Movie Review: Descendant (2022)

Title: Descendant
Release Date: October 21, 2022
Director:Margaret Brown
Production Company: Higher Ground Productions | Participant |  Take One Five Entertainment

Descendant is a historical documentary that resulted from spending several years with the people of Africatown, a Black American community in Mobile, Alabama. The residents of Africatown are descendants of the enslaved Africans transported on the Clotilda, the last slave ship to arrive in the United States.  Congress had made the importation of enslaved people illegal in 1808, but the Clotilda arrived in Mobile Bay with 110 persons in 1860 after local enslaver Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could smuggle slaves into the country from the Kingdom of Dahomey.  After offloading the cargo, the ship’s captain had the Clotilda burned and scuttled to cover the evidence.

After the Civil War, 32 of the West Africans came together to form the Africatown, including Cudjo Kazoola Lewis.  Cudjo lived until the 1930s and his story was documented by Zora Neale Hurston in the 1920s which was finally published as Barracoon in 2018.  Descendant includes people of Africatown reading passages of Hurston’s book aloud as well as some archival footage that Hurston made of Cudjo.

The main focus of the documentary is locating the wreck of the Clotilda, which was identified in 2019.  The residents of Africatown deal with the tension that comes from the joy of finding a connection with the past  the pain of their ancestors, and the fear that they will not be able claim their own history.  Additionally, the current standard of living for Africatown’s residents is affected by it being surrounded by industrial development which has contributed to higher rates of cancer.  If that’s not outrageous enough, the land that is leased to the industries is owned by the Meaher family, the descendants of the same man who enslaved the people of the Clotilda!

This is a powerful movie and I think Brown does a great job of capturing various point of view and allowing the viewer to sit with the discomfort of unsettled issues.  The movie doesn’t have a lot of voiceovers or talking heads to explain what’s going on but spends a lot of time with the camera following in-depth conversations among community members and with outsiders.  I was also excited that one of the community members and activists is Cleon Jones, famous for playing with the New York Mets in the 60s and 70s.

If you have Netflix, I highly recommend watching this film.

Rating:  ****

Movie Review: 35 Up (1991)

Title: 35 Up
Release Date:August 29, 1991
Director: Michael Apted
Production Company: Granada Television

It feels natural to refer to the participants in The Up Series as children, but 35 Up is the point where there are more films showing them as adults than as children.  In fact, they are settling into adulthood with children, new homes, settled career paths, and the passing of parents being common themes.  This film brings the series into the 1990s, which as I often joke with my kids, feels like yesterday. And yet, as recent as 1991 feels to me, this is actually the halfway point of The Up Series thus far, with four more films to come.

Charles is still not participating, sending only a photograph, as he now works as a producer for the BBC but does not want to appear in front of the camera.  Symon is also missing, as is Peter, who suffered a lot of blowback for his rather anodyne criticism of Margaret Thatcher in 28 Up. John, who presumably approves of Thatcherism, is back after missing the previous film.  He’s married now and a barrister and mainly appears to promote his charity to support people in Bulgaria.  He does seem like less of a prat.  Andrew, the other boy from a prosperous background, has settled in a less flashy but comfortable life also working in law, and father to two sons.  He even speaks out in favor of more taxes for social services! Suzy is also doing well in her marriage to solicitor Rupert and they now have children, although Suzy remains wary of revealing too much.

Tony is doing well and his wife Debbie is more prominent in the interviews.  I like that we get to see both of them working as taxi drivers in London.  Paul’s wife Susan also has more to say in this film, although she mostly talks about Paul.  You have to feel for Paul because his lack of confidence is so strong after his troubled childhood, but he nevertheless seems to have a strong marriage, loves his children, and skill as a bricklayer (even if he fails to run his own company).  Nick’s wife Jackie appeared prominently in 28 Up, but didn’t like how she appeared and that viewers thought their marriage was doomed so she sits this one out.  Nick, on his own, still remains one of the most observant participants on how the whole experiment affects the people involved and is good at sharing his experience. I continue to be surprised that Jackie, Lynn, and Sue are still being grouped together for their profiles, although their different stories are starting to emerge.

Two of the participants remain unmarried.  Bruce, who seems so kind and thoughtful, has become a teacher in Bangladesh, somehow fulfilling his childhood goal of becoming a missionary in a less colonialist way.  Neil, still struggling with mental health and stability, nevertheless seems to be in a slightly better place having found a place to live in a council estate on the Shetland Islands and engaging with the community by directing pantomime shows. The stories of Bruce and Neil are ones that have the most intrigue of what comes next.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: 28 Up (1984)

Title: 28 Up
Release Date: 20 November 1984
Director: Michael Apted
Production Company: Granada Television

28 Up is the movie that Roger Ebert put on his ten favorite movies list. I’ve kind of dodged the issue by putting the entire series as one entry into my personal top ten, but 28 Up is definitely a landmark of the series.  All the participants have come into their own as adults in this entry and we’re beginning to see the ways that they’ve been molded by their childhood and how they’ve defied societal expectations.

Tony, the working class kid from the East End, has become quite prosperous as a London taxi driver.  When he was younger he wanted to be a jockey, a taxi driver, and an actor, and by 28 he has achieved all of those things.  The fact that he wasn’t a very successful jockey or that he only plays bit parts in TV shows doesn’t bother him as he’s achieved his goal, which I think is a good way of looking at life.  On the other end of the spectrum, Bruce, who has a child at a militaristic boarding school wanted to be a missionary, has instead become a socialist and now teaches at Tony’s old school in the East End.

Two of the wealthier boys, John and Charles, declined to participate in this movie (Charles will never return).  The remaining wealthy boy Andrew seems, maybe not humbled, but more grounded than in previous episodes and married to “a Yorkshire lass.” Suzy is also happily married and a parent after being completely cynical about those things in 21 Up.  In fact, many of the participants are married and interviews with the wives (and Suzy’s husband) give new perspectives to Britons of their generation.  I know that Tony’s wife Debbie practically becomes a participant in future films, but her first appearance here was actually less significant than I remembered.

Probably the biggest disappointment is that three of the four women – Jackie, Lynn, and Sue – are still being interviewed and profiled together.  Apted would receive a lot of criticism (including from the participants) for his sexist angle in portraying the working class women and it is fully deserved.  I know from later installments that all three of these women have fascinating insights so it’s disappointing that they don’t get an adequate share of time.

Finally there’s the issue of Neil, whose life story is among the most compelling.  In this film we see him living as an itinerant in rural Scotland, clearly suffering from mental illness and isolated from society.  Many viewers in 1984 feared that Neil would die or take his own life, but later films showed that Neil is full of surprises.

Rating: *****


Movie Review: 21 Up (1977)

Title: 21 Up
Release Date: 9 May 1977
Director: Michael Apted
Production Company: Granada Television

There are a lot of firsts for the Up Series in 21 Up.  For the first time, each of the subjects will get a discrete portion of the documentary instead of everyone being mixed up.  There are also more probing questions with time allowed for in-depth responses as is suitable for the participants now that they’re adults (although Michael Apted still hasn’t built the rapport to the point where some of his questions don’t come of as intrusive or condescending).

There are also a number of lasts in 21 Up. This is the final time that the participants are brought together in a large group event (at least, on film) and wow, are those conversations interesting and I would’ve liked to see more of them.  Nick analyzing the entire experiment is particularly keen.  This is also the final movie in which all 14 individuals will participate (goodbye Charles!).

This movie is very transitional as we start to see how those children we saw in the first two films are shaking out on their first hesitant steps into adulthood, and beginning to set patterns for their future lives.  But there will always be surprises.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: 7 Plus Seven (1970)

Title 7 Plus Seven
Release Date: 15 December 1970
Director: Michael Apted
Production Company: Granada Television

I’ve kind of accepted that 7 Plus Seven is the Ugly Duckling of The Up Series. Michael Apted takes over the directorial reigns, but doesn’t seem quite ready to connect with teenagers while asking them questions.  To be honest, it’s a fool’s errand since 14 is an age where you’re not going to find many kids willing to be expository about their life.  Since there was still no plan to revisit the subjects every seven years, Apted has also not settled on the structure he would adopt for the latter films.  It’s basically, here’s the kids at seven and here are the kids now.

