Dirty Pictures — A Movie Review

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Jun 042016

dirty_pictures_posterAlexander ‘Sasha’ Shulgin is the scientist behind more than 200 psychedelic compounds including MDMA, more commonly known as Ecstasy. Considered to be one of the greatest chemists of the twentieth century, Sasha’s vast array of discoveries have had a profound impact in the field of psychedelic research. ‘Dirty Pictures’ delves into the lifework of Dr. Shulgin and scientists like him. The documentary explores the world of these scientists; their findings and motivations; their ideas; and their beliefs about how research in this particular field can aid in unlocking the complexities of the mind. Continue reading »

Nov 092014

Serving Life Movie PosterActor Forest Whitaker narrates the story of a group of inmate volunteers who staff their own hospice inside a maximum security prison in Louisiana where the average sentence is more than 90 years.

Producers: Lisa R. Cohen, Jeca Taudte
Director: Lisa R. Cohen

This was a very interesting documentary filmed in Angola Prison in Louisiana. It was released in 2011, and is the story of reforms which helped take Angola Prison off the top slot and the most violent prison in the U.S. The Warden came to realize that he many of the inmates serving sentences of life without parole, and older inmates with sentences so long, would most likely die in prison.

The Warden, in one interview, makes the point that it’s easy to teach people skills like carpentry or food preparation, but the challenge is getting them to understand the concept of empathy, and without that, they’ll someday be back in his prison. While he has the southern drawl of a “good ole boy,” I think he’s a lot smarter that he sounds. He manages to solve two problems at once. Continue reading »

Bigger Stronger Faster – A Movie Review

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Nov 082014

bigger_stronger_fasterAn examination of America’s win-at-all-cost culture from the perspective of bodybuilding and performance enhancing drugs, as it focuses on a pair of siblings chasing their dream.

In America, we define ourselves in the superlative: we are the biggest, strongest, fastest country in the world. Is it any wonder that so many of our heroes are on performance enhancing drugs? Director Christopher Bell explores America’s win-at-all-cost culture by examining how his two brothers became members of the steroid-subculture in an effort to realize their American dream.

Genres: Documentary | Sport; Motion Picture Rating (MPAA) Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving drugs, language, some sexual content and violent images; Release Date: April 2008 (USA)

Director:  Chris Bell
Writers:  Chris Bell, Alexander Buono
Stars:  Chris Bell, Mike Bell, Mark Bell

We watched this last weekend during a marathon of documentaries. I did not expect to like it (this was Lay’s pick), but it turned out more interesting than I expected. Continue reading »

Severe Clear – A Movie Review

 Culture, Movies, Politics, War  Comments Off on Severe Clear – A Movie Review
Nov 042014

Severe Clear Movie PosterAs part of the first wave in the War on Terror, First Lieutenant Mike Scotti (awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Combat “V”) served on the front lines during the 21 day advance to Baghdad. His experiences in Afghanistan as well as Iraq put him face to face with the sobering realities of war. Severe Clear offers an unflinching look at life on the battlefield through the eyes of someone who was there.

In January, 2004, in Al-Falluja, Iraq, a documentary film crew follows an infantry squad of the 82nd Airborne, US Army. Cameras go with the squad of seven on day and night patrols, as they watch their backs, kick down doors, search for weapons, interrogate women, detain a few people, and listen to the complaints of locals. At their barracks, a former Baathist retreat called Dreamland, the men talk: about why they enlisted, civilian prospects, feelings about the war and Iraqis, where they were when a comrade died a few weeks before. We see them wait for translators and try a few words of Arabic; we hear their frustrations. We watch them pressured to reenlist. Tensions mount in Falluja.

Director: Kristian Fraga;
Writer: Kristian Fraga;
Stars: Mike Scotti
Runtime: 93 min; Rated: N/A; Genre: Documentary; Released: 12 Mar 2010

Me and Lay watched this documentary last Saturday evening, and it was excellent. This was not from some embedded journalist, but was filmed on small handheld cameras by Lt. Scotti during the actual events. It is raw and sometimes disturbing, as war should be. We really liked it. Continue reading »

Standard Operating Procedures – A Movie Review

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Jun 292009

Standard Operating Procedure DVDAn examination of the unintended consequences of the Iraqi war with a focus on events at Abu Ghraib prison which began to appear in global media in 2004. The prison quickly became notorious for the shocking photos of the abuse and torture of terror suspects by military men and women. Ultimately, it is the story of soldiers who believed they were defending democracy but found themselves plunged into an unimagined nightmare.

