Archive for the ‘Documentaries’ Category

Life itself: Save Yourself the Aisle Seat—Movie

July 22, 2014

Life itself” is the powerfully sad and inspirational documentary about film critic, Roger Ebert. Based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name, “Life Itself” is directed by Steve James with the cooperation and participation of Roger and Chaz Ebert. The film was begun five months prior to Ebert’s death from cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands (treatment for which left him unable to speak)  in April 4, 2013, which means that the interviews with Ebert are done as he types his answers to James’ questions, making the documentary especially poignant.

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What we learn about Roger Ebert is that he was first and foremost a journalist. While most of us know him from his groundbreaking TV show, “Sneak Previews,” or from his longtime career with the Chicago Sun-Times, we learn from the documentary that he always wanted a career in journalism, and was working for a newspaper at age 15. Surprisingly he never left his Illinois roots. Although he wanted to go to Yale, his family couldn’t afford it, so it was off to the University of Illinois where he became editor his college newspaper, the Daily Illini. After graduate school, he held a series of positions with the Chicago Sun-Times and in 1967 became the paper’s film critic and the youngest film critic in the country for a daily newspaper. Although other papers tried to lure him away, most especially the Washington Post, Ebert remained with the Sun-Times and in Chicago until his death. And that’s just for starters.

Even though “Life itself” is done with the cooperation of the Eberts, the film doesn’t feel like anything was held back. We definitely learn about Ebert’s achievements, of which there are many, including winning the first Pulitzer Prize for film criticism. But we also hear from Roger Ebert himself about his failings—alcoholism and living the high-life with women (before his marriage).

“Life itself” goes into great detail about Ebert’s relationship with fellow film critic and rival, Gene Siskel. Since neither man is still with us, hearing their point of views from their respective widows is as close as we’ll come to know what they really thought. To say theirs was a “love/hate” relationship is too simplistic. It’s pointed out that although Siskel knew what buttons to push, Ebert gave back as good as he got. “Life itself” does an excellent job in revealing just what the relationship was and how it evolved over the years.

At two hours in length, “Life itself’ is not a short documentary. But despite that amount of time and as forthcoming as the documentary is, “Life itself” doesn’t tell us how Ebert met Chaz. I’m not sure why, since so much time is spent on their marriage. However, because the film is full of so many other moments from Ebert’s life, these moments almost negate this one short-coming.

What “Life itself” does best is to share with us the love Roger Ebert felt for writing and for film. Writing was his passion and the fact that he continued to do so until the day before he died speaks volumes. For those who just know Roger Ebert for his “thumbs up/down” television reviews or for those who appreciated Ebert for his body of work, “Life itself” is a must-see.

“Life itself” is currently in theatres and available On Demand.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

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Elaine Stritch—Shoot Me: A True Treasure—Documentary

March 17, 2014

Elaine Stritch—what an utterly fascinating, talented force of nature she is. Frankly, I want to be her when I finally grow up. If you love the performing arts and its artists, then the documentary, “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” is a must see for an inside, no-holds barred, vanity-free look at this hard-working performer.ela-poster-v2

Director Chiemi Karasawa appears to have been given unfettered access to Stritch, whether it is in rehearsal for “30 Rock,” preparation for one of her one-woman shows, or even a stint in the hospital. It’s a decidedly unglamorous view, but one in which you come away with a greater appreciation and understanding of the woman and what it means to be a “Broadway Baby.”

The documentary opens with one of Stritch’s regular walks on the Manhattan streets and the first of her many quips, “I wish I could f**king drive. Then I’d really be a menace.” Thankfully she doesn’t drive, because not being able to watch her navigate the NYC landscape with her hulk-like stride, dressed in her fur coat, hat, black stockings and shirt, would deprive New Yorkers of quite the sight. How she has managed not to get hit by a car is a mystery and blessing in and of itself, but somehow she hasn’t. It’s wonderful to watch NYC natives and tourists stop her to say “hello” and just chat in general, and you can see that she derives a great deal of pleasure from it as well.

