To Be of Service


Taking a walk with your best friend on a snowy day.

(2019) Documentary (First RunGreg Kolodziejczyk, Sylvia Bowersox, Tom Flood, Greg Wells, Terry Henry, Susan Kolodziejczyk, Brandon Lewis, Dr. Frank Ochberg, Caleb White, Jon Bowersox, Dr. Larry Decker, Amanda Flood, Walter Parker, Phil Bauer, Tom Tackett, Kellen Dewey, Dr. Edward Tick, Jamie Kolodziejczyk, Maggie O’Haire, Lu Picard, Trisha Knickerbocker. Directed by Josh Aronson

 

Something like half a million veterans currently suffer from some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Most go through the VA system and are given a dizzying array of medications; one vet described receiving 31 different pills a day to combat his mood changes. Another discusses matter-of-factly his suicide attempt that left him in a coma for 19 days.

We’ve seen films that discuss alternative treatments for those suffering from PTSD but one alternative treatment is surprisingly simple; man’s best friend. Service dogs can be a tremendous gift for someone in the throes of the disorder. Not only do they provide constant companionship and unconditional love, they can actually smell mood changes in their handlers and help alert them (and those around them) that something’s wrong.

=Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker looks at how veterans affected by PTSD can have their lives virtually turned around by the presence of a service dog. The film primarily follows three veterans suffering PTSD; Greg Kolodziejczyk, Sylvia Bowersox and Tom Flood, showing how their PSD affected their lives, their families and their ability to function before showing how service dogs helped them become functional again.

The movie appears to be somewhat haphazardly put together; one of the veterans isn’t identified until nearly halfway through the film after he’s appeared several times. We start to follow the story of one vet who lost a leg in Afghanistan and then his story just seems to stop. There are also way too many interviews with clinical psychologists telling us how dogs are beneficial to their human patients. It takes up way too much time and distracts from the stories of the vets who we really want to know more about.

The vets talk candidly about some of the things they witnessed, the feelings they had; a clearly distraught Bowersox says “That’s what happens in war; people cease to be…and there’s nothing left.” She also urges people who thank her for her service to engage her in conversation; “Ask me what I did for my service,” she says, starting to cry, “I really want to talk to you.” The anguish that these people are suffering is heartbreaking, the lives absolutely devastated by the war that they fought.

Each service dog costs around $30,000 which is much more than most vets can afford; the bulk of them have to go through charitable foundations like the Patriotic Service Dog Foundation or Paws for Vets (links to those organizations and others like them can be found at the movie’s website which you can access by clicking on the movie still above). We don’t see much about how the dogs are trained; we come into the process essentially at the point where the new handlers are trained to properly use the dogs.

There are some great stories here and Bowersox, Kolodziejczyk and Flood all make compelling subjects. I would have liked to have seen a steadier hand in the editing bay and a bit less background information. More vets, more pets, less heads; that’s my take on this.

REASONS TO SEE: Clearly shows the bond between service dogs and their handlers.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too many talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, as well as discussion of some horrific incidents during war.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jon Bon Jovi recorded a song for the soundtrack and is also releasing it as a single; the proceeds will go to benefit the Patriotic Service Dog Foundation.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: From Shock to Awe
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Crown Vic

Back to the Fatherland


Conversations on a train

(2017) Documentary (First Run) Gil Levanon, Katharina Rohrer, Uri Ben Rehav, Lea Ron Peled, Guy Shahar, Dan Peled, Gidi Peled, Yochanan Tenzer, Katharina Maschek. Directed by Gil Levanon and Kat Rohrer

 

What is the purpose of a documentary? Is it to enlighten? To educate? To bring up a discussion and then let us make up our own minds? None of those are wrong but your answer might be different from someone else’s. Some go to a documentary to find answers while others go to better understand the questions.

The question that is raised here is why would a young Israeli move to Germany or Austria? For their grandparents who experienced the atrocities of the Nazis first hand, the very idea is abhorrent. Not only did those countries give rise to Nazism, the people who lived there wholesale turned their backs on the Jewish community as they were being obliterated. One grandfather puts it starkly: “The people were bad. They were always bad. They are bad still.”

The documentaries follow three families, two of whom have had members who have already moved to Austria and one whose granddaughter (who is one of the directors of the film, although that isn’t made clear initially) is contemplating a move to Germany. For some, the reason is purely financial; they are seeking better economic opportunities than they were able to find in Israel. One, Dan Peled, has issues with Israel politically. He is disturbed by their turn to the hard right and specifically with their policies regarding Palestinians. He regards Israel as “an apartheid state.”

Mostly, the movie is about conversations – some inter-generational with grandparents and their grandchildren, others are between the grandchildren as we get an interesting view of Israel that we in the States aren’t used to getting. Some of the grandchildren (who, I remind you, grew up in Israel) lament the “culture of victimhood” that they see Israel has become. They feel that this culture, which relies on the concept that Jews are hated everywhere except in Israel has kept Israel from growing as a nation and made it impossible for them to move on. I’ve never heard this expressed in quite this way and it is an interesting conversation to say the least. All of them are for the most part.

But the filmmakers rarely give much context and all we are left with is the opinions of the various people conversing. I have no doubt that these types of conversations take place in Jewish homes in Israel and throughout the world but context isn’t required in those households as much as it is needed in Gentile households.

The pacing is fairly languid and the idea of sending the grandparents to visit the places they fled after the war seemed a bit gimmicky and there wasn’t anything particularly revelatory about their visits. Some might well find the idea of watching this kind of boring and I would understand why, but I’m here to tell you that watching this movie does allow you some insight into how young Jews view modern Israel and the Holocaust. Personally, I don’t think finding insights into how other people perceive things ever to be anything less than worthwhile.

REASONS TO SEE: Very talky but the conversation is fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too slow-paced.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers met while in college in New York City and discovered that they had a link in their backgrounds; Levanon who was from Israel is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor while Rohrer, who came from Austria, her late grandfather was what she termed a “super-Nazi” who helped carry out policy in Austria.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bird Box

Invisible Hands


Many children around the world live lives of hopelessness, despair and hard labor.

(2018) Documentary (First Run) Kailash Satyarthi, Ben Skinner, Siddharth Kara, Anas Arameyaw Anas, Mark Barenberg, Nicholas Kristof, Christian Frutigar, Kwaku Afriyie, Satrio Jaya, Margaret Worth, Geoffrey Crothall, Justin Flores, James Jones, Thomas Arcury, Comfort Aklugu, Sumedha Kailash, Isabel Chang. Directed by Shraysi Tandon

 

When we think of child labor and slavery, we tend to think of them as problems in the distant past. Slavery was eradicated, after all, in virtually every civilized nation on Earth. As for child labor, well, we took care of that at the beginning of the 20th century. Those are both heinous practices that are very much a part of our past but not of our present. I suppose you could be forgiven for thinking that.

But if you did think that, you’d be wrong. Child labor is a global issue, affecting products you consume on a daily basis. Well maybe in the Third World, you might think, but not here in the United States. Yes, here in the United States. A loophole in the existing child labor laws allows the agricultural business to employ children. These children are often exposed to pesticides and other chemicals without any sort of protection, do backbreaking work in the fields, and occasionally die from nicotine poisoning in the tobacco fields of North Carolina, absorbing the nicotine from the plant through their skin because their employers won’t provide them with gloves. If they did, they’d have to admit they were employing minors and a lot of agribusiness is uncomfortable doing that. Smoking isn’t just deadly to smokers as it turns out.

This well-researched documentary goes around the world to find children working in a variety of often dangerous jobs with many of them literally slave labor. They mine cobalt for lithium batteries in Africa and mica for make-up (to make it sparkly) in India. They harvest palm fruit in Indonesia for palm oil (used as a preservative in nearly everything we eat) as well as cocoa in Ghana. They work in factories in China assembling cell phones and weave rugs, make jewelry and embroider in India. Chances are much of what you are wearing right now if it was made outside the United States probably had a kid involved in making it at some point.

Same goes with everything you eat. Nearly all the chocolate devoured in this country comes from plantations that utilize child labor and the supply which comes from Ghana is almost always forced labor. Children are paid less if they are paid at all and they are more likely to be docile and less willing to stand up for themselves than adults. Children don’t form labor unions. Often they are beaten when they don’t meet quotas. They rarely get any sort of schooling, being forced to drop out so that they can work. Those that aren’t working as slaves generally do so because their families are starving and the income is needed to survive. All of this in the name of globalization and corporate profit.

For the most part the documentary is set up as most documentaries are – plenty of talking head interviews, footage both archival and current and graphics showing statistics and numbers. In that sense, Invisible Hands isn’t terribly innovative, although we get to go along on a child trafficking sting near the end which if those who were arrested are convicted could lead to ten years in prison or more.

There are organizations that monitor what’s going on with child labor and slave labor (two of the founders of one are some of the more articulate interviews here) and there’s even a Nobel laureate who goes beyond the courtroom to literally rescue kids from sweatshops in India. Kailash Satyarthi has been beaten and seen colleagues murdered in his crusade to rescue children – during the course of the film we see his team attacked by a mob and barely escaping with their lives.

The willful ignorance of big multinational corporations is also examined. Only Nestle was brave enough to send a representative (Frutigar) who is unaware that children are being exploited for their product – which is ironically aimed at children. Much of the problem is that nobody monitors the supply chain; subcontractors often take shortcuts when taking on contracts, leading to using kids as labor in order to maximize profit. It’s a sick, depressing cycle that revolves endlessly and given the pro-business bent of our current administration, one that is unlikely to be addressed anytime soon.

But there is hope. Rescued kids in India by the group Satyarthi runs are brought to Ashrams where they can slowly become whole again. They are generally reunited with their parents unless it is thought that they would be at risk of being sold again. There are those standing up for kids around the world. We can do it too by insisting that those who make the products we consume be responsible and monitor their supply chains in order to make sure that there are no violations of international and local labor laws. Companies like Pantene, Samsung, Nestle, Hershey, Sony, Cadbury, Maybelline, Kraft, Estee Lauder, Unilever, Kellogg’s, Microsoft and a variety of clothing lines should feel an economic response to make them better corporate citizens rather than just paying lip service. Generally a kick in the wallet is all they’ll ever respond to.

