Movie Review: Summer of Soul (2021)


Title: Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Release Date: June 25, 2021
Director: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Production Company:Onyx Collective | Concordia Studio | Play/Action Pictures | LarryBilly Productions | Mass Distraction Media | RadicalMedia | Vulcan Productions
Summary/Review:

Summer of Soul is a documentary created from long-lost film footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival held in 1969 in Mount Morris Park (a few years before it was renamed Marcus Garvey Park).  The festival was held over six Sundays in the summer of 1969 to celebrate Black music and culture at a time of rising crime, drug abuse, and urban riots. The Harlem Cultural Festival was supported by Mayor John Lindsay, one of the last liberal Republicans who had a lot of support for New York’s Black voters, and the concerts seem to fit into his vision documented in the book Fun City.  However, the New York Police Department refused to participate in one of the concerts leading the Black Panther Party providing security.

While overlooked in American cultural history, the festival has become known as “the Black Woodstock” in comparison to the more famous weekend-long festival held in rural New York State the same summer.  I’d argue that the Harlem Cultural Festival had a far better slate of musical talent than Woodstock, and most definitely the stage and sound conditions in Harlem allowed for the artists to provide better performances.  The Harlem Cultural Festival can also be compared to the Wattstax (itself a riff on “Woodstock”) festival held in Los Angeles in August 1972 which is more well known partly due to the 1973 documentary film.

Questlove drew on 40 hours of concert footage, which was really impressively filmed, and also uses contemporary archival footage to complement the concert scenes.  Issues of concern in the Harlem community, and by extension Black Americans at large are discussed in line with the musical performances include the ongoing Civil Rights struggle, the rise of the term “Black” to replace Negro and the growing Black Pride and Pan-African movements, as well as the Apollo 11 moon landing that occured on one of the Sundays and did not impress concertgoers who were interviewed.

The movie also features interviews with participants and spectators of the Harlem Cultural Festival reflecting on the artists and their performances.  The 5th Dimension, a vocal group whose songs can be cheezy but nonetheless irresistible, talk about how their sound was derided in the Black community as sounding “too white.” But the group gets a warm reception from the throngs at the Harlem Cultural Festival and have never sounded better to my ears.

The Motown ideal of a group of men in tailored suits who perform with precision is challenged by Sly and the Family Stone.  The band not only has women playing instruments but it also has a white man on the drums, and a rather leisurely approach to dress and performance times.  Sly and the Family Stone appealed to the younger generation of Harlemites and were able to cross over to the counterculture.  I think that they are the only act that also performed at Woodstock, and near the end of Summer of Soul is a performance of “Higher,” a song that’s also significant in the Woodstock documentary.

Each of the six Sundays had a different musical focus so there’s a great diversity of musical styles including gospel, blues, soul, jazz, Afro-fusion, and funk. Performers who appear in the film include Stevie Wonder, Max Roach, Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers, David Ruffin (just after going solo from The Temptations), Gladys Knight and the Pips, B.B. King, Hugh Masekela, Nina Simone, and Tony Lawrence (the singer and concert promoter who organized the festival).  I like what Questlove has done in creating a document that provides the context and larger social issues related to the Harlem Cultural Festival.  But I’d also love to see a straight-up concert movie featuring all of these great artists.

Rating:  *****

TV Review: This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist (2021)


Title: This Is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist
Release Date: April 7, 2021
Creator : Colin Barnicle and Nick Barnicle
Director: Colin Barnicle
Episodes: 4
Production Company: TriBeCa Productions
Summary/Review:

I generally avoid True Crime media, but I am borderline obsessed with the theft of 13 works of art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.  I’ve read a book about it and listened to a podcast, and now I’ve watched this 4-part Netflix documentary. The documentary does a good job of reiterating the main points of what is known about the crime.  It’s good get the visuals to go with the story, such as diagrams of the museum that show where the thieves operated. And then there’s a mix of archival news footage with present-day interviews with many key figures, from museum guards to the museums director.

While being a very entertaining documentary it’s also highly sensationalist (which naturally adds to the entertainment value).  There’s a lot of building up of potential suspects before revealing that they couldn’t possibly have commited the crime.  The same footage is played over and over again, most hilariously a “dramatic reenactment” of a couple of high school students walking piggy back down Palace Road before the crime. The creators of the film are happy to rely on the false Hollywood image of Boston as a mobster-infested playground of vice. A lot of people commenting on the documentary are loving the Boston accents and characters which really don’t exist in present day Boston. In short, it’s a fun way to spend a couple of hours, but take it with a grain of salt.

My main takeaway from this series is that it is been way too long since I’ve been inside the glorious interiors of the Gardner Museum.  I will prioritize visiting there post-pandemic.  The series also gave us this tweet, which is a work of art of its own:

 

Classic Movie Review: Sans Soleil (1983)


Title: Sans Soleil
Release Date: March 2, 1983
Director: Chris Marker
Production Company: Argos Films
Summary/Review:

Sans Soleil is classified as a documentary but it’s really more of a series of vignettes and video essays arranged in an experimental matter.  It is the work of Chris Marker, creator of the equally experimental La Jetée, who presents himself as a fictional traveler who has sent his film to be described by the narrator (Alexandra Stewart). The original footage is largely from Japan, with a loose discussion of Japanese culture and customs, but also includes filmed in Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Iceland, Paris, and San Francisco.  The San Francisco segment is from a sequence that feels like a non-sequitur as the filmmaker visits sites from Vertigo.   I was up too late watching this film and started drifting off to sleep which I think only helped to accentuate the dreamlike qualities of this strange and wonderful film.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Knock Down the House (2019)


Title: Knock Down the House
Release Date: May 1, 2019
Director: Rachel Lears
Production Company: Jubilee Films | Atlas Films | Artemis Rising
Summary/Review:

In 2018, progressive candidates – especially people of color and women of all races – ran in great numbers for national offices.  Many of them had to face established Democratic incumbents who had grown used to not being challenged in primary elections.  This movie focus on four of them: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Amy Vilela of Nevada, Cori Bush of Missouri, and Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia.

Ocasio-Cortez is now the most famous of the four, and it’s interesting to see high-quality film of her early days of knocking doors and anxieties about running, long before she became the nationally-recognized AOC.  Her opponent, veteran congressional representative Joe Crowley comes off as a bigger jerk than I realized, refusing to attend an early debate, and speaking condescendingly of Ocasio-Cortez in a later debate.

I hope this isn’t consider a spoiler, but Ocasio-Cortez is the only one of the four who won her primary and general elections.  Nevertheless, the experience of the other three women in their campaigns is illuminating.  Vilela is a single mother who lost her daughter Shalynne to a treatable illness that wasn’t addressed because she didn’t have health insurance.  This makes her very impassioned for healthcare for all.  Bush is mobilized by the Ferguson movement to take on the complacent incumbent  Lacy Clay, a member of a family dynasty that has held the seat since 1969.  Swearengin comes from West Virginia’s coal country and is mobilized by the many people who’ve contracted cancer from the poisonous environment.

The movie is a very honest, emotional, and inspirational look at these candidates and their campaigns, even if most of them ended in loss.  The movie definitely documents the beginning of a movement. Swearengin is the Democratic candidate for Senate in 2020 and Bush is again challenging Lacy Clay in the Missouri 1st Congressional District primary.  Hundreds of other progressive candidates are running to against complacent Democrats and downright cruel Republicans. So get out and vote for them!

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Birth of a Movement (2017)


TitleBirth of a Movement
Release Date: February 6, 2017
Director: Susan Gray and Bestor Cram
Production Company: Northern Light Productions
Summary/Review:

This documentary is about William Monroe Trotter, a civil rights leader and newspaper editor in Boston in the early 20th century.  Raised in a well-to-do family and Harvard educated, Trotter advocated for more radical civil rights activism than his peers such as Booker T. Washington.  He participated in founding the NAACP, but ultimately did not find it radical enough.

The documentary is also about D.W. Griffith, the groundbreaking filmmaker, who made the first Hollywood blockbuster in 1915.  Released 50 years after the end of the Civil War and based on a novel  called The Clansman, the film was eventually re-titled Birth of Nation. The movie depicts the Civil War through a sympathetic portrayal of the insurgent Southerners.  The post-war Reconstruction is depicted as a time when bestial, sexually-aggressive Black men (portrayed by white actors in blackface) ran rampant until the Ku Klux Klan restores order.

The movie gained widespread acclaim and opposition as Griffith opened it in cities across the country, and even held the first ever film screening in the White House for President Woodrow Wilson.  Knowing that Boston had a history of supporting abolition and Black civil rights, Griffith targeted the city for an opening knowing that success there would lead to widespread distribution of the film.  Trotter organized massive protests against the film’s opening at Tremont Theatre across from Boston Common.  While the protests failed to stop the screening, Trotter’s protests did invigorate a new direction for Black civil rights activism.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: When We Were Kings (1996) #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: When We Were Kings
Release Date: October 25, 1996
Director: Leon Gast
Production Company: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment
Synopsis:

On October 30, 1974, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman met in a heavyweight title bout in Kinshasa, Zaire, an event nicknamed “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali, an Olympic gold medalist and heavyweight champion in the 1960s, lost three prime years of his career after he refused to be conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War.  Meanwhile, Foreman, also an Olympic gold medalist, was younger with a strong punch and a history of overpowering wins over the top boxers of the era.

Holding the fight in Zaire was a historic choice as the event became a coming-out party for post colonial Africa.  In addition to the boxing match, which was viewed on tv by a record 1 billion people worldwide, there was a concert featuring top African musicians alongside African American stars like James Brown and B.B. King.  The fight itself is delayed after Foreman injures his eye in training, allowing everyone to spend more time in Zaire.

The documentary captures a fascinating intersection of sport, culture, civil rights, and politics.  There is a great amount of archival footage from the time, including Ali in awe of flying on an airplane with a an all-Black crew for the first time. In addition to the historic film and photographs, the film includes interviews with Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Spike Lee, Malik Bowens and Thomas Hauser who also provide narration for important events.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I was flying home from Great Britain in 1998 and watched this movie on the seatback television on Virgin Atlantic. I was so engrossed that the flight attendant chastised me to turn the screen off since the plane was approaching landing.  I later rewatched it on video so I could find out what happened at the end.

What Did I Remember?:

I think I remembered it pretty well.

What Did I Forget?:

It was less about forgetting things and more that in the intervening years I’ve learned more about Ali, and some of the musical artists and interviewees in the movie so things seemed more significant.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

You don’t have to care about boxing to like this movie.  This documentary captures the feel and excitement of a major event in the history of Africa and really the first big media event that focused on African people and African descendants as the key figures.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

The lack of interviews with Ali and Foreman at the time this movie was made is a big loss. Also, most of the people they did interview were old white men which is kind of jarring with the African diaspora theme.  The movie leans in favor of Ali, which is a bit of a shame since Foreman is a very interesting figure, one who would reinvent his public persona by the time this movie was released in the 1990s.  Throughout the movie, Ali leads Zaireans in the chant of “Ali Bomaye” which means “Ali, kill him.”  One of my favorite parts of the movie is a clip where Foreman says he’d not want people to chant “Foreman Bomaye” but instead “Foreman loves Africa.”

Is It a Classic?:

Yes. This is an all-time great documentary and sports film.

Rating: ****1/2

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with W:

  1. When Harry Met Sally…
  2. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
  3. Winged Migration
  4. The Wizard of Oz
  5. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

What is your favorite movie starting with W?  What is your guess for my X movie (Hint: my “X” movie will actually start with a number and involves a submarine)?  Let me know in the comments!

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.
Summary/Review:

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: ****

TV Review: The Imagineering Story (2019)


Title: The Imagineering Story
Release Date: 2019
Writer: Mark Catalena
Director: Leslie Iwerks
Production Company:  ABC Studios | Iwerks & Co.
Summary/Review:

This documentary focuses on the history of the people behind the Walt Disney theme parks.  Walt Disney Imagineering – originally WED Enterprises – was founded in 1952 as Walt Disney’s engineering division tasked with designing Disneyland.  This is an in-house production, so naturally there’s a promotional element to the series that toots Disney’s own horn.  But I am impressed that the show does acknowledge mistakes and setbacks in Imagineering history.

The director, Leslie Iwerks, is a third generation Disney employee.  Her grandfather Ub Iwerks worked with Walt in the early days and co-created Mickey Mouse while her father Don Iwerks was a technician and executive from the 1950s to 1980s.  Highlights of the series include interviews with prominent figures – both archival and for the show – such as Bob Gurr, Herb Ryman, X Atencio, Harriet Burns, Harper Goff, Marty Sklar, David Snyder, Blaine Gibson, Tom K. Morris, Kevin Rafferty, Peggie Fariss, Glenn Barker, and Katie Olson, Tony Baxter, Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, Eddie Sotto, Tim Delaney, Joe Rohde, Ali Rubenstein, and Kevin Rafferty.  Most of those names are men, but the series makes an admirable effort to acknowledge the role of women in Imagineering.  A powerful moment comes in an interview with Imagineer Kim Irvine when she talks about her mother Leota Toombs, an Imagineering designer who became famous as the model for Madame Leota in the Haunted Mansion.  Irvine talks about still being able to hear her mother’s voice every time she visits the attraction.

I felt that there was a lot of innovation and creativity in the early days of WED Enterprises that the years covered in the first two episodes could easily have been stretched out into three (or more) episodes.  That being said, the early Imagineers have appeared in many other “behind the scenes” programs about Disney Parks, so it is good that the newer generations are getting a lot of attention in this series.

