Big Time (2017)


Bjarke Ingels scans the New York City skyline that he intends to augment.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama/Mongrel Media) Bjarke Ingels, David Zahle, Kar-Uwe Bergmann, Donald Durst, Charlie Rose, Seth Meyers, Patrik Gustavsson, Ulla Rottger, Larry A. Silverstein, Sheila Maini Søgaard, Alexander Durst, Daniel Libeskind, Ruth Otero. Directed by Kaspar Astrump Schrôder

 

Architecture is somewhat unique. It’s part inspiration, part imagination and a big part engineering. When most architects look at a project, they see function. Is it going to be an office building? If it’s going to be full of cubicles, it should be a big steel and glass square. Is it going to be a power plant? It should have smoke stacks and an industrial look to it so that nobody who sees it can mistake it for anything else.

However, cities want to forge their own identities and they do it largely through architecture that is unique. Chicago essentially made it a civic pursuit. Great architects give cities that identity, a unique skyline or look. How much of Sydney is invested in the Opera House, or San Francisco in the Golden Gate Bridge? How does Barcelona benefit from La Sagrada Familia, or Paris from the Eiffel Tower? These are structures that define a city.

Danish architect Bjarke Ingels has become one of the most important architects in the world. Through his firm BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), he has changed the face of Copenhagen, putting in apartment buildings that resemble mountains and a power plant with a ski slope for a roof and that belches steam smoke rings every so often. He marries function, form and whimsy with almost uncanny skill. He is a genius and a dynamo of energy whose Chris Pratt-like smile and boundless energy inspire all those around him.

This documentary follows Ingels over a seven year period in which he attempts to branch out from Scandinavia to North America, opening a New York office and getting his biggest projects to date – the Via Apartment complex (utilizing a shape never before seen in a skyscraper) and even more importantly, World Trade Tower 2. He aims to add his own unique stamp to the world’s most famous skyline.

Ingels seems poised to make his mark on a bigger stage until a sports injury reveals a deeper health issue that he needs to deal with and which also interferes with his ability to work. As someone who has a chronic neurological issue that also affects my ability to work for long stretches at a time, I could truly relate to Ingels’ frustrations perhaps more than the average viewer will. Still, anyone who has tried to work through migraine headaches and other issues which Ingels must put up with will certainly be sympathetic.

Schrôder isn’t reinventing the wheel here and he takes a fairly safe approach to making the film. He utilizes some breathtaking architectural shots to make the film a visual treat but he often focuses on things like Ingels biking through the city or staring out of his window contemplatively. The film is at its best when Ingels is showing off his passion for making something unique and inspiring; those are the Howard Roark moments that might inspire some to take up the torch.

The film definitely has a European sensibility to it; Americans prefer to have their stories be concise while Europeans are content to let it meander a little bit. A dinner with Ingels and his parents in which old photo albums are leafed through may drive some Americans to check their watches but the dynamic is fascinating and gives some insight into how Ingels came to be the way he is.

What the film doesn’t do is really drill down into Ingels’ creative process. We see him come up with some whimsical ideas but those ideas are fully formed and already part of the plans for his buildings; what prompted them, what inspired them is rarely alluded to. We never get a sense of what fuels his creative fires. Considering the access that Schrôder apparently had, there should have been at least an inkling given.

This isn’t essential viewing but it is interesting viewing. You do get a bit of a look into where architecture is headed and what the future might hold. While Ingels is fairly unique among architects, I don’t think that his basic underlying philosophy is uncommon. I wouldn’t be surprised a bit if the buildings that Ingels is creating today become the norm in the cities of tomorrow.

