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Documentary

By Melissa Arnold

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about pigs? Is it this morning’s bacon or your upcoming Easter ham? Maybe you’re picturing a smelly hog rolling in a dusty barn. Or perhaps your religious or personal convictions leave you saying “No thanks!” almost instantly.

Regardless of how you feel about them, there’s no arguing that the humble pig occupies a prominent place in global culture. From farm to table, predator to house pet, pigs are truly all things to all people.

On March 31, PBS stations nationwide will air Magnificent Beast, a captivating documentary that explores the unique ways pigs and humans relate to one another.

Co-directors Tess and Josh Gerritsen, a mother and son duo, traveled across the United States and around the world to capture the whole spectrum of the pig-human dynamic. Along the way, they met chefs, farmers, hunters, archaeologists, historians, and more, each with a unique connection to the animals. At times, their viewpoints differ so much that it’s almost comical to imagine them in a room together. The film’s strength lies not only in that diversity, but in the great care and respect given to each perspective.  

The idea for a pig-focused film came to Tess Gerritsen, author of the popular “Rizzoli and Isles” book series, while attending a promotional event in Turkey several years ago.

“I found myself craving bacon for breakfast while I was there, but the majority of Turkish people are Muslim, so you can’t find it there,” Tess explained. “It got me thinking a lot about food taboos. What causes certain foods to become off-limits in a society? As [Josh and I] began to dig deeper, we realized that there was something unique about the status held by pigs.”

Josh Gerritsen began his career in short films and photography, but after a while, he needed a change of pace.

“I thought that I was going to live in New York City forever, but I didn’t have a lot of momentum,” he recalled. “I wasn’t making the world a better place, and that really bothered me. So I decided to move back home to Maine, and spent four years in organic farming. That period was also a major inspiration for Magnificent Beast.”

The pair began research for the film in 2016, with Tess, who has a degree in cultural anthropology, taking the lead. She combed through academic journals in search of people exploring the same issues, and found that many of them were based in the United Kingdom and Egypt.

There’s also a local connection among the featured experts: Dr. Katheryn C. Twiss, an associate professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University.

Twiss’ research focuses on social and economic practices in early agricultural and urban societies. As a zooarchaeologist, she studies animal bones and other remains to learn more about past interactions between humans and animals. 

In the film, Twiss explains how pigs have been increasingly domesticated over the course of human history, along with some of the surprising traits that pigs and humans share.

“We were really impressed by the passion Dr. Twiss has for her work, and for pigs in general. It’s clear that she loves what she does, and that was a big part of why we chose to include her,” Tess Gerritsen said.

Dr. Twiss’ curiosity about the ancient world began with an elective class she took early in her undergraduate years.

“Like a lot of people, I had no idea what I wanted to study when I started college. I liked biology, history, languages … and then I took an Introduction to Archeology course and completely fell in love,” she explained. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is awesome! Archeology has everything — I don’t have to choose!’” 

Much of Twiss’s research has been on the Neolithic period (between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago) in southwest Asia. In this period, people were first building large communities and relying on foods that they produced or farmed themselves. Pigs were also domesticated at this time. Twiss said that in some Neolithic societies, carved pig tusks were used as personal adornments, and pig bones were embedded in the walls and buried below the floors of homes for symbolic purposes.

“I’m interested in how humans relate to different kinds of animals — how do we obtain our food? How do we feed ourselves, and what rituals are associated with the way we eat? Pigs are environmentally and socially important, just like cattle,” she added.

When the Gerritsens reached out to Twiss about being a part of their film, she was excited and happy to pull a few skulls from the lab for her segment.

“I enjoyed the film’s deeper dive into the social relationships that people have with pigs, especially as pets. It didn’t make me want to get a pet pig, but it did make me want to meet someone with one so I could visit,” she joked. “I hope that Magnificent Beast helps people develop a greater awareness of the many ways in which people interact — or choose not to interact — with pigs. It highlights both the complexity of pigs and the diversity of human cultures.”

To further highlight this complexity, Josh went on social media to find people who interact with pigs on a non-academic level. Using Facebook, he was able to connect with a number of pet pig owners as well as wild hog hunters.

“I made it clear that I wanted to give everyone a fair say, and after a while it led to some really great conversations and a sense of trust,” Josh said. 

Ultimately, the Gerritsens were able to meet with members of both groups in person. The pet pig owners taught them more about the deep affection, intelligence and social skills of domestic pigs, while the hunters took them along on a nighttime search for dangerous and destructive wild hogs.

“When people think about pigs, they have a tendency to think of a lazy, sloppy animal, but they are so much more than that,” Josh said. “Our goal is to encourage greater respect and understanding for pigs, and to promote more mindful eating when you do choose to eat pork.”

Distributed by the National Educational Television Association, Magnificent Beast premieres locally at 10 p.m. Thursday, March 31 on WLIW Channel 21. The documentary will air on PBS stations nationwide (check local listings) and stream on www.PBS.org. For more information, visit www.magnificentbeastmovie.com.

