Prince Philip: The Royal Family Remembers


A prince for all time.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Prince Charles, Prince William, Princess Anne, Prince Harry, Princess Beatrice, Princess Eugenie, Prince Andrew, Sophie Countess of Wessex, Camilla Parker-Bowles, Alexandra McCreery, Zara Tindall, Mark Philips, Timothy Laurence, Louise Mountbatten-Windsor. Directed by Faye Hamilton and Mark Hill

 

To mark the occasion of the 100th birthday of Philip the Duke of Edinburgh, documentary filmmakers Faye Hamilton and Mark Hill sat down with various members of the Royal family to get their impressions of the husband of Elizabeth II, reigning monarch of the United Kingdom. When Philip passed away unexpectedly on April 9th of last year, two months shy of his birthday, the conversations took on an entirely different tone.

Additional interviews took place following the passing of the prince, and along with the anecdotes about the Prince, his temperament and his love for sports, hunting and the outdoors, his family opened up about what Philip meant to the family and to them individually. It is an unusually candid and emotional documentary; very often the Royals tend to keep their emotions in check.

We also have a tendency to judge Philip based on different portrayals of him in the media, particularly here in America. Most who know him through portrayals in such films as The Queen or TV series like The Crown, in both of which he is second banana to his wife (as I suppose is proper), we are given a portrait of a tone-deaf man giving his wife terrible advice in the days following the tragic death of the former Princess of Wales Diana, or being a bit standoffish while arguing for conservative values from a bygone era.

Nearly everyone interviewed here from his children and grandchildren to his staff remark on his sense of humor, his tendency to tease those he was close to with affection, and above all his devotion to his family. Considering his early history – his family was forced to flee Greece after a coup and he lived in exile in Britain, his family nearly penniless. He made an impression in military school and served with distinction in the Second World War, before catching the eye of a princess whom he later wed. Their marriage was, by all accounts, a good one and certainly Elizabeth leaned on her husband for support and advice throughout her reign, and he provided her with both.

The movie is replete with lots of wonderful anecdotes about Prince Philip, as well as archival footage and even some home movies – I’m sure most people don’t know this but the late Prince was an aficionado of the barbecue and worked the grill whenever he had the opportunity to, and we see him doing just that.

A biography is sometimes defined as a portrait, warts and all whereas a hagiography is completely without blemish, and the latter is true here. Then again, this was meant to be a birthday gift before it became a tribute, and neither occasion is appropriate for a tell-all exposé, For those here in the States who are fascinated by the Royals, this is absolutely indispensable. For history buffs, it has merit but should be taken in the spirit it was intended. For those looking for a complete portrait of the man, well, I’m sure he’s not going to be nominated for sainthood anytime soon but this film provides a point of view we don’t often get to see, and in that sense, it’s invaluable.
REASONS TO SEE: Plenty of archival material and family photos.
REASONS TO AVOID: About as hagiographic as one would expect this would be.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Philip at more than 70 years was the longest-serving consort in the history of the British crown.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 01/10/22: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Aulcie

The Rise and Fall of LuLaRoe


LuLaRoe retailer Sharon Tucker and her son Elijah examine some of their wares.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Rick Ross, Stephanie McNeal, Vivian Kaye, Elijah Tucker, Joy Saavedra, Christina Hinks, DeAnne Brady Stidham, Sharon Tucker, Meg Conley, Jean Marie, Amanda Montell, Mark Stidham, Vivian Kaye, Jill Domme, Wendi Rogers, CJ Sanders, Carla Hadfield, Heather Blithely, Brittany Hunter. Director Uncredited.

“Work hard to get ahead.” That’s the mantra we Americans have heard essentially all our lives; that the secret to a good life was putting our nose to the grindstone and working our tushies off. As that has been exposed to be a bill of goods that has no basis in the reality of the 21st century America, many have turned to adding income in order to make ends meet, let alone get ahead.

DeAnne Brady Stidham and her husband Mark founded LuLaRoe as a women’s clothing company in 2013 with their emphasis on what they described as “buttery soft” leggings with somewhat over-the-top prints and colors. Rather than selling through stores, they enlisted their own retailers – mostly white moms – who sold through social media, posting upbeat videos with the go-for-it attitude of a Jazzercize class.

This type of venture isn’t new. It’s called “Multi-Level Marketing” and has been used successfully by Tupperware, Avon and Mary Kay Cosmetics – all, again, mostly utilizing white moms. But there is an inherent danger in this kind of business and it has to do with recruiting. The more retailers that a product like LuLaRoe can entice, the more sales they make and the more profit. To encourage sales growth, they gave their retailers incentive to sign up new retailers by giving them a bonus for the orders put in by their recruits. This is essentially a pyramid scheme, and they are illegal.

The reason that they’re illegal is that the money flows upwards and those on the bottom of the pyramid generally are left having made a worthless investment while those at the top rake in the dough. The retailers began to notice that the once-high quality leggings began to deteriorate drastically in quality with ugly patterns and forming holes in them with only a single wearing. Retailers found themselves unable to sell the low-quality and increasingly unattractive leggings and were left with thousands of dollars in merchandise that they couldn’t sell. Many of them wound up deeply in debt and some found their relationships with family and friends strained or even broken.

