Herb Alpert Is…


The brass still gleams.

(2020) Music Documentary (AbramoramaHerb Alpert, Jerry Moss, Lani Hall, Sting, Quincy Jones, Billy Bob Thornton, Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendes, Lou Adler, Terry Lewis, Bill Moyers, Randy Alpert, Jimmy Jam, Quest Love, Chloe Flower, Richard Carpenter, Eden Alpert, Hussain Jiffry, Ken Robinson, John Pisano, Chip Tom, Eric Pryor, Richard W. Lariviere, Bill Cantos, Aria Alpert Adjani. Directed by John Scheinfeld

 

In the early-to-mid Sixties, the biggest musical group in the world was the Beatles. All the kids listened to them. But it might surprise you to know what their parents were listening to; Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The two groups were the biggest selling musical acts in the United States in 1965 and 1966. Even if you don’t know the name, you’ve heard “A Taste of Honey” at some point in your life. You’ve had to.

In the sixties, his music served as something of a soundtrack. It was used as incidental music on The Dating Game and could be heard in movies and of course, on the radio. As ubiquitous as his music was, he might be best remembered in the music business for being the “A” in A&M Records, whose roster of artists included at one time or another Janet Jackson, The Carpenters, Carole King, The Police, Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66, Bryan Adams, Soundgarden, The Black-Eyed Peas, Sheryl Crow, Peter Frampton, Styx, Amy Grant, Joe Jackson, the Neville Brothers, Atlantic Starr, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Human League, Oingo Boingo, Hugh Masakela, Iggy Pop, the Neville Brothers, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, Cat Stevens, the Tubes, Simple Minds, UB40, Rick Wakeman, Supertramp, Bill Withers and the Stranglers.

These days, Alpert spends a lot of time sculpting and painting. Music has taken a back seat to the visual arts, although he still dabbles. He sold the record company years ago, and is able to live a pretty comfortable lifestyle. He’s reached a point in his life where people tend to turn inward and ask themselves “Did I do okay?” It is also the time of life when documentarians tend to come knocking on your door.

Scheinfeld has assembled some pretty impressive interviews, and Alpert himself, notoriously an introvert, actually proves to tell some pretty fun stories. The tone of the film is, as you might expect, somewhat reverent and if you’re looking for a “warts and all” portrayal here, you will likely be disappointed. Still, the archival footage is absolutely amazing – the TJB were making music videos back in the early Sixties before just about anybody else – and you get to hear a little bit more than just ten-second snippets of songs.

Alpert seems to be a pretty forward-looking guy as most artists tend to be. Still, in an era when looking forward tends to bring on depression, it was a pleasure to look back a bit. My mom and dad owned the South of the Border album and they played the heck out of it – I’m surprised it still plays (my mom still has the album somewhere). It represents a simpler, more innocent era to me, and I lived in Southern California – the perfect environment to hear Alpert’s music. Some today might mutter about cultural appropriation and watered-down version of Mexican music, but it was more than an accompaniment to chips and salsa at your local Mexican chain restaurant. It introduced a lot of people to a different type of music and made them receptive to hearing still more. Whatever you think of the TJB, you have to admit that Alpert made an indelible mark on the music industry and thus, on our lives. For my money, he done good.

REASONS TO SEE: The music clips are a little longer than usual for this genre. There is some terrific archival footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film occasionally descends into hagiography.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alpert got his start in the music business as a songwriter; among the songs that he wrote was the classic Sam Cooke song “Wonderful World.”
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20.20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews; Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Great Deceiver

Apocalypse ’45


This movie shows you why they call them The Greatest Generation.

(2020) War Documentary (Abramorama/DiscoveryItsei Nakagawa. Directed by Erik Nelson

Newscaster Tom Brokaw coined the term “The Greatest Generation” to describe those who lived through and fought in the Second World War, and the term fits. It was a generation that knew the meaning of sacrifice and the meaning of valor. Much of what this country achieved in the second half of the twentieth century was largely due to the spirit and tenacity of those war years, lifting our country out of a crippling economic depression to political, cultural and financial dominance from the 1950s onward.

