The Most Dangerous Year


Just a good old-fashioned protest.

(2018) Documentary (Passion River) Vlada Knowlton, Aidan Key, Meghan Hebert-Trainer, Kristina Olson, Joe Fain, Tiffany Dolmseth Kelly, Jim Ritter, Sarah Taboada, Ryan Trainer, Laurie Jinkins, Cyrus Habib, Erika Laurentz, Asaf Orr, Kristina Olson, Kevin Hatfield, Huddle Morris Blakefield, Johanna Olson-Kennedy, Jennifer Popkin. Directed by Vlada Knowlton

 

The Human Rights Report called 2016 the most dangerous year for transgenders on account of all the so-called “bathroom bills” aimed at disallowing transgenders from using public bathrooms of their gender identification, mandating that they use the bathrooms of the genders that they were born with. The supporters of the legislature tended to demonize transgenders, depicting them all as some sort of closet Norman Bates, going into women’s bathrooms to prey on women despite absolutely no evidence that this sort of issue was occurring. In fact, transgenders have been using the bathrooms of their gender identification for decades without incident. All of a sudden, they’ve become demonic sexual predators in the eyes of Middle America.

Much attention was focused on HB 2, the notorious North Carolina bill that was signed into law by governor Pat McCrory which led to widespread protests and sanctions, losing the state an estimated $400 million in revenue. McCrory was eventually defeated in his bid for re-election and his successor, a Democrat, quietly repealed the bill.

=However, there were similar bills that came onto the books in a succession of Red States and, surprisingly, Washington – one of the most progressive states in the union. Vlada Knowlton, a documentary filmmaker based in Seattle, especially had a stake in the politics – she is the mother of a five-year-old (at the time) trans daughter. She, like many parents of transgenders, realized that the bill was just a first step in making second class citizens of their children and could lead to violence against them. The suicide rate among transgenders is already high.

The movie chronicles the fight against Washington SB 6443 which was similarly worded to the notorious HB 2, and then later attempts to get a ballot initiative (I-1515) onto the 2016 ballot for the citizens of Washington to vote on. Knowlton attends plenty of senate hearings, court cases and town halls; while she interviews a few supporters of these bills and questions them as to why they believe that way, clearly this isn’t a subject she can’t be objective about – nor should she be.

Aidan Key, a transgender activist, comes off as one of the heroes here as does Washington State Senator Joe Fain, a Republican who voted against the bill which led to some anger among his supporters, one of whom threatened to punch him in the nose at a contentious town hall (note to Angry White Man: You do not have the right to punch a state senator in the nose. You make the decision to do so. The State Senator then has the right to bring you up on charges, and you have the right to representation when you go to trial for assault and battery).

This is an important documentary, a little bit on the raw side but certainly one that needed to be made. Even the Gay and Lesbian community hasn’t been as vocally supportive of the Transgender community as they might have been; in some ways Transgenders are the most vulnerable of our population; they have little representation and few supporters. That the parent’s groups have stepped up is heartening. Parallels are drawn between the segregation of African-Americans in the Jim Crow South and the current laws (or attempt at laws) aimed against transgenders that are effectively done.

The soundtrack has is really nice and Knowlton is a decent narrator. There is a whole lot of interview footage which can get tedious but one can’t deny the passion or the heart behind the documentary. All parents of transgender kids – and those who are allies – should see this. More importantly, people who think transgenders should be excluded from using the bathrooms of their gender identification should see this too.

REASONS TO SEE: The stories are heartbreaking. The soundtrack is terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: There is an over-reliance on interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: Thematically this is on the adult side; there is also some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Knowlton worked at Microsoft prior to becoming a filmmaker.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Freedom to Marry
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Collisions

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One Child Nation (Born in China)]


This is NOT a wanted poster!

(2018) Documentary (Amazon) Nanfu Wang, Zaodi Wang, Zhimei Wang, Tunde Wang, Xianven Liu, Huaru Yuan, Jiaoming Pang, Shuangjie Xeng, Brian Stuy, Long Lan Stuy, Shuquin Jiang, Peng Wang, Zaou, Yang. Directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang

China is the most populous nation on Earth with over a billion people and counting. Back in 1979, they sought to address their overpopulation problem by setting a “one child” policy, limiting families to only one child. It sounds sensible on paper but things rarely work out in reality the way they do on paper.

For one thing, Chinese tradition values male children over female; many families would have a female baby and then abandon the baby so that they could try again to have a male child. Other female babies would be put up for adoption, with the adoptive parents being led to believe that the children were orphans when in fact their parents were alive and well.

As policing the policy became more problematic, enforcement became a little more brutal. Families that had second children would receive visits from government agents who would forcibly take the additional children out of the home. Women would be sterilized following the birth of their first child. Forced abortions were performed, to the tune of 40 to 50 thousand of them according to Huaru Yuan, a Chinese midwife from that period.

American filmmakers Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang were both born under the one child policy, although their parents had emigrated to the United States afterwards. Wang was unusual in that her parents received dispensation to have a second child, something that was highly unusual at the time so Wang was often teased at school because she had a little brother.

For the film, Wang traveled back to the rural Chinese village where her family was from. She interviewed family and neighbors about the policy which was finally rescinded in 2015 although now the official policy is a two-child restriction. She reviews the propaganda (which was relentless) and the stories go from heartbreaking to horrifying.

The power of the movie develops in kind of a slow burn despite initial images of aborted fetuses and of Chinese military might; as to the latter, I think the ability to wage war is far less impressive than the ability to make peace but what do I know – but then again, the Chinese have not known war in 60 years. Certainly America, which has only known peace for a total of sixteen years of its entire existence doesn’t know much about making peace it would seem.

I was aware of the policy before watching the film and I always felt somewhat uneasy about it – how is something like that enforced? I remember hearing that the Chinese government was having a tough time enforcing the policy in rural parts of their vast country and the movie seems to bear that out. However, the human toll of enforcement is what this film is all about and at times it is staggering.

The ripples continue to be felt today. American adoptees are not eager to meet their Chinese families, sometimes refusing altogether and their American adoptive parents are understandably nervous that the children they raised will be forcibly returned to China. In the case of twin sisters separated by this cruel policy they were very wary when an agency discovered their Chinese family. Both agreed to communicate but at the moment there’s no question of them meeting. The Chinese half of the siblings wants a normal relationship with her sister but her twin isn’t ready for it. It makes the situation awkward but it’s hard not to feel for the American sister who suddenly has to come to terms that she has a twin while the Chinese sister was aware that there was once a twin. Politicians are never that concerned with the human fallout from their whims, caprices and policies but even those meant with the best of intentions can end up with devastating consequences to those affected.

REASONS TO SEE: It starts slowly but grows more powerful during the course of the film. The human cost of the one child policy is heartbreaking.
REASONS TO AVOID: The evolution from a highly personal family movie to a more general issue film isn’t a smooth one.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Florida Film Festival regulars will remember Nanfu Wang’s first film Hooligan Sparrow which received great acclaim during its festival run and later on a limited release.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 92/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Life in China
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Princess of the Row

Hurley


Hurley Haywood and husband Steve Hill revisit a place of happy memories.

(2019) Documentary (The Orchard) Hurley Haywood, Patrick Dempsey, Simon Gregg, Hope Haywood, JC France, Frank Stella, John Patton, Don Davis, Bill Warner, Sam Posey, Diane K. Hewitt, Don Leatherwood, Jim Busby, Richard Pendell, Steve Hill, Gerry Meara, Patrick Lons, Andy Chapman, Pattie Hughes Mayer, Susan Snodgrass. Directed by Derek Dodge

 

The world of sports car racing and endurance racing was back in the 70s and 80s a little more visible than it is today when NASCAR and Formula 1 dominate the auto racing world. Back in the day though Hollywood superstars like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen both were competent sports car racers. Today the studios would have apoplexy if big stars risked life and limb in sports car racing although some big names, like Patrick Dempsey, continue to race.T

In that world, Hurley Haywood looms as a legend. The only 5-time winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona race (these days sponsored by Rolex), he also won the Le Mans endurance race three times and the 12 Hours of Sebring twice. Along with partner Peter Gregg in the 70s, they were the most dominant team on the endurance racing circuit ever.

Haywood came from money and privilege; he traveled extensively as a boy and young man, and was matinee idol handsome. He fell in love with auto racing at a young age and started driving full size cars at the tender age of twelve. While still in college at Jacksonville University (he still calls Jacksonville home), he entered a sports car race and beat local professional Peter Gregg. Impressed with the young man’s skill, Gregg took him on as a partner and mentor and the two never looked back.

This documentary looks back on the life and career of Haywood and deals with issues beyond the race track. For one thing, Haywood is a gay man, a definite no-no in the 70s when the sport was a symbol of masculinity and beautiful models surrounded successful drivers to which Hurley was no exception. He kept his personal life separate from the track and was clearly uncomfortable discussing it in contemporary interviews. He didn’t come out until last year but doesn’t seem to have harmed his career to any appreciable extent; while he has retired from active driving, he continues to work in the sport as a mentor and coordinator for Dempsey-Wright racing, the team that the aforementioned Patrick Dempsey (who is a producer for the documentary) is part of.

Some of the more poignant moments come from Hurley’s longtime companion and husband Steve Hill, who talks about not being able to share in Hurley’s victories so as not to out him. He would watch through a chain link fence while his partner celebrated on Victory Lane. Gay men in that time learned to accept such treatment in order to keep from ruining the careers of their partners or having their own careers ruined. Although it isn’t discussed, homophobic drivers certainly could have purposely caused accidents that could maim or kill Haywood if they so chose; it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Another subject tackled here is mental illness and Gregg suffered from it. Nicknamed “Peter Perfect,” the driven and intensely competitive racer strove for perfection in every race he ran. Never able to maintain relationships for long due to his illness, he drove wives away with his womanizing and friends away with his often-cruel behavior. Eventually even Hurley, his closest friend, was forced to step away. Although the two men reconciled shortly before Gregg’s death, Gregg’s suicide hit Hurley hard. There had been whispers that Gregg and Hurley had a romantic relationship but Hurley shoots that rumor down, echoed by the friends and family of Gregg who assert that he was quite straight.

There is some compelling archival racing footage, although because of the nature of the races we don’t get a sense of the overall strategy of endurance racing. Much of the film is set at the Daytona International Speedway and we do get a sense of the allure for the place. Haywood’s reverence for Daytona is quite clear.

Early on Dodge gets a bit coy with the gay issue, even though at this point anyone who would want to see the movie is likely aware of Haywood’s sexuality. That coyness was unnecessary and a bit over-cute to be honest. My main problem with the movie is that Dodge in trying to tackle the prongs of mental health, homosexuality and sports car racing history ends up really portraying none of those topics with any kind of completeness and we’re left with an unsatisfied feeling after the film finishes. Part of that may be due to Haywood’s own tendency to play things close to the vest, something he did as a survival tactic as a young man. Today he remains somewhat private and rarely do we get to see how he feels about certain things.

Nonetheless Hurley Haywood is a fascinating subject and a charismatic individual who is kind and courtly. He is aware of his status as a racing legend and is proud of his accomplishments as he should be. He has no wish to be a gay icon; he merely wants to live his life with his husband in peace and one certainly can’t begrudge him that. Still, I wish the film would have been a bit more forthcoming or at least, dived a little deeper into the many fascinating aspects of Haywood’s life and career.

REASONS TO SEE: Tackles some important subjects outside of the racing world.
REASONS TO AVOID: Dodge tries to do a little too much.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes, a discussion of suicide and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is an English-language remake of Lelio’s 2013 film Gloria.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Abnormal Attractions

Roll Red Roll


We revere our sons but marginalize our daughters.

(2018) Documentary (Sunset ParkAlexandria Goddard, Detective J.P. Rigaud, Ma’lik Richmond, Shawn McGee, Michael Nodramus, Jeremy Jones, Rachel Dissell, Michelle Nelson, Mark Nelson, Gretchen Nelson, Madeleine Nelson, Mario Cuomo, Jeno Atkins, Vinnie Fristick, Reno Saccoccia, Walter Madison, Mike DeWine, Mike McVey, Marianne Hemmeter, Michele Robinson. Directed by Nancy Schwartzman

Rape culture has become an aspect of the news cycle in recent years, particularly in light of the #MeToo movement in which women on social media who have experienced some sort of sexual crime from harassment to rape identified themselves as survivors. We have seen it in the light, inconsequential sentences given to those convicted of rape. We have seen it in the way those who report it are traumatized not only by the crime but by how they are treated afterwards. Boys will be boys, and boys rape or at least so the line of thinking goes.

Steubenville is a small town in the Rust Belt, a largely working-class town. There are not a lot of opportunities in Steubenville; most people have dead end jobs in the service industry as the manufacturing jobs that were once the town’s lifeblood are mainly gone. It’s most famous resident was the legendary Rat Pack crooner Dean Martin; after that, the town’s pride and joy is its high school football team which has won ten Ohio State championships since 1925 and as recently as 2017. The town supports its football team with a fervor verging on the religious.

In August 2012, a preseason party in Steubenville ended up with a student from another school (identified in the film only as Jane Doe, although the girl involved was identified by name on Fox News and other outlets) was raped by several members of the Steubenville football team. The girl had been drinking a lot to the point where she was passed out or nearly so. Two of the members of that team – Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays – transported her to another party and then to a third. Photos were taken. Video was taken. Tweets were made.

The girl was humiliated by the social media attention, amounting to a second rape. She decided to press charges even though her memory of the evening was very fuzzy. Detective J.P. Rigaud was assigned the case and he began the process of interviewing people at the party that she last remembered being at – the first one.

In the meantime, crime blogger Alexandria Goddard – who grew up in Steubenville although she was then based in Columbus – saw an item about two football players being charged in the rape of a teenage girl and thought that there had to be more to it than that. She began digging, looking up tweets and Facebook posts, even managing to search the archives of Twitter to see deleted tweets.

What she found was shocking – the utter lack of empathy, the objectification, the misogyny displayed by the boys (and even to a certain extent the girls of Steubenville High who shrugged and said “She should never have gone with those boys”) who joked about the event “Song of the night: Nirvana’s ‘Rape Me’.” “Holy shit! Something crazy’s going down, bro” and “She got raped harder than that black cop raped Marcellus Wallace.”

The town reacted with a mixture of shock – some shocked that the boys would behave as they did, others shocked that the blogger would treat their football stars as guilty before they’d even gone on trial.” Goddard was reviled and even feared for her safety as supporters of the football team called her all sorts of vile names and wished all sorts of disgusting things to be done to her. Eventually the Cleveland Plain Dealer picked up the story, then the New York Times. Finally, the hacktivist group Anonymous picked up on Jane Doe’s story and organized protests in Steubenville, targeting (somewhat unfairly) the police response, the town’s reaction, the lack of internal punishment for the players (neither Mays nor Richmond were kicked off the team despite the hard line taken by Coach Reno Saccoccia on underage drinking on his team.

Schwartzman presents the details dispassionately and chronologically. She is obviously outraged by what happened and she uses the film as a means of illustrating what rape culture means in a small American Midwestern town, supposedly the bastion of American values. One reporter mused “In protecting our sons are we putting our daughters at risk?” The short answer: yes.

The issue I have is that this didn’t happen in a vacuum. Boys aren’t born rapists; we see only a little bit of the atmosphere that produced Mays and Richmond as well as the rest of the football team who thought this girl’s suffering was a big joke. While Richmond breaks down when apologizing to Jane Doe and her family in court, we never get a sense if Mays ever felt remorse or if the rest of the team felt any. Did anybody actually learn anything?

Also, these kids are all working class kids. I wonder if this case would have been treated the same way if the defendants came from a more privileged background. We’ve seen high profile cases in which wealthy white young men got off virtually consequence free for their actions. Some would say that relatively speaking, Mays and Richmond did the same.

Maybe that wasn’t Schwartzman’s function as a documentarian to find all the answers. The question is certainly raised in my mind at least so in that sense the documentary is a success, but it is a very hard film to watch emotionally and especially for those affected directly or (in my case) indirectly by rape, misogyny and sexual objectification. Goddard – the heroine of this story and a true inspiration – wrestles with the thought that she may be causing Jane Doe harm by forcing her to endlessly relive the events of that evening. Goddard comes off as a tough cookie but she dissolves into tears thinking about it.

Rape culture is a fact and we are living in it. Attitudes have to change, that much is certain. Women don’t deserve to be raped, no matter how much they drink, what they might choose to wear or where they choose to be. Men are not entitled to have sex with a woman who doesn’t want to or can’t give consent. Maybe in some way this movie – which will be playing the Florida Film Festival in a few weeks – will help move that change along.

REASONS TO SEE: The facts are well-presented. This may be the most in-your-face depiction of rape culture ever captured.
REASONS TO AVOID: This is a very hard movie to watch even if you haven’t directly been a survivor of sexual violence but particularly if you have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and frank discussions about rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The documentary was selected to kick off the 2019 season of the acclaimed PBS documentary film series POV in June.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Accused
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Out of Blue

Los Reyes


Chasing after tennis balls can be exhausting.

(2018) Documentary (Self-Released) Football, Chola, Sebastián “Negro Seba” Añiguel, Paulina “Pauly” Herrera, Sebastián “Chico” Alcalde, Tomás “Wence” Alul, Victor “Lulo” Bañados, Ignacio “Nachito” Bañados, Charlye Joses Rey Zapata, Elizabeth “Eli” Cabeza. Directed by Iván Osnovikoff and Bettina Perut

Santiago (the capital of Chile) like most other urban metropolises is both busy and often chaotic, sometimes leaving residents with heads spinning and hearts pounding. Lives move at hyper-speeds through the busy streets that are choked with automobiles and foot traffic. Towering office buildings, towering apartment complexes and bright neon shopping districts jostle one another for the attention of the eye.

Parque de los Reyes is an oasis in the urban ballet. Located on the Mapocho River, it contains within its green borders Santiago’s oldest skatepark. At any given time, the skatepark has its share of skaters, mostly adolescent males. Their conversation is pretty typical for skaters; issues with parents, getting stoned, wondering why expectations are set for them when all they want to do is skate and of course, girls. Their same conversations could be overheard at any skatepark in the world.

However, the uncrowned kings of Los Reyes are Football and Chola, a pair of stray dogs who live in the park. With often disinterested eyes they observe the goings-on, sometimes sleeping and sometimes sunning themselves. Rarely do they interact with the skaters although the skaters will from time to time throw a ball around, a game the dogs thoroughly enjoy – just like dogs everywhere.

In many ways the two dogs are like the skaters themselves, living a life of simplicity, interested mainly in food, drink, sex (when they can get it) and taking it easy. Football and Chola don’t need a lot to survive and the city has thoughtfully provided them with dog houses to offer shelter during the rainstorms that are a regular occurrence during the winter months.

We almost never see human faces in the film other than as reflections in water or shadowed inside hoodies, although we hear the skaters chatting in the background. While we hear the skaters talking about the things important to them, we are almost looking at the dogs, concentrating on their indolence, enjoying the insect and bird life that also lives in the park. This is as close to being a dog as you are likely to ever get.

It’s hard not to be enchanted by these two dogs, even if you aren’t particularly a dog lover. The bond between them is absolutely genuine and they each have definite personalities; Chola is an extrovert whose favorite game is to take a tennis ball (or other ball) and coax it to the lip of a one of the skating areas, and then gradually nose it down the ramp whereupon she chases after it. Football loves to bark, so much so that he gets hoarse by the end of the movie. He has a bit of an oral fixation; he’s always got something in his mouth from a plastic beverage bottle to a tennis ball to a rock. Both of them are as sweet as pie.

I did have a bone to pick though; near the end of the film one of the dogs (neither of whom are named until the end credits) shows signs of being terribly sick. We get close-ups of insects infesting the dog’s ears, larvae emerging from the skin – it’s not a pretty picture. Dog lovers – including this one – are going to be wondering if the camera crew took the dog to the vet or gave it any sort of comfort beyond filming the misery of its final days. It is a difficult sequence to watch, made even more poignant by the plaintive howl that the surviving dog makes after their buddy is gone.

The relationship between the dogs isn’t a made-up one nor are the canines anthropomorphized at all. We see them being dogs, doing what dogs do. This isn’t a DisneyNature documentary meant to dumb things down for audiences of kids. The life of these dogs isn’t always pretty but all in all it isn’t a bad life either. For a dog nut like myself, this is absolute candy.

REASONS TO SEE: This is about as close as you’re ever going to come to seeing life through a dog’s point of view. The interplay between the dogs is poignant.
REASONS TO AVOID: Dog lovers may find the last third troubling.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The documentary was originally intended to focus on three of the skateboarders but the filmmakers found the dogs to be a much more fascinating subject.
CRITICAL MASS:
As of 3/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kedi
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Birds of Passage

Pahokee


There is nothing that says optimism so much as high school football.

(2019) Documentary (Topic) Jocabed Martinez, Na’Kerria Nelson, Junior Walker, BJ Crawford. Directed by Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas

High school is a time in our lives that we endure while we’re living it and, often, treasure more when we’re older than when we’re actually there. The rituals and ambitions of high school are pretty much universal but there are places that they take on a more urgent quality.

Pahokee is a small agricultural town in South Florida on the shores of Lake Okeechobee. Most of the residents are either African-American or Hispanic. Much of the work in the town revolves around working in the fields or in the processing plants. There is little more than that for the young people to look forward to; most who have ambitions beyond that know that they will have to leave Pahokee to get a college education

This documentary follows four students in Pahokee High School’s senior class of 2017 in a particularly turbulent year at the school. Jocabed Martinez is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who managed to save enough from working in the fields to open their own roadside taqueria where she helps out after school working the cash register. She has been doing tremendously well academically and has a realistic chance at an academic scholarship to a four-year college. Na’Kerria Nelson is an outgoing and personable cheerleader who is running for the equivalent of homecoming queen. She has ambitions of getting into a nursing program but with fair to middling academics, she needs every edge she can get and will likely have to pay for her own education. Junior Walker is a drum major in the school band who is also father to a cute-as-a-button toddler, a daughter whom he dotes on. With few employment options and a baby to support, college isn’t likely as he seeks employment in the town. Finally, BJ Crawford is the bruising center and co-captain of the football team that is challenging for the state championship. Both of his college-educated parents are fully in support of him getting an athletic scholarship but his dad cautions him to have a plan B just in case football doesn’t work out for him.

The camera follows them through most of the high school high points, from homecoming, the football state playoffs, prom and graduation. In between there will be moments of triumph, disappointment and even tragedy as on Easter Sunday there was a shooting in the local park. The camera crew happened to be there and captured the chaos and terror of the moment.

There are plenty of compelling moments throughout including the shooting sequence. The problem is that the movie really leaves the audience hanging; the football team suffers a devastating blow and it is essentially left without any sort of context or follow-up. We are often flies on the wall but the teens are rarely questioned directly. There are some video diaries recorded on cell phones and those are weaved in skillfully but I would have liked to have seen the teens talk about some of the things that happen onscreen beyond the platitudes you would expect.

As a glimpse of rural life particularly for those of the ethnic groups previously mentioned this is a pretty decent diary. It could have used some more context and more discipline rather than stream of consciousness. There are a lot of shots of fields being tended, distant factories, trucks roaring down small-town roads used as linking devices. There are also some lovely sunset shots. More grating is that there are some wonderful moments all throughout the movie but they are essentially lacking any sort of cohesion. With a bit of a firmer hand in the editing bay this might have been an extraordinary documentary.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some truly extraordinary moments throughout the movie.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story lacks cohesion; the film could have benefited from more disciplined editing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bresnan and Lucas lived and worked in Pahokee making short films prior to tackling this feature documentary.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoop Dreams
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Ash is Purest White

The Last Resort


Back in the day, the residents of South Beach really knew how to have a good time.

(2018) Documentary (Kino Lorber) Gary Monroe, Ellen Sweet Moss, Susan Gladstone, Kelly Reichardt, Mitchell Kaplan, Edna Buchanan, Stan Hughes, Denise Bibro. Directed by Dennis Scholl and Kareem Tabsch

 

In the years after World War II, the city of Miami went through what would have to be termed a major renaissance. The beautiful beaches, warm weather and the presence of brand spanking new air-conditioned hotels became irresistible to those from the Northeast who endured harsh winters. Many of them, close to retirement age, decided that Miami would be a fine place to live. There were plenty of old art deco hotels in the South Beach area that had been converted to apartments; rents were dirt cheap. South Beach became a largely Jewish community, termed by residents as a stetl, a small but vibrant settlement.

Andy Sweet was a Miami native, the son of a prominent Miami judge whose family had helped develop the big beach side hotels that brought in a vibrant nightlife (Miami was the second home of the Rat Pack and most of the big names in Vegas played there regularly. Jackie Gleason hosted a variety show from there back in the day.

Along with his good friend Gary Monroe, the two young photographers set out to capture the South Beach community. Most of the residents were getting on in age; many of them were Holocaust survivors. Dubbed the Miami Beach Project, Sweet and Monroe proposed a ten year involvement, recording the residents and places that made South Beach so unique.

The two couldn’t have had more different styles. Monroe preferred black and white as a medium; his pictures were largely posed and had a more somber quality to them. Sweet preferred a much more spontaneous approach; his photos nearly exploded with color capturing not only the moment but the personalities of the people in them. Although many of the subjects posed for Sweet, he managed to get a more casual look as if capturing them in the act of being themselves.

Sweet wouldn’t live to see the project through to completion. A mere five years in to the project, Sweet was brutally murdered in 1982 at the age of 28, found stabbed 29 times in his apartment in what was conjectured to have been a drug deal gone terribly wrong. Miami was already changing drastically when Sweet died; a huge influx of Latin (mainly Cuban) immigrants began to change the culture of Miami and on the flip side, became the center of the cocaine trade at about the same time leading to an exponential increase in violence. Although Monroe went on to complete the project alone, by the time he did most of the Jewish residents were already gone, having moved to places like Fort Lauderdale and Boynton Beach where rents were more reasonable. These days South Beach is the center for nightlife in Miami, where the young and famous go to be seen.

While there are plenty of talking head interviews with Monroe and Sweet’s sister Ellen as well as a few people who knew him or of him (director Kelly Reichardt is one) which generally speaking can be terribly irritating, it is the photographs that Sweet took that takes center stage. They very nearly didn’t.

After Sweet’s death, his family was too distraught to even look at his photographs and put his negatives in storage. When Monroe broached the subject of putting together a retrospective of his partner’s work only three months after Sweet’s death, his family was infuriated and this led to an estrangement between Monroe and Sweet’s family that lasted for decades. In the meantime, the storage company charged with keeping Sweet’s negatives inexplicably lost them during a move. They have to this day not been recovered.

Fortunately, his sister’s partner Stan Hughes found several boxes of work prints while emptying a family storage unit. Hughes is something of a digital photography expert and although the prints were badly faded with time, he was able to start the restoration process, restoring the pictures to their original color vibrancy.

]The movie is not only a pictorial history of the evolution of South Beach but also a love letter to a man whose career was cut far too short. His work speaks for itself and we are fortunate to have the opportunity to see them. The pictures may sometimes have resembled vacation snapshots of happy seniors dancing, flirting, sunning themselves or porch-sitting but every one of them captured so much more than a moment.

REASONS TO SEE: The photographs really have character. A very interesting chronicle of the evolution of Miami’s South Beach.
REASONS TO AVOID: This is definitely a niche film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sweet did a series of city government employees shortly before his death. One of the subjects turned out to be the police detective who would investigate his murder.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Smash His Camera
FINAL RATING: 7/10
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Patrick