RAISE HELL: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MOLLY IVINS

Directing: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

I spent much of my time watching this documentary film Raise Hell wondering how the hell I got this far not having any idea who apparently legendary journalist Molly Ivins was. But then I figured it out: I was near and into my forties before I even started paying much attention to national figures of her sort, much less ones from and so intrinsically tied to places like Texas. Sure, I spent the Bush years actively loathing him and his administration, but not only did I not have any idea who he was when he was governor of Texas (which was during my early twenties, blissfully ignorant of local politics across the nation), but I certainly had no working knowledge of any journalists making a name for themselves covering him.

I merely turned 30 in 2006; Molly Ivins died after a seven-year battle with breast cancer in early 2007, at the age of 62. Thirteen years later, this film by Janice Engel (director and co-writer) so effectively illustrates Ivins’s trailblazing legacy, stretching all the way from the seventies to the 2000s, it makes you wish you could have known her. Or in my case, at least have known of her. Ivins was the best kind of liberal: the kind that blossomed out of a deeply conservative region, only to stay there and challenge establishment politics. Also she was hilarious.

Something Ivins is shown saying several times in the mass of archival footage in this film: there is actually no such thing as “journalistic objectivity,” so why put on airs that it exists? This notion really hit me where I live, even just as an amateur movie reviewer. I don’t particularly think of myself as a journalist, and Raise Hell has no part of it that even makes reference to the entertainment industry. Still it brought to mind the great Roger Ebert, whose movie reviews I grew to love, whose reviews I still regularly look up, and whose opinions of current movies I often wish I could have known. I used to struggle to present “objective” observations (a preposterous notion for the likes of reviews which are by definition opinions), painstakingly avoiding “I statements” — until I noticed Roger Ebert using “I” a lot in his reviews. I finally decided, fuck it, I’m just going to write out what I think, how I feel most comfortable doing it. It’s safe to say now his writing influenced me far more than that of any other writer.

I get the feeling Molly Ivins’s writing would have had a similar impact, had I ever known about it and spent any time reading it. I may yet seek out some of her books, although their of-the-moment subject matter is bound to be dated. To be fair, she hit her stride in the eighties and nineties, when I was but a child and a teenager, at a time when only the most ambitious of young people were paying attention to national, let alone regional affairs. Still, Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins left a sense that I really missed out on something.

Besides that, Engel gets deeper into Ivins’s story than just her career and professional legacy, which certainly still deserves examination. Unlike the otherwise wonderful documentary about Linda Ronstadt I saw the other day, which keeps its focus almost entirely on her career, Raise Hell gets at least a little personal: her fraught relationship growing up with her far-right dad; her surprising shyness in the face of increasing national fame; her dual fights with cancer and with alcoholism.

Most importantly, Ivins was funny, and she used her humor as a clever, subversive weapon, first skewering the Texas State Legislature and later politicians nationwide — Republican and Democrat alike. Clearly beloved by other journalists, we are treated to fairly fawning interviews with the likes of Dan Rather and Rachel Maddow, among others. Raise Hell is also replete with fantastic archival footage of interviews with Ivans and of speeches she gave to various audiences over the years, some of them with very degraded video quality but all of them packed with often hysterical witticisms. It’s not often a biographical documentary makes you laugh this much.

I do also love it when presented with an example of someone who defies stereotypes, and that certainly includes a Southern intellectual who wears her East Texas accent proudly. Ivins spent a few years in other areas of the country, including an education in Massachusetts at Smith College, where people heard her speak and immediately assumed she was not quite as smart as everyone around her. Anyone underestimating this woman did so at their peril, however, and it was not long before her intellect proved itself within moments of her opening her mouth — or running her fingers along a keyboard. Suffice it to say, Molly Ivins was a delight ended far too soon, as is this movie.

If you have to be around anyone raising hell, make sure it’s someone like this woman.

If you have to be around anyone raising hell, make sure it’s someone like this woman.

Overall: B+

LINDA RONSTADT: THE SOUND OF MY VOICE

Directing: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: A-

Linda Ronstadt is one of my few gaping cultural blind spots. I was born in 1976, in the middle of her initial run of five consecutive platinum albums, a first ever for a female singer. But, most the first decade or so of my life, I was not allowed to watch TV or listen to anything but Christian music. My first-ever exposure to Ronstadt was her operatic performance in the filmed version of The Pirates of Penzance — probably a decade after it was first released in 1983. I certainly had no idea she had been such a huge pop star immediately preceding that venture, much less that it was her first major musical departure after massive success.

The documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice very effectively fills in all those gaps. It’s the kind of film that is illuminating to younger people not as familiar with the singer and her body of work, and is a pretty fantastic nostalgia trip for those who are. God knows she is clearly beloved in the music industry, given the head-spinning list of huge names and stars procured by co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman for interviews: Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Aaron Neville, David Geffen.

This film does little in the way of plumbing the depths of who Linda Ronstadt really was and is as a person, but with a subtitle like The Sound of My Voice, it could hardly be accused of false advertising. Even if you aren’t that familiar with Ronstadt, if you have any musical ability or interest, you’ll want to be after seeing this. This woman was far removed from the stereotypically vapid pop star. She churned out eight hit albums over a decade, got tired of playing arenas with terrible acoustics, and then managed surprise hits with different genres at every turn. Three consecutive albums of traditional and jazz standards arranged by Nelson Riddle. Two country album collaborations as a trio with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. Three collections of old Mexican standards her father used to sing, the first of which, Canciones de Mi Padre (1987), remains the best-selling non-English language album in American history. The list goes on.

And, much like discovering the incomparable voice of Judy Garland for the first time, The Sound of My Voice illustrates what a vocal powerhouse Linda Ronstadt was. Her talents were eclectic in a way never really seen in anyone else, certainly not to the same level of success in every seemingly left-turn venture. She also comes across as incredibly intelligent, a woman who knows herself, if strangely insecure about her own voice in the earliest years of her career.

Be warned, however: this movie has a truly bittersweet element to it. Ronstadt has not performed a concert since 2009, because so much of her former vocal ability has been lost as she lives with Parkinson’s Disease. Although tons of archival footage and recordings are included, only a few minutes of present-day footage of Ronstadt is included here, although her current-day voice narrates much of the film. Her clearly significant involvement, or at least cooperation, makes for an “authorized biography” feel that rarely makes the film anything less than fawning, and that does strip it a little of what feels like potential substance. One wonders if how little present-day footage is included has to do with some embarrassment or vanity on her part.

It certainly needn’t be that way. At the very end is a bit of a treat, although it is both moving and heartbreaking: what might very well be the last-ever recording of Linda Ronstadt singing. She’s in her Mexican living room, harmonizing with her cousin and her nephew. The powerhouse strength of her voice is completely gone, but it’s a lovely thing to see and to hear all the same.

Ronstadt was never a songwriter, but she amassed a history of taking other people’s songs, by artists more than willing to lend them to her, making them her own, and turning them into much bigger hits. What Whitney Houston did for Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” is what Linda Ronstadt did for countless other people’s songs. She has an unparalleled, earnest and pure talent, leaving a legacy worth examining, which this movie does with finesse.

You’ll love hearing it.

You’ll love hearing it.

Overall: B+

ONE CHILD NATION

Directing: B
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B-
Editing: B+

Watching the documentary One Child Nation is a jarring experience, one that begs the question of why there is not more discussion about the horrific human rights violations in China. If you thought you had some sense of the horrors perpetrated by their 35-year “One Child Policy,” you don’t know the half of it. We really do just pick and choose which nations of the world to criticize, based on the pet cause of the moment.

The bizarre thing is, countless Chinese citizens have been so indoctrinated by decades of Communist state propaganda that they openly support the policy, even now, even in the face of their very own neighbors having their homes destroyed by the government for the “violation” of having more than one child. The unsettling thing, which is not very much explored in this film, is the clear efficacy of the policy’s goals. One of the many oft-repeated propaganda lines was that China was “going to war against overpopulation,” and one thing this policy absolutely did do was stabilize population growth which, in the 1980s, promised to ruin the nation of China if left unchecked. Now India, the world’s largest — read: most overpopulated — democracy, is on track to overtake China in population in less than a decade. And India has far less land area.

I don’t pretend to have answers, and neither does this film’s codirector, Nanfu Wang, a thirtysomething mother of one who grew up in China embarrassed to be one of the few children around with a sibling and who now lives in the U.S. There are smarter people out there who might have answers, contextualized with the one overbearing plight that the Chinese use to justify these horrors, which is objectively a horror itself: overpopulation. But surely there are more humane answers than what was historically the Chinese government’s approach.

Here we get into things which, if One Child Nation were aired on broadcast television, would absolutely necessitate a viewer discretion warning. We’re talking about forced sterilizations, forced abortions. Women abducted and forced to get abortions on fetuses at eight and nine months, nearly to term. There are no stories in this film of children being killed once they’re born, but there are stories of so-called “Family Planners” taking part in the abduction of these children whose existence violates the policy, taken to sham “orphanages,” and then adopted out to parents overseas who think the children have no parents. In one such case given special attention here, a teenage girl discovers she has an identical twin living in the U.S.

Nanfu Wang smartly notes that the Chinese forced abortions and the U.S. restriction of abortions are two sides of the same coin: a government denying women their body autonomy. Until Wang brought this up, I wondered how American “pro-life” conservatives might try to twist the message of this film.

And that brings us to perhaps the biggest blind spot of One Child Nation, which certainly examines the cultural favoring of boys in China but does not quite properly contextualize it. Whether it’s China’s forced abortions or America’s forced births, it’s all about the subjugation of women. Is it any surprise that there is not one mention in this film of men being forced to get vasectomies? Instead, we get stories of how many babies die in abandoned sacks in meat markets because a family’s one chance at a baby had the terrible fate of being a girl. Wang interviews members of her own family who openly admit to doing this themselves, including an uncle who is clearly remorseful but explains himself by saying his mother threatened to kill the baby and then herself if he refused to abandon it.

So you can imagine how fucked up the One Child Policy is, if not necessarily as a broad idea, but certainly in execution. This is a nation with so many aborted fetuses that it’s not difficult to find their carcasses in sacks labeled “medical waste” drifting among the garbage in polluted rivers. It’s entirely possible some kind of government program could be implemented that stabilizes population growth in a humane way. It is clearly not possible in a society so deeply misogynistic.

So where does that leave us? Wang’s film offers no insight into how else to address what far too people are talking about right now, which is how really to address population control, the single true cause of global warning and the increasing effects of catastrophic climate change. I don’t expect Wang to have the answers, but given the issues at hand, she should at least acknowledge that they are still issues commanding attention.

There is a slight amount of attention given to the official end of the One Child Policy implemented in China as of 2015, when the realization that not enough young people are around anymore to care of the elderly prompted them to change the policy to two children. But what about families that attempt three children? Or whose first two children are girls? Is there any reason to believe the Chinese government is any less brutal about it now?

Wang, and her co-director Jialing Zhang, make One Child Nation a very direct and personal take on the policy, and that is understandable, especially given Wang’s unusual position growing up as a child with a younger brother — who was only possible under the policy due to their having lived in a rural area, and her parents were forced to wait five years to get a second child. Such details only seem like leniency on the surface, and Wang gets deep into details that will surely be incredibly difficult for many viewers to endure. She’s so focused she doesn’t seem to pay much attention to, say, when she’s inadvertently recording herself and her camera in mirrors.

The makers of this movie are surely to be commended, and these are things the world should know, even if they are so tough to process it’s impossible to imagine it ever finding a particularly large audience. And even if this film can’t show how best to deal with overpopulation, it certainly offers clear lessons on how not to.

A single family stands in for a billion people under authoritarian control.

A single family stands in for a billion people under authoritarian control.

MIKE WALLACE IS HERE

Directing: B
Cinematography: B-
Editing: B+

Mike Wallace was a television newsmagazine journalist who died in 2012, when he was just shy of 94 years old. I am now 43, and I barely recognized his name before seeing Avi Belkin’s cleverly edited but relatively shallow documentary, Mike Wallace Is Here. He was a huge part of the long running success of the pioneering TV show 60 Minutes, and this film identifies the show itself being at “the height of its power” in the early eighties — when I was about five.

I’m not sure this film will find much of an audience that is not made up of people who are themselves on their last legs. I mean, sure, I went to see it, and last time I checked, I was doing okay. But I’m a film obsessive, interested in a movie like Mike Wallace Is Here because of cinematic context more than its subject. It’s a movie that gets me interested in someone I know little about, rather than a subject that gets me to go to a movie.

And I went into this film expecting a lot of hand wringing about the degradation of journalistic integrity in America, propping up an old-school journalist meant to be an example of the “greatness that once was.” Instead, Belkin largely contextualizes Mike Wallace as a man so relentless in interviewing style that he ushered in the era of relentlessly sensationalist television news.

Belkin makes a memorable choice as the opening clip for his documentary, with Mike Wallace, very late in his career, interviewing Bill O’Reilly. After presenting O’Reilly with several clips of O’Reilly on his own show shouting at guests like a lunatic, Wallace challenges O’Reilly’s self-perception as a journalist, and says, “You’re an opinion columnist.” O’Reilly counters that anyone who doesn’t like his style and persona can blame Mike Wallace. It turns out that, in this particular instance at least, O’Reilly makes a compelling argument.

In truth, Mike Wallace in hindsight exists in more of a gray area, a bridge between an era of journalism with strict rules of so-called “objectivity” — and, some would argue, merely the illusion of a lack of bias — and the current era plagued with monetizing acts of editorializing. What Belkin wants this film’s viewers to conclude about Mike Wallace is a little unclear, but I was struck by the many clips of pundits lamenting the public’s eroding trust in the press and the media. It’s tempting just to think, people have been saying that shit for decades.

The truth is out there, you just have to learn how to find it and the skill to identify trustworthy sources. It’s the process that changes with each era, and it could be argued that Mike Wallace was part of one major shift in that process. Judging by Mike Wallace Is Here on its own, Wallace could be counter-productively abrasive (one person interviewing him asks why he’s “such a prick”), but had a single-minded obsession with getting to the truth about people. It would seem he had no interest in FOX News-style misinformation and manipulation of his viewers, and that’s not nothing. He was just . . . kind of an asshole.

And therein lies the blind spot of Mike Wallace Is Here, which is undeniably entertaining to watch, but never reaches very deep into Wallace’s psyche. There is a short bit about his struggle with depression, and the revelation that, after denying it in several interviews with other TV journalists, he finally admitted he once committed suicide. But, this film is comprised entirely of archival interviews, both of Wallace interviewing others and of several people interviewing him, edited together to create a broad picture of the man and particularly his work and how it affected the evolution of news media. With no contemporary interviews with anyone to offer any insights about the man without him there in the room with them, it all ends with the feeling that none of it quite got to who he was personally. That’s what I would be more interested in.

In effect, Mike Wallace Is Here is not so much about a man as it is about journalism — or, at least, it wants to be. It struggles to achieve that goal as a 90-minute succession of creatively edited sound bites. This film is not without insight, and it is often illuminating to see how Mike Wallace worked, how he influenced the television news industry, and what kinds of insecurities he had. Having no insights to offer from any present-day perspectives, however, keeps the man at a remove, giving the whole film a broad sense of detachment from this man we’re supposed to be getting to know. At least he commands attention as a screen presence, thus insuring there is never a dull moment.

The one thing Wallace doesn’t get to the bottom of is himself.

The one thing Wallace doesn’t get to the bottom of is himself.

Overall: B

HONEYLAND

Directing: A
Writing: A
Cinematography: A
Editing: A+

Honeyland is a triumph of editing, of cinematography, of will, of perseverance, of humanity.

It’s a genuine shock that this is a documentary film, so gorgeous are the visuals, so well crafted is the narrative. Indeed, it feels more like watching a narrative film than perhaps any other documentary I have ever seen. Admittedly part of it is its foreign conception, giving it the same feel as many films spoken in a foreign language with local, and therefore completely unfamiliar — yet utterly believable — actors. If I had been told this was a regular movie shot in rural Macedonia outside its capital city of Skopje, I would never have doubted it.

Because co-directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov take an utterly cinematic approach to their subjects, particularly the central figure of middle-aged Hatidze, often framing her in stunning panoramic shots as she strolls the Macedonian countryside and hillsides, harvesting honey from strategically placed bee colonies. Occasionally she features in drone shots from above, as in the memorable opening shot of her casually walking around a high cliff, along a trail barely wider than she is.

There are no interviews here, which creates the sense of it being a movie rather than the documentary Honeyland really is. There is plenty of dialogue (in Turkish), a fair amount of it not even subtitled, but no talking heads. No analysis, no conjecture, just what is onscreen speaking for itself. And God knows how much total footage must have been shot, the filmmakers granted stunningly intimate access to Hatidze, her ailing mother, and her heartbreakingly misguided neighbors over the course of three years. It’s all cut down to the 87 minutes that became “the most awarded film out of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.”

It deserves every award and then some. I certainly deserves far more audiences than it will ever get. This is a very small, intimate story with global implications, about the delicate balance between nature and humanity. If this were a conventionally produced motion picture, it would be a parable. But this is real life, illustrating very real consequences as a direct result of ignorance and impatience.

Hatidze, doing nothing more than live a simple life doing simple work and selling her high-quality, raw honey in the city, is the hero of this story. She makes no particular effort to be; she is gentle and kind and generous by nature, and extends those qualities to the poor nomadic family that parks their camper trailer and their 150 cows near her. When the head of this family, Hussein, decides he wants to get into the honey game himself, Hatidze is happy to offer him sensible advice, most notably the sustainable practice of “take half, leave half.”

It would be a mistake to call Hussein a villain, exactly, but his family’s presence certainly poses a threat to Hatidze’s livelihood, and therefore her very life. Tensions brew as Hussein, a very poor father of several children, over-harvests honey from bees that also attack Haditze’s colonies, thereby posing a threat to all of them. The longevity of her amicable relationship with everyone in Hussein’s family comes into question.

Honeyland is presented with a clear vision, of both the broader geopolitical context of these people’s lives, and the details of how they live them. The filmmakers simply observe, without comment or judgment. The little things are the most fascinating, such as the degree to which all these children get used to frequent bee stings, or the frequency with which these people eat dripping honeycomb with their bare hands, in a village with no electricity or things as simple as napkins.

