Jemaine Clement – Straight Outta N.Z.

With his blocky features and dorky glasses, Jemaine Clement reminds me of my Grade Eleven Physics teacher, Mr. Prokopetz (Y’know, the one that had a nervous breakdown midway through the term.) And yet, this most unlikely of media personalities has carved out a career with the most. um, unlikely kind of material. Mr. Clement swam into the North American pop cultural consciousness as one-half of the half-witted musical duo “Flight of the Conchords” (The other half – played with masterly composure – was fellow New Zealander Bret Mackenzie.)

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Bret and Jemaine – Striking the Right “Con” CHORD

 I watched Season I on cable and Season 2 of the HBO series on a DVD I got from the library. Rhys Darby is poker-face perfect as the duo’s woefully inept but egotistical manager, Murray, and Kristin Schaal is suitably zany as their devoted fan/groupie, Mel. The series also features David Costabile – usually cast as an unsavory  type – in a rare comic role as Mel’s boyfriend/husband.

The 2014 film What We Do In The Shadows teams up Mr. Clement with fellow Kiwi oddball Taiki Waititi in a deadpan goof on vampire film cliches. (Mr. Clement and Mr. Waititi share writing and directing duties.) Taiki Waititi also acts as the narrator of the Office– style mockumentary,  an almost 400-year old bloodsucker named Viago. Mr. Waititi is perfect in the role with the deer-in-the-headlights look and too-broad smile of someone who has never been on camera before. Mr. Clement’s character is named Vladislav (naturally), a dour vampire with fright wig hair, mustache and goatee (and minus the glasses).

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Jemaine Clement as Vladislav – Taking Aim at Vampire Flix

The film asks us to imagine that the two share the house with 183 year old “bad boy vampire” Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and 8,000 year old Petyr (Ben Fransham), a double for the toothy villain in the 1920s horror classic Nosferatu. Trust me. This is not your (great) grandfather’s vampire.  Dracula creator Bram Stoker may be turning over in his grave. (If, indeed, he is truly deceased.) These blood-sucking housemates wash dishes, grumble over chores. tidy up the house after a messy kill and go nightclubbing together. (Mr. Darby plays Anton, one of the werewolves who challenge the vamps to a fight.)

The film not only takes aim at familiar vampire tropes but also spoofs documentary film-making itself, with the camera going out of focus, documentary visual cliches and, even, footage of one of the characters talking while driving (a favorite of documentary  film-makers.)

Some over-enthusiastic critics have called the film “an instant cult classic.” First of all, the adjective “instant” makes me edgy and only time will tell if it’s a “cult classic” (the phrases “scream with laughter” and “howl with glee” have been done to death.) However, if you appreciate the dry wit of Conchords, you should definitely rent or buy the DVD. (I got my copy at the local video store.) You don’t have to be knowledgeable about vampire flicks to appreciate it, but, if you are, this pic should be just your type. Blood type, that is. (Oops!)

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No, that’s not Jemaine  Clement in another clever disguise 

Mr.Clement get to keep his unique Kiwi accent as Will, a transplanted graphic novelist living in NYC and struggling to get over the sudden collapse of his marriage in People, Places and Things.

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Stephanie Allynne (as Will’s cheating wife) and Michael Chernus (as, well, the cheatee.)

 It’s basically a family flavored rom-com but given that Mr. Clement is in the starring role (although American film-maker Jim Strouse wrote and directed ) the flick is reliably quirky. In addition to coping with his new single status, Will must also deal with taking on responsibility for his two adorable little daughters (real-life twins Aundrea and Gia Gadsby, who steal every scene they are in.)

jemaine- with girls

To supplement his meagre income, Will is also an art teacher and one day one of his students (Jessica Williams, a star for the future) offers to introduce him to her divorced mom (Regina Hall, demonstrating a range not offered by her limited role as a cop on F/X’s Justified ). 

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Regina Hall at a screening of People, Places and Things.

Will’s misadventures as a divorced dad and possible lover form the basis of this sweet, funny film (recommended).

