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RBG, Mr. Rogers & Itzhak: Profiles in Kindness

 

37422431_413141852529372_4787438631390281728_nOne of my favorite films of the year, Alison Chernick‘s wonderful documentary Itzhak lm is available on Amazon and iTunes today. If you loved RBG and the Mister Rogers doc Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, you’ll be right in tune with this loving portrait of the great violinist and humanitarian Itzhak Perlman. It’s the type of profile in kindness that we need right now. I chatted with Chernick about music, movies and mensches.

Why did you want to make a film about Itzhak Perlman?

He’s the ultimate mensch. Everyone knows he’s a great violinist but I didn’t want to make a concert film. I wanted to tell the untold story and unravel the man behind the musician.  The music starts in his heart and flows through his hands. Itzhak is a warm, kind and generous person. I wanted to capture his wealth of humanity in this film.

He seems like an approachable, down-to-earth guy, and he got very comfortable around you. How did you reach the point where he didn’t notice you were there?

Documentaries by nature are very intrusive — that’s the name of the game. So the art of documentary filmmaking is both riding that balance between being in the way and out of the way.  You have to be in the way enough to get what you need, up close, but also out of the way so you’re not interfering. It takes time to build that trust and once that was in place – plus his comfort in front of the camera – the combination and chemistry created a good path for honesty.

Your films are always cinema verite. Why do you favor that style over a more traditional talking-heads approach?

I find that to be the most organic and natural way to present somebody. It gives more credit to the viewer. It allows them to form their own opinions and not be spoon-fed. Often, talking heads can be very interesting, but in this case, I didn’t feel like we needed them. I don’t think there was anyone who could say something about Itzhak that was more interesting than letting Itzhak speak for himself.

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A number of bio-docs have been big hits at the box office this summer, and they all seem to focus on kind-hearted people like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Fred Rogers and Itzhak Perlman. Why do you think these kinds of films are resonating now?

With what’s going on in the world right now politically, truth is stranger than fiction these days. People are fatigued by the news — and we’re living in morally corrupt times —so positive inspiring stories I believe are somewhat of a relief.

What is it specifically about Itzhak’s life story and personality that makes him an important person to know about and spend time with in this current climate?

His resilience, the story of overcoming adversity — he contracted polio at the age of 4 in Israel and has had leg braces ever since —  this experience created a positive outlook for him later in life, to appreciate what he did have. It humbled him and made him feel lucky for his passion for music and his love for his family. Through watching his experience, we can learn from it. He is a role model to many.

 

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This Summer’s Real Superhero Movies

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Have I mentioned how sick I am of superhero movies? Oh, I have? My comic-book fatigue even impinged on my enjoyment of Incredibles 2. I mean, it was fine, but my constant cinematic craving is credibility. Realism is my guiding aesthetic in drama and comedy, and lately it’s led me to a newfound appreciation for documentaries.

A pair of such non-fiction films, RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, has pulled off the superhuman feat of cracking the box-office top 10 in the middle of the summer-movie schlockbuster season. But that’s not all these bio-docs of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and children’s TV pioneer Fred Rogers have in common.

They’re both portraits of soft-spoken rebels. Neither Ginsburg nor Rogers is known for raising their voices. The jurist recalls one of the most important lessons her mother (who died when Ginsburg was 17) taught her was to always act like a lady, which meant not to yell, and she has found over the course of her legal career that a measured tone proved more effective in arguing her cases for gender equality. Rogers, too, became famous for his gentle demeanor, yet in his own way, he was equally revolutionary, and his kindness and respect for others (especially kids) seems more radical than ever in today’s atmosphere of round-the-clock contentiousness.

They’re both defined by their uniforms. No, they don’t wear capes and tights (although some of the Notorious RBG’s fan art depicts her as Wonder Woman or an Avenger), but Ginsburg proudly displays the array of collars she wears on different occasions. Every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood began with the host walking in the front door wearing a jacket and dress shoes and changing into a friendlier sweater and sneakers.

They’ve both been vilified by extremists. RBG opens with an audio montage of right-wing radio hosts describing Ginsburg in hateful, often misogynistic terms like witch and zombie. Meanwhile, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? includes a sequence in which the hosts of the misnamed Fox & Friends, among others, attack Rogers as “evil” for having told kids they were special just for being themselves, allegedly creating a generation of entitled snowflakes. Bizarrely, homophobic protestors also picketed Rogers’ funeral, simply because he was tolerant of gays.

