Category Archives: Documentary

The Edge is Still Out There: Gonzo, the Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 12, 2008)

No fun to hang around
Feeling that same old way
No fun to hang around
Freaked out for another day
No fun my babe no fun

 -The Stooges

 “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”

 -Hunter S. Thompson

It’s been just over three years now since the godfather of gonzo journalism eschewed his beloved typewriter to scrawl those words with a magic marker, four days prior to pulling a Hemingway. Ever the contrarian, Thompson couldn’t resist adding a twist of gonzo irony to his suicide note, by entitling it “Football Season is Over.”

Since then, several quickie “tell-all” books have played Monday morning quarterback with the life and legacy of the iconoclastic writer, with what one would assume would be a wildly varying degree of accuracy. That’s because Hunter S. Thompson was a mass of  contradictions. His work was imbued with DFH political idealism and tempered by full commitment to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll; yet he loved to collect guns, blow shit up and counted the likes of Pat Buchanan among his personal friends. I don’t envy his biographers.

In Gonzo: the Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room) may have discovered the right formula. He takes an approach as scattershot and unpredictable as the subject himself; using a frenetic pastiche of talking heads, vintage home movies,  film clips, animation, audio tapes and snippets of prose (voiced by Johnny Depp, who has become to Thompson what Hal Holbrook is to Mark Twain). While Gibney keeps the timeline fairly linear, he does make interesting choices along the way-and equally interesting omissions (e.g., Thompson’s formative years are given the bum’s rush).

Gibney begins with the 1966 book Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, which first established Thompson’s groundbreaking style of journalism (as one interviewee observes, he essentially “embedded” himself with the notorious motorcycle gang). An overview of his Rolling Stone reportage ensues, highlighted by the assignment that resulted in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. There’s a fascinating account of how Thompson’s bacchanalian propensities caused him to blow his coverage of the Ali-Foreman bout in Zaire, posited by Gibney as the first inkling that personal excesses were starting to affect HST’s ability to consistently knock one out of the park with each piece.

A lion’s share of the film is devoted to two particular chapters of Thompson’s life: his quasi-serious run for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado and his coverage of the 1972 presidential elections (which provided fodder for Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72).

The segment regarding the 1972 campaign is so riveting and well-crafted that I wished Gibney had turned it into a full-length companion documentary. Gibney reveals how the Eagleton VP nomination debacle and resultant death knell for the McGovern campaign was also a crushing blow to Thompson’s personal sense of 1960s idealism, signaling the beginning of an escalating disillusionment and bitterness that would permeate his political writing from that point on. The director also reminds us that Thompson was quite instrumental in bringing then-governor Jimmy Carter into the national political spotlight by championing his 1974 Law Day Speech.

I think political junkies are going to dig this film more than the those chiefly enamored with Hunter S. Thompson’s superficial substance-fueled “rebel” persona. Excepting the depiction of Thompson’s relatively unproductive latter years, spent ensconced in his Colorado compound, too distracted by guns, drugs and sycophants to do little else but slowly disappear up his own legend (like Elvis at Graceland) the director suppresses the urge to play up the public notoriety and revel in the writer’s recreational excesses, just to sell more movie tickets. If you’re expecting a sequel to Gilliam’s film, this is not for you.

The film is not without its flaws; the frequent use of Depp clips from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas becomes distracting and begins to feel like cheating (by contrast, there is only one brief nod to Bill Murray’s turn in Where the Buffalo Roam.) This is a minor quibble, because there are some real treasures here. Devotees will delight in listening to the audio snippets from the original cassettes that Thompson made while cruising through the Nevada desert with his attorney, as well as the recording of a shouting match between the writer and his long-time collaborator Ralph Steadman while they were in Zaire (let us pray that the DVD will bonus more from those priceless tapes).

This is not a hagiography; several ex-wives and associates  make no bones about reminding us that the man could be a real asshole. On the other hand, examples of his genuine humanity and idealism are brought to the fore as well, making for an insightful and fairly balanced overview of this “Dr. Gonzo and Mr. Thompson” dichotomy. What the director does not forget is that, at the end of the day, HST was the most unique American political commentator/ social observer who ever sat down to peck at a bullet-riddled typewriter.

