BRESLIN AND HAMILL: DEADLINE ARTISTS (2019, doc)

January 27, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. From the department of ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’ (a phrase attributed to French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr), there is a segment in this documentary showing Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew comments on the “evil liberal media”. The only thing missing is the now all-too-familiar catchphrase “fake news”. If, as many believe, we are in a re-run of a political cycle from that era, we should be so fortunate to have the writers and journalists of that era … specifically Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill.

Co-directors Jonathan Alter (political journalist and author), John Block, and Steve McCarthy are behind this HBO documentary that flashes back to a time when reading the morning newspaper was a ritual for much of the world. This was before the internet and certainly before Tweeters began presenting opinions as breaking news. At one point, the city of New York supported 7 different newspapers, and these two writers – very different in style – are forever linked to the city, to their ‘street poetry’ and to each other.

Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill were at various times co-workers and rivals, yet always friends … a friendship based on mutual professional respect. Pete was the more likable one, while Jimmy was the brash New Yorker – a celebrity who admittedly had enemies. The filmmakers provide a background on each, often with the writers themselves providing color commentary. Specific events from certain years are used a story structure: 1984 and Bernhard Goetz, 1989 shows our current President (30 years younger) dishing racial divisiveness via an emotional reaction, the 1963 JFK assassination and how Breslin chose to interview the man digging the grave, Vietnam in 1966, 1976 when both were employed by The New York Daily News, the letter Breslin received from Son of Sam in 1977, the same year Hamill was editor of two newspapers simultaneously, the 1985 AIDS outbreak, and the 1991 Crown Heights riots.

We learn Breslin often held court at a local bar, and that Hamill dated Jackie Onassis. Breslin’s baseball book “Can’t Anybody Play this Game?” is discussed, as is what Hamill calls “the rhythm of writing”. A 2015 interview with the two elderly men makes the bond quite obvious, and an emotional segment shows Pete and his wife recalling that tragic day on 9/11. The talking head interviews featured are many and impressive, including: the siblings, offspring and spouses of the two men; writers Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Nicholas Pileggi (“Goodfellas”); performers Tony Bennett, Robert Deniro, and Shirley Maclaine (also a love interest); activist Gloria Steinem; cartoonist Gary Trudeau; and other historians, journalists, and writers.

Anne Marie is mentioned as the woman who sat between the two writers at the Daily News, and we can’t help but think she deserves her own movie, given her connections (so to speak). Breslin and Hamill derived energy and were driven by passion for their causes and observations … and their agenda was drawn from the need to get the truth told, not just the glory of a headline. The message is that local journalism is important, while today, we are allowing it fade away. Breslin is shown hunting and pecking until the end (in 2017), and it’s likely Pete will as well.

watch the trailer:

 

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SCIENCE FAIR (2018, doc)

December 23, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome to the island of misfit High School geeks. Co-directors Cristina Constantini and Darren Foster introduce us to a few of the kids from around the globe who are striving to compete in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. More than 1500 students from dozens of countries qualify each year to present their ideas for a $75,000 grand prize. There are many rules, but the key is that the project must have “global impact”. Does this sound more important than a football game?  Well, not in South Dakota!

The film opens with the viral clip of a previous winner who literally ran onstage screaming and crying when his name was announced as a winner. We then meet Jack Andraka today, and in his interview, he explains his guttural response and the impact of the fair both for individuals and idea advancement. Jack, now in his 20’s, works as a researcher. We follow 9 students from various parts of the world – each with different backgrounds, interests, expertise, and motivations. The support they receive from parents, teachers and schools also varies, as do the resources available.

Students being followed are from a Kentucky, South Dakota, Brazil, West Virginia, Germany and New York state. The systems range from a magnet school to a public school without a science lab. In South Dakota, a Muslim girl named Kashfia bluntly states that athletics are the focus of her school (their football team went 0-9), and her science teachers had no interest in being her faculty sponsor … so the football coach agreed to fill the role. This is contrasted to a New York teacher who commits her off-hours to mentor and push students to participate and compete, and she regularly sends multiple students to the fair. In West Virginia, a frustrated math teacher discusses how one student had no interest in homework or tests, then we hear the student explain his advancements in artificial intelligence. A German student diligently works on improving the aeronautics on single wing aircraft. Other projects include detecting arsenic in water, the effects of drug and alcohol abuse, and preventing cancer rather than curing it. It’s an impressive lot.