This documentary, airing exclusively on Discovery Plus, examines the cult-like environment that the Stidhams created, using what one expert called “toxic positivity,” in which low sales would be blamed on poor attitudes, or too-small inventories. Top sellers were rewarded with Carnival Cruises or trips to Cancun. Authors and experts on cult behavior Rick Ross and Amanda Montell both detail how LuLaRoe’s environment is similar to that within a cult, while online activist Christina Hinks discuss the evils of Multi-Level Marketing.

This is definitely a cautionary tale, one that continues today – LuLaRoe continues its behavior, as they show in footage from their 2021 Cancun retreat – but it’s clear that this is meant to warn people about how easy promises of “full-time pay for part-time work” can be deceiving and lead to terrible consequences. That LuLaRoe preyed on women desperate for a sense of camaraderie is repulsive.

But keep in mind that while the subject matter is compelling, the format of the documentary is pretty standard and the story not particularly well-told. One can easily glean the same information from Stephanie McNeal’s original BuzzFeed article that detailed the tactics of LuLaRoe, or by the Amazon documentary mini-series LuLaRich which goes into greater depth, although requires more of a time commitment from the viewer. In any case, this is a non-essential documentary on a subject of interest.

REASONS TO SEE: A thorough look at an American scandal.
REASONS TO AVOID: Like many documentaries of this nature, relies on a parade of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family viewing, although kids may find this boring.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is essentially a documentary form of the BuzzFeed article by McNeal that exposed the Stidhams and their business practices.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gig Is Up
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Wonder Park

Set!


The dinner table can be a serious business.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Bonnie Overman, Marie Schoenfelder, Christel Schoenfelder, Hilarie Moore, Tim Wyckoff, Crystal Young, Rich Young, Ron Lew, Janet Lew, Cheryl Van Der Heller, Ginnie Miller, Sandra R. Courtney. Directed by Scott Gawlick

There are competitions for everything, from solving crossword puzzles to driving monster trucks to seeing whose frog can jump the farthest. If something can be done, sooner or later human nature will develop a contest for it.

That extends to mundane, everyday tasks as well. Take setting the table, for example. You know, the job your mom made you do when dinner was ready – and one you probably only did grudgingly, at that. You’re probably wondering why people would set tables on purpose. Didn’t they invent children to cover that?

Well, you wouldn’t send a child to decorate these tables. They are elaborate affairs, heavily themed and essentially works of art. There is also a great deal of skill involved; the silverware must be arranged properly and be the proper distance from the plates. Missing by a fraction of an inch can make the difference between winning nothing and winning Best in Show – the highest honor.

Don’t ever say that to Bonnie Overman. She is the Michael Jordan of table setting, having won more Best in Show ribbons than anyone. Her competitors look at her as a rival who can potentially win any competition she enters. The one she’s working on now is for the Orange County Fair in California, near where she lives. There are two themes; travel, and illumination. Bonnie chooses travel, and staying true to her love of cinema, she themes her table to Out of Africa. The OC Fair also gives ribbons out in the two themes for First Place, Second Place and Honorable Mention. There are no cash prizes; these women compete for ribbons and honor.

Did I say women? Well, while most of the competitors are women middle-aged and older, there is at least one man in the competition; Tim Wyckoff, who is also a cosplay enthusiast, but currently unemployed and living with his mom. He is doing a table based on Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go on a very strict budget – you see, some of the women spend thousands of dollars on their tables. Recent immigrant Janet Lew decorates her tables with items she’s picked up from her travels around the world, including a chandelier. Defending champion Crystal Young – the only one in the cast competing in the illumination category – is taking a chance on doing the tried-and-true barn setting to follow the overall theme of the Fair. However, nobody is taking as much of a chance as Hilarie Moore, who looks on these competitions as art installations and she likes to make a point with her art. She uses the travel theme, for example, to protest poaching in Africa and creates a setting compete with taxidermy animals, blood-soaked sand and animal bones. Bon appetit.

Your reaction to these and other contestants who are profiled may depend on your tolerance for obsessive behavior. Some will find them to be fascinating, interesting people with an unusual hobby; others will see them as women (and men) fiercely desperate for recognition, regardless of for what it is being received. Still others will see them as people with way too much time on their hands. Of course, I’m not one to talk; each one of these reviews you read requires somewhere in the neighborhood of five to eight hours of work apiece, from watching the movie to doing research on it, to finally writing, editing and posting the review on the site, multiplied by one review just about every day. We all have our obsessions.

For the most part, Gawlick himself is non-judgmental. He lets the various subjects tell their own story, leaving it up to the viewer to decide what they think, which is pretty admirable when you think about it. Most documentaries have a definite opinion about their subjects and aren’t afraid to express it; Gawlick treats his subjects with respect, which some might argue is more than they deserve. In all honesty, I was a bit gob-smacked by their dedication at first, but as time went by I began to see them a bit more clearly; at the end of the day, these are people who have found an outlet to express themselves, and it sure beats staring at a phone screen all day clicking on “like” buttons. In any case, you’re more likely to find their stories compelling than not, so why not give it a look-see?

REASONS TO SEE: Manages to hold your attention even though you know it shouldn’t.
REASONS TO AVOID: These are the REAL real housewives of Orange County.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a couple of disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Those who participate in these competitions refer to it as “tablescaping.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/15/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wordplay
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Monkey King: Reborn

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)