Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time


Filmmaker (left) and author, out for a stroll on the beach.

(2021) Documentary (IFC) Kurt Vonnegut, Robert B. Weide, Sam Waterston (voice), John Irving, Edie Vonnegut, Kurt Adams, Jerome Klinkowitz, Morley Safer, Sidney Offit, Nanny Vonnegut, Dan Simon, Steve Adams, Valerie Stevenson, Gregory Sumner, Rodney Allen, Mark Vonnegut, Jim Adams, Joe Bleifuss, Dan Wakefield, Peter Adams, Ginger Strand. Directed by Robert B. Weide and Don Argott

Very often before writing a review of a film I’ve recently seen, I like to read the reviews written by other critics. Not because I want to steal their prose, although once in a while I find that we’re thining along the same lines. It’s mainly curiosity that motivates me; why did this critic rate the movie so highly, or so low? What did they see that I didn’t? When it comes to documentaries, I am often surprised that critics seem to write negative reviews because a documentary didn’t meet their expectations of what they thought it should cover. I suppose that I’ve probably been guilty of the same sin myself – it’s extraordinarily, brutally hard to evaluate one’s own work – but I at least try to review what’s up there on the screen rather than what I think should be up there. That just seems logical to me.

So I suppose that those who love the work of Kurt Vonnegut – author of classics like Cat’s Cradle, Sirens of Titan and Breakfast of Champions – might well be disappointed because the movie, shot over a forty year period by his close friend Robert B. Weide (an Emmy winner for Curb Your Enthusiasm), doesn’t dwell very much on literary analysis. This is a biography, told in a decidedly nonlinear fashion, much as Vonnegut’s best works are written.

It does spend a lot of time examining the facts of his life; how he served in World War II, eventually being taken prisoner and housed in a former slaughterhouse in Dresden where he witnessed firsthand the terrifying firebombing of that city, and was afterwards forced to dig out corpses from the smoldering ruins. The events were chronicled in his most famous book that was also his commercial breakthrough, Slaughterhouse Five,

Weide and co-director Don Argott go through the main highlights of his life, from his upbringing in Indianapolis to his marriage to Jane Marie Cox, his adoption of his sister Alice’s four sons after she died of cancer (and likely a broken heart) just two days after her husband perished in a horrific train accident, adding her children to the three he and Jane already had (one of her sister’s children would eventually move out after a year to be raised by relatives on his paternal side). It also reports on how he divorced Jane, leaving her for the photographer he was having an affair with, which did alienate him from his children for many years.

Weide talks to a lot of people, from his children (Jane, who passed away in 1986, is not heard from, curiously) to academics and admirers, biographers and people who also knew the author. We see him at personal appearances, reading from his books; he is an engaging speaker, as funny in person as his prose is on the printed page.

But it’s his relationship with Weide that really takes center stage in the movie. We see informal footage of the two chatting together, hear answering machine messages from the author that Weide saved, and hear him talk about anecdotes that Vonnegut shared with him. We learn, poignantly, that Weide keeps a dictionary above his desk that was published before the author’s death in 2007. The entry reads “Kurt Vonnegut (1922-    ), American author.” In that way, there was a source at Weide’s desk that lists his friend as still being alive. At the end of the film, Weide gently pencils in the date into the author’s entry, perhaps signifying that the completion of the documentary, which took Weide forty years to complete, is the appropriate place to let go.

The film is engaging and sometimes sentimental. For those unfamiliar with the details of Vonnegut’s life, there is a lot here to unpack – although nothing that doesn’t appear on his Wikipedia page, so from that standpoint, it’s not going to surprise those who are more familiar with the author’s life. And for those looking for insight into the author’s work, there’s really not a lot here that you wouldn’t find in your average 10th grade American literature course. Like all authors, Vonnegut was a product of his times. His experiences at Dresden made him passionately anti-war, and in the Seventies he became something of a counterculture figure for a brief time. There is something almost professorial about Vonnegut, from his bushy moustache to his corduroy jackets with patches on the elbows, to the ever-present cigarettes – one thing that annoyed me about the movie that in still photos in which Vonnegut is smoking (and there are MANY of those) Weide adds digital smoke to the point it becomes distracting.

Other than that, this is a well-made look at the author’s life through the lens of his friend’s eyes. From that standpoint, there is nothing remotely impartial about the film. In fact, the fact that the filmmaker obviously had a great deal of affection for his subject actually makes the movie a lot more enjoyable than something else that would have been dry and insufferable – the very antithesis of what Vonnegut was as a writer.

REASONS TO SEE: A moving tribute from one friend to another. Some insight into one of the most influential authors of the 20th century, particularly for those not familiar with the details of his life.
=REASONS TO AVOID: The digital smoke from the cigarettes is overused.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and lots of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vonnegut introduced the character of science fiction writer Kilgore Trout in God Bless You, Mister Rosewater. The character would recur in many of Vonnegut’s works.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Doc NYC online (until November 28), Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; =Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road

Dean Martin: King of Cool


Dino in his element.

