The Reason I Jump


The diversity of humanity can leave one breathless.

(2020) Documentary (Kino Lorber Jordan O’Donegan (narrator), Jim Fujiwara, David Mitchell. Directed by Jerry Rothwell

 

Raising a child requires patience. This is especially true for parents of kids on the autism spectrum. They are often unable to communicate what they are thinking and feeling, some to the point that they are essentially non-verbal, requiring different means of expression. A young 13-year-old Japanese child named Naoki Higashida wrote a book, detailing what goes on inside his head and why he will jump up and down, seemingly for no reason (it’s to self-soothe).

The book has become something of a revelation for parents with autistic children who are unable to or have difficulty communicating. The film, which uses a voice actor to narrate passages from the book, visits five kids in similar situations from around the world. Amrit, in India, communicates using drawings and paintings to illustrate not only what her daily routine is, but how she experiences the world.

In England, Joss (the son of two of the producers for the film) battles memories of past traumas that feel current to him; for example, when his father goes to pick up a pizza for dinner, he has a meltdown in the car with his mother, insisting that there is no more pizza – until his dad appears, pizza and sodas in hand. His mother’s patience and loving reassurances are heartbreaking.

In America, close friends Ben and Emma communicate by pointing at letters on an alphabet board. They are surprisingly articulate – at one point, Ben says (through the alphabet board) “I think we can change the conversation around autism by being part of the conversation.” Finally, the film shifts to Sierra Leone where the parents of Jestina (the youngest child depicted here) face an almost insurmountable barrier of misinformation, superstition and fear (some autistic children are put to death there) as they try to bring a greater understanding of who these kids are and what they are capable of to villages who may see them as being demonically possessed.

The film does its best to replicate the overload of sensory input that those on the spectrum encounter every day, and at times this is effective. The passages from the book are illuminating and are effectively used, and when Higashida admits “I don’t pretend for a moment that everything I’ve written applies to all autistic people,” we are reminded that just like all children are different, so is every case of autism. What might be successful in one case may not be in another and while we get a sense of the loyalty and diligence that parents of kids on the spectrum have to possess, it can be daunting for those who aren’t directly affected by autistic family members or friends to see what these kids and their families go through every day.

Does the movie provide the same kind of eye-opening revelations that the book does? I don’t think so, no. There is an approximation of what Higashida is trying to get across and while we see more viewpoints than just his own, we also end up feeling somewhat scattered and overwhelmed. And that might be what Rothwell is trying to get across, but I don’t think that is the whole of it, or at least it shouldn’t be. Still, the movie might be an effective tool for those who are less experienced with autism and how it affects both the children and their parents, and that can’t be discounted either.

REASONS TO SEE: An often-compelling glimpse inside those who are unable to communicate.
REASONS TO AVOID: Requires some patience to get through.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won an audience award for documentary features at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Notes on Blindness
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
One Night in Miami

Some Kind of Heaven


Life in The Villages has a surreal quality to it.

(2020) Documentary (Magnolia) Reggie Kincer, Dennis Dean, Gary Schwartz, Lynn Henry, Anne Kincer.  Directed by Lance Oppenheim

 

Residents of Central Florida, as I am, know about The Villages. The world’s largest gated retirement community, it is the subject of endless jokes and speculation. Known for it’s Disney-esque architecture (including faux Mission-style bridges and shopping-centers complete with fully invented historical backstories) – it wouldn’t surprise me if Disney itself took its cues for its own housing development in Celebration from The Villages, which was built about ten years earlier – and solidly Republican politics, not to mention a fleet of personalized golf carts that even residents who don’t play golf get around town in.

There is also a Disney-esque aura of positivism in The Villages; they have their own television news and newspaper, often devoting their energies to more fluffy news stories (residents can always turn to Fox News for their political news, which many do) and more than one resident describes living in The Villages as living in a bubble.

But while local filmmaker Lance Oppenheim’s documentary hints at the environment of the retirement community, he really doesn’t explore it deeply. Instead, he chooses to tell the story of several of its residents (and one conspicuous non-resident) with almost a set of blinders on to the fact that those living there seem to want to live out their golden years in a monocultural fantasyland that has more in common with the Magic Kingdom than with real life, although as it always does, real life intrudes.

We meet Reggie, an 81-year-old man who has been married for 47 years to Anne. She socializes while he keeps to himself. In fact, it soon becomes apparent that despite Reggie’s odd yoga-like exercise regimen, he seems dedicated to losing himself in a recreational drug haze – mainly cannabis, but also harder drugs. At first Anne puts up with her husband’s eccentricities but as they lead to legitimate legal issues, her patience wanes.

Barbara is a Boston native who moved down to Florida to retire with her husband, who then passed away. Forced to return to work because of money issues, she has lost a lot of the joy of life that animated her when she first moved to The Villages, but her first tentative steps into dating a handsome and kind golf cart salesman seem to be restoring her smile.

Finally, there’s Dennis whom Da Queen nicknamed “The Shark.” A ne’er-do-well from California living out of his van, the octogenarian is eager to land a good-looking widow with money as he trolls the churches and bars, but finds better luck at the pools. He is blissfully ignorant of the adage that when God wants to punish you, He gives you what you wish for.

Oppenheim seems to have watched a good deal of the works of documentarian Errol Morris – the style is unmistakable. There are scenes of golf cart precision drill teams, synchronized swimming, and spotless shopping centers that have fake cracks in the fake adobe walls. It all seems so surreal, but then we get the pathos in the three stories that highlight the issues that still occur despite the best efforts to turn the golden years into a kind of paradise of yesteryear. Local critic Roger Moore likens The Villages to The Village in the British science fiction spy drama The Prisoner and that pretty much sums up the attitudes of Central Floridians to the development.

I have to admit that the movie isn’t what I hoped it would be, nor what it could have been. That’s not really the fault of the filmmaker for not making the movie we wanted him to make; as much as I would have appreciated a deep dive into the reality of The Villages, that film remains to be made. This is a movie about four individuals who find their twilight years as challenging as all those that led up to them, which isn’t necessarily the message most of us want to hear.

REASONS TO SEE: A very Errol Morris-esque vibe. Some of the segments are pretty deranged. A different look at the aged.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not so much about The Villages as some of the people who live there.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is one of the Executive Producers; the New York Times was a partner in the making of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gates of Heaven
FINAL SCORE: 7/10
NEXT:
The Reason I Jump

Museum Town


From factory town to museum town.

(2019) Documentary (Zeitgeist)  Meryl Streep (narration), David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Nick Cave, Joseph Thompson, Thomas Krens, Megan Tamas, Ruth Yarter, John Barrett, Francis Esposito, Simeon Bruner, Denise Markonish, Bob Faust, James Turrell, Jane Swift, Jack Wadsworth, Richard Criddle, Missy Parisien. Directed by Jennifer Trainer

 

No less a wrenching change in the American landscape than the Industrial Revolution was America’s loss of factory jobs that began in the late 1970s and has continued through now. Towns that had once been prosperous suddenly saw their economies obliterated overnight. Suddenly, everyone is unemployed. Despair and crime move in and the feeling of hometown pride moves out.

North Adams, Massachusetts – located in the picturesque Berkshires of the Western part of the state – is such a town. A bustling, productive town that relied on the Sprague Electric Company as the economic engine that powered the town. When the company abandoned the town and moved its facilities elsewhere, the town was devastated. The massive factory complex which had once supplied parts for war planes during the Second World War and employed most of the town’s women in that Greatest of Generations, stood empty, a symbol of changing times and of corporate loyalty (or lack thereof).

