ESCAPE FROM KABUL (2022, doc)

September 25, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. We watched it play out on television, seemingly getting worse and more tragic and more convoluted by the day. It was painful to watch the United States evacuation of Afghanistan, and now, Jamie Roberts documents what actually happened with previously unseen archival footage supplemented with remarkably candid personal interviews.

The war was in its 18th year when, in 2020, President Trump announced we would be ending the war and bringing our folks home. It was President Biden who gave the final deadline for evacuation by August 2021. Of course, most of us doubted it could happen that swiftly, and given what unfolded, maybe it shouldn’t have.

Previously unseen footage is remarkable, and certainly provides a true sense of what was happening at the time and how our undermanned military faced numerous obstacles – some dangerous, others humanitarian – and performed admirably given the circumstance. The insight from the Marines who were there is especially impactful, and their recollections cut to the quick. Their mission was to evacuate US citizens and “at risk” Afghans who had been helpful to the cause, but we learn the first couple of days were spent evacuating “VIPs” … always a sign of political motivation.

It was literally day 2 (August 15) when the Taliban seized control of Kabul, causing desperation and fear and chaos. The footage is vivid in showing what was happening, and how confusion permeated every action. It’s stunning to watch as Taliban leaders are interviewed and laugh at the US for such a botched plan after a two-decade war. Interviews with some Afghan citizens who made it out display the emotions of those driven from the homes under extreme stress. And those Marines offer the most direct feedback for the operation and the no-win decisions they faced when deciding who could leave.

We have all seen the newscast images of those desperately clinging the airplanes, but what about the canal of sewage many spent days wading in, hoping for a chance to leave? The “deal” struck with the Taliban to allow evacuations is a bit confusing to us, but even more so to the Marines stationed at the time. Despite 124,000 people being evacuated and most of the military equipment destroyed prior to the last plane filled with Marines, it’s still sickening to see the Taliban immediately shift into victory celebration mode. We know where this is headed, and so do those who remained.

An HBO documentary premiering on September 21, 2022

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RIOTSVILLE, USA (2022, doc)

September 16, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. A couple of old sayings came to mind while watching this. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This ties together what we see from the 1960’s with what we’ve seen very recently in the U.S. Next would be, “You made your bed, now sleep in it.” This references the manner in which our government reacted to civil unrest in the 1960s has affected our society for the past 50+ years.

Documentarian Sierra Pettingill utilizes only archival footage from TV (newscasts and talk shows) and military footage filmed during the era. The clips are edited in a way to tell the story of how the government responded to increased civil unrest, and how those responses not only made the situation worse, it also set the table for ongoing societal issues for decades to come.

Historical background includes President Lyndon Johnson forming the Kerner Commission (officially The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders), and how the resulting 700 page 1968 report did not provide the conclusions expected by the government. It warned of two societies – one white, one black, separate and unequal. The corresponding action items were deemed too expensive due to the ongoing Vietnam War. Instead an addendum suggested expanded federal funding for police … that one hit home with politicians.

Much of the footage, as well as the film’s title, comes from the model town constructed by the military at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. It’s here where training sessions occurred with military personnel cast as rioters and law enforcement learned the approaches to quell the uprising. Unfortunately, most of these approaches involved law enforcement escalation during civil unrest, leaving us wondering which causes the most damage. We even see military leaders observing the drills from the grandstands, applauding and laughing in some parts. It’s impossible not to notice that these are all white faces.

Further escalation and federal funding resulted in specialty tanks, and we see the training videos around this weapon. At its core, what we see is a simulated riot in a simulated city. It’s easy to view this as training hate and power, rather than learning de-escalation techniques. Director Pettingill also includes clips from PBL (precursor to PBS) talk shows like “Civil Disorder”. These shows, and their debates, caused Ford Motor Company to withdraw funding in 1969. The news clips from the 1968 Democrat and Republican conventions provide some insight into the reporting during this era. Especially biting is David Brinkley’s response to Strom Thurmond’s comments. The film’s only weakness comes in the form of narration from Charlene Modeste. The words are simply too flowery or artsy for such subject matter. This is a film that urges you to feel the frustrations. It turns out “Law & Order” can be twisted by those in power.

