To be a Gay Japanese-American Sci-Fi Actor and the Subject of To Be Takei

B+ Documentary

  • Directed by Jennifer M. Kroot

Who would have guessed that, almost 50 years after Star Trek first premiered on NBC, George Takei would be the most beloved member of the original cast. But why not. He has a warm, upbeat personality and a great sense of humor. He’s been a political activist for decades, but always came off as a nice activist. He’s a master of social media. And by publically coming out late in life, he’s provided his story with a happy ending of triumph over bigotry.

Jennifer M. Kroot has created an ordinary documentary about an extraordinary man. It’s a typical collection of interviews, video of Takei and his husband Brad Altman going about their daily business (except that this time there’s a camera on them), and old movie and TV clips. But it works because Takei is such an interesting and likeable personality, with has a great life story to tell.

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The bigotry started early. As a young boy living in Los Angeles, he and his family were rounded up by the army and sent to an internment camp for the sin of being Americans of Japanese decent. After spending three years of his childhood behind barbed wire, he returned to a civilian America that had been taught to despise all "Japs."

As a young, struggling actor, he found that his race limited his roles to dubbing Godzilla movies and playing comic stereotypes.

And then there was his sexual orientation. To publically come out was professional suicide, and remained so long after the gay rights movement really got going in the ’70s. So he lived a lie, hiding his long-term relationship with Altman, until he publically came out at the age of 67. But instead of destroying his career, it rejuvenated it.

Kroot’s techniques don’t always work. In one sequence, she cuts between different venues where Takei gives the same speech about the internment camps. Rather than providing visual variety or showing his commitment, the cutting emphasizes that he’s repeating a memorized and rehearsed speech.

Another problem: Although Takei is funny and charismatic, Altman is none of those things, and we see almost as much of him as we see of Takei. It takes a while to warm up to the practical, pessimistic Altman (who now uses the last name Takei). He comes off as a decent person, and obviously the right man for George, but too normal to be a major player in a documentary.

But Takei is interesting, as are the other Star Trek veterans interviewed. (Yes, Takei and William Shatner really do dislike each other.) The film and TV clips are fun. We get a brief section about the gay-porn aspect of Star Trek fan fiction (which concentrates on Kirk and Spock). And it’s rare to see a documentary with such a sense of triumph.

To Be Takei really does feel like a happy ending.

A Life Itself at the Movies

A- Documentary

  • Directed by Steve James

The first thing you have to understand about Life Itself, Steve James’ biographical documentary about Roger Ebert, is that James is hardly a dispassionate observer. He was not a close friend to Ebert, but he owed a lot to the famous film critic. It was Ebert, and his partner Gene Siskel, who championed James’ first feature, Hoop Dreams, and made him an important filmmaker.

The next thing you need to know is that Life Itself is no rehash of Ebert’s autobiography. The book, like all autobiographies, is told from one point of view–Ebert’s. The film shows Ebert’s life from many points of view. Friends, family, co-workers, filmmakers, and other critics–some of whom didn’t care much for Ebert–get their chance to discuss the brilliant writer, passionate cinephile, and overweight alcoholic who became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, and then the most influential film critic of all time. And one of the best.

Siskel and Ebert in the early days

Overall, the film gives us a far more positive view of Ebert than modesty would have allowed him to say about himself. But others can gush about Ebert’s fast yet concise writing style, his advocacy for rare and wonderful films that might never have had a chance without him, and his enthusiastic lust for life. And, of course, his courage in the face of cancer and the botched operations that robbed him of the ability to eat, drink, or talk.

James started working on the film just before Ebert went into the hospital once again, in what they didn’t know at the time was the beginning of the end. As it turned out, this was the beginning of the end for Ebert. The film cuts between two timelines–the physical deterioration of his last months and his entire life. Obviously, the two stories come together in the end.

Be prepared. This film spends a lot of time looking at a man without a jaw. Well, he sort of has a jaw–a u-shaped piece of flesh–sans bones and muscles–hanging below his gaping mouth. And when you look into that mouth, you see his neck or, depending on the camera angle, what’s behind him. It’s pretty disturbing at first, but his upbeat and joking personality helps you adjust.

We hear a lot of Ebert’s words in Life Itself. Sometimes, they’re from old recordings. Sometimes they’re his computer voice. Other times it’s an actor–one who sounds very much like him.

The film has another hero: his wife (and now widow), Chaz. Ebert didn’t marry until he was 50–to a woman who already had grown children. It’s clear that she has been his rock through the tribulations of his final decade. It’s a touching romance, and like all near-perfect love stories, it has to end in death.

And yes, there’s a lot about movies here. We see clips from films as we hear his reviews. Many of those movies are now classics and readily available. But the film’s real nostalgia comes from clips of the TV shows, with Siskel and Ebert agreeing or arguing about one film or another. (Richard Roeper, who became Ebert’s on-screen partner after Siskel died, isn’t even mentioned. I’m not complaining.)

Steve James has given us a completely biased look at Ebert’s life. But it’s also an entertaining and informative work about a man who joyfully embraced both the pleasures of cinema, and of life itself.

Cinematic Romance: My Review of Liv & Ingmar

B Film history documentary

  • Directed by Dheeraj Akolkar

Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann comprise one of the great teams in film history. Their collaborations include Persona, Cries & Whispers, Scenes From a Marriage, and Autumn Sonata. As a romantic couple, they lasted only five years. But their artistic collaboration, and their friendship, lasted nearly 40, until Bergman’s death.

Dheeraj Akolkar tells the story of that romance and friendship (but not much about the collaboration) in this concise, interesting, but flawed 83-minute documentary.

Actually, Akolkar doesn’t really tell the story. He points his camera at Ullmann, and lets her do the talking. We occasionally hear Bergman’s letters to Ullmann, read by an actor, but there’s no question that this is Ullmann’s version of the relationship.

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And no, she doesn’t come off as angry, even though she has good reason to feel that way. The two met in 1965, when the famed director cast her in Persona. She was 25; him, 46. They were both married. But they fell in love on the set, and she became pregnant with his child. They divorced their respective spouses and she moved in with him on his private Scandinavian island.

She never uses the words, but it’s clear from what she says that Bergman was a domineering and abusive lover. He kept a close eye on her and severely restricted her ability to socialize with other people–even the close friends with whom they made great films. He was often cruel to her when shooting those films. That’s all the more shocking considering his reputation for keeping a happy set.

She eventually left him, but they remained friends, and she remained an important member of his repertory company. She became an international star, lived briefly in Hollywood, but was always ready to work for Bergman. She even directed Faithless, a film he wrote late in life.

Hallvard Bræin’s camera spends most of the documentary watching Ullmann’s face , imagestill attractive in her mid-70s, as she talks about her past. She speaks in English, which is odd for a Norwegian film about a Norwegian actor who spent most of her carrier in Sweden.

When we’re not watching today’s Ullmann talk, Akolkar uses clips from Bergman’s film to illustrate the behind-the-camera emotions. For instance, after Ullmann discusses the growing restlessness of their relationship, he shows us a scene (I’m not sure from what movie) where Ullmann and Max von Sydow have an argument at the breakfast table. The technique is effective, but also a little odd. We’re looking at von Sydow and hearing about Bergman.

Akolkar never identifies the films. If you don’t know them, you’re stuck wondering.

Which brings us to Liv & Ingmar‘s biggest flaw: It’s not much interested in Bergman’s and Ullmann’s work. What makes their relationship more interesting than Dick and Jane’s? The fact that they’re Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann. What was it like to be directed by a cinematic icon–especially one who’s also your once-abusive ex-lover? But if Ullmann talked extensively about working together, it all ended up on the cutting room floor.

As the story of a love affair and a long friendship, Liv & Ingmar proves interesting. But it misses the main point. How, in the various stages of their relationship, did they collaborate on such great works of art?

Sweet Dreams: Drumming, Ice Cream, and the aftermath of genocide

C+ documentary

  • Directed by Lisa and Rob Fruchtman

This upbeat, everything-turns-out-okay documentary tries to tell three different stories in 84 minutes. While it has its high points, it doesn’t do justice to any of them.

The location, modern-day Rwanda not quite 20 years after the genocide, promises something fascinating and disturbing. In 1994, one of the country’s two major ethnic groups, the Hutus, took part in a massive genocide of the other, the Tutsis. This wasn’t like Germany’s Holocaust, where a special military unit did the killing and civilians could pretend they didn’t know. Vast numbers of Hutus, machetes in hand, searched homes, workplaces, and fields to slaughter their neighbors.

How can a nation heal from something like that? Death toll estimates reach as high a million people–20 percent of the population. More than 100,000 mass murderers are now imprisoned for their crimes. Today’s young Hutu adults, whose parents were murdered and who barely escaped with their lives, must live with young Tutsi adults whose parents are imprisoned for the most horrible of crimes.

What a great subject for a documentary!

But Sweet Dreams is only peripherally about the scars of genocide. It concentrates mostly on drumming and starting Rwanda’s first ice cream parlor. On some level, that’s supposed to be symbolic of the country’s healing.

As such things go, drumming seems a better way to heal a nation than selling ice cream. The drummers belong to Ingoma Nshya, Rwanda’s first and–according to the film–only women’s drumming troupe. They’re a great team, and a lot of fun to watch. And the members of the group becomes the film’s stars, telling their stories of the genocide and their lives afterward.

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But there isn’t all that much drumming in the movie. And I suspect that a lot of drama was left out, as well. For instance, early in the film, Ingoma Nshya founder Kiki Katese explains that drumming had always been a man’s prerogative–forbidden to women. Creating a women’s drumming group was an act of courageous defiance. But as far as what the filmmakers tell us, no one objected. Apparently, not a single male chauvinist remains in Rwanda.

In fact, the Rwanda pictured here seems a paradise of tolerance–pretty good for a country that was convulsed with the worst possible ethnic cleansing less than 20 years before.

So Kiki decides that, in addition to drumming, the group is going to launch, and run, Rwanda’s first ice cream parlor. Most of the people there have never tasted ice cream. She pairs up with the owners of a Brooklyn parlor, and the group starts on their new endeavor. Of course you’re rooting for them, and you can’t help wondering about the difficulties ahead. A mechanical problem on the day before opening provides the film with a suspenseful climax.

Sweet Dreams is at its best when it ignores the rose-colored present and concentrates on the horrible past. The women’s stories horrify. The film’s best sequence takes us to a stadium for a national event recalling and mourning the horrible events. As images of the genocide flash on the jumbotron, people in the audience go into shock and have to be carried out. What are they remembering?

I wanted more of this. I wanted to go into depth about how a country heals after something like that. I wanted sustenance. But for too much of Sweet Dreams’ running time, I just got ice cream.

Great drumming, though.

Sweet Dreams opens Friday in San Francisco and Berkeley. It will also screen Sunday in San Rafael.

Did You Hear the One About the Documentary? When Comedy Went to School

B Documentary

  • Directed by Mevlet Akkava and Ron Frank

I didn’t know it at the time (after all, I grew up in Los Angeles), but I was raised on Catskills Mountain humor. Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, and Buddy Hackett taught me to laugh. As I grew older, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, and Tom Lehrer took their place. Even today’s standup comics come out of that specifically Jewish, upstate New York tradition.

This sweet, nostalgic documentary looks at the culture, traditions, and comedy that defined the Catskills from the 1930s through the 1960s. As talkies and the depression destroyed vaudeville, upcoming comics had no place to practice and learn their craft. But New York Jews started vacationing in reasonably-priced upstate resorts to enjoy fresh air, outdoor activities, and entertainment. It was an opportunity for comedians to make a little money and hone their craft. And thus the art of stand-up comedy was born.

Directors Mevlet Akkava and Ron Frank make the Catskills look like the perfect vacation. Pools, golf courses, dancing lessons, socializing (and possibly sex), plenty of good food, and rising stars to entertain you. Archival footage–much of it, I suspect, from promotional sources–emphasize the comforts and the beautiful mountains.

Like all documentaries covering recent history, When Comedy Went to School imagecontains a lot of interview footage, With those who were there telling you what it was like. Only this time, the interview subjects are amongst the funniest people alive. That may give you reasons to doubt what they say–you just know they’d pick the funniest version of a story over the real one. But it also makes for very entertaining anecdotes. I’m fighting the temptation to quote some of the best one-liners; I won’t. They depend to much on delivery.

This is a very short feature–only 76 minutes. It moves at a good clip and covers a lot of ground. But the filmmakers all but ignore one important side of the story: What did these comics learn in this "school." I would have enjoyed some talk about what does and does not make an audience laugh.

The movie made me want to vacation in the Catskills–but only if I could travel back in time.

The film opens in Bay Area theaters in Friday. (Note: I added this notice about an hour after the review went live.)

DocFest Preview

I’ve managed to preview three films that will screen at the upcoming DocFest (two of them Bay Area-based). Here’s what I thought of them:

A- Public Sex, Private Lives
Skip this movie if you’re simply looking for titillation. But if you’re really curious about imagethe performers who make a living (and apparently a good one) having sex–kinky sex, actually–on camera, this is a must. It follows the lives of three porn stars–Lorelei Lee, Princess Donna, and Isis Love–all of whom have gone from merely performing to taking significant part in the creative process. This sympathetic documentary looks at prejudice, how relationships work in the adult film industry (yes, people get jealous), what it’s like to be a porn star’s parent–or child, and the dangers of obscenity trials and Child Protective Services. All three subjects come off as intelligent and thoughtful.

Public Sex, Private Lives will play at the Roxie Saturday, June 8, at 9:01 and Wednesday, June 12, at 9:00. It will also screen at the New Parkway on Saturday, June 15, 7:00.

B- Edible City
Talk radio may belong to the right in this country, but documentaries definitely belong to the left. This piece of agitprop (or perhaps I should say agriprop) tells you way we imageshould all support the movement to grow edibles in urban environments, and let the people take control of their own food sources. I’m in complete sympathy with these goals (despite my pathetically brown thumb), and agree that for many reasons we need to shorten the space between food creation and consumption. But I would have liked more numbers on land available and how many people that land can feed, varied diet, and other issues. I would also have appreciated the thoughts of well-meaning people (not corporate hacks) willing to discuss the downsides (I assume there are some).

Edible City will play at the Roxie Saturday, June 8, at 5:00, and Monday, June 10, 7:00. It will also screen at the New Parkway Sunday, June 16, at 7:00.

C- The Pirate Bay Away From The Keyboard
This Swedish fly-on-the-wall cinéma vérité documentary examines the trials around the controversial file-sharing Web site Pirate Bay. The stakes were high–copyright laws versus freedom of the Internet. The legal and moral issues are complex and thought-provoking. Unfortunately, director Simon Klose seems more interested in simple personalities than in the real complex issues at stake. The movie has its moments–a discussion of WikiLeaks, a drunken tirade–but mostly it’s just people being self-righteous. Although the film gives everyone a chance to defend their view, it’s clearly on the side of the pirates, and I expect a lot of youthful cheers and applause when it’s screened. And yet, despite a request in the credits to "Please share this film online," I had to enter a password to preview it for review.

The Pirate Bay Away From The Keyboard will screen at the Aquarius Sunday, June 9, at 9:00, and at the Roxie Saturday, June 15 at 7:00 and Wednesday, June 19 at 9:00.

Cambodia, India, and the Cloud: SFIFF Documentary Sunday

I saw three films at the San Francisco International Film Festival on Sunday–all documentaries. That wasn’t planned. It just worked out that way.

B+ A River Changes Course
Kalyanee Mam’s ethnographic documentary follows three struggling families in imagemodern-day Cambodia. And while no river literally changes course, the modern world forces the film’s protagonists to severely alter their lifestyles. Corporations are chopping down the forests, fishermen are getting smaller catches, and young people leave for the city in a futile hope of raising their families out of poverty. Visually striking and deeply sad.

Unfortunately, I had to leave before Mam’s post-screening Q&A.

A River Changes Course will not play the festival again. However, it is on the list of files that "have secured U.S. distribution or are in negotiations with a U.S distributor," so you may get a chance to see it.

B Salma
This is in no way a well-made documentary. It’s poorly shot, and often leaves you imageconfused about many details. But the basic story is so strong you can forgive it almost anything. Salma, a Muslim woman born in a small Indian village, was effectively under house arrest for 25 years–first by her parents and then by the husband she was forced to marry. Her crime? Being female and passed puberty. But while imprisoned, she became a famous poet, and then a successful politician, fighting (not surprisingly) for women’s rights. It was only after she was elected that her husband let her out of the house. I would love to see this story better told.

Salma won’t screen again this festival. I’m not sure if you’ll ever have a chance to see this film.

A Google and the World Brain
In this wonderfully entertaining documentary, Ben Lewis takes us through Google’s attempt to scan every book in every library, and the copyright lawsuits that at least for imagenow have derailed it. Along the way it covers privacy issues, other digital archives, and the magic of an old-fashioned, paper-based library. Among the people interviewed are Wired’s Kevin Kelly (who gave the Festival’s 2008 State of the Cinema Address), an executive from Google Spain (the American headquarters refused to cooperate), an angry Japanese author, and a French librarian who seems to personify every annoying stereotype of the snooty Gallic intellectual.

The film manages a light, snappy feel despite the serious undertones. Computer-generated cityscapes, a server farm built into what appears to be a medieval cathedral, and animated interview subjects keep it visually lively.

Lewis is clearly worried about Google’s growing power and willingness to violate your privacy. But Google and the World Brain is no simple piece of propaganda. Both sides in this issue are treated fairly.

Lewis was unable to attend the screening (he lives in England and he has a new baby), but he was interviewed afterwards via Skype. Some highlights:

"Three or four years ago, I became interested in a study of the Internet, around issues of monopoly, free market, and privacy. I was looking for a story."

He considered a story about music piracy, but "Nobody sympathizes with musicians. We assume they don’t make any money."

"Just as we’re entering this knowledge economy, the people who are making this knowledge are told that we’ll give it away for free."

"Google makes money from what we produce."

On Google’s response to the film: "They didn’t want to take part in it. After it came out, they said they were deeply disappointed by the tone of the film."

I saw the last festival screening of Google and the World Brain. It’s not on the likely-to-be-released list, which surprised me. With it’s lively and funny presentation, immediate subject matter, and reasonably happy editing, this is about as commercial as a documentary gets.

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