Category Archives: Film Reviews
As COVID-19 has prompted the Metropolitan Musuem to close its doors to its thousands of visitors on a slow day and stream daily content, we have a chance to look back at another time. It is a throwback to the past splendors of the Met and its 2018 Versailles exhibit captured in a Tribeca Film Festival offering. Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles, streamed online for press, fans and supporters. Tribeca Film Festival curtailed many of its events. However, they screened films in the midst of a global pandemic, the likes of which is perhaps worse than the French Revolution that felled the last of the French Kings (Louis XVI) and left the Palace of Versailles a shell of itself until later restoration.
Though I am a neophyte foodie, I had never heard of world renowned chef Yotam Ottolenghi (cookbooks include Jerusalem, Plenty). Nor had I the time to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York during its “Visitors to Versailles” exhibit: https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2018/visitors-to-versailles.
The Metropolitan Museum enjoys featuring live events which bring important works to life. They attempt to ground them in the present by combining exhibits with other contemporary forms of expression. “Visitors to Versailles” was one such glorious presentation taking place in the Summer of 2018.
Though I missed attending the Versailles exhibit and particularly “The Feast of Versailles,” presented by Ottolenghi and his pastry chef collaborators, “all’s well that end’s well.” Laura Gabbert the documentarian known for city of Gold, No Impact Man and Sunset Story decided to do a quick and dirty film about Yotam Ottolenghi’s commission to create the “Feast of Versailles” giving us an inside look behind the scenes at how the “feast” portion of the exhibit came into being.
From start to finish, Gabbert chronicles the philosopher-foodie Ottolenghi at his home and his restaurant. We witness clips of him with restaurant colleagues tasting and refining desserts. We immediately get a sense of Ottolenghi’s expertise, congeniality and collaborative skills to perfect dishes to will please his clientele.
The filmmaker features brief interview clips o Ottolenghi describing how he works and how he responded to the Met’s commission of his culinary artistry. Then she the chronicles the chef’s visit to New York City from his home base in London and reviews meetings with Met Museum experts who assist him in his research of the culture, opulence and luxury of Versailles as the seat of world culture for over 100 years during the reign of the Sun Kings. Importantly, the Met experts discuss the types of foods that the king and his patrons enjoyed, gleaned from the records and from oil paintings of that time.
As Ottolenghi visits Versailles, Gabbart includes panoramic views of the glorious gardens and various salons and rooms including the “hall of mirrors” which she films as Ottolenghi comments. This section perhaps could have been added to; there is never enough photography of the incredible palace. However, film clips include the drawings, renderings and other works capturing the style of the palace dating back three hundred-fifty years.
From his readings, his discussions with the experts and his Versailles visit, Ottolenghi decides to review online a myriad of pastry chefs to assess whom he might best collaborate with who will convey his vision. It’s an important selection process. They will help him elucidate the ethos of Versailles though a contemporary lens. After visiting their websites and scrutinizing their “wares” online, he hones in on five visionary dessert chefs: Dinara Kasko, Janice Wong, Bompas & Parr, Ghaya Oliveira, and Dominique Ansel. All of these chefs are as diverse from each other as is the east from the west.
Ottolenghi’s research of French history and epicurean tradition, meetings, planning and contacts which have taken months are everything. Then Gabbert slows down her time frame and follows the pressure on the five chefs as they arrive at the Met to set up their displays and work their magic two days before the culinary event the “Feast of Versailles.”
These unique and renowned pastry chefs (creator of the “Cronut” Dominique Ansel, among others) have been guided with a light hand by Ottolenghi who has envisioned the evening as an emulation of French decadence that manifests spinning reflections into our own age. Months before the event, each pâtissier works to create a unique dessert inspired by the conceptualization of Versailles’ over-the-top dramatic grandeur. Chocolate sun kings to elaborate jellies, tarts to swans and topiaries — Gabbert reveals the artistry of the dessert chef and the challenges they confront fashioning their presentations in a formidable setting like the Met which is not outfitted as a culinary institute, indeed, far from it.
As the tension rises, the worst possible scenarios occur. The electrical circuit doesn’t work and it is a trial for the electricians to come up with a solution so that the “tornado” effect delivered by the special machine will spin with gusto. In another instance, the cake batter is not the right consistency because the ingredients in the US are different. The pastry chef tries numerous times with the help of an American expert who insists another ingredient should be added. The director wisely leaves the chef unmoored from her art, questioning how to correct the batter. Will she find a solution the day of the Feast?
Importantly, the “Feast” is a living paean to the court of the monarchy which daily was a staged scene that gave audience to artists, writers, reporters, foreign tourists and subjects who witnessed the rich splendor of the King’s residence, his dominance over his officials and his power as head of state. French cuisine then and now had a great impact on French society which continues into our modern day with cultivars like Julia Child, Eric Ripert, Dominique Ansel and more. One cannot examine a cookbook and not see French words used for process and product: i.e. saute, flambe, mousse, omelet, etc.
One theme that Gabbert explores is this idea that there is little privacy in the world of the Sun Kings who exposed themselves, perhaps too much for it led to their downfall in the extremes of poverty and wealth. Today, Social Media is used to eliminate our privacy, but the uber wealthy manage to stay away from the public spotlight, where the Sun Kings sought it. The reputed richest in the world are not necessarily so; old wealth that dominates for centuries is unknown and uninvestigated, for good reason.
Another theme that the director eludes to briefly which could have been elucidate is the idea of excess, crass opulence and decadence. The director includes one shot of Donald Trump’s gold room and makes the analogy that such excess caves in on itself as did the French Monarchy. On a superficial level the “equivalence” seems to make sense. She needed to extrapolate about the parallels and reveal that past their superficiality, there is no parallel. The Sun Kings were far from frivolous and unlearned. Their culture developed over a century and the accoutrements they surrounded themselves with were priceless. The same does not abide for the dim comparative currently in the White House and the occupants’ crass nouveau riche sensibilities.
What may abide in this romp through Versailles and the lovely feast of extravagant and clever desserts is the draining wealth and riches it takes to sustain the luxurious materialism. Eventually, the debts pile up and the enemies threaten. Soon the borrowing becomes so great one is entailed with quid pro quos, not a way to remain autonomous. And then the revolution comes when there is not enough food to go around. The film is an interesting view of the days of glory during a time when new elites strive for similitude but fall so short, they don’t recognize their foibles and pretensions.
But Gabbert manages to tie the times vaguely together with the elaborate desserts and concepts of the grand master of the “Feast of Versailles,” Ottolenghi. And she infers gently that the sustainability of such excess is as mortal as its keepers. We recognize the fragility of excess more than ever in this COVID-19 global pandemic.
The “romantic” reality of the starving artist exploited by predatory promoters has been turned on its head by the graffiti artist, political activist and filmmaker Banksy. Over the past two decades Banksy has bested art dealers and beat them at their own game. In the process he has hyped up his own notoriety and sweetened his Robin-hood-like credibility by remaining anonymous to all. That is, all except the few sworn to secrecy who are privileged to be his inner circle.
Banksy Most Wanted, directed by Aurélia Rouvier and Seamus Haley, is a Tribeca Film Festival offering that I screened recently. I enjoy that Banksy thrives on anonymity, travels the world and uses buildings as his canvases. He paints and stencils ironic hieroglyphs, insuring they are accessible to the multitudes who appreciate his stark images and socially important messages. Cleverly, rakishly he tantalizes and exploits art dealers who would traffic his work like vultures.
In their straight-shooting documentary Rouvier and Healey visit a multitude of locations. Using a mixture of video news clips and their own cinematography, they investigate the Banksy ethos with depth and humor. First, they chronicle his origins in Bristol, UK. Next, they trace his evolution from the 1990s. For then he painted by hand. Subsequently, he decided upon spray painting. With it he could cover more mileage. Therefore, upping the ante by preparing stencils in his studio beforehand, he left off labor intensity. Most probably, stenciling offered the ease and speed to get in and out of locations without detection.
More recently, Banksy’s evolution extends to outrageous, live installations. Irreverently, he painted a live elephant in Los Angeles riling animal rights activits. For the sheer cheek of it, he unleashed 200 rats in a London gallery. And with a nod to her sainthood, he embellished a portrait of Mother Teresa with the words “moisturize everyday.”
Identifying his most famous works in Bristol, London, Paris and New York, Rouvier and Healey relate the impact of these Banksys on the surrounding community. In one instance a town litigated a dealer who took “their Banksy” which had great significance to them. They refused to allow him to steal the honor of Banksy selecting Port Talbot, Wales as a site for his art.
To establish ownership the dealer purchased a garage wall with the Banksy located in Port Talbot, Wales. Subsequently, he removed it with cranes to carve the images from the concrete to auction them off. As a result, the town sued him. During the litigation he discovered the art’s value to the community. Indeed, they believed Banksy had chosen their town to bless with his work.
