YOU ARE HERE: A COME FROM AWAY STORY (doc, 2019)

September 5, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. September 11, 2001 provided us examples of human nature at its worst, followed by human nature at its finest. Filmmaker Moze Mossenen begins with audio from the September 11 news reports playing over somber and beautiful shots of the Ground Zero memorial. We are immediately transported back to that fateful day, and the emotions come flowing back.

Rather than focus on the terrorists, Mr. Mossenen takes us to Gander, Newfoundland, a Canadian rock island on the far eastern shore of North America. A spectacular aerial view provides perspective for this remote village with a population of around 9000. Gander will forever be remembered as an example of human nature’s finest. On September 11, 2001, when United States air space was closed, Gander airport became a landing spot and parking spot for 38 passenger planes.

We hear from Beverly Bass, an American Airlines Captain who was directed to land at Gander. We also hear from Air Traffic Controllers, passengers, and local Gander citizens, including a local TV personality and Police Chief Oz Fudge and Mayor Claude Elliot. One of the teachers at Gander Academy relays what it was like that day. The locals shared in the worldwide shock from the terrorist acts. They feared for their own safety as the breadth of the terror plan was unknown. They watched in wonder as plane after plane landed at their small airport. And finally, they kicked into gear realizing there were thousands of passengers on the planes … each of whom were hungry, tired and frightened.

The “come from away” folks – Gander’s terms for anyone from somewhere else – numbered 6700, nearly doubling the town’s population. It took approximately 24 hours before the passengers could be taken from the planes, and in one of dozens of fascinating elements, we learn school buses are used for transport since the town only had 15 taxis. The local bus drivers were on strike, but all agreed to volunteer to drive the passengers to the churches, schools, and organizations providing shelter.

Mossenen does end up showing the footage of the planes hitting the towers, but it’s important to know that this is a film of personal stories … people doing extraordinarily kind things for those they don’t know. The spirit of Gander was something to behold. Religious and cultural differences were overcome and hospitality was the norm. It’s stunning to see the United States radar with zero planes in the air, but it’s life-affirming to see folks serving those in need, expecting nothing in return.

The film excels while Gander citizens and the air passengers recollect those few days, but it loses a bit of steam towards the end. On the 10th anniversary of September 11, Irene Sackoff and David Heim began interviewing folks and collecting stories in order to write a musical of the events. And they succeeded. Yes, “Come From Away” became a Broadway hit, and the film shows those from Gander who made the trip to NYC to see the show. This is one time where the lights of Broadway pale in comparison to ‘101 ways to cook goulash’. The willingness to do what needed to be done is the inspirational message delivered by Gander. Neighborly love and generosity in the aftermath of tragedy turned this into a beautiful story … the best of humanity. Moose stew anyone?

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SUPER SIZE ME 2: HOLY CHICKEN! (doc, 2019)

September 5, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. What we expect in a documentary is a presentation of the topic in a manner slightly slanted towards the filmmaker’s beliefs. What we hope for in a documentary is to learn something new or to be exposed to a different way of looking at a subject. We don’t typically expect a great many laughs or even a film with significant entertainment value. For those who recall Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 Oscar nominated SUPER SIZE ME, you likely won’t be surprised that his latest is heavy on humor and entertainment, and a bit light on education. Still, his formula works – and we allow ourselves to be dragged along.

Spurlock kicks the film off by announcing that he wants to open his own fast food restaurant. He proceeds to confer with some celebrity chefs, a marketing firm, and a business strategist. Capitalizing on his success as a documentary filmmaker is a key element to the strategy, and of course, his mission is to once again expose the fast food industry for perpetuating myths of healthier fast food options.

He legitimately asks, “Have things gotten better?” We are meant to interpret this as … have things gotten better since 2004 when Spurlock documented his self-imposed all-McDonalds food every meal for an entire month. It’s at this point where the research kicks in. Facts and statistics are discussed. We learn that 44% of us eat fast food regularly, and that chicken overtook beef a couple of years ago as the protein of choice. We first assume this must be due to consumers making the “healthier” choice, but then we are informed that fried chicken outsells grilled chicken – and the gap is widening.

The most interesting segment of the movie occurs as the buzzwords and their meanings are discussed. Having “nutrition” broken down from a marketing perspective truly exposes the outright fraud being perpetrated on the public. “Health Halo” is the moniker applied to descriptions like “fresh”, “all-natural”, and “no added hormones”. Even “crispy” is used in place of the more accurate “fried”, which is obviously a word no consumer would associate with healthy food. Spurlock is in his element when providing a startling visual for what qualifies as “free range” according to the FDA.

