Grant

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The History Channel offered a capitvating documentary mini-series on the life of Ulysses S. Grantthis week. It’s still available online. We saw it advertised when watching The Last Dance and thought it would be worth checking out. I didn’t know much about Grant other than he was an important General during the Civil War and not much of a president. I’ve learned that that was an inaccurate view of a brave, intelligent man.

Grant grew up poor. His father was a tanner and both parents were staunch abolitionists. He went to West Point where he wasn’t a shining star, but he met men like Robert E. Lee and other future Civil War leaders. When he fought in the Mexican-American War, his distaste for war was solidified, but he also proved to be unique in his ability to think clearly in the heat of battle.

This documentary features several notable historians and shows the complexity of a great military strategist and a popular President who’s become forgotten through the decades. The commentary is interspersed with excellent reenactments.

Part of the reason for Grant’s tarnished reputation is that in the 1960s, Southern historians published profusely and changed the narrative reshaping Grant’s life so that he came across as a drinker who became a corrupt President.

From this documentary you learn the complexity of Ulysses S. Grant. He was an abolitionist whose father-in-law bought him a slave, a slave that he soon freed. At the time Grant was poor and couldn’t support his family, but believed in equality and though he could have made a lot of money by selling rather than freeing this man, chose to free him. Yes, Grant drank, but he also knew that was a weakness and dealt with it. He’s a man who knew failure and poverty, but overcame them. He was an honest man, a military genius, and popular President who sought to bring a divided country together.

Grant is a gripping documentary from start to finish.

 

The Last Dance

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ESPN is showing The Last Dance, an amazing 10 part documentary focusing on the 1997-98 Season of the Chicago Bulls. Michael Jordan is certainly the star of the show. What would you expect? I enjoy watching interviews with his mother, his father and his high school and college coaches.

But there’s a lot of time devoted to other team members. Episode 2 had a lot about forward Scottie Pippen and much of the first two episodes featured General Manager Jerry Kraus and owner Jerry Reinsdorf. By including these important behind the scenes figures, the drama is heightened.

The documentary is thoroughly dramatic as it shows mainly key figures like Kraus, Reinsdorf, Michael’s mother, Pippen’s brothers, and describing the final season of the most famous Bull’s team play what coach Phil Jackson dubbed “The Last Dance,” when the team granted documentary makers unprecedented access to the famed team.

On Sunday nights I’m usually a Masterpiece viewer, but The Last Dance offers more grace in Michael and his team’s fantastic playing and drama in the conflict between the office and the players.

I found every interview, every game sequence compelling. The Last Dance is definitely “must-see” TV.

Miss Americana

Steven Crowder offers a thorough review of Taylor Swift’s film Miss Americana. I saw this twice at the festival as it was shown twice where I was volunteering.

I just don’t follow Taylor Swift’s music as I’m of the era of The Who, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, etc. I feel she sings for a younger fan. I did learn something about her life and saw how she presents a dazzling image on stage. Again, a highly produced, dazzling show doesn’t wow me. I’m content to see musicians in street clothes performing live to an audience that’s less than 100.

The documentary presents Taylor without much input from anyone else. I wish there were interviews with the music teachers or voice coaches and people who knew her when. Instead we see this young singer talking and talking to the camera giving her views on her life. During the post-film Q and A, where no audience questions were allowed, Taylor Swift said that she wanted to make a film that wasn’t propaganda. That comment verified my thought that this was a propaganda film. All the ideas came from the subject or were approved by her. She may be a wonderful person, but I’d like others to speak up and say so.

The documentary includes some early footage from her childhood and teens, but I was left wondering exactly who chose to make her records. Who gave her a break? No one succeeds without help and that’s not a bad thing necessarily. However, the film makes it seem that Taylor Swift’s success is solely due to her efforts. While she probably does work extremely hard, she has to have help from others. Also, it’s just more interesting to show different memories, different stories, and different perspectives.

Steven Crowder makes some excellent points about how Taylor probably has glossed on to some ideology without analyzing information, without comparing what her team tells her with other information sources. I agree that she has made some big mistakes in her thinking. Her 4th wave feminism hurts women and creates a straw man to vilify.

In short, this is a film for avid Taylor Swift fans, though they probably already know all this. I feel the film was a waste of my time.

Chef Flynn

A patron recommended the documentary Chef Flynn about Flynn McGarry, a boy who’s been creating fine dining experiences since he was in middle school. Flynn’s mom, a filmmaker who repeatedly laments putting her own career on the back burner, has supported Flynn’s cooking since he was a toddler and was probably eating organic baby food.

While watching a prodigy teach himself the fine points of gourmet cooking was interesting, I found the stage mom’s hovering hard to watch. It’s great to see a parent promote a child’s interests and talent development, but this “support” can cross a line into control and vicarious living. In Chef Flynn I saw that misstep from the mother who continues to film her kids even when they ask her to stop and when she inserts close ups of her business card into the documentary. Sometimes the mom offered solid common sense, but often she made me cringe when she asked Flynn how many “Likes” he’d received or when she got up in the middle of the night to see if The New York Times story was published online and then worried that it wasn’t online at the minute it was promised. Of course, a mom would buy the paper featuring her son, That’s normal, but getting up before the sun and refreshing a page compulsively because the article wasn’t yet posted was fanatic. And all that hovering as well as the self-imposed pressure for Flynn to make it big as a world class chef as a teen was painful to watch.

I also wish the father had been able to speak in the film. What does he think about the family, about Flynn’s talent and success? We get all our information and the analysis of her divorce from the mom. Again, painful to watch since it’s clear to the audience what’s missing.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Wow! I can’t think of a more sincere, thorough look at a man dedicated to making the world a better place. I can be sarcastic and skeptical, you’ve got to have a heart of stone to not be moved by this documentary about the work of Fred Rogers, the force behind the classic children’s show Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood.

This 2018 documentary shows Fred Rogers’ life from when he started his career planning to go seminary and then go into ministry. He was about to enter ministry just as television was gaining steam. Back then children’s television was little more than mean spirited slapstick comedy. While he would have made a fine pastor, he impacted the country much more through broadcast.

Fred understood the power of television and the complexity of children. While networks saw kids as needing little more than cheap laughs, Rogers saw that the medium could do more to help children understand their emotions and the problems of the world that scare us all.

Because it was so different, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood won kids, parents and child development experts over.

The film features his  wife, sons, the actors in the program and others in the media explaining their experience and insights on Fred. It shows Fred interacting with kids as well as speaking before congress. Moreover, it discusses the parodies and challenges that Fred struggled with. It even shows the protestors who came to his funeral. I was surprised that anyone would protest against Mr. Rogers at his funeral in 2003.

No one has followed in his footsteps, which is a pit. We’ve got plenty of snarky humor, more sincerity would be welcome.

It’s a shame that this wasn’t at least nominated for Best Documentary in 2018.

Frank Serpico

While I’d heard of the Al Pacino movie Serpico, I didn’t know the plot or anything other than that Frank Serpico was a NY cop with a rebellious streak. This documentary, Frank Serpico, gives the story of Serpico often in his own words and in the words of New York Times reporters and cops who worked with him.

Frank Serpico is a colorful character and always has been. The film is chronological and provides background on his youth and family. I learned that before Serpico joined the police force, he was a teacher in New York.

Serpico seemed to be a skillful cop who from the start was on the periphery of the force because he wasn’t Irish American. Irish Americans made up the majority of the force. The film makes much of how Serpico was an outsider which made him more likely to speak out, report and testify against the pervasive corruption in the NYPD in the 1970s.

While working in narcotics, Serpico soon discovered that most of his peers were on the take. Another investigation supported Serpico’s conclusion. Cops on up the hierarchy were taking in millions. As predicted, Serpico was targeted by the cops who resented him. If you’ve seen the movie from the ’70s, you know he was shot and abandoned by the other cops. Because a civilian called the police, Serpico got medical attention and lived.

Now in his 80s, Frank Serpico describes what happened and why he was so ethical. There’s an interesting scene when Serpico was reunited with one of the cops who didn’t report Serpico getting shot.

