Tomorrow’s Hope


Hope is a warm hug

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane (2017-II)


Jane Goodall in the wild.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama/Nat Geo) Jane Goodall, Hugo von Lawick, Grub von Lawick. Directed by Brett Morgen

 

In the world of natural science, Jane Goodall stands out as a titan in the field of primate study. Her work with chimpanzees has been nothing short of groundbreaking. With no formal training, no university degree, she was sent out into the field by anthropologist Louis B. Leakey to observe chimpanzees in the wild back in 1960.

At the time, little was known about chimpanzee behavior in the wild. Leakey felt that the chimps would give an insight into behavior that might have been exhibited by early man and as it turned out, he was right. The National Geographic Society, who was footing the bill, sent out photographer Hugo von Lawick to document the research on film. He was able to capture footage of chimpanzees using sticks to jab into termite mounds to extract food. This put the scientific community into an uproar because to that point it was assumed that man was the only tool-using creature on the planet; this put that myth to bed. Since then it has been revealed that other animals use tools as well.

Jane wasn’t taken very seriously because she was British, blonde and cute. However, her passion for the animals she studied is deep-seated and obvious. Morgen takes great care to emphasize that the maternal instinct in her was heightened by observing her own mother (who accompanied her into Gombe Stream on her earliest expeditions) and later, by watching the chimpanzee Fiona raise her baby Flint.

Most of the footage we are showed hasn’t been viewed in more than half a century. Goodall narrates, talking about the various incidents onscreen with a memory that is crystal clear. Taken in 16mm film with warm backlighting for the most part, these come off as almost like home movies albeit scientifically important home movies. She makes an excellent narrator and one figures that doing so must have been highly emotional for her, particularly since all of the chimps in that early footage are now dead as is the man who took the footage – von Lawick passed away in 2008. Von Lawick and Goodall developed a romance and married with Goodall giving birth to a son called, incongruously, Grub. When Grub was very young, Goodall put her research on hold while she raised her son, returning back to her love of field work shortly thereafter. Von Lawick’s work with the National Geographic and other organizations would take him further and further away from the Gombe Stream station where Goodall lived; the two eventually divorced but remained close for the rest of his life.

Much of the film revolves around the footage taken by Von Lawick and justifiably so for he was truly an artist behind the camera. Goodall’s more recent work and footage from her camp are almost non-existent and some might criticize this very unbalanced approach and I can understand why they might do so, but really what we do get is simply so riveting and so magical that you don’t really miss anything more recent.

What I could have done without is the Philip Glass score. I have never been a fan of his and quite literally if you’ve heard one Philip Glass score you’ve heard them all. Too many times during the movie I was jerked out of the film because the music was so noticeable and unnecessarily dramatic. The music drowns out the sounds of the jungle which I thought would have been far more effective.

Nonetheless, this is a riveting documentary which presents one of the most inspirational women of the 20th century who continues to be a role model not only for young women but for anyone looking to work with animals in the wild and who cares about conservation and stewardship of the wild. This is also a documentary that is made so well and so beautifully that even despite the intrusive score it will likely be hailed as one of the best documentaries of 2017.

REASONS TO GO: The animal photography is, as to be expected, marvelous. Goodall makes a wonderful narrator. The movie is both informative and inspiring.
REASONS TO STAY: The Phillip Glass score is obnoxious and intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes showing animals killing other animals that may be disturbing to sensitive wee ones.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When National Geographic withdrew its grant money from Goodall and von Lawick, the completed films were archived at the society’s headquarters and remained there until being rediscovered in 2014.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 88/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chimpanzee
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Big Time

Synchronicity


This happens all the time.

This happens all the time.

(2016) Science Fiction (Magnet) Chad McKnight, Brianne Davis, Michael Ironside, AJ Bowen, Scott Poythress, Erik Thirsk, Derek Ryan Duke, Claire Bronson, Sergine Dumais (voice), Elle Sunkara, Ashley Drayton. Directed by Jacob Gentry

Time is not a delicate thing. Once it passes us by, it’s gone forever. There are those who dream of travelling it’s currents and eddies, seeing the events of the past and perhaps even influencing, but time is a much sturdier thing than even a river. Time is impenetrable.

Jim Beale (McKnight) is a brilliant scientist with a bare-bones lab who has discovered a way to open a wormhole, theoretically opening the door to time travel. However, he needs a lot more funding to see the experiments through. That’s where Klaus Meisner (Ironside) comes in. He’s a wealthy industrialist with the cash available to fund the project, but his motives are far from altruistic and he wants control of the invention once Beale gets it to work.

Into his life comes Abby (Davis), a mysterious woman with whom Beale starts a romantic relationship, but her own agenda remains unclear. Suddenly Beale is forced to make a split second decision and he leaps into the wormhole itself – and finds himself being the world’s first time traveler. The trouble is, he’s only traveled a week and he is forced to try to keep the timeline from being polluted – or there will be devastating consequences not only to himself but maybe to existence.

This is sci-fi on a low, low, low budget and if you don’t mind overlooking some anachronisms (much of the “technology” here looks to be of the Atari-era level, even though this seems to be set in a not-too-distant future but decidedly future. There is a lot of blue lighting, light filtering in through window slats and shadows – add a little neon and you’d have Blade Runner. This is a terrific looking movie.

The story is pretty nifty, so much so that I really tried to give you a very bare bones summary. While some of the twists and turns are a bit predictable (including, sadly, the big reveal at the film’s end), there is enough here that is not that you can at least give the movie style points.

Where the film falls down is in a couple of places; the character of Abby for example, is a bit too hipster-ish. She chain-smokes (In fact, one gets the sense that the filmmakers are heavy smokers since so many of their characters do so in kind of a reversal of modern sensibilities) and always seems to have that air that she’s privy to a joke none of us understand. I don’t necessarily blame the actress, but quite frankly I’m at a loss as to why Beale would be attracted to her the way that he was. The script doesn’t really give her much appeal, unless of course chain-smoking hipsters who may or may not be who they seem to be gives you a film boner.

McKnight is a decent enough lead but his character kind of drifts through the movie and the only time he seems to show any sort of fire is when he does the most impulsive and reckless thing he could possibly do. His connection to a scientific breakthrough may be enough to attract a woman like Abby to him but at the end of the day this would have been a better movie if we’re led to believe that Abby may actually harbor some affection for him; it’s hard to believe that she would.

In fact the whole romantic angle really falls short for me. The sparks between the two romantic leads were more like dying embers and no real heat is generated whatsoever. The film is really saved by Ironside, the veteran character actor who has played all sorts of bad guys in his career, is the most watchable of the actors here. While we know that Meisner is up to no good, Ironside at least makes the character interesting and watchable. Veteran character actors like Ironside class up any production they’re cast in.

The worst thing here is the dialogue. It’s clunky and uses phrases that nobody living in 2016 actually uses – who says “I got duped” unless they’re in an Oscar Wilde play? There are a lot of quotations of both abstract scientists and authors whom you wouldn’t expect to find in a thoughtful sci-fi film. This could have used a good deal of polish, particularly in the aforementioned dialogue.

Quite frankly, this isn’t a movie I can throw a lot of support behind, although I think it’s clear that Gentry has a terrific visual sense. The movie’s failings, particularly what’s coming out of the actor’s mouths and the way the characters acts, are pretty substantial. The visual look is at least reasonably cool and the premise intriguing but like a lot of time travel films becomes a little overly confusing. The acting is passable with the exception of veteran actor Ironside but again for the most part not especially notable. While this has gotten a fairly small theatrical release, you’re probably better served to see it on your local VOD network or on iTunes where it’s currently available.

REASONS TO GO: Decent enough premise. Michael Ironside is always welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is clunky. The characters don’t act like real people.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language as well as some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gentry co-directed The Signal.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Timecrimes
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Hail, Caesar!