Category: Documentary


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

A Classy Broad

April 21st, 2016 — 4:48am

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Marcia Nasatir

   Marcia Nasatir

A Classy Broad

It is ironic that this documentary film about one of the pioneer film producers who often was the key person in getting a film green-lighted has just been completed and is now looking for distribution. Marcia Nasatir, who is about to turn 90 years of age is the subject of this movie. She was the first female vice president of production of a major movie studio (United Artists). The director producer of “A Classy Broad” is Anne Goursaud, an accomplished film editor who is hoping that this movie will be her breakthrough film. It is is all about inside Hollywood.

Ms. Nasatir, the centerpiece of this documentary, is well-known, well-liked, and well respected by many legendary movie insiders some of whom appear in this film. Prominent among this group was Mike Medavoy, former Chairman of Tristar and United Artists, and co-founder of Orion Pictures. Others include screenwriters and directors such as Lawrence Kasdan, Tony Bill, Lucy Fisher, Rob Cohen, Robert Towne and the late Lorenzo Semple, Jr. We also hear numerous stories about Ms. Nasatir’s role in many successful movies, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Sting, Hamburger Hill, Coming Home, Rocky The Big Chill and many others. Also appearing in the documentary is actress Glenn Close, who is one of the stars of The Big Chill. Ms. Nasatir’s career was “rocky” itself as she was sometimes passed over for promotion, no doubt because women were not just moved into these leadership positions in the film industry during the 1970s and ‘80s.

If there is anything lacking in this movie, it would be not having more of the personal life of Ms. Nasatir. We know very little about her childhood, education, marriage, divorce and her two children. While these details all might make the type of a story that Ms. Nasatir might look for in an interesting feature film, they are certainly not necessary or essential to appreciate this documentary film about this “Classy Broad” and her very successful career in the movie business. (2016)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Biography, Documentary

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

Meet The Patels

January 7th, 2016 — 5:09am

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If ever a movie looked like a well done reality TV program, this is the one. It’s clearly  not a classical documentary film (although it won some awards for best doc) and certainly you don’t get the feeling that it is a scripted movie. This appears to be real people who are almost certainly living their real contemporary lives (at least so it seems). Ravi Patel is an actor and a film maker by profession, but this movie comes across as the story of his life. It is filmed mostly by his sister, Geeta Patel with whom he is living and is also a filmmaker. We would not be surprised if there were some redone lines or retakes and maybe even some suggested dialogue but it sure looks like captured real life.

Ravi has recently broken up with his girlfriend of two years and he has agreed to let his parents try to find him a girlfriend whom they hope he would marry. In other words, they are going to do the traditional Indian parental matchmaking approach. However, in order to do this they are going to have to work it out in the modern world. His parents who were born in India and came together with the traditional arranged marriage, now live in the United States. They speak English very well and seemed to be quite well-off. Their quest to make this match for their son begins with a trip to India. It seems that Patel is a common Indian name and there are thousands of Indian families who are somehow related at least with various similar cultural beliefs especially in regard to matchmaking. Friends and relatives (no doubt cousins, many times removed) attempt to find a suitable match of the right woman for Ravi. When things don’t work out in finding a girl for him, he then embarks on a tour of the United States to meet many of the young Indian women that have been searched out by his parents using various methods of communication including the Internet.

The cinematography appears to be cinema verite with many conversations in moving cars and during family get-togethers some of them out of focus or jerky. As this story plays out, we see the struggle of the parents and son who both love each other but yet are of two different generations. They have the same cultural values but each generation is coming from a different place.

Everybody seems quite genuine and there are times when Ravi is reflecting on his personal thoughts. These moments are important to the continuity of the film. He does this through a conversation with his sister, the cinematographer. Rather than just show a headshot of Ravi talking, they have created a simple cartoon caricature of Ravi who is shown talking while his voice is projected as coming from this figure. This technique is quite effective. In fact the entire movie is very effective. We developed great empathy for his parents and for him, as well as for the older sister who is still single herself. In the end we have the feeling that we have just binged on a full season of a great TV series. If anything, the movie seemed to end abruptly and we were ready for season two. (2015)

Comment » | 4 Stars, Documentary

The Armor of Light

October 14th, 2015 — 7:02am

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This thoughtful and original documentary film makes a case that the conservative right in this country led by evangelical ministers should consider that the correct moral position would be to support gun control. The case for this action, as unlikely as it may seem to be, is clearly made by this compelling documentary movie. It follows the conversion process to this point of view of Reverend Rob Schenck, who is a well-known leading American evangelical reverend who ministers to elected and appointed officials in Washington, D.C. and is president of the Christian Outreach Ministry “Faith and Action.”

The filmmaker and the force behind this film is Abigail Disney, who is the granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, co-founder of the Walt Disney Company. She is also a philanthropist, a peace activist, and an accomplished filmmaker. She has developed a deep passion for the subject of this film, which is consistent with many of her other beliefs which includes women’s right to abortion. Once she decided to make this film, she had occasion to meet Reverend Schenck who had become very upset about a mass gun shooting of innocent people near where he lived in Washington, D.C. and began to think about gun control.

After meeting Ms. Disney, he agreed to participate in this film, which was exploring the subject of gun control although apparently, he had not yet made up his mind about his personal decision on this controversial subject. We see him embark upon series of discussions with many lay people as well as other ministers. He himself wanted to understand guns and actually got training in the use of them. He also attended the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association, which was an interesting event in and of itself. All of this is filmed by Ms. Disney and her documentary team.

Reverend Schenck speaks with many members of his congregation as well as others across the country. He, of course, reflects on this subject with deep thought and prayer. He also had occasion to meet Lucy McBath, mother of Jordan Davis, an unarmed teenager who had been murdered and whose killer was using the so-called Stand Your Ground defense in the State of Florida. Ms. McBath is a devout Christian and becomes moved by her son’s loss to use her grief to bring about political action for gun control. Her faith, passion, and advocacy lead her to interact with Reverend Schenck, first in trying to influence him and then, becoming his ally in the crusade for gun control.

Perhaps the most dramatic and powerful portion of this documentary is the passion and determination of the Christian ministers and others who attempt to justify citizens owning and using weapons and the recitation of their dictum that “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Equally dramatic is the evolution of Reverend Schenck’s position to where he passionately concludes that the moral, ethical and Christian decision is an anti-gun viewpoint.

Obviously, this film does not solve this controversy but its presence and availability at the present time could have great significance and influence in this debate. The film is in the process of creating a controversy that centers around Reverend Schenck and the prominent position that he holds. In a post film discussion in which he was present, he indicated that he has already received significant criticism from evangelicals as well as support from some ministers. His organization has also received threats of the withdrawal of funds because of his evolving position on gun control.

Ms. Disney is planning to open this film in 24 cities in the United States many in the Bible Belt. We already see that the political debate and the presidential campaigns will expose some of the major disagreements among candidates, which includes gun control and “right to life.” This documentary film could be shown at local churches and civic meetings and have the potential to allow people to consider that there may be good moral reasons to change their position on the issue of gun control even if they are not yet ready to compromise on other social issues. Whether this potential will be realized remains to be seen.(2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary

He Named Me Malala

October 12th, 2015 — 12:59am

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Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani girl who grew up in the Swat Valley in Northwest Pakistan. As she was growing up, the local Taliban became increasingly powerful and instituted a policy of banning girls from attending school. Malala who is named after a famous poet and female warrior from Southern Afghanistan was approached by the BBC and asked to write a blog talking about how girls were prevented from having an education. She agreed to do so and began making speeches which were covered by the local and international press criticizing how the Taliban was taking away the rights of girls to get an education. Supported and encouraged by her father who was a teacher and a political activist himself, Malala continued to speak out. Soon, many of the schools in this area were destroyed by Taliban bombings. Malala’s activist speeches received worldwide recognition. Then. on October 2012 when Malala was 15 years old, a Taliban gunman approached her and identified her as who she was and point-blank shot her in the head. Miraculously, she recovered after extensive surgery and rehabilitation in England. Having the world spotlight on her in her campaign for girls’ rights to education, she continued her determination to speak out. In 2014, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17.

This movie is a documentary film directed by Davis Guggenheim, which shows a clear picture of this charming, most well spoken and dedicated young woman. Her personality shines through whether it is from actual video or film footage of her interacting with her parents and her precocious brothers at home, meeting President Obama or speaking before the United Nations. Through photographs and video clips as well as the use of animated cartoons, her pathway to this unique position on the world’s stage is depicted at the same time that we see her struggling with her school homework.

There is also some attempt to show the influence of her father upon her. Incidentally, he insists that he never pushed her to speak out and the decisions to do so were all her own. While that is the narrative of the film, it is clear that her father certainly was a powerful influence in her life. There is much less shown about her mother who does seem to be a vivacious and quite intelligent although uneducated woman.

The chronology in the film is not clear. The lack of focus on the time sequence of events may not be crucial as the story is probably well-known to the moviegoers who choose to see this film. Malala is amazingly articulate. She speaks English quite well and of course she is also fluent in her native language. She gives a heck of a speech with memorable lines that are obviously inspirational to young and old alike. We want to read her book ( I am Malala) and we are sure that we will want to give it to our granddaughters. This movie should have special appeal to those who know of her story and want to see the real person up-close. (2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary

Steve Jobs: The Man In The Machine

September 13th, 2015 — 10:33pm

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This documentary by Alex Gibney is a very enlightening film. It relies on archival footage mainly of Steve Jobs in action throughout the years as well as talking head interviews with people who worked very closely with him. It is a look at the man, his company Apple, and the remarkable inventions that have become part of our lives. The film also challenges the viewers by holding up a mirror to us and asking why has Jobs been held in such high esteem. It also raised the question of what was this man, who was so revered and almost worshiped by many, really like?

In the biography of Jobs written not too long ago by Walter Isaacson it was certainly shown that Jobs was self-centered, preoccupied, and perhaps narcissistic. But this film really pulls no punches in showing the dark side of this man. While it took a little awhile for the negative traits (to say the least) to come out they certainly did emerge. The movie reviewed how early on when they were quite young, he and Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple with Jobs and the person who did the real technical stuff) worked on a project for Atari, a game company. Jobs handled the interface with the company although Wozniak did most of the technical design. Jobs was given a $15,000 check for the successful project that they completed but told his partner it was for an amount of $1,500 and gave him $700. When Jobs made his girlfriend pregnant he initially denied it with a court affidavit but then when genetic testing proved he was the father of the newborn little girl, he paid only $500 a month for support just after he made $200 million from Apple going public. Later in his career when an Apple prototype of a later iPhone was found in a bar left by an Apple employee it ended up in the hands of a journalist who wrote about features of this phone. He described the product on the Internet, which led Jobs to unsuccessfully take all kinds of draconian steps to hurt this man and his small company. Jobs was also behind Apple vetoing philanthropic activity that Apple had started to do. Bill Gates on the other hand continued with a foundation that supports all sorts of worthwhile projects. Jobs was also behind an illegal and unethical agreement between the major technical companies that they would not interview people from competing companies who might want to be considered for new and perhaps better jobs.

This film did show the tremendous drive that Jobs had to make his products successful. He had the ability to envision what people wanted and mobilize the genius inventors at Apple to put together these amazing devices. It remains to be seen if future generations, especially children will have less creativity and social interaction because of these devices.

This documentary film certainly shows us the legacy of Steve Jobs, who we see at the time of his death was mourned by people all over the world. He deserves a place in history because of his creative accomplishments, but this film shows us that he certainly is not be a person to be emulated (2015).

1 comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary

Rosenwald

August 16th, 2015 — 11:18pm

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Aviva Kempner is the daughter of a holocaust survivor and a documentary filmmaker who is interested in showing the contributions of Jews to society. Among other films that she has made were The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, which told the story about the life and career of the first Jewish baseball star in the Major Leagues. She also made a film titled Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, the story of the actress, writer and television star Gertrude Berg. This time she has taken on the story of Julius Rosenwald who died in 1932. He was the son of an immigrant peddler who never graduated from high school but became a successful businessman and ultimately the president of Sears Roebuck. He was a major philanthropist and focused his energy and his wealth on the African-American communities in the South. He was the moving force in building over 5000 schools in the early 20th Century for young black students in Jim Crow states. This film also showed the support he gave to Tuskegee University in Alabama and his relationship with one of its founders Booker T. Washington. Rosenwald was a truly remarkable man who had the Jewish ideal of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world).

Rosenwald was a living example of the historical bond which has existed between Jewish and black cultures in the United States. Much of this story is told with interviews with such people as Maya Angelou, Julian Bond, Rep. John Lewis, Gordon Parks, Cokie Roberts , various descendants of his family and many others. The fascinating subject of this film and his actions will resonant with many people and should provide an example for future generations.

The filmmaker’s enthusiasm for the implications of Rosenwald’s contributions may have led her to lose focus at times. For example, the visit of Eleanor Roosevelt to Tuskegee University to pay attribute to be Tuskegee Airmen and the ride she took in a small plane was quite interesting but moved the film further from its main theme Similarly, telling the story of Marian Anderson, the great black singer and one of the recipients of Rosenwald’s many scholarships, led the filmmaker to deviate into a long exposition about Anderson’s achievements. Some of these interesting but somewhat extraneous segments would have been better left to the bonus DVD which will accompany the film when it is purchased for personal use (although we understand that that bonus DVD in the making, is already three hours long). While not a great film, it was a unique look at a very special and not well-known person who made many contributions that changed countless lives. (2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary, History

Best of Enemies

July 30th, 2015 — 2:05am

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Best of Enemies

The 1968 democratic political convention was held in Chicago in a year filled with violence, political turmoil, and civil unrest. Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for president because of the controversy over the Vietnam for war. His Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the nomination beating anti-war spokesperson Eugene McCarthy. In the Republican Convention in Miami, Florida, former Vice President Richard Nixon beat Ronald Reagan for the nomination and went on to win the election. One of the memorable aspects of this political year was a series of 10 debates between William F. Buckley Jr., conservative spokesperson and Gore Vidal, liberal spokesperson that was aired on the ABC television network during the political convention. It is these debates that are the subject of this thought provoking and revealing documentary film produced and directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon. It is ironic that when ABC made the decision to inject the debates into its TV coverage of the conventions, they were number three in the ratings and were a poor number three at that. Yet, their use of these debates propelled them to the highest ratings over the other two networks who were doing gavel-to-gavel convention coverage. This is probably the beginning of the type of news coverage which we see today which is filled with pundits discussing and debating the news on many different networks.

In 1968, there was no more well known spokesperson of the conservative points of view than William F. Buckley Jr. For many years he had a popular television program “Firing Line” where he took on people with opposing views and demonstrated his brilliance. He also was a columnist for well-known conservative magazines. Gore Vidal was an equally brilliant, articulate liberal spokesperson who not only spoke “the talk” but wrote many very successful books about American history and also penned successful novels including one well-known fiction work titled Myra Breckinridge.

As we see in this 87-minute documentary film edited by Eileen Meyer and Aaron Wickenden, these 10 debates were very fascinating to watch and were watched more than for the discussion about the conflicts of ideological viewpoints. Certainly, Buckley expressed his view that people should be more self-sufficient and shouldn’t depend on government handouts. Vidal made the point that the government has responsibility to support people in need. However, the essence of this historic debate was how these brilliant men try to take apart not only each other’s arguments but each other.