‘Big Chicken’ is compared to ‘Big Oil’, as 5 corporations control 99% of the chicken farming industry: Tyson, Perdue, Pilgrims, Koch Foods, and Sanderson Farms. We get an explanation of how these corporations apply enormous pressure on the farmers, keeping them in a constant state of debt – or worse for farmer Jonathan Buttram who has been blackballed for helping Spurlock make this movie. Spurlock bounces from Columbus, Ohio to Boulder, Colorado to Tennessee to Kentucky to Washington, D.C, to Alabama; and from Chick-Fil-A to Wendy’s to 7-11 to Popeye’s, and even to McDonalds – Spurlock’s first visit in 12 years to the establishment that put him on the movie map.

Very little new information is provided here, but Spurlock does what he does best – entertain with examples of extremes. While his “fried grilled” chicken sandwich is a publicity stunt, the real story is how menus and labels are used to manipulate the consumer, many who don’t seem to much care.

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RAISE HELL: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MOLLY IVINS (doc, 2019)

August 29, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. We can’t help but be drawn to that rare breed who possess a perfect blend of intelligence, humor, wit, and communication skills (whether written or oral). These people tend to make us laugh while they educate us and motivate us to think. Documentarian Janice Engel delivers a fascinating look at a fascinating woman, Molly Ivins.

With a subject like Molly Ivins, there is no question the time spent watching this will be entertaining; however, Ms. Engel doesn’t miss an opportunity to dig a little deeper. Of course we see many archival clips of Molly delivering her own expertly chosen words – typically at the expense of some conservative politician, and we also are treated to personal insights from her siblings, as well as a couple of childhood/lifelong friends.

A traditional timeline is used for this anything-but-traditional woman. She stood 6 feet tall at age 12, and even as an adult she was a physically imposing presence in an occupation where women were still battling for acceptance. Her dad was a right-winger and she was a 3rd generation Smith College graduate, yet Molly remained an independent and (very) critical thinker … delighting in exposing political corruption and incompetence. Her favorite punchlines typically skewered Texas politics and Texas politicians. A Master’s degree from Columbia finalized her educational pedigree, but it was her colorful writing style that elevated her observations to a level of brilliance.

Molly Ivins once described the idea of objective reporting as “horse pucky”. It’s this type of honesty and straight talk that set her apart from so many reporters – both in her day, and even more so today. She knew and admitted that her own political views affected what she wrote, yet readers from both sides lapped up anything she committed to the page. That’s not to say she didn’t ruffle feathers. In fact, her feather-ruffling was world class. During her career, she held newspaper gigs in Minnesota, Austin, New York, Denver, and Dallas … including The New York Times and The Texas Observer. Her column peaked when she was syndicated in more than 400 papers nationally. Molly Ivins was a big deal.

Others interviewed include Rachel Maddow, Dan Rather, Paul Krugman, and Ann Richards’ daughter Cecile. Everyone loves to talk about a woman who brings a 6-pack of beer to a job interview, and referred to herself as the “resident communist”. She admitted to being an alcoholic, and to being lonely at times; but the one thing she never did was sacrifice the work for personal gain. She wrote best-selling books, was a fabulous public speaker, appeared on TV and radio talk shows, and of course, spread her words on the page.

Molly Ivins was a wizard of words. She had much to say and many of us paid attention – whether we agreed or not. Her exceptionally strong and aggressive attacks on George W Bush might be what she is best remembered for, but “gang-pluck” may be a close second. Mostly we admire the tenacity and wit and genius that was the one and only Molly Ivins.

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AQUARELA (doc, 2019)

August 29, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is not your father’s Nature documentary. It’s more like Mother Nature giving us a glimpse at her most beautiful, peaceful, ferocious and terrifying self. And it’s just water. Simple H2O. Only it’s not so simple. In fact, water takes many forms, and Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky serves up some stunning water photography from around the globe.

The film begins with a rescue team working frantically to pull out a car that has fallen through the ice. When the camera finally does pull back, we see the vast space of the lake covered in ice. Other cars speed across the frozen body of water as if it’s a sport or thrill for the driver. When another mishap occurs, we realize the tragedy is blamed on ice that has melted “3 weeks” earlier than usual. So we brace ourselves for another lecture on climate change.

It’s a lecture that never comes. Surprisingly, there is no narrator. Perhaps Morgan Freeman signed a non-compete with the penguins. Kossakovsky allows the camera and nature to show the story, albeit with periodic musical accompaniment from composer Eicca Toppinen – sometimes with heavy metal chords, sometimes with soothing strings. Filmed in Greenland, Venezuela, Siberia (Lake Baikal), and Miami, Florida, where we see the effect of Hurricane Irma, water is shown in its glory. At times peaceful, at times violent. A sailboat captain fighting a storm might be followed by a breath-taking waterfall, which might be followed by a flooded town … and even a swimming horse is photographed underwater.

Waves, glaciers, whales and dolphins combine for an unusual cinematic experience, and the most staggering sound comes courtesy of the ice moaning and water running. It’s one best enjoyed with theatre screen and sound, and a film that will likely lose something even on the finest home systems.  Filmed at 94 frames per second (rather than industry norm of 24 or 48), the visuals are truly breathtaking … and sometimes disorienting. As George (on “Seinfeld”) once said, “The sea was angry that day, my friend”; and now we have witnessed the anger for ourselves.

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AMERICAN FACTORY (doc, 2019)

August 22, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. In December 2008, General Motors shut down their truck plant in Dayton, Ohio, putting approximately 2000 employees out of work. Six years later, Chairman Cao Dewang, the founder of Fuyao Glass, invested millions to turn the shell of the plant into a retro-fitted factory and the first U.S. operation for his company – a company he claims owns 70% of the auto glass market. In doing so, the factory hired approximately 1000 locals, many of whom had not had consistent work since the GM plant closed years prior.

Co-directors Steven Bognar and Julie Reichert share an Oscar nomination (she has 3 total) for their 2009 documentary short, THE LAST TRUCK: CLOSING OF A GM PLANT. This time out, they have impressive access to a remarkable situation: a successful Chinese company opening a factory in the United States, and attempting to merge two distinctly different cultures. We hear much these days about globalization, and by the end of the film, you’ll likely be re-defining the word.

This unique business model came with good intentions on both sides. The differences that start out as kind of funny and well-intentioned turn into hurdles that are nearly impossible to manage. Fuyao ships many workers from China to Dayton for the training of U.S. workers. These ‘temporary’ transplants must spend two years away from their family as they try to make sense of an unfamiliar land far different from home. Workshops are held for the Chinese workers as they are lectured on what makes Americans different … they don’t work as hard, they don’t dress well, they talk too much on the job, they won’t work overtime, etc. The Chinese blatantly state that they are superior to American workers – a point that’s difficult to argue against when it comes to dedication, quality, and efficiency. We soon learn there is more to the picture.

U.S. labor and safety laws exist for a reason, and the Chinese company neither understands these, nor is very willing to abide by them. Additionally, since this is the ‘rust belt’, the shadow of unionization hovers from day one. While China’s Workers’ Union functions in sync with companies, U.S. labor unions are regularly in conflict with companies here. When the U.S. supervisors make a training and observation trip to China to see the Fuyao factory, the differences become even more obvious. The mostly overweight Americans show up casual – one even in a JAWS t-shirt – while the lean and fit Chinese are all in fine suits and ties. Morning shift routines are also contrasted to point out the gaps in discipline and attention to details.

What the filmmakers do best is allow us to see both sides of the issue. Surely the right thing to do is obvious when it comes to safety, and when Chairman Cao says the real purpose in life is one’s work, well, we realize these two cultures are farther apart than the 7000 miles that separate them. It’s a fair look at both sides, but for those who say U.S. companies are too focused on profit, they’ll likely be surprised to learn that Chinese factory workers typically get 1 or 2 days off from work each month!  As one of the dismissed American managers states, you can’t spell Fuyao with “fu”. The film seems to present a debate with lines drawn via citizenship and culture, and the contrast might be more relevant today than ever before.

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ZZ TOP: THAT LITTLE OL’ BAND FROM TEXAS (2019, doc)

August 14, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The opening credits are still rolling when we hear the very familiar chords and vocal growls that kick off ZZ Top’s mega-hit “La Grange”. Director and music documentarian Sam Dunn delivers quite a celebratory tribute to this ‘little ol’ band’, and it’s likely that even their biggest fans will learn something new.

We first see the three band members as they drive a classic convertible right up to the front door of the historic Gruene Hall. Their subsequent jam session inside the rustic dance hall acts as a framing device throughout the film – proving they’ve still got “it”. Director Dunn introduces us to each band member separately in the beginning. Dusty Hill walks us through his man-cave and explains his appreciation of Elvis both today and as a kid growing up in Dallas, and recalls playing with his brother’s band The Warlocks. Frank Beard reminisces about playing regular gigs in Ft Worth and meeting up with Dusty first, and later with Billy. Billy Gibbons takes us through his early years in Houston, having some success with his band Moving Sidewalks, and opening for the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

The film moves takes a traditional timeline approach, but there is really nothing conventional about this band. Superfan Billy Bob Thornton describes ZZ Top as “unique and eccentric”, and other admiring interviews include Steve Miller and Josh Homme. Discussed throughout is the “mystique” of the band, which apparently stems from their spurning of Los Angeles and New York, while choosing instead to blend Texas with Nashville. In the early days, many critics and music executives tried to label them a blues band, but Mr. Gibbons said it best when he stated they were “interpreters of the blues.”

