go back to the same town, the same parents, with the added pressure of her boyfriend telling her what to do and who to be. The movie doesn’t explore at all why she felt this was the only way out for her, or what her life is like now, as a small-town waitress that everyone knows “did porn”. Being in porn didn’t make her life any better, but neither did being in this movie.

Definitely NSFW.

3/5*

Watch on Netflix.

Mini Review: “The Search for General Tso” (2014)

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If you live in America, you probably know about General’s Chicken, that breaded and fried chicken dish, coated in a spicy-sweet sauce, available at almost every Chinese food restaurant. Ian Cheney directed this search for the truth behind the ubiquitous meal, which starts out with a few theories before examining the history leading up to the proliferation of the dish, and how it has changed over the years.

Along the way, Cheney explores the advent of Chinese food for sale in the United States. General’s Chicken, which is known by several similar names all over the world, is a hugely popular dish, and the documentary looks at its importance as a “way in” for Asian-Americans, interviewing restaurant owners and chefs, who talk about the racism they found in the new communities they moved into, and the acceptance that food brought to the table.

In the end, they do discover the original dish, and its creator, but like other appropriations – anyone familiar with McDonald’s chicken nuggets in sweet & sour sauce will recognize the similarities, discussed in the movie – that first version was “borrowed” and revised, too. In the end, I was a little sad, a lot more informed, and (if I’m being honest), hungry.

4/5*

Available on Netflix and Amazon.

On a related note, has anyone read Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food? If not, I recommend it!