Bathtubs Over Broadway

Posted on December 16, 2018 at 11:08 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for brief language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 14, 2018

Copyright 2018 Focus Features
There are really three stories in this adorably engaging documentary about “industrial musicals,” the wildly elaborate in-house productions big corporations used to motivate their employees in the 1950’s-70’s. The first is the story of our guide to this world, Steve Young, a writer for David Letterman’s Late Show who describes himself as comedically “damaged” after years of evaluating everything in the world as comedy material. There was almost nothing that made him laugh anymore. The best he could muster was an analytic, “that’s funny.” “We’ve become hard laughs,” he tells us. Over the course of the film, he will lose the job he has had for two decades when Letterman decides to retire. The second, as in many documentaries, is the story of a tiny sub-culture of people who are deeply passionate about something the rest of the world considers odd or quirky or has never heard of. This one lives “at the far horizon where the adjectives of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ don’t apply anymore.” Young may have found them as something to laugh at but he soon develops affection and then passion for them, and by the end of the movie, we can understand why and feel some of it ourselves.

“How can there be something so large and so crazy in the world that we had no idea of?” Young asks. But the answer we get is to a different question: How can an “eccentric adventure” soothe and enlarge a “comedy-damaged” soul? By the end of the film, Young tells us that delving into this odd world has “opened up my ability to be receptive to people.” Anyone he meets can have this kind of history.

And the third is the story of the musicals themselves, often produced, directed, and performed by actual or future Broadway stars, making a very good living doing something they loved and could learn from instead of waiting tables. Just to give you an idea: one of these musicals had a budget of three million dollars. The original production of “My Fair Lady,” which opened the same season on Broadway, had a budget of $466,000. Were they works of art? Well, no, they had singing and dancing spark plugs and ballads about toilets and an opera about spaghetti sauce called “Raguletto.” But they were very professionally done, often quite clever, astonishingly elaborate, and in their own way artifacts of an era of corporate optimism that saw endless possibilities for itself as providers of consumer goods and great jobs. Of course those jobs were for white males, and the glimpses we get of the audience, all wearing near-identical suits and ties.

“I played a trick on history,” Young tells us. These shows were created for the most specific of audiences and were never intended to be seen by outsiders. The biggest surprise is that these most commercial of enterprises are so free from any kind of cynicism. There’s an innocence about them because they come from the post-WWII era, when America seemed unbeatable, and technology seemed thrilling. The “man in a grey flannel suit” corporate employees were “being shown a version of their world where they’re heroes.” If a marvelous new substance called silicone had 180 uses, why not create a song about it? What better way to introduce fabulous new products to the sales team than a catchy musical number? It may have been the “strangest dead end of show business,” with the idea of “What shouldn’t we write a musical about? Let’s write it and make it good and not let anyone see it!” But companies with lavish budgets created souvenir records for their employees to take home and that is how Young began to discover this world of unseen, un heard entertainment. Over the course of the film he tracks down some of the creators and performers, including Susan Stroman (“The Producers”), who explains that she learned a lot from choreographing industrial shows, Martin Short and Florence Henderson, who talk about the pleasures of performing for wildly enthusiastic audiences (Henderson compares it to a revival meeting), and composer Sid Siegel, who specialized in industrial musicals — and who kept a treasure trove of an archive. They were “selling Tupperware but also selling America,” and their unabashed boosterism makes it impossible to be snarky or condescending, leaving us entertained, and perhaps a little wistful.

Parents should know that this film includes brief strong language and a sad death.

Family discussion: If you were going to create a musical about your job or school, what would you sing about? Which production was your favorite?

If you like this, try: the shows by Sheldon Harnick, Chita Rivera, and Martin Short, and the book by Steve Young. Some of the songs are available, too.

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Critics Choice Documentary Awards 2018

Posted on November 11, 2018 at 9:55 am

As a very proud member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, I am delighted to announce this year’s documentary film awards. This was an extraordinary year for documentary films and I wish we could have given out a dozen more prizes. But it was a genuine honor to be able to pay tribute to these outstanding films.

Best Documentary: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Best Limited Documentary Series: The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling

Best Ongoing Documentary Series: Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown

Best Director: Morgan Neville for Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Best First Time Director: TIE: Bing Liu for Minding the Gap, and Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster for Science Fair

Best Political Documentary: RBG

Best Sports Documentary: Free Solo

Best Music Documentary: Quincy

Most Innovative Documentary: Free Solo

Best Cinematography: Free Solo

Best Editing: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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In Washington DC: A Special Event for One Of The Year’s Best Docs, America to Me

Posted on September 21, 2018 at 9:49 pm

On rogerebert.com, Brian Tallerico wrote an all-out rave about “America to Me,” the new documentary series on STARZ from the director of “Hoop Dreams.”

A momentous achievement, both a statement on where we are right now in terms of race and how we need to work together to get somewhere better. As he has with films like “Hoop Dreams,” “Life Itself,” and “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” James and his team find a way to place their empathetic, individual stories against a larger backdrop of social issues across the country. James is one of our most humanist filmmakers—someone who not only knows how to draw out the most interesting aspects of his subjects’ lives but seems to honestly care about who they are and where they’re going. He’s a cinematic listener, someone who gets comfortable enough with his subjects that he allows their best selves to come out on-screen, and allows us the optimism to think that there are people like the kids and teachers in “America to Me” all around this country—people just trying to get through the day, have their voices heard, and maybe make a difference.

On Thursday, September 27, the 10-city America To Me: Real Talk campaign is coming to Washington, DC with a powerful screening and discussion about race and bias in schools across America and in DC in particular, with leaders including former Secretary of Education John King. The America To Me: Real Talk campaign had its auspicious beginnings in DC – the result of a brainstorm between former classmates Jacquelyn Davis, an attorney turned education reformer and Partner at Education Forward DC, and Holly Gordon, Chief Impact Officer at Participant Media. To attend on the 27th, click here.

Copyright STARZ 2018

Produced by Participant Media and Starz, the America To Me: Real Talk 10-city campaign is galvanizing a movement nationwide, with thousands of high schoolers, teachers and administrators embracing the series to confront hard questions, address implicit bias, and take action to create more equitable and inclusive schools. So far, more than 1,000 people have attended America To Me: Real Talk screening events, while 590 individual citizens are leading watch groups and 7,083 more have signed up to participate. Kartemquin has more information here..

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Documentary

Fahrenheit 11/9

Posted on September 20, 2018 at 3:58 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some disturbing material/images
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some graphic and disturbing scenes of military violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 21, 2018

Copyright 2018 Briarcliff Entertainment
Maybe around the time that professional provocateur Michael Moore shows Donald Trump’s voice coming out of Adolf Hitler’s mouth in his latest film, “Fahrenheit 11/9,” you might think he has gone over the top. But Moore would probably tell you that it’s our world that’s gone over the top; he’s just highlighting it so that we can understand what is happening in the midst of a constant barrage of outrage and partisanship.

Fourteen years ago, Moore released “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the title inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, about the September 11 attacks and the aftermath. This film’s title is a reference to another event Moore considers pivotal, the election of Donald Trump in 2016. It begins with dozens of predictions by experts that Hillary Clinton would win the election, and then the stunned reactions when she lost. (Moore himself was one of the very few who predicted a Trump victory.) But he does not spend any time after that on the past. He is not interested in the Mueller investigation or whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. He is interested in the indicators of a weakening of our democracy, as, for example, when a survey of Republicans shows that a majority would support delaying the next Presidential election if President Trump says that it is an emergency, and, an even more sobering example, when so many Americans do not vote.

Moore’s 1989 film, Roger & Me was set in his home town of Flint, Michigan, a once-thriving community with lots of good jobs at the local General Motors plants. As the plants closed or replaced workers with non-US workers and robots (unforgettably, the film included footage of a animatronic display with a human worker singing to the robot that replaced him), the community was devastated economically and psychically bereft. The film, now on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, revolutionized documentary storytelling with its arch tone, quirky characters, and wild stunts, like Moore’s efforts to confront then-GM CEO Roger Smith about Flint.

Almost 20 years later, Moore returns to Flint in this film for an even worse disaster. A new governor, a businessman with no previous government experience, ordered that the water supply in Flint be redirected from Lake Huron to the toxic Flint River, according to Moore so that his business friends could build — and make money from — an unnecessary second pipeline. Lead levels spiked, putting the residents, especially the children, at great risk. Even those who have been following this story will be shocked by some of what Moore reveals here, including a nurse who shows the blood lead levels in the children she tested — before she was directed to alter the results to show them at an acceptable level. General Motors complained that the Flint River Water was harming its remaining production facilities, so they were switched back to Lake Huron while the residents were not. There is dispiriting footage of then-President Obama’s visit to Flint, when his efforts to be reassuring (Look! I’m drinking your water!) make him seem out of touch and condescending. Of course there’s a stunt, with Moore trying to see the governor and then spraying Flint water on the Governor’s grass.

But what hits home hardest is a story that had almost no national coverage, without any notice, the Army scheduled training exercises — with no notice to the residents — with shooting and explosions that made it seem that the town was under attack. Moore also points out that the heroic doctor who exposed the crisis is an immigrant who exemplifies the most aspirational American dream of opportunity and service. And he suggests that the lack of attention from politicians, including Obama, led to the poor voter turnout in a state where mere thousands of votes could have swung the election.

He also points to the one person who is ultimately responsible for electing Donald Trump. SPOILER ALERT: pop star and Voice coach Gwen Stefani.

