Review: ‘Ma Belle, My Beauty,’ starring Idella Johnson, Hannah Pepper, Lucien Guignard and Sivan Noam Shimon

September 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Lucien Guignard, Idella Johnson and Hannah Pepper in “Ma Belle, My Beauty” (Photo by Lauren Guiteras/Good Deed Entertainment)

“Ma Belle, My Beauty”

Directed by Marion Hill

Some language in French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mainly in an unnamed city in the south of France, the dramatic film “Ma Belle, My Beauty” features a nearly all-white cast (with one African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An interracial musician couple (she’s African American, he’s a white Frenchman) try to navigate the changing dynamics in their marriage when a woman from their past polyamorous relationship shows up for a visit at the spouses’ home in France.

Culture Audience: “Ma Belle, My Beauty” will appeal mainly to people who like watching talkative romantic dramas about adult relationships that don’t fall into the typical romantic movie characteristics of heterosexual monogamy.

Sivan Noam Shimon, Idella Johnson, Hannah Pepper and Lucien Guignard in “Ma Belle, My Beauty” (Photo by Lauren Guiteras/Good Deed Entertainment)

“Ma Belle, My Beauty” asks this intriguing question: “What happens when a husband and a wife, who are trying monogamy for the first time in their relationship, are visited by a woman who used to be in a polyamorous relationship with the spouses but dumped them?” Is three a crowd for the people who used to be in this polyamorous three-way relationship? “Ma Belle, My Beauty” doesn’t give easy answers on monogamy or polyamory, but viewers will be taken on an engaging and sometimes uneven ride where love partners have to decide if they’re going to be truthful about their boundaries and desires.

Written, directed and edited by Marion Hill, “Ma Belle, My Beauty” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where the movie won the Audience Award: Next prize. “Ma Belle, My Beauty” doesn’t tell a conventional love story that’s usually found in mainstream movies. Therefore, “Ma Belle, My Beauty” isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, especially for viewers who prefer more formulaic fare. At the very least, this movie has some gorgeous cinematography of the south of France, where the movie takes place.

The story of the couple, whose marriage is tested by the arrival of their former polyamorous partner, takes a few twists and turns—some more predictable than others. For the most part, the movie has a natural flow in how it reveals the personalities and quirks of the main characters, who are all in their 30s. The person who’s the most complex is the woman who was at the center of this former polyamorous trio.

Bertie (played by Idella Johnson) is an American singer who’s in the same band as her French husband Fred Carnot (played by Lucien Guignard), a multi-instrumentalist who plays guitar and trumpet. Bertie and Fred write songs together and tour with their band, which performs jazzy pop music. Bertie and Fred have been married for less than two years, and they moved to France around the same time that they became spouses.

Before they got married, Bertie and Fred lived in New Orleans, where they had a three-way relationship with a free-spirited American lesbian named Lane (played by Hannah Pepper), until Lane “ghosted” them and never explained why she cut herself off from Bertie and Fred. After Lane was no longer in their lives, Bertie and Fred got married to each other and moved to the south of France. Bertie doesn’t put a label on her sexuality, while Fred identifies as heterosexual.

The story comes out in bits and pieces of conversation, but the way this three-way relationship is described is that Bertie and Lane fell in love with each other around the same time that Bertie and Fred fell in love with each other. Instead of choosing one partner over the other, Bertie convinced both Fred and Lane to be in a simultaneous relationship with her. Fred and Lane were never sexually intimate, and they agreed to this arrangement because Fred and Lane genuinely liked each other as friends.

Things were going well in this three-way relationship, until Lane abruptly stopped communicating with Bertie and Fred, and Lane ignored Bertie and Fred’s attempts to contact her. Fred and Bertie haven’t seen or spoken to Lane in about two years. During the course of the movie, viewers see that this breakup deeply hurt and confused Bertie more than how it affected Fred. Bertie isn’t sure if she wants to forgive Lane or not, while Fred has already forgiven Lane.

Bertie’s breakup blues have apparently been affecting her relationship with Fred, who secretly contacts Lane and invites Lane to visit and stay with him and Bertie at their home in France. When Fred picks up Lane at the train station, she says to Fred with some trepidation about Bertie: “What if she doesn’t want to see me?” Fred answers, “She loves surprises.” Lane says, “She hates surprises.” Fred replies, “She’ll be fine.”

However, when Bertie sees Lane again for this surprise visit, Lane’s prediction turns out to be true: Bertie hates this surprise. And when Bertie finds out that Fred was the one who invited Lane to stay in their home without Bertie’s consent, Bertie gets angry at him, and it causes more tension in their marriage. Bertie doesn’t want to be rude, so she agrees to let Lane stay in their home, since Bertie knows this living arrangement will be temporary.

Apparently, Lane isn’t just flaky when it comes to her love relationships. She also doesn’t have a steady job or a career in anything. It’s mentioned a few times in the movie that Lane doesn’t really know what she wants to do with her life (she’s tried many careers that didn’t work out), and her finances are too unstable for her to afford staying at a hotel. Lane says that her latest career endeavor is she’s thinking about doing massage therapy training in Barcelona.

Bertie is the type of person who doesn’t want Lane to know how much Lane’s breakup hurt her. However, the two women have unresolved feelings for each other. Eventually, Bertie asks Lane why Lane “ghosted” Bertie and Fred. But even before this heart-to-heart talk happens, there were problems in Bertie and Fred’s marriage. Bertie is becoming emotionally distant from Fred, and it’s affected their sex life.

That’s not the only tension in the household. There’s a lot of sexual tension between Bertie and Lane, who tries to kiss Bertie one day when Fred is out of the house and Bertie is playing the piano. Bertie rebuff’s Lane’s advances, but Lane doesn’t give up so easily.

The fractures in Bertie and Fred’s marriage deepen when Bertie announces that she doesn’t want to do a concert tour that has already been booked. Fred can’t understand why Bertie is being so difficult, but observant viewers can easily see that it has to do with Bertie’s lingering feelings for Lane. Meanwhile, in a slightly hilarious moment, Bertie and Fred’s housekeeper Marianne (played by Sarah Taupneau-Wilhelm) says that she’s a singer and offers to substitute for Bertie on the tour. Her offer is politely declined.

After Bertie rejected Lane’s sexual advances, Lane doesn’t waste time in finding a sex partner in France. At a house party thrown by one of Fred and Bertie’s friends, Lane makes eye contact with Noa (played by Sivan Noam Shimon), who is an athletic-looking Israeli army veteran. The two women flirt with each other and go for a drive in a borrowed two-seat red convertible that’s owned by one of people at the party.

Noa says that she has a girlfriend, who doesn’t mind if Noa sleeps with men, whom Noa calls “dildos with a pulse.” It’s implied that Noa’s girlfriend would have a problem with Noa sleeping with other women though. However, Noa and Lane aren’t going to let that get in the way of their immediate attraction to each other.

During Lane and Noa’s first private conversation together, Lane tells Noa about her history with Bertie and Fred. Lane admits that the three-way relationship could be challenging at times. Lane also says something that explains a lot of people’s actions before and during this story takes place. She mentions that in the three-way relationship, Bertie was the one who called the shots.

These issues of control and jealousy come out in different ways in this story. Lane and Noa predictably end up having sex soon after they meet. And the first time that Lane and Noa hook up with each other, it’s in the guest bedroom where Lane is staying at Bertie and Fred’s house. Bertie and Fred can hear Lane and Noa’s loud sexual activities. Bertie tries to not let it show that it bothers her, even though it’s obvious that it does.

Noa spends the night, and the next morning things are a little awkward at breakfast, even though Bertie tries to play it cool. Noa isn’t a one-night stand though. Lane and Noa continue to hang out together and sometimes go on double dates with Bertie and Fred. One day, when all four of them are at a swimming hole, Bertie and Lane have some alone time where Lane puts some sunscreen on Bertie. And then, Bertie makes this confession: “I miss having sex with women.”

Although the characters in “Ma Belle, My Beauty” are very open about their sexualities, the movie has a lot of nuanced dialogue. Fred and Bertie consider themselves to be a hipster couple with open-minded views of various sexualities, and they can candidly talk about sex. However, in their own marriage, they hit some roadblocks because they’re failing to communicate about emotional intimacy.

It’s open to interpretation if Lane is just using Noa to make Bertie jealous. Why did Lane agree to this visit? Does she want to rekindle a romance with Bertie? And is that a good idea when free-spirited Lane obviously resents Bertie’s need for control? As for Fred, he just wants Bertie to be happy, and he knows that Bertie was happy when Lane was in their lives. Fred tells Lane that he misses Lane being in their lives too.

There are no “heroes” or “villains” in “Ma Belle, My Beauty.” It’s a story of flawed people trying to find love and happiness in the best way that they can while staying true to themselves. Johnson’s portrayal of Bertie is what makes this movie worth watching (she’s also a very good singer) because Bertie isn’t so transparent about her emotions in the way that Fred and Lane are. Johnson is very skilled at using eye contact and body language to convey Bertie’s true feelings. The movie’s emotional tone is also enhanced by Mahmoud Chouki’s jazzy musical score.

“Ma Belle, My Beauty” makes some mention of Bertie being the only black person in the social circles that she now has in France. There are hints that she sometime wonders if she made the right decison to leave her family and friends behind in America to start a new life in France, where Fred already knows a lot of people. It’s this feeling of isolation that further fuels Bertie’s angst.

Pepper’s portrayal of impetuous Lane is that of someone who’s capable of real love but seems ambivalent about her own ability to commit to a long-term relationship. Lane shows signs of underlying insecurities that she’s not as accomplished in her life as her peers. As a coping mechanism, Lane just jumps around from job to job and relationship to relationship. As for Fred, he’s the least complicated character in this trio. And that might be a good thing for Guignard, because his acting skills just aren’t on the same convincing level as his co-stars.

Viewers will get the impression that Bertie is not used to being rejected, so she’s trying to heal her bruised ego without wanting to admit how wounded she really is. Bertie doesn’t want Lane to hurt her again, but Lane’s arrival reminds Bertie of all the good times they had together. Lane is unapologetic about wanting to have her sexual needs met, which is why she hooks up so quickly with Noa. But is Lane capable of making the kind of commitment that Bertie would want if their romance is rekindled?

“Ma Belle, My Beauty” is often visually stylish, but a little rough around the edges when it comes to the acting and story arc. That’s not to say that the movie needed a neat and tidy ending. However, there are some parts of the movie that tend to wander and drag out the question of “Will Bertie and Lane get back together or not?” It’s not quite a soap opera, but “Ma Belle, My Beauty” has enough messy relationship drama that viewers instinctively know that things won’t easily be resolved in the few weeks that this story takes place.

Good Deed Entertainment released “Ma Belle, My Beauty” in select U.S. cinemas on August 20, 2021.

Review: ‘Ailey,’ starring Alvin Ailey

July 31, 2021

by Carla Hay

Alvin Ailey in “Ailey” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Ailey”

Directed by Jamila Wignot

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City, the biographical documentary “Ailey” features a group of white and African American people (and one Asian person) discussing the life and career of pioneering dance troupe founder/choreographer Alvin Ailey, who became one of the first African Americans to launch a world-renowned dance troupe and dance school.

Culture Clash: Ailey, who died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 58, struggled with the idea of going public about his HIV diagnosis, and he experienced problems throughout his life, due to racism, homophobia and his issues with mental illness.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of Alvin Ailey fans, “Ailey” will appeal primarily to people who interested in the art of fusion dance and stories about entrepreneurial artists who succeeded despite obstacles being put in their way.

Alvin Ailey in “Ailey” (Photo by Jack Mitchell)

The documentary “Ailey” is a very traditionally made biography of a very non-traditional artist. Although the movie can be at times be slow-paced and dry, it’s greatly boosted by having modern dance pioneer Alvin Ailey as a very fascinating subject. Ardent fans of Ailey will get further insight into his inner thoughts, thanks to the documentary’s previously unreleased audio recordings that he made as a personal journal. The movie also does a very good job at putting into context how Ailey’s influence can be seen in many of today’s dancers and choreographers.

Directed by Jamila Wignot, “Ailey” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and its New York premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. New York City was Ailey’s last hometown, where he found fame as one of the first prominent dancers/choreographers to blend jazz, ballet, theater and Afro-centric culture. His work broke racial barriers in an industry where U.S.-based touring dance troupes were almost exclusively owned and staffed by white people.

Born in the rural town of Rogers, Texas, in 1931, Ailey says in audio recordings that his earliest memories were “being glued to my mother’s hips … while she worked in the fields.” Ailey’s father abandoned the family when Ailey was a baby, so Ailey was raised by his single mother Lula, who was a domestic worker. She supported him in his dream to become a professional dancer.

Ailey’s childhood experiences were shaped by growing up poor in the racially segregated South. In the documentary, he mentions through audio recordings that some of his fondest childhood memories were being at house parties with dancing people and going to the Dew Drop Inn, a famous hotel chain that welcomed people who weren’t allowed in “whites only” hotels and other racially segregated places. Another formative experience in his childhood was being saved from drowning by his good friend Chauncey Green.

By 1942, Ailey and his mother were living in Los Angeles, where she hoped to find better job opportunities in a less racially segregated state. It was in Los Angeles that Ailey first discovered his love of dance and theater, when he became involved in school productions. A life-changing moment happened for him happened at age 15, in 1946, when he saw the Katherine Dunham Dance Company and Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo perform at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium. It sparked a passion to make dance his career. And that passion never went away, despite all the ups and downs that he encountered.

