THE MILLIONAIRES’ UNIT (2018, doc)

February 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Imagine, if you will, a world where the one-percenters view their privileged life as carrying more responsibility towards civic duty, not less. While that’s difficult to conceive these days, the film takes us back 100 years to the beginning of WWI, and introduces a group of Yale students who believed exactly that. Co-directors Darroch Greer and Ron King provide the best kind of history lesson – one told through personal stories.

WWI, “the war to end all wars”, lasted about 4 years and featured new technology such as machine guns, tanks, and airplanes (Wright brothers first flight was 1903). Though U.S. President Woodrow Wilson stated the country would remain “neutral”, a young visionary named Trubee Davison saw things a bit differently. Trubee was a student at Yale University and the son of HP Davison, a powerful JP Morgan executive. Trubee was also a natural-born leader and inspired a group of his classmates to join the First Yale Unit … a flying club dubbed The Millionaire’s Unit by the media.

The film tracks their training and subsequent call to service during the war. They became the first Naval aviators in WWI, and the Naval Reserve Flying Corps actually preceded the US Air Force. We see spectacular clips from the era, along with reenactments (dogfights!), photos, and letters/correspondence to/from the men. Actor Bruce Dern enthusiastically narrates, and it’s interesting to note that he is the grandnephew of one of these Yale pilots.

Profiles of a hand full of these men are remarkably well done and help us understand that each were defined by their service and dedication to the cause and to each other. Much of the focus is on Trubee, a fascinating guy who later spent time as Assistant Secretary of Defense and Director of Personnel at the CIA; however, we also get to know Robert Lovett, Kenney MacLeish, “Di” Gates, and Dave Ingalls – each an interesting story, and in combination, stunning in that so few of us have been exposed to their courage.

The 2006 book, “The Millionaire’s Unit”, written by Marc Wortman, was the basis of this documentary that took longer to complete than WWI actually lasted. These young men were volunteers who, despite their elite social and financial standing, believed so strongly in “fighting for the ideals we hold sacred”, that they risked it all – some paying the ultimate price. As you might expect, after the November 11, 1918 Armistice was signed, most of these Elis continued serving their beloved country in some capacity. Theirs is a story that deserves to be told with the respect and personal aspect afforded by the film.

watch the trailer:

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POOP TALK (2018, doc)

February 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Poop. Poo, doodie, s**t, feces, excrement, doo-doo, dung, dookie, defecate, bowel movement, and number 2. Director Aaron Feldman threatens to waste (pun) our time by opening on comedians dumping (another one) their various forms of scatological humor. Instead he leaves us a special surprise (!) by creating some kind of docu-comedy on poop that also serves as a bit of an awkward sociological case study.

The surprise here is that the comedians from the opening never stop. They ARE the movie. It’s actually 75 minutes of comedians riffing on poop. They tell us their jokes, but more interestingly, they tell us the motivations for this line of humor. Indelicacies and embarrassment are what drives comedy, and I counted 39 different folks providing some insight here. Rather than a rant, it’s more of a case study on the realities of why we draw such a hard line between our public persona and the regular (hopefully) occurrence in the privacy (also hopefully) of a bathroom/toilet. Even that last part isn’t a given, as the process in other countries like Korea and India is detailed.

The Sklar brothers are Executive Producers and also provide some terrific on screen segments, but the list is too long to name all of the participants – most of whom you will recognize. I’ve seen some documentaries that might best be labeled as turds, but never one who focuses on that topic. Why is it taboo?  Are there differences in how men and women tend to treat this (definitely yes)? The laughs are aplenty and its flush (the last one) with insight from comedians. That’s enough reason to sit through this one … and you won’t even need a magazine!

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THE MEMORY OF FISH (2018, doc)

January 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Nutritionists consistently advocate for the consumption of more salmon for a healthy diet … wild salmon, specifically. It’s one of the few dietary recommendations that hardly anyone bemoans. Most of us really enjoy a tasty grilled salmon, and the fact that it’s “good” for us puts it in the rare food category of ‘yummy and healthy’ (not an officially recognized category).  It’s what would be a perfect plan, were it not for the challenges in tracking down true wild salmon at the local supermarket. Salmon habitat and breeding grounds have been compromised and even destroyed through encroachment, and for the needs of the human race.

It’s exactly this situation, and the decades-long efforts of one man, that are the focus of this documentary from co-directors Jennifer Galvin and Sachi Cunningham. Dick Goin lives on the Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest, and he is especially connected to the Elhwa River. The film opens with his recorded voice from 1983 as he discusses his memories of the river packed with 50-60 pound salmon taking advantage of the gravel river bottom, and then how they basically disappeared when the two giant dams were built to supply power to the area.

