TURN EVERY PAGE – THE ADVENTURES OF ROBERT CARO AND ROBERT GOTTLIEB (2022, doc)

December 29, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Writing well is difficult. Very few are really good at, even though many of us try. Editing well is difficult. Very few of us put much effort into it and it shows. Documentarian Lizzy Gottlieb uses her inside track to provide a fascinating look at the relationship between writing and editing at the highest level. Her father, Robert Gottlieb, is one of the most renowned literary editors of the past 50 years, and his relationship with Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist-turned-biographer/author, Robert Caro, goes under the microscope. The result is an insightful peek behind the curtain of their process.

Ms. Gottlieb spent five years on the film, and the two subjects set the ground rules … they refused to be interviewed together in the same room. Because of this, the film begins with each man providing their own personal profile, dating back to their childhood and how they began honing their particular set of skills. Mr. Caro speaks to his newspaper background and how he transitioned into the years long process writing his 1974 classic, “The Power Broker”, a massive biography of Robert Moses and the development of New York City. Ms. Gottlieb provides a contemporary point by noting the book’s COVID resurgence, as it’s frequently seen on the bookshelves of folks during Zoom interviews.

Mr. Gottlieb recalls his first interview and job at Simon and Schuster, and how he worked his way up to Editor-in-Chief at the publishing house, prior to holding the same position at Knopf Publishing, and The New Yorker. Estimating that he has edited between 600 and 700 books, it’s fascinating to hear his recollections on coming up with the ‘22’ for Joseph Heller’s classic, “Catch-22”. Gottlieb also edited such fine writers as Michael Crichton and Toni Morrison, while also fine-tuning a most unusual personal collection unrelated to books.

Most importantly, we get the sense of Mr. Caro’s incredible dedication to deep research in the segment about his multi-volume biographical series, “The Years of Lyndon Johnson.” It’s a bit stunning to witness Caro show his process of utilizing actual carbon paper for copies of all the work he types out on his Smith-Corona. He makes no apologies for being old school in his approach to work.

Ms. Gottlieb’s goal was to document the two men finishing up Caro’s final volume of the LBJ series. Both men are in the 80’s and have worked together on 5 books spanning 50 years … and though the film does end, the final book remains a work in progress. Caro’s literary agent Lynn Nesbit admits the two men’s relationship has been contentious at times, and they’ve been known to have some colorful battles over punctuation … especially semicolons.

This is not a true bio of either man, but rather an expose’ of their working relationship and the painstaking process of completing a book. Their shared commitment to the highest level of work speaks to the pride, ego, and intelligence of each. One of my favorite lines comes from Mr. Gottlieb when he states, “He does the work. I do the cleanup.” The director does finally succeed in getting the two men on camera in the same room for editing … with one big catch. And that comes, of course, after a frantic hunt for a number 2 pencil.

The film opens on December 30, 2022

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ALL THAT BREATHES (2022, doc)

December 12, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. The expert photography and artistic approach taken by Shaunak Sen in his documentary is quite something to behold, even as the message may be a bit heavy-handed. His opening shot perfectly captures all of this, as a sea of rats scrounges for food through the trash while the headlights of an approaching car drive home the point that it’s the humans who have thrown things out of balance.

Most of the film is focused on two brothers, Nadeem and Saud, who have dedicated much of their lives to wildlife rescue … especially as it relates to Kite Birds. Now you may consider yourself a nature lover and even an environmentalist, but these two have reportedly treated over 20,000 birds. That’s what I mean by dedication!

Documentarian Sen has crafted a film that is simultaneously neither and both a nature and climate change film. New Delhi is one of the world’s most overpopulated and polluted cities. The film is meant to remind us that all creatures must breathe the same air, and when that air is so bad that birds drop from the sky, it can be assumed that the other beings of the area – people, rats, dogs, cows, pigs, mosquitoes – are also being negatively impacted.

These brothers believe that their efforts may have a spiritual or religious payoff, but mostly they believe one should make the difference they are able to make, even if that difference is to the Kite birds flying above. We also understand that it’s humans who have corrupted the air and land, and are the force behind wars being fought. Despite all, it’s nature that persists, even if society may not. Sen’s film may be a bit long, but he ensures all viewers understand.

