SCHOOL LIFE (2017, doc)

September 6, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. With all the talk about statues these days, maybe it’s career teachers like John and Amanda Leyden who deserve their bronzed images displayed in public so that we may all pay proper respect. The film follows the married couple during their 46th and final year as educators at Headfort School, the only remaining primary boarding school in Ireland. These two have been inspirational and influential to so many students over the years, and now they find themselves in a quandary about how to leave the only life they’ve known since becoming adults.

Co-writers and co-directors Neasa Ni Chianain and David Rane, along with script consultant Etienne Essery, use a loose structure in documenting the daily activities, and the blending of traditions with modernity, within the somewhat imposing walls of Headfort. We find it pleasurable to focus on passionate, dedicated teachers rather than on what’s broken with today’s education system.

John’s hard line stance and frequent use of sarcasm (“That wasn’t entirely bad”) effectively masks his caring nature and desire to help students learn and improve. He teaches Latin, Math and coaches the student band that plays many familiar rock songs. He considers this just as important as any class. Amanda takes a more traditional approach in teaching Literature. She uses a well-refined mixture of encouragement and books to facilitate the lessons and motivate students to read more.

The past and present are always on display here … with both the institution and this couple. School and home are blurred lines for the students as well as for John and Amanda. “If we don’t come here, what’ll we do all day?” This line speaks to the uncertainty and wariness that are weighing on the couple as their career end approaches.

As viewers, we must keep in mind that these are privileged children, all of whom are likely to move on to elite secondary schools. In fact, the arrival of selection letters plays a role near year end. When alone at home, we hear John and Amanda complain about students, not unlike you probably complain about your co-workers. The difference here is that this man and woman are truly dedicated to helping each student become their best self.

The film style allows the day-to-day challenges to appear as they may, and while little is learned about individual students, it’s clear that John and Amanda are lost about leaving the only working life they’ve experienced … a devotion to helping kids develop. In fact, the Headmaster, Dermot Dix, is a former student of the Leyden’s. The film’s original title, In Loco Parentis, translates to “in place of parents” … we wish these pseudo-parents nothing but the best in the biggest transition of their life. They certainly have earned happiness, and maybe even a statue.

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KIM DOTCOM: CAUGHT IN THE WEB (2017, doc)

August 24, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. On paper, it reads like some cheesy B-movie thriller on the trail of a super-hacker nicknamed “Dr. Evil of the internet” as he builds his empire by stealing the work of others. However, director Annie Goldson is dealing in reality and submerges us in the years-long saga of Kim Dotcom, the (somewhat) proud owner of the Dr Evil moniker. This is every bit as much a commentary on legalities and technology as it is on the ‘livin’ large’ lifestyle of the film’s quite colorful subject.

Bordered by a security wall and monitored by cameras, the sprawling estate in Coatesville New Zealand is where we begin. It’s the home of super-hacker and entrepreneur Kim Dotcom, formerly known as Kim Schmitz, and his wife Mona and their 3 kids. Think Jordan Belfort in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and you’ll have a good idea of the type of extreme parties that Kim and his cohorts hosted. In 2012, a pre-dawn full SWAT gear raid of the estate changed everything – and we are privy to some of the actual footage.

After the raid, law enforcement threw just about every possible charge at him: money laundering, racketeering, and most crucially, copyright infringement. Perhaps you were one of his MegaUpload customers? Millions of people were, and he banked hundreds of millions of dollars from his site – a site designed for users to share files with others. Of course, it turned into a site where mostly what was uploaded and shared were digital copies of movies and music. The files spread across the globe while leaving artists and production companies empty-handed with no royalties. The question of law boiled down to this: can an online provider be protected or insulated from the (illegal) actions of its users?

Kim Dotcom has been described as a parasite, a criminal and as evil. Obviously, he sees himself much differently. While reveling in his “most wanted man online” badge, he prefers to position himself as a resistance fighter … one who has simply seized an opportunity afforded by a technological revolution of which lawmakers can’t maintain pace.

Director Goldson provides as much structure as possible to a messy and multi-faceted legal story, while also presenting the super-sized personality of Kim Dotcom … a man driven by ego, greed, and fame. He clearly thrives on his celebrity status (as evidenced by his participation in a Town Hall meeting with Julian Assange and Edward Snowden), and from a very early age became quite comfortable with relaxed ethics in our ever-evolving culture of technology.

In an era of dissolving morals, he is a difficult man to muster sympathy for. It does seem, however, that he was at a minimum, a victim of over-reaching by law enforcement (from New Zealand and United States). The legalities of the search warrant and charges are a bit murky (and still being challenged), and viewers will likely teeter between ‘lock him up’ and ‘modernize the laws’. We all know the universal internet is tied to the global economy, so why are international copyright laws so fragmented and antiquated? Instead of a B-movie thriller, Ms. Goldson has delivered a true-to-life horror story … one with no clear resolution in sight.

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CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER (doc, 2017)

August 17, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. QWERTY. Chances are you recognize that from your laptop keyboard, and have never thought about the origin or design reason. This is just one of the fascinating topics in the surprisingly interesting and entertaining documentary from Doug Nichol (former music video guru for Aerosmith, Lenny Kravitz, Sting, and The New Kids on the Block).

Did you know there are folks who collect and still use typewriters? Well there are, and you’ve even heard of some of them: Tom Hanks, Sam Shepard, David McCullough and John Mayer. We hear from each of these as they describe their connection to the “old school” way of producing text on a page.

Mr. Nichol began with the idea of making a short film focusing on a small typewriter repair shop in Berkeley. As the story evolved, he learned of the many facets associated with the community of typewriter enthusiasts … those who refuse to give up the old way simply because a new way exists. There is history. There is nostalgia. There is a link to creativity. The film explores all of this and more.

Christopher Latham Sholes was a believer in Women’s Rights in the 1800’s, and his invention of the typewriter was to create more job opportunities for women. His prototype looked more like a piano, and due to a lack of investor interest, he finally had to sell to Remington in order to get production and marketing. By 1890, there were 60 manufacturers of typewriters, and the Sholes and Glidden model remains a gem of any collection even today.

It’s bittersweet to see the recently deceased Sam Shepard and hear him explain how he never got along with a computer screen, but loves the feel and sound of his typewriter. He created some of the most marvelous plays ever written, and compares loading the paper to ‘saddling a horse’, and notes the sound of typing has a “percussion about it”.

John Mayer recalls seeing Bob Dylan “playing” a typewriter as he wrote his songs, and has since made it apart of his own songwriting process. An inordinate amount of time is spent with Mayer onscreen, but it does make the point that even the generation raised on technology can find value in an object that was once an office staple, and is now a mere relic to most. Writer David McCullough claims the typewriter is the only way he can write, and Tom Hanks seems to truly enjoy talking about his typewriter obsession, and how he spends time each day typing out thank you notes and correspondence.

The repair shop is the heart of the story, and we continually come back to Ken Alexander as he lovingly restores each machine that comes in. It’s with a bit of irony that we watch Ken and the store owner Herb come to realize that they must rely on today’s technology of websites and social media as a last hope for survival.

In stark contrast to Ken bringing typewriters back to life, we see modern sculptor Jeremy Mayes as he scavenges for typewriter parts for his latest piece. And in an odd twist, we meet a group who makes music with typewriters and actually perform classic songs with their own vibe.

Nostalgia has brought back vinyl records, and there is a community of folks who believe the typewriter revolution is underway. The rationale is that technology is now ruling our lives and we need to step back and get in touch with what is real and produce tangible results – not just use up storage on a hard drive. While we may not be convinced that “the revolution is typewritten” (from The Typewriter Insurgency Manifesto), the film is actually thought-provoking as it tracks and connects humans-machines-technology.

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STEP (2017, doc)

August 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Amanda Lipitz proves that a documentary can be both inspiring and a bit sad. She takes us inside the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women and introduces us to the senior girls on the Step dance squad known as the “Lethal Ladies”. The school was founded in 2009 with the goal of sending every student to college, in spite of the challenges and barriers faced in this inner city community. This is the school’s first senior class, and everyone – students, teachers, parents, administration – is on edge.

Emotions overflow throughout the film. The normal roller coaster ride that accompanies high school girls is somehow magnified when the pressures of becoming the first one in the family to attend college collide with such harsh realities as poor grades, no food in the fridge, no power in the home, and inconsistent support from parental units. There is also the goal of winning the year-end Step competition against schools that have a more successful track record, and who likely don’t face the extremes of Baltimore street violence and poverty that is normal for these girls each day.

Ms. Lipitz’ film, a Sundance award winner, never backs away from the emotion of the moment and yet still manages to maintain the long-game perspective of trying to get each of these students graduated and accepted into college. She dives into the home lives of a few of these girls and though all of the parents want the best for the kids, it’s quite obvious that the type of home support and structure varies widely even amongst these few we follow.

The real beauty of this environment is that the school provides structure, guidance and support all along the way. The Step coach pushes them hard daily towards being the best they can be going into the competition. The girls also push themselves and each other, and overcome some personality conflicts, all for the sake of a stronger team. The school principal has one-on-one meetings to light a fire when necessary, and you’ve likely never seen a more dedicated high school college counselor who doles out hugs and motivation in whatever dosage is necessary.

The key message here is that it takes a combination of inner-strength and drive, and a support system of family, teachers, coaches, administrators and friends, for kids to have a chance at finding a way to succeed at life … whether that’s at Johns Hopkins or a local community college program. This is a special film with a real-world case study of students looking for a way up, and of those looking to provide the necessary boost.

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IT’S NOT YET DARK (2017, doc)

August 3, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We all have two kinds of friends: those who sulk for days when the candy machine eats their quarter, and those with such zest for life that no personal or professional tragedy dampens their “can do” spirit. Director Frankie Fenton presents the remarkable story of Simon Fitzmaurice, an Irish writer and filmmaker who is robbed of his body by MND (Motor Neuron Disease).

Fellow Irishman Colin Farrell narrates the film, giving poignancy to Simon’s own words … words he can no longer speak himself. As a writer and filmmaker, Simon’s “before” life is documented through pictures, videos and many of his thoughts on the page. He was a youngster full of ideas and energy. We learn this from his father Damien, his mother Florence, his younger sister Kate and childhood friend Phil. More than any other, we learn it from his wife Ruth. In fact, this is as much Ruth’s story as it is Simon’s. She is a special lady in love with a special man. Their story will likely resonate with you.

In 2008, Simon’s short film THE SOUND OF PEOPLE was selected to screen at Sundance. Not long after, he was diagnosed and given 3-4 years to live. Less than 10 years later, he became the subject of this documentary which was also a Sundance selection. It’s not the path he envisioned, but as he says, “For me it’s not about how long you live, it’s how you live.”

This cruel disease allows him to feel everything, yet he can’t walk, speak, breathe or eat without artificial help. The film shows us how Simon documented the many phases of the disease, right down to his last dance. One form of “artificial help” allowed him to return to filmmaking. He utilized eye gaze technology to finish writing and then direct his first feature film, MY NAME IS EMILY. With all of his physical challenges and the support of his wife and kids, it’s wrapping the movie that proved to him that he “made it back to work”. It provides the answer to his earlier question, “What is a man?”

It’s touching to hear Ruth describe how the hiring of a nurse allowed her to go back to being a wife and mother, rather than a care-giver. She and Simon even later had twins (kids #4 and 5), and he wrote a best-selling book/memoir on which this film is based. Last year the documentary GLEASON provided a similarly inspirational story about Steve Gleason, an NFL player stricken with ALS. These two films and these two men (and their wives) provide a sentimental, sincere and life-affirming message that life is worth fighting for and living to the fullest.

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AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL: TRUTH TO POWER (2017, doc)

July 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Eleven years ago, former Vice President Al Gore teamed up with filmmaker Davis Guggenheim to deliver a significant and startling wake-up call in the form of the documentary AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH. Not only was this the first introduction to the science of “global warming” for many, it also won an Oscar for Mr. Guggenheim and contributed to Mr. Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Co-directors Bonni Cohen (THE RAPE OF EUROPA) and Jon Shenk (LOST BOYS OF SUDAN) seem conflicted on the purpose of this sequel. Is this a frightening eye-opener on the climate-related changes over this past decade, or is it an attempt to return the spotlight to a faded rock star? The film provides evidence of both.

The film kicks off with a reminder of how powerful the original documentary was and how it started an avalanche of deniers … even re-playing Glenn Beck’s comparison of Al Gore to Joseph Goebbels as being weak sources of truth. Mr. Gore is on screen almost the entire run time. He is a self-described “recovering politician”, yet we see him acting very much like an esteemed politician: presenting on stage, shaking hands with the adoring crowds, posing for selfies, giving speeches, appearing on talk shows, and coming across as a highly-polished public figure reciting well-rehearsed lines.

