Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

       

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Thomas Sung, the subject of “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.” Photo by Sean Lyness

        May 16, 2017.  Last October I wrote an article about

 Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” a documentary which was

shown as part of the New York Film Festival. While I

realize most readers might not have been able to

make it to the festival, how fortunate it is that this

excellent documentary will start a run at IFC Center

on Friday, May 19. Read the rest of this entry

The Wedding Plan

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May 8, 2017.  Israeli writer and director Rama Burshtein’s new film, “The Wedding Plan,” opens on May 12. I saw “The Wedding Plan” as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

I went into “The Wedding Plan” with a lot of expectations, which sadly were not met. Burshtein’s previous film, “Fill the Void” (2012), is a real favorite of mine. In fact I use “Fill the Void” in the “Introduction to Sociology” classes that I teach at CUNY Queens College. I use it to illustrate ideas and concepts about social structure structure, social institutions and culture. Due to my teaching schedule, I see “Fill the Void” between six and seven times a year and never tire of it. Read the rest of this entry

“The Farthest” – Tribeca 2017 – (by guest blogger, Wendy Moscow)

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Few of us have time, as we negotiate our busy lives, to consider our place in the cosmos, or speculate about the possibility of life on other worlds. When we humans, and the other beings with whom we share this living planet, flicker out of existence, who will be left to remember the cry of a child, the plaintive howl of a wolf, the intensity of an Indian raga, or the beautiful complexities of a Bach concerto?

The documentary “The Farthest” addresses this question by telling the remarkable story of the Voyager space missions, whose famous “Golden Records” are carrying our voices, our music, and the sounds of nature into the vastness of interstellar space as a means of preserving our legacy. Read the rest of this entry

“Hondros” and “Flower” – Tribeca 2017

“Godfather” Reunion at Tribeca 2017

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From left to right, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Francis Ford Coppola, James Caan, Al Pacino and Talia Shire at the “Godfather Reunion” at Radio City Music Hall, as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, 2017

April 30, 2017.  On Saturday, April 29, the Tribeca Film Festival presented an incredible historical event at Radio City Music Hall. “The Godfather” (1972) and “The Godfather: Part II” (1974) were screened, followed by a reunion Q & A with the films’ director Francis Ford Coppola, actors Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Diane Keaton and Talia Shire (no relation, but I was thrilled to see my tickets next to hers at the “will call” window). The talk was moderated by movie director Taylor Hackford. The event began at 1:00 and went until about 9:30. Read the rest of this entry

AlphaGO – Tribeca Film Festival 2017

            GO pix
           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.

 

 

 

Film Forum, Jr.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Courtesy Film Forum. Playing Sunda

Film Forum, Jr. presented four restored Laurel and Hardy shorts on November 27, 2016.

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

“A Thousand Cuts”at Film Forum

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Fred Astaire in “Me and the Ghost Upstairs” sequence which was cut from the movie “Second Chorus” (1940).

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

Big Sonia

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Sonia Warshawski, the subject of “Big Sonia.”

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

DOC NYC 2016 Nov. 10-17(continued)

 November 16, 2016.  doc-nyc-batmanAs 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

“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.

“CARE”

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