Back for more: Unsolved Mysteries (Season 2)

Slightly less captivating than the first season, this show about mysteries which remain – literally – unsolved to this day, still managed to keep me hooked for long enough to recommend it.

A body found in a landfill – how did it get there? We still don’t know for sure.

The first season kicked off with a genuinely eerie mystery – a man found lodged in the roof of a hotel building, having seemingly fallen through it from a great height. Season 2 kicks off in similar fashion with the discovery of a body in a landfill site. Former White House aide Jack Wheeler showed up there after a short disappearance following calls of a disturbance near his house. We see lots of CCTV footage of Jack’s last hours, where he looks agitated and confused, which raises plenty of questions aside from the apparent murder.

For the rest of the episodes, we swap out last season’s broad theme of ‘injustice’ (recalling the murder of a black man at a house party in a highly conservative town) with one of sheer mystery, as we learn about abduction of two different toddlers from the same New York City park – just three months apart. Absolutely mortifying.

Another one for the mystery fans – and one that makes for really good book material – is the unexplained death of a woman in a hotel room in Norway. This was probably my favourite of the series. For starters, we don’t ever find out the woman’s identity, let alone how or why she died. But the story of how they tried to answer these questions is fascinating and a real treat for mystery fans. Of course, it is also grossly tragic – and one must remember that these are real cases with real people waiting on the end of a phone line to hear from viewers who may have information that can lead to the case being solved.

There is also, like last season, a paranormal episode, this time involving ‘spirits’ said to have appeared after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. I gave this one a miss, as I usually don’t do paranormal stuff where it is represented as fact.

Overall, whilst I wasn’t quite as captivated by the mysteries from the first season, viewers who enjoyed that one will no doubt enjoy this one as well.

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Quickfire round: Borat Subsequent Movie Film

What is America like in 2020? Actually, no, don’t answer that. I want to be able to sleep tonight. Instead, let Borat answer it for you, as he presents his latest documentary, journalling his delivery of prodigious bribe to American regime for make benefit once glorious nation of Kazakhstan.

One of the most uncomfortable scenes I have ever watched.

I have never actually seen the original Borat movie. I admire Sacha Baron Cohen’s skill as a comedian and writer, but I do find some of his character’s presentation a little unnecessarily exaggerated. So when I watched this film, I had to filter out the subtle humour (some of which is particularly excellent) from the more in-your-face absurdity shown by Borat (and his daughter). This requires filtering out about half of the film, which means I can’t really give it more than half-marks.

Borat, apparently ridiculed in his home nation of Kazakhstan due to the events of the first film, is sent back to the US by his glorious leader to provide a tainted gift to a US Vice President Mike Pence (a porn star monkey, if you must know). The plan is somewhat ruined when, in place of the monkey, his daughter shows up instead.

I should explain that this film is a sort of mix between reality and acting. It reminds me of Nathan For You (review coming… eventually), whereby an exaggerated character engages with real-world people who are slightly more willing to accept the character’s absurdity by the mere fact that the cameras are rolling and they signed a release form. So, we see Borat interact with a cross-section of American society, from plastic surgeons and bakery owners, to babysitters and extreme Trump supporters. Oh, and yes, Rudy Giuliani, who doesn’t come out of the movie looking particularly good.

Okay, so – what do you want me to say? Was the film any good? Well, like I said, I can only give it half marks. It was funny and it was cringey and some of the stuff he did was quite impressive. But it was also obscene and cringey and some of the stuff he did was unnecessary. I watched it because it’s current and I can talk to people about it. I certainly wouldn’t watch it for fun.

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Quickfire round: American Murder: The Family Next Door

Despite its forgettable title (is it American Family: The Murder Nextdoor? Or America Nextdoor: The Family Murder? Neither!) this documentary uses incredible original footage to tell the chilling story of how, and why, Shannan Watts and her two children were cruelly murdered.

One person in this photo escaped death. Can you guess who it was?

