Apollo 11


One giant leap for mankind.

(2019) Documentary (NeonNeil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, Deke Slayton, Clifford E. Charlesworth, Bruce McCandless II, H. David Reed, Charles Duke, Gene Kranz, Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, John F. Kennedy, Janet Armstrong, Patricia Mary Finnegan, Andy Aldrin, Walter Cronkite, Richard M. Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Hugh O’Brian, Joann Morgan, Joan Ann Archer. Directed by Todd Douglas Miller

 

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the landing of men on the moon, NASA sanctioned this documentary, giving filmmaker Miller unprecedented access to their archives, allowing him to use footage that essentially hasn’t been seen before now.

Expertly cut by Miller, the material here is meant to promote the immensity of the task, the majesty of the machines that accomplished it and the heroism of the men who rode inside. The movie succeeds on the first two of these; of the third, it is less successful, giving us little more than glimpses into the astronauts. I suppose if you want to find out more about these men, there are plenty of other places to look. It’s not as if these guys weren’t famous.

One thing about reviewing films that are no longer playing in theaters is that you lose the dimensions that are available for those on large screen formats. If ever a movie deserved to be seen in IMAX it’s this one, where the roar of the engines and the size of the Saturn V really take hold of the imagination. Miller manages to give a kind of “you are there” flare to much of the film, from the chaos of Mission Control (with the audio synched up with the video for the first time, giving us an ear on the various conversations going on behind the scenes) to the in-capsule recordings done by the astronauts themselves, whose footage got them membership in the American Society of Cinematographers back in the day.

Once the lift-off footage is complete, the movie gets a little bit dull; even the very dangerous moon landing itself doesn’t have the dramatic effect of the same scenes done for First Man, the biopic of Armstrong that delighted critics but failed to win a mass audience in 2018. Still, it’s hard not to be impressed with the footage and to get a sense of the times, of the feeling that we could accomplish anything we set our minds to – it’s a mindset the nation has largely lost since then. Considering there are still tinfoil hat-sorts that think the whole thing was a hoax, well, it’s hard to argue with the footage but I suppose they will anyway. In any case, this is wonderfully informational for those who didn’t get to live through the events and for those that did, a nice feeling of nostalgia.

REASONS TO SEE: Some incredible footage. Makes you feel like you were there in the moment.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat dry in the middle. We don’t really get to know the astronauts.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some peril but suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The electronic music score was played entirely on instruments that were available in 1969.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, History Vault, Hulu, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 99’% positive reviews, Metacritic: 88/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apollo 13
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Cuban

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful


Newton’s Teutonic sensibility of beauty is both cold and sexy.

 (2020) Documentary (Kino LorberHelmut Newton, Grace Jones, Anna Wintour, Isabella Rossellini, Charlotte Rampling, June Newton, Hanna Schygula, Catherine Deneuve, Marianne Faithfull, Claudia Schiffer, Sylvia Gobbel, Phyllis Posnick, Carla Sozzoni, Nadja Auermann. Directed by Gero von Boehm

 

Helmut Newton is often described in terms of being a provocateur, an enfant terrible, the King of Kink, as Anna Wintour, the doyenne of Vogue magazine and one of his main employers, dubbed him. His photographs were often controversial, but always memorable.

He was born in Germany and grew up there during the age of the Weimar Republic, whose aesthetic influenced his work to a large extent. The rise of the Nazi party and their depiction of the human form (he admired Leni Riefenstahl’s work in Olympia although he bristles at the thought that she was an influence, seeing as he was Jewish and ended up fleeing Germany with his family). His was an essentially Teutonic aesthetic.

At the time he was working (he passed away in a car accident in Los Angeles in 2004 at the age of 83) he was recognized as an artist, an influence on how women were photographed (for better or for worse). Seen through the lens of 2020, perhaps we are less kind to him; often his pictures depicted women nude, and they were nearly always white (Grace Jones, the Jamaican singer, was one of the few exceptions), blonde, tall and statuesque. Often, they were posed in bondage gear, or in demeaning poses – there was often an element of S&M to his oeuvre – and his models often glared defiantly at the camera, a cigarette dangling petulantly from lips heavily painted with lipstick, smoke wreathing the lower part of their jaw.

His work hasn’t aged well in the sense that we are a different culture now; even though his portraiture depicted women as being strong and in control in most  occasions (and many of his models interviewed here said that even posing butt naked they felt safe and strong when posing for him) but many consider him a misogynist; certainly feminist Susan Sontag, who appeared with him on a French talk show (shown here) pointedly made the accusation, which he denied. “I love women” he protests, to which she responds “That doesn’t impress me. Misogynists always say they love women. Executioners love their victims.”

I suppose I would agree with the criticisms, except that nobody seems to be criticizing Robert Mapplethorpe, a contemporary, for shooting men in the same manner. There is a double standard here, reversed. There are those who say that it’s about time; as my mother might say, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Von Boehm, a veteran of German television, chooses not to make this a biography; Newton himself jokes during one of his archival interviews that “photographers are boring…if you want to know all that (details about his life and influences), I’m saving that for someone who has a lot more money than you.” Like many artists, he prefers to let his work speak for itself.