Bastard. We could sure as shit use him now.

SIFF 2007: The Life of Reilly (***1/2) & Delirious (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 14, 2007)

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This week, we’ll examine a pair of films that offer two different perspectives on the business we call “show”- from the inside looking out, and from the outside looking in.

The Life of Reilly is a filmed performance of Charles Nelson Reilly’s one-man show. Yes,  that Charles Nelson Reilly, perhaps best known  for his stalwart presence on the talk show/game show circuit from the late 60s onward (Younger readers may recognize him as a recurring character on the X Files and its spin off series Millennium.)

Reilly, who passed away in May of this year, once resignedly predicted  his obits would contain the phrase “game show fixture”. It may surprise you (as it did me) to learn that Reilly was classically trained as a stage actor.

It certainly surprised attendees of one of Reilly’s master acting classes, when they were treated to a lengthy but enthusiastically received performance piece (improvised on the spot), in response to a simple question: “How did you become an actor?” The incident inspired Reilly’s autobiographical one man show Save it for the Stage. Reilly had officially ended the run before he was asked to perform it one final time (in 2004) for this film.

Reilly runs the theatrical gamut, segueing from hilarious anecdote to moving soliloquy without missing a beat. He begins with a series of wonderful vignettes about growing up in the Bronx. Reilly had a tragicomic family background tailor-made for a stage show (an overbearing mother, institutionalized father and a live-in aunt with a lobotomy) and he milks it for all its worth. His mother’s favorite admonishment, “Save it for the stage!” becomes the teenage Reilly’s secret mantra as he begins to gravitate toward the boards.

After a promising start in “Miss (Uta) Hagen’s $3 Tuesday afternoon acting class” in NYC in the early 50s (you won’t believe your ears as Reilly rattles off the names from the actual roll call), he hits a brick wall when he auditions for an NBC talent scout, only to be bluntly informed “They don’t let queers (sic) on television.”

Reilly got the last laugh; he recalls poring over TV Guide at the peak of his saturation on the tube, to play a game wherein he would count how many times his name would appear (including reruns). “I know I was once told I wasn’t allowed on TV,” he quips, “…but now I found myself thinking: Who do I fuck to get off?!” Funny, moving and inspiring.

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Which brings us to writer-director Tom DeCillo’s latest feature film, Delirious. (Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.) DiCillo returns to the same sharply observed, navel-gazing territory he explored in The Real Blonde and Living in Oblivion, namely, pointed meditations on the personal and artistic angst that performers (and all those who take succor from their celebrity) must suffer as they busily claw their way to fame and fortune.

DeCillo regular Steve Buscemi portrays the peevish Les Galantine, a paparazzi who fancies himself heir apparent to Richard Avedon. We are introduced to Les in a scene recalling Martin Scorsese’s introduction of the desperate and needy autograph hounds in The King of Comedy; a group of photographers hurl insults and elbows at each other as they jostle for position waiting for a glimpse of K’Harma Leeds (Alison Lohman), a wispy pop diva. Les establishes himself as alpha parasite, shoving his way to the front of the swarm.

Also on hand is an aspiring actor turned homeless bum named Toby Grace, portrayed with wide-eyed, angelic, erm, grace by Michael Pitt. Toby literally stumbles into affording Les the money shot of the diva as she steals out a side door. Toby subsequently ingratiates himself into an overnight stay on Les’ couch, then proceeds to convince the initially suspicious photographer that he needs an assistant to help him get more of those page one tabloid photos (a job he will gladly fill in exchange for room and board).

To avoid spoilers, let’s just say serendipity eventually lands the homeless Toby into a plum role in a hot new TV series, and a star is born, complicating his friendship with an embittered and still-struggling Les, who feels Toby is “his” discovery (Pitt is essentially reprising his role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.)

DiCillo isn’t exactly breaking new ground either, but he executes it with his blend of comic cynicism and touches of magical realism. Buscemi is at his “lovable weasel” best, and the strong supporting cast includes dependable indie stalwart Kevin Corrigan (Who?! If you saw him, you would say “Oh yeah-that guy.”) and Gina Gershon, who displays a flair for comedy as a cutthroat agent.  Also look for Elvis Costello in a hilarious cameo. Not DeCillo’s best film, but fans of backstage tales like All About Eve will get some jollies out of it.

SIFF 2007: Kurt Cobain: About a Son ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 16, 2007)

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It’s virtually impossible to live here in Seattle and not be constantly reminded of Kurt Cobain’s profound impact on the music world. Every April, around the anniversary of his suicide, wreaths of flowers and hand taped notes begin to cover a lone bench in a tiny park sandwiched between the lakefront mansions I pass on my way to work every morning. Inevitably, I will see small gatherings of young people with multi-colored hair and torn jeans holding silent vigil around this makeshift shrine, located a block or two from the home where he took his life.

Needless to say, A.J. Schnack’s new rock doc Kurt Cobain: About a Son (scheduled to open in select cities in August) has certainly been a highly anticipated film here in the Emerald City (ironically, it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last fall; I was surprised that the director, who took the stage after the film for Q & A at the SIFF screening I attended , wasn’t called out for this slight by any of the numerous flannel-wearing diehards in the audience).

Schnack’s  film is a unique, impressionistic portrait of Cobain’s short life. There are none of the usual talking head interviews or performance clips here; there’s nary a photo image of Cobain or Nirvana displayed until a good hour into the film. Schnack was given access to a series of frank and intimate audio interviews that Cobain recorded at his Seattle home circa 1992-1993. Schnack marries up Cobain’s childhood and teenage recollections with beautifully shot footage of Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen and its environs.

The combination of Cobain’s narration with the visuals is eerie; you feel that you are inside Cobain’s temporal memories-kicking aimlessly around the cultural vacuum of a blue collar logging town, walking the halls of his high school, sleeping under a railroad bridge, sitting on a mattress on a crash pad floor and practicing guitar for hours on end.

The film is an antithesis to Nick Broomfield’s comparatively sensationalist rock doc Kurt and Courtney. Whereas Broomfield set out with a backhoe to dig up as much dirt as quickly as possible in attempting to uncover Cobain’s story, Schnack opts for a more carefully controlled excavation, gently brushing the dirt aside to expose the real artifact.

2 Rock Docs: The Devil and Daniel Johnston (***1/2) & The Mayor of the Sunset Strip (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 5, 2007)

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This week I’m spotlighting two recent rockumentaries of merit, both available on DVD. First up is The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Iconoclastic musician Daniel Johnston’s life story is a documentary filmmaker’s wet dream-a tragicomic Grimm’s fairy tale version of the American Success Story that plays like a cross between Dig and The Grey Gardens.

Throughout most of the 1980’s, Johnston’s prodigious output of homemade, self-distributed cassette-only albums went largely unnoticed until they were famously championed by Kurt Cobain, who helped make the unsigned artist a household name of sorts in alt/underground music circles.

Johnston has waged a balancing act between musical genius and rampant madness for most of his life (not unlike Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Roky Erikson and Joe Meek). The film recounts a series of apocryphal stories about how Johnston, like Chance the Gardener in Being There, stumbles innocently and repeatedly into the right place at the right time, amassing an ever-growing grass roots following.

Everything appears to be set in place for his Big Break, until an ill-advised tryst with hallucinogenic substances sends him (literally) spiraling into complete madness. While on a private plane flight with his piloting father, Johnston has a sudden epiphany that he is Casper the Friendly Ghost, and decides to wrest the controls, causing the plane to crash. Both men walk away relatively unscathed, but Daniel is soon afterwards committed to a mental hospital.

The story becomes even more surreal, as Johnston is finally “discovered” by the major labels, who engage in a bidding war while their potential client is still residing in the laughing house (only in America!). The rest, as they say, is History. The film also delves into Johnston’s childlike, oddly compelling drawings and paintings, which recall the work of the bizarre, posthumously discovered artist Henry Darger (the subject of an equally fascinating documentary called In the Realms of the Unreal). By turns disturbing, darkly humorous, sad, and inspiring, The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a must-see.

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The Mayor of the Sunset Strip is another worthwhile rock doc for your consideration. An alternately exhilarating/melancholy portrait of L.A. music scene fixture Rodney Bingenheimer, it was directed by George Hickenlooper, who most recently helmed the Edie Sedgewick biopic, Factory Girl.

The diminutive, skittish and soft-spoken Bingenheimer comes off like Andy Warhol’s west coast doppelganger, or perhaps the Forest Gump of rock and roll. Somehow, he has been able to plant himself squarely in the hurricane’s eye of every major music “scene” since the mid-60’s…from Monkeemania (he worked a brief stint as Davy Jones’ double!) to present-day (becoming the first U.S. radio DJ to break current superstars Coldplay).

While it’s “about” Rodney, the film also serves as a whirlwind time trip through rock music’s evolution, filtered through a coked-out L.A. haze. The ongoing photo montages of Rodney posing with an A-Z roster of (seemingly) every major seminal figure in rock ’n’ roll history recalls Woody Allen’s fictional Alfred Zelig, a nondescript milquetoast who could morph himself to match whomever he was with at the time.

Throughout the course of the film, Rodney himself remains a cipher; in one very telling scene he fidgets nervously and begs Hickenlooper to turn off the camera when the questions get too “close”. There is also a sad irony-despite his ability to attract the company of the rich and famous (and they all appear to adore the man), the fruits of fame and success evade Rodney himself. He drives a an old beater to his DJ gig at L.A.’s legendary KROQ; he lives alone in a tiny, cluttered hovel, where treasured memorabilia like Elvis Presley’s first driver’s license collects dust next to the empty pizza boxes. Which begs the question: Is he a true “impresario”, or  a lottery-winning superfan?

The film is peppered with appearances and comments from the likes of music producer Kim Fowley (whose whacked-out music biz career warrants his own documentary), Pamela des Barres (legendary super-groupie and former member of Frank Zappa protégés The GTO’s) and her husband, actor-musician Michael des Barres (who steals the show with some priceless backstage tales). Brilliant!

Girl, you know it’s true: My Kid Could Paint That ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 3, 2007)

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You’ve heard the expression, “If I told the truth, no one would believe me”? Dig this: I’ve just watched the best Christopher Guest film he never made. In fact, it wasn’t a mockumentary. Amar Bar-Lev’s new documentary, My Kid Could Paint That, is ostensibly about the “career” of 4-year old (not a typo) Marla Olmstead, who hit the spotlight when her abstract paintings became a hit in the New York art world. I say “ostensibly”, because by the time credits roll, you realize this film goes deeper than news-kicker fodder about another child prodigy. As one of the film’s subjects (a local newspaper reporter) says, “…this story is really more about the adults.”

The back story: Mark and Laura Olmstead, a young couple living in sleepy Binghamton, New York, begin to notice that their daughter, Marla, appears to have a knack for art that transcends the random scribbling of a typical toddler. To be sure, every parent likes to think their kid is a bloody little genius, but the Olmsteads receive validation when a friend suggests they hang some of Marla’s work in his local coffee shop (for a lark) and to their surprise, the paintings start selling like hotcakes. A local newspaper reporter picks up on the story, as does the owner of a local art gallery.

Then, faster than you can say “just out of diapers”, young Marla becomes a media darling, resulting in a substantial spike in the value of her paintings (some are sold in the five-figure range). Everything is going quite swimmingly until 60 Minutes sets their sights on the family, airing a “take-down” story in 2004 that includes hidden camera footage showing Mark Olmstead barking instructions at Marla as she paints. Needless to say, sales drop off dramatically.

Bar-Lev began filming prior to the 60 Minutes report; hence the first act is standard documentary fare: interviews with the parents, the gallery owner and the newspaper reporter. You glean early on that Markis enjoying the spotlight more than the rest of his family; Marla is too young to understand what’s going on, and his wife Laura retains a cautious pragmatism. “I know there’s a fine line between a child prodigy and a freak show” she says at one point. Even while she is backstage getting prepped for Marla’s Tonight Show appearance, she worries out loud “…if all of this is really good for Marla”. Is she telling this to the camera, or taking a by-proxy jab at her husband?

The first real seeds of doubt are sown when Bar-Lev sets up his camera to capture Marla at work. Marla sits on the floor, staring an empty canvas for quite some time while her father fidgets. At one point, Marla says something very interesting. “Do you want to paint something, Daddy?” Whoopsie! “I don’t know what’s wrong,” Mark says nervously, “She usually doesn’t act like this.”  The awkward moments are just beginning…with many twists and turns ahead.

At the end of the day, My Kid Can Paint That is not just about whether or not Marla is the real deal; it’s about the nature of “art” itself (be it painting, film making, music, whatever) At what point does childish scribbling become “abstract expressionism”? Does a “documentary” become a lie the nanosecond the filmmaker makes the first edit?

Whose judgment determines the intrinsic and/or monetary value of a painting-a local newspaper reporter, a New York Times art critic or Mike Wallace? Does the eye of the beholder still count for anything? Does it really matter who painted it, if you feel it’s worth hanging on your wall? Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays-Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford, and do you care? Does it really matter that the Monkees didn’t write any of their hits or play their own instruments? Feast your eyes on this exceptional film and decide for yourself.

Brother sun, sister moon: In the Shadow of the Moon (****) & Sunshine (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 29, 2007)

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I thought we’d take a spin around the solar system tonight, via two new films; one that gets my vote for the best documentary of 2007, and the other…well, we’ll get to that.

Normally, I make a conscious effort to not shamelessly gush about films in this column (it’s so unseemly) but pardon me while I gush over a documentary about the Apollo space program, In The Shadow of the Moon. Admittedly, I walked into the theater with trepidation; it would seem that the NASA legacy has already been milked for all its worth, from feature films (The Right Stuff, Apollo 13) and IMAX documentaries, to lauded TV fare (From the Earth to the Moon).

But somehow, director David Sington has managed to take this very familiar piece of 20th century history and infuse it with a sense of joyous rediscovery. In the process, it offers something rarer than hen’s teeth these days-a reason to take pride in being an American.

The premise is simple enough; surviving members of the Apollo moon flights tell their stories, accompanied by astounding mission footage (some previously unseen). There are a few of the “tumultuous 60s” clichés tossed in (clips of student demonstrations, political assassinations, etc) but they remain onscreen just long enough to provide brief expository reference. The film is beautifully scored (Philip Sheppard) and edited (David Fairhead).

The term “hero” is carelessly tossed about with reflexively wild abandon in our post 9-11 world; but as you listen to these astronauts recount their extraordinary experiences with such eloquence, fierce intelligence and self-effacing candor, you realize that these people truly do represent our best and our brightest, they are “heroes” in every sense of the word.

It’s interesting to hear the astronauts expound on the pragmatic geopolitical perspective that results from being in a position to “blot the entire earth out with (your) thumb”, as one gentleman puts it. Several marvel at how truly fragile the Earth looks hanging “like a jewel” in the vast blackness of space; one interviewee ponders incredulously as to “how we can worry more about paying three dollars for a gallon of gas” than we do about attending to the health of the planet. I lost count of my “amens” halfway through the film.

This is also the first time (to my knowledge) that these men have been given a public forum to extrapolate on the profound spiritual, metaphysical and philosophical questions that arise following such literally out of this world experiences as walking on the surface of another planet; it’s fascinating and extremely moving at times.

As your fake physician I am prescribing that you run out and see it immediately, as In the Shadow of the Moon is a perfect tonic for the Bush-Cheney blues. It reminds us that there was a time when the rest of the world looked to this country for inspiration; a time when people were not ashamed of hailing from the great state of Texas, because it was then better known as the home of Mission Control.

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We move now from science fact, to science fiction. For his new  thriller Sunshine, director Danny Boyle teams up again with writer Alex Garland, who provided the screenplays for both 28 Days Later and its sequel. Ostensibly about a team of astronauts on a mission to salvage the dying Sun and save the Earth, Sunshine aims to take its protagonists on a Homeric journey, by way of Tarkovsky and Kubrick. Unfortunately, after a fairly successful liftoff, the film quickly veers off course and loses its trajectory.

The story is set in 2057, when the Sun is suffering from a condition that, as near as I was able to tell from the rather sketchy scientific exposition, is akin to some type of solar constipation. There’s something blocking the star’s ability to generate its own nuclear fusion…uh, I think. Well, whatever “it” is, there ain’t no sunshine when it’s gone…okay?

Anyway, the highly specialized 8-member crew of Icarus II is mankind’s last hope (the crew of Icarus I apparently stopped sending postcards some months back). It is up to them to launch and detonate a powerful bomb that will presumably jump-start the Sun back into its preferred central heating mode for our solar system.

I know what you’re thinking-sounds familiar? Yes, it is pretty much a glorified rehash of Armageddon. Well, Armageddon for philosophy majors. Because, you see, things get “deep” between the requisite scenes of stuff blowing up real good. There’s an awful lot of brooding and gnashing of teeth among the crew once they set the controls for the heart of the sun. It is also implied  there are metaphysical conundrums afoot, but the screenplay fails to extrapolate on the significance. By the time the third act disintegrates into a cheesy Alien rip-off, you’ll be likely to  have stopped caring anyway.

Boyle regular Cillian Murphy stars as the brooder-in-chief, the crew’s egghead physicist, ‘Robert Capa’ (I’ve racked my mind over that one…why is a fictional nuclear physicist named after a famous war photographer? I invite your speculation. These are the types of things that keep me awake at night, folks.) To his credit, Murphy maintains a compelling presence, even though you suspect that he doesn’t have much more of a clue about what is going on in this film than the viewer does. Michelle Yeoh does an earnest turn as ‘Corazon’, a biologist who nurtures the ship’s on-board green houses, quite reminiscent of Bruce Dern in Silent Running (hmm…if Capa is the ship’s Brain, then I assume she is the Heart?)

Some have hailed this as a masterpiece. I am not one of them. Granted, it is handsomely mounted, with some nice set designs and impressive special effect work; but it lacks a cohesive story. It’s like someone reached into a hat full of interesting ideas, threw the scraps of paper up in the air, and just let them blow about the room while trying to follow them with a camera. For a story that flies so close to the Sun, Sunshine left me pretty damn cold.

The tutors: The Boys of Baraka ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 21, 2007)

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In their 2005 documentary, The Boys of Baraka (now available on DVD) co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have fashioned a fresh and inspiring take on a well-worn cause celebre: the sad, shameful state of America’s inner-city school system. Eschewing the usual hand-wringing about the under funded, over-crowded, glorified daycare centers that many of these institutions have become for poor, disenfranchised urban youth, the filmmakers chose to showcase one program that strove to make a real difference.

The story follows a group of 12-year-old boys from Baltimore who attended a boarding school in Kenya, staffed by American teachers and social workers. In addition to more personalized tutoring, there was emphasis on conflict resolution through communication, tempered by a “tough love” approach. The events that unfold from this bold social experiment (filmed over a three year period) are alternately inspiring and heartbreaking.

Many of these African-American youth seem to have sprung straight from Central Casting for HBO’s dramatic series The Wire; they are the corner boys, the habitual troublemakers acting out in cacophonous homerooms, kids with junkie mothers who only get to see their fathers during visiting hours at the jail. In other words, most seem destined to lead the kinds of lives that serve to fuel the stereotype of the inner-city poor.

Something amazing happens, however, when these “at risk” kids find themselves in a completely new environment-a place of light, space and none of the distractions of urban living. As cliché as this sounds, they begin to find themselves, and it is a wondrous transformation to observe.

By the time they embark on a day hike to Mount Kenya to celebrate their one-year anniversary at the school, and you realize that they have at that point literally and figuratively “been to the mountain” and gazed over the limitless landscape of their potential, I guarantee you’ll have a lump in your throat. There is no pat, sugar-coated denouement (that’s life) but one is still left with a sense of hope as some of the boys are inspired to push forward and build on their newfound momentum.

They’re gonna crucify me: The U.S. vs. John Lennon ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 24, 2007)

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Back in 1972, the U.S. government handed a certain British émigré a rather abrupt eviction notice, informing him and the missus that they had 60 days to get out of the country or face deportation proceedings. This missive might have vanished in the mists of time, had the folks in question not been a couple known to millions as, simply, John & Yoko. And so began a four-year legal battle for legal citizenship, chronicled in a straightforward documentary called The US vs John Lennon, now available on DVD.

You know the back story: After a very public and controversial courtship, John Lennon and Yoko Ono marry in 1969, the Beatles break up, John and Yoko begin making their own headlines with a series of relatively benign political media stunts (the “Bed-In For Peace”, the “Bag-In”, etc.) and then eventually settle in NYC in the early 70’s, at which time they begin to gravitate to the more “radical” politics of the American anti-war movement, much to the chagrin of the Nixon administration.

The apparent final straw for Tricky D. was John and Yoko’s 1972 appearance at a charity concert to help cover legal fees for White Panther Party founder John Sinclair, who had been jailed ostensibly on drug charges, but considered by many at the time to be a political prisoner.

Declassified documents now prove that, from day one, there was direct inter-agency manipulation of John and Yoko’s deportation proceedings, from the FBI all the way up to the Oval Office, resulting in a nearly four-year long persecution that was probably best described by Lennon himself, who referred to the machinations as “Kafkaesque”.

The film features plenty of archival footage, with present-day recollections from the likes of Bobby Seale, John Sinclair, Geraldo Rivera, Noam Chomsky, Ron Kovic, Paul Krassner, George McGovern, and, er, G. Gordon Liddy (guess whose side he’s on).

The most insightful comment comes from the ever-glib Gore Vidal, who, when asked what it was about Lennon that made him such a threat to the Nixon cabal, says: “He (Lennon) represented Life, and was admirable. Mr. Nixon, and (for that matter) Mr. Bush, represent Death, and that’s bad.” (Perhaps an over-simplification, but astute.)

The film is a bit dry in its execution (it was produced by VH-1, which probably explains the rote Behind the Music vibe) but it’s still a compelling story, and an important one. It has much to say about what is going on right now, particularly in regards to the “dissent vs. disloyalty” issue and the dangers of living under an administration that treats the Bill of Rights as a list of “suggested options”. Careful, Junior. Instant karma’s gonna get you.

Two bongs up! Six degrees of Woody Harrelson: Scanners (***) & Grass (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 27, 2007)

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Richard Linklater entered the sci-fi arena in 2006 with his adaptation of the late Phillip K. Dick’s semi-autobiographical novel A Scanner Darkly (now on DVD). Set in a not-so-distant future L.A., the story injects themes of existential dilemma, drug-fueled paranoia and Orwellian government surveillance  into what is otherwise a fairly standard “undercover-cop-who’s-gone-too-deep” yarn.

Keanu Reeves stars as a dazed and confused narc that has become helplessly addicted to the mind-altering drug that he has been assigned to help eradicate (“substance D”). Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Linklater alumni Rory Cochrane are his fellow D-heads who may not exactly be whom they appear to be on the surface. Adding to the mood of hallucinatory psychosis is Linklater’s use of rotoscoping (as per his underrated Waking Life). The rotoscoping technique does present challenges to the actors; Downey, with his Chaplinesque knack for physical expression, pulls it off best, while the more inert performers like Reeves and Ryder are quite literally akin to oil paintings.

Linklater’s script keeps fairly close to its source material-particularly in relation to the more cerebral elements (Linklater’s propensity for lots of talk and little action may be a turn-off for those expecting another Minority Report). Depending on what you bring with you, the film is a) a cautionary tale about addiction, b) a warning about encroaching technocracy, c) an indictment on the government’s “war” on drugs, d) a really cool flick to watch while stoned, e) the longest 99 minutes of your life or f) all of the above.

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Speaking of the “war” on drugs-here’s a sleeper you may have missed. Grass is a unique, well-produced documentary dealing (er, pun intended) with the history of anti-marijuana legislation  in the United States. Far from a dry history lesson, the film builds its own “counter-myth” of sorts, by exposing the hypocrisy of the government’s anti-marijuana propaganda machine over the years; from the  histrionics of the 1930’s howler Reefer Madness to the Reagan administration’s “Just Say No” campaign in the 1980’s.

There is also an eye-opening  tally of all the tax money the various law-enforcement agencies have spent (thrown away?) attempting to eradicate marijuana usage…from the days of Elliot Ness to the present. The filmmakers ladle some well-chosen period music over a wealth of archive footage (maximized for full ironic effect). Woody Harrelson, who has famously lived through a series of herb-related legal problems, off-screen, narrates with winking bemusement. Whether you are for or against legalization, you should find this one quite informative and highly (sorry!) entertaining.

Touch me, I’m sick: Sicko ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 7, 2007)

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Oh, Michael-you are such a pill.

Our favorite cuddly corn-fed agitprop filmmaker is back to stir up some doo-doo, spark national debate and make pinko-hatin’ ‘murcan “patriots” twitch and shout. Unless you’ve been living in a cave and have somehow missed the considerable amount of pre-release hype, you have likely gleaned that I am referring to documentary maestro Michael Moore’s meditation on the current state of the U.S. health care system, Sicko.

Moore grabs our attention right out of the gate with a real Bunuel moment. Over the opening credits, we are treated to shaky home video depicting a man pulling up a flap of skin whilst patiently stitching up a gash on his knee with a needle and thread, as Moore deadpans in V.O. (with his cheerful Midwestern countenance) that the gentleman is an avid cyclist- and one of the millions of Americans who cannot afford health insurance.

Moore doesn’t waste any time showing us the flipside of the issue-even those who are “lucky” enough to have health coverage often end up with the short end of the stick as well. A young woman, knocked unconscious in a high speed auto collision and rushed to the ER via ambulance, was later denied coverage for the ambulance ride by her insurance company because it was not “pre-approved”. She ponders incredulously as to exactly how she was supposed to have facilitated “pre-approval” in such a scenario (as do we).

The film proceeds to delve into some of some of the other complexities contributing to the overall ill health of our current system; such as the monopolistic power and greed of the pharmaceutical companies, the lobbyist graft, and (perhaps most depressing of all) the heartless bureaucracy of a privatized health “coverage” system that focuses first and foremost on profit, rather than on actual individual need.

I know what you’re thinking-kind of a downer, eh? Well, this is a Michael Moore film, so there are plenty of laughs injected to help salve our tears. Most of the levity occurs as Moore travels abroad to the socialized nations of Canada, Britain, France and Cuba to do a little comparison shopping for alternate health care systems.

Much of the vitriol and spite aimed at Sicko seems to have been triggered by this aspect of the film. Indeed, the film has only been open for a week, and already the wing nut comment threads are ablaze with about a million variations on “Well if you think it’s so much better than America then why don’t you just move there you big fat Commie traitor.” (In his typically sly fashion, Moore leads into his Cuba segment by weaving in footage and music from vintage Communist propaganda films; knowing full well that those with small minds will take the bait and completely miss the irony.)

The classic Moore moment in Sicko arrives as he sails into Guantanamo Bay with a megaphone and a boatload of financially tapped Ground Zero volunteer rescue worker veterans who are all suffering from serious respiratory illnesses. After learning that the Gitmo detainees all enjoy completely free, round the clock medical care on the taxpayer’s nickel, he figures that the state of the art prison hospital wouldn’t mind offering the same services to some genuine American heroes. Of course, the personnel manning the heavily armed U.S. military patrol boats in the bay fail to see his logic, and they are unceremoniously turned away.

Undeterred, he decides to give the Cuban health care system a spin (while they’re in the neighborhood-why not?) They are welcomed unconditionally, and receive prompt and thorough care. Is it a propaganda move by the Cubans? Probably. Does Moore conveniently fail to mention the minuses of the Cuban health care system (or the Canadian, British and French systems for that matter)? Sure-but who cares?

The pluses greatly outweigh the minuses, especially when compared to the current health care mess in our own country (at least he’s showing enough sack to step up and give people some alternatives to mull over). Moore makes his point quite succinctly-the need for health care is a basic human need. It should never hinge on economic, political or ideological factors. As one of his astute interviewees observes, it is a right, not a privilege.

In fact, this may qualify as the least polemical of Moore’s films to date. Consequently, it may disappoint or perplex some of his usual supporters, especially those who always anticipate that a Moore film will give them a vicarious “let’s go stick it to The Man” thrill ride.

Things are not so black and white this time out; the issue at hand is too complex. I don’t think there is any filmmaker out there right now who could sum it all up (tidy solutions and all) in less than 2 hours, but Moore has done an admirable job of scratching the surface, and most importantly, he manages to do so in an entertaining and engaging fashion. After all, isn’t that why we go to the movies?