See These Inspiring Documentary Biopics: RBG and Mr. Rogers

Ruth Bader GinsburgOverwhelmed by the tsunami of pettiness and downright meanness in the news this summer? These biopics make a refreshing change. RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? properly celebrate two talented individuals who single-mindedly dedicated themselves to making better the lives of others.


The story of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg became an icon for women’s rights began when, as a newly minted law school graduate (Harvard and Columbia), she had trouble getting a job (trailer). Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy Ward are obvious admirers, but then, there’s lots to admire. The film includes plenty of archival footage of Ginsburg as a quite beautiful young woman, as well as audio of her earliest arguments before the Supreme Court supporting “gender blindness.”

This historical footage is supplemented by present-day interviews with legal scholars, journalists, politicians, Ginsburg’s children, and RBG herself. Although she fought fiercely for women’s rights, as a person, she’s shy and unassuming. Her parents taught her that angry displays were “self-defeating,” and she kept her calm demeanor in her court battles, even though she says she felt like a kindergarten teacher, helping judges and even members of earlier Supreme Courts to an understanding of the systematic discrimination women faced and its costs. Of course, the battle isn’t over yet and has opened on a new front with #metoo.

If she never shows anger, she shows plenty of love for her husband Marty, who died in 2010. His support enabled her to achieve much of what she has, which every woman in America benefits from today, whether she knows it or not.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 80%.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Fred Rogers 2When I saw previews of this Morgan Neville documentary about children’s television personality Fred Rogers, I was afraid it might be overly saccharine (trailer). But Rogers himself puts that issue to rest by his absolute sincerity and persuasiveness. Himself a child development expert, convinced by research showing the value of young children knowing they are loved for who they are, he used television to carry that message.

Over the years his slow delivery and habits (putting on his sweater, changing his shoes) have been mocked by numerous comedians—clips of these skits are included. OK, but the relevance of those critiques is completely undermined when the film juxtaposes scenes from his program with the usual pie-in-the-face comedy, the frantic action, the fights and violence more typical of children’s programming. There can be no question which is healthier for small children. Yet his show didn’t duck difficult issues. It took on divorce, death, 9/11, assassination—issues kids hear about, but may not get much help in understanding and processing.

Under Rogers’s gentle exterior beat the heart of a “true radical,” said Odie Henderson for The opening song with which he greeted his audience every day said, “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,” and that “you” included children of all races, abilities, and religions, wherever they lived, recent immigrants or the scions of old Boston families. He loved them, each and every one, just as they were. And they knew it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 99%; audiences: 98%.

Oscar-Ready? The Long & the Short of It: Call Me by Your Name & the Live-Action Shorts

Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your Name

Timothée Chalamet & Armie Hammer

This languorous film based on James Ivory’s adaptation of a novel by André Aciman and directed by Luc Guadagnino (trailer) conjures all the steamy possibilities of youth in summertime. The drowsily buzzing flies, lying in tall grass whose sun-baked scent practically wafts over the audience, the lure of the river’s cool and limpid water, outdoor dinners on the patio. Guadagnino makes best use of his setting “somewhere in northern Italy.”

Timothée Chalamet has received well-deserved raves for his portrayal of Elio Perlman, the 17-year-old son of two intellectuals (played by Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar). He beautifully portrays the confusions of late adolescence, diffidence alternating with aggression, the attraction both to Parisian Marzia (Esther Garrel) and, more strongly, to his father’s summer intern Oliver (Armie Hammer). He also plays the piano with bravura skill. “Is there anything you can’t do?” Oliver asks him and the same question might be put to Chalamet. All the music works, from Chalamet’s playing, to the soundtrack, to dance tunes broadcast on tinny car radios.

The attraction between Elio and Oliver is immediate, but builds slowly, and when they finally do reveal how they feel, “the moment makes you hold your breath with its intimate power,” says Christy Lemire for, “and the emotions feel completely authentic and earned.” And from there, to a final few days together, their emotional strength symbolized, perhaps, by the shift from the still waters of the swimming hole to crashing mountain waterfalls. Elio’s father is given an excellent, warmhearted speech to his son about the value of powerful feelings, even wretched ones.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 96%; audiences, 86%.

The five Oscar-nominated live action shorts this year have a “ripped from the headlines” feeling,  with three of them based on real events. ShortsTV has trailers for all five.

DeKalb Elementary, by U.S. filmmaker Reed Van Dyk came with a trigger warning. It shows a white shooter entering a school and how the black receptionist, through a combination of kindness and cunning, has to try to talk him out of carrying out either violence against the children or suicide-by-cop. Inspired by a 2013 incident in Georgia. (20 minutes)

With The Silent Child, U.K. filmmakers Chris Overton and Rachel Shenton make the case for teaching deaf children sign language, using the story of a sweet young girl whose parents expect her only to lipread. She comes out of her shell when she’s tutored by a sensitive aide. (20 minutes)

My Nephew Emmett recounts the tragic story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black child from Chicago murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after somehow offending a white woman. Though the story is a touchstone of Civil Rights outrage, U.S. filmmaker Kevin Wilson, Jr., gives it fresh interest by telling it from the uncle’s point of view. (20 minutes)

The Eleven o’Clock is a hilarious demonstration of confused communication. A psychiatrist, waiting for his new patient, knows only that the man believes he too is a psychiatrist. The encounter between the two of them, each trying to establish clinical control, is cleverly constructed by Australian filmmakers Derin Seale and Josh Lawson. (13 minutes)

In Watu Wote/All of Us, also based on a real episode, German filmmakers Katja Benrath and Tobias Rosen show a Christian woman’s uneasy interactions with her Muslim fellow-passengers on a long busride through the Kenyan countryside. Then the bus is stopped by well-armed Islamic militants bent on murdering non-Muslims. (22 minutes)

Try to see some of these excellent short films!

The Sounds of Movie Music


(photo: wikimedia)

Movie soundtracks are meant to enhance and amplify. They’re successful when they’re so much in sync with the film that the viewer internalizes them as part of the experience. Not all scores work, while some may work too well: the modern soundtrack for The Revenant was more likeable than the movie–to me, but not to the Grand Pooh-Bahs of the Golden Globes and  BAFTA !

Without doubt the composer’s contribution “has become an essential part of the medium’s power,” said Matt Patches and Kristopher Tapley for HitFix, and can be as identifiable as any visual image. In just a couple of notes, people will nail the theme from Star Wars, The Godfather (good ring-tone choice there), or Chariots of Fire. I’ve linked a few movie titles below to soundtracks or excerpts that show good melding of sight and sound.

The Academy Awards are coming up February 28, and we’ll be re-hearing five of the best scores from 2015. First, a look back:

  • Ten great soundtracks from film adaptations of books, by Kate Scott at Book Riot includes Brokeback Mountain (with tracks by various folk and bluegrass artists, including Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and Steve Earle, as well as the work of composer Gustavo Santaolalla); one of my all-time favorite scores, The Last of the Mohicans (music by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman), which I skated to!; and the bittersweet score to The Painted Veil (music by Alexandre Desplat, who’s received eight AA nominations and won for The Grand Budapest Hotel).
  • A previous Kate Scott story featured the scores from Pride & Prejudice (with music by Dario Marianelli and featuring Jean-Yves Thibaudet on solo piano) and A Series of Unfortunate Events (music by Thomas Newman), which Scott says are her “two favorite soundtracks of all time.”
  • Patches and Tapley looked back at Oscar winners of the past 80 years and picked the best of the best. Their top three: 3) Schindler’s List (John Williams, AA 1993), which “aches with palpable melancholy; 2) The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Howard Shore, AA 2001), “moving, thrilling and chilling”; and #1) Lawrence of Arabia (Maurice Jarre, AA 1962) “an epic musical journey.” And, unforgettable.
  • The American Film Institute list of 25 greatest film scores gives Lawrence of Arabia the third spot, with Gone with the Wind (Max Steiner) second, and Star Wars (John Williams) at the pinnacle. A little lower on the AFI list is a pair of my favorites, The Magnificent Seven (Elmer Bernstein) in eighth place and Chinatown (Jerry Goldsmith) in ninth.
  • None of these retrospective lists include another in my personal luvvit list—1982’s Blade Runner, with music by Vangelis.
  • This year’s AA nominees for best original score are: Bridge of Spies (Thomas Newman); Carol (Carter Burwell); The Hateful Eight (Ennio Morricone); Sicario (Jóhann Jóhannsson); and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (John Williams). In only 20 days, we’ll see who wins!

Do you have a favorite movie score, from days past or present?


Lily Tomlin, GrandmaWait for cable. This Paul Weitz film (trailer) has had some mixed, but mostly positive reviews, and we gave it a chance based on the cast line-up: Lily Tomlin, Marcia Gay Harden, Sam Elliott.

As it turns out, the best, most persuasive performance comes from pale-as-paper Julia Garner, who plays Tomlin’s 18-year-old granddaughter, Sage. Her role mostly requires looking on in dismay as the “grown-ups” whom she hopes will help her rant viciously at each other and dredge up decades-old animosities. By staying out of it, she is revealed as Sage the wise, not Sage the turkey-and-dressing ingredient.

People vary sharply in what they find funny. Alas, I don’t find a firehose delivery of insults and putdowns more than boring. Tomlin’s character, poet Elle Reid, is unnaturally prickly and, faced with the pregnancy of her high school student granddaughter, she’s not even sympathetic—or discreet. “She’s already pregnant,” she announces to a young man who glances Sage’s way.

The movie’s plot revolves around Elle and Sage’s attemps to scare up $600 for an abortion, scheduled for 5:30 pm the day the movie takes place. This is not a gleeful situation, either. (The old Dodge was pretty cool, though.)

I’m a fan of Tomlin’s acting, but laudatory reviews to the contrary, she doesn’t seem really engaged with this highly predictable material. The ill-conceived (you should pardon the expression) and flimsy device of the appointment deadline puts manic urgency into the pair’s approaches to a succession of unlikely loan prospects. Tomlin’s interaction with the loser boyfriend is unbelievable in every particular, and nothing written for Tomlin’s character suggests she has a poetic bone in her body or the necessary mental discipline and insight for that craft.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 93%; audiences: 72%.

Ricki and the Flash

Meryl Streep, Ricki and the FlashShe was Julia Child. She was Margaret Thatcher. She was Mamma Mia. And now Meryl Streep is Ricki Rendazzo, aging, nearly bankrupt rock singer living uneasily with a big consequential choice she made along the way—career over family (trailer). Her band, The Flash, plays the modest Salt Well bar in Tarzana, California, but they rock it. We already knew Streep could sing, and for this film she spent six months learning how to play guitar, coached by Neil Young (video). Ricki’s lead guitarist Greg is played by Rick Springfield, and you can feel his longing to be more to her, if she’d let him.

Back home in Indiana, her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) is dealing with their daughter Julie, abandoned by her two-timing husband, now depressed, and suicidal. He calls Linda—Ricki is her stage name—to let her know, and she scrapes together enough money to fly back to see what she can do. Precious little, it appears—a classic case of too little, many years too late. Mother and daughter struggle to reconnect, and it isn’t easy or even certain. Julie is played beautifully by Streep’s real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer. (In profile, the two have exactly the same nose.)

Some excruciatingly wonderful scenes, including a fancy-restaurant “family dinner” with all three of Ricki’s kids, where accusations are the main course. Julie’s seething glare could burn holes in a flimsier construction than Ricki. The pain and even humor of the situation are so sharp, you know no matter who gets the check, they’ve already paid.

And, here’s something unexpected. The parents act like grown-ups. Pete, his second wife Maureen (Audra McDonald), even Ricki and Greg—show business types of whom not much is expected, perhaps—show what they’re made of when it really matters.

Director Jonathan Demme keeps the film moving with no unnecessary drag and made the great choice of putting lifelong musicians in the band, including Funkadelic keyboarder Bernie Worrell, bassist Rick Rosas, and drummer Joe Vitale. They performed all the movie’s songs live and with no overdubs—Springfield calls this brave of Streep, especially. Academy Award-winner Diablo Cody wrote the script.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 62%, audiences 55%. I thought audiences would be kinder to it than the critics. The big complaint seems to be the script is predictable, but since there are only what, six plots . . .? it may in retrospect be predictable, but I didn’t especially feel that while I was watching, and it was never that corollary of predictable, boring! As Glenn Kenny says in his mostly positive review (didn’t like the ending) for, “One of the nicer things about the movie is how it avoids overt clichés while still partaking of convention.”

Shall We Kiss?

Michaël Cohen, Julie Gayet, Shall We Kiss?

Michaël Cohen & Julie Gayet in Shall We Kiss?

The 2007 French movie (Un baiser s’il vous plaît)(trailer) is light summer fare, more rom than com, more sweet amusement that LOL, “more quirky than wacky,” as reviewer Roger Moore said in the Orlando Sentinel.

A Parisienne (the delectable Julie Gayet) stranded on the empty streets of Nantes with no taxis in sight accepts a ride to her hotel from a stranger (Michaël Cohen), the ride leads to dinner together and obvious attraction, and that leads to his request for a goodnight kiss, “a kiss without consequences,” as they are both involved with other people.

She says no and is persuaded (in fact this entire movie is filled with effectively clever persuasion) to tell him the story that she says would explain her refusal. That story becomes the majority of the movie, which Stephen Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirer, calls “impossibly French.”

Kisses can be very powerful, at least they are to the couple she describes, played charmingly by Virginie Ledoyen and Emmanuel Mouret, who also wrote and directed the film. They have been best friends for years and he, in a funk over his lack of physical connection with anyone, persuades her—a married woman—to kiss him. And, while the premise may be a little unrealistic, it’s lighthearted fun, delivered smoothly.

In the end, good choices have been made, some of which may be more bitter than sweet, and none of which were without consequences.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 77%; audiences 62%.

Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice, Joaquin Phoenix, Thomas PynchonWhen this film (trailer) of a Thomas Pynchon novel was released in 2014, critics said it was undoubtedly the ONLY Pynchon book that could be corralled into a film. I’m a big Pychon fan—loved V, The Crying of Lot 49, and Mason & Dixon—but I started Gravity’s Rainbow three times and never got past page 100. So I can sympathize with the difficulties director Paul Thomas Anderson must have faced.

Joaquin Phoenix plays “Doc” Sportell, a private investigator subject to regular harassment from a police detective called Bigfoot (Josh Brolin). Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta has taken up with a wealthy married property developer, and the developer’s wife wants her to cooperate in a plot to institutionalize him so she and her new boyfriend can raid his bank account. Then the magnate disappears. Doc uses is slight investigative skills to search for both the developer and Shasta in a stoner’s 1970s Southern California.

This set-up takes you down colorful and unexpected byways, which I couldn’t possibly reconstruct, and a multitude of stars provide performance gems: Owen Wilson as a mixed up dude-dad, afraid to leave the drug cult that’s captured him; Hong Chau as the hilariously matter-of-fact operator of a kinky sex club; Martin Short as a cradle-robbing dentist, with his clinic in a building shaped like a golden fang; Golden Fang itself, a mysterious criminal operation that . . . None of this probably matters. Neo-Nazi biker gangs, yogic meditation, stoners. You just have to go with it. Joaquin Phoenix, understandably, displays about a zillion different ways of looking confused.

If you have a taste for the absurd and what Movie Talk’s Jason Best calls “freewheeling spirit,” this is definitely the movie for you! I try to guess whether audiences or critics will like a movie better. Right on the money this time: Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 73%; audiences, 53%.

Love & Mercy

Love & Mercy, Beach Boys, Brian WilsonGive yourself a refreshing jolt of summer and a heartfelt movie tale befitting its title in this Brian Wilson biopic (trailer). Possibly, some readers will be so post-Beach Boys that name will be meaningless, but not for the rest of us.

Director Bill Pohlad made a couple of interesting casting choices. First, he gave the talented Paul Dano the role of Brian in his 1960s heyday, as his mental stability increasingly wavers. Then, rather than aging Dano for later scenes, John Cusack plays the significantly impaired 1980s Wilson. I went in thinking the two would look nothing alike, and they were even encouraged to develop their portrayals independently, yet, as Variety reviewer Andrew Barker says, “this disconnect (between the two) works, and Cusack’s avoidance of mimicry suggests a man who has lost nearly all lingering ties to the young man he once was.” It turns out to be part of the film’s power.

Reese Witherspoon lookalike Elizabeth Banks plays Melinda, the woman who finds something to love in the damaged, middle-aged musician. But her efforts are thwarted by his psychotherapist—pill-pushing Dr. Eugene Landy, played to a diabolical T by Paul Giamatti (with hair). Wilson’s dad, who shows no redeeming paternal instincts, is played by Bill Camp. It’s worth knowing that the real-life Brian Wilson generally agrees with these portrayals.

The opening sequence is played on the California beach in super-saturated color, with redder surfboards and bluer ocean than was ever possible. The beautiful closing credits feature the real Brian Wilson singing the 1988 song that gave the film its title.

Audio and visual evocations of the 60s, like the movie’s poster above, are effective without feeling artsy and indulgent. I particularly enjoyed the documentary-style music sessions with members of The Wrecking Crew (who provided practically unknown backup for so many musical groups of the 1960s), as they helped Wilson translate the music in his head into some of the most innovative performances of the era for the album Pet Sounds. “To capture the artistic process in this way is extraordinary, and in many ways unprecedented,” said Joe Neumaier in the New York Daily News, with much credit due writers Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner. Atticus Ross’s mashup of Wilson’s music creates a terrific soundtrack.

Critics have been quick to praise this movie’s avoidance of the trite formulas employed in so many movies about entertainers. I didn’t read up on Wilson beforehand, so that the movie could surprise me, and it was authentically tense and totally engaging. Don’t jump up when it ends. You’ll want to see what happened to several of the principals.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 90%; audience score 91%.

A Most Violent Year

Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent YearMissed this December 2014 crime drama (trailer) in theaters, but finally had a chance to watch it on the small screen. Oscar Isaac, who was quite likable in Inside Llewyn Davis and even stronger here, does a fine job as Abel Morales, head of a New York City heating oil company; Jessica Chastain, always good, plays his wife. Morales’s trucks are being hijacked and his drivers beaten up by—who?—shady competitors, ambitious freelancers, organized crime? With his drivers and sales people at risk, the default of everyone around him is to arm themselves (which makes for some pretty scary scenarios in city traffic), but Morales resists.

He wants to remain an upstanding businessman, to keep taking the high road despite the growing chaos around him. This includes a lengthy and apparently stalled investigation by the city prosecutor (David Oyelowo) of financial sins in the heating oil industry and Morales’s company in particular. Morales is aided in his endeavors by the somewhat ambiguous character of his lawyer (Albert Brooks) who has the patience for long negotiations. As one protracted land acquisition looks about to successfully conclude, the other difficulties piling up put it out of reach again.

What was solid about this movie was that the business dealings seemed plausible and important, not just made up in the usual Hollywood way. The film was written and directed by J. C. Chandor, and in our cynical epoch of anti-heroes, he’s made Morales someone you want to see succeed. “There’s less violence that you would expect, given the film’s title, but the scenes of moral suspense prove just as breathtaking as the episodes of physical jeopardy,” said Jason Best in Movie Talk.

The plot took unexpected turns until the final resolution, and, whatever, viewers have many chances to see the most beautiful (and magically dirt-shedding) camel-hair coat ever!

Nice Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating of 90%; audiences 70%. The film garnered numerous awards and award nominations, as did the acting and directing.



(photo: Myles Aronowitz for Mongrel Media)

This movie (trailer), released in 2015, had a brief run recently at Princeton’s nonprofit movie theater. It’s the story of the fictional “National Boychoir School” and features the singing of students from the local, real-life American Boychoir School. ABS has fallen on hard financial times, and if it needed an infomercial to stimulate a really big donation, this is it.

The movie stars Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates, Debra Winger, and Eddie Izzard in the adult roles, but director François Girard and writer Ben Ripley demand little of their talents. The story dwells mostly on the boys, and one particular boy (Garrett Wareing)—a misfit who arrives at the school unable even to read music, yet such a vocal prodigy that . . . yes, you can guess the rest. When the credits rolled and it turned out the movie had some affiliation with the Hallmark Hall of Fame, that was one of the least surprising moments in a string of non-surprises.

Leaving aside its dramatic shortcomings, the creators’ generosity with the music lifts the whole production. Actual ABS students are used in the production, according to the news story linked above, and director Girard said of the school, “It was extraordinary to see them at work. What they accomplish goes way beyond music.” A good movie for kids and a pleasant, if unchallenging interlude for grownups, too.

Predictably, this is one that audiences liked better (73%) than the critics (61%), according to Rotten Tomatoes ratings.