FILM SCHOOL AFRICA (doc, 2019)

January 16, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The reason for the delayed release is unknown to me (it was filmed in 2017), and has no bearing on the inspirational message and story provided by Nathan Pfaff’s film. In this era of divisiveness and distasteful comments and judgments, it’s a true pleasure to watch folks dedicating themselves to a cause that changes the lives of those less fortunate.

Between 1941 and 1991 Apartheid racially divided the country of South Africa. The line between rich and poor was almost exclusively black and white, and even 30 years later, many of the impoverished citizens have been unable to improve their standard of living. When hope is lost, all is lost. And hope is what Hollywood casting director Katie Taylor was offering when she founded Film School Africa (FSA). For those raised in poverty, filmmaking was never considered a viable career option – it was for “them” not “us”.

Ms. Taylor changed that in 2008 by offering eager youngsters the opportunity to learn filmmaking techniques. Her classes covered how to hold a camera, how to shoot a scene, editing techniques, how to effectively use music and sound, and the details of structuring a 3-act story. All of this was new to the first class of students, but the enthusiasm was infectious. It was clear, the class had made a difference for these students.

Eight years later, with a blossoming career in film, Ms. Taylor decided to leave it all behind and return to South Africa – making FSA her life’s work. She sensed that “Art Therapy” could not only turn the personal lives of these students into fascinating film projects, but more importantly the skills she was teaching could offer the students a path out of poverty. These personal lives included abuse, alcoholism, poor nutrition, and overall challenging family dynamics.

We also meet Marie, a professional film editor and native to South Africa. Her work with FSA began as something temporary where she was helping out, but evolved into her being someone the students and Katie depend on. The enthusiasm and energy of these students makes us excited for them. We look forward to seeing clips of their work, and mostly we enjoy watching as they take on new skills and learn the value of collaboration and teamwork.

When asked what they want to accomplish with filmmaking, the students’ answers include “be awesome” and “change the world.” They get it. They know film gives them a shot they never dared dream of. It’s easy to see that Katie Taylor has found her life’s calling, and the students show her the ultimate respect by giving her the title “sisKatie”. She is a mentor, yet so much more. One of the students describes her as becoming a mother to the black community. It’s people like Katie Taylor who give us hope that the racial divide may one day vanish.

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ONE CHILD NATION (doc, 2019)

December 21, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Living in a free society means we get to make many of our own life decisions … big ones and small. Of course, those decisions are best if managed within generally accepted societal norms. Most of us can’t even imagine living under the rule of a government that controls something as personal as the number of kids we can have in our family. Well, in 1979 China imposed a “one child” policy. It stood for more than three decades, until 2015. Filmmakers Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang give us an insider’s glimpse of the effects of this policy by talking to the folks who lived through it.

Ms. Wang was born in China and moved to the U.S. Having recently had a baby, she decided to return to her birth country and explore the effects of the policy under which she was born. The social experiment and restrictive policy was instituted out of desperation for a country whose population was booming, yet the economy and food supply were a mess. She shows us the propaganda that was seemingly everywhere – from artwork on neighborhood walls to television shows. The approach was to make people think this was their patriotic duty, and that one child was the idyllic life.

What has never been discussed or studied was the dark side of what the policy meant. It was a system that encouraged boys and downgraded girls. To Ms. Wang’s credit, she interviews those on both sides of the policy – those who believe it was necessary and prevented over-population, and those who tell the horror stories of families torn apart, babies abandoned, and the secretive human trafficking that occurred. It’s quite devastating to hear these people discuss the personal impact.

The film is autobiographical in nature, in that Ms. Wang is our narrator, often appears on camera, and even interviews her own family members – both to personalize the story and to educate herself. Hearing the story of her grandfather stepping in to prevent sterilization of Nanfu’s mother is incredible. We learn she later had a son who became the favored child within the family. And yes, we get details … very specific details … on the forced sterilizations and abortions that occurred. One doctor takes credit for ‘tens of thousands’ of abortions and sterilizations, which Ms. Wang effectively contrasts with America’s ever-increasingly restrictive abortion policies. These are the two extremes in preventing women’s control of their own bodies.

No top government officials are interviewed, but the implications are quite clear. We even learn of the Utah organization Research-China.org that researches Asian children adopted during this era, often with the adoptive parents unaware of what was happening in China. We even learn of a set of twins who were separated at birth – one raised in the U.S., the other in China. They have never met. Ms. Wang is quite effective as a documentarian-journalist. Though the film lacks any attempt at style points, the details are astounding. She even shows how the Chinese government transitioned from ‘one child’ to marketing the benefits of a “two child” household, and how the propaganda machine kicked in. This film is all about impact, and it will deliver a gut-punch.

