‘Risk’ Invites You into WikiLeaks’ Inner Circle… Somewhat

Risk documentary poster

Laura Poitras’ “Risk” is one of those documentaries which had me believing the scenes left on the cutting room floor were as, or perhaps even more, riveting as what ended up on the screen. It offers us a look into WikiLeaks and its creator Julian Assange, and it is a very intimate look which I was never sure we could ever get. What we get is a very compelling look at the inner workings of this organization which thrives on getting to the truth which is more often than not kept away from our prying eyes, and we see how this organization is constantly threatened by its infinitely powerful adversaries and perhaps by Assange himself. Yet at the same time, it feels like there is much more to the story than what we see onscreen.

Poitras filmed this documentary over the course of six years and was granted an astonishing amount of access to WikiLeaks and Assange. It starts off with Assange trying to get in touch with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the security of WikiLeaks has been breached to where Clinton’s emails are about to be revealed to a public eager to sift through them voraciously. Assange has been accused of conspiring with the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 Presidential election, but he is shown here to be very eager to inform Clinton of how her problems are going to be much bigger than his own.

The most introspective moments in “Risk” happen near its start as Assange talks about what drew him to the work he does today. In a talk with Poitras, he says he doesn’t believe in being a martyr as much as he does in those who take risks for the things they care deeply about. The way he sees it, it is far more dangerous to do nothing than it is to do something, and the inaction of many has certainly led people to go against their best interests for no intelligent reason.

As the documentary goes on, however, the focus of it becomes a bit muddled as Poitras admits she is not sure what to make of Assange after a while. We never see her onscreen, but she does provide narration at various points where she admits she can’t ignore the contradictions of Assange’s character and is convinced he doesn’t like her. There is a scene where he and a fellow lawyer retreat to the woods for a private conversation, and at times he urges Poitras to take her camera off of him as he shares something he doesn’t want her to know. Towards the end, she says her friendship with Assange deteriorated to the point where they were constantly yelling at each other. Taking this into account, it makes you wonder just how much access she really had to his world as he remains so close and yet so far away.

One thing which cannot be denied is the size of Assange’s ego as he confronts many obstacles and impediments with a strange confidence even while the odds are stacked against him. We can’t help but laugh at scenes where those who work closest to him exhibit an exasperation as they clearly more aware of the ramifications of his actions more than he ever bothers to. He also manages to keep Poitras and even Lady Gaga at a distance as he is questioned about his intents and of what might happen if WikiLeaks one day comes to a sudden halt.

Assange does address the sexual assault charges in how he feels the U.S. government will exploit them for the sake of turning the American people against them. Still, in her director’s statement, Poitras says there was legal and personal pressure and demands by him and his colleagues to remove scenes which deal with the sexual assault investigations, and this was further complicated by another member of his staff being accused of the same thing. “Risk” does not imply guilt on Assange’s part, but it also doesn’t prove he is innocent either. This, more than anything else, makes me wonder what was left out of the final cut. Assange appears assured that WikiLeaks can never be taken down, but it feels like his inner circle sees the dominoes falling down a lot quicker than he does.

Looking back, “Risk” is really more about Poitras than it is about Assange. We never see her face, but we do get narration from her throughout. On one hand, she has the kind of access so many others can only dream of having, but you feel her growing confusion as she continually wonders if she can ever figure this man out fully. At the end, it seems like she may never know as he becomes more and more remote to where she wonders if she has just been used to further his agenda.

Certainly, no one knows more about risk than Poitras as she has been constantly interrogated and detained by U.S. officials whenever she traveled internationally, but this has not deterred her from reporting on mass surveillance and getting Edward Snowden on camera to discuss what he knows about it. Her previous documentary, “Citizenfour,” quickly became one of the most politically potent films ever made about the power a government can have over its citizens and its quest to silence those who dissent. “Risk” finds her continuing her quest for the truth even as her main subject is at times elusive as the forces surrounding him become more determined to shut him down for good.

I wish the film had been more probing into Assange’s life as he still remains a bit of an enigma, and there will always be a cloud of distrust hanging over him until the day he dies. Still, “Risk” gives us the closest of looks at an organization which continues to expose the things your government doesn’t want you to know about. If you can get past its flaws, it is a compelling watch which will have you contemplating the future of the free press and the first amendment. It ends on an ominous note as the FBI is determined to prosecute anybody and everybody involved with WikiLeaks, and I left the theater wondering how much longer we will have the First Amendment to fall back on. Hopefully, it will never disappear, but with the Trump administration, many unthinkable things have suddenly become possible.

* * * out of * * * *

Advertisements

‘Full Tilt Boogie,’ the ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ Documentary, Screens at New Beverly Cinema

full-tilt-boogie-poster

After a double feature of William Friedkin’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Rampage,” which is not currently available on DVD, the audience members at New Beverly Cinema were in for a special midnight treat as the theater held a screening for the 20-year-old documentary “Full Tilt Boogie.” Directed by Sarah Kelly, it chronicles the making of Robert Rodriguez’s action horror cult classic “From Dusk till Dawn” which starred George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino as outlaw brothers who, along with a vacationing family, end up at a rowdy Mexican bar which turns out to be infested with vampires. The documentary introduces us to those people who worked behind the scenes on the movie, of why they want to be a part of show business, the fun they have when the cameras are not rolling, and of the complicated relationship between movie studios and unions.

Introducing this screening of “Full Tilt Boogie” was Kelly, and she was joined by her producer and friend Rana Joy Glickman. The emcee who welcomed them remarked about how cool it was this documentary was playing at the New Beverly and that it was sharing a marquee with Friedkin’s “Cruising.” To this, the emcee said about Kelly, “Whoa! She scored good!”

Kelly welcomed all the “insomniacs” who came out to see her documentary and explained how it became a reality.

“The reason this movie came about was that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin were about to start shooting ‘From Dusk till Dawn,’ and it was an $18-million-dollar independent movie and the unions were pissed,” Kelly said. “They were like, ‘What do you mean? No, you have to go union.’ And so, there was a big threat of a strike, and Quentin thought it would be cool to document it.”

“I had worked for him on a little movie called ‘Pulp Fiction’ and a couple of other movies he was involved with,” Kelly continued, “and he knew that I was studying to be a director so he gave me a shot. At the time, I was taking a break from production and I was working part-time in a law firm and I was like, ‘So is this for real? Should I quit my job?’ And he said, ‘Uh, quit your job yesterday.’ So, I did. We wrangled our little, tiny, hardcore crew and we started shooting, by the way, on 16mm film. Nobody shoots documentaries on 16mm film anymore, but we did. The union threat kind of turned into a cold war and I asked Quentin if we could keep shooting and just do a love letter to the crew. I pitched it as kind of like ‘Hearts of Darkness’ (Eleanor Coppola’s documentary on ‘Apocalypse Now’), but not that dark. Quentin said, ‘Yeah, that’s really fucking cool!’”

As for Glickman, she claimed to have hundreds of stories to tell about the documentary and “From Dusk till Dawn,” but she chose to tell only this one.

“When we finished ‘Full Tilt Boogie’ we were just so pleased that we finished and we got to make the posters for the film, not the one that Harvey Weinstein had selected,” Glickman said. “Our favorite poster is Sarah’s design, and it was Ken (Bondy), the craft service guy on ‘From Dusk till Dawn,’ standing there with a tray of lattes and it said, ‘From the maker of coffee on Pulp Fiction, we bring you Full Tilt Boogie.’”

Kelly responded, “That’s a great poster, right?”

“Full Tilt Boogie” may not be the masterpiece “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” is, but it’s still a very entertaining documentary which takes you behind the scenes of a movie’s production in a way few others do. We get to see the challenges crew members constantly face on a movie set, and we also get to take in the fun they have outside of it as well. For these people, this is a job done out of love and far more preferable than working a 9 to 5 job which has them sitting at a desk all day. Kelly certainly did create a love letter to these crew members, and we revel in the festivities they have from one day to the next.

Thanks to Sarah Kelly and Rana Joy Glickman for taking the time to come out, and at such a late hour, to talk about “Full Tilt Boogie” at New Beverly Cinema.

from-dusk-till-dawn-poster

Exclusive Interview with Kim A. Snyder about ‘Newtown’

I got to speak with Kim A. Snyder recently while was in Los Angeles to discuss her documentary “Newtown.” The documentary looks at the aftermath of the largest mass shooting of school children in American history which took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. The school was located in Newtown, Connecticut, and we watch as the adults who tragically lost their children attempt to move on with their lives. But since this tragedy, these adults look to be stuck in a moment they may never get past. What they are left with is profound grief and memories which will now be forever tinged with sadness.

“Newtown” is certainly one of the most emotionally devastating documentaries to come out in some time, but it is not without hope. Not once is the killer’s name mentioned or his face shown as Snyder’s real interest is in the townspeople who struggle to move on despite all they have lost. As painful as their stories are, these are the stories which need to be heard as the media often tends to focus on the shooter more than anything else.

Snyder is an award-winning filmmaker and producer, and for a time she was a contributor to Variety Magazine. She made her directorial debut in 2000 with “I Remember Me” which chronicled her struggles with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). She also directed “Welcome to Shelbyville” which documented the intersection between race and religion in America’s Heartland. Her other works include the short films “Alone No Love,” “One Bridge to the Next” and “Crossing Midnight.”

While talking with Snyder, she explained why the shooter’s name was never mentioned in “Newtown,” why the term “gun control” was never used, of how Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” proved to be a major influence on this documentary, and of how she managed to find hope in a story filled with infinite grief.

Check out the interview above, and be sure to catch “Newtown” when it opens in Los Angeles on October 14. Also, be sure to visit the documentary’s website at www.newtownfilm.com.

newtown_final_9_14

 

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: Citizenfour

citizenfour-movie-poster

Citizenfour” is a documentary I should have taken the time watch when it first came out in theaters back in 2014. For one reason or another, I just never got the chance to check it out and life got busier for me as it always does. As a result, my view on Edward Snowden, its chief subject, has remained neutral as I never knew what to make of him when the news of his revelations about the National Security Administration’s (NSA) illegal wiretapping were brought to the public. But with Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” now playing in theaters, the time had come to check out “Citizenfour” as it likely provides audiences with the most objective and unbiased view we could ever hope to have about this particular whistleblower.

Technically, “Citizenfour” is a documentary, but it also works as a nail-biting thriller as we watch Snowden and others doing interviews in secret, but we always wonder why the phone keeps ringing and why the fire alarm keeps going off. Is everyone in the hotel room under surveillance? Are there CIA or NSA agents ready to storm it? Might there be a government assassin prepared to take everyone out from a building across the way? In the movie “Strange Days,” Tom Sizemore told Ralph Fiennes the issue isn’t whether you’re paranoid, the issue is whether you’re paranoid enough. These days, that piece of dialogue is an amazing understatement.

This documentary was directed by Laura Poitras who knows all about being under intense government surveillance. She declares “Citizenfour” to be the final part of her post-9/11 trilogy which includes “My Country, My Country” about the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and “The Oath” which focused on Guantanamo and the “war on terror.” Since 2006, she has been placed on a secret watch list by the U.S. government and was constantly interrogated by border agents every time she traveled internationally. It got to where she had no choice but to move to Berlin in an effort to protect her footage from being confiscated. Suffice to say, “Citizenfour” is a documentary which would never have seen the light of day were these secret interviews conducted in America.

The title refers to the name Snowden used when he attempted to make contact with Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Eventually, the three meet in a Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden tells them, as well as The Guardian’s intelligence reporter Ewen MacAskill, all he knows about the U.S. government’s illegal wiretapping activities, and it is frightening to see just how far it goes.

What’s fascinating about “Citizenfour” is how calm and collected Snowden appears here as he divulges information which will eventually render him a traitor to many and a hero to others. It’s almost like a ticking time bomb as we are viewing his very last hours of anonymity as he will soon be revealed to the world as a whistleblower, and many will manipulate his image any way they can. But in this day and age, when everyone is so hooked on their cell phones and Facebook, aren’t we a little too quick to give up certain parts of our privacy? We have always felt something or somebody keeping an eye on us to where we accept the fact we are being watched, but we reveal more about ourselves now than we ever did in the past.

Poitras deserves a lot of credit for keeping a firm hand on the subject matter here as she gives “Citizenfour” a dark and ominous tone as we know how much Snowden’s revelations will rock the world. She is also aided by the use of Nine Inch Nails’ instrumental music from the “Ghosts” album which provides an electronic hum which keeps getting louder and louder as the truth is revealed and identities will be forever burned in our conscious minds.

By the time “Citizenfour” ends, the cat has been let out of the bag and Snowden finds himself living in Russia along with his girlfriend. The fact Poitras was able to get him back into the documentary before the end credits started rolling feels remarkable in hindsight. At this point, only he and Greenwald can communicate certain bits of information through pieces of paper which they later rip up. The battle to restore privacy has only just begun, and it will be a long time before it will be resolved. Whether it will be resolved fully is another story.

Poitras makes us see the reach of the U.S. government both through her own struggles and former NSA intelligence official William Binney whose own whistleblowing efforts had people bursting through his door with guns. President Barack Obama is shown in footage saying Snowden should have gone through legal channels and share his information legally, but when you take into account how other government whistleblowers have been treated, even he can’t guarantee Snowden can be brought in safely.

What is particularly frightening about “Citizenfour” is how the different parts of government are constantly watching one another to where it feels like trust in one another can seem like a rare commodity. It all brings us back to the “Watchmen” question, who watches the watchers? Everybody is watching each other, and in many ways it doesn’t matter who the President is because the NSA appears to run by their own rules and no government oversight can easily stop them in their tracks.

Opinions on Snowden still differ as some see him as a hero and others as a traitor. “Citizenfour,” however, shows him to be a selfless man eager to right the wrongs made by people who have betrayed the public’s trust. The fact that Poitras was able to get this documentary made let alone released is astounding, and it should be required viewing for all Americans. At the very least, she, Snowden and Greenwald deserve credit for bringing this wiretapping issue to light as there needs to be more discussion about it. We are still feeling the aftereffects of these revelations, and the dominoes keep on falling. While it helps to have all kinds of information to combat those who threaten our livelihood, you eventually have to wonder if it is worth the price.

* * * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

Exclusive Interview with Dana Ben-Ari on her Documentary ‘Breastmilk’

breastmilk-documentary-poster

The documentary “Breastmilk” marks the directorial debut of Dana Ben-Ari, and it deals with a subject we think we know a lot but really don’t: breast feeding. It follows first-time mothers of different ages and backgrounds as they deal with the breast feeding process in various ways, and it documents the successes and struggles they are forced to endure. While some are pro-breast feeding, others find themselves relieved at not having to go through with it. But throughout “Breastmilk,” Ben-Ari never judges the families and prefers to present their stories as objectively as possible. Sure, there are a number of instructional videos, books, experts, lactation experts and do-it-yourself guides you can find on YouTube, but there really hasn’t been a film which explores real people going through this process before this one.

I got to speak with Ben-Ari while she was in town to do press for “Breastmilk,” and I congratulated her on making a documentary which will appeal to both women and men. It certainly promotes a lot of discussion on breast feeding, and it will be interesting to hear what people who see this documentary have to say about it. We talked about what drew her to make “Breastmilk,” how she went about choosing its participants, what surprised her most about the making of it, and the importance of including gay couples in this debate as well.

Ben Kenber: What was your main inspiration for wanting to make this documentary?

Dana Ben-Ari: Well I am a mother myself and I am pro-breastfeeding, and I’ve seen many women in many families struggle and go through these similar experiences. I thought that this would be fun and interesting to explore on camera because I think that it is part of a larger conversation around feminism, and I thought that voicing and making these experiences visible would be very helpful and important.

BK: In regards to the people who participated in this documentary, how did you go about selecting them?

DBA: We posted various flyers and we posted on parent sites and groups and word-of-mouth and friends. We had an overwhelming amount of emails and stories shared, and then we realized that we wanted to find pregnant women who were carrying their first child so that we could have a more immediate first time experience. We started with that, and then I wanted to have a few other families participate in the conversation because I thought that families with slightly older kids, as you see sprinkled throughout the film, just provide a little bit of a different perspective than the young families who are going through it for the first time. That’s how we came out with that balance.

BK: Have you kept in touch with the participants since you finished making this documentary?

DBA: Yeah, a few of them came to one of the Saturday night screenings and then the Sunday screening. We’ve been in touch. A few people have moved out of New York, but the ones in New York try to come to the screenings when they can.

BK: Were there any really big surprises while you were making this documentary?

DBA: I learned a lot about filmmaking because this is my first film, so that was quite interesting. I had a great cinematographer (Jake Clennell) who taught me how to be in the room but still respect the space and the experience, and we really learned a lot about being patient and giving that families time. What also stood out was how vulnerable all of these families are and how women are still oppressed.

BK: One woman talks about how women are still made to feel bad about their bodies, and that’s a shame. You get the feeling that people who say that probably don’t understand what the experience is like, and we are seeing that experience in front of us. They are doing the best they can.

DBA: Right. All of these families are doing the best that they can.

BK: One of my favorite scenes is when a white couple goes to one of the black mothers and gets bags of breast milk. It reminded me of picture I saw in a magazine where a heart from a white person was placed next to a heart from a black person, and you see that there’s no difference between them. It’s the same thing with the breast milk because, in the end, milk is milk. How did you come to get that scene?

DBA: We knew that we wanted to show some donations, and I looked for women who were looking for milk donations. One of the women that we had been following did have a lot of milk that she wanted to donate, and I asked her if she wanted us to help her find somebody. So we followed the adoptive mother through a number of attempts, and then we also had this one. We had a couple more milk donations scenes that didn’t make the cut, and we were just left with this one which was really a great scene because so much gets covered. There’s so much you can discuss from that one little moment, and that was very natural actually (those reactions).

BK: Was there anything in particular that you wanted to capture but were unable to for one reason or another?

DBA: Not so much. I’m quite happy with everything. We packed so much in. I wish we’d have more time to develop more stories, but as far as 90 minutes go I think we covered quite a lot. There’s so much there that I think people may not have thought of, and it just inspires these questions and their interest.

BK: Going back to what the cinematographer told you about respecting the space, can you talk a little bit more about that?

DBA: He is very good and very talented at what he does, but he also is very good at being very social and knows how to make people feel comfortable. But then also, as a mother myself, I had some experiences with what some of these families were going through, and I really did not get too involved in their journey. So even if some couples were arguing over a formula I really stayed out of it, and that was something he and I discussed that we were not going to get involved in. We were just going to let things play out. Of course, if somebody had asked me privately off camera certain things I would tell them, but we really didn’t want to affect their decisions and their experiences. So I think we did a good job with respecting their choices and their decisions.

BK: I also liked how the documentary dealt with gay couples, both male and female, and you sort of wonder how certain couples deal with that or not being able to give their children breast milk (men can’t, but they do keep trying). It’s great to see them in the groups because what they go through is no different from what anybody else is going through. Was that what you were hoping to show?

DBA: Yeah, I loved that too. I think it’s like dropping certain things without an editorial just to make people think about what is family and what is community and what does it mean to be male, what does it mean to be female, all of those questions. While there are some differences, the similarities sometimes are really much greater than we realize. I think that those are wonderful moments in the film, and I think it’s important to include a diverse group because our country is diverse. If we just focused on the one or two examples I think we miss a lot.

BK: A couple of days ago I saw the movie “Neighbors” which stars Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, and there is a scene where Seth gets sprayed with Rose’s breast milk. I was reminded of that when you show the montage of women squeezing the breast to show how much milk can come out of them, and it made the scene from “Neighbors” seem more realistic as a result. What was it like filming that montage?

DBA: Oh that was a lot of fun (laughs). That was a lot of fun and a lot of women had not really had that experience before, so we left those women feeling very satisfied that they got something of the experience. But really, this movie is about community and the body and how we’ve become and how nice it is for women to get reacquainted with their bodies and also just accept themselves as women. That was one of those celebratory moments in the film and humorous as well.

BK: Are you planning a follow up documentary to “Breastmilk” or do you have different plans for the future?

DBA: Well I have some ideas but not a follow-up to this. Some people are asking if there’s going to be a “Breastmilk 2;” no, I don’t think so. But I hope to be involved in something fun again soon. I do have to see this through, you know? It’s the first film so I have to do the short film tour and be available for press as much as possible.

BK: How involved were the executive producers, Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein, in the making of this documentary?

DBA: Well they came on after everything was done, and they’ve been very helpful and supportive in promoting it. That’s really more of our relationship, promoting and reaching a wider audience. They’ve been great.

I really want to thank Dana Ben-Ari for taking the time to talk with me. “Breastmilk” is now available to watch on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. Click here to view the movie’s website for more information.

Save

Exclusive Interview with Jeff Feuerzeig and Laura Albert on ‘Author: The JT Leroy Story’

Of the plethora of excellent documentaries to come out in 2016, one of the most fascinating to watch is “Author: The JT Leroy Story.” Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, it chronicles the rise and fall of literary sensation JT Leroy whose rough and tumble childhood crafted him into a writer of such books as “Sarah” and “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things,” the latter of which was adapted into a film by Asia Argento. However, it was eventually revealed that JT Leroy did not in fact exist and was actually an avatar for former phone sex worker turned housewife, Laura Albert. Following this revelation, Albert was considered a fraud and many believed she concocted nothing more than an elaborate hoax. But with this documentary, Albert seeks to set the record straight over how JT Leroy came into existence for her, and she makes it clear that what happened was in no way a hoax.

The beauty of “Author: The JT Leroy Story” is it never judges Albert for a second. The documentary simply lets her tell her side of the story which proves to be more complex than we could ever have imagined. Considering her dysfunctional childhood, it is understandable she needed an outlet of some kind to vent her pain and frustration with life, and with JT Leroy she found a way to express things she was unable to as herself.

author-the-jt-leroy-story-poster

It was a real pleasure to talk with Feuerzeig and Albert while they were in Los Angeles, and the two of them talked at length about what possessed them to take on this project and of what went into its making. Albert’s insights into her writing process were especially fascinating as she actually found herself predicting the future through her books.

Check out the interview above, and be sure to catch “Author: The JT Leroy Story” when it arrives in theaters in Los Angeles on September 9. You can also check out a trailer for the documentary below.

 

Mapplethorpe: Look At The Pictures

Mapplethorpe poster

This documentary starts off with former Senator Jesse Helms on the floor of congress back in 1989 where he denounced the controversial photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. Now Mapplethorpe’s work ended up pushing a lot of social boundaries with his frank depictions of sexuality, nudity and fetishism, and since he became known during the age of Ronald Reagan’s moral America, many saw him as nothing more than a shameless pornographer and refused to look at his photographs with any penetrating insight. What was on the surface bothered them, but like with any work of art it is about how the mind perceives it and of the effect it has on your perception of the world around you.

Helms told congress to look at the pictures as if they were done by someone possessed by the devil, but the HBO documentary “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” invites the viewer to look at them from a less biased perspective and see how this artist managed to turn contemporary art into fine art. What results is a fascinating look at an artist who in some ways is more prolific in death than in life, and it is probably the most in depth look at his life currently available.

We get scenes featuring curators at The J. Paul Getty Museum and The Los Angeles County Museum of Art as they prepare to open a landmark retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s work. Their intent is to look at him as a human being, and that intent is shared by the documentary’s directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato whose previous work includes “Inside Deep Throat,” “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and “Party Monster” (both the documentary and the feature film starring Macaulay Culkin). They dig deep into Robert’s past and never sugar coat his life for easy consumption.

It was very interesting to see Robert as a kid when he was considered the pogo stick champion of his neighborhood and somewhat unsurprising to learn he never really fit into any of the social circles in high schools (the great artists never seem to). Throughout the documentary we get to hear his voice from old recordings, and he says that he grew up in suburban America which he described as a good place to come from because it is also a good place to leave. He also admits he never set out to be a photographer as he took a course on it and hated it. And yet during his college years he found a creative spark which never left him.

“Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” also features interviews with various friends, family members and celebrities who all seem to agree Robert was a largely mysterious person who was always looking to get a rise out of people.  At the same time, his brother Edward said he could be quieter than anyone else in the room. Writer Fran Lebowitz even described him as looking like a “broken Cupid,” so it’s safe to say that many people viewed him differently. As the documentary continues on, it shows us a man struggling to express himself during a time where voices which differed from the norm were quickly chastised and silenced.

One of the documentary’s most fascinating segments comes when Robert meets up with singer Patti Smith and observes the time they spent together at the famous Chelsea Hotel in New York. This segment also takes us back to a time when the Big Apple was bankrupt, corrupt and looked nothing like the insanely expensive city it is today. The two of them fed off each other creatively and created art no one else ever could have, and Mapplethorpe even shot the photograph which became the cover for her first album, “Horses.” The fact that their relationship is cut a little short in the documentary is disappointing as it would have been great to see more of them here, and it could very well make for a great documentary of its own.

Both Bailey and Barbato also might have fared a little bit better had they given equal time to the methods Robert used to create his art instead of his personal life. Many of his photographs, including his famous “Man in the Polyester Suit,” are on display here, and while we get an idea of how he messed around with his Polaroid photos to create something startlingly unique, it would have been nice to see more of his technique in how he pulled certain photographs off.

Instead, “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” spends more time than it needs to on Robert’s love life and his various lovers. Granted, hearing them talk about Robert does give us deeper insight into his psychology and how selfish he became as he got older. We even here Robert say at one point, “Life is about using people and being used by people,” so his self-centeredness is very understandable. But to hear people talk about him in this manner makes the documentary at times feel like a broken record.

However, “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” finishes on a strong note as we watch Robert putting up his last solo show entitled “The Perfect Moment.” By this time, he had been diagnosed with AIDS which back then was a death sentence, and some described this show as being a “memorial with a living corpse.” Robert was only 42 years old when he died on March 9, 1989, but he looked more like he was in his late 60’s. In his later years he sought fame like crazy, and he soon became more famous in death than in life. The effect this final show had on the general public was profound, and it served to secure his legacy after he passed away.

Despite some minor flaws, “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” is a compelling documentary which serves to look at the famous artist as more than just a controversial figure. Robert was a human being with problems like anybody else’s, but he always photographed what he loved and the people he loved to be with. He pushed all sorts of boundaries as he described art as being about “opening something up.” He certainly opened the world up to looking at things differently than ever before, and he remains a potent force in the art world today. Looking at his photographs now, one cannot help but wonder why certain parts of the human body are still considered more dangerous than a loaded gun.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

Abortion: Stories Women Tell

Abortion Stories Women Tell poster

Was there ever a time when abortion didn’t seem like such a controversial issue? Well, if there was, that certainly long, long, long time ago. Even with the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973, which gave every woman in the United States the right to have an abortion, many have still been doing their damndest to get it overturned. Never mind that the Supreme Court has the final say on issues like this, never mind that Roe v. Wade was passed to stop women dying from abortions, and never mind that abortions make up a very tiny percentage of the work Planned Parenthood does; people are still swayed by their emotions more than facts, and many have to be reminded of the importance of the separation between church and state.

The HBO documentary “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” is not out to take sides on this contentious debate. Instead, it gives women the opportunity to talk about their experiences with both pregnancy and abortion and to tell their own stories without any filters. Some men are heard on this too, but the focus is on women on both sides of the fence as they are the ones who have to deal not just with their decisions but also the aftermath they are unwilling exposed to.

The documentary starts off with a pro-life rally in Missouri where supporters chant “all in Christ” and an elected representative tells them they are making progress in closing clinics in the state as they now “have the ability to look inside the womb.” But the focus quickly shifts to a title card which states since 2011, more than half of the United States have significantly restricted access to abortions, and those restrictions have increased from year to year. Abortion opponents may not be able to overturn Roe v. Wade, but they have managed to find ways around it.

Missouri at this time has only one abortion clinic which means the women who live there are more likely to drive many miles across the state border into Illinois to seek help. The documentary looks at the daily happenings at the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois where employees do their best to help women in need of health care even while they are constantly harassed by protestors. None of them have any shame over the work they do, and that’s even if some consider themselves the black sheep of their family as a result.

The stories we hear cover different spectrums of the abortion debate. There’s Amie, a 30-year-old single mom who works 70 to 90 hours a week to make ends meet and cannot afford to have another baby right now. We get to meet Sarah who has discovered her baby will have lungs missing and won’t survive long after birth. Then there’s Kathy whose house is filled with various religious objects, and she is setting up a peaceful pro-life march to get what she sees as God’s message across to others. And there’s no forgetting Alexis who is 17 years old and pregnant, whose mother died when she was just 8 and who gets picked on at school because of her condition. It’s painful to see how isolated all these women are from the rest of society as the stigma of abortion is still all too harsh. Granted, Kathy might not seem as isolated, but there is a strong sense of loneliness about her as she pursues her quest to end abortions.