(2021) Documentary (Creative Chaos) Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Jon Hamm, Dick Cavett, Barbara Rush, Deana Martin, RZA, Alec Baldwin, Frankie Avalon, Lanie Kazan, Norman Lear, Tommy Tune, Bob Newhart, Regis Philbin, Tom Dreeson, James Woods, Scotty Lewis, George Schlatter, Ron Morasco, Josh Homme, Peter Bogdanovich, Tony Oppedisano, Anne Hayen. Directed by Tom Donahue

Everyone has their own idea as to what “cool” is. Maybe it’s someone who is up on all the latest fashions and trends. Maybe it’s someone who always seems calm in the face of difficulty. Maybe it’s just someone who runs with the cool kids. But there are those who all of us agree has that special something, that degree of cool that everyone instantly recognizes.

Dean Martin was one of those guys, although that wasn’t always the case. He was born in Steubenville, Ohio, a Rust Belt town where his Italian immigrant parents (his birth name was Dino Paul Crocetti and he was often referred to affectionately as Dino throughout his life) had settled. He didn’t speak English until he was six, often being bullied in school for his accent. He dropped out of high school eventually and after trying his hand at several careers that didn’t pan out (including boxing and as a blackjack dealer) until he found one that stuck – as a singer.

Martin had a warm, inviting voice and his style was influenced by that of Bing Crosby and, in particular, the Mills Brothers (a clip from his TV program shows him performing with the Brothers and he looks absolutely tickled pink). He was a steady performer, but it wasn’t until he teamed up with up-and-coming wunderkind comic Jerry Lewis in 1946 that he found fame and fortune. Their partnership lasted ten years but ended acrimoniously. Lewis had always been assumed to be the genius of the duo, and many felt Martin would sink into obscurity, but that didn’t happen.

Instead he mounted a comeback, starring as a pretty fair dramatic actor in films like The Young Lions and Rio Bravo while his singing career continued to blossom, even though the age of the crooner was waning with the advent of rock and roll. He became close friends with fellow singer Frank Sinatra and became a member of the Rat Pack, a legendary group of performers who often dropped in unannounced at each other’s shows, and made a group of movies together, including the original Oceans 11 and Robin and the Seven Hoods. Martin also hosted a long-running TV variety show which cemented his image as not only a wonderful performer, but also a strong comedian, poking fun at his own drinking and smoking.

This documentary does a very thorough job in documenting Martin’s career, concentrating on everything from the Martin-Lewis years on. The interviews are with performers who knew him well (Angie Dickinson, Barbara Rush), family members (his daughter Deana who was also a producer on the film), and contemporary admirers like RZA, Alec Baldwin and Josh Homme. There are some audio interviews with Martin’s ex-wives but only one interview with Dino himself – taken shortly after the death of his son Dean Paul in a plane crash in 1987, an event which devastated him. He himself would pass away on Christmas Day, 1995 from complications from lung cancer, a legacy of a lifetime of being a heavy smoker.

One of the interesting takeaways from the documentary is that Martin was an intensely private individual. His second wife Jeanne, who probably knew him better than anyone, once remarked that despite being married to him for more than two decades, she didn’t really know him – nobody did. He was affable and genial in his public persona, and a loyal father who spent long stretches away from his family, but often seemed to be alone in a crowd.

For fans of Martin, this is definitely a must-see. It is currently airing on Turner Classic Movies (it’s second broadcast will be on November 26th as part of a celebration of Dino’s movies) and is likely to show up on HBO Max or TCM’s subscription streaming service afterwards. Otherwise, this is a pretty standard biography, although one should admire how well the life of the entertainer is covered.

REASONS TO SEE: A very thorough look at the life of an American icon.
REASONS TO AVOID: A whole LOT of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and a whole lot of smoking (and drinking).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At 29, Martin was ten years older than Jerry Lewis when the two began their collaboration.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

Children of the Enemy


Patricio Galvez cuddles his grandson.

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Patricio Galvez, Clive Stafford Smith, Alba Galvez, Katalina Galvez, Mio Galvez, Persraw Baker Hussein, Eskandar Saleh, Stefan Åsberg, Isobel Coles, Adam Mattinen, Cecilia Uddén, Terese Cristiansson, Jacek Machula, Simon Sowell, Rena Effendi, Beatrice Eriksson. Directed by Gorki Glaser-Müller

Dostoyevsky wrote that a civilization is judged by how it treats its prisoners. That could also be included as to how it treats its enemies – or their children.

Patricio Galvez, a middle-aged musician who had emigrated to Sweden from Chile, made headlines in Scandinavia in 2018-19 when he attempted to rescue his seven grandchildren from the notorious Al-Hol refugee camp in Syria. You see, his daughter Amanda had converted to Islam along with her mother (at the time divorced from Patricio) and had an arranged marriage with Michael Skråmo, a notorious ISIS recruiter from Norway. Eventually the two moved to Syria over the objections of Galvez, and taken their four children with them. While in Syria, they kept busy – Amanda had three more children there and was pregnant with an eighth when she was killed in an air strike. A couple of months later, Skråmo died during the fall of the caliphate, shot to death in front of his children.

The children were placed in a refugee camp and as the children of ISIS terrorists, were essentially persona non grata in Sweden. Galvez didn’t see the children of terrorists, however; he just saw his grandchildren and put up a tremendous fight to get them out of the camp. But the clock was ticking; the children were severely malnourished and were growing weaker and more ill with each passing day.

