Review: ‘My Old School,’ starring Alan Cumming and the voices of Clare Grogan and Lulu

September 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Alan Cumming in “My Old School” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“My Old School”

Directed by Jono McLeod

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “My Old School,” a predominantly white group of people (with one black person and a few people of South Asian heritage) talk about Brandon Lee, an unusual student who was enrolled in the high school Bearsden Academy in Glasgow Scotland, in 1993.

Culture Clash: Lee had a scandalous secret, which was eventually exposed while he was a Bearsden Academy student.

Culture Audience: “My Old School” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in seeing a “truth is stranger than fiction” documentary about the lengths that people will go to achieve a goal.

A scene from “My Old School” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

With whimsical animation and compelling interviews, the documentary “My Old School” tells the strange-but-true story of an unusual student who enrolled in Scotland’s Bearsden Academy high school in 1993. It’s a bittersweet tale of deception, denial and broken dreams. Although the scandal that’s chronicled in this documentary made international news, many viewers of “My Old School” don’t know about the scandal and might enjoy the documentary more if they don’t know about the scandal in advance. For this reason, this review will not give details about the scandal, which is revealed in the last third of the movie.

Directed by Jono McLeod, “My Old School” tells the story of Brandon Lee, a student who enrolled as a third-year student in the elite high school Bearsden Academy in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1993. It just so happens that McLeod was a Bearsden Academy student at the same time as Lee, which is why this documentary is titled “My Old School.” It’s explained in the beginning of the documentary that Lee gave audio-only interviews for the movie because he did not want to appear on camera.

Instead, Scottish actor Alan Cumming is shown lip-synching what Lee said in the interviews. Several years ago, Cumming was set to star in a feature-film drama about Lee, but that movie never happened because Lee “broke off ties with the production company,” according to an intro title card in “My Old School.” In its own way, “My Old School” gave Cumming a chance to play the role that he had been set to do in the dramatic feature film.

“My Old School” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival) also has interviews with some of the Bearsden Academy students and faculty who knew Lee back in 1993. The documentary also uses quite a bit of animation to recreate descriptions of what the interviewees say happened while Lee was enrolled in Bearsden Academy. Lee had a scandalous secret that was exposed during his short-lived year at Bearsden Academy in the 1990s.

In “My Old School,” Lee describes his 1993 enrollment in Bearsden Academy as a “self-made hell.” From the beginning, he stood out because he looked a lot older than 16, which is the age he told everyone that he was. Lee’s story was that he was a transfer student from Canada. He was raised by a single mother, who was an opera singer, so he traveled and lived in many different places. Lee said that his parents were separated and that he had no contact with his father, who was described as a professor living in London.

Lee also said that he and his mother were in a car accident, where she died and he was left physically scarred. After his mother’s death, Lee said he moved in with his maternal grandmother in a council flat in Glasgow, which is how he ended up at Bearsden Academy. It’s not spoiler information to reveal that Lee was really a lot older than 16 in 1993. But it won’t be revealed in this review what Lee’s real age was at the time or why he lied about his age.

It’s not the first time there’s been a true story of an adult posing as a teenager in high school. But there are some very surprising elements to this story that make it more uncommon than most. “My Old School” also has commentary on social class issues that affected what Lee did and people’s perceptions of him.

It’s explained in the movie that Bearsden Academy is in an upper-class area of Glasgow. However, some people who lived in the Bearsden neighborhood were working-class and lived in an area nicknamed Spam Valley. It had that nickname in reference to the idea that the lower-income people who lived in the area had to eat spam, in order to afford living in the Bearsden neighborhood.

Living in a council flat (which is the United Kingdom equivalent of public housing in the United States) automatically labeled Lee as a Spam Valley person. He was enrolled in Bearsden Academy because he was highly intelligent. (Lee told people that he had a genius-level IQ.) He also had upwardly mobile ambitions to become a medical doctor.

At first, Lee was a misfit when he enrolled in Bearsden Academy. He was bullied by some of the students for his odd-looking appearance of looking much older than 16. In classes, he was clearly the smartest student in the room. Students and faculty assumed that because he was raised by an opera singer and traveled a lot, that was the reason why Lee appeared to be older and more sophisticated than a typical teenager.

Eventually, he made some friends at Bearsden Academy. One of the first friendships he formed was with Stefen Addo, one of the few black students in the school. Addo and Lee had something in common, because they were both treated like outcasts by other students. The two schoolmates got to know each other better during their biology class, where Lee often helped Addo.

Addo, who is interviewed in the documentary, comments: “He would also a do a very funny Clint Eastwood impression. He was just an all-around nice guy.” Addo says of race relations at Bearsden, “There was quite a lot of racism going on. I had quite a few hate mail letters delivered to my home … just the usual abuse, really.”

Lee adds of the neighborhood where Bearsden is located, “There were only a few people who weren’t white Anglo Saxons. It’s a little station where the rich people live, the well-to-do people. And there’s the attitude that accompanies it.” Addo says that Lee stood up for Addo when Addo got racist bullying in school, and the bullies eventually stopped attacking Addo.

Brian MacKinnon and Donald Lindsay (who are both interviewed in “My Old School”) were best friends when they attended Bearsden Academy. They also have vivid memories of Lee, who bonded with Lindsay over music. Lindsay says in the documentary, “What I remember talking to Brandon about was music.”

Lindsay adds that he secretly liked techno music, which wasn’t considered cool for guys to like at the time, but Lee admitted he also liked techno music. Lindsay remembers that Lee was a fan of music acts such as Television (a rock band) and 2 Unlimited (a dance music duo). Lindsay also became fans of those artists too.

Lee eventually became more popular with the Bearsden Academy students when they found out that he had a driver’s license and a car, so he became a useful “chauffeur” for students who wanted car rides from him. In the United Kingdom, people can get a provisional driver’s license at age 15, but aren’t legally allowed to drive a car until the age of 17. Lee explained to people that he got his driver’s license in Canada, where 16 is the minimum age to get a driver’s license.

Lee also made his mark on Bearsden Academy by being cast in the lead role of Lieutenant Joseph Cable in the school’s production of the musical “South Pacific.” Paul MacAlindin, who was a Bearsden music teacher at the time, remembers that he didn’t think Lee had the personality or talent to have this leading role. However, Lee could do an American accent very well, which is the main reason whe he got the role. Everyone at Bearsden Academy would later find out that Lee was doing a lot more acting than in his role in “South Pacific.”

The animation in “My Old School” might be a little too distracting for some viewers. However, the animation fits the tone of the movie very well and certainly works better than if the filmmakers had chosen live actors for the recreations. The story of Lee is almost cartoonish, so it seems appropriate that there’s some animation in this documentary. The voice actors in the animation scenes are Clare Grogan, Lulu, Juliet Cadzow, Michelle Gallagher, Camilla Kerslake, Gary Lamont, Natalie McConnon, Joe McFadden, Carly McKinnon, Brian O’Sullivan, Wam Siluka Jr. and Dawn Steele.

“My Old School” has a breezy tone to it that makes the documentary almost seem comedic at times. That’s mainly because the people who were fooled by Lee can laugh about it now. They were easily conned, even though there were so many indications that Lee was lying about his real age. Even with comedic touches in “My Old School,” the movie also peels away the layers of Lee’s real story, which has a lot of sadness to it and is often pathetic. The main takeaway that viewers will have is that he is still living in the “self-made hell” that he started when he enrolled in Bearsden Academy under false pretenses.

Magnolia Pictures released “My Old School” in select U.S. cinemas on July 22, 2022. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on August 19, 2022.

Review: ‘Sidney,’ starring Sidney Poitier

September 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sidney Poitier in “Sidney” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Sidney”

Directed by Reginald Hudlin

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Sidney” features a predominantly African American group of people (with some white people and one person of Middle Eastern heritage), including actor/filmmaker/humanitarian Sidney Poitier, from the entertainment industry and from Poitier’s family, who all discuss Poitier’s life and legacy.

Culture Clash: Poitier, who broke many racial barriers in his long and esteemed career, experienced poverty in his childhood, racism from white people, and accusations of being a “sellout” from some members of the African American community.

Culture Audience: “Sidney” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of Poitier and real stories of people who became icons after experiencing many hardships.

Sidney Poitier in “Sidney” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

The admirable documentary “Sidney” follows a very traditional format, but in telling the story of the extraordinary Sidney Poitier, it’s no ordinary biography. Poitier’s participation gives this documentary a heartfelt resonance that’s unparalleled. It’s the last major sit-down interview that he did before he died. He passed away at the age of 94, on January 6, 2022.

Directed by Reginald Hudlin, “Sidney” is a documentary that includes the participation and perspectives of several members of Poitier’s family, including all six of his daughters and the two women who were his wives. Some journalists and historians weigh in with their opinions, but the documentary is mostly a star-studded movie of entertainers who were influenced or affected by Poitier in some way. “Sidney” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

One of the celebrity talking heads in the documentary is Oprah Winfrey, who is one of the producers of “Sidney.” She talks openly about how important Poitier was to her as a mentor during her own rise to fame as a TV talk show host and later as the owner of a media empire. Toward the end of the film, Winfrey begins crying when she says how much she misses Poitier. It’s a moment where viewers will have a hard time not getting tearful too.

Most people watching “Sidney” will already know something about Poitier before seeing this movie. His 2000 memoir “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography” covers a lot of the same topics that’s covered in “Sidney.” But to see him talk about his life story and experiences in what no one knew at the time would be his last major interview brings an special poignancy to this documentary.

Born in Miami, on February 20, 1927, Poitier grew up in poverty in the Bahamas, his parents’ native country. He was the youngest of seven children born to famers Reginald and Evelyn Poitier. “I wasn’t expected to live,” Poitier says of his birth. “I was born two months premature.”

Poitier says that he was so sickly at birth, his father brought a shoe box into the birth room because the family thought that baby Sidney would have to be buried in the box. Sidney’s frantic mother took newborn Sidney to different places in the neighborhood to find anyone who could help save his life. Evelyn found a female soothsayer who said she couldn’t give any medical help, but she predicted that Sidney would be find and he would grow up to be an influential person who would find fame and fortune.

Getting to that point wasn’t easy and it was far from glamorous. In 1942, at the age of 15, his father Reginald had Sidney move to Miami and live with an aunt and uncle, because Sidney had a friend who was a juvenile delinquent, and Reginald feared that Sidney would fall in with a bad crowd. Little did Sidney know that he would be facing a different type of damage to his innocence.

In Miami, Sidney went through major culture shock and racism that drastically changed his perspective of the world. “Within a few months, I began to switch my whole view of life,” Sidney says of moving from the Bahamas to Miami. He got a part-time job as a delivery boy, and he tells a story of not understanding why a white woman who got one of his deliveries demanded that he only go to the back of the house to make the delivery. Later, when he heard that members of the Ku Klux Klan were looking for him because of this incident, he got so unnerved that he decided to leave town.

But even that attempted trip was fraught with danger, because he was harassed and stalked by white police officers, who didn’t want to see a black male having the freedom to travel wherever he wanted. Needless to say, when Sidney heard that black people had better work opportunities in New York City, he soon relocated to New York City, where he discovered his love of acting.

Life in New York City was a very difficult challenge too. For a while, Sidney was homeless and had to sleep in a public bathrooms. He got a job as a dishwasher while also taking acting classes, which he says he was like being in useful therapy, where he could pour all of his emotions into fictional characters. He read books and listened to radio stars (especially Norman Brokenshire) to learn how to speak with an American accent.

His motivation to become a great actor came from being rejected by audiences at the American Negro Theater because, as a black man, he was expected to sing, dance and be funny. Sidney wanted to be a serious dramatic actor. One of the American Negro Theater officials told Sidney that he should just give up acting altogether. We all know what happened after that Sidney got that horrible advice. It’s an excellent example of how someone can turn failure and discouragement into a triumph.

It’s mentioned several times in the documentary that Sidney’s guiding principles were to do work that would make his parents proud. That’s why, throughout his career, he rejected doing roles that were demeaning to black people. He made his film debut as a doctor in the 1950 drama “No Way Out.” And the rest is history.

The year 1950 was also the year that Sidney married his first wife, Juanita Hardy Poitier. The couple had four daughters together: Beverly, Pamela, Sherri and Gina. During the marriage, Sidney had a nine-year on-again/off-again affair with actress Diahann Carroll (who died of cancer in 2019), his co-star in 1959’s “Porgy and Bess.” Poitier and Carroll later co-starred in 1961’s “Paris Blues.” Sidney and Juanita’s marriage eventually ended in divorce in 1965. Sidney describes this period of time of his life as one of career highs but personal lows. He also expresses remorse about how his marital infidelity and divorce hurt his family.

The documentary gives chronological highlights of his career in movies and in theater. For his role in 1958’s prisoner escapee drama “The Defiant Ones” (co-starring Tony Curtis) Poitier became the first black person to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. It’s mentioned in the documentary that the movie’s ending was somewhat controversial among black people, because some critics thought it was pandering to a what’s now known as a “magical Negro” stereotype.

For his role in 1963’s “Lilies in the Field,” Sidney became the first black person to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards. It was a role that was originally turned down by Poitier’s longtime friend Harry Belafonte, who was busy with a music career. Belafonte also thought that the “Lilies in a Field” role (a black man who’s a nomadic worker befriends a group of white German nuns) was too corny and subservient. Belafonte does not do an on-camera interview for this documentary, but he can be heard in a few voiceover comments.

In 1967, Sidney was a bona fide superstar as the lead actor in critically acclaimed hit movies “In the Heat of the Night,” “To Sir, with Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” All were groundbreaking in different ways in depicting race relations in cinema. And the fact that they were box-office successes are indications that times were changing, and the world was ready to see these types of movies.

For his “In the Heat of the Night” role, Sidney played a confident police detective named Virgil Tibbs, who demanded respect from everyone around him. There’s a famous scene in the movie where Virgil is slapped in the face by a racist white man for no good reason. In response, Virgil slaps the man in the face. At the time, it was rare for a movie to show a black man defending himself from this type of racist hate.

In “To Sir, With Love,” Sidney played a schoolteacher in East London who has to be the instructor for unruly white teenagers. It was another on-screen rarity at the time to see a black man in charge of white children. And in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Sidney had the role of a doctor who gets engaged to a white woman after a whirlwind romance, and she brings him home to introduce him to her shocked parents for the first time.

The documentary repeatedly mentions that for every accolade and trailblazing accomplishment that Sidney received, there were critics who thought that he wasn’t being “black enough.” Winfrey, who’s gotten the same type of criticism, remembers meeting Sidney after she became famous and was very in awe of meeting him. She says she asked him how he dealt with the “not black enough” criticism, and he gave her advice that she never forgot: He told her that as long as she was doing what felt right in her heart, that’s all that mattered.

Sidney and Belafonte, who were as close as brothers, were at the forefront of the entertainment industry’s involvement in the U.S. civil rights movement. However, the two friends had occasional estrangements over various issues. One of these issues was that Sidney tended to be more politically conservative than Belafonte when it came to the support of Black Power groups that advocated for preparing for a race war and all the violence associated with war, especially after the devastating 1968 deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. In his senior years, Sidney became an ambassador representing the Bahamas.

The documentary mentions that by the early 1970s, the Black Power movement and blaxploitation movies made Sidney seem like a somewhat a has-been and outdated movie star to some people. He began to shift his attention more to directing and producing movies. His feature-film directorial debut was the 1972 Western “Buck and the Preacher,” in which he co-starred with Belafonte. It’s mentioned in the documentary that as a filmmaker, Sidney practiced what he preached in the civil rights movement and gave plenty of jobs to people of color in front of the camera and behind the camera.

The 1970s decade was also period of change in his personal life: Sidney and Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus fell in love while co-starring in the 1969 movie “The Lost Man.” In the “Sidney” documentary, Shimkus Poitier says she never heard of Sidney until she got the role in the movie, whose love story plot mirrored their own romance. The couple had daughters Anika and Sydney Tamiia, and then wed in 1976, and remained married until Sidney’s death.

In the documentary, Sidney says that his second marriage also gave him a second chance to be a better husband and father. His daughters from his first marriage became part of his blended family. Sydney Tamiia (who is now known as Sidney Poitier Heartstrong) mentions that her parents made sure that she and her sister Anika grew up with other interracial families, with Quincy Jones and his interracial family being close friends with the Poitier family.

Jones is one of numerous stars who have joyous and insightful things to say about Poitier. Other entertainment celebrities who are interviewed include Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Spike Lee, Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Lenny Kravitz, Barbra Streisand, Louis Gossett Jr., Katharine Houghton and Lulu. Also interviewed are civil rights activist/former politican Andrew Young, writer/historian Greg Tate, civil rights activist Rev. Willie Blue, journalist/historian Nelson George and University of Memphis history professor Aram Goudsouzian, who wrote the 2004 biography “Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon.”

All of these interviewees have wonderful things to say and are often very witty when saying these things. That is not too surprising. However, what will stay with viewers the most is that they wouldn’t be saying those things if Sidney had not had such an exemplary life. His impact is immeasurable and goes far beyond the entertainment industry. He’s an unforgettable role model of hope, dignity and progress in striving for a better world.

Apple Studios released “Sidney” in select U.S. cinemas and on Apple TV+ on September 23, 2022.

Review: ‘Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down,’ starring Gabby Giffords

September 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Gabby Giffords in “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” (Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Entertainment)

“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down”

Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West

Culture Representation: Taking place in Arizona, and in Washington, D.C., the documentary film “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans), representing the middle-class and wealthy, who discuss the life of former U.S. House of Representatives member Gabby Giffords, who survived a gun-shooting assassination attempt her home state of Arizona in 2011.

