TV Top Pick #12: Dirty Money (Netflix)

I found DIRTY MONEY, a new series on Netflix, shortly after watching the amazingly funny Netflix send-off of 2020 called “Death to 2020.”  If you’ve not watched it yet, do so. Death to 2020 resulted in at least a half-dozen belly laughs and more subtle snickers than I could count.  But now onto Dirty Money.

What makes Dirty Money great is each one-hour episode packs a full documentary movie.  The level of research, quality of the writing, visuals and skills of the interviewers are some of the best you will find on television today. This is genuinely in the same league as 60 minutes and similar top-notch documentary efforts.  I found the characters show-cased in these highly compelling stories, down-to-earth, real and articulate.

Each of these stories has two sides, and they do an incredible job of presenting both or at the very least, having both sides fully articulate their rationale for what they are doing.  In the Payday episode, I started with admiration for the drive and determination of an entrepreneur who built a business, then began seeing the impact his business model and approach was having on the lives and personal situations his business actions caused his customers. Then I see the entrepreneur fighting for his rights.  As the guy who trained him to race put it: “If you’re racing in a series, and there’s a big thick rulebook for white drivers, and a tiny little rule book for Native American drivers, you’re going to start hiring Native American drivers.” At first I admired his ability to have found a loophole to exploit, but then you realize that the loophole is illegal, and you see the gyrations the company has to go through to hide the way in which it cheats, and then they take you back to where you see precisely how little people are deceived and ripped off and the impact on the company and its employees.  It goes back and forth, with a bit more being revealed in each scene.  I suspect some will end up siding with the victims and others with the company founder.  That says more about you and your values than the people in the film.  Rotten Tomatoes reported 100% of critics gave the series a positive review.

The series has two seasons, with six episodes each.  They can be watched in any order.  So far I’ve watched the following ones.  Here are a few brief comments on each.

Season 1, Episode 2: Payday.  About Scott Tucker and the Payday loan business he builds from scratch, but then loses when he crosses the legal line.

Season 1, Episode 5: The Maple Syrup Heist.  The great Canadian maple syrup heist is about how (and why) someone manages to steal thousands of barrels of maple syrup. Unlike most crime dramas, this one really happened.

Season 2: Episode 1: The Wagon Wheel.  I bank at Wells Fargo Bank.  After watching this, I want to switch banks.

Season 1: Episode 3: Drug Short. Tells the story of Valeant Pharmaceuticals and is one of the best stories in this 12 episode line up.  This is an amazing story, remarkably told.  Were it not for a relatively small discovery and a failure of a company to quickly notice it and cover it up, no one would ever be the wiser.  You will learn about some of the built-in checks and balances with public companies.

Season 1: Episode 6:
The Confidence Man.  If you’re a big Donald J Trump supporter and don’t want to know any more about him, you might want to skip this one.  The episode chronicles Trump’s long business career, before he became a politician, in great detail. It charts most if not all of his business initiatives and results – where he did remarkably well, and the areas in which he did not. It also provides new insight into how he manages, some of his special talents and capabilities.

Season 1: Episode 1: Hard NOX.  This is about the Volkswagen emissions scandal.  As an owner of one of the TDI engines targeted in this story (ours is in an Audi Q5 and Audi is owned by Volkswagen), we’ve dealt directly with the results of this scandal.  Again, the story of what Volkswagen did and how they were exposed is absolutely riveting television. This episode is one of the key reasons I am so high on the series.

Season 2: Episode 3: Slumlord Millionaire.  This documents the rise of Jared Kushner from an heir in a prominent real estate empire to a top White House advisor.  Make no mistake, this is one exceptionally smart young man and the country will be hearing from him for years to come.

TV Top Pick #11: The Trial of the Chicago 7

I finally got around to watching this after a walking buddy recommended it, saying “It’s written and directed by Aaron Sorkin – you will love it.”   He didn’t mention it also features fascinating performances by Eddie Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen. He was right.  It is excellent.

If you were born in the 50’s era you lived through not only this trial, but the times this trial was all about.  Documentary films bringing such recent history to life are compelling and this one does its job very well.  This film is worth watching.  I recommend it highly.  The Vietnam War divided America, separating friends and tearing families apart.  Disagreements with my father about the war led to bitter arguments and our relationship took years to recover.  It bothered me a long time he never admitted I was right.  But watch the film because it so perfectly captures the late 60’s, the cars, the clothes, the attitudes and most importantly, the sense the country was standing at a crossroads and nothing would ever be the same. It never gets heavy-handed or preachy.

