Ukraine On Fire: The Geopolitical Football Tossed by Russia and the United States of America

The first 26 minutes of Igor Lopatonok’s Ukraine On Fire offers a brief history of Ukraine, nesting the country’s position as a flash point between East and West. The remainder of the film covers recent headline stories of strife and conflict which includes a bloody civil conflict in 2014, the annexing of Crimea from Ukraine to Russia, civil conflict in eastern Ukraine, and the rocket attack on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

The film’s narrator speaks over images of these conflicts. The violence is interwoven with interviews of key players conducted by executive producer Oliver Stone. Recently deceased Consortium News founder and editor Robert Parry has much to say about the US role in Ukraine.

The information provided by Ukraine On Fire moves at breakneck speed. Viewers are advised to keep a notebook available to note key players and events. Yours truly was overwhelmed by this rapid flow of information. I gleaned the essential struggle, though, between the United States and Russia. That point is burnished with references to the US/Russia Cold War in the latter half of the 20th century as well as information about the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock’ which moves a symbolic hand closer toward or farther away from a ‘midnight’ that indicates global catastrophe. The film’s nuance-free final image is of a nuclear explosion. At the moment we’re 2.5 minutes away from ‘midnight.’

Ukraine On Fire opens with a title sequence featuring a nude dancing woman surrounded by strategically placed images of fire. She represents, of course, Ukraine—if not the world. As her dance continued I felt embarrassed for the filmmakers, knowing that many, if not most, people would consider the nude dancing fire woman both clichéd and gratuitous. The film was released in 2016, and some may forgive the filmmakers who could not know they were producing a tone deaf introduction to a deadly serious film about geopolitics.

Ukraine On Fire is available via Amazon, and iTunes. It is coming soon to, or has arrived at Vimeo, Xbox, Vudu, and Google Play.

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Pictured: Consortium News founder Robert Perry

Seeing Allred: The Life and, Especially, Times of Gloria Allred

Through either intention or serendipity, the February 9, 2018 release of Roberta Grossman’s and Sophie Sartain’s Seeing Allred is perfectly timed. The issue of women’s rights is reaching deeper into American culture, media; and higher into the halls of corporate and governmental power. The impact of attorney Gloria Allred’s lifetime of crusading for women’s rights has reached into those heights and depths.

The two filmmakers incorporate a brief outline of Allred’s biography, and focus on her accomplishments. In the film’s 90+ minutes we see and hear our heroine present at critical points in the nation’s cultural and political history. Allred’s highly public advocacy for sexual abuse victims and those who have been deprived of civil rights is complimented by her participation in women’s rights policy-making by legislative bodies, and in public protests.

The film includes interviews with Allred’s daughter, Lisa Bloom; her two partners at Allred, Maroko & Goldberg; and Gloria Steinem.

Via the film’s non-stop stream of media appearances, Allred is utterly fearless as she places herself into the white glowing white arc of controversy as her indomitable spirit addresses individuals, governments, and her stock-in-trade, media.

I was thoroughly captivated by Grossman’s and Sartain’s film from beginning to conclusion. The editor(s) deserve(s) major credit in producing this engrossing film. His, her, or their names, however, do not appear in the film’s IMDB record.

Seeing Allred is distributed by Netflix.

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Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

Griffin Dunne’s biographical documentary about his aunt Joan is a bolt of lightning that pierces the heart, gut, and soul. That is how I felt at film’s conclusion as I sat stunned reflecting on the personal challenges and losses prolific writer Joan Didion faced with grace, dignity, and inspiration to write for us her experiences and learning.

In Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold Dunne interviews the living legend, and gathers those close to her to provide stories and perspectives on her character, work, and life.

The film’s primary foci are Didion’s writings and her family—husband John Gregory Dunne and daughter Quintana Roo Dunne. John died in 2003, and Quintana in 2005.

The film’s subtitle refers to Didion’s early life experiences. This was at a period of time when she felt “paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. It was the first time when I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization—the proof that things fall apart. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.”

I immediately thought of the concept of entropy—lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder. I also thought of the Hindu triumvirate of gods: Brahma, creation; Vishnu, preservation; and Shiva, destruction. Didion was addressing Shiva. Obviously, Joan Didion did deal directly with the fall into disorder as evidenced by her cornucopia of magazine articles, essays, books, produced film scripts, and her play, ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ based upon her book of the same name. The play was produced by Scott Rudin, directed by David Hare, and performed as a one-woman show by Venessa Redgrave.

Yet, we have the subtitle ‘the center will not hold.’ The meaning and implication of those words are up for conjecture. It seems that Didion’s center held throughout her life. Perhaps it is the world’s the title references.

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold engages the viewer from its first moments to the credits. Kudos to Dunne, and, especially, editor Ann Collins.

The film is distributed by Netflix.

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Beyond Iconic: Photographer Dennis Stock

Beyond Iconic is Hanna Sawka’s introduction to the work and thought of Dennis Stock, a photographer who, by the way, opines that the word, ‘iconic,’ is overused.

