Opinion, Review

Montage of Heck Review (HBO)


My Rating: 5/5

After his death, Kurt Cobain reached icon status as the champion of the misunderstood and the photogenic front man of 90’s grunge band Nirvana. Though many documentaries have been made about the meteoric rise of Nirvana as a rock band with Kurt at the helm, Brett Morgen managed to peel away at the glorification of his life and show us Kurt Cobain through his own thoughts and videos in this chaotic, magnetic and powerful documentary.

Montage of Heck features exclusive home videos and recordings of Kurt Cobain that reveal the most intimate details of his thinking. Starting with his childhood, the film fearlessly outlines the defining moments of Kurt’s life in all their beauty and ugliness. An energetic child, Kurt is deeply affected by his parents divorce. We witness pivotal events during his upbringing that are painful and contribute to an internal feeling of shame and self-loathing that sadly followed Kurt through super stardom to his death.

If you’re looking for a straightforward bio-pic with a play by play of the defining moments of Kurt Cobain’s career, this isn’t it. Instead, it’s a vivid and highly visual portrayal of Kurt’s notebooks and thoughts. His journals were at times very funny and sarcastic. He was filled with ideas and an internal drive to prove his worth. Some of it was shocking and very dark. After watching this film, I felt like I could finally begin to understand some of the pain and shame that Kurt was going through.

Brett Morgen chose to highlight Kurt Cobain’s drug addiction. Seeing home videos of Kurt strung out and nodding off while holding baby Frances Bean was a stark reminder of how unglamorous his final days really were. He was not an icon, or a hero or an anti-hero. He was a human being that was deeply affected by his experiences growing up and filled with an incredibly amount of potential but also with a deep sadness. I saw myself in part of his struggle and I think that’s why his music affect so many so deeply. Which brings me to the take away from this whole film, it was a great tragedy that his life was lost at such a young age and there’s really nothing cool or epic about it.

Documentary News

HBO To Air Highly-Anticipated Scientology Documentary


The countdown begins for tomorrow night’s premiere of the long anticipated HBO Documentary Going Clear that examines the Church of Scientology. The film is based on Lawrence Wright’s best selling book of the same name and it will take a critical look at some of the more controversial aspects of the religion. Given Scientology’s tendency to litigate against critics, HBO reportedly hired a whopping 160 lawyers to work on the film. I’d say this movie is going to be iron clad. Check out a great preview piece from NPR below and stay tuned for my review of the film.



Saturday Night Review (Hulu Documentary)

Saturday Night Live

My Rating: 2.5/5

Saturday Night follows the making of an episode of the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live hosted by the legendary John Malkovich. A grueling week long process, the making of an episode of SNL requires many sleepless nights and a litany of sketch ideas that most likely than not get cut. Though the film is worth watching just to see some of the incredibly talented and overworked comedians that make SNL what it is, it largely feels like a missed opportunity on the part of director James Franco to capture the high stakes of the show.

Saturday Night highlights the incredibly difficult task of making people laugh and the reality that failure is a likely outcome. Starting with the pitch meeting on Monday, writers and performers begin the nerve-wracking process of teaming up and writing material in time for the table read the next day where some fifty sketches get cut down to nine. The tension is high as each performer and writer nervously reads their material for the first time with no idea whether they will tank or make people laugh. The selected skits make their way to rehearsals and dress rehearsals where ultimately some still get cut as late as Saturday afternoon. John Malkovich is a great sport and his incredible talent makes for one of the more memorable hosting jobs in recent memory.

Though the subject matter of the film is inherently interesting (it brings to light a process mythologized but not often seen), the film’s style and direction ultimately fail to capture the spectrum of emotions involved in the production process and skates over the more interesting parts. The film is shot mostly handheld and switches often from color to black and white giving it the experimental feel of a student film. James Franco, an SNL hosting alum, directs the film and we are constantly aware of his presence behind the camera. The result is that the interviews are more of a conversation with a well-known celebrity and lack any sort of real depth. Often times Franco is referencing his own experiences on the show. This gave me the feeling that this documentary was more like a jog down memory lane for the actor rather than a real exploration of what it’s like to be a part of such an iconic show. Unfortunately, this rare opportunity for access inside the walls of 30 Rock felt like a wasted opportunity. Franco himself asks Lorne Michaels towards the end of the film “Maybe we’re not getting the full experience?” and I would have to say no, we’re not.


The Jinx Finale: “What the Hell Did I do?” (Spoiler Alert)


The Jinx finale had been building up to be a big one but not even the series producers’ could have expected a lead-in as a big as the arrest Robert Durst on the eve of their final episode. In a twist that seemed perfectly timed, the HBO program managed to do what decades of police investigation could not — find a solid link between Robert Durst and Susan Berman’s murder. Though much of this final episode seemed to be filler content before the explosive last ten minutes of the program, we did see first hand a part of Robert Durst that was manipulative and deceitful. Whether Durst started to have second thoughts about the outcome of this show or just plain got bored with the project, we saw him lie to the series producers about his whereabouts and delay scheduling a second interview time after time. At one point Durst says he is in Madrid when it is later discovered that he’s been in Los Angeles.

After months of dragging his feet, Robert Durst is arrested in New York for violating a protection order put in place by his family members. Andrew Jarecki suddenly finds himself with the upper hand. Durst’s lawyers want some of the footage Jarecki took in order to build their defense case. However, this footage comes at the price of Durst sitting down for the anticipated second interview during which, Jarecki plans to confront Robert with the much talked about letters that appear to match Durst’s handwriting to the handwriting of the anonymous letter to police alerting them of Susan Berman’s dead body or should I say cadaver.

The final interviews happened and it was rather anti-climactic. Durst didn’t seem outwardly alarmed (aside for some unfortunately timed burping) and responded how we all thought he would respond. He admitted to writing the letter to Susan but certainly not the cadaver letter and of course, block lettering can be similar regardless of the writer. The really outrageous part of the finale came at the very end when for a second time, Durst forgot he was mic’ed and started talking to himself while in the bathroom. He actually says the words “There it is. You’re caught” and “What the hell did I do? Killed them all of course”. I actually gasped when I first heard the latter.

Given that Robert Durst was arrested for Susan’s murder, I was anticipating a real smoking gun or even (I admit this is a little far fetched) a confession. But after analyzing it, I think that what he said is incredibly incriminating (and my heart tells he did it), it’s definitely not irrefutable evidence. I can easily see how with a million dollar defense team, that could be explained away as someone talking to themselves in a nonsensical way not to mention that as The New York Times suggested, this tape could be inadmissible in court due to the fact he was in a bathroom and could have reasonably believed he was alone. The same goes for the letter. They can potentially prove that he knew about the dead body but is there actual evidence that he committed the murder? Just as investigators could prove he dismembered Morris Black but could not prove that he actually committed an act of murder. Unless investigators have some additional evidence that ties him to the murder, there is definitely some work to do for the prosecution.


I also find it so hard to believe that Durst would forget about his microphone being on. As eccentric and sometimes bumbling as he comes off, I have no doubt that he is a highly intelligent and aware man. Which begs the question, was he just messing with us? Is he trying to provoke us so he gets caught? Only time will be able to tell and the media circus is going to continue until some kind of closure is found in court.

It’s been an exciting six episodes as us viewers got to know Bob Durst, an eccentric, strangely likable and at the same time chilling character. This series is a great example of how expertly executed documentary film can have a real impact on the issues it covers. In this case, it led to an arrest in a decades old murder case. Jarecki and his team’s stellar research made for an extremely compelling and revealing series. As sad as I am that this series is over, I have no doubt that we will be hearing much much more from Mr. Robert Durst.

Documentary News

HBO Premieres Trailer for Kurt Cobain Documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” and It Looks Amazing

HBO has just released the official trailer for their upcoming Kurt Cobain documentary entitled Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck set to air on May 4th. The trailer features home videos of Kurt as a child as well as candid shots of him playing with his daughter, Frances Bean. The filmmakers will include a 12-minute unheard acoustic track by Cobain and a companion book featuring rare photographs and mementos from his personal collection. This film seems to have incredible access to Kurt Cobain’s life, which promises for a harrowing account of the singer’s life. Check it out below.


Closure Documentary Review (Netflix)

My Rating: 3.7
This is an emotional documentary about a young woman’s search to find her birth parents after growing up in a large multiracial family in Washington State. Angela, an African American woman that was raised by Caucasian parents has always felt a need to connect with her birth parents and find out more about herself. This documentary is a personal and heartfelt story that takes the viewer through the spectrum of emotions felt by adoptive children and their families. It touches upon issues of identity related to race, family and sense of belonging without delving too deep in any of these topics.

This film begins with a pivotal moment when Angela finally strikes up the courage to call her birth mother for the first time. The phone rings and we hear a “hello” from the mother that she so desperately was trying to find. The film then launches into the back story of a young girl adopted as a baby with special needs. She was told that she would never walk. We discover that not only does she walk but she becomes a basketball player. She is a psychology major and works in the adoption agency that her parents adopted her from.

We follow Angela and her family’s journey to find her birth parents. The eventual meeting is complicated and filled with nervousness, joy and, as the title suggests, closure for Angela and her family. Undoubtedly the heart of this film is Angela. Throughout her journey of self-discovery, she remains effervescent and positive. The combination of her vulnerability and simultaneous strength is what really resonated with me. The director of the film is her husband, Bryan Tucker, who serves as a narrator of the story. This adds to the extremely personal nature of the film. If there is one criticism that I could give to this movie is that I would have wanted to hear more of Angela’s story and experiences in her own voice. We saw her go through all these life changing experiences and I wanted desperately to know what was going through her head.

Though the film could have dug deeper into the underlying effects and ramifications that the adoption process has on families and individuals, this film manages to take us on a personal journey that is certainly worth watching and reminds us that coming to terms with your history and roots is an important part of self-acceptance.

The Jinx Bombshell (SPOILER ALERT)


If you’ve been religiously watching The Jinx on HBO like I have, you would know that this Sunday’s episode included a new revelation about the murder of Robert Durt’s close friend Susan Berman, one that seems to pretty clearly implicate Durst in her murder or at least that he had knowledge of it. Andrew Jarecki’s documentary series has been slowly building to this moment and wow, is it a big one.

Trying to ride off the coat tails of the Serial podcast’s huge success, HBO released this similarly serialized documentary series hoping to capture some of that audience. As a Serial fan, I definitely took that bait and have been thoroughly enjoying this series albeit for different reasons. Though there is a lot less ambiguity around this case (some parts of Durst’s story are just so far fetched to believe I found myself wondering less if he did it but how he got away with it), the masterful way that it the story is told with beautifully eerie visual sequences and incredibly telling moments such as Robert Durst quietly rehearsing to himself what he was going to say during a break in the interview is what really caught my interest. Another big difference is this new evidence that the filmmaker discovered. Unlike Serial which analyzes existing evidence to draw its conclusions (some of which was ignored such as Asia McClain’s testimony), Jarecki and HBO’s The Jinx just made a connection that can make a real difference in an unsolved murder investigation and possibly lead to an indictment.

The revelation came at the end of the episode when Sareb Kaufman, Susan Berman’s stepson, contacted the filmmakers to alert them about a letter he had found sent from Robert Durst to Susan before her murder. When he handed over the letter, the producers are shocked to see that the handwriting is almost identical to the handwriting on an anonymous letter sent to the Beverly Hills police alerting them to a “cadaver” in Susan Berman’s home and leading to the discovery of her body. Looking at the writing it looks almost undoubtedly the same (at least to my untrained eye). Even the word “Beverly” is misspelled as “Beverley” in both letters. Kaufman, who had maintained a relationship with Durst since his step mom’s murder, was in tears while comparing the two letters. I have to admit that I was a taken aback that anyone would be hanging out or accepting money from someone that was suspected of being involved of their loved ones murder. This moment seemed like Kaufman’s admission to himself that he could no longer ignore the reality that he could have been dancing with the devil.

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Susan Berman was a close confidante of Robert Durst and it is theorized that she could have known details of the disappearance of Durst’s wife and may have been killed by Durst to prevent her from talking. According to The New York TImes, the Los Angeles Police Department has recently reopened the case and this letter could be a huge part of their new investigation. Unlike Adnan Syed’s case that seems to be drudging its way through the court appeals process, we might really see some progress in terms of the Robert Durst saga sometime soon and theoretically a season two of The Jinx. The episode ended with references to a second interview with Robert Durst where the filmmakers confront him with this new evidence. This is the first time in the season where I have been really anxious to the see the next episode and I can officially call myself hooked on the show. Sadly, this next episode is the last one.

I will admit that during parts of his interviews Robert Durst came off as likeable, quirky man who I almost felt some kind of sympathy for. But I find it hard to deny this new and pretty damning evidence. Is this an eccentric man that had the worst luck in the world or this a privileged serial killer whose status allowed him to get away with multiple terrifying murders? We’ll never know the answer with a hundred percent certainty but I think we’re getting close.


Why India’s Daughter Needs To Be Seen

The BBC’s documentary India’s Daughter about the brutal rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, a young medical student on her way from the movies with a friend who was tricked onto a bus and gang raped has been gaining controversial steam over the past twenty-four hours after India’s government moved to ban the film from being shown on TV in their country. The BBC complied and removed the film from their programming but that hasn’t stopped many Youtubers from posting the film online. The Twittersphere has been blowing up with people either praising the decision to censor the film or vehemently arguing against it. Regardless, if India’s intentions were to censor and downplay the controversy, their approach has certainly backfired.

Having watched it myself today on one of these bootlegged Youtube accounts (I’ll post the link below), I can say that it is one of the most disturbing films I have watched in recent history. The documentary, though not particularly artful, managed to paint a horrific picture of the events of that terrible night when Jyoti Singh was fatally raped in Delhi and even more vividly portray a shocking attitude towards women on the part of the attackers who showed no remorse and took no responsibility for their actions.

One of the more controversial parts of the documentary is the decision to give voice to Mukesh Singh, one of the attackers and the driver of the bus that Jyoti was lured into. He goes on to say truly shocking and vile things such as no decent girl would be roaming around the streets at 9 pm and that the girl is more responsible for rape than the boy without even an ounce of regret or empathy on his face. I understand the concern that by interviewing this man, we are giving him a platform to further his views but I think the interview does quite the opposite. It’s repulsive, it’s shocking and clearly serves to show how monstrous these acts and these attitudes really are. We need to no longer stay blind to the kind of attitudes towards women that exist in India and around the world, we need to face it head on and we need to deal with it. It’s not a platform for hate speech but rather a wake up call for change.

At the beginning of the film, Joyti’s mother explains that her name means “light”. If there is any light that comes from this story it’s Joyti’s life and her determination to educate herself and change the mentality of the world she lived in. There is one part of the film that is unarguably worth watching, it’s the telling of her story. In the final scene of the film when Jyoti’s funeral pyre is burning and we see what is literally her light going out, I was struck with a thought; we can keep that light burning by fighting for changes in society and her death need not be in vain.

Opinion, Review

Stop At Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story Review (Netflix)


My Rating: 4/5

Lance Armstrong is sitting in the conference room of his lawyer’s office under deposition aggressively, unapologetically denying any use of performance enhancing drugs during his career. And so starts the film about an arrogant bully who would do anything to get what he wants including deceiving the public and destroying anyone who gets in his way. This film does a brilliant job taking the viewer into the secret world of back rooms and team trailers where some of the world’s top cyclists were shooting up steroids and EPO’s while reaping the benefits of million dollar sponsorship deals.

This film highlights the media’s role in buying into the Lance Armstrong “hero” story. How his struggles with overcoming cancer and his incredible against all odds comeback made him untouchable. The media routinely ignored clues that something more sinister may be going on and continued to present Lance Armstrong as the ultimate sports champion. Those who dared to question him publicly were shunned and personally targeted by Lance.

Director Alex Holmes starts with Lance’s meager beginnings in Texans with dreams of making it big. He paints Lance as an incredibly ambitious man who saw the cycling world as a way to make huge fortunes. When the opportunity presented itself, Lance seemed to think it was a no-brainer that he would enlist the help of one of the most notorious suspected doping doctors in the cycling world; Dr. Ferrari (Yes, that is his real name). His rising momentum came to halt when he received a startling testicular cancer diagnosis. It was in an Indiana State Hospital room that Betsy Andreu and her husband overheard Lance admit to a group of consulting doctors that he had taken a variety of performance enhancing substances.

Lance made a recovery and soon returned to the sport of cycling. And when he returned, it was with a vengeance. It’s here during the seven Tour de France wins that the film gets juicy describing scenes almost too salacious to believe of midnight steroid pickups in a McDonald’s parking lot and last minute blood transfusions in hotel rooms all during the most watched and speculated event in cycling. Regardless of the rightness of his actions, the man sure was bold.

After his wins, Lance Armstrong had practically achieved God status in American sports and his brand was as big as ever. As meteoric as his rise was, so was his fall. A disgruntled former member of his cycling bitter from his firing came out and publicly attested to participating in doping and watching Lance Armstrong do the same. Armstrong was enraged and did everything in his power to fight the truth. A federal investigation was remarkably dropped against Armstrong despite first-hand witnesses to his fraud. But after a follow-up investigation was conducted by the U.S. anti-doping agency, he could no longer lie to the public. Cue Oprah and her now iconic interview in which, within the first several minutes, Lance Armstrong admitted to everything he had fought so hard to hide.

I found this documentary to be incredibly enraging and a fascinating study in what happens when we want so hard to believe in a miraculous comeback story that we are willing to ignore the flaws of our hero. There were many journalists who had sounded the alarm about the deceit but that was a narrative the mainstream media did not want to know. The more I watched, the more I was shocked at how cocky and frankly scary Lance Armstrong behaviors were. As disturbing was this story was there was one hero that emerged from it all: Betsey Andreu, the wife of a former Postal Service team member who for a decade dared to expose Lance’s conduct. While everyone else that knew of the fraud was scared into silence, Betsy Andreu remarkably stood strong and was never willing to back down. As Betsey says in the documentary, “what Lance never hard was the truth.” If there is one clear conclusion to be drawn from this, it’s that Lance Armstrong no doubt was a talented athlete but an even more talented liar.