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Fans of Tom Wolfe‘s seminal 1968 non-fiction novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test have been waiting a long time to see Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood‘s Magic Trip, whether they knew it or not. Though a narrative adaptation of the definitive book on hippie culture is reportedly in the works from director Gus Van Sant and his Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, this is the closest thing to an adaptation we’re likely to see anytime soon. In fact, it’s even better, because the documentary, subtitled Ken Kesey‘s Search for a Kool Place, is assembled almost entirely from the footage Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters shot during their LSD-fueled cross-country road trip beginning in 1964.
This is not to say you have to be a fan of Wolfe’s book to enjoy Magic Trip. Fans of Hunter S. Thompson‘s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and/or Terry Gilliam‘s film adaptation of it, the Grateful Dead, Allen Ginsberg, or Kesey himself will also get a lot of enjoyment out of it, along with anyone who appreciates wild, anarchic adventure. Narrated by Stanley Tucci, the film tells the story of Kesey (best known as the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and a group of friends who set off for the 1964 New York World’s Fair in a hand-painted school bus and then just kept going, traveling all around the country in an effort to expand the consciousness of the entire United States. Along the way, they threw parties with the likes of Thompson and Timothy Leary, and gave a then unknown band called the Warlocks (who later became the Grateful Dead) their start as an unofficial house band.
Kesey is an extraordinarily charismatic figure, a champion high school and college wrestler who turned his back on athletics in favor of writing and exploring the landscape of his mind. He first began experimenting with psychedelic drugs as a volunteer in a CIA-funded experiment, so it could be said that the U.S. government inadvertently sponsored the madness shown in this film. Another fascinating character is Neal Cassady, the Merry Pranksters’ bus driver, a wildly energetic figure who served as the model for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac‘s revered 1957 novel On the Road, which was itself a source of inspiration for Kesey and the Pranksters’ trip. Gibney, who won an Oscar for his amazing 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, and first-time feature director Ellwood, took on the daunting task of crafting a 107-minute film out of the Pranksters’ days of footage, and they succeeded admirably. Magic Trip perfectly captures the unbridled spirit of a once-in-a-lifetime era, and offers a hell of a good ride to anyone who views it.
There’s no doubt that Alex Gibney is on a historic roll as a documentarian. Within only a few years, he’s been involved with probably the largest number of popular and influential documentaries of any single human being not named Michael Moore. Those works would include the outstanding “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and the equally strong, and Oscar winning, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” about American use of torture in the “war on terror.” Gibney has also made his share of more historically themed documentaries, including “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.” He was also involved as a producer in two of the other most important and controversial documentaries of recent years, the Iraq-war expose, “No End in Sight” and “Who Killed the Electric Car?”
If Gibney’s past output is hugely impressive, however, his upcoming list of films is dizzying. At the recently wrapped Tribeca Film Festival in New York, he premiered as a “work in progress,” a new and apparently very revealing, look at former New York state governor, attorney general, and Wall Street watchdog Eliot Spitzer and the sex scandal that drove him from office. He also has a segment in the upcoming film version of the super-hot bestseller, Freakonomics, as well as new films about two very different cultural legends: bicyclist Lance Armstrong and author/super-hippie Ken Kesey of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Merry Pranksters fame.
There’s also the recently completed “My Trip to Al-Qaeda” and the film Gibney was promoting at his publicist’s L.A. office one recent afternoon, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money.” It’s a work of amazing journalistic detail that also works very hard to be lively and accessible.
Even if I felt that Gibney didn’t quite master that “accessible and lively” aspect too consistently this time around, his “Casino Jack” reviews so far have been great overall. He’s certainly a filmmaker to be reckoned with and one with an outstanding body of work behind him and much, much more to come. Not my idea of a lazy person.
“Pretty high” is the obvious answer. As I write this, the first midnight shows are just finishing up the trailers on the East Coast, fanboys are queuing up in the Midwest, and their West Coast brethren are enjoying their pre-film burgers and Red Bull, but as far as everyone seems to be concerned, the sequel to the surprise “four quadrant” mega-blockbuster of 2008 is already a massive hit. “Iron Man 2” has been booked into a record number of theaters, 4,380 according to Box Office Mojo.
Moreover, Nikki Finke is reporting that the film has already earned $132 million from 53 assorted countries where it has already opened. The summer solstice is more than six weeks away, but summer-time film madness is, we are informed, very much upon us. (Just btw, Anthony D’Alessandro offers a brief historical look at the outward creep of the summer movie season over the last couple of decades.)
So, the question remains, just how many millions will the second film about billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) fetch. Will it beat the record $158.4 million opening of “The Dark Knight” and crack $160 mill? Or, will it get a mere $140 million or so and send everyone to the immensely well appointed and hugely relative poor house? That seems to be the floor being offered up by the various gurus, including Ben Fritz of the L.A. Times‘ Company Town blog and THR’s jolly Carl DiOrio, who characteristically seems to be leaning slightly towards the possibility of a huge opening for Marvel and Paramount.
Nevertheless, there is a small dark cloud here and that’s the general perception, at least among us press types — who are, I remind you again, people too — that “Iron Man 2” is, while not at all bad, also not as good as the first one. This is a rare case where I’ve actually seen the week’s big movie in advance myself and, quality wise, I’m seeing this one as a glass-half-empty. For me, the story simply fails to find a strong emotional connection between Tony Stark’s troubles and the various threats he’s facing. It all feels a bit vague and disconnected despite director Jon Favreau’s way with humor, mostly good acting, and some very decent action scenes.