Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category

This is the story of the original discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in a cave by a group of Bedouin boys in Qumran in 1947, and how technology is being used to either debunk or verify the discovery of different fragments of the scrolls. 

Some viewers have no interest in archeology, some viewers may not care whether antiquities are real or being faked.  Some viewers may not care for religion of any kind, some viewers may be technology averse.  Put aside all those biases, because this episode raises some intriguing questions.  Who are the people buying the newer fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls?  Are these new fragments authentic or not?  Can new technology, not available in 1947 determine the authenticity of newer fragments, or uncover previously undecipherable fragments.  The answers to these questions are fascinating, like a detective story or mystery novel.  The real miracle, for those who believe in miracles, is how the original Dead Sea Scrolls survived for thousands of years before being discovered in 1947. 

Even if the questions above are not interesting, there’s a rogue’s gallery of antiquities salesmen, both current and past that are something like characters out of a movie.  And the people trying to verify the age of the antiquities in 1947 were worth a documentary of their own.  There is a cast of characters here both sincere and phony that make this episode off Nova worth watching.  If this still doesn’t pique your curiosity, think of Raiders of the Lost Ark.     This is the real-life Raiders. 

The direction is good because it packs a lot of information in a tiny amount of time.  The experts gathered really add a lot to the subject being discussed, And the viewers get to see the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and where new explorers are looking for new fragments today. 

Dead Sea Scroll Detectives:  Dig In. 

Percy Julian (Reuben Santiago Hudson) always had an interest in chemistry, synthesizing the chemicals in plants for use in curing diseases. But growing up in the early 1900’s, in Mississippi, he was always reminded of the fact that he was African-American. Despite not being allowed to finish high school, Julian graduated from DePauw University in Indiana Phi Beta Kappa and as class valedictorian. He got his Masters from Howard in 1923, and wanted to get his doctorate from Howard, but was denied the teaching position required to complete his P.H.D. Never one to give up he finally got a fellowship to pursue his doctorate in Vienna Austria.

He obtained his P.H.D. in 1931, and returned to DePauw and worked with Josef Pikl, a fellow student at Vienna, and started writing a paper on the synthesis of physostigmine, a chemical extracted from the Calabar bean. At the same time, one of the world’s pre-eminent scientists, Robert Robinson of Oxford was working on a paper on the same subject. Would Julian and Pikl beat Robinson and publish their findings on physostigmine?

Percy Julian is a fascinating man. He faced obstacles at every turn, some societal, some of his own making. But he kept going, when Jim Crow was an obstacle, he went to Europe. When academia presented an obstacle, he went to corporate America, and transformed the company he worked for. When corporate America held no more chances for advancement, he became an entrepreneur, and gave opportunities to other black chemists. When he achieved some success, he faced more racism, which is the conundrum faced by minorities, too little success made Julian a burden, too much success made him competition, either made him a target of resentment.

Where this documentary goes awry is by letting Julian and members of his family be played by actors and actresses. By eschewing the Ken Burns style of still pictures and actors speaking in the background, the creators of this documentary lose some of the power of this very exciting and groundbreaking story. Reuben Santiago Hudson overplays Julian’s flair for words, and this documentary plays more like a docudrama. The simplicity of Ken Burns’ documentary style let his subjects’ words and actions stand for themselves. This documentary has a tendency towards embellishment and overdramatization. The producers had more than enough scientists and professors to discuss the transformational impact of Julian’s work, but still the producers created a movie within a documentary, which diminished the presentation.

One of the biochemists commenting on Julian said something irksome in this documentary. He called Percy Julian “One of the great African American scientists of all time.” He could have left the qualifier off, and said one of the great scientists of all time. This biochemist probably thought he was paying Julian a compliment, but it sounded like a backhanded compliment.

Forgotten Genius: If only the actors had the chemistry of the subject.

Elizabeth Smith did not like her surname, it was too plain. She did not like the fact that her mother had so many children, she felt her mother had lost her own identity in the process of childbearing, and child-rearing. She had to battle her father to attend college, he made her pay back the loan with interest. Elizabeth tried being a teacher, but found it not engaging enough for her active mind, it was her love of Shakespeare and pure serendipity that led to the adventure of a lifetime, her life as a codebreaker, when codebreaking wasn’t even a concept.

There are so many intriguing aspects to Elizabeth Smith Friedman’s life. She was a woman who refused to live an ordinary life, and this documentary does a pretty good job of illustrating her many accomplishments. Society kept pushing her down, saying she couldn’t do what she had great skill in doing, but her talent would always win out, and the government would call on her time and again during World War I, Prohibition and World War II.

The documentary does an excellent job of explaining the difference between a code and a cipher, and if that’s too technical for some viewers, the documentary goes into how Elizabeth got into the field, which sounds like something out of a Hollywood script, and the difficulties that cryptography put on her husband and their marriage. The documentary also highlights the difficulty of being a woman at a time and in a field where women were not expected to excel, the Codebreaker also documents the final bitter ironies of her life and achievements.

There are drawbacks to this documentary. As rich and varied as Elizabeth Friedman’s life experiences were, this documentary was incredibly short, clocking in at only 52 minutes. The writers could have delved into any of her experiences during World War 1, Prohibition, World War 2, or even her marriage and personal life and given the viewer a fuller picture of this very consequential woman. Still, it is gratifying to see a documentary about a woman using her superior intellect to become a pioneer in a field where not many women even participate.

The Codebreaker: Ground breaking for women

Legendary singer Linda Ronstadt grew up in Tuscan Arizona, her father won her mother’s heart by singing to her with his beautiful baritone voice. Linda inherited that voice, as did her brother Peter. Her first band was a family band. After her brother joined another band, and her sister got married, she decided to move from Tuscan to California and formed a band called the Stone Poneys, they had a big hit “Different Drum.” Her manager at the time, Herb Cohen, axed the men, and promoted Linda as a solo act, her first touring band included Don Henley and Glen Frey, when they moved on to form the Eagles with Linda’s encoragement, Ronstadt was worried that her success was short-lived. But she made the Eagles hit “Desperado” a classic when she covered it, many hits followed, “You’re No Good” “Blue Bayou”, “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me”, “Love Is A Rose.” At the height of her success, she tired of the rock scene and heard that the Pirates of Penzance was being turned into a Broadway play by Joseph Papp, the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta was her mother’s favorite, so she did it. Would this end her rock music career?

The Sound of My Voice is a surprisingly detailed look at a pop, rock, country and folk singer. There were many interesting factoids about this incredible song stylist packed into a thrifty 95 minutes. She formed long-lasting friendships with other female singers of the day, and was very honest about these friendships. She demonstrated a practical kind of feminism with these women at a time when feminism was nascent, and in an industry where women are often objectified and not respected for their talents. Ronstadt is often lampooned for her relationship with governor Jerry Brown, but this documentary showed that she has complex political and social views and was well read. She took tremendous risks to achieve fame, and even more risks once she achieved it, always relying on that beautiful powerful voice to carry her through tough times. This documentary smartly features lots of music, and if the viewer grew up in the 70’s and 80’s the viewer will recognize all of them. The documentary also illustrates the final cruel irony of her life, which is what makes this story so poignant.

The direction is good, it has a cohesive narrative, the people who speak about her add interesting details, the pacing is good, and it packs a lot of biographical information into a short timeframe. Most importantly, it lets her music do most of the talking. This is not a breakthrough documentary in terms of technique, like Ken Burns’ documentaries are, but the Linda Ronstadt is such a compelling figure, and her story has taken such a dark turn, that this is essential watching.

unladylike2020

This documentary features little known, little publicized women who changed the course of American history. The documentary highlights the lives and work of five women.

Martha Hughes Cannon: The first female state legislator, at first a doctor, her religion, and marriage complicated her political career.

Mary Church Terrell: A mixed race African American woman whose life was forever changed by the lynching of a black man.

Jovita Idar: A Mexican American journalist who wrote about women’s rights, and civil rights for Mexican Americans, again a lynching spurred her to organize The League of Mexican Women. She put her life on the line to protect a free press.

Jeanette Rankin: The first elected female in the House of Representatives. She began as a social worker, and became a trailblazer for women’s suffrage. Her voting record led to her ouster in her first election, but was re-elected later. She was a peace activist until the 1960’s.

Zitkala Sa: A Native American woman who resented her boarding school experience, she was an accomplished musician who fought for the rights of Native Americans as their culture and practices were being erased.

This is an important documentary, because every few people know about the lives and work of these women, and more amazingly, the work of these women was done in the late 19th and early 20th century when almost no one was fighting for these rights. They were not only fighting for their rights as women, but also as members of their ethnicity.

The only criticism that rings true of this documentary is that it’s too short. These are complex women, with complex lives, and 12 minutes per women is not enough of a tribute to these women. The historians who represent the accomplishments of these women are enthusiastic, and that only whet my appetite to learn more about these women. There are more short films of other women documented online, but the shortness of the films, and not the subjects, are the problem.

The documentary should have been two hours, and that would have given the proper amount of time and respect to these women, because issues of race, gender and ethnicity still abound in 2020. Mexican Americans are seen as second class citizens, African Americans are still fighting for voting rights, and there is still no woman President in the U.S.

Criticisms of political correctness or identity politics fall flat, because if these women didn’t push for their gender or ethnicity no one else would. Everyone hopes for racial and gender unity, but in the late 19th and early 20th century. There were very few people fighting across racial and gender rights. These women started out fighting for themselves and created large organizations in their wake.

There is artwork and animation in an effort to jazz up the production, but these little flourishes add little value to the overall documentary.

Unladylike 2020: Suffering without suffrage no more.

 

WHAT_WE_DO_IN_THE_SHADOWS

Four vampires live in an apartment in New Zealand and has a film crew follow them around as part of a documentary. Viago (Taika Waititi) carries a torch for the woman that got away.  Deacon (Johnny Brugh) leads on a woman named Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) by promising to make her a vampire.  Vladislav (Jermaine Clement) has a nemesis that he calls “The Beast.” (Elena Stejko) and Petyr, and 8000 year old vampire, who bites Nick (Cori Gonzalez  Macuer)  who proceeds to drive the older vampires crazy.  All the vampires want to go to the Unholy Masquerade.  Vladislav thinks he will be named Guest of Honor.  Does Viago find the woman he’s carrying a torch for?  Does Deacon turn Jackie into a vampire?  Who is Vladislav’s nemesis?  Does Nick ever become a vampire?

What We Do In The Shadows has a good premise, a satire of vampire movies, but it does not fully exploit that premise.  There are so many sub-genres of vampire movies, child vampires, young vampires, female vampires, black vampires, vampire hunters, female vampire hunters, black vampire hunters, yet this movie barely touches any of this sub-genres.  In a genre so rich with source material, What We Do In The Shadows could have really gone to town with satire, but only chooses to satirize the Twilight series.  But it’s not really a satire, like Spinal Tap was a satire of both heavy metal music, and documentaries in general.  One limiting factor was that it was made in New Zealand, and someone from New Zealand doesn’t have as many references as someone from America.  It was a funny movie, but it was more a screwball comedy than a satire.  It was funny, it could have been much funnier.

The actors do the best with the limited material they have.  Taika Watitti is probably the funniest of the four or five leads.  Jermaine Clement is also funny as Vladislav, the vampire with the “nemesis.” Jackie Van Beek was extremely funny as the put-upon vampire wannabe, who would do anything to become a vampire. She should have had a bigger role.

The direction is nothing spectacular, Taika Watitti, and Jermaine Clement share directorial duties, there nothing high budget about the CGI, people turning into bats and vice versa.  The film is too short, it doesn’t have to worry too much about pacing.  Directors are also supposed to control the narrative, but there wasn’t much of a narrative here, the movie seemed more like a loosely amalgamated string of sketches, so the slapdash nature of the storytelling, may have actually helped the comedy.  Since the directors were the actors, or two of them anyway, they knew what performances they wanted in the film, so directing the actors was not a crucial issue.

What We Do In The Shadows:  Lacks satirical bite.

 

 

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In 1855, Sarah Sheppard sought to drown herself and her daughter, Ella, but another slave told her that Ella was destined to do great things, so Ella’s mother went back into bondage and saved Ella’s life.  Ella was bought out of bondage by her father and lived in Ohio for a time where she learned to read and write.  Ella wanted to be a teacher, so she applied to Fisk University in Tennessee, and was admitted.

Fisk was a freedman’s school, struggling for funds and was run by the American Missionary Association.  Fisk’s treasurer , George White, was a veteran of the Civil War, but was also a choir master, who loved to hear the African American spirituals that the former slaves at Fisk would sing.  He decided to form an all-black chorus to try to raise money for Fisk and decided to make Ella Sheppard a choral instructor.  She was the first black instructor in the university’s history.  Initially, the Jubilee Singers as they came to be known faced the Klan, and jeering white crowds, but always their singing brought the crowds around.  Still, they had little money, deplorable living conditions, and yet they soldiered on.

The turning point came when the Jubilee Singers played a show at Oberlin College in Ohio, attended by influential ministers , an invitation from Henry Ward Beecher, America’s most famous preacher at the time.  The concert at Beecher’s church was make or break for  the nine person choir.  Was the concert a success?    Were the Jubilee Singers able to save Fisk College from bankruptcy?

This is a truly uplifting story at a time when I needed to hear an uplifting story.  These former slaves were so hungry and thirsty for knowledge that they went to an almost broke college to learn.  At every turn, they faced hardship, sickness, and physical threats, and yet they persisted, because they saw a bigger goal in the future for themselves and others.  So ,if at any time anyone thinks their life is difficult, think of these singers, who risked their lives every day, just to be treated as equals.

George White, took an idea that seemed impossible, an all-black chorus touring the country, and turned it into a reality.  The important point to remember is that White couldn’t have done what he did without the talent, hard-work, and dedication of nine African American singers, this is their story, and it shouldn’t be made into anything else.  It could be a story of people working together to achieve a shared goal, but the documentary puts everyone’s roles in proper perspective, and does not give the glory to one person.

The style of this documentary very much follows the style of a Ken Burns documentary, still photos, actors reading from participants’ diaries, and experts adding their own point of view to complete the picture.  It’s a very emotional roller coaster, but well-worth the ride.  The only fault I find with this documentary is that it’s too short, less than an hour to tell a marvelous story like this.  Most documentaries are too long, this one is too short.

The Jubilee Singers:  Sing the praises of this documentary.

Movie Review: Bad Reputation (2018)

Posted: November 24, 2019 in Documentary

Joan Jett bad reputation

At age 14, for Christmas, Joan Jett got her first guitar.  Not so long after that she was hanging around a Hollywood club owned by Rodney Bingenheimer, talking about forming an all-girl band. With the help of Kim Fowley, Jett formed the Runaways with lead singer Cherie Currie, Sandy West on drums, and Lita Ford on lead guitar.    They had one big hit, “Cherry Bomb”, but the overall reaction by male fans and critics alike was that girls couldn’t play rock music, added to the stress in the band.

Further exacerbating tensions  Fowley only asked Currie to do a photo shoot in Japan, and Fowley also pit Lita Ford against Jett, soon the tension in the Runaways was too much for Jett to bear, and the band broke up.  The breakup took a toll on Jett too, she developed a heart infection and barely survived.   In the late 70‘s she formed a new band, the Blackhearts, and despite touring extensively with original music, no major label would sign her.  What did Joan Jett do?

How Joan Jett went from a hospital bed in the late 70’s to a household name in the 1980’s is an enthralling story, and for the most part well-told.  The way she gained fame was revolutionary at the time, and a testament to her hard work, and her manager and songwriter is quite surprising.   The story from the Runaways all the way to the early 90’s where she was still influencing groups like Bikini Kill is engrossing.  It was good to hear from Debbie Harry of Blondie and Billie Joe of Green Day about what a big influence she was.

The movie starts to lose momentum when it diverges from her music career, telling about her work entertaining the troops and the obligatory mention of 9/11, save that for the Bob Hope documentary.  Her one movie role with Michael J. Fox provides unnecessary commentary on her bland acting. And please don’t let Miley Cyrus give a testimonial about anyone from the 80’s, she wasn’t a twinkle in Billy Ray Cyrus’s Achy Breaky anything when Joan Jett was achieving her fame.  Any why is Nikki Haley in this film at all, can anyone picture her rocking out to Joan Jett’s music?  What demographic are the filmmakers shooting for here?

Director Kevin Kierslake used to be a music video director for bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden, so he knows the territory very well, and again as long as he sticks to her music and her influence on younger musicians, it’s a very well-paced movie.  When it strays from music, the pacing lags.  There’s not much visual going on, home movies or grainy concert video, but it’s mostly put together well and the comments by the various contributors other than Jett mostly supplement the story.

So if you grew up in the 80’s or want to learn about a trailblazer in rock music watch this movie.

Bad Reputation: The Jett documentary takes off, but has a bit of a bumpy landing.

FreeSolo

In 2016, Rock climber Alex Honnold has set a goal for himself that no other climber has accomplished.  He wants to climb the El Capitan rock formation in Yosemite National Park, without ropes, known as the free solo method.  He’s got a support team made up of a climber, Tommy Caldwell, and the whole camera crew is climbers.  His mother worries about him, but wants him to be happy pursuing his goal.  Alex’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless is not a climber and does not like the idea of Alex risking his life to do what he loves.  Alex is not at all sure that he should be involved with Sanni or any other girl right now, he feels his focus should be on climbing El Capitan.

Further complicating matters, Alex suffers compression fractures and a sprained ankle while training for this climb.  When he finally tries the Freerider route up El Capitan, he suddenly calls it off, he is suddenly freaked by the idea of the climb being filmed.  Will Alex try the free solo climb again?  Will his relationship with Sanni last?

Free Solo is a good movie overall, if there is a flaw, and this is a flawed movie, it is that the filmmakers concentrate too much on Alex, not enough on the training and his potential accomplishment.  The film seems to focus on Alex’s upbringing, his girlfriend, the filmmakers even do a brain scan to see what makes him tick.  Free Solo plays like a reality show sometimes, with the melodrama on 11, and too many attempts at amateur psychoanalysis.

Director Jimmy Chin is a rock climber himself, as such he gets some spectacular shots of El Capitan and Alex climbing El Capitan, from really interesting angles, but Chin’s concentration on Alex’s personal story overshadows the spectacular visuals and wreaks havoc with the pacing of the film.  Telling that much of Alex’s backstory slows the film to a crawl, and hurts what makes this movie special.

Free Solo:  The visuals rock!

hero_Neighbor-4

Won’t  You Be My Neighbor is an entertaining and enlightening documentary about Fred Rogers and his groundbreaking children’s show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.  The interviews of Fred Rogers, his wife, his children, the crew of the show, and people whose lives he touched, give remarkable insight to the man, and those who made this show a special show for the millions of children who loved the show.

I did not watch Mister Rogers Neighborhood as a child, but I learned about Fred Rogers several things as an adult that made me respect the man as an adult.  I learned even more about the man and the show through this documentary and that made me respect the man and the show even more.  The show had an overarching message, and Fred Rogers was the perfect man to deliver that message, kind, gentle, the kind of man anyone would want to talk to their children.  His wife mirrored Fred Rogers’ personality kind and genteel. The honesty and sincerity of Fred Rogers, his wife and the crew behind the scenes come shining through every frame. One of the interviews with a cast member is especially illuminating.  The cast member is Francois Clemmons, and his work on the show and his friendship with Rogers is an illustration of how kindness can heal a turbulent world.

The era in which Mr. Rogers Neighborhood aired was also important, The show first aired in 1968 and went off the air in 2001, this was a period marked by jarring events, political assassination, segregation, wars, and Mr. Rogers was there to soothe children and shepherd  them to being productive adults.   The film is not only laudatory, it includes criticism of Rogers and the theme of the show, which makes the movie inclusive of all perspectives.  The movie was also funny, touching and sad, the film ran the emotional gamut, which is exceptional for a documentary.

The direction is very good.  Director Morgan Neville keeps the pacing fast, and the only creative flourish  is some animation of Daniel the Striped Tiger.  The animated vignettes are nice, but Neville realizes that the emotional heft of the movie lies in the words of Fred Rogers, his family, the people who made the show and the archival footage of the show, so he quickly goes back to the strengths of this film.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor  I Love This Neighbor.