I Am Not Your Negro (2016/7)

Where does one begin with this amazing documentary and make no mistake – let’s get that out of the way – this is an AMAZING documentary that I recommend everyone seek and discover.

In these uncertain times, I have often found myself at a loss of words on how to articulate exactly what I feel as I look at the world around me. On that level alone, the Academy Award ®-nominated I Am Not Your Negro could not have come at a more perfect time. After watching this documentary, I felt as if many others and myself are given a voice through the eloquent thoughtful words of James Baldwin.

Based on a 30-page manuscript from an abandoned 1979 project wherein Baldwin set out to detail a personal account of the lives and deaths of friends and civil rights icons Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Although the project never went past these few pages, they are more than enough to be brought to life through the voice of Samuel L. Jackson.

The eloquence of the spoken words is accompanied with a wonderful visual language that director Raoul Peck has chosen to broaden out this original story to examine race relations in America.

As someone who (obviously) loves the language of film, I must say this cinematic technique was really put to good use. Archival interviews featuring Baldwin, photographs of the past and present, clips from classic Hollywood films, as well as contemporaneous images chronicling current events are beautifully woven to tell a story that is both very personal as well as serve a larger narrative purpose.

Often when you watch a documentary film, one tries to decipher what the central thesis of the work is. As the story revealed itself to me, I almost immediately registered that the filmmakers are trying to drive home one simple fact: history is not the past, it is now. Sure, some events may have happened in the past and as such, are a matter of record in the present. But never forget – the events of the past are alive and all around us, informing us as we journey through our lives. And sure enough, as the film neared its conclusion at 90 minutes, Baldwin in his own words said very much the same thing as if speaking to the audience from whatever realm he currently inhabits.

And given the dour circumstances and moments the documentary captured, there is a lovely and emotional chord of optimism struck at the end.

I Am Not Your Negro is an instructive and masterful work that will touch your heart and mind with its powerful message.

Seen at Tribeca (Post 3 of ?): Indian Point

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster several years ago, increased scrutiny has piled on the nuclear power industry. On a local level, residents, journalists and regulators alike are players in an increasingly complex environmental and regulatory space where there are raised concerns over the safety of the nation’s aging plants.. The heavily populated New York City metropolitan area is no exception. Check out this recent New York Times article for evidence; this is but one of several alarming pieces covering the 50+ year-old Indian Point nuclear facility on the otherwise picturesque Hudson River.

Director, Ivy Meeropol  Courtesy of Indian Point Film Productions, Inc.

Indian Point (Director, Ivy Meeropol)
Courtesy of Indian Point Film Productions, Inc.

Aptly titled Indian Point, the documentary, directed by Ivy Meeropol, features Indian Point employees, anti-nuke activists, environmental journalists and a host of other key players who have a stake in the long term outcome of the plant. Two points of interest on this front – a husband/wife tandem of anti nuclear activist and environmental journalist, and most notably, former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, who by the account of the film was forced out of his position by a powerful and insular industry hell bent on growth amidst an increasingly alarmist court of public opinion.

In general, Indian Point is very much a paint by numbers documentary, not offering much in the way of ‘entertainment’, per se. But what makes it a watch of interest is that it provides some background information on the history of the facility and raises some questions as to the facility’s sustained viability amid the perceived imminent threat posed to the region.

 

Tribeca Recap (1 of ?); The Emperor’s New Clothes

Sorry for the delay, guys. Life at the movies has been rather hectic lately.

The dust has settled, giving me the opportunity to sit back and reflect on my latest Tribeca Film Festival experience.

First, a couple of observations:

  1. I LOVE the choice of the Regal Cinemas in Battery Park City being the hub this year. It is easily one of my favorite multiplexes in New York City and really showcases the beauty and spirit of Lower Manhattan.
  2. Sadly, due to the hectic nature of my schedule lately, I did not get the chance to see as many films as I wanted. Nevertheless, granted, what I did see is definitely noteworthy. I will be posting my recaps in multiple parts; but as indicated by my post’s title, the number of which is indeterminate at this posting’s time. Stay tuned!

