THE LAST LAUGH (2017, doc)

March 5, 2017

last-laugh Greetings again from the darkness. The best comedy often touches a nerve. Jokes can make us feel uncomfortable and even a bit embarrassed for laughing. Although the best comedians are traditionally those who attack the politically correct world we live in, there are certain topics that remain taboo even to the bravest comedians: child molesting, rape, AIDS, 9/11, and the Holocaust. Director Ferne Pearlstein examines the issue of taboo comedy through numerous interviews with some well known and successful comedians, authors, and even Holocaust survivors.

Much of the focus here is on the Holocaust, and some of the familiar faces providing insight include Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, and Rob and Carl Reiner. We learn the most important rule is … never tell a crappy joke about a dark subject – it better be really funny! We also learn that while the Holocaust is mostly off-limits, the Nazi’s are fair game. Bugs Bunny, Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, and The Marx Brothers have all mined the Nazi world for the sake of comedy and satire, though maybe none have done so as frequently or successfully as Mel Brooks (“Springtime for Hitler”)

One of the most interesting recurring threads of the film involves Auschwitz survivor Renee Firehouse. North of 90 years old, this remarkable lady is extremely sharp and understands the importance of laughter … while also never being shy about what she thinks is NOT funny. Ms. Firestone even meets up with the effervescent Robert Clary, a fellow Holocaust survivor, and known to many as LeBeau on the TV show “Hogan’s Heroes”.

A trip to the Holocaust Survivor Convention on the Las Vegas strip offers up more thoughts on the role comedy played in keeping these folks alive. We see rare footage of carefully staged Cabaret acts from within the concentration camps … who even knew this went on? The recently re-discovered footage of Jerry Lewis’ “The Day the Clown Cried” is also shown, and the commentary from Harry Shearer makes it clear that the rest should never find an audience.

Authors Etgar Keret, Shalom Auslander and Abraham Foxman each provide their thoughts on forbidden comedic topics, and clips are shown from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Brooks’ The Producers, as well as scandalous moments from Louis CK, Joan Rivers, Chris Rock, and the most censured comic of all, Lenny Bruce. Laughter may be the best medicine, but sometimes it’s interesting to take a step back and determine exactly what is off-limits. When has a joke gone too far? It appears from Ms. Pearlstein’s project that the line in the sand is determined by personal taste, preference and judgment.

watch the trailer:

 


THE FREEDOM TO MARRY (2017, doc)

March 5, 2017

freedom-to-marry Greetings again from the darkness. The film takes us back more than forty years to a 1973 poll that found the majority of the people in the United States felt homosexuality was immoral. That’s what the folks at the non-profit organization Freedom To Marry had to overcome in their decades long fight to win the right for legal gay marriage. Filmmaker Eddie Rosenstein offers up a behind the scenes, and very detailed look at the history, strategy, and tactics used by the group to reach their goals.

In 1983 Evan Wolfson wrote his Harvard thesis on why gay marriage is moral and just. After that, and because of it, Mr. Wolfson became the driving force, the leader, and the face of the movement for gay marriage rights … as well as the Director of the Freedom To Marry organization. This is really the inside story and a chronological legal and political history of the push for gay marriage.

The fight is truly a Civil Rights movement of rallies and marches – both for and against. We witness the revolution one conversation at a time, and the film counts down the days to the Supreme Court arguments, as well as the final decision. 102 days until the Supreme Court arguments open … and a reminder that about a decade prior there were zero firms that allowed gay marriage. Much time is spent with Mary Benauto, the chief litigator for the cause, and a true champion of legal gay rights.

It’s Evan Wolfson who dominates the film, and rightly so. He’s known as “The Marriage Guy” and “The Paul Revere of Gay Marriage”. We witness him leading many important meetings and consistently working towards the goal. He explains to us that AIDS shattered the silence of the community, as the movement shifted from “leave us alone” to “let us in”. As Ms. Benauto explains, “I do this work because people just want to be who they are”; but it’s Evan who makes his mission clear when he states, “I always believed we would win”. The film is an extraordinary look at a vital part of Civil Rights history, complete with heroes.

