Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It


Rita Moreno is not above publicizing her own documentary.

(2021) Documentary (Roadside Attractions) Rita Moreno, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Morgan Freeman, George Chakiris, Whoopi Goldberg, Hector Elizondo, Eva Longoria, Justina Machado, Mitzi Gaynor, Norman Lear, Sonia Sotomayor, Frances Negron-Montaner, Gloria Estefan, Tony Taccone, Fernanda Gordon Fisher, John Ferguson, Jackie Speier, Tom Fontana, Terence McNally, Chita Rivera. Directed by Mariem Perez Riera

 

When most people think of Rita Moreno, the first thing that comes to mind is her Oscar-winning part as the sizzling, seductive Anita in West Side Story. That isn’t so surprising, but she has had a nearly 70 year career in entertainment, and is the first (and so far only) Latina actress to win the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards in their career. That’s an accomplishment that is exceedingly rare few actors can make the same claim.

Moreno grew up in poverty in Puerto Rico, but remembers her childhood as idyllic. That came to an end when her parents divorced and her mother moved her to New York City. She developed an affinity for dancing and dropped out of school at 16 to become the family’s sole breadwinner. She did get noticed, though and was eventually signed to a contract at MGM by Louis B. Mayer.

The documentary, at a snug 89 minutes, covers most of the highlights of her career; the any reinventions, such as her time on the seminal children’s PBS program The Electric Company and her dramatic role as a nun-prison psychologist in Oz and more recently her starring role in the reboot of One Day at a Time (sadly canceled) and up to her forthcoming appearance in Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story which she executive produced.

There are also some of the struggles she underwent; the typecasting as an ethnic actress, often requiring her to wear skin-darkening makeup to play Asian, Pacific Islander and Hispanic roles. There is also the misogyny, as when Columbia co-founder Harry Cohn told her point blank at a cocktail party that he wanted to have sex with her (in much cruder terms) which as a fairly sheltered teen from Puerto Rico was quite a shock.

Through much of the film, Moreno is seen watching the Christine Blasey Ford testimony at the Neil Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings. These seem to resonate with her in particular; she then talks about her own sexual assault at the hands of an agent. She then says that she still kept him on as her agent, as he was the only one willing to believe in her “so-called career” as few agents would represent anyone of Latin origin as they tended to be typecast in a narrow variety of roles.

Although much of this can be found in Moreno’s 2013 memoir, it might come as new information for those who haven’t read it – including myself. For instance, I’d forgotten that early in her career she’d appeared in both The King and I and Singing in the Rain (in one of her rare non-ethnic appearances). What is more telling is the effect her career has had on those of the Latin performers who followed her and speak about her with reverence, including her One Day at a Time co-star Machado and Broadway emperor Lin-Manuel Miranda. America Ferraro is also seen giving a heartfelt speech at an awards ceremony honoring Moreno. It is a touch hagiographic, but I can’t help but think that if anyone deserves that kind of hero-worship, it’s Moreno.

REASONS TO SEE: A squidge better than the average Hollywood biodoc. Moreno is an engaging storyteller.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times on the hagiographic side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual content and a description of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moreno was the first actor of Puerto Rican descent to win an Oscar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews; Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Olympia
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
It’s Not a Burden

Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. is the Answer


Even police officers must tread lightly when walking while black.

(2017) Documentary (Magnetbox/Buffalo 8) Fred Williamson, Gavin Newsom, Melvin Russell, Catherine E. Pugh, Pastor Michael Freeman, Jameel “Zookie” McGee, Andrew Collins, A.J. Ali, Chance M. Glenn Sr., Tim McMillan, Bobby F. Kimbrough Jr., Tsega Hapte, Jose Carvajal, Cheryl Dorsey. Directed by A.J. Ali

 

It is no secret that one of the most inflammatory topics in American culture currently is the relationship between the justice system and the African-American community. There is no doubt that our brothers and sisters of color have every right to be angry and frustrated – if you do doubt it, watch the first half of the film, of the footage of Eric Garner being choked to death, of the cases of Trayvon Martin and Walter Scott, of Philando Castile dying in the hands of the Baltimore police department.

You won’t see George Floyd or any more contemporary cases here – this movie was made more than four years ago and is only now appearing on VOD platforms (see below for details). However, it is just as timely now as it was then. The film isn’t just a laundry list of grievances against the cops, however – although that could fill a documentary in and of itself – but also gives the perspective of the police force, of cops encountering systemic racism in their own departments, community leaders of color who experienced racial profiling and those working in the legal system showing how even judges and prosecutors are pressured to convict black suspects.

