Showing posts with label Documentaries. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Documentaries. Show all posts

Sunday, March 19, 2023

SXSW: Being Mary Tyler Moore


Directed by James Adolphus and co-produced by Lena Waithe, Being Mary Tyler Moore is a new documentary that shines a spotlight on one of the most influential and iconic women of the 20th Century. The impact of Mary Tyler Moore on the entertainment industry cannot be understated. She really molded the image of the modern American woman with her performances in The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She became a household name and a role model for independent working women. Behind the scenes, she struggled with the tragic deaths of her sister and her son, a miscarriage and diabetes. She maintained a sense of optimism despite her struggles and found much joy in her later years with her third husband Dr. Robert Levine and her animals that she tended to on her sprawling estate in Greenwich, Connecticut.

I had the pleasure of attending the world premiere of Being Mary Tyler Moore at the 2023 SXSW Film and TV Festival. This documentary was the third I had seen at the festival in which the entire film is comprised of archival footage. The other two were The Lady Bird Diaries (my review) and Love to Love You, Donna Summer (my review). In Being Mary Tyler Moore, the viewer is treated to clips from Moore’s television shows and movies, home video and one particular long-form interview she did in which she discussed her career and personal struggles. The documentary also features audio of interviews with her husband Robert Levine as well as Rob Reiner, Ed Asner and several of her friends and colleagues who knew her well. I think it would have been nice to have talking heads and to actually see the interview subjects discuss Mary Tyler Moore. There was a bit of a disconnect seeing so many visual elements but not actually putting faces to names. From the post-film discussion, it was said that the decision was made to lean into the archival footage, much of which showcases Moore's unique personality and talents while also more intimate moments. Because Mary Tyler Moore is no longer with us, the footage was a way for her to tell her own story.

All three archival documentaries I watched had several things in common—one in particular was that the respective families was involved in the making of the films. While this will ultimately lead to some bias in the other two documentaries, I didn’t feel it affected Being Mary Tyler Moore. The film really didn’t shy away from the darker elements of Moore’s life. It also felt more celebratory than protective. For those who are interested in Moore’s work outside television, her films Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? (1968), and Ordinary People (1980) were all discussed to some extent. The documentary also covers her stage work and her early career as a dancer.

Being Mary Tyler Moore is an intimate tribute to a legend. A must-watch for Mary Tyler Moore fans as well as anyone who enjoys biographical documentaries about interesting women.

The film is distributed by HBO and will be released later this year. You can find more information about on HBO's official website

A big thank you to SXSW for the opportunity to attend the world premiere!

Monday, November 21, 2022

The Automat (2021)


Even if you've never set foot inside of an Automat, chances are seeing one in an old movie will fill you with a sense of nostalgia. There's something magical about that place. They only existed in New York City and Philadelphia but their reputation spread far beyond those city limits. Horn & Hardart Automats were cafes where you essentially served yourself through an automated service. Little glass cubicles lined the walls. You put nickels in the slot, turn the brass handle and a delicious treat would be waiting for you on the other side. Before Doordash and online ordering, the Automat was the most technologically advanced way to get inexpensive and delicious food quickly. The cafe had an air of sophistication. Coffee was poured from their signature dolphin head spouts, elegant tables made up the main dining room and signage offering Pies, Hot Dishes and Salads lined the walls. The Automat offered a magical combination of quality food and atmosphere at a low cost. It's not something that exists anymore—the last Automat closed in the 1990s—but it's something we all so desperately wish could come back. In a time of hyperinflation, being able to access a bit of elegance and quality food for not a lot of money seems like a dream.

I was thrilled to write a piece for Turner Classic Movies to accompany their new programming line-up for November 22nd: The Automat. Ben Mankiewicz will be interviewing Lisa Hurwitz, the filmmaker behind the excellent new documentary on the history of the Automat. The line-up includes screenings of The Automat (2021), That Touch of Mink (1962), an encore of the documentary, Easy Living (1937), Thirty Day Princess (1934) and Sadie McKee (1934). What all of the feature films have in common is that they each feature a working woman in dire financial straits who seeks out an Automat for some solace and nourishment.

Here is a snippet from my TCM article about the new documentary:

"Directed by Lisa Hurwitz, The Automat (2021) explores the history behind Horn & Hardart as well as the Automat’s cultural influence. It playfully starts with comedian Mel Brooks pondering the significance of making this documentary and his own personal memories of Automats being “one of the greatest inventions and insane centers of paradise.” The film is bookmarked with Brooks’ performance of his original song, a sweet tribute to the Automat. In between we hear from well-known names including Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Colin Powell and Ruth Bader Ginsburg who all share their personal memories of what the Automat meant to them. Hurwitz interviews experts including Automat historian Alec Shuldiner and Lorraine B. Diel and Marianne Hardart, authors of “The Automat: The History, Recipes, and Allure of Horn & Hardart’s Masterpiece”. Then there are the interview subjects with intimate knowledge of the business side of Horn & Hardart. The most fascinating of these was John Romas, the former Vice President of Engineering who had many stories to tell, as well as a treasure trove of gadgets stashed away from when the final Automat closed. What The Automat documentary excels at is offering viewers a contextual history of how this business was born, how it thrived and how it became part of the social fabric of New York City and Philadelphia. It was a 20th century phenomenon that was truly of its era."

