Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements


Better to soar among the eagles than walk with the turkeys.

(2019) Documentary (Abramorama/HBOJonas, Paul, Sally, Colleen, Matthew, Irene. Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky

 

As someone who loves movies and music, my senses of sight and hearing are particularly precious to me. As such, I tend to feel a tremendous pity for those who lack one or both of those senses. How can someone without those senses appreciate the grandeur of Laurence of Arabia attacking Aqaba or the soaring Maurice Jarrė score that accompanies it? It seems to me to be an irreplaceable loss – but there are other compensations that perhaps I failed to take into account.

Brodsky is the child of two deaf parents, Paul and Sally, who received cochlear implants while in their sixties. She and her siblings are all hearing, so they were in some ways insiders to the challenges their parents faced without perhaps understanding them fully, as those possessed of a sense can never truly understand what it is to be without it. How does one, after all, describe a world of silence to someone whose world is filled with noise?

She is also the mother of a deaf son, Jonas, who was born hearing but gradually lost his ability to hear when he was four. He was then given cochlear implants and when the documentary was filmed, was 11 years old who most of us would never realize he had any sort of hearing issue.

Music is also important to Jonas and he is taking piano lessons. He tells his piano teacher Colleen that he wants to learn Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata which his teacher tells him he doesn’t hav the skills for et. Jonas is insistent and at last Colleen relents. After all, Beethoven wrote the piece during a time when his hearing was failing him. Was that a motivating factor in Jonas’ desire to play it, or did he merely like the piece? We never find out for sure; at least, not from Jonas.

This is a very personal film for Brodsky and in many ways that makes it more difficult to review. Not because I believe she’s going to ever read this review, although I like to think she might someday, but it feels too much like I’m reviewing her family life. She is clearly devoted to er children and her parents, and although we see little interaction between the director and her husband Matthew, we see him comforting and encouraging his son and realize that he is a good man. The relationship between Jonas and his grandparents is a special one and the elder couple obviously adore their grandson even when they chide him over being sloppy when using American Sign Language.

As the film progresses, we see that Paul – one of the inventors of TTY technology which allows deaf people to use the telephone – is beginning to show signs of oncoming dementia. He is forgetful and sometimes loses focus on what he’s doing. When Brodsky lovingly but firmly tells him that she can’t allow him to drive her children any longer, it is a truly emotional moment; Paul not understanding why she’s come to this decision, Sally tearfully asking him to stop arguing. Many viewers who have undergone similar discussions with their own parents or grandparents will feel compassion.

In the background looms the ghost of Beethoven, his music providing a soundtrack. Quotes from his letters pop up throughout the film and animations depict him (but curiously always as an outline, never as a fully realized figure) linking him with a solitary bird flying within sight but definitely separate from the flock.

Jonas is, at the end of the day, a fairly typical 11-year-old boy. There are things about him that are admirable, there are other things in which he is less so. He sometimes tries to con Colleen into thinking that he’s doing better with the piece than he actually is but she’s having none of it; she holds him accountable but never in a cruel or vicious way. She simply calls him on his bull when he is espousing some. I don’t know that I would have liked my life immortalized when I was eleven; I would like to hope that I would handle it as well as Jonas does here.

Brodsky has two other children who show up incidentally and always with Jonas; the clear focus is on her eldest son. I wonder what her kids thought about that or how they handled not being the center of mommy’s attention. Still, it takes a certain kind of courage to turn your cameras on your kids when you know that the footage isn’t going to be shown just to family and a few long-suffering friends but to the entire world, or at least that part of it that subscribes to HBO (this film will be available on the premium content channel later this fall).

Like any life, there are ups and downs in the film. We get to see Jonas playing the Sonata at a recital and we get to see the difficulties that the grandparents face as old age robs Paul of memory and cognitive thought. He is just in the beginning stages here but the ordeal to come is one that many children are sadly familiar with and it’s hard not to feel compassion for Paul, Sally and their family. The road ahead won’t be easy for them.

I found that Brodsky dividing her film into movements to be kind of gimmicky and arbitrary; the first movement seems to be about beginnings, the second about the journey and the final about destinations but that’s over-simplifying. I thought the movie would have been better without it. Using Beethoven as a linking device doesn’t always work either.

But let it not be said that there are not moments here of exquisite grace; Jonas takes off the external device of his cochlear implant to practice, rendering him deaf but also removing the distractions of sound. Jonas speaks of how when the implant is off, he can just play for the sheer joy of it. When the implant is in and working, he can hear his every mistake and every one gnaws at him. He has not yet gotten to the point where he understands that imperfections are okay, that mistakes aren’t the end of the world. We all would like to be flawless but none of us achieves it truly (other than my dog Penelope but that’s another story entirely). Our mistakes make us human and our humanity makes us beautiful. It’s the aspiration to be flawless that is wonderful, not the achievement of it.

REASONS TO SEE: This is probably as close as the hearing are ever going to get to understanding what it’s like to be deaf.
REASONS TO AVOID: The division of the film into movements seems arbitrary and gimmicky.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brodsky’s previous documentary on her deaf parents, Hear and Now, was nominated for an Oscar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes:82% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sound and Fury
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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

Alex Cross


Alex Cross

Matthew Fox wishes he was still “Lost.”

(2012) Suspense (Summit) Tyler Perry, Matthew Fox, Edward Burns, Rachel Nichols, Jean Reno, Giancarlo Esposito, Carmen Ejogo, John C. McGinley, Cicely Tyson, Chad Lindberg, Yara Shahidi, Stephanie Jacobsen, Warner Daehn, Bonnie Bentley, Ingo Rademacher. Directed by Rob Cohen

 

America loves mystery franchises. There are dozens of them from talented writers like Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich, Robert Parker, Jonathan Kellerman – and James Patterson. Patterson is the creator of Alex Cross, an African-American forensic psychologist who has already made two appearances in film – Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider. He was portrayed by Morgan Freeman in both films.

Now he’s back and this time instead of a federal agent he’s a Detroit cop (this takes place much earlier in his career). Cross (Perry) is the head of a crack team of detectives who are routinely given Detroit’s nastiest crimes to solve. His childhood best friend Tommy Kane (Burns) is his right hand man, along with Monica Ashe (Nichols) who has a relationship with Tommy on the QT – if it got out the two were romantically involved, they could lose their jobs.

But things are going pretty well for Tyler. His pretty wife Maria (Ejogo) is pregnant and his grandma – henceforth referred to as Nana Mama (Tyson) watches the kids and growls folksy disapproval at her son and his ideal children Janelle (Shahidi) and Damon (played by Shahidi’s brother Sayeed).

One night, Alex gets a call that there has been a particularly grisly “four roses” murder. The victim, Fan Yau (Jacobsen) who happens to be the CFO of a multi-billion dollar global corporation, was brutally tortured before being executed. Although a number of bodyguards were also killed, Alex divines that this was the work of one man and indeed it is – a man the cops will soon call Picasso (Fox) for the Cubist drawings he leaves at the scene.

After an attack on Erich Nunemacher (Daehn), the next highest person on the executive ladder of the same corporation that Fan Yau worked for is thwarted by Cross and his team, Cross realizes that the real target is Leon Mercier (Reno), the CEO of the company. But Picasso has other plans for now – Cross has made this personal and before things are all played out there are going to be casualties and perhaps in the form of losing someone that Cross may be unable to bear.

This is a far different tone and type of film than the first two Alex Cross movies were – those were a bit more cerebral and much less action oriented. To the good, Cohen – whose got the Fast and the Furious franchise under his belt among other things – knows his way around an action sequence and there are some pretty nice ones in Alex Cross. Also to the good, the bi-play between Alex and Tommy is pretty natural and yields some of the best moments of the film, much of it due to Burns’ comedic timing and the wisecracking nature of Tommy.

Perry, best known for his Madea series as well as having become something of a brand name for urban comedies and romances, tries on strictly acting for size (until this film, the only movie he has appeared in that he didn’t direct himself was a brief cameo appearance in Star Trek). He has a future as an action star, being ruggedly handsome and athletic, although chances are for the time being he will stick to his extremely profitable directing gig. Unfortunately, he didn’t convince me as Cross, partially due to the short shrift the script gives his character. He’s supposed to be brilliant, a sort of Sherlock Holms of Detroit with keen observational skills and a talent for getting in the heads of criminals.

Those things are there but those aspects are written lazily, showing Cross’ talents as more or less big dumb luck rather than the result of intellectual reasoning and because we’re not shown that side of Cross, he loses much of the vitality that his character has in the books. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that this film’s primary flaw is the writing. The dialogue is, simply put, embarrassing. The characters say things actual people would never say and there’s no way even the talented actors in this movie can pull it off although Fox comes close.

Fox, who caught the national fancy as Jack in the “Lost” series not that long ago, is absolutely the highlight here. He is a charismatic villain, one of the best performances in a villainous role so far this year (take that Tom Hiddleston and Tom Hardy!) His shaven-headed gaunt Picasso looks twisted and sadistic and although Fox occasionally takes it over the top, Picasso is perhaps the most memorable aspect of the movie.

The endgame revelation is going to be painfully obvious to anyone who has even a lick of cinematic sense. Although I’m giving it a pretty generous rating, that’s mainly for the action sequences and not the script. Alex Cross is a pretty smart guy but Alex Cross isn’t a smart film and in a crowded release schedule it could have used some smarts.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Perry and Burns. Fox is a demented villain.

REASONS TO STAY: Perry is unconvincing.  End twist is a yawner. Dialogue borderline incompetent.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a whole lot of bad language. Some of the images are pretty gory and even gruesome. There are some drug references, a bit of sexuality and an even smaller bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Idris Elba was initially cast to replace Morgan Freeman as Cross but had to bow out due to scheduling conflicts and was replaced by Perry who is starring for the first time in a film he didn’t direct. Ironically, Elba starred in Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 30/100. The critics have pretty much given it a beating.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bone Collector

MMA LOVERS: There’s a scene in which the Matthew Fox character participates in an underground MMA match. Fox shows some pretty impressive moves.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Edge of Heaven