Director Tracy Droz Tragos, herself a Missouri resident, presents all these women’s stories without any judgment. She has given them a forum to speak their minds, and they all need to be heard regardless of how we feel about this infinitely taboo subject. There’s no narration to be found here as Tragos is not looking to steer the conversation one way or another, and this is even though the number of pro-lifers interview here pales in comparison to the pro-choice advocates. But for what it’s worth, the pro-life women interviewed here come across as very nice and full of much love, and this is in sharp contrast to those protestors (mostly men) who stand outside the clinic berating anybody and everybody who enters it.

But for me, the most important takeaway from “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” is that none of the women featured here take the issue of abortion lightly. Why would they? Many people who oppose abortion treat those who have had one with such disgusting disdain as if to say they never bothered to put much thought into what they were doing. But as Representative Jackie Speier said in a session of congress, the thought that anyone enters into such a decision with a cavalier attitude is just “preposterous.”

It’s impossible not to be emotionally affected by what these women go through. Plus, one cannot but be infuriated at those protestors who hold up signs featuring what looks like aborted fetuses which are disgusting and unforgivably cruel as they do nothing more than try to manipulate the actions of people they have no interest in knowing personally. Tragos briefly gets to interview one of the most outspoken pro-lifers who follows a clinic escort all the way to her car, begging her to repent. He talks about a law in California which punishes someone with not one, but two murders when they kill a pregnant woman. Whoever this person is, he may need to look at the California law book more closely.

With the United States currently entering the most contentious of Presidential elections, the future of Roe v. Wade is in more danger than ever. But watching “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” is a stark reminder of how women are still treated like a minority even though they make up more than fifty percent of the world’s population. This documentary will bring about a fury of emotions for everyone who watches it, but the one thing to keep in mind is all the women featured here are no different from one another. They believe in the same things and have more in common than they bother to realize.

I also have to quote Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times here as he made an excellent point in his review I wish I had made myself:

“The key to understanding why ‘Abortion: Stories Women Tell’ is a quietly powerful documentary is not the first word in the title, but the final three.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

 

America: Imagine the World Without Her

America Imagine the World Without Her poster

Is it even possible to write a review of Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary “America: Imagine the World Without Her” without seeming the least bit biased? Many who have slammed it have been greeted by comments accusing them of being blinded by President Obama’s “socialist” brainwashing, and those who praise it get accused of watching Fox News too much among other criticisms. Is there any way to view this documentary in an objective manner? Moreover, will anyone allow those who have seen it to review it in an objective manner? Well, I’ll give it a shot, but I can already see a number of comments coming my way which are both good and bad.

“America: Imagine the World Without Her” starts off with D’Souza meditating on what this country would have been like had George Washington been killed on the battlefield, and it is followed by images of institutions like Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial vanishing into dust. From there, he explores the dark history of America and a number of well-known individuals whom he believes have done nothing more than shame America rather than looking at what makes it one of the best countries on Earth.

“America” gets off to a shaky start because, from its trailers, the movie looked to present an alternate reality of what the country would look like if George Washington died early on, but he all but drops this concept and instead goes on a different path. If that was the case, then why did he bring up this scenario if he never intended to explore it? Maybe he came to the conclusion that a number of different things could have happened as a result, and to narrow it down to one would be difficult if not impossible.

Now D’Souza makes it perfectly clear he loves America, and I have no doubt of that. Furthermore, I would never dream of taking his love of America away from him as it has given him much success. Having said that, there is an overabundance of shots throughout of him staring at various monuments like the White House, the Marine Corps War Memorial (a.k.a. the Iwo Jima Memorial) and Mount Rushmore which we see him looking at as if he is desperate to make his love for the United States absolutely clear and without doubt. But after a while it becomes a self-indulgent nuisance to where we want to yell at the screen, “We get it! You love America! Enough already!”

D’Souza then takes an overview of America’s dark history and uses it to criticize a number of people (particularly on the left side of politics) whom he believes have used these historical events to shame the country and make it look like an evil place. From there, his intent is to refute much of what we have been taught about American history and to demonize those he believes have taken away from this country and empowered others who are a threat to it. He does this by using old news footage, historical reenactments with notable figures like Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas and interviews with experts who tell D’Souza more or less what he wants to hear.

Regarding the historical reenactments, they come across as very bland and boring and are seriously lacking in any depth. The acting is pedestrian, the staging lacks much in the way of excitement, and the special effects are ridiculously cheap. There’s even a scene where we see Christopher Columbus’ three ships, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, sailing towards America, and it looks like someone just put three toy boats in a river and filmed them. You’d figure a documentary produced by Gerald R. Molen, a man who produced many of Steven Spielberg’s movies including “Jurassic Park” and “Minority Report,” would have higher production values to work with, but that’s not the case here.

When it comes to the genocide of American Indians, D’Souza claims much of it was the result of different Indian tribes attacking one another over land. Granted, there is some truth to this as we have seen this conflict portrayed in movies like “Dances with Wolves” and “The Last of the Mohicans,” but this argument carries only so much weight and D’Souza only skims the surface. He gives the audience a lot of graphics you would find in a power point presentation, but it all comes off like a copy of Cliff Notes which might give you just enough information, but not everything you need to hear.

On top of this, D’Souza claims the majority of Indians lost their lives because of diseases. It was at this point I started to get confused as to what D’Souza was trying to get across. Was he saying the Indians were more susceptible to diseases than others? What life has taught me is that diseases do not discriminate like humans do. As a result, what D’Souza ends up implying with this assertion feels not only baseless but completely out of line.

As for how he deals with slavery, I have to give D’Souza some credit because even he admits it was not just a problem in America but in other countries as well. But then he goes into how certain blacks, before slavery was abolished, owned slaves as well, and he brings up the story of C.J. Walker who became known as the first female self-made millionaire in America and of how she made her fortune through a successful line of beauty products for black women. On one hand it’s interesting to learn about Ms. Walker, but I wondered what D’Souza was trying to prove here. Is he saying slavery was nowhere as bad in America as it was in other countries? Looking back, I got the impression he really glossed over the barbaric treatment many slaves received. He also describes the abolition of slavery as being “uniquely western,” but considering how it had its roots in European urban culture and that the Atlantic slave trade came to an end before American slavery did, this is not altogether accurate.

Things in “America” get worse as D’Souza defends capitalism by showing a scene where we see multiple versions of him running a fast food joint and cooking hamburgers. This is a moment where he could have had some fun with his own image, but he ends up taking himself too seriously and comes off as unintentionally goofy. Furthermore, he talks about how ordering a hamburger from his faux restaurant is cheaper than making one at home with the same ingredients. This is a weak argument as I have visited many fast food joints and none of the burgers came close to equaling the price D’Souza was offering for his.

D’Souza even says America’s wealth was created and not stolen and that colonial Manhattan was purchased from the Indians for $700. Considering there is much evidence available on how the Indians, a people never to be mistaken as immigrants, were driven from their lands and killed, I can’t help but wonder if they sold this land by choice or under duress. While I was watching this segment, I was reminded of what comedian Bobcat Goldthwait once said:

“America is one of the finest countries anyone ever stole.”

D’Souza then directs his ire at a number of “leftists” such as Saul Alinsky, Hilary Clinton, Matt Damon, Howard Zinn and President Barack Obama. The way he sees it, they are responsible for exploiting the dark moments of American history and for attempting to rewrite it for their own benefit. It is from there that “America” becomes nothing more than a propaganda piece designed to deliver a lot of fear-mongering to the masses.

Look, I have no problem with Americans criticizing President Obama when it’s within reason, but many of D’Souza’s criticisms feel like they are based on deep seated fears rather than actual facts. When “America” begins, he says the three things he feared would happen under an Obama administration did happen, but those things are still open to debate as President Obama did get elected to a second term.

But D’Souza’s sights are set mostly on Hilary Clinton as he sees her as being subverted in her early years by leftists and socialists who forever corrupted her worldview, and the way he presents Hilary in a series of reenactments reeks of shameless manipulation more than anything else.

Another public figure who gets dragged over hot coals is Saul Alinsky, the legendary community organizer and writer. D’Souza portrays him as the devil in disguise and attempts to use his own words against him. He even goes out of his way to say Alinsky learned many things from Lucifer like strategies for demonization and polarization. In retrospect, the way D’Souza portrays Alinsky makes the community organizer come across as a one-dimensional villain in your typical action flick. I imagine there is more to Alinsky than what we see here, but to tell us more might take away from D’Souza’s overall argument which was pretty weak to begin with.

But perhaps the most unintentionally hilarious moment comes when D’Souza brings up how he was indicted for making illegal political contributions to a 2012 United States Senate campaign. He ended up pleading guilty to this and doesn’t deny that he committed a crime, but it all leads to a staged shot of him sitting in a holding cell with handcuffs on. The way D’Souza sees it, he’s a victim of persecution by the government due to the success of his documentary “2016: Obama’s America.” Now whether or not D’Souza was a victim of selective prosecution was up for debate, but this staged moment proves to be so shameless that it comes across as completely self-serving. Considering he knowingly committed a crime which he plead guilty to, does he really have the right to play the victim card?

Looking back at “America: Imagine the World Without Her,” my reaction to it isn’t all that different from how I react to a Michael Moore documentary. Their movies make me want to do a lot of research into the subject matter they deal with to see how accurate they are to the facts and to see what else I could possibly learn about America in the process. Many accuse Moore of playing loose with the facts, but if that’s true then D’Souza isn’t any different.

D’Souza and his co-director John Sullivan came into “America” with a lot of passion which does come across onscreen, but it is still filled with illogical arguments which don’t carry much weight. While he accuses others of trying to rewrite history, he ends pretty much does the same thing here. The movie is also weighed down by poorly directed reenactments which don’t leave much to the imagination, and D’Souza spends his time onscreen implying things rather than proving them. Seriously, if he were to turn all this in as a term paper, he would have ended up with an F or a D- if he was lucky.

I always thought it was incredibly difficult to make a bad documentary, but D’Souza and Sullivan prove it is possible with “America: Imagine the World Without Her.” In the end, the criticisms this movie receives will matter very little as it has been embraced by the crowd it was made for. But none of this changes the fact this is a poorly made film which has little to show for its arguments, and it exists as nothing more than a boring propaganda piece. D’Souza is free to make the movies he wants to make, but next time he’s got to make arguments which stand up to scrutiny and get a better understanding of American history.

* out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2014.

Save

Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party

Hillary's America poster

This movie has some of the funniest scenes of any I have seen in 2016, but there’s one slight problem; it was not intended to be a comedy. “Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party” is the latest political screed from Dinesh D’Souza which has him, along with co-director Bruce Schooley, trying to tie the Democrats’ racist past with Hillary Clinton’s campaign for President. In short, he attempts to show how the principles of the Democratic Party have never changed, and instead succeeds in making an even worse documentary (if you want to call this a documentary) than “America: Imagine the World Without Her.

Now while Hillary’s name and face are featured prominently in this film’s poster, D’Souza doesn’t really bother with her until the last half hour. Instead, he gives us a bunch of re-enactments (and this movie is overflowing with them) which chronicle his criminal conviction, the time he spent in a halfway house, the America of the 1800’s and the 1900’s, and of Hillary while she was in college. Perhaps a better name for this would have been “Dinesh’s America” as we are looking at history through his point of view, and his POV combines a selective sprinkling of facts with an overabundance of deluded paranoia.