As the documentary notes, Stritch has many film and television credits to her name and certainly has guest-starred in many television shows, even winning Emmys along the way, but she is best known for her work on Broadway…as either part of an ensemble or for her one-woman shows.  “Shoot Me” takes us behind the scenes as she prepares what is probably her last show, “Elaine Stritch: Singin’ Sondheim…One Song at a Time.” Stritch is no Bernadette Peters, but in her own way she is the perfect person to sing his music.  When she sings…belts is more like it… she tells a story and makes the song her own. Poignant and funny, her rendition of “I Feel Pretty” gives new meaning to the song. The only problem…her memory is failing and she’s not always able to remember the lyrics. Watching her work with her longtime musical director, Rob Bowman, melts your heart…he is so patient with her. And when she forgets the words in concert, it matters not. She’s such a performer that she makes it work.

Alec Baldwin, who played her son on “30 Rock,” is one of the film’s producers, and in interviews, their love for one another is evident. When he’s late to rehearsal she starts calling him Joan Crawford. It’s probably only something Stritch could get away with. Among many, there are other conversations with John Turturro, Nathan Lane,  Cherry Jones, Tina Fey and most poignantly, James Gandolfini, to whom the film is dedicated. All simply admire and adore her.

Stritch is a recovering alcoholic. She makes no excuses, saying she just enjoys drinking. Now she has one drink a day and says that if she was on a desert island and could have just one item, it would be a stocked bar. She’s also diabetic and is constantly monitoring herself. The most dramatic part of the documentary is when we see her experience a hypoglycemic attack and watch her being taken to the hospital.

Residing for years in NYC’s Carlyle Hotel, Stritch was 86 when filming the documentary began. At that time she was contemplating a move back to her Detroit hometown where her family resides, and taking life a little easier.  After completion of the film, as her eyesight worsened and her memory continued to fail, she did make the transition.

But somehow it seems wrong to say she’s done with NYC and all that it’s meant to her. As the documentary and Stritch point out, she’s faced debilitating diabetes, alcoholism and dare one say it, old age, and “she’s still here.” Praise the Lord.

4 nuggets out of 4

Tim’s Vermeer: And Your Point Is?—Movie

January 31, 2014

Tim’s Vermeer” documents one man’s obsession to learn how 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer painted the way he did. Produced by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller (both of Penn and Teller magic fame), the documentary is well done in terms of following its hero, inventor Tim Jenison, but fails to ask one major question—why? Tim says over and over again that he is not a painter. Then why is this so important to him?Tim's Vermeer poster

Obsession aside, Tim is a fascinating character all on his own. A self-made man, he is an inventor, a visionary—genius, if you will (who seems to do his best thinking in the bathtub)—and very rich. It’s his wealth, albeit understated, that enables him to pursue his quest to learn more about Vermeer and his process.

We learn that Vermeer left very little information behind about his work. What separates his art from others seems to be the lighting—how he managed to capture light in his paintings—to the point that they almost look like photographs, long before photography was invented. Others have questioned Vermeer’s methods, most notably, David Hockney in his book, “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of Old Masters” and London architecture professor, Philip Steadman, in his book, “Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces.” Tim engages their interest in his project, telling them of his theories, and Hockney and Steadman end up providing Tim with advice and encouragement along the way.

Tim goes to Holland for some answers, but learns little. He then heads to England to meet with Hockney and, hopefully, to see the lone Vermeer in London, hanging in Buckingham Palace. With the help of friends and the ability to never take no for an answer, Tim is finally allowed a 30-minute private audience with the painting. When he exits the Palace, he is overwhelmed emotionally at what he has witnessed. It’s a very heart-warming moment and really illustrates what a fascinating person Tim is.

Tim ultimately decides the one way to get answers to his questions is to replicate Vermeer’s studio exactly and paint precisely as he thinks Vermeer would have. He chooses to paint Vermeer’s, The Music Lesson. It’s an extremely tedious process, but he follows it through, talking to the camera every step of the way. To tell much more would take away from some of “Tim’s Vermeer” genuine pleasures.

