A Brush Soaked in Carmine (2016): Death and Controversy (Review)

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In 2007 Bulgarian iconographer Jordan Opitz shot and killed a drug addict whom he believed burgled his home. The young addict also ran towards the artist wielding a screwdriver. Jordan used a modified gas pistol to shoot the young man who ran off and died later.

Opitz received a five year prison  sentence and was sued by the young man’s family for compensation. The crime and the trial divided  the country.  The incident took place in Sofia, Bulgaria; a city rife with drug addicts and burglaries to fund their habits. Opitz had been robbed before.

Director Teodor Todorov and producer Robin Chambers went to Bulgaria to interview Opitz, the lawyer who successfully won the compensation verdict, a journalist who knew Jordan, Elijah Tsotsin (a Bulgarian actor) and another addict who was with the murdered man the day he was shot.

A Brush Soaked in Carmine looks at both sides of the case and allows the various parties involved to state their beliefs. It is a story not too dissimilar to farmer Tony Martin from  Norfolk, in the United Kingdom who shot and killed a burglar in his home.  In 1999, Martin had been burgled several times and, having had enough, shot at the two intruders with a shotgun.

Martin also received a reduced sentence and the surviving burglar also attempted to sue for compensation.The case also divided the country, and to a degree, still does.  The main differences in the two cases has to do with the weapon used and the fact that Opitz shot his suspected burglar after he left his apartment.

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Jordan Opitz

Todorov takes the time to speak in depth with each person who was involved with the case to varying degrees.   We are able to see some of Opitz’ work and how the ruling that enforced his paying compensation has taken everything from him.

Amazingly, the one thing that one takes away from this hourlong documentary is that the legal system seems to believe that Opitz modifying the gas pistol was a form of premeditation.  The lawyer;  Marin Markovski,  obviously used a combination of religion and the law to win his case for compensation. 

The interviews show why the case is still so contentious nine years after the fact.  No one, least of all Opitz,  portrays the artist as a saint. The iconographer is blind in one eye and perhaps a bit too assertive but he is clearly not a murderer.

In many ways it does seem that the Bulgarian government, like Britain’s powers that be, prefer its citizenry not to defend themselves. This is a fascinating look at a crime that really was more a case of self defense rather than murder. It is also reveals a system that would rather pay for drug addicts via compensation rather than treat them as criminals when they steal.

People living in America may find it hard to fathom how a man using a modified gas pistol was not only jailed for five years for defending himself but lost a lot of money to the victim. An underlying message seems to be that the legal system allows religion to be a factor in not only trying the crime but in sentencing the guilty party.

Shot on a shoestring budget, Todorov and Chambers do a brilliant job presenting all sides of this ongoing argument. It is a marvelous insight into a finite amount of Bulgarian denizens. At the end it really answers no questions but it does make the viewer think about the verdict. It also points out the social issues: crime ridden neighborhoods and a large population of younger people on drugs plus a fed up populace.

A Brush soaked in Carmine is a brilliant effort from Todorov and  everything fits together nicely. Editor Diana Pavlova slots everything together perfectly, from the re-creations to the interviews of all the men. Each side is given a voice; from the drug addict who lost his mate to the lawyer who made sure Opitz paid dearly for taking a life.

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The American West: AMC Wild West Episode 2 (Review)

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While still maintaining that Jesse James single handedly upset the applecart in late 1800s America, The American West zoomed into the Black Hills,  Gold, the Union Pacific and the first US economic depression in its documentary about the wild west.  It also glides over the Custer massacre of a Cheyenne village.

It is interesting to note that in the retelling of the railroad marching resolutely across the plains, that Thomas “Doc” Durant is mentioned as one of the first millionaire fraudsters in the country. The man responsible for connecting the country coast to coast was an out and out crook.

Therein lies one of the  problems with this “documentary” on the American Wild West and the expansion of its immigrant denizens.  The country’s formative years were, apparently, all influenced by greedy conmen, thieves, robbers and (not forgetting Custer) a narcissistic egomaniac.

On a sidenote, it is amusing to see the series   skirting Grant’s alcoholism.  (The man had a lifelong problem with drinking.) The show’s makers do show the president with a drink in his hand in most scenes but no mention of his record of drunkenness, which almost got him drum out of the Army is ever made.

On terms of brownie points, The American West does show how the government worked hard, initially, to get along with the Native American denizens who were here before the white man “conquered” the country. They also mention the same government shafting the other party in the peace treaties when gold looked to be an economic savior.

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Once again, it seems that chicanery and robbery put the country on the map, so to speak, and either helped the US to grow or plunged it into economic chaos. (On a sidenote, one of the colour providers mentioned that the Union Pacific Railroad scandal took millions from tax payers pockets.  Taxes were not levied on the average Joe until 1913 chaps.)

The introduction of the Missourian newspaper  editor who turned into Jesse James’ publicist was a new one and rather fascinating.  It was also interesting to note that the myth John Newman Edwards worked so hard to manufacture was catered to in the scenes of the robberies. “That was my father’s watch…”

The Pinkerton Detective Agency is also given fairly short shrift, possibly because they do not get really interesting until they blow up James’ house. The act was performed when Jesse and Frank’s mother was in the kitchen and the blast took off one of her arms. If the self centered outlaw needed any further prodding to keep committing crime, this was the perfect excuse.

With all the focus on the “bad men” of American History so far, The American West appears to be saying that the US and the wild west were populated and influenced more by crime than by heroic acts or pioneers who risked everything to move west.

The railroad did indeed provide (relatively) easy access to the west. While this show goes to great pains to paint Jesse James as not only the first train robber of the new railroad but also the instigator behind the south rising again, it should be pointed out that the James gang were not the only chaps robbing trains.

As the executive producer Robert Redford should know, there were a number of gangs robbing trains, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (played by Redford in the 1969 film). There were the Dalton’s and the Younger’s (also products of the Civil War) and the first recorded train robbery was in 1866 by the Reno gang.

The American West is fairly interesting, in that the series maintains that a select few men from history changed the face of the country in some sort of interconnected way. This focus, while interesting, leaves so much out. Although the mention  of Doc Durant was a plus.

There is no doubt that Jesse James was the best known of all the train robbers, at the time (down to Edwards’ efforts) but is odd that his activities are being credited with affecting so much of the day-to-day goings-on of the young country.

The American West airs Sundays on AMC. Tune in and get what appears to be a skewed perception of how the wild west was won.

The American West: AMC Looks at the Wild West (Review)

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Featuring a cast of unknowns with a narrator who lacks an iconic voice, AMC began their historical tribute to America’s  wild  west on Saturday. Produced by Robert Redford, who appears occasionally to impart a few words towards progressing this look at America’s bloodiest section of history, the eight part mini-series is, thus far, lacking much in the excitement department.

There are a number of celebrities and at least one well known former Republican presidential candidate adding their two cents worth to the proceedings. Starting with the time period that spawned Jesse James amidst the unrest immediately following the Civil War,  episode one dealt as well with the Native American reaction to all those settlers invading their sacred lands and the government’s reaction to the “uprising;” General George Armstrong Custer.

Tying the unrest of post war America with the beginning “Indian Wars” one could almost assume the show is claiming that Jessie James is responsible not only for Crazy Horse’s activities but the move by the then government to open up the territories to settlers. Territories that belonged, according to the documentary,  to the Lakota Sioux nation.

(While they have been the most prevalent in the plains area, there were a number of other tribes who called this area home as well. In fact, it was the combination of a number of different tribes who defeated the over-ambitious Custer at Little Big Horn.)

While it is interesting to see actors playing the roles of Jesse and Frank James, Custer,  General Tecumseh Sherman and General Grant, there is something missing. An adherence, perhaps, to real facts versus this quick “down and dirty” mini-series.

At the risk of sounding petty, or condescending, it feels a little like the television  version of “American Western History for Dummies.”

In 1993, the Disney Channel; using archival photos and old cobbled together bits of American West art and film clips, ran a six part series on the West. Entitled “Adventures of the Old West” it featured the gravelly tones of Kris Kristofferson as the narrator and his verbal presence made the show impressive and gave  it a sort of audio bona fides that this documentary is missing.

Watching “The American West” on Saturday, there was a pause for the obligatory commercials that plague the viewer in this country.  The iconic tones of Sam Elliott (a man synonymous with westerns and western characters) could be  heard for a Coors commercial and the theme, somewhat unsurprisingly, was a western one. In essence the advert had more of a western stamp of authority than the documentary.

Considering the actors whose voices could have been used in the role of narrator (Robert Duval, Tommy Lee Jones,  Elliot, or even Clint Eastwood) why did the producers opt instead for another unknown entity to guide the audience through a show obviously intended to bring the old west alive?

Even the well known actors who gave bits of “colour” on the sidelines,  were not overly associated with the Western genre. (Apart from Kiefer Sutherland, who has at least three westerns under his gunbelt and of course Redford – the Sundance Kid.)  How much better to have Jones, Duval, Elliot, Kurt Russell or Kevin Costner to provide commentary on the series?

Despite all these complaints, the show is worth watching.  If for no other reason for the younger viewers in the audience to see what happened when this country was still in its infancy.  The wholesale theft of a country from its indigenous population, and a serious attempt at genocide of the roughly 300,000 Native Americans who fought against this tide of invaders may even be addressed. (Hopefully so although they have managed to start after the infamous and tragic  Trail of Tears.)

Still, the “legends” picked for this eight part series are interesting.  A desperate ego driven  and narcissistic military man fighting to get his status back – Gen. Custer,  a murderous thieving band of outlaws who fought for themselves in the war and after – Jesse James, a lawman whose exploits in real life never really matched  those that were claimed later in print – Wyatt Earp, and a young renegade determined to keep the invaders off his land – Crazy Horse.

As one who grew up ravenously devouring tales of the old west, whilst simultaneously consuming stories of the world’s greatest detective; Sherlock Holmes, this time period is a personal favorite.  On one side of the pond there was, in real life, Jack the Ripper and Scotland Yard and on this side “manifest destiny,” a country divided and burning pioneer spirit.

“The American West” airs Saturdays on AMC. Tune in for a cheap version of American history that attempts to downscale the telling of legends and the infamous.  Try to picture Kristofferson or Elliot as narrator, it may make up for a lot.

Becoming Bulletproof (2014): Teaching Humanity Through Art (Review)

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Documentaries can be dull as dishwater or have that lecturing you feel that is guaranteed to put one off completely from whatever message or concept they are selling. “Becoming Bulletproof” does not do either of these things. Rather, they teach the viewer humanity under the guise of art, or in the case of this documentary, taking us behind the scenes where the educational art is being made.

Zeno Mountain Farms makes one short film per year. The artists and creatives who make the films do so sans pay. The stars of the movies are various “disabled” actors and the “able bodied” staff play supporting roles on top of helping to care for their talent.  It is a unique, and before now  unknown organization to Mike’s Film Talk at any rate, that works off the premise that money should not govern art, just as certain human difficulties should not hinder people from performing.

At its base, the group’s philosophy is clear, anyone can contribute to art and for those who have the focus to follow through their personal dreams despite suffering from conditions that society deem “unworthy.”  Zeno Mountain Farms makes dreams become reality.

This documentary was put together in 2014, after which it ran the festival circuit where it won seven awards and was nominated for three more,  was helmed by Michael Barnett.  It should be noted that the movie being filmed, in the documentary, was “Bulletproof” filmed, and released in 2012 and that David Arquette had a cameo role in the short film.

Rotten Tomatoes gave “Becoming Bulletproof” a 100 percent “fresh” rating and the overall comments and reviews about the documentary were favorable and mentioned the word “inspirational” several times.  One word not used was educational.

And it should have been. As a teaching aid to the “normal” of society, it is priceless.   Certainly the film shows the difficulties and almost insurmountable problems that the disabled face everyday but more importantly, it shows that they are not different because of the issues they must overcome.

These challenged people are the same as the able-bodied of the world.

Each one, from A.J. who suffers from Cerebral Palsy, to Alec; who has Williams Syndrome, has dreams, aspirations and sees the world as we do; the “non-challenged” of the world.  Yes it is inspirational to see these hard working people complete their film and attend the premiere.

More than having a feel good factor of 100 percent however is the value of teaching the world of these actors’ normalcy. For, despite everything,  they are.

Being a documentary, “Becoming Bulletproof” spends much time interacting with those behind and in front of the camera. The Zeno Mountain Farms staff and the performers all talk about the project, the organization, each other and the sheer joy of allowing everyone to make art “happen.”

By the end of the documentary  it is indeed inspirational and one may find that a little sentimental tear may be rolling down a cheek or two. However, as stated elsewhere in this review, it is the power of the message; the teaching of the uneducated that counts here. The use of arts to teach humanity.

If one takes nothing else from this documentary is should be this:  People are people, regardless of the skin they are in or the difficulties that they face.

Zeno Mountain Farms, and all who sail her, we salute you for your effort, your art and your dedication.  This is a 5 star documentary.  You will walk away feeling good, and possibly with a big soppy grin on your face,  but entertained and educated you will be and that, that is a good thing.

Steaming on Showtime and Hulu at the moment. Do not miss this one.

Amy: A Modern Tragedy

It is difficult to watch Amy; the Asif Kapadia documentary/biopic that is a modern tragedy about Amy Winehouse that offers a “fly-on-the-wall” look at the rise, fall and death of a young legend. As one who watched the meteoric rise of Ms. Winehouse in England (and listened; it was nigh on impossible when Amy started “hitting” to not hear her on the radio with increasing regularity) this unflinching look at this doomed performer tends to move the viewer to tears.

Poster for Amy

It is difficult to watch Amy;  the Asif Kapadia documentary/biopic that is a modern tragedy about Amy Winehouse that offers a “fly-on-the-wall” look at the rise, fall and death of a young legend.  As one who watched the meteoric rise of Ms. Winehouse in England (and listened; it was nigh on impossible when Amy started “hitting” to not hear her on the radio with increasing regularity) this unflinching look at this doomed performer tends to move the viewer to tears.

Young, talented beyond her years, vulnerable and infinitely watchable in the beginning, Amy Winehouse is seen, via the auspices of personal footage shot by family and friends, first as the spotty faced youngster who wrote songs and sang them in a voice comparable to no other and then the gaunt ghost fighting hidden demons.

The grammy winning artist died, after a battle with drugs, a destructive marriage to an addicted  hanger-on who used the girl as his enabler and a father who appeared to be more interested in profiting from his daughter’s success,  in 2011. The singer/songwriter binged on alcohol and literally drank herself to death in her Camden flat in London.

To watch Amy is to relive her short life, where critics and music lovers adored the young performer and her unique sound.  Winehouse was direct, sometimes coarse and always honest, she was a breath of fresh air who took music by storm.  It is also interesting to note that the young girl opted to make her mark on a world where everyone could capture her journey on their cell (mobile) phones or HD cameras.

These glimpses of her rise and death are a reminder of just what the price of fame really is. Winehouse’s popularity and the public’s interest in her music prompted the worst of behavior from many. The paparazzi surrounded the young star like a pack of piranha during a feeding frenzy, especially after her deteriorating health and obvious drug problems.

The documentary shows just how self destructive Winehouse was. Asif shows each player in the film without artifice. Her former husband Blake Fielder-Civil is shown to be an opportunist womanizer who left Amy when her path to fame became too slow but rushed back the moment Back to Black became a hit.

Amy’s destructive  relationship with Blake is clear as is her troubled relationship with father Mitch. The man who left the girl and her mother is someone that Amy seems desperate to love. The film also shows  how the drugs began to rule her life.  Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the documentary is how the media and the industry took jabs at Winehouse’s problems.

The entertainer who set the world alight became an object of ridicule both in the press and on television.  Fame, this film tells us, is a vindictive  and two-faced b*tch.  The same people who sang Amy’s praises, i.e. TV hosts like Jay Leno, et al, began to make jokes about Winehouse’s addiction problems and downward spiral.

Perhaps the biggest message is that  Amy Winehouse was best when she was unhappy or troubled. The artist was driven to sing her songs and pursued fame doggedly while turning her problems into hit songs.  Tony Bennett, who recorded a duet with Winehouse towards the end of her life, says she had an old soul [sic} with her music.  This young woman from London had a voice like no other. Her creativity was forged in misery, Blake leaving her promoted her first real hit just as her drug problems resulted in another.

Mitch Winehouse has been very vocal about the documentary saying that Asif Kapadia has lied with his documentary and he is not the only person to make this allegation. Several British newspapers published articles saying that this short “snap” of Amy’s life and death is skewed and meant to disturb.

Watching the film is an exercise in heartbreak.  What few have mentioned is that the footage does show a playful, childlike side to this “old soul” who could mesmerize with her voice alone.  Amy Winehouse was a tragedy. Her fame, combined with a perfect storm of bad choices in love, a father that perhaps got caught up in his daughter’s fame too much and a wildly talented force doomed to sell destruct all too soon, is a cautionary tale at best.

Be careful what you wish for is too simplistic and the Icarus comparison pales when one considers that Amy Winehouse, as a songwriter and performer,  soared past the sun and stars to die in a Camden flat before she was 30 because her star was a black one, marred by humanity and a perverse interest in tearing down those we put on pedestals.

Amy may be skewed but in the end it does not really matter, as it does capture the senselessness of Winehouse’s death and the tragedy behind her success. Watch this documentary a take its message to heart, but bring a box of tissues for the tears.