Crutch


Art knows no disability.

(2020) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Bill Shannon, Cornelius Henke III, Randy Shannon, Bill Clark, Earl Cole, Ben Shannon, Bethany Jones, Gavin Evans, Jeff Chavez, David Foster, Emmanuel Vega, Jackson Clark, Frosty Freeze, Rennie Harris, Richie Tempo, Claire Cunningham, Leah Lazarondo, Roseanne Garland-Thompson, Susan Cummings. Directed by Sachi Cunningham and Chandler Evans

Bill Shannon may not necessarily be a household name, unless your household is into breakdancing and performance art. He was born wth a condition that led to bone necrosis (the loss of blood flow leading to the death of the actual bone cells) in his hip, leading to chronic pain and an inability to walk without aid.

Before his diagnosis he loved skateboarding, trampolining, running…the things kids love to do, he was just always in motion. It was a devastating blow to discover that his motion would be limited. Hip replacement surgery was offered as an alternative, but he turned it down; the issue was that he would spend a lifetime enduring a succession of follow-up surgeries when his replacements wore out and eventually, the hip replacements would no longer be effective. He chose to learn to endure the pain.

One thing that helped was the use of rocker crutches. Rather than coming to points, they have rounded “rocking chair” type bottoms that allow greater mobility. They didn’t just allow him to move; they allowed him to dance.

Being a hip-hop fan from an early age, he found that he could really bust some moves with his crutches. At first, his ambition out-stripped his ability and he endured a lot of falls, but Shannon was never afraid of falling. He would just get up and try the move again, over and over again, until he got it right. Soon, he was winning breakdancing competitions in his native Pittsburgh, and then in Chicago.

He also began to see himself differently, not just as someone overcoming a disability, but as an artist and an innovator. He helped popularize breakdancing to the point where it was given shows in legitimate theaters, and incorporated them into performance art pieces. He gt a call from Cirque du Soleil to choreograph a routine for some of their performers to use crutches as he did. This led to an epiphany; was he being given credit for being an artist, or was there an asterisk implied: artist with disability. He had always been bothered by people staring at him on the streets, and really hated feeling pity from the able-bodied, especially in light of him being more dexterous and graceful than most people who don’t have crutches.

He began to experiment, watching how people reacted to him. He would fall on purpose and see how people responded. He took to filming encounters with hidden cameras and showing the results at some of his shows; he built an entire show around it, putting the audience on a bus and staging the Borat-like sequence for their entertainment, I guess you’d say.

In some ways, this last section lies at the heart of Crutch. This isn’t just a feel-good documentary about a man overcoming obstacles to be successful in a way nobody ever had been before, given his circumstances. There is a saying that art knows no disability, which is a fancy way of saying that genius is genius, regardless of who is blessed by it and in that respect, Shannon is a hands-down genius as both choreographer and performer. Hands down, no asterisk.

But I have to admit that I was a bit uncomfortable with the staged “weight of empathy” sequences. Full disclosure; I’m also disabled and get around with the use of a cane. Due to a neurological disorder, I’m prone to falling and from time to time have taken spills in public. When good Samaritans try to help me to my feet (I’m a big fella and it’s not an easy task), I am grateful. If people stare at me, I really don’t notice. It wouldn’t bother me if they did, but apparently it bothers Shannon. I guess I can see his point; the staring is a way of objectifying; ask a pretty woman if she enjoys being stared at sometime and see what answer you get.

He sees empathy and the instinct to render aid as a form of being patronizing, and at times seems to ridicule the gesture. Now, I’m willing to admit that my discomfort with the sequence may be me reacting to the concept that I might be patronizing in those instincts, but I think there’s also a good chance that Shannon just has a chip on his shoulder, one that has enabled him to accomplish what he has. Most good artists have an edge to them, after all.

It is a good thing when a film forces us to examine ourselves and our own attitudes. We can’t learn and grow if our preconceptions aren’t challenged once in a while, so kudos to Cunningham, Evans and Shannon for doing just that. And while it seems that Shannon doesn’t necessarily want to be praised for turning a disability into something different, his disability is nevertheless a part of him, like it or not, and the fact that he has accomplished so much with so much adversity in his way is to be commended and admired. His art speaks for itself, as art does.

REASONS TO SEE: You can’t help but admire a man who lives life on his own terms.
REASONS TO AVOID: The third act may be unpleasant for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shannon was diagnosed at a young age with Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease, a lack of blood flow to the head of the femur which causes the bone tissue to die. It affects about one in 1,200 children.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shameless: The Art of Disability
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
13 Minutes

The Smartest Kids in the World


Learning comes in all kinds of colors.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Amanda Ripley, Jaxon, Brittany, Sadie, Simone, Meneer Hofstede. Directed by Tracy Droz Tragos

 

It’s no secret that the American education system is in crisis. Differing ideas on how to fix it have been put forth by politicians, ranging from putting more money into education (although we spend more per student than any other developed nation save one) to using a voucher system to allow parents to send kids to private schools, with some feeling that public schools should be discontinued completely and education be left to for-profit private enterprises and religious entities.

But as author Amanda Ripley points out in her bestselling book that this documentary is loosely based on, nobody is asking the students themselves. So, director Tracy Droz Tragos did. Well, kind of. The film follows four students from disparate parts of the country as they go abroad to study as exchange students in four countries whose educational system is generally considered to be superior to ours. Most of this is due to the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA test. However, don’t expect to be told what markers are actually measured – the film doesn’t go into that.

Instead we follow Jaxon, a young man from Wyoming who is frustrated with his high school’s emphasis on sports which has gotten to the point that classes are essentially canceled on Friday so that athletes can participate in various sports and non-athletes can support from the stands (Jaxon himself is a wrestler). He feels unchallenged by the curriculum and sees the situation as an impediment to his future success, so he opts to go to the Netherlands to study, despite speaking not speaking a word of the language.

Brittany (who attended a high school only a few miles from Cinema365 headquarters) chose to go to Finland but was emtarrassed to tell her classmates that she wanted a better education, so she made an excuse that she wanted to visit Lapland because “that’s where Santa Claus was from.” She was surprised to discover an emphasis on student autonomy and less emphasis on homework and tests. There was even a sauna in the school for students to unwind when they feel stressed.

Simone, from the Bronx, is a child of Jamaican immigrants who place a strong emphasis on the value of education. She decided to go to South Korea because she felt that she would be better prepared for higher education that way. A strong work ethic enabled her to learn to speak Korean fluently by the time her exchange program was through. However, she observed that the pressure put on Korean students to perform and excel far exceeded the expectations placed on American students, which caused greater and more debilitating stress-related illnesses among Korean teens.

Sadie, who had been homeschooled in Maine until high school, was disappointed to find an emphasis on conformity and popularity. Most of the students were far behind her level of learning and she felt she was being held back. She went to Switzerland where she discovered that there were programs by Swiss employers to place students in apprenticeships to give them a feel for real-world skills that they would need to develop and help them choose the career path that appealed to them. All four of the countries that the students visited were significantly higher than the United Stats in both math and science PISA scores.

The main problem with the movie is that it doesn’t meaningfully address one of the big obstacles that other, smaller nations don’t have to deal with – the diversity and disparity of our country. The issues facing an inner city school – gang violence, drug use, broken homes, poverty – are very different than the issues confronting rural schools, or those facing suburban schools. While the Korean schools meticulously collected the cell phones of the students every morning, the Swiss and Finnish schools did not.

There is often a perception that kids are more into their social media and less into – well, anything else – and there is some truth to that, but that’s not a problem that exists only in the United States. There seems to be more of a feeling among the students in those four countries that they had a responsibility to be working hard for their own future, something that sometimes seems missing among American students, although it’s not completely gone – certainly the four students here were eager for something better.

A single 100 minute documentary really isn’t sufficient to go into the problems that modern students face; that schools are now teaching more how to take tests than in any sort of real learning (teaching critical thinking is an important aspect that is stressed in all four of those countries), the low pay and high burnout of teachers in this country (in other countries, teachers are well-paid and have similar status to doctors and lawyers), the issue of mass shootings in schools (something more or less unique to the United States), the crumbling infrastructure of most schools and a lack of political will to address it, And that’s just scratching the surface.

Ripley is absolutely correct that we need to listen to students and find out what they need and want out of schools; some may be more interested in fewer tests but more homework, while others would want the opposite. Some might prefer learning to be completely online without any sort of classroom instruction. The point is, the best experts as to what needs to be fixed in schools aren’t even being asked the questions we need to ask.

However, this documentary is a bit of a disappointment, giving only cursory coverage to the various programs in other countries and not really looking critically at the issues facing students and school boards alike, and this is too important a subject to give anything less than in-depth examination.

REASONS TO SEE: An important subject for all parents – and their kids.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not as in-depth as it needed to be.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the United States spends more per capita on education than all but one developed nation, its PISA test scores in math and science consistently fall in the bottom third of developed nations.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting for “Superman”
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Together

Fin


Which is the predator and which is the prey?

(2021) Nature Documentary (Discovery Plus) Eli Roth, Boris Worm, Regina Domingo, Neil Hammerschlag, Gary Stokes, Alison Kock, Chue Lam, Ocean Ramsey, Peter Hammerstadt, Guy Medan, Lashanti Jupp, Michael Muller, Alex Hofford. Directed by Eli Roth

Like millions of others, Eli Roth saw Jaws in his formative years and was scared spitless. He developed a pathological fear of sharks that haunted him whenever he went to the beach. His fears would go on to lead him to become a director of horror films that include Hostel and The Green Inferno.

But he never got over his fear of sharks – that is, until he began to realize that far from the killing machines they were portrayed as in the movies, sharks actually attack humans extremely rarely and generally when they do, they break off the attack immediately when they realize that the human isn’t food. In fact, humans are far more dangerous to sharks than vice versa, to the tune of nearly a billion sharks estimated to have been illegally fished in the last decade alone.

