Beyond Skiing Everest


Mike Marolt ponders the cost of his obsession.

(2018) Sports Documentary (1091Mike Marolt, Steve Marolt, Jim Gile, Jewel Kilcher (narrator), John Callahan. Directed by Mike Marolt and Steve Bellamy

 

High altitude skiing is not for the faint of heart. It combines two disciplines – mountain climbing and skiing – and requires stamina (because the moment you finish your scaling of a peak, you are skiing down it) and courage as mistakes at these heights can be costly. As Gile ruefully puts it, “I don’t want my last word to be ‘Oops’.”

Identical twins Mike and Steve Marolt and their boyhood buddy Jim Gile grew up in Aspen, Colorado, where you learn how to ski almost before you learn how to walk. They previously appeared in the documentary Skiing Everest (2009) which documented their attempt to climb up the world’s tallest and arguably most famous mountain and then ski back down it – without oxygen or Sherpa guides. That attempt proved frustrating as the commercialization of Everest has led to logjams of dilettantes going up the paths which have been set for them by Sherpas who have also thoughtfully provided pre-set ropes. For those attempting to scale the mountain without oxygen, stopping can be deadly.

The trio, all enshrined in the Skiing Hall of Fame, decided that going up mountains that were more remote, more off the beaten path, would suit their purposes better. Therefore their de facto leader Mike began researching peaks above 8,000 meters (a smidge under 26,250 feet) that had good snow and few climbers. They would travel the world, from the Andes to the Himalayas, documenting their attempts. They have skied down more peaks above 8,000 meters than any humans have ever done, and they do it by so-called pure climbing – without the aid of oxygen or guides.

=The documentary combines the footage taken on their many trips which is often impressive indeed, along with interviews with the three men, who are now in their 50s and still finding mountains to climb and ski back down. There is little to no input from anyone else other than the three; the disadvantage to that is that it robs the film of context. We hear the men talk about the various trips like this is a vacation movie they’re showing on super-8 film for friends. While their expertise is undeniable we get little understanding about why they do what they do, why they chose these particular mountains other than the criteria I mentioned above, and what others think of their accomplishments.

Also, in a nearly criminal move, we never hear from their families and loved ones that are left behind for months at a time; only in the last ten minutes do we even realize that they have families and get the sense that their absences are difficult on them. We only hear through the mouths of the three men themselves; their wives and children do not appear to speak for themselves. One suspects that the subjects of the documentary might not like what they hear.

One can’t help but admire the accomplishments of these three men and they seem to be pretty eloquent speakers, but I would have appreciated some other points of view other than theirs. That would make for far more interesting viewing and a less homogeneous documentary.

REASONS TO SEE: Some really extraordinary vistas.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times feels a bit like a home movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: High Altitude skiers, in addition to the mountain climbing gear they must take, add an average of sixty pounds to their packs for their ski equipment.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Himalayan Ice
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot

The Ghost of Peter Sellers


A comic genius lost at sea.

(2018) Documentary (1091Peter Medak, Peter Sellers, Joe Dunne, Spike Milligan, Nora Farnes, Simon van der Burgh, Louis M. Heyward, Susan Wood, John Heyman, Liza Minelli, David Korda, Ruth Myers, Robin Dalton, Costas Evagorou, Murray Melvin, Costas Demetriou, Tony Greenberg, Dennis Fraser, Piers Haggard, Robert Wagner, Anthony Franciosa, Rita Franciosa. Directed by Peter Medak

 

We Americans love a winner. What movies do we go see? The box office champions. We figure if everyone else wants to see it, it must be good. Still, there is something fascinating about a colossal failure – it brings the rubberneck instinct in all of us.

The thing is, Ghost in the Noonday Sun is not even a legendary failure like Heaven’s Gate or Ishtar. Maybe it should have been – it had everything going for it. It’s director, Peter Medak, was fresh off The Ruling Class and was considered one of the brightest young directors in Hollywood. The star, Peter Sellers, was widely acknowledged as a comic genius and perhaps one of the greatest comic actors ever. His buddy from The Goon Show, Spike Milligan, had written a script for a pirate movie. The production would be based in Cyprus and the producers built a working pirate ship for the movie. What could go wrong? Pretty much everything.

They should have gotten the hint when the pirate ship was run into a dock and sank on the first day of production. “We were cursed from Day One,” intones producer, the late John Heyman. It was 1973 though; excess was not a problem. Hollywood was thriving, after all. But there were signs, according to Medak.

Sellers had personally recruited Medak to the project and for his part Medak jumped at the chance to work with a legitimate genius. However, just before production started, Sellers had split with girlfriend Liza Minelli and was, as Medak puts it, “catatonically depressed.” He hadn’t read the script but once he read it, he realized that the movie was a disaster waiting to happen and instantly became focused on getting out of doing it. He went to the lengths of faking a heart attack (he had a well-documented heart condition that would eventually kill him seven years later). Sellers fired producers right and left, only showed up to the set when he felt like it, and alienated virtually everyone. He tried to have Medak fired, had such a vitriolic row with co-star Anthony Franciosa that neither actor was willing to appear in the same frame together.

Medak eventually completed the film and when he went to the wrap party, nobody from his own film was there; only a couple of technicians from another film working on the island. The studio (Columbia) deemed it unreleasable when they got it and it stayed on the shelf until it got an unheralded home video release on VHS. It’s not hailed as a lost treasure, nor is it even remembered as a massive failure. It’s just…ignored. Still, it was enough to destroy Medak’s confidence in himself, and derail his career; he wouldn’t direct another film for five years and he would rarely get the opportunities to direct high-profile films ever again, even though he did some decent movies like The Krays and Romeo is Bleeding as well as being regularly employed in television – he was unable to control his star so no studio would take a chance on a big-budget film with him ever again. Now in his mid-80s (he was 80 when this was filmed), the pain is very much still there. He breaks down a couple of times during the movie and clearly has issues letting go, even though Sellers’ former agent Nora Farnes gently implores him to, while Heyman, showing remarkable perspective, reminds him “it’s only a movie.”

Whether this turned out to be the catharsis he clearly intended it to be, only Medak knows. For the rest of us, it’s a deep dive into how a big movie can descend into absolute chaos, particularly when a mercurial star has way too much control. Medak has over the years kept a good deal of mementos from the movie; production logs, letters from Heyman urging him to get control of the situation or he would be fired, still pictures, home movies and yes, footage from the ill-fated film itself.

It turns out to be a fascinating exercise, perhaps more so for Medak and cinematic buffs than for the general public but it is to a large extent the equivalent of watching a train wreck. I don’t think movie sets are run quite the same way anymore and while situations like this one could conceivably happen again, producers generally have insurance policies that cover this kind of thing. Back then, nobody got paid if the movie didn’t get made, so despite the surreal chaos, Medak soldiered on, knowing that the end result would be catastrophe. But sometimes, the best revenge is survival.

REASONS TO SEE: Bittersweet but fascinating. A cautionary tale of how one person can hijack an entire production.
REASONS TO AVOID: May have limited appeal beyond cinema buffs
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sellers would go on to win an Oscar for Being There. He died in 1980 at age 54.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews, Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lost in La Mancha
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
House of Hummingbird

The Pollinators


Poetry in motion.

 (2019) Documentary (1091Alan Ard, Maryann Frazier, Jonathan Lundgren, Zac Browning, Bret Adee, James Frazier, Davey Hackenberg, Lucas Criswell, Sam Ramsey, Susan Kegley, Jeff Anderson, Leigh Kathryn Bonner. Directed by Peter Nelson

 

For most of us, bees are annoying and a swarm of them is to be feared; they can make picnics and outdoor activities a non-starter. However, they are absolutely vital to agriculture. They pollinate flowering crops that allow those flowers to become fruit, nuts and vegetables.

It is no secret that the bee population is declining at an alarming rate. This should concern everyone, because as one beekeeper wryly puts it, “We all, you know, eat.” I had always thought that farmers relied on local beekeepers but given the extent of agriculture in the 21st century that’s no longer possible. Beekeepers truck tens of thousands of bees via semi-tractor trailer across the country on interstates to farms whose orchards are just beginning to flower and require the pollination. Those windows of opportunity for the farmers are often brief and they can only give the beekeepers a few days’ notice that their bees are needed. This results in a logistical task equal to those of Hercules.

But bees have other challenges that they face. These same orchard growers use pesticides to help thin their flowers so that the resultant fruit are the largest possible; they also must use pesticides and fungicides to protect their crops. Most of these are harmful to bees, particularly the neonicotinoids which are prevalent currently.

In fact, much of modern agriculture is dictated by the big chemical companies. Big agriculture has deemed that monofarming – sticking with a single crop (usually corn, rice or soy) is the most efficient way to farm, and on the surface it might seem so. Those three crops I named are also not reliant on pollination, so that cuts the cost of importing bees. However, those crops use an enormous amount of space – the corn crop alone takes up 5% of the total land in the United States – and give nothing back. In fact, they leech the nutrients from the soil, producing food that is less and less nutritious and tasty, forcing home cooks and professional chefs alike to have to use more salt and sugar to give them a taste. They also rob bees of their own food source, causing mass starvation of bees in the wild. In addition, bees are attacked by a species of mite that came over from Asia that renders the bees more susceptible to the pesticides and starvation. It’s no wonder that entire colonies of bees have died off.

With the EPA and FDA unwilling to help – one beekeeper refers to the EPA derisively as the Chemical Protection Agency – a revolution in agriculture is quietly underway. Farmers and beekeepers are engaging in something called regenerative farming – going back to crop rotation, something that was done on farms globally until recently – and planting things like clover, rye and local grasses that are bee-friendly, giving the bees a source of nourishment beyond the crops they are pollinating.

Nelson, a veteran nature documentary cinematography, takes the director’s chair for the first time and does a bang-up job, delivering a massively informative documentary that calls attention to the problems in a sober and fact-based manner, offering solutions and allowing the beekeepers whose love for their charges goes beyond being their means of making a living to do the finger-pointing when needed and at the right targets – Big Agra, Big Chemicals and government agencies that are no longer even making a pretense of protecting the citizenry of this country but instead serve the interests of the wealthy. That farmers can and are taking matters into their own hands is both comforting and energizing.

Too often we see documentaries that call attention to a major problem and leave the viewer feeling helpless and hopeless, but that isn’t the case here. We all have a vested interest in the health of bees as their efforts help nourish all of us, and I do mean all. Nelson has a cinematographers eyes and utilizes plenty of slow-motion bees in flight images, aerial shots of bucolic farms, and close-ups of soil both lifeless and teeming with life. This is an excellent film that reminds us that we are all part of a system that works in harmony; disrupting even something as seemingly insignificant as the honey bees can have catastrophic consequences for us humans.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderful bee photography. Gives insight to a very real problem and to those who love bees and are fighting to save them.
REASONS TO AVOID: The focus on agriculture may not resonate with those not involved directly with it other than as consumers.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One in every three bites of food that you take has benefitted from the pollinizing by honey bees or a similar species.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Kanopy, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19//20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: More Than Honey
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Berlin, I Love You

Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth


A daddy’s baby bump.

(2019) Documentary (1091Freddie McConnell, Esme McConnell, CJ. Directed by Jeanie Finlay

 

Timing can be everything. For Freddie McConnell, he is fixing to turn 30 and he is anxious to start a family of his own. He wants to have a baby, but he is a trans male, transitioning from being born female who has had surgery above the waist but not yet below. What he wants is not unheard of, but not easy. It means having to interrupt his journey to the gender he is supposed to be; it will mean telling family and friends what he has chosen, knowing that not all of them will be supportive. It will mean never-ending second guessing, wondering if he is doing the right thing for the right reasons. They are legitimate questions and there are no easy answers.

I have often heard women comment that men would be different creatures entirely if they could give birth; most women agree that no man who can be completely bedridden by the man-flu could tolerate even a few days of being pregnant, let alone the pain of giving birth. Generally in cinematic terms, men giving birth has been a comedic function. Finlay wisely gives the whole process respect and never descends to the kind of low-brow humor that a film like Junior, for example, descended to.

Freddie is, as he puts it, the only trans in the small seaside town of Deal in Kent. His desire to have a baby of his own is so overwhelming that adoption just isn’t an option; he wants to put his testosterone injections on hold, and carry a child to term while he still can. The process isn’t an easy one and Finlay follows Freddie through all of it. We go along with him to the doctor’s appointments, talking with sometimes it feels like every licensed member of the National Health Service (surely it must have felt that way to Freddie at least) as he takes this difficult path.

By his side every step of the way is his redoubtable mum Esme and his step-dad Gary. His father, who it is clear never really accepted him, is most definitely not on board. Even CJ, his romantic partner, eventually succumbs and their relationship dissolves. Freddie himself has plenty of self-doubt and does an awful lot of crying when he is alone in bed.

The movie’s coverage of the emotional aspects of the pregnancy and its ramifications are really where the film shines. Freddie often wonders if all of what he is sacrificing, which to a certain extent includes his own identity will be worth it in the end – it’s not really a spoiler to say that it is. In the end, the movie raises the point that life isn’t about doing what is expected of you; it’s about doing what makes you happy, no matter how difficult and demanding that may be. At the end of the day, we can only be true to ourselves and Freddie, although he questions it, ends up being exactly that.

The film, produced by the BBC, takes us through the birth and while we mostly hear it and see Freddie from the waist up, that and scenes of him injecting himself may be a bit much for those who are sensitive to such things. However, all that aside, Freddie is so likable and engaging, and his mother such a supportive and loving soul that you can’t help but root for them.

And when it comes to timing, I think it is notable to report that the movie made its American VOD debut four days after the Trump administration rolled back healthcare protection for trans patients during a pandemic, no less – further illustrating the struggle for acceptance that this community continues to wage. This film makes that struggle so much more human and should be part of the conversation of the cost of decisions like the one the Trump administration has made.

REASONS TO SEE: Freddie is an engaging and fearless subject. The emotional aspects of the story are even more fascinating than the practical.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the scenes are not for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is profanity, adult issues and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film title refers to the seahorse, a species in which the male carries and spawns its own young.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Trans List
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Pollinators

Here Awhile


Reflections at the end of life.

(2019) Drama (1091Anna Camp, Steven Strait, Joe Lo Truglio, Chloe Mason, Kristin Taylor, Dana Millican, Reza Leal-Smartt, Grant Hall, Sydney Lovering, Parker Hall, Griffin Gadre, Kieran Gadre, Deborah Lee Smith. Directed by Tim True

 

Eventually, we all die. I will. You will. Your significant other will. Your parents will. Your children will. To dust we all, inevitably, finally, return.

Anna (Camp) has returned to Portland, Oregon, after an absence of 15 years to reconnect with her younger brother Michael (Strait). At first, Michael is not having it; there has been literally no contact between them since their late father threw her out of the house because she is a lesbian. Anna explains that she attempted to call, but their father would always hang up on her. It doesn’t take long before forgiveness supplants hurt feelings. Family is, after all, family.

But Anna has an ulterior motive; she has a very aggressive colon cancer that has spread all over her body. Not only is it inoperable but it is also untreatable as well. Oregon has a death with dignity law for their citizens. Anna has officially moved back and taken up residence, so she qualifies. She is in the end stages now and time is running short. She needs her brother’s support if she is going to end her life with the dignity she wants to.

She finds a new family with her wife Luisa (Taylor), Michael’s girlfriend Shonda (Mason) and Gary (Lo Truglio), Michael’s autistic/agoraphobic/OCD neighbor and co-worker whom Michael looks after. The five of them spread the ashes of Anna’s dad in a quiet, natural place, take a beach trip, have long talks about the nature of existence and what comes after death. As Anna weakens, she sees the doctor who gently tells her how to self-terminate. Will there be no miracle here?

Spoiler alert: no. Anna’s death is depicted as a part of life. The physical act of dying is handled with sensitivity and realism, so kudos to the True (who co-wrote the film) for that. He also shows off Portland pretty well, presenting it as a really nice place to live. Portland is often portrayed as the unwanted stepchild of Seattle, so that was nice to see.

The movie handles a topic – the end of life – that is rarely looked at by the movies, because it is a topic that most of us are uncomfortable with, even though we will all end up facing it someday (and I hope, gentle reader, it is a long, long, LONG time before you do). There is definite food for thought here and using Oregon’s enlightened death with dignity law is a handy springboard.

But the movie is deeply flawed. The characters are largely archetypes rather than feeling like real human beings. Camp looks way too healthy and strong to be dying; some creative make-up would have at least given her a sallow complexion. Worst of all, most of the characters are mouthing platitudes rather than any real insight. I wish the writers would have tried writing real people with real opinions for this film.

For those who are triggered by political correctness, the movie is woke AF. Both couples are bi-racial which is a good thing, but it doesn’t feel organic; it feels like it was a means for the filmmakers to feel proud of how politically correct they are. The relationships seem forced and poor Gary is the only one who doesn’t have a romantic partner. That feels more condescending than you can imagine, and the Asperger’s patient who is wiser than Merlin has become something of a cinematic cliché. I also feel a little skeevy about someone on the spectrum being used as comedy relief. Maybe I’m being too politically correct myself.

But I suppose that’s just the times we live in – everyone is overly sensitive about everything, it seems. I guess I’m no exception in that regard, but that doesn’t change the fact that this film had a golden opportunity to open dialogue about euthanasia, dying with dignity and death itself, but ends up sinking into a morass of clichés and banal plot points and characters. There is some insight to be had here, but you’ll essentially have to be work really hard to find it.

REASONS TO SEE: The subject matter is worth exploring.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly maudlin and predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are adult in nature, with a side of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is True’s debut feature film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, MUBI, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Farewell Party
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
This Teacher

Feral (2019)


All the best feral people ride the bus.

(2019) Drama (1091) Annapurna Srinam, Kevin Hoffman, Doug Drucker, Lori Bullock, Jonathan Rentler, Annie Henk, Francis Lyons, Bene Coopersmith, Aurora Flores, Sonia Mena, Enoch Tsumuraya, Kimberly Smith, Sarah Wharton, Bryan Amato, Jeremy Sevelovitz, Matt Stango, Marcus Wright, Nicole Neretin, Adam Soltis, Mary Lu Garmone, Kirsten Hess, Lassen Davis, Emma Hall-Martin. Directed by Andrew Wonder

 

The streets are an unforgiving place. Surviving on them is no picnic, particularly when you are homeless. You are vulnerable every minute of every day and survival isn’t guaranteed. If the hunger doesn’t get you, the violence will; if the violence doesn’t get you, the weather will.

Yazmine (Srinam) lives on the streets of Brooklyn, or more to the point, under them. She has made herself a nest in an abandoned power station off the subway line and it is there that she stores what few possessions she has. It is there she sleeps, sometimes with rats scurrying about.

When she ventures out, she looks like anyone else; clean and reasonably dressed. This is an advantage; it gets her picked up by a compassionate musician (Hoffman) who bonds with her over a slice of pizza, then takes her to his place. When she convinces him to take a shower, she empties his wallet and takes some of his precious LPs. That’s survival, baby, and it ain’t pretty.

A young mother (Wharton) confesses that she wishes her little boy would run away; Yazmine listens compassionately, only to have a meltdown when the privileged brat steals a meaningless plastic dinosaur from her purse. A middle-aged Latina woman (Flores) reminisces about her days dancing in salsa clubs, even getting Yazmine to dance with her. However, she also calls a homeless shelter to take Yazmine in – not on her terms, but on theirs – which leads to an unforgettable final scene.

The movie is a mix of styles, both narrative and documentary. Wonder occasionally interrupts his film with interviews with people who are or were homeless, including an interview with Yazmine herself. We see Yazmine getting jumped and beaten up by a group of drunken frat-boy types, and refusing help from counselors and medical professionals. We learn only near the end that her mother was deported when Yazmine was 16; her story is heartbreaking when you finally hear it. Throughout the film, Yazmine maintains a brash demeanor that can only be called “Noo Yawk.”

Srinam gives an outstanding performance. Yazmine is oftentimes her own worst enemy, but there’s a vulnerability that is just below the surface and very endearing on those occasions when she allows you to glimpse it. Yazmine often changes her look which is not something I am sure is common among homeless women, but okay; in all other ways the movie feels like an authentic glimpse of the lives they lead. The rest of the performances are a bit of a mixed bag as Wonder cast a mix of professionals and amateurs.

The cinematography is generally speaking, really good, showing both the filth of the underground and the beauty of snow-covered streets. Wonder does a lot of quick-cutting early on which I suppose is meant to set the pace for the film which is pretty fast – in New York, it has to be – but he calms down on that aspect further into the film.

The narrative structure is a little disjointed and at times you get the sense that some of Wonder’s decisions have more to do with showing his creativity more than serving the pace and story of the movie, but c’est la vie. I don’t have an issue with movies that defy the norms, only that they be true to themselves and I’m not entirely sure that’s the case here.

Still, it’s a decent effort and it does examine the homeless issue with a steady, unwavering gaze. I did like the movie – particularly Srinam – but I can’t say as I loved it.

REASONS TO SEE: Annapurna Srinam gives a memorable performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Disjointed and occasionally a little too self-reverent.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some sexual situations and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on stories told to the director when he was working with the homeless people of New York.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Queen Mimi
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Adrift in Soho

Until the Birds Return (En attendant les hirondelles)


The sad face of a man facing a transition in life.

(2017) Drama (Kimstim/1091) Mohamed Djouhri, Hania Amar, Hassan Kachach, Mehdi Ramdami, Sonia Mekkiou, Chawki Amari, Lamri Kaouane, Aure Atika, Zineddine Hamdouche, Saadia Gacem, Hamid Ben Si Amor, Sensabyi Beghdadi, Imene Amani, Nawel Zeddam, Abdelaziz Zeghbib, Samir El Hakim, Aziz Boukerouni, Nadia Kaci. Directed by Karim Moussaoui

 

A writing professor in college once said that life isn’t like a story; it has no beginning or end; it’s just one long middle that we’re all dropped into and thus we try to muddle our way through as best we can. Maybe it’s for that reason that we like our stories to have beginnings and endings.

This Algerian film is an anthology with a bit of Robert Altman to it; each story is the life of a character that we get to walk in the shoes of for a short time. Mourad (Djouhri) is a developer in Algiers who is in a morass. His ex-wife Nacim (Hamdouche) has summoned him, ostensibly to talk to his indolent son who is about to withdraw from medical school to essentially hang out with his friends, His current wife Rasha (Atika) is dissatisfied with life in Algeria and wishes to move back to Paris; Mourad is disinclined to do so, so Rasha is pushing for a divorce. At the same time, the deal to build a hospital that he and his partner are working on is beginning to look more problematic by the hour. But on his way home from his ex’s house, Mourad’s car breaks down and he ends up witnessing a brutal beating. Terrified, he remains hidden and when the chance to get away comes, he gets is butt home and doesn’t think to call the police. His ineffectiveness haunts him.

His driver Djalil (Ramdami) asks for time off to drive Aicha (Amar) to her wedding in a small village in the desert. On the way there, her father gets food poisoning and must be taken to the hospital; Djalil ends up spending time with Aicha, who it turns out is no stranger to Djalil. They have been lovers for some time, but this arranged marriage to an older man is advantageous.

On the way to the wedding ceremony, Aicha’s father stops to help a man stranded at the side of the road. This turns out to be neurosurgeon Dahman (Kachach) who is facing a pending life change of his own. Awaiting a promotion, he circles around waiting for something to happen rather than demanding that he get the promotion he deserves. Word gets to him that a woman living in a hovel in a poor neighborhood nearby has accused him of something horrible. He is advised to confront the woman, which he does. As it turns out, while he didn’t directly participate in the gang rape that the woman accuses him of, he did nothing to prevent it. A son with emotional and physical issues resulted from the rape and what the woman wants is for the son to be given a name. She asks the doctor for his, but he is not in a position to do so. He is getting married himself in a matter of days. However, he begins to feel guilt towards the woman’s plight.

None of these stories have a resolution; we follow one storyline for a while, then a character from the next storyline has a brief interaction with someone from the first and off we go on the next tangent. There is even an unexpected music video about an hour in, with a kind of Arabic ska song complete with dancing and singing. It is a bit of welcome daffiness in a movie that for the most part is pretty serious.

The movie doesn’t reveal it’s plot so much as let it unfold. We do get brief glimpses of various strata of Algerian society, which gives us a more complete introduction to the country than we might get ordinarily. The women here are for the most part standing up for themselves, something we don’t associate with North African culture. The men tend to be weak and indecisive so from a feminist point of view it’s somewhat refreshing.

I actually ended up liking this movie a lot mainly because we get so thoroughly immersed in the lives of these characters but not all of you might; you are left to draw your own conclusions about the stories and the characters, and you may end up wondering what the point of all of this is. Like life itself, there isn’t always one single point; sometimes we just have to struggle to interpret things as best we can and keep on moving so as to dodge the spears and arrows being lobbed in our general direction. At a time when life is at a standstill, it is comforting to see life as it is, or was, and may well be again, unfolding as it may.

REASONS TO SEE: Fascinating. The relationships are complex and believable. Unfolds rather than reveals.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-moving and slow-developing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence (mostly offscreen), some profanity and a description of a gang rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the feature film debut of Moussaoui.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Kanopy, Microsoft, Realeyz
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews, Metacritic: 57/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Coffee and Cigarettes
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Mortal Engines

Himalayan Ice


Hanging in there.

(2019) Documentary (1091) Karn Kowshik, Prena Dangi, Bharat Bhushan, Ari Novak, Karsten Delap, Ishani Sawant, Anne Matthias. Directed by Ari Novak and Austin Schmitz

 

Ice climbing differs from mountain climbing in that rather than climbing up rocks in spring, summer and fall weather, you are climbing up sheets of ice generally in harsh winter conditions. The skill sets are similar, but the tools are different and ice climbing requires more brute force than mountain climbing. Also, because of the nature of water and ice you can come back to the same mountain the next year and find a completely different type of ice there.

When ice climber Karsten Delap met Karn Kowshik in a bar it was brothers at first sight. They immediately realized that there was much common ground between them and Karn invited Karsten to do some ice climbing in Karn’s native India. Karn had in mind the Spiti Valley one of the most remote places on Earth. The Himalayan village of Kaza is so ridiculously hard to get to it requires a 65-hour drive through terrifying mountain roads just to reach the town.

But Karsten was about more than just a visit. He wanted to set up an Ice Festival, a convocation of ice climbers worldwide to come and visit. He was hoping that once word got out about the ice conditions in the valley, climbers would flock there from around the world and help the local economy.

There is a cultural difference between Indian climbers and American climbers. Whereas Americans tend to look at ice climbing as a personal challenge, Indian climbers tend to view it instead as a spiritual quest to get closer to the Hindu and Buddhist gods who live in the mountains. Success or failure is less important to them; the act of climbing the ice is what’s important.

With climber/filmmaker Ari Novak in tow, the two American climbers link with Indian climbers to create an incredible experience. Receiving both Buddhist and Hindu blessings before the actual climbing begins, trails are made safer by the organizers who get rid of debris that could possibly fall and hurt or even kill someone; holes in bridges are repaired and handrails also repaired. The sport is dangerous enough as it is, so safety is a major priority here.

I gotta say this though; these guys are dudes. They may be the bro-est bros to ever bro out together. Everything isn’t cool, it’s really cool. Yeah, I admit that the way these guys talk is irritating if you’ve grown to a certain place in your life, or if you’re not part of the fraternity, but all in all that’s not something to get totally bummed about. It’s really irritating, though.

The cinematography is world-class here. Yes, the mountains are mostly barren of even snow with shimmering crystalline ice flows standing out on brown rocky terrain, but there is still a sense of majesty of being in one of the world’s most sacred places. At 47 minutes long the film barely qualifies as a feature presentation, but the short investment of time is well worth the outlay.

REASONS TO SEE: Excellent cinematography as we’ve come to expect from these kinds of films.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too much dude-ness.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  On the way home from the Ice Festival, Karsten Delop ate some chicken at a roadside stand and had to be rushed to the hospital where he spent three days in the Intensive Care Unit. He did, however, make a full recovery.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Free Solo
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10 dude!
NEXT: Mary Poppins Returns

The Legend of Swee’ Pea


(2015) Sports Documentary (1091) Lloyd Daniels, Jerry Tarkanian, David Robinson, John Lucas, Howard Garfinkel, Geary Hendley, Keith Glass, Kenny Graham, Leo James, Ernie Hall, Saul Lerner, Lois Tarkanian, David Chesnoff, Ron Naclerio, John Valenti, Ramon Ortiz, Jabari Joyner, Robbito Garcia, Alvis Brown, Avery Johnson, Benjamin May, Tom Kancholosky, Anita Hendley. Directed by Benjamin May

 

Every so often a basketball player comes along who is considered can’t-miss; they are recruited heavily out of high school by the biggest college programs in the sport and some go on to long, productive careers in the NBA; guys like LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had those kinds of career. And then, there is Lloyd Daniels.

Daniels is a New York playground legend. At 16, he was considered one of the best basketball players in the world – including in the NBA. His mom died when he was a child; he spent most of his time being shuttled between one grandmother in Queens and another in Brooklyn. His father, who never recovered from his wife’s death, sank into alcoholism. Eventually, Lloyd joined him in alcohol abuse at a young age, and went on to get addicted to crack just as it became epidemic in New York.

Lloyd liked to party but he didn’t particularly like going to class and almost never went. One thing not explained in the documentary is how he was allowed to play basketball when he wasn’t attending class. In my day, you couldn’t participate in extracurricular athletics if you didn’t maintain at least a “C” average, but New York in the Nineties might have been different. In any case, Daniels is dyslexic which may explain his ambivalent attitude towards school. However, one thing he was serious about was basketball and he was a 6’7” guard who could pass AND shoot, a rarity. Lots of coaches were foaming at the mouth trying to get him into their programs. He eventually aged out of high school without graduating or passing a single course.

He wound up being accepted to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas on a scholarship. The Running Rebels were coached by the legendary Jerry Tarkanian who were always one of the favorites to win the NCAA title back then. But his college career was derailed before he’d even played a single game; he was arrested in a crack house on a police sting operation on February 9, 1987 and Tarkanian threw him off the team. With a drug arrest in his portfolio, he essentially became untouchable. Also not mentioned in the documentary was the involvement of Richard Perry, a noted gambler who helped steer Daniels to UNLV and the ensuing investigation of whom would lead to Tarkanian being forced out as coach of their team.

Las Vegas lawyer David Chesnoff thought he got a raw deal and helped him get into the Continental Basketball Association with the Topeka Sizzlers. However, his addiction followed him and he was dropped from the team. Going back to New York City, he resumed smoking crack and after trying to rip off some drug dealers of an $8 vial of crack, was shot three times in the chest. He actually died, but was saved by skilled surgeons and lived to play again.

This time it was Coach Tarkanian who came calling; now with the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA. Daniels, given a second chance, started to look like he deserved one. He was showing signs of the skills that had made him one of the most highly sought-after recruits of his generation. Unfortunately, the Spurs weren’t doing all that well as a team and Tarkanian was let go. When John Lucas, a recovering addict himself, was made coach, he saw some disturbing signs in Daniels. Eventually, after a two year stay with San Antonio – the longest of his professional career, he was let go and ended up playing with a myriad of teams, six in the NBA finishing just seven games shy of being vested in the player’s pension program.

These days, Daniels is an AAU coach in New York. In middle age, he bears a striking resemblance to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. His voice is raspy from years of smoking crack. He is divorced, and while his three kids are all college graduates, he frankly gives credit to his ex-wife. Former radiologist-turned-filmmaker Benjamin May got the opportunity to film Daniels; at times he seems to be a very willing subject, opening up about his addictions and what they cost him. We see him visiting the house where he was arrested in 1987, where the wheels began to fall off on his life and career. Tears come to his eyes when he thinks about that cost.

While he appears open and affable here, there is the other side of Daniels. He is still drinking, which is why his ex-wife declined to be interviewed for the project. We also hear a variety of phone messages left on May’s answering machines of Daniels, wheedling for money and accusing him of exploiting Daniels. Eventually, the calls grow more and more angry and confrontational until they end on a conciliatory note.

This is truly a cautionary tale and shows how incredibly difficult it is to get out of poverty; Daniels had all the tools to have an NBA career that would have set him up for life. Sadly, he never got the guidance he needed to deal with life and his addiction would eventually overwhelm his talent. Daniels was failed by those closest to him, failed by the public school system, failed by society but most of all he failed himself. This is the sort of documentary that would have been perfect for the ESPN “30 in 30” series but sadly, it never made it there which is just symbolic of Daniels’ life in general.

REASONS TO SEE: A cautionary tale about wasted potential and drug abuse.
REASONS TO AVOID: The documentary feels a little bit scattered.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the executive producers of the film is legendary New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Without Bias
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Booksellers

Bias


Biases are shoot first and ask questions later.

(2018) Documentary (1091) Robin Hauser, Iris Bohnet, Mahzarin Banaji, Anthony Greenwald, Heidi Roizen, Ronald Tyler, Howard Ross, Allyson Robinson, David Rock, Judith Michelle Williams, Krista Morgan, Promise Phelon, Aileen Leo, Malcolm Gladwell, Lori Nishiura Mackenzie, Jerry Kang, Shikira Porter, Nirav Tolia, Lois James, Steve James, Angéle Christin, Abby Wambach. Directed by Robin Hauser

 

We all have pre-conceived notions of one sort or another; African-American males are criminals, women are too emotional to lead, liberals are elitist snobs, conservatives are ignorant rednecks. Sometimes our biases are so subtle we are unaware that we even have them.

Documentary filmmaker Robin Hauser examines the biases that are in all of us. I think most of us like to think of ourselves as unbiased and objective but there are online tests that you can take that will quickly disabuse you of that notion. The tests are part of a study that confirms that most Americans – and indeed, most humans – have some sort of bias. Maybe we favor a certain political philosophy. Maybe we are suspicious of people of a certain ethnic background. Maybe we believe women are less capable than men. Hauser was shocked to discover that she herself had that bias, that men were more career-oriented and women more family-oriented. As a woman who has a career, she thought she’d have a different viewpoint.

Hauser talks to a number of researchers, authors, psychologists and social engineers, people who shape viewpoints. We are shown how biases form a part of the fabric of society and how many people are even unaware that they have them.

The documentary can be a bit dry in places, and there are a lot of talking heads, but there are also some impressive animated sequences as well as some information that is sure to make you raise an eyebrow if not drop your jaw. Hauser is an engaging host, taking front and center in her documentary as she talks to people on the street, takes the online test in the presence of those who created it, and engages in a police exercise meant to focus on police biases and help cops overcome them.

It’s a fairly short watch and for those who think that they are pretty much objective, this can be a game-changer. While I didn’t take the online test myself (the documentary shows you how you yourself can take it), I did recognize some of my own political biases rearing their ugly heads. While the film asserts that we can “re-program” ourselves to eliminate biases, it doesn’t really explain how too deeply and does mention that it is an extraordinarily difficult process, but knowing that those feelings are there is the first step in dealing with them.

REASONS TO SEE: Eye-opening. Some nifty animation.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lots of talking heads giving dry information.
FAMILY VALUES: There is occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Hauser’s third documentary feature.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Changes Everything
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Sharks (Los tiburones)