But there were people who had a vision. Thomas Krens, for one; a former director at New York’s Guggenheim (where he was a figure of considerable controversy, something not touched upon in the film) and director at nearby Williams College where he’d taught for 17 years (and graduated from in 1969). Inspired by German factories that had been repurposed as art museums, he came up with the idea of doing the same in North Adams.

It was a bit of a hard sell. The blue collar citizens and officials of North Adams were about as far from an art colony as it’s possible to get; ayor John Barrett once quipped that he wouldn’t cross the street to see some of the art instillations at the museum built in his town. And while Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis had been enthusiastic about the project and willing to contribute the funds needed to get the project off the ground, his Republican successor William Weld was less enthusiastic and the project nearly died almost before it began, saved only by the fact that Weld was – surprisingly – a Talking Heads fan, an anecdote that is explained further in the film.

If the movie seems like it’s gushing a bit from tie to time, it’s understandable; Trainer was for many years the director of development at the museum that eventually became known as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MassMoCA. This familiarity with the subject does give the film some insights that it might otherwise not have been possible to get, but there is also the other side of the coin – the filmmakers don’t always look with clear eyes at the museum, although an early dispute with a Swiss artist who objected to having his work displayed unfinished after refusing to finish the work when the museum objected to expensive overruns. Trainer does attempt to show both sides, but it’s telling that the only interviews on the incident come from the MassMoCA staff whereas representatives of the artist or the New York Times art critic who reported extensively on the subject were not.

Much of the film follows the installation of Until, an extensive work by Chicago artist Nick Cave (not the one you’re thinking of) made up of found items, ten miles of crystals, and some creative fabrications (the installation ran from October 2016 until September 2017. It is a look at how such installations are created and fabricated and will be of interest to art buffs.

This is clearly a labor of love, and as such there are some things that are endearing about it. Residents of the town – notably Ruth Yarter, a feisty senior citizen who worked at Sprague during the war years and then again at Mass MoCA as a ticket taker – are interviewed and many of them were skeptical and somewhat bemused, but when the dust cleared, the museum indeed revitalized the town. Art therapy, indeed.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating story of ambition and vision. Streep’s narration is unobtrusive.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit on the gushing side.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mass MoCA is currently the largest museum of contemporary art in the world.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Art of the  Steal
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Midnight Sky

Queer Japan


Totally fabulous, Japanese-style.

(2019) Documentary (Altered Innocence) Hiroshi Hasegawa, Tornato Hatakeno, Leslie Kee, Atsushi Matsuda, Junko Mitsuhashi, Saeborg, Vivienne Saro, Fumino Sugiyama, Nogi Sumiko, Gengoroh Tagame, Toh Ogura, Fuyumi Yamamoto, Chiga Ogawa, Caroline Kennedy. Directed by Graham Kolbeins

 

The United States has undergone a radical transformation in its attitudes towards the LGBTQ community. Once actively hostile towards them (and that hasn’t completely gone away), the country in general has grown more tolerant, believing that same-sex marriages should be legal (and for now, they are) and that society in general should move in the direction of acceptance.

Japanese culture has long had gay and lesbian elements to it, but what is LGBTQ culture like at this moment? Vancouver-based queer documentarian Kolbeins attempts to provide a snapshot and in many ways, it’s like watching a ten hour documentary series crammed into an hour and a half. With cleverly designed graphics and a neon-dominated opening credit sequence that lets you know that you’re about to be dazzled, the movie tends to focus on artists and nightlife impresarios.

This is much like presenting a film on Queer America and focusing primarily on the drag queens of San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York and disregarding the gay community elsewhere, most of whom don’t dress up in outrageous outfits to look fabulous or, in many cases, to be shocking. In other words, we don’t get to see ordinary gay men and lesbians and transgenders trying to live their lives, escept in a few notable sequences.

