Movie Review: She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “S” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “S” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne, and Secrets of Underground London.

TitleShe’s Beautiful When She’s Angry
Release Date: 2014
Director: Mary Dore
Production Company: Music Box Films
Summary/Review:

This documentary offers a history of the second-wave feminist movement – a.k.a women’s liberation – of the late 1960s and 1970s. Rising from the New Left, Civil Rights Movement, and the anti-war movement, and inspired by the writing of Betty Friedan, women began to raise consciousness about their own lack of equality. And leftist men scoffed and insulted them (I’m disappointed in you leftist men!).

Interviews with activists and archival footage show women fighting for equality in their jobs, education, and marriages and seeking reproductive rights and child care. One of my favorite segments features many of the women who researched and wrote Our Bodies, Ourselves discussing the book together. The film culminates with the Women’s Strike for Equity, a massive protest on August 26, 1970 that commemorated 50 years of women’s suffrage while advocating for greater equality.

This documentary does not shy away from the struggles within the women’s movement. I’m pleased that they acknowledged how women’s liberation was largely a white women’s movement that ignored the specific concerns of Black women, when they were included at all. Lesbians also faced outright discrimination as well as handwringing over whether it would harm the movement if Lesbians were open about their sexual identity.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

I learned a lot. I like to think I’m a student of the social movements of the 1960s, but I had only a passing familiarity with some of the women featured in this film and wasn’t aware of the Women’s Strike for Equity. Time to hit the books.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Watch The Black Panthers, a documentary about a liberation movement during the same time period with overlapping themes. Feminism is for Everybody is bell hooks’ wonderful primer on feminism and why we need it more now than ever.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.
Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Rape of Europa (2006) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “R” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. This is the first”R” documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleThe Rape of Europa
Release Date: 12 November 2006
Director:  Richard Berge and Bonni Cohen
Production Company: Actual Films
Summary/Review:

This film documents the many threats to Europe’s art, architecture, and cultural treasures during World War II. Adolf Hitler, a failed artist himself, sought to acquire art treasures to satiate his ego and prop up the Reich.  He even had elaborate plans to remake his hometown of Linz, Austria into a cultural center that he worked on right up to his last days in the bunker under Berlin.  Well before invading other nations, the Nazis put together lists of art works to target and bring to Germany. The Nazis plundered museums and private collections, primarily of Jewish families, in every country they invaded.  Hermann Göring is a major figure in the Nazi art program, presented here as having a more sophisticated taste in art than Hitler, and also setting aside prime pieces for his own collection.

But the Nazis didn’t just steal art.  They also deliberately sought out and destroyed art.  Before the war, Hitler declared certain works and artists as “degenerate art” – primarily the work of Jewish artists, but he a general distaste for Modern Art.  The degenerate art was put on display in a mocking exhibition before being sold off at bargain prices, while much more art was destroyed.  When invading other countries, particularly Poland and Russia, the Nazis deliberately targeted the art and architecture of those countries in an attempt to erase their cultural heritage.

The movie also focuses on the efforts to preserve and protect art during the war.  Specifically, the Louvre and the Hermitage each had programs  involving dedicated staff and volunteers evacuating artworks and otherwise working to protect them from theft or damage.  The Allied armies were very cognizant of Europe’s cultural heritage and attempted to avoid destroying significant artistic and historical sites.  The results were not always good as in the case of the historic monastery of Monte Cassino that they bombed in an attempt to dislodge troops on the mountain, or the destruction of the historic frescoes in Pisa’s Camposanto Monumentale.  Other efforts were more successful, such as a plan for a bombing run on a very narrow target of a railroad depot in central Florence.  During and after the war, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program – aka the Monuments Men – worked to find, restore, and repatriate art stolen during the war.

More than 70 years after the war, art stolen by the Nazis is still being recovered and controversies continue about art in museums and private collections being returned to their heirs.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

I think most of what this movie covered I was at best vaguely aware of which is why I ended up writing such a long summary.  It’s pretty alarming that art wasn’t a secondary concern during the war but something that involved extensive efforts and planning, whether it be to steal or destroy in the Nazis case, or to protect and repatriate on the Allied side.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

I haven’t read the book or watched the movie about the Monuments Men, but I want to now.  Some good books that offer an insight into World War II in Europe include Lee Miller’s War and Ernie’s War.

