Breathe (2017)


Hollywood still knows how to capture romance in a single frame.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Edward Speleers, Tom Hollander, Hugh Bonneville, Miranda Raison, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Amit Shah, Jonathan Hyde, Diana Rigg, David Wilmot, Emily Bevan, Stephen Mangan, Marina Bye, Dean-Charles Chapman, Sylvester Groth, Steven O’Donnell, Penny Downie, Camilla Rutherford. Directed by Andy Serkis

 

As a disabled man, I’m keenly interested in depictions of how the disabled were treated in years past. The picture is not a pretty one; often, those who had any sort of deformity or disability were warehoused, shut away from public view as much as possible. Those in extreme situations were often left to await death in depressing, grim hospitals with doctors who felt their job was merely to keep them as comfortable as possible until the end inevitably came.

This is not even on the radar of young Robin Cavendish (Garfield) in the early 1950s however. Young, healthy and exuberant to a fault he is a British Army veteran who is almost ridiculously athletic; he seems to excel at every sport he tries his hand at. Now that the war is over, he works as a tea exporter, travelling around the world.

But he runs into the beautiful Diana Blacker (Foy) at a cricket match and everything changes. He falls deeply, madly in love with her and she with him. He isn’t wealthy (she comes from privilege) but he gets by and it isn’t long before the two get married and she is joining him on his adventurous life, going on safari with him in Kenya while he hunts down tea leaves for English tea drinkers. It isn’t long before she is, as they used to say back then, with child.

But their idyllic life comes to a screeching halt when he gets ill and collapses. He is diagnosed with adult onset polio and is completely paralyzed from the neck down. He is unable to even breathe on his own. Kept alive on a respirator, Robin is flown back to England and put into a hospital where he can be properly cared for which in this case means waiting for the Grim Reaper to come knocking. Robin sinks into a deep depression, knowing the prognosis is death after two or three months of waiting. He doesn’t want to wait, in fact.

But Diana will have none of that kind of talk. Keep Calm, and Breathe is essentially her message. Robin wants to die at home; Diana has other ideas. She wants him to live at home. So she purchases a Regency-era home in the country and a respirator and her old nanny (Raison) is there to help nurse her husband.

This is a great improvement and Robin is infinitely more cheerful but he wants more. With the help of a mechanic friend (Bonneville) he helps design a wheelchair with an attached respirator. The world begins to open up a little. Soon he figures a way to outfit a car so that Robin can travel further afield. Slowly, it becomes clear that Robin isn’t about quality of life anymore; he’s about life itself.

This is a somewhat rose-colored version of the real life story of Cavendish and his family. Many innovations that help the disabled be more mobile (like car lifts) have come as a result of innovations that Cavendish and his friend Teddy Hall created. I wasn’t familiar with Cavendish before seeing this but the disabled community owes a great deal to his advocacy that even those who are severely disabled as he was could lead fulfilling, productive lives.

Garfield captures both sides of Cavendish beautifully; the dark depressed side and the upbeat, never-say-die side and he does it while spending most of the picture flat on his back and unable to move his limbs. Garfield manages to get a great deal across with just his face; he also manages to stay still which is never an easy task. Considering his performance here is at least the equal to his last one in Hacksaw Ridge which netted him an Oscar nomination, it’s not out of the range of reason that he might get another one here. It’s the kind of role Oscar tends to like.

Foy, so good in the Netflix series The Crown ups the stakes here and shows she has big screen potential as well. Her Diana Cavendish is heroic and if the screenplay makes her a bit more saintly than she likely was, it’s certainly understandable. The real Cavendish lived longer with polio-related total paralysis than anyone in the history of Great Britain and while that is admirable, it can’t have been easy on his wife. Watching over someone who is that disabled is a full-time job and one of the most stressful ones that you can have.

