Mini Movie Review: “Somm” and “Somm: Into the Bottle”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m reviewing these two documentaries together because they’re a matched pair: same director, much of the same cast, and two sides of the same coin.

You should watch Somm first, because it was filmed first, and introduces you to people you’ll see in the next film. It’s not the better movie, though. Somm is the backstage look at a small group of men who are preparing to take the Court of Master Sommeliers “Master Sommelier” exam, a three-part test to award the title and prestige that comes with being a master somm. (It is very prestigious; there are only about 200 Court-certified masters in the world, and ascending to that level comes with cache, swagger, and immediate job offerings all over the world.)

The test is truly difficult. It’s subjective, and it’s broad-ranging. To be a master, you need the skills of a botanist and a historian, along with a sensitive nose and an excellent memory for tastes and smells. It takes a combination of genetics and dedication, then, along with the money and privilege necessary to access the variety of wines you’ll have to memorize before the exam. So, of course these guys are stressed, and not every one passes.

If you already care about the master test, or you are working as a sommelier, this behind-the-scenes look will probably interest you. I learned a few things, watching it.

But Somm: Into the Bottle is far more educational. It brings back the guys from Somm, now employed by various wineries and restaurants, and has them help explain the history and mysteries of wine production. There’s obviously a bigger budget, and the director manages to get into some rare European locations to speak with winemakers whose families have been making wine since before there was an “America”, before the existence of many of the countries we know in Europe today.

I’d have liked to learn more about South American and Asian wines, but they do cover Australia, Europe, and California pretty well. They go over the botany, genetics, and economic/political pressures which make up a wine’s lineage and flavor profile. (War! Infighting between small wineries! Drinking lots of expensive wine!)

I don’t drink much wine, mainly because I could never afford to learn anything about it. I know a couple of things I like (bring unto me your finest Riesling, if you want me to be happy with your wine selections) and a decent amount of history (because, art historian). But knowing wine at the level of masters means knowing everything.

The thing is, I like to know everything. And I don’t like the realization that there’s this whole field which impacts culture and is grounded in history… which I haven’t accessed.

I need to read a few more books.

And definitely drink more wine.

(Both films are currently available on Netflix.)

Movie Review: “I Am Not Your Negro”

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This is the most moving documentary I’ve seen in years. The impact, if you open yourself up to what’s on the screen, is immediate, lasts throughout the relatively-short film, and follows you out onto the street afterward. I saw it a few weeks ago, but I can feel the echo of it around me still.

I was a little concerned, before I saw it, that the entire time James Baldwin’s words or images were on the screen, Samuel L. Jackson’s voice would hover over them. Nothing against Jackson, a great actor who I enjoy, but I went for the experience of Baldwin briefly-revived, and didn’t want that experience diluted. I didn’t have anything to worry about. Jackson did read Baldwin’s words, in places, but his softened his voice and cadence give us narration that was less “Nick Fury” and closer to Baldwin’s “delicate but precise New York writer”. Enough, anyway, that it worked.

Big chunks of the film are in Baldwin’s own voice, from interviews and lectures and if you haven’t seen that man lecture before, go now, go online, go to YouTube, and find him. (Thanks to the internet, he lives on, at least a little.)

The rest is photographs, old and new, and some small clips of Black Lives Matter groups protesting in the last few years.

But what it is, really, is James laid bare, reaching out, reaching forward, to remind us that racism is not gone, not in the past, not even that old. We’re not post-racial, here in America; we are the children and grandchildren of those angry white mothers and brash young white supremacist boys who spit on black children wanting nothing more than a seat in a schoolhouse so they could learn.

Some people reading this are old enough to have been there, clutching their purses which righteous indignation, carrying signs, screaming, spitting, throwing rocks, or worse. That’s not a condemnation of my readers. It’s just a fact — one this documentary reminds you of, softly, crisply, and clearly.

But it’s even more than that. It’s a history lesson. It’s a look at how black men and black men’s bodies were regulated, even as they turned a profit. It’s also a reminder to speak up, to be yourself regardless of the circumstances, to write boldly, to make a mark, to love, to live, before it’s too late. Because it’s always too late, eventually.

Go see it in the theater while you still can.

Watch the trailer on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNUYdgIyaPM

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: 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.