'The Automat.' Photo courtesy of PJDS

The Port Jefferson Documentary Spring Series continues on Monday, April 11 with a screening of “The Automat” at Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson at 7 p.m.

Chock-full of rich archival footage of old Philadelphia and NYC, this everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-automats film is a lighthearted trip through the history of Horn & Hardart’s iconic and innovative eateries. Led by the irrepressible Mel Brooks, the film also features an impressive roster of celebrities (Colin Powell, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Carl Reiner, to name a few) waxing nostalgic on their experiences at the nickel-driven restaurants and their dreamy lemon meringue pie. Automats fed millions throughout the Depression and two World Wars, serving all comers in palaces of marble, silver, and steel.

Good food served cheap, and the enduring thrill of the automat machines themselves wins the Automat a place in our culture and hearts alike. More than just entertainment, THE AUTOMAT is a parable of how we once dined happily together before turning to the isolated and unhappy experience offered by fast food, a bad deal that no amount of advertising can disguise. Running time is 79 minutes.

The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Director Lisa Hurwitz moderated by Tom Needham, Host of The Sounds of Film at WUSB radio.

Tickets are $10 per person at the door or at www.portjeffdocumentaryseries.com.

See a trailer of the video here.

 

A scene from 'Refuge'. Photo courtesy of PJDS

DONATIONS FOR THE PEOPLE OF UKRAINE COLLECTED AT THE SCREENING

The Port Jefferson Documentary Series Spring season continues with a screening of REFUGE, a story about fear and love in the American South, at Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson on March 14 at 7 p.m

Directed by Din Blankenship and Erin Bernhardt, REFUGE is a story about fear and love in the American South. A leader in a white nationalist hate group finds healing from the people he once hated — a Muslim heart doctor and his town of refugees. Chris is a husband and father, a veteran, and until recently, a leader in the KKK. He started hating Muslims when the planes hit the Twin Towers on 9/11, but is forced to confront his hate when he receives a text from Muslim refugee, Heval.

REFUGE illustrates the false promises of hate and reveals where real and lasting refuge is found. Where there is love, there is refuge. The film is set in the most diverse square mile in America, Clarkston, Georgia, and follows a Syrian Kurd, a former Klansman, and a town of refugees who seek belonging in a country that blames them for its problems. Swimming against the current of an increasingly polarized and isolated America, each must decide whether they will risk knowing and being known by those who oppose them. Ultimately, REFUGE uncovers what is possible when we leave the security of our tribes and what is at stake for our country if we don’t.

Running time is 75 minutes.

Guest speakers via live Zoom will be Directors Din Blankenship and Erin Bernhardt, Directors and Chris Buckley and Heval Kelli, subjects in the film. $10 per person at the door or register in advance at www.portjeffdocumentaryseries.com.

Please note: The Port Jefferson Documentary Series board will be collecting donations for the people of Ukraine at each screening. Items collected include:

MEDICINE

Compression Bandages

Tourniquets

Tactical First Aid Kits

Hemostatic Agents (Celox or similar)

Bandages, Gauzes

Antiseptics

Anti- Burn Gels (Neosporin)

Nasopharyngeal Airways (28-30)

Pain Killers (Tylenol, Ibuprofen, Advil)

Wet Wipes

Pampers

Tampons

Women Hygiene Items

OTHER NEEDS

Sleeping Bags

Yoga Mats

Tactical Knee and Elbow Pads

Flashlights

Solar Powerbanks

Tactical Gloves

Tactical backpacks

Thermoses (hot liquid bottles) 1L

MEN’S CLOTHING

Tactical Boots

Winter Hats

Socks

Thermal Underwear

Undergarments

Sweaters

Sweatshirts

FOOD

Dry Soup Packets

Ramen Noodles

Energy Bars and Snack Bars

Tea

Hot Chocolate/ Cocoa (in packs)

Instant Coffee

Baby Formulas

Due to restrictions on items by aid organizations and shippers, they  can ONLY accept items in the above approved donation list. And, all listed clothing items must be new items; not used. The board appreciate that many wish to donate other items and used clothing but they cannot accept such items at this time. Thank you for your understanding.

 

From left, reporter Tom Cullen, editor Art Cullen and publisher John Cullen of the Storm Lake Times.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“Readers decide our future. Not any branch of government.”

Sixty-five million Americans live in news deserts—counties with only one local newspaper or none at all. In the past fifteen years, one in four newspapers has shuttered in the U.S. Storm Lake, the fascinating documentary by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison, follows The Storm Lake Times, a family-run paper located in Buena Vista County, Iowa. Operating at break-even, The Times, a twice-weekly paper, is one of the last of its kind.

Editor Art Cullen at his desk at the Storm Lake Times

Located in the northwest corner of the state, Storm Lake is home to about 11,000 residents. Originally an almost exclusively Caucasian community, it now contains a large Latino population. Tyson Foods employs over 2,200 workers at its hog slaughterhouse, meatpacking plant, and turkey processing plant.

