Fantastic Fungi


Paul Stamets makes some new friends.

(2019) Documentary (Diamond DocsPaul Stamets, Brie Larson (narrator), Michael Pollan, John Stamets, Charles Grob, Art Goodtimes, Lori Carris, Jay Harman, Andrew Weil, Peter McCoy, Steve Sheppard, Suzanne Simard, Patricia Stamets, Eugenia Bone, Roland Griffiths, Tradd Cotter, Tony D. Head, Brandon Hopkins, Judith Goedeke, Mary P. Cosimano. Directed by Louie Schwartzberg

 

Most of us don’t pay much attention to the fungus among us; if anything, when we see molds and mushrooms growing, we react with revulsion (for the most part). These things accompany decay and death, and remind us of our own mortality. One day, we too shall rot.

But the various types of fungi are part of a vast world we know little about. This documentary, directed by Schwartzberg who happens to be one of the best at utilizing time-lapse photography in the business, aims to educate us about these things which are somewhere between animal and vegetable

Paul Stamets is our main guide and he has the enthusiasm of an obsessive hobbyist. Self-taught about the marvels of mycology (the study of mushrooms and their ilk), he has become one of the foremost experts on the subject, holding half a dozen related patents and recently giving a TED talk on “Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World.” And no, that isn’t a facetious title.

We find out about mycelium, a thread-like growth that connects trees to one another, allowing them to share nutrients and even identify other trees grown from their own acorns. Mycelium have a similar architecture to the Internet as well as our own neural net; vast networks of them exist in the old growth forests. The largest and oldest living thing in the world is a patch of mycelium living on an Oregon mountaintop.

However, fungi have a usefulness that have real world applications. Penicillin is derived from a mold that is related to mushrooms and has saved thousands upon thousands of lives since its discovery; a variation of that mold is responsible for Gorgonzola cheese. There are studies that show that a variety of mushrooms may allow neural connections that have been destroyed to grow back again, which may end up being a cure for degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Mycelium and other molds and fungi also take carbon out of the air and store it underground, which helps with the climate change fight.

There are also, of course, the magic mushrooms, those that alter consciousness. While Stamets expounds on the so-called “Stoned Ape” theory in which homo erectus, consuming psychedelic mushrooms, which in turn makes neural connections that allow us to develop speech and intelligence (a bit of a stretch), there is no doubting the real-world benefits of psilocybin as organic pain reducers for those with terminal diseases. Stamets also credits the use of magic mushrooms with curing his childhood stutter.

Stamets makes for an engaging subject and the visuals are beautiful (and occasionally terrifying). The film is crammed with information, so much so that you’ll probably need repeated viewings to take it all in; fortunately, the film isn’t too long and the visuals make it more palatable. There is some voiceover narration by Oscar winner Larson taking the point of view of the fungi which I found unnecessary, interrupting the flow of information with flights of fancy.

Nonetheless this is one of those documentaries that has a lot to offer and for those who are inquisitive about the world around them, doubly so. I found it to be fascinating both visually and in terms of the information that’s delivered. While those frightened of decay and rot may shy away, there is a bit of comfort in it as Stamets explains; our DNA becomes part of the world, nourishing it and helping heal it. That’s not a bad legacy to leave behind for anyone.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely informative. Some wonderful time-lapse sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: Larson’s voice-over narration is unnecessary.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of death and corruption.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gravning was a long-time member of Seattle’s rave scene and had been invited to the rave depicted here but was unable to go.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Earth
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again

The Game Changers (2018)


There is strength in numbers.

(2018) Documentary (Diamond Docs) James Wilks, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Patrik Baboumian, Scott Jurek, Dotsie Bausch, Kendrick Farris, Nimai Delgado, Lucious Smith, Gary Wilks, Fabian Kanz, Kim Williams, Morgan Mitchell, Rip Esselstyn, Mischa Janiec, Damien Mander, Tia Blanco, Bryant Jennings, Griff Whalen, Damien Mander, Helen Moon. Directed by Louis Psihoyos

 

Eating meat has long been understood to be less healthy than eating vegetables. However, a mythology regarding the manliness of being a vegetarian has also developed; eating meat makes you stronger, more masculine, more virile. These are ideas largely pushed by purveyors of meat, including burger joints and cattle collectives.

This documentary is out to puncture those myths and perhaps make a few converts among the sports bar crowd. The message is aimed almost overwhelmingly towards men, even going so far during an extended segment to show that eating a plant-based meal before bedtime results in – ahem – improved bedroom performance that night. Gentlemen, start your erections.

There are few men as bad-ass as Wilks, a former UFC fighter and former carnivore. While rehabbing an injury, he researched methods that might get him back in the octagon sooner but came across a study that startled him; gladiators, thought to be among the manliest men ever, were largely vegetarians according to scientific analysis of their bones. The fact that these guys were among the biggest and strongest of their time gave Wilks pause.

He soon found that there were plenty of modern equivalents. Baboumian, one of the strongest men on the planet and a world record-holder for the most weight ever lifted and carried by a human, has been a vegan for ages. So too has ultimate marathoner Jurek and Olympic cycler Bausch. Former NFL player Lucious Jones who is Wilks’ trainer, also has been a vegan largely persuaded by his wife, a chef who specializes in healthy diet. His old team, the Tennessee Titans, were mired in a streak of seasons failing to qualify for the postseason but once more than a dozen members of the team began eating vegan the team made a surprise return to the playoffs. Of course, all the credit is given to the diet.

There is also a nearly endless parade of doctors proclaiming the virtues of a plant-based diet, showing the medical benefits. Quite honestly watching all of these interviews, even supplemented by nifty graphics as some of them are, I found it all beginning to sound repetitive and my interest waned. Even with testimonials coming from the Terminator himself didn’t sway me as much. Maybe I’m just mule-headed but I do love me a burger from time to time.

There’s definitely a new convert’s zeal here and Wilks makes for a solid narrator, even converting his father to the cause after the elder Wilks suffers a major heart attack. In fact, the zeal was a bit off-putting. It’s sort of like having an evangelist preach to you the benefits of Christianity albeit without the scientific backing. There may be a few converts here and there, particularly those who are convinced that their dicks will get harder if they go vegan (the way to a man’s heart is most definitely not through his stomach) but the movie never addresses the main objection most carnivores have to turning to a plant-based diet – meat tastes damn good. In any case, while they make a good scientific case if you are willing to wade through all the stats and graphs, I’m not sure that their apparent goal of converting the intractable will be met.

REASONS TO SEE: Explains the myths of vegetarianism well. Wilks makes a fine narrator.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really make any new converts. The medical information can get bone-dry.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wilks is a former MMA fighter who currently trains law enforcement and military on combat techniques.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes:78% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The End of Meat
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Low Tide