Afternoon of the Faun : Tanaquil Le Clercq rm- If you love ballet and are familiar with the great artists and choreographers as well as the history of ballet you probably will very much enjoy this documentary film It is about a young girl who at age 14 was a talented student studying at a school run by the great Balanchine . Four years later she not only was dancing with him but soon after was married to him, although he was nearly 25 years her senior. Tanquil Le Clercq, known as “Tanny” had a long , lovely and distinctive physique. Her dancing not only inspired Balanchine but she was also said to be a muse for Jerome Robbins who created his famous Afternoon of a Faun for Tanny. She was one of the most famous dancers of her time until at the age of 27 she was struck down by polio, which was the plague of its time. This was a disease that unexpectedly would make its appearance and would especially paralyze children and young adults. It could even be fatal. Salk’s amazing vaccine came on the scene a short time later. Tanny was forced to be in an “iron lung” which would help her breathe and then over several years graduated to a wheel chair from which she became a teacher of ballet. The film consists mostly of beautiful film clips of Tanny dancing with Balanchine and others. There are clips of people talking about this unusual woman and her life. Not only is there Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, who was very close to her, but others such as Jacque D’Ambroise, Arthur Mitchell and a women who for many years was Balanchine’s secretary and assistant. Her insights, particularly into the thinking of her boss, captured some of the conflict that he must have had for loving and caring about Tanny, but pursuing his own career as he worked with other ballerinas, eventually leaving Tanny to marry another dancer. It is unfortunate that we never hear a meaningful interview with the main star of this film We come to care about her through the old movies of her performing her magnificent dancing and the glimpses of her beauty even in the later years. We also learn about her strength, intelligence and humor from excerpts of letters she wrote, which were read by an unseen actress in the film.. This all takes place with the rich and melodic music of the ballet, which accompanies not only the dancing but also this moving story. If you don’t have a special relationship to ballet and dance this documentary film will probably not move you very much. But if you do, be prepared to be swept off your feet and be caught up in the true tale of this beautiful and tragic person.(2014)
The Galapagos Affair- sp- This documentary film takes place on the Galapagos Islands which are a group of 19 small islands in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles from the coast of Ecuador. In the early 1930s a handful of people decided they wanted to get away from civilization and live on one of most deserted and smaller islands of this group named Floreana Island. The first couple to settle there was a young physician from Berlin, Friedrick Ritter who was a student of the writings of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He was accompanied by his girlfriend Dore Strauch who had multiple sclerosis but seemed quite fit as they both worked the land. They were joined on the island by Margaret and Heinz Wittmer who raised a family there. The other important people that we see on the island are the so-called Baroness Eloise von Wagner who is flamboyant woman who settles there with her two lovers with the plan to build a hotel. All of the inhabitants are mostly off to themselves but occasionally interact as for example when Dr. Ritter delivers one of the Wittmer’s children. There are occasional brief visits by various ships, which included scientists and naturalists who studied the beautiful natural vegetation and wildlife on the island. Although not discussed in the film one of these visitors was Captain Alan Hancock, a wealthy philanthropist who financed research expeditions to the Galapagos Islands. He also was an early user of 8mm movie film and he photographed the inhabitants of the island doing various activities over a period of a few years. He also photographed a fictionalized short silent film starring the Baroness titled the Empress of Floreana. It was the availability of these archived movie footage that allowed filmmakers Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine to put together this documentary film. They chose to present this film as an unsolved mystery since there were two unexplained disappearances and one death under unusual circumstances. It appeared that most of the people on the island were writers of sorts and many recorded their day-to-day observations and feelings Therefore the screenplay written by Geller and Goldfine included dialogue written by the various inhabitants. This was read by actors and actress while we mostly watched the old movies that have been dug out from the archives and skillfully weaved to match the dialogue or vice versa. This included the voices of Cate Blanchett as Dore Strauch, Thomas Kretschmann as Dr. Ritter, Sebastain Koch as Mr. Wittmer, Diane Kruger as Margret Wittmer and Connie Nielsen as the Baroness. Josh Radnor and Gustav Skarsgard were the voices of the two men in the Baroness’ life. There were too many details put out for us to digest and not enough focus on the individual characters for us to care very much about them. There were also too many additional contemporary interviews with the children and relatives as well as with some surviving main characters. We never got a good feel for the murder mystery, which they were trying to unfold. This was despite taking two hours to play out the movie. Perhaps this is a film that you might want to see prior to a tourist trip to these islands but it is not one we can recommend for your movie entertainment. (2014)
Inequality For All- nf This is an amazing documentary that is all about Robert Reich who presents as clear an explanation of the economy- where it has been and where it is going, as we have ever seen. He makes it clear why there is big disparity between the 1% and the 99% in the U.S. and what that should really mean to all of us. Reich was Secretary of Labor and a key advisor to Bill Clinton. He started in polities in the Carter administration and more recently teaches at University of California at Berkley. In fact, a good part of this film is directly from his class lecture at that school. His discussion, his graphs, his examples and his logic come across crystal clear, as does his sincerity. He makes the point, with very easy to understand facts and figures, that this country has thrived when there was less disparity between the wealthy and the middle class and how when the middle class earnings flattened out and the very wealthy began to make more money than ever, the economy of the US took a nose dive (i.e. in 1929 and 2008). Reich not only spoke with articulate people in the middle class who have seen their savings erode but he also spoke with a multimillionaire who acknowledges that he and others like him invest most of their money abroad in hedge funds (not in creating new jobs in this country). We also get the views of Warren Buffet who ridicules the tax structure in this country where he pays less percentage of his income on taxes than does his secretary(13% vs 36%). Mitt Romney paid 11%. We see how in the 1980s, women entering the job market saved the middle class by providing a second income for middle class families, but now as globalization takes the jobs out of the US and automation limits employment, that won’t save the economy anymore. The middle class has to have disposable income to buy products in order for our economy to thrive. The rich people can only buy so many cars, pillowcases or other products. The shrinking middle class income is putting the economy of this country into deep trouble. Trickle down economics clearly doesn’t work. On top of all this the recent Supreme Court “ Citizens United “ case now supports the wealthy to basically put unlimited funds into political campaigns which makes it even more difficult to make any change. Obviously this is heavy stuff. Perhaps the most uplifting part about this depressing picture is the commitment of Reich to tell the story and his optimism that the next generation will make the changes that are necessary. No matter what part of the political spectrum you come from you should see this film. Whether you think you agree or disagree with this guy, you will be enriched by the insight into these complicated economic issues. The movie, directed by Jacob Kornbluth is well done, with illustrative archival clips, good close-up views into the character of many of the people who appear in the film and appropriate music that moves this film along. As all good documentaries should do, it also leaves you with a good website, Inequalityforall.com which shows you how you can get involved. (2013)
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me- If you love Elaine Stritch, dramatic actress, singer, musical comedy star and Broadway legend you will want to see this documentary. If you want to meet a remarkable 87 year old star who speaks her mind and is not afraid to tell you she that still needs the love of her audiences, you will want to see this documentary. While one might think that the filmmaker Chiemi Karasawa had always been an avid fan of the subject of this film, you will be surprised to learn that this was not the case. In fact, her interest was stimulated by their mutual hairdresser, who suggested that Stritch would be the ideal subject for a documentary. Karasawa then unearthed everything she could about this woman and ultimately convinced Ms. Stritch to let her do the film. Stritch, who never does anything half way granted the filmmaker full access to her life and embraced the project with the intensity and humor, which is so much a part of her character. The film is not a retrospective review of this amazing person, although it certainly gives you ample glimpses of her star-studded career. But rather it is the story of an elderly woman facing the challenges of life with concerns about her health and memory who nevertheless is still up for another show, another concert, another rehearsal, another review, all with energy and, yes, with great vitality. And this woman can still sing! It is exciting to see her rehearse with her music director as she prepares for her latest cabaret performance at the famed Café Carlyle as she lives in her suite at that same hotel. You can almost hear Frank Sinatra singing New York New York as she hustles down a Manhattan street. All of this is quite real as is her hospitalization at Mount Sinai Hospital for hypoglycemia related to her diabetes. The camera doesn’t miss a beat nor does Ms. Stritch. Two unforgettable moments are the look on a young Stephen Sondheim’s face as a young Elaine Stritch nails one of his songs and another moment when an older Stritch marvels how Sondheim’s words so often captured her own feelings. We come away from this film with a picture of the legend, who once turned down JFK’ s offer to join her at her apartment one evening. A woman who could never find a love to replace her 10 year marriage to John Bay actor and playwright who died in 1982 of a brain tumor and every year still send English Muffins from her husband’s family muffin business to hundreds of her friends. A woman who has been nominated for multiple Tony’s, Emmys and what have you and a woman who is now sure to be unforgettable to new and old fans thanks to this film. (2014)