The good cinematography that adds point of view. The movie with Pacino is brought up a lot and as Serpico wasn’t after fame, he exiled himself far from the city. A few areas could have been eliminated or shortened as they were repetitive. All in all, this was a film that held my interest that apparently isn’t as embellished as the Hollywood production. So if you’re interested in the police in general or Frank Serpico in particular, check out this film.

Hoaxed

Featuring Scott Adams, Jordan Peterson, James O’Keefe of Project Veritas, communications professors, and other experts, this film by Mike Cenovich explores “Fake News.” The face-paced, Hoaxed will keep you stimulated as it presents the history of Fake News along with examples, past and present. It’s a must-see film, though you should also read and watch other

It taught me about the Operation Mockingbird, when the CIA paid American reporters to write the stories it wanted. At first that was supposed to apply just to foreign media outlets, but later spread to stories that were published domestically. Operation Mockingbird lasted from the 1950s till the 1980s when Senator Frank Church went public about this program.

The structure builds and builds so that a viewer will see how pervasive Fake News is and how so many journalists are guilty. Each subject has a different take and vibe from Scott Adam’s low key personality to the electric Stefan Molyneux’s caffeinated monologue, which is a compelling connection between Plato’s cave story and our illusory view of the world via media.

Hoaxed (running time 2 hours, 8 minutes) is available on Vimeo.

 

Tea with the Dames

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Gather four award-winning, accomplished British actresses to gossip, reflect on their careers and to a lesser degree their private lives and you’ve got Tea with the Dames. Starring Joan Plowright, who I learned was Lawrence Olivier’s third wife, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins, Tea with the Dames is shot in Plowright’s country home which provides an idyllic English setting for the actresses to look back on their careers and friendships. Plowright and Smith do touch on Olivier’s sharp criticism. He sure could make a cutting remark to anyone who wasn’t performing as he thought they should.

I learned how each actress got started, how dedicated they are to their profession and what they thought when they received their titles. I wasn’t that familiar with Atkin’s work and from the film, I still don’t after viewing this film. The film’s designed for people well acquainted with the actresses. If you’re not, I think you’d find it confusing.

There’s no real structure and the film meanders more than most interview programs. Still these women are captivating and I enjoyed seeing how confident and at home with themselves and with each other these women were.

Three Identical Strangers

Wow! I can’t stop thinking about this movie. A couple people summarized it and the idea of a documentary about three men who were adopted discovering that they’re triplets, separated shortly after birth did intrigue me.

Born in 1961 three baby boys were adopted each by a family from a different socio-economic class though the Louise Wise Agency. When one begins community college, he’s weirded out by all the people greeting him and calling him Eddie. Every where he goes people are happy to see “Eddy” even though this young man’s name was Bobby. A friend of Eddy’s figures out that the two are twins.

Soon Eddy meets Bobby and they’re fast friends/reunited brothers. The story goes viral in the papers. Then things get even more unlikely. David Kellman opens the paper and sees two boys who look like him. He quickly learns that he’s a triplet. The three become a sensation and are on The Today Show, Donahue and the entire talk show circuit of the 1980s. They learn they’ve got all the same mannerisms and tastes.

They’re overjoyed and become inseparable pals. In time they move in to a New York apartment and start a restaurant called Triplets.

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But the parents, while open to loving all these boys, are angry. How could this adoption agency not tell them their son had siblings? Their attempts at getting answers and justice are thwarted. A meeting with the agency leaders amounts to nothing. The law firms they approached for help turn them away because their employees may want to adopt through Louise Wise, which struck me as odd given how unethical this revelation is. Wouldn’t it be better for the truth to come out, this agency close and another that is more open and truthful take its place?

A journalist investigating research on twins learns about a study by Peter Neubrauer on nature vs. nurture. In this study done with twins and triplets at the Louise Wise Agency. Thus the triplets and other multiple birth adoptees were guinea pigs for a psychological study neither they nor their parents agreed to. It’s frightful.

The movie goes on to show the effects of this study on the lives of this innocent trio. It’s a film you won’t forget. The dramatized scenes of the past are done with authenticity and the interviews of the boys and those close to the story are sincere, funny and poignant. The film is well made and original. It’s full of twists and revelations that will hit you hard as you contemplate the impact of scientists playing with people as if they were toys. It’s a must-see film. You should be able to stream it or get the DVD at your library.