Salesman (1969) Albert and David Maysles, along with Charlotte Zwerin, chronicle the end of an era, the age of the door-to-door salesman. This fascinating movie follows a group of salesmen, each with different nicknames (such as “The Rabbit,” “The Gipper,” and “The Bull”) signifying their unique approach. The fact that they sell bibles and not vacuum cleaners or any other product is incidental. The inherent underlying themes are universal. The men in the film create a need for something, and monopolize on it. Salesman paints a bleak existence of life on the road, moving from one town to the next, clinging to the dubious hope of success. There’s a pervasive feeling of desperation in the air, as one salesman consistently fails to meet his quota, and it’s clear that it’s only a matter of time before he’s replaced. It’s a sobering antithesis to the “American Dream.”
Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Hulu
Gates of Heaven (1978) Errol Morris takes a look at the pet cemetery business, told through the people who started two separate enterprises, providing some insight into why one venture failed, while another one flourished. The owner of Bubbling Brook Pet Memorial Park discusses the balance between compassion and the desire to run a successful business. We also hear the recollections from some pet owners about their beloved, departed furry friends. While the focus is on pet cemeteries, Gates of Heaven tells more about people than animals. One of the most memorable interviews provides a pragmatic counterpoint to the emotional aspects of animal disposal. A manager of a rendering plant defends the unsavory reputation of his business, and seems completely detached when it comes to understanding the feelings of grieving pet owners. Morris takes an unlikely subject, and makes it captivating from beginning to end.
Rating: ****. Available on DVD
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015) This HBO-produced documentary from Alex Gibney (based on Lawrence Wright’s book), takes a critical look at the Church of Scientology, told through the recollections of several followers who left the cult (including noted director Paul Haggis). The film follows Scientology’s rocky history, from the early years of its founder L. Ron Hubbard, to the current regime. Hubbard’s background as a prolific science fiction writer formed the basis for his church, which blends pseudo-science and a quasi-spiritual journey. Going Clear explores how Scientology hooks its followers by identifying their deepest fears and anxieties, using those same vulnerabilities as leverage to keep them in. The interviewees recount the underhanded tactics employed by the church to keep followers from leaving, and how those who dare to speak out are bullied. It’s a chilling look at the dark side of the quest for self-actualization.
Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Ray Harryhausen – Special Effects Titan (2011) If you’re a fan of Ray Harryhausen, you’ve probably heard many of his stories before, but they never get old. Gilles Penso’s documentary features interviews with directors, effects masters and friends of Harryhausen (including Steven Spielberg, Henry Selick, Nick Park and Ray Bradbury) who were influenced by his groundbreaking effects work. One of the most amusing segments involves James Cameron extolling the virtues of modern effects, opining that Harryhausen would probably want to avail himself of the newest technology. The interview is immediately followed by a clip of the effects master himself, affirming that he would prefer to use old-fashioned stop motion effects.
We don’t hear a great deal about how the effects were designed (there are other documentaries and featurettes that cover this aspect in greater detail). Instead, we’re treated to a nice sampling of Harryhausen’s pioneering stop motion effects through various film clips, which is worth the price of admission alone. Watch it with your kids (And if you don’t have kids, watching it is guaranteed to make you feel like a kid again). Note: A big thanks to the kind folks at the U.S. wing of Arrow Films for furnishing a screener copy for this review.
Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World (2014) Belinda Sallin gives us an unprecedented glimpse at Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger’s personal life. Giger’s close friends, wife and former lovers retrace his steps through his artwork, which continues to disturb and inspire, in equal measures. Giger, who was ailing when this was filmed, also discusses the impetus for his work, rife with Freudian imagery. One of the most fascinating sequences showcases Giger’s bizarre garden, decorated with his art, and featuring a train running through it (Someone needs to build a carnival ride based on this!). Although Sallin’s fly-on-the-wall approach provides an intimate perspective, the film feels a little incomplete, as a profile of the man and his legacy. We only hear from a select few individuals, as opposed to some of the filmmakers and artists he inspired. If you can accept Dark Star for the less-than-definitive profile that it is, it’s worth checking out.
Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming
The Love Goddesses (1965) This enjoyable but superficial film covers a lot of cinematic history in a scant 78 minutes. Director Saul J. Turell and narrator Carl King take us on a tour of the evolving role of women and sex in the movies, from Theda Bara to Marilyn Monroe. The various film clips and stills provide a nice introduction to some of the greatest sex symbols in motion pictures, but at the same time, other names are conspicuously absent (Where’s Simone Simon, Veronica Lake, Lauren Bacall, or Jane Russell, to name a few?). On the other hand, some of the choices for “love goddesses” are questionable (Shirley Temple and Hayley Mills?). It’s a nice start, but for such an ambitious subject, hardly a comprehensive overview.
Rating: ***. Available on DVD (Out of print) and Hulu
Children of the Stars (2012) This film profiles the El Cajon, California-based Unarius UFO cult, whose tenants are based on the belief that we are all descended from aliens, and that Earth will eventually join a galactic alliance of 30-odd planets. According to the members, science fiction films are just suppressed memories of our past. The common thread with the interviewees (who are current members), is that they were directionless, and needed something to believe in. Unfortunately, the film seems content to portray the members as just some harmless kooks who like to put on pageants, without delving beneath the surface. We never learn what they do to make a living outside of the cult, or what their friends or family members think. There’s no mention of their numbers, but judging by the clips of their numerous videos, they appear to be in decline. While it’s obvious director Bill Perrine wanted to be respectful to the material, the lack of critical tone makes Children of the Stars less like a documentary and more like a recruitment video.
Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Hulu