Archive for the “HBO” Category


August 10, 2010
87 Minutes
Jeffrey Blitz [Spellbound; The Office; Parks And Recreation]

Everyone knows that playing the lottery is a ridiculous way to spend money. The opening stat says that “people” believe there’s a 1 in 6 chance of winning, when the statisticians will tell you that the chances are more like 165 Million to 1. And yet, even with these stats, some people play their state’s lottery every single week. In fact, compounding the irrationality of the enterprise, when the jackpots get up over $100 Million, even more people buy tickets, even though their chances become slimmer the more people who play. I last bought a ticket when some co-workers and I went in on about a hundred tickets when everyone was talking about the huge payoff. I knew there was no chance, but: 1) it was a social thing to do; and 2) just imagine how sucky it would have been had all of them won after I chose not to play. That was something I couldn’t accept.

This film follows a half dozen winners who illustrate the maxim “be careful what you wish for.” They are all a bit wacko, except maybe the couple who lost all their friends and moved from Pennsylvania to a waterfront mansion in Florida after claiming a $110 Million jackpot. They tried to continue life normally, but it just couldn’t happen. Conversations about waking up in the morning for a hated job or about where the cheapest gas was available no longer meant anything to them. Friends would stop talking when they approached. One woman who was a friend of the couple said that every day she wishes it were her and she stays up at night wondering why it wasn’t. They’ve kept some of the thousands of letters they received about business opportunities and donation ideas. Their two teenage kids remember not being allowed to leave the house for the few months afterward for fear of kidnapping.

We should all have such trouble, right?

Another Pennsylvanian winner bought 400 pairs of identical pants when he found a style he liked. He didn’t say no to any offers for business partnerships, he promised his family a million each, he built a hilltop mansion that was so poorly designed that he couldn’t add drywall for fear of its collapse. He bought more than one limo. Then his siblings sent a hitman to kill him and someone sold him a car with all the chassis bolts cut off hoping he’d kill himself in it. He now lives in the storeroom of a supply company owned by a friend. And he appears happier for it.

There’s the heartwarming story of a Vietnamese man who won the Powerball with co-workers and could buy his family in America as well as Vietnam a huge house. He and his wife tear up while describing their escape by rickety boat.

And then there’s a cat man who is clearly not mentally stable, put off dating and friends to help his parents with their business. After they both died, he became a crazy cat man hoarder whose property was about to be condemned so full of coke bottles and cats that you couldn’t move around in it. Down to his last three bucks he bought lotto tickets and won around $6 million. He has a friend who sort of counsels him on what to do and makes all interested women speak to him first. Under his supervision the man moves to a better house, but one year later finds himself at a motel that rents rooms by the hour where he appears to feel more comfortable. It’s $200 a week and his day seems to consist of talking to his motel neighbors and feeding about a dozen cats at a local body shop. Oh yeah, and he spends money on strippers and other back-of-the-alternative-weekly companionship.

Everyone interviewed (even the woman who continues to play but has never won more than $1,000) seems to think that there’s something larger at work than random chance. Even the Berkeley mathematician. He, of all people, should know never to play, but he attributes his success to the state of “theta brain activity” he went into to get glimpses of numbers, which he wrote down in a book and played for 18 months until those numbers hit. Even he seems like a wacko. His wife, having no more use for him after his win, divorced him and took half his winnings.

I’m not sure that viewers will have their behavior changed by watching this film. If you think it’s stupid to play now, you’ll probably come out of the experience with that view solidified.

There is a prank played on a guy (first seen on THE FRESH PRINCE OF BELL-AIR) whereby his friends show the guy a tape of the previous numbers with a new lottery ticket. And then they film it. He jumps all over the room to the degree where a heart attack might not be out of the question. So that guy can tell people that he knows what its like to win the lottery. Though he has no cash to show for it.

7.2 IMDB


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July 20, 2009
90 Minutes
Paul Saltzman

Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954. Charleston High School in Mississippi finally integrated their single high school in 1970. In that year, the seniors had two proms. One for the white kids and one for the black kids. And that’s the way it continued until Charleston’s most famous resident, Morgan Freeman, offered in 1999 to pay for a single prom, provided it was integrated. He was turned down. So he tried again in 2008. This time the schoolboard and the seniors themselves said yes.

The high school has 415 students, 70% of whom are black.

The documentary crew gave cameras to a dozen or so students, probably the most outspoken of the group. All of the kids were fine going to an integrated school and living in an integrated town. At least all of the ones who appeared on camera. One white senior male was photographed behind a screen for fear that his family would see him brazenly say things like “I’ve had white lovers and black lovers and it’s what’s inside that counts.”

Whenever something comes up that speaks for the other side–that is, the racist side–the cameras aren’t there to capture it and we see events unfold with animation. People in this town may be racist, but they also are careful. A white girl claims that a black girl threatened her and then brought a gun to school the next day. We hear from the black girl but the white one is nowhere to be found.

A prom committee is formed and rules are established. One white girl resigns from the committee because she would not be attending the mixed prom, though she would go to one if it were white-only.

Meanwhile, the townspeople are reacting. We hear from several parents, who remember their own segregated proms. We meet one white senior girl (who looks to be about 14) who openly talks about her black boyfriend (who looks, maybe 15). They aren’t particularly demonstrative at school. They don’t hold hands in front of people, and neither has ever been allowed to visit the other one’s home. They claim to be in love, and with West-coast 2009 eyes, they seem like a naive, though cute couple. But to people stuck in the past in Mississippi, they might just represent the downfall of the human species.

The woman’s father is by far the most open about his thoughts on their relationship. He is one of those “you can either love me or hate me. I hope you love me, but if you don’t, keep to yourself and I’ll do the same” type of southerners. He claims to have plenty of black friends, but he feels like his girl will be hurt when she gets out into a real world that won’t approve of her boy choice. The boy’s parents take a more “be careful” approach. The man tried to punish his daughter by grounding her and taking her cell phone, but she stayed with the boy. As the school’s sole interracial couple, the prom has extra meaning for them.

We need tension, and it comes in the form of some parents paying for and holding a white-only prom after all. A meeting is held in someone’s house and two of our interview subjects recount being there and hearing a father say “no black boy is going to rub up all on my daughter at a dance” and they take off denouncing the meeting and the prom. Some white kids refuse to go, but others don’t. And the ones who went received much less scorn than I would have expected. They took dates to a party to which an entire ethnic group was excluded. And they didn’t feel particularly bad about it.

The white parents hire a lawyer who speaks to the film crews in their stead. He begins saying things that make them look worse while trying to make them look better. One obvious question for a lawyer is “why won’t those parents speak to us?” To which he replies “They don’t want to appear racist.” By holding a white-only event, they don’t want to appear racist. Nice.

Clips of Freeman driving around, clips of kids worried about dresses and tuxedos and big enough limos and whom to go with begin to take over. Beauty parlor scenes, texting, music apprehension. It all seems pretty normal.

One thing that isn’t easy to see is that just about everyone we see in town is poor. These kids come out of trailers and walk down milk crate steps while dressed in beautiful, colorful outfits. It seems like the town much more alike than the older generations would lead you to believe.

The film is most successful in documenting an anachronistic town, with a single small high school, who can’t seem to get their head around racial diversity and interaction, more than 50 years after the Supreme Court ruled on the matter.

8.4 IMDB


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July 16, 2009
45 Minutes
Alexandra Pelosi [Journeys With George; Friends Of God: A Road Trip With Alexandra Pelosi]

After being exiled from his home and the church he built, the former minister tries to redeem himself and rebuild a life for his family.

Something happened while I was watching this short documentary that I never expected to happen: I started feeling sorry for Mr. Haggard. Of all the social issues that are dividing our country, the one that I have the most trouble with, above all else, is the group of people trying to stop gay people from having the same rights as straight people. Adoption, marriage, and leading a church. Racism, abortion, creationish, etc, all take a back seat in my mind to two adults in love. How do you legislate that?

Before seeing this, Haggard was a hypocrite who spoke out against gay equality while having an ongoing relationship with a male escort. This documentary shows us some of his early sermons on the topic and in retrospect it’s easy to snicker at him as he explains the great danger of homosexuality. A particularly awkward speech he gave ten years ago mentions that a buddy and he were knocking on doors while going about the lord’s good work, or whatever, and they suddenly found themselves in the parking lot of a gay bar. Someone called out to them “are you two together?”, then we see the audience at the sermon bust out laughing like it was the craziest thing they’ve ever heard. Can you imagine? Two men being a couple? Madness?

But here’s the thing: Haggard seems like a charismatic, slightly dorky, leader of people. If he encourages you to do things, I bet that you do them. He is still strongly religious, still reads the bible, and is still almost superhumanly honest. Some of the questions Pelosi asks (and she is great at this in all her films) are so on point, that the subject can’t help but answer with the first thing on his mind. He doesn’t sugarcoat what he did or his “struggle” or when the news came out that he was “completely cured of his homosexuality” that Haggard himself never said it, but one of his former co-pastors did. He knows he isn’t “cured” and he may not believe that being gay is “curable”. He continually talks about the sins he’s committed, his wife seems pretty cool and supportive, his kids are exactly like every other kid, though probably more understanding as the family is banished from the State of Colorado and forced to live in loaner houses, a residence hotel, and then a tiny apartment.

And here’s the part I can’t get my head around. He had sex with a man, he admitted to buying crystal meth. And for those transgressions, he was fired from his job, required to enter treatment, banned from ministering again, and here’s the kicker, forced out of the entire state of Colorado. On who’s authority can a church with 14,000 members tell a man and his family they must leave the state and the church which he founded and led for decades? I’m sure there are bylaws and such that spell out what happens, but wouldn’t a man who has, according to their beliefs, fallen, need his home church and familiar surroundings now more than ever? Isn’t that what Christians are supposed to do?

As an atheist, I’m finished shaking my head while listening to people talk about why theirs is the one true religion. I’ve moved past his or anyone else’s religion. But here’s what I saw: A man who could again be a very compelling leader, a man interested in the downtrodden, who could be an asset to any organization (even a church) that might want him.

At the beginning of the documentary we see scenes from Pelosi’s previous project where Haggard is hugging young men and speaking in front of all male arena crowds and riding his scooter around the huge empire that he’s had a large part in building. We can snicker at the male hugging, but there is no doubt that all the people who speak to him after his sermons or speeches think that he’s the greatest. They can scarcely control their enthusiasm.

Did the punishment fit the crime in this case? As someone who wishes everyone could just bang who they wanted, obviously I don’t understand how big a crime it is to enjoy the company of the same gender. But the way he was treated, after admitting to touching a man, seems just about as unchristian as you can get. They gave him a severance package, they forced him into exile in Arizona, the White House distanced themselves from him, the other evangelical leaders suddenly decided that he never really was that powerful, and he became a story that his former supporters wished they could simply forget.

The greatest post-script possibility of this documentary would be the news that Ted Haggard has started a ministry for all sexual orientations. He could keep the meth out, but let in the gay and the bi and the poly and whatever else consenting adults should be allowed to do. Shouldn’t those children of god have access to the same scripture and fellowship as his initial flock? If you believe this kind of thing, and I don’t, Haggard could conceivably save souls for Jesus. He still has the skill set. Let him lead.

Back to the filmmaking for a second. Pelosi is great at asking the pushy, yet not-rude question. I’ve always felt like her subjects consider her some kind of west coast, liberal Jew, who simply doesn’t know how social graces are followed and they are therefore extra forgiving when she acts in such a forward manner. This film is short, and Pelosi and another person handle all the filming. There are shots in cars and shots on walks in the desert and old clips and explanatory title cards. He really opened up to her and it made him, and his family, a much more sympathetic subject.

7.0 IMDB

The Trials of Ted Haggard @ Amazon


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May 23, 2009
92 Minutes — June 6, 2008
Animation / Action / Comedy / Family
Mark Osborne & John Stevenson

Prepare For Awesomeness

Jack Black made this more enjoyable than it probably had the right to be. Creative use of Chinese-seeming art design. It may be culturally inauthentic, but I didn’t notice the difference.

7.3 Metacritic
7.7 IMDB

Kung Fu Panda @ Amazon


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May 3, 2009
English / Hawaiian
111 Minutes — April 18, 2008
Comedy / Drama / Romance
Nicholas Stoller

A Comedy About Getting Dumped, And Taking It Like A Man

6.7 Metacritic
7.5 IMDB

Forgetting Sarah Marshall @ Amazon


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April 26, 2009
93 Minutes
Carl Deal & Tia Lessin

Oscar Nomination For Best Documentary

7.5 IMDB

Trouble the Water @ Amazon


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December 24, 2008
English / Dari / Arabic / Russian
102 Minutes — December 21, 2007
Biography / Drama
Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin [A Few Good Men; Malice; The American President; Sports Night; The West Wing; Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip]
Mike Nichols [The Graduate; Catch-22; Silkwood; Biloxi Blues; Working Girl; Postcards From The Edge; Regarding Henry; Wolf; The Birdcage; Primary Colors; Wit; Angels In America; Closer]

Story of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the early 1980s. A trifecta of acting royalty play the main parts. Tom Hanks is Charlie Wilson, a real-life congressman from Texas. Julia Roberts plays a weathly socialite, also from Texas. Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays a CIA guy who lacks a single diplomatic bone in his body. He is barely hanging on to his job. Wilson is in position to pass almost any funding through his several House committees. Because he deals in covert operations, his committee never has to tell the rest of the House what they’re voting on. That means that as the amounts get higher, the votes continue to pass.

Wilson is a playboy, coke user, drunkard Congressman who sees a report by Dan Rather (while in a hot tub with a bevy of naked beauties) on the Soviet invasion. The cold war is in full effect and Wilson is inspired by the goat herders who are providing quite a fight to the mighty Soviet army. He is encouraged by Roberts to visit a refugee camp which causes him to take up the fight on behalf of the Afghanis in ernest.

This all sounds pretty boring and politically wonky, but due to the screenplay, written by uber dialogue king Aaron Sorkin, the story never wavers. I’m sure they’ve made the story a bit more positive than real life, but it sure seemed like fun to covertly kick Russian ass. I’ve done some research and it is pretty true-to-life. Wilson’s office is staffed by a collection of assistants and secretaries who wouldn’t be out of place in a 1970s soft-porn movie. But he is impossible not to like.

He charms Israeli Jews and Egyptian Muslims with equal aplomb, sometimes using the charms of a “non-traditional” belly dancer to encourage the two enemies to join together against the evil communists.

It is impossible to watch this without thinking about modern-day Afghanistan. Much like the US cut-and-run first gulf war where we kicked Iraq out of Kuwait but then didn’t support the Iraqis who wanted to overthrow Saddam, we helped kick the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but then left a power vacuum that a man named Osama bin Laden took advantage of.

The scenes between Hoffman and Hanks rival the best give-and-take conversations that Sports Night or The West Wing had. I was smiling in amazement and recognition of Sorkin’s hand.

If there’s a major problem with the film, it’s that the story is so simplified–it seems so easy for an inspired congressman to change history–that it doesn’t ring particularly true. Like West Wing depicted a Washington DC where people were mostly good, this film shows everyone working together in service to beat the Russians. Which happened, but it must have been messier.

ON: Supporting Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman

6.9 Metacritic
7.4 IMDB

Charlie Wilson’s War @ Amazon


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July 12, 2008
122 Minutes — January 12, 2007
Crime / Drama
Nick Cassavetes [Mask; Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle; She’s So Lovely; Face/Off; Blow; The Notebook]

Inspired By True Events

5.3 Metacritic
6.9 IMDB

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July 8, 2008
English / French / German
99 Minutes
Marina Zenovich

The Truth Couldn’t Fit In The Headlines

7.8 Metacritic
7.8 IMDB

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Written by Michael W. Cummins