Rix Flix: Nice Guys, Injuns, Alice, Suicide and all that Jazz

Suicide Squad

If this is intended as an antidote to all those superhero flicks, count me in. Otherwise, well. my inner twelve year old enjoys watching Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.

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Batter UP!

The Nice Guys

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Writer/director Shane Black’s follow-up to his cult film hit Kiss Kiss Bang Bang isn’t nearly as clever or original as his 2005 hit but stars Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe seemed to have a lot of fun making it. 

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No, it’s not the singer Neil Diamond

This film isn’t a current release (I signed  out the DVD at the local library) but it does make for provocative and insightful viewing – regardless of your ethnicity or whether you played cowboys’n’indians as an adolescent. Documentary film by  Quebec-born Cree film-maker Neil Diamond examines how native Indians have been portrayed in North American movies using clips from silent films, John Wayne westerns, Billy Jack flicks and more modern examples like Smoke Signals, Dance Me Outside and Atanajuat: The Fast Runner ( to name a few.)

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There are also video bites from Native Indian activist Russell Means, First Nations actors Adam Beach and Graham Greene, Professor Melinda Micco and film-maker Chris Eyre (among others).

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Born to Be Blue

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This is another film that has been out for a few months. I rented it on DVD because I have always been a big fan of Chet Baker’s music. There has been a Baker biopic in the works for over a decade (originally Brad Pitt was signed to star with Richard Linklater directing) but it took Canadian money, Ethan Hawke as Baker and Toronto-born filmmaker Robert Budreau to bring it to reality.  Like Miles Ahead (a fictional reporter played by Ewan McGregor invades the home space of Miles Davis played by Don Cheadle to find out why the famed jazz trumpeter has not recorded or toured in seven years) Born to be Blue is a “reimagined” version of real events. It’s true that Baker was wired on heroin, served jail time, was beaten up and lost his teeth in the process.  What isn’t true is that he was romantically involved with an actress named Jane (Carmen Ejego as Jane plays a composite character representing the women in Baker’s life) What’s true is that he was the “James Dean of Jazz”, the “Prince of Cool” just like the film says, a pop idol back in the early 50s when jazz still ruled the charts.

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Chet Baker in the 1950s

What isn’t true (to the best of my knowledge) is that Hollywood planned to make a documentary on his life (depicted in the film). 

Writer/director Budreau skips over some of the more sordid aspects of the jazz legend’s life. (For that you will have to check out Bruce Weber’s riveting but ruthless Baker doc Let’s Get Lost).

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Chet Baker -Lost in the Eighties

Budreau prefers to think (as he says in a DVD extra) that Born to Be Blue  is the kind of film folks might imagine while listening to Baker’s lightly swinging playing and dream-like vocals (“he sang with an innocent sweetness that made young girls fall right out of their saddle Oxfords,” Rex Reed once wrote. The film, on the other hand, has Dizzy Gillespie, portrayed by Kevin Hanchard, advising Baker not to try singing.)

The playing and vocalizing sounded effortless. And in the beginning, they were. That may have been part of the problem, the film seems to say.

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Interestingly enough, some of the folks funding Born to Be Blue also shelled out money to produce this illuminating documentary on the famous (or infamous) shock rocker.  The film itself was produced and directed by Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen who collectively have worked on rock docs about Rush and Iron Maiden (to name just two).

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Sam Dunn (right) and Scot McFadyen (the other guy)

I signed this one out from the library (in other words, it’s not a new release) on the word of my little sister. I have never been a huge Alice fan (although I hafta admit “Under My Wheels” has a greasy kick to it) but I was attracted partly by my sister (who doesn’t recommend  many films – especially docs) and by the reputation of Messrs Dunn and McFadyen.

Rent it for vintage photos and trivia (the band’s original name was The Earwigs),cameo appearances by his wife (he has had only one), his mom and dad and some true confessions on why the original band broke up.

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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Most of all, you will see and hear and why the character of Alice Cooper almost killed its creator, a nice, church-going, golf-loving family man from Phoenix, Arizona named Vincent Furnier. 