REASONS TO GO: The creativity and intelligence of Ingels is fun to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: The film doesn’t really delve into the creative process as much as I would have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ingels initially wanted to be a cartoonist before his parents filled out an application to an architecture school and made him sign it and submit it. To Bjerke’s surprise, he was accepted.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sketches of Frank Gehry
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Voyeur

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Jane (2017-II)


Jane Goodall in the wild.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama/Nat Geo) Jane Goodall, Hugo von Lawick, Grub von Lawick. Directed by Brett Morgen

 

In the world of natural science, Jane Goodall stands out as a titan in the field of primate study. Her work with chimpanzees has been nothing short of groundbreaking. With no formal training, no university degree, she was sent out into the field by anthropologist Louis B. Leakey to observe chimpanzees in the wild back in 1960.

At the time, little was known about chimpanzee behavior in the wild. Leakey felt that the chimps would give an insight into behavior that might have been exhibited by early man and as it turned out, he was right. The National Geographic Society, who was footing the bill, sent out photographer Hugo von Lawick to document the research on film. He was able to capture footage of chimpanzees using sticks to jab into termite mounds to extract food. This put the scientific community into an uproar because to that point it was assumed that man was the only tool-using creature on the planet; this put that myth to bed. Since then it has been revealed that other animals use tools as well.

Jane wasn’t taken very seriously because she was British, blonde and cute. However, her passion for the animals she studied is deep-seated and obvious. Morgen takes great care to emphasize that the maternal instinct in her was heightened by observing her own mother (who accompanied her into Gombe Stream on her earliest expeditions) and later, by watching the chimpanzee Fiona raise her baby Flint.

Most of the footage we are showed hasn’t been viewed in more than half a century. Goodall narrates, talking about the various incidents onscreen with a memory that is crystal clear. Taken in 16mm film with warm backlighting for the most part, these come off as almost like home movies albeit scientifically important home movies. She makes an excellent narrator and one figures that doing so must have been highly emotional for her, particularly since all of the chimps in that early footage are now dead as is the man who took the footage – von Lawick passed away in 2008. Von Lawick and Goodall developed a romance and married with Goodall giving birth to a son called, incongruously, Grub. When Grub was very young, Goodall put her research on hold while she raised her son, returning back to her love of field work shortly thereafter. Von Lawick’s work with the National Geographic and other organizations would take him further and further away from the Gombe Stream station where Goodall lived; the two eventually divorced but remained close for the rest of his life.

Much of the film revolves around the footage taken by Von Lawick and justifiably so for he was truly an artist behind the camera. Goodall’s more recent work and footage from her camp are almost non-existent and some might criticize this very unbalanced approach and I can understand why they might do so, but really what we do get is simply so riveting and so magical that you don’t really miss anything more recent.

What I could have done without is the Philip Glass score. I have never been a fan of his and quite literally if you’ve heard one Philip Glass score you’ve heard them all. Too many times during the movie I was jerked out of the film because the music was so noticeable and unnecessarily dramatic. The music drowns out the sounds of the jungle which I thought would have been far more effective.

Nonetheless, this is a riveting documentary which presents one of the most inspirational women of the 20th century who continues to be a role model not only for young women but for anyone looking to work with animals in the wild and who cares about conservation and stewardship of the wild. This is also a documentary that is made so well and so beautifully that even despite the intrusive score it will likely be hailed as one of the best documentaries of 2017.

REASONS TO GO: The animal photography is, as to be expected, marvelous. Goodall makes a wonderful narrator. The movie is both informative and inspiring.
REASONS TO STAY: The Phillip Glass score is obnoxious and intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes showing animals killing other animals that may be disturbing to sensitive wee ones.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When National Geographic withdrew its grant money from Goodall and von Lawick, the completed films were archived at the society’s headquarters and remained there until being rediscovered in 2014.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 88/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chimpanzee
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Big Time

Monogamish


Sexuality should be playful.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Dr. Christopher Ryan, Dan Savage, Tao Ruspoli, Roberta Haze, Claudia Ruspoli, Debra Berger, Dr. Loree Johnson, John Perry Barlow, Mark Wrathall, Stephanie Coontz, Frank Ryan, Julie Ryan, Sforza Ruspoli, Wendell Berger, Eric Berkowitz, Dossie Easton, Annette Burger, Eric Anderson, Judith Stacy, Stephanie Johnstone. Directed by Tao Ruspoli

 

As a culture, we have been taught to revere monogamy. When someone cheats in a marriage our sympathies automatically go to the cheated upon. While there are psychologists and philosophers who have written that monogamy is not the natural state for humankind, nonetheless western society has come to embrace it to a point.

After undergoing a bitter divorce, director/actor Tao Ruspoli decided he needed to explore the subject. He enlisted the help of a variety of experts on the subject from marriage counselors to academics to sex columnists to his own family. Ruspoli, as it turns out, is the son of an Italian prince. A child of the freewheeling 70s, his mother was his father’s 18-year-old girlfriend (his dad was in his 50s at the time) and grew up in a life of privilege but also in an environment where he was exposed to non-traditional relationships from an early age.

One thing we don’t get is why the interest in monogamy. The obvious answer is that either Ruspoli cheated on his ex-wife (actress Olivia Wilde) or she cheated on him, although neither scenario is spelled out in the film. Other ramifications from serial cheating are not explored, like the increased likelihood of sexually transmitted diseases.

There are some very good cases made for polyamory, particularly from Savage, an outspoken proponent for the subject and Dr. Christopher Ryan who has written books on it. Not everyone is wired to be monogamous; some people are unhappy in exclusive relationships. Also the point of marriage de-emphasizing sex is brought up but if sex is so unimportant, why would having sex with another partner be grounds to end it? It’s an interesting question that there are no easy answers to.

Not everyone is going to receive the message here well and I will admit that I personally felt that some of the arguments for polyamory felt more like excuses to be unfaithful. Any good relationship takes a lot of work and commitment; it is much harder to commit to someone else if there’s an easy out through infidelity. Roberta Haze, a neighbor of Ruspoli’s and a costume designer for the film industry, blithely admits that she left three husbands because she got bored with them. Perhaps for some people the need for excitement outweighs the need for stability.

I do think Ruspoli tries to present both sides of the equation, but it’s clear that his sympathies lie on one specific side as the “big reveal” at the end at the end of the movie implies. The subject is presented in a fairly clinical way and with a lot of personal anecdotes but at the end of the day this is a highly charged, emotional subject which the message for which might not be able to penetrate the emotional barriers set up by some who adhere to a certain mindset. Nonetheless, this is an excellent starting point for people interested in learning about our monogamous culture, the “marriage-industrial complex” (as Savage deems it) and a society which praises monogamy but in which infidelity is rampant.

REASONS TO GO: A thoughtful and insightful look at human sexuality.
REASONS TO STAY: At times the film seems to be looking for excuses to cheat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sexual content as well as some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Savage is best known for his column “Savage Love” printed weekly in the Seattle-based alternative paper The Stranger.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Human Sexes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
TBD

Wetlands (2017)


The secret to life is simply fishing.

(2017) Drama (Abramorama) Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Heather Graham, Reyna de Courcy, Christopher McDonald, Jennifer Ehle, Louis Mustillo, Barry Markowitz, Sean Ringgold, Rob Morgan, Lauren LaVera, Tyler Elliot Burke, Pamela Dunlap, Melissa Goodwin, Quinn Fucci, Celeste O’Connor, Lou Morey, Jim Fitzpatrick, Natalie Paige Bentley, Dana Kreitz, Donna DeGregorio. Directed by Emanuele Della Valle

 

There comes a time in some lives where we have to start from scratch. Circumstances, bad decisions, bad luck; whatever the case may be, a new beginning becomes necessary once we hit rock bottom. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it does happen.

Babel “Babs” Johnson (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), the son of an alcoholic religious fanatic and an absent father, has returned to the Jersey shore town outside of Atlantic City where he grew up. It’s in a bleak area of dilapidated homes, empty storefronts and swampy shore known as the Wetlands. He was once a narcotics detective in Philadelphia but a crippling heroin addiction and a heinous act sent him to rehab. He left behind Savannah (Graham), his embittered wife once a trust fund baby but now taking up with Surfer Girl (de Courcy), a surfboard maker who dreams of moving to Hawaii and starting her own business, but has taken to being a drug courier for Jimmy Coconuts (Mustillo) and in a not-too-smart move, skimming some of the drugs and selling them herself.