 

I guess I will start when I finished the festival – with the Michael Winterbottom/Russell Brand collaboration of The Emperor’s New Clothes, an informative and irreverent account of the 2008 financial crisis and its ripple effect in the United Kingdom, the United States and around the world.

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Now that I have had ample time to reflect on the film, I obviously have some thoughts – some things I was a bit “meh” about and others that I found worthy highlighting. Let’s get the “bad stuff” out of the way first:

PLEASE, papa don’t preach (too much): the retort is naturally What else should I have expected? In the end, I did not mind (read further down), but I could see where some could grow weary and wonder where this fella comes off talking about this stuff. To be fair, Brand seems at least minimally self-aware in realizing the interesting position he finds himself in, being part of that “1%” he is banging on about.

Pixelation = NOT okay: The overlaying pixelation of the graphics throughout the documentary was sometimes a bit off-putting, with on at least one occasion, leaving me to wonder if something had gone amiss with the digital projection in the theater. It made me kinda nervous and unsettled. Really it did – to the point where I was concerned that some less passive spectator would say something. Luckily that did not occur.

 

Those two matters are off my chest, time for some positivity:

It’s always easy to like something when you agree with the premise …: In general, I tend to keep clear of being overtly political in this space (I feel these types of discussions are best left for face-to-face chats). However, with this film, there is a very clear political agenda, forgive me in advance if my commentary veers a bit.

Framed by the Hans Christian Andersen tale and through a mixture of archival footage, anecdotal interviews, on-the-nose infographics, and the more than occasional Brand-ian quip, we are offered a balance of channels all driving home the same message – the farcical approach that has been taken in dealing with the financial/fiscal crisis and its direct effect on social well-being of everyday people. To personalize this message, Brand takes us to his hometown of Grays, Essex for an example of the impact to local communities. Even for individuals unfamiliar with the inner workings of the UK political, financial and social life, it is clear as crystal which side of the court our filmmakers are on. That said, a lot of the points do transcend national just the politics, with the reverberations of errant behavior of folks in London and New York; Winterbottom and Brand even hop across the pond where he examines the Occupy Movement; New York City Mayor Bill DiBlasio even makes a brief appearance in the film.

Overall, I found myself either nodding in agreement or riled with anger and a feeling of helplessness/hopelessness of the state of the world as depicted in this documentary. I suspect many others had a similar experience. To their credit, the filmmakers do not leave the audience to stew in their emotions for too long, thanks to the comical interludes. In addition, as the film ends, the audience is presented with a framework for a call to action – some ideas are practical, some admittedly a little pie-in-the-sky – but it’s something. Only time will tell if there is any lasting impact.

One final note – timing is everything: in doing my background on this film, I saw that the UK release of The Emperor’s New Clothes took place on April 21 – just in time for the national Parliamentary elections (which take place this Thursday).

 

 

Image credit: Tribeca Film Festival/Studio Canal UK

 

 

Tribeca Film Festival ’15 Preview

I sure as heck do not know where the time goes nowadays. No sooner was I decompressing from my trip out to Los Angeles for the TCM Film Festival, were my sights set again to my hometown (-ish) festival, Tribeca!

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It’s the day before the official start, early screenings down and schedules sorted, so here is a quick list of what I am looking forward to ….

 

For Your Consideration

Slow West – Saw this Sundance award winner in January and am still recommending it her; check out my review on FlixChatter. Narrative

 

On My ‘Plan to See’ List

As I Am: The Life and Times of DJ AM – Often told in his own voice, the story of Adam Goldstein (known professionally as DJ AM), chronicles the musician’s meteoric rise onto the L.A. party scene to his equally precipitous and very tragic fall. Documentary

Indian Point – This one hits a little close to home (as I live in the Greater Hudson Valley); I am almost afraid to find out the status of this nuclear facility, the safety of which has been a constant presence in our local news in recent years. Documentary

A Ballerina’s Tale – A profile of Misty Copeland, the first African American soloist at the American Ballet Theatre® in decades. Note: this special screening scheduled for this Sunday (4/19) will be followed by a Q&A with Copeland and a dance performance. Documentary

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Mary J Blige: The London Sessions – A behind the scenes look at the recording of the R&B stalwart’s 13th studio album which takes place in … you guessed it – London. Note #2: this screening on Thursday (4/16) will be followed by a performance by the woman herself. Documentary

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Live – Part of TFF’s celebration of the legendary British comedy troupe, The Meaning of Live inter-cuts archival footage with a behind the scenes look at the team as they prepare for their final live show in 2014. Documentary

Far From Men (Loin Des Hommes) – A French language film set in mountainous Algeria starring Viggo Mortensen and scored by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. C’mon, now. Narrative

The Emperor’s New Clothes  – A documentary from award-winning director Michael Winterbottom (Jude, 24 Hour Party People) features comedian/social justice warrior Russell Brand in a no-holds-barred look at the worldwide financial crisis and its consequences. Documentary

Prescription Thugs –I am guessing this film will deliver what is exactly on the tin – a look inside the commerce and personal conflicts that have arisen from the alarming epidemic of prescription drug addiction. Also of note – filmmaker Chris Bell’s (Bigger Stronger Faster) own family suffered a personal loss directly related to this problem. Documentary

 

Of Interest

Franny – I am curious about this one because a couple of years ago, I attended to a Sundance Institute’s writing workshop/table read for this ‘work in progress.’ Now, it is finished and stars Richard Gere, Dakota Fanning and Theo James (Insurgent film series). Gere portrays an eccentric man who inserts himself into the lives of a newlywed couple (Fanning and James). It would be cool to see the final product. Narrative

The Armor of Light – Abigail Disney’s directorial debut looks at Reverend Rob Schneck, an evangelical minister who, likely going against many with whom he shares a common religious affiliation, is spreading a message criticizing the blight gun violence is having on our society. Documentary

Down in the Valley – A sports documentary by way of Emmy award winning Jason Hehir (The Fab Five) about the city of Sacramento’s efforts to prevent their NBA franchise (The Sacramento Kings) from leaving for greener (kaching!) pastures. Documentary

Tumbledown – With a cast headlined by Rebecca Hall and Jason Sudekis and a synopsis that put a smile on my face, I am more than a little curious. Narrative

Hannah (Rebecca Hall) and Andrew (Jason Sudeikis).Photography by Seacia Pavao

 

And Time Permitting …

There are a bunch of Tribeca Talks® and Short Programs (support the shorts!) that I am interested in attending as well, but I will take these in stride and attend as I am able to fit them into my schedule.

I am probably missing something but as you can see, there is a lot going on in Lower Manhattan over the next eleven days.

 

Anyone attending this year’s festival? What are you most looking forward to?

 

* Film synopses’ source: the official Tribeca Film Festival‘s Film Guide; photo credits: Tribeca Film Institute.

Sundance 2015 Review: Fresh Dressed (2014)

Fresh Dressed (written and directed by Sacha Jenkins) is a documentary about the history and business of hip-hop fashion.

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Checking out the Gazelles frames. Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute

The film starts by tracing African American cultural fashion from the turn of the 19th century (principally post-emancipation) through the 1970s and to the streets of the “Boogie Down Bronx,” during a time where urban blight and gang warfare were at their height.

Out of this bleak landscape was birthed a revolutionary musical format, rap (hip-hop). Along with this new musical format came a fashioning of clothes that for nearly 20 years was ignored by mainstream culture. But at the 20th century was drawing to a close and hip-hop music entered the realms of popular culture, the fashion quickly followed. Before you knew it you had the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, etc. staking their claim and garnering a loyal (and ultimately fleeting) followers.

Also to come out of this movement in fashion was the opportunity for many, mostly African-American designers to burst into the realm of fashion. Some of these pioneers were straight from the music scene itself (see Sean “Diddy” Combs and Damon Dash, to name a couple). This film chronicles the rise (and the many falls) of the labels that emerged during this time. Also examined, is the impact this insurgence has had on the overall modern fashion industry (in fact, look no further than this week’s festivities at New York Fashion Week for confirmation of the continuation of this trend).