In ninety well-crafted minutes, Storm Lake offers a portrait of the small-town newspaper industry and a family whose goal is to keep it alive. Founded in 1990 by John Cullen, The Storm Lake Times’ face and voice is Art Cullen, John’s brother. Art, a benign curmudgeon and county’s Democratic voice, presents somewhat like a hippie Mark Twain. At age 59, he received the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing. He “ask[s] the big questions, speak[s] truth to power, and share[s] the struggles and successes of his unique community.” The paper is a liberal bastion in the predominantly conservative area.

The Times has ten employees, including Art’s son, Tom, who is the main reporter. Founder John explains that he donates his salary because he is on Social Security. Art’s wife, Mary, can be seen taking pictures and writing features. Art’s sister-in-law provides the recipe column. The family dog, Peach, lolls on the office floor or rides along with drop-offs. 

Leisure editor Mary Cullen of the Storm Lake Times

The film smartly divides its focus between the big and small pictures. As a result, the day-to-day life of the paper contrasts with larger events. Advertising is the lifeblood of any paper, and The Storm Lake Times grapples with filling its quota. Most of the revenue derives from mom-and-pop stores, but large corporations have driven many out of business. 

There are many happy stories: births, local celebrities, “Miss Pigtails,” educational advancements, and county fairs. Local government is given the same weight as national politics. For their readers, garbage pickup is more important than a presidential hopeful’s visit. “Local journalism is the heart of telling the local story.” The report on Ice Out Day, when the ice melts, encompasses a reference to climate change. The Times follows a local Tyson plant worker who is moving forward on a Spanish language talent show. 

The paper never shies away from addressing issues of prejudice, extremely important in its growing immigrant community. The story of eight-year-old Julio Barroso, who was deported along with his family, is highlighted; the staff tracked him down in Mexico twenty-two years later. In addition, a partnership is developed with the Spanish paper La Prensa to share content and ads.

The staff listens to its community and responds to their thoughts and criticism. “There are consequences for everything we do, and we feel that feedback immediately,” says John.

Storm Lake Times editor Art Cullen interviews Elizabeth Warren in a scene from the film.

Broader politics included the coverage of The Heartland Presidential Forum, with major Democratic candidates speaking: Art Cullen was the draw. He interviewed Elizabeth Warren, Julio Castro, and Amy Klobuchar, among others. The Iowa Caucus occupies much of the middle and latter half of the film. But even here, there is a discussion about the cutting down of the paper’s TV listings from eighty channels to thirty-one to save space and money. Risius and Levison never lose sight of the myriad challenges.

The end of the film deals with the COVID crisis, and specifically, the Tyson plants. The Storm Lake Times reported on the disproportionate number of immigrants endangered by their work in unsafe conditions. Art states that this is “subtle racism—but racism all the same.” The Tyson operation became the hottest spot in the country for COVID cases. 

The denouement shifts briefly to the paper’s labors to survive the pandemic when “ads fell off a cliff,” and Art and John thought of closing the paper. Fortunately, with a go-fund-me and other support, The Storm Lake Times survived. With its new website, it reaches 1.2 million readers per month.

Storm Lake contains the expected filler of printing and binding papers, along with stacks dropped off in stores and machines. Occasionally, there is something meta about the documentarians shooting the television on which Art appears on a talk show. But there are wonderful extended quotes from many of Art’s insightful and passionate editorials. In addition, the documentarians know when to let the film breathe: a talk about feeding the dog, a discussion of a new shirt, or briefly watching Art pick the cashews out of a can of mixed nuts all add to the humanity.

In a world where people want their news for free, Storm Lake is a powerful and important reminder about local journalism’s responsibility, value, and contribution. The film ends on the hopeful note that good journalism elevates a community by reporting on what is good. 

“You can change the world through journalism. The reporter is the cornerstone in a functioning democracy. And without strong local journalism, the fabric of the place becomes frayed.”

For a free viewing of the film, visit www.pbs.org/independentlens/documentaries/storm-lake/.

The Town of Smithtown will premiere its Veterans Documentary, entitled War Stories, on Sunday, November 21 at 6 p.m. at the Smithtown Center for Performing Arts, 2 East Main St., Smithtown. The documentary focuses on local residents who enlisted to serve in the US Armed Forces during war time, from World War II to Present Day.

“I’m forever grateful to the men and women all across the Country who have served in our US Armed Forces. This began as an interview process, so we could document and preserve the stories of patriotism, camaraderie and strength of our brave hometown heroes, for future generations. But it has become so much more. This is our way of saying Thank You for Your Service to our local heroes… for we owe them everything,” said Supervisor Ed Wehrheim.

Tickets are free and members of the public are encouraged to attend the premiere to show support and gratitude for the Men and Women within our community who served in protection of our Nation’s freedoms. Residents are encouraged to bring non-perishable items for donation, which will be delivered to the United Veterans Beacon House Pantry.

The Town began production of the Veterans documentary, interviewing service members from World War II, through to modern day conflicts. Filming for the documentary began in 2019 on Veterans Day, November 19th. The film is dedicated in memory of two World War II Veterans; Eddy Reddy and Howard Laderwager, who were filmed for the documentary, but have recently passed away.

For more information, call 631-360-7600.

Image from ‘Seasons of Change on Henry’s Farm’. Photo credit: Ines Sommer

Throughout this summer, Huntington’s Cinema Arts Centre has been offering free pop-up film screenings around Long Island in order to bring attention to local agriculture. Presented in partnership with Suffolk County Department of Economic Development & Planning, the local economic development initiative, Choose LI, the Cinema’s new ‘LI AgriCULTURE’ series has offered a unique look at farming on Long Island.

This October, the Cinema Arts Centre is partnering with Fink’s Country Farm, a family-owned and operated farm in Wading River, for a free day of fun and a screening of the independent documentary film, ‘Seasons of Change on Henry’s Farm.’

Image from ‘Seasons of Change on Henry’s Farm’. Photo credit: Ines Sommer

The LI AgriCULTURE series engages the local community in Long Island’s rich landscape of sustainable food production through the power of documentary film, helping to foster pride in our shared agricultural and aquacultural heritage, and inspiring Long Islanders to choose more local foods. Presenting dynamic documentary screening and discussion programs, virtually and in a variety of locations, this program will connect audiences to local food producers and encourage and empower the community to include more locally and sustainably produced foods in their daily diets. Learn more at: https://cinemaartscentre.org/li_agriculture/

The October event of the LI AgriCULTURE series will take place on Friday, October 1st at Fink’s Country Farm in Wading River. The program will be presented in partnership with Fink’s Farm, and planned with guidance from the Suffolk County Department of Economic Development & PlanningChoose LI, and Peconic Land Trust. The free program will feature a day of fun including a petting zoo, hay rides, a corn maze, pumpkin picking, food and refreshments, a discussion with a panel of experts, and a screening of the independent farming documentary, Seasons of Change on Henry’s Farm.

Seasons of Change on Henry’s Farm: Surrounded by GMO-heavy industrial farms in Central Illinois, for a quarter-century Henry Brockman has successfully operated a small family vegetable farm based on principles of organic cultivation and biodiversity. But farming takes a toll on his aging body and Henry dreams of scaling back. While his former apprentices run the farm, Henry spends a “fallow year” with his wife Hiroko in Japan. But things don’t turn out as planned, and Henry must grapple with the future of farming in a changing climate on personal, generational, and global levels.

This program is made possible with support from the Long Island Community Foundation.

“The Cinema Arts Centre has always used the power of film to educate, inspire, and mobilize the Long Island community,” says David M. Okorn, executive director of the Long Island Community Foundation. “We are proud to support this film initiative that will connect residents to Long Island farms and fisheries and help them understand the importance of locally-grown food.”

Event Information:

Date: Friday, October 1st 4:00 – 9:00 PM (A rain date is scheduled for October 7th)

Location: Fink’s Farm, 6242 Middle Country Road, Wading River, New York 11792

Fees: FREE to attend. Attendees are encouraged to RSVP on the Cinema Arts Centre website: www.cinemaartscentre.org. Or by visiting the event page: https://bit.ly/SeasonsofChange

Schedule:

4:00 – Pumpkin picking, hayrides, corn maze, animatronic chicken show, animal feedings, food, and tabling with local organizations

7:00 – Screening of the documentary film ‘Seasons of Change on Henry’s Farm’

8:00 – A panel discussion with local experts

A scene from 'Roadrunner'. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Not since Julia Child has a chef had a higher profile than Anthony Bourdain. Smithsonian Magazine labeled him “the original rock star” of the culinary world. Gothamist referred to him as a “culinary bad boy.” His uncensored television persona was known for its profanity and sexual references. 

Born in Manhattan in 1956, Bourdain graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1978. He ran several high-end kitchens, notably serving as executive chef of New York’s brasserie Les Halles. Bourdain’s memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000) became a bestseller, followed by additional works of both fiction and non-fiction. His television work included A Cook’s Tour, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, The Layover, and appearances on a variety of television programs. 

A scene from ‘Roadrunner’. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

On June 18, 2018, while in France filming Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, he committed suicide. He was sixty-one years old.

In Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, director Morgan Neville explores the controversial celebrity chef through extensive video and interviews with friends and associates. While his childhood and early career are mentioned, the timeline begins with his rise to fame with the publication of Kitchen Confidential. 

With a two-hour running time, the expectation is a complete look at Bourdain. Fans will embrace the documentary, showing the subject in a sympathetic, if complicated light. Those who are less enamored will find it unsatisfying. Bourdain talks, smokes, eats, smokes, preens, and smokes. It touches on his drug use and hedonistic lifestyle. But mostly, the film consists of watching him smoke, talk, and preen. He ponders about life and his purpose. He travels. He smokes. In one particularly ghoulish cut, he eats a beating cobra heart. But mostly, he talks and smokes.

