Category Archives: Documentary

The singer not the song: Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 14, 2019)

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It always gave me a chuckle that singer-songwriter Barry Manilow did not write his hit “I Write the Songs”, which zipped to #1 in 1976. The song was in fact composed by ex-Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, who wrote it for David Cassidy. Here’s where it gets interesting.

While Cassidy released it as a single in 1975, it was originally recorded by Captain and Tennille for their 1975 album Love Will Keep Us Together (but never a single). Alas, Cassidy’s version went nowhere fast, despite his pop idol status at the time.

David Cassidy and Captain and Tennille were highly popular acts in the mid-70s. So what gives…why did Manilow’s rendition win out in popularity? Speaking in purely technical terms, is Barry Manilow a “better” singer than David Cassidy or Toni Tennille?

Must be that elusive “x factor”.

There’s a venerable “chicken/egg” conundrum regarding this sort of thing. It goes something like this: What’s more important, the singer, or the song? Given that this is all subjective to begin with…it depends.

For example, the Beatles were not only superb songwriters, but singers as well; I prefer their original versions of their own material. I even love their covers of songs by Buddy Holly, Burt Bacharach, etc. Bob Dylan is a superb songwriter, but I’d much rather listen to the Turtles’ hit version of “It Ain’t Me Babe”, since Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman manage to sing it, oh, you know-on key?

Which brings us to one of the most successful singers of the last 50 years, Linda Ronstadt…who didn’t write her own hits either. Reminds me of a funny story. In preface to singing “Desperado” at a 2016 tribute concert to Ronstadt, Don Henley had this to say:

The song I’m about to do for you didn’t get much love or attention when it was released on [The Eagles’] second album in April of 1973. In fact, the executives at the record label freaked out… [feigning shock] “Oh god, they’ve made a fucking cowboy album!” And then Linda Ronstadt recorded the song [knowing laughter from audience] and put it on her album “Don’t Cry Now” that came out in September of 1973…and everything was different after that.

In the case of Linda Ronstadt, sounds like it’s the singer, not the song… n’est-ce pas?

Ronstadt (and that truly wondrous voice) is the subject of an intimate documentary portrait by directing tag team Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet, Howl, Lovelace). Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is narrated by Ronstadt herself (archival footage aside, she only appears on camera briefly at the end of the film).

Bad news first (this is a matter of public record, so not a spoiler). While Ms. Ronstadt herself is still very much with us, sadly “that wondrous voice” is not. In 2012 she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (she mentions in the film that it runs in her family), which has profoundly affected her ability to sing. That said, she remains sharp as a tack; in turns deeply thoughtful and charmingly self-effacing as she reflects on her life and career.

For those of us “of a certain age”, Ronstadt’s songbook is so ingrained in our neurons that we rarely stop to consider what an impressive achievement it was for her to traverse so much varied musical terrain-and to conquer it so effortlessly at each turn.

Name a genre, she’s likely mastered it and moved on: rock, pop, folk, country, country-rock, hard rock, soft-rock, new wave, torch, Latin pop, mariachi, light opera. Not to mention the 10 Grammy Awards, 3 American Music Awards, 2 Academy of Country Music Awards, etc.

What struck me most is her humility in the wake of prodigious achievement. I don’t get an impression the eclecticism stems from calculated careerism, but rather from a genuine drive for artistic exploration.

For example, when Ronstadt shares memories of growing up in Arizona singing Mexican canciones with her family, her decision to make an all-Spanish language album in 1987 makes perfect sense (record company execs fretted it was tantamount to career suicide, but when it went on to become the biggest-selling non-English language album in U.S. music history, I’m guessing they sang…a different tune).

Ronstadt is candid about her “rock chick” image, particularly in context of the music business environs of the 1970s, when it was considered “uncool” among many male musicians to play backup for a female singer. She notes that since she didn’t really have any role models, she had to carve her own way in dealing with “the boys in the band”, as well as the inevitable performance pressures that arise from playing packed arenas night after night, weeks on end. She certainly learned how to hold her own, but it wasn’t easy.

Despite her health condition, there’s no self-pity; Ronstadt comes across as pragmatic, forward-thinking and impressively resilient. There is a moment where the filmmakers gently coax her to appear on camera, while she is visiting with family in Mexico. She sings a traditional Spanish-language song with two of her relatives.

At one point, she stops and asks they start again; she isn’t happy with her harmony (ever the pro). She takes pains to insist what she is doing is “not singing”, because she feels she has lost control of her instrument (not to my ears). They complete the number, and it is beautiful. It’s a bittersweet coda for the film, but I’d wager Linda Ronstadt’s song is far from over.

You will go to the moon: A NASA film festival

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 20, 2019)

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50 years today, on July 20, 1969 Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon. I know-you’re suffering from tribute fatigue; don’t worry, I’ll keep this short. And yes, I’m aware that while we figured out how to put a man on the moon, your cell phone service still sucks; it has been duly noted.

For those of us of “a certain age”, that is to say, old enough to have actually witnessed the moon landing live on TV… the fact that “we” were even fucking able to achieve this feat “by the end of the decade” (as President Kennedy projected in 1961) still seems like a pretty big deal to me. Of course, there are still some big unanswered questions out there about Life, the Universe, and Everything, but I’ll leave that to future generations. I feel that I’ve done my part…spending my formative years plunked in front of a B&W TV in my PJs eating Sugar Smacks and watching Walter Cronkite reporting live from the Cape.

It is in this spirit that I have curated a NASA film festival for you. In alphabetical order:

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Apollo 11– This 2019 documentary (currently in theaters and airing on CNN) was a labor of love for director Todd Douglas Miller, who also produced and edited. Miller had access to a trove of previously unreleased 70mm footage from Apollo 11’s launch and recovery, which he and his production team was able to seamlessly integrate with archival 35mm and 16mm footage, as well as photos and CCTV. All audio and visual elements were digitally restored, and Miller put it together in such a way that it flows like a narrative film (i.e., no new voice-over narration or present-day talking heads intrude). The result is impressive. I’ve only seen it on cable, but I could imagine it is spectacular in IMAX. If you missed it, good news-it airs again tonight on CNN at 6pm and 8pm (PST).

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Apollo 13– While overly formal at times, Ron Howard’s 1995 dramatization of the ill-fated mission that injected “Houston, we have a problem” into the zeitgeist still makes for an absorbing history lesson. You get a sense of the claustrophobic tension the astronauts must have felt while brainstorming out of their harrowing predicament. Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton have good chemistry as crewmates Lovell, Swigert and Haise, and Ed Harris was born to portray Ground Control’s flight director, Gene Kranz.

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The Dish– This wonderful 2000 sleeper from Australia is based on the true story behind one of the crucial components that facilitated the live TV images of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon: a tracking station located on a sheep farm in New South Wales. Quirky characters abound in Rob Sitch’s culture-clash comedy (reminiscent of Bill Forsythe’s Local Hero). It’s not all played for laughs; the re-enactment of the moon-landing telecast is genuinely moving. Sam Neill heads a fine cast. Director Sitch and co-writers Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, and Jane Kennedy also collaborated on another film I highly recommend: The Castle (1997).

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The Farthest–  Remember when NASA spaceflights were an exciting, all-day news event? We seem to have lost that collective feeling of wonder and curiosity about mankind’s plunge into the cosmos (people are too busy looking down at their goddam phones to stargaze anymore). Emer Reynolds’ beautifully made 2017 documentary about the twin Voyager space probes rekindles that excitement for any of us who dare to look up. And if the footage of Carl Sagan’s eloquent musings regarding the “pale blue dot” that we call home fails to bring you to tears, then surely you have no soul.

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For All Mankind– Former astronaut Al Reinert’s 1989 documentary was culled from thousands of feet of mission footage shot by the Apollo astronauts over a period of years. Don’t expect standard exposition; this is simply a montage of (literally) out-of-this-world imagery with anecdotal and philosophical musings provided by the astronauts. Brian Eno composed the ambient soundtrack. A mesmerizing and unique tone poem in the vein of Koyaanisqatsi.

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In the Shadow of the Moon– The premise of this 2007 documentary (similar to For All Mankind) is simple enough; surviving members of the Apollo moon flights tell their stories, accompanied by astounding mission footage (some previously unseen). But somehow, director David Sington has managed to take this very familiar piece of 20th century history and infuse it with a sense of joyous rediscovery. In the process, it offers something rarer than hen’s teeth these days…a reason to take pride in being an American.

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The Right Stuff– Director and writer Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film (based on Tom Wolfe’s book) is a stirring drama about NASA’s Mercury program. Considering the film was modestly budgeted (by today’s standards), it has quite an expansive scope. The rich characterizations also make it an intimate story, beautifully acted by a dream cast including Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn, Barbara Hershey, Fred Ward, Pamela Reed, Lance Henriksen, Scott Wilson, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum, and the late Levon Helm.

BONUS TRACK!
Singing us out…the barbershop space rock stylings of Moxy Fruvous.

Blu-ray reissue: The Atomic Cafe (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 6, 2019)

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The Atomic Cafe – Kino-Lorber Blu-ray

This cautionary 1982 documentary was written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty; a cleverly assembled mélange of footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era. In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (like the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers also draw from military training films. Harrowing, perversely entertaining, and timely as ever… it’s a must-see for anyone who cares about the future of humanity.

Image quality of this 16mm production is excellent (be aware that not all the source archival footage has been restored, per se). Extras include a 2018 interview with the 3 co-directors, plus full-length versions of 11 vintage government propaganda shorts.

The Byrds and the beads: Echo in the Canyon *** & Model Shop (1969) ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 29, 2019)

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[The Beatles’ “She Said She Said” is] another psychedelic gem written by John, which in this case was literally inspired by psychedelics, because he came up with the idea for the song in the aftermath of an acid trip he took in 1965, while partying with The Byrds in L.A. (and you know that those space cowboys had the good shit, probably Sandoz). At any rate, the story goes that John got freaked out by Peter Fonda, who kept cornering him and whispering in his ear: “I know what it’s like to be dead.” Obviously, this unsettling mantra stuck with Lennon, who modified the final lyric, so that it became “she” said…I know what it’s like to be dead…

 – from my 2016 essay on the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ Revolver

“The Byrds were great; when [The Beatles] came to L.A. [The Byrds] came and hung out with us. That 12-string sound was great. The voices were great. So, we loved The Byrds. They introduced us to a…hallucinogenic situation, and uh…we had a really good time.”

– Ringo Starr, from the 2019 documentary Echo in the Canyon

Someone once quipped “If you can remember anything about the 60s, you weren’t really there”. Luckily for Ringo and his fellow music vets who appear in Andrew Slater’s documentary Echo in the Canyon, they’re only required to “remember” from 1965-1967.

That is the specific time period that Slater, a long-time record company exec, music journalist and album producer chooses to highlight in his directing debut. His film also focuses on a specific location: Laurel Canyon. Nestled in the Hollywood Hills West district of L.A., this relatively cozy and secluded neighborhood (a stone’s throw off the busy Sunset Strip) was once home to a now-legendary, creatively incestuous enclave of influential folk-rockers (The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Mamas and the Papas, et.al.).

Interviews with the likes of Roger McGuinn, Michelle Phillips, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Brian Wilson, Eric Clapton, the late Tom Petty and producer Lou Adler are interspersed with performances from a 2015 tribute concert featuring Jakob Dylan and some of his contemporaries like Cat Power, Beck, Norah Jones and Fiona Apple covering their favorite 60s songs by the artists who are profiled (director Slater helped organize the event). Dylan also conducts the interviews and serves as a tour guide.

Frankly, there aren’t many surprises in store; turns out that nearly everybody was (wait for it) excited and influenced by The Beatles, who in turn were excited and influenced by The Byrds and the Beach Boys, who were in turn inspired to greater heights by the resultant exponential creative leaps achieved by the Beatles (echo in the canyon…get it?)

Still, it’s fun to be a fly on the wall as Dylan and his cohorts lay down tracks at vintage L.A. recording studios, or just to watch the late Tom Petty noodle around on a 12-string electric Rickenbacker to demonstrate the rudiments of the 60s California folk-rock sound.

One comes away with a sense about the unique creative camaraderie of the era. Roger McGuinn once received a courtesy note from George Harrison that the main riff he used for the Beatles’ “If I Needed Someone” was based on the Byrds’ “Bells of Rhymney”. Apparently, McGuinn was totally cool with that (too bad for poor George that the publishers of the Chiffon’s 1963 hit “He’s So Fine” didn’t receive his melodic lift for his 1970 smash “My Sweet Lord” in the same spirit-they promptly sued him for plagiarism).

According to Stephen Stills, there was so much musical badminton going on at the time that a little unconscious plagiarism now and then was inevitable. In one somewhat awkward scene, Dylan asks Eric Clapton about the suspiciously similar chord changes in Stills’ song “Questions” (by Buffalo Springfield) and Clapton’s “Let it Rain”. After mulling it over for several very long seconds, Clapton shrugs and concurs “I must have copped it.”

By odd coincidence, the day I previewed the film, a Rolling Stone obit caught my eye: 

Elliot Roberts, who managed the careers of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Tom Petty and many classic-rock legends, died Friday at the age of 76. A cause of death has not been revealed.

“It is with a heavy heart that we can confirm the passing of Elliot Roberts. No further details are available at this time,” a rep for Young wrote in a statement on behalf of Roberts’ Lookout Management.” Roberts, among the most respected and beloved music industry figures of all time, leaves an indelible footprint as a pioneer and leader in the business of artist representation. His uncanny intellect, unmatched, sharp wit, larger-than-life charisma along with his keen understanding of the music industry will remain unparalleled. Truly one of a kind, he will be missed always and by many.”

With his former colleague David Geffen, Roberts was one of the pivotal figures in the rise of the Southern California and Laurel Canyon music scenes of the Sixties and Seventies. Known equally for his business savvy and sense of humor, Roberts landed record deals for Young and Mitchell, co-managed Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, conceived the idea of Petty and the Heartbreakers backing Bob Dylan in the 1980s and helped launch the careers of Tracy Chapman and the Cars. […]

Born Elliot Rabinowitz on February 25th, 1943, Roberts was raised in the Bronx, ran with gangs and, after flirting with the idea of becoming an athlete given his basketball chops, opted for show business. He wound up in the mail room at the William Morris Agency, where he would meet fellow would-be mover and shaker David Geffen.

After he and Geffen rose up the ladder, Roberts heard a tape of Mitchell and soon became her manager, forming Lookout Management. At Mitchell’s urging, Roberts, then only 23, also began managing Young (following the breakup of Buffalo Springfield) and, soon after, Crosby, Stills & Nash. While trying to land the trio a record deal, Roberts realized he needed someone with more record company contacts. Alongside Geffen, he formed the powerful Geffen-Roberts Company. The management firm soon came to represent not just Mitchell (until 1985) but Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, America and many others. When Geffen started Asylum Records, its acts, including the Eagles and Jackson Browne, were also managed by Geffen-Roberts.

I believe I just heard an echo of The Bryds singing: “To everything (turn, turn, turn) …”

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Speaking of odd coincidences, there is a scene in Echo in the Canyon where director Andrew Slater mentions that one of the inspirations for his joint tribute concert/documentary project was Jacques Demy’s relatively obscure 1969 drama Model Shop (Slater weaves in snippets of Demy’s film throughout Echo in the Canyon).

Suddenly, a little bell went off in my head (talk about echoes…lots of space in that empty noggin), and I realized that I had a copy of that very film archived in my DVR (it recently aired on TCM). So, I figured-what the hell…sounds like a perfect double-bill.

While I am familiar with Demy’s work (mostly due to having Criterion’s excellent 6-film box set in my collection), Model Shop has somehow eluded me. The film represents a period in the late 60s when Demy and his wife, filmmaker Agnes Varda took a hiatus from their native France to explore America’s counterculture scene (speaking of which- Criterion’s 3-film “Agnes Varda in California” box is another great set I recommend).

Like many films of its era, Model Shop is a leisurely, episodic character study. It’s about a restless, late-twenty something Los Angelino named George (Gary Lockwood) who is experiencing possibly both the worst and best day of his life. His morning doesn’t start well; he and his girlfriend are awakened from their slumber by a repo man who is there to seize George’s beloved MG convertible. George manages to beg a 1-day reprieve, based on his promise to make an in-person payment of $100 to his bank by end of business day.

George’s girlfriend (Alexandra Hay) is chagrined over witnessing a scenario she has experienced once too many times. This is obviously not their first fight over money; and it looks like the relationship is just shy of going “kaput”. George is an architect by trade; but has recently quit in a fit of pique (existential crisis?). George flees the escalating spat in his MG as he brainstorms how he’s going to scare up that $100 by 6pm.

George’s day (and the film) turns a 180 when he visits a pal who runs an auto repair shop and espies a lovely woman (Anouk Aimee) who is there to pick up her car. On impulse, he decides to follow her in his MG (yes, it’s a bit on the stalking side). He follows her high up into the hills over L.A., and then seems to lose interest. He stops and takes in a commanding view of the city and the valley beyond, deeply lost in thought.

In my favorite scene, he drives up into (Laurel Canyon?) to visit a friend who’s a musician in an up-and-coming band. George’s pal turns out to be Jay Ferguson, keyboardist and lead singer of the band Spirit (and later, Jo Jo Gunne). Ferguson (playing himself) introduces George to his band mates, who are just wrapping a rehearsal. Sure enough, the boys in the band are Ed Cassidy, Randy California, and Matthew Andes-which is the classic lineup for Spirit! The band also provided the soundtrack for the film.

After the band splits, Jay plays a lovely piano piece for George; a song he’s “working on”. After some small talk, George sheepishly hits Jay up for a loan. No problem, man. Jay’s got him covered. George delivers this short, eloquent soliloquy about Los Angeles:

I was driving down Sunset and I turned on one of those roads that leads into the hills, and I stopped at this place that overlooks the whole city; it was fantastic. I suddenly felt exhilarated. I was really moved by the geometry of the place…its harmony. To think that some people claim that it’s an ugly city, when it’s really pure poetry…it just kills me. I wanted to build something right then; create something. It’s a fabulous city.

When George calls his parents to hit them up for money, he gets some dark news from mom. He has just received something he’s been dreading…a draft notice, and he is required to report for processing in just a few days (Vietnam hangs heavily over the film).

By pure chance, he once again spots the woman he had followed earlier. This time, he is determined to meet her. He tails her around Santa Monica, where she eventually disappears into a “models for rent” studio, where clientele pay to take pictures of women in various stages of undress. Undeterred, George pays for a session with the woman he is apparently becoming obsessed with. Their first conversation is as awkward as you would imagine; however, it turns out that George’s interest in her is more heartfelt than prurient.

What ensues is a “one-night-stand” tale that is bittersweet and affecting. The film is a unique entry in Demy’s oeuvre. Interestingly, it is both very much of its time, and ahead of its time; a precursor to films exploring modern love in the City of Angels like Hal Ashby’s Shampoo and (especially) Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A. Like those films, this is a gauzy, sun-bleached vision of a city that attracts those yearning to connect with someone, something, or anything that assures a non-corporeal form of immortality; a city that teases endless possibilities, yet so often pays out with little more than broken dreams.

SIFF 2019: Halston (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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Fashion…turn to the left! Beep-beep. If I had to name my two “least favorite” subjects, they’d be: sports, and fashion. I usually have to be dragged kicking and screaming into films dealing with either. However, it’s my duty as a critic to cover all the bases (how I’ve suffered for you people…and fashion). Nonetheless, I found this portrait of the enigmatic gentleman who designed Jackie K’s first pillbox hat to be fascinating and engrossing.

SIFF 2019: Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2019)

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Few artists are as synonymous with “cool” as innovative musician-arranger-band leader Miles Davis. That’s not to say he didn’t encounter some sour notes during his ascent to the pantheon of jazz (like unresolved issues from growing up in the shadow of domestic violence, and traumatic run-ins with racism-even at the height of fame). Sadly, as you learn while watching Stanley Nelson’s slick and engrossing documentary, much of the dissonance in Davis’ life journey was of his own making (substance abuse, his mercurial nature). Such is the dichotomy of genius.

SIFF 2019: Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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Just when I thought I knew everything about the Warhol Factory scene, this fascinating documentary introduces an overlooked player. Barbara Rubin was a Zelig-like character who moved to NYC at 18, became enmeshed with some of the era’s most culturally significant artists…then became one herself as a pioneering feminist filmmaker. And many years before Madonna dabbled in Kabbalah culture, Rubin embraced it full-bore, taking the traditionally patriarchal Orthodox Jewish community head on while re-inventing herself.

SIFF 2019: Enormous: The Gorge Story (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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The Gorge is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the mall, but that’s just peanuts to the Gorge (with apologies to Douglas Adams). I refer to Washington State’s Columbia Gorge, 140 miles from Seattle. For music fans, the Gorge has become synonymous with memorable concert experiences. This amiable doc traces its transformation from a homemade stage built in the 80s to accommodate a wine-tasting to a now legendary music mecca. Employees, fans and artists (Dave Matthews, Mike McCready, Steve Miller, John Oates, Jason Mraz, et. al.) share favorite memories.

SIFF 2019: Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2019)

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Janice Engel profiles the late, great political columnist and liberal icon Molly Ivins, who suffered no fools gladly on either side of the aisle. Engel digs beneath Ivins’ bigger-than-life public personae, revealing an individual who grew up in red state Texas as a shy outsider.

Self-conscious about her physicality (towering over her classmates at 6 feet by age 12), she learned how to neutralize the inevitable teasing with her fierce intelligence and wit (I find interesting parallels with Janis Joplin’s formative Texas years). Her political awakening also came early (to the chagrin of her conservative oilman father).

The archival clips of Ivins imparting her incomparable wit and wisdom are gold; although I was left wishing Engel had included more (and I am dying to know what Ivins would say about you-know-who).

SIFF 2019: Kifaru (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 1, 2019)

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I haven’t cried like this over an animal movie since I saw Old Yeller as a kid. But there’s a palpable sadness running throughout David Hambridge’s extraordinarily moving documentary about the life and death of “Sudan”, the last male white rhino. The film is as much about his dedicated caretakers James and JoJo, workers at Kenya’s Ol Pejeta wildlife conservancy. Thankfully, we are given hope for the future (thanks to the miracles of modern science).