Oscar nominated documentary shorts for 2018: about racial profiling, disability, drug addiction, and compassion

The 2018 Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts are playing at the Landmark West End in Washington DC this week, and so far this weekend shows have sold out.  I attended the 4 PM screening yesterday, exiting to find two inches of snow even in Foggy Bottom. There was a brief five-minute intermission after the first three films, and the presentation ended at about 7:10 PM.

The most important film in my view was the last one, “Knife Skills”, by Thomas Lennon, 39 minutes. This film chronicles the training of the staff and opening of one of the nation’s proudest French restaurants, in Cleveland, Ohio: Edwins, on Shaker Square. What is so remarkable is that the owner, Brandon Chrostowski, is eager to staff his restaurants with people who have gotten out of prison.  He sends 120 people after release through his cooking school (the Edwins Leadership and Restaurant Institute), but only a fraction make the cut.  How many entrepreneurs want to do this?   All the more, his wife has a new baby. In one scene, he cries.

The film resonated with me personally somewhat.  I spent summers as a boy near Oberlin, and often went into Cleveland in the 50s and 60s, particularly to Indians’s baseball games in the old stadium (especially when the Senators were in town).   Today my own relational ties are in the middle part of the state, and I have some knowledge of “small” business there.  I can also remember an announced field trip to a French restaurant (in Washington) for French class in ninth grade.

The longest film has a curious title “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405”, by Frank Stiefel (40 min), shown third.  The film starts out as if to be about Carmageddon, or maybe the recent wildfires, and in 2012 I stayed in the Angelino on the 405.  But soon the film moves indoors, to tell us the story of a sculptor, Mindy Alper, who has a lifelong mental health struggle, and who speaks very slowly.  She talks about her meds early on, and says she often throws up. But once we get into seeing her work, with the fascinating paper mache objects – animals and aliens – the film picks up.

Another film concerning medications is “Heroin(e)”, by Elaine McMillion Sheldon (39 minutes, shown fourth), from Netflix. It is set in Huntington, W Va, on the Ohio river, a town in which I spent a night myself in August 2016.  It starts out by telling us that this is a blue collar town, where people have “real jobs” and get hurt at work. That’s where the opioid problem gets started.  The film focuses on a sympathetic but firm lady judge in drug court – and she does send some people back to jail or to the general criminal court system – and to an EMS worker helping rescue people from overdoes, a mission of compassion.

The second film was “Edith+Eddie”, (Laura Checkoway and Thomas Lee Wright, 29 minutes, Kartemquin Films).  At age 95, Eddie, a widower and white, marries a black woman, Edith, also 95, who has lived in the same house in Alexandria, Virginia for years. Unfortunately, Edith, who may have mild dementia, has been placed into conservatorship by her adult kids, and the guardian seems unsympathetic to “Loving”.  She is forced to move to Florida, and in grief, Eddie soon collapses and passes away in intensive care. The film was interesting to me due to the long-winded experience I had with my own mother, who passed away (in Arlington) at the end of 2010 at age 97 after a two-year decline.

The first film, “Traffic Stop”, from HBO, directed by Kate Davis. An African-American math teacher Breaion King gets pulled over in a routine speeding stop in Austin, TX and winds up getting brutally handcuffed and arrested after a series of mistakes by both sides.  The film contrasts her classroom grade school teaching scenes with her panic at the arrest, reconstructed from police videocam. This does seem like an argument about police profiling.

I’ll share also the 2-minute “Traffic Jam” by Reid Ewing (2012), that looks like it may gave been filmed near the 405 and 110.  I’d love to see some of Reid’s other short films (“It’s Free”, etc) re-appear.

(Pictures: Kentucky, but near Huntington, mine, Aug 2018; Cleveland, mine, Aug. 2012)

(Posted: Sunday, February 18, 2018 at 11:15 PM EST)







“Seeing Allred”: Gloria Allred fights for women and then gays, and she may have someting on Trump

Seeing Allred”, directed by Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain, gives us a complete history, a lot it in Gloria Allred’s own words (she is now 75, two years older than me) of her activism for women and sometimes other groups.