Neville almost ignores Bourdain as a chef for highlighting the man “hooked on travel,” describing him as “always rushing (thus the title). Bourdain was on the road at least two hundred and fifty days a year, covering hundreds of thousands of miles. The film emphasizes the exotic places: Lebanon, Port-au-Prince, Laos, and most dangerously, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, his Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness moment.

This would all be fine if it did not feel so posed. Neville constantly presents a brooding Bourdain, looking lost and despondent, or walking alone on the beach. Whether this reflects Bourdain or the filmmaker cobbling together footage to support his thesis, it is hard to parse. Particularly squirm-worthy is a clip of Bourdain in therapy that rings false and hollow.

There is a nod to his nearly thirty-year marriage to Nancy Putkoski that dissolved with Bourdain’s rise in fame, which “burned down [his] previous life.” His second wife Ottavia Busia (to whom he was married from 2007 to 2016) is interviewed extensively and has mostly kind things to say (whether this is fact or editing …). It was with Ottavia that he had his only child, Ariane. 

A scene from ‘Roadrunner’. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

In 2017, he began seeing the much younger Italian actress, Asia Argento. She became heavily involved with and perhaps manipulative of his professional life before ending the relationship. The film less than subtly speculates that this contributed to his suicide. Argento declined to be interviewed, leaving a large hole in the accounting of his final days.

Neville alludes to Bourdain’s controlling side, illustrated by Bourdain’s range of obsessions, including taking up jujitsu at age fifty-eight. He became outspoken during the #MeToo movement, but this might have been due to Argento’s activism more than his personal beliefs. (One fascinating detail references him speaking ad nauseum about Argento’s skill at parking.) But nothing lasted with him—“not a person, place, or thing.”

The talking heads range from his producers and travel companions to various artists and musicians who became confidants. They seem to speak freely and appear devastated by his death. What is missing are interviews with people outside in the inner circle, who might cast light on the less sensitive behaviors and actions of which there are only hints.

There are multiple clips of Bourdain referencing violence against himself or others. His talks of self-doubt may be real or just part of the façade. Given the myriad footage, these could be passing comments. Even more damning is Helen Rosner’s interview with Neville in The New Yorker. Neville admitted to using A.I. technology for the construction of some of Bourdain’s voiceovers: “There were three quotes there I wanted his voice for that there were no recordings of … I created an A.I. model of his voice.”

Roadrunner feels incomplete, vaguely disingenuous, and almost rigged. And while all documentaries have a point-of-view, one wishes for a more objective and whole look at an unusual individual with a troubling legacy.  

Rated R, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is now playing in local theaters.

Rita Moreno in 'West Side Story'. Photo courtesy of MGM/Roadside Attractions

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

At age 89, Rita Moreno has shown no signs of slowing down. The actor-singer-dancer’s seventy-plus year career spans from Hollywood to Broadway to London’s West End, from clubs to television to regional theatre. The documentary Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is a fascinating glimpse of this iconic figure.

Rita Moreno in a scene from the film.
Photo courtesy of MGM/Roadside Attractions

The film, made around the time of Moreno’s eighty-seventh birthday, is a revelatory exploration. Moreno is candid, whether speaking of the highlights of her career or her personal demons. She is one of the most award-winning performers, including that rare EGOT — Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. (Only fifteen people have achieved this honor.) Moreno also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, has received a Screen Actor’s Guild Life Achievement Award, and was presented with a National Arts Medal by President Barack Obama. 

But in all her fame, the documentary shows a warm, humorous, down-to-earth individual who has never let discrimination or gender inequality from stopping her. She faced some of the worst mistreatments common to young women in Hollywood. She braved setbacks and disappointments as well as violence. Moments of self-doubt have plagued her for seven decades. And yet, in all of this, she maintains a remarkable and inspiring sense of self.

Born December 11, 1931, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Rosa Dolores Alverío Marcano was brought to the United States by her divorced mother when she was only six years old. (She never saw her brother again.) While barely into her teens, she began performing in New York City before a talent scout brought her out to Hollywood, where she began a film career that would span well over half a century. 

Landing a contract with MGM, Moreno was given the look of a Latina Elizabeth Taylor. Subsequently, her roles consisted of playing “ethnics,” often with darkened skin and thick accents. One exception — and an experience that she clearly prizes — was playing Zelda Zanders in the Golden Age musical Singin’ in the Rain. Here, she was allowed to eschew the stereotype that had been and would continue to dominate most of her career.

She achieved cinematic immortality (and an Oscar) for her portrayal of Anita in West Side Story. She expresses deep gratitude for the opportunity to play what she saw as an empowering role. She hoped that it would lead to more varied roles, but the offers that followed were much the same type — gang-related films and the like. 

Moreno continued to work on stage and in film and television, garnering praise and accolades. For many, she is the “Hey, you guys!” cast member of the PBS children’s show The Electric Company. The show ran from 1971 to 1977 and led to her Grammy Award.

The 1990s saw her as Sister Peter Marie Reimondo on the prison series Oz, something she credits with bringing her back into the public eye. Most recently, she featured as the grandmother in the short-lived reboot of One Day at Time. In addition, Stephen Spielberg created a role for her in the remake of West Side Story, due out on Dec. 11. 

