Man in Red Bandana


Welles Remy Crowther believed we are all connected as one human family and we are here to care for and help each other.

(2017) Documentary (Verdi) Gwyneth Paltrow (voice), Barack Obama, Jefferson “Jeff’ Crowther, Alison Crowther, John Howells, Welles Remy Crowther (voice), Ling Young, Harry Wanamaker, Judy Wein (voice), Honor Crowther-Fagan, Kelly Reyher, Gerry Sussman, Richard Fern, Chris Varman, Ed Nicholls, Eric Lipton, Ron DiFrancesco, Donna Spera, Paige Crowther-Charbonneau. Directed by Matthew J. Weiss

 

There are heroes that we know about, those who are rightly praised and their stories oft-repeated. Then there are the heroes we don’t know about, people who should be household names but aren’t but still in all fit the definition of heroism to a “T.”

Welles Remy Crowther is one such. He is one of thousands who perished on September 11, 2001 in the World Trade Center – in his case, in the South Tower. What he did in his last hour of life has been enough to grab the attention of President Barack Obama, who recounted the young 24-year-old equities trader’s story at the dedication of the 9/11 Museum in New York City and has already been the subject of a documentary short on ESPN.

Crowther was the son of Jefferson “Jeff” Welles, a volunteer firefighter and his mother Alison and grew up in Nyack, New York. He was athletic, lettering in ice hockey and lacrosse in high school and playing varsity lacrosse at Boston College. After graduating, he got a job at Sandler, O’Neil and Partners on the 104th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. However, as he confessed to his father a month before the attack, he was considering a career change, one that he actually made – after he died.

After the United Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower, Crowther made his way down to the 78th floor where the plane had impacted. He found several survivors there, all frozen in fear and panicking in the dense smoke and flames. He was able to discover the one clear stairway left and guided those survivors to it, making three separate trips up and down the stairs. He was in the lobby, within sight of safety, preparing to return to the 78th with firefighters who had the rescue equipment needed to bring those who were unable to make the stairs on their own when the tower collapsed. His body wouldn’t be recovered until the following March.

He’d left a haunting voice mail message for his mother before the second plane hit, assuring her that he was all right. After that, he called his college roommate John Howells to let him know he was going to get out but the young man’s nature was not to abandon those who needed help. He always carried a red bandana – a gift from his firefighter dad whom he idolized and who carried an identical blue one – and he wore it on this occasion to filter out the smoke and dust. He took it off only briefly but survivor Ling Young, one of the ten (at least) that is positively known that he rescued that day, clearly saw his face and would later identify him to his mother but we’ll get to that more in a moment.

His family was understandably devastated; when his funeral was held, there had been no remains recovered to that point so an empty casket was buried. This was hard for his mother Alison to accept so she went on a quest, pouring over news photos, print articles and documentaries, trying to find some mention, anything, that would tell her something about how her son died. Years later, the New York Times did a comprehensive article on the timeline of the disaster, organizing it by towers and by groups of floors. Reporter Eric Lipton was assigned the area where Welles had been and noticed that several survivors had reported being guided out by a man in a red bandana. Alison knew immediately that this was her son. She contacted survivors Judy Wein and Young and both of them were able to identify Welles from pictures that Alison had.

The documentary was directed by first-time filmmaker Matthew Weiss, who had heard Welles’ story from Jeff Welles, who had worked in the bank Weiss uses. Weiss’ inexperience shows in a number of places; the movie feels padded a bit towards the end as all the monuments and tributes to Welles are listed and shown. The re-enactments are a bit sketchy as well. Paltrow’s narration is surprisingly bloodless; she has always been a very emotional actress so I was surprised when the narration sounded  a bit too much like she was reading it without caring much about the words.

But Weiss also took an inspiring story and brought it to life. The animated graphics he used to explain how the planes impacted the building, why the impacts brought the Towers down and where Welles Crowther went in that last hour are informative albeit simple. It’s a shame Weiss didn’t have the budget for more elaborate animation but on the flip side they may have detracted from the film. Simple is generally better even when it comes to films.

