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No Direction Home

Martin Scorsese made this film about the early years of Bob Dylan’s career. With the benefit (or not, in some cases) from Dylan’s own reflections, Scorcese examines the cultural waves that were occurring on which Dylan rode to success – the folk music scene, the civil rights movement, rock and roll music, beat poets, the New York art scene. For me, this was where Scorsese worked his best magic. There are lots of still shots of the young Dylan as well as video footage of him and others, such as Joan Baez, Maria Muldaur, and others who rose to fame …

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Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You

This film is a companion piece to Springsteen’s new album, Letter to You. It is partly an extended music video that shows Springsteen and the E Street Band playing many of the songs on the album, but it also is a documentary in which Springsteen looks back on his life, his early influences, and the periods in his life that inspired his current work. I really enjoyed how the concept worked. The film is all shot in black and white, and some of the images are incredibly beautiful to look at. I love the almost poetic reflections that he narrates …

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Dick Johnson is Dead

Dick Johnson is coming toward the end of his life, and he is beginning to suffer dementia. His daughter (the director, Kirsten Johnson) decides to stage a number of different kinds of deaths and after-life experiences to help both of them to deal with the double loss they both know is coming – the actual end of life but also the “loss” that comes with dementia. It is a really unusual kind of documentary, but one that when it works, it works very well. It is at times very funny in the ways Kirsten stages his death and he goes …

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The Social Dilemma

This part documentary, part dramatization piece examines the impact that social media is having on us and on our society. The documentary piece consists of a lot of talking heads, former executives, and designers for the major tech platforms such as Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter, and others. These are (mostly) young people who have been on the inside of the strategies to grow the social media empires. The dramatization, which I particularly liked, uses a family of varying levels of technology adoption and three humans who are acting as the information signals that are sent to us from AI computers …

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What Happened Miss Simone?

Nina Simone wanted to be the first classical pianist to play Carnegie Hall, but events in her life were such that she started playing in jazz clubs and developed a long career as a singer and songwriter. The film reviews her life, through interviews with her daughter, ex-husband, and her lead guitarist, among others, as well as through her diary writings and recorded interviews. I think what is most fascinating and makes the film completely worth it is the concert footage. You get to hear a lot of the songs that made her famous as she sang them in various …

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Crip Camp

Beginning in the early 1950s, Camp Jened, in upstate New York, was a place where teenagers with disabilities could go and experience, many for the first time, a place where they could be teenagers and live freely with people like them with disabilities. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the camp was run by hippies, so there were a lot of freedoms provided that the kids did not get elsewhere. Many of these summer campers ended up migrating to the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, an innovative center focused on providing services to the disabled. It was here …

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Boy’s State

This documentary follows one class of Texas Boy’s State participants in 2018. Boy’s State is a program sponsored by the American legion that has been bringing high school junior boys together since 1935 (there is a Girl’s State equivalent that has been running since 1937). At the very beginning, we see that Bill Clinton, Rush Limbaugh, Cory Booker, and Dick Cheney were all previous participants. The boys are randomly assigned to two parties, and for a week create a government and participate in elections, with the most coveted office being that of Governor. There are also talent shows, and they …

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John Lewis: Good Trouble

This documentary is about the life of John Lewis, congressman and civil rights icon. The film uses interviews (many of them with Lewis as a much older but still committed fighter for civil rights) and archival film and photo sources to tell his story. It is a pretty “standard” documentary; there is nothing extraordinary about the filming or the approach. However, it is an inspiring story about a man who marched with Martin Luther King Jr and found himself arrested and sometimes beaten in his fight for civil rights. He became famous for saying that people should get into “good …

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Father Soldier Son

Brian Eisch is a single parent who is deployed to Afghanistan. His sons, approximately 10 and 12 at the beginning of the film, love and admire him as a hero who is serving their country. The film explores what happens to the family over the next 10 years after Brian is permanently disabled as a result of a war injury. I liked the film mostly for the way it shows how the “tough man” aspect of masculinity is transmitted through the family culture. The film could have explored more deeply the impact that the father’s injury had on the sons …

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Becoming

This Netflix documentary is based on the life of Michelle Obama as told in her autobiography of the same title. When I read the book, I thought it was good but way too long; I kept telling myself that she needed a better editor. But I am glad that I saw the film. It was much more concise yet told the story of how she not only became First Lady of the United States but, through that experience, has found her own voice and power independent of her husband. The film is a montage of guest appearances through which she …

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