Mercury 13


Even goofing around, these ladies all had the Right Stuff.

(2018) Documentary (Netflix) Wally Funk, Rhea Woltman, Sarah Ratley, Jim Hart, Bob Steadman, Ann Hart, Gene Nora Jessen, Jackie Lovelace Johnson, Eileen Collins, Jerrie Cooper, John Glenn, Jacqueline Cochrane, Gus Grissom, Gordo Cooper, Janey Hart, Bernice Steadman, Valentina Tereshkova, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton. Directed by David Sington and Heather Walsh

 

There are some who think it is America’s most shining hour. Certainly in the annals of human achievement the American space program’s race to put a human on the surface of the moon has to rank right up there near the top and yet even that inspiring story had some less proud moments entwined in it.

Did you know that there were women who underwent the same rigorous testing that the male astronauts undertook and in some cases actually outscored the men? If you didn’t then join the club, one in which I’m a fellow member. It’s all true though; 25 female aviators were invited to take the astronaut tests of which 13 were able to pass. They became known as the Mercury 13 in reference to the original Mercury 7 astronauts who included Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom and Gordo Cooper.

They were invited by Dr. William Randolph Lovelace to take those tests. Lovelace had founded the Lovelace Clinic at the urging of outspoken aviation pioneer Jackie Cochrane who herself was eager to go into space. Lovelace believed that women were just as capable as men to be astronauts and thought that the prevailing attitude that women weren’t mentally or physically strong enough to handle the rigors of space flight was pure hooey.

The testing wasn’t sanctioned by NASA however and when they found out about it the powers-that-be at the space agency blew a figurative gasket. They ordered that the testing be stopped immediately and the women dismissed. The women weren’t about to take this lying down; they took their fight to Congress where they testified – often eloquently – about their right to explore, to do with their lives as they chose. In the end Lyndon Johnson quietly shut their program down without explanation.

The story is enough to hold your interest. Oddly, the filmmakers do some alternate history building by showing footage of the moon landing with a female voice coming from the astronauts, as if Mercury 13 member Janie Cobb had been the first person to set foot on the moon rather than Neil Armstrong; it comes off as a bit self-indulgent. It really doesn’t add anything to the narrative which I thought was better focused on what was rather than what might have been. The aerial sequences early on were well-filmed however.

Although not all of them are still with us, the interviews with the surviving Mercury 13 are a real pleasure. The ladies are still feisty although by now they’re in their 80s. One of their number, Janey Hart, would go on to become one of the co-founders of the National Organization of Women which would go on to lead the fight for women’s rights. As for the space program, it wasn’t until 1985 that Sally Ride would become the first American woman in space (the Russians had sent Valentina Tereshkova into orbit in 1963) and ten years later Eileen Cooper would become the first woman to pilot a space shuttle.

Fittingly, she invited all the surviving Mercury 13 to her launch and the footage of them exulting in the triumph not only of the shuttle but of women’s place in the space program speaks volumes about how necessary this documentary is in the age of #MeToo.

REASONS TO GO: The story is a fascinating one. There’s some nice aerial photography.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s depressing to think that things haven’t changed as much as they should have.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and depictions of sexism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sington and Walsh cut their Space Race teeth by making the acclaimed documentary In the Shadow of the Moon.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Right Stuff
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Choosing Signs

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It Will Be Chaos


Some journeys are more desperate than others.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) William L. Ewing, Manuel Barosa, Aregai Mehari, Giusi Nicolini, Cecilia Malmstrom, Enrico Letta, Cecile Kyenge, Wael Orfali, Bensalem Khaled, Domenico Lucano, Domenica Colapinto, Rafaelle Colapinto, Doha Orfali, Ribal Orfali, Leen Tayem, Baoul Tayem, Othman Tayem, Giovanni Costanzo, Biniam Bereked. Directed by Lorena Luciano and Filippo Piscopo

 

The movie opens up with the grim image of coffins being offloaded onto the Italian island of Lamperdusa. A ship carrying immigrants from Libya to Italy had capsized, and 360 refugees mostly from the Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia had drowned. One of the survivors, an ex-soldier from Eritrea named Aregai Mehari, lost two cousins in the tragedy. He shows their pictures on his cell phone, and at the trial of the inept captain calmly discusses the chaos of that night.

