Category: Documentary

The Armor of Light

October 14th, 2015 — 7:02am

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This thoughtful and original documentary film makes a case that the conservative right in this country led by evangelical ministers should consider that the correct moral position would be to support gun control. The case for this action, as unlikely as it may seem to be, is clearly made by this compelling documentary movie. It follows the conversion process to this point of view of Reverend Rob Schenck, who is a well-known leading American evangelical reverend who ministers to elected and appointed officials in Washington, D.C. and is president of the Christian Outreach Ministry “Faith and Action.”

The filmmaker and the force behind this film is Abigail Disney, who is the granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, co-founder of the Walt Disney Company. She is also a philanthropist, a peace activist, and an accomplished filmmaker. She has developed a deep passion for the subject of this film, which is consistent with many of her other beliefs which includes women’s right to abortion. Once she decided to make this film, she had occasion to meet Reverend Schenck who had become very upset about a mass gun shooting of innocent people near where he lived in Washington, D.C. and began to think about gun control.

After meeting Ms. Disney, he agreed to participate in this film, which was exploring the subject of gun control although apparently, he had not yet made up his mind about his personal decision on this controversial subject. We see him embark upon series of discussions with many lay people as well as other ministers. He himself wanted to understand guns and actually got training in the use of them. He also attended the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association, which was an interesting event in and of itself. All of this is filmed by Ms. Disney and her documentary team.

Reverend Schenck speaks with many members of his congregation as well as others across the country. He, of course, reflects on this subject with deep thought and prayer. He also had occasion to meet Lucy McBath, mother of Jordan Davis, an unarmed teenager who had been murdered and whose killer was using the so-called Stand Your Ground defense in the State of Florida. Ms. McBath is a devout Christian and becomes moved by her son’s loss to use her grief to bring about political action for gun control. Her faith, passion, and advocacy lead her to interact with Reverend Schenck, first in trying to influence him and then, becoming his ally in the crusade for gun control.

Perhaps the most dramatic and powerful portion of this documentary is the passion and determination of the Christian ministers and others who attempt to justify citizens owning and using weapons and the recitation of their dictum that “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Equally dramatic is the evolution of Reverend Schenck’s position to where he passionately concludes that the moral, ethical and Christian decision is an anti-gun viewpoint.

Obviously, this film does not solve this controversy but its presence and availability at the present time could have great significance and influence in this debate. The film is in the process of creating a controversy that centers around Reverend Schenck and the prominent position that he holds. In a post film discussion in which he was present, he indicated that he has already received significant criticism from evangelicals as well as support from some ministers. His organization has also received threats of the withdrawal of funds because of his evolving position on gun control.

Ms. Disney is planning to open this film in 24 cities in the United States many in the Bible Belt. We already see that the political debate and the presidential campaigns will expose some of the major disagreements among candidates, which includes gun control and “right to life.” This documentary film could be shown at local churches and civic meetings and have the potential to allow people to consider that there may be good moral reasons to change their position on the issue of gun control even if they are not yet ready to compromise on other social issues. Whether this potential will be realized remains to be seen.(2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary

He Named Me Malala

October 12th, 2015 — 12:59am

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Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani girl who grew up in the Swat Valley in Northwest Pakistan. As she was growing up, the local Taliban became increasingly powerful and instituted a policy of banning girls from attending school. Malala who is named after a famous poet and female warrior from Southern Afghanistan was approached by the BBC and asked to write a blog talking about how girls were prevented from having an education. She agreed to do so and began making speeches which were covered by the local and international press criticizing how the Taliban was taking away the rights of girls to get an education. Supported and encouraged by her father who was a teacher and a political activist himself, Malala continued to speak out. Soon, many of the schools in this area were destroyed by Taliban bombings. Malala’s activist speeches received worldwide recognition. Then. on October 2012 when Malala was 15 years old, a Taliban gunman approached her and identified her as who she was and point-blank shot her in the head. Miraculously, she recovered after extensive surgery and rehabilitation in England. Having the world spotlight on her in her campaign for girls’ rights to education, she continued her determination to speak out. In 2014, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17.

