Wednesday, August 31, 2016

August Quick Picks and Pans – Documentary Month

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

Thursday, August 25, 2016

American Movie

(1999) Directed by Chris Smith; Starring: Mark Borchardt, Mike Schank, Tom Schimmels, Monica Borchardt, Ken Keen and Bill Borchardt; Available on DVD

Rating: ****½

“I know when I was growing up I had all the potential in the world. Now I’m back to being Mark, who has a beer in his hand, and he’s thinking about the great American script and the great American movie, and this time, I cannot fail. I won’t fail.” – Mark Borchardt

Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review that was posted during the early days of this blog.

Outside of the blogging arena, I rarely share my favorite movies with others, because our preferences are often very personal. It’s hard to articulate why I gravitate toward certain titles, or why one would have such an effect on me. Several years back, I loaned my copy of American Movie to a friend, and learned my enthusiasm wasn’t infectious. She thought it was entertaining in spots, but was perplexed why I found it so special. Regarding the main subject, Mark Borchardt, she commented, “He’s a loser.” In my humble, albeit biased opinion, I think she missed the point of American Movie. At its core, it’s a film about tireless passion, ambition, and a desire to succeed in the face of everything working against you.

Director Chris Smith and producer Sarah Price (who also assisted with the sound and camera work) filmed American Movie over the course of two years, and edited for another two years. The end result chronicles the arduous path* Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt takes to complete his short horror film Coven. Movies are Mark’s passion – a lifelong obsession not shared by the majority of people around him. His most ardent supporters are his girlfriend and best buddy Mike, but they seem to be in the minority. Most of his family greets his ideas with skepticism or outright disdain. As his brother Alex observes, “His best asset is his mouth.” Mark appears to overflow with a flurry of ideas, and his fast-talking style sounds quite convincing on the surface, like the mogul he aspires to be. What sets Borchardt apart from those who have managed to climb to the top of the movie business? He has many positive attributes: an encyclopedic knowledge of film, technical know-how, and organizational savvy. Yet, he struggles to pay the bills, and he’s plagued by a series of projects that never reached fruition. His manic episodes are often followed by periods of intense depression and self-loathing. He’s unhappy where he is, and wants to do something about it. In the meantime, he’s relegated to working a series of dead-end jobs (including a paper route and groundskeeper for a cemetery) to keep his head above water.

* In an ironic parallel to Borchardt’s production woes, the filmmakers experienced their own troubles financing their feature, and continually ran out of film stock.

Another key player in American Movie is Mark’s buddy Mike Schank (who confessed that the initial basis for their friendship was their mutual appreciation of vodka). Mike, now a member of several 12-step programs, is the rock in their friendship. On the surface, he appears to be a mellow burnout, but for Mark he’s a safe harbor amidst all of the chaos. Mike battled drugs and alcohol and remained mostly intact, while Mark is still struggling with his demons (which obviously inspired Coven). Mike is an amiable presence, seemingly unfettered by his friend’s tirades. He’s the proverbial shoulder to cry on when things go wrong.

Mark’s relationship with his cynical, laconic uncle Bill is a fitting metaphor for his endeavors. Bill, whose best days are clearly behind him, sits in his cluttered mobile home, mostly silent while his nephew talks a mile a minute about his grandiose dreams and plans. In his zeal to complete Coven, Mark begs and cajoles his friends, family members and acquaintances to help him with every aspect of the production,** managing to rope almost everyone in his circle. In one of the funniest scenes, Mark convinces Bill to go through 32 takes to record a single line of dialogue. Like many of the other people involved in the production, Bill isn’t buying anything Mark is selling, but he goes along with him anyway.

* On a sad note, Uncle Bill passed away shortly after American Movie was filmed. He willed $50,000 to Mark for the completion of Northwestern, which remains unfinished.

** Mark’s mother Monica, who’s featured in the film, is recruited to help him with camerawork, and as an extra (despite her protest, “I have shopping to do.”).

Taken at face value, many of the situations depicted in American Movie evoke feelings of schadenfreude, but documentarians Smith and Price are not interested in being mean spirited. For anyone who’s ever struggled paying the bills, or suffered from chronic underemployment, many scenes ring true. It’s easy to see the film as a freak show, but there’s a tragic undercurrent that runs throughout. There’s a feeling of desperation, as if getting Coven made is a matter of life or death for Borchardt. Coven isn’t an end, but a potential launching point to finance his semi-autobiographical film Northwestern. Many of us have met people like him – full of talk and ideas, but with little to show for their labors. What sets Mark apart from other dreamers is he didn’t move on to something else. His persistence and dedication to film creates its own inertia. Mark is motivated by the very American belief that there’s something bigger and better on the horizon, just out of sight.

American Movie should be required viewing for any would-be independent filmmaker, or anyone who ever asked why any rational individual would try to break into the movie business. How much is talent, tenacity and good connections, and how much is just plain luck? American Movie is a romantic film in the sense that it’s about one man’s relentless pursuit of his ideals, regardless of the substantial personal and financial toll. How you ultimately react to the film and Mark Borchardt’s predicament is sort of a barometer for how much you believe in the value of holding on to your childhood dreams. In the end, it’s irrelevant whether or not the end product of Borchardt’s labors is any good,* but that he persevered, even when plain old common sense dictated he should stop. As a post-script, it’s comforting to know he’s still out there, perhaps no closer to making the great American movie, but continuing to fight the good fight for no-budget indie filmmakers.

Additional Note: As an added bonus, the DVD includes Borchardt’s short film, Coven. So, is it any good?  The stark 16 mm black and white reversal footage works to its credit, with some nice atmospheric exterior shots that capture the quiet desolation of the Wisconsin countryside. As for the story, acting and dialogue, well… You can’t have everything.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Grizzly Man

(2005) Written and directed by Werner Herzog; Starring: Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog, Jewel Palovak and Willy Fulton; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“I disagree with him (Timothy Treadwell) over his basic view of nature, and there's an ongoing argument between him and me because I do not see wild nature as anything that harmonious and in balance. I think I – and I'm saying it – I think the common denominator is, rather, chaos, hostility and murder.” – Werner Herzog (from 2005 NPR interview with Scott Simon)

“I must hold my own if I’m gonna stay within this land. For once there’s weakness, they will exploit it, they will take me out, they will decapitate me, they will chop me into bits and pieces. I’m dead.” – Timothy Treadwell

At some point in our life, most have probably entertained the romantic notion of dropping out of society and living by our own ideals and standards. Due to relationships, financial obligations, or taking an honest inventory of our options, most of us wake up and come back to earth. If we’re really lucky, we retain our ideals throughout adulthood, but even those with the best intentions have to make some compromises. A select few individuals refuse to adhere to society’s rules, choosing to live by their own ethos. Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary eschewed prevailing wisdom, choosing to live and ultimately die by his obsession with cohabitating among grizzly bears. The story is told partially by Treadwell himself (in video clips), the recollections of the people who knew him best, and through Herzog’s narration.

Treadwell* spent 13 summers in the remote Alaskan wilderness, among grizzly bears, chronicling his exploits in a diary and (for the last five years) on videotape. The last summer proved fatal when Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard (her family did not appear in the film) were attacked and devoured by a rogue bear. Through the course of his documentary, Herzog re-traces Treadwell’s troubled origins, pieces together a composite of his personality, and attempts to determine what compelled him to return to harm’s way summer after summer. We hear from his parents, Carol and Val Dexter,* who describe a fairly normal childhood and a lifelong love of animals. After dropping out of college, Treadwell moved to California to pursue an acting career, but fell into a downward spiral of depression, drugs and alcohol when he failed to find success. His rudderless, peripatetic lifestyle eventually led him to Alaska, where he took on a second life as a naturalist and amateur videographer.

* In an effort to differentiate from his family of origin and foster an image, the eponymous Treadwell adopted his surname. His father comments, in his defense, that “Treadwell” was actually a family name.

Herzog paints a complex portrait of a man driven by his strong convictions and defined by contradictions. Although Treadwell shunned society, he obviously sought to be a celebrity, making numerous appearances in schools, and appearing for interviews on national television. He fostered an image as an almost mythical character, a lone protector of wildlife, who in turn found meaning through his one-man crusade. He lived for the animals, and was willing to die for them. The video clips from his forays into nature demonstrated the warring sides of his psyche, which vacillated between mania and self-loathing. He could be alternately charming and irritating, sometimes within minutes. As he continued to build his reputation, he became increasingly paranoid, which manifested itself in his animosity toward the National Park Service and people he deemed harmful to his beloved grizzlies. He envisioned a strong kinship with the bears (a relationship that wasn’t reciprocated), and “wanted to become like the bear,” according to a friend and fellow naturalist, Marge Gaede. There are moments when Herzog steps in to editorialize, comparing Treadwell’s delusional behavior to his own experiences on a movie set, where the line between the person and the actor occasionally blurs. In another clip, where Treadwell mourns over a dead fox, Herzog steps in to comment about his contrasting view of a cruel and uncaring nature.

The most unsettling aspect of Grizzly Man is how the film discusses Treadwell’s fate. We hear from pilot Willy Fulton, who discovered the remains and the coroner, Franc G. Fallico, who reconstructs Treadwell and Huguenard’s final moments. The graphic descriptions create a vivid mental picture that’s hard to shake from your brain. Treadwell’s camera was running at the time of the attack, but with the lens cap on, leaving a final audio epitaph. Although Herzog wisely chooses not to include the audio recording in the film, he crosses the line by listening to the tape in the presence of Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend, Jewel Palovak. He admonishes her not to listen to the tape herself, but describes it in detail. It’s a powerful, emotionally charged scene, but in the interest of good taste probably should have been left on the cutting room floor. One of the most effective scenes was shot by Treadwell, a short time before his death. It’s haunting to see him sharing the same frame as his killer, known only by its National Park Service designation, “Bear 141.”

Werner Herzog doesn’t praise or condemn Treadwell, but leaves it to us to decide if there was any meaning in his death. Was he a “kind warrior” as he described himself, or simply a misguided man with a death wish?  It’s hard to dispute the tragedy of his girlfriend’s death, however, since he was responsible for taking her into harm’s way. Since Treadwell is unable to defend his stance, we are only left to speculate about his ultimate motivations. The only thing that seems certain is that he was chasing something we could scarcely understand. Despite the unsettling subject matter, there are many scenes in Grizzly Man that showcase the inherent beauty of nature. But Herzog reminds us this beauty comes with a great price.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Decline of Western Civilization

(1981) Directed by Penelope Spheeris; Starring: Alice Bag, Claude Bessey, Darby Crash, Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Lee Ving; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****½

“The cool thing about these bands to me is that they were there to break every rule of rock ‘n roll and traditional music.” – Penelope Spheeris

More so than virtually any other music movement that preceded it, punk rock spoke to the oddballs, the disenfranchised, the angry and the aimless. It was a counterculture response to the establishment, corporate rock and social inequity. Although I never looked the part, I was attracted to punk at an early age because of its high level of energy and innate disdain for popular acceptance. It spoke to me on an almost cellular level because it was music for outsiders, by outsiders.


The Decline of Western Civilization encapsulates a moment in time (filmed between December 1979 and May 1980) of the vibrant Los Angeles punk scene. Director Penelope Spheeris showcases several key groups from L.A.’s punk heyday. Instead of overwhelming us with commentary, we hear from the band members in their own words, and listen to a diverse sampling of their music. Spheeris takes a minimalist, fly-on-the-wall approach by letting the scenes play out instead of calling attention to her camera, allowing us to arrive at our own conclusions. Shot in 16 mm, the film possesses a raw, unpolished appearance that suits the material perfectly. The results are sometimes unnerving, occasionally funny, and frequently poignant

One of the more depressing profiles focuses on The Germs, a band on the edge of implosion. Their ex-manager, Nicole Panter, describes them as if they were a bunch of naughty children. Darby Crash, the lead singer appears to be in a perpetual drug and alcohol-infused haze.* What seemed funny to me at an earlier age now seems like a cry for help. His incoherent singing and shambling stage antics paint a portrait of a young man without a center, lost in a sea of self-loathing. Spheeris provided some insight into Crash’s self-destructive behavior in her DVD commentary, inferring that keeping up a certain stage persona became his undoing (“I think the joke went too far.”).

* On a sad, but not unpredictable note, Crash died of an intentional heroin overdose several months after filming was completed.

By far, the most talented of the bunch are the members of X,* who demonstrate a winning combination of articulate lyrics and musicianship. Singer-songwriting duo John Doe and Exene Cervenka share their thoughts on writing music and performing, and discuss how their life influences art. Guitarist Billy Zoom displays his amiable nature, and discusses how he started playing at the age of six (compare to members of The Germs, who started out not knowing how to play their own instruments).

* Full disclosure: I’m a bit biased when it comes to X, perhaps because they’re the only band in the documentary I’ve seen in concert (in 1982 at the now defunct Country Club in Reseda, California). For more about this seminal group, check out the superb documentary X: The Unheard Music (1986).

We also visit with the members of Black Flag, and get a tour of the run-down, graffiti-decorated edifice they call home. Claude Bessey, lead singer for the band Catholic Discipline and editor for an underground magazine, talks at length about the punk movement, and provides further insight into the social aspects. Spheeris saves one of the more divisive groups, Fear, for last, as the lead singer, Lee Ving, goes out of his way to bait the audience.

Spheeris also profiles several punk fans, who discuss what they like about the music and the scene. One of the common denominators is that they find a kinship in the music and the concerts. Most of them don’t seem to fit in anywhere else, and find it as an outlet for their misplaced aggression. Their comments show the darker side of punk. Michael has an “X” shaven into his head, and enjoys getting into fights. Another teenager, Eugene,* has a shaven head and talks about his disgust with society while letting a racist epithet slip. These fan interviews represent an area that could have been explored more thoroughly, hinting at the unsavory aspects that dwell in a subset of the culture.

* As a surprising postscript, Spheeris revealed in her commentary that Eugene is now a folk singer.

The Decline of Western Civilization makes it clear that punk is more than just music, but a social movement. Watching it again after so many years provided a surprising revelation. Spheeris draws some interesting parallels between the then-current punk movement and the hippie generation that preceded it. Both shared many similarities: they represented a counterculture reaction to the norms of society, their music and culture conveyed a strong social message as agents of social change, and dressed to be noticed. They were not a part of the older generation, but a response to it. But punk differed significantly from the hippies as well. The hippies’ underlying credo was that peace and love would ultimately prevail, and we could come to an understanding that would transform the world. In contrast, punk wanted to watch the world burn. It took a much more cynical stance with the conceit that everything’s broken.

The most striking aspect of The Decline of Western Civilization is its timelessness. While other music fads have come and gone, the music still sounds fresh and relevant. Many of the people, their fashions and music look as if they came from a modern documentary, rather than something that was filmed nearly four decades ago. Punk’s aesthetic is alive and well today, albeit in a more watered down form, processed for mass consumption. The counterculture elements have been supplanted by empty posturing, and what was once deemed unmarketable is now the norm (witness a recent phone app commercial featuring a Ramones song). This film remains a testament to an era, not so long ago, when music and people merged to take a stand against blandness and blind acquiescence to pop culture.