Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category

TV Review: Newtown (2016)

Posted: April 10, 2017 in Documentary, TV


Newtown features interviews with parents, teachers, siblings, and first responders regarding some of the victims of the mass shooting in Newtown Connecticut in 2012.

The first images he viewer sees in this documentary is police speeding to the scene of the mass shooting in Newtown Connecticut, and the first voices viewers hear are that of the desperately frightened faculty talking about the shocking crime.   On December 14th 2012, Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 elementary school kids and 6 teachers in Newtown Elementary School.  The pain is seared in the voices of the parents, the siblings, the first responders and everyone else related to this tragedy.  Expressing that pain is somehow cathartic for these people, but I doubt if they will ever have closure for the horrible events.  Closure has become a media term of art, it signifies when the media wants to move on from an issue.  The documentary is an excellent example of television as catharsis, and for showing the difference between catharsis and closure, but Newtown has shortcomings.

For all its earnestness, this documentary is far from perfect.  First, it gets into the political exploits of some of the Newtown parents.  Politics is broken, If we as a nation can’t keep guns out of the hands of the criminally insane, there is no reason to replay the dysfunction of the American political system. Some of us already that know some issues will never be addressed by Congress.  It just adds to the pain of the Newtown massacre to know that Congress is unwilling to do anything to address gun violence.

In addition, the documentary doesn’t mention all the victims.  The crime involved 26 people, yet the documentary only interviews a few relatives of the victims.  OK, maybe all the relatives don’t want to get interviewed, but the filmmakers didn’t even show pictures of all the victims.  It would seem to be the humane thing to do to show the faces and read the names of all the victims.  Also, it would show the enormous scope of the violence that was perpetrated in that school.

The most glaring omission of all was the fact that the filmmakers didn’t mention the names of the killer or his mother.  There is obviously a fear of a copycat crime, but not mentioning the killer or his mother, who gave him access to the guns, is editorializing by the filmmakers.  The job of a documentary filmmaker is to lay out all the facts, not omit facts where they see fit.

Newtown is replete with emotion, but it seemed incomplete to me.

Newton:  Painful catharsis.




From a very young age Rachel Carson liked to write.  At age 10, she became a published writer, her mother sold off the family possessions so Rachel could go to college. After college, she landed a research position in Woodhole Massachusetts.  It was there where she fell in love with biology.    Tragedy in her personal life forced her to get a job in the US Bureau of Fisheries, she sells some articles based on her work to local newspapers, omitting her first name at times to avoid sexism.  Then Simon and Shuster offered her an opportunity to write a book.  The book was Under The Sea Wind.  However, World War II interfered with the sale of the book.  At the same time, science was growing by leaps and bounds, a chemical called DDT was used in large quantities to end the scourge of malaria. Rachel Carson was skeptical of the effects of DDT on wildlife, but no one was interested in her point of view.

Five years after the end of WWII, Carson got the itch to write another book, she did this by synthesizing research papers into from the Fish and Wildlife Department into a book called The Sea Around Us .  The New Yorker Magazine serialized the book.  Three weeks after it went on sale, it landed on the New York Times bestseller list, by September 1951 it as number 1 on the bestseller list, it spent 32 weeks at number one. At the same time, science is exploding, literally. In 1954, America did a hydrogen bomb test, and DDT type pesticides were proliferating.  After a extensive period of writer’s block, In 1955, Carson finished, her third book, The Edge of The Sea , another book about marine biology.

In 1957, the pesticide companies had found a new pest to eradicate, the fire ant.  Planes sprayed insecticides through wide swatches of the Southern portions of America.  Not only ants died, fish and birds also perished. The widespread use of pesticides and the death of wildlife is a call to action for Rachel Carson. In 1958, Carson was already deeply into researching her future book against pesticides.  In 1960, her mother died shortly after having a stroke. Also in 1960, Carson discovered lumps in her body, her doctor told her not to worry, by the time Carson checked her body again, she did indeed have cancer and it had metastasized all over her body.  Now it was a race against the clock, would she finish her new book before she succumbed to cancer?

This is an incredible documentary about an incredible woman.  First of all, I know nothing about Rachel Carson, so it was an educational experience for me.  Just the story of her life, the fact that she was a woman in the 1950’s, writing about the ocean in a knowledgeable way was really intriguing.  The 40’s and 50’s in America are known as an era of conformity, and Carson was anything but a conformist.  The issue of pesticides was always a subject of interest for Carson, but only came to the forefront after the government tried to eradicate the fire ant.  After that point, she became a woman on a mission.

The documentary also delved deeply into Carson’s personal life, her relationship with her mother, her difficulties with other members of her family, her relationship with a neighbor, and most importantly, her struggles with cancer.  The story then becomes a race against time and that adds urgency to the story.

This documentary provides an interesting contrast between the total faith that government, and corporate America had in science in the 1940’s 50’s, and 60’s and the total lack of faith in science in today’s American government.  Rachel Carson was a voice of healthy skepticism, but now our government seems filled to the brim with science deniers.

Rachel Carson, a pest to the insecticide industry.


Debbie Reynolds was a star when Hollywood created stars who were larger than life.  She burst onto the scene at age 19 as Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain.  She had a hit song with Tammy in the movie Tammy and The Bachelor, she won an Oscar for The Unsinkable Molly Brown.  Debbie Reynolds met and married crooner Eddie Fisher and had two kids, Carrie and Todd.  If her life was a movie, she would have lived happily ever after, but real life is not a movie.  Eddie Fisher had an affair with Debbie’s friend Elizabeth Taylor, and left Debbie brokenhearted,  Debbie had no luck with men, but continued making movies and touring with her daughter, Carrie.

Carrie Fisher became a star in a very different Hollywood, she made her first appearance in the movie Shampoo, but became a household name in the Star Wars films.  After the massive success of the Star Wars films, she became an author of biographical books like Postcards From The Edge, and a one woman show called Wishful Drinking.  She came back to her iconic role of Princess Leia in The Force Awakens.  This documentary explores the relationship between the iconic mother-daughter duo, who were estranged for a long time, but eventually lived next door to one another.

This documentary should have been a happy documentary, about the girl next door, who survived multiple heartbreaks to laugh and sing and defy the people who wrote her off, and her daughter, whose gritty sense of humor was the key to her survival instinct.  But this is not a happy documentary, it’s a bittersweet documentary, because Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher died one day apart late last year, and that sadness hangs over this documentary like a pall.  The fact that this documentary was rushed to HBO days after the pair died, adds to the discomfort.

The documentary also seems to lack focus.  It jumps from Debbie Reynolds’ career, to Carrie Fisher’s career to Debbie Reynolds’ movie memorabilia collection to Carrie Fisher’s begrudging participation in a sci-fi convention.  What makes this documentary worth watching is both mother and daughter’s incredible sense of humor, and Debbie Reynolds’ tireless love of touring. She was indefatigable, performing until nearly the day she died. Debbie Reynolds loved show business, and that was obvious. I learned that Carrie Fisher had an incredible singing voice, she could have been a singer, but as her mother said, Carrie “didn’t want to be Debbie Reynolds or Eddie Fisher.”  The most important lesson from this documentary is one that all adult children eventually learn.  At one point, the child becomes the adult and the caretaker of the parent.  And Carrie Fisher handles that role lovingly.  The documentary ends on a high note, and leaves the viewer with warm feelings.

Bright Lights:  Two stars continue to shine.

Movie Review: Weiner (2016)

Posted: December 23, 2016 in Documentary


Anthony Weiner was a seven-term Congressman from New York City, and a rising star in the Democratic Party, until a sexting scandal made him resign from Congress.  It didn’t take him long to get the itch for politics again.  He decided to run for Mayor of New York, running against a group of largely unknown candidates.  His wife, Huma Abadeen was herself a rock star in the Democratic Party, as an aide to Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.  Huma decides to throw her weight behind her husband’s mayoral campaign.  Huma, his new son, Weiner’s policy knowledge, and reputation as a scrappy fighter for the middle class, seemed to be overshadowing his scandal.  He even took the lead in some polls in the mayor’s race.  People seemed to be willing to forgive him for his one misdeed, could he leave his troubled past behind him and could he and Huma become the new power couple of New York City?

Anyone who knows American politics knows the answer to the question posed above.  So why did the filmmakers what to make this movie.  It seems like they had a good subject for a film either way.  Either Weiner puts the original scandal behind him and goes on to win the mayor’s race, or he implodes and becomes a human traffic accident.  Nobody likes watching a car accident, but no one can turn away either.  Why did Weiner agree to have himself filmed?  He is a narcissist, like most politicians.  He likes the sound of his voice, and he thinks he can talk himself out of any situation.  And he liked the adulation of a cheering crowd that became his drug.  Huma Abedin didn’t exactly come out smelling like a rose either, she barely seemed to tolerate him at times, and only seemed interested in the power and prestige that being first lady of New York City would bring.

Why did I watch it?  I was wondering if it was worth all the great reviews from the professional critics, frankly, I didn’t think it was.  It was the subject himself, he is not a likeable person, he did an unconscionable thing, and he was asking to be forgiven, but he was still a jerk, even when things were going his way.  It’s like watching a fictional movie with an unlikeable main character, and there was no separating the story from the character, because Weiner was story.

The direction was ok, the pacing was somewhat slow, but at least this documentary didn’t have a point of view.  The filmmakers let the camera roll and let the chips fall where they fell.

Weiner:  A hot dog who couldn’t cut the mustard.


Which president planned the building of the White House?  Which invading army burned the White House to the Ground?  Who built The West Wing of the White House?  Who built the Oval Office?  What is the purpose of the East Wing of the White House? Who renovated the White House?  Who redecorated the White House? What is the Resolute Desk? What are the many roles of the White House staff?  What is the relationship of different presidents to the White House press? What role did the various First Ladies play?  How did the president communicate with his cabinet on 9/11? This documentary answers this and many other questions.

There’s a lot of information in this documentary, some of it very touching, and some of it very serious. But some of it is pure fluff.  Moreover, the documentary lacks focus, sometimes it’s focused on the staff, other times it’s focused on the furnishings and renovations, and still other times there is talk of the assassinations.  The result is a documentary without focus, where the viewer is whipsawed emotionally, from elation to grief and every emotion in between.

This documentary has no central theme other than, ‘All these things took place in the White House.’ That is not enough to sustain this documentary.  There is the hint of a theme, the White House as seen through the eyes of the White House staff, but the writers don’t pursue that theme throughout.  Instead the writers and producers opt for interviews with the current and past presidents and first ladies, architecture, decorating, and so it loses any point of view.  If a viewer wants to learn a lot of disjointed factoids about the White House and its occupants, then this is the documentary for you.   This documentary, though entertaining, does not have a reason for being made.

I hope the future President of the country has as much reverence for the White House as this documentary does.  Please Mr. President-Elect, no gold plated walls on the White House, and don’t put your name on the White House.  It’s not your house, it’s the people’s house.

The White House: Inside Story.  A House divided cannot stand.


Alexander Hamilton was born in 1755, on the island of Nevis, in the British West Indies.  He was born out of wedlock, and eventually became an orphan when his mother.  He got off the island of St. Croix by writing a letter about how horrible conditions were after a hurricane hit the island.  He started working for a trading company in America, where he got early financial training.  He joined the American militia during the Revolutionary War, and became aide de camp to General Washington.  He wrote 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers, essays promoting the ratification of the Constitution. He became Secretary of the Treasury in 1789, where he developed financial instruments to trade, four of which were treasury bonds one was a National Bank, all created by Hamilton.  He also made a deal with Jefferson, where the Federal government would assume all the debt of the states, in return the capital was moved from New York.

Alexander Hamilton’s life was not free of controversy, however.  In 1791, he had an affair with Maria Reynolds, and paid her husband for a year to keep it secret.  In the end, the affair was exposed and he wrote a pamphlet trying to explain his actions.  He also started a political feud with Aaron Burr in 1800.  Burr ended up in a tie in electors with Jefferson, and Hamilton broke the tie, voting for Jefferson.  Hamilton also blocked Burr’s run for governor of New York in 1804.  The feud came to a head in 1804, with a duel that Hamilton lost, and paid for with his life.

Lin Manuel Miranda was born in 1980, in 2002, he wrote a play called In The Heights, about his life growing up in Washington Heights.  In the Heights won several Tony awards including Best Musical. He travelled with the show until 2010.  But his life changed in July 2008, when he read a biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, and started working on a hip-hop musical of Hamilton’s life. The musical debuted in 2015.  Hamilton won 11 Tony awards.

This documentary does several things well, it shows Miranda in 2014, a year before the play opened, so it captures the writing of the songs, the interplay between , the words, the songs and the choreography of Hamilton.  Miranda interviews Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, who wrote Pacific Overtures and other historical musicals, and the viewer can see that Miranda is awed by meeting this legend of musical theater.  The documentary also features  plenty of songs from Hamilton, and intersperses the songs with the history behind the songs, and there’s a lot of history to cover.

But I think the documentary goes too far in lauding both Miranda, and Hamilton.  Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater in New York City, compares Miranda to Shakespeare, that is pure hyperbole.  Don’t lionize a guy who’s written three plays in his whole life and compare him to a guy who wrote 37 plays and over 150 sonnets.  Making history accessible to younger people is a great thing, and Miranda should be praised, but t’s too soon for the Shakespeare comparison.

The documentarians do the same for Alexander Hamilton, they seem to gloss over the negative aspects of his life and career and highlight only the positive aspects.  Hamilton created a lot of wealth for others, but he owned slaves, a point glossed over in the documentary and probably not mentioned in the play. Hamilton of all the founding fathers, given the place of his birth, and his destitute upbringing, should have been an abolitionist, but wasn’t.  To be kind, the documentarians say he was an immigrant, but he was an immigrant with French parents, unlike Miranda’s father who emigrated from Puerto Rico.  He fought in not only the Revolutionary War, but the Quasi War against the French, he argued for an imperial presidency with lifetime appointments in the Federalist papers.  He cheated on his wife and dueled with his political opponents, for all his flowery words he couldn’t resolve a political dispute with Burr.

Whether inadvertently or not Miranda takes part in revisionist history.  By using the multi-cultural cast and females in prominence in Hamilton, it is easy to forget that slavery was alive and well in Hamilton’s day, that African-Americans were little more than property, and women were more likely to be seen and not heard.  It’s great the Black, Latino and female voices are represented in the cast in large numbers, but the feel-good casting doesn’t really wrestle with the issues of the day as they were.  Miranda could have chosen a different founding father to honor, but ours is a violent country, and violence unfortunately speaks to young people, so why not pick a hero that went out in a blaze of gunfire.

The guests on the documentary to speak about Hamilton, the play or the man are an eclectic mix to say the least .Jimmy Fallon knows nothing about history, and so what if he saw the play? Stephen Colbert would have been a much better choice. Some of the other guests were ex-President George W. Bush, Speaker Paul Ryan, and Treasury Secretary under Bush Hank Paulson, besides contributing to the financial crisis in 2007, what do these guys know about the economy?  To be fair, the documentary did have President Obama, Michelle Obama Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, but it seemed like they got less time than the Republicans and Fallon. Miranda’s career certainly got a boost from Obama’s invitation to the White House in 2009.

Criticism aside, I would pay to see Hamilton or The Book of Mormon in a movie theater, I’m not big on Broadway or musicals, but these two plays are the exception, I would much rather see these plays turned into movies than see the 3rd reboot of Spider-Man, or a Rambo reboot.

Hamilton’s America, a little ham handed with praise, but good viewing nonetheless.

Movie Review: Class Divide (2016)

Posted: October 21, 2016 in Documentary


The gentrification of West Chelsea in Manhattan began in 2006, with the High Line project, the repurposing of an abandoned rail line.  Architects built a park around the elevated rail yard and new buildings sprang up all over the High Line.  Most of the rents in these new buildings skyrocketed into the millions of dollars. Avenues, a private school with a 40,000 dollar tuition opened in 2012, right across the street from the Chelsea Elliot housing project, where some of the poorest people in New York live.  Do students from the ritzy private school ever interact with the people who live in the Chelsea-Elliot projects?  Are developers trying to push poor people out of this part of Manhattan?  Are there opportunities for the poorer residents to live in these million dollar condos?

This is a very interesting documentary, lots of people talk about income inequality, but it’s very rare that people can actually see income inequality shown in such stark relief, from one side of a street to another.  The documentary also does a good job of detailing West Chelsea’s history, it started out as an industrial area with lots of corporate clients.  The movie interviews an early developer who owns land all over Chelsea.

The star of the documentary is undoubtedly Rosa, a chatty Latina pre-teen girl, with an opinion about everything. She is fun to listen to, with an engaging and bubbly personality.  Yasmeen is a Turkish-American student, also stands out in the documentary, because of her burgeoning social conscience.  There is sadness on both sides of the class divide, among the rich students of Avenues, and the poor people of the projects, pressure, and guilt for the rich kids, poverty for the poor kids.. There is happiness on both sides too, none of the poorer young people interviewed seemed to want to stay poor, and some of the rich kids seem to want to improve the lives of the impoverished people around them, so there is hope.  But will the hard work of poor people slam headlong into rising rents? The kids seem more open to change than the rich adults in West Chelsea, time will tell if any positive change comes to the poorer residents of West Chelsea.

The director, Mark Levin, seems to be pushing the theme that it’s class that separates rich and poor, and not race. Both black and white people attest that it’s class in the film, but I don’t necessarily agree with that conclusion. In one scene in the documentary, a doorman, who won a lottery to live in an expensive building, reports still getting dirty looks, and slammed doors in his face.  That is racism. On the whole, this documentary shows both sides of the hyper gentrification issue, and small steps being taken toward solving the problems that go along with the class divide.

Class Divide:  A classy coumentary.