Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

Written and directed by Alexandra Dean, Bombshell is a straight-forward cinematic biography of Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, also known as Hedy Lamarr. Although there are several biographies about Lamarr, her life has not been covered in documentary form.

There is an inciting incident in the production of this film—the one-in-a-million chance discovery of four audio tapes of Lamarr speaking of herself. A gentleman by the name of Fleming Meeks—a journalist who responded to Dean’s world-wide call for any biographical information directly by Lamarr—is the back-story hero in this film. Dean carpets her film with interstitials of Lamarr’s voice derived from these tapes.

A strong character, and way ahead of her time, the famous and infamous actor had more than her fair share of tragedies. She seems to have weathered them all, including the most expensive one—the loss of her patent that could have and should have netted her about three hundred million dollars.

Lamarr’s secret life was that of a frustrated scientist/engineer. Together with her composer, George Antheil, she conceived something called ‘frequency hopping’—an electronic phenomenon that enables secure, wireless electronic communications. The patent was absconded, of course, by the United States government. Frequency hopping is foundational to virtually all the world’s electronic communications between and amongst devices and people.

Bombshell is a Kino Lorber/Zeitgeist Films release.

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Lives Well Lived: Celebrating the Secrets, Wit, and Wisdom of Age

There are certain filmed stories that will stay with us the rest of our lives. First time feature film director Sky Bergman’s Lives Well Lived is one of them.

Bergman interviews 40 people between the ages of 75 and 100. Each tells her or his story. Between some interviews are interstitials in which a few interviewees respond to questions like ‘What is your secret for a happy life?’ As the interviewees tell their stories, Bergman includes archival footage of times and places in their lives. Many of these stories warrant their own feature documentary. Again, this is another documentary film I want to be twice as long as its current running time.

I passionately want young people to see Lives Well Lived. I realize, of course, that is a tall order—and that that is an understatement! If I were young and somewhat aware at this time, I would understand that us humans have seriously damaged our ecosphere, that the damage is continuing, and, therefore, I would be skeptical of even having an old age, or of having one that is meaningful, gratifying and productive. If I was not somewhat aware, I might not care at all about aging and the aged.

What Bergman has captured in her interviewees are people who have a youthful spirit as well as the ‘wit’ and ‘wisdom’ referenced in the film’s subtitle. Lives Well Lived is gold for those young people who chose to turn off their phone, place it in another room, and really listen to the people tell their stories. It could dramatically change some young lives.

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(Pictured: Sky Bergman with her 103 year old Grandmother, Evelyn Ricciuti)

Wild Wild Country: Love and Hate in the State of Oregon

“She is drugged,” the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh states emphatically, “she is on hard drugs. I have never made love to her, that much is certain. Perhaps that is the jealousy. She always wanted… (pauses) but I have made it a point never make love with a secretary.” (His large group of followers laugh loudly.) “Love affair never ends. It can turn into a hate affair. She did not prove to be a woman. She proved to be a perfect bitch.” (More laughter.) She is just going more and more insane before she goes to imprisonment. You just wait. Either she will kill herself—out of the very burden of all the crimes that she has done—or she will have to suffer her whole life in imprisonment.”

The enlightened guru is oozing vitriol about his recently departed ‘secretary,’ Ma Anand Sheela. The two are the leading actors in a years-long passion play which is covered by brothers Chapman and Maclain Way in their Wild Wild Country. One of the two wilds refers to the vast countryside of Oregon, and the other refers to the small town—called ‘Rajneeshpuram’—Rajneesh and Sheela created in that countryside after leaving India and a trail of allegations.

Sheela was, of course, more than his secretary. Rajneesh was the King, and she, the Prime Minister. Sheela skipped town when she saw her power fading—and, perhaps, knew their community’s lifespan was limited.

Rajneeshpuram’s internal strife was matched by the external strife provided by the people of Antelope who became very unhappy with the propinquity of this ill-conceived attempt at a Utopian community to their tiny town. That dismay spread to Wasco County, to the State of Oregon, and to the political leadership of the United States of America.

This epic finds its inevitable conclusion. Torn asunder by endogenous and exogenous forces, abandoned by its 7,000 residents, Rajneeshpuram became a Christian retreat center teaching abstinence to young people.

Wild Wild Country is utterly fascinating, jaw dropping—in contemporary parlance, we say this six-part Netflix film is ‘binge-worthy.’ It evokes thoughts and ruminations about ethics, morals, religion, spirituality, law, cults, sex, politics, psychology, social psychology, and most of all—human frailty.

Here is a link to a Vanity Fair article about the film.

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$our Grapes: Stories of the Elegant Hustle

Directed by Reuben Atlas and Jerry Rothwell, $our Grapes tells the story of a massive heist in the American wine industry—the sale, at auctions, of phony rare bottles of wines.

The perpetrator was Rudy Kurniawan, a charming young man of Chinese descent, based in Indonesia, and living in the United States.

