April 26, 2017. Director Greg Kohs’ documentary “AlphaGo” is one of the best documentaries I have seen so far at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. It is a story of the ancient world meeting the modern and possibly having a very strong effect on the future.Go is an ancient Chinese board game which is described as contemplative, hypnotic and akin to having one’s hand on the third rail of the universe. The game is played with two participants who have a collection of black and white stone-like pieces (one player takes white, the other black). While I do not understand the intricacies of Go, this is not important here. The filmmaker does convey the overall gist of the game, which, simply put, is about capturing territory on the Go board. Including this bit of information is a very smart move on Koh’s part. This small, but crucial, explanation gave me what I needed to ride the narrative of this movie. I have always maintained that a good documentary should be able to take a subject in which I have little, or no, interest and make it compelling. In this regard, “AlphaGo” certainly delivers.Enter Google’s DeepMind Team which has been developing Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) and wants to put it to the test by having their Go software square off against Go world champion Lee Sedol, in South Korea. The idea is that A.I. could add to human intelligence, creating breakthroughs in the areas of art, medicine and science. The DeepMind team feels that this tournament, if their software is successful, will be a step toward reaching their objective.The makers of “AlphaGo” had an interesting problem which they have solved quite well. Film is a visual medium and Go is not the most visually interesting of games. It does not have recognizable game pieces (as in chess), or football players in colorful uniforms attempting to gain yardage. Kohs and his team get around this by intercutting the inevitable “human verses machine” face offs (five games) watched by millions online, with commentators analyzing the games as they happen, press conferences with Sedol and interviews with the DeepMind team. “AlphaGo” also raises fascinating philosophical questions as to what it means for humanity if a computer program can outthink a human? Is this just a matter of pride? Since A.I. is a human invention to begin with, could this contest really be a story of human verses human? Could machines cause humans to improve?“AlphaGo” is an engrossing, iconic, hi-tech, “John Henry” story. Henry, an African American folk hero, was a steel driver who famously competed against a steam powered steel driving machine, and won, but died in the process. “AlphaGo” is a philosophical, suspenseful and well paced story that wows us with the comp-lexities of what it means to “think,” be we humans or machines.
November 30, 2016. This past Sunday, with the holiday weekend allowing me a break from my normal Sunday college teaching obligations, I finally made my way to Film Forum, Jr. Film Forum, Jr. is a film series for kids and their families which plays every Sunday at 11:00 am at Film Forum. The idea is to introduce a new generation to films, not necessarily what might be termed “kids” films, but great movies that kids would like. The program has a reduced admission price of eight-dollars per ticket.
The idea behind Film Forum, Jr. is a very important one to me, as a teacher. While I use movies extensively in my college sociology classes, I also use films in my work as a substitute teacher in the public schools. I show movies to students as young as Pre-K and as old as fifth grade – my preferred teaching range. I find that kids can use their intuitive intelligence to understand and appreciate so called “grown-up” films. Read the rest of this entry
November 30, 2016. On Sunday, November 27 Film Forum presented a program called “A Thousand Cuts,” based on the book “A Thousand Cuts: the bizarre underground world of collectors and dealers who saved the movies,” by authors Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph. The program consisted of rare film clips saved from oblivion by film collectors who found their footage in attics, closets, the trash and other out of the way places. When I use the term “film collectors” I am not simply referring to people who collect movies on DVD. “Film collectors” are a sub-culture whose members collect actual film.
The personalities featured in the featured clips included Alfred Hitchcock, Lena Horne, Ann Miller, the Marx Brothers, Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, Al Jolson, Greta Garbo and others. The program was put together by co-author and collector Jeff Joseph, who presented the clips, spoke about them and took questions from the audience. Read the rest of this entry
November 21, 2016. DOC NYC concluded its run of incredible documentaries this past Thursday, November 17. Even though the festival has ended, I am still making my way through the screener links sent to me from the festival’s publicist. These screener links enable me to watch DOC NYC documentaries online, as opposed to having to attend screenings in person. While I am a big advocate of seeing films in theaters with, hopefully, respectful audience members who do not talk, or need to check their smart phones every five minutes, screener links fit nicely into my all too busy schedule.
Of the DOC NYC documentaries that I have seen so far, and about which I have written during the past two weeks, “Big Sonia” more than rises to the standards of this festival. It is not only a fascinating documentary with a terrific main character in Sonia Warshawski (yes, even documentaries must have great characters) but a documentary that should be seen in light of our current political climate. In other words, those who forget history will repeat it. Read the rest of this entry
November 16, 2016. As a continuation of last week’s article about DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary film festival, I have continued watching screening links for this year’s festival. While November 17 will the last day for DOC NYC, running at IFC Center (323 6th Avenue), Chelsea’s SVA Theatre (333 West 23rd Street) and Cinepolis Chelsea (260 West 23rd Street), it is my hope that these important documentaries will find homes, through theatrical distribution, Netflix (or other online venues), TV or DVD. These are films that deserve to be seen and which will make the viewer richer for having done so.
“Circus Kid” is a fascinating documentary. It is the story of “The Pickle Family Circus” and, more specifically, the relationship between Larry Pisoni, the circus’ founder and chief performer, and his son, Lorenzo Pisoni. Lorenzo has directed this documentary about his family’s one ring, “bus and truck” traveling circus that was driven by his father, the chief clown and relentless perfectionist. Through an incredible collection of stills, home movies, videos and modern day interviews with his father, mother and circus members (which include actor and clown Bill Irwin), Lorenzo brings to life a fascinating sub-culture of circus performers and circus life. The documentary also includes clips from Lorenzo’s own one man stage show about his father. Ultimately “Circus Kid” is a heartfelt, compelling, psychological portrait of a circus, a family, the need for family and a son trying to understand his father.
Deirdre Fishel’s documentary “Care” is a shocking, poignant, eye opening look at the fastest growing work force in the country – dedicated, hard working, but grossly underpaid, home health care workers. “Ability is a temporary thing in our lives,” it is pointed out. If we live long enough, we will become disabled. This is a very sobering thought.
Despite the fact that home care is now one of the fastest growing occupations in the country, the median income for a home health care worker is only $13,000.00 a year (Medicaid pays less than six-dollars and hour). Author Ai-jen Poo, who wrote “Age of Dignity,” points out that, “We’re looking at a work force and an entire industry that has not been recognized as a real work force. Our labor laws have excluded this work force time and time again.”
Fishel examines the points of view of both the home health aids themselves (one of whom, at one point, is reduced to living in a homeless shelter, while still dedicated to her work) and the families that badly need and depend on their services. Even though the workers are underpaid, families have the tremendous expense, not to mention emotional toil, of paying for their services when a loved one needs 24 hour care. Fishel clearly has had a great rapport with her subjects, the dedicated family members and essential home health aids. Her portrait is warm and life affirming but, at the same time, infuriating as it examines a system that is truly broken. It needs to be fixed soon because, as the film points out, the number of those needing home health care will double by 2040.
BECOMING MORE VISIBLE
“Becoming More Visible” is a very interesting portrait of young transgender people. It is one of the most frank, open and educational depictions of transgender people that I have seen. Director and editor Pamela French follows a group of charismatic transgender individuals who respond to the emotional, physical and medical challenges of being transgender. Some do it through humor, while others are not yet quite satisfied with their transitions. There are issues of how families react – some positive, others negative. The film features interviews with doctors who work with transgender patients as well as various support systems that exist for them.
For more information on DOC NYC go to http://www.docnyc.net
In my experience the best parts of any film festival are the documentaries. Stick with the documentaries, as opposed to the narrative films, and you will almost always see something great. This is not to take anything away from fiction filmmakers, but at film festivals the documentaries dominate. So, how fortunate we are that DOC NYC is right in our area.
DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary film festival will run from November 10 – 17 at IFC Center (323 6th Avenue), Chelsea’s SVA Theatre (333 West 23rd Street) and Cinepolis Chelsea (260 West 23rd Street). The 2016 edition of DOC NYC will include 111 feature length documentaries, 102 shorts and will showcase over 250 films and events. More than 300 documentary filmmakers and special guests are expected to be in attendance. Read the rest of this entry
Anthropologist Susan Crate (center) and her daughter Katie in “The Anthropologist”
November 9, 2016. “The Anthropologist,” one of the best documentaries from last year’s DOC NYC, will have its premiere at Cinema Village (22 East 12th Street) on Friday, November 11 and will continue playing at Cinema Village, daily, through November 17. Following the 7:15 pm screenings on Friday November 11 and Saturday November 12 the film’s three filmmakers (yes three!), Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger will conduct Q&A sessions with the audiences.
“The Anthropologist” is an award winning documentary from Ironbound Films, a unique company which has produced some fascinating documentaries. Previous documentaries from Ironbound Films include the 2012 documentary “Evocateur: the Morton Downey, Jr. Movie” and “The Linguists” (2008).
“The Anthropologist” follows anthropologist Susan Crate on her journeys, over a five year period, during which she visits regions which are threatened by global warming right now, as opposed to areas where global warming may be a problem with which to contend in the future. For example, Susan and Katie travel to Siberia where global warming has caused the permafrost to melt. The resulting water, from the melted permafrost, destroys the production of hay, which is needed to feed cows, an important source of food for the people who live there. Crate is accompanied by her, sometimes reluctant, daughter Katie (who ages from 14 to 18 over the course of the film). Read the rest of this entry
October 01, 2016. “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” is a gripping account of the, under reported, trial of the Abacus Federal Savings Bank, the only bank to have faced criminal charges in the wake of the 2008 financial crises. Even though much bigger banks participated in deliberate and massive mortgage fraud, no criminal indictments were every brought against them. They were bailed out by the tax payers because they were “too big to fail.” In other words, had they failed they would have wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy. So, they got a pass. Abacus, as the film’s title suggests, was small enough to pick on as the proxy for the much bigger banking corruption that was not, and apparently could not be, punished. Read the rest of this entry
September 28, 2016. ”Danny Says” is an incredible document and an important chronicle of pop culture. The documentary is an entertaining and meticulously made rock and roll biography about rock manager and entrepeneur Danny Fields.
Beginning in 1966, Fields played a crucial role in music, managing groups such as MC5, the Ramones and the Stooges. Fields worked with and for Nico, Judy Collins, Iggy Pop, Jann Wenner, Lou Reed, the Doors, Velvet Underground, Nico, Modern Lovers and many others. In addition, Fields was also director of publicity at Elektra Records as well as having been a pioneer of the punk rock movement. Director Brendan Toller perhaps sums it up best when he says that, “Fields created a platform for the outsider to exist in the mainstream.” Read the rest of this entry