Review: ‘Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles,’ starring Yotam Ottolenghi, Dominique Ansel, Ghaya Oliveira, Dinara Kasko, Sam Bompas, Harry Parr and Janice Wong

September 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sam Bompas, Dominique Ansel, Yotam Ottolenghi, Dinara Kasko and Harry Parr in “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles”

Directed by Laura Gabbert

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City and briefly in London and Versailles, France, this documentary about celebrity chef/author Yotam Ottolenghi’s Metropolitan Museum of Art event to celebrate the cakes of Versailles features a cast of white and Asian people representing the upper-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: The challenge for this event was to bring a modern twist to classic pastry dishes, and there were a few conflicts with the museum staff over what the chefs should and should not do.

Culture Audience: “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” will appeal primarily to high-end foodies and fans of these chefs. 

A cake display in “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

In June 2018, celebrity chef/author Yotam Ottolenghi (who owns and operates Ottolenghi Test Kitchen, a cooking hub/office in London) presented a celebration of the pastries of the legendry French court of Versailles in an event that took place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (also known as the Met) in New York City. The exhibit event, titled “Feast of Versailles with Yotam Ottolenghi,” included the work of several notable chefs who were personally invited by Ottolenghi to participate. The straightforward documentary “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” (directed by Laura Gabbert) chronicles the behind-the-scenes story about this event.

The movie begins with Ottolenghi in London (where he lives) talking about why he decided to head up this event: “I was looking for the next challenge.” He says the Metropolitan Museum of Art approached him for the job. Ottolenghi remembers thinking, “Why am I getting an email from the Met? I don’t hang out with the Met [crowd].”

Ottolenghi continues, “When I saw that Versailles was the upcoming exhibit at the Met, I was intrigued. Food and art and history meet at one big event at the Met about cakes inspired by Versailles.” Considering that Ottolenghi has a background as a pastry chef, he had this thought of the event: “This is for me.”

Met Live Arts Department general manager Limor Tomer explains the idea behind the Met’s “Feast of Versailles” exhibit: “We think of performance and performance work very broadly, so the art of the kitchen fits very well into that. When we were thinking about Versailles, we were thinking about, ‘How do we give people an embodied way to understand what Versailles was and how it fit socially and culturally into people’s lives?'”

To prepare for this prestigious undertaking and to get a better understanding of the culture of Versailles, Ottolenghi visited Versailles, including the landmark Palace of Versailles. He also worked with a tutor on Versailles history: Bard Graduate Center assistant professor Deborah Krohn, who mentions in the documentary that Versailles was different from most other royal courts because there was no real privacy.

The general public could come and go in the Versailles court, which made the royals and upper-class society feel more accessible to lower-class people, but it also created more social envy, since poor people could see all the luxury that other people enjoyed in the court. Ottolenghi comments toward the end of the documentary that the court of Versailles and Instagram have parallels, since both are open to the public, but people use these forums as ways to boast, show off and create envy.

Ottolenghi opens up about his own background in the documentary. He grew up in Jerusalem, and his parents were academics who expected him to follow a similar career path. After a stint in the Israeli Defense Forces, he graduated from Tel Aviv University in 1997, with a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree in comparative literature. He relocated to Amsterdam, where he edited the Hebrew section of NIW, a Dutch-Jewish weekly magazine.

Ottolenghi’s career path turned to cuisine when he moved to London to study French cooking at Le Cordon Bleu. He still has a passion for writing though, as evidenced by his cookbooks and his articles/essays in publications such as The Guardian and The New York Times. Ottolenghi, who is openly gay, lives with his husband Karl Allen and their two sons. Ottolenghi talks warmly about his family, but they are not featured in the documentary.

Ottolenghi’s international and well-traveled background has clearly given him an open-mindedness to other cultures. His business partner Sam Tamimi, who’s briefly interviewed in the documentary, mentions how they both were raised in Jerusalem, but in very different parts of the city: Ottolenghi grew up in Western Jerusalem (which is predominantly Jewish), while Tamimi grew up in Eastern Jerusalem, which is predominantly Muslim.

This openness to other cultures is why Ottolenghi consciously decided that he wanted to invite chefs from various countries to create pastry art for the Versailles exhibit. In the documentary, he says he started his search by following pastry chefs on Instagram. Ottolenghi says he was looking for “pastry chefs who take their art so seriously that the push the boundaries of technology, flavors, presentation. And it was really important to me that they actually be as dissimilar from each other as possible.”

The chosen pastry chefs were:

  • Dominique Ansel, originally from France and currently living in New York City, this James Beard Award-winning baker is best known for creating the Cronut®, Cookie Shot, DKA (Dominique’s Kouign Amann) and Frozen S’mores.
  • Sam Bompas and Harry Parr, originally from the United Kingdom, this London-based duo known as Bompas & Parr, are conceptual artists who infuse technology in their work and are known for creating extraordinary gelatin art.
  • Dinara Kasko, originally from the Ukraine, has a background in architecture and makes pastries using 3D-modeling technologies.
  • Ghaya Oliveira, originally from Tunisia and currently living in New York City, is a James Beard Award-winning executive pastry chef at Daniel (a famous French restaurant in New York City), and she is known for her reinvention of French-based plated desserts.
  • Janice Wong, originally from Singapore, has a specialty in interactive, edible art, especially with chocolate.

With this dream team assembled, the chefs meet with members of the Met museum staff to go over planning and logistics of what the chefs will create. The Met staffers who are featured in the documentary include art curator Danielle Kisluk-Grosheide, production coordinator Sruly Lazaros and executive pastry chef Randy Eastman.

Ansel, the most famous pastry chef in the group, was an obvious top choice for the exhibit. But beyond Ansel’s name recognition and talent, Ottolenghi explains why he thought Ansel would be a perfect fit for the project, “Everything he does is grounded in tradition but modern.” In the documentary, Wong says she was a less obvious choice and she was surprised to get the assignment, since she is known for her contemporary style. However, Wong says she was intrigued because she got to do pretty much anything she wanted for the exhibit.

The chosen chefs also open up about their backgrounds. While Ansel knew from an early age that he wanted to be a chef (he’s began training as a chef after he left high school), others took a different path to their culinary careers. Kasko has the aforementioned background in architecture. Oliveira used to be a ballerina and later worked for an investment company.

Wong had a background doing “math-oriented work,” but her life changed after she survived a serious car accident where she was hit by a drunk driver. “Everything changed,” Wong says, “Something happened between the left and ride side of my brain. I kind of switched.” And so, she became more of a creative person, which led to her profession as a chef.

The biggest challenge that the chefs face in the “Feast of Versailles” exhibit is creating their elaborate works of art in the limited time that they have. They only have about a week on site at the Met to create their displays. Oliveira says she was “very inspired by nature and the gardens of Versailles,” so she decides to make an ambitious display of cakes with a lot of floral motifs.

Bompas & Parr run into problems because they decided to have some running water through a funnel/water pump as part of their exhibit, only to find out from a nervous Tomer that the Met usually doesn’t allow running water in the gallery area where the exhibit will be taking place. There’s also some Bompas & Parr drama about some items that they needed to have shipped from England, and it’s questionable if these items will arrive on time.

The Met executive pastry chef Eastman creates some conflict when he tells Kasko to add more fat (cocoa butter) to her cake batter, but she disagrees because she thinks there’s already too much fat. Eastman is very condescending to Kasko, by telling her about all the experience he has, and she reluctantly follows his advice. It seems that she only did so out of respect because the Met was the hosting venue. But Kasko ended up being right about her recipe, and she had to redo the cake batter the way she originally planned. All that lost time caused her more stress.

Naturally, the climax of the documentary is the big event, which attracted the type of Met crowd that you would expect. (Admission to the event was at a minimum price of $125 per person.) “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” isn’t a groundbreaking culinary documentary, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable look into the process of how this “Feast of Versailles” event was produced, as well as an insightful peek into the personalities of the chefs who created the event’s masterful dessert art.

IFC Films released “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 25, 2020.

Review: ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ (2020), starring Ronnie Wood

September 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ronnie Wood in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment)

“Somebody Up There Likes Me” (2020)

Directed by Mike Figgis

Culture Representation: This documentary about Rolling Stones lead guitarist Ronnie Wood features Wood and an all-white group of people (mostly British) who talk about Wood, his artistic accomplishments and his personal life.

Culture Clash: Wood is candid about problems he’s had in his life, including his drug addiction and alcoholism.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of Rolling Stones fans, “Somebody Up There Likes Me” will appeal to people who like survivor stories of people from the classic rock era.

Ronnie Wood in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment)

Considering the copious amount of books, news reports, feature articles and documentaries about the Rolling Stones, there really isn’t a whole lot that can be revealed about the band that hasn’t already been covered. The authorized documentary “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (directed by Mike Figgis) takes an engaging but not particularly insightful look into the life of Rolling Stones lead guitarist Ronnie Wood, who’s been in the band since the mid-1970s.

Wood has two memoirs (2008’s “Ronnie” and 2017’s “Ronnie Wood: Artist”) and an ex-wife (Jo Wood) who wrote her own 2013 memoir about their relationship, so the documentary is more of a snapshot of his life, rather than an in-depth portrait. Speaking of portraits, about half of the documentary is about Ronnie as a painter/illustrator. There’s a lot of screen time devoted to showing him doing hand-drawn portraits and talking about art and paintbrushes with fellow artist Damien Hirst, one of Ronnie’s closest friends. (His current and third wife Sally is one of his portrait subjects.)

This isn’t a biographical documentary that takes the conventional format of telling a life story in chronological order, from birth to when the documentary was filmed. Most of the footage involves just following Ronnie around and showing what he happened to be doing at the time. The “talking head” interviews are also selective: only a handful of people in Ronnie’s inner circle, including his wife Sally, friend Hirst, Rod Stewart (who used to be in the Jeff Beck Group and in the Faces with Ronnie), Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger, Rolling Stones rhythm guitarist Keith Richards and Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts.

There also isn’t a lot of digging into Ronnie’s pre-fame life. However, Ronnie (who was born in 1947 in London) does mention his dysfunctional upbringing in his family of musicians. He describes his father Arthur and two older brothers Art and Ted as alcoholics. (All of them were jazz and blues musicians.) Art and Ted were also painter artists, and Ronnie has said in many interviews how much his older brothers influenced him.

Ronnie remembers that when he was a child, his family wouldn’t know which garden his father Arthur would be passed out in if they couldn’t find him. This chronic alcoholic behavior worried his mother. Ronnie says that Arthur never abused the kids, but his frequent absences did have a negative effect on the family. “He would be damaging by not being there.” Ronnie comments.

Considering that addiction can be inherited, it’s little wonder that Ronnie became a hardcore drug addict and alcoholic too. He’s already been candid about it many interviews and in his memoirs. His decadent past has also been extensively covered in the media. Therefore, the documentary isn’t interested in having Ronnie tell all the wild and crazy stories about himself that he already told years ago.

Ronnie got clean and sober in 2010, after Hirst and Ronnie’s son Jesse (who are also recovering alcoholics/addicts) did an intervention on Ronnie. But one addiction that Ronnie had a hard time quitting after that was nicotine. Ronnie had no choice to quit smoking after he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017. Luckily, the cancer was caught early enough where he could have surgery to correct the problem.

Ronnie says in the documentary that he used to smoke about 25 to 30 cigarettes a day. Now, when he goes for a medical checkup, the doctor tells him that he has lungs that look so healthy, it looks like he never smoked. “How’s that for a ‘get out of jail free’ card?” Ronnie quips. “Somebody up there likes me.”

If people are looking for a lot of Rolling Stones concert footage in this documentary, they won’t find it, probably because of licensing issues. There’s a brief clip of the Rolling Stones performing “When the Whip Comes Down” in 2018. But most of the on-stage footage is of Ronnie as a solo artist or archival footage of Ronnie in bands that he was in before he joined the Rolling Stones.

Therefore, when watching this documentary, expect to see quite a bit of Ronnie Wood and Friends, a bluesy rock group consisting of Ronnie and rotating group of singers and musicians. There’s footage of the group performing “Wee Hours” with Irish singer Imelda May, who’s interviewed in the film.

“Somebody Up There Likes Me” director Figgis appears in the film as an interviewer, which is a documentarian technique that mostly works for this film. During the times it doesn’t work, Figgis comes across as too chummy or star-struck, as if there was an off-camera agreement that he wasn’t going to ask questions that are too probing.

And, for the most part, the questions are fairly lightweight. But Ronnie has such a charismatic personality that he gives answers that tell more than the question asks. He comes across as someone who’s lived a pretty crazy life and has come to terms with a lot of his mistakes.

In one scene, when Ronnie gets a tarot card that reads “Fatal Impudence,” Figgis asks if those words could apply to Ronnie’s life. Ronnie replies, “I’m like Yogi Berra. You come to a fork in the road, take it.”

And when Figgis asks what’s the biggest “fork in the road” for Ronnie, Ronnie says, “It has been my love life. I’ve totally gone for risk.” Figgis asks, “Has that gotten you into a lot of trouble?” Ronnie quips, “It’s gotten me into a lot of pleasure.”

The tabloids have covered the numerous affairs and womanizing in his life before Ronnie married Sally, so the documentary doesn’t rehash all of that. However, it wasn’t all fun and games, since Ronnie admits a lot of people got emotionally hurt along the way. And he also opens up a little bit about the trauma he experienced when he says his “first love” (a girlfriend named Stephanie) tragically died in a car accident.

Ronnie also talks about the importance of apologizing to people he offended, which is a common requirement for people who’ve been in rehab. “You want the situation to resolve without any disastrous consequences,” he adds.

He also admits that he’s got issues with getting older. “I never got past 29 in my head. To be 70 is so weird. It’s so surreal. I didn’t get time would go so quickly. You almost feel cheated that time has gone by.”

In a very “Behind the Music” documentary formula of the rise, fall and redemption of rock stars, Ronnie’s marriage to his wife Sally (whom he married in 2012) is credited with helping him be an upstanding, clean and sober family man. Ronnie and Sally welcomed twin daughters Alice and Gracie in 2016. He has four other kids from his previous two marriages. Sally comments in the documentary: “Ronnie’s a happy person. He’s better sober.”

