In Search of Israeli Cuisine.

Michael Solomonov is an Israeli-born chef who was raised in Pittsburgh and now owns Philadelphia’s Zahav, consistently rated among the best restaurants in the United States, as well as the hummus-focused spinoff Dizengoff, which I can vouch makes some of the best hummus I have ever had. Solomonov only switched his culinary focus to Israeli cuisine around 2008, and in a new documentary, In Search of Israeli Cuisine, he goes back to his motherland to explore the roots and evolution of a cuisine that, by definition, only goes back about 70 years. The film, directed by Roger Sherman, opens this weekend in New York, in Philadelphia and several California cities on the 31st, and rolls out nationwide over the month of April.

In Search of Israeli Cuisine is less documentary than travelogue; Solomonov is an explorer, and the film doesn’t try to give the viewer an encyclopedic look at the cuisine of his home country, in part because simply defining the cuisine of Israel is itself a thorny question. Solomonov bounces around the country, from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to the fishing town of Acre in the north, to the Golan region near the border with Lebanon, and to the desert south, visiting Israeli and Arab chefs who are pushing the boundaries of local cuisine as well as farmers, vintners, and other vendors contributing to the country’s vibrant culinary scene.

The film runs past the debate of the definition of Israeli cuisine somewhat quickly, with authors and chefs offering widely divergent opinions, some saying it’s ridiculous to say a country so young has its own cuisine, others pointing out that the cuisine exists because it’s in front of you. Based on what we see in the film, I’d argue with the latter group: This mélange of dishes, ingredients, and traditions comes from such a broad range of countries and cultures that it clearly forms its own cuisine. The film opens with Solomonov going into a small counter-service restaurant and asking for something small from the grill. He gets eighteen small plates, and proceeds to list their countries of origin, getting through about a dozen (not including the one where he just says “no idea”) before he’s even had anything we might call a main dish. Yogurts, salads, breads, and pickles dominate the counter in an array of colors, and it’s the combination of influences that makes this a unique cuisine.

Color is huge in In Search of Israeli Cuisine; since we can’t taste or smell the food, we’re relying on our eyes and Solomonov’s reactions (spoiler: he loves everything) to get a sense of what it’s like. The colors of the produce are eye-popping, as are the various sauces and purees smeared on every fine-dining plate we see in the film. The home-cooking Solomonov experiences is just as appealing, albeit sometimes less colorful because the dishes are slow-cooked and heavier on spices and meats; the scene where one of the chefs Solomonovs interviews (in the man’s apartment) picks up the Dutch oven full of maqluba, a Levantine stew with rice, and inverts it on to a giant metal dish, is mesmerizing and slightly terrifying to watch.

Within Solomonov’s travels, he gets at some of the questions of where Israeli cuisine came from. One controversial topic is how much of it was borrowed – or “stolen” – from Palestinian cuisine, one of many places here where food and politics intersect. Another is the influence of Sephardic Jews on the new cuisine, which some of the chefs in the film fear will mean the end of the cuisine of Ashkenazi Jews, who primarily come from Germany, Eastern Europe, and Russia. (Sephardic Jews come from around the Mediterranean, including Spain and North Africa.) I found the premise a little tough to swallow, pun intended, because cuisines don’t disappear if they have followers. If people like this food, then someone will find it profitable to keep making it. Cuisines only disappear if no one wants to eat them, or if the ingredients required for the cuisine themselves disappear or become too expensive. It doesn’t seem like either is the case here.

One of the chefs in the film says that the tomato doesn’t care if the person cutting it is Jew or Arab. The Palestinian chef Solomonov ends up hugging (because the food is so good) says that most of the time his clientele is largely Jewish, dipping in the wake of an attack. Several chefs here see food as a way to build bridges between communities, especially between Jews and Palestinians living together in Israel. (Broader issues like Jewish settlements or the occupations of the Golan Heights and West Bank are not mentioned, nor should they be given the focus on food, but it’s hard to forget them while you watch and see the map of places Solomonov visits.)

The star of the show is truly the food, though. The thoughts of the various chefs, farmers, authors, and grandmothers whom Solomonov meets are interesting, certainly, but the food grabs your attention and usually doesn’t let go. There’s something a little primal about the way the chefs eat so much of the food on the screen – just grabbing with their fingers, or picking them up with a hunk of bread. (note: I love bread.) If anything, I wanted more details on what we were seeing on the various plates – those purees, for example, often dashes on the plate before five other ingredients were added. What were they made of? Solomonov tastes one lamb dish by picking up a slice with his fingers and dredging it in at least two of the sauces on the plate – what were they? Other than the noodle kugel he tries in one Ashkenazi man’s house, what did he learn on the trip that might influence the menu at Zahav? And how soon can I eat them?

The film ends with clips of many of the chefs and writers who’ve appeared giving their geographical backgrounds, a parallel to the opening scene of the film where we hear how many different countries contributed to the array of meze (small plates) in front of Solomonov. If the film provides any answer to the question of what “Israeli cuisine” is, that’s it: Israeli cuisine is the sum of everything the people of Israel have brought to it.

Author: The JT Leroy Story.

I’ll be doing a Facebook Live event on Monday at 11 am ET as part of our buildup to the April 25th release of my book Smart Baseball. I also have a new boardgame review up at Paste, covering the cooperative game for kids Mole Rats in Space, from the designer of Pandemic.

Author: The JT Leroy Story is an unusual documentary because its subject, Laura Albert, recorded many of the phone calls she made during the time period where she was posing as the bestselling author who, it turned out, wasn’t real. Albert herself does most of the talking in the film, which makes it so much more compelling than many documentaries (but raises reasonable questions about the reliability of what we’re hearing), and makes the film’s revelation at the end that much more effective of a stomach-punch and an explanation for so much of what came before. The film was nominated for a Writers’ Guild award for Best Documentary Screenplay and is free on amazon prime.

JT Leroy was a fictional author who wrote real books, an HIV-positive teenager/young adult who had worked as a truck-stop prostitute and been pimped out by his drug-addicted prostitute mother, and who expressed genderfluid feelings before that was part of the common vernacular. He was either the creation of Albert, a woman in her mid-30s at the time of Leroy’s ascension, or a separate ‘avatar’ who expressed himself through her; Albert seems to vacillate between explanations, but is clear that this isn’t dissociative identity disorder, at least. She ‘became’ Leroy to write, and wrote fictional stories about what were supposedly his real-life experiences. Leroy’s first two novels, Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, were critically acclaimed and became best-sellers, earning the author a cult following that extended to the celebrity world, only some of whom appear to have been aware that Albert was the actual writer behind the works.

In 2005, a New York article outed Albert as the writer behind Leroy and her sister-in-law as the person acting as Leroy in public, with the New York Times later corroborating the story. Painted as a grand hoax, Albert’s authorship of Leroy’s works doesn’t seem analogous to hoaxers like James Frey or plagiarists like Q.R. Markham; Leroy’s novels were original works of fiction, and never presented to anyone as fact. At most, they were said to be based on fact, or inspired by it, which is false but shouldn’t alter anyone’s perceptions of the quality of the content. (I haven’t read any of Albert’s works under any name and thus have no opinion on whether any of it is good.)

Author attempts to answer two questions about the scandal. One is simply to tell everyone what happened, because the story was major news for a few weeks in 2005-06, and then faded away as such controversies do, especially since in this case the only harm done to anyone was to the film company that eventually sued Albert for fraud. (She signed the option contract as JT Leroy, rather than under her own name.) The documentary gives us the story from Albert’s perspective, punctuated by dozens recordings of phone calls with her publisher, her therapist, her friends, and celebrities who befriended Leroy or Albert (including Billy Corgan and Courtney Love), plus a few others who appear on camera to discuss their roles in helping bring Leroy to the reading public.

The second question is always the toughest for any documentary to answer – the reason(s) why – although in this case, Author at least gives us the central figure’s own explanation with some supporting evidence. The filmmakers here chose to leave the biggest revelation until the end of the film, a gimmick that I found extremely effective, because instead of essentially absolving Albert up front for everything that comes afterwards, Author tells you everything that happened (through Albert’s lens) and then finishes up by giving us a clue on what spark may have started the conflagration.

Author lacks the completeness that a thorough documentary requires; Savannah Knoop, who posed as Leroy in public, appears just once near the end of the film, and Geoff Knoop, Albert’s husband at the time, is nowhere to be found. All we’re getting is Albert’s retelling of the story, in which she takes some responsibility but also depicts herself as someone wronged by media coverage of Leroy as a “hoax” rather than an avatar of a pseudonymous writer. I admit to finding hoaxes fascinating, largely for the motivations of the perpetrators and their general belief that they won’t get caught, and Albert has a reasonable complaint that she’s been treated unfairly. If you thought the novel had literary merit, is that merit diminished at all just because the author wasn’t actually male, young, genderfluid, or HIV-positive?

Oscar picks and movie rankings.

It’s Oscars Sunday, and for the first time since the 2013 ceremony, I’ve seen the majority of the nominees for Best Picture and several other categories. Here are my rankings of all of the 2016 movies I saw, based on release date or Oscar eligibility. Any linked titles go to reviews. As I review a couple more of these this week, I’ll update this post to link to them.

1. La La Land
2. Moonlight
3. Manchester by the Sea
4. O.J.: Made in America
5. Tanna
6. Arrival
7. Everybody Wants Some!!
8. Tower
9. The Lobster
10. Sing Street
11. Fences
12. Loving
13. Zootopia
14. Hell or High Water
15. Moana
16. Hail Caesar
17. Fire At Sea
18. Love & Friendship
19. Kubo and the Two Strings
20. Author: The JT Leroy Story
21. Midnight Special
22. Louder than Bombs
23. Finding Dory
24. Life, Animated
25. I am Not Your Negro
26. A Man Called Ove
27. The Red Turtle
28. Hidden Figures
29. The 13th
30. Phantom Boy

I’ve still got a half-dozen or so 2016 movies I want to see, which I’ll mention as I go through the remainder of the post.

I don’t pretend to any insider knowledge of the Oscars, so any predictions here are just for fun, and I think I only managed to run the table of nominees in one category, so don’t take my opinions too seriously.

Best Picture

Who should win: I’ve got La La Land as the best movie of the year, although I think Moonlight is more than worthy too.

Who will win: The heavy betting has been on La La Land all year and I don’t pretend to know any better.

I haven’t seen: Lion, which I’ll see eventually, and Hacksaw Ridge, which I won’t see because the director is an anti-Semitic domestic abuser.

Who was snubbed: All the movies I have in my top ten that didn’t make the final nine nominees would have been extreme surprises if they’d earned nods. I think O.J.: Made in America was the best movie not nominated, but if we’re limiting to realistic candidates, then Loving would be my pick.

Best Director

See above. I know sometimes these two categories are split, but I usually don’t understand it when it happens, and can’t imagine that happening this year.

Best Actor

Who should win: Casey Affleck gave one of the best performances I’ve seen in years in Manchester by the Sea. The only reason I could see for him to lose out to Denzel Washington would be Affleck’s off-screen issues – he has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment.

Who will win: I’d give Affleck 55/45 odds over Denzel.

I haven’t seen: Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic) or Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge).

Who was snubbed: Colin Farrell was terrific in The Lobster. And A Man Called Ove fails utterly without Rolf Lassgård’s performance as the title character.

Best Actress

Who should win: I think Emma Stone for La La Land, but I’ve only seen two of the five nominated performances.

Who will win: Stone seems like a lock.

I haven’t seen: Isabelle Huppert (Elle), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), or Natalie Portman (Jackie). That last film just hit digital last week, so when it becomes a rental option I’ll see it. I won’t see Elle.

