Last Days in Vietnam

A scene from "Last Days in Vietnam"

A scene from “Last Days in Vietnam”

When creating a documentary a filmmaker has basically two options. One option is to be present, camera running, when events are actually unfolding. These events can then be supplemented with interviews. What are the filmmaker’s options, though, when making a documentary today about an event that occurred in 1975? Director and Producer Rory Kennedy, and her crew, have answered this question with a highly compelling and riveting documentary, “Last Days in Vietnam.”

I have seen “Last Days in Vietnam” twice. It is a pulse pounding, suspenseful, fascinating, thriller like account of the final days of the United States’ presence in Vietnam. This documentary takes off like a shot and does not let up until the end of its 98 minute running time. I defy any formulaic Hollywood summer movie to match it. Read the rest of this entry

The Dog

Bank robber John Wojtowicz

Bank robber John Wojtowicz

Al Pacino in "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975)

Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975)

“The Dog” is one of the best documentaries I have seen in quite some time. The film covers everything you could possibly want to know about the famous (or should I say “infamous?”) “Dog Day Afternoon” bank robber, and hostage taker, John Wojtowicz, immortalized by Al Pacino in director Sidney Lumet’s brilliant, scorching, 1975 film “Dog Day Afternoon.” It is also a fascinating and highly entertaining documentary, to be enjoyed even if you have not seen “Dog Day Afternoon.”

However, if you love “Dog Day Afternoon” the way I do (and I’ve been a fan ever since seeing it at the age of 13 – my God, what were my parents thinking?) “The Dog” is a fascinating and compelling compendium of things we know, and many things we do not know, about the actual events that transpired before, during and long after that blistering hot afternoon of August 22, 1972, in Brooklyn, when two men held up a branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank.

Watching “The Dog,” it is very interesting to see how much of the story “Dog Day Afternoon” got right. I had the privilege of seeing Lumet speak on many occasions. He always said that the story telling emphasis in “Dog Day Afternoon” was on the fact that this event really happened. Read the rest of this entry

Obfuscation by Verizon FIOS – But Saved By RCN

Verizon FIOS - deceptive business practices

Verizon FIOS – deceptive business practices

Obfuscate: To stupify or bewilder. To darken or confuse.

I am writing this article to bring to light my experience with the misleading business practices of Verizon FIOS. I am hoping to save others the problems I have had.

Two years ago, in May of 2012, I accepted a FIOS offer for TV, internet and telephone. The cost was $84.99 per month, with a two year contract. Adding in taxes and other charges the monthly total came out to $94.00 and change. The service that I received was fine.

This past May, knowing I was at the end of my two-year contract, I called Verizon FIOS to see what kind of a deal I could make to continue the service. I spoke to a Verizon representative (I’ll call him Representative #1) who told me that I could have the same services, with a two year contract, for $95.00 a month (not including taxes and other charges). I asked Representative #1 if I could have a lower rate if I dropped some channels from my cable package. He told me that he could put me on a lower channel tier but that I would lose some sports channels. I was fine with that but emphasized that I did not want to lose CNN or TCM (Turner Classic Movies).   Representative #1 assured me that I would not lose CNN or TCM. I agreed to the two year contract. The next time I turned on my TV I discovered that I no longer had TCM. Read the rest of this entry

Life Itself

Film critic Roger Ebert, the subject of "Life Itself"

Film critic Roger Ebert, the subject of “Life Itself”

“Life Itself” is an absolutely fascinating, absorbing, entertaining and honest documentary about the life and work of film critic Roger Ebert.  Being a big fan of Ebert’s work (granted I have not always agreed with him) on TV and in writing, and having once seen him and his TV partner, Gene Siskel, at an appearance at the Museum of TV & Radio (now the Paley Center), I just could not get enough of “Life Itself.”  In fact, the only criticism I can think of is that I wanted it to be longer than its current two hour running length.  As a result, I cannot wait for the DVD extras.       Read the rest of this entry

Siddharth (Director Richie Mehta and Lead Actress Tannishtha Chatterjee to appear following 7:40 show at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on Fri. 6/27/14)

Rajesh Tailang as Mahendra Saini in "Siddharth"

Rajesh Tailang as Mahendra Saini in “Siddharth”

