Category: 4 Stars


Gleason

July 28th, 2016 — 5:10am

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Steve Gleason was a professional football player who ended his season with the New Orleans Saints. The highlight of his sports career was a blocked punt which symbolized the birth of New Orleans after being so devastated by Hurricane Katrina. A statue of him stretched out with a flying leap to accomplish this feat is present in front of the Saints’ football stadium.

A few years after Gleason retired from football at the age of 33, he developed some mild physical symptoms which turned out to be ALS-Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. This is a progressive muscle paralysis which over time results in total paralysis of all muscles, requiring a wheelchair and even a tracheostomy in order to breathe and survive. There are no cognitive or intellectual deficits with this disease. The course of the illness can be gradual over a few to several years usually resulting in death and as you can imagine, it can be devastating.

Shortly after he and his wife Michel were told about his terrible diagnosis, they learned that she was pregnant. It was at that time that Gleason decided that he was going to make an ongoing video blog of his life. His purpose was for him to record his daily life which would include expressing his memories and thoughts so his unborn offspring would come to know him and also know about the bond that he felt with his child. Sometime after this process was started, Clay Tweel, a documentary film producer learned of this project and met with the Gleason’s. They trusted Tweel and agreed he would help them with the video production, with the idea that he would eventually make a documentary film.

This project in one sense has become the ultimate reality show. The viewer of it becomes a fly on the wall to the everyday interactions in the lives of this very brave couple. We see Gleason’s speech gradually become difficult, his gait unsteady, and ultimately leading to a wheelchair. We are in the delivery room when he participates in the birth of his son, Rivers. We watch Rivers gradually developing into a toddler and ride with his dad on the electric wheelchair. We see the tears in Gleason’s eyes as he looks into the camera and imagines that he’s talking to a more grownup version of his son who he hopes someday will view his video. The viewer also realizes what a remarkable woman his wife Michel has turned out to be. It is hard to imagine how she handled being a wife, mother, caretaker and also finding that she was a skilled artist. The interaction between Gleason and his father is a story onto itself. His dad is a religious Christian who believes in faith healing. This is a source of great conflict between Gleason and his dad. There is a church scene where a faith healer exhorts Gleason to be cured and run which is quite heart-wrenching.

When people with this disease begin to lose their ability to speak, they often can use computerized speech synthesizers. You probably recall seeing video clips of the famous physicist, Steven Hawkings who has ALS himself and talks with an artificial electronic voice. An even more advanced device is one which records the voice of the patient while he still can speak and then the miracle of a special computer program will talk in the person’s voice when they type or even choose letters and words with their eyes. This was particularly dramatically demonstrated during a recorded conversation of Gleason and his wife during some difficult times. Unfortunately, this marvelous machine is not available to people without financial resources or even to people on Medicare. It turns out that Gleason along with family, friends, various donors including some people from the sports world set up a foundation which provided this equipment for people who needed them. They also lobbied Congress and eventually “Gleason’s Law” was passed. So now the US Government will provide this equipment for all who need it.

On one hand, this documentary movie is a sad story but it is actually a very affirming tale. It shows one man’s determination to establish a conversation with his unborn son, the amazing support of a dedicated wife, and the fortuitous involvement of a talented filmmaker. We have here the opportunity to see a very remarkable and uplifting documentary film, which we would strongly recommend to our readers. (2016)

 

 

Comment » | 4 Stars, Documentary

Captain Fantastic

July 1st, 2016 — 6:18am

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Initially we thought that despite the title this is not a movie about a superhero, but perhaps on second thought it is, but not in the usual sense. It is the story of a father who is raising his six kids in the wilderness (but not quite the bush country as we saw in the setting of the previous New Zealand film that we reviewed). Ben (Viggo Mortensen) is homeschooling his children in the wilderness in the United States. He also just found out that his wife and his partner in this endeavor has tragically died. Her parents, Jack (Frank Langella) and Abigail (Ann Dowd) haven’t quite forgiven them for keeping the grandchildren in the woods and don’t want Ben to come to the funeral. Ben and the kids come anyway on a determined mission.

The film examines some very complicated issues. We are shown the depth and benefit of homeschooling with living very close to family and nature. We are also stimulated to think about the potential shortcomings of children being raised away from their peers.

This movie is the brainchild of writer/director Matt Ross and in a post screening discussion we learned how he shared his views about the subject matter with Mr. Mortensen who took on this acting role and became in sync with his ideas. He also chose and trained a very talented group of children to take on their roles. This included climbing mountains, wielding knives and making music together. These children are George Mackay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Besso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks and Charlie Shotwell. This film will stretch your imagination and the take away emotion is “feeling good”. The film is a well done accomplishment. (2016)

 

Comment » | 4 Stars, Comedy, Drama, Family / Kids

Hunt For The Wilderpeople

June 24th, 2016 — 11:20pm

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The chances are that if you did not read this review, you might not consider seeing this movie. This is the product of the work of director/writer, Taika Waititi, a young man from New Zealand who is of Maori-European Jewish descent and he has been involved in not very well-known, but well-received films such as Boy, Eagle vs Shark, Two Cars One Night and Tama Tu. This current film takes place mostly in the New Zealand bush country and stars Sam Neill, a well-known international actor who has starred in Jurassic Park, The Piano, Bicentennial Man, Sleeping Dogs, My Brilliant Career and many other successful film and TV projects. His co-star is Julian Dennison, a 12-year-old, somewhat chubby young boy from New Zealand who looks his age or younger. He plays Ricky Baker, a foster child who no one wants and for whom the New Zealand authorities are trying to find a home. They find Aunty Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec Faulkner (Sam Neill), who lives in an isolated setting on the edge of the deep bush countryside. This would seem to be the last chance for Ricky to be placed with a family or he goes to “juvy.”

Due to circumstances, Hec and Ricky, who basically are two misfits, make their way into the bush country together. You might say this is a road movie, except these two strange bedfellows are trekking, hiding and interacting in a setting that is unlike any place that you have seen before. It includes bounty hunters looking for them, a giant killer pig and what seems to be half the police force of New Zealand. This film is scary at times, funny, but mainly heartwarming and poignant. All we can say is do not take a pass on this movie. We think you will like it and be touched by it and besides, it is a big hit in New Zealand.. (2016)

Comment » | 4 Stars, Comedy, Drama

It Might Get Loud – Guest review by Leo Blumenfield – Age 12

May 8th, 2016 — 8:04pm

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            This 2009 documentary, directed by Davis Guggenheim, tells how three amazing guitarists, Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White, all from different backgrounds and times can really connect and tell their own story. Jimmy Page comes from London, England, The Edge comes from Dublin, Ireland, and Jack White is from Detroit, Michigan. I thought this was a interesting documentary because of the way you can see the history of guitar and rock-and-roll from these three different perspectives. It is very inspiring, showing how these unique guitarists got their start from playing in a small garage to performing in front of thousands of people. All three of these guitarists have strange and different styles of music and attitude that is so fascinating. 

            I highly recommend this documentary because whether you are a musician or not, this movie really tells you a story that you will never forget. You can also see in this movie what beautiful sounds can come out of some of the greatest musicians when they jam together. Jack White, The Edge, and Jimmy Page talk about some of their favorite songs and musicians and how that inspired their music and their style. They talk about how blues, rock, and soul influences lead them to where they are now.

            Overall, It Might Get Loud is a very fascinating documentary because it shows that wherever you are from, music can always bring you together, and you can bond over something that is so special to you. (2009)

Comment » | 4 Stars, Documentary, Musical

Papa: Hemingway in Cuba

April 29th, 2016 — 11:39pm

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Ernest Hemingway is the iconic writer who is forever linked to Cuba where he spent much of his life. Denne Bart Petitclerc was a reporter for the Miami Globe in the 1950s and for very personal reasons idolized the great writer and wrote him a letter telling him so. This led to a correspondence and then a friendship with “Papa” Hemingway and his wife, Mary Hemingway.” Petitclerc visited Cuba several times and subsequently wrote about his relationship with Hemingway, which is the subject of this outstanding docudrama. This movie offers a sensitive insight into this brilliant writer, driven, complicated man who was an alcoholic, had severe depression and possibly a bipolar disorder as well as a complicated love life. In addition, he was drawn into the Castro Communist revolution and was also in conflict with the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover.

