2015 Film, Documentary, Film

Amy – Love really is a “losing game.”

I know I am behind with posting, but I will just keep plugging along. Time to go back to July with Amy.


I knew it would be painful to watch Asif Kapadia’s documentary, Amy. I knew it would also be hard to write about it. I first listened to the Terry Gross Fresh Air interview (transcript here) with Kapadia and Winehouse’s former manager, Nick Shymansky. The saddest part of that Fresh Air show for me was learning that when a teenage Amy told her mother about her new discovery of bulimia, her mother, whose non-assertive personality prevented her from parenting her daughter, did nothing.

In the documentary, I learned how her father’s affair and her parents’ divorce was the turning point in Winehouse’s life that was the beginning of her downward spiral that resulted in her death at 27. I learned how her father exploited her. I began to see her as a girl and then a woman who never had a chance. As someone who has been truly touched by her music, I cannot help but wish that she had not had the pain that inspired so many of her songs. Because Amy brilliantly shows us the path that Ms. Winehouse took from life as a happy child with beyond-extraordinary talent to one as a star haunted by demons and hounded by the press (and the general, insensitive public), I could see clearly her spiral that seemed inevitable because those she loved the most were not there in meaningful ways. She was doomed. She deserved to have a better life. I do not believe everything happens for a reason. I do not believe a 27-year-old should be sacrificed for some “greater” cause.

The home videos, the interviews, the behind-the-scenes expressions of emotions, and the very well-placed Winehouse songs (with lyrics on the screen for us to follow) make the structure of the film create an impact that is that much more powerful. I found myself wondering, “When will it get to the part when she becomes world famous?” But I was glad that I was seeing so much of the journey. And ultimately that world fame was, as it often is, destructive.

Amy is a success because of the care taken to make sure we understand Winehouse’s humanity and her sincerity. She is a hero to me. She had everyone around her, but she actually had no one and held on for as long as she could. She gave us her art that she could never quite do the way she wanted. What she wanted for her career she never realized, but I take away her genius. I also take away the peace and self-image that she should have had; instead, those gifts and that security were selfishly and brutally taken away from her. If you are a fan of genius and true sensitivity and true art, see Amy.

2015 Film, Film

Boulevard (explosions that must come)


There is a moment during the climax of Boulevard when Kathy Baker (Joy) openly expresses her desire for a lifestyle that so many live and fight to maintain. The fight is a subtle one, but the feelings involved are anything but, even if they are not outwardly expressed on a regular basis. Everything is below the surface in the marriage between Nolan Mack (Academy Award® Winner Robin Williams) and Joy. Both are suppressing desire, but only one grows to want to take steps to have more. They respect each other and have a neat, clean home and have neat meals. But it’s not real. Usually I remind myself that there are so many people around me living that way, but I was so enthralled with the Mack household that I was only thinking about when something would blow up in it. The silence is deafening.

Directed by Dito Montiel and written by Douglas Soesbe, Boulevard is the last released onscreen Robin Williams performance (and his final dramatic role). I had the privilege of seeing this film as a screening of the New York Film Critics Series. To me, the quietness of the film reflects the below-the-surface life of Williams’s and Baker’s characters. Nolan steps outside of his world to find fulfillment because either he lives a more authentic life or he dies. Some people are made to live in fantasy, and some are not. Others can for a while or for years, but then have to get out. Some go in and out for their entire lives. Eventually Nolan makes his decision, but let’s just say he makes a big one. Roberto Aguire is vulnerable and magnetic as Leo, to whom Nolan is drawn for the companionship he needs. When Leo resists this would-be emotional connection, as a viewer you are wondering what will happen and what will be Nolan’s reaction.

These quiet performances have explosions, but those explosions are muted because of the people who have them and because that is what most explosions are: real people in real situations. Besides, I want to take back the word explosions from those action/adventure movies that are all actual explosions and fires with no actual story. Robin Williams is truly a rare treasure. His talent transcends all labels, categories, and boundaries. His tortured Nolan makes you feel along with him, wonder along with him, and desire along with him. I couldn’t breathe because I knew Nolan couldn’t breathe in his life. It is a wonderful performance. Kathy Baker forces you to empathize with Joy because of her sincereness even if she is living a silent lie. Baker brings out her explosions (that are coupled with indignation) to perfection. You should see this film to see a communication of the truth that goes on behind closed doors and, through various means, can come spilling out.

2015 Film, Film

Love & Mercy–not your typical biopic


I have seen and loved “typical” biopics. You know—that formula that takes us on quite the ride of the life and loves and losses of an individual, spanning decades. The short montage that represents the years passing just so the movie can settle into the new, exciting time period during which “more stuff happens.” I’ve often found those to be cheesy. Why not just cut to the next scene and put the year on the screen? But then there are the biopics that do focus on a specific time in an individual’s life (not decades) but are still “typical” in their formula, often (as the first case is also often accused of) in order to become “Oscar Bait.” Just like with their counterparts of wider scope, the pacing, the dramatic scenes that focus on incidents that tug at the heartstrings of moviegoers, and, of course, the choice to leave out certain incidents that wouldn’t “play into the narrative” that moviegoers have been sold are all elements.

When I walked out of Love & Mercy (dir. Bill Pohlad, wri. Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner), based on the life of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, my first thought, after I’d just seen (and liked, actually) a biopic that was, in fact, formulaic, my first thought was that this was not your typical biopic and is worth watching for that and for the pacing, the performances, the incidents, and all of those choices made, but because they are not formulaic or what you’d normally see.

LOVE AND MERCY - 2015 FILM STILL - Pictured: Paul Giamatti, John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks - Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel Roadside Attractions Release.

LOVE AND MERCY – 2015 FILM STILL – Pictured: Paul Giamatti, John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks – Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel Roadside Attractions Release.

There is a montage, but it is so well done that I, in the best possible way, did not know what had hit me. I will not reveal the way it is put together, but it takes place at such a height of emotion and showcases how excellently Paul Dano and John Cusack share the role of Wilson. The way the film treats time is one of its main strengths. Dano displays his talents as his character is caught in the conflict between commercial success and true artistic fulfillment, which, as it mostly always does, involves pressure from others to favor the former. Cusack shows us the toll years of unbearable pressure, work, and mental illness can take when there is no help available and there are people around taking advantage of you. Paul Giamatti (Dr. Eugene Landy) is terrifying as one of those people (and he does it so so well—he can do anything).

In my book, the standout performance comes from Elizabeth Banks, who plays Melinda Ledbetter, who meets John Cusack in a car dealership. She is a character in her own right and has a life and a history. Banks very impressively carries all of that and brings weight to the role as a woman who is adding to her life unpredictably bizarre situations and manages to achieve what no one else is ever able to achieve.

2015 Film, Documentary, Film, Television

What Happened, Miss Simone?–“How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”

“How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”

“I want to shake people up so bad that when they leave a nightclub where I performed, I just want them to be to pieces.”

What Happened, Miss Simone? Title

It isn’t hard to figure out “what happened” to Nina Simone. She was born in North Carolina in 1933 and was not allowed to talk about race in her home. Racial terrorism during the 1960s spurred her on to use her art, unapologetically, to speak out—and to figure out who she was and encourage all African Americans to do the same.


When she was a child named Eunice Waymon, white teachers noticed her extraordinary talent and taught her classical piano. In order to get to her lessons, she —a girl who, for purposes of survival, was taught not to question racism and segregation—had to cross the railroad tracks that divided black and white worlds.

After a traumatic end to her dreams of becoming a classical pianist, she found herself a singer. When she chose to use her career as a platform for her activism (see her song “Mississippi Goddam“), her lack of concern for commercial appeal caused people to ask, “What happened?” Life-long demons and increasing frustration about Civil Rights led to abusive relationships; the unrelenting rigor of performing, traveling, and attempting to live up to expectations resulted in health struggles.  

Liz Garbus’s documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix), is a wonderfully unflinching look at Simone. The strength of the film is the use of rare, archival footage of her performances and recordings of and interviews with Ms. Simone and those who worked with her and loved her. It was clear to me what happened to her, and I was touched by how she so willingly gave of herself to inspire people and bring attention to the race problem. She used her art, which was what she had to express herself. “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” she famously said. In order to achieve what she believed to be the true artistic task, she allowed herself to feel intensely.

