Ask Dr. Ruth


Dr. Ruth peers out of a train window at her oncoming past.

(2019) Documentary (Magnolia/HuluDr. Ruth Westheimer, Pierre Lohu, Joel Westheimer, Cliff Rubin, John Lollos, Lee Salk, Greg Willenburg, Walter Nothmann, Debbie Nothmann, Leora Einleger, Jonathan Capehart, Dallah “Marga” Miller, Shmil Boruchovitz, Betty Elam Brauner, Mina Westheimer, Maurice Tunick, Michael Leckie, Avi Einleger, Jeffrey Tabak, Susan Brown. Directed by Ryan White

 

For most of us, our first sexual experiences are great mysteries preceded by sheer terror followed by an absolute sense of wonder why on earth we had ever been scared of what was such a natural – and pleasurable – act. Generally before going in and learning by doing, our knowledge of sex is woefully light.

Talking about sex just was not – and to a real extent is not – done. After all, who the hell are you going to ask? You really can’t talk to your parents or adult authority figures about it and your friends and peers know less than you do.

And then in the 80s came along Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a 4’7” dynamo who spoke frankly about masturbation, vaginas, dildos and gay sex in a charming German accent. She promoted good sex in ways that were frank, no-bullshit and direct. Yes, we would all blush like high school freshmen when she spoke of proper stimulation of the clitoris or about how tying up your partner wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. She was one of the first proponents of sexual acceptance; there is no normal sexuality, just whatever turns you on and that’s your business and nobody else’s other than your sex partner.

Suddenly she was a pop culture icon; authoring dozens of books, hosting a crazy popular radio show and a fixture on late night talk shows. She conversed regularly with Johnny, Conan, Letterman and Arsenio. She was everywhere for a certain amount of time, a kind of brilliant grandmotherly sort who talked about the things none of us would ever talk to our grandmothers about. And, despite fame and wealth, she chose to live in the same Washington Square apartment she’d lived in for decades. She lives there still.

This documentary looks at an amazing cultural phenomenon that was and is Dr. Ruth who is still going strong at 90 years old plus. White follows her around in the days leading to her 90th birthday as she goes on a voyage into her past; back to Frankfurt where she was born, and to Switzerland where her mother and grandmother sent her as part of the kindertransport program that got young Jewish children out of Germany as the Nazis rose to power. She was sent by herself to a Swiss orphanage where she shined shoes and did chores; she wasn’t allowed to attend school at the time. Her only learning came from a former boyfriend who would allow her to read his schoolbooks after dark.

Much of her early story is told through animations here where she is portrayed as a sad, melancholy little girl and of course she had good reason to. She voraciously corresponded with her parents until the letters ominously stopped coming. It wasn’t until recently that she discovered the fate of her parents and grandmother, whom she adored. White’s cameras witness her research and it is a very powerful moment indeed. The animations are beautiful but they are a bit tone-deaf when compared to the big picture.

After the war Ruth went to Israel where she was trained as a sniper (!) until an explosion put shrapnel into her legs. She eventually went to get an education in Paris before moving to New York City where she got a doctorate, despite not having completed high school. She married three times and raised kids. She volunteered to do a radio spot about sex therapy which proved to be wildly popular and thus the legend of Dr. Ruth was born.

Throughout the film we journey back with Dr. Ruth to places significant to her in her past, from Switzerland to Israel to New York. We see that even pushing 90 years old, she remains a force of nature – lecturing, writing and teaching a pair of college classes. She continues to preach the gospel of good sex with her charm unabated despite her years.

Although Dr. Ruth prefers to leave politics out of her message, her message is in many ways political in and of itself, advocating tolerance for lifestyles different than your own, equality for women in the bedroom (and by extension, everywhere else) and that what a woman does with her body is her own business and nobody else’s. Her granddaughter tries to get her to admit to being a feminist but when her grandmother does not, is somewhat taken aback and even a little bit hurt by it. The thing of the matter is that while Dr. Ruth doesn’t consider herself a feminist, she has had a massive effect on the feminist movement.

It’s interesting to me that Dr. Ruth is, in many ways, less in touch with her own emotions than she is with everyone else’s. She does play things very close to the vest and while she’s open and candid about many of the events of her life, we get a sense of distance from who she really is as a person. For the most part all we see is the public persona of the famed sex therapist and perhaps that’s enough, although I might have wished for more.

Still in all, this is a well-made, well-researched documentary on a public figure who really hasn’t gotten her due in many ways. Because she talked so candidly about sex, there was a tendency not to take her as seriously as her accomplishments merited – too many jokes on Carson and Letterman perhaps contributed to that. While the overall tone might be a little bit more worshipful than I would have liked, nonetheless this is a fairly thorough examination of one of the most important pop culture figures of the last thirty years. Besides all that, her energy, her pixie-like sense of humor and her sheer good will are very energizing even on a TV or movie screen; this is certainly a worthy tonic for those in need of a pick-me-up.

Orlando readers will have to drive out to the Cinematique in Daytona in order to see this on the big screen; readers in South Florida are more fortunate in that the film is playing in various places around the region including the Miami Dade College Tower Theater and the Living Room Theater at Florida Atlantic University. It is also available at the Movies of Delray Beach and the Movies of Lake Worth while in the Tampa area it can be seen at the Tampa Theater downtown and the Burns Court Cinema in Sarasota. It is also playing in several other theaters around the state – check your local listings. If you don’t live close to any of those theaters, you’ll just have to wait until June 1 when the film will debut on Hulu.

REASONS TO SEE: The energy and humor of Dr. Ruth are infectious. Some of the moments here are devastating.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film is a little bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as frank sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ruth Westheimer was born Karola Ruth Siegel in Frankfurt back in 1928; she started using her middle name Ruth following the war.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kinsey
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Clara

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Young Goethe in Love (Goethe!)


Young Goethe in Love

Note to Twilight fans - these aren't vampires! They just SHOULD be!

(2010) Biographical Drama (Music Box) Alexander Fehling, Miriam Stein, Moritz Bleibtreu, Volker Bruch, Burghart Klausner, Henry Hubchen, Hans-Michael Rehberg, Anna Botcher, Stefan Haschke, Xavier Hutter, Oscar Weidner, Guido Lambrecht, Vitus Wieser. Directed by Philipp Stolzl

 

Writers have a tendency to use their own lives for inspiration. Their experiences become kind of a template on which their best works are based. Some of the best templates are those based on terrible experiences.

Johann Goethe (Fehling) – with an “oe” – is a writer, or he wants to be. His poetry and drama up to that point hadn’t been well-received. His father (Hubchen) wants him to be a lawyer but Goethe is a bit too flighty for that. He fails the law exams, doing a mocking little dance afterwards and writing the words “kiss my ass” in the snow. Dear old dad sends his unruly son from the big city lights of Frankfurt for the country seat that is Wetzlar where his father has enough pull to get him work as a clerk for the local prosecutor Johann Christian Kestler (Bleibtreu).

Kestler is a bit of a stickler and one of his junior clerks, Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem (Bruch) – a terrible stammerer and a somewhat shy nebbish to boot – is given Goethe to take under his wing. The two become fast friends and Jerusalem takes Goethe to a dance, where Goethe – urban sophisticate that he was – is terribly bored.

That is, until he meets Charlotte Buff (Stein), a plain-spoken country girl with a voice like an angel and a face to match. He becomes completely smitten with her. Riding off into the country, he meets her again and spends an afternoon baking bread, playing with her many younger siblings and playing the clavichord. It becomes plain that she has feelings for him as well.

Jerusalem has become enamored of a married woman and is entertaining thoughts of running away with her once she leaves her husband. Even Kestler, Goethe’s boss, has found someone and enlists Goethe’s help in wooing her. Goethe, happily in love, is only too pleased to help someone else find what he has found. Goethe is as blissful as a man can be.

That’s usually when the floor disappears from beneath your feet and thus it is with Goethe. Jerusalem’s mistress has decided to stay with her husband and it turns out that the object of Kestler’s affection is Charlotte, who because of her family’s dire financial situation has agreed to become engaged to Kestler who is far more prosperous than Goethe. A distraught Jerusalem commits suicide in front of Goethe and now he is under arrest for illegally dueling. Will he survive to write Faust?

Of course he will. The trouble with biographical movies is that you know that the threats of suicide are mainly bluster and won’t be acted upon, at least not successfully. The events here correspond to the events that Goethe used to base his first great novel on, The Sorrows of Young Werther which combined all of the main characters into a love triangle. It was such a sensation that it spawned copycat suicides among the lovelorn.

The period is well-depicted here, from the brutality of Teutonic justice to the wide disparity between wealth and poverty. The cast here is solid and bring life to long-dead figures of history. Fehling’s Goethe is mischievous, somewhat anti-authoritative and full of piss and vinegar. I will admit this is a bit at odds with the Goethe that I knew, a stolid conservative who very much seemed to reject the tenets of following one’s heart in favor of trusting one’s logic. Still, even Goethe had to be young once.

Stein is a real beauty and it’s easy to see why Goethe would fall so hard for her Lotte. Stein and Fehling make an appealing couple and turn this into one of the most appealing onscreen literary romances since Shakespeare in Love. The similarity in the titles of the movies isn’t necessarily coincidental.

I am to understand that certain liberties have been taken with historical accuracy but that is to be expected – after all, if you want to learn something, there’s always the Discovery Channel – or wonder of wonders, actually reading a book. The Twilight set will appreciate the hopeless nature of the love between Goethe and Charlotte even if they have not a clue who Goethe is or his significance in literature – it is not an unmerited claim to state that without Goethe, it is unlikely Twilight would have come to pass.

The movie has a goodly amount of romance, a bit of intrigue and a quiet sense of fun. There is humor, drama and even a bit of sex. It’s entertaining and while some might grumble about subtitles, there is a certain sense of humor here that is appealing. It’s a wonderful movie well worth seeking out in your local art house or failing that, on home video when it is released in that medium next spring.

REASONS TO GO: Most Americans are unfamiliar with Goethe, his work and his life so it’s a good way to find out more about one of the world’s great literary figures.

REASONS TO STAY: Subtitles are a hassle for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a couple of disturbing images and a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bleibtreu provided the voice for Flynn Rider in the German version of Tangled.

HOME OR THEATER: The beautiful German countryside deserves to be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Behind the Burly Q

The A-Team


The A-Team

Here's another plan coming together.

(20th Century Fox)  Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Jessica Biel, Patrick Wilson, Gerald McRaney, Henry Czerny, Brian Bloom, Omari Hardwick, Yul Vazquez, Maury Sterling, Terry Chen. Directed by Joe Carnahan

Adapting a beloved television show into a major motion picture carries its own pitfalls as well as a built-in audience. That makes it something of a double-edged sword for the filmmakers; how to keep fans of the original show satisfied while delivering something that stands apart from the original.

Colonel Hannibal Smith (Neeson) heads up a team of Army Rangers who specialize in tackling jobs that most covert teams would run away from screaming like little girls. They never fail because of their specialized skills; Cpl. Faceman “Face” Beck (Cooper) is a smooth lady’s man who is second in command on the team; Cpl. B.A. Baracus (Jackson) is as strong as an ox and is the team’s driver while Capt. H.M. Murdock (Copley) is just on this side of insane (and maybe on the other side) and is the team’s pilot.

They are in the process of leaving Iraq when they receive a visit from two separate people; one is Captain Charissa Sosa (Biel) who has a past with Face, but has come to warn the team to stay out of Baghdad. The other is a smarmy slimy CIA Agent named Lynch (Wilson) – one of many, apparently, with that name – who has a mission for the “Alpha” team; to retrieve plates from the U.S. mint that renegade Iraqis have stolen to print their own U.S. currency. While Hannibal’s superior officer, General Morrison (McRaney) has some reservations, ultimately he decides to allow Hannibal to go, even though it violates direct orders so this mission is strictly “off the books.”

It also pisses off a mercenary from the Black Forest Corporation by the name of Brock Pike (Bloom) whose team was originally set to retrieve the plates but is now being moved aside for Hannibal’s cast of characters. It’s a very tough job involving getting aboard a moving semi while avoiding a convoy of heavily armed trucks escorting the semi, but the A-Team pulls it off.

Unfortunately, when they return to base General Morrison is killed when his jeep explodes and the Black Forest team absconds with the plates. Despite their protests of innocence, the A-Team is accused – and convicted – of colluding with the mercenaries and get sent to prison.

Of course, no prison will hold them for long and with the help of Lynch – who wants to retrieve the plates – the A-Team escape from the four separate penitentiaries that are incarcerating them and go about the business of retrieving the stolen plates, find out who set them up and clear their names in the process. How? Hannibal has always got a plan in mind…

Director Joe Carnahan has a history of quirky movies like Smokin’ Aces to his credit. This is his biggest assignment to date, and he doesn’t do a bad job at all, considering the limitations he has to work with and they are the ones that came with the property.

One of the problems with any television series is that they have a tendency to have a very similar modus operandi for each episode; the details may be different but they tend to follow the same plot outline. When a big budget movie remakes a TV show, generally the film wants to retain many of the same elements of the show in order to establish continuity between the show and the movie; this is to attract the original audience to the movie. However, this can lead to the movie feeling more like a retread than a re-imagining.

To be honest, there is some of that here; however, enough of the movie is fresh and new enough to distance it from the show and make it a little more 21st century, a little different.

Part of the reason for that is the cast. There was some criticism of the casting in online circles which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Neeson is one of the finest actors in the world and while this is a role he doesn’t usually tackle, he is excellent in creating a Hannibal Smith that recalls George Peppard’s character but is completely Neeson.

He’s solid but Copley, so tremendous in District 9, makes Murdock fascinating; you want to see more of him every time he’s onscreen. Like the Dwight Schultz Murdock, he’s crazy like a fox; just sane enough to make you wonder how crazy he really is. Copley plays the character as a cross between Scott Bakula and Robin Williams. Cooper further cements his standing as a rising star; Face is not only a lady’s man but also a brilliant military strategist. Cooper makes both sides of the character believable and does it with leading man charisma.

Patrick Wilson, impressive as a middle-aged hero in Watchmen, plays a very different character here and he’s quite good. He’s shown some real versatility in his performances and is moving into the territory of actors I look forward to seeing in whatever role he might be cast in. He makes for a terrific villain, almost to the level of my favorite bad guys Alan Rickman and Sean Bean.

As summer movies go, The A-Team is a perfect fit. It’s frenetically paced, light-hearted, well-acted and above all, fun. When I go into a theater on a hot summer day (or even a warm summer evening), I want to forget my cares and be taken on a delightful ride. Here’s a movie that fits that bill to a Mister T.

REASONS TO GO: This new A-Team does surprisingly well. The action sequences are seriously fun and the pacing is fast enough to keep us off-balance. Wilson makes a great villain.

REASONS TO STAY: The same problems the TV show the movie is based on haunt the adaptation.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of big bang explosions which may frighten the tykes; there is some bad language as well as a good deal of sexual innuendo and Hannibal smokes cigars throughout. In other words, probably mature pre-teens and above for this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The head judge at the court martial of the team is named Carnahan after the director; also an actor credited for “The Greater Escape” movie shown during the Murdock escape sequence is Reginald Barclay, the name of a character played by Dwight Schultz who played Murdock in the original television show.  

HOME OR THEATER: Big action movies deserve big screens; see it in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Killers