As we would expect, the film is at its best when it focuses not on the celebrity and commitment of Mr. Gore, but rather on the statistics and documentation of these earth-changing developments. Some of the featured videos are surreal: the 2016 Greenland glaciers “exploding” due to warm temperatures, the flooded streets of Miami Beach from rising tides, and the aftermath of the Philippines typhoon are particularly impactful. There is even a connection made between the severe drought and the Syrian Civil War in creating an especially inhumane living environment. A Gore trip to Georgetown, Texas and his visit with its Republican mayor is effective in making the point that political platforms should have no bearing on our doing the right things for our planet. There simply aren’t enough of these moments.

A central focal point is the 2015 UN Climate Conference in Paris, and cameras are rolling when terrorism causes fear for the safety of 150 heads of state, and necessitates a delay in the proceedings. We are privy to some of the behind-the-scenes negotiations that include Solar City agreeing to “gift” technology to India in an attempt to have that country join the accord and reduce from 400 the number of planned new coal plants. Of course as we now know, the historic Paris Climate Accord has since been compromised with the pull out of the United States after the recent election.

Is the purpose of the film to keep climate change believers motivated, or are the filmmakers (and Gore) attempting to educate those who might still be won over? With so much attention to Mr. Gore’s ongoing efforts (and an attempt to solidify his legacy), it often plays like a pep talk rather than a fact-based documentary.

There is no questioning the man’s passion, though his screen presence over two hours is hampered by his reserved manner. He states clearly that he is “not confused about what the right thing to do is”, and even compares his mission to the Civil Rights movement. Gore labels the lack of global process as a “personal failure on my part”, while simultaneously claiming the Democracy crisis has affected the attention given to the climate crisis. His frequent proclamations that “we are close” seem to be in conflict with the many setbacks. Are we close? The film seems to offer little proof.

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LEFTOVERS (2017, doc)

July 13, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. I can’t ever recall a documentary starting with the filmmaker explaining that the subject matter was neither a passion, nor even something he was particularly interested in. But that’s exactly how Seth Hancock opens his film. He claims to never have thought much about aging, yet was asked to make a film on hunger within the senior citizen community, based on his experience as a photographer.

“Food Insecure” seniors was a new description learned during the film. The statistics show 6 million seniors go hungry every day, and there are others who experience uncertainty over the when/where/what of their next meal. These are the ‘lost and forgotten’. It’s a national disgrace. Meals on Wheels was a major backer of the film, as were some other organizations that assist seniors.

Director Hancock divides the film into three parts: Learning to Care, Giving a S**T, and Looking for Solutions. He bounces around the United States and offers segments based in Marin County California, Owsley County Kentucky, Orlando, Detroit, and Austin. Each area has their own issues, but the problems are remarkably similar – we just don’t do a very good job of making sure the elderly have enough to eat, and are properly cared for.

It’s pointed out that these are the folks who fought our wars, built our towns, and educated our populace. They deserve better. There is a particularly interesting interview with Carla Laemmle, a former dancer and actress. She is the niece of the legendary Carl Laemmle who founded Universal Studios. Carla explains that without her daily delivery from Meals on Wheels she would be “stuck” in a retirement center or hospital, instead of living in her own home.

The film mixes in interviews with the CEO’s of Meals on Wheels and AARP, as well as numerous senior citizens and volunteers. Many statistics are provided throughout, and it’s noted that every dollar invested in Meals on Wheels saves up to $50 in Medicaid. Other statistics are equally stunning and eye-opening, including the projected number of seniors in 2020 and the importance of Social Security benefits as the bulk of income for seniors.

Frustration with government and politicians is expressed many times, as is the good-heartedness of so many folks (many of whom also are frustrated by bureaucracy) who strive to bring a little joy – and food – into the lives of unfortunate seniors. Health Care and Socialization are touched on, as is the contrast in Texas of the applications for handguns (1 page) versus food stamps (18 pages). The issue of hunger for senior citizens is not going away, and it’s time for real solutions – not just because it’s the humane thing, but also because the folks deserve better.