Phone booths, penny arcades and locomotive cabooses may all be things of the past, but the safe space to rhapsodize about bygone icons is the stuff of immortality. Director Lisa Hurwitz deftly turns her attention to the most democratic of U.S. food chains in her sweet and sentimental documentary The Automat (A), and in creating this nostalgic work, she traces nearly a century of imagination, immigration, wartime, fluctuating finances plus transformations in American tastes and temperaments. Horn & Hardart was the venerable “lemon meringue” phenomenon with the novel approach to quality fast food, home to the slot-machine lunch served in Art Deco cathedrals. In its heyday these restaurants were as universally accessible as the NYC subways and nourished nearly ten percent of Philadelphia’s population; everyone from bums to billionaires shared the same elegant communal tables, with newcomers marveling at the marble, crooning over the chrome, wistfully wondering at the windows how this magic gets made. Hurwitz rounds up an auspicious cast of eyewitnesses to the eatery, lunching with the stars including consummate entertainer Mel Brooks and Starbucks’ enterprising Howard Schultz as well as late greats Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell and Carl Reiner. It’s a treat to crack open the multimedia archives and learn from people involved in the heart of house at the business; it would have been additionally insightful to hear from nickel throwers and commissary craftspeople, but presumably many of these company men and women are also lost to history. The director’s bento box of treasures includes a look at the origins of the European technology, the silver dolphin-head coffee spouts, the prescient retail shops and even the TV and movie tie-ins associated with the chain. Her requiem for the brass, the pillars, the cuisine and the chatter earns its place among the Edward Hopper paintings and Audrey Hepburn movies immortalizing the institution. In lionizing the American automat, Hurwitz helps viewers re-live a simpler epoch when meatloaf, cream spinach, strawberry rhubarb or coconut custard pies were just a token away and when a melting pot of consumers could intersect and simply savor timeless moments together.
You’ll want to wrap your tentacles around this feel-good, feel-sad nature documentary. James Reid and Pippa Ehrlich’s My Octopus Teacher (B) centers on diver Craig Foster who swims for a year with an octopus that lives in a kelp forest off the coast of South Africa. Through visiting her den and tracking her movements every day, he creates a symbiotic bond that rejuvenates his faith in his own human world. The octopus is a tad more interesting than the guy, and the human drama seems a little tacked on to add extra resonance. But the underwater camera work is spectacular, from camouflaging to evade pyjama sharks to feasting eyes on predatory seafood banquets. Much of the detail is nothing short of miraculous. It’s immersive and occasionally rousing and an unexpected find suitable for families.
This nostalgic and uplifting documentary is a testament to the notion that representation matters and a surprising tale of a hidden figure in the space program who changed the institution forever for the better. Todd Thompson’s Woman in Motion: Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek and the Remaking of NASA (B) is the true story of how renowned Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols, known for her iconic Uhura character, pioneered the NASA recruiting program to hire people of color and the first female astronauts for the space agency in the late 1970s and 1980s. The film chronicles its subject’s life as a singer who performed with Duke Ellington, her launch into stardom in the boundary-breaking sci-fi property and ultimately her fiction-turned-fact work national blitz to recruit 8,000 of the nation’s best and brightest, including astronauts who became the first African-American, Asian and Latino men and women to fly into space. As a subject, Nichols is compelling, although too brief in direct interviews and footage. It’s wonderful to see interviews with other luminaries ranging from the late John Lewis and co-star George Takei to Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to travel into space when she served as a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. Seeing history through Nichols’ eyes and her indelible impact on real-life events delivers a powerful punch. Although the film is a bit linear in its guardrails of telling a chronological story, it does so with gusto and quiet might. It’s a must-see for Star Trek fans and budding scientists who will undoubtedly find new ways to be inspired by this trailblazer.
Director Kevin Derek’s melancholy documentary More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story (B-) traces the titular Japanese-American actor’s journey from origins as a sick child witnessing internment camps to a man who masked his troubled soul with comedy, alcohol and of course an iconic role as cinema’s iconic sensei. Through home movies and sentimental stories told by actor and crew colleagues plus the love of his life and his third wife Evelyn Guerrero-Morita, viewers get a glimpse into a singular and trailblazing pop cultural personality known for his (Garry) Marshall comedies as well as his martial arts. Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, Martin Kove, Henry Winkler and Marion Ross are among those celebrating their friend, even as the film plumbs the depths of the late Oscar nominee’s addictions which weren’t necessarily known by his fans. The film hovers around a variety of themes ranging from overcoming racial stereotypes to finding one’s voice, even if Derek doesn’t always land a clear thesis or consistently effective style. But when waxing (on) poetic about this icon, the filmmakers find greatness in a flawed but formidable man.
Note: Available Feb. 5, 2021 on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, DVD and Blu-ray.
Two young Black women activists grow in grassroots glory in Ashley O’Shay’s timely and prescient documentary Unapologetic (A). Confronting injustice and unrest in Chicago’s Westside and exploring the rise of resistance from prominent provocateurs in the Black, queer, feminist community, the skilled director presents with urgency and sensitivity a you-are-there multi-year story about a duo of powerhouse change agents. This fascinating film focuses on youth organizer and Ph.D. candidate Janaé Bonsu and rap-tivist Bella BAHHS, two sterling Everywomen who summon powers of the strong female role models who paved the way for them to tackle on their own terms tough issues such as police violence and intergenerational incarceration. Intersecting with events ripped out of today’s headlines, this real-life chronicle is revelatory in both moments of creative protests as well as simple solidarity over intimate family cookouts and photo albums. The microcosms presented in the documentary demonstrate the cradle of a social justice movement which has truly come of age this year. Ultimately it’s a tribute to the Black women who have been the bedrock of their families and communities, and its debut at film festivals is a landmark moment to cherish and celebrate.
An old axiom proclaims a feature film shouldn’t be less interesting than its makers sitting around discussing that very movie, but the reverse holds true for documentaries. Serviceable when it should be sensational, Don Hahn’s film about the life and word craft of Disney legend Howard Ashman, Howard (B-), strings very few pieces of found footage and plaintiff narration to memorialize a man who deserved a much more special tribute. After all, this lyricist and storyteller helped reinvent the wit and whimsy of an iconic animation studio while secretly harboring AIDS in the height of that epidemic. The film plumbs Ashman’s roots in theatre with glimpses into his stage musicals about man-eating plants and pageant queens before his breakthrough trilogy of animated mermaids, genies and a beauty who fell for a beast. His successes were largely posthumous, so there wasn’t as much AV evidence as is often the case of what it was like to know and work with him, and the eyewitnesses don’t really have the way with words that Howard did. The film does little more than sprinkle some pixie dust on a Wikipedia entry before it finally generates some tender moments toward the end. There’s also a nice bit in the recording studio with Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury voicing “Be Our Guest,” but it otherwise seems like Ursula the sea witch stole the soaring magic right out of the Disney vaults. While sometimes an interesting glimpse into a feisty and fabulous artist, this so-so documentary feels like it’s showing viewers just part of his world.
Danny Wolf’s Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies (B) is revealing in all the right ways. Tracing the history of celluloid flesh from silent films to contemporary cinema, this fairly clinical documentary includes talking heads and feisty film footage to explore the mores of over a century in titillating taste when it comes to the sexy silhouettes of popular culture. The recent #MeToo movement puts the doc’s topic in a fresh lens as Wolf looks at a variety of genres, from pin-up fantasies to arty independents to erotic thrillers. Amidst all the privates on parade, the film nearly finds a thesis. Almost more interesting than the bare essentials at the forefront of this film is its examination of the industry codes and ratings associated with art at various time periods. There’s a nice gender balance in the interviews, from idiosyncratic directors Peter Bogdanovich and Joe Dante to Amy Heckerling and Martha Coolidge. Other industry commentators are a bit of a mixed bag. The subject matter doesn’t necessarily deserve the girth of its running time, and some of the extended sequences may feel a bit, well, gratuitous. At times the documentary is a movie buff’s paradise when it’s not feeling like a peepshow with a purpose.
Available on Hulu
Summer finally has a superhero. Using interviews and rare archival footage, Dawn Porter’s documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble (B+) traces the titular congressman’s 60-plus years of social activism and legislative action on issues ranging from civil and voting rights to healthcare and immigration reform. It’s a delight to watch the political and protest survivor witness and reflect on historical reels which feel as urgent as ever in today’s climate. The film successfully criss-crosses from modern day to moments in history, drawing rich parallels. Particularly poignant are sequences of lunch counter sit-ins and of the legendary Freedom Rides as the young gamechanger asserts his rights and showcases his resolve. Even the setbacks presented strengthen his might. What starts as a contemplative chronicle becomes a sensational summons for action.
Update from June 2020 review: The civil rights icon and longtime congressman passed away after a six-month battle with cancer on July 18, 2020. You can also explore more about John Lewis in the film Selma.
Behind the anti-gay military policy resulting in the dismissal of lesbian army hero Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer (famously portrayed by Glenn Close in the 1995 movie Serving in Silence), a clandestine couple — a veritable female Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a real-life saga – provides the fascinating side story that propels its way to center stage in a pivotal moment in history. Documentarian Cindy L. Abel’s sophomore feature film Surviving the Silence (B+) unearths the narrative of Colonel Patsy Thompson, a woman from the rural south who becomes a beloved nurse in the military, harbors a closeted love in the form of life partner Barbara Brass and finds herself presiding over the board in the critical “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” case against Cammermeyer. As the film’s central subject, Thompson is a plucky protagonist who comes out late in life but consistently summons the fortitude to live with dignity amidst the various challenges confronting her. The high profile of the tense tribunal forces her to confront her own story in a journey to live out loud. Abel and her documentary team weave together this uncanny tale using archival footage, home movies and images, interviews and even animation to bring the powerful stories of these trailblazing women to the forefront. The film does a splendid job taking viewers inside the inspiring love story of Thompson and Brass, from their furtive first date to their use of secret codes to communicate during a stint at the Pentagon, which makes the film’s denouement all the more poignant. Denise Gentilini provides stirring music, especially her end-credits song. The film showcases accidental activists simply trying to live their truths. It’s a timely testament to women in love rising to the occasion of destiny.
Wielding an encouraging epistle or a poison pen whittled down to the quick, caustic cinematic commentator Pauline Kael was America’s first and most influential metacritic. Two decades after the loss of this iconoclast, Rob Garver’s What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (B+) showcases this writer’s startling ability to convince readers to see movies in a new way including ushering in new wave foreign films and distinct new voices ranging from Scorsese to Spielberg. Famous for panning The Sound of Music or embracing films on the fringe, Kael was a noted contrarian and often a misanthrope who charmed and alarmed the chattering class and forged loyal acolytes in the critical press. The film is a roast meets requiem of interviews from those who loved her (Quentin Tarantino, for one) and those who felt damaged by her cutting rebukes (David Lean, for instance). There is little film or voice footage available to weave into the story, but Garver digs deep to conjure Kael’s singular spirit. There are also wonderful sequences from many of Kael’s favorite motion pictures. This is a film about visceral love for the movies and for joy in writing about the movies. It’s no wonder I loved it.
Lana Wilson’s Miss Americana (B) is an enjoyable biographical documentary showcasing several years in the life of crossover country/pop music artist Taylor Swift, especially during her personal awakening into political action. The film vividly shows Swift’s rise to fame and thirst for validation as a people pleaser given energy by audiences and record sales. So it’s all the more dramatic as she begins to feel the slings and arrows of life under scrutiny in the darker side of the spotlight. It’s a shot to the heart about shared humanity and a revealing portrait of a woman finding her place in life. The film is dotted with wonderful tidbits of Swift’s confessional songwriting process. As a central subject, she is a delightful individual, spry, honest and funny. The movie provides an awesome insider glimpse at a talented role model and a stark look at the notion of standing up for convictions when self-worth, finances and reputation are on the line. Wilson’s steady hand in chronicling the complex chanteuse’s story across several tumultuous years is commendable, even if all of it doesn’t come across completely seamlessly. For fans of the artist at the film’s center, it is essential viewing.
Fear of failure and unwarranted confidence can both be blinding. The ‘90s Silicon Valley dreamers in Matt Maude and Sarah Kerruish’s cautionary and ultimately redemptive documentary General Magic (B+) are enjoyable subjects inventing technologies well before their time. While the denizens of the titular start-up saw their promising platform go up in smoke, they learned lessons they apply to some of the most prolific tech companies of our era and contributed to the vision of the modern smartphone. The film is a compelling and compassionate look at innovation and redemption.