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”.


THE 24 HOUR WAR (2016, doc)

December 8, 2016

24-hour-war Greetings again from the darkness. This is a war documentary, but it’s not about Vietnam or Afghanistan. Instead, it’s the story of the war of pride and ego between Henry Ford and Enzo Ferrari. Their war took place in garages, in factories and finally on the streets of Le Mans. This clash of race car giants took place in the early 1960’s at a time when drivers were truly risking their life every time they got behind the wheel.

Many of us have heard and read about Henry Ford’s failed attempt to buy Ferrari’s company, but this film from directors Nate Adams and Adam Carrolla goes much deeper. They even help us connect the dots between the personal rivalry and the development of the legendary Ford GT40.

One of the interesting aspects is the contrast and comparison between the two companies. Ford, and its seemingly endless resources, going up against the small Ferrari group that was barely making ends meet … and sometimes not even able to do that. But the real treasure here is the stream of interviews with those who were there. We hear from racing legends such as Bob Bondurant, Mario Andretti, Peter Brock and Dan Gurney. There is historical video footage of Carroll Shelby in the early days of the Cobra and Ford GT40, and additional perspective is provided by Henry Ford III and race historian Brian Laban.

Documenting the golden age of racing is an admirable undertaking, and the filmmakers have done a very nice job. There are some incredible clips of the early 24 Hours of Le Mans races, and special note is provided for the historical 1966 race when Ford finished 1-2-3. While that didn’t sit well with Enzo, it’s fascinating to realize just what an important role that racing played in the development of the passenger cars that we drive even today.

 

 


WHEN WAR COMES HOME (2016, doc)

December 3, 2016

when-war-comes-home Greetings again from the darkness. The tragedy of soldiers killed in action is a topic often discussed, and for good reason. Another product of war is less frequently discussed, and involves up to 20% of soldiers returning home from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Post-traumatic Stress (PTS) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) have a deep and often long-lasting effect on soldiers, their family and friends, and even the military officers who are responsible for the troops.

Filmmaker Michael King focuses on three soldiers and their efforts to readjust to life at home after war. Wes Carlile is a former US Army Chaplain’s assistant, Emmanuel Bernadin was a Naval Technician in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Spencer Milo was a Sergeant in the US Army. The heart-wrenching story of these three men and the challenges faced by them and their families are a key to what drives Four Star General Peter Chiarelli to seek better treatment for soldiers returning home.

Of course there are those who still claim PTSD doesn’t exist (these are usually folks who haven’t experienced war first hand), but the visits to Walter Reed Army Hospital, and the plethora of interviews conducted for the film, leave little doubt that better and more effective treatment is necessary if these returning heroes are to find a way to fit back in to post-battle life.

Some innovative therapies are discussed, and the important part is that General Chiarelli and others are making certain that the studies continue. The physical and psychological challenges are our responsibility as a society, being as it’s our society that sent them charging off to fight.

The film does an excellent job of providing real life proof of the devastating (and sometimes dangerous) impact to spouses and kids. Seeing mounds of prescription drugs does little to build confidence that we are closing in on the “right” treatment. Every soldier has issues to deal with when they return home … some are able to work through it, while others need help. Mr. King and General Chiarelli are doing their part to see that the best help is available.

 


14 MINUTES FROM EARTH (2016, doc)

November 23, 2016

14-minutes Greetings again from the darkness. The audience for this documentary is probably every after-school Science club, although most anyone with a sense of wonder will find it interesting enough. Four directors (Jerry Kobler, Adam “Tex” Davis, Trey Nelson, Erich Sturm) combine to present visual proof of a middle-aged Google executive reaching for the stars … or more accurately, pursuing his dream of free-falling from the stratosphere.

