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

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

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

The Gig is Up


On to the next gig.

(2021) Documentary (Gravitas) Al Aloudi, Annette Rivero, Nick Srnicek, Ying Lu, Rui Ma, Derek Thompson, Leila Ouadad, Jason Edwards, Mary L. Gray, Mitchell Amewieye, Prayag Narula, Jerome Pimot, Sidiki, Wu Guoyong, Ali. Directed by Shannon Walsh

 

The nature of employment is changing. More and more adults are being employed through the so-called gig economy, working for such tech giants as Uber, Deliveroo and TaskRabbit. They are by-products of convenience and technology, as we rely more and more on our smart phones to provide us with products and services. Whenever you order a burger on Uber Eats, you are employing a gig worker to pick up and deliver the food to your door. When you summon somebody to put together your Ikea desk on TaskRabbit, you’re hiring a gig worker. When you call Lyft to get a ride to the airport, you’re being driven by a gig worker.

While some take these jobs out of necessity – perhaps they are undocumented workers like Algerian Ali in France, or maybe they are unable to secure traditional employment like Floridian Jason Edwards, a convicted felon with a mouth full of gold teeth, both of which are essential job offer killers – many take these jobs voluntarily, seeing these jobs as a means of escaping the tyranny of the cubicle. You set your own hours, and can make much more in tips than you would make at a traditional wage. Hearing promises like that, people tend to jump at the chance, particularly those in the more vulnerable echelons of society. You don’t need an education or social standing to get these jobs; you don’t need a great resume to acquire them. In that sense, the gig economy is truly egalitarian; in theory, it pays you on results.

But as entrepreneur Prayag Narula eloquently puts it, we’re trading the tyranny of a boss for the tyranny of an algorithm and that is much, much worse. The reality of gig work, as Canadian documentarian Shannon Walsh shows in her timely film, is that you are lured by the promise of good pay and employment autonomy but find yourself trapped as your wages are determined by your employer, who charges the consumer less than the work costs. The difference is made up by the gig worker, who must pay for their own fuel and maintenance out of their own pockets. The employer always – always – gets paid, whether through fees or in the case of food delivery, by upcharging the amount of food ordered by the customer compared to what the restaurant charges and pocketing the difference. The driver sees none of that; they exist on tips, and many customers choose not to tip them.

They also exist on ratings. One bad rating from a customer can severely impact their employment; a complaint from a customer can be devastating. Also, gig workers are tracked by numbers besides ratings; how long it takes them to deliver, how many deliveries they accept. If those numbers are below the curve, the worker is “deactivated,” tech-speak for fired.

Also, because these employees are classified as “independent contractors,” they are often not paid wages or salaries, and of course get no benefits whatsoever, including sick time. If they don’t work, they don’t get paid, and an on-the-job injury isn’t covered; the worker must pay their medical expenses on their own. We see further heartlessness when Leila Ouadad tries to get her employer to pay back wages to a fellow food deliverer in France who has been severely injured when riding his bicycle with someone’s dinner and being hit by a truck.

The movie also examines ghost workers, those online workers who do the kind of support that requires human eyes, like cleaning up data, transcribing audio and taking surveys. The largest provider of ghost jobs is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (or M-Turk) with over 500,000 registered workers (including Edwards). Many of these jobs pay pennies and are performed by people in Third World countries, who are paid not in cash (only workers in the United States and India get cash) but in Amazon gift cards, a reminder of a time when coal workers were paid in company scrip which was accepted only at company stores.

The movie is eye-opening. While some of the workers profiled, like Jason Edwards, are pretty clear-eyed and even have a sense of humor about their situation (some of the film’s sweeter moments occur when Edwards’ mother interrupts the interviews, much to the annoyance of her son), many seem caught in the grip of despair and exhaustion. Narula warns that if we don’t take action soon, these employers are going to make the Middle Ages look like paradise. While some gig workers, like the activist Al Aloudi, a San Francisco Uber driver, are beginning to fight back, many gig workers feel dehumanized, reduced to replaceable numbers in a vast, uncaring machine.

If this is progress, I don’t think the term is being properly used. This is more like regress. The one issue I have with the film is that it doesn’t hold Big Tech’s feet to the fire; we like to think of Big Tech as progressive and benevolent, but they are showing themselves to be the new Robber Barons. Everyone who uses an app for some kind of delivery service should be required to watch this.

REASONS TO SEE: A timely and necessary film. Explores the pros and cons of gig work. Shows the global impact of gig work.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a bit too polite.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The median income for people using Mechanical Turk is $2 per hour.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sorry We Missed You
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Hell Hath No Fury

Crutch


Art knows no disability.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pure Grit


Sharmaine Weed doing what she loves.

(2021) Documentary (Bankside) Sharmaine Weed, Savannah Martinez, Brandon Weed, Charity Weed, Kashe Weed, Amari Bercier. Directed by Kim Bartley

 

Native Americans in the 21st century face many challenges, not the least of those they have faced since European colonizers came to steal their land from them. They seek to retain their cultural identity while fitting in to a modern world. They do that while living on reservations where economic opportunities are extremely limited, where most live in poverty and where many are plagued by alcohol and drug addiction.

For Sharmaine Weed, a Shoshone living on the massive Wind River reservation in Wyoming – “God’s country” as she puts it early on in the film – escape is through bareback horse racing. This isn’t the type of racing you see at Churchill Downs; it is extremely dangerous, as Sharmaine found out firsthand when her sister Charity rode for the first time, and suffered grievous injuries leaving her disabled. Sharmaine took a year off to help care for her sister, and her sister’s daughter.

She is back riding now, for the first time since her sister’s injury, and sporting a new girlfriend – Sharmaine is one of the few lesbians on the reservation – Savannah. The two are very much in love. But things at home are getting rough; her younger brother Kashe is turning abusive and Savannah wants Sharmaine to move to Denver. So Sharmaine gets a job out there and puts together enough money to buy a horse to run the summer racing season. Sharmaine looks at it as an opportunity for a fresh start – but things don’t run entirely to plan as they generally have a habit of doing.

Bartley spent three years shadowing Sharmaine and her patience pays off in a rich portrait of a family trying to stay afloat in difficult conditions and specifically of a young woman with fire, passion and determination who has her sights set on a goal, but is pragmatic enough to recognize that it isn’t worth sacrificing everything for. She is aware of the traps that reservation life offer – the despair, the alcoholism, the drug addiction – and she manages to avoid them, largely because of her dogged refusal to surrender to them. Her love for horse racing also carries her through, and she’s good enough at it that she can survive and thrive in that world.

Her relationship with Savannah is complicated; Savannah is six years younger and is still just barely old enough to drink legally. Her mind is still on things that Sharmaine has long since moved beyond (if they were ever important to her in the first place), and that puts a strain on their relationship. Savannah wants to enjoy life; Sharmaine wants to build something permanent. It’s not always the love that makes a relationship strong; sometimes it’s a matter of being on the same page in life. There’s nothing wrong with a young woman of 21 wanting to party, dye her hair, and in general be concerned more about less vital things. There is also nothing wrong with a young woman of 27 turning her eyes to the future. We’ve all been in relationships with people who wanted different things with their life. Maybe we loved those people with a passion, but a viable relationship just wasn’t possible.

Bartley does her own cinematography and it is often breathtaking. Horses leaving tracks in the Wyoming snow, drone shots of the endless prairie, the Weed family out hunting and fishing together. We quickly understand that the hunting isn’t done for sport; this is how the family puts food on the table. That they thank the animals they kill for their food for providing them with sustenance is a part of their cultural heritage.