This movie is a documentary film directed by Davis Guggenheim, which shows a clear picture of this charming, most well spoken and dedicated young woman. Her personality shines through whether it is from actual video or film footage of her interacting with her parents and her precocious brothers at home, meeting President Obama or speaking before the United Nations. Through photographs and video clips as well as the use of animated cartoons, her pathway to this unique position on the world’s stage is depicted at the same time that we see her struggling with her school homework.

There is also some attempt to show the influence of her father upon her. Incidentally, he insists that he never pushed her to speak out and the decisions to do so were all her own. While that is the narrative of the film, it is clear that her father certainly was a powerful influence in her life. There is much less shown about her mother who does seem to be a vivacious and quite intelligent although uneducated woman.

The chronology in the film is not clear. The lack of focus on the time sequence of events may not be crucial as the story is probably well-known to the moviegoers who choose to see this film. Malala is amazingly articulate. She speaks English quite well and of course she is also fluent in her native language. She gives a heck of a speech with memorable lines that are obviously inspirational to young and old alike. We want to read her book ( I am Malala) and we are sure that we will want to give it to our granddaughters. This movie should have special appeal to those who know of her story and want to see the real person up-close. (2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary

Steve Jobs: The Man In The Machine

September 13th, 2015 — 10:33pm

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This documentary by Alex Gibney is a very enlightening film. It relies on archival footage mainly of Steve Jobs in action throughout the years as well as talking head interviews with people who worked very closely with him. It is a look at the man, his company Apple, and the remarkable inventions that have become part of our lives. The film also challenges the viewers by holding up a mirror to us and asking why has Jobs been held in such high esteem. It also raised the question of what was this man, who was so revered and almost worshiped by many, really like?

In the biography of Jobs written not too long ago by Walter Isaacson it was certainly shown that Jobs was self-centered, preoccupied, and perhaps narcissistic. But this film really pulls no punches in showing the dark side of this man. While it took a little awhile for the negative traits (to say the least) to come out they certainly did emerge. The movie reviewed how early on when they were quite young, he and Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple with Jobs and the person who did the real technical stuff) worked on a project for Atari, a game company. Jobs handled the interface with the company although Wozniak did most of the technical design. Jobs was given a $15,000 check for the successful project that they completed but told his partner it was for an amount of $1,500 and gave him $700. When Jobs made his girlfriend pregnant he initially denied it with a court affidavit but then when genetic testing proved he was the father of the newborn little girl, he paid only $500 a month for support just after he made $200 million from Apple going public. Later in his career when an Apple prototype of a later iPhone was found in a bar left by an Apple employee it ended up in the hands of a journalist who wrote about features of this phone. He described the product on the Internet, which led Jobs to unsuccessfully take all kinds of draconian steps to hurt this man and his small company. Jobs was also behind Apple vetoing philanthropic activity that Apple had started to do. Bill Gates on the other hand continued with a foundation that supports all sorts of worthwhile projects. Jobs was also behind an illegal and unethical agreement between the major technical companies that they would not interview people from competing companies who might want to be considered for new and perhaps better jobs.

This film did show the tremendous drive that Jobs had to make his products successful. He had the ability to envision what people wanted and mobilize the genius inventors at Apple to put together these amazing devices. It remains to be seen if future generations, especially children will have less creativity and social interaction because of these devices.

This documentary film certainly shows us the legacy of Steve Jobs, who we see at the time of his death was mourned by people all over the world. He deserves a place in history because of his creative accomplishments, but this film shows us that he certainly is not be a person to be emulated (2015).

1 comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary


August 16th, 2015 — 11:18pm

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Aviva Kempner is the daughter of a holocaust survivor and a documentary filmmaker who is interested in showing the contributions of Jews to society. Among other films that she has made were The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, which told the story about the life and career of the first Jewish baseball star in the Major Leagues. She also made a film titled Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, the story of the actress, writer and television star Gertrude Berg. This time she has taken on the story of Julius Rosenwald who died in 1932. He was the son of an immigrant peddler who never graduated from high school but became a successful businessman and ultimately the president of Sears Roebuck. He was a major philanthropist and focused his energy and his wealth on the African-American communities in the South. He was the moving force in building over 5000 schools in the early 20th Century for young black students in Jim Crow states. This film also showed the support he gave to Tuskegee University in Alabama and his relationship with one of its founders Booker T. Washington. Rosenwald was a truly remarkable man who had the Jewish ideal of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world).

Rosenwald was a living example of the historical bond which has existed between Jewish and black cultures in the United States. Much of this story is told with interviews with such people as Maya Angelou, Julian Bond, Rep. John Lewis, Gordon Parks, Cokie Roberts , various descendants of his family and many others. The fascinating subject of this film and his actions will resonant with many people and should provide an example for future generations.

The filmmaker’s enthusiasm for the implications of Rosenwald’s contributions may have led her to lose focus at times. For example, the visit of Eleanor Roosevelt to Tuskegee University to pay attribute to be Tuskegee Airmen and the ride she took in a small plane was quite interesting but moved the film further from its main theme Similarly, telling the story of Marian Anderson, the great black singer and one of the recipients of Rosenwald’s many scholarships, led the filmmaker to deviate into a long exposition about Anderson’s achievements. Some of these interesting but somewhat extraneous segments would have been better left to the bonus DVD which will accompany the film when it is purchased for personal use (although we understand that that bonus DVD in the making, is already three hours long). While not a great film, it was a unique look at a very special and not well-known person who made many contributions that changed countless lives. (2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary, History

Best of Enemies

July 30th, 2015 — 2:05am

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Best of Enemies

The 1968 democratic political convention was held in Chicago in a year filled with violence, political turmoil, and civil unrest. Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for president because of the controversy over the Vietnam for war. His Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the nomination beating anti-war spokesperson Eugene McCarthy. In the Republican Convention in Miami, Florida, former Vice President Richard Nixon beat Ronald Reagan for the nomination and went on to win the election. One of the memorable aspects of this political year was a series of 10 debates between William F. Buckley Jr., conservative spokesperson and Gore Vidal, liberal spokesperson that was aired on the ABC television network during the political convention. It is these debates that are the subject of this thought provoking and revealing documentary film produced and directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon. It is ironic that when ABC made the decision to inject the debates into its TV coverage of the conventions, they were number three in the ratings and were a poor number three at that. Yet, their use of these debates propelled them to the highest ratings over the other two networks who were doing gavel-to-gavel convention coverage. This is probably the beginning of the type of news coverage which we see today which is filled with pundits discussing and debating the news on many different networks.

In 1968, there was no more well known spokesperson of the conservative points of view than William F. Buckley Jr. For many years he had a popular television program “Firing Line” where he took on people with opposing views and demonstrated his brilliance. He also was a columnist for well-known conservative magazines. Gore Vidal was an equally brilliant, articulate liberal spokesperson who not only spoke “the talk” but wrote many very successful books about American history and also penned successful novels including one well-known fiction work titled Myra Breckinridge.

As we see in this 87-minute documentary film edited by Eileen Meyer and Aaron Wickenden, these 10 debates were very fascinating to watch and were watched more than for the discussion about the conflicts of ideological viewpoints. Certainly, Buckley expressed his view that people should be more self-sufficient and shouldn’t depend on government handouts. Vidal made the point that the government has responsibility to support people in need. However, the essence of this historic debate was how these brilliant men try to take apart not only each other’s arguments but each other.

We didn’t see all the raw footage of the debate, but in a post-film discussion with Mr. Neville, one, of the director producers, he shared his analysis which counted that more than three quarters of the time, these men were trying to dissect each other, rather than carrying on a rational discussion of the complicated issues of their time. One can’t help reflect how this film reminds us that this may be how we are approaching our modern day political debates as the right and left trash each other.

It of course makes great television and there have been very few more exciting moments in live widely watched television than the culminating mutual attacks on each other that occurred in the Buckley-Vidal debates. There needs to be no “spoiler alert” here since the following moments which we will describe are well-explored in this documentary. Mr. Buckley compared the anti-war protesters (who were probably demonstrating at that very moment outside the convention hall) “to be bullying fascists.” Vidal then says, “The only pro or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” Buckley then uncharacteristically loses his temper and says, “Listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” (The fact that Vidal turned out to be “gay” was completely irrelevant especially since he was not out at that time and Buckley had used a very disparaging word in reference to him.) Another irony is that at the very moment that Buckley threatened to punch Vidal, the police outside were probably punching the protesters. In any case this documentary film gives an inside view of the meaning of this debate using commentary of people who knew the two men at that time and later in life. We learned that Vidal’s feelings and comments about Buckley, even at the time of Buckley’s death were as angry and as bitter as ever. Similarly, Buckley’s people who knew him suggest that Buckley never got over his feelings about Vidal.

A good documentary film not only presents the facts but also tries to put them in some kind of perspective. To a certain degree, the filmmakers here may have succeeded. You may need to be a student of television and politics to fully appreciate how the debate may have been a turning point in how such debates are handled in the modern media. However, if you step back you can perhaps see that our current political discourse in 2015 over ideological differences, may be getting very personal. This film presents a worthwhile lesson in these situations of what can go wrong between “The Best of Enemies.”

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary, History

The End of the Tour

July 8th, 2015 — 4:14am

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David Foster Wallace was a highly acclaimed author who was cited by Time Magazine as one of the hundred best English language novelists. His life was cut short by depression and suicide at the age of 48 in 2008. Several years prior to this tragic event, David Lipsky, a writer for Rolling Stone Magazine and a novelist himself, of less acclaim, convinced his editor to let him accompany Wallace on the last five days of the book tour for his latest best selling novel, Infinite Jest, in order to write an article for the magazine.. Lipsky, in 2010, wrote a book about his encounter with Wallace on this tour, which subsequently inspired David Margulies to write a screenplay for this movie and bring onboard director James Ponsoldt.

The resultant film is a fascinating study of the chemistry and interaction between these two men as depicted by Jesse Eisenberg, as Lipsky, and Jason Segel, as David Foster Wallace. This famous author is shown to be a paradox of a confident, brilliant writer but yet as someone who consistently is concerned that he will not be found to be authentic. He desperately wants to be successful with women and yet has difficulty in establishing relationships and his best friends at this point appeared to be his two dogs. He cares that Lipsky will find him interesting and relevant. Yet, he was afraid that he, himself, would become addicted to fame and what people thought about him. Lipsky admired the literary giant that he was spending time with and yet we see an evolution of his understanding of the subject of his interview. The reporter began to identify with the struggle of the subject and was drawn to him perhaps as a comrade-in-arms. They become, for a while buddies hanging out, with two women connected with the tour (Mickey Summer and Mamie Gummer). There is also comic relief provided by another woman, their book tour escort, played very well by Joan Cusack.

Most of the movie is set in the snowy Midwest which is shown to be cold, crisp, and beautiful. The director, James Ponsoldt, has blended together this unique story and magnificent acting by Eisenberg and Segel plus a musical score background put together by Danny Elfman, which will cement your interest in what is happening on the screen.

It is interesting that we know very little about the psychological history of Wallace or the nature of his fatal depression. Many of the audience also may not be familiar with his writing. However, the connection between the two main characters sustains the movie and will hold your interest.(2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary, Drama

Love & Mercy

July 2nd, 2015 — 2:35am


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This is a biopic about Brian Wilson, the leader of the Beach Boys. We did not know the story of how he went through a serious mental breakdown with psychotic symptoms for several years. During this period he apparently came under the influence of Dr. Eugene Landry, shown to be the evil doctor (wonderfully depicted by Paul Giamatti). Dr. Landry was said to be a psychologist in the film but was shown to be “over medicating” Wilson. What is very clear is the brilliance of Wilson. It is interesting to speculate whether or not some of his amazing creativity was related to his genius brain, which also may have been the source of his tendency to lose touch with reality. This is also a great love story (apparently true to life) between Brian Wilson and Melinda Ledbetter ( Elizabeth Banks). While it was not shown in the body of the film, she ultimately became his second wife and the mother of five of his children.

Great credit for this movie has to be given to Director Bill Pohlad. We also thought that Paul Dano was excellent as the younger Brian Wilson (he bulked up to add many pounds to his preexisting physical resemblance to the younger Wilson). We also felt that John Cusack was outstanding as the older, very troubled Brian Wilson. We can only repeat our phrase for Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamiatti in their roles. But as expected the other star of the movie is the music. The soundtrack is constantly playing the old and the newer music created by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys which includes the title song and it adds to the authenticity of the film.

We hope you see this movie and if you’re any kind of a Beach Boys fan, we also suggest that after you view it you read about the trivia connected to the making of this film by going to the following link: CLICK HERE   You will appreciate how the filmmakers worked so hard to present the story as true to life as possible

Comment » | 4 Stars, Documentary, Drama, Musical, Uncategorized

Merchants of Doubt

March 3rd, 2015 — 12:43am

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At the beginning of the film, we meet a magician who is performing at the Los Angeles’ venue called the Magic Castle. He relates how magicians deceive and misdirect as they perform. This, of course, is the metaphor for the work of the people we meet in this film. They work for various industries such as the Food, Tobacco and Oil Corporations. Although most of the time this fact is concealed from the public, they do deceive and misdirect in how they do it. And the fact that they do it is the amazing story of this documentary film. It is directed and produced by Robert Kenner, who also made the film Food Inc, the behind-the-scene story of the food industry. This time, Mr. Kenner mostly focuses his attention on global warming. It has become clear that the scientific community almost unanimously believes that the products of carbon dioxide create a blanket over the Earth’s environment that is causing global warming. The consequences are quite dire for the world in the next 50 years. Already, we are seeing a melting of the Arctic icecap with potential flooding of our coastal cities, colder winters and warmer summers. Before the civilized world can come together and address these serious problems, there is a group of seemingly knowledgeable spokespersons who appear to respectfully offer another viewpoint and explanation for the presence of global warming. However, these people are secretly paid by the oil industry to create uncertainty. Now is the time for action but these people are “merchants of doubt” and are highly effective in delaying, diverting and obscuring that fact and the need for action. They employ the same tactics that the cigarette industry had used to delay the recognition of the fact that nicotine is addictive and that cigarettes cause cancer. This is an amazing story, and interestingly enough, it comes from “the horse’s mouth” as much of it is directly told by the slick, well-spoken people who are operating at the bidding of the corporations who have paid them in defiance of the truth established by the scientific community. In the past when the companies in the tobacco industry were finally discovered to be deceiving the public, they were ordered by the court to inform the public of the truth about cigarettes and also to reveal that they were knowingly deceiving the public. The truth about cigarettes is now on every cigarette box and in advertisements, but we have yet to see statements from climate change deniers admitting that they have lied to the public. We can only hope that the necessity for these confessions of deceit will be forced upon those responsible for misleading the public about global warming. We also hope that a large number of people will see this film so that the truth will prevail.(2015)

Comment » | 4 Stars, Documentary

Red Army

February 5th, 2015 — 8:22pm

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The Red Army-sp The Red Army is a film about hockey, except that it isn’t! We agreed with several people in the audience, with whom we saw this film, who stated that they had not been looking forward to this documentary about the national hockey team of the Soviet Union. However, we, like they, were entirely captivated by this incredibly well executed documentary written, directed and produced by the young filmmaker, Gabe Polsky. While much of the film showed actual footage of hockey games played by this extraordinary team, the scenes were beautifully put together between photos of early years of some of the players, magnificent interviews with a wide range of people and footage of life in the soviet union over the years. Mr. Polsky created a film that was enlightening, poignant and engaging by focusing mainly on one player, Viacheslav (Slava) Festinov and telling his story. By doing that, he told the story of the proud Russian people and their culture. He was able to explicate the determination and love of country, even in the face of adversity and lack of freedom that existed. Festinov as a young boy was like millions of other youths who wanted to play hockey and dreamt of being on his national team. Because of his skills he became part of the national hockey-training program that selects the best and vigorously trains them for several years. Through carefully constructed and interwoven interviews and film clips we come to see the total dedication to the game that these young men developed. We are introduced to the coaches who revolutionized the game by treating it on the level of complex ballet and complicated chess games, both of which the Russians had been known to be masters. We also see the unrelenting, even cruel training techniques that required total dedication and the total power that a coach with support of the government could have over the players. The film shows the fascinating years of the amazing world wide successes, then the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” in which the United States Olympic hockey team upset the Soviet Union and went on to win the Gold Medal at Lake Placid and the redoubled efforts following that loss which created a whole new “must win” era in the Soviet Union. The events that then occurred with all the twists and turns of a “must see” thriller are captured in the film keeping the viewer totally engaged. The events in Festinov’s life as well as the changes in the Soviet Union are compelling. With hockey as a platform, it is what happens in the lives of the people in this space that makes for a film that compels you to become involved. It is the best of what a good documentary does. You see, you learn and most of all you care. (2014)

Comment » | 5 Stars, Documentary, History, Sport

The Queen of Versailles

January 5th, 2015 — 2:44am

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The Queen of Versailles – nf  Mrs. American, a Florida beauty pageant winner marries 2nd husband David Siegel, one the richest men in the country thanks to his success selling time-shares. He is 30 years her senior and they go on to have eight children. Although they live in a mansion with nannies and other help, they set about to build the largest house under one roof in the United States. They fashion it after the Palace of Versailles and it will have more than 90,000 square feet. Their life style includes limousines, extravagant furnishings and clothes, as well as everything for their children. If there ever were a family to which the term “ life styles of the rich and famous” would apply, it would be to this one. Mr. Siegel even takes credit for election of George W. Bush by carrying Florida because of his great financial support of him (which he even acknowledges might have been a little illegal.) He owns one of the largest buildings in Las Vegas, which he turns into a time-share operation. Mr. Siegel’s timeshare selling team won’t take no for an answer and they have a time-share for every budget. Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield realizes that this couple would be a fascinating subject for a documentary film and they agree to the project. If this were the entire story, it would probably be an interesting film which would provide insight into how people with essentially unlimited money live their lives. However, this project was started a little before 2008 when the US was hit with a gigantic stock market and real estate crash. Too many Americans had “sub-prime “mortgages, meaning they held mortgages, on which they could no longer make their payments once the economy, went bad. This not only impacted the little guy, or even the average family but it affected big time, timeshare mogul David Siegel who suddenly found that he could not pay his loans. His financial world came crashing down around him. The film became the story of how this family began to deal with the sudden completely unexpected change of events for them. They had to put their unfinished dream house up on the market with nary a buyer in sight. They had to radically cut back on all their help, stop their extravagant spending and even started to have arguments about keeping unnecessary lights on in their house. Even if this is not exactly rags to riches and back to rags, it is a lesson in how people often don’t appreciate what they have and when they have it want more. While the message may have long lasting meaning, the nuances of the economy problems seem somewhat dated, the movie also feels that way. Hopefully new regulations put in place will at least protect the little guy in the future. The big boys usually fend for themselves. We did a search to find out how the folks in the film were doing today which revealed that in 2014, the filmmaker and the Siegels were suing each other for issues related to the movie. (2012)

Comment » | 2 Stars, Documentary

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