No Responders Left Behind


Jon Stewart and John Feal tilt at windmills in Washington.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Jon Stewart, John Feal, Ray Pfeiffer, Luis Alvarez, Kenny Anderson, Michael O’Connell, Richard Alles, Kristin Gillibrand, Stephen Grossman, Ken George, Chris Foerster, James Zadroga, Michael Barasch, Benjamin Chevat, Cindy Eli. Directed by Rob Lindsay

 

Most people, when they think of the death toll of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, come up with the number of 2,996. However, the death toll is much higher than that – many of the first responders and volunteers who dug through the wreckage of the World Trade Center looking for survivors, and afterwards, to clean up the site, ended up infected with a variety of toxins that have led to life-threatening illnesses. Thousands have died since then, and more are sure to join them.

But what was a national disgrace is that many of these people lost their health insurance because their illnesses left them unable to work. Many lost their homes as well. John Feal was a supervisor for a demolition company that was hired to assist with the clean-up; he ended up badly injured on the job due to an accident. When his health care coverage was cut off and he was left with enormous medical bills he couldn’t begin to pay, he became an activist, finding that many of those heroes of 9/11 – those who ran into the Trade Center to save lives and managed to survive – were unable to afford to buy the medication and treatment needed to keep them alive. The fund that was established to assist them was set to last only five years, but was likely to run out of money long before then. Something needed to be done.

He had an ally – former Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who had retired from television at the time, but even though he made a couple of movies in the interim, devoted much of his time to this cause. As plans to fund the needs of those who politicians swore we would never forget went through Congress, it became a political football, being added to other bills in order to make them more attractive to progressive congressmen – or less attractive to conservative congressmen.

In all honesty, it was a national disgrace. While the Republicans were moaning about the deficit (and cutting taxes for corporations and the super-wealthy), people were dying. At last, in front of Congress, Feal convinced Stewart not to use his pre-written speech and speak from the heart. Stewart’s testimony, ending famously with a fierce “They did their jobs. Now do yours!” led to the success that was needed and should never have been an issue in the first place.

This documentary shows the fight going back to the days just after 9/11 and all the way to the renewal of the funding just two short years ago. It took 18 years for the first responders to get what they were due, which is an absolute embarrassment and a prime example of how are political system is broken. Lindsay opts to just allow the story to be told; there are few interviews other than archival ones. What results is a stirring and moving portrait that deservedly paints Feal and Stewart as heroes and introduces us to other heroes, such as Ray Pfeiffer, who was one of the leading advocates for the First Responders group until he died from his illnesses, and Luis Alvarez, who testified before congress only two weeks before the multiple cancers that had invaded his body due to his absorption of toxins at Ground Zero ended his life. This is one movie every American should see.

REASONS TO SEE: A tribute to the power of persistence and determination. The stories are wrenching and emotional. Stewart’s speech before Congress is one for the ages. A great story simply told. Makes heroes (and deservedly so) out of Stewart and Feal.
REASONS TO AVOID: May hit too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Feal is co-founder of the FealGood Foundation, which assists first responders and supporters who suffer illness or injury on the job and afterwards don’t get the care and coverage that they need. You can find out more about it here.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Freedom to Marry
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Best Sellers

Eating Our Way to Extinction


Vegans will inherit the earth.

(2020) Documentary (Seine) Kate Winslet (narration), Sir Richard Branson, Tony Robbins, Otto Brockway, Joanne Kong, Joseph Poore, Peter Wadhams, Jeremy Rifkin, Bruce Friedrich, Tara Garnett, Roger Roberts, Oliver de Schurrer, Gerard Winterbern, Dr. Sylvia Eagle, Don Staniford, Liv Holmefjord, Udo Erasmus, Gemma Newman, Taryn Bishop. Directed by Ludo and Otto Brockway

 

Climate change is, without a doubt, one of the signature agenda items of our generation. It might surprise you, though, to learn that one of the leading contributors to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere come from what you might consider a harmless source: animal husbandry. The raising of animals for food creates an enormous amount of hydrocarbons but in order to keep all those animals fed, much of the crops that we grow go directly to them and not to hungry humans. It does seem somewhat bizarre.

This slick, well-meaning documentary charts how our lust for hamburgers and chicken nuggets are leading to an absolutely ruinous future. Oscar-winner Kate Winslet narrates, soberly ticking off points and captioning footage that is, to say the least, disturbing. The makers of the film claim that this movie will change the way you look at food, and it might very well do that.

Now, there are an awful lot of scientific talking heads, and that’s all well and good, but it can get a little bit dry, although the nifty animations help. What I found to be a major failing of the film, though, was that it seems to be presenting veganism as the only solution to the problem. That doesn’t take into account that humans have been raising animals for food for thousands of years and it is only recently that it’s become a problem. And while I admire the passion behind the project, I don’t appreciate being hammered over the head with a point of view that reminds me of an overzealous Christian missionary trying to convert me to Evangelical Christianity.

But it IS a problem, and we need to insist that our meat comes from healthier sources and not factory farms. Whenever possible, buy locally sourced meat and yes, that may be more expensive, but we should also be eating more vegetables anyway. I don’t think that the solution is for the entire planet to go vegan – that would bring on a whole slew of other problems. There is a tendency to think that because a problem is extreme that an extreme solution is required. What we need is to act in moderation. Eat less meat. Eat healthier meals. If we can stop consuming the massive amounts of beef, pork and chicken that we do, we can actually slow down climate change. But we also need to regulate Big Agriculture and their use of toxins like pesticides, growth hormones, dyes and preservatives. This movie, while on the strident side, gives us a good starting point in how to change our ways to make a difference for future generations.

The movie is playing tonight only as part of Fathom Events. Check your local listings to find the nearest theater playing it. Otherwise it will be appearing on most major streaming platforms later this fall.

REASONS TO SEE: Intelligently presented.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tends to hammer the viewer over the head with its points.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Brockway brothers also directed the official promo for Virgin Galactic.
CRITICAL MASS:As of 9/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fed Up
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
No Responders Left Behind

Last Man Standing: Suge Knight and the Murders of Biggie and Tupac


Scene of the crime.

(2021) Documentary (Gravitas) Nick Broomfield, Suge Knight, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Danny Boy, Pam Brooks, Simone Green, Lipp Dogg, Mob James, Leila Steinberg, Russell Poole, Doug Young, Krystal Anderson, Joe Cool, Alison Samuels, Xavier Hermosillo, Tracy Robinson, Yaasmyn Fula, Greg Kading, Frank Alexander, Violetta Wallace, Delores Tucker, C-Style, Tracy Robinson. Directed by Nick Broomfield

 

During the rise of hip-hop in the 1990s, Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace, better known as Biggie Smalls, were two powerhouse figures in the genre. They had been close friends for many years, but became bitter rivals after Shakur finished a jail term (for sexual assault) and after being bailed out by Death Row records label chief Marion “Suge” Knight, became a member of that roster. Both men however, met the same end – gunned down in the prime of their careers in homicides that to this day remain unsolved.

British documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield was drawn to the parallel stories and in 2002 made a film called Biggie and Tupac which looked at the lives of both men, culminating in their murders. At the core of the cases stood Suge Knight, a man who ran his record label very much like a criminal gang boss. His entourage included many members of the Bloods gang and red – the gang color of the Bloods – was in evidence throughout the label’s offices and on the person of Knight and his crew.

Knight is currently serving a 28-year sentence of voluntary manslaughter for deliberately running down Terry Carter, a friend and founder of Heavyweight Records, in the parking lot of a burger joint following an argument on the set of Straight Outta Compton. With the notoriously volatile and vengeful Knight tucked away in prison, Broomfield thought it was time to revisit the story and talk to those who were reluctant to talk to him earlier for fear of reprisals from Knight.

The results here aren’t as game-changing as you might think. Certainly there is some new information here, much of it revolving around the role of crooked L.A. cops who were essentially on the payroll of Death Row records, but not really a significant amount. Most of the investigative work came from Russell Poole, a former l.A. cop whose investigations into the Shakur murder would lead to him getting fired and shunned by his former colleagues. Poole, who passed away from a heart attack in 2015, provides much of his testimony in archival interviews with Broomfield, some dating back to the original Biggie and Tupac sessions.

Broomfield is something of a guerilla filmmaker who got a reputation as an in-your-face interviewer. He has thrived with reluctant interviewees. With most of the people here – employees of Death Row, friends and associates of Knight, Shakur and Wallace – almost eager to tell their stories, he seems a little bit out of his element.

There is a great deal of commentary on the gang culture that was tangled in the hip-hop scene of the time, and particularly at Death Row. Although some speak of Knight with fondness, there’s no doubt that he is a ruthless man with a criminal mentality. He had a great ear for talent, yes, having helped with the careers of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, along with Tupac, but at the end of the day he likely did hip-hop as much harm as he did good.

In any event, there’s not a lot here that hasn’t been covered in other documentaries and those who have seen a lot of them on the lives of Biggie, Tupac and Death Row will probably not find this a terribly useful or enlightening work. Those who are less familiar with the murders, this is as good a place as any to get informed.

REASONS TO SEE: The story remains as compelling as it ever has.
REASONS TO AVOID: Talking head-heavy and a bit repetitive at that.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of profanity including drug and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original score was written by, of all people, Nick Laird-Clowes of the dreampop band Dream Academy.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews; Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Biggie and Tupac
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Alliances Broken

The Smartest Kids in the World


Learning comes in all kinds of colors.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Amanda Ripley, Jaxon, Brittany, Sadie, Simone, Meneer Hofstede. Directed by Tracy Droz Tragos

 

It’s no secret that the American education system is in crisis. Differing ideas on how to fix it have been put forth by politicians, ranging from putting more money into education (although we spend more per student than any other developed nation save one) to using a voucher system to allow parents to send kids to private schools, with some feeling that public schools should be discontinued completely and education be left to for-profit private enterprises and religious entities.

But as author Amanda Ripley points out in her bestselling book that this documentary is loosely based on, nobody is asking the students themselves. So, director Tracy Droz Tragos did. Well, kind of. The film follows four students from disparate parts of the country as they go abroad to study as exchange students in four countries whose educational system is generally considered to be superior to ours. Most of this is due to the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA test. However, don’t expect to be told what markers are actually measured – the film doesn’t go into that.

Instead we follow Jaxon, a young man from Wyoming who is frustrated with his high school’s emphasis on sports which has gotten to the point that classes are essentially canceled on Friday so that athletes can participate in various sports and non-athletes can support from the stands (Jaxon himself is a wrestler). He feels unchallenged by the curriculum and sees the situation as an impediment to his future success, so he opts to go to the Netherlands to study, despite speaking not speaking a word of the language.

Brittany (who attended a high school only a few miles from Cinema365 headquarters) chose to go to Finland but was emtarrassed to tell her classmates that she wanted a better education, so she made an excuse that she wanted to visit Lapland because “that’s where Santa Claus was from.” She was surprised to discover an emphasis on student autonomy and less emphasis on homework and tests. There was even a sauna in the school for students to unwind when they feel stressed.

Simone, from the Bronx, is a child of Jamaican immigrants who place a strong emphasis on the value of education. She decided to go to South Korea because she felt that she would be better prepared for higher education that way. A strong work ethic enabled her to learn to speak Korean fluently by the time her exchange program was through. However, she observed that the pressure put on Korean students to perform and excel far exceeded the expectations placed on American students, which caused greater and more debilitating stress-related illnesses among Korean teens.

Sadie, who had been homeschooled in Maine until high school, was disappointed to find an emphasis on conformity and popularity. Most of the students were far behind her level of learning and she felt she was being held back. She went to Switzerland where she discovered that there were programs by Swiss employers to place students in apprenticeships to give them a feel for real-world skills that they would need to develop and help them choose the career path that appealed to them. All four of the countries that the students visited were significantly higher than the United Stats in both math and science PISA scores.

The main problem with the movie is that it doesn’t meaningfully address one of the big obstacles that other, smaller nations don’t have to deal with – the diversity and disparity of our country. The issues facing an inner city school – gang violence, drug use, broken homes, poverty – are very different than the issues confronting rural schools, or those facing suburban schools. While the Korean schools meticulously collected the cell phones of the students every morning, the Swiss and Finnish schools did not.

There is often a perception that kids are more into their social media and less into – well, anything else – and there is some truth to that, but that’s not a problem that exists only in the United States. There seems to be more of a feeling among the students in those four countries that they had a responsibility to be working hard for their own future, something that sometimes seems missing among American students, although it’s not completely gone – certainly the four students here were eager for something better.

A single 100 minute documentary really isn’t sufficient to go into the problems that modern students face; that schools are now teaching more how to take tests than in any sort of real learning (teaching critical thinking is an important aspect that is stressed in all four of those countries), the low pay and high burnout of teachers in this country (in other countries, teachers are well-paid and have similar status to doctors and lawyers), the issue of mass shootings in schools (something more or less unique to the United States), the crumbling infrastructure of most schools and a lack of political will to address it, And that’s just scratching the surface.

Ripley is absolutely correct that we need to listen to students and find out what they need and want out of schools; some may be more interested in fewer tests but more homework, while others would want the opposite. Some might prefer learning to be completely online without any sort of classroom instruction. The point is, the best experts as to what needs to be fixed in schools aren’t even being asked the questions we need to ask.

However, this documentary is a bit of a disappointment, giving only cursory coverage to the various programs in other countries and not really looking critically at the issues facing students and school boards alike, and this is too important a subject to give anything less than in-depth examination.

