And so it goes…

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

by Hope Madden

Closure is hard for a lot of us. Take Robert Weide. The Curb Your Enthusiasm producer and director has been working on a Kurt Vonnegut documentary since the Nineties.

A rabid fan since his first introduction to Vonnegut’s work by a high school teacher, Weide went on to teach a class on the author at the same high school. When Weide began producing documentaries for public broadcast some years later, he hand-wrote a letter to his hero, offering to make Vonnegut the subject of his next project.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote him back.

Very often, when a documentarian inserts themselves into the film, it’s hard not to wonder why. In this case, seeing Weide’s face as he recounts opening the handwritten note from his idol (which he still has) explains everything.

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is not a simple biographical doc on an icon of American literature. This is a real-life depiction of one of humanity’s most common fantasies: becoming close friends with your celebrity hero.

The illuminating doc is there, too, but even that is affected by the friendship. You can see it in the trusting relationship between Weide and Vonnegut’s children, who describe a distant man they got to know more through his writing than through time spent with him.

That very intimacy likely helps Weide and co-director Don Argott (Last Days Here, Believer) uncover a rarely captured side of the famously acerbic and funny author.

A chronologically unmoored approach (very Billy Pilgrim, sans the aliens) lets the doc ease you into the subject matter. We get to know Weide, we meet Vonnegut, we find what we might hope to find about Kurt. (It’s OK to call him Kurt, we’re friends now.) He’s funny, charming, goofy, brilliant, friendly. How awesome would it be to meet [insert your name of choice here] and have them respond to you like this?

It would be awesome.

From there, Weide is as likely to gush over some act of camaraderie, fawn over some new accomplishment, or dig into a Vonnegut misstatement in hopes of greater understanding — as you would with a loved one whose behavior concerns you.

Little by little, the film peels away what we may have assumed about Kurt Vonnegut to find what was underneath it all — most of which we should have guessed at given the words he committed to the page. And though the film is overlong and perhaps slightly too wrapped up in Weide himself, it warmly and bittersweetly answers one of life’s most relatable questions.

What if my hero wanted to be my friend?

Second Sight

The End of Blindness

by Rachel Willis

In Ethiopia, 1.6% of the population is blind, 80% of them with curable ailments. But for the nation’s poorest, care is beyond their reach.

In director A.J. Martinson’s documentary, The End of Blindness, we follow Dr. Samuel Bora, the only ophthalmologist for a population of more than 3 million, as he works to treat as many people as he can.

With the help of the non-profit organization, Tropical Health Alliance Foundation (THAF), Dr. Bora operates primarily in the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa. However, he spends two weeks out of every month traveling the country to visit the nation’s poorest villages.

Though focusing primarily on Dr. Bora, the documentary takes time to follow a few of those who seek treatment: a young mother who has never seen the face of her four-month-old baby; an older woman out of work for two years because of her blindness; a nine-year-old boy suffering traumatic cataracts after an injury.

By allowing us to spend time with a few of the people who desperately need treatment, Martinson gives these startling numbers a human face. For those of us so far removed from the idea of a five-minute, $50 surgery being unattainable, this is a reminder of the importance of access to quality medical care. In some ways, this gives the film the feel of one of those depressing commercials that hopes to elicit donations.

Further contributing to this impression is the deep timber of the film’s narrator. The crisis is laid out in simple terms with the narrator’s occasional input. The documentary’s score makes sure we recognize the importance of Dr. Bora’s work.

Yet, it’s impossible not to be moved when a patient has their bandages removed and the blank expression on their face gives way to a radiant smile that tells us the operation was successful. Dr. Bora’s work is crucial for a country where so many are devastated by blindness. It’s a crisis worthy of the attention the documentary draws to it.

For the squeamish, a few close-ups of eye surgery may have you turning away, but the images underscore the ease of the surgery Dr. Bora performs. It’s a stark reminder that this quick surgery is only possible because of the dedication of one man – who sometimes performs 60 surgeries in one day.

His dedication is a reminder that one person can make a difference. His story is worth telling.

Love And Mercy

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road

by George Wolf

“Genius” is a term often thrown around too casually, but about one third of the way through Long Promised Road, a moment drops that leaves little doubt Brian Wilson fits the bill.

Veteran producer Don Was sits in a recording studio with the original masters of God Only Knows, the classic pop symphony Wilson wrote and produced for The Beach Boys in 1966. As Was isolates track after track of those ethereal harmonies, he’s left to just shake his head in amazement.

“I’ve been making records for 40 years, and I have no idea what he’s doing.”

Credited with being an innovator of recording studio possibilities and the architect of the unmistakable Beach Boys sound, Brian has a long list of music business admirers, and director/co-writer Brent Wilson lines up an array of famous faces to sing Brian’s praises. From Elton to Springsteen, Foo Fighters to Nick Jonas and more, we hear nothing but well-earned respect and praise for a once-in-a-lifetime virtuoso. 

And that’s great, but it’s not exactly anything new.

What makes Long Promised Road resonate is the time we spend with the man himself, in rare moments when Brian feels safe enough to let his guard down and revisit people and places from his life and career.

Our guide is the film’s co writer Jason Fine, a longtime journalist who gained Brian’s trust over the course of several years and many conversations. Brian started hearing voices at age 21, and he is still troubled by mental health issues which can make formal, sit down interviews uncomfortable for him. So instead, Jason and Brian take to the road for some engaging carpool conversation.

They tool around Brian’s old California stomping grounds (some of which are now actual landmarks saluting him and The Beach Boys) as Jason asks about the past and Brian answers, while often calling out song requests for Jason to cue up in the car. Through it all, Brian comes across as a dear, sweet soul with minimal ego (he excitedly introduces himself to Vanna White in a diner), full of deep feeling and affection for those who’ve touched his life (even his father Murray and his longtime doctor Eugene Landy – whose relationships with Brian were at best volatile and at worst criminal).

Director Wilson (Streetlight Harmonies) intersperses the conversation with some terrific archival footage, at one point layering film of a young Brian directing the famous “Wrecking Crew” of studio musicians alongside more recent footage of him onstage and in studio. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition that brings the film full circle, giving us both a warm and often moving look back with a fragile genius and an illuminating glimpse of the maestro in his element.

Cop Shop

At the Ready

by Rachel Willis

At Horizon High School in El Paso, Texas, students have the opportunity to learn and train for careers in law enforcement. From Border Patrol to the El Paso PD, director Maisie Crow examines the opportunities and dilemmas the students face as they follow this path in her documentary, At the Ready.

The film follows three students, two seniors at Horizon and one recent graduate, keeping the focus on how these teenagers participate not only in the Law Enforcement classes, but the school’s criminal justice club.

Mason, a transgender youth, joins the club because it’s portrayed as a place where a student gains a family. Indeed, we see former members of the criminal justice club returning to the school to interact with and encourage current members. A family is something Mason is desperate to find, as he is mostly on his own. With divorced parents, and a father often away for his job, Mason struggles with his loneliness, as well as his inability to reveal who he truly is to his parents, classmates and teachers.

The familial aspect of the classes is conveyed through the actions of not just the students, but many of the teachers – those profiled are all retired law enforcement personnel. However, we see that for some of the teachers, there is a hypocrisy to what they teach. They struggle to convey the realities of a career in law enforcement: the stress on one’s family, the fear, and the trauma that comes with the territory.

Many of the students are children of immigrants. For them, working for Border Patrol is an opportunity to not only protect the border, but to help others trying to enter the country. The reality of the situation is another focus of the film: Trump’s border policy of separating children from their families is something many of the students struggle with. Christina, a recent graduate, finds herself questioning the ethical morality of such a policy. When the border policy changes with the whims of those in D.C., it’s the people on the ground who have to deal with the fallout of inhumane regulations.

Crow does a good job of keeping the focus on the subjects in the film without injecting too much bias. You’re encouraged to make up your own mind as you connect with people on screen.

Many well-done documentaries will not only hold your interest, but make you think. This one does both. 

More than Gore

Smoke and Mirrors

by Brandon Thomas

The word “Savini” conjures up a lot of historic imagery in the minds of horror fans. From the zombies in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead to the ground-breaking slasher effects in the original Friday the 13th, Tom Savini has been involved in some of the most iconic horror movies of the last 40 years. In the documentary Smoke and Mirrors, director Jason Baker moves past the well-known effects work, and digs into the personal and the passions of the horror icon.

We’re living in a time where documentaries focusing on filmmakers and other notable TV and movie personalities have become ubiquitous. A lot of these are quite good, but usually end up checking many of the same boxes. Talking heads do a lot of the heavy lifting, and the main subject’s participation isn’t always guaranteed. Thankfully, Savini himself is front and center in Smoke and Mirrors

Having Savini so involved gives Smoke and Mirrors a larger sense of legitimacy. There’s also a notable difference in focus that might not have happened had the film relied solely on interviews and secondhand accounts. Instead of offering retreads of effects stories he’s told dozens of times before, the film gets deeply personal with Savini. From touching on tragedy he experienced as a child, to the horror he witnessed in Vietnam, Savini doesn’t hold back when discussing the trials he’s faced in his life. 

A particularly surprising bit for me was learning just how passionate Savini was – and is – about acting. He comes alive when talking about the stage productions he was a part of and how that opened doors he never dreamed of. There’s a twinge of “What if…” sadness surrounding Savini’s acting career that he delicately dances around due to personal obligations. 

Smoke and Mirrors goes out of its way to highlight Savini’s character over his career. The interviews that are peppered in all end up in the same place: talking about what an amazing guy Tom Savini is. The importance of his contributions to cinema is never forgotten, but the value of the man over the work takes center stage.

How the Sausage Gets Made

Ascension

by Christie Robb

If the makers of Black Mirror made a documentary, I imagine it would feel a lot like Jessica Kingdon’s Ascension.

Presented with no voice-over, written narrative, or expert interviews, the film traces Chinese capitalism from cattle-call like recruitment fairs for entry-level factory work, to shots of machines spitting out piles and piles and piles of single-use plastic doodads, through military-inspired company cultural training exercises for middle managers, to seminars aimed at budding entrepreneurs trying to “monetize [their] personal brand.” The film hits its social apex as a group of youngish elites dine on French pastries while discussing exactly how much knowledge a government should allow its citizens in order to be globally competitive.

With arresting and disorienting camera positions, sharp cuts, and an anxiety-producing soundtrack that would elevate any horror movie, the alienating effect of consumerism is more than carried across.

What we are hearing sold is a Chinese version of the “American Dream,” in which there is a promise of wealth distribution to those who “deserve it.” But what we are seeing is the cost of that dream.

It’s a nightmare of repetitive work, managerial corruption, and alienating corporate propaganda. Employees are encouraged to work harder and faster than sanity would indicate is advisable. All knowledge must be monetized. Families must be deprioritized. Relationships are reduced to whether you are influenced or influencing.

At one point, a CEO delivers a presentation and mentions that China has the potential to be five times the consumer that America is. By that point in the film, the line might as well be underscored by the shrieking violin in Hitchcock’s Psycho.

It inspires nightmare images of the future. The human race drooling incapacitated in front of a screen buried in an ocean’s worth of water bottles in the best-case scenario. Or being whipped by a screaming boss demanding you to make more water bottles faster in an unregulated and perilous working environment.

This isn’t to say the film is completely without humor. The funny moments are just…well…dark. At one point a photographer is barking orders while snapping shots of an influencer on the pristine lawn of a resort. She complains bitterly of the heat, “I can get a heatstroke out here.” Meanwhile, a laborer squats a little ways down the lawn painstakingly removing each invading weed by hand.

It’s heavy-handed, but Christ on a container ship, Ascension is effective.

