Review: ‘Smoke And Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini’ is an ode to a living legend.

SMOKE AND MIRRORS: The Story of Tom Savini

Special Makeup Effects legend, Actor, Director, Stuntman. Tom Savini has redefined the horror genre with his arsenal of talents. But who is the man behind the “King of Splatter?” From his childhood in Pittsburgh, PA; to his tour of duty during Vietnam, to his beginnings with George A. Romero and beyond. SMOKE AND MIRRORS is the defining documentary on the life and career of horror icon Tom Savini.

Featuring Tom Savini, Danny McBride, Robert Rodriguez, Danny Trejo, Alice Cooper, Greg Nicotero, Tom Atkins, Corey Feldman, Doug Bradley, Bill Moseley, and more!


The first time I noticed Tom Savini on-screen was when I saw From Dusk Till Dawn in theaters. Little did I know, my love of horror was in large part due to his legendary work in all aspects of the industry. In Jason Baker‘s new documentary, Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini, huge household names sit down and chat about Savini’s artistry. But mostly, we hear directly from Tom. His early influences came from each of his five older siblings. As we tag along with Savini, he shows us his old neighborhood, pictures from his childhood, and tells us stories about growing up with classic horror. That’s only the beginning of the mountains of information in this film. Savini’s time in Vietnam changed him. He talks about seeing human atrocities through his camera lens. Coming home from the war, he rediscovered his love of live theatre. After teaming up with George Romero, the two changed the face, in some ways quite literally, of horror. The entire genre suddenly became elevated and respected.
The doc stitches together interviews from across the years. While at times, this feels a bit chaotic, it gives us a plethora of tales. For example, Night of the Living Dead was a completely different experience for Tom than it was for fans. We get the chance to see all the things that he shot that were cut. He walks us through his original ending with side-by-side storyboards. We also get access to cut footage of his character Sex Machine, in From Dusk Till Dawn. The man was great at so many things! Watching his theatre work and the magic he instilled into his productions is astonishing.  Every talking head in Smoke and Mirrors explains that Tom is a genuine and gentle person. Hearing him talk about his work and family you get the sense that these aren’t just opinions.
Tom Savini‘s ingenuity and craftsmanship rightfully made him a household name. On a personal note, prior to this film, I didn’t have the faintest idea that it was Tom Savini who was responsible for traumatizing me in my youth. Creepshow changed my life. I cannot recall how many times I rented that video. Through my nightmares, some that remain to this day, I have come to adore the horror genre. It’s abundantly clear, Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini is special effects makeup and practical FX porn. It’s movie magic at its finest. Savini is a real-life magician.


From Wild Eye Releasing, director Jason Baker‘s SMOKE AND MIRRORS on Digital October 19.

Review: The Extended version of ‘CLEANIN’ UP THE TOWN: REMEMBERING GHOSTBUSTERS’ is a franchise fan’s dream.

CLEANIN’ UP THE TOWN:
REMEMBERING GHOSTBUSTERS

CLEANIN’ UP THE TOWN: Remembering Ghostbusters is the definitive documentary charting the making of the iconic film that inadvertently changed the film industry forever. Featuring interviews with Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, and Ernie Hudson and including never-before-seen footage. The documentary hallmarks the extraordinary achievements made for the era, and emphasizes just how ambitious an undertaking the making of Ghostbusters really was.


Born in 1980, my entire childhood revolved around Ghostbusters. Ecto-cooler was in my lunchbox. Ghost traps were created from tissue boxes. When I received the elusive Ecto 1 for Christmas, I was the envy of the neighborhood. The extended version of Anthony Bueno’s documentary Cleanin’ Up The Town: Remembering The Ghostbusters takes you into the minds and personalities that created the iconic film. It is overflowing with behind-the-scenes footage and stories, and it’s all to die for. When you find out who the original cast was meant to be, your head will spin.

The film utilizes animation to illustrate what these first ideas and meetings looked like. The sketches of the ghosts are insanely impressive. We’ve got the standard talking-head interviews, but it’s a franchise fan’s dream. The late, great Harold Ramis is included, in all his glory. Ghostbusters was made with a group of the most elite talents of the time. The photos of the team building the technology to create the film are pretty amazing. The FX from Steve Johnson gave us the iconic characters of The Librarian, Slimer, and The Stay Puft Marshmellow Man.

When Sigourney Weaver landed the role of Dana, it changed everything. She pushed the boys to not only be better actors, but she is also responsible for a huge aspect of Dana’s arch. Weaver and Ivan Reitman discuss her audition, which will forever remain unseen by the public. Ernie Hudson’s role looked very different from the original script to the final incarnation. He talks about the dynamics of the entire cast. Even with a runtime of 2 hrs, you won’t want the film to end. It’s a cinephile’s dream. The wealth of information, the access to cast and crew, and the sheer love that emanates from everyone involved make Cleanin’ Up The Town: Remembering The Ghostbusters a nostalgic joyride.


Extended Version In Theaters &
On-Demand Today


Directed by Anthony Bueno (Beware the Moon: Remembering An American Werewolf in London)
Produced by Claire Bueno


Featuring the cast and crew of the original Ghostbusters including
Dan AykroydHarold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, and Annie Potts
Director Ivan Reitman
Producers Joe Medjuck and Michael C. Gross
Visual Effects Crew Members Richard Edlund and John Bruno
Creature Design Consultant Terry Windell
Editor Sheldon Kahn


Review: In ‘Pharma Bro’ Martin Shkreli Lives Up to His Reputation as “The Most Hated Man in America”

PHARMA BRO

Martin Shkreli, the 38-year-old financial entrepreneur and pharmaceutical tycoon from Brooklyn, New York, was dubbed “the most hated man in America” by the media after he rose to infamy in 2015 for price gouging the prescription drug Daraprim by 5500% overnight depriving patients of the life-saving medication. That same year, Shkreli purchased the Wu-Tang Clan’s single copy of “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” for 2 million dollars, and was arrested for securities fraud, eventually resulting in the subsequent forfeiture of the album and recent reselling of it by the U.S. government to an anonymous buyer to pay off Shkreli’s debt. He has gained notoriety for his unchecked online presence, which was ultimately his downfall and sent him to prison, where he continues to provoke the public with bombastic declarations about finding a cure for the virus which has upended the world, Covid-19.


This was hard to watch. The documentary PharmaBro: An In-Depth Look at “The Most Hated Man in America” is exactly what it sounds like– an approximately 90 minute deep dive into a man so profoundly unlikeable that despite filmmaker Brent Hodge’s best efforts to develop a nuanced character study, Martin Shkreli remains a nihilistic cartoon until the end. Shkreli is the rare kind of person that is who you think he is: a prolific online troll that thrives off of controversy, leans into his worst impulses, and utilizes notoriety as a springboard to fame. 

Martin Shkreli – AKA Pharma Bro
Credit: Nigel Parry

Martin Shkreli’s utter lack of redeeming qualities, unfortunately, makes the rest of the film fall flat. It is impossible to care that his Livestream fans think he’s the victim of a witch hunt, particularly because the same community aided and abetted such severe harassment of Teen Vogue journalist Lauren Duca that Shkreli became one of the first high profile accounts permanently banned from Twitter. Trump-era horror show Milo Yiannopoulos, a personal friend of Shkreli’s, has multiple confessionals in a bizarre and distasteful addition. Somehow, even the feud with the Wu-Tang clan misses the mark.

The most interesting parts of this film confront and analyze what Shkreli did. While renowned for his ethically vapid pharmaceutical drug pricing, ultimately, he was convicted of securities fraud stemming from multiple Ponzi schemes. I would love to know more about the actual crime that caught up to him at last, and I am fascinated by the concept of an “orphan drug” hedge fund market. What under-the-radar mad capitalist is leading that industry now? Has the government conducted subsequent investigations or drafted new regulations? Is there an activist movement? Alas, those questions are left unanswered.


Available On Digital Platforms For Rent or Purchase Tomorrow, October 5, 2021


Directed by Brent Hodge (A Brony Tale, I Am Chris Farley, Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary)
Produced by Blumhouse Television and Hodgee Films

Featuring:
Martin Shkreli

Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah
Musical artist and friend of Shkreli, Billy The Fridge 
Journalist Christie Smythe
Shkreli Defense Attorney Ben Brafman

Review: ‘BORIS KARLOFF: THE MAN BEHIND THE MONSTER’ – a legendary and inspiring enigma.


BORIS KARLOFF: THE MAN BEHIND THE MONSTER


Beginning just before his debut as Frankenstein’s creation, “Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster” compellingly explores the life and legacy of a cinema legend, presenting a perceptive history of the genre he personified. His films were long derided as hokum and attacked by censors. But his phenomenal popularity and pervasive influence endures, inspiring some of our greatest actors and directors into the 21st Century – among them Guillermo Del Toro, Ron Perlman, Roger Corman & John Landis all of whom and many more contribute their personal insights and anecdotes.


Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster ultimately provides a compelling, yet frustrating dive into the life of the man forever associated with the Frankenstein mythology. This iconic role and Karloff’s 60-year career in the film is explored in-depth across Thomas Hamilton’s loving and thorough documentary. I left Hamilton’s film with a clear appreciation for two things: the vastness of Karloff’s legacy, and how difficult it must have been to assemble the disparate pieces of this documentary.

Karloff is one of the few stars who successfully built momentum and success from the silent film era into the “talkies”. He brought such understated emotion and gravity to his portrayal of Frankenstein’s Monster that his performance remains the gold standard 90 years later. I remember Karloff well from Universal Horror classics such as “Frankenstein” and “The Mummy”, but Hamilton’s film moves quickly, but comprehensively through some of the lesser-known slots on Karloff’s resume.

Featured clips span generations, directors, and co-stars. Karloff’s prodigious work ethic seemed to rival Alexander Hamilton’s, only they weren’t all winners worthy of a musical.  It sure felt like a stretch to watch contemporary directors compliment Karloff’s 1932 portrayal of Fu Manchu, a deeply racist film I’ve only run into at the $5 bin at Target. But there are gems to be found even in these lesser-known films – I was stunned and a little charmed to see a young Jack Nicholson co-starring with Karloff in 1963’s “The Terror” (all of Karloff’s scenes were filmed in 2 days).

I wish the same thorough approach had been applied to Karloff’s personal life. I was surprised a film titled The Man Behind the Monster didn’t feature more detail on, well, Boris Karloff. Interviews with Karloff’s daughter were insightful but sparse. The complexities of his racial background are hinted at, but never explored in detail. Sadly, there are no juicy stories from his many marriages (six!)

Ultimately, this film was successful in that I left with a deeper understanding of Karloff, and a strong desire to revisit more of his films. I just wish I had gotten a longer peek at who was under all that monster makeup.


Shout! Studios will be released theatrically by Abramorama on September 17th and features the original song “Frankenstein’s Lament” by famed jazz bassist Jay Leonhart.


Directed by: Thomas Hamilton (Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave A Damn)

Co-Written by: Thomas Hamilton, Ron MacCloskey

Co-Produced by: Thomas Hamilton, Ron MacCloskey

Featuring interviews with:

 Guillermo Del Toro

John Landis

Roger Corman

 Ron Perlman

Sara Karloff

Peter Bogdanovich

Christopher Plummer

Stefanie Powers

Lee Grant

Sir Christopher Frayling

And

 Kevin Brownlow


Review: ‘VAL’ takes a long, complicated look in the mirror.

presents

Val Kilmer, one of Hollywood’s most mercurial actors has been documenting his life and craft through film. He has amassed thousands of hours of footage, from home movies made with his brothers, to time spent in iconic roles for blockbuster films like Top Gun & Batman. This raw and wildly original documentary reveals a life lived to extremes and a heart-filled look at what it means to be an artist.


Let’s start with a confession – I’ll always think of Val Kilmer as my Batman. 1995’s Batman Forever was the first superhero film I ever saw, and that impression was deep and lasting. The car! The suit! Nicole Kidman! That is not to indicate that I am incapable of evaluating Kilmer fairly, but only to say this image of him at the likely mountain-top of his fame has left a lasting impression.

Kilmer’s legacy is evaluated and deepened in Ting Poo and Leo Scott’s new documentary Val (in theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime) which showcases Kilmer’s life, legacy, and his ongoing recovery after a battle with throat cancer. Kilmer’s contribution to the film is quite intimate: the narrative relies heavily on his collection of home videos and memorabilia. The quality and comprehensiveness of these past archives are shocking – there really seemed to be a behind-the-scenes moment for every milestone of his life. We see everything from home movies of Kilmer and his late brother all the way up to behind-the-scenes footage from Top Gun and (yes) Batman Forever. Kilmer’s energy and enthusiasm, tangible even when he’s behind the camera, is the common thread through it all, conveying if nothing else an authentic love for one’s craft.

Due to Kilmer’s condition, his son Jack provides the film’s narration. This is the film’s strongest choice, and it provides nuance and momentum across the entire narrative. It provides special poignance during moments of self-evaluation, such as when Kilmer must decide whether to financially support his father after a costly real estate venture.

VAL, Val Kilmer, 2021. © Amazon Studios /Courtesy Everett Collection

While Val has extensive insight into Kilmer’s personal archives, it is also uninterested in interrogating these vignettes from a critical lens. The film is not positioned as a confessional device. Kilmer’s reputation as a “difficult actor” is hinted at, but never fully challenged or justified. Nor is his deep religious commitment as a Christian Scientist fully explored, along with any influence this may have had in his cancer treatment and journey.

Rather, the thorough picture of the past serves as a mirror to better understand Kilmer’s present. Speaking through a tracheostomy tube, Kilmer’s voice is raspy and thin, and he moves wearily across the screen. We can see the frustration in his face when he has to take a lengthy pause – he has more to say, but his body won’t cooperate. This appears to be Kilmer’s core struggle: he resists defining himself solely by his past work, but his present limitations pull him towards an endless cycle of replaying his greatest hits.

Val reminded me of the 2014 documentary Life Itselfwhich chronicled the legacy of film critic Roger Ebert, as well as his struggles after losing his lower jaw to cancer. Both films showcase subjects whose brilliance and intellect remain sharp, but are otherwise challenged by physical limitations. Both subjects were energetic, frantic collaborators in their respective projects –conveying the urgency of being understood, of seizing the opportunity to fully articulate one’s legacy. While Ebert tragically perished before his film could be completed, Kilmer has the opportunity to carry on. Val left me not only with an appreciation for Kilmer’s complicated journey but also excited to hopefully see him press forward and continue the next chapter.


Steaming now on Prime Video and showing in select theaters


Forty years of never-before-seen footage chronicling the life of Val Kilmer.
Release date: July 23, 2021 (USA)
Directors: Ting Poo, Leo Scott
Distributed by: Amazon Studios
Music composed by: Garth Stevenson
Producers: Val Kilmer, Ting Poo, Leo Scott, Andrew Fried, Jordan Wynn, Brad Koepenick, Dane Lillegard, Ali Alborzi


Netflix review: ‘Misha and The Wolves’ documentary reveals victim and villain.

presents

Misha and The Wolves

Misha and the Wolves is the dramatic tale of a woman whose holocaust memoir took the world by storm, but a fallout with her publisher – who turned detective – revealed an audacious deception created to hide a darker truth.


I’ve never trusted wolves. You could argue this is because I’ve always been raised around ultra-docile dogs, but I think my 20+ years of watching movies are really to blame. The ratio just doesn’t hold water. For every domesticated wolf acting as Kevin Costner’s sidekick, there are countless more stalking our hero through a snowy tundra, howls echoing through the night.

So you could imagine my skepticism when faced with the story of Misha Defonseca. Here is the supposedly true story of a young Jewish girl who evaded the Nazis in the woods of Europe during WW2 by falling in with a pack of wolves. In Netflix’s stirring documentary, we hear Misha describe being taken in as a Mowgli-esque family member – traveling with the wolves and surviving on scraps from their hunts. It’s one of those “you have to hear it to believe it” type stories – I mean, these are wolves we are talking about!  It’s crazy to believe that Misha would be seen as family instead of a feast.

And yet, aren’t all stories of Holocaust survival are to some degree impossible? At their core, they are all linked by showcasing the triumph of the human spirit against overwhelming circumstances.  So it is not surprising that we are swept up in Misha’s story, just as the world was in the early 1990s. A book deal, publicity tour, and movie option are a natural fit for such a fantastical tale.

Sam Hobkinson’s smooth direction compels the audience forward. There’s a charming and particularly modern manner to the way that Hobkinson features key figures in Misha’s journey to stardom – their whole essence summarized into a single characteristic (“The Publisher”, “The Journalist”) We are not really meant to get to know these people (although “The Survivor” radiates winking humor with deep emotion in her few minutes of screen-time) – they are here to feed us the facts we need to drive the narrative forward, to build momentum towards the film’s core question. Which is, of course, can we believe Misha?

If you want to play detective, you’ll find the answers to Misha and the Wolves questions pretty quickly. A quick Google search will do the trick. The affirming or refuting of Misha’s story is only one part of the equation. Hobkinson’s film stumbles slightly on this follow-through: the film concludes with finality on the situation but left me wanting more on the motivations beneath the surface. A more rigorous interrogation would have been appreciated, but it is also fair to acknowledge that it might not have been possible.

Whether it be based on truth or lies, this is ultimately a story of family, legacy, and survival. Philipp Larkin once summed this story up a little more quickly:

“They f*ck you up, your mom and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.”

Larkin was more to the point, but there weren’t any wolves.


 *Streaming on Netflix on August 11th*

Written and Directed by Sam Hobkinson

*Official Selection Sundance Film Festival 2021*

Review: ‘Not Going Quietly’ Documents the Hope, Grit, and Sacrifice of Activism

NOT GOING QUIETLY

A rising star in progressive politics and a new father, 32-year-old Ady Barkan’s life is upended when he is diagnosed with ALS. But after a chance encounter with powerful Senator Jeff Flake on an airplane goes viral, catapulting him to national fame, Ady and a motley crew of activists ignite a once-in-a-generation movement for healthcare justice. Launching the Be A Hero campaign, Barkan travels across the country educating and empowering others to confront elected officials with emotional, personal stories intended to directly impact legislation. Continuing today to inspire others to use the time they are given and speak truth to power, Barkan continues to fight for a brighter and more just world for his son to inherit. He was featured as one of the 100 Most influential people of 2020 and has most recently been credited with pressuring President Biden to make the recent decision to waive the COVID-19 vaccine patent. Barkan is referred to as “The Most Powerful Activist in America,” because when he speaks, people listen.


A special kind of courage is required to devote your life to a cause and lead an activist movement, particularly in an era when it is easy to be cynical about politics. In “Not Going Quietly,” filmmaker Nicholas Bruckman takes us behind the scenes of the “Be a Hero” campaign for healthcare justice in America and wrestles with the question, “What are you willing to give for a cause?” 

The film’s heartbeat is an intimate portrait of political activist Ady Barkan, who leads the campaign effort even while grappling with increasingly advanced stages of ALS. Barkan came to prominence in a viral video of a chance encounter with former Senator Jeff Flake on a plane, where he passionately advocated for healthcare protections for himself and others. Forcing elected representatives to confront the consequences of the laws they support would become the cornerstone strategy of the “Be a Hero” campaign. Activists hope to push past glib political narratives and force a reckoning that will change hearts and votes– or at the very least, record the interaction and make sure the hostile indifference of Congressional Members and Aides is on public display.

The film excels at telling the story of this kind of work by juxtaposing powerful political rallies– including a cameo from Bernie Sanders– with the harsh realities of ALS and heartwarming scenes with Barkan’s supportive wife and young son. In addition, moments of humor and fun with the campaign’s inner circle present another side of the fight– the deep friendships that bind people working for a cause greater than themselves. 

Within the first fifteen minutes, it becomes clear why “Not Going Quietly” won the Audience Award and Special Jury Recognition for Humanity in Social Action at SXSW. This film is guaranteed to pull at all of your emotions. So what is it that moves you? I am confident this documentary has it in spades.


In Theaters on August 13, 2021

Directed by: Nicholas Bruckman (La americana)

Co-Written by: Nicholas Bruckman, Amanda Roddy

Produced by: Amanda Roddy

Executive Producer: Bradley Whitford (Get Out, “The West Wing”), Jay Duplass (“Transparent”), Mark Duplass (Creep, Safety Not Guaranteed), Mel Eslyn (The One I Love, Horse Girl), Sam Bisbee (The Truffle Hunters, Farewell Amor), Nina Tassler, Joan Boorstein, Jackie Kelman Bisbee, Wendy Kelman Neu, Nicholas Bruckman, Ryder Haske

Featuring: Ady Barkan (co-founder of the Be a Hero PAC, organizer for the Center for Popular Democracy), Rachael King, Liz Jaff, Nate Smith, Tracey Corder, Ana Maria Archila, Helen Brosnan

With special appearances from:
Vice President  Kamala Harris
Senator Bernie Sanders
Senator Elizabeth Warren
Senator Cory Booker
United States Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg


Review: ‘Enemies of the State’ takes the courtroom drama into the digital age.

ENEMIES OF THE STATE

ENEMIES OF THE STATE is a documentary thriller that investigates the strange case of Matt DeHart, an alleged hacker and whistleblower, and his former Cold War spy parents who believe they are at the center of a government conspiracy and are ready to do anything to save their son from prison. This stranger-than-fiction story takes audiences on a wild ride of unexpected plot twists and bizarre discoveries in an artistic and cinematic documentary that blurs the line between reality and paranoia. With extraordinary access to all lead characters and key sources, this film presents many contradicting viewpoints as it attempts to solve a mystery that has kept attorneys, activists and journalists occupied for over a decade.