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MIDNIGHT FAMILY (doc, 2019)

December 6, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It would be easy to question why a family would choose to run a private ambulance service in a city where they may or may not get paid. It’s only when we know one stunning statistic that their reasoning becomes clear. In Mexico City, the government operates only 45 ambulances for a population of nearly 9 million people. Director-cinematographer-editor-producer Luke Lorentzen takes us inside the ambulance with the Ochoas as they work the streets in the business they’ve run for almost 20 years … it’s a business that fills a necessary gap in emergency services.

Teenager Juan is the most talkative of the crew that includes his father, a younger brother and a friend of the family. We are never certain whether their service or vehicle is properly licensed, whether they are certified, or even if actual licenses and certifications exist. What we do know is that when a medical emergency occurs, a two-plus hour wait for a city ambulance makes the private services much more appealing … and, quite frankly, necessary.

Mr. Lorentzen serves up some terrific camera work, focusing mostly on the family rather than the patients they are providing service for. In the blink of an eye, the Ochoa family goes from utter boredom to a life-and-death situation where response time is crucial. Timing is important not just for medical reasons, but for competitive ones as well. Often there are two races occurring – the race to reach the patient, and the race against another ambulance. What is clear is that once on the scene, the Ochoas are very professional and caring … whether it’s a gunshot wound, a child that’s fallen four stories from a window, or a woman who has been physically assaulted by her boyfriend (and needs a hug, as well as an ambulance).

Corruption is everywhere in this cutthroat industry. From a government who refuses proper care for its citizens to a police force accepting bribes to private ambulance services on retainer from certain hospitals. For the Ochoas, the police scanner is as vital to their business as the medical supplies in the back where the youngest brother munches chips between calls. A loudspeaker is necessary as they race through the city streets admonishing cyclists and cab drivers to get out of the way for a medical emergency.

The Ochoas treat hundreds of patients each year, and when they aren’t responding to calls, they are scrubbing the blood from the vehicle or resting up for another stressful night. We hear their philosophy in providing care for those who might not otherwise get to the hospital on time, and we understand this family does care very much about their chosen profession … this in spite of the fact that so many refuse to pay them, or simply can’t afford to. It’s a constant hustle that keeps the family on the edge financially, although they can hold their head up high knowing they provide a valuable service. Lorentzen’s camera work ensures we feel the intensity and stress of each and every call.

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QT8: THE FIRST EIGHT (doc, 2019)

December 4, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Quentin Tarantino has been praised as the cinematic “voice of his generation.” His influence on other filmmakers is as obvious as those who have influenced him. This is a celebration of Tarantino the filmmaker, and also somewhat of a response to his critics. Tara Wood’s documentary never hides that she’s a fan, and to her credit, she hits head-on the 3 controversies associated with her subject: the use of the “N-word”, Uma Thurman’s stunt car accident while filming KILL BILL, and his friendship and business relationship with the despicable Harvey Weinstein.

Tarantino has publically stated that he will retire from filmmaking after directing his 10th film. Ms. Wood’s film covers his first eight, from RESERVOIR DOGS in 1992 to THE HATEFUL EIGHT in 2015. Because this documentary was tied up and delayed in the Miramax quagmire, there is also a brief mention of Tarantino’s 9th film ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, released this year. The film kicks off with some background information from Producer Stacey Sher, mentions of his writing for TRUE ROMANCE and NATURAL BORN KILLERS, and a fascinating tidbit involving how QT used his pay from appearing as an Elvis impersonator on “The Golden Girls” to initially fund his career in filmmaking.

Ms. Wood then divides her film into three chapters, thereby categorizing and providing insight on each. “Chapter 1 – The Revolution” includes RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION, both ground-breakers in their own way and they announced “an astonishing new voice” in movies. The best behind-the-scenes bit comes courtesy of actor and Tarantino regular Michael Madsen who initially objected to being Mr. Blonde, complaining “I didn’t want to get killed by Tim Roth.” Of course, it was PULP FICTION that elevated Tarantino to a new stratosphere – oh, and it also allowed for the stunning comeback of John Travolta.

“Chapter 2 – Badass Women and Genre Play” covers JACKIE BROWN, KILL BILL and DEATH PROOF. The first of those films, each which featured very strong women, was an ode to the Blaxploitation era, the second was influenced by Hong Kong cinema, and the third is described by Zoe Bell as Tarantino’s ‘thank you’ to industry stunt people. Perhaps the most important element of this chapter was that, despite the affirmations, he refused to serve up a repeat PULP FICTION … yet another thing that set him apart from other filmmakers.

