Own the Room


Rehearsing the pitch.

(2021) Documentary (National Geographic) Henry Onyango, Daniela Blanco, Alondra Toledo, Santosh Pandey, Jason Hadzikosas, Miguel Modestino, Fernando Toledo, Maria Blanco, Patricia Castillo, Tyler Olson, Kunda Divit, Huston Malande, Eddie Alvarado, Gustavo Fuga, Alberto Soto-Benitez, Damarie Toledo. Directed by Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster

 

It is indescribably difficult to get a business off the ground, particularly one that is operating with ideas outside the box. As television shows like Shark Tank show, most of these businesses fail within the first year because of a lack of capital to bankroll the operation. When you’re a young person without a history of innovation and business experience, it is doubly hard. That’s why there is an international competition known as the Global Student Entrepreneur Award.

This award annually gives $100,000 to the student whose idea and business plan impresses the judges the most. For many of the students that participate, the money means the difference between survival and closing the doors of the nascent business they’ve started.

This documentary, currently streaming on the Disney Plus service, focuses on five entrants into the competition; Santosh Pandey from Nepal has a business that allows ex-pats from Nepal (who have lost a high number of workers who have emigrated all over the world to find work to support their families back home) to surprise loved ones in Nepal with impromptu celebrations of birthdays, anniversaries and so on. Daniela Blanco is an immigrant from Venezuela who left her native land when government crackdowns on student protesters made conditions too dangerous for her to continue her studies at home; utilizing a scholarship at New York University, she used her electrical engineering degree to invent a method of using solar power to create the materials to make nylon as opposed to the fossil fuels that the industry currently uses. Her company, Sunthetics, is the key to her remaining in the United States. Jason Hadzikosas is from Greece and has developed an application that uses artificial intelligence to translate the cries of infants and translate them into what the baby is really asking for. His company, Cry2Talk, could revolutionize parenting.

Henry Onyango is a student in Nairobi, Kenya who discovered that there was a serious student housing shortage throughout Kenya and indeed, throughout Africa. An expert coder, he created an app called Roometo that allows students to find housing close to their universities, a kind of Air BnB for the college crowd. Finally, Alondra Toledo from Puerto Rico has developed an application that allows deaf patients to communicate with doctors who don’t understand sign language. Her company is called UnderstHand and given the island’s difficulties following Hurricane Maria, seems to be an important idea that deserves further exploration.

The documentary sticks with the five contestants through the preliminary rounds in their home countries and gathers them in Macao, where the global finals are to take place. We get to know what drives them, what inspires them and how their idea came to fruition. We meet some of their co-workers and family members, and discover that all five are engaging, intelligent and driven to make the world a better place.

There is unexpected drama when one of the contestants is denied entry into Macau initially due to not having enough cash to enter the casino-heavy “Las Vegas of the Orient” but also possibly because of other factors, not the least of which was the candidate’s overly casual style of dress. With the possibility of being deported back to their home country and not being able to present their idea to the judges, the contestant scrambles to find a means of getting into Macao and making it to their presentation slot on time.

The various contestants are all inspiring but the film is pretty much a typical competition documentary in presentation and execution. Still, there’s enough inspiration and innovation from the candidates to make this worth your while and non-fiction cinema enthusiasts will no doubt find this to be of interest.

REASONS TO SEE: Impressive ideas delivered by young people who’ll give you hope for the future.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretty typical competition documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family, although there is a brief reference to potential racism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Own the room” refers to a public speaking truism that to be successful in a presentation, the presenter must be in complete charge and seem knowledgeable and confident, also known as “owning the room.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Disney Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:Science Fair
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Long Live Rock: Celebrate the Chaos

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary


John Coltrane in the abstract.

(2017) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Denzel Washington (voice), John Coltrane, Common, Carlos Santana, John Densmore, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Cornel West, Wynton Marsalis, Bill Clinton, Ravi Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Heath, Antonia Andrews, Oran Coltrane, Ashley Kahn, Ben Ratliff, Kamasi Washington, Benny Golson, Michelle Coltrane. Directed by John Scheinfeld

 

In the pantheon of jazz greats, alto saxophonist John Coltrane has to stand out among its most enduring and influential figures. While never as popular as, say, Louis Armstrong (although he did have a big hit in a revved up version of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music back in 1961) his music helped jazz evolve and changed, as Carlos Santana notes, the very nucleus of jazz.

This documentary starts in media res with a heroin-addicted and alcoholic Coltrane in 1957 being fired from the Miles Davis Quintet where he had begun to hone his reputation. He faced a crossroads and a vital decision; whether to continue with the heroin and end up like his idol Charlie Parker or to turn his back on the drugs and potentially embrace greatness. He would choose the latter, kicking heroin cold turkey which shows a strength of will that characterized his entire life.

He grew up in North Carolina in a home where both his grandfathers were preachers which gave him a spiritual influence that remained with him all his life. Although he didn’t adhere to a single religion, he studied nearly all of them and incorporated them into his inspirations. He joined the Navy as World War II was ending and his first known recordings were as part of a Navy jazz band and, as Wynton Marsalis put it kindly, didn’t sound like he had much potential.

But he had the good fortune to play with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and after being fired from that gig, Thelonious Monk – all jazz legends – which helped him find his confidence to grow and embrace change. Davis would accept Coltrane back for a second stint that would include one of Davis’ pivotal albums, Almost Blue which Coltrane recorded simultaneously with his own breakout album, Giant Steps. Shortly after that, Coltrane struck out on his own.

Although his career was short in years (he would die suddenly at the age of 40 of liver cancer), he was prolific releasing some 60 albums in the last decade of his life. Scheinfeld closely follows the arc of his influences, from bebop to free jazz to music that can only be called Coltrane. It is somewhat daunting to wonder what he would have come up with and how further he would have changed music had he lived another 20 or 30 years.

The archival footage and photographs are fascinating and the interviews – particularly with social commentator, activist and academic Cornel West (who at times is almost testifying to Coltrane in a religious fervor) and former President Bill Clinton who is surprisingly insightful into Coltrane’s art. While actor Denzel Washington reads from Coltrane’s writings, we never hear the jazz legend’s actual voice; he was notoriously interview-shy. While we don’t hear Coltrane’s actual voice here, his music does the talking. It’s as much an expression of his inner soul as we are going to find. Of particular note in that regard is “Alabama,” inspired by the speech Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave at the funeral of the victims of the Birmingham church bombing in 1963. The piece is mournful and yet hopeful; it follows the cadence of Dr. King’s speech and uplifts even as it grieves. It is as compelling a composition as has ever been written.

While we don’t hear Coltrane’s voice directly his personality comes to the fore mainly through the interviews with family and friends; his stepdaughter recalls him walking home late at night from a gig so he could spend his cash on shoes that she needed the next morning rather than spending it on cab fare. His childhood friend Jimmy Heath recalls how much he practiced, sometimes just fingering the sax in hotel rooms after angry guests complained about the noise.

In some ways the movie serves as a jumping off point for the music of Coltrane, although those who don’t “get” jazz may not necessarily find it compelling. However, the hope is that the film will introduce new generations to music that is sometimes described in overly enthusiastic terms. I don’t know that Coltrane’s music will change your life but it conceivably could; it has done so for many, many listeners and not all of them jazz aficionados. I don’t know that this is the ultimate tribute for Coltrane – there are an awful lot of talking heads and we don’t get as much context into the music as I might have liked  but this is an excellent place to start.

REASONS TO GO: The music is just incredible. The footage of Coltrane and his band is fascinating. The use of graphics is innovative.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many talking heads. The film may not appeal to those who aren’t into jazz.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some drug content and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the studio footage of Coltrane recording was discovered in a California garage while production was underway; the filmmakers arranged for the footage to be incorporated into the film and this is the first time it has been seen anywhere, or at least for decades.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns
FINAL RATING:7.5/10
NEXT: Kong: Skull Island