For those who know little (and I am one) about art, photography and the inner workings of each, “Tim’s Vermeer” is very informative. I enjoyed learning more about paints and lighting optics. It’s also fun to watch others who are fully vested in a topic and see how their minds work. Make no mistake; we are in the company of some very brilliant people. But genius can only go so far in holding one’s attention.

At one point during the film, it seems as if among his many talents, Tim is also a mind-reader,  when in trying to paint tiny specs, he says, “it’s like watching paint dry.” Painfully, I have to agree. This is a documentary that would be better served by television…when one could put it on pause, grab a snack or do whatever and the come back to the film. “Tim’s Vermeer” saving grace is its musical score. It’s delightfully in keeping with the tone of the film and helps to pick up the pace best as it can. The documentary’s other major pleasure is Tim himself. Frankly, I want to know a lot more about him. Why this obsession? What’s next? Has he decided to take up painting as a hobby? If there is a follow-up, please, next time, bring it to CNN or HBO.

2 ½ nuggets out of 4

Six by Sondheim: More, Please—Documentary

December 15, 2013

Do you love Broadway musicals? Maybe you enjoy writing. Perhaps you just relish being around smart people. If you fall into any of these categories, “Six by Sondheim” should leap to the top of your viewing list.Six by Sondheim

This terrific new documentary from HBO Documentaries features extensive interviews with composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, as well as performances of his six of his songs. Directed by James Lapine, a collaborator on many Sondheim projects, with Autumn DeWilde and Todd Haynes as film segment directors, “Six by Sondheim” is itself a work of art.

Luckily for us Sondheim has given an endless number of interviews throughout the years with a variety of interviewers ranging from television host Mike Douglas to a young Diane Sawyer to Larry King and David Frost. Sondheim loves to talk about the craft of writing and what fascinating talk it is. He explains what makes a good song for him…how he works…how the rhythms of the song work with the actor. He provides information you probably never once thought about, but coming from him it’s like learning how  magic happens.  What makes this documentary so entertaining aside from the subject is how the interviews are put together. We see Sondheim discussing the same topics from decade to decade, interviews overlapping so seamlessly that it looks as if he is talking about “West Side Story” as a clean-shaven 25-year-old and then, in full-beard, continuing that same conversation 30 years later. The editing is simply masterful.

In a series of some very poignant interviews, Sondheim talks a great deal about his childhood and the influence of composer Oscar Hammerstein II in his life, both as father figure and mentor. He notes that it was Hammerstein who encouraged him to take the lyricist jobs that came his way early in his career as a way of getting his foot in the door and for the learning experience. And that is how the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy came to be. But in 1962, Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and never looked back. His days as a lyricist only were over

Although the HBO documentary provides a lot of Sondheim music, “Six by Sondheim” focuses on six songs which were written during different periods in his life: “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story; “Opening Doors” from Merrily We Roll Along; “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music; “I’m Still Here” from Follies; “Being Alive” from Company; and “Sunday”  from Sunday in the Park with George. Some songs are newly performed in full for the documentary such as “Clowns” by Audra McDonald and “I’m Still Here” by Jarvis Cocker. Others are clips from shows such as Sunday. We get a full-on new staging of “Opening Doors” performed by America Ferrara, Darren Criss and Jeremy Jordan, joined by Broadway veterans Jackie Hoffman and Laura Osnes with a cameo by Sondheim himself. We watch a very young Larry Kert belting out “Something’s Coming.” And what might be the most interesting performance shown is the documentary  film clip about the recording of the original Broadway cast album of Company with Dean Jones’ performance of “Being Alive.” Who knew this Disney star could sing like that?

At 83 Sondheim shows no signs of slowing down. He still has new projects. He still loves what he does and thankfully he still enjoys teaching and talking about his craft. “Six by Sondheim” reawakened my love for Sondheim music as well as the man.  I am more than ready to sign up for Sondheim University.

“Six by Sondheim” is available on HBO on Demand. Go to http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/six-by-sondheim# for more information.

4 nuggets out of 4


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