The movie chronicles the ordeal of Galvez, which is mostly down time waiting on bureaucrats to return his call, or for some action or another to be taken. He enlists the aid of humanitarian groups, but they can accomplish later. He begins a media campaign which seems to spur the Swedish government into action. However, the Swedish public is less sanguine about the affair; the social media posts are (predictably) nasty, urging Galvez to return to Chile and pointing out his failures as a father to raise a terrorist, wondering if he would be fit to raise these children as well or would they turn out to be just as radical as Amanda turned out to be?

Galvez is very conflicted. On the one hand, he mourns the loss of his daughter, realizing that she was lost years earlier when she was radicalized. He also mourns the damage done by his son-in-law and ISIS in general, all the lives disrupted, the women used as sex slaves, the children left as orphans. But throughout, he perseveres. He realizes, better than most, that the sins of the father (or the mother) should not be visited upon the sons (and daughters).

It is at times a difficult movie to watch; some of Amanda’s letters to her father from Syria are absolutely chilling, as are the home movies the two sent him of the kids. There are some joyous moments, as when Patricio finally gets a breakthrough from the Swedish diplomatic corps and Glaser-Müller puts down the camera to embrace his friend, who is overcome. The grandmother makes an appearance, further complicating matters.

The children themselves we see little of and when we do see them, their eyes are pixilated so that they can’t be easily identified. They are clearly traumatized but for all that, they are still just kids, innocent victims of parents who had followed a path of evil.

There are some negatives here; we don’t really get a lot of personal background. We aren’t told when and how Patricio’s marriage to Amanda’s mother ended, or how the two women ended up converting to Islam and why. Then again, this isn’t meant to be Amanda’s story, although she looms large throughout. We also aren’t told how Patricio managed to afford staying in the hotel near the Iraq-Syria border for a month and a half, or how he could afford to take off work (or even whether he is employed). We learn almost nothing about the mundane details of Patricio’s life, other than that he is a doting grandfather, a grieving father and a musician. A few more blanks needed to be filled in. The score is a bit on the intrusive side as well.

But that aside, this is a powerful documentary that looks at the war on terror from an entirely different viewpoint. The film is currently playing in a limited run in Los Angeles, as well as available for streaming as part of the DOC NYC festival online (see link below). While there are some questions that can never be answered – how can an apparently well-adjusted person be radicalized to that degree – it at least lets us look at the questions it can answer.

REASONS TO SEE: Patricio is a compelling subject with a warm, engaging smile but still a broken heart. Plays almost like a thriller in places.
REASONS TO AVOID: Really doesn’t give us much insight as to who Galvez is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Like Galvez, Glaser-Müller is a Chilean-Swede.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Online (through November 28)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mass
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Dean Martin: King of Cool

Omara


The vitality and joy of Omara’s performance still lights up the stage after all these years.

(2021) Music Documentary (Fourth Agreement) Omara Portuondo, Rolando Luna, Ariel Portuondo, Lester Hamlet, Santiao Alfonso, Arturo O’Farrill, Telemary Diaz, Satomi, Diego El Cigola, Rossio Jiménez Blanco, Yoshiro Hiroishi, Xiomara Vidal, Irene Jardines, Chucho Valdés, Aymée Nuviola, Roberto Fonseca, Pura Obrega. Directed by Hugo Perez

The undisputed grand dame of Cuban music is Omara Portuondo. She came to public notice back in the pre-Revolution days as part of the Cuarteto d’Alda along with her sister Haydee; they were mainstays at world-famous venues like the Tropicana and the Copacabana in Havana. But the revolution came and with it many thousands of Cubanos left the country, including Haydee who moved to Miami while Omara remained in her beloved Cuba. The two sisters have scarcely spoken since.

She is best-known here as a member of the original Buena Vista Social Club organized of veteran Cuban musicians by Ry Cooder, whose recording and concerts were filmed by Wim Wenders and led to Cuban music being discovered in this country in a big way. However in Cuba, Omara is clearly revered (and rightfully so) as a legend and a national treasure. She has been compared to Billie Holiday (and rightfully so) because of the emotional resonance of her voice; listening to her sing doesn’t just appeal to the ears but to the heart as well.

She is the child of an interracial marriage, something absolutely unheard-of back in the 1920s when her parents were first married (her white mother was disowned by her family for marrying an Afro-Cuban man), and long-time friends describe that she was the target of abuse because of it, although that is obviously no longer the case. Her voice is both seductive and sweet, caressing pop and folk songs from her native land with equal fervor. And for a 90-year-old woman, her voice is astonishingly pure; as people age their voices tend to get rougher but she has managed to avoid this. When asked her secret, she plays it coy but I’m certain there’s some sort of miracle involved.

Her story isn’t well-known here nor is her music, two compelling reasons to see this documentary. Being of Cuban descent, I do lament the continued embargo that is still in place and has accomplished exactly nothing; Zero. Zip. Nada. It has robbed America of generations of beautiful music, great baseball players and of enjoying one of the most beautiful places on earth. It has split families and robbed Cuba of the energy and drive that has been transferred to the U.S. by those who came over. It is long past time for the embargo to go away and for us to stop being idiots about communism. Cuba poses no threat to us. I’m no fan of the Castro regime, but both Cuba and the United States would benefit from the end of these unnecessary restrictions. If you don’t believe me, that’s okay; see this documentary anyay and just enjoy the wonderful music of a consummate artist.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is lilting and seductive. A lovely introduction to an artist who deserves more recognition in the United States.
REASONS TO AVOID: The non-linear storytelling may confuse some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Omara has been managed by her son for nearly forty years.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Online (through November 28)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buena Vista Social Club
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Children of the Enemy

Krimes


The King of Krimes.

(2021) Documentary (MTV Films) Jesse Krimes, Jared Owens, Russell Craig, Gilberto “Cano” Rivera, Cindy Krimes, Robyn Buseman, Asia Johnson, Michelle C. Jones, Courtney Cone, Daniel McCarthy Clifford, Sherrill Roland, Nicole Fleetwood, Julie Courtney, Jasmine Heiss, Peg Krimes. Directed by Alysa Nahmias

 

We all make mistakes when we’re young. Most are of the variety that harm nobody but ourselves, although occasionally we break the hearts of others who don’t deserve to have their hearts broken. Sometimes, young people make worse mistakes and the consequences of those errors in judgment have them ending up in prison.

Jesse Krimes (if ever there was an appropriate name for a convict!) is one such young man. Raised by a single mom, he showed a knack for creativity and artistic design. He ended up going to Millersville College and getting an art degree there. However, by then he had begun to party a bit too hard and got into trouble, finally being arrested and convicted for possession of cocaine with intent to sell. He was sentenced to six years in prison.

While in prison, he met Jared Owens and Gilberto Rivera, both of whom were artists in prison. He also found out that his girlfriend was pregnant (she would give birth to his son while he was incarcerated). Suddenly realizing that he was in danger of becoming the kind of absent father that had haunted his own childhood, he vowed to go the straight and narrow and through Owens and Rivera, began to find his own artistic voice. He began work on a mural that was too large to fit into any space in the prison, and knowing that it would be confiscated as contraband (particularly since he was using prison sheets for his canvas), he mailed them out and wouldn’t see the completed work as a whole until after he was released, a year early.

He did get a job with a public works project in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (his home town) where he met Russell Craig, a fellow ex-con artist. Staying clean and sober was no easy task; it was difficult for him to find work and financial pressures were leading him to making some old mistakes. One night, after drinking too much, he teetered out of a bar and almost literally into the arms of a police officer. He spent an agonizing night in jail, thinking that everything he’d built was going to fold like an accordion and he would be sent back to prison. However, his parole officer saw something in him and he was allowed to remain outside. The pressure of knowing that the slightest mistake would send him back into prison for a much longer stint hung over him like the sword of Damocles.

But his art began to get noticed and soon he began to sell some of his work, and put together shows. He became an activist for fixing the broken criminal justice system, for the rights of ex-cons and for rehabilitation through art. He began to be the father to his boy that his own father had never been to him.

Krimes is a compelling subject. He’s a handsome man, resembling professional wrestler Chris Jericho slightly. He’s also humble and accountable for the errors in judgment he’s made in his life. He also loves being a dad and it’s clear watching him and his son together that he is a good father.

Some look at the prison system as simply a vehicle to punish those who have done wicked things. Others see it as an opportunity to rehabilitate those who turn to crime. Most of us agree that the system isn’t working the way it is supposed to, fulfilling neither goal effectively. Many ex-cons end up returning to crime because every other door is closed to them. That doesn’t sound like a particularly efficient system to me.

Krimes is, while a fairly standard documentary/biography, noteworthy in that while it recognizes its subject as a flawed human being, also celebrates the beauty he has created (and his artwork really is wonderful). He’s a man who has recognized that he has been given a second chance and intends to make the most of it and if that isn’t something admirable, well, it should be.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story about overcoming the odds.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fairly typical documentary tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Krimes and Craig co-founded the Right to Return Fellowship with the Soze Agency, funded by the Open Philadelphia Project, to assist ex-convict artists.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Online (through November 28)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Eyes
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Omara

Objects


These objects may seem to be junk but they won’t be by the end of the film.

(2021) Documentary (Semicolon) Rick Rawlins, Heidi Julavits, Robert Krulwich, Joshua Glenn, Arianna Huhn, Eri Yasuhara, Eugene Wong, Margaret Bynum Hill, Marie Kondo, Jad Abumrad, Rob Walker, Mindah-Lee Kumar, Isabelle Corey, Caren Wheeler, Lynn Levy, Nelson Dale, Amy Gesick. Directed by Vincent Liota

I sincerely believe we all need a little bit of clutter. I distrust too much order; there is something that is authoritarian, almost fascist about it. If life is ordered, there are no surprises. No deeper meaning. At this time in our history, we seem to worship order. Clutter is a sign of an undisciplined mind (although studies prove the opposite); clutter is a sign of an undisciplined life. Clutter is bad for the environment; it means we need more space to hold it and tiny dwellings are better for the environment (poppycock, by the way; tiny dwellings can have as large a carbon footprint as a larger dwelling in the right circumstances). Memories aren’t connected to objects; they are locked inside our brains.

But that’s not really true. Most of us have keepsakes; a stub from a ticket to a concert that has meaning for us, or a gift from a loved one who is no longer with us. The point is, we impress meaning on inanimate objects that others may not share. The value of an object is directly related to its meaning towards us, not in how much it would fetch at an Antiques Roadshow auction.

This documentary explores the hold objects may have on us, but not in an obsessive/compulsive manner (although it may seem that way to some at first). Three subjects – former NPR correspondent Robert Krulwich, graphic designer Rick Rawlins and author Heidi Julavits are all of the school that objects tether us in time, connect us directly to positive memories.

Julavits is of the opinion (that I honestly don’t disagree with) that every object, no matter how insignificant, has a story to tell. The story may have meaning only to the object’s owner, but that story is a part of the fabric of their life nonetheless. As I sit here writing this on my laptop at my dining room table (where I do all my writing because it is comfortable, I have a great view of my back yard and the woods beyond from the window, and it gives my dogs a place to hang out with me), I can see literally dozens of objects that we have collected over the years. Some have pragmatic value – our good china for special occasions, a Von Briggle vase that my wife – Da Queen – and I bought while on a trip to Colorado Springs where she grew up, a miniature Spanish flag from a Transatlantic cruise, a gravy boat that was a wedding gift. Some of them may have intrinsic value (the vase, for example) but the flag certainly does not, although I think both my wife and I would be loath to give it up.

All three of the film’s subjects have stories like that. For Julavits, she was drawn to some clothing that she found on E-bay that once belonged to the obscure French actress Isabelle Corey, who passed away in 2011. She became almost compulsive about finding more of her things. Part of it was an interest in the woman herself; why did she suddenly stop appearing in films in the early 60s, just when her career seemed to be at its height? Julavits felt that the artifacts from her life might give her a clue, but she found herself being connected in an unexpected way.

Krulwich has held on to a tuft of grass for fifty years. You see, back when he was 15 years old, he was madly in love with a young girl and it appeared she returned his affection. They were in Central Park in New York, in front of Cleopatra’s Needle (an obelisk that is a well-known landmark in the park) and it was a big moment for the young man. He wanted something to memorialize the moment, but there was nothing around. Impulsively, he grabbed a handful of grass and put it in his pocket and has kept it ever since. This might seem to be a little out there, but as Krulwich puts it, whenever he sees the grass he can connect with the excitement of his 15-year-old self and for a moment, the memory is so vivid that he IS 15 again. Who needs a time machine when you have a handful of sod?

Maybe the most affecting story belongs to Rawlins, who as a young boy described himself as “socially awkward.” That might have been because his father’s job required him to move regularly so the family was rarely in one place long enough for the young lad to develop friendships. However, there was a boy by the name of David Turley who did seem interested in pursuing a friendship with young Rick. He invited Rawlins to a birthday party, but as it turned out, the family had to move yet again – on the very day of the birthday party, to make matters worse. Rick, distraught, decided to run over to the Turley home anyway but didn’t know what to say once he arrived there, so he stood on the porch, obviously close to breaking down. Young squire Turley, perhaps sensing his friend’s emotional turmoil, gifted him with a sugar egg – a confection that is very much like a hollow egg-shaped sugar cube. Young Rick was so overcome by the kind gesture that he kept the egg and still does to this day, in a special wooden box (whose significance is also explained in the film). Although I wondered how the egg went so long without getting moldy, it becomes the center for emotional resonance for the film, particularly during a segment about a radio show…well, I won’t get into it but I found myself unexpectedly connected to the story.

And that unexpected connection basically is the story of the movie. Things have a habit of finding a wavelength that matters to us, and we find outselves using that wavelength to recapture the feelings the original moment brought out in us to begin with. That wavelength isn’t just about possessions, either – we find that resonance in particular songs, in smells (my grandmother’s perogies were such an integral part of my childhood that smelling ANY perogies can take me back to that feeling of warmth, love and comfort) and every other sense you can imagine.

Surprisingly, there isn’t a whole lot of scientific explanation in the film, surprising because Liota has a background in science journalism. In the press notes, he mentions that is a deliberate decision on his part because he wanted to concentrate on the emotional side of the equation, and he does exactly that, successfully.

But the other side of that is that we get something of a one-sided conversation. Julavits’ searching for further memorabilia from Corey begins to show signs of obsession and compulsion. And while none of the main focuses of the film could be called hoarders, where is the line properly drawn?

I think there is a happy medium to be had here. On the one hand, too much order is unnatural. Sometimes, it’s not all about what we need, or even what “sparks joy” (because there is always a matter of degree) as Marie Kondo, the maven of decluttering your life (whose book Julavits searches for in her cluttered apartment, one of the more amusing vignettes in the film) puts it. Sometimes a bit of clutter is what we need to prove that we are inhabiting our own lives. Too much order is sterility; it makes the house look unlived-in, not a home at all. And the objects that bring us a connection – with out own past, with friends and family, with important events – are to be prized and treasured. And nobody can put a price on that.

REASONS TO SEE: One of those movies that grabs you unexpectedly.
REASONS TO AVOID: The conversation is a little bit one-sided.
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly fine for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liota is an Emmy-winning filmmaker who was a senior producer on PBS’ acclaimed science series NOVA scienceNOW.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Online (until November 28)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Krimes

The Business of Birth Control


Reproductive autonomy or a death sentence?

(2021) Documentary (Bobb) Holly Grigg-Spall, Joe Malone, Lisa Hendrickson Jack, Karen Langhart, Rick Ammon, Sara Gottfried, Emily Moonbeam Varnam, John O’Dea, Rick Langhart, Kelsey Knight, Aviva Romm, Jolene Bright, Lara Bridon, Alisa Vitti, Vicki Spratt, Ørvind Lidegaard, Chelsea Vonchaz, Sara Hill, Julie Holland, Gessie Thomson, Erika Schwartz, Ashley Malone. Directed by Abby Epstein

 

One of the things that turned out to be an epochal turn of events for women was the availability of hormonal birth control. With birth control, it gave women the freedom to determine when and if they got pregnant. It allowed them to have careers and plan their families around finances rather than the other way around. Most feminists look at birth control as a watershed development in feminism.

Doctors prescribe birth control to women for many non-reproductive issues; painful and/or irregular menstruation, skin issues, PCOS and endometriosis, among other things. But is it the panacea that it is made out to be? Studies are beginning to show that it is not, linking hormonal birth control with increased susceptibility to depression (even leading up to suicide), autoimmune disease, cervical cancer and potentially fatal blood clots.

With reproductive rights under fire threatening to turn back the clock on women’s bodily autonomy, it might be misconstrued to release a documentary on the dangers of birth control at this moment, but according to director Abby Epstein and producer Ricki Lake (the former talk show host), the movie is not meant to fill a political agenda but to give women potentially life-saving information.

The side effects of hormonal birth control is not something that is really being discussed. Most women on the left are afraid that the right could end up hijacking the conversation about reproductive rights and using the facts in this documentary to say “See?!? Birth control is BAD!!!” And folks, that isn’t the case, nor are the filmmakers saying that hormonal birth control is the ONLY option for women. In the final act of the film they actually list several other methods that are currently available that are less potentially harmful.

One of the film’s talking points is that Big Pharma has made a fortune on birth control and continues to; in fact, the companies that developed hormonal birth control were aware of the potentially fatal side effects going back to when they were testing the product back in the Fifties (they tested in Puerto Rico because they didn’t want to test the product on white women). The Nelson pill hearings, back in the early ‘70s, uncovered some of these abuses but have been mainly swept under the rug until now.

The filmmakers talk to body literacy advocates, the bereaved parents of young, healthy women who died due to the side effects of the pill, and feminist activists who want women to have safe choices for birth prevention. The testimony is sobering and compelling. Particularly heart wrenching is the testimony of Joe and Dana Malone, and their  daughters Ashley and Morgan, discussing the death of Brittany Malone, a healthy, vivacious young woman who collapsed while at a nightclub with her sisters. Blooc clots in her lungs had gotten into her heart, causing her to have a number of heart attacks. Put on life support, she was eventually pronounced brain dead.

The film also portrays the FDA as an agency that is less interested in protecting consumers than it is in expediting the process of getting products into the marketplace. When Malone and fellow parents of women whose lives were cut short by their use of birth control advocated black label warnings on birth control packages to warn women about the porentially fatal side effects, they were fought tooth and nail by the drug industry. It is interesting to note that the potentially fatal side effect for Viagra – long-term erections – have always been well-publicized by the drug industry.

This is an eye-opening film and should be viewed by every woman and every parent with a daughter who is becoming of an age when sexual activity is a possibility. It isn’t enough to just accept what your doctor has to say – a large percentage of women feel their doctors don’t listen to them about their own reproductive health according to studies – but they need to understand what their options are and insist on them. It is always a good idea to know what you are putting into your body and what it can potentially do to you. It can literally be a matter of life or death.

REASONS TO SEE: Tackles a subject rarely talked about. A sobering gut punch. More damnation for Big Pharma, knowing the potentially fatal side effects and not adequately warning anybody. The family of Brittany Malone give particularly compelling testimony.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little talking-head centric.
FAMILY VALUES: There is adult subject matter, sexual content and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly 50% of all women who start hormonal birth control from an early age will face increased incidents of depression.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Doc NYC online (until November 28)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Business of Being Born
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Objects

A Crime on the Bayou


The bayou may be timeless, but it’s not unchanging.

(2020) Documentary (Augusta) Gary Duncan, Richard Sobol, Leander Perez, Dan Rather (voice), Lolis Eric Elie, Armand Defner, Lolis Elie, Ta-Nahesi Coates, Robert A. Collins, Angela Davis. Directed by Nancy Buirsky

“The more that things change, the more they stay the same”. This is especially true of American race relations. This documentary, the third in a series of documentaries by Buirsky documenting lesser-known cases of the Civil Rights movement, dusts off a vitally important case that should be right up there in the history books but isn’t.

Gary Duncan was a 19-year-old fisherman in Plaquemines Parish in southern Louisiana in 1965. He was picking up his wife and newborn son at the hospital when he noticed a brewing altercation outside the newly integrated high school; two African-American boys (one of them Duncan’s cousin) were surrounded by four white youths. Duncan stopped and tried to defuse the situation; the white boys were belligerent but Duncan managed to get the two black kids into his car and drive away.

However, the white kids told a different story. They informed police that Duncan was threatening and had slapped one of them (in fact, Duncan had just touched one of them lightly on the elbow). He was arrested that night.

Duncan had reason to be afraid; the parish was run by one of the most notorious bosses in the South; Leander Perez, a strict segregationist and unabashed racist (he was proud to share on talk shows how “Negroes were morally (inferior)” and had limited learning capacity. Perez initially wanted to just send a message to Duncan to reiterate Duncan’s place in the food chain. However, spurred on by his mama’s righteous indignation, Duncan stood up. He refused to plead guilty and end the incident.

Instead, they went to the offices of a civil rights law firm in New Orleans and were assigned Richard Sobol, a white Jewish lawyer from New York who had come for a few weeks to assist in civil rights cases and ended up staying in Louisiana for decades. In the face of a deck stacked against the two of them, Sobol persevered when a Perez-appointed judge refused to allow Duncan a trial by jury. Sobol took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where the Earl Warren court ruled unanimously that all defendants were entitled to a trial by jury for any criminal violation, something that some states had prevented – particularly in the South, where bogus arrests were the norm.

Buirsky talks with most of the principles (Perez, who died weeks after losing the case, is one of the exceptions) and uses actual audio of the Supreme Court arguments and uses voice re-enactors reading the transcripts from the local trials. There are also contemporary and archival interviews with those involved. Buirsky tries to give a little too much background information as we get a lot of background on the Civil Rights era and how scary it was ot only for people of color living in the south, but also for the white lawyers and activists who tried to help them.

The background music is haunting, ranging from Dixieland to blues to ragtime to ambient sounds. Buirsky, though, has a tendency to go off point in trying to project a complete picture, which often slows the pacing down and for those of us who are familiar with the tribulations of the Civil Rights movement back then, offering redundant information. I think she could have gotten her point across a bit more succinctly than she did. Sticking more to the case at hand would have benefitted the film; at times I felt like focus was being lost in favor of context. I think most of us understand that the civil rights of the accused were being consistently disregarded and belittled.

The case was a landmark decision, but few people have heard of it. Films like this that remind us of the lesser known battles in the Civil Rights movement are priceless, not just to remind us how far we’ve come and how bad things were, but also to remind us that things are still pretty bad and we have a loooooooong way to go. It gives one pause to consider that this case, had it been argued in today’s Supreme Court, might not have rendered the same decision.

The film is playing DOC NYC through today; it still can be screened online by American residents. It will continue to be available at virtual online festivals (particularly around New Orleans) in the coming months; it should be available either as Virtual Cinema or through VOD streaming services shortly. Given the state of affairs in American race relations, it should be required viewing for all Americans.

REASONS TO SEE: An important document about a landmark case in the civil rights movement that doesn’t get the due it should be afforded. Beautiful score.
REASONS TO AVOID: Meanders from the case in question from times to give background – to a fault.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity including racial slurs as well as some adult themes and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sobol passed away shortly after filming for this documentary was completed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Rape of Recy Taylor
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Once Upon a River

In Silico


It’s the mind that matters.

(2020) Documentary (SandboxHenry Markram, Noah Hutton, Christof Koch, Eilif Muller, Lori Bargmann, Jeff Lichtman, Terrence Sejnowski, Anna Churchland, Kamila Markram, Kathryn Hess, Felix Schulman, Moritz Holmstaedter, David Engleman, Stephen Larson, Richard Walker, Martin Telefont, Sebastian Seung, Marc-Oliver Gewaltig, Thierry van der Pyl, Lida Kanari,. Directed by Noah Hutton

Scientific discovery is inexact. It doesn’t operate on schedules. It doesn’t adhere to timetables. It takes detours and follows tangents. It never, EVER, goes the way we think it’s going to go, even if we’re the finest scientific mind of our generation.

Henry Markram isn’t the finest scientific mind of his generation, but he’s certainly one of them. Nobody disputes his genius. At a TED talk, he talked about how using a supercomputer, he has begun not only mapping a brain – the most mysterious and complex of human organs – but replicating one, and while starting with a mouse brain, he felt that computers and scientific data about brain function will have given him the ability to do so with a human brain within ten years.

In the audience was a young man named Noah Hutton, freshly graduated from film school. He instantly recognized that this could be a discovery of historic proportion and he meant to be the one documenting the research. Markram agreed to it and with IBM and the Swiss government providing funding to the tune of millions of Euros, Markram was off to the races with some like-minded scientists along to help make this grand plan a reality.

Markram is certainly a charismatic sort and Hutton certainly fell under his spell, but over the years some cracks began to appear in the façade. As work continued on what was dubbed the Blue Brain Project, a second study was commissioned which Markram would oversee – the Human Brain project and it was given a funding kitty of a billion Euros. Soon, it became clear that Markram’s leadership in this second project had become chaotic. Eventually, in protest, some 800 neuroscientists signed a letter stating objections to the goals, methods and style of Markram’s stewardship. Eventually, even Hutton became disillusioned, realizing that Markram had been overly ambitious with his claims. Many neuroscientists had, from the beginning, expressed doubt that there was enough data in existence to allow even the most advanced supercomputer or brilliant scientist to create an accurate model.

It wasn’t long before things went to open warfare between those backing Markram and those opposing him. Early successes hadn’t proved sustainable; it became clear that Markram couldn’t make his self-imposed 2019 deadline.

Hutton’s documentary is a fascinating document not so much on the science which probably requires an advanced degree in neuroscience and computer engineering to understand but on the interpersonal relationships that form, and are fractured in the course of a project. Much of the pressures that Markram is under are self-imposed; one wonders how differently things might have turned out had he not set a date for when his discovery would be completed.

Brilliance is often accompanied by ego, and that’s the case here. There are plenty of scientists who are interviewed here who express their doubts and/or their admiration of Markram, but at the end of the day, we see a lack of hubris which certainly those who mistrust scientists can point to as a reason why. The work continues on what is a promising idea, but now they’re talking in term of multiple decades rather than a single ten year span. Time will tell if they’re right.

The film made its world premiere at the DOC NYC festival this week and is still available through tomorrow online for those residing in the United States who wish to purchase a single viewing ticket at the link below; otherwise, a limited and VOD release is planned although no dates have been announced just yet.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating look at the politics of science.
REASONS TO AVOID: Content can be very highbrow and dry.
FAMILY VALUES: Although the tone may be a little bit above the heads of most youngsters, the content is suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The human brain has always been studied in one of two ways; In Vivo (in a living subject) ,or in vitro (brain tissue studied in a nutrient solution from a non-living donor). The Blue Brain Project proposed to discover a third method; in silico, or on a computer model.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Virtual Festival
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Human
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Kaali Khuhi

I’m gonna make you love me


Brian Belovitch contemplates a life well-lived.

(2019) Documentary (Bernstein DocumentariesBrian Belovitch, Michael Musto, Nelson Sullivan, Andy Anderson, Tabboo, Gabriel Rotello, David Belovitch, Jim Belovitch, Gloria, Jeffrey Belovitch, Todd Belovitch, Sheila. Directed by Karen Bernstein

I’m gonna make you love me, which had its World Premiere a few days ago at DOC NYC (and will be playing there again shortly), covers the fascinating life of Brian Belovitch, a man whose life has taken him to a wildly diverse array of places and lives. He for many years came out as a transitioning woman and lived as an Army wife for several years, hosting Tupperware parties in Germany as Natalia.

Following the dissolution of that marriage, he returned to New York City as club performer Tish in the 80s, one of the most famous club and lounge performers of the time. He went through the rigors of local fame (and in New York that can be truly intoxicating) with the drug addiction that sometimes accompanies celebrity, which in turn led to an HIV-positive diagnosis and deep depression.

Brian came to the conclusion that life as a woman wasn’t really what he wanted and so for the second time in his life, he came out, re-transitioning back as a gay male. These days, he’s married to Jim, pushing 60 and for the first time in his life, truly comfortable in his own skin.

There is plenty of archival footage of Brian’s days as Tish, both performance video as well as home movies. Tish’s friendship with journalist/raconteur/rock star Michael Musto helped expand her notoriety but it seemed that her career was beginning to run out of gas, which was part of what seemed to lead to the depression that Brian suffered from.

We hear from several of Brian’s siblings – he had seven – and there is varying degrees of acceptance among them. I know from first-hand experience it’s not an easy thing always to accept that someone you knew as one gender has become another; it takes time to let go of the person that was and accept the person who is. Some, sadly, are never able to do it; as I said, it’s hard but not impossible unless you are bound and determined not to accept that person’s transition. Although Brian seemed fairly devoted to his mother, their relationship was certainly complicated; she wasn’t very supportive of him and there appeared to be some emotional abuse going on. Brian as a young teen frequently ran away from home.

Brian himself has one of those personalities that just fills a room whenever he’s in it. He is proudly – even defiantly – gay and there is no mistaking his sexuality for a moment. He is a great storyteller, and boy does he have a ton of stories to tell! Bernstein could have just sat him down in a chair, turned the camera on him for an hour and a half and she would have had an entertaining movie.

Where the movie fails is in continuity. People that are important to Brian – like his only friend as a teen, Paul whose mother Gloria he is still close to – fall out of the narrative. Brian alludes to Gloria “losing” him, but that’s not spelled out. Did he pass away? Or did they have a falling out? Something similar also happens with Natalia’s husband David; he just fizzles out of the story. It would have been nice for the filmmakers to spend a few moments just explaining what happened to these people who at one time were important to Brian’s life.

Other than that, the story is a fascinating one. Jim describes his relationship with Brian thusly; “I try to be a rudder for him. Brian is all sail” and that seems like an apt way to characterize him. Brian is larger than life and while Jim is much more laid-back, the affection between the two is without question. There’s more love between these two guys than in a lot of hetero relationships I’ve known. They are poster boys for why gay marriage is a necessary right, one which still remains under threat given the conservative nature of the Supreme Court these days.

But I digress. I wouldn’t say this is essential viewing; it’s basically the story of one guy and while it’s a fascinating story, it isn’t a story that will change your life except maybe to help you realize that it is never too late to change your life completely. Not every life we choose for ourselves is the one we were meant to lead; Brian Belovitch is living proof that the most important thing when it comes to choosing a life is that you choose the one that makes you happy.

REASONS TO SEE: This is a story about a very different journey.
REASONS TO AVOID: A lot of story lines are left dangling.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic content is very adult; there is also some profanity, brief nudity and plenty of graphic sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brian works today as a drug abuse counselor; Jim works as a botanist.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: XY Chelsea
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The All-Americans