Releasing in theaters and OnDemand beginning September 16, 2022

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THE BENGALI (2022, doc)

September 16, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. We don’t often get tales in documentaries, but that’s the interesting approach documentarian Kavery Kaul takes here. Rather than reporting only the results, Ms. Kaul travels with Fatima Shaik as she pursues answers to the questions of her family’s roots.

Ms. Shaik is an African-American writer from New Orleans, and she’s on a quest to find out if all the stories she heard growing up are true. The only way to know is for her to travel to the village in India where her grandfather, Shaik Mohamed Musa, lived prior to emigrating to the United States in the very late 19th century. She carries one photo of him.

Fatima is friendly enough as she works her way through the village, but it’s fascinating to see how the locals treat her. First, they have never seen an African-American, and her skin color is a topic of discussion. But more importantly, they are clearly suspicious of her, and even say, she “doesn’t belong here.” The language barrier causes some issues, but mostly they view Fatima as a threat – someone attempting to reclaim land owned by her ancestors. Further distrust occurs because Fatima is a Christian, and the Catholic Church is not trusted here.

Her encounters with the villages are interesting, and it provides a case study in how humans react to those who look and talk differently … it’s not a reaction limited to white Americans. For the most part, director Kaul’s travelogue approach works, and Fatima gets the results she was seeking. Perhaps the time with the locals could have gone deeper, but the 70-minute run time feels just about right.

The film opened at the Quad in NY on September 9, 2022 and will open at the Laemmle Royal in LA on September 16, 2022

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EXPLORER (2022, doc)

September 2, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Not so long ago, it was a compliment to be called “a man’s man.” It was a term of endearment and respect that meant a man was strong, quiet, adventurous, and trustworthy. Sir Ranulph Fiennes, born Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet, fit the bill. He refused the royal title saying being born into it is not the same as earning it. The man-the myth-the legend is cousin to actors Joseph and Ralph Fiennes, and has been better labeled as “the greatest living explorer”, and documentarian Matthew Dyas wants us to know all about him.

An astonishing list of ‘Ran’s’ (as he prefers to be called) exploits, adventures, and records scrolls over the film’s opening. We don’t even have time to absorb what we’re being fed, but the first thought is … no one man could have done all of this. Director Dyas takes us through Ran’s childhood and his service in the Army. Turns out, he was always one to push boundaries. A significant portion of the film is spent detailing the long-time relationship between Ran and his first wife, Ginny. She was his biggest supporter, and the love of his life. We learn this, and much more, through the fantastic archival footage, photographs, and audio recordings, the latter of which are used instead of the customary talking heads posed for the camera.

This is a man who traversed the planet through both poles. Ran takes us through the process of cutting off the tips of his own frostbite-damaged fingers on his left hand by using a hacksaw and having Ginny assist. We learn about his heart attack, which caused him to ‘take it easy’ as he ran 7 marathons in 7 days on 7 continents (known as the World Marathon Challenge). When Ginny was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2004, she encouraged him to re-marry. He did so to Louisa, with whom he fathered his only child. After the wedding, Ran headed back to Mount Everest, and at age 65, was successful on what was his third attempt. He also self-treats his Parkinson’s with frigid sea water.

Perhaps “a man’s man” is not so fitting for Ranulph Fiennes. With this being a partial list of what he’s done in his life, there can be no other man who belongs to his club. Of course, he has his detractors, and director Dyas allows those to have their say. But the actual video footage and recollections of those who knew him are simply too amazing to disparage. He’s now 78 years old and still has his adventure goals. Learning about Ranulph Fiennes is likely to humble you and hopefully inspire a few to push those boundaries.