Hear Her Roar

Steel Song

by Cat McAlpine

A crowd is gathered in a concrete hall. The space might be at a fairgrounds, where animals are displayed and children show off their crafts. But not today. Today, the crowd leans over the red metal railing to watch full-suited knights absolutely wail on each other. Welcome to Medieval Armored Combat.

Steel Song follows several women involved with the ancient, full-contact sport. They practice hacking away with axes. They paint and stitch personal sigils. They strap into full suits of armor and fight in combat, sword to sword.

Though tournaments separate bouts by sex, director Adrian Cicerone never pits the women in his film against each other. In fact, he shows very little of their competitive results. It would be easy to compare the women to one another. The Armored Combat League (ACL) National Championship features 9 female competitors to 48 male. But instead, Cicerone focuses his lens on the camaraderie of the community, and his film is made the better for it.

Steel Song doesn’t delve into the history of sword combat or how the society of steel combatants functions now. Instead, it briefly explores the lives of Bridgette Parkinson, Shoshana Shellans, and Julee Slovacek-Peterson, and discovers how armored combat is just one large part of their lives.

“I keep fighting because of what I can continually prove about myself, to myself,” says Shellans.

That’s the theme of the film. Cicerone doesn’t focus on the competition because every armored fighter is really fighting against themselves, for themselves. It’s an incredibly difficult sport, with bouts only lasting 3-5 minutes because of the amount of exertion required. Even covered head to toe in armor, combatants still come away bloody. They also always come away smiling, with most matches ending in a hug between competitors.

Steel Song is a beautiful hour and fifteen minutes, complete with appropriate instrumentals, that relishes in the joy of being yourself.

Muses one of the women, “I think everybody would be so much happier if they could just be them.”

The Specter Haunting America

The Big Scary “S” Word

by Matt Weiner

With a list of thank you credits that acknowledge the last few decades of leftist entertainment from Michael Moore to Chapo Trap House and the Jacobin set, it’s almost a minor miracle that a documentary about socialism manages to unite so many voices on the left into a united clarion call for economic justice as the only way to save America.

More surprising is that The Big Scary “S” Word, a new documentary from filmmaker Yael Bridge, manages to press its case while forgoing the more combative antics of Moore. Which isn’t a knock against Moore’s style, but Bridge’s staggering array of leftist academics, authors and politicians creates the atmosphere of a lively college course with your favorite professor. The academic-heavy roster, including professors Eric Foner, Cornel West, Vivek Chibber and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, often tilts toward more education than inspiration—but it’s a compelling education.

An education for which audience, though, is a trickier question. It’s hard to imagine the nation’s right-wing uncles coming together this Thanksgiving to bond with their dirtbag nieces and nephews over how everyone can get behind sewer socialism.

But Bridge seems to be aiming her sights (wisely) at the MSNBC left—the well-educated, professional set that might not realize they’ve watched half a decade of “left-wing” cable news peppered with more retired generals and contrite Republican operatives than capital-s socialists. And with barely a mention of labor unions, let alone hosts making a passionate case night after night for how the history and future of labor are inseparable from a successful liberal project. Bridge provides a much-needed counterbalance to the corporate vision of liberalism, and she makes the case without the vitriol of Twitter fights.

The film’s thorough focus on the history of socialism doesn’t leave as much time to go out on a practical note. (And it’s unfortunate, although not the film’s fault, that one of the main politicians they follow flamed out spectacularly in 2021.) Other times, the film’s prescriptions seem at odds with the title mission. Should the left be destigmatizing socialism, so it’s no longer the big, scary “s” word? Or should politicians focus on policies that improve people’s lives, and let the pundits argue over whether we are becoming Venezuela just because people shouldn’t face bankruptcy when they get cancer.

In fairness to Bridge, the documentary doesn’t demand an all-or-nothing answer. That’s up to those who respond to the film’s message. (If you like your state-owned bank, you can keep it.) What’s not left in doubt, though, is the looming crisis of climate change. It might be a loaded question, but it’s still a fair one: Is a wholesale restructuring of society really more radical and unrealistic than continuing down our current path? It’s a question everyone will need to answer at some point, hopefully before it’s too late.

The Power of One

Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power

by Brandon Thomas

Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power is a rapturous celebration of the long-time Congresswoman from Oakland, California. Instead of being an issues-driven fluff piece, Speaking Truth to Power is a movie that seeks to understand how Lee’s history and circumstances led her to becoming the woman she is today. 

Barbara Lee hasn’t become a household name like Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Despite her minor anonymity on the national political stage, the film puts a spotlight on how Lee has managed to get meaningful legislation passed while holding onto her core beliefs. It’s part of what has made Lee so endearing to her constituents, other House members and senators, and to her own family.

So much of the early portion of Speaking Truth to Power focuses on Lee’s solitary post-9/11 vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists. By being the lone member of the House of Representatives to vote against the Act, Lee put a target on her back during a fraught time in American politics. Through leaning into this part of Lee’s life so early in the film, Director Abby Ginzberg sets the stage to show how the Congresswoman has always been that principled in her morals and convictions.   

Of course, the film is chock full of glowing testimonials from the creme de la creme of American political and activist life: John Lewis, Van Jones, Cory Booker and Danny Glover, just to name a few. These vignettes never threaten to overtake the film, but add flavorful bits to Lee’s ongoing story from childhood through her career in Washington.

The real meat and potatoes of the film comes from Lee herself. So much of her story is told from her point of view as the filmmakers follow her from Washington, D.C., to her district in California, and even back to El Paso, Texas, where she grew up in the shadow of Jim Crow. The personal side of Lee’s story isn’t given the same attention that her professional side is, and that feels almost by design. Lee isn’t shy about her struggles as a single mother, or the failings of past relationships. But she isn’t looking to let those past hardships define her either. 

By the end of Speaking Truth to Power, it’s apparent that Barbara Lee deserves to be included in the pantheon of those aforementioned household names. Not for her political shrewdness though. No, Barbara Lee should be remembered for her convictions. 

Memories of Murder

Finding Kendrick Johnson

by Rachel Willis

In 2013, in Valdosta, Georgia, a black teenager was found dead in his high school gym. The officials ruled his death a tragic accident. There were a few unsatisfied by that ruling – including director Jason Pollock. The result of his four-year, undercover investigation is the unflinching documentary, Finding Kendrick Johnson.

Drawing on interviews with Kendrick Johnson’s family, official investigators, as well as news footage, crime scene photos, and Valdosta’s brutal history, Pollock makes his own case for what happened to Kendrick.

We’re told early on this information is being presented in a way that will allow viewers “to make up their own minds.” This isn’t an issue when focusing on what happened to Kendrick. However, the film makes a hard accusation. This isn’t to say whether or not the accusations are unfounded, but in the age of internet vengeance, it doesn’t sit well.   

It’s not done without reason. The accusation allows the film to draw parallels. If the roles were reversed, if a white child was murdered and the accused was black, the case would be handled very differently. A black teenager would certainly not be allowed to live his life, nor would a white teenager’s murder be handled so carelessly (and with utter disregard) by local law enforcement.  

Narrators, even in documentaries, often deliver a hard sell. Many times, movies fare better without the voiceover giving you the details. But this film wants the viewer to be very clear about what it’s presenting. In case you missed a detail, Jenifer Lewis’s narration helps call your attention to the many contradictions in the case.

Numerous graphic and violent images haunt the screen. Crime scene and autopsy photos of Kendrick allow the viewer to see what happened to Kendrick in gory detail. It might be too much for some, particularly as the documentary draws comparisons to past lynchings, but it’s necessary to highlight the injustices against Black Americans. Too often, Black men, women, and children are murdered, and no one is held accountable.

In the past, these crimes would be known, celebrated, and ignored by the justice system. These days, the justice system tries to pass off a murder as an accident in hopes it will go away. This documentary, along with Johnson’s family, wants to ensure that doesn’t happen to Kendrick.  

Kendrick Johnson deserves justice. His family demands it. Maybe this documentary will help them get it.