While this all makes a fascinating story, the attraction and success of this movie is the portrayal of Papa Hemingway by Adrian Sparks. This veteran award winning actor has played Hemingway in one-man-shows on the stage for several years in addition to his other stage and film accomplishments. He was the natural choice for this role. Giovanni Ribisi is excellent as Petitclerc and he is called Ed Myers in the film. The movie also stars Joely Richardson as Mary Hemingway and Minka Kelly as Myers’ girlfriend.

Director and producer, Bob Yari also scored an amazing accomplishment in that he received permission to film this movie in Cuba. After much negotiating he was able to do this because the movie is portrayed as a docudrama rather than a commercial film. However, the movie will hold the audience’s attention as well as any good drama. In fact, if you have had any occasion to be a tourist in Cuba in the past several years as we have, you will appreciate the familiar sights. We were particularly pleased to see Hemingway’s house, which is now a treasured museum but was used in the film. In fact, in a post screening discussion, we were told the real items in the house were substituted with props but at the last moment, Cuban officials allowed Hemingway’s actual typewriter to be used in the movie. Knowing this lends a special realism when we see him typing on it in the film. Enlightening, moving and totally engaging, this movie is well worth seeing. (2016)

 

Comment » | 4 Stars, Documentary, Drama

The Meddler

April 13th, 2016 — 7:28am

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Writer-director, Lorene Scafaria has put together a dramedy (drama plus comedy) with which both young and old will identify. In a post-screening discussion with Ms. Scafaria, we learned that the story is a very close, realistic depiction of the writer’s own mother, who moved out to Los Angeles from the east coast after her husband died. The mother, Marnie (Susan Sarandon) who is on the screen for almost the entire film meddles or tries meddle in just about every aspect of her single daughter’s life, as well as in the lives of just about everyone else who she meets. Lori, the daughter (Rose Byrne) not surprisingly is a budding film maker, who as much as she tries, can’t get away from her mother’s love and over-attention, which of course she really needs. On one hand, we keep thinking that this mother character is exaggerated and way over the top. However, why then did she captivate our attention? The answer is that the film has captured the universal need and wish of most mothers to do just about everything and anything for their children at any age.

The dialogue and Sarandon’s characterization is near perfect. The screenwriter, who of course is really the daughter telling the story of her mom, has also added a romantic twist, which she acknowledges is her fantasy wish for her mother. This brings in a potential boyfriend for her mother in the person of a dashing, handsome, senior guy who rides a Harley Davidson motorcycle and raises chickens as pets. Unbelievable you say – just wait until you see Oscar winner J.K. Simmons take on this role.

This independent low-budget film has a lot going for it with a great script, two outstanding stars, a fine supporting cast and great execution by this young woman director. It also should have special appeal here in Los Angeles, where most of the film takes place from the scenes at the Grove, to glimpses of the entertainment industry in action and the beautiful west coast shoreline, as well as many characters who will remind you of people that you know.

This movie opens later this month across the country. We highly recommend it. (2016)

Comment » | 4 Stars, Comedy, Drama

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

April 7th, 2016 — 6:22pm

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On one hand this very well done film gets into the head and feelings of this 15-year-old girl as she has her first sexual experience. We can imagine that so many teenagers will identify with the excitement, bewilderment and glorious feelings that she relates into her tape recorder as she tries to preserve the special moments. As well done as this depiction and as universal as these feelings may be, her particular situation was certainly nowhere typical. The setting was San Francisco in the 1970s and her first lover is her mother’s boyfriend. What follows is more and more sex, parties, drugs and some same-sex sex.

One would hope that all of this will not reflect the typical teenage experience. However, we would be naïve not to believe that the modern teenager may very well know some version of the scene. It is ironic that most teenagers could not be admitted to this R-rated movie. The star of this film is Bel Powley, an experienced actress who was in her early 20s when she portrays 15-year-old Minnie. Her immature party mom is played by Kristen Wiig and the boyfriend who was more of a period piece than an outright cad was played by Alexander Skaarsgard.

Credit for the success of this movie is first time director Marielle Heller, who also wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Phoebe Gloeckner. To give you an idea of her accomplishments, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, in addition to  nominating Ms. Heller for Best Woman Director and Best Woman Screenwriter, also nominated this film for Best Depiction of Nudity, Sexuality or Seduction – a well-deserved award.

This movie goes beyond these accomplishments and captures the complicated universal joy and wonder of sexual awakening. (2015)

Comment » | 4 Stars, Drama

Miles Ahead

March 31st, 2016 — 8:40pm

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To best appreciate this review click here and listen to Miles Davis as you read the review

This is not your typical biopic that simply traces the life story of an important person. It is rather a cinematic representation of the powerful, free flowing, unpredictable, abstract and arresting sound of the music of Miles Davis. It tumbles on to the screen as his music emerges from his trumpet. We absorb a sense of this man and his music rather than understand a chronological progression that has growth and coherency.

Don Cheadle, actor, director and screen writer of this movie has chosen to use as his point of departure the approximate five-year period in the mid 1970s where this productive jazz artist ceased to produce any music. We meet Miles Davis (Don Cheadle) when a reporter who says he is from Rolling Stone Magazine (Ewan McGregor) visits him with the hope of interviewing him and finding out why he is no longer on the music scene. This leads to flashbacks and flashforwards, cocaine binges, car chases, the search for a tape of a recent personal recorded session by Davis as well as a glimpse of the personality of Davis and his relationship with Francis Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) a beautiful woman and dancer who was his wife for ten years. We see that Davis at least in his early life was a somewhat self-centered, arrogant man who loved his woman and also abused her. Of course he was a musical genius who came of age in the mid-1950s and ‘60s and we also were shown examples of the impact of the ugly sector of racism as he was arrested for standing on the street in front of the night club where he was the headline performer and put in jail for the night.

We are introduced to a young musician called Junior (Lakeith Lee Stanfield) who is intertwined in the plot as Davis tries to find himself during his five-year unproductive period. This young musician could be symbolic of the many young musicians that Davis has helped on the way up, including Wynston Marsalis. He also could represent the very young Davis himself who pushes the now middle aged Davis to pick up the mantle where he put it down half a decade ago.

As mentioned earlier you will not take away a coherent story from this one hour and forty-minute movie experience. You will hear much of Davis’ great music in the background frequently played quite softly. You will see Don Cheadle skillfully appear to inhabit Davis with convincing mannerisms as well as the way he handled his musical instrument. The photography is magnificent (director of photography was Roberto Schaefer). There are many evening scenes and snatches of semi-dark rooms with white smoke trailing upward surrounding the cast of characters. Miles Davis’ music is always there. This will probably not be a blockbuster movie but may very well get the attention of film critics and demonstrate the genius of Miles Davis who won nine Grammy awards and perhaps the potential Oscar worthiness for the second Oscar nomination for Don Cheadle. (2016)

Comment » | 4 Stars, Biography, Drama, Musical

The Confirmation

March 17th, 2016 — 9:04pm

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First-time director, Bob Nelson, who was Oscar-nominated for his screenplay Nebraska, has written and directed this very sensitive story about the relationship between a separated father and his young  son. There is clear chemistry between the father (Clive Owen) and his son (Jaeden Lieberher).

The setting is small town blue-collar America. Dad, who has had a drinking problem and is experiencing some symptoms of alcohol withdrawal is out of work, has the opportunity for a carpentry job but his tools have been stolen. This all happens on the weekend where his son is staying with him and by the way, he is also locked out of his small rented house with an eviction notice. We get sucked into this story and feel and empathize for the dad, and we realize so does his young son! We want to give credit to Bob Nelson, the director, and veteran actor, Clive Owen, for how they have worked with this child actor and brought out such an outstanding performance. However, in our screening where we met these gentlemen, they were unanimous that young Mr. Lieberher is an outstanding actor and deserves all the credit for his ability to understand his character and magnificently carry out this sensitive and subtle role. The supporting cast is excellent but special praise should go to comedian, Patton Oswalt, who plays, with a comedic touch, an out-of-work well meaning but somewhat inept guy who uses meth and is trying to use his “contacts” to help the father and son recover the stolen tools.

This movie was a poignant portrayal of the difficulties, exacerbated by poverty, which befall so many in our society. The working class small town was depicted with depth and authenticity and you can so easily identify with the struggles of everyday families.

The title of the film came from the Catholic ritual of coming of age, as it is also a gentle satire of religion. Instead of providing a moral compass for the young boy, the church and its rituals are seen as only a counterpoint to real life. The film is rated PG-13 “for some mature thematic elements,” but we would imagine that many kids who are mature beyond their years can relate to it. (2016)

Comment » | 4 Stars, Drama

What Happened, Miss Simone?

March 13th, 2016 — 9:37pm

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This Oscar nominated documentary biography will grab you and hold your attention and your emotions. You will re-experience the meaning that the Civil Rights Movement may have had to you and how you understand its significance in this country. Music as it always does, creates and brings out deep-rooted feelings and the haunting music and lyrics of this gifted singer and musician will do just that. You will come to understand who Nina Simone was and where she came from and what she was trying to do. But this film will also raise questions about Miss Simone, as a wife, mother, and troubled soul that will remain unanswered although undoubtedly you will share our admiration for her.

Nina Simone grew up as the preacher’s daughter in North Carolina. She was noted to have musical talent and as a young girl she played the piano in church. She went on to get formal music lessons and she had a lifelong unfulfilled wish to be the first black classical concert pianist. She also , clearly, experienced the pain of the Jim Crow South and multiple occasions of blatant discrimination because she was black.

This film documents what she did become and that is a widely acclaimed blues singer with a very distinctive style. When the Civil Rights Movement burst upon the scene, her music and words became part of its anthem alongside of Martin Luther King and others. This was symbolized by the controversial song Mississippi Goddamn”( click to hear this great song) which was embraced by the movement but apparently ultimately marginalized Miss Simone’s ability to work in the musical industry.

The details of Miss Simone’s journey were very well documented with film clips and interviews with people who were very close to her including lifelong friends, fellow musicians, her husband, and her now grown daughter. One of the most fascinating and convincing parts of this documentary film was the showing of the handwritten pages of her own diary. These scribbled words with printed subtitles at the bottom of the screen, documented her love and dependency on her husband, a former New York City policeman who guided a good part of her successful career but also apparently viciously beat her according to her own words. We do not really understand why and how she tolerated him so long before divorcing him. Nor do we understand how she could suddenly leave her loved only young daughter with her good friend and abruptly go off to Europe to try to revive her career.

Her own diary also documents her bouts of suicidal thoughts during this period. As a psychiatrist, one of us (MB) knows we can never properly make a diagnosis or understand the clinical issues in someone we have never seen in our consulting room. However, it should be stated that in her late years, we clearly see a very depressed woman. We are told in the words of her grown daughter and others that she had a diagnosis made of manic-depression and was prescribed “Trilafon” (a second generation antipsychotic medication – not usually the medicine of choice for this condition). We are also told that the medication helped her a little bit. It is also stated that she subsequently had certain symptoms of stiffness and twitching of her lip which are common side effects of this medication that was given to her. While we certainly don’t know all the details we can’t help wondering if she had the best treatment

Miss Simone died at the age of 70 and we do not know too much about her last few years. We have come away from this well-done documentary film by director and producer Liz Garbus with an appreciation how this talented woman was able to find her destiny at the same time that she was able to touch the emotions and express the voice of so many people during the Civil Rights Movement in this country. Through this film and her music, there is the opportunity for her work reach future generations. (2015)

 

Comment » | 4 Stars, Biography, Documentary

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