Review: Summer docs on mother’s health, Don McLean, Nolan Ryan


In the United States, much of the conversation about pregnancy—whether it’s abortion or carrying a child—is more about the health of the fetus than the health of the mother. The documentary Aftershock by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee argues that this has become a huge problem, made worse by an overburdened healthcare system that often pushes patients towards an acceptable outcome instead of paying close attention to their needs. “Aftershock” suggests the situation is particularly dire in the black community, which has traditionally been underserved by doctors and nurses.

Inspired in part by the deaths of two women, Shamony Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac, from complications during childbirth, Aftershock is about the ongoing efforts of their surviving relatives to draw attention to what went wrong. Eiselt and Lee report how these families—and particularly the fathers left behind by the deaths of their partners—still cope with unexpected losses. The film also offers some history lessons about how black women were either exploited or ignored by the medical establishment.

The most compelling parts of “Aftershock” follow a black couple from Tulsa, Oklahoma – Felicia and Paul Ellis – as they try to stand up for themselves and their baby-to-be, armed with the knowledge of all the potentially bad outcomes. As they approach the day of delivery, even as they head towards a patient-centric birth center, their whole experience is nerve-wracking in a way it shouldn’t be – and that really gets the point of this film.

‘Aftershocks.’ TV MA. 1 hour, 26 minutes. Available on Hulu

“This is GWAR”

Opening Scott Barber’s documentary This Is GWAR, former dancer and backing vocalist for the longtime heavy metal band, Danielle Stampe (aka Slymenstra Hymen), sums up why the group’s over-the-top, gross, wildly theatrical stage shows have been around for more than 30 years of cult. She says that many people check out GWAR for fun at first and expect some trash, but are then mesmerized by the act’s musicality, creativity and storytelling. Newcomers will quickly realize that this seemingly very goofy art horror comedy project is “a joke with no punchline,” according to Stampe.

Barber’s film offers a rare behind-the-scenes look at the GWAR phenomenon, with the help of candid interviews with most of the surviving members and ex-members (including those who left with hard feelings) and extensive footage of the band dating back to their origins in the late 1980s punk scene in Richmond, Virginia. Because GWAR started out as a potential sci-fi art film collaboration between local rocker Dave Brockie and some of his aspiring filmmaker buddies — and because so much of the band’s production had a visual component — Barber had plenty of video documentaries to draw from could .

“This Is GWAR” is more entertaining in its opening hour when it comes to the band storming into a ’90s pop culture that didn’t know how to handle musicians in oversized costumes and act like depraved alien warriors. The second half of the film is more of a bummer, detailing the creative squabbles, ill-considered career moves, and drug abuse that takes its toll on GWAR. But this is an oddly inspirational film nonetheless, celebrating how a sly DIY aesthetic and twisted vision can almost always find a receptive audience.

‘This is GWAR.’ Not rated. 1 hour 50 minutes. Available from Shudder

A cameraman records a musician on stage with a guitar on the set of the documentary "The day the music died."

A frame from the documentary The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

(Meteor 17 / Paramount+)

“The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s “American Pie””

Don McLean’s eight-minute folk-rock epic “American Pie” has mesmerized some listeners (and, let’s be honest, irritated others) since it first hit radio in 1971. The documentary “The Day the Music Died” tells the story of the song in a collage-like manner, alternating between a flashback to McLean’s early career, testimonials from artists who covered and riffed “American Pie”, and vignettes on the original inspiration of the Songs switch: the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and JP “The Big Bopper” Richardson.

Director Mark Moormann (who previously made the great rock documentary Tom Dowd & the Language of Music) has found many different entry points on this topic. Not all are fertile. The musicians who praise “American Pie” as absolutely great make this image feel like a puff at times; and the sections on Holly and Valens are too short and one-dimensional to do justice to those legends. But “The Day the Music Died” really connects whenever McLean begins to break down where “American Pie” came from — including debunking some myths about the cryptic lyrics and detailing the long process of writing and recording. Somehow, the more McLean explains the song, the more whimsical it seems.

“The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s “American Pie.”” Unrated. 1 hour 34 minutes. Available on Paramount+

‘The wheel’

Indie drama The Wheel suffers from some of the issues that small films about troubled relationships have in common. The characters reveal themselves almost entirely through blunt conversation rather than plot. The moody soundtrack is omnipresent and carries too much emotional weight. And writer Trent Atkinson and director Steve Pink set up a grand confrontation that is breath taking and forced. For all its formulaic flaws, The Wheel is unusually perceptive at how some couples avoid the hard truths about each other because they’re afraid of tearing their whole lives apart.

This picture features two couples: a bickering couple (played by Amber Midthunder and Taylor Gray) at a last-ditch mountain retreat to stave off a divorce; and her Airbnb hosts (played by Bethany Anne Lind and Nelson Lee), who are just days away from their nuptials before their guests’ troubled romance begins to uncover cracks in their own. The cast here is a game, and the filmmakers challenge them and put them in situations where their characters can either continue to lie to themselves to maintain a slightly miserable status quo, or make a major change that could result in that they feel even worse. The path to these decisions is too straightforward and too easy, but to Atkinson and Pink’s credit, the end point is never obvious.

‘The wheel.’ Not rated. 1 hour, 22 minutes. Available on VOD

A man looks at plaques on a wall in the Baseball Hall of Fame in the documentary "to Nolan."

Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan in the documentary Facing Nolan.


“Nolan opposite”

The title of Bradley Jackson’s documentary, Facing Nolan, refers to a few moments in the film when some of the greatest major league baseball players of all time talk about what it was like stepping into the batter’s box against Nolan Ryan, a Hall of Famer who holds the all-time MLB records for strikeouts and no-hitters (both by a wide margin). That sort of baseball talk is sparser than expected in “Facing Nolan,” which is mostly a fairly straight-forward biodoc that chronicles Ryan’s life and career from his childhood days in rural Texas to his stints on four major league teams.

While perhaps not formally groundbreaking, this document is still a treat for die-hard baseball fans who should enjoy watching footage from games from the ’60s through the ’90s. It’s also a sweet portrait of the pitcher’s family, led by his wife Ruth, who worked to ensure that one of America’s most famous athletes could live a comfortable, low-key life at home. At times, “Facing Nolan” feels more like a salute to Ruth than Nolan. But considering how long she’s had to be a ballplayer’s wife, the tribute is overdue.

“Opposite Nolan.” Not rated. 1 hour, 41 minutes. Available on VOD

“Dicky V”

ESPN’s early success was due in large part to the fledgling cable sports network using college basketball as a way to fill hours of airtime in the 1980s. And the popularity of those shows had a lot to do with one of ESPN’s earliest analysts: Dick Vitale, a former coach with an upbeat attitude and an infectious enthusiasm for the game. Vitale has been away from the mic a lot lately and battling cancer – something that’s covered in life scenes in Nick Nanton’s documentary Dickie V. The bulk of Nanton’s film follows the inspirational story of this unlikely TV star, from his early success as a high school and college coach to his disastrous stint in the NBA that launched him on his ultimate path to cable pioneering. Throughout, Vitale has won over colleagues, fans and the college basketball establishment – and will likely resonate with viewers of this film – with his commitment to spreading a message of teamwork, positivity and self-worth. He’s an easy guy to befriend, just like everyone else.

“Dicky V.” Not rated. 1 hour, 20 minutes. Available on ESPN+

Also stream

“The Cinema of Mark Rappaport” collects more than 30 feature and short films by the great American documentary and experimental filmmaker, including well-known classics such as “Rock Hudson’s Home Movies” and “The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender” as well as rarely shown video essays and narrative dramas. Rappaport has spent over 50 years putting images and ideas from older films into new contexts, playfully and thoughtfully encouraging viewers to see and hear our shared film language in new ways. Available at Kino Now

Now available on DVD and Blu-ray

“God Told Me” is one of exploitation writer Larry Cohen’s finest films, turning the tale of an NYPD detective (Tony LoBianco) and an elusive killer into a wild tale of cults, aliens and deep family secrets. The new 4K UHD and Blu-ray edition includes multiple interviews and two commentary tracks, all attempting to dig beneath the surface of this strange and surprising 1976 B-movie masterpiece. Blue underground Review: Summer docs on mother’s health, Don McLean, Nolan Ryan

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