Archive for the Documentary Category

American Murder: The Family Next Door

Posted in Crime, Documentary with tags on October 11, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

True crime documentaries are all the rage. Nowhere is this more evident than on Netflix. Recent titles include: Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer, and Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez. As you can see, “killers” seem to be a focus. The list goes on and on. There are hundreds of titles available. The genre has become something of a cottage industry for the streaming service. This latest one was released on September 30 and quickly captured the public curiosity as it immediately shot to #1. This one is particularly haunting. The documentary does a great job of explaining “what” happened. It’s the “why” that left me confused.

The chronicle concerns the disappearance of Shan’ann Watts and her beautiful daughters: 4-year-old Bella and 3-year-old Celeste. She was also nearly 4 months pregnant at the time with her son Nico. Shan’ann was a big user of social media. She posted photos and videos online often to document her life. Director Jenny Popplewell utilizes this archival footage to construct an intriguing story. From the outside, it appears that she had an attractive picture-perfect family with husband Chris and daughters living in Colorado, but as we delve deeper, two extremely unhappy people within a disintegrating marriage are revealed.

This is a disturbing window into the annihilation of a family. Text messages between Shan’ann and her best friend are displayed across the screen popping up like real discussions back and forth. They discuss intimate matters and we are eavesdropping. I felt a little uneasy reading these confidential particulars. It’s a tragedy that Shan’ann is no longer around to object, so I sadly acknowledge they’re more like evidence at this point than a private chat. They do shed some light. Her fabulous marriage by all outward appearances wasn’t wonderful. She too is baffled by her increasingly distant husband. The portrait also highlights the idea that reality vs. an online persona can be wildly different things. Given that this largely details a police investigation, it effectively presents the facts, emphasizing certain developments, the subsequent procedural, and how they were able to secure a confession. The underlying psychology behind the murder is less clear. It feels incomplete. Perhaps that is a question that cannot be answered. However, the eerie feeling remains long after this unsettling account is over.

The Social Dilemma

Posted in Documentary, Drama with tags on September 15, 2020 by Mark Hobin

STARS3

Any relevant documentary that sounds the alarm on a societal ill should satisfy at least two prerequisites: (1) Does the negative conduct actually exist? And (2) if it does, is that behavior shocking? I’d say The Social Dilemma supports a clear YES to the first question and a hard NO to the second.

This chronicle is presented as an expose as well as a cautionary tale. The creators of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other interactive media have purposefully designed their products to be “addictive” so that you keep using them. Successful social media platforms are essentially “guilty” of creating a product people crave. No surprise there. The supposed insight is that they do this by getting to know the things you like and then promoting those things so you keep using their service. Of course, these channels are free so perhaps an even bigger epiphany is that we, the “users”, are the products being sold. Advertisers are the consumer buying the information we provide. The more we interact with social networks the more advertisers can sell us products. Are you surprised? Then I have another revelation: the more TV you watch, the more likely you will be exposed to commercials.

The Social Dilemma did its research. Many of the bigwigs being interviewed here are former high ranking leaders at technology companies and picking their brains about these subjects is indeed fascinating. Tristan Harris, former Google Design Ethicist (!), makes a memorable appearance. His and others’ disapproval at the persuasive techniques employed may sway you. However, I don’t think it’s outrageous that content on these services is manipulated toward the user. I expect to see different ads and information than others. This happens everywhere. The commercials during cartoons advertise toys and those during sports programming promote beer. If that concept is unfamiliar, then this docudrama might be alarming, but I keep coming back to TV because the comparison is so apt. Intellectuals regarded television as the Big Bad for years until the internet came along.

This account discusses a lot of topics over the course of 89 minutes. I reacted to most of it with a shrug and a lot of “I already knew that.” However, it briefly touches on the effect of social networks on teens. If this document should scare anyone, it’s parents whose impressionable children might be more deeply affected by these tactics. Mental health is the most interesting aspect and a worthy subject of a separate study. Dramatic reenactments sprinkled throughout are supposed to show in a concrete way how agents behind the scenes target us. Actor Vincent Kartheiser portrays the human embodiment of the artificial intelligence inside your phone. Skyler Gisondo and Sophia Hammons play teen victims. Most of these conspiracy theory dramatizations are unintentionally funny but they do sort of undercut the solemnity of the atmosphere so I kind of appreciated them. Conspiracy theories are powerful stuff and this movie has supposedly caused a large number to delete their Facebook. I have no proof as to whether that is in fact true. If it is, then perhaps this documentary is contributing more to the common good than I realize.