Much of the film focuses on the litigation against Bill Cosby, where she represents many plaintiffs. Sje also helped represent the Goldman family in the O. J. Simpson case in the 1990s.

But the film also traces the culture of intimidation, where women are silenced from speaking about rape.

Allred tells the story of her own rape, before Roe v. Wade, and her illegal abortion, from which she almost died.

Gradually, the film starts taking up LGBT rights. The early 1993 battle over gays in the military is mentioned, along with the early versions of the fights over gay marriage and adoption. Gloria seems to believe that homophobia is and indirect part of the way straight men control women and assert a claim to have a right to children by them anytime they demand.

Gloria assists clients in testifying before both Nevada and California legislatures on removing statues of limitations on rape prosecutions. “The privilege of being listened to” becomes an issue in one hearing. She also demands that a college become an activist as a way of giving back.

The last part of the film traces the 2016 election, through watching Election Night returns, and then the Inauguration protests and the Women’s March the next day. At one point at the March Allred turns back a fundamentalist homophobe (with a free speech meme) who doesn’t even realize that Trump has no specific objection to gay marriage. She has pointed out, however, that Donald Trump rejected a transgender Miss Universe contestant.

The last part of the film also deals with women who accuse Donald Trump of sexual harassment. The film makes it look like these cases could blow the presidency wide open.

Women’s March 2017/1/21 scene (wiki).

Name:  “Seeing Allred”
Director, writer:  Roberta Grossman, Sophie Saltrain
Released:  2018
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed: Netflix instant, 2018/2/14
Length:  96
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Netflix
Link:  LA Times
Stars:  4-1/2 out of 5

(Posted: Wednesday, February 14, 2018 at 11:30 PM EST)

“The Cloverfield Paradox”: space station movie, 3rd in a series, has a spaghetti plot for Super Bowl Monday morning viewing on Netflix

The Cloverfield Paradox” (2018, by Julius Onah, with story from Oren Unziel) is the third in Paramount’s (and Bad Robot’s) “Cloverfield” franchise, following “Cloverfield” (2008), where New Yorkers film a monster attack on camcorders, and “10  Clovefield Lane” (2016), where a woman hangs out in a bunker in Louisiana during a monster attack.

Netflix is releasing the film now (announcing it during the Super Bowl) which is a sign that this would not have been well received in theaters.

The film opens with a dire energy crisis (not necessarily connected to climate change) with gasoline rationing and long lines on the streets, with roving blackouts.  And Russia is threatening to attack western Europe (not just the former Baltic republics).  At the same time, there is a Cloverfield Space Station, housing scientists, including the heroine Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), is supposed to implement the Shepard Particle Accelerator, which will use quantum physics to generate free energy for all of Earth and end the crisis.

Once they start the accelerator, weird stuff happens, most of it not good. The Earth seems to disappear from sight.  Soon a woman, Jensen (Elizabeth Debicki) Is found in the walls, like a mouse, bloodied. A Russian representative, Volkov (Aksel Hennie) complains about the politics and then suddenly vomits, his body filled with worms. A technician Mundy (Chris O’Dowd) loses his hairless arm in the wall, and then the arm takes on its own panpsychic identity, writing notes. The plot gets very complicated and impossible to follow (read the Wikipedia summary), but it seems they are in an alternate universe and somehow people can get through from Earth through a wormhole.

The space station is rather interesting geographically, with several rotating rings each with its own artificial gravity, and some connecting tunnels, more or less like the Mobius subway in my own screenplay “Epiphany”, based on my three “Do Ask, Do Tell” books.  I don’t see this as a “Cloverfield 4”, but maybe I could get Paramount and Netflix interested in making it.  (This film cost $45 million, so I guess that’s about what I need for my movie.)

Soon there are explosions, and then self-reassembly (violating the entropy laws in thermodynamics), and Jensen raises a question about morality, whether Ava would sacrifice the Earth and her own family down there for her own ego in this new universe.  But return the spaceship must.  The attractive engineer Schmidt (Daniel Bruhl) sacrifices part of his chest to a Holter Monitor that Ava installs on him for the journey.

