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Brian De Palma is a fascinating subject, in many ways, as fascinating a subject as a director. His best work is admittedly and unabashedly derivative, basically a total homage to Hitchcock (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, The Untouchables).  He has also made some atrocious films (Body Double, Casualties of War, Bonfire of the Vanities) and some films you can hate and then love and then hate again (Scarface, Carlito’s Way).

No matter how you feel about De Palma’s work, his recollections of film making in 70s and 80s Hollywood are a blast, and he’s a very easy and open storyteller.  This is an entertaining, comfortable review of his work presented entirely in clips and a single interview.

A few great tidbits: as a teenager, De Palma tailed his own father when he was cheating on his mother; during the execrable Casualties of War, Sean Penn would physically bully Michael J Fox and whisper to him “television actor.”

Good, fun stuff.  I’d take this sort of retrospective over a slathering like HBO’s Spielberg any day of the week.  Currently on Netflix streaming.

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Mr. Rogers should have been right in my wheelhouse when I was a kid. I was around six or seven when he went national. However, public television was not a staple in my Catholic household. The only glimpse I got was when I went to the home of my Jewish friend, whose parents included PBS in their progressivism, but by the time we became pals, Fred Rogers was there to be mocked, not appreciated.

It’s a shame, because watching this documentary and Rogers interacting with little kids, you can see both the wonder in their eyes and the deep connections he developed. There is a vignette with a little boy who is explaining to Mr. Rogers’ most famous hand puppet, Daniel, about how his cat was run over by a car. The boy is being stoic but when Daniel becomes emotional, you can see the boy become protective as well. His concern transfers to the puppet and in the transfer, he creates a beautiful and healthy way to express his grief.  It’s a stunning exchange.

Genuinely sweet, good and largely uncomplicated public figures are a difficult find. This documentary does a great job of telling the story of one such man.  It has faults – it is thin on his background, it over emphasizes some cable noise about his effect on children (i.e., made them soft), and it succumbs a little to the “these dark times” trope – but these are nits. Highly recommended as both entertainment and moral tonic.

An incisive, engrossing documentary which synthesizes the artistic and cultural impact of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and in particular, the murder of poor Janet Leigh (the title refers to the setups and cuts in the shower scene), with a technical analysis of its construction.  Segments of the interviews of filmmakers, actors, critics, and academics are conducted as the commenters watch the scene.  It is a neat touch to have them affected and excited as the murder flickers before their eyes, some mesmerized, some providing a play-by-play, all in awe.

Many of the memories are wildly entertaining.  Peter Bogdanovich’s recounting of the theater erupting in screams that matched Bernard Hermann’s score is particularly vivid.  There is also an impressive amount of film scholarship tying Hitchcock’s technique and evocation to previous works of art, and a solid case is made that the picture constitutes “an act of aggression [by Hitchcock] against fans, critics, and actors.”  And if you ever want to know what was stabbed to give the effect of a knife piercing flesh, you will have your answer.

There are some stretches that get a little high-falutin’ (mainly from the film academics, who, naturally, see import in everything).  There are also some questionable participants, including the kid from Lord of the Rings (who has no appreciable connection but seems fan-boyish), while one interviewee, the estimable David Thomson (who wrote the brilliant The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock taught America to Love Murder), gets one comment, which is criminal neglect.

Currently on Hulu.

A brilliant, haunting and meaningful re-creation of the 1966 University of Texas Tower spree shooting that melds old footage, modern day interviews, and animation, the last of which renders the victims, witnesses and heroes in a classic imprint. Gripping and poignant, without a hint of inauthenticity or exaggeration, documentarian Keith Maitland gets you into the head of the terrified people pinned to their spots by fear as well as those who overcame it and risked their own lives to save others and/or ascend the tower and kill the sniper. Maitland has said he opted for animation “to show the geography of the campus” after being told that actual re-creation would not be permitted, but the use of animation to show the interviewees in their younger guise adds to the dreamlike, unreal quality of the event.

The film is stubbornly focused on the terrorized and refreshingly devoid of interest in the murderer, thereby avoiding the grotesque algorithm that revels in the psycho and makes everyone else a statistic. With the exception of a truly discordant and moronic “we have met the enemy and he is us” clip from Walter Cronkite, there isn’t a misstep in this picture. It was premiered for television on PBS Tuesday so it may still be available.

An uplifting and engaging documentary about a Welsh barmaid and her two dozen working class pub clientele who decide they are going to kick in 10 pounds a month to back a racehorse. And by “back”, I mean, purchase the mare (who had a racing history of “last”, “eighth” and “pulled up”), purchase the semen, inseminate the mare, raise the foal, and then hand it over to one of the more premier training stables – Sandhill – the owners of which are naturally skeptical but happy for the monthly fee. The horse, Dream Alliance, is, of course, loaded with charm, and he leads a racing life ready-made for a Hollywood film, which I cannot believe is not in production as we speak.

This is a very nice, sweet, beautifully filmed documentary. It hits the class clash a little hard, and it could have included a little bit more about how racing in Great Britain works (for example, the damn horses don’t have a gate – they just take off in a gaggle – and there are hurdles on the straightaways!), but these are minor nits.

The story is now lore. In 1964, Kitty Genovese was attacked outside her Queens apartment. Her assailant stabbed her, ran, and then returned to rape her and finish the job. 37 witnesses turned away. They looked out the window and saw Kitty being stabbed. They heard her pitiful screams. Fearful, callous and/or a sign of the times in our urban hellholes, they drew their blinds and did nothing.

Turns out it’s all bullshit.  While it appears two people may have seen her and elected not to intervene, one did, screaming at her assailant to get away yet unaware that she had been injured.  A neighbor actually did go down to the street (Genovese died in her arms), many of the “witnesses” who are still alive state that they called the police or the extent of their “witnessing” was merely hearing a scream down on the street and then, not hearing more, thinking nothing more of it.

Ah, but what a story. The first half of documentarian James Solomon’s riveting re-investigation – which utilizes interviews, old documentation, photos, footage and animation to put us on that street or in one of the overlooking apartments – destroys the myth. As relayed by one reporter who had his doubts, “it didn’t make any sense” but because it was being propagated by the powerful and highly influential The New York Times, doubts were shelved because “It would have ruined the story.” That story was under the care and feeding of then-editor Abe Rosenthal, who wrote a book about the murder and jealously protected the myth, even going to the extremes of haranguing reporters decades later when the Times re-investigated and came clean on its excesses. In an interview with Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes fame, who was then a radio reporter, his candor is both laudatory and depressing. Yes, he says cheerfully, the story was shot full of holes, but it is a great story and the Times was pushing it. What’s not to like? From there, the story embedded itself in the national psyche, a development Solomon firmly establishes.

This is an important film.  In an age where one would think, given the plethora of alternative sources of news and investigation, that such a meme could not take hold, it’s just the opposite. When the forces want to deliver you a narrative, be it for perceived social good or simple economic gain in the form of extended play, they can be overwhelming.  I remember reading the UVA  rape story in Rolling Stone and with a daughter at college, being incensed and affected.   I then re-read it, and it just seemed . . . thin. There was not one named source, yet, it was so utterly sensational as to be irresistible. Indeed, there was an entire phalanx of denunciations, movements, calls to action, tut-tutting about rape culture and privilege, etc . . .  And the entire story was a fanciful creation of a disturbed, pathetic woman. It does not stand alone.  Remember every false narrative offered in the MOVE bombing in 1980s Philadelphia, the Matthew Shepard murder, the “rape” by the Duke lacrosse team, the recent Ferguson shooting, and on and on.

The second half of the film centers more on the emotional impact of the murder on the Genovese family. It is her tortured brother Bill who is most affected, and he is our guide back into history, but the shrapnel emanating from her death did damage to every member of the family (both parents suffered early strokes and Kitty’s father died very young). On the hopeful side, as he deconstructs the fable, he revives his sister, replacing the myth with a living, breathing neighborhood barmaid who had roots in the neighborhood, including a female lover.

A must see, the film will instill in you a healthy reserve and skepticism of anything you hear in the heat of the moment.  Or, it should.

 

I watched this documentary on Monday night, after Anthony Weiner’s final on-line transgression resulted in the announcement of his separation from his wife, Hillary Clinton handler and confidante Huma Abedin.  The documentary shadows Weiner during his run for the New York City mayoralty, a run he made after resigning from Congress when he was busted for sending a dick pick to a young girl.  The ignominy of that act was exacerbated by the facts of Weiner’s lying about the incident (he was hacked, it might not be his junk, forces opposed to him were at play, “”Maybe it did start being a photo of mine and now looks something different or maybe it is from another account”) and his unfortunate name.

But come back he did, and as relayed by the documentarians, he returned with verve and passion.  Until he got busted again, this time sexting under the nom de plume “Carlos Danger” with a sad, grasping, soon-to-be porn star named Sydney Leathers (the scandal is notable as much for its bizarre nature as the silly names of its participants).  This unfolds before our very eyes, and it is often difficult to watch.  After this second humiliating revelation, Weiner opts for an aggressive, charge forward “this is what we do“ approach, as if to keep moving is to delay facing up to the consequences of his actions.   But you can see him harden and crack, in contentious interviews and encounters with voters.  Abedin, a beautiful, stoic woman, also becomes more brittle, but she retreats inward.  When the camera catches her watching Weiner desperately prattle on, a look not so much of disgust as disbelief is on her face.  The campaign staff, all young and committed to Weiner, are rattled, and you feel for their predicament.

The documentary also illuminates a few other aspects of this entire farce that merit comment.  First, even with all the drama and pain of Weiner’s relationship with Abedin, there is an intimacy between the two that is undeniable, making this national joke a bit harder to laugh at.  The revelation of real love in what you cynically presume is a marriage of convenience is quite unexpected.  Additionally, Weiner and Abedin evince a certain cynicism of their own in the way they operate politically.  It seems perfectly natural to them when Weiner monitors her fundraising calls to friends or uses their child as a shield-in-a-stroller, or she engages in strategic musings to keep his campaign afloat.  But it feels grubby and sad.   Also, the media comes off as nothing short of vile.  Their glee and faux moralizing actually engenders sympathy for Weiner, which, given his hubris and recklessness, would seem impossible.   When Weiner becomes unspooled after being baited by the likes of MSNBC dimwit Lawrence O’Donnell, it’s hard to determine who comes off worse.  At least, for me and Weiner.  There is a  charming moment when Weiner looks back at Abedin after re-watching his interview with O’Donnell and imploringly asks who got the worst of it.  She replies unequivocally that Weiner was loser of the exchange, a fact he can’t quite grasp.   Frankly, to me, it was a close call, but the unctuous O’Donnell was not running for office.   The crazed Weiner was.

Ultimately, what I liked most about the documentary is it didn’t portray Weiner as tragedy.  He is not presented as some promising wunderkind undone by his excesses and a vicious press corps.  While in post-campaign crater sit-down interviews with the filmmakers, Weiner looks beaten, emaciated, like a recently released hostage . . .

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. . . sad as he looks, you don’t feel that something grand has been lost.  He’s just a guy with a persistent fetish in the wrong business.