The mayor of Lamperdusa, Giusi Nicolini, is in a horrible position. The town is suffering from a stagnant economy and simply can’t handle the influx of people coming from Africa and the Middle East. She still manages to retain her compassion, correcting reporters “They are not illegal immigrants. They are refugees. Words matter.” She wants to help but is essentially powerless to do much more than providing limited assistance and sympathy.

We follow Aregai as he makes his way into Greece where the situation isn’t much better and might be, frankly, worse as he flees from drought and intense poverty in his native country. We also follow Wael Orfali and his young family as they flee the Syrian genocide, whose home was bombed into rubble just two weeks after they fled. He is stuck in Istanbul trying to get to family in Germany where he and his family might begin again. He is impatient almost to the point of hysteria, purchasing life jackets for his family  for a trip with a smuggler that may or may not happen and when relatives urge him to delay his departure because of rough weather in the Mediterranean bellows “I don’t care if we die. I just need to leave!”

The movie is one in a long line of documentaries about the current refugee crisis which is buffeting Europe and to an extent the United States as well. Most of these movies follow the travails of a specific refugee as they navigate an often frustrating and dehumanizing system that essentially passes them from one place to another with limited resources, no way to get work and left to dangle in the wind. Often the refugees, fleeing forces beyond their control, I can understand the anti-immigrant side to a certain extent; a nation can only support so many people with resources, jobs and property. There is a finite amount of money, goods and infrastructure to go around. However, the answer is not to demonize refugees and suspect that every refugee is a potential terrorist, rapist or criminal; most refugees simply want a better life and safety for their children. We can’t assume every refugee is legitimate; we also can’t assume that every refugee is not.

The problem I have with this movie is that it really doesn’t add anything to the conversation that I haven’t seen in several other documentaries. The points that they make that the bureaucracy handling the staggering influx of people is ill-equipped to handle it, that politicians are often unsympathetic and that refugees often face outright racism and are painted as scapegoats by an increasingly hostile European (and American) population.

Political bloviating on my part aside, the refugee crisis isn’t going away anytime soon and the situation isn’t as uncomplicated as it is sometimes made out to be. The movie exposes some of that if in a somewhat choppy manner. From a purely technical aspect, the editing between the two stories often is jarring and feels somewhat arbitrary. The filmmakers have their heart in the right place but in all honesty what we need more than a film that follows the refugees is one that shows us why it is so difficult for this situation to be managed. This movie shows some of that (and it’s generally the best moments in the film) but not enough to really make it a must-see.

REASONS TO GO: The story is heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The film doesn’t really add anything to the examination of the refugee crisis.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival before debuting on HBO.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire at Sea
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Before I Wake

Minding the Gap


Skating can be more than just a passion.

(2018) Documentary (Hulu/Magnolia) Zach Milligan, Keire Johnson, Nina Bowgren, Kent Abernathy, Bing Liu, Mingyue Bolen, Roberta Johnson, Rory Mulligan, Kyle, Eric, Vickie. Directed by Bing Liu

 

Sometimes a film presents itself in such a way that you expect one thing (and those expectations are might low) but are delivered another which is so much more than you thought it might be. Those are the moments of discovery when you realize that you have seen a movie that isn’t just entertaining or enlightening but life-changing.

The movie begins as a suburban skateboarding documentary and to be honest, I’ve seen enough of those. The main protagonists are shredding around Rockford, Illinois and during interviews talk about how they just want to skate, they’re not interested in being a traditional part of society and that they don’t want to be put into any sort of box. These are all things about skate culture that I found repelling, a kind of entitlement that is unearned. As it turned out I was wrong.

We see the last three years of the lives of these skaters, essentially, as Zach – the leader of this group of friends, wrestles with fatherhood as his girlfriend Nina gives birth. Keire, the lone African-American member of the group, feels a sense of belonging with his friends that he doesn’t have with his family and Asian-American Liu – who initially was planning to only be behind the camera – begins to realize that documenting his friends’ lives is opening up some of the rougher parts of his own.

All three of these boys (and Nina as well) are on the cusp of adulthood and they are being dragged into it kicking and screaming. They don’t always act responsibly and they don’t always say or do the right thing. In other words, they are just like all of us at that age. Some of the things they do are destructive, some of the things they do are sweet but in every instance there is a sense of being unsure that they are doing the right thing. Like all of us as we move from childhood to adulthood, they are flailing around in the dark and hoping that they’ll find something to hold onto.

The relationship between Zach and Nina begins to deteriorate. They fight all the time, leading to a screaming match in which Nina threatens to kill Zach. We sympathize with Zach as he seems to be doing his best – working long hours as a roofer – but then we hear Nina’s side of things. Zach, as it turns out, is not the guy we thought he was.

All three of the boys have issues with fatherhood – in the cases of Keire and Bing dealing with abusive fathers. As Keire wryly says early on, “Back then it was called discipline but what it’s called now is child abuse.” Their moms are interviewed as we see the toll that abusive fathers took on them as well and as the movie goes on, how the dysfunctional relationship between Zach and Nina takes a toll on her as well. Everyone in this movie undergoes big changes in maturity as the movie goes on; some for the better, others not so much.

There are a lot of scenes of the guys skateboarding, maybe a few too many but one thing you begin to realize is that skateboarding is not a hobby or even a passion; it’s a release for them. It’s a way for them to deal with their pain and it’s as necessary to their well-being as eating and breathing. The issues I had with skater culture suddenly evaporated as I watched this. Their need for non-conformity made sense now to me. I can’t always condone someone who believes that their way of living is superior to anyone else’s, but I can see why the lifestyle is chosen. In a lot of ways, surfer culture is similar.

This is a movie you should see. You might think “oh, another skateboarding film” but it’s not that. It’s a coming of age film, not in the traditional Hollywood state of mind but as it really happens to all of us. Nobody looks forward to responsibility and stress but nevertheless we want the opportunity to make our own decisions and live life on our own terms. That’s not always possible; circumstances often dictate what our actions must be, but that need for autonomy and to be ourselves remains with us even when you’re as old as I am.

REASONS TO GO: The film goes from being a skate kid doc to an unexpected treasure. I ended up getting a better understanding of skate culture. It’s very powerful in places.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit on the raw side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some brief drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liu has been filming his friends since they were all teenagers (and in Keire Johnson’s case, 11 years old) and has incorporated some of that home footage into the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 91/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Street Kids
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Mute

The Bleeding Edge


When rich corporations win, we lose.

(2018) Documentary (Netflix) Stephen Tower, Anna Firmalino, Robert Bridges, Ana Fuentes, Julio Cesar Novoa, Jim Spencer, Rita Redberg, Jeanne Lenzer, Michael Carone, Gaby Avila, Peter Firmalino, William K. Hubbard, David Kessler, Janice Tower, Adriane Fugh Berman, Deborah Cohen, Rodney Evans, Angelia Clark, Bill Vigil, Kemal Malik, Diana Zuckerman, Adam Slater, Tammy Jackson. Directed by Kirby Dick

 

We take for granted that the drugs our doctors prescribe and the devices that they implant in our bodies are meant to make us well. We assume that they have undergone rigorous testing by the government agencies who are supposed to protect the consumer and of course we don’t question that the said devices and drugs won’t make things worse.

But that isn’t the case as this documentary shows. An indictment of the Food and Drug Administration which also grants approval for medical devices, the film concentrates on a loophole that has been exploited by companies that manufacture these devices (companies that included Johnson & Johnson and Proctor & Gamble) that allow them to escape any testing should the devices be based on devices that existed before a more rigorous testing policy went into effect.

The result is that this testing, which is expensive and time-consuming, is these days rarely put into effect as most companies make the case for their product are extensions of existing products. Thus things like vaginal mesh, the Essure permanent contraception device and artificial hips made of cobalt have been put in people’s bodies without any idea of how the products effect the human body long term – or even short term.

Veteran documentary filmmaker Dick illustrates his point with some pretty horrifying stories as we see the absolute worst nightmares of anyone planning to have a medical device implanted. Many of them involve the Essure, which is essentially a tiny coil which implants itself in the Fallopian tube and induces fibrosis and blockage. It was marketed as a less invasive alternative to a tubal ligation. However, many women who had the procedure complained of bleeding, intense pain, and unwanted pregnancies. In some cases, the devices came out of the walls of the Fallopian tube and embedded themselves in the uterus; in others the device splintered, leaving tiny shards shredding the walls of the tubes and uterus.

I won’t go further into the other products mentioned; suffice to say that there were adverse affects for all of them, some gruesome and others startling. In every case no testing was done, leaving those who had the devices implanted as essential test subjects, unknowing human guinea pigs. It is sobering to think that a government agency would allow it but the $200 billion medical device industry is powerful and as they say in Washington, money talks and lots of money legislates.

The film makes the point that the FDA, designed as a consumer watchdog agency, has instead morphed into a corporate advocacy agency. As tempting as it is to blame the Trump administration (and the problems at the FDA have worsened under the “astute” leadership of Scott Gottleib who has industry ties but no medical degree as past administrators have had) this has been going on for more than two decades – the Essure itself was approved in 2002.

The film is an eye-opener. Dick uses the various interviews and stories to alternate the history of the FDA to make a devastating indictment of a government agency that has been hopelessly corrupted from its original purpose. Certainly this should be required viewing for anyone who is preparing to have a medical device put into their bodies (and in the interest of transparency, my own wife is one of these as of this writing). It is also a sobering reminder that the medical industry is often far from benevolent; very often they are more concerned with profits over patients.

REASONS TO GO: The presentation is simple but effective. A movie anyone thinking about getting a medical device implanted should see.
REASONS TO STAY: It feels like a bad attempt to mimic a Disney animated movie from the 70s. The humor is pretty dumb.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing imagery.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A week before the documentary debuted on Netflix, Proctor and Gamble announced their Essure permanent contraceptive device portrayed in the film would be pulled from the market.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Lie
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
American Animals

Andre the Giant


Andre the Giant in action against Randy “Macho Man” Savage.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) Andre the Giant, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hulk Hogan, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Billy Crystal, Vince McMahon, Rob Reiner, Jerry Lawler, Ric Flair, Shane McMahon, Gene Okerlund, Dave Meltzer, Antoine Roussimoff, Noel Matteos, Dr. Terry Todd, Gino Brito, David Shoemaker, Dr. Harris Yett, Jackie McAuley, Hortense Roussimoff. Directed by Jason Hehir

 

In the 1980s professional wrestling took off from essentially a group of regional promotions into a massive worldwide phenomena thanks largely to the aegis of the WWE (known as the World Wrestling Federation at the time until the World Wildlife Fund objected to the use of their initials) and some of the wrestlers in it. I have to say that I was a wrestling fan back then and watched regularly Monday Night Raw and the other wrestling programs that the WWE and to a lesser extent the NWA ran to keep the ravenous fans sated.

Remembering the big stars of that era – Hulk Hogan, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, Junkyard Dog, Demolition, The Ultimate Warrior, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, Iron Sheikh, Nikolai Volkoff, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Ravishing Rick Ruud, Ric Flair, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Bret Hart, Jim Neidhart, Sting, Arn Anderson, Ted DiBiase, Jesse Ventura – I remember them all and more.

While Hogan was the biggest superstar of his time in terms of popularity, the most unforgettable wrestler of that era had to be Andre the Giant. Born Andre René Roussimoff in the small village of Molien in France, he began experiencing unusual growth spurts due to gigantism; by the time he was 12 he was larger than most adults.

Most of our portraits of Andre as a young man come from family photos and recollections of his siblings. The family, who worked (and still work) a farm in Molien were close-knit; in one poignant moment near the end of the film his brother shows off the chair that his mother built for her growing son. It is empty now but the care that went in to making her son comfortable in a world which largely wasn’t geared towards making people of a certain size comfortable is touching.

The footage of Andre’s early career is absolutely astounding. Most of us have only seen him in the latter stages of his career when the pain from his acromegaly (which developed from his gigantism) and of course the constant toll on the body that professional wrestling takes made any sort of movement excruciatingly painful.

There is a lot of interview footage here, but as far as Andre himself is concerned it is almost all given in his in-ring persona. He was a private man outside the ring and other than one 60 Minutes interview he rarely allowed people in. A lot of insight comes from his wrestling colleagues, although much of the subject regards his extraordinary appetites for food, women and booze. Andre loved to party after a wrestling match and was known to drink as many as 106 beers in a single night; drinking a case of wine wasn’t unusual for him either.

The more poignant material talks about Andre having difficulties getting into cars, hotel beds, and planes. He was simply unable to use an airplane bathroom and considering how much flying he had to do as part of his brutal wrestling travel schedule he often ended up having to hold it, sometimes for hours. He loved the adulation of the fans but there was no escaping it – when you’re his size you can’t escape anything.

Many people know Andre from his role as Fezzig in The Princess Bride and while two of his co-stars and the director talk about his time on the show (by which time his physical deterioration was making it nearly impossible for him to do his own stunts) the beloved movie only takes up about five minutes of screen time in Andre’s story.

Andre died in a Paris Hotel room on January 27, 1993 of a heart attack brought on by his gigantism. He was just 46 years old but had made an indelible mark on the world – and not just the world of wrestling. Always a gentle giant and recalled fondly by friends and family, he was the sort to go out of his way to make his fellow wrestlers look good. His epic battle with Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania III – one of the last matches he would wrestle as it turned out – is still thought by many to be the best professional wrestling match ever.

The movie will be a godsend for pro wrestling fans but even those who aren’t particularly fond of the squared circle will find something to enjoy in this well-made documentary that looks back at the life of a gentle giant. Great footage, engaging interviews and a marvelous subject are sometimes all it takes to make a good documentary.

REASONS TO GO: Heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time, the movie documents the difficulties in day-to-day living Andre had to experience. Some of the footage is phenomenal.
REASONS TO STAY: We get a lot of Andre’s on-screen persona but not a whole lot about who he was off-camera.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sports action and violence as well as some bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original nom de wrestling for Andre Roussimoff was Jean Ferré, a kind of French Paul Bunyan which was later changed to Géant Ferré. American promoters were unwilling to market him under that name because it sounded too much like “Giant Fairy” so Andre the Giant was born.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Resurrection of Jake “The Snake” Roberts
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 
The Cloverfield Paradox

Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story


Glamour was Kevyn Aucoin’s business.

(2017) Documentary (The Orchard) Kevyn Aucoin, Isaac Mizrahi, Christy Turlington Burns, Jeremy Antunes, Brooke Shields, Carol Alt, Cindy Crawford, Cher, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Paula Porizkova, Amy Sidaris, Isabella Rossellini, Tori Amos, Carla Aucoin Hoffkins, Eddie Greene, Garren, Scottie, Sandy Lintner, Keith Aucoin, Todd Oldham, Paul Cavaco, Linda Wells. Directed by Tiffany Bartok

 

Women have worn make-up for largely thousands of years but it is only relatively recently that it has evolved into being an art form. One of the people responsible for that evolution is Kevyn Aucoin (the last name pronounced AH-Kwan).

