2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts’

April 26, 2019

by Carla Hay

Trixie Mattel in “Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts” (Photo by Nick Zeig-Owens)

“Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts”

Directed by Nick Zeig-Owens

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 25, 2019.

Brian Michael Firkus, also known as drag queen Trixie Mattel, is best known for winning Season 3 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars,” the spin-off show to VH1’s Emmy-winning drag-queen competition series “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” This documentary examines Trixie’s rise to fame, her budding career as a singer/comedian and her personal behind-the-scenes struggles. For all of her flamboyant and sassy prancing and preening that she does on stage, the documentary reveals that off-stage, Trixie is quite grounded and humble. Even when chaos is are happening around her, she remains fairly level-headed.

It should be noted that “Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts” is produced by World of Wonder, the same production company for the “Drag Race” series. That might explain why parts of the documentary look more like a publicist-approved electronic press kit than a revealing biography. Trixie/Brian’s love life is not seen or discussed at all in the film. It’s unclear if Trixie/Brian (who is openly gay) wanted that subject matter to be off-limits in the movie, or if director Nick Zeig-Owens made that decision all on his own.

Most of the movie was filmed in the period of time after Trixie’s first stint on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” where she came in sixth place on Season 7. Trixie then parlayed that fame into a stint co-hosting two talk shows with fellow “Drag Race” alum Katya Zamolodchikova: “UNHhhh” on World of Wonder’s YouTube channel and then later “The Trixie & Katya Show” on Viceland. As fans already know, “The Trixie & Katya Show” was canceled after Katya took a leave of absence to deal with personal issues.

The documentary brings some insight into what really went on behind the scenes. While in a dressing room getting ready for a show, Katya (whose real name is Brian Cook) openly discusses her anxiety issues and doing meth to cope with her problems. She talks about having a “psychotic break” and even loudly declares, “I should be in rehab.” Not long after that outburst, on another day, Katya has a meltdown and refuses to do the show. Shortly afterward, Katya is in rehab, and the show scrambles to do reshoots and find a replacement guest host.

Meanwhile, Trixie/Brian admits to feeling mixed emotions about Katya’s abrupt leave of absence—anger that Katya has jeopardized Trixie’s career; guilt that the resentment he feels toward Katya is a selfish emotion; and relief that Katya is getting the help that she needs. Trixie tries to be a supportive pal, but to her surprise, Katya ends their friendship. In one scene, Trixie reads aloud a vicious email from Katya in which she calls Trixie “arrogant” and “boring” on the show, and ends the email by saying, “Do what I did, bitch. Fail.” (Fans of Trixie and Katya already know if their friendship was mended, but for those who don’t know, the answer to that question is covered in the documentary.)

After the cancellation of the talk shows with Katya, Trixie forges ahead to launch a singing career in country music, with aspirations to be a drag-queen alternative to Dolly Parton. (Trixie tours on a regular basis, and has released two albums so far: 2017’s “Two Birds” and 2018’s “One Stone.” She also did a performance at the world premiere of “Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts” at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.) As for Trixie’s singing talent, she’s no Dolly Parton, but she’s not terrible either. She’s fully aware that she has to do her drag act as a country singer because audiences come to see Trixie, not Brian, on stage. (Although the documentary does show Brian doing soundchecks and rehearsals while not in drag.)

The estrangement from Katya has tested Trixie’s confidence, and she wonders aloud how much fans will accept her as a comedian without being part of a duo with Katya. There are many scenes in the documentary of Trixie on tour, meeting fans, getting dolled up, showing viewers her wardrobe, and going to “Drag Race” viewing parties. The movie also features appearances by drag queens such as RuPaul, Morgan McMichaels, Bob the Drag Queen, BenDeLaCreme and Kennedy Davenport.

Trixie mentions that there were two different endings filmed for her “Drag Race All Stars” finale, presumably to avoid spoilers from leaking out to the public. In one ending, Trixie was named the winner. In the other ending, finalists Trixie and Shangela were named the winners in a tie. She found out the real outcome at the same time as everyone else who watched the finale at the viewing party

A lot of people might think that a documentary about a drag queen would have a lot of histrionics from the star of the movie. But Trixie does not fall into the stereotype of being a hysterical drama queen. In fact, even when Trixie wins “Drag Race All-Stars,” she’s happy, but she she’s not jumping up and down, and she’s not crying uncontrollably. Even when she goes through some tough times emotionally, particularly during her period of estrangement from close friend Katya, Trixie doesn’t really cry on screen.

Brian/Trixie uses humor to deflect a lot of emotional pain, and it’s clear that he/she prefers to compartmentalize and hide away the pain rather than to let it all hang out—at least not in front of these documentary cameras. Brian briefly opens up about his unhappy childhood that included an abusive, alcoholic stepfather who Brian says often beat him. According to Brian, the last time his stepfather (who is now deceased) abused him was when he pointed a gun at Brian’s head and said he was going to kill him. Fortunately, Brian has a healthy and loving relationship with his mother, who is shown in the documentary when he goes to his hometown of Milwaukee while on tour.

Even though Brian says in the documentary that he grew up thinking it was normal to feel like wanting to die, he doesn’t consider himself to be a depressed person now. He admits that many people, including Trixie’s fans, assume that Brian/Trixie has issues with anxiety and/or depression. There are a few scenes in the movie when he gets emotionally touched when fans write to him or tell him in person how much Trixie has helped them with their confidence and/or mental-health issues.

Underneath the big hair and big personality, Trixie says she’s a songwriter at heart. When she confesses her life goals, she says it in a way that is very Trixie Mattel: “I would love to write songs for other people…just sit in the woods…and jerk off.” She also explains why mainstream audiences have embraced drag queens more than ever before: “They’re there to see this delusional confidence.”

UPDATE: World of Wonder will release “Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts” on several VOD platforms (including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Microsoft Movies) on December 3, 2019.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Mystify: Michael Hutchence’

April 26, 2019

by Carla Hay

Michael Hutchence in “Mystify: Michael Hutchence” (Photo by Steve Pyke)

“Mystify: Michael Hutchence”

Directed by Richard Lowenstein

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 25, 2019.

What more can be revealed about INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence that hasn’t already been revealed? There have been several TV documentaries, books and articles telling the life story of Hutchence, who died in 1997 at the age of 37. The surviving members of INXS released a self-titled memoir in 2005. There was even a 2014 dramatic miniseries “INXS: Never Tear Us Apart,” starring Luke Arnold as Hutchence. But the documentary film “Mystify: Michael Hutchence” stands out from the rest because it has something that the other stories don’t have: the participation of Hutchence’s most high-profile ex-girlfriends. Much of the never-before-seen footage in the documentary comes from these women who arguably knew him best, and it offers an intimate look at Hutchence at home and while traveling. The documentary, which features its new interviews as voiceovers only, also has the expected archival footage of interviews, performances and music videos that Hutchence and INXS did over the years. All are expertly edited to maximum effect.

For those who aren’t familiar with INXS, the documentary breezes through the early years of the Australian band (formerly known as the Farriss Brothers), starting with the group’s origins in 1977 and into the early 1980s. The other members of INXS were Garry Gary Beers (bass), Kirk Pengilly (saxophone and guitar) and brothers Andrew Farriss (keyboards), Tim Farriss (guitar) and Jon Farriss (drums). Through steady touring, INXS grew a fan base and broke through internationally in the mid-1980s. By the end of the 1980s, INXS had racked up several hits, including “What You Need,” “Need You Tonight,” “Never Tear Us Apart” and “New Sensation.” The documentary is named after the INXS song “Mystify,” which was one of the hits on the band’s best-selling 1987 album “Kick.” Hutchence, who was the band’s chief lyricist, was undoubtedly the focus of INXS, and his good looks and swagger made him a major sex symbol in his heyday. The band’s sales declined in the 1990s, but INXS is still considered one of the most influential rock acts from Australia.

Like most lead singers of popular bands, Hutchence had solo projects, but they’re mostly overlooked in this documentary. His commercially disappointing “Max Q” album (from 1989) gets some screen time, but his acting career and his self-titled solo album (released in 1999) aren’t mentioned at all. Leaving out Hutchence’s acting projects is a strange omission from this documentary, considering that “Mystify” film director Richard Lowenstein directed Hutchence’s first movie as an actor:  the 1986 Australian rock-oriented drama “Dogs in Space.” Hutchence had a starring role in the movie, and he had a prominent supporting role in Roger Corman’s 1990 horror film “Frankenstein Unbound.”