Source: I watched this documentary on Amazon Prime Video.
Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Quill (2004) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “Q” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z.  This is the first “Q” documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleQuill: The Life of A Guide Dog
Release Date: 2004
DirectorYôichi Sai
Production Company: Music Box Films
Summary/Review:

Finding a documentary that begins with Q was a bit of a challenge, but I spotted this Japanese movie about a guide dog while searching through Hoopla Digital’s offerings. Quill is a yellow lab puppy who is selected from his litter as a potential guide dog for the blind.  He spends his first year with a couple who are called “puppy walkers” who raise dogs before their training begins.  Quill departs for a guide dog training center where he learns basic skills.  Then he is paired with the cantankerous  Mitsuru Watanabe, a blind journalist who doesn’t like dogs and isn’t convinced that a guide dog will help him.  Eventually though, Quill and Watanabe grow fond of one another.

I watched this movie for about 30 minutes before I began to notice that the dialogue sounded scripted and that everything was being filmed from multiple camera angles.  In short, this movie wasn’t a documentary at all.  While the first half of the film feels in the documentary style, the later half is clearly more of comic and dramatic set pieces.  So, I goofed!  But I’m leaving this review in my A to Z because it’s a sweet film and apparently was based on a true story.

Spoiler: both Watanabe and Quill die in this movie, so while most of the movie is light and charming, be prepared to cry at the end.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

I’ve learned that just because it’s tagged “documentary” doesn’t mean it’s actually a documentary.  Also, assuming that what’s depicted onscreen is true to life, there’s a lot of neat details about how dogs are trained to guide blind people in Japan.  For example, the handlers train the dogs to respond to English commands rather than Japanese so that they won’t be confused by what passersby may say.  The training center is a fascinating place where sidewalks, city streets, staircases, and ramps are recreated for the dogs and their handlers to practice on.  They even have places for the blind people to stay while learning to work with their guide dogs.

Source:  I watched this movie on Hoopla Digital.
Rating: ***

Movie Review: Paris is Burning (1990) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “P” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “P” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Pete Seeger: The Power of SongProhibition, and Punk’s Not Dead.

TitleParis is Burning
Release Date: August 16, 1991
Director: Jennie Livingston
Production Company: Academy Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Filmed in Harlem in the 1980s, Paris is Burning captures the intersection of poverty, race, sexuality, and gender identity.  The focus of the movie is the balls held in Elks Lodges and YMCAs in Harlem where participants “walk” to win trophies in a variety of categories.  An older participant tells the balls began as drag performances where participants wore Las Vegas-style showgirl attire, but have since grown to contain a bewildering number of categories including business attire, military dress, High Fashion Winter Sportswear, and “realness” – that is the ability to pass as a straight person.

Participants in the balls are members of Houses, a surrogate family for LBGTQ people who’ve often been disowned by their blood relatives, or as on interviewee states “a gay street gang.”  But the Houses do not fight with fists or knives, but on the floor of the balls where they try to bring honor to House LaBeija, House Extravangza, House Pendavis, and House Ninja, among others.

Candid interviews with participants – black and Latin American gay men and transgender individuals – show how the balls and houses provide them with security and support to be themselves and been seen for who they are.  The film is both heartwarming and heartbreaking in the little victories and great prejudices the interviewees experience.  The ball being a place where one can “be whoever you want to be” is a positive, yet in many cases the participants are emulating a wealthy, white culture that would never accept them, and frankly one not worthy of being emulated.  One of the interviewees, a trans woman named Venus Xtravaganza so perfectly presents herself as a blonde, preppy teen not unlike those I went to school with in Connecticut.  Yet during the time of filming of Paris is Burning, Venus is horribly murdered, most likely a hate crime against her as a transgender person, and something that is an ongoing threat to black and Latin transgender people 28 years later.

This documentary about a subculture most people wouldn’t otherwise know anything about has left quite a cultural legacy.  Terms defined in the movie like “throwing shade” have become mainstream and the style of dancing at balls known as “voguing” of course became the source of a big hit song for Madonna. The sad thing watching this movie decades later is that many of the people feature in the movie have since died, and did not gain anything materially from the film, nor did they get to see the effect it had on mainstream culture.  The film stands as a memory of a time and place and a vessel that gives voice to people who would not otherwise have been heard.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

This entire movie was an education and I expect it will be quite illuminating for most viewers.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

I like this movie and think it is a well-intentioned tribute to the ball culture of the 1980s, and as all good documentaries it gets to the heart of what it means to be human. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it is very controversial and some criticize the movie for exploiting the participants and for cultural appropriation.  The feminist bell hooks wrote Is Paris Burning in response to this documentary.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Oklahoma City (2017) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “O” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “O” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Once in a Lifetime  and The Opposition.

TitleOklahoma City
Release Date: 21 January 2017
Director: Barak Goodman
Production Company:  Ark Media Production for American Experience.
Summary/Review:

In April 1995, I was recovering from shoulder surgery and generally out of the loop of what was going on in the world when I heard murmurs of something terrible happening in Oklahoma City.  This was before the World Wide Web was widespread and we didn’t even have many TVs on my college campus so I always felt that when I finally caught up on the Oklahoma City bombing it was already an historical event, not something I lived through.  Watching this documentary 23 years later filled me in even more things I missed at the time.

The documentary centers the Oklahoma City bombing within the frame of a growing right-wing extremist movement that began in the 1980s – including white supremacists groups, 2nd Amendment absolutists, and Christianist sects.  The first segment of the film focuses on the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge and the second segment on the Branch Davidians at Waco, two incidents that convinced Timothy McVeigh that the government was set on attacking whites, Christians, and gun owners.  The third segment focuses on the planning the bombing and the devastation of the explosion.  McVeigh is the central figure of this part of the movie which follows the story of his disillusionment with the Army in the Gulf War and growing attraction to right-wing extremism through meeting people at gun shows.

I am very uncomfortable with the sympathetic portrayal of McVeigh in this film, particularly the repeated assertion that he opposed bullies, when any reasonable interpretation of McVeigh’s behavior would understand that he himself was a bully of the worst kind.  Fortunately, there are interviews with first responders and survivors of the blast – particularly parents of children in the Murrah Building’s daycare center who were killed and wounded – that relate the true horrors of that day and ongoing trauma.  Still, this is not the type of story where “balance” is appropriate, in my opinion.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

This is a well-researched and well-documented history of the Oklahoma City Bombing and the right-wing extremist movement that informed McVeigh’s decision to carry out the bombing.  As we’ve seen movements with similar ideologies form the Tea Party, elect Donald Trump to the Presidency, and march openly in the streets of Charlottesville, it’s a chilling reminder of the hate and violence engendered by these beliefs.

 

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

I have nothing specifically related to Oklahoma City to recommend, but The Bloody Shirt by Stephen Budiansky reveals an earlier era of white supremacist extremism leading to violence and terror after the Civil War.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: No-No: A Dockumentary (2014) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “N” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “N” documentaries I’ve reviewed are New York: A Documentary FilmThe 1964 World’s FairThe Night James Brown Saved Boston and NOVA: Iceman Reborn.

TitleNo-No: A Dockumentary
Release Date: January 20, 2014
Director:  Jeff Radice
Production Company: Arts+Labor
Summary/Review:

Even if you’re a baseball fan, what you probably know about Dock Ellis is that he was a pitcher who threw a no-hitter in 1970 later claiming to be under the influence of LSD at the time.  This movie posits that Ellis was more than one weird story, but instead that he was a leader of a second generation of African American baseball players after integration.  Ellis spoke out against injustice to black and brown players and freely expressed his personality and African American culture.  Ellis received criticism from team management and the media for wearing curlers in his hair on field during pre-game warmups. In one key moment of the film, Ellis reads a supportive letter he received from Jackie Robinson, breaking up in tears as he reads it.

The high point of Ellis’ career was 1971 when his team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, won the World Series.  He was the top pitcher in the National League that season and after the American League announced Vida Blue as the starting pitcher for the All-Star Game, Ellis openly questioned if National League manager Sparky Anderson would “start two brothers against each other.”  Perhaps rising to the challenge, Anderson did start Ellis, making it the first time two Black pitchers started the All-Star Game.  Later the same season in a game started by Ellis, the Pirates made history by having a team entirely of black and Latin American players take the field for the first time ever.

Despite his on-field success, Ellis’ personal life was more troubled.  Like many ballplayers he was involved in a lot of partying after games as the team traveled across the country over a long season.  Over time Ellis fell into serious alcohol and drug dependency, punctuated by angry outbursts. His pitching performance became erratic and sometimes manifested in bizarre incidents such as the time he tried to bean every single batter on the Cincinnati Reds.  His home life was far worse.  His first two wives testify in the film to incidents of horrific domestic violence they received at the hands of Ellis.

After retiring from baseball in 1980, Ellis sought and received treatment for his addiction.  He dedicated the remainder of his life to working as a drug counselor both with minor league baseball players and with young men in prison.  The final portion of the film shows Ellis’ redemption for the bad things he’d done and the positive influence he made on people in counseling.  People interviewed in the film – teammates, friends, and those he counseled – all seem to remember Ellis fondly so I take it that his redemption was well earned.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

I didn’t really know much about Dock Ellis so I learned a lot about him, but this movie is also a glimpse into the America of the late 1960s and 1970s and showing how cultural changes and the emergence of Black Power manifested in the national pastime.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Watch movies like The Black Panthers or Wattstax which each show different aspects of the social and cultural changes of the Black Power era in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Also check out The Baseball Project song “The Day Dock Went Hunting Heads.”

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: ***

Podcasts of the Week Ending April 14


Code Switch :: Location, Location, Location

The history of housing segregation and how it underlines every serious social issue in America today.

60 Second Science :: Old New England Underground May Be Spry after All

Uh-oh! Tectonic activity underneath New England!!!

AirSpace :: 2001: An AirSpace Odyssey

1968’s weirdest science fiction film and it’s long-lasting affect on the culture of space exploration.

Movie Review: Miss Sharon Jones! (2015) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “M” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “M” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Mad Hot BallroomMan on WireMaradona ’86March of the Penguins, Mathematically AliveMysteries of the Rimet TrophyThe Myth of Garrincha and possibly My Winnipeg.

TitleMiss Sharon Jones!
Release Date: 11 September 2015
Director: Barbara Kopple
Production Company: Cabin Creek Films
Summary/Review:

This is the second straight movie in the A-to-Z project that focuses on a creative person dealing with the effects of cancer on their lives and career.  While Life Itself showed Roger Ebert’s treatment at a rehabilitation center as a frame for the full story of his life, Miss Sharon Jones! focuses entirely on Sharon Jones’ treatment and recovery and her return to recording and performing filmed over the course of 2013-14 with only brief mentions of her earlier life and career.

This film is very intimate showing Jones cutting off her hair in preparation for surgery, the boredom and pain of chemotherapy, and her daily schedule of tv viewing while recovering at a friends’ house.  Jones often seems to be the happiest one around while her friends and colleagues worry about her health and deal with the stress of not knowing if they can commit the band to tour dates.  But sometimes her facade cracks such as the moment when her band suggests canceling their Thanksgiving dinner and Jones loses her cool.

Near the end of the film, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings make their triumphant return to the stage at the Beacon Theater, the camera catching Sharon Jones waiting nervously in the wings before confidently strutting on stage.  The performance isn’t perfect – Jones forgets the lyrics to a song – but the support and love from the band and audience makes it all the more exhilarating.  The movie ends on a happy ending, but it doesn’t last.  Shortly after the film’s premiere, Jones announced that the cancer had returned, and she died in November 2016 at the age of 60.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

First of all, if you don’t know the music of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, this is a wonderful introduction.  More importantly, this is a story of human resilience and joy in life from someone who has encountered more than her fair share of adversity.

This is best summed up in her song “I’m Still Here.”

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Read my Music Discoveries post offering a comprehensive summary of the output of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings up to 2016 as well as my album review of her posthumous final album Soul of a Woman.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Life Itself (2014) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “L” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “L” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man and loudQUIETloud: a film about the Pixies.

TitleLife Itself
Release Date: July 4, 2014
Director: Steve James
Production Company: Kartemquin Films
Summary/Review:

And now Blogging A to Z gets meta as a write a film review about a movie about a movie critic.  It’s interesting that Life Itself follows just after Koch, because Roger Ebert (and his “At the Movies” partner Gene Siskel) is like Ed Koch in that he was a popular culture presence of my childhood.  I’ve always liked Ebert’s movie reviews because he was consistent enough that I could tell when something he liked would be something I wouldn’t like (and vice versa).

The movie fills in the details of his life from his work on a college newspaper, joining the Chicago Sun-Times and rather arbitrarily being assigned to be film critic, his screenplay for the bizarre cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and his struggles with alcoholism.  There’s a lot I didn’t know and Gene Siskel and the tv show don’t even appear until about 45 minutes in.

Turns out all those arguments Siskel & Ebert had on tv were rooted in a contentious relationship offscreen, albeit they would grow to have a mutual admiration.  There are some hilarious outtakes from “At the Movies” of the pair testily correcting one another. Later in the movie we learn about his marriage at the age of 50 to Chaz Hammelsmith, his reactions to Siskel’s death, his own challenges with cancer, and his transition into becoming a blogger when he can no longer speak. In addition to friends and family, directors Ava DuVernay, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and Martin Scorsese testify to Ebert’s role in bring attention to their films (and I’m tickled that I’m watching documentaries by the first three of those directors for the A to Z Challenge).

The frame of the movie shows Ebert going through rehabilitation in the months before his death due to the ongoing scourge of cancer. Ebert is insistent on the film showing the damage to his body, such as the complete removal of his lower jaw, and the treatment he goes through in the hospital. Part of Ebert’s desire for complete transparency regarding his health is due to the feeling of betrayal when Gene Siskel kept his own mortal illness a secret. Unable to speak, he frequently uses the thumbs up gesture to respond to his family and caregivers, ironic considering how connected he was to thumbs up/thumbs down as a film critic.

It’s heartbreaking that Roger Ebert watched over 10,000 movies in his lifetime, but never saw this one.  But I do believe that he’d be pleased that the movie was made on his terms and that it’s an affecting piece of motion picture arts.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

Whether you came to know Roger Ebert through his tv show in the 1980s or his blog in the 2000s or you don’t even really know him at all, this is a human story that fleshes out a life that we only get glimpses of in the public eye.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Watch one or more movies from Ebert’s final list of all-time favorites:

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
  • Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
  • Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
  • Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
  • La dolce vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
  • The General (Buster Keaton, 1926)
  • Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
  • Tokyo Story (Yasujirô Ozu, 1953)
  • The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2010)
  • Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

Source: I watched this movie on Hoopla Digital.  It is also available to Hulu subscribers.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Koch (2012) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “K” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “K” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Keith Richards: Under the Influence and Knuckleball!

Title: Koch
Release Date: October 8, 2012
Director: Neil Barsky
Production Company: Zeitgeist Films
Summary/Review:

I grew up in a Connecticut suburb of New York City and one of the most significant public figures in my childhood was Mayor Ed Koch.  I mean, he was certainly more present in my life than the mayor of my hometown.  As far as I knew he’d always been mayor of New York and always would be (not true, as Koch was first elected mayor the same month I turned 4).

The documentary covers his life, largely focused on the 12 years he spent as mayor of New York.  The film captures his charm, humor, and positive energy that made him a popular and transformative mayor of New York at a time when crime, homelessness, and decay had made the City a shameful place to live.  Yet, the movie doesn’t shy away from his downside – particularly his reprehensible treatment of the City’s African American community, corruption in his administration, and his general mean-spirited submissiveness of anyone who had a contrary opinion.

In addition to a great array of archival footage, there are extensive interviews with Koch in his last years.  Despite the passage of time, Koch doesn’t display any regrets or recognize any mistakes he made.  In fact he seems to have hardened in his opinions, adopting views such as hateful Islamophobia.  It’s rare that a biographical documentary makes me like a person LESS than before I watched it, but that is the case here.  But it’s also hard to deny that Koch was the quintessential New Yorker and left an indelible mark on the City, for good and for ill.

From a film making perspective, one of the most remarkable parts of this documentary is an extended sequence set on Election Day in 2010.  As Koch learns that Andrew Cuomo (whom he endorsed for governor) is not going to meet with him at the election celebration, Koch decides to leave the party.  The camera follows him all the way home until Koch shuts the door on his modest apartment.  It’s pretty powerful in saying so much about Koch and his legacy without any narration to explain it.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

Ed Koch is kind of a dick, but he’s still pretty funny.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Watch American Experience: Blackout, an incident that was key in prompting New Yorkers to vote for Koch.  The book Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning also includes extensive coverage of the 1977 mayoral election. The essays collected in New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg are largely focused on the Koch Era.  Ric Burns’ New York: A Documentary Film provides a more extensive history of the City.

Finally, I’ve always loved this short film “Sundae in New York.”

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: ***