Author Archives: unpaidfilmcritic
June 20, 2019. Nobel prize-winning writer, teacher, book editor and mother, Toni Morrison stands proudly as the latest in an ancestral line of African American women whom she remembers as having fearlessly confronted the world with a clear sense of who they were, despite having suffered horrendous indignities. These are the women who populate Morrison’s novels – “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula,” “Song of Solomon,” “Beloved” – written unapologetically in the language of the African American experience. Troubled by the cultural assumption that the reader is always white, she defied the norms of her time, writing stories with which Black people could resonate – unconcerned by the hegemony of the white gaze. Exemplifying this paradigm change, Morrison cites Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” an earlier novel whose white gaze is explicitly implied. “Invisible to whom?” she asks. Read the rest of this entry
May 25, 2019. Karen Kramer is a filmmaker who has always been fascinated by communities on the fringes of normative society, whose members dance (sometimes literally) to a different drummer, whose spiritual life or moral compass lead them to reject the path of least resistance. I can remember seeing her film “The Jolo Serpent Handlers” in an anthropology class at Queens College, and marveling at a subculture of which I had been completely unaware, profiled by Kramer with grace, respect and without judgment. She shares her love of celebratory cultural expression with us in many of her films – raising up faith traditions (Haitian Vodou, Hasidism, as well as the snake handlers) in which ecstasy, trance and spirit possession play an empowering role – with music as their driving heartbeat.
“Renegade Dreamers,” Kramer’s latest film, is a nostalgic, joyful and hopeful ride along several of the pathways beloved by the filmmaker: rebelliousness, artistic expression, political counter-culture, and the centrality of music. A previous film, “The Ballad of Greenwich Village,” explored the history of that amazingly fertile neighborhood in all its many different aspects. “Renegade Dreamers” specifically traces the legacy of the Beat poets of the 50’s and the folk musicians of the 60’s (for whom Greenwich Village was an incredibly rich locus of creativity) to the present day – introducing us to contemporary poets and singer/songwriters who are following in the footsteps of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger (to name but a few). Interweaving archival footage with interviews of and performances by these new troubadours, the film allows us to transition effortlessly between past and present, savoring the continuity between the two eras both creatively and politically. Read the rest of this entry
May 16, 2019. “Walking on Water” is both the title of a new documentary about the controversial artist Christo, and the concept behind his 2016 project, the second without his working and life-partner, Jeanne-Claude, called “The Floating Piers.” Told in excruciating (but enlightening) detail, director Andrey Paounov follows the creative process of Christo and his team from before the beginning of construction to the (purposeful) end of the art project’s sixteen day existence.
The film, an unflinching portrait of an eccentric and cantankerous visionary, 81 years old at the time the film was made, gives us an extraordinarily intimate look at one of the most well-known artists of our day. Almost from the moment the film begins, we are introduced to someone who is difficult, demanding, and resistant to practical suggestions from his long-suffering operations director Vladimir Yavachev. But there are moments of joy, too. He enthusiastically explains his ideas to a somewhat receptive though bemused elementary school class, when, tellingly, the smart board fails and he ends up drawing on a piece of paper taped to the smart board – a technology with which he is clearly more comfortable. There are other amusing technical glitches – a Skype session that almost doesn’t work and a mic failure in a theater; all superseded, eventually, by the hard work of building a massive project in non-virtual reality. Read the rest of this entry
May 3, 2019. Director Abel Ferrara may not be the first name to come to mind when thinking about documentary filmmakers. However, Ferrara’s documentary, “The Projectionist,” would have made a good short film. However, at feature length, it is well intentioned but needlessly repetitive. The subject is Nick Nicolaou, the type of movie theatre owner and manager of which our communities could use a lot more.
In this day and age of cinema going the way of big multiplex theatres, Nick owns and operates independent movie theatres in Manhattan, Queens and Cyprus, where he is from. Nick recognizes the importance of movie theatres, particularly art house theatres, to neighborhoods. These theatres, he explains, are easy to get to and give a sense of community. For example, Nick points out that he owns Cinema Village, in Manhattan, a prime piece of real estate. Nick explains that he could build apartments above the theatre, or sell the property outright, yet he wants to maintain it as a movie theatre. Read the rest of this entry
May 2, 2019. Director Alex Holmes’s documentary, “Maiden,” had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Ominous, unforgiving ocean waves begin this story of the first all women crew to enter the “Whitbread Round the World Race” yacht race, 1989 – 1990, the race’s fifth year. The race, starting and ending in Southampton, England, consisted of six legs and 32,000 miles, circumnavigated the globe. “The ocean’s always trying to kill you. It doesn’t take a break,” we are told, as prelude to this story of Tracy Edwards, a 26-year-old woman with little sailing experience, who is determined to have an all-female crew in the Whitbread yacht race.
At this point an all woman crew, in the Whitbread, is not taken seriously. Tracy and her crew are viewed as a humorous curiosity that no one would consider sponsoring in this male dominated sport and sailing sub culture. How Edwards and crew secure financing, plus a boat, and what happens to them in the race is just part of the incredible story – no spoilers here. I will only write that “Maiden” is an exciting, nail biting adventure about courage, determination, sexism and sexual equality that must be seen to be experienced. Read the rest of this entry
“Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” is a wild ride of a documentary which had its premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. If you’ve never heard of Marion Stokes, you’re not alone. Living in obscurity until her death in 2012, Marion was an African-American radical intellectual at a time when black female voices were rarely heard in American media. Respected for her ability to sharply dissect the flaws in the arguments of her opposition, she also was concerned – some would say obsessed – with the power of the news media to control and shape the public perception of the news stories that impact our lives. Afraid that the evidence of how political crises, wars and disasters came into our homes via television would disappear, Stokes recorded thousands of hours of news programming, eventually amassing an archive of over 70,000 VHS and Betamax tapes, beginning with the Iranian hostage crisis and ending with the Newtown massacre. She’d have several tape machines hooked up to different TV’s recording different channels at the same time, enabling her to capture varying ideological spins on the same event, and giving us a window into what we, as a society, consider valuable. Read the rest of this entry
April 29, 2019. The documentary “Gay Chorus Deep South” had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 29. The set up: the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus goes on a 2016 performance tour of the American Deep South. “What were they thinking?” one might ask. Obviously the anticipation of, and concern for, what a gay men’s chorus might encounter in the Deep South makes for an intriguing premise, which fires this beautifully made and incisive documentary.
Along similar lines, African American pianist Don Shirley’s Deep South concert tour, during the 1960s, propelled the movie “Green Book” to two Oscars, one for Best Picture and one for Mahershala Ali for Best Supporting Actor. However, while Shirley’s experience, in the 1960s, broke along expected lines of racial prejudice (with a bit of redemption), the gay chorus members of 2016 have an experience that is complex and revealing. As I frequently tell my college sociology classes, what might have been acceptable prejudice at one time changes as we move forward and learn, particularly about other people.
The motivations for the tour, called “The Lavender Pen Tour,” include the passing of anti-LGBTQ legislation and the divisive 2016 election, as well as personal reasons that some of the chorus members have for the trip. “Gay Chorus Deep South” is a documentary about decency, humanity and the power of music to connect people. The film’s director, David Charles Rodrigues asks, “Can different perspectives on religion and politics build instead of divide? Is kindness enough to bring us closer? If we open our ears, will our hearts follow?” Read the rest of this entry
April 29, 2018. I will admit that as I was watching “Plus One” I felt way ahead of it…but then, at a certain point in the story, this changed and I found myself re-evaluating, and really liking, the movie.
To begin with, “Plus One” is a “rom com” (romantic comedy) and I’m not really a “rom com” kind of guy, but, what can I say? I got caught up in it, although this took a little while. Two friends, Alice (Maya Erskine) and Ben (Jack Quaid) agree to accompany each other to a series of weddings of friends and families over the course of a summer. Since neither is involved with anyone, they are each others’ “plus ones.” I’m sure, by now, you can guess where this is going.
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April 28, 2019. A middle class, Jewish family living in Los Angeles: a mother, father and three kids. The parents, Karen and Barry Mason, are a happy couple who met at a Jewish singles’ dance many years earlier. Karen attends synagogue regularly, Barry not at all. Karen is aggressive. Barry is passive. They ran a book store, “Circus of Books,” made a decent living and put their kids through college. So, as they say in the movie business, where’s the “hook”? Why should anyone care about the Mason family? Why would daughter and director Rachel Mason even make this documentary? Are you ready? Here’s the hook. “Circus of Books” sold gay male pornography – videos, books and magazines. Read the rest of this entry
April 28, 2019. A powerful indictment of the intolerance of right-wing fundamentalist Christian churches and an affirmation of the power of love to change hearts and minds, “For They Know Not What They Do” follows four families whose children are gay or transgender. Clearly making the point that one is born with one’s affectional orientation and gender identity, this documentary allows us (through incredibly moving interviews with both parents and children) to understand how acceptance can evolve, despite the messages of hate these families have received from their faith traditions and surrounding culture.
Director Daniel Karslake obviously spent a great deal of time gaining the trust of his interviewees to have captured them at their most disarmingly honest and vulnerable. Interspersed are interviews with progressive Christian clergy, notably, Bishop Gene Robinson and the Rev. Mel White, whose voices of love and reason counter the clips of preachers and politicians spewing vitriol. (After having been a writer for the Protestant evangelical movement, Rev. White experienced a 180 degree turnaround after coming to terms with his being gay, and has since been a strong advocate for the LGBTQ community. Rev. Robinson is the first openly gay Episcopal Bishop.) Read the rest of this entry