09-11-20

You Don’t Nomi

Posted in Documentary with tags on June 14, 2020 by Mark Hobin

you_dont_nomiSTARS3.5Depending on how you approach it, Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls could either be the worst movie ever made or the most hilarious.  The highest-grossing NC-17 rated film was critically reviled when it was released back in 1995.  In the ensuing years, however, it was been reevaluated by a large segment of the population as a cult classic.  The cleverly titled You Don’t Nomi is a fairly scholarly examination of cinema.  If you love Showgirls, you should appreciate director Jeffrey McHale’s documentary as well but even if you don’t, you still might savor this intelligent assessment.

Were the creators aware of the camp appeal in their work?  McHale considers the idea. I’m convinced that screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven had every intention to do a serious drama.  A rags to riches tale that utilized the blueprint of All About Eve.  A portrait of one Nomi Malone and her drive to claw her way into the starring role of a Las Vegas spectacular called “Goddess”.  The movie was not well-received initially.  Paul Verhoeven was able to put the setback behind him but star Elizabeth Berkley wasn’t so lucky.  Her career was completely derailed in the aftermath.  There is a happy ending of sorts though.  As we see here, she ultimately found peace from the adulation of the fans who have embraced the film.

Director Jeffrey McHale’s is clearly an admirer.  Who else but a true fan would dare to subject themselves to such a detailed study of something they hated?  Nevertheless, he concedes the more ridiculous aspects of the production.     He celebrates the film for its style and panache.  Along the way he presents a studious consideration not just of Showgirls but of Paul Verhoeven’s entire oeuvre.  He holds a genuine appreciation for the auteur’s work but also understands why people dislike some of this particular picture’s more unsavory aspects.  I do wish You Don’t Nomi had taken a harsher condemnation on the rape scene though.  Truth be told, I actually own the DVD.  I freely admit that.   However, I always fast forward over that reprehensible part — my own bit of removing something that is extremely unwatchable.

You Don’t Nomi isn’t a revolutionary appraisal. Showgirls has already undergone a critical reassessment in the 25 years since it came out.  It has earned a devoted cult of enthusiasts.  McHale’s assessment is still enjoyable.  He asserts it’s well-made but he also pokes fun at the unintentional comedy.  A winking screenplay that is knowingly awful is never as entertaining as the big-budget efforts that attempt something great and fails miserably.  Valley of the Dolls, Can’t Stop the Music, Xanadu, or Mommie Dearest all exist in the rarefied air of hilariously bad cinema.  This documentary reinforces the belief that Showgirls is a worthy addition to that tradition.

05-17-20

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness

Posted in Crime, Documentary, Drama with tags on April 1, 2020 by Mark Hobin

tiger_kingSTARS3.5America loves Tiger King.  Most of us are confined to our homes.  265 million citizens — about 80% of the US population— are currently under stay-at-home orders.  Needless to say, movie theaters across the U.S. are closed.  As a result, state mandates have no doubt contributed to the popularity of certain TV shows. The U.S. population has made Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness a bona fide hit.  It has captured the nation’s attention.  Not a traditional film per se, but a true-crime documentary TV series.  Actually “true-crimes” would be a more accurate description because there is an inestimable myriad of infractions here on display.  This was actually released on Netflix back on March 20  (2 weeks ago) but it took a little time for it to enter my radar.  I don’t usually review television shows on this site but with cinemas shuttered, I figured might as well review what the people are watching.

Tiger King has captured the zeitgeist of 2020 America.  This is a tale complete with a cast of bizarre personalities and sinister plot twists that even the most creative mind couldn’t concoct in their wildest fantasies.  Honestly, if this was a work of fiction, I would fault it for too many plot twists.  The title technically refers to one man: Joe Exotic.  He’s a rather — shall we say — unsavory soul.  Spending time with him is a dispiriting experience.  After the first episode, I didn’t want to continue.  Yet I persisted because I had to understand how this piece of pop culture had become such a phenomenon.  Further chapters in this saga changed my perception.  The chronicle isn’t just about him.  The movie essentially details a circle of individuals associated with a small but deeply interconnected society of big cat parks.  Along the way, there’s a panoply of subjects we will touch upon: murder for hire, polygamy, political elections, drugs, and a “missing” husband.  It loses focus occasionally.  Part 5 contains Joe’s run for both President and state Governor.

The series is divided into 7 segments each roughly about 45 minutes long.  The first episode “Not Your Average Joe” introduced the character of Joe “Exotic” Maldonado-Passage (nee: Schreibvogel) who runs the Greater Wynnewood (G.W.) Zoo in Oklahoma.  In his own words, he’s “a gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet.”  He’s often seen wearing a sequined top.  Animal rights activists don’t like him very much.  He has a well-defined conflict with a woman named Carole Baskin who is the owner of Big Cat Rescue, a non-profit animal “sanctuary” near Tampa, Florida.  Every good story needs a villain and she is his chief rival.  Their antagonism toward each other is rooted in distrust — that the intentions of the other person are less than admirable.  Before it’s all over, someone will be sentenced to jail for 22 years because of a murder-for-hire scheme.

This is a portrait of an eccentric group of Americans who are obsessed with the power that comes from owning large felines.  The tale is set against the practice of private zoo keeping and ownership of large wild cats.  It’s like a religion and this documentary sheds a light on their practices.  Are these businesses exploitative zoos or conservationists or sanctuaries?  Good question.  I’m convinced each business is inherently the same.  It’s just a matter of marketing more than anything else.  I suspect you’ll come away with the same conclusion after having watched all of this.  Because this presentation is spread out over 7 installments, you will get a pretty deep and detailed snapshot of many different people and the parks to which they’re attached.

Everything kind of revolves around the rivalry between Joe Exotic vs. Carole Baskin.  Their relationship is merely a springboard into other larger-than-life characters involved in a host of other true-crime tales.  At times, it’s a bit hard to keep track of all of the individuals.  Some of the most important include Carole Baskin’s former husband — Don Lewis — who simply vanished without a trace.   There’s Carole Basin’s third and present husband Howard.  He is deeply devoted to her and to running Big Cat Rescue.  There’s also fellow private zookeeper Doc Antle who is the founder of “The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species” (T.I.G.E.R.S.).  He runs the Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina which is staffed by his girlfriends…wives?  There also Mario Tabraue, a former drug kingpin who now runs the Zoological Wildlife Foundation in Miami.  He was reportedly the inspiration for “Scarface” Tony Montana.  Then there’s the current GW Zoo owner — Jeff Lowe — who is introduced as a wealthy investor.  Initially, he’s seen as a beacon of hope willing to bail Joe out of financial trouble.  Things don’t go so well for Joe.  Jeff currently owns the zoo as of this writing.  Nevertheless, there are a few people that appeared to have Joe’s best interests at heart.  The GW Zoo General Manager — John Reinke — who lost both legs in a bungee jumping accident.  He remained loyal to Joe through the good times and the bad.

Joe Exotic’s personal life is a soap opera in itself.  He has had four husbands, some simultaneously.  John Finlay was Exotic’s second.  Then there’s Travis Maldonado who he met in 2013 when the young man was only 19 years old.  Maldonado and John Finlay married Joe in a three-way ceremony.  Apparently, Travis was straight but was so addicted to methamphetamines and marijuana that he entered into a relationship that provided convenient access to drugs.  You can’t make this stuff up.  There’s so much more.  I couldn’t possibly detail all of the ins and outs of this drama but let’s just say that Travis Maldonado is a truly tragic figure.  Two months after their marriage ended, Joe married another young man named Dillon Passage.

So who is the moral center of this saga?  That is a question you will ask yourself over and over again throughout this chronicle.  In the first episode, it appears to be Carole Baskin.  However, the questionable disappearance of her husband, Tampa millionaire Don Lewis, in 1997, will definitely give you pause.  Joe Exotic stoked the rumors surrounding Don’s disappearance with a music video to a song entitled “Here Kitty Kitty.”  In it, a spot-on lookalike of Baskin is ostensibility feeding pieces of her husband to a tiger.  Was she guilty?  She was never charged but I’ve seen the entire series and I still don’t know who to root for.  I’ll tell you right now, my ultimate take is there is no saint in this whole sordid mess.   That is part of what makes the machinations icky and yet so oddly fascinating.

