A double dose of docs

From The Orlando Weekly, April 3, 2014

The Orlando Weekly just released our big Florida Film Festival article featuring reviews of roughly 30 feature films, but since there are more than 50 at this year’s fest, that means we just weren’t able to get to all of them by our press deadline. Two we missed in our main story – but that you should NOT – are SlingShot (3 ¾ stars) and The Final Member (3 ½  stars).

The Final MemberSlingShot, directed by Paul Lazarus, is an eye-opening bio of inventor Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway, founded the FIRST science-education program, and is now pushing a cheap, effective method of delivering purified water to millions of the world’s poorest people.

“We could empty half of all the hospital beds in the world by just giving people clean water,” Kamen says. “I like technology. I like machines. I like the efficiency they deliver.”

But the doc is much more than a description of a new technology – it’s an examination of why science is not more highly valued in our society. As Kamen says, “We don’t have an education problem in this country. We have a culture problem.”

Though the doc drags a tad toward the end, and there are few minutes in the middle where you feel like you’re watching a commercial for Coke (Kamen’s corporate partner), the film is one of the strongest docs at this year’s festival.

Kamen named his SlingShot water purifier for the tale of David and Goliath, in which a tiny invention brought down a mighty problem. Until that original slingshot was demonstrated, I imagine not many people gave little David much of a chance. It would be unwise to similarly underestimate Kamen.

Swinging 180 degrees, we have The Final Member, a truly surreal documentary about an Icelandic man who founded the world’s only penis museum, and the two men who are competing to be the first to donate a human organ to the collection. One is a famous Icelandic playboy who has bequeathed his member upon his death, while the other is an American so eager to have “Elmo” join the museum that he’s willing to have him removed BEFORE his death. (Yes, he’s named his unit and has even turned him into a comic-book hero.)

One might expect this film to be nothing but R-rated silliness. Well, it’s definitely R-rated, but it has a serious and even touching side. Yes, it’s viciously funny, and you might even expect Christopher Guest to jump into the frame at any moment to announce, “Gotcha!” But these are real people, with real stories and real desires, and directors Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math have taken great pride – and many years of shooting – to bring a touching brand of lunacy and passionate insanity to the screen, in the tradition of Errol Morris.

Be prepared for patriotic penis tattooing, a hilarious and painful scene involving a plaster cast, and embarrassing revelations that trouser monsters shrink with old age. (Yes, the men must be a certain size, or larger, to be considered, but it’s never made quite clear whether the 5-inch minimum is the erect or flaccid measurement. Ah, the weighty questions posed by a dick doc.)

“I try to provoke people, make them look differently at things,” says Sigurdur Hjartarson, the museum’s founder and curator. As amazing as it sounds, you may never look at a penis quite the same way again.

The only limp moment – sorry, had to sneak in an anatomical joke somewhere – among the two selections is A Night at the Jai Alai (0 stars), a short documentary preceding SlingShot. It’s a 9-minute glimpse at Orlando’s jai alai arena and some of the people who either play or hang out there.

The film, directed by Drew Blatman and getting its world premiere here, may sound intriguing because of its local subject, but it offers little dialogue, no context and no background information on the Orlando venue or jai alai itself. Without that, and with little knowledge of the sport, we’re left to wonder who these people are, what they are doing and why we are supposed to care.

© 2014 Orlando Weekly / MeierMovies, LLC