Genres: Documentary; Running Time: 1 hr. 56 min.; Release Date: April 25th, 2008 (limited); MPAA Rating: R for disturbing images and content involving torture and graphic nudity, and for language.

Starring: Joshua Feinman, Zhubin Rahbar, Merry Grissom, Janis Karpinski, Chris Bradley

Directed by: Errol Morris

Morris has covered some interesting and weird subjects. I hoped that Morris would explore the total human aspect of Abu Ghraib, the focus of the file,  and do a really good job of delivering this part of it.

Unfortunately what Morris produces is a film that is solid but not as remarkable as the subject deserves. There are films that do it better. Taxi to the Dark Side comes to mind specifically because it uses the prison as its starting point before following the smell upwards and outwards to paint a much bigger picture of failure and things that are impacting beyond specific acts of torture.

The early signs are good because I was surprised to see several of the main names/faces that I knew from the news coverage of the scandal and thus this was going to be the story from those involved firsthand. This was a gamble in a way because the problem with the aftermath of Abu Ghraib was that it was only the “little people” that got the spotlight and nobody else. By focusing on them, Morris needed to get a lot from them or else his film would end up the same way.

He does this to a point as they discuss in detail what they did and what they saw, and it does still have the power to shock and depress. In some regards the anger described makes the violence a little understandable but what I was shocked by was the sheer banality and boredom-inspired viciousness of it all. Everyone is a bit defensive and Morris doesn’t ever manage to draw much emotion from them in the telling – factually the material is engaging but Morris never really gets beyond that. While “Taxi to the Dark Side” moved up the chain of command, Morris needed to move into his interviewees’ soul – something he doesn’t manage to do.

The second failing of the film is the overuse of “recreated” scenes and asides. With so much shocking reality to discuss and so many real images, some of the recreations are out of place. I’m not talking about the creative sequences that Morris uses as a bed for dialogue (eg a cellblock full of shredded paper, the letters written back to a partner in the US) but rather the recreations and stuff “around” the pictures. It was unnecessary and distracted from what as real and powerful enough.

The film still works as a good summary of events within Abu Ghraib but it is hard to get excited about it since so much of it feels familiar. The tight focus itself is not an issue but it is when Morris cannot manage to produce searing questions, a bigger picture or intimate soul-searching it doesn’t ever do anything that makes it standout in a crowded marketplace.

Through most of this, I have been very sympathetic to the field soldiers who took the brunt of this. It was clear that most of the ones interviewed here were doing their best (a la Dick Cheney) to dimish what they did. I remained convinced that many of them were used as scapegoats, but Lynndie England, Charles Graner, and Megan Ambuhl did nothing to redeem themselves. In fact, in my eyes, they did much to prove the case against themselves. That does not mean I think everyone who should have been punished was…it simply means these three were clearly at fault here.

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In The Realms of the Unreal – A Movie Review

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Apr 082009

Cover for In The Realms of The UnrealHenry Darger, an elderly recluse, spent his childhood in Illinois’s asylum for feeble-minded children and his adulthood working as a janitor. He lived a quiet, nearly solitary existence, but his imaginary life was exciting, colorful and sexually provocative. When he died in Chicago in 1973, his landlady discovered in his room 300 paintings, some over 10 feet long, and a 15,000-page illustrated novel (The Realms of the Unreal), which told the epic story of the virtuous Vivian Girls leading a child slave revolt against the evil Glandelinians. Featuring Dakota Fanning (Hide and Seek) and Larry Pine (The Royal Tenenbaums) as narrators and imaginative animation of Darger’s work, Oscar® winner Jessica Yu (Breathing Lessons) brings to life one of the twentieth century’s greatest self-taught artists.

Genres: Documentary; Running Time: 1 hr. 21 min.; Release Date: December 22nd, 2004 (limited); MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Starring: Dakota Fanning, Larry Pine, Henry Darger

Directed by: Jessica Yu

I admit this was a movie I stumbled across because of the colorful DVD case. When I read the description, I was intrigued by the story line of the reclusive man who created this beautiful body of work. Henry Darger (1892-1973)  created an amazing collection of illustrations with absolutely no contact with the formal art world. Darger, a native of Chicago, suffered an extremely abusive childhood … in which he was institutionalised in an asylum for feeble-minded children, even though he may have been of above-average intelligence.

Jessica Yu’s documentary ‘In the Realms of the Unreal’ (a shortened version of the title of Darger’s novel) attempts to make sense of Darger’s life, art and obsessions. Yu interviews a surprisingly large number of the very few people who actually knew Darger.

The movie uses several gimmicky visual devices. The decision to make animated cartoons from several Darger murals is a good one, and the stiff-legged ‘lazy’ animation technique used here is appropriate to the material. Less commendable is Yu’s decision at several points to use new artwork that paraphrases Darger’s themes; audiences will mistake these images for actual Darger artwork.

This is a very interesting story with a surprising dose of an undercurrent of suspense about what will happen next. It was worth watching.

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 Culture, Movies, Politics  Comments Off on Sicko
Jul 072007

sicko.jpgAcclaimed filmmaker Michael Moore sets out to investigate the American healthcare system. Sticking to his tried-and-true one-man approach, Moore sheds light on the complicated medical affairs of individuals and local communities.

Directed by
Michael Moore


Michael Moore, et. al.

This was perhaps Moore’s most mature effort. While I’ve appreciated the other films he’s done, Sicko does the best job of explaining our current health insurance system, and dispelling the falsehoods spread by the politicians and the insurance lobby. One can only hope that this will advance the discussion of this topic during an election cycle.

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Who Killed the Electric Car?

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Jan 222007

A documentary that investigates the birth and death of the electric car, as well as the role of renewable energy and sustainable living in the future.

Directed by
Chris Paine


Phyllis Diller, Colette Divine, David Freeman, Reverend Gadget, Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, Peter Horton, Huell Howser, Alexandra Paul, Paul Scott, Bob Sexton, Chelsea Sexton, Martin Sheen, J. Karen Thomas

Lay and I watched this movie a couple of weekends ago. Lamenting, analyzing, then symbolizing a death of the little seen car wonder underlines many subtle and more overt tragedies that befell us simpletons in so many departments when it came to the short lived, controversial life of the electric car. As in any admirable expose documentary, the bittersweet tone of objectified ignorance swells near the end where Chris Paine convincingly details the multiple avenues of injustice dealt to the painfully short lived prototype environment friendly vehicle. Unfortunately, this pretty potent piece will likely remain most gripping where it’s short fueled controversy took place, California. It was there, the ex-electric drivers explained, the notorious trial run for this beautiful piece of machinery played out it’s subverted bureaucracy, and turns out it is quite a juicy little piece of automotive industry history, though played out in a small pocket of the country. What helps keep the crisp pace, aside from the well rounded criticism afforded to any and all parties involved with this botched fiasco, is the gentle insinuation into our relentless and inherent need to be stupid creatures of habit at the planets continuing expense. Without hitting viewers over the head with grandstanding elitism, Who Killed the Electric Car also shows us who killed our need to care.

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An Inconvenient Truth

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Jun 252006

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)A documentary on Al Gore’s campaign to make the issue of global warming a recognized problem worldwide.

Directed by
Davis Guggenheim


Al Gore

Lay and I went to see this film Saturday night. Whether you’re a fan of Al Gore or not, he isn’t really the issue here. He does a great job presenting the various forms of overwhelming evidence for global warming and mankind’s link to it, but he doesn’t do it in a political or spiteful way. He shows global temperature and atmospheric carbon patterns, and he shows that our last 20 years have been the highest by a longshot over the previous 600,000 years. Frankly, before seeing the film, I’d heard a lot of information about global warming being a myth, but this film dispels that notion with many independent pieces of evidence.

Even more importantly, it goes to show why we should care that global warming is occurring. As you may have seen in the trailer, if global warming continues at its current rate, the earth’s coastlines will be flooded displacing tens of millions of people, it will increase the strength and frequency of hurricanes and tornadoes, it will irrevocably kill off many of the worlds glaciers, it will dry up lands interior to the coastline (like our heartland), and it will disrupt/kill species after species from polar bears to birds. These changes could occur in as short a time as ten to fifty years from NOW.

Lastly, he finishes with ways in which we can affect a change. It would be easy to see this film, get depressed about all the state of affairs, and throw up one’s hands in despair, but the film offers us ways, big and small, to help reverse global warming’s effects right now.

I urge you to see this film, you will not regret it.

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