Hooray for Hollywood! – Travel Tips

Walk of Stars

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

A Los Angeles vacation wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Hollywood! We shunned the swarms of shills for “homes of the stars” bus tours and instead took a prearranged walking tour along the few compact blocks of Sunset Boulevard where the movie studios, the radio and television networks, and the recording industry all got their starts. Amazing, really.

Our guide, Philip Mershon, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the area and will cheerfully answer any questions once the tour is over. Maybe he’s like the Aztec messengers who memorized their speeches and had to begin from the beginning again if interrupted. He’s personable, and he did a great job. (Philip Mershon’s Felix in Hollywood).

On Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, we trod portions of the “Walk of Fame,” the 2500-some plaques representing leading lights of radio, television, movies, and theater. You can’t help exclaiming over the names you recognize and wondering, who are all these other guys?

Grauman’s Theatres

Grauman's Chinese Theatre

photo: wikimedia, creative commons license

Sid Grauman was an early Hollywood theatrical entrepreneur, and his “Chinese Theatre” is justly famous for its over-the-top orientalist décor. It’s a bit of a mob-scene. Amusingly, it’s a popular stop among Chinese tour groups, though there isn’t a thing authentically Chinese about it. Hey, that’s Hollywood. Many celebrities have left their hand or footprints—or both—in the cement of the forecourt—including Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, under a scrawl of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and local (Paterson and Asbury Park, N.J.) talents Lou Costello and Bud Abbott.

A quieter spot was Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre down the block (I admit never having heard of it), which was the site of Hollywood movie premieres for many years. Its décor turned out to be timely, as the theater opened in 1922, just days before the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, a public relations coup even Grauman couldn’t have engineered.

Grauman's Egyptian Theatre

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

The lobby was designed to be small, with the illuminati instead gathering outside in the spacious forecourt, packed with starstruck admirers on both sides of a central aisle. The theater underwent numerous infelicitous renovations over the years, but since the late 1990s, American Cinematheque largely restored the original appearance and brought its technology up-to-date.

Behind-the-scenes tours of the Egyptian are offered only once a month, but it’s worth checking out what is playing there (and at the companion Aero theater in Santa Monica), because actors and directors often participate in these screenings. We missed this, but in November, the two theaters had scheduled in-person visits from Dick Van Dyke, Patrick Stewart, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jennifer Lawrence, Judi Dench, and many others, along with screenings of their films past and present.

Why Starve Yourself?

We had lunch next door at the historic Pig ’n Whistle, where Judy Garland had her fifteenth (?) birthday party. The richly decorated eatery was an early favorite of Hollywood stars and tourists alike.

Books to Toss into Your Suitcase:
The Day of the Locust, the classic by Nathanael West
A Better Goodbye by John Schulian, gritty noir about Hollywood’s sex trade (here’s my review)

Maudie

Maudie, Sally HawkinsMaud Lewis today is one of Canada’s best-known primitive painters—quite an accomplishment for a poor, chronically ill woman from a townspeck between the Bay of Fundy and St. Mary’s Bay. This charming film, written by Sherry White and directed by Aisling Walsh (trailer), tells her story. At least in the way that biopics do, leaving you wondering, was Maud’s husband really so prickly? Did they really live in a tiny one-room house? Further research indicates the answers to those questions are probably not and yes.

Maud suffered from painful juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which may have stunted her growth,  and an equally painful awkwardness in social interactions. In marrying Everett Lewis, she finds a man even more emotionally and socially stunted than she is. I can’t say enough about how beautifully Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke play these odd characters. Physically, it had to be a taxing role for Hawkins, because Maud walks with difficulty and, as time passes, becomes more and more bent over. But a wide smile comes readily to a woman who can look at a window and say, “The whole of life, already framed, right there”—both to Hawkins and in photos and film of  the real-life Maud.

They find each other when Everett looks for a woman to cook and clean his one-room house while he runs his fish-peddling and junk collecting businesses. Maud is looking for an escape from under the thumb of her judgmental aunt. When he advertises for help in the general store, this tiny woman appears on his doorstep. She brings order to the house, but Maud’s real desire is to paint. She starts by decorating the walls of Ev’s house, then scrap construction materials he’s brought home. From there, her career as an artist blossoms like her paintings, but since they charge about $5 per picture, it never makes them much money.

Maudie is an uplifting story about a person who made the most of her gifts and whose efforts were recognized in her lifetime, far outside their Marshalltown, Nova Scotia, home. Because she had modest goals—“I’ve got everything I want with you, Ev. Everything.”—she found tremendous satisfaction and joy in her life, despite its challenges.

(Many of Maud Lewis’s paintings are now in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, as is the Lewises’ actual house, restored after the Gallery acquired it in 1984. In May 2017, a Maud Lewis painting sold at auction for $45,000.)

Kedi

Kedi, cat, IstanbulWorried about the increasingly autocratic government of Turkey? Erdogan’s round-up of dissidents? His relations with Syria? You can forget all that watching this documentary (trailer) by Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun and cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann, about Istanbul’s Big Romance with—cats! (What did you think “Kedi” means?)

At an hour twenty-minutes, the film is somewhat longer than it might be, but as a vacation from the news cycle, perhaps not long enough. The residents of Istanbul don’t “own” most of the cats that roam their streets and markets, that nest in quiet places and makeshift hideaways. But they more than tolerate them, they celebrate them. And the cats, meanwhile, act like “slumming royals,” says Joe Leydon in Variety. You can see the cast here.

A number of the featured felines rule the neighborhoods where they live, defending their turf against interlopers and providing benefits to the humans. “They absorb my negative energy,” one man says. A waterside restaurant owner who’d had a problem with “mice” (I fear this was a euphemism) celebrated the day “this lion took up residence.” She takes care of the “mice,” to the comfort of the diners, I’m sure. My particular favorite was the cat who lives at a deli. She never goes inside, but paws at the window—rather insistently, it should be noted—when she wants one of the countermen to make her a snack.

The filmmakers identified a number of the city’s human residents whose mission seems to be to keep these felines in food. One pair of women cooks twenty pounds of chicken a day for them. (!) “All of us have tabs with all the vets,” says a bakery owner, and we see a man take an injured kitten to the vet in a taxi..

In short, the film is charming. It talks about how cats are different than dogs. And it shows how caring for the cats has been helpful to people in many ways. Suitable for all ages, and especially for those who have—or wish they had—been to Istanbul and now are reluctant to go because of paragraph one above. As Leydon says, it’s “splendidly graceful and quietly magical.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences: 87%.

Related Reading

Istanbul isn’t the only city with wonderful cats. Felines of New York –featuring indoor cats, it must be said—gives them deadpan quotes: “I’m not entirely familiar with the Internet thing. Like, I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never watched it or smelled it or whatever you do to the Internet. I’ve heard it’s full of cats, though. Is that true?” LOL! (affiliate link below).

Oscar Shorts Nominees 2017: Live Action

SingEvery one of these five Live Action Oscar nominees was a winner! A diverse group in subject matter and national origin, though all European, this was one of the consistently best live action collections we’ve seen. Here they are:

