Stink!


Jon J. Whelan works the phones.

Jon J. Whelan works the phones.

(2015) Documentary (Area23a) Jon J. Whelan, Jeffrey Hollander, Dr. Leonardo Trasande, Andy Igrejas, Cal Dooley, Leonard Lance, Jan Schakowsky, Karuna Jaggar, Brandon Silk, Rosa Silk, Jane Houlihan, Dr. Richard Denison, Dr. Jennifer Sass, Christophe Laudamie, Dr. Arlene Blum, Steve Herman, Jack Corley, Gretchen Lee Salter, Stacy Malkan. Directed by Jon J. Whelan

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As consumers, we feel confident that the products on store shelves or in Internet-based shopping company warehouses are safe for consumption. We rely on watchdog government agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate which chemicals can be used and which can’t, and to know what is in the products that we buy. It might come as a shock to you that they don’t.

It came as a shock to single father Jon J. Whelan as well. Jon, whose wife Heather passed away a few years ago from breast cancer, had bought pajamas for his two tween daughters for Christmas from the tween lifestyle store Justice, whose products drove his daughters absolutely giddy with delight. However when the pajamas were taken out of their packaging, he noticed a very powerful odor that smelled “chemical” to him.

His late wife had always tried to be aware of what ingredients were in the things they consumed and used, and hyper-concerned due to his wife’s recent passing, he tried to call Justice and get a sense of what chemicals were being used for the pajamas. To his surprise, they didn’t know. He started making calls to the corporate office, to corporate officers, to Michael Rayden, the CEO of Justice – he even called the manufacturing plant in China.

He was met with a stone wall. Either the people he spoke with didn’t know, or told him that the ingredients were “proprietary trade secrets.” Looking into the laws that governed these things, he discovered that the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, instead of protecting Americans from the use of unknown chemicals that may or may not be carcinogenic, gave corporations loopholes in terms of labeling when it came to fragrances and flame-retardant compounds in that those items could be labeled proprietary and the companies were not liable to list the ingredients therein. In fact, after having the pajamas analyzed by a lab, he made the disturbing discovery that several of the chemicals found in the pajamas were carcinogenic – including one that had been banned by the FDA.

Contacting advocacy groups, he discovered further chilling facts – such as the incidence of breast cancer in the United States went from 1 in 20 in the 60s to 1 in 8 today, and that the amount of chemicals in the bloodstream of newborn babies numbered in the hundreds – chemicals that weren’t supposed to be there. He also discovered that consumer protection laws that regulate toxic chemical use were far stricter in the European Union than here. Even the laws in China were more strict. America had somehow become a third world country when it comes to consumer protection.

Interviews with corrupt lawmakers, corporate shills and lobbyists who not only obscured the truth but blatantly lied to legislative bodies make this akin to a Michael Moore ambush-style documentary, and in an era when distrust of corporate entities is at an all-time high, an effective method. Many advocacy groups are calling for a strengthening of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, or at least an updating of it, something that industry is fighting tooth and nail.

Whelan utilizes graphics and animations that have a bit of a 60s vibe to them, colorful and cartoonish. While occasion the tech-speak can be intimidating and the presentation a bit scattershot, this is clearly the labor of love for a father still grieving for his wife, who appears in home movies interspersed throughout, along with video of his cute and bubbly daughters.

Whelan, like many of the advocacy groups whose representatives he interviews during the film, advocates for stronger regulatory powers for the EPA and the FDA, tougher restrictions on the use of chemicals, and transparency in labeling. All of these seem pretty reasonable, although when he interviews opposing viewpoints, they tend to prevaricate to almost nonsensical levels; they pay lip service to consumer protection but their actions prove the only protecting they are doing is of corporate profits. As Whelan puts it, if everything in these products is safe, then why is the chemical industry working so hard to prevent us from knowing what is in the products we buy every day?

The information presented here is sobering; there is literally almost no way to protect yourself from the use of toxic chemicals in nearly every product we use in the home. Anything that has a fragrance in it is likely to have man-made petrochemicals in it because they are far cheaper than organic chemicals. The long-term effects of repeated exposure to these chemicals is unknown; as one physician says, “We are quietly becoming genetically modified by toxic chemicals. We aren’t test subjects; we’re guinea pigs.”

REASONS TO GO: Effectively connects the dots. Clearly a labor of love. Chilling info.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie took three years to film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gasland
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The 33

Iraqi Odyssey


A family outing in the Iraq that was.

A family outing in the Iraq that was.

(2014) Documentary (Typecast) Jamal al Tahir, Sabah Jamal Aldin, Suhair Jamal Aldin, Samira Jamal Aldin, Tanya Uldin, Samir Jamal Aldin. Directed by Samir

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Generally, when people in the West think of Iraq, the impression isn’t very good. We find savage religious war between Sunnis and Shiites, an army that turned and ran at the first sign of ISIS, a democracy in chaos. Of course, the United States bears a great deal of responsibility on that score when we’re talking about that last item, but still most people have a very negative opinion about Iraq in general.

However, people tend to forget that once Iraq was one of the most modern of Middle East countries, one in which the middle class was strong and education was valued. Once having thrown off the yoke of colonialism, the monarchy in Iraq was actually relatively progressive compared to other countries in the region. Women in Baghdad dressed as they did in Los Angeles and the universities in Iraq produced some of the finest doctors and engineers in the world.

That’s all changed now, and with all the upheaval that has been suffered by that country, from Saddam Hussein and the Baathist party’s brutal repression through the unnecessary Iran-Iraq war to the bombing of the Gulf War and it’s sequel to the American occupation, many of the finest citizens of Iraq have spread to the four winds.

This documentary is the story of one family, well-to-do and middle class and progressive (the daughters, for example, were allowed to marry for love rather than by parental arrangement) who can trace back their lineage back to the prophet Mohammed (but are mainly secular now) and whose own family mirrors the chaos in Iraq. The family for various reasons has scattered across the globe and while director Samir mentions a good many of them, he focuses on Jamal who now lives in Moscow, Sabah who now lives in New Zealand, Suhair who lives in Buffalo, Samira who lives in London and Samir himself in Switzerland.

In doing so we get a fairly detailed crash course on Iraqi history of the 20th century. We see the communist party in postwar Iraq ready to assume leadership but abandoned by Moscow after the Cuban Missile crisis, leading the way for the Baathists – who were founded as an outgrowth of the Nazi party – to take over.

Through home video and archival footage we get a sense of the closeness of the clan, the activities they took part in and the anguish that has overtaken them all, scattered across the globe as they are. To put it in perspective, think of your own family and imagine that every last one of them lived in a different corner of the globe. How would that affect your own happiness?

The film is amazingly informative and gives us a good deal of insight into the issues of the Middle East from a perspective most of us haven’t really been exposed to. The major problem here however is that the film is nearly three hours long and after awhile it’s like a university lecture that has gone on much too long. The interviews with the family members tend to take place against black backgrounds and are often in English, although they are also in German and Arabic and I believe, Kurdish as well, which doesn’t help audiences with attention span issues, i.e. Americans.

The use of graphics is nicely integrated into the film, with charts and graphs indicating the relationships between the various family members (very much appreciated) and the distance between family members geographically (not so much). The music, mainly comprised of traditional instruments of the region, from time to time playfully uses regional music of the region where the interviews are taking place (the Marseilles in France or the Star-Spangled Banner in the United States) and one gets a sense of the humor that these extraordinary people have had to have in order to stay relatively sane. We also get a sense of the loneliness and isolation many of them feel.

In many ways this may end up being the definitive work of the Iraqi Diaspora and academics may well want to study it. However for the casual viewer, this is quite a momentous undertaking and while chock full of admirable material, may be a little bit much for those who are easily bored. However, those who don’t mind binge watching 13 hours of their favorite Netflix show might benefit from putting that kind of discipline to work here.

REASONS TO GO: Extremely informative. Clever use of graphics and music.
REASONS TO STAY: Way, way, way too long. Very much like watching home movies.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of foul language and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Over four million Iraqis live in Diaspora as of this writing..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Outside the Law (2010)
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Stink!

The Unknown Known


Would you buy a used car from this man?

Would you buy a used car from this man?

(2014) Documentary (Radius) Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris. Directed by Errol Morris

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He sits in an immaculate suit that speaks of good taste. He has an almost professorial air about him, discoursing easily on philosophy, language and politics. He has a grandfatherly smile that beams out at the screen, but when you look deeper there’s an almost Machiavellian calculation going on behind his eyes. He is former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and there are those who despise him with a passion – and others who hail him as an American hero.

Now in his 80s, he is remarkably spry and articulate. During his tenure in public office which started in Congress in the 1960s, he wrote what he called “snowflakes” – memos that discourse on every subject you can imagine, ranging from dictionary definitions to discussions of military strategy. He has served as Defense Secretary to three different presidents – Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, more than any man in American history. He has presided over the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, starting wars that have not ended to this day, making them the longest armed conflict in American history.

On the other side of the camera is Oscar-winning documentary director Errol Morris, a truth-seeker who has challenged the judicial system as well as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He would be one of those sorts who would tend to despise Rumsfeld. On paper, it would seem to be a volatile mix, but both men are far too polite and professional to allow an emotional response derail their purpose here.

The movie mainly consists of Rumsfeld reading his memos aloud along with his interviews with Morris, mixed with archival footage and some graphic animations. However, it is the interview with Morris that takes center stage. Rumsfeld is smooth, even charming. He sidesteps questions he doesn’t want to answer, obfuscates often when he does and sometimes flat-out contradicts himself. At one point Rumsfeld claims to not have read the report on misconduct at Abu Gharib prison, to which an incredulous Morris inadvertently blurts out “REALLY?!?!?”

Still, his Midwestern grandfatherly demeanor lulls one into underestimating him, a tactic he’s used throughout his political career. That demeanor hides a sharp, analytical mind. As much as I dislike his policies and his philosophies, I can’t help but admire the intelligence, and trust me that’s not something I ever thought I’d say about anyone in the Bush administration.

Danny Elfman’s score nicely enhances the film, although from time to time there’s a bit of false bombast, but overall I noticed the music only in a positive way. Really though, there’s not much to say about this film; it is well-enough made from a technical standpoint, but it is the subject that is the attraction, a contradictory but compelling individual whom history has not yet fully judged and it will be decades before it does.

Still, there is an awful lot of watching Rumsfeld and it might get a little wearing after awhile. For those political junkies looking to try and make sense of the man, I doubt you’ll come away feeling that you know him any better than you did before. Still, as maddening as Rumsfeld is to the left, one can’t help think that we’re all getting played just a little and that truthfully, it is unlikely we’ll ever know the real Donald Rumsfeld.

WHY RENT THIS: Rumsfeld is engaging but elusive. Terrific music.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overwhelming amount of talking head time.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Morris interviewed Rumsfeld on eleven separate occasions and shot over 33 hours of film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interview with Morris where he describes the process of getting Rumsfeld to agree to the interviews. There is also a Georgia Public TV production called Third Annual Report of the Secretaries of Defense in which six former Secretaries of Defense (including Rumsfeld) are interviewed by former Frontline correspondent Hedrick Smith as well as an op-ed piece by Morris for the New York Times.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $301,604 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix , Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fog of War
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Iraqi Odyssey

Searching for Sugar Man


Just chillin', Detroit-style.

Just chillin’, Detroit-style.

(2012) Music Documentary (Sony Classics) Sixto Rodriguez, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, Clarence Avant, Dennis Coffey, Mike Theodore, Dan DiMaggio, Jerome Ferretti, Steve Rowland, Willem Möller, Craig Bartholomew Strydom, Ilse Assmann, Steve M. Harris, Robbie Mann, Eva Rodriguez, Regan Rodriguez, Sandra Rodriguez-Kennedy. Directed by Malik Bendjelloul

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Fame in the music business is a very fickle thing. Some have it who don’t deserve it. Some deserve it who don’t have it. Some work hard to get it while others couldn’t care less if they have it. Fame isn’t the be-all and end-all for a musician, but it is a measure of how much their music gets heard, which is after all what being a musician is all about.

Rodriguez was a young folk singer in the late 1960s working in the Detroit area. A construction worker by day, he’d play in seedy bars at night, wowing crowds with his direct songwriting style and his plaintive voice. A pair of executives for a subsidiary of Motown records saw him perform and thinking they’d discovered the next big thing, signed the young troubadour to a contract, knowing Motown wanted to make inroads in the rock market.

His first album, Cold Fact (1970) was a legendary flop, barely selling enough to make up the cost of catering for the project. The follow-up Coming From Reality (1971) also bombed. The label dropped Rodriguez and he faded from view, doomed to the obscurity of failed rock and roll careers.

Except a funny thing happened. In apartheid-era South Africa, his music struck a chord. Anti-apartheid activists used its direct appeal for unity as a rallying point. Although the repressive South African government banned the music on their government-owned radio or from being imported into their country, bootlegged copies sold like wildfire. In fact, Rodriguez outsold Elvis in South Africa.

Segerman, an enterprising record store owner, and Strydom, a rock journalist, decided to see if they could find Rodriguez for the purpose of bringing him to South Africa to perform. That proved to be very difficult; there was little information about him available and rumors even had it that he had even committed suicide, either shooting himself in the head or dousing himself with gasoline and setting himself on fire depending on who you talked to. There was no evidence of either version having happened definitively but the rumors were persistent.

So were the two men however and their journey was followed by Bendjelloul, a Swedish actor/filmmaker. It was no easy task finding a man who didn’t know anyone was looking for him, a man who had left fame and its trappings behind. The men weren’t even sure they would find a living legend, or a dead rumor. Even in the era of the Internet their search was frustrating and often fruitless, until it took an unexpected turn.

Bendjelloul treats this not just as a documentary but as a mystery as well and we watch the step by step search. Therefore we feel like we’re searching for Rodriguez as well, and the information so tantalizing, so compelling that we get caught up in it. Part of the reason is that they make liberal use of his music as a soundtrack and yes, everything you’ve heard is right – the music is amazing. It is almost incomprehensible to me why this man never made it. His music is as good as anything you have heard from that era or since, but even now there are those who say that because he just used his own last name that people figured he was a Mexican singing Mexican folk. This is nothing of the sort, my friends, other than the penchant of Mexican folk music to be about social justice.

There isn’t a ton of archival footage of Rodriguez so it’s augmented by animation and contemporary interviews with those involved in his career. The movie never gets boring a Bendjelloul takes us through every twist and turn the investigators take. I won’t tell you what the results of their investigations are, only that you will feel inspired once the closing credits start rolling.

This won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2013 and it was against some pretty stiff competition, including The Gatekeepers and The Invisible War but that would turn out to be sadly not enough. Bendjelloul, about a year later, committed suicide after battling depression all his life in an irony that can’t be escaped, considering the subject of his documentary was rumored to have committed suicide himself. It is a bittersweet coda to what is otherwise an amazing, wonderful movie that at the very least stands as an enduring legacy not only to Rodriguez but to Bendjelloul, his talent as a filmmaker and his obvious humanity.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing story well-told. A soundtrack that will stay in your memory for a long time. Uplifting.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally looks like it was shot on an iPhone – which some of it was.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original intent was for Bendjelloul to do 3D animations to augment the film but he couldn’t afford them so the oven paper drawings he did to illustrate what he intended to do were used in the film instead.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a Q&A with the director and star of the documentary.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.1M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu , M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Documented continues

Documented 2015


documentedThe year is drawing to a close but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something new going on here at Cinema365. We have a new mini-review festival starting today.

It’s called Documented and as you can gather from the title, is all about the documentary. For a long time, documentaries were considered dry and boring and were either about topical subjects, making them instantly dated, or about nature and/or man’s role in it. Mostly it was footage with a narrator talking over it although sometimes there were interviews interspersed in.

How the documentary is presented has changed over the years, with graphics and computer re-creations, as well as animated sequences. Documentaries cover all sorts of subjects these days, from the important to the trivial to the bizarre. As a reviewer, I’ve come to enjoy documentaries far more in recent times than I did as a young person. That’s both a tribute to my own maturity but more so to the skill of modern documentary filmmakers.

With such a bounty of films to choose from, I’ve selected three that I think will be of interest to Cinema365 readers. I’m trying to avoid anything with a specific political agenda – after all Thanksgiving is right around the corner and who wants to get their blood boiling so close to the holiday – but hopefully you’ll find the subjects and the presentation as fascinating as I did.

I hope you’ll enjoy our new series as much as I did viewing the films in it. Looking ahead, we have our annual holiday movie series The Holly and the Quill coming up next month as well as our 2016 preview, which is being assembled even as we speak. The new year will bring our annual top 10 films (this time of 2015) and a return of Oscar Gold, our tribute to Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning films. February will return Cinema of the Heart, our tribute to romance films and finally March brings Our Film Library, all about movies based on books.

It’s going to be a busy new year here at Cinema365 and we look forward to bringing you reviews of the best – and some not quite the best – movies available for you to peruse. Enjoy!