This film, timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of VJ day (the cessation of hostilities in the Pacific Theater), was taken from over 700 reels of color footage that have been sitting in the National Archives, largely unseen. There is a reason for that – some of the footage is graphic, showing dead bodies, mangled bodies, irradiated bodies and a Japanese woman stepping off of a cliff in the Marianas Islands rather than letting the American troops take her alive. This isn’t for sensitive souls.

The footage has been digitally restored to 4K standards and looks almost contemporary. Also, Nelson – rather than fitting the film with stentorian narration like so many documentaries of the war – utilizes interviews with men who served in the Pacific. Now in their 90s, they are occasionally cantankerous and always compelling. They offer a viewpoint of modern society (which creeps in) that is unique but well-earned.

The footage concentrates on the last six months of the war, from the Battle of Manila freeing the Philippines (as MacArthur made good on his promise to return) through the Battle of Iwo Jima – I was struck watching marines arriving on the island in troop carriers and wondered how many of them didn’t make it home – the fierce fighting on Okinawa which convinced the military and political leaders of the United States that a protracted invasion of Japan would be ruinously costly in terms of American lives and resources, the firebombing of Tokyo and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

That footage is largely narrated by Itsei Nakagawa, who was 15 years old at the time and attending school in the center of the city of Hiroshima, but miraculously escaped death and radiation poisoning; he is a naturalized American citizen now, retired and living in the San Francisco Bay Area. His eyewitness testimony provides context unlike almost anything you’ve ever seen, except for maybe the incredible but little-seen documentary Message from Hiroshima. The debate on the morality of dropping those bombs continues to be discussed with no clear consensus.

The movie personalizes the war like no other documentary I’ve seen and in that sense is comparable to Peter Jackson’s amazing They Shall Not Grow Old. The spirit of both films is similar, although the testimony of the veterans in this film is tailored more to the images onscreen. Also, like Jackson’s film, this movie overstays its welcome a little bit and you may end up a little numb by the time the closing credits roll. That’s more a testament to our shorter attention spans today than anything else.

This is definitely worth the attention of any history buff. It is currently playing in limited virtual cinematic release (see below for a link to participating theaters) but for those who don’t mind waiting it will be broadcast on the Discovery Channel starting Labor Day weekend..

REASONS TO SEE: The color footage is amazing. The testimony of the various soldiers and sailors who fought give a personal feeling.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too long and too graphic for the sensitive sorts.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is war violence and some grisly images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The exact number of dead in the atomic blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki will never be known; it is estimated that 126,000-229,000 were killed, but those numbers are considered to be conservative.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: World War 2 in Color
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
After So Many Days

Starting at Zero: Reimagining Education in America


Education shouldn’t and doesn’t begin at kindergarten.

(2020) Documentary (Abramorama) Steve Bullock, Cynthia Jackson, James B. Hunt Jr., Ralph Northam, Phil Bryant, Kay Ivey, Aaliyah Samuel, Jeana Ross, Kathrine B. Stevens, Misty Blackmon, Pamela Northam, Diana Mendley Rauner, Todd Klunk, Archie Jones, Jeff Coleman, Diane Schanzenbach, Rebecca Berlin, Rachel Wagner, Amy Dunn, Sunny McPhillips. Directed by Willa Kammerer

 

A documentary often exists to present a specific point of view. If you asked Michael Moore why he doesn’t present the conservative response to his films, he would probably say “that’s not my job” (only much less politely, I think). Some documentaries, though, need to present more than one viewpoint in order to be effective.

Starting at Zero: Reimagining Education in America isn’t really a movie: it’s a PowerPoint presentation. It’s an avalanche of talking heads that drown you with information and sound bites until it starts leaking out of your ears and nose. Kammerer’s heart is in the right place, certainly; more attention needs to be paid to early childhood education, particularly for those families less able to afford quality child care. The Saul Zaentz foundation, established by the late Hollywood producer and jazz label founder, has undertaken that as a mission.

I think there was some confusion in regards to mission; the film opens with a graphic stating that the film is apolitical, not subscribing to a particular political party nor any specific state’s method of doing things, then spends more than half the film’s brief run time taking a deep dive into the success of the program in Alabama. That’s right, Alabama; not a state most people would associate with good education has the best record for early childhood education in the United States. I admit to being floored by that.