Rita Moreno as a young girl with her parents. Photo courtesy of MGM/Roadside Attractions

Moreno shares openly about her personal life. Her Hollywood agent raped her; to her horror, she continued to use him as her agent. She speaks of her emotionally abusive seven-year on-again-off-again relationship with Marlon Brando, by whom she became pregnant. (Brando insisted she have an abortion.) Her heartbreak over the actor led to a suicide attempt. 

Equally as revealing is the frank discussion of her marriage. In 1965, she wed cardiologist Leonard Gordon, to whom she remained married until he died in 2010. To the world, they were the perfect couple. However, she admits that she was never truly happy with him and wished she had left him. Nevertheless, she remains close with their one daughter, Fernanda Gordon Fisher, and her two grandsons.

Throughout the film, her colleagues give insight into her success. Morgan Freeman (with whom she appeared on The Electric Company), producer-director Norman Lear, playwright Terrence McNally (for whom he wrote her Tony-Award winning role in The Ritz), her West Side Story co-star George Chakiris, fellow EGOT-winner Whoopi Goldberg, and one of the film’s executive producers, Lin-Manuel Miranda, marvel at her talent and tenacity. Film historians chime in with commentary about how she managed to rise above what were often dimensionless roles.

The film emphasizes Moreno as a social trailblazer, including her involvement in fighting racism and sexism. She is shown with Sammy Davis, Jr. at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963. She continues with her social activist work to this day. 

Director Mariem Pérez Riera has constructed an elegant and eloquent film that celebrates not just Moreno’s fame but, more importantly, her humanity. The story is of a life both rich and challenging and one that led to the fullest. Any biography is a “version” of the subject. Riera presents Moreno in the strongest and most positive light. But there is something so completely present and unpretentious about the dynamic Moreno that one would be hard-pressed to doubt her sincerity.

Moreno’s recent remarks defending Lin-Manuel Miranda and the casting of In the Heights overshadowed the film’s release. Shortly after, she walked them back, but the controversy still hovers. It would be sad if this affected the documentary’s success. Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is an honest look at an important figure: a survivor, a role model, an exceptional talent, and a vibrant and valued human being. 

In her own words, “You always have to be able to get up, dust yourself off, and move forward.” Hopefully, viewers will keep this in mind and embrace this incredible portrait. Rated PG-13, the documentary is now playing at local theaters.

The film follows Belinda Lane and her quest to find her daughter's killer. Photo from Netflix

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

catfish (noun)

cat·fish | \ ˈkat-ˌfish  \

Definition of catfish

1. any of an order (Siluriformes) of chiefly freshwater stout-bodied scaleless bony fishes having long tactile barbels

2. a person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes

— Merriam-Webster Dictionary

On February 24, 2006, in Riverside, California, twenty-four-year-old Crystal Theobald was fatally shot in the head while riding in a car with her boyfriend, Juan Patlan, and her brother Justin. (Patlan was hit in the abdomen but recovered.) The case would not be fully resolved until January 2020. The investigation revealed that the attack was due to mistaken identity. The shooter, a member of the gang 5150, mistook the car’s occupants for members of MD, a rival gang.

The driving force behind the Netflix documentary is Crystal’s mother, Belinda Lane, and her vow to find her daughter’s killers. Her use of MySpace to collect information is central to Why Did You Kill Me? 

At first, Belinda, who was in the car ahead of her children, identified the shooter from a picture and selects him in a lineup. But it turned out that the boy had a legitimate alibi and was released, making her an unreliable witness. Following this, Lane used MySpace to track down those involved. 

Crystal Theobald was only 24 years old when she was murdered by a 5150 gang member. Photo from Netflix

Lane’s niece, Jamie McIntyre, began with a fake profile — party girl “Rebecca” — selecting a random photo she found on the internet. At that time, MySpace was relatively new as a social media outlet and quite popular, with sixty-six million users. “My typing was acting,” said McIntyre, who spent every day after school until the early hours of the morning on the site.

Through the Rebecca profile, they connected with various 5051 gang members. Lane decided that McIntyre should build another fake MySpace profile for “Angel,” using Crystal’s photo. Eventually, McIntyre became overwhelmed by the experience. “Making someone fall in love with someone who’s dead is not a good feeling inside.” Pretending to be her every day was a double-edged sword. It kept Crystal’s memory alive and close to her; yet it was a constant reminder of what happened. 

When the toll became too much for McIntyre, Lane took over. She created a plan to lure and shoot members of 5150 at “An End of the World Party,” scheduled for June 6, 2006 (6/06/06). “I made a plan to go murder people,” said Lane. But the day before it was to occur, she confronted the driver, William Sotelo, who was infatuated with the non-existent Angel. Lane sent messages beginning with “I know who you are” and “Do you love me?” on to “Then say it,” ending with “then why did you kill me?” Sotelo disappeared and would not resurface for over ten years. Lane gave up the MySpace ruse and released the passwords to the case’s detective, Rick Wheller.