In the documentary, Ailey has this to say about watching the Katherine Dunham Dance Company for the first time: “I was taken into another realm … And the male dancers were just superb. The jumps, the agility, the sensuality of what they did blew me away … Dance had started to pull at me.”

But his interest in becoming a dancer was considered somewhat dangerous at the time, because ballet dancing was something that boys could be and still are viciously bullied over as something that’s considered “too effeminate.” Carmen de Lavallade, a longtime friend of Ailey’s, comments in the documentary on what she remembers of a young Ailey before he found fame: “He was beautiful! He didn’t dare let anyone know he wanted to be a dancer, because he would be teased or humiliated.”

But at this pivotal moment in Ailey’s life, it just so happened that Lester Horton opened the Lester Horton Dance Theater in Los Angeles in 1946. Don Martin, a longtime dancer and Ailey friend, says in the documentary that their mutual love of dance prompted Ailey to join Horton’s dance school, where Ailey thrived. Horton became an early mentor to Ailey.

The documentary doesn’t go into great detail over Ailey’s experiences as a student at the University of California at Los Angeles or when he briefly lived in San Francisco, where he worked with then-unknown poet Maya Angelou in a nightclub act called Al and Rita. Instead, the “Ailey” documentary skips right to the 1954, when Ailey moved to New York City to pursue being a professional dancer. In 1958, he founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT), which also has an affiliated school.

George Faison, an AAADT dancer/choreographer from 1966 to 1970, comments: “Alvin entertained thoughts and dreams that a black boy could actually dance” in a prominent dance troupe. Ailey shares his thoughts in his personal audio recordings: “It was a universe I could escape into, so that it would allow me to do anything I wanted to do.”

Ailey’s breakthrough work was 1960’s “Revelations,” which was a then-unprecedented modern ballet about uniquely African American experiences steeped in church traditions. The piece was revolutionary not just because it had a majority-black group of dancers and touched on sensitive racial issues but also because it used blues, jazz and gospel instead of traditional classical music. “Revelations” remains Ailey’s most famous performance work.

Mary Barnett, an AAADT rehearsal director from 1975 to 1979, remembers the impact that “Revelations” had on her: “I was moved to tears seeing ‘Revelations’ … I was studying ballet, I was studying dance. This was more of a re-enactment of life.”

Judith Jamsion—an AAADT dancer from 1964 to 1988 and AAADT artistic director from 1989 to 2011—has this to say about what “Revelations” means to her: “What took me away was the prowess and the technique and the fluidity and the excellence in the dance.” Jamison is often credited with being the person who was perhaps the most instrumental in keeping AAADT alive after Ailey’s death.

A turning point for “Revelations” was when the production went on a U.S.-government sponsored tour of Southeast Asia. It’s one thing to be a privately funded dance troupe. But getting the U.S. government’s seal of approval, especially for a tour that could be viewed as a cultural ambassador for American dance, gave AAADT an extra layer of prestige.

However, “Ailey” does not gloss over the some of the racism that Ailey encountered, including tokenism and cultural appropriation. Bill T. Jones, a choreographer who co-founded the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, has this to say about what it’s like to be an African American in an industry that is dominated by white people: “Oftentimes, black creators are used. Everybody used him [Ailey] as, ‘See, this is the progress we’re making. And see, we’re not racist, we have Alvin Ailey.'”

AAADT movement choreographer Rennie Harris (who created 2019’s “Lazarus” for AAADT) comments on Ailey’s mindset in wanting an African American social consciousness to be intrinsic to his work: “You came here to be entertained, but I have to tell my truth.” Harris adds that this way of thinkng influences his own work: “I’m still feeling the same way, as anyone would feel if you’re feeling unwanted by the [dominant] culture.”

Throughout the documentary, Harris and AAADT artistic director Robert Battle can be seen in rehearsals with AAADT dancers to show how Ailey’s legacy currently lives on with other generations of dancers. This back and forth between telling Ailey’s life story and showing present-day AAADT dancers could have been distracting, but it works well for the most part because of the seamless film editing by Annukka Lilja and Cory Jordan Wayne. The documentary has expected archival footage of Ailey interviews and past AAADT performances of Ailey’s work, such as 1969’s “Maskela Language,” 1970’s “The River”; 1971’s “Cry” and “Mary Lou’s Mass”; 1972’s “Love Songs” and 1975’s “Night Creature.”

The “Ailey” documentary includes analysis of some of Ailey’s biggest influences. It’s mentioned that “Cry” was a tribute to hard-working and supportive black women, such as his mother Lula. “Maskela Language” was inspired by the death of Ailey’s early mentor Hampton. Santa Allen, who was an AAADT dancer from 1973 to 1983, comments: “Choreography really was his catharsis.” As for his genre-defying work, Ailey says in archival footage, “I don’t like pinning myself down.”

The documentary has some commentary, but not a lot, on Ailey’s love life. He was openly gay to his close friends, family members and many of colleagues, but he avoided talking about his love life to the media. Ailey was apparently so secretive about his love life that the only serious boyfriend who’s mentioned in the documentary is a man named Abdullah (no last name mentioned), whom Ailey met in Paris and brought to New York City to live with him.

According to what’s said in the documentary, Abdullah left Ailey by climbing out of the apartment’s fire escape. The movie doesn’t mention why they broke up, but Ailey seems to have channeled his heartbreak into his work. Another aspect of Ailey’s personal life that he didn’t easily share with others was his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts. Only people in his inner circle knew about these struggles, according to what some people in the documentary say.

AAADT stage manager Bill Hammond says that by the 1970s, Ailey was a full-blown workaholic. “I think he took on too much,” Hammond comments. Other people interviewed in the “Ailey” documentary include “Lazarus” composer Darrin Ross; Linda Kent, an AAADT dancer from 1968 to 1974; Hope Clark, an AAADT dancer from 1965 to 1966; and Masazumi Chaya, an AAADT dancer from 1972 to 1966 and AAADT associate director from 1991 to 2019.

Ailey’s determination to keep his personal life as private as possible also extended to when he found out that he was HIV-positive. Several people in “Ailey” claimed that even when it was obvious that he was looking very unhealthy, he denied having AIDS to many of his closest friends, out of fear of being shunned. It was not uncommon for many people with AIDS to try to hide that they had the disease, especially back in the 1980s, when it was mistakenly labeled as a “gay disease,” and the U.S. government was slow to respond to this public health crisis.

Because dance requires a certain athleticism, having a physically degenerative disease such as AIDS was not something that Ailey wanted to be part of his legacy. According to Jones, many gay men at the time wanted to edit themselves out of the AIDS narrative. “He was part of the editing,” Jones says of Ailey.

And that shame caused Ailey to isolate himself from many of his loved ones. “He was alone,” adds Jones of Ailey not sharing much of his suffering with several people he knew. (On a side note, Jones is the subject of his own documentary: “Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters,” which was released in the U.S. a week before the “Ailey” documentary.)

But toward the end of Ailey’s life, it was impossible for him to continue to hide the truth, even though he refused to go public with having AIDS. One of the most emotionally moving parts of the documentary is when Jamison describes being with Ailey on his death bed at the moment that he died: “He breathed in, and he never breathed out. We [the people he left behind] are his breath out.”

“Ailey” is an example of documentary that’s a touching reminder that how someone lives is more important than how someone dies. The storytelling style of this documentary doesn’t really break any new ground. However, people who have an appreciation for highly creative artists will find “Ailey” a worthy portrait of someone whose life might have been cut short, but he has an influential legacy that will continue for generations.

Neon released “Ailey” in New York City on July 23, 2021, and in Los Angeles on July 30, 2021, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on August 6, 2021.

Review: ‘Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),’ starring Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Sly and the Family Stone, Jesse Jackson, the Fifth Dimension, Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone

July 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone in “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”

Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” features a predominantly African American group of people (with some Latinos and white people) discussing the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place over six non-consecutive days in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood and was attended by an estimated 300,000 people.

Culture Clash: Even though the Harlem Cultural Festival had superstar music artists and was filmed (some people called it Black Woodstock), TV networks and movie distributors at the time refused to be associated with the event, which celebrated ethnic pride for black people and Latino people.

Culture Audience: “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” will appeal primarily to people interested in music and culture from the late 1960s, particularly as related to civil rights and ethnic heritage for people of color in the United States.

Nina Simone in “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

In the summer of 1969, there was a free music festival that took place in New York state, was attended by hundreds of thousands of people, and featured performances by several hitmaking artists. There was no outbreak of violence, no unsafe overcrowding, and no one died during the event. There wasn’t a food shortage, there were no weather problems, and there was no difficulty getting to the concert site. In other words, this event wasn’t Woodstock. It was the Harlem Cultural Festival, an event that was filmed but largely ignored for decades by mainstream media because it was a festival that had mostly African Americans performing at and attending the event.

The excellent documentary “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” shines a well-deserved spotlight on this important part of American cultural and music history. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (who’s best known as a DJ, the drummer for the Roots, and as the band leader for NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”) makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Summer of Soul,” which has a plethora of previously unreleased Harlem Cultural Festival footage and insightful commentary from a variety of people. “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the U.S. Documentary Competition.

The Harlem Cultural Festival took place at Mount Morris Park (now known as Marcus Garvey Park) in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, over six days: June 29, July 13, July 20, July 27, August 17 and August 24, 1969. The event featured a “who’s who” of mostly African American artists, including Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Fifth Dimension, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Singers, Professor Herman Stevens & the Voices of Faith, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, the Chambers Brothers, former Temptations singer David Ruffin and the Edwin Hawkins Singers featuring Dorothy Morrison.

Other celebrities who performed at the event included interracial funk band Sly and the Family Stone, South African singer Hugh Maskela, Puerto Rican band leader Ray Barretto, Jewish jazz musician Herbie Mann, Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría and Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji. Non-musical celebrities who appeared on stage included civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, comedian Moms Mabley and ventriloquist act Willie Tyler and Lester. “Summer of Soul” has electrifying performance footage of all of the above artists and celebrities. And there’s not a bad performance in the bunch.

The Harlem Cultural Festival was such a big deal that an estimated 300,000 people attended over the six days. And after the Woodstock Music Festival (attended by an estimated 400,000 people) happened from August 15 to August 18, 1969, on a farm in upstate Bethel, New York, some people gave the Harlem Cultural Festival the nickname Black Woodstock. (This documentary was originally titled “Black Woodstock.”) Both festivals had superstar acts on the bill, but Woodstock got most of the media attention and praise for being a groundbreaking festival in 1969.

The Woodstock Music Festival, which had a lineup of predominantly white hitmaking artists, went on to be celebrated as a major event for the “counterculture/hippie generation” of the 1960s. Woodstock got massive media coverage, including the Oscar-winning “Woodstock” documentary. The Woodstock Music Festival has also been hailed as the most influential music festival of all time, despite the event’s many problems, such as lack of food, shelter, medical facilities, sanitation and other safety issues. Woodstock was originally a paid ticketed event but quickly became free after too many people showed up. The overcrowding caused big problems with safety and traffic jams, to the point where the governor of New York state was monitoring the festival and was ready to call in the National Guard military force if the situation got really out of control.

Meanwhile, the Harlem Cultural Festival, which had no major safety problems, was filmed for a potential documentary, but the event was mostly ignored by national and international media. Most of the media coverage was limited to local news outlets in New York City. Movie companies and national TV networks turned down pitches for years to have a documentary on the Harlem Cultural Festival. And so, according to a prologue in “Summer of Soul,” the Harlem Cultural Festival footage just “sat in a basement for 50 years.”

“Summer of Soul” doesn’t waste a lot of time complaining about the obvious reason why the media and entertainment industries treated the Woodstock Music Festival differently from the Harlem Cultural Festival. It isn’t until toward end of “Summer of Soul” that it’s mentioned how a proposed documentary on the Harlem Cultural Festival was rejected for years by all companies that were pitched on this documentary. “Summer of Soul” shows why the Harlem Cultural Festival was so important by being the documentary this event deserves.

Longtime TV director/producer Hal Tulchin directed the footage that was filmed of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Before he died in 2017, at the age of 90, Tulchin signed over the rights to the footage to “Summer of Soul” producers Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein. “Summer of Soul” director Thompson was Fyvolent and Dinerstein’s first choice to direct the film because of his “encyclopedic knowledge of film” and because he’s someone “who understood music and its history,” according to what Fyvolent and Dinerstein say in the “Summer of Soul” production notes.

The people interviewed in the film—many who attended the Harlem Cultural Festival and some who did not—all have something substantial to say about the cultural context in which the festival took place, as well as the lasting impact on those who understand the importance of this event. This isn’t a documentary with a constant stream of talking heads over-glamorizing what the festival was, because the movie addresses the realities of civil unrest, poverty and other social issues going on for people of color in America at that time. It was a different kind of “peace and love” at this festival, which had the tone of ethnic pride and cautious optimism for the future.

“Summer of Soul” begins and ends with testimonial from Musa Jackson, a longtime Harlem resident who attended the Harlem Cultural Festival when he was 4 years old. Jackson, who has worked as a fashion model and a filmmaker, is now considered an unofficial ambassador of Harlem. He says what impacted him the most about the Harlem Cultural Festival—aside from his admitted big crush on Fifth Dimension singer Marilyn McCoo—was that he had never seen so many black people in one place at the same time and having fun. Musa Jackson remembers, “This was the first time I saw so many of us … It was like seeing royalty.” It was quite a different image from what was constantly shown in the media that black people only gathered in large numbers to protest racism.

Contrary to racist beliefs that large numbers of black people gathered in one place automatically means crime and violence, the Harlem Cultural Festival was a peaceful event where people had a good time. The festival had the support of then-New York City mayor John Lindsay, who attended and was introduced on stage to cheers from the audience. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton, who’s interviewed in the documentary, describes Lindsay as a “liberal Republican” who felt comfortable being around black people and who supported the civil rights movement.

Not all of New York’s public servants were supportive of the Harlem Cultural Festival though. Most of the New York City Police Department refused to work at the event, so the Black Panthers provided security for the festival. In the end, there was no violence and no one died because they were there. The same can’t be said of the Woodstock Music Festival.

Also in contrast to Woodstock, at the Harlem Cultural Festival, people weren’t stranded with a lack of food or lack of sanitation on the premises. It was so easy to enter and leave the festival site, that many of the Harlem Cultural Festival attendees could walk or take the subway there in just 30 minutes or less from their nearby neighborhoods. And although the attendees had to deal with sweltering summer heat, there were luckily no rain storms that caused dangerous lightning, wind gusts or widespread mud.

In 1969, the civil rights movement was hurting over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the previous year. Protests over racial injustice and the Vietnam War led to violence in many cities. Sharpton says of the political and social climate in 1969: “People were afraid of the anger and rage spilling over.” Harlem Cultural Festival attendee Darryl Lewis comments: “So, the goal of the festival may very well have been to keep black folks from burning up the city in ’69.”

The Harlem Cultural Festival was the brainchild of promoter Tony Lawrence, who was also a nightclub singer. Through sheer persistence and showbiz hustling, he was able to get a lineup that was one of the best to showcase contemporary R&B music and other music with roots in black or Latino culture. The festival was funded by sponsors, most notably Maxwell House Coffee. Lawrence was the festival’s charismatic (and often flamboyantly dressed) host who introduced people on stage.

Allen Zerkin (a former assistant to Lawrence) and Margot Edman (a festival production assistant) are interviewed in the documentary. Edman describes Lawrence as an “ebullient guy,” “always on the move” and “very positive.” Lawrence wasn’t the type to lose his temper easily, but he had the gift of persuasive sales skills. Zerkin says, “Tony talked a big game, and he delivered.”

In an archival interview, Tulchin remembers the challenges he had to direct film footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival: “There was no budget, no money, no lights. So, the stage had to face west because I had to use the sun.”

Because the performances took place before nightfall, the artists on stage could have a better view of the audience. Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers says in an audio interview for the documentary: “I saw so many black people, and they were having a good time. And I started celebrating with them.”

While the Woodstock Music Festival had a very male-dominated lineup of artists, female artists had much more of a presence at the Harlem Cultural Festival. Because gospel music was a big part of the festival, many of the acts on stage were a solid mixture of men and women. Charylane Hunter-Gault, formerly of The New York Times, comments on the importance of gospel to African American culture: “Gospel is part of our DNA. It’s deep in the recesses of my consciousness.”

And anyone who sees “Summer of Soul” will probably say that the women lead singers are many of the performance highlights. Among the most noteworthy are Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson (especially her duet with Mavis Staples on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”) and Gladys Knight of Gladys Knight and the Pips, who are shown performing the group’s 1967 hit “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Simone performs “Backlash Blues,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and “Are You Ready?” like an iconic artist in full command of the stage and her craft. Sharpton comments on Simone’s performance: “You can hear in her voice our pain and our defiance.”

After Mahalia Jackson performs “Lord, Search My Heart,” Jesse Jackson goes on stage to give a poignant speech about the last time he saw his civil rights mentor King. “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” was one of King’s favorite songs. Staples says of performing this gospel classic with Mahalia Jackson: “That is still my biggest honor: to sing on the same microphone as Sister Mahalia Jackson.”

Sly and the Family Stone performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival and at the Woodstock Music Festival—and they were standouts at both events. In “Summer of Soul,” Sly and the Family Stone are seen performing their hits “Sing a Simple Song,” “Everyday People” and “I Want to Take You Higher.” At the time, they were considered a highly unusual band because the musicians consisted of black men, black women and white men. Sly and the Family Stone also defied musical genres by blending R&B, rock, pop and some jazz, thereby helping pioneer a hybrid musical genre called funk.

With today’s successful bands, not much has changed in terms of how bands are still mostly segregated by race and/or gender. Looking at today’s current hitmakers, it’s still very rare to see a chart-topping band with the type of racial and gender diversity that Sly and the Family Stone had. The exceptions might be vocal groups, but not a full-fledged band that plays instruments.

Greg Errico, former drummer of Sly and the Family Stone, comments in the documentary: “Sly [Stone] wanted to address everybody and everything. Music was the common denominator. Everybody wanted to do their own thing. And we did.” Writer/journalist Greg Tate observes: “Sly and the Family Stone was a game changer on so many levels.”

Breaking down racial stereotyping was one of the reasons why it was important for the Fifth Dimension to perform at the Harlem Cultural Festival, say former Fifth Dimension singers McCoo and her husband Billy Davis Jr. in the documentary. At the time, many people thought that because the Fifth Dimension performed pop music, the group was “too white” for black audiences and “too black” for white audiences. “Back then, music was segregated,” says Davis. “We were caught in the middle.” The documentary includes the Fifth Dimension performing “Don’t Cha Hear Me Callin’ to Ya” and “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” the group’s biggest hit.

McCoo and Davis are shown reacting with joy and nostalgia when they watch the long-lost footage of the Fifth Dimension performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival. McCoo gets teary-eyed and emotional when she says, “How do you color a sound? That was one of the reasons why performing in Harlem was so important to us, because we wanted our people to know what we were about, and we were hoping they would receive us. We were so happy to be there.”

Knight, who is also interviewed in the documentary, also remembers the feeling she had being at this very unique event: “When I stepped on stage, I was totally taken aback because I didn’t expect a crowd like that.” As writer/journalist Tate says in the documentary: “At the Harlem Cultural Festival, you got an audience that was radicalized.”

The documentary includes news footage of the civil rights protests that were affecting life for people of color in the United States. “Summer of Soul” also doesn’t gloss over the problems facing disenfranchised people of color, besides racial injustice. Drug addiction (especially addiction to heroin) was an epidemic in Harlem. Harlem Cultural Festival attendee Roger Parris, who describes heroin as a “plague on the black community,” says in the documentary that he was a heroin addict for 16 years who lost everything—including his home, his marriage and his family—because of his drug addiction.

Poverty was also very much on people’s minds. There’s some news footage from 1969 showing black people in Harlem being asked what they think about NASA’s historic Apollo 11 voyage that had the first man to walk on the moon. The interviewees say that Apollo 11 didn’t matter much to them because they think the government should have used the money to help poor people instead. It’s a very different perspective than the usual praise of NASA and Apollo 11 that gets shown in documentaries about 1969.

“Summer of Soul” even discusses the changing fashion for African Americans in 1969, when the Black Power movement was starting to gain momentum. Jim McFarland, a former tailor at Orlies Custom Tailoring, comments on how more black people started to wear Afros and dashikis at that time. Hiphuggers were popular. And it was also in style for men to wear vests without shirts.

Wearing dashikis and Afros were part of a larger cultural movement of African Americans expressing pride in their African roots. Hugh Maskela’s son Selema “Sal” Masekela comments, “My father realized that there was this real hunger for black Americans to feel and see and taste what it would be like to be African.” It was around this time in the late 1960s when people began to re-examine what was being taught in American history classes and how the contributions of people of color were being wrongfully erased. There was a movement for school classrooms, the media and the government to give more recognition to African and African American culture and historical contributions made by people of African/African American heritage.

African Americans were the majority of artists and attendees at the Harlem Cultural Festival, but the event was also embraced by people in the Latino community. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wasn’t even born when the festival happened, nevertheless weighs in with this comment in the documentary: “The power of music is to tell our own stories. We had a mirror to ourselves. We write the music that comes from inside us. And then other people say, ‘That’s me too!'” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s father Luis Miranda adds: “The festival is a political statement to black and brown communities.”

Grammy-winning legend Wonder (whose performances of “It’s Your Thing” and “Shoo-Bee-Doo-Bee-Doo-Da-Day” are in the documentary) remembers what it was like to be alive in 1969: “I had a feeling that the world was wanting a change.” Wonder was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement. Actor/comedian Chris Rock, who grew up in New York City and was 4 years old in 1969, says in the documentary that it would have been easy for Wonder to rest on his laurels and just be a pop star, but Wonder took the riskier path of speaking out and doing something about social issues.

Other people interviewed in “Summer of Soul” include music executive Alan Leeds, musician Sheila E., Black Panther Party member Chris “Bullwhip” Innis Jr., former Edwins Hawkins Singers member Adrienne Kryor, Young Lords co-founder Denise Oliver-Velez, Max Roach’s son Raoul Roach, Operation Breadbasket Orchestra band leader Ben Branch and Harlem Cultural Festival attendees Dorinda Drake, Ethel Beatty-Barnes and Barbara Bland-Acosta.

“Summer of Soul” is an apt title because its a very soul-stirring film. Rather than just show the concert footage and sticking to talking about the music, the documentary does an exemplary job of putting everything in a cultural context that can be taken to heart by people of any generation. The film editing sometimes veers a little off track when people who weren’t at the festival talk about their lives, but it’s not so off-topic that it becomes an annoying distraction.

The sound mixing for the concert footage is done so well, it feels like you’re almost transported back to the festival. The documentary feels more inclusive and relatable to more people by adding in the perspectives of people who weren’t at the festival but who understand its relevance to social issues. On another level, “Summer of Soul” is also a time capsule of a bygone era when it was more possible for a relatively unknown, independent promoter to create this type of all-star festival.

And the filmmakers cared about details, such as putting the artists’ names and song titles on screen during each performance. Many concert documentaries don’t list song titles until the end credits. Anyone who watches “Summer of Soul” should experience it on the biggest screen possible. It’s the type of documentary that will inspire meaningful discussions and repeat viewings.

Searchlight Pictures released “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised”) in select U.S. cinemas on June 25, 2021. The movie expanded to more U.S. cinemas and premiered on Hulu on July 2, 2021.

Review: ‘The Sparks Brothers,’ starring Ron Mael and Russell Mael

July 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Russell Mael and Ron Mael in “The Sparks Brothers” (Photo by Anna Webber / Focus Features)

“The Sparks Brothers”

Directed by Edgar Wright

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Sparks Brothers” features a nearly all-white group of people (and one African American) discussing the career and influence of the American experimental rock/pop duo Sparks, including Sparks members Russell Mael and Ron Mael.

Culture Clash: The highs and lows of Sparks’ career included the Mael brothers’ sibling rivalry; relocating to England during a pivotal time in the duo’s career; parting ways with filmmaker Tim Burton on a movie musical that was supposed to be a big comeback for Sparks; and dealing with the fickle nature of the music business.

Culture Audience: Aside from die-hard fans of Sparks, “The Sparks Brothers” will appeal mostly to people who are nostalgic or curious about influential pop/rock musicians who never became superstars.

Russell Mael and Ron Mael in “The Sparks Brothers” (Photo by Jake Polonsky/Focus Features)

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary director Edgar Wright makes it abundantly clear that he’s a massive fan of the pop/rock duo Sparks, so this film is more of a tribute than a well-rounded biography. At 140 minutes long, “The Sparks Brothers” can be an endurance test for people who aren’t die-hard Sparks enthusiasts. And since the documentary only interviews people who are either fans of Sparks or have worked with Sparks, the non-stop praise for Sparks can be a bit repetitive. However, the documentary is a fascinating look at the longevity of Sparks and the brotherly dynamics of Sparks members Ron and Russell Mael.

“The Sparks Brothers,” whose exclusive interview footage was filmed in black and white, is a documentary that makes some attempt to not completely follow the typical film biography format of mixing archival footage with new footage that was filmed exclusively for the documentary. Sparks is known as an experimental and offbeat act that never hit superstar mainstream status. And so, there are moments in the film that are nods to the quirky image of Sparks.

For example, director Wright can sometimes be heard talking to the Mael brothers off-camera in a cheeky manner to make a joke or set up a sight gag. When he asks the Ron and Russell why they decided to do an authorized documentary at this time in their lives, older brother Ron says, “We didn’t want to do a standard documentary full of talking heads.” Russell adds, “It would become too dry.” And then two buckets of water are thrown on the brothers.

It’s a facetious moment, because this documentary is actually full of talking heads—so much so that numerous people’s comments about Sparks take up at least 40% of the movie. Some of the best moments of the documentary, which tells the Sparks story in chronological order, is near the beginning, when it reveals photos and details about the early years of Ron and Russell being musicians.

Ron (who was born in 1945 in Santa Monica, California) and Russell Mael (who was born in 1948 in Culver City, California) are the only children of Meyer and Miriam Mael. Meyer was a commercial painter, graphic designer and caricaturist, who tragically died when Ron was 11 and Russell was 8. Miriam was a librarian. Ron and Russell were raised primarily in Pacific Palisades (an affluent suburb of Los Angeles), and the brothers performed in talent shows when they were school children.