Director Dunn utilizes some animated sequences to fill in bits of the historical timeline, and that technique proves quite fitting when the band’s music videos for MTV are described as presenting the band members as ‘cartoon’ characters surrounded by cool cars and beautiful girls. The influences of their manager Bill Hamm, and video director Tim Newman are noted, which goes to the underlying theme here. These 3 guys, despite incredible career success, remain quite grounded and humble.

It’s been more than 40 years since I first saw ZZ Top in concert, yet I learned more about the band and these men during this film than over all these years. The origin of the band name and their commitment to experimenting with music and sound and stage shows are all details that stand out. It’s said, “No one else looked like them. No one else sounded like them.” The iconic beards were originally grown as disguises, but soon became trademarks … although, ironically, drummer Frank Beard is the one without a beard! ZZ Top has played halftime of a Super Bowl and been inducted to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, but having these guys tell their own stories confirms they realize how fortunate they are to have played with guys they want to play with for so long (they are the longest surviving rock lineup) … this little ol’ band has “legs”.

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MANSON: MUSIC FROM AN UNSOUND MIND (2019, doc)

August 14, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 50 years since the horrific and tragic Tate-LaBianca murders, and that has caused a renewed fascination with that era in general, and the Manson family specifically. History has rightly labeled Charles Manson as a monster and a madman and a demented cult leader, but it’s even more frightening to think of him as a human being … and that’s exactly what music documentarian Tom O’Dell does with his latest.

O’Dell examines Manson’s dream of becoming a rock star. If you’ve read anything about Manson, you are likely aware of his interest in music and quasi-affiliation with Dennis Wilson, Terry Melcher and other movers and shakers in the 1960’s music industry. But O’Dell digs deeper. We learn more of Manson’s childhood and early exposure to music. We learn of his dreams to become a songwriter and musician, and how many recognized his raw talent. And most amazingly, we hear clips from Manson’s actual recordings at Gold Star Recording Studio in 1967 … including the quite unique “Garbage Dump”.

O’Dell follows Manson’s journey after his release from prison. Attracted to communal nature and music scene, Manson made his way to Northern California. The Haight/Ashbury scene made famous by The Grateful Dead appealed to him very much, and it’s here where his charisma drew his first followers. Soon Manson and his followers headed to Southern California where the music scene was even more dynamic and offered even greater opportunity. He fell in with Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys, and Wilson’s musical partner Gregg Jakobson provides some insight into what it was like to have Manson around.

Others interviewed include Rolling Stone magazine writers Anthony DeCurtis and David Felton, Dennis Wilson biographer Jon Stebbins, Manson biographer Simon Wells, and former ‘family’ member Dianne Lake. Ms. Lake was 14 years old at the time she was swept up by the family, and her recollections are quite chilling … though fortunately for her, she left before the murders took place. It’s through these interviews where we fully understand Manson’s broken dreams, his magnetism, and his delusional state.

After being rejected by Terry Melcher (son of Doris Day), the highly successful music producer of The Beach Boys, The Byrds, and Paul Revere and the Raiders, Manson seemed to slip from reality, which fully formed the historical figure of which we are most familiar. It’s quite interesting to note the effects on Dennis Wilson. The Beach Boys’ drummer had fully supported Manson as a songwriter – taking the song “Cease to Exist” and changing the title to “Never Learn to Love” and adjusting the lyrics so the group could record it as a “B” side. Manson was paid for his original song, but this connection likely pushed Wilson over the edge after the murders.

The influence of The Beatles White Album and “Helter Skelter” (a song about a fair ride) are discussed, and we hear stories from sound engineer Stephen Desper and Manson’s fellow ex-con Phil Kaufman about the recording and release of “Lie”, Manson’s only album. The story is filled with the best and worst of ‘Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n Roll, Violence, and a Race War”. We leave with a better understanding of how a rejected Manson corrupted a community built on love and peace. It doesn’t soften the blow of the tragedy, but it does help explain. O’Dell’s film works for those who ‘know all about it’ and those who are interested in learning more.

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