First-time director Andy Serkis (yes, the motion capture king) doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel but he does have a good eye for the English countryside, turning it into an almost Bronte sister-like look. The supporting cast isn’t super well-known here in the States but they are all excellent and there isn’t a misstep among any of the performances that I could detect.

The movie does get a little bit maudlin towards the end and the last fifteen minutes seem manipulative enough that I think that a lot of critics who tend to hate that kind of thing probably gave the film a worse review than it deserves because of it. Nonetheless this is an uplifting tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that is tonic in a time where we seem to hear nothing but bad news about the negative aspects of the human spirit nonstop.

REASONS TO GO: Garfield could net another Oscar nomination for his work here. Lovely cinematography and Bronte-like vistas elevate the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The film gets somewhat maudlin towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some mature thematic subjects including discussions of suicide, some bloody medical images and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jonathan Cavendish, Robin’s real-life son, went into film production and is one of the producers on this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gleason
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Florida Project

A.K.A. Doc Pomus


This is how it's done; Doc Pomus (center) performs in 1947.

This is how it’s done; Doc Pomus (center) performs in 1947.

 

(2012) Music Documentary (PBS International) Doc Pomus, Lou Reed, Dr. John, Ben E. King, Joan Osborne, Jerry Lieber, Raoul Felder, B.B. King, Peter Guralnick, Kenny Hirsch, Dion DiMucci, Shawn Colvin, Willi Burke, Alex Halberstadt, Ken Emerson, Marshall Chapman, Mike Stoller, Dave Marsh, Robin Lerner, Hal Willner, Josh Alan Friedman, Jimmy Scott, Gerry Goffin, Penny Arcade. Directed by William Hechter and Peter Miller

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The name Doc Pomus is probably not one you’re all that familiar with unless you’re one of those music fans who reads incessantly about classic rock and pop. Even if you’re one of those people, you still might not know the name and if you do, chances are you don’t know much more than that.

Pomus started his career as a blues singer, and those who have heard his early recordings were startled to find out that he wasn’t an old black man from the Delta but a white Jew from the Bronx. He was perhaps the most unlikely blues singer ever but he certainly understood the blues. Stricken with polio as a child, Doc was on crutches or a wheelchair most of his life. Not the best looking of men, he was still attractive to women largely with the force of his teddy bear personality but also with his sensitivity and genius for expressing love simply and elegantly.

Pomus has written or co-written (with frequent partner Mort Shuman) some of the most beloved songs in the history of music, including “Save the Last Dance,” “Teenager in Love,” “Suspicion,” “Young Blood” and “Viva Las Vegas” to name just a few. He started out as one of the Brill Building writers who brought hit after hit in the late 50s and early 60s. As writing their own songs became more en vogue for artists as the 60s grew more turbulent, Pomus became more of a gun for hire, continuing to write for artists as diverse as B.B. King, Dr. John, Ray Charles and Marianne Faithfull.

Pomus was also a tireless crusader for fellow writers and performers, making sure those who had been overlooked got breaks when he could arrange them. His efforts made him a beloved figure in the music industry and garnered him a lot of respect from those who knew about his behind the scenes work.

Pomus passed away in 1991 from lung cancer and was elected to both the Rock and Roll and Songwriter Halls of Fame the following year, honors richly deserved.  This documentary is a testimony to his lasting influence on music both as a songwriter but also as a champion for its preservation and as a mentor to literally dozens of writers who came after him, including such current hitmakers as Joan Osborne and Shawn Colvin.

This is a pretty standard music documentary with performance footage, interviews both archival and modern and a few graphic goodies. It is a fairly informative documentary but I’m not sure if that’s because Pomus is so criminally not well-known or because the filmmakers meant this to be that way (it is after all slated to air on PBS). Still, one must applaud the filmmakers for bringing back into the spotlight someone who deserved to be there from the beginning so it gets extra kudos and points for that alone.

Making music documentaries is not a matter of just slapping some clips and interviews together and this is certainly not that; some care and thought went into this and certainly that’s appreciated. However, this isn’t an innovative entry into the genre so if you’re looking for something that ventures beyond the Behind the Music formula, this doesn’t stray too far from that path. However if you’re looking to learn more about a giant of the industry whose story isn’t particularly well-known, you’ve come to the right place.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific music, some of the most iconic in rock and pop history. Tells the story of someone who doesn’t get the recognition he should have.

REASONS TO STAY: Slow in places. Loses steam near the end.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some drug use but mainly acceptable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pomus’ real name was Jerome Solon Felder.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie will be making festival appearances before an eventual airing on PBS.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sing Your Song

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: All the Light in the Sky and more coverage from the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

Hyde Park on Hudson


Few actors can out-jaunty Bill Murray.

Few actors can out-jaunty Bill Murray.

(2012) Historical Drama (Focus) Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Colman, Samuel West, Elizabeth Marvel, Elizabeth Wilson, Eleanor Bron, Olivia Williams, Martin McDougall, Andrew Havill, Nancy Baldwin, Samantha Dakin, Jonathan Brewer, Kumiko Konishi. Directed by Roger Michell

Earlier this year, Steven Spielberg’s long-gestating project, Lincoln finally came to fruition. It was a superb film that really humanized the iconic President and made him, if anything, even more worthy of admiration. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is another President who is much loved (well in Liberal circles anyway) and a similar treatment of him would surely have been welcome.

It is 1939 and the world is on the brink of war. King George VI (West), the recently crowned and woefully unprepared monarch of England (after the abdication of his brother) is coming to the United States – the first reigning King of England to ever do so – not just to make political hay in his own country but also for a desperately important task; to gauge whether the Americans would assist them when war inevitably broke out (as it would do a scant three months after their visit).

Springwood, the President’s estate in Hyde Park, New York in the Hudson Valley is in an uproar. To be hosting the King and Queen (Colman) of England is important enough but the whole affair has turned into a battle of wills between the President’s mother (Wilson) and wife Eleanor (Williams). Mommy, ever mindful of FDR’s political image, wants nothing done to tarnish his image as a world leader while Eleanor seems hell-bent on tweaking the monarchs somewhat.

Franklin (Murray) needs some respite from the bickering and stress. After a number of relatives are called without success, a distant cousin named Daisy (Linney) at last answers the call and is driven to Springwood to help “take the President’s mind off of things.” It’s awkward at first; while related, they barely know each other and Daisy isn’t really sure what she’s doing there. Franklin pulls out his stamps. They seem to hit it off however once that initial discomfort wears off. Soon they are going for rides in the countryside in a specially fitted car that the President, stricken by polio and nearly unable to use his legs, can drive only with his hands. Soon those drives are leading to stops and at those stops there is some intimacy.

Meanwhile the war continues with FDR’s secretary Missy LaHand (Marvel) trying to mediate but there are absolutes going on – Eleanor wants the Royals to attend a picnic in which hot dogs are served which is mortifying enough but that she wants to serve cocktails ­– that’s more than the teetotaling mother of the President can bear. Daisy tries to hover near the edges so that none can figure out the nature of the relationship she’s building with Franklin, but even she doesn’t quite understand what’s really going on.

The relationship between Daisy and FDR would remain a secret until shortly after she died just shy of her 100th birthday. Some letters and diaries were found in which she discussed her intimacies with the former President. I’m not sure how much the writers relied on those writings for the story – whether they were faithful to Daisy’s words or if they used them as a rough outline – but it could have been a nice jumping off point.

My problem with it is that Daisy really isn’t all that interesting a character. She’s a middle aged woman (she was 48 when these events took place) who hasn’t had a lot of experience with men and develops almost a high school crush on FDR. She is in her own way as lonely as the man at the top, her life mainly revolving around her aunt (Bron) whom she acts as a caretaker to.