But at the end, this turns out to be a monster movie after all.  My own screenplay does not.

Name:  “The Cloverfield Paradox”
Director, writer:  Julius Onah, Oran Unziel, J.J. Abrams (prod)
Released:  2018
Format: 2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant, 2018/2/5
Length:  102
Rating:  TV MA-14 (PG-13)
Companies:  Paramount, Bad Robot, Netflix
Link:  adweek
Stars:  3 / 5   (***–)

(Posted: Tuesday, February 6, 2018. 11 AM EST)

“Burning Sands”: a drama about hazing in a black college fraternity, with catastrophic consequences on Hell Night

Burning Sands”, directed by Gerald McMurray and written with Christine Berg, dramatizes hazing in American college fraternities, and tries to look for a balance between group loyalty and safety for the pledges – when does one tell or snitch?

The film, shot near Petersburg VA (there is one shot of downtown Richmond) seems to take place at a black college.  I would expected the film to show a reasonable racial mix at a modern college, including white, black, native and Asian.  I personally don’t know whether the Greek system still has a lot of racial segregation in southern states.

The film takes place over six labeled days, leading to a Hell Night on a Saturday.

Much of the film is seen through Zurich (Trevor Jackson) who starts out dealing with the 6 AM military-like drills and pushups, and attends class during the week.  English professor Hughes (Alfre Woodard) assigns a paper and at one point says, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”. Zurich is quite troubled and late with his term paper and consults with an alumnus and Sean Richardson (Steve Harris) who still consuls loyalty to the Greek system.

The hazing gets more brutal, with some blindfolded water torture in a swimming pool.  Finally, one of the pledges gets boxed on the ears.  I’m surprised this would create a serious head injury, but soon the pledge is frothing the mouth. The upperclassmen take the boy to an emergency room in Richmond and run.  Zurich, at the end, calls his father.  One is left with the impression that the boy dies.  Zurich says something like “Now I decipher who my tribe is and live a life to know what the other side is”.

There is another film on Youtube about ragging in a college in India, called “The Punishment” (legacy review), and it is somewhat homoerotic and homophobic at the same time, legacy review.   This short seems to build on the idea of physical body shame and comparison to other men in a group.

During my last first fall freshmen semester at William and Mary in 1961, the freshmen boys (all of them, not just fraternity pledges) were supposed to go to a “tribunal” the last Friday in September, where some of the boys would have their legs shaved.  I skipped out on this, and I wonder if that contributed to my eventual confrontation with the Dean and my expulsion.  I cover all that in my DADT-1 book.

There was an incident at Louisiana State University where a student died, apparently of alcohol poisoning, in a hazing incident, covered on CNN here.

Name:  “Burning Sands”
Director, writer:  Gerald McMurray
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix Instant, 2017/12/28
Length:  102
Rating:  R
Companies: Mandelay, Kino, Netflix
Link:  Kino

(Posted: Friday, December 29, 2017 at 11 AM EST)

Robert Reich: “Saving Capitalism, for the Many, not the Few”

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich takes his book on tour in the Netflix film “Saving Capitalism: For the Many, not the Few” (Knopf), directed by Jacob Kornbluth and Sari Gilman.

My first reaction on finding this on “My List” was to recall that night in December 1972, in a Newark, NJ row house, when I spied on “The People’s Party of New Jersey”.  Why do we have to have capitalism, the young woman leading he session whined.  The group threatened revolutionary action.

Reich’s main argument seems to be to stop crony capitalism.  People leave Congress or public service and become lobbyists for trade groups, with the connections to keep campaign contributions coming to politicians.  I’ve received the fringe of this activity in my own blogger journalism and refused to have anything to do with it.  (I’ve gotten emails asking for money for Roy Moore, claiming he was framed by the media.)

The film discusses the significance of the Citizen’s United case, as well as court opinions that corporations are people and have the same free speech rights to advance their interests for their shareholders.

Reich also points out that the legislation that “the people” usually want passes in Congress only about 30% of the time. The recent paralysis in Congress on “replacing Obamacare” seems like case in point.

In the early part of the film, Reich explains how total wealth in the US has increased, while median wages have stagnated.  He disputes the Reagan-like ideology of the “free market” on its own, saying that government regulations set up a playing field and make capitalism possible. (That’s like Nancy Pelosi’s saying “Democrats are capitalists”.)   The rich get to manipulate the rules, though lobbyists, to increase the leverage of their capital over others. You get Piketty’s “rentier” culture.

Fareed Zakaria has pointed out that the US is a world leader on the “inequality index” at 0.81.

The debate on network neutrality may be relevant, as under Trump. Ajit Pai seemed determined to let telecom companies “monetize” their businesses fully, although litigation will probably slow down the works possible effects for individual speakers and small businesses.

Name:  “Saving Capitalism”
Director, writer:  Jacob Kornbluth, Sari Gilman
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play 2017/12/12
Length:  73
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Netflix
Link:  NYTimes

(Posted: Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017 at 12:45 PM EST)

“Voyeur”: More about the journalist Gay Talese than the “voyeur” of the Manor House Motel

The docudrama “Voyeur”, directed by Myles Kerry and Josh Koury, is more about journalism (and the values of writers) than about voyeurism.

Gay Talese (who has a traditional family of his own), now 85, introduces himself in his upper East Side brownstone basement, where he shows his physical files and artefacts from four decades of professional journalism and book authorship.  Unlike me, he writes other people’s stories.  I wish I had the time to do the same.

One of his most controversial books is the 2016 biography, “The Voyeur’s Motel”, about Gerald Foos, who bought a motel in Aurora CO (it may have been inconveniently near the site of the Holmes shooting) in the late 1960s, and constructed a clandestine viewing space to watch his guests having sex. He admits he was brought up in a Puritanical family and had developed a fascination with “watching” for its own sake.  It might be comparable to watch one man slowly do another on a gay disco floor today.

Talese would, at some point, visit the motel and climb into the attic to see it for himself.  Later he would write a big article for New Yorker magazine, which would become expanded into his book. At one point a fact checker from the magazine calls around (including Foos) to verify the story.  That is what you can expect if you have an assignment with a big publication. But the fact that Foos did not own the Manor House Motel the whole time even though he still ran it did not come up until discovered by the Washington Post just before the book’s publication.  That almost deep-sixed the book, and led Talese temporarily to want to disown it.  It is available from The Grove Press (of course!)  Talese would calm down when interviewed by Seth Meyers.

Talese has questioned whether Kevin Spacey should lose everything over a brief indiscretion three decades ago.   Indeed, the sexual harassment (and sometimes underage sex) scandals can lead to witch hunts, against straight men and gay men alike.

Talese makes some other points, about his being well-dressed (and having his clothes tailored, which I don’t), as well as the seriousness of professional journalism.  Imagine the scrutiny I would get if I got an assignment to investigate and report on the EMP issue “professionally”, which I have reported about here.  I think I could get a shot at it.  I welcome Talese to take it on.

The voyeurism issue reminds me of the “no spectators” idea of the film “Rebirth” (July 2016).

Wikipedia picture of Coors Field, the “homerama” baseball stadium at one mile elevation.

Name: Voyeur
Director, writer:  Myles Kerry, Josh Koury, Gay Talese
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play
Length:  95
Rating: NA
Companies:  Netflix, Brooklyn Underground Films
Link:  Atlantic

(Posted: Sunday, December 10, 2017 at 1 PM EST)

“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson”: amateur sleuths delve into a possible homicide of a gay icon from Stonewall

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson”, by David France (“How to Survive a Plague”, 2012), is a valuable account of a citizen investigation of the 1992 death of Marsha P. Johnson, a drag queen who had been on the scene of the first night of the Stonewall rebellion in June 1969.

