Upheaval: The Journey of Menachem Begin


An historic but unlikely friendship.

(2020) Documentary (Abramorama) Menachem Begin, Daniel Gordis, Ron Dormer, Arye Naor, Herzl Makov, Hart N. Hasten, Bruria Ben Senior, Lahav Harkov, Anita Shapira, Ghaith Al-Omari, Yoske Nachmios, Dan Meridor, Lee Phung, Yossi Klein Halevi, Joseph Lieberman, Yechiel Kadishai, Yona Klinovitski, Meir Y. Soloweichik, Stuart Eizenstat, Daniel Limor, Michael Oren, Caroline Glick. Directed by Jonathan Gruber

 

Menachem Begin, the sixth prime minister of Israel, remains a controversial figure. For some, he is beloved, the “best Prime Minister Israel ever had” as a man on the street puts it. Others see him as the architect for the misery that continues for the Palestinian people. One thing is certain; he was a complicated man who went his own way.

Gruber, who previously directed a doc feature on Yoni Netanyahu, brother to recently former Prime Minister Benjamin and leader of the raid on Entebbe Airport, takes a look at Begin, from his days as a Zionist in present-day Belarus (which was then a part of the Soviet Union) through his days as the leader of Irgun, labeled a terrorist group by the British and who hastened the British withdrawal from Palestine by bombing the King David Hotel in Jerusalem where the British military was headquartered, and founded Likud, the right-wing party which was the opposition party to the Labor party which ran Israel for the first thirty years of its existence.

We see his turbulent years as Prime Minister, including his desire to make Israel a haven for all Jews, regardless of nationality. He did welcome the African Jews when previously they were discriminated against, and even allowed the Vietnamese boat people safe harbor when no other Western nation would accept them. He is still revered in the small Vietnamese colony that thrives in Israel. We also see his lifelong devotion to his wife Aliza whose death in 1982 would throw him into a deep depression, directly leading to his resignation from his post a year later. Oddly, we don’t hear from any of his three children who are still alive today. Of course, though, his signature achievement was the peace treaty with Egypt that he negotiated with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat at Camp David in 1978, which was mediated by American President Jimmy Carter.

I wouldn’t quite label the documentary as hagiographic; Gruber does interview Jordan-born scholar Ghaith al-Omari regarding Begin’s reputation with the Palestinians. There is also coverage of his disastrous war on Lebanon which led to the massacre at Sabra and Shantila, two Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon which were attacked by a right-wing Lebanese Christian militia while Israel troops did nothing to prevent it, an incident which would stain Begin’s legacy and bring calls for his resignation at home. He also is largely responsible for the settlement policy that is now at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and continues to be the root of violence in that part of the world.

In Gruber’s favor though is the density of information here and it is delivered at a pretty fast pace. We do get a good sense of Israel’s early years, of Begin’s feud with original prime minister David Ben-Gurion, and of how tenuous their position was in the beginning. Begin, who survived the Holocaust largely because he had been imprisoned by the Soviets for his Zionist beliefs, was helpless as much of his family died in concentration camps. He grew to believe that Jews had no allies and needed to learn to handle their own defense, which would require a Jewish homeland, a country of their own. Although Begin was initially often in conflict with the Israeli government, he is certainly a reason that there is one now.

REASONS TO SEE: Quick-paced and informative.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the talking heads are a little dry.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of concentration camps and Middle East violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Begin, along with Anwar Sadat, received the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gaza
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Chasing Comets

Tomorrow’s Hope


Hope is a warm hug

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Jackie Robinson, Jalen Rayford, Crystal, Jamal, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Aija Larry, Portia Kennel, Brenda Eiland-Williford, Emma Gonzalez, Anita Harvey Dixon, Manuel Oliver, Elishaba, Jamie, Bridgette, Asia. Directed by Thomas A. Morgan

 

Escaping poverty can sometimes seem an insurmountable task. Those caught in its clutches are busy just trying to survive; making headway to get out is almost impossible. Many take the easy way out of violence and crime. Most agree the best way out is through education, but often those neighborhoods who need it most are also neglected the most, particularly when it comes to early childhood education. Poor kids getting a head start? Who’s going to pay for that?

In Chicago, the poorest neighborhood in America was located in the Robert Adams housing project. Also the largest public housing project in America, the massive high rises were riddled with disease, drugs and despair. Elevators never worked and the stairways were places where violence often occurred. Parents often restricted their kids to playing on the ramps outside their apartments.