Like all Moore movies, this one is uneven and polemical as well as illuminating, enraging, and — this is the great secret of Moore — ultimately hopeful. He spends time with young candidates of intelligence and integrity. He shows us the West Virginia teacher’s strike. It is deeply stirring to see the teachers, told to go back to work after their union leaders abandoned the school bus drivers and lunch workers, refuse to stop the strike until their fellow school workers were given a raise as well. We see the Parkland kids turn unthinkable tragedy into purposeful action. “We must have done something right,” Moore says, “We raised you.” “No,” one responds immediately. “Social media raised us.”

She may not realize it, but she was raised by Moore as well, with films like this one.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language and some disturbing images, including violence and peril.

Family discussion: Who in this film do you admire and why? Is this film a form of journalism?

If you like this, try: Michael Moore’s other films, including “Roger & Me” and “Sicko”

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Tea With the Dames

Posted on September 19, 2018 at 12:00 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some strong and salty language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Champagne
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie (gender and aging)
Date Released to Theaters: September 21, 2018

Copyright 2018 IFC Films
Fair warning. It was about ten seconds into this film when the first “Hello, darling” dissolved any critical distance I could muster, and by the time about five minutes later when we got to a “How ghastly,” as only Dame Maggie Smith can say it, I melted into a little puddle of pure happiness. So if seeing four of the greatest actresses in the world talk about their decades of experience and friendship is not for you, then ignore my gushing about how much I love them and how much I loved this film.

Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Joan Plowright, and Dame Eileen Atkins all came of age in the late 1950’s, beginning in theater and then movies and television. Director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) gives us a chance to eavesdrop on one of their get-togethers “to gossip, to remember, and to laugh.” They talk about acting, of course, but also about navigating show business and what they think of critics, and about husbands (everyone agrees that Dame Joan’s husband, Lord Oliver, was the most difficult), beauty, fear, competition, awards (we see each of them being Dame-d, by either Prince Charles or Queen Elizabeth II), Americans, Shakespeare, and aging, with the advice each of them would give their younger selves, though Dame Maggie (I would not dream of any other form of address, given the disdain they show for American clumsiness with titles) admits that her younger self would never have listened. And they do it all with such impeccable diction and classically trained technique in the exquisite timing of le mot plus juste.

In the early days, “you went to reps and you stayed in digs and things,” Dame Judi remembers. And if the landlady was unkind, “you nailed a kipper under the table.” Dame Joan Plowright talks about joining her first company, where another actor warned, “She can’t play queens, you know,” and the director replied, “I should think the last thing we want in a theater for contemporary writers is girls born to play queens.”

The Dames began acting as the “Kitchen Sink” era of postwar Britain was evolving into the swinging 60’s. There are some knowing looks and nostalgic smiles as they recall that era. There is a marvelous camaraderie and warm memories of working together that is unmarred by a continuing competition. Everyone remembers that Judi Dench was the first to be Dame-d. (When Dame Maggie got the word of her award, Dame Judi assured her that “It won’t change anything; you can still swear.) And the octogenarian Dame Maggie makes the kind of pointed comment that only the portrayer of the Dowager Duchess can master; her agent assures her that “We’ll look around for a nice little cameo that Judi does not have her paws on.”

Dame Eileen is less well known in the US, and I hope very much that this film and the marvelous archival clips will inspire American audiences to learn more about her. All of the Dames are exceptionally well represented with a remarkable range of clips, showing once again that one of the key differences between US and British actors is the British actors’ willingness to weigh in with equal enthusiasm to everything from classic dramas to avant garde to sitcoms. The glimpses of their work also provide a subtle but clear contrast between their delicious inability to take themselves seriously in real life and their obvious, visceral commitment to their performances, their characters, and the scripts and screenplays they bring to life.

None of them was willing to play Cleopatra (Shakespeare’s version), though all were asked repeatedly. Dame Judi challenged the director Peter Hall: “Do you really want a menopausal dwarf?” (But she did it.) Dame Maggie did it, but in Canada. But Cleopatra is a rare role that is the center of the play. Dame Joan describes “that rare exhilaration when you know you’re in charge.”

They talk about aging, and about fear, not of illness or death but, endearingly, enduringly, about the very thing they have devoted their lives to, acting. “Are first days still scary?” Michel asks, off camera. “All days,” Dame Maggie says immediately. But it is their relish for exactly that challenge that keeps them so vibrant. “Fear is petrol,” says Dame Judi. “It generates such an energy. If you can somehow handle it, it can be a help.”

As marvelous as they are playing other people, it is pure delight to see them as themselves.

Parents should know that the ladies use some frank and salty language and there are some sexual references.

Family discussion: What advice would you give to your younger self? Why didn’t they want to play Cleopatra?

If you like this, try: the films starring the Dames

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