Sawka provides an outline of Stock’s biography, and focuses on his work and teaching. We see Stock teaching various classes and speaking on-camera. Through it all he reflects on his work, life, and American culture.

Choreographed by a twist of fate, Stock became close friends with legendary actor James Dean. The two spent a considerable amount of time together providing the photographer with countless opportunities to shoot Dean. Sawka presents many of Stock’s photographs of Dean in a variety of contexts.

‘Zen’ is how I describe Stock’s approach to photography. That’s my fallback conclusion being that I was confounded as to how to summarize his approach. He shot in black-and-white for most of his career, and did not hesitate to disparage Photoshop when given the opportunity.

Stock is a co-founder of the photographers cooperative Magnum Photos, and, in addition to this film, you can find much of his work here. The relationship between Dean and Stock was covered in a narrative film entitled Life starring Robert Pattinson. One Magnum photographer expressed his opinion that the movie mischaracterizes their relationship as adversarial, that the two had a collegial friendship. Having seen Beyond Iconic I suspect that photographer’s opinion is accurate.

Stock was a jazz aficionado, and Sawka’s inclusion of original jazz tunes by composers John Menegon and Teri Roiger provides a fitting backdrop to the photographer’s work and world.

Beyond Iconic is distributed by Emphasis Entertainment Group.

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City of Ghosts: Either We Will Win, or They Will Kill All of Us

City of Ghosts covers a group of citizen journalists from the now-infamous Syrian town of Raqqa who cover the takeover of their region by ISIS aggressors. The dozen or so men call themselves Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). Veteran filmmaker Matthew Heineman follows the group and their activities from the horrors of ISIS in their home town, to their attempted refuge in Turkey and Germany. The group’s founding father, Naji al Jerf, was assassinated in Gaziantep, Turkey. ISIS tortured and killed some Raqqa-based RBSS members and their close relatives.

Working from safe houses in Turkey, Germany, and within Raqqa, RBSS continued to provide images and stories to international media—despite ISIS’s efforts to completely isolate the people of Raqqa, people who also struggled against the oppression of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

At film’s beginning Heineman paints a picture of Raqqa as a joyful community seeking freedom, justice, and safety. At film’s conclusion Raqqa is the giant pile of rubble and debris that is now seen in moving and still images shared around the world.

The members of RBSS won the International Press Freedom Award in 2015, from the Committee to Protect Journalists, as well as The Civil Courage Prize from The Train Foundation. Their work continues.

Heineman won the 2017 Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentaries. As of this writing, the film is a leading contender for the Academy Award’s Best Documentary Feature.

City of Ghosts is distributed in the United States by Amazon Studios.

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Injecting Aluminum

Produced in France, directed by Marie-Ange Poyet, and distributed by Burbank’s Cinema Libre Studio, Injecting Aluminum provides viewers with all the information needed to chose not to have themselves and their children inoculated with vaccines containing aluminum.

Poyet interviews authorities and experts who provide this crucial information—as well as people who have become seriously ill after receiving a vaccine containing aluminum. She takes an unconventional approach to identifying her interviewees. Instead of the usual name flashing on the screen when each interviewee first speaks, there is a list of the interviewee’s names at film’s conclusion. Much more helpful is the distributor’s webpage which contains information about the interviewees.

I’ve been hearing about aluminum and brain damage for most of my adult life. The fundamental message of this film is that much more research needs to be done regarding aluminum’s impact on biological systems. And, of course, while waiting for the results, err on the side of caution—don’t inject aluminum.

For objective information about vaccines, go to The National Vaccine Information Center. For a list the specific ingredients of particular vaccines, go to Vaccine Ingredients Calculator.

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Pictured: Didier Lambert

Eve’s Apple: Ending Female Genital Mutilation

Around the world six girls a minute suffer the horrors of female genital mutilation (FGM).

Eve’s Apple reveals the depth of this global horror, and highlights initiatives to stop it. The film features interviews with those who have suffered this brutal, lethal insult to women’s bodies and minds, and activists devoted to ending the practice.

One of the film’s interviewees appears at the very beginning. Through her interview peppered throughout the film, she tells an epic personal story of tragedy and triumph.

Although I have been aware of FGM, I was disturbed with both the statistics regarding its use as well as the details of the procedure. FGM is performed in unhygienic circumstances, with unhygienic instruments, by people without medical knowledge or skills. Its context includes arranged marriages for the young girls with older men. In addition to its tragic impacts on the bodies and lives of millions of girls around the world, FGM kills some of its victims. If not killed by the procedure, women die in childbirth because of the damage done by the procedure.

Eve’s Apple is directed by Jose Manuel Cólon Armario, a Spanish production, distributed in Spain by Genial Media, and available on Netflix.

I found only one website directly related to the movie. It is in the Spanish language. Here is the URL: La manzana de Eva.  You may find the film’s IMDB page under the title ‘La manzana de Eva.’

On a personal note, I became quite unhappy when I learned about the adverse effects of MGM, and have had my share of self-pity in response to being one of its victims. However, for the guys reading this, FGM and its impacts are much, much more damaging. We are the ones who most need to see this film.

