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.

Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry

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Be prepared to be blown away. Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry packs quite a punch. This documentary shows Chinese artist cum activist Ai Wei Wei as he stands up for victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and seeks justice after police break into his hotel room in Chengdu and beat him.

The film fascinated me. It follows Ai as he tries to get the government to publish the real numbers of students who died in the flimsy school buildings in Sichuan. With newsreel footage and interviews, it shows the torture and abuse his father endured in the 1950s. I’ve read several books, fiction and non-fiction, about the Anti-Rightist Campaign. The stark newsreels of neighbor denouncing neighbor deepened my understanding of this horrible period.

The documentary shows Ai in New York where he started his art career and in Europe installing current works. Filmmakers follow him as he pursues justice after being beaten by police and detained so that he was unable to testify on behalf of another Chinese activist, who was found guilty.

Ai is mesmerizing. He’s bold, audacious, brave, down-to-earth and shrewd. He’s figured out the power of social media and despite the government’s censorship has attracted a following of Chinese who share his desire for transparency and democracy. These folks aren’t just spectators as we see when Ai protests the government mandated demolition of the studio the government told him to build, hordes show up for his protest. They know they’re being watched and recorded and are willing to take that risk.

Ai knows what the government’s up to and finds clever ways to show it for what it is. Though he doubts he can win, he works within the system seeking justice from the police whom illegally knocked in his hotel room door, beat and detained him. By recording every step of his bureaucratic quest for justice, he shows the world how the government works and that all is not well in the new China.

I found the interviews with fellow artists and Evan Osnos of the New Yorker insightful and trenchant. They show how people who care about China will stick their necks out to make it better, even though they doubt they’ll see improvement.

Living in China myself, I see the good parts and know that experiences like Ai’s and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo‘s are true, but it’s so easy to forget. I’m grateful for this movie that reminds me and fleshes out Ai WeiWei’s life and work.

Never Sorry is available on Netflix.

Ai Wei Wei’s Gangnam Style Parody

Bill Cunnigham New York

Bill Cunningham (!) Taking Kate's Picture

Bill Cunningham (!) Taking Kate’s Picture (Photo credit: Shawn Hoke)

Although I read the New York  Times online, I had no idea who Bill Cunningham was. Partly, that’s due to the N.Y. Times limit of stories per month. Now it’s 10. Don’t get me started.

Netflix coaxed me into watching the documentary Bill Cunningham New York. What a gem!

Cunningham is a fashion photographer who celebrates how real people dress with style, wit and charm, but there’s more. He lives with such joy because he loves his work. He loves people and he loves simplicity. He is the heart and eyes of “In the Street” and Evening Hours, a column on parties for the beau monde.

The documentary Bill Cunningham New York invites us into Bill’s office and tiny apartment in Carnegie Hall, which is filled with file cabinets holding his prized work of about 5 decades. We get to see him on the street in all kinds of weather as he captures real fashion worn by everyone from socialites to the down and out. One of the great things about Bill is that he doesn’t judge the people, rather he admires and shares great fashion.

I delighted in his quirks. Though Bill goes to all kinds of expensive galas, he scrupulously refuses any food or drink for fear that these freebies might make him beholden. In fact he’s far from a gourmet. He pretty much eats sandwiches, coffee and probably water or other non-trendy beverages. Though he’s enamored with fashion, he pretty much sports the same nondescript slacks, Shetland sweaters and blue workman’s smocks that he found Paris street sweepers wear. Those smocks are durable, have a lot of pockets and cost like $20. When it’s cold, he dons a beret.

Over 80 years old, Bill’s main form of transportation is bicycle. At the time of the film, he’d had 27 bikes stolen and was on bike 28. He rode home at all hours even after his black tie events. At times I wished he’d take a cab fearing that even with his reflective vest some drunk might plow into him.

Everyone who’s anyone in New York seems to know Bill and the film features interviews with the dandies and socialites who seem to dress for him and his paper. The film shows Bill’s neighbors and fellow artists who face eviction as the artists are getting thrown out to make way for telemarketing or other such tenants. (It’s a shame, but the New York Times must pay Bill a decent salary and he’s been in a rent controlled apartment for over 50 years it seems. He’s not spending his money on food, clothes or transportation.)

Even if you’re not a big fashion lover, I think you’ll love watching a man who lives on his own terms with lots of joie de vivre.

Glee: Goodbye Episode

Well, I predict the disappointing season 3 of Glee won’t sell many DVDs. I’d hoped for better with the finale, but while there were a few good moments, it was really just a mishmash of emotion and storylines, that seemed thrown together.

It’s been a year of far-fetched incidents and caustic humor that’s grown old. This episode was no exception. It seemed that after winning Nationals, the writers didn’t know what to do with the cast. Quinn helped Puck study for his make-up exam and her flat-line emotion inspired him to buckle down and get the C- (a Puckerman A) he needed to graduate. Whoo who. So much for music improving students’ grades.

Finn fooled Rachel, who got into NYADA,  into going on to New York on her own and this manipulation was packaged as a positive. While she probably should go, it would have been better if she decided to with Finn. This is 2012, right? Then out of the blue, more or less, Finn decided to enlist in the army. Quite a squandered event as no one but Rachel gets to challenge his signing up and when she sees the lights of Broadway, Rachel quickly forgets that her true love is most likely headed to Afghanistan. Are we to think she’s that vapid?

At one point, Will confesses to Finn how he planted the pot in Finn’s locker to get him to join Glee and Finn thinks that’s cool. He might have reacted that way, but it really didn’t seem worth mentioning after all this time.

One high point was Burt Hummel‘s dance to “All the Single Ladies” which he offered to Kurt as a graduation present.

Blaine, who really should return to the prep school where he’ll learn more, brought up the topic of breaking up with Kurt. After all long distance relationships are hard. Yeah, but Blaine, you’ve got all summer with Kurt so why mention this now? That’s what irks me about Glee, it’s far fetched when it doesn’t have to be.

Santana toyed with the idea of going on to New York and it seems she is NY bound. Her mom, played by Gloria Estefan, first wanted Santana to go to college as she hadn’t and the mom had been scrimping for years for the tuition. Their discussion was very rational and non-dramatic compared with real daughter-mother discussions of this sort. Santana’s gotten too mean and caustic for me to really care about her. She’s one dimensional and it’s hard to see what Brittany supposedly finds to love. I think this character, like many on Glee, is just a lump of clay that writers shape as they like without thought of consistency.

It was odd that during graduation, this little club that is a bleep on the school’s radar was so prominent in the graduation ceremony. McKinley seems to have students graduate in random order, neither alphabetical or reverse alphabetical order. This episode and the previous one about nationals points out one strange omission of Glee. In this era of hover parents, these characters’ parents, except for Burt, have been implausibly absent. I think the writers have missed out on good stories by neglecting Quinn’s parents after the first season and Rachel’s till this season. Seasons two and three could have been richer by bringing in more conflicts with parents. That’s a big part of teenage years and fits with our times.

I do hope Kurt doesn’t just mope around Lima for the next year. He can and should get into college. I’d expect him to have the brains to find another interest that he can cultivate.