Manhunt: Unabomber

Manhunt: Unabomber is a Discovery Channel miniseries about the 1990s hunt for the Unabomber that culminated in a raid of his Montana cabin. This dramatized series was surprisingly good, with outstanding performances by Sam Worthington as FBI agent ‘Fitz’ and Paul Bettany as Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

Bettany’s performance as Kaczynski is particularly poignant. Not appearing until a few episodes in, Bettany plays the role in heartbreaking duet of genius and inner chaos. The result is a highly sympathetic- but not forgivable- portrait of Kaczinski as a man psychologically ground down by his inability to meld with the world.

I had no idea that Kaczinski was subjected to MKUltra experimentation while an underaged math student at Harvard (he entered Harvard at age 16). In fact, I had no idea MKUltra experiments were run on Harvard students at all! It sounds like a wild conspiracy theory, but is in fact sad truth and assuredly part and parcel to Kaczinski’s bizarre reign of terror.

Bettany’s performance aside, the most fascinating element of the series is its emphasis on language and linguistics. I don’t know how closely this holds to the actual investigation, but it is only through Kaczinski’s idiosyncratic actes de plume that the case cracks open with an accurate profile; investigators are able to match his writing to an obscure style guide briefly followed by The Chicago Tribune, thus pinpointing him as having learned to read and write in the Chicago area.

All in all the series is well paced and highly watchable. I’m ashamed to admit I spent an entire saturday glued to the screen. Manhunt: Unabomber is available on netflix streaming as of this writing.


Zootopia Looks Like Staten Island

After all the hype, after my mother raved about it, after my children raved about it– including my 19 year old nerd son with ice in the veins– after my daughter put the dvd on view for her psych ward– I watched Zootopia once it was on netflix. I’ll reserve my observations for a future post, but I could not help but notice that the city of Zootopia greatly resembles Staten Island.




I’ll note this: if having a tiny bunny on the police force is novel, how does Zootopia police its rodent population? That doesn’t make sense.

First Comes Love

First Comes Love is a 2012 documentary from Nina Davenport detailing her desire to conceive a child sans husband, as she has failed to find Mr. Right by age 41. Having yearned her whole life for motherhood, she enlists the sperm of handsome gay friend Eric and we’re off to the races.

I watched this documentary twice. The first go-round it rubbed me the wrong way. Nina and her vast social network are cringeworthily solipsistic and emotionally stunted. I began to wonder how this small army of navel gazing intellectuals manage to pull their pants down in the morning to pee. And half of them, including Davenport, went to Harvard! I even stated aloud to my husband: “I can’t review this; it would be too cruel.”

Yet when I watched her film a second time I felt far more empathy for Ms. Davenport’s plight. Despite copious dating, no relationship grows to fruition. She even dates when she’s pregnant, to a charming film critic named John (note to Nina: if you ever read this review, get John back!). I had to wonder if these aging men and women, after so many years of ill-fated prospects, simply lack the ability to connect to one another long term. Nina even has to attend couples therapy with her best friend Amy to navigate their interactions.

Yet beneath Nina’s whiny exterior burns a bona fide desire to be a mother, and this is an urge none of us can criticize. After all, the maternal instinct is what transformed us from slimy fish to land dwelling mammals: concerned mother fish flopped in the mud for safer ground to lay eggs, and eventually that led to legs.

And oh does Davenport flop around. Between awkward conversations with the sperm donor, viscerally painful battles with her father- who perpetually hides behind a print New York Times and barks that she “Get an abortion!” after her pregnancy announcement- and her floundering sense of self, I began to feel maternal toward this poor creature and wondered if perhaps I could adopt her.

The filmmaking is choppy, neither here nor there, and the docu is fundamentally not about Davenport’s burgeoning motherhood, but rather her tumultuous relationship with her family of origin. In that respect I was disappointed to see details of pregnancy glossed over: she goes from taxi with sperm donor to suddenly third trimester pregnant, though the birth scene, which handsome Eric decides to avoid but later attends, is not to be missed.

All in all First Comes Love is a confused and confusing enterprise that nonetheless affirms the beauty of motherhood. And despite their flaws, Nina and Eric manage to produce the cutest baby in human history- but you’ll have to watch the film to see him!