This is a vitally important documentary that should be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Although veteran documentary viewers may grouse a bit at how the information is presented, there is no argument that the information is compelling. Anyone who loves their children will be affected by the sight of miserable children separated from their families toiling in harsh and often dangerous conditions. It’s enough to break even a heart of stone.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers did their due diligence. Some of the footage is absolutely horrifying.
REASONS TO STAY: The layout is essentially standard documentary 101.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence as well as disturbing thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film for Tandon who began her career as a television journalist.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/25/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stolen Childhoods
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Upgrade

Best and Most Beautiful Things


Michelle Smith takes a dip into deep waters.

Michelle Smith takes a dip into deep waters.

(2016) Documentary (First Run) Michelle Smith, Julie Smith, Mike Smith, Jeff Migliozzi, Michael Roche, Jaimi Lard, Carolyn Assa, Lois Spencer, Marilyn Rea Beyer, Noell Dorsey, Bill Appel, Carmen Harris, Michael Smith, Rachel Wetschensky, Christina Alexandra Varos, Kori Feener, Seth Horowitz, Keiran Watson Bonnice, Marina Bedny, Jan Seymour-Ford, Cara Pelletier, Pamela Ryan. Directed by Garrett Zevgetis

Florida Film Festival 2016

What is normal? We all think we have kind of a take on it but the truth is normal is whatever you decide it is. “Normal” is a word that has a nearly infinite range and hides a variety of sins – unless, of course, you think that sinning is normal. And who said that it’s a sin anyway?

Michelle Smith lives in Bangor, Maine and she was given a pretty stacked deck against her. She is legally blind; she can see but only essentially when she’s nose-to-nose with the subject, and she also has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning variety of autism. Her mind can lock on a subject and fixate on it to almost the exclusion of all else. It can also make her a bit of a handful from time to time, over and above most teens.

Although she’s presently in her 20s, the documentary covers a period from her senior year at the Perkins School for the Blind, a high school in Watertown, MA until shortly after graduation. Michelle is a bright and outgoing sort who has like most Asperger’s sufferers difficulties with social interactions. She also knows that unemployment amongst the blind is right around 75%. With school and its structured environment coming to a close, she yearns to be independent, free to develop as an individual and as a woman. That’s hard to do when you live with your mom.

Her mom, Julie, is divorced from Michelle’s dad, Mike. The two seem cordial enough to one another but on-camera there’s a fair amount of bitterness and the divorce is described as “contentious.” There is also a tragedy in the family’s past that no doubt put additional strain on the marriage. Julie and Mike are both supportive – Julie also has a boyfriend who is a bit stricter than Mike was – but both are worried about their daughter who sometimes can’t see the big picture.

An offer for an internship with someone who worked on the Rugrats show in Los Angeles sends Michelle spinning to the moon; it would be perfect if it worked out. Maybe she could become a famous voice actress! The expectations are dialed up to eleven which happens to all of us in such situations, particularly when we lack the life experiences to take a narrow-eyed view of such things. We tend to take for granted that we can make things work no matter what the opportunity; that’s not always the case for the disabled. It’s heartbreaking to watch her dream fall apart, even though she handles it strikingly well on-camera.

Michelle is a bit of a nerd; she’s into anime and Darla and collects dolls. She flies her flag proudly as she displays her dolls in her room in a certain order. It almost seems like a logical progression when she gets into the BDSM scene (which stands for Bondage/Discipline/Sadism/Masochism for those unfamiliar with the term) and finds a boyfriend who is also part of that kink. They adopt a dominant/submissive relationship as well as a Daddy/Little Girl relationship may come off a bit odd since they are both so young but it is a thing. Like most young dominants the boyfriend comes off as a bit self-aggrandizing but they seem genuinely fond of each other and Michelle is delighted when she receives a flogger as a Christmas gift. However, her new sexual activities lead to some awkward moments for her parents as well as the audience.

Zevgetis makes an effort to give us an idea of what Michelle sees by focusing the camera in an almost super near-sighted setting from time to time; he does it a little too often for my taste as I was actually nauseous after the third time he went to that setting. However, the snowflakes falling down from the sky at the camera were admittedly a pretty cool shot.

One question that should confront the viewer of any documentary is “Why was this documentary necessary?” It’s a very good question; documentaries are flourishing these days and while there are many that are informative and/or provocative, sometimes the answer is “It isn’t.” I’m not 100% certain that Michelle Smith has a life that is required viewing, but she’s compelling a subject enough that you may be captivated (as when she proclaims at her graduation “The world will be my burrito!”) and perhaps even find some insight into your own life.  Good documentaries will do that. I’m just not sure that every life will benefit from a glimpse at Michelle Smith’s life to help define their own normal. Yours might; results will vary, but whatever the outcome, it surely isn’t a bad thing to see life through another person’s eyes.

REASONS TO GO: Michelle Smith is a fascinating personality. This isn’t just a look at one girl but a look at what surrounds her.
REASONS TO STAY: The audience becomes more voyeurs than observers. Some of the camera work, intending to show how Michelle sees the world, is unwelcome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Perkins School of the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts which Michelle attended also counts Helen Keller among their alumni.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aspie Seeks Love
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Inferno (2016)

Crude


Don't say anything crude.

Don’t say anything crude.

(2009) Documentary (First Run) Pablo Fajardo, Sting, Judge German Yanez, Kent Robertson, Dr. Adolfo Callejas, Steve Donziger, Ebergeldo Criollo, Alossa Soltani, Joseph Kohn, Maria Garafolo, Sara McMillen, Ricardo Reis Veiga, Diego Larrea, Alejandro Ponce, Rosa Moreno, Amy Goodman, Rafael Correa, Hugo Chavez, Lupita de Heredia, Trudie Styler. Directed by Joe Berlinger

In 1993, lawyers in Ecuador filed a class action lawsuit against Chevron on behalf of 30,000 indigenous dwellers of the Ecuadorian rain forest for damages done by Texaco’s (who were acquired by Chevron in 2001) Lago Agrio oilfield operations. The lawsuit alleged that poorly maintained pipelines and waste disposal pits had infiltrated the water supply, leading to a variety of cancers and other diseases that afflict the people of the region, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island.

The lawsuit dragged on for 18 years, following a change of venue from New York to Ecuador after American courts dismissed the case because they didn’t have proper jurisdiction. This documentary, helmed by Joe Berlinger who has been Oscar nominated and also won Emmy and Peabody awards for his work, followed the case during 2006 and 2007 as the lawsuit drew international attention.

Berlinger admirably allows both sides of the story to air their opinions; certainly his sympathies lie with the plaintiffs as he tends to present more of their point of view, but certainly Chevron cannot complain that he didn’t give them if not equal time at least enough time to present their case. It’s hard to argue with the images that we see of scandalously polluted holes in the ground, children with heartbreaking rashes and illnesses, and the evidence of the cultural destruction of a people who had inhabited the area safely for centuries until the oil companies came along.

Chevron’s argument that Texaco had cleaned up the area that they were involved in before turning over the oilfield to the state-run Petroecuador corporation who, according to Chevron, were responsible for the lion’s share of the environmental destruction is hard to ignore. Berlinger was given access to Chevron executives as well as their legal team and quite frankly they don’t come off as profit-mad monsters. However, the plaintiffs do argue that Texaco wouldn’t have done any cleaning had they not been compelled to after an earlier lawsuit and their argument that Texaco didn’t uphold their share of the agreement is also hard to ignore.

The status of the people affected by the extraction of oil is truly heartbreaking; nobody should have to live in those conditions, particularly considering the biodiversity of the region which has likely been irreparably damaged by the somewhat cavalier safety precautions of all of the oil companies involved. While the documentary does spend some time with the natives, more emphasis is given on the legal teams of both sides which in a sense is justified because as a legal drama this case is compelling, but like most real-life legal dramas, can be kind of boring to watch.

The Ecuadorian courts rendered a decision in 2011, ordering Chevron to pay just under $10 billion in reparations and clean-up costs, a decision upheld by the Ecuadorian supreme court. In turn, Chevron litigated in the United States, alleging that improprieties by the American and Ecuadorian lawyers of the plaintiffs and corruption in the Ecuadorian judicial system had led to a decision that was unjustified. An American court found in favor of Chevron in 2014, a decision that the original plaintiffs are appealing. To date, none of the people affected by the drilling for oil have received a penny in compensation.

Watching Donziger, the lead American lawyer who is somewhat arrogant, it is easy to believe that he behaved improperly, which has been borne out by documentary footage not included in the feature as well as through his own journal entries and internal memos. Sadly, while the cause was just, those who fought for the cause didn’t behave in a manner that reflected the justness of that cause. And to their detriment, Chevron has launched an aggressive course of punitive litigation against the Ecuadorian plaintiffs and their lawyers. It is somewhat ironic that a company that complained that they were being sued because of their deep pockets are now using those deep pockets to go after those who sued them, who are now suing Chevron once again, this time for $113 billion, claiming that Chevron has failed to comply with the original decision.

Chances are the case will continue to churn in the American and international legal systems for years to come, maybe even decades. My gut feeling is that if Chevron ends up paying anything out, it will be much less than what they were initially ordered to pay and if they do pay anything out, most of it will likely go to the lawyers and little will make its way to the Ecuadorian Amazon where people continue to live and die. This is the human cost of our insatiable need for oil and the insatiable greed of those who supply that oil. It’s the kind of tragedy that would have delighted Shakespeare – and turned his stomach.

WHY RENT THIS: Reasonably balanced, allowing both sides to present their points of view. Beautifully shot. Fascinating interviews.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Those who love the law may be disgusted by the behavior of lawyers on both sides. The struggle between the lawyers overshadows the plight of the natives.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Following the release of the film, Chevron had the case tried in an American court, claiming fraud and corruption; raw footage from the film, not included in the final cut, was submitted as evidence in the case.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: Interviews with director Joe Berlinger and activist Trudie Styler, festival and premiere coverage and a resource guide.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $185,881 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You’ve Been Trumped
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Transit

Top Spin


Eye on the prize.

Eye on the prize.

(2014) Sports Documentary (First Run) Ariel Hsing, Lily Zhang, Michael Landers, Michael Hsing, Joan Landers, Massimo Constantino, Brenda Young, Jonathan Bricklin, Stefan Feth, Barney Reed, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Michael Croitoros, Sean O’Neill, Jun Gao, Dory Gheorge, Stan Landers, Xinhua Jiang, Linda Liu, Erica Wu. Directed by Sara Newens and Mina T. Son

Florida Film Festival 2015

Back in the day, my family used to have a ping pong table in our Southern California backyard, a table my father, who tended towards formality in such things, insisted on calling “table tennis.” He taught me how to play and after a bit of a learning curve, I got to be okay at it. In fact, I remember enjoying the fast-paced play although when we moved from that home the table did not move with us and I stopped playing.

I cannot even fathom the dedication and perseverance displayed by three young American Olympic hopefuls – Ariel Hsing (a national champion), her friend and rival Lily Zhang and young Michael Landers. All three are making their bids to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics and are training like fiends, in addition to completing their schoolwork and getting ready for college.

Most of us probably don’t have much regard for table tennis but it is an Olympic sport for a reason. The ball moves nearly as fast as the eye can see; the players have lightning quick reactions and must have nimble footwork, agility and arm strength to return volleys at sufficient speed to compete at the highest levels.

It is also a sport that America doesn’t dominate; in fact, we are ranked only 45th in the world. As you can guess, the Chinese tend to produce the best players. Landers in fact skipped his last semester of high school (taking correspondence courses online in order to graduate) so that he can train in China where he discovers he is nowhere near the level that the focused and disciplined Chinese athletes are, although he tries gamely.

It turns out that the kids are more or less no different than any kid their age, although Hsing pretty is one of those blessed individuals who seems to succeed at everything she does and makes it look effortless, although judging from how hard her father trains her that it is anything but. Her father Michael is ambitious and relentless; there might well be a little stage father in him but not only is she genuinely gifted but she is as ambitious and relentless as he; any dad worth his salt will move heaven and earth to give his little princess whatever she dreams and that’s what he’s doing and successfully I might add.

It might be said that the Hsing family fits the Asian-American stereotype as being driven for success and focused on it to the exclusion of all else, and maybe they do. However the Zhang family is a bit more laidback about it, although Lily is just as primed to make the Olympic team as her friend and rival is. While Ariel wins most of their head-to-head matches, the two are both high on the national rankings and their rivalry is both fierce and friendly. Watching them play each other is to see sports at its finest.

The qualifying process for the American Olympic team is a little bit unusual compared to other more familiar sports. The top finishers at the US Championships are sent to the North American Championships for a round robin tournament with the Canadian champions; the winners of the various divisions qualify in total; no Americans may qualify or only Americans might qualify. It all depends on how they do in the tournament. Waiting for them is the Canadian champion, Jun Gao who might be the best player not living in China.

I have to admit I wasn’t especially jazzed to see a documentary on young people playing ping pong when I originally heard the movie was playing at the Florida Film Festival but Da Queen was so I made sure we attended the sole screening at the Festival. I can’t say that the stories of these extraordinary kids really moved me to any extent; we’ve seen these kinds of documentaries before, either on ESPN or in theaters. Extraordinary kids pursuing a dream, be it in the arts, sports or in some other endeavor. While the directors give us a sense of the dedication of these three teens and in some cases of the isolation and loneliness that they endure, we don’t get a real sense of the pressures and social conflicts that come with pursuing that dream. I would have liked a little more in-depth examination of how the kids themselves felt at living an abnormal lifestyle compared to what their friends are doing.

The filmmakers take ping pong VERY seriously and you probably will too after seeing this. I will admit that I was not enthused about this film the way some of those in my circle of film buffs were; I was impressed with how the physics of the game were examined and displayed in super slow motion camera work which gives you a more graphic idea of the athleticism that is required to excel in competition table tennis, but quite frankly while I was rooting for the kids to succeed, it felt like I’d been through it all before.

I may have been a little too hard on this movie. I’m well-aware that those who saw it at the FFF came away impressed, more so than I. Maybe I was just in Festival exhaustion mode. In any case, while my interest wasn’t necessarily held, I suspect that most people will feel the opposite once they see it. It’s hard not to admire the filmmakers passion for the sport and the players; while their stories may not especially seem much different than other sports and other players, it is sufficiently inspiring that even non-players of the sport and non-buffs of film may find their interest piqued.

REASONS TO GO: Clear love for the game of ping-pong. Physics are breathtaking.
REASONS TO STAY: Not very different from other prodigy docs. Not enough detail.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Newens and Son have received M.F.A. degrees in Documentary Filmmaking from Stanford University.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Poltergeist (2015)

Chely Wright: Wish Me Away


Chely Wright: All-American girl.(2011) Documentary (First Run) Chely Wright, Stan Wright, Rodney Crowell, Russell Carter, Rosie O’Donnell, Christopher Wright, Cherie Combs, Don Cusic, Natalie Morales, Chuck D. Waiter, Jennifer Archer, Welton Gaddy, Howard Bragman, Blair Garner, Meredith Vieira, Tony Brown, Richard Sterban, Charlene Daniels. Directed by Bobbie Berleffi and Beverly Kopf

I am not a big fan of country music; it’s nothing against those who play it or those who listen to it, it’s just that the music doesn’t connect with me in the same way rap doesn’t connect with me. I’m a rock and roll boy, plain and simple, but I do respect country for many reasons; it’s songwriting in most cases stripped down to the essentials, telling stories and making characters that live and are relatable to a vast audience.

More important in my opinion is the relationship between the musicians and the fans. Now, country music fans are no more rabid than fans of other musical genres when it comes to loving their appointed obsessions, but it is from the other direction that the true magic happens. The performers of no other genre appreciate their fans as much as those in country music overall. Despite the often cutthroat nature of the business end of country music (which is the same as in other genres), the performers tend to reflect traditional American values. It’s what their fans expect.

Given that the majority of country music listeners tend to lean politically to the right (ask the Dixie Chicks about that sometime), it was virtually unthinkable that any artist would come out as gay. There is a very strong fundamentalist Christian element in not only the fan base of country music but also in the music itself, which very much espouses Christian values and patriotic pride. In many ways, country music is the most quintessentially American music there is. In it is the optimism, the pride and the attitude that defines us not only to ourselves but to the world.

Chely Wright fit into that world like a glove at first glance. Hailing from mid-Kansas from a religious family, she was blessed with beauty queen looks. A supremely talented singer and songwriter, she burst onto the Nashville scene like a ray of sunshine on a rainy day and took Music City by storm. In time she had hits like “Shut Up and Drive” and “Single White Female.” She was dating Brad Paisley. You’d think she’d be on top of the world.

But she wasn’t. You see, she was harboring a secret – Chely Wright was a lesbian. Her biggest dream in the whole world, ever since she was a little girl, was to be a country music star and she believed that her sexual orientation might keep her from that dream. She resolved at an early age to keep her identity as a lesbian a secret; she would not pursue any intimate relationships with women and in doing so she’d achieve her dream. And achieve it she did.

But the cost was too high. The weight of her secret was a burden too powerful and too heavy to bear and eventually she found herself in front of a mirror with a gun in her mouth. She knew she couldn’t live this way any longer. She would have to stop living this life and come clean, not just for herself but for the many others like her, living with their own lies.

Chely’s coming out had to be handled very delicately and indeed it was. Publicists and marketing personnel sat down with her and orchestrated the campaign. It would be done, as all things in Chely’s life were, with music and in this case, also with a book. It would be a big deal. But before she could tell her fans, she had to tell her biggest fans first – her family.

Berleffi and Kopf were given extraordinary access into Chely’s world for three years leading up to her announcement and the days following it. They spoke with friends, family and fans, sometimes getting some truly moving material, as from her dad, her incredibly supportive sister and her Aunt Char – devout Christians all but also as non-judgmental a group as you’re likely to find.

But most moving of all is Chely’s own video diary, which she kept without the filmmakers knowledge. In it she revealed her most intimate thoughts and feelings, often so raw that you can’t help but cry along with her. When we use the term “courageous artist,” when referring to a singer/songwriter who reveals her most vulnerable side, it was invented for Chely Wright. Her dilemma of her childhood dream versus her identity is a struggle not many straight people may be able to relate to but I am sure a lot of LGBT readers instantly recognize a good deal of what Wright discusses as things and thoughts they went through.

The documentary isn’t breaking new ground in terms of presentation; it’s mainly interviews and archival footage but the video journal elevates this from merely typical and the presence of Ms. Wright herself makes this something special. Throughout you get a sense of her sincerity and her inner light, which you watch being extinguished and then miraculously relit when she finally does come out. Yes, it did cost her some of her fans but a surprisingly large number of them stayed right with her. It turns out that there is a lot more tolerance in the country music fan base than anyone, including Chely Wright herself, first thought. That’s heartening.

WHY RENT THIS: Wright is an impressive and courageous role model. Her video journal excerpts are particularly riveting.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The media management is a bit cynical.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult thematic material and a few mild cuss words here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The theme song for the film, “Shine a Light,” was written and recorded by Wright specifically for the film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Home video footage of Chely and her wife relaxing at home.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $18,618 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental), Amazon (download only), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before You Know It
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Redemption

56 Up


Neil Hughes looks on his life with a bit of melancholy.

Neil Hughes looks on his life with a bit of melancholy.

(2012) Documentary (First Run) Michael Apted, Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett, Symon Basterfield, Andrew Brackfield, John Brisby, Peter Davies, Suzanne Dewey, Nicholas Hitchon, Neil Hughes, Lynn Johnson, Paul Kligerman, Susan Sullivan, Tony Walker. Directed by Michael Apted and Paul Almond (archival footage)

In 1964, director Paul Almond along with a young researcher named Michael Apted who went on to a successful directing career interviewed fourteen 7-year-old children from around England (mostly the London area) from differing social circumstances. The interviews consisted of the hopes and dreams of the children; what they thought their lives would turn out to be. The television show that resulted in these interviews became a wild success in British and was made a feature film that received a great deal of acclaim here in the United States.

Every seven years since then Apted would return to chat with the fourteen subjects (Peter Davies dropped out after 28 Up in 1985 but returns in time for the newest installment, ostensibly to promote his band the Good Intentions and Charles Furneaux dropped out of the series after 21 Up in 1978 to pursue his own documentary career). Remarkably, all 14 have reached middle age with varying degrees of comfort.

The initial series was supposed to be a commentary on the British class system. What it has become is something else entirely. It has become much more of a personal study, looking at the individuals and how their lives have progressed.

Few lives have been as poignant as that of Neil Hughes. He has skirted on the edge of society, on occasions being homeless. There are certainly demons there; he is asked point blank about his sanity and reflects that he has received some sort of therapy although he doesn’t elaborate. He often seems melancholy, as if disappointed by his own experiences and in where his life has gone. None who saw the ebullient young Neil in Seven Up! and Seven plus Seven Up would have predicted this. In 56 Up he is on a town public works council in Cambria (he seems to prefer Britain’s north) and has become an Anglican canon where he gets to do just about everything a priest does. While he doesn’t seem completely satisfied with his life, he at least seems to be more sanguine than he’s been in recent years.

It is hard to ignore the incidence of divorce in the lives of these kids. While some have been blessed with long marriages (some rocky – Tony Walker dealt with his own infidelity but he and his wife managed to work things out without divorcing) five of the kids have been divorced at least once with one having never married (Neil).

Their lives have turned out quite a bit differently than they would have predicted I think. At 56 the gaze is turning more to the past than the future; ahead lies retirement and grandchildren (some of them are already enjoying the latter) and at this time of life one becomes more or less resigned if not content with one’s position in life or at the very least accepting of it.

These movies are a bit of a mixed blessing. They are fascinating on the one hand to see the progression of life from youth to middle age but these are mere snapshots. It’s like taking a Polaroid of a life and extrapolating from it. As Nick Hitchon, now teaching electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin says that this “is not an absolutely accurate picture (of me) but it’s the picture of somebody and that’s the value of it.”

It is not for me to judge a life and in some ways we are forced to do just that in viewing this. We become as voyeurs, making opinions of these lives and passing judgment on those who have lived them and while that’s inevitable, it’s also something to be resisted. Keep in mind that we are seeing these people through interviews that last approximately six hours out of seven years. We really aren’t getting to know them as people, just the surface facts. And for some of them, it is more compelling than it is for others.

This is a fairly long movie (about two hours) and it can be tedious in places. There is certainly a value to these movies – this was reality television before there was reality television – but it isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. If all you want out of a movie is to be taken out of your own life and transported to more exciting and wonderful places, this isn’t going to do much for you. But those who look to find insight into their own lives by seeing the lives of others will find much value here.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating, particularly if you’ve been following the series for 49 years.

REASONS TO STAY: Not every life is interesting.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of foul language but that’s about it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The series began on British television and continues there to this day; it is in the United States that a compilation has been released as a feature film for almost every installment.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100; the documentary got outstanding reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: 49 Up

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Jack the Giant Slayer

Inside the Burly Q


Behind the Burly Q

Margie Hart ponders her career choices.

(2010) Documentary (First Run) Alan Alda, Sally Rand, Lily St. Cyr, Lou Costello, Tempest Storm, Margie Hart, Blaze Starr, Kitty West, June Lee, Lorraine Lee, Vicki O’Day, Sara Jacobs, David Kruh, Dixie Evans, Janet M. Davis, Nat Bodian. Directed by Leslie Zemeckis

 

Before there was internet porn, before there was Playboy there was burlesque. Often people make the mistake of thinking it was all boobs and butts but in reality there was much more to it than that. There were singers, comedians and other performing acts.

Burlesque was considered a step below vaudeville due to the prurient nature of the shows. Burlesque was the province of the strippers, of Sally Rand, Tempest Storm and Lily St. Cyr. It was raucous horns, tassels and pasties. Burlesque theaters were looked down upon in their day, tolerated to a certain extent but thought to be extremely low class.

These days burlesque is undergoing a bit of a renaissance as hipsters are discovering the joys of burlesque comedy and scantily clad women. That’s what makes it a good time to make a documentary about the heyday of burlesque.

Of course it’s a bit of a slam dunk as naked female breasts are generally going to attract plenty of male attention, and there are plenty of bare breasts here. There are also plenty of interviews, some of which are more revealing (in a personal level, get your mind out of the gutter) than others. The problem is that there is so many of them that they tend to blend in all together.

There is a good deal of archival footage but I’d like to have seen more. Talking heads telling stories about life back in the day are all well and good, but I think more performance footage might have been a little more welcome.

Most of the talking heads are the performers themselves, now mostly in their 70s and 80s. There are a few children (Alda’s dad Robert was a straight man in a burlesque act and also provided musical accompaniment) and spouses as well as siblings. There are also some historians and authors to provide some perspective which is needed.

The stories are for the most part pretty fascinating although, to be honest, near the end they began to blend together a little bit. You do get a sense of the camaraderie between the girls as well as the competition between them; you also get a sense that like any job some of it was wonderful and some of it was pretty awful. That there was drug abuse and sexual abuse in the theaters is documented but whether it was to the same degree that exists in modern strip clubs is anybody’s guess – those sorts of things were swept under the rug back then.

Burlesque merits a serious documentary and while this makes an attempt to capture the magic, it simply doesn’t. I haven’t yet seen This Is…Burlesque! which is another documentary on the subject but for the time being, I’m still waiting to find the movie that will truly bring burlesque to life for me.

WHY RENT THIS: Fascinating look at a bygone era and of women who were sexual at a time when sexuality in women was verboten.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Becomes overwhelming at times; too many interviews.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of sexuality, some nudity and some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zemeckis is the wife of director Robert (Forrest Gump) Zemeckis and has produced a burlesque revival show that has played in clubs around the Los Angeles area.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on a burlesque performer reunion in Las Vegas, a timeline of the burlesque theater, a look at the costumes and memorabilia of the era and an interview with director Zemeckis in which the origins of the project are discussed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $23,889 on an unreported production budget; I have a sense that it probably didn’t make money theatrically.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Fantasia 2000

Film Geek


Film Geek

When you're Scottie Pelk, the whole world is awesome. Not.

(First Run) Melik Malkasian, Tyler Gannon, John Breen, Tara Walker, Taylor Nida, Michelle Garner, Matt Morris. Directed by James Westby

We all have our obsessions. They are the things that interest most, that we devote the most time to. For the most part, these things are harmless diversions but for some those obsessions take over their lives. They become geeks.

Scottie Pelk (Malkasian) is a film geek. He knows the minutiae about nearly every major film ever made. He can discourse on the facts and figures about nearly every director of note. He has a fierce love for foreign and independent filmmakers, and won’t hesitate to recommend films that, for the average person, are obscure or unwelcome but are the meat and potatoes for the cinema intelligentsia.

As bright and informed as he is about all things cinematic, he is as awkward socially. His voice is an effeminate nasal whine that is guaranteed to grate on anyone’s nerves. His conversations are concerned with only one subject and one alone. There are few people in his hometown of Portland who can keep up on the subject with him – hell, there are few people anywhere.

He is so annoying that he gets fired from his beloved job at the video store. The two other clerks Taylor (Nida) and Kaitlin (Walker) can’t stand him, and his boss Mr. Johnson (Breen) despises him. And now, he has nowhere to go. He lives at his apartment, masturbating at the thought of his pretty but shallow neighbor Cindi (Garner). With no jobs open at any neighborhood video store, he reluctantly accepts a job as a shipping clerk at an auto parts facility.

While taking a bus he meets Nico (Gannon), a hip artist who is reading a book about David Cronenberg, one of Scottie’s heroes. He is moved to actually speak to her and ask her out. At first, she sees him as something of a curiosity, essentially harmless but not really much more than that, but as she gets to know him she realizes that despite his one-track mind he is an essentially sweet boy with no social graces. Still, why would anyone want to wind up with a film geek?

Director Westby shot this in and around downtown Portland with essentially a local cast. The budget is probably roughly the same that most studio films spend on office supplies but Westby gets some surprising performances out of his cast.

Malkasian creates a character that is repulsive to a lot of people. They see him as terminally annoying, impossible to love and for sure, it takes a great leap of faith to see something in Scottie the way Nico does. Still, one has to admire Scottie. He has a fierce loyalty to his muse that withstands every challenge. He never wavers, never doubts. He is like the perfect lover, one who will never stray from the woman he loves. There’s something beautiful in that.

Some critics have complained the Scottie is too annoying, too nerdy but I’ve known some Scottie Pelks in my time and you simply have to learn to deal with them on their own level. Not all of them have been film geeks – some have been music geeks, sports geeks and videogame geeks. Relating to them is a matter of relating to their obsession and once you can do that, you have a friend for life.

The problem with Scottie is that while he can recite filmographies like a walking, talking IMDB, he takes nothing from the films he sees other than that they are awesome. It is his one-word review for movies that he uses regularly. He can’t or doesn’t articulate much more than that. Movies to him are a matter of spreadsheets and statistics.

Movies are of course much more than that. They can move you, transport you and inspire you; they can give you insight into your world and into your self. I think that Westby understands that much more than Scottie does, because he gives us a movie that has a great deal of insight. Scottie Pelk isn’t the easiest to like character ever written; he isn’t easy to understand either. However, those who take time to look beyond the annoying mannerisms, the nasal voice and the robotic, monotonic delivery of statistics will find someone there who can give one insight into the life of a geek, and in some small way, into our own obsessions.

WHY RENT THIS: A quirky but endearing film about the sort of person we all know.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A very lo-fi production with an unbelievable romance at its center.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of male rearview nudity and sexuality as well as some foul language make this unsuitable for younger audiences, who this was never intended for anyway.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on Westby’s experiences working in a video store.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a short film shot by Westby starring Malkasian called The Auteur regarding the attempt of a director to record a DVD commentary track. It’s reasonably funny.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Bounty Hunter