Marsha had drowned in the Hudson River near one of the Christopher Street piers. Had she been fleeing an attacker, then the death would be a homicide, at least manslaughter.

In modern times, Victoria Cruz tries to do a gumshoe citizen investigation of the death, with the help of local activist organizations for poor people.  She is rebuffed by retired cops who say not to call again, and that she should leave her investigations to the professionals or she could get people killed.

There are scenes in the Village, especially Julius’s on W 10th Street, one of my own favorite gay bars, known for its burgers.  The way “Mafia” bars had worked in the 1970s, at the time of Abe Beeme, comes up, but I had thought that by even 1992 the Mafia was pretty much out of the gay bar area (Stonewall had given a big push).

There is a great scene of the 1973 CLSD in New York, in which I marched;  I may have spotted my younger self for  split second.

Sylvia Rivera gives a very radical speech in Washington Square Park, blaming middle class establishment “cis male” gays as part of the privilege problem, even back in the 1970s (before AIDS).

There is a sequence where homeless tents are broken up for a new high way, and one of the volunteers offers “radical hospitality” to a homeless person, taking the risk.

The film purports to address violence against transgender people, but Marsha herself was not regarded as trangender (cross-dressing alone is not).

There has been controversy over the Stonewall Inn as a national monument with a rainbow flag in the Trump administration, Washington Post story by Juliet Eilperin and Darryl Fears.

This film is opening in Los Angeles Oct. 13.

Name:  “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson”
Director, writer:  David France
Released:  2017
Format:  1.78:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play, 2017/10/12
Length: 105
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Netflix
Link:  Facebook, Tribeca 

(Posted: Friday, October 13, 2017 at 12 noon EDT)

“Long Shot”: How Major League Baseball and some silly reality TV prevent a wrongful conviction

Long Shot” (2017), a “long short” (39 min) by Jacob LaMendola, tells the story about how a wrongful conviction was prevented, using baseball and reality television, in 2003.

In August, 2003, Juan Catalan was suddenly arrested by LAPD for the drive-by shooting of a 16 year old girl not too far from Dodger Stadium. A witness identified him from a police sketch but could only have seen him in dim light. Yet witness ID-ing often creates probable cause and can sometimes support convictions.

But Juan maintained he was at a baseball game in Dodger Stadium, where the Atlanta Braves scored seven runs in the top of the ninth to win 11-4.  Because the visiting team was mounting the long tie-breaking rally, no walk-off win ending the game suddenly could occur. Some of the telecast is shown in the film. The length of the rally may have helped Juan, as it prolonged the footage of an HBO reality show “Curb Your Enthusiasm” gave defense attorneys a change to find him in the stands very shortly before the shooting.

The HBo episode involved a hooker’s stopping somone in the carpool lane of an LA Freeway when the ordinary lanes were blocked.

Prosecutors try hard to cling to their eyewitness theory until the end.

Wikipedia attribution link for Dodger Stadium picture.

I was an extra in a filming of a scene for WB’s “Major League 3” in November 1997, held at the Minneapolis Metrodome, now torn down and replaced by Target Field.  I got to hold up my “Do Ask Do Tell” book cover and a shot of it lasting ¼ second or so may have gotten into the film.  They fed us hotdog dinners.

The picture above is mine from a 2012 trip, actually in San Diego.

Name:  “Long Shot”
Director, writer:  Jacob LaMendola
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed: Netflix instant play, 2017/10/10
Length:  39
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Netflix
Link:  official (subscription)

(Posted: Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017 at 7 PM EDT)

“Icarus”: an amateur cyclist and filmmaker exposes Russia’s Olympic doping scandals, and gives “asylum” to a doctor running from Putin

A documentary purporting to expose cheating in sports turns out to be an international thriller. So it is with “Icarus” (2017), the film named after a Greek mythological character who failed because of his own virtues (the Icarus Paradox).

Bryan Fogel, who wrote and directed the film, is an energetic amateur cyclist looking in his early 40s perhaps. Most of the time, his bod is shaved, and he lives in a world where masculinity is more a matter of performance than trappings (I’ll get ahead of myself and add that the Russian sports circle insists its athletes be married).

He decides to do a citizen investigation of doping as he plans to ride the Haute Route in France and Switzerland. The film introduces the topic with a couple clips of Lance Armstrong, before getting to Fogel’s own story. First Fogel contacts Don Catlin about his experiment, who backs out due to the obvious risks. Fogel then makes the fateful turn to the Russians, contacting the doping doctor Grigory Rodchenkov.

The result is a huge expose of the entire Russian staging of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. I’ll add that the politics of the 2013 anti-gay propaganda law fed into this (not mentioned in the film), as did Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and Crimea (covered). Putin starts appearing more often in the film, which turns into a stinging indictment of Russian kleptocracy, obviously politically important now given all the investigations of Putin’s alleged collusion with Donald Trump. We get to see a lot of Moscow in some episodes. This turns out to be compelling “conservative film” that the mainstream GOP would like but that The Donald would not.

As Grigory gets in trouble, he calls Fogel back home in Utah. Fogel arranges Grigory’s trip to the United States, apparently for the sake of Grigory’s security from the Russians, a kind of unofficial asylum seeking. But then the FBI and US attorney in New York City get involved. Grigory winds up living incognito in a secret location (which the film implies is on the California coast in the last scene).  The film manages to show in detail how the Russians covered up their falsification of urine tests.  It’s pretty elaborate but all real-world spy stuff.

What seems intriguing is that a filmmaker and “amateur” sports enthusiast (reminding me of Minnesota filmmaker Shane Nelson and his “A Film in Three Parts” (2002) about amateur extreme sports) puts his own skin in the game of international political activism. He could have filmed a similar native about Central American or perhaps LGBT asylum seekers if he wanted to.

The film ends as Grigory admits “Slavery was my freedom”. We do get a glimpse of Rio in 2016, as a kind of redemption. The film’s tagline is “Truth is a banned substance”.

The music score contains excerpts from Alexandrov’s Russian National Anthem, as well as from Shostakovich Symphony #8.

The film was revised (from Sundance) somewhat when Netlfix acquired it, but the online version looks like a full director’s cut at 121 minutes.

Picture from Haute Route, France (wiki).

Picture from Moscow (wiki).

Name:  “Icarus”
Director, writer:  Bryan Fogel
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play
Length:  121
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Diamond, Sundance Selects, Netflix
Link:  official

(Posted: Wednesday, August 30, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT)

“To the Bone”: somewhat predictable drama about a young woman with anorexia

To the Bone”, written and directed by Marti Noxon, is a tough-to-watch and somewhat gratuitous drama about a young woman with anorexia nervosa.

Ellen (Lilly Collins) is referred to a therapist Dr. Beckham (Keanu Reeves) to an in-patient facility where, well, there are rules to make sure she eats and gains weight.  That’s not until Bechkam has made an odd remark about the lanugo hair growing on her forearms as she tries to keep warm (as if women shouldn’t have that).  At the dorm-like residence, there are rules.  Bathrooms are locked for thirty minutes after meals (bulimia).  Residents get points that allow them passes.  Sounds like the Army.  Or maybe being an inpatient at NIH in 1962 (when I was 19).  But patients get around it with vomit bags hidden under their bags.

But Ellen starts developing a budding puppy live romance with dance student Luke (young British actor Alex Sharp) who seems far too intact to need to be in a place like this.  He looks fine (he could use some more hair on his legs), and is quite sharp-tongued, with all his little metaphors.

But then, the movie needs to take us through her crash.  A person like this needs to hit bottom to want to live at all.  The film sets up a climax in the California desert where she camps out in a yurt and has a near-death experience with Luke.

The film sets up some camera shots of her back, where she is made to look like skin and bone.  All unpleasant.

Name:  “To the Bone
Director, writer:  Marti Noxon
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix instant play, 2017/8/19
Length:  107
Rating:  R
Companies:  Netflix
Link:  official

(Posted: Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017 at 12:30 PM EDT)