We rarely get such an intimate glimpse at reservation life, and this one is a particularly thorough one. We can see the willingness to fight in Sharmaine’s eyes as she does her damnedest to make a life for herself that is free of drugs and alcohol. The movie could have used a little bit of work on the editing; some of the story progresses in a kind of an uneven manner. The film could have used a smoother flow to it and some of the transitions are a bit abrupt.

The movie is an Irish-American co-production, and is making its North American premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival in California today. Unfortunately, that particular film festival doesn’t have a streaming component, so you will likely have to wait until the movie makes an appearance at a festival near you, which it should do in the Fall or Spring. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up on one streaming service or another shortly after that. This is a strong movie about a person you can’t help but admire and I strongly recommend it.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot. Inspiring and intense.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story doesn’t flow as naturally as it might.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Wind River reservation, where Charmaine and her family live, is the seventh largest in the United States, and is home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Rider
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Learning to Live Together: The Return of Mad Dogs and Englishmen

La Casa de Mama Icha


Mama Icha, left, doesn’t like what her daughter and granddaughter have to say.

(2021) Documentary (PBS) Maria Dionisia “Mama Icha” Navarro, Gustavo Navarro, Alberto Navarro, Epifania Ortiz, Michelle Ángela Ortiz, Oscar Molina. Directed by Oscar Molina

 

As you reach a certain age, you long for the familiar, a longing that becomes almost obsessive. You yearn for the things that comforted you as a youth; the sounds, the smells, the people that were around you. For someone who has immigrated to another country, that pull can be powerful indeed.

93-year-old Maria Dionisia Navarro – known affectionately to her family as “Mama Icha,” is deep in the grip of that pull. She moved to Philadelphia to help out her daughter Epifania, who has hammered out a comfortable living running a catering business, where her own daughter Michelle helps out. Mama, over the years, has been able to put away money to maintain her old house in Colombia, in the picturesque village of Mompox (it is a World Heritage Site, according to UNESCO) where Mama Icha grew up.

Epifania tries to talk her out of it. She reminds her that she will lose her social security benefits and Medicare if she leaves this country. Mama Icha is adamant, though; her little house has been waiting for her and calls to her. Her son Gustavo has been looking after the place and she cannot wait to get back. Reluctantly, Epifania gives her mother her blessing, perhaps knowing deep inside that she will never see her Mama again.

When Mama Icha arrives in Colombia, she is shocked to find her house a shambles. The tiny house is in sore need of cleaning, trash is piled up in every room, and many of Mama Icha’s things are missing or have been befouled. Mama is so upset she throws Gustavo out of the house. Gustavo responds by insinuating that his brother Alberto has been planting ideas in their mother’s head. It is clear that there is no love lost between the two brothers. The money that has been sent to pay the bills for the house apparently wasn’t enough – or perhaps, as Alberto hints, Gustavo has been using it for his own expenses. Certainly Gustavo doesn’t appear to have a job of any sort.

It isn’t too long after she arrives that Mama Icha begins to feel poorly. It has taken almost all of her money to pay the bills on the house that Gustavo hasn’t kept up with and there is little left over for medicine and doctor visits. Gustavo decides that the best course of action is to sell the house and take his mother to a neighboring town where Gustavo is sure he can find lodging. Mama is very much against this idea, but she may have little choice in the matter.

Colombian documentary filmmaker Molina followed around Mama both in Philly and in Mompox. While he doesn’t appear on-camera, he can be heard posing questions to Mama and her family, often asking for clarification when things don’t make sense (which happens fairly regularly). It is in many ways a heartbreaking film; Mama Icha just wants to spend her last days in dignity, surrounded by the familiar sights and people of her town. As it looks increasingly likely that she will be denied even that, the sadness that fills her face is palpable and as she is driven away from her tiny home for the very last time, it is hard not to feel pain for the old woman. Little regard is given to her wishes, especially by her sons who are convinced they know better, and Gustavo clearly has been taking advantage of his mother for many years now, and Alberto comes off only marginally better.

Which makes the early scenes all the more poignant in retrospect. In Philadelphia, at least she was surrounded by family that cared for her and eventually because they wanted her to be happy, let her go. There she had money coming in from social security, and she had Medicare to cover her medical needs. It makes me wonder that Mama Icha might not have listened to the very sage advice (as it turned out) of her daughter and granddaughter because they are women, and women in Latin culture have traditionally not been given much respect. It’s one of those things of the machismo culture that I find absolutely mind-boggling.

The film is currently available to view for free on the POV website (see below) for American audiences. It reminds us that we have a tendency to cast the elderly out as if they have outlived their usefulness, something that even families will do to one another. It makes me want to go and hug my own mom.

REASONS TO SEE: The family dynamics in Mama Icha’s family are both fascinating and heartbreaking. Certainly a wake-up call for those entering their golden years.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could use just a smidge more detail.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first in a planned trilogy of films by Molina concerned with the topics of roots, migration, belonging and poverty.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: POV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: It’s Not a Burden
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Velvet Underground

Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters


Who ya gonna call?

(2021) Documentary (Screen Media) Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ivan Reitman, Ernie Hudson, Ray Parker Jr., William Atherton, Sigourney Weaver, Richard Edlund, Michael C. Gross, Sheldon Kahn, Steven Ziff, Colin J. Campbell, Steve Johnson, Peter Bernstein, Steven Tash, Alice Drummond, John Rothman, Annie Potts, Richard Beggs, Allen Coulter, Jennifer Runyon. Directed by Anthony Bueno

 

There is no doubt that Ghostbusters is an iconic movie. There are many who count it as an unexpected hit back in 1984, but I don’t recall anyone expecting anything other than box office coffers being filled to the brim, given its cast and subject matter. That it would go on to be one of the biggest grossing films of the year, beating some pretty sure things in the final numbers, was a bit surprising though.

Now, with a new entry in the franchise featuring members of the original cast and directed by Jason Reitman, son of the original director Ivan Reitman, it seems like a good time to look back at the original and there’s no better way – other than by watching the movie itself, of course – than this exhaustive documentary, which is probably as complete a record of the film as you’re likely to find anywhere.

It’s chock full of interviews – some contemporaneous with the film, others newly recorded – and includes many of the original cast members (Aykroyd, Weaver, Atherton, Potts, Drummond and recorded before his untimely death in 2014, Ramis). There are also plenty of anecdotes, much behind-the-scenes footage and even some deleted scenes from the movie. Most people will learn something new about Ghostbusters, even some of the most well-versed fans. Did you know, for example, that Aykroyd originally wrote the role of Peter Venkmann  for his good friend John Belushi who sadly passed away shortly after the script was completed? Or that Eddie Murphy was going to be Winston Zeddmore? Or that John Candy wanted the role of Louis Tully but his agent basically talked his way out of the part?

Filming took only a year from the time the film was greenlit, which considering that the movie had some very complex special effects and massive sets to deal with was virtually an impossible from the get-go. In an era in which digital effects were barely in their infancy, the crew was looking at doing practical and optical effects to make the movie work, and they would have to use some pretty creative solutions to make those effects truly special indeed.

The movie is about two hours long, which may be a bit more than the average fan would bargain for but for the superfans of the film it will feel like it could go longer. There are a lot of talking head interviews which are unexciting, and the how-to on the effects may be a bit more than you might want to know, but for those who really loved the movie (and love it still), this will be absolute catnip. Even casual fans of the film are likely to find something here of interest.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely detailed with plenty of anecdotes.
REASONS TO AVOID: There’s a lot here to unpack, maybe too much, and there is a surfeit of talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aykroyd was inspired by his great-grandfather, who was an amateur spiritualist and paranormal researcher.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Crackle, DirecTV,  Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Movies That Made Us
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
La Casa de Mama Icha

Pharma Bro


Justifiably the most hated man in America.

(2021) Documentary (1091) Martin Shkreli, Brent Hodge, Ghostface Killah, Milo Yiannopoulos, Judith Aberg, Billy the Fridge, Travis Langley, Josh Robbins, Cilvaringz, Ben Brafman, Thomas Keith, Andrew Pollack, Meg Tirrell, Jaclyn Collier. Directed by Brent Hodge

 

When Martin Shkreli was called “the most hated man in Ameica,” it was a distinction well-earned. Most know him for his price-gouging of daraprim, a drug needed by AIDS patients to combat toxoplasmosis, as well as in pregnant women; it is also a treatment for malaria. His arrogance, smugness and apparent lack of compassion made him a poster boy for unbridled capitalism and for Big Pharma in general.

In all honesty, I was a bit hesitant in reviewing this. I truly don’t want to give this jerk any more publicity than he already has – he seems to thrive on being in the limelight, much as a wrestling “heel” thrives on boos at a WWE event. And much of the allure of a documentary on the guy would be to give you additional reasons to hate the guy – I sure thought that feeding into my righteous anger against the guy would make me feel better.

But this isn’t that kind of documentary. Hodge, instead, is out to understand what makes a man like him tick. What motivates him to cultivate an image that attracts so much hatred. Hodge set out to interview a number of people, tending to steer clear of those who hate Shkreli with a passion (which is most people) and speaking to his lawyer Ben Brafman, former girlfriends, rapper Ghostface Killah of the Wu-Tang Clan and his friend Billy the Fridge, reported Meg Tirrell and medical doctors Judith Aberg and Travis Langley.

Hodge also attempted to interview Shkreli himself, although the former hedge fund manager and pharmaceutical CEO wasn’t interested. Hodge went so far as to move into Shkreli’s building (which must set some kind of new standard for dedication to one’s own film) in order to get to know him, but still was unsuccessful at getting the interview he wanted. So, he instead travelled to Albania to the town where his parents immigrated from to talk to relatives living there.

Ultimately, we don’t really get much insight into what makes Shkreli do the things he does. We get some excuses about price gouging – “everyone else is doing it,” which of course is the kind of thing that would have prompted my mom to say “if everyone else was pouring hydrochloric acid onto their genitals, would you do that too” except that my mom would have probably said “jump off of a cliff” instead. My mom is much classier than I am.

Many of the ex-girlfriends interviewed here seem to be dazzled by Shkreli’s wealth and fame and as far as I can tell, so does Hodge. He seems to genuinely want the notorious Pharma Bro to like him, or at least that’s how it felt to me at times. Perhaps that was just a ploy to get the bad boy to do the interview, but still that impression does come off to an extent and it might be off-putting to some.

Clearly, Shkreli isn’t the only person behaving badly on Wall Street or within the pharmaceutical industry. Clearly, he’s not doing anything that hasn’t been done before and continues to be done, as lobbies for both Big Pharma and Wall Street have assiduously seen that the politicians that the very rich have helped get elected keep regulation to a bare minimum. Regulation is desperately needed to keep drug prices down, which while many politicians have echoed that sentiment, there has been a marked failure to act on it.

There isn’t anything here that will change your mind about wanting to punch this weasel straight in the gob if you’re already feeling that way. And, to be fair, there isn’t anything in here that is likely to make you want to punch him if you are already not disposed to doing so. But if anything, the documentary reinforces the idea that the moral bankruptcy of the Martin Shkrelis of the world is not necessarily uncommon or even unremarkable. He is everything that’s wrong with our society and as he rots in jail (he was convicted in 2017 of securities fraud) one would wish that what he really deserves is to not be in a Federal Country Club prison but in a nasty “don’t bend over in the shower” prison where he might genuinely feel the pain he inflicted on so many.

REASONS TO SEE: A fairly thorough attempt to understand Shkreli.
=REASONS TO AVOID: Hodge appears a bit starry-eyed by the fame and wealth of Shkreli.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shkreli is expected to be released from prison in 2023.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Madoff
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Last Night in Rozzie