Tag Archives: biography

Woman in Motion

[3.5 stars]

Nichelle Nichols. The name alone evokes a smile. She is a force of nature and one of the most relentlessly optimistic and gracious people you’ll ever meet. And yes, I say this with a small amount of direct experience.

Director Todd Thompson had a challenge with this story. Talking just about what Nichols did for NASA would be interesting, but would lack context. Adding the context is so wildly off topic that it could distract from the focus of the story. But he managed to walk the line and bring it all together in a way that was, frankly, unexpected as the wandering narrative unspools. In some ways, and I think purposefully, it mirrors Nichols’ own conversational tone and threading.

Thompson did, however, over-produce the docu a bit. It is a little too gimicky and a little too polished/flashy at times. These aspects did distract from the story itself. I imagine not everyone will find that to be the case.

But the story behind how Nichols changed the face of NASA and, in no small way, the world is worth every minute you spend with it. And if you haven’t already caught Hidden Figures, add that on as required follow-up viewing for an even larger context.

At the end, stick around through the credits for a wonderful final look at a facet of Nichols that just didn’t fit into the rest of the story directly. It was a great note to leave the story on and only increases your respect for this powerhouse of energy and effort.

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Ailey

[3 stars]

Through contemporary interviews, much-abused archival footage, and the rehearsal efforts of the American Dance Theatre to honor their founder, Jamila Wignot does her best to introduce us to Alvin Ailey, the man. But the truth is that much of who that man was had never really been captured in public records…or at least none that have been readily shared, if the resulting documentary is to be believed at face value.

His cultural truth, his childhood truth…that is on display throughout and in his choreography. That said, there are a few moments of unguarded, personal truth that let us in. Ailey, the man, even though he avoided most of the worst of segregation and prejudice in his working life, never felt safe to be his true self till very late in his life. At least not in the dance part of his life… which by all accounts was most of what he was.

The resulting total of his story is one that leaves you educated and affected deeply. He was respected and loved by his dancers and the arts world. What is sad is that the quality of a lot of the archival footage is pretty worn as, I’m sure, no one saw the point of capturing and protecting the work of a primarily non-white dance company back in the 50s and 60s.

But the film doesn’t focus on the choreography per se. What Ailey thought of himself, his place in the world, and how he dealt with those pressures, is what Wignot really wants us to understand. Not just to comprehend Ailey, but to understand the culture he came from and to help break that cycle. Find this and support it when you get the chance. Even if you know about Ailey and his work, this likely will expose more than you were aware of about him and the American Dance Theater.

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We Are From There (Nahnou men hounak)

[3 stars]

This is more a window on the world than it is a full story. But there is a tone poem that the two brothers create with their commentary.  And it is one that will echo for anyone who has ever questioned their choices and place in the world. So, yeah, everyone.

The documentary follows Milad and Jamil from Syria to, ultimately, different countries in Europe. Both these young men felt they had nothing in Syria to hold them, that it would, in fact, hold them back. But they constantly reflect upon their childhood there, recalling and leaning on the memories.

The third perspective of this story is their cousin Wissam, who is also the writer and director of this film. Wissam stayed in Syria but remained closely in touch with his cousins. He provides the bridge between them and their past. And, in doing so, becomes part of the tale rather than just an impartial third eye. And, in this case, much like in Stories We Tell, it’s a necessary bit of glue.

Overall, this isn’t a very polished docu, but it has a fascinating quality and honesty. Even as it raises more questions than answers, it somehow manages to feel complete. And, despite hailing from one of the most war-torn areas of the world, it doesn’t dwell on those aspects, but on rather more universal emotions, without ignoring the roots of it all.

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Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

[4 stars]

Much like the history it parallels, writer and co-director James Lebrecht’s story of his childhood grows into a larger tale thanks to his summer at Camp Jened and the people he met. Never heard of Jened? You’re not alone, and yet it became the nexus around which an international movement developed. In many ways, it’s a camp that, in its final evolution, could have only existed in the early 70s; run by hippies, devoid of judgement, and full of the joy and love for those around them. The power of that environment ripples out to this day.

But this docu tracks not only the civil rights movement for those with disabilities of all kinds, but also lays out the value of truly seeing someone and accepting them for who they are. Using archival footage and new interviews, you’re asked to communicate with camp members on their terms. It is done without apology and without rushing. And the impact of that choice is impressive, particularly if you’ve never known anyone with similar challenges; it will shift your perspective.

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Hillbilly Elegy

[3 stars]

How long are you willing to wait to see hope in a film? Hillbilly Elegy certainly pushes boundaries. While there is undeniably hope hinted at from the beginning, Ron Howard’s (Beatles: Eight Days a Week) latest tale of growing up is a long slog to the final moments of (qualified) triumph. Given that this is based on Vance’s memoir, I don’t know whether to be impressed with Howard’s guts to lay it out in relative order to heighten the result, or lambast him for the dark road travelled to get there.

To be honest, despite the truly great performances by Glenn Close (The Wife), Amy Adams (Vice), and the older/younger versions of Vance in Gabriel Basso (The Kings of Summer) and Owen Asztalos (The Flight Attendant), I just can’t recommend this experience. It was frustrating, dark, sad, angering. It is an unflinching look at poverty, abuse, and addiction, as well as the generational impact of those challenges. Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) adapted Vance’s book with harsh honesty, allowing characters to be much less than perfect but not without humanity and love. But I watched the entire film with clenched jaw and angry at the situation and, just as often, the characters.

If you can handle that kind of tension or, now knowing that there is a end point that isn’t utterly tragic, and you want to see some amazing transformations and performances, give this a shot. But go in feeling strong and strap in to have that mood challenged. In other words, I am struggling to recommend this film not because it isn’t done well, but because it is. You have to ask yourself if you’re ready for that.

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A Pastiche of Pixelated Drama (aka more TV)

So here’s that next round of TV this winter that I promised. Actually, some of them were worth the wait, though none are a runaway must-see.

Equalizer
This one really surprised me. The writing and chemistry are there right out of the gate. The rhythm needs some work, but the creative team is doing justice to the core of the original story while updating it for the current times. Queen Latifah (Ice Age: Collision Course) is a force to be reckoned with, but with the heart that made the first iteration of this story work so well. And it’s already been renewed for a second season.

Resident Alien
Alan Tudyk (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) is just fun to watch, even when the scripts aren’t entirely up to snuff. But though the show sort of stumbles out of the gate, it is quickly finding its feet with the help of Sara Tomko and Elizabeth Bowen (Upload). It may never be a classic, but it tackles some unexpected storylines and keeps it all fun, if improbable and, at times, predictable.

Clarice
Rebecca Breeds nails Clarice at the early point in her career, just post Buffalo Bill. The show embraces the Silence of the Lambs plot (though closer to the movie than the book) and spins it out to show us Clarice in the years between that story and the follow-on Hannibal. It seems only fair as Harris wrote up Hannibal’s whole journey eventually. It’s time to see Clarice’s. Helping her along are Lucca De Oliveira and Caitlin Stryker, both of whom add nice emotional and occupational support to the struggling Clarice. To be fair, they’ve diminished Clarice more than a little for their own dramatic purpose, but the core of her is still there. If there is a weakness in this show it is down to the insufferable boss character created by Michael Cudlitz. That isn’t Cudlitz’s fault, but the show’s. Unless he becomes and remains a bit more competent and human, I’m out. That dynamic just isn’t interesting to me.

Debris
A strong, if somewhat handwavy start to the series sets up an X-Files vibe with a bit more emotional touchpoints. It will remain to be seen if they maintain the interesting plots and overall arc without it getting either silly, stupid, or too outrageous to support. At least the production values are pretty good and Riann Steele (Crazyhead) and Jonathan Tucker (Charlie’s Angels) make for an interesting combination.

Young Rock
There is little doubt what Dwayne Johnson (Jumanji: The Next Chapter) is attempting to do with this show; he tells you up front. But political ambitions aside, the question is whether it’s a good show. The answer is mixed. The story is amusing and touching, and it opens a world that the greatest majority of the audience will have no connection to, making it interesting. However, the structure is odd and I can’t quite see how it will sustained for more than a few episodes. That said, the cast is solid and it is certainly something different and new. I’m giving it a couple more episodes to see if it can find its legs and keep me interested.

Superman & Lois
I’ll give them credit, they found a new story to tell rather than rehashing what we’ve seen before a million times. And the casting was done well too with Tyler Hoechlin (Palm Springs) and Elizabeth Tulloch (Grimm) in the title roles. But, like most DC and all CW shows, I can already see my boredom kicking in. The melodrama and the predictability, even with the new twists expanding on the set-ups from the tie-in shows, is beginning to weigh heavily from the 3rd episode. I suspect I’m out in one or two more unless I see something to really invest in. I know I’m going to be in the minority here, but I’ve struggled with the DCU TV shows for years now. Very few manage to tickle my fancy. But I’ll try to keep an open mind and give it at least a little more of a chance.

Snowpiercer (series 2)
Well, damn them. At the end of season one I was ready to walk away, but I wanted to see where they would go. And, as it turns out, they managed to avoid the obvious and boring track they appeared to be on. By the second episode, everything shifts and new possibilities make it all much more interesting. And, it has to be noted, Sean Bean (Wolfwalkers) has created one of the creepiest characters I’ve seen in a long time. Jennifer Connelly (Alita: Battle Angel) continues to deliver a nicely shaded performance, and the addition of the very capable Rowan Blanchard (A Wrinkle in Time) adds some good tensions. Alison Wright (The Accountant) is also getting to do a lot more this round, deepening her character and bringing a sort of redemption to her story.

Pretty Hard Cases
A Canadian comedy detective show in the vein of 911. If you enjoy The Baroness Von Sketch series, this one’s for you. If you are at all middling about broad comedy, it isn’t.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

[4.5 stars]

I hardly know where to begin with Lee Daniels’ (The Butler) latest. The politics? The art? The tragedy? The dark mirror on the present? Perhaps it’s best to just try to do each bit separately…

The voice. There are a handful of singers whose voices are unique signatures, not just because of their sound (there are plenty of them) but because of the emotion they impart with every breath. Billie Holliday is one of those few. Holliday is singular and recognizable and, with every note, grabs you by the throat. Andra Day captures all of that in her beautiful performance and with her expert voice that has you initially wondering if she was lip syncing the original tracks. She isn’t.

The song. You never forget the first time you hear Strange Fruit. It is haunting, horrible, accusatory, righteous, defiant. Writer Suzan-Lori Parks sets it up to perfection in her adaptation, and Daniels knocks it over the fences in the film.

The honesty. Holliday was a flawed person. Damaged and self-destructive, but not paranoid: they were out to get her. She had a string of damaging and intense relationships, including Trevante Rhodes’s (Bird Box) federal agent Jimmy Fletcher and Natasha Lyonne’s (Russian Doll) Tallulah Bankhead. She was also an addict and fiercely independent in ways that damaged others. All of this is on display without judgment and without apology. By keeping the story relatively honest, it’s even more impactful.

The politics. Need a reminder of where we’ve come from and how little has really changed? Here it is…again. While it focuses on one face as the force behind the reign of horror on Holliday in Garrett Hedlund’s (Mudbound) Harry Anslinger, Hoover hovers behind it all as he did over the country for decades. Along with Trial of the Chicago 7, One Night in Miami, Judas and the Black Messiah, Selma, BlacKkKlansman, and so many other recent films, this story adds to the dark map of race relations in this country.

But you have to ultimately come to the most important question: is it a good movie? It is unequivocally an important one. It is somewhat flawed in a general sense. While it is uses clever visuals to take us back in time, it also has some odd POV choices that aren’t always effective. Anslinger is played just a little too oily–which, even if accurate, makes it harder to accept the truth of the tale. And Rhode’s is, amusingly, just a bit too ripped for his role. It may be pleasant to see, but it is out of character and period. And, frankly, Holliday’s sexuality isn’t fully balanced in its presentation and exploration.

But, overall, it is very, very effective and leaves you breathless. And if you needed any indication of Daniels’ own conflicted feelings of the story and the truth, watch through the first half of the credits for a sweet coda.

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Judas and the Black Messiah

[3.5 stars]

The Black Panthers are a complicated subject. Not just for their own actions and politics but also because of the reason they even existed and the response at the local, state, and federal levels. Director and co-writer Shaka King tackles the subject through the particular thread of Fred Hampton’s life and assassination. And even though the story was done with Hampton’s family and the Panther’s blessing, he does so with honesty and minimal bias. I can’t imagine that was an easy feat.

