27 Non-Fiction Films: An A-to-Z Retrospective


The Blogging A to Z Challenge is over for 2018! I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to once again participate and the fact that it gave be both the motivation and an excuse to watch a lot of documentary films. I also feel that it was a chance to try new things in writing blog posts, and frankly I’m really proud of many of the reviews I wrote.

But before I toot my own horn, it’s also important to recognize that the best part of the A to Z Challenge is the chance to visit other peoples’ blogs, read what they wrote, and leave some comments.  I’ve read terrific work by many different writers and had good discussions with some of them.

Here are some A-to-Z’s I enjoyed reading this April:

I plan to check in periodically with the Blogging A to Z masterlist and read back on some of the other A to Z’s I missed.  If you’d like me to read yours, leave a link in the comments.

So my own theme was to watch and review documentary films, most of which were ones I’d been meaning to watch for some time, with a few I discovered to fill in some letters of the alphabet.  Many of them were fantastic, while some were not so good, but there were no true stinkers. I had no theme of what type of documentary I would watch and they vary from history to current events, arts to science, music to sports. Despite the lack of trying some themes did pop up among the films. I think all the movies touched upon one or more of these themes:

  • Social justice, people and individuals fighting against discrimination and for equality
  • Art and the artist, what is lost and found in the creation of art
  • The human experience.  Even the science and nature movies had a strong human element

Here’s the complete list of my posts for the 2018 Blogging A to Z Challenge:

A: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
B: The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
C: Cave of Forgotten Dreams
D: Decoding Desire
E: Exit Through The Gift Shop
F: Finding Vivian Maier
G: Goldman Sachs: The Bank That Rules the World
H: Hieronymous Bosch: Touched By the Devil
I: I Am Not Your Negro
J: Jane
K: Koch
L: Life Itself
M: Miss Sharon Jones!
N: No-No: A Dockumentary
O: Oklahoma City
P: Paris is Burning
Q: Quill
R: The Rape of Europa
S: She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry
T: Tower
U: Unrest
V: Vernon, Florida
W: What Happened, Miss Simone?
X: XXXY
Y: Yellowstone: The World’s First National Park
#: 13th
Z: Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

Bonus Post: Favorite Documentaries
Bonus Post: What to Watch Next

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Movie Review: Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “Z” 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 “Z” documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleZidane: A 21st Century Portrait
Release Date: May 24, 2006
Director:  Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno
Production Company:  Anna Lena Films
Summary/Review:

Zinedine Zidane, the French football player of Algerian descent, is widely considered to be one of the greatest football players of all time.  In his career, he played for top European football clubs – including Bordeaux, Juventus, and Real Madrid – winning domestic league championships, Champions League titles, and numerous individual awards.  For the French national team, Zidane scored 2 goals in the championship game of the 1998 World Cup, leading France to its first ever World Cup title.  And if you don’t know him for any of those things, you probably know him as the guy thrown out of the 2006 World Cup championship for headbutting an Italian player.  Today he continues his career as a manager for Real Madrid.

This film documents one game Zidane played as midfielder for Real Madrid on April 23, 2005 against Villareal at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.  17 synchronized cameras were set up around of the stadium, all of them set to follow Zidane in real-time.  This is a high concept idea that challenges the way a spectator watches a game, which usually means following the ball rather than an individual player.  Fortunately, Zidane is usually in the center of action, if not actually holding the ball himself.

Some things one can observe from watching one player is that Zidane, late in his career, has lost a step in speed and conserves his energy for when he’s going to run.  In quieter moments we get to see him adjust his socks or share a joke with a teammate.  The microphones are also good at picking up sounds off the field that one doesn’t usually hear over the crowd. It’s a chippy game, and we get to Zidane and others hit the ground hard as dirt and grass fly artistically in the air.

Still, it’s hard to maintain interest in an ordinary football match from 13 years ago.  For one thing, Zidane keeps running off-screen and the images are often out of focus.  The editing is jarring and seems to obscure what Zidane is doing in context of the game much of the time. I mean the whole concept was to follow one player with 17 cameras – you had one job!  Some parts of the film have a crawling subtitle with quotes of Zidane describing his thoughts during a game.  It’s a somewhat interesting addition, but also seems to be an admission that the film of the match itself is not enough to hold the viewer’s attention.  Portions of the film are scored with music by Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, which while I like the music, doesn’t seem suited to the pace of the match. Finally, Zidane is red-carded near the end of the match for brawling which is kind of hilarious and makes you wonder what the filmmakers would have done had he exited the game earlier.

I’m going to chalk this up to an interesting concept, poorly executed.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

I watched this over the course of three nights because I kept dozing off.  High-def images of Zidane running around accompanied by Mogwai is a good sleep aid.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Go watch a game of any sport and focus exclusively on your favorite player and see what happens.

Source: I watched this movie on YouTube
Rating: **

Movie Review: 13th (2016) #atozchallenge


This is a bonus post for the Blogging A to Z Challenge.  Movies are frequently alphabetized with films titled with numbers separate from the letters A to Z.  So this review represents all the documentaries that have numbers for a title. Technically this movie’s title starts with “T,” but I also really wanted to to watch Tower, so this is a good way to get them both in.

Title: 13th
Release Date: September 13, 2016
Director: Ava DuVernay
Production Company: Kandoo Films
Summary/Review:

The 13th of the title refers to the 13th Amendment of the Constitution which freed slaves in the United States and is celebrated as a major act of emancipation.  But it didn’t end slavery because one clause allows slavery of criminals.  This movie explores the many ways in which people, mainly black people, have been denied their freedom by being criminalized over the past 150 years.

After the Civil War, many black people were immediately enslaved again in convict leasing programs.  By the turn of the 20th century, strict systems of segregation were put in place with brutal violence and lynching to keep it enforced, both of which were justified by claims that blacks were dangerous criminals.  Once the Civil Rights Movement seemingly brought a measure of equality to black Americans, politicians used coded phrases like “law and order” to once again criminalize black Americans through things like the “war on drugs.”  The film depicts the procession of US Presidents from Nixon to Reagan to Clinton each upping the ante in the activities criminalized, the severity of punishments, and the resources to enlarge and militarize the police and create a massive system of incarceration.

The film also takes time to focus on the organization ALEC, a conservative coalition of corporations and politicians, that drafts laws that help their members profit from new laws that help them sell firearms, operate private prisons, or profit from lucrative vendor contracts with prisons, among other things.  The film concludes with numerous familiar, but powerful, stories of black people suffering the dehumanizing effects of imprisonment – many of them in prison because of a system that encourages them to take plea deals even if they’re innocent.  And then there are the images of some of the many black men, women, and children killed by police – something clearly not new as this film illustrates, but something easier to document with modern day technology.

DuVernay features a large cast of experts who speak in this film, basically offering the narration over a wealth of archival footage.  Participants include Michelle Alexander, Cory Booker, Jelani Cobb, Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Van Jones, and Charles Rangel.  Some participants from the “other side of the aisle” include Newt Gingrich (who surprisingly speaks of how he now realizes what was done in the name of law and order was wrong) and Grover Norquist (whose attempts to frame the understanding of the history of mass incarceration as a liberal conspiracy pale against the evidence presented in this film).

DuVernay also makes some interesting choices stylistically, with the participants filmed casually dressed in relaxed poses in some unusual locations, including what looks like an abandoned railroad station.  I’m not sure if there’s any significance to these choices I’m missing, but does add a layer of beauty and mystery to the film.  Another element frequently used is animated text on screen spelling out words spoken or sung in the film, including the word “CRIMINAL” which appears each and every time someone says “criminal.”

This is a powerful film and really a must-see for all Americans.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

There’s so much in this movie that it’s difficult to take it all in.  I’m fortunate in that I’ve read about most of the issues discussed in this movie, but it’s still something to see all tied together in one dense package.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

If you’ve been reading along my A to Z, you’ve seen my posts about several other films that tie into the themes discussed in 13th, especially The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and I Am Not Your Negro.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander – a prominent person in this movie – is the key text for understanding mass incarceration in the United States. Some other important books on the experience of black Americans denied freedom and criminalized include When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele, Evicted by Matthew Desmond, Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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

Movie Review: Yellowstone: The World’s First National Park (2012) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “Y” 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”Y” documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleYellowstone: The World’s First National Park
Release Date: September 4, 2012
Director: Kenny James
Production Company: Mill Creek Entertainment
Summary/Review:

I’m fascinated with Yellowstone National Park, and one day I hope to go there.  This film has low production values and feels like an introductory film for tourists at a park visitor center.  All the same, the film focuses on the stunning landscape of Yellowstone, so the visuals are terrific.  There’s a little bit about the history and flora & fauna of Yellowstone (as well as the Grand Tetons, and surrounding areas), as well as an aerial tour of the park.  But the bulk of the movie is about the geology of Yellowstone, featuring the Yellowstone Caldera, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Artists Paint Pots, and the many geysers, fumaroles, and hot springs.  National Park Service interpreters provide the narration.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

Did you know that the Yellowstone Caldera completely destroyed the portion of the Rocky Mountains range that once passed through where the park is today?  I didn’t!

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Visit the world’s first national park.  And take me with you!

If you can’t make it, you may enjoy reading Lost in My Own Backyard by Tim Cahill.

Source: I watched this movie on Hoopla Digital.
Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: XXXY (2000) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “X” 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 “X” documentary I’ve reviewed.

Title: XXXY
Release Date: June 22, 2000
Director:  Porter Gale and Laleh Soomekh
Production Company: Stanford University, Department of Art & Art History
Summary/Review:

X is always a challenge for the A-to-Z Challenge, especially if you’re looking for movies where the letter X has certain connotations.  I feel fortunate to have found this terrific documentary made by students at Stanford University in 2000, which is at 13 minutes is the shortest documentary I viewed for the challenge.

XXXY features two intersex people, Kristi Bruce and Howard Devore, who speak frankly about their experience being born with ambiguous genitalia.  Both underwent multiple surgeries over the course of their lives and struggled with their own identity.  Bruce’s parents and a pediatrician are also interviewed.

The movie makes a strong case against the medical community determining that infants and children require medical intervention and surgery to make their genital anatomy resemble typical male or female genitalia.  The decision to have surgery should only be made by an adult intersex person.  Furthermore, it advocates for recognition of intersex people and their human rights.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

It is estimated that 1 out of every 2000 children born are intersex.  This is far more common than we’re led to believe and all the more reason to recognize the great amount of sexual variation.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

The Accord Alliance has resources related to Disorders of Sex Development (DSD), a term adopted in 2006 to define “congenital conditions in which development of chromosomal, gonadal or anatomic sex is atypical.”

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is a fictional account of a person with 5-alpha reductase deficiency.

Unrest is another documentary I watched for this challenge that deals with the medical community at odds with what is best for the health of their patients.

Source: I watched this movie on YouTube (the full film is embedded below).
Rating: ****

Movie Review: What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “W” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “W” documentaries I’ve reviewed are WattstaxWild AfricaThe Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, and Word Wars.

TitleWhat Happened, Miss Simone?
Release Date: January 22, 2015
Director: Liz Garbus
Production Company: Moxie Firecracker Films
Summary/Review:

This documentary tells the life story of Nina Simone, a talented singer, instrumentalist, and songwriter across several genres and a Civil Rights activist.  I first became aware of Simone in the early 2000s when I woke up to a local college radio station playing hear searing Civil Rights anthem “Mississippi Goddam” and have grown to appreciate her performance on several other songs she recorded.  Although Simone died in 2003, this film features found audio recordings of extended interviews with her that allow Simone to narrate the movie.  There is also archival footage of several of Simone’s concert performances which the director wisely allows to play out for entire songs.

Simone was born Eunice Waymon and was classically trained with hopes of becoming a concert pianist.  She took her stage name when she took jobs playing “the devil’s music” at clubs in Atlantic City.  She was also urged to sing along with her cocktail piano performances – or lose her job – which lead to her becoming a jazz and blues vocalist. Simone had a talent for modulating her voice to fit different songs which she states in the movie: “Sometimes I sound like gravel, sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.”

She married Andrew Stroud who also acted as her manager and furthered her career as a popular music artists.  Simone was exhausted by the constant touring and performances, but her concerns were ignored by Stroud.  Worse, Stroud severely abused Simone, both physically and psychologically.  While Simone often had a strong and confident demeanor in public, images of her diaries show her struggles with depression and suicidal ideation.  Her performances could be erratic too, and one stunning scene shows her stopping a song to yell at an audience member to “sit down!”

Unsettlingly, Stroud is one of the people interviewed in the film, and appears to be more interested in defending himself than telling Simone’s story.  The other key figure is their daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, who offers insight on her mother’s personal life as well as stories of growing up among celebrities like Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Sidney Poitier, and Betty Shabazz and her family.  Some musicians Simone collaborated with also share details about Simone as an artist and their personal relationships.

This is a terrific documentary about a musician who I think should be more well-known.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

I was completely unaware of Simone’s troubled personal life and mental health problems.

Also, there’s a scene where she performs a song called “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and I thought it was an interesting interpretation of a song by The Animals, but no!  Nina Simone wrote this song and The Animals covered it!

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

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

Movie Review: Vernon, Florida (1981) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “V” 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 V documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleVernon, Florida
Release Date: October 8, 1981
Director: Errol Morris
Production Company: Errol Morris Films
Summary/Review:

This documentary focuses on several residents of a Western Florida town that was had a population of 885 in 1980 when it was filmed and is considerably smaller now. There’s no narration, interview questions, or anything else to link the movie together. It’s simply a series of intercut monologues of people talking about what interests them. And in most cases these seem to be the type who love to spin a yarn and are happy to have a new audience, even if it’s a silent cameraman.

A turkey hunter shares tales of his greatest hunts and admiration for the “gobblers.” An old man shows off the unusual wild animals he keeps at his home. A pastor preaches on the word “therefore.” Andthe town’s only cop goes into detail of the daily drudgery of stopping speeding cars, before finally relating about the time someone shot at him through the window of his cruiser. Reviews of this film invariably refer to these people as eccentric, but I find them rather ordinary. The strength of this film is that it shows the human spirit in their unique but ordinary enthusiasms.

What I do find unsettling about this movie is that of the dozen or so people who speak, they’re almost entirely white men. One woman speaks in tandem with her husband. Children are absent. People of color are not seen at all. I don’t know what to make of this film, but if you’re going to call it Vernon, Florida, I’d expect a more representative cross-section of that town

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

You’ll know a thing or two about turkey hunting, I’m sure.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

If you really want to watch a documentary with a cast of eccentrics, see Cane Toads: An Unnatural History.

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

Movie Review: Unrest (2017) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “U” 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 “U” documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleUnrest
Release Date: 22 September 2017
Director: Jennifer Brea
Production Company: Shella Films
Summary/Review:

Jennifer Brea was leading an ordinary, active life when an illness left her with a crippling condition she could not recover from. Doctors told her that her condition was psychological but through connecting with people online she has myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), also commonly called chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).

Brea made this film which she directed from her own bed to document her experience with ME. She also interviews other people with ME and their families via Skype. The film combines these interviews with photos and home movies of the subjects in their healthier days.

With no medical cure available, Brea also shows the variety of remedies people with ME share with the community. These range from foods and dietary habits to relocating to drier climates. The film also depicts the worldwide #MillionsMissing protest in which empty shoes were left in public places to represent the 25% of people with ME who are bedridden.

This is an important but difficult movie to watch. I found myself angry. Angry at how the human body can betray people like Brea. Angry at the arrogance or ignorance of those in the medical community that allows them to justify not helping.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

If you weren’t aware of ME/CFS already, this movie is a primer on the disease. Millions of people worldwide have ME, more than Multiple Sclerosis. The vast majority are women which is the most likely reason for the stigma against people with ME. The film shows that historically women with similar symptoms were diagnosed with “hysteria” or “hypochondria.” ME also receives minimal attention in fundraising circles compared with other illnesses.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Visit #MEAction, a site for ME activism and resources for people with the disease.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Tower (2016) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “T” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “T” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Trekkies.

TitleTower
Release Date: March 13, 2016
Director: Keith Maitland
Production Company: Go-Valley
Summary/Review:

Tower pushes the limits of documentary film. It recreates the events of the 1966 University of Texas tower shootings using a hyper realistic form of animation with the words of survivors spoken by actors. It’s effective at putting the audience into the chaos of the massacre and showing the youth of most of the people involved. There are some neat effects such as animation of the KTBX radio mobile unit overlaid over archival film of the University of Texas campus. There are also cinematic asides such as depictions of visions a man may have seen as suffered from heat stroke or a women’s Day-Glo daydream about her romance with her now murdered boyfriend.

The woman, Claire Wilson, is one of the key figures in the movie. An 18-year-old student and 8 months pregnant, Wilson was the first person shot from the tower, killing her baby. Her boyfriend Thomas Frederick Eckman was killed instantly by the next shot. Wilson lay on the broiling pavement for nearly 90 minutes wondering if she would live. In one of the many acts of bravery that day, another student Rita Star Pattern ran into the line of fire and lay by Wilson, keeping her conscious and her spirits up. In one of the more stunning moments of the film as Wilson wonders if she would live the animation dissolves to reveal a very much alive Claire Wilson in her 60s.

Another key figure is John “Artly” Fox, a student who heard news of the shooting and not realizing the severity of what was happening, went to campus to check it out. Fox found himself in the midst of the terror, and with a friend would eventually run out to carry Wilson to safety. Other subjects include the police officers and curiously a bookstore employee who reach the tower and kill the shooter.

This was not the first mass shooting in US history, and not even the first school shooting, but in 1966 they was definitely not a public awareness of this kind of random violence in public places. This is evident in the ad hoc approach that first responders made in response to the shooting. The aftermath was also very different from what we’d expect today. There was no candlelight ceremony, no memorial service, no monument on the campus until 2006. In fact, the university was only closed for one day. The survivors did not speak of the event at all. Remarkably, Wilson and Fox did not meet again until the making of this movie, and they discuss how therapeutic it is for them to speak of the shooting.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

This documentary vividly recreates the terror of a mass shooting and depicts the long lasting trauma of crimes that have become all too familiar to us in the present day.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Read: Guns by Stephen King is a concise case for the necessary regulation of firearms in the United States, a call that’s fallen on deaf ears since at least 1966.

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

#AtoZChallenge Bonus: What to Watch Next


As I’ve noted through the A-to-Z challenge, my choices of documentaries to watch and review was largely informed by what was already in my Netflix queue with a little research to fill in the letters of the alphabet that were missing.  Because of my reliance on streaming services, there are a number of documentaries I’d like to watch that just weren’t available.  I also was limited to one per letter of the alphabet, of course.  Because of this, there’s also a present-day bias to most of the documentaries I’ve reviewed.  I think the oldest one was released in 1981, but most are from the 2000s.

Here are number of documentaries that are highly regarded, award-winning, or just plain interest me that I’d like to seek out for the future.  Some are hard to find, and I expect some will be hard to watch.

  • 20 Feet From Stardom
  • Amy
  • Anvil! The Story of Anvil
  • Bill Cunningham New York
  • Blackfish
  • The Central Park Five
  • Common Threads
  • Don’t Look Back
  • F for Fake
  • The Fog of War
  • Grey Gardens
  • Grizzly Man
  • Harlan County USA
  • High School
  • An Inconvenient Truth
  • Into Great Silence
  • King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery To Memphis
  • Kon-Tiki
  • Koyaanisqatsi
  • The Last Waltz
  • The Man With a Movie Camera
  • The Most Dangerous Man in America
  • Murderball
  • Muscle Shoals
  • Nanook of the North
  • Night and Fog
  • Pelotero
  • Point of Order
  • Sans Soleil
  • Searching for Sugarman
  • Shoah
  • The Silent World
  • The Square
  • The Thin Blue Line
  • The Times of Harvey Milk
  • Titicut Follies – this is one I think would be very challenging to watch
  • Unforgivable Blackness
  • Welcome to Leith
  • When the Levees Broke – I did actually watch the first two of the four parts of this Spike Lee film about Hurricane Katrina several years ago, but got sidetracked and never completed it.

What documentaries would you recommend watching?

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: ***

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: ***

Movie Review: Jane (2017) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “J” 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 J documentary I’ve reviewed.

Title: Jane
Release Date: October 20, 2017
Director: Brett Morgen
Production Company: National Geographic Studios
Summary/Review:

If there’s a reason that I am a person who likes documentaries it probably begins with my childhood when I loved “nature films.”  And the best nature films of that era were National Geographic Specials.  And the most memorable National Geographic Special debuted in 1984: “Among the Wild Chimpanzees.”  I watched it many times and learned to love and admire  the naturalist Jane Goodall and the chimpanzees she introduced, David Greybeard, Flo, Fifi, Flint, Goliath, and many others.

Jane is made using over 100 hours of film shot by Hugo van Lawick in the early 1960s during the period when Goodall was first accepted into the Kasakela chimpanzee community and discovered that chimpanzees used tools, ate meat, and carried out brutal violence on one another. The film is remarkable as we see Jane Goodall, looking younger than I’ve ever seen her in sharp, brilliant colors that look like they were shot yesterday. Goodall herself narrates the film in a series of interviews, scenes of her in the present day occasionally intercut with the archival footage.  What’s remarkable about this film is that it has a retrospective view of Goodall as an older person, yet the use of the archival film allows the story to unfold the process of discovery as if it were just happening.

That the 1960s footage focuses on Goodall as much as the chimpanzees is not surprising when one learns that Goodall and von Lawick fall in love and marry.  Goodall’s personal life is a key part of this documentary, with their initially joyful marriage, the birth of their son Grub and raising him at Gombe, and the strain on the marriage when neither Goodall nor von Lawick wish to give up their work to be together, thus ending in divorce.  Goodall’s growth and acceptance in the scientific community that discriminated against her as a woman, and a young woman with no higher education credentials at that, is also explored.

As a lover of all things Jane Goodall and chimpanzees, I’m the target audience for this documentary.  But I still think I’m objective enough to state that this is a remarkable documentary film that will educated and delight wide audiences.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

In an odd way this is kind of like a “reboot” or “prequel” that fills in the details before other documentaries about Jane Goodall and the chimpanzees of Gombe.  It also shows how her professional and personal lives were intertwined.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

In addition to digging up those old National Geographic Specials, I recommend reading Jane Goodall’s books, including Through a Window and Reason for Hope. You can also read the biography of Goodall by Dale Peterson.

Source: I watched this on demand through Xfinity cable.

Rating: ****