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

The All-Americans


(2017) Documentary (AbramoramaAlfred Robledo, Mario Ramirez, Sammy Hernandez, Javier Cid, Chuy Hernandez, Stevie Williams, Fran “Simba” Saucedo, Lorenzo Hernandez, Joseph “Spike” Silva, James Wicks, LaVada Williams, Huero Navarro, Lorraine Sauno, Ernie Sauno, Kathy Lopez, Lynn Cain, Yellow. Directed by Billy McMillin

 

There is something peculiarly American about high school football rivalries. The Big Game, whether it’s played in a big city or a small town, is something that helps define entire communities. It can make or break an entire season; one can count themselves a success if they lose every other game that season except the one with their bitter rivals; conversely, a championship season can lose its luster if the only loss is to those rivals.

In East L.A., that game is El Classico, the game pitting the James Garfield High School Bulldogs and the Theodore Roosevelt High School Rough Riders. Both schools, like East L.A. itself, are predominantly Latino. Many of the students from both schools speak English as a second language; many of the students have undocumented family members or are themselves undocumented. Throughout the film, we hear a litany of complaints from right wing radio commentators about how the flood of immigrants from South of the Border are changing the make-up of America and not for the better. The racism in the remarks is so thinly veiled as to not be veiled at all.

That’s what these kids face in addition to all the things high school kids face; romance, fitting in, feelings of inadequacy, studying hard for a future that is uncertain. As any person who has played high school football will tell you, the demands of practice and commitment to the team also put pressure on kids already overburdened from pressures just trying to make it through the school day.

The movie documents that, focusing on Coach Javier Cid from Garfield who is trying not just to make a competitive football team but to make sure that every kid graduates – he is more proud of their 100% graduation rate than their won-loss record, which a lot of parents will appreciate. One of his players, wide receiver Mario Ramirez, is doing more than graduating; he has a 3.97 GPA and letters of recruitment from Harvard, Yale and his school of choice, Princeton. He wants to be the first from his family to graduate college but lives in a small apartment with 14 other family members.

Over at Roosevelt, coach Lorenzo Hernandez’ day job is as a patrol cop for the LAPD. He sees the results of kids making bad choices every shift, and is determined that his charges develop the self-discipline and self-respect to make it in life. Linebacker Joseph “Spike” Silva has two absent parents; his dad is in jail and his mom is a junkie lost to the streets. He himself has fathered a baby daughter and works before school in a bakery. On the field, he is a coiled spring of rage. Quarterback Stevie Williams is an outsider; he is an African-American student who takes city buses to school every day from South Central, hoping that football will take him further away from that part of Los Angeles.

The stories of the kids and their coaches are compelling enough that the big game itself is almost anti-climactic which is a good thing because the game isn’t terribly exciting or ever much in doubt. McMillin is forced to concentrate on how the football team affects the players and in doing so we are treated to many of the clichés that coaches love to espouse at the high school level.

What I would have liked to have seen more of is how the game effects the community; it is clearly a big deal in East Los, as natives call it – the game has been played for well over 80 years and many of the players are second and third generation at their schools. In this documentary, the kids and their coaches exist in a vacuum and an opportunity is lost to really share much of the culture and pride of East L.A. with a wider audience.

Still, there is a lot to be gained here. We’ve seen high school football stories before and this one definitely has a bit of an accent, which is a good thing – we are made to realize that these kids are no different than the ones playing the game all over the country, other than the pervasive specter of immigration woes, and racism directed their way, more than perhaps at any other time in the history of East L.A. In an era where “Build that wall” is regularly chanted by those who follow our President blinded, it is well we are reminded what that wall is intended to keep out.

REASONS TO SEE: A realistic look at the Latino experience circa 2018.
REASONS TO AVOID: Looks a little bit more at the individuals involved rather than at the overall effect on the community.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and teen partying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Initially, the game was known as the “Chili Bowl” but the name was changed to the East Los Angeles Classic because the two schools felt it was more dignified and reflective of the neighborhood overall.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pahokee
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Return to Mount Kennedy

Mountaintop


Neil Young gives you the fish eye.

(2019) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Neil Young, Nils Lofgren, Ralph Molina, Billy Talbot, John Hanlon. Directed by Bernard Shaky

 

Neil Young has been a musician’s musician since he first came on the scene in Buffalo Springfield back in the Sixties. Throughout the following decades, the Canadian rocker was the conscience of a generation, creating songs like “Southern Man,” “The Needle and the Damage Done” and “Rocking in the Free World.” At an age when most men are chasing kids off their lawn and complaining about their prostate, he continues to rock – hard.

Earlier this year he took to the Studio in the Clouds in Telluride, Colorado to record his new album, titled Colorado which will be in stores on October 25. This documentary was recorded mainly on Go Pro cameras placed strategically around the studio, interspersed with time lapse photography of the gorgeous Rocky Mountain scenery outside.

We hear the songs take shape and to be honest, they are as good as anything Young has ever done. At 73 years old, you’d think he would be ready to hang up his Les Paul but he clearly still has a lot to say, such as on the single “Rainbow of Colors” in which he decries the Trumpian suspicion of immigrants both legal and otherwise.

There are also some instances where both Young and his producer/engineer John Hanlon rant about the monitors and the studio wiring – at one point Young threatened to pull the plug on the project. Still, the occasional tantrum aside, the bond between Young and his bandmates is almost terrifying in how on the same page they are. Even Lofgren, a relative newcomer to the band and the only member under 70 years old, harmonize beautifully and seem to understand instinctively what Young is trying to accomplish.

The film, directed by Young himself under a nom de cinema is unlikely to win new converts to his cause. Those that love the music of the master – who is no longer an aging hippie but an aged one – are going to eat this up like candy. Nor is Young planning on slowing down on the film projects; he reportedly has 15 of them lined up, including the editing of footage documenting the recording of the iconic 1971 album Harvest as well as concert films from throughout his career.

The movie is playing in theaters just today (October 22, 2019) in locations around the country – check your local listings for the one nearest y,ou. Here in Orlando, trek on down to the Enzian for a 9:30pm screening. If you’re a Neil Young fan, you won’t want to miss it on the big screen.

REASONS TO SEE: If you’re into Neil Young, you’ll be into this.
REASONS TO AVOID: If you’re not into Neil Young, you won’t be into this.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film explores the recording of the first studio album in seven years by Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Western Stars
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Kill Team

#Female Pleasure


Getting down about FGM in Africa.

(2018) Documentary (Abramorama) Deborah Feldman, Leyla Hussein, Rokudenashiko, Doris Wagner, Vithika Yadav, Mike Scott. Directed by Barbara Miller

 

There are those who think “feminist” is a dirty word, that they are strident man-haters out to castrate the opposite sex and turn the world into a matriarchy. That the feminist movement might have legitimate and pressing concerns doesn’t necessarily occur to those sorts.

Swiss documentarian Barbara Miller looks at five women who are fighting different aspects of oppression that women face on a global scale. Closest to home is Deborah Feldman, an author and former member of New York’s Hassidic denomination of the Jewish faith. She found herself married to a man she barely knew and with absolutely no control over the direction she wanted her life to go. She decided to leave the faith and to take her son with her; she remains one of the few Hassidic women to win custody of her son when leaving the faith. She is reviled by those she formerly was part of the community with.

Former nun Doris Wagner, who while serving in a convent in the Vatican was raped by a priest there. When she confessed what happened to her to the Mother Superior, she found herself treated like a criminal, that it was her fault what happened to her. Essentially without recourse and feeling alone, she took the drastic step of renouncing her vows and attempting to communicate her story directly to Pope Francis, who she felt (as many Catholics do) might be ready to do something about the dangerous and brutal situation in the convent. To date, however, there have been no changes although Wagner is much happier these days as a wife and mother.

Japanese manga artist Rokudenashiko got into trouble when she made a model on a 3D printer of her vagina in order to make art out of them (including a fiberglass kayak). In a culture that is replete with porn, it was amazing to her that the depiction of a part of her body would elicit such a negative response but she was in fact arrested and charged with obscenity. She was eventually convicted of publishing the schematics so that others could use 3D printers to replicate her vagina, which falls under the corruption of minors. She continues to appeal the conviction, although she is now dating Mike Scott, formerly of the Welsh band The Alarm, who was drawn to her plot by a news story about her.

Indian activist Vithika Yadav is a founder of the Love Matters website. If rape is a problem here in the United States, it’s an absolute epidemic in India where women are regularly groped and assaulted. Most women in India do not feel safe going out after dark without a trusted escort. Yadav is trying to create an atmosphere where men learn to respect women and see them as partners rather than as chattel.

Somali refugee Leyla Hussein lives in London now, but in the country of her birth was subjected to Female Genital Mutilation, a barbaric practice in which the clitoris is cut off as well as in some cases other parts of the vagina so that women can no longer experience sexual pleasure. One of the most compelling scenes in the film has her showing on an oversize clay model to a group of Somali young men exactly what is done in the procedure. The horror on their faces speaks volumes.

While at times the tone gets a little shrill, this definitely isn’t an anti-man film; rather, it is anti-abuse of women. All five of these women just want women to retain control over their bodies and their lives. As has been said elsewhere, if the Somalis practiced the hacking off of male penises, a stop would have been put to it forthwith but the practice is spreading as refugees from countries that practice it are moving into Europe and North America.

The women are passionate and personable and tell their stories eloquently. If Hussein breaks down in frustration as she does at one point, it’s understandable. When you think about it, there has been a cultural fear of the vagina on a global scale for millennia. Women have been forced into arranged marriages (as have men, to be fair) but more to the point, into arranged roles in which they are subservient.

Even in Japan, women are encouraged to look and act more child-like with big bows in their hair and cutesy schoolgirl clothes, something Rokudenashiko buys into which I found a bit ironic. This is certainly a film for the #MeToo era although this isn’t just about rape – it’s about the oppression of half the worlds population by the other half. This is certainly an eye-opening movie and if you have an uncle who thinks feminists are lesbians who want to see men mowed down by machine gun fire, you might want to plunk them down and show them this film. Not that it would make much of an impression of the Rush Limbaugh-lovers, but you never know.

REASONS TO SEE: Looks at the issues of feminism with a global perspective. The storytelling is compact but often harrowing nonetheless.
REASONS TO AVOID: Can get strident at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, sexual content, artistic depiction of female genitals and discussions of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming took place over the course of five years with locations in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunting Ground
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mountaintop

Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements


Better to soar among the eagles than walk with the turkeys.

(2019) Documentary (Abramorama/HBOJonas, Paul, Sally, Colleen, Matthew, Irene. Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky

 

As someone who loves movies and music, my senses of sight and hearing are particularly precious to me. As such, I tend to feel a tremendous pity for those who lack one or both of those senses. How can someone without those senses appreciate the grandeur of Laurence of Arabia attacking Aqaba or the soaring Maurice Jarrė score that accompanies it? It seems to me to be an irreplaceable loss – but there are other compensations that perhaps I failed to take into account.

Brodsky is the child of two deaf parents, Paul and Sally, who received cochlear implants while in their sixties. She and her siblings are all hearing, so they were in some ways insiders to the challenges their parents faced without perhaps understanding them fully, as those possessed of a sense can never truly understand what it is to be without it. How does one, after all, describe a world of silence to someone whose world is filled with noise?

She is also the mother of a deaf son, Jonas, who was born hearing but gradually lost his ability to hear when he was four. He was then given cochlear implants and when the documentary was filmed, was 11 years old who most of us would never realize he had any sort of hearing issue.

Music is also important to Jonas and he is taking piano lessons. He tells his piano teacher Colleen that he wants to learn Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata which his teacher tells him he doesn’t hav the skills for et. Jonas is insistent and at last Colleen relents. After all, Beethoven wrote the piece during a time when his hearing was failing him. Was that a motivating factor in Jonas’ desire to play it, or did he merely like the piece? We never find out for sure; at least, not from Jonas.

This is a very personal film for Brodsky and in many ways that makes it more difficult to review. Not because I believe she’s going to ever read this review, although I like to think she might someday, but it feels too much like I’m reviewing her family life. She is clearly devoted to er children and her parents, and although we see little interaction between the director and her husband Matthew, we see him comforting and encouraging his son and realize that he is a good man. The relationship between Jonas and his grandparents is a special one and the elder couple obviously adore their grandson even when they chide him over being sloppy when using American Sign Language.

As the film progresses, we see that Paul – one of the inventors of TTY technology which allows deaf people to use the telephone – is beginning to show signs of oncoming dementia. He is forgetful and sometimes loses focus on what he’s doing. When Brodsky lovingly but firmly tells him that she can’t allow him to drive her children any longer, it is a truly emotional moment; Paul not understanding why she’s come to this decision, Sally tearfully asking him to stop arguing. Many viewers who have undergone similar discussions with their own parents or grandparents will feel compassion.

In the background looms the ghost of Beethoven, his music providing a soundtrack. Quotes from his letters pop up throughout the film and animations depict him (but curiously always as an outline, never as a fully realized figure) linking him with a solitary bird flying within sight but definitely separate from the flock.

Jonas is, at the end of the day, a fairly typical 11-year-old boy. There are things about him that are admirable, there are other things in which he is less so. He sometimes tries to con Colleen into thinking that he’s doing better with the piece than he actually is but she’s having none of it; she holds him accountable but never in a cruel or vicious way. She simply calls him on his bull when he is espousing some. I don’t know that I would have liked my life immortalized when I was eleven; I would like to hope that I would handle it as well as Jonas does here.

Brodsky has two other children who show up incidentally and always with Jonas; the clear focus is on her eldest son. I wonder what her kids thought about that or how they handled not being the center of mommy’s attention. Still, it takes a certain kind of courage to turn your cameras on your kids when you know that the footage isn’t going to be shown just to family and a few long-suffering friends but to the entire world, or at least that part of it that subscribes to HBO (this film will be available on the premium content channel later this fall).

Like any life, there are ups and downs in the film. We get to see Jonas playing the Sonata at a recital and we get to see the difficulties that the grandparents face as old age robs Paul of memory and cognitive thought. He is just in the beginning stages here but the ordeal to come is one that many children are sadly familiar with and it’s hard not to feel compassion for Paul, Sally and their family. The road ahead won’t be easy for them.

I found that Brodsky dividing her film into movements to be kind of gimmicky and arbitrary; the first movement seems to be about beginnings, the second about the journey and the final about destinations but that’s over-simplifying. I thought the movie would have been better without it. Using Beethoven as a linking device doesn’t always work either.

But let it not be said that there are not moments here of exquisite grace; Jonas takes off the external device of his cochlear implant to practice, rendering him deaf but also removing the distractions of sound. Jonas speaks of how when the implant is off, he can just play for the sheer joy of it. When the implant is in and working, he can hear his every mistake and every one gnaws at him. He has not yet gotten to the point where he understands that imperfections are okay, that mistakes aren’t the end of the world. We all would like to be flawless but none of us achieves it truly (other than my dog Penelope but that’s another story entirely). Our mistakes make us human and our humanity makes us beautiful. It’s the aspiration to be flawless that is wonderful, not the achievement of it.

REASONS TO SEE: This is probably as close as the hearing are ever going to get to understanding what it’s like to be deaf.
REASONS TO AVOID: The division of the film into movements seems arbitrary and gimmicky.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brodsky’s previous documentary on her deaf parents, Hear and Now, was nominated for an Oscar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes:82% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sound and Fury
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

ZZ Top: That Lil Ol’ Band from Texas


You can’t help but have a good time at a ZZ Top concert.

(2019) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, Frank Beard, Billy Bob Thornton, Joshua Homme, Terry Manning, Steve Miller, Winston Marshall, Robin Hood Brians, Tim Newman, Ralph Fisher, Howard Bloom, Dan Auerbach. Directed by Sam Dunn

 

Texas, it is said, is a state of mind and there’s a lot of truth in that. Texans are kind of a breed unto themselves. They revere their frontier past and pride themselves on being outlaws and rulebreakers. A Texan will give you the shirt off his back or shoot you in the face with a shotgun. Texans are Cowboys, oilmen, roughnecks, barflies, ladies’ men and asskickers. In Texas, they still remember the Alamo – Texans first, Americans after.

It actually blew my mind a little bit that the band was founded in 1969 as an answer to the Texas psychedelic kingpins 13th Floor Elevators in Houston with Gibbons, drummer Dan Mitchell and bassist/organist (!) Lanier Grieg. When Mitchell and Grieg bailed, drummer Frank Beard auditioned and won the slot. Beard talked Gibbons into auditioning Dusty Hill, who’d played with Beard in a band called the Warlocks in Dallas in the mid-60s.

The three clicked and began playing a fusion of Texas boogie blues and rock and roll. It began to click on songs like “La Grange” and “Tush” in the 70s. After the mammoth World Texas Tour (complete with a Texas-shaped stage and livestock onstage), the band planned for a 90-day break which with Beard’s drug addiction turned into two years. During that time Hill and Gibbons never shaved and returned to work with chest-length beards.

In 1983, the band would hit their commercial zenith with Eliminator, which spawned hit singled “Gimme All Your Loving,” “Legs” and “Sharp Dressed Man.” Nascent video music channel MTV played the heck out of their videos, directed by Tim Newman (cousin of Randy). Newman really established the “cartoon versions,” as Gibbons wryly put it, of the band which became iconic in 80s pop culture. In an era of New Wave, synthesizers (which the band did employ) and skinny ties, these Texas working class boys with Civil War-era beards became video superstars. I don’t think you could make up a more unlikely scenario.

Dunn opts to show the “Gimme All Your Loving” video in its entirety for some reason – much of the other musical clips are the band playing in the venerable Gurene Music Hall (the oldest in Texas) before an empty house, perhaps reminding us of the occasion in Alvin, Texas, when the band played to an audience of exactly one paying customer. (“He still comes to shows to this day,” says Hill ruefully, “He says ‘Remember me?” and I say “Of course I do,””). For some reason, the documentary abruptly stops with coverage of Eliminator with the 35 years afterwards being reduced to a graphic “The band still records and tours to this day,” which essentially ignores great albums like Afterburner. Still, I imagine that if Dunn wanted to cover all 50 years of the band’s existence, he’d need a mini-series.

Much of the credit for the band’s success goes to their manager Bill Ham, who sadly passed away in 2016. The band members consider him as integral to ZZ Top as the musicians himself but he rarely gave interviews and wanted the band initially to maintain a mystique, so they rarely gave interviews or performed on television in the early years which is why there is a dearth of band footage.

Part of the documentary’s charm are the members of ZZ Top themselves; they don’t take themselves too seriously and are the kind of guys you’d spend a Saturday afternoon fishing with, or a Sunday afternoon watching football and drinking beer. There is absolutely no rock star attitude to be found. They’re just working men whose job happens to be playing rock and roll.

The band has kept the same line-up for 50 years, a feat that is absolutely amazing. No other rock and roll band can claim that. Beard best explained it at the end when he said, humbly, “I found the guys I was meant to play with. After that, I didn’t want to quit and I didn’t want to get fired.” Judging from their interviews, they are guys you’d want to hang out with and who would want to stop working with guys you like hanging out with?

ZZ Top has always been a band that didn’t really get their due in a lot of ways, despite being elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. Gibbons is one of the best American guitar players and their music has always evolved over the years although their roots as a boogie blues rock band have always been present. While this isn’t the documentary I would have liked to have seen of the band – maybe it should have been a mini-series – it at least makes a terrific introduction to those who aren’t already fans of the band.

The film will soon be playing nationwide for about the next two months. There are no dates currently scheduled in Orlando but if you ask Tim Anderson or Matthew Curtis nicely, maybe they’ll add it to the Music Monday series at some point.

REASONS TO SEE: The boys in the band are the kind you’d want to have a beer with.
REASONS TO AVOID: Basically stops after covering the Eliminator album in 1984.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film had its world premiere at the world-famous Cinerama Dome in Hollywood.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Honky Tonk Heaven: The Legend of the Broken Spoke
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America