We didn’t see all the raw footage of the debate, but in a post-film discussion with Mr. Neville, one, of the director producers, he shared his analysis which counted that more than three quarters of the time, these men were trying to dissect each other, rather than carrying on a rational discussion of the complicated issues of their time. One can’t help reflect how this film reminds us that this may be how we are approaching our modern day political debates as the right and left trash each other.

It of course makes great television and there have been very few more exciting moments in live widely watched television than the culminating mutual attacks on each other that occurred in the Buckley-Vidal debates. There needs to be no “spoiler alert” here since the following moments which we will describe are well-explored in this documentary. Mr. Buckley compared the anti-war protesters (who were probably demonstrating at that very moment outside the convention hall) “to be bullying fascists.” Vidal then says, “The only pro or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” Buckley then uncharacteristically loses his temper and says, “Listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” (The fact that Vidal turned out to be “gay” was completely irrelevant especially since he was not out at that time and Buckley had used a very disparaging word in reference to him.) Another irony is that at the very moment that Buckley threatened to punch Vidal, the police outside were probably punching the protesters. In any case this documentary film gives an inside view of the meaning of this debate using commentary of people who knew the two men at that time and later in life. We learned that Vidal’s feelings and comments about Buckley, even at the time of Buckley’s death were as angry and as bitter as ever. Similarly, Buckley’s people who knew him suggest that Buckley never got over his feelings about Vidal.

A good documentary film not only presents the facts but also tries to put them in some kind of perspective. To a certain degree, the filmmakers here may have succeeded. You may need to be a student of television and politics to fully appreciate how the debate may have been a turning point in how such debates are handled in the modern media. However, if you step back you can perhaps see that our current political discourse in 2015 over ideological differences, may be getting very personal. This film presents a worthwhile lesson in these situations of what can go wrong between “The Best of Enemies.”

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary, History

The End of the Tour

July 8th, 2015 — 4:14am

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David Foster Wallace was a highly acclaimed author who was cited by Time Magazine as one of the hundred best English language novelists. His life was cut short by depression and suicide at the age of 48 in 2008. Several years prior to this tragic event, David Lipsky, a writer for Rolling Stone Magazine and a novelist himself, of less acclaim, convinced his editor to let him accompany Wallace on the last five days of the book tour for his latest best selling novel, Infinite Jest, in order to write an article for the magazine.. Lipsky, in 2010, wrote a book about his encounter with Wallace on this tour, which subsequently inspired David Margulies to write a screenplay for this movie and bring onboard director James Ponsoldt.

The resultant film is a fascinating study of the chemistry and interaction between these two men as depicted by Jesse Eisenberg, as Lipsky, and Jason Segel, as David Foster Wallace. This famous author is shown to be a paradox of a confident, brilliant writer but yet as someone who consistently is concerned that he will not be found to be authentic. He desperately wants to be successful with women and yet has difficulty in establishing relationships and his best friends at this point appeared to be his two dogs. He cares that Lipsky will find him interesting and relevant. Yet, he was afraid that he, himself, would become addicted to fame and what people thought about him. Lipsky admired the literary giant that he was spending time with and yet we see an evolution of his understanding of the subject of his interview. The reporter began to identify with the struggle of the subject and was drawn to him perhaps as a comrade-in-arms. They become, for a while buddies hanging out, with two women connected with the tour (Mickey Summer and Mamie Gummer). There is also comic relief provided by another woman, their book tour escort, played very well by Joan Cusack.

Most of the movie is set in the snowy Midwest which is shown to be cold, crisp, and beautiful. The director, James Ponsoldt, has blended together this unique story and magnificent acting by Eisenberg and Segel plus a musical score background put together by Danny Elfman, which will cement your interest in what is happening on the screen.

It is interesting that we know very little about the psychological history of Wallace or the nature of his fatal depression. Many of the audience also may not be familiar with his writing. However, the connection between the two main characters sustains the movie and will hold your interest.(2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary, Drama

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