Babs doesn’t care about any of that. What he’s worried about is his daughter Amy (O’Connor) who despises him for leaving her with her mother and her lover, both of whom are too wrapped up in their own problems to pay much attention to Amy. For now, he’s on the police force of a small town, partnered with Paddy Sheehan (McDonald), a garrulous hard-drinking roustabout who is in debt up to his eyeballs to the local drug lord known as Lollipop (Markowitz) due to his taste in confections and who also happens to be the boss of Jimmy Coconuts. Paddy is married to Kate (Ehle), a newscaster reporting on the pending arrival of a late season hurricane which threatens to cause all sorts of havoc.

If the plot sounds a little bit scattershot, that’s only because it is. Fashionista and first-time director Della Valle seems torn between doing a noir-laced crime thriller and a drama about a broken man trying to start over; either one would have been an interesting movie on its own and if Della Valle had managed to fuse the two together he could have had an indie classic on his hands. Sadly however the two tales don’t mesh very well and we’re left with a choppy, uneven movie that doesn’t have any sort of flow to it. There is a murder in the movie that seems to be the crux of matters but it doesn’t occur until only about 15 minutes are left in the film which gives that last bit an almost rushed feel.

Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who has had numerous supporting roles in a variety of films as well as memorable turns on TV’s Oz and Lost steps out into a much overdue lead role here and he does okay for himself, although he’s not given a very interesting character to work with. Sure, Babs has a lot of baggage and in the hands of a more capable writer could have been unforgettable but we are mainly left with a lot of clichés and backstory that is hinted at throughout the movie (told in black and white flashbacks) until near the end when the big reveal turns out to be not too difficult to predict.

The supporting cast isn’t too bad. McDonald takes the role and runs with it, giving a pretty slimy character a sheen of bonhomie. Ehle gets a role that gives her an opportunity to be sophisticated and sexy and she nails both of those aspects. Graham, who I’ve adored as an actress since her breakout role in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me gets to do a role that might bring back memories of her performance in Boogie Nights although the movie isn’t up to the latter’s standard.

There are some really terrific images here, like a roller coaster post-hurricane standing in water but even the hurricane is somewhat anti-climactic. There are a lot of decent threads here but the overall whole is pretty disappointing; everything feels like it’s all build-up and no pay-off. In this town, that kind of thing can get you bumped off.

REASONS TO GO: There are some phenomenal images here.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is a little bit disjointed and the flow is uneven.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity, drug content, sexuality, some nudity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming took place in Wildwood, Cape May and other towns along the Jersey coast.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blue Ruin
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Rebel in the Rye

Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk


The scene is a monster.

(2017) Musical Documentary (Abramorama) Billy Joe Armstrong, Iggy Pop (narrator), Jello Biafra, Laurence Livermore, Tim Armstrong, Kathleen Hanna, Brett Gurewitz, Ian Mackaye, East Bay Ray, Fat Mike, Ben Weasel, Kirk Hammett, Lars Fredricksen, Mike Dirnt, Sergei Loobkoff, Kevin Seconds, Penelope Houston, Tre Cool, Duff McKagan, Kamala Parks, Honey, Miranda July, Ginger Coyote. Directed by Corbett Redford

 

The nature of music is that every so often there comes a confluence, a mixture of talent, opportunity and inspiration that coalesces in a single location. The rise of Motown in the 60s, the British invasion, the Seattle grunge scene, the jangle pop scene in Athens, GA, the Madchester era and the Minneapolis of Prince, the Replacements and Soul Asylum are all examples of this.

There are other scenes that are evergreens; they are generally large cities that have a steady influx of talent. Los Angeles, New York City, London and San Francisco are all consistently churning out great artists and inventing (or reinventing) new sounds. Sometimes these large city scenes are like black holes, drawing in everything in a 50 mile or more radius.