As for Ronnie’s former and current band mates, Stewart mostly remembers the first gig that the Jeff Beck Group played at the Fillmore East, the band was the opening act for the Grateful Dead. “We wiped the stage with them,” Stewart boasts. He has not-so-fond memories of Peter Grant, who was the Jeff Beck Group’s manager at the time. According to Stewart, Grant was a “bully” who preferred Beck over the other members of the band.

The archival performance footage in the documentary include the Birds (one of Ronnie’s early bands) performing “That’s All I Need You For” in 1964; the Jeff Beck Group performing “Plynth (Water Down the Drain)” in 1967; and the Faces performing “Stay With Me” in 1974. There’s also new documentary footage of Ronnie doing an acoustic performance of the Faces’ 1973 hit “Ooh La La.”

Ronnie shares his often-told story of seeing the Rolling Stones for the first time in 1963, and the band’s performance was inside a tent. Ronnie says that experience changed his life, and he knew from that moment he wanted to be in the Rolling Stones. It took 12 years for that to happen, when Ronnie was asked to be the lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones during their 1975 tour, after lead guitarist Mick Taylor abruptly quit the Rolling Stones.

Ronnie was described at the time as being “on loan from the Faces” during that 1975 tour, but the writing was on the wall, since the Faces were on the verge of breaking up that year anyway. Ronnie officially became a member of the Rolling Stones in 1976, but it wasn’t 1990 that he was became a full business partner in the band. The documentary doesn’t mention all of the behind-the-scenes legal wrangling that Ronnie went through to get to becoming a full band partner in the Rolling Stones. He talks about it in his memoir “Ronnie.”

Jagger says of Ronnie joining the Rolling Stones: “We really wanted Ronnie. He fit in very quickly.” The gig was so coveted that Rolling Stones drummer Watts says that Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page even auditioned to be in the Stones, even though Led Zeppelin was the biggest band rival to the Rolling Stones at that time.

Richards, who is the Rolling Stones band mate who’s closest to Ronnie, says in the documentary about Ronnie joining the band: “It was pre-destined, in a way.” And he describes their longtime friendship: “We’ve always had a friendly rivalry … The thing is with Ronnie, you’re such good mates, you can call each other any name under the sun, and it doesn’t matter.”

Jagger says the Rolling Stones benefited from Ronnie’s impish sense of humor on stage too: “These arena shows became slightly more humorous because of Ronnie’s personality. Ronnie brought a sense of fun to it.”

But there were dark periods for Ronnie too, particularly his longtime drug addiction (mostly to cocaine) and alcoholism. Through the ups and downs, rehab stints and relapses, “Mick never gave up on him,” says Watts. And when your best friend in the band is Richards (another notorious drug addict/alcoholic, who’s only admitted to quitting heroin), it’s no wonder that it took to so long for Ronnie to get clean and sober.

Avid fans of the Rolling Stones won’t learn anything new from watching this documentary. However, people who aren’t familiar with Ronnie might be surprised at how multifaceted he is outside of the Rolling Stones. “Somebody Up There Likes Me” goes out of its way to show the process of Ronnie creating some of his artwork, because it’s clear that he wants to be known as more than just a musician. This biographical film doesn’t go deep into Ronnie’s psyche, but it scratches just enough beneath his public image for people to have a better understanding of who he is.

Eagle Rock Entertainment released “Somebody Up There Likes Me” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on September 18, 2020. The movie’s release on digital, Blu-ray and DVD is on October 9, 2020.

Review: ‘I Hate New York,’ starring Amanda Lepore, Sophia Lamar, Chloe Dzubilo and T De Long

September 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sophia Lamar in “I Hate New York” (Photo courtesy of 1844 Entertainment)

“I Hate New York”

Directed by Gustavo Sánchez

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in New York City, the documentary “I Hate New York” (filmed from 2007 to 2017) about four artistic transgender or transsexual people who have been longtime residents of New York City, with additional commentary by cisgender people who have been part of the New York City underground artist scene .

Culture Clash: Several people in the documentary talk about experiencing transphobia and how rising rents and gentrification have changed New York City’s artistic scene for the worse.

Culture Audience: “I Hate New York” will appeal mainly to people interested in LGBTQ issues and the New York City artistic scene from the 1990s to 2010s. 

Amanda Lepore in “I Hate New York” (Photo courtesy of 1844 Entertainment)

The artistic people in the provocatively titled documentary “I Hate New York” don’t really hate the city all the time. It’s more like a love/hate relationship. They love the city’s endless choices when it comes to art and culture. They love how people can come to New York and find more acceptance than they would in more conservative cities. But they also hate how the city has become too expensive for struggling artists. And they hate how the way transgender people are still targets for hate crimes and still have to fight for a lot of basic rights that cisgender people take for granted.

Directed by Gustavo Sánchez over the years 2007 to 2017, “I Hate New York” takes a fascinating, raw and emotionally up-and-down look at four transgender or transsexual people who have been longtime New York City residents and part of the city’s entertainment and artistic scene. The four stars of the movie are:

  • Amanda Lepore, a transsexual woman who has a Marilyn Monroe-inspired image and who is best known for being a nightlife personality and model.
  • Sophia Lamar, a transsexual woman who is a Cuban immigrant, as well as a singer, actress and dancer known for her edgy entertainment.
  • Chloe Dzubilo, a transgender woman who became the lead singer of the punk band the Transisters and an outspoken AIDS activist.
  • T De Long, a transgender man who’s an aspiring rapper, DJ and artist (with the stage name TJ Free) whose gender transition is documented in the film.

All of them candidly tell their personal stories and struggles about being a transgender artist in New York City. A description shown in the beginning of the documentary describes the movie this way: “It is an intimate portrait of four heroines living at the margins of activism, transgender culture and nightlife.”

Also weighing in with their opinions are Bibbe Hansen, a former Andy Warhol Superstar; nightlife personality/promoter Linda Simpson; photographer/activist iO Tillett-Wright; filmmaker Katrina Del Mar; promoter Geordon Nicol; and performer/musician Kembra Pfalher.

Lepore and Lamar used to be very close friends came up in the 1990s nightclub scene together. They even sued the nightclub Twilo together for transgender discrimination in 2001, when the club fired them as dancers for not being “real women.” But then, sometime in the late 2000s, Lamar and Lepore had a falling out and they no longer speak to each other.

Dzubilo and De Long had a different kind of connection: They became a romantic couple as De Long (who used to be known as Tara Jo) was transitioning into being a man. Their love story in the movie is touching and tragic.

What all four have in common is that they came to New York City to reinvent themselves because they weren’t really accepted in the places where they lived before. They all had different struggles with their gender identity and experiencing transphobia. And they all found their artistic voices by living in New York City.

Lepore, who is originally from New Jersey, has been open about her past as a dominatrix before she was able to make a living as a nightlife personality. In the documentary, she talks about knowing as a child that she is female. As a teenager, she secretly took female hormones so her body could match her gender. And at 17 years old, the father of her then-boyfriend paid for her sex confirmation surgery. She married the boyfriend, but the marriage didn’t last.

Broke and desperate after she left her husband, Lepore says, “I was working as a dominatrix because I didn’t have any job skills. I wasn’t making enough money doing nails and little jobs, which weren’t paying the bills … I was able to make money as a prostitute without having sex.” One thing that worked out for Lepore was that she was able to live in a hotel that used to be managed by an ex-boyfriend, and her rent pretty much stayed the same for years because the hotel’s management gave her a special discount due to that relationship.

As for all of her plastic surgery, Lepore lists the alterations she’s done to her body, including breast augmentations, a nose job, rib reductions and silicone injections in her hips, lips, cheeks and buttocks. She’s also had her eyes tilted and her hairline pulled down. Just like a lot of women who’ve had surgery to make their breasts bigger, Lepore likes to show that she thinks it was money well-spent, by having a tendency to wear low-cut tops or display her naked breasts in public.

Lepore says she’s all about glamour and escapism. And she still proudly identifies as a “club kid.” The documentary shows her getting dolled up and hobnobbing in nightclubs, usually accompanied by another transgender friend. Fellow nightlife diva Simpson says of Lepore: “Amanda’s fame … is sort of a by-product of what she became.”

If Lepore is about glamourous escapism, Lamar is the opposite: In the documentary, Lamar says, “Club kids are dead,” and she says her artistry is more about realism and being a contrarian. But at the same time, Lamar admits that she enjoys manipulating the truth when it comes to her artistic expressions: “People are in love with a liar,” she says. “People like being lied to.”

Whereas Lepore prefers dance music, Lamar’s preferred music has a rock edge. The documentary includes some footage of Lamar performing her style of avant-garde rock in a nightclub. According to Lamar, she began calling herself Sophia at the age of 13, which is somewhat unusual since a lot of transgender people come out as transgender at a later age. She explains why she changed her first name at such a young age: “Some things are punk rock before they’re punk rock.”

Lamar (who speaks English and Spanish in the movie) also describes her difficult journey when she immigrated to the United States from Cuba. She says that the boat that she and her family came in capsized. They and other passengers had to be rescued by helicopter. She got her chosen surname Lamar because “el mar” means “the sea” in Spanish.

The contrast between Lamar and Lepore is also obvious in how they view nostalgia. Lepore clearly idolizes Marilyn Monroe (she often dresses like how Monroe looked in the 1950s) and she doesn’t mind talking about her heyday as a “club kid.” Lamar has this to say about why she doesn’t like to dwell on the past: “Nostalgia is private … like masturbation. Nostalgia is like a cancer.”

Nightlife promoter Nicol comments in the documentary: “Sophia Lamar is probably one of the most important nightlife people in New York.” And although former friends Lamar and Lepore no longer speak to each other, Lepore says they are still connected because they still go to the same nightclubs and still know a lot of the same people. Whichever style of performance art that people prefer, it’s clear that there’s room for both Lepore and Lamar in New York’s nightlife.

Although neither and Lamar nor Lepore go into details about what went wrong with their friendship, Lepore hints that Lamar was the one who ended it. Lepore comments in the documentary about their estrangement: “I was upset about it … I’ve moved on … It did hurt at first … It was more her than me.”

While one relationship unraveled among two of people starring in this documentary, another relationship blossomed. Dzubilo describes herself a kid who came from a working-class Connecticut family and grow up around a lot of “white, New England, conservative small-town stuff.” Dzubilo comments in the documentary: “I went to private school on a scholarship, but I always had this deep internal life.”

She moved to New York City in the early ’80s when Studio 54 reopened under new owners after original owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were imprisoned for tax evasion. Dzubilo says when she first lived in New York City, she felt he felt “gobbled up” by the city. She says she became a “wild child” and had a boyfriend who was a drug dealer. The documentary includes footage of Dzubilo as lead singer of the Transisters, a punk band consisting of all transgender women.

Dzubilo attended the Parsons School of Design and received an associate degree in Gender Studies from the City University of New York City College in 1999. But she also went through tough times, including being homeless and being diagnosed as HIV-positive, which led to her being a passionate AIDS activist. At the time she filmed this documentary, Dzubilo also talked about having other health issues, such has having debilitating problems with her bones.

It isn’t made clear in the documentary how Dzubilo and De Long met, but the movie shows De Long in the days when De Long was living as a woman named Tara Jo and she was an aspiring rapper. De Long, as Tara Jo, says that when she was a child, her dream was either to be a Hollywood star or a baseball star.

De Long also has a lot to say about how New York City has changed since she moved to the city in the mid-1990s from rural Illinois: “I wish New York could be more accessible the way it used to be, more of a place where artists can come and sort of start and not be in debt and have a chance to live here. Unfortunately, it’s a tough place to start.” De Long continues, “The problem with the underground is there’s no money in it. And you get to a certain age when you can’t do it for free anymore.”

Dzubilo and De Long became a couple when De Long was living as a transgender man. It’s mentioned in the documentary that De Long has since made the full transition by having the operation. In case people don’t know what happened in Dzubilo and De Long’s relationship, that information won’t be revealed in this review. However, the documentary does show what happened, and it’s the most emotional part of the movie.

One of the scenes that shows an example of things that cisgender people take for granted is when Dzubilo and De Long jubilantly describe how they took a trip outside of the United States as a transgender couple. They were able to get through the customs checkpoint with their passports without being questioned or harassed because they’re transgender. They talk about how that type of gender acceptance, which cisgender people don’t have to think about when they show their identification, was a huge milestone for them.

All four of the transgender stars in this movie became trans activists, with Dzubilo being the most politically active of the four. Lepore has this to say about her trans activism: “What I do is a statement. I help people in my own way.”

“I Hate New York” (which is Sánchez’s feature-film debut as a director) has a lot of raw-looking hand-held footage, but there’s also some artistic shots, especially of the nightlife scenes. And because the movie was filmed over 10 years, it’s a compelling journey into the lives of these four transgender people. “I Hate New York” isn’t about disdain for America’s most-populated city but rather hate for any transphobia they’ve experienced and New York City’s increasingly difficult financial barriers for struggling artists. However, the transgender people who star in this documentary admirably show how they’ve been able rise above the hate.

1844 Entertainment released “I Hate New York” on digital and VOD on September 1, 2020. The movie was originally released in Spain in 2018.

Review: ‘Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes,’ starring Quincy Jones, John Williams, Scotty Barnhart, Norma Miller, Will Friedwald, Gary Giddins and Carmen Bradford

September 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Count Basie in “Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes” (Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment)

“Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes”

Directed by Jeremy Marre

Culture Representation: The documentary “Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes” features a group of African Americans and white people discussing the life and legacy of jazz/swing legend Count Basie.

Culture Clash: Count Basie experienced racism and other discrimination but overcame a lot of barriers to become one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. 

Culture Audience: “Count Basie” will appeal primarily to jazz fans, but other people who like biographies about famous entertainers can appreciate this documentary.

Count Basie (second from left) with his daughter Diane (second from right) and his wife Catherine (far right) (Photo courtesy of William J. Basie Trust)

Many people know jazz legend Count Basie when it comes to his music, but few people know what type of person he was off-stage. (Basie died in 1984, at the age of 79.) The well-made documentary “Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes” (directed by Jeremy Marre) takes a fascinating look inside Basie’s private thoughts and his personal life by revealing for the first time several of his letters, family photos and home movie footage. Basie and his wife Catherine preserved these archives that were made available to the documentary through the William J. Basie Trust.

The movie has voiceover narration by actor Clarke Peters portraying Count Basie reading Basie’s letters and other writings, many of which sound like they could have been excerpts from an unpublished memoir. Because of the voiceover narration of what Basie wrote in his own words, the documentary brings more of his personality to life than if it had been a conventional biographical documentary. Several of Basie’s former colleagues are interviewed, and they describe him as ambitious, good-natured, a strong leader and a devoted family man.

Basie Band saxophonist John Williams comments about Basie in the documentary: “He had this saying: ‘I like my band to think of me as just one of the guys.’ Don’t you ever believe that he was just one of the guys in the band … He was the boss!”

William James Basie (who was born on August 21, 1904 in Red Bank, New Jersey) became interested in showbiz as a child, when he fell in love with going to carnivals. An avid piano player, he got his first real taste of performing as a teenager, on a fateful day when he attended a movie at the Palace Theater in Red Bank. The movie’s accompanying piano player was absent due to illness, so Basie filled in and learned to improvise his own music while playing the piano according to what was on screen.

Although being a cinema piano player was his first big break, Basie knew that he didn’t want to keep doing this as a job in entertainment. As his wrote in one of his letters: “It was time to get out of Red Bank. And music was the ticket.” (And it’s a good thing that Basie didn’t stick with being a piano player in a movie theater, since that type of job would become outdated when movies began to have sound.)

In 1920, Basie’s journey to fame and fortune took him to New York City, where he befriended Fats Domino and idolized Fats Waller. It was during his stint playing in Harlem nightclubs and hobnobbing with some of jazz’s greatest musicians that he took on the nickname Count, as a way to distinguish himself and bring an air of “royalty” to his stage name.

In 1929, Basie relocated to Kansas City, Missouri, where he further honed his craft as a jazz pianist and a swing band leader. In a letter, Basie wrote about his Kansas City experience: “It’s where I learned you don’t have to kill yourself to swing. Play like you play. Play like you think. And then, it’s you.” The Count Basie Orchestra was formed in 1935.

Basie eventually made his way back to New York City in 1937, but he found that the nightclub scene had become much more competitive than when he first arrived in the city. In an interview in the documentary, saxophonist Williams remembers: “They tried everything when Basie first came on the scene to destroy his band, and he was never bitter about it … And he succeeded.”

Basie was a regular performer at New York City’s Savoy Hotel, which had the rare distinction at the time of being a racially integrated hotel. However, racism was inescapable. As a traveling musician, Basie (just like other people of color) had to be mindful of the dangers of going in certain areas where people of color could be attacked or killed just because of the color of their skin.

In a letter revealed in the documentary, Basie wrote: “I can’t remember when I did not experience discrimination … And I didn’t let it bug me.” Some of his former colleagues confirm in the documentary that although Basie didn’t like racism, he wasn’t the type of person to get overtly angry about it.

It’s mentioned in the documentary that one of the ironies of Basie’s worldwide fame is that he was a favorite musician of German Nazis. In addition, Basie broke racial barriers in the music industry. In 1958, he was the first African American to win a Grammy Award. He went on to win nine Grammys in his lifetime.

Grammy-winning music legend Quincy Jones, who was a Basie Band arranger early in his career, reveals how Basie and his band would deal with racists: “Every day, we used to say, ‘Not one drop of my self-worth depends on your acceptance of me.'” Jones says of the racism that he, Basie and many other people of color experienced back then: “It was horrible. It ain’t much better now.”

Jones still gets rankled when he remembers when the band traveled in racially segregated areas (which were usually in Southern states), they often had to drive for hours before they could find a hotel that would accommodate them. According to Jones, things got so bad one night that they had no choice but to stay in a funeral parlor with dead bodies in caskets because all the nearest hotels were for white people only. “It was ridiculous,” Jones comments.

Despite the damaging effects of racism, Jones says that Basie remained humble. “He was a a very simple man … He was a very positive person.” After he became famous, Basie settled in Addisleigh Park, an upscale, predominantly African American neighborhood in New York City’s St. Albans, Queens. Addisleigh Park residents at the time included boxer Joe Louis, actress/singer Lena Horne and baseball player Babe Ruth.

Pamela Jackson, a Basie family friend, says in the documentary that Basie didn’t act like he was a celebrity when he wasn’t on stage. Although he spent a lot of time touring, when Basie was off the road, he spent as much time as he could with his wife Catherine and their daughter Diane, who was born in 1944.

According to Jackson, this family of three had a tight bond with each other, but “everything centered on Diane.” Diane was born with a disability that Jackson and Aaron Woodward III (another Basie family friend) describe in the documentary as probably cerebral palsy. However, they and other people say in the movie that Basie and his wife always treated Diane as if she were a “normal” child and it was unthinkable for them to send her away to an institution.

In Basie’s letters that are read in the movie, he describes his courtship with Catherine, whose maiden name was Morgan. She was a dancer when they met, and their relationship started out as an uneasy flirtation. She resisted dating him at first because she told him that she heard he had a bad reputation.

However, he eventually won her over, and they got married in 1940. (The documentary does not mention Basie’s first wife Vivian, whom he married in 1930 and divorced about three years later.) Catherine is described in the documentary as his soul mate and equal partner, including when she and Basie began getting involved in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.

Other people who are interviewed in the documentary include Count Basie Orchestra director Scotty Barnhart, plus former members of the Basie Band teams, such as dancer Norma Miller, drummer Harold Jones, singer Carmen Bradford and manager Dee Askew. On the journalism side, Basie essayist/jazz critic Gary Giddins and jazz critic/biographer Will Friedwald also offer their thoughts on Basie.

The documentary includes a very good selection of archival footage of Basie throughout the years. There’s some classic performance of Basie doing “I Needs to Bee’d” accompanied by Jones (who is not seen on camera during the performance.) Billie Holiday is featured in two separate archival clips: She seen bopping around in the background during a performance of “Dickie’s Dream,” and she sings lead vocals on “God Bless the Child.”

“Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes” clocks in at a brisk 74 minutes and tells Basie’s story in an unfussy and straightforward manner—just the way that Basie would have wanted it, based on the way his personality is described by people who knew him. The previously unreleased archival footage and letters enrich the movie (Peters does a great job with the narration), which gives people more appreciation for Basie not just as a legendary musician but also as an inspirational human being.

Eagle Rock Entertainment released “Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes” on digital on September 11, 2020.

Review: ‘Epicentro,’ starring Leonelis Arango Salas, Annielys Pelladito Zaldivar, Oona Castilla Chaplin, Juan Padrón and Hans Helmut Ludwig

September 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Pictured in from from left to right: Leonelis Arango Salas and Annielys Pelladito Zaldivar in “Epicentro” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)


Directed by Hubert Sauper

Spanish and German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of Cuba, the documentary “Epicentro” features a group of Latino and white people from the working-class, middle-class and upper-class discussing Cuba’s past and present issues with colonialism and government rule.

Culture Clash: Most of the Cubans interviewed in the documentary have negative opinions of countries that have tried to take over and oppress the people of Cuba.

Culture Audience: “Epicentro” will appeal mainly to people who don’t mind the type of documentaries that are more of a “snapshot” of a culture, rather than an in-depth investigation.

Leonelis Arango Salas in “Epicentro” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

The documentary “Epicentro” is exactly what it appears to be: director Huber Sauper went to Cuba for several days and interviewed Cuban residents and some tourists about what they think about Cuban history and Cuban culture. It’s not a definitive documentary on contemporary Cuba, but it’s a very good snapshot of the thoughts and feelings of a sampling of people who happened to be filmed for this documentary.

One of the aspects of “Epicentro” that is apparent from the beginning is that the documentary does not have the usual format of identifying interviewees by showing their names on the screen as they are being interviewed. The names of the documentary’s participants are listed in the end credits, but a lot of viewers who actually read the end credits might not know who is who, unless they paid attention to which of interviewees had their name called out to them by someone else.

By not identifying the interviewees by their names in the the typical documentary way, viewers will feel that a lot of the people they’re watching are anonymous. And that might annoy or intrigue people. It will annoy people who are curious to know that names of who’s speaking. It will intrigue people who don’t care to know the identities of the people speaking

For example, there’s a slightly drunk American tourist shown in a bar, as he rambles in a joking manner that planting an American flag somewhere doesn’t always mean that great things are going to happen there. He names the moon as example, by saying that the moon hasn’t been that great since the American flag was planted there. “We have to make the moon great again,” he snickers in an obvious nod to the “Make America Great Again” political slogan used by Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan.

It’s a scene like this that will make people wonder: “Who is this guy? Why should we care what he thinks? Is he just some random tourist who’s just spouting gibberish in a drunken moment? And why is this in a documentary about Cuba, since what this guy is saying is really someone that anyone can spew after a few drinks at a bar?”

The more that “Epicentro” goes on, the more it becomes apparent that director Sauper doesn’t want viewers to think too much about the identities and personal backgrounds of the people interviewed in the documentary. The people who made it into the final cut of this film all have something to say, in one way or another, about colonialism and patriotism and how they lead to cultural conflicts when one country wants to rule over another.

Cuba has been a Communist/socialist country since 1959, and under the rule of the Communist Party of Cuba since 1965. The people of Cuba have experienced countries such and Spain, the United States and the former Soviet Union trying to dictate what type of government should rule in Cuba. And this political colonialism is still a very sore subject with Cubans.

In one of the first scenes in “Epicentro,” a man wearing a top hat and tuxedo is giving a video presentation to a roomful of about 50 Cuban children who are about 7 to 10 years old. In the video, Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders are shown arriving in Cuba to establish a “brotherhood” with the Cuban people. The video also shows the American flag is unfurled establish freedom in Cuba. The children scoff at the video and say that it’s all a lie.

There are two Cuban girls (about 9 or 10 years old) who are close friends and whose interviewed segments are shown throughout the film: Leonelis Arango Salas and Annielys Palladito Zaldivar. They both have a strong sense of Cuban history, as they speak out against racist colonialism and talk about how the Spaniards had black slaves in Cuba. “No one should be treated as if they’re trash,” says one of the girls.

Salas, the more extroverted friend, who wants to be an actress and singer. Both girls also have an interest in dancing, as they are shown participating in a tango class with other kids their age. The girls’ family backgrounds aren’t really explained or shown, although it’s obvious that they are underprivileged, based on how they can’t afford certain things (like family vacations or certain toys) that other kids can take for granted. It’s mentioned that Salas’ father has been absent from her life for the past three years.

Salas is also being mentored in her showbiz goals by actress Oona Castilla Chaplin, who is shown in the movie giving Salas advice and showing the Charlie Chaplin movies “The Great Dictator” and “The Gold Rush” to a group of young kids. Oona also rehearses a “mother/daughter” argument with Salas, including them slapping and hitting each other. It looks so realistic that it almost seems like like it’s not a rehearsal but something that was unscripted.

Oona is the granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin and the great-granddaughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. She is best known for playing Varang in the 2009 “Avatar” blockbuster movie and its sequels. What exactly was doing in Cuba and how did she end up involved with teaching kids about acting? “Epicentro” doesn’t say. It’s one of many examples of how the movie treats its subjects with a raw cinéma vérité style.

It’s as if the filmmakers took this approach to the people who are interviewed for the film: “We’re just passing through. We don’t need to know your life story. Just talk about what you want and we’ll film it.” “Epicentro” director Sauper took such a hands-off approach that when one young woman he interviews on the street can’t think of a word that knows, she ask him for helping in saying the word, but he can be heard off-camera saying that he doesn’t want to put words in her mouth.

The Cuban natives all express a sense of pride in their country, but they have mixed feelings about the United States. On the one hand, they love American culture. On the other hand, they have a real hatred for American politics and perceive the United States as a political bully to other countries. Donald Trump is mentioned often as someone who is intensely disliked by Cubans, no doubt because of his presidential administration’s embargo on Cuba. Even the little kids in the documentary don’t like Trump, who’s called “mean” and “racist” in the documentary. One of the little girls says, “Trump cares about nobody. He has no feelings.”

However, the Cubans in the documentary express a lot of admiration for American pop culture. An unidentified man says in the film: “Hollywood has won the cultural war.” An woman in her late 20s or early 30s says that her dream one day is to go to Disneyland. Why? She’s seen photos of Disneyland on Facebook and “everything looks beautiful … like in old fairytales. This is, for me, the American Dream.”

And the Cubans also express wistfulness or envy when it comes to all the new technology and freedom of speech that Americans get to have and take for granted. One woman interviewed on the street expresses some paranoia when a man who’s passing by asks her what she’s filming and what she’s discussing. She assures him that she’s saying nothing but good things about Cuba. When the man is out of hearing range, she half-jokingly says that if she’s not careful about what she says, she might get killed.

There’s also a lot of lingering and ongoing resentment that native Cubans have toward tourists. The documentary shows a Cuban man hanging out in a bar who says he grew up in a family who worked at a hotel and has this opinion of visitors who come to Cuba: “Tourists are human beings in their worst form … Tourism devours the future.” His perception of tourists is that they are usually loud, obnoxious and have a superior attitude toward Cubans.

The boundaries between the “haves” and “have nots” in Cuba are also defined by skin color, as the documentary shows that the dark-skinned people in Cuba tend to live in the worst poverty, while the wealthiest people in Cuba tend to be light-skinned Latinos or white. Meanwhile, the documentary shows that the tourists at luxury hotels in Cuba are almost always white. A taxi driver says on camera that the luxury hotels in Cuba were “created by the Mafia.”

There’s a scene in “Epicentro” when director Sauper (who does not appear on camera) breaks the wall of being an objective documentarian by staging some scenes for the movie. He brings Salas and one of her young male friends to the Parkhotel Central in Havana, so that they can swim in the pool. He also buys them dessert. The kids have never experienced this type of upscale hotel before, and it’s obvious that Sauper wanted to do something nice for them and put it in his documentary.

The young children who are interviewed (Sauper calls the children “little prophets” in the “Epicentro” production notes) have so much screen time in the documentary, that it’s obvious they were Sauper’s favorite people to film for the movie. There’s a scene in the movie where an American photographer is taking candid photos of a poor street kids (a boy who’s about 6 years old), who asks the photographer for something in return. The photographer gives him a pen, which the boy happily takes and starts playing with the pen as if it’s a toy.

The photographer comments on the poverty-stricken people in Cuba: “The conditions they have here are pretty tragic. But I guess under certain circumstances, you have no choice. It’s kind of crazy?”

There are also some random scenes in the movie. A man who appears to be in his 60s (who’s identified in the end credits as Hans Helmut Ludwig ) is shown tango dancing with a younger woman. Ludwig shows up later as a special guest instructor in the tango class of the young children.

Cuban animation director Juan Padrón is shown talking about how he did research on Roosevelt and the more he found out, the more he knew that the Rough Riders image was fake and a lot of the history that’s taught about Roosevelt’s relationship with Cuba was a myth. It’s widely perceived by the people in the documentary that the Spanish-American War in 1898 was under the guise of the U.S. trying to help liberate Cuba from Spain when the U.S. actually wanted to conquer Cuba.

The documentary was also filmed at least partially in November 2016, because “Epicentro” includes the breaking news about the death of Fidel Castro and the country’s subsequent mourning and tributes to Castro. The people interviewed in the documentary don’t express feelings one way or the other about how their lives might change is under post-Fidel Castro leadership. However, they do think that another event in November 2016 (the U.S. presidential election) has had more of a negative effect on their everyday lives.

“Epicentro” is not the kind of people will enjoy if they’re looking for a documentary that has a tightly focused story. Numerous unidentified people are interviewed in the movie and are not revisited. And the only real consistency is that the documentary keeps coming back to showing Cuban children. It’s as if the message of the movie seems to be: “Listen to what these kids are saying because they are the future of Cuba.”

If people are curious about what a relatively small sample of Cubans are thinking and what life is like in Cuba since the Trump-administration embargo against Cuba, then “Epicentro” is worth a look. There’s a lot of raw “shaky cam” footage, but some of the outdoor cinematography is stunning. “Epicentro” isn’t so much a wide-ranging documentary as it is a compilation of random individuals in Cuba who share their thoughts for this movie. What they have to say is much more revealing about Cuba than filtered news or a political speech.

Kino Lorber released “Epicentro” in select U.S. cinemas on August 28, 2020.

Review: ‘All In: The Fight for Democracy,’ starring Stacey Abrams, Carol Anderson, Andrew Young, Debo Adegbile, Sean J. Young and Ari Berman

September 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Stacey Abrams in “All In: The Fight for Democracy” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“All In: The Fight for Democracy”

Directed by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States, the political documentary “All In: The Fight for Democracy” features a racially diverse group of people (African American, white, Latino, Asian and Native American) discussing past and present issues in U.S. citizens’ right to vote.

Culture Clash: The consensus of people interviewed in the documentary is that voting inequalities, such as voter suppression and gerrymandering, stem from party politics and bigotry issues against people of color, young people and people who are economically disadvantaged.

Culture Audience: “All In: The Fight for Democracy” will appeal primarily to people who have liberal-leaning beliefs, since conservative lawmakers are portrayed as the chief villains who want to suppress people’s votes. 

A scene from “All In: The Fight for Democracy” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The political documentary “All In: The Fight for Democracy” (directed by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés) examines the history of voting rights in the United States and how those rights have been violated. It’s a subject that’s theoretically supposed to be a non-partisan issue, but the documentary doesn’t try and hide that it’s biased heavily toward liberal politics and the Democratic Party, which is portrayed as the political party that’s taking the most action to include more U.S. citizens in the voting process. When it comes to modern-day voter suppression and the push to exclude people from the voting process, the documentary puts the blame primarily on Republican politicians and other lawmakers who have conservative-leaning political beliefs.

Democratic politician Stacey Abrams is one of the producers of “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” so it’s no surprise that she’s the main star of the movie, which uses her highly contested 2018 political campaign for governor of Georgia as an example of voter suppression. Her opponent in that campaign was Republican politician Brian Kemp, who was Georgia’s secretary of state in charge of overseeing the voting process in Georgia while he was campaigning for governor. Overseeing the voting process in his own election was an obvious conflict of interest, but Kemp refused to step down from his secretary of state position during his gubernatorial campaign because it was legal in Georgia for him to keep that position while he was campaigning for another office.

In the end, after 10 days of the election results being contested, Kemp was declared the winner with 50% of the votes, while it was announced that Abrams received 49% of the votes. The controversial election resulted in Abrams and her political group Fair Fight filing lawsuits and investigating reports of widespread voter suppression and other tactics to prevent thousands of people in Georgia from voting. The accusations are that this voter suppression has disproportionately affected districts with voters who are registered Democrats and/or people of color. The racial elements of this election could not be ignored, since Abrams would have been the first African American woman to be a state governor in the U.S. if she had won the election.

Critics of Abrams have called her a “sore loser,” but there is a valid argument in wondering what the outcome of that election would have been if thousands of voter registrations hadn’t been mysteriously purged from computer systems. There were also confirmed reports of thousands of voter registrations not being processed in time for the election, mostly in areas of Georgia where there is a high percentage of people of color and/or registered Democrats. It also looked suspicious that most of the voting sites that were permanently shut down in Georgia were in districts with a high percentage of people of color and Democrats.

Even though Abrams gets the most screen time in this documentary, the entire film isn’t “The Stacey Abrams Show,” because most of the film is about the history of U.S. citizens’ right to vote and some of the recurring problems in the U.S. voting process. Abrams’ family background is mentioned (she’s the second-oldest of six kids, raised primarily in Mississippi and Georgia), and her parents Robert and Carolyn Abrams (who are both ministers) are interviewed in the film. The documentary also includes the 1993 footage of Abrams (when she was a 19-year-old student at Spelman College) speaking at the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington. Coming from a family that placed a high value on education, religion, voting and public service, it’s no wonder that she wanted to go into politics.

The first half of “All In: The Fight for Democracy” takes a look at the long history of voter exclusion and suppression in the United States, before the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, and how certain groups of people have constantly had to fight for their right to vote. The second half of the documentary focuses primarily on U.S. voting rights during and after the 1960s civil-rights movement. As historian/author Carol Anderson comments in the documentary: “Past is prologue. Those forces that are systemically determined to keep American citizens from voting, they have been laying the seeds over time.”

It’s mentioned in the documentary that when George Washington was elected the first president of the United States in 1789, only 6% of U.S. citizens had the right to vote. These citizens were white male property owners. The documentary does an excellent job of retracing how laws gradually changed for voting to open up to more U.S. citizens, so that property ownership wasn’t a requirement to vote and U.S. citizens who weren’t white men got the right to vote. The 15th Amendment (which, in 1870, gave U.S. citizens the right to vote regardless of their race, color or previous condition of servitude), the 19th Amendment (which gave U.S. women the right to vote in 1920) and the Voting Rights Act (originally signed into law in 1965) are three of the most important legislations to make these voting rights possible.

The documentary reiterates that the biggest injustices in voting often stem from racism. After the slaves were freed, the U.S. experienced the Reconstruction period when, for the first time in U.S. history, African American men began to own property and held elected offices on the federal and state levels. But, as “Give Us the Ballot” author Ari Berman says in the documentary: “The greatest moments of progress are followed by the most intense periods of retrenchment.”

In other words, when people of color are perceived as advancing too far in American society, there’s political backlash. The Reconstruction period led to the shameful Jim Crow period, particularly in Southern states, which passed racial segregation laws making it more difficult for people of color to access to same levels of education and resources as white people. Poll taxes and literacy tests became requirements to vote and were used as a way to weed out poor and uneducated people, who were disproportionately people of color. Black men in particular were singled out for arrests for minor crimes (such as loitering), and these arrest records were used as reasons to prevent them from voting in certain states.

The Florida felony disenfranchisement law of 1868 created a trend of felons being barred from voting. The U.S. is currently the only democracy that doesn’t allow convicted felons to vote. Critics of this voter exclusion law say that it’s inherently racist because people of color are more likely to be convicted of the same felonies that white people ae accused of committing. Efforts to repeal the “felons can’t vote” laws are mentioned in the documentary, which includes an interview with Desmond Meade of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

The documentary also mentions that before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, it could be dangerous and sometimes deadly for African Americans and other people of color who voted. African Americans and other people of color could get fired for voting if they had a racist employer. Depending on the area, African Americans and other people of color would be the targets of violence if they voted. And even registering to vote could be an ordeal, since it was common in certain areas for intimidation tactics to be used on people of color during voter registration.

The documentary names Maceo Snipes (an African American military veteran) as an example: In 1946, Snipes was murdered because he defied segregation laws and was the only African American to vote in Georgia’s Democratic primary election. Abrams shares a story that her grandmother Wilter “Bill” Abrams told her about being terrified the first time that she voted, because Wilter was afraid that she would be attacked by white racists at the voting site. Wilter was eventually persuaded to vote by her husband, who reminded her of the people who sacrificed their lives to give people of color the right to vote in America.

“All In” also details how other racial groups have been the targets of voter exclusion in U.S. history. In its early years, California resisted laws to allow Chinese people and other Asians to vote. States near the Mexican border, particularly Arizona and Texas, have a long history of trying to exclude Latinos and Native Americans from voting. In many situations, people were kept from voting if English was not their first language. The United States does not have an official language, and there’s nothing in the U.S. Constitution that says U.S. residents and U.S. voters are required to speak English.

According to several people in the documentary, the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections of Democratic politician Barack Obama (the first African American president of the United States) sparked a backlash that led to an increased push by conservative lawmakers to erode the Voting Rights Act. In 2013, a conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the Shelby County v. Holder case that voting laws could revert back to the individual U.S. states. This Supreme Court ruling opened up a floodgate of states (usually in the South and Midwest) that revised their voting laws that critics say make it easier for these states to allow voter suppression.

Historian/author Anderson doesn’t mince words about these revised voting laws that began in the 2010s: “It’s Jim Crow 2.0.” Gerrymandering and voter suppression are described in the documentary as two sides of the same coin. The documentary reiterates the warning that voter manipulation usually targets people of color, poor people and young people. And because most people of color who are U.S. citizens tend to be Democrats, the documentary implies that corrupt Republicans are behind a lot of the voter suppression when it comes to people of color.

Voter suppression comes in three main forms: strict voter ID laws, voting roll purges and permanent closing of voting sites. Critics say that voter ID laws are designed to exclude poor and uneducated U.S. citizens who might not have government-issued IDs. Voting roll purges (eliminating voter registrations) are often done without voters’ knowledge and permission, and are usually because the eliminated voters haven’t voted for a number of years or for other random reasons. And permanent closures of voting sites have been found to occur mostly in economically disadvantaged areas where there’s a large percentage of people of color.

In many cases, even if a voter has a government-issued ID, the voter can be turned away at the voting site if the voter’s signature is not an exact match to the signature that the voter has on file with the board of elections office. In the documentary, Sean J. Young of ACLU Georgia says signatures that don’t match are big issues with Asian immigrants, who often have an Asian first name and an American first name. Barb Semans and OJ Semans of Four Directions (a voting-rights group for Native Americans) mention that North Dakota’s voting law requiring a residential address for registration excludes numerous Native Americans who have to use post-office boxes because they live on reservations without residential addresses.

Alejandra Gomez and Alexis Delgado Garcia of Lucha (a voting-rights groups for Latinos) are featured in the documentary. Garcia is seen approaching different people in Latino communities with voter registration information and encouragement to vote. The results are mixed. Some of the people aren’t U.S. citizens and therefore aren’t eligible to vote, while the U.S. citizens are either interested in registering and plan to vote, or are reluctant to register because they don’t like or trust politicians. Gomez comments, “The most important part of voter registration is that human connection and being able to understand why that person does not trust.”

Abrams says in the documentary: “When entire communities become convinced that the process is not for them, we lose their participation in our nation’s future. And that’s dangerous to everyone.” Eric Holder, who was U.S. attorney general in the Obama administration, comments: “Too many Americans take for granted the right to vote and don’t understand that unless we fight for the right to vote, unless we try to include as many people as possible, our democracy is put at risk.”

Other people interviewed in the documentary include Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center for Justice; historian/author Eric Foner; civil-rights leader Andrew Young; civil-rights attorney Debo Adegbile; Kristen Clarke of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; David Pepper, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party; Lauren Goh-Wargo, Abrams’ former campaign manager; Luci Baines Johnson, daughter of former U.S. president Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Voters Right Act into law; Ohio U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge; and student activists Michael Parsons (from Dartmouth College) and Jayla Allen (of Prairie View A&M University).

This documentary is obviously stacked with people who are open with their politically liberal beliefs and who are known Democrats. There’s some attempt to present conservative points of view, but not much. One of the conservative-leaning people interviewed in the documentary is attorney Bert Rein, who represented Shelby County, Alabama, in the Shelby County v. Holder case. He doesn’t say much except that he thought that the case was legally compelling enough for him to want to represent Shelby County.

Hans Von Spakovsky of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, which is a major advocate of voter ID laws, is also interviewed in the documentary. He says that the “vast majority” of people in the United States believe in voter ID laws, although he doesn’t list any sources or details as the basis for this statement. Considering that the documentary describes voter suppression and gerrymandering as being perpetrated mostly by corrupt Republicans, it’s not too surprising that a documentary with a Democratic politician (Abrams) as one of the producers is not going to give much of a voice to the opposition.

Even with this blatant bias, “All In” could have done a better job at looking at other cases of suspected voter suppression besides Abrams’ 2018 gubernatorial election campaign. Because the documentary presents Abrams’ case as the only major example of suspected voter suppression, it undermines the documentary’s message that voter suppression is a widespread problem. A skeptic could easily say that the Abrams/Kemp campaign controversy was a rare fluke. It also would have been interesting to see more of what Fair Fight is doing behind the scenes to prevent voter suppression.

And there could have been more of an exploration of how votes are manipulated in ways other than voter suppression. For example, there’s no mention in the documentary about how computer hacking affects voting machines that process data via computers. (The excellent HBO documentary “Kill Chain: The Cyber War Over America’s Elections” examines this cyberhacking topic in depth.) And there is growing concern over how governments from outside the U.S. could be corrupting the U.S. electoral system to influence the votes of U.S. citizens.

The documentary also should have had more interviews with people who work on the “front lines” of voting, such as polling workers and officials who work for boards of elections. There’s a definite “liberal elitism” tone to this documentary, because of the numerous Democratic politicians and liberal attorneys who are interviewed. And during the end credits of the film, several celebrities who are outspoken liberals (such as Gloria Steinem, Constance Wu, Jonathan Van Ness, Gabourey Sidibe, the Jonas Brothers and Yara Shahidi) give soundbites telling people their voting rights.

“All In” makes its liberal bias abundantly clear, but people of any political persuasion can appreciate that the documentary has a superb overview of the history of voting in the U.S. and explains how people can be more informed voters. The documentary doesn’t sugarcoat that there are massive inequalities in people’s voting experiences in the U.S., and many of the problems are rooted in racism and other prejudices. It’s this history lesson and encouragement of more awareness for voter rights—rather than the partisan posturing and finger-pointing—where “All In” shines the most.

Amazon Studios released “All In: The Fight for Democracy” in select U.S. cinemas on September 9, 2020. Amazon Prime Video will premiere the movie on September 18, 2020.

Review: ‘Apocalypse ’45,’ starring Thomas Vaucher, Harold Wheatley, Ittsei Nakagawa, William Braddock Jr., Maurice Hubert, Nazareth Sinanian and Kenneth Erger

September 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

A “Taps” ceremony in “Apocalypse ’45” (Photo courtesy of Discovery)

“Apocalypse ’45”

Directed by Erik Nelson

Culture Representation: The documentary “Apocalypse ’45” interviews an almost all-white group of American former military men (and one Japanese American man) about their World War II experiences when the United States was at war with Japan.

Culture Clash: Several of the men say that their military training included being taught to hate Japanese people, and the cultural differences between Japanese and American military are pointed out in the documentary.

Culture Audience: “Apocalypse ’45” will appeal primarily to World War II buffs and other people who are interested in war documentaries from an American perspective.

World War II veterans in “Apocalypse ’45” (Photo courtesy of Discovery)

Does the world really need another movie about World War II? The documentary “Apocalypse ’45” sets itself apart from the rest because the movie has previously unreleased and digitally restored (to 4K) color footage that was taken during the war, mostly in combat zones in or near the Pacific Ocean. The footage came from more than 700 reels provided by the National Archives. The documentary also includes “long lost” footage from director John Ford that shows the ruins of the Pacific Fleet and the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack that promoted the war against Japan.

The main reason to see “Apocalypse ’45” is this previously unreleased footage, which is some of the crispest color World War II footage that you might ever see. Most of the footage is from 1944 and 1945, filmed in locations that include the island of Saipan in Japan and the Japanese capital of Tokyo. There are numerous combat scenes on land and sea.

There’s also 1945 footage of an atomic bomb testing site in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The aftermath of a bomb test is shown. And so is the bomb-proof, sphere-shaped container with Purple Heart medals which were warehoused at the site. The documentary notes: “This stockpile of Purple Hearts has been enough to supply every subsequent war.”

However, very sensitive viewers should be warned: “Apocalypse ’45” shows the brutalities of war in an unflinching manner that will be disturbing to some people. Although no one is seen being murdered, some of the footage is very graphic and uncensored. In addition to showing a lot of bloody war injuries (including people with missing limbs), the movie has several scenes of dead bodies of American and Japanese people.

It’s mentioned in the movie that many Japanese people committed suicide because they didn’t want to become prisoners of war. Mothers would jump off cliffs with their babies in their arms. (The movie includes footage of dead babies in the water.)

The documentary also shows a Japanese woman by herself, leaping to her death off of a cliff. In another scene, a Japanese girl who’s about 8 or 9 years old is shown with a missing foot. A note held up by someone on the film crew says that the girl’s foot was cut off because she refused to go back with the retreating Japanese.

And later in the movie, there’s March 1946 footage showing the wreckage of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are scenes of some Japanese civilian survivors with severe burns and other injuries. It’s a sobering contrast to the VJ Day celebrations celebrating the U.S. victory over Japan.

Not all of “Apocalypse ’45” is gloom and doom. The movie has a few humorous moments, with footage of the military men relaxing and goofing around in their free time. There’s a scene where several men are sunbathing on a ship. And there’s a poignant scene of a military man eagerly opening a letter and taking in a deep whiff to get the scent of the loved one who sent the letter.

The movie has voiceover commentary from 24 former U.S. military men who fought in World War II. The expected “war is hell” stories are told. There was a lot of fear and a lot of bravery. Some of the veterans who are interviewed express some remorse over the killing that they did in combat, while others say that don’t have any regrets.

“Apocalypse ’45” director Erik Nelson made the artistic decision to keep their interview comments as audio only, so that viewers wouldn’t be distracted if the movie kept cutting back and forth between showing the interviewees and the archival footage. The main down side to this method is that the movie doesn’t identity the people by their names during the voiceover narration.

It isn’t until the end of the film that viewers find out the names of the men who were interviewed and what they look like. They say their names individually and what their military job was during World War II. During the end credits, a World War II-era photo of each man is shown and it fades into a photo of what they looked like at the time of the interviews.

The only exception to this interview format is when the movie opens with an introduction by Hiroshima bombing survivor Ittsei Nakagawa, a Japanese American who was 15 years old and on a family trip when the atomic bomb was set off in Hiroshima, Japan. He isn’t seen again in the movie until near the end. Nakagawa is the only person interviewed in the movie who is of Japanese descent. Everyone else who’s interviewed is someone who fought in the U.S. military during the World War II.

“Apocalypse ’45” begins with footage in Hawaii and other parts of the United States on VJ Day (also known as Victory Over Japan Day), which happened on August 15, 1945. The victorious celebrations over Japan’s surrender and the war being over are almost palpable when watching them on screen. The story then goes back to the deadly bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, which led to the U.S. and Japan declaring war on each other the next day. Most of the movie, which is obviously told from an American perspective, focuses on what happened on the battlegrounds and on the ships during U.S.-Japanese conflicts during World War II.

Interspersed during the footage are titles card of printed text, with each having a basic summary of events that happened during the U.S.-Japanese battles. World War II history buffs won’t learn anything new from what’s on these title cards, but the title cards provide adequate historical context for the visuals that are on screen. The commentary from the World War II veterans provide the emotional context of what was going on with them at the time. Some of them begin to cry, as they relive the war when telling their stories.

According to the movie’s production notes, here are the American World War II veterans who were interviewed for the documentary. The ages listed are the ages they were at the time they were interviewed:

  • Captain Abner Aust, 98, of Frostproof, Florida. He flew P-51 Mustangs for the U.S. Army Air Corps. Aust passed away in 2020.
  • Corporal James Blaine, 95, of Denver, Colorado. He fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima and he was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received in that battle.
  • Sergeant Major George Boutwell, 96, of Pell City, Alabama. He fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima. During the occupation, he was briefly station at Nagasaki where he saw the devastation first-hand.
  • Corporal William Braddock Jr., 98, of Pensacola, Florida. He fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima. He was serving with the Marines before WWII and was a witness to the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.
  • Fire Controlman Third Class Kenneth Erger, 94, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He served with the U.S. Navy as a fire control operator on the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid.
  • 1st Lieutenant Bill Eversole, 95, of Gainesville, Florida. At the age of 20, Eversole piloted a P-51 Mustang for the U.S. Army Air Corps. He flew missions over Iwo Jima and mainland Japan.
  • Sergeant Ivan Hammond, 93, of Santa Fe, Texas. He was a Marine at Iwo Jima with the signal corps.  He witnessed the aftermath of destruction at Nagasaki while serving with the Occupation Forces.
  • Pharmacists First Mate Maurice Hubert, 96, of Spotsylvania, Virginia. He a was corpsman with the United States Navy. He did five landings during World War II, including the first wave at Iwo Jima where he tended the wounded and dying, including war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who died in Hubert’s arms.
  • Private First Class Al Nelson, 94, of Burlington, Iowa. He was a member of a tank crew and fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima.
  • Corporal Monroe Ozment, 94, of Virginia Beach, Virginia. He fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima and was wounded by rifle fire during the first day of battle.  Ozment passed away in 2020.
  • Private First Class Johnnie Page Jr., 94, of Decatur, Georgia. He served with the U.S. Army at Okinawa.  Though he arrived after the main battle, booby traps and snipers still presented mortal danger to him and his company.
  • Seaman First Class George Puterbaugh, 95, of Lake Oswego, Oregon. He crewed on the USS San Juan with the United States Navy.  His ship was at Iwo Jima where he witnessed several kamikaze attacks.
  • Lt. Commander Charles Schlag, 97, of West Chester, Pennsylvania. He was a carrier pilot with the United States Navy. He flew multiple missions over Okinawa. Schlag passed away in 2020.
  • Private Ralph C. Simoneau, 95, of Germantown, Wisconsin. He served with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima. It was his first and only battle.
  • Sergeant Nazareth Sinanian, 94, of Staten Island, New York. He served with the US Army Air Corps in charge of central fire control on B-29 bomber. He participated in the firebombing of Tokyo.
  • Major Richard Spooner, 93, of Quantico, Virginia. He fought as a private first class with the U.S. Marine Corps at Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa. At Saipan he was briefly taken as a prison of war by the Japanese.
  • Private First Class Delbert Treichler, 96, of Germantown, Wisconsin. He fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima. As part of the occupation forces, he later witnessed the aftermath of the atomic bombing at Nagasaki.
  • Private First Class Duane Tunnyhill, 94, of Omaha, Nebraska. He enlisted in the US Marine Corps when he was 17. He fought with the 5th Marines at Iwo Jima. He was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds sustained on his 36th day of combat.
  • Seaman First Class George Vouros, 94, of Natick, Massachusetts. He was a ship’s gunner for the U.S. Navy who defended against Kamikazes in the Battle for the Philippines and Iwo Jima. Vouros passed away in 2020.
  • Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Vaucher, 101, of Bridgewater, New Jersey. He served as a pilot and wing commander with the U.S. Army Air Corps, and was an aide to General Curtis Lemay. Vaucher led the ceremonial victory flyover at Tokyo during the formal surrender of Japan.
  • Private Harold Wheatley, 93, of Savoy, Illinois. He was a combat soldier who fought with the U.S. Army at Okinawa. He personally witnessed the mass suicides on the island as well as seeing Kamikazes attacking the ships anchored off the island.
  • Corporal Hershal “Woody” Williams, 96, of Ona, West Virginia. He was a U.S. Marine who fought with a flamethrower at Iwo Jima.  Due to his gallantry in action, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, and is the last surviving Marine from World War II to hold this honor.
  • Sergeant Joseph Win, 95, of Bridgewater, New Jersey. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a gunner on a B-29 bomber based on Tinian. Wing flew several missions over Japan, and ironically lives just a mile away from Vaucher.

Many of the men describe being programmed to think of the Japanese, even the civilians, not as people but as “the enemy.” Williams comments on his military training and what he was told about Japanese culture: “They told us that they [the Japanese] were very vicious people, that for them to die was an honor, they were not going to give up. So, it made them very tenacious people because even if they died, they’re going to be rewarded for that. And we were just the opposite. You know, the American people, we Marines would do almost anything to preserve a life.”

The U.S. military men also went into combat with a “kill or be killed” mentality, according to several people interviewed in the documentary. There was fear, but there was also bravery. Nelson comments, “We were thinking about saving our asses. That’s true. Because boy, it scared us. It scared us tremendously.”

Tunnyhill says, “I was dumb. I didn’t think too much about it. When you’re young like that, you’re not going to get killed. How are they going to kill you? I guess that’s what really carried a lot of us through the battle, the thinking that we weren’t going to get killed.”

Simoneau adds, “Thank God that I didn’t have to stare somebody in the face and kill them. I’m a Christian and I believe in the Ten Commandments. This morning I was starting to cry because I did something that’s not me, because my belief in the Ten Commandments says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ And I don’t know of any exception to that. It just says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.'”

Braddock has a different perspective of the killing he did while in combat: “Well, it didn’t bother me to shoot them, because if I didn’t shoot them, they were going to shoot me. And being ‘country,’ so, eye for an eye, you know.”

Voucher has this memory of his World War II superior Commander Curtis LeMay: “Curtis LeMay had no reservations about killing crews. LeMay’s position was, and I’ve heard him say this: ‘Wars don’t end until enough people are killed.’ He said, ‘This thing will end when we kill enough Japanese.’”  

Sinanian comments, “Later on you find out as you get older that the bad guys were not bad, they were just doing what they had to do. Somebody told them that they had to do it. The guys above me, they tell me what I have to do. So, I guess maybe all Japanese were nice people too. They just had to do what the idiots that started the war told them to do.”

Several of the military veterans say in the documentary that the smell of death is something they’ll never forget and seeing the dead bodies will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Hubert, who word as a combat medic, says that things got to so bad that he couldn’t remember what his name was because people kept calling him “Doc.” He adds. “A lot of kids, a lot of casualties. I never like to remember any of those things. I always try to put it behind me. But I managed to survive. The good Lord was on my shoulder.”

Although it’s admirable that “Apocalypse ’45” got the perspectives of several American veterans of World War II, the movie would have set itself apart even more from most other World War II documentaries by having more Japanese perspectives included. Surely, the filmmakers could have found at least one other Hiroshima or Nagasaki civilian survivor besides Nakagawa.

Nakagawa gives a chilling description of what it was like to experience the Hiroshima bombing, which happened on August 6, 1945: “Everything went black. You couldn’t see or hear anything. Nobody knew what it was.” Anyone who had the misfortune of being outside in the immediate vicinity of the bomb either died or was severely injured. And even the people who were inside weren’t safe, since the bomb destroyed buildings.

Boutwell shares this memory of seeing firsthand the atomic bombing Nagasaki, Japan, which happened on August 9, 1945: “There was one thing standing, a big long chimney going up in the air that it must have been 200 feet high.”

Nakagawa comments in the documentary: “I met Frank Oppenheimer, who is the brother of Bob Oppenheimer, the designer for the Manhattan Project for the development of the atomic bomb. ‘Do you know the story of Genie in the Bottle?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I sort of remember that story. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘the genie’s out of the bottle. There is no way that you can get that guy in a bottle.'”

As for the lessons they learned in World War II, some of the veterans say that war will be declared by politicians who send other people to do the dirty work of fighting the war. Wheatley comments, “You can talk to any veteran you want to and they don’t understand at all. Why? ‘Cause most divisiveness going on in our country between politics, it’s crazy.”

Erger adds, “When you think in terms of all that money that we could use for medicines, we have people that have all the diseases that we could accomplish and conquer and they just aren’t doing it. All that money gone to waste and all these guys that cause the war, how can they justify all that? Just let them fight amongst themselves and see how long it would last.”

However, Vouros comments: “If I could do it again, I would, for this country. I would do anything for this country. I love this country. I’m getting teared up.”

“Apocalypse ’45” is undoubtedly a very patriotic American film that gives almost all of the perspective to U.S. military veterans who did combat during World War II. Some viewers might have a problem with not enough perspective being given to Japanese survivors of the war. However, since the documentary’s rare footage was filmed by Americans from the perspective of the U.S. military, it arguably made sense to have most of the documentary interviews be from the American military veterans who served in World War II.

U.S. military troops were still segregated during World War II, with white men making up the vast majority of U.S. military fighters in combat against Japan in the war, which might explain why only white military veterans are interviewed for the documentary. However, it would have been great if the filmmakers made the extra effort to include any people of color who were World War II military veterans and who did combat in Japan.

War is an ugly fact of life that “Apocalypse ’45” underscores with stark footage and frank commentary from people who lived through this brutal experience. Even though the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings helped end World War II, the documentary notes that the decisions to drop the bombs are still being debated today. Because the footage in “Apocalypse ’45” is in well-preserved color (when most World War II footage is in black and white), it makes the documentary seem more like modern-day news footage rather than footage from a black-and-white film era. For Hollywood’s version of World War II, watch “Saving Private Ryan.” For the reality of World War II, watch “Apocalypse ’45.”

Abramorama released “Apocalypse ’45” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on August 14, 2020. Discovery premiered the movie on September 5, 2020.

Review: ‘You Cannot Kill David Arquette,’ starring David Arquette, Christina McLarty Arquette, Courteney Cox, Patricia Arquette, RJ City, Eric Bischoff and Jerry Kubik

September 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

David Arquette in “You Cannot Kill David Arquette” (Photo courtesy of Super LTD)

“You Cannot Kill David Arquette”

Directed by David Darg and Price James

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States and in Mexico, the documentary film “You Cannot Kill David Arquette” has a predominantly white group of people (with some Latinos and a few African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: Hollywood actor David Arquette confronts his controversial past as a former world heavyweight wrestling champ by deciding to train and compete as a professional wrestler, despite his age and health problems.

Culture Audience: “You Cannot Kill David Arquette” will appeal primarily to wrestling fans and people who don’t mind seeing an often-comedic documentary with numerous obviously staged scenes. 

David Arquette (in green pants) in “You Cannot Kill David Arquette” (Photo courtesy of Super LTD)

If you’re a somewhat famous actor whose best career days are behind you, including a controversial win of a World Championship Wrestling (WCW) title back in the year 2000, what do you do if you’re desperate for attention? If you’re David Arquette, you decide to temporarily get back into professional wrestling and make a documentary about it. “You Cannot Kill David Arquette,” just like the actor who’s the star of this documentary, doesn’t take life too seriously and has an attitude that can be funny and pathetic but mostly entertaining to watch. Your tolerance in watching this film will depend on your tolerance of watching a middle-aged man who repeatedly says and shows in the movie that he doesn’t really want to grow up.

If you expect that the documentary will have a lot of very contrived and staged moments (just like wrestling), then this movie will be a lot easier to watch. Anyone expecting to see the inner workings of a major wrestling team will be very disappointed, since Arquette sticks to the minor leagues of independent wrestling to try to make a comeback into the public spotlight. This documentary is undoubtedly a vanity project that’s not only a look into the psyche of someone who’s having a mid-life crisis but also someone who’s a product of his showbiz upbringing. Arquette makes it clear throughout the movie that his entire identity and self-esteem are wrapped up in how much adoration and attention he gets from the public.

In case people don’t know who Arquette is, the movie gives a brief introduction to his career and family background. Born in 1971, David comes from a family of actors: His father Lewis Arquette (who died in 2001) was a character actor. Lewis Arquette’s father was comedic actor Cliff Arquette, who died in 1974. All of David’s older siblings (David is the youngest of five children) have some level of fame as actors: Patricia (an Oscar winner and Emmy winner), Rosanna, Richmond and the late Alexis, a transgender woman who died in 2016.

Patricia, Rosanna and Richmond are all interviewed in the documentary. The siblings describe their family as being unconventional (they spent part of their childhood living in a Virginia commune), and their mother Brenda (who died in 1997) as being sometimes physically abusive because she would choke or hit her children. David, who describes his father as his idol, says he’s had lifelong issues of wanting to be a people-pleaser, which stem from how he was raised as a child.

David is probably best known for his role as bumbling cop Dwight “Dewey” Riley from the “Scream” horror movies. It was through the “Scream” franchise that Arquette met his first wife, “Friends” co-star Courteney Cox, who co-starred in the “Scream” movies as the abrasive and ambitious TV reporter Gale Weathers. David and Cox were married from 1999 to 2013, and they have a daughter together named Coco, who was born in 2004.

Coco Arquette and Cox are both in the documentary. As Cox says of her relationship with her ex-husband David: “We met on ‘Scream,’ hated each other on ‘Scream 2,’ we got married at ‘Scream 3’ and got divorced in ‘Scream 4.'” When she finds out that David wants to go back into wrestling, she can’t really look at his “comeback” wrestling footage without cringing.

David’s marriage to second wife Christina McLarty Arquette (whom he married in 2015) seems to be very different from his first marriage, although McLarty Arquette and Cox look very physically similar to each other. McLarty Arquette used to be a TV journalist (with stints in local news and on “Inside Edition” and “Entertainment Tonight”), but she’s now mostly a homemaker and occasional movie producer. She and David have two sons together: Charlie (born in 2014) and Gus (born in 2017), plus the family’s three Bassett Hounds, who are all in the documentary. McLarty Arquette says that she has never seen “Scream” because “I hate scary movies.”

She might get squeamish about horror flicks, but McLarty Arquette seems to have a high tolerance for seeing people getting bloodied and hurt at wrestling matches, since there are multiple scenes in the documentary where she’s shown cheering David on at his wrestling matches. McLarty Arquette is a producer of “You Cannot Kill David Arquette” (which was filmed mostly in 2018 and 2019), so she had a vested interest in seeing David go through with this wrestling “comeback,” despite all the risks to his health.

What kind of health risks were there? Even though David’s intense training for his wrestling “comeback” resulted in him losing weight and having a toned physique, he had a heart attack the year before he decided to go back into wrestling. He has stents in his heart to prevent blood clots. The documentary includes footage of appointments that David had with cardiologist Dr. PK Shah, who gave the clearance for David to go back into wrestling.

David has also publicly admitted to being an alcoholic. He had a well-publicized stint in rehab in 2011. The documentary has footage of David’s appointments with psychiatrist Dr. Michael Mamoun, who worries that the physical pain in wrestling will trigger David into relapsing back into alcoholism. Although the movie probably cut out a lot of the worst unflattering footage, that relapse did happen at least twice during the course of filming the documentary. David admits it too, especially when he is obviously drunk on camera. There are also many scenes where he might not be completely drunk, but he’s slurring his words.

And he isn’t entirely drug-free, since there’s some footage of him lighting up a joint (presumably marijuana) while he’s riding on a horse. And there’s also a bizarre scene were Dr. Mamoun injects David with ketamine during a doctor’s visit, resulting in David hallucinating and being incoherent. He had to be restrained by several people, including his wife and Dr. Mamoun, to calm him down. There are some moments where McLarty Arquette says on camera that she’s afraid that David’s wrestling comeback will result in him dying. But she wasn’t fearful enough to stop production of the film.

Based on what’s shown in this movie, no one could have convinced David to give up his obsession to win back the respect of the wrestling world. This insecurity over not being accepted by the wrestling world started after he won the WCW world heavyweight title (when he weighed only about 150 pounds), and he was the target of hatred from a lot of professional wrestlers and their fans. The documentary includes archival and new footage of wrestling fans expressing their disdain for David.

Even though it’s common knowledge that wrestling matches are rigged and the outcome is already rehearsed by the wrestlers involved, David’s “outsider” victory was widely perceived as unearned and an insult to pro wrestlers and their fans. David’s WCW title was essentially a publicity stunt to promote his 2000 wrestling comedy movie “Ready to Rumble.” It was a stunt that backfired for a lot of people involved.

In the documentary, Eric Bischoff (who was WCW’s president back in 2000) is interviewed next to David in David’s home and takes full responsibility for this debacle. Bischoff says of the wrestling industry: “There were certain rules. One of them was ‘Don’t let celebrities take advantage of wrestling. Don’t expose the business to make it look like anybody—celebrity or non-celebrity—could come off the street and actually beat a wrestler.'”

Bischoff says to David about David’s controversial WCW world heavyweight title win: “That wasn’t your fault. That was my fault for letting it happen.” Bischoff also says that the idea for David to win the title originally came from Vince Russo, who was WCW’s head writer at the time. Russo isn’t interviewed in the documentary, but there’s archival footage of a TV interview where Russo admits that he “killed the business forever” by coming up with the idea of David Arquette to win a WCW championship.

David is still haunted by this wrestling fiasco too. He says that it hurt his credibility as an actor, and his acting career was never the same. David also talks about how the past 10 years of his life have been a series of auditions and rejections. A lot of viewers might have trouble feeling much sympathy for him, as he moans about his problems while sitting around in his big house with a beautiful wife and family. It’s one of the reasons why many people despise Hollywood celebrities for being out of touch with problems in the real world.

David’s wife is on his pity party train too. She laments that David is often sad because his career isn’t as big as some of the actors who shared the cover with him for Vanity Fair’s 1996 Hollywood issue. She names Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey and Will Smith, who were on that Vanity Fair cover, as examples of the actors who have the careers that David should have had.

What she forgot to mention is that DiCaprio, McConaughey and Smith’s talent is on a different level than what David Arquette has. And she also didn’t mention that Skeet Ulrich, Stephen Dorff, Johnathon Schaech and Michael Rapaport were on that Vanity Fair cover too. They’re not exactly A-list actors either. The other two actors on that Vanity Fair cover were Benicio del Toro and Tim Roth, who aren’t A-listers but they’ve carved out long careers as highly respected actors. Not everyone can be superstars.

Throughout the documentary, David keeps repeating that he wants to win back the respect of the wrestling industry not just for career reasons but also for personal reasons, since he’s a huge fan of wrestling. He says that some of his favorite childhood memories were watching wrestling matches with his father, who happened to be the voice of Superfly Jimmy Snuka in the 1985-1986 TV series “Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling.”

As David comments in the documentary about why wants to make a wrestling comeback: “I don’t care about being a champ or anything like that. I care about respect.” And he says of wrestling: “I want to figure out this world.” His journey back into the wrestling world is volatile, painful and sometimes humiliating, but also has some moments of joy and triumph.

Of course, there are plenty of skeptics (including David’s ex-wife and his daughter) about his foray back into wrestling. Also weighing in with his opinion in a separate interview is wrestling legend Ric Flair, who’s shown commenting at the beginning of the documentary. Flair describes David as a “gentleman” who has his blessing as a person. But when Flair is asked if he would give his blessing to David as a wrestler, Flair replies: “Let’s not get carried away here.” Flair then adds with a smile, “He’s my hero when I look at his wife.

A few of David’s low points in this film might or might not have been staged. David gets into a fist fight with wrestler Brian Knobbs of Legends of Wrestling when they argue about his idea to get back into wrestling. David and his male friend Stacey Souther get some of his old wrestling costumes out of storage to so that he can pose for publicity photos that he plans to autograph at an upcoming wrestling fan convention. But when he gets to the wrestling fan convention, most of the fans there ignore him, and David is shown looking forlorn and embarrassed at his table where has no one lined up to see him.

There’s also a scene where David ends up practicing in a backyard with some wannabe male wrestlers he doesn’t know who are in their late teens and early 20s. It’s a scene that was meant to show that David is so humbled that he’ll wrestle anywhere he’s been invited, even if it’s in some obscure backyard with strangers. What the filmmakers and David probably didn’t expect was for David to get so injured and bloodied during this rowdy meet-up. The young guys who put him through the ringer say on camera that it’s a small example of the reality that’s in store when David goes out on the road as a professional wrestler.

There’s literally a lot of blood, sweat and tears from David in this documentary, which tries to push the narrative that he’s sort of an underdog, aging Rocky Balboa-like figure who’s going to make one last attempt at athletic glory. Before he starts competing as an independent wrestler, he trains at RC’s Wrestling School in Virginia. He also goes to Mexico to gets some training with some lucha libre pros.

One of the stunts that they do in Mexico is impromptu wrestling matches in the middle of streets during traffic jams, so people in their cars have no choice but to sit and watch the wrestling shenanigans. They try to do as many outrageous physical tricks as possible during these “traffic jam” matches and then collect money from people in the cars who want to pay them. At first, David doesn’t do too well, but then he gets the hang of it and actually starts to have fun and gets some small change out of it from people watching in the cars.

Some of the wrestlers who help David along the way include Rick Kelly, Peter Avalon, Tyler Bateman, Nick Gage and RJ City. (David is shown choreographing and planning his match with RJ City in a scene that pulls back the proverbial curtain on how these matches are rigged in advance.) David’s best friend Jerry Kubik is also along for much of the ride and offers a lot of emotional support.

And there’s a Death Match scene in which David gets severely injured and it’s definitely not a joke. David’s actor friend Luke Perry was there during that Death Match and helped David out of the venue to get medical treatment. Sadly, Perry died of a stroke in 2019. There’s a touching scene in the film when David pays tribute to Perry when talking with Luke Perry’s son Jack Perry, the professional wrestler who goes by the name Jungle Boy.

“You Cannot Kill David Arquette” directors David Darg and Price James are obviously fans of David Arquette and probably chose not to put a lot of the true low points of David’s life in this movie. But even they know that he often stoops to such levels of buffoonery that are too funny and should be put in a movie. David acknowledges that he can be the butt of people’s jokes, but he says he tries to be in on the joke as much as possible.

Although David is seen briefly in a moment of despair during his relapse where he wails that his life is messed up, for the most part, he comes across as a clown who’s desperate for people to pay attention to him. He says he lives for the connection he can make through personal interactions with wrestling fans. David says that even when he gets boos or insults from wrestling fans, it’s still better than nothing.

It’s a problem that a lot of celebrities have with their egos and self-esteem: Their need for public attention is like a bottomless pit, and they’ll never be satisfied. A lot of people watching this documentary will get some laughs and then won’t think much about David Arquette again. Since he’s made it clear that his acting career has become a disappointment to him, it might be a matter of time before he cooks up another scheme to get attention.

Super LTD released “You Cannot Kill David Arquette” in select U.S. cinemas on August 21, 2020, and on digital and VOD on August 28, 2020.

Review: ‘American Street Kid,’ starring Michael Leoni, Dave Johnson, Nicholas Pumroy, Marquesha Babers, Ishmael Herring and Stacia Fiore

August 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Nessa, Ryan and Crystal in “American Street Kid” (Photo courtesy of Kandoo Films)

“American Street Kid”

Directed by Michael Leoni

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the documentary “American Street Kid” features a predominately white group of people (with a some African Americans and Latinos) experiencing or discussing the problems of homeless youth.

Culture Clash: Young people who are homeless usually come from abusive backgrounds and have turned to drugs and/or crime while living on the streets.

Culture Audience: “American Street Kid” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in a gritty saga of homeless youth that is disturbing in showing what they’ve experienced but also inspiring in showing how some have managed to turn their lives around.

Dave “Greenz” Johnson in “American Street Kid” (Photo courtesy of Kandoo Films)

The traditional school of thought in documentary filmmaking is that the filmmakers shouldn’t get personally involved with their subjects, because it will alter or manipulate the outcome of the documentary. Michael Leoni, the writer/director of the documentary “American Street Kid” didn’t follow that tradition. And when people see “American Street Kid,” it’s easy to see why.

The movie takes a harrowing, emotionally chaotic and sometimes uplifting journey as Leoni chronicled the lives of several homeless youth he met on the streets of Los Angeles over a period of about five years. As seen in the documentary, Leoni ended up helping several of the young people he met while filming the documentary, even to the point of paying for many of them to stay in hotels until he ran out of money to do that. He also invited a few of them to temporarily live with him. “American Street Kid” started making the rounds at film festivals in 2017, years before the movie’s 2020 release, but the problems documented in “American Street Kid” still exist for millions of homeless people.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2019, there were an estimated 4.2 million youth and young adults experiencing homelessness in the United States every year. “American Street Kid” repeatedly mentions that 1.8 million young people in the U.S. are homeless (without giving a source for that statistic), but it’s unknown how outdated that statistic is in relation to the year that this documentary was released. It’s also possible that some statistics about homeless youth have different criteria of what the maximum age is to be considered a “young adult.”

In “American Street Kid,” which is narrated by Leoni, he explains that his interest in filming and ultimately helping homeless youth started when he met a young homeless woman named Seana, who frequently attended “The Playground,” a Los Angeles play about homeless kids that Leoni wrote and directed. In archival footage, Seana is seen briefly in the beginning of the movie, talking about how she used to live in foster homes and she became homeless when she was a teen runaway. Seana also said that her hope was to be clean and sober for 10 years before she dies.

Seana introduced Leoni to a 16-year-old homeless girl named Raven, who also became a fan of “The Playground.” Leoni says that Raven really connected to a character in “The Playground” who was a 16-year-old prostitute, because Raven was experiencing the same things. In “The Playground,” this character was murdered and dumped in an alley. Tragically, the same thing happened to Raven. It’s also revealed in the beginning of the movie that Seana died too.

These tragic deaths motivated Leoni to reach out to Stacia Fiore, who was head of outreach for Stand Up for Kids, a non-profit group for homeless youth. Leoni volunteered to make a two-minute public service announcement to give awareness about the plight of homeless youth in the Los Angeles area. The idea was that the PSA could help organizations such as Stand Up for Kids to help these homeless people. Phone calls between Leoni and Fiore are shown throughout the documentary.

What started out as making a two-minute PSA turned out to be a years-long journey into making this documentary film, as Leoni got more and more involved in helping and advocating for homeless youth. He began filming in Venice and Hollywood, two Los Angeles neighborhoods that have large populations of homeless people. And he explains in a voiceover that it took a while for the homeless people to trust him, but eventually many of them did. In the documentary, Leoni opens up to them about his own troubled background with drugs and temporary homelessness, which makes a difference in how he’s able to relate to the people he’s filming.

“American Street Kid” focuses on the stories of nine of these homeless youth, whose ages ranged from 15 to mid-20s at the time they were filmed for this documentary. Most of them do not have their full names revealed in the movie, and they usually have street nicknames. The young people who are spotlighted in “American Street Kid” are:

  • Bublez (pronounced “bubbles”), originally from Washington state, a teen runaway who says she left home because of her mother’s abusive boyfriends and because she was depressed and suicidal after a friend of hers got shot.
  • Dave “Greenz” Johnson (he’s nicknamed Greenz because of his love of marijuana), originally from Arizona, whose mother kicked him out of their home and who says that his meth-addict father has been in and out of prison for drugs.
  • Nicholas “Nick” Pumroy, originally from Mississippi, who is Johnson’s best friend on the streets and who says he came from a family of abusive drug addicts.
  • Ishamel “Ish” Herring, originally from Kansas, is an orphaned aspiring singer/musician who says his mother was a prostitute and his father was a pimp.
  • Marquesa “Kiki” Babers, originally from North Carolina, who says she was raped at 9 years old by her mother’s boyfriend and who is practically inseparable from her best friend Akira, who is also a homeless teen.
  • Ryan, originally from Arizona, who describes growing up in a household where his mother and stepfather used meth and his stepfather abused him.
  • Vanessa (also known as Nessa), a California native who is Ryan’s girlfriend and who is HIV-positive and pregnant with Ryan’s child,
  • Crystal, originally from Florida, who’s also pregnant and who says her meth-addict father named her after crystal meth and her grandmother often physically abused her.
  • Mischa, originally from Massachusetts, who says she grew up in abusive households where she was beaten and raped.

In telling their stories, the homeless people in the documentary have several things in common: They became homeless not through choice but through circumstances, because they came from abusive backgrounds and the homes they had before were unbearable. Many were in foster care before they turned 18 years old. Childhood abuse (physical, sexual, emotional) is also a common trait of homeless people. The people in the documentary all say that they were abused by family members and/or people in foster care.

And almost all of the homeless youth in the documentary have drug problems, which they usually had before they became homeless, but their drug addiction/abuse became even more of a way of life after they became homeless. In some scenes, Bublez, Nick, Greenz, Mischa, Ryan, Nessa are shown admitting on camera that they’re under the influence of drugs at the time of filming the scene.

Meth is mentioned the most as the drug that the homeless youth are abusing in this documentary (which includes a few scenes of people using drugs), but other drugs are mentioned too, including cocaine, heroin, barbiturates, marijuana and alcohol. The documentary also mentions that meth is popular with homeless people because they often have to spend a lot of time trying to get money and the meth is a way for them to stay awake longer.

The drugs are used to try to block out painful memories of abuse and also as a way to deal with the stress and shame of being homeless. But spiraling into addiction causes a whole new set of problems that aren’t experienced by drug addicts who are not homeless. A homeless drug addict who gets arrested almost never has the money to afford an attorney and rehab. And when they are let out of jail, they usually end up right back to living on the streets and doing the same things that got them arrested, causing a vicious cycle.

The documentary also mentions problems that are well-known to people who know about the plight of the homeless: It’s hard to get a job without an ID or an address. Having identification is a big issue for the homeless people who don’t have access to their birth certificates. Many of them don’t know how to get a copy of their birth certificate and Social Security number (if they are U.S. citizens), which they would need to get a job.

Fiore comments in the documentary: “It’s very, very unlikely that the [homeless] children have chosen to live on the streets.” And for kids under the age of 18, the foster care system can be a nightmare. Mischa, who says she was in foster care from the ages of 10 to 18, makes this chilling statement in the documentary: “I’d rather be beaten and raped every day than have been in the foster care system. They don’t give a fuck about you. You’re just a number.”

Ish says that people who aren’t homeless often have the wrong ideas about homeless people: “The common misconception is that we don’t want to work, that we’re lazy, or that we’re leeching off the system, or that we willfully choose to suffer. To me, that’s sad, because they don’t understand how much work and how much hustling goes into survival.”

Because they don’t have a permanent address and they often don’t have any ID, homeless people get their money any way that they can. Asking for money on the streets is one way. “Spange” is the street term for asking for spare change. The movie shows that some of the homeless youth are so desperate for money that they have signs that say things like “Kick Me in the Ass for $1,” and passersby actually pay to kick these homeless people. Bublez is one of the homeless people in the documentary that uses this tactic to get money.

Crime is another way that unemployed homeless people get money. Stealing, selling drugs and prostitution are the most common crimes committed by homeless people. “American Street Kid” doesn’t show any of the featured homeless people stealing or selling drugs, but Nick and Mischa openly admit that they prostitute themselves for money, and they are shown approaching potential customers for prostitution work.

“American Street Kid” has the expected scenes of the homeless on the streets and squatting in filthy, abandoned houses in crime-ridden areas. Sleeping in certain areas can make people vulnerable to being attacked, which is another reason why a lot of homeless people are reluctant to go to sleep, which is in turn linked to drug problems. And some of the people featured in the documentary sometimes go missing, usually because they’re on a drug binge.

But the movie never loses sight of the possibility that homeless people can go missing for more ominous reasons: They might have been murdered. (During the course of the movie, one of Ish’s former acquaintances was found with dead with blunt force trauma to the back of his head.) It’s also implied in the movie that homeless females are vulnerable to being kidnapped and forced into sex trafficking.

There are also incidents where the homeless people in the documentary get robbed or assaulted, which don’t happen on camera but are described after Leoni gets frantic phone calls from them and he rushes to their aid. The homeless people are reluctant to call police in these incidents because they don’t want to be arrested for vagrancy. And homeless kids who are underage don’t want to be put in the foster care system or be forced to go back to their abusive homes. Leoni assures them that he will never betray their trust.

Over time, it’s clear that the bond between Leoni and many of the homeless people got so deep and personal that they became like family to each other. Leoni could no longer stand by as an objective filmmaker, and he did everything he could to help them. There are several scenes in the movie with Leoni trying to get the homeless people into shelters, transitional living facilities or in rehab. When he paid for them to stay in hotels, he frequently paid for their meals too.

The results are mixed, and the movie shows the highs and lows of Leoni’s experiences in trying to save the homeless people from their destructive and dangerous situations. It’s an uphill battle, as the ones who are drug-addicted have a hard time changing their self-destructive ways. Another big issue is that resources are limited for homeless people, because shelters, government agencies and non-profits that are supposed to help the homeless are usually under-funded and under-staffed. And a major problem with homeless shelters is that they are often more dangerous than living conditions on the streets, as it’s pointed out in the documentary.

Fiore warns Leoni several times not to get too close to the homeless people he’s filming because he will end up getting disappointed and emotionally hurt. Leoni’s producing partner Michelle Kaufer (who is not seen in the documentary but can be heard in phone conversations) also expresses major concerns about the extent that Leoni is getting personally involved with the homeless people being filmed for the documentary.

The movie shows how Leoni’s relationships evolved with several people, particularly with Nick, Greenz and Ish, who all are invited to live temporarily live with Leoni while they try to get their lives on track. At various times, Leoni also gives jobs to some of the guys. Ryan shows a passion for filmmaking, so Leoni hires him as a production assistant for the documentary. Leoni also hires Greenz and Nick to be part of the production staff of his play “Elevator,” despite objections from his producing partner Kaufer, who didn’t think it was a good idea for Leoni to hire them.

Of the homeless females in the documentary, Leoni is particularly fond of Bublez, whom he says he thinks of as his younger sister. He also goes above and beyond in getting involved with the pregnancies of Crystal and Nessa, by paying for some of their pre-natal care. Leoni also advises them to give their children up for adoption. Crystal is more willing than Nessa and Ryan to consider adoption. (The births of the children are included in the documentary.)

The documentary does an admirable job of showing that homeless people should not be reduced to their past and present problems but should be treated as individuals who deserve a chance to be happy and productive members of society. One of the questions that Leoni asks them throughout the film is what they wish they could be doing with their lives. It’s clear that someone even taking the time to ask this question makes an impact.

The answers to the questions vary. Ish (who sings, plays guitar and writes songs) wants to be a professional musician. He’s very talented, and people watching this documentary might already know about his work with William Pilgrim and the All Grows Up, an independent R&B/rock band. Kiki says she dreams of having her own soul food restaurant. Mischa says she wants to work with autistic kids or kids with troubled backgrounds. Ryan says he wants to be a filmmaker. Nick is interested in working in holistic therapy, and it’s shown in the movie how he handles an opportunity to be enrolled in the National Holistic Institute.

Although the documentary is mostly done in a cinéma vérité style with Leoni and the homeless people, there are a few “talking heads” interviewed for the film. Common Ground Community Center’s outreach director Courtney Reid and mental health counselor Celeste Farmer are shown as overwhelmed by the work they have to do and admitting that the center isn’t able to keep up with the demand. They say that one-on-one attention is next to impossible for the homeless people who come to the center.

Ryanne Plaisance, a former development director of the non-profit Los Angeles Youth Network, comments: “If you’re just providing the food and just providing the shelter, it’s just enabling kids to stay on the street. People who are making the decisions and the paperwork aren’t always in touch with the realities of the situations that are affecting the kids. What looks good on paper doesn’t always look good or work well in the real world.”

Some people who haven’t seen “American Street Kid” might cynically think that Leoni did the movie to make himself look good. However, it’s clear from how this movie evolved that he didn’t intend to get so involved in trying to help the people he was filming. Yes, he made a lot of personal sacrifices and took a lot of risks, but the movie makes it clear that the homeless people who accepted his help were the ones with the bigger life obstacles.

One of the most important lessons that Leoni says he learned from the experience is that it’s not enough to give homeless people money or jobs. Homeless people, like anyone else, want to feel like they belong to a family. The homeless problem might never be solved, but “American Street Kid” has some valuable life lessons (some are harsh, some are inspirational) that show how one person can make a difference if they are willing to accept that not everyone will get a happy ending.

Kandoo Films released “American Street Kid” on digital and VOD on August 21, 2020.

Review: ‘Driven to Abstraction,’ starring Patricia Cohen, Martha Parrish, Luke Nikas, M.H. Miller, Hongtu Zhang, Victoria Sears Goldman and Laura Gilbert

August 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Luke Nikas in “Driven to Abstraction” (Photo courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

“Driven to Abstraction”

Directed by Daria Price

Culture Representation: The true-crime documentary “Driven to Abstraction” features a predominately white group of people (with a few Asians) discussing the art forgery scandal that shut down Knoedler Gallery in New York City and resulted in lawsuits and criminal prosecution.

Culture Clash: The scandal was an example of how the world of fine art (where one painting can be worth millions) is susceptible to forgeries, with art dealers as knowing or unwitting accomplices to the forgeries.

Culture Audience: “Driven to Abstraction” will mostly appeal to people interested in true-crime stories or the inner workings of the fine-art world.

Patricia Cohen in “Driven to Abstraction” (Photo courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

The documentary “Driven to Abstraction” (directed by Daria Price) takes a fascinating look at how greed and the often-secretive world of art dealing collided and exploded into one of the biggest art scandals in history: Knoedler Gallery, which was New York City’s oldest art gallery, was accused of selling about $80 million worth of forged paintings from 1994 to 2009.

The scandal led to the abrupt closure of Knoedler in 2011, after being in business for 165 years. It came out during the investigation that Knoedler had been in serious financial trouble in the final decade before it closed. The money from the forgeries had been keeping the business afloat and was the main reason why the business hadn’t shut down sooner. All of this is such a compelling story that another documentary film has been made about the scandal: director Barry Avrich’s “Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art,” which has been making the rounds at film festivals in 2020 and is expected to be released in 2021.

One of the people at the center of the scandal was Knoedler’s longtime director Anne Freedman, who was accused of selling 40 forged paintings for about $60 million from 1994 to 2009, the year that she resigned from the company. Freedman received these paintings from an obscure art dealer named Glafira Rosales, who was based on New York’s Long Island. Rosales said she was selling these rare paintings on behalf of a wealthy friend who wished to remain anonymous.

This mystery seller claimed that he inherited the paintings, which were bought by one or both of his parents directly from the artists in the artists’ homes in “top secret” sales. The mystery seller also insisted that the paintings be acquired by private collectors, because it was supposedly his parents’ wish as part of the inheritance. Alfonso Ossorio, who died in 1990 at the age of 74, was a well-known artist from the Philippines, whose name was given as the supposed liaison who gave access to the art world to the mystery seller’s parents, whose names were also kept a secret from buyers.

All of the paintings that Rosales sold to Knoedler were forgeries. The artists whose paintings were forged included Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Richard Diebenkorn, Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, Lee Krasner and Sam Francis. Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz, the live-in boyfriend of Rosales, would be exposed as the ringleader for the forgeries, according to law enforcement.

Why did these forgery sales go on for so long? And who was creating these forged paintings? The forgeries turned out to be work of Pei-Shen Qian, a Chinese immigrant/former art student who had been in the United States since the early 1980s. At the time of the forgery sales, Qian was living in the New York City borough of Queens, where he created all of the forged paintings in his home.

As news reports, court documents and this documentary point out, there were many red flags that could have prevented these forgery sales from continuing as long as they did. For starters, the story kept changing about the mystery seller. Rosales and Freedman told different people different things about this mystery seller.

The contradictions included that the mystery seller’s country of origin was either the Philippines or Mexico and that he was living in Mexico or Switzerland. One story was that he got the paintings as an inheritance from both of his parents, who were actively involved in buying the paintings directly from the artists. In another story, it was only the father, not the mother, who had anything to do with the paintings.

And even the story kept changing about why this seller wanted to remain anonymous. People heard that the seller wanted to keep his family’s financial situation private. But another story was that the seller’s father had a closeted gay lifestyle that was connected to Ossorio, and the seller didn’t want this secret to be revealed to the public. Ossorio’s longtime partner Ted Dragon, who was still alive when the paintings were sold, was one of the people who sounded an unheeded alarm that the paintings were fake and that the “mystery seller” was lying about Ossorio being connected to the seller’s father.

Another big warning sign that the paintings were fake was that there had been no previous record of these paintings ever existing before. Most of these famous artists kept meticulous records and documentation of their work and had people who’d seen these paintings, even if these paintings were sold directly to a private collector. To suddenly have a large collection of these “lost, never-seen-before” paintings emerging in the possession of one person was very suspicious, to say the least.

However, Freedman was able to convince people that the paintings were real by providing lists of known art experts who vouched for the paintings’ authenticity. Apparently, none of the duped buyers seemed to have checked with the experts themselves before buying these paintings. If they had, they would have found out that the people on Freedman’s lists had only casually looked at the paintings in Freedman’s office but hadn’t authenticated them. Freedman put their names on the list anyway, allegedly without their knowledge or permission. And the buyers trusted Freedman because of her exalted and influential position in the art world.

The scam got exposed as buyers who purchased the forgeries would get them tested by art forensics experts and find things such as a Pollock painting that would have a certain type of paint that wasn’t invented until 1970, which was years after Pollock died in 1956. Another Pollock forgery sold by Knoedler had Pollock’s signature misspelled on the painting. Imagine the embarrassment that these buyers felt that they didn’t have these things checked out before they forked over millions for these paintings.

Patricia Cohen, the journalist who broke the story for The New York Times, says in the documentary: “If it hadn’t been for Jack Flam [president/CEO] of the Dedalus Foundation, none of this scandal would have come to light.” The foundation was launched by Motherwell, who kept such detailed records of his own work that Flam knew immediately that the suspicious Motherwell paintings being sold by Knoedler were forgeries. Flam sounded the alarm, which set off a chain of events leading to buyers taking closer looks at the paintings they purchased from Knoedler.

Not surprisingly, Freedman and all the other defendants who faced lawsuits or criminal charges in this scandal are not interviewed in the documentary. Billionaire couple Domenico and Eleanore De Sole’s lawsuit against Freedman and Knoedler (whose owner Michael Hammer was a defendant) went to trial. One of the centerpieces of the lawsuit was that Domenico De Sole—a chairman of Tom Ford International and Sotheby’s and a former president/CEO of the Gucci Group—had unknowingly purchased a fake Rothko painting in 2004 for $8 million from Knoedler, which refused to give him a refund when he discovered it was a forgery.

Although cameras were not allowed in the courtroom, the documentary includes a few courtroom illustrations, as well as brief video clips of Freedman, Hammer and the De Soles outside the courtroom. The plaintiffs and defendants make no comments in these archival video clips, but Freedman’s attorney and the De Soles’ attorneys who were involved in the trial are interviewed in the documentary. Even though the outcomes of these cases have been widely reported, they won’t be revealed in this review, in case people who see “Driven to Abstraction” want to find out what the outcomes were by seeing the documentary.

However, it’s enough to say that Freedman has maintained all along that she did not knowingly sell forgeries. It’s a denial that many people interviewed in the documentary say they find hard to believe, given that these paintings seemed to come from out of nowhere and there were no records that they had existed before this “mystery seller” wanted to unload these paintings. Freedman also fell under suspicion for being part of the scam because she purchased these paintings from Rosales for well below what would have been the paintings’ market value.

The documentary’s production notes have a director’s statement, in which Price comments: “Attending the De Sole v Freedman/Knoedler trial, I met all the players and later interviewed witnesses who were willing to go public. But I also encountered the same reluctance to go on the record that the trial itself exposed—the very same silence that allowed this scam to continue for 15 years. While there are brave insiders, like art consultant and witness Martha Parrish, willing to spill the beans in this film, there are others for whom legal or just plain embarrassing predicaments inhibited their participation.”

However, “Driven to Abstraction” does round up a good range of people from the art world to interview for a lot of insightful perspectives. Parrish, a former board member of the Art Dealers Association of America, comments on the forgeries and why any legitimate art expert should have suspected from the beginning that these paintings were fake: “There were no reproductions in any books. There were no exhibition records. There were no records with any of the dealers that represented those artists. There were no shipping receipts to show how these works … got back to the United States. There was nothing.”

In addition to The New York Times’ Cohen, the documentary’s interviewees include several journalists, such as The Art Newspaper’s Laura Gilbert; ArtNet senior market editor Eileen Kinsella; Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Shnayerson; Art and Auction and Robb Report writer Judd Tully; art critic/author Blake Gopnik; The Art Newspaper writer Bill Glass; and M.H. Miller of The New York Times and formerly of Art News Magazine.

Hongtu Zhang and Andy Chen—two artists and former friends of forger Qian—are interviewed in the documentary and offer some insight into why he turned to a life of crime. Zhang attended the Art Students League (an art school in New York City) with Qian in the early 1980s. He says that Qian was very talented and thought his art education would lead to professional opportunities, but Qian became frustrated and disillusioned when he found it difficult to make a living as an artist. At one point, Qian (who is described as quiet and introverted) was selling his art on the street for very little money.

Chen says he noticed that Qian became more content over time when Qian’s financial situation improved enough that he was able to buy a house. Qian told people, including Chen, that a gallery was paying for his artwork. In essence, that was true. But what Qian left out of those stories was that his art that the gallery was buying were all forged paintings.

The documentary also mentions that after the scam was exposed, Qian claimed that he was making commissioned “tribute” paintings and wasn’t aware that it was illegal. “Tribute art” is common in Chinese culture. However, it’s pointed out that because the artist’s signatures were being forged on paintings, those forged signatures crossed a line into illegal territory. And because Qian received his art education in the U.S., it would be hard for him to convince people that he was a naïve Chinese immigrant who didn’t know that what he was doing was illegal.

Several people in the documentary marvel at how closely Qian was able to convincingly replicate the styles of so many diverse artists. Ironically, the forger who made it possible for these fake paintings to be sold for millions per painting was the one who got paid the least out of all the people accused of being involved in the scam. Qian reportedly got paid only a few thousand dollars per painting. It was only after the scammers got busted that he found out what his forgeries had been sold for, and Qian was reportedly very shocked.

The documentary’s interviews include several experts in art deals, such as art dealer/art advisor James Kelly, provenance researcher Victoria Sears Goldman, gallerist Doug Walla and Center for Art Law founder Irina Tarsis. Kelly had recommended that the De Soles buy the Rothko painting that turned out to be a forgery and the center of the De Soles’ lawsuit. In the documentary, Kelly admits he was fooled because Freedman showed him a list of known art experts whom she said had authenticated the painting. “Nothing really struck me that it was not an authentic painting,” Kelly comments in retrospect. “It was a beautiful classic.”

Freedman’s attorney Luke Nikas says about Freedman in the documentary: “Not a single person in the art-dealing world came to her and said to her: ‘These are fakes. You can’t sell them.'” As far as Freedman was concerned, Nikas says, she thought that the paintings from Rosales really were long-lost paintings that had been kept a secret from the public.

De Sole attorneys Emily Reisbaum, Gregory Clarick and Aaron Crowell (who are all interviewed in the documentary) obviously disagree. The say that even if Freedman believed that the paintings were real, she just took Rosales’ word for it, which is highly irresponsible for a gallery director on Freedman’s level. And the amounts she paid Rosales were suspiciously low (in some cases, less than $1 million per painting) for these “rare” art pieces.

The Art Newspaper’s Gilbert says that Freedman did get several warnings that the paintings were forgeries but that Freedman was “extremely resistant” to those warnings. Gilbert got the first exclusive interview with Freedman after Freedman’s trial. Gilbert says that Freedman insisted that the interview (which was published in April 2016) be a conversation instead a rehash of the trial. Gilbert describes Freedman having this attitude about the accusations against her: “It’s the art world. Get over it. I didn’t slay anyone’s first-born.”

Art forensic specialist Jeffrey Taylor gives his opinion in the documentary on why Freedman sold forgeries for so many years, regardless of whether or not she knew they were forgeries at the time of the sales: “Hubris is a good word. She began to believe in her own infallibility. Before her fall, she really was the queen bee of the art world.”

When it comes buying and selling fine art, the real price isn’t the market value but rather what someone is willing to pay for it. Anonymous buyers and sellers are not unusual. The business of art dealing at the highest level is fueled by the possibility that wealthy buyers will pay above and beyond what would be considered a reasonable asking price—and it’s the same reason why the business is so susceptible to forgeries. Cohen sums it up in the documentary by saying of the Knoedler scandal: “To pull off a forgery like this, it takes a village … The art world lacks transparency.”

“Driven to Abstraction” director Price also wrote and edited this documentary, which does a very good job of bringing the story together in a cohesive and engaging style. The main area where the documentary needed improving is the sound mixing, which is at times very uneven. However, you don’t have to be an art collector or a fan of these painters to enjoy this movie, because the documentary shows the pitfalls of being dazzled by a famous name and assuming that the name automatically equals authenticity.

Grasshopper Film released “Driven to Abstraction” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on August 28, 2020.