“Chapter 3 – Justice” finishes up the catalog with INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, DJANGO UNCHAINED, and THE HATEFUL EIGHT. ‘Basterds’ is renowned for what may be the most fascinating opening sequence in any movie, ‘Django’ shows his love of westerns (especially Italian), and ‘Hateful 8’ stands as a ‘western RESERVOIR DOGS’. With his many references to earlier cinema, Tarantino shows no hesitancy in spinning or changing history to fit his story. While many disparaged the infamous Hitler scene in ‘Basterds’ (and subsequently the Manson killings in his latest), Tarantino firmly believes that viewers know they are watching a movie, and can easily separate this from real life and historical fact. It’s noted that this is what story telling is all about … asking ‘What if?”

Many of Tarantino’s collaborators offer insight and memories. Those appearing include: Samuel L Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Diane Kruger, Lucy Liu, Bruce Dern, Jamie Foxx, the late Robert Forster, Tim Roth, Eli Roth, and Lawrence Bender. Most obvious in their absence are Uma Thurman, Pam Grier, Leonardo DiCaprio, John Travolta, and Tarantino himself. There is also a nice segment included as a tribute to the late Sally Menke, Tarantino’s long-time film editor.

Quentin Tarantino has been described as an overzealous geek with the talent to back it up. In reality, he’s a walking and (fast) talking encyclopedia of movie knowledge, trivia and history. He is also described as creating an exuberant infection with cinema, and his frequent scenes of ultra-violence are interpreted by Christoph Waltz as “opera”. It was October 5, 2017 when the Harvey Weinstein story broke, and immediately, since many films connect them, Tarantino was part of the story. It’s a blight on his record, just as it is for countless other actors, celebrities and film industry types who knew and chose to stay silent. But when it comes to making movies, few have ever done it better. There is an on-set clip where Tarantino says “One more take. Why?  Because we love making movies!” It’s clear from the interviews here that QT reveres making movies. He also loves watching movies – so much so that he bought and renovated the New Beverly Cinema. He’s a proud film geek. Ms. Wood’s film is pure pleasure for QT fans and will explain a lot for those who aren’t so sure about his work.

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MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND (doc, 2019)

October 24, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Did you hear that? While watching a movie, you are likely aware of explosions and spoken dialogue, but it’s quite astounding how many other sounds can make up a movie-watching experience. While it’s true that we think of movies as a visual medium, it’s not a complete description. Oscar winning director Steven Spielberg said, “Our ears lead our eyes to where the story lives.”

Midge Costin was a noted Sound Editor from 1986 through 1998 on such films as CRIMSON TIDE, CON AIR, and ARMAGEDDON. She then transitioned to education and has spent 20 years at the renowned USC Film School, holding the Kay Rose endowed chair in the Art of Dialogue and Sound Editing. She is truly a sound expert, and in this, her directorial debut, she beautifully lays out the art form of sound that takes place within the art form of cinema.

Ms. Costin structures the film with an historical timeline, personal profiles of some of the most important figures in sound, and a breakdown of sound segments and technology. Along the way she includes film clips to provide specific examples, and interviews for industry insight. The film takes us back to 1877 and Edison’s phonograph, and on to 1927 when THE JAZZ SINGER delivered Al Jolson’s voice. 1933’s KING KONG mesmerized with the first true sound effects, and we learn the direct connection between movie sound and radio. We really get the inside scoop on the breakthroughs of American Zoetrope (founded by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas), and the importance of Barbra Sreisand’s demands for A STAR IS BORN (1976), Robert Altman’s multi-track NASHVILLE, and the “Wookie” sounds of STAR WARS. Of course, many other films and filmmakers (including Stanley Kubrick) are singled out for moving sound forward.

Some of the most interesting data comes courtesy of the “nerds” known as Sound Designers. Walter Murch (APOCALYPSE NOW), Ben Burtt (STAR WARS), Gary Rydstrom (JURASSIC PARK), and Lora Hirschberg (INCEPTION) are all Oscar winners, and their insight is fascinating along with that of Cece Hall, Bobby Banks, and Anna Behlmer – the latter of whom recounts her experience as a woman doing the fighter jet sounds for TOP GUN.

Cinema sound is divided into Music, sound effects, and voice, with each of these sections have sub-categories. Automated Dialogue Replacement (ADR), digital layers (through Pixar), ambience, and the custom effects of the Foley are all parts of the circle of talent delivering puzzle pieces to the Sound Mixer for assembly. If all of this hits you as a bit too technical, you should know that it’s presented in a manner that makes it easy to follow. Sound is what pushes cinema into an immersive experience for viewers, and you’ll likely walk away from Ms. Costin’s film with an appreciation of just how many elements go into what you hear during a movie – and that’s worth listening to.

watch the trailer:

 


OBJECTOR (doc, 2019)

October 24, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Decision time is 6 months away. That’s the scheduled day of Conscription for Atalya Ben-Abba, a 19 year old Israeli woman. On that day, she either accepts her mandatory Army assignment or subjects herself to a sentence in military prison. Filmmaker Molly Stuart expands her 2017 short film, and follows Atalya as she educates herself on just what is at stake.

