Resisterhood


The resistance will be televised – and feminine.

(2020) Documentary (The Content FarmJohanna Lohman, Nancy Lohman, Steve Lohman, Luis Gutierrez, Jean Gearon, Margaret Johnson Morrison, Kate Houston Gearon, Suraida Gutierrez, Dallas Chisolm, Adrienne Chisolm, Mimi Hassanein, Jessica Gutierrez, Hedda Hassanein. Directed by Cheryl Jacobs Crim

 

Almost from the day that Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States, concerned women all over the country took to the streets. Their March on Washington, organized by women concerned about the future of reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights, and the rise of misogyny from a man who bragged on tape that he could grab the genitalia of a woman without permission and get away with it.

The movie begins with that Women’s March and continues until the 2018 midterms that saw the most racially, ethnically and gender-diverse Congress in U.S. history get elected. It follows six activists – professional soccer player Jennifer Lohman, one of the heroines of the U.S. Women’s team’s run to World Cup wins and proud possessor of the “Jo-Hawk” hairstyle, an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ youth; Representative Luis Gutierrez from Chicago, convinced by his wife to skip the inauguration and march – and afterwards, continuing to fight for Dreamers and immigrants while helping his daughter out in her own bid for an alderman’s spot in the Windy City; Mimi Hassanein, an Egyptian immigrant with 15 grandchildren who is inspired to run for a local city position; 82-year-old Margaret Johnson Morrison who marched with John Lewis and Martin Luther King in Selma who makes a point of attending modern marches despite her advanced age – she is passionate about educating the young on the power of citizen activism; and Dr. Jean Gearon, who turned her six-person book club into a political activist organization numbering more than 400 and growing.

Veteran documentary filmmaker Crim organizes the stories nicely, and make no mistake, this is meant to be inspiration of the highest order. We’re meant to take hope from the simple act of ordinary people making the decision to make a difference. All of these people do make a difference in their own way, with ripples that range from small to mighty. It’s hard to argue with Morrison who stands up at a KLAN rally; that’s the kind of bravery that most of us only dream of possessing.

Crim shows how the seeds of change come from fields of despair as those who see the Trump presidency as a call to responsibility – the responsibility to stand against one of the most venal political figures in history. It is inspiring to watch how political activism translates to the ballot box and as we sit as I publish this awaiting for word from battleground states that may finally end this presidency following the biggest turnout of American registered voters in more than a century, and reminds us that all of us must do our part because even if the election goes the way we hope it does, the work is far from over. This is by far one of the most inspiring films I’ve seen all year. Amazon Prime members can watch this for free at publication time; it can also be purchased there by non-members.

REASONS TO SEE: Truly inspirational. Thoughtfully assembled. Shows the direct connection between activism and ballot box. Illustrates the power of citizen participation
REASONS TO AVOID: Trump followers won’t like this much.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jean Gearon’s great-grandmother was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement that brought the vote to women in America.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We Are Many
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Kindred

Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes


Roger Ailes, kingmaker.

(2018) Documentary (Magnolia)  Glenn Beck, Austin Pendleton, Sarah Ellison, Alisyn Camerota, Warren Cooper, Linda Newman, Karyn Kesler, Kenneth Johnson, Felycia Sugarman, John Cook, Stephen Rosenfield, Kellie Boyle, Glenn Meehan, E. Jean Carroll, Terry Anzer, David Shuster, Joe Muto, Lydia Corona, Bo Dietl, Richard Shea, Marsha Callahan, Tamara Holder.  Directed by Alexis Bloom

There is no doubt that Roger Ailes is a polarizing figure. Among conservatives, he’s a genius and kingmaker who was responsible for the elections of Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump. He is also the creator of Fox News, the virtual house network of the GOP. For liberals, he is the devil incarnate, a man who learned his trade from Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl and whose “fair and balanced” tagline for his network was of the utmost irony.

So depending on which side of the political spectrum you fall on, you are going to look at this either as a hatchet job or as a call to arms. It’s very difficult to review a biographical documentary about someone like Ailes without your own politics getting in the way. I will be as honest as I can be; I have no love for Ailes and his legacy, but then again, neither does the director – as she makes abundantly clear.