Interestingly, the court found that the town’s freeholder rights as a community superseded the dealer’s free-holder rights. This was a Banksy triumph for the little people and a gut-wrenching blow to the stomachs and wallets of art dealers everywhere.
The filmmakers explore a few of Banksy’s satiric, temporary art installations. For example, they revisit the 2008 Porta-Potty Stonehenge. With self-demeaning brio, Banksy dubbed it “A Pile Of Crap.” Likewise, the 2015 Dismaland Bemusement Park offered a tortured happy rides with macabre convolution. Dismaland was a “sinister twist” on Disneylands everywhere. Banksy described it as “a family theme park unsuitable for children.”
Additionally, the directors highlight his adventurous pranks. One of these incurred self-shredding the print “Girl With Balloon” at a Sotheby auction right after the banging gavel closed the purchase.
Throughout, the filmmakers question the Banksy ethos. His stenciled works increasingly find their way into areas of economic repression and cultural upheaval. Some appear in the West Bank. These, include the restored Walled Off Hotel positioned across the street from the Israeli-Palestinian West Bank barrier. All of them raise questions. Indeed, Banksy fans and critics alike interpret them as an addendum to his political activism. And they label him a postulate critic of the dominant powers who would prevent others from securing a viable place at the table of life.
With his works having become ubiquitous, Banksy globally imprints his perspective to sound the underlying truths of our reality. And his searing and irreverent statements against imperialism, capitalism, earth destruction, climate change, consumerism, poverty, corporate fascism, racism empower the viewer.
However, all is not anti-establishment. Occasionally, he counterbalances these themes and subjects with images of love, innocence and endurance. For the documentarians focus on how he makes his guerilla art a velvet weapon to war against killing and uplift peace. Furthermore, they reveal how his dichotomous images heighten the culture’s oblivion to their being accessories to enslaving and harming Third World Countries. With singularity and precision the directors emphasize how he employs juxtaposition in his creations. And they do justice to Banksy’s indictment of the West’s contributions to crimes against humanity in its greedy value of money over people.
Throughout the visual explication of Banksy’s subject matter and themes, the filmmakers delve into his message to the art world. Another lucid indictment emerges. For Banksy, great artistry moves beyond boundaries and walls of brick and mortar. It remains exclusive of hyped-up, artificiality and “Tulip mania” trends.
For this reason he has left the art world spinning in circles. As they chop up walls to obtain his works in the hope of making a bundle, he intentionally dislocates their obsession. Most recently, to thwart the rapacity of dealers, owners of buildings have become Banksy fans. They refuse to sell. Instead, they plexiglass their Banksys to protect them. With an irony of their own, they reinforce Banksy’s overarching instruction to street people. Art exists everywhere
Over the years Banksy has garnered himself and a beleaguered art world a delicious, capitalistic profit. Reputedly his worth totals up to a rumored $50 million. So, for those who admire his anti-capitalistic, anti-consumer spirit, think again. Perhaps, this anonymous rogue doth protest too much. However, the vital question remains.
Who is Banksy? For me peaking behind the anonymity becomes a crucial high point of the film. With incisive interviews, the directors weave in and out to explore three possible identities. And these they unravel, playing with the uncertainty of facts and details of “reliable” narrators. Afterward, they suggest a fourth possible Banksy.
Clearly, the directors love their subject. And they have done their homework. They’ve presented the diorama that his anonymity has served a charitable purpose . Yet, they’ve proven Banksy also serves his own interests.
Thanks to his anonymity, others have been able to claim his work, either legally or emotionally. And his fans love adding to his aura by fantasizing about who is hiding behind the name. These investigations reveal a novel perspective of the artist, his salient/sardonic world view, his links with the music scene and his entrepreneurial acumen. They also expose the importance of identity to art and society and our need to triumph over invisibility.
Through the testimonies of those who know him and have worked with him, but also of those who exploit him, hunt him down and claim him, Banksy Most Wanted paints a profound portrait of “one” of the foremost artists of our time. It concludes with the vitality of the spirit that channels through the group of artists that effect Banksys. And that makes all the difference in the world.
Banksy during the pandemic.
Apparently, Banksy is staying indoors following the UKs sheltering in place lockdown orders. However his famed mural “The Girl With A Pierced Eardrum” has received a COVID-19 update which includes a blue surgical mask.
First appearing on the side of a building in Bristol’s Harbourside in 2014, this Banksy spoofs Vermeer’s “Girl With A Pearl Earring.” But the earring incorporates Banksy’s thoughtful wall selection, an outdoor security alarm. Banky’s “girl” sports not a “pearl,” but a ‘stretcher’ supplied by the security alarm.
Wild speculation deems Banksy broke the lockdown and sneaked out to spray paint his work to give a kick in the pants to those who will tour his graffiti most probably with masks and appropriate social distancing when Bristol “opens.” However, fans argue the COVID-19 mural can’t be by Banksy who usually reveals his works on his Instagram account.
For official COVID-19 works Banksy, on his account you will find rats running amuck and making themselves at home in his bathroom. It’s captioned: “My wife hates it when I work from home.” Banksy’s irreverence during this pandemic makes this Plague go down a bit easier. #Banksy
How many times have we walked by homeless people on the NYC sidewalk overbundled with blankets and towels in the wintertime? Did you toss change in their cup and walk away free from the guilt? Or did you have a conversation if you had a bit of time to spare, in a show of human decency?
I’ve often thought that the change didn’t begin to answer the loss of a life of connectedness that the individual experiences daily bracing against the elements as he or she determine to live on the streets. If the individual is an older person, I’ve wondered how they might have gotten there. Was it a downhill spiral from drugs or alcohol or not taking their meds? What do we do with their presence which represents a failure of our culture and government to care for its own? Do we walk by ignoring them as invisible people, throw change or when no one is looking use them for an occasion to unleash our devils within?
Nicole Gut Executive Producer, Author, Songwriter, Composer, Actor, Singer considered these issues and wrote a short play about a woman who has lost her singing voice. Through a series of events the woman ends up living on the streets of New York with the hope of returning to herself one day. It is a day which never comes.
Lullaby premiered at the John Cullum Theatre at the American Theatre of Actors in Manhattan in New York on October 2018 as an entry for Paul Michael’s New Short Play Festival. The play was directed by Kae Fujisawa and was a success.
Ryan Mills, an actor in the production gave a hard and long look at what the team accomplished. He was convinced there was so much more to the story that must be told. With his insight and assistance, Nicole decided to transform LULLABY into a SAG narrative short film. Kae Fujisawa whose dedication and perceptiveness as a director who helped to shepherd the play to a home run would be the director and co-writer of the film. At that point events moved quickly. Nicole and Kae worked on the script to add complications and deepen the themes.
The resultant film from Nicole Gut’s titular short play Lullaby is a work they are proud of. It had a number of screenings, one at the Network Film Festival in New York City where it was well received. Nicole Gut garnered a Best Actress Nomination and Jack Utrata was nominated for Best Cinematography.
The film stars Ryan Mills as Brian Mills and Nicholas Ferrara as Michael Franklin who portray friends and near-do-wells who are ethically and morally challenged. Both, especially Brian, are unable to solve the overwhelming issues that threaten to destroy their lives. Alcohol is never a panacea to heal soul damage. In fact it exacerbates the damage and launches one into a place that is an abyss of misery and torment.
And so it goes for Brian and Michael who on a drunken spree come across a homeless woman and former singer Sarah Hughes (Nicole Gut) who has lost her voice. The alcohol overtakes Brian and Michael and they allow it to dominate their will, self-hood and decency. Sarah tries to defend herself, but her response provokes the men, especially Brian. We learn later why he moves against her with venom. Susan Jane McDonald as Brian’s mom reveals Brian’s untoward actions, which are deeply rooted in sorrow. Indeed, when old wounds do not heal, they bleed out onto other individuals and the reckoning is horrific for everyone involved, a reckoning which has no answer and no end.
I screened Lullaby at a private screening at Shetler Studios after the Network Film Festival. It was then I learned that the film was accepted to Culver City Film Festival as a narrative short and screened 6-12 of December. I can understand why. It is well conceived, acted and directed; the cinematography (by Jack Utrata) lighting and shot construction are cogent and propel the story and atmosphere of the film toward its ironic and eerie conclusion. Kudos to Nicole Gut, Kae Fujisawa, Jack Ultrata and other members of the team who worked to effect a story that has currency with our time.
The creative team intend to submit the film to additional festivals as they work on a full-length feature that promises to broaden the characterizations and themes. These center around issues of homelessness, bullying, psychological trauma, discrimination, and the mistaken assumptions that kindness is weakness and machismo shows one is powerful.