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GOOD NIGHT OPPY (2022, doc)

November 3, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. “Check out the brain on Brad!” There may or may not have been a ‘Brad’ on the NASA team we follow in Ryan White’s documentary, however Samuel L Jackson’s famous line from PULP FICTION certainly holds true for the rest of the team that helped execute the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission. A brief overview outlines the attempts to gain approval, followed by the design and planning and testing to ensure the window for launch was met. See, the launch was scheduled according to a planetary alignment that only occurs every 26 months. A late arrival would have been costly, and possibly ended the program before it really started.

The mission was to send a rover to Mars and have it procure samples from around the red planet in hopes of finding evidence of water, which would likely mean proof of past life. We see some of the design stage as the engineers note the human characteristics, though most movie fans will immediately notice physical similarities to WALL-E. The team created two “twin” robotic rovers named “Spirit” and “Opportunity”. The expectation was that each would have a 90-day lifespan and send scientifically significant data back. The race was on to meet the launch date in 2003, and the two rovers were launched three weeks apart – and to different areas of the planet.

After the 6-and-a-half-month flight time to travel 300 million miles, the two rovers were successfully landed, which only kicked off some of the challenges back on Earth in mission control. It’s here, and with the numerous interviews of team members, that we really get a sense of the emotions running through these folks who had invested so much time and energy into making the mission a reality. Computer engineered reenactments (stunning work from Industrial Light & Magic) help us visualize what happened on Mars, while the archival footage from inside the NASA control room conveys the palpable tension as they helplessly wait for the next signal to arrive.

Although Mr. White’s documentary centers on scientific achievement, much of the focus lands on the human element. We are there to witness first the relief, and then the jubilation as that first signal from Mars is received. Scientists, designers, engineers, and drivers all experience the rollercoaster of emotions driven by the intense camaraderie and teamwork involved. Should you ever doubt whether the smartest people on the planet experience human emotions, you need only look at the faces as daily ‘wake-up songs’ are played, including “Roam” by the B-52s, “SOS” by Abba, “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf. Additionally, after the 90-day window has closed, the annual “cocktail napkin” records each team members prediction about rover survival over the coming year.

Emotions and accomplishments go hand in hand for these NASA types, as do the challenges presented by harsh winters and dust storms that put west Texas to shame. It’s remarkable that Spirit lasted more than 7 years, and Oppy (the “lucky rover”) went for 15, before finally being shut down while Billie Holiday sang “I’ll be Seeing You.” Wisely, director White ends on a high not with the 2020 launch of the new rover, Perseverance. What an inspiring trip this is.

Opens in US theaters on November 4, 2022 and on Prime Video November 23.

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LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S BLACK & BLUES (2022, doc)

October 27, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s likely that the vast majority of folks ten years of age and older have heard, and are familiar with, Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”, “Hello Dolly”, and “When the Saints Go Marching In”. In director Sacha Jenkins’ homage to this icon of American music, Wynton Marsalis states Armstrong deserves even more credit for his influence in jazz. The film offers an in-depth look at Armstrong’s life through his own personal archives – a library of audio tapes and years of meticulous scrapbooking.

We learn of his ties to both New Orleans, where he was raised in poverty, and Queens, where he lived much of his adult life. Of course, he frequently encountered prejudices and racism – often unable to sleep or eat at the establishments where he was performing. Even many blacks criticized him for not being more active in the Civil Rights Movement. Armstrong’s approach was to donate to causes rather than preach, as he knew the power his words would carry. As a kid, he delivered coal to brothels, and it was at age 13 in an orphanage where he received his first horn. Later, he originated scat and his improvisation influenced others, while hitting those high notes became his calling card.

Known to most as either “Satchmo” or “Pops”, Armstrong’s musical instincts and talent were second to none. It’s fascinating to hear James Baldwin state that the first time he liked the “Star Spangled Banner” was when he heard Armstrong play it. We learn of his four wives, though only two are mentioned by name: Lil, the piano player was his first, while Lucille was his last. His personality made Armstrong a hit on TV talk shows and in Hollywood movies. However, the most impactful moments may be watching him prove how music can cross racial barriers as evidenced by his time on stage with Jack Teagarden and Danny Kaye. Louis Armstrong’s sparkling eyes and magnetic smile invited us in, but it’s his music that takes over … even 50 years after his death.