REASONS TO SEE: An important subject for all parents – and their kids.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not as in-depth as it needed to be.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the United States spends more per capita on education than all but one developed nation, its PISA test scores in math and science consistently fall in the bottom third of developed nations.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting for “Superman”
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Together

The Outsider (2021)


The work continues even when the direction is unclear.

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Michael Shulan, Alice Greenwald, Bob Garfield (narration), Clifford Chanin, David Handschuh, Michael Kimmelman, Michelle Breslauer, Norm Dannen, Lou Mendes, Joe Daniels, Jan Ramirez, Lynn Rasic, Michael Frazier, Melissa Doi, Phillip Kennicott, Tom Hennes, Amy Weisser. Directed by Steven Rosenbaum and Pamela Yoder

 

The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, is something that has left an indelible mark on America and all Americans. Regardless of political affiliation, skin color, religious background, gender or ethnicity, we all feel pain and sorrow at the thought of that heinous day. It remains a sore point that in some ways requires a certain amount of sensitivity.

When it was decided to create a memorial and museum at Ground Zero, there was a certain amount of hand-wringing at the thought of a tourist attraction on what is, to many, sacred ground (then again, ask a Lakota what they think of the Mount Rushmore gift shop). One of the people that the board of executives for the proposed museum contacted was Michael Shulan.

Shulan, a writer, had an empty storefront near Ground Zero in which he had taped a photo he had taken of the Twin Towers. That seemed to strike a chord in other New Yorkers as others began to post their own pictures there as well. Soon, Shulan was curating an impromptu art exhibit. He became, quite unintentionally, the world’s leading expert on images taken from 9-11.

Shulan was something of a novice when it came to setting up a new museum; other members of the board were not, including Alice Greenwald, the chairman of the board. Alice, who had helped put together a Holocaust museum in New York, had her own ideas of how the museum should be. Shulan saw it as a place that asked questions rather than provide answers; Greenwald saw it as more providing the latter.

This fly-on-the-wall documentary goes behind the scenes of the conception and design of the memorial, and follows along with the construction. We see the board grappling with which images to include and which might be too graphic. We listen to the heartbreaking 9-11 call of Melissa Doi, and watch them also consider how much of it to make available.

These types of issues are fascinating, but we spend an awful lot of time on the office politics of putting this museum together. We never get a sense of how reliving 9-11 every day for years affects those in charge with curating the memorial to it. For some reason, the filmmakers chose initially to make Shulan their focus, but as the film goes on he becomes less and less a part of the proceedings. We get a sense of his frustrations (and the film title refers specifically to him, after all) but he fades out of focus somewhat unaccountably.

The movie is kind of insular, and it doesn’t help that Bob Garfield’s narration makes this look and sound more like a story on 60 Minutes. While the aspect of being privy to meetings and discussions about important issues gives us a sense of how decisions were arrived at, we never really get much in-depth discussion with the principals to add any sort of nuance to what we are seeing. So while the subject might be intriguing, it feels like the filmmakers didn’t really do any kind of follow-up once the meetings had adjourned. This was never going to be an easy task and it was never going to please everybody – but that doesn’t mean a documentary about the process had to do the same.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating backstage look at how office politics basically color everything.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the images might be too disturbing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing 9/11 images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shulan left the museum board on the day it opened to the public in 2014.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet;  Metacritic: No score yet,
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Museum Town
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Show

Not Going Quietly


Ady Barkan having a dad moment with his young son.

(2021) Documentary (Greenwich) Ady Barkan, Racheal King, Elizabeth Jaff, Cory Booker, Helen Brosnan, Brad Kleffer, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Tracey Corder, Nate Smith, Kamala Harris, Carl Barkan, Ana Maria Archila. Directed by Nicholas Bruckman

 

There are those who consider COVID-19 little worse than the average flu (rightly or wrongly) but one disease that everyone agrees is absolutely horrible is ALS. It is a fatal degenerative disease that slowly robs the victim of every facility and sense, until they are imprisoned in a body that is unable to do anything, all the while retaining full cognizant function. There is no cure and no treatment for it; all one can do is ride it out to the bitter end. Both baseball Hall-of-Famer Lou Gehrig and Nobel-winning physicist Stephen Hawking were among the most notable people to contract the disease.

Ady Barkan was a progressive activist and lawyer who worked for a number of causes. An engaging young man with a room-blinding smile, he had a young wife and a beautiful baby boy. But then, the 32 year old was given the devastating diagnosis; ALS, and doctors figured he had three to five years to live.

But worse still than that diagnosis was dealing with the medical insurance companies. Doctors prescribed a breathing apparatus that was absolutely essential for Baran’s continued living, a device they termed “uncontroversial,” but his insurance company denied it as “experimental.” Frustrated and angry, Barkan chose to channel his frustrations into activism and began advocating for universal health care. And then, Trump got elected and Barkan, wo was going to become more and more dependent on the health care system for his very survival, realized he was in serious trouble.

A chance meeting on a plane home saw a conversation between Barkan and then-Senator Jeff Flake from Arizona in which Barkan pleaded with the Republican politician to “be a hero” and vote against the Trump tax cut (a plea that ultimately proved futile). However the media-savvy activist Liz Jaff, who filmed the encounter, co-founded the Be a Hero PAC with Barkan and they set out to change hearts and minds.

In some things they were successful; aided by their efforts, the 2018 elections saw the Democrats retake the House of Representatives. In other things, they were not; despite their efforts, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed, despite accusations of sexual misconduct. Barkan worked diligently, trying to advance the agenda of the left while holding the tide back on the politics of the right, but it was taking a toll. The disease was ravaging his body, soon confining Barkan to a wheelchair; he became unable to do basic things like dress himself, bathe himself and feed himself. Eventually, the disease robbed him of his very voice and the film begins and ends with Barkan, addressing Congress by the aid of a computer voice that Barkan operates by using his eyes.

Throughout, we are shown Barkan’s indefatigable sense of humor, his continuing passion, and his unassailable love for his family – wife Racheal (herself a college professor and published author) and infant/toddler son Carl. We also see the toll that the disease coupled with the workload takes on Barkan physically. One cannot help but admire Barkan’s courage.

And if the film gets a little bit hagiographic in that sense, it is understandable Most people given a diagnosis of a fatal disease are not going to use their last years working hard as an activist for a cause; they are going to spend as much time as humanly possible with their families, and do things that are important to them, be it a trip to Disney World or taking a luxury cruise.

Most of what is onscreen is footage from Barkan’s activism coupled with home movies. Amazingly, although his wife Rachael is very much in evidence in the film, we don’t hear from her much, or at least not in meaningful ways. We see the toll taken on Barkan, but we rarely see how the care for a person in Ady Barkan’s position takes its own toll on his loved ones.

For a man for whom family is so demonstrably important, it is a glaring omission. Still, watching Barkan push ahead through his own body’s breakdowns, his occasional despair and the indifference of politicians who mouth platitudes of sympathy out of one side of their mouths and then vote to imperil his life out of the other. Of course, politicians are an easy target to despise, just as people like Barkan who are tilting at windmills with the last of their strength are as easy to admire. Nevertheless, those like Barkan should receive the plaudits they deserve – as the politicians who oppose them the ignominy.

REASONS TO SEE: Barkan is courageous, engaging, and inspiring. Points out the cowardly nature of politics.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fails to get enough commentary from Racheal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and a sexual assault is discussed.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Among the producers of this documentary are actor/activist Bradley Whitford and the Duplass brothers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pride of the Yankees
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Raging Fire

Bring Your Own Brigade


This used to be my house.

(2021) Documentary (CBS News) Marily Woodhouse, Brad Weldon, Lucy Walker, Derek Rickmers, Lauren Gill, Norma Weldon, Maeve Juarez, Char Mullen, Marshall Mullen, Mike Zucolili, Malcolm North, Steve Pyne, Zeke Lunder, Dave Jones, Kristen Shive, Chad Hanson, Mark Emerson, Mike Davis, Greg Bolin, Chris Brandini, Rick Halsey, Jim Broshears, Jody Jones. Directed by Lucy Walker

 

As I write this, the Dixie fire is burning out of control in California. Another hot summer, another spate of wildfires are scorching the West. This has beome the new normal. But does it need to be?

Oscar-winning documentarian Lucy Walker, a British transplant now living in the United States, asks that very question. She opens this two hour long documentary with footage of wildfires from around the world, including heartbreaking footage of a baby koala in Australia burning alive until saved by human hands. The animal’s piteous screams of pain are not likely to be forgotten to anyone who sees this movie anytime soon.

Then we see the human side. Walker had been in Paradise doing research on the 2017 Thomas fire that had nearly leveled the town when the Camp fire broke out, as did the Woolsey fire in Malibu. Walker had crews in both locations and was there when 88 lives were lost and thousands of structures consumed. The Camp fire remains the deadliest forest fire in the history of California.

Hearing the 911 calls of panicked people in cars and in homes, knowing that they’re about to burn alive, is absolutely devastating. While some of the folks you hear did actually manage to escape, not all of them did. It is much like hearing the 911 call of Melissa Doi from the 83rd floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The footage of burning cars and fire all around the vehicles, taken with cell phones by the survivors of the fire, would put Dante to shame.