The talking heads – made up of state governors and former governors, other politicians, educators, academics, researchers and business leaders – stress the economic benefit of early childhood education. Getting kids started on socialization skills and learning how to learn from a very young age will help our kids do better in school and eventually, allow them to get better, more demanding jobs and contribute economically to the betterment of our society. In a way, it was chilling; are we interested in turning out intelligent citizens able to think for themselves, or automatons who are slaves to the wheel, as the saying goes. Given how certain politicians couldn’t wait to get people back to work during a pandemic, it would be forgivable if you assumed the latter.

Not to say that this isn’t a slick piece of work; there are plenty of charts and graphs accompanying the talking heads, interspersed with laughing, playing children in day care centers being taught how to play and problem solve. However, we don’t get a ton of specifics as to how, only that it must be done. We do hear some information about brain development but it gets lost in the noise of the constant barrage of people declaring how this is the Most Important Thing In the Country.

And I get it – this is a very important subject. Educating our children and preparing them for adulthood is one of the main functions of any society. However, there are documentaries that cover this subject that are much more effective. I suspect this was meant for showing to politicians at education conferences, or educators and academics at similar conferences. For general viewers, this is a hard slog to get to an important point. It’s pretty in the sense of the graphics and the happy, smiling kids but at the end of the day, unless you have a small child or are planning to have one, there may be very little interest in the subject for you and the movie won’t generate any – but it should.

REASONS TO SEE: An important subject we should all be invested in.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not so much a movie as a PowerPoint presentation.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all parents.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alabama is one of the only states in the union to have a dedicated cabinet member for early childhood education.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Small Matter
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Again Once Again

Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On


A couple of showbiz broads remembering when.

(2019) Documentary (Abramorama) Kaye Ballard, Michael Feinstein, Rex Reed, Carol Burnett, Woody Allen, Carol Channing, Joy Behar, Bernie Kopell, Peter Marshall, Elaine Paige, Liz Smith, Jerry Stiller, Harold Prince, Sandy Stewart, Ann-Margaret, Mimi Hines, Mark Sendroff, Carole Cook, Donna McKechnie. Directed by Dan Wingate

Unless you’re a Broadway-phile or of a certain age group that gets special dining privileges at Golden Corral, the name of Kaye Ballard may not necessarily be familiar to you. Those who know her likely remember her from her two-year stint on the sitcom The Mothers-in-Law with Eve Arden, or as a supporting player on The Doris Day Show – in both TV shows, playing a high-strung Italian mom, a role for which she would be typecast later in her career.

She was born Catherine Balotta in Cleveland to Italian immigrants and she knew from an early age that she wanted to be in show business, going to see symphonies at Severance Hall. She started out as a teen singing in Vaudeville shows. One of her performances was caught by Spike Jones, a legendary orchestra leader who Dr. Demento fans remember fondly. As gifted a comedienne as she was, it was her singing voice that was captivating and it was that which took her to Broadway during the Golden Age of the Great White Way.

Throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s she wasn’t exactly the Queen of Broadway but she was one of its most popular singers, leading to appearances on all sorts of talk shows and variety shows on television (including a memorable appearance playing the flute with Henry Mancini on his own show, an appearance she lampooned on a later visit to The Muppet Show).

This documentary features her career from her early film appearances to recordings of her Broadway hits to her television appearances to her late-in-life supper club and nightclub performances (she was still performing in her nineties). It concentrates on her professional life, rarely intruding on her personal life. Ballard is gregarious and a joyful storyteller and Wingate intersperses the archival footage and the lengthy interview with Ballard with testimonials from friends and colleagues, including such luminaries as Woody Allen, Carol Burnett, Ann-Margaret (whom she opened for in Vegas), legendary Broadway diva Carol Channing, Harold Prince (one of the most revered directors in the history of stage musicals), comedian Jerry Stiller, Joy Behar of The View and her friend, longtime gossip columnist Liz Smith.

The footage shows an extraordinary talent – she could belt out a showstopping number with all the vocal power of an Ethel Merman or sing tenderly from the heart a la Judy Garland (of whom she did a dead-on impression). The film packs a lot of info into its hour and a half running time and at times seems to be moving at a dizzying speed – Wingate could have easily stretched this out into a two to three-hour extravaganza and not have lacked for material to fill out the time.