From India, “Siddharth,” a film by writer and director Richie Mehta, is a harrowing, thoughtful movie.  It has been beautifully made, with a fine cast.  The film has a narrative that is direct, simple, even suspenseful, yet, at the same time, brings out the complexities facing a poverty stricken family living in modern day India.  Read the rest of this entry

“The Overnighters” at Tribeca Film Festival 2014

Pastor Jay Reinke in "The Overnighters"

Pastor Jay Reinke in “The Overnighters”

“No profanity, come to church, don’t spill coffee on the carpet,” are the rules laid down by Pastor Jay Reinke of the Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston, North Dakota.  He provides shelter and food to people who have come from all over the country to, hopefully, find employment in the oil industry. Hydraulic fracturing has resulted in a rich oil field, in or near Williston, and jobs are many. Those who show up are desperate for work. As one man, at the end of his rope, puts it, “I can’t afford to live.”

“The Overnighters” is a highly charged and engrossing documentary about one man trying to apply the concept of “Love Thy Neighbor” to floods of humanity, mostly men, who come to his church. At the center of it all is Pastor Reinke who, right from the start, is a very compelling character. As I’ve said many times in this column, even a documentary has to have great characters.  Reinke delivers. Read the rest of this entry

“Chef” at Tribeca Film Festival 2014

Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony and Scarlett Johansson in "Chef."

Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony and Sofia Vergara in “Chef.”

Jon Favreau has written, directed and starred in a nice, but unchallenging story with likeable characters that, unfortunately lacks the one crucial element that all films need, conflict.

To be fair, “Chef” does have a promising start. Favreau plays Carl Casper, an idealistic chef who strikes out on his own to make the kind of food that he likes, as opposed to the tiresome menu that restaurant owner, and unfeeling boss, Dustin Hoffman wants him to make. Carl’s actions follow a quite funny online twitter feud with acerbic food critic Ramsey Michel, played by Oliver Platt. This makes for great conflict and I was hoping the film would have more with this. Twitter does play a prominent role in “Chef” as the internet unsavvy Carl learns the “ins” and “outs” of Twitter via his pre-adolscent son, Percy (nicely played by Emjay Anthony).

The bulk of “Chef” though concerns a long cross country trip with Carl, Percy and loyal co-chef buddy, Martin, played by John Leguizamo, driving a taco truck and “wowing” food oficionados along the way. Leguizamo, not exactly stretching here, plays, well, John Leguizamo, the funny, wise-cracking, “knows how to get the job done,” side kick, something which he does well.

“Chef” does have a game, energetic cast that also includes Sofia Vergara, Bobby Cannavale, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey, Jr.

As fellow festival goers became impatient with the film’s nearly two hour running length and started to leave, I stuck it out, hoping that a second act crisis would kick things back into gear (much like the Twitter feud in the first act) but, outside of Carl having some squabbles with his son (which were easily patched up) none was delivered. The film’s conclusion is strictly “Deus Ex Machina.”

I think “Chef” could use a good trimming prior to a theatrical release.


Tribeca Film Festival 2014

tribeca 2014The Tribeca Film Festival is now running from April 16 – 27 at various venues around town, most of which are not actually in Tribeca. As in previous years, my coverage of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival is all about the films, documentaries in particular. Do not get me wrong, the glamour, glitz and celebrities are important but, for me, more than anything, the festival is about the work. At film festivals the documentaries are almost always the best parts, while fiction films can be uneven. Stick with the documentaries and it is all but guaranteed that you will see great filmmaking.

One documentary that really touched me was Garnet’s Gold. “Garnet’s Gold” is a universal, funny, bittersweet and ultimately very human story for anyone who has ever had doubts about the direction in which his, or her, life has gone. Most important, “Garnet’s Gold” has great characters, a vital element for any documentary.

“Garnet’s Gold” is the story of Garnet Frost, a 58-year-old man, living in Scotland, whose life has never quite jelled. Although a talented individual with high ideals, Garnet describes himself as stuck in limbo, as far as the progress of his life is concerned. He is waiting for something to come his way, which, so far, has not. Garnet lives with his soon to be 90-year-old mother who is a font of philosophy, wisdom and humor and one of the film’s many highlights.

The film’s back story is that 20 years before, Garnet, while hiking and camping by Scotland’s Loch Arkaig, in the wilderness, ran out of food and shelter and assumed he was just going to die. He was rescued. Along the way Garnet found a staff stuck into a rock formation. Upon reading an account of pirate gold being buried some 300 years before, in the same area in which he was found, Garnet is convinced that his staff was the marker for the gold. Garnet then sets out on a quest to locate the area from which he was rescued and find the gold. As Garnet’s mother, who has lent him money for the expedition, puts it, “It’s not gold, it’s his heart’s desire,” that he is after.

“Garnet’s Gold” has been beautifully photographed and directed by Ed Perkins.

Art and Craft is a fascinating look at the nature and definition of art and deviance. The story concerns schizophrenic art forger Mark Landis. Landis has an incredible talent for making perfect copies of paintings by Picasso and Matisse, among other artists. His forgeries hang in major art museums around the country. Is Landis guilty of a crime? No. He does not sell his art. Landis merely donates his art to museums, usually with a false story as to where it came from and the significance the work has for him. It is up to the museums to do their due diligence in order to determine if the art is authentic. Many, obviously, had not.

“Art and Craft“ questions the importance of authenticity in the art world. If the forgery is good enough to fool experts does it really matter that a particular work is a forgery? As Robert Wittman, part of the FBI Art Crime Team points out, “The art world is a very strange place.”

As a teacher of sociology I am very interested in the concept of deviance. On the one hand, one could say that Landis is engaging in deviant behavior, but by whose definition? What norms is he really breaking other than using his talent to pull pranks on museums? After all, it is up to the museums to figure out if the art is genuine.

Landis himself is perfectly upfront about what he does explaining that, in his opinion, ethical behavior does not pay off. Landis, in spite of his mental illness, or perhaps because of it, proves to be a character who is observant, confident and intelligent, with more than a bit of irreverence and humor about what he does.

“Art and Craft” has been directed by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman.

Looking at our hi-tech world from the point of view of an event that happened 33 years ago,1971 is ajaw-dropping pre-cursor to the times in which we live.

Living in the age of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden we don’t think about a lo-tech leak of secret documents (aside from what Daniel Ellsberg famously accomplished with the Pentagon Papers). In the year 1971, government secrets were on hard copy only. “If you disrupted the paper, you disrupted system,” we are told.

In 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War, in the town of Media Pennsylvania, a group of eight citizens, calling themselves “The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI” broke into the local FBI office. To help their scheme come off, they did this on the night of the famous Ali – Frazer boxing match, knowing that everyone else would be distracted watching the fight. They uncovered evidence of a top secret civilian surveillance program run by then FBI Head J. Edgar Hoover.   The discovery and subsequent release of information to newspapers changed the course of government surveillance…at least for a while.

The group was never caught. Only now, in this documentary, do they come forward to discuss the motivations for their actions.

Director Johanna Hamilton and editor Gabriel Rhodes have created a fast moving narrative, seamlessly blending present day interviews, stock footage, historical footage and re-enactments to tell this incredible, true story. “1971” is an exciting and stark reminder that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Screening venues include AMC Loews Village 7 (66 3rd Avenue) and Bowtie Chelsea Cinemas (260 West 23rd Street) and the SVA Theatre (33 West 23rd Street).

For more information on the Tribeca Film Festival, visit


“Divergent” – Derivative

Plenty of jumping in "Divergent."

Plenty of jumping in “Divergent.”

I have to admit that, at first, I was quite intrigued by the set up of the new science fiction movie “Divergent.”  Sadly though, before too long, I was disappointed (although not very surprised) to soon find myself in a movie that was tedious and whose title could have almost had its letters rearranged to one more fitting, like “Derivative.”

The problems with “Divergent” are many.  The most basic one is an issue many movies have.  There is an interesting premise, which is fine for the first and second acts. After this, the story just does not know what to do with itself and, as a result, follows patterns that are predictable, un-intriguing and easily resolvable.  The malady, referred to in both film and theatre, is called, “Trouble in the third act.” An example is a great premise that is resolved with a standard issue CGI (computer graphics imaging) enhanced car chase and/or shoot out.  Story over, back door left open for a sequel.

Read the rest of this entry

2013 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 15,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.


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