Neighborhood educators knew there had to be a better way. Many of the parents who were concerned about their kids worked and were desperate for daycare, but couldn’t afford it and even if they could, getting their kids there in back was an unreasonable risk. Putting together a foundation called Ounce of Prevention, these educators established a center right there in the Adams housing project, using an empty apartment as their base. Rather than just babysitting the kids by plopping them in front of a television set, they used the opportunity to help them to learn socialization skills and education through play. When playing outside proved to be a formidable obstacle, they put the kids on busses and took them to a local park.

But this center, known as The Beethoven Project, had a major obstacle to face; the city, tired of the crime and violence that festered in the project, decided to tear them down and replace them with better, safer housing. Of course, in order to do that, they needed to relocate the families to new housing throughout the city. Then, the walls came down.

But the city reneged on their promise to rebuild and the parents found themselves in the same predicament, only now they were scattered all over Chicago’s South Side. Ounce of Prevention took the bull by the horns and built Educare, an early education center geared towards impoverished and at-risk children.

This short documentary (just over 45 minutes long, including a prologue testimonial from Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot which felt unnecessary) follows three members of the first class at Educare in 2000. All three are getting ready to graduate high school and have big plans; Jamal, a drum line major who has music running in his veins, plans to become a sound engineer. Sensitive Jalen writes poetry to work out the issues that upset her; having been suicidal at one time, she wants to give back to her community ad plans to be a psychiatrist and work in the same South Side neighborhood she grew up in. Crystal, who has a thing for wigs, looks to become a pediatrician after she graduates college, to which all three are attending.

Now, I have a healthy dose of skepticism in my veins. All three young people are articulate and clearly on the cusp of becoming community leaders. I’m sure not everyone who came through Educare is as cinematic as these three, but certainly any educational program would be happy to have three kids like this as alumni, and it doesn’t hurt to highlight success stories for a program that had so many obstacles to overcome, as indeed these kids did growing up – all three have seen gun violence or known a victim of it. Jalen’s brother was murdered when she was young, and as a result when the Parkland students came to march, she marched right along with them (as did Jamal).

The importance of early childhood education is demonstrable, and too few kids in poor neigborhoods have access to it. Programs like Educare, which has branched out to 25 locations around the country, are going to be necessary if this country is going to keep up with global competitors – an educated population is the key to innovation and economic growth. It seems criminal that we choose to squander the opportunity to develop this country’s greatest asset – its young people.

REASONS TO SEE: The three young people that are followed here are inspirational. The obstacles the center had to overcome are daunting. The film is more concerned with the results of the program rather than the nuts and bolts of how it works.
REASONS TO AVOID: The prologue was somewhat unnecessary and a bit long-winded.
FAMILY VALUES: There is brief profanity (one word) and an image of a body being wheeled out of the Robert Adams housing project.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Every one of the kids enrolled in the first Educare class graduated from high school.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starting at Zero
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Stateless

City of Ali


The Greatest takes his last ride through his beloved Louisville.

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Muhammad Ali, Bill Clinton, Evander Holyfield, Rasheda Ali, Bill Plaschko, Dick Cavett, Lawrence Montgomery, Asaad Ali, Greg Fischer, Hannah Drake, Allen Houston, Rev. Charles Elliott, Greg Fisher, Atallah Shabazz, Chief Sydney Hall, Lonnie Ali, John Ramsey, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Alice Houston, Rahman Ali, Natasha Mundkur, Ahmed Edmund, Hannah Storm. Directed by Graham Shelby

 

Muhammad Ali was one of the most popular figures in the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. He was also polarizing in a lot of ways – his cocky demeanor was described as “uppity” by a certain segment of the American South, who took umbrage when he chose to refuse to enlist in the Army during the Vietnam war, explaining that the Viet Cong weren’t oppressing his people, weren’t lynching them. He had no beef with them. He promptly had his title stripped from him and spent three of what should have been the most productive of his career on the sidelines.

He changed his name from Cassius Clay Jr., which he called “a slave name,” and embraced the teachings of Elijah Muhammad’s Black Muslims. He was often infuriating with his boasts, mainly because he could back them up in the ring. He was outspoken, but he was also a humanitarian, giving of himself to all sorts of causes, and giving of himself in ways that most celebrities of his stature would never even consider. A Louisville sportswriter recalls attending a boxing match with the Champ at the 2000 Olympics, and after congratulating the winner of he match, going into he locker room to find the boxer who lost the match and spending time giving him a pep talk, sparring with him and in general, giving the young man the thrill of his life.

Mayor Greg Fischer diplomatically puts it that Ali had a complicated relationship with Louisville. There was no doubt that he loved the neighborhood he grew up in and the people he grew up with, but at the same time, like most cities in the American South, it was heavily segregated and there were places he could go, things he couldn’t do and he certainly would have experienced racism firsthand.

When he died at age 74, he had already ben planning his funeral. He and his family knew that there would be an outpouring of grief, and there was. The Ciiy of Louisville assisted with the logistics, assigning traffic control. The Muhammad Ali Center, which housed the museum of Ali’s career and artifacts, threw open its doors so that anyone could visit. One woman covered the roadway leading to the cemetary with rose petals so the funeral procession drove over them, creating a perfume as it went. They also somewhat spontaneously drove the casket from the ceremony through a 20 mile route that took it through the neighborhood Ali grew up in.

There is a bit of kumbaya vibe here, as most involved with the funeral proclaim that the city came together as one for the funeral. It is worth mentioning that only four years later, the same Louisville police force killed Breonna Taylor during a no-knock raid, an act that was largely swept under the rug initially. One of the men who took still photographs at the funeral that are used here would die during the protests that followed.

There are a lot of good stories about Ali, some background about how the funeral came together and a quick summary of Ali’s life, particularly his years in Louisville. There are a lot of talking heads, but considering some of the stories that are coming out of them, it is forgivable. The co-operation of Ali’s surviving family is evident, although his most famous child – Laila – is conspicuous by her absence. That they would want the funeral to be meaningful and triumphant is understandable, but sadly, the same problems that have beset the nation in his formative years in Louisville are largely with us – in a different form, yes, but not completely gone. Not even the Greatest that ever was could solve those problems on his own.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the anecdotes are truly wonderful.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries a bit too hard to make the event more unifying than it turned out to be.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some boxing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ali passed away on June 3, 2016. Normally, Muslim law requires bodies to be buried within 24 hours of death. An exception was made in Ali’s case due to his passing in Phoenix, and his wish to be buried in his hometown of Louisville and of course his enormous worldwide popularity gave dignitaries time to make arrangements to attend the funeral.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/7/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Ali
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Women

Looking for a Lady with Fangs and a Moustache


Tenzin engages in a little monk business.

(2020) Mystery (Abramorama) Oxygen Tobgyal Rinpoche, Tsering Tashi Gyalthang, Tulku Kungzang, Tenzin Kunsel, Ngawang Tenzin, Rabindra Singh Baniya. Directed by Khyentse Norbut

The search for enlightenment is an Eastern concept that we sometimes here in the West misinterpret. It is not always navel-gazing and chanting. It can be hard work.

Tenzin (Gyalthang) is a would-be entrepreneur in Kathmandu, Nepal who aim’s to open “Nepal’s best coffee shop.” When he’s not working on his ambitions, he also takes music lessons, somewhat half-heartedly, at the insistence of his mother, who believes him to be talented. In the meantime, he has assembled partners and funds, and is in the process of finding the perfect location. He brings his pal Jachung (Kungzang) to a bucolic location that was an older building badly damaged in an earthquake. Jachung insists that it was once a monastery and sacred to the goddess; trespassing and taking photos is a very bad idea.

And it turns out he was right. After experiencing some bizarre visions of women that only he can see, Tenzin consults a hip monk (Tenzin) – in shades and bright red headphones, no less – who nonchalantly informs him that he’s going to die in seven days. Tenzin is skeptical but as the visions continue, he consults a grumpy, older monk (Rinpoche) who informs him he has to find a dakini, a kind of feminine spirit who can take any form. Getting her alliance can stave off death.

So Tenzin goes on a kind of a journey through Kathmandu, trying to find a dakini and as the visions become more persistent, his skepticism becomes less sure. Can he find the dakini before he shuffles this mortal coil, or will she turn out to be right under his nose – in the person of singer Kunsel (Kunsel) who is part of his music class?

Most of the criticisms I’ve read about the movie complain that it is far different than the press notes and the poster make it out to be. Some were expecting a Jodorowski-like psychedelic freak-out, which I found kind of odd but okay. This is more of a spiritual journey, although not explicitly religious. In other words, this is very much a Buddhist film – full of wisdom, gentle humor and unexpected beauty. Norbu, who has helmed four other features besides this one (all with similar Buddhist themes), certainly knows his stuff both from a spiritual and practical standpoint. Not only is he an accomplished director, he’s also a spiritual leader among Tibetan Buddhists.

He has the advantage of utilizing Wong Kar Wei’s cinematographer Ping Bin Lee, and he makes full use of that advantage. Not only is there beautiful Nepalese locations to gawk at, the film is expertly framed with breathtaking shots – for example, one by a rushing river at dusk, candles floating on the waters, lights winking like fireflies.

Norbu also has a tendency to use nonprofessional actors and he found one in Gyalthang who has incredible screen presence. Although Tenzin has Western tendencies, wearing a suit and tie, working from a laptop, and with a huckster’s cheerful grin, there’s also something quite appealing about him, even if he is the least spiritual guy in the movie. He goes from monk to monk, asking how he might find a dakini, and gets a different answer every time – they can’t even agree on what a dakini IS. I get the sense that Norbu is also poking gentle fun at the foibles of his own philosophy (Buddhism is less a religion than a philosophy).

The pace is slow and languid and enjoying the film, like attaining enlightenment, requires a bit of patience. Still, this is one of the best films of the year that you’ve never heard of, easily equal of any that will have their praises sung at the upcoming Oscars. In a just world, there would be those sorts of accolades for this one too but I expect that Norbu didn’t make this movie for the kudos. Like Tenzin, he made this to point those on their own spiritual journey to the path of wisdom. Who can find fault with that?

REASONS TO SEE: Very understated and gentle. The music has almost a bluesy undertone. Gorgeous cinematography and locations. Strong performance by Gyalthang.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some might find it slow-paced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Norbu is actually from Bhutan and is a lama, a Buddhist holy man who was proclaimed as a child to be the third incarnation of the founder of Tibet’s Khyentse Buddhist lineage.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Graduate
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Together Together


					

Long Live Rock: Celebrate the Chaos


Surf’s up.

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Lars Ulrich, Ice-T, Robert DeLeo, Jerry Cantrell, Dexter Holland, Duff McKagan, John Kasich, Drew Pinsky, Tom Morello, Taylor Momsen, Rob Zombie, Dorothy Martin, Gavin Rossdale, Ed Kowalcyk, Kevin “Noodles” Wasserman, Matt Pinfield, Machine Gun Kelly, Lzzy Hale, Jason Flom, Seyth Boardman, Allison Hagendorf. Directed by Jonathan McHugh

 

Heavy metal has always gotten, if you’ll excuse the expression, a bad rap among musical genres. Often the music is dismissed as self-indulgent guitar noodling with satanic lyrics, its fans as Beavis and Butthead clones. That’s neither accurate nor fair.

Metal fans have always been amongst music’s most passionate. There is a kind of tribalism that goes on with metal fans, from the tattoos of lyrics and logos to the tour t-shirts and festival followers. While there might be rivalries with different bands (Metallica and Megadeth come to mind right away), there is a camaraderie between metal fans regardless of their favorite band; they’re all in it together and even if your favorite band is Halestorm, you can still rock out to Guns ‘n’ Roses, Korn or Body Count.

This is a documentary that suffers from the desire to do too much. McHugh starts as a way for fans to discuss what about the music appeals to them, why they love the bands they do and some of this is the most interesting material in the film, like the midwestern Mom whose kids can’t stand the music she listens to (it’s too loud) and takes one weekend off a year to attend a music festival to blow off steam and re-connect with friends and fellow metalheads.

But McHugh goes off in several other directions without any sort of plan or organization, going from the communal nature of the fans to the fine art of crowd surfing, to the casualties of the rock and roll lifestyle, to the lack of mainstream appeal of the music. The film leads off with Gene Simmons’ quote that Rock and Roll is Dead and rap has taken its place. That may well be statistically accurate, but it fails to take into account the cyclical nature of music which Simmons himself should have an understanding of since he and his band (KISS) have seen metal fall out of favor, come back in the late 80s/early 90s, and then fade away again. Sure, rap and hip hop may well be in the driver’s seat now but so was disco in the 70s; at some point kids will find something else to listen to. They always do.

There’s enough material here for McHugh to have done a miniseries on the subject, but instead he tried to cram it all into an hour and a half. That was probably not a good idea; most of the individual topics he takes off could easily use a movie of their own – the growing acceptance of women and African-Americans in the genre, the soul-grinding nature of touring and the toll it takes on family life, the healing nature of music, the relationship between fans and bands and those I mentioned previously, to name a few.

Much of the footage takes place at large-scale festival shows with tens of thousands in attendance (and often more) which might be painful for those who miss those gatherings which are probably at least another year or two away from happening again as of this writing. The effect of the pandemic on the fans and the musicians is never explored, but something tells me that this was filmed long before that. Some follow-up footage might have been nice. There also seems to be an emphasis on bands of the 80s and afterwards with curiously little mention to the hard rock pioneers of the 60s and 70s like KISS, Van Halen, Iron Butterfly, The Who, the Stones, and only a brief mention of Heart as pioneers for women in rock during that sequence. Context might have been a nice addition as well.

This is a worthy subject for a documentary and there is a definitely uplifting feeling to the film, despite a section on the passing of Chris Cornell and Chester Binnington of Soundgarden and Linkin Park, respectively. I think with a little better editing an maybe a little less scattershot approach, this could have been a lot more kickass than it was.

As a rock critic back in the day, I covered a number of the bands that are portrayed here. I have to say that the metal fans were some of the most inclusive of any I’ve ever dealt with as a rock critic. Although I tended to be more drawn to alternative music personally, I looked forward to metal shows not just because I liked the fans, but also because the women tended to be the sexiest – I was a single guy at the time, after all.

REASONS TO SEE: Gets an “A” for enthusiasm.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really organize its subjects well.
FAMILY VALUES: There are drug references and profanity herein.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Halestorm, who is profiled in the film, recorded a cover of The Who’s “Long Live Rock” to promote the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: MUBI, Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Lava

Til Kingdom Come (Ad Sof HaOlam)


Strange bedfellows.

(2020) Documentary  (Abramorama Pat Robertson, Pastor Boyd Bingham IV, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, Pat Robertson, Pastor William Bingham III, Yael Eckstein, Pastor John Hagee, Rev. Johnnie Moore, Pastor Barak Ravid, Munther Isaac, Thomas Risner, Yossi Dagan, Sondra Oster Baraz, Lara Friedman. Directed by Maya Zinshtein

One of Donald Trump’s keys to victory in 2016 was winning over evangelical Christians to his base of support. They continue to provide unwavering loyalty, despite his own sometimes troubling behavior. In extreme cases, they see him as God’s anointed, meant to bring around the prophecy of Revelations.

We also learn that evangelicals have also been giving some serious financial support to the state of Israel to the tune of more than a billion dollars in the last two decades. Why would Christians be supporting a nation whose state religion denies the divinity of Christ, one of the basic tenets of their faith? It all boils down to prophecy, as this chilling Israeli documentary shows. The End of Days will be, according to scripture, brought about in Israel. These Evangelicals are certain – right down to the bone – that they, having been Saved (and I use the capitalization deliberately) are prepared for eternal life in paradise. And a strong Israel is more likely to begin the war that brings about those same End Times.

Zinshtein, an Israeli documentary filmmaker, interviews several evangelicals (including Pastor John Hagee, who sat on Trump’s religious advisory council and attended the opening ceremony of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, an event which led to the deaths of 58 Palestinians protesting the move in the days following) who are certain in their belief that they are right and doing the right thing. We see this particularly with the Pastors Boyd and William Bingham, who are the descendents of several generations of Binghams who have ministered to the faithful in the impoverished coal country of Kentucky. Boyd, the son of William, absently cleans his semi-automatic weapon as he is interviewed, taking target practice afterwards (as President Obama once said, those who live in poverty embrace guns or religion – and, I might add, sometimes both). Boyd is a big believer in donating to Israel, telling the children of his congregation that “Jews are just better people than us. You’ll just have to accept that,” and urging their parents to donate, even though from the looks of it they can scarcely afford to put food on their own tables.

And who are the beneficiaries of this largess? The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews is an organization, founded by the American Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein in 1983, has organized donations since then (his daughter Yael currently runs the organization after her father passed away in 2019), but his efforts were turbocharge by appearances on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club. Yael admits to a certain dichotomy in her organization; on the one hand, the money does some real good, feeding the hungry and assisting Jews around the world relocate to Israel. She also realizes that the reason behind the donations is a fervent belief that they are bringing Armageddon closer, at which time the Jews will suffer terribly. She recognizes that there is some disconnect there.

We also witness a conversation between Palestinian Christian pastor Barak Ravid and Boyd Bingham where he talks about the results of the support of Israel and the suffering of his people. “You (American Christians) look at Palestine and see an empty land,” he states accurately. Boyd, however, isn’t having any of it. “There are no such thing as Palestinians,” he declares, despite the fact that one is standing in front of him. Some call it cognitive dissonance; I call it willful ignorance.

There is certainly a political element to this documentary that is hard to ignore, an your own political outlook will likely color your reception of this film. I know it did mine; I had to repeat to myself that American conservatives certainly have reason to feel looked down upon by the left, but it’s hard to ignore how brainwashed these people are by their religion. One can’t help but think of the jihadists in the same neck of the woods as Israel and their own belief that their crusade is just an right. Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison, but it’s one that I couldn’t help thinking about as I watched this.

REASONS TO SEE: Very chilling in a lot of different ways. Gives voice to different sides of the discussion.
REASONS TO AVOID: Might have used a little bit of input from non-religious conservatives.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult and political themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Evangelical Christians donated $129 million to the Fellowship of Christians and Jews the year before this was filmed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jesus Camp
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Reunited States

The Test and the Art of Thinking


A rite of passage for high school seniors.

(2020) Documentary (Abramorama) Akil Bello, Howard Gardner, Greg Hanlon, Jonathan Arak, Susan Cole, Jamie Macy, Eric Hoover, Chris Ajemian, Charles Murray, Nicholas Lemann, Tania Blair, Dan Edmonds, Glenn Ribotsky, Erica Meltzer, Kristin Tichenor, Nick Blair, Jed Applerouth, Danielle Allen, David Coleman, William Fitzsimmons, Scott Jaschik, Susan Cole, John Mahone, Debbie Stier. Directed by Arlen Davis

 

Three of the scariest letters to any high school student are “S.A.T.” Although they once stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test, they now stand for nothing, which is apropos according to this chilling documentary

It’s hard to understate the importance of the SAT and the ACT tests when it comes to college admissions. Nearly every college requires one or the other in order to consider an applicant for admission. Most colleges also have minimum scores requires for admission consideration. A high score on the test can get you into a better school. A low score may prevent you from attending college at all.

Initially, the tests were a way for Ivy League schools to find students that didn’t necessarily attend reputable prep schools in the Northeast. It gave students from public high schools and from other parts of the country an opportunity to get a quality higher education. But as schools discovered that they, too, could use the same test that Harvard used to measure prospective students, there was a not-so-subtle change in how the test was used.

It is also worth noting that the men who created the tests were believers in eugenics, the idea that there are “superior” genes that create superior people. It’s the kind of thinking that the Nazi party in Germany embraced and has largely been debunked since, but there remains an essential cultural bias to the test.

Worse yet, the test really isn’t a measure of a student’s potential to learn, or ability to think. It simply measures if they are able to game the system and ace the test. A cottage industry has sprung up around tutors who are paid – in some cases, extremely well – to prepare a student for the test. Nearly all of them don’t recommend studying actual knowledge for the test, but techniques in how to figure out which answer is the correct one. It also shows how an essay riddled with factual errors still got a high score because it hit all the metrics that the testers were looking for.

There is a good deal of talking head interviews, mainly with educators, test coaches, students and parents. The approach is a little bit hit and miss, and the going can be turgid from time to time; stick with it though because even though the anecdotes start to wear a little thin, the point is a very necessary one. And that point is if you want a country to have superior achievements, it has to start with superior students. The inevitable, inescapable conclusion is that the current model of testing does not achieve that goal.

Like everything else in this country, the admissions tests are big business – the College Board, which owns and administers the test, is a billion-dollar company. The filmmakers also posit a chilling thought near the end of the film – perhaps the test is actually successful in determining which students are less likely to question authority because that’s what business wants. That would actually explain a whole lot about the state of the union.

REASONS TO SEE: Should be required viewing for high school seniors and their parents.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very dry and sometimes a bit hard to slog through.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family viewing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: 3.5 million students graduate from high school every year; approximately 80% of them will end up taking either the ACT or SAT tests.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 68/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting for “Superman”
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Wetware

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