Ron says that these talent shows were the first experiences that he and Russell had in getting a taste of the “addicting” thrill of affecting an audience. People unfamiliar with the Mael brothers’ teen years might be surprised to find out from this documentary that Russell (who’s known for his thin physique) was the quarterback of his high school football team. Russell says that he got the same adrenaline rush from playing in football games that he later got when he performed on stage as an entertainer. The Mael brothers say that the 1955 dramatic film “Blackboard Jungle” was a huge influence on them as children.

Ron and Russell attended the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where they started to play in rock bands that never really went anywhere beyond the local music scene. Two of those bands were Moonbaker Abbey and the Urban Renewal Projects. The Mael brothers say they first started getting serious about music when they began working with Earle Mankey, a founding member of Halfnelson, the band whose name was later changed to Sparks. Sparks’ 1971 eponymous debut album was originally titled “Halfnelson.” Mankey is one of the people interviewed in the documentary.

At UCLA, Ron and Russell both studied film, which would influence the types of music videos that they made and their tendency to sometimes reinvent themselves with various images and costumes. But throughout their career, one image of the band remained true and constant: Russell as the extroverted lead singer (who was also a heartthrob in Sparks’ heyday) and Ron as the introverted keyboardist/songwriter/producer.

It’s repeated several times in the documentary that Ron had private struggles with being overshadowed by Russell, even though Ron was the one creating the band’s songs. It’s a common situation with musical duos and groups, because the lead singer is usually the one who gets most of the attention. But adding in sibling rivalry makes it a more emotionally complicated issue. Someone can stop working with a sibling, but that sibling will still be a family member.

Russell describes the early years of developing his stage persona as trying to emulate Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger and The Who lead singer Roger Daltrey. “I was off by a few thousand miles,” he quips. The Mael brothers say other musical influences on Sparks were French New Wave bands. Given the brothers’ background in studying film, it’s not surprising that French New Wave in music and film had an effect on them, because there’s a very European style to the Mael brothers’ art.

Becoming a superstar act was never Sparks’ goal, but this documentary makes it clear that Ron and Russell Mael have wanted enough commercial success to be famous and to be wealthy enough to able to self-fund their projects in case no companies or investors were interested. There’s no question that Sparks has a very devoted fan base, but this documentary wants to bestow “legendary” status on Sparks. It’s a description that gives the movie a very fan-worship tone that exaggerates how far Sparks’ influence really went, compared to other non-mainstream arists who influenced a wider variety of people.

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary gives a comprehensive overview of the Sparks album discography, up until 2020, when the movie was completed. There’s a mention at the end of the film about the 2021 movie musical “Annette” (directed by Leos Carax), which features original music by Sparks, as well as the Mael brothers in supporting roles as actors. “Annette” (which stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard) is set for release by Amazon Studios in August 2021, thereby making it the second movie of 2021 (after “The Sparks Brothers”) to feature Ron and Russell Mael. “The Sparks Brothers” world premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and the world premiere of “Annette” is at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival,

“Annette” is the culmination of years of the Mael brothers’ dream to do a movie musical. “The Sparks Brothers” documentary includes their version of what happened when they parted ways with director Tim Burton on a movie musical called “Mai, the Psychic Girl,” based on the 1985-1986 manga series written by Kazuya Kudō and illustrated by Ryoichi Ikegami. The Mael brothers worked on the movie during a time (the late 1980s to early 1990s) when the duo’s career was in a slump, and they say they needed a hit project to keep them financially afloat.

Although the Mael brothers don’t give too many details on what led to Burton’s departure from the project, they make it clear that Burton was the one who walked away, and the Mael brothers were heartbroken over it. (According to numerous reports, Burton chose to instead work with Disney for 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and 1994’s “Ed Wood.”) The Mael brothers invested several years and most of their personal fortune into the “Mai, the Psychic Girl” movie. And once Burton was no longer involved in making the movie, all the other investors backed out. The rights to make the movie eventually went to other people, but so far, attempts to make “Mai, the Psychic Girl” into a movie have not come to fruition.

Another crossroad in Sparks’ career that’s discussed in the documentary is when the Mael brothers decided to relocate to England in 1973, after growing frustrated by their lack of commercial success in the United States. They fired their American band mates to start over in a completely new country. It was in England that Sparks began to blossom artistically and found a bigger fan base than ever before. Sparks’ popularity eventually spread all over Europe (mainly in western Europe), where Sparks had their biggest hits. The Mael Brothers moved back to the Los Angeles area in 1976.

Although Sparks has plenty of fans in other continents, Europe is where Sparks has been glorified the most. Sparks became so associated with England in the 1970s, that many fans who discovered them back then incorrectly assumed that the Mael brothers were natives of England. Sparks’ biggest string of hit songs were in the 1980s, including 1983’s “Cool Places,” from the album “In Outer Space”; 1986’s “Music You Can Dance To,” the title track of Sparks’ 1985 album; and 1989’s “Just Got Back From Heaven,” from the 1988 album “Interior Design.”

“The Sparks Brothers” documentary has plenty to say about the Mael brothers’ music, but very little to say about their personal lives, except for Russell mentioning that he was quite a playboy when he was young. The Go-Go’s co-founder/rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin, who’s interviewed in the documentary, says she dated Russell in the early 1980s, but their brief romance was more one-sided on her part. And in the early 1970s, Russell used to date a well-known groupie named Miss Christine, who was part of a short-lived all-female singing group called the GTO’s, whose first and only album was produced by Frank Zappa. Pamela Des Barres, a member of the GTO’s, is interviewed in “The Sparks Brothers” documentary.

There’s no mention if Ron or Russell ever married or if they have children—something they’ve refused to publicly talk about for years. However, it’s clear that even through their ups and downs, the brothers have remained close. The documentary shows that Ron and Russell have a routine of going to their favorite cafe in the Los Angeles area before going back to their home studio to work.

There’s some footage of the brothers creating music in their home studio. The documentary needed more of that type of behind-the-scenes footage and less talking heads giving Sparks testimonials. It’s fair to say that this documentary is overstuffed with people talking about Sparks and doesn’t show enough current footage of what the lives of the Mael brothers are like. The archival footage is good enough, but avid Sparks fans have probably seen a lot of it already.

A constant theme in “The Sparks Brothers” documentary is that Sparks has been very underrated in how much Sparks has influenced musicians in pop and rock music. What the movie ignores—although it’s pretty obvious when you see who’s interviewed in the documentary—is that when fans and other admirers talk about Sparks’ influence, they’re really talking about influence on mainly white people. Pop music nowadays is a lot more diverse than it was in the 20th century, so if Sparks really had as wide of an influence range as this movie claims, then there would be more diversity in the people being interviewed, not just in terms of race but also nationality and age.

With the exception of Icelandic singer Björk (who is not interviewed on camera), the people interviewed in the documentary are British and American people who were born before 1985. They include musicians such as Beck; Duran Duran co-founders John Taylor and Nick Rhodes; Franz Ferdinand lead singer Alex Kapranos; Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea; Todd Rundgren; Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum; Jack Antonoff; Bernard Butler; Erasure members Vince Clarke and Andy Bell; “Weird Al” Yankovic; former Visage drummer Rusty Egan; Electric Prunes singer James Lowe; former Haircut 100 singer Nick Heyward; Martyn Ware, co-founder of pop groups Human League and Heaven 17; DJ Lance Rock; New Order members Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert; and former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones.

Past and present Sparks associates interviewed include former Sparks drummer Tammy Glover; former Halfnelson tour manager/photographer Larry Dupont, former Halfnelson manager Mike Berns; former Halfnelson/Sparks drummer Harley Feinstein; former Sparks drummer Hilly Michaels; former Sparks manager John Hewlett; former Sparks road Richard Coble; former Sparks drummer Christi Haydon; former Sparks bassist Ian Hampton; former Sparks drummer David Kendrick; former Sparks guitarist Dean Menta; Sparks manager Sue Harris; and Sparks drummer Stevie Nistor.

And several people known for their work in movies, television or stand-up comedy weigh in with their thoughts. They include “The Sparks Brothers” director Wright; actor Mike Myers; actor Jason Schwartzman; actor/comedian Patton Oswalt; TV producers/writers/spouses Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino; actor/comedian Jake Fogelnest; actor/screenwriter Mark Gatiss; comedian April Richardson; actor/comedian Scott Aukerman; and comedian/TV host Jonathan Ross, who jokes that Ron and Russell Mael “don’t really look like a band. They look [institutionalized] people who’ve been let out for a day.”

Media people interviewed include broadcaster/columnist Katie Puck; journalist David Weigel; radio host Michael Silverblatt; and poet Josh Berman. Other admirers who have soundbites in the film are Sparks superfans Madeline Bocchiaro (president of the Sparks Fan Club), Julia Marcus, Vera Hegarty and Ben House. And behind-the-scenes music industry people interviewed include producer Tony Visconti and former Island Records A&R executive Muff Winwood.

If you’re exhausted or annoyed just by reading this list of names people interviewed for this documentary, that’s kind of like how it feels to watch this too-large number of people chiming in with their soundbites about Sparks and sometimes interrupting the flow of the movie. “The Sparks Brothers” director Wright clearly wanted to show as many people as possible who profess their adoration of Sparks, but the “less is more” approach would’ve served this movie better. And it certainly would’ve lessened the movie’s overly long run time.

“The Sparks Brothers” also has a bit of a pretentious tone in how it tries to make it look like people who aren’t fans of Sparks must have something wrong with them. Quite frankly, as talented as Ron and Russell Mael are, their music will never be a lot of people’s cup of tea. In fact, what this movie could’ve used is at least some perspective from people who are music experts but aren’t worshipful fans of Sparks and were never on the Sparks payroll. It would go a long way to explain why Sparks never caught on with a massive, worldwide audience.

Despite the overabundance of fawning over Sparks in this documentary, anyone who appreciates unique artists in music can find something to like about “The Sparks Brothers.” The movie also succeeds in presenting Ron and Russell Mael in their most candid on-camera interview spotlight. And the joy that Sparks has brought to so many people is obvious, so it’s a delight to watch in this movie.

Focus Features released “The Sparks Brothers” in select U.S. cinemas on June 18, 2021.

Review: ‘A Glitch in the Matrix,’ starring Paul Gude, Alex LeVine, Nick Bostrom, Jesse Orion, Emily Pothast, Brother Laeo Mystwood and Chris Ware

February 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

A scene from “A Glitch in the Matrix” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“A Glitch in the Matrix”

Directed by Rodney Ascher

Culture Representation: The documentary “A Glitch in the Matrix” features a group of people (almost all white males, with one white woman and one African American man) of video game addicts, journalists and academics discussing the concept that life on Earth could be a virtual simulation, not the reality that people think it is.

Culture Clash: Different ways of looking at and defining reality are explored, including how video games influence people’s thoughts.

Culture Audience: “A Glitch in the Matrix” will appeal primarily to people who want to listen to ramblings from several people who admit they’re addicted to video games or some other form of virtual reality.

A scene from “A Glitch in the Matrix” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

In the Oscar-winning 1999 sci-fi film “The Matrix,” Carrie-Anne Moss’ Trinity character tells Keanu Reeves’ Neo character that his feeling of déjà vu is “a glitch in the matrix.” It’s meant to explain a mistake in the matrix world where the movie’s characters live in a simulated reality. The documentary “A Glitch in the Matrix” talks to several people who are open to believe or actually believe the idea that the world as we know it is not “real” but is actually a simulation controlled by unknown and unseen forces.

If you want to listen to self-admitted geeks drone on and on about this concept, then by all means, waste your time and watch “A Glitch in the Matrix,” which adds nothing new or interesting to this debate. The movie is also very poorly researched. “A Glitch in the Matrix,” which had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, spent more time gathering a variety of film clips than interviewing a variety of people.

Directed by Rodney Ascher, “A Glitch in the Matrix” is truly a case of style of over substance. It cobbles together a lot of clips from sci-fi flicks, edits them together with some animation, and tries to dazzle the viewer into thinking that movie is going to be a cutting-edge documentary. It’s not.

It’s really just a movie that gives a platform to several self-described video game addicts, who ramble on about how they sometimes have a hard time comprehending what’s reality and what is not. The only facts that this documentary really puts forth are that people can get addicted to video games and those with possible mental health issues can actually start to feel like they’re living in a video game. This problem of video game addiction has been common knowledge for decades, but the filmmakers of “A Glitch in the Matrix” try to make this documentary look as if it’s revealing insightful information. Perhaps they’re living in another reality if they think this lazy film is nothing more than a cash grab to appeal to gamers and other people interested in virtual worlds.

Some of the people interviewed in the documentary don’t even want to show their real faces. Instead, their video game avatars are shown on screen as they talk. These self-confessed video game addicts are:

  • Paul Gude, who appears with a creepy red mask surrounded by a ruby-like orb and wearing a samurai warrior outfit.
  • Brother Laeo Mystwood, who appears with an Anibus head and is decked out mostly in purple.
  • Alex LeVine, who appears as a shaman-like robot with an emoji face and a brain suspended in liquid
  • Jesse Orion, who appears as a space alien in an astronaut suit.

They all look like they’re auditioning to be a new character in a “Mortal Kombat” reboot game. And, clearly, all of them have “issues.” Orion describes himself as a video game addict who feels alienated from the world.

Gude says that when he was a student at the University of Missouri in Columbia in the early 1990s, he first became fascinated with the idea that the human brain is a computer that can be hacked into and manipulated. And he comments that he started to feel like his life was really a simulation when, as a child, he moved from Pontiac, Illinois, to the much smaller city of Dorsey, Illinois. He remembers being somewhat freaked out by things such as going to a shopping mall and seeing hardly any people there. He also thinks people are “chemical robots.”