Ballard passed shortly after the film was completed at age 93. She never got the acclaim and success she deserved, but she didn’t seem to mind that so much – she loved the life she led and when asked if she would do it all over again if she had the opportunity, she quipped “You bet your ass I would.” While her recordings are a little bit hard to find and some of her musical appearances sadly out of print, she is worth seeking out and this film not only presents a marvelous introduction to her talent but also takes us back to an era in entertainment that is essentially gone forever and of which we will never see the like of again. Kaye Ballard may have taken her final curtain call, but with this documentary the show will indeed go on so long as there are those who love the music and the performances of a much more innocent era. Quite a legacy for an immigrant’s daughter from Cleveland.

REASONS TO SEE: Shows the talent that Ballard possessed. Reminds of a golden era that we ill never see the like of again.
REASONS TO AVOID: The background music is intrusive and unwelcome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ballard, Channing, Prince, Smith and Stiller have all passed away since this was shot.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Carol Channing: Larger Than Life
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Isn’t It Romantic?

Olympia (2018)


A true American original.

(2018) Biographical Documentary (AbramoramaOlympia Dukakis, Louis Zorich, Rocco Sisto, Armistead Maupin, Alan Poul, Edward Asner, Whoopi Goldberg, Michael Dukakis, Austin Pendleton, Laura Linney, Norman Jewison, Lainie Kazan, Diane Ladd, Christina Zorich, Apollo Dukakis, Thomas Kean, Peter Zorich, Lynn Cohen, Stefan Zorich, Alexandra Dukakis, Bonnie Low Kramen . Directed by Harry Mavromichalis

 

Many casual filmgoers of a certain age group will know Olympia Dukakis only for her Oscar-winning role as Cher’s mother in Moonstruck. Some will remember her for her role as transgender Anna Madrigal in the groundbreaking Tales from the City PBS miniseries back in 1993. Theatergoers in the Northeast and in particular New Jersey may even be aware that she founded her own theater group – the Whole Theater Company in Montclair, NJ back in 1973 – because she was tired of being passed over for roles because of her ethnicity.

This documentary takes a fairly comprehensive look at her career and personal life and the first thing that becomes immediately apparent is that Dukakis embodies the truism “what you see is what you get.” The feistiness, brashness, outspokenness of her film roles are very much part of who Dukakis is offscreen. She is salty, outspoken about her opinions, sometimes crudely expressed (“When you get to a certain age you realize how much you take a good hard prick for granted” she confesses).

Amidst the celebrity testimonials from the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Laura Linney and Diane Ladd (which are strangely devoid of any personal connection to Dukakis; they could have easily been talking about any other actress), we hear some candid, occasionally vulnerable confessions about her sexuality, her drug abuse, suicidal feelings, her failings as a mother, her sometimes rocky relationship with her own mother. Dukakis is forthcoming but sometimes you get the sense if she wonders she shared too much.

We see Dukakis hard at work, not only practicing her craft but teaching it as well. We also meet her husband Louis Zorich, a fellow actor (who sadly passed away in 2018, shortly before the film first started screening on the festival circuit) who was her better half for a half century. Before that, she says glibly, “I was the queen of one-night stands.”

The movie isn’t edited well, unfortunately. Some sequences seem to be too brief to make an impression, while we see others that extend for a long time without really being very informative at all. We see Dukakis in a grocery store getting recognized by fans but this smacks of being staged, even though I get the sense that Dukakis herself is above such shenanigans.

Dukakis is without doubt an American original. She is entertaining both on and off-screen, and spending time with her is an absolute joy. I just wish the director had given the movie a smoother flow and spent more time letting Dukakis tell her own story, rather than listening to empty testimonials or take part in scenes that don’t add anything to her story. I almost would have preferred a two-hour one-on-one interview with Dukakis and an expert interviewer. That would have been just as entertaining if not more so.

REASONS TO SEE: Dukakis is an American treasure. he
REASONS TO AVOID: Some odd decisions in the editing bay.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some smoking, a few drug and sexual references as well
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Former Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis is her cousin.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Battle Angel: Alita

No Small Matter


Pomp and circumstance.

(2020) Documentary (AbramoramaAlfre Woodard (narrator), Rachel Giannini, Andrew Meltzoff, Alison Gopnik, Rhiann Alvig, Patricia Kuhl, Nadia Burke Harris, Jack Shonkoff, Donnie Poff, Mathew Melman, Deborah Phillips, Myra Jones-Tyler, Shea Gattis, Wahnike Johnson, Shannon Poff, Geoffrey Canada, John Wetzel, Dipesh Navsana, Robert Dugger, Seth Pollak, Rosemarie Truglio. Directed by Danny Alpert, Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel

 

America, according to all the test scores, is rapidly falling behind the rest of the world in education. There are many reasons for that; some are systemic, others are lifestyle-related and still others have to do with how privileged some of our children have become and how unwilling they are to work. To be blunt, we are reaching a crisis point where jobs are requiring more executive function – the ability to make good decisions, to remain calm under pressure and the ability to solve complex problems. It might interest you to know that all those functions are formed in a child’s brain before they reach the age of five.

And yet we devote only 3% of our education budget to early childhood education. Pre-school teachers are thought to be glorified babysitters and the vast majority of our children don’t get nearly enough stimulation by loving adults as infants, mainly because the economic reality of the modern world requires both parents to work, often multiple jobs, just to tread water. Add a child into the mix with all the expense of child bearing and child rearing and it’s a wonder that any babies are born in the U.S. at all.

This documentary examines the importance of early childhood education and does so with clever animation, colorful graphics and the warm dulcet tones of executive producer Alfre Woodward informing us how neuron pathways are formed in the brain – and how they are shut down. We are shown recent studies mapping the brains of infants and are startled to discover that children literally come out of the womb learning; one doctor recalls sticking his tongue out at a 42-minutes old baby who then imitates him by sticking his/her tongue out back at him. Every experience at that age helps shape our brains.

Economics play a major factor in child development; wealthier parents can afford to spend time with their children more than those who have to work two and three jobs; also wealthier parents can afford top of the line childcare – nannies and tutors. By the time they reach kindergarten, the five-year-old child of a wealthy family can be developmentally two years ahead from less affluent families, and that’s a gap that’s nearly impossible to make up.

We are introduced to Deborah Giannini, a pre-school teacher who is energetic, loving and capable. She helps children develop problem-solving techniques, takes them out of the classroom to help stimulate their minds and imaginations, and is a tireless bundle of energy. We also see her dissolve into tears as she recounts that she can’t afford to live on the salary she makes as a pre-school teacher and has to work a second job to follow her passion. Children who fall behind in early development have a much greater chance of not finishing high school; consequently, they are at greater risk for being locked into a cycle of poverty and developing criminal behavior. Law enforcement and military advocates both agree that money spent on early childhood development would save money on law enforcement and incarceration later on. Although not said overtly, the filmmakers make it clear that rather than spending millions on tanks, grenade launchers and billion-dollar state-of-the-art incarceration facilities, our money would be better spent helping young lives get a head start so that they don’t turn to crime in the first place. Of course, that would take money away from the industrial-military complex as well as for-profit prisons.

The film even admits that improving early childhood development isn’t a panacea that would end crime and make the world a utopia but it would give millions of children whose parents are middle or poverty class an opportunity to better themselves and be productive. New parents should really see this film (hey, the Cookie Monster makes a guest appearance, so there’s that) to help understand their own role in early development and what they can do to improve it at home, as well as alert them to programs that can help them out. Investing in our children, as a wise person once said, is investing in our future. Never has that been more true than now.

REASONS TO SEE: Clever animation (particularly during the opening credits) and enthusiastic testimonies drive the film. Addresses a little-understood need.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes feels a bit too much like every other PBS documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family viewing; requisite viewing for new parents.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The cost of childcare is higher than the cost of attending public college in 28 states.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wired for Life: Early Childhood Education
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Lords of Chaos

Parkland Rising


A class picture.

(2019) Documentary (AbramoramaDavid Hogg, Miguel Oliver, Cameron Kasky, Aly Sheehy, Emma Gonzalez, Ryan Deitsch, Fred Guttenberg, Kevin Hogg, Patricia Oliver, Jaclyn Corin, Sam Zeif, Ronit Redven, Rebecca Boldrick Hogg, Laura Sheeny, Stephany de Oliveira, Jeff Foster, Sandy Davis, Matt Deitsch, Jamal Lemy, Mitch Dworet, Andrea Ghersi, Amanda Lee. Directed by Cheryl Horner

 

School shootings have been the new normal for a couple of decades now, going back to Columbine in 1999. The one that may have captured the imagination of the country most, however, is the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018.