  • Sing – a Hungarian film (trailer) directed by Kristóf Deák—what happens when a choral teacher bent on winning an important prize tells some of the children “just don’t sing.” Elementary solidarity (photo)! Charming. (25 minutes)
  • Silent Nights – from Denmark (trailer), directed by Aske Bang. A young Danish woman working for the Salvation Army falls for a poor Ghanian man, who neglects to tell her about the wife and kids back home. Wise words from her boss save her. Generous. (30 minutes)
  • Timecode – a 15-minute film (trailer) from Spain, directed by Juanjo Giménez. The day and night shift security staff at a parking garage exchange the barest civilities as they change places, but find an innovative way to communicate. Hilarious! (15 minutes)(watch it here)
  • Ennemis Intérieurs – this French film (trailer), directed by Selim Azzazi, is a chilling display of how a suspicious government can twist even the most innocent statements into accusations. It takes the form of an interview between a determined policeman of Algerian descent and a French-born Algerian man seeking citizenship in the 1990s, during the Algerian civil war, with obvious application to today’s tensions. Powerful. (28 minutes)
  • La Femme et le TGV – in this Swiss film (trailer & “the making of”), directed by Timo von Gunten and shot in one week, an older woman (Jane Birkin) waves at the TGV train morning and evening before heading to the desultory bakery she owns. When the train engineer tosses a note out to her, a correspondence begins. One day, the train does not come, and she must go in search of a less lonely future. Sweet. (30 minutes)

My favorite? Timecode was the most fun, La Femme the most beautiful, and Ennemis Interieurs the most significant, and the winner, Sing, the sentimental fave.

Coverage of the documentary shorts here.

The Witness

apartment-building

photo: La Citta Vita, creative commons license

12/7 Update: The Witness is on the Oscar shortlist for best documentary!

On a March night in 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered in the vestibule of her Kew Gardens, Queens, apartment building as 38 witnesses did nothing, according to an unforgettable story in the New York Times, which described how she was allegedly stalked and stabbed three times in the span of a half-hour.

While spurring needed improvements in emergency response and community watchdog efforts, the horror of her death became imprinted in the public’s minds and in sociological texts as examples of urban dwellers’ indifference to others.

The Witness, a film released this year and now showing on Netflix, is an exhaustive examination of these events, resulting from a decade-long crusade to learn the truth about Genovese’s death. First-time documentarian James Solomon follows Kitty’s brother Bill as he traces the threads of the story, a story even some family members wish he could put behind him.

As Stephanie Merry wrote in Washington Post review, everyone got the story wrong, and they got Kitty wrong: “People don’t remember the vivacious bar manager, the prankster, the beloved big sister. They remember a victim.” Bill was especially close to his sister and loved her joyful, playful spirit. That is what he wanted to honor and remember in his quest to learn the truth.

“There were a lot of things we discovered,” he said in an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon last spring. “During the course of 11 years, there were a lot of stones we overturned. But basically the most fundamental thing was that the 38 eyewitness story and three attacks was not true.”

Many of the so-called witnesses did hear something—desperate screams for help that roused people out of sound sleep—and many did do something. A neighbor who knew Kitty well ran down to the narrow lobby vestibule, now knowing whether the assailant was still in the area, and cradled Kitty as she was dying.

Even the convicted murderer, Winston Moseley (he died in prison while serving a life sentence), had his own version of what happened that night. In a letter to Bill, he claimed that he did not kill Kitty, but was the getaway driver for an underworld figure.

The nature of truth—and what we choose to believe—and the fuzziness of memory are key themes in the film that echo coverage in more recent stories about iconic victims such as Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin.

The film shows Bill doggedly pursuing leads, reading trial transcripts, checking what people might have seen from their windows, and tracking down surviving witnesses and their families like a latter-day Lieutenant Columbo. He enlists a woman to re-enact the crime using what witnesses said they heard that night. The effect is chilling. And Bill sits weeping.

In a Merry’s review, filmmaker Solomon said, “For whatever reason I am drawn to these iconic stories we think we know.” (Previously, he wrote the screenplay for “The Conspirator,” about Mary Surratt, who aided John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.)

Editor’s note: The mischaracterization of Kitty Genovese’s death was possible, in part, because relatively few Americans have witnessed murder. We think we know how we would respond, but . . .? Today, social media makes many more of us “witnesses” to violence and provides a whole new range of responses (see this riveting WIRED account of social media around last summer’s police-involved shootings). The availability of real-time “evidence” on screens in front of us, even acknowledging that distortions may occur, should mean it won’t take 52 years for the true circumstances of these deaths to be understood.

This guest post is by Tucson-based Jodi Goalstone, author of the entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings, celebrating her 20th year living in the Old Pueblo.

Indie Documentaries Star

Iceland, sheep pen, rettir

Waiting for the Sheep (photo: Hansueli Krapf, creative commons license)

Last night at the Trenton Film Festival 2016, saw three short documentaries under the heading Ageless Friends.  Over a period of five days, the festival shows 55 films from 16 countries—live action, documentary, animation, and new media. Films submitted for consideration are selected by a panel of jurors (who must have been very busy!) and the festival culminates in an awards ceremony for “bests” in various categories, including audience favorite.

First up was a 7-minute film from the U.K., North Coast 500, which follows three cyclists on a tour through the beautiful Scottish Highlands. The scenery is magnificent.

A Thousand-Year-Old Tradition

It was the second and third films that competed on my ballot for “audience favorite.” The second, A Thousand Autumns, is a 17-minute U.S. film directed by Bob Krist. It follows the efforts on one of several groups of Icelandic farmers who each fall use ponies and dogs to herd their sheep from remote highland pastures to winter grazing lands closer to their farms and the coast. This is a tradition (called the “réttir”) that has been maintained, as the title implies, for ten centuries.

It’s a massive effort, involving the whole community, and family members who’ve moved to the city return for it. Over the summer, the sheep from various farms become all mixed up together, and the farmers have created a the clever method of separating hundreds of animals into individual herds. A round pen is surrounded by pie-shaped wedges, one for each farmer. The sheep are let into the central pen where people await, ready to sort them and push them into the correct farm’s wedge.

Filmmaker Krist first became committed to documenting this herculean effort in the mid-1980s, when on a photography assignment for National Geographic. He knew the separating pen would be a strong visual, which he calls a “sheep pizza.” In those days, he would have had to film it with an expensive and scary (for the sheep) helicopter; for this film, he used a drone.

A Full Measure of Devotion

The hour-long third film, Ageless Friends (trailer), opening in the U.S. in June, is from Netherlands documentarian Marijn Poels. As a teenager, Maarten Vossen adopted the grave of U.S. soldier Private First Class James E. Wickline, one of 8301 U.S. soldiers buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery. Wickline participated in Operation Market Garden, an unsuccessful Allied effort to overtake Germany’s industrial heartland in the Ruhr Valley. Vossen became determined to learn more about “his” soldier, a young man who died to restore his and his country’s freedom.

Cinecrowd003_converted

Ultimately, he learns that Wickline was one of some 1200 new recruits brought into the 82d airborne’s 508th Parachute Infantry Division to replace soldiers lost at Normandy, only 800 of whom survived. Evidence (Wickline’s documented injuries) led the military to conclude his parachute did not open, and he was killed on the first day of the operation, on his first jump into battle.

For Wickline to have died without ever having actually participated in the war dismays Vossen, who traces Wickline’s roots and connections in West Virginia and, working with a county commissioner there, succeeds in having a bridge named for him. That this young Dutchman, 70 years later and living thousands of miles away, cares so much about one of our forgotten fallen is extraordinarily moving, an ultimate expression of unselfish love.

Still Dreaming

Bottom, Misummer Night's Dream

Harold Cherry as Bottom in “Still Dreaming”

In the documentary film Still Dreaming, a dozen residents of an assisted living residence take on a very challenging six-week task—to learn and perform Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most are Broadway stage veterans—actors, dancers and musicians—who reside at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey. Despite frailties such as decreased vision, dementia, and depression, they eagerly take on demanding roles.

Filmmakers Hank Rogerson and Jilann Spitzmiller say they “discovered a group of people who have spent their whole lives following their dreams, some wildly successful, and some hardly at all. And here they are, retired, supposedly having given it all up. What we witnessed was an awakening, and it was truly profound and most certainly inspiring.”

Several of the performers are particularly engaging. Charlotte Fairchild, who plays Puck, had leading roles in Damn Yankees and 42nd Street and was the understudy to Angela Lansbury in Mame. She has Alzheimer’s disease and cannot retain much, but she still has a strong, clear soprano voice and finds joy in her portrayal. Dimo Condos, who plays Theseus/Oberon, is an eccentric, solitary man who studied with Uta Hagen, Elia Kazan, and Harold Klurman at the renowned Actors Studio. He is a bully, impatient with cast members who don’t remember their lines or lose their place. But he retains the ability to immerse himself in character and involve the audience.

Joan Stein, the production’s pianist, is literally bent over the piano stool, but adds punch and panache to the show. She was a pianist on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, among other credits. Her playing becomes more vigorous and emphatic as the rehearsals progress. Aideen O’Kelly bows out of the production because she cannot see the script well enough to learn her lines. During her Broadway career, she appeared in Othello with James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer (a production your website host Vicki Weisfeld saw in Washington, D.C.). Now she must watch from the sidelines.

In Midsummer, as in real life, “people live in colliding worlds of reality, illusion, and delusion” and they also may “age into some degree of dementia in which memories blur and the present becomes a slippery slope,” suggested Eric Minton in a review of the film on Shakespeareances.com. This turn of mind is why the setting for Still Dreaming, which at first seems so odd, turns out to be so right.

The full-length feature film is currently doing well on the festival circuit, most recently screening at the Sedona Independent Film Festival. The filmmakers hope that this exposure brings opportunity for wider distribution. Learn more at the Still Dreaming website. Reportedly, it will become available on DVD in April.

This review is by Tucson-based guest reviewer Jodi Goalstone, who writes the highly entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings and is gearing up for a new baseball season!

 

Run-up to the Oscars: Documentary Short Films

Ebola workers, Liberia

Ebola Workers in Liberia (photo: WHO in PPE, wikimedia)

Again this year, the Trenton Film Society is presenting the three categories of short films nominated for Academy Awards. Thursday night, I saw the documentary shorts, five films culled from 74 entries. Tomorrow I’ll see the animated shorts and live action (fiction) nominees. Many of the documentary shorts have been well received at film festivals in the United States and worldwide. Here’s a quick rundown (the links include trailers):

  • Body Team 12 – this entry from Liberia, directed by David Darg, shows the work of people whose job was to collect the bodies of Ebola victims at the height of the 2014 outbreak in West Africa. Their work, described by Garmai Sumo, the team’s only female member, was heartbreaking, but essential in attempts to protect the health of family members and the community. (13 minutes)
  • Chau, Beyond the Lines – a joint U.S. and Vietnam production, directed by Courtney Marsh, about a teen growing up in a Vietnamese center that cares for children affected by Agent Orange who wants to become an artist and clothing designer. Marsh follows the profoundly disabled Chau into his 20s, when he receives vocational school certificates, gets a job painting pictures for a design firm and supports himself in his own apartment. Uplifting, but he is undoubtedly an outlier in spirit and success. (34 minutes)
  • A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness – directed by Sharmen Obaid-Chonoy, this film explores the “honor” killings of Pakistani women, which occur at a rate of more than a thousand per year. 18-year-old Saba fell in love and eloped, but her uncle and father found and shot her and threw her body into a river. Miraculously, Saba survived, scarred, and her father and uncle were jailed. Now, if she only “forgives” them, the court will pardon them. Her lawyer and the police don’t want her to do it, but community pressure and the society’s intransigent views about “respect” are powerful. (40 minutes)
  • Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah –this biopic from British filmmaker and journalist Adam Benzine describes French director Lanzmann’s challenges in creating his massive, nine-and-a-half hour 1985 documentary Shoah. This film includes some footage never seen before, as Lanzmann talks about how he went about trying to describe the Holocaust from the inside. That took a toll. (40 minutes)
  • Last Day of Freedom – a remarkable animated documentary from U.S. directors Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman: the story of a man’s agonizing experience when he reports suspicion that his younger brother—who has serious PTSD and bouts of homelessness—has committed a terrible crime. Since there is no film of Manny, the accused brother, animation lets him be represented, as a soldier, walking down the street, and was an interesting and effective choice. (32 minutes)

Phoenix

Phoenix, Nina HossWhat is identity? Is it who we are or who others think we are? A scenario capable of stripping people of their selfhood greater than the Holocaust is hard to imagine, and German filmmaker Christian Petzold puts his protagonist Nelly, played with great subtlety by Nina Hoss, in that predicament in Phoenix (trailer). A Jewish former cabaret singer, she’s somehow survived the concentration camp and is determined to return to Berlin to find her husband Johnny among the piled-up post-war debris and psychological ruin. Her stalwart friend Lene doesn’t trust Johnny, but Nelly won’t be deterred.

She was horribly disfigured by her concentration camp experience and, aided by Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), undergoes extensive reconstructive surgery, pleading for the Swiss doctor to return her face to exactly the way it looked before, though he warns her that may be impossible. In Berlin, still bearing the bruises of her extensive plastic surgery, she re-encounters Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). His belief that Nelly is dead is so strong, he ignores signs that this woman, who calls herself “Esther” (“There aren’t too many Esthers left,” he says), and his wife are one and the same.

In her job, Lene finds people among the dislocated and helps them get them to Palestine. She plans for them both to go there, a future she believes in whole-heartedly, but which interests Nelly not at all. The endless poring over the lists of the murdered takes its toll, and Lene finally says she feels more kinship “with our dead than with the living.”

Johnny wants Nelly to masquerade as his wife to gain the fortune she’s inherited after the deaths of her entire family. This leaves her with the mind-bending quandary of pretending to be someone pretending to be who she really is. In truth, neither of them can “see” the other.

Based on a somewhat simplified version of the French novel Return from the Ashes, it’s a story about the crumbling of trust and how illusions—Nelly’s and Johnny’s equally—blind us to reality. A powerful film whose conclusion is a shattering confrontation with the truth. Excellent performances by Hoss, Zehrfeld, and Kunzendorf. Kurt Weill’s haunting “Speak Low” is heard throughout in different versions.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating an unequivocal 99%! Viewers 81%.

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

Gainsbourg, Eric Elmosnino, Doug Jones, La Gueule

Doug Jones and Eric Elmosnino in Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

This 2010 biopic—directed by comic book artist Joann Sfar, who wrote the script with Isabel Ribis based on Sfar’s graphic novel—came across every bit as messy and undisciplined as its subject (trailer). Serge Gainsbourg (played beautifully by Eric Elmosnino) was a French painter and highly successful musician and songwriter of the 1960s and 1970s, who is considered a leading, if occasionally scandalizing, figure in French pop music.

Sfar gives Gainsbourg an imaginary alter-ego (La Gueule, played in a cartoonish mask by Doug Jones) who at first is his cheerleader, encouraging him to create and perform, but who comes to be a darker force, egging on his bad behavior. (It’s somewhat reminiscent of how Michael Keaton was dogged by his former self in Birdman.) Meanwhile, Gainsbourg bounces from one love affair to another and in and out of marriage, having notable liaisons with Brigitte Bardot, Juliette Gréco, and a ten-year relationship with British actress Jane Birkin. His time is spent at the piano writing songs for his lovers and smoking thousands of cigarettes.

The movie credits are charming and undoubtedly reflected the talents and eye of Sfar, and the early scenes of the movie about Gainsbourg when he was a precocious young boy (before he changed his name from Lucien Ginsburg), defiantly wearing his yellow star, are charming. But, in a rare concession to boredom, I abandoned the movie after an hour and a half, missing the artist’s final downward spiral and his popular reggae period, too. Not to mention the heroic of the film’s title.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 73%; audiences: 68%.