The East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area has always existed on the edge of San Francisco’s orbit. While Oakland has always had a thriving rap scene, the suburbs of Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano counties have largely been garage band territories that have from time to time produced some fine bands.

During the 80s as the punk phenomenon was in full swing in San Francisco with bands like the Avengers, the Dead Kennedys and Flipper making important music something happened; the scene began to fade as hardcore skinhead bands began to suffuse the scene in violence. The editor of seminal punk ‘zine Maximumrocknroll Tim Yohannon wanted a venue that punk rockers of all ages could watch their favorite bands in safety – but also gave the bands the freedom to be themselves. He found such a space in Berkeley in a converted warehouse at 924 Gilman Street.

The 924 Gilman scene became a thriving punk scene that supported a wide variety of bands. The most famous bands to come out of the Gilman scene were Rancid and even bigger was Green Day whose success became a sticking point for many of those who felt that signing with a major label and making any sort of money was in effect selling out.

Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong approached Corbett Redford who went to high school with him looking for archival footage from the halcyon days of Gilman for a film that Armstrong wanted to make documenting  the scene. Not only did Redford have the footage that Billie Joe was looking for, he volunteered to direct the thing as well.

The result is one of the most exhaustively thorough music documentaries I’ve ever seen. Essentially chronicling the story of San Francisco Bay Area punk from its early beginnings to the break out success of Green Day in 1994, the movie contains footage of the bands who played the Gilman regularly and interviews with literally hundreds of people associated with the scene, from the musicians who played there to the volunteers who worked there to the writers who covered the scene to the artists who grew out of the scene. The film clocks in at about 2 ½ hours so it’s not something you sit in without some sort of commitment.

The length of the movie may be daunting to some; it’s hard to sit through 155 minutes of talking heads and snippets of songs but the frenetic editing pace makes it palatable. In fact, I was left wondering if with additional footage this couldn’t have been a mini-series rather than a movie although I have to admit a movie was an easier sell to something like Netflix than a miniseries based on a specific scene. Still, one has to admire the passion of all those involved from the filmmakers to the interviewees who made this happen.

The footage is in many cases extremely rare and unavailable anywhere else. For me, there was a nostalgic appeal in seeing bands like Operation Ivy, Neurosis and Kamala and the Karnivores, bands that figured in my Bay Area rock critic days and who now existed for me only as worn-out cassette tapes and memories – until now.

Redford utilizes animation sequences masterminded by Tim Armstrong of Rancid fame that recollects the artwork of the great punk zines. The animations are some of the best and most entertaining segments in the film and are worth seeing on their own.

One can’t understate the importance of Gilman as the ultimate expression of the DIY philosophy and of taking the punk ethic to the next logical evolutionary step. Not everything that came out of Gilman was amazing and life-changing but there was always an energy that radiated from the bands that played there regularly that were not present anywhere before or since. The Gilman is still there; some of the people who have been there since the beginning are too but for the most part, it’s a new generation trying not necessarily to live up to the accomplishments of those who came before them but to blaze their own trail while holding true to the tenets that have guided the Gilman collective since the beginning.

This isn’t a movie for everybody; people who find the music discordant and irritating doubtless will not find much to like here but it isn’t just the music that is important but the society that sprang from it. Love Green Day or label them sell-outs; they were an important part of the Gilman Street Experiment (almost said Experience there) and because of their success or maybe in spite of it, they are able to wield the clout to get a movie like this made. Punk scholars will appreciate this most of all.

REASONS TO GO: The concert footage is indispensable. The animated sequences are zine-like and cool. The Gilman scene gets the due it richly deserves.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much information coming at you in a documentary that’s a good half hour too long. There is an overabundance of talking heads here.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Redford and the members of Green Day all went to Pinole Valley High School although two years apart.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Monster Project

Sidemen: Long Road to Glory


It’s not the years; it’s the mileage.

