Thursday, March 12, 2015

Deli Man, Merchants of Doubt, An Honest Liar, The Mind of Mark DeFriest

Deli Man
Merchants of Doubt

An Honest Liar
The Mind of Mark DeFriest

Capsules on the week's new documentaries:

Don't see "Deli Man" on an empty stomach. You'll want to drive straight to Nate 'n Al's and order everything on the menu. Erik Greenberg Anjou's brisk(et) yet thorough documentary chronicles the Depression-era ascendancy and modern decline of the delicatessen (only a few hundred legit delis remain in the U.S. today) and what it means to be a deli man (or woman) in contemporary America. Anjou interviews customers from Larry King to Fyvush Finkel. Our main tour guide is the adorably zaftig Ziggy Gruber of Houston's Kenny & Ziggy's, who lives the deli life 24/7 and was, as one patron puts it, "born an 80-year-old Jew." Mostly, the movie's a celebration of Jewish culture and Jews, who occupy a disproportionate share of the top spots in virtually every field of human endeavor (OK, not athletics). Or, as the saying goes, "They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat."… The "Merchants of Doubt" are glib pundits, bought-and-paid-for researchers and think-tank heads who moonlight as registered lobbyists. Their job is to talk over and outdebate the relatively boring climatologists warning of man's effect on global warming. Robert Kenner's funny and sad documentary shows how "Crossfire"-type TV shows that thrive on controversy foster the illusion of a lack of scientific consensus, while worst-offender corporations establish innocuous-sounding groups (e.g., "Citizens for Fire Safety," comprising the three largest manufacturers of flame retardants) to spread disinformation and employ other tactics lifted from Big Tobacco's playbook. Kenner keeps things moving with witty graphics and musical cues, as when Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney retreat from their original positions and adopt the "nobody knows" mantra to the tune of David Bowie's "Changes."… Coincidentally, some of the same interviewees appear in "An Honest Liar," Tyler Measom's and Justin Weinstein's biodoc of the famous magician and debunker James "The Amazing" Randi. His takedowns of Uri Geller and the faith-healing televangelist Peter Popoff are highlights, but his late-in-life coming-out and his role in his immigrant partner's identity deception aren't as earth-shattering as the directors seem to think. Redundancy sets in in the second half… Finally, there's Gabriel London's incoherent and headache-inducing mess of a documentary, "The Mind of Mark DeFriest," about a notorious Florida escape artist who managed to parlay the youthful "theft" of some tools devised to him by his late father into a four-year prison sentence and ultimately a life wasted behind bars. New evidence of mental trauma DeFriest may have suffered as a child feels a day late and a dollar short, while the overarching lesson seems to be that there's no defense for criminal stupidity.

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