Interestingly, Hampton, Bobby Seale, Malcom X and the Black Panthers have been in the zeitgeist lately, showing up directly or tangentially in One Night in Miami, Small Axe, and Trial of the Chicago 7, as well as thematically in many other films. And, though unplanned, it’s important to notice that this film is releasing about a month after insurrectionists, led by white supremacists and incited by the president, stormed the Capital. Certainly puts an unexpected patina on it all.

The story, is told primarily through the eyes of Bill O’Neal, given oily life by LaKeith Stanfield (The Girl in the Spider’s Web). He drives the action that ultimately sweeps up Daniel Kaluuya’s (Widows) Hampton. Kaluuya himself slips into Hampton’s story comfortably and seamlessly, though perhaps not quite as poetically as the original. And Dominique Fishback (Project Power) provides a nuanced performance with grounded and conflicted emotions through which we watch Hampton.

In the background, pulling strings and guiding outcomes, Martin Sheen (Grace and Frankie) as Hoover and Jesse Plemons (Vice) make you squirm. Sheen for his sheer, vile hubris. But Plemons is more subtle and complex. The subtlety derives from the decisions he makes while internally sacrificing as he bends to pressure; doing so even as the implications of his actions become more apparent…he accepts all the choices despite those realizations.

This film is a tale of tragedy, but tempered with hope. It is also our history (and not a small part of our present, like it or not). The full scope of that history, and the truth of those involved, has yet to be widely told. This movie is a start and it is one you should see for the performances and the information.

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The Dig

[3 stars]

There’s a lot going on in this quiet tale about an archeological dig taking place on the cusp of WWII. That aspect is both its charm and challenge. But even though the result is a bit of a muddle narratively, the characters and story of The Dig remain compelling.

Led by Ralph Fiennes (The White Crow) and Carrie Mulligan (Promising Young Woman), we explore passion, marriage, class, education, gender roles, and life achievements. And that’s just those two. Throw in Johnny Flynn (Emma.), Lily James (Yesterday), and Ben Chapman (1917) and you add in gender norms, sexuality, and the value of joy.

Moira Buffini’s (Byzantium) adaption of John Preston’s novel is sprawling in scope. And director Simon Stone took it on without insisting on a tighter focus. The challenge is that the true story of the Sutton Hoo excavation is itself a wonderful tale on its own. Not necessarily an issue, but because that makes the dig both core story and metaphor to everything else going on, it all begins to become very scattered. If the excavation and the politics over it hadn’t been so towering in the tale, it could have become a quiet mirror to the rest of the subplots comfortably. Instead, the various stories fight for focus. In the end, it sort of unravels as a complete movie even while managing to be satisfying for any individual story.

The acting and production are all quite wonderful. From the bloviating to the quiet despair, the cast manages to deliver. While there is a sort of Merchant Ivory sensibility to it all, it maintains a better energy and sense of tension (well, to my mind anyway). The Dig is interesting history, and also a good set of character studies that make it all worth the effort.

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Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

[3 stars]

The better documentaries tell a story. Not just by showing the life and events of their subject, but also crafting a path through that information in a way that makes a point. Sometimes that point is solely the director’s, but when done well it sums up the subject’s experience. Eight Days a Week is a bit of both, by necessity.

There is so much to cover about the Beatles that director Ron Howard (Solo: A Star Wars Story ) chose to focus solely on the touring years. We see the band’s rise and the insanity of their tours, which were the largest ever conceived at that time, booking the first stadium tours in modern music history (I think, technically, the Greeks got there first long ago). Through photos, film, audio recordings, and lots of wonderful performances, we see what brings the Fab Four to their final touring stop: the roof of their studios in Jan 1969.

That well-known, semi-impromptu performance has been shown many times and in many ways. Through the frame of Howard’s edits, it becomes a happy and heart-breaking farewell without bringing in all the other stressors that history has happily posited and recorded. Howard doesn’t ignore the rest of the Beatles’ story, but there isn’t lots of background or discussion of the internal tensions that have been raked over many times before. But by framing the movie around the tours, their reaction to them, and those specific challenges, Howard does manage a slightly different view of the band than I’ve seen in other docus. It doesn’t present the whole picture, but it does illuminate some new corners of the band’s heyday.

If you have any interest in the band, their music, or the period, this is worth your time. But if you want a full picture of the story, you’ll have to watch additional documentaries and profiles to fill in the gaps and view all the facets.

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