The interviews with Welles’ family are understandably emotional. You get a real sense of the devastating effect his passing had on them, on his friends and on the community at large. Clearly he was well-liked by just about everyone who knew him; high school hockey teammates (one tells of a pass that Welles made to him so that he could get the first goal of his varsity career and afterwards retrieved the puck so he could keep it), and work colleagues. He didn’t seem to have a steady girlfriend however; at least none were interviewed here although being a handsome and likable young man I’m sure he had his share of girlfriends. The movie doesn’t give too much of a sense of Welles’ personal life beyond his sports achievements and his love for firefighting and desire to become one.

One of the reasons Welles’ story isn’t better known may be that he “only” saved ten lives; the media loves big numbers over smaller ones after all but at the end of the day he gave his life for people he didn’t know at the cost of his own and despite the fact that he could have continued down the stairs with the first group and easily have saved himself. That he chose to return at least three more times is mind-blowing. I can’t think of anything more heroic than that. For his heroism he was the first man to be honored as a firefighter in the Fire Department of New York City posthumously and in several memorials to fallen first responded he is listed as a firefighter there. What is particularly moving about this is that when his father was cleaning out Welles’ apartment sometime later, he discovered applications for the FDNY that Welles had partially filled out. This was the career change he had discussed with his dad before he died.

There is a great deal of 9/11 footage here of the planes hitting the building and the towers collapsing, some of it unseen before now. Even though sixteen years have passed as of this writing since that terrible day, for some the images may just be too traumatic and trigger feelings that may bring back a whole lot of pain. Those who have difficulties still in watching 9/11 footage or seeing images from that day should be advised that this may be difficult for them to handle.

This is far from perfect filmmaking and some critics are really taking Weiss to task for not producing something more polished. I can understand their gripes but they are at the end of the day, it is the story and not always how it’s told that is important. This is a story that every American should know; hell, this is a story that every human should know. Welles Remy Crowther represents the best in all of us. He is a true hero in an era where they are desperately needed.

REASONS TO GO: The film is extremely inspiring. The graphics showing how the planes brought the tower down were informative. The background music is effective without being overpowering. You feel like you really get to know the parents. The survivor stories are extremely detailed.
REASONS TO STAY: This may still be too traumatic for those who are especially emotional about the fall of the Twin Towers.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes here are fairly adult and there are some disturbing images and re-enactments of 9/11.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The charitable trust founded by the Crowthers to honor their son can be reached (and donated to at) here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 9/11: The Falling Man
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: The Mummy (2017)

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Sidemen: Long Road to Glory


It’s not the years; it’s the mileage.

(2017) Musical Documentary (Abramorama) Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Hubert Sumlin, Marc Maron (voice), Derek Trucks, Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton, Joe Perry, Warren Haynes, John Landis, Brad Whitford, Kenny Wayne Shepard, Susan Tedeschi, Bob Margolin, Gary Davis, Ilene Louise Smith, Johnny Winters, Paul Nelson, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Bonnie Raitt. Directed by Scott D. Rosenbaum

 

Pinetop Perkins. Hubert Sumlin. Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. They are three giants in the history of the blues and huge influences on the sound of rock and roll. Sumlin was the guitar genius behind Howlin Wolf while Smith and Perkins played drums and piano for Muddy Waters. They have influenced bluesmen like the late Johnny Winters and Bonnie Raitt as well as rockers like Eric Clapton, Joe Perry and the Rolling Stones.

None of those three men have really gotten their due; even in their own genre they were overshadows by the men they backed up. They were true sidemen, and while they wore the label with pride they also felt the injustice of it – referring to the bandleaders they played for, Perkins mused “They got all the money and we got all the scraps.”

