Documentary Movie Review: Harlan County, USA (1976) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “H” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “H” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Harvard Beats Yale 29 to 29HeimaHelveticaHieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil, High SchoolHillsboroughThe Historic Pubs of Dublin, and The Hollywood Librarian.

Title: Harlan County, USA
Release Date: October 15, 1976
Director: Barbara Kopple
Production Company: Cabin Creek Films

I have an affinity for coal miners because my grandfather and his father and brothers all worked for mining companies in Pennsylvania.  My grandfather never went down in the mines but worked as a coal breaker which made him all the more vulnerable to inhaling dust and coal particles.  Coal miners, whether below the ground or in the processing facilities, face a great risk of instant death and horrible injuries. Those who make it through okay will inevitably suffer respirator problems like black lung.  And yet the work of a coal miner could also offer great dignity and pride.

In the 1970s in Harlan County, Kentucky, over 180 coal miners from the Brookside Mine joined the United Mine Workers of America and went on strike against the Duke Power Company.  Young filmmaker Barbara Kopple (who later directed Miss Sharon Jones!) filmed the strike over the course of its 11 months, including planning meetings, pickets, and conflicts with company’s “gun thugs” that lead to violence. The protests spread to New York where UMWA picketers inform Wall Street investors about Duke Power’s mistreatment of workers, and one of them talks with a progressive New York City cop. A particularly strong part of this film is the organization of Harlan County’s women, mostly miners’ wives, who play a significant role in the strike. Lois Scott stands out as a women who uses encouragement and shame to keep people motivated on the end goal of the strike.

In addition to the linear narrative of the strike, Kopple also includes historical footage from Harlan County coal mines and earlier labor conflicts.  The struggle of miners in Appalachia in general is seen in coverage of the Farmington Mine explosion in West Virginia in 1968 that left 78 miners dead.  There was conflict even within the UMWA.  In the 1960s, Tony Boyle became president of the union, but many rank-and-file miners saw him as too cozy with mine owners.  He was challenged by Jock Yablonski in 1969, and despite winning reelection had Yablonski and several of his family murdered a month later. At the time of the Harlan County strike, Boyle had been replaced by a former miner, Arnold Miller, and was convicted for the murder of the Yablonski.

Apart from some informative text on the screen, this movie has no narration.  Instead the miners tell their story and the stories of those who came before them.  The story is also told through song, as the soundtrack features several folk songs including many specifically about Harlan County.  At one point, Florence Reece appears to sing a new version of her famous song “Which Side Are You On?” which she originally wrote for the Harlan County War in 1931.

This is a beautiful, moving, and enraging movie that tells a story that’s all too familiar through our nation’s history.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Heaven Help Us (1985) #AtoZChallenge

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Heaven Help Us
Release Date: February 8, 1985
Director: Michael Dinner
Production Company: HBO Pictures | Silver Screen Partners

After the death of his parents, teenager Michael Dunn (Andrew McCarthy) is sent to live with his grandparents in Brooklyn.  He’s enrolled at an all-boys Catholic high school, St. Basil’s, run by an order of monks (his grandmother hopes he will go into the priesthood).  He falls into a crowd of oddballs including Caesar (Malcolm Danare), a nerd who is dismissive of everyone else’s lower intelligence, and Ed Rooney (Kevin Dillon), a bully who is repeating the year at school. Michael is shocked by the severe strictness of the school, especially Brother Constance (Jay Patterson), a teacher who routinely uses corporal punishment and humiliation on the students.

Michael also meets Danni (Mary Stuart Masterson), a girl who has dropped out of public school to run her father’s soda shop across the street from St. Basil’s.  It’s revealed over the course of the movie that her father is suffering from severe mental health issues and unable to run it himself.  Michael and Danni start off awkwardly but begin to date in one of the sweetest teen romances ever depicted on screen.

Over the course of a few months of the school year, Michael, Caesar, Rooney and others (including the weird kid who can’t stop masturbating) play pranks, go to confession, see Pope Paul VI’s procession in Manhattan, have a dance with students from the girls’ school (after a lecture on lust by a priest played by Wallace Shawn in a hilarious bit part), and they repeatedly get in trouble.  Things come to a head in a violent confrontation with Brother Constance and a surprise twist at the finale.

