Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan


Grace ,made physical.

(2016) Documentary (Abramorama) Wendy Whelan, David Michalek, Kay Whelan, Tyler Angle, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, Kyle Abraham, Josh Beamish, Peter Martins, Brian Brooks, Michelle Rodriguez, Dr. Marc Philippon, Gia Courlas, Emily Coates, Craig Hall, Adam Barrett, Phillip Neal, Alejandro Cerodo, Peter Boa, Wendy Perron, Lisa Ashe, Maria Scherer. Directed by Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger

 

When it comes to art in the United States, New York City is the pinnacle. The best art organizations in the country are, for the most part, there. Every artist worth their salt wants to perform or exhibit there. In many ways, the fine arts are appreciated there like nowhere else in the country, and why not? The best of the best are routinely available for the enjoyment and enrichment of New Yorkers.

Wendy Whelan has danced for the New York Ballet Company for 30 years, the last 23 as their principal dancer. While those unfamiliar with ballet may not know her name, she is widely considered one of the best ballerinas of her generation, if not the best. Her physicality and sensuality have set a standard for dancers around the globe and she has managed to do so without losing her Southern manners drilled into her by her parents during her childhood in Louisville, Kentucky; her relationship with her mother Kay is very strong and loving. She is unfailing polite and sweetnatured to everyone she meets, a far change from the haughty divas that once prowled the backstage of the NYBC.

At age 46, she has performed longer than many ballerinas have in a career in which dancers routinely retire before the age of 40. Despite having been afflicted by childhood scoliosis (we see a picture of her x-ray in which her spine looks like the letter S) she has overcome a full year in a back brace to pursue her love of dance and eventually, reach the top of her profession. She has lived, as she admits candidly to the camera, a fantasy life.

But reality is intruding. Years of dancing takes its toll on the body and Wendy is no exception. Over the years, all the graceful leaps and contortions has done damage to her hip, severe enough that surgery is required. There are no guarantees that she will ever dance again even with the surgery. For someone of Wendy’s determination and near-obsessive focus, betting against her would be a sucker’s bet.

But even overcoming the physical therapy, the pain and the frustration of being sidelined, the one foe she can’t beat is time. NYBC director tells her gently “We don’t want the audience to see you in decline,” explaining why she has been pulled from The Nutcracker Suite, one of her signature roles. Wendy admits that in some ways she hasn’t grown up but she is forced to contemplate what to do with herself when her career inevitably ends.

Whelan gives the filmmakers near-complete access, observing private conversations with her husband David Michalek and allowing cameras to film the initial incisions of her surgery which made me a bit queasy to watch knives going into the body of one of the premiere dancers of our time. She uses the camera as a confessional to a certain extent but one gets the sense that this is a woman who is unfailingly honest with herself and with those around her. While she is a bit self-delusional at times about how long she can perform at peak condition, one gets the sense that once she has endured and conquered the hip surgery that her outlook undergoes a much more realistic change.

As you’d expect with a film about a dancer, there are snippets of her work throughout her career but they are just that – snippets. I’m sure ballet lovers would have preferred to see longer dance sequences; I myself, not being as familiar with her work as the target audience of this documentary might be would have preferred longer sequences even if it meant less variety from her storied career. Near the end we do see footage from her NYBC farewell performance which does give an idea of her grace and physical strength but I think the filmmakers intended this to be less a biography of a dancer and more a portrait of a woman undergoing an existential crisis.

We see some backstage footage as well as sequences where Whelan is mingling with her fellow dancers in social settings – birthday parties, celebrations and meals. I have to admit that at times the camaraderie seems a bit forced as if those in attendance are aware of the presence of the cameras and are pandering to them a bit. Even Wendy, who is natural on-camera throughout, is not unaffected as the awkwardness seems to affect her as well.

But there are some genuine moments too, as we see students from the American Ballet Theater watching Wendy rehearse with fellow dancers Craig Hall and Tyler Angle for her farewell performance; at first it’s just a few awestruck students and then gradually its dozens. A similar thing takes place at the Farewell Concert in which the wings of the NYBC stage are packed with dancers past and present. After the performance, Whelan is nearly buried under roses and flowers presented to her by admirers and colleagues. It is truly a bittersweet moment.

The filmmakers use a cinema verité style to tell the story and while there are some talking heads, it’s refreshing that the movie isn’t too interview-heavy. It makes sense that they’d use that style here however; dance is kinetic and a documentary about a dancer should also be. In that sense they achieve it, even during the slower-paced section of Ms. Whelan’s recovery from surgery.

I’m not so sure this will appeal to people who aren’t into ballet, although I will say that I am not a fan of dance but I still found this enjoyable and informative. Those that give this film a chance should also find it that way as well. Those who already love the beauty and grace of ballet may wish for more dancing and less documentary, but even they will appreciate getting an inside glimpse of the life of one of the most important and influential dancers of our time. Whelan makes an engaging subject and you won’t tire of her even for a moment.

REASONS TO GO: Watching Whelan’s journey is inspiring. The dance sequences are just marvelous.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes it feels like the subjects are hyper-aware of the camera. The surgical footage is not for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some occasional profanity, a few drug references and some graphic medical procedure footage.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; among the producers are rapper Common and comedian Reginald Hudlin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

New Chefs on the Block


Aaron Silverman gets intense.

(2016) Documentary (Lateral Line) Aaron Silverman, Frank Lynn, Michel Richard, Frank Lynn Sr., Konstantin “Kosta” Troupos, BJ Lieberman, Anne Lynn, Emily Sprissler, Mike Isabella, Dan Silverman, Libby Diamond, Michael McNamara, Drew Adams, Kate Diamond, Danny Meyer, Andy Erdmann, Elizabeth Parker, Scott Muns, Aziz Shafi, Justin Eobstel, Andi Chesser, Alison Danie. Directed by Dustin Harrison-Atlas

It is said that the second hardest thing to do in the small business realm is to open up a new restaurant. The hardest thing to do is keep it open. As most people are aware, restaurants come and go with almost a terrifying regularity. People tend to be fickle and may pack your eatery one day and the next day be on to the new flavor of the week. Banks are very loathe to give out small business loans for that reason, particularly for would-be restaurateurs with no track record.

One of the toughest markets for restaurants is the Washington DC area. This documentary follows two men with very different concepts and very different hopes; one is Aaron Silverman, a chef with a pedigree that has brought him under the tutelage of some of the best in the business, including Michel Richard (who sadly passed away shortly after filming concluded for New Chefs on the Block). He had an idea of a five star dining experience at two star prices. In order to accomplish that he loaded up his kitchen with experienced chefs.

He also gave his staff health and dental benefits (a rarity in the food service industry) and regular hours, giving them the ability to plan their lives. This is also revolutionary stuff in an industry well-known for creating personal life chaos. Silverman is something of a perfectionist and the price it would take to make his dream happen was a heck of a lot more than the second chef.

Frank Lynn (who in the interest of transparency is the brother-in-law of the filmmaker) had been operating a successful pizza-oriented food truck for two years and yearned to have a brick-and-mortar location to call his own. He found one in the Maryland suburbs of DC but the space would need some extensive work. Believing that the $86,000 he raised through family members and Crowdfunding would be more than sufficient to get his neighborhood pizzeria open, he set about remodeling his space mainly with the help of his family and friends.

Both project take longer than expected to reach opening night and both are fraught with issues that threaten to kill the dreams of their prospective owners before they even get started. We see pretty much everything; the process of getting permits, the physical construction, ordering a pizza oven that turns out to be defective, the compromises and calamities all told.

Many restaurant owners are going to see this and chuckle ruefully to themselves. Others who are thinking about opening a restaurant might turn white as a sheet. However, the cautionary tale is that Harrison-Atlas turned out to be extraordinarily lucky; most restaurants don’t make it to their first anniversary and the number that make it to their second is terrifyingly low. Still, this is a fascinating behind the scenes look at how your neighborhood restaurants came into being. That the two owners are engaging and charismatic fellas makes this a lot more palatable because some might find the somewhat clinical view of the start to finish process a bit of a slog. However I assure you that you’ll leave the theater (or your home couch if you are watching through streaming or home video) a little bit more educated about the business and, even more likely, craving something good to eat.

REASONS TO GO: An informative look at what goes into opening a restaurant. A rooting interest is maintained even when the expectations aren’t realistic.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little bit too “nuts and bolts” for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some profanity occasionally.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rose’s Luxury would go on to win the James Beard award for Best New Restaurant, Mid-Atlantic Region in 2014.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Georges
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: A Quiet Passion

In Circles (2016)


Some movies go around in circles.

(2016) Thriller (108 Media) James Fisher, Chloe Farnsworth, Jonnie Hurn, Cassandra Tomaz, Jodie Jamieson, Dan Burman, Jon Campling, Adrian Dunham, Sandy Kate Slade, Terry Roderick, Ian Manson, Steve Di Marco, Louis Mitchell, Olly Hunter, Marie Pope, Dayna Shuffle, Jacob Price, Rosalie Martin-Hurn, Isla McDonald, Denis Hurn, Serena Tombolini. Directed by Jonnie Hurn and Ian Manson

 

For decades, people have been trying to figure out what causes crop circles – intricate geometric figures hundreds of meters long in fields around the world. Mostly they can only be seen in aerial views. This has led some to speculate that they are the work of aliens from outer space; others are sure that they are pranks performed by particularly artistic humans on Earth. Some point to a supernatural origin other than extraterrestrials. Nobody knows the answer for sure.

Lara (Tomaz), a television journalist from Brazil who has to her mind been exiled to Europe to report on news that nobody in Brazil cares about, is looking to make a name for herself. Yossi (J. Hurn) is a cameraman who has already worked for the best and watched her get blown into a million pieces trying to rescue a small boy during one of many conflicts he has covered, one after the other, over the years. He wants something peaceful and meaningful; he longs to cover the act of creation rather than the acts of destruction. The two have been paired up and sent to Wiltshire in England, the world capital of crop circles where the vast majority of them are found.

Hatter (Fisher) is a local who is estranged from his son Dean (Burman) who works in London. Hatter owns an inn – well, it’s kind of an inn. It really is more like a pub with tents in the fields out by the river. From time to time Hatter has visions, very painful ones accompanied by loud noise and migraine headaches. The only relief he can get is to draw what comes into his mind which are often patterns that become significant only later on. The one employee at the pub is Aideen (Farnsworth), a pretty blonde who holds things together when Hatter is recuperating from his visions or tramping around the fields.

Wiltshire draws a lot of tourists because of the amount of crop circles there which the farmers don’t mind; they put donation boxes on the fences around their land and often make more money from those donation boxes than they do from harvesting the crops so if they have to put up with new age sorts and retro-hippies tramping around their land, it’s a small enough price to pay. When Lara and Yossi roll up, they meet Hatter who is cryptic about the circles but agrees to guide them to ancient stones and other sites that have dotted the Wiltshire countryside for centuries (Stonehenge is not far from where this takes place).

Dean picks this opportune moment to return home after a forced vacation is called for by his boss (Hunter) who is concerned that Dean’s work has fallen precipitously in quality. He and Lara hit it off and soon a romantic thing ensues which would likely be a shock to Yossi who dismissively calls her the Ice Monster and is derisive of her ambition and journalistic skills.

Yossi, for his part, is bonding with Hatter who recognizes that the cameraman is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and needs to vent about the things that are haunting him, most notably the death of his partner whose final moments which she urged him to capture on video he is unable to sell to anyone. This causes him to feel that her death was in vain.

As the two journalists get involved more deeply in the lives of the Wiltshire locals, Yossi begins to share some of the visions that plague Hatter including that of the Electromagnetic Man (Campling), a kind of Celtic image who causes mysterious cuts on the arms of the men and Dean in a moment of weakness confesses something momentous to Lara which will throw everything into turmoil. Will Lara take the information she has received and use it for her own gain despite what it might do to the locals? And will Yossi lose himself in the mystery of the crop circles?

This is a fairly low-budget British affair that examines a phenomenon that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention from Hollywood which is surprising. There is a rich vein of material that could be mined here for some amazing or terrifying movies. This one steers clear of the terrifying aspect, preferring to be something more like a suspense film. While there are elements of the fantastic, they aren’t the centerpiece of the movie. Still, I think I could characterize this as New Age sci-fi and not be far off the mark.

Hurn is from the area depicted in the film – the nighttime sequences in the fields were shot in the village he grew up in. That makes for a compelling story because it means something to the filmmaker, so it means something for the viewer. Unfortunately, the execution of the movie leaves a lot to be desired.

One of the main issues is that the music is absolutely annoying. It is neither interesting nor beautiful; it is often used inappropriately to generate suspense when none is needed and is frankly embarrassing to the film. I would have preferred no music at all to what I heard in the film. The sound effects are also loud and jarring. If ever a movie was sabotaged by one technical element, this is it.

The acting performances are pretty solid with Burman standing out with an uncanny physical resemblance to Colin Farrell but also stylistically similar as well. I also liked Farnsworth a good deal; she has a great spunky presence that made me think of Judy Greer somewhat. I’m hoping to see more of her on this side of the Atlantic in years to come.

The directors seem to be fond of what I call visual nonsequitirs; images that are unconnected with the action seeking to establish a mood or to set a style. For example, during a fairly important sequence in the film the director cuts away to a shot of little girls dressed as fairies gamboling in a crop circle. A beautiful image, yes; germane to the story, no. The little girls make no other appearance of the film and are only there to symbolize innocence which was a point that was already made.

I think as Hurn and Manson mature as a filmmaker he’ll get away from those sorts of shots and concentrate on telling his story simply and effectively. I’m not opposed to artistic license or inserting images that may not necessarily advance the storyline into a film but it shouldn’t be a habit. I do like that Hurn at least told a story that was essential to him and it shows in a few places, just not enough of them.

REASONS TO GO: Burman is reminiscent of Colin Farrell both physically and in his performance.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a whole lot of visual nonsequitirs. The soundtrack is one of the most annoying I’ve ever heard on a film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality as well as plenty of profanity and a few scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the story is fictional the interview sequences were shot with actual crop circle investigators and researchers.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Signs
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Clinical

Unrest (2017)


There can be beauty in medicine.

(2017) Documentary (Chicken & Egg) Jennifer Brea, Omar Wasow, Nancy Klimas, Paul Cheney, Stig Gerdes, Lee-ray Denton, Casie Jackson, Ketty Hansen, Ron Davis, Per Hansen, Whitney Dafoe, Jessica Taylor, Darwin Jackson, Jessica Harden, Lee Routh, Sawyer Jackson, Ruby Taylor, Samuel Bearman, Colin Taylor, Randy Denton, Per Fink, Ron Gill, Theo Haugen, Linda Tannenbaum. Directed by Jennifer Brea

Unless you’re a medical professional, you’ve probably never heard of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME). You may be more familiar with its popular name, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It’s a medical problem that the medical community has almost no understanding of. There are many doctors who believe it is entirely psychosomatic – in the patients mind  In some countries, that is in fact medical policy.

Jennifer Brea, originally from the Orlando area, was studying for her PhD at Harvard. A bright and vivacious girl, she traveled the world and lived life to its fullest. She was engaged to be married to a handsome Internet analyst (and later professor at Princeton) named Omar Wasow. Life was only going to get better.

Then she got sick, struck by a fever that at its worst measured 104.7 degrees. The fever broke, but she was left with extreme sensitivity to light and sound and bouts of fatigue so all-encompassing that she could barely get out of bed and eventually could only crawl inch by inch along the ground (the opening scenes of the movie document this). Eventually she is confined to a wheelchair but soon she is unable to sit up in a seated position. She is only capable of being prone.

Of course, she sees her doctor, and then specialists, and then other specialists. None of them can even offer a diagnosis. Some told her she was dehydrated and stressed due to her doctoral work. Others told her that her symptoms were due to a long-buried trauma that was surfacing only now. Meanwhile, her symptoms were growing worse. Unconvinced by what her doctors were telling her and determined to get to the bottom of what was affecting her, she did her own research and came up with ME and CFS which is said to affect as many as 17 million people around the world. She went onto YouTube and heard stories that were eerily similar to her own. She knew she had found the source of her problems.

But as she looked into it, she found the depressing fact that despite the fact that her disease was so widespread, there was little to no research being done on it. Few knew how the disease operated and those that did were only in the early stages of understanding how it worked. The more people Jennifer talked to, the more she realized that hope  was being lost on a widespread basis. Rather than face a lifetime confined to bed, many sufferers were taking their own lives.

Determined to make these stories public, Jennifer decided to make a documentary. She enlisted camera crews in England, Denmark and around the United States to capture sufferers of ME/CFS on-camera. We hear the story of Jessica Taylor, a young woman living in Kent, England who has spent her 16th through 21st birthdays in bed and whose inactivity has caused osteoporosis which gives her the bones of a 100-year-old, not an uncommon side effect for ME/CFS sufferers. There’s also Lee-Ray, a Georgia housewife whose husband left her after years of caring for her and when their daughter came down with the disease, finally realized that this wasn’t something Lee-Ray was making up and has since begun the process of reconciling with his ex-wife. One of the few geneticists looking into the disease is Stanford’s Ron Davis who has a personal interest – his son has ME and is unable to speak anymore.

The most outrageous case is that of Karina Hansen, a young girl afflicted with the disease who is forcibly removed from her parents home by the police and confined to a mental hospital in Copenhagen where her parents are refused access to her. Largely due to a Danish physician named Per Fink, the Danish medical establish operates on the principle that the disease is entirely psychosomatic and that removal from the environment which reinforces belief in the disease is the only means of cure. It was only after this proved ineffective that Karina was finally allowed to return home.

Through these stories we get to see how ME/CFS impacts not only the person who has it but their families and loved ones as well. The central story however belongs to Brea and her husband and in some ways we feel a bit of the intimacy between them as we are privy to moments of romance, frustration, and conflict but mostly support and love. Omar sometimes questions the desperate methods Jennifer tries to ameliorate her disease like ingesting a hookworm and living in a tent out in her yard to avoid any vestige of mold but for the most part, he does everything he can to give her a normal life and most importantly to keep hope alive.

The movie keeps the focus mainly on Jennifer herself but gives an adequate amount of time and focus on the other stories as well. As with all things, ME/CFS affects different people differently so seeing the various degrees and results of the symptoms on the lives of different people gives us a bit more of perspective. The only thing I can really fault the film with is the opening sequence may prove challenging to those who are more sensitive to camera motion, as I am; a chronic vertigo sufferer, I found the opening sequence started to bring my symptoms on. I recognize the need for the sequence; it gives viewers a sense of what Jennifer goes through but those like myself who have that sensitivity should be aware that the opening few minutes may be a problem.

That can be hard to do; we look at the prescriptions Jennifer is supposed to take; it’s a staggering amount and personally I can’t believe all those pharmaceuticals can possibly be doing her body any good. It’s no wonder that Jennifer is looking into alternative treatments.

But she’s also not taking her situation if you’ll excuse the pun lying down. She’s helping to organize and was involved with the Millions Missing event in which family members of ME/CFS victims left shoes out in public places to illustrate how he people who have this affliction have disappeared from life (some literally; the suicide rate is high). Most importantly, she’s made this documentary which brings to light the plight of those suffering from this illness and the medical establishment’s attitudes towards it. One can’t help but notice that suffers of Multiple Sclerosis were once upon a time often told the same things by the medical establishment until the invention of CAT scans revealed an actual issue. As of yet there are no tests that show a medical cause for these issues although some work is finally starting to get done.

This documentary goes a long way into not only showing the global impact of the syndrome but also its immediate effects. That gives the film both an intimacy as well as wide perspective, a very difficult wire to walk. This is an important documentary which hopefully will give a greater understanding of the illness not only to the general public but to the medical and scientific communities as well.

REASONS TO GO: This is a heart-rending and occasionally heartbreaking film. You can’t help but admire Brea for her courage. Brea manages to reveal the scope of the disease worldwide and provide intimate details of its effects at the same time.
REASONS TO STAY: The use of the Go-Pro camera at the beginning of the film may be rough for those who are sensitive to jarring camera movement.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and brief graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers are mounting a campaign to show the film in medical schools to allow new doctors to get a glimpse into what ME means to the patient.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gleason
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: In Circles

Tickled


From such things comes Internet tickle porn,

(2016) Documentary (Magnolia) David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, David Starr, Hal Karp, David D’Amato, Kevin Clark, TJ Gretzner, Richard Ivey, Alden, Jordan Schillaci, Marko Realmone, Debbie Scoblionkov. Directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve

Once in awhile, a movie comes along that is a surprise to even the filmmakers. They start out making one story when all of a sudden it turns completely off the rails and heads into directions unknown. A good filmmaker will follow it as best they can. A great filmmaker will keep up with it and begin to help shape it themselves.

Journalist David Farrier from New Zealand has a tendency to follow quirky stories. When he saw an internet video for “competitive endurance tickling,” he thought at first it had to be a joke. When it turned out to be a thing, he thought it would make a great feature for his television program. He asked the producers of the videos he found, Jane O’Brien Media, he contacted them to set something up. To his surprise, he got a refusal. When he inquired as to why, he received sharply homophobic messages (David is gay) and as he pressed, the messages from the representative at Jane O’Brien Media became increasingly insulting and threatening.

His interest completely piqued, he asked for a face-to-face meeting with some of the people who worked for Jane O’Brien and met up with Marko Realmone and Kevin Clark, both members of the O’Brien legal team. The meeting didn’t go well and lawsuits were threatened if Farrier continued to pursue any sort of investigation. His journalistic senses now sensing a much different story going on, Farrier and his partner Dylan Reeve started digging into the world of the tickling fetish, speaking to David Starr, who makes fetish videos from his Orlando home, and Hal Karp who was a former talent scout for Jane O’Brien Media but who’d had a falling out with them since.

The more that Farrier and Reeve dug, the more they found instances of online bullying, threats and blackmail from Jane O’Brien Media to former employees and participants in the tickling videos which were essentially thinly veiled fetish videos. And as they did more digging going back to the online videos of one Terri DiSisto they discovered an alarming pattern of abuse, identity theft, harassment and internet fraud. Eventually all of this led back to one man: David D’Amato, the heir to a fortune from his lawyer father who seems to be the spider in the center of the web, a man who has jealously guarded his privacy. But what is he hiding?

This film, which played at the 2016 Florida Film Festival and can now be seen on HBO, is one that the viewer never knows what’s going to happen next. It is the kind of film that proves the adage “truth is stranger than fiction.” Although Farrier is making his feature film debut, he has tons of television experience and the movie benefits from it. The movie never drags and never fails to deliver twists and turns, some of them absolutely jaw-dropping.

The movie comes off like a suspense thriller and you feel a genuine sense of threat even as you think to yourself “this is an online bully hiding behind Internet anonymity” but at the same time you can’t be one hundred percent sure. Even during the Orlando sequence when Farrier portrays the fetish as an essentially harmless one (and thankfully so), there is a sense of menace that pervades the movie and one wonders if the lawyers will succeed in shutting down the pursuit of truth. This is a movie that illustrates just how important investigative journalism can be in finding out the truth even in the face of threats to career and reputation.

It should be noted that the D’Amato vigorously denies the veracity of the reporting here and insists that he is not involved with Jane O’Brien Media or Terri DiSisto in any way, despite documented evidence to the contrary. Lawsuits have indeed been filed although attempts to keep the film from being shown were unsuccessful.

While some may find the world of tickling fetish videos a bit too bizarre for their liking, to me this isn’t about the fetish so much as it is about control. Abuse thrives in silence and those who feel powerless often remain silent. Sometimes it takes someone with a powerful torch to cast light in the darkness and give a voice to the powerless. This is a terrific documentary which underscores just how necessary documentaries are.

REASONS TO GO: This is a movie that will literally keep you guessing. The value of good investigative journalism is shown.
REASONS TO STAY: It may be a little too bizarre for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two directors, a producer, the executive producer and one of the actors were all sued in U.S. Federal District Court by D’Amato and others in an effort to stop the film from being shown.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, HBO Go, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catfish
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Winter Sun

Supergirl (2016)


A young woman who is strong as she is beautiful.

(2016) Documentary (FilmRise) Naomi Kutin, Ed Kutin, Neshama Kutin, Ari Kutin, Rabbi Benjamin Yudin. Directed by Jessie Auritt

Sometimes young people come along who are just extraordinary. They stand out as having passions, being goal-oriented, natural leaders. Naomi Kutin is just such a person.

When we meet her in this documentary she is just 10 years old but she already owns the power lifting world record in the 97 pound class. She routinely beats people twice her age. During the course of the film we watch in awe as she lifts three times their own body weight. To quote the title of a mostly-forgotten 70s television show, that’s incredible.

Her parents are extremely supportive. Her father Ed is a power lifter as well and often competes in the master class at the same meets his daughter does. He has been training her from the time she expressed interest in the sport. Her mother Neshama who converted to Judaism is also extremely supportive but is very careful to make sure Naomi gets to express other sides of her personality as well. In the meantime, she goes to all of the competitions her daughter lifts at and shouts encouragement from the sideline; “Go Supergirl,” the nickname that she and Naomi’s friends have bestowed upon her. There is also her younger brother Ari who is in the autistic spectrum but who clearly adores his big sister – a feeling that is amply returned by Naomi. She is protective of him and encourages him when he also takes up an interest in power lifting.

In fact Naomi and Supergirl are almost two different people. Naomi is a devout Orthodox Jew but also a modern little girl who titters over boys with her friends, likes bright colors and is aware of all the pop culture touchstones that girls her age are into. Supergirl is a dedicated and focused athlete who spends most of her time training and before lifting psychs herself up with primal screams and grunts that you wouldn’t expect coming out of the mouth of a 10-year-old…or anyone else.

Auritt shot the documentary over the course of three years, from the triumphs of re-setting the power lifting record for her weight class to her struggles to stay in that class even as she is growing out of it. Much of Naomi’s self-identity, at least early on, is wrapped up in her world records. As it becomes clear that her body is growing into the next weight class, Naomi is dead set on keeping her weight at 97 pounds even though she is taller and not as centered as she was before her growth spurt.

Even as Naomi is wrestling with the inevitability of her weight increase, she is dealt a devastating blow as she begins to get terrible migraines. Soon it becomes clear that the cause of her migraines is her training and weightlifting; the doctors advise her to give it up but Naomi doesn’t want to. At first she fights through the pain but when she can no longer do that, she tries to find alternative solutions to maintain her health and still compete in the sport she loves at the level she is used to. As we watch, there’s no guarantee that she’ll be able to have what she wants.

What the movie makes clear is that Naomi is not the victim of stage parents who live vicariously through her achievements; nobody who is this dedicated and this focused does what Naomi does because they’re trying to please their parents. Her passion for power lifting comes straight from the heart. I’m sure there will be people who see this who will criticize the parenting going on, but personally I don’t think that’s valid. There are trolls all over the Internet as we see when Naomi reads some cruel comments that appear on her Facebook page. People really do suck sometimes.

It is also fascinating to watch how the Kutin family reconciles the weightlifting with their religious beliefs, although there are a few questions I have; their faith requires that there can be no electrical devices used during the Sabbath but we watch them on one occasion observing the Sabbath as a family; isn’t the camera an electronic device? Perhaps I’m ignorant of what is allowed on the Sabbath and what is not. Still, it is refreshing to see just how normal this family is other than the constant training. Watching Naomi and her mom go dress shopping for Naomi’s bat mizvah is about as fun as being there with them. In a sense, we are although of course we get no input into the dress Naomi chooses. Pity, that, because I have excellent taste in dresses. Moving along….

It is clear that the director has a good deal of affection for the subject of her documentary and who can blame her? Naomi is an extraordinary little girl. And for the record, she’s a beautiful girl who is going to grow to be a beautiful woman. She may power lift but she’s not sacrificing an iota of her femininity for it. I sense that her mother is seeing to that to a certain degree, but the fact is that Naomi just plain likes being a girl.

The story is pretty straightforward and told in a manner that is easily followed; Auritt doesn’t augment her film with animations or graphics for the most part other than the bare minimum. This is a traditional documentary style which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. Auritt wisely chooses not to reinvent the wheel and just presents Naomi’s story mainly in Naomi’s own words. The talking heads mainly belong to her parents.

This isn’t the kind of documentary that is going to change your life for the most part. It is the story of a focused and special young woman and to be fair it will be inspirational to many. The takeaway is that those who are willing to put in the time, discipline and work to achieve their dreams can achieve them regardless of their age or size. That’s a good lesson, but not one that hasn’t been given in other films as well. Naomi Kutin is a special little girl and I think you’ll enjoy watching her story. You might even be inspired to go beyond your own limits in the thing your passionate about. And that, as it turns out, is what life is all about.