We see some of the activism going on in Japan as those involved struggle to get Japan to put aside gender definitions and let people live essentially as they want to. Noted manga artist Gengoroh Tagame, who has written many manga (Japanese comics) with hyper-masculine gay characters as well as the popular family comic My Brother’s Husband, bristles at being asked “Why do you like having sex with men,” but also at LGBTQ community members asking him “Why are you into BDSM?” which he looks at as the same type of ignorance. He’s not wrong.

Some of the individual stories are fascinating, like that of performance artist Saeborg who constructs a gigantic latex pig that gives “birth” to human piglets who immediately swarm at the latex teats. She talks about how wearing rubber allowed her to feel truly free and to be the person she wanted to be. There’s lso the deaf gay couple who have to invent their own sign language symbols to communicate in a court of law the concepts they’re trying to get across. Or the anti-gay politician who laughs out loud when she hears that gay teens are more than six times as likely to commit suicide as straight kids the same age. One would hope that would be a career ender if an American politician did something similar.

The emphasis on the more flamboyant and extroverted members of the community while it makes for a more cinematic film also tends to ignore those who are quieter and less immediately identifiable as LGBTQ, and that is to ignore that change in this country largely came through the efforts of that segment of the community – although the outgoing and outrageous fun-lovers certainly contributed a great deal. I do like that this is a look into a different kind of gay culture – Japanese pop culture is kind of over-the-top to begin with and throw a heaping helping of fabulous on top of that and you really have a potent, frothy brew. One can’t deny that this is informative, although by the end of the film one begins to feel a bit punchy – there’s an awful lot thrown at you all at once and it’s forgivable if you feel a sense of overload after absorbing all of it. This is one feature length movie that perhaps might have been better served as a ten hour series, but that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t a worthwhile watch, particularly for those seeing what LGBTQ activism looks like in Japan.

REASONS TO SEE: There’s a little bit of activism amongst the frivolity. An interesting view into a fairly taboo subject in Japan.
REASONS TO AVOID: Spends perhaps too much time on the more visually outrageous.
FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Over 100 people were interviewed over a four year interval for the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paris is Burning
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Gun and a Hotel Bible

The Mark of the Bell Witch


There are some darknesses even candles won’t light.

(2020) Documentary (Small Town Monsters) Brandon Barker, Timothy Henson, Forrest Burgess, Heather Moser, John Baker Jr., Beau Adams, Pat Fitzhugh, Dewey Edwards, Brenda Moser, Tyler Estep, Lauren Ashley Carter (narration), Cara Tobitt, Kayethel Dickerson, Thomas Koosed, Amy Davies, Aaron Gascon, Grayden Nance, Adrienne Breedlove. Directed by Seth Breedlove

 

Adams, Tennessee, was a rural village on the western frontier of the newly minted United States in 1817. Those who lived there worked the land and had few amenities. The Bell family, led by patriarch John Bell Sr. (Koosed) were a little bit better off than most, but that wasn’t saying much.

Their farm became an epicenter for a supernatural event that remains to this day the local equivalent of such famous American supernatural presences as the Jersey Devil, the Mothman, Bloody Mary and the Amityville Horror. It started off as loud knocking sounds in the middle of the night, followed by attacks on daughter Betsy (Davies) – first having her blanket yanked off of her at night, then having her face slapped by an unseen entity.

Finally, the entity began to communicate with the family, calling herself Kate and announcing her intention to murder the family patriarch. She had conversations with visitors who independently verified the family’s story – among them Tennessee’s favorite son at the time, future president Andrew Jackson who was then the Hero of the Battle of New Orleans. The story ended with the premature death of John Bell Sr.

This documentary examines the story of the Bell Witch – the term “witch” referred to spirits of any sort; we would today call it the “Bell Ghost” – through re-enactments of the events described by the Bell family, through analysis by local historians, folklorists and paranormal experts and other assorted talking heads. A lot of information is revealed here, from the common conclusion that the spirit may have been the ghost of Kate Batts, an older woman who had a conflict with the elder Bell when she died, to the role of the Great Awakening spiritualism might have had on the events of the haunting.