But while Walker early on says that the movie is about hope, and it might be hard to find at the beginning. However, she examines the issues of the underlying causes of these fires and while climate change is certainly a culprit, it is by no means the only one. Logging companies planting new new trees too close together cause fires to spread further and faster; the refusal to use controlled burns to help cut down the flammable material in forests, and infrastructure (power lines that are poorly maintained, and in the case of the Camp fire, were directly responsible for the fire) maintenance inadequate to what is needed as well as homeowners failing to clean their rain gutters, leaving dry tinder in proximity to their roofs.

Perhaps the most heart-wrenching thing about the documentary is what happened in Paradise afterwards. While Ron Howard’s Rebuilding Paradise showed a heroic side of the community (and Walker dutifully trots out Barry Weldon, a resident caring for his blind mother whose house was spared and who then put up homeless neighbors in his home), we see here firefighting professionals making a number of recommendations to help avoid the mass destruction that occurred in 2018. The city council, spurred on by angry citizens of Paradise, voted every one of them down. Every. One.

Then again, many of the folks in Paradise, given only minutes to gather belongings and flee, went immediately for their guns. Eyewitnesses report the ammo left behind going off like a war zone during the fire. One can draw parallels between the refusal to accept sensible precautions in the guise of asserting personal freedom by the citizens of Paradise to the current stance of those refusing to get vaccinated against a deadly pandemic. It turns out that we, as a species, are pretty much a bunch of morons.

The film is currently playing in select theaters around the country. Subscribers to CBSN and Paramount Plus will be able to see the movie on those services beginning August 20th.

REASONS TO SEE: Human denial is both fascinating and horrifying. Spectacular footage of the Camp fire.
REASONS TO AVOID A little bit too anecdotal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT The Camp Fire remains the deadliest wildfire in the history of California to this date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inhabitants: An Indigenous Perspective
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Toxico

Who Are You, Charlie Brown?


Who do you THINK you are, Charlie Brown?

(2021) Documentary (Apple Plus) Charles M. Schulz, Lupita Nyong’o (narrator), Lynn Johnston, Chip Kidd, Karen Johnson, Jean Schulz, Tyler James Nathan (voice), Terry McGurrin (voice), Isabella Leo (voice), Holly Gorski (voice), Hattie Kragten (voice), Isis Moore (voice), Wyatt White (voice), Christian Dal Dosso (voice), Jacob Soley (voice), Matthew Mucci (voice), Natasha Nathan (voice). Directed by Michael Bonfiglio

 
Since 1951, Charlie Brown, his dog Snoopy and his sister Sally, classmate Lucy van Pelt and her brother Linus as well as Schroder, Pppermint Patty, Franklin and Pigpen have all delighted and informed the childhood of generations. The simplicity and genuine love in the character brings instant nostalgia whenever we consider Lucy snatching the football away from Charlie Brown at the last moment, Snoopy winning a Christmas decoration contest for his doghouse or Linus and his security blanket.

Framed by new animation that has Charlie Brown flummoxed by an assignment at school to write an essay about who he is, this 54-minute-long documentary traces the development of the Peanuts comic strip from its very beginnings, and of course the life of its creator, Charles M. Schulz. There are plenty of archival interviews with Schulz as well as contemporary interviews with those who knew him including his widow Jean, and friend and cartoonist Lynn Johnston who looked up to him as a mentor. Actress Lupita Nyong’o provides narration.

It is perhaps the world’s worst-kept secret that Charlie Brown is essentially Schulz; along with sharing the same first name they also shared many of the same insecurities. Although the documentary doesn’t really explore this aspect, in many ways Schulz wrote the strip as a form of therapy to deal with his own doubts and fears.

There are some celebrity interviews including Billie Jean King (who inspired the creation of Peppermint Patty), filmmakers Paul Feig and Kevin Smith, actress Drew Barrymore, humorist Ira Glass, television personality Al Roker and a few young actors who will be more familiar to pre-teens than to their parents.

AppleTV Plus has become the literal custodian of the Peanuts filmed legacy including all of their beloved TV holiday specials (what’s Halloween without It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or Christmas without A Charlie Brown Christmas?) as well as new material like The Snoopy Show. In some ways, the documentary is an advertisement for the material AppleTV Plus has available and may seem a bit disingenuous in that regard, but to their credit, little of the new material is mentioned here.

It’s hard not to get the warm fuzzies from a show like this. Certainly, we can admire Schulz’ stand when Southern newspapers threatened to drop the strip after he introduced Franlin, an African-American character – and we can also temper that with the understanding that it took Schulz a while to finally add the character to the strip, despite many appeals to do so. It’s also nice to see how elements of Schulz’ own life made their way into the strip (Sally’s pet name for the unrequited focus of her affection, Linus – “My sweet Baboo” – is what Jean used to call her husband). This isn’t going to go down as a definitive biography on Schulz or a definitive analysis of his creation – that would take much longer than the time allotted here, but for beginners who are curious about the strip or for those who want to introduce their kids or grandkids – or great-grandkids – to the strip, this is a nice way to do so.

REASONS TO SEE: Evokes everyone’s childhood.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have used a little more detail.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Peanuts comic strip was initially titled Li’l Folks, but concerns about copyright issues with a strip created by Tack Knight in the 1930s called Little Folks led Schulz to change the title of his creation.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Apple Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet,
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Good Grief! The Story of Charles M. Schulz
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Captain Marvel

Enemies of the State


An all-American family? Or victims of a government conspiracy?

(2020) Documentary (IFC) Paul DeHart, Joel Widman, Christopher Clark, James Donahower, Leann DeHart, Lillian Tekle, Adrian Humphreys, Gabriela Coleman, Tor Ekeland, Ralph Nichols, Carrie Daughtrey. Directed by Sonia Kennebeck

 
We have come into an era where, as Leann DeHart puts it in this film, truth does not matter. We are all quick to believe what we’re going to believe anyway, whether informed through tribal affiliations or long-held beliefs. Either way, the truth never gets in the way of a good story.

On the surface, the DeHart family is one you’d find just about anywhere, USA. Father Paul is a pastor and ex-military; his wife Leann is also formerly in the military and their precocious son Matt was in the National Guard. Like many kids his age, he was into computers in a big way and his technical skills got him top secret clearance.

But Matt had grown to admire hacktivist groups like Anonymous and Wikileaks. His parents knew nothing about what he was up to until the FBI came knocking at their door with a warrant. Matt said that the government was out to keep him from whistleblowing about crimes and misdemeanors the government was routinely committing on US soil, and painted himself out to be cut in the mold of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.

But the government insisted that wasn’t what was happening at all; Matt was accused of being a sexual predator and creating child porn. For Paul and Leann, this is absolutely preposterous and proof in their eyes that their son is telling the truth – the government is setting him up and using these heinous charges as a diversion. Matt further claims that the FBI is torturing him while in their custody. With nobody to turn to, and determined to keep Matt out of the hands of a government that they feel sure will kill their son once he is in custody, the DeHarts get in their car and drive to Canada where they apply for asylum.

This all sounds very convoluted – and it is – but then all the best mysteries are, aren’t they? Sonia Kennebeck’s second feature is very much set up like a Robert Ludlum spy thriller and relies heavily on dramatic recreations of certain events (in the case of the Canadian immigration hearing that the DeHarts were involved with, utilizing actual audio from the proceeding) and talking head interviews with family, friends, law enforcement and one journalist who is certainly on Team Matt.

But the final third of the movie has some jaw-dropping revelations in it. It’s just a shame the first two thirds of the film are so slow-moving that less disciplined viewers may give up on the film before they get to the good part, and the good part is definitely worth getting to. At times, Kennebeck seems to be delivering a screed about the state of the truth in an age where it is so easy to lie, and it takes a good while for us to get to that truth, but any journey that ends up at the truth is one well worth taking.

REASONS TO SEE: Has a bit of a Robert Ludlum-esque feel to it.
REASONS TO AVOID: Might be too densely packed, although it does improve in the last third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Documentary filmmaker legend Erroll Morris is an executive producer on the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews; Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We Steal Secrets
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Never Gonna Snow Again

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain


Sometimes, having it all isn’t enough.

(2021) Documentary (Focus) Anthony Bourdain, Ottavia Busia Bourdain, David Chang, Helen M. Cho, Josh Homme, Eric Ripert, John Lurie, David Choe, Morgan Fallon, Doug Quint, Lydia Tenaglia, Christopher Collins, Tom Vitale, Philippe Lajunie, Alison Mosshart. Directed by Morgan Neville

 

It is not unusual that we feel we know those television personalities whose career give us an idea of their temperament and style. We spend hours and hours with them; isn’t that a form of knowing them? Not always. I’ve read many comments by people who viewed this documentary about the late travel/food program host, former chef and bestselling author Anthony Bourdain that “Tony would have liked this,” or “Tony would have approved of that,” despite the fact that they didn’t know him and likely never stood face to face with the guy. This, even after those who DID know him say at least a couple of times during the film that television Tony was a different person than off-camera Tony.

The movie, from Oscar-winning documentary auteur Morgan Neville, chronicles his rise from a dishwasher in New York to a cook to a chef who was convinced by the wife of a friend who worked for a publishing firm that his writing style would sell a lot of books. Thus came Kitchen Confidential, a trailblazing non-fiction look at what goes on in the kitchen of high-end New York brasserie. Bourdain, who had managed to kick a heroin habit, but merely transferred his addiction from one thing to another.

When TV producers Christopher Collins and Lydia Tenaglia heard that Bourdain was planning a follow-up book in which he would travel the globe, experiencing new cuisines and new cultures, they knew it would make a great TV show and so it did, and A Cook’s Tour became a hit. This led to No Reservations on the Travel Channel, and then his final show, Parts Unknown on CNN. We see how quickly Bourdain took to Vietnam, falling in love with the country and its food, joined on that episode by his old Les Halles boss Philippe Lajunie. We see him exploring the France of his boyhood with his brother, and later with his close friend Eric Ripert. We see how affected he was by conditions in pre-earthquake Haiti, and the amazing episode in Beirut that was interrupted by the beginning of a war that devastated the capital.

We also see the darker side of Bourdain; his relentless personality, the tantrums he throws when things aren’t going the way he thinks they should be, his occasional dark moods. We also hear from Bourdain himself that he yearns for a “normal” family life which he briefly had with his second wife Ottavia and his daughter Arielle, but his brutal travel schedule made that all but impossible. As his relationship with Ottavia ended, he took up with actress/director Asia Argento (daughter of horror legend Dario), and his addiction seemed to transfer to Asia. When she came out as a victim of Harvey Weinstein, Bourdain went all-in with #MeToo, ending some long-term friendships over things that had been said or done decades earlier (the film doesn’t mention that Argento herself was accused of sexual assault shortly after Bourdain passed away).

If there is a villain in this piece, it is Argento, at least in the eyes of those close to Bourdain and Neville. She directs some episodes of Parts Unknown and disagreements with her leads to the dismissal of a long-time camera operator for Bourdain, an action very out of character for the notoriously loyal host. But tabloid reports of Argento carrying on with another man, leading Bourdain to explode to one of his producers, “A little discretion, maybe?” in disgust days before Bourdain hung himself in a hotel room in Alsace, his body discovered by Ripert who doesn’t talk publicly about the incident.

Bourdain is barely a presence in the last half hour of the movie. We see a thousand yard stare, Bourdain glowering at the camera. Mostly, that portion of the movie is about his friends and family who break down, the wound still fresh two years (three as the film is released) after his death on June 8, 2018. Having had a close friend who took their own life, I can say that even a decade after she passed I still feel her absence keenly.

For some portions of the film, Neville recreated Bourdain’s voice using a Deepfake A.I. program. In those instances, the A.I. was using e-mails and other sources of Bourdain’s written correspondence, but still some found it to be skirting the line ethically. Bourdain’s widow, Ottavia Busia, firmly denies having given Neville permission to re-create her late husband’s voice after Neville told GQ magazine that he had received permission from her. Some have looked at this as a blurry ethical line; I suppose it’s no worse than staging a scene for a documentary, but at least those dramatic re-creations tend to be announced in the credits, which is something Neville should have done here.

The movie doesn’t dwell on the suicide so much as on the way Bourdain changed the lives of those who knew him, and on how all of those who watched his shows viewed travel. If there’s one thing Bourdain taught me, it was the importance of experiencing things as immersively as possible. When you go to a place, don’t limit yourself to all the tourist locations, the chain restaurants. Truly see a place, how the locals live, and eat what they eat. Travel, as Bourdain has said many times, changes us.

I don’t claim to have known Bourdain at all, other than what I saw of him on TV – and I did watch his shows, as a travel junkie and a foodie. I loved his acerbic wit, his self-deprecating snarkiness and his brilliantly descriptive narration. He was unlike anyone else on TV in that he didn’t seem to give a crap about what he was supposed to be like. He just did things the way he thought they ought to be done. Sadly, he had demons that haunted him throughout his life – I wouldn’t be surprised if he was undiagnosed bipolar, frankly – and never seemed to find the happiness that he yearned for. Maybe that’s the real tragedy of Anthony Bourdain.

REASONS TO SEE: Lots of amazing footage. Clearly an emotional subject for his friends two years after his death.
REASONS TO AVOID: Towards the end of the film, Bourdain is less of a presence.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title of the film comes from a Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers song.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Fin