Maudie

MaudieMaud 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.)

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 90%; audiences: 93%.

Maggie’s Plan

Ethan Hawke, Greta Gerwig, Maggie's Plan

Ethan Hawke & Greta Gerwig in Maggie’s Plan

Tons of history and your mom tell you falling for a married man is a chancy way to find happiness and a father for your baby. In this romantic comedy by writer-director Rebecca Miller (trailer), the unlikely happens and aspiring novelist John Harding (played by Ethan Hawke) actually divorces his self-absorbed, chilly wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) and marries the girl. They have a lovely baby. A couple of years on, though, the marriage is just not working.

That’s when Maggie (Greta Gerwig) develops her plan. She’ll try to get John and Georgette back together.

There are some nice moments and some funny moments, though the comedy is never quite as screwball as it might have been. As a tale of female manipulation, Maggie’s efforts don’t reach the delicious complexity of Lady Susan Vernon  in Love & Friendship, also in theaters now.  Lady Susan plows ahead like an ocean liner, let the devil take the hindmost, and that creates a more comic effect than the rather more realistic angsty New Yorkers in Maggie’s web.

Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph are a prickly married couple, long-time friends of Maggie, stuck to each other like burrs. Mina Sundwall is John And Georgette’s teenage daughter, a perfect adolescent cynic.

Gerwig gives an engaging performance, Hawke is always interesting, and Julianne Moore shines as the ambitious academic—with a Danish accent, no less. There’s a real New York feel to the film, too. Says Christy Lemire in RogerEbert.com, director Miller “truly gets the city’s rhythms and idiosyncracies, and her dialogue frequently sparkles.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 84%; audiences 59%.

Born to Be Blue

Ethan Hawke, Chet Baker, Born To Be BlueEthan Hawke stars in this beautifully acted portrayal of jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker during his prime. Know that the film (trailer) treats the facts of Baker’s actual biography, as one reviewer said, more like a chord chart than a score and riffs from there. What is true-to-life is that Baker was an only child, born on a lonely ranch in Yale, Oklahoma, and went on to have numerous relationships with women and a long-term relationship with heroin.

Musically, he was a progenitor of West Coast Swing, but always had his eye on the New York scene, with the mantra: “Look out Dizzy, look out, Miles. There’s a little white California boy coming for you.”

An accident when Baker was 12 caused him to lose a front tooth, after which he had to re-learn to play the trumpet. That was a mere warmup to the effort he had to put in after his drug dealer pistol-whipped him and knocked out all of his front teeth, destroying his embouchure. Yet, he couldn’t stay away from heroin. He thought it made his playing better, and he was all about his music.

While Baker had a great talent for improvisation and sustaining a melodic line, he had no talent at all for being happy. After one important comeback milestone, his manager (Callum Keith Rennie) asks, “Would you try to be happy for more than ten seconds?” This line provides the ironic overlay to the choice of title for the film, one of Baker’s big hits. Hawke did the films vocals; the trumpet playing was by Canadian trumpeter Kevin Turcotte.

Written and directed by Robert Budreau, the movie has an opening scene that shows how a girl he picked up after a performance casually introduced him to heroin, and he didn’t say no. This scene turns out to be part of a movie being made about him and whether such a significant life event happened in such an offhand way, we don’t know. The insertion of black and white scenes, some of which may be from the movie (which was never finished) or from his memory, plays with the order of events, especially early in the film, an improvisational approach to history that mimics jazz music itself.

Although Baker does get clean for a several years as he is recovering his playing ability, a return to heroin remains a risk in the music business. As his parole officer says, “You go into a barber shop and sit in the chair long enough, you’re going to get a haircut.” Still, his parole officer, his girlfriend—the delectable Carmen Ejogo (playing a composite of several women)—his manager, and many musicians wanted him to succeed, including Dizzie Gillespie and Gerry Mulligan. Miles Davis, notoriously prickly, was not a fan, and we’ll get a chance to get his side of the story in the biopic with Don Cheadle, coming soon.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 86%; audiences: 84%.

Seymour: An Introduction

Seymour Bernstein

Seymour Bernstein

This documentary (trailer), filled with beautiful music, is an étude of acclaimed concert pianist Seymour Bernstein and a joy, start to finish. Bernstein retired so he could pour his musical ideas into the vessels of his students. And not just musical ideas; his philosophy is that having access to emotion in music encourages access to emotion and satisfaction in other aspects of life. We see him providing pianists of all ages with just the right amount of subtle guidance to dramatically elevate their performances, encourage them to compose as well as play, and, apparently, achieve harmony in life in general.

Scenes take place in the one-room apartment he’s had for 40 years on the upper East Side of Manhattan, near Central Park, in various venues where former students interviewed him, NYU Master Classes, in the piano testing room of Steinway New York, and finally, its main floor rotunda, where he plays a concert to an audience of former students, colleagues, and fans. The interactions with students, former students, and other musicians are revealing, and none more so than his conversations with the film’s director, actor Ethan Hawke.

Hawke met Bernstein serendipitously at a dinner and discovered in him a person with whom he could discuss the anxieties of performance, and the disconnect between good work and success and Bernstein, with what seems to be characteristic generosity, shared his insights. He certainly did not reach his current eminence without his own challenges. When he was young, his father would say, “I have three daughters and a pianist,” which felt like a rejection of him as a son and pained him mightily.

As a young man, he served in the U.S. Army in Korea and teamed up with a talented violinist and a tenor and, despite their commanding officer’s skepticism, put on a concert for the troops—most of whom had never heard “serious” or classical music before. “They wouldn’t let us off the stage,” Bernstein says with glee, even 60 years later. The concert was so successful a tour of front-line camps was arranged. The memory is also bitter, because Bernstein remembers the war dead, and the pain of seeing those body bags has hardly faded.

Except for these memories, the movie is strongly up-beat, with a man doing what he loves and people (students, audiences, moviegoers) responding to his skill and passion. As Detroit News critic Tom Long says, “The great joy of the film, whether you know piano or not, is watching Bernstein teach.” This is a man you will be glad you got to know. The film ends with a typically modest and inspiring Bernstein statement: “I never thought that, with my two hands, I could touch the sky.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics give it a 100% rating and audiences 89%.

Boyhood

Boyhood, Ethan Hawke

Ellar Coltrane & Ethan Hawke in Boyhood

Probably every American interested in film saw Boyhood (trailer) long before I did last week, but somehow I missed it in theaters and, as Boyhood emphasizes, time passes . . . ! From the beginning, the idea of a film following the same actors over a protracted period was both interesting and risk-laden. What if some calamity or professional conflict overrode the cast’s ability to continue? I wonder whether director Richard Linklater cast his daughter Lorelei in the film as a partial insurance policy against that eventuality? She plays as the main character’s annoying older sister Samantha. Quite nicely, too.

Cast intact, filming proceeded off and on for a dozen years, following Mason Evans, Jr. (played by Ellar Coltrane), from ages six to eighteen, and the continuity of characters across situations, levels of maturity, and the ups and downs of life makes for a compelling narrative concept. All the main parts are well acted, including the kids, the parents (Ethan Hawke and Academy Award-winner Patricia Arquette), and the mother’s problematic husbands. The script grew organically, evolving based on what went before (like life), as well as on experiences in the real lives of the actors.

Ethan Hawke, who plays Mason’s biological father, is a person of local interest, having grown up about a mile from where I live. (A few local junior high girls helped answer his fan mail in the early years.) The stage was set for this feat of filmic time travel in Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight trilogy, in which Hawke also starred, and he calls this latest film “human time-lapse photography.”

While many wonderful things can be said about the slow unfolding of personality that the movie conveys, to me it was about a half-hour too long (at 2 hours, 45 minutes), perhaps because I felt insufficiently engaged with the characters at any age. Having shot footage at all these different ages and stages, it’s as if the filmmakers felt obliged to use more of it than they absolutely had to.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 98%; audience rating: 83%.