Tiger King delineates a dramatis personae that would rival the cast of a Shakespearean novel.  I have barely touched the surface in this review.  Over five years, filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin assembled these presentations.  THAT is what elevates this profile into something approaching artistic merit.  It’s the sheer depth and variety of the characters involved.  I dare say, this makes the regrettable guests you used to see on The Jerry Springer Show seem tame by comparison.  Yet you can’t help but fixate on the array of humanity presented.  It’s an honest and captivating depiction of our modern times.  I try not to rely on cliches….but yes, this is your classic train wreck.

 

03-27-20

Apollo 11

Posted in Documentary, History with tags on March 25, 2020 by Mark Hobin

apollo_elevenSTARS4I couldn’t possibly be a bigger Oscar fan.  However, I’ll freely admit they often get it wrong.  In fact, the Documentary branch of the Academy is guilty of at least one glaring omission every year.  It happened in 2017 when Tower failed to garner a nom, then again in 2018 with Jane and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? in 2019.  You get the idea.  I could’ve selected a title for every year, but then that would become a rant.  This is a review — a very positive one at that — for this year’s omission: Apollo 11.

Apollo 11 was, of course, the spaceflight that first landed humans on the Moon.  For many Americans, it was a proud occasion they will always remember.  However since it took place on July 24, 1969, many moviegoers (including this one) weren’t even alive at the time.  This commemorates the 50th Anniversary of the NASA mission.  However, you’d think it occurred yesterday given the clarity of this document.  Naturally, shots of crowds and people convey hairstyles and fashions that will betray an earlier era.  Yet the space footage feels immediate and recent given the quality, power, and detail seen here.  It feels ageless, perhaps (dare I say) even futuristic.

Sometimes real life is even better than the movie.  The journey to the Moon and back to Earth has been detailed before.  There is a myriad of ways that director Todd Douglas Miller could have assembled this chronicle.  Contributing to the timelessness is that his presentation contains no voice-over narration or interviews other than the voices of the people in the actual time as it is transpiring.  We also have original music composed by Matt Morton.  He employs a Moog modular synthesizer to underscore an account that is — in a word — thrilling.   Incidentally, every instrument and effect used in the score existed at the time of the mission.  There’s something so pure, simple and quite frankly, unique, about a record that doesn’t guide the viewer at all.  As a result, the takeaway is largely up to the audience to extract what they want from the images and music presented.

I’ve already mentioned the lack of an Oscar nom for Best Documentary Feature was an unforgivable oversight, but it could have easily warranted one for Best Film Editing as well.  Todd Douglas Miller has scrutinized countless hours of footage, many of it heretofore unseen, in a coherent and mesmerizing account.  He keeps the editing creative and dynamic.  As you’d expect, the Moon landing itself is a highlight.  His use of split screens to depict the operation as they prepare to set foot on the surface is brilliantly conceived.  The point when the lunar module (LM) separates from the Columbia spacecraft is breathtaking.  We get two then three images side by side.  The separations and connections of the LM Eagle have never been conveyed with such lucidity as this.  If there is a criticism it’s that the narrative is hindered by its inherent non-specificity.  A little narration might have helped in constructing what exactly is happening at any given moment.  However, that is precisely what makes the document immortal.  What it lacks in information, it more than makes up for in poeticism.  It looks and sounds amazing.  Apollo 11 is a work of art.

03-24-20

2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 3 of 3)

Posted in Awards, Documentary, Shorts with tags on February 9, 2020 by Mark Hobin

ShortsTV continues to make all three of the Oscar-nominated short film programs (animated, live-action, documentary) available to audiences around the world. To find out where you can watch this year’s Oscar-Nominated Short Films, visit their Theatrical Release and On Demand pages.

Documentary

This victor in this category has always favored trends.  At one time it was the Holocaust.  Now the direction has been portraits about Muslim women.  I’ve reviewed and ranked these from my “want to win”  to my least preferred.  Personally, I don’t have strong feelings that one should triumph over the other.  I respect them all equally.  Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) has the best title so I predict that will prevail.  The results will be announced at the Academy Awards on February 9th.

 

Walk Run Cha-Cha
USA/20MINS/2019
Director: Laura Nix
cha-cha
Paul and Millie are in love. They met as teenagers in Vietnam but the war separated them.  Years later they are reunited in California.  The doc shorts category tends to favor heavy subjects with a strong message.  This piece stands out because it’s the only one that’s blessedly upbeat and lighthearted.  It’s simply about love.  That is why it’s my personal choice.

 

In the Absence
US/SOUTH KOREA/29MINS/2018
Director: Yi Seung-Jun
Lavery-IntheAbsence-SewolFerryVid
Disaster footage from overhead shows a passenger ferry sinking off the coast of South Korea in 2014.  300 people — most of them schoolchildren on a field trip — lost their lives.  The official state response is a jaw-dropping document of ineptitude.  If the way this unfolds doesn’t make you angry, please check your pulse.  Watching the victims’ families and survivors suffer the aftermath is heartbreaking.

 

St. Louis Superman
USA/28MINS/2019
Directors: Sami Khan, Smriti Mundhra
superman
Bruce Franks Jr. is a Ferguson activist and a battle rapper who served for two terms in the Missouri House of Representatives.  He is a political powerhouse the likes of which you have never seen.  He fights for a bill critical for his community while contending with overwhelming personal trauma.  This emotional account is unquestionably an admirable portrait of overcoming adversity but the coda at the end feels a bit like a rug pull.  It ends on a depressing note.  I wish the directors had focused more on the positives because there are so many to this man.  P.S. The rap battle should be subtitled.  Highlighting the poetry of his words would have emphasized why he won.  I think he won.  It’s not clear.

 

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
UK/US/Afghanistan/40MINS/2018
Director: Carol Dysinger
Skateboard
An inspirational tale about the status of Islamic women in Afghanistan.  Over the past decade, this theme has frequently won the award (Period. End of Sentence., A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, Saving Face).  Noble and important but also unfocused.  The title implies this chronicle will be about young Afghan girls who skateboard but in fact, this concerns a variety of topics including a basic desire to just read and write.  The sports aspect is, unfortunately, a very small part.   At 40 minutes it’s the longest of all the 15 nominees in the entire shorts program.  It feels like it.

 

Life Overtakes Me
USA/37MINS/2019
Director: John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson
netflix-life-overtakes-me-review-3
Many refugee children and their families have fled to Sweden from traumatic experiences in their home countries.  Some still face deportation.  Over 400 have become afflicted with something called Resignation Syndrome.  This dissociative disorder appears to be a coma-like state.  The experience resembles sleep.  The documentary highlights a fascinating affliction but it begs so many more questions than it answers.  Is this real?  Why is this specifically happening to the refugees in this country?  Have the parents asked their children to “fake it” to improve their prospects?  Directors John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson don’t press for explanations.  That’s frustrating.

 

02-03-20

2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 3 of 3)

Posted in Awards, Documentary, Shorts with tags on February 21, 2019 by Mark Hobin

ShortsTV continues to make all three of the Oscar-nominated short film programs (animated, live action, documentary) available to audiences around the world. To find out where you can watch this year’s Oscar© Nominated Short Films, visit their Theatrical Release and On Demand pages.

Documentary

The documentary short category often relies on certain trends. The Holocaust has historically been a popular subject in this category. Surprisingly, 2019 doesn’t contain a single entry having to do with that theme (neither did 2018 actually).  In fact, the last winning doc to do so was The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life in 2014.

That’s not to say they still can’t be classified. 3 of this year’s finalists [End Game, Lifeboat, and Period. End of Sentence] touch upon humanitarian groups dealing with imperative issues. The other two concern hate groups.

I’ve ranked each one in order from best to worst. In some cases I could have flipped entries next to each other, so don’t get too hung up on the lineup.

 

END GAME
USA/40MINS/2018
Directors: ROB EPSTEIN and JEFFREY FRIEDMAN
end-game
Moving depiction of the final stages of life at two San Francisco Bay Area medical facilities: a hospice and a palliative care center.  Both places comfort and provide for people dealing with end of life decisions.  A handful of patients are profiled.  It’s a poignant examination that forces the audience to deliberate over very difficult choices that we will ultimately have to make some day.  One key doctor B.J. Miller, M.D., is head of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco.  He knows a thing or two about tragedy having lost 3 of his own limbs in a freak accident.

 

BLACK SHEEP
UK/27MINS/2018
Director: ED PERKINS
BlackSheep
Looking directly into the camera, Cornelius Walker recounts his childhood as a black teenager growing up in the largely white London suburb of Essex.  Blending his own firsthand account with reenactments, he describes his dealings with the local neighborhood of racist peers.  Rather than combat them, he details his desire to fit in with the reprehensible group.  He becomes like them and his transformation, both physical and mental, is chilling.  The extreme lengths he employed to earn their friendship is unsettling.  Points for honesty though and sympathy for the obviously difficult environment to which he was exposed.

Hard to predict which of these five nominees will ultimately win, but most buzz surrounds this one.

 

LIFEBOAT
USA/34MINS/2018
Director: SKYE FITZGERALD

thenewyorker_lifeboatVolunteers from a German nonprofit called Sea-Watch conduct rescue missions in the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya.  Many of these North African refugees are fleeing to Europe to escape barbarous conditions at a human trafficking prison.  It’s not entirely clear that their life, after being rescued, will be great.  However, at least they are alive in a much better place than before.  The superior cinematography and music are definitely at a higher level than the other submissions.  The visual spectacle of these unsafe vessels overcrowded to the point that people are literally hanging off the sides, is something you won’t soon forget.

 

PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE.
USA/26MINS/2018
Director: RAYKA ZEHTABCHI
period
In a rural village outside Delhi, India, the discussion of feminine hygiene is so taboo that few have access to sanitary pads.  Let’s face it, a documentary about this subject might even be off-putting to some in the U.S.  Interviews suggest that the men in this remote area don’t have a clear understanding of the female reproductive system.  Many women just use an old cloth and discreetly bury it afterward.  We hear personal stories from ladies who have had difficulty pursuing an education or holding a job.  A female-led startup seeks to change all that by producing and selling (it’s a business after all) affordable pads.  A product that Western society takes for granted becomes a major life-changing commodity in the lives of these women.

 

A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN
USA/7MINS/2018
Director: MARSHALL CURRY
German.jpg
Archival film concerning a 1939 rally of Nazi supporters astonishingly held in New York City at Madison Square Garden.  The gathering drew a crowd of 20,000 people in 1939; two years before America began its involvement in World War II.  This frustratingly brief documentary presents jaw-dropping footage inspiring numerous questions.  Much-needed narration would have been appreciated to provide some context.  The throng is addressed by Fritz Kuhn the leader of the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization.  This isn’t revealed, but my own curiosity led me to discover that Kuhn was deported in 1945.

02-16-19

Three Identical Strangers

Posted in Documentary, Drama with tags on September 21, 2018 by Mark Hobin

1532373776411_three_identical_strangers_smSTARS3Three Identical Strangers is stranger than fiction.  That’s because it’s the truth.  Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland, and David Kellman were identical brothers that were separated at birth and adopted by three different families.  Each one didn’t know about the other.  That’s the premise.  The story begins when 19-year-old Bobby attends Sullivan County Community College for the first time.  All of a sudden people are slapping him on the back and acknowledging him with an intimate familiarity.  It turns out the students mistook him for Eddy, a very popular student who had dropped out the previous semester. A fellow classmate makes the connection that Bobby was a twin. To hear Bobby tell this anecdote is one of the many pleasures of this feature.  There’s a shared sense of elation with his palpable excitement in coming to terms with the revelation that he had a twin brother. Then after their picture appeared in the newspaper, David saw the photo of his doubles and realized they were a set of triplets.

What happened next was a whirlwind of activity.   Back in the early 1980s, the media had a field day with the news of long lost triplets.  They were living the high life.  They appeared on talk shows,  frequented nightclubs, had a cameo opposite Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan.  The three young men became the toast of New York society. Everything seemed wonderful.  During this segment, the soundtrack blasts the song “Walking on Sunshine” and I had to chuckle a little.  Director Tim Wardle was obviously setting the stage.  I sensed a precipitous fall, as is usually the expectation when things seem a little too perfect.  Sure enough. A bombshell is dropped. There are a few more twists as the tale develops and slowly the details of their separation become clearer.

Talking about this movie is tricky. I contend that it’s the joy of discovery that holds the entertainment value in this saga. I went in completely cold and I believe this real-life drama is best experienced this way.  Knowing more than what I’ve revealed here can severely lessen the emotional impact.  Why these brothers were separated at birth is something you will learn.  The chronicle gives us quite a few details into that decision and the subsequent aftermath.  Furthermore, a lot of attention is focused on how similar these men were.  Despite their time apart, they had many similar tastes. They smoked the same brand of cigarettes, they all had been wrestlers, they were attracted to the same type of woman. The media exaggerated these superficial facts at the time and so does the documentary for the majority of its runtime.  What the picture doesn’t do is spend enough time emphasizing how they were different.  It rarely makes them seem like three separate people, often blurring the distinction between each individual man.  Moreover, it doesn’t hold a lot of resolutions.  As such, there is no finality to this story.

Three Identical Strangers is fascinating, but I still had many questions. The way the boys embraced their newfound fame is highlighted.  This even led to a joint business—they opened a restaurant on New York’s Lower East Side called Triplets. Collectively they were living the dream.  So it makes how each man’s life changes a bit of a head-scratcher.  Current interviews with the subjects somewhat help distinguish their individuality.  To its credit, this documentary was captivating enough to inspire me to do some investigative journalism of my own after I watched the film.  I wanted more clarification. It’s marginally brought up, but apparently, a lot more demons plagued these brothers than this account reveals.  Why is the burning question, but the feature doesn’t leave us with many answers.  The respective background lives of each man should have been given a more detailed consideration.  Near the end, the movie does manage to offer a “hot take” on the parenting styles of each mom and dad.  The blaming of one parent, in particular, is not only glib but irresponsible.  This condemnation is one of the last things we are left with as an audience.  The facile explanation left a bad taste as I left the theater.  Yet I will avow, that for most of the tale, this is a compelling story.

9-20-18

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Posted in Biography, Documentary with tags on July 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

wont_you_be_my_neighborSTARS3.5In my pre-school days, I must admit I responded a lot more to the work of Jim Henson (Sesame Street, The Muppet Show) than Fred Rogers. Mister Rogers wasn’t hip or cool or particularly funny.  However, he undoubtedly held a sincere, genuine quality that I still find admirable.  He was unlike anyone on TV before or since. His placid, composed demeanor was so incongruous to other hosts that he was almost alien.  The world of children’s entertainment has often relied on wacky escapades, cartoons, frenetic spectacle and animated hosts to captivate kids.  Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was none of those things.

Fred Rogers had a serious agenda but would address it in his own uniquely quiet way.  He simply wanted to affirm that children are “loved and capable of loving.”  He became an ordained minister of the United Presbyterian Church in 1963 but wanted to work in television because he “hated it so” or at least the kinds of “pie-in-the-face” programming popular at the time.  Documentarian Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom, Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal) inserts footage to clarify this point.  The decision has a bit of a pompous air as it besmirches stuff like Soupy Sales, Howdy Doody and Bozo the Clown. Fred saw an opportunity to educate young minds in the way he felt they should be spoken to.  Neville includes other clips that illustrate a man not easily categorized. Despite being a lifelong Republican, he famously advocated the government funding of children’s television before a U.S. Senate committee during Nixon’s administration.

This documentary celebrates the man, but it also reminds me just how static his program truly was.  Every episode beginning with him arriving home, singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and changing into sneakers and a cardigan sweater.  Then he’d discuss a theme for that week where he’d just plainly sit and talk directly to the audience.  That theme would later be explored by a trip to the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” where puppets King Friday XIII, Queen Sara Saturday, X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, Daniel Striped Tiger, and Lady Elaine Fairchilde would interact.  Mister Rogers didn’t appear in those segments but he’d do the voices.  Through it all, he’d softly and calmly address the viewer almost as if you were the only person in the entire world.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had its official debut on February 19, 1968, on NET. After its first three seasons, it would continue to air on its successor PBS, until August 31, 2001. In that time, the world experienced civil unrest, urban violence, assassinations, wars and global tragedies. Morgan Neville builds a case that Fred Rogers was a peaceful revolutionary.  “I Like You As You Are” Mister Rogers memorably sang in one of the many songs he wrote for the series.  As segregationists demanded swimming pools for whites only, he invited series regular Officer Clemmons (François Clemmons), a black policeman, to join him as he cooled his feet in a kiddie pool on a 1969 broadcast. Clemmons acknowledges he was also gay in one of many talking head interviews recorded for this documentary.   François Clemmons recounts that Fred Rogers was aware of this fact, but asked Clemmons to remain closeted for the purposes of the show.   The two remained lifelong friends as he continued to appear on the show.

Mister Rogers had a distinctive way of connecting with children. This gifted ability is spectacularly demonstrated on an episode from 1981.  He meets with 10-year-old Jeff Erlanger.  A quadriplegic, he explains why he uses an electric wheelchair.  If their subsequent duet of “It’s You I Like” doesn’t move you, then please check your pulse.  The host’s naive sincerity was unparalleled for a person on TV.  I can still remember seeing Fred Rogers as an unlikely guest on the very first season of Late Night with David Letterman on NBC.  It was February 17, 1982, to be exact.  The clip still exists on YouTube.  The clashing of these two diametrically opposite personalities was fascinating but also uncomfortable to watch. Within Mr. Letterman’s cynical atmosphere, Mr. Rogers appeared rather peculiar.  What a difference context makes.  Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is, as expected, a loving tribute.  A man whose gentle temperament is presented like an elixir for troubled times. The mission is not to drop any bombshells.  No secret life or dark side to this man according to the documentary.  He was goodness personified and that’s the uplifting feeling you’ll get when exiting the theater.

07-12-18

Step

Posted in Dance, Documentary with tags on August 10, 2017 by Mark Hobin

stepSTARS3Director Amanda Lipitz is well aware that the city of Baltimore has an image problem. TV shows like The Wire (2002 – 2008) portray a city troubled by urban blight, underachieving public schools, drug abuse and violent crime. What happened to Freddie Gray didn’t help the city’s reputation. The black American man’s death from spinal injuries while in police custody led to protests and civil unrest. Lipitz’s film was recorded in the months following his passing in April 2015. The film acknowledges this event but then goes on to more uplifting matters.

Step would appear to be a documentary chronicling a step team’s progress toward winning a state competition.  This is probably a good point to explain the title.  Step or step dancing is a style in which the dancer’s entire body is used as a percussive instrument.  A complex set of rhythms and sounds are produced using footsteps, shouts, and hand claps. But Step is just as much a movie about a community as it is about the pupils that go to the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.  BLSYW is a small all-girls, college preparatory, and charter high school. Anyone who believes the raising of a child requires the active involvement of the entire community in order to succeed will be heartened by this account.  These women are surrounded by a lot of encouragement in their lives. Their teachers, counselors, coaches, fellow teammates and families all seem to be there pushing the students forward.

Director Amanda Lipitz’s feature debut follows three likable seniors.  First is Cori Grainger, the senior class valedictorian and hopeful candidate for a full scholarship to Johns Hopkins University.  Then there’s Tayla Solomon, the daughter of a correctional officer who also happens to be a bit of a helicopter mom.  And last but certainly not least, the step team captain and film’s breakout star, Blessin Giraldo, whose academic struggles threaten her ability to remain on the team.  Her charismatic personality captures the viewer’s attention more than any other.  Now and again, this can feel like her story.  The three young women deal with homework, apply to various colleges and fill out financial aid forms.  The Lethal Ladies step team strives to accomplish two things: finish first in the Bowie State step championship and more importantly, get accepted into college.

That last piece is the unexpected spotlight of this presentation.  Despite the title, Step isn’t really focused on dancing at all.  It’s about things like sustaining a minimum 2.0 GPA and daily class attendance.  The extracurricular activity is merely a reward for maintaining these requirements.  A little more step dancing would’ve been nice actually.  The most electric moments occur when the girls rehearse for the climactic match.  They are extremely talented.  The culminating tournament is an exhilarating exaltation of joy that comes at the end of the production.  Would actually showing more than one full routine in its entirety be too much to ask?  Still, these seniors are driven individuals in all that they do.  They are trying to get into college and it’s that pursuit that motivates this feature.  Teamwork / sisterhood / integrity – Lipitz emphasizes these themes over and over to an audience already open to the charms of these inspirational women.

Step makes a moving documentary.  If this was a fictional story the plot would most charitably be described as predictably safe.  There are few surprises.  Step joins a lofty tradition of dramas about scrappy kids from humble beginnings that find solace in extracurricular activities.  We’ve seen movies that feature basketball, cheerleading, marching band and chess.  Those are the ones that immediately come to mind.  However, the fact that these protagonists actually exist makes the chronicle much more powerful. Amanda Lipitz’ film is polished, positive, and promising.  The developments are designed to make you feel good and it does the job.  In these stories, the plucky heroes usually overcome numerous obstacles to ultimately win the day in an electrifying final showdown to the adulation of their fans.  The idea has been tackled many times.  I’m happy to say it’s just as effective here as it has been in the past.  These girls are champions in more ways than one.

08-03-17