Much of the film revolves around the sexual harassment scandal that would eventually bring one of the most powerful men in America down. Although we don’t hear from former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson who initiated the suit, we do hear from Fox News personalities Glenn Beck, Alisyn Camerota and David Shuster. We also hear from women who have accused Ailes of sexual coercion, going all the way back to his days as a producer on the Mike Douglas Show which at the time was the only talk show on daytime television.

Even the soundtrack, which sounds appropriate for a thriller, makes no bones about where Bloom’s sympathies lie. While she does a pretty good job of summarizing the man’s career, there is no attempt to talk to people who loved Ailes – and there were many. Although Beck was willing to go on camera and discuss some of the darker sides of Ailes’ nature, no other big Fox News personality did, nor any members of Ailes’ family. We therefore get a fairly one-sided presentation of the man.

Ailes passed away in 2017 before this documentary came out; a hemophiliac, a fall in his home caused him to bleed to death. By that time, however, he had been rendered persona non grata at the network he created. That he survived only a year after his fall from grace is not surprising.

I get the need to vilify the man; his lack of regard for the truth and for facts in favor of building a narrative that fits the conservative point of view is disturbing, and we are living with the fruits of that poisonous tree. Ailes took his cues from Adolph Hitler and P.T Barnum, telling the big lie to appeal to man’s baser nature, and changed the world. Love him or hate him, you cannot deny that he is very much responsible for the world we live in even now, three years after he’s gone. That, at least, is a legacy.

REASONS TO SEE: A chilling look at the manipulation of the electorate. A mixture of admiration and horror.
REASONS TO AVOID: Extremely one-sided.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor/director Austin Pendleton and Ailes attended grade school together.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, FlixFling, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bombshell
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Lancaster Skies

Fahrenheit 11/9


Trump supporters wearing their thoughts on their sleeves.

(2018) Documentary (Briarcliff/AnnapurnaMichael Moore, Donald J. Trump, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Hilary Clinton, Bill Maher, Bernie Sanders, Chris Matthews, George Stephanopoulos, Wendy Williams, Roger Ailes, Megyn Kelly, John Podesta, Roger Stone, Paul Ryan, Joe Scarborough, Larry King, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Ashleigh Banfield, April Cook-Hawkins, Brooke Baldwin. Directed by Michael Moore

 

During the 2016 Presidential election, one of the lone voices on the left predicting that Trump would win was gadfly and documentarian Michael Moore. The favored son of Flint, Michigan takes the time to illustrate just how this came to pass when virtually nobody thought it would – other than Trump and his followers.

This is perhaps Moore’s most serious documentary, with less of the stunts that characterize his other films (although he does attempt to make a citizen’s arrest of Michigan governor Rick Snyder and dares politicians to drink a glass of Flint water) and gives the movie a bit of a bleaker turn than most of his other work.

Moore doesn’t pull punches and he doesn’t always play fair with his facts; some of his commentary is a bit of a stretch and like that guy whose sense of humor isn’t always apparent, you’re never sure if he’s kidding or not.

Moore spends most of the movie illustrating how corporate America has essentially bought our democracy and has turned it into their own private ATM, making sure legislation favors the wealthy and the corporate at the expense of the working class and of course the poor – two classes that are virtually indistinguishable now. He does show glimmers of hope with the Parkland students rising up and leading a massive national march for gun control, and profiling politicians like Rashida Tlaib and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez who might just make a difference in years to come.

Those who lean to the right in their political thinking are not likely to see this, but then again, this movie isn’t really for them – it’s more of a call to arms for the left which Moore criticizes has become complacent and self-destructive. We must all stand together, he opines – or as the Founding fathers might have added, we will all hang separately.

REASONS TO SEE: Adequately explains what got us to this point. Smart and occasionally mind-blowing.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit scattershot and at the end of the day, probably doesn’t accomplish what it set out to.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film made its official world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Moore hosted a special premiere in his home town of Flint, Michigan (which figures heavily in the movie) four days later.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fahrenheit 9/11
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Life, Itself

Nobody Speak: The Trials of the Free Press


Terry Bollea (Hulk Hogan) runs out of fingers to count how many pro wrestling titles he’s won.

(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Nick Denton, Hulk Hogan, A.J. Daulerio, Charles Harder, David Folkenflik, Peter Thiel, David Birenspan, John Cook, David Carr, Floyd Abrams, Peter Sterne, David Houston, Leslie Savan, Will Alden, Ryan Mac, Matt Drange, Elizabeth Spiers, James Wright, Hike Hengel, John L. Smith, Jennifer Robison. Directed by Brian Knappenberger

 

Long considered one of the pillars of democracy, a free and independent press acted as a check on the powerful; their job to shine the light of truth on those who would keep things hidden in the darkness. In recent years, the press has come under attack particularly by our current President who has gone so far as to call them “the enemy of the people.”

It is easy for someone like myself to take umbrage; after all, I spent almost 15 years in the newspaper business and continue as a writer and a commentator albeit as a movie reviewer. Still, the Free Press tends to be something of a sacred trust to me and people like me. It is sometimes easy to forget that the state of the media has changed radically. Gone are the days of local newspapers being crusaders; most newspapers are owned by corporate interests and are expected to turn a profit which has become increasingly difficult in this age of the Internet. Some of the charges brought against the Media aren’t without merit.

This documentary, which played Sundance last year and has been playing on Netflix since not long after that, examines the assault on the Press from three vantages. The first and most lengthy is coverage of the Gawker Hulk Hogan sex tape suit. Gawker was something of a tabloid website that specialized in lurid news stories that mainstream outlets wouldn’t touch. When a sex tape of wrestler Hulk Hogan getting busy with his friend shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge’s wife, Hogan (whose real name is Terry Bollea) requested that the tape be taken down. When Gawker refused, Hogan sued. Getting a judge who once represented Terry Schiavo’s parents in that heart-wrenching case, the judgment went against the website, to the tune of $140 million (which was later negotiated down to $31 million). The result was that Gawker declared bankruptcy and their media empire (which included other websites like Jezebel and Gizmodo) were sold to Latin media giant Univision and Gawker was quietly shut down.

The film portrays the website and its British founder Nick Denton as crusaders for the free press, but that’s a bit misleading. Media critic the late David Carr of the New York Times once referred to the site as “The Mean Girls of journalism.” The question that is brought up but not really addressed is that where privacy get superseded by the right of the press to report the news. David Houston, Bollea’s lawyer, successfully argued that Hulk Hogan having sex is not news and on that I would agree.

After the judgment is handed down, it is revealed that the lawsuit was funded by billionaire Silicon Valley venture capitalist (and former founder of Pay Pal) Peter Thiel, a Trump supporter, who was once outed by Gawker and wanted to not only see them taken down a peg but to be driven out of existence which he was successful in doing. This is troubling particularly when the next segment, the surprise 2015 purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by mysterious buyers.

The reporters at the newspaper of record for Sin City are told to do their jobs and not worry about who owns the paper but that is like waving bloody red meat in the face of a starving wolf. Soon the investigative journalists at the newspaper discover that the purchaser is GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, the owner of the Venetian and one of the biggest financial supporters of Republican political candidates next to the Koch Brothers. He essentially wanted to buy the paper to control the news coming out about his casino and business dealings.

These are troubling trends that billionaires dissatisfied with the coverage about them can simply buy the news and then have their own agenda  become part of the media landscape. Knappenberger most certainly brings up some very important and troubling questions; unfortunately he gets a bit preachy towards the end which dilutes his point quite a bit. Still, in these times where the press is being demonized, it behooves us to understand the forces behind the campaign to discredit the media. While no newspaper reporter is ever truly unbiased, there is at least an expectation that the facts will be verifiable and correct. The fact that now we seem to prefer to get our news from echo chambers rather than from sources that at least place value on the truth is something that could end up destroying our country from within.

REASONS TO GO: The story is a worthwhile one. There’s plenty of detail in the information presented. There are some unexpected twists and turns. It’s a chilling look at how the First Amendment has been systematically eroded.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers get a little preachy towards the end. There’s a little too much quick-cutting for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie debuted at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, it did get a brief theatrical run followed by it’s Netflix debut in June of last year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tabloid
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Wrinkle in Time

Get Me Roger Stone


Roger Stone is about as conservative as it gets.

(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Roger Stone, Donald J. Trump, Paul Manafort, Tucker Carlson, Jeffrey Toobin, Alex Jones, Jane Mayer, Wayne Barrett, Henry Siegel, Matt Labash, Nydia Stone, Michael Caputo, Charlie Black, Ryan Fournier, Mike Murphy, Steve Malzberg, Kathy Tur, Timothy Stanley, Ann Stone, Danielle Stevens, Adria Stone. Directed by Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme

 

When looking at modern American politics, specifically on the Republican side, it’s hard not to wonder how a party that at one time was the bastion of thinkers like William F. Buckley, populists like Dwight Eisenhower and gentlemen like Everett Dirksen has become the party of trash politics, of misinformation and exclusion, of divisiveness and corruption. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Roger Stone.

Or more to the point allow this Netflix documentary to introduce him. Described by New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin as “the sinister Forrest Gump of American politics,” Stone has been at the center of much of the most important political changes of the last 30 years. At 19 he was the youngest person to be called to testify before a Watergate committee; he was also one of the innovators of PACs and Super PACs that transformed campaign finance. He was a disciple of Roy Cohn, the pit bull of a lawyer who was Joseph McCarthy’s attack dog and one of the most amoral political figures to ever walk the face of the Earth. He co-founded (with Paul Manafort and Charles Black a firm that became known as the “torturer’s lobbyists” for all the third-world dictators they represented.

Perhaps worst of all, he saw political potential in a real estate mogul named Donald J. Trump. Stone groomed him over more than 30 years, pestering him to run for President (but never pushing). He is given credit for getting Trump aboard the Birther train that essentially established him as a political figure. As a campaign advisor, Stone helped shape the vicious tenor of the campaign, often seen wearing a t-shirt of former President Bill Clinton (husband to the Democratic nominee) with the word “Rape” below in a snarky parody of the Obama “Hope” poster. Stone made sure the country thought of the former President as a rapist as prodigious as Bill Cosby, conveniently ignoring the fact that his own candidate had been accused of sexual assaults himself.

Stone is an affable fellow in person, a respectable raconteur that at first glance you might not mind having a drink or two with. However, it wouldn’t take long before you notice that mostly what Stone talks about in an underhanded way is himself. He has a tremendous ego and a need to be the center of attention; it is no surprise to anyone that the Trump campaign couldn’t handle more than one ego like that That’s likely the reason why Stone was removed from the campaign itself, although he continued to offer advice when asked and support Trump on his own.

The film is divided into sections headlined by what Stone calls “Stone’s rules,” a series of aphorisms that he uses to guide his political philosophy. Some of them are meaningless; “Business is business,” for example. What the hell else would it be? There are others like “Hate is a greater motivator than Love” which is cynical in the extreme but frustrating because he’s largely right in that case.

Stone is a master of dirty political tricks and feels no remorse for anything. His guiding principle is that winning is the ONLY thing. Stone would probably tell you that you can’t implement a political philosophy if you lose; only winners get to determine the course this country and indeed the globe takes. As far as Stone is concerned, nothing is out of bounds so long as it doesn’t violate campaign laws. If the truth is stretched and people misdirected, that’s all right. If people are gullible enough to believe the big lie, then they deserve the leadership they get. It is something of a page out of the Hitler playbook.

Yes, if you haven’t noticed by now I’m a leftie that Stone would be somewhat amused by. I don’t think he hates liberals; he just wants to beat them. The fact that he’s so good at doing so tends to frustrate the hell out of the left. It allows Stone to gloat and he does so with a smug expression on his face.

As far as getting to know the real Roger Stone, don’t bet on it. Stone is a master at creating images – anyone who can characterize a real estate billionaire as a man of the people has to be admired to an extent. Although the filmmakers are also liberal (which Stone jokingly warns his friends of) in many ways Stone controls the narrative here. Although the filmmakers turn the documentary into almost a black comedy that is as cynical as can be, it is Stone having the last laugh.

This is tailor made for those conservatives who take great satisfaction in twisting the knife into bleeding hearts. Liberals may have a hard time watching this, particularly towards the end. It’s hard to watch the soul of your country being corrupted by someone who doesn’t care what the effects of this amorality has on the psyche of a nation. I’m sure Roger Stone has no issue with the Vince Lombardi quote “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” but even Lombardi knew that there were some costs that were too high to make winning worth it.

What Stone doesn’t understand – could never understand – that when you corrupt the soul of something, it ceases being what you admired about it in the first place. Making America great again has nothing to do with the rhetoric spewed by Trump, Stone and their ilk – it’s in fulfilling the dreams of the founders and those that followed them, being the place that embraced the American dream rather than trying to cut it off from the masses so that only those who have already achieved it can benefit from it. That is the real tragedy of Roger Stone – in winning he has lost everything he was fighting for, and he doesn’t even know it.

REASONS TO GO: This is in a lot of ways a black comedy; the fact that it’s true is depressing.
REASONS TO STAY: The lack of ethics is very hard to watch at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stone’s political ideology was largely shaped by reading Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative at a young age.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You’ve Been Trumped
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Ashes

13th


Outside the windows conditions remain murky.

Outside the windows conditions remain murky.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Angela Davis, Cory Booker, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, Ed Koch, Dolores Canales, Khalid Muhammad, Charles B. Rangel, Jelani Cobb, Kyung-Jee Kate Rhee, Nicholas Turner, James Kilgore, Bryan Stevenson, Kevin Gannon, Michael Hough, Ken Thompson, Marc Maurer, Michelle Alexander, Deborah Small, Marie Gottschalk. Directed by Ava DuVernay

 

The 13th Amendment was supposed to have abolished involuntary servitude (i.e. slavery) but it left a very deliberate loophole; convicted criminals could be sentenced to hard labor without remuneration. That has led to the exploitation of African-American males essentially since the Civil War ended.

Ava (Selma) DuVernay’s Netflix documentary is up for an Oscar for Best Documentary feature and it’s easy to see why. This serves as an important historical document on the history of racism right up to present day. Images from the D.W. Griffith master-race-piece Birth of a Nation are cheek by jowl with images of civil rights marchers being beaten and firehosed in the Sixties.

There are a lot of talking heads and oddly DuVernay identifies most but not all of them. Some of them are fairly well known – there’s no mistaking Rep. Charlie Rangel and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and those who watch Real Time with Bill Maher ought to recognize Grover Norquist but some of the speakers here aren’t as well known visually and some information on who is talking and why their opinion should matter would be welcome. I must say it was great seeing Angela Davis, who is currently a professor at UC Santa Cruz. She looks terrific and minus her trademark Afro she looks a lot different but the fire is certainly still there and the intelligence as well. She is one of the most engaging speakers in the film.

The movie shows how the prison system has moved from using convicts for hard labor, helping to rebuild the post Civil War south to the War on Drugs which filled prisons with largely African American males in for minor offenses to help Nixon and his appeal to hard line conservative “Law and Order” voters to today when prisons have been privatized and the despicable ALEC organization which includes several corporate incarceration facility entities among its members has written laws to help increase prison sentences and has led to a prison population that was just under 350,000 in 1970 to the 2.3 million prisoners the United States has behind bars today. As a percentage of our total population, we have more people in prison than almost any nation on Earth by sheer number of the incarcerated I believe we have the greatest number of prisoners of any nation. We’re number one!

The narrative sometimes gets strident and overly dramatic and I can understand the former but a little bit of restraint might have gotten the point across more effectively than the cinematic hysterics DuVernay sometimes indulges in. When you’re preaching to the converted, a little drama doesn’t make a difference but when you’re trying to win hearts and minds it can make things a little more difficult than it needs to be.

Still, even with all that this is a powerful and moving documentary that richly deserves the nomination that it received. I also found it impressive that DuVernay includes the conservative side of things as well which some left-leaning documentarians often fail to do. However, she never loses sight of the fact that she’s giving a voice to a segment of society that hasn’t traditionally had, or at least one that was being heard. If it is occasionally uncomfortable and strident it is forgivable. The point is that we are watching legal, institutionalized slavery going on under our very noses and unless we decide to do something about it as a people it will continue to go on for as long as the powers that be can get away with it.

REASONS TO GO: An important document on the history of racism. An impressive amount of conservative commentary is included. A voice is given to those who generally have to scream in order to be heard.
REASONS TO STAY: The film can be strident and occasionally veers into the overly dramatic. The graphic flashing of the word “criminal” every time the word is mentioned is irksome.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of foul language and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The title comes from the 13th Amendment which prohibits slavery – except in the case of convicted criminals.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/31/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Am Not Your Negro
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Underworld: Blood Wars