Amid this, the police interrogated William and Manuel Lemus, brothers who had been in the back of Sotelo’s car. They were reluctant to cooperate until members of their gang burned their parents’ home. The pair then turned over the shooter, Julio Heredia. It was not until 2016 that Sotelo, the final perpetrator, was located in Mexico, extradited, tried, and sentenced.

What runs alongside the entire catfishing expedition are revelations about Belinda Lane and her family. Their reluctance to trust Detective Wheeler was rooted in the family’s extensive run-ins with the law. The Lane-Theobold family had “issues back in the day,” including fighting, arrests, and drug issues. Most had been in and out of jail. Belinda admits to being a meth user who became a drug dealer. “I sold a lot. I did a lot of damage out there.”

As she gathered intel through MySpace, Lane did everything she could, including trying to get them deported — calling the FBI and ICE. She contacted members of the Casa Blanca gang, inciting them against 5051. She readily admits that she caused all kinds of violence. As one close friend described her, Belinda was “psycho,” “crazy,” and “insane.” Also, the Lane sons wanted to “handle it their own way.”

Crystal Theobald was only 24 years old when she was murdered by a 5150 gang member. Photo by Netflix

Why Did You Kill Me? feels no different than most shows found on the True Crime Network. Ominous music accompanies quick cuts. Sound effects are heightened — including a heart monitor ceasing its beeping, indicating Crystal’s death. Footage of driving to various areas fleshes out the voiceovers. There is a model of the neighborhood where the killing took place, recreated in miniatures. Throughout, various cast members manipulate the cars in the street. Harrowing footage recovered from the security cameras outside a grocery store shows the wounded and dying Crystal in her brother’s arms. Archival family videos and photos are interspersed.

While we get background about the family, we never know who Crystal was. The facts shared are few: she was married and had won $38,000 on a slot machine. The couple used the winnings to open a heating company. At the time of Crystal’s murder, they were estranged, but no other information on their lives is offered, other than her husband had fallen back into drugs. After being mentioned at the outset, her current boyfriend, Juan Patlan, is conspicuously absent from the film. 

While we know that the family had its plethora of problems, Crystal’s life and challenges are never addressed. 

The gang crises and turf wars are touched upon but also not fully addressed. To give greater depth to the problem and tragic consequences, the creators could have developed this background. No history or explanation is given regarding the origins and presence of the Los Angeles 5150. A nod is given to the investigation into Heredia’s history — revealing drugs, alcohol, and neglect that drove him into gang life. But it does nothing to address the fact that this ruthless, complicated world caused Crystal’s tragic death.

Late in the film, Belinda says, “Justice and revenge. Yes, they are just about the same thing. One means you can stay in the free world, and the other means you can go sit in the defendant’s chair. And that’s a line I almost crossed myself.” Her self-reflection is one of the most powerful moments in the entire documentary. 

Lane’s statement contains the kernel of what the film could have been: something valuable, insightful, and cathartic. As it stands, Why Did You Kill Me? is just one in a long line of sensationalist rubbernecking of today’s violence. Should we marvel at the sleuthing? Delight in the internet as a tool? Find entertainment in Belinda’s eccentricity? There is no call to action, no reflection, and no lesson. Sadly, the result is a simple story of a life senselessly ended.

Why Did You Kill Me? is now streaming on Netflix.

The last Blockbuster Video in existence located in Bend, Oregon

Reviewed (sort of) by Jeffrey Sanzel

You see, there’s this new movie — The Last Blockbuster — and it’s fun, you know (ya know)?

‘Cause, when you watch it, sure, you’re going to (gonna) watch it, but what you’re really going to (gonna — all right, I’ll stop now) do is remember. For a movie about a business that was only around for thirty-five years, it evokes a nostalgia for days-gone-by — for a kinder, gentler time before the world went to streaming-in-a-handbasket, and those crazy kids wouldn’t stay off your lawn. Or something like that.

But seriously. (Kinda …)

Writer-director Kevin Smith

As the various celebrities you might have heard of (and a whole bunch of people you’ve never seen) share their thoughts about Blockbuster, you’ll exclaim, “Right! That’s it! That’s what I did! That’s exactly right!” (And, yes, every sentence you say or think is going to end with an exclamation point.)

As I watched The Last Blockbuster, written by Zeke Kamm and directed by Taylor Morden, I thought of my video watching history. I was twenty when I bought my first VCR — a Goldstar I believe. I had memberships at two mom-and-pop stores (one was actually just several shelves in a pharmacy) where the prices ranged from $1 to $2.  

By the time I was in my early twenties, Blockbuster had replaced most small operations. I alternated between the two in Port Jefferson Station and the one in Rocky Point. It always the time/geography formula:

Let’s see, I’ll be coming from work, but I won’t be going back that way until Monday, so maybe if I swing by the one in Rocky Point before going home, that would make more sense. But, if I don’t rent any new releases, it would be just as easy to go to the one on Route 112, and I can return it when I’m on my way in to work on Monday. 

It became the world’s least significant word problem. “If a man leaves the house at noon, on a Tuesday, with one movie due the following day, but two movies rented three days earlier at $2.99 …”

So … The Last Blockbuster.

The Last Blockbuster, ironically, is now streaming on Netflix. Ironic because services like Netflix, while not directly killing video stores, were one of the final nails in its plastic coffin. The documentary goes to certain lengths to explain that it was the financial meltdown of 2008 that caused Blockbuster’s true downward spiral. But there is no question that streaming services and VOD were detrimental to the traditional setup.

Sandi Harding, manager of the last Blockbuster video store

The movie begins by tracing the history of the business. It follows the rise and the decline of the video rental service, giving insight into the shift from the small operations through the Blockbuster takeover, and the corporate stores versus the franchises. 

It points out that revenue sharing changed the entire face of the video industry. Blockbuster would sell movies to the stores at the lowest costs, and then they would take a percentage of the rental fee. It reduced the store owner’s costs from $100 a movie to a few dollars, enabling the purchase of multiple copies. As small video stores were incapable of competing, Blockbuster created a monopoly. 

At one point, Netflix offered to sell to Blockbuster for a surprisingly low price tag. The film’s hypothetical reenactment depicts this with great whimsy: Muppet-like puppets around a board room table laugh a Netflix rabbit out of the room.

The movie takes some time to find its rhythm. The filmmakers were concerned that the company’s history would not be interesting enough to be presented linearly so they’ve interspersed it with individual remembrances, which muddies the progress. Once they are past that, it flows better.

Comedian Doug Benson

The catalyst for the entire project is The Little Store That Could. At its peak, there were 9,000 Blockbuster stores. Supposedly, there was a time when one was opening every seventeen hours. When the filmmakers began, there were twelve remaining stores. Then there were four, with three of them in Alaska. And then there was one. 

As of 2019, the last existing Blockbuster is in Bend, Oregon, managed by Sandi Harding, the Blockbuster Mother. Much of the film focuses on Sandi, following her around the store and in her home, interacting with customers and her family, and shopping for stock at Target. 

Sandi is beloved, having employed dozens of young people in her community and many of her family members. She is charming, open, and honest. There is something truly noble about her desire to keep the store going — almost a mythic figure on a hero’s quest. We can’t help but root for her. 

Throughout, she is waiting to hear from Dish, the monolith who bought the bankrupt Blockbuster. The film’s only suspense is whether they will allow her to renew for another five years. The Bend store has now become a place of pilgrimage. People come from all over the world to take pictures and buy souvenirs. It is a Grand Canyon of pop culture.

Various men in the video industry offer insight into the business side. Often, there is a sense that they are reluctant witnesses, tight-lipped and uncomfortable, weighing in on both the smart and less savvy choices made by the company, including the infamous eradication of late fees, costing the company two-thirds of its revenue. They make for a strong contrast with the others who are interviewed simply for their love of the place. 

Brian Posehn in a scene from the film.

Writer-director Kevin Smith (Clerks) has only the fondest memories. Comedian Doug Benson is giddy when he finally visits Bend. Others singing the praises are actors Ione Skye, Brian Posehn, Paul Scheer, Samm Levine, and Jamie Kennedy. 

Particularly entertaining are the random musings of Ron Funches, whose free-associating is one of the film’s quirkier delights. Some have direct connections to Blockbuster in their pasts, having worked in local outfits in their teen years; others simply reminisce.

As I watched, I realized that everyone was saying the same thing, which brought me to the realization that what The Last Blockbuster truly celebrates is the universal experience. We are all part of a collective memory because we all had the same experience:

It’s Friday night, and we enter the blue and yellow temple with our significant other or spouse or family or friends. Occasionally, we make a solo visit. We breathe in the smell of stale popcorn and slightly opened soda, the library aroma of media dust, and the unique scent of plastic cases. We walk the perimeter of new releases, looking at each one, staring at the covers, occasionally reading a blurb. 

Oh, look, the one we wanted isn’t in. We go to the register and ask the clerk when it’s due back. It was due back today. So we stand at the counter and hope that it gets returned. After a bit, we roam the aisles, meandering into the older sections, neatly divided by genre. We make stacks of videos (and later DVDs). We negotiate: If we rent that for you, can we get this for me? Finally, we’re ready to check out. The clerk goes through each one to make sure that the tape matches the case.  (Ah, the plastic VHS cases with their brick-like weight and satisfying click as they close with a perfect snap.)

Sometimes we spent more time looking for the movies than we did watching them.

That was the Blockbuster culture. And that was a great part of the joy. “Ah,” we think, “the youth of today will never know this as they scroll through their My List of a hundred movies and a thousand television shows.”

The Last Blockbuster is not a great documentary. For something that doesn’t even run a full ninety minutes, it is often repetitive. But it has an enormous heart and genuine nostalgia. It celebrates the last bastion of a bygone era. So, when you watch it, be kind. (And rewind.)

Photos courtesy of 1091 Pictures