FIGHT FOR SPACE (2017, doc)

May 17, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Space … the final frontier. Or is it just another political football? Director Paul Hildebrandt examines the space program from all angles: past, present, and future. He enlists experts such as Astronauts Jim Lovell and Story Musgrave, physicist and author Michio Kaku, Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Norman Augustine (Chairman of the Review of the United States Human Space Flights Committee), and numerous politicians, journalists, and former NASA staffers. Passionate opinions and perspectives fill the run time, as do frustrations and hopes.

In 1961, President John F Kennedy pledged that NASA and the United States would send a man to the moon (and bring him back safely) by the end of the decade. On July 20, 1969 the Apollo 11 crew landed on the moon, and four days later returned safely to earth. The central question being asked by the film is “Why did we stop?”

The Space Race shifted into high gear thanks to Russia’s Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin. It was also responsible for inspiring an entire generation to pursue careers in Science, Technology, and Engineering. Hindsight (and those being interviewed here) tells us that, rather than a visionary scientific research platform, the U.S. space program was actually a “Crisis Project” driven by ego and politics. How else do we answer the current generation of kids when they ask, “Why aren’t we there now?”

Viewing the space program as a marketing campaign to the American public, Mr. Tyson is especially outspoken when he states that the economic and cultural benefits of a true scientific program are beyond argument. GPS and the internet are but two of the transformative developments courtesy of the space program, and proof enough that a more scientific approach could lead to even more discoveries. Instead, it’s pointed out that no scientists were included in the Apollo missions until Apollo 17, the final Apollo mission to the moon with astronauts. This occurred after the significant budget reduction in 1970 that cancelled a couple of Apollo missions, setting the stage for the program to end.

Discussions and criticisms of the Space Shuttle program (described as driving trucks in circles), the Space Station (a $150 billion program with no purpose), the Mars Direct proposal, and the Constellation Program (started by George W, cancelled under Obama), are each given attention and insight. Perhaps it’s all best described by Jim Lovell who states the Russians are the tortoise in the race, while the U.S. simply gave up.

Very few events match the breathtaking majesty of a rocket lift-off. The beauty and power of this engineering marvel generate the wonderment of exploration and discovery. Sadly, most of the triumphs and tragedies of the U.S. space program are little more than entries in a textbook (or website) for today’s kids. The program lacks leadership and vision, and the case can be made that the only hope is with the private sector (such as Elon Musk). The final 10-12 minutes of the film is really a pep talk (Sales pitch? Propaganda?) for an actual scientific space program. This time, let’s hope that rather than political reasons, we go because it’s there!

watch the trailer:

 


I AM HEATH LEDGER (2017, doc)

May 16, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Lao Tzu wrote “The flame that burns twice as bright, burns half as long”. Though the math might be a bit off, that phrase aptly describes the too-brief life and career of shooting star Heath Ledger. As a 20 year old from Australia, his talent seemed to leap from the screen in 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You. As his popularity soared, so did his commitment to avoid being typecast as the charming and handsome love interest by the desperate directors of every upcoming rom-com project.

It seems inconceivable (that word means what you think it means) that Mr. Ledger only made 15 more movies before an overdose killed him in 2008 (at age 28). Adrian Buiterhuis and Derik Murray co-direct this portrait of the man, the artist, the friend, the father. We see the young Heath, nearly always with camera in hand, flouncing about with his buddies as he seeks his next adventure. The home videos and photos fill the screen with luminosity that we recognize from his movies … the camera loved his face, and he seemed to love everything about filmmaking.

Interviews, often the bane of biographical documentaries, provide a real sense of the admiration and love that Ledger attracted. His father, mother, sister, childhood Aussie friends, agent Steve Alexander, former lover Naomi Watts, and close friend Ben Harper pay tribute not just to the star who burned out too soon, but also the warm-hearted man they all connected with.

The film walks us through some of his key movies: his chance to work with his acting idol Mel Gibson in The Patriot, A Knight’s Tale, his devastating performance in Monster’s Ball, The Four Feathers, Ned Kelly, reminiscing with Catherine Hardwicke on Lords of Dogstown, his stunning turn in Brokeback Mountain, and his final movie The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus with his beloved director Terry Gilliam. Of course, there is also a full segment on his most famous (and his own personal favorite) role as The Joker (a guy with a plan) in The Dark Knight. The role not only won Ledger a posthumous Oscar, it became the most talked about film performance in years.

