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Archive for the ‘Documentaries’ Category

“AFTER AUSCHWITZ” My rating: B

83nminutes | No MPAA rating

Most filmic treatments of the Holocaust — be they documentary or fictional — bend toward the atrocities of the Nazi era.

It’s hard to beat billowing smokestacks, jackbooted fascists and piles of naked corpses for compelling cinema.

What’s remarkable is how few films have addressed the fates of Holocaust survivors after their liberation from the camps.

Jon Kean’s “After Auschwitz” does precisely that. It’s not a “scientific” documentary. Oh, it has its fair share of statistics, but mostly it’s based on the  experiences of six women who emigrated to the U.S. (three are now deceased) and survived to tell their tales.

These are, in fact, the same individuals — Eva Beckman, Rena Drexler, Renee Firestone, Erika Jacoby, Lili Majzner and Linda Sherman — who formed the backbone of Kean’s 2007 doc “Swimming in Auschwitz,” which provided a record of the camps as experienced by woman prisoners.

There’s a temptation to believe that the Holocaust story ends with liberation. But beginning a new life from scratch is no easy thing.

As these women point out, their early days of freedom were anything but free. Though the Allies tried to feed them, the food was so rich it acted as poison on nutrition-starved bodies.

Moreover, liberating armies were ill prepared for the medical, psychological and social needs of thousands of former prisoners. There were few services available to the newly freed; resources were sapped just dealing with the corpses (27,000 reportedly at the Bergen-Belsen camp).

It is estimated that one in five survivors died in the first month after liberation.

Some of Kean’s subjects recall wandering into German villages and ransacking homes and stores in an attempt to find proper sustenance. They were, in effect, reduced to criminal status.

Others made their way back to their home towns, often riding on the outside of boxcars. They found the reception anything but welcoming. Countless returning Jews were murdered; many Polish Jews decided they were better off returning to Germany and taking up residence in displaced persons camps.

A majority of survivors learned they were the only members of their families still breathing. Many entered into loveless marriages (“Not a flower in sight,” recalls one woman) simply for the sake of survival. (“It filled a hole.”)

Even after years had passed and they found shelter in the U.S.  these women carried the scars of their experiences.  Depression was common. One says she couldn’t look at a uniformed Boy Scout without thinking of Hitler Youth.

Few related their horrific experiences to their family and friends. Silent suffering was the norm. Over time, though, a couple of these women became spokespersons for other survivors, speaking publicly about what they had been through.

Though filled with powerful images — lots  of vintage newsreels, Army Signal Corps footage, still photos and other visual aids — “After Auschwitz” is in some ways a scattershot affair. The film jumps from subject to subject, with the result that it’s difficult to follow the story arc of any one of these women. It’s also a bit difficult to get a handle on their personalities.

Yet the cumulative effect gets under the viewer’s skin.  Despite the darkness on display, ultimately “After Auschwitz” celebrates the resilience of the human character.

These women survived and prospered, after all. But the pain, one suspects, never goes away.

| Robert W. Butler

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“PICK OF THE LITTER” My rating: B 

81 minutes | No MPAA rating

Even if you’re not a dog lover, “Pick of the Litter” has an AWWWWW factor that’s off the charts.

But canine-generated sentimentality aside, this documentary leaves the viewer deeply impressed by the effort that goes into training a Guide Dog for the Blind, and by the sacrifices of dozens of humans who are behind each animal that completes the program.

Don Hardy Jr. and Dana Nachman’s film begins with the birth of five puppies and follows their growth and training over two years as they prepare to join the ranks of what used to be called “seeing-eye dogs.”

It starts out cute — few things are as heart-melting as a wriggling newborn Labrador retriever — and gradually works its way into some surprisingly territory.

We’re told up front that only three out of every eight dogs bred by the California-based Guide Dogs for the Blind will graduate from the program.  Which means that of our five littermate subjects — the staff names them Potomac, Poppet, Primrose, Patriot and Phil — only two should be expected to make the final cut. And even that’s not guaranteed.

Most will at some point be “career changed,” meaning that they’ll be scrubbed from the program for reasons ranging from intelligence to excitability to the ability to focus on the task at hand.  One of the more intriguing issues raised centers on how much of the failure is due to the individual animal’s nature and how much to the shortcomings of  its human handlers.

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“AMERICAN CHAOS” My rating: B

90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Every liberal -minded American should see “American Chaos.”

Good luck with that.

Because however insightful it may be, Jim Stern’s documentary about Trump supporters is almost too painful to watch.

The film begins with a montage of Presidential campaign newsreel footage, starting with Teddy Roosevelt and ending with Donald Trump.

Stern then goes on to describe himself as growing up in a classic Kennedy Democrat household in Chicago. He still reveres Bobby Kennedy, whom he describes as generating “a feeling of empathy so deep it was infectious.”  Not until Obama did he feel a similar level of enthusiasm for a Presidential candidate.

But shortly after the beginning of the 2016 race Stern noticed something different about Trump and his adherents, something that bothered him so much that he grabbed his camera and spent several months crisscrossing America to interview Trump  voters.

The resulting documentary doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t heard elsewhere, but it’s interesting /frightening to hear these citizens explain their support.

Stern went into these conversations knowing that he wasn’t going to debate with his subjects, make snide comments or even speak disapprovingly of Trump (which doesn’t mean you can’t catch him biting his tongue on numerous occasions). He genuinely wanted to know what these folks believed…and why.

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“McQUEEN”  My rating: B-  

111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

That designer Alexander McQueen was an artistic genius is beyond debate.

The question posed — and only partially answered — by the new documentary “McQueen” is: “Just how screwed up was he?”

