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

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Eco-Terrorist: The Battle for Our Planet


More confessions from an eco-terrorist.

(2019) Documentary (Breaking GlassPeter Jay Brown, Darryl Hannah, Paul Watson, Robert Hunter, Pete Bethum, Peter Hamerstedt. Directed by Peter Jay Brown

 

When one looks around at the planet, there’s no doubt that ecologically speaking, we’re in serious trouble. Global warming, overfishing, fracking, strip mining, rain forests burning, entire species dying off at a terrifying rate. All of that is occurring right now, even as we speak.

Some groups are fighting back. Whales have been under attack by the illegal whaling industry, primarily conducted by Japan. The slaughter is threatening the ocean’s eco-system. When two of the founders of Greenpeace, Paul Watson and Robert Hunter, felt that their organization was not taking effective steps to stop the slaughter, they broke off and founded a new group – the Sea Shepherd Society.

Utilizing old rustbuckets that passed for sea-worthy vessels, the two decided to take a more direct involvement, putting themselves in the line of fire so to speak and deliberately ramming whaling vessels in an effort to delay them in their deadly harvest. Each day the whalers are at sea costs them hundreds of thousands of dollars; with almost no assets to speak of, the Society was virtually lawsuit-proof and they had an enviable record of saving thousands of whales without causing a single injury or fatality.

The group attracted notice and Watson became something of a rock star and the group’s work was depicted on the Animal Planet show Whale Wars. Donations poured in and between that and what the group made from the television show they were suddenly flush with cash. They were able to pay their volunteers, afford better ships and were no longer lawsuit-proof.

Peter Jay Brown, a filmmaker and environmental activist, has been one of the longest tenured members of the group, having started when the group tilted at windmills in ships that didn’t have working toilets. Once again, he has filmed and narrated the activities of the group, concentrating on their history and their tactics.

I can’t help but admire the passion and spunk of those involved in the organization. Certainly, they are fighting the good fight. Sadly, I doubt that this documentary is going to win them a lot of converts; the narration comes off as nearly condescending, a big image problem for those on the left. This film really embodies that. It brushes off the whaling industry as “unnecessary” which makes no logical sense; why would the Japanese spend millions of dollars to send a fleet of ships to harvest whales if there was no good use for them? If it wasn’t lucrative, the Japanese wouldn’t defy world opinion and international maritime law to do what they do.

Like I said, I admire what this group does and even though their tactics can be somewhat manipulative, I suppose all’s fair when it comes to the planet’s survival. I just wish they didn’t find it necessary to treat their viewers like idiots. I also would have preferred a little more objectivity. This comes off a bit too much like propaganda.

I certainly hope that readers will look into the activities of these cheerful eco-pirates and understand that what they’re doing is important and support them on that basis. I also hope that left-leaning filmmakers understand that just because their cause is just doesn’t mean they have to talk down to their audience who likely want to be presented with both sides of the coin, at least in a rudimentary way.

REASONS TO SEE: A depiction of people doing good and necessary work.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film is hagiographic almost to the point of being condescending.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third in a series of “Eco-Terrorist” films that Brown has made.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Confessions of an Eco-Terrorist
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mister America

Wrinkles the Clown


This is why clowns terrify people.

(2019) Documentary (Magnet) D.B. Lambert, Wrinkles the Clown, Tyler Beck, Colby Gatlin, Sean Whittaker, Edie Love Anderson, Matt Wideman, Miguel Rey, Benjamin Bradford, Nikki Conklin, Bri Jones, Christopher Barcia, Trevor J. Blank, Linsey Kelsey, Andrew Caldwell, Colby Brock, Logan Williams, Peter Barcia, Antonio Harriss, Cheryl Sellars. Directed by Michael Beach Nichols

In a year that has brought us Pennywise and Arthur Fleck, the scariest clown of all might just be Wrinkles. You may have seen him in the several viral videos he appears in; slowly emerging from a drawer underneath a sleeping child’s bed, standing at the side of a busy road holding a bunch of balloons, driving a shopping cart across a parking lot. He seemed to be an urban legend in the making.

Then stickers began to appear all around Naples in Southwest Florida, advertising Wrinkles the Clown with a phone number for parents to call if they wanted to hire him to scare their kids. More than a million voice mail messages were left; some were parents taking him up on the offer, others were curious kids, still others were death threats. Suddenly the mainstream media was looking into this phenomenon and documentary filmmaker Michael Beach Nichols decides to investigate and he finds an old retired ex-party clown who finds it increasingly difficult to make it in his chosen profession. Now living out of his van, he decides that perhaps the profit lies in scaring kids rather than entertaining them and judging by the more than one million voicemail messages he received, he’s absolutely right.

But this seems pretty straightforward and even if our suspicions are immediately raised by a man whose face is never shown but appears to have a flowing white beard, we begin to realize (or perhaps not since the story we’re getting feeds right into our expectations) that not everything we’re being told is, strictly speaking, reality.

This documentary is ostensibly about a cultural phenomenon but to be honest, it is really more about our culture, how myths are made and how badly we want to believe them. It’s also about modern parenting, or lack thereof. Talking head interviews from folklorists, child psychologists and law enforcement give us different outlooks on the Wrinkles phenomenon but as we eventually find out, Wrinkles is more of a pawn than a provocateur.

There are a lot of interviews with children, some of whom could do with a visit from a homicidal clown (just kidding). Others seem to be more dialed in to things than we give kids their age credit for. One thing is for certain; one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to raising children; every kid is different and requires different techniques. We tend to forget that in an age where we look for quick fixes, and express ourselves in tweets and memes. As a society it feels like we have no attention span whatsoever anymore and while that isn’t necessarily a point that the movie makes, it certainly can be deduced from what the movie presents.

In some ways I’m reminded me of the Catfish movie which set up expectations in one direction but turned out to go in an entirely different one when you finally sat down and watched it. In some ways I admire Nichols for having the huevos to shift gears but at least as far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out as to whether it worked for me or not. I’m still kind of ruminating on this one.

Sometimes a movie appears to be going in one direction and then it zings dramatically in another. For the most part, those of us who see a lot of movies appreciate that as a change of pace but not everybody will feel that way; when this movie shifts gears, it comes out of left field and even though when you look back and consider it, you come to an understanding that it was headed that way all along. This is the rare documentary that bears repeated viewings.

REASONS TO SEE: Just might be a reflection of how disturbed we are as a society. Exceedingly disturbing in places and yet from a certain point of view, hilarious.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the Skype interviews are distracting.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images and a plethora of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made it’s debut at Fantastic Fest in Austin last month.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google PlayMicrosoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Killer Klowns from Outer Space
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Eco-Terrorist: The Battle for Our Planet

Memory: The Origins of Alien


You never want to mess with the furies.

2019) Documentary (Screen Media) Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Diane O’Bannon, Ben Mankiewicz, Ronald Shusett, Roger Corman, Roger Christian, Ivor Powell, William Linn, Clarke Wolf, Axelle Carolyn, Henry Jenkins, Adam Egypt Mortimer, Carmen Scheifele-Giger, Gary Sherman, Linda Rich, Mickey Faerch, Rhoda Pell, Shannon Muchow.  Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe

 

One of the classics of its time was Ridley Scott’s Alien, which came out in 1979. While it wasn’t the first movie to meld horror and science fiction, it is certainly one of the best examples of both genres. Even now, 40 years after its initial release, the movie still terrifies and inspires.

Over the years there have been plenty of “making-of” documentaries about the film but few have taken the tack that this one has. Philippe, best known for his dissection of Hitchcock’s shower scene from Psycho in his documentary 78/52, looks more at the gestation of the film culminating in its infamous “chestburster” birthing scene which in 1979 caused audience jaws to collectively drop. Even today, new viewers of the film going in unprepared can be taken unawares.

Philippe does a deep dive into writer Dan O’Bannon’s influences to begin with; from his fascination with Greek and Egyptian mythologies to the loathing of insects he developed on the Missouri farm he grew up on to his eventual love for writer H.P. Lovecraft, no stone goes unturned in discussing where the ideas for Alien germinated. O’Bannon’s widow Diane (her husband passed away in 2009 of complications from the Crohn’s disease he lived with all his life) acts as something of a shepherdess, guiding us through his initial filmmaking foray (Dark Star which he co-directed with John Carpenter) through an abortive Dune project with Mexican surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky but which introduced him to the work of Swiss artist H.R. Giger and through the frustrating attempts to sell what would become his masterpiece. Giger’s influences are also briefly summarized as well as a lengthy discussion of painter Francis Bacon’s influence on the look of the chestburster scene (I would have preferred a little more time spent on Giger but that’s just me).

The documentary isn’t as comprehensive as The Beast Within, the making-of documentary that first appeared on the DVD edition of The Alien Quadrilogy which collected the first four films of the franchise along with an array of special features. In fact, some of the archival interviews from that feature appear here, projected onto video screens on a faux bridge of the Nostromo, a touch I liked very much.

There is a very intellectual approach to the film; there are interviews with respected critics and film historians such as Axelle Carolyn, Ben Mankiewicz and Clarke Wolf. There are also contemporary interviews with some of the cast and crew of the film including Cartwright and Skerritt (but interestingly enough, not Scott or Sigourney Weaver whose career essentially began with the film). There is discussion of how the politics of 1979 affected the film and how some of the social points are still relevant (the expendability of the working-class crew, for example).

In many ways, this is an excellent lead-in for those who haven’t yet seen the film although I can’t imagine someone willing to invest the time on a detailed examination of a movie they haven’t seen. Fans of the movie will no doubt enjoy this even though some of the on-set stories have been told elsewhere.

Almost by necessity there is an endless parade of talking heads although it is well-dispersed with footage from the film as well as behind-the-scenes footage, particularly when the examination of the chestburster scene finally arrives about halfway through. I don’t honestly know if this is the definitive documentary about the film – it really doesn’t examine the movie’s effect and legacy except in very broad terms. Still, fans of the movie will find the academic approach different and perhaps enlightening. It reminds me of the early days of DVDs and VHS home video releases when certain movies got documentaries that really gave great insight into the development of the film unlike the modern back-slapping love-fests that you see these days when you see anything at all.

REASONS TO SEE: Definitely a godsend for fans of the movie.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too detailed for the casual fan.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as horrific images from the original film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is one of the first purchases by the fan-owned entertainment company, Legion M.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Empire of Dreams
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Wallflower

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

Out of Omaha


Twin sons of different others.

(2018) Documentary (DreamvilleDarcell Trotter, Darell “Rell” Trotter, Wayne Brown, Barbara Robinson, Yono Jones, Eric Lofton, Anthony Beasley, Dr. Jef Johnston, Dazmi Casterjon, Yvonne Beasley, Kenneth Scott, Christopher Trotter, Anthony Kellogg, Aubrey Caballero, Shay Murph-Bookhardt, Keiara Ritchie.  Directed by Clay Tweel

 

After the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement, many on the right – some well-meaning, I grant you – responded back that “All Lives Matter.”

They’re missing the point.

African-Americans in this country have been marginalized ever since being delivered here in chains. They may no longer be the property of plantation owners but they are marginalized by poverty, by a lack of opportunity and an excess of suspicion. They are put into ghettos where crime and despair run rampant and even should they manage to get an education and become pillars of the community, they can expect to be pulled over with regularity by the police or have neighbors call the cops when they are working in the garage of their own home.

No matter the size of the city, the racial divide is palpable. Omaha, Nebraska isn’t exactly a megalopolis but it is a good-sized Midwestern city that prides itself on its heartland values. Those values seem to end at the border of North Omaha, the poverty-stricken African-American community which is plagued by gang violence and drugs. Into this world twin brothers Darcell and Darell Trotter were born.

Omaha has one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the country, largely thanks to the violence in North “O.” It also has a high concentration of millionaires living in lovely split-level homes surrounded by beautifully manicured lawns. The Trotter twins knew nothing of that other Omaha. Their reality was the gangs and drugs of the north side.

Documentary filmmaker Clay Tweel, who has been responsible for films such as Gleason and Make Believe, spent seven years off and on filming the twins as they try to escape the poverty and hopelessness of their environment. Primarily focusing on Darcell’s story, the film watches him leave the gang life which consumed his brother Rell and the drug addiction which trapped his father Shane, taking advantage of a program called Avenue Scholars which allowed him to attend the University of Nebraska Omaha in pursuit of a music production degree with an eye on becoming a hip-hop producer and entrepreneur.

However, he is fated to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when he attends a party in which a violent robbery takes place. Despite the fact that he left at the first sign of trouble, he is identified as one of those involved and his face is plastered all over a Crimestoppers segment on the local news. When Darcell, whose loyalty to his friends was forged as a gang member where it was drilled into him that you never give up your friends, refuses to name the other people involved, he is sent to jail, a scared 19-year-old kid in a scary place. Eventually the charges are dropped but the damage is done.

He moves in with his brother and their father in Grand Island, Nebraska, 150 miles away. With an African-American population that makes up just 2% of the total population, they are looked upon with some suspicion but both of them work hard and start to make something of themselves. Their father, hooked on heroin, abandons them, leaving them with nowhere to live. Aubrey Caballero, the mom of their friend Ricky, takes the two boys in.

The boys are accused of sexual assault which once again puts them on the front page of the local news but their accuser recants and admits that she made up her story. Their exoneration gets absolutely no coverage at all – go ahead and Google Darcell’s name and see what comes up – which leaves them with a blight on their record. Nevertheless, they both continue to work hard and when Darcell fathers a young daughter, he finds reservoirs of strength he never knew he had.

The movie is enormously powerful in the sense that you get a first-hand look at what young African-American men are facing; how their opportunities are restricted by poverty and racial profiling, and yet both of the twins aspire to something better for themselves, the comforts of life that those who grew up in comfortable suburban lives take for granted. Tweel is non-judgmental about the choices the brothers make (and they aren’t always wise ones), not making excuses for their poor choices but neither blaming them for them. In many ways they are conditioned to see the world through a sheen in which the only escape from the hopelessness is through drugs and crime. Tweel has come a long way as a filmmaker over the years and this might just be his best film yet.

This is very much a cinema verité experience as the camera follows the boys and watches their story unfold. There are a few interviews, such as with Wayne Brown, a man who with his wife Niki managed to get out of North Omaha and become respected professionals but still had to put up with police officers pulling them over every few days while driving to work. Mostly, though, this is the story of two boys who grow up to be men but never lose their hope for something better despite everything thrown their way. While the movie ends on a hopeful note – the twin brothers are preparing to open up their own appliance store in Grand Island – it may not be an earth-shattering triumph but considering the journey they took to get there, it is as inspiring a story as any epic tale.

REASONS TO SEE: Tweel is growing as a filmmaker. Unvarnished cinema verité.
REASONS TO AVOID: There is nothing really game-changing here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a shitload of profanity, some drug use and descriptions of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was executive produced by rising hip-hop star J. Cole.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Starz, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Princess of the Row
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Game Changers

Jim Allison: Breakthrough


They call him surf cowboy…

(2019) Documentary (DadaJim Allison, Woody Harrelson (narrator), Willie Nelson, Sharon Belvin, Malinda Allison, Dr. Jedd Wolchok, Andrew Pollack, Eric Benson, Murphy Allison, G. Barrie Kitto, Lewis Lanier, Tyler Jacks, Jeffrey Bluestone, Max Krummel, Alan Korman, Nils Lonberg, Dr. Elliott Sigal, Rachel Humphrey, Padmee Sharma. Directed by Bill Haney

 

Occasionally, you see a documentary that resonates with you because of the place and time that you’re in. It’s the cinematic version of all the planets aligning to smite the viewer with something so personal, so relevant to the viewer that one can’t help but be sucked in.

Jim Allison is a Texas iconoclast with a scruffy beard, a wild mane of hair and a collection of Hawaiian shirts that would shame Magnum, P.I. He plays blues harmonica with such luminaries as Willie Nelson but that’s more of a hobby. You see, when Jim Allison isn’t busy blowing his harp or fighting the powers that be in Texas education regarding the teaching of creationism in schools, he is developing a cure for cancer.

This particularly hits home for me since in May I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and just this past Wednesday I had surgery to have it removed. This type of cancer is the same that Jim’s brother Mike was stricken with and eventually succumbed to. Jim’s mom also passed from lymphoma when Jim was just 11 years old; it was then that the seeds of beating this dread disease were planted in him.

Jim went the route of immunotherapy, using the body’s own immune system to beat cancer. The T-cell is one of the components of white blood cells that seek out cells that are causing harm in the body. Cancer cells have managed to figure out a way to turn off the receptors in T-cells which effectively renders them invisible to the body’s immune system, allowing them to flourish and grow until it’s all over but the funeral arrangements.

Jim developed a drug with the odd name of Ipilimumab which faced a daunting task to make it from the lab to the pharmacy. A tremendous amount of research would be needed before the FDA would approve the drug, the kind of money only Big Pharma can provide and to be bloody honest Big Pharma has a reputation to be more about treating cancer than curing it. However, Bristol Myers Squibb, one of the biggest of Big Pharma, led by Dr. Rachel Humphrey, decided that the research Jim had conducted was promising. The rest, as they say, is history. Jim’s dogged persistence had a great deal to do with his success, but it also cost him his marriage as his wife Malinda like most human beings didn’t have an inexhaustible well of patience.

The movie is essentially a whole lot of talking head interviews interspersed with some nifty computer graphics depicting how T-cells work and other medical matters. One of the most compelling interviews is with Sharon Belvin, at the time a 22-year-old newlywed who was diagnosed with melanoma, essentially a death sentence. She was part of one of the first to participate in clinical trials for the drug and eventually became the first patient to use the drug that Allison met, one of the most emotional scenes in the film.

Much of the science went right over my head – there’s a reason I’m a film critic and not a research scientist – and some might find the scientific sequences thick. However, Jim’s “I gotta be me” personality and perseverance in the face of widespread disbelief on the part of his colleagues and often outright disrespect are some of the highlights of the film.

I’m hoping that I don’t need to use drugs like ipilimumab in the future; I’m hopeful that the cancer was caught early enough that the surgical removal of my prostate will leave me free of cancer for years to come. There are no guarantees when it comes to the Big C, however, and it’s comforting to know that there are drugs and methods out there that may extend my life many years beyond what prostate cancer patients in years past were able to survive so if I rate the documentary on the high side, I think I can be excused for that.

REASONS TO SEE: A really close look at how important research is done. Portrait of a Texas iconoclast.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the science is a bit dense.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Allison shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Tasuku Honjo of Japan in 2018.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire in the Blood
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Out of Omaha