The film begins with an introductory and basic overview of the stratosphere being one of five layers to Earth’s atmosphere – and the most difficult to access and study. Tribute is paid to Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian skydiver, who in 2012 set the exit altitude record for his jump from the stratosphere. It’s at this point we are introduced to Alan Eustace, the Google executive who wishes to go higher/fall farther than Baumgartner

For the next couple of years, Eustace and his team of brainiacs discuss, draw, develop, calculate, re-calculate and test their many theories and concepts on how to bring the project to life. To paraphrase Matt Damon’s character in The Martian, they science and technology the sh## of out of this.

Developing a space suit, a specialized parachute, a balloon the size of a football stadium, and the necessary equipment to take Eustace up and get him back is actually a pretty fascinating project to follow … especially the errors and mistakes. The human element is never far away, and just to make sure we know that, Eustace’s wife makes a couple of appearances.

When you or I catch a flight from Chicago O’Hare to LAX, our plane’s altitude probably reaches about 35,000 feet. Imagine going up another 100,000 feet (almost 25 miles above Earth’s surface) and then being dropped with an experimental parachute … now you understand the Eustace dream.

As interesting as the details are, it’s unfortunate there isn’t more of a scientific discovery aspect to the project and the story. It’s mostly just some rich Google dude pursuing a hobby that you and I would never consider. As viewers, we are rewarded with some spectacular and rare photographic evidence of the mission, and a part of our atmosphere that we wouldn’t ordinarily see. One of the quotes about Eustace is his commitment to the Google way … “We believe in the impossible”. So it’s refreshing to know that in this day and age, there are still pioneers and risk-takers, and the technology exists to record it all.

 


PENCILS DOWN! THE 100 DAYS OF THE WRITERS GUILD STRIKE (2016, doc)

November 6, 2016

pencils-down Greetings again from the darkness. This documentary from director Brian S. Kalata (a successful Location Manager) details the 100 day strike of the Writers Guild of America, and more interestingly, provides a peek behind the curtain of the business side of the entertainment industry. It’s an industry that continually cries financial wolf, while green-lighting the construction of new theatres and producing ever-bigger budget projects. Though this documentary won’t clear up any of the voodoo economics (to borrow a phrase), it does shed some light on who the power players are and who are the ones typically drawing the short straw.

On November 9, 2007, 4000 picketers joined the rally outside the Fox Studios as the WGA strike began. Numerous interviews with industry insiders provide us a basic education on what makes the entertainment world unique when it comes to labor disputes. Here, the leading studios … competitors, mind you … bond together to go up against each of the separate unions (DGA, SAG, WGA, Teamsters, etc) at contract time. Historically, this has resulted in contracts that heavily favor and maintain the largest piece of the pie for the power studios – now run by major media conglomerates, rather than the hands-on studio heads of early Hollywood (Mayer, Warner, et al).

What made this particular strike more interesting was the strong support the WGA received from its members – both past and present, the acting community (SAG), and the viewing public, thanks to an online media blitz telling the story. At the heart of the negotiations was this (at the time) new and rapidly expanding digital media. The studios claimed they didn’t have a business model yet for streaming, iTunes, Netflix, etc, so this was all to be categorized as “home video”, which short-changed the writers from previous contracts.

Those being interviewed include Alan Rosenberg, Harlan Ellison, Howard Rodman and Patric Verrone … all key players in the strike and the vision for the WGA. Each is very forthright in the past shortcomings of contract negotiations, as well as how they felt this strike offered the first real opportunity for fairness.

Labor issues are commonplace in most industries, but the fascination here is derived from the creative artists going up against powerful corporate forces. Even with a show of solidarity between the various entertainment unions, the cause is severely impacted when the DGA cuts their own deal. The film acts as a primer on both entertainment economics and labor relations … two topics we rarely have much access to, though we only get the labor (writers) side of the story.

The film trudges through the different stages of the 100 days, and makes it clear that the WGA felt back-stabbed by the DGA at a time when the industry was in danger of having its most important event canceled … Oscar night. In the end, the writers got their “toe in the door” for digital media, but Julia-Louis Dreyfus said it best … “Without the writers, we are speechless.”