Three characters I haven’t mentioned in this synopsis add flavor to the story.  First is Michael’s little sister Boo (Jennifer Dundas) who is obsessed with death and burial.  She seems quirky at first but in a really touching scene with Michael she expresses her fear of losing him the way they lost their parents. It’s a small but beautiful scene that shows how children internalize trauma.  The next is Brother Timothy (John Heard), a new teacher who joins the staff at the same time Michael arrives and is a “cool” young monk, who smokes and trades baseball cards with the kids, and acts as an adviser to Michael.  He’s kind of the personification of Vatican II reforms in the movie.  Finally, there’s Donald Sutherland in a terrific performance as Brother Thadeus, the strict but ultimately fair headmaster of St. Basil’s

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I watched this movie when it was shown on cable tv in the mid-1980s. Growing up Catholic in a New York City suburb with parents who were teenagers in New York at the time this movie is set it was a no-brainer that I would watch and enjoy this movie.  It was fun to get a look back at the “bad old days” of the Catholic church with Latin masses and corporal punishment.

In retrospect, the 20 years between the time the movie is set and the time it was released doesn’t seem all that long.  In fact, the first English mass was held in the United States in late 1964, so this movie isn’t even set during the Latin mass period.  Still, both New York City and the Catholic church seemed to change quite a bit in those 20 short years.

What Did I Remember?:

I hadn’t watched this movie since the 1980s but it was surprisingly fresh in my mind.

What Did I Forget?:

I didn’t forget things so much as see them in a different light from an adult perspective.  For example, that kid who masturbates is a funny gag when you’re a kid, but as an adult it seems like a serious problem that should be addressed before he commits a sex offense on someone.  Similarly, Brother Constance was always a mean teacher, but now I see him as a total monster who’s comeuppance should’ve had more severe legal repercussions.  The movie also takes on a different feel in the aftermath of clergy sex abuse revelations that were allowed to persist due to many of the same factors of a corrupt system of power that we see in the film.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

If you break it down to its essence, Heaven Help Us is a series of vignettes soaked in Baby Boomer nostalgia.  But it is so much better than that. I think the strong cast of actors really makes all these characters feel real rather than archetypes.  A lot of the younger actors would go on to longer careers so you’re really seeing them come into their own here.  Also, as I noted above with the scene of Michael and Boo, there are a number of great, well-directed and well-written scenes that economically capture moments of great humanity.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Rooney is a bully and sexually aggressive with women and initially an antagonist to Michael, but eventually they become friends.  I think Dillon does a good job of giving Rooney some depth, but overall I think the movie wants to think of his behavior as funny and overlook how harmful it is.

Also, at the end of the movie, there’s an American Graffiti style epilogue where Rooney narrates what happened to all the characters.  It feels out of tune with the rest of the movie and ultimately unnecessary.

Is It a Classic?:

Objectively this movie falls short of being a movie classic, but subjectively it will always be one of my favorites.

Rating: ****

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with H:

  1. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
  2. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)
  3. High Fidelity (2000)
  4. Hoop Dreams (1994)
  5. Hope and Glory (1987)

What is your favorite movie starting with H? What do you guess will be my movie for I? (Hint: it has characters named Bert and Ernie).  Let me know in the comments!

Documentary Movie Review: Gates of Heaven (1978) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “G” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “G” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Galapagos: The Enchanted VoyageThe Gnomist, Gimme Shelter, Goldman Sachs: The Bank That Rules the World and Grey Gardens.

Title: Gates of Heaven
Release Date: October 1978
Director: Errol Morris
Production Company: Gates of Heaven

This was Errol Morris’ first movie and features several people associated with the pet cemetery business.  Much like his second film Vernon, Florida, which I watched a couple of years ago, the movie is made up entirely of interviews of various people, edited together to build a story.  There is no narration and only an occasional establishing shot and newspaper headline to provide context.

The first part of the movie focuses on Floyd “Mac” McClure who attempts to fulfill his lifelong dream of opening a pet cemetery in Los Altos, CA.  He’s contrasted with a man who runs a rendering plant the traditional destination of dead animals – including beloved pets – where they are turned to tallow.  After McClure’s cemetery fails financially, the 450 animal bodies are exhumed and moved to Bubbling Well pet cemetery in Napa, CA.  This much more successful pet cemetery continues to operate through today under the operation of the Harberts family.  Interviews with the Harberts include two sons, one a dreamy musician and one a practical businessman with experience in the insurance industry.  The film also includes interviews with people talking about the pets they had buried in the cemeteries.

The biggest takeaway from this movie is the wide gap between the philosophy and attitudes of the people interviewed.  At one extreme are the people deeply sincere about there passions,whether it be their pets, their desire to have a place to inter deceased pets, or to play guitar.  At the other are the businessmen who are very crass about their capitalist interests of making a back, whether it be by rendering or burying animals.  The one thing that all these people have in common is an unawareness of how they may come off to other people.