Early in the film we learn Kurniawan has a great ‘palate’—he knows wine—and ingratiated himself into the world of fine wines and wealthy people. He partnered with John Kapon who had inherited his parents’ Manhattan-based business, Acker Merrall and Condit, the first formal wine shop in the United States.

Kurniawin supplied both real and fake bottles of wine, and Kapon auctioned them off to the unsuspecting. Between 2003 and 2006 John Kapon sold more than $35 million of wine from Kuniawin’s ‘cellar.’ For a period of time Acker Merrall and Condit became the number one wine auction house in the world.

Even after Kurniawin’s malfeasance had become well-known, Christie’s Auction House got in bed with him—a testament to his boyish charm and power.

Two very different gentlemen discovered the con, and each went about busting it.

Laurent Ponsot is a Burgundy winemaker, and Bill Koch, a very, very wealthy man deeply devoted to the consumption of wine, and the curating of 43,000 unopened bottles in his jaw-breakingly gorgeous cellar. Koch estimates that he spent $4 million on 400 fake bottles. Koch is brother to his two infamous brothers, Charles and David.

Ponsot initiated and carried out his own one-man investigation—both on principle and because his wines were being forged. He took several trips between France and the United States. Koch hired a top-of-the-line investigator who, in turn, hired a staff of investigators.

Rudy Kurnianwin is serving a ten-year sentence in a federal penitentiary.

Others, though, have taken up the slack. It is estimated there may be as many as 10,000 forged wine bottles still in private collections.

$our Grapes is distributed by Netflix.

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Arthur Miller: Writer

When asked what he would like his obituary to say about him, Arthur Miller responded with just one word, ‘writer.’ Hence, the documentary’s one-word subtitle.

In Arthur Miller: Writer, accomplished writer/actor/director, and Miller’s daughter Rebecca Miller tells her father’s story—in a too-short 90 minutes running time. She captures his genius, flaws, and, especially, the arc of his character over 90 years of life. It is that character portrait I found most engaging. As the film progress I found myself looking for that something deeper that gave me a sense of the driving force of Arthur Miller’s creativity. I found it in this brief dialog between father and daughter:

“You were prone to walk away from conflict, naturally,” comments Rebecca Miller, addressing her father, “but in your plays, there’s a continual kind of return to conflict.”

“I suppose it’s because there, I could live it out—in the literature, in the writing. Whereas in life, it was too painful, you see. So, the pain went into the writing, whereas it was hard to sustain it in real life. I think that’s part of what happened.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“I don’t know, I just couldn’t bear the idea of people trying to destroy each other, ‘cause I sensed very early on that all real arguments are murderous. There was a killing instinct in there that I feared. So, I put it into the theater.”

Like many of us compassionate humans, Miller was fearful of his id—our narcissistic and destructive impulses. At film’s conclusion it appears Miller has found peace and wisdom, living a secluded life, his legend well established.

P.S. He was also a carpenter.

Arthur Miller: Writer is an HBO documentary film.

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Take Your Pills: For the Love of Addy

$13 Billion Annually

That’s the upside to the marketing and sales of prescription performance enhancing drugs. Alison Klayman’s Take Your Pills is an exploration of what we get for our money.

The primary focus is on Adderall and, secondarily, on Ritalin—as used by people who do not have ADHD or ADD. It is relatively easy to secure a prescription, however, without the actual presence of those syndromes. Students take these drugs to do school work faster and better—working adults for the same reason.

Klayman’s interviewees point out the plusses and minuses of what seems to be a ubiquitous use of these drugs by students and adults. At film’s end she takes a brief look at ‘nootropics’—nutritional supplements to enhance brain functioning—and ‘micro-dosing,’ the use of small doses of psychedelic substances to enhance job performance. ‘Brain hacking’ one interviewee calls it.

Researcher Martha Farah and company from the University of Pennsylvania decided to test the impact of Adderall on students’ cognitive performance. The study was done only on students without a formal diagnosis of ADHD or ADD. “It was across a huge battery of different tasks,” Farah states, “and in the end we found no significant difference between Adderall and placebo except for one question: Do you feel that the pill you took today enhanced your cognition?”

Yes, those taking the drug did feel their performance was enhanced—but the research showed no significant relationship between enhanced learning and drug-taking. The drug “boosts their false self-confidence in how well they’re learning,” another researcher concludes.

Whatever the motivations or rationales are to take what is nothing more or less than amphetamine—its use is deeply entrenched in various layers of American society. One interviewee predicts Adderall and its cousins will take opioids’ place in the media world when people finally develop opioid media coverage fatigue. However, from the information in Take Your Pills, in an end-stage capitalism world, I doubt controversy in the media is going to hinder its prescription and use.

Take Your Pills is a Netflix documentary film.

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Notes from the Field: The School-to-Prison Pipeline

Anna Deavere Smith interviewed more than 250 people to write and perform her epic one-woman play, Notes from the Field.

