Category: Movies


It was only a few months ago I reviewed Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks here at borg, a film chronicling the challenges and rise of Chinese action movies, including a segment on the legendary martial artist and actor, Bruce Lee.  At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, one of the Grand Jury Prize nominees was a documentary exclusively devoted to Lee, a film called Be Water, titled from the personal philosophy he shared with the world, “be formless, shapeless, like water… be water, my friend.”  A documentary that has received much advance praise and film festival kudos, director Bao Nguyen’s film will premiere to general audiences this Sunday as part of EPSN’s 30 for 30 series.

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Today marks the first day of a new streaming service, Ovid.tv, a film access platform combining the efforts of eight U.S. independent film distributors.  The new service is one effort to fill the gap left behind by the demise of FilmStruck, a favorite of cinephiles that was closed down by AT&T after acquiring Time Warner.  Initial film distributors providing content to Ovid.tv include First Run Features, Women Make Movies, Bullfrog Films, The dGenerate Films Collection, Distrib Films US, Grasshopper Film, Icarus Films, and KimStim, with more companies expected to add content to the service.  The goal of the platform is to provide North American viewers access to thousands of titles not yet available on other streaming platforms.  Initial content includes several of filmdom’s best documentaries, and on Day One more than 350 films are available for immediate streaming.

In a trial run of the platform, we immediately took in a screening of the award-winning film 56 Up, which has been called the greatest use ever for the film medium.  It’s simply one of the best dramas ever captured on-screen.  We reviewed it seven years ago here at borg, and now is a perfect time to screen the film for the first time, or to watch it again, as director/producer Michael Apted has recently wrapped the next segment in the film series, 63 Up, expected to be released later this year.  We also found The Penguin Counters streaming on Ovid.tv, a great film previously reviewed here at borg.  Social issues, auteur filmmakers, and foreign and domestic art house features fill out the initial round of content, including the works of filmmakers like Chantal Akerman, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Patricio Guzman, Heddy Honigmann, Chris Marker, Ross McElwee, Bill Morrison, Raoul Peck, Jean Rouch, Wang Bing, and Travis Wilkerson.  Works of others are expected to be added in the coming months, from the likes of Bi Gan, Pedro Costa, Claire Denis, Bruno Dumont, Cheryl Dunye, Philippe Garrel, Nikita Mikhalkov, Eric Rohmer, Raul Ruiz, Dominga Sotomayor, and Jean-Marie Straub.

Notable fiction features available today include the independent production mystery I, Anna, starring Charlotte Rampling and Gabriel Byrne, the Japanese horror film Creepy by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the award-winning The Widowed Witch by Cai Chengjie, and Shoehei Imamura’s 1967 film, A Man Vanishes.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

The first ten minutes of the new CNN documentary film Three Identical Strangers is intriguing enough to merit a major motion picture adaptation.  The film re-tells the story of an adopted teenager who steps into the life of someone else on his first day at community college, only to find that he had an unknown identical twin brother who attended the school the prior year.  Director Tim Wardle‘s introduction and interview with Robert Shafran, now 57, and the best friend who in 1981 knew the newfound twin brother, Eddy Galland, and was shocked to meet Robert on campus, is the kind of exciting filmmaking that illustrates why there are fans of documentaries.

But that was only the first unlikely collision of events.  Only days later when the story was published in New York newspapers, another teen, David Kellman, born on the same day, was reading the story, and his mother showed him the photographs of the twins that looked identical to him.  Identical triplets, adopted out of the same agency, which had separated the triplets at birth instead of trying to place them into a single home.

The story was reported everywhere back in 1980, on shows like Donahue, and the triplets would go on to appear in a scene with Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan in 1985.  Only the collective forgetfulness of a country of the men’s 15 minutes of fame allowed the story to fade away over the decades.  But there was more to the story, and Wardle would put together a contemporary writer’s research and remnants of the past, busting open a psychological study that breached any sensible person’s ethics.  The triplets weren’t merely studied from afar, their families were specifically targeted for placement, and their parents conned into letting the researchers into their homes each year for subsequent testing.  And yet there’s still more to the story, as Wardle interviews other relatives, an investigative reporter, and two former researchers involved in the study.  It’s a creepy look into the kind of science carried on by Nazi Germany during World War II and banned by the medical profession since, all with an eye toward digging into the battle between nature vs nurture in determining who each individual is in life and what they become.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

