Survivors Guide to Prison

RATING: [B-|🍅]

“Cruelty is one of the oldest festive joys of mankind . . . it is imagined that the gods too are refreshed and in festive mood when they are offered the spectacle”

A capacious, all engrossing, and maddening demonstration of our criminal justice system driven by a well-intentioned director (Matthew Cooke) who missed an opportunity to offer the sacrifices of truth in the form of a mini-series. Survivors Guide to Prison tells of the systematic failure in America’s incarceration ideals, riddled with the complex dynamics of administrative loopholes, red tape, and the all too human tendency of human beings to wrong one another for personal advancement. As Justice Gorsuch wrote in Yellowbear v. Lampert: “it is so easy for governmental officials with so much power over inmates’ lives to deny capriciously one more liberty to those who have already forfeited so many others.”

The film covers the gamut: from the wrongful incarceration of Reggie Cole and Bob Lisker, to the complicit suicide of Kalief Browder, to the inhumane conditions in county prisons (rivaled by the treatment of immigrants by ICE agents), to the administrative system rooted in plea bargain missions highlighted by another recent film (Roman J. Israel, Esq.) the critics largely tripped over in their rush to embrace this years sub-par Oscar darlings. And so much more. 

Unfortunately, the celebrity cameos provided more of a distraction: reading prepared material and reiterating rudimentary talking points without meaningful restrospection. While in one sense, the idea of physical and psychological incarceration should be engaged by disciplines across the spectrum, watching Q-Tip trying to play act only took away from the thrust of the presented material, especially when the individuals are notorious thespians.

More effective would have been removing these entertainers and aiming to drive home concepts surrounding the philosophical underpinnings of the birth of the prison (see Foucault), the subsequent sprouting of mass incarceration, and the labor market that its become as a corollary to the post-reconstruction Jim Crow Laws that attempted to restore slavery through  legal instrumentality (see: Ava DuVernay’s film, 13TH, + the important book by Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow). Whatever pretense we might offer when we grow cynical at Black Lives Matter (and much is problematic) must be met with a minimal form of intellectual investment into these issues.

In the end, what David Edelstein (Vulture) says of 13TH is equally true here: “the movie is frankly exhausting, with too much information . . . to do justice to here. You simply need to see it. Even in its overreaching, it’s vital.”



Here is what we’re excited to see this month


New show on Netflix that looks promising for the sci-fi thrillers out there comes out at the beginning of the month. IMDb is already scoring all episodes above 8.0, with the final episode earning the highest score of all (least votes though), or a 9.0 (overall average of 8.6). You will recognize Joel Kinnaman from House of Cards and most notably from the Killing (two Netflix greats), as he is given a body and other abilities and sets out to solve a murder. This show is available on Netflix.



fant woman

Alongside Call Me By Your Name, the LGBT-community had a stellar breakout year in 2017 following Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight winning Best Picture at The Academy Award. While many titles are of intrigue [e.g. BPM (Beats Per Minute), Beach Rats, Princess Cyd, Professor Marston & the Wonder Women, Thelma, God’s Own Country], the one perhaps most likely to strike gold (although CMBYN deserves plenty of recognition) at next month’s Oscars is A Fantastic Woman.

This 2017 Chilean drama directed by relative newcomer, Sebastián Lelio, tells the story of a transgender woman who faces a number of hardships after her boyfriend’s untimely death into the emergency room. A.O. Scott (NY Times) describes the film: “A Fantastic Woman is at once a straightforward story of self-assertion and defiance and a complex study of the nuances of identity.”

It was selected to compete for the Golden Bear award at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival, but lost out to a film we’ve recently reviewed and found disappointing. 



ABSENTIA – February 2

Now available on Amazon Prime is a new original series that follows and FBI agent and his worse nightmare. His wife disappears and is declared dead but is found 6 years later in a cabin in the woods. His wife returns to find her now husband remarried and raising her child. Things go from bad to worse when she is implicated in a series of murders that she has no idea about.


LOVELESS – February 16


Writing this, I have Andrey Zvyagintsev’s last film, Leviathan, waiting for me in the DVD player so it’s certainly convenient that his Oscar nominated Russian film will soon be available to watch in theaters for a proper comparison. Loveless tells the story of two separated parents whose affections for one another is lost and forgotten, until they’re brought together after the disappearance of their young boy. Compared to the other films in the Oscar category, Loveless has done very well at award ceremonies: snagging the Jury Prize at Cannes; Best Cinematography and Best Composer prizes at the European Film Awards; and, Best Film at the London Film Festival, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the Munich International Film Festival. It was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes (lost), BAFTA (on 2/18), and the Oscars (on 3/4).



ANNIHILATION – February 23


Perhaps the first major film of 2018, Alex Garland (Ex Machina) brings this sic-fi thriller starring Natalie Portman, Isaac Oscar, and Tessa Thompson about an environmental disaster zone and a wife’s mission to save her injured husband by volunteering for enter the zone to figure out what happened to him. According to The Hollywood Reporter:
“Paramount will . . . release the movie in the U.S. and Canada [as planned], as well as in China, while Netflix will begin streaming it overseas 17 days later.” I remain skeptical that this Garland film will be better than Ex Machina, Adam Epstein has certainly peaked my interest name-dropping Tarkovsky in last year’s Quartz piece:

Think of it as a surrealist, frightening adventure story, a cross between Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and the coolest parts of ABC’s hit show Lost.



HANNAH – February 23


While largely unknown in the States, Charlotte Rampling (45 YearsSwimming Pool) is a powerhouse in acting, comparable to seasoned actors like Vanessa Redgrave and Emmanuelle Riva. In Hannah, she will likely solidify her fine career playing a “woman drifting between reality and denial when she is left alone to grapple with the consequences of her husband’s imprisonment.”



MUTE – February 23

An amazing ride on Netflix that comes out towards the end of the month that follows around Alexander Skarsgard, playing a mute bartender who wants some answers as to where his partner has disappeared to. From the mind of Duncan Jones (Director of Source Code & Moon) comes a Netflix original that seems to be the talk of the month.




Packed with more celebrities than the Oscars nominees lunch, Matthew Cooke brings you his new documentary about prison enrollment and prison life. Given the rare quality of films involving prison (e.g. Hunger, A Prophet, Starred Up), it’s hard not to be slightly excited to see the gears inside the machine turning and the moral dilemma of mass incarceration.

I leave you with the tagline:

Today, you’re more likely to go to prison in the United States than anywhere else in the world. So in the unfortunate case it should happen to you – this is the Survivors Guide to Prison.