Her problems nearly destroyed her, but she had the gift of loving friends who came to help save her.

So when people ask, “What happened?” I hope they also ask themselves how brave they themselves are. In Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun, Lena Younger (Mama) says to her daughter, Beneatha, at probably the second-most emotional moment of the play, “Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well, then, you ain’t through learning—because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so! When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”

What Happened, Miss Simone? tells us what happened but leaves it to us to decide whether or not to consider those “hills and valleys.” I don’t see how anyone could not.

2015 Film, Documentary, Film

The Wolfpack – The Outside World of Movies


When Mukunda Angulo gets a job as a production assistant and displays in-depth knowledge about filmmaking in that setting, I had the thought that he and his brothers possess more skill than many young people I know who leave their homes every day. The situation in Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack and in the outside world is, of course, more complicated than that, but it is worth noting the roles of curiosity, enthusiasm, outlook, companionship, and imagination when it comes to facing life’s opportunities and restrictions. The six Angulo (two brothers have since changed their names) grew up with parents who wanted a different, freer life for them. Unfortunately, the inability to get out of Manhattan and a distrust of the city and the people in it (essentially, “the world”) caused the father to restrict them to the walls of their apartment where they stayed locked in. He had the only key to the front door and controlled entry and exit.

The boys watched movies—thousands of them. They watched with the creativity and the drive to absorb, appreciate, and reenact the scripts with a seriousness that has them, as we see in the film, watching and rewatching in order to hand-copy entire scripts in order to play the roles among themselves. They create their own costumes, create their own sets, and inhabit roles with deep understanding of the process they learn so much about from their keen powers of observation and from the sheer amount of time they spend with films. They create a (literal) interior world (the rooms of their home turned movie sets) that grew from the interior world of their creative minds spurred on by their love of cinema.

They began to venture outside to explore New York. Moselle discovered them one day on the street early on. When watching the film, I was most saddened when watching interviews with their mother, Susanne. It seemed that she was always negotiating in the gulf between her husband and her children. She says “there were more rules” (set by her husband) for her “than there were for them.” What of her life and her own self-expression? I was struck by how she shows her deep love for her sons while balancing her relationship with her husband, who is estranged from most of them. Their lives have affected each brother in different ways, but that they have each other is what I took from the film—and what I mentioned earlier—the roles of curiosity, enthusiasm, outlook, companionship, and imagination when it comes to facing life’s opportunities and restrictions—is definitely something to think about.

For updates, see this New York Times piece (June 10, 2015) from Cara Buckley.

2015 Film, Film

Mad Max: Fury Road – So Much on that Road


As someone not into “action films” and not familiar with the Mad Max franchise, I, at first, wasn’t sure if I would go see this film. Then, after becoming a bit more familiar through my friend’s post, I decided to go. The names Charlize Theron (and Tom Hardy—please see Lockeit also involves a road) also had something to do with my decision, as well as a trailer (that I’d seen many times at the movies) so fast and intense that I was left breathless; I had to have been paying enough attention to it in order for it to leave me breathless.

I am glad I saw Mad Max: Fury Road and did not lump it into the “action” category in my mind. I will, however, continue to avoid those action films that portray women as objects and “prizes” to be won by the male leads who are defined by their fancy cars, money, nice homes, nice clothes, and, well, male privilege. Unfortunately, they’ll continue to make plenty of money without my support. Fortunately, there are movies like Fury Road to give us something, within the genre, more authentic to watch.

Everything happens on the road—birth; death; a relationship involving a balanced exchange of support between a man and a woman, not defined by gender roles; falling in love; “car” trouble; teamwork; bitter struggles between opposing ideologies; nostalgia; letting go of the past; facing the future. . . . There is also a dangerous patriarchal society that should remind us of all the work needing to be done in real life. It is very nice to see Theron’s character in a role of power and at the same time see her need to rely on others at times, because one-dimensional representations of women who can only show strength and no vulnerability strip those characters of their humanity and leave even fewer examples of truthfulness in the culture. The same is true for Hardy’s character. He needs to be saved but also saves. I saw the relationship between the two as a positive one. I saw women represented as complex, which is something I hope to one day not have to point out because that would mean that there has been an important step toward seeing and presenting reality for what it is.