In the realm of cool it’s really hard not to begin with something like Bruce Brown’s 1966 surfing documentary The Endless Summer.  Whether or not you’ve ever tried to surf or even been to the beach, the carefree attitude of these 1960s surfers is infectious.  Brown’s follow-up in 1994, The Endless Summer II, showed us what changed–and what hadn’t changed–in the intervening 30 years.  A documentary airing the rest of this year on Starz provides another perspective on catching waves.  It’s Shorebreak: The Clark Little Story, a highly-praised, multiple film festival pick in 2016 and 2017.

Clark “Turbo” Little is “the award-winning photographer with the largest social media following in the world,” who carved his own niche in the coastal photography market.  While other photographers were clogging beaches trying to get the best shot of the most dangerous waves and those attempting to surf them, Little started taking photographs of a world nobody else was paying any attention to: the shorebreak–that zone where the waves hammer the beach, and the photographer takes repeated poundings to get his perfect image.  In the documentary we watch director Peter King film Little as he films the unique natural formations that occur inside the waves as they slam him into the surf.  The result is a wealth of breathtaking photos that have been featured at international museums including the Smithsonian Institution, in advertisements, in outdoor magazines, and even in a memorable National Geographic Magazine spread.  Now a full-time career for Little, his clients include Apple, Nike, Nikon, Facebook, Hewlett-Packard, Toyota, Anheuser Busch, Starbucks, Whole Foods, and more.  Little has filmed both stills and video on the North Shore of Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Big Island, California, Japan, and French Polynesia, and published two books, The Shorebreak Art of Clark Little and Shorebreak

Shorebreak: The Clark Little Story, reveals Little’s pathway to creating his photography subject of choice.  It’s a similar kind of mellow ride as found in Bruce Brown’s surfing documentaries–the kind of movie to meditate to or focus in closely with the benefit of quality HD and Little’s beautiful imagery.  Little’s work can cause some sore muscles or even a broken neck if not done properly, but his work doesn’t have that tense risk factor of the big surf crowd.  Yet he seems to be embraced by the community, walking the walk and talking that very cool vocabulary familiar to the beach community.  Little shoots much of his work from nearby his home in Haleiwa, Hawaii.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

From an educational standpoint and an historian’s eye, the Holocaust is the most important subject of study for anyone to understand why humans look to the past for answers.  Every aspect of historical scholarship can be found in studies of the subject, understanding politics, religion, power, discrimination, survival, and the worst potential of mankind.  A powerful new documentary takes a new look at the Holocaust through the eyes of a grandson and great-granddaughter of one artist, Moshe Rynecki (1881-1943), whose vivid, stunning expressionist and minimalist paintings document a broad look at life, tradition, and culture in Jewish Poland prior to World War II.  Produced, directed, and written by his great-granddaughter Elizabeth Rynecki, Chasing Portraits illustrates the competing challenges in the debate over the repatriation of cultural artifacts, as it also pulls in issues of borders, the distance of time, and the critical importance of studying art history.

Once you get past the first minutes, which seem to be filmed on an old camcorder, this amateur documentary steps up into a compelling journey, thanks in part to a musical score that ties it all together, by Matthias Zimmerman.  The German Nazis murdered Moshe Rynecki in a concentration camp in Warsaw in 1943.  Many of his more than 800 paintings and some of his sculptures and carvings were smuggled out.  Hundreds were taken out by his son and her wife, who escaped Warsaw with their young boy, the documentarian’s father.  Other works fall into the categories of gifts, works purchased legally, and works that may have been stolen and resold.  Elizabeth Rynecki first meets with her father in her documentary, whose house walls are lined with his grandfather’s paintings.  She also points to a closet where several works are rather haphazardly stacked, no doubt viewed only by few people over the past 70 years.  In one moment her father replaces a framed piece that falls to the side with a thunk.  This becomes a key scene–although it’s not clear that the director realizes it–as she does not circle back to it later.  It’s key because she begins a journey of discovery that takes her from the U.S. to Poland and Jerusalem, inside major museums and private collections, in part to reclaim what she believes are paintings that rightfully belong to her family today.  By the end of the film she acknowledges that tens of millions of visitors have admired her great-grandfather’s works in the museums, and she interviews museum directors that have clearly given the paintings the care any curator would give to his/her collections.

The question for the viewer becomes one of moral rights and legal rights–the debate over repatriation of cultural and artistic works.  And the crux of the debate over where these cultural works belong today–to descendants in private collections or on display in national museums as educational tools for a vastly wider audience.  Eventually Ms. Rynecki files a claim for three works held by a private person in Jerusalem, whose method of acquiring the works is questioned.  But ultimately she retracts the claim.  Along the way she interviews her father, who says he clearly would prefer to forget his memories of Poland during the war.  Yet he complies with his daughter’s requests to document his memories, until it becomes too much for him emotionally and physically.  Clearly there is importance to the works, to his experience, and to sharing both with future generations, and Ms. Rynecki encounters numerous crises of conscience as she takes each step forward in her pursuit.  How far should she go?  How far is enough?  Her time travel to the past explores these questions and much more.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

From Hong Kong to the U.S. and Australia to Uganda, Australian director Serge Ou and writer Grady Hendrix track the scope of the Hong Kong kung fu movie industry and its pop culture influence on the world in the documentary Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks, now streaming this month on Netflix.  Splicing interviews with kung fu legends of the past with new discussions with martial artists and actors influenced by them, Ou offers up a surprisingly rich look at how and why kung fu movies gained an international following that continues to this day via Jackie Chan comedies, the Matrix movies (with a sequel due in theaters next year), and new television series like Wu Assassins and Iron Fist. 

Beneath what is in essence an overview of the genre is a smart mixture of social and cultural commentary on a global phenomenon centered on an artform mixing athleticism, dance, and grace.  Kung fu made its way to American audiences with Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack, and into millions of homes via the Kung Fu series.  This was paralleled by Bruce Lee movies and lesser films (they call them Bruce-sploitation) from China and U.S. studios, direct-to-video crotch-kicking and “squirrel-grabbing” action on VHS tapes in video stores, heroines leading the way as a sub-genre, eventually moving to black and inner city audiences embracing the culture, starting with martial artist and actor Jim Kelly (who co-starred with Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon), re-emerging later as an influence on hip hop music.  The genre got even bigger boosts with Jackie Chan heavy-stunt comedies, followed by The Matrix and the Academy Awards arrival of the genre with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Chinese co-productions with other nations, and actors of Chinese background in the mainstream outside of Asia would eventually come along.

Viewers meet (or revisit) early kung fu icons Cheng Pei-Pei and Sammo Hung in new interviews, along with Billy Banks, who would turn the genre into his own fortune via the creation of the Tae Bo workout, early American female kung fu star Cynthia Rothrock, martial artist Richard Norton, plus from the 21st century shows, Iron Fist actor Jessica Henwick, Wu Assassins actor JuJu Chan, Doctor Strange actor Scott Adkins, and Marvel stuntwoman and choreographer Amy Johnston, among others.  It’s all interspersed with great action sequences and other clips from more than 100 films.  A theme underscoring much of kung fu movie history is a distinct lack of safety standards, with more than one participant in the documentary stressing that Hong Kong kung fu movies couldn’t be made anywhere else for that reason.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

After World War II, in essence a world stunned with death and destruction emerged to try to forge its way into the future after one of the planet’s most trying challenges.  Inspiring tens of millions was the true-life voyage of Norway’s Thor Heyerdahl, a pioneer made of the same mettle as Shackleton and Hillary.  Heyerdahl was a student in Oslo who spent a year in Polynesia, where he developed the idea that peoples like the ancient Incas could have traveled across the Pacific Ocean and settled the area easier than saling from the west.  After a decade trying to prove his hypothesis, Heyerdahl assembled a team of six men, five Norwegians and a Swede, and built a balsa raft consistent with parts and construction the Polynesians would have had available centuries before, which he named Kon-Tiki after an Incan sun god.  His challenge?  To complete the voyage from South America to Polynesia without assistance from modern technology.

Heyerdahl’s 1948 account of the voyage, Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft, became one of the best-selling books of all time (selling more than 56 million copies), his 1950 documentary of the voyage, Kon-Tiki, earned an Oscar, and an impressive 2012 theatrical adaptation, also named Kon-Tiki, was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film.  Both of these films are now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Like most things about baseball, The Battered Bastards of Baseball reflects as much about an era of American culture, economics, and politics as it tells a wonderfully engrossing story about a brief history of the sport.   Independent baseball–privately-owned teams unaffiliated with the Major League Baseball conglomerate–was a thing of the past when Portland, Oregon’s minor league baseball team the Portland Beavers left town.  It was the early 1970s and Portlanders weren’t spending their time or money on minor league games.  Then enters the well-known TV actor Bing Russell, stepping off his last of 14 seasons on Bonanza where he played a deputy sheriff.  Russell appeared in everything back then, from Westerns from Wagon Train to Rawhide, and modern fare like The Munsters, The Rockford Files, and The Twilight Zone.  There begins an underdog story, a mix of The Bad News Bears, Necessary Roughness, and Moneyball.

If you’re lucky enough to trip into the Netflix documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball, you’ll wonder where this story is headed.  It’s a brief history of 1970s Portland and national baseball, and then actor/movie star Kurt Russell and his mother Louise Russell begin discussing his father in a typical documentary format.  It turns out father Bing had a life-long affinity for the game, even being part of a significant piece of baseball history as mascot for the New York Yankees, befriending Joe DiMaggio, Lefty Gomez, and Lou Gehrig, who gave Bing the bat he used in his last game before retiring.  That love for the game apparently never left Bing, who concocted an idea to bring baseball right back to Portland by taking the entrepreneurial route–forming a pure upstart baseball team to play minor league ball.  Resurrecting the independent team model he would hold an open tryout for the new Portland Mavericks–if you build it they will come.  And they did.  Players rejected from the big leagues, some retired, many with paunches, and pre-movie star Kurt on the team, too, some players older than most teams would favor, and a bunch of hairy-faced guys decades before it became the “in” thing–all would come together to form a motley band of brothers that would earn a crack at the pennant.  With a 30-man roster, and Bing’s personal brand of fun, fans packed the stadium again, the team setting a record for the highest attendance in minor league history, blazing the trail in other ways, naming the first woman general manager in baseball, Lanny Moss.  But like all good things it seems, a villain would enter the picture to wreck it all.

The real deal: Kurt Russell playing in the Minor Leagues with the Portland Mavericks.

With that nostalgic, cheery vibe of Ivan Reitman’s 1970s movie Meatballs or a dialed-back Slap Shot, Bing’s grandsons Chapman Way and Maclain Way splice together both baseball, Hollywood, and Portland nostalgia to assemble a completely engaging, crowd-pleasing story of underdogs and misfits and the pied piper who led them.  If you remember that every baseball stadium in 1970s America–and every grade school–had kids chomping on Big League Chew–you’ll learn that connection to the Mavericks, too.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Following up on The Toys That Made Us (previously reviewed here at borg), Netflix’s surprise hit documentary series leaning on viewers’ nostalgia with a look behind select high-profile toy lines of the past, last December the streaming provider added a new series based on the same formula, The Movies That Made Us.  The series looked at four movies in four hour-long episodes, including the modern Christmas staples, Home Alone and Die Hard.  This December, Netflix is adding two new surveys of holiday movies to the mix: Jon Favreau’s Elf (2003) and Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).  Check out a preview below.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Following up on The Toys That Made Us (previously reviewed here at borg), Netflix’s surprise hit documentary series leaning on viewers’ nostalgia with a look behind toys of the past, in 2019 the streaming service added a new series based on the same formula, The Movies That Made Us.  The series took a new look at four movies in four hour-long episodes in its first season, including Die Hard, Ghostbusters, Home Alone, and Dirty Dancing, followed by two holiday episodes featuring Elf and A Nightmare Before Christmas.  The Movies That Made Us isn’t really about the movies and their impact so much as what strange stories lie behind how the movies were created, from idea to release, including production foibles and hurdles.  The show is trying to appeal to a broad spectrum of viewers, and it’s done it again with four new installments for its second season, featuring Back to the Future, Pretty Woman, Jurassic Park, and Forrest GumpAnd new episodes are on their way featuring Aliens, Coming to America, and RoboCop, and October staples A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th,and Halloween.

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