Tag Archives: documentaries

Cracked Up

Darrell Hammond will go down in history as one of the greatest SNL cast members of all time – and he was the longest-tenured until Keenan Thompson unseated him recently. Both are alike in that they were never the show’s breakout stars, but their supportive performances aren’t just crucial, they are in fact the glue that makes it possible for the cast to coagulate at all. Darrell Hammond is a master impressionist and holds the record for doing the most on SNL – 105 – among them, rather famously,  Dick Cheney, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Chris Matthews, Sean Connery, and Regis Philbin.

But while Hammond was making America giggle, in private he was battling debilitating flashbacks of childhood trauma; addiction and self-injury served as coping mechanisms until it all inevitably came crumbling down. It took 50 years for a doctor to diagnose his pain correctly, unleashing the painful memories his mind couldn’t bear to address.

He wrote about this in his autobiography and he shares further in director Michelle Esrick’s documentary, which can be found on Netflix. I hope he has some appreciation for how profoundly talking so openly about these things can impact not just an audience but indeed a culture. There is power in owning your story and understanding that any associated shame is not yours: is not the victim’s, but the perpetrator’s.

Childhood trauma is a far-reaching poison. Hammond, of course, has had the privilege and the resources to pay it the kind of attention necessary for taming it. Healing may be a lifelong journey, but it’s clear Hammond has found a healthier head space and a new appreciation for and ability to celebrate the good things in his life.

Have A Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics

IMDB would have you believe that mixing comedy with a thorough investigation of psychedelics, ‘Have a Good Trip’ explores the pros, cons, science, history, future, pop cultural impact, and cosmic possibilities of hallucinogens. But that’s a bold-faced lie. You want to know how little science there is? The scientist is played by Nick Offerman, that’s how. Have A Good Trip is a terrible way to learn about psychedelics academically, but a pretty entertaining way to learn about psychedelics anecdotally.

Several first-rate story-tellers, mostly comedians (as theirs is the only career path that couldn’t be negatively impacted by admitting this on tape), offer up fun tidbits from past trips. Lewis Black, Sarah Silverman, Nick Kroll, Rob Corddry, David Cross, Will Forte, Paul Scheer, Marc Maron…this list goes on for quite some time, so perhaps I’ll let you be delighted with the surprise of so many familiar faces (and just fyi, a couple of recently departed ones – Carrie Fisher and Anthony Bourdain).

Acid trips are like dreams (as I write this I realize this is true in more ways than one): nobody wants to hear about yours. And even from the mouths of our favourite funny people, sometimes accompanied by clever little animations, or less clever reenactments, most of these takes still land in the awkward category of “you had to be there.” Acid trips are not movies. They do not have plots or characters or crucially, a point. Of course, neither does this movie, which again, IMDB has generously categorized as a “documentary” but actually feels more like someone’s answering machine after they spent a weekend at work while all their buddies went to the desert to munch through a bag of mushrooms.

If you’re predisposed to liking the comedians involved, it’s not such much “worth your time” as “a semi-entertaining time waster” – bonus points if you’re 35-45, because the drug references are pretty dated.

Becoming

Michelle Obama’s post-White House memoir Becoming explored her roots and the path she followed to become the formidable woman we know and respect today. Her new documentary on Netflix, also titled Becoming, shadows her on her massively successful book tour, and focuses more on the role and the identity she’s forging for herself as a former First Lady who still has a lot to give.

Director Nadia Hallgren crafts the sort of documentary that will have you asking why this incredible woman won’t just run for President herself – but if you’re paying attention, Michelle Obama answers that question in every word and sigh. It’s clear that her eight year sentence in the White House has taken its toll. For America’s first black First Family, the presidential spotlight meant constant scrutiny and a constant need for carefully modulated perfection. The First Families that preceded and succeeded them have been allowed far less criticism for far greater blemishes. The Obamas knew that theirs would be treated differently and they played the part. But while Michelle Obama’s poise seemed effortless, Becoming shows the emotional impact, even the trauma, incurred for an accomplished and intelligent woman to mute her voice. And while she was a beloved First Lady for her husband’s entire term in office, it’s clear that she has now stepped confidently out of his shadow, and that the country, and even the world, has a thirst and a fervor for this new, less filtered, more authentic Michelle Obama.

While the documentary isn’t revealing any deep dark secrets, it does allow Michelle Obama to let down her hair – sometimes literally, into luscious curls, and to step out of the First Lady’s shoes – carefully curated by a stylist who understood her White House role as a costumer projecting class and elegance and respectability – and into gold, glittery, thigh-high boots, if that’s what she wants. The White House has changed her but it hasn’t silenced her. It hasn’t convinced her mother to stop favouring her brother, or her staff to stop teasing her, or her daughters to stop needing her. Seeing her nestled amongst any and all of these people gives us a clearer sense of who she is. And while those of us on the outside can’t help but respect and admire her, we see how much that holds true, and in fact truer, for those who know her more intimately.

The American Nurse

It shouldn’t take a global pandemic to appreciate the nurses who have been working fairly tirelessly and devotedly all along and yet we all too often take them for granted.

Today, May 6th, is National Nurses Day in the U.S. while internationally it is celebrated May 12, Florence Nightingale’s birthday. The interim between the two is usually called Nurses Week and if ever there was a time to make it a week-long act of gratitude and commemoration, it’s now. The International Council of Nurses picks a theme each year and for 2020 it’s ‘Nursing the World to Health.’

Florence Nightingale is largely credited with founding what we think of as ‘modern nursing.’ Her emphasis on proper hand washing alone saved countless lives (literally countless – think about that), beginning on the battlefields of the Crimean war. It is remarkable that in 2020, we are fighting an epic battle against a virus wherein hand washing again is the most important weapon.

The American Nurse is a 2014 documentary by Carolyn Jones who explores aging, war, and poverty through the work and lives of 5 working nurses. The camera follows them through a typical day’s work while we consider what it truly means to care: to care with our hands, with our hearts, with experience and knowledge, with commitment and dedication.

And now nurses are again at the forefront of the meanest and most threatening bug we’ve faced in a lifetime and we’ve been unable to provide them even the most basic personal protective equipment necessary for providing the care we’re demanding. Not only are healthcare workers more at risk for contracting the virus due to repeated exposure, they’re also more likely to have life-threatening symptoms (perhaps because they’re exposed to a much higher dose, or to multiple strains, but science has yet to confirm the reason). I know a nurse who works in mental health who spent the early days of lockdown seeing patients with no PPE at all as they’d all been locked away for when they were “really needed.” Now she gets 1 per day, which means she’s eliminated coffee, water, and food before and during shifts because going to the washroom would contaminate them. And at any time she faces redeployment to the E.R. even though she hasn’t practiced that kind of nursing in a decade. She has young kids at home, which means after a long shift she can’t hug or kiss them until after she’s stripped and scrubbed. And then the fun of homeschooling begins. She was telling me about a local grocery store that allows healthcare workers to skip the line. She would never accept, of course, because she’d feel like a jerk – lots of people are pulling double duty these days, and everyone would rather not be there. But also because standing in line 6 feet apart at the supermarket is the quietest and easiest part of her day.

COVID or not, The American Nurse is a well-made, interesting documentary which you can watch here for free. It gives us a little insight into what it takes to heap the world’s healing upon your shoulders, to run towards the crisis instead of away from it, to feel compassion for others when you could use some yourself.

Thank you, nurses.

A Secret Love

If you’ve ever seen A League of Their Own, then you already know a bit about Terry’s youth. She was a Canadian ball player who went to America to try out for the American Baseball League, an all-female league that played in the 1940s while all the men were at war. She made the roster and played for them all four years, the ladies proving quite adept at baseball and the league gaining surprising popularity, a worthy distraction during difficult times. But when the war was over, so was baseball, at least for women.

Instead of returning home to a farm in rural Saskatchewan, Terry and her cousin, hockey player Pat, bravely decided to move to Chicago together, safety in numbers. Further bucking social norms, both ladies went to work and had careers. Though they each had their share of beaus, they stuck together, building a home in Chicago and to the shock of their families, they lived there contently for decades. But now, in (nearly) present day, Terry and Pat are both elderly ladies, and Terry in particular is suffering declining health. Her beloved niece is begging them to come home to Canada, to move into a nursing home near family where they can be cared for. But after a life of independence, Pat in particular is loathe to give it up. When they are finally persuaded, they decide to move into a retirement home together, and for the first time in their almost 70 years together, to live openly as a lesbian couple.

This film is really an attempt to document their love story, a beautiful story that they kept secret for longer than most of us have been alive. Some family members are shocked, some are not, and some feel an ounce or two of betrayal. But within their own community, Terry and Pat have a robust social life, a second family of their choosing, and it’s very sad to see them leave it. Even sadder is the packing up of their home together, mostly because of the shreds of mementos the packing uncovers, touching love letters saved but also anonymized, the signatures torn off just in case it should be seen by the wrong eyes.

Terry and Pat were rebels. They chose happiness, and they created it together, on their own terms. There’s no doubt you’ll fall in love with them yourself, Terry the sweet one, Pat just a little saltier, but so devoted to and solicitous of her longtime love. Director Chris Bolan offers contextual evidence that reminds us why the lies were necessary, but the joy of finally living their truth is right there on their faces. This is a love story for the ages.

Planet of the Humans

Global warming isn’t up for debate. Not only is it real, it’s already here. It’s happening. And the sad thing is, we’ve seen it coming for at least 60 years. We’ve talked about fossil fuels and acid rain and peak oil and holes in the ozone layer literally all of my life, and in fact, literally all of my mother’s. We’ve reduced, reused, recycled. Sort of. We never reduced, that’s for sure. We fill our blue bins with more and more single use plastics every day. Capitalism ensures that we don’t reuse – in fact, it’s got us replacing items that aren’t even broken. And now our recycling programs are a sham; China used to buy our recycled plastics but they don’t want them anymore, so our municipalities keep picking them up for the sake of optics, but they sit at the recycling facility not getting recycled.

Normally we celebrate Earth Day on April 22nd. This year was its 50th year. Of course, 2020 is turning out to be a notable year in many ways, and most communities postponed or cancelled their events due to the global pandemic. Humanity is so hell-bent on destroying ourselves that we didn’t want to sit around waiting to drown in melted ice caps, we’re just going to go straight for the super bug that wipes us all out for good. That IS ultimately what we’re talking about when we talk about Earth Day: our demise. Because the Earth is not an infinite resource. With overpopulation and overconsumption, we have stupidly decimated the planet we count on for living and breathing and existing and stuff. In his recent stand-up special for Netflix, End Times Fun, Marc Maron poked fun at our self-righteous but minuscule attempts at contribution – the reusable grocery bags, the banning of straws – sarcastically noting that “we did all we could.” I mean, it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing that we all saw this coming and we not only watched it happen but we hastened it. We worsened it. And in our own self-delusion, we pretend that the tiny steps we’ve taken (while refusing to make any sacrifice at all) aren’t totally phoney baloney.

Well, Jeff Gibbs has a documentary for you. Capitalism wants you to stop crying about the environment and get back to making and spending money. So they’ve thrown things at us like, for example, solar panels, so we can believe things aren’t completely hopeless. Except it’s all a lie. Solar panels are either prohibitively expensive or nearly totally ineffective as a viable alternative energy source. Making solar panels uses up a tremendous amount of resources and the same dirty, polluting fuels that we’re trying to avoid in the first place. And then they need to be replaced every few years. And you still need a back up power source so you can’t disconnect from the grid. We don’t have the capacity to store excess power for days that are cloudy or rainy or, you know, have a sunset and then a nighttime. Even if we cut down every forest we still wouldn’t have enough space to house even a fraction of the panels we’d need. So solar panels are a nice thought, but they’re really just a distraction to keep environmentally-minded people occupied while big business continues to raze the Earth.

Planet of the Humans is an eye-opener. The environmental movement as we know it has largely been a hoax. It’s a bitter pill to digest. Gibbs is clearly an acolyte of Michael Moore’s. Not only does Moore produce this documentary, Gibbs mimics his style quite blatantly. But Gibbs is no Moore. He doesn’t have the same bullish charisma. He isn’t as emphatic or as fist-wavy. So while this is an important conversation starter, it’s not going to make waves or win awards or convert any birthers. But for the next 30 days, you can watch it for free on Youtube, and this is one way we can honour the Earth without compromising social distancing.

Penguins

We have continued our binge of Disney nature documentaries streaming on Disney+. It’s a welcome break from all the junk. Disney docs are like the strawberry of movies; they’re technically healthy but sweet enough to be eaten for dessert. We recently raved about both Elephant and Dolphin Reef, and now we’ve watched 2019’s Penguins. And guess what? It’s great.

Now, we’ve insinuated before that Disney nature documentaries are perhaps not the greatest source of information. They’re not just shooting facts at you rapid-fire, they’re crafting a story, which makes the doc far more palatable and definitely kid-friendly. that’s why I don’t call Disneynature documentaries the kale, but they’re definitely in the same tier of the pyramid.

In Penguins, “Steve” is a 2 foot Adelie penguin in the Antarctic. It’s spring time, and this is Steve’s coming of age. He’s finally considered old enough to make his way to the breeding grounds with the other male penguins. I’m not gonna lie: Steve is a bit of a bumbler. He trips over his own feet, he gets lost and turned around. He’s the last to the breeding ground, so he’s got fewer materials to make a nest to impress the ladies. He’s going to face a lot of rejection. Will he find himself a honey and make a family? You’ll have to watch to find out.

But even if Steve fails to triumph, there are still plenty of reasons to check out this movie. First, writer David Fowler puts together an awesome story and makes Steve into a compelling and relatable character. And then narrator Ed Helms steps in to fully animate Fowler’s story, giving life to penguin Steve, and drawing us in to his triumphs and challenges.

Of course, it’s nothing without the amazing pictures. Cinematographer Rolf Steinmann and principal photographer Sophie Darlington share the credit with a team of very dedicated people who bring a frozen land and its inhabitants straight into our living rooms. The crew can spend years capturing enough footage for a single 70-minute film, but the immersive experience captivates us and endears us to our little protagonists. Penguins is a fantastic offering from Disney+.