Roger Ebert considered Gates of Heaven to be one of the top ten movies of all time.  Maybe there was something about seeing it as an underground movie in the 1970s when there were no other documentaries like it around had a mesmerizing effect, but I don’t see it as great as all that.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting glimpse into the human experience through an unusual topic.  And it made Werner Herzog eat his shoe.

Rating: ***

Note: I could not find a trailer for Gates of Heaven but the entire movie is on YouTube should you be interested.



Documentary Movie Review: The Farthest — Voyager in Space (2017) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “F” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “F” documentaries I’ve reviewed are F is for Fake, 56 Up, Finding Vivian MaierFour Days in Octoberand Frank Lloyd Wright.

Title: The Farthest — Voyager in Space
Release Date: August 23, 2017
Director: Emer Reynolds
Production Company: Crossing the Line and HHMI Tangled Bank Studios Production for PBS

I’ve always been fascinated by the Voyager program, and remember the excitement in my childhood each time the Voyager spacecraft would fly-by a new planet.  The Voyager program began in the 1960s at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to take advantage of the unique alignment of the Outer Planets that allowed for a “grand tour.”  Passing each planet provided a gravity assist that propelled the probes toward the next planet and eventually out of the solar system.

The documentary features interviews with key figures from NASA and JPL, archival photographs and film, and animated reenactments of the Voyager journeys.  Voyager is responsible for some remarkable discoveries but is famous for being a “message in a bottle” to extraterrestrial intelligence, including the Golden Record with a selection of music and greetings from the people of the Earth. In 1990, at the insistence of Carl Sagan, the Voyager I camera was turned back toward the solar system and took a series of “family portraits” including one of the Earth appearing as a pale blue dot in a ray of sunshine.

Rating: ****

Documentary Movie Review: Earthrise (2018) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “E” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Previous “E” documentaries I’ve reviewed include The Endless Summer and Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Title: Earthrise
Release Date: April 20, 2018
Director: Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee
Production Company: American Documentaries Inc.

This short documentary focuses on the Apollo 8 mission of December 1968. The goal of this mission was to successfully orbit the moon and return to Earth in preparation for the moon landings that would begin the following year.  With NASA’s plan and rigid schedule for getting the spacecraft into lunar orbit and documenting the moon up close, there was no intention of looking back at Earth.

And yet as the astronauts – Bill Anders, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell – became the first people to ever leave low Earth orbit, they began to notice the beauty of the Earth visible in full.  While circling the moon and documenting the surface with photographs, Anders noticed the Earth rising over the moon.  The photograph he took became the most famous part of the mission.

The movie features archival footage of the mission and contemporary news events with the only narration coming from present-day interviews with Anders, Borman, and Lovell. They talk about the significance to them of seeing the Earth from afar.

Rating: ****

Documentary Movie Review: The Celluloid Closet (1996) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “C” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “C” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Cane Toads: An Unnatural HistoryThe Case of the Grinning Cat,  Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Ceasefire Massacre, The Central Park Five, The Clash: Westway to the World,  and Constantine’s Sword.

TitleThe Celluloid Closet
Release Date: February 15, 1996
Director: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Production Company: Channel Four Films | HBO Pictures

This documentary traces the history of homosexuality as it is depicted in Hollywood films.  As early as the silent film era, stock characters of sissy men appeared in films for comic effect, although there were some positive representations of gay and lesbian people.  The institution of the Production Code included censoring “sexual deviancy” that put the kibosh on any acknowledgement of homosexuality.

Filmmakers instead used coded characters to slip gay and lesbian ideas past the censors. Movies of this period include Ben-Hur (1959), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Rebecca (1940), Red River (1948), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Rope (1948), Some Like it Hot (1959), and Young Man With a Horn (1950). I never knew that Gore Vidal worked on the script for Ben-Hur and wrote in a gay subtext, which makes the fact that I watched the movie at my Catholic elementary school hilarious.

By the 1960s, homosexuality was once again acknowledged in film but gay and lesbian characters were often tragic figures who inevitably died by the end of the movie, usually by their own hand. Stereotypically homosexual characters were also villains in many movies.  Advise and Consent (1962), The Children’s Hour (1961), The Fox (1967), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), Vanishing Point (1971), and Walk on the Wild Side (1962) are all discussed as examples of this problematic approach to homosexuality in film.

The Boys in the Band (1970) is recognized as the first mainstream film to depict gay characters in a positive light.  It was directed by William Friedkin whose later film Cruising (1980) was protested by gay rights activists for perpetuating the stigma of gay men as villains.  Cabaret (1972) and Making Love (1982) are also highlighted for positive depictions of gay characters.  Nevertheless, homosexuality continues to be coded in Hollywood films, derogatory terms like “faggot” are used indiscriminately in movies, and big name actors avoid being cast in roles as homosexual characters.  Philadelphia (1993) is recognized as an advancement for featuring likable star actor Tom Hanks in the role of a gay man with AIDS, although it’s noted that his character still dies at the end.

A frustrating aspect of this movie is that none of the interviewees are ever identified onscreen, nor are the titles of the movies from a good portion of the clips that are shown. I do know that Lily Tomlin narrates the movie and people interviewed include Tony Curtis (commenting on his roles in Some Like it Hot and Spartacus), Arthur Laurents, Armistead Maupin (who also wrote the script for the narration), Whoopi Goldberg, Harvey Fierstein, Gore Vidal, Shirley MacLaine, Barry Sandler, Tom Hanks, and Susan Sarandon.

Hollywood has continued to make progress on gay and lesbian representation since this documentary was released 24 years ago, but remains frustratingly slow in depicting LGBT people in the full range of human experience.  Consider recent Marvel, Star Wars, and Disney films which include scenes with extremely minor gay and lesbian characters, never the leads, but the studios expect to be celebrated for their progress. One thing that comes through in this film is that gay and lesbian viewers had to watch the coded depictions in movies and translate them to their own experience.  Harvey Fierstein makes a good point that it’s time for straight audiences to do some translation.

Rating: ***1/2


Movie Review: Back to the Future (1985) #AtoZChallenge

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Back to the Future
Release Date: July 3, 1985
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Production Company:  Amblin Entertainment | Universal Pictures

Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is the black sheep of his family.  While his parents and siblings are irredeemable losers, Marty has a cute girlfriend (Claudia Wells), rides a skateboard, and plays guitar in a band.  He also maintains an odd friendship with a mad scientist, Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd).

One night, Doc invites Marty to help him out on his new project, a time machine … made from a Delorean.  Through a series of misadventures, Marty is sent back from 1985 to 1955.  After interfering with his parents’ first meeting, he faces the challenges of his future mother, Lorraine (Lea Thompson), falling in love with him and helping his father, George (Crispin Glover), stand up to the bully, Biff (Thomas F. Wilson).  Meanwhile, the younger version of Doc must figure out how to get Marty “back to the future!”

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I saw this movie with my family in the movie theaters not long after its release in July 1985.  Then I saw it again in the theaters and then several times on VHS and cable tv.  But it’s probably been 30 years since the last time I watched it.  There was a time when this was my favorite ever made and “Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News my favorite song.  But by 1989 when the sequels came out, I’d lost interest, and I’ve still never seen them.

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered everything pretty well, as I really did see it a lot of times at an impressionable age.

What Did I Forget?:

Surprisingly, nothing significant.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

The casting is perfect, Doc Brown and Marty McFly, most notably.  But I think Lea Thomson and Crispin Glover deserve a lot of credit for being younger than Michael J. Fox and still convincingly portraying his parents.  Thomson as the teenage Lorraine is terrific at conveying both sweetness and a persistent horniness, while Glover is the ultimate geek.

I’ve also always been impressed with how everything that’s set up early in the movie gets paid off later on.  This goes for the main plots of when Doc Brown and Marty’s parents talk about their past, but also little details like  the clock tower, Marty’s uncle (a recidivist criminal) being in the playpen as a baby, or the Twin Pines Mall becoming the Lone Pines Mall.  This also may be the only time travel story ever told where changing the past makes things better.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

The depiction of Libyans as a pack of terrorists who smuggle uranium and travel around in a van with machine guns and bazookas is a nasty stereotype.  There are also a couple of instances of casual racism where Marty influences the future in a way that takes agency away from Black men.  The first is when he inspires young Goldie Wilson to run for mayor (which he would’ve done anyway). It’s also disconcerting that young Goldie says he’s going to clean the town up but in 1985 the city is in a state of decay.  I’m sure the filmmakers intended to show that most US cities had become rundown between the 50s and 80s rather than imply that it was because of a Black mayor, but the optics are bad.  The other scene is when Marvin Berry calls his cousin Chuck to let him hear Marty playing “Johnny Be Good.”  Again, it’s a gag because Marty is playing a song that Chuck Berry wrote, but I have just a twinge of uneasiness about it.

Is It a Classic?:

Most definitely.  Despite that fact that more time has passed since 1985 and today than 1955 and 1985, this movie hasn’t aged poorly.  Instead, it’s picked up a patina of nostalgia for two different eras of the past.

Rating: ****1/2

5 more all-time favorite movies starting with B:

  1. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
  2. Best in Show (2000)
  3. The Big Short (2015)
  4. Breaking Away (1979)
  5. Bringing Up Baby (1938)

What is your all-time favorite movie starting with B?  What do you guess will by my movie for the letter C?  Let me know in the comments!


Documentary Movie Review: Apollo 11 (2019) #atozchallenge

Note: I wasn’t planning on doing documentaries again for this year’s A to Z Challenge, but since I suddenly found myself with more free time at home, I decided why not.  Unlike my main A to Z posts, which were scheduled ahead of time, I’ll be doing these as I go along with the chance I might miss some along away.  Nevertheless, enjoy your bonus A to Z content.

This is my entry for “A” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “A” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Ai Weiwei: Never SorryAfrica: The SerengetiAmerican Experience: Blackout,  American Experience: Into the Amazon,, American Experience: Walt Disney and Amy.

TitleApollo 11
Release Date: March 1, 2019
Director: Todd Douglas Miller
Production Company: CNN Films | Statement Pictures

In this big-budget, science-fiction adventure, three men leave their planet and travel to another world for the first time, with thousands of people supporting them back home.  And it’s all real.

This movie is built entirely with original footage from the July 1969 Apollo 11 mission to Mars, including previously unreleased 70 mm footage that is awe-inspiring.  There is no narration or retrospective interviews, just descriptions from the contemporary dialogue of the astronauts, NASA employees, and news media.  Simple animations appear on the screen before all of the Apollo 11 mission’s major maneuvers, and countdown clocks build up the tension.  All of this is scored to an incredible soundtrack of electronic music using only instruments that were available in 1969.

As a space exploration buff, I may be biased, but this is one of the most exciting, beautiful, and well-edited documentaries I’ve ever seen. I hope at some point I can see it again on a big screen and be fully-immersed in this spectacular film.

Rating: *****

Blogging A to Z Challenge Theme Reveal #AtoZChallenge

Theme Reveal #AtoZChallenge 2020 badge

I am once again participating in the Blogging A to Z Challenge.  Every day in April (except Sundays) I will publish a post on a theme for every letter of the alphabet.

I recently finished an eight-month project to watch Classic Movies I’d never seen before, and even made a list of Every Movie I’ve Ever Watched. So for the A to Z Challenge, I’m going to revisit some of my favorite movies that I haven’t watched in a long time and determine if they’re still classic, or even good at all.

Previous A to Z Challenges:

Blogging A to Z Challenge Round-up #AtoZChallenge

Another year, another Blogging A to Z Challenge is complete! There were some first for me this year.  For the first time, I very ambitiously submitted two different themes.  And I also wrote up most of my posts from January to March and had them scheduled to go live well ahead of time.  I thought this would mean that I’d have lots of free time in April, but as usual, other things grew to fill that time.  Nevertheless, I got read, like, and comment on other creator’s A to Z projects, which is the most important thing by far!  Here are a few of my favorite A to Z’s for you to check out:

And here is a listing of my two series of A to Z posts.

2019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – A Song and a Story

A: Always on My Mind
B: Baby Come Back and Baker Street
C: Cheek to Cheek
D: Don’t Worry, Be Happy and Doctor Jones
E: Everyday Sunshine
F: Fly Me to the Moon
G: Ghost Town
H: Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe
I: If I Were John Carpenter
J: Jungle Strut and Justified & Ancient
K: Kiss
L: Loaded
M: Marble Halls and My Moon, My Man
N: New York, New York
O: Oliver’s Army
P: The Parting Glass
Q: Qué Onda Guero
R: Rave On
S: The Servant Song
T: Thing of Beauty
U: Unworthy
V: The Voyage
W: Working My Way Back to You Babe and Walk of Life
X: 1999 and Ol’ 55
Y: You are Invited
Z: Zombie

2019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films, Part II

A: Amy
B: Being Elmo
C: Central Park Five
D: Dear Mr. Watterson
E: The Endless Summer
F: F for Fake
G: Grey Gardens
H: High School
I: Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice
J: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
K: Kon-Tiki
L: The Last Waltz
M: Man With a Movie Camera
N: Nanook of the North
O: Obit.
P: Pelotero
Q: Quest: A Portrait of an American Family
R: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
S: Soundtrack for a Revolution
T: Titicut Follies
U: Unforgivable Blackness
V: Virunga
W: Waking Sleeping Beauty
X: Xavier
Y: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train
Z: Zimbelism

If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:

And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:

And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.