The results are remarkably informative and a testament to the power of folklore and how it can take on a life of its own. We are seeing that in modern times with creepypasta tales of Slenderman, Jeff the Killer, Ben Drowned and other entities that have become cultural phenomena; while it is too early to determine how those types of stories will eventually become part of the American fabric, certainly decades from now there is no doubt that those sorts of stories will become part of local or national consciousness. I would have liked to have seen this comparison addressed as it might have made the point more relatable to younger audiences, but that’s just me.

The recreations, filmed in black and white, are generally pretty creepy for the most part, although Breedlove from time to time tries a little too hard to be atmospheric and ends up making the vibe a little bit forced; a little more subtlety would have gone a long way. However, what he does get right is that he doesn’t take sides in the debate of whether this happened or not; he simply presents the information and leaves it to the viewer to decide what to believe.

REASONS TO SEE: Very informative.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries too hard to make a spooky atmosphere (and doesn’t always succeed).
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The property where the events of the haunting took place is now a tourist attraction in Adams, Tennessee. While the original cabin in which the Bells lived has been torn down, a recreation of the cabin has been rebuilt elsewhere on the site; artifacts of the original inhabitants are also on display at the attraction.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mothman Legacy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Paint

The Test and the Art of Thinking


A rite of passage for high school seniors.

(2020) Documentary (Abramorama) Akil Bello, Howard Gardner, Greg Hanlon, Jonathan Arak, Susan Cole, Jamie Macy, Eric Hoover, Chris Ajemian, Charles Murray, Nicholas Lemann, Tania Blair, Dan Edmonds, Glenn Ribotsky, Erica Meltzer, Kristin Tichenor, Nick Blair, Jed Applerouth, Danielle Allen, David Coleman, William Fitzsimmons, Scott Jaschik, Susan Cole, John Mahone, Debbie Stier. Directed by Arlen Davis

 

Three of the scariest letters to any high school student are “S.A.T.” Although they once stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test, they now stand for nothing, which is apropos according to this chilling documentary

It’s hard to understate the importance of the SAT and the ACT tests when it comes to college admissions. Nearly every college requires one or the other in order to consider an applicant for admission. Most colleges also have minimum scores requires for admission consideration. A high score on the test can get you into a better school. A low score may prevent you from attending college at all.

Initially, the tests were a way for Ivy League schools to find students that didn’t necessarily attend reputable prep schools in the Northeast. It gave students from public high schools and from other parts of the country an opportunity to get a quality higher education. But as schools discovered that they, too, could use the same test that Harvard used to measure prospective students, there was a not-so-subtle change in how the test was used.

It is also worth noting that the men who created the tests were believers in eugenics, the idea that there are “superior” genes that create superior people. It’s the kind of thinking that the Nazi party in Germany embraced and has largely been debunked since, but there remains an essential cultural bias to the test.

Worse yet, the test really isn’t a measure of a student’s potential to learn, or ability to think. It simply measures if they are able to game the system and ace the test. A cottage industry has sprung up around tutors who are paid – in some cases, extremely well – to prepare a student for the test. Nearly all of them don’t recommend studying actual knowledge for the test, but techniques in how to figure out which answer is the correct one. It also shows how an essay riddled with factual errors still got a high score because it hit all the metrics that the testers were looking for.

There is a good deal of talking head interviews, mainly with educators, test coaches, students and parents. The approach is a little bit hit and miss, and the going can be turgid from time to time; stick with it though because even though the anecdotes start to wear a little thin, the point is a very necessary one. And that point is if you want a country to have superior achievements, it has to start with superior students. The inevitable, inescapable conclusion is that the current model of testing does not achieve that goal.

Like everything else in this country, the admissions tests are big business – the College Board, which owns and administers the test, is a billion-dollar company. The filmmakers also posit a chilling thought near the end of the film – perhaps the test is actually successful in determining which students are less likely to question authority because that’s what business wants. That would actually explain a whole lot about the state of the union.

