Rita Moreno is more than an icon. She is a trailblazer who opened the door for non-POC performers to not only have a career, but to play roles than were more than the servant or the background character. She also dealt with mental illness and lived to tell the tale.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It premiered a couple of weeks ago on the PBS series American Masters. The documentary follows her life and career from her early days playing “ethnic” characters to her current status as one of the most respected performers in Hollywood. Best known for her role as Anita in 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story, it was one of the first (if not the first) fully fleshed out Latino characters on the big screen. Up until that point, Latinx performers either had to hide who they were (a la Rita Hayworth) or play a stereotypical characters ( e.g. Carmen Miranda).
While I was not surprised that she was sexually assaulted. Then, as now, women are still seen as sex objects to be used and thrown away when our usefulness outside of the bedroom has vanished. What I was surprised is that she has lived with mental health problems for decades and survived a suicide attempt. I found her honesty to be refreshing and comforting. It was as if she was saying “I did it, you can too”.
If I could, I would send an invite to watch this film to anyone whose life is complicated by mental illness. If it provides one person at least a brief respite from the mess in our heads and the push to ask for help, I would be satisfied.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It is available for streamingon the PBS website.
When someone dies, it may appear that everything they knew was lost when they passed. But if we look closely enough, what they left behind speaks to us as much as the person themselves.
Secrets of the Dead has been on the PBS schedule since 2000. In this documentary series, each episode examines one person or moment in history using the known facts and the objects that stand in for the subject. Part scientific/archeological study and part true-life story, this program is ideal combination of educational and entertaining.
I find this series to be fascinating. It balances the history and the drama to present as much as a complete story as possible. Bringing these people and these worlds back to life, the audience is treated to a compelling drama and a time in history in which they may not have not had all of the facts.
Nature has a lot to teach us. But we must be willing to listen.
My Octopus Teacher premiered last year on Netflix. This nature documentary follows Craig Foster, a documentary filmmaker from South Africa as he spends a year bonding with an octopus. Recovering from a depressed state, he takes to the water, looking for a reason to feel good about himself. This comes in the form of his eight legged friend. In the year that they spend together, she teaches him about life, the importance of saving the natural world, and appreciating what he has.
This movie would not be my first choice to watch. It is certainly interesting and is educational without the viewer realizing it. I can see its value and why it won the Oscar for Best Documentary. But ultimately, it is meant for a niche audience who can truly appreciate what this film has to offer.
Do I recommend it? Maybe.
My Octopus Teacher is available for streaming on Netflix.
When we go to war, it is not the old we sent into battle. It is the young ones who put their lives on the line.
The 2007 short film, To Die in Jerusalem, is the story of two young lives cut short by hate, war, and unending conflict. In 2002, Rachel Levy was was a 17 year old Jewish girl living in Jerusalem. She died at the hands of Palestinian suicide bomber. The person who killed her was a 17 year old Palestinian Muslim girl, Ayat al-Akhras.
When we talk about this conflict, we don’t discuss it on a human level. By making the story about two families, two young girls taken at the prime of their lives and two mothers looking for answers, it becomes personal and down to earth. The audience does not see an argument that is complicated and misunderstood. They see the ordinariness of the subjects and hopefully understand they are no different than anyone else.
The only way to learn from our past is to not repeat it. Sometimes, that requires reliving it, as painful as it sounds.
The 1998 documentary, The Last Days, was released on Netflix back in May. The film follows five Hungarian Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. During the last year of World War II, the Jews of Hungary were the last intact Jewish community in Europe. That would quickly change. Within six weeks, hundreds of thousands were deported to Auschwitz. Only a handful would survive. Containing interviews with survivors, a SS doctor, and American soldiers who helped to liberate Dachau, it is powerful and haunting reminder of both the light and the darkness in humanity.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. It was riveting, emotional, and a punch to the gut that is absolutely necessary. Hearing about this time in history from the people who lived through this nightmare reminds us all that the Holocaust is not a myth and not strictly relegated to the world of literature. It is an event that happened in the lifetimes of many people who are still alive. While we cannot bring back those who were murdered, we can honor their memory by remembering them, and open our eyes to the negative energy and destruction that hate drags behind it.
When it comes to certain era and personalities in history, there are two facets of the story: the myths that persist generations and centuries after they lived and the reality that is not always Hollywood-ized or convenient.
There are two ways to create children’s television. The first is to talk down to the audience while advertising an inordinate amount of merchandise. The second is reach the children on their level and respect them as human beings.
The documentary,The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story, was released in 2018. The movie tells the story of the children television network, Nickelodeon, from its inception in the late 1970’s to the powerhouse it became in the 1990’s. Interviewing execs, writers, creators, and actors, it is the story of a channel that was ahead of its time and continues to push boundaries today.
Hollywood is not known for being the most comforting of industries. This is especially true for women of a certain age. Betty White is one of the few actresses who has been able to not only survive, but thrive in this environment.
The 2018 documentary Betty White: First Lady of Televisionis the story of her career. Ms. White entered showbusiness when television was in its infancy. Since her first appearance seven decades ago, she has become an icon, a groundbreaker and a performer who has entertained multiple generations of fans. Using archival footage and interviews, the viewer is given a glimpse of the real woman behind the beloved character actress.
What I loved about this film is that it shows its subject as she is. There are some biographies that present a slick and polished image of perfection. What you see is what you get. She is a smart, salty, and extremely funny woman who at the age of 99, is as real as she ever was.
Do I recommend it? Absolutely.
Betty White: First Lady of Television is available for streaming on Netflix.
P.S. The 2018 episode of Saturday Night Live that she hosted is for my money, one of the best in the past few years.
From the time we are little, we are told by our parents and teachers that our future professional success does not come without a college degree. When we enter the working world after graduation, a good number of job listings will require that the applicant has at least a BA in something.
One of the major scandals of the last few years was the revelation that some parents from the 1% paid Rick Singer to get their children into prominent universities via the back door. The new Netflix documentary Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal premiered last month. With Matthew Modine playing Singer in a series of re-enactments and interviewing several real life participants, the film follows the timeline from the first whiff of something untoward until the explosion of the truth.
If there was one word to describe the emotion I felt it would be disturbed. The financial reality of college is that the price of tuition has skyrocketed in the last twenty years. I am forever grateful that my parents were able to put money aside so I earn my BA. But not every parent has the financial means to give their child that experience. If nothing else, the movie points out this obvious inequality that can be solved, if we are willing to put our money where our mouths are.
Do I recommend it? Absolutely.
Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal is available for streaming on Netflix.
Their father and mother were now King and Queen. Elizabeth, as the heir presumptive and Margaret, the new spare, would have a completely different life. Elizabeth lived and breathed duty. Her life was on the straight and narrow. Margaret was the rebellious wild child, sometimes submitting to the responsibilities of being a working royal and other times living on her own terms.
Do I recommend? Absolutely.
Elizabeth and Margaret: Love and Loyalty is available for streaming on Netflix.