Available on Digital and On Demand beginning August 30, 2022

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THE PRINCESS (2022, doc)

August 18, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 25 years since the paparazzi chased the car into that Paris tunnel. The ensuing accident took the lives of Princess Diana, her boyfriend Dodi Al Fayed, and their driver, Henri Paul. The tragic and stunning event led to global grieving for a Princess who many felt never was accepted as a member of the Royal Family. Director Ed Perkins (BLACK SHEET, 2018) uses only archival footage, stills, and news clips to show how the media covered Diana over what was less than two decades in the spotlight. No new interviews – the talking heads we are accustomed to in documentaries – are included here, only the editing of existing media materials are offered as storytelling devices.

The film opens with a tourist-shot video taken just moments before the fatal accident. What stands out is the crush of photographers, the squealing tires takeoff of Diana’s car, and the swift action of paparazzi following on scooters and cycles. It’s not until the end of the film that we see the footage of the wreckage being towed from the tunnel. The rest of the film tracks Diana over the years … less than 20 years total.

The flashback takes us to Diana Spencer as a 19-year-old girlfriend of Prince Charles. As the press hound her on the walk to her car, we note her coy and shy demeanor as she offers “no comment” before driving herself away. The strain on her face as she’s being questioned is evident, and remains through those early shared interviews with Charles. It’s not until years later when she becomes so adept at handling the media frenzy.

Throughout the film we see clips of Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth, Sarah Ferguson, and Diana’s interactions with such notables as Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa, John Travolta, Luciano Pavarotti, and Nelson Mandela. We watch as Diana’s hairstyles make their way around the globe, and of course, the wedding segment recalls how it became ‘the’ television event of 1981. There are segments on two babies (William and Harry), and we even see Diana holding Harry in her lap as the car drives away … and Charles heads to his polo match.

The 12-year age gap is discussed, but Diana’s surprising BBC interview with Martin Bashear provided the more likely reason for the 1992 separation. Camilla Parker-Bowles is shown while still married, but a Charles interview (along with Diana’s BBC interview) make it clear that the Diana marriage was meant to deliver ‘pure’ bloodlines to the Royal Family, and the “Fred and Gladys” (Charles and Camilla) relationship couldn’t do that. We can’t help but notice how much sadness Diana carried, and she certainly had her own detractors and critics, especially when biographers noted her own affair. It was this era that turned the Royals into their own entertainment industry – something which is disturbingly even more true today. Diana died at only 36 years of age. Both of her sons are older than that now. The global grief experienced is on full display during the segments highlighting her funeral. Perkins’ film might be a bit difficult for anyone who wasn’t around during the Diana era, but for those of us who were, the memories have not faded, and are enhanced by what we see here.

Available on HBO and HBO Max beginning August 13, 2022

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MY OLD SCHOOL (2022, doc)

July 22, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. The world can be divided into those who dream of going back to their glory days of high school, and those who fight off seizures over the thought. Documentarian Jono McLeod broaches this topic through the story of legendary Scottish conman ‘Brandon Lee.’ Since this dates back almost 30 years, you may not be familiar with the details, but even if you are, McLeod’s film will likely fill in the gaps while serving up firsthand recollections from those who were there.

An early twist is just the beginning of this oddity. Brandon Lee agreed to be interviewed for this documentary, but he refused to appear on camera. So, we hear his voice and his own words, but they are being lip-synched by actor Alan Cumming. The additional talking head interviews are the classmates who attended Bearsden Academy in Glasgow alongside Brandon Lee, as well as an administrator and teachers. The former students reminisce about Brandon’s first day at the school as a transfer in 1993. All agree he had an unusual look: gaunt, pale, funny hair, older looking … these are just some of the descriptions.

Equipped with a backstory, Brandon was exceptionally bright, while not quite fitting in. His goal was to attend medical school, and he informed others that he was from Canada and had been very close to his mother, a renowned opera singer who died in a car crash. Teachers were impressed with his knowledge, and he even excelled in the school’s musical production of “South Pacific”.

Rather than live action re-enactments, McLeod uses a significant amount of animation to visualize the moments and events discussed by these now-fully-grown former students. This adds to the comical feel of the story and works to distract us from what we really want – photos and video of Brandon in school. The animation even works as a bit of misdirection for how the final act plays out, and what happens when he finally comes clean with who he is and what he’s done.

The name is critical to the story. First of all, the name Brandon Lee was all over the news in 1993, as the actor and son of legendary Bruce Lee had only recently been accidentally killed on the set of his film, THE CROW. There is even speculation that he drew the name from Jason Priestley’s character on the hit TV show, “Beverly Hills, 90210”. And later, when his actual name is revealed, there is a connection that leads to further complications and confusion. Some of the theories tossed around are quite interesting, not the least of which is that Brandon possessed mind control skills and could actually hypnotize people. Whether this a crime of fraud, an elaborate prank, one man’s way to achieve his dream, or simply twisted morality, is something you’ll have to decide after hearing what Jono McLeod’s film has to say … and McLeod discloses that he was also a student Bearsden Academy.

In theaters on July 22, 2022

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GABBY GIFFORDS WON’T BACK DOWN (2022, doc)

July 20, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. If you get shot in the head, you will likely die. If somehow you survive, and never fully regain speaking competence or full physical coordination, what would be your outlook on life and on gun control? Gabby Giffords, a former member of the U.S. Congress, did survive, and co-directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West (the duo behind the 2018 documentary, RBG) show us that Gabby remains a committed optimist and activist … a gunshot victim, a gun owner, and a gun control activist with reasonable goals for gun ownership. She confidently proclaims, “I’m not against guns. I’m against gun violence.”

It was January 8, 2011, when Gabby (I’m referring to her this way out of ultimate respect and because this is how she often refers to herself) was meeting and greeting her constituents outside the front doors of a Safeway store in suburban Tucson. A gunman opened fire attempting to assassinate her, and in the process, shot 19 people, killing six – including a federal judge and a young girl. Though initially reported as dead, Gabby did survive despite the bullet passing through her skull and brain. Gabby’s husband, Space Shuttle Endeavor Commander Mark Kelly, decided to film her in the hospital for the days and weeks after the shooting, so that one day she could see what she had endured. Some of these segments are quite difficult to watch, especially when we see her uncontrollably repeating the word “chicken”, and subsequently breaking down with her speech pathologist. These segments convince us of two things: Gabby’s recovery was remarkable, and she’s an incredibly determined person.

Filmmakers Cohen and West provide some background on Gabby. After graduating college, she had a NYC job with a large firm, and resigned that to move back home and run El Campo Tire, the family business. We even see her appearance in a local TV commercial, her charm and leadership skills clearly on display. After negotiating the sale of the business. She turned her attention to politics and we see some of her early campaigning. Articulate, forceful, and immediately likable, Gabby was a moderate who used logic in the stands she took, and was a rising political star on the national scene. We hear from Gabby’s parents, as well as her stepdaughter, who admits to not being especially warm to Gabby when her dad (Mark Kelly) began dating her. It’s refreshing to see that their relationship is quite strong today.

Aphasia is a disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate. There can be few things worse for anyone, especially a politician. Former President Barack Obama is interviewed and speaks glowingly of Gabby as a politician and a person; however, it’s the relationship between Gabby and husband Mark that is the heart of her recovery, her work since, and his successful run for Congress in 2020. This is the husband that commanded the Space Shuttle concurrently with his wife’s latest brain surgery. The couple founded a gun control organization in 2013, and it’s now known simply as “Giffords”. We see Gabby’s triumphant return to Washington, DC, and understand her subsequent resignation a few months later. This is the story of a unique and strong woman in a true relationship with a strong man. Together they do amazing things. Consider me “Gabbyfied”.

Opened in theaters on July 15, 2022

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DREAMING WALLS: INSIDE THE CHELSEA HOTEL (2022, doc)

July 7, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Art, sex, drugs, rebellion, counterculture, and even death … that’s the infamous history of New York’s Chelsea Hotel. And for the last decade, it’s been about renovation and ongoing construction, and the persistence of a few long-time residents. Co-directors Maya Duverdier and Amelie van Elmbt deliver an unconventional documentary in that it doesn’t focus on the Chelsea’s iconic place in NYC history. It doesn’t focus on the idols who created art here. In fact, the history of the place takes a backseat to the current residents and the never-ending construction, neither of which are as entertaining as the legendary past.

In a tease, the film opens with a young Patti Smith waxing poetic about what Dylan Thomas might have glimpsed from the same rooftop. This is followed by a montage featuring the instantly recognizable faces of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen (“Chelsea Hotel #2), Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Arthur C Clark, and Salvador Dali, amongst others. That gives you some idea of the place the building holds in the history of art. We then cut to the elderly residents trudging through hallways that are covered in plastic and littered with wires. Some chat it up with the construction workers, while others seem oblivious to the inconveniences – likely just resigned to the daily obstacles.

Most tenants took the buyout offer from the new owners, while others cling with all their might to the low-rent (both definitions) living they’ve grown accustomed to. The Christmas tree in the lobby may or may not indicate the season, and mostly we realize the misery in trying to live one’s daily life amidst the constant accompaniment of hammering, drilling, and sawing. This is more a Sociological case study on gentrification than anything else, despite the filmmakers attempts to tie in the past by projecting the famous faces on the walls.

The closest comparison to Hotel Chelsea is Los Angeles’ equally infamous Chateau Marmont. A 2008 documentary entitled, CHELSEA ON THE ROCKS, provides an interesting look at Chelsea’s historical relevance in the art world, something co-directors Duverdier and van Elmbt seem to care little about. There are two approaches to the Hotel Chelsea that might hold our interest: the past or the future. Unfortunately, this look at the present merely scratches something that doesn’t itch.

Opening in theaters and On Demand beginning July 8, 2022

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HALLELUJAH: LEONARD COHEN, A JOURNEY, A SONG (2022, doc)

July 1, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. He’s not an easy man to figure out. His many written and spoken words can be challenging to interpret, and his art comes in many forms: poems, novels, drawings, and songs. Leonard Cohen was an enigma, yet also a treasure trove of thought-provoking work crafted over fifty years. Collaborators for more than 25 years, documentarians Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine knew tackling Cohen as a subject would be too much, so by taking inspiration from Alan Light’s book, “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’”, they were able to approach him through his most recognizable and most oft-covered song, “Hallelujah.” The result is a captivating two hours that will appeal to Leonard Cohen devotees and enlighten those new to his work.

We open on December 21, 2013 in Auckland, New Zealand. Leonard Cohen is on stage and sings the immediately recognizable first “secret chord” line of “Hallelujah.” This would be his final live performance. Someone offers the description of LC as “a spiritual seeker”, and that appears to have been the case most of his life. Perhaps there is no better evidence of this than his pursuit of writing lyrics to “Hallelujah.” We see the dozens of notebooks filled with his handwritten lyrics. We know there are multiple versions of the song, and Leonard admits the song was never finished … it was ever-evolving, same as the writer. Although Cohen passed away in 2016 and was not interviewed for this film, precious archival footage allows us to see him expressing his own thoughts alongside new and recorded interviews of those who knew him for so long.

The great Judy Collins tells of the time she encouraged Leonard to come on stage and sing his song “Suzanne” with her. It was 1966 and though to that point, he had been mostly a poet, he now immersed himself and his words into songwriting. In regards to his poetry, so many believe one must suffer to have anything of value to say; however, Leonard was born into a wealthy family, and he created reems of meaningful passages as a deep thinker and observer. Other terrific interviews come courtesy of music journalist “Ratso” Sloman (who also shared tapes of his own Leonard interviews with the filmmakers), long time back-up singer and co-writer Sharon Robinson, Cohen’s former girlfriend and renowned photographer Dominique Isserman, lifelong friend and fellow Canadian Nancy Bacal, Canadian journalist and lifelong friend Adrienne Clarkson, and John Lissauer who first produced “Hallelujah” and also composed the score to this documentary.