Culture Clash: After recovering from a coma, amnesia, a brain injury, and adjusting to life with reduced physical abilities, Giffords became an outspoken activist to pass stricter gun laws but has gotten resistance from people who think she wants to take away Second Amendment rights.

Culture Audience: “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in watching true stories about inspirational survival and resilience and documentaries about people working for reducing gun violence.

Gabby Giffords in “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” (Photo by Dyanna Taylor/Briarcliff Entertainment)

Moving and inspirational, “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” should be required viewing for anyone facing seemingly impossible challenges. This documentary has some politics, but it’s more of a story about courage and becoming stronger after major setbacks. Regardless of how people feel about gun laws in the United States, people who watch “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” will find something to relate to in this movie about how the human spirit, rather than physical capabilities, defines real character. “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.

Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” is one of several documentaries this filmmaking duo has made about unique and remarkable people who experienced prejudices, overcame obstacles, and surpassed people’s expectations, usually in male-dominated fields. Cohen and West also directed the Oscar-nominated 2018 film “RBG,” about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice; 2021’s “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” about the gender non-conforming civil rights activist Pauli Mauray; and 2021’s “Julia,” about famed chef/author Julia Child.

“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” has the most tearjerking moments of any Cohen/West documentary so far. However, viewers probably won’t shed tears of pity but tears of admiration and joy at how far Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords has come since her life was nearly taken away on January 8, 2011, when she was shot in the head outside a Safeway grocery store in Casas Adobes, Arizona, during a public speaking appearance. The lone shooter (who was 22 years old at the time and whose name won’t be mentioned here) killed six people and wounded 19 people during this rampage. He eventually pled guilty and was sentenced to life plus 140 years in federal prison.

“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” shows that although Giffords’ life was permanently changed because of the killing spree and attempted murders that happene that day, she has not let this tragedy define her entire life. It’s given her a new purpose in life where she aims to make changes for the better. At the time of the shooting, Giffords (who was born on June 8, 1970) has been serving since 2006 as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Arizona’s 8th congressional district. Giffords started out as a Republican early in her political career, but she’s been a moderate Democrat since 2000.

The documentary doesn’t take a chronological approach to telling her life story. Instead, it begins with striking footage of Giffords visiting the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where her Giffords non-profit group arranged for an installation where abut 40,000 white roses were displayed on the lawn. The roses represented the approximate number of people per year who are killed by gun violence in the United States.

Giffords says with sadness in her voice: “So many people hurt. A lot of people died. Always connected to them. Grateful to survive. I’m alive.” The movie then shows a quick montage of her life, leading up to what is in first third of the documentary: a chronicle of Giffords’ arduous and intense recovery from the gun injuries. First, she was in a coma. When she got out of the coma, she found out that she had partial paralysis in her legs and her arms. Her eyes also lost a lot of vision capabilities.

Giffords also had severe amnesia from her brain injury, and she had to learn to do basic things all over again, such as talk and eat. It’s a gut-wrenching, painful and difficult process that’s shown in the movie, but Giffords has a sense of humor that did not disappear after she experienced this tragic shooting. It’s mentioned several times that Giffords’ recovery process was helped with support from loved ones, excellent medical care, and because Giffords (who loves music and who was a skilled French horn player) used music as a therapy tool.

One of the hardest things that Giffords had to deal with in her recovery was knowing what she wanted to say but not having the motor skills to communicate what was in her head. She has aphasia, which is a language impairment that makes it difficult for someone to comprehend and express language. People with aphasia often fixate on a certain word that they say often when they can’t say another word. Early in her recovery, the word “chicken” was something that Giffords often repeated. Speech pathologist Angie Glynn is shown in the documentary as a crucial person to help Giffords in the recovery process.

Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, is true example of a loving and supportive partner in good times and bad. The documentary shows how he was by Giffords’ side during her most difficult challenges. He says about his decision to videorecord Giffords’ hospital recovery and many of her therapy sessions: “I thought at some point—maybe it was a year or 10 years later—Gabby was going to want to see what she went through. So, I got a friend of mine pck up a camera and a tripod, and he just started filming.”

The documentary chronicles how Kelly went through his own adjustments, as someone with a spouse recovering from this tragedy. He also vividly describe his his feelings in the minutes and hours after the shooting, including the trauma of hearing incorrect news reports that Giffords had died. Kelly eventually retired from his job as a NASA astronaut to help take care of his wife.

Later, when Giffords had to step down from the U.S. House of Representatives and became a full-time activist, Kelly had a successful campaign to be elected as the replacement for Giffords in the U.S. House of Representatives. Kelly (who’s somewhat of an introvert) admits that becoming a politician was outside of his comfort zone, but he and many other people (including Giffords) felt strongly that he was the next best person to carry on the legacy that she started when she was a member of the U.S. Congress.

People interviewed in the documentary predictably have high praise for Giffords. They include congressional staffer Ron Barber, who has this to say about Giffords’ charisma: “I’ve seen many people run for office, locally and nationally. I’ve never seen anyone like her. Our office manager came up with came up with the best description. She said, ‘When you meet her, you get Gabby-fied.”

Fellow Democrats also weigh in with their opinions. South Carolina congressperson James F. Clyburn, who is a Democrat, spent time campaigning with Giffords. Clyburn says, “She was someone with whom I felt an immediate kindred spirit. She had a way of putting everyone at ease.”

Former U.S. president Barack Obama adds, “Whenever you saw someone who could bridge the partisan gap and speak to people in a way that felt authentic, that was something that was really prized. She had the energy and the ambition to have gone really far in politics.”

One of the misconceptions about Giffords that the documentary puts an emphasis on is that Giffords is not about taking away people’s guns, because she’s a gun owner herself. She says of her Arizona roots and her beliefs about gun ownership: “I’m from the Wild, Wild West. I’m not against guns. I own guns. I’m against gun violence.”

Giffords believes in stricter background checks to ensure that people who are mentally unfit and people with certain violent felonies should not be getting new guns. Giffords also doesn’t believe that private citizens need to have shooting machines that are meant for war and mass destruction. Giffords Gun Safety Organization executive director Peter Ambler explains: “Gabby has a strategy to reach out to folks who weren’t part of the previous gun violence prevention movement, who may be gun owners themselves, but are committed to stop gun violence in this country.”

“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” interviews some of the other survivors of the mass shooting that almost killed Giffords. These survivors include Daniel Hernandez (who was Giffords’ congressional intern at the time) and constituent Suzi Hileman, who witnessed 9-year-old shooting victim Christina-Taylor Green die in front of her. Green was a neighbor of Hileman, who had brought Green to the speaking appearance. Another shooting victim who did not survive was 30-year-old Gabriel “Gabe” Zimmerman, who was a community outreach director for Giffords at the time.

The middle of the documentary delves into Giffords’ life before the day of the fateful shooting. Giffords is described as an ideal daughter who did the types of things that would make any parent proud. She was a Girl Scout. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in Sociology and Latin American History from Scripps College in California in 1993. Then, she was a Fulbright Scholar in Mexico. She got a master’s degree in Regional Planning from Cornell University in 1996.

The documentary shows that she has a pattern of turning failures into successes, such as when she took over her faltering family business, El Campo Tire Warehouses (founded by her grandfather), and turned it into a very profitable company. After the company was sold to Goodyear Tires in 2000, Giffords then segued into politics by winning her first election (to the Arizone State House of Representatives) in 2001.

If all of that sounds like someone who has a “too good to be true” perfect and accomplished life, Giffords says it wasn’t. In the documentary, Giffords says that she was unlucky in love for many years. It wasn’t until she was in her late 30s that she found the love of her life (Kelly), whom she married in 2007.

And becoming a stepmother to Kelly’s two daughters (Claudia and Claire) from his previous marriage didn’t go very smoothly at all. Claudia Kelly says in the documentary that she resented having Gabby as a stepmother for years. After the shooting, Claudia says she felt guilty about the fractured relationship she had with Giffords, and they both made amends for past hurts. Claudia comments, “Claire and I have a much different relationship with Gabby now. It’s definitely a much warmer and special relationship than before.”

Also interviewed in the documentary are Sgt. Charles Garcia of Pima County Sheriff’s Department, who was involved in the investigation of the mass shooting; neurosurgeon Dr. Dong Kim; Capitol Media Services reporter Howard Fischer; The Arizona Republic reporter Stephanie Innes; speech pathologist Fabi Hirsch; and Giffords’ mother, Gloria. (Gloria’s husband/Gabby’ father, Spencer Giffords, died in 2013, but he is seen in some of the footage during Gabby’s hospitalization.)

The documentary shows Gabby in various settings: in the hospital, at home, and out in public doing various things for the causes that mean the most to her. Not surprisingly, she is at her most vulnerable in the hospital, at her most relaxed at home, at her most confident in public. At the National Mall, she meets up with fellow Democratic politicians Clyburn, Chris Murphy and Val Demings, as they respectfully pay tribute to the lives lost to gun violence.