The “Mystify” documentary has interviews with many of the same people who’ve given interviews about Michael Hutchence over the years, including the other members of INXS; Hutchence family members Rhett, Tina, Kell and Patricia; former INXS managers Chris Murphy and Martha Troup; music producer Chris Thomas; and Michael’s longtime friend Bono, the lead singer of U2. Because of the interviews with Michael’s ex-girlfriends who had serious relationships with him, “Mystify” probably has the largest participation from his loved ones and business associates of any Michael Hutchence biography so far.

Michael came from a broken home—his parents Kell and Patricia split up when he was 15—and the following year, he, his mother Patricia and his older half-sister Tina moved to Los Angeles so Patricia could pursue a career as a Hollywood makeup artist. (They eventually moved back to Australia after less than a year in Los Angeles.) The move to L.A. has often been described as a turning point for the Hutchence family, because Patricia and Michael had secretly planned the move for months, and when they abruptly left the rest of the family behind, including Michael’s younger brother Rhett, it permanently altered the family dynamic. (Kell died in 2002. Patricia died in 2010.)

When Michael’s parents were together, they lived in Hong Kong, and often traveled. All of this family background—which has been described numerous times in biographies about Hutchence, including the “Mystify” documentary—probably explains why Hutchence had a wandering spirit and was deeply conflicted about fame. He and people close to him often described him as having two different personalities—extroverted and confident in public; introverted and insecure in private.

But most of Michael’s former girlfriends haven’t spoken about him extensively for biographies. “Mystify” is the first Michael Hutchence biography to have the participation of Ananda Braxton-Smith (who dated Michael from 1978 to 1980, before he was famous); Michele Bennett (who dated Michael from 1982 to 1987); pop singer Kylie Minogue (who was with Michael from 1989 to 1991); supermodel Helena Christensen (who was his partner from 1992 to 1995); and a woman only identified as “Erin,” who had a secret affair with Michael for a few years before his death. Photos of Erin that are in the documentary show her to be a pretty brunette who resembles a young Bennett.

All of them talk about the two sides of Michael, and how he opened up to them about his deepest fears and insecurities. Minogue is perhaps the most candid, as she details how they got together, how they broke up, what was right about their relationship and what was wrong. Some of the things shown in the documentary are home videos of them nearly naked while on vacation somewhere, as well as love notes that the couple used to fax to each other. The documentary even reveals the aliases the couple would use when they had to send messages via hotel faxes: Minogue was “Gabby Jones” and Michael was “Swordfish.”

Christensen shares fond memories of living the high life with Michael in the south of France, where they would often spend their days and nights going to different friends’ homes to eat and party. An avid reader, Michael also liked to share and read aloud from poems and books. The “Mystify” documentary includes an audio recording of him reading an excerpt from a novel that fascinated him: “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.”

Michael, who never married, was romantically involved with TV host Paula Yates from 1995 to 1997. Their daughter Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily (also known as Tiger), was born in 1996. Yates died of a heroin overdose in 2000, but when she and Michael were together, she was in a bitter custody battle with ex-husband Bob Geldof over their three daughters. The custody battle was a major source of stress, and it’s often been mentioned as a trigger for the circumstances that led to Michael’s death, which was officially ruled a suicide by hanging. The documentary includes a chilling timeline and testimonials detailing the last 12 hours of his life.

A considerable amount of time is spent in the documentary talking about the devastating brain injury that Michael suffered in Denmark after getting into a fight with a taxi driver in 1992. During the fight, Michael was pushed onto a sidewalk, his skull was fractured, and he lost his sense of smell and taste. Christensen describes in vivid detail about how he refused to get immediate medical treatment for the injury, and was frequently in denial about how bad the injury was.

The documentary has several testimonials from people who reiterate what other biographies have revealed: Michael’s personality drastically changed after the brain injury—he was easily angered, he began to suffer from severe bouts of depression, and he became more dependent on drugs. Toward the end of his life, he was abusing alcohol, cocaine, Xanax and heroin, according to his close confidants. Even though there have been theories that Michael accidentally died of auto-erotic asphyxiation, the “Mystify” documentary comes to the definite conclusion that his death was an impulsive suicide that was triggered by his depression, his brain injury, the stress of the Yates/Geldof custody battle and drug intoxication.

“Mystify” is the first documentary about Michael Hutchence that was made for the big screen. It’s the best way to experience this stellar film, which does justice to a larger-than-life talent that was taken away too soon.

UPDATE: Fathom Events will release “Mystify: Michael Hutchence” for one night only in select U.S. theaters on January 7, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Watson’

April 25, 2019

by Carla Hay

Paul Watson in "Watson"
Paul Watson in “Watson” (Photo courtesy of Participant Media)


Directed by Lesley Chilcott

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 25, 2019.

The world’s top eco-scientists have warned that how we treat life in our oceans and other large bodies of water will largely determine the state of the environment in the coming decades. And right now, the environment is in serious trouble, according to Captain Paul Watson, an early member of Greenpeace who has dedicated his life to protecting wildlife in the oceans. Watson, who is a native of Canada, claims he was one of the co-founders of Greenpeace, but that claim has been disputed by some of the group’s early members. The documentary “Watson” is the first in-depth look at this pioneering environmentalist, whose passion for his work has come at a high price to his safety, freedom and personal life.

Told in chronological order, “Watson” begins with an examination into his lonely childhood, which he says was damaged by his cold and abusive father. Watson’s emotional escape from his unhappy home life was in his love for animals, which he inherited from his nurturing mother. As a teenager, he discovered his love of being out on the water as a sailor. He came of age as a self-described hippie in the late 1960s, in the era of protests against the establishment, which was an ideal setting for Watson to take his combined interests of animal rights and environmental activism to become a part of Greenpeace with other like-minded disrupters.

At first, Watson found his work with Greenpeace satisfying, as the group members went around the world, risking their lives to prevent illegal fishing and poaching at sea. Greenpeace was also one of the first environmental groups to successfully decrease the practice of killing baby seals for their fur. (Sensitive viewers be warned: This film has a lot of graphic and bloody footage of animals being killed.)

But when Watson clashed with other Greenpeace leaders on how to deal with their opponents (Watson was less inclined to negotiate with the opposition), he was ousted from Greenpeace and left to pick up the pieces and continue on his own. Watson parting ways with Greenpeace turned out to be a blessing in disguise for him, as he went on to form Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a group that made its mark by taking radical measures, such as blocking boats engaged in illegal fishing, diligently getting people arrested for crimes against animals and the environment, and saving the lives of literally thousands of animals. (The footage of Watson and his colleagues carrying baby seals to safety can melt even the coldest of hearts.)

“Watson” has plenty of compelling Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd footage that is used to effectively augment the stories that he tells in his sit-down interviews shown in the film. With only the fraction of funding that Greenpeace has, Sea Shepherd has established a reputation of being a scrappy group of crimefighters at sea. As Watson emphasizes in the film, Sea Shepherd only goes after those who are committing illegal acts. Killing whales for sport or shark finning (killing a shark by removing its fin to later sell the fin at a high price) are among the heinous activities that are explicitly shown in “Watson” as a shocking wake-up call to people who don’t know how this unnecessary cruelty to animals is having dire consequences for our environment.

However, as “Watson” points out, when sea animals are killed for food, and there are gigantic food industries that rely on what can be fished from the ocean, it’s much harder for Sea Shepherd to attain some of their goals. Not surprisingly, Watson and Sea Shepherd have become the targeted enemies of certain governments, and Watson’s legal troubles are unflinchingly documented in this film.

Watson doesn’t try to portray himself as a hero, as he freely admits that his workaholic ways have taken tolls on his personal life—he has three failed marriages, and he admits that he essentially missed out on raising his now-adult daughter. Watson’s legal problems have prevented him from being at sea like he used to in previous decades, but being literally grounded has allowed him to be become a family man to his current wife Yana (whom he married in 2015) and their young son. “Watson” was skillfully directed by Lesley Chilcott, a co-producer of the Oscar-winning 2006 environmental film “An Inconvenient Truth.” That movie, as well as Netflix’s excellent 2017 documentary “Chasing Coral,” would make an excellent companion piece to “Watson,” which gives a very personal look into one of the warriors at the forefront of trying to save our environment.

UPDATE: Participant Media and Terra Mater Factual Studios will release “Watson” in New York City on November 8, 2019. Animal Planet will have the TV premiere of “Watson” on December 22, 2019.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal’

anbApril 25, 2019

by Carla Hay

Trinea Gonczar in “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal”

Directed by Erin Lee Carr

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 25, 2019.

The challenge of doing a documentary film about a high-profile scandal that’s already been covered in countless news stories is that the film really has to deliver something new and extraordinary in order to stand out from all the other stories. “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal,” although well-researched, doesn’t report anything new and surprising in its chronicle of the 2016 scandal that exposed Dr. Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of hundreds of patients (many of them were underage female gymnasts) and various institutions’ cover-up and enabling of Nassar’s illegal acts, which spanned more than 20 years. (Nassar has now been stripped of his medical license. In 2017 and 2018, he received numerous prison sentences that will ensure that he will die in prison.) However, the lack of a newsworthy breakthrough in the documentary doesn’t make the film’s emotional impact any less powerful.

