HORN FROM THE HEART: THE PAUL BUTTERFIELD STORY (2018, doc)

October 21, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Even the grainy concert footage and somewhat muffled audio of the opening clip do nothing to offset the raw energy and power of Paul Butterfield and his blues harp. If you are a blues lover, you are already familiar with his music, and you’ll likely learn more about the man. If the blues aren’t your thing, it’s still fascinating to see someone so talented and committed to their art.

Documentarian John Anderson does a nice job of blending interviews from family members and band members with video clips and historical data, mostly in chronological order. Mr. Anderson also acted as editor of “The Super Bowl Shuffle” video of the 1985 Chicago Bears, as well as numerous projects with Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. This time out, he captures the essence of a musical genius not nearly enough people have tuned in to.

Broken into segments (1942-65, 1966-71, 1972-1987), the film takes us through Butterfield’s childhood in the Hyde Park area of Chicago, and through his final on stage appearance just a couple of weeks before his death. Along the way, we hear from bandmates like Elvin Bishop and Nick Gravenites, Paul’s two sons and his brother Peter, as well as his former wife Kathryn, who describes him as the love of her life. One of Paul’s sons shows us the now-vacant lot where the club once stood in which a teenage Paul played with the likes of Howlin’ Wolf. It helps us understand where his love for the blues developed, how he formed one of the earliest integrated bands (with Jerome Arnold and Sam Lay), and how the great Muddy Waters became his life-long mentor and friend.

We get to hear the earliest known recording of Butterfield from 1962, and then footage of him at Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967 (where he debuted a horns section), and of course, Woodstock in 1969. It’s the 1965 story that is perhaps the most interesting, as it took an impassioned plea from Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary) to get Butterfield a spot in the festival, and then he and his band electrified (pun intended) the folk audience with powerhouse blues. This is the same festival where Bob Dylan shocked the audience by “going electric” (with Butterfield’s band as back-up). The music landscape shifted from the messages of folk music to a more rebellious and harder sound.

Other interviews include David Sanborn, Al Kooper and Bonnie Raitt … each more effusive than the other when discussing Butterfield’s talent and stage presence. We see Butterfield’s own high school yearbook quote, “I think I’m better than those trying to reform me”, and we hear a clip from his “Blues Harmonica Master Class” recorded in 1984 (released in 1997).  It was 1976 when Butterfield joined The Band’s farewell concert for “The Last Waltz” (movie and album), and we hear about Paul’s continued and numerous efforts to find the right sound and band in the second half of his career.

Legendary Producer Paul Rothchild, known for his work with The Doors and Janis Joplin, certainly recognized greatness in Butterfield and helped with some of his best recordings. Sadly, the 1980’s brought about severe peritonitis which led to various stomach and intestinal surgeries for Butterfield, which in turn, led to alcoholism and drug abuse. We get a clip of Butterfield on stage with Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1987, mere days before Paul died of a heroin overdose at age 44. Fortunately for us, the musical recordings live on for a man often described as a force of nature on the blues harp.

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LIVING IN THE FUTURE’S PAST (2018, doc)

October 2, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Susan Kucera and producer/narrator Jeff Bridges are smart enough to avoid cramming another preachy, guilt-laden, ‘destroying the world’ documentary down our movie-going throats (which is where popcorn belongs). Instead, they deliver a thought-provoking look at who we are, where we have come from, and where are we headed based on our actions and decisions of today.

Breath-taking photography is on display throughout the film – much of it in the beautiful National Geographic style we have become spoiled with over the years. Some of it is even more dramatic and impactful. There are images of the ocean, the earth and of space. When Bridges’ familiar and warm voice tells us “The sky itself is not the limit”, we realize this movie is something different than expected.

Many experts are paraded out, and they come from various segments of society: Ecological writer and researcher Timothy Morton, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Wesley Clark (if I messed up that title, I hope he forgives me), Ethnobotanist (had to look that up) Mark Plotkin, Astronaut Piers Sellers (since deceased), Physicist Leonard Mlodinow, as well as other scientists, politicians, and professors. The conceptual links between evolution and energy are a bit esoteric at first, but explanations and examples bring clarification.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the presentation is the blend of the scientific with the philosophical. The theory that what we “need” or “desire” drives our motivation on decisions and actions seems more than plausible. It is explained that we are “cultural beings” and our inherent need for group identity leads to the mass consumerism of society.