REASONS TO GO: Naomi is an impressive young person. The film gives us a glimpse into the daily life of an Orthodox Jewish family in a way that is very simple and direct.
REASONS TO STAY: The film isn’t as compelling as it might be. There are some incongruous moments.
FAMILY VALUES: There isn’t anything here that I wouldn’t feel concerned about allowing children or young people to see.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Auritt got the inspiration to do the film after reading a profile of Naomi online.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Tickled

Circus Kid


Where do kids who already live in the circus run away to?

(2016) Documentary (Points West) Larry Pisoni, Bill Irwin, Peggy Snider, Lorenzo Pisoni, Harvey Robb, Geoff Hoyle, Terry Lorant, Paul Binder, Hovey Burgess, Gypsy Snider, Jess Pisoni. Directed by Lorenzo Pisoni

Being in a circus, to a kid, would seem to be the most wonderful thing ever. Traveling from city to city, performing in front of adoring crowds and all those wonderful animals! Oh my, what kid of my generation would not want to join the circus?

Well, Lorenzo Pisoni did just that but not the way you’d think. His father Larry and his mother Peggy Snider were co-founders of the Pickle Family Circus in 1974 in San Francisco. The Pickles were at the forefront of the New American Circus movement, one which eschewed animal acts and while they did use traditional circus performers like clowns, jugglers, high wire acts, tumblers and did I mention clowns? Larry was the head clown and his act made the world take notice.

As a 2-year-old boy Lorenzo wandered out onto the center of the ring and performed his own clown act. Soon he was partnering with his dad who became not just his parent but his coach, mentor and of course onstage partner. Although Lorenzo got his share of home schooling, he had little contact with other kids his age. He was too busy performing and practicing when he wasn’t performing. It speaks volumes that Lorenzo signed a contract as a performer as a seven-year-old, locking him into the life of the circus.

His father also developed a drinking problem, one that got him pushed out of the circus he founded. That forced a change in the life Lorenzo had already known. While Peggy was now staying in San Francisco looking after the financial affairs of the circus, Lorenzo as an 11-year-old boy was traveling with the show without either one of his parents now that his father was out of the picture, although he did have a legal guardian with him.

Years later, Lorenzo would create a one-man show detailing his childhood in an off-Broadway production called Humor Abuse – snippets of it are shown paralleling events being discussed in the film which Lorenzo directs. At first it’s essentially a story of the Pickle Family Circus but eventually it becomes the story of a boy’s relationship with his dad, how it became toxic and how the two reconciled. The latter part is the more interesting element of the two, although the circus history and backstage peeks are also fascinating in their own right.

Bill Irwin was probably the most famous graduate of the Pickle Family Circus, with Geoff Hoyle a close second. Both appear here to talk about their time as part of the Pickles and Irwin gets fairly emotional about it. For those wondering, the group has changed quite a bit over the years – they have incorporated Chinese acrobatics into the show and still do weekend shows in the San Francisco Bay Area three months a year.

Being a West Coast boy, I’ve seen the Pickle Family Circus on more than one occasion in their heyday. Like Cirque du Soleil which was inspired by their example, they have only a single ring rather than three. The clowns which I remember vividly were perhaps the most important element of the circus; the feats of agility were certainly amazing but I remember the clowns. It was a more innocent age.

The movie gives some insight not only into the dynamic between Larry and Lorenzo but also into the Circus itself, but it feels like almost two movies. Lorenzo, now a family man himself, doesn’t really bring the two aspects of his film together as smoothly as it might have been. Still, if you ever dreamed of running away to the Circus, this might be the film for you although I have to admit that running away to the Circus generally didn’t mean having my parents along when I was daydreaming about it as a young boy.

REASONS TO GO: A fascinating look at the lives of traveling performers and of the history of the Pickle Family Circus.
REASONS TO STAY: The two elements of the movie – the history of the Pickles and the father and son dynamic between Lorenzo and Larry don’t mesh as well as they might.
FAMILY VALUES: Nothing you wouldn’t want your kids to see – especially if they’re threatening to run away with the circus.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lorenzo’s sister Gypsy created all the circus sequences in the recent Tony-award winning revival of Pippin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Family Fang
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Rat Film