Civil disobedience, conscientious objector, and traitor … all of these labels can apply, and only Atalya can make the final decision about what direction her life goes. By tagging along, we gain a perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through fresh eyes. It’s a very personal journey for Atalya. At times we feel that perhaps we are a bit too close, and maybe the camera is influencing the actions of those being filmed.

We have a seat at the family dinner table as Atalya debates the issue with her mother, father and brother. Her brother Amitai secured a military exemption, but both of her parents served, as did her Uncle, who states non-violence is for the weak. Her Grandfather and most everyone they know view the military as a civic duty not to be questioned. Her grandfather attempts to shame her by calling her an “optimist”, and labeling her ideas as “stupid”. It’s the most obvious sign of a society that has stopped questioning, and simply accepts its lot. Her family does question whether she knows enough to make this decision.

The film is at its best when Atalya is having conversations on the topic, and she is working through how best to articulate her views on this conflict and tradition she was born in to. At times, she comes across as a typical teenager, too young to be weighted down with this decision; while at other times, she is a deep thinker making up her own mind and reinforcing her beliefs and convictions.

Avoiding social shame and prison would be the easy choice, but of course Atalya refuses service in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), serves 110 days in prison, and is denied status by the Conscience Committee. Her close bond with her brother and family is further strengthened as she transitions into a public figure – her very public stand leading to notoriety and a call-to-action speech in a town square near the film’s conclusion. Atalya’s main questions seem to all start with “why?” and most of the answers seem to be a twist on ‘because that’s how we’ve always done it.’ Every society needs citizens like Atalya who question the way things are done, and expect an answer as to why those things are being done. Ms. Stuart’s film will surely have you digging a bit deeper in your own thoughts.

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MOUNTAINTOP (doc, 2019)

October 24, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. A trip to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado takes us more than 1.5 miles above sea level (8750 ft) to the Studio in the Clouds. It’s here where Neil Young and the band Crazy Horse have gathered to record yet another album in what has been a 50 year (off-and-on) musical relationship. It’s a rare opportunity to watch a band work out the finer points of their songs while in the studio.

Between deep hits from their oxygen tanks, these four musicians and producer John Hanlon deal with multiple takes, re-writes, and technical glitches. Sometimes the mood is quite tense, and other times quite laid back. Mr. Hanlon is suffering from a case of poison oak at the time of recording, making for a stressful environment when Neil Young scolds him for too much feedback, or not enough volume, or some other irritant that is likely related to as much to the artist’s general frustration with creating as it is to the antiquated wiring of the studio.

In addition to the expected guitar, piano, bass, and drums, an impressive array of instruments are utilized. Also in play here are: a pump organ, harpsichord, glass harmonica (very cool), and a xylophone. We even get to see Nils Lofgren tap dancing! Many will recognize Nils as a long-time member of Bruce Springsteen’s The E Street Band. Lofgren’s ability to keep Crazy Horse in step with Neil Young is underplayed here, yet still quite obvious.

“It doesn’t have to be good. It’s going to be great.” This is a line uttered as the band hears the playback on a particular song. It drives home the importance musicians put on performing, and perfectly complements what we see from Neil Young – love and commitment to the music. He’s still the amazing songwriter and rebel who wrote “Ohio” in a just a few minutes after seeing the photos from the Kent State tragedy in 1970. This current album proves his songs of societal awareness are not a fad, but rather a belief system.

The documentary is “In memory of Elliot Roberts, the greatest manager of all-time.” Mr. Roberts died in June of this year, and in addition to being Neil Young’s long-time manager, he also managed the careers of Joni Mitchell, Tom Petty, and The Cars. A driving force behind the music phenomenon from Laurel Canyon in the 1960’s and 70’s, Mr. Roberts was a very popular and talented figure in the music industry. Although the vast majority of the film takes place inside the studio, we do get a few clips from Neil Young performing songs live, and periodic shots outside – mountains, sky, and clouds. With this being billed as ‘a film by Bernard Shakey and DH LoveLife, it should be no surprise that the real folks behind those names are Neil Young and his long-time partner, actress Darryl Hannah. The film may not be an extraordinary work of art itself, but it’s very interesting to see one of the most successful and dedicated musicians of the past 50 years hard at work, doing what he does.

watch the trailer: