The Place That Makes Us, directed by Karla Murthy, focuses on efforts to rescue Youngstown decades after its steel mills closed down. Read the review on the Columbus Free Press website.
By Richard Ades
After watching the unbearably tense (and now Oscar-nominated) Quo Vadis, Aida?, I was ready for something a bit calmer. Instead, I stumbled onto After the Murder of Albert Lima.
The documentary follows an American named Paul Lima as he heads to Honduras in 2013 to seek out his father’s alleged killer. The man in question, Oral Coleman, has actually been convicted of the crime but remains at large, apparently having bribed enough officials to evade prison.
The murder, by the way, took place 13 years earlier. Since then, Lima has devoted his life to seeking justice, but it appears to be in short supply in the Central American country. As a result, he’s hired bounty hunters Art Torres and Zora Korhonen to accompany him to the island where the suspect lives.
The plan: Find Coleman, subdue him with drugs and restraints, and turn him over to the proper authorities for delivery to prison. The problem: Coleman is a prosperous businessman/gangster who’s always surrounded by bodyguards and ever-vigilant underlings.
Torres, the more assertive of the two bounty hunters, effects an air of self-confidence as he assures Lima that their plan is sound. But even he seems taken aback when he learns how well-protected Coleman is, and how lawless and hazardous life on the island can be. Nevertheless, the three set about gathering the supplies they need for their dangerous mission, including a pair of poorly maintained firearms.
Is Lima setting himself up for the kind of tragic end that befell his father? Are bounty hunters Torres and Korhonen as competent as they claim, or are they in over their heads? Director Aengus James encourages such questions while keeping the dread factor high with help from composer Adam Sanborne’s ominous score.
The only respite comes during interludes that explain why Paul Lima decided to undertake such an insane quest. We come to understand that his need for closure largely overrules his instinct for self-preservation. That’s because his life is stuck in limbo and will remain there unless he succeeds in bringing his father’s killer to justice.
Like a condensed, real-life version of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, After the Murder of Albert Lima blends psychology and suspense in the tale of an obsession that both defines and endangers one man’s life. It’s quite a yarn.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
After the Murder of Albert Lima is available beginning March 18 on Crackle, a free screening service.
By Richard Ades
As if the upcoming presidential election weren’t momentous enough, a new documentary offers evidence that American’s public lands are on the line.
David Byars’s Public Trust is a beautifully photographed homage to the 640 million acres of wilderness that belong to all of us, as well as a concise history of the struggle to keep them that way. That history is brought up to date with an account of the Trump administration’s moves to exploit some of the most pristine and vital areas for commercial development.
Though a wide spectrum of activists, ranchers, government officials and others appear during the film’s 98 minutes, the face that’s seen most often belongs to journalist Hal Herring. Herring says he spent his youth hunting and fishing in northern Alabama, but he later traded in his shotgun for a computer so he could warn people about forces that sought to turn federal lands into money-making opportunities.
Byars makes the case that protecting and even extending public lands was a bipartisan issue for much of the 20th century, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Even in the 21st century, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both added new protected areas by declaring them “national monuments.”
When Donald J. Trump took office, however, he made it clear that his sympathies lay elsewhere. Not only have his secretaries of the interior been men with multiple links to the energy industry, but he’s showed no compunction about overturning protective measures instituted by his predecessors.
The documentary gives three endangered areas special attention. One is Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, which attract canoers and other nature-lovers to the state and create thousands of local jobs. Another is the Bears Ears area of Utah, considered sacred by Native Americans. Finally, there’s the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, home to the caribou on which the Gwich’in people rely for their survival.
Each of these areas has its defenders, one of the most devoted being Bernadette Demientieff of the Gwich’in Nation. She and other activists are shown gathering support and debating critics in attempts to fight off intrusions by would-be exploiters with deep pockets. But their efforts begin to seem futile once the Trump administration puts its finger on the scales.
Educational, inspiring and, most of all, troubling, Public Trust is ultimately a call to arms against those who seek to steal our national heritage for the sake of a quick profit.
Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)
Public Trust (no MPAA rating) is available via YouTube beginning Sept. 25, with more outlets to be added at a later date.
By Richard Ades
“Black arts matter!” Ed “Nardie” White declares early in River City Drumbeat. That’s the central message of the documentary, which focuses on the institution White created nearly three decades ago to help young African Americans forge their own future.
The River City Drum Corp teaches Louisville youngsters how to make and play drums in routines featuring African-inspired rhythms and spirited choreography. But the group’s real purpose, it’s clear, is to give them a sense of purpose and a sense of direction when it comes to mapping out their lives.
Several scenes explain the real dangers these kids face growing up in neighborhoods with a liquor store on each corner and nearly omnipresent gunfire. In the saddest of these, White recalls the granddaughter he was unable to save from a dangerous lifestyle that resulted in her senseless death.
Directed by Marlon Johnson and Anne Flatte, the 94-minute documentary unfolds in a style that sometimes seems slow and meandering. However, patient viewers will be rewarded with insights into the philosophy that inspired White through the years—and in turn has inspired many of the youngsters who fell under his influence.
Spread chronologically over several months, the film follows White as he prepares to turn over his leadership role to one of those grownup youngsters: Albert Shumake, a deejay who is willing to reorder his life to keep the group going. In the process, we learn about the important role White’s late wife, Zambia, played in both men’s lives. It was she who served as Albert’s cheerleader when a teacher told him he would never amount to anything, and it was she who convinced White that the drum group was too important to abandon.
By introducing us to some of the ensemble’s soon-to-be former members—all of them high school seniors with college in their sights—the film demonstrates that Zambia was right.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
River City Drumbeat may be streamed from Aug. 14 through Sept. 10 via Columbus’s Wexner Center (wexarts.org). A 72-hour rental is $12. For other viewing opportunities, visit rivercitydrumbeat.com/screenings.
By Richard Ades
The first 10 minutes of Rebuilding Paradise are harrowing.
Ron Howard’s documentary is mostly about the aftermath of the November 2018 “Camp Fire” in Paradise, California, but first it shows us the fire itself. With the help of cellphone and dashcam footage, it recreates people’s terror as they attempt to escape a wildfire that engulfed their town only minutes after originating on a nearby hillside.
In one particularly hair-raising moment, we find ourselves inside a vehicle barreling along a road that has turned into a fiery obstacle course. Meanwhile, the air is so filled with smoke that the day appears to have turned to night.
The danger is real, we learn. By the time the fire is brought under control, 85 residents of Paradise are dead. Of those who survive, most have lost their homes, along with schools, municipal buildings and services.
Following this terror-stricken beginning, Howard’s documentary evolves into a month-by-month account of attempts by residents and officials to revive a community that has been largely destroyed. The result is a film that’s sincere and warmhearted.
And, it must be said, just a little dull.
Part of the problem is Howard’s focus on what a close-knit and beautiful community Paradise was, which made its loss so tragic. Though it undoubtedly was beautiful, being located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it’s hard for those of us who never lived there to share the residents’ nostalgia.
Then again, let’s face it: A big part of the film’s problem is its timing. Much as we want to be sympathetic to the day-to-day challenges faced by the survivors, we can’t help being reminded of our own day-to-day challenges due to a health disaster that shows no signs of winding down.
This is particularly difficult when the film focuses on the tireless efforts of school superintendent Michelle John to keep local classes in session and to give the 2019 seniors a bona fide graduation ceremony. With the benefit of hindsight, we can’t help thinking that it’s all for naught because the following school year will be 10 times as difficult in Paradise and everywhere else.
Howard also tries a bit too hard to show individuals’ community spirit and even heroism. Or maybe it just seems that way because of our own, mid-2020 perspective. Having witnessed some of our own fellow citizens refusing to even slap on a mask to promote the general good, we know all too well that not everyone reacts to disaster in a selfless way.
Is the film looking at the Camp Fire aftermath with rose-colored glasses? The question comes up in relation to one of its most heroic figures, Matt Gates, a police officer who works to raise spirits through efforts such as organizing a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. Then, late in the film, we suddenly learn that Gates and his wife have separated. Why? We’re never told, maybe because Howard doesn’t want to tinge his warm portrait of the town with a hint of negativism.
In a break from the general positivity, Rebuilding Paradise points out that there are culprits here as well as victims. The main culprit is Pacific Gas & Electric, whose failure to maintain its power lines caused the spark that set off the deadly fire. More generally, the culprit is poor forest management, which makes the area vulnerable to wildfires due to young growth that burns quickly.
More generally still, as the film notes briefly, the culprit is climate change. Yet no fingers are pointed at those who’ve ignored the problem and have even gone out of their way to deny it exists.
To pick out the most obvious example: Donald Trump is shown talking about his post-fire visit to the town—which he accidentally calls “Pleasure”—but the film doesn’t report his odd theory that wildfires like this could be prevented if California just raked out the forest floors once in a while. Nor does it mention the administration’s ongoing attempts to undermine environmental regulations.
Perhaps the film’s sponsor, National Geographic, is afraid of unnecessarily aggravating the Trump administration. Or perhaps director Howard is more interested in the personal rather than the political. Whatever the reason, the result is a portrait of loss, courage and perseverance that—due to reasons both in and beyond the filmmaker’s control—comes off as needlessly bland.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Rebuilding Paradise (PG-13) is available beginning July 31 through VOD outlets or Columbus’s Gateway Film Center (gatewayfilmcenter.org).
By Richard Ades
In the 1970s, the country was struggling to recover from the dual tragedies of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal that toppled the Nixon presidency. That helps to explain why so many Americans were attracted to the “Moonies,” a Korean-born cult that promised to unite and heal the world.
Blessed Child is a documentary by and about a woman who was raised in a Moonie family and found the religion a comfort and an inspiration—until it wasn’t. Then it became an impediment to her happiness and threatened to drive a wedge between her and her devout parents.
Directed by Cara Jones and filmed by her brother Bow, the doc is a gentle yet wrenching portrait of a family that was at first united and later divided by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.
An early voice-over explains the church’s unique ideology. Moon believed in the power of marriage to help the world overcome sin and prejudice. Accordingly, he regularly organized mass weddings of couples he’d personally “matched,” often with the express purpose of combining people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. He also discouraged premarital relations, being convinced that sex was the “original sin” that had driven Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
Moon’s belief system appealed to idealistic young people like Cara’s future father, Farley Jones, who converted in the ’60s. Farley then persuaded a Catholic girl named Betsy to join up, and the two married (after being matched by Moon) and proceeded to raise four sons and a daughter in the Unification Church.
Contemporary interviews and home movies reveal that the family became something akin to Moonie celebrities after Farley was named president of the faith’s American branch. So prominent were they that young Cara began to hope she eventually would be matched with one of Moon’s own sons. It’s probably not a coincidence that her faith began to wane when she wasn’t, instead being paired with a man who felt more like a younger brother than a husband. But by the time her marriage ended in divorce, it also had become clear that Moon wasn’t quite as pure and angelic as he’d seemed.
While it spends sufficient time explaining the eccentricities and shortcomings of the Unification Church, Blessed Child’s main theme is the lasting effect it’s had on former members like Cara. Long after leaving the church, many still struggle with feelings of failure and regret that make it difficult to get on with their lives. And it’s all the harder for people like Cara whose parents remain true believers.
If the documentary has one weakness, it’s that Cara’s central tale is almost overshadowed by that of her brother Bow. As a boy who realized early on that he was gay, Bow couldn’t feel at home in a faith devoted to heterosexual marriage. And yet he was—and apparently still is—as susceptible as anyone to its idealistic vision of a world united by love and acceptance.
Blessed Child takes us on an engrossing journey as it relates Cara’s efforts to heal old wounds and come to terms with her past. Even so, the closing credits may leave viewers with a nagging question: But what about Bow?
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Blessed Child (no MPAA rating) is available beginning July 17 on iTunes, Google and Amazon.
By Marilyn Fais and Richard Ades
Note: Guest critic Marilyn Fais helps review Honeyland, a film from North Macedonia that has been nominated for Academy Awards in two categories: Documentary and International Feature. Directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, the film originally was meant to be a short documentary about the land surrounding a river in the country’s central region. Then the filmmakers met Hatidze Muratova, a 50-something woman eking out a living as a beekeeper, and they ultimately decided to focus their lens on her unusual life.
If you decide to see Honeyland, don’t expect any big moments, but expect to be captivated by many small moments. Taking place in a remote area of North Macedonia, the film follows one woman, Hatidze Muratova, as she goes about her subsistence life as a beekeeper.
She’s in her mid-50s and lives with her ailing mother. They have no neighbors, and it appears they’re the only people around for miles.
Then they get neighbors—a large nomadic family led by Hussein and Ljutve Sam—and the interactions that follow add new complications to Hatidze’s difficult existence. Between her reactions to these newcomers and her brief but poignant talks with her mother, viewers gain new insights into Hatidze’s life and philosophy.
In the process, they also gain insights into the challenges faced by anyone attempting to live in harmony with the natural world. These make this unusual film both intensely personal and sadly universal.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Honeyland opens Feb. 7 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus.
By Richard Ades
Early in the documentary Citizen K, Mikhail Khodorkovsky recalls Russia’s own “Wild West” era. It occurred during a roughly seven-year period following the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent decline of communist authoritarianism.
The resulting legal vacuum allowed Khodorkovsky and other enterprising individuals to make their fortunes through often-shady means. It also allowed many of these so-called “gangster capitalists” to be killed for their money while Moscow turned into the “murder capital” of Europe.
Fortunately for Khodorkovsky, he managed to avoid the assassins, though he soon made an enemy who was equally ruthless: Vladimir Putin.
Written and directed by Alex Gibney, Citizen K is a history of modern Russia as seen through the eyes of Khodorkovsky, who amassed billions through his ownership of a major oil company. It describes the ways he and other self-created capitalists attempted to remake Russia for their own benefit. It also describes how Putin, once an out-of-work KGB agent, rose to power by appealing to people’s nostalgia for Soviet power and influence.
Finally, it explains how Khodorkovsky and others found themselves working at cross-purposes with Putin, putting a target on their backs. Some are alleged to have paid for this with their lives. In Khodorkovsky’s case, he was put on trial for financial crimes and ended up spending 10 years in a remote prison.
Majestically photographed by cinematographers Mark Garrett and Denis Sinyakov, with an equally grand score by Robert Logan and Ivor Guest, Citizen K is an impressive piece of filmmaking. It’s also an invaluable history lesson for any who want to understand how Russia became the dangerous adversary it is today—and why President Trump’s apparent failure to recognize that fact is so concerning.
If there’s one thing the documentary lacks, it’s someone to root for.
The thousands of stories based on America’s lawless Wild West generally gave us a hero who showed up to save the day. In this tale of Russia’s “Wild West” and its aftermath, it’s hard to decide whether our protagonist deserves that label.
In an archival interview, a young Khodorkovsky proudly admits that greed is his chief motivator. Other historic footage makes it clear that he was willing to lay off thousands to achieve his financial goals. It’s even suggested that he may have resorted to tactics such as bombings or murder.
Only later, after being released from prison, does Khodorkovsky take on a task that doesn’t seem entirely self-serving: From his new home in the UK, he funds efforts to promote democracy in his homeland. That does seem heroic.
By this point in the film, however, we’ve learned enough about the way “politics” work in Putin’s Russia to suspect that it’s also a quixotic exercise in futility.
Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)
Citizen K opens Feb. 7 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus.
By Richard Ades
Linda Ronstadt was the first female singer to attain the kind of arena-filling star power previously achieved only by males. As a result, the now-73-year-old legend still has plenty of fans, even though Parkinson’s disease has in recent years deprived us of her beautiful voice.
Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman seem to have counted on those fans’ interest when they put together Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. Rather than trying to pique viewers’ curiosity with a preview of what Ronstadt achieved, the film biography assumes they already know all that. Instead, it starts at the beginning—or even before the beginning—of her career, allowing the singer to conjecture on how her future was shaped by a father who invented the electric stove and a grandfather who sang Mexican folk songs.
Epstein and Friedman then recount Ronstadt’s career in more or less chronological order. This approach, combined with an account that is long on admiration and short on drama, requires viewers to have a good bit of patience. But Ronstadt’s fans probably won’t mind, especially since they’re given the chance to relive many high points of her musical history courtesy of old concert footage.
The main point the doc puts across is the groundbreaking nature of Ronstadt’s award-winning career. Thanks to a string of hit singles such as 1973’s “Desperado” and hit albums such as 1974’s “Heart Like a Wheel,” she was able to crash the former boys’ club of rock stardom. Astoundingly, not being a songwriter herself, she did it solely on the strength of her vocal instincts and ability.
The second point that comes across is Ronstadt’s fearlessness in the face of new challenges. She periodically insisted on breaking out of her well-paid comfort zone by, for instance, taking a stage role in a Gilbert and Sullivan light opera. Later, in perhaps her boldest move, she honored her family’s heritage by recording traditional Mexican songs in Spanish, though she didn’t actually speak the language.
If anyone ever makes a scripted biopic out of Ronstadt’s life, they’ll probably try to dramatize her inevitable clashes with music executives who wanted her to skip such adventures and stick to what had earned money in the past. Or maybe the flick will seek drama in her brief experiences with diet pills and other drugs, or her romances with singer-songwriter J.D. Souther and celebs such as California Gov. Jerry Brown, filmmaker George Lucas and comedian Jim Carrey.
For its part, the doc treats such subjects in an underplayed, matter-of-fact fashion. The executives wanted Ronstadt to stick to what she knew; she said no. She did drugs; then she stopped. She and Souther were together; then they weren’t. (Souther himself says he can’t remember why they broke up but suggests they were too independent and career-oriented to be tied down.)
In general, the film comes off more as a love letter rather than a documentary. Presumably, Ronstadt’s fans won’t mind, especially since that love letter is accompanied by wonderful music.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (PG-13) opens Sept. 13 at the Drexel Theatre in Bexley and the Gateway Film Center in Columbus.