“At the Heart of Gold” doesn’t have new interviews with the most famous people involved in the scandal, such as abuse survivors/Olympic gold medalists Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and McKayla Maroney. The documentary also doesn’t interview any of the chief villains in the story, such as Nassar (whose manufactured “nice guy” image fooled people for years) or the officials at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University (where Nassar also worked), who are accused of actively covering up Nassar’s sexual abuse after the crimes were reported to them. Many of these officials have lost their jobs and are involved in their own legal cases where they are facing criminal prosecution and/or civil lawsuits because of the Nassar scandal.

People interviewed for “At the Heart of Gold” are several abuse survivors—including Trinea Gonczar, Dominique Moceanu, Amanda Thomashow, Morgan McCaul—as well as a few of the survivors’ family members, plaintiff attorney Mick Grewal, Nassar attorney Shannon Smith, judge Rosemarie Aquilina, gymnastics professionals and journalists who covered the story. News reports have already revealed that Nassar’s sexual abuse, which he usually tricked his victims into believing was medical therapy, shockingly occurred on many occasions while the victims’ parents were in the same room, where they believed Nassar had been giving a routine physical exam. However, most of the abuse happened when Nassar was alone with a victim. In many cases, the abuse escalated from fondling to sexual intercourse.

As heinous as Nassar’s actions were, the documentary reiterates that the people who ignored the victims’ complaints and allowed Nassar to get away with committing sexual abuse for decades are just as responsible for these crimes. John Geddert (former USA Gymnastics coach)* and Kathie Klages (former Michigan State University gymnastics coach) are repeatedly singled out in the documentary as two of the most evil enablers of Nassar. As the #MeToo movement raises awareness of how to fight sexual abusers, “At the Heart of Gold” also takes a microscope to the culture that allows people to commit these crimes. The movie serves as a warning that sexual predators are particularly enabled in industries where children are being pushed to achieve fame and glory and are frequently left alone with powerful adults in the industry who are not their parents.

The documentary does an excellent job of also pointing to the abusive treatment that many aspiring Olympic gymnasts receive early on in their training, which almost always begins when they are underage children. The gymnasts are essentially brainwashed into believing that they will be kicked out of a program if they complain about or report any illegal or inappropriate behavior from an authority figure who can derail someone’s Olympic dreams. Gymnasts are also taught not to complain about injuries (those who complain are often punished), and gymnasts are sometimes forced to perform with serious injuries, such as fractured bones.

Béla and Márta Károlyi—the husband-and-wife duo who trained Olympic gold-medalist gymnasts such as Nadia Comăneci, Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug—are portrayed as two of the chief perpetrators of this vicious mentality. The Károlyis, who used to be USA Gymnastics coaches, are not interviewed in “At the Heart of Gold,” but they have been sued for knowing about Nassar’s abuse when it was happening at the Károlyi Ranch, the couple’s remote training facility near Hunstville, Texas, that closed in 2018. (Béla retired from gymnastics coaching in 1997, while Márta retired in 2016.)

Some of the people interviewed in “At the Heart of Gold” give disturbing descriptions of the Károlyi Ranch as being a cult-like compound where communication was cut off from the outside world, and the Karolyis were treated like gods who could be merciless in their punishment. Michigan Radio/NPR Radio’s 2018 podcast “Believed” takes a more in-depth look at the Nassar scandal, but “At the Heart of Gold” makes a worthy companion piece for those who want to get the story in a documentary film.

HBO will premiere “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal” on May 3, 2019.

*UPDATE: John Geddert committed suicide on February 25, 2021, the same day that he was indicted on 24 counts of abuse-related crimes, including human trafficking and sexual assault.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘For They Know Not What They Do’

April 25, 2019

by Carla Hay

For They Know Not What They Do
Ryan and Rob Robertson in “For They Know Not What They Do” (Photo courtesy of the Robertson Family)

“For They Know Not What They Do”

Directed by Daniel Karslake

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 25, 2019.

In his 2007 documentary “For the Bible Tells Me So,” director Daniel Karslake examined how right-wing conservatives use the Bible to discriminate against the LGBTQ community. Karslake’s documentary “For They Know Now What They Do” takes a more personal approach by spotlighting conservative Christian parents and how they handled finding out that one of their children is LGBTQ. It’s an emotionally charged film that will bring tears to most viewers’ eyes, no matter what you think about LGBTQ issues.

The four sets of parents are Linda and Rob Robertson from suburban Seattle; Dave and Sally McBride from Wilmington, Delaware; Victor Baez Sr. and Annette Febo from Orlando, Florida; and Coleen and Harold Porcher from Montclair, New Jersey.

The Robertsons have the most heartbreaking story to tell about their son Ryan, who came out as gay when he was a teenager. The revelation caused the parents to send Ryan to a “gay conversion” center, and they cut off contact with one of Ryan’s beloved uncles just because the uncle is gay. These actions had long-lasting negative effects on the family, and how the Robertsons are coping with it is sobering and unforgettable.

The McBrides, who have three children, also had to come to grips with finding out that not all of their children are heterosexual. Their eldest son is gay, and their youngest child came out as a transgender woman while she was a senior at American University, where she was president of a fraternity. That youngest child is Sarah McBride, who has since become a political activist, and she experienced a major tragedy not long after she started her new life as a trans woman.

Coleen and Harold Porcher thought that the biggest obstacle their only child had to face was being biracial. (Coleen is black, and Harold is white.) But as the Porcher parents discovered when the child reached puberty, the girl they thought they were raising came out to them as a boy, and told them that he wanted to live his life as a male.

Baez and Febo, who are from Puerto Rico, found out that their son Victor Jr. is gay after he had been kicked out of his grandmother’s home, where he had been living at the time. Up until Victor Jr.’s grandmother had discovered his secret, he had been living a closeted life and was afraid of being disowned by his family if he came out as gay. Not long after coming out of the closet, Victor Jr.’s life took a tragic turn in 2016, when he became a survivor of the Pulse nightclub massacre that killed some people who were close to him.

Through interviews with the straight and LGBTQ members of all of these families, “For They Know Not What They Do” has emotionally powerful and sometimes shocking testimonials from those who know firsthand how coming out can be painful for many families but doesn’t have to be destructive. Clergy people such as Reverend Dr. Jacqui Lewis, an ally of the LGBTQ community, are also interviewed for the movie, which gives an optimistic view of how homophobic family members can best learn to accept a family member who is LGBTQ.

Although the movie does an excellent job of weaving these families’ stories together in a cohesive manner, the documentary might get criticism for leaving out stories of other people in LGBTQ community, such as people whose parents never accepted their sexual identity. Cisgender females who are lesbian or bisexual are also not included in the movie’s stories told from the children’s perspectives. Those omissions don’t take away from the movie’s intended message that even the most hardcore bigots can change when love triumphs over fear and hate.

UPDATE: First Run Features will release “For They Know Not What They Do” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on June 12, 2020. The movie’s release on digital, VOD and DVD is on June 15, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘The Apollo’

April 25, 2019

by Carla Hay

The Apollo
(Photo courtesy of HBO)

“The Apollo”

Directed by Roger Ross Williams

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 24, 2019.

The legendary Apollo Theater in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood has been around since 1934, and there is now finally a definitive documentary film about the venue’s legacy and lasting impact on culture. “The Apollo,” directed by Roger Ross Williams, skillfully manages the enormous task of taking all of the Apollo’s rich and complicated history and making it into a cohesive and fascinating story. The movie begins and ends with the Apollo’s 2018 world premiere of the stage adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” his 2015 award-winning non-fiction book about what it means to be a black person in America. Angela Bassett and Common were among the entertainers who starred in the production.

The Apollo—which became a U.S. and New York City landmark in 1983—has hosted numerous actors, dancers, comedians and other entertainers, but the music artists are the ones who shine the brightest in the documentary. The archival footage in the film is breathtaking to watch, as it’s a thrilling reminder that virtually all of the most influential black entertainers from the 1930s onward have performed at the Apollo. The list reads like a who’s who of black culture: Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Gladys Knight, and every major star who’s been on Motown Records, including Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5. Frank Schiffman, the original owner of the Apollo, is described as a ruthless businessman who saw the Apollo as an opportunity to provide an important showcase for black artists, beginning when these artists were shut out of “whites only” establishments. People of all races have performed at the Apollo, but this documentary focuses on black entertainers, in keeping with the Apollo’s original intention to be a venue primarily to showcase black talent.

Anyone familiar with the Apollo already knows about its famous “Amateur Night” talent contest (which was the brainchild of longtime Apollo emcee Ralph Cooper), but the documentary gives some insight into what you might not know: Cooper kept extensive notes (many of which are shown in the movie) on each performer from “Amateur Night,” as well as the established artists who graced the stage of the Apollo. The documentary includes footage of several “Amateur Nights” over the years (including a 13-year-old Lauryn Hill’s first Apollo performance in 1987, when she was booed on stage while singing the Jackson 5’s “Who’s Loving You”), as well as more recent behind-the-scenes and on-stage footage of aspiring entertainers. Several people in the documentary note that the Apollo audience is notoriously hard to please, so getting a standing ovation from the crowd is a badge of honor for any entertainer. The TV show “Showtime at the Apollo” (formerly known as “It’s Showtime at the Apollo”) is the long-running series that has highlights from the Apollo’s “Amateur Night.”

Jamie Foxx, who is interviewed in the film, also noted that many black comedians felt at home at the Apollo because they could be their uncensored selves and not have to worry about watering down their stand-up acts. The documentary includes footage of comedians such as Foxx, Richard Pryor, Moms Mabley, Chris Rock and Dick Gregory. Singer/actress Leslie Uggams, who began performing at the Apollo at the age of 9, shares some fond backstage memories in the documentary. She remembered that Ella Fitzgerald was always offering people food backstage, while Dinah Washington would generously dole out $100 bills to performers who were down on their luck.

The documentary also shows that the Apollo, much like black culture in America, is a story of resilience in the face of difficult obstacles. The Apollo’s relatively small capacity of about 1,500 people made it increasingly difficult for the venue to stay in business, and it temporarily closed in 1976, after filing for bankruptcy. Even when Inner City Broadcasting chief Percy Sutton bought the Apollo in 1983, making him the Apollo’s first black owner, the business still found it difficult to make a profit. In 1991, the state of New York bought the Apollo, which is now run by the non-profit Apollo Theater Foundation.

Even though the Apollo has long been considered a prestigious venue for black artists, it’s also a place that took risks and booked entertainers who were embroiled in controversy. Pharrell Williams and Doug E. Fresh give interviews in the documentary about how the Apollo was one of the first major venues in the United States to offer a major stage platform for hip-hop artists, including those such as Public Enemy and N.W.A, who would frequently speak out against the police in their songs. The Apollo also booked Billie Holiday at a time when her song “Strange Fruit” was considered offensive to many Southern people. Bobby Schiffman, Frank Schiffman’s son who inherited the Apollo until the venue filed for bankruptcy and closed in 1976, tells a story in the documentary about Eartha Kitt being afraid for her life to perform at the Apollo in 1960, because she had recently married a white man, and had been getting death threats from white and black people. But she won over the crowd, and Schiffman said it turned out to be one of her best performances, as well as a lesson for the Apollo that great entertainment on stage could triumph over any controversy going on outside the venue.

That’s not to say that the Apollo has been unaffected by social and political events. The documentary also puts everything into historical context, from the Apollo’s earliest years in the era of legal segregation, to the civil rights movements of the 1960s, to the rise of “black power” ideology in the 1970s to the influence of hip-hop culture in the 1980s and beyond. The message of the movie is that whatever has been an important historical touchstone for African-Americans from the 1930s and beyond—whether it was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. or Shirley Chisholm running for president of the United States or the Black Lives Matter movement—the Apollo’s audiences and the entertainment on stage have been affected. The documentary also points out that the Apollo is also one of the first places that people go to for memorials when black icons die. The documentary includes footage of Apollo memorials after the deaths of Brown, Franklin, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Prince.

Even with all the superstar entertainers who have graced the stage at the Apollo, one guest remains a special favorite: Barack Obama, who became the first sitting U.S. president to do an on-stage presentation at the Apollo. The documentary includes footage of that 2012 appearance, as well as of Obama backstage. If you visit the Apollo, longtime Apollo tour guide Billy Mitchell—also known as Mr. Apollo—might show you the wall of autographs that include Obama’s signature and those of many other celebrities. (There’s footage of Mitchell giving a tour in the documentary too.)

“The Apollo” is an expertly told story that does justice to the Apollo and the people who made the venue great. The only downside is that the movie will eventually become outdated as future legends will make their own history by performing on the Apollo stage. Until there’s a sequel or updated film, this documentary will stand as the most comprehensive visual story about the Apollo.

UPDATE: HBO will premiere “The Apollo” on November 6, 2019.

Fyre Festival documentary duel: Two competing movies premiere in the same week

January 14, 2019

by Carla Hay

Fyre Festival

The notorious Fyre Festival is the subject of two documentary films that are premiering in the same week. “Fyre Fraud” (directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby) premieres on Hulu on January 14, 2019, while “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” (directed by Chris Smith) premieres on Netflix on January 18, 2019, in addition to “Fyre” having a limited theatrical release on January 18 in New York City and Los Angeles. Although it’s not unusual for two separate documentary films to cover the same subject, it’s extremely rare for them to premiere in the same week.

Fyre Festival was one of the biggest music-industry frauds of this decade. The event, which was heavily promoted on the Internet, was advertised as a star-studded music festival in the Bahamas, offering a luxury experience that was scheduled to take place over two weekends in late April/early May 2017. Instead, attendees arrived at the festival site to find a garbage-filled area with very little shelter except flimsy tents and limited, substandard food options. Fyre Festival was cancelled one day before it was set to begin, and event founder/promoter Billy McFarland was eventually sentenced to six years in prison for fraud. Hip-hop star Ja Rule, who was advertised as a co-founder of the festival, quickly distanced himself from this disaster after the event was cancelled. Ja Rule issued a public apology, placed all the blame on McFarland, and avoided any criminal prosecution, although he and McFarland had several lawsuits brought against them.

There are sure to be many reviews comparing “Fyre Fraud” and “Fyre.” Hulu is making an effort to give “Fyre Fraud” an advantage by having the movie premiere first, and emphasizing that the film has an exclusive interview with McFarland that was done after the festival was cancelled and before he went to prison. “Fyre Fraud” also has media resources such as Mic (the news site aimed at millennials) and music-industry trade magazine Billboard as executive producers of the film. Meanwhile, Netflix’s “Fyre” has Vice Studios as a media partner in producing the documentary. Based on the official trailers and descriptions each documentary, “Fyre” seems to have a more straight-forward approach to the subject matter, while “Fyre Fraud” aims to take a more scathing look at the sociological circumstances that allowed this fraud to become as big as it was. Hulu describes “Fyre Fraud” as a “true-crime comedy,” which indicates that there will be a mocking tone to the film.

Meanwhile, the directors of each documentary have accused each other of questionable ethics, according to TechCrunch. The “Fyre” team said they turned down McFarland’s demands to be paid for an interview. McFarland eventually went to the “Fyre Fraud” filmmakers, who agreed to pay McFarland a six-figure sum (reportedly between $100,000 to $200,000) to be interviewed for “Fyre Fraud.” Meanwhile, the “Fyre Fraud” team says the ethics of “Fyre” are compromised because the film had executive producer involvement from James Ohliger and Elliot Tebele, two co-founders of Jerry Media, the company that marketed the Fyre Festival. A former Jerry Media employee interviewed in “Fyre Fraud” claims that high-ranking Jerry executives knew early on that the festival was a scam, but willingly perpetuated the scam out of greed. “Fyre” director Smith says that despite Jerry Media’s involvement in the film, he still had separate editorial control and did not shy away from depicting Jerry Media’s responsibility in the Fyre Festival fiasco.


Here is Hulu’s trailer and description of “Fyre Fraud”:

The Fyre Festival was the defining scam of the millennial generation, at the nexus of social media influence, late-stage capitalism, and morality in the post-truth era. Marketing for the 2017 music event went viral with the help of rapper Ja Rule, instagram stars, and models, but turned epic fail after stranding thousands in the Bahamas. Featuring an exclusive interview with Billy McFarland, the convicted con-man behind the festival; “Fyre Fraud” is a true-crime comedy bolstered by a cast of whistleblowers, victims, and insiders going beyond the spectacle to uncover the power of FOMO and an ecosystem of enablers, driven by profit and a lack of accountability in the digital age.

Emmy™ nominated and Peabody™ award-winning directors Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason executive produce along with Michael Gasparro, The Cinemart, MIC and Billboard.


“Fyre Fraud” is more than the story of a failed music festival in the Bahamas – this dark comedy is a cautionary tale for a generation.

Billy McFarland offers us a window into the mind of a con artist, the insidious charm of the fraudster and how they can capture our imaginations, our investment, and our votes in the age of Trump. McFarland’s staggering ambition metastasized in a petri dish of late-stage capitalism, corporate greed, and predatory branding, all weaponized by our fear of missing out.

Our aim was to set the stage for a strange journey into the moral abyss of our digital age, going beyond the meme to show an ecosystem of enablers, driven by profit and willing to look the other way, for their own gain.

We draw on countless cultural references, on true crime tension, and on humor – but we did not intend to create a toothless comedy about the Fyre Festival. We hope this film can pierce our collective apathy and disrupt our own millennial peers, if only for an instant – to look at these stories for what they truly are, and to halt this algorithm before it devours us whole.


Here is Netflix’s trailer and description of “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened”:

An exclusive behind the scenes look at the infamous unraveling of the Fyre music festival. Created by Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule, Fyre was promoted as a luxury music festival on a private island in the Bahamas featuring bikini-clad supermodels, A-List musical performances and posh amenities. Guests arrived to discover the reality was far from the promises.
Chris Smith, the director behind the Emmy Award Nominated documentary “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond,” gives a first-hand look into disastrous crash of Fyre as told by the organizers themselves.
Written & Directed by: Chris Smith (“Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton” (2017), “American Movie” (1999 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Documentary), “Collapse” (2009)) Produced by Library Films, Jerry Media, Matte Projects VICE Studios, and VICE Studios. Executive Producers: Brett Kincaid, Max Pollack, Matthew Rowean, Gabrielle Bluestone, James Ohliger, Elliot Tebele. Edited by Jon Karmen, Koehler.



2018 DOC NYC: movie reviews and recaps

November 16, 2018

by Carla Hay

The ninth annual DOC NYC—which took place in New York City from November 8 to November 15, 2018—has continued its status as an outstanding international festival for documentary visual media. Almost all of the DOC NYC screenings and other events took place at the SVA Theatre, IFC Center and Cinépolis Chelsea. DOC NYC also has panel discussions about filmmaking, offering a wealth of opportunities to share knowledge, discover new talent and network with professionals.


DOC NYC 2018 also had competitions, with all voted for by juries, except for the Audience Award. The winners were:

Viewfinders Competition (for films with a distinct directorial vision): “A Little Wisdom,” director Yuqi Kang’s look at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery.

Metropolis Competition (for films with New York City stories): “Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground,” director Chuck Smith’s profile of filmmaker Barbara Rudin, who helped influence the careers of Andy Warhol and Lou Reed.

Shorts Competition: “In the Absence,” director Seung-Jun Yi’s examination of at the Sewol Ferry Disaster in South Korea. Special mentions when to the short documentaries “Obon ( directed by Andre Hoermann and Anna Samo) and “King of the Night,” directed by Molly Brass and Stephen Tyler.

Audience Award: “Out of Omaha,” director Clay Tweel’s profile of identical twin African American brothers who want to escape their lives of poverty and crime in Omaha. (Eligible films were in the Viewfinders and Metropolis competitions.)

DOC NYC PRO Pitch Perfect Award: “Civil War (or, Who Do We Think We Are),” director Rachel Boynton’s examination of how American remember the Civil War.

IF/Then Shorts Northeast American Pitch Award: “Mizuko (Water Child),” directed by Kira Dane and Katelyn Rebelo

The 2018 DOC NYC Visionaries Tribute (which has non-competitive categories), an invitation-only event presented on November 8, honored Orlando Bagwell and Wim Wenders, each with the Lifetime Achievement Award; “Free Solo” co-directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin with the Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence; and Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program director Tabitha Jackson with the Leading Light Award.

There were about 300 feature films and short films at the festival, in addition to the panels, so it’s impossible for one person to experience everything during the festival. But here is a recap of the world premieres that I saw at DOC NYC 2018:



“Amazing Grace”

Directed by Sydney Pollack

This long-lost Aretha Franklin documentary was a surprise addition to DOC NYC, which announced the movie’s world premiere at the festival just one week before its debut on November 12, 2018.  In January 1972, Franklin recorded her best-selling gospel album “Amazing Grace” over two days at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. “The documentary film Amazing Grace” chronicles the recording of the album. Due to legal reasons, including Franklin’s objections to the movie being made public, the release of the “Amazing Grace” documentary was delayed for decades. After Franklin’s passing in August 2018, and with her family’s approval, this movie is finally getting released, thanks largely to the efforts of producer Alan Elliott.

Aretha Franklin is undoubtedly the star of the show, but her brother/musical director Rev. Cecil Franklin, who had a more extroverted personality, could have easily upstaged her in the movie during certain scenes when he makes introductions and tells jokes during the show. But once Aretha sings, the power of her talent takes over, and it hits home how much a void can never be filled now that she has passed away. The movie also features glimpses of Aretha’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, as well as Rolling Stones members Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, who were in the audience.

It’s hard to see why this emotionally resonant movie, whose highlights include performances of “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Mary Don’t You Weep,” was kept from the public for all these years. There were reportedly audio problems that have apparently been fixed in this final cut. There are also many not-very-flattering closeups of Aretha, Cecil and other people literally sweating in the church, so certain people who objected to the release might have been self-conscious about how they looked. It’s unknown what the temperature in the church was like at the time of filming, but it’s obvious that all the sweating came from the sheer energy and passion that came from this show. And given that this movie was filmed in 1972, the low-tech appearance of everything is to be expected; it just adds to the  “raw and real” ambience of the film. It’s in stark contrast to today’s slick music documentaries where artists are rarely shown sweating up a storm for their art.  “Amazing Grace” will have a limited release in U.S. theaters on December 7, 2018, before getting a wider release sometime in 2019.

Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists

Directed by Jonathan Alter, John Block and Steve McCarthy

Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin in "Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists"
Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin in “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

In this excellent profile of New York journalists Jimmy Breslin (Daily News) and Pete Hamill (New York Post, Daily News), the gregarious and blunt Breslin is the clear standout, compared to the more low-key and sophisticated Hamill. Even though Breslin and Hamill have some important things in common (they’re both Irish-American, born and raised in New York City, unapologetic liberals and authors of several books), the contrast between the two journalists is even more apparent: Breslin (who died in 2017 at the age of 88) was more a “man of the people,” while Hamill preferred to hobnob with celebrities and elite members of society.  For example, Hamill dated Shirley MacLaine and Jackie Kennedy Onassis. The main thing that Breslin and Hamill have in common is their commitment to bringing a human side to reporting the news without losing their journalistic integrity and individual voices as writers. Breslin and Hamill were interviewed for this film, as well as their family members, colleagues, fans and critics.

The documentary does not shy away from examining Breslin’s and Hamill’s flaws and career lows, but Breslin has the more interesting story, and he is the more famous of the two. Growing up in a broken home with an emotionally distant mother, Breslin turned to journalism to channel his passion for telling stories. His oversized personality also came with an oversized ego that led to controversies (such accusations of being racist against an Asian female colleague or how he used his notorious Son of Sam correspondence to further his career), but like a lot of complicated people, Breslin also had a generous side to him. He usually championed the underdog, even when it led to ridicule or risking his personal safety.

The movie reminds people that Breslin was one of the few public figures in New York City who called for an “innocent until proven guilty” due process for the Central Park Five (five black and Latino teenagers accused of raping a white woman in Central Park in 1989), at a time when the majority of the public had already decided that the accused were guilty before the case ever went to trial. It turns out that Breslin was right: The five defendants did not commit the crime. DNA evidence and a confession from the real rapist exonerated the Central Park Five in 2012, but only after they spent several years in prison. Breslin was also unafraid of being in the minority with his criticism of subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz, who was glorified by many people for shooting four unarmed black teenagers with an unlicensed gun in 1984. The teenagers said they were panhandling, while Goetz said that he shot them because they tried to rob him.

Hamill, who grew up in a relatively stable middle-class home, had experience as a columnist and as editor-in-chief at New York City’s biggest tabloid newspapers: the New York Post and the Daily News. His managerial positions might explain why he was more cautious than Breslin when it came to hot-button topics. Even though Hamill was less likely than Breslin to personally stick his neck out for controversial social issues, the movie portrays Hamill as a lot less egotistical than Breslin, and such a beloved boss that most of the New York Post’s editorial employees famously walked out when Hamill was fired by a new owner in 1993. Hamill was eventually re-hired at the New York Post, but he later returned to the Daily News, where he would have on-again, off-again employment for several years. Now in his 80s, Hamill still writes books and contributes to publications such as the New York Times. Several of the talking heads interviewed for the documentary lament that Breslin and Hamill represent a bygone era of journalism when newspapers, not the Internet, was the main way that people read the news. HBO will premiere “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists” on January 28, 2019.

“Decade of Fire”

Directed by Vivian Vazquez and Gretchen Hildebrand

This film shows how New York City’s Bronx borough was able to rebuild after devastating fires in the 1970s displaced thousands of residents, who were mostly black and Latino. “Decade of Fire” co-director Vivian Vazquez, who was raised in the Bronx in the 1970s, narrates the movie, and discovers through investigative research that many of the fires were caused by years of neglect in updating building wiring and, more nefariously, the alleged result of arson by greedy landlords who wanted to profit from insurance payouts. The movie alleges that local residents desperate for cash were often secretly paid by landlords to set fire to the landlords’ buildings, and these crimes were rarely reported.

Gentrification and government restructuring of voting districts along racial lines are also offered as explanations for the fires, which the film concludes were mostly set to purposely displace ethnic minorities to move out of certain areas of the Bronx. Even with these disturbing allegations, the movie also offers inspirational hope by showing how displaced residents took it upon themselves to rebuild their neighborhoods without waiting for the government or landlords to assist them. Residents with little or no construction experience had a “do-it-yourself” approach to learn how to rebuild and take more control of their neighborhood buildings, which led to a significant decrease in the destructive fires. However, the movie ends on a cautionary note and serves as a warning that what happened in the Bronx in the 1970s could happen to other similar at-risk communities.

“Jay Myself”

Directed by Stephen Wilkes

This inside look at photographer Jay Maisel’s move from his 72-room New York City studio building could have been subtitled “Confessions of an Artistic Hoarder.” It’s clear within the first 15 minutes of the film that Maisel has a hard time letting go of all the stuff he’s collected and kept over the years, much of which would have little value at a garage sale or a flea market, such as unfinished knick knacks, old magazines and tons of unused art material that has collected dust. As the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Maisel had to sell the building, where he lived and worked since 1966, because he could no longer afford the real-estate taxes and other expenses of owning the property. It was one of the largest private real-estate deals in the city’s history.

The documentary shows the massive undertaking of packing up Maisel’s haphazardly stored possessions in order to move them to a smaller place. With help from his wife and daughter, who tactfully try to convince Maisel to get rid of things that are truly garbage, he alternates between reliving happy memories of being in the building; commenting on and showing his art; and stubbornly refusing to throw away items that he realistically no longer needs and have no value. Not all of his possessions are of the “pack rat” variety, but he’s accumulated enough that it’s sadly obvious that he might not have had to sell the building if he had cleared out the junk years ago and rented out all the usable space to help pay the bills. The movie does not mention if Maisel ever received this kind of financial advice, but even if he did, Maisel seems like the type to ignore the advice.

“Jay Myself” director Stephen Wilkes, who is also the documentary’s narrator, admits from the beginning of the film that he considers Maisel to be a friend and mentor. Perhaps that close friendship is why the movie doesn’t explore the deep psychological issues that led to Maisel’s hoarding. A more objective director would have confronted those issues instead of ignoring them like the proverbial elephant in the room.

“Lady Parts Justice in the New World Order”

Directed by Ruth Leitman

Lady Parts Justice League, a New York City-based activist group founded by “The Daily Show” co-creator Lizz Winstead, fights for reproductive rights and other women’s issues by mixing politics and comedy. In response to the Donald Trump administration’s efforts to place more restrictions on Planned Parenthood and other places that provide legal abortions, members of Lady Parts Justice League went on its first “Vagical Mystery Tour” across the U.S. in 2017, to do live stand-up comedy, raise money, and give support to pro-choice clinics, particularly in states where reproductive rights are at the most risk. The tour is the focus of most of this 13-episode documentary series, which is seeking a media outlet to air it. DOC NYC had the world premiere of the series’ first and third episodes.

Equally entertaining and alarming, the show hits all the right notes when it comes to delivering its message and educating people on current abortion issues, but the show’s episodes that were screened at the festival present a fairly limited view of pro-lifers as angry people (mostly men) spewing hateful chants and harassing people outside clinics. The best parts of the show are when the LPJL members are at the clinics where they can give their support, such as helping escort patients in and out of the clinics, providing meals to the staff, or working on landscaping that will improve the clinics’ safety. People who are pro-choice will have their beliefs confirmed by watching this series, while pro-lifers will just have certain stereotypes reinforced that pro-choicers are left-wing feminists. Since only two episodes were screened at DOC NYC, it’s unknown if the series will delve deeper into the reality that there is diversity on both sides of the issue.

What’s admirable about the series, based on the two episodes that screened at the festival, is that it doesn’t ignore the fact that the women’s movement has problems and tensions, such as how women of color in the movement can experience racism from white people who consider themselves to be liberals. Series executive producer Winstead does a good job of addressing this issue head-on during a group meeting that is shown in the series, and it seems as if she genuinely makes the women of color on her team feel valued and included. And the show isn’t afraid to expose that the LPJL doesn’t always have its act together, such as in one hilarious scene when the group members on tour find out that the Airbnb place they rented is a dumpy disappointment, and they have to scramble to find another place to stay.

A glaring void in the episodes that were screened is the scarcity of pro-choice men who seem to be allies to the Lady Parts Justice League cause. Most of the pro-choice men who are seen interacting with LPJL members are male clinic workers who aren’t part of the tour.  It’s hard to tell from just two episodes how much effort LPJL made to include men in their day-to-day tour activities and who their male pro-choice allies are back in their home base.

And aside from Winstead mentioning that she had a legal abortion as a teenager (an abortion she says she doesn’t regret), there’s hardly any revelation of the Lady Parts Justice League members’ personal lives and what motivated them to sacrifice a great deal of their time to LPJL. A lot of people are pro-choice, but there’s more to the story if people want to spend time away from family and friends to visit pro-choice clinics around the U.S. and raise money for these clinics and other pro-choice causes. There’s no doubt that the LPJL members are passionate about their beliefs, but hopefully the series will show a more well-rounded view of their personalities instead of condensing them to wise-cracking or preachy soundbites.

Although Winstead’s history with “The Daily Show” might suggest that “Lady Parts Justice in the New World Order” could end up on Comedy Central, this show is better served to be on a TV network or streaming service where there aren’t restrictions on the show’s adult language. Whatever an individual’s beliefs are about abortion, “Lady Parts Justice in the New World Order” has a thought-provoking viewpoint that needs to be heard in a conversation that shouldn’t be sugarcoated or silenced.

“See Know Evil”

Directed by Charles Curran

Whenever there is an authorized documentary about someone who has died young after abusing drugs, the documentary often falls into the trap of glorifying the deceased as a lovable rebel instead of truly examining what led to the tragic circumstances around the untimely death. It’s an easy trap to fall into because the people closest to the deceased have to be interviewed for the documentary, but out of guilt and/or grief, they often don’t want to talk about the ugly realities of how drug addiction destroyed their loved one. This biography of New York City-based fashion photographer/artist Davide Sorrenti, a heroin addict who died of a kidney ailment in 1997 at the age of 20, often falls into that trap, but it does an excellent job of showing his free-spirited, charismatic personality and his meteoric rise in the 1990s due to popularizing the “heroin chic” trend. His edgy work appeared in magazines such as Interview and Ray Gun, and he took some of his most famous photos of model Jamie King, then known as James King, who was his heroin-addict girlfriend at the time. King (who cleaned up her life years ago after going to rehab) and model-turned-actress Milla Jovovich are two of several people interviewed who share fond memories of him in this documentary.

The most inspiring and best part of the film is how it shows that Davide did not wallow in self-pity over his thalassemia (also known as Cooley’s anemia), which required him to have frequent blood transfusions. Many of Davide’s close friends didn’t even know at first that he had the disease because he acted as if he was perfectly healthy. Doctors had once predicted that Davide wouldn’t live to become an adult, so that undoubtedly motivated his zest for life but also probably led to much of his reckless behavior. It makes it all the more tragic that he succumbed to the drug-addict lifestyle that contributed to his death.

The movie’s biggest flaw is that it tends to downplay how much nepotism was the main reason for why Davide was given so many career-boosting opportunities at such a young age. Davide came from a family of successful Italian-born photographers who were all interviewed in the film: older brother Mario, who was Davide’s unofficial mentor; older sister Vanina, who became a photographer after Davide’s death; and mother Francesca, who raised the kids as a divorcée, and worked her way up to the success that eventually benefited her children.

Before Davide began emulating Mario’s career path, he belonged to See Know Evil, an artistic group of young, male mischief makers (some of whom are interviewed in the film), who openly admit that their main activities were making graffiti, committing petty crimes and doing drugs. It’s the kind of teen rebellion that many young people experience, but the documentary fails to acknowledge how Davide’s race, class and family connections played a huge role in why he didn’t end up in the prison system when other young people who’ve done the same misdeeds aren’t as lucky. Davide was a product of the type of privilege that can glamorize drug addiction and “thug life,” as portrayed by young, pretty people who are mostly white and are from comfortably middle-class or upper-class backgrounds. Coming from that privilege, along with a fashion-insider family, is why the fashion industry easily embraced and celebrated Davide during the height of the 1990s “grunge” era, as a reaction against the over-the-top glitz of the 1980s.

Every drug addict has low points of doing shameful things that are difficult to talk about but could serve as a cautionary tale to help others, so it’s not too surprising that this authorized documentary doesn’t mention anything that would tarnish anyone’s reputation. Davide’s former girlfriend King and a few other people make vague references to a drug den type of atmosphere where Davide was living during the last year of his life, but the film has no detailed personal account from any of his loved ones about how bad things got for him when he was in the depths of his addiction or if anyone made any serious attempts to get him into rehab. The aftermath of Davide’s death is rushed through with video soundbites from Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and President Bill Clinton scolding the fashion industry for the “heroin chic” trend, effectively shaming the fad into extinction. There is also a brief mention of the efforts of Davide’s mother Francesca to honor his memory by being an activist in preventing drug addiction. Just like the photographs that Davide took, “See Know Evil” is a snapshot of the “grunge” era in fashion, but the movie is ultimately what the people who were in that culture wanted you to see, and the viewers know there’s more to the story that is not told.

“The Show’s the Thing: The Legendary Promoters of Rock”

Directed by Molly Bernstein and Philip Dolin

“The Show’s the Thing: The Legendary Promoters of Rock”

Long before Live Nation existed, the live concert business in the U.S. was run by a mafia-styled fiefdom that had local concert promoters dominating their own territories. “The Show’s the Thing” is a superb lesson in music history that tells how Premier Talent founder Frank Barsalona and other concert promoters impacted the careers of rock stars in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, when several local promoters, not one big company such as Live Nation, handled a national tour. Although the movie gives credit to New York-based Barsalona (who died in 2012 at the age of 74) as being one of the chief architects and pioneers of the live concert industry as we know it today, there are plenty of other major concert promoters who are also given the spotlight. They include Ron Delsener (New York), Bill Graham (San Francisco), Larry Magid (Philadelphia), Arny Granat (Chicago), Don Law (Boston), Jules and Mike Belkin (Cleveland) and United Kingdom-based Harvey Goldsmith, who was influential in brokering deals for many British artists’ major U.S. tours.

Most of the promoters who are still alive were interviewed for this film, but don’t expect a lot of diversity when it comes to the documentary’s interviews. Rock music, now as it was then, is primarily the domain of white men. The only person of color interviewed in the film is Carlos Santana, and the few women who are interviewed tend to be the promoters’ family members who were also usually their co-workers. Taken in the context that this documentary is about what the music industry was like before the Internet and other technology made people more socially aware, it’s not a surprise that this movie isn’t too concerned with being politically correct about diversity.

The documentary has a great selection of archival footage, with significant mentions of Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones. It’s clear that the filmmakers are true music fans, based on the excellent use of songs and how they’re edited in the film. One of the most fascinating parts of the documentary is the behind-the-scenes drama of Live Aid, when a feud between Goldsmith and Graham nearly threatened to derail the historic 1985 concert. Jon Bon Jovi, one of the rock stars interviewed in the film, tells a few memorable stories from an artist’s perspective about his early days as a struggling musician and how concert promoters helped him and his band.

But the best stories come from the promoters themselves, some of whom have no shortage of ego in describing their importance in shaping the concert industry. Even when they talk about the bitter rivalries that inevitably happened, it’s with a huge dose of fond nostalgia and wistfulness. Most of the promoters ended up selling their businesses to larger companies, which led to the rise of Live Nation. The promoters’ recollections naturally have a grandiose tone of “we were so great in the good old days,” and there’s plenty of bragging about the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll lifestyle that many of them enjoyed. At times, the film comes across as a little too reverential to these promoters, since there’s no real counterpoint of people talking about the very dark side of these promoters’ music-industry heyday, when powerful men got away with things that would be much harder to conceal in this era of social media. But in general, “The Show’s the Thing” is a fantastic documentary that’s worth seeing for anyone who appreciates rock history and for those who want to discover how some of the people who work behind the scenes can be just as interesting as the celebrities.

“To Kid or Not to Kid”

Directed by Maxine Trump

British-born, New York City-based documentary filmmaker Maxine Trump (no relation to Donald Trump) turns the spotlight on herself and other women who haven chosen not to have children, including a woman in her 20s who wants to be sterilized and author Marcia Drut-Davis, who caused controversy in 1974 by going on “60 Minutes” with her then-husband to declare that she didn’t want to have children. “To Kid or Not to Kid” is a solid and watchable effort, told with Trump’s first-person narration, but the film could have benefited from having a wider scope of people interviewed and more introspection from the director/narrator. Trump, who is in her 40s and married, naturally interviews people in her family, such as her husband, her widowed mother and her sister who is a divorced mom. She visits the NotMom convention, an annual gathering of women who do not have kids because of choice or circumstance. Trump also interviews women who chose to have children; some say they regret the decision, while others say they’re happy with their choice to become mothers. The fathers of these children are not interviewed, most likely because Trump  wanted this film to have a primarily female perspective. But there isn’t much diversity either with the women who are interviewed, since almost all are white and middle-class.

While making the documentary, Trump openly admits to sometimes being conflicted about deciding not to become a mother. It’s fairly obvious she is using the movie to reassure herself that she made the right decision to not have children. And that’s okay, but she left a lot of people out of what could have been a more well-rounded documentary about how family planning and reproductive issues can affect people. For example, the film doesn’t have interviews with anyone who is openly infertile, or people whose relationships are affected because one partner wants to have kids and the other one doesn’t. Adoption is also pretty much ignored in this film, since the focus is primarily on whether or not to have biological children. This documentary’s total running time is fairly short (about 75 minutes), but it could have been longer to explore these different perspectives.

Trump repeatedly mentions statistics and her concerns about the world being overpopulated as the main reasons why she doesn’t want to have kids. Although many people think being child-free by choice is a selfish decision, Trump firmly believes that it’s more selfish for people to have large families when the world’s resources are being depleted. It’s a viewpoint that led to her being estranged from a longtime female friend who doesn’t agree with that opinion. Trump tries to reconnect with the friend in this documentary. During the course of the film, Trump shows some self-awareness in understanding that it doesn’t benefit anyone to be negatively judgmental about choices to become a parent or how many children is appropriate for a family who can afford it.

But more self-awareness from Trump was needed for this film. Although Trump mentions in the beginning of the documentary that she had an operation when she was younger that would have made pregnancy difficult for her (and she shows the physical scars on camera to prove it), she doesn’t give any psychological introspection on the obvious emotional scars that the operation left. Trump and her husband come across as likable, intelligent, responsible adults, but sometimes handle the issue of having kids in a way that’s more like how immature young people would handle it. For example, Trump (who says she got married later in life) reveals that before she and her husband got married, they never talked to each other about whether or not they wanted to have kids. In the film, she doesn’t address why they avoided talking about such an important issue before making the commitment of marriage. A documentary filmmaker is supposed to be curious, and a more insightful director would have answered the question of why this couple didn’t bother to discuss the parenting issue before getting married.

And in one scene that could be interpreted as somewhat staged to create drama for the film, Trump announces that after she and her husband have had sex, they’re in a mild panic because they’re not sure if the morning-after pill is available over the counter. The movie then shows Trump and her husband going on the Internet and trying to find out how to get the pill without a prescription. It’s an “Oh my God, we might have gotten pregnant, now what do we do” scene that looks disingenuous, because Trump is close to menopausal age and has had an operation that would make it difficult for her to be pregnant, and surely it’s not the first time that these middle-aged, married people have thought about their birth-control options. They aren’t naive teenagers, after all. And without giving away any spoilers, someone in their marriage eventually gets a different operation (which is documented in the film) that essentially ends their need for birth control anyway.

Another issue some people might have with the film is that Trump’s marriage is not exactly “child-free.” Trump mentions that after she and her husband got married, they found out that he has underage twin daughters from another relationship. The children, who are not shown on camera, do not live with Trump and her husband, but Trump wonders how being a stepmother will affect her marriage, as her husband adjusts to being included in his daughters’ lives. A question that Trump never asks her husband on camera is how her decision to not have children would have affected their marriage if it meant that he would possibly never become a father. It’s a difficult question that not too many people would be brave enough to ask or answer honestly on camera. Overall, “To Kid or Not to Kid” is a well-intentioned, but somewhat narrow-viewed, effort to explore the issue of choosing to become a parent or not. It’s a complex issue that affects a diverse array of people, and would be better-suited for a docuseries instead of a movie.

Netflix reveals details of docuseries ‘Dogs’

October 29, 2018

A scene from "Dogs" (Photo courtesy of Netflix)
A scene from “Dogs” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

The following is a press release from Netflix:

“Dogs” launches globally on Netflix on November 16, 2018. An elegant, engaging and cinematic verite documentary series celebrating the deep emotional bonds between people and their beloved four-legged best friends. The series tracks six incredible stories from across the globe including Syria, Japan, Costa Rica, Italy and the U.S.—each proving that the unconditional love one feels for their dog is a beautiful universal truth. With episodes helmed by critically acclaimed directors including: Academy Award-nominated Amy Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil”), Academy Award-winning Roger Ross Williams (“Life Animated,” “Music by Prudence”), Academy Award-nominated Heidi Ewing (“Jesus Camp,” “One of Us”), Emmy Award-winning Richard Hankin (“The Jinx”) and Academy Award-winners T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay (“Undefeated”), “Dogs” takes us on an inspirational journey exploring the remarkable, perhaps even magical qualities that have given these animals such a special place in all of our hearts.

“Dogs” is a Netflix Original Documentary Series, developed as a documentary series by Glen Zipper with Academy Award-nominated Amy Berg of Disarming Films and Zipper, of Zipper Bros Films, serving as executive producers.

Episode 1: The Kid with a Dog

Directed by: Heidi Ewing (“Jesus Camp,” “One of Us”)

A scene from “Dogs” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Corrine, an 11 year old girl who suffers from traumatic seizures, is forever changed when she meets Rory, a certified dog who has been trained to detect oncoming seizures. This episode highlights the depths of a closely formed friendship between a child and their dog, the unbreakable trust they have in each other and the incredible power of a dog’s ability to assist humans in health and wellness.

Episode 2: Bravo, Zeus

Directed by: Amy Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil”)

A scene from “Dogs” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Two years after fleeing his home in war-torn Syria, Ayham has made a new home for himself in Germany.  He cannot feel at peace however, until he is reunited with his best friend, a Siberian Husky named Zeus. Ayham and his friends risk everything they have to bring Zeus across the border from Syria to Lebanon in the hopes of ultimately being reunited in Germany.

Episode 3:  Ice on the Water

Directed by: Richard Hankin (“The Jinx”)

A scene from “Dogs” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

In a picturesque town off of Lake Como, Italian fisherman Alessandro relies on his partner, Ice, a 10-year-old Labrador to help with the family business as they get ready for the busy tourist season.  The fishermen in town struggle, but Ice continues to stand guard and do all he can, even in the coldest winter months.

Episode 4: Scissors Down

Directed by: Roger Ross Williams (“Life Animated”)

A scene from “Dogs” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

In Japan, people’s relationships with their dogs is on a whole new level.  Dogs are dressed in clothing to match their owners and the craft of dog grooming is a true artform.  This episode follows two of the world’s most renowned dog groomers as they fly to California to compete in the ultimate dog grooming competition.

Episode 5: Territorio de Zeguates

Directed by: T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay (“Undefeated,” “LA 92”)

A scene from “Dogs” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Territorio de Zeguates is a sanctuary deep in the Costa Rican rainforest that houses thousands of dogs and saves them from living on the streets. But with that many dogs, how long can the organization sustain without running out of resources?  The people who run the shelter dedicate their lives to making these dogs lives better, even at their own expense.

Episode 6: Second Chances

Directed by: Amy Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil”)

A scene from “Dogs” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

New York City has a love affair with adopting dogs. There are more dogs in New York than there are people in the city of Cleveland—and thousands of them are rescues. This episode follows every step of this adoption ecosystem through the charity Hearts and Bones as they go on a rescue mission to bring dogs from a kill shelter in the south to the Big Apple for a better life.

Follow DOGS:

Instagram: @netflixdogs

2018 Hollywood Film Awards: ‘Believer’ gets documentary prize; Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds will perform on show

October 25, 2018

The following is a press release from Dick Clark Productions:

Dick Clark Productions announced today that the 22nd Annual Hollywood Film Awards will bestow the Hollywood Documentary Award to Live Nation Productions’ “Believer,” the story of Imagine Dragons’ frontman Dan Reynolds as he comes to a crossroads when he witnesses fellow members of the Mormon church spurned due to their sexual orientation.  Reynolds, who also served as Executive Producer on the film, will be accepting the award at the ceremony, which will take place on Sunday, November 4 at The Beverly Hilton. As part of the ceremony, Reynolds, producer Tim Edgar and award-winning composer Hans Zimmer will also take the HFA stage to deliver a performance of “Believer’s” empowering track “Skipping Stones.” The song is one of two original tracks that are featured in the documentary.  Reynolds teamed up with the film-score legend for this heartfelt track to promote change, love and acceptance of the LGBTQ community within the Mormon Church.

They join previously announced honorees Nicole Kidman, who will receive this year’s Hollywood Career Achievement Award; Glenn Close, who will receive the Hollywood Actress Award; Hugh Jackman, who will receive the Hollywood Actor Award; Damien Chazelle, who will receive the Hollywood Director Award; Timothée Chalamet and Rachel Weisz, who will receive the Hollywood Supporting Actor Award and Hollywood Supporting Actress Award, respectively; “Crazy Rich Asians,” which will receive the “Hollywood Breakout Ensemble Award,” Amandla Stenberg, who will receive the Hollywood Breakout Performance Actress Award; John David Washington, who will receive the Hollywood Breakout Performance Actor Award; Felix Van Groeningen, who will receive the Hollywood Breakthrough Director Award; and Yalitza Aparicio, who will receive the New Hollywood Award.

The Hollywood Film Awards, honoring the most acclaimed films and actors while previewing highly anticipated films and talent for the upcoming year, also acknowledges artists in the categories of Cinematography, Visual Effects, Film Composing, Costume Design, Editing, Production Design, Sound and Makeup & Hairstyling. In its 22-year history, more than 320 of the world’s biggest stars and filmmakers have been highlighted at the Hollywood Film Awards and more than 130 of the honorees have gone on to garner Oscar nominations and/or wins.

“Believer” is a film based on Imagine Dragons’ frontman Dan Reynolds who comes to a crossroads when he witnesses fellow members of the Mormon church spurned due to their sexual orientation. Since 2008, teen suicide rates in Utah have skyrocketed, which many people attribute to the Mormon church’s official stance regarding same-sex relationships. Director Don Argott follows Dan and openly gay former Mormon Tyler Glenn, lead singer of Neon Trees, as they decide to create LoveLoud, a music and spoken-word festival designed to spark dialogue between the church and members of the LGBTQ community.

Dan Reynolds, a third generation Las Vegas native, is lead singer for the Grammy winning band Imagine Dragons. Born to a family of nine children, Dan grew up writing and recording music before beginning his studies at Brigham Young University and later UNLV. Dan left his schooling to form Imagine Dragons, which had its start making ends meet playing casinos and bars in Las Vegas before signing to KidinaKorner/Interscope Records. The band has since sold over 12 million albums and 35 million singles worldwide. In 2016, Dan formed Interscope imprint Night Street Records, whose first signing K.Flay was nominated for two 2018 Grammy Awards.  Having publicly expressed his concern for the rising suicide rate in LGBTQ+ youth, Dan founded the LOVELOUD Foundation in 2017 to bring awareness to the growing crisis. Its mission is to bring communities together by igniting the vital conversation of what it means to unconditionally love, understand, accept, and support our LGBTQ+ family and friends. Dan also currently serves as a board member for The Tyler Robinson Foundation, a charity he co-founded which helps support pediatric cancer families in financial distress.

Additional honorees for the 22nd Annual Hollywood Film Awards will be announced in the coming days.

For the latest news, follow the Hollywood Film Awards on social and join the conversation by using the official hashtag for the show, #HollywoodAwards.

Twitter: @HollywoodAwards
Facebook: Facebook.com/HollywoodAwards
Instagram: @hollywoodawards
YouTube: youtube.com/HollywoodAwards

About Dick Clark Productions
Dick Clark Productions (DCP) is the world’s largest producer and proprietor of televised live event entertainment programming with the “Academy of Country Music Awards,” “American Music Awards,” “Billboard Music Awards,” “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest” and the “Streamy Awards.” Weekly television programming includes “So You Think You Can Dance” from 19 Entertainment and DCP DCP also owns one of the world’s most unique and extensive entertainment archive libraries with over 60 years of award-winning shows, historic programs, specials, performances and legendary programming. DCP is a division of Valence Media, a diversified media company with divisions and strategic investments in premium television, wide release film, specialty film, live events and digital media. For additional information, visit www.dickclark.com.

About The Hollywood Film Awards
The Hollywood Film Awards, founded in 1997, were created to celebrate Hollywood and launch the awards season. The recipients of the awards are selected by an Advisory Team for their body of work and/or a film(s) that is to be released during the calendar year. For additional information, visit www.hollywoodawards.com.

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