We mostly hear from the women in his life – his wife June (mostly in audio clips), Wintour, gallery curator Carla Sozzoni and a host of women who posed for him over the years; Jones, actresses Charlotte Rampling, Isabella Rossellini, Catherine Deneuve and Hanna Schygula, models Claudia Schiffer, Nadja Auermann and Sylvia Gobbel, and singer Marianne Faithfull. Most of them praise the photographer, although Jones admits with her typical candor “He was a pervert. That’s good; so am I.”

The film is hagiographic in that it really doesn’t address the criticisms – valid as they are – about his depiction of women. His wife describes him as a “naughty boy who grew up to be an anarchist” which is about as close to a description of who he was as you are likely to get. The filmmakers seem to be trying to allow the viewer to develop their own opinions about his work, but there isn’t enough of an opposing viewpoint to allow for an informed opinion. The images of Newton’s work are all that is offered, in the end, to consider and there is definitely an artistic vision at work here. Whether you believe it is art or misogyny is going to depend on you.

REASONS TO SEE: The images are compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really biographical so much as an exhibition of his work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of nudity, some sexuality and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Newton’s ashes are interred three plots down from Marlene Dietrich in Berlin.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Times of Bill Cunningham
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Opus of an Angel

The Grand Unified Theory of Howard Bloom


Not your ordinary publicist.

(2019) Documentary (1091Howard Bloom, Lashette Williams, Jeff Bridges, Joan Jett, Kenny Laguna, Ted Coons, Kyle McLaughlin, David Sloan Williams, Sruan Pal Singh, Amir Saddiqui. Directed by Charlie Hoxie

 

We are generally so caught up in our own lives that we really only comprehend the things that are an immediate part of those lives – the need to provide shelter, food and the basics, the relationships we are in, the news of the day and whatever drama is playing out in our lives or in social media.

It takes a good deal of discipline to look away from the minutiae of our lives and to concentrate on the bigger picture. The questions that are most important – who are we, what is our place in the universe, how do we interact with the universe, why must we die – we rarely have time to address those  issues and even if we do, we rarely have the knowledge or intellect required to address those questions intelligently.

Howard Bloom sees things differently. In the 70s and 80s, he was a publicist in the music business, with a client list that included Michael Jackson, Prince, Styx, ZZ Top, Joan Jett, Run-DMC, Billy Joel and AC/DC, among many others. He was considered the best in the business at what he did. He had a company that was making money hand over fist and he hung out with the elite of pop music. That all ended in 1988 when he contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, an insidious disease that left him bedridden for more than a decade, barely able to tolerate human company.

Bloom combated his disease with his intellect. If he couldn’t move, he could think. He began to find things that improved his situation little by little, medications and exercise. Gradually, he was able to bring himself to a semblance of a normal life through rigid self-discipline and keeping to a routine. His wife may have divorced him but he found solace in looking outward at the cosmos. He began writing books on various aspects of the human condition, including creation, Islamic fundamentalism, and the colonization of space. His world began to expand from the four walls of his bedroom in a Brooklyn brownstone to the limits of the universe itself.

This documentary is a look at the now 74-year-old author (as of the filming of the documentary) and he has an interesting, quirky nature with vocal patterns that remind me of Jeff Goldblum. He also has a sonorous voice, not unlike another famous Howard, DJ Howard Stern. He has interesting stories to tell, and a unique viewpoint. He shoots from the hip and if that at times can be grating (at one point he likens graduate school as an “Auschwitz of the mind”), but he is also capable of some really interesting concepts (“Maybe we’re not alive to achieve goals; maybe we’re alive to just pursue them”).

We don’t get a lot of information about what is in Howard’s grand theory; we know that he has compiled thousands of pages of documents detailing his thoughts. He is also concerned about his own mortality, and is anxious that his work be preserved and has engaged a friend, Dubai gym owner Amir Saddiqui, to execute his will when he passes. Howard is nothing if not eclectic in the composition of his inner circle.

Mostly, we hear Howard talking about Howard and even though the film is barely over an hour in length, it does start to sound a bit like an ego trip gone digital after awhile. I don’t believe that’s necessarily what he was aiming for but I think he is really using this as a means to steer people towards his books of which there are seven currently. He comes off as pretty likable (and he does admit to wanting to be liked, which seems to me to be a fairly common attitude for us primates with delusions of grandeur) and he definitely likes dogs and often stops to hug them while out and about. That’s my kind of guy, for certain.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the concepts are fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too much Howard, not enough Grand Theory.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bloom contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in 1988. He didn’t leave his apartment again until 2000.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Brief History of Time
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

We Are the Radical Monarchs


The youth speak truth to power.

(2019) Documentary (PBS/POV/LadylikeAnayvette Martinez, Marilyn Hollinquest, Isa Noyola, Indelisa Carrillo, Laticia Erving, Rene Quinonez, De’Yani, Diana Martinez, Cheryl Dawson, Dulce Gareta, Stacey Milbank, Eduardo Garcia, Lupita Martinez, Alicia Garza. Directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton

 

The San Francisco Bay Area has long been a hotbed of progressive ideas and thought, a region whose watchwords are “tolerance” and “acceptance.” When community organizer Anayvette Martinez’s daughter Lupita expressed interest in joining the Girl Scouts, Anayvette had reservations. She was concerned that her daughter was growing up in a world in which girls of color were marginalized and made to feel inadequate. Standards of beauty and success were (and are) almost all oriented towards the viewpoints of European descendants.

She wanted her daughter not to be an outsider, but at the very center of the organization, but she was certain that could never happen in the Scouts. So she and her close friend Marilyn Hollinquest – who like Anayvette is a single mom who identifies as lesbian – decided to form an organization in which young girls of color were shown that they were just as important, just as worthwhile as any other person. Thus, the Radical Brownies were formed.

The group eventually changed their name to Radical Monarchs (although not explicitly mentioned in the film, I would imagine that the GSA had some concerns with the group using the name “Brownies”) which is more meaningful; like the butterfly which is in their logo, the Radical Monarchs promote the beauty of color and symbolize the butterfly emerging from its cocoon.

The film follows the first Radical Monarchs troop from 2015 through 2018, documenting the formation of a second Bay Area troop and the financial challenges faced by both young mothers as they balance the needs of the organization with the needs of their full-time jobs and of course the needs of their children as well. If ever the term “supermom” was deserved, these two ladies deserve it.

The girls are taught the joys of activism and their meetings are almost like school classes in which various social subjects are taught, from the need for Black Lives Matter to body image to social justice. And yes, the girls get badges for completing the work in each module. The founders mention the inspiration of groups like the Black Panthers, the Brown Panthers and other radical groups (the uniforms of the girls include a brown beret and vest that is reminiscent of 60s radical chic) which of course will no doubt set alarm bells ringing among more conservative viewers.

Still, the young girls are very well-spoken and thoughtful. I don’t get the sense that they’re merely parroting the concepts that the troop leaders are trying to teach; one gets the impression that these girls have given it some thought and have brought their own life experiences into their way of thinking, as brief as those lives have been to that point. The girls are even brought in to address the Oakland city council regarding a bill that would protect renters and while it has a bit of the school project to it, the sincerity of the girls is nonetheless heart-warming.

In fact, Fox News has done some pieces on the group and no less a talking head than Sean Hannity professes that the youngsters are being “indoctrinated” which, for those looking for a lesson in semantics, should note that when a parent teaches their children the values of evangelical Christianity, the Second Amendment rights and conservative economic philosophy, that’s instilling their children with values. When a parent teaches their children the values of social justice, tolerance for those different than themselves and the importance of activism, it’s indoctrination. Words are important, aren’t they.

Several times during the film the founders remark that they have been swamped with requests to start troops all over  the country, but they don’t have the financial viability to do it yet (although they have since received a grant that will keep the group going at least through the end of 2020).

Knowlton seems to be overly-fawning at times and while at one point one of the young girls talks about whether white girls would be made welcome in the group, while it’s never explicitly said one way or the other there is a strong sense that they wouldn’t be, which seems to perpetuate a culture of exclusion and an us vs. them mentality. I get that groups like this are desperately needed for young girls of color to find an opportunity to develop, and bond with other girls and that there are plenty of similar groups that white girls are welcome to join. But the tough question that’s never asked is how do we ever learn tolerance of other views when we aren’t exposed to them? How do we learn to be inclusive of others if we’re going to keep our children segregated? I don’t know that is the intention of the leaders of the Radical Monarchs to create a divide but it’s a question that deserves to at least be addressed, and it simply isn’t.

Still, this is an inspiring group of young ladies who seem well-poised to be the activists and leaders of tomorrow. If you think that those protesting social injustice now are just going to go away, you may find it troubling (or comforting) to know that the next generation is already learning the ropes. The struggle continues, and will continue until girls like this get the respect, opportunity and equality that they deserve. That we all deserve.

The film is streaming on the PBS website for their documentary series POV up through August 19, 2020. You can click on the link below to view the film. Check with your local listings to see if the film will be broadcast again on your local PBS station.

REASONS TO SEE: Inspiring watching young girls of color being taught to stand up for themselves.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the topics discussed here are on the adult side, although the troop leaders discuss them with their young charges in a mature and safe manner.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Radical Monarchs were founded in December 2014 as an alternative to the Girl Scouts, with an emphasis on subjects of interest to the Black and Latinx communities.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: POV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: O Beautiful
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Grand Unified Theory of Howard Bloom

Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On


A couple of showbiz broads remembering when.

(2019) Documentary (Abramorama) Kaye Ballard, Michael Feinstein, Rex Reed, Carol Burnett, Woody Allen, Carol Channing, Joy Behar, Bernie Kopell, Peter Marshall, Elaine Paige, Liz Smith, Jerry Stiller, Harold Prince, Sandy Stewart, Ann-Margaret, Mimi Hines, Mark Sendroff, Carole Cook, Donna McKechnie. Directed by Dan Wingate

Unless you’re a Broadway-phile or of a certain age group that gets special dining privileges at Golden Corral, the name of Kaye Ballard may not necessarily be familiar to you. Those who know her likely remember her from her two-year stint on the sitcom The Mothers-in-Law with Eve Arden, or as a supporting player on The Doris Day Show – in both TV shows, playing a high-strung Italian mom, a role for which she would be typecast later in her career.

She was born Catherine Balotta in Cleveland to Italian immigrants and she knew from an early age that she wanted to be in show business, going to see symphonies at Severance Hall. She started out as a teen singing in Vaudeville shows. One of her performances was caught by Spike Jones, a legendary orchestra leader who Dr. Demento fans remember fondly. As gifted a comedienne as she was, it was her singing voice that was captivating and it was that which took her to Broadway during the Golden Age of the Great White Way.

Throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s she wasn’t exactly the Queen of Broadway but she was one of its most popular singers, leading to appearances on all sorts of talk shows and variety shows on television (including a memorable appearance playing the flute with Henry Mancini on his own show, an appearance she lampooned on a later visit to The Muppet Show).

This documentary features her career from her early film appearances to recordings of her Broadway hits to her television appearances to her late-in-life supper club and nightclub performances (she was still performing in her nineties). It concentrates on her professional life, rarely intruding on her personal life. Ballard is gregarious and a joyful storyteller and Wingate intersperses the archival footage and the lengthy interview with Ballard with testimonials from friends and colleagues, including such luminaries as Woody Allen, Carol Burnett, Ann-Margaret (whom she opened for in Vegas), legendary Broadway diva Carol Channing, Harold Prince (one of the most revered directors in the history of stage musicals), comedian Jerry Stiller, Joy Behar of The View and her friend, longtime gossip columnist Liz Smith.

The footage shows an extraordinary talent – she could belt out a showstopping number with all the vocal power of an Ethel Merman or sing tenderly from the heart a la Judy Garland (of whom she did a dead-on impression). The film packs a lot of info into its hour and a half running time and at times seems to be moving at a dizzying speed – Wingate could have easily stretched this out into a two to three-hour extravaganza and not have lacked for material to fill out the time.

Ballard passed shortly after the film was completed at age 93. She never got the acclaim and success she deserved, but she didn’t seem to mind that so much – she loved the life she led and when asked if she would do it all over again if she had the opportunity, she quipped “You bet your ass I would.” While her recordings are a little bit hard to find and some of her musical appearances sadly out of print, she is worth seeking out and this film not only presents a marvelous introduction to her talent but also takes us back to an era in entertainment that is essentially gone forever and of which we will never see the like of again. Kaye Ballard may have taken her final curtain call, but with this documentary the show will indeed go on so long as there are those who love the music and the performances of a much more innocent era. Quite a legacy for an immigrant’s daughter from Cleveland.

REASONS TO SEE: Shows the talent that Ballard possessed. Reminds of a golden era that we ill never see the like of again.
REASONS TO AVOID: The background music is intrusive and unwelcome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ballard, Channing, Prince, Smith and Stiller have all passed away since this was shot.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Carol Channing: Larger Than Life
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Isn’t It Romantic?

The Medicine


The shaman prepares.

(2019) Documentary (1091) Taita Juanito Guillermo Chindoy Chindoy, AnnaLynne McCord, Kerry Rhodes, Graham Hancock, Daniel Pinchbeck, Mauricio Diazgranados, Rachel Harris, Mitra, Carlos Duran, Jeff McNair, Leonardo Cordero, Ricardo Diaz Mayorga, Jordi Riba, Stuart Townsend (narrator), Adrianna Jairsagua, Brandee Powell. Directed by Farzin Toussi

 

Ayahuasca is considered a dangerous drug here in the United States; it is illegal here. In the Amazon, however, it is an ancient plant concoction that has deep spiritual connotations; not only is it thought to be a means of seeing into another realm (it is certainly a hallucinogenic), it also heals spiritual, emotional and even physical ailments – it is thought that ayahuasca can actually regenerate brain cells, something modern science is unable to accomplish.

Deep in the forests of Colombia are the Inga people, directly descended from the Incas of Peru. They live pretty much the same way as their ancestors did, relying on the bounty of the rain forest to sustain them. Their wisdom comes from the natural world rather than the modern one. Their Taita (a term that encompasses a number of functions, including spiritual leader, medicine man and chief) but is usually one granted to older men. Taita Juanito Guillermo Chindoy Chindoy is something of a rarity; a Taita who was deemed so as a teen, he remains a vibrant young man with a gentle sense of humor.

For those who think that those native tribes to the rain forest are ignorant savages, think again; Taita Juanito has an impressive knowledge of botany, easily equivalent to a PhD. He believes that the ecological disasters are nature’s way of reacting to decades of abuse by humans and he might just have a point. Contributing to it is the rash of hatred that permeates Western culture recently.

Toussi utilizes several scientists (like staff botanist Mauricio Diazgranados from Kew Gardens in London, the pre-eminent botanical garden on the planet) to describe the science behind the spirituality; it turns out that ayahuasca isn’t a single plant but made up as a brew of two distinctive plants; one containing the hallucinogen, the other helping deliver it to the brain cells and retain it there (the effect of the ayahuasca vine by itself is only momentary by itself).

For much of the latter half of the film, we follow the journey of two American celebrities – former NFL defensive back Kerry Rhodes and actress/activist AnnaLynne McCord. The former is trying to connect with his emotions, something frowned upon in football culture; he is also concerned about the effects multiple concussions may have had on his brain and hopes that ayahuasca will mitigate them. As for McCord, she was physically and sexually abused at a younger age and now has difficulty forming romantic connections and emotional intimacy.

Both undergo the ayahuasca ritual with varying results; Rhodes seems more receptive to it and went back for several more treatments. McCord, who had a suspicion of mind-altering drugs to begin with (she doesn’t use recreational drugs or alcohol) seemed less so. Taita Juanito allowed part of the ritual to be filmed, although once the ayahuasca was introduced he would allow only audio recording.

There is some beautiful cinematography of the forest, as you’d expect. One thing I found a little bit bizarre is that the filmmakers note that they resent the lumping of ayahuasca as a drug, with the negative connotations that come with it; yet when.  discussing the effects of it, they use psychedelic imagery more common with depictions of LSD usage. The images are pretty trippy, though.

Unlike other documentaries on ayahuasca, there is more of a scientific grounding here. Yes, a good number of the talking heads here are students of Taita Juanito – some might say disciples – who seem a little redundant when you have Juanito himself available. There is no doubt that he’s a wise man, one with a bit of impishness to him and not at all what you would visualize when the word “shaman” is mentioned.

Particularly early on, the movie is kind of jumbled and a little hard to follow. Eventually it settles down, concentrating on McCord and Rhodes and their interactions with Taita Juanito. The movie would have benefitted from better organization and a little less hagiographic interviews.

The debate about ayahuasca in this country remains not a debate at all; while pharmaceutical companies have been looking into the substance, there has been no serious studies done on it nor does there seem to be a serious movement to have it reclassified. Ayahuasca treatments will remain, for Americans, the domain of the rich and daring. The benefits of the plants in the Amazon are likely to be game-changers, although given the current Brazilian regime the Amazon basin is being handled as a place for exploitation. As time goes by, the shrinking rain forest may see an end to the culture of these indigenous tribes, perhaps in the lifetimes of some of our younger readers. All of that knowledge would then be lost and knowledge lost is always a human tragedy.

REASONS TO SEE: Taita Juanito is a compelling subject.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really a linear documentary; organized in kind of a scattershot way.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is – I gotta say it – drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ayahuasca is listed in the United States as a Schedule 1 drug which indicates no medical benefit, despite never having been tested for such.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Shaman
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Where Sleeping Dogs Lie

Denise Ho: Becoming the Song


Denise Ho lights up New York.

 (2020) Documentary (Kino-LorberDenise Ho, Jeffrey Ngo, Victoria Hui, Janny Ho, Margaret Ng, Anthony Wong, Henry Ho, Harris Ho, John Tsang, Jelly Cheng. Directed by Sue Williams

Hong Kong has been in the headlines a great deal over the past decade. The Umbrella Protests of 2014 illustrated that the promises of Beijing to allow Hong Kong to self-govern once the city went from being a British colony to be returned to Chinese control in 1997, were complete falsehoods. Following a law that would allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China, further protests erupted last year.

This documentary of one of Hong Kong’s most outspoken pop stars who has become a pro-democracy fixture in that country was released just a day following a repressive new Chinese law that essentially criminalizes the protests in Hong Kong which seriously threatens the pro-democracy movement. It also comes out at a time when our own country is rocked by protests calling for racial equality and an end to police brutality. Although unstated by director Sue Williams, the parallels Between the protests in Hong Kong and in the United States is unmistakable.

Williams does a very good job of showing the progression of events that led to the protests still occurring in Hong Kong. In parallel, the film examines the career of Ho; how she was born to two schoolteachers in Hong Kong who moved to Canada when she was eleven; how her education in Montreal primed her for a future of thinking for herself. She returned to HK in 1996 to compete in a singing contest which she won; the grand prize included a dress worn by Cantopop legend, the late Anita Mui who would eventually take Ho under her wing. Although some of the advice she got was a bit problematic (“you’re a girl, you need to wear dresses” which Ho did early on in her career), she speaks of Mui, known as “The Madonna of the East” and who sadly passed away of cervical cancer in 2003, with great reverence and affection.

But Ho had to go her own way and after breaking away from Mui to start her own solo career, she slowly let go of the trappings of pop stardom; her popularity, however, was indisputable and she regularly sold out stadium shows with her big-scale concerts, full of dancers and elaborate costumes and sets. Ho realized that wasn’t her and she began to change; her songs had always had a bit of revolutionary to them, and she found herself in sympathy with the protesters once they began to arise. After coming out, she found that tour sponsors were pulling out, significantly L’Oréal which bowed to pressure from the mainland Chinese government, not their finest hour.

Once Ho became aligned with the protests and indeed, became something of a spokesman for the movement, she was banned from performing in China, and her records were no longer sold there; when you consider, as her Music Director (and brother) Harris Ho comments, that the bulk of her revenue came from the Chinese market, it became very difficult for Ho financially. She began performing in smaller venues in Hong Kong and throughout Asia, including a show in New York which is shown here. When about to sing a song about Montreal, Ho visibly breaks down, unable to sing because of her strong emotional attachment to that city.

While we get some interviews from fellow activists and some brief snippets from family members, and of course from Ho herself, there isn’t what you’d call a ton of insight into what makes Ho tick. While we hear a lot of her music with the lyrics helpfully translated, the translations – onscreen in a cursive font – can be hard to read. Her progression from pop diva to activist, though, isn’t really examined very thoroughly so it becomes somewhat jarring when it occurs.

Overall, though, the movie does a good job of explaining what’s going on in Hong Kong and why it is important to the rest of us. It gives us an overview of Ho’s career, but that seems almost secondary to her status as an activist although her music very much reflects her views judging on what I heard and read. While this is going to appeal much more strongly to Cantopop fans it is nonetheless a worthwhile viewing for those interested in Hong Kong.

The film, released on Virtual Cinema by Kino Marquee benefits independent theaters, including the Tampa Theater here in Central Florida and the Coral Gables Art Cinema near Miami. To benefit either of those worthy establishments, just click on their names; for a list of other cinemas outside of Florida benefiting from virtual screenings, click on the link below where it says Virtual Cinematic Experience.

REASONS TO SEE: Gives a good deal of background information about what led to the protests in Hong Kong. Ably displays the activist’s passion and emotion.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the lyrics are difficult to read.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of violence from the protests.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 2012, Ho became one of the first Cantopop stars to come out as LGBTQ publicly. Many of her fans, however, had already figured it out due to clues in the lyrics of her songs.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harry Belafonte: Sing Your Song
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Prodigy

Disclosure (2020)


The emotional heart of an unwelcome disclosure.

(2020) Drama (Breaking GlassGeraldine Hakewill, Mark Leonard Winter, Matilda Ridgway, Tom Wren, Greg Stone, Kieran Cochrane, Lucy McMurray. Directed by Michael Bentham

 

When it comes to our children, we are enormously protective. We believe in them, sometimes even against all evidence or logic; we give them the benefit of the doubt. When one child accuses another of a heinous act, the battle lines are drawn immediately and ferociously.

In this Australian drama (not to be confused with the 1994 Demi Moore/Michael Douglas erotic thriller nor the two other films – one a Netflix documentary on transgenders in cinema – with the same title coming out in 2020) we meet Danny (Winter) and Emily (Ridgway) Bowman. He’s a journalist, she’s a documentary filmmaker. When we first meet them, they are having sex and filming it. Flash forward a few years and we are in the home of Joel (Wren) and Bek (Hakewill) Chalmers. Joel is a local politician on the rise; she’s on the phone, obviously busy and harassed when we hear a piercing child’s scream coming from the bedroom. Distracted, she walks over to the room, warns her son Ethan to “leave the little ones alone” and sends him outside to play. She leaves, still on the phone. Ethan doesn’t emerge, but there’s an ominous silence coming from the room.

A few weeks later, Danny and Emily are skinny dipping in their backyard pool when Joel and Bek show up unexpectedly at their door, with Joel’s bodyguard (Stone) in tow. There is tension between the two couples, who have been close friends up to now and we soon find out why. The four-year-old daughter of Danny and Emily has told them that Ethan, the nine-year-old son of Joel and Bek, has done something terrible (and presumably, sexual) to her. Tom and Bek are there to plead with the Bowmans to take Ethan’s name out of the paperwork; Danny and Emily want Ethan to be seen by a therapist. Bek is particularly adamant against it – Ethan has denied the girl’s account. Bek, who suffered serial sexual abuse as a child, is particularly sensitive about the accusation. Emily is horrified that Bek doesn’t believe her daughter.

The discussions go from civilized to strained to frantic to violent as both couples stand their ground in defense of their kids. As things devolve, we get the sense that there is an awful lot of adult baggage being dragged into the argument which is, ostensibly, supposed to be about the welfare of their children.

This is an emotional film which only grows more so. At first, it is the women who react emotionally and, to a certain extent, non-logically. The men seem to be calmer and more conciliatory, wanting to work things out without damaging the friendship the two couples have built. The women are willing to burn the mofo right to the ground.

First time filmmaker Bentham has a good eye, contrasting the rural/suburban idyllic neighborhood, studded with pools and lush greenery with the ugliness of the innuendo cast in both directions by the parents whose civility slowly goes out the window over the course of the film. Hakewill in particular, playing the brittle and shrill Bek, does a marvelous job although all of the other main performers do a crackerjack job as well.

The ending was a little bit of a letdown; Bentham had played things straight pretty much throughout but there’s an almost comedic element to the denouement that doesn’t jive with the rest of the film; I was left wondering if it was meant to be symbolic of something (which I don’t want to get into so as not to spoil it) and in the end, decided that it was, but you may disagree and that’s perfectly legitimate.

This reminded me strongly of Roman Polanski’s 2011 filmed version of the Yasmina Reza stage play, with a sexual element added. That film had a more stage-y quality to it, although there are moments where this feels like it might have been based on a play as well. It is nevertheless an impressive work that has floated under the radar, but deserves far more attention than it has gotten to date (there isn’t even a page on Rotten Tomatoes for the film). For those film buffs still in quarantine looking for something different, this is one to keep in mind. It’s out on VOD now; it can be purchased on Blu-Ray next Tuesday (go to the film’s page to find out where it will be available in the U.S.).

REASONS TO SEE: Covers a wrenching topic from both points of view. Uses thriller tropes to tell a dramatic story.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit awkward and unsatisfying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic sex, brief nudity, plenty of profanity and uncomfortable sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Bentham’s debut feature.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Carnage
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Denise Ho: Becoming the Song

No Small Matter


Pomp and circumstance.

(2020) Documentary (AbramoramaAlfre Woodard (narrator), Rachel Giannini, Andrew Meltzoff, Alison Gopnik, Rhiann Alvig, Patricia Kuhl, Nadia Burke Harris, Jack Shonkoff, Donnie Poff, Mathew Melman, Deborah Phillips, Myra Jones-Tyler, Shea Gattis, Wahnike Johnson, Shannon Poff, Geoffrey Canada, John Wetzel, Dipesh Navsana, Robert Dugger, Seth Pollak, Rosemarie Truglio. Directed by Danny Alpert, Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel

 

America, according to all the test scores, is rapidly falling behind the rest of the world in education. There are many reasons for that; some are systemic, others are lifestyle-related and still others have to do with how privileged some of our children have become and how unwilling they are to work. To be blunt, we are reaching a crisis point where jobs are requiring more executive function – the ability to make good decisions, to remain calm under pressure and the ability to solve complex problems. It might interest you to know that all those functions are formed in a child’s brain before they reach the age of five.

And yet we devote only 3% of our education budget to early childhood education. Pre-school teachers are thought to be glorified babysitters and the vast majority of our children don’t get nearly enough stimulation by loving adults as infants, mainly because the economic reality of the modern world requires both parents to work, often multiple jobs, just to tread water. Add a child into the mix with all the expense of child bearing and child rearing and it’s a wonder that any babies are born in the U.S. at all.

This documentary examines the importance of early childhood education and does so with clever animation, colorful graphics and the warm dulcet tones of executive producer Alfre Woodward informing us how neuron pathways are formed in the brain – and how they are shut down. We are shown recent studies mapping the brains of infants and are startled to discover that children literally come out of the womb learning; one doctor recalls sticking his tongue out at a 42-minutes old baby who then imitates him by sticking his/her tongue out back at him. Every experience at that age helps shape our brains.

Economics play a major factor in child development; wealthier parents can afford to spend time with their children more than those who have to work two and three jobs; also wealthier parents can afford top of the line childcare – nannies and tutors. By the time they reach kindergarten, the five-year-old child of a wealthy family can be developmentally two years ahead from less affluent families, and that’s a gap that’s nearly impossible to make up.

We are introduced to Deborah Giannini, a pre-school teacher who is energetic, loving and capable. She helps children develop problem-solving techniques, takes them out of the classroom to help stimulate their minds and imaginations, and is a tireless bundle of energy. We also see her dissolve into tears as she recounts that she can’t afford to live on the salary she makes as a pre-school teacher and has to work a second job to follow her passion. Children who fall behind in early development have a much greater chance of not finishing high school; consequently, they are at greater risk for being locked into a cycle of poverty and developing criminal behavior. Law enforcement and military advocates both agree that money spent on early childhood development would save money on law enforcement and incarceration later on. Although not said overtly, the filmmakers make it clear that rather than spending millions on tanks, grenade launchers and billion-dollar state-of-the-art incarceration facilities, our money would be better spent helping young lives get a head start so that they don’t turn to crime in the first place. Of course, that would take money away from the industrial-military complex as well as for-profit prisons.

The film even admits that improving early childhood development isn’t a panacea that would end crime and make the world a utopia but it would give millions of children whose parents are middle or poverty class an opportunity to better themselves and be productive. New parents should really see this film (hey, the Cookie Monster makes a guest appearance, so there’s that) to help understand their own role in early development and what they can do to improve it at home, as well as alert them to programs that can help them out. Investing in our children, as a wise person once said, is investing in our future. Never has that been more true than now.

REASONS TO SEE: Clever animation (particularly during the opening credits) and enthusiastic testimonies drive the film. Addresses a little-understood need.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes feels a bit too much like every other PBS documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family viewing; requisite viewing for new parents.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The cost of childcare is higher than the cost of attending public college in 28 states.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wired for Life: Early Childhood Education
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Lords of Chaos

The Ghost of Peter Sellers


A comic genius lost at sea.

(2018) Documentary (1091Peter Medak, Peter Sellers, Joe Dunne, Spike Milligan, Nora Farnes, Simon van der Burgh, Louis M. Heyward, Susan Wood, John Heyman, Liza Minelli, David Korda, Ruth Myers, Robin Dalton, Costas Evagorou, Murray Melvin, Costas Demetriou, Tony Greenberg, Dennis Fraser, Piers Haggard, Robert Wagner, Anthony Franciosa, Rita Franciosa. Directed by Peter Medak

 

We Americans love a winner. What movies do we go see? The box office champions. We figure if everyone else wants to see it, it must be good. Still, there is something fascinating about a colossal failure – it brings the rubberneck instinct in all of us.

The thing is, Ghost in the Noonday Sun is not even a legendary failure like Heaven’s Gate or Ishtar. Maybe it should have been – it had everything going for it. It’s director, Peter Medak, was fresh off The Ruling Class and was considered one of the brightest young directors in Hollywood. The star, Peter Sellers, was widely acknowledged as a comic genius and perhaps one of the greatest comic actors ever. His buddy from The Goon Show, Spike Milligan, had written a script for a pirate movie. The production would be based in Cyprus and the producers built a working pirate ship for the movie. What could go wrong? Pretty much everything.

They should have gotten the hint when the pirate ship was run into a dock and sank on the first day of production. “We were cursed from Day One,” intones producer, the late John Heyman. It was 1973 though; excess was not a problem. Hollywood was thriving, after all. But there were signs, according to Medak.

Sellers had personally recruited Medak to the project and for his part Medak jumped at the chance to work with a legitimate genius. However, just before production started, Sellers had split with girlfriend Liza Minelli and was, as Medak puts it, “catatonically depressed.” He hadn’t read the script but once he read it, he realized that the movie was a disaster waiting to happen and instantly became focused on getting out of doing it. He went to the lengths of faking a heart attack (he had a well-documented heart condition that would eventually kill him seven years later). Sellers fired producers right and left, only showed up to the set when he felt like it, and alienated virtually everyone. He tried to have Medak fired, had such a vitriolic row with co-star Anthony Franciosa that neither actor was willing to appear in the same frame together.

Medak eventually completed the film and when he went to the wrap party, nobody from his own film was there; only a couple of technicians from another film working on the island. The studio (Columbia) deemed it unreleasable when they got it and it stayed on the shelf until it got an unheralded home video release on VHS. It’s not hailed as a lost treasure, nor is it even remembered as a massive failure. It’s just…ignored. Still, it was enough to destroy Medak’s confidence in himself, and derail his career; he wouldn’t direct another film for five years and he would rarely get the opportunities to direct high-profile films ever again, even though he did some decent movies like The Krays and Romeo is Bleeding as well as being regularly employed in television – he was unable to control his star so no studio would take a chance on a big-budget film with him ever again. Now in his mid-80s (he was 80 when this was filmed), the pain is very much still there. He breaks down a couple of times during the movie and clearly has issues letting go, even though Sellers’ former agent Nora Farnes gently implores him to, while Heyman, showing remarkable perspective, reminds him “it’s only a movie.”

Whether this turned out to be the catharsis he clearly intended it to be, only Medak knows. For the rest of us, it’s a deep dive into how a big movie can descend into absolute chaos, particularly when a mercurial star has way too much control. Medak has over the years kept a good deal of mementos from the movie; production logs, letters from Heyman urging him to get control of the situation or he would be fired, still pictures, home movies and yes, footage from the ill-fated film itself.

It turns out to be a fascinating exercise, perhaps more so for Medak and cinematic buffs than for the general public but it is to a large extent the equivalent of watching a train wreck. I don’t think movie sets are run quite the same way anymore and while situations like this one could conceivably happen again, producers generally have insurance policies that cover this kind of thing. Back then, nobody got paid if the movie didn’t get made, so despite the surreal chaos, Medak soldiered on, knowing that the end result would be catastrophe. But sometimes, the best revenge is survival.

REASONS TO SEE: Bittersweet but fascinating. A cautionary tale of how one person can hijack an entire production.
REASONS TO AVOID: May have limited appeal beyond cinema buffs
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sellers would go on to win an Oscar for Being There. He died in 1980 at age 54.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews, Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lost in La Mancha
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
House of Hummingbird