Quite a few of the students hail from immigrant families, and each student is inspiring, intelligent and ambitious. Given the political climate in the U.S. these days, it is heart-warming to see so many youngsters who want to make the world a better place. The directors also interview past winners, but are not allowed in the exhibit hall once the judging begins. National Geographic has sponsored this documentary which won the Audience award at both Sundance and SXSW. These students are the ones that give us hope for the future, and remind us that sports are a nice pastime, but it is intelligence and technical advancements that will sustain the species. The film should be used to recruit more students into working towards the Olympics of Science Fairs!

watch the trailer:


THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD (2018, doc)

December 17, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve noted many times how World War II has been mined for cinematic purposes over the years, even to this day. It’s always seemed a shame that World War I – ‘The Great War’ – has so few big screen projects in comparison. Obviously, timing is a major reason. World War II ended in 1945, which means during our lifetime, many of those veterans have been able to record their experiences and memories. In contrast, 2018 marks the 100 year mark of the end of World War I, so the archival footage and documentation is significantly reduced – and sadly, much of it lost or destroyed over time. Because of this, we should treasure this latest from director Peter Jackson as he allows these WWI participants to come alive and tell their stories. But it’s more than historical significance … it’s truly fascinating to hear the words from those that were there.

Director Jackson is best known for his THE LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT trilogies, as well as his version of KING KONG (2005) … all “large scale” movies with ground-breaking CGI effects. For his latest, he gets much more personal and intimate, though the technical achievements are equally impressive. The first thing to note is that this film is not presented as a historical timeline detailing the political motivations or battle strategy of the various countries involved. Instead, we hear archival audio from dozens of soldiers who fought, and we see actual video clips and photographs – many we’ve never seen before. Mr. Jackson’s grandfather was a soldier in WWI, and the film’s focus is on the experience of the British soldiers.

Fittingly, the film begins with soldiers’ words playing over some of the faded and tattered war footage. These soldiers go unnamed as the goal is to have us understand the experience – what motivated them to enlist, and what it was like to serve on the battlefield. As we hear the words, the scale and clarity of the video transitions to full screen in vivid color … it’s breathtaking to see these figures become living, breathing, smiling young men from a century ago.

The words of these men fill us in on aspects of the war that most history books gloss over. Many of them “exaggerated” their ages so they could join their friends or relatives in the war. We learn about ‘plum and apple’ jam, stew, sipping water from gas cans, and the challenges presented when the ‘poop pole’ gets overloaded. The trenches are seen up close as mazes of mud (when not fully flooded) with cutouts for sleeping and cooking. We see proof of trench foot/gangrene due to the impossibility of proper sanitation, and we hear and see the constant threats of green gas, snipers and artillery shelling – and that’s on top of the relentless smell of death and infusion of rats.

This is about being a soldier … the ramifications of leaders deciding war is the best or only option. Director Jackson makes it personal, and a segment where the British soldiers mix with injured and captured German soldiers proves that these young men have more in common than not. They all just want to survive and go home to their loved ones.

Jackson co-produced the film with his wife Fran Walsh, and with the involvement of the Imperial War Museum and BBC. Controversy surrounds the colorization of archival footage. I would encourage anyone who feels this way to understand this is much different than bastardizing IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE or CASABLANCA, where those directors purposefully lit scenes and sets based on the black and white filming process. Jackson is dealing with war footage from100 years ago, much of it by war photographers or soldiers. The purpose is to cause the people and horrific settings to come alive for those who have never connected with WWI – preserving The Great War for personal and historical purposes. It’s really something to behold.

watch the trailer:


BOB LAZAR: AREA 51 AND FLYING SAUCERS (2018, doc)

December 17, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “This story is extraordinary – especially if it’s true.” This is just one of many incredulous statements from the film’s narrator, Mickey Rourke. And let’s face it, when trying to establish credibility for a story that’s been in doubt for 30 years, who better to lean on than Mickey Rourke? In defense of filmmaker Jeremy Corbell, there is no proving or disproving the story of Bob Lazar. It’s more like a Ripley’s Believe it or Not entry than a forensic study with conclusive results. One either chooses to believe Mr. Lazar, or not … and there is no way to prove which side is “right”.

In 1989, Bob Lazar was interviewed anonymously (in shadows with altered voice), claiming that he worked at S-4, a facility adjacent to Area 51, and that his job was to reverse engineer the propulsion system on alien spacecraft – one of 9 being studied. His anonymity didn’t last long, and the one fact in the film that is beyond debate is that his decision to go public with this story altered his life forever. When Mr. Corbell catches up with Mr. Lazar, we find that he doesn’t come across as a crackpot, and we certainly believe that he believes his story. It’s impressive that he’s gone to great lengths over the years to prove his honesty – hypnosis and polygraphs included.

With input from investigative reporter George Knapp, we learn of FBI raids and numerous attempts at character assassination. There seem to be no records confirming Lazar’s employment or education (Cal Tech, MIT) claims, though we do have photos of one of the raids. And we learn from his mother than he was always conducting experiments, even as a kid. Another gem from narrator Rourke, “Can we be made whole if we aren’t believed?” might have made for a better focus as a (shorter) documentary. Since his story can’t be proven, perhaps a more personal study of the man could be insightful.

We bounce between Nevada, California and Michigan, and director Corbell seems to buy into “The X-Files” claim that ‘the truth is out there’. His choices of the electronic warbles as a score and the ridiculous script for Mr. Rourke to narrate notwithstanding, we do find Corbell and Lazar to be forthright in the presentation, even if their story is never able to “weaponize our curiosity” as initially promised. Proclaiming “reality isn’t what it used to be” doesn’t make it so. One must prove something so, for the doubt to be removed.

watch the trailer:


BAR TALKS BY SCHUMANN (2018, doc)

December 13, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Learning from those at the top of their game is always fascinating, regardless of what their game, industry, business, or talent is. We want to hear what ‘the best’ has to say. What was their path to the pinnacle? What was their formula for success? Director Marieke Schroeder focuses her lense on Charles Schumann, the world famous bar owner, mixologist, and author.  It wouldn’t be wrong to refer to him as the guru of bars.

Mr. Schumann cuts a dashing figure with his shock of long gray hair and his colorful custom suits. His reputation precedes him as he visits world class bars in Munich, New York City, Paris, Havana, Tokyo and Vienna. Schumann has disciples throughout the industry – those that have learned the bar industry from one of his publications (including “Schumann’s Bar Book”), or by studying his own Munich establishment, Schumann’s bar.

As we travel along on his globetrotting-bar-hopping trek, it’s very interesting to see the differences and similarities in bars located thousands of miles from each other. We also get a bit of a history lesson as cocktails are tracked back to 1803, and the evolution of NYC bars from prohibition to disco to today’s more intimate neighborhood bar is noted. There are interviews with barkeeps, bar owners, a cocktail historian and a journalist, and the most interesting segments are the exchanges with Schumann himself – especially with a female bar owner who seeks his respect and acceptance.

We visit Hemingway’s Bar in Paris and learn of the namesake’s family connection, and a trip to Havana educates us on how crucial Cuba became as a U.S. supplier during prohibition. As a bonus, we learn the purity and tradition of creating Cuban rum. The Tokyo segment is quite unusual in that the best bars might have seating for less than 10 people, and the precision ice block-cutting is a rare skill to behold. Another observation from the numerous bar stops is that each bartender has their own style when it comes to the vigorous shaking of certain cocktails.

Charles Schumann is dedicated to the industry and the craft, and is now an influential spokesperson and consultant, in addition to being a well-known bar owner and mixologist.  Director Schroeder changes the music for each locale, and leaves us with a message that seems impossible to argue against: cocktails are a pleasure to drink AND create.

watch the trailer:


FREE SOLO (2018, doc)

December 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Free Solo rock climbing is defined as climbing without use of ropes or safety gear and without a partner. The death rate is off the charts, and it’s difficult to avoid the word ‘crazy’ when describing the act. This film follows renowned free soloist Alex Honnold and his pursuit of Yosemite’s 3000 foot El Capitan wall … one of the most awe-inspiring natural rock formations in the world.

You might assume Alex is one of the “dude” spouting, gnarly-haired, free-spirited types we’ve come to associate with extreme sports, and if so, you’ll be surprised to discover a relatively quiet, kind of geeky, socially awkward thirty-something with a charming smile and reserved personality that leans towards analytical. His success has brought him enough money and recognition that he started a non-profit foundation that brings technology and facilities to impoverished areas around the globe. Alex is an unusual guy who lives in a van and eats meals right from the pan.

Despite the relatively straight-forward goal of accomplishing one of the greatest feats in rock climbing history, there is actually a lot going on in the film. We get familiar with Alex by learning some about his childhood, hearing directly from his mother, listening to his exchanges with climbing legend Tommy Caldwell (himself the subject of the upcoming documentary THE DAWN WALL), and witnessing his first real relationship with Sanni McCandless, whom he met when she attended one of his book signings. There is also a segment on Alex’s MRI where the doctor explains his amygdala requires extraordinary simulation to register on the graph. In other words, his fear factor is mostly non-existent.

The most fascinating segments include his preparations for the climb, and the conflicts about whether he wants the cameras present. Alex and the filmmakers (Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) are equally concerned about whether cameras will distract – will they cause him to make a move he might not otherwise make? The slightest error could lead to instant death, as we learn that dozens of other known climbers have perished in the last few years.

Alex’s preparations are methodical and detailed. Every nuance of El Capitan’s Free Rider path is etched in his mind and his notebook. He is armed only with a bag of rosin, tight-fitting shoes, freakish finger strength, and an other-worldly sense of balance. And of course, his laser-focused mission of perfection … anything less leads to tragedy.

National Geographic is distributing the film, and even those with a certain fear of heights or nausea should be fine watching. The camera crew, who themselves find it difficult to watch Alex in action, captures some amazing shots – whether by wrestling with a camera as they dangle from climbing rope, or perched on the ground with a powerful telescopic lense. Nature is stunning and Alex’s presence brings tension and awe. His existential accomplishments and goals are not for publicity or glory, but simply because that’s how he’s made. The film succeeds in making this point, although we can’t help but utter “crazy” at least a couple times during his momentous climb.

watch the trailer:


MARIA BY CALLAS (2018, doc)

November 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. These days, it’s inconceivable for anyone under 40 years old to think there was a time when the general public knew very little of the private life of celebrities – even those of whom they were dedicated fans. Today, it’s not uncommon for celebrities to pre-package their life, delivering behind-the-scenes details that far too many people care about. Madonna, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and Jennifer Lopez are just a few that have simultaneously tried to appease and manipulate fans into a feeling that they really know the person behind the superstar facade – and perhaps fulfill a fantasy of some common ground. Even more prevalent are the biopics, either in the form of a documentary (WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME) or dramatization (RAY).

Filmmaker Tom Volf realizes that the great Opera singer Maria Callas was known for two things: being a world class soprano/actress and for being difficult to work with … the ultimate diva, one might say. Working with narrator and noted mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, the film expertly reinforces those two traits, and even adds a new label: narcissist. It does so by using (as the title suggests) Maria Callas’ own words taken from interviews, letters to friends, and personal diary entries.

The Greek-American Opera singer/actress was born in Brooklyn to Greek immigrants, and, as a teenager, moved to Athens with her mother and sister after her parents’ marriage fell apart. Director Volf uses a BBC TV interview with David Frost to provide a framing structure to the film, but there are also clips of other interviews shown, and of course, Ms. DiDonato’s readings of the personal Callas writings. We learn Maria was originally controlled by her mother, and then by agents and her husband. Maria attempts to explain how the “difficult” label undeservedly stuck to her for decades due almost entirely to her vocal issues/illness at one sold out performance at the New York Metropolitan. Her own words later contradict, or at least cast much doubt on the accuracy of this simplification.

Archival footage of her life … her mostly glamorous life … is shown throughout, including bits with Aristotle Onassis, filmmaker Vittorio De Sica, actor Omar Sharif, filmmaker Pier Pablo Pasolini, Grace Kelly, and renowned soprano Elvira de Hidalgo, who became Maria’s voice coach. Maria’s fairy tale life is on display: chauffeurs, standing ovations, worshipping fans, and her incredible wardrobe that made her a fashion icon of the times. Her words convey the unhappiness and loneliness she felt, even during the “good times”.

It’s the stage performances that made her famous and took her to the top, so Mr. Volk includes several full-length numbers from Verdi, Bellini, Bizet and others … her glorious talent on full display and surely to inspire awe from any first timers. So while her singing provides a welcome respite from her words, it’s those words … her own words … that seem to solidify her reputation as a diva. Though she claims to have been controlled by others, she managed to take extended breaks throughout her career, and every opera fan and director understands that vocal issues arise periodically, so it’s quite doubtful anyone would hold an extended grudge over such an occurrence.

A substantial portion of the film deals with Maria’s long-term affair with Aristotle Onassis, and how shocked she was, and betrayed she felt, when he married Jackie Kennedy without so much as a word of warning. And when his marriage to Jackie crumbled, he came scurrying back to Maria, who openly welcomed him … a sure sign of just how lonely she had been for most of her life, despite the glamour and adulation. We can debate whether the legacy of Callas might have been better off had her personal thoughts remained buried, but there is little doubt that we are sometimes better off simply enjoying the work or art of a rare talent, rather than getting to know them as a person.

watch the trailer: