May 4, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Natasha Gregson Wagner recalls hearing that the body of her mother, actress Natalie Wood, had been found near Santa Catalina Island. It was November 21, 1981 and Natasha was 11 years old. Now she’s a producer of this documentary, as well as providing her own perspectives, and conducting some of the interviews, in particular the one with her stepfather Robert Wagner. If you are looking for a definitive answer to one of Hollywood’s unsolved mysteries, you won’t find it here (or anywhere). Instead, it’s a dive into the life and career of one of our brightest stars through the words of her friends, family, and co-workers; plus some clips, personal home movies, previously unseen photographs, and Natalie’s own words.

Natalie Woods’ on screen luminescence lasted nearly forty years, which is remarkable considering she died at age 43. It’s noted that generations (plural) watched her grow up. She delivered memorable roles at all stages of her career: as a child actor playing the Santa Claus skeptic in MIRACLE ON 34th STREET (1947); as an angsty teenager opposite James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), as a blossoming young woman in SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS (1961); as a 1960’s swinger in BOB AND CAROL AND TED AND ALICE (1969); and in her final role (released posthumously) in BRAINSTORM (1983). She was nominated for 3 Oscars by the time she was 25, and is also remembered as Maria in Best Picture winner WEST SIDE STORY (1961), as famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee in GYPSY (1962), co-starring with Steve McQueen in LOVE WITH THE PROPER STRANGER (1963), co-starring with Robert Redford in THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED (1966), and opposite George Segal in the comedy THE LAST MARRIED COUPLE IN AMERICA (1980).

Clearly, given the films and roles listed above, Natalie Wood was the epitome of a movie star. She was beautiful, talented, and lived a life that kept her in the fan magazines (known today as tabloids). The film is structured in an unusual manner for a biographical documentary. A loose outline would start with the personal life (husbands, kids, love interests), then move into the career, and wrap up with her death, the aftermath of her death, and the impact she had on loved ones. Of course, there are many overlaps, but the key takeaway is that this is a very personal look by those who were connected to Natalie.

Laurent Bouzereau is a documentarian who has specialized in shorts and “making of” (behind-the-scenes) projects for 25 years. He’s also an author, movie buff, and known collector of movie memorabilia. Here he delivers a nice tribute to Natalie Wood, though one gets the feeling that Natasha had much to do with the final presentation. We see her interview Daddy Gregson and Daddy Wagner, the only names she ever remembers having for her biological father, British Producer-Agent Richard Gregson, and her stepfather Robert Wagner. Gregson, afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, died in August 2019, while Wagner is now 90 years old. Both interviews are personal to Natasha, though it’s the Wagner session that packs the most emotional punch.

Even when we hear about Natalie’s film career, it seems most want to talk about how likable and talented she was. This includes interviews with Robert Redford, Richard Benjamin, Mia Farrow, George Hamilton, and Mart Crowley. Mr. Crowley was a screenwriter and close friend who died recently (March 2020), and had met Natalie on the production of SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS. So while Ms. Woods’ career is important, even more time is spent on the personal side. Natasha and her sisters recall time with Willie Mae, their nanny who was like part of the family. We also learn of Natalie and Wagner’s (aka RJ) first date on her 18th birthday, as well as their two marriages to each other – with her marriage to Gregson, and relationship with Warren Beatty nestled between.

One of the more fascinating segments comes from Natasha reading excerpts from an unpublished first-person article Natalie had written for “Ladies Home Journal” in 1966. It reads like a diary and provided Natasha and us with personal insights we couldn’t have known. Natalie’s parents were Ukrainian immigrants, although not much time is devoted to Natalie’s stage mother or the strained relationship the family now has with Natalie’s sister (and actress) Lana Wood. Instead, the focus is mostly upbeat. Plus we all came for the Wagner interview to hear him speak about the night of Natalie’s death. It’s surprisingly emotional.

Natalie’s oft-reported “fear of dark water” is hit head on, and there is even mention of her overdose and mental struggles. But this is mostly a positive recounting of her life, and owes a great deal to Manoah Bowman’s biography “Natalie Wood: Reflections on a Legendary Life.” Bowman is also a producer on the film. Natalie Wood is one whose mysterious and much too early death has overshadowed her work, and as daughter Natasha says, the person she was.

The documentary premieres on HBO Tuesday May 5, 2020

watch the trailer:


April 15, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. One might think that the only thing less interesting than watching someone read a book would be watching them talk about a book they are buying and not intending to read. Director-Editor-Producer DW Young somehow manages to make the topic quite engaging … due in no small part to the stream of bibliophiles and antiquarian booksellers we meet. The philosophy of the film is best expressed through one of the many spot-on quotes sprinkled throughout: “Books are a way of being fully human.”

It’s either cheating or hedging one’s bet when a director secures an interview with the eloquent Fran Lebowitz for a documentary. If the documentary is about books, well that’s even better. She perfectly describes the joy in “crawling around” bookstores in search of just the right one. She recalls the days when bookstores lined 4th Avenue, in what had been labeled “Book Row.” These days, only one remains – The Strand, which was founded in 1929. We learn that in the 1950’s, there were 358 bookstores in New York City, and now your search for a good read is limited to 79. The oldest remaining NYC bookstore is the stunning Argosy on E. 59th, and it’s being operated by the three daughters of Louis Cohen who opened the store in 1925. Ownership of the building is key to the bookstore remaining open for nearly 100 years.

Director Young takes us inside the beautiful and historic Park Avenue Armory for the NYC Antiquarian Book Fair. It’s here where we see a Fidel Castro doll (I guess everything is collectable!), and more importantly get a feel for how the rare book trade works. These collectors are obsessive about their books and compulsive in their mission of the next rare discovery. We see warehouses, apartments, offices, and stores jam packed with books, and to cap it off, we hear from the folks who have made this their passion. Not just bibliophiles like Ms. Lebowitz, Gay Talese, and Susan Orlean, but the boots-on-the-ground booksellers and collectors. There is even a segment on Martin Stone, the legendary book scout or bookrunner, who was also a rock ‘n roll guitarist.

“The internet killed the hunt.” A perfect example is given on how the world wide web changed book selling and collecting. In the old days, a collector could spend years assembling a full collection of Edith Wharton books, whereas today, a credit card and an afternoon on the internet would yield the same results. This is ‘buying’ contrasted with ‘collecting’, and the old school collectors have either adjusted or are struggling. Even auctions have changed, and Bill Gates’ purchasing Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Codex Leicester” via phone … for $28 million … is an example.

Movies about book dealers are discussed, including THE BIG SLEEP and UNFAITHFUL, and we see a clip of Larry McMurtry’s speech championing book reading and bookstores. It should also be noted that Mr. McMurtry is a long time book seller and collector from Archer City, Texas. One of the industry’s new celebrities is the ultra-charming Rebecca Romney, who became famous for her stints on TV’s “Pawn Stars” as the resident book expert. Ms. Romney is leading the new wave of collectors, and her passion as a glass-half-full type is contagious.

Author Maurice Sendak said “There’s so much more to a book than reading.” Here, we learn about the importance of book jackets and special bindings, and how these rare books are actually historical evidence … artifacts of culture. This explains why ‘book burning’ has the history it does as both symbolizing and physically accomplishing the destruction of certain segments of society. We also learn those in this business don’t think highly of Kindle. The words may be the same, but the experience certainly isn’t.

The film is billed as a behind-the-scenes look at the New York rare book world, but it spends more time exploring the folks who make-up this business/industry/lifestyle. Their passion, and one might even call it a fetish, is quite interesting. The argument can be made that their work is quite important in preserving history. Smooth jazz accompanies the story, and it’s only fitting that I learned a new word: Incunabulum, which is an early printed book. These collectors express concern about their legacy, so hopefully the film will spur even more people to understand the historical relevance of books in our cultured society.

Opens in Los Angeles virtual cinema on April 17, and nationally on VOD (Apple/iTunes, Amazon, and cable, satellite and digital platforms) on June 5, 2020

watch the trailer:

SPITFIRE 944 (doc short, 2006)

April 14, 2020

Greetings again from the darkness. I watch a lot of short films, yet post very few of those reviews on this site. For this special film, I am not offering up any type of review other than to encourage you to take 14 minutes and watch this documentary short.

Filmmaker William Lorton’s Great Uncle was Jim Savage, who was an Air Force field surgeon during WWII. When he died, Lorton discovered some untouched footage his Great Uncle had shot at an airbase.  One sequence in particular caught his eye: a wheels up landing in a grassy field by a Spitfire, followed by some airmen huddled up afterwards. After some research, Lorton tracked down the pilot, (retired) Lt Col John Blyth, who agreed to meet with Lorton and his crew.

The film clips are fascinating, but it’s 83 year old Blyth recalling his missions that is truly captivating. Blyth flew reconnaissance missions in a British Spitfire retrofitted with extra fuel tanks and cameras. What was missing? Guns. Blyth actually flew over Germany with no guns or escort!  Lorton films Blyth as he views the clip for the first time. It’s quite something to behold.

You can watch the documentary short here (thanks to Sundance, and a friend of a friend for sharing):


April 7, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Whether you’re a believer or a skeptic, one must respect the dedication to the mission of Dr. Steven Greer. His documented research into extraterrestrial activity dates back more than 25 years, and he has briefed every president since Bill Clinton on the topic. This is the third documentary for Dr. Greer, including SIRIUS (2013) and UNACKNOWLEDGED (2017), the latter of which was directed by Michael Mazzola – also the director of this current film.

Mr. Mazzola divides the film into 3 chapters: Blood and Treasure, The Crossing Point of Light, and A New World. However, the film’s structure matters little, as this is mostly another opportunity for Dr. Greer to present his research, his beliefs, and allow others to comment. Dr. Greer is the founder of the Center for Study of Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (CSETI), and he was also behind the 1993 Disclosure Project, which persuaded the government to release previously classified documents pertaining to UFOs and extraterrestrials.

Of course, Steven Spielberg’s 1977 double Oscar winner CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND remains quite popular today, and the title to Mazzola’s film refers to what CSETI categorizes as the 5th kind of alien encounter: proactive human communication with an extraterrestrial. In support of this, Dr. Green spends a good amount of time explaining his group events, where believers gather to experience these encounters. It’s at this point where much of the film focuses on Universal consciousness (ESP, meditation, etc.). The parameters of pure heart and peace are said to be necessary for group meditation cohesion. It’s very similar to the idea of “attraction” – if we think about something, that thing is more likely to appear or happen.

A quote from a physicist opens the film, and numerous quotes are highlighted throughout courtesy of intellects, scientists, and spiritualists. Scientific analysis is provided and we hear from some brainy talking heads, including Dr. Edgar Mitchell, a former astronaut. Attorney Daniel Sheehan gets plenty of screen time as well, and does his part to fit right in with the line-up of articulate, knowledgeable experts who offer up their commentary. These are not the wild-eyed types we see on local news or lesser documentaries. These are folks with actual experience backed by video and photographic evidence.

Dr. Greer asserts that since “no human has ever been harmed”, we can assume the extraterrestrials are not here to cause damage – an easily debated point. He also claims that these aliens are up to a billion years ahead of us, though he never explains the math on that. Actor Jeremy Piven seems an odd choice as narrator, given his propensity for roles as a fast-talking smart-aleck, but a montage of video from around the globe (the most recent from December 29, 2019) lends credence to Dr. Greer’s claim that the collective conscience has a relationship to the physical world. He has also accepted that skeptics will always exist, and that he will be ridiculed for his work and beliefs. If nothing else, perhaps the film will open up a few minds to the possibility.

watch the trailer:

WALDO ON WEED (2020, doc)

April 3, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Waldo James Mysterious Dwyer is a hefty name for a huge baby (13.5 pounds) born in 2014 to parents Brian and Danielle. When we first meet Brian, he’s a partner at Pizza Brain, a quaint neighborhood place to pick up a slice in Philadelphia. Waldo is their first child, and it’s clear from the beginning that these are loving, doting parents. He’s a spirited and active child, and at 6 months, a stunning diagnosis of eye cancer (Retinoblastoma) staggers the couple.

If you are a parent, you know with absolute certainty that you would do anything for your kid … especially if they are in pain. When Waldo has a severe reaction to chemotherapy, Brian takes the advice of his friends Larry and Mike, and begins researching cannabis as an alternative treatment. Since it’s illegal in Pennsylvania, Brian travels cross-country to California where medicinal cannabis is legal. The next thing we know, he’s been advised by “Dr Dina” and is boxing up a care-package disguised as birthday party goodies. He’s able to purchase an 8 month supply, and the next day, Waldo is getting his first dose. Immediate results bring smiles (and hope) to Brian, Danielle, and Waldo.

Much of the footage we see was shot by Brian on a video recorder he received at a baby shower. Tommy Avallone (THE BILL MURRAY STORIES: LIFE LESSONS LEARNED FROM A MYTHICAL MAN, 2018) turns the footage into a story, and better yet, a love letter/video journal from father to son. Brian and Danielle are devoted parents, but it’s Waldo who will steal your heart. His smile will lift you up, and his dancing will have you beaming.

We learn that in April 2016, Pennsylvania passed a bill legalizing medicinal cannabis; however, since the process of bringing it to market was going to last a couple of year, Brian and Danielle packed up Waldo and headed to the west coast. To categorize their plan as non-existent would not be an understatement, yet they knew this was necessary for their son’s health. You might cry a little. You’ll certainly smile plenty. And hopefully, we’ll all be a bit more empathetic and understanding towards parents … we don’t always know what they’re dealing with. Never underestimate what parents will do for their kids.

watch the trailer:

TESLAFY ME (2020, doc)

April 2, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve been trying to think of other examples of famous people known for one thing, when they deserve to be remembered for something else. Hedy Lamarr, considered by many to be the most beautiful actress ever (she played Delilah in SAMSON AND DELILAH), also invented a frequency hopping process used today in WIFI and military defense satellites. Marcel Marceau was a world famous mime who also helped save thousands of children during WWII. Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan in many movies during the 1930’s and 40’s and created that iconic Tarzan yell, also was a 5 time Olympic Gold medal swimmer. Surely there are many others with similar stories, but maybe none more remarkable than Nikola Tesla … known today as the make of a popular electric car, but his backstory is vital not only to history, but also to our current way of life.

Slovenian filmmaker Janja Glogovac delivers a very informative and highly polished documentary that takes us through Tesla’s life (Serbian roots, raised in Croatia, moved to United States), including his dealings with such well known luminaries as Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and JP Morgan. Ms. Glogovac utilizes interviews with intellects, including Tesla’s nephew William Terbo (a NASA engineer), and also many creative graphics, simulations, and animation.

Do you consider Steve Jobs a visionary? Would you be surprised to learn that Tesla imagined the cell phone more than a century ago? He dreamed of Utopia where energy was clean, rather than dependent on fossil fuels which would negatively impact climate and the earth’s natural vibrations. Tesla detailed how his ideas came to him as flashes of light, and very specific. For you engineers and scientists, don’t worry, some segments go fairly deep on his inventions and what they were meant to accomplish.

Tesla came to America in 1884, and after a brief stint with Edison (who put much into trying to discredit Tesla), was funded by George Westinghouse. Tesla’s commitment to his electro-magnetic motor (alternating current) elevated his rivalry with Edison and the direct current option. When Tesla and Westinghouse “lit up” Chicago, the industrial revolution was ushered in. Tesla’s hydro-electric power from Niagara Falls earned him the title of Father of Renewable Energy, and led to the Wardenclyffe Tower construction in 1901. It was an experimental wireless transmission tower that ended up with a similar fall from grace as Tesla himself.