The song choices in “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” are expertly and almost predictably paired with certain scenes, and they sound like the life soundtrack of a Generation Xer’s youth, with songs from the 1980s and 1990s. It should come as no surprise that a movie with this title uses Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” for an emotion-stirring scene. Another prominently featured song is U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

“Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” might not change people’s minds about gun laws in the United States. However, the movie greatly succeeds in showing a powerful human story of someone whose life was forever changed by gun violence and how she didn’t let a tragedy defeat her. It’s a heartwarming reminder that good things can sometimes come from horrible and senseless actions that were meant to harm others.

Briarcliff Entertainment released “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” in select U.S. cinemas on July 13, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on August 5, 2022.

Review: ‘Aftershock’ (2022), starring Shawnee Benton Gibson, Omari Maynard, Bruce McIntyre, Helena Grant, Neel Shah, Felicia Ellis and Paul Ellis

September 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Shawnee Benton Gibson and Bruce McIntyre in “Aftershock” (Photo by Kerwin Devonish/Hulu)

“Aftershock” (2022)

Directed by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, Boston, Houston and Tulsa, Oklahoma, the documentary film “Aftershock,” which was filmed from 2019 to 2021, features a predominantly African American group of people (with some white people and a few Asians) talking about the systemic racism in U.S. maternal health care that results in a disproportinately high death rate of African American women who died from childbirth or complications from childbirth.

Culture Clash: Family members of African American women who died in hospitals during childbirth have become activists to try to end systemic racism in maternal health care, but they face uphill battles and resistance from people who want to enable or deny this racism.

Culture Audience: “Aftershock” will appeal mainly to people who are interested seeing true stories about how race relations and social classes affect the type of health care that people get in the United States.

Shawnee Benton Gibson, Omari Maynard and Khari Maynard in “Aftershock” (Photo by Kerwin Devonish/Hulu)

“Aftershock” is a disturbing but necessary documentary to watch for a reality check about how systemic racism in the U.S. health care system has resulted in black women dying after childbirth at disproportionately higher rates than other races. The film isn’t just about spouting statistics and facts, although that important information is included. What will emotionally resonate with viewers the most are the stories of real people whose lives have been permanently changed by these medical injustices.

Directed by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee, “Aftershock” is a no-frills documentary that thankfully isn’t overstuffed with too many talking heads. “Aftershock” (which is Lewis Lee’s feature-film directorial debut) had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where “Aftershock” won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award called Impact for Change. “Aftershock,” which is filmed and edited clearly and concisely, is certainly the type of documentary that will motivate people to want improvements in the U.S. medical care system.

“Aftershock” essentially tells three main stories of African American people who’ve been affected by maternity health care in the United States. Two of the stories are about two families coping with the deaths of a woman in their family who died after childbirth. The third story is about a married couple who have to decide if the pregnant wife will give birth in a hospital or opt for an alternative location. Meanwhile, some experts and activists weigh in with their perspectives and sharing of information.

One of the documentary’s main stories is about the aftermath of the October 2019 death of 30-year-old Shamony Gibson, who died in New York City from pulmonary embolism (blood clotting in the lungs), 13 days after giving birth by C-section to her second child, a son named Khari. “Aftershock” shows how Gibson’s mother Shawnee Benton Gibson and Gibson’s partner Omari Maynard (the father of Khari) became activists as a result of Gibson’s death, which they believe could have been prevented if she received adequate medical care from the medical professionals who knew about her blood clot symptoms.

Before she died, Gibson had been suffering from shortness of breath and chest pains, which are two symptoms of pulmonary embolism. Gibson’s reported these health problems to medical professionals, who dismissed her concerns and told her that she just needed to rest more. According to Gibson’s family, she also was repeatedly asked by medical professionals, “Are you on drugs?”

Gibson was not using drugs, and the medical people were repeatedly told that information, but they didn’t seem to believe it, because they kept asking the same question. The family members believe that the medical people who repeatedly asked this “Are you on drugs?” question would not have been so stubborn in assuming that Gibson was a drug user if Gibson were a white person. They also believe that medical professionals would not have been so quick to dismiss Gibson’s health problems if she were white.

Unfortunately, the hospital where Gibson was taken was underfunded and understaffed. According to Gibson’s family (including her sister Jasmine Gibson, who is interviewed in “Aftershock”), Gibson was taken to the emergency room, where she had to wait 12 hours before getting medical treatment. By then, it was too late. She died at the hospital.

In “Aftershock,” Benton Gibson says that she worked at the hospital as a loyal employee for 25 years and never thought that the hospital would play a role in her daughter’s death. It was a rude and tragic awakening that fuels a lot of Benton Gibson’s activism. One of her biggest messages, particularly to Black women who give birth, is to not be fooled into thinking that what happed to her daughter can’t happen to them.

Another documentary story is about what happened after the April 2020 death of 26-year-old Amber Rose Isaac, who passed away after having a C-section at Montefiore Hospital in New York City’s Bronx borough. Isaac’s son, Elias Isaac McIntyre, survived the C-section, but Isaac did not. Bruce McIntyre (Elias’ father) eventually met Maynard, and they formed a support group for single fathers whose partners died from maternity health care that’s believed to be inadequate and rooted in racism.

While in the hospital for the childbirth, Isaac was diagnosed with HELLP (Hemolysis, Elevated Liver enzymes and Low Platelets) syndrome, a pregnancy complication that affects the blood and liver. Isaac’s family members believe medical negligence caused Isaac’s death and are suing Montefiore Hospital with this claim. The plaintiffs’ lawsuit contends that Isaac could have been diagnosed with HELLP syndrome long before she was in the hospital to give birth. Isaac’s family also believes that Isaac would have received better medical attention if she were white.

The third main story in “Aftershock” follows married couple Felicia Ellis and Paul Ellis as they prepare for the birth of their first child in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Felicia and Paul know about the horror stories about black women (especially low-income black women) getting treated as inferior in the U.S. health care system, compared to women of other races. The documentary shows Felicia and Paul being wary of Felicia going to a hospital for the birth of their child and looking into the birth center Breathe Birth and Wellness as an alternative. The documentary includes footage of Felicia giving birth.

It would be very easy for skeptics to say that people are just being paranoid when it’s pointed out that racism exists in the U.S. health care system. However, plenty of statistics from independent reports back up the racism claims. “Aftershock” has those statistics, which are also publicly available to anyone who wants to find them.

One of the alarming trends is that childbearing black women in the U.S. are more likely than childbearing women of other races to be told that they need a C-section when giving birth. C-sections take less time than vaginal births, but because C-sections are surgeries, women giving birth are more likely to die fom C-sections than from vaginal births. In addition, “Aftershock” points out the cold, hard fact that hospitals get more money from C-sections than they do from vaginal births.

Helena Grant, director of Midwifery at Woodhull Medical Center (a public health facility in New York City), comments in the documentary: “Very early on in my career, black women were used as guinea pigs.” Grant, who is also a certified nurse-midwife (CNM), mentions that people training in obstetrics and gynecology (OB-GYN) in the U.S. usually do their training in hospitals and clinics in low-income communities, which are often largely populated by people of color. These inexperienced OB-GYN professionals are more likely to be the lowest-paid in the OB-GYN field and most likely to make mistakes. And guess who suffers the most as a result?

Multiple people in the documentary mention that Black women are at the most risk of getting the worst maternity health care in the U.S. because of attitudes that still linger from the enslavement of black people in America. Enslaved black women were considered “property,” not human beings, and therefore were not given the health care that people who were not enslaved were entitled to get. There’s also a persistent misconception, stemming from America’s shameful slavery history, that black women are more tolerant of physical pain than women of other races.

“Aftershock” also mentions how patriarchal and sexist attitudes changed practices of assisting during childbirth. Before the 20th century, midwives and home births used to be more common in the U.S. than they are now. During the years when slavery was legal in the U.S., enslaved black women were often the midwives for the white families who enslaved them.

When men wanted to take over the practice of assisting during childbirth and make money from it, the OB-GYN profession was born in the 1700s. In the OB-GYN profession’s earliest years in the U.S., the profession was open only to people who had access to a getting a medical degree, which usually meant white men only. And although medical schools in the U.S. can now enroll people of all races and genders, to this day, most OB-GYN doctors in the U.S. are white men.

“Aftershock” also mentions the money-motivated campaign that began the early 1900s to get more women to go to hospitals to give birth, in order to take business away from midwives who helped women give birth in places other than hospitals. There are certainly advantages to having a doctor rather than a midwife assist in childbirth. However, “Aftershock” shows that more people are considering alternatives to giving birth in a hospital (options include licensed birth centers or home births) if they think the hospital will be giving incompetent care due to a patient’s race.

Neel Shah, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Harvard Medical School, comments: “I think the well-being of moms is the bellwether for the well-being of society in general. That’s why every injustice in society shows up in maternal health care.” Shah also notes that it wasn’t until 2018 that the U.S. federal government began tracking maternal health trends. Many racial disparities can be found in these trend reports.

“Aftershock” includes footage of Shah leading an OB-GYN seminar, with McIntyre as a guest speaker. The seminar’s students (who are mostly women of various races) are visibily moved by McIntyre’s story and seem to have learned a lot from his personal account of how racism can affect the health care that someone can get. One of the students speaks to McIntyre after his talk and says to him that she had heard about Isaac’s death on Twitter, but it made a difference to see firsthand how her death affected someone in Isaac’s family.

“Aftershock” also has powerful moments of Benton Gibson, Maynard and McIntyre doing activism work to try to raise awareness about racism in maternity health care and to pass better laws about maternity health care. They attend rallies and do community outreach in these endeavors. In one scene, Benton Gibson passionately testifies during a New York City Council hearing on maternal health. New York City Council member Carolina Rivera expresses her support of Benton Gibson during this hearing.

In New York City’s Brooklyn borough Maynard and McIntyre choose Weeksville Heritage Center as a meeting place for other single fathers who have experienced similar tragic losses of their partners who died from childbirth-related deaths. Maynard says of this meeting place: “I want to create a space where we can star to try to change policy, where we can have hundreds of thousands of people backing what we’re saying, because that’s the only way it works.”

Maynard, who is an artist who paints portraits, also began painting portraits of other women of color who died as a result of inadequate maternity health care. Maynard has met many of these women’s families through his advoacy/activist work, and he gives these portraits as gifts to the surviving family members. In one of the documentary’s emotionally potent scenes, Maynard gives a portrait of the late Maria Corona to her surviving partner Sam Volrie Jr., who is moved to tears by this gift.

Other people featured in the documentary include registered nurse Giselle Chebny; certfied nurse-midwife Regina Kizer; and Tulsa Birth Equity Initiative executive director LaBrisa Williams; and doulas Nubia Martin, Ashlee Wilson and Myla Flores. Toward the end of the documentary, Maynard and McIntyre are shown making plans to eventually open birth center in the Bronx, with the intention to help low-income pregnant women in particular, since these low-income women are less likely to get the proper medical care that they need.

“Aftershock” is not propaganda for birthing centers, nor is it a sweeping and unfair condemnation of all hospitals and OB-GYN medical professionals. However, the documentary does a very good job at sounding the alarm that pregnant black women in America are more likely to die from inadequate or incompetent medical care than pregnant women of other races. “Aftershock” is an effective presentation of facts and human stories to serve as a reminder that this problem is not just a concern for people of color but for all people who are against racism.

Hulu premiered “Aftershock” and released the movie in select U.S. cinemas on July 19, 2022.

Review: ‘Moonage Daydream,’ starring David Bowie

September 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

David Bowie in “Moonage Daydream” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Moonage Daydream”

Directed by Brett Morgen

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the world (but particularly in London, New York City, Los Angeles and Berlin), the documentary film “Moonage Daydream” features a compilation of archival footage of entertainment superstar David Bowie (who died of cancer in 2016) and his various admirers and colleagues, who are mostly white, but include some black people, Latino and Asians.

Culture Clash: Bowie’s life as an artist is chronicled in this montage-styled film, including his unconventional stage personas and lifestyle; his insecurities about his work; and his personal struggles with finding true love. 

Culture Audience: “Moonage Daydream” will appeal primarily to Bowie fans and people interested in seeing a visually immersive documentary about an entertainment icon.

David Bowie in “Moonage Daydream” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

Die-hard fans of David Bowie will not learn anything new from the all-archival documentary “Moonage Daydream.” The movie skips over some big parts of his life, but it’s a visually immersive experience that shows Bowie’s music and talent in an artsy way. “Moonage Daydream” is the first feature-length documentary authorized by the Bowie estate since he died of cancer in 2016. Bowie was 69 when he passed away.

Directed by Brett Morgen, “Moonage Daydream” includes voiceovers from some of Bowie’s media interviews that serve as intermittent narration. The documentary is a mix of media footage, live concert footage and music videos. Much of this footage is presented in Andy Warhol-influenced montages. “Moonage Daydream” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France.

The “Moonage Daydream” documentary gets its title from the Bowie song of the same name that’s on Bowie’s 1972 album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” Bowie (who was born David Robert Jones in London, on January 8, 1947) was famous for frequently changing his image and musical styles over the years. During his “Ziggy Stardust” period, he performed as an outer-space alien rock star named Ziggy Stardust, whose backup band was named the Spiders from Mars.

Becoming the Ziggy Stardust persona was a pivotal period of time in Bowie’s career. He went from merely being a hit artist to a superstar know for celebrating acceptance of all sexualities, at a time when it was still very taboo for entertainers to openly embrace or be any sexuality that wasn’t heterosexual. To legions of fans and other admirers, Bowie represented people who wanted to express themselves and their genders in whatever ways they wanted.

Bowie was a recording artist from the 1960s until his death in 2016, but what he created in the 1970s was considered his most influential and therefore gets the most screen time in the “Moonage Daydream” documentary. Out of all all the 1970s footage in “Moonage Daydream,” the documentary features the “Ziggy Stardust” area the most. The “Moonage Daydream” documentary has several clips from director D. A. Pennebaker’s 1979 documentary film “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,” which chronicled a 1973 concert that Bowie and his band did in London.

Unfortunately, for people who are unfamiliar with Bowie, “Moonage Daydream” does not tell Bowie’s story in chronological order, nor does the movie identify years in which any of the footage was taken. For example, one section of the documentary goes into Bowie’s work in the early-to-mid-1980s, but then jumps back to talking about his work in the late 1970s when Bowie collaborated with Brian Eno in Berlin. This jumping around in the timeline is one of the documentary’s flaws. The only people who can truly appreciate the historical context of the footage shown in the documentary are people who know what years Bowie’s songs and albums were released, or people can discern what year the footage was taken, based on what Bowie is wearing and his hairstyle in the footage.

However, the documentary greatly benefits from having several Bowie songs, as any credible film about Bowie should. “Moonage Daydream” has many of Bowie’s biggest hits, including “Space Oddity,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Diamond Dogs,” “Changes,” “Starman,” “The Jean Genie” “Life on Mars?,” “All the Young Dudes” (a Bowie-written song made famous by Mott the Hoople), “Heroes,” “Let’s Dance,” “China Girl” and “Modern Love.” Also included are some of Bowie’s lesser-known songs, such as “Moonage Daydream,” “Cracked Actor,” “Serious Moonlight,” “Outside” and “Earthling.” There’s also a brief snippet of Bowie performing the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” on stage in 1973 before launching into “The Jean Genie.”

“Moonage Daydream” dutifully includes mentions of Bowie’s acting career, including showing movie clips from 1976’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” 1983’s “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” and 1986’s “Labryinth.” There’s also some quick footage of Bowie’s Broadway acting debut, in his starring role as the title character in “The Elephant Man,” which he played from September 1980 to January 1981. David Bowie’s 1980s musical duets with Queen and Tina Turner fly by in quick snippets that don’t do these collaborations justice. Bowie’s work as the lead singer of experimental rock band Tin Machine (from 1988 to 1992) is not in the documentary at all, but the documentary includes some footage of Bowie as an illustrator artist.

What you won’t see in “Moonage Daydream” are any mentions of his first wife Angie Bowie (they were married from 1970 to 1980); his son Duncan Jones (formerly known as Zowie Bowie) from that marriage; and his daughter Alexandria “Lexi” Jones, from his marriage to second wife Iman. In fact, Iman (a supermodel/beauty entrepreneur who’s originally from Somalia) is the only woman mentioned in the documentary as someone Bowie fell in love with in his life. It’s obviously very selective information. Iman and Bowie were married from 1992 until his 2016 death.

Except for some brief audio and video interview clips, “Moonage Daydream” offers very little insight of Bowie talking about his personal life. He mentions his distant relationship with his mother; his schizophrenic older half-brother Terry Burns, who was the first person to influence Bowie’s interest in art and music; and his soul mate Iman, whom he says he fell in love with at first sight. There’s some archival footage of a divorced Bowie in the ’80s, where he talks about living a nomadic existence for years and confessing that falling in love is scary for him.

In the 1970s, Bowie was seriously addicted to cocaine, which was an addiction he candidly talked about years later in interviews. However, don’t expect “Moonage Daydream” to go into details about sex and drugs in Bowie’s life. Even without these explicit details, anyone can see in the early-to-mid-1970s archival footage there were plenty of signs that Bowie was a cocaine addict, including his sniffing and constantly touching his nose, his fidgety mannerisms in some of his interviews, and his unhealthy physical appearance.

In addition to footage of Bowie, “Moonage Daydream” also includes a lot of pop culture and news clips that somehow relate to whatever music is playing. For example, footage from the documentary “Apollo 11” is briefly shown in keeping with the “moon” theme. The closest to anything “new and orginal” that “Moonage Daydream” offers is some brief sci-fi footage bookended at the beginning and ending of the movie. This footage shows a woman with an animal’s tail while she’s on the moon and looking at a skeleton in an astronaut suit.

It seems that “Moonage Daydream” director Morgen went out of his way not to do a conventional documentary, since Bowie was not a conventional artist. But in doing so, the documentary loses some coherence. After a while, “Moonage Daydream” looks like a mishmash of montages resembling a very long music video. “Moonage Daydream” also has some editing that’s sometimes frustrating to watch. There are at least three different times it looks like this 140-minute movie has ended, and then it drags on some more.

People who are casual fans of Bowie will be intrigued by “Moonage Daydream” but might occasionally get bored. “Moonage Daydream” is worthwhile but not essential viewing for Bowie fans. For any Bowie fans who saw the outstanding “David Bowie Is” museum exhibition world tour that took place from 2013 to 2018, that museum exhibition remains the ultimate Bowie multimedia experience since Bowie’s unfortunate passing.

Neon will release “Moonage Daydream” in select U.S. cinemas on September 16, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on September 23, 2022. The movie is set for a sneak preview in select IMAX theaters on September 12, 2022.

Review: ‘Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel,’ starring Merle Lister, Bettina Grossman, Zoe Pappas, Nicholas Pappas and Steve Willis

September 5, 2022

by Carla Hay

Merle Lister and a construction worker in “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel”

Directed by Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier

Culture Representation: Taking place at New York City’s Chelsea Hotel, the documentary film “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” features a group of nearly all-white people (and one African American) discussing the past and present of the Chelsea Hotel.

Culture Clash: Current residents of the Chelsea Hotel, which is known for being the home of artists and eccentrics, express frustration about the hotel’s massive reconstruction/renovations that they think are taking too long and disrupting their lives.

Culture Audience: “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in the legacy of this famous hotel, but they won’t find anything substantial about the hotel’s history, and almost all of the people in documentary are actually very boring.

Bettina Grossman in “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Don’t expect to get the fascinating history of New York City’s famous Chelsea Hotel in the documentary “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel.” The movie is a rambling, disjointed look at some of the hotel’s current residents, who are mostly dull. Expect to hear more complaining in this documentary about Manhattan real estate than any interesting stories about past and present residents of the Chelsea Hotel.

Directed by Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier, “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” takes a scattershot approach to documenting the happenings at the Chelsea Hotel, whose official name is actually Hotel Chelsea. The Victorian Gothic/Queen Anne Revival-styled building—located at 222 West 23rd Street, in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood—was constructed from 1883 to 1885, and originally opened as a co-op apartment building but closed after just a few years, due to financial issues. The building re-opened as a hotel in 1905, and was officially declared a New York City landmark in 1966. None of this background information is in the documentary.

Most of the movie consists of cinéma vérité footage, but some other parts are a nod to the Chelsea Hotel’s past, with archival footage of some of the hotel’s famous former residents, including rock singer/songwriter Patti Smith, at the hotel and/or talking about the hotel. The Chelsea Hotel’s notoriety peaked in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as the hotel became known for attracting creative artists, bohemians and other eccentrics. Some of the celebrities who called the Chelsea Hotel home at one time or another included Smith, singer/songwriter Bob Dylan, writer/poet Allen Ginsberg, writer/poet Dylan Thomas, writer Mark Twain, novelist Arthur C. Clarke and notorious rock’n’roll couple Sid Vicious (former bass player of the Sex Pistols) and Nancy Spungen.

The hotel was also the site of Spungen’s murder by stabbing in October 1978. Vicious was arrested for her murder, but he died of a heroin overdose in February 1979, before the case was resolved. Clarke wrote his classic 1968 sci-fi novel “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the hotel. Filmmaker/artist Andy Warhol’s 1966 movie “Chelsea Girls” was about the Chelsea Hotel’s artistic community at the time and was filmed at the Chelsea Hotel.

Leonard Cohen’s 1974 song “Chelsea Hotel #2” was inspired by a sexual fling that he had at the hotel with singer Janis Joplin, who died in 1971, and who spent a lot of time at the Chelsea Hotel when she was staying in New York City. Jefferson Airplane’s 1971 song “Third Week at the Chelsea” is about the Chelsea Hotel. None of that history is in this documentary, but some viewers might be fooled into thinking that “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” will be a chronicle of the hotel’s most famous stories.

Instead, the movie focuses on some of the current residents, who spend a lot of time complaining about how the ongoing construction in the hotel is inconvenient, noisy and not worth the rent that they pay. The interviewees live in cramped spaces, which are often shabby and overcrowded with their possessions. Most of the interviewees are over the age of 60. They include Merle Lister, Bettina Grossman, Zoe Pappas, Nicholas Pappas and Steve Willis.

Lister is a social butterfly who has the liveliest personality out of them all. In one of the documentary’s few memorable scenes, she somewhat flirts with a construction worker, as they talk about how they both think the hotel is haunted with ghosts. Later in the movie, Lister is seen having a friendly dinner at the one-bedroom apartment occupied by Zoe Pappas and her husband Nicholas Pappas.

Architect/engineer Zoe Pappas, who is the president of the Chelsea Tenants Association, talks a lot about the residents’ frustrations with the Chelsea Hotel renovations. Grossman, a cranky hoarder, is described in the documentary as being the hotel’s oldest current resident, but her age is never stated in the movie. Willis, a Chelsea Hotel resident since 1994, gripes about how his living space has shrunk because of the building renovations. He says of all this reconstruction at the Chelsea Hotel: “For a long time, I felt like I was witnessing a slow-motion rape of this building.”

Far from being the vibrant artistic hub that it was in its heyday, the Chelsea Hotel looks more like resident hotel for retired senior citizens. Much like the hotel, many of the residents have seen better days and are holding on to past glories that will never come back. “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” can’t even get any great stories out of these residents. In the end, this so-called documentary just looks like a self-indulgent student film that’s trying too hard to be avant-garde artsy.

Magnolia Pictures released “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on July 8, 2022.

Review: ‘Three Minutes—A Lengthening,’ starring Glenn Kurtz and Maurice Chandler

August 31, 2022

by Carla Hay

Residents of Nasielsk, Poland in 1938 in “Three Minutes — A Lengthening” (Photo courtesy of Family Affair Films/U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum/Super LTD)

“Three Minutes — A Lengthening”

Directed by Bianca Stigter

Some language in Polish with subtitles

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “Three Minutes—A Lengthening,” an all-white group of people (some who are American, some who are European) talk about a 1938 three-minute film of residents of Nasielsk, Poland, a city that was devastated by the Holocaust and other Nazi oppression.

Culture Clash: Most of the city’s Jewish residents were either murdered or displaced because of the Holocaust.

Culture Audience: “Three Minutes—A Lengthening” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in personal and intimate stories about the Holocaust and Polish history.

Residents of Nasielsk, Poland in 1938 in “Three Minutes — A Lengthening” (Photo courtesy of Family Affair Films/U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum/Super LTD)

The documentary “Three Minutes—A Lengthening” has a three-minute, amateur silent film as its centerpiece, but this non-fiction movie is an effective story of the long-lasting and devastating effects of the Holocaust. The three-minute film was taken in 1938, and it shows less than two dozen residents of Nasielsk, Poland, which had a population of about 7,000 people at the time. Of those 7,000 residents, about 3,000 were Jewish people. By the end of World War II in 1945, most of the Jewish people of Nasielsk would be murdered or displaced because of the Holocaust.

Directed by Bianca Stigter and narrated by Helena Bonham Carter, “Three Minutes—A Lengthening” begins by showing the three-minute film, which is a montage of people gathered outside. Most of the people in the three-minute film are aware of the camera and seem to be fascinated by it, since hand-held film cameras were considered a new invention at the time. It’s a “slice of life” film that shows everyday people going about their lives and reacting to being filmed. It’s even more poignant knowing that the people in the movie had no idea about the death and destruction that would come with the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939.

The person who recorded the film was David Kurtz, a Polish native (born in 1988) who immigrated to the United States, where he lived in Brooklyn, New York. At the time, Kurtz was on a European vacation with his wife and three friends named Mr. and Mrs Louis Melina and S.E. Diamond, who Louis Melina’s older sister. Poland was an unexpected detour on this trip. Kurtz took his film camera with him, not knowing at the time that these would be the last photographic images of many of the Nasielsk residents before the Holocaust.

Decades later, David’s grandson Glenn Kurtz found the footage and donated it to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Glenn is the main commentator of “Three Minutes—A Lengthening,” who tells his stories about his quest to find anyone from the film who was still alive or anyone who had more information about the people in the three-minute film. “Three Minutes—A Lengthening” also includes commentary from Maurice Chandler, who was in the three-minute film when he was a 13-year-old boy.