Tim’s Vermeer- rm- Johannes Vermeer is a Dutch painter who lived 350 years ago. He is known for his magnificent paintings of mostly indoor scenes with exquisite photo like detail capturing shadows and variations in light as good if not better than any of the master painters of that time. Tim Jenison is a successful businessman and inventor who develops the idea that Vermeer may have been using a little ”magic” in creating his paintings. He did this by using some tricky optics with a mirror and a variation of camera obscura. Jenison postulated that Vermeer was reflecting the light from the subject through a small hole on to a mirror and then to the canvas where he could perfectly match the color paint over the reflection, which resulted in the unusual realism which the painter achieved. Jenison’s best friend is Penn Jilette the well know magician showman who collaborates with Jenison along with Penn’s performing partner Teller who directs the film as they team up to make this documentary. Jension, only using the technology of the painter’s time period, not only constructs the optic device that he believes Vermeer must have used but he recreates the studio where he painted in the exact dimensions as possible. He then builds a setup to copy and reconstruct the detailed background including the costumes of the subjects in Vermeer’s classic painting The Music Lesson using models to pose as they were in the painting. Now here is the amazing part, Mr. Jenison, who notes that he is not an artist, but using brushes and paints that were around 350 years ago meticulously matches the exact colors and paints them on the images being reflected on his canvas. It takes him over 4 months of almost continuous painstaking work but this non artist creates a painting which seems to very closely resemble Vermeer’s masterpiece and his unusual realistic style. The entire procedure was documented by a film crew, with Penn narrating and Teller directing the movie. They also bring in the well known British painter David Hockney who acknowledges that on the basis of the picture which Tim Jenison has created, he has made the case that he has discovered the secret to Vermeer’s success. This in one sense would seem to discredit this master although he should be credited at least for his composition. There is no known record of the artist being familiar or experimenting with optical devices that were available at the time. Apparently there are also no known writings about any other artist at that time or subsequently who use this technique, which makes this all more remarkable. To further support this theory, Jenison discovered a very faint blue outline on some object in the Vermeer painting which would have no reason to be there but could have been created by a chromatic abnormality of the mirror. We would imagine that if the nobles of the time had discovered that an artist could paint such realistic perfect reproductions, they might be in quite demand (although maybe an artist who produces more creatively flattering portraits would be chosen). We know that some artists today will paint over photographs but we believe that x-ray techniques would uncover the underlying picture if they claimed them to be original paintings. We wonder if a devious contemporary would-be artist might be able promote himself as a master when he was only secretly using this technique? In conclusion, perhaps it is fitting and perhaps ironic that the magician showmen Penn and Teller have produced a documentary film, which may have discovered an important magic trick that has gone undiscovered for more than 3 centuries! It took them 80 minutes to demonstrate how they believe Vermeer pulled it off. Perhaps they could have done it with a short twenty-minute documentary but nevertheless it is sure to make big ripples in the art world. (2014)
Facing Fear-sp We doubt very much that most of the readers of this blog will see this short documentary film (20 minutes) that has been nominated for an Academy Award. However, when it turns up on TV you should take the time to see it and if you are involved with educating people about bullying, overcoming prejudice and similar issues, you will want a copy of this DVD when it comes out.
As a 13 year-old, Mathew Boger was literally thrown out of his house when he told his mother that he was gay. He ended up spending most of the next few years living in the street of Los Angeles. Tim Zale grew up part of neo-Nazi Skinhead gang with a large tomahawk hair cut on his mostly shaven head. He and his buddies would cruise the streets of Los Angeles getting into fights and bullying some of the homeless people they encountered. This was to be the case late one night in front of a well- known LA hamburger place where Zale and his pals encountered Boger alone in the street. They beat him up and while he was on the ground Zale delivered kicks to head and face with a boot that had a razor in the toe. They left him believing he was dead.
Boger survived, but the hate and persistent anger at his attackers was part of his fantasy life for many years. Both young men moved on with their lives. Zale went to school, ultimately received a Masters Degree and had a family. His thinking began to change when he saw some of his hate and prejudice towards various groups being verbalized by his own son. Boger established a long-term relationship and eventually got a job as an administrator in charge of tours at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. By coincidence, Zale began to volunteer to give tours and lectures to the public at this iconic museum, which is best known for graphic depiction and personal stories of the horrors caused by Nazis during the Holocaust. During his time there Zale would share how his thinking had evolved over the years. One day they both were lecturing a group together and by the details Zale was describing of his youth, Boger realized that Zale was part of the group that almost killed him. They began to have private discussions and both immediately knew that it was Zale who delivered the nearly fatal blow to his new colleague at the museum and left him for dead twenty-five years before.
Director and Producer Jason Cohen very skillfully weaved the narrative told by both men with very effective images of the streets of Los Angeles. There were some photographs of Zale and his buddies in their earlier days as skin-heads but there were no photos available of Bogart as the homeless street kid. Miraculously, Bogart’s sister had some old films of him as an infant and a small child with his very attractive mother. Credit should also be give to Director of Photography Svetlana Cvetko, who won an Academy Award for Inside Job and veteran Editor and Co-Producer Tom Christopher who has worked in the past with George Lucas and others.
The tremendous value of this film is to watch up close the ruminations of Bogart and Zale as they examine their feelings about each other and what happened in the past. Bogart’s incredible journey to forgive not only Zale but also his mother is quite remarkable. Zale’s task to face Boger and ask for forgiveness and then also to forgive himself is also quite dramatic as well.
We cannot think of a better teaching tool to show to students as well as victims and perpetrators of prejudice. It can only be a wonderful instrument to stimulate discussion, self-reflection and insight. The filmmakers, having received this unexpected recognition of an Academy Award nomination, plan to have their work available to those who want to see it and use it for these purposes. For more information about the film you can go to their website: http://www.facingfearmovie.com/ (2014)
Blackfish –sp - Many of us have taken children to one of the Sea Worlds or other similar aquariums around the world and enjoyed with them the wonderful antics of the gigantic beautiful killer whales, known as orcas or blackfish, as they interacted with their talented trainers. This documentary film directed and written by Gabriela Cowperthwaite will change your understanding of that experience and may kill any desire to pay any such future visits. The film consists mainly of up close and personal interviews with several former Seaworld trainers intermixed with video clips of these killer whales (which can also be properly identified as very large dolphins ) both in nature and in captivity. We come to understand that they actually are quite intelligent with larger and more complex brains than humans (seemingly in the part of the brain related to emotions), have methods of communicating by sound and are very family oriented as they exist in pods in nature. We follow the capture of one “small” baby whale, known as a calf as he is separated from this family much to their despair. This one is named Tilikum and we see video footage of him growing up and performing in captivity as we see others also in this position. They are trained by being confined to small places especially at night, rewarded by food (fish) or punished by the lack of it and molded into performing artists who seem to happily be interacting with their trainers to the delight of the public especially screaming appreciative children. Or are they?? We learn of some tragic “accidents” and see video clips of very clear incidents where trainers are injured and even one very experienced popular trainer, Dawn Branchaeau is actually viciously attacked and killed by Tilikum who is now the star of the show. It is suggested that we may be seeing frustrated dangerous animals who are living in unnatural circumstances. While the spokespersons for this multi billion-dollar industry has been trying to cover up and minimize these events, we learn of quite a different version. This film reminds us on one hand of the award wining film, The Cove. It may also be considered in the tradition of the great documentaries that first exposed the cigarette industry and certain aspects of the food or oil businesses. As in these cases, the things that have to be rectified don’t easily change. Just recently OSHA (the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration) successfully sued Sea World to keep trainers behind barriers during shows. However this may be a drop in the bucket in an attempt to return these beautiful creatures to their natural habitat. In fact, they are now being artificially inseminated and bred in captivity. The full story is yet to be written but this documentary will open your eyes. (2013)
20 Feet From Stardom sp- This is a great title for this documentary about the often unsung backup singers who could really sing! Starting in the late 50s into the 60s up to contemporary times so many great pop artists brought in usually black back up singers to highlight their music. Many got the training doing gospel singing in their churches and quite a few were daughters of preachers. The late Gil Frisen, a long time Chairman of A&M records, originated the idea for this documentary film and he worked with filmmaker Morgan Neville who directed this unique project which covered a subject which has had very little media exposure. This reminds us of another excellent film we saw a couple of years ago titled The Wrecking Crew which told the story of usually anonymous session musicians. The stars of this current film will probably also be be unknown to most viewers but they clearly articulated their lives and there was lots of their great music in it. Of particular note are Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Gloria Jones, Judith Hill, Tata Vega along with some others. In addition there were up close and personal interviews with musical icons such Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting, Bette Midler and Stevie Wonder who unequivocally expressed their admiration of the talent of these singers and how important they were to the success of the well known stars. So often “ the hook” or the main theme which we remember was put across by these talented performers. In the personal interviews with the backup singers we felt a mixed message of how they loved singing and were usually quite content to blend and be part of musical history of the last 50 years, yet they contemplated and some tried to breakout while most never made an individual name for themselves with the public. We learned how the notorious music producer Phil Spector in his original famous Christmas Album unfairly attributed the work of Darlene Love to the Crystals and how Ms. Love felt about this. We also learned about how supportive veteran music producer Lou Adler was to many of these performers. Credit has to be given to Director Morgan Neville for digging up so many great video clips which featured the performances of the backup singers doing their best work 20 feet from stardom with Mick Jagger, Joe Cocker, David Bowie and one outstanding video which featured a young Ray Charles grooving at the piano with his famous Raelettes backup group. While the film has to be enlightening for even the most informed pop music afficianado, it is the great music throughout this 90 minute documentary which makes it so enjoyable and something that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who digs pop music. (2013)
Stories We Tell rm- What if you found out that the man you thought was your father was really not your father? This is part of the complicated journey that Sarah Polley experiences as she uncovers the secrets of her family. Being a filmmaker, an Academy Award nominated one (Away From Her) Ms Polley decides to make this documentary film so all characters in her family story can tell their version of the truth. All that is except the central and most interesting player, her mother who has died of cancer when Ms. Polley was still a young girl. Her siblings, other relatives and friends add to the picture that is mainly painted by the two main men in her mother’s life both of whom have been writers/producers/actors, so they express themselves quite vividly. There is something fascinating in seeing hidden family secrets being unearthed and being laid out before us. One of us has explored this very theme in the blog PsychiatryTalk.com and it has remained the most visited entry in the almost four year history of this blog. One of the main ideas highlighted in this film, that a father would still love a child even if he found out when she was a grown young woman that he did not plant the seed, seems not to be a great revelation. In fact, the interviews and the emerging insights were quite repetitive which should not be surprising when the filmmaker who is a central object of the film had to have directed the editing. However the film was not without it’s redeeming moments, one of which included a foreshadowing movie clip of the mother as a young woman performing the song “Ain’t Misbehaving.” Another memorable snippet was when one of siblings seems to have an epiphany that perhaps the fact that three children became divorced shortly after learning of their mother’s unfaithfulness to their father, might be significant. This movie has to have been cathartic for the filmmaker and some of her family. It may even live on as an example of how to use the in depth interview as a search for the truth of hidden family secrets. We don’t think it makes the grade as top notch entertainment for the rest of us. (2013)
Renoir- rm - This movie becomes an enjoyable stroll through a museum filled with the paintings of French Impressionist Pierre- Auguste Renoir. However, instead of looking at the beautiful colorful paintings of this master you are watching a film about him and the people around him living on his picturesque farm on the French Riveria. The photography and the lighting , so often during the magic hours preceding sunset along with the delicate colors and the characters gracefully moving through the French countryside or in the period living quarters, transport the viewer into so many of Renior’s paintings. The screenplay is written by writer/director Gilles Bourdos and is based on the writing of the painter’s great grandson Jacques Renoir. The movie takes place in 1915 during World War I and opens as Andree (Christa Theret) a young beautiful girl with red hair comes to work as a model for the aging Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet). His wife having recently died, he is surrounded by women of various ages who act as his housekeeper, cook and assistant with the suggestion that some may have been previously his models or even more than that. Shortly thereafter his oldest son Jean Renoir (Vincent Rottiers) returns from the WW I battlefield to recuperate from a leg injury. We also meet young Coco Renoir (Thomas Dorot) the sulking youngest son of Renoir and learn of another older son who is also in the military. The story revolves around the role of Andree becoming the inspiration of the elder Renoir and his appreciation of her beauty and velvety skin, which is amply framed in the movie. At the same time there is her connection to son Jean and we get glimpses of them planning their possible future together. But alas, while Andree has aspirations to be an actress and plants the seed that Jean should become a filmmaker (which of course he did but beyond the time frame of the film), this young man is determined to return to fighting in the Great War. Whether you did or did not know the reality not exactly shown in the film that Andree was actually the muse for both father and son, will not influence your appreciation of this film. The almost 2 hour movie was easy to digest and the storyline mattered very little as the true effect of this movie was a visceral sense of this old master mixing colors, putting down his whirling brush strokes and capturing the beauty of the people and the countryside surrounding him. (2013)