Last point:  Jerry Rubin stayed overnight in the same house in St. Paul I was crashing at when he was in town to speak at a big protest rally.  It may have been the protest I wrote about HERE.

TV Top Pick #10: Mars

I’m finally watching a 2016-2018 two-season television series called Mars. It’s on Netflix (and Amazon) and consists of seven 60-minute episodes in the first season and six in the second. I find it captivating. The premise is alluring but it’s the composition that makes it so stunning.  The show combines documentary-style science reporting taking place currently, with extrapolations of present-day technology to forecast a very believable science fiction story taking place in 2033 and beyond. We see the first successful manned mission from Earth to Mars occur and watch the crew confront a host of obstacles during the creation of our first outpost there. Alternating between interviews with Elon Musk, Neil deGrasse Tyson and other leading scientists who explain the hurdles we’ll need to overcome to fictionalized characters actually meeting those challenges as the first mission to Mars while keeping people alive is riveting.

One of the things I most appreciate and believe they get correct is the balance between anticipated and unanticipated problems.  Even after years spent preparing for every possible scenario, almost half of what they encounter in the first few episodes are situations they’d not even considered might happen, had never imagined or just didn’t prepare for, making the science fiction portions feel brilliantly true to life.  As my friend Frank who recommended this show reminded me in the Mike Tyson line, “Everybody has a plan …. Until they get punched in the face.”

While I don’t expect to live long enough to see man land on Mars, the show makes clear how much of the work and problem solving needed to make this event possible is actually occurring right now, in my lifetime.  Earlier this week, on December 9th, 2020, SpaceX launched a prototype of a rocket that is integral to Musk’s plans to take people to Mars.  This mix of documentary footage with the Sci-Fi drama could have gone horribly wrong and looked stupid.  Instead, it is the opposite.  It really works!

I would be remiss if I did not mention the 2015 movie, The Martian, starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott. It is available on Amazon Prime and a very good movie, too.  I liked both The Martian and Mars, but with Mars being directed by Ron Howard and produced by National Geographic, I find it displays an uncommon perspective with a unique and creative approach.  In the end, it gets my vote for being ambitious, for trusting in the intelligence of its audience, and for being so bold.

 

TV Top Pick #9: Motorcycle Touring Movies

There are motorcycling adventure movies floating around that deserve attention from my riding readers. “Long Way Up” recounts the latest adventures of actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman on AppleTV. Then there’s Ride Report: 10,000 Miles to Rio, an independently produced and directed film by two Las Vegas guys with minimal riding experience who set off to ride to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and making a film in the process. Lastly, Slow Ride Home is about 8 friends, members of the “Soldiers of Destiny” scooter club who make an epic cross-country ride from Florida to Seattle, WA on 125 cc motor scooters when hilarity breaks out.

All are worth watching if you ride motorcycles, think about riding motorcycles, or enjoy travel movies. The two lessor efforts (Slow Ride Home and Ride Report) are the most fun and easy for most of us to relate to. The third McGregor/Boorman effort comes on the heels of their other popular motorcycle televised riding trips, Long Way Round (2004) and Long Way Down.  Those first two movies had a bit of adventure here and there, but I found this third series ridiculously absurd – at least the first 3 episodes.  The way riders define “Adventure travel” varies widely and what actually constitutes “adventure” is a near-constant argument among travelers.  I find virtually no “adventure” in two guys riding bikes with an entourage consisting of a movie producer, a director, a couple of cameramen, at least two support trucks (and drivers) with massive amounts of tools and gear.  Add to those assets a no-limit credit card to assist with the extradition from any uncomfortable or difficult circumstance and you have something that feels to me like every bit of actual adventure has been squeezed out of the experience.  But we’ll come back to this.