Mr. Goin describes the river as being broken from 1911 through 2014 when the dams were in place. He emotionally describes his personal conflict at working for one of the mills being powered by the dams … even as he was fighting for their destruction in order to free the river. Working at the mill was a choice necessary for life – a difficult decision that required compromise. The dams, though engineering marvels, were the enemy of nature.

Clearly passionate, the elderly Mr. Goin speaks with humble respect and awe of the “madhouse” river. The underwater photography is effective, especially when blended with the archival footage from previous interviews Mr. Goin conducted. The video clips of the dams being destroyed are fascinating, but not nearly as gut-wrenching as the once vital Mr. Goin slowly and unsteadily makes his way back to the river, after the dam destruction, so he can personally witness the return of the salmon. As he describes the efforts of a struggling salmon as having done what she was here for … we can’t help but acknowledge the parallels with Mr. Goin’s own life.


SECRETS OF SPANISH FLORIDA (PBS doc, 2017)

December 26, 2017

 

Greetings again from the darkness. Most of us have been spoon-fed the same basic history of the first settlements in the United States. Sure, you’ve heard mention of the Vikings, but it’s more probable your textbooks referred to the Plymouth Rock landing and the British settlement of Jamestown as “the beginning”. This latest entry in the PBS series “Secrets of the Dead” explores the relatively recent information that has been compiled in regards to the role of Spain, France, Britain, and the Native Americans in the state of Florida some five decades prior to the Pilgrim landings.

St. Augustine, Florida has long been recognized as the oldest city in the United States, and it’s only recently that more of the details of its place in history have been discovered. It occupies a central role in the story told here by Historians, Archaeologists, and Archivists as they guide us through a timeline of events that should definitely be taught to U.S. students. It seems clear we have inherited the British version of American history, which ignores the importance of Spain and the melting pot of nationalities that first settled.

The documentary kicks off in September 1565 and carries us through the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and into the mid-19th century. We are informed of such key figures as Pedro Menendez de Aviles, Jean Ribault, Sir Francis Drake, and the most fascinating story of Francisco Menendez. The realities of British slavery vs Spanish slavery is detailed, specifically the first settlement of free Africans which occurred 125 years prior to the Emancipation Proclamation.

One of those interviewed refers to this as American History “Revised”, and it should more likely be referred to as American History “Corrected”. With so much attention and action occurring in Florida, we should all be educated on how the various battles and settlements played a role in establishing the foundation of this country. In this two hour window, PBS provides an enormous amount of new information … presented in a manner that makes sense for most anyone old enough to understand the importance.


LIVING ON SOUL (2017, doc)

December 3, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Barely a year after the 1969 Woodstock festival, both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were dead. Fortunately, the movie cameras were rolling to capture their electrifying performances for generations to come. A few years later, director Martin Scorsese (an assistant director on WOODSTOCK) was there to capture on film the final live performance of The Band (and many famous friends) in THE LAST WALTZ. Jump ahead to 2014 and co-directors Cory Bailey and Jeff Broadway were at the historic Apollo Theater to capture the 3 night sold out shows honoring Daptone Records.

The Harlem venue and stage has seen many memorable performances from icons such as James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday, but even according to historian Billy “Mr. Apollo” Mitchell, this was an event for the ages. Among those delivering the highest level of soul, funk, gospel and R&B music were The Dap-Kings, Charles Bradley, Naomi Shelton, Como Mamas, Antibalas, The Budos Band, and of course, the great Sharon Jones.

In addition to the energetic and energizing performances, the film mixes in some back story for many of the artists, plus insight from Daptone Records co-founders Gabe Roth (aka Bosco Mann) and Neal Sugarman (they know plenty about funk!). If the on stage dynamics weren’t so amazing to watch, we might wish for even more history being told, but not much can compete with Sharon Jones kicking off her shoes for a rousing rendition of “Get Up and Get Out”.

I promise you’ve never heard a cancer-free proclamation like the one from Ms. Jones, who was also front and center in the 2015 documentary MISS SHARON JONES!. Unfortunately, the cancer returned and she passed away a year after the Apollo shows. It should also be mentioned that Charles Bradley, a centerpiece of Daptone Records passed away just a couple of months ago (September 2017). We can celebrate their performances just as much as the mixture of black and white who perform together on stage, while the cheering and dancing in the crowd comes from a surprising blend of the same. It’s a stark reminder of how music can unify even while most of society fragments.

watch the trailer:

 

 


VOYEUR (2017, doc)

November 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We are watching the final product of filmmakers watching a reporter watching a man whose hobby is watching those who don’t know they are being watched. Lacking a single redeeming individual, the film’s creep factor slithers towards 11 on the (“SPINAL TAP”) scale.

