Category: Biography


Life Itself

July 13th, 2014 — 6:26pm

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Life Itself-rm- It feels somewhat strange for us amateur reviewers to be writing a review about a documentary film centered on the most esteemed movie critic of our time. But in our opinion it is an excellent film that we would guess would receive high marks from the master himself if he were still around. He died a few months before the film was ready for release. We meet Roger at point where he is battling the cancer that has already taken away his vocal speech and altered his face. His voice via his laptop is heard and is an important part of the film. In life, his voice at this point came from a computer voice synthesizer but in the film there is a voiceover by Steven Stanton who seems to capture the inflections of Ebert’s voice as we heard it at an earlier time. Director Steve James (in 1974 Director of Hoop Dreams which Ebert had named best picture of that year) skillfully weaves video clips and interviews with various people in Ebert’s life with a flashback technique in order reconstruct this remarkable story. It becomes a special treat for the viewer to meet some other great movie critics and directors as they comment on Ebert and his work throughout the film. Such people as A.O Scott from the N.Y. Times, Pauline Kael of the New Yorker, Richard Corliss of Time Magazine and Directors Weiner Herzog and Martin Scorsese. Ebert’s talent became clear in college when he proved his skill as a writer and was quickly elevated to editor at his college newspaper while at the University of Illinois as well as working for the city newspaper. He is depicted as confident, arrogant and brilliant. After college he then worked as general reporter for the Chicago Sun Times and then in 1967, 3 years after graduating from college he became the full time movie critic for the Chicago Times, a position he held for his entire career. In 1975 he teamed up with Gene Siskel, the movie critic of the other major newspaper in Chicago, in order to cohost a weekly film review television show that became immensely popular and ran until Siskel’s death in 1999. Their relationship is shown as a love-hate one where they pulled no punches on or off the air but obviously had great affection for each other. Ebert married at age 50 in 1992 to Chaz, an attorney who he met at an AA meeting. Yes, he apparently was a big drinker at the bars and saloons he hung out at early in his career. We don’t see much in the film about this aspect of his life. He stopped drinking in 1979 but apparently stayed connected with AA. He is shown to be very loving and committed to his wife, step daughter and step grandchildren. Ebert’s accomplishments as a writer and critic were heralded beyond any doubt when in 1975 he became the first movie critic to ever receive a Pulitzer Prize for his work. It would be 29 more years before such recognition was given to another film critic. In addition to this movie being about the life of Roger Ebert, it is also clearly about his dying and death. The Director Steve James started working with Ebert on this film 5 months before he died. The film shows his wife’s support as he battles his progressive disease with repeated hospitalizations. Chaz gives a very moving description of how he kept working on his film blog (obviously also this film) to the day before he died and how he finally decided to let go. In the spirit of writing this review we would have to say that we thought this pain and suffering was drawn out in the film longer than it had to be to make it’s point. But on the other hand we may feel that way because we really came to revere him and it was painful to see the end of the story. (2014)

Comment » | 4 Stars, Biography, Documentary

Jersey Boys

June 29th, 2014 — 6:31am

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Jersey Boys- rm
- If you are of a certain age and when you hear the high pitched voice of Frankie Valli singing “Sherry” in full harmony with the rest of the Four Seasons, you want move around and do some dancing, then this film will be a most enjoyable experience for you. We suspect many other generations will also enjoy the musical re-creation of this 50s group. Director and Producer Clint Eastwood has chosen to take this story and the music to the silver screen after a version of it was a successful Broadway Show. This is certainly more of a musical accomplishment than dramatic achievement. Each member of the group was quite distinctive in their personality and story. Frankie Castellucio alias Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) was shown to evolve from a naïve young man to the star he became. Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) was originally the brains behind the group and the one who first recognized Valli’s star potential but didn’t have the know how or the integrity to financially help them thrive and survive as a group. Nick Mass (Michael Lomenda) by dropping out prematurely allowed Valli to complete his career without the intact Four Season. Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) was the last to join the group and was the talented songwriter who probably provided the key ingredient, which allowed Valli and the group to shine so bright. Not only is the music captivating but also there is excellent choreography. There is also some very well done subtle aging of these guys as they grow into mature men. Gangsters and the mob were an important part of the scene in the upbringing of these young men and in their rise to the top. The leading gangster kingpin is well played by Christopher Walken. This is a story about boys growing into men and ultimately loyalty among men is a theme which Director and Producer Eastwood knows well and has brought to the screen many times. The women in their lives are downplayed and almost presented as incidental characters. However there is some attempt to show the meaning of a lost family life. But what will not be lost will be the history of this legendary early rock and roll band and a most enjoyable musical experience.(2014)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Biography, Musical

The Invisible Woman

January 20th, 2014 — 12:02am

***large_INvisPOSTER The Invisible Woman- rm.  The poster for this movie tries to summarize the story as follows:  Charles Dickens was the most famous writer in the world. His greatest story was the one he could never tell.  This is a story of Nelly, an 18 year old actress (Felicity Jones) who is in love with everything Dickens has ever written, produced and acted in and becomes completely smitten with this brilliant and charming man himself. Charles Dickens (played by Ralph Fiennes who also directed the movie), the renowned, author, actor who is married with 10 children and is 2 ½ times the age of the young actress and has a son who is at least her age. He is drawn to the young woman seemingly because she is so into him and his work. The setting is Victorian England so apparently Dickens would never want to besmirch the young woman’s reputation with whom he is now having an affair even after he announces in the newspaper that he has separated from his wife and denies all rumors that Nelly is his love. She is expected to live in the outskirts of the city, alone, content with visits from the great author. The story obviously is based on fact from a book by Claire Tomain and was made into a screenplay by Abi Morgan. It is attractively filmed, showing the magnificent countryside of Margate, England, the period dress of the main characters and the actors and actresses of the time who are shown acting in Dickens’ plays, the expressive face of Fiennes as Dickens with a subtly graying beard with time and the close-ups of the sensitive beautiful face of his young lover. We are being shown a socially minded Mr. Dickens who on one hand was devoted to trying to help the downtrodden social class of his time by raising money for a children’s hospital and we know also how he exposed the inequities and poverty in his writings. But on the other hand we see a narcissistic man who cared mostly about his own writing and seemed to be quite insensitive to the most important women in his life.  It has to be a special accomplishment when the star of the movie is also the director, which was the case here. However, that might account for not editing the 111 minutes little tighter, as the lingering facial studies may have lingered longer than necessary for effect. (2014)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Biography, Drama

Hitchcock

January 14th, 2014 — 7:02am

***Hitchcock

Hitchcock- nf   As we anticipate this year’s Academy Awards nite, we were in the mood for a movie about making movies. We chose to view this   biopic about the great Alfred Hitchcock. We can’t imagine two better choices for the stars than fellow Brits Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirin as his wife, Alma. While Hopkins seems to channel Hitchcock in appearance and mannerism, director Sacha Gervasi added to the impersonation by showing the iconic director’s profile numerous times. This is the story of a crisis in the life of the “Master of Suspense” as he is wondering if he is past his prime and won’t ever be able to match his last success North by Northwest. Perhaps driven by some demons in his own head he decides that he wants to make a movie of a book he has just read titled, Psycho. Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) head of Paramount Studios, where Hitchcock has a contract doesn’t think it will go over with the public and won’t provide the funding. Hitch makes a deal with them to do it if he provides the finances, which he does by mortgaging his own house. The screenplay by John J McLaughlin based on a book by Stephen Rebello shows us a man who realizes that he is at a crucial point in his life and with his marriage. He seems to have the confidence to make a great movie but he has to reach much deeper to try to save his marriage. As a movie fan it is fun to see a depiction of the making of Psycho. In this case it is Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins and Jessica Biel as Vera Miles who we see might have been the “other woman” in the grand master’s life. While there is some attempt   to remind us of the magic of a Hitchcock film, in the end it is just a snapshot of a one of film-lovers great heroes. (2012)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Biography, Drama

12 Years A Slave

October 17th, 2013 — 7:38pm

*****12-years-a-slave-promo-poster-422x600

12 Years A Slave- sp  This is one of the most painful and difficult movies to watch that we have seen in a very long time.  The screenplay by John Ridley is based a little known book by Solomon Northrup, which was written in the mid 19th century. He is the main character of the film and is magnificently played by Chiwetel Ejiofor who is a very talented British actor who can express tormented feelings with his face and eyes. Northrup an upper class black gentlemen living a happy life with his wife and two children in Saratoga, New York happens to be a talented musician who agrees to go on a short tour and play in Washington DC. He was kidnapped and brought to New Orleans where he is sold into slavery. It is through his experience that we come to deeply appreciate in the inhumane, vicious treatment of slaves on the plantations of the south. The debasement of another human being by others because they felt they owned them and could do anything they wanted to them is shown in so many ways. You probably have studied the story of slavery in this country but any tendency to repress that knowledge is challenged as we experience the separation of mother and child, whippings, demanding forced labor, rape and hangings. All of this occurs as everyday events. If this were just a reenactment of the horrors of this sad piece of American history, the movie would have achieved a worthy accomplishment. However, since the character with whom we closely follow and identify was a free man living in the North who gets pulled into anyone’s worst nightmare, it brings an even greater sense of reality and immediacy to his plight which we believe is quite palpable. There are some very good actors who play some very bad people and those include Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti. There was a heart wrenching performance by Luita Nyong’o born in Mexico, raised in Kenya and a recent Yale University School of Drama graduate who plays Patsy, one of the terribly treated young black women. Brad Pitt’s production company originally came up with the idea for this film and was one of the major producers of it. Pitt himself has a small but important role in this film. They brought in Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) as director who clearly connected with the concept and made an unforgettable film, which should not be missed. It is worth the pain that it will cause you. (2013)

Comment » | 5 Stars, Biography, Drama, History

Jobs

August 14th, 2013 — 5:40am

***Jobs

Jobs-sp – Steve Jobs has to be one of the iconic figures of our time. Any attempt of a film to get into his head and show what makes him tick would be of great interest. This movie directed by Joshua Michael Stern, with screenplay by Matt Whiteley and starring Ashton Kutcher as Jobs certainly held our attention but it provided no particular insight into the dynamics of Job nor did it provide a clear understanding  of  the life of this man who is one of  founders of the company that makes the computer, iphone and ipad that so many of us hold in great esteem. We see a young man who is intensely interested in innovation,  who over and over again insists upon perfection and appears to have a clear deficit in his ability to have empathy for other people. Had he not met Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad), we might still be using typewriters and even Bill Gates wouldn’t have had a model to rip off for the  IBM PC. It was Wozniak who designed the workings of the  personal computer but it was Jobs who had the vision how it should look and how  people would use it . It is Jobs who we see in the movie ruthlessly demanding what is seen as the impossible from his designers and computer geeks. The film follows Job’s through the founding of Apple , development of Apple 2, Lisa and the early  Mac. While his expulsion and his return to glory is shown, the several years away from Apple including his time with Pixar pictures is not covered  However the journey that is depicted is choppy. The other characters from the original scruffy band of developers , Mike Markkula (Dermott Mulroney), an executive from Intel who joined Jobs early on,  to  Jon Sculley( Matthew Modine) the honcho from Pepsi, one of several CEO’s who replaced Jobs for awhile,  may be difficult to to appreciate exactly who they are and their significance. Unless, of course, you have read the official best selling biography by Walter  Issacson which the movie is not based upon but may be the basis of another  future movie being worked on by Aaron Sorkin. Job’s personal life is particularly confusing in this film . He is not accepting responsibility of the pregnancy of his girl friend and then later in the film he is briefly seen married to another woman with this first child visiting him as a teenager (named Lisa which is the name of  one of the Apple computer  models which appeared after the Apple 2). The film is carried by Ashton Kutcher who mastered Job’s mannerisms as well as projecting his narcissistic characteristics.  In addition the actor is known to have shared Job’s love of technology and innovation which may have added to his successful portrayal. (2013)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Biography

Paul Williams Still Alive

June 15th, 2012 — 1:51am

***

Paul Williams Still Alive- sp Filmmaker Stephen Kessler grew up and came of age in the 1970s and 80s and was a big fan of the music and of the personality of Paul Williams. He had thought that Williams had faded from the scene. Therefore he was quite surprised when a few years ago he found out that his music hero was alive and well.  He read that Williams was still writing and performing music. He tracked down 65-year-old Williams at a concert in Winnipeg, Canada where he was playing to an enthusiastic but older crowd. Kessler proposed that he would make a documentary film about the career of Williams. His proposal was politely turned down but Kessler persisted and ultimately made the film with William’s agreement. In an unorthodox documentary style, the film chronicles how Kessler gradually won over Williams to allow him to make this loving tribute. He used flashbacks, mainly in the form of film clips and videotapes of Williams and many others performing his songs. Early music such as the Carpenters singing We have Just Begun and Rainy Days and Mondays as well as many others such as Cried Like a Baby and Talk It Over In the Morning. He co wrote many songs including the music sung by Jim Hensen as Kermet the Frog. He wrote for TV shows such as Happy Days and wrote and sang the music for the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble that starred John Travolta. Williams was nominated for multiple Academy Awards for writing the best music in a motion picture and won the Oscar for Evergreen in the movie A Star is Born which was co-written and performed by Barbra Streisand. Williams’ status as a pop icon was confirmed by the fact that he was a guest 50 times on the Johnny Carson show. Although 5’2” he was giant in the music industry. Williams himself admits that his fame went to his head and he seemed embarrassed when Kessler showed him some of his old tapes. He came across in them as a self-centered person who was caught up with his own fame and success. Drugs and alcohol became a mainstay of his life. He subsequently had treatment and now has been sober for over 20 years. His wife Marianna is frequently shown at his side in the movie and it is obvious that she and his two children are very meaningful to him. He has evolved to where he clearly cares about people and is deeply passionate about music, not only his own but the music of other composers. He is now President of ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, which is a very powerful organization fighting for the rights of all songwriters. Paul Williams has come a long way and as the title states is “still alive” in every sense of the word.(2012)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Biography, Documentary, Musical

The Iron Lady

January 22nd, 2012 — 6:42pm

 

***

The Iron Lady- rm-  An alternate name for this movie might be Margaret Thatcher meets Golden Pond but more about that a little later. The take away story of this movie is that Meryl Streep turned in an unbelievable performance as the famed British Prime Minister. The strength, character and the obstinacy of this woman during the height of her career comes across as most authentic as did her  sensitivity, vulnerability and reminiscences in her twilight years.  Streep once again establishes herself as one of the outstanding actresses of our time (in this case helped somewhat by a great makeup job as she ages.) The movie shows the development of the conservative philosophy of Thatcher as the young daughter of a grocer who then with an Oxford education carries forth her social and political beliefs as she becomes a Member of Parliament. We get a sense of  her determination not to be deterred as she takes her place in what is essentially an old boy’s club. The movie drops the audience in the middle of the exciting British  history as we see Thatcher stand up for her philosophical view on economic issues such as trying to balance the budget which triggered violent responses by the masses of people who felt they were being treated unfairly. We see her make the decision to go to war against Argentina in the Falkland Island incident with the loss of hundreds if not thousands of lives although nothing substantial but Britain’s pride was at stake. Certainly these depictions are quite timely as they reflect the political debate going on now as the United States Conservative and Tea Party movements demand balanced financial budgets at the expense taking away services to the needy. The movie also reminds us of the split among various factions on how our own military should react. The movie was at it’s best when it showed Thatcher carrying out her conservative philosophy and dealing with the consequences of it. We wish we could have seen more of this. Instead, a good part of the storyline dealt with the vehicle of viewing Thatcher as an older woman with memory problems who is grieving the death of her husband (Jim Broadbent) and having hallucinatory visions of him.  She is also having flashbacks of her relationship with him and her early life. It is always an unhappy story when a person’s mind fails them in later life and that certainly can happen to anyone. We don’t see how such a sad occurrence was relevant to Thatcher’s story, whether it was actually true and what was the purpose of emphasizing this in the film. There also is a vague suggestion that her dedication to her career has somehow made her distant from her children. If the writer (Abi Morgan) and director (Phyllida Lloyd) were trying to make a point about how this actually happened in Thatcher’s life, this should have been more clearly delineated. While we believe the story leaves something to be desired, the performance by Streep makes the movie quite worthwhile. (2011)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Biography, History

J. Edgar

December 18th, 2011 — 8:25am

***

J Edgar rm-   There are very few Americans who can be recognized without their last name. J. Edgar Hoover is one of them. Clint (Eastwood) is another such name who directed this biopic about the man who served nine US Presidents and is the person most responsible for the establishment of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as we know it today. Enter Leonardo , not DaVinci but DiCaprio who certainly deserves consideration for an Oscar nomination for his magnificent depiction of J. Edgar from his early days in law enforcement until his death as the revered, feared and even despised leader of the FBI. Hoover is shown initially to be a patriot and a sincere crime fighter but his passion and his hate of those he felt were enemies led him ultimately to gather power, overstep his authority, attempt to glorify himself and use his position to blackmail and intimidate anyone who was in his way. Perhaps the most revealing part of this character study was the demonstration of this man to have a stunted emotional growth. He is shown to be completely under the sway of his mother (Judi Dench ) and at least in this version to have an inability to have an adult relationship  with women. His comfort and attachment to Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer ) whom he hired, befriended, made him his Associate Director of the FBI and ultimately lived with,  is a major part of this film. Hammer should be up for a supporting actor award winning performance as he ages from dapper young FBI agent to sickly old man during the course of the film.  It is suggested but never fully clarified wither they had an overt sexual relationship but nevertheless the irony is in your face that J. Edgar sought out other peoples’ secrets which he used against them while he had a very big one himself. This character’s ambivalence and underdeveloped personality makes it hard for us hate him , love him or identify with his persona. If anything we feel sorry for him. Despite the fact that there was nothing in the film to keep us on the edge of our seats, the 2hours and 17 minutes of the film did not seem boring  with credit to Clint’s ability to keep things moving and his skill in telling his story. (2011)

1 comment » | 3 Stars, Biography, Drama

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

August 21st, 2011 — 6:53am

***

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness-rm – If you only knew that Solomon Rabinowitz alias Sholem Aleichem had originated the story of Fiddler on the Roof, “that would have been enough.” However this documentary attempts to show how this creative Jewish writer born in Russia in 1860 singularly chose to use Yiddish, which was basically a spoken language of the shtetl and make it a literary form to educate and entertain thousands if not millions of people in Europe and the new world during most of his life time (and beyond). Yiddish was the special language of the Jews consisting of mixture of German, Russian, Hebrew and probably a lot more. It allowed more expression of feelings, especially humor and it was experienced as the language of the people. This fact plus the insight into the struggles and emotions of the people about whom Shloem Aleichem chose to write in a very prolific manner, made his writing very popular. This was the period of time when people living in their small enclaves began to migrate to the cities as well as across the ocean to America. When he died in 1916 there were more than 100,000 people at his funeral in New York which not only was viewed as a tribute to him but as a demonstration of the emerging Jewish culture in the new world.  This documentary while emphasizing his place as a writer and as a Jewish icon also provides some insight into the ups and downs of his life style, which included being a stock market speculator who ultimately failed in his financial dealings. It shows somewhat of a picture of his family life as a dedicated parent although it doesn’t say much about his wife and his marriage.  The visual story is made mostly with archived photos of the people of his time including what seemed to be a repetitive photo of him along with a few video clips- the most riveting being the one from Fiddler. This is an enlightening view of a person about whom so many of us have heard, but don’t really know. If it has not been done yet, a fictionalized version of this story with the details flushed out even more with some imagination, if necessary, will make a fantastic feature film. You can start speculating on who should play the lead. (2011)  

Comment » | 3 Stars, Biography, Documentary

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