REASONS TO SEE: Should be required viewing for high school seniors and their parents.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very dry and sometimes a bit hard to slog through.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family viewing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: 3.5 million students graduate from high school every year; approximately 80% of them will end up taking either the ACT or SAT tests.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 68/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting for “Superman”
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Wetware

Doin’ My Drugs


The road of an activist can be long and lonely.

(2019) Documentary (FreestyleThomas Buttenschøn, Yellowman, Danny Zaya, John Chiti, TK, Chris Aka, Bode Fashinasi, Cana Buttenschøn, Chef 187, DJ Len, Peter Lausted, Frances Kasonde, Maiko Zulu, DJ Taffy, Brian Bwembya, Jens Buttenschøn, DJ Vain, Mwiza Zulu, Inger Lis Lausted, Sista D Zulu . Directed by Tyler Q. Rosen

 

The politicization of illness didn’t start with COVID-19. In the 80s and 90s, HIV and AIDS carried with it a stigma that the person afflicted with it was essentially getting what they deserved because they were having sex. Never mind that sexual intercourse isn’t the only way to contract the virus; never mind that not everyone who contracted the disease was gay. The stigma remains associated with the disease to this day, particularly in Africa where homosexuality is much more of a taboo.

Thomas Muchimba Buttenschøn was born of a Zambian mother and a Danish father, and was born in Zambia. His parents discovered after his birth that they both had AIDS; they returned to Denmark which had a better health care system, but Thomas’ mother died in Zambia while visiting her family there, and his father died in Denmark shortly thereafter. Worse yet, Thomas was born HIV positive. His prospects for a long life seemed unlikely at the time.

But Thomas is 35 years old now with a wife and son of his own, and a thriving musical career.  Neither his wife nor his son have HIV or AIDS; medical advances have made it possible for Thomas to live a normal life, with the help of a drug regimen that he adheres to without fail. However, not too many people realize that AIDS is no longer the death sentence it once was. Thomas returned home to Zambia to spread the word that AIDS can be overcome, and to help ease the negativity surrounding those afflicted with the disease.

It’s not an easy task. Cultural taboos that go back thousands of years are difficult to overcome. On top of that, Zambia is a heavily Christian nation and the more evangelical elements have turned their backs on those suffering with the disease. Given that those who are diagnosed HIV positive are often shunned by their families and communities, it’s no wonder that the disease often goes unreported, leading to a more virulent spreading of the disease in Zambia.

Thomas’ mission is to educate and inform. Linking up with other musicians such as Danny Zaya, and Sister D Zulu who have been AIDS activists for years, even when it was unpopular to do so. Their songs were often banned by the government, although those anti-AIDS bans are starting to ease now. Thomas and his fellow musicians decided to put on a concert in the village where his mother was born – and eventually died. The price of admission; get tested.

Weaved in with the locals is Thomas’ own story which is at times, heartbreaking. His father was the subject of a news story in Denmark; he would be dead less than a year after it aired. But the baby-faced Thomas, while clearly affected by the tragedy, also seems to have moved on from it, having been raised by foster parents who helped him overcome the bleak outlook his father had – which, at the time, was understandable – and grow to live a full life of his own.

The documentary is very informative about the current state of HIV/AIDS and how it is regarded in Africa. Judging on posts I’ve seen on social media here in America, I would venture to see that ignorance about AIDS isn’t limited to that continent at all. Many Zambians were startled to discover that the drugs that have given Thomas a normal life are available there for free, given away by the government seeking to end the epidemic.

There is a lot of music in this documentary, and it is a bit surprising; the music is pretty Western-sounding to my ears. This isn’t a music documentary, however, despite the fact that musicians make up the central focus in many ways; this is about fighting a disease and more to the point, ignorance of that disease which is perhaps deadlier than the disease itself. That is true of any disease, including the one affecting our country right now.

