A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story


Thanks to Bruce Brown, summer never need end.

(2020) Documentary (1091) Bruce Brown, Chad McQueen, Hobie Alter, Mert Lawwill, Jack O’Neill, Kenny Roberts, Wingnut Weaver, Jack McCoy, Don King, Dana Brown, Gordon “Grubby” Clark, Troy Lee, Gerry Lopez, Chris Husband, Mark Martinson, R. Paul Allen, Syd Cole, Wing Lam, Pat O’Connell, Henry Preece, Jose Angel, Wade Brown, Cathi O’Neill, Joey Cabell, Nancie Brown. Directed by Dana Brown

 

In the late 50s and early 60s, surfer culture was a heck of a lot different than it is today; less stoners with long hair on fiberglass boards and more cleancut Beach Boy types with wooden boards. Bruce Brown was a part of that scene and documented it with his seminal documentary The Endless Summer which has rightfully become a classic. He followed up that with On Any Sunday which documented motorcycle racing and riding, again back when most people thought everyone who rode a bike was automatically a Hell’s Angel. Both of his documentaries were not only groundbreaking, they helped popularized two separate sports – surfing and cycle racing – and Brown, perhaps sensing he had done more than most men cold accomplish in two lifetimes, retired from filmmaking until twenty years later when he helped his son out on a sequel to The Endless Summer.

After Bruce’s beloved wife Patricia died of cancer, he went into a tailspin, rarely living the farmhouse in which he and his dog Rusty – perhaps the epitome of a free-spirited mutt – spent most of their days. In 2014, eight years after his wife’s passing, his children convinced him to get out and visit some of his most cherished friends on what they euphemistically called “The Heroes Tour,” as most of these people were heroes to Bruce in one way or another. Bruce finally relented and agreed to go – provided he could bring Rusty along.

And thus Bruce went to visit several of his friends throughout the country, including surfing legends Hobie Alter, Henry Preece, Jack O’Neill and Grubby Clark. He also headed over to the homes of motorcycle riders like Mert Lawwill, Kenny Roberts and Chad McQueen, son of legendary actor Steve McQueen who had become close friends with Bruce after Bruce got him to help finance On Any Sunday. Not only were these men great surfers and riders, they were also innovators who invented the fiberglass board, the neoprene wetsuit and other things that helped make them wealthy.

Most of the men and women that Bruce visited on that trip are gone now (Alter had terminal cancer at the time Brown visited him), but their contributions remain. Best of all, we get to remember them as young, beautiful and strong from their appearances in Bruce’s surfing and riding films. Bruce himself is an engaging character and watching him interact with his friends is kind of comfortable; none of them seem to mind that the camera is there. The only time things get uncomfortable is when Bruce is talking about his late wife and abruptly tears up; it is clear that she was the love of his life and that he is horribly lonely without her. His pain is palpable in that moment.

Because the film is directed by Bruce’s son, it can be forgiven if the movie feels a bit hagiographic; this is intended mostly as a tribute from a son to his father and his father’s friends, and to chronicle a life well-lived which is not always an easy thing to accomplish, particularly these days. Don’t go looking for objectivity here, because you won’t find it – nor should you.

But mostly, this is a feel-good movie as the lion in winter visits his friends, reminiscing about the good times and kidding around with each other as if no time had passed at all. These were the beautiful gods of the beach and the track, whose smiles lit up the screen and reminded us that it is more important to do what you love because out lives, as rich as they can be, are also terribly short.

REASONS TO SEE: A story of a life well-lived. Kind of like a home movie – in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: When Brown speaks about his late wife, it can be hard to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bruce Brown passed away in 2017, three years after most of this movie was filmed; his son still lives in the farmhouse along with Bruce’s dog Rusty.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dogtown and Z-Boys
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
DTF

Rewind (2019)


Through the eyes of a child you will see.

(2019) Documentary (Grizzly CreekSasha Joseph Neulinger, Jacqui Neulinger, Henry Nevison, Dr Herbert Lustig, Bekah Neulinger, George Ohrin, Risa Ferman. Directed by Sasha Joseph Neulinger

 

It is almost as American as apple pie; the family gatherings and celebrations being captured on video cameras. Birthdays and vacations, children running around at play, new puppies, old grandparents, good times. That’s what video cameras seemed to be made for – nobody was bringing video cameras to funerals and dental appointments.

Like many kids, Sasha Joseph Neulinger grew up with his father, Henry Nevison (who is himself a documentary filmmaker) with camera in hand, often to the exasperation of Sasha’s mother Jacqui. However, the fun-filled videos of the extended family – grandparents, uncles, cousins, family friends – hid a dark secret. Sasha and his sister Bekah were being sexually abused.

At this point, I’m not going to tell you who was doing the abusing other than to say that at one point Sasha and Bekah’s father came under suspicion and we find out later, was himself a victim of childhood sexual abuse. The case would eventually make headlines, particularly in New York City not only due to the nature of the abuse, but because of the notoriety of one of the accused.

The documentary features interviews with Sasha’s parents and sister as well as his psychologist Dr. Herbert Lustig, the detective who worked the case (George Ohrin) and the prosecutor who argued the case (Risa Ferman). We are taken through a chronological retelling of events, watching Sasha go from a bright and sweet toddler to a kid prone to anger and self-loathing, eventually leaning towards suicidal thoughts. Sasha allows the revelations in the case to come out the same way his parents experienced them, adding to the horror. We can see the guilt and shame in Jacqui’s face; How could I let this happen? How could I not know? A mother’s anguish is pretty much universal.

This is not a psychological study and why abuse happens; this is merely one kid’s experiences with it, and the movie can be quite disturbing in places – young kids who have been through this should probably not watch this, but their parents most definitely should. In fact, all parents should.

We see the places where the justice system fails the kids involved and indeed fails in general; one of the defendants is wealthy and has access to nearly unlimited funds while others involved were working class. I think you can guess how the sentencing would go.

Again, I’m being deliberately vague about some of the details here – not to be coy, but so as not to detract from the impact the film has. It packs a wallop and is deservedly being given praise along the lines of “one of the best films of the year,” which it certainly deserves. This isn’t for the faint-hearted but there are truths in here that every parent should know.

The movie is currently available on VOD on the platforms listed below, but for those who wish to see it, the film will be airing tonight at 10pm on Independent Lens on PBS and can be either viewed on your local PBS station or streamed on their website here.

REASONS TO SEE: Inspiring and important. The use of home movies well-integrated. Stark, harsh portrait of abuse.
REASONS TO AVOID: Can get really raw and intense at times and may trigger those who have been through similar experiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some serious adult themes about child abuse, profanity and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18; 90% of those abused know their abuser.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 87/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Three Identical Strangers
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
How To Build a Girl

My Darling Vivian


He walked the line for her.

(2020) Music Documentary (The Film Collaborative) Rosanne Cash, Tara Cash Schwoebel, Cindy Cash, Kathy Cash Tittle, Vivian Liberto, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash. Directed by Matt Riddlehoover

We tend to mythologize our biggest stars. Their lives take on a quality that is spun by the inertia of tabloids and spin control. Often we get very one-sided portrayals of who they were and how they came to be.

Take Johnny Cash, for example. Most of us know him through his timeless music, country songs that have helped define American music over the years. Most of us know his story through the biofilm Walk the Line which justly won an Oscar for Reese Witherspoon. She played June Carter, who is depicted in the film as being the love of his life, the savior of him as he overcame his addictions. It is an American fairy tale romance.

Johnny was married before he met June, though, to a Sicilian-American woman named Vivian Liberto, whom he met in her hometown of San Antonio when she was 17 and he was 19. He was in the Air Force at the time and was soon after shipped off to Germany. That didn’t dim his ardor (or hers) any as he wrote more than a thousand letters, and sent her an engagement ring through the mail. Shortly after he came home, the two were married.

His career as a door-to-door salesman was unsuccessful and he decided to pursue a career in music. The couple moved to Memphis where they had no money and lived in a rundown apartment. However, he managed to get himself signed to Sun Records at a time where Sun was rewriting American popular music, with a line-up that included Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Cash found meteoric success and one of his first hit songs was “I Walk the Line,” written for Vivian.

Cash moved the family to pursue an acting career (as Elvis had before him) and eventually built a hilltop home in rural Casitas Springs north of L.A. The acting career fizzled, but Cash continued to be a hot commodity on the Billboard charts. He toured relentlessly, leaving Vivian in the house to take care of four daughters, all under six years old and one of them an infant.

On the road, Cash became hooked on amphetamines. His absences grew longer and longer and when he returned home, he was a changed man. Even his daughters noticed it. Vivian felt abandoned and the fights with her husband grew more vicious. Eventually, the couple divorced in 1966 and Cash took up with Carter, with whom he had been having an affair.

Vivian actually remarried before Cash did, to an ex-policeman. She wanted a man around because she didn’t feel safe. When Cash had been arrested in El Paso for bringing in pills from Mexico, she had gone there to bail him out. A newspaper picture captured her dark Sicilian complexion and full lips and many mistakenly thought she was an African-American. The backlash, particularly in the South, was enormous as interracial marriages were taboo in those days. She received death threats and in her isolated home stood vigil night after night, fully expecting an army of Klansmen to come to her door and murder her daughters.

But the mythology began to take hold as the years went by. Vivian had always been intensely private and rarely made public appearances while she was married to the country star. She began to be relegated to a role as a footnote in his career, so much so that when he died and a large tribute concert was thrown, she wasn’t mentioned except by former son-in-law Rodney Crowell and even that was edited out of the broadcast. Particularly galling was that Carter often took credit for raising the four daughters, when in fact she only saw them when they were visiting their dad.

Vivian didn’t live to see Walk the Line but her daughters did and were distressed, to put it mildly, to see her depicted as a whining, complaining lunatic who not only didn’t support her husband but drove him to drug use. It is all the more ironic since the title song was written for Vivian and not, as many have supposed, for June.

Most of this is told through the testimony of the four daughters which skews the narrative somewhat, but considering how short a shrift Vivian has gotten from history, is understandable. Even so, Vivian is not portrayed as a saint here – she had a temper and she could be cruel upon occasion. However, the girls certainly admire their mother and their love is plain throughout their interviews. We don’t hear much from outside the family other than through clips of archived interviews. We don’t even hear Vivian’s voice until near the end of the film.

Other than the interviews with the girls, the story is mostly told through archival footage, still photographs and home movies. Some of the home movies are fascinating as they usually are when it comes to catching people in the act of being themselves. We can see that Vivian had an exotic beauty, a cross between Sophia Loren and Jackie Kennedy, only with olive skin.

But her voice is plain to hear in other ways. Through the letters, many of which she published in an autobiography which didn’t sell very well (nobody likes to have their myths questioned), it is clear that Cash was deeply in love with her. It is also interesting to hear a recorded letter that he sent her, playing a song he wrote for her. She and Cash remained friends, particularly after Carter passed away, and near the end of his life, visited with the girls (Rosanne, who was on tour with her own band, was unable to attend).

This is a very different look at the life of a legend. While her life had its share of pain, there was an awful lot of love. The score of Ian A. Hughes is almost dirge-like and gives the documentary a funereal air it didn’t really need. This is obviously a labor of love (the producer is Vivian’s grandson and the director her grandson’s husband) and it’s a love that should be celebrated.

The film was set to premiere at South by Southwest in March until the festival was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak. It is part of a selection of 35 films (both features and shorts) from the Festival that have been made available for viewing on Amazon Prime. Best of all, you don’t need a Prime account to watch; if you have a free Amazon account, you can see it for free for a limited time.

REASONS TO SEE: Some interesting material – and heartbreaking moments. A different side of the Johnny Cash story.
REASONS TO AVOID: The soundtrack is almost dirge-like
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liberto met Cash at a roller skating rink in San Antonio while Cash was in the Air Force and based at nearby Brooks Air Base.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 80/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walk the Line
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
South Mountain

Reinventing Rosalee


The centenarian on a dog sled.

(2018) Documentary (RandomRosalee Glass, Lillian Glass, Joyce Sharman, Daniel Bouchet, Dr. Robert Huizenga, Neda Nahouray, Eric Lintermans, Elke Jensen, Nancy Caballero, Clay Lee, Douglas James, Robert Stradley, Joe Solo, Yuki Solo, Eleanor K. Wirtz, Paul Sweeney, Miamon Miller. Directed by Lillian Glass

Talking to one’s grandparent (or parent) about their life can be an eye-opening experience. We often forget how rich – and how rough – their life can be. All we see is the relationship and the love, often forgetting that there is a person behind that smile.

Rosalee Glass has had a life that has been harder than most. Born in Warsaw in 1917, she grew up in a Jewish family. In 1939, being a Jew in Poland became a very dangerous thing. She was newly married and pregnant when the Nazi blitzkrieg stormed through Poland. Sensing the writing on the wall, her husband left the country to find some shelter elsewhere. Rosalee later followed him, leaving behind her mother, father and two siblings. She would see none of them ever again and in fact later discovered that all of them were killed during the war, murdered by the Third Reich.

Eventually Rosalee and her husband were rounded up – by the Russians. They were sent to a Russian gulag in Siberia. Nursing a newborn baby became impossible when she wasn’t getting enough to eat and her breast milk dried up. Eventually her child starved to death. She would go on to have three more children but only two survived; her daughter Lillian and her son Manny.

The war ended and Rosalee, Manny and her husband Abraham ended up in a displaced person’s camp. Eventually they were allowed to emigrate to the United States and they settled in Miami where Abraham’s tuberculosis, contracted during the war, came back with a vengeance. He ended up losing the sight in one eye which ended his career as a watchmaker. He and Rosalee ended up going into business with a fabric company which became successful.

When Abraham died and after Manny died, Rosalee found herself wondering what to do with herself. She made the conscious decision to continue living and in her 80s and 90s took up dance lessons, piano lessons, Pilates – even learning how to box. She took up a career in acting and appeared in several commercials. She entered a senior beauty pageant and won Miss Congeniality. She spent her 100th birthday in Alaska riding a dog sled.

Her story is truly an inspiring one and maybe even worthy of a documentary but her daughter was the wrong person to make it. Lillian Glass is a best-selling author, a body language expert and has a doctorate in psychology but she has zero objectivity where her mother is concerned and that’s to be expected. That might make for good home movies or a Power Point slide show at a birthday tribute but it makes for less-than-scintillating documentary filmmaking.

As a first-time filmmaker she makes a number of rookie mistakes, relying a little too much on interviews with her mother who is to be fair an engaging subject and one who can keep the attention of the audience. Rosalee has one of those smiles that bring out smiles in everyone around her and that translates to the screen nicely but we don’t get a lot of different perspectives on who Rosalee is. The daughter’s love certainly shines through but we could have used a bit more objectivity.

The movie makes good use of archival footage and home movies but the movie clips that Lillian uses to illustrate various aspects of Rosalee’s life were at times a bit bizarre. There is also a sequence in which a 90-something Rosalee returns to Warsaw to see where she grew up and the music that accompanies that sequence is far too bombastic – a simple, quieter soundtrack would have enhanced the tone much better.

Rosalee is certainly a worthy subject and it’s no wonder her daughter is proud of her mother but she was clearly unable to view the subject matter objectively and that is absolutely deadly for a documentary and something any savvy audience will notice. What saves this documentary is Rosalee herself; her wit, wisdom, fortitude and good cheer are inspiring and most seniors would do well to take her advice if they haven’t already. However, cinephiles should be aware that they might experience frustration when it comes to the filmmaker, more so than the subject.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some valuable life lessons here.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some horrific Holocaust images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won more than 40 awards on the Festival circuit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Sonia
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Cold Blood

Love, Gilda


Gilda and Gene as a couple were amazingly cute.

(2018) Documentary (Magnolia) Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, Chevy Chase, Laraine Newman, Melissa McCarthy, Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lorne Michaels, Michael F. Radner, Martin Short, Maya Rudolph, Paul Shaffer, Stephen Schwartz, Alan Zweibel, Robin Zweibel, Rosie Shuster, Cecily Strong, Andrew Alexander, Janis Hirsch, Anne Beatts. Directed by Lisa DaPolito

 

It’s not taking a controversial stance by declaring that Gilda Radner was one of the greatest comedians of her era and one of the greatest ever. Although she passed away at a too-young 43 in 1989, her best work on Saturday Night Live still holds up even now, 40 years later.

It’s hard to believe but for most people under 30 she’s been gone their entire lifetime. Fortunately there’s a documentary that will not only play on the nostalgic chords of baby boomers and others who are middle aged, it may introduce her to a whole new generation that didn’t get to be captivated by her amazing smile, who didn’t get to enjoy her compelling characters or laugh at her gentle humor.

The documentary is mostly told in Radner’s own words as we hear excerpts of her audio recordings that she used while writing her autobiography It’s Always Something which would be published two weeks after her death. She was also an insatiable diarist and we get to hear some of her most intimate thoughts read by modern comedians (and SNL alumni themselves) like Bill Hader, Melissa McCarthy and Amy Poehler.

We also get to see plenty of home movies of her youth, backstage footage from her debut performance in Godspell in Toronto as well as from her one-woman Broadway show after her stint on SNL came to an end (but strangely, very little backstage or rehearsal footage from SNL itself). There are also some home movies from her brief but fulfilling marriage to Gene Wilder, some of it taken during cancer treatments during the last years of her life. Even though she remained optimistic despite the advanced stages of her ovarian cancer when it was detected, there came a point when she knew she wasn’t going to survive and she confessed as much to some of her closest friends. She faced the end with grace and humor as you might expect.

Radner was never a radical feminist but she did a lot of trailblazing for women particularly in the field of comedy which was then definitely a boys club (and is still so to a lesser but still profound effect today). Female comics revere her and rightfully so for that reason. She made inroads not by demonstrating but by doing; she wasn’t the sort to get in anyone’s face and scream. She knew there was discrimination against women but in her own non-confrontational way she fought against it. It didn’t hurt that nobody could deny she wasn’t as hysterically funny as her male counterparts, maybe more so in a lot of cases.

Given the amount of personal information and observations that the filmmakers were privy to, some aspects of her life seem to have little flesh on them when displayed here. We get that she spent most of her life looking for true love and being devastated when her latest boyfriend or husband (Wilder was her third marriage) didn’t work out. She wanted to be adored, but was intrinsically shy and preferred privacy even as she loved being in front of people, perhaps less than being with people. At least, that’s what I can glean from what is shown here; I may be way off-base. That’s the problem with documentary movies; the filmmaker has an hour and a half to dig into a life so often we are just left with the highlights and not so much with the blanks being filled in. I really wanted DaPolito to spend more time on her relationship with Wilder but we really didn’t get much more than we could glean from reading contemporary accounts in People magazine.

Radner’s fans will likely love the stroll down memory lane but be disappointed by the insight of which there could have been a lot more. I also found it surprising that the only members of the original cast to appear in the documentary were Newman and Chase; Aykroyd, Curtin and Morris are not to be seen nor is Bill Murray and his brother Brian (both of whom dated Radner at separate times back in the day) from the second season. That’s a shame to me and I don’t know why the missing members declined to appear (if indeed they did) or why DaPolito failed to ask them (if she didn’t).

Still, it is a worthy tribute to one of the most iconic performers of her era, one whose influence still resonates in the comedy business today. Even if it isn’t entirely satisfying from one hoping to gain more insight into what made her tick, I think for most people this is another – or maybe a first – opportunity to love Gilda.

REASONS TO GO: The excerpts from classic SNL sketches still hold up well. The journal entries are both poignant and illuminating.
REASONS TO STAY: The section on her relationship with Gene Wilder could have used some fleshing out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Radner based her Emily Litella character on her nanny whom she considered her second mom.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Painless

Love Always, Mom


The definition of what a family is has evolved.

(2018) Documentary (Cedar Street) Tricia Russo, Greg Russo, Meghan Brenner, Kali Rogers, Lauren Gonnella, Matthew Brenner, Andrew Solomon, Kathryn Kaycoff, Stuart Leitner, Grayson Russo, Kathryn Fiore, Tom Gonnella, Raul Mena, Cathy Wambagh, Grayson Russo, Melanie Carlisle, Don Russo, Donna Russo, Lori Meyers, Carole Lieber-Wilkins, Olivia Erb. Directed by Tricia Russo, Trish Gonnella and Craig E. Shapiro

 

Director, writer and star of Love Always, Mom kicks off her film by intoning “Ever since I was a little girl I’ve wanted to be a mom.” Certainly that’s not unusual among little girls who see their mommies as little girls and given the maternal instinct that’s present in most women it’s not surprising that the desire is so prevalent.

Tricia would appear to have all the right qualifications; she is married to a good man and as a stable relationship. She is surrounded by a loving and supportive family. She has a good career (not discussed during the film but she works in the film industry, including a stint for Miramax Films) and she’s young and healthy – until she’s not.

She contracts breast cancer and after losing a breast appears to have overcome the odds. Then in 2011 a new metastasized tumor is found in her brain. That one is also removed but now she’s at Stage 4 cancer, a particularly deadly place to be. The drugs that she has to take to survive inhibit her hormones and make a normal pregnancy impossible.

She and Greg (her husband) decide to go the surrogacy route as adoption is out of the question – her life expectancy would be an issue in any potential adoption. However, another body blow is dealt when the doctors are unable to harvest her eggs. A separate egg donor must be found as well. We follow step by step in the process and the obstacles that fall in the way are indescribable. Russo the filmmaker handles them well, explaining things with a minimum of medical jargon.

Her courage and the selflessness of Kali (her egg donor) and Meghan (her surrogate) are remarkable. Until you watch this film or have been through this kind of surrogacy yourself, there’s no way to really describe what all three of these women go through in adequate terms. Women will have an easier time understanding than men in this case; watching what they all go through – two of them in order to help a complete stranger – is absolutely breathtaking. I couldn’t admire these women more.

There is also Tricia’s experience with cancer, going from good health to finding a lump to losing a breast to finding the tumor had spread to her brain. We see her high points and low, her pervasive fear that she won’t live long enough for her child to remember her, her feeling that she might not even live long enough to see the child born. Her perseverance and strength are truly remarkable; any misogynist politician who explains that the reason women aren’t paid at an equal rate to men because they lack the physical and mental strength that men have is truly feeding the nation a crock of feces. Either they’re ignorant of how deep the well of strength flows in women or they’re deeply frightened that if women take charge these old white men will be left by the wayside. Maybe they should be.

While sometimes this feels a bit like a home movie (which it essentially is) and sometimes the filmmakers don’t provide enough context particularly regarding the cost of surrogacy financially (which is high – the Russo family shelled out over $130,000 for the egg donor, the surrogate and the legal and medical fees) which is beyond the reach of the majority of Americans. Still this film and now her son Grayson will remain a more than satisfactory legacy for Tricia Russo; regardless of how long or short the remainder of her life is.

Note that the film has no distribution as of yet; it is currently making the rounds on the festival circuit. Hopefully it will get some sort of distribution at some point and be available either theatrically or on VOD. Regardless, this is a movie worth keeping an eye out for.

REASONS TO GO: The film is very informative about the processes of breast cancer and infertility. The cinematography is beautiful throughout. Tricia, Meghan and Kali are all incredible women whose courage and selflessness are examples to us all.
REASONS TO STAY: At times feels a bit like a home movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Metastasized breast cancer is incurable and usually fatal; it also only gets about 8% of research funding despite causing the lion’s share of fatalities among breast cancer patients.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pink Ribbons, Inc.
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Ramen Heads

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)


You just can’t keep Diane Kruger down.

(2017) Drama (Magnolia) Diane Kruger, Denis Moschitto, Numan Acar, Samia Muriel Chancrin, Johannes Krisch, Ulrich Tukur, Ulrich Brandhoff, Hanna Hilsdorf, Yannis Economides, Rafael Santana, Karin Neuhauser, Uwe Rohde, Siir Eloglu, Asim Demirel, Aysel Iscan, Christa Krings, Hartmut Loth, Adam Bousdoukos, Henning Peker, Laurens Walter, Jessica McIntyre. Directed by Fatih Akin

 

Our lives can be turned upside down in an instant. One moment we are surrounded by a happy, content family. The next – everything is gone. Dealing with that kind of pain is almost inconceivable to most of us but it happens far more regularly than it should.

Katja (Kruger) has that kind of life. She married Nuri Sekerci (Acar) while he was in a German jail for dealing drugs. He has since turned his life around, having become a respected member of the Kurdish community in Hamburg as a tax preparer and translator. Katja and Nuri have an adorable young son Rocco (Santana). While both Katja and Nuri are still a bit rough around the edges, there’s no denying that they are devoted parents.

One rainy afternoon Katja drops off Rocco at Nuri’s office so that she can visit her very pregnant friend Birgit (Chancrin) and share a spa day together. Returning home after relaxing, she is horrified to discover flashing police lights and crowds gathered at the street where she had earlier that afternoon left her family. All that’s left of the office is a charred and obliterated shell. A nail bomb was detonated there and her family was in a microsecond reduced to filleted meat.

At first she is in shock. It can’t be happening and her eyes show her agony. Her mom and her mother’s boyfriend, Birgit and Nuri’s parents have gathered to lend their support and express their own grief. The police seem intent on investigating Nuri’s past indiscretions; Katja believes that neo-Nazis are behind the bombing. Her lawyer Danilo (Moschitto) tends to believe her and in a not-very-smart moment gives her some illegal narcotics to help her cope…and sleep.

Eventually things get sorted and the culprits are caught. Now it’s time for the trial, but the German legal system is much different than our own. For one thing, everybody’s got a lawyer – including the co-plaintiffs, which are normally the families of the victims. Will justice be done? Or will Katja have to seek it out herself?

Kruger, one of the most beautiful actresses in the world, has been a Hollywood fixture for years. Incredibly, this is her first German-language film and she capably demonstrates that she could well be one of the finest actresses in the world as well as being an attractive one. This is the kind of performance that should have been rewarded with a Best Actress nomination but inexplicably wasn’t. It was at least as strong a performance of any of the ladies who did get the nomination. Kruger poignantly shows the numbness of grief, the rage, the despair. Much of it is communicated through her eyes.

Katja isn’t a perfect wife, mother or woman. She makes mistakes and she’s a bit on the raw side. With her many tattoos, her own drug use and an explosive temper, she is flawed enough to bring our sympathy to the fore. She’s never so unbelievably pure that we can’t believe her. Rather, we don’t disbelieve her for a moment. Kruger is raw, authentic and powerful here.

The movie is like a raw nerve being scraped through the first two acts but in the third one it falters. I can’t describe why without really going into details that are best left unrevealed until you experience it; suffice to say that it shifts tone into something  that really the film shouldn’t have become. More than that I will not say.

Fortunately, Kruger’s searing performance outweighs the movie’s faults. This is definitely a bit rough to watch in places – anyone who has lost a friend or family member in an untimely violent way will likely be triggered – but it is honest in not only exploring cultural differences but also in finding the balance between the need to inflict pain and the need to expiate it. This is certainly one worth looking out for.

REASONS TO GO: Kruger delivers the best performance of her career. This is an emotionally wrenching film from beginning to end.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie goes off the rails a little bit during the third act.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, violence and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The home video segments were all shot on smartphones.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Killing Jesus
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Hunting Season

Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Her Legacy


There is nothing more beautiful than a mother and her children at play.

(2017) Documentary (HBO) Princess Diana, Prince William, Prince Harry Windsor, Elton John, Rihanna, Harry Herbert, Earl Charles Spencer, William van Staubenzee, Lady Carolyn Warren, Anne Beckwith-Smith, Lord Victor Adebowale, Anna Harvey, Gerald McGrath, Graham Dillamore, Professor Jerry Wright, Mark Smith, Ian Walker, Jayne Fincher, Amanda Redman (narrator).  Directed by Ashley Gething

 

She was “The People’s Princess” and she caught the imagination of the world. A singular English beauty from a patrician background but a very real sense of compassion and social justice, Diana fought for a variety of causes including homelessness in Britain, the AIDS epidemic and the proliferation of land mines in Bosnia and elsewhere. Ironically enough, she also supported a charitable organization that deals with childhood bereavement, a cause her son William continues to lend his own support to.

Aside from her position as a royal, a tireless worker for a variety of charities, the target of scandal sheets for her high-profile divorce from the Prince of Wales and at the end of the day, a victim of our society’s obsession with celebrity, she was also a mother. William and Harry knew her from that perspective; 20 years after her untimely death in a Paris tunnel, they open up for the first time about their mother in this HBO documentary.

In the best (and worst) British tradition, the princes have kept mum regarding their emotions about their mum and to a certain extent, they remain so. The film does chronicle the events of her life but much of it through the eyes of her sons, who were witness to the media circus as much as Diana tried to shield them from it (she is heard asking a paparazzi to give her children some privacy during a skiing holiday and he flat out tells her no). In that sense, there are other documentaries which give a much more detailed accounting of her public life than this one does.

What other documentaries don’t have are the reminiscences of the two sons who are 35 and 32 now (15 and 12 at the time of their mother’s death) and the rawness of her loss is still there. While they speak about their mother in glowing terms it is no more so than any son would speak about his own mother. However, there are glimpses of the pain from time to time; Harry candidly admits he really hasn’t dealt with his grief and William confesses that he misses her every day. The two boys recount the final phone call from their mother hours before her death; William is asked if he remembers what she said. “Yes,” he says tersely and leaves it at that. Their last conversation is something that is clearly still his, that belongs only to mother and son and is something he doesn’t want to share with the world. Considering that she gave so much to the public’s insatiable need to know every little detail about his mother, one can hardly blame him.

Diana would be 56 had she lived and William breezily describes his belief that she would be a “nightmare grandmother,” spoiling the two grandchildren (to date) and leaving a mess behind for her son and daughter-in-law to clean up. He almost cackles when he refers to her as “Granny Diana” and clearly he inherited his mother’s impish sense of humor.

There are also interviews with members of Diana’s inner circle including her lady-in-waiting at court, her photographer and her brother, one of the more outspoken critics of the media in the wake of her passing. Conspicuous by their absence is Prince Charles, who one might think would support his sons in this endeavor but I suppose that his late wife, who grew to be much more popular than he, is still something of a sore spot with the Prince of Wales. Queen Elizabeth, always intensely private about family matters, was never likely to participate in a venture like this.

The home movies of Diana as a child and a teen are precious but render little insight into her as a person. Much of what we are told here we could have read on her Wikipedia page and there lies my issue with the film. It’s really hard to ask William and Harry to reveal anything about their mother when so much of her private life was made public against her wishes but I kind of wish they had.

Still, the woman gave enough and should be allowed to rest in peace and her sons seem content to allow her to do so and I can respect that. For those who are under the age of 35 and may not remember the princess well, this will be a useful introduction to her. Those of us who were of an age and watched her shine in the public eye until that light was extinguished far too soon will not find anything particularly revelatory here but there is a kind of comfort to be had that she was as good a mother as we all kind of figured she’d be. Motherhood was something that the late princess seemed to be particularly suited for which is not at all a given and certainly worthy of honoring.

REASONS TO GO: The two princes open up about their mother more so than any interview with them I’ve ever seen. Some of the home video footage is truly wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie doesn’t really add much insight into Diana as a person other than most of the broad strokes we already know. It’s an interesting documentary but not essential other than to those who are unaware of Diana’s place in history.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes dealing with the loss of a parent.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: William and Harry have continued to support many of the charities that Diana was involved during her lifetime. Diana didn’t live to see her legacy of all the landmines in Bosnia finally being removed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diana – Her Story
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Lady Bird

Phoenix Forgotten


A billboard you don’t want to see your image on.

(2017) Horror Sci-Fi (Cinelou) Chelsea Lopez, Luke Spencer Roberts, Justin Matthews, Florence Hartigan, Clint Jordan, Cyd Strittmatter, Jeanine Jackson, Matt Biedel, Ana Dela Cruz, Mackenzie Firgens, Jay Pirouznia, Marc Marron, Don Boyd, Tony Duncan, Richard Cansino, Hector Luis Bustamante, Joseph J. LaRocca, Larry Toffler, Cynthia Quiles. Directed by Justin Barber

 

Some may remember the notorious Phoenix Lights that on March 13, 1997 were witnessed by thousands of Phoenicians. Some in the UFO community consider it one of the most important sightings in history; others pass it off as military planes in formation dropping flares. Either way, it is still something of a mystery.

Three teens – Josh Bishop (Roberts), his crush Ashley Foster (Lopez) and their mutual friend Mark Abrams (Matthews) decide to head towards a remote area of the Arizona mountains to investigate the lights a week later. Their car was found abandoned by the side of the road but the three young people were never seen again.

Twenty years later Sophie (Hartigan), the younger sister of Josh, comes back to Phoenix to help her mom (Strittmatter) move. She comes across some of the videotapes her camera-obsessed brother took, including those of the lights themselves and decides to make a documentary of her brother’s disappearance. She interviews as many subjects as she can including her dad (Jordan) and other interested parties. At length she discovers a badly damaged camcorder found in the desert with the tape in it amazingly intact – which may solve once and for all the mystery behind the disappearance of the three teens.

The movie is in reality two separate movies; the story of the three teens told through their own videos, and Sophie’s investigation, which is a more standard storytelling method. The more interesting of the two is surprisingly the found footage. Barber has recreated it well, making it look like it was recorded on a camcorder circa 1997 complete with wavy lines, static and shaky cam. It looks real authentic as does the environment depicted; kudos to Barber for that.

The three “teen” leads are all as they tend to be in low budget horror movies attractive and do at least an adequate job of performing. Lopez in particular seems to have some screen presence and might well be on her way to a bright future in the business.

The thing here is that it borrows a little bit too much from The Blair Witch Project, even one of the character’s names is present. The plot is just about identical, adding elements from last year’s Blair Witch to sweeten the pot, substituting the Arizona desert for the Maryland woods. Imitation is of course flattery and in all honesty Phoenix Forgotten does imitate well, but if you’re looking for something more, you might end up disappointed.

Speaking of disappointing, the special effects are pretty poor for a film of this caliber – although they do get the aging of the found footage right. Mostly the effects consist of colored lights, wind machines and wires and it would have looked primitive back in 1997. In 2017, well, it’s simply not good enough. With maybe a little bit larger budget they could have done a more realistic job.

Still, the movie delivers where it needs to. I’m pretty sure I’m alone in this assessment; the movie disappeared without a trace (much like its protagonists) at the box office and the critical reception was less than enthusiastic. I liked it though; there was plenty that worked that I can recommend it to horror fans and to thriller fans alike. Sci-fi fans might have issues with the subpar special effects. Phoenix Forgotten is likely to be forgotten judging on the overall lack of interest in it (there are only six reviews up on Metacritic; most major releases have anywhere from 20-45) but it doesn’t deserve to be.

REASONS TO GO: The found footage is cleverly utilized, making it more palatable. I got a bit of high school nostalgia watching this.
REASONS TO STAY: The special effects are nothing to write home about.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of peril and terror as well as a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The footage of the Phoenix Lights was digitally simulated and then saved onto VHS tape. It was then converted back to digital. The analog effects are a result of this process and help to integrate the CGI into the era-proper technology.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING:7/10
NEXT: The Discovery

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years


The Fab Four in their glory years.

The Fab Four in their glory years.

(2016) Musical Documentary (Abramorama) Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, John Lennon, Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Lester, George Martin, Elvis Costello, Larry Kane, Eddie Izzard, Sigourney Weaver, Neil Aspinall, Richard Curtis, Brian Epstein, Kitty Oliver, Howard Goodall, Jon Savage, Debbie Gendler. Directed by Ron Howard

 

It is safe to say that the Beatles are one of the pop culture touchstones of the 20th century. Their influence on music and the world in general is incalculable. It has been half a century since the Fab Four played a live show and generations have been born since, some not even knowing who they are but regardless feeling the effects of their contribution on popular music.

Beatlemania is something we’re not likely to see again; the emotional effect that the Beatles had on their female fans was something that the world hadn’t seen prior to that (except maybe for Elvis) and not really since; girls would scream nearly non-stop in their presence and faint from the emotional outpouring. It was a phenomenon that had to be experienced to be believed and even just having seen it as I did on this documentary it still doesn’t carry the impact it must have to be in that presence.

Their popularity can’t be underestimated either. They are the only band to hold the top five position on the Billboard singles chart in the same week and given how the music industry is today that is extremely unlikely to ever happen again. They ushered in the British invasion and paved the way for bands like the Rolling Stones and the Who, among others.

The Beatles had a very limited shelf life; essentially they were only making a global impact for seven years before going their separate ways. They only toured for four of those years, and after giving up touring only played together publicly just once – on the rooftop of their Apple Records office in London, which the film appropriately closes with.

Still their touring years were some of their most productive and it was a grueling schedule. They made two movies during those years on top of the grueling tour schedules that would take them to 25 cities in 30 days. It was certainly a different era; their concerts generally lasted about 30 minutes long, including encores. They were the first band to play in stadium-sized venues and often their amplifiers went through the stadium sound system. The screaming of their female fans would be so loud that the band couldn’t hear themselves play; drummer Ringo Starr kept the beat by watching his bandmates sway at the microphone so that he’d know where they were in the song.

Director Ron Howard, an Oscar winner in his own right, has compiled archival interviews as well as contemporary ones with the surviving Beatles (Starr and McCartney) and with celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg and Sigourney Weaver, both of whom were at the historic 1966 Shea Stadium concert in New York City – Goldberg recalls not thinking of the band in terms of black or white but just as “guys” who gave her a feeling of empowerment that helped her determine her course in life. New Wave legend Elvis Costello remembers not liking the Rubber Soul album because it didn’t sound anything like their previous music, only appreciating what it represented years after the fact. Some of the best insights though come from Larry Kane, a Miami-based reporter who accompanied the band on two of their tours and filed regular reports from the front lines of Beatlemania. His take on the phenomenon is fascinating to say the least.

There is also home movies that the Beatles themselves took, backstage and rehearsal studio audio that shows us how some of their classic songs evolved. And of course plenty of concert footage; we never get a sense at how accomplished musicians they were (and Starr and Harrison were both much underrated in that regard) but we get more of a sense of the power they had over their audience. That power was considerable, too; the band was literally under siege from the press, their fans and their record label for that entire period. Starr remembers not getting a moment to relax for three years and the toll it took, but nearly everyone who was there comments on how unified the band was and how they looked after each other like brothers. That was a far cry from how they ended up, acrimonious and sniping at one another through the press.

I will admit that this is a bit of a puff piece. There isn’t a lot here that is negative and maybe it wasn’t Howard’s intention to look at the band objectively. We do get a sense of their impish sense of humor as well as their resolve; when they found out that the venue in Jacksonville they were going to play at was segregated, they refused to play unless it was full integrated. Manager Brian Epstein had that written into all of their performing contracts from that point forward. They were one of the first performers in history to make that a standard clause in their contract.

Their last concert other than the one-off Apple rooftop concert was at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The band was tired and frustrated; Harrison had been expressing dissatisfaction with the live shows and now all of them were picking up on it. They were taken out of their last concert in an armored car with no seats in the back. As the car drove recklessly out of the park the band were jostled about in the back and that was the final straw; they chose as a group to stop touring, even though that was their primary source of income. Canny Brian Epstein, their manager, formed a corporation with him and his four charges as co-chairs; it was the first of its kind and would set the stage for other artist-owned production companies in the performing arts. They would get more control over their career than any entertainer before them.

I will admit to having been a fan of the Beatles since childhood; my parents listened to their music and they were my favorite group from day one. This is a film tailor-made for fans like me and if you love the Beatles, this is pretty much required viewing. It gives you a bit of an insight as to the pressures they were under, their lives on the road and how it drew them closer together. It’s no coincidence that the band began to fracture only after they stopped touring. Still, this is a reminder of a much simpler era, when something like this could happen. We will never see the like of the Beatles again.

REASONS TO GO: Definitely will send you on a trip down memory lane. Amazing footage and amazing music throughout the film. There are some insights into Beatlemania that you may not have had otherwise.
REASONS TO STAY: It is something of a puff piece.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The digital remastering of the songs for the soundtrack was engineered by Giles Martin, son of the legendary George Martin who produced the Beatles.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Waltz
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Meat