Dan Heaton at the Tomorrow Society website has written comprehensive summaries and reviews of each episode that I’ve linked below and I recommended reading them should you be more interested in the topic.  Here are my short summaries of each episode:

  1. The Happiest Place on Earth” – (1952-1966) The creation and expansion of Disneyland during Walt Disney’s lifetime and Imagineering’s work at the 1964 World’s Fair.
  2. What Would Walt Do?” – (1967-1983) After Walt’s death, Roy Disney oversees the opening of the Walt Disney World resort in Florida, and Imagineers create EPCOT as a theme park rather than a city. Simultaneous with EPCOT, the first international park is open in Tokyo. The success of these big projects is overshadowed by the lack of future plans and mass layoffs.
  3. The Midas Touch” – (1984-1994) Michael Eisner and Frank Wells takeover as leaders of Disney and shake up the parks with attractions tied to hipper franchises unrelated to Disney, and open the Disney-MGM Studios.  The episode ends with the initial financial failure of Euro Disneyland and Well’s death in a helicopter crash.
  4. Hit or Miss” – (1995-2004) The Disney company attempts unprecedented expansion but the failure of Euro Disneyland also leads to cost-cutting and a decline in quality.  Successes include the Disney Cruise Line, Animal Kingdom, and Tokyo DisneySea, while Disney’s California, Walt Disney Studios Park and Hong Kong Disneyland are serious disappointments.
  5. A Carousel of Progress” – (2004-2016) Bob Iger takes over leadership of Disney.  Projects include rebuilding California Adventure with a Cars Land expansion, and improving the undersized parks in Paris and Hong Kong.  Imagineers also provide controversial overlays to fan favorites like Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, and it’s a small world.
  6. “To Infinity and Beyond” -Building a new, culturally-appropriate Magic Kingdom in Shanghai takes up the first half of this episode.  The rest focuses on new, fully-immersive experiences in the American parks: Mission Breakout, Pandora, and Galaxy’s Edge.

Movie Review: Virunga (2014) #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. Previous “V” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Vernon, Florida.

Title: Virunga
Release Date: April 17, 2014
Director: Orlando von Einsiedel
Production Company: Violet Films | Grain Media
Summary/Review:

Virunga documents the efforts of park rangers at Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to conserve the habitat of several endangered species, including the few surviving mountain gorillas.  From the start, the filmmakers embed the story in Africa’s history of colonialism, corporate exploitation, and war, particularly the recurring conflicts that have erupted since the Rwandan genocide in 1994.  The park rangers are heavily armed, and we learn early on that 130 of them have died in the course of their duty.  Parallel scenes depict a funeral for a park ranger and the funeral of several mountain gorillas slaughtered by poachers.

The movie depicts ranger Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo at work and the director of the Virunga National Park, Emmanuel de Merode, overseeing how best to deploy limited resources.  We also spend time with the very warm and loving André Bauma and the orphan gorillas he cares for.  Current events change the focus of the film as there are even more grave threats to the park. First, the British corporation Soco International gains concessions for oil extraction within the park. Katembo and French investigative journalist Mélanie Gouby both meet with and secretly recorded Soco officials in order to uncover corruption and protect the park.  Next, an uprising by a rebel group called the M23, brings armed conflict right to the borders of the park.

Virunga is an absolutely visually-stunning film that ties together a nature documentary with current events and a dramatic throughline worthy of a scripted drama.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

Nature documentaries set in Africa are often from the perspective of a white outsider, a David Attenborough or aJane Goodall.  Virunga stands out as a story that primarily offers the point of view of Congolese people and their concern for their national park and its animals.  That civil conflict and corporate malfeasance are so directly tied into the survival of the park also is unique in demonstrating that protecting endangered species is not separate from the greater human experience.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

The Virunga movie website offers several options to take action and help preserve the national park and its animals.

Source: Netflix

Rating: ****1/2

 


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

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.

Movie Review: The Shot Heard ‘Round the World (2001)


TitleThe Shot Heard ‘Round the World
Release Date: July 11, 2001
Director: ?
Production Company: HBO Sports
Summary/Review:

This documentary goes back in time to when New York City was the capital of baseball. The Brooklyn Dodgers fans hated the New York Giants, and the Giants fans hated the Dodgers, and they both hated the Yankees.  The 1951 season was pivotal in that the Dodgers took a huge lead in the National League and went on cruise control.  Late in the season the Giants went on a hot streak and tied the Dodgers on the last day of the season, leading to a best-of-three playoff.

In addition to the heated rivalry among players and fans of the teams, the documentary focuses on the Giants’ elaborate plot to steal signs during home games in the latter half of the season.  The jury is still out on how much this gamesmanship helped them catch the Dodgers since statistics show that their batting average dropped, pitching improved, and they won more games on the road than at home after it began.

The three game playoff is analyzed from several angles.  Many involved seem to point to Dodgers’ manager Charlie Dressen as the real goat for his poor decisions in game.  Special attention is given to the life stories and game experiences of the two pivotal figures of the final playoff game, Bobby Thompson who hit the pennant-winning “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” and Ralph Branca, the Dodgers’ relief pitcher who surrendered the home run on his second pitch in the game.

Interviewees include ballplayers like Branca, Thompson, Willie Mays and Duke Snider as well as a number of fans including celebrities like Jerry Lewis and Larry King.

Rating: ***1/2