One aspect that gets much respect from my vantage point is the highlighting of the primarily African-American influence of hip-hop fashion but also the Latino notes that informed the development of the styles and trends that predominated the culture.

Fresh Dressed focuses on the business aspect. In that respect, I feel like there were a few missed opportunities to really take a deeper dive into some of the cultural movements within the hip-hop community (namely Afro-centrism in the early-mid 1990s) and what that meant for the changing styles. I suspect that there were many roads that the filmmakers could have taken but for the sake of time and narrative cohesion they had to go the particular route they chose.

So in the end while I LOVED the trip down memory lane and listening to the first hand accounts of people – thought leaders/hip hop artists, including the famous, infamous, and markedly un-famous – and the accompanying soundtrack, Fresh Dressed is probably best served as great entrée for a glimpse of the community and the culture and styles it birthed, along with the influence they have on what we wear today.

After a limited theatrical run, Fresh Dressed will appear on CNN sometime later in the year.

Art and Craft (TFF 2014)

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Part caper, psycho-medical study and poses some questions about what defines art, the documentary Art and Craft (which started out life as a Kickstarter project) held my attention from beginning to end. The film delivers the story by framing the it with the classic cat and mouse between forger Mark Landis and one of his victims, Matthew Leininger, who until recently was an art registrar based in Cincinnati. Leininger has made it his life’s mission to bring Landis to justice for his grand deceptions.

While the true motives of Landis, however explained in the film, remain a bit of a mystery, no one can dismiss the fact that he is very talented. As someone who herself has tried (and failed on more than one occasion) to replicate various pieces of art *, I can attest to the difficulties in accomplishing this feat. And he undoubtedly does it. But I guess that is the point – how else would he have been able to fool all of these institutes over the past 30 years? And be sure, he was conned a lot of folks, as the film so helpfully and directly illustrates for the audience.

There are a couple of interesting plot details that I do not want to give away, but let me just say that this is a story that anyone who loves art and the art of the chase (with just the right amount of humor) should seek out.

Currently the film is making the rounds at film festivals all over the country, so stay tuned to the official website for more general release information.

 

*Note: often when taking an art class, you are asked to replicate a piece of art or at least, use a piece as a source of ‘inspiration’ for an assignment.

Photo Credit: Tribeca Institute

A Decade Under the Influence (2003)

Watching the TCM Premiere of the 1973 crime drama The Seven Ups got me all up in my 1970s cinematic feels. During the live tweeting with my fellow TCM viewers (TCMParty represent!) I was reminded of all the awesome films that came out during this decade. This got me reflecting a bit, like why hadn’t I been on this 1970’s cinema train until recently? Maybe since I was born in the mid-late 1970’s, I always dismissed the cinematic achievements of the period. Or maybe, rather age and experience has given me a level of cinematic sophistication to appreciate the 1970s cultural landscape a bit more. Whatever the actual cause, I am all the better for it.

A Decade Under the Influence Still

The 2003 IFC documentary, A Decade Under the Influence, co-directed by Richard LaGravense and Ted Demme (who sadly passed away before production on the film was complete), is a statement of the times and how what the audiences saw on screen was a reflection that heralded a new era in moviemaking and cinematic storytelling.

My immediate reaction after watching this film was wowsa. The 1970’s ran the gambit and offered quite possibly some of the most creative, innovative and liberating films in the history of Hollywood. I will touch on the whys of that statement in a second.

With all of this creative explosion and freedom, there was bound to be a downside. As the decade drew to a close, the engine that drove these films and exposed them to mainstream popularity came up against the business of show’s commercial interests. One result is the introduction of our current risk-averse moviemaking model.

Now back to the whys – the documentary cites several reasons; among them:

  •  As the old guard, i.e., the moguls who founded Hollywood started to die and be replaced by corporate entities, the hold studios had over its stars became more and more tenuous. This decline in the studio system also meant that the ability of movie stars to ensure box office success left the system at a crossroads.
  • As the adage goes “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” The loss of fortune and drive to recoup some of the losses created a ripe environment for young filmmakers to express themselves with limited studio interference.
  • Coming out of the social upheaval (and subsequent ‘social confusion’) of the 1950’s and 1960’s these mavericks put on film what were, as one interviewee in documentary explained was a celebration of the victories gained during this time. And audiences for a time were attracted to this.
  • Borrowing from what came before both in the studio system as well as cinema from around the world, these filmmakers and talent had a worldliness and ‘education’ that stretched their creative boundaries.

Interwoven with interviews with many of the movers and shakers* of the decade are clips from some of the more notable films, which range from the small and personal statement to the crowd-pleasing blockbusters.

Not explored at great length was the Blaxploitation films and the Asian influence, notably Hong Kong martial arts films to the West. Maybe these topics are just too broad for the focus of this documentary; heck, they probably deserve their own space (wink, wink filmmakers).

Another notable omission I observed was the “all-star” disaster movies (The Poseidon Adventure, Airport, The Towering Inferno). One theory: these films do not fit into the social context of many of the films discussed in the documentary. I would further argue that this subgenre could tie into the death throws of the studio system and, as a last ditch effort to bank on star power, led the studios to join forces. The result – the production of mega-watt disaster flicks. Again, maybe this series of films is deserving of its own more detailed retrospective.

Even with these omissions, A Decade Under the Influence wonderfully chronicles the changing landscape of cinema as an art form and as a going concern. It is almost a master class that will add vastly to your list of films to take a look at.

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* It would be remiss of me NOT to mention at least some of the folks interviewed in this documentary, that is chock full of key influencers; here are just a few: Sydney Pollack, Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola, Pam Grier, Jon Voight, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Roger Corman, Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern, Polly Platt, Julie Christie, Brian DePalma, Roy Scheider, Paul Mazursky, Milos Forman and Robert Towne.

Sundance ’14 Doc Spotlight: FED UP

It may not be apparent here on my blog, but I am deeply fascinated by the role that food plays in the American life. I have read several books on food origins and what some think constitutes the best way to approach shopping for groceries as well as consuming said food for you and your family. Previously I touched upon this in my review of the documentary Forks Over Knives.

So you can imagine my excitement at the prospect of catching the premiere of Laurie David/Katie Couric collaboration Fed Up, which aims to identify and cast a light on the real cause of the expanding waistlines of American youth.

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It’s what’s for lunch (at our nation’s schools)

Fed Up is an entertaining and informative documentary that follows the stories of “average” American adolescents and their struggle with food, while also examining the responsibility of food companies in perpetuating the problem.

Director Stephanie Soechtig follows the young people from their homes to school. It is evident that the parents, while having the best interests of their children at heart, are through no fault of their own as naive and ill-informed concerning the consequences of some of the food choices they have made as their children who are fighting (and seemingly losing) the battle of the bulge.

In interviews, leading health and medical experts as well as food advocates also offer well-informed insight on this topic that not only has grave consequences for the weight of the nation but also the wealth of the nation.

Loaded with wonderfully interactive infographics and animations, Fed Up deftly explains complex medical and physiological topics into ‘digestible’ pieces that the target audience can easily understand.

Most shocking learning moment? The very depressing statistic that in 30 years, the US has gone from 0 diagnosed cases of adult-onset (Type II) diabetes in adolescents to over 60,000. What astounds me about this fact is that is not taking into account all the many young people out there who are not charting their health with doctors. And this is clearly the case when you factor in the socio-economics of this crisis.

This actually leads me to one quibble I have with the film. While it did a good job of identifying and discussing the problem and possible solutions, the one area that I felt the film was deficient was in the exposition of the aforementioned social and economic issues surrounding this health emergency. The concept of “food deserts” was only briefly touched upon; however I felt there was a little more there that could have been discussed, since on its on first sight, the people most directly affected by this crisis tend to be classed as economically disadvantaged. But I guess at the end of the day, as the film explains, this problem spans all strata of society, with much of the confusion having to do a lot with us relying on the food industry to honestly inform us about leading healthy lifestyles.

And let’s remember, this is not a problem just reserved for good ole USA. As we as a nation continue to export foodstuffs around the globe, the phenomenon we are grappling with here is creeping its way onto the plates of the world.

As the film draws to a conclusion, there is a call to action on the part of the filmmakers for all of us to take on the challenges together.

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Images provided by the Sundance Institute.

Sundance ’14: Life Itself (2014)

Life Itself is a documentary based on the late writer and film critic Roger Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name. This Sundance Documentary Premier was directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and executive produced by Ebert friend Martin Scorsese.

The film takes passages from Ebert’s memoirs and weaves them with interviews and footage from Ebert’s battle with the cancer that would ultimately claim his life. In a way, Life Itself is part biography/ part tribute, examining a man who lived life to its fullest and left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape by making the art of film criticism available and palatable to the masses.

Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel

To distill the documentary to its most resonant moments, presents quite a challenge for me. I never claimed or even thought I knew much about the man, beyond what I saw on TV or read on his website, but the level of depth and insight I gained, from his early rearing to his professional and personal triumphs and setbacks was very engrossing and well executed.

And as we the audience move through these various stages of his life, we get to a point where we see how he ultimately impacted and influenced others. An especially poignant moment that speaks directly to this is the story shared by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who recounts in the film her first meeting Ebert as a girl outside the Academy Awards and her remembrance of the kindness bestowed upon her then and years later as she emerged as an up and coming filmmaker.

Another part of the film that I liked was how to delved into the impact of Ebert’s popularization (commercialization) of film reviews and presented the critique many of his contemporaries had with how his success (re)defined the trade, which up until then, enjoyed a solidly didactic and academic reputation.

Particularly in the latter stages of his life, Ebert really embraced the populism that the ‘interwebs’ and social media provided in terms of everyone getting their message and opinions out there. I can only speak for myself when I say if not for this, I am sure I would not have 1) the agency or 2) the desire to express myself on this or any platform.

At the time of this writing, Life Itself does not have a theatrical distributor but the cable network CNN has television distribution rights and will air on their network following its theatrical release.

Check out the film’s official website for special screening events.

Sundance 2014 Report (1): Women Talk Docs

Forgive me in advance. Over the next few days, I hope to churn out a whole bunch of wonderful detail from my Sundance 2014 excursion. This collection of recaps will include reviews, photos and a summary personal narrative of my experiences over my 4 days in Park City, Utah.

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Monday, January 20. Touchdown, Salt Lake City, 10:30AM. I have finally arrived! A dream of mine has come true. Almost as soon as I touched the ground, I dropped my bags off at the hotel and headed straight for downtown/Main Street.

I usually use my first day in any new city, big or small, as my “Get Lost” day. This included working my way through the FREE public transportation system to find the best (and worst) ways to get around in timely and efficient manner. I did all of this to end up at the Sundance Channel HQ just in time to be in the audience of SundanceNOW Doc Club’s “Spotlight on Women Directors” Panel featuring filmmakers Rory Kennedy, Lucy Walker, Shola Lynch and Judith Helfand. Although the discussion was focused on documentary films, the panel did start the dialogue by discussing the current status of women filmmakers overall in the industry (documentary, narrative, short and feature-length). After running off of the frankly abysmal stats, the topics in the packed house shifted to:

  • overcoming misconceptions about one’s ability as a filmmaker,
  • navigating the waters of Hollywood politics,
  • inserting and asserting yourself in a culture of confidence,
  • building a network of allies,
  • finding your own unique voice in telling story,
  • using social media to get your “brand” out there, and
  • using obstacles to your advantage and turning them into assets.

As someone who is on the verge of creating material for mass consumption, I left this event inspired to forge ahead in spite of what can be best described as my own ‘self-imposed’ reservations.

But don’t my word for it; see (and hear) for yourself ….

Tune in tomorrow to this space for my thoughts about the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself.