THE FIGHT (2020, doc)

July 30, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The American Civil Liberties Union has been around since 1920. That’s 100 years of striving to be the stewards of our nation’s liberties. Eli B Despres, Josh Kriegman, and Elyse Steinberg are the three credited directors who bring us a behind-the-curtain look at the dedicated and hard-working ACLU attorneys in the New York office.

The film picks up on January 27, 2017, just seven days after President Trump’s inauguration and subsequent immigration order, also known as the “Muslim ban.” We are shown a sea of volunteer attorneys set up to assist affected immigrants – especially those seeking asylum. The basic premise of the movie is to provide a glimpse of the challenges faced by the ACLU against the Trump administration.

Since there have been approximately 140 lawsuits filed since this President took office, the filmmakers wisely focus on four specific cases, along with the assigned attorneys:  Garza v Hargan, which involves the right to an abortion for an immigrant minor; Stone v Trump, the administrations military ban of transgenders; Department of Commerce v New York, dealing with the “citizenship” question proposed for the U.S. census; and Ms. L vs ICE, a family separation case tied to a child taken from her mother at the border.

The cases are presented in an easy-to-follow manner, and we get to know each of the attorneys and their individual challenges, both with their specific case and their own personal or family life. Each of the attorneys provide their unique “tour” of the ACLU offices, and we quickly understand how they are focused on their own specialties, rather than the organization as a whole. One of them remarks that there are more tattoos and piercings present than at the DOJ, which underscores not just the age difference, but also the attitudes of these crusaders.

A very brief history of the ACLU informs us that their mission dictates they support civil rights for all, which means not just the 1967 interracial marriage of Richard and Mildred Loving, but also the Charlottesville Rally which resulted in the death of Heather Heyer. In keeping with protecting ‘everyone’s rights’, the organization has even defended the rights of Nazis. Still, it’s obvious where the organization stands when Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination for the Supreme Court is discussed … the attorneys admit it will make their jobs that much more difficult.

Despite attorney Lee Gelernt’s middle-age struggles with technology (somehow the dude can’t keep his cell phone charged), the dedication and commitment of these folks is on full display (they even celebrate with “train wine”). Court cases, by definition, have two sides, and since we aren’t allowed in the actual courtroom to witness the cases being presented, this film focuses on one side. Because of that, it often plays like a fundraising or recruiting video for the ACLU. Still, the behind-the-scenes view of what these attorneys go through to fight for liberty is fascinating and worthwhile.

Magnolia Pictures and Topic Studios will release the film VOD on July 31, 2020

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GORDON LIGHTFOOT: IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND (2020, doc)

July 29, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. We realize very quickly that octogenarian Gordon Lightfoot isn’t about to cater to co-documentarians Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni, or establish a new reputation as being a sweetheart at this stage of life. Instead he is filmed with his third wife Kim, watching clips of young Gord singing “(That’s What You Get) For Loving Me”. Despite his singing it with Johnny Cash, or having the song covered by Peter, Paul and Mary, Waylon Jennings, and many others, Lightfoot cringes and says. “I hate that song.” That’s what we get here – a man who speaks directly about his regrets, yet one who is appreciative of his life.

Lightfoot is thought of as Canadian Royalty, and is often referred to as the best ever Canadian singer-songwriter. He certainly played a key role in the popularity of folk music in the 1960’s, and we hear about his influence from many important Canadian musicians, including: Geddy Lee, Sarah MacLachlan, Tom Cochrane, Ronnie Hawkins, Burton Cummings and Anne Murray. For some inexplicable reason, the filmmakers include an interview with actor Alec Baldwin, who is neither Canadian, nor a musician – though at least he does seem to be a fan of Gordon Lightfoot.

The profile skips over much of his personal life to focus on the music. In fact, initially it seems like Gord is going to walk us through his songbook, one by one. With “Early Morning Rain”, we learn it was not only a hit for Lightfoot, but covered by others such as Judy Collins, Elvis Presley, Neil Young, and even Ian and Sylvia (a successful Canadian folk duo). It’s also at this point when Burton Cummings explains that it was Lightfoot’s songs that inspired The Guess Who to write their own songs. We also see a clip of a young Lightfoot being interviewed by an even younger DJ named Alex Trebek!

Anne Murray and Sarah MacLachlan discuss “Song for a Winter’s Night”, and Lightfoot explains how he isolates to write songs …and he “waters” his guitars (something that makes more sense seeing than reading). Gordon tells the story of how he quit a promising career in banking to take a chance on performing, and he relates how growing up in the country helped him when he moved to the city. He also tells the fascinating “behind the scenes” story of how the record company changed the name of his first album after “If You Could Read My Mind” became a hit on the radio. By the way, that song has been recorded by a slew of artists – so many that the filmmakers offer up a slide show to make the point.

Photographs give us a taste of some of Lightfoot’s infamous parties attended by various celebrities. It was this partying lifestyle that led to drugs and alcohol abuse, as well as his weight gain. Lightfoot talks about his 3 year affair/relationship with Cathy Evelyn Smith, a name you might recognize as the woman who injected John Belushi with the lethal “speedball” that killed him. It was his severe jealousy over Ms. Smith that led Lightfoot to write his biggest U.S. hit “Sundown.” There is also an entire segment on Bob Dylan, and how much respect each of the songwriters had/have for each other.

Yet another “behind-the-scenes” moment occurs when one of Lightfoot’s band members recollects the time they recorded “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” They had never even rehearsed the song, and yet it was the first take in the studio that ended up being the hit version. Also included is a segment where Lightfoot reminisces about his childhood in Orillia, and we get a brief clip of his mom and dad. Even more shocking is the included recording of Lightfoot as a kid, singing with the church choir. The high pitched soprano voice bears little resemblance to the soothing tones of an older Gordon.

As a poet-singer-songwriter, few have been better or had more success than Gordon Lightfoot. The film skims over much of his personal life and his severe health issue in 2002, but focusing on the music is what his fans want – and it’s a treasure trove of early performances, clips, and photographs. He’s now 81 years old, and the filmmakers don’t shy away from contrasting his singing voice on “If You Could Read My Mind” with  a ‘then and now’ edit. Lightfoot admits to regrets, and also states “I appreciate having been alive.” Still sporting that renowned attitude, he undoubtedly enjoys hearing Diana Krall and Sara MacLachlan open the film with the titular song. A Canadian national hero indeed. As a bonus, we southerners finally learn the meaning of “Gitche Gumee.”

Opening in Virtual Cinemas July 29, 2020

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KAYE BALLARD: THE SHOW GOES ON (2020, doc)

July 13, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. I feel obligated to disclose that while growing up, I was never much of a Kaye Ballard fan. It seemed she was mostly seen on game shows (“Hollywood Squares”) and her many appearances on Talk Shows and Variety Shows. Her loud and boisterous humor was a bit outside the nuanced observational humor I preferred. Now, after seeing Dan Wingate’s documentary, I have tremendous admiration and respect for this multi-faceted performer whose showbiz career spanned more than 70 years.

One of the first clips we see is Kaye Ballard performing in front of a live audience (where she was always most comfortable) and she says, “I wish I was 90 again.” It’s a great line that not many comedians get to use. Ms. Ballard died in 2019 at age 93, and she never stopped performing. Director Wingate’s opening credits are in “old school” style, replete with flashing neon lights and big band/orchestral music. It’s the perfect choice for the profile of a performer who evolved as the business changed.

We listen as she recollects the start of her career, and then systematically walks and talks us through the next 70 plus years. She was only 16 years old when she joined Spike Jones’ band, and she admits performing is what she always wanted to do. Wingate includes comments and clips from an incredibly diverse group of entertainers – ranging from Liz Smith to Perry Como to Henry Mancini to Bette Davis to Carol Burnett to Ann-Margret to Woody Allen (and many more). Composer-Singer Michael Feinstein has a few appearances throughout the film, providing some structure, but interviews with Ms. Ballard keep her on screen much of the time.

It’s clear she always thought her best work was from her time in nightclubs, and though she never stopped those performances, her career shifted to live theater and then to TV. Her best-known TV role was co-starring with Eve Arden in “The Mothers-In-Law” series from 1967-69 (re-runs available on Amazon Prime), and then later had a recurring role in “The Doris Day Show.” Ms. Ballard was a vibrant performer and an extremely talented singer.

She jokes about being typecast as a “screaming Italian”, but hearing her talk about her friendships, including Marlon Brando, Carol Channing, and the recently deceased Jerry Stiller, makes it clear she established many personal connections over the years, and was always quick to help out another performer. She even speaks to a couple of exceptions, including Phil Silvers. And who would have guessed she crossed paths with Andy Warhol, while also performing for President Ronald Reagan at The White House? This is a woman who is very grateful and appreciative of the career and friends she made, and I walked away feeling educated, and maybe even guilty for undervaluing her talent. Kaye Ballard was much more than an “X” or “O” on “Hollywood Squares” … she was an incredibly talented and generous woman who lived her dreams.

Viewing details available at KayeBallardMovie.com

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OLYMPIA (2020, doc)

July 10, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. She is now in the 7th decade of her acting career. She was married to one man for 55 years. She recently turned 89 and is still working regularly. Olympia Dukakis is a marvel to behold. Strong-minded, direct-speaking, charismatic, talented and long-lasting, she makes a fascinating subject for director Harry Mavromichalis in his first feature-length documentary.

An early segment features Ed Asner presenting her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Soon after she admits that “it doesn’t mean anything” to her, but her Academy Award did. She won the Best Supporting Actress for her role as Cher’s mother in MOONSTRUCK (1987), and we later see her at the ceremony as her elderly mother is captured watching it unfold on TV. This moment matters because we have already heard Olympia discuss her challenging times growing up with her mother (she claims to have channeled her own mother for the role).

Much of this documentary was filmed years ago. We are there on her 80th birthday and her 49th wedding anniversary. Clips are included from some of her theater work, as well as movies. Playing a transgender character in PBS’ “Tales of the City” (1993) made her a gay icon, and we see her as Grand Marshal of the Gay Pride parade in San Francisco. This is especially timely today given that Halle Berry just announced she was stepping down from a transgender role … due to the pressure brought on by her not being transgender.

Olympia is very forthcoming in discussing her approach to life, and life itself. She discloses the initial doubts she had regarding a woman’s place in Greek history, before bucking up and proclaiming “it’s not me that’s less.” When she felt the theater world considered her “too ethnic”, in 1973 she founded The Whole Theater in Montclair, New Jersey. She refused to let the world place limits on what she could do. She offers up many personal memories such as her time fencing at Boston University – stories that provide clear examples of her personality and makeup.

As I watched the film, my thought was that it meandered a bit too much. Upon reflection, it makes complete sense, as that’s the manner in which she lives and works and thinks. We see clips as she converses with her cousin Michael Dukakis, the former Governor of Massachusetts, during his candidacy for President. The film bounces around with stops in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Cypress. Toronto was for a Norman Jewison retrospective (including MOONSTRUCK), and while in Cypress we walk the aisles of a grocery store with her (very weird).

Insight is offered from fellow actors such as Laura Linney, Austin Pendleton, Lainie Kazan, and Whoopi Goldberg, but it’s really the bits and pieces we get regarding her long-term marriage to actor Louis Zorich that are most meaningful. The couple discuss why their marriage and partnership has worked, and how friendship is the key. Louis passed away in 2018, and Olympia continues to act and teach acting classes. We even get a peek behind the curtain when we watch her work through/find a character in rehearsal. Seemingly tacked on towards the end are clips from a trip to her mother’s village in Greece with her daughter and grandkids. It’s a chance to see her interact with local women, and does provide a stark contrast to what Olympia has done with her life. She claims that she can “remember plays and theaters”; however, “it’s people” she doesn’t remember. She can be certain that the people will remember her.

Virtual cinema release on July 10, 2020 via https://www.abcinemanow.com/

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ALL HAIL THE POPCORN KING (2020, doc)

July 10, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. For anyone who has ever tried to write a story, you know how difficult it can be. Generating an idea, building characters, and establishing a tone are challenging enough; but discovering the perfect ending is nearly impossible. So no matter how many times you tried, and how frustrating you found it, imagine the world of Joe R Lansdale. He papered his walls with more than 1000 rejection letters, but now (at age 68) has written more than 50 novels and more than 500 short stories.

As if the sheer volume of volumes wasn’t enough, Mr. Lansdale has written in just about every genre you can name: horror, western, science fiction, mystery, and suspense. He’s had success in comic books and graphic novels, and some of his work has been adapted to film and TV series, including cult favorite BUBBA HO-TEP (2005), COLD IN JULY (2014), and the TV crime series “Hap and Leonard.”

Filmmaker Hansi Oppenheimer aims the camera at her garrulous subject and lets him go. Mr. Lansdale loves talking about writing, and it’s clear that he was born to write. He and his wife Karen live in Nacogdoches, Texas which isn’t too far from Gladewater – where Joe was raised, and where he revisits for this film. His East Texas roots seem to have kept him grounded, as there isn’t an ounce of condescending tone in any of the stories he tells or memories he recalls. At least a dozen writers are interviewed here, along with musicians (guitarist Vince White), a book editor, actors (Bruce Campbell, James Purefoy), and directors (Don Coscarelli, Mick Garris).

We hear Joe described as “a genre unto himself”, “a no BS guy”, and “the most well-known unknown author.” Joe talks about the time he was chosen to finish an Edgar Rice Burroughs story that had been left unfinished when the Tarzan writer passed away. He also reminisces about how pulp fiction led to the radio programs of his youth and then evolved into the early TV series he watched. And it’s fascinating to hear about the crazy dreams he had after chowing down on Karen’s greasy (lard-coated) popcorn at movie time … and how those dreams led to many of the stories he wrote.

Ms. Oppenheimer includes many photographs throughout and the use of terrific retro graphics adds a dash of art to the look of the film. Mr. Lansdale owns his own martial arts studio where he still teaches Shen Chuan, and we get a clip of him in action. He claims “The Drive-In” (series) was his most imaginative work, and that’s really saying something coming from the writer who had old Elvis team up with black JFK to battle an Egyptian mummy in a senior citizen home. Surely that will provide a unique epitaph when the time comes. Until then, expect a lot more words to find the Lansdale page.

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INMATE #1: THE RISE OF DANNY TREJO (2020, doc)

July 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s easy and convenient to lump folks into the old adage “people don’t change”, because not changing is the easiest way. However, we’d be hard pressed to find someone who fits the “turned over a new leaf” description better than Danny Trejo. He has certainly made the best of his second chance … and he knows it. What makes his story inspirational is his willingness, no make that determination, to share his own story in hopes that he can help others.

Director Brett Harvey surprises us in a couple of ways with this documentary. First, he spends the first two-thirds on Trejo’s background, with barely a mention of movies. Second, he recognizes the gold to mine here is derived from Trejo himself, and he allows the man to talk and show us what he’s all about. Sure, we get bits of insight from Trejo’s neighborhood friends, his acting peers, and his own kids and sister, but no one can tell Trejo’s story better than Trejo. In fact, director Harvey bookends the film with Trejo talking to convicts, and beginning with “my number was B-948.”

While cruising around town in his 1956 Chevy Bel Air, Trejo points out “Richie Valens Junior High”, which is actually Pacoima Middle School. It’s fascinating that he still lives in the same area in which he was raised, especially after we hear him recall his childhood. As a kid, his hero was Uncle Gilbert – the cool guy who had money, cars, and girls. Trejo stuck like glue to Gilbert, who turned the boy onto weed at age 8 and heroin at age 12, and then transitioned him to armed robbery (including a live grenade!). It was four bags of sugar sold to an undercover cop that sent Trejo to San Quentin.

Trejo is very direct as he discusses his time in prison and what occurred to push him towards getting his life in order. He mentions it’s not about reform, but about keeping a promise. He talks about the ‘predator or prey’ aspect of prison and recalls some of the best advice he received: remaining on the path of drugs-alcohol-crime can only lead to death-insanity-jail. He absolutely believes these words and works this in to his motivational speeches to this day.

He stumbled backwards into an acting career, simply by visiting a friend on the set of RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985). His look and that tattoo were instrumental to his acting gigs, and that’s where the title of the documentary comes from – he was cast as “Inmate #1” in the early days. Of course, things really exploded for him after his second cousin, director Robert Rodriguez, cast him as the silent assassin in DESPERADO (1995), and then again when Trejo got the lead in the tongue-in-cheek MACHETE (2010) which spawned from a fake trailer in the Rodriguez-Tarantino blend GRINDHOUSE (2007).

One of those interviewed states, “They make movies about guys like him”, and by the time the documentary ends, we simply with there were more people like Danny Trejo in society. It’s rare that we find such respect for an actor after getting to know what they are like “in real life.” He may joke about learning acting at the San Quentin School of Dramatics, but he spends most of his time doing good for others. His infectious laugh and upbeat demeanor are traits of a man who appreciates his second chance in life. Just keep in mind, “Machete don’t text.”

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I, PASTAFARI: A FLYING SPAGHETTI MONSTER STORY (2020, doc)

July 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. You are to be excused for not taking seriously any person, club, organization, or religion that chooses to be identified by wearing colanders (pasta strainers) on their head. After all, many municipalities and courts of law would and have agreed with you. Still, writer-director Michael Arthur takes a direct approach in presenting the Pastafarians, and many will be on board with some of the points made.

Bobby Henderson founded the “ancient but forgotten religion” in 2005 to oppose the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in schools, and claimed Pastafarianism as a real religion, “as much as any other.” The intent was to keep religion out of government-financed schools. While many will agree with the philosophy, it is difficult to gain credibility when one’s deity is an invisible ‘flying spaghetti monster’ and your leader defends the religion as legitimate by showing up in court wearing a colander on his head.

Mr. Arthur takes us through The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Russia, and Costa Rica as he explores the followers and the factions. We meet Bruder Spaghettus, who claims humans and Pastafarianism are descended from pirates, and he attributes the increase in global warming to a decrease in the number of pirates. Many religions have had “splits”, and this one is no different in that regard. What is different here is that Bruder’s Pastafari followers wear pirate garb instead of colanders. Only you can decide if that’s an improvement. Is this a real religion, a fake religion or a parody of religion? Director Arthur interviews followers, as well as academic scholars in search of the truth.

Reading between the lines, it appears likely that the religion was started as a lark, but has evolved into a somewhat loose organization with a philosophy of opposition to “traditional” religions being given more power, respect, advantages, and influence than should be the case. There is no real evidence to support claims that Pastafari (a play on words from Rastafari, the Jamaican Abrahamic religion) is the ‘fastest growing religion’ or has ‘millions of believers.’ Is it possible to take a serious look at a ridiculous topic? What Mr. Arthur finds is that it seems legitimate to question the manner in which “real” religions are treated with privilege. The film doesn’t feature founder Bobby Henderson, which seems odd, and it skims the surface more for entertainment than enlightenment. And what I have to say to that is … R’amen, brother.

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SUZI Q (2020, doc)

July 2, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Home is where the heart is.” That’s a two thousand year old phrase whose sentiment has multiple interpretations. It’s the phrase that came to mind while watching Liam Firmager’s profile of Suzi Quatro, the pioneering female Rock ‘n Roller. She started as a middle-class Detroit girl who went on to have a huge international career, though her music never really clicked with the U.S. audience. The emotions from and towards her family are even more complicated.

Playing a bass guitar that made her look even smaller than her diminutive 5 foot frame, Quatro was quite the stage presence in her leather jump suits (inspired by Jane Fonda’s character in BARBARELLA) and constant motion. Kathy Valentine of The Go-Go’s admitted that she had never even thought about women playing instruments in a rock band until she saw Suzi. Most of the interviews here have a similar thread: Suzi Quatro was a main influence for such female rockers as Cherie Currie and Lita Ford of The Runaways, KT Tunstall, Debbie Harry, Tina Weymouth of The Talking Heads, and of course, Joan Jett. We hear from each of these musicians as they pay tribute to their trailblazer. When Suzi is described as “the quintessential rock ‘n roll chick”, it’s obviously a term of respect.

The film has a bit of a disjointed structure and uneven flow, but that doesn’t diminish the message. Suzi Quatro was a daring ground-breaker. We get some of the backstory regarding her family, as she credits her mother for instilling Catholic morals, and her dad for passing along his performing gene. But it’s the sisters who provide the most insight. These are the type of sisters who didn’t tell Suzi about an offer from renowned music producer Mickie Most, because they didn’t want her to quit their band and have success without them. It’s these same sisters who, almost 50 years later, refuse to give Suzi the respect she so craves.

Alice Cooper speaks to her influence, and Henry Winkler recalls her time as Leather Tuscadero, a recurring character on “Happy Days.” We also hear from Len Tuckey, Suzi’s guitarist and first husband, who offers insight to the band and the person. There is also a segment (with a clip) on her success in the stage musical “Annie Get Your Gun”, and, on a personal note, we learn Suzi is the aunt to actress Sherilynn Fenn (“Twin Peaks”).

Suzi Quatro has sold over 55 million records in her career … and she still plays live gigs today (well at least prior to the pandemic). The driving ambition that motivated her to pursue her dream is still there, although she admits “most girls gave up music to have a life.” We see her in 1973 and in 2019. The leather and the energy are still present, as is the mystery of why she was so much more popular internationally than in her home country. The film touches on the male-oriented business and the sexism that occurred. There is footage of a stunning moment on a British talk show where the host actually slapped her on her leather-clad derriere. Imagine that moment today! Was Suzi Quatro ahead of her time, or did she come along at just the right moment? Either way, the professional success contrasted with the unresolved family issues, make this more than a standard rock bio. It’s a history lesson with a moral to the story.

Available on VOD July 3, 2020

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MADAGASIKARA (2020, doc)

June 25, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world at 228,900 square miles. 90 percent of its wildlife is found nowhere else, and it features a unique ecosystem with staggering natural resources. It’s been the subject of National Geographic specials and very successful (and cute) animated kids’ movies. Contrasting to all of those details, is the fact that the vast majority of the citizens live in extreme poverty and suffer from malnutrition, while the government is in near-constant turmoil.

Cam Cowan is a former attorney, and this is his first documentary feature. Rather than bury us in bottom-of-the-world economic data, or frustrate us with details of years of political corruption and upheaval, he allows us to focus on the very personal stories of three women … each woman striving to survive the day and provide for her family.

Lin offers laundry services for the community. The first day we see her, she makes 28 cents, which just about covers the cost of 2 cups of white rice. One of Lin’s babies died a few months after birth, and she buried the young girl at the front door stoop, so that she never forgets. Deborah began as a sex worker at age 12. She recounts how some physically abuse her and don’t pay. Her dream was to be a lawyer, but now hopes her kids can get the education she was denied. Tina busts rocks in local quarry. She spends hours each day under the sun without even the luxury of gloves to protect her hands.

In 2009, Malagasy citizens took to the streets to protest corruption in government. The international community responded by cutting off support. That support accounted for 60% of social services, including food, healthcare, and education. A sinking country sunk even lower. We learn that Madagascar is the only country untouched by war where the populace is now poorer than they were in 1960. In fact, the majority of citizens earn less than $2.00 per day, and 80-90% fall below the poverty line.

As a mother plucks fleas and larvae from her kids’ feet, she admonishes them with, “From now on, tell me when you have fleas in your feet.” We may think parenting is difficult, but the guess is, you’ve never warned your kids about fleas nesting under their skin. The film touches on some of the issues with government structure, but there really isn’t enough time for a deep dive. We also learn about humanitarian Father Pedro, who helps educate and feed children. He’s the subject of Mr. Cowan’s next documentary, OPEKA, which is being released as a follow up to this one.

The island’s natural resources are not really discussed here, as the focus is on the people and the daily hardships they endure. There is an undeniable spirit amongst these people, even though it’s a struggle to find hope. Some of the international support has returned, but it’s clear real change won’t happen until the government is structured to support the citizenry and trust is restored. This is tough to watch, but we must.

Opens on Amazon Prime June 26, 2020

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THE GHOST OF PETER SELLERS (2020, doc)

June 24, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Watching someone go through therapy – exorcising the demons of their life – is a bit uncomfortable. So while we understand Peter Medak’s ‘need’ to revisit the project (from almost 50 years ago) that nearly derailed his promising career, there are plenty of moments here where we feel like we are intruding. As a filmmaker, Mr. Medak’s most natural form of expression is with a camera, so re-tracing a dark time as a documentary makes some sense; we just wonder why he had to drag us along to share his misery.

A “67 day nightmare” is how Peter Medak describes the experience of filming GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN, a film that was never officially released. It was 1973 and Medak was a hot young director, fresh off THE RULING CLASS with Peter O’Toole. When Peter Sellers, one of the most sought-after international film stars, agreed to sign on, the 17th century Pirate movie based on the novel by Albert Sydney Fleischman, was thought to be a sure-thing box office smash. In reality, it was the beginning of Medak’s nightmare that still haunts him today.

While re-visiting the original Cyprus sets, and meeting with seemingly anyone who was involved with production and is still alive, Medak recollects specific instances of things that went sideways. The vast majority of it leads right back to the behavior of Peter Sellers, who seemed to be sabotaging the film from very early on. Was it arrogant “star” behavior? Was Sellers depressed over his breakup with Liza Minnelli? Was he bi-polar? We get interviews with co-writer (and Sellers’ buddy) Spike Milligan’s agent Norma Farnes, as well as the film’s Costume Director Ruth Myers, and Sellers’ stuntman Joe Dunne. None of these folks seem to have any pleasant memories of making the movie, and when you add in commentary from other filmmakers like director Piers Haggard (THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR FU MANCHU, Sellers’ final film, 1980) and director Joseph McGrath (CASINO ROYALE, THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN), it appears the common denominator in creating anguish was Peter Sellers.

Among the tales we hear are in regards to Sellers firing a producer, his clashes with Medak and co-star Tony Franciosa, his push to keep Spike Milligan involved as writer and director of some scenes, and most shocking of all, Sellers’ faking a heart attack on set, and the admission of collaboration in fraud from Dr. Greenburgh. We expect artists to have unusual personalities and quirks, but it’s unfortunate when one person can affect the livelihood of so many others.

‘Why go through the pain of re-visiting this?’ Medak is asked the question a couple of times, and it certainly runs through our head while watching. Clips from the film are dropped in throughout the documentary, and it comes across as a pirate farce that appears to have been disjointed at best. I recently watched a “lost” Sellers film entitled MR TOPAZE (aka I LIKE MONEY) from 1961. It was the only feature film where he was credited as director, and if the stories from behind-the-scenes are true, it was yet another case was Sellers was guilty of sabotage.

Medak’s mission with this documentary seems to be one of catharsis. Or maybe it’s his chance to prove he wasn’t to blame for the tragedy of this project. When he talks to producer John Heyman, it seems clear that Heyman, despite losing millions on the film, was able to move on – to get over the setback … something Medak still hasn’t done. While no cast or crew members attended the wrap party, we do wonder if anyone will have an interest in this mess that occurred nearly five decades ago. The only value may be from the perspective of cinematic history or lore, at least other than, hopefully, Peter Medak’s mental well-being and soul cleansing.

Available on VOD June 22, 2020

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