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Vincent as Alice: “Now let’s not lose our heads over this character.”

 

 

“The Invisible War” Documentary (Now on Netflix) Exposes the Unvarnished Truth About Rape in the U.S. Military

” I felt horrified, I felt angry, I felt sad,” says one of the women interviewed in THE INVISIBLE WAR.

invisible war - DVDYou may feel the same after watching this hard-hitting documentary  directed by Kirby Dick (This Film Is Not Yet Rated ) and co-written and co-produced by Amy Ziering (The Hunting Ground ).

Journalist Amy Herdy (“Betrayal in the Ranks”) estimates over half a million women have been sexually assaulted in the US military.

Retired Brigadier General Loree Sutton, now a psychiatrist with the U.S. Army,  says military sexual trauma is not limited to women.  Russell Strand, Chief, Family Advocacy Law Enforcement Training Division, US Army estimates 20,000 men have been raped in the past year alone. One man recalls being struck from behind and held down by two assailants while a third violated him from behind. Another man interviewed on-screen says that years after the assault on his person took place “I can still hear them laughing.”  (Men often do not report it because of the culture of masculinity in the military and the specter of homophobia.)

Documentarians Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering
Documentarians Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering

However, the overwhelming majority of victims of rape are female.

The irony is that the women interviewed for this film were initially enthused about their chosen career and “the opportunity to serve my country”.

US Navy vet Hannah Sewell recalls being “excited and completely hyped-up about going and all my family was really proud of me …. “. That was before she was locked  in a hotel room and raped by a fellow recruit.

US Coast Guard recruit Kori Cioca recounts her ordeal at the hands of a superior officer. ( “He screamed at me and he made me come in. He grabbed my arm …. and he raped me in his berthing area.”)

U.S. Coast Guard veteran Kori Cioca
U.S. Coast Guard veteran Kori Cioca

Some of the women interviewed suffered physical injuries. Ms. Cioca suffered horrendous pain from a dislocated jaw after being hit in the face by the officer  (“I have been on a soft diet for five years now. Everything is mashed potatoes, Jell-O …  when it’s really cold, my jaw will just lock up.”) Ms, Sewell tells the camera: “My main nerve in my spine was pinched and my hips were rotated. I could barely walk. I had collapsed due to muscle spasms in my back, because my back was injured in the rape.”

US Navy recruit Hannah Sewell (picutred here with her father, US ARMY Sgt.Major Jerry Sewell)
US Navy recruit Hannah Sewell (pictured here with her father, US Army Sgt.Major Jerry Sewell)

All of the women interviewed still bear the psychological scars.

Attempting redress for the injustice can be a soul-shattering experience.  Attorney Susan Burke tells an interviewer: “What we hear again and again that as bad as it was being raped, what was as bad, if not worse, was the professional retaliation in their chosen career.”

“When you report something you’d better be prepared for the repercussions,” warns Theresa Verderber-Phillips, US Army. “If a man is accused of rape, it is a set-up. The woman’s lying.”

One woman reported it to her squad leader “and he said there was nothing he could do about it because he didn’t have any proof. ” Instead she was charged with adultery because he was married and she was not.

Another woman recalls threats to her life. (“They made it very clear that if I said anything they were going to kill me.”)

Because of the chain of command and the military system of justice the accounts of the survivors of rape were often left unheard.

The screen flashes some alarming statistics: ” 33 % of servicewomen didn’t  report their rape because the person to report to was a friend of the rapist ….  25% of servicewomen didn’t report their rape because the person to report to was the rapist.”

The film also shows the effects of the sexual assault on the home lives of the survivors in, for example,  interviews with Ms. Cioca’s husband, US Coast Guard officer Rob McDonald.

Ms. Herdy says she has met other sufferers from post-traumatic stress disorder but she has never met anyone with the kind of severe PTSD symptoms as survivors of sexual assault in the US military.

“It’s akin to what happens in a family with incest,” says Brig. Gen Sutton, ” because, you know, in the military
when we are functioning at our best in a cohesive unit, with brothers and sisters, I mean, we are family. When that bond of trust is violated the wound penetrates to the inner part of one’s soul, one’s psyche. “

The options open to women who have been assaulted have been historically bleak, according to Myla Hader, U.S. Army Criminal Investigations. “I was in the army about seven or eight years before anything happened to me. I was raped by another CID agent who was senior to me … There’s no way out of it. There are only three options: suicide, AWOL or deal with it.”

Small wonder that, as the film points out, many survivors fall into depression, drug abuse, alcohol, are unable to hold jobs and end up on the streets.

In Dec. 2011 a class action lawsuit launched by some of the survivors was dismissed. In its ruling, the Court said, and I quote from the film, “rape is an occupational hazard of military service.”

“It’s not just a women’s issue, It’s not just something the military has to deal with. ” says Brigadier-General Sutton. “But as a society we’re all in this together.”

invisible - dogtagsThe Invisible War won an Independent Spirit Award and was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary category in 2013. Despite this I was unable to find the film at any of my neighborhood video stores. Thanks to Netflix I finally managed to see it. For more information on this subject (and to find out how viewers can take action) log onto notinvisible.org.

I Got It at the Library: Red, White and Blues

If you’re a blues fan you really owe it to yourself to check out a DVD called Red White and Blues (if you haven’t seen it already.)

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Directed by British filmmaker Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) the documentary is dedicated to pioneers of UK blues and jazz from the post war years to the Sixties. (Figgis has composed the soundtracks for 14 of his 33 directing credits on imdb. He plays piano on this DVD.) 

Mike Figgis -He's Got the Right To Shoot the Blues
Mike Figgis -He’s Gotta Right To Shoot the Blues

Filmed in 2002 as part of a TV show called The Blues (which means filmmaker/music aficionado Martin Scorsese is somewhere in the mix) the doc features interview clips with legendary UK music biz figures like Lonnie Donegan, Chris Barber, Bert Jansch, George Melly and Humphrey Lyttleton (most of whom are no longer with us).

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Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Georgie Fame and Albert Lee also make appearances in this  entertaining and absorbing film  about the white English musicians who rediscovered a treasure trove of music from black America and exposed these artists to mainstream audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, most of them for the first time. (The doc shows a young Mick Jagger singing with Muddy Waters. Georgie Fame talks about the challenges of accompanying  instinctual artists like John Lee Hooker: “They changed keys whenever they felt like it.”) 

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Big Bill Broonzy, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Booker T. & the MGs are shown in  vintage performance clips. There is also a clip of Alexis Korner in action. (I still have the double WB LP  Bootleg Him! featuring Mr. Korner and Blues Inc. playing with  Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker before they met Eric Clapton and formed Cream and Charlie Watts before he hooked up with the group that would eventually become the Rolling Stones.)

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All all star cast lays down  some tasty tracks live on the floor at Abbey Studios in London. I’ve never been a big Tom Jones fan but i gotta say Ol’ Leather Lungs’ subdued and heartfelt take on Ketty Lester’s 1961 version of “Love Letters” with Jeff Beck on guitar is a keeper. Lulu sings a soulful version of “Cry Me a River”. And if you think the petite Scottish chanteuse, best known for the treacly pop hit “To Sir With Love” can’t sing soul, than you have obviously never heard (or have forgotten) “Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool For You Baby)”, from her 1970 album New Routes (recorded  with the same team that backed up Dusty Springfield on the classic Dusty in Memphis LP.)  

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Even cranky old Van Morrison seems to be enjoying himself. Okay, he’s not smiling but he is obviously enjoying singing the music he grew up with.  

That’s the question I ask myself everytime I hear the blues …  how can something that hurts so bad make you feel so good?

 

 

 

“Full-Tilt Boogie”: Behind the Scenes of Low Budget Cult Movie Favorite

No, This Film Is Not About Janis Joplin's Back Up Band
The Full Tilt Boogie Band

No, this is not a documentary about Janis Joplin’s back-up band. 

Instead, it is a fascinating (at least, to me) look at the filming of  From Dusk Till Dawn, a 1990s cult film fave directed by Robert Rodriguez and co-written (and co-starring) Quentin Tarentino.

Sara Kelly had worked as  Tarentino’s personal assistant and no one seemed to notice (or, possibly, took it seriously) when the 26 year old aspiring documentarian  showed up with a camera and started shooting footage behind the scenes.

The result is a candid look at “no frills” filmmaking.  Oh sure, there are shots of the stars at play. During a weekend away from the set,  Juliette Lewis sings karaoke in a bar and a smalltown hottie flirts with George Clooney.  Tarentino  boasts to Kelly  “I could sleep with any woman on this set.”  (Hey, I’m a fan. However, the truth remains that,  in interviews, QT has obviously never met a sentence he didn’t like.)

Quentin Tarentino and Robert Rodriguez relax on the set
Quentin Tarentino and Robert Rodriguez relax on the set

But, perhaps, even more engaging (especially for people planning a career in the movie biz)  are the  interview clips with members of the crew. One crew member talks about   long hours on the set (“we started the day at five in the morning, now it’s ten-thirty at night and I’m still working on the computer on time codes”); another talks about the food (“for lunch all I got was a piece of chicken and two pieces of bread and a melted brownie”). There are accidents on the set (the saloon set almost burns to the ground after a pyrotechnics shot flares out of control). The non-union crew rouses the ire of the powerful IATSE union, thus threatening a strike.  A sandstorm shuts down production. There is a rain delay. And, of course, there are the daily challenges of filming on location in 122 degree California desert heat. 

Full Tilt Boogie: What's Up Doc
Full Tilt Boogie: What’s Up Doc

When various crew members are asked why they chose the film biz, the responses range from prosaic (“for the money”) to poetic. “That moment, that 1/1000th of a second as the shutter clicks, it’s immortalized on film, “ says one young crew worker with a faraway look in his eye. “I get a real rush out of that. It’s documenting history, history that doesn’t exist, we’re making it up and it comes to life and I love it.” 

Viewers expecting a DVD-style “how’d they do that” feature obsessed with special effects may be disappointed. However,  if an insightful and entertaining look at the creative process of low budget indie filmmaking, and the people who make it happen, sound good to you, Ms. Kelly’s little home movie  is highly recommended.

What’s Up, Doc: Werner Herzog Chills Out in Antarctica

Now on DVD & Blu-Ray
Now on DVD & Blu-Ray

Invited by National Science Foundation to film life in Antarctica, famed German filmmaker Werner Herzog says he made it clear to his sponsors that he wasn’t there to make “another documentary about fluffy penguins.”

Instead, Encounters at the End of the World focuses on the scientists, mechanics, forklift drivers and other brave souls toughing it out at McMurdo Station, the foundation’s base of operations.

Accompanied by music co-written by David Lindley and the film’s producer, Henry Kaiser,  Encounters takes us on an awe-inspiring tour of the strange alien universe underneath the Antarctic ice. (There is an extra 30 minutes of this mind-expanding footage on a DVD featurette.)

Encounters Under the Ice - a strange alien universe
Encounters Under the Ice – a strange alien universe

Viewers also have the opportunity to visit a live volcano and hear the otherwordly bleeps of seals beneath the ice (one scientist compares the sounds to Pink Floyd).

Yes, there are penguins
Yes, there are penguins

Antarctica may seem like a bleak forbidden wasteland but viewed from Mr. Herzog’s  singular perspective these vast frozen expanses take on an almost romantic grandeur.

Antarctica at night
Antarctica at night

To this iconoclastic filmmaker the snow-covered continent is the last refuge for old school adventurers and “professional dreamers.”

One of the things I have always liked about documentaries (and film in general) is the ability to take me to places I would never visit on my own.

Thanks to Werner Herzog and his hardy film crew I learned that Antarctica isn’t just cold. It’s cool.