She seems like a nice enough albeit naive woman but I’m not sure that she’s got the personality to base an entire movie around – and that isn’t a knock against Linney. She fares much better than Murray however, who doesn’t resemble FDR in the slightest and whose attempt to mimic the distinctive style of speech and accent of the President is simply ghastly. A very big issue – and this isn’t Murray’s fault in the slightest – is that we never get much of a three dimensional portrait of FDR. We see him as a letch and as somewhat disingenuous but we never get a hint of the political savvy or of his inner strength in pulling the country out of a depression and overcoming polio. Instead he sems mostly to hold to the parody image of Bill Clinton as an insatiable womanizer.

The surrounding cast is pretty good, particularly West and Colman as the somewhat befuddled royals who are on the one hand afraid and self-conscious but on the other hand not really sure what to do. We met West’s Bertie in The King’s Speech played with a little more charisma by Colin Firth but West carries the weak chin and frustration of a lifelong stutterer very well. Colman gets the haughty attitude of a Royal who is quite unsure if she’s being made sport of.

Williams also captures the forthright shoot-from-the-hip attitude I always imagined Eleanor Roosevelt to have, although like Murray her accent is distracting. The movie has a bit of a sense of whimsy in the humor (the looks on the faces of the Royals as King George VI is served a hot dog is priceless) but where it lacks is in heart. I was left unmoved for the most part and would have wished that the legacy of President Roosevelt didn’t get trashed by making him out to be the sort of man who thought first with his genitals. I believe him to be a much more complex character than that and that’s precisely what we didn’t get and despite delivering a beautifully shot, meticulously detailed film, we don’t get a movie that is anything more than an ABC Family movie for the middle aged.

REASONS TO GO: Captures some of the cult of personality around FDR and of the era he lived in. Reduces a crucial point in history into a soap opera.

REASONS TO STAY: We really don’t get a sense of FDR the man other than as a complete jerkwad and Murray seems content to caricature him rather than explore him.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of sexuality and some fairly adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daisy’s real name was Margaret Suckley and she was one of four women at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia when Roosevelt passed away.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100. The reviews are trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Broken Flowers

UPSTATE NEW YORK LOVERS: I’m not 100% sure if they filmed the exteriors in the Hudson Valley near where these events actually took place but it does look as if they did and those exteriors are just breathtaking.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Jack Reacher

The Sessions


The Sessions

Just a little pillow talk.

(2012) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin, Rhea Perlman, W. Earl Brown, Robin Weigart, Blake Lindsley, Rusty Schwimmer, Ming Lo, Jennifer Kumiyama. Directed by Ben Lewin

 

We take things for granted. Walking, seeing, hearing, touching…our senses are a gift that not all of us get to utilize. So too is sex. We tend to take it for granted, especially those of us who have partners who are pretty much willing whenever and wherever, that not everyone gets to have sex. For some it’s lack of that willing partner. For others, there are physical impediments.

Mark O’Brien (Hawkes) is a journalist and poet living in Berkeley. It is 1988 and he is 36 years old. Having dismissed one attendant (Schwimmer) for another named Amanda (Marks) whom he has fallen deeply in love with, he has been afflicted with polio since he was six and must confine himself in an iron lung in order to breathe. He is able to exit his confinement for three hours or so at a time but no more. For that reason, having sex has been problematic. When he confesses his love to Amanda, she bolts; he is sure it’s because he’s a virgin.

He is not strictly paralyzed; he has feeling throughout his body and while he is able to move his limbs somewhat he doesn’t have much control; only his head seems to work properly. His night attendant Rod (Brown) and his new day attendant Vera (Bloodgood) are sometimes confronted with Mark’s sexuality; while being bathed he often gets an erection and occasionally ejaculates, much to his consternation.

After writing an article for a local magazine on the subject of sex and the disabled, Mark begins to feel like he was an amateur writing on a subject he didn’t know anything about. Consulting with his parish priest, Father Brendan (Macy) – Mark was raised and continues to be a devout Catholic, attending confession regularly and Mass whenever he can – Mark decides that he needs to experience sex. For one thing, he knows his time on this Earth is limited and he doesn’t want to die a virgin.

Father Brendan refers him to a therapist (Lindsley) who in turn refers him to a sex surrogate – Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Hunt). Mark is given six sessions with which to achieve the intimacy he’s longing to achieve.

Mark is quite nervous at first and confuses Cheryl a little bit with a prostitute (with which she takes great pains to explain the difference). He also requires a great deal of patience as he is prone to…ummm, arrive early. Despite admonitions to the contrary, he begins to develop an emotional bond with his surrogate. And Cheryl, against all odds, begins to feel something for him.

This is based on a true story, chronicled by the real Mark O’Brien in an essay entitled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” which was published in a magazine called The Sun. O’Brien, who would pass away in 1999, was a talented writer who was also the subject of a 1996 documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien which would win an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject.

There might be some Oscar consideration for this one as well. Hawkes gives a remarkable performance as O’Brien, capturing the wheezing vocal quality of someone who has respiratory issues as well as the twisted posture that O’Brien possessed. He also captures all of O’Brien’s doubts, his whimsical sense of humor, his sweetness, his passion and his gift for gab. It’s a complex and layered performance and given Hawkes’ recent string of sensational performances, helps establish him as one of the best actors in the world, bar none.

But as brave as Hawkes’ performance is, Hunt’s is braver. She spends a good deal of the movie fully naked. She makes little or no attempt to hide her 49 years; she is comfortable in her own skin and to show her body this way is probably more than most Oscar winners would agree to (and she is a member of that prestigious club). Cheryl is on one hand the competent professional, on the other a woman whose marriage isn’t what she thought it would be and whose own spirituality is very much in flux; she is converting to Judaism on the request of her husband but like Mark was raised Catholic in Massachusetts.

Macy’s Father Brendan reminds me of some of the Jesuit priests I knew at Loyola; certainly well aware of their duties to the Church but equally aware of the needs of men (and women) and who owed more allegiance to common sense than to dogma. He’s the kind of priest you would feel comfortable opening up to in the confessional and out, one whose advice you would consider seriously and one who you wouldn’t mind grabbing a beer with after the game. Like I said, a Jesuit in spirit if not in reality.

This is a movie that might sound on the surface that it is about sex (and yes there is some graphic nudity although nothing that I would consider pornographic) but it really isn’t. It’s about kindness. It’s about triumphing over adversity. It’s about the resilience of the human spirit. And it’s about spirituality. Sex is just a component of this multi-layered film. Sure there are some who might be offended by the rather frank discussions of sex, arousal and intercourse. In some ways this is a 95 minute sex education film but it isn’t a how-to. What it really is about is how beautiful life is and that anything is possible. This is a movie that genuinely uplifts without having to resort to emotional manipulation and if you aren’t moved by it, you may need to check your pulse.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing performances from Hawkes and Hunt. Deeply affecting.

REASONS TO STAY: Very matter-of-fact and somewhat clinical at times about sex; those who are offended about such things might be troubled by the movie.

FAMILY VALUES:  The movie contains a lot of frank representations of sex, both verbally and physically. There is a good deal of nudity as well as some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hawkes used a foam ball laid on his spine to get the curvature of his body correct. The process was painful but Hawkes said in an interview that compared to what similarly disabled people go through it was bearable and worth enduring to get the part right.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100. The reviews are extremely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Say Anything

IRON LUNG LOVERS: The production designers were loaned an old iron lung for the filming. The device was era specific.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: I Am Legend

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll


Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

"If you're gonna make it in this world, you gotta look stylish my son"

(2010) Musical Biography (Tribeca) Andy Serkis, Naomie Harris, Ray Winstone, Olivia Williams, Noel Clarke, Toby Jones, Mackenzie Crook, Bill Milner, Arthur Darvill, James Jagger, Tom Hughes, Shakraj Soornack, Joe Kennedy. Directed by Mat Whitecross

 

Ian Dury was a New Wave/punk-era singer/songwriter who while well-known in his native England remains unappreciated here in the States. In an era when musicians were thumbing their nose at traditional rock music idioms, Dury was happily wearing his musical influences on his sleeve, from funk to jazz to British Music Hall.

He had been afflicted with polio as a child and walked with a cane most of his life; however while his disability certainly got in his way once in awhile, he tended to use it more as a statement; he thought that the attitudes of most governments and international organizations towards those with disabilities to be condescending and arrogant. He flaunted his limp and incorporated it into his act.

He was a force of nature, one that sometimes rained down rage on those who cared about him but there was no doubt that as pop stars go, he had more personality and charisma in one finger than a thousand “American Idol” winners would ever have put together. It’s a shame he didn’t make it on this side of the Atlantic (he was way too English for us to really get him) but songs like “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick,””What a Waste” and “Reasons to Be Cheerful” got into my head early on and have stayed there ever since.

He is played here by Andy Serkis with the subtlety of a rampaging bull. Serkis perfectly captures the essence of Dury, at least how I imagined him to be. Serkis’ malleable face is a mirror for Dury’s who often used his facial expressions as a kind of language of its own. He wasn’t always an easy man to get along with – Chaz Jankel (Hughes), co-writer of many of Dury’s best songs and one of the original Blockheads (Dury’s backing band) was constantly leaving Dury’s band and then returning  – and Dury was sometimes guilty of subtle and not-so-subtle cruelties in his relationships. He is depicted here as conducting a rehearsal with his first band, Kilburn and the High Roads, in his downstairs living room while his first wife Betty (Williams) is giving birth upstairs (which is apparently a myth), and he leaves Betty shortly to move in with a teenaged fan (Harris).

Dury’s relationship to his son Baxter (Milner) is shown as being bittersweet. Baxter has a bit of a case of hero-worship when it comes to his dad (what young boy doesn’t?) and Dury tries very hard to be a good father to his boy as flashbacks show us that Dury’s own father (Winstone) was not the best father in the world either. The Baxter-Dury relationship is really the central heart of the movie, and the scenes with the two of them are mostly when the film is at its best.

I think Whitecross is trying to tell the story the way Ian Dury himself might have told it, with a good deal of flash and sass and not a little bit of sleight o’ hand. At times it becomes confusing with dream sequences, flashbacks and timeline-jumping, which left me a bit mystified at times. Still, one has to give props to the film that had the balls to let Serkis sing with the original Blockheads providing musical accompaniment. That must have been very strange for them. Kudos also for the opening titles being done by Peter Taylor, who did some of Dury’s album covers and was his teacher and mentor when Dury was at art school

The manic energy of Dury is captured and reflected by the film which takes no prisoners and makes no apologies. American audiences, who showed little interest in Dury while he was alive (he died of cancer in 2000 at age 53) showed little in his movie and for that reason perhaps the movie isn’t really made for Americans – many of the references are firmly on the side of the UK. Still, this is a well-made film and Serkis’ performance as Dury is well worth watching. He proves that he is much more than Gollum – and much more than the motion capture king.

WHY RENT THIS: Dury was a fascinating character and Serkis captures his manic energy perfectly.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the references sail far over the heads of American audiences. A bit hard to follow at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of sex, it’s fair share of drugs and a crapload of rock and roll, and just a bit of the violence to keep matters in hand.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The single “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” for which the movie is named, is Dury’s signature track but never charted (while many of his other songs did). It was banned by the BBC after its release.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on director Mat Whitecross’ experiences at the Tribeca film festival.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $530,392 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking that the movie was likely a bit of a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Casanova