Smith culled through this 300 hours of interviews, choose 19 interviewees, selected interview segments of each, and performed them as the interviewee. She began work on this project in 2012, performed it as a one-woman show, and had it filmed for HBO. It premiered on February 24, 2018.

The central topic is the school-to-prison pipeline which has become an integral part of American society. There is also a broader focus on racism. The film juxtaposes Smith’s performances with archival footage of police abuse, riots, and protests.

Notes from the Field is stunning from beginning to end. Smith’s acting is the strongest single performance I have experienced to date.

For more information about the show, here is her interview. For more information about Anna’s activism visit her personal website.

Speed and Angels: The Adventures of Meagan and Jay

When Jay Consalvi went home from the hospital—at two days of age—his father took the infant flying for 20 minutes before going home. By the time he was five Jay wanted to fly, and by 11, he wanted to be a Navy fighter pilot—although he didn’t know what a fighter pilot does.

Meagan Varley wanted to fly Navy jets since the age of 12. Top Gun was the trigger of that aspiration. Her two sisters are confirmed pacifists—as am I. “It’s kind of extreme,” comments one of the sisters, “when your twin sister’s a fighter pilot.”

Varley and Consalvi were accepted into the Naval Academy. As of 2007, only one in a thousand Academy applicants are accepted. After graduation they were accepted into flight school—only one in a thousand applicants are accepted. Only 30 to 40 percent of those who enter flight school complete that training program. Of those who complete, only 15% get jets, and out of that 15% only 1% are accepted into fighter training. I did not find what percentage of fighter trainees complete their training.

Consalvi and Varley became carrier-based fighter pilots, and were deployed to Iraq.

In Speed and Angels director Peyton Wilson tells the stories of these two rare birds from the beginning of their fighter training through their deployment to Iraq. She had the cooperation of the Navy, and captured rare—for public consumption—video and audio footage of aerial combat training as well as the carrier landing practice of our two heroes.

Like so many other documentary features I’ve seen, I wanted much more of the story. I am grateful, though, for being able to see these two stories.

I found Speed and Angels on Amazon Prime Video.

(The second “Top Gun” movie lands in 2019.)

IMDB Reference  (This reference provides a website for the film, but I was not able to access it via Firefox or Chrome. For the record the URL is: http://www.speedandangels.com/ )

A River Below: The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions

If I were teaching a graduate course in ethics I would have my class see A River Below. The students would then be required to write a comprehensive examination of the ethics of the five principals: The director, the two ‘stars,’ an impoverished Amazonian river community immersed in a Brazilian environmental controversy, and the Amazon river dolphin.

In addition to habitat loss and inadvertent deaths from fishing, the Amazon river dolphin was being hunted and slaughtered by fishermen solely to be used as bait to attract a particular species of commercially viable fish.

Enter our two stars: Richard Rasmussen and Fernando Trujillo. They are passionate about nature in general, and, specifically about saving the river dolphin. Rasmussen is a television star who uses his media platform to promote the value of the natural world. He is as passionate about his own legend as he is about the world’s fauna. Trujillo is a biologist.

Frustrated at a lack of awareness of the ongoing slaughter, Rasmussen reasons the only way to generate public awareness of the slaughter is to have a visceral image of its demise on national television. His idea is realized. Governmental protections are put in place. Then all hell breaks loose—well, since the destruction of the Amazon’s watershed is already hell, let’s just say even more hell breaks loose. The utterly sincere Trujillo ends up having a body guard, and to wear a bullet-proof vest.

The producers of A River Below are well aware their film is not your father’s environmental documentary film. The making of the film becomes its own meta-story. If my hypothetical students did a good job on their ethical analyses, they would be exploring both the micro and macro ethics of the actions of our five principals. Only the dolphins would emerge free of any ethical concerns.

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Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World

Written and directed by Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World brings to light the significant impact of Indigenous Americans on rock and pop music—and since American music found its way around the world, this impact is global in nature.

The film features Robbie Robertson, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jimi Hendrix, Charley Patton, Mildred Bailey, Link Wray, Jesse Ed Davis, Redbone, Randy Castillo, and Black Eye Peas rapper Taboo. The artists acknowledge the presence of and, especially, the impact of their Native American genetic and cultural heritage on their music. The legendary Tony Bennett appears acknowledging the crucial impact Mildred Bailey had on his musical development. Miami Steve Van Zandt also appears in interview sharing his thoughts and experience of artists with Indigenous heritage.

Rumble is another one of those documentary films that could have been twice as long as its hour and 43 minutes run time. So much of the information is revelatory, I simply wanted to learn more, and to hear more of their musics. The film also serves as a reminder of the horrific treatment Native American’s received—and still receive—from the country’s post-Columbian immigrants.

I am always gratified when the world agrees with me on something. In this case, when you go to the film’s homepage you will see how well Rumble was received in its festival run. Go to the film’s press page and see how well the film has been received globally.

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