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Zeitgeist: The Movie

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I had this movie recommended by a friend, one whom I will have to have a capital T Talk with now that I've followed up on his recommendation.

This movie doesn't really deserve a full review, but I'll jot down the basics anyway, to keep anybody else from making the same mistake.  This is almost entirely conspiracy theory bullshit, the same type of stuff that causes people to believe in Lizardmen, think that Obama is a muslim, or that the Illuminati run the world.

It's told in three parts.  Part 1 is an inflammatory dissection of Christianity, pointing out the widespread adoption of Christian symbols from non-Christian predecessors.  Some of the claims are true.  More of them may be accurate, though not provable definitively, as the historical record is scant once we go that far back.  Many others are clearly made up from whole cloth.  Cultures and religions steal ideas.  This is not news, and though the movie presents a pretty good dissection of the historical imagery of Christianity, it whiffs on several other topics, notably the assertion that Jesus Christ of Nazareth historically didn't exist.

Part II and III, though, are really off the deep end.  Part II tells us why 9/11 was an inside job, and Part III tells us why, tying it in with the Lusitania, Pearl Harbor, and the Gulf of Tonkin incident for good measure.  It turns it was all a conspiracy!  By big banks!

Look, big banks are terrible.  They have done a hell of a lot to disenfranchise the American populace, deceive them, and get rich as a result.  But there are real, verifiable ways that they have screwed us.  We don't need to make shit up to discredit them.  Let's focus on what we can prove, because this films like this take away the validity of the real complaints.

I am insulted by this film's existence.

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The Wire: Season 4

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The Wire continues its blockbuster run.  After Season 3, which I thought was mostly just a weak rehash of Season 1, they return to heavy hitting.  This time it's the school system that takes it on the chin.

This is probably the best series, displacing Season 2 as my favorite.  The TV is better here, from the writing to the acting to the directing, and there are more moments that really hit you, that really make you think.  The vestiges of the cop drama are almost completely gone with the removal of McNulty from the storyline, and the series improves as a result.  It helps that we're used to thinking of children as positive, innocent forces, something which is simultaneously upheld and abused in this season.

This season cemented this show as one of my favorites ever.

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30 for 30: 40 Minutes of Hell

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Another solid entry in the 30 for 30 series.  This is a pretty straightforward sports documentary, albeit a good one.  This is a version of the sports trope cycle of adversity, triumph, fall from grace, and eventual redemption.  This particular version comes in the form of the career of Nolan Richardson, the basketball coach at Arkansas.  Highlights of this particular film are seeing Bill Clinton, basketball-fan-in-chief, and the rather disgraceful "shut up about race" dismissal of a black coach by a white establishment.

It's pretty clear that the major sports storylines were those covered in the first season: O.J., Michael Jordan, The Yankees, etc.  Now we're starting to get into the lower tiers.  Sure, this was interesting, but it was still one season, well-covered, and there's not that much more to say about it other than what the mainstream media has already said.  This wasn't an idiosynchratic blip like Tarry Richards in Into the Wind, or a crazy film style reimaging of a well-told story like June 17th, 1994.  I'm not saying the series has jumped the shark.  No, this film is too good for it.  But it is clear that the series is evolving.  We'll still get films like Renee, but we're going to see some more playing to the crowd as well.

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30 for 30: The Real Rocky

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Once upon a time, before movies and steroids made him into his own American myth, Sylvester Stallone saw a boxing match between Muhammad Ali and a supposed patsy, Chuck Wepner.  That patsy ended up lasting until the fifteenth round, when Ali finally defeated him by TKO.  Stallone saw this fight, and shortly afterward wrote Rocky.

Wepner, known for his toughness, is a tragic figure.  Not only has Stallone since disavowed Wepner's role in the genesis of the series (despite being buddy buddy with him earlier), but Wepner has been through divorce, lawsuits, and even jail.  Wepner is a wizened old man now, a figure more pitiable than tough.  He's also not exactly a reliable narrator either, evidenced by statements that he was busted for cocaine that belonged to his "friend."  Still, that doesn't mask the fact that he got jacked around by Stallone.  It makes a compelling documentary.

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30 for 30: Renee

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Renee is the story of Renee Richards, previously Richard Raskind, a trans athelete who had sex-change surgery, then filed a lawsuit to get her onto the pro woman's tour.

This is the type of story that keeps me coming back to the 30 for 30 series.  This is sports apocrypha which says something about society, not just about sports.  It helps that I hadn't heard about this story, despite being at least tangentially familiar with the queer scene.

Not all of what this story says about us is complimentary, of course.  This is a story of overcoming bigotry, of education.  Some people come off looking intolerant, including some of the tennis stars of the day.  The scars have healed, by now, and I'm sure it helps that Renee Richards never won a major.  It does spur one to wonder at both how far we've advanced in the tone of the discussion, and how little we've come to a consensus about this problem from a sporting standpoint.  The debate on chromosomal testing, for instance, lives on in the Olympics.

The interview of Richards' son, Nick, provides a haunting epilogue to the film.  This isn't "And they all lived happily ever after."  This is more like the long-term grief that we saw in Once Brothers.

This is one of the best of the 30 for 30 series.  Definitely see it.

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The Wire: Season 3

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The Wire continues its excellent run.  This is probably the weakest season so far.  This felt a lot like Season 1: The Redux, with the same bad guys, and the same narrative.  This season brings catharsis, which is good, but like all things in the series, it comes with a large helping of careful-what-you-wish-for.  

The idea of legalizing drugs, and the political difficulties in doing so is shown well.  It proves to be effective, though there is the principle if the drug trade to keep in mind.  As this show is so good at doing, it takes a complicated topic, runs it though the prism of modern American city life, and puts together a wonderful nuanced examination.  There's no corners cut here.  If somehow the first two reviews of this series haven't convinced you, go watch the show.  Go do it now, if you can find it.

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30 for 30: Charismatic

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It rocked my world when I realized that Netflix now has the 30 for 30 series, including the new season.  I've reviewed the entirety of the first season, and I'm planning to make my way through this second season as well.  There's no chronology to this season, as I'm just picking up whatever I can find on Netflix and watching it as I have an opportunity.

Charismatic is the first one I watched.  It was pretty disappointing.  This is banal sports documentary of the worst type.  What I felt like I was watching was a rehash of the television coverage of the time.  The best sports documentary deliberately contextualize sport, and show why a sports story is more than it seems, is more important to more people than is immediately obvious.  This was mostly a love poem to the horse Charismatic and to his jockey, Chris Antley.  Sure, Charismatic made a run at the Triple Crown, against expectations.  But many horses have done that.  And Chris Antley had a temporary reprieve from addiction.  Again, many people have done that.  Both storylines are extremely well-trod territory, beloved by NBC Olympic coverage, insipid magazine pieces, and lazy newspaper editorials.  The last thing I need is this kind of junk regurgitated in a long form.

The movie is just hopelessly boring.  I have faith that there will be better in this season.

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Winter's Bone

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Winter's Bone didn't show up on my radar until a friend brought it over.  It's one of those dramas that's perfect for me, namely a contemplative social exploration flick.  This is a good fit, and deserves the accolades it's getting.  A strong female teenage heroine is particularly refreshing.

The natural comparison is to Deliverance, the towering behemoth of bad hillbilly behavior movies.  The big difference here is that one of the hillbillies is the hero.  This might imply a more nuanced perspective of the culture, but there isn't really.  The hillbillies are slightly more sympathetic, but they still come out as the pariahs of culture.  Just because we empathize with them doesn't mean we really like them.

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The Wire: Season 2

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Continuing our voracious consumption of The Wire, we knocked down Season 2 in about a week.  This was a great season.  While I had a few friends tell me that Season 2 was one of the weaker seasons, I thought it was really unique.

A big part of this was that it *gasp* has white criminals!  Holy shit, you mean white people can do bad things too?  Would have fooled me from watching most pop culture depictions of crime, particularly urban crime.  It's still a bit frustrating that the top men are all foreigners, which still leaves the easy out that Americans are only drawn into crime by the out-of-town contingent.  But still, it's easy to tell the story of the inner-city black thug, as it's an unfortunately well-established cultural trope.  I respect a show that's willing to at least break out of that.

And the story is still compelling.  You still have the humanization of the criminals that's so good from the first season, and the great writing.  Like "tweedy impertinance."

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Smoke Signals

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This is a strange movie, in a good way.  Based on the book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie, this movie tries to take the book's simultaneous touching and haunting style and make it into a movie.  It succeeds, partially, though I think a lot of the uniqueness and the incisiveness of the book is lost in the transition.  The book is a collection of short stories, several of which involve recurring characters, and these are the stories that are woven into a movie plot.  

At times there were clearly sacrifices made to make the movie marketable (oh, the irony).  Pushing the square peg of the book into the round hole of traveling-dude-friendship movie makes things sometimes forced, and the characters are changed to be a bit less subtle so that we can grasp them more easily.

Still, it's embarassing how little cultural discussion or knowledge there is about the very significant minority of Native Americans.  This may not be the best movie, but it tells a story that needs to be told.  We could use a lot more movies like it.

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