It is one of the largest massacres of a single species in history. There are several reasons for it. Sharks often get caught in gill nets that are meant for other species of fish (they are illegal in most countries); shark liver oil is also used extensively in skin care products, including lotions, sunscreen, lip balm, lip gloss and lipstick – despite the availability of plant-based alternatives. However, one of the largest reasons is the popularity of shark fin soup, a delicacy in parts of Asia. Sharks are often butchered just for their fins, which command a high price. Hong Kong, by itself, processes 17,000 tons of shark fins every year. Often the fins are left to dry on street curbs, sitting in discarded cigarette butts, dog poop and swarms of flies. It’s enough to put you off eating for a week.

You would think that removing sharks from the ecological equation would be a boon for the food chain (or those below sharks anyway) but it is actually not. Areas in which sharks have been all but eradicated shortly become barren of all life. That’s because sharks help maintain ecological balance, acting as marine cops – keeping certain species away from where they don’t belong.

Roth, channeling his newfound respect – and even love – for sharks, decided to make a documentary and with the aid of actor/activists Leonardo di Caprio and Nina Dobrev (acting as executive producers), he traveled the world to see the slaughter in action, partnering with organizations like OceansAsia and Sea Shepherd to find solutions for the problem. He boards a notorious illegal fishing vessel with Sea Shepherd, showing without flinching the horrifying reality of the shark slaughter. The images are pretty graphic and should be viewed with discretion.

Roth has the passion of the convert, and that enthusiasm comes through in every word he utters. At times, the director who has portrayed scenes of people being disemboweled and eaten alive exclaims “That is the worst thing I’ve ever seen” when a shark is clubbed to death in front of him. But already his film is paying dividends; one of the largest shark fishing competitions in the United States was canceled this year, likely due to pressure put on from the film, and Congress is considering legislation that would make the sale of shark fins illegal in the United States.

There are woke reviewers who are criticizing the messenger and throwing out the message because of Roth’s history as a horror director. One sniffed, “He widely condemns women who wear cosmetics which can be made with shark liver oil. These words – coming from a director who helped coin “torture porn” and whose fiction work consistently and degradingly compares makeup-caked bombshells to animals – feel disingenuous at best.” For the record, Roth condemns makeup manufacturers, not the women who wear their products. He urges them to buy shark-free products. And incidentally, his movies tend to be just as degrading to men as well.

If there are some actual knocks for the film it could be that much of the information shared here can be seen in other documentaries, notably the two Sharkwater docs from the late conservationist Rob Stewart, but the footage of the industrial fishing vessels is unforgettable, and Roth’s earnest passion make this a worthy successor to Blackfish.

REASONS TO SEE: Roth is an engaging host. Sobering and sad.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be troubling for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Over 100 million sharks are killed in the wild every year (estimated).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sharkwater Extinction
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Luca

The Surge at Mount Sinai


Front line health care workers battle COVID and exhaustion.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Jon Bon Jovi (narration), Jessica Montanaro, Larry Kelly, Mary Fowlkes, Mirna Mohanraj, Don Boyce, Rafael Miranda, Lynne D. Richardson, Gina Gandhi, Miriam Merat, Mohammed Khansa, Judith Aberg, Dawn Kelly, Carlos Cordon-Cudo, David L. Reich, Deep Patadia, Andre Cooper, Montano Soares, Veronica Colon, Melissa Nelson. Directed by Jonny Kapps

 

In the Spring of 2020, the United States got their first experience with COVID. The surge went from almost no cases to thousands a day in a matter of days. While there was some warning that the pandemic was coming, it still overwhelmed most hospitals and health-care workers as New York City became the epicenter for the epidemic; from March 11 through May 2, 18,879 New Yorkers died of the disease. That’s one death every five minutes. This documentary, though, reminds us that it isn’t just about those who died – it’s about those who lived, as well.

The Mount Sinai hospital system in New York City is one of the largest in the country and, indeed, in the world. The venerable institution had seen nothing like this since the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, and essentially had to pivot on the fly and change strategies. Nurses, dealing with the majority of patient care, printed out brief summaries of the patients on their COVID ward doors so that the nurses could relate to those suffering from the disease as people rather than numbers, and given the staggering numbers they were seeing, it could be forgiven. They were dealing with frightened, sick people who needed comfort as much as they needed medicine and they received both.

We follow in the main a trio of health care professionals, including supernurse Jessica Montanaro, a married mom whose maternal instincts of caring for her patients was put to the test, but she managed to show a human face to all of her patients, including that of Dr. Mohammed Khansa, a colleague at the hospital who was stricken by the disease. Jessica played an instrumental role of keeping his spirits up and believing that he would beat the disease. That belief could mean the difference between life and death for some.

We hear all the time expressions of gratitude for our healthcare workers who served on the front lines against COVID but we really didn’t know exactly why until now. The sacrifices they made – physically, mentally and emotionally – the innovations that were made in giving care, the living with constantly trying to help people who would die anyway, we see the ravages of that to a certain extent and keep in mind this was filmed during that first spike – well before the fall/winter spike. You can bet that an awful lot of the people in this film are currently suffering from burnout and post-traumatic stress.

But you can also bet that most of them are still at it, still serving their patients as best they can. With the advent of the vaccines, things have gotten better, although given how many are choosing not to vaccinate, the rise of new, even more communicable variants and the knuckleheads who think that COVID is just another version of the flu, another surge could conceivably happen. And these are the people who will pay the price for it if it does.

I have to admit that I do have a perspective here; my mom was a registered nurse. She retired more than 20 years ago but had COVID struck back then, it would have been her in the thick of things, giving the kind of care that these nurses and health care workers did. And I’m thankful every day that she didn’t have to.

REASONS TO SEE: Even-handed portrayal of the heroic efforts of front-line healthcare workers. Personalizes COVID in a way few other docs have done. Moving and inspiring. Shows the real value of nurses in the healthcare system.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too soon for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was written and narrated by rock legend Jon Bon Jovi.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 76 Days
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Stowaway

Rebel Hearts


Crusading for social justice.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Anita Caspary, Helen Kelley, Corita Kent, Lenore Dowling, Sheila Biggs, Clement Connelly, Pat Reif, Helene McCambridge, Ruthanne Murray, Francis J. Weber, Mary Mark Zeyen, Mickey Myers, Ray Smith, Marian Sharples, Dorothy Dunn, Daniel Berrigan, Frances Snyder, Patrice Underwood, Rita Callanan, Rosa Manriquez. Directed by Pedro Kos

 

Most of us think of ruler-wielding martinets when we think about nuns, dressed in habits that often made them look like giant penguins. That image was perpetuated by the media to a certain extent, but the truth is that it’s not terribly accurate and hasn’t been for many decades. The reason it is inaccurate is largely due to the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a convent of nuns in heathen Los Angeles who in the Sixties, launched a revolution of their own.

Prior to that, nuns were Brides of Christ, women devoted to service in poverty (and often in silence) and devoted to prayer and community with their fellow sisters. They were “God’s career women,” according to a newsreel from the postwar era, and that was fairly apt. Into this mix came a couple of far-reaching events. The first was the installation of James McIntyre as Cardinal of the Los Angeles diocese. A former Wall Street runner, he ran the diocese pretty much as a business, erecting a large number of schools to serve the burgeoning population of Los Angeles and staffing them largely with nuns who weren’t paid and were woefully unprepared and unqualified to teach (perhaps the reputation for torturous discipline came out of that inexperience).

The Second Vatican Council, which began in 1962 under Pope John XXIII and ended in 1965 under Paul VI, represented a seismic shift for the Church. It for the first time allowed the mass to be performed in the local vernacular rather than in Latin which prior to 1965 it was exclusively performed in; it also started a process of liberalization which, among other things, allowed nuns to decide whether to continue to wear habits or dress in more modern outfits.

This became an issue in Los Angeles largely because the very conservative McIntyre (who was likely one of the Cardinals who voted against ratifying the results of Vatican II, as it was known then) disapproved of most of the more liberal aspects of the council’s edicts. The nuns, who inhabited a garden-like convent near Hollywood, also ran a private college which didn’t fall under the Cardinal’s control; it was a liberal arts school (emphasis on the liberal) that taught art and sociology with equal fervor as it did theology.

On the college staff was art teacher Corita Kent, who was producing silkscreen art of her own, text-based pop art that reflected the turbulence of the late Sixties, largely with anti-war and social justice messages that should have been in line with the church’s teachings of peace and justice for all, but in that era the church was more rigid and conservative than it is now. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest in that era, began to protest the war and racial inequality (among other things) and sisters of Immaculate Heart began to show up at protests as well (one marched with Martin Luther King at Selma). Fed up with his fractious sisters, the Cardinal began pressuring them to mend their ways until a showdown became inevitable.

I grew up in Los Angeles during that era; I do remember the run-in between Cardinal McIntyre and the sisters and it was much talked-about in Catholic schools in the era following (I was in Catholic high school in the mid-Seventies and in a Jesuit University in the late Seventies and early Eighties). So in a lot of ways, I got a feeling of nostalgia from the film that may not necessarily be the experience of others who see it, so do take that into encount when reading the rest of my review.

While most of the interviews with the aging sisters were recorded several years ago (Kent, for example, passed away in 1986). He utilizes animations created by Brandon Blommaert and Una Lorenzen that playfully reflect Kent’s graphic style and often depict McIntyre as a rampaging demonic presence, which according to some of his assistants (who were also interviewed here) was not far from the truth.

The women that we meet in the interviews are gracious but feisty; they look back with some amusement at their place in history, amazed that these women who simply wanted to be taken seriously were considered to be such thorns in the side of the church that they were at one point given a choice to return to the old ways that the sisters conducted their affairs or risk expulsion.

It is these interviews that are the heart and soul of the film, because these ladies were the heart and soul of American Catholicism, even though they (and indeed, most Catholics) didn’t realize it at the time. Their courage in the face of a powerful, intractable foe has brought bar-reaching changes, which are still ongoing today. If you ask me, the Church is in need of a Vatican III and if one should ever be called, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart should be inspiration for the proceedings.

REASONS TO SEE: The animation is done in the style of Sister Conita’s artwork. Very reflective of its times. The nuns are lively, engaging and courageous.
REASONS TO AVOID: May have less appeal for non-Catholics.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the interview segments were conducted by Shawnee Isaac-Smith and were conducted years ago as many of the women interviewed here have passed away since.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/3/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Greater Love: A Unique Portrait of the Carmelite Nuns
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Tove

My Name is Bulger


Whitey Bulger, tough guy.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Bill Bulger, Michael Dukakis, Mary Bulger, Bill Weld, Jimmy Bulger, Matt Connelly, William Bulger, Dan Bulger, Sarah Bulger Piscatelli, Brian Wallace, Peter Gelzinis, Pat Nee, Jean Bulger, Pastor Robert Gray, Kevin Weeks, Katherine Greig, Jason Bowns, Jenn Bulger Holland, Bob Ward, Shelley Murphy. Directed by Brendan J. Byrne

 

I never had a brother, but I’ve known many. Brothers can be different as night and day. One can turn out to be a civic leader, the other a mob boss, and both from the same household. The old nature versus nurture debate? Well, nature certainly has a lot to do with it.

That dynamic really happened in the Bulger family. A large Irish-American Catholic family in South Boston (or Southie, as natives prefer calling it) the boys William and James grew up in poverty in one of the housing projects. But whereas William, known more colloquially as Bill, grew up to be one of the most powerful politicians in Massachusetts, his brother James, who was better known as Whitey, led the Winter Hill Gang and was known to be one of the ost ruthless criminals of his time.

None of the other Bulgers turned to crime, and there are a lot of Bulgers – Bill and Whitey had seven other siblings and they all had large families as well (Bill himself would raise nine kids). So how does one deal with living a life on the straight and narrow but being known for the one person in the family that didn’t?

Byrne, a documentary filmmaker from Northern Ireland, doesn’t really get into it, but he is granted remarkable access to a family that has been over the years notoriously press-shy. He even managed to get an interview with Catherine Grieg, Whitey’s girlfriend who was with him while he was on the lam for fifteen years.

The Bulger family seems interested in rehabilitating their legacy, and anyone can certainly understand that. There’s no evidence that the younger Bulger knew of his brother’s criminal exploits, nor did he use his office to aid his brother in any way. One of Whitey’s criminal associates, Kevin Weeks, remarks that when the two got together they generally talked about family and mundane things – certainly not about what Whitey was up to. I suppose there was a willful blindness going on – considering the reporting the Boston Globe did on the exploits of Whitey Bulger you’d think that the rest of his family had at least an inkling that he was into something unsavory. But I would guess that nobody wanted to rock the boat, so the subject would be genteelly ignored.

Again, that’s conjecture. aI suspect that the Bulger family would be reluctant to talk about how much they knew of Whitey’s deeds. They seem to be more interested in downplaying his criminal side and pushing the fact that he was a nice guy, generous and loyal to his family. That’s kind of a curious tack to take, but it rings a little false to the casual viewer, and perhaps that’s what the filmmakers intended.

But I think it’s also curious that the only aspect of Bill’s legislative career that is discussed with any depth was his opposition to forced bussing in the Seventies, a hot-button issue that turned national attention on South Boston and not in a positive way. To Byrne’s credit, he presents both sides of the issue dispassionately, but it leaves a complicated legacy. But Bill’s support for expanding school nutrition programs and environmental protection, as well as writing legislation modifying the process of reporting child abuse and helping reboot the welfare system so efficiently that it became a model for other states – that’s not mentioned at all. It seems to me that would go a lot further to cementing Bill’s legacy than downplaying the awful things his brother did.

Bill’s in his mid-80s now and retired to Southie. His story is a compelling one and while I do think that it deserves to be told, I’m certain that it could have used a little more positive reinforcement for Bill and less of that for Whitey. The man served his constituency well for three decades, and went on to be president of the University of Massachusetts, only to see that stripped from him when he refused to answer questions about his brother’s whereabouts in front of a Senate hearing. That was the consequences of a moral choice he made, but perhaps his legacy needs to be more about what he accomplished and less what his brother did.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story, a real-life Angels with Dirty Faces.
REASONS TO AVOID: Talking head-centric and a bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whitey Bulger was murdered within 24 hours of being transferred to Hazelton Prison in West Virginia. His family has requested an investigation into the affair.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Mass
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Werewolves Within

Broken Harts


The Hart children are all smiles here (including Devonte, far right) but the smiles hide a dark secret.

(2021) True Crime Documentary (Discovery Plus) Sheriff Tom Allman, Jennifer Hart, Sarah Hart, Devonte Hart, Cynthia Bartley, Lt. Shannon Barney, Irene Vanryckeshem, Niema Lightseed, Drew Bunch, Adam Beck, Cheryl Hart, Jackie LaBrecque, Dana DeKalb, Raquel Warley, Zaron Burnett, Mia Williams, Shonda Jones, Diane Drystad, Dr. Jen Johnston. Directed by Gregory Palmer

 

On March 26, 2018, Jennifer and Sarah Hart of Woodland, Washington, along with their six adopted children, drove off the side of a 100-foot cliff in Mendocino County, California. Initially, onl the bodies of the two women and three of their children were found; over the succeeding weeks, the remains of two other children washed up on Mendocino beaches. The remains of 15-year-old Devonte were never recovered.

At first, it was thought to be a tragic accident, but as facts began to emerge, a darker picture was painted. On the surface, it appeared that Jennifer and Sarah were loving mothers whose children were smiling and happy. Jennifer’s Facebook page was filled with pictures of family outings where the kids were dancing, smiling and singing, particularly Devonte who grew into national prominence because of his appearance at rallies for Black Lives Matter following the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO wearing a “Free Hugs” sign around his neck. A photo of Devonte weeping as he hugged a police officer would go viral.

But the kids showed up in school with bruises, prompting the Harts to withdraw their kids from the school system and homeschooling them. Their neighbors, Bruce and Dana DeKalb, reported that the children would show up at their door begging for food, pleading with them not to tell their moms. On the 23rd of March, Child Protective Services paid two visits to the Hart home, but nobody answered the door. They came again on the 26th, but by that time th family was already dead.

The movie is presented in typical true crime documentary fashion, with plenty of home movies, still pictures and talking head interviews with law enforcement officials – primarily Sheriff Tom Allman of Mendocino County who investigated the incident – friends and analysts. Psychiatrist Dr. Jen Johnston gives rational, calm and factual information about the psychology of family annihilation, while journalist Zaron Burnett talks about the racial implications of the crime, regularly reminding us that both women were white and the six adopted children were all African-American. His claim that the women got a pass because they were white ignores the fact that most lesbians will tell you that passes are infrequently given to the LGBTQ community and that at the time of the adoptions, there were several states – including Texas, where the kids were originally from – that didn’t allow same-sex adoption, although because they went through an agency in Minnesota where the couple was living at the time, they were able to bypass those restrictions.

Palmer clearly makes Jennifer Hart the villain of the piece, making Sarah more or less an accomplice. There is an awful lot of editorializing and assumptions going on, some of it on the side of common sense, some of it a reach. Allman makes a case for a national registry of child abusers; had such a thing existed, it might have given Child Protective Services in Washington the ability to pull the kids out of the Hart home before their adoptive mothers took them on that final, tragic road trip.

While parts of the movie are dry, I thought that the real crime was trying to ascribe motives based on conjecture to be a disservice. Any good law enforcement official, particularly those involved in the prosecutorial aspect of it, will tell you that a competent investigation sticks to what can be proven. Unfortunately, the filmmakers here go too often for sensationalism and sound bites, perhaps in an effort to show that society failed these six kids. In fact, society did fail these children, but not necessarily in the way some of the commentators here opine.

REASONS TO SEE: Methodically presented.
REASONS TO AVOID: Needed more of Dr. Johnson and less of Burnett.
FAMILY VALUES: The content is disturbing overall, with descriptions of child abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the Hart children were adopted through the Permanent Family Research Center in Minnesota.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Murder: The Family Next Door
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Deliver Us From Evil (2021)

Citizen Penn


Some citizens are more badass about getting things done than others.

(2020) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Sean Penn, Anderson Cooper, Cécile Accilien, Capt. Barry Frishman, Dr. Justine Crowley, Tommy Prato, Alastair Lamb, Edgar Nonce, Dr. Dominique Valentin, Laurent Lamothe, Ann Lee, Jeff Dorsey, Amani Phillips, Avery Harrell, Pamela White, Alexandra Kuykendahl. Directed by Don Hardy

 

When you think of Sean Penn, what comes to mind? Spicoli? His years as Mr. Madonna? Punching out a paparazzi? Two-time Oscar winner? Fox News whipping boy? Or dedicated activist and philanthropist who made Haitian relief a priority?

Chances are it isn’t the latter, but that is what this documentary is about, and judging on what is in the film, is what Penn himself is about. The one-time bad boy has not mellowed, but he has matured; there is a big difference. He has been associated with the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, which is remarked about but not gone into great deal here. Mostly, it is mentioned mainly because Penn prevailed upon Chavez to provide 350,000 doses of morphine for Haiti following the January 2010 earthquake when nobody else would.

This documentary, currently airing on the Discovery Plus streaming service (click on the link below if you want to check it out although you will need to be a subscriber if you want to see it), consists largely of an interview with the actor in which he smokes incessantly, and talks plainly about his time in Haiti and of the obstacles he faced there. He also talks about the courage and compassion of the Haitian people, who refuse to see themselves as victims.

There is also a whole lot of footage of the disaster (and the ensuing hurricane that formed a one-two punch with the earthquake that nearly leveled the island). Penn talks about taking a helicopter trip in a U.S. military helicopter at one point and suddenly realizing the scope of the disaster; it is hard to see it when you are looking at individuals and small spaces. The devastation was so widespread it is amazing that Haiti has recovered at all.

It is admirable that the focus of the film shifts about halfway through, from Penn and his efforts to that of his organization, originally known as J/P HRO (Jenkins/Penn Haiti Relief Organization) but is now known as CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), and how the volunteers there have taken over and helped Haitians take charge of their own relief.

The film makes the distinction between celebrities who support relief organizations and those who actively help on the ground where it is needed. Penn is most definitely one of the latter; he stayed in Haiti working 20-hour days long after the TV cameras had packed up and gone home. He describes a harrowing account of trying to get a young boy a life-saving medicine after he was diagnosed with diptheria. It is one of the most emotionally wrenching sequences in the film, boiling down all the suffering to one little boy. That is how we are more able to connect with disasters; not in the sheer volume of those affected, because it is overwhelming, but in the eyes of a desperate father and a sick little boy.

Most people have probably made up their minds about Penn even before seeing this, and that may prevent you from seeing the documentary, which would be a shame because while Penn is certainly the draw, it is not just about him, and that’s just how he wants it. He uses the documentary the same way he uses his celebrity to call attention to issues he’s passionate about and raise fund to help combat them. Penn strikes me as a man who doesn’t tolerate bullshit at all; it seems to me that the world could use more people like him.

If, like me, you are motivated to donate to Penn’s organization to help with the ongoing humanitarian efforts for the island (which is now battling COVID just like the rest of us), do yourself a favor and go to the CORE website. Every dollar donated will help save lives. You can go to the website here.

REASONS TO SEE: Portrays the scope of the issues in Haiti effectively. Moves the focus away from Penn in the second half of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretty much an acquired taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 2010 earthquake left 230,000 dead and more than 1.5 million homeless.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cajun Navy
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Mortal Kombat

Groomed


Gwen van de Pas listens to the point of view of a sexual predator.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Gwen van de Pas, Harriet Hofstode, Laurens, Oprah Winfrey, Andy Hudlak, Jim Tanner, Martijn Larsen, Raimondo, Nicole, Katy, Barbi, Asia, Keith, Dennis. Directed by Gwen van de Pas

 

When a sexual predator chooses a child to abuse, it isn’t a random choice. It is a matter of careful selection, picking someone who is vulnerable. He (for most sexual predators of children are male, although there are some women who follow the same pattern) will befriend them, buy them presents and make them feel special. He will win the trust of their family, who feel comfortable with the presence of an adult in their child’s life as a mentor or an authority figure or even a family member. When the selected child has been properly groomed, the attention grows physical.

For Gwen van de Pas, now a filmmaker living in San Francisco, her groomer was the assistant coach on the swim team that she participated. For the most part, her childhood in the Netherlands was idyllic; a loving family, a safe neighborhood, but she was bullied at school. She was unusually shy, making it hard for her to make friends. This set her up perfectly for her abuser.

She was eleven when she met her abuser and the abuse turned sexual not long after that, and lasted until she was fifteen. For the most part, because she felt the sex was consensual, she didn’t think twice about it. It was only when she and her boyfriend Laurens were discussing the possibility of having a family that she began to have nightmares about the abuse. She began to see a psychologist, Harriet Hofstode.

Deciding she needed to confront her past, she also wanted to tell her story through the medium she had studied and practiced; film. She assembled a team and talked to experts on psychology and sexual predators who taught her a word she wasn’t familiar with: grooming. She began to realize that this was exactly what happened to her.

She goes home to the Netherlands and discusses the event with her parents, with whom she had only talked about it once before. At the time, they had dissuaded her from going to the authorities; her mother explained by way of explanation that she was in a fragile emotional state and was talking about suicide. They were concerned that the process of investigation and trial might push her over the edge. In retrospect, her parents wondered if they had done the wrong thing, putting off dealing with the trauma and allowing their daughter’s suffering to last longer.

Gwen also speaks with other victims, both male and female, identified only with first names; one, abused by her own father. One, by a minister. One, by a priest. She also talked with a convicted but repentant sexual predator who gave her a predator’s eye-view. These interviews seem to be cathartic for all involved.

It is Gwen’s story that is the most personal and emotional. At times, we see Gwen, her father and her boyfriend break down as they relive the horrors of her past and the repercussions of those events. She also re-reads the letters sent by her abuser with an adult eye, getting physically sick as she realizes how she was taken in.

At first, she is sympathetic to the man who abused her as a “wounded soul,” and is loathe to ruin his life but as she discovers more about her abuse – and her abuser – her attitude changes and she realizes that these sorts of predators rarely stop at one victim.

This is a harrowing but important documentary that is raw emotionally and at times very difficult to watch – even if you haven’t been the victim of sexual abuse. Een in that case, you may want to have a hankie at the ready unless you are emotionally insulated to the point of being robotic. If you have a history of being abused, be aware that this might trigger something in you, and for those who have blotted out memories of childhood abuse this might bring them savagely back. You may want to have someone with you as a means of support if you choose to watch this.

I can’t help thinking/admiring the sheer bravery of Van de Pas. This certainly wasn’t easy for her and there are times when her raw emotion is overwhelming; at other times she is forced to comfort her father, who feels guilt at not having protected his baby girl. Those are moments that will stay with you forever, as well they should.

But you should watch this, particularly if you’re a parent or plan to be. Van de Pas is very methodical going through the warning signs and steps of grooming, and what you learn here might save your child, or someone near to you. Perhaps you might recognize the behavior of grooming in yourself, in which case you should seek help from a mental health professional immediately. Whatever your situation might be, this is an extraordinarily important documentary that just might save someone’s life and/or sanity down the road. That life might well be your own – or someone you love.

REASONS TO SEE: Emotionally powerful and wrenching. Important information for parents and teens alike. Van de Pas is unbelievably brave. Her confusion and anger are understandable and normal. Helps understand victim self-blaming.
REASONS TO AVOID: May trigger those who have been through childhood sexual abuse.
FAMILY VALUES: There are strong adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One in ten people have been sexually abused. 80% of them knew their attacker beforehand; nearly 100% of them went through the grooming process with their abuser.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunting Ground
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Godzilla vs. Kong

Miracle Fishing: Kidnapped Abroad


The Hargrove family makes preparations for the unthinkable.

(2020) Documentary (Gravitas) Susan Hargrove, Geddie Hargrove, Tom Hargrove, Miles Hargrove, Oscar Tejada, Claudia Greiner, Robert Clarx, Uli Greiner, David Little, Raford Hargrove, Peter Greiner, David Parkinson. Directed by Miles Hargrove

 

In the 90s, kidnappings by political, terrorist and guerilla groups and drug cartels reached epidemic proportions. So much so that a cottage industry sprang up around expert negotiators, and men dedicated to acting as liaisons between the kidnappers and the families of their victims. It was a nightmare scenario for anyone working abroad.

For the Hargrove family, it was a nightmare that became all too real. In 1994, the family – which had been all over the world for father Tom Hargrove’s job, had moved to Cali, Colombia where drug cartels were in the midst of a bloody war and where antigovernmental guerillas were terrorizing the populace almost as much as government soldiers were. Tom worked as an agricultural advisor, introducing new types of farming techniques and crops to help reduce starvation and make farming more productive in the reason. While Tom was in Vietnam during the war, the Viet Cong had targeted him but when they discovered that he was bringing new types of rice that would yield more in the region, he was left alone. Tom figured that this would protect him, that he was there to help the people who were in dire need of it, although kidnappings were common in the region.

He thought wrong. At what appeared to be a routine police check point on his way to work one morning, he was removed from his car by armed guerillas from FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a Marxist group that aimed to overthrow the government and stop drug-related violence in the region. His wife, Susan, was alone in Colombia; her sons Geddie and Miles were both away at college but they both rushed to Cali to be by her side. Her German neighbors, Uli and Claudia Greiner and their son Peter, also provided support as did Tom’s brother Raford, who came in from Texas to lend a hand. They also hired former federal agent Oscar Tejada as their advisor to help them navigate the minefield that was negotiating with the kidnappers.

Miles had become obsessed with a new camcorder that he had gotten, much to the dismay of his father who was a little weary of being constantly filmed by his son. He documented the ordeal from the point of view of the family, from the major events – phone calls from the guerillas, strategy sessions, the setting up of secure phone lines so that nobody could listen in, and the ransom drops, which were tense affairs as the sums of money were always at risk for being confiscated by corrupt police – and family dinners, little bits of life as the family tried to somehow cope with the unbelievable stress of not knowing whether Tom was alive or not and if he would be returned alive once all was said and done. They grimly watch footage of kidnap victims being discovered machine-gunned by their kidnappers after the ransom was paid.

The footage is almost exclusively from Miles’ camcorder and so the quality is often poor, which might give some pause, but that would be a mistake. Some of the film plays almost like a spy thriller, with a sequence of the family trying to pay the ransom harrowing as they are followed by parties unknown – is it someone from the police or from the kidnappers? – plus they go for weeks and even months without hearing from the kidnappers, whose mountain location is imperiled by government forces seeking to eradicate them. The underlying worry was that Tom might be executed by the guerillas as the government made their situation untenable, or be caught in the crossfire of a gun battle between the kidnappers and the army.

There are also interviews with some of the principles including mom Susan, the neighbors Uli and Claudia Greiner, Oscar Tejada and Geddie and Miles Hargrove that were conducted twenty years after the fact. Tom also kept an illicit diary he kept hidden in his money belt during the long ordeal and we are shown excerpts of that as well, some of which is almost impossible to read.

If you’re looking for great emotional releases, you won’t find many here; the family manage to keep control of their emotions admirably considering the circumstances. The ever-present eye of the camera give us an unflinching inside look at what the family went through that is both intimate and compelling. My only gripe is that Miles has a tendency to push the mundane aspects a little harder than he needed to which pads the running time a bit more than was necessary, but this is true crime done as perfectly as it can be.

REASONS TO SEE: An incredible, personal story. Plays like a crime thriller – except it’s a documentary.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the home video footage feels extraneous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie Proof of Life is based on this incident.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Proof of Life
,FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Donny’s Bar Mitzvah