Hatidze does indulge in one pointedly modern invention, dying her hair from a boxed kit purchased the market in Skopje, using her bare hands scraping the mix from a ceramic bowl and using a carefully propped small mirror next to her bedridden, elderly mother. They speak briefly about how Hatidze never married, and how different things could have been for her had she produced any children. This woman is an inspiration, with a remarkably sunny disposition considering her lot in life, with a sort of innate love for it. Rest assured her story here ends with at least a small note of hope, even if it is far more comforting to her personal fate than to her story’s wider implications for the planet.

There are many lessons to be learned from old-world experience, fast disappearing.

There are many lessons to be learned from old-world experience, fast disappearing.

Overall: A

KATHY GRIFFIN: A HELL OF A STORY

Directing: B
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B-

As a general rule with these reviews I write, as has been the case ever since I began posting them in late 2004, I would only write them for movies I have seen in a theatre in their original theatrical release. The documentary / comedy special Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story is kind of a different beast, or at least a middle-ground one: I did indeed see this in a theatre, but only as a one-time-only Fathom Events screening. It doesn’t matter what I say about it, you won’t have any opportunity to go to a theatre to see for yourself.

In the end, it hardly matters. Presumably this standup movie will eventually be available some other way soon enough, if not streaming then available digitally somewhere for purchase. And the only relevant information there is for a reader right now is this: if you’re a Kathy Griffin fan, you’ll likely have a great time watching this. If not, you won’t be missing anything by skipping it. And that last part is not even directed at the deranged Trump supporters who have sent her countless death threats; their propensity to either ignore or hate-watch her goes without saying. I’m even talking about the neutral observer, who might even agree that she was given a raw deal. Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story is straight up fan service, through and through.

The film features a long prologue that lasts maybe twenty minutes, itself much more of a short documentary about Kathy Griffin and her career immediately following her infamous 2017 photo holding up a fake, bloody Donald Trump head. It depicts Griffin’s world tour she took when she could not book any U.S. gigs, and frankly, this portion of the film is insanely contrived.

It pains me to have to say this. I count myself among Kathy Grffin’s longtime, loyal fans, and that’s what makes the beginning of this film all the more disappointing. This is a woman who has never made any bones about the hustle that has always been her career, and I still respect her for it; I don’t fault her for milking everything she can for all it’s worth. But there are moments here that just plain feel disingenuous. Does she really need to turn the camera on herself when she’s supposed to be emotionally at rock bottom? Does she not realize that when a move she makes is transparently in the service of a money-making venture, the “emotion” on display rather loses its impact?

Griffin occasionally has her boyfriend holding the camera, talking behind it. In one scene, she’s broken down crying, apparently on an airplane between cities, and he consoles her from behind the camera. It’s entirely possible what he says to her was not rehearsed — or at least the product of being directed — but, his delivery sure makes it sound like it was.

I did not realize as I watched this that most of it was just a film of one of Kathy Griffin’s standup theater gigs, basically a film version of yet another one of her record-breaking number of standup specials. Watching this extended documentary prologue, I expected most of the whole movie to be this, perhaps intercut with clips of her stage performance. I really began to worry about how good this movie was really going to be. The overall quality — the cinematography, the editing in particular — is really not of the caliber of a theatrically released film. It immediately became apparent why this was a one-time-only theatrical presentation. It would have been far more appropriate on cable, but of course Griffin mentions at every opportunity how she still has no bidders for TV standup specials anymore.

But! Much to my relief, the documentary portion ends, and A Hell of a Story moves into straightforward standup footage of a performance at a single, Santa Monica venue, and in Griffin’s own, spectacularly singular way, she does just that: tell a hell of a story. And she does it incredibly well.

The “standup special” portion of the film is a hard turn from the documentary stuff, where Griffin may be much more obviously rehearsed, but now in her element, she comes across as genuine. She’s also very funny, and she gets into all manner of detail about all the crazy shit that’s happened to her. It’s this part, which lasts much longer, which makes it required viewing for the loyal Kathy Griffin fan. She is a comic whose many signature traits include rambling, and yet she always manages to circle back to the point or the story at hand. Her complete set is a lot more structured than it might seem at first glance.

She even gets into a significant bit about hanging out in Sydney with Stevie Nicks — a star I have personally long idolized — and Chrissie Hynde. It’s one of the most delightful stories she tells, among many delightful stories included here. It does include bits about Stevie Nicks being among the few people to come to her defense, as a whole lot of this show does — and it’s well known how far more people Kathy Griffin thought were her friends either abandoned her or actually went out of their way to twist the knife.

Kathy Griffin is transparently a born performer, and it’s plain to see the stage is where she is meant to be. Hopefully it will continue to be for decades to come — even though she’s already 58 years old at the time of this recording. It’s genuinely a joy to watch her doing both what she loves and what she does best, which is making people laugh through observations of the ridiculousness of our world. When it comes to A Hell of a Story, though, what she clearly is not born to be is a documentarian. Or perhaps to be more fair, director Troy Miller isn’t. This film starts like a TV special lower-mid-level quality, with some things onscreen that are strangely suspect. Thankfully, getting through it is well worth the wait, because the complete standup show that follows, for anyone who has gone out of their way to watch it, is something that truly delivers everything you could want from it.

I say this with love, Kathy: stick to what you’re good at.

I say this with love, Kathy: stick to what you’re good at.

Overall: B-

TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM

Directing: A
Writing: A
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A

Here I am, writing a review of a movie about a massively well-known, globally respected novelist whose books I have never read. Not a single one of them.

What I can still tell you with authority is that the film, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, is excellent. Some might even call it perfection. If not perfection, then certainly revelatory. I don’t think I have ever watched a movie before that made me think, Why the fuck have I never read any of her books? We all have cultural blind spots; I won’t exactly feel bad about that. I will still acknowledge this is a big one for me.

Also: reading the work of a brilliant author is one thing. Getting to know her as a uniquely self-actualized person is quite another — so much as can be done in a two-hour run time, anyway. Morrison is a strikingly intelligent woman, clearly as sharp as she’s ever been, at her current age of 88 years. I wonder how much of that is just practice, decades of exercising the muscles of her intellect? She talks about how she is “smartest” in the early morning hours, and has little interest or ability in writing after noon. Keeping that up must be a great exercise.

One need not have read her work to see how, when Toni Morrison leaves this earth, a great void will be left in her wake — and yet, in contrast to many other people for whom the same could be said, that void will be largely mitigated by her body of work, which is widely beloved (no pun intended).

Morrison, having sat down for multiple long interviews for this film, proves to be a dynamic screen presence. She only has to sit and speak, and she commands attention, all confidence, sincerity and warmth in equal measure, someone quick to express joy while at the same time capable of tapping into deep wells of pain. This is a woman who lacks humility only because she doesn’t need it. There is no particular arrogance in her demeanor; she simply sits comfortably in the knowledge of her skill and talent. She even says in an archived interview from the time of her 1993 win for the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature, “I’m a good writer.” It’s impossible to resent that level of ease of self. Would that more people learned from how she leads by example. The world would be full of happier people.

Watching this movie felt like having my mind cracked open. Admittedly, it did occur to me how naive it could be to allow such grandiose impressions of a person to be made by just one movie, which can easily be edited to make anyone seem in countless ways different than they actually are. Still, it’s easy to trust this impression. The singular energy emitted by Morrison onscreen is not easily faked, and many archival clips reveal it to have been consistent.

As for potential interest in her body of work examined by the film, there is something to be said for the notion of greater specificity evoking greater universality of feeling and empathy. Plenty of widely respected friends and associates are also interviewed (Angela Davis, Fran Lebowitz, Russell Banks, Oprah Winfrey, and several others), they come from varied backgrounds, and Morrison’s unprecedented narrative focus on black women in fiction moved them all in equal measure.

And it’s not like I had never heard of Tori Morrison, mind you. I can still remember when the movie adaptation of the novel Beloved became Oprah Winfrey’s passion project in the late nineties, more than a decade after the book’s initial publication. I actually did see that movie, and I recall easily imagining how the novel was likely the better medium for such a story. A novel, by all accounts beautifully written, could never have the distraction of an actor far too famous to disappear into any role.

There is no doubt in my mind that Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am will delight fans of the novelist — who, I learned from this film, spent the years spanning the publication of her first few books also working full time as an editor at a publishing house, promoting the works of other black women (including the autobiography of Angela Davis), while also raising two sons on her own. Based on my personal experience, it’s just as affecting to those who have never read anything by her, and will render them eager to start. All I have left to decide is which of her novels I should begin with.

An extraordinary woman with an enduring talent.

An extraordinary woman with an enduring talent.

Overall: A

HALSTON

Directing: B-
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

It’s a curious exercise, watching a film that clearly expects sympathy for a rich man with ridiculously lavish spending habits.

Full disclosure, I’m not sure I even know who Roy Halston Frowick was before seeing this movie, which merely looked compelling to me when seeing the trailer. I could count on one hand the number of fashion designers I know by name. My fashion choices are limited to Christmas gifts from family, thrift stores, and bankrupt department store liquidation sales. Funny that one of those department stores currently rumored to be on the brink of bankruptcy, JCPenney, was once part of Halston’s first failed business venture, when he attempted to take his brand mainstream in the early eighties and it tarnished his brand with all other high-end fashion retailers.

In writer-director Frédérik Tcheng’s telling of the story of the Halston company being taken over after an acquisition by Esmark Inc., Tcheng brings in many people close to Halston to lament the plummeting amount of control over what had once been his own company. These include several models who once worked for him, a couple of his secretaries, his niece he hired to work for him, even his best friend Liza Minnelli. A couple of them mention an executive from International Playtex (also owned by Esmark) who was brought in to be a new managing director of Halston. One of the interview subjects literally refuses to say his name.

Well, you know what? The guy’s name was Carl Epstein, and based on his interviews for this movie as well as the choices he made regarding Halston Enterprises at the time, I am a fan. Halston’s close friends and family clearly, and okay understandably, resent Epstein for being so intricately involved in Halston’s ultimate downfall. But so far as I can tell, Halston’s personal downfall was really his own doing. This was a man who was not used to anyone saying no to him, and the in comes someone who says, hey wait a minute, you can’t spend a hundred grand just to fly your entire staff to an event abroad, or have your dinners flown on a private jet from New York City to Montauk. Not when you’re not actually in a position to afford these things, anyway, and you’re not even the one truly in control of the company besides.

These things are just common sense. I don’t feel bad about some insanely rich fashion designer, who doesn’t realize his tastes ultimately far exceed his income, being told he can’t keep blowing through cash at the same rate anymore. This movie seems to think I should, and I beg to differ.

Therein lies the underlying issue with Halston, which honestly could have worked harder to make me sympathize with this guy. I have no doubt it actually could have been done. Halston was a gay man born in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1930s who died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 57, on the day of that year’s Academy Awards ceremony. Surely that context informed how his personality developed, coming into riches and fame from humble beginnings and in the end having at least some level of struggle with substance abuse.

I want to know more about that. And Tcheng touches on it, with a brief interlude showing a fascinating old clip of paranoid propaganda about homosexuals and showing negative-film footage (to protect identities) of gay men on a beach, doing literally nothing more salacious than being a little swishy. Footage of Halston included in this film reveals him to have been refined and sophisticated, and also a little effeminate. What was it like growing up for him? What did his parents, his siblings think about him when he was a child? What were his personal relationships like and how do they fit into his getting HIV, and when was he even diagnosed? Halston can’t be bothered with any of these questions, even though they would make for a far more compelling film.

Instead, the arc of the story here is mostly focused on Halston’s rise and fall as a superstar businessman with a taste for excess both in ridiculous business expenses and in entertainment, hanging out with Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor at Studio 54. And plenty of this actually is fascinating, if less personal. It’s just that Tcheng leaves so much out it’s difficult to get emotionally invested in an obsessive (and apparently sometimes bullying) member of the one percent struggling with becoming less rich.

halston.jpg

Overall: B-

SIFF Advance: THE LONG HAUL: THE STORY OF THE BUCKAROOS

Directing: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

I guess I need to stop approaching local productions with low expectations by default. That’s the ignorant thinking of an old fool, who doesn’t see how the world has changed.

Now, to be both fair and realistic, one thing that really hasn’t necessarily changed is that one does not expect great cinematography from a documentary. This is a genre that usually features static shots of talking subjects intercut with some kind of archival footage that is often amateur by definition — not the stuff of high production values. A true exception to this general rule comes in the form of The Long Haul: The Story of the Buckaroos, which focuses on, of all things, a group of male strippers of diverse body types doing performative cowboy masculinity at Seattle’s own Can Can.

Director Amy Enser began filming in 2014, and offers a portrait of what was, then at least, the five core guys performing in the show, how they got to be involved, how it changed their lives, how the show itself evolved. As I write this, I find myself wondering if the show even exists anymore: the Buckaroos website appears to be out of date; no live dates any more recent than 2016 can be found anywhere; their social media links feature no posts any more recent than 2016 either. Maybe I should have stayed for the entire Q&A after the SIFF world premiere screening of this film after all.

Well, whatever, the film tells a compelling, often delightful, certainly colorful, and by turns sexy and funny story about these guys who play a fictional group of long haul truck drivers. Or cowboys. Construction workers. You get the idea. You’d think the movie would generate interest in their live shows, assuming those shows still existed. Maybe the hunky red head who was the driving force behind the show’s creative decisions, who retired from the show after ten years of performing in it during filming, was a harbinger of its end?

The film itself offers no insight as to the fate of the show itself, but rather stands as a unique, refreshing take on performative sexuality, as seen through the gaze of a female director. This is markedly different from how any movie about female strippers by a male director could ever even hope to be. It certainly has a more egalitarian vibe to it. Any many of the group’s dance numbers are featured, impressively shot with swooping camera movements and vivid lighting.

It’s not super surprising that the group of men in this show is not super diverse in terms of ethnicity — all but the one black man are white — but, there is something to the diverse array of body types on display: some guys more conventionally attractive than others; one a bit skinny; one who weighs 280 pounds, who gets some of the greatest cheers from the crowd. None of them is especially chiseled. Most of them are straight, but with an unusual comfort engaging with naked male sexuality. What Amy Enser’s direction shows is how these guys prove that anyone can be sexy if they just know how to own it. Different performers are seen talking about how working in the show helped them overcome shyness or body image issues. These are not things you see men talking about a lot.

So The Long Haul turns out to have a lot more depth to it than you might expect from a movie about, to greatly oversimplify it, a bunch of male strippers. I went into this expecting something fun, but a lot more breezy and superficial. I left it impressed by some actual substance. This isn’t just some time filler. I would actually recommend watching it, however you might find it in the hopefully near future. I had a great time with it and am confident you will too.

Can you feel the heat?

Can you feel the heat?

Overall: B+

SIFF Advane: ENORMOUS: THE GORGE STORY

Directing: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

This would have been more accurately called “The Gorge Amphitheatre Story,” as it focuses almost exclusively on the history and cultural impact of the famed music venue, which is situated with a memorably stunning view of the Columbia River Gorge. Director Nic Davis does include a minute or two at both the beginning and end of the film with a geologist from Central Washington University, who shares a few geological details about the Gorge that are, frankly, far more interesting than what singers or band played the Gorge at which times between 1988 and now.

For instance, he notes that in contrast to the Grand Canyon, which took millions of years to form as it was carved out by the Colorado River, the Columbia River Gorge was formed mostly by cataclysmic floods occurring at the end of the last ice age, between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago. What! That’s an infinitesimally smaller window of time, and cataclysms are fun! Tell me more!

Alas, Enormous: The Gorge Story tells virtually no more about the formation of the Gorge itself, and is instead the story of the amphitheater built there by a young couple also operating a winery in the area, at the time with a capacity of 3,000. It has been enlarged and improved over time, now has at least two side stages and hosts many music festivals year round, has a currently capacity of 27,500, and is managed by Live Nation.

Nic Davis interviews several people with either notable or unique histories with the venue: a longtime event photographer; a woman who spent twenty years as a regular there with her sister who passed away; a few musicians of varying levels of fame, including a guitarist from Pearl Jam and the guru (or godfather? whatever) of Northwest music festivals, Dave Matthews himself. This guy has been headlining a full weekend of music every Memorial Day Weekend for many years now.

All of this is interesting enough, to be fair. And the musicians all uniformly appreciate the incredibly scenic nature of the venue, now widely considered to be one of the most beautiful in the country. That said, considering the eclectic number of festivals directly connected to the venue that do get mentioned — Sasquatch, Paradiso, Watershed — a curious number of them do not.

I have my own personal, unique history with this venue myself, just as presumably many Washingtonians and Northwesterners do. The first concert I ever attended was The Cranberries in 1996, at The Gorge. The second one I ever attended was one year later, at Lileth Fair. Granted, Lileth Fair is not directly associated with The Gorge generally speaking, but that 1997 concert there was the first stop of the first tour that festival ever did.

Perhaps there were some rights clearance issues. There’s a hint that may be the case in a shot of a newspaper article, with much of the text blurred — including the name Tracy Chapman, beneath a photo of her not blurred. And she was one of the acts at that 1997 Lileth Fair concert. Then there are Lollapalooza, Ozzfest, countless Phish concerts, and more — again, not directly associated with the venue, but worth mentioning as having been hosted by it several times. None of these things are mentioned at all, which gives Enormous a bit of a feeling as though certain details are curiously omitted. The run time of this film is all of 64 minutes, so it’s not like they were pressed for time.

Before seeing this, I imagined Enormous: The Gorge Story might be one of the few documentaries I would say are worth going out of your way to see in a theatre, what with the grand vistas being so much the point. Shots of the Columbia River itself, and the Columbia River Gorge, are both used sparingly and often repeated. You’ll get just as much out of this movie watching it on your TV at home. Being such a very local production and with such a short run time, I’ll b surprised if this gets any kind of general release in theatres anyway.

To be clear, however, what does get included is still compelling. In terms of what narrative this film has, nothing included feels wasted, and it’s over too quickly for you to get bored. It will certainly appeal to fans who love to see concerts at this venue, of which there are a great many. If you have no more than a cursory interest in the Gorge Amphitheater, though, you won’t have cause for any more than a cursory interest in this movie.

The show is spectacular no matter where you look. Well, if you’re actually there, anyway.

The show is spectacular no matter where you look. Well, if you’re actually there, anyway.

Overall: B