Who was snubbed: Amy Adams for Arrival.

Best Supporting Actor

Who should win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight.

Who will win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight.

I haven’t seen: Dev Patel (Lion) or Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals). I’ll get Lion soon.

Who was snubbed: I thought Kevin Costner was pretty great in Hidden Figures, one of the only characters with any complexity in that film. Shannon was excellent in Midnight Special, but he’s just kind of great in everything.

Best Supporting Actress

Who should win: Viola Davis for Fences, which was really more of a lead performance. She owns the second half of that film.

Who will win: Davis.

I haven’t seen: Nicole Kidman (Lion).

Who was snubbed: Octavia Spencer got a nomination here for Hidden Figures, so was Taraji Henson submitted in the lead category for the same film? If Henson was eligible for this category, she was better in a harder role than Michelle Williams’ brief appearances in Manchester by the Sea. I also thought Rachel Weisz (The Lobster) and Lucy Boynton (Sing Street) were worthy.

Animated Feature

Who should win: Tough call for me, but of the four I’ve seen I’d give the nod to Zootopia for the best combination of animation quality, story, and voice acting.

Who will win: I think Zootopia wins this too.

I haven’t seen: My Life as a Zucchini opens in Philly this upcoming weekend and in Wilmington the following Friday. I’m dying to see it.

Who was snubbed: Finding Dory wasn’t a great film by Pixar standards but I think in many years it gets a nod, perhaps losing out because there were two other Disney films in the category.

Cinematography

Who should win: I think of the three nominees I’ve seen, I’d give the nod to Arrival.

Who will win: La La Land.

I haven’t seen: Lion or Silence. Adnan Virk loved Silence – I think he named it his top movie for 2016 – but I think I’ll pass given its length and my short attention span.

Who was snubbed: Hell or High Water was beautifully shot, with wide pans of the New Mexican landscapes.

Documentary Feature

Who should win: It’s almost unfair that the seven-hour O.J.: Made in America documentary (from ESPN) is eligible in this category, but it is, and it’s among the best documentaries I’ve ever seen regardless of length or format.

Who will win: O.J.: Made in America. If anything else wins, it’ll be a travesty.

I haven’t seen: None. I got all five here.

Who was snubbed: Tower was absolutely deserving of a spot over at least three of the other four nominees; I could see an argument Fire at Sea over Tower, even if I don’t agree with it.

Foreign Language Film

Who should win: I have only seen two of the five, and neither of the two that appear to be the critical favorites. Tanna would be more than worthy of the honor, but I can’t say if it’s better than the two leaders.

Who will win: It sounds like The Salesman is going to win, because it’s a great film and because of the Muslim ban’s effect on its director.

I haven’t seen: The Salesman, Toni Erdmann, or Land of Mine. I will probably have to wait for digital options for all three.

Who was snubbed: I haven’t seen any other foreign-language films from 2016, but am very interested in seeing two films on the shortlist, Neruda (from Chile), which I just missed the one weekend it was playing near me, and The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (from Finland), which hasn’t been released anywhere here or online that I can see. That latter film has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes through 13 reviews.

Music (original song)

Who should win: Tough call for me, but I think La La Land‘s “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” hits the right combination of great song and essential to the film’s story, over Moana‘s “How Far I’ll Go,” which I’d say is the better song outside the context of the movies. That said, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a national treasure and I will never be upset to see him give an acceptance speech.

Who will win: I get the sense “City of Stars” is the favorite here.

I haven’t seen: I didn’t see Jim: The James Foley Story but I’ve heard the nominated song, “The Empty Chair.”

Who was snubbed: Sing Street‘s total absence here is a farce. “Drive It Like You Stole It” was my favorite from the film, but I could argue for a couple of others as well. Also, my favorite song from Moana was actually “We Know the Way.”

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Who should win: This is Moonlight‘s to lose.

Who will win: Moonlight.

I haven’t seen: Lion.

Who was snubbed: The screenplay for Loving was deemed to be “adapted” by the Academy, although the Writers’ Guild classified it as original.

Writing (Original Screenplay)

Who should win: The Lobster.

Who will win: La La Land.

I haven’t seen: 20th Century Women.

Who was snubbed: Tanna.

Tower.

On August 1st, 1966, Charles Whitman, a white, Catholic 25-year-old who had trained as a sharpshooter with the Marines, murdered his wife and his mother, then went to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower and began targeting and shooting anyone he could see, killing 14 and wounding 31 others. It was considered the first mass “school shooting” in U.S. history and the worst mass murder in Texas history to that point.

The documentary Tower, which was shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, recreates the 96 minutes from when Whitman first started shooting until he was killed by policemen who, with the help of one courageous civilian, cornered him on the observation deck. By using first-person accounts from survivors and witnesses, Tower tells the story of the shootings via animation, some of it overlaid on actual footage from either that day or that time period. It’s an utterly gripping account that comes as close as possible to putting the viewer on the scene, and focuses on the victims, both those killed that day and those injured or involved who had to carry those memories for the rest of their lives. The film is available to rent on amazon and iTunes.

Whitman’s motives remain unknown to this day, although there are multiple theories, including that a brain tumor pressing on his amygdala had caused him to have murderous or delusional thoughts. Tower doesn’t get into Whitman’s story at all; in fact, he never appears in the film, not even in animation. Instead, the documentary gives us the stories of the people who are rarely if ever mentioned when the story of the Tower shootings are told.

One student, Claire Wilson, who was eight months pregnant and walking with her boyfriend was among the first people shot by Whitman; she survived, thanks to the help of multiple good Samaritans, two of whom eventually risked their lives to drag her to safety, but she lost the baby and her boyfriend was killed immediately. Another student, John “Artly” Fox, was one of the men who went into the open to bring Claire out of the sniper’s sight so she could get medical attention, and after three months in the hospital, she survived. Tower brings the two of them together for the first time since the shootings at the end of the film. A boy delivering newspapers was shot while on his cousin’s bicycle; he survived, but his parents were first told he’d been killed before finding him alive at the hospital. Air Force veteran Allen Crum, then the manager of the campus co-op store across the street, came out to break up what he thought was a fight, then realized there was a sniper and decided to make his way to the tower itself, eventually joining the officers on the observation deck and providing cover for them as they crept up on Whitman and killed him.