Everyone commenting in “Three Minutes—A Lengthening” is heard only in voiceover. Other interviewees include Andrzej Lubieniecki (who lived from 1919 to 2017), a former resident of Nasielsk; Evelyn Chandler Rosen (Maurice Chandler’s daughter); Marcy Rosen (Maurice Chandler’s granddaughter); author Zdzisław Suwiński; and author Katarzyna Kacprzak. Marcy Rosen was the one who contacted Glenn Kurtz to inform him that her grandfather Maurice was in the three-minute film.

“Three Minutes—A Lengthening” starts off with lighthearted stories that give an analysis of what people were wearing and how it signified which type of Jewish clique they were in at the time. For example, boys who wore newsboy caps were supposed to be in a different clique than boys who wore black hats with short brims. But the stories gets darker and brutal when it’s described what eventually happened when Adolf Hitler’s Nazis invaded Nasielsk. These are Holocaust stories that have been told before, but they are no less impactful in a 72-minute movie like “Three Minutes—A Lengthening.”

Super LTD released “Three Minutes—A Lengthening” in select U.S. cinemas on August 19, 2022.

Review: ‘Bitterbrush,’ starring Colie Moline and Hollyn Patterson

August 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Colie Moline and Hollyn Patterson in “Bitterbrush” (Photo by Alejandro Mejia/Magnolia Pictures)

“Bitterbrush”

Directed by Emelie Mahdavian

Culture Representation: Taking place in Idaho and briefly in Montana, the documentary film “Bitterbrush” features an all-white group of people representing the working-class.

Culture Clash: Two women, who are best friends and range riders, deal with harsh weather conditions and unstable job opportunities in their line of work. 

Culture Audience: “Bitterbrush” will appeal primarily to people interested in movies about rancher lifestyles and women who work in male-dominated professions.

Hollyn Patterson and Colie Moline and in “Bitterbrush” (Photo by Alejandro Mejia/Magnolia Pictures)

Filmed with earnest simplicity, “Bitterbrush” is an up-close portrait of two female range riders working in rural Idaho. People who appreciate rancher documentaries and stunning, mountainous cinematography might be interested. Everyone else might be bored.

That’s because “Bitterbrush” (directed by Emelie Mahdavian) is not a movie filled with a lot of drama or major surprises. There is one surprise in the movie, but it’s not shocking. This cinéma vérité-styled documentary focuses on two women in their 20s—Colie Moline and Hollyn Patterson—who are best friends and range riders. They take work when and where they can find it, which means that any job they do isn’t permanent, and they often have to travel for their next job.

It goes without saying that men are the majority of workers who do outdoor jobs that involve a lot of traveling, dealing with harsh weather, and living in isolated areas. Female range riders are rare. “Bitterbrush” lacks suspense but gives an unflinching look at what it takes to be range rider, albeit from the perspectives of two people who have the benefit of working closely with a best friend. Don’t expect any movie clichés of these two pals arguing with each other and having a falling out, because it doesn’t happen in “Bitterbrush.”

“Bitterbrush” (which shows a year in the life of Moline and Patterson) doesn’t give a lot of information on how long Moline and Patterson have been working together, but they both grew up either on a ranch or a farm. At the time this documentary was filmed, the two women had been friends for five or six years. Almost all of “Bitterbrush” chronicles the seasonal job that Moline and Patterson had in an unnamed mountainous part of Idaho, where they mostly had to herd cattle through the mountains.

Accompanied by their respective dogs (Moline has a dog named Lucy; Patterson has a dog named Rudy Two), the two women are shown herding cattle (sometimes in snowy weather) and training horses. Although they live in complete isolation, Patterson’s husband Elijah is also there and is seen occasionally in the documentary. Because they move from job to job, their lifestyle is truly nomadic.

Patterson talks about how Rudy Two’s mother was a beloved dog that died from illness and old age. Patterson says of the deceased dog: “I thought about burying her, but there’s no home. We’ve never been home anywhere. We’ve always had these riding jobs, where you move places.”

Moline comments, “I love this work. I love this lifestyle. I do believe I have skill sets for it. I don’t want to be working for a house my whole life and just making the bills. I’d like to find something where I do my own thing—or at least say that I have some cows.”

Moline adds, “I’m just trying to figure out the right opportunity and working with people who want to see that for you. That’s not always a thing to do. Or maybe I’ll just be so good at it, I’ll become a millionaire and can buy my own ranch.”

Patterson is the more stoic and even-tempered of the two women. She takes the lead in most of their ranch duties, while Moline is more likely to follow or observe as if she is learning from Patterson. For example, there’s a scene where Patterson and Moline are training a horse. Moline watches Patterson handle the horse before Moline steps in to try what Patterson was showing her. Patterson is more self-assured and patient with the horse, while Moline has a tendency to get more frustrated. When the horse bites Moline, she smacks it lightly.

Patterson’s more guarded personality also extends to how little she says about her background in the documentary. By contrast, Moline opens up about her past, including coping with grief over her mother’s death from a brain aneurysm. Moline says that her mother was on life support for three days before she died.

Moline’s voice cracks with emotion when she remembers, “The good thing that did come out of those three days is I did get to memorize her hands. My mom was always self-conscious about her hands because she worked so dang hard. They were always calloused—similar to mine.”

Moline also talks about the strained relationship she has with her brother and her father. She and her brother Jake don’t really get along with each other. And the main issue she has with her farmer father is that he wants her to come home to work at the family farm. Moline says that small business farmers, such has her father, have hardships because they’re being increasingly priced out of the marketplace by big farming businesses.

One of the standout features of “Bitterbrush” is the cinematography by Derek Howard and Alejandro Mejía, particularly for the outdoor scenes. The documentary doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but viewers can get swept up in the majestic landscapes that are visually captured for this movie. People who are inclined to enjoy movies that show ranch animals will also find plenty to like in “Bitterbrush.”

However, “Bitterbrush” is not a documentary for everyone. The pacing can be very slow. And the movie is honest in showing how range riding can be unglamorous, repetitious and physically demanding. Still, for anyone who might be curious about what happens to Moline and Patterson by the end of the year that’s documented in this film, it’s enough to say that “Bitterbrush” is worth watching to see how these two friends end up taking different paths in their lives.

Magnolia Pictures released “Bitterbrush” in select U.S. cinemas on June 17, 2022. The movie was released on digital VOD on June 24, 2022.

‘Free Puppies!’ documentary focuses on rescue dogs from the rural South in the U.S.

August 8, 2022

A rescue puppy arrives on transport and meets her new owner at the Vince Lombardi Service Station in New Jersey , as seen in “Free Puppies!” (Photo courtesy of First Run Features)

The following is a press release from First Run Features:

Millions of rescue dogs from the rural South have been transported to new homes thanks to the tireless efforts of a vast, grassroots network of dog rescuers. “Free Puppies!” is the true story of where those dogs come from and how a group of feisty and intrepid women rescuers are working together to save them.

Although transports have moved dogs from the South for decades, when Hurricane Katrina left more than 250,000 pets stranded, the infrastructure of modern pet transport for a nation-wide dog rescue effort was born. Since then, individual volunteers, transporters, shelters and rescue groups have created a movement to place millions of southern dogs in areas of the country with high demand for adoption but low supply.

By following a group of women dog rescuers from Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, “Free Puppies!” reveals the challenges that contribute to the rescue dog crisis in the first place. These women not only save dogs from euthanasia, but also organize affordable and accessible spay and neuter, reform local ordinances, advocate for humane education, and fight urgent and complex challenges facing underserved areas of the rural South. The film includes interviews with the ASPCA, Atlanta Humane Society, McKamey Animal Center, My Kids Have Paws Veterinary Clinic, Dixie Day Spay, and dozens of rescue organizations, shelter directors, healthcare providers, and local officials.

“Free Puppies!,” a film by Samantha Wishman and Christina Thomas opens August 12, 2022, in live cinemas.

70 minutes | Color | English

Credits:

  • Samantha Wishman – Director, Producer, Editor
  • Christina Thomas – Director, Co-Producer, Editor
  • Muffie Meyer – Story Editor
  • Carter McCormick – Director of Photography Eliot Popko – Director of Photography
  • Joey McCormick and Willard Hamilton – Original Music

Review: ‘The Rescue’ (2021), starring Rick Stanton, John Volathen, Ben Svasti, Weerasak Kowsurat, Richard Harris, Vern Unsworth and Anupong Paochinda

July 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rick Stanton and John Volanthen in “The Rescue” (Photo courtesy of National Geographic)

“The Rescue” (2021)

Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Some language in Thai with subtitles

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Rescue” features a group of Asian and white people (mostly rescue divers and military/government officials) discussing their involvement in the mission to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach, who were trapped in Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand, from June 23 to July 10, 2018.

Culture Clash: The rescuers had to overcome language barriers, cultural differences and conflicts over the best rescue methods in order to complete the mission. 

Culture Audience: “The Rescue” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching true “life or death” stories that are informative and emotionally stirring.

A scene from “The Rescue” (Photo courtesy of National Geographic)

The documentary “The Rescue” is riveting and inspirational in its retelling of the rescue mission that saved 13 people trapped in a Thailand cave in 2018. Netflix bought the exclusive rights to get the stories of the people who were trapped in the cave and their families. Therefore, “The Rescue” mainly has the perspectives of the rescuers and some of the government officials who made crucial decisions that helped save the lives of all 13 people.

“The Rescue” was directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the husband-and-wife duo who won an Oscar for directing the 2018 documentary “Free Solo” about famed rock climber Alex Honnold’s quest to perform a free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in June 2017. “The Rescue” isn’t as suspenseful as “Free Solo,” mainly because most people watching “The Rescue” already know the outcome of the rescue mission. “The Rescue” cinematography, although impressive, isn’t as visually stunning as the cinematography in “Free Solo.”

“The Rescue” has a mixture of exclusive interviews, news archival footage and recreations of the rescue mission by some of the people who were there. This recreated footage might not sit too well with documentary purists. However, without some visuals to accompany the stories told in the interviews, “The Rescue” would be a very dry documentary of mostly talking head interviews. It would somehow seem too trite to use animation to recreate the fascinating and monumental stories told in “The Rescue.” If “The Rescue” filmmakers wanted to have recreations in this documentary, live-action footage (rather than animation) was the better and more challenging choice.

The documentary’s quality is compromised, due to the lack of perspectives from the trapped victims and an over-reliance on recreated footage. “The Rescue” triumphs mostly as a fascinating true story of human resilience and compassion. This story is also a great example of people overcoming cultural differences for a shared cause.

The ordeal of the 13 people trapped in the cave began on June 23, 2018, when 12 boys (ranging in ages from 11 to 16) from a junior soccer team, along with the team’s assistant coach, entered the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai Province in northern Thailand. They wanted to celebrate the birthday of one of the boys and spend some time in the cave before expected monsoons started that summer. They didn’t know it at the time, but the monsoon rains would arrive earlier than expected, and the flooding would trap them in the cave, which stretches for 10,000 meters or 6.2 miles.

The 12 boys were Mongkhon “Mark” Bunpiam, Somphong “Pong” Chaiwong, Phonchai “Tee” Khamluang, Duangphet “Dom” Phromthep, Phiphat “Nick” Phothi, Phanumat “Mig” Saengdi, Adun “Dul” Sam-on, Phiraphat “Night” Somphiangchai, Prachak “Note” Sutham, Natthawut “Tern” Thakhamsong, Chanin “Titan” Wibunrungrueang and Ekkarat “Bew” Wongsukchan. The soccer coach was Ekkaphon “Eak” Kanthawong, a former monk. Kanthawong’s skills as a monk would come in handy in teaching the boys to stay calm in this crisis.

Members of the Thai Navy SEALs were among the first government-sanctioned rescuers. Thai Navy captain Anan Surawan comments, “I felt immense pressure. Everybody has high expectations when it comes to the Navy SEALs.” Royal Thai Navy rear admiral Apakorn Youkongkaew, who was the commander of the cave operations, says in the documentary that the first rescue unit had only 17 people.

Unfortunately, nearly all the Thai Navy SEALs were not trained to do the type of cave diving required for this rescue. Once this cave rescue made international headlines and it became obvious that more people were needed for this enormous mission, thousands of people from around the world offered their services. (The documentary mention that about 5,000 people in Thailand were involved in the rescue in some way.) The Thai government ended up getting a list of cave divers who were considered among the best in the world.

Although “The Rescue” certainly gives credit to the Thai officials who ended up making crucial decisions that resulted in all 13 people being saved, the documentary makes the biggest heroes and “experts” of this rescue mission to be the non-Thai civilians who came from other countries—specifically England and Australia—to offer their help. The teamwork between the Thai people and the non-Thai people was crucial to this successful mission, but the movie still has the tone that the non-Thai people deserved most of the praise and the glory. It’s a tone that will be a little off-putting to some viewers.

In “The Rescue,” viewers will get extensive personal histories and backgrounds of three Anglo rescuers in particular, all of whom all did cave diving as hobbies: retired fireman Rick Stanton (from England), information technology consultant John Volanthen (from England) and anesthesiologist Dr. Richard Harris (from Australia). They all describes themselves as daredevil cave divers, who feel like they are in some ways society misfits because most people think their passion for cave diving is obsessive.

“The Rescue” goes so deep into the personal histories of Stanton and Harris, their respective wives (Amp Bangnoen for Stanton, Dr. Fiona Harris for Richard Harris) are interviewed, even though the wives were not directly involved in the rescue mission. “The Rescue” also details Stanton’s and Bangnoen’s courtship, which is extraneous information that veers a little too off-topic. The only other wife interviewed in the documentary is Waleeporn Gunan, the widow of Thai Navy petty officer Saman Gunan, who tragically died in the cave during this rescue mission.

Most of the cave divers interviewed in the documentary talk about the sense of independence, adventure and freedom they have when cave diving. Volanthen comments, “Cave diving, for me, is relaxing. Nobody tells you what to do. Your time is your own. It’s very liberating. Having said that, most of the time it’s jumping into a muddy hole.” Stanto adds, “It’s like being in space. The purest adventure you can have.”

Vern Unsworth, another British cave diver enthusiast who was part of the rescue team, had the advantage of diving in the cave long before the rescue mission took place. Unsworth, who’s a financial consultant by profession, says in the documentary: “I’d been involved heavily with the exploration of the cave. That’s why I became known locally as the crazy foreign caver.” Unsworth adds that with all due respect to the Thai Navy SEALs, “They’re a strong, disciplined outfit, but cave diving needs specific skills and specific types of equipment.”

In “The Rescue,” Unsworth is credited with giving General Anupong Paochinda (Thailand’s minister of the interior) a list of people whom Unsworth considered to be the best cave divers in the world. Stanton and Volanthen were two of the names on the list. At first, these non-Thai outsiders who volunteered their services got resistance from the Thai government, but as the situation got more desperate, the government became more open to listening to the suggestions of the expert cave divers who came from outside of Thailand.

It was soon determined that the rain water would have to be diverted, in order to prevent more flooding. For several days, the boys and their coach could not be found in the cave. And when they were found, the biggest challenge was how to get them out safely, since all of the trapped people were not expert divers. Figuring out the best way to get them out alive took several more days until it actually happened.

A radical and risky idea was to give the rescued survivors a powerful anesthesia so that they would be rendered unconscious and therefore not panic while they were being carried out of the cave. Richard Harris had the enormous responsibility to oversee this anesthesia implementation. He admits in the documentary that he was very skeptical and frightened about this idea because of the high probability that it would result in fatalities.

Richard Harris doesn’t mince words when he remembers what he thought about this high-risk sedation: “It felt like euthanasia to me.” He adds that he struggled with the medical ethics of this dilemma until he was convinced that it was better to try this method than to do nothing. Doing nothing would mean certain death for the people trapped in the cave. Sadly, on the last day of the rescue, Richard Harris got the devastating news that his father had died.

Other rescue cave divers interviewed in the documentary include Chris Jewell, an information technology consultant from England; Jason Mallinson, a contractor from England; Ruengrit Changkwanyuen, a General Motors employee from Thailand; Thanet Natisri, a Thailand expatriate living in the United States; Josh Morris, a consultant from the United States; Ben Reymenants from Belgium; Jim Warny, an electrician from Belgium; Connor Roe from England; Josh Bratchley from England; and Mikko Paasi from Norway.

Thai officials interviewed include Thailand minister of the interior Paochinda; Royal Thai Army lieutenant general Bancha Duriyapunt; Weerasak Kowsurat (who was Thailand’s minister of tourism and sports in 2018); Suratin Chaichoomphu of the Thai Groundwater Association; Suratin honorary British consul Ben Svatsi; Mae Sai district mayor Somsak Kanakam; Royal Thai army colonel/chief of staff Singhanat Losuya; and Colonel Bhak Loharjun, the Royal Thai Army’s chief medical officer. Other documentary interviewees who were part of the rescue include Unsworth’s live-in girlfriend Tik Woranan; U.S. Air Force pararescuer sergeant Derek Anderson; and U.S. Air Force captain Mitch Torrel, a special tactics officer.

“The Rescue” (which has effective editing and a stirring musical score) tells this story in such vivid details, it’s almost as if viewers are watching it unfold all over again, from the perspectives of the people who were involved in the rescue mission. Still, these rescuers had the luxury of being able to leave the cave and get food, fresh water and proper shelter when they needed it. The people who were trapped in the cave did not have those privileges during their ordeal. And what it felt like for the survivors who were trapped in the cave is a story that will have to be told in another documentary that is not “The Rescue.”

National Geographic Documentary Films and Greenwich Entertainment released “The Rescue” in select U.S. cinemas on October 8, 2021. Disney+ premiered the movie on December 3, 2021.

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