All that being said, it’s still a wonderful and necessary film.  For some reason Seven Up! feels ancient but the social change of the mid-to-late 60s makes this children in this film feel like they are living in more contemporary times.  Apted once again asks them about class, race, religion, education and career goals, dating, and what they think of the other kids involved.  Some of the kids are parroting what the adults in their lives have taught them but others are really thinking things out.  A surprising number of them support the Conservative Party which I guess is why Margaret Thatcher rose to power once they were old enough to vote.

The absolute highlight of this movie is when Suzy is talking about social class on her father’s estate and we see her dog slaughter a rabbit in the background.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Seven Up!(1964)

Today I turn 49 years old.  Since that is an age divisible by seven, I’ve decided to revisit The Up Series, the great documentary series from the UK that checks in with a group of people every seven years starting back with this TV special in 1964.

I first discovered this series back in 2005 when I checked out the box set from the library.  Susan and I binged all the movies in less than a week and then went and saw the most recent release at the time, 49 Up, at the movie theater.  I’ve kept with additional installments over the years but this is a good opportunity to revisit the earlier films.

Title: Seven Up!
Release Date: 5 May 1964
Director: Paul Almond
Production Company: Granada Television

Director Paul Almond created this one off TV special for the Granada Television series World In Action to focus on a group of seven-year-old children, the generation who would provide “the shop steward and the executive of the year 2000 .” Twenty children were brought together for a visit to the London Zoo, a special party, and time to play in an adventure playground (none of these things would past muster with today’s helicopter parents). The children represent various parts of England including London’s East End, the post Kensington borough, the Liverpool suburbs, a farm in Yorkshire, and a charity orphanage.

The experiment is flawed from the beginning as the 14 participants chosen to be documented in the ensuing films, only 4 of them are girls.  Michelle, a girl from the East End who is featured prominently in the first installment but for some reason never returned in the subsequent films.  There also is only one non-white participant, Symon, who has an immigrant Black father and a white English mother.

That aside, it is an interesting gathering of children.  The interviewers ask a series of questions about issues such as interest in the opposite sex, money and class, racism, and violence.  The answers are as adorable as you might expect and surprisingly insightful.  The upper class boys Andrew, Charles, and John, naming the prep schools, public schools, and universities that they plan to attend (right on down to specific Oxbridge colleges) is alarming.  But then again, working class Tony is always spot on about what he’s going to accomplish in the future too.

Highlights of the movie remain:

  • Tony falling flat on his face
  • Andrew licking his knee while being interviewed
  • Nick refusing to answer questions about girls
  • Bright-eyed Neil talking about how he dies when playing make believe
  • Paul not wanting to get married because his wife might make him eat greens
  • Also, I noticed this time that at the party the kids are actually drinking from bottles of 7-UP.  Great product placement!

Michael Apted worked as a researcher on this film, and by 1970 was wondering how these kids were doing as teenagers.  But we’ll get to that tomorrow!

Rating: *****

Movie Review: For Sama (2019)

Title: For Sama 
Release Date: March 11, 2019
Director: Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts
Production Company: PBS Frontline | Channel 4 News | ITN Productions

Journalist Waad Al-Kateab filmed her everyday life for five years as she finishes her university studies, falls in love, gets married, and has a baby.  The difference from other personal documentaries of this sort is that she filmed this in Aleppo during the Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War, and the ultimate fall of Aleppo to the forces of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Her husband Hamza was one of the few doctors to remain in Aleppo during the civil war and Waad’s film is unflinching in its depiction of the traumatic violence suffered by the patients brought to the hospital. And yet the movie is also a portrait of hope and perseverance of the people of Aleppo who somehow retain good humor under constant attack.

The movie as framed as a message to Sama, Waad and Hamza’s baby born during the war, explaining why her parents needed to stay.  You may question why anyone would keep a small child in the war zone, although we know the fate of Syrian refugee children was one that also could end in death.  At times I  feel that Waad might have gone to far in filming the brutal violence on people’s bodies and the grief of people watching their family die.  But it is nevertheless necessary to demonstrate the full horror of war and tyranny.  I think this is an important movie that everyone should see but be prepared as it is not easy to watch.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks (2022)

Title: The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks
Release Date: March 15, 2022
Director: Reginald Harkema
Production Company: Blue Ant Media

This two-part documentary on Amazon Prime Video is tied in with the release of a new season of The Kids in the Hall, the first in 27 years!  I’m not going to review that series but if you’re a fan of the Kids in the Hall, watch it because it’s excellent and they haven’t missed a step.  The documentary features interviews with all five Kids – Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney,  and Scott Thompson – as well as producer Lorne Michaels, writer Paul Bellini, and celebrity fans like Mike Myers and Eddie Izzard, among others.  It also is rich in archival footage and clips from various KITH all projects.

I learned that Dave & Kevin were the closest partnership in the group and had started performing together in Toronto.  Meanwhile Bruce and Mark began working together in Calgary before moving to Toronto.  The four of them formed the Kids in the Hall (which Mark wanted to call The Audience) and then Scott Thompson willed himself into the group.  I also learned that Scott had survived a mass shooting at his school in Ontario as a child which has informed his work.  KITH also made a miniseries in 2012 called Death Comes to Town which I’d never even heard of.

This is a solid and informative documentary.  But it does strike me as an extremely conventional approach for a documentary about an unconventional comedy team.  At least Paul Bellini wears a towel during some of his interviews.


Rating: ***

Documentary Movie Review: Zion (2018) #atozchallenge

Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Documentaries starting with the letter Documentaries starting with the letter Z that I have previously reviewed include: 

Release Date: August 10, 2018
Director: Floyd Russ
Production Company: Netflix

Zion Clark is a young man who was born without legs who finds his place as a wrestler in high school.  It pretty much leans into the inspiration cliches of both movies about sports and movies about people with disabilities. Which is fine, it is well done for an 11-minute film.  But I do wish it had been more educational.  Like, tell us a little bit about wrestling and how Zion adapts his body type to competing in the sport.

Rating: ***

Documentary Movie Review: 1991: The Year Punk Broke (1992) #atozchallenge

Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

I guess I’m fudging things again by using a letter from the subtitle for Y but I really wanted to watch this one and there weren’t many good options for Y.  You could just say I’m being punk rock!

Documentaries starting with the letter Documentaries starting with the letter Y that I have previously reviewed include: 

Title: 1991: The Year Punk Broke
Release Date:  24 December 1992
Director: Dave Markey
Production Company: We Got Power Productions | Sonic Life

This concert/tour film follows Sonic Youth along with Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Babes in Toyland, Gumball and The Ramones as they tour festivals in Ireland, England, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands in the end of August of 1991.  This occured as the same time as the hard line coup against Gorbachev in the U.S.S.R and more personally right when I started my first year in college.  While I was never a big fan of Sonic Youth (nor did I dislike them), they were at the vanguard of what was called “college rock” at the time and soon would be “alternative rock,” so this film is a time capsule of an exciting period in my life.

There’s a homemade feel to the documentary that seems appropriate to an ethos that was against “selling out.” The concert footage is quite good and I like the disorienting effect of editing together performances of the same songs from different shows.  The montages of the artists and their colleagues goofing off around Europe are also entertaining.  There is however an element of cringe to how people behave that reminds me how stupid we were back then.  Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth is particularly insufferable.  On the other hand, while Sonic Youth may seem to  represent the voice of my generation, while researching this movie I learned that mindblowing fact that the members of the band were born in the 1950s.  They’re all Baby Boomers who are closer in age to my parents than they are to me! I guess they’re literally Sonic Youthful!

Rating: ***1/2