The song itself took a journey worth exploring. Leonard initially worked on the lyrics for years. Once the song was recorded, it (and the entire album, ‘Various Positions’) was rejected by Columbia, the record label that had already paid for it. The album and song were finally released on a small independent label. Ultimately, Bob Dylan began performing the song in concert, and it was gradually adopted by other artists, and reached mainstream status when it was included in the animated hit movie, SHREK. How is that for an unusual journey for a song?

Even the SHREK saga wasn’t straightforward. Rather than use Cohen’s version of the song, the director chose the version sung by Rufus Wainwright, but then decided it didn’t fit, and shifted to the John Cale version. As a final twist, it’s Wainwright’s version on the released movie soundtrack. It’s not just the lyrics that have multiple versions. As of last count, more than 200 artists have their own version, with those of John Cale and Jeff Buckley being the most frequently listened to. Both get their due in this documentary, and it’s quite moving to compare the different approaches … one’s mood must be the determining factor on which fits the moment, as it’s impossible to say one is “better” than the other. We also hear from other artists who testify to the song’s personal importance to them. And to reinforce the point of how the song has become part of the fabric of society, there is a montage of TV contestants singing their version in hopes of moving on to the next stage.

Although the filmmakers use “Hallelujah” as the structural force for this film, they expertly weave in Leonard Cohen’s personal history throughout. They remind us that his early song “Suzanne” was written well before he met and married Suzanne Elrod. We hear a bit from the cringe-inducing partnership with producer Phil Spector for one album. The filmmakers highlight Cohen’s 1993 decision to isolate at the Mount Baldy Zen Center through 1999, before returning ‘back down the hill’ to write more songs. It was in 2005 when Cohen discovered that his long time manager had bilked him out of his earnings and assets. This sent Leonard back on tour for the first time in 15 years … he performed 379 shows over 5 years, thrilling his fans and introducing many new ones to his music.

There have been other documents focusing on Leonard Cohen, most notably, LEONARD COHEN: I’M YOUR MAN (2005), and MARIANNE & LEONARD: WORDS OF LOVE (2019). Both have their merits, yet neither capture the remarkable story of this ‘spiritual seeker’ as thoroughly as this one. He was an unusual and remarkable man who wrote, “I did my best. It wasn’t much.” Maybe the only false words he ever penned.

Opens in theaters beginning July 1, 2022

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BITTERBRUSH (2022, doc)

June 16, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. The work of director Emelie Mahdavian and cinematographers Derek Howard and Alejandro Mejio make this one worth watching if only for the wide panoramic views and stunning landscapes of the wild west in today’s America. However, the views are really the bonus, as the focus is on Colie Moline and Hollyn Patterson, two cattle wranglers working together on a job in Idaho.

Colie and Hollyn have partnered on jobs for ‘around’ 5 years, though neither is sure how long it’s been. Some will be surprised that two women have become so proficient at herding cattle – a job that has traditionally been the domain of men, the cowboys we are accustomed to. Make no mistake, Colie and Hollyn are real cowboys (cowpersons?) and they are experts at managing cattle, horses, dogs, the terrain, the weather, and the solitude.

We ride along with them through Idaho, though at times, we feel like intruders. Colie and Hollyn enjoy the life, have an efficient partnership, and have grown to be friends despite their differences. Hollyn is moving towards a more traditional life (out of necessity), while Colie dreams of having her own ranch. This seasonal work is for 4 months and covers late spring, summer heat, and early snow. They are truly hired hands, and one extended sequence finds Colie working to break a horse. It recalls the 2011 documentary, BUCK, on horse whisperer Buck Brannaman, but here there is no audience and no ‘show’. It’s just a hired hand putting in the work.

Neither have a “real home”, which becomes a factor as spreading the ashes of a beloved dog constitutes a challenge. Being away from family during special events and illness is part of the job, as well as part of the conversation. Director Mahdavian utilizes expertly played and beautiful Bach piano music as accompaniment, but we can’t help but feel this is cheating. Why should we hear this when the two women doing the work only hear the sounds of nature? Their toughness and resilience are quite something to behold.

In theaters on June 17, 2022 and On Demand beginning June 24, 2022

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