Movies for Memorial Day: 2019

Posted on May 25, 2019 at 11:09 pm

For Memorial Day, take a look at these documentaries about our military:

War of 1812

The History Channel Presents The War of 1812 The young country proved its commitment to independence with this war against Britain that gave us a President (Andrew Jackson), and our national anthem.

Civil War

The Civil War Ken Burns’ series for PBS is meticulously researched and compellingly presented.

WWI

The Last Voices of WWI – A Generation Lost The veterans of “the war to end all wars” tell their stories.

They Shall Not Grow Old  Director Peter Jackson has added color to footage of WWI soldiers that makes them seem no longer a part of the distant past but vibrant and present.

WWII

The World at War This classic is considered the definitive history and a landmark of television reporting.  It was created long enough after the war ended to have perspective but close enough in time to have access to the participants, with eyewitness accounts by civilians, enlisted men, officers, and politicians as well as historians.  The 30th anniversary DVD set issued in 2004 has three hours of new material and additional documentaries.

GI Jews  Fifty thousand Jewish American fought in WWII, often struggling with anti-Semitism in the military.  They look back on their experiences and how it affected their lives.

In Their Own Words: The Tuskegee Airmen The first African-American pilots of the US military faced bigotry at home and in the military, but fought with extraordinary skill and dedication.

Korean War

Korea, The Forgotten War It was the Cold War era, but a real war was being fought in Korea that embodied the geopolitical conflicts.  This documentary covers that story, from Inchon to Pork Chop Hill.

Vietnam War

Vietnam War: America’s Conflict Many documentaries cover the politics and the protests, and that is covered here, too, but this series focuses on the stories of the battles and the men who fought them.

Desert Storm

Hidden Wars of Desert Storm Interviews with General Norman Schwarzkopf, former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, former UN Iraq Program Director Denis Halliday, former UNSCOM team-leader Scott Ritter and many others help tell the story of the American response to the invasion of Kuwait.

Afganistan/Iraq

Restrepo This is the award-winning story of one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S. military, covering the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. The remote 15-man outpost was named after a platoon medic who was killed in action.

The War Tapes Three National Guardsmen (“citizen soldiers”) document their time in Iraq.

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Documentary Not specified War

AFI Docs 2019

Posted on May 15, 2019 at 10:00 am

Copyright 2019 AFI

The AFI Docs festival in Washington DC (June 19–23) is the best place to see the latest, the most searingly powerful, the most surprising, and the most touching films of the year - because they are all documentaries, true stories about real people and places. 

This year is especially exciting because a remarkable 48 percent of the films in the festival were directed by women and 68 percent had female Producers. The film is truly international with 72 films From 17 countries, including six world premieres. There will be films about famous people like Toni Morrison, Mike Wallace, Miles Davis, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (following last year’s “RGB” and “On the Basis of Sex”), and films about not-famous people like “17 Blocks,” the story of a family who lives just a few blocks from the US Capitol, whose son documented their daily lives and struggles over almost two decades and “The Amazing Jonathan Documentary,” a sort of dueling documentary as two crews compete to make a film about an elderly magician.

A group of documentaries about music includes profiles of David Crosby, the San Francisco Gay Men’s chorus on tour through the South, and Linda Ronstadt, the legendary Apollo Theater and the also-legendary record producer Rick Rubin, who has worked with everyone from the Beach Boys to Public Enemy, Lady Gaga, and Shakira. 

There are documentaries that are an exceptionally compelling form of journalism, covering the most vital contemporary issues from gun safety (“After Parkland” to criminal justice “True Justice: Bryan Stephenson’s Fight for Equality,” “Ernie and Joe”) to immigration (“Border South”) and cybersecurity/election tampering (“The Great Hack,” “Slay the Dragon”).

The festival will also present three classic documentaries: “An American Family,” “Tongues Untied, and Frederick Wiseman’s “Law and Order.” 

Some of the other films I am most excited about:

“American Factory,” this year’s Centerpiece film, is directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, which examines the culture clash resulting from the takeover of a Dayton, OH, factory by a Chinese company.
“Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins” is the tale of one of the sharpest (in both senses of the word) political journalists of the 20th century. I’ve already seen it, and it is a treat. No matter who you support politically, you will be captivated by her wit, her honesty, and her dedication to her readers.

“Chasing the Moon” commemorates the historic trip to the moon, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin not only walked on the moon but, with the help of Michael Collins and hundreds of engineers, scientists, military, and contractors, came safely home. (Watch for the companion book coming out next month as well.)

“Maiden” is the story of 24-year-old Tracy Edwards, who led the first all-female sailing crew to compete in the Whitbread Round the World Race thirty years ago.

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Documentary Festivals

DisneyNature: Penguins

Posted on April 18, 2019 at 7:57 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: G
Profanity: Brief mild word
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Low-key peril and violence, predators eat an egg and try to eat the penguins
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 17, 2019

Copyright Disney 2019
If there’s anything cuter than an Adelie penguin, it has to be a penguin voiced by Ed Helms (“The Office,” “The Hangover”). He provides the perfect slightly nerdy but always hopeful narration for the story of Steve, a young penguin on his first trek to find a mate, raise some chicks, and get them home.

As we know from “March of the Penguins,” it’s a long trek. Steve tells us it’s “a monumental expedition that favors the early bird and Steve is the last one to the party.” He gets lost on the way and ends up confusedly consulting some Emperor penguins, who smack him away. “I just got beat up by a baby,” he says dejectedly. It’s pretty disorienting even when he gets back to his own species. The millions of black and white birds look like that page in Where’s Waldo? that’s all Waldos.

We see Steve painstakingly collect stones to build a nest so he can tempt one of the female penguins, despite the efforts of the older penguins to steal them away. But Steve succeeds, and he does attract a female named Adeline. They tenderly sing to one another, memorizing each other’s voices, which they will recognize for as long as they live.

The film takes us through the year as Adeline lays her eggs, they hatch, and their penguin parents feed them (by barfing into their mouths, Steve explains). There are predators and other challenges, but there are also pop songs (REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight this Feeling Anymore”) and Steve’s bumbling but sincere devotion to Adeline, the chicks, and, well, life, is very touching.

Parents should know that this film includes a gentle depiction of some of the harsher aspects of nature and environmental challenges and a brief mild word.

Family discussion: How is Steve most like a human? Why did the other penguins want to steal Steve’s stones? What could he do to stop them?

If you like this, try: “Monkey Kingdom,” “Bears,” and “Born in China” and of course “March of the Penguins”

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Share the Stories of Martin Luther King on MLK Day 2019

Posted on January 20, 2019 at 12:41 pm

As we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, every family should take time to talk about this great American leader and hero of the Civil Rights Movement. There are outstanding films and other resources for all ages.

I highly recommend the magnificent movie Boycott, starring Jeffrey Wright as Dr. King. And every family should study the history of the Montgomery bus boycott that changed the world.

It is humbling to remember that the boycotters never demanded complete desegregation of the public transit; that seemed too unrealistic a goal. This website has video interviews with the people who were there. This newspaper article describes Dr. King’s meeting with the bus line officials. And excellent teaching materials about the Montgomery bus boycott are available, including the modest and deeply moving reminder to the boycotters once segregation had been ruled unconstitutional that they should “demonstrate calm dignity,” “pray for guidance,” and refrain from boasting or bragging.

Families should also read They Walked To Freedom 1955-1956: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Paul Winfield has the lead in King, a brilliant and meticulously researched NBC miniseries co-starring Cecily Tyson that covers Dr. King’s entire career.

The March, narrated by Denzel Washington, is a documentary about the historic March on Washington with Dr. King’s famous “I have a dream” speech.

The brilliant film Selma tells the story of the fight for voting rights.

The Long Walk Home, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek, makes clear that the boycott was a reminder to black and white women of their rights and opportunities — and risk of change.

Citizen King is a PBS documentary with archival footage of Dr. King and his colleagues.