This documentary aims to remedy that. Rosenbaum – who in his debut feature film The Perfect Age of Rock and Roll posited a blues all-star band featuring these three giants and later saw life imitate art when the three men created their own band that would eventually win a Grammy – celebrates the life and art of these three sidemen. There’s a good deal of testimonial from Raitt, Winters, the late Gregg Allman, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Joe Perry, Warren Haynes and Joe Bonamassa. Perhaps a little too much; the movie professes a little too much adulation and while the praise is richly deserved, it gets to be a bit much as we hear over and over how great these guys were. We get it; what I really wanted to hear was their story.

When the film is concentrating on the story rather than the talking heads, it really hits its stride. All three of the men are natural storytellers and as you might imagine they have some stories to tell. Smith in particular is a delight to watch with an infectious smile and contagious laugh. If one person stands out from this documentary, it’s Smith..

We get a pretty good history from these guys, from their beginnings as the sons of sharecroppers, to their move to Chicago to find better economic opportunities to their days playing for Wolf and Waters and finally after both Wolf and Waters passed away, their days establishing themselves all over again. Some of the stories have a bit of a name-dropping element to them, as when Perkins recalls the time that Jimi Hendrix unexpectedly showed up at a concert, and others are told with gentle affection, as when Sumlin tells about how Clapton got on the notoriously curmudgeon Wolf’s good side by asking him to show them how “Little Red Rooster” was played, even though he was thoroughly familiar with the song.

There is some lovely archival footage of Wolf and Waters which is worth its weight in gold and the audio clips of the great blues songs these men were part of will absolutely send chills up your spine. There is a bit of an elegiac tone to the film however; the interviews with Winters and Allman took place before the musicians passed away. Also the three blues men in question have all since passed away – within eight months of each other, Perkins less than a month after the three won their Grammy.

Although they are gone, their legend lives on. There is a very real effort underway to get them elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, none of whom are currently inducted in and definitely should be. This is a documentary that should have been made. I would have preferred to hear more from the three gentlemen in question and less from the talking heads, but to be fair Smith, Sumlin and Perkins were interviewed during their final tour back in 2010 and little interview footage otherwise exists. That’s the true shame – the stories and memories that the three men had between them are gone with them.

REASONS TO GO: The music is amazing. Smith is absolutely delightful throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: More anecdotes and less adulation would have been welcome. The film over-relies on talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Perkins earned his only Grammy at age 97 (along with Smith and Sumlin) for Joined at the Hip which makes him the oldest Grammy recipient ever.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twenty Feet from Stardom
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Liza, Liza, Skies of Grey

City of Ghosts (2017)


ISIS: The sunset of decency.

(2017) Documentary (IFC) Aziz, Hamoud, Mohamad, Hassan, Hussam, Naji Jerf, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Directed by Matthew Heineman

 

Courage comes in all sorts of forms. There are those who go out and put their lives in harm’s way, whether they be soldiers or police officers or firemen; we think of these brave men and women first most of the time when we think of courage. There are other ways of putting one’s life on the line  however; there are those who attempt to tell the world the truth despite danger to life and limb.

Raqqa is a Syrian city on the Euphrates river. Once upon a time it was a beautiful city, idyllic in many ways. Life there was good; it was a great place to raise a family. However during the Arab spring the citizens of Raqqa were unhappy with the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad and demonstrated against the strongman. He responded by putting the city under fire and the citizens fought back.

It was the perfect storm for ISIS to move in and capture the city. At first, they were welcomed as liberators. After all, they had to be better than what was previously in power, right? As it turned out, things were far from right. ISIS instituted a despotic rule in which citizens were routinely beheaded, thrown from buildings, crucified, shot or otherwise executed for violations of Sharia law, real or perceived. Those in opposition to the rule of ISIS were also given the same treatment.

Various citizens of Raqqa began to fight back in a different way. Knowing that guns and violence would not dislodge the battle-hardened ISIS warriors, they chose to use truth and facts as their weapons. Taking video on cell phones, they uploaded images that contradicted the official ISIS lie that Raqqa had become an Eden with happy citizens and smiling children. It had become a place where starvation was common, even basic medical services non-existent and where citizens live in constant fear of their lives. Their children are being indoctrinated and their wives sexually assaulted.

Three men – Aziz, a former hard-partying college student; Mohamad, a math teacher moved to action when one of his young students was arrested, and Hussam, a former lawyer – became along with camera operator Hamoud the backbone of Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered. With Raqqa being virtually cut off from the rest of the world, cell phone video is being smuggled out by these men who have been forced to leave their home city and take refuge in places like Turkey and Germany.

Some of the images here are graphic; people are beheaded, people are shot in the back of the head, people are thrown off of buildings. The aftermath of these grisly demises are also shown. It is most definitely not a film for those sensitive to such things who should probably not see this unless they feel strongly that they can handle those images.

There is also the matter of the soundtrack which at times is distracting from the images that are being shown. It is not good when you notice the score; something subtle should have been used because these images deserve to exercise their full power on the viewer. They don’t need any musical assistance.

What is compelling is the eyes of those living in Raqqa; the pain is clear and obvious. In the men struggling to save their city it is just as obvious; one of the movie’s most memorable moments is of Aziz quietly smoking. As he smokes, he begins to shake violently as if all the horror and stress is catching up with him. It catches up with all of us, too. These are men who have given up everything and most of them have had family members and friends executed in retaliation for their efforts. Nobody can question their commitment or their courage.

This is a powerful movie that is moving and inspiring but also infuriating. Such inhumanity and casual evil makes you want to lash out and somebody, anybody. The caution here is to not to think that all Muslims are ISIS and there are certainly those in our country who will think so. The heroes in this movie are also Muslim and they fight for their homes and their family with decency and passion. It is ironic that in Germany where some of those whose lives are in imminent danger (some of their number have been assassinated outside of Syria) are the targets of German anti-immigration militants who want them sent back to wherever they came from. This movie is a means of seeing exactly where they came from and why they can’t return. We should be standing alongside these men and supporting them, not calling for them to be sent home. In this case, it is the refugees who are heroes and the anti-immigrant protesters who are the cowards and isn’t that ironic indeed.

This is an essential documentary in 2017 and is likely to get another Oscar nomination for Heineman which if it happens will be richly deserved. It couldn’t have been easy to get these men, who are under threat of death by people who are serious about killing them, to open up on camera but he did. Even as Heineman shows us peaceful images of the timeless Euphrates, he reminds us that there are things worth fighting for – one’s home is worth defending no matter what the odds.

Those wanting to see the video firsthand as well as what’s going on currently in Raqqa can check out their website here.

REASONS TO GO: The courage on display here is overwhelming. There are some intensely powerful moments. The Euphrates is a beautiful and ancient river. You get a real sense of the pressure these men are under.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack is occasionally intrusive. Some of the images are extremely unsuitable for the impressionable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a whole lot of violence and some disturbing images of death and the dead.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Heineman’s last film, Cartel Land played the Florida Film Festival in 2015 and would go on to be nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar as well as winning three Emmy awards.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Last Men in Aleppo
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Snatched

LA 92


Where were you in ’92?

(2017) Documentary (National Geographic) Rodney King, Daryl Gates, Tom Bradley, Maxine Waters, Henry Alfaro, Stacey Koon, Bernard Kamins, Theodore Briseno, Danny Bakewell, Charles Duke, David Kim, Laurence Powell, Darryl Mounger, Eric “Rico” Reed, Terry White, Stanley Weisberg, Bryan Jenkins, John Barnett, John R. Hatcher III, Cecil L. Murray, Rita Wallace. Directed by Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin

 

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. There have been a number of documentaries that have been made to commemorate the event, including Burn, Motherf*cker, Burn and Let It Fall but for my money this is the best of the lot.

Filmmakers Lindsay and Martin take the bold step of utilizing no talking head interviews; the movie is made up entirely of archival footage and contemporaneous interviews that aired on the TV news and news magazine programs of the day. That’s a bit of a double edged sword in that while there is no “Monday morning quarterbacking” there is also no real analysis of the events; we are left to come to our own conclusions.