(2017) Musical Documentary (Abramorama) Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Hubert Sumlin, Marc Maron (voice), Derek Trucks, Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton, Joe Perry, Warren Haynes, John Landis, Brad Whitford, Kenny Wayne Shepard, Susan Tedeschi, Bob Margolin, Gary Davis, Ilene Louise Smith, Johnny Winters, Paul Nelson, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Bonnie Raitt. Directed by Scott D. Rosenbaum

 

Pinetop Perkins. Hubert Sumlin. Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. They are three giants in the history of the blues and huge influences on the sound of rock and roll. Sumlin was the guitar genius behind Howlin Wolf while Smith and Perkins played drums and piano for Muddy Waters. They have influenced bluesmen like the late Johnny Winters and Bonnie Raitt as well as rockers like Eric Clapton, Joe Perry and the Rolling Stones.

None of those three men have really gotten their due; even in their own genre they were overshadows by the men they backed up. They were true sidemen, and while they wore the label with pride they also felt the injustice of it – referring to the bandleaders they played for, Perkins mused “They got all the money and we got all the scraps.”

This documentary aims to remedy that. Rosenbaum – who in his debut feature film The Perfect Age of Rock and Roll posited a blues all-star band featuring these three giants and later saw life imitate art when the three men created their own band that would eventually win a Grammy – celebrates the life and art of these three sidemen. There’s a good deal of testimonial from Raitt, Winters, the late Gregg Allman, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Joe Perry, Warren Haynes and Joe Bonamassa. Perhaps a little too much; the movie professes a little too much adulation and while the praise is richly deserved, it gets to be a bit much as we hear over and over how great these guys were. We get it; what I really wanted to hear was their story.

When the film is concentrating on the story rather than the talking heads, it really hits its stride. All three of the men are natural storytellers and as you might imagine they have some stories to tell. Smith in particular is a delight to watch with an infectious smile and contagious laugh. If one person stands out from this documentary, it’s Smith..

We get a pretty good history from these guys, from their beginnings as the sons of sharecroppers, to their move to Chicago to find better economic opportunities to their days playing for Wolf and Waters and finally after both Wolf and Waters passed away, their days establishing themselves all over again. Some of the stories have a bit of a name-dropping element to them, as when Perkins recalls the time that Jimi Hendrix unexpectedly showed up at a concert, and others are told with gentle affection, as when Sumlin tells about how Clapton got on the notoriously curmudgeon Wolf’s good side by asking him to show them how “Little Red Rooster” was played, even though he was thoroughly familiar with the song.

There is some lovely archival footage of Wolf and Waters which is worth its weight in gold and the audio clips of the great blues songs these men were part of will absolutely send chills up your spine. There is a bit of an elegiac tone to the film however; the interviews with Winters and Allman took place before the musicians passed away. Also the three blues men in question have all since passed away – within eight months of each other, Perkins less than a month after the three won their Grammy.

Although they are gone, their legend lives on. There is a very real effort underway to get them elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, none of whom are currently inducted in and definitely should be. This is a documentary that should have been made. I would have preferred to hear more from the three gentlemen in question and less from the talking heads, but to be fair Smith, Sumlin and Perkins were interviewed during their final tour back in 2010 and little interview footage otherwise exists. That’s the true shame – the stories and memories that the three men had between them are gone with them.

REASONS TO GO: The music is amazing. Smith is absolutely delightful throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: More anecdotes and less adulation would have been welcome. The film over-relies on talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Perkins earned his only Grammy at age 97 (along with Smith and Sumlin) for Joined at the Hip which makes him the oldest Grammy recipient ever.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twenty Feet from Stardom
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Liza, Liza, Skies of Grey

Birthright: A War Story


In justice.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Michele Goodwin, Lynn Paltrow, Carole Joffe, David A. Grimes, Danielle Deaver, Rob Deaver, Monica Simpson, Casey Shehi, Katie Darovitz, Tarah Demant, Carol Tobias, G. William Orr, Loretta Ross, Faith Groesbeck, Rinar Dray, Jennie Lynn McCormick, Lori Friedman, Gabrielle Goodrick, Joan McGregor, Sister Carol Keehan, Ann Sharpe. Directed by Civia Tamarkin

 

It is sometimes difficult as a film reviewer to rise above the temptation of reviewing the subject of a documentary rather than the documentary itself. Some subjects are important and urgent and may dovetail with the political leanings of the reviewer. I’m a progressive liberal, like many film reviewers, and the subject of this film – the assault on reproductive rights by the pro-life movement – you would think would be something that is near and dear to my heart, and it is.

Tamarkin does a masterful job of explaining the genesis of the pro-choice movement and how we got into the situation we’re in now, going back to the works of Margaret Sanger all the way up through Roe v. Wade at which time the pro-choice movement essentially rested on their laurels which some activists interviewed here freely admit.

But to their credit, those on the other side never gave up. They rolled up their sleeves, took a critical look at why they lost their fight and changed their strategy. Even if one is a hardcore leftie like I am one must admire how the right has organized and strategized themselves into the position of power they now occupy. We watch as the Right to Life organization and Personhood movement – high level members of both are interviewed at length for the film to Tamarkin’s credit – shift the focus from the unborn to the health of the mother, changing the public’s perception of the entire movement. It’s truly a brilliant strategy. They then target state lawmakers on the right, getting laws enacted that chip away at the ability for lower income women to access safe and legal abortion, but also give the state chilling control over the entire reproductive process from the moment a woman becomes pregnant. One conservative lawyer expresses how this is completely at odds with the small government-individual rights conservatism he grew up with.

Tamarkin gives us most of the salient facts, including some anecdotal interviews showing that many young women today don’t even know what Roe v. Wade is. That should chill a lot of pro-choice advocates to the very bone. There are also tales of women caught in the crossfire of these draconian new laws, women who weren’t interested in an abortion. These heartbreaking tales are at the center of the movie like the woman whose placenta was punctured after 22 weeks; because her state had a law that a fetus could not be aborted after 20 weeks, she was made to carry the baby even though it was going to be without fully developed lungs or heart. She wasn’t even allowed to have labor induced because the baby wouldn’t have been viable. Talk about a catch-22 weeks. The baby only lived a few minutes after she gave birth to it.

There were other women who were forced to undergo C-sections against their will and without their permission, as well as women who were arrested and sent to jail because they had what was deemed a “suspicious” miscarriage. It’s hard not to get angry about these blatant intrusions into what should be a woman’s right to control what happens to her own body. Although they make no comment on it, the spokespeople with the opposing viewpoint seemed to be okay with this aptly termed “collateral damage.”

While Tamarkin ably ratchets up the outrage for the left side of the aisle, she makes some filmmaking missteps. The jazz-inflected score was too loud in the soundtrack and seemed at odds with the seriousness of the subject matter. It almost felt at times like the score was meant for a Discovery Channel documentary rather than a feature film – not knocking Discovery Channel programs but it’s a different kind of animal here.

I am not certain that this is going to win hearts and minds. It seems to me that in our echo chamber society that most people are not going to pay much attention to anyone or anything that sits outside their narrow field of view. Tamarkin doesn’t help matters by giving us an endless parade of talking heads all of whom are saying very much the same sorts of things. Still, those on the pro-choice side are going to find this useful and educational – while those on the pro-life side will likely call it propaganda. While it’s clear what side of the line Tamarkin falls on, I do give her props for at least trying to tell the complete story of a very complicated and polarizing issue that continues to be an important and explosive topic even now decades after the Supreme Court made their landmark decision.

REASONS TO GO: Guaranteed to make you angry if you are pro-choice. Effective time is given to pro-life viewpoints. The history of the reproductive rights fight is covered pretty thoroughly.
REASONS TO STAY: The score is a little annoying. There is a surfeit of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: The film contains adult themes, disturbing images and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tamarkin was at one time an executive at CNN.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: After Tiller
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Circle