If an innocent man was sitting in front of you, would you even know it? This is a question I asked myself several times throughout Enemies of the State, Sonia Kennebeck’s propulsive new documentary. Years ago, movies made these kinds of questions easy on us: there’s that old western stereotype of the gunslinging hero wearing the white hat, staring down a villain dressed in black. These days, our digital lives have complicated that confrontation. In a world where stories of hackers, deep fakes, and police corruption flood the headlines, who can truly be trusted?

Enemies of the State’s subject is Matt DeHart. Through one lens he is an online activist, presumed hacker, whistleblower, and WikiLeaks courier. Through another, he is a convicted felon, guilty of soliciting child pornography from multiple victims. We will meet Matt’s supporters – family, friends, and online activists who all suggest these charges amount to little more than a government cover-up. We also see the case from law enforcement and hear the testimonials of the alleged victims. Who to believe?  This is Law and Order meets Mr. Robot.

In a film where nothing is certain, Kennebeck’s balanced direction is welcomed. Pains are taken to give equal air time to protagonists on each side of the conflict, to keep the viewer in check. I naturally found myself empathizing with DeHart’s family early in the film. In the immediate next scene, the camera lingers on the variety of medals on Detective Brett Kniss’ walls – as if to say, “You don’t want to believe this guy? He’s an Eagle Scout!”

I found the re-enactment scenes, featuring actors supported by authentic audio clips, robotic and less compelling. While robotic may indeed have been Kennebeck’s intention, sections in which the audio played simply over a black background were more resonant and unsettling.

Ultimately, the question of DeHart’s guilt or innocence depends on trust. Do you trust Matt’s family, his friends, or the FBI? Enemies of the State doesn’t take it easy on you – that answer is probably going to change a few times over the course of 103 minutes. I won’t give away where I landed – I’ll just say the image of the empty chair at the end of this film stuck with me long after the screen faded to black. Don’t understand? Just trust me.


In Theaters and On-Demand
July 30, 2021

Directed by: Sonia Kennebeck (National BirdUnited States vs. Reality Winner)
Produced by: Ines Hofmann Kanna, Sonia Kennebeck
Executive Produced by: Errol Morris


*OFFICIAL SELECTION – 2020 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL*
*OFFICIAL SELECTION – 2020 DOC NYC*

*OFFICIAL SELECTION – 2021 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL*


Review: ‘Life & Life’ is a thoroughly thought-provoking doc.

LIFE & LIFE

Synopsis:

NC Helkin’s LIFE & LIFE, which just won Best Documentary at the Brooklyn Film Festival, tracks the journey that musician Reggie Austin takes to redeem his life following a murder conviction 40 years ago. With surprising honesty and depth, the film looks at Austin’s effect on his fellow inmates at San Quentin and his efforts to reconnect with his family, as well as questioning parole and sentencing practices through his story. Ultimately, the film reveals the steep and dangerous hill ex-prisoners must climb upon release to free themselves and create a positive future. LIFE & LIFE is a story of the struggle for redemption and hope against near-impossible odds, accompanied by a soundtrack that comes straight from Austin’s heart.

Professional musician and convicted murderer. Two strikingly different resume items that Reggie Austin carries daily. In NC Helkin’s documentary Life & Life, after serving 35 years in prison for murder, Reggie Austin navigates life back on the outside. We watch his journey as he attempts to successfully balance work and the rebuilding of familial relationships. His grace is startling. His talent is undeniable. His advocacy is inspiring. The film consists of a genuinely effective combination of sit-down interviews, archival records, and Reggie’s musical stylings. Parole board transcripts give us a peek inside the complexities of releasing someone from prison. The editing of this particular section of the film deserves an award. It adds a dynamic and intentional rhythm.

But, Life & Life is not solely the story of one man. It’s a film that tackles the nuanced reach for systematic change within the prison industrial complex. It specifically addresses the “Three Strike Law” and its effects on so many still behind bars. It injects humanity into an oftentimes brushed aside section of the population. Reggie Austin is a success story. It’s not one we hear often, but I’m grateful we’re hearing it now. Life & Life is a lot of things. It’s frustrating, it’s joyful, and it’s artistic. It’s a lesson in compassion and redemption for not only Reggie but the audience as well.


NC Heikin’s Award-winning LIFE & LIFE

Screens at

2021 New Hope Film Festival (Philadelphia) JULY 30

Friday, July 30 at New Hope Arts Center (2A Stockton Ave.) Tickets are available at: https://www.goelevent.com/NewHopeFilmFestival/e/LifeLife.


Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival

Monday, August 9 at MV Performing Arts Center (100 Edgartown Vineyard Haven Road) Tickets available at: https://www.mvaaff.com/tickets/


NBFF 21 review: ‘The Witches Of The Orient’ is an ace.

THE WITCHES OF THE ORIENT

Textile workers are transformed into an Olympic level volleyball team by their coach, whose unconventional techniques emphasize speed and aggression. The team has a record-setting winning streak and a triumph in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

THE WITCHES OF THE ORIENT manages to simultaneously be exhilarating and endearing. The film is a multimedia celebration of an unforgettable group of women who worked tirelessly for victory and pride. The film works its way through intimate sit-down interviews with team members, now in their 70s, to recreate the journey to the 1964 Olympics. These extraordinary women worked diligently under a coach that was deemed harsh and unconventional. To hear them speak about it now, they saw things very differently. They had respect and adoration for a man who took a chance on a group of women who had the weight of their country’s honor on their shoulders.

The soundtrack is incredible. Even though you know the outcome of the final game, watching the tape makes your palms sweat and your heart race. You’ll stand up, cheer, and cry happy tears alongside the team. It’s simply inevitable. The film could not be more relevant as we roll into this year’s Tokyo Olympics. This team paved the way for female athletes to defy the masses. While it continues to be an uphill battle of sexism and controversy for today’s athletes, The Japanese Volleyball Team in 1964 owned their naysayers. Director Julien Faraut gave NBFF 21 audiences a history lesson that charmed the pants off of audiences.

Review: ‘Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes’ debuts parts 3 & 4 tonight on HBO & HBO MAX

Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes, a six-part, half-hour documentary series, brings to life Ronan Farrow’s intimate, revealing interviews with whistleblowers, journalists, private investigators and other sources, conducted for the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist’s podcast and best-selling book, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and A Conspiracy to Protect Predators.

Directed by Emmy-winners Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (HBO’s Carrie Fisher: Wishful Drinking), the series expands on the podcast and book with never-before-seen footage and new insights into this culture-shaking story. Interviews are interwoven with additional sound and imagery from documents, audiotapes, photos, archive footage, and illustrations. With fresh perspectives and detail — not just on the harrowing effort to expose one powerful predator, but on the systems that help cover up terrible crimes to this day — the series presents new revelations in the reporting on one of Hollywood’s most ungettable stories.

Reporters Ken Auletta and Kim Masters explore the roadblocks that stalled their years-long quests to expose Weinstein.​

Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes is set during a period of recent history when the world seemed unrelentingly bleak. The documentary demonstrates that even during those dark times, however, courageous individuals worked hard to expose the truth for the sake of justice.

Throughout six 30-minute episodes, Ronan Farrow guides viewers through a complex web of conspirators fighting against his journalistic investigation into the “open secret” of Harvey Weinstein’s rape offenses. While many may be familiar with the outlines of the case, like the many credible allegations of abuse and how Farrow’s New Yorker story helped trigger the #MeToo movement, the documentary focuses on many lesser-known aspects of the saga. 

Model Ambra Gutierrez reveals the high-stakes police sting operation that captured a chilling admission from Harvey Weinstein – and her plan to preserve the evidence after authorities declined to prosecute.

Each episode in the series uncovers a new layer in a complex web of protection, manipulation, and gentlemen’s agreements that Harvey and others have relied on to shield them from critique and consequences for decades. The thesis of this project is clear: Society should not be content with the conviction of high profile men like Harvey Weinstein alone. Instead, we must dismantle the complicit power structures that allowed Harvey Weinstein’s abuses to continue for years without repercussions. Farrow makes clear that media companies, attorneys, and literal spies worked together to shield powerful men from criminal prosecution and public contempt. 

Although I intended only to watch the first two installments, I ended up binging the rest of them in a single afternoon. Every chapter in the series is intriguing, closing on a cliffhanger that compels you to roll into the next. 

It is said that the arc of the universe bends towards justice. Although there is still a long way to go, Catch and Kill instills a sense of hope that perhaps many of the traditional systems of power that have kept bad men on top for generations are more tenuous now than they have been before.

The documentary series debuted on HBO & HBO MAX with two back-to-back episodes MONDAY, JULY 12(9:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT), with new episodes airing back-to-back subsequent Mondays at the same time.

 

HBO Documentary films review: ‘The Legend Of The Underground’ Invites You to a Party and a Movement

The Legend of the Underground

This film is a searing and timely look at the struggle against rampant discrimination that exists in Nigeria today, as seen through the lens of several charismatic, non-conformist youth who fight to live life out loud. Through social media, celebrity and bold creativity, they spark a cultural debate that challenges the ideals of gender, conformity and civil rights in Nigeria.

The Legend of the Underground overflows with an unshakable optimism in the face of oppression that is mesmerizing to watch. Told by a tremendous ensemble cast, the film depicts the reality of a new generation of LGBTQ+ youth in Lagos, Nigeria, as they bravely push past a conservative cultural landscape in a quest for freedom and happiness. 

The film shows both the fight against rampant discrimination in Nigeria today and the LGBTQ+ community’s response– a defiant, dynamic, and endlessly creative counter-culture. While honest about the realities that these youth face, the film is not a slog through trauma and hardship. Instead, it is a fascinating deep dive into an in-crowd that is invite-only by necessity. Filmmakers Nneka Onuorah and Giselle Bailey excel in contrasting exciting and brilliant underground club scenes with intimate portraits of human connection so much so that at times it feels like being immediately thrust into a deep friendship with the coolest kids you know. 

The dynamic is magnified by how the film spotlights naturally magnetic real-life characters like “World Famous James Brown”, or WFJamesBrown on his Instagram account (that I now follow). James’ snappy and legally sound retort to aggressive police brutality during a birthday party that local police condemned as a gay orientation(?!) went viral and helped to bring an international social media spotlight to the struggle of Nigeria’s LGBTQ+ community. 

No one can articulate what this film is about and who it represents better than the courageous individuals that make up its cast. Honestly, it was tempting to make this review solely pull quotes from the documentary itself because they are spectacular. There is local underground podcaster Tomi smartly setting the scene: “Lagos is not for vanilla cakes. Mm mm, no way. If you’re born with vanilla, keep those flavors in your house.” To James’ sincere hopeful mantra, “One thing about life is that you have to be extremely happy because happiness is the key to all things.” 

Although many may be familiar with what is happening in Nigeria from international headlines, the film aims to personify bland statistics by introducing faces, names, and stories to the discourse. Primarily, however, it portrays a group of brave young people relying on each other to create the community they need to survive.

Airing on HBO and HBO Max June 29th, 2021

Directed by Giselle Bailey and Nneka Onuorah
Cinematography by Stephen Bailey
Edited by Rabab Haj Yahya
Executive Producers John LegendMike Jackson, and Ty Stiklorius

Netflix review: ‘Sisters on Track’ Proves that You’ve Got to Work for Your Dreams, They Don’t Just Come.

Sisters on Track chronicles the coming-of-age story of the Sheppard sisters: Tai, Rainn, and Brooke who were propelled into the national spotlight in 2016 with their first-time wins at the Junior Olympics. The resulting media storm landed the trio on the cover of Sports Illustrated Kids as “SportsKids of the Year” and they were able to move from shelters into their own home. The film offers a rare intimate glimpse into a tight-knit Brooklyn family’s journey to recover from trauma and tragedy. With the support of their mother, Tonia Handy, and the guidance of coach Jean Bell, the Sheppard sisters aim to beat the odds, dream big, and aspire to higher education as they are finding their voices as athletes and students – all while processing the growing pains of adolescence. At the heart of the story is the bond between sisters and an entire community of women, passing the baton of self-empowerment and hope through track and field, from one generation to another.

“You’re not the only one raising these girls,” Coach Jean Bell says to Tonia Handy, mother of the Sheppard sisters Tai, Rainn, and Brooke in a heartfelt moment that perfectly articulates the thesis of this story. Although the sisters have faced the kind of adversity that makes their success all the more inspiring, the magic of the film is in watching a village pull together to prepare these young ladies for bright futures of their choosing. 

The sisters’ meteoric rise in the track world is only amplified by the challenges they have faced. When they exploded onto the track scene in 2016 with first-time wins at the Junior Olympics, the family was living in a homeless shelter. The resulting media storm landed them on the cover of Sports Illustrated Kids as “SportsKids of the Year” which caught the attention of director Tyler Perry. Inspired by their story, Perry generously secured the family a furnished apartment in their Brooklyn neighborhood and committed to paying the rent for two years. 

The documentary picks up in the aftermath of these exceptional events as the girls navigate the demands of high-level competitive sport and more universal trials like coming-of-age. In the hands of a different group of filmmakers, the documentary may have focused gratuitously on the tragedy and hardship of the girl’s early lives or the precariousness of what they have now. Sisters On Track, however, is a joy to watch. Although the reality of the girls’ home lives is apparent, it is not exploited for pathos. Instead, the bulk of the film is watching a group of talented young women train and compete at the highest levels amid a continuous stream of motivational pep talks from Coach Jean Bell who is an inspiration in her own right (I could write an entire piece on the Jeuness Track Club where they train).  

The documentary is extremely heartfelt and honest, bolstered by the Sheppard sisters themselves who are blessed with vibrant personalities in addition to their clear athletic talents. Middle sister Rainn says it best, “You’ve got to work for your dreams, they don’t just come.”

Watch the Official Trailer:

SISTERS ON TRACK launches on Netflix on Thursday, June 24th
Directed by: Corinne van der Borch & Tone Grøttjord-Glenne
Producer: Anita Rehoff Larsen & Tone Grøttjord-Glenne
Executive Producer: Sam Pollard
Story Consultant: Shola Lynch
Run Time: 94 minutes
Featuring the Original Song:
“The Dream”
Performed by: Mark Batson featuring Tarriona “Tank” Ball
Written by: Mark Batson and Tarriona “Tank” Ball

Review: ‘Chasing Childhood’ is essential viewing for parents and policymakers, alike.

CHASING CHILDHOOD

Overprotected and over directed, American children are wilting under the weight of well-meaning parents. In the pursuit of keeping them safe and creating an impressive resumé of extracurricular activities to wow admissions boards, over-parenting smothers children across socioeconomic classes. This thoughtful film follows education professionals and reformed helicopter parents who seek and offer solutions for developing more confident, independent young people while restoring some joy and freedom to childhood.

I grew up in Simsbury, Connecticut. Getting less than an “A” on an assignment my entire childhood was, shall we say, frowned upon. When I struggled with pre-Algebra in 7th grade, my parents got me a math tutor. I loathed it. To be clear, this was triggered because I had a “B+” grade point average. That pretty much sums up the pressure I felt to excel. I was in dance classes 5 days a week until I aged out of the studio, performing En Pointe at age 9 with girls 4+ years my senior. I was an overachiever born and, most definitely, bred. Once high school began, my anxiety hit new heights. Silently struggling with dyslexia, believing that my peers would hear the millisecond long pause when I had to read a date out loud was panic-inducing. Starring in every school play, managing boys Cross-Country & Track, maintaining a social life, and prepping for college were all-consuming. This was in the late 90s. That disquieting grew exponentially over the years. I used to be fearless, attending a performing arts conservatory in Manhattan, moving across the country to audition for Disneyland on a whim. But social pressure from my parents for not following the “traditional” educational path weighed on me like an elephant on my chest. I never felt like any of my success was enough. I’m 41 now, and that sense of inadequacy remains. Despite the incredible stories I have from living abroad, making movies, writing, teaching, creating a small business, the list is obnoxious, I have been trained to think I can be better.

Chasing Childhood is a film that could not have arrived at a better time. After the year we’ve had in lockdown, it’s time to confront some harsh realities. Chasing Childhood is tailor-made for parents, educators, and policymakers of every age. I have a 4 and 5-year-old living in an apartment we own on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. By all measures, life is great. What you don’t see is the aura of tension that surrounds the admissions process when applying to preschool. Now, we’re entering Kindergarten with my son. The questions of, “Where are you all applying?” have been swirling around me since he was 2. The idea that the school we picked for our 2-year-old would somehow determine what tax brackets my children would fall under in 20 years is exhausting. Filmmakers Margaret Munzer Loeb and Eden Wurmfeld clearly explain how we’re stifling kids. They are exhausted. This trend of micromanaging their futures kills their present joy. The doc talks to parents, teachers, experts, and kids about how we can change this negative trend. With stats about recess and play Vs. standardized testing will undoubtedly move your needle in terms of curriculum and quality of life. Wilton, Connecticut is featured quite heavily, alongside Patchogue, NY, and of course, Manhattan. Wilton is actually one of the towns we’ve considered in making our city exodus. The irony of how I stumbled upon Wilton should not be surprising. I googled, “Top School Districts in Connecticut.” Simsbury was always in the Top 5. I should have guessed that any town along what Connecticut calls “The Gold Coast” would be the other top districts. After watching, Wilton is looking better and better. What makes Chasing Childhood so successful is the film’s honesty. The interviews with every participant are authentic. The implementation of more play is key to a well-balanced life. The film is not preachy. It does not judge. It does explain how we’ve become wired this way. How seemingly small societal shifts went from ripples to tidal waves in policy and parenting. It’s nothing short of fascinating.

I have a greater understanding of my own parents now. We all want better for our kids. I try to keep this in mind when signing up my littles for activities. They are few and far between on purpose. Besides the logistical and monetary commitments involved, it’s because I vividly remember the years before high school. Playing outside until it got dark, riding my bike across town, exploring the woods, jumping off things that most definitely should have broken my bones. I retain the joy and excitement and calm from those moments. If nothing else, Chasing Childhood is a perfect reminder to stop, take a breath, and realize that success in life doesn’t come from the longest resume. It’s time and memories. Let’s step back and honor childhood. Let the kids be kids. Happiness comes first.

Virtual Live Premiere on June 24, 2021, and

Nationwide Watch Now @ Home Cinema Release on June 25, 2021

Directed by: Margaret Munzer Loeb, Eden Wurmfeld

Produced by: Lisa Eisenpresser, Eden Wurmfeld

FeaturingGenevieve Eason, Savannah Eason, Julie Lythcott-Haims, Peter Gray, Lenore Skenazy, Dr. Michael Hynes

 

World Premiere in the American Perspectives section at the 2020 DOC NYC Film Festival 

Official Selection of the 2020 Annapolis Film Festival

Official Selection of the 2021 Portland International Film Festival

Official Selection of the 2021 Cleveland International Film Festival

Official Selection of the 2021 Julien Dubuque International Film Festival

Official Selection of the 2021 Sonoma International Film Festival

Tribeca Festival 2021 review: ‘P.S. Burn This Letter Please’ is a joyous history lesson.

P.S. Burn This Letter Please

A box of letters, held in secret for nearly 60 years, ignites a 5-year exploration into a part of LGBT history that has never been told. The letters, written in the 1950s by a group of New York City drag queens, open a window into a forgotten world where being yourself meant breaking the law and where the penalties for “masquerading” as a woman were swift and severe. Using original interviews, never-before-seen archival footage and photographs and stylized recreations, P.S. BURN THIS LETTER PLEASE reconstructs this pre-Stonewall era as Lennie, Robbie, George, Michael, Jim, Henry, Claude, Tish, and Terry—former drag queens now in their 80s and 90s—reveal how they survived and somehow flourished at a time when drag queens were both revered and reviled, even within the gay community. The government sought to destroy them, then history tried to erase them, now they get to tell their story for the first time.

There’s something both nostalgic and tangible about handwritten letters. With technology at our fingertips, they are few and far between and nearly nonexistent to certain generations. In P. S. Burn This Letter Please, a box of letters from the 50s chronicles the lives of a small LGBTQ circle of friends. Through sit-down interviews with the authors, immaculate archival footage and photos, we delve into history. This documentary is phenomenally compelling. If it doesn’t make you grin from ear to ear, you’re out of your mind.

Happiness isn’t the only reaction this film elicits. It is a lesson in oppression, one that sounds all too familiar. We hear about biological family dynamics, the difference between those who accepted and those who broke these beautiful souls down. The majority of the doc is celebratory and juicy. Oh honey, the exquisite fashion. The delicious stories. Hearing the truth from those who lived it is priceless.

I learned an entirely new vocabulary. I learned about the “who’s who” of drag and female impersonators in those years. What was it like to be a performer? Who was actually running the gay clubs? That answer will shock you. To say I was fascinated would be an understatement. The dramatic readings of the letters are to die for. To think what wasn’t included in the film leaves me wanting more. Outside of its Tribeca Festival screening, you can watch P.S. Burn This Letter Please streaming on Discovery +. You will not regret jumping into its fabulousness.

 

REVIEW: ‘An Unknown Compelling Force’ Takes You Deeper Into the Mystery

An Unknown Compelling Force

An Unknown Compelling Force is the True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, known as Russia’s greatest unsolved mystery. In 1959 a group of student hikers were attempting a difficult winter expedition in the remote Ural Mountains of Russia when an unknown event lead to the mysterious deaths of all nine. When the team failed to report back, search parties lead by the Soviet Government and fellow students uncovered the grizzly remains of the hikers. Found a mile from their shredded tent, they seemingly fled into the freezing temperatures without their winter clothes or boots. Adding to the mystery, many of the bodies had suffered brutal and inexplicable injuries, and some even showed traces of radiation.
                                                            
The case was closed by investigators at the time, stating that the hikers died from “An Unknown Compelling Force.” For more than 60 years the story has been shrouded in mystery and conspiracy theories, suggesting everything from UFOs, murder to a Soviet Government cover-up. British adventure filmmaker Liam Le Guillou travels under the radar to Russia in search of answers. Braving the dangerous conditions and hundreds of kilometers in sub-polar conditions, the documentary team attempts to reach the very location of the incident, a place the locals call “The Dead Mountain.”

About two minutes into watching this documentary, it occurs to me that I may be its exact target audience. As a lifelong fan of Unsolved Mysteries (the old school 90s version with Robert Stack, naturally), the opening montage with talking heads spouting their pet theories had me instantly hooked. For the next two hours, I was engrossed in Director Liam Le Guillou’s exploration into the unknown events that caused the mysterious deaths of nine student hikers in Russia’s remote Ural Mountains.

The Dyatlov Pass incident is a topic that regularly pops up in true crime and history podcasts because of the many bizarre and cinematic elements at play. A group of experienced young hikers goes on an adventure, something terrifying and inexplicable happens, and no one makes it back alive. More than a week later, the search and rescue team discovers a tragic tableau– the hikers had fled their tent only partially clothed and their bodies were discovered a mile away from the campsite riddled with violent, inconsistent injuries. After an initial investigation, the Soviet government quickly buried its findings and the records were sealed for sixty years.

With a team of journalists, eyewitnesses, and researchers, the documentary sorts through many common theories about what may have happened to the hikers ranging from the scientific and rational (avalanche) to the more whimsical and outrageous (alien abduction/ Russian yeti), and intriguing geopolitical angles (Cold War military experiment gone wrong). The documentary adds color to the historical narrative by bringing a crew into the Ural Mountains to complete the same trek as the doomed hikers, which adds striking visuals into the bleak and unforgiving landscape. 

However, what sets this film apart from other retellings is that the Director has a favorite pet theory that he builds a case for throughout. In the final minutes, there is a bold closing argument to explain the fate of the hikers that I had never heard and seems to not have been fully explored. Although I am not convinced, the argument is compelling and as good as any other put forth to explain this mystifying series of events. 

If the title or synopsis of this project makes you want to spend the next half hour on Wikipedia doing a deep dive, then this film is for you.

 Available Digitally on June 15, 2021

 Order Now: https://geni.us/Watch_UCF

Directed by Liam Le Guillou

Review: Part One of Ja Morant original series ‘PROMISELAND’ premieres today exclusively on Crackle.

PROMISELAND

PROMISELAND takes a fresh, visceral approach to exploring the intimate journey and personal evolution of Ja Morant, a remarkable athlete who comes of age during his rookie season in the NBA. The story unfolds in real-time, shining a spotlight on the evolution of an extraordinary young man working hard to achieve his dreams of basketball superstardom. A small-town kid is thrust into a brave new world, made up of big business, power players, a small-market NBA franchise and a ravenous public spotlight, all while the radically unprecedented twists and turns of the 2019-2020 season come into focus.

Nowadays, it seems like every athlete has a documentary crew following them around.  The definition of “behind the scenes” has broadened, and what once was novel or surprising now can feel like table stakes. What makes the journey of budding NBA superstar Ja Morant in Promiseland unique is that the narrative is almost exclusively articulated via Ja’s network of family, friends, and mentors. The first installment follows Ja from humble beginnings in Sumnter, South Carolina to the bright spotlights of the 2019 NBA draft, where the Memphis Grizzlies select him as the #2 pick.  Through it all, Promiseland’stop priority isn’t to dazzle you with basketball highlights (although it has plenty of those) but to root you in the places and people that motivate Ja daily.

 Dexton Deboree’s focused direction prioritizes small human elements that ground you in Ja’s reality. It’s the hum of cicadas as Tee Morant coaches his son through a difficult drill. The camera lingers on friends, family, and empty chairs acting as phantom opponents as Ja grunts and weaves across his makeshift concrete court. These striking sounds and images paint a portrait of the daily effort and strong foundation of support Ja has needed to reach his current heights. It isn’t flashy – but the grind is approachable, relatable, and ultimately inspirational.

Promiseland unfolds in real-time, so we already know the challenges lying in Ja’s future: an uphill climb towards the NBA playoffs, a brutal pandemic, and the harsh realities of systemic racism. Watching Promiseland, you understand why this young superstar is ready to meet the moment.

PART ONE OF THIS ORIGINAL SERIES
PREMIERES JUNE 3 EXCLUSIVELY ON CRACKLE
PART TWO PREMIERES JUNE 17

Created and directed by Dexton Deboree (Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1)

PROMISELAND features interviews with:
Ja Morant, NBA star for the Memphis Grizzlies, 2020 Rookie of the Year
Carmelo Anthony, NBA All-Star
A’ja Wilson, WNBA MVP
Tee Morant, Ja Morant’s father
Jamie Morant, Ja Morant’s mother
Teniya Morant, Ja Morant’s sister
Phil Morant, Ja Morant’s uncle, and manager
Taylor Jenkins, Memphis Grizzlies head basketball coach
Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies NBA star
Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies NBA star
Matt McMahon, Murray State head basketball coach
Moneybagg Yo, Rapper
and more

Produced by DLP Media Group (30 for 30’s Lance, Rodman: For Better or Worse),
Falkon Entertainment, RTG Features, Interscope Films, and Waffle Iron Entertainment
Soundtrack from Interscope Records, Original score from Steve “Swiff D” Thornton

Review: ‘GENIUS FACTORY’ on Discovery + is mind-blowing story of money and mad science.

GENIUS FACTORY

In the 1980’s an eccentric billionaire named Robert Graham wanted to create the world’s smartest kids, so he funded the largest legal genetic experiment in human history. He felt that unintelligent people were breeding too often and smart people weren’t breeding enough, so he decided to do something about it. Today, 30 years later, the children of his eugenics experiment walk the streets of America as adults. These super babies seem normal enough, but there is a hidden struggle to understand who they are and why they came to be. They struggle to understand if the Genius Factory rewarded them or condemned them.

The founder is dead, the sperm bank is closed, and the records were burned. But now, for the first time, people who worked at the bank are ready to talk, the genius children are going to meet each other and find out who their fathers are. Never before has nature vs nurture ever been tested quite like this.

Discovery+ documentary Genius Factory tells a remarkable story. In the 1980s a wealthy optometrist became fixated on creating the world’s smartest babies through selective breeding, or as it’s more commonly known, eugenics. Now the children from the largest legal genetic experiment in the U.S. are in their 30’s. As one might expect, they have decidedly mixed feelings about their origins. 

The documentary takes viewers on a journey from the eccentric billionaire Robert Graham’s personal philosophy behind the clinic to first-person accounts of clinic operations with a colorful cast of former employees in sequences reminiscent of Tiger King. Some of the most intriguing interviews, however, are with the adult children of the genetic experiment. They grapple with the knowledge of where they came from and whether their lives measure up to the grand expectations that they were born into. 

Genius Factory is a fascinating watch that mostly does an adequate job explaining complex subjects like the dark history of genetic science, the racist personal beliefs of many of the clinic’s supporters, and how the experiment weighs into the “nature vs. nurture” debate. That being said, I question the decision to include commentary from an uncompromising supporter of eugenics here. For decades, the public debate on this issue has been closed. I am not sure it is the right choice to provide a tv credit to an unapologetic eugenicist in 2021. Overall, however, the documentary does a good job shining a light on the darker aspects of this science.       