Mystwood (which is obviously not his real name, but maybe it’s his name in the fantasy world he seems to have in his head) talks about having a religious upbringing that he thinks did some damage to his psyche. (Gude, who is the son of a pastor, describes a similar effect that religion had on him.) Mystwood also says that he got a clearer understanding of “alternate reality” when he experienced going into a sensory deprivation tank. Mystwood describes how his head started to pound and he had an out-of-body experience.

And he then came to this conclusion after going through the experience of the sensory deprivation tank: “I am a code … Nothing on me or anyone is real.” The documentary irresponsibly doesn’t include scientific information on how sensory deprivation can cause hallucinations similar to someone taking a psychedelic drug.

Speaking of psychedelics, what the filmmakers fail to ask in this documentary when people spew all of these paranoid theories is, “How often have you taken psychedelic drugs?” Because a lot of their ranting about discovering “alternate realities” just sounds like people who maybe took LSD or other psychedelics too many times. And a few of them sound like they’re in serious need of psychiatric evaluations.

Billionaire tech mogul Elon Musk is mentioned as somewhat of a hero to people who think that we live in a simulation, because Musk has publicly expressed this theory too. What the documentary doesn’t mention is Musk’s self-admitted drug use. It seems irresponsible for this documentary to not mention the possibility that drug-fueled hallucinations could be behind many of the theories about simulation that some people believe as gospel.

The closest that anyone will admit that being under the influence of substances (legal or illegal) has a lot to do with how they think about reality is when LeVine describes going on a drunken joyride in Mexico with some friends when he was younger. Everyone in the car, including the driver, was very drunk from alcohol and maybe who knows what other substances that LeVine (a Harvard-educated engineer) might not wanted to admit to on camera. After driving the wrong way on a freeway and narrowly missing a head-on collision, the car eventually flipped over and crashed by itself. The car was completely wrecked.

Luckily, no one was killed or seriously injured. LeVine describes having an out-of-body experience and remembers someone carrying him away from the corrupt federales who were going to demand money from these Americans to not arrest them. LeVine says the fact that no one got killed in this serious car crash was a sign that some other forces were at play.

Actually, it’s not unusual for intoxicated people in a car crash to suffer less injuries than people in the crash who were sober. There are many cases of drunk drivers who killed other people in an automobile crash, but the drunk drivers survived with minor injuries. There’s plenty of information available with the statistics.

Medical experts believe that intoxicated people in a car crash have a better chance of surviving and getting less injured, compared to sober people, because intoxicated people’s reactions and reflexes are slower while under the influence of alcohol or another substance. But course, the filmmakers never both to include this medical/scientific information. In fact, they don’t question or try to debunk any of the hallucinatory stories that are in this movie.

The production notes for “A Glitch in the Matrix” describe the documentary interviewees who believe in simulation theory as “eyewitnesses.” LeVine also mentions that he has Crohn’s disease, which is an odd thing to bring up, because the inner workings of his bowels have nothing to do with what this documentary is all about. That’s an example of some of the irrelevant information in this movie, which was in serious need of better editing and sensible research.

“A Glitch in the Matrix” interviews a few journalists and academics (who appear on camera as their real selves), but they just repeat things that they’ve already written about in essays, books or articles that they wrote years ago. In the documentary’s production notes, these talking heads are listed as people providing “expert testimony.” Among those interviewed is writer Erik Davis, author of the 1998 book “Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information.”

There’s also Nick Bostrom, an Oxford University professor who wrote the 2003 article “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” for Philosophical Quarterly, while he was doing post-doctoral work at Yale University. He believes that there are three possibilities when it comes to simulation disguised as reality: (1) There was extinction before simulation; (2) Simulation technology was abandoned and there are only assets to simulation; (3) Simulation is “real.”

American cartoonist Chris Ware gives a useless interview where he comments on the illustration that he did for The New Yorker’s issue that was dated June 12, 2015. The cover features two girls looking at computers in their bedroom. Ware says that the video game Minecraft inspired the drawing.

Ware also has this to say about Minecraft: “Every time I play it with my daughter, I feel like we’re dead and we’re flying around the world. It’s the only experience that closely approximates what … a disembodied conscience might experience.”

Again. Are these people on drugs? These are the so-called “experts” in this movie.

Also interviewed is Emily Pothast, who wrote a 2019 article on Medium called “The (Deep) Dream of Motivated Reasoning Produces Monsters,” which gives an analysis of how people can be radicalized if they believe that their reality is different from what’s presented by the media. She is the only woman interviewed in this documentary, and she’s the only person in the movie who gives an intelligent cultural context of what can happen when people start to think that their reality is not what most other people think is reality.

Pothast comments, “I do think there’s an inability to separate the real world from digital realities, when you have the [2019 mosque mass-murder] shooter in [Christchurch] New Zealand, livestreaming what he’s doing … and going after people who are Muslims. Or people shooting up synagogues going after people who are constructed as ‘other’ by the media that [these shooters] consume.”

The New Zealand shooter was a white supremacist who appeared to be addicted to social media, such as Facebook, instead of video games. “A Glitch in the Matrix” doesn’t mention that New Zealand subsequently banned video games that were eerily similar to the mosque shootings. And there’s no discussion in this documentary on how substance abuse and/or mental illness play roles in people disconnecting from reality.

The documentary also takes a glib approach when mentioning the 2018 incident of Horizon Air employee Richard Russell stealing a Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 plane, with no passengers, from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and doing dangerous tricks in the air. Russell died when he intentionally crashed the plane on Ketron Island in Puget Sound. During his communication with aircraft control, Russell (who did not have a pilot’s license) said he learned how to fly planes by playing video games. The people in the documentary, such as Orion, who comment on this tragic incident seem to be more impressed with how video games influenced this deadly stunt than caring about what led Russell to commit such a desperate act.

“A Glitch in the Matrix” also shows a clear bias in preference of white men, because all but two people interviewed in the movie fit that description. In addition to Pothast, the only other person interviewed in this documentary who is not a white man is Joshua Cooke, an African American man who was convicted of the 2003 shooting murders of his adoptive parents in Oakton, Virginia. Cooke was 19 when he committed the crime and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. He says that he was addicted to “The Matrix” movie and violent video games, and he says that he lost touch with reality. In court, he pled guilty instead of pleading not guilty by reason of insanity.

Cooke was so obsessed with “The Matrix” that he dressed like the movie’s Neo character and bought a gun that’s similar to the one that Neo uses in the movie. Cooke does not appear on camera in “A Glitch in the Matrix,” but his comments are heard in audio voiceover from interviews that the filmmakers did with him from prison. Cooke’s story is included in the documentary’s long segment about the huge influence that “The Matrix” movies (especially the first one in the series) have had on people who believe that life is a simulation. Cooke vividly describes how “The Matrix” took over his life and spilled over into murdering the people he thought were the “enemy.”

What the documentary didn’t mention is that there was a history of mental illness with Cooke’s biological parents: His biological mother was schizophrenic, and his father was bipolar. There are no mental health experts interviewed in this documentary about people who believe that the world we live in isn’t real. That gives you an idea of how careless this documentary is.

“A Glitch in the Matrix” strangely and selectively mentions Cooke and Lee Boyd Malvo (also known as one of the DC Sniper serial killers) as the only two examples of people whose obsession with “The Matrix” and violent video games turned into homicide. Everyone knows that black people are not the vast majority of those who commit mass murders or serial killings of this type. And yet, “A Glitch in the Matrix” filmmakers show an appalling racist bias by only singling out black people as examples of those who’ve committed these violent crimes.

The movie gives a lot of screen time to archival footage of a 1977 speaking appearance given by sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, who’s cited as another major influence to people who believe that life is a simulation. Several of Dick’s novels and short stories have been adapted into movies, including 1982’s “Blade Runner,” 1990’s “Total Recall,” 2002’s “Minority Report” and 2011’s “The Adjustment Bureau.” The Amazon Prime Video series “The Man in the High Castle” was also based on one of his books.

“A Glitch in the Matrix” includes clips from several movies, such as “The Matrix,” “Total Recall,” “Minority Report,” 1997’s “Starship Troopers,” 1998’s “The Truman Show,” and 2009’s “Avatar.” All of these films have some version of the theme that humans are not as in control of their lives as they think they are because there are outside forces really in control or trying to invade humanity. The documentary also has several eye-catching animation clips, most notably Robert Crumb’s “Plato’s The Cave.”

“A Glitch in the Matrix” spends a lot of time discussing that people who believe that the world is really simulated are those who are usually addicted to video games. And yet, the filmmakers failed to include the perspectives of any video game developers or people who market video games. It’s a glaring oversight that shows how sloppily made and superficial this documentary is.

Some of the movie’s pace tends to drag because the rambling interviews get very boring after a while. The filmmakers also don’t confront a fact which seems pretty obvious from watching the type of people who get hooked on video games: These people have way too much time on their hands, which speaks to larger issues. There’s a certain amount of privilege that someone has to have to be able to spend all that time and money on video games.

“A Glitch in the Matrix” does a woefully inadequate job of addressing these socioeconomic issues. It’s a lot easier to want to escape into a video game world of shootouts and other mayhem if you don’t live in a gang-infested area or a war-torn environment. If any of these video game addicts who think the world isn’t real were taken out of the comfort of their homes and put in an actual war zone, they’d see how “real” the world is.

“A Glitch in the Matrix” doesn’t want to discuss how issues about mental health, substance abuse and socioeconomic status are major factors that link video game addiction to believing that the world isn’t real. The filmmakers just want to present a bright, shiny bubble of a documentary where the perspectives of people in one racial and gender demographic are given more importance over anyone else. And that lack of diversity is anything but what the real world looks like.

Magnolia Pictures released “A Glitch in the Matrix” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on February 5, 2021.

Review: ‘Land’ (2021), starring Robin Wright and Demián Bichir

February 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Robin Wright in “Land” (Photo by Daniel Power/Focus Features)

“Land” (2021)

Directed by Robin Wright

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in rural Wyoming, the dramatic film “Land” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one Latino and some Native American) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A depressed, middle-aged widow, who is grieving over the loss of her husband and son, decides to isolate herself in a remote mountain cabin without knowing a lot of basic survival skills.

Culture Audience: “Land” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a movie about coping with grief where the acting is better than some of the plot developments.

Demián Bichir and Robin Wright in “Land” (Photo by Daniel Power/Focus Features)

The dramatic film “Land” is a lot like the rural mountainous area that serves as the backdrop of this story. There are peaks and valleys and a lot of spaces to fill in between, with some parts handled in a rougher way than others. “Land” is the feature-film directorial debut of actress Robin Wright, who also stars in the movie, which had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

“Land” features a lot of scenes of her Edee Holzer character in solitude and sometimes dealing with dangerous elements of the terrain. The performances of Wright and co-star Demián Bichir (the two actors who have the most screen time in the film) elevate “Land” to make it easier to watch this mostly grim and sometimes uplifting movie. It’s a solid directorial debut from Wright, who manages to bring emotional gravitas to a character who remains an enigma for almost the entire movie.

“Land” is supposed to take place mostly in Wyoming, but the movie was actually filmed primarily in Moose Mountain in the Canadian province of Alberta. As a director, Wright displays talent in how striking and immersive she can make the movie’s scenes look, physically and emotionally. (Bobby Bukowski was the cinematographer for “Land.”)

Where the movie needed improvement most was in the screenplay written by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam. The story dips a little too much into some formulaic “life in the wilderness” tropes before trying to throw in some tearjerking sentimentality during a certain part of the movie where it’s expected. Still, there’s enough to hold people’s interest for anyone curious to see how the movie ends.

The beginning of “Land” shows Edee (whose name is pronounced “ee-dee”) in a therapy session. The therapist asks Edee, “How are you feeling right now?” Edee replies, “I’m feeling like it’s really difficult to be around people because they just want me to get better. Why would anybody want to share it that? They can’t anyway.” The therapist says, “But that means you’re alone with your pain.”

Edee is about to be “alone with her pain” for a lot of this story. The next thing you know, she’s packed up a U-Haul, thrown away her cell phone, and headed to a run-down remote cabin in the mountains. The previous owner was an elderly man who passed away years ago. The person renting out the property is a man named Colt (played by Brad Leland), who meets her at the cabin to make sure that Edee has what she needs to move into the place.

Edee knows that the house hasn’t been cleaned or repaired in a long time, but she tells Colt that she doesn’t care. She also asks Colt to have someone pick up the rental car with the U-Haul. Colt expresses concern that Edee would be in this isolated area without a car, but she assures him that this is how she wants to live. Colt also asks Edee if she knows how to take care of herself in this rural environment, but she shrugs off his doubts. Edee also makes it clear to him that she wants to be left alone.

It turns out that Edee is woefully unprepared for what she experiences in this mountain area. Cleaning up the cabin (which has no indoor plumbing or electricity) is easy compared to dealing with freezing temperatures, finding fresh food, and being on the alert for the occasional wild bear. (You can easily predict how the bear scenario goes.) Edee doesn’t even know how to chop wood or go fishing when she starts living at the cabin, but she learns how through trial and error.

During her period of complete isolation, Edee has flashbacks to three very important people in her life: Her husband Adam (played by Warren Christie), their son Drew (played by Finlay Wojtak-Hissong) and Edee’s sister Emma (played by Kim Dickens), who’s close to Edee’s age. Emma was the one who recommended the therapist whom Edee was seeing before Edee decided to leave her old life behind and go “off the grid” to live in solitude.

As soon as the flashbacks start about Adam and Drew (who’s about 7 or 8 years old in the flashbacks), it’s obvious that they have died and that’s why Edee is so depressed. The flashbacks show that Edee and Emma had a very close relationship, but their closeness wasn’t enough for Edee to overcome her depression. An incident is shown that indicates that at one point, Emma was afraid that Edee might harm herself.

Why was Edee so unprepared to be in this rural environment? It turns out she kind of has a death wish that’s not really suicidal, but more like “I’m going to rough it in the wilderness, and if I can’t handle it, oh well …” But there are moments, such as when she has a bear encounter and some other near-disasters, where she does show a will to survive.

Edee is very aware that she’s ill-prepared to last long in this environment unless she knows how to catch her own food. During the harsh winter, there are no plants or fruit to eat. And through a series of circumstances, all the non-perishable food that was in the cabin is now gone.

Therefore, during a brutal winter, Edee begins to starve and almost freeze to death. She eventually collapses from hunger and hypothermia in the living room of her house, and she wakes up at night to find that a man and a woman have come to her rescue. The man’s name is Miguel Borras (played by Bichir) and the woman is a nurse named Alawa Crowe (played by Sarah Dawn Pledge), who gives Edee the necessary medical treatment because Edee refuses to be taken to a hospital.

It’s revealed later in the movie that Edee was found because Miguel had passed by the house when he had gone hunting earlier that day and noticed that smoke was coming out of the house’s chimney. When he passed by later that evening after his hunting trip, he noticed that there was no smoke coming from the chimney, so he went to investigate. When Miguel saw an unconscious Edee in the house, he called Alawa. Miguel and Alawa know each other because as part of his job, he delivers water to the Native American reservation where she lives.

Alawa voices her suspicions to Edee in asking her why Edee is avoiding being around people. Edee assures Alawa and Miguel that she’s not an outlaw or someone who’s trying to hide for shady reasons. Alawa still looks skeptical, but Miguel is more compassionate and understanding. He offers to help Edee recover at home instead of taking her to a hospital. Alawa reluctantly agrees.

After Edee recovers from her near-death experience, Miguel comes back to her house (against her wishes) and tells her that he wants to teach her how to hunt and trap animals for food. (This is not a good movie to watch if you’re a hardcore vegan or vegetarian, although nothing gets too graphic in the hunting scenes.) Miguel tells Edee that after she’s learned these skills, he will leave her alone.

And it should come as no surprise that Edee and Miguel end up becoming close, and she lets him hang out with her longer than she originally expected. There are many scenes of them forming a gradual friendship while Miguel teaches Edee how to catch her own food. Miguel has a German Shepherd named Potter as his constant companion, and Edee grows fond of the dog too, even though she told Miguel that she’s more of a cat person.

Eventually, Miguel opens up to Edee and tells her that he’s a widower whose wife and daughter were killed in a car accident. Edee remains vague about her past when she interacts with Miguel, and she will only say with pain in her eyes, “I had a family once.” Toward the end of the movie, it’s revealed how Edee’s husband and son died.

Miguel is the type of person who offers sage advice in the way that people do in movies like this one, where the right person comes along at the right time. He’s a true gentleman who doesn’t try to take advantage of someone who’s living in isolation. Some of his dialogue can be on the corny side, such as when he lectures Edee about her starvation collapse: “Only a person who’s never been hungry would think starvation is a good way to die.”

But there are some whimsical moments that lighten the mood, such as a running joke that Miguel and Edee have over how off-key he is when he sings Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” which seems to be one of his favorite songs. Edee also affectionately gives Miguel the nickname Yoda, in a nod to the wise and prophetic “Star Wars” character. She’s shocked when Miguel tells her that he’s never seen a “Star Wars” movie.

To its credit, “Land” does not fall into a “romance novel” cliché trap of having a woman being “rescued” by a handsome stranger, and then they fall in love and live happily ever after. That’s not to say that Edee and Miguel don’t have a deep emotional connection. But having them go down a “romance novel” route wouldn’t ring true, since Edee has a lot of self-healing to do and isn’t ready to jump into another serious relationship.

However, some details of “Land” also needed more authenticity. Throughout the movie, Edee is dressed a little too much like a catalogue model for outdoorsy clothing when she’s supposed to be someone who’s given up on life and wants to be alone. Why bother dressing up if she doesn’t want to be seen by anyone? Edee’s “no makeup” look and unfussy hair look realistic, but her clothing sometimes does not.

Those are minor flaws though, because the rapport between Edee and Miguel is what makes this movie worth watching. Because it takes a while to get to that point, some viewers might find “Land” to be a little too slow-paced in the first third of the movie. There’s not much about Edee’s background that is revealed, although it’s implied that Emma is Edee’s closest living relative.

The blanks aren’t completely filled in, and that’s probably because scenes were cut from the film. The Internet Movie Database page for “Land” lists several cast members playing characters who weren’t in the movie. It appears that there were more flashback scenes that didn’t make the final cut. Overall, “Land” is more of a somber character study of grief than a tension-filled wilderness saga, with enough glimmers of hope and empathetic performances that prevent the movie from being completely depressing.

Focus Features will release “Land” in U.S. cinemas on February 12, 2021. The movie’s VOD release date is March 5, 2021.

Review: ‘Mass’ (2021), starring Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd and Reed Birney

February 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton and Breeda Wool in “Mass” (Photo by Ryan Jackson-Healy)

“Mass”

Directed by Fran Kanz

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic film “Mass” features an almost all-white cast (with one African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two men and two women who have a tragedy in common gather in a church meeting room to air out their differences.

Culture Audience: “Mass” will appeal primarily to people interested in dialogue-heavy movies about grief, mental illness and coping with the violent death of a loved one.

Ann Dowd and Reed Birney in “Mass” (Photo by Ryan Jackson-Healy)

The title of the movie “Mass” can have a double meeting. On the one hand, the movie, which takes entirely at or near an Episcopal church, can refer to the religious ceremony called a mass. On the other hand, it could refer to the deadly mass shooting that has directly affected two men and two women, who have gathered at an Episcopal church in an unnamed U.S. city to have a difficult meeting about this tragedy. (The movie was actually filmed in Hailey, Idaho, but almost all of the scenes in the take place indoors.) Fran Kanz, who is known as an actor in the 2012 horror flick “The Cabin in the Woods” and the sci-fi TV series “JourneyQuest,” makes an impressive debut as a feature-film director in “Mass,” a movie which he also wrote. “Mass” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

“Mass” is a very well-written and intense film that relies entirely on the actors to make or break the authenticity in this gripping story. The movie centers on four people who have a painful discussion about a tragedy that has left them emotionally broken and damaged. Before these four people meet at the church, the story unfolds in layers, as viewers see a church office manager named Judy (played by Breeda Wool) nervously preparing for these visitors to gather in a room that has been reserved specifically for this meeting.

Judy asks a college-age assistant named Anthony (played by Kagen Albright) to help her get the room ready. Soon, a woman named Kendra (played by Michelle N. Carter) arrives to inspect the room and make sure that it’s appropriate for the meeting. Kendra seems to have been the one to choose the church as a meeting place. Judy is eager to please Kendra, who looks over the room in a business-like and no-nonsense manner.

The first clue that this meeting is about a traumatic, violent incident is when Kendra notices some stained-glass hanging decorations on the windows. Red is one of the decorations’ main colors. And from a distance, the red could look like bloodstains. Judy notices it too, and anxiously explains to Kendra that these stained-class decorations were made by some of the church kids. Judy says that the decorations could be removed before the visitors for the meeting get there. Kendra says it isn’t necessary.

Kendra is obviously the meeting’s facilitator, but she tells Judy that she will not be in the room during the meeting, in order to give the people in the meeting their privacy. It’s another clue that the meeting is of a very sensitive and confidential nature. Is Kendra a social worker? A counselor? Someone else? It’s never really made clear what her occupation is, but in the brief time that she’s on screen, Kendra seems to have the role of someone who is supposed to remain neutral in something that seems to be controversial.

Who are the people who will be participating in this tension-filled meeting? The married couple that viewers see first are Gail and Jay Perry, who drove down from an unnamed city for this gathering. Gail (played by Martha Plimpton) and Jay (played by Jason Isaacs), who are in their 50s, drive up to the church and park their car outside. However, Gail gets nervous and tells Jay to drive away so she can have more time to brace herself for this meeting.

They park near a fenced field that has a red ribbon tied to the fence. The camera lingers on the ribbon. It’s an obvious sign that this was the site of a makeshift memorial. Who died and why are these four people meeting? All the clues are there: A violent death, a makeshift memorial, two couples having an emotional discussion together for the very first time.

Gail feels ready to go back to the church. And when Gail and Jay go back to the church, they are greeted warmly by Judy and Kendra. Based on Judy’s comments, she’s not so eager to meet the other two people who arrive next, although when they do arrive she has a forced, polite smile. The other two visitors are a divorced couple in their 60s. It’s obvious that they’re no longer together when they arrive separately and aren’t seen wearing wedding rings.

Former spouses Richard (played by Reed Birney) and Linda (played by Ann Dowd) haven’t seen each other in a while. Richard no longer lives in the area, because he said that he traveled by plane for this somber occasion, and later he says he won’t be staying in the area for the rest of the day. Richard gives the impression that he’s a busy businessman, while the career backgrounds of Gail, Jay and Linda are never revealed. At one point in the story, Richard says that he isn’t religious, so meeting in a church is outside of his comfort zone.

Linda has brought a bouquet of wild flowers, which she offers to Gail as a gift. Gail declines to take the flowers but later changes her mind in order to not create any further tension. It’s another clue about where the hard feelings are between these four people. After some awkward small talk is exchanged, Kendra and Judy show Gail, Jay, Linda and Richard to the meeting room and leave the four visitors there to talk. Kendra says before she leaves them together, “I’m hopeful that we think this was a good thing to do by the time we leave here today.”

And that’s when the movie starts to peel back the layers of turmoil and trauma that have led to this excruciating meeting. It won’t be revealed in this review who died and who committed the mass murder. But it’s enough to say that those details come out in bits and pieces. And then the floodgates open with the blame, anger, sadness and confusion over how the murders could have been prevented.

What makes “Mass” so outstanding is that there isn’t a single line of dialogue or action that looks or sounds phony. Because 80% of the movie takes place in this one room, “Mass” could very much be a play. It’s not an easy film to watch for anyone who is very sensitive to the topic of mass murder. However, “Mass” presents an excellent story that looks at this type of tragedy from various perspectives of loved ones who are left behind.

All four of the main actors give stellar performances. However, Plimpton and Dowd shine the most because their characters Gail and Linda express their emotions more freely than the men do. “Mass” is also a raw look at different ways that people grieve and try to make sense of a senseless crime. And it’s also a realistic portrayal of survivor guilt and how people who didn’t cause the crime can still feel responsible for it.

Kanz’s directing style is as minimalist as his writing style is rich with naturalistic language. It’s a combination that works for the movie’s setting. And the movie greatly benefits from being well-cast with actors who never strike a false note with their characters. “Mass” is a movie that will linger in people’s memories long after they watch it. And it will be a story that will come to mind when people think about how mass murders cause untold traumas that don’t necessarily make headlines.

UPDATE: Bleecker Street will release “Mass” in select U.S. cinemas on October 8, 2021.

Review: ‘Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It,’ starring Rita Moreno

February 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Rita Moreno in “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and American Masters Films)

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It”

Directed by Mariem Pérez Riera

Culture Representation: The documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” features a group of predominantly Hispanic people (and a few white people and black people), discussing Rita Moreno, the only Latina entertainer who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award, also known as being an EGOT winner.

Culture Clash: Moreno talks about racism and sexism that caused problems for her.

Culture Audience: “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in biographical stories about celebrities with long careers who broke barriers, as well as frank discussions about what it’s like to be of Hispanic ethnicity in the predominantly white American entertainment industry.

A photo of Rita Moreno on the set of 1961’s “West Side Story” in “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” (Photo courtesy of MGM Studios)

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” doesn’t reveal anything new and significant that Rita Moreno didn’t already reveal in her 2013 self-titled memoir. However, this laudatory documentary, which includes Moreno’s participation, is still inspirational and will be very informative to people who know very little about Moreno’s story before seeing this movie. Breezily directed by Mariem Pérez Riera, “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” follows a pleasant but not groundbreaking celebrity documentary formula of flattering commentaries from other celebrities and pundits; archival footage and exclusive documentary footage; and candid but selective confessions from the celebrity. “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

The movie opens with a scene of Moreno preparing for her 87th birthday party in 2018. But she’s not being fussed over by an entourage of people. She’s in her house’s kitchen laying out the silverware and the decorations, with some help from assistants. Moreno is all too aware that people watching this scene will be surprised that she’s doing the kind of work a personal assistant or event planner would do.

Moreno quips, “You can tell I’m not a real star because somebody else would be doing this. Show business: That’s why you must never really believe anything about your fame and all that kind of bullshit. Yeah, it goes up and down. Right now, it’s up.”

The documentary includes footage of the party (which has a Cuban costume theme, because Moreno says she likes hosting themed costume parties), where an energetic and lively Moreno dances happily with guests. She’s charismatic, humorous and has a very obvious zest for life. It’s that mixture of self-deprecation and self-confidence that Moreno has on display throughout the entire documentary.

And these personality traits have helped Moreno (who was born Rosa Dolores Alverío Marcano in 1931 in Humacao, Puerto Rico) sustain a career for longer than a lot of people end up living. But, of course, she didn’t get to where she is so easily. And the documentary rightfully gives Moreno a lot of screen time to tell her story: the good, the bad and the ugly.

She recounts that from an early age, she knew she wanted to be an entertainer: “Being a natural performer, I think I was born that way, I was wired that way. I wanted to be a movie star since the time I saw my first picture.”

Moreno’s mother Rosa María, who was a seamstress, left behind Moreno’s father Francisco and Moreno’s brother Francisco Jr. in Puerto Rico to move with Moreno to New York City in 1936. Moreno vividly remembers seeing the Statue of Liberty and thinking that the statue represented the president of the United States. It might have been a future indicator that Moreno would go on to support feminism and other progressive issues when she became a social activist in the 1960s.

The documentary could have used some insight from Moreno about how leaving behind her father and brother impacted her life and if she ever kept in touch with them. It’s unclear if the filmmakers didn’t ask her those questions, or if they did ask but Moreno didn’t want to talk about it on camera. At any rate, she doesn’t mention her family left behind in Puerto Rico for the rest of the documentary.

Nor does there seem to be any attempt by the filmmakers who find anyone who knew Moreno from her childhood or her teenage years, to verify some of her stories of what life was like for her before she became famous. It’s an omission that’s an example of how this documentary is certainly good about rehashing information that Moreno has already talked about in several interviews and in her memoir, but the documentary doesn’t really dig beneath the celebrity veneer in a way that is entirely revealing, even if it might make the celebrity uncomfortable.

Moreno says that her mother fully supported her showbiz aspirations from a very young age, because Rosa María would often dress her daughter up like a doll and encourage her to perform wherever she could. By the age of 15, Moreno dropped out of high school because she was busy working as an entertainer. By the age of 16, she was supporting her family with her income.

But that doesn’t mean that her entry into showbiz went smoothly. Moreno remembers that as a child living in New York City, which was very racially segregated at the time, she had insecurities because she was treated as inferior because of her race. And as she became a young woman, she says she was often the target of stereotypes of being a “spicy” or “sexpot” Latina whose only worth was in her physical appearance.

A fateful meeting with Louis B. Mayer (the co-founder of MGM Studios) led to Moreno’s first big break in the movies. She went with her mother for an appointment to see Mayer at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where Mayer was staying in the penthouse. Moreno’s first major role model as a movie star was Elizabeth Taylor. And so, for this important meeting with Mayer, Moreno says in the documentary that she deliberately made herself look like Elizabeth Taylor as much as possible. The tactic worked, and Mayer decided on the spot to give Moreno a contract at MGM, because he said that she looked like a “Spanish Elizabeth Taylor.”

Moreno says in the documentary that this big break is an example of how one person can change the course of someone’s career in a matter of minutes, in ways that years of hard work cannot do. Moreno had a contract with MGM, but it came with strict limitations, because it was back in the days when movie studios controlled and dictated whom their rising young stars could date and how they would appear in public. And because of her racial identity, Moreno was always typecast as the “ethnic girl” where she usually played supporting characters who were written as subservient and/or intellectually inferior to white people.

It’s fairly well-known that Moreno’s most famous movie role was in the 1961 movie musical “West Side Story.” Nothing new about her “West Side Story” experience is revealed in this documentary that she hasn’t already talked about elsewhere. She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Anita in “West Side Story,” making her the first entertainer of Hispanic ethnicity to win an Oscar. She still jokes about how her speech was short because she was so shocked that she won, and she’s been making up for that short speech ever since.

Moreno is also in director Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake, which is due out in December 2021. Details about her role in the movie have not yet been revealed as of this writing, but she plays a character named Valentina. The documentary has brief footage of her walking onto the set of the “West Side Story” remake, with Spielberg making a quick cameo.

Moreno’s traumatic experiences with sexual assault and sexual harassment aren’t glossed over in the documentary. Just like she’s done in other interviews and in her memoir, she talks about being raped in her 20s by her agent at the time. (Moreno does not name him.) She says she continued to work with him because he was the only agent she knew at the time who would represent a Latina performer. Moreno says that rape experience also fueled a lot of realistic anger when her “West Side Story” character Anita successfully fought off a gang of male attackers.

Moreno also shares the experience of being sexually demeaned at an industry party in Beverly Hills when she was in her early 30s. The perpetrators were not only a powerful party guest but also the party host, according to Moreno. She describes being told by party guest Harry Cohen, who was head of Columbia Pictures at the time: “You know, I’d like to fuck you.” She says that, at the time, she laughed off this sexual aggression to his face, because she was afraid of the backlash she would get if she got visibly angry.

And later, when the party host (whom she does not name but she describes as a well-known distillery mogul) asked her to dance, he sexually grinded on her without her consent. During this assault, he said to her, “You’re a sexy little bitch, aren’t you?” Moreno says she was so mortified and scared that she asked the Mexican gardeners at the party to take her home, and they willingly obliged because they could sense that she had been violated in some way.

Moreno mentions that these gardeners were the “classiest people at the party.” And it’s clear that she tells this story to serve as an example of why people shouldn’t be dazzled by money and fame as a reason to think that someone is “better” than someone else. Money and fame don’t buy class. And being rich or famous doesn’t mean someone is incapable of heinous acts.

Moreno’s story is also an example of how winning an Oscar isn’t an automatic guarantee of getting bigger and better opportunities. After winning an Oscar, she says was only offered roles where she played the type of character that was a lot like Anita in “West Side Story.” Because she didn’t want to be typecast, Morena says in the documentary she turned down roles and that she didn’t do movies for another seven years after she won the Oscar for “West Side Story.” She says that instead, she worked in TV and theater.

This is where this documentary’s filmmakers show some carelessness. A quick look at Moreno’s filmography shows that she in fact did appear in several movies during the seven years (1962-1969) that she says that she didn’t. But she was correct in saying that she also worked in television during that time period. Her inaccuracy doesn’t mean that she deliberately lied, but it’s very possible her memory of that time period isn’t as accurate as it should be. It’s why celebrity documentaries aren’t always reliable if the celebrity controls too much of the narrative and the filmmakers don’t really care to fact check.

Moreno also talks about her torturous romance with Marlon Brando, whom she says she dated off and on for seven or eight years from the mid-1950s the early 1960s. It’s clear that she’s still conflicted about him all these years later. She bitterly describes him as an “anathema in my life,” but she also says that he loved her. And she has some therapy-speak when she declares, “He was the daddy I couldn’t please. I think about [him] now. What was there to love?”

She describes Brando as brilliant but also very selfish and controlling. Just as she did in her memoir, Moreno talks about how she got pregnant with Brando’s baby and secretly hoped that he would marry her. Instead, she found out he didn’t want to be her husband or the father of her child, and she had an abortion, which was illegal at the time. She had medical complications after the abortion that were traumatic for her.

Moreno also talks about how she was so distraught over the relationship with Brando that she attempted suicide. This is information that Moreno revealed several years ago. After they ended their relationship, Moreno and Brando co-starred in the 1969 movie “The Night of the Following Day,” where they have an argument scene and she slaps him in the face. She says that it didn’t take much acting on her part because she channeled her real-life rage at Brando into the scene.

If there’s any good that came out of her relationship with Brando, she says it was that he helped awaken her social consciousness during the 1960s. She became involved in the civil rights movement and feminist causes before it was “trendy” to do so. She says of her progressive political activism: “For the first time, I felt useful.” The movie includes video footage of her giving speeches and attending political marches and rallies, such as the 1963 March on Washington, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In one scene in the movie, Moreno is shown in her “One Day at a Time” dressing room, watching on TV the 2018 U.S. Senate’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, who was nominated by Donald Trump for the Supreme Court. Moreno watches Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a former schoolmate of Kavanaugh’s from high school, testify that he sexually assaulted Ford in 1982, when they were teenagers. Moreno comments that she believes Ford, and that some of the testimony about sexual assault is triggering for her.

Moreno also describes her relationship with her husband Leonard Gordon, a cardiologist who later became her manager. They were married from 1965 until his death in 2010, at the age of 90. She recalls how she was charmed during their early courtship because he wasn’t aware that she was famous when they first started talking to each other. Moreno also said one of the best things about their relationship was that he had a knack for making her laugh.

But she’s also candid about admitting that toward the end of their marriage, she basically fell out of love with him, but they never got divorced because he loved her more than she loved him. Moreno also says that she and her husband had terrible fights and had a very dysfunctional marriage. However, Moreno confesses that they were skilled at hiding their marriage problems from the world, including their daughter (and only child), Fernanda Gordon Fisher, who is interviewed in the documentary. Gordon Fisher says that her parents had a good marriage with normal disagreements that weren’t too serious.

That’s not the way her mother describes it. Moreno says that Gordon was a “control freak” who didn’t like the “raucous and loud” side of her. She says, “When Lenny died, I gave that little Rosita [referring to herself] permission to leave.” She also admits she felt relieved when he died because “I didn’t have to answer to anyone anymore.”

Moreno has mixed feelings about her late husband, but there’s no doubt that she and her daughter adore each other. It’s mentioned that when Moreno’s daughter was in her 20s, she toured with Moreno and was Moreno’s backup singer/dancer. The documentary shows how Moreno and her daughter are still very close. Moreno also talks lovingly of her two grandsons (Cameron and Justin Fisher), who are briefly shown in the documentary.

The movie chronicles several of Moreno’s career highlights, including winning a Grammy for the 1972 cast recording album of children’s TV series “The Electric Company”; a Tony Award in 1975 for her featured performance in “The Ritz”; and two Emmys in 1977 and 1978, for guest-starring on “The Muppet Show” and “The Rockford Files.” She was also a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 and was celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015.

As for the title of this movie, it’s inspired by slogan on a T-shirt that Moreno wore when she received a career achievement award at a Television Critics Association event in 2018. Footage of her getting ready for the event and her acceptance speech is included in the documentary. “Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” is a saying that sums up her persona perfectly: gutsy, vibrant and never forgetting her humble beginnings.

Most of the people who provide commentary for the documentary are other famous entertainers. Their remarks about Moreno are all positive, while some of the Latina actresses (such as Eva Longoria and Karen Olivo) expound on the specific barriers that Hispanic female entertainers often face in showbiz. Other people interviewed in the documentary include some actors who’ve co-starred with Moreno over the years, including George Chakiris (“West Side Story”), Morgan Freeman (“The Electric Company”), Héctor Elizondo (“Cane”) and Justina Machado (“One Day at a Time”).

Also weighing in with their thoughts are Lin-Manuel Miranda, Whoopi Goldberg (another EGOT winner), Mitzi Gaynor, Gloria Estefan, “One Day at a Time” executive producer Norman Lear, “Life Without Makeup” director Tony Taccone, “Oz” creator Tom Fontana and Moreno’s longtime manager John Ferguson, who breaks down in tears when he remembers how Moreno found her will to live after her suicide attempt. (Miranda and Lear are two of the executive producers of this documentary.) And some academics provide their perspectives on Moreno and her impact on pop culture, such as Columbia University artist/scholar Frances Negrón-Muntaner, The New School cultural historian Julia Foulkes and Columbia University film historian/author Annette Insdorf.

The documentary uses some whimsical animation at times to illustrate some parts of Moreno’s storytelling. But this added creative flair and all the celebrities who gush about her in the movie are all just icing on the cake. Moreno has more than enough charisma and has lived such a full life that her story could be a miniseries, not just a documentary film.

UPDATE: Roadside Attractions will release “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” in select U.S. cinemas on June 18, 2021. PBS’s “American Masters” series will premiere the movie on October 5, 2021.

Review: ‘Life in a Day 2020,’ the sequel to director Kevin Macdonald’s documentary compiling a day in the lives of people around the world

February 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Life in a Day 2020” (Photo courtesy of YouTube Originals)

“Life in a Day 2020”

Directed by Kevin Macdonald

The movie has several languages in subtitles.

Culture Representation: Taking place in various locations around the world, the documentary “Life in a Day 2020” features racially diverse groups of people (white, black, Asian, Latino and indigenous) who filmed themselves and their surroundings on July 25, 2020.

Culture Clash: The documentary shows people with contrasting lifestyles, socioeconomic backgrounds, religious customs and political ideologies.

Culture Audience: “Life in a Day 2020″ will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching documentaries that are more about quick montages than in-depth profiles.

A scene from “Life in a Day 2020″ (Photo courtesy of YouTube Originals)

On July 24, 2010, director Kevin Macdonald had thousands people around the world film any aspect of their lives on that day. With the help of a large team of editors and other filmmakers, the resulting footage was compiled and edited into the quick-cutting montage documentary “Life in a Day,” which was released in 2011. Ten years after Life in a Day” was filmed, Macdonald revisited the same concept in the same short-attention-span style, but this time the participants filmed on July 25, 2020. The edited results are in the documentary “Life in a Day 2020,” which had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. “Life in a Day 2020” is a sequel that proves that the novelty has definitely worn off of crowdsourcing cinematography, but the movie can be mildly recommended for people who are curious or bored.

According to a written prologue in “Life in a Day 2020,” Macdonald and his team received 324,000 videos from 192 countries. “Life in a Day 2020” has much less appeal than its predecessor documentary because in the 10 years since the original “Life in a Day” was filmed, millions of more people around the world have been putting videos of their daily lives on the Internet. “Life in a Day 2020” is a YouTube Originals documentary, so the movies has a predictable montage of YouTubers who want to be famous. It feels a bit too meta.