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DYING LAUGHING (2017, doc)

February 24, 2017

dying-laughing Greetings again from the darkness. We all want to be funny. Making people laugh allows for an immediate connection … plus it just feels good to make someone else happy. Co-directors Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood show us the dark side (or at least the backside) of comedy through a series of black and white filmed interviews with dozens of stand-up comedians. In this age of political correctness, Chris Rock explains that there is only one group who says what they want to say: stand-up comedians.

It plays not so much as “how to become a comedian”, but rather a therapy session for those who already are. It’s loosely structured into segments that provide very specific insight and real life stories on: the first time on stage, life on the road, dealing with hecklers, the devastation of bombing, how to connect with an audience, and what it’s like to be “on” or really kill it.

The list of participants is too long to list here, but includes such stalwarts as the aforementioned Mr. Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, Jerry Lewis, Kevin Hart, Amy Schumer, Billy Connolly, and Dave Attell. Those at the top of their profession open up about what it takes and how they made it. Think “Take a Parent to School Day”, without the societal filter or peer pressure. These folks spend most of their waking hours looking outward for material, but here they are generous enough to look inward so that we might better understand their craft.

A diverse cross-section of comedians provide examples of racism, sexism and most any other ism. There is also the admission that a need/desire for acceptance exists pretty much across the profession. The struggles and challenges make up the experience which is vital to the growth and survival of a comedian … and maybe even what strands of sanity they possess. We hear stories of writing and re-writing jokes over and over again for years, before finally hitting on the right wording and delivery. We learn Smartphones often contain pages of notes on ideas and partial jokes, and that pain on stage often leads to a better act.

Jerry Seinfeld produced a documentary in 2002 entitled Comedian, and it dealt with the rigors of honing the act in front of audiences, and when combined with this project, we are reminded that comedy is at its best when it is about SOMETHING (fertile ground these days) … and that every comedian gets knocked down – but then gets up again (tip of the cap to Chumbawamba). The film is dedicated to the late Garry Shandling (who also appears in the film) and leaves us with the thought that “the laugh is your reward as a comedian”. And that’s pretty sweet.

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DECANTED (2016, doc)

February 23, 2017

decanted Greetings again from the darkness. Fantasizing about owning and running your own Winery is perfectly natural, and impossible to avoid, while on a weekend escape to Napa Valley, California. Director Nicholas Kovacic opens with a helicopter tour of the 30 mile long area courtesy of Heidi Barrett, winemaker extraordinaire, and wife of Bo Barrett (of Chateau Montelena and Bottle Shock fame). The terrain below is so beautiful, that when it’s combined with the industry it supports, a romantic vision is understandable.

The patchwork quilt of individual parcels falls in a geologic epicenter with near perfect conditions for growing the grapes that lead to the marvelous wine. Of course, Mother Nature is still in control, and that’s one of the points to the film (which could have been titled “Starting a Winery for Dummies”). Of course, Ms. Barrett is no dummy, and neither are any of the other winemakers we meet during the course of what’s probably a too long 82 minutes. These folks pour love, sweat, worry, and money into a once per year product that can go wrong at any of the numerous steps prior to having a glass poured as you settle in for a juicy steak of plate of pasta.

Much of the time is devoted to Texan Mike Martin as he shops for a new winery, and settles on one in Coombsville. His Italics Winegrowers makes the point, that it’s probably wiser to buy an existing enterprise, than wait the 4 to 5 years for the first crop if starting from scratch. The established Reynolds Family Winery provides another example of the complexity to this business; and just how much nurturing goes into farming and production, and the incredible variances experienced from year to year.

Napa Valley is described as still in the “Wild West” stage since the tradition goes back only a couple of decades (instead of centuries like in Italy and France). Creativity abounds as new winemakers thrill us with the discovery of new blends and varietals. A perfect example is Ms. Barrett’s 6L 1992 Screaming Eagle, which nabbed a record $550,000 for a single bottle at the 2000 Napa Valley Wine Auction (now called Auction Napa Valley).

The film does a nice job of talking about how the industry has evolved to one that pays attention to farming the vines and the full process … not just what happens when it hits the barrels. There is even mention of how branding plays a key role these days, yet is still sometimes overlooked. Beautifully filmed, with some gorgeous shots of the area, Mr. Kovacic’s project is bit more artistic than most documentaries, but might have benefited from a shorter run time … or better personal connection to the players.

watch the trailer:

 

 


LEFT ON PURPOSE (2016, doc)

February 16, 2017

left-on-purpose Greetings again from the darkness. A film about a guy with an aversion to wearing pants would not typically hold much appeal for me, but this is no typical documentary and Mayer Vishner is no typical subject. Co-directors Justin Schein and David Mehlman raise a couple of philosophical questions here: should a person have the right to take their own life, and what responsibility does a documentarian have towards their subject when faced with an ethical dilemma?

Very few younger than 50 (maybe even 60) will recognize the name Mayer Vishner. He worked closely with those who founded the radical 1960’s group called the Yippies (Youth International Party) – Abbie Hoffman, Paul Krassner, Jerry Rubin (also an early Apple investor and stockbroker), and musician Phil Ochs. A self-described Forrest Gump, Mayer states he helped them be “giants”. The Yippies challenged authority and the system at every turn and were quite proud to create the label counter-culture.

Five decades later, Mayer remains holed up in his same Greenwich Village apartment not far from MacDougal St and the Gaslight Café, where much of the Yippies action took place. The small apartment is in total disarray and Mayer now lives in squalor, getting through most days with absurd amounts of alcohol and pot, and apparently very little human interaction outside of director Schein’s visits.

It’s here where things get fuzzy. Schein set out to make a film about a man who was right in the middle of one of the most tumultuous times in US history, but seemed to make the ultimate documentarian mistake of becoming too close … even friends … with his subject. It’s this line-crossing that puts Schein in the cross-hairs of a moral dilemma when Mayer states, “If this film happens, it will be about a film about suicide”. Should he keep filming? Should he get help for Mayer? Should he walk away from the project and let nature take its course?

What follows is an up close and personal look at a man who is still very articulate, though suffering bouts of depression due to a life of loneliness and solitude. He sees no reason why he shouldn’t be able to end his life on his own terms and in front of a camera. We also see Mayer’s periodic surges of energy … whether it’s the Occupy Wall Street movement (I’ve “been here before”), seeing his brothers, or a visit with Diane, his friend of 35 years who helps with therapeutic gardening. Of course, these surges are short-lived and each followed by a hard crash.

Along the way, we see a video clip of 16 year old Mayer just beginning his lifelong journey of questioning authority. We also see the 3 pallets of memories being stored in a warehouse prior to being purchased by the University of Michigan, and we learn that Mayer was once the editor of “LA Weekly”, though fired for his alcoholism. Mayer’s own notes describe himself as an anarchist, pacifist, gardener, poet and dozens more. He clearly had a purpose in life and ultimately, in death. The film is tough to watch at times both because of Mayer’s self-destructive mode, and for the interesting and debatable issues raised by continuing with filming. Perhaps the film will have you questioning your own beliefs, though the hope is you never find yourself in this situation with a friend. A well made documentary should educate and inspire discussion, and there’s no shortage of either with this one.

watch the trailer:


THE SUNSHINE MAKERS (2016, doc)

January 22, 2017

sunshine-makers Greetings again from the darkness. “Turn on. Tune in. Drop out.” For those of us born a bit too late to subscribe to Dr. Timothy Leary’s call to action in the 1960’s, our knowledge of the psychedelic era’s drug culture is limited to what we’ve read, what we’ve been told and the alarming cautions blasted over the PA system in the Woodstock movie. Director Cosmo Feilding Mellen and writer Connie Littlefield tell the fascinating story of two of the biggest drug dealers you’ve never heard of, and the story will have you believing they could have been the inspiration behind TV’s “Breaking Bad”.

You would be hard-pressed to find two less similar business partners than Nicholas Sand and Tim Scully. Mr. Sand is the type who embraced the free-love and free-your-mind approach of the 60’s, and we are subjected to his preference for nude yoga … something that bothers us much more than him. Mr. Scully was a science genius with a touch of Asperger’s. What the two agreed on was their mission of using LSD to create a more peaceful and loving society. They considered themselves “American Patriots”.

The two drug dealers receive kid glove treatment from the filmmaker, and along with some video clips of the era, at times it feels a bit like “we’re getting the band back together”. There is a steady stream of those who were part of the operation, which was based at Billy Hitchcock’s New York estate. Watching these 70-somethings reunite and discuss the good old days has a surreal feel at times, but what’s clear is that they all have fond memories of each other.

Avoiding the authorities was obviously a key for these folks, and director Mellen even interviews the two agents who devoted the most time to tracking down Sand and Scully. We learn that the Brotherhood of Eternal Love (aka “the hippie mafia”) was key to the distribution channel, and that the “Orange Sunshine” even made it to the soldiers on the frontline in Vietnam.

The interesting story doesn’t end when Sand and Scully are arrested and inexplicably end up as cell mates at McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington. Scully researches a loophole that allows the two to be released on bail. This leads to Sand becoming a 20 year fugitive from the law in Canada, while Scully ends up serving his sentence. Catching up with the two men fifty years after their first meeting still makes us wonder how they worked together so long … and it leads to Sand explaining they were LSD evangelists, and did “a better job than Jesus”. Now back to more nude yoga.

watch the trailer:

 


UNDER THE SUN (2016, doc)

January 1, 2017

under-the-sun Greetings again from the darkness. There is an old episode of “The Twilight Zone” that has always stuck with me. It starred Bill Mumy (who later became well known as Will Robinson in “Lost in Space”) as a young boy with God-like mental and telekinetic powers. The entire town was afraid of him, so they constantly acted in ways to make him believe they were happy and appreciated him. Memories of that show came rushing back as I watched this documentary from Russian director Vitaly Manskiy. We outsiders know little about life in North Korea (it’s known as ‘the Hermit Kingdom’), though the film seems to confirm what we’ve been led to believe: it’s a country filled with citizens either living in fear or living with acceptance of their plight (or both).

Director Manskiy was contracted to make a movie about daily life of an ordinary family in Pyongyang. Two “escorts” were assigned to him, a state-sponsored script was provided, and his footage was reviewed daily. When the project was dissolved, Manskiy assembled the pieces … and added the secretly saved snippets from when he kept the cameras rolling between takes. The result is a documentary on the attempts of a Communist government to stage an illusion of perfection. It comes off as a foolish propaganda effort to convince the world that North Koreans are a happy people. What we see on screen convinces us otherwise.

At the center of all this is 8 year old Zin-mi and her family. If you thought The Monkees were a pre-fab TV version of The Beatles, this shows what true manipulation is all about. Zin-mi’s parents are given new jobs for the movie version. Rather than a print journalist, her father is given a job as an executive at a garment factory; and rather than a cafeteria worker, her mother is presented as working at a soy milk factory. Additionally, the family is moved into a nice apartment and then provided with meal time conversation, and even told where and how to sit and stand.

Zin-mi has joined the Childrens Union and the whole community is preparing for Day of the Shining Star – the national holiday celebrating the birthday of Kim Jong-Il; keeping alive the memory of their supreme leader who died in 2011. During these preparations, we see the clean streets and no-frills buildings, as well as the brainwashing that occurs during presentations and classes … the Japanese are labeled scoundrels, while Americans are cowards. The lingering images, and faces of those posing for photos, can’t mask the emptiness of the individuals.

The film reinforces more than enlightens, and it’s more a rare snapshot of this society than a global perspective. Still, we can’t help but feel saddened for the people as their lines are fed to them with directions like, that was “too gloomy”, and, do it again with “joy”. No proof of the brutal regime is presented, but it’s obvious freedom of thought is not encouraged. The correlation becomes all the more ironic when it’s recalled that the title of that Twilight Zone episode was “It’s a Good Life”.