Kevyn, one of four adopted children, grew up in the less-than-accepting burg of Shreveport, Louisiana. From an early age he had a thing about fashion magazines like Vogue and the musical styling of Barbra Streisand. It was not surprising that he became openly gay which was not exactly looked favorably upon by the citizens and youth of Shreveport. Kevyn was bullied, sometimes brutally, scars which stayed with him all through the rest of his life.

Aucoin went on to New York and through sheer force of will hooked on at Vogue. The rest, as they say, was history. He would grow to be the first celebrity make-up artist, penning books sharing his beauty secrets. He was one of the pioneers of contour make-up – essentially using colors to shape a face – and he revolutionized how women apply make-up in the process.

He was an outspoken activist for LBGTQ+ causes and worked tirelessly for gay rights. Sadly though, he developed a glandular tumor which led to an addiction to opioids and an early grave at the age of 40. Still, while his candle didn’t burn quite as long, it burned much more brightly than perhaps even he had hoped for.

This doc on his life features a plethora of testimonials from family, clients and friends and some of the interviews are absolutely delightful. His sister talks about him using her as a canvas to practice his techniques on when they were in high school, while some of his early models talk about his drive and his absolute fearlessness. He had a vision for what he was going to become and he pursued it as relentlessly as he could.

Aucoin was also an obsessive record keeper; he filled journals with notes and diagrams while he utilized video cameras to document all the fabulous aspects of his life – and let’s face it, he did define fabulous for an entire generation of gay men and women of all persuasions. He was the king of make-up artists during the 1980s, arguably the most make-up heavy era in American history. Because he did so much work on music videos, Aucoin was a heavy influence on how people looked whether they were going out to dance at the clubs or headed out for school.

The perceptions of what beauty was did change over time and Kevyn did change with the times even if he was no longer quite as influential as he was at the height of his career. While the documentary stops just shy of being hagiographic – it does cover his drug addiction and resulting personality change fairly clinically – it does approach fawning territory upon occasion. Perhaps though that makes it more heartbreaking as we see him becoming less easy to work with, less fun to be around. The pain from his cancer and from late growth spurts took its toll and led to his untimely death as the pills he took that basically allowed him to function took over his life.

It bears mentioning that Kevyn was fairly promiscuous but he did find his one true love – Jeremy Antunes whom he married and spent the last years of his life with despite Kevyn’s often difficult behavior. It also bears mentioning – since the film didn’t do it – that after Kevyn passed Jeremy was locked out of the home he shared with his husband by Kevyn’s family. Yeah, it might be water under the bridge and the parties involved might be reluctant to reopen old wounds but it should have been at least mentioned. It was the kind of thing ironically that Kevyn was fighting against.

Still, Aucoin isn’t the household name he perhaps deserves to be. He was a giant in his industry, comparable to Michael Jordan or Meryl Streep. On a strictly human level, this is a story of an outsider who fought his way to the very inside; it’s a story anyone can relate to. This documentary, while unremarkable, does at least a solid job of presenting his life and why he is deserving of a feature film. Bartok could have used a little more editing – it feels like some of the interviews regurgitate the same platitudes – but all in all this is a lot more satisfying a film than I expected it to be.

REASONS TO GO: The film looks at make-up as an art form.
REASONS TO STAY: The run time is way too long and the appeal mainly to a niche audience.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and plenty of drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Among the clients that Aucoin worked with who weren’t interviewed for the film were Oprah Winfrey, Janet Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Halle Berry and Madonna, to name just a few.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon,  iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Devil Wears Prada
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Okja

Eating Animals


Dinner is served.

(2017) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Natalie Portman (narrator), Frank Reese, Larry Baldwin, Rick Dove, Craig Watts, Amelia Watts, Bruce Friedrich, Paul Willis, Bill Niman, Chris Leonard, Jim Keen, Connie Keen, Leah Garces, Lindsay Wolf, Temple Grandin, Gene Baur, Neal Barnard, Bob Martin, Pete Fisher, Tian Yi, Ethan Brown, Josh Tetrick, Eva Song. Directed by Christopher Dillon Quinn

 

When dinner is on the table, we rarely pause to consider how it got there. Most of the food we Americans consume – something to the tune of 98-99% of it – came from a factory farm. That is to say, from a large corporate-owned farming facility that mass produces vegetables, fruit and yes animals for consumption.

Those companies who are often the same ones who pack their packaged food with salt, sugar and/or fat use hormones to stimulate growth and genetically engineer their animals so that the preferred parts of their body grow ridiculously large, like turkeys and chickens with breasts so large that they can barely walk,

The animals in these factory farms live miserable, brief lives. They are literally born to die, although in this case they are born to be eaten. Our chicken, our beef, our pork – they rarely come from those bucolic farms that we see in our Hollywood visions of the heartland. They usually come from hellholes where animal waste is collected in ponds and seep into the groundwater that we eventually drink, but not before it kills all the fish in the local streams.

We get plenty of views of those bucolic farms – as it turns out, there are a few holding on in the face of nearly impossible odds – and we talk to some of the farmers who are holding on to time-honored traditions that may be less efficient but produce happier animals and let’s face it, better meat. That flies in the face of the factory farms who are about mass-producing product at a much lower cost than the small farmers can.

There are also plenty of views of horrific conditions in factory farms; pigs in cages barely able to stand, cows unable to walk due to growth hormones being moved by forklifts and turkey carcasses on an assembly line for your Thanksgiving meal. These are unsettling images that are enough to convert a carnivore into an instant vegetarian.

Which is to say exactly what the filmmakers are after. They are subtle about it early on, chatting up the small farmers raising heritage turkeys and free range chickens. Oh, this is about alternative sources of meat thinks I early on. However as the movie spirals to a conclusion, the true intentions of the filmmakers make themselves known as the virtues of eschewing animal products are extolled. Maybe I’m a little funny that way but I don’t like to be preached to and I get a sense of that near the end. True vegetarians and vegans likewise will find the factory farm footage disturbing.

So in the end the movie seems aimed at those who are on the fence and need just the right motivation to be tipped over the edge. I’ve read a couple of film critics who are vegetarians excoriate the filmmakers for being too subtle with their message and being less militant than they should be. This is why liberals can’t win elections; there is almost a self-righteous superiority. The fact of the matter is that we are not better than the other side. There is nothing wrong with eating meat no matter what militant vegans tell you; it is part of our natural instinct to eat meat. We are omnivores and if we weren’t meant to eat animal flesh, we wouldn’t.

For those who are fans of the documentary Temple Grandin, the lady herself makes an appearance raging at “ag-gag laws,” laws that prevent a real discussion of factory farm methods and

Still, the message is a worthwhile one if you’re willing to listen and have a thick enough skin that you can take the condescension at face value. At least the intentions are good – keeping in mind that if as a culture we ate less meat we would be doing the planet a solid. While they do a good job making a case against factory farming and also against the USDA, a government agency that was founded to protect consumers but it seems as if they are more interested in protecting big corporate interests these days, this might not be the movie for you if you’re looking for a good reason for switching to the green team. For one thing, I think the filmmakers assume you already have one.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is just gorgeous. The filmmakers make their case against factory farming very effectively.
REASONS TO STAY: Towards the end the filmmakers finally start preaching for vegetarianism which I surmised was the point all along.
FAMILY VALUES: The film has some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film got a standing ovation at the Telluride Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: After Winter, Spring
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Our House