People who saw the original “Life in a Day” back in 2011 would be hard-pressed to remember much about it, unless they were in the movie or personally knew someone who was. A frustration with the original movie and the sequel is that they both jump around so fast that these quick cuts don’t allow the viewer enough time to really get to know anyone in the documentary. It’s definitely a case of cramming in as much as possible, with quality sometimes sacrificed for quantity.

However, there’s still enough to hold people’s interest if viewers want to take a whirlwind cinematic ride around the world. Just don’t expect the movie to indicate which countries are being shown in each piece of footage, or the names of people in the footage, unless someone specifically says where they are, or you can identify what language is being spoken. There are no written indicators to guide viewers about the locations of almost all of the footage in the movie. The end credits show a long list of people who appear in the film, but it isn’t much help because the names aren’t put to faces.

The documentary’s editing is random and all over the place. Some parts of the movie are montages of people from different parts of the world doing the same things, such as women giving birth, people praying, or people at weddings. Occasionally, some people are seen in the film in one scene and are revisited later in the movie, such as a young man in an unknown U.S. state who’s standing near a train track and says he has a goal to film seven trains before the end of the day. It’s not exactly compelling or suspenseful, because you know he wouldn’t be in the movie if he didn’t reach that goal.

A lot of the movie is about showing kids and families at play. The family scenes are fairly typical, very tame, and almost always harmonious. (There are no big family squabbles in this movie.) A Southeast Asian father in India lovingly talks about how today is his daughter’s birthday. An American mother wakes up her kids with a smile and remarks how they have their phones in their hands while sleeping in bed. She says, “This is the generation we live in, where kids go to sleep holding a cell phone.”

There are large sections of the movie that show love and romance. Couples (gay and straight) are seen kissing, in a montage from various locations. Girlfriends coo, “I love you” to boyfriends who are filming them.

And in case people think the documentary only shows love-dovey relationships, there’s a scene with a woman who calmly breaks up with her boyfriend while he’s filming her cooking at a stove. And then she bursts into tears. You have to wonder who sent in this footage for the documentary. (She probably did.)

In another scene, a man proposes to his girlfriend and she won’t give him an answer, but you can tell she wanted to say no, but not on camera. Sitting by himself in his car after this semi-rejection, the man says that all relationships goes through ups and downs. If director Macdonald makes a 2030 version of “Life in a Day,” who wants to bet this couple won’t be together by then?

Speaking of follow-ups, there are a few people who were in the original “Life in a Day” that make a reappearance in Life in a Day 2020.” One of these appearance is memorable and heartbreaking, while the other is innocuous. The re-appearance that’s not very special is of an unidentified boy who’s about 11 or 12 years old, who’s sitting in a diner-styled restaurant somewhere in Asia with his father, stepmother and a girl who’s about 9 or 10 and could be his sister or stepsister. All the boy says is that he was in the first “Life in a Day” movie and his father had remarried since that movie was filmed.

The other reappearance shows an American mother watching “Life in a Day” on her TV and fast-forwarding to the scene of her son Alexander “Alex” or “ATG” Lucas, who was 14 when she filmed herself waking him up in his bed. In “Life in a Day 2020,” the mother, with her voice almost breaking into tears, shows where he is now: His ashes are in an urn. And she says he died of complications from COVID-19. The documentary epilogue shows that “Life in a Day 2020” is dedicated to Lucas.

The COVID-19 pandemic is given some screen time, but not as much as you might think. There’s a montage of funerals for people who’ve died of COVID-19. And throughout the film, there are shots of people wearing masks. But then, there are other scenes of people partying in groups, not wearing masks and not social distancing, as if they’re not in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

Speaking of not wearing masks during the pandemic, there’s a scene of an American man in his 30s who’s shown filming himself jogging in his neighborhood and then stopping at his house and pointing to an American flag. While he looks around, he proudly states that he won’t wear a mask and no one is protesting against him because of it. No one is protesting because he’s on an empty street with no one else nearby.

A middle-aged American man, who says he lost everything because of the COVID-19 pandemic, is shown living out of his van. He says homeless people like him are “the invisible people.” Later, he finds comfort in flying some remote controlled toy aircraft, and he says that this activity helps him take his mind off of his problems.

“Life in a Day 2020” gives a bare minimum of screen time to all the political and social unrest that was happening around the world in July 2020. The U.S. presidential election or any divisive political issue that was big news in July 2020 is treated like a minefield that the documentary largely wants to avoid. The Black Lives Matter movement gets less screen time in the documentary than montages of people acting goofy in their homes.

If there’s one major flaw of “Life in a Day 2020,” it’s that there should have been more footage for things that look specific to 2020. The worldwide racial reckoning that reached a fever pitch in July 2020 is barely acknowledged. There’s a quick scene of a shrine to George Floyd outside of the place where he died in Minneapolis. And there are a few African Americans throughout the movie who talk about police brutality and racism, including the deaths of Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

A woman in her 20s films herself in a car trying not to get emotional about a police department refusing to release video of what happened when a young, unarmed black man died in police custody. She says she has two brothers who died this way. And in another scene, an African American man in his 20s drives past a house covered in Confederate flags. “This is something I have to deal with every day,” he says in a rueful voice.

Meanwhile, in another part of the movie, an avid Donald Trump supporter named Gerardo Duran, a former first class sergeant in the U.S. military, is at his home and proudly shows off a framed 2017 letter that was signed from Donald and Melania Trump. In the letter (which clearly shows his name), Duran gets birthday greetings and a thank you for his military service. He also shows photos of himself on duty when he was in the military.

And for comic relief, the documentary includes selfie video footage of a traffic officer in Los Angeles as he gives out parking tickets. There’s a montage of people whining or giving excuses for why they shouldn’t get a ticket, but he remains unmoved and gives them tickets anyway. The camera shows him muttering sarcastic remarks to himself about the types of people he has to deal with when he’s working. No word on what this traffic officer’s boss will think when seeing this footage.

And then there’s another scene that’s unintentionally funny. A middle-aged American man, who appears to be some kind of New Age counselor with symbols painted on face, is leading a small group meeting. In the middle of his spacey babbling about how he’s such a giving person, he starts to cry. “I’ve been giving for 50 years, and it’s like medicine for me,” he sobs. It looks like a comical parody of a hipster “soul cleansing” session, but it’s obvious that everyone there was being serious.

Something that’s a little odd about “Life in a Day 2020” is that there’s a lot of footage of women being filmed by their boyfriends or husbands, not the other way around. It definitely gives the movie a very “male gaze.” Seriously, out of all the thousands of hours of footage that was sent for this documentary, the filmmakers couldn’t find enough footage of women taking videos of their significant others to balance things out? Women can hold a phone that has a videocamera just as easily as men can.

One of the people who gets more than one scene in the movie is an American woman being filmed by her husband or love partner (who’s not seen on camera), as she goes into a medical facility to get the results of her pregnancy test while he waits in the car. When she comes out of the building and goes back to the car, she tells him that she’s not pregnant and then she bursts into tears. He comforts her and tells her that they’ll keep trying to get pregnant, and then they talk about possibly going through in vitro fertilization treatments. Later in the movie, she has cheered up a little bit and talks about how becoming a mother is the most important thing she wants to do in her life.

And there’s another emotionally moving scene of loved ones dealing with some medical issues. A wheelchair-bound father and his daughter, who’s about 7 or 8 years old, talk about the future. (They sound like they have Australian or New Zealand accents.) He says he wants to get well and the daughter shows optimism that he will. There are also some scenes of people in hospitals or in their homes as invalids. The movie doesn’t slow down long enough to say what kinds of illnesses these people have.

On a lighter note, there are a few eccentrics who are in the documentary. An elderly man is shown introducing the spiders in his home, who all have names that he’s given them. A transgender woman somewhere in Asia struts her stuff and holds her head high, even when she is taunted by a few men on the street. And then she bursts into song.

There are also several predictable scenes of people in all types of environments interacting with their pets (dogs, cats, birds, goats, etc.) and sometimes treating the pets like humans. And there’s a montage of wildlife too, on land and in open waters. There’s also footage of farm animals that are being handled as future meat for people. (Look away if the sight of helpless baby chickens on a conveyor belt is too much for you.)

The documentary has a few references to environmental issues. There are many scenes showing places that range from literally dumpy (such as a garbage landfill) to beautifully scenic and pristine, and everything in between. In Nigeria, a man is shown in the middle of a flood and worries about what will happen to his home. And since July is winter in some parts of the world, the seasonal landscapes look different, depending on the country. It’s too bad the documentary doesn’t tell viewers the specific city or country of where each scene takes place.

Ultimately, “Life in a Day 2020” is a documentary that looks a lot like a compilation of social media videos from around the world. Back in 2011, it might have looked more fascinating. But now, smartphones have become so common that anyone with a smartphone can become a filmmaker and put the footage on the Internet. If people really want to see everyday lives around the world, they can do that anytime on the Internet without waiting 10 years for another documentary about it.

YouTube Originals will premiere “Life in a Day” on February 6, 2021.

2021 Sundance Film Festival: winners announced

February 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

The winners of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival were announced in its annual award ceremony, held this year as a virtual event (hosted by Patton Oswalt) on February 2 in Park City, Utah. The annual festival, which is presented by the Sundance Institute, runs from January 28 to February 3 this year. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire festival was virtual.

“CODA” won top prizes in the U.S. Dramatic categories, as not only the Grand Jury winner, but also the Audience Award winner. The comedy/drama, which is about a Massachusetts teenager who has deaf parents and a deaf brother, also broke the record for the highest monetary acquisition for a movie that premiered at Sundance. The movie’s cast includes Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur.

Apple TV+ purchased “CODA” for a reported $25 million, breaking the previous record held by the Andy Samberg comedy “Palm Springs,” which Hulu purchased for $17.5 million (and 69 cents) acquisition in 2020. “CODA” also won the Sundance prizes for and Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic (for director Siân Heder) and U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast.

In the World Dramatic Feature categories, director Blerta Basholli’s drama “Hive” was the top winner with three prizes, for the Grand Jury Award, Audience Award and Best Director. The movie is about a women in Kosovo who starts an ajvar business after her husband goes missing.

The top U.S. documentary winner was “Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. “Summer of Soul” received the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award. The documentary is the directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. The animated film “Flee,” about a Afghanistan immigrant living in Denmark, was the winner of the World Documentary Grand Jury Award. “Writing With Fire,” about the only Indian newspaper operated by Dalit women, received the World Documentary Audience Award.

Here is the complete list of winners:

U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION

Emilia Jones in “CODA” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Grand Jury Prize: “CODA”

Audience Award: “CODA”

Directing: Siân Heder, “CODA”

Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, “On the Count of Three”

Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast: “CODA”

Special Jury Best Actor Award: Clifton Collins Jr., “Jockey”

U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

Sly Stone in “Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (Photo courtesy of Mass Distraction Media)

Grand Jury Prize: “Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”

Audience Award: “Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”

Directing: Natalia Almada, “Users”

Special Jury Award for Emerging Filmmaker: Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt, “Cusp”

Special Jury Award for Editing: Kristina Motwani and Rebecca Adorno, “Homeroom”

Special Jury Award for Nonfiction Experimentation: Theo Anthony, “All Light, Everywhere”

WORLD CINEMA DRAMATIC COMPETITION

Yllka Gashi, Molikë Maxhuni, Kaona Sylejmani and Blerta Ismajli in “Hive” (Photo by Alexander Bloom)

Grand Jury Prize: “Hive”

Audience Award: “Hive”

Directing Award: Blerta Basholli, “Hive”

Special Jury Award for Acting: Jesmark Scicluna, “Luzzo”

Special Jury Award for Creative Vision: Baz Poonpiriya, “One for the Road”

WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

Flee” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Grand Jury Prize: “Flee”

Audience Award: “Writing With Fire”

Directing Award: Hogir Hirori, “Sabaya”

Special Jury Award for Editing: Kristina Motwani and Rebecca Adorn, “Homeroom”

Special Jury Award for Vérité Filmmaking: Camilla Nielsson, “President”

Special Jury Award for Impact for Change: Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, “Writing With Fire”

SHORT FILMS

Pamilerin Ayodeji in “Lizard” (Photo by British Broadcasting Corporation and Potboiler Productions Ltd.)

Grand Jury Prize: “Lizard”

U.S. Fiction Jury Award: “The Touch of the Master’s Hand”

International Fiction Jury Award: “Bambirak”

Nonfiction Jury Award: “Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma”

Animation Jury Award: “Souvenir Souvenir”

Special Jury Award for Acting: “Wiggle Room”

Special Jury Award for Screenwriting: “The Criminals”

OTHER AWARDS

Lucien Guignard, Idella Johnson and Hannah Pepper in “Ma Belle, My Beauty” (Photo by Lauren Guiteras)

NEXT Audience Award: “Ma Belle, My Beauty”

NEXT Innovator Award: “Cryptozoo”

Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize: “Sons of Monarchs”

Sundance Institute NHK Award: Meryman Joobeur, “Motherhood”

Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award for Fiction: Natalie Qasabian, “Run”

Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award for Nonfiction: Nicole Salazar, “Philly D.A.”

Sundance Institute/Adobe Mentorship Award for Editing Nonfiction: Juli Vizza

Sundance Institute/Adobe Mentorship Award for Editing Fiction: Terilyn Shropshire