REASONS TO SEE: Glimpses of other cultures are always welcome.
REASONS TO AVOID: Approach might be a little too low-key; needs some urgency.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The HIV/AIDS infection rate in Zambia was 14% when this was filmed in a country of 17 million people; the rate is likely much higher given the reluctance of people to report their condition as detailed in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Elyse

Truth is the Only Client


Moments before tragedy.

(2019) Documentary (GravitasBrendan Sheehan, Samuel Stern, Vincent Bugliosi, Lloyd Weinreb, Howard Willens, Burt Griffin, Alfred Goldberg, Stephen Breyer, G. Robert Blakey, Murray Laulicht, Melvin Eisenberg, H.B. McLain, Bernard Weisman, Steve Barber, David Slawson, David Robarge, Priscilla Johnson McMillan, Ruth Hyde Paine.  Directed by Todd Kwait and Rob Stegman

 

It has been 57 years since the young, vibrant President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and it remains a topic of hot debate. Some say that accused assassin (who himself was murdered by nightclub owner Jack Ruby before he could stand trial) could not possibly have planned and carried out the murder of the President of the United States of America, one of the most protected men on Earth, by himself. Others say that there is no evidence to the contrary. Certainly, the country hasn’t been the same since.

It isn’t a stretch to say that most television programs, movies and documentaries (not to mention the legions of books published) on the assassin have fallen firmly into the conspiracy camp. As judge and assassination buff Sheehan (who acts as host here) asserts, “the money is in conspiracy theories.” People tend to want to believe in cabals and secrets, sometimes in the face of legitimate evidence – hence Q-Anon.

The filmmakers seek out surviving members of the Warren Commission – mostly junior attorneys and researchers, who are now in their 80s – to talk about the case, the evidence and the investigation. The filmmakers readily admit that Chief Justice Earl Warren, who headed the commission, made a major misstep when he suppressed the autopsy photos of the late President, which show that the bullets that struck him came from behind him on a downward angle. While Warren sought to spare the former First Lady as well as the millions of mourning Americans the horror of the damage done to the President’s body, the suppression gave the Commission an aura that they were hiding something.

The documentary takes the stance that the Warren Commission exhaustively went through the evidence and came to the proper conclusion. This isn’t going to sit well with conspiracy theorists; I have to admit, as someone who had doubts about the veracity of a lone crazed gunman assassinating the President of the United States, I found it hard to have long-held beliefs assailed by evidence to the contrary.

For example, the “magic bullet theory” which posits that the kill shot did all sorts of aerial physics-defying gymnastics in order to go through the President and impact Texas Governor John Connelly falls apart when we realize that Connelly wasn’t sitting directly in front of the President, but in a jump seat slightly to the President’s left – which means the bullet would have gone straight through both men.

=Sheehan is relentless in showing that there is no evidence of a shot originating from the Grassy Knoll, no evidence of Soviet, Cuban or mob involvement, and certainly not that there was any sort of grand conspiracy to get Kennedy out of the way to clear the way for the Vietnam War which put billions of dollars into the pockets of the military-industrial complex. I have to admit, the evidence is presented in a very intelligent and thorough manner, even if it gets a little dry at times as we listen to one old man after another talking about the case.

This is a rare documentary in that we not only get to hear from people directly involved with the investigation, but also with some witnesses including Ruth Paine, in whose house Marina Oswald stayed at the time of the assassination and where the assassin stowed his rifle before carting it off to the Texas Book Repository. There is also some footage and images that have not been shown publicly before, although much of the footage has been seen many times before.

It is very hard to change people’s minds of long-held belief. Most people aren’t all that open-minded to begin with, particularly when it comes to something as emotional as the Kennedy assassination. This is not always an easy documentary to sit through, but anyone who wants to understand how the Warren Commission arrived at its conclusions should see it. Even conspiracy theorists should give it a look; after all, there’s nothing like having your ideas challenged to give you the opportunity to prove them once again to yourself.