D’Souza re-enacts his time in a halfway house as a way to continue his ridiculous claim of being made a political martyr. He also portrays himself as a white collar criminal surrounded by vicious street criminals whose actions make his crime pale in comparison. Was this really the kind of halfway house he was sentenced to? Maybe, but he presents the inmates in such a stereotypical way that it’s hard to take much of what he shows us seriously. Plus, there’s a sequence where he befriends a fellow inmate who tells him about an insurance scam he and his friends pulled off. The re-enactment of this scam is so ridiculously directed and poorly acted that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud to where I thought I might get kicked out of the theater.

We later see D’Souza visiting the Democratic Headquarters, and when no one is looking he sneaks into an off-limits room which contains the Democrats version of Pandora’s Box. This allows him to uncover the party’s racist past which had them defending slavery instead of trying to abolish it. Seeing D’Souza, a Republican, infiltrating this “secret” room in the Democratic Headquarters brings to mind another alternate name for this movie: “50 Shades of Watergate.”

It is no secret that the Democratic Party of the 1800’s was much more KKK friendly and were never quick to pass the Thirteenth Amendment which abolished slavery. This was even shown to be the case in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” where Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner never hid the fact that the Republicans were the real heroes when it came to ending this barbaric practice. This gives “Hillary’s America” some weight as this is a part of history worth paying attention to as the Democratic Party of today is much different than the one of the past. But it doesn’t take long for D’Souza to shoot himself in the foot as he bombards us with historical re-enactments so one-sided to where they quickly become boring and cruelly exploitive.

These historical re-enactments are further complicated by D’Souza treating Democrats like Andrew Jackson as one-dimensional villains in a bad 80’s action movie or a supervillain from a James Bond film, albeit ones completely lacking in charisma. It doesn’t matter which era is being re-enacted, he treats every Democrat as being drunk with power or as a vampire on a day pass. D’Souza even includes an especially ludicrous scene where Woodrow Wilson is watching D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” at the White House when a KKK member on a ghost horse comes galloping out of the movie screen. Wilson is made to look like he is transfixed by this sudden emergence, but it’s really just a bizarre fantasy.

In trying to show how the Democratic Party has not changed from its sordid past, D’Souza completely fails to prove this without a shadow of a doubt. He doesn’t so much cherry pick facts as whitewashes and manipulates them to form a thesis which defies all reasonable logic. Anyone with half a brain can see that the Democratic and Republican parties of today are so radically different from what they once were. D’Souza even tries to convince us the big switch between the two parties in terms of their views on civil rights was a flat out lie, and he presents his evidence of this in a way which requires the use of a microscope to fully discover what he is talking about.

When D’Souza finally gets around to dealing with Hillary Clinton, he portrays her as a self-centered and snobby bitch interested in her own ambitions more than anything else. In an article, Alex Shephard described D’Souza’s portrayal of a teenage Hillary as being like Reese Witherspoon’s character of Tracy Flick from “Election” if Tracy “liked to murder small animals,” and that is spot on. D’Souza shows her laughing at one of President Richard Nixon’s speeches on television as if it were a bad thing. But the most jaw-dropping moment comes when D’Souza flat out blames Hillary for her husband Bill’s numerous infidelities. This doesn’t really speak much of Hillary as it does of D’Souza’s criticisms of feminism.

D’Souza presents himself throughout “Hillary’s America” as a truth teller no one should dare question, but he rarely backs up his arguments with much in the way of convincing evidence. In fact, he even dredges up the Benghazi attack which has been beyond thoroughly investigated, Hillary’s emails which just about everyone is sick of hearing about, and he even includes a scene from those completely debunked videos from the Center for Medical Progress. Bringing these subjects up only weakens an already deeply flawed thesis to where it feels like D’Souza is just grasping for anything which might, and I strongly stress the word might, work in his favor. Oh yeah, he also throws in Saul Alinsky for good measure, but Alinsky comes across as a caricature more than anything else.

While there are many unintentionally hilarious scenes to be found here, there are others which are simply infuriating. D’Souza portrays Margaret Sanger, the mother of Planned Parenthood, as an emotionless sociopath. Granted, there is evidence she was a proponent of eugenics, but showing her as wanting to exterminate all black people is a flat out lie. His portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as openly racist to where he only agrees to civil rights legislation just to quell his political opponents feels deeply insulting. And in portraying America of the past, D’Souza piles on scenes of slaves being whipped and tortured which soon feel cruelly exploitive of a national tragedy.

It’s tempting to call D’Souza stupid after watching “Hillary’s America,” but that may not be altogether fair. As a director, however, he makes one stupid mistake after another as he shamelessly manipulates the audience’s emotions while bashing their heads in with information based more on his distorted worldview than reality. He employs an overly dramatic music score by Stephen Limbaugh which becomes ridiculously bombastic in no time at all. And he concludes the movie with renditions of patriotic songs to show his undying love for America. I do not doubt his fervent patriotism of the United States, but it feels truly annoying that he needs to constantly remind us of this.

It doesn’t bother me that D’Souza has made an anti-Democrat movie as no political party is beyond reproach. What bothers me is how much he believes in what he is telling us as his view of history is more revisionist than it is accurate. Watching him in “Hillary’s America” reminded me of Bill Pullman’s dialogue in “Lost Highway:”

“I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.”

In D’Souza’s mind, Republicans have been and still are the heroes of justice and racial equality, but if Lincoln saw the state of the party today, there’s no doubt he would be crying a river over it and not just because Donald Trump (who is barely mentioned in this movie) is their presidential nominee.

Now, this review might be greeted by various internet trolls who claim I am deeply biased or a “libertard” among other things. I’m not going to go into who I am voting for this November here. Instead, I want to leave you with a couple of things to think about. Does it make more sense to base your views on a political party on what it was like when it began or how they treat the American people in the present day? If D’Souza loves being a citizen of America so much, why did he willfully break the law? Did he even realize before committing his crime that it would cost him a right which American citizens should cherish, the right to vote? Say what you will and believe what you want, but nothing will change the fact that “Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party” is one of the worst documentaries ever made.

½* out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

Save

Save