The difference between adapting to our environment versus controlling it, is made clear by the comparison of bees and ants to our own mega-growth cities. Mr. Bridges’ long time home was recently destroyed by the Montecito mudslides, but that fact is not part of the film. Ms. Kucera’s film is not a lecture about climate change or how humans are ruining the planet, although it is certainly intimated. Instead, this is more about humanity – what makes us tick and what environmental challenges do we face now and in the future? How do we shift our decision-making from based on our own comfort and convenience to long term sustainability of our species (and others)? The film is presented well, thought-provoking, and yes, quite beautiful to look at.

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A GREATER SOCIETY (2018, doc)

September 22, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. President Lyndon Johnson used the term “The Great Society” to describe the series of domestic programs designed to minimize poverty and racial discrimination, and offset the medical obligations of seniors (through Medicare and Medicaid) in the U.S. It was compared to FDR’s “The New Deal” (including the Social Security Act of 1935). Co-directors Craig Colton and Stacy Goldate titled their film as a twist on these programs, because the focus is the actions of some senior citizens who fight for the programs that are needed to protect their demography.

The Wynmoor Retirement Community in Broward County, Florida was developed in 1973, and marketed to seniors in New York and the entire northeast as a wonderful place to live out those golden years in warm weather and with modern amenities. A funny thing happened along the way … the residents of Wynmoor changed the politics of the area. And therein lies the most important message of the film: senior citizens can wield substantial political power through organization and commitment. Keep in mind that many of these folks are more than 90 years old. One of the most interesting that we meet is Rose. She was born in 1916 during Woodrow Wilson’s term in office.

Those we meet range from children of the depression era to children of the 60’s, and though that’s quite a diversity in sociological upbringings, it’s clear that they embrace the need to engage politically … even, and perhaps especially, these days. The cameras follow these men and (mostly) women as they strive to “get out the vote” for the 2014 midterm elections and the Florida gubernatorial race between Rick Scott and Charlie Crist.

Most of those we get to know are hardcore democrats, but there is one conservative gentlemen thrown in for contrast. Despite his being well spoken and educated on the issues, he gets little camera time. Co-directors Colton and Goldate are both highly successful editors, mostly on TV projects. Their expertise in how to put a movie together is obvious, as even though it’s slowly paced, that pace seems to mirror the process of these volunteers so dedicated to the political cause.

Broward County Public defender Howard Finkelstein offers recurring commentary during the film, but it’s really the Wynmoor residents who are the most interesting. We see the generational changes occurring within the community as new residents replace the older ones. The New York Jewish community is fading while there is an increased Latino presence. The challenge is for Wynmoor to retain the political power and dedication that has long defined it. In what is really a tribute to their efforts, the film acts as a kind of “how to” in gaining community involvement; though it’s Rose who gets the last word by reminding us of the message of “My brother’s keeper”.

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AMERICAN CHAOS (2018, doc)

September 13, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Politics in the United States is an embarrassment to any citizen who is paying attention these days. And by “these days”, I’m referring to at least a couple of generations, if not even more. The bickering between and within political parties is more closely related to playground arguments than debates among statesmen. The most effective wall being built is the one between the two sides – it’s a wall that has little to do with reason or “the greater good”, and everything to do with standing steadfast in one’s belief that an opinion is a fact that should be shared by all. Enter stage and film producer Jim Stern … a self-described political junkie.

Mr. Stern grew up in a house of “Kennedy Democrats” and all but worships former President Barack Obama. He opens his film with clips of past Presidents, dating back to Theodore Roosevelt, and states his purpose as a desire to understand how so many Americans could vote for Donald Trump. It’s an admirable mission, and Mr. Stern is to be commended as one of the few extremists (on either side) willing to listen to what the other side is saying. It’s 9 weeks after the election, and Stern is in the audience for Obama’s farewell speech. He (Stern) has tears in his eyes, as the man he so admires is being replaced by one who inspires little faith or respect.

We now flashback to 6 months prior to the election. Stern paraphrases Atticus Finch from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and pledges to try and understand the other side by getting to know their point of view. His road trip takes him from Florida to Cleveland to West Virginia to Arizona. Stern’s approach is to present himself as a neutral interviewer so that folks don’t get defensive, and instead just open up about their views. He speaks to a man who is a legal immigrant from Cuba, a Midwest Pastor who is every bit as adamant in his beliefs as Stern is in his own, a conservative radio talk show host in Arizona who eloquently states her case, and folks in West Virginia who just want the coal mines back up and running so that they might escape poverty. One of the men he speaks with is part of the infamous Hatfields and McCoys feud, and he admits to voting for Obama twice – but is now convinced Trump is the best hope for rescuing the state’s economy.