It is telling that the first frame of Genius Factory is the legendary quote from Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” As a lifelong fan of Jurassic Park, I found the introduction to be an absolute delight. Genius Factory spends the next 75 minutes detailing how much thought actually went into creating a sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners and how many people thought on balance that it seemed like a good idea.

Streaming on discovery+ May 20, 2021

Directed by Daryl Stoneage (Donkey Love, Pizzicato Five, Shlomo Arigato)

Review: ‘STREET GANG: How We Got To Sesame Street’ is a nostalgic hug of legacy and love.

STREET GANG: HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET

STREET GANG: HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET reintroduces this visionary “gang” of mission-driven artists, writers, and educators that audaciously interpreted radical changes in society and created one of  the most influential and impactful television programs in history.

This eclectic documentary traverses from the inception to the nuance of programming this iconic television show. Everything from the production design to intimate interviews with the actors, from the musical guests to the writers’ room is in this film. It hits on the social, racial, and educational impact of the show. The show’s schedule was one of the most intense I’ve ever heard of. 100 episodes per year filled to the brim with original sketches (both muppet and street scenes), animation, and original songs, Sesame Street has changed the lives of countless families across the globe.

John Stone isn’t a household name in the way that Jim Henson and even Frank Oz are. Stone was the director chosen by television executive Joan Ganz Cooney. His passion and work ethic combined with an extraordinary group of artists made Sesame Street the beloved program we know today. Street Gang doesn’t sugarcoat the naysayers. It does not ignore the internal conflict. It’s an honest look at bringing it to life. The conversations between the curriculum creators and the writers were key to reaching the audience, making learning both fun and engaging.

Some of the most charming bits in the film are the blooper reels. The genius, off-the-cuff moments between cast members staying in muppet character will slay you. One very poignant time in the show’s history was anything but unscripted. The death of Mr. Hooper was a carefully curated scene. It sticks with me still today. In 1990, when Jim Henson passed at the age of 53, the world mourned alongside the cast and crew of Sesame Street. Caroll Spinney as Big Bird singing “It’s Not Easy Being Green” at Jim’s funeral is heartbreaking and eternal.

I grew up with this show. As a 40-year-old moth of a 4 and 5-year-old, my children are now growing up with this show. I’m not ashamed to say I sit and watch with them. I’m just as enthralled with Sesame Street as I ever was. Their ability to grow with the times is what keeps them relevant and brilliant. Each scene in Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street held me with its nostalgia as it peeked behind the curtain. It left me with the hope that the show will continue its legacy long after we’re gone.

THE CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED DOCUMENTARY WILL OPEN IN THEATERS ON APRIL 23, 2021, AND ON-DEMAND MAY 7, 2021

Directed by Marilyn Agrelo (Mad Hot Ballroom) and produced by Trevor Crafts (Experimenter 2015) and Ellen Scherer Crafts, the documentary chronicles the improbable origins and expansion of the groundbreaking show that not only changed children’s television programming, but had real-world effects on equality, education, and representation worldwide. The film is inspired by Michael Davis’ New York Times best-selling book of the same name.

About Screen Media Ventures, LLC

Screen Media Ventures, LLC, a Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment (Nasdaq: CSSE) company, acquires the rights to high-quality, independent television series and feature films. Screen Media Ventures acquires worldwide rights for distribution through theatrical, home video, pay-per-view, free, cable and pay television, video-on-demand, and new digital media platforms. The company acquires AVOD rights for third-party networks and is the main supplier of content for Crackle Plus and other Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment properties. With a library of over 1,500 television series and motion pictures, Screen Media Ventures is one of the largest independent suppliers of high-quality tv series and motion pictures to U.S. and international broadcast markets, cable networks, home video outlets, and new media venues. For more information, visit: www.screenmedia.net

About Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment

Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment, Inc. (Nasdaq: CSSE) operates streaming video-on-demand networks (VOD). The company owns Crackle Plus which owns and operates a variety of ad-supported and subscription-based VOD networks including Crackle, Popcornflix, Popcornflix Kids, Truli, Pivotshare, Españolflix, and FrightPix. The company also acquires and distributes video content through its Screen Media subsidiary and produces original long and short-form content through Landmark Studio Group, its Chicken Soup for the Soul Originals division, and APlus.com. Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment is a subsidiary of Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC, which publishes the famous book series and produces super-premium pet food under the Chicken Soup for the Soul brand name.

 About Macrocosm Entertainment

Trevor Crafts and Ellen Scherer Crafts created Macrocosm to bring dynamic engaging content to global audiences by building and showcasing unique worlds. Films include Sundance Film Festival World Premiere Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street (2021), 7 Splinters in Time (2018) Manson Family Vacation (Netflix, SXSW 2015 premier), and Experimenter (Magnolia, Sundance 2015 premier). In publishing, they created Lantern City, one of UPROXX Top Ten Comics of 2015, and The Not-So-Secret Society (2017) the first original children’s graphic novel for KaBOOM! an imprint of BOOM! Studios. For more information visit: www.macrocosm.tv.

SXSW 2021 reviews: ‘The Lost Sons’ & ‘United States Vs. Reality Winner’ are two mind blowing docs from this year’s virtual fest.

THE LOST SONS

1960s Chicago, a baby is kidnapped from a hospital. Fifteen months later, a toddler is abandoned. Could he be the same baby? In a tale of breathtaking twists and turns, two mysteries begin to unravel and dark family secrets are revealed.

When my son was born in 2016, I remember the extreme level of security on the floor we were staying on. We all had bracelets on with his name, while he also had an electronic ankle bracelet which would beep if he were taken past a certain threshold. The idea of some stranger coming in and taking my child terrified me. I hoped to God that I never heard that alarm go off while we stayed in the hospital. Reenactments, newspaper clips, photographs, archival footage, home video, and sit-down interviews with witnesses all make up the massively intriguing and mystery-laden doc. Who is Paul Fronczak? This is a loaded question. The Lost Sons attempts to answer this question and so many others. The editing is mesmerizing. You don’t have a moment to catch your breath as this story unfolds. The twists and turns will shock you. They are relentless. I found myself shouting at the television more often than usual in one true crime sitting. It unravels like a James Patterson novel. If you are a homegrown detective, The Lost Sons at SXSW21 will be a true highlight for you.


UNITED STATES Vs. REALITY WINNER

A state of secrets and a ruthless hunt for whistleblowers – this is the story of 25-year-old NSA contractor Reality Winner.

Reality Leigh Winner saw something that she thought the entire country should know. She decided the public had a right to evidence the government was keeping secret. For this act, she was severely punished. The line between right and wrong can be blurry, but in this instance, it feels clear as day that Reality Winner was right. The film follows Reality’s mother, Billie J. Winner-Davis, as she tracks the public and the court’s response to Reality’s case. We learn about the kind of person Reality is through diary entries and jailhouse phone calls. She’s funny, talented, with a sharp wit. With the full understanding that most documentaries have an agenda, I cannot imagine someone walking away from the film without a ferocious sense of injustice. Including never-before-heard audio from Reality’s FBI  initial interview, sitdowns with her attorneys, family members, and fellow whistleblower Edward Snowden, you will finally learn what was in the document in question. Understanding the content is key to grasping the fact that Michael Flynn was pardoned and Reality Winner was given the harshest sentence in history for any whistleblower. I cannot stress this enough. I am thankful that United States Vs. Reality Winner is being shown to audiences when Joe Biden is now President. I join in the urgent call for justice. #FreeRealityWinner