On that day, a former student with a history of emotional problems entered the school with an AR-15 semi-automatic weapon and opened fire indiscriminately, killing 17 people and wounding many more. It was the deadliest shooting at an American school and as with other school shootings, provoked anger and renewed calls for stricter gun registration and bans on AR-15 (and similar) weapons.

But the students did something that hadn’t been done after other school shootings; they became activists. Names like David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez and Cameron Kasky became household names. They organized what was to that time the largest march on Washington DC, March for Our Lives which also counted 88 other marches in tandem with the main one. It wasn’t just the parents speaking out; it was the kids themselves demanding change.

The tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School has been the subject of all sorts of scrutiny – I’m aware of at least five different documentaries on the subject including this one. This one begins with the 9-1-1 calls; we can hear, in the background, the Whomp! Whomp! Whomp! sounds of gunfire, bringing a sick feeling as they grow closer to the callers.

 

We see students grieving and mourning, and some of the steps taken in the days and weeks following the shootings. The students are required to bring clear plastic backpacks which is the subject of much derision. Hogg points out, accurately, that it wouldn’t be that difficult to hide a handgun inside one of those packs.

Most of the rest of the film focuses mostly on Hogg and Manuel Oliver, father of murdered student Joaquin “Guac” Oliver. Become activists in their own way; Hogg through organizing the March for Our Lives and the following tour of the States to urge voters in the 2018 midterm elections to vote out candidates accepting money from the National Rifle Association.

We also see the daily harassment Hogg received from pro-gun advocates, screaming at him from pick-up trucks that would then peel off, as if they were terrified that he might chase them down and beat them up. He received death threats (not mentioned in the film is that Hogg has claimed that there have been seven attempts on his life that were foiled by law enforcement) but seemingly handled them with a maturity you wouldn’t expect from a teen.

There is a very effective moment when the yearbook for the school is released; the memorial section for the seventeen dead celebrates their lives as Aly Sheehy, who worked on the yearbook, reads off their names.

As documentaries about the subject go, this one is among the best, although there really isn’t a lot of material here that isn’t available elsewhere. One thing in the documentary’s favor is that it is bringing back the question of gun violence back into the national conversation after it has been largely swept aside by the pandemic and George Floyd protests going on at the moment.

REASONS TO SEE: Very emotional in places.
REASONS TO AVOID: The subject may be overly documented.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing content, and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Two survivors of the Parkland massacre took their own lives in March 2019.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Theatrical Release
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews; Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: After Parkland
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Outlaws

The Mindfulness Movement


Deepak Chopra extols the virtues of meditation.

(2020) Documentary (Abramorama)  Jewel Kilcher, Deepak Chopra, Dan Harris, George Mumford, Sharon Salzberg, Bill George, Daniel Goldman, Richard Davidson, Diana Winston, Fleet Maul, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jewel Greenberg (narrator),, Eric White, Jennifer Tejada, Richard Goerling, Scott Kries, Tim Ryan, Barry Boyce, Jessica van Handorf, Stephany Tlaika.  Directed by Robert Beemer

 

Meditation is for hippies for New Age types who light aromatic candles, gently tap brass bells and are, as one participant notes, “really into Enya.” But the state of mindfulness, which is achieved through meditation, is really much more than something that would appeal only to Californians.

You know the adage “stop and smell the roses”? That’s a very general way of describing mindfulness, complete awareness of the moment and of the sensory inputs of that moment. In our very busy lives we have a tendency to multitask and admire those who do it well – I’m not good at it but I’m still doing it even as I write this, consuming my lunch, checking e-mails and listening to my wife enjoy a movie in our bedroom. Multi-tasking is a way of doing a lot of things half-assed simultaneously.

When our attention is fully on a task, we tend to do it better. That includes living, eating, exercising, anything you happen to do in your day-to-day life. Mindfulness begins through meditation; being aware of the simple act of breathing. As your mind starts to wander (and it always does), you need to pull it back to the task at hand. Gradually you acquire focus. Again, this is a very simplistic explanation but it is also, sadly, more than the film provides.

