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.
NOTE: This world premiere documentary will be presented in time for LGBTQ Pride month at the Ashland Independent Film Festival June 1, 2020 and QFest St. Louis June 19-28, 2020, sponsored by AARP St. Louis.
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.
Acclaimed and criminally under-appreciated motion picture director William Friedkin is known for the gritty near-documentary reality he imbues in projects such as TheExorcist, The French Connection, Sorcerer, Cruising and Bug, so it’s fun to witness the man behind the movies sounding off about his approach. Francesco Zippel‘s FriedkinUncut (B) stitches together interviews with the titular director and many of his contemporaries about his place in history and examines sequences from the seminal works of his outrageous oeuvre. He’s a cunning subject with a POV on topics such as staging a great car chase, mounting an opera, embedding with priests and police for ultimate authenticity and getting deep in the heads of filmmaking pioneers. Quentin Tarantino, Ellen Burstyn, Willem Defoe and Francis Ford Coppola are among the most compelling storytellers about Friedkin’s influence. One of the greatest tricks Friedkin pulls is the art of filming with one simple take. Some behind the scenes and archival footage is better than others, but Zippel captures a compelling portrait of an exacting auteur.
More dignified than a King Friday XIII proclamation and more vulnerably raw than a question from Daniel Striped Tiger, there’s a new film that eases in like a little red cable car straight into your heart with vast implications worthy of deep contemplation. Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (A) about the life and times of perhaps the greatest communicator to children ever to walk the earth, Fred Rogers, is just the balm movie-going audiences need in these polarized times. A lifelong Republican and ordained Presbyterian minister who pioneered public television with a slow-burn, puppet-laden, multi-ethnic broadcast platform speaking to every kid’s intrinsic self-worth makes for a most unlikely subject of multimedia analysis. The film plunges viewers head-first into Mister Roger’s unusual neighborhood with a mission to move adults in a giving and harmonious spirit evocative of the utopia he created that so enchanted a generation of youth. Fueled by interviews with those who knew him best, rare footage and flashbacks and poignant animated vignettes plumbing the subject’s own frightened boyhood, Neville guides us through what made the man, who passed away nearly a decade and a half ago, born for his creative crusade. Breakthroughs with cast members and with children comprise the most lovely moments; expect to ugly cry with utter joy. Cultural milestones from the Vietnam war to racial integration to the 9/11 disaster all shape formative moments of teaching for Rogers, whose full life was a rather unconventional museum-go-round of a sermon for humanity. The film is a sunny, hopeful reminder to maintain our personal honor, civility and song in the face of life’s most arduous challenges. Give this film a speedy delivery into your soul as soon as you can.
A profile in courage, consistency and living life with purpose and passion, Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, RBG (A-), is a stand-up-and-cheer portrait of an unlikely cultural hero. Diminutive and soft-spoken, she is hardly the most obvious person to have captured the cultural zeitgeist or to be the subject of a full-length cinematic treatment, but Ginsburg’s story sneaks up on you like the cadence of pioneering gender equality law cases she argued in a rich history in front of and behind the bench. The filmmakers do an expert job showcasing the sequences of legal cases that mark milestones in RBG’s legacy as well as her recent history of provocative and pointed dissent. We also get to witness intimate family portraits with her beloved fellow lawyer late husband, with grandkids and young people and immersed in her hobby of attending spectacular opera. The film also shows the joy of an unlikely friendship with conservative firebrand Antonin Scalia; if those two could get along, nearly anyone can find common ground. The film relies occasionally on very scarce archival footage and suffers sometimes from lack of access to the moments we may want to witness most (alas, no cameras in room for the big cases). But its fondness for its subject and its illumination of her life and times indeed reign supreme.
A meditation told in a minor key on technology at a crossroads, mild obsessions with antiquity and the art of physical creation, cinematographer Doug Nichol’s debut documentary California Typewriter (B) is a thoughtful glimpse at the history of and current appropriation of a classic and seemingly obsolete invention: the typewriter. This quirky, QWERTY topic opens up a home row of great conversations with the likes of Tom Hanks, songwriter John Mayer and the late actor/playwright Sam Shepard, among an array of enthusiasts and iconoclasts who find a muse in the artifact with crunchy keys to peck, ink ribbons flowing black and red and a carriage return gliding with sheer powertrain force. A central narrative thread is the titular family-run business owned by patriarch Herbert Permillion, located in Berkeley, which is ostensibly a repair shop but also sometimes a blend of triage unit and curiosity cabinet for the bygone devices. Congregated less for requiem than celebration, these real people display a quiet fascination with a tactile tradition and carry the water for real-time output that pre-dated the computer era. John Mayer in particular provides some compelling commentary about lyric writing on a typewriter, free of squiggly digital lines admonishing misspellings and full of rich, pulpy texture that makes you feel amazingly alive as an analog being in a digital world. Among the series of obscure enthusiasts showcased, sculptor Jeremy Mayer (no relation to the singer) is one of the few whose obsession leaves the antique apparatus completely transformed. He breaks down his collection of contraptions into component parts to reconfigure them into anatomically correct human figures, many inspired by the aesthetic of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; his is an intriguing take on the societal transition between the pre- and post-internet world and stands in contrast with many of the other fanboys (I guess if they’re older, they’d be fan-men) who troll museums, flea markets, swap shops and even foreign countries to purchase and preserve the classic machines. Others wax poetic with nostalgia, wit and downright fetishism about the dandy devices. Hanks prefers the Silent Smith Corona, while others rave about the virtues of a Hermes, Olympia or other company lines as if they were regaling in a car show in full glory. There have been more exciting movies featuring a typewriter at the helm (Misery, The Shining and Naked Lunch come to mind) but few make such a compelling case for a charged object at the center of a lowkey comeback. This movie about magnificent men and their typing machines makes this beast of iron giant again.
Lonny Price’s documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened (B+) chronicles a requiem and reunion of sorts of cast members and collaborators from the 1981 Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, a show that notoriously failed on Broadway, lasting only 16 performances but that achieved cult notoriety over time, spawning some of the songwriter’s most popular tunes including “Old Friends,” “Not a Day Goes By” and “Good Thing Going.” Price, who was one of the show’s three leads and before that a fanboy in his own right, helps keep the work – a complex show about cynicism turned to idealism, told in reverse order – alive in the imagination through the documentary, unearthed interview footage and a reunion concert. While Jason Alexander may be the most recognizable of the ensemble to casual viewers, the stories of many major participants including Jim Walton, Ann Morrison and Mr. Sondheim himself serves as a bit of a reverse Chorus Line with touching personal stories. The structure of the documentary comes full circle as well as it plumbs themes about the joy of collaborating on art and the recovery from disappointment. It would have been amazing if more original behind the scenes footage were available, but it’s fairly staggering how much is discovered three and a half decades later. For musical theatre enthusiasts, Price’s fond film is a bundle of merriment.
Ava DuVernay’s stirring documentary 13th (A) explores the history of racial inequality in the United States, focusing on post-slavery laws and media representation followed by an examination of the rise of a mass incarceration system which has shackled African-Americans both physically and metaphorically throughout the history of our culture. Interviews with eyewitnesses and experts such as Angela Davis and Van Jones are balanced with policymakers such as Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist to paint a fairly bipartisan glimpse at the mistakes of generations of presidential administrations, regional legislators and corporations in poorly serving the interests of minority communities. Peppering the compelling history lesson is poignant music of recent decades (Public Enemy and Common, to name a few) and stark sequences of multimedia to demonstrate the way Black America has been boxed in despite a constitutional amendment granting freedom. Particularly illuminating and powerful, since DuVernay is also a narrative filmmaker, are her references to the 1915 film Birth of a Nation, which actually originated the use of burning crosses as a terrorist tool of the KKK. Her gripping film makes a clear-eyed and essential argument that African-Americans have lived a different and parallel lives to those of privilege, and its take-down of the prison industrial complex will be illuminating to viewers. This may indeed be DuVernay’s seminal work as she is in complete command of a myriad of complex issues and delivers a piercing thesis. This is must-see moviemaking.
The entire feature is now available to view for free in full on YouTube:
Scott Sheppard’s documentary An Act of Love (B) is the powerful account of United Methodist pastor Frank Schaefer who challenged convention by officiating his son’s same-sex marriage ceremony despite church doctrine. Sheppard delves deep into the heart of an American family and far into the bureaucracy – where strictures further complicate scriptures – that hinders societal advancement in an otherwise progressive institution. It’s a sensitive and sensible look at the clash between family and faith. Schaefer makes a compelling central subject in a story that continues to unfold in trials and conversations beyond the screen.