Even more interesting than the recollections from the various movie sets are the bits and pieces we get of Ledger as guy sharing the journey with his buddies, approaching master status as a chess player, as an artist dedicated to his craft, or as a photographer honing his style (in music videos) in what surely would have been an intriguing path as a director. Director Ang Lee brings us closer to understanding what we have missed out on in regards to Ledger as an artist, and with actress Michelle Williams, the mother of his daughter Matilda, choosing not to participate in the film, we still have the distance between fan and man that allows for due respect.

The documentary premieres May 17, 2017 on Spike TV.

watch the trailer:

 

 


JULIAN SCHNABEL: A PERSONAL PROFILE (2017, doc)

May 11, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Do you believe in destiny? Whether you do or you don’t, it’s difficult to argue that Julian Schnabel was born to be anything other than an artist. Director Pappi Corsicato’s final cut is as much a tribute to an artist he obviously admires as it is a biography of the pajama wearing cultural influencer.

Schnabel was raised in far south Texas, but according to his sister, a difficult child birth in Brooklyn set the stage for his being “special”. In fact, director Corsicato interviews Schnabel’s siblings, 5 of his kids, his 2 ex-wives, art experts and friends, and celebrity admirers like Willem Dafoe, Al Pacino and Bono. These interviews are blended with home movies, personal photographs, and clips of Schnabel working, playing and talking about his work and life.

The constant praise for Schnabel is only periodically sprinkled with minor nicks that are apparent should one read between the lines, but this is meant to be documented proof of a career that exploded after a 1979 show at the Mary Boone Gallery. We hear Schnabel described as a “controversial artist” with no boundaries who sees beauty in places most of us don’t notice.

Even though we get to see quite a few of Schnabel’s paintings, a significant portion of the film is devoted to Schnabel’s work as filmmaker. Special attention is given to his first film Basquiat (bringing an artist’s perspective to the story of the artist), as well as Before Night Falls, and the Oscar nominated The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Being such a movie fan, I’ve always admired Schnabel’s unusual film work as much as his paintings. It’s so difficult to stand out in either field, but he manages to make a statement in both. He draws a few chuckles when he states that he “had a day job” that allowed him to make movies.

It’s unusual for the subject of a documentary to be listed as Executive Producer on that film, but Schnabel describes himself as having “blind faith” in what he does and his entire professional life has been on his own terms. Director Corsicato uses music quite effectively, though this private portrait never digs too deeply and certainly never comes close to answering what drives an artist – even one who can quote The Godfather.

watch the trailer:

 

 


JEREMIAH TOWER: THE LAST MAGNIFICENT (2017, doc)

April 27, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Maybe the line between megalomania and genius doesn’t exist, or a more likely explanation has the two as mutually exclusive. Director Lydia Tenaglia (an Emmy winner) tackles the profile of ultra-fascinating Jeremiah Tower, one of, if not the first U.S. celebrity chef. Her approach seems to carom between idol worship, psychoanalysis and mythology, often creating a rudderless feeling for viewers – viewers who remain captivated by the man and the story.

Mr. Tower performs voiceover during much of the segment on his childhood, and one of his first lines, “I have to stay away from human beings because somehow I’m not one”, sets the stage for a childhood that explains much. His wealthy parents took a hands-off approach, though young Jeremiah (when not in elite boarding school) often accompanied them on international travels, luxurious Ocean cruises (including the Queen Mary), and first class resorts and hotels. The solitude of these trips invariably found the young boy in the kitchen with food, his favorite travel companion. An evening on a beach with a stranger who is grilling a barracuda provides a particularly harrowing memory, and clearly helps us understand how that 6 year old grew to be an adult who never found a humanistic rhythm with others.

Anthony Bourdain is a producer on the film and also provides commentary throughout. He states “We should know who changed the world”. Specifically he is referring to the pioneers of food, and he puts Jeremiah Tower as high on the pedestal as any. Bourdain, other chefs, Tower’s Harvard friends, and even food critics chime in on the impact of Tower joining Alice Waters at her Berkeley Chez Panisse in 1972. The idealism of the times and the people created a cultural clash that resulted in what Martha Stewart termed New American cuisine, or perhaps more accurately, California cuisine. Some terrific photos and clips of those early days really add an element of depth to an era which is typically lacking in such documentation.

After the split between Ms. Waters and Mr. Tower, his explosion into the global food world occurred with his Stars restaurant in San Francisco in the mid-1980’s. This seemed to be the meld of Tower’s personality, his creative menu ideas, and his quest for the perfect eating establishment, and soon became known worldwide as a must-visit for traveling foodies.

It’s at this point where the timeline becomes muddled – seemingly on purpose by the filmmaker – in an effort to add mystery to what otherwise would be expected erratic behavior from an artist who just can’t be satisfied. Tower’s self-imposed exile leaves his friends befuddled, and we get interspersed shots of him climbing pyramids and cooking in his Merida apartment. Philosophical meanderings are used to fill the gaps. “What are my great expectations?” How could such a genius be expected to live with “the horror of mediocrity”? On more than one occasion, we hear Tower’s life philosophy stated as “I long for the crown, but know the guillotine is close”. This would all seem overly dramatic if it didn’t so perfectly fit the profile of the man. The incomprehensible “comeback” at NYC’s Tavern on the Green after 15 years away, does allow us to more closely view his endless pursuit of perfection, and the price paid for a life of loneliness and ego. True innovators and true genius are often painful to look at once the curtain is pulled back.

watch the trailer:

 


DANGER CLOSE (2017, doc)

April 27, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the third in a series of unparalleled looks at war from the front line courtesy of co-directors Christian Tureaud and David Salzberg. Their 2014 documentary The Hornet’s Nest followed war correspondent Mike Boettcher and his son as they covered the most violent era of the Afghanistan War, and 2015’s Citizen Soldier went inner circle with the Army National Guard’s 45th Infantry Combat team in Afghanistan. This time the focus is on the work of war correspondent Alex Quade, a female reporter (yes, her gender is worth noting) who documented missions carried out by Special Forces teams.

Ms. Quade’s interviews with Wendy R Anderson provide structure to the film and a chance for viewers to catch their breath in between combat videos. The interviews allow us to get a better feel for Ms. Quade’s personality and motivation. She states that after being around soldiers in such stressful and life-threatening times, she believes “I have to tell their stories”. These are stories we aren’t usually privy to on network news reports. These situations go beyond dangerous and require courage most of us can’t imagine.

There is some incredible early footage, much shot with night vision, which chronicles a large scale air assault ending in tragedy. The helicopters are being fired upon from ground-based weapons, and one is shot down. We then see how fast the rescue and recovery mission is implemented and how there is no hesitation in going in.

Ms. Quade makes this the personal story for one soldier – Rob Pirelli. She interviews his fellow soldiers, and even visits with Rob’s parents at their home. The film begins in 2007 and goes into 2008 where she tracks the progress of Combat Outpost Pirelli – a home for a Special Forces team.

This is outstanding and eye-opening journalism, and forces viewers to confront the atrocities and always present danger of war. There are times during the interviews where Alex Quade comes off a bit arrogant, but we are reminded of a quote that at times has been attributed to Muhammad Ali, Bear Bryant, and Dizzy Dean … “It ain’t bragging if …” Ms. Quade deserves much respect for her tenacity and bravery for doing what’s necessary to tell these stories.


EARTHxFilm 2017 and CHASING CORAL

April 21, 2017

EARTHxFilm Opening NightChasing Coral

 The official Opening Night of the inaugural EARTHxFilm event proved to be an evening of hope buoyed by passion, optimism and commitment. Scheduled in conjunction with the seventh annual EARTH Day Texas, the reception, introductions, and opening film Chasing Coral were held at Dallas Music Hall at Fair Park.

EARTHxFilm President Michael Cain, one of the most influential forces on the Dallas film scene for years, expressed that this is a “gift to the city” from philanthropist and businessman Trammell Crow, and that many worked diligently to bring it all together – including Ryan Brown and Dennis Bishop. Notably, Mr. Cain acknowledged the support of both The Dallas International Festival and Dallas Video Fest. This type of support and collaboration is not typical of all cities, but DIFF’s Lee Papert and James Faust, and DVF’s Bart Weiss are all extraordinary ambassadors for the Dallas film industry, and we are quite fortunate to have them working in our city.

Filmmakers in attendance were recognized, and Mr. Cain said the group ranged from 12 year old first-timers to Oscar winners. His stated wish was for everyone in the audience to become EARTHxFilm missionaries and encourage others to join in. Education is a key focus of the organization, and we were shown about 15 one-minute films created around the idea of nature, conservation, environmentalism, etc. It was a very nice way to kick off the evening and prepare us for the featured screening of Chasing Coral.