The second half of the film focuses on changing mindsets, of forgiving past injustices and moving forward to a better future. Love is used as an acronym here – L stands for Learning About People and Communities, O for Opening Our Hearts and Being Empathic, V for Volunteering to be Part of the Solution, and E for Empowering Others. Some examples of how those concepts are being carried out are discussed.

One of the more inspiring examples is that of Jameel “Zookie” McGee, a black father who was unjustly arrested and ended up serving four years he didn’t owe. Andrew Collins, the arresting officer, had his eyes opened by the experience and wanted to make amends. He and McGee ended up meeting and McGee ended up forgiving him for his transgression. The two have since forged an impressive friendship.

Also worthy of notice is Colonel Melvin Russell of the Baltimore P.D. As a detective, he was told by officers above him in the chain of command that he was only suited for undercover work buying narcotics rather than the work he wanted to do – being an actual detective – because he wasn’t smart enough due to the color of his skin. He would go on not only to prove those men wrong, but to become one of the most decorated officers in the city and leading an effort to changing the relationship between his department and the predominantly black communities they serve.

The movie relies an awful lot on talking head interviews and that can become a bit stupefying after awhile, but the message is one worth hearing, particularly on the day that this is being published by Cinema365 – Juneteenth, the celebration of the end of slavery which was recently made a federal holiday. Racial relations in the United States remain a source of conflict in this country, particularly as there is a segment of our society that insists that there IS no conflict at this time, flying in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Some African-Americans wonder, not unjustly, why it is the African-American community that is always being tasked with being the ones to forgive. Well, the answer is simple – they are the ones being wronged. Forgiveness must come from their side; it cannot come from the side that did the wrongdoing. That doesn’t mean that the bulk of the work here has to be done by communities of color. On the contrary; the white community must learn to put aside their preconceptions and change their outlook. They must learn to trust people of color as they trust people who aren’t. Finally, and most importantly, they must learn to apply justice equally to everyone, regardless of race, or religion, or sexual identity, or gender, or anything else that might make them different. We are all, after all, in this same life together and share the same hopes and dreams. Once we begin to understand that, perhaps there won’t be a need for documentaries like this one in the future.

REASONS TO SEE: Spends the second half of the film on viable solutions.
REASONS TO AVOID: Talking head-heavy to a fault.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as disturbing images of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Ali’s first feature as a director and writer.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Whose Streets?
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It

Tigre Gente


On the hunt for the hunters.

(2021) Documentary (XTR) Marcos Uzquiano, Laurel Chor, Gloria Chor, Zhang Go Yang. Directed by Elizabeth Unger

 

It is no secret that the natural world is under siege, and that largely due to humans. Our expanding population requires that more and more land that was once the sole habitat of animals are becoming developed for human habitation. The toxins we pour into the water and the soil are poisoning animals and the plant life that they feed on at an alarming rate. The carbons and hydrocarbons we release into the atmosphere are warming the planet, rendering some habitats unlivable for some species of animals and insects. We are diverting wter for agriculture and other less pressing needs, turning once lush places into virtual deserts. And particularly in countries like china and Myanmar, folk medicine remedies that depend on various organs, skin and bone of a variety of animals has led to a lucrative poaching trade.

Bolivia’s Madidi National Park is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. It is also one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, and is one of the last places which is densely populated by jaguars. However, poachers are reducing the population of jaguars in this protected place at an alarming rate. Park director Marcos Uzquiano is trying to get to the bottom of the problem. He is committed to protecting these beautiful animals, long a symbol of strength and wisdom to the natives of the region.

Meanwhile on the border between Myanmar and China, journalist and environmental activist Laurel Chor is discovering a thriving trade on jaguar teeth and pelts. She is wondering who is buing these items, and what are they being used for. Without knowing it, she is following the same trail that Uzquiano is from different ends.

The sequences set in Madidi are breathtaking and justify the park’s reputation for being one of the places on Earth that is unmatched in terms of natural wonder. Unger, a National Geographic Explorer who has been to all seven continents and is making her documentary feature debut here, builds up the Uzquiano sequence almost like a thriller, with a boat chase of poachers who were likely armed, and a sting operation in which a suspect is found to be trafficking in illegal jaguar teeth and quickly confesses and begs for clemency. We also see Uzquiano interacting with fishermen and villagers in the region, trying to find out who is hunting the big cats and more importantly, who they are selling to.

The Chor sequence is a bit more dry but no less important. She wears a hidden camera as she interviews selelrs at markets who display jaguar skulls and teeth alongside cell phones, others with piles of shark fins to be sold to chefs for shark fin soup. Chor is a bit more articulate than Uzquiano, discussing the situation with her mother who at first disbelieves the claims of environmentalists as “exagerrations” but as her daughter steadfastly informs her that the rhinos whose horns were taken as aphrodisiacs are extinct, she gets defensive. “It’s not just a Chinese problem. There is also a lot of ivory in America.”

Chor realizes that it is a cultural issue, and that changing the hearts and minds of literally billions of people is going to require education rather than indoctrination. She gives talks with school children, trying to open some eyes which Unger hopes to do in the West with her film. Uzquiano comes off perhaps less polished than Chor, but no less committed.

It has been said before and by far more articulate writers that we are custodians of the planet for the next generation; sadly, the generations preceding ours largely failed in their job and while we are getting at least aware of the problem, we are not much more successful. It isn’t just the hearts and minds of the Chinese that have to be changed; all of us are in this together. We owe it to our descendents to give them a world no less beautiful than the one we were given.

REASONS TO SEE: Breathtaking beauty. Heartbreaking and horrifying.
REASONS TO AVOID: The journalist’s sequences are less compelling than those of the park director.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of animal remains.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are fewer than 100,000 jaguars left in the wild and fewer than 3,000 tigers left in the wild (there are more tigers in captivity). Some species of rhino have gone extinct, all attributable to Chinese and east Asian demand.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Tribeca @ Home (through June 23rd)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tigerland
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Censor

Reflection: a walk with water


A world without water is dry and dusty.

(2021) Documentary (Reflection Film LLC) Emmett Brennan, Kathy Bancroft, Connor Jones, Rhamis Kent, Gigi Coyle, Ariel Greenwood, Andy Lipkis, Raymond Hunter, Kate Bunney, Alan Babcock, Brock Dolman, Geoff Dalglish, Ben Holgate, Paul Kaiser, Penny Livingston. Directed by Emmett Brennan

 

Water is the world’s most precious resource. Without it, all life would be impossible. Without it, humans would auickly – within a matter of days – become extinct. Water helps provide oxygen for the planet through evaporation but also by watering plants which provide it. Water grows our food which we need to live. Water keeps us hydrated, which our bodies must have to survive. In short, water is life.

In 1913, the city of Los Angeles built an aqueduct leading from the Owens Valley, nearly 250 miles away. The ambitious plan provided nearly four times the amount of water the city of Los Angeles needed at the time, but it proved to be a far-sighted plan as within seven years, the population of Los Angeles surpassed San Francisco to become the most populous city in California. Until recently, the Los Angeles aqueduct provided nearly 75% of the city’s water.

But there is a price to pay for everything. The Owens Lake shrunk dramatically, becoming a dry lakebed. Once a fertile agricultural region, the Owens Valley became little more than a desert (which, ironically, was what the San Fernando Valley had been before the aqueduct). The dust particulates in the lakebed proved to be a bigger problem, causing respiratory problems for the residents and carrying carcinogenic materials.

Environmentalist, activist and filmmaker Emmett Brannon wanted to call attention to the plight of the Owens Valley, but also to the effects of water mismanagement, which was leading to the epidemic of wildfires that have been plaguing Southern California over the last few years. He and a group of like-minded environmentalists decided to hike alongside the aqueduct to show the effects that the water theft had on the regions left behind.

The science is compelling. The presence of water creates a self-regenerating ecosystem in which water evaporates and creates rain, fog and mist which nourish the soil from which the water can then create rain, fog and mist and start the cycle once again. Without water, soil becomes denser, and actually becomes water-resistant. Of course, once the water is gone, so is the rain for the most part. Brennan and the scientists that he utilizes for the film then go on to suggest solutions.

A lot of time is spent bashing the city of Los Angeles, which is a bit childish and unnecessary. What’s done is done, and the city can’t very well cut off water on which millions of people depend on. Brennan and his team don’t seem to be very thrilled with the idea of irrigation either; the general feeling I got is that water should be left to do what nature intended it to do. I suspect the farmers in the region might not appreciate their solutions, nor the hundreds of millions who are fed from the crops that come out of California alone. I get the sense that there is an awful lot of New Age thought that went into the film; that has a tendency to sabotage the science that also went into it. Mantras and formulas don’t mix.

In that sense, this is a very Jekyll-and-Hyde kind of documentary. There is some useful information in it as well as some solutions that merit further study for a problem that is real and needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the filmmaker looked as globally at the problem as he might have because I don’t get the sense he took into account the consequences of the changes he proposed to the lives of the people that would be affected by them. Just because a documentary addresses a problem that needs to be addressed doesn’t mean the solutions it proposes are viable.

REASONS TO SEE: Makes some salient points about the misuse of water.
REASONS TO AVOID: The science is diluted with a disturbing amount of psychobabble.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The cabin seen at the beginning of the film is Brennan’s residence and he built it himself.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Tribeca @ Home (June 16-23)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flow
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Tigre Gente

Tomorrow’s Hope


Hope is a warm hug

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Jackie Robinson, Jalen Rayford, Crystal, Jamal, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Aija Larry, Portia Kennel, Brenda Eiland-Williford, Emma Gonzalez, Anita Harvey Dixon, Manuel Oliver, Elishaba, Jamie, Bridgette, Asia. Directed by Thomas A. Morgan

 

Escaping poverty can sometimes seem an insurmountable task. Those caught in its clutches are busy just trying to survive; making headway to get out is almost impossible. Many take the easy way out of violence and crime. Most agree the best way out is through education, but often those neighborhoods who need it most are also neglected the most, particularly when it comes to early childhood education. Poor kids getting a head start? Who’s going to pay for that?

In Chicago, the poorest neighborhood in America was located in the Robert Adams housing project. Also the largest public housing project in America, the massive high rises were riddled with disease, drugs and despair. Elevators never worked and the stairways were places where violence often occurred. Parents often restricted their kids to playing on the ramps outside their apartments.

Neighborhood educators knew there had to be a better way. Many of the parents who were concerned about their kids worked and were desperate for daycare, but couldn’t afford it and even if they could, getting their kids there in back was an unreasonable risk. Putting together a foundation called Ounce of Prevention, these educators established a center right there in the Adams housing project, using an empty apartment as their base. Rather than just babysitting the kids by plopping them in front of a television set, they used the opportunity to help them to learn socialization skills and education through play. When playing outside proved to be a formidable obstacle, they put the kids on busses and took them to a local park.

But this center, known as The Beethoven Project, had a major obstacle to face; the city, tired of the crime and violence that festered in the project, decided to tear them down and replace them with better, safer housing. Of course, in order to do that, they needed to relocate the families to new housing throughout the city. Then, the walls came down.

But the city reneged on their promise to rebuild and the parents found themselves in the same predicament, only now they were scattered all over Chicago’s South Side. Ounce of Prevention took the bull by the horns and built Educare, an early education center geared towards impoverished and at-risk children.

This short documentary (just over 45 minutes long, including a prologue testimonial from Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot which felt unnecessary) follows three members of the first class at Educare in 2000. All three are getting ready to graduate high school and have big plans; Jamal, a drum line major who has music running in his veins, plans to become a sound engineer. Sensitive Jalen writes poetry to work out the issues that upset her; having been suicidal at one time, she wants to give back to her community ad plans to be a psychiatrist and work in the same South Side neighborhood she grew up in. Crystal, who has a thing for wigs, looks to become a pediatrician after she graduates college, to which all three are attending.

Now, I have a healthy dose of skepticism in my veins. All three young people are articulate and clearly on the cusp of becoming community leaders. I’m sure not everyone who came through Educare is as cinematic as these three, but certainly any educational program would be happy to have three kids like this as alumni, and it doesn’t hurt to highlight success stories for a program that had so many obstacles to overcome, as indeed these kids did growing up – all three have seen gun violence or known a victim of it. Jalen’s brother was murdered when she was young, and as a result when the Parkland students came to march, she marched right along with them (as did Jamal).

The importance of early childhood education is demonstrable, and too few kids in poor neigborhoods have access to it. Programs like Educare, which has branched out to 25 locations around the country, are going to be necessary if this country is going to keep up with global competitors – an educated population is the key to innovation and economic growth. It seems criminal that we choose to squander the opportunity to develop this country’s greatest asset – its young people.

REASONS TO SEE: The three young people that are followed here are inspirational. The obstacles the center had to overcome are daunting. The film is more concerned with the results of the program rather than the nuts and bolts of how it works.
REASONS TO AVOID: The prologue was somewhat unnecessary and a bit long-winded.
FAMILY VALUES: There is brief profanity (one word) and an image of a body being wheeled out of the Robert Adams housing project.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Every one of the kids enrolled in the first Educare class graduated from high school.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starting at Zero
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Stateless

City of Ali


The Greatest takes his last ride through his beloved Louisville.

(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Muhammad Ali, Bill Clinton, Evander Holyfield, Rasheda Ali, Bill Plaschko, Dick Cavett, Lawrence Montgomery, Asaad Ali, Greg Fischer, Hannah Drake, Allen Houston, Rev. Charles Elliott, Greg Fisher, Atallah Shabazz, Chief Sydney Hall, Lonnie Ali, John Ramsey, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Alice Houston, Rahman Ali, Natasha Mundkur, Ahmed Edmund, Hannah Storm. Directed by Graham Shelby

 

Muhammad Ali was one of the most popular figures in the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. He was also polarizing in a lot of ways – his cocky demeanor was described as “uppity” by a certain segment of the American South, who took umbrage when he chose to refuse to enlist in the Army during the Vietnam war, explaining that the Viet Cong weren’t oppressing his people, weren’t lynching them. He had no beef with them. He promptly had his title stripped from him and spent three of what should have been the most productive of his career on the sidelines.

He changed his name from Cassius Clay Jr., which he called “a slave name,” and embraced the teachings of Elijah Muhammad’s Black Muslims. He was often infuriating with his boasts, mainly because he could back them up in the ring. He was outspoken, but he was also a humanitarian, giving of himself to all sorts of causes, and giving of himself in ways that most celebrities of his stature would never even consider. A Louisville sportswriter recalls attending a boxing match with the Champ at the 2000 Olympics, and after congratulating the winner of he match, going into he locker room to find the boxer who lost the match and spending time giving him a pep talk, sparring with him and in general, giving the young man the thrill of his life.

Mayor Greg Fischer diplomatically puts it that Ali had a complicated relationship with Louisville. There was no doubt that he loved the neighborhood he grew up in and the people he grew up with, but at the same time, like most cities in the American South, it was heavily segregated and there were places he could go, things he couldn’t do and he certainly would have experienced racism firsthand.

When he died at age 74, he had already ben planning his funeral. He and his family knew that there would be an outpouring of grief, and there was. The Ciiy of Louisville assisted with the logistics, assigning traffic control. The Muhammad Ali Center, which housed the museum of Ali’s career and artifacts, threw open its doors so that anyone could visit. One woman covered the roadway leading to the cemetary with rose petals so the funeral procession drove over them, creating a perfume as it went. They also somewhat spontaneously drove the casket from the ceremony through a 20 mile route that took it through the neighborhood Ali grew up in.

There is a bit of kumbaya vibe here, as most involved with the funeral proclaim that the city came together as one for the funeral. It is worth mentioning that only four years later, the same Louisville police force killed Breonna Taylor during a no-knock raid, an act that was largely swept under the rug initially. One of the men who took still photographs at the funeral that are used here would die during the protests that followed.

There are a lot of good stories about Ali, some background about how the funeral came together and a quick summary of Ali’s life, particularly his years in Louisville. There are a lot of talking heads, but considering some of the stories that are coming out of them, it is forgivable. The co-operation of Ali’s surviving family is evident, although his most famous child – Laila – is conspicuous by her absence. That they would want the funeral to be meaningful and triumphant is understandable, but sadly, the same problems that have beset the nation in his formative years in Louisville are largely with us – in a different form, yes, but not completely gone. Not even the Greatest that ever was could solve those problems on his own.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the anecdotes are truly wonderful.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries a bit too hard to make the event more unifying than it turned out to be.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some boxing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ali passed away on June 3, 2016. Normally, Muslim law requires bodies to be buried within 24 hours of death. An exception was made in Ali’s case due to his passing in Phoenix, and his wish to be buried in his hometown of Louisville and of course his enormous worldwide popularity gave dignitaries time to make arrangements to attend the funeral.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/7/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Ali
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Women

State Funeral


Pomp and circumstance for a despot.

(2019) Documentary (MUBI) Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Lavrenti Beria, Vyacheslav Molotov, Gregori Malenkov, Enlai Zhou, Valko Chervenov, Yumyaagiin Tsedenbal, Dolores Ibárruri. Directed by Sergey Loznitsa

 

In the pantheon of 20th century monsters it is clear that Josef Stalin stands right up there with Adolph Hitler and Chairman Mao. These three men were responsible for the death of hundreds of millions of people through genocide, war, starvation, and political assassination. These men had an agenda which was mainly about holding on to absolute power. All three were authoritarians. They remain, to this day, cautionary tales.

When Stalin died in 1953, it created something of a crisis in the old Soviet Union. He was the glue that held together the USSR after Lenin died; the glue was brutality and fear, but it was glue nonetheless. The pressing thought when he died was What will become of us? which was a legitimate question although one that couldn’t be expressed openly. Papa Joe, which he was somewhat ironically nicknamed, had projected an image of paternal caring and love, even though people were dreadfully afraid of the NKVD (which became he KGB) and of Lavrenti Beria’s network of informants who ferreted out any dissent and brought dissenters to horrifying ends.

So for the occasion of Stalin’s funeral, the remaining central committee members wanted a show of epic pageantry that would on the one hand allow the country to mourn and to also reassure the people that the business of government would continue as it had been. A lavish spectacle was planned, with the dictator lying in state in the Hall of the Unions in Moscow before a massive funeral in Red Square. All of it would be captured for posterity by hundreds of cameras documenting not only the main festivities in Moscow but also local and regional memorials from all over the vast Soviet Union.

Belarus-born documentary filmmaker Sergey Loznitsa (who is currently based in Germany) went through more than forty hours of footage and narrowed it down to two and a half hours. The footage has been digitally enhanced, looking as clean and crisp as the day it was shot. As a historical document, it is priceless; as a cultural document, it is fascinating, giving a rare glimpse inside the USSR which we largely didn’t see much of in the West other than propaganda. Well, of course, this is largely meant to be propaganda (I’ll get into that in a moment) but it has been skillfully edited to present much more of an objective picture.

Loznitsa eschews conventional narration, utilizing instead what was broadcast over the ubiquitous loudspeakers throughout the Soviet Union – glorifications of the Communist movement, glorifications of the Soviet Union and of course glorifications the dear departed, reinforcing his public image as a paternal figure. The soundtrack is enhanced with sounds of shuffling feet, wails of lamentation, and other ambient sounds. It is the images of the people filing past the coffin that will stay with me though; the working class, ordinary folk whose faces look numb. Is it grief? Or is it relief that perhaps things will get better with Stalin gone? If it was the latter, there’s no way to ever know – even were interviews to be conducted back then, nobody would admit to it for fear of ending up in one of Beria’s prisons, or with a gun pressed to their temples.

We have the benefit of viewing this film, like any other historical document, with hindsight. Even though most American audiences will not recognize most of the people in the film, they were the most powerful Soviets of their day, as well as high-ranking communists from all over the globe. I suspect a good many of them won’t be recognized even in Russia, nor would the irony of a massive funeral celebrating a man who murdered tens of millions of his countrymen be recognized in a land presided over by Putin, who has borrowed some of Stalin’s tactics.

It might be hard on some to sit through endless shots of people filing past a coffin – and that takes up an awful lot of the film, but trust me, this isn’t a boring or repetitive film in the least. As a country that is battling some tendencies towards authoritarianism ourselves, this is a cautionary tale to say the least. A cult of personality can thrive here. We’ve seen it done. If we want to see the aftermath of one, we can do worse than to look at this film…and remember it.

REASONS TO SEE: The Soviet propaganda machine in full flower. The images are surprisingly crisp and clean and often breathtaking in scope. The numb expressions of the common people is very telling. Makes terrific use of sound.
REASONS TO AVOID: A very long time to watch a funeral.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of Stalin’s corpse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stalin died on March 5, 1953 from complications arising from a massive stroke suffered two days earlier.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: MUBI
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Death of Stalin
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Welcome Matt

Citizen Penn


Some citizens are more badass about getting things done than others.

(2020) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Sean Penn, Anderson Cooper, Cécile Accilien, Capt. Barry Frishman, Dr. Justine Crowley, Tommy Prato, Alastair Lamb, Edgar Nonce, Dr. Dominique Valentin, Laurent Lamothe, Ann Lee, Jeff Dorsey, Amani Phillips, Avery Harrell, Pamela White, Alexandra Kuykendahl. Directed by Don Hardy

 

When you think of Sean Penn, what comes to mind? Spicoli? His years as Mr. Madonna? Punching out a paparazzi? Two-time Oscar winner? Fox News whipping boy? Or dedicated activist and philanthropist who made Haitian relief a priority?

Chances are it isn’t the latter, but that is what this documentary is about, and judging on what is in the film, is what Penn himself is about. The one-time bad boy has not mellowed, but he has matured; there is a big difference. He has been associated with the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, which is remarked about but not gone into great deal here. Mostly, it is mentioned mainly because Penn prevailed upon Chavez to provide 350,000 doses of morphine for Haiti following the January 2010 earthquake when nobody else would.

This documentary, currently airing on the Discovery Plus streaming service (click on the link below if you want to check it out although you will need to be a subscriber if you want to see it), consists largely of an interview with the actor in which he smokes incessantly, and talks plainly about his time in Haiti and of the obstacles he faced there. He also talks about the courage and compassion of the Haitian people, who refuse to see themselves as victims.

There is also a whole lot of footage of the disaster (and the ensuing hurricane that formed a one-two punch with the earthquake that nearly leveled the island). Penn talks about taking a helicopter trip in a U.S. military helicopter at one point and suddenly realizing the scope of the disaster; it is hard to see it when you are looking at individuals and small spaces. The devastation was so widespread it is amazing that Haiti has recovered at all.

It is admirable that the focus of the film shifts about halfway through, from Penn and his efforts to that of his organization, originally known as J/P HRO (Jenkins/Penn Haiti Relief Organization) but is now known as CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort), and how the volunteers there have taken over and helped Haitians take charge of their own relief.

The film makes the distinction between celebrities who support relief organizations and those who actively help on the ground where it is needed. Penn is most definitely one of the latter; he stayed in Haiti working 20-hour days long after the TV cameras had packed up and gone home. He describes a harrowing account of trying to get a young boy a life-saving medicine after he was diagnosed with diptheria. It is one of the most emotionally wrenching sequences in the film, boiling down all the suffering to one little boy. That is how we are more able to connect with disasters; not in the sheer volume of those affected, because it is overwhelming, but in the eyes of a desperate father and a sick little boy.

Most people have probably made up their minds about Penn even before seeing this, and that may prevent you from seeing the documentary, which would be a shame because while Penn is certainly the draw, it is not just about him, and that’s just how he wants it. He uses the documentary the same way he uses his celebrity to call attention to issues he’s passionate about and raise fund to help combat them. Penn strikes me as a man who doesn’t tolerate bullshit at all; it seems to me that the world could use more people like him.

If, like me, you are motivated to donate to Penn’s organization to help with the ongoing humanitarian efforts for the island (which is now battling COVID just like the rest of us), do yourself a favor and go to the CORE website. Every dollar donated will help save lives. You can go to the website here.

REASONS TO SEE: Portrays the scope of the issues in Haiti effectively. Moves the focus away from Penn in the second half of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretty much an acquired taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 2010 earthquake left 230,000 dead and more than 1.5 million homeless.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cajun Navy
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Mortal Kombat

Inhabitants: An Indigenous Perspective


Effective land management techniques that go back two millennia.

(2021) Documentary (Inhabit) Michael Kotutwa Johnson, Kalani Souza, Ervin Carlson, Frank Lake, Teri Dahle, Bill Tripp, Chris Caldwell, Pershing Frechette, Caleb Johnson, Betty Cooper, Marshall Recore, Gregory Arteche, Kathy McCoury, Kenneth Brink, Tony Waupochick, Rick O’Rourke, Stormy Palmeteer, Laurie Reiter, Shirley Kauhaiho, Vikki Preston. Directed by Costas Boutsikaris and Anna Palmer

 

Native Americans have always had a very special relationship with the land that they lived on. They consider it their sacred duty to act as stewards, to protect and nurture the land that protects and nurtures them. For millennia they lived in harmony with their surroundings, until European colonists came and chose to exploit that land, driving them into small reservations and nearly annihilating their culture. In spite of it all, that culture perseveres and their connection to the land endures.

This documentary examines the relationships of five different indigenous peoples and the land they live on; the Hopi of the American Southwest, the Karuk of Northern California, the Blackfeet of the Plains, the Menominee of the Northern Midwest and the Native Hawaiians.

Dr. Michael Kotutwa Johnson of the Hopi explains dry farming – farming done without artificial irrigation – and how it has been able to bring drought-resistant crops in even in the arid Southwest. He shows ancient Hopi methods – using a planting stick to push the seeds deeper into the soil where they get to where the moisture is retained, and shy away from the straight lines of Western farming, using drought-resistant plants like certain strains of beans and corn to help make the Hopi more self-sustaining; more importantly, as climate change could potentially turn farming land more arid, it will provide valuable ways to continue to feed those who rely on that farmland for food.

As California has been ravaged by wildfires, the Karuk aboriginals have had the solution for generations; controlled burns that rid the redwood forests of highly flammable underbrush; the smoke from the controlled burns gathers in the canopies and helps retain moisture in the soil, and the nutrients from the burning also enrich the soil. More importantly, these control burns make the trees more fire-resistant with layers of carbon that protect the trees in case of a wildfire. Bill Tripp of the Karuk oversees their efforts at keeping the homes and people on their reservation safe from the devastating wildfires that have plagued the state the past two years, and it may be that the state of California is taking notice of their methods.

For the Plains natives, the buffalo was always a major economic engine; the bison provided food, clothing and shelter for the natives, but the animals – who once numbered in the millions, were down to about 200 by the mid-20th century and were on the endangered species list. Careful stewardship of the buffalo, including that of Erwin Carlson (President of the Intertribal Buffalo Council) and Teri Dahle (Program Director of the Iinii Initiative that is providing an ecological reserve on which the buffalo can thrive) have brought the animals back from the brink of extinction to the point that they are no longer on the edge of extinction; in fact, non-native culture is discovering the benefits of the bison as an alternative to beef.

For the Menominee tribe of the Northern Midwest, the forest is their sacred land and protecting it is their responsibility. They do it through selective tree harvesting, removing diseased and stunted trees for lumber harvesting while planting seedlings for future growth. Chris Caldwell of the Menominee shows graphically the deforested areas adjacent to the reservation where lumber barons wiped the forests out without regard for replanting. The Menominee forests are thick, lush and healthy, illustrating how a sustainable model can be economically viable for all concerned.

Finally, native Hawaiians led by the Reverend Kalani Souza illustrate the concept of food forestry – using native plants and roots as a food source. Planting breadfruit, taro and other plants native to the islands creates a sustainable food source that thrives in Hawaii’s temperate climate, even as European settlers threatened to overwhelm the islands with pineapple and coffee plantations, neither native to Hawaii. As seen in all these examples, the wisdom of the original inhabitants is finally being heard, as it is being rediscovered by the indigenous peoples themselves.

Co-directors Costas Boutsikaris and Anna Palmer prefer to tell their stories in a non-linear fashion, jumping around from region to region which does dilute the power of the messages a bit. However, the talking heads recruited here are incredibly persuasive and passionate about their various fields of expertise. The cinematography is often breathtaking and conveys the spirituality with which Native Americans regard the land they reside on.

We non-indigenous folks have a tendency to misunderstand the deep connection between indigenous peoples and the land they live on; it is a part of their culture that is often overlooked. As the world is faced with the sobering realities of climate change, it is somehow comforting to know that some of the solutions are ancient and have been with us for two thousand years and more. We ignore this ancient wisdom at our own peril.

This is the last day that the film will be available online as part of the DocLands film festival (you can purchase it by clicking the link under Virtual Cinema below), but keep an eye out for it on the festival circuit. It is also likely to end up on PBS or Discovery at some point.

REASONS TO SEE: The information is fascinating. Beautiful cinematography in an almost spiritual way.
REASONS TO AVOID: Bounces around a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all family members.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Native Americans of the Karuk tribe used controlled burns to regulate forest undergrowth two thousand years ago; for awhile in the early 20th century it was illegal to use that method on their own tribal lands. Ony now as science has discovered the benefits of controlled burns have they been allowed to return to their tried and true methods.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (today only)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: If a Tree Falls
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Riders of Justice

Two Gods


A tisket, a tasket, I’ll teach you to make a casket.

(2020) Documentary (CNN) Hanif Muhammad, Furquan Maynard, Nazir Dowell, Rashed Reece, Joann Maynard, Keerah Davis, Barbara Campbell, Jayne Hodge, Khadija Samad, Tyler Hodge. Directed by Zeshawn Ali

 

Poverty and racial injustice make a wicked one-two punch. We have been watching in horror as thousands of young black men have fallen prey to it, destroyed by despair, drugs and crime. It is no easy feat to turn away from what appear to be easy – or sometimes, only – solutions.

But Hanif Muhammad did manage to break the cycle for himself. As a young man, he made plenty of wrong choices, and paid the price, ending up incarcerated. However, he found Islam and his new faith enabled him to turn down a righteous path. He got himself a trade, building caskets and conducting funeral rites for his fellow Muslims in the mean streets of Newark, New Jersey.

He hoped to show a couple of other kids from the neighborhood that life didn’t have to be an inevitable spiral into death. He took 12-year-old Furquan Maynard and 18-year-old Nazir Dowell under his wing, both boys without fathers, to give them an example of a better way.

But it isn’t easy. Farquan’s mom has a boyfriend who beats up both her and her son, and she seems unwilling or unable to do anything about it. Nazir has already had brushes with the law and if he can’t make some sort of correction is liable to wind up in one of Hanif’s caskets. It also must be said that Hanif’s grip on sobriety and stability is fragile at best; temptation bedevils him at every turn and he is one bad choice away from losing everything he’s built.

This searing black and white documentary is a stark slice of the streets, with all the positive and negative that it implies. We see the obstacles these young boys are up against, how so many of the men in the neighborhood have wound up dead too young or in jail too long. There aren’t a lot of talking heads here; this is mainly a stream of consciousness type documentary a la Erroll Morris, and while from time to time it feels that the Ali loses the focus of his story, for the most part his movie keeps viewers locked into a story that could be goingon anywhere in America that has neighborhoods that are under siege from that one-two punch.

Hanif is a flawed man, but he is charming in his own way, dancing to hip hop music as he works on his caskets in the shop he works in. His faith is undeniable, and one thing the movie might accomplish is to allow people to see Islam in a different light; all we ever tend to see is fanatics foaming at the mouth for a holy war, terrifyingly ignorant of the truth that there is nothing holy about war.

These aren’t those sorts. They are people, just like thee and me, who only want to live their life with dignity and perhaps, the potential to prosper. But these particular people have more obstacles to overcome than most, and it isn’t always sunshine and light. Some of this movie is grim indeed and I’m not talking about the images of dead bodies being prepared for burial. Ali has crafted a movie that is real and open and honest and informative. This is an outstanding work from a director who is someone to keep a sharp eye on for the future.

REASONS TO SEE: Hasif is an engaging subject. A real slice of the streets.
REASONS TO AVOID: Meanders a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as images of corpses being prepared for burial.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2020 edition of the Hot Docs festival in Toronto.
BEYOND THE THEATER:/span> Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Princess of the Row
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Djinn