McQueen hanged himself in 2010 on the eve of his mother’s funeral. During his two decades in fashion he had gone from impeccably tailored Saville Row suits for men to bizarre runway shows that often were more about performance art — and indulging his own  obsessions — than about creating a sellable line.

He was a rebel and a disruptor. One of his most notorious shows — 1995’s Highland Rape — featured disheveled models who seemed to have stumbled away from a sexual assault. The fashion world was appalled and many condemned the young designer as a misogynist.

Ian Bonhomie and Peter Ettedgul’s film dispels that notion — women were among McQueen’s best friends and most loyal collaborators — but it never does nail the sources of their subject’s neuroses and inspirations.

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Fred Rogers

“WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?” My rating: B+

94 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The story of Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister who for three decades starred in, wrote and scored PBS’s “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” is heartwarming, inspiring, funny, aspirational and, alas, kind of depressing.

Depressing because in Donald Trump’s America there is no longer room for a television mentor who eschews technical sophistication and speaks directly to children about their hopes and fears. Who tells every kid that he or she matters.

“Love is at the root of everything,” Rogers tells us in an old interview. “Love or the lack of it.”

This moving, yea, tear-inducing documentary from Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom,” “Best of Enemies”) lays out the Mr. Rogers saga from its early days at a Pittsburgh station to Eddie Murphy’s parody on “SNL” and, much later, charges that Rogers was singlehandedly responsible for a generation of entitled underachievers who bought his line that “You are special.”

Among other things, Rogers is credited with saving public broadcasting. In 1969 Richard Nixon was preparing to strip PBS of its federal funding to help pay for the Vietnam War.  At a Congressional hearing a nervous Rogers set aside his prepared text and charmed the committee members by reciting the lyrics to his song “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?”  Thick-skinned Sen. John Pastore, previously unfamiliar with Rogers’ work, was blown away: “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”

This doc proves conclusively that Fred Rogers the man was precisely as he appeared on the little screen — an impossibly decent and compassionate guy who cared deeply about children and quietly reveled in their love (and without the faintest whiff of pedophilia).

In most regards Neville has given us a straightforward docubio: Lots of talking-head testimony from Roger’s family and co-workers, psychologists and even cellist Yo Yo Ma, who as a young man appeared on the show and became a lifelong devotee. Of course there’s tons of broadcast footage.  Backstage photos and home movies. Even some newly animated sequences that illustrate Rogers’ philosophy through Daniel, the hand puppet Tiger who was his almost constant onscreen sidekick and alter ego. (There’s footage of Rogers meeting with kids and pulling his puppets from a bag…the youngsters immediately begin talking to the felt creatures on his hands.)

For those of us too old to have experienced the Rogers magic (I was already in college when his show went national) it has been easy to dismiss him as laughably square and painfully low tech. With hindsight these become the finest of virtues — especially when contrasted with the hyperactive/overtly cruel nonsense that makes up most of children’s programming. (more…)

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blackfish“BLACKFISH” My rating: B+ (Opening Aug. 16 at the Tivoli )

83 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Let’s assume that the documentary “Blackfish” – about killer whales in captivity – is an honest effort, that it doesn’t manipulate the facts for propaganda purposes.

Granted, that’s a big assumption. We all got burned a couple of years back by “The Cove,” a doc that blamed marine theme parks for the annual mass slaughter of dolphins in Japan.

Later, after “The Cove” had won the Oscar for best feature documentary, we learned that Japanese fishermen have been rounding up and killing dolphins for at least a century because the mammals compete with them for fish. Moreover, marine theme parks no longer capture wild dolphins, relying instead on breeding programs. Which meant that the film’s entire premise was pretty much bogus.

“Blackfish” also condemns the marine theme park industry, but by focusing exclusively on the biggest animals in these menageries – the magnificent black-and-white orcas  – Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film stands on much firmer journalistic ground.

But at the same time it’s a hugely emotional experience. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself bawling. I’ m talking about a full-bore, nose-blowing rush of pathos.

The main subject here is a whale named Tilikum who made headlines in 2010 when he killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau.  SeaWorld-Orlando claimed that Brancheau, an experienced whale handler, was targeted by Tillicum because she wore her hair in a ponytail.

But as “Blackfish” shows, Tillicum was a killer long before that. In fact, this one whale was already responsible for two other human deaths. (more…)

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Jeremy Scahill...looking for the story

Jeremy Scahill…looking for the story

“DIRTY WARS” My rating: B (Opens June 28 at the Tivoli)

90 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Dirty Wars” might be termed a “documentary thriller.”

Rick Rowley’s film follows freelance journalist Jeremy Scahill, who has covered Iraq and Afghanistan for The Nation and written the book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army).

Scahill is attempting to get the story behind an increasing number of disturbing execution/massacres of apparently innocent civilians in Afghanistan and, later, Yemen.

Unlike most embedded journalists, who live with American troops and tend to unconsciously adopt their perspective, Scahill is fiercely independent. He talks to the villagers who have lost family and friends in mysterious nighttime raids or sudden missile strikes. He tracks down local warlords. And through his dogged reporting, he clearly is a threat to this unseen conspiracy.

At one point we see footage of a TV appearance in which Jay Leno asks Scahill: “Why are you still alive?”

The first half of “Dirty Wars” takes place prior to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. It is during this time that Scahill catches wind of a massive secret U.S. apparatus taking directions from the White House.  This Joint Special Operations Command apparently operates free of the usual rules of engagement, shrugging off civilian deaths — even massive ones — as simply an unavoidable by-product of the War on Terror.

With Ben Laden’s death, however, the JSOC stepped into the spotlight and took its bow. And with its new semi-transparency Scahill realizes that the organization’s efforts are far more massive and widespread than even he imagined.

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