Stern uses the ongoing campaign as the structure for his road trip and story, and doesn’t shy away from admitting Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” speech was a turning point … as was the last minute renewing of the FBI investigation into her actions. But since we know all of that, what is most fascinating here is listening to regular folks … voters … providing insight into their viewpoints. These mid-America citizens are tired of politicians being bought and sold. Trump was saying what these people were thinking – he was reaching out to (mostly white) disaffected voters. Stern is stunned at the ovation Trump receives at the Republican convention in Cleveland. He is surrounded by tens of thousands of Americans who don’t believe what he believes. It’s a powerful moment for him and the film.

“They hate her (Hillary) and they hate Obama too.” Stern is hit with the harsh reality that his idol is not idolized by all. His most accurate statement is that blue state voters and red state voters simply do not understand each other. With so many of one group clustered in California and the northeast, while the others are spread across the middle of the country, it’s really no surprise that these citizens have different views and needs. It’s also not surprising that since the “mainstream media” is equally clustered in those two geographic areas, that information distributed is skewed towards those views and issues. Abortion and gay rights appear to be non-factors in his discussions, while jobs, corruption and illegal immigration are what matter.

Again, Mr. Stern is to be commended for letting these citizens speak their mind. It’s a nice contrast to another high profile documentarian renowned for editing to prove his own well-publicized views. Stern’s brother was a key negotiator in the Paris Accord, so he certainly has a personal stake in the drastic political change. In fact, we often see his true emotions despite his ability to remain impartial to those speaking on camera. Election night with violin music is a bit too much, but for the most part, Jim Stern and Atticus Finch work together here to enlighten the “other” side.

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HAL (2018, doc)

September 6, 2018

Oak Cliff Film Festival 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. There may never have been a director with a comparable streak of 6 films in terms of quality and variety as Hal Ashby delivered between 1971 and 1979. At least 4 of those films would be included on a list of my all-time favorites. Ashby was a maverick filmmaker during an era when filmmaking style and tone shifted, and he was at least partially responsible for some of that change. Amy Scott (fittingly trained as a film editor) chose to make Ashby the subject of her directorial debut, and we can only assume her admiration for his work and curiosity about his later career was her inspiration.

HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971), THE LAST DETAIL (1973), SHAMPOO (1975), BOUND FOR GLORY (1976), COMING HOME (Best director nomination, 1978), and BEING THERE (1979) are the films that comprise the aforementioned “streak”, and are also the projects that afforded Ashby the opportunity to work with such industry talents as writers Robert Towne, Jerzy Kosinski, and Waldo Salt; cinematographers Haskell Wexler, Michael Chapman, and Caleb Deschanel; and actors such as Ruth Gordon, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Lee Grant, Jon Voight, Jane Fonda, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, and Peter Sellers. All of these folks contributed to the edge in independent filmmaking that arose in the 70’s.

Director Scott works diligently to paint a full portrait of Ashby the man, so that we might better understand the odd career arc. A challenging early family life pushed him to grow up too fast, and with 5 marriages balanced by 5 divorces, it’s likely that Ashby was never destined to be a settled down family man. His drug addictions served to undermine what was already his difficult and demanding style on set, and his trademark look of long scraggily hair and unkempt beard ensured he was never mistaken for an industry insider.

Much of what we learn comes from the voice of Ashby himself, courtesy of audio tapes. Other insights and remembrances come from interviews with: Judd Apatow, Rosanna Arquette, Jeff Bridges, Beau Bridges, Lisa Cholodenko, Caleb Deschanel, Jane Fonda, Lou Gossett, Lee Grant, Dustin Hoffman, Alexander Payne, David O Russell, Cat Stevens, Jon Voight, and Haskell Wexler. We also hear from legendary director Norman Jewison, who gave Ashby his first job as film editor. Ashby later won an Oscar for Best Editor on Jewison’s IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967) … and the clip shown of him accepting the award highlights a man who barely resembles the man we would come to recognize over the next few years.

We learn that his ever-present battle with studio executives likely led to his not getting the opportunity to direct TOOTSIE, and more importantly to me, we get an explanation of what happened to Ashby’s 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE (1986) – a film I always thought was oh-so-close to being a great 80’s movie, but instead was a bit of a mess. And now we know why. There may not be a more revered and respected filmmaker and influencer of other filmmakers … certainly not one who is less discussed. Ashby’s BEING THERE ranks with the very best political satires of all-time (yes, even DR STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB), and few could juggle comedy and drama any better. Hal Ashby died from cancer in 1988 at age 59. Was it his uncompromising manner or was it the effects of drugs that brought his career to a halt, and prevented him from achieving the blockbuster status of his peers Coppola, Scorsese, and Spielberg? We’d like to think it’s the age old ‘art vs. commerce’ argument, but that simply doesn’t hold up. Regardless, for a few years, no one did it better than Hal Ashby, and he did it his way.

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DO YOU TRUST THIS COMPUTER? (2018, doc)

August 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. When asked if they believe a computer could ever be conscious, two young woman combine to respond: ‘No. Unless they program it that way’. And that answer is at the core of director Chris Paine’s (WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR?) latest exploration of Artificial Intelligence. Are we controlling the machines, or could they end up controlling us?

Early on, the point is made that science-fiction has numbed us to the potential pitfalls and risks of A.I. Fingers are pointed at some favorites such as TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, WARGAMES, EX MACHINA, THE MATRIX, and ROBOCOP. We have come to accept A.I. as high level entertainment rather than acknowledging the inroads being made by firms such as Google.

It is explained that Google search is actually a form of Artificial Intelligence and the algorithms are collecting more data than we have stopped to realize.  For a film like this, expert talking heads are a necessity, and director Paine delivers. We hear from AI experts, writers, journalists, and doctors. The lineup includes Jonathan Nolan, Elon Musk, and Stuart Russell, and each offers fundamental insight for the topic, leaving us with the notion that A.I. is capable of ‘incredible miracles, as well as incredible horrors’. We are also informed that “it’s not the future, it’s the present”.

Specific areas impacted by A.I. and explored here include: self-driving cars, medical applications, military weaponry, and financial market data. Weaponized drones are an example, and one surgeon provides a real life case study of how a computer would have an advantage over him. Time is spent on the “Jeopardy” experiment where IBM’s Watson (created by David Farucci) goes up against the top contestants and wins. Robotics are also a focus here, and the impact goes far beyond the loss of factory jobs.

Well known documentary writer Mark Monroe (ICARUS, FED UP, THE COVE) helps director Paine with the presentation structure since so many topics are touched upon. The electronic score is a bit overbearing at times, and we can’t help but question the motivation behind the film’s dedication, “In Memory of Stephen Hawking”. The film could be viewed as high tech fear-mongering, however, it’s more of a wake-up call to pay attention to the developments that are occurring (and how data is being collected and processed). The last thing we want is for the film’s opening quote to come true: “You are my creator, but I’m your master” (Mary Shelley from “Frankenstein”).

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THE COOLEST GUY MOVIE EVER (2018, doc)

August 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. As one who watches more than 200 movies each year, I absolutely understand how someone could be extraordinarily passionate about a particular film … even to the point of bordering on obsession. First time director Christophe Espenan clearly feels that way about THE GREAT ESCAPE. In fact, his sentiment is so strong for the film that he assembled a team and took off to Bavaria in order to re-trace the filming locations some 50 years after John Sturges and his all-star cast were there.

The documentary kicks off with the modern day team trekking through a heavily wooded area. We learn they are searching for the exact location of the movie’s prison camp. It was built on a studio backlot, and background research reveals that trees had to be cleared to construct the prison, and the promise was made to re-plant twice as many trees once production ended. In the five decades since, the trees have flourished into what could now be described as a forest … with no signs of the prison camp that was part of cinematic history. So what should have been a highlight of Mr. Espenan’s movie, turns into something akin to Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault.

Based on Paul Brickhill’s book, the iconic 1962 film starred Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, David McCallum, and Gordon Jackson. It surely belongs on any list of ‘cool guy’ movies, along with THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (released two years prior). Both films were directed by Mr. Sturges and feature terrific and memorable scores from the great Elmer Bernstein.

Archival footage of interviews from James Coburn and James Garner are included, as well as numerous photos and clips from the film itself. Mr. Espenan carries an album of screenshots from the film and does a nice job of matching up specific locations and scenes as he and the team walk through the towns. Local Hotel Alpina is featured as the place where much of the cast and crew stayed during filming, and the hotel staff fondly remembers when their paths crossed. Lawrence Montaigne serves as narrator, and since he also had a small part in the movie, his insight is appreciated … though he was better known for this frequent TV series appearances, before passing away in 2017.

A substantial portion of the film’s 55 minute run time is devoted to the motorcycle stunts of Steve McQueen. However, on the whole, the film does not feel stretched, but rather just a bit too lightweight for today’s documentary standards. It comes across as more of a tribute or fanboy whim than a “making of” or “behind-the-scenes” project delivering insight or detail. It did succeed in getting me to add THE GREAT ESCAPE near the top of my list for classic films to revisit … it’s one I’ve never reviewed, and definitely should.

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