Werner Herzog and film crew  (don't ask)
Werner Herzog and film crew (Don’t Ask)

I Saw It On Netflix: Werner Herzog Takes Viewers “Into the Abyss” (Part 3)

Don`t get me wrong. I get a kick out of Michael Moore’s ballcap-wearing, working class schlub persona. And I find his docs entertaining and thought-provoking (although, as some of his critics have argued, it may be possible that  he doesn’t let a stubborn fact or two get in the way of a good story.)

However,  Werner Herzog’s approach seems somehow more suitable to the subject matter of the 2011 documentary Into the Abyss.

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Among other themes, Mr. Herzog uses a triple homicide in a small Texas town to examine the senseless violence that seems to be an integral part of the fabric of  American society.

According to a local police officer, Sandra Stotler, her 16 year old son, Adam and teenage friend Jeremy Richardson were killed over a car, Mrs. Stotler’s red Camaro, to be specific.

Ten years later Lisa Stotler-Balloun  is still trying to process the reasons for the murders of her mother  and brother, Adam.

So is Charles Richardson. The older brother of Jeremy Richardson, Charles has been in trouble with the law multiple times in his life. Wiping a tear from his eye, he says Jeremy was “a good kid … the golden child”. Most folks didn’t think Charles would live to see his 21st birthday. 

Charles Richardson
Charles Richardson

Jared Tolbert, a friend of Michael Perry and Jason Burkett (convicted of the murders of Sandra Stotler, Adam Stotler and Jeremy Richardson)  casually talks about being stabbed with a screwdriver, shrugging it off  and going to work half an hour later.

Mr. Herzog also interviews a barmaid who worked in a nightclub in a nearby town called Cut and Shoot.  (Hey, could I make up a name like that?)

In an interview with The Nation, Mr. Herzog tells reporter Art Berman, “I asked (Jared Tolbert) because he was a regular at the bar. And I said, ‘What happened in this bar?’ And he said, ‘Oh no, nothing.’ And then I say ‘Yeah, but the bartender said some bad things.’ ‘Oh yeah one girl’s throat was cut,’ he said. ‘Her boyfriend was kind of jealous because she hugged another guy.’  This kind of nonchalance is just unbelievable.”

http://www.thenation.com/article/164551/werner-herzog-goes-abyss-capital-punishment

Mr.  Herzog never appears on camera. Instead, his thoughtful, probing questions are delivered off camera in a voice that is low key, non-judgmental and flavored with his soft, distinctive German accent. The  filmmaker finds these folks fascinating. He is genuinely interested in their stories and the subjects repay him with some candid quotes.

Delbert Burkett - Father Doesn`t Always Know Best
Delbert Burkett – Father Doesn`t Always Know Best

In a wrenching jailhouse testimony,Delbert Burkett recalls spending Thanksgiving in prison with his two sons, Chris and Jason. (All three had been incarcerated.) The elder Burkett frankly admits he was a failure as a father. “Here I was handcuffed to my baby son (Jason) on a prison bus and, you know, I don`t think it gets much lower than that.

In one gripping scene, Ms. Stotler-Balloun shares with the camera that her mother and brother are not the only members of her family that have perished in tragic circumstances.

My mother was murdered, my father, my older brother and a family dog were hit by a train, my grandfather had a stroke, my uncle overdosed on heroin, my stepbrother shot himself because he had pancreatic cancer … all of this was in six years.

Lisa Stotler-Balloun- Before
Lisa Stotler-Balloun– BEFORE

That`s another thing I like about Mr. Herzog`s approach. He knows when to cut away and  when to leave the camera trained on a subject`s face. (Obviously, this is not a film for viewers with short attention spans.) 

Ms. Stotler-Balloun  talks about witnessing the execution of Matthew Perry with a chilling sort of resignation:  I heard his mother cry, and they gave him the injection … One tear fell down his face. One tear. And it was over.

Lisa Stotler-Balhoun: AFTER
Lisa Stotler-Balhoun: AFTER