Jenkins’ informative documentary is filled with beautiful music and premieres on Apple TV+ beginning October 28, 2022


SELL/BUY/DATE (2022)

October 15, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Sarah Jones is a Tony winning actress and comedian, and one thing is obvious after watching her first film – she is a sensitive and intelligent person. Co-written with David Goldblum, this partially scripted docu-com is described on screen as an “Unorthodoc”. This is an odd film with seemingly conflicting objectives: documenting the process of adapting Ms. Jones’ stage presentation to the big screen or acknowledging the backlash to this by following her on a philosophical journey of self-discovery.

We begin by meeting Sarah Jones and her troupe of characters: an octogenarian Jewish grandmother, a social media-obsessed twenty-something student, a Puerto Rican women’s advocate, and a mouthy Uber driver. Ms. Jones plays each of these characters. Throughout the film, we also meet her real-life mother Leslie, who is helping and sharing in the grief over the recent death of Sarah’s sister. Over the course of the film, Sarah also crosses paths with some familiar faces like Rosario Dawson, Bryan Cranston, Ilana Grazer, Evan Seinfeld, and others (each of these appear as themselves).

Sarah’s elation at having her work turned into a film is soon thwarted by the social media backlash claiming she has no right to tell the story of sex workers within the sex industry. In other words, Sarah herself becomes a victim of cancel culture and scrambles to find a path forward. Now considered an outsider who is not entitled to tell these stories, she digs in and meets with those in the industry to determine whether they are being exploited or if they view this as seizing an opportunity.

What this boils down to is what we once called research, discussion, and debate – all four-letter words these days, but this was the ‘old school’ way of learning about a topic. Sarah heads to Las Vegas for a sex industry conference and even visits the infamous Chicken Ranch, a legally-operated brothel. Sure, some of the bits feel a bit contrived, but it’s a pleasure, and often entertaining, to see Sarah Jones dig deep to find answers to questions she doesn’t already know the answer to. It turns out that old school research and curiosity can also provide some entertainment value.

Releasing in theaters on October 14, 2022

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THE LAST OUT (2022, doc)

October 3, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Most kids raised in the United States are encouraged to pursue “the American Dream”, however they might define that. For many high school and college baseball players, that means training with an eye towards the major league draft held each year. Co-directors Sami Khan and Michael Gassert explore the fascinating difference for young baseball players in Cuba. With economic sanctions in place against Cuba since 1963, those young players hoping against all odds for a shot at “the show”, must leave their family behind and train in another country.

The film focuses on three players training in Costa Rica: Happy Oliveros, Victor Baro, and Carlos Gonzalez. Filming took place over a few years, and while we can appreciate the sacrifices and commitment these young men display, we only get a taste of their challenges. It’s Los Angeles-based Gus Dominguez, a Cuban-American agent, who finances their training and living expenses, with an agreement that he will take 20% of their signing bonus should an MLB team come calling. We also learn that Mr. Dominguez spent 5 years in prison for human smuggling – bringing folks in illegally from Cuba. Gus has been able to quickly rebuild his career since it’s built on the dreams and desperation of those with few choices.

We see some of the daily training, the try-outs, and the combine in front of MLB scouts. It goes to show the fine line between “enough” talent and “not enough”. These scouts wield great power and control over the young men who have sacrificed so much to get to this point. Shifting tone quickly once Happy gets cut, the film becomes even more in-line with modern day struggles and politics. Rather than return to Cuba, Happy embarks on a journey towards seeking asylum in the United States. Some of the footage of his trip is heart-stopping. While the mental side of his baseball pursuit was difficult, it paled in comparison to this.

At the time filming was completed, only 6 Cuban players had reached the big leagues. Hundreds had tried. Those childhood dreams are the same as every high school player out there … the Cubans just have significantly longer odds of success. We are left to decide if this process exploits these young players or instead offers them their only chance of reaching that childhood dream shared by so many. It’s an eye-opening film that manages to be both bleak and inspirational.

Debuts on PBS Television nationwide on October 3, 2022 and will stream for free on PBS.org until November 2, 2022.

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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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