I’ll start off by saying that this documentary shows how far we’ve come with technology in our society that it is able to tell the story in such a coherent manner with absolutely no voice-over and only first-hand footage (from police body cams and interview rooms, neighbours, news crews, text messages, and Shannan herself).

This method of telling the story makes it all the more terrifying. We start out with police body cam footage – after Shannan’s friend and colleague called the police, concerned for her whereabouts as she wasn’t responding to texts. The footage – otherwise entirely routine – immediately captures a scene of confusion and mystery as Shannan – and her two young children – are nowhere to be seen. Her phone is there and switched off, but the children’s blankets are gone. Her husband, Chris Watts, raced back from work at a remote oil well, and seems distracted as he speaks to officers about the last time he saw his wife alive and who – or where – she could have gone to.

Incredibly, the documentary also features Shannan herself. She was a prolific Facebook user, recording and posting footage of family moments almost daily. What a juxtaposition these happy videos of her and her husband are to the text messages she was exchanging with her friends and colleagues shortly before her death – telling a story of how her husband had become distant and uninterested in her.

I think I know what makes the documentary so gripping. The Facebook videos and text messages are all pre-death, of course. And the police footage is post-death. We therefore see the story unravel from two perspectives – Shannan’s, as she hurtles towards her murder, and the police, as they piece everything together. Everything is revealed in sync with each other – the text messages become more surreal and desperate as the police interviews become more dramatic and revealing. It’s great storytelling, if incredibly tragic.

If you like true crime, you absolutely don’t want to miss this.

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Quickfire Round: The Social Dilemma

I’m glad this documentary exists, as it’s made a lot of people wake up to the fact that massive social media companies like Facebook are hardly being generous by giving free access to their platform. Alas, corny acting prevents it reaching its full potential.

Haters gonna hate.

First, the good bits: this film presents first-hand accounts of how social media companies are engineering their platforms to maximise user engagement, putting the health and safety of their billions of users on the back burner as they compete to sell advertising spots. We hear about techniques such as A/B testing – tiny tweaks to the user experience, like moving the location of a button, are rolled out to a random selection of users to see whether it increased or decreased engagement.

Little nuggets of inside information and analysis like that are welcome – another example is Facebook’s photo tagging feature. Ever had an email like, ‘Emily tagged you in a photo on Facebook’? Notice how they don’t show you the photo in the email – you have to go onto the platform to see it. And while you’re there, you might as well check your notifications, and your news feed, and the latest group posts… you get the idea.

Okay, now the not-so-good. Firstly, the show entertains a little too much conspiracy for my liking. In some painfully acted live action scenes, we see ‘the algorithm’ represented by three Facebook engineers in a lab, watching their target’s life and deciding when to ping their phone to drag them into the platform and view an ad that they just sold for 3 cents. The thing is, Facebook does run instant auctions for advertisers to bid on an impression on a user’s Facebook feed. What they don’t do is literally spy on your actual life and ping you at the exact time it most benefits them. They just don’t.

The rest of the acted scenes are also pretty bad. I understand what they were trying to do with the part showing the teenage boy getting increasingly radicalised by far-right propaganda, enough to attend a rally and get arrested, but it didn’t hit deep enough and it just felt so weak as to be worthless.

Thankfully the takeaway from the film is something I can agree with: social media wasn’t invented to be evil, but evil it has become. Delete Facebook, the worst offender by far. If you need to, create a plain shell account to stay in touch with those who can’t be persuaded off the platform.

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What I thought about: [Un]Well

Bee sting therapy? Ingesting essential oils? Drinking breast milk? Water-only fasting? Sorry, hold up a minute, BEE STING THERAPY?! Alternative medicine – if it can be called medicine – is a booming industry. This series takes a look at some of the weirdest practices and see if any of them actually work.

Listen carefully while I make up some nonsense about what these oils can cure, and neglect to recommend that you speak to a doctor first..

What’s it about?
Each episode focuses on a different type of alternative medicine: essential oils, tantric sex, breast milk, fasting, ayahuasca, and bee venom. So yeah, some of these are pretty weird.

We hear from a number of people in respect of each treatment: desperate people who are looking for a cure to their ailments, the manufacturers / sellers / practitioners of the therapies, scientists who are vehemently opposed to the notion that any of them can be effective, and some scientists or doctors who, with a dose of caution, suggest there could in fact be some benefits.

I’ll answer some of your questions in advance. Yes, the bee dies after you get stung. No, you should probably not ingest essential oils. 99% is the percentage of Forever Living associates, who sell essential oils in an MLM scheme, who make only one dollar in commission. No, I did not watch the tantric sex episode.

What do I like about it?
It seems pretty balanced. I’m very sceptical of alternative therapies – and can you really blame me when some of them are distributed by literal pyramid schemes, that enrich the founder? Or when they’re peddled by a man who claims ‘we’re just as real as anyone else’ but then, in the same scene, looks at the camera with an incredibly creepy face and says ‘we consider ourselves a for-profit ministry’. This is essential oils we are talking about here!

But each episode provides anecdotal evidence from people who claim the therapy worked for them, as well as the journey of someone who hopes it will work for them (a chronic Lyme-disease sufferer heard that bee stings can cure her, and is desperate for a solution). It also balances this with studies and the views of medical professionals, some of whom outright deny the treatment’s efficacy (and/or warn about its risks) and some who try to explain a possible way in which the treatment may produce some kind of effect. I like these parts – if something unconventional actually works, I want to know why, and they can offer a bit of that.

What do I not like about it?
Nothing really, each episode is well done.

Worth a watch?
As long as you don’t hold me responsible for trying any of these things (in fact I suggest you DO NOT try any of these) then go right ahead, it’s interesting!

By the way…

  • Of course most of the people discovered this medicine on Facebook groups. Please do yourself a favour and delete Facebook before it’s too late.
  • BEE STING THERAPY?!

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Quickfire round: Speed Cubers

I caught this brief documentary on Netflix because it’s always fun to watch what people can do when they get nerdily obsessed with something – like solving a Rubik’s Cube. What I discovered, however, is that Speed Cubers is about something else entirely.

Feliks and Max together at a tournament – both clearly enjoying themselves

You see a documentary about people that solve Rubik’s Cubes really fast. So you watch it, thinking you’ll get some kind of history into the word records of solving them, known as cubing (participants are called cubers). Maybe it’ll explain the different world record categories, the little placemat you need to use to accurately record your time, or why they get an opportunity to inspect the cube before the timer starts running.

You don’t really get so much of that.

Instead, Speed Cubers is the story of an incredible friendship between two of the most successful cubers in history: Australian Feliks Zemdegs and Korean-American Max Park, who has autism.

We hear from the parents of both kids – Feliks became a national hit from a fairly young age and appeared on many an TV show in his native Australia. For Max, it was a different upbringing. Diagnosed at a young age with autism, Max struggles with communication and has the social skills of a person much younger than him. What Max really likes, however, is to solve a Rubik’s cube as fast as he can. When his parents discover this skill of his, it ends up having fantastic developmental benefits for Max. They take him to his first in-person tournament, and he does quite well. But his parents are less bothered about his speed cubing and more excited by the fact that this was the first public event they had taken Max to. And, according to his mother, he displayed traits that day that he had never displayed before, allowing him to develop those social skills that he lacked before.

Max is a really good cuber, and eventually beats most of Feliks’ records. Feliks isn’t salty, though. He in fact befriends Max and is always super supportive of him. They always hang out at the world championships (yes, this is a thing) and Feliks is regularly in touch with Max’s parents. He truly is a role model – not just to Max as a cuber, but to us all as a person.

So, in this 40-minute documentary you do get an insight into the world of speed cubing. But you also get so much more.

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What I thought about: Love on the Spectrum

Can people on the autism spectrum find love? Yes, of course, and for any doubters out there, this show sets out to prove it. Going much deeper than Channel 4’s The Undateables, this Australian series is awkward, endearing, funny, and genuine. Yeah, I shed a tear at the end.

This couple are adorable. Watch the final episode to get the waterworks going…

What’s it about?
Autism is a developmental disability that has different characteristics (hence the ‘spectrum’), but in one way or another makes it more difficult for autistic individuals to interact socially with non-autistic people, also known as neurotypicals. This can manifest itself in a particularly difficult way when it comes to dating. In this show we see problems in keeping the discussion going, an inability to process and understand social cues, and, occasionally, a complete mind-blank when things become too overwhelming for the individual.

The show goes deeper than just showing singletons on dates (although that does make up a lot of the show). We catch mini interviews with their parents, lessons from an autism behavioural expert who teaches them how to have a successful date, and there’s even coverage of two happy couples (all on the spectrum).

What do I like about it?
The show is better than The Undateables essentially because it goes deeper than just showing people on their dates. Viewers will gain a deeper understanding of autism because of it, which is important especially as it a disability that is often not immediately visible.

The show also covers differing sexual orientations, and also those with other disabilities (commonly deafness). Also, the parents of each of the show’s participants are truly adorable. None of them resent having a child with autism, and they’re all proud of how far their child has come from childhood (one parent tells the show that their child started out being non-verbal and having a tendency for violent outbursts. The grown up person we see featured on the show is talkative and caring).

What do I not like about it?
One good point I saw mentioned in another review of the show is that the people they dated were autistic, and all of the events they went to were specifically for disabled or autistic people. You do get a sense that there is some segregation, but one part of me feels as though it’s good to develop the social skills among people who better understand your own disability before trying it in the wider world.

Worth a watch?
Yes! This was an adorable series and it has one of the best since filming began… end credits scenes I have ever seen. You become really attached to the show’s participants by the end and you really want their love lives to succeed.

By the way…

  • Let me know your favourite participants – mine are Andrew and Maddi
  • The show was created and directed by Cian O’Clery, who is also the voice you hear asking the participants questions during interviews

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What I thought about: Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich

Convicted sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein, made headlines last year after he was charged with additional sex offences and then killed himself (*allegedly). What I’d never understood was who he really was and what he did to land him in jail and, ultimately, wind up dead. This powerful docuseries explains all.

Sarah Ransome recalling the moment she tried to swim to safety from Epstein’s private island

What’s it about?
Through interviews with ex-business associates, people who worked on his ‘paedophile island’, police chiefs and lawyers who worked on the case, and even Epstein’s own lawyer Alan Dershowitz, the story of Jeffrey Epstein’s criminal history is told. Above all of these people should sit Epstein’s victims, and we hear many of them tell their story in this series.

We learn where Epstein came from, and that he’s always been a manipulative liar. He started out as a school teacher, having lied about his degree (he didn’t have one) to get the job. From there, well, it was just a trail of deceit and crookery. The one thing the documentary isn’t able to tell you is exactly how he made his money, besides the vague notion that he managed other people’s money (and the assertion that, in some cases, he stole it).

What makes for more uncomfortable watching is the history of Epstein’s underage sex offences. With the help of his partner, British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell (who has now been arrested & charged with a litany of crimes), he lured underaged girls to his Palm Beach mansion, offering them money in return for a massage which often turned into non-consensual intercourse – in other words, he raped them. There were apparently hundreds of victims, it’s really quite horrific.

What do I like about it?
It’s not really appropriate to say I ‘liked’ this documentary. I do however think it’s important to watch. You feel a sense of outrage at Epstein’s ability to evade capture and, even when he was convicted of a numbed-down charge of soliciting a minor for prostitution in 2008, how his prison sentence was a joke and he was able to do whatever he wanted.

In some ways we can draw parallels to the shocking Abducted in Plain Sight documentary. Both men managed to manipulate others into letting them do whatever they wanted – and in both cases this lead to the sexual assault of minors.

What do I not like about it?
Overall it is a solid documentary, but some more rigid structure would have been a bit better. We kept jumping up and down the timeline, which was at times difficult to keep up with,

Worth a watch?
It’s not going to be an easy watch for some people, but if you were ever curious about the true scale of Epstein’s crimes then you need to watch this.

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What I thought about: The Business of Drugs

Did you know one of the world’s largest producers of meth is Myanmar? Me neither. This docuseries, focused on the economics of drug dealing, shines a light on supply chains you never knew existed, and for that reason is a recommended watch.

Fox looks on at a display of force from a Myanmar militia – who might be funded by the drugs trade

What’s it about?
Amaryllis Fox is an ex-CIA analyst who used to work in counterterrorism. In other words, she’s been around. Fox takes us through a different type of drug in every episode, complete with a series of voice-overs, visits to drug trafficking hotspots, and interviews with experts (both the scientific kind and the… drug trafficking kind).

You’ll learn a lot about the economics of the drugs trade for Cocaine, Synthetics, Heroin, Meth, and Cannabis. There’s also a bonus episode on the opioid epidemic that the USA is still suffering the effects of. It’s not all numbers, though – you’ll be faced with the harsh reality of what pushes drug mules to risk their freedom – or even their lives – in pursuit of a slightly better pay packet. In other words, they’re also victims.

What do I like about it?
It’s a fresh take on the usual documentaries we see on drug abuse, although there’s enough of the ‘traditional’ drug documentary coverage to keep things interesting and well-aligned.

I particularly liked the Cannabis episode which explored why the legalisation of cannabis in California hasn’t managed to significantly reduce illegal sales of the drug – which still command 80% of the market. Although I’m generally an advocate of decriminalisation, it obviously has to ‘work’ to increase safety, reduce organised crime, and maybe benefit the public purse a bit. California is, it seems, an example of what not to do.

What do I not like about it?
The production values in this series are a teeny bit lacking. On-screen graphics appear somewhat inconsistently, and some of the filming seems a bit hap-hazard. Mind you, it’s not enough to distract you entirely.

Oh no, what’s far more distracting is the significant change in appearance between the version of Fox appearing in all the studio-lit interviews (a post-filming retelling that fills in some of the gaps and links between scenes) and the version of her in the rest of each episode where she’s interviewing someone or travelling to a particular area. It seems silly when you realise it, but it took me a hot minute to work out that they were the same person!

Worth a watch?
If you’re at all interesting in learning a little behind-the-scenes of the drug trade, there are some genuinely insightful pieces in this show. I’d recommend it.

By the way…

  • Fox joined the CIA when she was just in college. Her memoirs are available as a book, Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA
  • Wait, this also relates to the above… Fox’s memoirs are being turned into an Apple TV+ drama series. Get hyped!

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Quickfire round: Unsolved Mysteries

We all love a good mystery, although most of us desire the satisfaction of having the mystery solved by the end of the episode. Thankfully, despite being deprived of it here, Unsolved Mysteries still manages to be an enticing watch.

Reconstructions and archive footage are blended together, which adds to the viewer’s immersion in the mystery.

Although there is one episode on a massively-corroborated UFO sighting, the rest of the show’s episodes cover murders. First, we hear about the story of a recently married man who goes missing and is found dead days later in an abandoned hotel building, having seemingly gone straight through the metal and wood roof, a feat that would have required jumping from an extreme height. However, nobody can work out a convincing-enough theory as to where he would have jumped from to end up there. I found this one to be the most sinister of the entire series because of the victim’s relations to a shady businessman who refused to cooperate with police and the documentary.

I like that one episode is entirely in French, covering the well publicised murders of the entire Dupont de Ligonnès aristocrat family (well, everyone other than the father). This episode is probably the most horrific, but you’ll eventually learn that what happened to the family is not so much of a mystery as some of the other episodes in the show.

I won’t spoil the rest, but I implore you to watch them. Each episode is well made, with reconstructions and archive footage interspersed with current-day interviews featuring relatives and officials who worked on the unsolved cases at the time. There’s no central narration, just a careful telling of the story all the way through.

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