Ride Report: 10,000 Miles to Rio:  In this Amazon Prime hour and a quarter movie, two guys in their twenties, Matt Kendall and Tierman Turner capture a genuine motorcycling adventure.  It appeals to me the most of the three as it is so reminiscent of early road trips I took with my first motorcycle. When I got my first bike, I was totally overwhelmed with the freedom of hopping on my bike, throwing a few gallons of gas in the tank, and heading off into the horizon.  I couldn’t stop myself.  I repeatedly made up places to go and my trips were absurd, foolhardy and mostly crazy.  On top of it all, I was totally unprepared, learning through a variety of errors, how to plan a bit better for my next trip.  When I think back to my utterly naïve younger self, taking off on my bike without proper tools or gear, possibly without even checking fluids or tire pressure, I cringe. Kendall and Turner put more thought and planning into their trips than my early escapades, but they were ignorant of much and left many steps totally unanticipated, figuring “we’ll work that out when we get there.” And this is precisely why I identified with them so completely and loved this movie. It’s a super low budget film, but they manage to capture the authentic joy and utter relief when things go right along with the frustrating disappointment and despair when bikes break or they get totally lost and realize they’ll have to back track an entire day’s riding.  It is the total opposite of the big money approach of the Long Way Up saga where one tires of the continually artificial risks and feigned obstacles McGregor and Boorman encounter.  The final plug I’ll make for 10,000 Miles to Rio is the degree to which the locals extend themselves to help these two often hapless riders in distress. When we’re being bombarded daily with the supposedly vile and villainous dangers awaiting us around every unknown foreign corner, it is so refreshing to see a true reflection of what I’ve always found – most human beings just want to help out a stranger in need.

Slow Ride Home is just good, silly fun.  The idea for this movie had to have come from a night with too much alcohol and someone saying, “Ya know what we oughta’ do?”  The bikes making this trip top out at, maybe, 55-65 mph (down hill, wind at the back), although trying to average more than 45 mph over any sustained amount of time will result in parts failing frequently. Scooters are built for 20-30 minute convenience trips at relatively low speeds, in cities, with lots of stops and at most, a few trips a day.  Deciding to ride them 3,700 miles, 11 days straight cross-country, creates its own spirit of adventure.  Unsatisfied with allowing their adventure to be just staying on course and making the trip in once piece, this group of geniuses filled the route with a set of obscure and ridiculous obstacles that, if a particular rider fails to manage the obstacle he pulled from the hat for that day, faces a frat-boy list of personal humiliations from which they must chose as punishment, much to the merriment of their fellow riders.  The one I liked best was having the hair on one’s head shaved into what was affectionately known as the “cul-de-sac” cut. Watch the movie to see how good this particular style can make someone look.  Deliberately or not, they manage to poke a finger in the eye of every serious documentary filmmaker on the planet, but do it in such a way, that they’ll all be on the floor laughing.  I know I was.

My opinion on the McGregor / Boorman series I’ve left to last, because frankly, who cares what I think?  But if you’ve made it this far, you’re going to get a dose of why I find these movies tiresome, unrealistic, not really about motorcycle riding and frankly ridiculous. First, I have nothing against Ewan McGregor.  He’s a fine and highly productive actor.  I do have an issue with the idea of him being a serious motorcyclist and his general lack of commitment to acquiring the skills necessary for some of the trips he portends to complete.  It is like he’s playing another movie role.  In the 1997 movie, “Nightwatch,” he played a night watchman and law student. It was fine. He was an actor.  Nice job. However, no one was trying to seriously pretend he was a law student or night watchman. However, these motorcycle adventures are positioned as documentaries and yet he’s just playing the part of a motorcyclist, and that is what so irritates me.  Charley Boorman is a different story.  I get no bad vibes from him.  His book, although ghost written by someone else, was a superb read on his taking on the Dakar Rally. It was authentic and very good.  Boorman’s a good rider – not fancy, but he has solid skills. I admire what he’ll try to do on a bike. Now, this may be because we’ve both experienced the Dakar Rally, which is far from a walk in the park.  I chronicled that 2011 experience for The Overland Journal and you can read about it here.  Eventually I will finish the “Long Way Up” series.  I have no doubt the scenery will be spectacular and some of it will be familiar from the riding I’ve done in that part of South America. The camera work will be stunning with new drone technology, but it will take all the constraint I can muster to keep my snarky comments on the other stuff to myself.

While everyone knows Easy Rider (1969), there are other overlooked great motorcycle movies to consider if you’ve not seen them.

I’m leaving out: Easy Rider, The Wild One, The Great Escape, Being Evel, Riding Solo To The Top Of The World (2006), Mad Max: Fury Road and several others.

Chasing Dakar cover
My story in the Overland Journal Magazine about chasing the Dakar Rally through South America