It’s understandable if you assume this is the story of a pathetic and disgusting Aurora, Colorado motel owner who, for many years, quietly leered at his guests from a self-constructed perch in the attic. Gerald Foos methodically documented the sexual actions of the Manor House Motel guests, which numbered 2000-3000 per year. If his actions aren’t remarkable (not in a good way) enough, Mr. Foos actually married not one, but two women who were complicit in his hobby.

In 1980, renowned reporter and author (“from age 15 to 80”) Gay Talese received a letter from Gerald Foos, kicking off a three decade relationship culminating in a controversial feature article in “The New Yorker” and a book entitled “The Voyeur’s Motel”. Once Mr. Foos agrees to have his name published, co-directors Myles Kane and Josh Koury jump on board to document the final steps in Mr. Talese’s writing and research process. It’s here that we enter the oddest man cave you’ll likely see. In the basement of Talese’s immaculate Manhattan brownstone is not just his writing office, but also a lifetime of research and writing … boxes and shelves of material that will surely one day be part of a museum or university collection.

The unexpected parallels between writer and subject are made clear. Both are voyeurs and both are collectors. As a journalist, Talese observes the actions of people, while Foos is quite obviously the definition of a Peeping Tom. Talese collects the years of research for his writings, while Foos shows off his extraordinary sports memorabilia collection (also in his basement). Beyond these similarities, what stands out most are the unbridled egos of these two men. Both seemed most focused on getting or keeping their names and stories in the headlines. Of course, Talese has built a career on his name and reputation, while the aging Foos simply sees this as his legacy that somehow deserves historical prominence.

The filmmakers remain more focused on Talese than Foos, and that takes us inside “The New Yorker” where the editors are justifiably concerned about a single-source story – one that without Talese’s name attached would likely have never made it past an initial perusal. The aftermath of publication reminds us that we’ve seen con men before, and there is little joy in being taken on a long ride of deceit. Perhaps the best description of what we see on screen is that it’s a sideshow of ego and the need to be seen (watched).

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BIG SONIA (2017, doc)

November 18, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Some people anxiously await the day they can retire and spend their days fishing or reading, while others put it off as long as possible since they find their identity through work. The diminutive subject of this terrific documentary is 91 year old Sonia Warshawski. Her reasons for maintaining a 6 day work week (and doodling) are both heart-warming and chilling, and make for a fascinating story.

Filmmakers Todd Soliday and Leah Warshawski (Sonia’s granddaughter) do their part in allowing the charming and fiery lady to deliver her own message and recount the horrors of her childhood. Sonia is a Holocaust survivor. As a 13 year old in 1939 Poland, she and her family were taken. She never again saw her father or brother, took multiple beatings while being shuffled through 3 death camps (including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen), and ultimately watched her mother led into the gas chamber. In her own words, she says she “was in hell”, and it’s “a miracle” she made it out.

You might assume that anyone who has experienced so much pain would be bitter and cynical, but that’s not Sonia’s way. In addition to running her tailor shop for 35 years, she is also an inspirational speaker at churches, schools and prisons. We get to see her in these presentations and we are struck by how her words carry such weight with the audiences – young and old. One of the convicts provides insight when he states, “It takes people who’ve been through something to reach those going through something”. We also witness the way she connects with teenage students … something most of us have little success with.

Of course, Sonia has embraced her story, but the emotions and pain are never far from her. She stays busy to keep the memories at bay, and finds the idea of retirement somewhat frightening. We meet her 3 children and hear stories of their childhood and her husband John, also a Holocaust survivor. John died from Alzheimer’s complications, but he is remembered fondly by all. It’s so touching to watch as Sonia shows us her mother’s 75 year old scarf which she keeps under her pillow, and we are mesmerized as she recounts the incredible story of her liberation day.

An NPR radio interview provides some structure throughout, but it’s not necessary as we would follow Sonia wherever she leads. It’s so much fun to watch her Overland Park customers greet her in the now-defunct shopping mall, and it’s downright hilarious as she sports her favorite animal prints on her coat, shoes and purse … and even the cover on the steering wheel that she can barely see over! Mostly this is a life lesson from a master who teaches us “don’t carry hate” … even though she admits to being unable to forgive. She leaves that to a higher power. She is the best example we could have for keeping history alive and spreading love and goodness.

watch the trailer: