In the last two weeks of February, I traveled to San Francisco and then to London. The best part of long plane rides is that many planes have individual screens with lots of media (TV shows, movies, etc.) for travelers to watch. So I watched several movies on these trips. I also saw one movie in a theater in February.
Beautiful Boy ☆☆☆☆
I had heard quite a bit about this movie before it was released. It is based on two memoirs about the same incidents. The first is Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff. The second is written by Sheff’s son, Nic, and is called Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines. Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet play the father and son. Chalamet is particularly good in this role. The supporting cast is great but this is really a story centered on the father and his desperate need to save his son. It’s a good movie although there is not much new in this story that we haven’t seen in other movies.
Three Identical Strangers ☆☆☆☆☆
I loved this documentary. I kind of knew the basic story. Three 19 year old men meet by chance and discover that they are triplets who were separated at birth when they are adopted by three different families. That alone would be fascinating but the story is more complex than that. Stop reading this now if you don’t want to know the big secret.
It turns out that the adoption agency was working with a researcher who wanted to determine whether nature or nurture is the defining factor in how a person turns out. He deliberately placed the babies in families that had very different parenting styles and then followed them for years, sending research assistants to observe them. And these triplets were not the only ones who were part of the experiment. In fact, no one knows how many children were separated from their identical siblings because the papers of the researcher are in an archive and are sealed for years to come.
At the start of the story, the triplets focus a lot on what they have in common, suggesting that nature is the determining factor in how someone turns out. As the story unfolds, we learn that all three of the triplets have some mental health issues as did their birth mother. Two of them are able to deal with these issues which are sometimes severe enough to require hospitalization. The third, Eddie, kills himself. Eddie was very different than the rest of his adoptive family and his father was quite strict and critical of him. The remaining brothers and their families speculate that Eddie’s suicide was a result of his upbringing. They feel that they were given the unconditional love, support, and other tools that helped them deal with their hereditary mental health issues.
The conclusion that the families and some psychologists interviewed for the documentary come to is that neither nature nor nurture defines who we are. They both play a role. As I said, I loved this documentary. Although I think the conclusion is a bit facile, I thought the story was compelling told and I was genuinely sorry when the movie was over. I wanted more.
Jane Fonda in Five Acts ☆☆☆
I like Jane Fonda but before watching this documentary, I didn’t know much about her. Four of the five acts of her life are defined by the men in her life–first her father Henry Fonda and then each of her three husbands: Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden, and Ted Turner. The final act is happening now, after she divorced Turner and is defining herself on her own terms. Fonda is a complicated woman who has lived a fascinating life. Several challenging issues are brought up in the documentary but then left alone. For example, her step-daughter Nathalie (Roger Vadim’s daughter) says that she was raised by Fonda but Fonda abandoned her when the marriage broke up. As another example, Fonda herself says she never bonded with her daughter Vanessa (also Roger Vadim’s daughter) and that Vanessa was jealous of the bond Fonda had with her son Troy (with Hayden). But none of these troubled relationships are explored in depth. So the documentary feels pretty shallow. But the documentary is still interesting because Fonda’s life is so interesting.
Skate Kitchen ☆☆☆☆
This was the surprise movie of my travels. It tells the story of Camille, an 18-year-old woman who loves skateboarding. She gets fairly seriously injured in the early scenes in the movie and then promises her disapproving mom that she won’t skate any more. While browsing Instagram, she discovers a group of young women skaters and travels from her Long Island home into New York City to skate with them. Her mom finds out and Camille leaves to join the group more permanently. It’s a great story of female friendship that is only somewhat marred by the fact that part of the plot involves a fight over a boy. I loved how hard these women worked to master their craft (skateboarding) and the support they gave each other as they tried harder and harder tricks.
They Will Never Grow Old ☆☆☆☆
This is the movie that I saw in a theater. Peter Jackson was asked by the BBC to make a documentary commemorating World War I. The BBC had hundreds of hours of footage filmed filmed between 1914 and 1918 documenting various aspects of the war as well as hundreds of hours of interviews with veterans of the war. Jackson and his team made this movie using only this footage and audio. It’s a good film although I think it suffers somewhat in the middle because it lacks a focus. There is no one battle or one group of soldiers that it focuses on. Instead, it tells a kind of generic story that is representative of many battles and many soldiers. So in the middle the movie gets a bit boring. But the showing I went to included a 30-minute mini-documentary in which Jackson explains how they made the film. This documentary is fascinating and makes the main film even more interesting. Jackson and his team invented a bunch of techniques to restore the footage so that it looked new. Because this footage was shot by cameras that had hand cranks to control the speed of recording, the frame rates of the footage was variable. So Jackson and his team sped up or slowed down the frame rate so that it would look natural. They cleaned up damage to the film caused by age. They colorized parts of the film so that it looked modern. Most fascinating was that they read the lips of the soldiers in the footage and added voices lip synched to the footage. The thousands and thousands of hours spent by hundreds of people on every detail of this film is amazing to think about. And knowing these details make the documentary even better.
I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.