One of the best things about the documentary is that it show that the violence that erupted in April following the not guilty verdict for the cops that beat Rodney King didn’t occur in a vacuum. The filmmakers take great care in beginning with the events of the 1965 Watts riots that left 34 people dead (mostly African-Americans) and show the various incidents that led to a powderkeg growing in South Central Los Angeles.

In the era of Daryl Gates, the Los Angeles Police Department had become the enemy in the African-American neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Police brutality was not uncommon in the arrests of African-American suspects and to say that the police had an adversarial relationship with the black community is something of an understatement.

The powderkeg became primed when video surfaced of a brutal beat down of Rodney King, who led the police on a high-speed chase. King, an ex-convict out on probation, was driving while intoxicated and knew he would be sent back to prison if he was arrested. When he was ordered to get down on the ground, officers thought he was reaching for a weapon. A taser was used on King and then the horrifying beating in which cops used nightsticks as well as vicious kicks to hospitalize King.

It would have not gone beyond that except that a local resident named George Holliday, witnessing the incident used his brand new camcorder to capture the beating. When the cops showed little interest in the tape, he sent it to the news media. The resulting controversy caught the nation by storm and put the LAPD under a microscope. Although by that time I was living in Northern California, I grew up in Los Angeles and remember being ashamed to be an Angelino when this was going on.

Criminal charges were brought against the officers involved and the trial was moved to the mostly white suburb of Simi Valley. When the not guilty verdict was brought in, African-Americans were justifiably outraged, particularly since Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du had gotten off without serving jail time after shooting 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in the back of the head over a misunderstanding involving orange juice that he accused her of trying to shoplift.

The riot footage is brutal and disturbing. People are pulled out of their cars and beaten within an inch of their lives because of the color of their skin. Shops are torched and looted. The outpouring of fury was exacerbated by a stunning lack of leadership in the LAPD which led to police being withdrawn from the area which was left on its own to burn.

The riots took place before the ubiquitous use of smart phones to document everything, so mostly the footage comes from news sources although there is some home video footage that is shot, including the King beating which was one of the first examples of citizens using home video equipment to capture breaking news.

As a document of the riots and what led up to them, the documentary is superb. It presents the footage unemotionally and gives us some context that we didn’t have when the riots were going on. Yes, we don’t get a thoughtful analysis of how it changed the lives of those involved or how society in general was affected by them – other documentaries do a better job of that – for coverage of the riot itself and the immediate events that led to it the film is second to none.

The LA riots have continued to resonate over the years, leading directly to the Black Lives Matter movement which seems to indicate that there hasn’t been a whole lot of progress in the past quarter century, although ironically there has been in Los Angeles where the LAPD has become one of the most tolerant and most progressive police forces in the country. Still, it is disheartening that we continue to have the problems we do with racial relationships even given the events of the past 25 years.

This is a sobering documentary in which the old adage “two wrongs don’t make a right” is very much at issue. It shows what can happen when people feel pushed into a place where there is no other way out. It is also a warning that the powderkeg in South Central is also present everywhere and not just in African-American neighborhoods. Given the right circumstances, the kind of violence and horror that unfolded in April 1992 in South Central Los Angeles can happen anywhere.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers give the riots a great deal of context. Some of the archival footage is absolutely amazing. Some unsung heroes are brought to the forefront
REASONS TO STAY: This is definitely not for the faint of heart.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of violence and disturbing images as well as profanity including racial epithets,
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was nominated for a 2017 Emmy for prime time documentary merit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: OJ: Made in America
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: City of Ghosts

Buena Vista Social Club: Adios


The music of Cuba is timeless.

(2017) Documentary (Broad Green) Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, Ry Cooder, Nick Gold, Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa, Juan de Marcos González, Barbarito Torres, Gilberto “Papi” Oviedo. Directed by Lucy Walker

 

In 1997, American musician Ry Cooder discovered the seductive rhythms and melodies of Cuban music. Gathering together a group of aging Cuban musicians who continued to make vibrant and amazing music from their native land, he put together an album with literally an all-star group of Cuban musicians in what was a love letter to the island. German filmmaker Wim Wenders made a documentary about the tour that surrounded the album. The documentary he made, Buena Vista Social Club which was also the name of the album, were worldwide phenomena and made international stars out of the musicians that were portrayed, garnering major awards including Oscars and Grammys.

That was then, this is now. 20 years has passed since the first album and many of the musicians from the first film, who were already elderly when the album was recorded, have since passed on. This documentary acts both as prequel and sequel, giving us a little more insight to the development of son Cubano music and the people who made it stars, particularly Ferrer and Portuondo, the royal couple of Cuban music. The first third of the film concentrates on that, showing the two as they appear in variety show footage from the 50s and in Cuban commercials of that era, leading up through the revolution that changed the island forever and the eventual slide into obscurity – Ferrer was shining shoes two doors down from the studio where the BVSC album was recorded.

The middle third chronicles the rise of the Buena Vista Social Club and the effect of the album, tour and film on their lives and the fame it brought both to the music that in many ways defined Cuban culture and the musicians who created it. The concert footage is particularly joyful; there are outtakes from the original Wenders film included here (Wenders was one of the producers on this film although he declined to go behind the cameras for it) that remind us how the best music comes from the soul. Even if you’re not a fan of Latin music you can’t help but be seduced by the lovely melodies, insidious rhythms that almost compel you to dance and the lyrics which reflect the universal struggles and triumphs of life.

The final third is somewhat more melancholy, something of a “where are they now” segment as we follow the lives of the primary people chronicled in the first film in the years after the movie was released. Ferrer and Portuondo are the main subjects and they are engaging and delightful personalities. Ferrer passed away in 2005 and his death was mourned throughout Cuba but also in the international music community as well.

We also see the state of Cuba as being hopeful as it appears that relations with the United States are at long last going to be normalized during the Obama administration; sadly since the making of the film it appears all that will be for naught as the new President seems more inclined to leave things the way they are vis a vis Cuba. That adds to the melancholy.

I am myself of Cuban descent and although my father passed away in 1986 he loved to play the Cuban songs he loved as a young man on the piano in our home. I can still here those lovely melodies echoing in our living room as he would play. As I watched the movie in the theater, I could feel his presence and that of my grandmother who also loved the music well. Perhaps that makes me a little more inclined to overlook the faults of the film which to be quite honest isn’t nearly as good as the original documentary and doesn’t carry with it quite the same feeling of joy.

This is a somewhat bittersweet movie; there is some hope for the music as new musicians have moved in to play the same songs and perhaps writes some new ones. The music continues to thrive in Cuba and although it hasn’t had quite the success here in the States can still be found in places where Cubans congregate, particularly in Florida.

The best music comes directly from the soul as I said – and clearly the music of Buena Vista Social Club: Adios comes from that place inside these musicians that pulses with life and celebration. It also comes from the place that simmers with regret and disappointment. We all know these aspects of our lives and it is somewhat comforting to know that there is a soundtrack for it. Whether or not you are of Latin descent, music like this speaks to you on a primal level. We can relate to it because we are all human. Music like this is timeless and beyond borders; it goes to what makes us who we are. If for that alone, this is a documentary that should be seen. Sure, you can see it without having seen the first but to be honest I would recommend seeing the first if you are only going to see one of the two.- but you should see both.

REASONS TO GO: The music is timeless and amazing. The personalities of the musicians is exuberant and unforgettable.
REASONS TO STAY: It doesn’t quite hold up to the original documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some material that’s a bit suggestive and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original movie and album were named for a Havana dance hall patronized by poor Afro-Cubans. The dance hall no longer exists.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hecho en Mexico
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: LA 92

Birthright: A War Story


In justice.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Michele Goodwin, Lynn Paltrow, Carole Joffe, David A. Grimes, Danielle Deaver, Rob Deaver, Monica Simpson, Casey Shehi, Katie Darovitz, Tarah Demant, Carol Tobias, G. William Orr, Loretta Ross, Faith Groesbeck, Rinar Dray, Jennie Lynn McCormick, Lori Friedman, Gabrielle Goodrick, Joan McGregor, Sister Carol Keehan, Ann Sharpe. Directed by Civia Tamarkin

 

It is sometimes difficult as a film reviewer to rise above the temptation of reviewing the subject of a documentary rather than the documentary itself. Some subjects are important and urgent and may dovetail with the political leanings of the reviewer. I’m a progressive liberal, like many film reviewers, and the subject of this film – the assault on reproductive rights by the pro-life movement – you would think would be something that is near and dear to my heart, and it is.

Tamarkin does a masterful job of explaining the genesis of the pro-choice movement and how we got into the situation we’re in now, going back to the works of Margaret Sanger all the way up through Roe v. Wade at which time the pro-choice movement essentially rested on their laurels which some activists interviewed here freely admit.

But to their credit, those on the other side never gave up. They rolled up their sleeves, took a critical look at why they lost their fight and changed their strategy. Even if one is a hardcore leftie like I am one must admire how the right has organized and strategized themselves into the position of power they now occupy. We watch as the Right to Life organization and Personhood movement – high level members of both are interviewed at length for the film to Tamarkin’s credit – shift the focus from the unborn to the health of the mother, changing the public’s perception of the entire movement. It’s truly a brilliant strategy. They then target state lawmakers on the right, getting laws enacted that chip away at the ability for lower income women to access safe and legal abortion, but also give the state chilling control over the entire reproductive process from the moment a woman becomes pregnant. One conservative lawyer expresses how this is completely at odds with the small government-individual rights conservatism he grew up with.

Tamarkin gives us most of the salient facts, including some anecdotal interviews showing that many young women today don’t even know what Roe v. Wade is. That should chill a lot of pro-choice advocates to the very bone. There are also tales of women caught in the crossfire of these draconian new laws, women who weren’t interested in an abortion. These heartbreaking tales are at the center of the movie like the woman whose placenta was punctured after 22 weeks; because her state had a law that a fetus could not be aborted after 20 weeks, she was made to carry the baby even though it was going to be without fully developed lungs or heart. She wasn’t even allowed to have labor induced because the baby wouldn’t have been viable. Talk about a catch-22 weeks. The baby only lived a few minutes after she gave birth to it.

There were other women who were forced to undergo C-sections against their will and without their permission, as well as women who were arrested and sent to jail because they had what was deemed a “suspicious” miscarriage. It’s hard not to get angry about these blatant intrusions into what should be a woman’s right to control what happens to her own body. Although they make no comment on it, the spokespeople with the opposing viewpoint seemed to be okay with this aptly termed “collateral damage.”

While Tamarkin ably ratchets up the outrage for the left side of the aisle, she makes some filmmaking missteps. The jazz-inflected score was too loud in the soundtrack and seemed at odds with the seriousness of the subject matter. It almost felt at times like the score was meant for a Discovery Channel documentary rather than a feature film – not knocking Discovery Channel programs but it’s a different kind of animal here.

I am not certain that this is going to win hearts and minds. It seems to me that in our echo chamber society that most people are not going to pay much attention to anyone or anything that sits outside their narrow field of view. Tamarkin doesn’t help matters by giving us an endless parade of talking heads all of whom are saying very much the same sorts of things. Still, those on the pro-choice side are going to find this useful and educational – while those on the pro-life side will likely call it propaganda. While it’s clear what side of the line Tamarkin falls on, I do give her props for at least trying to tell the complete story of a very complicated and polarizing issue that continues to be an important and explosive topic even now decades after the Supreme Court made their landmark decision.

REASONS TO GO: Guaranteed to make you angry if you are pro-choice. Effective time is given to pro-life viewpoints. The history of the reproductive rights fight is covered pretty thoroughly.
REASONS TO STAY: The score is a little annoying. There is a surfeit of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: The film contains adult themes, disturbing images and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tamarkin was at one time an executive at CNN.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: After Tiller
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Circle

Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry


America the beautiful as we imagine it is.

(2016) Documentary (Two Birds) Wendell Berry (voice), Earl Butz, Steve Smith, Tanya Berry, Curtis Combs, Andy Zaring, John Berry Jr., Michael Douglas, Dale Roberts, Juan Javier Reyes, John Logan Brent, Mary Berry, Mark Roberts, Phoebe Wagoner, Arwen Donahue. Directed by Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell

 

Farming is a necessary profession; after all, we all need to eat. The work of farming isn’t easy; it requires a lot of elbow grease and a lot of dedication. The economics of farming are almost as daunting as the physical labor involved.

Wendell Berry is a poet and essayist who comes from a long line of farmers in Henry County, Virginia. He left home to pursue a career as a writer in New York. After finding some success, he turned back around and went home to his family farm both to grow tobacco but also to continue his writing career on his farm, where he built himself an office with a 40-pane glass window with a view of the Kentucky River and whatever else he chose to look out at.

He is also an activist, working tirelessly to support family farmers in an era where they are slowly being pushed out into extinction. Most family farmers are caught up in a Catch-22 situation in which in order to compete they have to increasingly mechanize their farms but in order to afford to do that they have to buy more land and cultivate it. They get caught in this endless cycle in which they need to expand but the more they expand the deeper in debt they go.

If you’re expecting a bio doc on Wendell Berry as I was, you will be sorely disappointed. This really doesn’t give a lot of background information other than stuff you can essentially find on Wikipedia. We hear Berry reading from his essays, Berry in vintage interviews from the 60s and 70s, from a debate he had from agribusiness advocate and former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz who in many ways is the architect for the factory farming that brings most of the food to our table in 2017.

The beginning is very much like Koyaanisquatsi with the visuals and also the Philip Glass-like music. Over this we hear Berry reading prose in his stentorian voice that reminds me a bit of Johnny Cash from Berry’s magnum opus The Unsettling of America.

Afterwards, we are treated to interviews of fellow farmers in Henry County, telling about their economic difficulties and how Berry was an inspiration to them. One, Steve Smith, talks about how he went from tobacco farming to organic vegetables and how it seems to be saving his farm.

In some ways this feels like a WPA film from the 30s even though much of the archival footage is 30-40 years after that era. Berry is very much against factory farming but he doesn’t seem to address some of the other reasons that family farming is failing; for one thing, the younger generation don’t WANT to be farmers. There are plenty of farmers whose kids, seeing the hard work for diminishing economic returns want no part of the family business. That’s not to say that all younger generation farmers would rather do something else with their lives – there are still plenty who feel that almost mystical bond with the land – but there are fewer of them now than there have ever been.

And while Berry seems to advocate a more Luddite version of farming that is more labor intensive, it doesn’t address the issue of feeding an increasing population worldwide. America hasn’t always just fed its own; we export enormous amounts of grain and other agricultural products. Many family farmers rely on that demand. As the population increases, more efficient methods are required.

Yes, there is a bucolic and rustic feel to the film that I liked but the conclusions don’t seem to address all of the real-world issues that farmers worldwide face. It’s nice to want to preserve a way of life but sometimes that way of life has to submit to progress.

The images here are beautiful and the filmmakers do a good job of presenting their case but the movie seemed to be more of a screed than a portrait of Berry as advertised. It seems to be more of a hagiography as the filmmakers fail to address issues that are essentially ignored in Berry’s writings. He’s a great writing but lyrical poems and prose do not an argument make.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography of rural Kentucky is occasionally breathtaking.
REASONS TO STAY: This is not so much a biography so much as a snapshot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the sequence in which a three-legged stool is being carved by hand, the carpenter is actually producer Nick Offerman although his face isn’t used on-camera.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Make a Farm
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Bad Genius