Currently First Comes Love is available on Netflix streaming.

The Well-Fed Zombie Apocalypse

[contains spoilers through early season 5 WD]

I was never much of a TV watcher, even as a kid. In fact I watched absolutely no TV for most of my teenage years, and in my young adulthood discovered only one show I bothered to tune into: The X-Files.

Then I met, and married, my husband. Because he works in the entertainment field he calls watching TV “work.” And he worked a lot. I more than once quipped I had married the back of someone’s head.

Since life is long and lonely I occasionally joined him. I grew fond of Voyager and completely obsessed with Enterprise. Then came a lot of breastfeeding babies, and Netflix. Instead of lying in bed like a mindless lactating cow, I could instead perch before Netflix like a mindless American. I watched all of Battlestar Galactica while nursing my now 4 year old. And once done with that I ventured into a land I never dared tread- the horror genre- and tried the much touted Walking Dead while my daughter gulped at my breast.

“Remember the zombies are just makeup…” my husband reassured, and sure enough I was hooked. I still maintain the first season is outstanding and a must-see, even if, like me, you’re averse to gore. It goes downhill from there and by season 4 I was done. It was just stupid.

Yet the siren’s call of Netflix persisted, and once season 5 was added I sat down for an episode. Herein follow my thoughts on the first few episodes of season 5.

gratuitous gore
Maybe the writers were desperate but there is simply too much gratuitous slime, violence, and blood in the opening episodes (I’m up to episode 4). Yeah, I know we’re dealing with cannibals. But do they really have to show it? I mean sometimes less is more, kwim?

Nor do I understand why people are resorting to cannibalism when in theory wildlife should be teeming against a decimated human population (zombies aren’t smart enough to hunt).

magic car batteries
As with previous seasons car batteries are miraculously up and at ’em after years sitting around untouched. If I don’t drive my 10 year old van for a couple weeks, the battery’s dead as a doornail and AAA charges (no pun intended) to the rescue.

normal to overweight BMI
The thinnest BMI amongst our survivors is in the 18-19 range, with most presenting in the 22ish range, plus a few corpulent survivors. That’s right, even in the most dire of survivalist settings people manage to maintain a high/normal BMI. Some are even steroid-buff (Tyreese and Abraham).

big muscles- and token white hispanic- apocalypse style

Yet we rarely see them obtain food, or even eat. Sure there are the occasional grocery runs for a cartful of canned food, and Daryl betimes rustles up squirrels, but there isn’t nearly enough food prep nor feasting for our motley crew to remain so plump and lively.

I shop for and prepare food for a household of ten people. Even with the modern conveniences of Costco and a functioning kitchen, it is essentially a full time job to ensure everyone is well fed and content. Yet somehow the cast of WD manages to maintain a normal weight while constantly fighting zombies, slaying enemy camps, indulging in profound dialogue over the nature of existence, all while unchained to the stove.

modest female zombies
Perhaps the zombie plague disproportionately impacted haredi jews and the FLDS. The majority of female zombies sport modest, ankle-covering skirts, long sleeved blouses, and long hair (I gues the FLDS braids came undone in the mayhem). Look out in your daily life and tell me how many women are sporting long hair and full-length skirts. Not a lot. Yet somehow in the zombie apocalypse, women are concerned about looking feminine.


That all being said season 5 isn’t nearly as bad as I anticipated. In fact it touches profoundly upon themes of religion, the human struggle, and choices we face when desperate. This is the backbone of the series and the main reason I continue to watch, even if apathetically.

Don’t tell me what happens in season 6, as I can’t stay up past 9pm.

Staten Island Summer

When I first noticed Staten Island Summer on Netflix I was delighted. A movie about Staten Island! Since when does that happen? I mean there was Copland which I believe was a thinly disguised version of Staten Island, but generally this island, despite its proximity to the cultural mecca of Manhhatan, has been left out of the cinematic universe. I eagerly clicked PLAY.

Sixty seconds in I knew I was in serious trouble. A “cartoon New Jersey” copulates with a “cartoon Brooklyn” to give birth to Staten Island. Yuck! Could they have been more crass? Technically this is true as Staten Island accents are a blend of Brooklyn and New Jersey- but animate it as porn? Blech. This was only the beginning.  From that initial point vulgarity, vapidity, and aimlessness only increased. Dick jokes, cleavage jokes, masturbation jokes. No, no, no!

I decided to lie back and think of England, enduring the whole damned 108 minutes of this monstrosity.

Let me state it bluntly: this is a horrible movie. Horribly written, horribly acted (with allowance for the disgusting, pointless script) horribly edited, there’s no significant plot, the characterization is abysmal and I’m pretty sure most of the scenes shot in “Great Kills” were in fact shot on the dreaded North Shore. Mysteriously no one in this film has a Staten Island accent except for the token guido, mafia boss, and extras. That’s right folks: the major players in a film about Staten Island sound like Julliard trained actors. I should have expected as much.

Et tu, Brute?

There were a few funny scenes, or at least I found myself laughing once or twice through this sorrowful adventure. The scene where John DeLuca- the token guido- struggles with basic math on his Navy exam was funny. The animated scene where creepy pool manager (Michael Patrick O’Brien) births Satan’s spawn was humorous. The scene where the cops, mafia, African American drug dealers, and the crazed Hispanic maintenance worker all pull guns on each other was vaguely funny. But otherwise this was a giant waste of time and hardly emblematic of the city’s most verdant borough. Maybe writer Colin Jost spent too much time in Hollywood, but this was a useless, worthless, unavailing cinematic effort no matter which vantage point you approach it from. Don’t squander your life watching this film! Or at least fast-forward to the sparse scenes that might make you laugh.

Dance Moms

I’m ashamed to say I’ve been watching Dance Moms on netflix. I tried watching it upon first airing, but found it painfully boring and mind-numbingly shallow. So why I can stomach it now, I’m unsure. Perhaps, armed with the power of streaming, I can skip the worst parts. As my daughter Amadea intoned: it’s so horrible it’s mesmerizing.

For those who don’t know, Dance Moms is a reality show revolving around The Abby Lee Dance Company, her lead team of dancers, and those dancers’ mothers. Here are my thoughts.

  • Abby Lee. I actually like her. She’s tough and no-nonsense. It’s not unusual for her to tell a crying child to suck it up and deal with it. We need more adults like this in the world, because children these days are coddled. I often think my worst mistake as a parent has been being too easy on my kids. Abby is also really fat, which is weird for a dance coach presiding over stick-thin little girls. But it doesn’t seem to bother her; she dresses well for her weight and has success with speed dating.
  • The moms. The “dance moms” provide the bulk of drama in the series.These women are so unbelievably brassy, catty, shallow, back stabbing and emotionally vicious that I had to wonder if it was all scripted. But I honestly don’t think it is, at least not entirely; these ladies are genuinely horrid. They wear thick layers of makeup such that they appear to be sporting masks, and while not fat, they’re all chunky and dumpy. They drink loads of alcohol. The moms remind of Kate from Kate Plus 8. In fact many of them look like her. Is this a Pennsylvania thing? Nasty personalities, and harshly dyed hair?
  • The girls. The dancers are sweet, hard working little kids. I felt bad for them being caught up in this web of vicarious living at the hands of their crazed mothers.
  • The dancing. The dancing and dance techniques are subpar. They would be laughed out of town by a real dance school such as ABT or the Kirov. Their dance style is best described as stripper routines plus gymnastics, and even the best dancers are not that good. Which leads us to:
  • Hypersexualization. The costumes they put these little kids in are insane. I think every pedophile on earth must be glued to this series. A typical costume looks like underwear with a sprinkle of sequins. What the heck? I can’t imagine putting my girls in these outfits. What is everyone thinking? And it’s not just the costumes; the dances contain more bumping, grinding, and booty shaking than an evening in Atlantic City would provide. Except these kids are nine years old.

you thought I was exaggerating

However, in watching this series I got the same feeling I derived from Toddlers in Tiaras. As crazed as the parents might be, they’re deeply involved with their kids’ lives and make sure the children are always busy with life outside the home. Again, if I were to fault myself as a parent it’s that I’m entirely too checked out. I feed them, I bathe them (the younger ones anyway) but beyond that they do their thing and I do my thing. Am I supposed to be ferrying them around town to a myriad of extracurricular experiences, watching their every developmental move? Maybe, but I don’t. I’m not nearly the helicopter parent these dance moms are. The closest I come is doling advice out to the the overachiever, who practically begs for it. Quite frankly I feel I deserve a medal for getting them to school on time for three years in a row. I do deserve that, don’t I?

Hot Girls Wanted

When I noticed the documentary Hot Girls Wanted on netflix I knew I had to watch it. Of course I love documentaries- I could happily watch a documentary about mold- plus I have a longstanding fascination with sex workers. What makes a woman cross the line to engage in the oldest profession known to man?

Hot Girls Wanted focuses on the internet-spawned “amateur” industry of very young women, most only 18 or 19 years old, trying to forge their way into online porn. Answering an ad in craigslist they are invited to the home of a “talent agent” who rents out bedrooms, and assists the girls in getting shoots. The girls advertise themselves on twitter (which does not censor pornographic content) and most have lofty plans to make it big in the industry.

As for their motivations, most express a desire for a quick escape from their parents; at upward to $1000 per shoot they amass sums of money that, from their teenage vantage point, appear vast. Some express a desire to feel “liberated” or “free.” Miriam Weeks, aka Belle Knox, the Duke University student who famously financed her tuition by working in porn, waxes poetic about the feminist empowerment she experiences on the set.

However all that glitters is ultimately not gold for these women. While the docu does not necessarily have an anti-porn bent, it starkly illustrates the paradox of supposed female empowerment against the degradation they are subjected to at work, including abusive fetish acts, and uncertainty about their contractual obligations if they’re not comfortable with a particular request by a producer. The film also exposes the heartrending conflicts of young women trying to come to grips with their choices, while remaining loyal to the values of family and loved ones.

In terms of raunchiness the film is relatively tame, at least considering the subject matter. There is some brief topless female nudity, and non-nude clips from disturbing “abuse” videos. So if you’re looking for titillation you’ll come away disappointed, as the film focuses on the psychological and logistical factors in the lives of fledgling porn actresses.

One thing that amazed me is that none of these women seem to be on birth control, and, filming in Miami, they don’t use condoms (which are mandatory in films executed in Los Angeles). One girl blithely describes getting “paid extra” for Plan B at Walgreens! This makes me think porn stars are not the most forward-thinking bunch, and are probably not considering the long term implications of their career choice.

Spanish Downton Abbey 2

Season 3 of Grand Hotel has been added to Netflix streaming. Since season 2 ended on a whopper cliffhanger, it was with delight that the 7 month old and I sat down for the next incarnation of Downton Abbey, Spanish style. Season 3 offers copious Alicia-Julio snogging, so much so it’s utterly implausible they haven’t been caught yet by hotel staff, guests, or Alicia’s husband.

muchos besos

My overachiever asked, if I had to pick one, who would I rather, Julio or Diego? Julio is a sensitive romantic while Don Diego is brooding, sinister and domineering.

julioJulio: I like married women, bar fights, and styling my hair.

diegoDiego: I like murder, subterfuge, and amassing power.

I told her neither. I’d rather have the Inspector!

let’s solve a mystery

She was horrified. But he’s old! she protested.

Well I’m old too, or at least, he’s not as old to me as he would be to you (I told her). Plus, he’s intelligent, funny, and attentive to details.

I maintain the Inspector is the best character in this well done series, as he navigates the endless mysteries, murders and mystique surrounding the hotel. Also excellent is Adriana Ozores as Doña Teresa, the oft-bedeviled matriarch of the hotel clan. It’s rare to find an outstanding female villain on television or in film, but Ozores plays the role beautifully as a seething, cold-blooded power player.

The sex scenes have been ratcheted up compared to previous seasons, including what I can only describe as a female-to-male rape (if you didn’t think such a thing was possible, watch it!), the first I’ve ever seen in this kind of media. However, the smut is punctuation to an otherwise gripping plot featuring perpetual- and addictive- twists and turns. As I’ve stated previously, Grand Hotel is actually better than Downton Abbey, in part because it includes crime puzzles woven into its commentary on class, and gender roles, of yore.

Before I Disappear

Before I Disappear was one of those random finds on netflix. Since I am still chained to the couch, boobs exposed for my voraciously nursing 7 month old, I’m watching a lot more screen entertainment than normal. I watched all of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (which was horrible and NSFL, to borrow an acronym from reddit) and all of Young and Hungry (less horrible but still NSFL) while my son chomped away at my less-than-voluptuous chest. It is actually quite amazing these size-challenged boobs have added 12 pounds of baby to his barely 6 pound newborn frame.

So I wasn’t expecting much from Before I Disappear yet was exceedingly surprised by its artistry and excellent acting. An indie film written by, directed by, and starring Shawn Christensen, Before I Say Goodbye imparts the melancholic tale of a suicidal heroin addict yanked back to life by uncle-duties to his precocious, overachieving niece. All set to the background of NYC and Brooklyn nightlife.

Perhaps Mr. Christensen reads my blog because the niece (played by Fatima Ptaeck) is a carbon copy of my overachiever. Snappish, goal driven, conscientious beyond her years, precocious Sophie shepherds the drug-addled Richie- played by Mr. Christensen- back to reality while complaining of her obligations to a next-morning test. I was a bit stunned to find such a family affirming, even conservative ethos in a movie steeped in hipsterdom and New York City. Not only does family bring redemption in Before I Disappear, but all the characters are heterosexual (shockingly, Richie is also pro-life, at least when it comes to his niece). Compare this to Schmidt and Hungry which both star uber-gay characters and make jokes about unwanted babies.

Even more remarkable, the film manages all this without saccharin or melodrama. The pacing is melodic and understated, rare things in current cinema. My only complaint is that the film tries to portray Manhattan and hipster Brooklyn as “gritty” while we all know those areas have become hyper-policed playgrounds for the rich and progressive. This is the same problem Daredevil encountered, at least according to my husband (I didn’t watch Daredevil; he did); they try to portray Manhattan as an abrasive locale, whereas in truth it’s been a cushy area writ large for quite some time.

All in all the film is well worth watching, even if you’re not interested in indie films. The acting is superb and the writing surprisingly good. It even features Hellboy’s Ron Perlman as a wizened, conniving club owner.

Christensen and Ptaeck contemplate ontology. 

Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course

Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course is a surprisingly enjoyable 2002 film featuring Steve Irwin wrestling crocodiles, chasing perenties, and handling venemous snakes in unscripted takes that were later written into an espionage thriller. If it sounds cheesy, it definitely is, but somehow it all fuses into a funny, family-friendly movie.


Irwin’s ebullience is contagious as he sings the praises of Australian wildlife. We also get to meet his soft spoken American wife, and his real-life pet dog Sui who died in 2004, 2 years before Irwin himself died in a stingray accident.

I had no idea Irwin ever starred in a feature length film. My now-teenagers loved Animal Planet as toddlers, so I’ve seen more than a few Crocodile Hunter episodes. While Irwin was a superb naturalist, he was, above all, a circus style showman and clearly relished the role. He was criticized by animal rights groups for his theatrics with dangerous animals, and was universally hissed for feeding zoo crocodiles with his baby son tucked in the crook of his arm. However, I was hard pressed to label him a buffoon during the breathtaking Collision Course scenes where he deftly and enthusiastically handles snakes, tarantulas, and crocodiles. There is a particularly astonishing sequence midway through the film where Irwin chases a 12 foot crocodile through swampy waterways, wrestling it onto his boat; it’s worth watching the film for that scene alone. There’s even a cute rendition of Crocodile Rock over the end credits, performed by the Baha Men.

An interesting idiosyncrasy of the film is that it was filmed with two different aspect ratios- one for the “documentary” scenes and another for the “movie” scenes. On a widescreen TV this leaves a dark “frame” around the former with the latter appearing as a typical movie. But the best thing about this film is that it’s perfectly family friendly, with no sex or significant violence- so if you have little kids in the house, grab some popcorn and hit the couch. Collision Course is available on netflix streaming as of this posting.