Song of Parkland


A chorus line of inspiration.

(2019) Documentary (HBO) Melody Herzfeld, Ally Richard, Alex Wind, Ashley Paseltine, Alex Athanasiou, Jared Block, Sawyer Garrity, Emma Gonzalez, Dylan Redshaw, David Hogg, Heather Hart, Emma Summers, Cameron Casky, Molly Reichard, Kelly Mathesie, Ariel Braunstein. Directed by Amy Schatz

 

I’ll be honest with you; I don’t normally review short films. In fact, this is the first one I’ve ever published on this site. Then again, the tragedy at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2008 – less than a week from the one-year anniversary of the event as I write this – resonates with me in a way that few events can. For one thing, it happened in Florida where I live. For another, this was in many ways the straw that broke the camel’s back as teens who were tired of this same old story being repeated over and over and over again with “thoughts and prayers” being the only political response that came of any of these massacres.

On that terrible day drama teacher Melody Herzfeld sheltered her 65 drama students in a store room for two hours until police came to escort them out. Only then did the students – and their teacher – discover that 17 of their peers had died in the tragedy and another 17 were injured. And the survivors needed to find a way to cope with that. How can a 14-17 year old find the strength to deal when most adults can’t?

For Herzfeld, the answer was to finish what the kids had started. They had been working on the children’s musical Yo, Vikings and were in rehearsal the day of the shootings. The drama department puts on an annual kid’s play and it is one of the highlights of their season. The show must go on and so it does and we get to watch it unfold but it isn’t without cost. The kids are hurting deep inside and it comes out, sometimes in unexpected ways. Two of the young people write songs about their feelings, helping them to process what they are going through (we get to hear both songs during the course of the film). And yes, the students go under a media microscope as several of them (including some in the drama class) choose to become advocates of gun control and become the faces of change for a generation. Admired by some, demonized by others, these young people say what you will about them at least made an effort to make change for the better although of course that will depend on your definition of “better.”

Schatz relies heavily on talking head interviews with the kids, interspersed with news reports and occasional cell phone footage. This isn’t about the shootings themselves – we don’t see that aspect of it – but about how the kids adjusted to unthinkable trauma. When the students are interacting with each other, goofing around, being themselves – those are the best moments in the film. Even the real heart-tugging moments – the Tony Awards performance of “Seasons of Love” from Rent, for example – is less compelling.

I would have actually liked to have seen a full-length feature made here and spend more time with say, the parents of the drama students, other teachers besides Herzfeld, that sort of thing. We definitely get a very limited perspective and while it is most valid to concentrate on the students themselves, ranging a bit further opinion for perspective would have brought a little more clarity.

I got the sense that this was an act of catharsis, not only for the filmmakers but for the students themselves. I’m sure that in the days that followed the tragedy they became used to describing their feelings and the events as they saw them must have gotten to be old hat but there feels like there was a lot of genuine emotional healing going on here. It’s gratifying to see but also heartbreaking that it was necessary. This is by no means the perfect documentary but it is, in it’s brief 28-minute run time unforgettable.

REASONS TO GO: The students express themselves well through song. The film is powerful, timely and heartbreaking. One gets the sense that it was cathartic for all involved just making this documentary.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is overly reliant on talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: While none of the violence is depicted, the themes of grieving and feeling of insecurity at school may be difficult for impressionable children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Schatz won an Emmy for her work on the documentary Through a Child’s Eyes: September 11, 2001.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Parkland: Inside Building 12
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel

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It Will Be Chaos


Some journeys are more desperate than others.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) William L. Ewing, Manuel Barosa, Aregai Mehari, Giusi Nicolini, Cecilia Malmstrom, Enrico Letta, Cecile Kyenge, Wael Orfali, Bensalem Khaled, Domenico Lucano, Domenica Colapinto, Rafaelle Colapinto, Doha Orfali, Ribal Orfali, Leen Tayem, Baoul Tayem, Othman Tayem, Giovanni Costanzo, Biniam Bereked. Directed by Lorena Luciano and Filippo Piscopo

 

The movie opens up with the grim image of coffins being offloaded onto the Italian island of Lamperdusa. A ship carrying immigrants from Libya to Italy had capsized, and 360 refugees mostly from the Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia had drowned. One of the survivors, an ex-soldier from Eritrea named Aregai Mehari, lost two cousins in the tragedy. He shows their pictures on his cell phone, and at the trial of the inept captain calmly discusses the chaos of that night.

The mayor of Lamperdusa, Giusi Nicolini, is in a horrible position. The town is suffering from a stagnant economy and simply can’t handle the influx of people coming from Africa and the Middle East. She still manages to retain her compassion, correcting reporters “They are not illegal immigrants. They are refugees. Words matter.” She wants to help but is essentially powerless to do much more than providing limited assistance and sympathy.

We follow Aregai as he makes his way into Greece where the situation isn’t much better and might be, frankly, worse as he flees from drought and intense poverty in his native country. We also follow Wael Orfali and his young family as they flee the Syrian genocide, whose home was bombed into rubble just two weeks after they fled. He is stuck in Istanbul trying to get to family in Germany where he and his family might begin again. He is impatient almost to the point of hysteria, purchasing life jackets for his family  for a trip with a smuggler that may or may not happen and when relatives urge him to delay his departure because of rough weather in the Mediterranean bellows “I don’t care if we die. I just need to leave!”

The movie is one in a long line of documentaries about the current refugee crisis which is buffeting Europe and to an extent the United States as well. Most of these movies follow the travails of a specific refugee as they navigate an often frustrating and dehumanizing system that essentially passes them from one place to another with limited resources, no way to get work and left to dangle in the wind. Often the refugees, fleeing forces beyond their control, I can understand the anti-immigrant side to a certain extent; a nation can only support so many people with resources, jobs and property. There is a finite amount of money, goods and infrastructure to go around. However, the answer is not to demonize refugees and suspect that every refugee is a potential terrorist, rapist or criminal; most refugees simply want a better life and safety for their children. We can’t assume every refugee is legitimate; we also can’t assume that every refugee is not.

The problem I have with this movie is that it really doesn’t add anything to the conversation that I haven’t seen in several other documentaries. The points that they make that the bureaucracy handling the staggering influx of people is ill-equipped to handle it, that politicians are often unsympathetic and that refugees often face outright racism and are painted as scapegoats by an increasingly hostile European (and American) population.

Political bloviating on my part aside, the refugee crisis isn’t going away anytime soon and the situation isn’t as uncomplicated as it is sometimes made out to be. The movie exposes some of that if in a somewhat choppy manner. From a purely technical aspect, the editing between the two stories often is jarring and feels somewhat arbitrary. The filmmakers have their heart in the right place but in all honesty what we need more than a film that follows the refugees is one that shows us why it is so difficult for this situation to be managed. This movie shows some of that (and it’s generally the best moments in the film) but not enough to really make it a must-see.

REASONS TO GO: The story is heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The film doesn’t really add anything to the examination of the refugee crisis.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival before debuting on HBO.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire at Sea
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Before I Wake

Andre the Giant


Andre the Giant in action against Randy “Macho Man” Savage.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) Andre the Giant, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hulk Hogan, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Billy Crystal, Vince McMahon, Rob Reiner, Jerry Lawler, Ric Flair, Shane McMahon, Gene Okerlund, Dave Meltzer, Antoine Roussimoff, Noel Matteos, Dr. Terry Todd, Gino Brito, David Shoemaker, Dr. Harris Yett, Jackie McAuley, Hortense Roussimoff. Directed by Jason Hehir

 

In the 1980s professional wrestling took off from essentially a group of regional promotions into a massive worldwide phenomena thanks largely to the aegis of the WWE (known as the World Wrestling Federation at the time until the World Wildlife Fund objected to the use of their initials) and some of the wrestlers in it. I have to say that I was a wrestling fan back then and watched regularly Monday Night Raw and the other wrestling programs that the WWE and to a lesser extent the NWA ran to keep the ravenous fans sated.

Remembering the big stars of that era – Hulk Hogan, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, Junkyard Dog, Demolition, The Ultimate Warrior, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, Iron Sheikh, Nikolai Volkoff, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Ravishing Rick Ruud, Ric Flair, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, Bret Hart, Jim Neidhart, Sting, Arn Anderson, Ted DiBiase, Jesse Ventura – I remember them all and more.

While Hogan was the biggest superstar of his time in terms of popularity, the most unforgettable wrestler of that era had to be Andre the Giant. Born Andre René Roussimoff in the small village of Molien in France, he began experiencing unusual growth spurts due to gigantism; by the time he was 12 he was larger than most adults.

Most of our portraits of Andre as a young man come from family photos and recollections of his siblings. The family, who worked (and still work) a farm in Molien were close-knit; in one poignant moment near the end of the film his brother shows off the chair that his mother built for her growing son. It is empty now but the care that went in to making her son comfortable in a world which largely wasn’t geared towards making people of a certain size comfortable is touching.

The footage of Andre’s early career is absolutely astounding. Most of us have only seen him in the latter stages of his career when the pain from his acromegaly (which developed from his gigantism) and of course the constant toll on the body that professional wrestling takes made any sort of movement excruciatingly painful.

There is a lot of interview footage here, but as far as Andre himself is concerned it is almost all given in his in-ring persona. He was a private man outside the ring and other than one 60 Minutes interview he rarely allowed people in. A lot of insight comes from his wrestling colleagues, although much of the subject regards his extraordinary appetites for food, women and booze. Andre loved to party after a wrestling match and was known to drink as many as 106 beers in a single night; drinking a case of wine wasn’t unusual for him either.

The more poignant material talks about Andre having difficulties getting into cars, hotel beds, and planes. He was simply unable to use an airplane bathroom and considering how much flying he had to do as part of his brutal wrestling travel schedule he often ended up having to hold it, sometimes for hours. He loved the adulation of the fans but there was no escaping it – when you’re his size you can’t escape anything.

Many people know Andre from his role as Fezzig in The Princess Bride and while two of his co-stars and the director talk about his time on the show (by which time his physical deterioration was making it nearly impossible for him to do his own stunts) the beloved movie only takes up about five minutes of screen time in Andre’s story.

Andre died in a Paris Hotel room on January 27, 1993 of a heart attack brought on by his gigantism. He was just 46 years old but had made an indelible mark on the world – and not just the world of wrestling. Always a gentle giant and recalled fondly by friends and family, he was the sort to go out of his way to make his fellow wrestlers look good. His epic battle with Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania III – one of the last matches he would wrestle as it turned out – is still thought by many to be the best professional wrestling match ever.

The movie will be a godsend for pro wrestling fans but even those who aren’t particularly fond of the squared circle will find something to enjoy in this well-made documentary that looks back at the life of a gentle giant. Great footage, engaging interviews and a marvelous subject are sometimes all it takes to make a good documentary.

REASONS TO GO: Heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time, the movie documents the difficulties in day-to-day living Andre had to experience. Some of the footage is phenomenal.
REASONS TO STAY: We get a lot of Andre’s on-screen persona but not a whole lot about who he was off-camera.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sports action and violence as well as some bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original nom de wrestling for Andre Roussimoff was Jean Ferré, a kind of French Paul Bunyan which was later changed to Géant Ferré. American promoters were unwilling to market him under that name because it sounded too much like “Giant Fairy” so Andre the Giant was born.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Resurrection of Jake “The Snake” Roberts
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 
The Cloverfield Paradox

John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls


Senator John McCain of Arizona; portrait of a maverick.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) John McCain, Joe Biden, John McCain IV, Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, Carol McCain, Hilary Clinton, Grant Woods, David Brooks, Mark Salter, Doug McCain, Frank Gambaa, Joe McCain, Andy McCain, John Fer, Rick Davis, Bill McInturff, Cindy McCain. Directed by George Kunhardt, Peter W. Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt

 

Most people who follow American politics are pretty well familiar with the salient points of Arizona Senator John McCain’s life; the son of a four-star admiral (and also the grandson of one), he became a Navy flyer during the Vietnam War. Captured by the Viet Cong, he was held as a prisoner of war for five and a half years, subjected to repeated torture and abuse. Finally weakened to the point where he could no longer take it, he signed a bogus confession – an act that has regretted ever since – and returned home to take on a political career. Running twice unsuccessfully for the Presidency, he won the Republican nomination in 2008 and unwisely selected then-Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, an act that changed the political landscape of the United States and not for the better. Last year, he was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer.

It is difficult to review a documentary about a man without reviewing the man himself. Those who read my reviews regularly should be aware that I am a progressive liberal so politically McCain and I disagree about a lot of things. I have never considered him anything less than an honorable man however; famously, he showed up for a vote that kept the Senate from passing  a bill that would have dismantled the Affordable Care Act and put in an absolute abomination of a replacement plan in its place, breaking ranks with his fellow Republicans and earning the wrath of President Trump who clearly dislikes the Arizona senator.

The movie utilizes a lot of archival footage, particularly from McCain’s Vietnam era, and a lot of interviews with political foes, allies, friends and family. Some of McCain’s closest friends come from the other side of the aisle; Joe Biden, for example and Joe Lieberman whom he toyed with asking to be his running mate in ’08 before settling on Palin. The movie also covers one of his more public blunders, his role in the Keating Five scandal which nearly marked the end of his political career. McCain is honest about his involvement and while he was exonerated of any wrongdoing, he admits freely to making an error in judgement which he was censured for.

Clearly the filmmakers admire McCain which I believe most Americans do; even the left respect his service and his willingness to vote his conscience, something few members of either party are willing to do these days. It’s not strictly speaking hagiographic but it is fawning in places and certainly admiring throughout. Then again, it’s hard not to admire a man like John McCain…oh, wait a minute, there I go reviewing the man rather than the movie. It’s a pretty decent documentary. HBO subscribers, particularly those of a political bent, should check it out.

REASONS TO GO: This doesn’t feel like a puff piece at all.
REASONS TO STAY: It seems to be a story that is still being written.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title refers to the book by Ernest Hemingway which is McCain’s favorite.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mitt
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Depths

Agnelli


The Prince of Italy surveys his kingdom.

(2017) Documentary (HBO) Gianni Agnelli, Maria Sole Agnelli, Henry Kissinger, Lee Radziwill, Jackie Rogers, Vendeline von Bredow, Anna Mucci, Nicolo Caracciolo, Cristiana Brandolini,,Gianni Riotta., Valentino, Diane von Furstenberg, Jennifer Clark, Reinaldo Herrera, Isabella Ratazzi, Giorgio Garuzzo, Alain Elkann, Valerio Castronovo, Taki Theodoracopulos, Ginerva Elkann. Directed by Nick Hooker

 

Certain people come along in life who by force of personality become symbols for both good and ill. Our current President, for example, is a symbol of things that depending on your political persuasion may either fill you with hope or with disgust. Malala Yousafzai has become a symbol of extraordinary courage and for women’s rights. Jackie Kennedy, in her day, became a symbol of elegance and grace.

Gianni Agnelli from the late 1950s onward acted as a symbol for the Italian people. Known affectionately by his nickname “L’Avvocato” (the advocate), he was the grandson of the founder of Fiat Motors, which at one time employed 3% of the Italian workforce. He was groomed to become the CEO and helped revitalize postwar Italian industry in a time when Italy was in ruins. He also stood up to Red Brigade terrorists who in the 1970s kidnapped and assassinated the Italian Prime Minister as well as one of his own executives at Fiat.

During the 1950s and 1960s Agnelli was the symbol of Italian sophistication and glamour. It was an era immortalized in films like La Dolce Vita and Agnelli certainly was symbolic of that epoch. He threw fabulous parties, hung out with glamorous people (including Jackie, designers Valentino and Diane von Furstenberg, diplomat Henry Kissinger and actress Anita Ekberg). He liked to drive fast; while he drove a Fiat, it was equipped with a Ferrari engine (Fiat purchased Ferrari in order to keep it out of the hands of an American automaker).

Agnelli was a great believer in the American system as was his grandfather, who took many of the ideas Henry Ford used to make Ford Motors more efficient and used them to modernize his own. Agnelli saw America in it’s splendid postwar prosperity and knew that was the route Italy had to follow. However, the road wasn’t without bumps; his grandfather was forced out of Fiat after being falsely accused of collaborating with the fascists; even though he was exonerated the ordeal essentially killed him. During the 70s, Italy had a strong communist movement going on, spawning the Red Brigade; Agnelli saw this as potentially catastrophic to Italy in the same way fascism had been. He remained a strong proponent for capitalism and democracy during that time, even though it painted quite the target on his own back.

The documentary is a bit on the long side, dividing the life of Gianni Agnelli into five distinct periods. Most of the focus is devoted to the La Dolce Vita years during which time Agnelli was a fashion icon as well as a notorious ladies man (there were rumors he had an affair with Jackie Kennedy between the death of President Kennedy and her marriage to Aristotle Onasis). In many ways that was a fascinating period in his life but in many ways it’s more of a People magazine portion of the film rather than a Wall Street Journal portion which comes later. We get a lot of the glitz and glamour but what we don’t get is a lot of context. He is clearly revered in Italy and particularly in Turin, not only for refusing to lay off workers when his company was hemorrhaging money but also for owning the Juventus soccer club which is only slightly less important a religion in Turin as Roman Catholicism.

There are a lot of interviews with relatives (two sisters, several nieces and nephews), staff (his personal assistant as well as the groundskeeper and chef on his Italian estate) as well as friends both famous and not. While some of the interviews give us insight into the man, a lot of them cover the same ground. The adage “women wanted to be with him, men wanted to be him” is used both directly and indirectly dozens of times during the film. We get it.

I did like the archival footage, some of which are compelling historical documents; that seemed to work better for me than the endless interviews. There is no doubt that Gianni Agnelli led a fascinating life and was an important person in the 20th century particularly in Italy but the filmmakers don’t seem very inclined to get beneath the surface of the man who was clearly intelligent and forceful and get into the things that motivated him to make some of the decisions he made. This is one of those documentaries that could have used a lot less fluff and a lot more meat.

REASONS TO GO: Agnelli was the personification of Italian glamour at the zenith of La Dolce Vita. There are interesting insights to Italy’s postwar political history.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many talking heads. As interesting as it is, the film runs far too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With a budget of $210 million U.S. this is the most expensive film ever made in France – to date.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No Score Yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Men Who Built America
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Murder on the Cape

Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Her Legacy


There is nothing more beautiful than a mother and her children at play.

(2017) Documentary (HBO) Princess Diana, Prince William, Prince Harry Windsor, Elton John, Rihanna, Harry Herbert, Earl Charles Spencer, William van Staubenzee, Lady Carolyn Warren, Anne Beckwith-Smith, Lord Victor Adebowale, Anna Harvey, Gerald McGrath, Graham Dillamore, Professor Jerry Wright, Mark Smith, Ian Walker, Jayne Fincher, Amanda Redman (narrator).  Directed by Ashley Gething

 

She was “The People’s Princess” and she caught the imagination of the world. A singular English beauty from a patrician background but a very real sense of compassion and social justice, Diana fought for a variety of causes including homelessness in Britain, the AIDS epidemic and the proliferation of land mines in Bosnia and elsewhere. Ironically enough, she also supported a charitable organization that deals with childhood bereavement, a cause her son William continues to lend his own support to.

Aside from her position as a royal, a tireless worker for a variety of charities, the target of scandal sheets for her high-profile divorce from the Prince of Wales and at the end of the day, a victim of our society’s obsession with celebrity, she was also a mother. William and Harry knew her from that perspective; 20 years after her untimely death in a Paris tunnel, they open up for the first time about their mother in this HBO documentary.

In the best (and worst) British tradition, the princes have kept mum regarding their emotions about their mum and to a certain extent, they remain so. The film does chronicle the events of her life but much of it through the eyes of her sons, who were witness to the media circus as much as Diana tried to shield them from it (she is heard asking a paparazzi to give her children some privacy during a skiing holiday and he flat out tells her no). In that sense, there are other documentaries which give a much more detailed accounting of her public life than this one does.

What other documentaries don’t have are the reminiscences of the two sons who are 35 and 32 now (15 and 12 at the time of their mother’s death) and the rawness of her loss is still there. While they speak about their mother in glowing terms it is no more so than any son would speak about his own mother. However, there are glimpses of the pain from time to time; Harry candidly admits he really hasn’t dealt with his grief and William confesses that he misses her every day. The two boys recount the final phone call from their mother hours before her death; William is asked if he remembers what she said. “Yes,” he says tersely and leaves it at that. Their last conversation is something that is clearly still his, that belongs only to mother and son and is something he doesn’t want to share with the world. Considering that she gave so much to the public’s insatiable need to know every little detail about his mother, one can hardly blame him.

Diana would be 56 had she lived and William breezily describes his belief that she would be a “nightmare grandmother,” spoiling the two grandchildren (to date) and leaving a mess behind for her son and daughter-in-law to clean up. He almost cackles when he refers to her as “Granny Diana” and clearly he inherited his mother’s impish sense of humor.

There are also interviews with members of Diana’s inner circle including her lady-in-waiting at court, her photographer and her brother, one of the more outspoken critics of the media in the wake of her passing. Conspicuous by their absence is Prince Charles, who one might think would support his sons in this endeavor but I suppose that his late wife, who grew to be much more popular than he, is still something of a sore spot with the Prince of Wales. Queen Elizabeth, always intensely private about family matters, was never likely to participate in a venture like this.

The home movies of Diana as a child and a teen are precious but render little insight into her as a person. Much of what we are told here we could have read on her Wikipedia page and there lies my issue with the film. It’s really hard to ask William and Harry to reveal anything about their mother when so much of her private life was made public against her wishes but I kind of wish they had.

Still, the woman gave enough and should be allowed to rest in peace and her sons seem content to allow her to do so and I can respect that. For those who are under the age of 35 and may not remember the princess well, this will be a useful introduction to her. Those of us who were of an age and watched her shine in the public eye until that light was extinguished far too soon will not find anything particularly revelatory here but there is a kind of comfort to be had that she was as good a mother as we all kind of figured she’d be. Motherhood was something that the late princess seemed to be particularly suited for which is not at all a given and certainly worthy of honoring.

REASONS TO GO: The two princes open up about their mother more so than any interview with them I’ve ever seen. Some of the home video footage is truly wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie doesn’t really add much insight into Diana as a person other than most of the broad strokes we already know. It’s an interesting documentary but not essential other than to those who are unaware of Diana’s place in history.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes dealing with the loss of a parent.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: William and Harry have continued to support many of the charities that Diana was involved during her lifetime. Diana didn’t live to see her legacy of all the landmines in Bosnia finally being removed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diana – Her Story
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Lady Bird

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Raindrops keep falling on our heads.

(2017) Biographical Drama (HBO) Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Rocky Carroll, Reg E. Cathey, Leslie Uggams, Courtney B. Vance, Ellen Barkin, Peter Gerety, Adriane Lenox, Roger Robinson, John Douglas Thompson, Karen Reynolds, Sylvia Grace Crim, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Jaedon Godley, Kyanna Simone, Jane Rumbaua. Directed by George C. Wolfe

 

In the past half a century there have been some amazing medical advances. Some of these breakthroughs have come as a result of a strain of cells known as HeLa, which have helped find, among other things, the polio vaccine. So what’s the story behind those cells?

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks (Goldsberry) was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where she fought hard but eventually succumbed. While she was alive some of her cells were harvested without her knowledge and researchers were amazed to discover that the cells remained alive and were reproducing and would be indefinitely. The cells became well-known throughout the medical research community but few people knew where they came from.

Eventually word got out that the cells had been taken from Henrietta Lacks. Her daughter Deborah (Winfrey), or Dale as she is called by friends and family, never knew her mother being only two years old when she passed away. In time her brothers Sonny (Carroll), Day (Robinson), Zakkariya (Cathey) and Lawrence (Thompson) as well as sister Barbara (Lenox) and her mother’s friend Sadie (Uggams) – who have discovered that their mom was the source of these wonder cells that have made pharmaceutical and medical research companies millions upon millions of dollars – give up on getting any reparations, particularly when charlatans like the colorfully named Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield (Vance) put them through hell.

When freelance journalist Rebecca Skloot (Byrne) wants to write a book about Henrietta she is met with resistance and outright hostility by the Lacks family and understandably so, considering how they’ve been exploited and condescended to over the years. Rebecca is patient and persistent and eventually she wins over Dale, the most wary of the group. As Dale and Rebecca go on a journey to find out who Henrietta was the two begin to bond unexpectedly especially as that journey yields far more than the women expected.

I’ve noticed that whenever Oprah Winfrey gets involved in a project, it behooves me to set the bar high. It’s a very rare occasion that movies she is part of aren’t the highest of quality. Once again, she shows that she’s not just a talk show host, losing herself in the role of the embittered and troubled Dale – whose sexual assault as a teen is part of what informs her paranoia and violent mood swings – so much so that you forget it’s Oprah. That’s an accomplishment when you consider how much her personality has become part of her brand.

But she’s not the only reason to see this movie either. She is surrounded by a strong cast, including Vance as the oily con man, Cathey as a severely troubled ex-con and Byrne as the sweet but strong-willed journalist who may come off as a bit of a sorority girl but can give back as well as she gets when push comes to shove. It was wonderful as well to see Uggams – a fixture in African-American movies and TV back in the day – onscreen, but she’s not there as a token Name. The girl can still bring it.

Cinematographer Sofian El Fani – best known for the wonderful Blue is the Warmest Color – brings an autumnal beauty to both urban Baltimore and rural Virginia, adding a sepia-toned hue to the flashbacks involving Henrietta (a scene on a Ferris Wheel is particularly delightful). Branford Marsalis adds a jazz-infused score that captures the vibe of the era, both the 50s during Henrietta’s story and in the 90s during Dale’s.

Wolfe plays this as part character study and part detective story and the two elements mesh very well. The family’s pain is evident throughout, having lost their mother at so young an age (she was just 31 when she passed away) and her loss has resonated throughout their lives in very tangible ways. For Deborah, it meant being moved in with an aunt and uncle, the latter of which ended up sexually abusing her. That is part of Henrietta’s immortality, the loss that those who loved her still felt. However, there was joy as well, as Dale and Zakkariya see their mother’s living cells through a microscope and realize that a part of her is still alive and with them. It’s a powerful moment in a movie that is full of them.

The filmmaking is efficient as Wolfe essentially sets up the whole story in an opening montage of animation and graphics that set the stage for the film in about two and a half minutes. It’s an impressive feat, one that young filmmakers should take note of. This could easily have been a three hour movie but Wolfe utilizes his time wisely.

Yes there will be waterworks and tissue paper should be kept on hand if you intend to fire up HBO and watch this puppy. While the race card is definitely in the deck, the filmmakers choose not to play it which I think makes the movie even stronger. Of course racism played a part in the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks but you’re not hit over the head with it. The filmmakers assume that the viewer understands that and move forward with the story which is not so much about Henrietta but about Dale. What could be more powerful a story than a daughter mourning the loss of a mother she never truly knew?

REASONS TO GO: There are some very strong performances, particularly from Winfrey and Uggams. The story is very moving, the family’s pain palpable throughout. The film possesses great cinematography and a great score.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a bit of cinematic shorthand going on here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of rape, some violence and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In an interview on NPR, Rebecca Skloot said that the real Deborah Lacks predicted that the book would be a best seller, that Oprah would produce a movie based on the book and that Oprah would play her. Although Deborah died in 2009 just before the book came out, all of her predictions came to pass.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Google Play, HBO, YouTube (please note that Google Play and YouTube will not be available for purchase until after initial HBO run is complete)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Loving
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Chuck

Cries from Syria


The White Helmets rescue more Syrian children from the rubble of Aleppo.

(2017) Documentary (HBO) Helen Mirren (narrator), Abdullah Kurdi, Kholoud Halmi, Hadi Al-Abdullah Abdul Baset Al-Saroot, Riad Al-Asaad, Suzan Malar, President Bashar Al-Asad, Jamil Afesee, Dr. Khalid Alazar, Zaher Al-Saket, Raed El-Saleh, Abu Mohammad Al-Julani, Ghiath Matar, Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb. Directed by Evgeny Afineevsky

 

What is happening in Syria is absolutely unconscionable. Ruled by President Bashar Al-Asad with an iron fist (ironically he trained as a doctor before stepping in as successor to his brutal father), Syria is a country which has fallen into a morass of death and destruction.

Afineevsky, who helmed the excellent Oscar-nominated documentary Winter on Fire about the Ukraine’s fight for freedom from a tyrant allied with Vladimir Putin, has delivered a very orderly and precise account of the events that have led to the situation as it is. There are a lot – a lot – of talking head interviews in the film which is normally a turn-off for me but their stories are all so varied and effective it’s hard to fault the director.

Afineevsky divides the movie into four chapters; the first details the events leading up to the Syrian revolution; how the Arab Spring gave people hope that they would be able to overthrow their own despot. When some schoolboys in the city of Daraa write some graffiti on their schoolyard reading “It’s Your Turn, Doctor” apparently this puts the fear of God into the authorities for the boys are arrested, tortured and many of them are killed.

This leads to outrage on the part of the people of Syria who feel that torturing children is a step too far. They take to the streets in massive demonstrations but Al-Asad orders his army to fire on the peaceful, unarmed demonstrators who carry flowers and bottled water to give to the soldiers. Some of the soldiers, disgusted by these orders, defect from the Syrian army and form the Free Syrian Army. The Syrian Civil War begins.

You get a sense that the Syrian people, confronted by one atrocity, believe that they’ve hit rock bottom and then another one begins. Al-Asad starts by laying siege to towns where anti-government demonstrations had taken place. He forbids any goods and services to come in, and starts bombarding the towns, labeling the inhabitants as terrorists when in reality most of the dead and dying are women and children. His bombers target hospitals and schools.

Then he starts dropping Sarin nerve gas on his own people, following that lovely gesture up with Chlorine gas. Both of these mainly affect the children, already weakened by hunger. When the UN gets wind of this, they send troops to confiscate any biological weapons but there is evidence that Al-Asad still has plenty in his possession.

After that, ISIS starts taking over villages in Eastern Syria which are more rural and imposing their own peculiar brand of Islam on the inhabitants. They seem to be saviors at first but their true colors show as they begin executing and beating the villagers for infractions that are almost nonsensical. However, the presence of ISIS brings in Putin and his air force and the bombing under Al-Asad suddenly goes on steroids. Aleppo, one of the larger cities in Syria, is essentially being obliterated.

We get scenes of the White Helmets, volunteer first responders who go into bombed out buildings and rescue those buried inside. They inject a little humanity into the unending horrors we witness – one can only wonder how the Syrian people can bear it. There are so many tears, so many screams of loss – it all blends together somewhat by movie’s end.

As a primer for what’s happening in Syria, this film succeeds triumphantly although there are those – an admitted minority of trolls – who mark it as propaganda. There’s no doubt that the filmmakers are on the side of the Syrian people and some think that the Syrian people are terrorists. Those that do tend to be ignorant of the facts but then that’s never stopped anyone from trolling, right?

This is not easy to watch – you may need to step away from time to time and give yourself a break, but it is important viewing. In watching it you’ll run the gamut of emotions – heartbreak, outrage, horror, disbelief, admiration, sympathy, sadness and hopefully, a desire to help. There are ways to assist the Syrian people without having to fly to Damascus. Look into them if you can.

Even though the fourth chapter on the Syrian refugee issue doesn’t measure up to the first three chapters, it is incumbent on us to understand what the refugees are fleeing from and why we need to take them in and give them shelter. It’s only the Christian thing to do, or have we forgotten two travelers to Bethlehem who were denied shelter?

REASONS TO GO: A detailed account of how the civil war began and the events afterwards. An absolutely heartbreaking account of what the Syrian people have had to endure. Excellent graphics make the names of the speakers easier to identify.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the footage is gruesome and might be too disturbing for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brutal wartime violence; definitely not for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cher recorded an original song for the film, “Prayers for This World” which plays over the end credits. The song was written by Diane Warren who also penned her big hit “If I Could Turn Back Time.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The White Helmets
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Afterimage

Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing


An act of cowardice.

An act of cowardice.

(2016) Documentary (HBO) Jessica Kensky, Patrick Downes, Sydney Corcoran, Daniel Linsky, JP Norden, Paul Norden, Kevin Corcoran, Deval Patrick, Chief Eduard Deveau, Celeste Corcoran, John Tlumacki, David Filipov, Patricia Wen, Jim Allen, Sgt. John MacLellan, Eric Moskowitz, Cpl. Clark Cavalier, Kelly Castine, Herman Kensky, Daniel Abel, Kieran Ramsey, Sgt. Brandon Dodson, Katy Kensky. Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg

 

Most of us remember well the bombing of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. It hasn’t been quite four years but few of us have forgotten the shock of a terrorist attack on a major city, the loss of life and limb and the intensive manhunt for the bombers that followed.

It was also one of the most documented events of our time; security cameras not only caught the explosions but also were instrumental in helping law enforcement catch the two despicable wastes of flesh whose names won’t be mentioned here; one of the two died in a police shoot-out, the other was captured and sentenced to death – hopefully by having a homemade bomb strapped to his ‘nads and then detonated.

My feelings about cowardly scum who set off bombs in crowds of innocent people aside, Stern and Sundberg have assembled a massive amount of footage and helped piece together the events of the bombing meticulously and clearly. They’ve also followed some of the survivors in their efforts to overcome the horrendous injuries that they sustained both physically and psychologically. They’ve talked to the police who pursued the bombers and the reporters from the Boston Globe who covered the attack and who often received horrible emails and tweets because of it (some people felt the Globe was exploiting the attacks and giving too much coverage to the bombers themselves). The only ones not interviewed that I wish would have been were first responders on the scene – paramedics, ambulance drivers and ordinary people whose actions saved lives that day.

The filmmakers follow mainly Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, a pair of newlyweds who were standing by one of the bombs when it went off. Both had run the Marathon at one time; that year they chose to watch. Each lost a leg and Kensky eventually lost both after a valiant effort on her part to keep it. Both were plagued by depression and PTSD and eventually got help from the Walter Reed Hospital which treats those wounded in war by IADs and such. That particular segment is one of the most inspiring in the entire film and was the one that brought the most goosebumps and misty eyes on my part.

It also follows the Corcoran family who had several injured by the bombs; the impact of their agony led to some difficulties among those who were uninjured, including alcohol abuse and withdrawal from life. Celeste Corcoran lost both legs in the blast; she had been cheering on a sister who was running in the race. Sydney Corcoran had her femoral artery severed; only a quick-thinking veteran who reached into her leg and squeezed the artery shut saved her life or else she would have bled out on the sidewalk. That moment was caught by John Tlumacki, a Globe photography who received a great deal of criticism for capturing the moment even though it became a defining one of the entire incident. Finally there were the Norden brothers, Paul and JP, both of whom were gravely injured and taken to separate hospitals, forcing their mom Liz to have to go back and forth to each hospital as the brothers underwent several surgeries apiece.

One of the things that you may want to keep in mind when choosing to view this is that the footage of the bombing itself is largely uncensored; there is a terrifying amount of blood and some who are sensitive to such things may end up being disturbed by the footage. You get a real sense of the carnage and the chaos at the scene but thankfully only that – I can’t imagine the smell of gunpowder and blood and the screams of pain and fear that had to be going on that day.

This is a compelling documentary which could easily have been about humanity’s darker side. Instead, the filmmakers chose to make it about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and how a city stood up, joined hands and supported one another through a dark period. I’ve seen that first hand – not only in Boston but in my home town Orlando as well following the Pulse shootings.

It’s hard to capture all the details of an event as important as this in a single two hour movie but at the very least Stern and Sundberg have captured the essence of it and that is all you can ask of any documentary. It’s life-affirming and haunting and at times hard to watch but it is at the end of the day essential viewing.

REASONS TO GO: It’s very thorough in all aspects of the film both pre and post race. The stories are compelling and there are lots of good feels. The focus is on the survivors as it should be.
REASONS TO STAY: It would have been nice to get interviews from first responders on the scene.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some bloody images and descriptions of grisly injuries; there is also some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Boston Globe co-produced the documentary; their coverage of the event won the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Patriot’s Day
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Patriot’s Day

Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC Tony Vaccaro


Sleepers in unquiet graves.

Sleepers in unquiet graves.

(2016) Documentary (HBO) Tony Vaccaro, James Estrin, Tyler Hicks, Alex Kershaw, Michel Lepourty, Anne Wilkes Tucker, John G. Morris, Sam Tannenbaum, Mike Forster, Lynsey Addario. Directed by Max Lewkowicz

 

Soldiers are a special sort of breed, one to be admired immensely. Not only are they willing to lay down their lives for their country but they often return home damaged – particularly during times of war. They are forced to do things that go against everything they are taught (i.e. Thou Shalt Not Kill) and they see things – horrible things – that reflect humanity at its absolute worst.

Tony Vaccaro was barely out of high school when he was drafted to serve as an infantryman in the Second World War. Orphaned at a young age in Italy, he left that country and moved to New Rochelle, NY when the Fascists took over. While in high school, he developed an interest in photography and when he was drafted, applied to the Army Signal Corps to take photographs for them. He was turned down, told that he was too young for the Signal Corps. “I’m too young to take pictures,” he reflects in the documentary about his 272 days in the service of his country during which he took more than eight thousand photographs, “But not too young to kill.”

He took pictures of weary servicemen, resting for a moment after marching or fighting. He took pictures of men being shredded by shrapnel. He took pictures of burned tanks, the burned driver on the ground beside it. He took pictures of shell-shocked civilians and grateful French children kissing G.I.s. Many of his pictures come with incredible stories.

At one point he finds a soldier frozen in the snow. Curious as to whom the victim was, he is horrified to discover it is Henry Tannenbaum, a childhood friend. Years later, Tannenbaum’s son Sam saw the picture of his father at an exhibition of Vaccaro’s work and called up the photographer. When Tony found out who was on the other end of the line, he wept but for Tannenbaum, the picture gave him some closure and made his father, whom he had no memory of, more real to him. The two men became friends and visited the site where Tony found Henry’s body. Ironically, the place is now a Christmas tree farm (Tannenbaum is Christmas Tree in German).

One of the hardest photographs he ever took was that of a German woman, who had been raped and murdered by Allied troops after she’d been found with a bazooka, and then stabbed in her vagina with a bayonet. At first Tony was horrified and he removed the blade and covered the dead woman up. However, he went back and put her back the way she was when he found her and snapped the picture before then covering up the body and removing the blade once again. He had set out to document his experiences and he felt it wouldn’t be true to his mission if he didn’t document that as well, but he remarked it would be the most difficult of all the pictures he’d shot, including that of Tannenbaum.

In an era where photographs were routinely staged, Vaccaro’s pictures stand out because they were real. While sometimes soldiers would refuse to have their pictures taken by outside photographers, Tony was trusted. He was one of them, a brother. They would pose for him sure but they also allowed him to turn his cameras on them when they were fighting for their lives and the lives of their brothers. No other photographer in any war, before or since, has gotten as close to the soldiers fighting it as Vaccaro did. The incredible pictures he took reflect that. War is undoubtedly hell, the kind of hell that only those who have been to the front lines of war can understand. The photographs of Tony Vaccaro help those who have never been to war to gain at least a little bit of understanding.

Vaccaro is front and center here and he reminisces about some of the things he took pictures at from the places he took them in 70 years later. We see him on the beach at Normandy where he was part of the Allied invasion on Omaha Beach; the quaint French village which was largely untouched by the fighting; the woods where a horrific battle was fought. His memory is incredibly clear for a 94-year-old man.

His interviews are augmented by commentary by contemporary combat photographers who are singularly admiring of the job Vaccaro did, often going from firing his M-1 rifle to grabbing his camera and snapping pictures. In one incredible moment entitled “The Last Step of John Rose” an infantryman throws both hands in the air as a mortar explodes behind him. Shrapnel is already lancing through his body and with his next step he will crumple to the ground. “Suddenly, life comes to an end and gravity takes you,” Vaccaro reflects. “Giving up life, we all go down to earth again. All of us.”

After the war, Vaccaro stayed in Europe, unable to return home. He was caught in the grip of what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although they didn’t discuss such things then. He put his negatives in storage and left them there until recently; even though he had documented his experiences, he was not disposed to sharing them although eventually he did. He would eventually continue following his passion for photography, becoming a fashion and celebrity photographer for Life magazine and others.

But despite a lifetime photographing beautiful things and beautiful people, he remains close to the pictures that haunted him from the time he took them until now. “There is beauty in tragedy,” one of the commentators intones and there is truth in that. The picture of a frozen soldier in the snow is awful to contemplate but has a certain serene beauty to it that is hard to ignore. So is this documentary, which is worth looking into.

REASONS TO GO: The photographs are absolutely extraordinary. Vaccaro is still emotional about his time on the front lines and that emotion only enhances the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Those sensitive to death and mayhem may find the photographs too disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity some gruesome images of war and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The Argus C3 35mm camera that Vaccaro used throughout the war cost him $47.50 as a used (or secondhand) camera back in 1942.
BEYOND THE THEATER: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fury
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Collateral Beauty