REASONS TO SEE: Very scholarly in tone.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very reliant on talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images (autopsy photos) and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sheehan is a judge in Ohio who argued cases before Griffin, who was a junior attorney on the Warren Commission; Sheehan, who had long been a Kennedy buff, struck up a friendship with Griffin based on that.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Google Play, Redbox, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: JFK
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Love, Weddings and Other Disasters

A Crime on the Bayou


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calendar Girl


Ruth Finley hasn’t quite been covering fashion since these columns were new.

(2020) Documentary (DitlevRuth Finley, Kathleen Turner, Tommy Hilfiger, Betsey Johnson, Bill Cunningham, Joseph Siegel, Carolina Herrera, Gael Greene, Diane von Furstenberg, Nicole Miller, Larry Lein, Mickey Boardman, Harold Koda, Ellin Saltzman, Mary Packer, Steven Kolb, Ralph Rucci, Garry Wassner, Debbie de Monfort, Ruth Thale, Andrew Bolton, Nanette Lepore. Directed by Christian D. Bruun

There is no doubt that New York is one of the primary stars in the fashion constellation. It is chock full of events from showings to preview parties to honors ceremonies. Keeping track of everything is a full-time job, but a necessary one for the industry to function.

For 65 years, Ruth Finley, founder and editor of Fashion Calendar, was the glue that held the industry together. Her calendar, which appeared weekly for a time and then bi-weekly and printed on distinctive pink paper so it could be found quickly on a cluttered office desk, became a bible allowing buyers to make sure they were getting to all the events they needed to, and for designers to maximize attendance at their shows.

Finley, a tiny woman towered over by statuesque models, made this her life’s work and a labor of love it was too. With a small staff (which at one time included future Emmy-winning actress Doris Roberts), she kept track of everything fashion going on in the Big Apple, a kind of oasis of order amidst the chaos. In an industry where ego was big and tantrums were often bigger, Ruth was different in that she was kind, and helpful, particularly to new designers trying to establish themselves in one of the most notoriously cutthroat industries in the world.

Finley is naturally a modest woman but also possessed with a core of steel; she was a career woman in an era when that was exceedingly rare. She also divorced her first husband in 1954, an era when that was scandalous, and after her second husband died suddenly in 1959, she became a single mom, something very rare for that era. She remained so for the rest of her life, never remarrying although towards the end of her life she did have a boyfriend (Joseph Siegel, a former executive at Macy’s).

She did things her own way and was stubbornly analogue even when she was pleaded with to put her magazine online. She worked into her mid-90s, reluctantly selling Fashion Calendar to the Council of Fashion Designers of America who did eventually put the magazine online, discontinuing its print edition but in tribute to the magazine’s founder, kept the color of the calendar pink.

Bruun takes a fairly conservative approach to the documentary, relying mostly on talking head interviews with friends, family and admirers of Finley, interspersed with archival footage and photographs from both Finley’s personal life and from the fashion industry in general. It does get a bit hagiographic after awhile, but the more Finley is on-camera, the more you realize that the admiration is well-earned. Finley is the film’s secret weapon; charming, self-effacing and joyful about an industry that she loved. In her mid-90s for most of the film, her energy and joy is infectious. Yes, this is mostly going to appeal to those who love fashion and in particular the New York fashion scene, but documentary buffs will get a kick out of Finley who will charm even the most curmudgeonly viewer.

The movie recently made its world premiere at DOC NYC and remains available for virtual viewing at the link below through today. While it has yet to get a distribution deal, it is extremely likely that it will see at the very least several film festival appearances this fall, as well as some sort of distribution or streaming deal at the very least. Keep an eye out for it.

REASONS TO SEE: Finley is a delightful subject.
REASONS TO AVOID: May not appeal to non-fashionistas.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Finley passed away in August 2018, three years after filming was completed at the age of 98.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Iris
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
A Crime on the Bayou