Can the story of Nikola Tesla be told in an 80 minute documentary? Hardly. But the purpose seems to be reigniting an interest in a forgotten genius – a man whose work with radio, wireless, and electricity is still being utilized today. Elon Musk chose his brand name wisely, and we can’t help but wonder if Tesla’s ideas for clean energy had been supported rather than squashed, would we have avoided some of today’s issues. Learning that J. Edgar Hoover had Tesla followed, and that Tesla died broke, leaves us wanting more information … he deserves to be known as something more than the badge on an sleek electric vehicle.

watch the trailer:

SLAY THE DRAGON (2020, doc)

April 2, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s no wonder our faith in democracy is waning. The list of reasons and the targets to point fingers are both numerous. Heck, one of the last-standing Presidential hopefuls has spent most of his life believing and preaching that there is a better way. This documentary from co-directors Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman ensures gerrymandering remains on the list of reasons. They weave together three stories from Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin to demonstrate how a party can invoke a strategy of gerrymandering, and what the long-term impact can mean.

We’ve long understood the basics of gerrymandering. It is when one political party works to carve up the voting districts in order to benefit one party or handicap the other. The film educates us on the fine art of “packing” and “cracking.” Packing involves concentrating the opposing party’s voters into a few districts, while cracking involves spreading out (diluting) that party’s voters amidst many districts. Both are designed to render opposition votes meaningless. We even learn how gerrymandering got its name … a link to Elbridge Gerry, a former Governor of Massachusetts and Vice President to James Madison.

The “star” of the Michigan segment is Kate Fahey, and we see how her 2016 Facebook post led her directly into political activism, and the formation of “Voters Not Politicians” (VNP). Because she is so energetic and engaging, it’s clear why the filmmakers devoted so much time to this segment. Ballot initiatives, petitions, speeches, interviews, the Michigan Supreme Court, and ultimately, voting day … this is her journey and we get to come along for the ride.

North Carolina and Wisconsin offer more details on the fights against gerrymandering, but neither of these stories go quite as in-depth, although we do follow the Wisconsin case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice Kennedy’s retirement changes everything. There is a very informative segment on the Republican’s national strategy after Obama was elected. Survival of the party was in jeopardy, and behind-the-scenes strategists like Chris Jankowski and Tom Hoeffler were specialists brought in to focus on the best approach to re-districting across the country … something called the Redmap Project.

There are a lot of moving parts included in the film by Durrance and Goodman: tracing the 2014 Flint water crises to the 2010 elections, insight into ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), discussions of Lobbyists writing bills, details on voter suppression, and input from journalists, radio talk show hosts, political consultants, and attorneys. David Daley, author of the 2016 book “Ratf**ked” comments throughout with his opinions on specific examples of gerrymandering. The grass roots movement to end gerrymandering in Michigan was fascinating to watch, and there is mention that both parties have used gerrymandering to their advantage over the years. The difference makers these days are Big Data and Big Tech … highly complex analytical tools that turn this into a science. “Independent committees” drawing district lines is offered as a solution, but if the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that most everyone has an agenda and true independent thinkers are a rare breed. Whether calling this an “assault on Democracy” is accurate or not, it seems quite obvious that there must be a better way … and a better way is needed.

watch the trailer:

IT STARTED AS A JOKE (2020, doc)

April 2, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Have you heard the one about the comedy festival poking fun at comedy festivals? Of course not. And you may not even be familiar with comedian Eugene Mirman. But the efforts of co-directors Julie Smith Clem and Ken Druckerman ensure that by the end of their documentary, we understand the impact of Eugene Mirman’s Comedy Festival (founded to parody comedy festivals).

So who is Eugene Mirman? He’s one of the key players in alternative comedy … comedians who don’t rely on traditional jokes, and often perform in places other than comedy clubs. If you ever watched the series “I’m Dying Up Here”, you saw a comedian perform in the back of a local deli. That is an example of alternative comedy. When you check the lineup of comedians included here, it becomes even more obvious. Kristen Schaal, John Hodgman, Kumail Nanjiani, Janeane Garofola, Jim Gaffigan, Bobcat Goldthwaite, Mike Birbiglia, and Michael Showalter are just a few of the participants. Ms. Garofola embraces her “alternative” by labeling herself a terrible joke writer, and more of a “filibusterer.”

Eugene Mirman is known for his voice acting (“Bob’s Burgers” and “Archer”), as well as his appearances on TV series such as (the brilliant) “Flight of the Conchords.” He married Set Director Katie Tharp and they had a son named Oliver. These personal details matter because Katie’s cancer plays a part in Eugene’s final year for the festival, and we get a glimpse of their home life, including time with Oliver. Their personal life is instrumental in elevating this from a Comedy Central special where comedians parade across the stage, to a real life drama that inspires a comical look at the parts of life that don’t seem so funny on the surface.

A community of comedians is on full display here at The Bell House in Brooklyn. They recall the first time they met or saw Eugene perform, and recollect memories of the festival’s past 10 years. Each of those festivals were presented with some off-the-wall theme – sometimes funny, sometimes poignant. H Jon Benjamin (lead voice in “Bob’s Burgers”) tells his story … a pork chop story that was his introduction to Eugene. Silliness is ever-present, but the Eugene/Katie love story stands on its own – including the ‘first kiss’ photo that graced their wedding invitation. The festival may have begun as a joke, and comedians may shy away from dragging their personal life into the act, but it’s clear “comedy is about connecting with people”, and its value never diminishes.

watch the trailer:

“How to Fix a Drug Scandal” (Netflix DocuSeries, 2020)

April 1, 2020

Beginning April 1, 2020 – Netflix, 4 episodes

 Greetings again from the darkness. We expect the chef to taste the special of the day. We don’t expect the bench chemist to personally try out the drugs being tested for a criminal case. This 4-part DocuSeries from Netflix explores not one, but two of the most explosive cases in Massachusetts history. Were these Law Enforcement scandals? Were these workplace scandals? Were there miscarriages of justice? The simple answer to all three questions is yes, and the series breaks down the stunning details as well as the aftermath.

Most DocuSeries focus on one crime or one criminal. Here, documentarian Erin Lee Carr delivers two stories connected by job description, consequences and geography. In the state of Massachusetts, two drug testing laboratories are used for the majority of drug cases. The Hinton lab covers Boston and the eastern part of the state, while the Amherst lab covers the west, including Springfield, the capital for illegal drugs. In the Hinton lab, it was discovered that “star” chemist Annie Dookhan had illegally falsified thousands of drug tests. In the Amherst lab, chemist Sonja Farak admitted not just to using the drugs she was testing, but using those drugs while on the job.

Either of these stories are worthy of documentary treatment, and yet combining them generates even more impact, both from a viewing standpoint and for the legal fallout. Ms. Farak’s story is easily the most fascinating. There is a reason that many bakers carry a few extra pounds … they sample the goods. So why shouldn’t we be extra cautious with those who test illicit drugs all day, every day? Evidently no one in Massachusetts ever thought to ask the question, as Ms. Farak worked in the Amherst office for nearly 10 years with minimal oversight. She literally walked across the hall from the lab to smoke crack cocaine, and even cooked the drug at her desk!

If not for the Farak story, we would likely find Annie Dookhan’s case to be one of the most outrageous we’ve heard. Lauded as the highest producing chemist in the busy Hinton lab where she worked for 9 years, it turns out Ms. Dookhan used “dry labbing” to sustain her numbers. Dry labbing is basically eye-balling substances to determine if they are likely illegal drugs. These two women were involved in over 50,000 cases, including those for which they testified in court. They are accused of “fraud on the court.”

As you might imagine, defense attorneys were in an uproar as the details in these cases emerged. Ms. Carr focuses her attention on defense attorney Luke Ryan, and one of his collaborating trial attorneys, Jared Olanoff. While law enforcement and prosecutors fought to maintain the convictions, Mr. Ryan spent a significant portion of his time researching, tracking down evidence, and making the case that thousands of convictions should be overturned, with prisoners released and criminal records cleared. It’s particular disheartening to see Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley take the stance that Ms. Farak’s inappropriate actions were limited in scope to just a few cases. Ms. Coakley’s statements were made before any type of investigation had been done, so it was clearly an attempt to minimize attention from the media, public and other attorneys.

Interviews with Ms. Farak’s mother and younger sister Amy are included. Their words help personalize the film, since dramatizations and archival clips are used for Farak’s stunning testimony. The actions of so many are questioned throughout. Even with limited budgets, how are these chemists not subjected to some basic oversight? How does Judge Kindred make the ruling he does? Why did the ACLU need to get involved in what seems like a pretty straightforward situation? What happens if Luke Ryan doesn’t remain diligent in his pursuit of justice? What if the State Supreme Court had refused to hear the cases?

Some background information is provided for both women, including the fact that Sonja Farak was the first girl to play high school football in Rhode Island. Both women had strong academic backgrounds, but education doesn’t always make for good judgment. This DocuSeries from Ms. Carr is exceptionally well crafted and the stories move fast and keep us spellbound. More than 50,000 cases were impacted by the inappropriate and illegal actions of these two trusted chemists, and their actions cast doubt on the entire judicial system. Let’s just hope that the next time one of your co-workers is sneaking off 10 times a day to smoke crack, that someone will say something to somebody!

Premiering April 1, 2020 on Netflix

watch the trailer:

NO SMALL MATTER (2020, doc)

March 26, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Perpetuating the species is one goal, but improving the species … specifically, improving the possibilities for each child … is truly a worthwhile pursuit. The research is presented, and the film is co-directed by Danny Alpert, Greg Jacobs, and Jon Siskel (Gene’s son). We are told “Beginnings matter”, and then we are shown why and how.

Birth to age 5 is critical for what is called “the Learning Brain.” Unfortunately, in today’s society, fewer parents are spending a significant amount of time with their youngsters. We are told that in the U.S., 11 million kids under age 5 are spending greater than 50% of waking hours with someone other than their own parents. Daycares and pre-schools have become the most important link in the early brain development of these young kids. And because of that, the high income versus low income gap is creating vastly different results for the age group. Higher income tends to offer better options for early development, and statistics show these kids hear and learn more words, and visit more libraries and museums. We are informed that in 28 states, daycare costs are now greater than public college tuition.

Research and input is offered by Professors, researchers and children educators. We follow one particularly enthusiastic pre-school teacher who is clearly very talented, but due to low salary (she has a second job bartending), she decides to head back to graduate school. It turns out the challenges at this younger level are the same faced throughout the education system. Teachers are underpaid and overworked, and it’s the students who suffer. However, unlike older ages, this younger age group isn’t yet capable of taking on more learning opportunities on their own. They require assistance.

The Abecedarian Project in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and the Avance group in Waco, Texas are highlighted as organizations working to provide assistance to those at risk of not being able to provide adequate early childhood learning opportunities. We also see the military’s approach of “Investing in Quality” so that the kids of military families have stimulating learning programs. Educators stress the importance of ‘executive function’ – the learned skill of kids being able to pay attention and cooperate in a classroom environment. It’s not all about reading and writing. The need goes deeper. The film does a nice job of presenting information most of us are aware of, in a way that makes the solutions clear and importance known. The idea of referring to this as ‘brain building’ rather than ‘babysitting’ makes a lot of sense. Not investing in our kids from day one means we are choosing perpetuation over than improvement.

watch the trailer: