ZAPPA (2020, doc)

November 26, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Frank Zappa’s music was never considered mainstream. His songs were rarely played on the radio. In his entire career, he charted one Top 40 song, and that was driven by his daughter. To some, he was known as a political activist and a spokesperson first, and a musician second. At times he was an enigma and a rebel or maverick, and he’s even described as trying not to write a hit song. Alex Winter may be best known as Bill in the “Bill and Ted” movies, and he’s also a successful documentary filmmaker (DEEP WEB, 2015). This time out he turns his focus on the career and life of Frank Zappa.

One of the first things we see is Frank Zappa taking us on a tour of his personal vault located at his Laurel Canyon home. It’s an enormous private collection that captures quite a bit of history from the 1960’s forward. Zappa points out some of his favorites including his jams with Eric Clapton in the basement and music with his friend Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet). These are original masters of Zappa’s work over the decades, and he was nothing if not prolific, releasing 62 albums during his career, and another 53 following his death in 1993.

Acting as bookends for the film are clips of Zappa’s 1991 live show in Prague, where he is helping celebrate the withdrawal of Russian troops. It’s also his last guitar performance on stage. An incredible amount of footage exists of Zappa pontificating on one subject or another, sometimes on television, sometimes in front of news cameras, and even in front of a Senate committee. His music and his life was usually focused on social commentary, opinions not always popular with the establishment.

It’s very interesting to hear Zappa talk about his early influences, particularly how he never outgrew his love for editing – something that began with the 8mm films at his childhood homes. He didn’t begin playing music until his early teenage years, and it was orchestral before rock. He always considered himself a composer, and what a prolific writer he was. It’s an unusual film in that it not only tracks the timeline of his career, but we are privileged to hear Zappa’s opinions directly from him thanks to the unending recordings and archival footage available.

Mr. Winter includes much more than Zappa. We hear from musicians that made up the Mothers of Invention, including Steve Vai, Bunk Gardner, Ian Underwood, and an emotional Ruth Underwood. We also hear from renowned Rock n Roll groupie Pamela Des Barres, and Frank’s wife Gail. It’s noted that Zappa disbanded the Mothers of Invention in 1969, and there were many iterations that played afterwards. Some of the prominent names included violinist Jean Luc Ponty, and Howard Kaylan and Marc Volman of The Turtles fame. There is even a terrific clip of John Lennon and Yoko Ono performing on stage with Zappa and his band … shocking for anyone not familiar with Yoko’s infamous primal screams.

One of the best stories included is how Zappa’s biggest hit came to be. A note from his young daughter, Moon Unit, introducing herself to her frequently absent father led to a collaboration on the single “Valley Girl”, which cracked the Top 40. There are also stories on his dreaded hosting of “Saturday Night Live”, as well as pieces on the Kronos Quartet, London Symphony Orchestra, and Ensemble Modern performing his music. In 1979, Zappa became the first musician to go completely independent with his own label, and this is only a few years after he was seriously injured by being attacked on stage.

Some may recall Zappa’s appearance in front of the Senate committee in regards to the drive to include Parental warning labels on published music. Zappa viewed this as nothing more than censorship, and he was one of the few musicians to fight the battle against the opponents led by the wife of White House Chief of Staff James Baker. Zappa was certainly a man of principles, and had no time for those who weren’t. It was pancreatic cancer that took his life, but a life well lived it was. His time as a symbol of freedom in Czechoslovakia is proof that he never shied away from standing up for what he believed in. So like his music or not – he surely didn’t care. But he respected those who cared for society and freedom. Filmmaker Winter does a nice job with a two hour run time, when the material exists for a 4 part series.

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THE MYSTERY OF D.B. COOPER (doc, 2020)

November 24, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Nearly 50 years have passed and it remains the only unsolved Air Piracy case in America. For HBO, documentarian John Dower (MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE, 2017) chronicles the investigation and four main suspects in the mystifying D.B. Cooper case. It’s a case that has fascinated people and frustrated authorities for five decades.

On November 24, 1971 – Thanksgiving Eve – a man using the name Dan Cooper (a communication mix-up caused him to be later identified as D.B. Cooper) boarded a Northwest Airlines flight in Portland. Once in the air, he handed Flight Attendant Tina Mucklow a note informing that he had a bomb and was hijacking the plane. His demands were simple: $200,000 in cash and 4 parachutes. In Seattle, his demands were met. He released the passengers, keeping only the crew on board. At an altitude of 10,000 feet, Cooper jumped from the Boeing 727 under the cover of darkness and rain over a heavily forested area. As far as authorities are concerned, he’s never been seen again.

Some presume he died on the jump, while others turned him into a folk hero. He was credited with an act of defiance during times of economic hardships for many. The “Cult of Cooper” was born, as was one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. Director Dower interviews some key folks and shows clips of interviews and statements of interested parties who have since passed. The structure of the film revolves around the four main suspects … those who have not been ruled out. Segments are devoted to each of the four: Duane Weber, Robert/Barb Dayton, LD Cooper, and Richard McCoy.

Personal testimony and recollections from relatives and associates of these four leave us with little doubt that a case can be made for each, and those going on camera absolutely believe “theirs” is the infamous DB Cooper. We hear from Duane Weber’s wife who states her husband confessed, “I’m Dan Cooper” on his death bed. Robert/Barb Dayton was one of the first me to have a sex change operation, and his neighbors provide details on Dayton’s own confession, “I am Dan Cooper”. Marla Cooper was 8 years old when the hijacking even took place, and she recalls specifics of her Uncle LD Cooper, and being told “We hijacked the plane” and “We’re rich!” Lastly, Richard McCoy was arrested 5 months later for a copycat hijacking. His pattern was quite similar and his facial features almost identical to the DB Copper sketch.

Tina Mucklow was the flight attendant on the hijacked flight and she provides details of that fateful event, as do other members of the flight crew, a passenger who observed most of what happened on the first flight, and a retired FBI agent who worked the case. Two authors, Bruce Smith (“DB Cooper and the FBI: A Case Study of America’s Only Unsolved Skyjacking”, 2016) and Geoffrey Gray (“Skyjack: The Hunt for DB Cooper”, 2011) provide significant insight into the research they have conducted into the investigations. There seems to be plenty of criticism of the FBI in regards to lost evidence (cigarette butts from the flight, fingerprints), and a delayed ground search that gave Cooper a 40 hour head start.

Some reenactments are used here, but a significant portion is filmed interviews with those who have something to say about the investigation, or who DB Cooper might be. The 1980 discovery of 3 bundles of cash with matching serial numbers on the banks of the Columbia River is discussed, and a possible explanation is provided in one of the segments. It’s likely you’ll come away from this as baffled as the authorities have been for 50 years, but also loaded with some good fodder for holiday conversation (via Zoom, of course).

Premieres November 25, 2020 on HBO

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COLLECTIVE (2020, doc)

November 19, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. You likely recall seeing the horrific video. It was 2015 when a fire swept through a Bucharest club where a band was performing live. Captured on a cell phone, the video shows the crowd desperately trying to escape through the main door. 27 people died that night and more than 100 others suffered injuries and burns. It was a terrible tragedy, and yet more tragedy unfolded over the next few weeks, and that’s the beginning of the story told here by director Alexander Nanau.

As recovering patients filled the burn wards and Intensive Care Units at Romania’s hospitals, something horrible began to happen. 37 more people died. These were not folks that were admitted with a life-threatening status, instead it was bacterial infections that were responsible. What is the one thing we take for granted at hospitals? Yes, cleanliness. As the media began to question this death spree, Romania’s Health Minister, Nicolae Banicioiu, a Social Democrat, began boasting about the country’s medical facilities. It’s at this same time that Catalin Tolontan, the editor of “Sports Gazette”, was investigating the cause of these deaths. What we witness is investigative journalism at its best … in the midst of despicable actions by those people we should be able to trust.

Mr. Tolontan and his team slowly peel back the layers, and discover massive fraud and corruption. A whistleblower leads the reporters down a trail towards Hexi Pharma and its owner, Dan Condrea. Protests and social upheaval follow, as the current politicians continue to spew lies. When tests prove unsterile hospitals due to diluted disinfectants, and that patients were denied or delayed transfers to proper facilities in Vienna or Germany due to pride and greed, outrage ensues … leading to the ouster of Banicioiu and others.

Former patients’ rights activist Vlad Voiculescu is named temporary Health Minister, and he permits total transparency by allowing director Nanau unfettered access to meetings and phone calls. The camera follows as reforms are instituted and Tolontan’s research continues. It’s stated with deep regret that, “Our healthcare system is rotten”, and “We doctors are no longer human life. We only care about money.” As more corruption and deception is uncovered, it’s clear this was all about money, rather than healthcare.

Nanau’s film would be powerful and memorable and important if he had remained focused on the work by the new Health Minister and the journalists, but it’s elevated to brilliance by his inclusion of pieces on burn victims, especially Tedy Ursuleanu. Her severe burns left her head scarred and took one of her hands, yet she refused to cower or hide … choosing instead to be photographed for all to see. It’s such an affecting segment, and one that our mind won’t soon forget.

This is the rare documentary that also works as a political thriller. Rather than talking heads and a stream of interviews, we are invited into the world of journalists and reformists looking to right the wrongs. It’s tense and emotional, and the outrage felt at the end is quite unpleasant and will stick with you. Those behind the corruption are described as “a nest of unscrupulous mobsters”, and we can’t help but wonder what happened to medical ethics and human morals. We witness these stories as they unfold and there may not be a better tribute to the importance of investigative journalism.

In theaters and On Demand November 20, 2020

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A CRIME ON THE BAYOU (doc, 2020)

November 19, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Debates over whether ‘systemic racism’ exists are ongoing today. What can’t be denied is that it existed in 1966 when a young man was arrested for touching the arm of white boy while attempting to prevent a fight from breaking out at a recently-integrated high school. Director Nancy Buirski (producer on LOVING, 2016) chronicles this incredible story that reached the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in an unexpected lifelong friendship.

A Tolstoy quote kicks things off: “Since corrupt people unite amongst themselves to constitute a force, then honest people must do the same.” It’s a chilling quote and one that fits this story perfectly. Because of its Gulf coast location, Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana has been battered by numerous hurricanes over the years, and we see archival footage of the destruction caused by Hurricane Betsy in 1965. The following year is when 19 year old Gary Duncan got out of his car to see why a couple of his cousins were being confronted by a group of white high school boys. As he diffused the situation, Duncan touched one of the white boys on the elbow … a simple act that resulted in him being arrested for cruelty to a juvenile. When the charge was dropped, a new charge of assault was immediately filed and Duncan was taken to jail.

Enter Richard Sobol, a young Jewish attorney, committed to justice and fairness under the law. To understand the impact of Mr. Sobol taking on Mr. Duncan’s case, one must first absorb the utterly fascinating (and disgusting) story of “Political Boss” Leander Perez. Director Buirski provides an overview of the tremendous power wielded by Perez in his more than 40 years controlling the area, but it would require a dedicated project to fully grasp the depths of his racism and corruption. A clip of Perez being chewed up by William F Buckley on “Firing Line” is plenty to establish his stature as a racist scumbag. Fortunately, more time is spent on the commitment and courage of Sobol and Duncan than on the despicable actions of Perez, although the result is a real life head-on collision between good and evil.

Included here are interviews with Sobol, Duncan, Civil Rights Attorney Armand Derfner, Civil Rights Attorney Lolis Elie, and Mr. Elie’s son, a writer and journalist. The court case segments are drawn directly from transcripts, and it’s interesting to learn that Mr. Duncan’s mother was a driving force in his continuing to fight. Director Buirski devotes an entire section to Mr. Sobol, and rightfully so. This is a piece of history that he and Gary Duncan share. The clips of Ruby Bridges and Angela Davis come across as a bit forced, but the ‘white people in control of black people’ era is itself maddening to watch.

Archival footage and photos and interviews blend together with an excellent use of music to paint a picture of the times. And hearing Mr. Sobol discuss being a 29 year old lawyer making his case to the US Supreme Court is inspirational. This is a true crime drama so ridiculous we can’t help but shake our heads. But the crime wasn’t the touch of the arm by Duncan. The crime was the environment created by the likes of Leander Perez. The epilogue tells us more of Perez’s story, and also that Duncan and Sobol remained friends long after their place in history was set.

 


THE ORANGE YEARS: THE NICKELODEON STORY (doc, 2020)

November 16, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Slime. Perhaps that word conjures images of the 1984 film GHOSTBUSTERS, but for many who were kids in the 1980’s and 1990’s, slime is synonymous with Nickelodeon, and specifically the network’s game show, “Double Dare”. This documentary from co-directors Scott Barber and Adam Sweeney traces the history of the still popular network, and visits with those who helped build the foundation.

The Nickelodeon network was officially launched in 1979, however the film teaches us how it was inspired by the TV show “Pinwheel”, and tested on QUBE, the interactive cable network whose pushbutton controller allowing immediate feedback from viewers was revolutionary. It’s difficult to imagine the days when there existed no network dedicated to entertainment for kids, yet the programming challenges faced in those early years are shocking. Nickelodeon was named after the original indoor moving picture theaters from the early 1900’s (cost was 5 cents to watch), and the naming of Geraldine Laybourne as President in 1980 marked the beginning of explosive growth for the upstart “First Channel for Kids”.

Ms. Laybourne is interviewed here, and is worshipped by those who describe her as a progressive thinker and exemplary teacher. Her role in those early years was clearly crucial to the network, although after 16 years, she left to join rival Disney. The founding days are so thoroughly discussed that we learn Pantone 21C is the color used for the familiar orange logo … simply because orange is a “happy” color. With a goal to “Let kids be kids”, it’s quite obvious that those involved understood what kids liked and didn’t like. NickToons was established in 1991 with three gems: “Rugrats”, “Doug”, and “Ren & Stimpy”. Jim Jinkins was the creator of “Doug” and we learn much about him. In fact, interviews are included from numerous members of the talent roster. Marc Summers, host of “Double Dare”, Melissa Joan Hart, star of “Clarissa Explains it All”, and Kenan Thompson of “Kenan and Kel”, who of course, has gone on to spend many years as a featured player on “Saturday Night Live”. These folks reminisce about the early years and how they understood they were changing the landscape of TV for kids.

This isn’t just about the stars. We learn about the opening of the Nickelodeon Studio in Orlando, and how it became a featured attraction on the Universal Studios tour. We also hear from the writers, producers, and creators, so that we get the full picture of how things came together and then developed. Some names we wouldn’t expect to be associated with Nickelodeon include: Iggy Pop, Magic Johnson, Chris Farley, and Coolio. We see how each fit in. We learn about ‘middle-age kids’, the beginnings of SNICK (with “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”), as well as the initial resistance to merchandising – termed ‘exploiting kids’. Of course, all of that changed with Nickelodeon Magazine, “SpongeBob SquarePants” (1999) and “Dora the Explorer” (2000).

The magazine and merchandising became a physical manifestation of the network’s programming, and of course, a substantial addition to the revenue stream. What’s most impressive with the backstory is how those behind the programming were so energized and committed to changing the world of children’s TV. There may have been game shows, slime, and Gak, but the real impact resulted from their understanding of kids … kids that are now adults and admit to growing up watching Nickelodeon. It’s a legacy that continues today.

Available On Demand beginning November 17, 2020

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THE TEST AND THE ART OF THINKING (doc, 2020)

November 16, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “And you may begin.” Thanks to this documentary feature film from Michael Arlen Davis, we now know that 3.5 million high school students graduate each year, and 80% of them have taken a standardized college admission test at least once. The vast majority of those students experience anxiety and feel the pressure that comes with needing a certain score to have any chance at gaining admission to the school of their choice.

Why do these tests exist? What do they measure? How are scores used in the admissions process? How accurate are they in predicting academic success at the next level? These topics are discussed during the film through interviews with academics, tutors, parents, and students. Surprisingly, the professional tutors – or testing coaches – provide the most insight. Each has their own philosophy, but the key takeaway is that standardized tests don’t evaluate what you know, but rather how you think and how well-prepared you are to take such a test.

Carl Brigham, a Princeton Professor of Psychology and member of the advisory council of the American Eugenics Society, is credited with creating the original SAT, though it’s been re-designed a few times since. We hear from John Katzman, who founded the Princeton Review in 1986 as a business to teach and tutor students on how to best prepare for standardized tests. From there, many others, including private for-hire tutors have become part of this ever-expanding industry. This goes to the core of just how important test scores are viewed in the college admission process.

In 2001, Dr. Atkinson of the University of California system announced they were looking to drop the SAT from the admissions evaluation, and this year’s COVID environment has pushed other systems and schools to consider alternative methods as well. It’s pointed out that the tests are not dissimilar to IQ tests, yet most agree a test score is not an accurate measure of intelligence. Standardized tests are described as a “get the answer” test, and the better students hone this skill, the less anxiety or stress they feel, and the more options they’ll have for advanced education … or all of the above.

Available on streaming platforms beginning November 17, 2020

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TRUTH IS THE ONLY CLIENT: THE OFFICIAL INVESTIGATION OF THE MURDER OF JOHN F KENNEDY (doc, 2020)

November 16, 2020

Greetings again from the darkness. Having spent much of my life in Dallas, the tragic events of November 22, 1963 have always played a role in my identity as a Texan. President Kennedy’s assassination that day has carried the added burden of conspiracy theories and politicized commentary … this in addition to the devastating emotional toll it took on the citizens of the United States. Co-directors Todd Kwait and Rob Stegman focus their attention on The Warren Report, the research conducted by the 7 appointed members of the committee, plus the affiliated attorneys and staff.

We see the archival clip of the Boston Symphony announcement of that day’s assassination, and the reaction of the live audience as the conductor reveals the Funeral March from Beethoven’s symphony is next up. It’s effective as a reminder of the gut-punch felt by the populace, before the filmmakers’ move towards a more analytical look at the findings by the commission. Vincent Bugliosi then informs us that it’s the greatest murder case in world history, and also the most important and complex. Bugliosi (now deceased) was the lead prosecutor in the Charles Manson case, and he also acted as the prosecutor in a 1986 televised mock trial of Lee Harvey Oswald – an event which led Bugliosi to write a detailed 2007 book entitled “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F Kennedy”.

Four surviving staff members affiliated with the Warren Commission are interviewed on camera, as are other experts, authors, historians, and investigators. The “star” witnesses are Ruth Hyde Paine and Robert Blakey. Ms. Paine was a friend of Marina Oswald, and owned the house where Marina lived at the time of the assassination. Mr. Blakey was Chief Counsel and Staff Director to the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations (1977-79), which investigated Kennedy’s death. Among the other key contributors included here are author Patricia Johnson McMillan (“Marina and Lee”), Kennedy expert Judge Brendan Sheehan, CIA historian David Robarge, and Sound/Acoustics investigator Steve Barber.

While acknowledging, and not shying away from, the numerous conspiracy theories that have been floated in regards to the assassination, it’s important to understand that the focus here is on the report filed by the Warren Commission. It could even be categorized as having the goal of proving its accuracy. It’s noted that Chief Justice Earl Warren directed everyone associated with the commission that, “your only client is the truth”. We are informed that the multitude of conspiracy theories have cumulatively accused 12 groups, 82 assassins, and hundreds of co-conspirators. The commission interviewed 552 witnesses, and those involved remain adamant that their research and work was neither tainted nor politicized.

A high level history lesson is worked in between the interviews, often tying in to the portion of the report being discussed. These segments include: the assassination attempt on General Walker, Oswald’s pro-Castro work in New Orleans, the ‘grassy knoll’, the pristine bullet, Jack Ruby (including some background on him), and of course, the Zapruder film … where the pertinent frames are analyzed. There is an interesting segment on the Police Audio and how it was remarkably released via Gallery Magazine (a publication for adults). Discussion of Operation Mongoose, the CIA plot to overthrow communism in Cuba, including the killing of Fidel Castro may or may not be news to viewers, and there is even mention of Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie, JFK.

Included among those who have been accused of orchestrating the assassination are Cuba, the Soviet Union, organized crime, the FBI, and the CIA. Those involved specifically reference the cover-ups perpetrated by those latter two federal agencies. Did these hinder the investigations and impact the final report? Whether you subscribe to one or more of the conspiracy theories, one would be hard-pressed to not at least acknowledge that the citizenry’s distrust of government was amplified during this time,  and nothing since has calmed the waters. Kwait’s and Stegman’s film is undoubtedly the best film breakdown of the Warren Report, though it’s unlikely to change the minds of those who prefer a conspiracy.

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THE CAMPAIGN OF MINER BO (2020, doc)

October 19, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. During her campaign for the presidency, Hillary Clinton appeared at an Ohio Town Hall meeting, and while pushing green energy alternatives said, “We are going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” It’s the kind of statement that makes headlines, and it did. Of course, Hillary went on to say that it was important we don’t forget about the people that work and depend on the coal industry, but that never became part of the story. Director Todd Drezner does include it here, while mostly focusing on how West Virginian native Bo Copley, a former mining company employee, became a candidate for U.S. Senate.

As a refresher, we see Hillary’s Town Hall statements, and we also see the clip of the roundtable where Bo Copley handed a family photograph to Hillary, confronting her with the real life impact of shutting down coal production.  That simple gesture turned Bo Copley into a “coal miner celebrity”, ultimately pushing him towards the campaign that inspired this documentary. The film opens in June 2017 in Williamson, West Virginia, as Bo rehearses his announcement speech. He’s neither polished, nor confident, and admits, this is “not my natural habitat”.

One thing that quickly becomes clear – Bo is a good dude. He’s a family man and a man of faith. Another thing that’s just as clear – Bo is in over his head for this process. He’s a well-intentioned nice buy, but his platform seems to be, “I think an everyday person should represent everyday people.” This happens to be a highly contested Republican primary featuring five other candidates, two of which are skilled politicians, and a third is a mining company owner who served prison time for a tragedy that killed 29 miners.

The film is structured as a countdown to the primary, and it follows Bo on some of his campaign stops – most of which reinforce that he’s not equipped for this race. He is the prime example of a guy who wants a change in politics and is willing to step up, but simply doesn’t have the understanding … or the funds … to actually compete. He believes if people like him, they’ll vote for him; so there’s no need to ask for votes, even as he’s coaching a kids’ soccer team.

Bo’s wife Lauren is also included here, and she’s supportive of his run, though not initially. Their Christian beliefs are on full display. Director Drezner’s and Bo’s best moment occurs during a talk show interview when the candidate answers the obvious question, “Why start your political career running for the U.S. Senate.” Bo’s answer is spot on and thought-provoking, and goes to the heart of the flaw in our system. The film should be watched by anyone looking to dive into a political run, as it excels as a how-not-to guide.

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SHE IS THE OCEAN (doc, 2020)

October 15, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “My soul is full of longing for the secret of the sea. And the heart of the great ocean sends a thrilling pulse through me.” That quote from William Wadsworth Longfellow sums up much of what makes the nine women (OK, 8 women and one younger girl) the subject of director Inna Blokhina’s fascination. The film takes us around the globe to meet these women who are drawn to the sea.

It’s a beautiful film to look at, and why wouldn’t it be? Most of it occurs on beaches, underwater, or on surfboards as the waves come in. Two key elements are in play here. First is the spiritual connection to the ocean, and second is women pursuing their passion and dreams as they relate to the ocean.

Cinta Hamsel is the youngest of those featured here, and her aging acts as a framing structure for the film. Her name translates to “Love” in Indonesia, and the filmmaker catches up with her over the years, including her “first big wave”. Cinta flashes a luminous smile from a very early age, and it’s a treat to watch her energy grow and change over the years.