Lullaby screened at Culver City Film Festival in Los Angeles, California where it won the Best Short Suspense Award. To learn more about Lullaby on Instagram, go to @LullabySweetDreamsFilm. On Facebook CLICK HERE.
To become a part of the LULLABY team by donating to their Indie Go Go campaign, CLICK HERE.
For the Lullaby website to stay apprised of the events related to the film CLICK HERE.
‘Night Hunter,’ a Psychological Thriller Starring Henry Cavill, Alexandra Daddario, Ben Kingsley, Stanley Tucci
Strong performances by Sir Ben Kingsley and Brendan Fletcher as a psychotic sexual predator killer make Night Hunter an intriguing film for those who are able to pay attention. If you watch it on a small screen and take frequent breaks from focus, you may get lost with the opacity of the plot which largely rests as a mystery whose reveal builds brick upon brick and slams into crystal clarity at the end.
Written and directed by nascent filmmaker David Raymond, the film is not without flaws in its sound and audio delivery. Indeed, the fine music score at times drowns out the dialogue instead of whispering the insidiousness and suspense that is inherent in the storyline, a storyline which pays homage to psychotic schizophrenics in other films that have a better handle on terrorizing the audience, perhaps. But make no mistake. This film is not of that genre. Night Hunter has its moments and if you are a fan of Tucci, Cavill and especially Kingsley, who as usual is spot-on terrific in a small, meaty part, you will receive what you came for.
Henry Cavill portrays police detective Marshall, a “night hunter” of sexual predator/killers who has become so overwhelmed by his career that he has allowed it to occlude his family relationships. He’s lost custody of his daughter and is divorced and has been drawn inward by guilt and the darkness he hunts. His characterization is largely intuited; Cavill is dour, depressed and cold, a warning to those who believe that “hunting” killers is all fun and video games. It’s not and Raymond indicates that Marshall has been largely undone emotionally. He’s siphoned off feelings and warmth to remain sharp for his incredible journey into the minds of the psychotics. Fun it is not!
Along this particular journey looking for a murderous sexual predator, he is aided by former girlfriend Rachel, the lovely Alexandra Daddario who is a sweet-faced, kittenish damsel in distress (especially at the end). Continually against type she alternately proves she can and can’t profile killers, but nevertheless she somewhat successfully draws out the monstrously weird, mentally challenged, deaf Simon who Brendan Fletcher portrays with lightening empathy and terrifying reality.
Stanley Tucci as Commissioner Harper keeps his force together and weathers the embarrassment (it’s a humorous scene) of facing down the press and public infuriated by the police force’s incompetence at locating enough proof to put away the predator stalking their city. Unlike American Law Enforcement who readily finds their killers and then years later are upended by DNA testing which proves they got the wrong guy, Canadian law enforcement intends to get it right. Of course, amidst botch jobs and misdirection down wrong paths (the mentally challenged Simon is being abetted by someone who is keen to kill and has the brilliance to outsmart and dispatch the police) the community’s patience wears thin as the serial killer remains on the loose to strike again and again.
It is no surprise that Kingsley, who portrays retired judge Cooper converted into a vigilante who protects the community against sexual predators without killing them appears a hero. His rationale beautifully delivered to Cavill’s Marshall in the benign brightness of a diner, seems right-on and clear-eyed considering he succeeds where law enforcement continually stumbles. Well, their emotional motivations are as different as night and day. For the police, looking for predators is just a job. For Cooper it is a mission in which he is emotionally invested. Actually, women have suggested that predators be dealt with as Cooper deals with them. Stopping the assaults and ending ruining the emotional ethos and psyches of women, however, is not important enough for the male-driven law enforcement officials to even lobby for.
Law enforcement, full of brio and testosterone (Marshall, Harper) find his methods beyond the pale, except at the end when Cooper joins the team. How Cooper goes about stopping predators from their chronic obsession to sexually abuse, prey upon and even kill young women is ironic and profound. Perhaps such a method should have been used on Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein and other misogynistic (rape is a crime of violence and against young and old has been characterized as a weapon of war) sexual criminals whose privilege (if they are rich) places them above the law to predatorize women with impunity.
Indeed, Cooper outshines all of law enforcement and makes the self-righteous Marshall, who can’t even get his own role as father in sync with his daughter and is in a state of panic with the predator on the loose, look like a wimp. In all fairness, Cavill is not Superman in this film which is a refreshing switch. And up against Kingsley who is just terrific, he is bested/awed in the two-minute scene where Cooper makes his case for going after predators “his” way with his side-kick the wry and sometime funny Lara (the fine Eliana Jones) as the lure for the men attracted to underage, “unwitting” GIRLS.
Not enough credit has been given to Raymond for exposing the two different approaches to sexual predation: one as a medical condition, the other as a crime whose predators, once they fulfill their sentence, move back into the culture to prey upon victims again. Law enforcement’s and the male culture’s myopia perceive sexual predation as a sexual phenomenon. It is not; it is a mental/physical condition as Cooper suggests, or worse, a hate crime especially regarding serial rapists (who eventually turn out to be killers). To end the deaths and destruction of women’s lives, Cooper’s methods seem less than harsh. However, as long as the patriarchy runs things, women will have to suffer and sexual predators, always men (identified with by male law enforcement) be given lenience. Kingsley’s performance brings all the nuance, depth and controversy to these issues. As Cooper he is heartfelt. The arc of that character’s development by Raymond is drawn well and acted superbly by Kingsley who gives the judge great substance and moment.
The themes about how “night hunters” who are hunted (the psycho killer avenges himself on the police) survive and the emotional toll it takes on them are interesting, as is Daddario’s Rachel in her empathetic sweetness to lure Simon to speak the truth. The psychological aspects of law enforcement are notes in the film, which is not just about apprehending a psychotic sexual predator/killer. See if you can figure out the mystery; clues are present.
Considering that many murders/disappearances (sex trafficking ends in murder, the womens’ bodies often disappeared) end up cold case, the elements Raymond pinpoints are vital; but as in most films about rape, sexual predators, psychotic killers, i.e. the Silence of the Lambs series, SeVen, etc., the plots are fantastic fiction regarding the success of law enforcement. Holding serial rapists and killers and sexual predators to account is hard won and more often than not, they are allowed to go free, abetted by law enforcement’s malaise about rape (see the film I Am Evidence). Thus, Night Hunter effects an interesting response to the issue of sexual predation through the characterization of Cooper, unlike any seen before. That males will easily dismiss and overlook these elements seems moot.
Currently on DIRECTTV, Night Hunter will be screening in theaters and ON DEMAND in NYC, LA and other cities beginning 6th September. Look for it.
Morgan Spurlock rose to international fame in Super Size Me (2004) when he used himself as a research subject to chow down for breakfast, lunch and dinner on “supersize portions” at McDonalds in a marathon of calorically indulgent eating. During the process Spurlock fashioned his body into a toxic biohazard. After one month of greasy Mc-oversizing, he proved the medical hazards of such an intake of poisonous fare. His systemic overloading on fats, salt and sugar compromised the health of his kidneys, liver and heart and his weight gain laced with nights of acid reflux and intense heartburn solidified how fast food chains outsourced bad nutrition and obesity while emphasizing low cost.
The film successfully grossed millions with a huge profit margin and vaulted Spurlock into the hero heaven of vegans and health food mavens. Meanwhile, a shamed McDonalds pulled its “supersize program” and brought in “healthier” menus with salad sides and meals, and thoughtful “trimmings” on burgers. And as a documentarian, actor, producer, writer and filmmaker, Spurlock’s entertaining and revelatory approach reshaped the tenor of documentaries by spinning a novel, investigative method, moving from outside critic to inside ethnographer whose chronicle as a consumer couldn’t be easily dismissed.
Though the fast food chains had been put on notice immediately after the film’s release and mega publicity, to what extent did they maintain their “good behavior” providing healthier fare years later? Indeed, after the shock of Spurlock’s doctor’s dire warnings about his ill health faded from the public’s memory, could they be lured back to fried, greasy, salty, burgers, chicken sandwiches and fries?
Spurlock discovered they could in his sequel Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! in which he chronicles his own launch into fast food and agribusiness poultry farming. As a result of a proposition by Hardees to make an advertisement using his credibility and authenticity showcasing the supposed “healthiness” of its menu, he decided it was time to revisit the new “trends” morphing the fast food industry. Once again, taking an ethnographer participant’s approach after research, expert consultations and the input of the public, Spurlock created his farm to fast food table chicken pop-up restaurant in Columbus, Ohio where his Holy Chicken! joint rose like a phoenix from an old Wendy’s.
Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! is Spurlock’s amazing journey through poultry farming right up to the psychological approach of designing a chicken sandwich and “healthy,” relaxing setting in which to eat it. When it comes to the insidiousness and cruelty (toward farmers and chickens) of what Spurlock refers to as the “Big Chicken Mafia,” and the obsessive intensity of the fast food industry to brainwash and lure its customers, Spurlock reveals how the public is gamed, bamboozled, duped and mollified into believing agribusiness and the fast food industries have their best interests at heart. By assuming the role of the insider, Spurlock becomes privy to most everything we need to know to “open our eyes” when we make food selections from their raw forms in grocery stores (branding, i.e. organic, free range, etc., is an extreme exaggeration) to their crispy chicken (never say fried-it’s anathema) and painted on grill marks in fast food restaurants.
Some of what Spurlock entertainingly and wryly unloads on the viewer they are probably familiar with. Fast food menus have been made to appear sleek, chic, “organic,” healthy, fresh, but are actually filled with the same old malign items despite the kale most probably grown with pesticides and herbicides. With his innocent, frank and humorous delivery that he has honed to precision, he lightly excoriates how “branding” and “labeling” provide a “halo of health” effect which of course is a sham.
For example what is fresh, organic, natural regarding veggies? Were these items bagged from California days ago or fresh picked from the farm that morning and raised without pesticides and herbicides? Are pictures of salads, veggies and fruits come-ons to convince us we are eating healthy food as we by-pass them for the greasy, fat-filled burgers and fried chicken? Are wooden laminate floors and green decor appointments suggestive of fresh, natural settings decrying the artificial? Yes! The industry has staged every element of delivery down to their brown napkins and bags and paper straws.
When Spurlock in the interest of sampling the competition’s chicken sandwiches (chicken sandwiches-best sellers, have overtaken burgers as healthier offerings in the public mind) he visits McDonalds, Burger King, et. al, to try out their chickeny fare. His epithet descriptors are humorous and of course, the taste is no different than what he remembers from thirteen years ago. As for sampling and examining the best-selling chicken sandwich in the US market today offered at Chick-fil-a? He discovers their advertised “seasoned to perfection” deliciousness is not because of the chicken, but because of the extensive “flavor enhancer” otherwise known as the devastatingly poisonous MSG. So he and the experts he has taken along on their sampling travels to see how they can beat the competition vow that to succeed, he should be as authentic farm to table as possible, minus the MSG.
The most upsetting segment in the documentary underscored ironically by melodic classical music involves Morganic Fresh Farms in Alabama. Spurlock takes us on his adventures finding, purchasing and raising his chickens which begin as adorable hatchlings under the auspices of independent farmer and mentor Johnathan Buttram. It is then that he rips the veil to expose the noxious, controlling practices of “Big Chicken” integrators (Tyson Foods, Perdue, Koch Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Sanderson Farms) who turn their farmers into sharecroppers as they “tow the poverty line” eventually bankrupting them or driving them out of business if they become rebellious. The integrators use a genocidally counterproductive “tournament system” that pits farmer against farmer for the “love of “big brother chicken” to enhance their profits while squeezing their farmers by forcing them to make unnecessary upgrades.
Spurlock’s interviews with some of the farmers who are at their wits end and emotionally devastated at the stress of having to increase their purchases and indebtedness to “big brother chicken” integrators, tell a tale akin to “slavery,” in a job that requires farmers never take rests or vacations but are on call almost 24/7. On strict orders not to talk to reporters to tell them of their plight or they will be blackballed, the farmers take a great risk to get the information to the public in Spurlock’s film. Indeed, Spurlock who makes Jonathan Buttram his hero farmer, indicates by the close of the film (2016) “big brother chicken” integrators refused to give Buttram more chickens to grow because of his revelations about the industry. To “big brother chicken” integrators the truth is punishable by elimination. Vladimir Putin and other autocrats do no less. Reprehensible!
Indeed, if “big brother chicken” truly cared about the public as their friendly advertisements and chicken lobbyist Tom Super suggest, they would open their doors to their growing houses. But they can’t because if the public knew how the chickens were overcrowded and abused, they would be appalled and boycott “big brother chicken,” who refuses to change its profitable practices. For example Spurlock chronicles how the broiler chickens used in fast food and for sale in grocery stores have been genetically modified to grow in hyperdrive over a six week period so they weigh six pounds by the end of their lives. If a baby grew as fast proportionately, it would weigh 650 pounds.
Talk about genetic overload, the chickens are so obscenely big breasted top heavy, they can have hip joint breakage and necrosis and a myriad of other disgusting diseases if their immune systems are not functioning properly. However, even the healthier ones die of heart attacks before the six weeks are up because they are too heavy to stand for longer than 5 seconds let alone run around and get exercise. Their heart muscle gives out because genetically they are conditioned to grow too quickly for their heart to accommodate them. When Spurlock takes some of his heart attacked chickens to the vet who autopsies them, the vet pronounces that this is what happens to these chickens whose meat is otherwise healthy.
Humanely, Spurlock allows his chickens more space to run around where to make money to survive, his friend and mentor from whom he purchased his chicks, Buttram, like other farmers are forced to pack in their chickens for profitability. If they can’t move? Well, a hazard the integrators promote. Spurlock saves the one God-growing chicken not genetically modified to hyperdrive growth that he kept with the other big breasted chickens to show as a comparison. The God-growing chicken runs so fast, they can barely catch him. Of course, he is smaller, healthy and not in a chronically somnambulant feed overdose!
Spurlock’s film is fascinating and sardonic not only for what he reveals, but for the authentic and honest approach he takes insuring the credibility and reliability of his chicken sandwich product. On the walls of his pop-up Holy Chicken!, he exposes every shoddy practice that the fast food industry and he himself used down to the painting of grill marks on his crispy “grilled” chicken sandwich. And he identifies, to the dismay of his patrons, the big breasted hyperdrive grown chickens he grew on his farm. He also includes a drawing of Johnathan Buttram with the admonition “know your farmer” and a description of the sharecropper system that farmers are forced to use if they would be poultry growers.
The opening day patrons of Holy Chicken! paid for a delicious chicken sandwich which by the time they finished reading all of the information on the walls and the menu, they were appalled to have eaten. One patron commented about the clever ironies of the restaurant ,and Spurlock affirmed speaking into the camera to both industries that he hopes to put himself and them out of business with increased public awareness that they are being “taken for a ride.”
Supersize Me 2: Holy Chicken! is a must-see for a laugh and a tear. It was featured a few years ago at the Toronto Film Festival and then was pulled for #MeToo reasons against Spurlock who made an Al Franken move and apologized for his behavior then was bashed again and again for it. The inability of women to discern when they should forgive those who admit fault and apologize instead of beating them forever, bodes badly for the movement. Kirsten Gillibrand’s insistence that Franken fall on his own sword and resign from the senate while the occupant of the White House and his friend Jeffrey Epstein and Justice Kavanaugh had done far worse than Franken, reveals the movement needs to step back and examine itself for inequitable judgment and cowardice for not going after those who need to be called down in the face of overwhelming evidence. #MeToo needs to embrace the men who apologize, make amends and change, not flagellate them in a misguided fashion while NOT ADMONISHING RELENTLESSLY the true rapists, misogynists and sexual predators in high places who smile in the shadows of their lying denials.
Thankfully, Spurlock’s film finally will do the good that it was intended to do, receiving a release date the week of 6 September 2019. Don’t miss it! If you can’t wait, it is also online.
Tribeca Film Festival World Premiere Review: ‘It Takes a Lunatic,’ The Life and Times of Wynn Handman
Anyone who has been involved in the New York City theater world knows who the prodigiously awarded Wynn Handman is. He is a lunatic indeed, with a purpose and a passion. Wynn Handman’s love is for theatrical performance, teasing out character to achieve the pinnacle of believability that allows the actor to live “onstage.”
For decades Wynn Handman has been coaching actors to get in touch with the best part of themselves and release their God given talents. His appreciation for innovative theater is as legion as his humanity. It is expressed in the countless friendships he’s had over the years with writers, playwrights, musicians, directors and artists. Billy Lyons’ wonderful documentary is an incredible testament to a great man who continues to have an impact on all in his sphere of influence.
In its World Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, It Takes a Lunatic, director Billy Lyons (actor, director, teacher, producer and assistant to Wynn Handman) displays the man behind the mask and reveals there is no mask or gloss to Wynn Handman. Wynn is who he is, an authentic, witty, “tell-it-like-is” acting teacher, and he is this with everyone, large and small, famous or infamous, actor or layperson. Why change now? Wynn is 97-years-young and is still teaching acting. He has nothing to lose by being himself, which he always has been, “a wild and crazy guy!”
Lyons’ poignant tribute to this brilliant genius and loving artist is a lesson in learning to be real, to get to the core of oneself unapologetically, to take risks, to embrace the unique, and defy the status quo. And above all through this retrospective on Wynn, we learn that in the theatrical world, one should go where angels fear to tread to manifest the rewards of creative inspiration. Wynn has approached his life this way and has achieved what only a fearless magician would dare to even think about. He initiated The American Place Theatre and with it directed and hosted unknown and established playwrights and known writers who adapted their work into plays. Wynn allowed innovation to flourish and opened opportunities to black (Ed Bullins, Michael Bradford, Ron Milner) and Chinese (Frank Chin) and female (Emily Mann, María Irene Fornés) playwrights and actors at a time when opportunities for them were slender and doors opened infrequently.
Lyons reveals how Wynn effected this, through his own life experiences during and after the war when New York was opening up like a flower and anything seemed possible. Wynn learned from some of the best; he ended up studying with and assisting Sandy Meiser at The Neighborhood Playhouse. There he made his chops and had the grist to launch out on his own creating his own acting classes and sessions which he has continued doing for decades.
Lyons captures this dynamo through film and video interviews and archived family photos that span his early life and cover all parts in between through his marriage, later family life and continuous career, from 1949 up until the present. Lyons captures his enthusiasm, his great good will, humor, generosity and his flexibility to understand the importance of helping to hone the talents of actors, directors and writers. Video and film clips include interviews or discussions with/about a veritable “Who’s Who” of actors, directors and playwrights who studied or worked with Wynn. A few interviewed in the film or seen in photos or film clips are Richard Gere, Joel Grey, John Leguizamo, Bill Irwin, Raul Julia, Sam Waterston, Frank Langella, Sam Shepherd, Eric Bogosian, Michael Douglas, Dustin Hoffman, Mira Sorvino, Susan Lucci, Woody King Jr, Faye Dunaway and many more.
Lyons includes historical clips from his acting and coaching classes as individuals discuss Wynn Handman’s approach toward his actors which was unlike many of the other acting teachers in the city who were austere and frightening. Every actor interviewed from Michael Douglas to Richard Gere tells anecdotes and experiences they had with Wynn, many humorous, all of them praiseworthy. He is the ideal acting teaching who dispels fear, encourages, comforts with his wise, calm demeanor. He knows just when to tell a joke or make one laugh. His suggestions and perceptions are superlative. From the introductory applause in the theater as Robert De Niro introduced Billy Lyons and the film, one could tell that Wynn’s hundreds of fans-many of them working actors and directors were present to support him. They gave him and Billy Lyons a standing ovation before and after the film.
The list of celebrities who studied with Wynn is impressive. Many of them have gone on to be award winners. Lyons includes fabulous black and white performance clips from some of the fascinating productions staged at The American Place Theatre and has various actors discuss their impact. Lyons delves into Wynn Handman’s close friendship with Sam Shepherd who he, in effect, put on the map by producing 8 of his plays at The American Place Theatre.
Wynn Handman conducted many series at The American Place Theatre. There was a Humorist’s series (i.e. Cavin Trillin, James Thurber, Jules Feiffer and others) A Woman’s Project Series, a Literature Series (various authors adapted their longer works into plays). Wynn encouraged the production of controversial, ground-breaking and thematically striking works.
In 1969 Wynn produced George Tabori’s The Cannibals a holocaust play which received a cool reception because the audience didn’t understand the piece as black comedy. Tabori’s play went on to be produced at the Schiller Theatre in Berlin where it received an incredible reception and outpouring of support because the Germans needed to deal with elements of the Holocaust and the play afforded them the opportunity. Tabori, a Hungarian Jew who swore he would never return to Berlin ended up moving there and becoming a vital force in German Theater. From the reception of this work, Tabori ended up writing additional plays and working in TV as opportunities opened up to him. Tabori became globally renowned and won various awards. Without Wynn Handman’s support for Tabori to present his plays, one wonders would this inspired story have ended the way it did? Lyons coverage of this segment in the history of NYC theater is monumental.
Additionally, in 1970, Wynn staged Tabori’s Pinkville starring Michael Douglas in a dynamic and highly praised performance. The play was an indictment of the US war in Vietnam. Pinkville was controversial and exceptional. It is another example of Wynn Handman’s courage in treading where theatrical producers feared to go. But in the film Handman emphasizes that The American Place Theatre was a non-profit theater, funded through subscriptions. So those who donated, paid their subscriptions because they wanted to see controversial, ground-breaking Off Broadway theater. The American Place Theatre was artistic theater in the best sense of the word and as one of the producers, Handman was free from worrying about the bottom line and commercialism that plagues NYC theater today.
The moderator of the Q & A that occurred after the screening was Jeremy Gerard who wrote the biography on Wynn Handman entitled Wynn, Place, Show. It is worth the read to review Wynn’s historical place in American theater and specifically his influence in shepherding so many sterling actors who are still working today.
The documentary superbly chronicles one man’s indelible impact on NYC theater and in particular revelatory drama. Lyons has created a gem of a film. It is a must-see for anyone pursuing a theater or entertainment career, and for those interested in how theater’s cultural impact can change lives. Look for It Takes a Lunatic online and check out their FB page.
American Factory by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert screened in its New York premiere at Tribeca Film Festival. The documentary is an alarming view of the foreign factory which may presage the downhill slide for American workers as the trend of foreign investment continues. Factories in China and Russia operate differently. And when such investment comes to the U.S., standards of accountability are not what Americans are used to. Foreign ownership dictates process and operation.
The film presents the anatomy of a GM plant closing December 2008 and its rise from the ashes in the form of a refurbished plant bought by Chinese investors. The idea to invest in the U.S. was to establish profitability. For Americans the hope was that the jobs created would bring greenery back to a state which was choking from the massive rust storms its closed industries had caused.
The devastation in industry as a result of the mortgage debacle and Second Great Depression under the Bush Administration was legion throughout the U.S. and globally. Thus, when news of the GM plant’s restoration by Chairman Cao came, there was cause for jubilation. After the dust of the launch settled, expectations shifted and the hard realities revealed themselves.
The filmmakers lay no blame and avoid a political stance. Any reference to politics is my own perspective. The filmmakers present all sides and attempt to be as objective as possible. Because of that attitude they had total access to the factory floor. Using the techniques of cinema verite and acute editing, we see interviews of workers expressing feelings and opinions. In light of the history of the American factory and unions which the film touches upon, what is now happening with foreign investment coming here and opening factories is not the boon politicians would make it out to be. Based upon what the filmmakers discovered and relate through their interviews and portraits of workers at home and on the factory floor, “the handwriting is on the wall.”
A Bit of History
When the Dayton, Ohio GM plant closed in 2008 filmmakers recorded what was a tragedy for blue collar workers. Dayton, the home of the Wright Brothers, had a prodigious history of industry and innovation. At one point it boasted the most patents per capita than any other city in the US. It was the second largest automotive manufacturing city after Detroit at a prosperous time before the Regan administration. Before the Regan years the wealthy were taxed proportionately with the other classes. The corporate tax rate was triple what it is now. The unions protected/advocated for workers and petitioned the government (OSHA) to safeguard their health and well being when there were violations. CEO salaries were not as exponentially wacked in comparison to their workers’ salaries. Workers faced low inflation: by comparison to today, there was little national debt. A single parent wage-earner was able to support a family of four and put kids through college in middle America and the South. Additionally, the medical industrial complex was not profit based.
None of this was socialism! The wealthy were taxed their proportionate fair share. It was good, old-fashioned American citizens paying to support one another’s prosperity, from the wealthy to the poor based on the graduated income tax. The extremes between rich and poor were not galactic. Banks were regulated repositories of citizen funds; they could not invest.
Ronald Regan and a conservative Republican administration exponentially increased corporate socialism otherwise known as corporate welfare. Everything changed in the nation’s economy and social/economic progress among the classes to benefit the wealthiest and slight the poor and middle class (upper middle, middle, lower middle). Republicans increasingly targeted programs for every-day Americans and pushed for more tax breaks for the wealthy. Unions were broken up. Globalism was used as the excuse, but in effect, the 60/40% power balance upended between unions and corporate higher ups to 80/20. Corporates took advantage. Greed blossomed, inequities grew. Corporations closed factories in the U.S. and went overseas, not happy to make a profit, but happier to make a mega profit to pay a hefty CEO salary and benefits to someone more interested in the bottom line than making product. Banking structure continued to change. Banks consolidated, made investments, funded derivatives, subprime mortgages and became “too big to fail.
Surreptitiously, Regan and others that followed had the laws changed to effect this, all to benefit corporates and the wealthy. There was continued downsizing, outsourcing, lower corporate tax rates, higher middle class tax rates, and lower taxes for the wealthy. Factories went overseas and Americans and farmers went bankrupt as the American Dream evaporated. With the mortgage debacle in 2008, it was the apotheosis of the death of the American Dream. Plant closures bankrupted and retrograded the lives of thousands of blue-collar workers in a chain reaction effect on other businesses.
After filmmakers covered the GM plant closing, they did an update of the area. Founder, chairman and CEO of Fuyao Glass Industry Group in a symbolic gesture acquired the old GM factory to establish an American headquarters of multinational Fuyao Glass. For the promise of hiring American workers and having it launched by American officials, he received enormous tax credits from the Ohio Tax Credit Authority. These breaks have increased under the Trump Tax Reform Act, which gives millions of dollars in tax welfare to corporations and billionaires, while making the other, poorer economic classes pay for it in a now swelling $23 trillion dollar deficit, something once considered anathema by conservative Republican tea partyists, now embraced and lauded by Mitch McConnell Republicans.
Documentarians filmed the plant launch and operations of Fuyao Glass which, to Chairman Cao’s consternation, was not immediately profitable as it would have been in China. It was losing money on top of the $500 million invested to open the plant.
Interestingly, Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert examine a cross-section of Chinese and American workers and managers to gauge the cultural differences, language barriers and work approaches. They interview Chairman Cao (a communist party leader hooked in high up to the party through his family). The Chinese workers, used to long hours and little pay are happy. American workers are upset.
The differences between the two cultures are staggering and problematic when the pressure of financial losses increases. Chinese workers, used to 10-14 hour days, find the 8 hour day unrealistic for profitability. US safety regulations established by OSHA are not understood and often ignored imperiling workers. For example Wong He, lead Furnace Engineer in OEM Tempering at Fuyao Glass America in an area where temperatures exceed 1200 F, a 20-plus-year employee of Fuyo, has burn marks all over his arms gotten in China. China’s safety regulations are not like ours. American workers file grievances, something that Chairman Cao doesn’t understand.
The Chinese and American workers try to become friends; there are humorous clips of Americans bringing Chinese workers for barbecue and for entertainment, showing them how to use guns for target practice. The Chinese workers who are away from their families and room together in tiny apartments are shocked that some Americans have to work two jobs (FGA pays $14.00 per hr.) to make ends meet. Clearly, American standards of living are not what Chinese hear about. Filmmakers interviews who lost homes, went bankrupt and live in one room in a relative’s house with few belongings. Thus, FGA seemed a dream come true. There are caveats.
In the past the former jobs at GM paid $28.00 an hour and the inflation rates and cost of living were lower. With their lower salary and higher costs, inflation and the shrinking purchasing power of the dollar, the FGA workers cannot afford to pay for their own education to retool or pay for their children’s college. Some are happy to have a job. But it is longer hours (they are not paid for training) with unsafe working conditions. The Chinese workers are younger and are used to long work hours under stressful conditions. Chinese workers come from a militaristic/communistic approach to company loyalty. They obey all commands without question, even if it means sacrificing their safety. Americans if have been used to a long tradition since unionization of asking “why?” Chairman Cao and the Chinese officials see this approach as disloyalty. They should just obey orders.
As the financial pressures increase, the Chinese attempt to show American company officials how FGA should be operated; they even pay for their visit to China to understand how plants are run. The hand of the Communist Party is all over the company in China; there are songs, banquets and entertainment to praise Fuyo Glass and the Chairman for his goodness. The sessions appear like brainwashing PR advertisements which inculcate the workers to be loyal, obedient employees for the good of the company/communist party. The visit to mainland China is an eye-opener.
Though American managers who visited China attempt to rein in their American workers when they return home, the historical, socio-cultural and economic disparities get in the way. Everything explodes when American workers at FGA attempt to unionize with the help of the U.A.W. Chairman Cao will not brook this assault on his company. He hires American lawyers and lobbyists to thwart unionization and mount an attack campaign against the union so workers will vote it down. The firm he hires, the Labor Relations Institute is paid over one-million for its assistance to provide everything that Chairman Cao and Chinese managers (Chairman Cao brings over new managers to tackle what the American managers can’t) need for the union vote to fail.
Filmmakers catch all of these interactions on camera and edit cogently so we understand the events with voice over explanations by workers. Surveillance of union representatives at FGA is taken. The right of the worker to voice complaint is discouraged; union reps who work at the plant are the equivalent of traitors. The vote fails; FGA has no union. There are promises made to lift the employee wages. Eventually, with no profitability, American management is fired; union reps are fired and anyone who gives “what for” or doesn’t work at the level required of their Chinese counterparts is put on notice. Retribution for asserting the right to speak out will occur, thus workers fear filing grievances with OSHA. At the end of the film’s shooting in December of 2017, a Fuyao employee was accidentally crushed to death. Additionally, to avoid conflicts in the future, the plant is being increasingly automated. Regardless, workers will be out of jobs, even if they prove loyalty.
Is there any way of knowing what injuries are occurring or what violations are happening in a corporation in the US, a foreign run company, which follows Chinese policies and practices? Only whistleblowers could reveal this; but they need their jobs and would be fired if the the identity of the whistleblower was revealed. The law of profitability is supreme, under a system of loyalty to the Chairman and the company which expects its workers to meet its own standards, not American standards.
Since the film the number of OSHA complaints against the company is down-exactly why is not known. The company has been profitable in 2018; but one of the stipulations for tax incentives of $15 million is that the company fulfill its promise to hire 800 employees, generate an annual payroll of $32.5 million and stay at their current facility for at least 18 years. Filmmakers also discovered that in March of 2018 a Fuyao employee was accidentally killed while working. Fifteen years ago in plants across the nation, to avoid citations, OSHA standards were being followed and the press would have publicly shamed the company.
Chairman Cao is spending $16 million to build a new processing center in South Carolina. It’s a new day. Foreign investment is here. It’s been a long time coming. Those in the “know” needed to prime the nation for such a situation with sub prime loans, so workers could go bankrupt, corporations could make more money overseas, the unions could be broken and those pesky regulations could be obviated. All of this happened and happens so that corporations pay little for a desperate, broken-down, poor, workforce, and foreign companies find the US an attractive place to invest, helped by politicians looking to make a little spare change for their states and themselves. But as automation takes over jobs, much of the need to oversee human production will be moot.
How do we handle the coming foreign factories that are populating our American landscape, offering jobs at what cost to Americans?
The situation has exponentially worsened under Trump. Workers are expendable and invisible; the rule of law and regulations are a thing of the past. No one is watching except Chairman Cao, and other foreign corporate chairmen and Trump. They are watching their bottom line at the expense of workers and the American people. But don’t believe what I’ve written here. See the film for yourself. Corporate socialism has everything to do with what is happening to the “American” Factory. Equitable economic, democratic practices and tax structure had everything to do with why the U.S. was thriving up until Regan. Only the .001% are increasing their wealth exponentially. The reset of the nation is treading water or drowning in rust. Automation will exacerbate these problems.
The film is truly a siren call to citizens in the South and in the Rust Belt who are debilitated and hurting economically, despite promises by Trump. Fox News reports which ADVERTISE for the next election, a “booming economy” (yes for billionaires and Wall Street) are great sources of brainwashing to convince Americans that the shrinking purchasing power of the dollar is not happening and their existing paycheck to paycheck is a good thing. Just don’t get sick. The film posits what is happening and I’ve suggested this is no coincidence if you look at the larger picture. The economy is global. Corporations are not bound by nation-states,’ laws. They are free; their CEOS make incredible salaries; workers can’t afford a night out on the town if they have children. And under Citizen’s United, corporations are people; they can donate any amount they like to their preferred political candidates to perpetuate corporate welfare.
An example of foreign investment that is happening as I write this concerns Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska who is bringing money and jobs to Mitch McConnell’s state of Kentucky after Trump lifted heavy sanctions applied by Obama. against Russia for the Crimean invasion. Oleg Deripaska,Putin’s close friend, is building an aluminium factory in Kentucky. Deripaska has a history of looting, money laundering, corruption, silencing whistleblowers (one woman who shot her mouth off that Deripaska knew about Russian meddling with the U.S. election has been jailed in Russia). Deripaska/Putin have covered up corruption that is the basis of his oligarchic empire which he is making global with the help of Trump and McConnell.
If Deripaska is given carte blanche treatment to “stimulate jobs,” for McConnell’s Kentucky, his company will not ipso facto be subject to former American factory standards, especially if Trump and Mitch McConnell (who has turned a blind eye to Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the Mueller Report’s findings of potential conspiracy and definite obstruction of justice) are in power. If the company pollutes and run roughshod over American workers? Only an aware public and vigilant government can stop any abuse by a company that is processing one of the most toxic substances on this planet, a poison connected to Alzheimer’s and other debilities.
Under Trump, the skies are the limit with foreign investment and foreign companies coming to the US to “create jobs.” There are no regulations worth keeping to improve the profitability of corporations. US tax payers will be subsidizing these corporations and individual states will be subsidizing tax breaks; certainly Mitch McConnell and the Kentucky state tax commission will be offering Oleg Deripaska tax breaks as a condition of hiring American workers. One wonders what else McConnell and others from Kentucky will be offering to “bring jobs” to one of the poorest states in the Union?
If we learn anything from American Factory, we will note that unless guarantees are made with workers, foreign investment will not improve American citizens’ plight and the economy in states that are hurting. Coupled with workers’ inability to easily retool and get an education (they cannot afford it because of bank strangleholds on student loans and interest rates) their options are so limited they are forced to work in such foreign industries for lower pay and questionable safety conditions. The vicious cycle will continue and the divide between rich and poor, the coastal cities and the red States will exponentially worsen. We must ask who does this foreign investment help?
This is a film worth seeing and thinking about. The point is to keep on learning. Ignorance is not a luxury we can afford.
In Washington, D.C. the beautiful monuments and treasured capitol building are icons Americans accept with reverence to appreciate their history. Also in an area that encompasses 17 blocks in the shadow of the capital there is a slaughter going on which is shameful and hidden.
The documentary film 17 Blocks by filmmaker/journalist Davy Rothbart with screenplay and editing by Jennifer Tiexiera, who won a Tribeca Award for Best Editing, exposes one of the most violent areas and gives us pause to ask why must gun violence continue, even in the very capital whose politicians refuse to deal with it because of money and power? We also ask, what is the value of human life to individuals whose lives have apparently been thrown away by a society and culture that doesn’t care?
Rothbart’s powerful and poignant film exposes the raw underbelly and extremes of life and death, that exist for black Americans who abide in the shadows of racism, poverty, drug addiction and the dwindling hope that their lives will ever get better in the capital of a ountry whose history has been plagued by war from its inception. In the chronicling of one family’s experience living in the 17 block radius, a picture unfolds that explains all we need to know about our country’s ethos in the hope that there can be improvement. If people see and understand, then they can change and help others change. It started with a filmmaker and someone who liked the idea of filming and from there, 17 Blocks was born.
The film begins with 9-year-old Emmanuel (the name means “God is with us,” and in the New Testament, Jesus Christ) using the camera in cinema verite style to capture the daily life of each member of the Sanford-Durant family.
Rothbart met Emmanuel who expressed an interest in being a filmmaker after he and his older brother Smurf become friendly with Rothbart. Eventually, the ball was set in motion for Emmanuel to chronicle snippets of family over a period of two decades. Emmanuel used Rothbart’s camera to shoot homely scenes, for example of his sister Denice preparing dinner, his mother getting ready to go out, as well as the family dynamic, their relationships and struggles. Various scenes express a rawness and poignancy that shows their love, concern, stress, anger and the full range of emotions that beset a family that is going through hard times, including the lack of finances or the education to start a successful career path.
Emmanuel introduces us to his mother Cheryl and other family members, Smurf, his brother who is six-years-older and Denice the oldest sister who has a job and attempts to take care of everyone. Over the years we watch their aging. We understand that Smurf battles a drug addiction and then goes full blown into dealing and then is arrested. We note that Cheryl has been struggling with a drug addiction that has financially bled her family dry and has dispossessed herself from a life of success by using. this goes on for years and is exacerbated when she is with her boyfriend Joe. Emmanuel even tapes their arguments.
Through it all, we watch Emmanuel grow up to capture what it is like living in the not so safe haven of family and the unsafe streets that they must negotiate as they attempt to get through each day. Emmanuel captures Denice’s children and Smurf’s holiday gatherings, parties, Cheryl’s elderly father who is not well and the general mayhem of the household which does not have enough room for all of them.
Denice who works, attempts to do the best she can but is not a good housekeeper and Cheryl chides her for this. But taking care of her children, cooking for them, working and moving in the direction of being a cop, then dealing with her addicted mother and brother is stressful. Somehow she manages to shore up her strength and be the mother and rock for all of them.
We are upset by their lows and happy that Emmanuel who has found an interest in being a firefighter and who has made good grades in school is graduating. He has a lovely girlfriend who is a good influence on him and it is clear that capturing on film his and his family’s lives may have made a difference in his choices away from running on the streets like so many of the other kids in this 17 block radius.
However, Cheryl and Smurf are on a downward slide with nothing to buoy them up and take them away from the destructive habits that have overwhelmed them. We understand this by how Cheryl has aged and by Smurf’s attitude, that the drugs will eventually do them in unless there is an intervention to make them realize their lives are worth something and that they still have a purpose in living.
Happily, their intervention comes. However, how and when it comes is not only unexpected, it is tragic.
Rothbart’s cobbling together these cinema verite pieces that Emmanuel captured during this time period is an ethnographic study in one black family’s life attempting to make it to the next day. Emmanuel portrays them lovingly through his lens so that we feel we come to know them, empathize with them and want the best for each of them. We are happy for Emmanuel’s goodness and Denice’s ambition and we hope against hope that Smurf and Cheryl will somehow dig deep within to change their lives.
We also stand in their shoes through the intimate approach that Emmanuel takes loving every one of his family members. And we can’t help but ask what would I do if I lived in that 17 blocks? Would I be so desolate I would turn to drugs as a way out and into oblivion? Where do I go for hope when I am so depressed and don’t have the means to seek a doctor’s help when what ails me is I’ve objectified what the culture and society says about who I am; that I’m worthless?
Rothbart has presented this documentary with perfection, keeping the inexpertly shot footage by Emmanuel as a nine-year-old and merging it eventually with the footage Emmanuel shot later and the scenes he himself has shot toward the conclusion of the film. We are left with a heartbreaking portrait of a family who is like us and who wants out of living in an environment prevalent with drugs and violence. And so would we if we stood in their shoes. And that is Rothbart’s point. Deliverance must come to this area. It has been a long time coming and ultimately seeing from the perspective of a nine-year-old who grows into manhood, the heartbreaking message is clear. We must stop the proliferation of illegal guns by making it unprofitable for gun manufacturers. There is no time better than now.
Tribeca Film Festival Review: ‘A Taste of Sky,’ Sparking the Vision of the New Nordic Cuisine in Bolivia
Have you ever eaten at the number one restaurant in the world? For a number of years NOMA received the honor. Chef René Redzepi who runs the new NOMA in Copenhagen is working his way up to first world status again, after having moved and lost the former prestige. Chef Claus Meyer worked with Redzepi in helping to put New Nordic Cuisine and Copenhagen, Denmark, not normally known for sensational food, on the superior gastronomy map to win the title of “Best Restaurant in the World” four times.
A Taste of Sky by Michael Y. Lei features Claus Meyer’s groundbreaking cooking school and fine-dining restaurant GUSTU and chronicles how and why Meyer decided to open the school in La Paz, Bolivia. The film presents two students from GUSTU who are among the best of the best for they have evolved from humble beginnings to become fine chefs who will most probably one day gain the title of helping to be a part of the restaurant team who will have achieved the title of “Best Restaurant in the World.”
Yei’s documentary is a beautifully shot film for foodies and a great way to become acquainted with those who dedicate their lives to superior gastronomy like Claus Meyer. Meyer is culinary entrepreneur, food activist, cookbook author, professor and TV host. Though others assisted in helping Meyer establish the New Nordic Cuisine philosophy (12 chefs in 2004 wrote the New Nordic Food Manifesto to begin the movement, based on Claus Meyer’s initiative, inspirational draft and coordination) Meyer’s genius originated the concept. Over the years after the establishment of NOMA as a working laboratory and kitchen to foster the ideas of the New Nordic Cuisine, the restaurant became globally renowned and the philosophy spawned other iterations. Restaurants materialized similar approaches.
New Nordic Cuisine seeks to foster local agriculture, honor the region’s agrarian traditions, encourage environmentally friendly production, and establish food with a uniquely Nordic identity among the world’s great cuisines. An activist who believes that gastronomy can improve lives and change xenophobic responses to disparate cultures, Meyer has worked on many projects over the years to realize his beliefs. One of these projects took him to La Paz, Bolivia where he opened GUSTU and proved that the concepts initiated in the philosophy of “New Nordic Cuisine” could be retrofitted to any area in the world which has a dynamic environment and varied cuisine.
Lei’s film cuts back and forth to his interview with Claus Meyer and his daughter, and two students trained at GUSTU: Kenzo, a hunter raised in the wild of the Bolivian Amazon and Maria Claudia, a native of the Andean altiplano. Both sacrificed to leave home and attempt to become familiar with another world entirely. Meyer’s hope to establish one of the poorest countries in the world, Bolivia, as a a fine dining destination, is a fascinating revelation and experiment in fostering cultural intersections, between cities and rural areas, between and among cultures, and families educated and not educated.
The filmmaker includes glorious shots of Kenzo’s Amazon rain forest as he delves into Kenzo’s background, familiarizes us with the terrain, visits Kenzo’s parent’s farm and home, interviews his parents and generally helps us get to know this amazing, forward-thinking young man with great ambition. Assimilating the concepts of the philosophy behind New Nordic Cuisine, Kenzo, who completed his training at GUSTU, has made it through a difficult program where his friend dropped out to pursue something else.
Kenzo is currently working as a chef at a fine dining restaurant far away from Bolivia. He hopes to return one day to establish his own restaurant creating dishes whose unique ingredients come from the rain forest, the place he knows best as he learned from his father what plants are edible, healthful and delicious. The cuisine he will create using the local ingredients promises to be incredible.
Lei gives a sensitive and caring portrait of Maria Claudia, revealing that her problems are the usual ones for women. She must launch out into a career, having left home and the ones she loves instead of getting married and bearing children. She is overthrowing centuries of gender folkways with her new beginnings. This has been emotionally painful for her. The power of Lei’s interviews with Maria Claudia are that he allows her to explore and express her feelings so we understand what she has given up for a dream that she herself must manifest.
Lei reveals that in their own way, seeking their dreams using gastronomy as the vehicle, Maria Claudia, Kenzo and Meyer have taken parallel paths, though they are completely different individuals from different countries and backgrounds. Yet, all were inspired by this dream of how food can change one’s life and world, expanding food culture to meld people together so they might appreciate each other.
In his interview with Meyer, Lei brings out the problems with establishing the New Nordic Cuisine philosophy as it might adapt to the cuisine and culture of La Paz, Bolivia. Lei includes interviews with Meyer’s critics who are eventually won over by what Meyer is doing. And Meyer discusses the idea that the obstacle of the perception of the “colonial” coming in to help the “little people” was something he had to overcome. During Lei’s interviews with Meyer, he allows the entrepreneur to discuss his childhood and personal life. From that we understand the forces that shaped Meyer to move in the direction of gastronomy in a world laboratory to change people’s lives for the better.
To his credit, once Meyer established the success of GUSTU and made sure the school was grounded and continuing without him, he gave it over to Bolivia. Meyer’s intellectual genius is in researching whether or not his hypothesis about food works anywhere in the world, in any setting in the world. Is food a vehicle to change lives and improve the lives of the most hurting, the most needy of individuals? In all of Meyer’s projects threads of this belief are present.
Credit goes to Lei’s vision and the perspective he captures in this sonorous, sensual, striking film. The title is ingenious in symbolizing not only the beauty of the sky in Bolivia and the skyward dreams that both Kenzo and Maria Claudia are reaching toward, as they fly up to meet them using their love of gastronomy to create their own unique dishes based upon their culture, background and training.
The film is seamless in its cinematography and editing. It should be seen especially if one is a foodie. Look for A Taste of Sky online.
Our Time Machine won the Tribeca FF Best Cinematography for the Best Documentary Feature Awar, as well it should. The atmospheric lighting and shot compositions helped to create the poignance and poetic beauty of the film.
The arc of development concerns the relationship between the aging Chinese artist (Ma Ke) and his son the famous Chinese photographer and award winning graphic artist (Maleonn). Together, they work on a theatrical project which Maleonn believes will bring them closer together. Through Maleonn’s creation of life-sized father-son machine puppets and a theatrical installation propelled by his family story of life and death, Maleonn hopes to ground his father in a familiar theatrical milieu. Thus, he will receive his father’s wisdom as they work on the project together. Ultimately, Maleonn hopes this artistic endeavor will forestall his Dad’s worsening dementia by linking him with his beloved art form, theater.
Chinese artist Maleonn creates elaborate photo tableaus that blend the real and the surreal in ways that echo his own memories. The installation he hopes to create is his family’s time machine that will symbolically suggest the past, present and future. The filmmakers capture steps of the creative process, the engineering of the puppets, the workshop where they assemble them and various spaces which reveal how the actors/puppeteers gradually take on the ethos of the characters Maleonn has created in his family story.
The documentary directed by Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang is fascinating on a number of levels: artistic, historical, personal, human, cultural. In reflecting upon the lives of Maleonn, one of China’s most influential conceptual artists today, and Ma Ke, the former artistic director of the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theater who put on more than 80 operas, we are encouraged to see the connections of China’s artistic and cultural past and the burgeoning, innovative artistic China of the present. The new China is reaching out to make its artistic mark internationally, helped along on Social Media and the Internet.
Sun and Chiang reveal the artistic threads between the old China and the China of the digital age as they chronicle Ma Ke’s experiences growing up in a China of varying artistic contours and morphing political philosophies. For Ma Ke, being involved with Chinese Opera Theater (his love and expertise created a wonderful career for himself and his actress wife) was verboten during the Cultural Revolution. He was unable to work for a decade and was humiliated as all theater was politically themed, extolling the glories of communism and the various heads of the Communist Party. There was no place for traditional art forms and especially Opera Theater with its costumes, make-up and hairstyles that reflected ancient China.
After a decade the bans were lifted. Ma Ke was free to work in the theater and he feverishly made up for the lost years. Maleonn appreciated his father’s artistry, but was never involved in it. And he felt excluded because his father’s time and life centered around an art form that had nearly been eradicated. Father and son were on different paths and embraced different artistic endeavors. Maleonn felt resentment. Though he appreciated his father’s artistic passion, he did not like that he was away from home and the family.
The filmmakers relate the historical perspectives using archival footage and photographs of Ma Ke and his wife and some of the operas that he directed. Parallel to Ma Ke’s story is how Maleonn made a name for himself in photography. However, Maleonn decided it was time to return home when his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and his mother was stressed taking care of him. It is then that Maleonn conceives of the life-sized puppets, the symbolism of going back in time to stir his father’s memories, and a theatrical installation that will be presented in China and abroad.
As Maleonn’s amazing team and Maleonn work to create the human-sized puppets and develop the story, obstacles arise. They manage to overcome each one with enthusiasm. However, there are two they find nearly impossible to overcome: the lack of money and Ma Ke’s deteriorating condition. It is a race against time to find the money and finish the installation so that his father remembers his involvement with it and is inspired by the creation to which he contributed his wisdom and vast experience working in opera.
The filmmakers touch upon the history of China before the Cultural Revolution, during and afterward as they chronicle Ma Ke’s past. In their revelation of the incredible development of Shanghai, we understand the changing world and understand that Ma Ke is losing his place, memory and identity in it. Pushing back against time and the stresses of his own artistic ambition, Maleonn attempts to remain keep his family calm in the face of his father’s forgetfulness and forge ahead with the project. But Ma Ke forgets the operas he worked on and is frustrated that he forgets. He must be reminded about how he is involved with his son’s project and what Maleonn is endeavoring.
The filmmakers chronicle the family’s trials at home, a visit to the place where Ma Ke grew up (which he remembers) and visits to the doctor’s. He juxtaposes the creation of the life-sized father-son puppets, in a symbolic representation of the two of them. This is most poignant for as the puppet creations have life breathed into them, so to speak, Ma Ke loses more of his memory to dementia.
From the shattering of their past relationship overshadowed by theater, Maleonn redeems his resentment during this theatrical creative endeavor making his Dad a part of it as best he can. The documentary is finest in its intimate look at a father-son relationship as it moves toward love and redemption from dislocation and fragmentation. The symbolic transition reflects the cultural divide between the old China and the new reconciled China that is moving into first-world status.
Filmmakers reaffirm that from the past and the present can come inspiration and wholeness that through art, represents the best of the old and the new. It is a powerful message for our time, for China and for countries around the world who are grappling with maintaining their monuments and in the case of Notre Dame now, restoring them. We must develop, yet retain the best of the past as outgrowths into the present.
By the end of the film, Maleonn and his father are reconciled and the installation is able to move forward. One generation springs into the next. Maleonn marries an artist on his team and together they have a child. Ma Ke’s exclamations of excitement and surprise at the baby are touching. Of course, he asks every 10 minutes the name of the baby and whose it is. But Maleonn exclaims that his Dad’s joy returns again and again as he tells Ma Ke that the baby is his.
This is a soaring film that is emotional and sensitive in how it chronicles the family history, and also in how it reflects that the inherent spirit of artistic creation is carried on from generation to generation. Indeed, there is much to learn about how art can be used to sustain memory and identity in the face of the debilitating effects of dementia.
I heartily recommend this film. Look for it. In addition to screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival, tomorrow, the film screens at HotDocs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, the DocLands Documentary Film Festival, the 35th LA Asian Pacific Film Festival, CAAMFest 2019 and the 2019 Chicago Film Critics Film Festival. The filmmaking team is expected to be at each festival.