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Mildly interesting documentary ahead of the new Spielberg film "The Post" (starring Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee)
"The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee" (2017 release; 90 min.) is a bio-documentary of Ben Bradlee, best known as the long-serving Executive Editor of the Washington Post. As the documentary opens, we are reminded that in 2994 Bradlee wrote his memoirs "A Good Life" and it is Bradlee himself who does the voice-over for much of this documentary (presumably taken from the audio-book version of that memoir), a little bit eerie to be honest (from beyond the grave so to speak--Bradlee passed away in 2014). We then go back in time, to Bradlee's Boston roots and upbringing, his college years at Harvard, "graduating by the skin of my teeth" (as we see his very mediocre grade card), his WWII service in the Navy, and his tentative start as a journalist.
Couple of comments: this is the latest from veteran documentarian John Maggio (best known for his work at PBS' American Experience). Here he takes a look at Ben Bradlee's life, and what a colorful like it is indeed. I wasn't aware as to the strong ties between JFK and Bradlee (and their wives), making a tight foursome (but that did not stop JFK from having an affair with the sister of Bradlee's wife). At the core of the documentary is of course Bradlee's tenure at the Washington Post, turning it from a "provincial, second-rate" newspaper into the national force to be reckoned with. We rehash once more the drama that were the "Pentagon Papers" episode in 1971, and then of course the Watergate scandal, of which Bradlee muses: In Nixon's darkest hour, he gave the press its finest hour". Some attention is devoted as well to Bradlee's at times volcanic personal life. But in the end, as he himself acknowledges, "I have few regrets" (others comment "Bradlee never had any regrets"), which to me is bit of a turn-off. We all do things at one point of another in our lives that cause us to have some regrets...
This is the latest release in the HBO Documentary series, and I caught it on HBO Demand a couple of days ago. In the end, this is mildly interesting at best. Nary a critical word is uttered about Bradlee, despite his oftentimes controversial approach to things. Surely the documentary is released at this particular time to take advantage of the buzz that is building for Steven Spielberg's latest movie "The Post", starring Tom Hanks as Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Post publisher Kay Graham (the movie will come out in 2 weeks). It's not that I regret seeing "The Newspaperman" but nor do I not see a compelling reason to seek this out again in repeat viewing.
Stunning debut is among this year's best films
"Novitiate" (2017 release; 123 min.) brings the story of Kathleen. As the movie opens, we are told it is "1964" and we get to know Kathleen as she is in a nuns' convent. "I was 17 when I entered the convent, 18 when I started the novitiate. We are all women in love." Wow. We then go to "Ten Years Earlier", as we get to know young Kathleen and her mother, and how Kathleen becomes interested in Catholic school, then the Catholic faith, and eventually the Catholic church. At this point we are 10 min, into to movie but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the feature length debut of writer-director Maggie Betts, And what a debut it is! Betts takes a close look at what the road is like towards becoming a nun, with a 6 months postulate and then the 18 months novitiate. These are all young women with an idealistic view of the Catholic church. In a parallel story, Betts also examines the consequences of the Vatican II reforms. The Reverend Mother who runs the convent is entirely opposed to any ref0rms. "Isn't the church just perfect as it is?", she retorts when a younger nun questions her. As one might expect, the pace of the movie is quite slow and deliberate, so this isn't for anyone in a hurry. At times it almost feels like a documentary. I was bowled over by it all, to be honest, and felt deeply invested into these characters. There are a number of scenes in the movie that will break your heart (the disbelief of Kathleen's mother upon learning what Kathleen intends to do with her life; the "chapel of faults"--I shan't say more...). As it plays out, one can't help but be reminded of "The Nun's Story" starring Audrey Hepburn (when asked why she decided to become a nun, one of the young ladies refers to that movie). The movie is helped enormously by several towering performances: Melissa Leo as the Reverend Mother is outstanding, but even better is Margaret Qualley as Kathleen (in one of her first movie roles--she is best known for her recurring role in HBO's The Leftovers). Qualley reminded me physically immediately of a younger Kirsten Stewart. The range of emotions that Qualley is able to convey on the big screen makes it very clear to me that this is a major up-and-coming talent, the last of which we surely haven't seen. Same can be said of writer-director Maggie Betts. If it sounds like I am gushing about this movie, you bet I am. This movie is for me one of the best I have seen this year.
"Novitiate" premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival to immediate critical acclaim. No idea why it's taken so long to reach my local art-house theater here in Cincinnati, but better late than never. The Saturday evening screening where I saw this at was attended very nicely. You could hear a pin drop, as the theater was enraptured by this film. If you are in the mood for a probing psychological drama that poses some serious questions about religion and faith and features several stunning acting performances, you cannot go wrong with this, be it in the theater, on VOD or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray. "Novitiate" is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
The Disaster Artist (2017)
"I Do Not Choose To Be a Common Man"
"The Disaster Artist" (2017 release; 103 min.) brings the real-life story of how the 2003 cult movie "The Room" got made. As the movie opens, a number of current day movie stars, including Kirsten Bell, Adam Scott. J.J. Abrams and others gush about the virtues of this "so bad, that it's so good" movie. We then shift to "San Francisco, July 13, 1998" when Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero meet at an acting class and strike up a friendship. Later that year, they decide on w him to move to Los Angeles, where Tommy somehow has kept an apartment. Tommy and Greg pursue their dream of becoming an actor (inspired by James Dean, among others), but when it's becoming clear that nobody wants to do anything with them, they decide to make their own film... At this point, we are 15 min. into the movie, but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this movie is a labor of love primarily by James Franco, who directs, co-produces, and stars as Tommy. His brother Dave co-stars as Greg. The real life story is so beyond anything believable that if this were a work of fiction, it would immediately be dismissed as just that. Let me state upfront that I have not seen "The Room" (although I see it frequently listed as a midnight listing at my local art-house theater). From everything we witness in "The Disaster Artist", Tommy is so incredibly inapt yet convinced of his own talent, it reminds me of those American Idol auditions back in the day where certain contestants think they are super good yet they were horrible. Another similarity is the Meryl Streep movie "Florence Foster Jenkins" (about a real life wealthy NY socialite who thinks she sings well and nobody dares to contradict her, leading to a notorious Carnegie Hall concert). James Franco does an outstanding job in the lead role, and I'm going to predict that he will get a number of nominations in the upcoming awards season. It isn't until the very end of the movie (when scenes from the original "The Room" are played in parallel with the recreated scenes for "The Disaster Artist") that one gets a sense how incredibly meticulous Franco has been in recreating them down to the last detail. Absolutely amazing. Last but certainly not least, the movie features a bunch of other well-known performers, some of them in very noticeable roles (such as Seth Rogen and Alison Brie), and others in "blink and you'll miss it" roles (such as Sharon Stone, Zoey Deutch, Zac Efron, etc.). In an early scene of the movie, when Tommy and Greg become unlikely friends, they head over to Tommy's place, and Greg notices a prominent sign on the apartment's wall: "I Do Not Choose To Be a Common Man". Whatever you think of Tommy, he certainly is not your "common man"!
"The Disaster Artist" opened this weekend at my local art-house theater here in Cincinnati on not one, but two screens (a rarity). The Friday evening screening where i saw this at was attended very nicely, I;'m happy to report. The audience roared with laughter on many occasions. The positive word-of-mouth this movie surely will generate makes it likely to have long legs at the box office (at least within the art-house theater circuit). If you are in the mood for something truly different, I encourage you to check out "The Disaster Artist", be it in the theater, on VOD, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray.
Wanna-be important documentary falls short by a mile or two
"32 Pills: My Sister's Suicide" is a documentary directed by, and starring, Hope Litoff about her sister Ruth's suicide in 2008 at age 42. As the movie opens, we get to know Ruth and Hope, and not before too long we also get to know what it was like for the Litoff sisters to grow up.
Couple of comments: this is the directing debut of Hope Litoff, who previously was edited a number of TV movies and documentaries. Here she investigates the effects of Ruth's suicide on her life as we know it today. Through the extensive use of primarily the thousands of pictures that Ruth had taken during her life, but also the many journals she left behind (and which she apparently wanted to be found after her death), we get a pretty good picture as to her troubled (bi-polar) mind. Seems like Ruth lived on the edge of suicide for many years. Then there is Hope, 3 years younger than Ruth. Where to start? The documentary at first sight is about Ruth, until it shifts and becomes the Hope show... Hope shows up in virtually every frame of the movie, while she ostensibly suffers from Ruth's suicide. But I have to say, some if not much seems contrived, if not outright weird. Does she really fall off the wagon after 17 years sobriety--WHILE FILMING HERSELF? Then later, is her husband really following her around with a camera when Hope decides she needs another drink for no apparent reason? It just didn't make any sense, and it all felt very much self-centered and self-serving, as if Hope found a perfect vehicle (Ruth's suicide) to make a movie where Hope is the center of attention. If it was meant to stir up compassion for Hope's situation, I'm sorry to say that the movie simple didn't move me in that way. Bottom line: it may be well- intended, but ultimately this wanna-be important documentary should be called "My Sister's Suicide: A New HOPE" (pun intended).
This movie started playing on HBO as part of its documentary series, and that is where I caught it a few days ago. I have to say, I was really let down in the end. For a truly devastating look at the events surrounding a sister's suicide, I'd readily recommend the deeply moving and overall excellent 2015 memoir by Jill Bialosky called "History Of a Suicide" (about her 21 yr. old sister's suicide when the author herself was 30). Simply outstanding. "32 Pills: My Sister's Suicide"? not so much...
Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)
"I am tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful"
"Roman J. Israel, Esq." (2017 release; 129 min.) brings the fictional story of the title character. As the movie opens, it appears that Roman is preparing a legal filing, where he is both plaintiff and defendant! Huh? We then go back to "Three Weeks Earlier", and we get to know Roman, as his life's circumstances are about to change drastically. Having worked "like the man behind the curtains" in a 2 lawyer criminal defense law firm, Roman's law partner suffers a heart attack and Roman must now pick up the slack, and make court appearances. Rather than ask for continuations, Roman speaks his mind freely, with dire consequences... At this point we are 10 min, into the movie, but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the latest movie from writer-director Dan Gilroy, who previously gave us another character-specific vehicle ("Nightcrawler" for Jake Gyllenhaal). Here he creates a role specifically allowing Denzel Washington to shine, and shine Denzel does. In fact, the entire movie rests on his shoulders, playing what appears to be a morally straight-and-narrow criminal defense lawyer who then is presented with moral dilemmas. "I am tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful", remarks Roman. The movie is plot-heavy, and hence I shan't say more, although I will say that there are some plot holes the size of Manhattan, and it's up to you to accept those and move along, or to be bothered and essentially give up. I choose the former. Besides Denzel Washington, there are several other noteworthy performances: Colin Farrell is fine as the big-shot lawyer George Pierce, and even more so British actress Carmen Ejogo as the self-doubting social activist Maya. But in the end it's really the Denzel Washington show. Seems like he really enjoyed himself with this role. Like "Nightcrawler", this movie is ultra LA-centric, playing out mostly in downtown LA with its ritzy skyscrapers. Bottom line: I had my doubts about this movie, and certainly the ambiguous trailer didn't help. But I found myself strangely entertained by this, flaws and all, and these 2 hours flew by in no time.
"Roman J. Israel, Esq." is now into its second weekend in theaters everywhere. The Friday evening screening where I saw this at here in Cincinnati was attended okay but not great (about 15 people in a huge theater). If you enjoy a movie vehicle that allows Denzel Washington to once again shine and showcase his enormous talents, you could do worse that this. I encourage you to check out "Roman J. Israel, Esq.", be it in theaters, on VOD, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, and draw your own conclusion.
Exposing the ugly underbelly of a small Midwestern town
"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" (2017 release; 115 min.) brings the story of Mildred Hayes. As the movie opens, we see her driving by several unused dilapidated billboards near her house. She inquires with the Ebbing Advertising Agency (located across the street from the Police Department), and decides to put up three billboards. Combined, they read: Raped While Dying/And Still No Arrests"/How Come. Chief Willoughby? We learn that her daughter Angela was murdered 7 months ago, and that no suspects have been identified by the cops. OF course, this public shaming does not sit well with Chief Willoughby, and he decides to pay Mildred a visit (his first since the murder, Mildred remarks). At this point we're 10 min. into the movie but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the latest movie from writer-director Martin McDonagh, who previously gave us "In Bruges" and "Seven Psychopaths". While those movies were over the top in many ways, here McDonagh goes a more subtle yet still hard-hitting way in looking at how one strong-willed woman upsets the fabric of a little Missouri town and along the way exposes its ugly underbelly. If you have seen the movie's trailer (and it was hard to escape that in recent weeks), one might expect something very similar, at least in style, to McDonagh's earlier movies, rip-roaring from start to finish. But that is not the case at all. Yes, of course there are those moments, but there there are also many other scenes in the movie that are reflective and outright touching. As hard-boiled as Mildred seems to be, the real hurt and grieving she displays on occasion says a lot more about her than when she kicks some school kids in a place where it hurts (yes, she really does). McDonagh brings out wonderful performances, none more so than the one-of-a- kind Frances McDormand as Mildred. McDormand must at this point surely be considered the front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar early next year. But she gets plenty of help, including Sam Rockwell (as the sleazy and racist officer Dixon), and Woody Harrelson (as Chief Willoughby),
"Three Billboards" premiered this Fall to immediate critical acclaim, which for the most part is well deserved. (I personally felt a bit let down by the movie's concluding 15 min., which of course I will not spoil.) The Thanksgiving early evening screening where I saw this at in Ft. Myers FL, was attended nicely (about 15- 20 people) but nowhere near a sell-out. It will be interesting to see how the movie does at the box office as it gets a wider release in weeks to come. Martin McDonagh is certainly no ordinary writer- director and if you appreciate hiss off-kilter approach, you will welcome his latest. I encourage you to check out "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri", be it in the theater, on VOD, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, and draw your own conclusion.
Lady Bird (2017)
Character study that will be familiar to many of us
"Lady Bird" (2017 release; 93 min.) brings the story of Christine McPherson, a/k/a Lady Bird, "my given name since I gave to name to myself". As the movie opens, Lady Bird and her mom are driving back to Sacramento as they are listening to an audio tape of Grapes of Wrath. Lady Bird laments "I wish I could live through something" and then lets herself fall out of the car, breaking her wrist along the way. Now in a cast, we get to know Lady Bird's daily life as she enters her senior year in high school at the all-girls Immaculate Heart of Maria. Lady Bird also has to deal with her overbearing mom. It all makes her want to go to college on the East Coast... At this point we are 10 min. into the movie but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the directing debut of noted actress and writer Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha, Mistress American, Maggie's Plan, and most recently sensational in 20th Century Women). Here Gerwig writes about something very familiar to her, as she grew up in Sacramento (but she refuses to call the film auto-biographical): the struggles of a teenager on the cusp of the liberating (?) years of going to college and setting out a life's journey more within her control. Even though the movie is just an hour and a half, it is jam-packed with non-stop plot developments, but the over-arching theme is clear. While billed as a comedy-drama, the movie is more drama than comedy, indeed the movie is bitter-sweet, but in the end more sweet than bitter. Gerwig provides outstanding direction to her two lead performers, Irish actress Saoirse Ronan (as Lady Bird) and Lauren Metcalf (as her tough-love mother). I can't help but feel that the movie is also Gerwig's love letter to her home town of Sacramento (a place I've never visited myself), making it look very warm and inviting. Bottom line: "Lady Bird" is a wonderful 'little' movie, and in that sense the complete opposite (and perfect counter- programming) for yet the latest salvo of superhero action movies from DC Comics ("Justice League") and Marvel Comics ("Thor Ragnarok"). To each their own, but I'll take "Lady Bird" any day.
"Lady Bird" received immediate critical acclaim upon its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this Fall, and surely will be receiving a number of Oscar nominations early next year. The movie went wide this past weekend. The Tuesday evening screening where I saw this at was attended poorly (exactly 4 people, including myself), but positive word of mouth will hopefully boost better attendance in the days and weeks to come. If you are in the mood for a character study that will feel very familiar to many of us, you cannot go wrong with this, be it in the theater, on VOD or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray. "Lady Bird" is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
The Square (2017)
More on the "human condition" from director Ruben Östlund
"The Square" (2017 release from Sweden; 142 min.) brings the story of Christian, the chief curator of a Swedish museum. As the movie opens, he is interviewed by Anna, an American journalist. Afterwards, as he is walking outside, a woman runs up to him screaming "help me! He's going to kill me". Christian and another bystander are bale to fend off the apparent enraged boyfriend. After the tumult, Christian realizes his wallet and mobile were stolen, but with the help of a staff member, he can track down the cell phone's location. Meanwhile the museum is starting an ambitious new project called The Square, a 12x12 ft. square meant to be a "sanctuary of trust and care". The museum staff is thinking of ways to publicize the new project. At this point we're 10 min. into the movie but to tell you more of the plot would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the latest film from writer-director Ruben Östlund, whose previous film, the outstanding "Force Majeure", was a major surprise in 2014 in the best possible way. Here the director again examines the human condition and how people react to situations they did not expect. In that sense, "The Square" is entirely in line with "Force Majeure", although it is also clear that for "The Square" the ambitions were put on steroids. One of the beauties of the film is that Östlund lets entire scenes play out without feeling the need to change camera angles or other editing tricks. Love it, love it, love it. Beware, there definitely are a number of scenes that may make you feel uncomfortable (as I'm sure the director intended to make you feel), but overall I felt bedazzled by it all. Danish actor Claes Bang (who keeps reminding me of Pierce Brosnan) plays the role of Christian with fervor, but in my book Terry Holland (playing the actor as the chimp, in the pivotal scene of the movie) steals the show. That scene alone is worth seeing the movie. Mustn't say more.
"The Square" premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival and promptly won the Palm d'Or, the festival's top price. It finally opened at my local art-house theater here in Cincinnati this weekend, and I couldn't wait to see it. The Friday evening screening where I saw this at was attended OK but not great (looked to be about 10-15 people in total), which is unfortunate. Maybe strong word-of-mouth will help improve attendance. If you are interested in the "human condition", or loved "Force Majeure", you are in for a treat. I encourage you to check out "The Square", be it in the theater, on Amazon Instant Video, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, and draw your own conclusion.
Dizzying edits in the worst possible way ruin the movie
"Black Sabbath: The End of The End" (2017 release; running time: 105 min.) is a documentary that focuses on the band's very last show ever, in February of 2017 in their home town of Birmingham, England. I recently stumbled onto this on Showtime while I was channel surfing. At that time the movie was about 15 minutes in, and I didn't think I was going to watch the whole thing, but somehow I did. I hadn't listened to their music in, literally, decades, and hence I was surprised how many of the songs I actually recognized.
Couple of comments: the music is for sure top notch, and it is amazing to see the three original members, each of them approaching 70 years now, perform at this high level, in particular Tony Iommi (who just recovered from blood cancer in 2016) is impressive, to say the least. Sadly, the movie is pretty much ruined by the incessant "chopping" edits. There are songs where, literally, every second if not more frequently than that, we jump to a different angle. Just sickening, and it it weren't for the strength of the music, I would've never finished watching this. Another annoyance is that oftentimes when Iommi goes into a guitar solo, we cut away from the concert footage (but the songs is still heard in the background) and jump to interviews with the original 3 members. A final note as to this film's running time: it is listed in IMDb as being 124 min. but the version I saw on SHO is nowhere near that, and ran just 1 hr. 45 min.
While I understand that die-hard Sabbath fans are gung-ho about this documentary, to rate this as being a 10 star movie (as in: the BEST EVER, of all times) is just plain silly. The shortcomings of this film are plenty and jump out at you. A missed opportunity, sadly.
Everything or Nothing (2012)
Mildly interesting James Bond documentary
"Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007" (2012 release; 98 min.) is a documentary about the James Bond movie franchise (which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012). After a 'classic' Bond opening, we quickly delve into Ian Fleming's background, and in particular how deeply affected he was by WWII (in which he served) and later the Cold War. It eventually leads him to create the James Bond character, and the first Bond novel "Casino Royal", which some refers to as Fleming's "autobiography of a dream", ha! After this promising start to the documentary, we quickly evolve into the complicated relationship between Albert "Cubby" Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.
Couple of comments: this documentary is directed by British film maker Steven Riley. Riley tries to walk a fine line between on the one hand all of the legal issues that have confronted the James Bond franchise over the years (and believe me, there are PLENTY), and giving an overview of how the Bond movies have evolved over the years. There are some tidbits here and there that I found interesting (such as: the budget for the first Bond Movie "Mr. NO" being $1 million--or about $8 million in today's dollars, can you imagine making a Bond movie for just $8 million?; and the interview with one-time Bond actor George Lazenby, on how he talked Broccoli and Saltzman into becoming the new Bond, only then to be kicked out of the Bond franchise after just one movie).
I recently stumbled on this while browsing the EPIX on Demand documentary section. When a 50th anniversary celebration movie like this one is put together, you can be assured that it stays on the lighter side when all is said and done, and that's fine. I'm sure one day someone (independent from the Bond film makers) will produce the definitive James Bond documentary.