The other women featured here get their own segments – some more expansive than others – and there is probably a 40 or 50 year range in ages. Coco Ho is a 20-something year old pro surfer and the daughter of professional surfer champion surfer Michael Ho. She has many surfing titles to her name all over the world, and is a proud icon for the power of women. Ocean Ramsey swims with sharks – not in the business sense, but rather in the real world. She is knowledgeable and protective of the species, and even educates tourists on what sharks are actually like in comparison to JAWS. Anna Bader is a world famous cliff diver, often executing dives from 24+ meters. She hails from Germany and is the daughter of an Olympic gymnast. Ms. Bader thrives on independence, and she opens up about how her life perspective changed when she got pregnant. Rose Molina is a spiritual vagabond. She has lived all over the world and she thrives on her alone time with yoga and meditation. Her dance and ballet training combined with her free diving, lends itself to her freedom and safety in the sea. Keala Kennelly grew up in Hawaii and became a professional surfer. She discloses how she tried to fit into the feminine model the sponsors wanted, but now she just focuses on being herself – especially after a severe facial injury. Andrea Mollen loves distance paddling in the ocean and surfing big waves. She gushes over her love for her daughter and her work as an EMT. Jeannie Chesser is a bit older than those previously mentioned. She has lost her husband and her professional surfer son Todd, who drowned. Ms. Chesser discusses her cancer diagnosis and how she uses surfing for healing. Finally, we have Sylvia Earle, who despite being the most interesting of all of these woman, receives the shortest segment. As the first female Chief Scientist of the U.S., Ms. Earl is a Marine Botanist who spreads the message that the history of life is in the ocean, and we must respect and protect it. She also inspires by encouraging us to re-discover that child explorer that we once were … embrace the sense of wonder.

If the film has a flaw, it’s that the focus is so concentrated on surfing, and underplays the message and accomplishments of Sylvia Earle. Filmmaker Blokhina opts to give each woman their own song/music (some work better than others). And of course, while each story is inspiring and interesting, it’s the shots of Hawaii’s Pipe Line and Jaws waves that literally take our breath away. Jacques Cousteau said, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” These women certainly agree.

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STRO: THE MICHAEL D’ASARO STORY (doc, 2020)

October 15, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. I would have not guessed a fencing movie could hold my attention. I’d have been wrong. But then, this isn’t so much a fencing movie as it is the story of the legacy of Michael D’Asaro, a former world class fencer and coach. Co-directors Gregory Lynch Jr and Doug Nichols previously collaborated on another fencing documentary entitled THE LAST CAPTAIN (2017), and it’s clear they are familiar with the sport and its history.

Beginning your film with a philosophical Carl Jung quote immediately sends the message that this is an unconventional sports project. In fact, psychology and philosophy played a key role in the success of Michael D’Asaro throughout his career, and his approach and style evolved greatly as he aged. He believed one could learn all of life’s lessons through fencing.

For those of us not as schooled on fencing’s finer points, the directors are kind enough to serve up a quickie education, with a key point being the three weapons used in completion: Foil, Epee, and Sabre. Each of the weapons has its own set of rules and demands its own particular skill set. Rare is the fencer who excels at all three. And yes you are correct, Michael D’Asaro was one of these. We hear from many of his teammates and pupils, and the descriptions are pretty consistent. D’Asaro had his own aggressive style. There was an “edge” to him, and he fought with fierceness.

Much of the film is structured like a standard biopic, with D’Asaro’s sister, son, and ex-wife (and fellow fencer) recollecting bits and pieces of the life of this Brooklyn boy. We learn his own mother nicknamed him “Chubby” and he was part of a street gang, which is why he initially had an interest in fencing – he hoped it would fine-tune his knife fighting. D’Asaro was certainly no choir boy, and we hear about his hard partying (drugs and alcohol), and get a timeline of his ups and downs involving the Olympics, Pan Am games, the U.S. Army, his hippie years on Haight-Ashbury, and his re-birth at Hans Halberstadt Club, which led to his coaching gig at San Jose State.

Speaking of psychology, it’s fascinating to read the body language of Al Morales as he recalls his rivalry with D’Asaro, and learning of D’Asaro’s Polish mentor, Jerzy Pawlowski, often referred to as the greatest fencer of all-time. By the end, we realize D’Asaro lived an interesting life, most of it on his terms. Despite all his wins ‘on the strip’, and the fact that he beat colon cancer, a brain tumor finally proved too much – although it may have led to his finding peace as a person, and with his legacy of performance, coaching, and impacting women’s sports.

watch the trailer