The Automat (2021) is available on DVD from Kino Lorber as well as on digital from Kino Now. The DVD includes an extended video interview with Mel Brooks, commentary by director Lisa Hurwitz, archival footage Horn & Hardart, a theatrical trailer and English language subtitles.

I highly recommend watching all 53 minutes of the extended Mel Brooks interview because he has some great stories and goes off on some interesting tangents. I enjoyed hearing him talk about how his brother helped him with homework, how he secretly would eat ham and cheese sandwiches at the Automat and not tell his mom and hearing him give Hurwitz advice on how to make and promote the documentary (which she didn't need but is charming nonetheless!).

AmazonBarnes and NobleDeep DiscountKino Lorber — Official Website

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of The Automat (2021) for review.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Fiddler's Journey to the Big Screen (2022)

Director Daniel Raim continues his quest to champion the art of filmmaking with his latest documentary Fiddler's Journey to the Big Screen (2022). Narrated by Jeff Goldblum, this documentary takes a deep dive into the making of Fiddler on the Roof (1971), director Norman Jewison's personal and professional journey and all of the key players who came to together to make one of the greatest musical films of all time.

Fiddler on the Roof was the brainchild of composer Jerry Bock, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and writer Joseph Stein. The inspiration came from a selection of short stories by Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem called Teyve and his Daughters as well as artist Marc Chagall's 1912 painting The Fiddler. The play opened on Broadway in 1964 and there was some concern that the story would only appeal to a small Jewish audience. However, Fiddler's tale of a Jewish dairy farmer who attempts to marry off his five daughters in pre-revolutionary Russia, is a story of family, tradition and the inevitability of change. This gave the story a universal appeal and along with the excellent story and top-notch musical numbers, Fiddler was an international success. And naturally it was destined to become a film. 

Fiddler's Journey to the Big Screen explores the history behind the Broadway show, how Norman Jewison came to be involved, the casting, musical direction, art direction, location scouting, choreography, cinematography and many other elements that came to make the film as well as Fiddler's legacy. There is so much here to take in but it never feels overwhelming. 

The documentary includes interviews with director Norman Jewison, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, musical director John Williams, actresses Rosalind Harris (Tzeitel), Michele Marsh (Hodel) and Neva Small (Chava) and film critic Kenneth Turan. There are also archival interviews of Jewison back in 2000 as well as actor Topol and art director Robert F. Boyle. The interviews add so much to this documentary. There is nothing quite like first hand accounts of an important moment in film history. And much like Daniel Raim's other documentaries, there are illustrations from artist Patrick Mate as well as plenty of archival footage and behind-the-scenes photographs. The documentary is also is chock full of interesting facts even beyond just the making of Fiddler on the Roof. Watching it felt like I was getting two documentaries for the price of one: the making of a film and the biography of its director. 

Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber

Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber

"My documentaries preserve film history and depict the art, craft, and soul of the movies through intimate portraits of cinema artists." — Daniel Raim

I was already a fan of Daniel Raim's other work, especially Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story which continues to be my favorite documentary. I also really loved Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers and In Search of Ozu (available on the Criterion Channel). He scores another win with Fiddler's Journey to the Big Screen.

An engrossing documentary from start to finish, Fiddler's Journey to the Big Screen is a must watch for fans of the musical and for anyone interested in the art of filmmaking.

Fiddler's Journey to the Big Screen is distributed by Zeitgeist Films in association with Kino Lorber (I'm hoping a blu-ray/dvd release is in the near future!). It opens at the Angelika Film Center in NYC on April 29th and the Laemmle Royal and Town Center in LA on May 6th which many more screenings to follow. Visit the official page for more details.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

SXSW: The Last Movie Stars

Credit: Philippe Le Tellier/Paris Match via Getty Images

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward are the subjects of a new documentary streaming later this year on HBO Max. Told in six chapters, The Last Movie Stars chronicles Newman and Woodward's acting careers, including the sixteen films they made together, and their enduring love story. I had the privilege of attending the world premiere of the first chapter at this year's SXSW Film Festival and am thrilled to share a bit about this documentary with you.

The Last Movie Stars is the brainchild of producer Emily Wachtel who was close friends with the Newman-Woodward family and was able to get access to recordings, photos and home videos used in the film. Ethan Hawke directed the film and gave the project an "actors on actors" perspective.