The film traces the beginnings of the movement through yoga and the practice of Eastern religions back in the late 60s and 70s and how it evolved into a practice – a movement, if you will. There are scientific studies that have shown that meditation does reduce stress (and in these days of pandemics and Presidential elections who couldn’t use that), slow down aging in the brain and in general provide healthful benefits. The movie does tend to gloss over these to a certain extent.

The movie is light on techniques and tips, although it has a couple of opportunities to practice. A little more of that might have proven beneficial. The movie also follows the stories of four practitioners of mindfulness – singer Jewel, who learned techniques on her own when she was homeless as a teen, ABC newscaster Dan Harris who suffered an on-air panic attack amid substance abuse following his years as a war correspondent; basketball coach George Mumford who with Phil Jackson has amassed nine NBA titles utilizing the techniques first with the Chicago Bulls and later with the Los Angeles Lakers; finally Sharon Salzberg, who is one of the founders of the first American meditation center. These “journeys” as they are labeled are interesting, but a lot of buzzwords are used, diluting the impact of their message. The movie does have a tendency to get New Age-y from time to time, which is going to decrease its appeal to those who are more practical-minded.

In that sense, the movie is at its best when it follows a more scientific approach. Those scenes were much more powerful and convincing to me – so much so that when we are able to interact with others again, I’m thinking of fining a local meditation group to help bolster my meditative needs. Until then, I’m going to take at least five minutes every day to just sit, breathe and be aware of myself. It certainly couldn’t hurt.

The movie is available for rental or purchase at the film’s website. Just click on the picture of Deepak above and the link will take you there. Furthermore, the site is offering a 15% discount for all those ordering this weekend (April 10-12) with access to three COVID-19 videos featuring some of the stars of the film.

REASONS TO SEE: May inspire you to take up meditation for your own sake.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times this feels a bit like an infomercial about various mindfulness products.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chopra, one of the leading figures behind the mindfulness movement, admits that the term is a bit of a misnomer and that “awarefulness” is much more accurate but because it is more difficult to say, “mindfulness” it remains.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Reality of Truth
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Anna and the Apocalypse

Dosed (2019 Documentary)


Adrianne takes five on the back porch.

(2019) Documentary (Mangurama/AbramoramaAdrianne, Tyler Chandler, Mark Haden, Nicholas Meyers, Rick Doblin, Rosalind Watts, Ingrid Pacey, Trevor Miller, Gabor Mate, Garyth Moxey, Mark Howard, Paul Stamets, Geoff Acres, Gary Cook Patrick Rishley, Maud Lundestad, Chor Boogie, James Jesso, Robyn Howard. Directed by Tyler Chandler

Drug addiction was a pandemic long before COVID-19. All of us, every one of us, has been touched in some way by it, whether we ourselves have struggled with addiction to one drug or another, or if someone we know/love/cherish has done the same.

For Tyson Chandler, that friend is Adrianne (her last name is not given onscreen or in the press notes). She’s a 30-something woman who at one time was studying for law school. She had a quiet, middle class upbringing, a stable home life and for all intents and purposes, had everything going for her and yet starting from age 15 she began experimenting. Working in a law office, she was introduced to cocaine and from there on the downward spiral began.

She describes herself as a trashcan addict; she’s willing to do anything and everything, whatever is available so long as it takes her out of her own head. She takes us on a tour of the streets of Vancouver, streets that might appear ordinary but as she points out, are a hotbed for drug dealing.

She is engaging, intelligent and on the surface, brutally honest – although we eventually find out that she’s not being totally honest with both Chandler and those trying to help her and there are plenty of people trying to help her. She’s been through everything; rehab, psychotherapy, group sessions, psychotropics, methadone – in fact, she’s also addicted to the latter. She’s at the end of her rope and is willing to try anything.

How about psychedelics? Don’t snigger; there have been some clinical studies that show that psychedelics can actually unlock hidden traumas that lead to psychological disorders including addiction. At first, Adrianne tries increasing doses of magic mushrooms – psilocybin – but when she relapses, she and Chandler decide that something stronger is indicated; the African hallucinogenic Iboga. That’s even less easy (and just as illegal) to obtain in British Columbia, so she goes to IbogaSoul, a kind of communal rehab center in rural Squamish, where lead counselor/head cheerleader Mark Howard administers the drug in a ritual that I suppose is supposed to be African. It is here that we find out that Adrianne has been dishonest about the amount of heroin she has been using.