They’ve both been parodied by Saturday Night Live. One of the most entertaining scenes in the hugely enjoyable RBG chronicles the famously humorless judge (her kids kept a book called Mommy Laughed memorializing the rare occasions when she cracked up) watching Kate McKinnon’s exuberant impersonation of her on SNL.  For the record, Ginsburg giggles.

Rogers wasn’t always as amused by late-night spoofs, but he recounts an affectionate encounter he had with Eddie Murphy, who did his own inner-city SNL homage, Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood.

They’ll both soon be subjects of dramatic biopics. Felicity Jones will play Ginsberg in On the Basis of Sex, due in theaters this November, which means fictionalized and factual depictions of RBG could both be up for Oscars next year. And two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks will play Rogers in You Are My Friend, the story of the host’s bond with journalist Tom Junod, who’s also one of the most engaging interview subjects in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Two more movies without a superhero in sight? That’s what I’d call a beautiful day in my neighborhood.

Gotti: Is It As Bad As They Say?

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So I took my son to see Gotti — and before you charge me with child abuse, you should know he’s 22. Yes, John Travolta’s Mob biopic got 0% on Rotten Tomatoes, but I should also mention my son, Jed Fretts Howard, is a very funny stand-up comedian, so I figured we’d have a blast taking shots at it.

But here’s the thing: It’s not bad. It’s so not-bad, it’s not good. It’s just thoroughly mediocre. I’ve seen Travolta give worse performances — most notably and recently, his inexplicably acclaimed, Kabuki-esque turn as Robert Shapiro in The People vs. O.J. Simpson. His John Gotti is like a lukewarm version of Chili Palmer in Get Shorty. Which is to say, it’s like his performance as Chili Palmer in Be Cool.

The movie’s structure makes no sense. It starts and ends with Travolta speaking directly into the camera, presumably as the ghost of Gotti from beyond the grave. Then he occasionally narrates the action (to use the term very loosely), which jumps around between the terminally ill don sharing tough-love wisdom with his namesake son (Spencer Lofranco, who seems more suited to Jersey Shore than a gritty mafia movie) and the greatest hits of his criminal career.

The director Kevin Connolly — best known as “E” on Entourage (think about that phrase for a second) — has no feel for the material, and he seems to have chosen the soundtrack by hitting shuffle on his iPod. There’s the expected Dean Martin and Perry Como, but why the theme from “Shaft”? “West End Girls”? “Walk Like an Egyptian”?

He also was apparently incapable of casting any actual Italian-Americans aside from Travolta and Leo Rossi (who co-wrote the scattershot script with Lem Dobbs). Pruitt Taylor Vince, Stacy Keach, Chris Mulkey — they’re all fine character actors, but they seem like the kind of people who would say “mozzarella cheese.”

Travolta’s real-life wife Kelly Preston goes the full Lorraine Bracco as moll Victoria Gotti, but her character remains one-dimensional, along with everyone else in the supporting cast. The only scenes where she really makes an impact are after the accidental death of the Gottis’ 12-year-old son, Frank, which play with added resonance knowing she and Travolta lost their son, Jett, when he wasn’t much older.

The rest of the movie just plods along. Connolly confusingly intersperses actual news footage of Gotti with the dramatized scenes, and the documentary sequences prove more compelling. John Gotti was famously known as the Teflon Don, and this is a Teflon movie. Nothing sticks to it — or with you. It’s NotBadFellas.

Five Reasons Why Solo Flies So Low

solo-official-poster-691x1024.jpgSo I finally saw Solo, and… I finally saw Solo. Yeah. I mean, it was okay, but I had a few problems with it.

1) Alden Ehrenreich is no Harrison Ford. He’s more like Hayden Christensen. (Remember him? I barely do either. I had to Google him to spell his name correctly.)

2) Donald Glover is better than Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, but he’s not in it enough. He comes in late, then leaves for too long before finally returning. How about a solo Lando movie?

3) The movie is too dark. I don’t mean tonally — I mean literally dark. Maybe it was just the crappy projection at my local theater, but I could barely tell what was going on in certain scenes. Not that I really cared. The whole movie looked brown and gray to me, not like the vivid colors I associate with the original 1977 movie (or even later characters like Darth Maul).

4) There is no consistent tone. Perhaps that’s what happens when you switch directors in mid-flight from the subversively witty Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street) to the study, workmanlike Ron Howard (Apollo 13).

5) Just like I’m burned out on superhero movies, I’m tired of films set on faraway planets. Realism is my guiding aesthetic as a movie critic, so I easily lose interest once characters blast off in outer space. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find films playing near me that take place on planet Earth. In fact, I had to cross state lines and go to Connecticut, where I recently attended the Greenwich International Film Festival, to see stories about real people without superpowers who live in the same universe that I do.

Two of these were documentaries — a genre I’m enjoying more and more. I moderated a Q&A with writer Samuel Maslon after a screening of Sammy Davis, Jr. : I’ve Gotta Be Me, an enlightening profile of the groundbreaking Rat Pack member that will air in February on PBS’ American Masters. I also attended a Saturday-morning screening of Half the Picture, an eye-opening exposé about the lack of female directors in Hollywood. Too bad there was only one other dude in the audience, but I came away feeling more strongly than ever that diverse filmmakers would bring better films from fresher perspectives.

I also saw two narrative features that blew me away. Director Yen Tan’s 1985 is a simple, spare story — shot beautifully on black-and-white film — of a young man (Cory Michael Smith) who returns to his small-town Texas home during the onset of the AIDS crisis and tries to come out to his fundamentalist parents (Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis, both superb). And director Debra Granik builds on the promise of her breakout Winter’s Bone with her remarkable follow-up film, Leave No Trace, the heartbreaking tale of a veteran (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) who are forced out of living in the Oregon woods by well-meaning but misguided authorities.

Gorgeously photographed in very different ways, 1985 and Leave No Trace leave searing marks on your heart. Solo, on the other hand, just left me feeling numb.

Why I’m Sick of Superhero Movies

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When I was a kid, I loved superheroes. I was born the same year as the Batman TV series, and it was such a formative influence on me that I’ve got a tattoo of Julie Newmar as Catwoman on my arm… but that’s another story.

As an adult, I’ve seen most of the movies based on the Marvel and DC comic books I collected as a kid, and in a few cases, directors with superhuman gifts like Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy), Sam Raimi (Spider-Man 1 and 2… let’s forget 3) and, most recently, Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) have elevated the genre into art.

But Rotten Tomatoes be damned, most superhero movies have been pretty mediocre. Sure, the first Iron Man was fun, but did we really need three (not to mention his many appearances in the Avengers movies, etc.)? The reverse goes for Thor — the third one was charming, but I could’ve done without the first two. And don’t get me started on DC’s myriad big-screen injustices. The wildly overrated Wonder Woman was a masterpiece only by contrast to, say, Suicide Squad, but that’s not much of a feat.

The truth is, I think I’ve finally outgrown superhero movies, and it was Avengers: Infinity War that broke me. I hated every second of this overlong, unsatisfying mishmash. Too many one-dimensional characters and too much butt-numbing exposition, punctuated by bursts of random, mind-numbing “action.” And after 160 minutes, there isn’t even an ending! It’s like a trailer for what will probably be another longer and more boring sequel. (Nothing against trailers — I write about them for The New York Times — but they’re better at 2 1/2 minutes, not 2 1/2+ hours).

So I skipped Deadpool 2. I tolerated the first one, if only because Ryan Reynolds, whose face I’ve always instinctively wanted to punch, wore a mask through most of it (and because I love Leslie Uggams, who stole the movie as Deadpool’s pal Blind Al). But the prospect of paying to support anything involving the deeply unpleasant T.J. Miller was just too much for me.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one fed up with costumed crusaders: Deadpool 2 made a “disappointing” $125 million in its first weekend. That’s still a lot of dough, but maybe it’s a sign we’re approaching peak superhero. Or at least peak Josh Brolin, who plays key roles in both Infinity War and Deadpool 2.

Perhaps, like me, a few people are hungering for stories about real people without superpowers. I’ve seen a pair of such rarities in the past few days, and I’d urge anyone suffering from caped-crimefighters burnout to check them out when they reach theaters early next month.

The first is A Kid Like Jake — a terrible title for a not-terrible movie. Claire Danes and Jim Parsons play subtle variations on their best-known TV characters (Homeland‘s unstable Carrie Mathison and The Big Bang Theory‘s unemotional Sheldon Cooper) as Brooklyn yuppies—is that still a thing?—who nearly come unraveled after their four-year-old son (Leo James Davis) starts engaging in “gender expansive” behavior.

The movie gets more interesting as the couple grapples with whether to exploit their child’s diversity as they navigate the city’s supercompetitive private-education system. The always-welcome Octavia Spencer grounds the movie in reality as a preschool director whose own sexual orientation becomes a complicating factor.

One of the best things about A Kid Like Jake in this summer full of overstuffed shlockbusters is its brevity — it runs barely over 90 minutes, yet it takes all the time it needs to tell its small-scale story. The same holds true for Nancy, a fascinating character study of an emotionally bereft woman (Andrea Riseborough) who poses as the long-lost daughter of a grieving couple (J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi).

Written and directed by the profoundly talented Christina Choe (full disclosure: I’ve supported her projects on Kickstarter ever since I saw her charming short The Queen in 2010), Nancy often views its protagonist through blurred surfaces. Riseborough, who’s gone full chameleon for films like Birdman and Battle of the Sexes, hollows herself out physically, yet she communicates the pain at her character’s gaping center.

Smith-Cameron’s role echoes her achingly beautiful work as the mother of an exonerated ex-Death Row inmate on the remarkable Sundance TV series Rectify (if you haven’t seen it, go binge on it—now!), and Buscemi matches her note for heartbreakingly perfect note.

Nancy and A Kid Like Jake are tied together by the seemingly omnipresent Ann Dowd, who plays different versions of the mother from hell in each. Ever since her mid-life breakthrough in 2010’s chilling Compliance, Dowd has become a hallmark of quality in indie gems like Captain Fantastic, Norman and St. Vincent. Best of all, you won’t likely see her in superhero spandex anytime soon.

Montclair 2018: Disobedience, Blaze & Hal

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I didn’t attend as many events at this year’s Montclair Film Festival as I usually do, but if I can identify a theme that links the ones I did, it would be this: disobedience. That’s the title of the film Rachel Weisz discussed when she sat down for a Q&A with Stephen Colbert at the Audible Theater (a fancy name for the retrofitted auditorium at Buzz Aldrin Middle School). I had already seen Disobedience, a provocative Orthodox Jewish lesbian romance starring Weisz and fellow Rachel McAdams, before the festival began, which put me one-up on everyone in the auditorium — excuse me, Theater —  except Colbert and Weisz. One of the inexplicable quirks of MFF is they often do Q&As with actors before screenings of their films, and in separate locations, as opposed to the traditional post-screening talks. It must’ve been frustrating, if not infuriating, for audience members to hear Colbert discuss specific scenes and plot twists about a film they hadn’t seen yet (and in some cases, were just about to see).

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Luckily, Colbert’s entertaining, thoughtful Q&A with Ethan Hawke before the screening of his latest directorial effort, Blaze, didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the movie, since I hadn’t seen it yet. A biopic of outlaw-country singer Blaze Foley, it refreshingly eschews the genre’s hard-road-to-fame cliches to take a more impressionistic approach to its subject. Hawke cast Ben Dickey, an Arkansas-born musician with no screen acting experience, in the lead role, and the gamble pays off. He brings a rough-hewn verisimilitude to the role, and he’s matched by Alia Shawkat as Sybil Rosen, his unlikely Jewish love interest, with whom he resides in a treehouse for numerous years (Hawke co-wrote the film with Rosen, based on her memoir).

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Hawke makes an extended vocal cameo as a DJ interviewing Foley’s pal Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton, another musician delivering a remarkable performance), and the flawless ensemble includes Kris Kristofferson in a poignant turn as Blaze’s mentally ill father and Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn and frequent Hawke collaborator Richard Linklater as oilmen who sign Blaze to a recording contract. The story jumps back and forth in time as it explores how creativity can come from two different wells: love and anger. Blaze is at once self-destructive and achingly vulnerable, and the movie captures the bittersweet spirit of his songs. He didn’t play by the rules of country music (or life in general) and neither, admirably, does Blaze.

Another true rebel, director Hal Ashby, gets the documentary treatment in Hal, director Amy Scott’s affecting profile. A Utah-born hippie who learned how to make movies via his Oscar-winning editing of director Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night, among other films, Ashby reeled off one of the great creative hot streaks in cinematic history. Consider this run in the ’70s: Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There.

But when Hollywood changed in the ’80s, emphasizing high-concept blockbusters over the shaggy, humanistic tales of real people that Ashby favored, he was a man out of time. Scott interviews his cohorts (Jewison, Jon Voight, Jane Fonda, Beau and Jeff Bridges) as well as his disciples (Judd Apatow, Lisa Cholodenko, Adam McKay) and most heartbreakingly, the daughter who only really knew him through his movies. Ashby’s father killed himself when Hal was 12 — which explains a lot about the suicide gags in Harold and Maude — and perhaps as a result, he was never able to settle down with a family. He was married five times (much like Warren Beatty’s Shampoo character, Hal loved the ladies), and the film makes good use of one of the most revealing scenes from an Ashby movie: the painful reconciliation between a degenerate gambler (Voight) and the little girl he barely knows (Angelina Jolie, in her film debut) in the criminally underrated 1982 dramedy Lookin’ to Get Out.

Blaze Foley and Hal Ashby died too young, yet the films that bear their names leave you elated about the power of self-expression. To quote Cat Stevens from Harold and Maude, “If you want to sing out, sing out/and if you want to be free, be free/’cause there’s a million things to be/you know that there are.” Blaze and Hal did.

Tribeca 2018: What’s Up? Docs!

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I never thought I’d become one of those people who say they prefer documentaries to scripted movies (they’re close cousins to those obnoxious twits who claim they only watch PBS), but most of the best films I’ve seen so far in 2017 have been non-fiction. That includes a pair of HBO specials — Judd Apatow’s profoundly moving tribute to his comedic mentor, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, and Thom Zimny and Alan Light’s eye-opening Elvis Presley: The Searcher — as well as Alison Chernick’s lovely Itzhak, a note-perfect profile of the great violinist and mensch Itzhak Perlman.

I’ve been attending the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, and most of the docs I’ve seen have been better than the fictional features so far. And it’s no coincidence all of these documentaries deal with pop culture, since that’s my lifelong obsession.

The opening-night film, Love, Gilda, paints a heartfelt portrait of the late Saturday Night Live great Gilda Radner. Executive-produced by her close friends Alan and Robin Zweibel, who also appear on camera (including at their wedding, where Gilda sang), director Lisa D’Apolito’s film effectively uses the legend’s own words to tell her story as much as possible. Her life was often more tragic than comic — she struggled with bulimia and succumbed to ovarian cancer at 42 in 1989 — but Love, Gilda radiates with hope and joy, just as she did all the way through her final TV appearance, on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (which was also Alan Zweibel’s show), where she joked about her illness and got the last laugh.

Eerily, Garry Shandling also appears in Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary, during a scene from the ’80s-set cult favorite in which ubergeek Haverchuck (Martin Starr) watches the comic’s stand-up act on The Dinah Shore Show and nearly chokes on his grilled cheese with laughter.

That was an autobiographical moment for exec producer Judd Apatow, who joins creator Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and cast members including James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and Linda Cardellini to reminisce warmly about the high-school dramedy that launched their careers. Produced by my journalistic alma mater Entertainment Weekly for A&E’s upcoming Culture Shock anthology, director Brent Hodge’s ebullient 75-minute film chronicles F&G‘s too-brief life and amazing afterlife.

Sadly, that description also applies to Howard Ashman, the lyricist of The Little Shop of Horrors and The Little Mermaid. He died of complications due to AIDS at 40 in 1991, the same year he posthumously won an Oscar for Beauty and the Beast. Now that film’s producer, Don Hahn, has brought Ashman lovingly back to life with Howard.

The film features affecting new interviews with his loved ones, including his professional partner, Alan Menken, as well as his life partner, Bill Lauch, laid over archival footage. The most remarkable sequence shows Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach recording “Be Our Guest” in a studio with a full orchestra.

Another tragic casualty of the AIDS crisis gets the biopic treatment with Mapplethorpe, starring former Doctor Who and current The Crown king Matt Smith as the controversial titular photographer. Smith delivers an impressive performance, but the script’s episodic structure never really allows viewers to get too far under Robert Mapplethorpe’s skin. What drove him to create images that still have the power to create shock and awe three decades after his death at 42 in 1989? (Spookily, that’s the same year Gilda Radner died at the same age.) We’re left with more questions than answers, but like his character’s photos, Smith’s work continues to haunt me.

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The same can’t be said for The Party’s Just Beginning, the directorial debut of another ex-Doctor Who star, Karen Gillan. Set in her native Inverness, Scotland and inspired by the city’s startlingly high suicide rate, the downbeat drama casts Gillan as a supermarket deli-counter employee who engages in risky sexual behavior, gorges on fish and chips, and drinks and drugs to excess, all set to a headache-inducing EDM soundtrack. Call it Light Railspotting.

Gillan’s good — and it’s nice to hear the Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle star’s brogue for a change — but the movie has no real narrative thread, just a string of subplots about her character’s alcoholic mother, would-be-transgender best friend, anonymous sex partners, etc. In short, this Party never really gets started.

Last (night} but far from least, I caught the world premiere of director Sophie Huber’s jazz doc Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, and it’s as propulsive and impressionistic as the seminal label’s music and album covers.

Rather than taking a traditional approach to telling the company’s story, Huber utilizes an aptly improvisational style. She follows tangents and weaves plotlines together to convey the sense of freedom created by Blue Note’s founders, Holocaust refugees Alfred Lion and Frances Wolff. That spirit continues to this day under the supervision of Don Was, who oversees a recording session with young lions like Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge and Kendrick Scott alongside living legends Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes is an exhilarating ride — and more dramatic than any scripted flick I’ve seen since Black Panther. And that’s no fiction.