Martin Luther King Jr. – I Have a Dream has his famous speech in full, still one of the most powerful moments in the history of oratory and one of the most meaningful moments in the history of freedom.

For children, Our Friend, Martin and Martin’s Big Words are a good introduction to Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement.

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Based on a true story Biography Documentary Race and Diversity

Bathtubs Over Broadway

Posted on December 16, 2018 at 11:08 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for brief language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 14, 2018
Copyright 2018 Focus Features

There are really three stories in this adorably engaging documentary about “industrial musicals,” the wildly elaborate in-house productions big corporations used to motivate their employees in the 1950’s-70’s. The first is the story of our guide to this world, Steve Young, a writer for David Letterman’s Late Show who describes himself as comedically “damaged” after years of evaluating everything in the world as comedy material. There was almost nothing that made him laugh anymore. The best he could muster was an analytic, “that’s funny.” “We’ve become hard laughs,” he tells us. Over the course of the film, he will lose the job he has had for two decades when Letterman decides to retire. The second, as in many documentaries, is the story of a tiny sub-culture of people who are deeply passionate about something the rest of the world considers odd or quirky or has never heard of. This one lives “at the far horizon where the adjectives of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ don’t apply anymore.” Young may have found them as something to laugh at but he soon develops affection and then passion for them, and by the end of the movie, we can understand why and feel some of it ourselves.

“How can there be something so large and so crazy in the world that we had no idea of?” Young asks. But the answer we get is to a different question: How can an “eccentric adventure” soothe and enlarge a “comedy-damaged” soul? By the end of the film, Young tells us that delving into this odd world has “opened up my ability to be receptive to people.” Anyone he meets can have this kind of history.

And the third is the story of the musicals themselves, often produced, directed, and performed by actual or future Broadway stars, making a very good living doing something they loved and could learn from instead of waiting tables. Just to give you an idea: one of these musicals had a budget of three million dollars. The original production of “My Fair Lady,” which opened the same season on Broadway, had a budget of $466,000. Were they works of art? Well, no, they had singing and dancing spark plugs and ballads about toilets and an opera about spaghetti sauce called “Raguletto.” But they were very professionally done, often quite clever, astonishingly elaborate, and in their own way artifacts of an era of corporate optimism that saw endless possibilities for itself as providers of consumer goods and great jobs. Of course those jobs were for white males, as we see in the glimpses we get of the audience, all wearing near-identical suits and ties.

“I played a trick on history,” Young tells us. These shows were created for the most specific of audiences and were never intended to be seen by outsiders. The biggest surprise is that these most commercial of enterprises are so free from any kind of cynicism. There’s an innocence about them because they come from the post-WWII era, when America seemed unbeatable, and technology seemed thrilling. The “man in a grey flannel suit” corporate employees were “being shown a version of their world where they’re heroes.” If a marvelous new substance called silicone had 180 uses, why not create a song about it? What better way to introduce fabulous new products to the sales team than a catchy musical number? It may have been the “strangest dead end of show business,” with the idea of “What shouldn’t we write a musical about? Let’s write it and make it good and not let anyone see it!” But companies with lavish budgets created souvenir records for their employees to take home and that is how Young began to discover this world of unseen, un heard entertainment. Over the course of the film he tracks down some of the creators and performers, including Susan Stroman (“The Producers”), who explains that she learned a lot from choreographing industrial shows, Martin Short and Florence Henderson, who talk about the pleasures of performing for wildly enthusiastic audiences (Henderson compares it to a revival meeting), and composer Sid Siegel, who specialized in industrial musicals — and who kept a treasure trove of an archive. They were “selling Tupperware but also selling America,” and their unabashed boosterism makes it impossible to be snarky or condescending, leaving us entertained, and perhaps a little wistful.

Parents should know that this film includes brief strong language and a sad death.

Family discussion: If you were going to create a musical about your job or school, what would you sing about? Which production was your favorite?

If you like this, try: the shows by Sheldon Harnick, Chita Rivera, and Martin Short, and the book by Steve Young. Some of the songs are available, too.

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