If you’re looking for a definitive documentary on the efficacy of psychedelics on drug addiction and other illnesses, keep looking. This is strictly anecdotal, the journey of a single addict chronicled by a loyal friend. From that standpoint, this is an effective documentary and if you’re looking for one person’s story, this is where you stop looking. However, there is a notable lack of scientific information as to how psychedelics work, or much information beyond “there have been some studies done.”

Instead, we get plenty of new age psychobabble about healing the spirit and so on. Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with concentrating on the human spirit or expressing it in terms of something spiritual but it comes off a bit amateurish and it makes me wonder how qualified the people administering these drugs truly are. You also get the sense that Chandler and Adrianne are flying by the seat of their pants and in a sense, they really are – there’s no manual or much information about the road they’re going on, and definitely no road maps.

This is a fairly elementary documentary that is excellent for seeing things from an addict’s (and those who care about them) viewpoint, but not very helpful for those who might be looking into alternative treatments for drug addiction. In other words, from a personal standpoint this is fascinating; from an educational standpoint, not as useful as it might be.

NB: This is not to be confused with the 2019 horror film of the same name.

REASONS TO SEE: Presents an addict’s point of view.
REASONS TO AVOID: A whole lot of psychobabble.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a surfeit of drug use and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chandler, a Canadian documentary producer, was inspired to make his directorial debut by wishing to document his friend’s struggle with drug addiction and her turning to alternative means of dealing with it.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews: Metacritic: 47/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warning: This Drug May Kill You
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
By Day’s End

Afterward


Ice, ice baby

(2018) Documentary (Abramorama/1091) Ofra Bloch, Rassam Ajamin, Raneen Jeries, Basel Alyazoum, Samah Jabr, Mohamed Dajari, Johanna Rodenstab, Horst Hoheisal, Alaa Shebada, Anja Behm, Ingo Hasselbach, Thomas Casagrande, Alexander von Plato, Hussain Mbarkhi, David Bloch, Zoe Sloan, Audrey Jacobson. Directed by Ofra Bloch

 

Can a victim become an oppressor? Is there a difference between the Jewish holocaust and the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe)? Is it possible to forgive systematic oppression?

Psychoanalyst turned filmmaker Ofra Bloch was born in Jerusalem and lives currently in New York City with her husband, a Holocaust survivor. She had been raised to hate the Germans for inflicting the Holocaust on her people; she had also been raised to hate the Palestinians who, it was drilled into her, would bring about the next Holocaust.

She began to become aware that the Israelis had moved at some point from the oppressed to oppressors. Fascinated by this turn, she decided to talk to Germans, Israelis and Palestinians to get their opinions on the Holocaust and the nakba, the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes that they’d lived in for generations.

The results are fascinating. It’s not a question anyone wants to tackle; suggesting that the Israelis are being oppressive is often met with accusations of antisemitism. Palestinian activist Samah Jabr puts it like this; “Whenever Palestinians have the conversation with Israelis about the conditions in Palestine, the Holocaust is inevitably brought up.” She also refers to the kind of professional victimhood that she and other Palestinians believe that Israel has adopted.

 

But it’s hard to feel that way when faced with footage of the horrors of the Holocaust. One Palestinian professor, Mohammed Dajari, was fired for setting up a trip to Auschwitz for his students. An inability to see the other side’s viewpoint isn’t just endemic to American politics.

Bloch comes off sort of like Michael Moore if the gadfly had been born a Jewish yenta. Her questions are intelligent and the discussions are compelling and these are the kinds of conversations that we need to have – but never do. Yes, the movie has a somewhat languid pace and there is a bit of meandering between the interviews – a tighter structure would have been appreciated. Nonetheless, this is one of the most powerful films of the new year and one well worth seeking out, particularly for those who want a different viewpoint of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

REASONS TO SEE: Tackles a question nobody wants to discuss. The interviews are very powerful, very revealing. Really looks at both Jewish and Palestinian viewpoints. Some of the footage is ghastly.
REASONS TO AVOID: Has a very measured pace.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing images of violence and torture, as well as archival footage from the Holocaust.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at DOC NYC 2018. It is only just now receiving a brief theatrical release from Abramorama, followed up by a home video/VOD release by 1091 Studios.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shoah
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Quezon’s Game