(For us guys, there is The National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers.)

Blurred Lines: The State of the Art of Art

Barry Avrich and Jonas Prince have created the most concise feature documentary about the current art world possible. In Blurred Lines they interview critics, players, observers, and, of course, artists all providing a myriad of perspectives, experiences, and opinions. Flashing in the background are the expected myriad images of the tokens traded within this world. All done with excellent filmmaking craft.

The two filmmakers have structured their film in several sections called ‘Lots’—for instance Market, Galleries, Auctions, Art Fairs, etc. After seeing and hearing all these Lots—that is, the entire film—the non-art-world viewer will likely be overwhelmed at the complexity, scale, and richness of this multidimensional world of images, ideas, and money.

Speaking of images, they fly by fast, many are sensational. I whole-heartedly encourage viewers to keep their fingers on the pause button. Or, for wealthier viewers, be prepared to shout out ‘Pause!’ at any moment to your voice-controlled device. For even wealthier viewers, you can, of course, simply control your device with your thoughts.

Blurred Lines is distributed by Netflix, iTunes, and probably other sources.

Hired Gun: The Life and Times of Music’s ‘Side Men’

For documentary fans, comparisons of Fran Strine’s Hired Gun and Morgan Neville’s ‘Twenty Feet from Stardom’ are inevitable.

‘Twenty Feet’ covers female back-up vocalists in the studio and on tour. ‘Gun’ covers—with one exception—male musicians called ‘side men’ or ‘session men’ in the studio and on tour. (One female player, Eva Gardner, appears in the film.)

The two differences between the films are: ‘Twenty Feet’ achieved a substantial amount of publicity, and ‘Gun,’ not so much. Secondly, the musical genres covered in ‘Twenty Feet’ are R&B and rock, while the genre most covered in ‘Gun’ is heavy metal—with a soupçon of pop.

Caveat: Yours truly turned to progressive rock in the 1970s, while metal began its rapid growth in the same decade, sparked by Iron Butterfly’s ‘In the Garden of Eden.’ Aside from making myself listen to samples of contemporary metal music—just so I can say I’ve done so—I have no relationship to that world. Well…, I did go wild over The Cult’s ‘Edie.’ But, please don’t tell anyone—and, anyway, the song is likely considered a metal antique.

Hired Gun features interviews of the ‘best of the best’ players as they speak of their lives as side men to superstar singers and super groups. Billy Joel appears in archival interviews, Pink appears in interview, and Alice Cooper was interviewed for the film. Other than those stars, the film features several players—guitarists, drummers, and singers speaking of their trials and triumphs.

There is plenty of music.

Despite my unfamiliarity with, and lack of appreciation for metal, I was as thoroughly engaged with and gratified by ‘Gun’ as I was by ‘Twenty Feet.’ The reason being is that filmmaker Strine has, with great aplomb, revealed fascinating characters, relationships, and many human stories—tragic and joyous.

Hired Gun is Strine’s second documentary feature as director. His first was ‘Dolly: Live in London O2 Arena’—a one-hour film of the singer’s performance. I very much look forward to Strine’s next film, and will see about finding that ‘Dolly’ film.

To expand my musical horizon, I have added Five Finger Death Punch to my long list of Pandora channels.

Hired Gun is available on Netflix.

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(Pictured: Eva Gardner)

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(Pictured: Eva Gardner)

Wormwood: MKUltra and the Death of Frank Olson

Frank Rudolph Olson died on November 28, 1953, when he fell from the 13th floor of Manhattan’s Hotel Statler. Olson was survived by his wife and three children. Legendary documentarian Errol Morris tells Olson’s tragic story in his six-part, four-hour Netflix film, Wormwood.

Wormwood is two films in one: A narrative about Olson’s participation in the infamous CIA/US Army program known as Project MKUltra, with Peter Sarsgaard in the lead role; and a documentary about the circumstances leading up to, and subsequent to Olson’s untimely death. The central character in the documentary is Olson’s son Eric who spent most of his life researching his father’s untimely passing. The two films are masterfully woven together to tell the story of Frank Olson’s death, of his son’s attempts to determine why and how his father died, and to hold the perpetrators accountable.

For those unfamiliar with MKUltra, it was a program that included dosing subjects with various drugs. While working for this program, Olson was surreptitiously given a dose of LSD. He became increasingly disturbed in the days after. Rather than help him or his family seek private help, Olson’s co-workers took care of him in those last days, keeping him away from his family. In an unbalanced state, he was a security risk. During this time Olson, accompanied by co-workers, was checked into a room at the Statler which had a policy that unbalanced individuals be checked into the lowest floor—this time, unenforced. It is likely the hotel was not informed.

Wormwood is a herculean effort which highlights a federal government out of control, not accountable for its destructive acts of commission and omission. The film’s conclusion regarding the tragic demise of Frank Rudolph Olson is equally murky and clear.

Editor Steven Hathaway deserves kudos for editing two different films into one jaw-dropping, eye-opening story.

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