CHASING CORAL

 Whether you have spent vacation time snorkeling, watched the National Geographic channel, or even paid a bit of attention during high school science class, you likely have some level of understanding of what a vital ecosystem coral reefs are to Ocean life. Director Jeff Orlowski has a track record of important environmental documentaries with his 2012 Chasing Ice. Both of these movies have been well received at Sundance and other film festivals, as well as by scientific experts.

Mr. Orlowski was contacted by underwater photographer Richard Vevers once the Vevers team recognized the accelerated breakdown of corals as the ocean water temperature rose slightly. The film takes us to such places as The Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Florida Keys, American Somoa, Hawaii, Bermuda and the Bahamas. The obvious message is that concern exists around the globe, not just in one particular locale.

The film does an excellent job of defining and explaining the importance of coral, and once Zach Rago is introduced, the energy and passion jump significantly. A charming, self-described “coral nerd”, he is also an extremely knowledgeable and committed scientist dedicated to saving this ecosystem that he worships, and he understands the important role it plays to all life.

Little doubt exists that those involved fully believe carbon emissions are to blame for the warming waters resulting in coral bleaching and finally coral death. They also believe that by reducing said emissions, there is still time to prevent the total global coral destruction predicted for the next quarter century.

If the film has any misguided moments, it would be related to the screen time spent on the challenges and frustrations associated with underwater time-lapse photography, especially from a hardware standpoint. As viewers, we are far more interested in the coral endangerment and the photography shots that do exist … especially some of the stunning before/after looks as coral reefs are quickly destroyed.

A trip to the Coral Convention provides us a glimpse at how research and information is shared by those who are working on this and other environmental issues. With limited resources, it’s crucial that access to information is available to those who need it. Finally, the film leaves us with a reminder that forests, reefs, and other ecosystems are all vital to our lives; and while the current path is quite saddening, there is optimism that we have time to stop the damage if we act now.

For more information: EARTHxFilm.org EARTHDayTX.org


BORN IN CHINA (2017, doc)

April 20, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. You’d be hard-pressed to name or find anything cuter than a baby Panda, and the folks at Disneynature don’t hesitate in taking full advantage of our affinity for such fuzzy black and white cuddliness. Am I upset with them after watching this documentary? Only because they periodically cut away to a herd of antelope.

This is the next in a line of Disneynature films dating back to 2007 (Oceans, Bears, African Cats) that usually hit theaters in close proximity to Earth Day. This particular screening was also affiliated with the inaugural year of EARTHxFilm, a Dallas-based festival dedicated to all things nature, natural and earthy. Acclaimed Chinese director Chuan Lu and his photography crew take us into some stunning wilderness areas and parts of China that we rarely, if ever, get to see … all to witness intimate wildlife moments in shockingly close proximity.

If what comes to mind are those charming Disney animal features from the 1960’s – the ones that featured the great Rex Allen as narrator, you’re in for a surprise. Hey, I loved Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar and Yellowstone Cubs as much as the next kid, but rolling down a leaf-covered hill with a baby Panda that can’t walk yet is a whole new level of awe. Watching a mother Snow Leopard (what an incredible creature!) hunt so her two cubs can eat takes us to the highest standard of respect and admiration for this elusive species. Heck, even the rebellious Golden snub-nose Monkey teaches us about family and community within the monkey world … and how they don’t appreciate cold weather any more than I.

Director Lu provides a loose ancient Chinese structure to the film by explaining that every time a crane takes flight, it’s believed to be relocating the soul/spirit of one dying being into that of a newborn. The spectacle of watching these creatures majestically soar through the orange-sun soaked sky is merely one of the many breathtaking examples of spectacular photography during the film. We are bounced between mountains and forest and rocky vistas and are taken closer than you’ve ever been to a Great Panda scratching her baby, a Snow Leopard on the prowl, or a monkey rescuing his baby sister from an ominous winged predator. The only downside for grown-ups is the over-narration from John Krasinski, an admitted necessity for the youngsters in the audience who will appreciate the one-liners that go along with the cuteness. In Disney fashion, most of nature’s violence takes place off screen, but what we do see are parts of nature that will amaze.

Be sure to stay for the closing credits for a glimpse at how the photographers managed to get some of their shots – as well as how they sacrifice for their work.

watch the trailer: