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

Honky Tonk Heaven: The Legend of the Broken Spoke


It’s not a lifestyle, it’s a life.

(2016) Documentary (Wild Blue Yonder) James White, Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Annetta White, Jon Langford, Gary P. Nunn, Josh Delk, Cornell Hurd, Bruce Robison, Dale Watson, Jesse Dayton, Tracey Dear, Terri White, Joe Nick Patoski, Ginny White, Jessie Matthieson, Will Wynn, Ray Benson, Mike Harmier, Denise Hosek, Alvin Crow, James Hand, Pauline Reese, Julie Johnson. Directed by Sam Wainwright Douglas and Julie Mitchell

The Broken Spoke in South Austin sits smack on South Lamar Boulevard, the heart of the highly developed South Lamar Corridor. Brand new condos and multi-purpose buildings surround it. The building is incongruous, a ramshackle wooden bar with a dirt parking lot and a beautiful oak tree out front.

James White built the Spoke by hand back in 1964, assisted by as he puts it “Every drunk in South Austin.” When it rains, the roof leaks like a sieve, necessitating a corrugated tin roof being placed in between the shingles and the roof in order to keep the patrons dry. It may not look like much but it is a piece of history, a place that matters in a city where music matters almost as much as dancing, where a good country fried steak matters as much as a cold Lonestar beer and where the great and the not-so-great have played on its tiny stage with a ceiling so low that taller performers often have to slouch down to keep from banging their head on it.

On that stage have played country music royalty, from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys to Ernest Tubbs to George Strait to a young clean-cut Willie Nelson. All who have played that stage have understood the fundamental truth of why they’re there; get the customers to dance. Dancing, in Texas, is at least as important as walking. The music, says one interviewee, is an excuse to get people to touch each other in public.

This documentary celebrates a lot of things; not just the Spoke itself although that is the primary focus but also Austin as one of the world’s music capitals and Texas which is not just a lifestyle but a life. As the world has changed, dance halls and honky tonks have all but disappeared. There is a difference between the two; the former is where you take your wife to dance, the latter is where you take someone else’s wife to dance. You’ve gotta love Texas.

The White family has made this their second home for half a century. James and his wife Annetta have tended to the business with care; James is the public face, attired in brilliant rhinestones and embroidered shirts. He greets the customers, introduces the bands (and sometimes sings with them) and shares stories with those willing to listen (which is just about everybody). He is the main focus of the documentary and they couldn’t find a better one; he’s charming, garrulous and full of great stories. He’s a born entertainer but not in a show biz sense; he just lifts up the spirits of anyone he’s around. While he takes care of the front of the house, his wife sees to the books but also the kitchen where those killer country fried steaks are made and tends bar. She spends a lot of time on-camera as well and she is just as full of piss and vinegar as any Texas woman is. The last shot of the movie – of James and Annetta dancing a Texas waltz – is beautiful and sums up how close this couple is to one another. It really does bring a tear to one’s eye and sums up what the movie is really all about..

Their daughters Ginny and Terri also work at the Spoke; Terri conducts dancing lessons before the bands go onstage, and Ginny embroiders the shirts her father wears as well as assists her mother with the running of the Spoke on the business side. She is the heir apparent and feels a keen responsibility to keep it going when her parents finally hang up their rhinestones, a day that she doesn’t particularly want to see come. Her voice breaks when she discusses it.

The history of the Spoke is discussed and there are plenty of archival photos that are absolutely amazing. There is also a kind of tour of dance halls in various rural Texas towns that mostly stand silent and empty. Throughout the movie you get a sense of Texas and what it’s like to be part of that great state. Those that are in charge of such things really ought to designate this film a Texas treasure; there aren’t many films that give the audience a sense of what it’s like to be a Texan as well as this one does.

I’m not a particular fan of country music as I’ve said in other reviews although I respect the relationship the musicians have with their fans. I will say that even if you can’t stand country music, you will likely still find this fascinating and enjoyable. It’s not just Honky Tonk music that this film is all about; it’s about a life and a tradition that is still beloved and revered. I’ve been to Austin on occasion and caught my share of live music there in some of their justifiably famous venues (like Antone’s and Emo’s) but I do know that the next time I’m in the Texas capital, I’m going to make a jaunt down South Lamar and park my ass at the bar at the Spoke and maybe order me a chicken fried steak. While I’m there, I’m going to be sure to shake the hand of James White and thank him for keeping the legend alive for so long – and I’ll be honored to do all of those things.

REASONS TO GO: Even those not into country music will find something to love about this movie. James White is a fascinating study. Nicely does the history without dwelling too much on it. The film is as Texas as it comes.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a parade of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Nothing that isn’t suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the band is playing, standing on the dance floor is not allowed. You must be dancing or get off the dance floor.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Supergirl

Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound


Cowboy elegance.

Cowboy elegance.

(2014) Music Documentary (Old City) Billy Mize, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dave Alvin, Ray Price, Buddy Neal, Maxine Crofford, Buddy Mize, Rose Vegas Waters, Gerald Haslam, Tommy Hays, Red Simpson, Cliff Crofford, Martha Mize, Karen Mize, Jimmy Phillips, Scott B. Bomar, Ray Urquhart, Bobby Durham, Monty Byrom, Dr. Diane Kendall, Dr. Jay Rosenbek, Dr. Ricardo Gonzalez, Leslie Gonzalez-Rothi. Directed by William J. Saunders

Florida Film Festival 2015

Even for country music fans, the name of Billy Mize isn’t necessarily a familiar one. One of the progenitors of the Bakersfield Sound, which came to rival that of Nashville on the country music scene in the 50s (and continues to be a huge influence on modern country music even today), he helped launch the careers of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, both of whom made their television debuts on television shows in the Los Angeles-area that Mize hosted.

Mize had all the tools to be huge himself; good looks, a self-effacing downhome attitude, legitimate talent both in musicianship and songwriting and a silky smooth voice. However, he made a choice early on to forego touring and concentrate on television as a means of promotion in order to stay close to his family. It’s not easy to say whether Mize was aware of the cost of that decision, but certainly it did contribute to him not achieving the status he should have had.

His life wasn’t one of glamour and prestige although he lived comfortably enough; it was one that had a great deal of heartache. He performed until he was 59 years old, when a massive stroke robbed him of his voice. I can’t imagine a hell any more terrible for a singer than to be without a voice.

Yet he still manages today, performing on guitar at local clubs in the Bakersfield area where he continues to live. His ex-wife Martha remains a loyal friend, sitting next to him during interviews for this film in which he speaks haltingly but displays a great deal of humor.

Most of the film revolves around an impending tribute concert at Buck Owen’s theater in Bakersfield on the occasion of his 80th birthday. He had been continuing speech therapy in an effort to sing again and was hoping to sing for the first time onstage in more than 20 years at the concert as a kind of birthday present to himself, his fans and his colleagues.

It should be said that the music here is mostly Mize although we do get some performances of other artists performing Mize’s songs. This kind of country music may not be your cup of tea – it isn’t mine – but I found myself appreciating it more than I expected. Part of the attraction, I think, is knowing that this is some of the finest music of the Bakersfield variety that has ever been performed.

Buck Owens is, for many, the mainstay of the Bakersfield scene and he certainly brought the sound into the mainstream, but he isn’t as well-regarded within the community as either Mize or Merle Haggard. I found that interesting to say the least. It should also be said that there are plenty of performers outside of Bakersfield who appreciate and are influenced by Mize .

Mize is regarded with affection by many in the country music community, particularly those who are based on the West Coast. As an influence, the man looms large in Bakersfield and beyond. As they illustrate in the movie, the Bakersfield sound originated in honky-tonks more than in recording studios and the music was built for people to dance. While the movie relies a bit overly much on standard documentary format and too much on talking head interviews, it certainly will motivate even those (like myself) who aren’t particular fans of country music to get up and dance for a man whose story deserves celebration.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story about a performer many have forgotten. Surprisingly relevant music.
REASONS TO STAY: Relies too much on talking heads. Those who hate country music will likely not find a reason to watch this.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Saunders is actually the grandson of Billy Mize.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Muscle Shoals
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Mad Max: Fury Road

Beer for My Horses


Beer for my Horses

Toby Keith and compadres contemplate the next Ford truck commercial.

(Roadside Attractions) Toby Keith, Rodney Carrington, Barry Corbin, Claire Forlani, Ted Nugent, Greg Serano, Tom Skerritt, Gina Gershon, Willie Nelson, Carlos Sanz. Directed by Michael Salomon

I’m not the target audience for this movie, not by a long stretch. I’m not a big lover of country music, although I do admire the relationship between the performers and their fans. However, my neck is not nearly red enough to really immerse myself in country culture.

Toby Keith doesn’t have that problem. His neck is as red as the American flag…the white and the blue probably appear elsewhere on his person too. He drives a Ford pickup. He sings songs about drinking and raising hell. Good ol’ boy? Goddamn, he’s a good ol’ MAN. If you shoot him with anything lower than a .45, the bullets just bounce off.

He plays Rack Racklin, a fun-loving Oklahoma sheriff whose girlfriend Cammie (Gershon) has just taken a powder. Don’t worry, though; his ex-girlfriend Annie (Forlani) is back in town and you can tell they’re destined to be together because she’s totally less bitchy than Cammie although their names rhyme, sort of.

Rack arrests Tito Garza (Serano), a Mexican drug kingpin who has been bringing in meth that is turning the little town into a crap factory. Tito’s brother (Sanz) doesn’t like that much, and kidnaps Annie so that he can trade her for his brother – after which he’ll shoot anything white that isn’t floating in a tequila bottle. Mexicans are ornery that way – just ask Toby Keith.

The sheriff (Skerritt) wants to play it cool but Rack isn’t taking no for an answer. He rounds up his best friend, Deputy Lonnie Feldman (Carrington) and the silent but deadly bowhunter Skunk (Nugent – yes, that Ted Nugent) to head down to Mexico and save the girl. And shoot some Mexicans. For a redneck, that’s a party.

Where do I start? Keith is amiable enough as the lead. Most of the first part of the movie is a light-hearted comedy, but it turns into Rambo about halfway through and more or less stays there until the last scene. The change isn’t particularly smooth and it feels like you’re driving a Ford F-150 with transmission problems on a dirt road with lots of potholes. Once the movie gets to Walking Tall, Keith seems a bit lost as the tough guy.

The comedy is just plain bad. Carrington is actually an excellent performer, but here he seems to have gone to the Hee Haw school of acting and his character of Lonnie seems to have come straight out of an episode of The Dukes of Hazard. I don’t think I even broke a smile at a single joke.

There are some pretty good actors in the movie but one gets the feeling that they took one look at the script, cashed the check as quickly as they could and phoned in their performances. There’s no energy and no life visible anywhere in the movie. It’s just a bunch of actors going through the motions or at least it appeared that way to me. Maybe it was just a bad day, but even Da Queen, normally much more generous to actors than I am, was begging me to turn off the movie.

Nope, I stuck through the whole thing and the strange thing is there really is a movie in here somewhere, just not this one. I think that given the right material, Keith could be a movie star the same as Tim McGraw is now. Unfortunately, this isn’t the right material for anyone. Except for maybe the Nuge. He only gets to say two words (for the record, the two are “Circus Jolly” at the end of the movie) and the rest of the time, he just shoots things with his bow, the riff from “Cat Scratch Fever” coming on every time he cocks his weapon. That’s pretty much how I’ve always imagined Ted Nugent to be.

WHY RENT THIS: Ummm…ummm…I’m thinking…no, that’s not it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poor script, poor acting, and poor pacing…it’s just not all that good.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence, some crude language and humor, brief nudity and a little bit of drug content. Probably safe for most teens and mature kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in Oklahoma (and the Jackson County shoulder flashes for the deputies are authentic), the movie was actually filmed in New Mexico.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $666,045 on an unreported production budget; I think it’s safe to say the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Informant!