The project began just as the pandemic put us all in isolation. The film embraces the constraints of the pandemic and is primarily composed of archival footage, movie clips, narration and Zoom interviews. This works quite well in the first chapter and I'm curious to see if continues to work or if it will bog down the rest of the film.

To offer some background, some years ago Paul Newman started working on a memoir. He invited friends and family to tell their stories about their relationships with him including his wife Joanne Woodward, his ex-wife Jackie Witte, his friends and fellow collaborators Gore Vidal, Karl Malden, Sidney Lumet, Elia Kazan and more. He also recorded himself discussing different aspects of his life and career. It's uncertain why but Newman eventually destroyed all of these recordings. Lucky for us, they were all transcribed and those transcriptions survived. 

In The Last Movie Stars, Ethan Hawke invites his actor friends to read the transcriptions in the voices of the various subjects. George Clooney plays Paul Newman, Laura Linney plays Joanne Woodward, Zoe Kazan plays Jackie Witte, Vincent D'Onofrio plays Gore Vidal, etc. Other actors include Mark Ruffalo, Billy Crudup, Sam Rockwell, Oscar Isaac and Steve Zahn. Along with their narrations, there are Zoom interviews with all of the actors. They share their mutual admiration for Newman and Woodward with Hawke who guides the story. There are also of other interviews with figures like Sally Field and Martin Scorsese who don't narrate but offer their perspectives and stories. It's a very meta approach. The audience follows along with the creation of the documentary as they learn more about these two fascinating subjects from film history.

The documentary's core purpose which is to tell the story of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Chapter one focuses on how they became actors, their affair which lead to the break-up of Newman's first marriage and the beginning of their lifelong adventure together. One takeaway from the first chapter is that Woodward very much came into her own at the beginning of her career while it took Newman to really discover himself as an actor. Newman eventually overshadowed Woodward as his fame skyrocketed. However, the two had a mutual respect for each other and Woodward was able to find a deeper meaning to her life and career. With The Last Movie Stars, producer Emily Wachtel and director Ethan Hawke are reintroducing Newman and Woodward to a new generation with the hope that telling their story will help reinforce their legacy as the great actors they were. 

Watching The Last Movie Stars reinvigorated me. My purpose has always been to keep film history alive and share the joys of classic movies with others. This documentary does just that. Having seen the first chapter, I am anxious to see the next five. At the world premiere, Hawke shared that the first three chapters are completed but the last three are still in the editing process. He estimated that they'll be done by June. A streaming date has yet to be announced.

Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas

Ethan Hawke introducing The Last Movie Stars at SXSW

Q&A after the world premiere. Left to Right: Richard Linklater, Emily Wachtel, Ethan Hawke

I hope to do a full review once all six chapters of the documentary are available.

Note to add: While Joanne Woodward is still with us, she suffers from alzheimer's disease and was not able to be interviewed for this project. 

Monday, March 14, 2022

SXSW: Still Working 9 to 5

Directed by Camille Hardman and Gary Lane, Still Working 9 to 5 (2022) chronicles the making of 9 to 5 (1980), its impact on our culture and its legacy while also examining the continued struggle women face in the workplace.

In the late 1970s, a movement was gaining steam. With every passing year women were becoming a bigger and bigger part of the workforce. However, they were paid less than their male counterparts, had to endure sexual harassment and were shut out of potentially lucrative positions. 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, became an integral part of the women's movement, advocating for equality in the workplace. And it was out of this rallying cry for change that the dark comedy 9 to 5 (1980) was born.

9 to 5 stars Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as a trio of office workers who seek revenge on their manipulative boss, played by Dabney Coleman. 

The film was the brainchild of Jane Fonda and producer Bruce Gilbert. Originally it was meant to be more of a drama. It was a decided that a comedy would be more palatable to audiences and would be a more effective way of delivering the movie's social message. Many of the dramatic elements remain and this comedy has plenty of dark and disturbing moments along with the humor. The story was written by Patricia Resick and Colin Higgins was hired as both director and co-screenwriter. 20th Century Fox picked up the project for production and distribution. The intention was to have five female leads but that was pared down to just the three. The roles of Judy, Violet and Doralee were written with Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton in mind. Fonda was known for her activism, Tomlin had a hit Broadway show and Parton was a rising country music star. The three were at the top of their game and ready to launch this film into the stratosphere.

9 to 5 (1980) was an amazing success thanks to the film's message, the three dynamic leads, Coleman's excellent villain role and Dolly Parton's theme song 9 to 5 which she wrote and performed for the film.

Still Working 9 to 5 (2022) features interviews with star trio Fonda, Tomlin and Parton as well as Dabney Coleman, writer Patricia Resick and producer Bruce Gilbert. Having access to so many key players adds a wealth of insight that makes this documentary so valuable. Other interviewees include Rita Moreno, who starred in the TV spinoff, Allison Janney, who starred in the Broadway production, and activists, particularly those involved with the 9to5 organization. 

9 to 5 was both a product of its era but also timeless and the documentary expertly weaves behind-the-scenes information with context to demonstrate this. Along with the interviews are archival footage of the movement, TV clips from the film's media tour, clips from 9 to 5 and a new rendition of the theme song performed by Dolly Parton and Kelly Clarkson. Just like the original film, the documentary has a clear social message: while we've made strides towards equality, we still have a long way to go.

Still Working 9 to 5 (2022) had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. Release dates and streaming details are yet to be determined.

Visit the official website to find out more about the film!

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

TCM: Dean Martin: King of Cool

Premiering this week on Turner Classic Movies is the excellent documentary Dean Martin: King of Cool. Directed by Tom Donahue and produced by Ilan Arbodela, this film chronicles the life and career of Dean Martin, from his early days singing in the nightclub circuit, becoming one half of the outrageously popular comedy duo with Jerry Lewis, to his film career, his time with the Rat Pack and his personal struggles. We learn about how Dean Martin went from being part of a close knit Italian community in Steubenville, Ohio, to making waves in Hollywood and Las Vegas. Martin was the epitome of cool and part of this was his sense of mystery. He kept everyone, including his family members, at arms length. He went by the notion of "keep yourself to yourself" and lived his life as a menefrigista (he who doesn't give a f***). Martin was also just an extraordinary talent. He mastered singing, drama, comedy and dance, was the consummate host and improvised with the best of them. There were no mistakes. He kept rolling with the punches and everyone loved his mesmerizing personality.

“What an incredible, joyous labor of love it has been to tell the story of one of the 20th Century’s greatest entertainers... The more I learned, the greater and deeper my appreciation and affection for this man became.” — Tom Donahue


What's truly extraordinary about this documentary is the sheer number of people who were interviewed. Half the fun is seeing so many familiar faces, including Martin's peers, friends, family and even classic film authors (whose books I've reviewed on this blog!). 

Notable talking heads include:
Deana Martin
Norman Lear
Bob Newhart
Frankie Avalon
Regis Philbin
George Schlatter
Dick Cavett
Barbara Rush
Florence Henderson
Peter Bogdanovich
Angie Dickinson
Lainie Kazan
Carol Burnett
Barry Levinson
Todd Fisher
Jon Hamm
James Kaplan 
Jeanine Basinger
Henry Jaglom
and many many more

Hearing from them alongside family members and those who inhabited Dean Martin's world really add to this documentary. It also includes audio recordings, never-before-scene archival footage and film and television clips from Martin's numerous appearances. There are a couple controversial figures included in the interviews as well as a few whom have since passed away. The film loses a bit of steam in the second half and gets quite sad when we get to the most difficult years of Martin's life. But overall it was incredibly enjoyable. Definitely a doc I'll be watching again and again.

Dean Martin: King of Cool airs Friday November 19th with an encore screening Friday November 26th. Check out the dedicated Dean Martin line-up programmed for each evening:

Friday, November 19

8 PM ET — Dean Martin: King of Cool (2021)
9:30 PM ET — The Caddy (1953) – A master golfer suffering from performance anxiety caddies for a man he's taught everything.
11:15 PM ET — Rio Bravo (1959)

Friday, November 26

8 PM ET — Ocean’s 11 (1960) 
10:15 PM ET — Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964)
12:30 AM ET  Dean Martin: King of Cool (2021)

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Woodstock Film Festival: Horton Foote: The Road To Home


Photo by Susan Johann

"As a writer you strive for a sense of truth." — Horton Foote

Playwright Horton Foote (1916-2009) had been honored with many awards and nominations in his lifetime including Emmy awards, Tony nominations, the National Medal of Arts and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Tender Mercies (1983). But chances are, despite his widespread recognition, you may not have heard his name.

Directed by Anne Rapp, Horton Foote: The Road to Home shines a spotlight on a talented and sensitive writer who was often misunderstood and underappreciated by Hollywood. Foote grew up in Wharton, Texas, a small town that would be the inspiration for his many plays for theater, television and film. His original stories were inspired by his local community. He changed real names to fictitious ones and Wharton transformed itself into Harrison, Texas, to protect the locals, and frankly himself from scrutiny. He was particularly attracted to sensitive characters who faced great challenges but still continued on. His stories weren't grandiose nor were they commercial. But they were powerful. And unlike many of his peers, Foote wrote great parts for women. Vulnerable but strong, these women were central to the stories and not just moving pieces that only served the plot. 

In the 1950s and 1960s, Foote wrote many teleplays for shows like American Playhouse, The Dupont Show of the Mount, Playhouse 90 and more. He preferred to write original pieces or adapt his own work but would sometimes adapt other writers work to screen. Foote almost turned down the opportunity to adapt Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird to screen but was convinced by his wife and business partner to give it a go. The result was a resounding success with Foote winning, much to his surprise, his first Academy Award. For Foote, adapting another writer's work was something he did sparingly. He really had to like the material and sympathize with the writer. He called it a painful process because it required him to be both involved in the material and to also be objective. Hollywood saw potential in Foote but didn't know how to work with him. Foote took criticism well however he was firm in his convictions. His work had to be authentic and true to his vision. A commercial writer he was not. He wrote many movie screenplays but only a handful made it to the screen with To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies being his best known work.

"A gentle, sweet man who had a sharp eye and a sharp mind." — Edward Albee


Rapps' documentary takes the viewer on a journey into the world of Horton Foote. There are interviews with Foote's daughters as well as Edward Albee, Robert Duvall, Matthew Broderick, directors, actors, filmmakers and others who worked with Foote during his lifetime. Although Foote died in 2009, the documentary has a lot of footage of Foote talking about his life and career, his love of Wharton and his never ending desire to tell stories. Throughout the film are theatrical scenes, mostly acted out soliloquies from Foote's theatrical plays. 

Horton Foote: The Road to Home is a loving and tender tribute to a great dramatist.

Horton Foote: The Road to Home premiered at the 2021 Woodstock Film Festival. Visit the film's official website for more information.

Monday, August 2, 2021

The New Deal for Artists (1981)

"One of the horrors of a society... is the break with the past, a lack of continuity. Young people know nothing of the past. For that matter even people who lived in the past have forgotten it... the New Deal, The Arts Project, is a good case in point. It's as though it never existed." — Studs Turkel

Time threatened to erase the history of the WPA (Work Progress Administration) and the impact its artists had on the culture of 1930s America and beyond. Part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, the WPA helped create jobs for many Americans during the throes of the Great Depression. This included unemployed artists who were paid $23.86 a week to create art. Jobs were created for actors, directors, musicians, painters, dancers and photographers. Through their different art forms, these creators told the story of an America that was enduring great strife. Theatrical productions played out social dilemmas for audiences, photographers captured the devastation of the Dust Bowl, painters made an impact by creating murals in public spaces, writers documented American life for present and future generations. Black and indigenous communities as well as other minority groups were encouraged to participate. The work of WPA artists stirred up political sentiment that went on to the scrutinized by communist fear mongers who took action to erase their work. 

Photo courtesy of Corinth Films

Image courtesy of Corinth Films

Photo courtesy of Corinth Films

Photo courtesy of Corinth Films

Just in time for the 40th anniversary, Corinth Films has released director Wieland Schulz-Keil's The New Deal for Artists (1981). In the late 1970s, Schulz-Keil had made a 4 hour film for German television about the United States during the Great Depression. A 90 minute section of this longer film, focusing just on WPA artists, was released for American audiences with narration by Orson Welles. The New Deal for Artists examines a time when artists were documenting and disseminating a pivotal moment in our nation's history. We take social documentary for granted these days but back then it was a new concept. The documentary interviews artists, historians and politicians including John Houseman, Studs Turkel, John Randolph, Nelson Algren, Will Geer, Howard Da Silva and even our beloved Norman Lloyd. Film history buffs will appreciate the fact that this documentary offers extensive background on the Federal Theater Project which Houseman, Welles and Lloyd were involved with.

The film has been remastered for DVD and digital. The DVD release includes a 12-page booklet with original essays by Armond White and Ed Rampell.

The New Deal for Artists (1981) is a remarkable documentary, a veritable time capsule of an era when the US government paid artists to capture American life. It fights against obscurity simply by existing. A must watch for anyone interested in cultural history.

Friday, May 7, 2021

TCM Classic Film Festival: Nichols and May: Take Two (1996)


Premiering tomorrow on TCM as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival is Nichols and May: Take Two, director Phillip Schopper's documentary on the famous comedy duo. It previously aired on PBS back in 1996 but it has been unavailable for many years. This will be the first time TCM is airing it.

Elaine May and Mike Nichols were a powerhouse comedy team in the late 1950s and the late 1960s. In an era when the culture was breaking away from conventionality, they shone with their wit and humor about subjects that were considered taboo. They had a synchronicity that made them electric. Nichols and May took America by storm with their best-selling comedy albums and various television appearances. They were new, fresh voices on the comedy scene and influenced the work of many comedians that followed. 

Nichols and May: Take Two captures the magic and subsequent influence of this comedic duo with four archival comedy sequences and interviews with comedians Richard Lewis, Steve Martin and Robin Williams. Also interviewed in the film are Tom Brokaw, Jules Feiffer, Arthur Penn, as well as their manager. The skits are shown in full which allows audiences unfamiliar with Nichols and May to really get a sense of their special brand of comedy.

The documentary airs Saturday at 11;45 AM ET on TCM for their virtual TCM Classic Film Festival and includes an introduction by Mike Nichols' biographer Mark Harris.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Sundance: The Most Beautiful Boy in the World (2021)

Director Luchino Visconti spent months traveling to Russia, Hungary, Poland, Finland and elsewhere in search of the most beautiful boy in the world. When he traveled to Stockholm, Sweden in February 1970, Visconti found him. Björn Andrésen had just turned 15 years old when his grandmother encouraged him to participate in Visconti's casting call. With his mop of blonde hair, blue eyes, feminine features and slender frame, he was the perfect choice to play Tadzio in Visconti's Death in Venice (1971). Tadzio is the son of a wealthy woman vacationing in Venice. He soon becomes the object of fascination (and more disturbingly desire) for Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), a dying composer. The role of Tadzio required no dialogue. Andrésen just had to look good for the camera.

Death in Venice made Björn Andrésen a celebrity overnight. He became the poster boy for ideal beauty and everyone seemed to want him. The young Andrésen was terrified by the press and remembers that time as both a "living nightmare" and a "surreal dream." When you watch Andrésen in Death in Venice and in archival press footage you will clearly see a young boy who is uncomfortable with all this newfound attention. The sudden fame and admiration, which he felt he had done nothing to earn, took a toll on his self-esteem. Andrésen couldn't even capitalize on his fame in Europe as Visconti had complete control over the newcomer with a three year contract. However, Andrésen became particularly famous in Japan. When he visited that country he was treated like a rock star. He was lavished with attention, he modeled for photo shoots, was drawn into a manga series and even made a record. Andrésen has worked as an actor ever since, most recently appearing in the horror film Midsommar (2019). But events from his past, including his mom's mysterious death and the making of Death in Venice, still haunt him to this day.


Directed by Kristina Lindström, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is fascinating look into the life of Björn Andrésen. It tells the story of Björn Andrésen both as a young boy objectified by a famous film director and a man haunted by past traumas. It's an intimate documentary. We hear from Andrésen himself with narrations, interviews and both old and new footage. It also features interviews with his sister, daughter, childhood friend and others close to him.I had known very little about both Death in Venice and Andrésen so I made sure to watch the film immediately after watching the documentary. Lindström's film is as exquisite as it is eye-opening. Highly recommended.

The Most Beautiful Boy in the World premiered at the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival as part of their World Cinema Documentary Competition. It's distributed by Juno Films but there is no news yet about a theatrical or virtual release to the public. 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of Death in Venice (1971). The film is available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection and can be rented on and iTunes.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Sundance: Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It

"She's an original and can't being that every minute of her life." — Norman Lear

Actress, singer, dancer, speaker, activist. Rita Moreno can do it all. Not only is she a natural performer but she lives for the spotlight. For someone who has such energy and passion for what she does, it's natural that her career as an entertainer has lasted as long as it has. Moreno battled sexual harassment, racism and toxic relationships and continued to thrive, broadening her horizons to work in every aspect of the entertainment industry. In doing so it is fitting that Moreno would become the first Latinx performer to earn the label of EGOT (winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony). In paving her own way she helped forge a path for Latinx performers to come.

Directed by Mariem Pérez Riera, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It is a celebratory documentary that offers a polished look at Moreno's life and career. Talking heads include George Chakiris, Norman Lear, Justina Machado, Lin Manuel Miranda, Hector Elizondo, Mitzi Gaynor, Morgan Freeman, Eva Longoria, Gloria Estefan, Terrence McNally, Moreno's daughter, manager, among others. There are also interviews with scholars who offer perspectives of how Moreno's story fits into the history of Latinx performers. Front and center is Rita Moreno herself who shares her trials and tribulations as a Puerto Rican woman coming up in an industry that didn't quite know what to do with her. We learn about what she calls her "dusky maiden roles", her incredible rise to fame, her work in Singin in the Rain (1954) and West Side Story (1960), her torrid romantic relationship with Marlon Brando, her activism and her constant evolution as an artist. Along with interviews there are paper doll animations, scenes from her 86th birthday part and plenty of archival footage. The documentary paints a portrait of a woman who loves life and bursts with joy but also suffers from self-loathing. As a biographical documentary it's quite ordinary. It does allow its subject to shine which many will appreciate. Perhaps the most eye-opening moments for me were when Moreno divulged about her experience with sexual harassment and how that mirrored her role in West Side Story and her troubled marriage.

Highly recommended for fans of Rita Moreno and for Latinx viewers who want to learn more about one of our most important entertainment icons.

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It premiered at the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival as part of their US Documentary competition.

There is no trailer for the documentary so here is an introduction by the director.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story

"A life well-lived goes on and on."

If ever a documentary filled me with hope and broke my heart at the same time, it's this one. A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story is a poignant film about a visionary filmmaker who followed the beat of his own drum and inspired generations of others to do the same. It's also about the heroes in his life, fellow visionaries, inventors, athletes and filmmakers who weren't afraid to pursue their dreams and while doing so made their mark.

"Get your ass off the couch and go have an adventure... make the most of our limited time here. And most of all, have fun and be good, the best good you can." — Bruce Brown

Bruce Brown made waves with the seminal The Endless Summer (1966), a surfing documentary that followed two professional surfers as they traveled the world in search of the best beaches while chasing the warm weather and sunshine. "An endless summer" has become synonymous with pursuing your dreams and living the best quality life you can. The film elevated surfing as a sport and inspired countless athletes. It also motivated others, who had no intention of hanging ten, to shape their own destinies and not settle for the status quo. Brown went on to make another important sport documentary, On Any Sunday (1971), which followed motorcycle racers and enthusiasts, including Steve McQueen. It was nominated for an Academy Award. Brown retired from filmmaking only to revive his career by making The Endless Summer 2 (1994) with his son Dana Brown. 

Bruce Brown spent the years after the 2006 death of his wife Patricia in relative isolation. He preferred to spend time at his home with his beloved dog Rusty. In 2014, his children encouraged Bruce to go on a road trip to visit the important figures who helped mold his life. Bruce agreed... as long as he could bring Rusty. Directed by Dana Brown A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story follows Bruce Brown on this road trip. Along the way we learn about him as a filmmaker, father, husband and friend. During their travels, Brown meets up with his old friends including surfer and inventor Hobie Alter, friend and founder of Clark Foam Grubby Clark, motorcyclist from On Any Sunday Mert Lawwill, surfer and inventor of the neoprene wetsuit Jack O'Neill and others.

"If you're willing to take a leap of faith, get off your butt. Who knows how many great things in the world are out there?"
A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown is a beautiful tribute to a filmmaker who paved the way for many who followed. I was particularly moved by the message of the documentary that life is fleeting, do what makes you happy.

Bruce Brown passed away in 2017 but his legacy lives on. I had the pleasure of meeting Bruce Brown at the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival. He was one of the only guests who asked to meet with fans after a special event. Attendees were treated to the 50th anniversary screening of The Endless Summer and I had a brief chat with Bruce. He was warm, friendly and down to earth. I told him I thought The Endless Summer was a wonderful film. He joked "it's old!" God speed Bruce Brown.

A Life of Endless Summers: The Bruce Brown Story is available on digital and on demand platforms including Amazon Prime and iTunes.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Ghost of Peter Sellers

"For 43 years I covered up this very dark spot of my life. I carried this grudge against myself. After all these years, I'm here and I'm lost. What have I done?" - director Peter Medak

Peter Sellers developed a reputation for being difficult. By the time he started filming Ghost in the Noonday Sun (1974) he was not in a good place. He and Liza Minnelli had just broken up and he was feeling lonely and out of sorts. And he was about to make director Peter Medak's life a living hell. Four decades later Medak would live to tell the tale.

The new documentary The Ghost of Peter Sellers paints the portrait of a temperamental star on the path of self-destruction and a young director with a tormented past who remained hopeful even in the most dire of circumstances. Directed, narrated and starring Medak himself, this is a cathartic exploration of a production that has haunted him for many years. Viewers follow along as Medak interviews those who were involved with the film or had a connection with key players especially Peter Sellers himself. Interview subjects include writer Spike Milligan's agent Norma Farnes, producer and financier John Heyman, directors Joe McGrath and Piers Haggard who had worked with Sellers on other films, Sellers' personal assistant Susan Wood, actor Murray Melvin, Tony Franciosa's widow Rita Franciosa and many others. For a brief moment we hear from actor Robert Wagner who co-starred with Sellers in The Pink Panther (1963). Medak sits down with his friends and colleagues trying to reconstruct what exactly happened and takes us to Cyprus where the filming took place.

Medak interviewing McGrath and Haggard

"Making this documentary film was probably the craziest exercise I have ever done. It meant reaching deep inside and travelling alone through the memories of the worst directing experience of my entire life, reliving every moment again and walking in my own shadow of what happened on my movie 46 years ago." - Peter Medak

Ghost in the Noonday Sun was a high seas comedy starring Peter Sellers, Peter Boyle and Tony Franciosa. If you've never seen or even heard of this film there is a reason why. It was a disaster of a production and Columbia Pictures decided not to give it a theatrical release. Medak was an up-and-coming director. His film The Ruling Class (1972) had been nominated for a Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. His wife was pregnant with their second child, money was tight and he needed his next production to be a sure thing.

Sellers was at the height of his fame. A new Sellers production had the potential to be bought sight unseen. Resting on the laurels of the Sellers dynamic was Medak's biggest mistake. What the hell had he just gotten into? Even with the foreboding sense of an impending disaster the hopeful young director trudged forward.

 "I have a name of being difficult but I'm not difficult at all. I just can't take mediocrity. I cannot take it on any level." - Peter Sellers

You'd think that Sellers would be the villain of the story but that really isn't the case. Yes his behavior is inexcusable but it is clear that there was more going on behind the scenes. Medak clearly admires Sellers comedic genius and mourns his long lost colleague.

The Ghost of Peter Sellers is an enthralling documentary that offers insights into the filmmaking experience and how a person's actions have ripple effects that last long after they have passed on. If you're at all interested in Peter Sellers, film history and the filmmaking process, give this documentary a watch.

The Ghost of Peter Sellers is available today on VOD including Amazon Prime and Google Play.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Bruce Lee ESPN 30 for 30: Be Water

“Empty your mind. Be formless like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. If you put water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. If you put water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. It can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” - Bruce Lee

Directed by Bao Nguyen, ESPN Films presents Be Water, a new documentary about Bruce Lee, the cinema superstar and martial arts legend whose life was cut tragically short. In conjunction with the Bruce Lee Family Archive, Be Water, a reference to Lee's philosophy about martial arts combat, offers a comprehensive look at the charismatic leading man and powerhouse athlete who took the world by storm.

The American born Bruce Lee was raised in Hong Kong and was forever a man caught between two worlds. He would spend his career building a bridge between East and West. Lee began his career in the entertainment industry at a young age. His father, who did not appreciate Lee's developing interest in martial arts and acting, sent him back to America in hopes that his son would forge a different path.

Bruce Lee was a master of the martial arts combat known as Wing Chun. Lee studied other forms of combat and idolized Muhammad Ali whose boxing moves Lee incorporated into his own work. Originally Lee had plans to start a nationwide chain of martial arts schools but at a Long Beach Tournament he was spotted by hairdresser Jay Sebring who told his client producer William Dozier about Lee. Dozier had been looking for an Asian actor to appear in the television series The Green Hornet. Lee auditioned and got the part.

Credit: Bruce Lee Family

The rest should have been smooth sailing for Lee but it was anything but. Lee had everything going for him. He was handsome, charming, incredibly fit, a supremely talented athlete and had an on screen persona that was just electric. But being a Chinese American with a thick accent held him back in an industry that was just not ready or willing to accept him. Lee understood that making it in Hollywood was the Holy Grail of success. He went back to Hong Kong to make films hoping that would elevate his star power. There he proved that he was a film star. Bruce Lee was about to take Hollywood by storm with Enter the Dragon and his work on an upcoming feature film Game of Death. Tragically, he died in Hong Kong at the age of 32. He didn't live to see the success he could have in Hollywood or the legend that he would become.

"I'm sure that my father did not fully appreciate the behemoth he was up against. How deeply systemic it is. That said I don't think he was naive. He just believed in himself so deeply. He knew he had something to share that was worthwhile. He knew how hard he was willing to work." - Shannon Lee

Be Water is one of the best biographical documentaries I've ever had the privilege to see. And I don't make that statement lightly. Nguyen does an incredible job chronicling Bruce Lee's life and career, weaving in Lee's struggles as a Chinese-American man and the treatment of Asians in the entertainment industry. There are moments that are just infuriating like seeing how Lee had to fight to get dialogue for his character Kato in The Green Hornet and how he lost the role in the TV series Kung Fu to actor David Carradine. Throughout the documentary we get a sense of Lee's free spirit, his love for his family, his natural confidence, outgoing nature and strong work ethic. Lee was a proactive participant in his journey; never complacent, always fighting for better roles and representation.

The documentary is solely made up of archival footage including clips from his films and television appearances, home videos, audition tapes, family photos, interviews, newsreel footage and more. It is narrated by the interviews with those who knew him best including his daughter Shannon Lee, his wife Linda Lee Caldwell, his brother Robert Lee, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nancy Kwan, close friends, film producers and others. If you watch this film, do not stop before you get to the end credits. Perhaps the best end credits I have ever seen. I really love what Nguyen did with this. It was quite touching and I was very moved. When you watch the film you'll know what I mean.

"As a child of Vietnamese war refugees, I grew up in America where depictions of Asians and Asian Americans were through a very skewed and narrow lens... It wasn’t until I saw a young man named Bruce Lee onscreen did that all change. I saw someone who looked like me for the first time, with an unapologetic confidence and magnetism that resonated on every inch of the silver screen. Since then and through the making of this film which has taken me over 5 years, I have learned about the racial struggles that Bruce Lee had to overcome to become a cultural icon and it has always been my hope to share his personal story with all the fears, struggles, and vulnerabilities that made him human." Bao Nguyen

Be Water premieres on ESPN as part of their 30 for 30 series on June 7th at 9 PM EST.

Popular Posts

 Twitter   Instagram   Facebook