Documentary Review: Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops (dir by Jennifer McShane)


The new documentary Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops opens with police body cam footage of a man getting gunned down in the doorway of his own house.

Why was the man shot?  Because he was holding a screwdriver and he apparently didn’t drop it quickly enough.  Why were the police there in the first place?  They had been called by the man’s mother, who warned the police that her son was schizophrenic and that he was hearing voices.  When the cops shoot him, the man’s mother can be heard screaming in the background, begging the cops not to kill her son.  But kill him, they did.  He died for the crime of holding a screw driver while having mental health crisis.

Unfortunately, that’s a scenario the seems to be happening more and more frequently in the United States.  The police are trained to quickly take control of dangerous situations, to show no emotion, and to bark out orders.  How many times do we hear it whenever someone is gunned down for not immediately dropping whatever they were holding their hands?  “If he had just done what the police said, he’d still be alive.”  We hear that a lot but what if, like the man holding that screwdriver, you’re already hearing voices before the police start screaming at you to show them your hands.  What if you’re already disorientated and not sure what’s real and what’s not?  What then?

Unfortunately, it’s rare that the police are trained on how to deal with someone suffering from mental issues.  Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro are two cops in San Antonio who are trying to change that.  As members of the SAPD’s mental health unit, Ernie and Joe are advocates for changing the way that the police deal with the most vulnerable members of society.  As they explain at one of their training sessions, the police academy will spend days teaching recruits how to draw and fire their weapon without devoting one minute to discussing how to deal with someone who might be hearing voices or who might be suicidal.  Ernie and Joe argue for compassion over brute force.  (Unfortunately, while some cops are seen nodding along with Ernie and Joe’s lessons, several others are seen smirking and rolling their eyes.)

Shot in the style of cinéma vérité, the film follows Ernie and Joe as they deal with cases and attempt to teach their fellow cops that brute force is not always the solution.  At one point, we watch them deal with someone who is threatening to jump off an overpass.  We also listen as Joe, a former Marne, discusses seeing a child blown up in Iraq and how he is still haunted by PTSD.  Ernie, meanwhile, is a family man who goes to church every Sunday and who is looking forward to soon retiring from police work.  The film follows them as they talk, joke, and occasionally bicker like an old married couple.  It’s a good, if somewhat low-key, documentary.  One watches it and hopes that other police departments will learn from San Anotnio’s success.

As I watched the film, I found myself thinking about Vanessa Marquez.  Vanessa was a former actress and a longtime member of the #TCMParty on twitter.  Vanessa was always very open about her own health struggles.  14 months ago, the police showed up at Vanessa’s house in South Pasadena, California.  They say they were doing a welfare check.  They say that Vanessa was in obvious mental distress and that Vanessa resisted their attempts to force her to go to the hospital to be checked out.  The police say that Vanessa pointed a BB gun at them.  Unfortunately, we only know what the police said happened but Vanessa is not her to tell her side of the story.  She was shot and killed.  At the time, it was big news but, as always happens, the media eventually moved on to something else.  After all this time, we still don’t know what really happened the day that Vanessa Marquez was killed in her own home.  We probably never will.

Watching the documentary, I found myself wondering what would have happened if it had been Ernie and Joe or, at the very least, a cop with a similar outlook and compassion who showed up at her house on that day.  Would Vanessa still be with us, watching movies on TCM and tweeting about her experiences in Hollywood?  No one can say for sure but I think she would be.

Hopefully, this documentary will serve as a wake up call for some people.  One need not lose their compassion just because they put on a uniform.  In fact, it’s essential that they don’t.

Documentary Review: American Relapse (dir by Adam Linkenhelt and Pat McGee)


In general, I usually don’t get much out of watching documentaries about drug addiction.  There’s a few reasons for this:

1. Drug addicts are depressing to watch.

2. Drug addicts are boring to listen to.

3. Since everyone knows that drug addiction is a bad thing and that there’s usually only two possible endings to a drug addict’s story — death or detox — it’s not like the majority of drug addiction documentaries have anything new or surprising to tell us.

4. I always find myself wondering about just how much the film crew is enabling the addicts that they’re following around.   There’s always a feeling that the documentary crew is more concerned with putting addicts on display as opposed to actually getting them the help that they need.  It’s hard not to feel that the point of many of these documentaries (and reality shows) is to invite the viewers to gawk and say, “My life may be messed up but at least I’m not passed out in the parking lot of Burger King with a syringe hanging out of my arm.”

Taking all that in mind, I do have to say that I found the new documentary, American Relapse, to be a disturbing and thought-provoking look at not only drug addiction but also the way that the rehab industry has become a big business in South Florida.  Frankie Holmes and Allie Severino are two former addicts who now work as — well, they’re referred to as being “Junkie Hunters,” though Allie objects to the term.  A junkie hunter is someone who searches the streets, befriends drug addicts, and eventually takes them to rehab.  Frankie and Allie both say that they’re in the business because they want to help people and save lives.  At the same time, they also admit that their industry is full of people who don’t care about the addicts that they’re claiming to help.  Instead, they’re simply looking for addicts who have good health insurance so that the rehab centers can make money off of treating them and the hunters can make money off of finding them.

As American Relapse demonstrates, there’s a lot of money to be made in rehab.  The simple act of giving someone a drug test can bring in a few hundred dollars, assuming that the person being tested has insurance.  For a rehab center to make money, there has got to be addicts to make money off of and every time that a formerly sober person relapses, that means even more money. It leads to a viscous cycle, one where people will help but only so much.

The film alternates between scenes explaining how the rehab industry works and scenes of Frankie and Allie working the streets and searching for addicts.  Frankie spends his time trying to get Conor into rehab.  Allie spends most of her time searching for a missing friend of her’s while also trying to help a homeless couple.  Adam Jasinski, who won Big Brother 9 and later went to prison for using his winnings to stet up a drug distribution network, shows up for a few minutes and acts like a dick.  Unfortunately, there are no happy endings.  By the end of the documentary, some people have died.  Others have vanished.  One of the “junkie hunters” has relapsed.

It’s certainly not a happy documentary.  It’s also a bit too long as well.  105 minutes is a long time to spend watching people who aren’t going anywhere.  (Then again, if you consider that Allie and Frankie spend their entire day doing just that, perhaps 105 minutes is not too much to ask.)  Like a lot of recent documentaries, the film occasionally tries to shake things up by inserting animation and clips from old educational films and the results are a bit mixed.  This documentary works best when it sticks to a cinéma vérité style.  Still, it’s a thought-provoking if rather depressing look at lives of intense desperation.

 

Documentary Review: Unmasking Jihadi John: Anatomy of a Terrorist (dir by Anthony Wonke)


Who was Jihadi John?

He was the black-clad terrorist who haunted the news in 2014 and 2015.  He was the faceless man with the London accent who was frequently filmed standing in the desert, taunting Barack Obama and David Cameron before then beheading a hostage.  In total, Jihadi John was filmed either beheading or directing others to behead 29 hostages.  Among his victims were American journalist James Foley and British aid worker David Haines.

Up until he was apparently blown up by a drone strike in 2015, Jihadi John was, for many of us in the West, the best-known member of ISIS.  When we heard the word “ISIS,” he was the one we pictured.  Because his face was always covered, his identity was unknown.  All we knew about him was that he spoke perfect English with a British accent.  He was like a creature sprung from a nightmare, a monster who materialized out of nowhere and taunted us for our inability to defeat him.  There was much speculation about who Jihadi John was.  Even after we found out that he was probably a Kuwait-born British citizen named Mohammed Emwazi, we still wondered how this man came to be standing in the desert, being filmed as he committed terrible crimes.

The new HBO documentary, Unmasking Jihadi John, is an investigation into the origins of terrorism.  The film attempts to reconstruct Emwazi’s early life as an outsider in the UK.  His teachers describe him as being quiet and somewhat forgettable.  Video from that period shows a skinny and awkward-looking teenager, one who covered his mouth whenever he spoke because he had once been taunted for having bad breath.  When he was ten, he wrote that he wanted to be a soccer player.  A few years later, he was caught on video, smiling while sitting in a computer lab.  And then, just a few years after that, he was in Syria, committing horrific acts of evil.  And make no mistake about it — the Emwazi who we see waving a knife while condemning the West is evil.  Evil comes in many disguises and will often try to justify itself by hijacking a religion or an ideology.  But in the end, evil is evil.

Because Emwazi was vaporized in 2015, he’s not around to explain just what exactly led him to join ISIS.  The film speculates that Emwazi initially joined because he was looking for both a surrogate family and a place where he actually belonged.  The documentary contains clips from several ISIS propaganda videos and what’s interesting is that the images that ISIS used — children playing in the streets, men working together to rebuild a city, and friends hugging each other — are many of the same images that one would expect to find in western advertising.  They’re seductive images, ones that offer up a promise of a better life as long as you follow orders and don’t question authority.  They were exactly the type of images designed to appeal to someone like Emwazi (and countless others), who had a need to feel as if they belonged to something bigger than themselves.

If the first half of the documentary focuses on Emwazi and the founding of ISIS, the second half deals with the aftermath of Emwazi’s actions.  Interviews, with the hostages who survived and the families of those who did not, drive home the pain that was caused by the actions of ISIS as a whole and Emwazi in specific.  It’s in those interviews that we are reminded that Emwazi’s evil cannot be excused by a turbulent childhood or misplaced idealism.  Towards the end of the documentary, the man who controlled the drone that fired the missile that ended Emwazi’s life is interviewed.  When we watch the grainy and coldly impersonal footage of Emwazi’s car blowing up, we feel no sympathy for the man who was called Jihadi John.   As to whether or not there’s joy to be found there, well, that’s up to the viewer to decide for themselves.

It’s a compelling documentary but it’s also frustrating, if just because it poses a question that may be impossible to answer.  Why does evil exist?  How can one go from being a normal, if awkward, teenager to being a savage murderer?  Like the rest of us, the documentary can only wonder why.

Film Review: The Top Rope (dir by Cody Broadway)


About halfway through the 20 minute documentary, The Top Rope, a soft-spoken, bearded man named Billy Gray says, “It’s how I’m wired.”

Billy is explaining why he spends most of his time playing a character named Hunter Grey, a viking who is, at one point, seen carrying a big axe.  (By being a viking, he explains, he can make people laugh while still being believably intimidating.)  Billy, who was a championship wrestler in high school and who comes from a long line of wrestlers, now makes his living traveling the pro wrestling circuit in Colorado.  It’s hardly glamorous.  Billy tells us stories about having to change in parking lots and says that if you have a locker room, you should consider yourself to be lucky.  He also tells us about how his family was initially dismissive of his career and how it took a while before they actually started coming to his matches.  But, whenever we actually see Billy performing and in the ring, we understand why he does it.  The crowds love watching him.  When Billy Gray’s in that ring, he’s a star.

Billy is one of several wrestlers to be interviewed in The Top Rope.  Considering that one of the main appeals of pro-wrestling is the flamboyance of the people involved, it’s tempting to be surprised to discover that, outside the ring, the majority of the participants come across as being rather soft-spoken.  Then again, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at all.  One of the joys of performing, after all, is assuming a new and different persona.

For instance, a wrestler named Zach Anaya is obviously somewhat bemused with his villain status but, when we see him in the ring, we see someone who is truly enjoying playing his role.  A scene in which he jumped off a ledge and landed on top of two wrestlers below left me cringing because you could tell that, for all the talk about how pro-wrestling matches are essentially a type of performance art, the participants can still get seriously injured.  Scripted or not scripted, you have to be willing to push yourself to extremes in order to pursue it.

Also interviewed is Curtis Cole, a wrestler who rather touchingly talks about how he used to watch wrestling with his mother.  You get the feeling that, to a certain extent, he’s wrestling in her memory.  Cole also discusses the importance of having a storyline in the ring.  Without a storyline, it’s just two guys jumping on each other.  With a storyline, it becomes an epic battle of good and evil.  Cole tears up while discussing once past storyline and I have to admit that he got so emotional that even I, who has never even watched a wrestling match, started to get emotional too.  In a film full of great storytellers, Curtis Cole might be the best.

This documentary was directed by Cody Broadway, who previously directed 4 Quarters of Silence, a film about the Texas School for The Deaf’s football team.  He brings the same empathetic touch to this film.  Though the film did not make me a pro wrestling fan (to misquote Billy Gray, it’s just not how I’m wired), it did make me a fan of the men who were interviewed and it made me happy that they have this in their lives.  We’re all wired differently but, as this film demonstrates, there’s a place for all of us if we’re willing to look for it.

Film Review: Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (dir by Errol Morris)


This 1999 documentary provides a disturbing portrait of an absolute moron.

Of course, when we first see and hear Fred Leuchter, Jr., he doesn’t seem like a moron.  He definitely comes across as being a bit eccentric and maybe just a little bit off but, at first sight, he’s actually kind of likable.  As he explains it, he grew up in the United States prison system.  His father worked in prison administration and one of Fred’s earliest memories was sitting in an electric chair.  Fred grew up to be an engineer and, concerned that America’s execution methods were cruel and potentially dangerous to even those who weren’t being executed, he decided to dedicate his life to redesigning electric chairs and gas chambers.  He even built his own lethal injection machine, all designed to make sure that the condemned felt as little pain as possible while dying.  As Fred explains it, he supports capital punishment but “I don’t support torture.”

Fred Leuchter soon came to be recognized as one of America’s leading experts on execution devices.  As he himself admits, that’s largely because he was American’s only expert on the way that people are legally executed.  Whereas most people deliberately went out of their way not to learn the specifics of what happens when someone is put to death, Fred made it his life’s purpose.  After redesigning an electric chair in Tennessee, Fred was soon being summoned to other states so that he could refurbish and, in many cases, redesign their execution machinery.  For the first 30 minutes of the documentary, Fred explains what it’s like to be an expert on executions and it’s hard not to like this nerdy, self-described “humanitarian.”  If anything, you spend the first part of this documentary considering the oddness of finding a humane way to execute the condemned.  America prides itself on both it’s rejection of cruel and unusual punishment and it’s willingness to put criminals to death.  It’s an odd combination and, briefly, Leuchter seems like the embodiment of those two contrasting positions.

This changes during the documentary’s second half.  That’s when we learn how, in 1988, Leuchter was hired by a German anti-Semite named Ernst Zundel.  Zundel was being tried in Canada, charged with publishing and shipping works of Holocaust denial.  For a fee of $30,000, Leuchter spent his honeymoon in Poland, went to Auschwitz, and personally “inspected” the gas chambers.  Because Leuchter brought a camera crew with him, his every action was recorded.

We watch as Leuchter and his assistants sneak into the gas chamber and proceed to clumsily start chipping away at the walls.  We listen as Leuchter goes on and on about how he doesn’t feel that the gas chamber was actually a gas chamber because it just seems too impractical to him.  If they wanted to executed a large group of people at once, why didn’t the Nazis use the gallows? Leuchter wonders.  (They did.)  Why didn’t the Nazis use firing squads?  Leuchter asks.  (They did.)  Even before Leuchter returns to America, he’s made it clear that his mind is made up.  He can’t understand why the Nazis would have done what they did and therefore, in his mind, that means they didn’t do it.  After all, Leuchter’s an expert.  He’s Mr. Death.

He’s also a moron and, by the time he starts cheerfully talking about all the effort that went into smuggling the wall chips out of Germany, whatever likability he once had has vanished.  Watching this film, I found myself wishing for a time machine so that I could go back in the past and throw something at him.  You just want him to shut up for a minute and realize that what he’s saying makes no sense.  Not that it would make any difference, of course.  Leuchter is too proud of himself for having discovered “the truth” to actually consider that he could be wrong.

When Leuchter’s samples are tested for trace amounts of poison gas, they come back negative.  Leuchter announces that this means that the Holocaust never happened and he writes up the infamous Leuchter Report, which is still regularly cited as evidence by Neo-Nazi groups and anti-Semitic historians like David Irving.  However, as Dutch historian Robert Jan van Pelt explains (and, as we’ve already seen in the video that Leuchter himself shot at Auschwitz), Leuchter not only did not take a big enough sample but he was so clumsy in the way that he transported it that he diluted the sample as well.  Even beyond all that, it would be very unusual for cyanide residue to still present after forty years of everyday wear and tear.

None of this matters, of course, to Fred Leuchter.  With the publication of the Leuchter Report, he becomes a fixture on the Holocaust denial circuit.  (We see an edition of the Leuchter Report that was published and distributed by the Aryan Nations.)  Suddenly, Leuchter has fans.  In his own sad and pathetic way, he’s become a celebrity and we see him beaming as he stands on the stage of a Neo-Nazi conference.  Meanwhile, his wife leaves him.  And prisons stop using him as a consultant, especially after they discover that he was never actually licensed to practice engineering.  Financially bereft, Leuchter even resorts to trying to sell one of his beloved “execution devices,” putting an ad in the classifieds.  (Needless to say, things don’t go well.)  Looking over the ruins of his life, who does Leuchter blame for his troubles?  “Jewish groups,” he says before then going on to assure us that some of his best friends were and are Jewish.  Was Leuchter always an anti-Semite or did he become one because he needed someone to blame for his own self-destruction?  That’s a question that the viewer will have to answer for themselves.

Mr. Death is a disturbing portrait of a rather sad and pathetic figure, a man who fell victim to his own arrogance and hubris and who, as opposed to seeking redemption, instead allied himself with the only people ignorant and hateful enough to still embrace him.  As is his style, documentarian Errol Morris interviews Leuchter’s critics but refrains from personally arguing with Leuchter, instead basically giving the self-described execution expert just enough rope to hang himself.  (Morris does, at one point, ask Leuchter if he’s ever considered that he might be wrong.  Not surprisingly, Leuchter claims that he has not and seems to be confused by the question.)  In the end, it’s impossible to feel sorry for Leuchter.  The nerdy humanitarian who opposed torture had been replaced by a self-pitying Holocaust denier.  By the end of the film, Fred A Leuchter, Jr. and his report have become a reminder of the damage that can be done by one dangerously ignorant man.

Remembering Avicii: Avicii: True Stories (dir by Levan Tsikurishvili)


It was a year ago today that we learned of the passing of Tim Bergling, who was better known as Avicii.  For those of us who loved Avicii’s music and who followed him throughout not only his career but also through his multiple health issues and his widely publicized retirement from touring, the loss of Avicii is one that we have yet to recover from.

On this sad anniversary, I’m thinking about the first time that I watched Avicii: True Stories on Netflix.  This documentary, which covered the majority of Avicii’s career — from his rise to his eventual retirement, was released in Europe six months before his death.  In the U.S., it was released on Netflix on December 14th, 2018.  It’s not always an easy documentary to watch but I recommend it to anyone who loved Avicii’s music or to anyone who is just curious about the pressures that go with being a star.

Featuring interviews with not only Avicii but also his collaborators, the film follows Avicii as he quickly goes from being just being one of the many people posting remixes on online forums to being one of the top and most important DJs in the world.  We watch as Avicii maintains a hectic schedule of nonstop touring, often sacrificing both his physical and mental health in the process.  Avicii ends up in the hospital, suffering from acute pancreatitis.  Later, he again ends up in the hospital, this time to have both his appendix and his gall bladder removed.  The film makes no attempt to hide the decadence that goes along with touring but, in its best moments, it also highlights the conflict that arises from having to be both Tim Bergling, an anxious young man who finds a much-needed escape in music, and Avicii, the superstar who has to be on every night.

When we first meet Tim, he seems young and hopeful and enthusiastic.  Halfway through the film, an exhaustion starts to creep into his voice and, by the end of the film, he’s become far more world-weary.  As we watch Tim struggle with the weight of being Avicii, we’re also aware of the people around him, whose careers and finances are pretty much dependent on making sure that Tim never stops being Avicii, regardless of how much damage it does to him mentally and physically.  Throughout it all, one thing remains consistent and that is Tim’s love of music.  It’s only when creating and talking about music that Tim seems to be truly happy.  It’s his escape from a world that often seems like it’s conspiring to swallow him whole.

The film ends on what should have been a happy note.  Tim announces his retirement from touring and the film ends with him, in good spirits, on a beautiful beach.  Tim seems like he’s finally found some happiness and a chance at the inner peace that stardom often denied him.  Beyond a title card (which was added for the film’s U.S. release), Avicii: True Stories does not deal with Tim’s death but it still haunts every minute of the film.  Watching this documentary, it’s impossible not to mourn what the world lost when it lost Tim Bergling.  The film stands as both a tribute to his talent and a portrait of a good and likable man struggling to escape his demons.

Tim “Avicii” Bergling, rest in peace.

Film Review: The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley (dir by Alex Gibney)


Oh my God, this was such a creepy documentary!

The Inventor tells the story of the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, who, at one point, Forbes named the wealthiest self-made female billionaire in America, and who is currently facing criminal charges of defrauding not only her investors but also a countless number of doctors and patients.  After dropping out of college, Elizabeth Holmes founded Theranos, a Silicon Valley-based company that claimed it had devised a method that would revolutionize how blood was tested and which would lead to people leading longer and healthier lives.  (“No one will have to say an early goodbye,” as Elizabeth put it.)  It all had to do with a blood-testing device called the Edison, a device that Holmes designed, patented, and made a fortune by licensing.  That the Edison didn’t actually do what Holmes claimed that it did put lives at risk and ultimately led to her downfall.

So, what makes The Inventor such a creepy documentary?  A lot of it has to do with the fact that Elizabeth Holmes herself comes across as being so creepy.  With her endless supply of black turtlenecks and her rather monotonous (not to mention notably deep) voice, she comes across as being a cult leader in the making.  When we see archival footage of her being interviewed or of her giving a speech to her worshipful employees, she has the type of demented gleam in her eye that one would normally associate with a particularly enthusiastic Bond villain.  When her former employees talk about her, they not only mention her drive and her dedication but they also mention the fact that she rarely blinked.  In fact, she so rarely blinked that other people also felt as if they shouldn’t blink in her presence.  Theranos was a company full of people with thousand-yard stares.

Despite the fact that, as many people point out, Elizabeth Holmes had no experience in the medical field and that the majority of her lies were easily exposed, she still had little trouble getting wealthy and powerful men to invest in her company.  Among those who invested in Theranos and sat on its board of directors: two former secretaries of state, one former and one future secretary of defense, and several prominent businessmen.  Though the documentary doesn’t explore this angle as perhaps it should have, it’s interesting to note that the majority of Holmes’s backers and defenders were 1) elderly and 2) male.  The one female investor that Holmes tried to bring in easily saw through Holmes’s lies.  On the other hand, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz became enthusiastic backers of Holmes and her “vision.”  Meanwhile, attorney David Boies — who was best-known for being Al Gore’s personal attorney and who later was hired to head up Harvey Weinstein’s defense team — is on hand to intimidate any Theranos employees who might be on the verge of turning into a whistleblower.  Elizabeth Holmes may currently be an indicted pariah but, before that, she spent many years as a proud member of the American establishment.

In fact, several other members of the Establishment makes cameo appearances in The Inventor.  At one point, we see Holmes being interviewed by Bill Clinton.  At another point, Joe Biden stops by Theranos and praises the company.  We see pictures of Elizabeth Holmes in the Oval Office, visiting with Barack Obama.  Holmes is put on the covers of magazines.  Numerous publications declare her to be the next Steve Jobs.  She’s held up as the future of not just blood testing but also the future of business.  It’s only after one reporter has the courage to actually investigate her claims and two employees risk their futures to tell the truth about what they saw at Theranos that Elizabeth Holmes is revealed to be a fabulist and a con artist.  Was she ever sincere in her desire to make the world a better place or was that just another part of her carefully constructed persona?  The Inventor is full of people still struggling to answer that question for themselves.

The Inventor was directed by Alex Gibney.  Gibney previous directed the Going Clear, an expose of Scientology.  Watching The Inventor, it’s hard not to make comparisons between Scientology and the cults of Silicon Valley.  Watching Elizabeth Holmes give a speech to her employees is like watching that infamous video of Tom Cruise pay homage to L. Ron Hubbard.  And just as Scientology takes advantage of those with a need to believe in something bigger than them, Elizabeth Holmes did the same thing.  Everyone wanted the promises of Homes, Theranos, and the Edison machine to be true.  They wanted it to be true so much that they became blind to the reality that was right in front of them.

The Inventor is a fascinating documentary about power, wealth, fraud, and the prison of belief.  It can currently be seen on HBO.