The fifth annual edition of the ground-breaking Double Exposure-Investigative Film Festival is returning once again to Washington DC on Thursday October 10 and will run through Sunday October 13. A project of the investigative news organization 100Reporters, the festival opens with a bang offering the Washington premiere and the latest documentary Desert One by acclaimed Academy Award winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple. Eight other films plus two shorts programs will also be screened including Academy Award winner Alex Gibney's newest Citizen K as well as the closing night film The Cave directed by Academy Award nominated Ferras Fayyad. (For a complete list click here.) In addition to the outstanding documentaries, the festival “offers a unique meeting ground for investigative journalists and filmmakers, featuring an extraordinary lineup of speakers, provocative panel discussions, master classes, a full day of hands-on workshops and special programming designed to connect and facilitate collaboration across disciplines.” Click here for complete festival information.  Stop back after the festival for my coverage including my top 3 films

2019 AFI DOCS Documentary Film Festival

The AFI DOCS documentary film festival (formerly AFI SILVERDOCS) rolls along with this its 17th yearly edition.  However, there are definite signs that a significant downsizing, or even demise, could be the ultimate fate of this very important festival.  The most notable indicator is yet another notable yearly drop in the number of films being offered.  The last three fests have seen the total films offered fall from 112 in 2017, to 92 last year to 72 this year.  And one has to wonder about its overall financial stability when they could not even afford (as told to me by an unnamed festival official) a portable spotlight to properly light Q&A's in the dimly lit Landmark Theater venues. 

The good news is the festival is still being presented over the course of five days and maintains a solid Presenting Sponsor in AT&T while continuing to offer a variety of Impact Labs (which, "helps artists generate broad social impact and political change through the power of story and film") and Forums (which, "presents a variety of networking and professional development events for filmmakers, industry professionals and those with a passion for nonfiction storytelling").

Gala presentations included the opening night documentary "True Justice:  Bryan Stevenson's Fight For Equality", the closing night film "Raise Hell:  The Life & Times of Molly Ivins", and "American Factory" which won the Sundance U.S. Documentary Directing Award.  Two special programs offered discussions entitled "In The Line Of Duty:  A Conversation with Ernie and Joe and Rep. Bruce Franks, Jr. (St. Louis Superman)" and "Protecting Journalists and Safeguarding Press Freedoms:  A New Initiative" which followed screenings of "Ernie And Joe" and "The Assassination of Jamal Khashoggi", respectively.  

Also, special screenings included the World Premiere of the six-hour American Experience miniseries "Chasing The Moon" (which won The Audience Feature Award - see below), National Geographic's "Sea of Shadows", as well as "Toni Morrison:  The Pieces I Am".  And for the first time, the majority of feature films were organized into specific categories:  Portrait, Truth & Justice, Spectrum (explained as "a wide selection of some of the most exciting nonfiction work of the year" where "these filmmakers are pushing the boundaries of storytelling and exploring more unconventional subject matter"), Anthem ("a cinematic celebration of music in all its forms") and Cinema's Legacy where three groundbreaking documentaries from the past, "of such originality and brilliance that they redefined the documentary art form". 

This year's Guggenheim Symposium honoree was filmmaker Freida Lee Mock whose numerous nominations over the year's included winning a Best Documentary Feature Academy Award for her 1994 film "Maya Lin:  A Strong Clear Vision" and a prime-time Emmy Award.  Following a discussion with Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday was an advance screening of her latest work "Ruth - Justice Ginsburg In Her Own Words".

Once again, festival locations occurred in both Silver Spring at the AFI Silver Theater (the birthplace of the festival) and various venues in the downtown D.C. Penn Quarter section with most films playing at The Landmark theater.  New venues here included a switch of the Opening Night film ("True Justice:  Bryan Stevenson's Fight for Equality") from the Newseum to the significantly smaller National Archives Museum, single showings at The Warner Theater and National Geographic Museum as well as three films playing at the Navy Memorial. 

Overall, The AFI Documentary Film Festival, despite its minor shortcomings, continues to provide the public and filmmakers, from over 2000 entries, a top notch conglomeration of quality documentaries from 17 countries around the world and a meaningful topical platform that entertains, informs and educates.  Nonfiction documentaries continues to be relevant and along with conversations here with some of this nation's leading media journalists help to further emphasize the value of this festival which cannot be overstated in this increasingly complicated world.  

NOTE: The Audience Award for Best Feature went to The American Experience series “Chasing The Moon” directed by Robert Stone about American's race to the moon and honors the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.  The Audience Award for Best Short went to "St. Louis Superman” directed by Smriti Mundra and Sami Khan about 33-year-old rapper Bruce Franks, Jr. who became an influential St. Louis activist and representative.  A Short Film Grand Jury prize went to "In The Absence" directed by Yi Seung-Jun about the 2014 South Korean ferry disaster which claimed over 300 children and the efforts by victims' families and survivors to seek justice.  Honorable Mention Short Awards went to "A Love Song For Latasha" (directed by Sophia Nahli Allison) and "Scenes From A Dry City" (directed by Francois Verster and Simon Wood).  (None of these films were screened by this reviewer.)


(1)  Maiden  (**** out of 4 - 93 Minutes)
One of the more inspirational stories is Director Alex Holmes' profile of British sailor Tracy Edwards and her phenomenal achievement after gathering an all-female crew in 1989 at the age of 24 to participate in the male dominated 33,000 mile, 9-month Whitbread Round the World Race.  It begins with  a detailed biography of Edward's early life which went from relatively normal up until the death of her father at age 10 to her dealing with an abusive stepfather that led to her leaving home at the age of 16 to explore the world.   This is where, literally and figuratively, the heart of the film begins.  Her initial restlessness took her to Greece where her passion for sailing began with odd jobs on charters.  She would end up in the 1985 version of the race after begging to work below deck as a cook.  Yearning to work above deck, she had, what was considered crazy at the time, the audacious idea to place a yacht in the 1989 with a 12 all-woman crew.  Tracy was immediately faced with the first of many obstacles:  in order for her dream to materialize she required significant funding to obtain a racing yacht.  Unable to obtain sponsorship for her novel idea, that was universally perceived likely to fail, she obtained the necessary financial support from King Hussein of Jordan whom she had met during a stopover in the U.S.  Now able to purchase and refurbish a 10-year old second-hand 58-foot boat that she renamed "Maiden", she set her sights on the grueling race which comprised six legs over nine months.  As the race unfolds, viewers will experience equal parts excitement, exhilaration and amazement while witnessing the fantastic footage (taken by her cook and designated videographer, Jo Gooding) all of which concludes in an unpredictable and emotional manner.  The director emphasizes the visuals by 
incorporating Edwards as the principle narrator along with interviews of some of the participants.  Thirty years before the recent outstanding team performance by the U.S. soccer team in this year's World Cup came this sensational achievement by a group of woman attempting to coexist in a totally chauvinistic environment facing constant hostility and contempt from the media and competitors for what they were attempting to accomplish.  A total crowd-pleaser!  "Maiden", which won the Audience Award at The Dublin International Film Festival and the Audience International Feature Award at The Northwest Fest, opened nationally on a limited basis on June 28.  
The all-female crew of the Maiden

(2) Cold Case Hammarsköld  (**** out of 4 - 128 Minutes)
For me, a top-notch documentary should inform, entertain, and have me reflecting on the film long after the lights come up.  Danish director Mads Brügger had me checking all these boxes in spades with his latest, exploring the 1961 untimely death of the late UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarsköld who was killed in a plane crash in Africa.  I screened Brügger's 2012 The Ambassador at this festival seven years ago in which he tackled the rampant political corruption in the ultra-dangerous Central African Republic.  Chock full of humor and irony, Mads dangerously puts himself in the middle of his investigation going undercover with hidden cameras to expose the corruption first-hand.  (The film placed 6th in my top 10 at the 2012 AFI Silverdocs fest.)  This time around, Brügger, using the same ironic humor, takes great pain to explore what seems on the surface a potentially outrageous conspiracy theory that the crash was actually an assassination.  The film begins with the director dressed in an all-white safari outfit dictating his thoughts to an African stenographer (who uses an old typewriter no less) - explaining that the actual villain (to be revealed much later in the story) was known to appear only in such garb.  Brügger explains that he mimics the dress choice, in the same hotel used by the protagonist, to put him in the proper frame of mind to tell/dictate his narrative.  There are multiple twists and turns and just when the viewer thinks the story is going in one direction, Mads pulls that rug out from under you and takes you down another sordid path that includes genocide, mercenaries, secret militias, death cults, as well as incredible theories such as the possibility of a "doctor" who was deliberately injecting patients with AIDS while profiting from cheap vaccines.  The director bombards us with visuals:  from black-and-white animation in order to illustrate his six-year-long quest to uncover the truth, to his and his Swedish aid worker's attempt to unearth the actual site of the plane crash with a metal detector and woefully inadequate shovels.  The humor will have you pondering the seriousness of it all, but then Brügger uncovers something that will negate your interpretations and conclusions.  At no point does his journey to uncover the truth leave you bored or uninterested or have you looking at your watch counting down the minutes.  When he reveals that the late Secretary-General was the only one found intact and was discovered with an ace-of-spades playing card wedged into his collar - Brügger grabs our psyche and doesn't let go until the last of the 128 minute running time.  The director prepares the audience at the start proclaiming that we are about to see either "the world's biggest murder-mystery, or the world's most idiotic murder-mystery."  I'm still not certain which is the correct answer but I am delighted that I took the fascinating journey.  Cold Case Hammarsköld, winner of this year's Sundance World Cinema Documentary Directing Award, is scheduled for a limited U.S. theatrical release on August 16.

(l to r) Director Mads Brügger and Swedish aid worker
 Göran Björkdahl searching for remnant's of  Dag 
Hammarsköld's plane

(3) Who Killed Garrett Phillips?  (**** out of 4 - 186 Minutes)
Academy Award Best Documentary nominee Liz Garbus (1998's The Farm:  Angola, USA and 2015's What Happened, Miss Simone) directs this riveting two-part HBO mini-series investigating the 2011 murder of 12-year-old Garrett Phillips which occurred in mostly white Potsdam, a small town in upstate New York.  Garbus never definitely answers the question in the title.  As it turns out, it doesn't matter as she is more interested in the journey involving the suspect who is the focus of the investigation.  With surgical precision, the director presents a compelling peak into our justice system that is both scary and relevant in today's racially charged climate.  Garrett lived with his single mom, Tandy Cyrus, in an apartment building and when neighbors heard disturbing noises and a voice saying, "no", police were called.  After they eventually entered the apartment they found the boy dead of strangulation.  The local cops quickly focused on Garrett's mom's ex-boyfriend, Oral "Nick" Hillary, a Jamaican-American black local soccer hero at St. Lawrence University where he was now a coach.  It is revealed that Nick and Tandy eventually broke up mainly due to Garrett never being accepting of Nick in his mom's relationship.  Was this a sufficient motive where a love struck lover inflicts revenge?  One of the film's highlights is how Garbus meticulously presents the details of Hillary's initial interrogation, which depicts the cops as bungling, incompetent, and biased.  Nick, on the other hand, uses his intelligence as well as his awareness of the judicial system and his own innocence to thwart all their attempts to gain a confession.  Then there is John Jones, Tandy's previous white boyfriend prior to Nick, who just happens to be a Potsdam cop and whose fellow comrades are the interrogators.  Is he a driving force behind the scenes to convict Nick?  Could Jones even be considered a suspect in the murder??  Again, these questions are not explored by the filmmaker, who instead recounts Hillary's incredible 5-year journey to rectify his name and reputation.  The real joy here is not in answering the title's question, but reveling in the process by which an innocent man tries to retain his freedom and dignity.   Liz Garbus won two Primetime Emmys for Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007) and What Happened, Miss Simone and is sure to be a solid contender with this outstanding documentary.  The film had its World Premiere at this festival and premiered on HBO on July 23.

Potsdam billboard

(l to r) Defendant Nick Hillary, Director Liz 
Garbus, Attornies Mani Tafari, Earl Ward
 and Norman Siegel

(4) Sea Of Shadows  (*** 1/2 out of 4 - 105 Minutes)
In recent years there have been several terrific docs focusing on the abuse and/or endangerment of various aquatic animals.  The 2009 Academy Award winner The Cove about dolphin slaughtering in Japan and the 2013's Blackfish about the abuse of killer whales at sea parks are just a couple of examples.  Besides bringing awareness to the atrocities it is equally important to bring their messages to as many folks as possible in order to have maximum impact.  Therefore, in this vein, it is imperative that the filmmaker takes the time and effort to create a quality film that only helps in obtaining a more widespread distribution. Director Richard Ladkani has done just that for the National Geographic Channel and produced this disturbing account of the possible extinction of the endangered vaquita, a species of porpoise, and considered the world's smallest whale, endemic to the northern part of the Gulf of California that now number less than two dozen.  There is currently an illicit trade for the swim bladder of the totoaba fish in China (it has been referred to as "the cocaine of the sea" due to its value as a delicacy in Chinese cuisine and its alleged holistic powers) and catching these fish has resulted in vaquita getting ensnared in the nets earmarked for the totoaba.  Ladkani effectively weaves two narrative threads:  the insidious cartel that treats the swim bladders like any other typically violent drug traffickers, and the concerted efforts by conservationists to combat their efforts as they attempt to roundup the remaining vaquita to hold in captivity until it is safe to return them to their habitat.  The result is a film unlike the usual fare on National Geographic in that it plays like a Hollywood thriller complete with guns, criminality, vicious syndicates, and the Chinese Mafia; all surrounding a desperate attempt to save a species on the verge of extinction.  Winner of the Audience Award for World Documentary at this year's Sundance, Sea Of Shadows had a limited theatrical release on July 12 and will appear on the National Geographic channel sometime in 2020.  

Dr. Cynthia Smith, Executive Director and Director of  Medicine for the National Marine Mammal Foundation during her quest to save the vaquitas

(l to r) Director Richard Ladkani; Dr. Cynthia Smith; 
Andrea Crosta, Executive Director and co-founder 
of Earth League International (formerly Elephant 
Action League)

(5) Ernie & Joe (*** 1/2 out of 4 - 97 Minutes)
Buddy movies.  We've all seen them.  However, it is a rare genre for documentary films.  So, it was a welcome surprise to not only screen a nonfiction bud film, but one that was also so exceptional and inspiring.  Director Jenifer McShane for two years followed a couple of officers from the San Antonio's Police Department's 10-person Mental Health Unit (MHU), Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro.  With today's headlines screaming with instances of crimes involving disturbed individuals and with several major U.S. cities at a breaking point dealing with homelessness and the mentally ill, these two officers have utilized unique methods for confronting these folks head-on.  Their "hug-a-thug" approach is appearing less threatening by wearing lay clothes, being unarmed, and being prepared to better connect and gain trust by slowly conversing and listening with their subjects who could be suffering with such maladies as extreme depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and PTSD.  They are treated more like patients instead of criminals.  Making follow-up visits to check on their progress is often part of the everyday agenda of these two officers, imparting a personal touch that connects strongly with those who are troubled.  The importance of all this cannot be overstated as one in five Americans have been diagnosed with a mental illness.  This has not been lost on the SAPD as they have upped the mental health communication training for their officers from 8 to 40 hours (gun training is 60 hours!).  McShane's effective vérité style includes several encounters the two have experienced to illustrate the successful techniques the MHU officers employed.  In order to personalize Ernie and Joe, focus is also placed on their private lives and depicts how each is struggling and juggling their separate life issues with an extremely stressful demanding job.  The contrast between the two is striking:  Joe, who started the MHU, is a devoted church-going family man in a stable relationship while Ernie is an ex-Marine who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and who is dealing with his combat PTSD and history of child abuse while going through a divorce.  He clearly recognizes the challenges of those unbalanced folks they encounter daily in San Antonio.  The support each officer brings to each other is reflected in their humanitarian efforts to save others, which is reflected in one report that states they have save 100,000 people from jail or ERs.  The film does show their chemistry and includes its share of humor as is no doubt a release of the tension they face on a daily basis and helps to balance the anxiety they constantly encounter.  McShane includes a segment where Joe prepares and lectures at a TEDx talk, spreading their techniques to other departments around the country in the hope that words, actions, and empathy are initially used to defuse a confrontation instead of firearms.  We can only hope.  Ernie & Joe, which won the Special Jury Recognition at this year's SXSW Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary Feature at the Independent Film Festival Boston, was bought by HBO and is scheduled to appear on that channel later this year.

(l to r) San Antonia detectives Ernie Stevens & Joe Smarro
 on the  job in San Antonia, Texas


Aquarela (*** 1/2 out of 4 - 90 Minutes) - Stunningly beautiful visual and aural commentary on the raw power of water and its affect on mankind around the globe. Director Victor Kossadovsky takes us to various striking locales and events such as Russia's frozen Lake Baikal, Miami during Hurricane Irma, and Venezuela's Angel Falls.  Filmed at a rare 96 frames-per-second (movies are typically 24 frames-per-second), this doc is a must-see on the big screen with an equally big sound system.  Aquarela is scheduled for a limited US theatrical release on August 16.  

Recorder:  The Marion Stokes Project  (*** 1/2 out of 4 - 87 Minutes) - Beginning in 1979, Philadelphia native Marion Stokes became fascinated with the Iranian Hostage Crisis and began recording history 24/7 on multiple video cassette recorders.  She eventually amassed over 70,000 VHS cassettes on multiple recorders covering the news cycle for over 30 years until her demise on December 14, 2012 during the Sandy Hook school massacre.  Her project is a time capsule of mankind over these years that has since been preserved by The Internet Archive in San Francisco converting these tapes to digital files.  However, what makes Matt Wolf's film equally fascinating is the life profile of this reclusive Communist-leaning media activist who, in the final analysis, became a visionary as a result of her OCD-like obsession.  

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary  (*** 1/2 out of 4 - 91 Minutes) - Documentary filmmakers often will say that their movies will start off in a particular direction and end-up becoming entirely different.  Director Ben Berman, a TV comedy vet, experienced just that when he set-out to make his first documentary.  He chose as his subject a supposedly dying Las Vegas comedian/illusionist/magician, John Szeles, aka the Amazing Johnathan, who retired in 2014 when he was told he had one year to live due to a heart condition.  When Berman begins filming in 2017 he encounters several surprising developments:  Szeles is still alive, he has a meth habit that might be the cause of his health issues instead of a heart ailment, and, when Szeles announces he is planning a comback, he finds himself unexpectedly competing with a different film crew who is also filming his subject.  Eventually, Berman has second thoughts about the whole project and considers ditching the whole thing.  However, instead, the director turns the camera on himself and faces the conundrums head-on in order to to complete his project.  The crazy rabbit holes he goes down emphasizes the utter unpredictability and challenges of making a non-fiction film.

"Woodstock: Three Days That Defined A Generation" - **** (96 minutes)

Tuesday June 4, 2019

In the early summer of 1969, a college buddy of mine stopped by and asked me if I was interested in joining him in August to attend a three-day outdoor music festival being held about 100 miles north of Manhattan in rural New York.  Although I was a lover of music, and was even a current member of a local rock band, I respectively declined his offer.  That instantaneous refusal to embark with him on that adventure to Bethel, NY  has been the one major regret of my life.

As I sat there watching Barak Goodman's outstanding documentary, a wave of nostalgia and remorse wafted over me - reaffirming my missed opportunity to be a first witness to such an historic event.  The promoters figured a crowd of no more than 150,000 (50,000 per day) over the three days.  However, approximately 400,000 (some accounts put it at closer to 1/2 million) showed up.  

The film begins with the impending storm that overcame the throng on day-three.  Anyone who has seen this footage should recall the scrambling folks did to take cover.  From there, Goodman shifts the focus away from Max Yasgur's diary farm on August 17, 1969 to three years earlier and begins to  document the origins of the festival amongst the surrounding backdrop of the times:  a nation grappling with sexual and civil rights issues as well as the divisiveness of the Vietnam War.  

As the calendar turns to 1969, the detailing of the overwhelming logistics facing the organizers will have you shaking your head in amazement that the extravaganza was ever pulled off.  Originally, the festival was slated to occur in Wallkill, NY.  However, the conservative townsfolk feared the onslaught of "dirty hippies" and the town revoked the permit just months before the festival dates.  

The organizers then spent weeks surveying the New York countryside via helicopter when they finally happened on Max Yasgur's idyllic farm in Bethel.  And after getting the conservative republican's approval to utilize his bucolic setting only months before the kickoff, they soon realized that, in order to get everything in place would have taken them well into November.  Unfortunately, August 15 was only weeks away.  Having already sold thousands of tickets, they were pass the point of no return and had to make a critical decision: do they construct a mile of fencing surrounding the property in order to reap a profit, or a stage.  Their choice was clear and the end result was declaring the "Three Days Of Peace and Love" a free-fest for all.

Barak Goodman (winner of numerous awards and nominated for an Academy Award for his 2000 documentary Scottsboro:  An American Tragedy which won a Prime-time Emmy Award, and a longtime contributor to PBS' "American Experience" series) contacted Warner Brothers for footage. WB agreed to turn over over 55 hours of unused crowd outtakes taken by three young film crews who roamed the audience (Don Kleszy masterly edited it into the documentary), but had him agree on using only only snippets of the musical performances.  Undeterred, Goodman realized that Michael Wadleigh's critically acclaimed Academy Award winning 1970 epic doc Woodstock:  3 Day of Peace & Music had already brilliantly covered that aspect of the festival.  He was more interested in the backstory.  
The director avoided a never-ending parade of talking heads and instead made the correct decision of providing archival and present day voice-overs from organizers, concert participants and musicians including David Crosby, Richie Havens, and Paul Kantner (Jefferson Airplane) and placed their spoken word over the amazing visuals.  (As Goodman declared during the Q&A, this decision was easily made after realizing that showing the present-day narrators would have been a distraction and also felt that no one was interested in seeing the faces of 75 year-old ex-hippies.)  The effect, as Barak noted, was to put the viewer in the audience and to indirectly give them as profound an experience as possible without actually being there. 
One of the immense pleasures of the film, and a total hoot, is the "security" force hire by the promoters:  A West Coast commune group call The Hog Farm led by a revolutionary who called himself "Wavy Gravy".  Naming themselves "The Please Force", they were surprisingly successful in keeping the peace and were instrumental in preparing much needed food and tending to folks who had overdosed.  (Barak stated in the Q&A that Wavy is unchanged today and is still considered a saint in the Bay area.) 
It should be noted that there were several spectacular non-life threatening injuries which Goodman emphasizes by showing a medical inventory that will have viewers aghast in disbelief. And there were two documented deaths due to a drug overdose (surprising considering the amount of drugs consumed during the three days) and someone in a sleeping bag who was accidentally run over by a tractor. 

Despite that, overall, Woodstock showed the world how hundreds of thousands of mostly young people could overcome multiple days of numerous challenges (including lack of food, medical supplies and personnel, and weather) to peacefully endure and enjoy a momentous happening which probably would and could never be duplicated in our lifetime.  As one voice-over participant stated, "If 400,000 people could get together have absolutely no violence, absolutely no conflict, I felt like we could change the world."

Woodstock:  Three Days That Defined A Generation opened theatrically on a limited basis on May 24 (it will premiere in Baltimore and Washington on June 14) and will be shown on PBS' "American Experience" in late July in honor of the 50th anniversary.
(Click on Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 to view the Q&A with director Barak Goodman, moderated by Ken Jacobson, Senior Documentary Film and Special Content Programmer for AFI Festivals.  
NOTE:  Due to the poor lighting conditions at the venue, it took me several minutes to adjust the brightness and sharpness on my Canon Powershot HS60 camera.  However, if you stick with it, you'll be rewarded with some fascinating production and behind-the-scene facts of this superb documentary.) 

Director Barack Goodman

A screening attendee displays his one day ticket

UPCOMING:  Coverage of  the 17th edition of the AFI DOCS Documentary Film Festival (formerly SILVERDOCS) held in Silver Spring MD and Washington DC that runs from Wednesday June 19-Sunday June 23

"Ask Dr. Ruth" - **** (100 minutes)

Wednesday April 17, 2019

I traveled to DC to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to screen this gem by director Ryan White (2013's Good 'Ol Freda; 2014's The Case Against 8).  In 1980, a diminutive sex therapist and Holocaust survivor began a 15 minute call-in show called "Sexually Speaking" on New York radio station WYNY-FM that was so controversial, the show was taped on a Thursday night so it could be screened by sensors before airing the following Sunday at midnight.  It didn't take long before Dr. Ruth Westheimer became a cultural icon - appearing on the late-night talk shows of the day, PBS specials, her own daytime show, nighttime drama shows, commercials, and even serving as one of the celebrities on "Hollywood Squares".

White begins the doc with a hilarious opening where the present-day 90-year-old Dr., in her cluttered three-bedroom Washington Heights N.Y. apartment, asks Amazons' smart speaker "Alexa" to find her a boyfriend.  Despite the fact that her earnings over the years would have assuredly entitled her to a more luxurious abode, we learn that Dr. Ruth has occupied the same home for 54 years while raising two children. White sprinkles his documentary early-on with various amusing short clips of her TV career while cutting back and forth to the present-day Westheimer as she meanders about her residence exhibiting surprising humor, spryness and youthfulness.

After about 15 minutes, the director shifts the focus to her amazing life journey.  The director shows a photo of the 4'7" doctor at age 10, which morphs into an animated likeness.  Westheimer was born in Frankfort Germany in 1928 where, at the age of 10, she was placed by her mom on the kindertransport to a Swiss orphanage to save her from almost certain death.  It would be the last time she would see her parents who she later learns perished in a German concentration camp.  She would be the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust.  Her remaining story, partially told with animation beautifully rendered by animator Isaac Rubio and narrated with excerpts from her diary, includes three marriages, a stint as an Israeli sniper, earning a doctorate while continuing to write books and teaching at two universities.

The director employs expert editing by Rejh Cabrera and Helen Kearns with a beautiful complementary score by Blake Neely.  This memorable movie will have you laughing as well as shedding a tear or two throughout.

Ask Dr. Ruth, which I predict could make the Academy Awards nomination short list next year, will have a limited release by Magnolia Pictures and Hulu on May 3.

Q&A moderator Washington Post reporter Lisa Bonos,
Dr. Ruth, and director Ryan White after the Q&A


Tuesday March 12, 2019 

THE SHOW (** out of 4)

Pre-show rumors were swirling that Whoopie Goldberg would appear as a surprise host since she was mysteriously missing from her normal duties on ABC's "The View".  In actuality, she was recovering from double pneumonia and sepsis - which almost ended her existence.  For me, this telecast had ME nearly "dying" - from boredom.  Oh, there were a smattering of bright spots but, overall, the absence of a top-notch host, elaborate productions numbers, and the usual sprinkling of movie clips had me yearning for the good 'ol days.  The end result:  dull intros, tedious speeches, and, except for one major award surprise, fairly predictable results.  I was actually praying for a visual pratfall such as when Jennifer Lawrence tripped up the podium steps during the 2017 telecast. 

I hereby propose that future Oscars come up with one or more persons that can host and be the focal point of the usual narcissism and provide a certain cohesiveness and levity to the proceedings.  If so, my overall rating might just actually improve to 2 1/2 stars.

My annual apologies to Sergio Leone, as this breakdown will pretty much sum up the event through this reviewer's eyes:


- The rousing opening of  "We Will Rock You" &"We Are The Champions" by Queen fronted by ex-"American Idol" runner-up alumnus Adam Lambert was not, unfortunately, a harbinger of what followed - except for . . .

- The performance of "Shallow" from A Star Is Born by Lady Ga Ga and her co-star Bradley Cooper which might go down as one of the most electrifying moments in Oscar History.  That alone raised by star rating for the show from 1 1/2 to 2. 

- The producers might be wise to consider having the first presenters after Queen's opening serve as hosts.  Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph were top-notch.  And long-time friends Fey & Poehler have tremendous experience after doing the hosting duties for three years (2013-2015) at the Golden Globes.  Or maybe try again next year with Kevin Hart if the current PC insanity gripping the country lets up even a little bit.

- The second best presenters were two other SNL alumni  Dana Carvey and Mike Myers who hilariously recreated their Wayne's World bit.  It didn't hurt that a mainstay of their SNL classic skit was their characters' inspirational love of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and Myers's supporting role in the movie with the same namesake.   

- Although the organizers tried to keep the broadcast under three hours, they were relatively close at 3 hours and 17 minutes (3 hours and 13 minutes before the closing credits).  A far cry from the all-time 2002 record of 4 hours and 23 minutes when Whoopi hosted.  (Last year the running time was 3 hours and 53 minutes.)   No doubt eliminating lame inane time-consuming bits by previous hosts (for example in 2014 when host Ellen DeGeneres took audience members across the street to surprise a movie audience) helped considerably shorten the running time.  Now if they could make the overall Oscars production less dull!  

- The beautiful tribute music played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra of a rendition of a John Williams' composition during the "In Memoriam" segment.

- There were only a few scattered instances of hearing the annoying cue from the orchestra signaling to the minor awardees to get the f*** off the stage after 90 seconds.  Most of those speeches were thankfully brief.

- The official end of #OscarsSoWhite diversity debate in the major and tech awards.  Three of the four acting awards went to people of color (Regina King, Mahershala Ali and Rami Malek), Alfonso Cuarón (Best Director & Cinematography), winners of Best Documentary as well as Best Animated Feature and Short.  Added to the list were the first African-American women (Ruth E. Carter & Hannah Beachler) to win Best Costume and Production Design (for Black Panther) and Spike Lee for Best Adapted Screenplay to complement his honorary Oscar in 2016.

- I did fairly well with my predictions (see my Pre-AA Ramblings column below).  Although I hit on 11 of my 17 picks (64%), I had correctly predicted the long shot winner for 5 of the 6 misses.  The only total disaster pick is the one that I would wager very few had:  Free Solo beating out RBG for Best Documentary.   For some reason, the Academy has a difficult time with this category.  Films that clearly should be nominated and that end up winning multiple pre-Oscar awards are ignored and miss the final cut time and time again.  And predicting the winner is often a head-scratcher.  Not that Free Solo was totally undeserving; however, the film about the elder Supreme Court Justice had already won eight critic and festival awards.  Keep that in mind when betting your precious ducats in this category next year. 

- The final numbers improved to 29.6 million viewers with a 7.7 rating of adults 18-49.  That was a gain of 3.1 million from last year.  However . . .


- Those numbers were the second worse of all-time from last years record lows, marking four years of stark declines.

- Despite helping to keep down the running time, the absence of a host to maintain a certain sense of continuance was ultimately missed.  

- One of the reasons for the continuation of relatively low viewership numbers has to be the public's disdain for the unrelenting political negativity spewed by the Hollywood left-which only serves to turn off approximately half of their audience who are only looking to be entertained by the "snowflakes".

- As usual, the "In Memoriam" segment had several baffling omissions, despite the announcement that not all departed artists could be included.  Among the most notable:  Carol Channing (who was an Oscar nominee for 1967's Thoroughly Modern Millie), Sandra Locke (another nominee for her first film, 1968's The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, and who was a long-time corroborator with Clint Eastwood), character actor Dick Miller (who appeared in over 100 movies), John Mahoney, and, despite his passing three days before the broadcast, acclaimed On the Town and Singin' in the Rain director Stanley Donen.  (For a complete list of who were and who weren't included, click here.)


- True ugly moments were hard to enumerate in the generally placid production.  However, the one repugnant incident that truly defined the term "sour grapes" was the off-camera action of one of the nominees for Best Picture that was reported after the fact by numerous media outlets.  After finally winning a non-honorary Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, it seemed Spike Lee wasn't content and instead decided to show his disgust when his film wasn't announced for Best Picture at the end of the show.  It was reported that Lee stood up and started to walk out and returned after the winners' acceptance speeches concluded.       


THE 1st BIGGEST SURPRISE LOSER - Glenn Close (losing to Olivia Colman for Best Actress).

THE 2nd BIGGEST SURPRISE LOSER - Roma for Best Picture.  Although I correctly predicted the eventual winner (Green Book), Roma was the odds-on favorite to win. 

THE LEAST SURPRISING WINNER - Lady Ga Ga (Best Original Song).

THE 2ND LEAST SURPRISING WINNER - Alfonso Cuarón (Best Cinematography).

THE BEST PRESENTERS WHO SHOULD BE CONSIDERED HOSTS IN 2020 - Ex-Saturday Night alums Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph.

THE 2nd BEST PRESENTERS WHO SHOULD BE HOSTS IN 2020 - Ex-Saturday Night Live alums Mike Myers and Dana Carvey.

THE 3rd BEST PRESENTERS WHO SHOULD BE HOSTS IN 2020 - Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians) and comedian John Mulaney.

BEST HEARTFELT ACCEPTANCE SPEECH - Best Actress winner Olivia Colman (The Favourite) who was as shocked as the rest of the viewing audience when she beat out Glenn Close.  Spontaneously funny and genuine, teary-eyed Colman's acceptance speech was appropriately humble and memorable. 

2nd BEST HEARTFELT ACCEPTANCE SPEECH - Lady Ga Ga winning for "Shallow".  Tearful to the end she gave maximum credit to co-writer of the song to Bradley Cooper and passionately related what it took for her to get to this point in her career. 

FUNNIEST ACCEPTANCE SPEECH - Best Documentary Short winners for Period.  End Of Sentence about the effort to educate young girls on menstruation in rural India.  Co-winner Rayka Zehtabchi, after being handed the award, gleefully exclaimed, "I'm not crying because I'm on my period" and then followed that by saying "I can't believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar!". 

BEST REASON FOR HANDING OUT THE MINOR AWARDS LIVE - Rayka Zehtabchi's hilarious acceptance speech.

WORST ACCEPTANCE SPEECH - Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe and Patricia Dehaney, winners of Best Makeup (for Vice) who appeared totally unprepared of what to say and who to thank.  Never was the orchestra cue and microphone cut-off more welcomed.

BEST REASON FOR HANDING OUT MINOR AWARDS DURING COMMERCIALS- Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe and Patricia Dehaney who acceptances were a disaster.

BEST VISUAL JOKE - Best Costume Design presenters Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry whose garb "channeled" The Favourite, Mary Queen Of Scots, Mary Poppins Returns and Black Panther replete with McCarthy sporting a bunny hand-puppet and a whole bunch of stuffed bunnies sewed onto her dress (see photo below).  (If you haven't seen The Favourite you wouldn't get that joke.)

WORST VISUAL JOKE - Kegan-Michael Key's gimmick as he floated down from the ceiling holding an umbrella (a nod to Mary Poppins Returns) before presenting Bette Midler's performance of "The Place Where Lost Things Go".

BEST ACTING CON JOB THAT HAD TWITTER ALL AFLUTTER - Lady Ga Ga & Bradley Cooper whose sizzling performance of "Shallow" had the country muttering that the two should get a hotel room.  Ga Ga later revealed that it was all planned after rehearsing all week to reenact their torrid cinematic love affair from A Star Is Born.  With Cooper's main squeeze watching from the audience, it would have been totally inappropriate of him for this to be anything for what it was:  ACTING.

BEST REACTION TO WINNING AN OSCAR - Spike Lee who, after ascending the Dolby Theater stage, immediately jumped into the arms of presenter Samuel L. Jackson.  

THE #1 WTF PRESENTER MOMENT - Tennis player Serena Williams (HUH?) presenting the nominated film A Star Is Born.

THE #2 WTF PRESENTER MOMENT - Civil rights advocate Rep. John Lewis (HUH??) presenting the nominated film Green Book.  

THE #3 WTF  PRESENTER MOMENT - Chef Jose Andres (HUH???) presenting the nominated film Roma.  (I get it that Williams, Lewis and Andres have a peripheral connection to the themes of these films but couldn't they keep the proceedings strictly Hollywood?)

WINNER OF THE MOST OSCARS - Although The Favourite and Roma garnered the most noms (10 each), it was Bohemian Rhapsody that won the night with four:  Best Actor (Rami Malek) and three technical awards.

THE TWITTER TAGLINE THAT WAS FINALLY PUT TO REST - #OscarsSoWhite.  Awards to people of color went to winners of three of the four acting awards, to several filmmakers, to a number of tech award winners, as well as to two African-Americans women who won for the first-time in the best costume and production design categories (Black Panther).

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN AWARD - Goes to comedian Kevin Hart who was uninvited to host.  When the only film montage of the evening was shown, they included a snippet of Hart in his film Night Trip.

THE BIGGEST ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM AWARD - Goes to director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men) whose film, Bohemian Rhapsody, won the most awards.  Nobody accepting their four  awards mentioned the disgraced director who, amid recent allegations of sexual abuse, was fired with less than three weeks of filming remaining for missing from the set for days at a time.

MOST PREPARED FOR HIS/HER ACCEPTANCE SPEECH(ES) - Alfonso Cuarón, who easily won this award after accepting three separate times for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography, and Best Director for Roma.  The talented director Mexican director, who wrote, produced, directed, edited and shot the acclaimed Netflix film, managed to make each speech unique, relevant and interesting.   

BEST FREDDIE MERCURY IMPRESSION - I cannot think of another person who would have fittingly filled the deceased Queen front man's shoes better than the 2009 ex-American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert, whose electrifying performance opened the show.


 Queen opens the show with the late Freddie Mercury 
projected on the big screen
(l to r) Brian May and Adam Lambert of Queen

(l to r) Presenters Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey and 
Amy Poehler

(l to r) Presenters Melissa McCarthy & Jason Mamoa 

Spike Lee jumps into the arms of Samuel L
Jackson after winning the Best Adapted 
Screenplay award

(l to r) Presenters Awkwafina and John Mulaney

Lady Ga Ga and Bradley Cooper performing "Shallow"

(l to r) Presenters Mike Myers & Dana Carvey

(l to r) Melissa Berton & Rayka Zehtabchi accepting
for Best Documentary Short

Best Actress winner Olivia Colman

Presenter Keegan-Michael Key descends from the
ceiling to introduce the nominated song from
"Mary Poppins Returns"

Julia Roberts presents the Best Picture Oscar

Director Peter Ferrally raises his Oscar after "Green
Book" wins for Best Picture

Director Alfonso Cuarón ( Roma) shows off his
 three Oscars backstage