Many of the principals are still alive today and appear twice over in the film – as themselves, near the end of the documentary, but in animated form as their younger selves during the reenactments. The animation gimmick works incredibly well, more than simply hiring actors would have (if such a thing were even feasible), because it allowed me at least to focus completely on their words. There’s no question of someone overacting or rendering a person inaccurately here; we get their memories, enough to give us a fairly complete picture of those 96 minutes of hell, and a closing segment as those still alive discuss life after the shootings. And because this story is rarely told – victims are largely numbers, and modern accounts will always focus on the killer instead – there are tons of details here I’d never heard before, as well as the angle that elevates some of the day’s heroes over the murderer in the telling.

I’m floored Tower didn’t advance and earn of the five nominations for Best Documentary Feature. It’s better than the four nominees of normal length, with a clear narrative and a strong angle that remains important to this day (perhaps even more so, as the current federal government wants to ensure people with serious mental illnesses have easy access to guns). And it did something novel, combining animation with real footage to provide an accurate historical rendering of a major event in American history – one that I would say is somewhat forgotten outside of Texas, perhaps because school shootings have become so commonplace. It’s better structured than I Am Not Your Negro, more compelling than Life, Animated, and lacks the fatal flaw of The 13th. For it to fall behind all of those films defies understanding.

I Am Not Your Negro.

I Am Not Your Negro is the hip outsider’s pick to win Best Documentary Feature at this weekend’s Academy Awards, a highly topical film that includes four of the most important figures in the civil rights movement. Based on an unfinished work by author James Baldwin, who got 30 pages into the project (titled Remember this House) before abandoning the project, IANYN tries to … I mean, I don’t really know what it tried to do. It’s so disorganized, with no narrative thread whatsoever, or even a sensible internal chronology, that less than an hour into it I was debating whether to stay for the remainder. If it weren’t for the mesmerizing footage of Baldwin himself speaking to various audiences and on television, I wouldn’t have anything good to say about it.

Ostensibly, IANYN is supposed to fulfill Baldwin’s vision to tell some story of the civil rights movement through the lives and deaths of three friends of his, all murdered for their work in attempting to secure basic freedoms for black Americans: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Baldwin knew them all well, well enough to know their families, to be in pictures with their children, to be at all of their funerals, but nothing in this film illuminates any of the three figures in a way we haven’t seen countless times before. The only person illuminated here is Baldwin, and that is the only part when the film works.

Fortunately, there’s a lot of Baldwin himself in IANYN, and my word was he an amazing speaker. He was charismatic and eloquent, in control of himself and the audience, with the author’s flair for the dramatic finish. He appears to be speaking extemporaneously in all of these appearances, but with the confidence of one who knows every word he’s about to speak from now until the end of the talk. And even in the longest sequences we see in the film, he remains on point, never digressing, even throwing in sarcastic asides and poetic flourishes like alliteration or repeated phrases. I would watch two hours of nothing but watching James Baldwin give talks about race.

Two of those bits of archival footage dominate this documentary. One is from a talk Baldwin gave at the University of Cambridge in 1965, a searing soliloquy on race that is by turns insightful and damning, one that ended with a standing ovation from the English audience (white, as far as I could see) that genuinely seemed to take Baldwin by surprise. The other is from an appearance he made on the Dick Cavett show in 1968, interspersed throughout IANYN, but when it opens the movie, we are treated to Cavett asking Baldwin a question where he repeatedly uses the word “Negro.” By the time I was born five years later, that word had become, unquestionably, a racial slur. To hear that word used so casually by a white man on a television show recent enough to be in the era of color (TV, that is) is beyond jarring. If the filmmakers wanted to get my attention, they succeeded. If that word isn’t followed by “Leagues,” I don’t want or expect to hear it. Baldwin certainly appears unhappy with the word’s use, but his response – that the situation for the black American at that time might be “hopeless” – subsumes any discussion about Cavett’s dated language.

The film as a whole, however, never finds its footing. It jumps around from civil rights hero to civil rights hero, moving forward and back in time, mixing in Baldwin’s words on his friends as appropriate but never enlightening us about those men. Had Baldwin lived to complete the project, he would likely have told us things about the three men that we did not know – and, in the case of Evers, give a forgotten hero some well-needed memorializing. (Evers was shot and killed by a white nationalist, Byron de la Beckwith, part of the burgeoning alt-right movement in 1963.)

This is not a biography of Baldwin, although I think such a project could be a tremendous contribution to our cultural canon. IANYN doesn’t mention any of his literary works; only mentions his sexual orientation once, as part of the J. Edgar Hoover-led FBI’s report on him; and never explains how he became someone invited to appear on talk shows to discuss major social and political issues of the day. But it also tells us nothing insightful about Baldwin’s friendships with the three other subjects. Simply giving us something in Baldwin’s words, read here by Samuel L. Jackson, doesn’t make for much of a watch, and those words don’t help tie together the film’s attempts to explore segregation in culture such as showing racist depictions in film or, in perhaps the most shocking sequence (to my eyes), the series of ads from the 1950s that used sambo-style images to sell products to white audiences.

Later, there’s a clip of a promotional film titled The Secret of Selling the Negro Market, which appears to be a U.S. Department of Commerce production explaining to companies that they can sell things to black Americans but might need new strategies to do so. IANYN neglects to mention that the film was financed and produced by Johnson Publishing, a multimedia company founded by the African-American couple John H. and Eunice Johnson, the same company that publishes Ebony and Jet magazines – a rather salient point that puts the anachronistic Secret of Selling in a very different context.

I’ve seen the near-universal acclaim for this film, and I am comfortable on the other side of the street. It’s just not a good treatment of the subject. The footage of Baldwin speaking is wonderful, and there are some segments of our cultural mistreatment of blacks (in film, on TV, in advertisements) that were new to me and should never be forgotten or swept under the rug. However, IANYN lacks any cohesive thread, and its only point of view is that racism is bad. I already knew that and I assume you do too.

Fire at Sea.

Fire at Sea is about as far from a typical documentary as you can get; it feels for much of its two hours like you’re watching something unpackaged, an actual slice of life (and death) that hasn’t been cleaned up and edited for maximum impact. The film, which just hit iTunes two days ago, has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and became the first feature-length documentary to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, all the more remarkable to me for how peculiar a film it is. It’s available now on iTunes, but not yet on amazon.

Director Gianfranco Rosi wanted to show the real impacts of the migrant crisis, including the massive losses of life among those attempting to cross the Mediterranean in substandard boats, often after the refugees have paid hundreds or even over a thousand dollars for passage. They come from all over Africa, but they’re all fleeing war and/or extreme poverty, from failed states like Somalia and Libya, Islamist-held northern Nigeria, war-torn Syria, or just countries kept poor by repressive regimes in Chad and Eritrea. Rosi shows the boats arriving on the island of Lampedusa, the southernmost part of Italy, about 200 km south of Sicily and closer to Tunisia than to any other country. With a population of just over 6000 people, Lampedusa has been overwhelmed by the inflow of migrants, and over 1500 migrants died at sea just in the first four months of 2015, part of the period where Rosi shot this film.

There are three intertwined narratives in Fire at Sea, but I found one of them never quite connected with the other two. The first involves the ships themselves – the Lampedusan and Italian authorities’ responses to distress calls from ships, efforts to bring them in safely, and their organized processing of migrants when the ships come into port. (Forgive my surprise, but as someone who’s ¾ Italian with quite a bit of family still there, I can say organization is not something for which Italians are known.) One ship, with 150 or so people on it, never arrives. Others arrive with some migrants dehydrated, burned, beaten, or dead, having traveled for a week in inhumane conditions. Rosi does nothing more than show their misery, to put faces to the statistics, and even show a few moments in the migrant camps, like what appears to be an impromptu soccer league organized by country of origin.

The second involves the main doctor who helps in the rescue efforts, and who speaks of the human tragedy he witnesses. He describes the conditions in the boats, the way that one boy is near death because of chemical burns, the corpses he has to count. It’s clear the job is taking an emotional toll on him as well, but he views helping the migrants as a moral obligation. But that third narrative, of a local family, a fisherman, his wife, and their misbehaving, obnoxious son, who is obsessed with making slingshots and slurps his spaghetti when he eats – seriously, I had to mute that scene – never tied into the rest of the story. Lampedusa is a small place, so it made sense to try to show us the migrant crisis through the eyes of the locals, like the doctor, but I never could figure out how the fisherman and his son or the radio station taking requests from older spouses tied into the bigger story. Rosi told NPR that he wanted to show the separation of the local population from the migrants and the operation that processes them, but I thought the result was just disjointed, and the kid is so unlikable that it detracted from the rest of the movie. (One exception: when he’s describing being short of breath to the doctor, there’s some unintentional comedy, because he’s clearly mimicking adults in words and gestures.)

The good stuff in Fire at Sea is Oscar-worthy – it’s an important topic, and one that provokes anger, xenophobia, and compassion in different people, but Rosi stays out of the way of the story. There’s no narration. There’s minimal conversation, period. You’re a witness to sordid history, which is something every documentarian should aspire to give the viewer. And I found it hard to see the migrants or hear them talk without imagining how awful the places they left must be that they would cross the Sahara, pay their life savings, and accept being packed into a tiny boat like anchovies in a tin just for the shot at something better in Europe – if they don’t die trying. That’s the real story of Fire at Sea and I would have been glad to have more of it.

I don’t think I’ll get the fifth Best Documentary Feature nominee, I Am Not Your Negro, before the Oscar ceremony, but of the four I have seen, I think ESPN’s own O.J.: Made in America is clearly the best, even if I discount it a little for being almost four times longer than the other nominees. It tells its story better than the other three told theirs, which is more important to me than the broader scope it achieves through its length.

The 13th.

Ava DuVernay’s documentary The 13th, available for free on Netflix, aims high, trying to tell the history of mass incarceration in the United States while tying it inextricably to the history of the oppression of African-Americans post-slavery. DuVernay assembles a formidable group of pundits, activists, and politicians – not all black, and not all from the left – to examine the arc of American prison culture over 150 years through an narrator-less stream of commentary. It is almost guaranteed to disturb anyone who sees our racial divide for what it is, in social and economic terms. It is also an infinite loop of anecdotal fallacies, so light on hard evidence to support any of its many assertions that it is unlikely to convince the unconvinced of anything at all.

The 13th traces the history of the subjugation of the African-American in the United States from the passage of the 13th Amendment (hence the title) through the present day’s Black Lives Matter movements and the overt dog-whistling of President Trump while on the campaign trail. The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery but left a glaring exception within its text:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Did you know that “except” clause was there? I couldn’t have told you that if you’d asked me three days ago what the 13th Amendment said or did; I thought it ended slavery, full stop. What ensued set the stage for the modern era of mass incarceration, according to the various historians and pundits we see in The 13th: The southern economic engine ran on free black labor before the Civil War, so after it, blacks were arrested on trivial spurious charges, imprisoned, and then put to work to keep the engine running. White authorities used jail as a way to quell civil rights movements as well as a source of free or cheap workers, imprisoning nearly all of the major civil rights leaders at some point during the 1950s and 1960s, a practice the film implies ended with the acquittal of activist Angela Davis – a scene I’ll return to in a moment – only to have the system roll back over again on itself with a new tactic. “Tough on crime” politics gave authorities new reasons to lock up African-Americans, especially men, for longer periods of time even on lesser charges. Sentences for possession or distribution of crack were longer than those for equivalent quantities of powdered cocaine. Multiple levels of government enacted mandatory minimums and three-strikes sentencing rules. Many people were locked up simply for their inability to pay fines or post bail, something John Oliver covered well two years ago on Last Week Tonight. Prisons were privatized, and firms like CCA are now paid based on prison populations, so they have every incentive to keep jails full. The film asserts that all of these factors contribute to the ongoing high rates of incarceration for African-Americans relative to white Americans. You’re about six times more likely to spend time in jail in your life if you’re a black man than a white man.

It’s easy to sit here in 2017 and handwave away much of the black-and-white footage in the film as relics of our racist past, but much of what the film covers from Reagan forward should really get your attention. The War on Drugs could easily take up this entire film for its effects on people of color, our system of mass incarceration, and the colossal waste of public funds for little to no public benefit. Decriminalizing possession works in many ways, including reducing usage. Portugal decriminalized drugs in 2000, adopted a recovery-centric approach to helping addicts, and has seen drug use fall while HIV infection rates stayed stable. The Netherlands decriminalized in 1976 and they have so many empty prison cells they’re using them to help house migrants. I thought The 13th could have gone even farther down this road, talking not just about what imprisoning African-Americans on minor drug offenses does to the community (and how it provides free prison labor and supports an entire industry of firms that contract with prisons to provide goods and services, including Aramark), but looking at violence related strictly to the War on Drugs and the effect that has on people of color.

As for Angela Davis, who appears many times on screen to discuss the issue at hand, the movie totally whiffs on her own backstory. The film never explains why she was on trial in the first place, implying that it was a politically-motivated charge to silence her, praising her for dominating the proceedings with her defense, and claiming that the state wanted to give her the death penalty. Davis was actually charged with murder, kidnapping, and criminal conspiracy related to the Marin County courthouse incident, where an armed 17-year-old tried to free his brother and two other men, who were charged with killing a prison guard – it’s a complicated story, so I encourage you to read those links. The assailant used guns purchased by Davis two days prior to the attack. The charges may indeed have been trumped up for political reasons. She was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List while she was on the run, which also seems like it was a political move. And I don’t see how she could even have been charged with anything but conspiracy if she wasn’t even present at the crime. But the film mentions none of this, and it’s pretty damn relevant to that entire sequence. The prosecution of Davis may have had a political motivation, but she wasn’t arrested without cause, either.

That’s a single example of a maddening problem with The 13th: It’s 90% opinion and 10% fact. Do I believe there’s a pyramid of firms profiting off our system of throwing people in jail for nonviolent offenses? Absolutely. But give us some data on that – how many people are locked up for these crimes? How many days or years are lost? Who’s paying for that imprisonment, and how much? In jurisdictions with lighter sentencing, do we see positive effects? Mandatory minimums vary by state; how have states that rolled back these laws fared? How about third-strike laws, which only exist in 28 states? These are subjects of real academic research, but instead of giving us data, or scholars discussing their work, we get circular reasoning, solipsistic assertions, and appeals to emotion. In fact, I thought the most fascinating commentary came from one of the film’s few non-African Americans to speak: Newt Gingrich, who offered thoughtful, intelligent remarks on the failures of the 1980s and 1990s efforts to get “tough on crime” and of the imbalanced sentencing laws on crack and cocaine.

The 13th has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary feature along with Life, Animated; Fire at Sea; I Am Not Your Negro; and ESPN’s own O.J.: Made in America. While it has sort of the political angle the Academy tends to favor in voting, it’s so full of rhetoric without evidence that I couldn’t possibly consider it over O.J., even before considering the latter’s length and vast scope. This is more of a call to action to the faithful than the film to send your “All Lives Matter!” friend to get him to realize he’s being ridiculous. (Better to unfriend him anyway.) It’s a demand for change, but to convince enough people to push the change through in the face of enemies with enormous economic incentives to support the status quo, we’ll need a lot more than The 13th provides us.

Life, Animated.

Life, Animated earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, a category that also includes an entry from my employer, the 7.5-hour O.J.: Made in America, widely expected to win the award. While I wouldn’t put the two in the same league, I did enjoy Life, Animated (which is free for Amazon Prime members) for its portrayal of a young, high-functioning, autistic adult as a real person with personality and the same hopes and fears as most of the rest of us – not as someone to be pitied or shut away.

Owen Suskind’s story is a peculiar one: at age 3, his autism came on suddenly and he lost all verbal communication skills and even saw regression in gross motor skills. He spoke only in gibberish for at least a year, before his parents discovered that he was able to repeat a line from The Little Mermaid – coincidentally (or not) one about Ariel giving up her voice to Ursula. Over the coming years, his parents were able to use his love of Disney films and ability to memorize huge chunks of dialogue to re-form his verbal communication skills, succeeding to the point that he was able to return to school and eventually graduate from a high school program for kids with special needs. (Disney, my ultimate employer, granted these producers the rights to include a lot of footage from Disney films and to use the likenesses of many Disney characters.)

Owen is an unusual success story among autistic children, and there’s no specific reason to believe that, say, Disney films will unlock every kid whose brain is ‘trapped’ by autism. I would imagine he’s a favorite of researchers both because he did largely come out of the fog and because he can articulate so clearly what’s happening to him. He has a prodigious memory and a broad vocabulary (sometimes in a humorous way, because his speech is stiffly formal, but always right), so he can talk to his parents, his therapists, and here the camera about what it felt like to be four years old and unable to understand anything anyone was saying, or to explain how bullies nearly caused him to shut down emotionally while a teenager. But one of you asked me on Twitter if I thought it insinuated that this might be a cure or treatment for other kids who experience that sudden onset of autism and lose their verbal skills; I really didn’t think so, but then again, I’m not a parent grasping for hope because my child is autistic.

(Also worth noting: Vaccines do not cause autism.)

Instead of trying to tell a sweeping story like ESPN’s OJ documentary or Ava DuVernay’s The 13th, which I just finished today, Life, Animated is just a slice of life and a portrait of one family – and the love and support of his parents and his older brother form a huge part of Owen’s story. I didn’t get any greater message out of it than that we should view people like Owen (and some of his friends whom we meet along the way) as fully-formed people with lives worth living. It might make you a little more compassionate the next time you meet a “strange” person out in public, or perhaps it’ll make you rethink what it means for someone to be “on the spectrum.” At one point, Owen’s parents ask what it means to have a meaningful life, and if Owen is happy and makes others happy, isn’t that good enough? We should all hope to accomplish so much.

O.J.: Made in America.

My latest Insider column discusses Mike Hazen and diversity in baseball, and my latest boardgame review for Paste covers the pirate-themed Islebound, which looks great but plays too slowly.

My employer’s eight-hour documentary O.J.: Made in America is a real tour de force of nonfiction storytelling, combining two separate, strong narratives to give us the rise and fall of one of the most beloved celebrities of the last fifty years within the context of American race relations, particularly between white police and government authorities and African-American civilians. It paints pictures of two O.J.’s: the sports star who crossed over to become an icon to black and white audiences, and the manipulative wife-beater who eventually killed Nicole Brown and innocent bystander Ronald Goldman, only to be acquitted in a ‘trial of the century.’ Aired in five separate parts, the film casts an incredibly wide net and manages to inform the viewers not just on the facts but on the landscape in which those facts took place. (The film is streaming via the WatchESPN app and can be purchased on amazon or iTunes).

The documentary starts more or less with Simpson in community college, although it dips back into his childhood to introduce us to many of the figures who appear in the documentary on camera or in the action itself, as he’s about to head to USC, where the nation first became aware of his superlative talent on the field. The Buffalo Bills drafted Simpson, but their system didn’t make good use of his abilities for the first few years of his career and he appeared to be a disappointment until new head coach Lou Saban built the team’s offense around him in 1972. Simpson took off from there, becoming the first back to rush for 2000 yards (back in the 14-game schedule), breaking Jim Brown’s single-season rushing record, winning the league MVP and several rushing titles, and eventually retiring with the second-most rushing yards in NFL history.

Simpson started to convert his football prowess into commercial success early in his career, and began acting in films shortly after becoming a football star. Although the documentary focuses more on his comic work – he was Nordberg in the three Naked Gun films, probably the role for which he’s most remembered now as an actor – he also appeared in dramatic works, including an episode of Roots, only the greatest miniseries of all time (per Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz). By the time Simpson hung up his cleats, he was a cross-platform star, a bankable celebrity whom the film credits with ushering in the era of the sports star endorsement that we can blame for those awful Peyton Manning Nationwide commercials.

That story takes up the first two hours or so of the film, and it’s exhilirating to watch: there’s plenty of game footage, but we also get to watch the development of a national icon, turning from a charming but very unpolished athlete into a confident, ambitious actor and pitchman. In an era where endorsements were limited to white stars, Simpson broke the mold. That he did so by avoiding any emphasis on his race, such as commenting on political matters or protests, did not seem remarkable at the time; it was the path of least resistance for someone who wanted the fame and income that came from celebrity, not the power or the podium.

This part of the documentary is interspersed with the backdrop of rising racial animus in California, including the Watts riots, the police shooting of Eulia Love, the murder of Latasha Harkins by a Korean grocer (convicted but sentenced only to probation), and the Rodney King beating and acquittal. In a sense, it’s all prologue for the murder trial of Simpson, where the context of a city where many black citizens were convinced that they were being unfairly targeted by the police and treated differently by the courts informed a trial that included a cop, Mark Fuhrman, with a history of racist statements, and the defense accusation of planted evidence. The physical evidence, including DNA, should have made this a slam-dunk for the prosecution, but the defense created plenty of reasonable doubt, including prosecutor Chris Darden’s own inexplicable decision to ask Simpson to try on one of the gloves with his DNA on it, as well as by playing the race card to gain Simpson a fast acquittal.

I remember being disgusted to see people celebrating the verdict at the time, and the images still repulse me today: the fact that a black man could beat the system should not be more important than the fact that an abused wife and a total stranger were brutally murdered. But O.J.: Made in America doesn’t pass judgment itself; the film gives us both contemporary footage from the trial and reaction along with commentary today from so many participants, including two jurors (both black women) and the practically made-for-television civil rights lawyer Carl Douglas. Although a few key people are missing from these confessional interviews – Al Cowlings, Marguerite Simpson, and Darden stand out among the missing – the sheer number of people who did talk, and talked at length, is the production’s greatest strength. Furhman’s here. So are several of the cops who arrested Simpson, including those involved in the absurd white Bronco debacle. Many of O.J.’s longtime friends appear, including a childhood friend, Joe Bell, who comes as close as anyone here to defending the subject.

From there, we get the ugly post-trial life of Simpson up to his 2007 arrest and 2008 conviction on kidnapping and burglary charges that the film strongly implies was all payback for the 1994 acquittal. Simpson believed, according to his friends, that after the original verdict, he’d return to his old life as if nothing had happened, only to find his endorsements evaporating and many of his friends distancing themselves from him. The narrative gets a bit flimsy at this point, but the story is one of a man who relocates to Florida (to avoid the civil judgment against him), starts hanging out with less and less savory characters, and eventually adopts a “gangster” (their word, not mine) image along with his increasingly erratic behavior and poor judgment. Of course, the worst people Simpson was hanging with were collectibles dealers, and you can interpret that as you wish.

What the documentary doesn’t do, unfortunately, is even explore the question of why. Domestic violence itself is worthy of that kind of discussion – are abusers born, or are they made? If the latter, how do we interrupt the cycle that creates them? – but in Simpson’s case, the program itself gives us portraits of two extremely different men. The Simpson of the 1960s and 1970s that we see in episodes 1 and 2, married to his high school sweetheart Marguerite and out of any sort of trouble, is completely different from the controlling, obsessed Simpson who abused and eventually killed Nicole Brown. This dichotomy all but requires explanation: Was Simpson always a potential abuser, but didn’t become one until his second marriage? (Marguerite has steadfastly said that Simpson never abused her, and there is no record of any violence during their relationship.) Did his football career have anything to do with him becoming abusive or aspects of his personality that changed? The directors seem to hint at O.J.’s troubled relationship with his father, who was gay and later became a well-known drag performer, as a cause, but that’s hardly a justification for violence against women and the subject is barely discussed. It appears the directors didn’t ask any of the many longtime friends and business associates of Simpson the question: was this really who Simpson was all along?

The documentary itself is riveting; I don’t remember any single-story work of this length that held my attention as long as this one did. The pacing is brisk, and the first-person commentaries from folks as diverse as Marcia Clark, Hertz CEO Frank Olson, and Simpson’s friend Ron Shipp, a retired LAPD officer who testified against Simpson at the murder trial, are invaluable for framing (no pun intended) the story. The directors delivered even more on their “in America” part, showing how the racial and cultural context first made O.J. into a star and then helped him avoid a conviction for the two murders, even more than they tell us how O.J. was “made” into a domestic abuser and killer. ESPN released the film to theaters in New York and Los Angeles for a week so it would be eligible for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and I find it hard to imagine any two-hour challenger could come close to topping it.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

The documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi has quietly been getting rave reviews from chefs and food writers but relatively less attention from mainstream film critics, probably because of its genre and language (it’s entirely in Japanese, with English subtitles) rather than its content. Following one of the most famous sushi chefs in the world and exploring his obsessive attention to detail and the demands he places on his employees and vendors, the film also features some of the most beautiful shots of food I have ever seen, the kind of cinematography that will have you pouring soy sauce on the floor in anticipation. (It’s available on Netflix Instant, which is how I watched it.)

Jiro Ono operates one of the world’s best-known and most exclusive sushi restaurants, a ten-seat establishment in Tokyo called Sukiyabashi Jiro that only serves sushi – no appetizers, no soba dishes, just the fish. He was 85 at the time the documentary was filmed, yet still works at the restaurant every day, usually serving the fish but at this point preparing relatively little of it himself, instead overseeing the rigid structure of the kitchen, where his eldest son, who will one day take over the business, is the de facto headmaster. Jiro’s obsession with quality and long track record have given him an inside track with key vendors, including a rice vendor who won’t sell Jiro’s favorite strain of rice to a large hotel that asks for it, while also making internships at his restaurant into ten-year apprenticehoods where anything less than perfection is unacceptable.

The film documents some of the more unusual kitchen practices at Sukiyabashi Jiro, although many of these are made possible by the restaurant’s small menu. They age their tuna for up to ten days, and they massage the octopus for as long as 50 minutes, nearly twice as long as other restaurants, to tenderize the meat. (I’ve had octopus sushi once or twice and hated it because it was rubbery. Now at least I know it doesn’t have to be that way.) Jiro and his son have exacting standards for flavor, texture, and preparation that I don’t want to spoil for viewers, as seeing some of these practices in action was among the highlights of the film.

Jiro’s two sons also play significant roles in the film as Japanese custom has placed them in very different roles of succession. His eldest son, Yoshikazu, runs Jiro’s restaurant now, while Jiro’s younger son, Takashi, apprenticed there but had to leave and start his own restaurant, a mirror image of Jiro’s, because the eldest son is the traditional successor in Japanese culture. Yet this subplot of sorts isn’t that dramatic because Yoshikazu doesn’t express any of the regret or frustration you’d expect a son in that situation to express – waiting for his father to retire or, more morbidly, to die, so he can take over the business. Yoshikazu didn’t seem terribly unhappy with his lot, and as it is, he handles much of the responsibility, something his father acknowledges.

One of those key responsibilities is acquiring the fish each day from Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market, forming by far the most informative part of the film for me. I’d read about this market before, including a chapter in Trevor Corson’s indispensable book The Story of Sushi, but had never seen an inside look at the institution or how buyers choose their fish. Watching Jiro’s primary tuna vendor walk around a giant warehouse space, poking at giant whole tuna, taking bits of flesh and examining them with a flashlight, wasn’t gripping – really nothing in this film is – but it was enlightening.

There’s a brief discussion at the end of the film about the future of sushi and of fish as a food source in general, mostly led by Yoshikazu, who blames the spread of what I would call cheap sushi – the crap you get at the grocery store, at non-sushi restaurants, or even at awful chain sushi places like Ra that specialize in bland, lower-quality fish dressed up with toppings like a damn ice cream sundae. Sushi shouldn’t be available in packages of eight maki for $7 at the supermarket. Yoshikazu doesn’t get too far into solutions, although he mentions his own vested interest in maintaining a supply of high-quality fish; given Japan’s refusal to cut down on or eliminate its harvesting and purchasing of bluefin tuna, I’m not surprised that he held back, but I imagine he and his father would carry significant weight if they came out in favor of broad bans on environmentally damaging fishing practices.

What Jiro Dreams of Sushi might lack for some viewers is drama; most good documentaries document something more than a man and his restaurant, running into some sort of conflict along the way or covering a past event that was inherently dramatic. This is an homage to a man’s lifelong obsession with his work, with approaching perfection asymptotically, with preserving an ancient cuisine while elevating it to its highest level. It is also pornography for sushi-lovers, with mindblowing images of nigiri made by Jiro, his son, and the three other men (only men – women don’t make sushi in Japan, another issue they neglected to address) who work there. I’ve never seen fish that looked like that. It’ll make you want to, say, find the next Yu Darvish to go scout over in Tokyo – as long as you have a month’s notice to make a reservation at Jiro’s place.