Whitney – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

This emotionally gripping documentary about the personal and professional life of the late Whitney Houston strives to present a balanced depiction of the six-time Grammy winner’s rise and fall from stardom.

Whitney Houston from the documentary Whitney. Photo copyright 2018 Roadside Attractions.

Comparisons to 2017’s Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal documentary, Whitney: Can I Be Me are inevitable. The newer film covers the same ground of Whitney’s ghetto beginnings, vocal training by her mother, singing with the church choir, meteoric rise to fame, marriage to Bobby Brown, and fall from grace – along with the family, friends, and lovers along the way.

Whispered Rumors

The new film, Whitney also brings up the long-whispered rumors of bisexuality, but drops a bombshell late in the film that was previously unknown to the general public: Whitney was the victim of childhood sexual abuse by a relative. Through compassionate storytelling and precise editing, we learn of Whitney’s self-described demons that have haunted her dreams since her youth when she was known as “Nippy,” instead of by her given name, Whitney.

It’s apparent from her self-destructive behavior during the final two decades of her life (she died at age 48 from drowning in a bathtub while under the influence of drugs and alcohol) that inner demons plagued her waking hours as well. Those closest to the singer, her mother (Cissy Houston), aunt (Mary Jones), ex-husband (Bobby Brown), her two brothers, her hairstylist, and others share their memories about her talent and troubles.

1980’s Zeitgeist

Combining archival footage, original interviews, backstage home movies, and rare performances, this documentary offers a variety of viewpoints that go beyond her obvious talent and beauty. The film also is a tribute to the early 1980’s zeitgeist with commercials, news reports, and pop culture influences depicting the years when Whitney made headlines for her accomplishments, such as a starring role in The Bodyguard, rather than her later drug use, fights with her husband, and failed attempts to reignite her career.

While friends, family, and fans can argue over whether her tragic downfall and death came from drug abuse, the pressures of fame, Bobby Brown’s influence, sexual identity conflicts, childhood sexual abuse, or a combination of these elements, nearly everyone can agree Whitney Houston had an extraordinarily beautiful voice and exceptional range that deservedly took her to the top of the charts. Whitney answers most questions about the singer’s life, but like every good documentary also raises new ones.

Whitney

  • This documentary reveals never-before-seen footage of the late Whitney Houston, both on-stage and behind the scenes for a glamorous and gritty look at the singer’s life.
  • Stars: Whitney Houston (archive footage), Bobby Brown, Bobbi Kristina Brown (archive footage), Cissy Houston, Clive Davis, Gary Houston, Mary Jones, Robyn Crawford (archive footage)
  • Director: Kevin Macdonald
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Run Time: 120 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language and drug content)

 

American Animals – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

The need to feel special motivates four Kentucky college students to get in touch with their animal instincts in this stylish crime drama based on true events.

American Animals. Photo copyright 2018 The Orchard.

Set in Lexington, Kentucky, in 2004 (although filmed in North Carolina), Transylvania University art student, Spencer Reinhard (sensitively portrayed by Barry Keoghan), recognizes his artistic ability, but fears his art will never be significant because he hasn’t suffered for it or undergone some transformative process like famous artists of the past.

A Special Collections Exhibit

One day Spencer’s class visits the special collections exhibit in the school’s library that includes John James Audubon’s original manuscript for The Birds of America. Worth more than $10 million, this book (along with a few other rare items in the small showroom) is the kind of important art Spencer longs to create.

While driving around with his impetuous friend, Warren (Evan Peters bursting with charismatic instability), they theoretically discuss what it would take to steal those rare artifacts. Warren recently lost his athletic scholarship and his parents are divorcing, so in addition to his already freewheeling personality, he now thinks he has little to lose at this point in his life. Their families both live comfortable middle-class lives, so lack of money is not the motivating factor.

The Birds of America is an enormously oversized book guarded by Mrs. Gooch, the special collections librarian, (Ann Dowd, excellent as always) inside a locked case in a locked room. Soon the young men’s random theories start taking shape and they research the possibility of actually pulling off the heist. They decide to enlist the aid of two additional friends, Eric (Jared Abrahamson), a brainy accounting major studying at the nearby University of Kentucky and his wealthy friend, Chas (Blake Jenner), who can provide a reliable vehicle and be the driver for the heist. Each of the four seems to have a different reason for getting involved in the outlandishly ill-conceived plot that includes improvised architectural plans, a stun gun, and old-men disguises.

Actors and the People They Portray

Throughout the film, some of the real people involved in the case give their side of the story, which sometimes conflicts with another person’s version. The four thieves, their parents, a professor, and the librarian share their truth about what happened during that time. Director Bart Layton takes some bold stylish moves with the film by including varying points of view, different versions of some of the scenes, and in one surreal moment has an actor within the film interact with the person he’s portraying as if they long to communicate with each other.

With such a daring heist and such inept thieves there’s plenty that can go wrong, and it does. While their intention was not to hurt anyone or anything, they wind up humiliating, assaulting, and terrorizing the librarian, and risking damage to the rare items they hope to fence on the black market to some Amsterdam dealers. Though not a feel-good film in any way, some comical moments brighten the mood on occasion, and help the audience realize how little perspective the young men have on the severity of their actions.

American Animals

  • In this true story, four male college students with no experience and no motive, plan a daring heist of a library’s prized possession.
  • Stars: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Ann Dowd, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Udo Kier, Lara Grice, Whitney Goin, Wayne Duvall
  • Director-Writer: Bart Layton
  • Genre: Crime Drama
  • Run Time: 116 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some drug use and crude /sexual material)
  • Additional Information: American Animals was the opening film for the 2018 Florida Film Festival.

Pope Francis: A Man of His Word – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

More of a tribute than a balanced documentary, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word examines the public life and philosophical beliefs of the current pope.

Pope Francis: A Man of His Word. Photo copyright 2018 Focus Features.

This oddly constructed documentary begins with an eerie narration by director Wim Wenders about how time flies, the Earth is dying, and people are destroying species on a daily basis. More of this narration appears throughout the documentary. A recreated black-and-white scene of Saint Francis of Assisi, after whom the current pope models his beliefs, follows the introduction.

A Vow of Poverty

Saint Francis is best remembered for his vow of poverty, love for all humanity, and commitment to nature. These flashback scenes of Saint Francis also appear throughout the film and draw parallels between the past and present. These two creative choices – director’s narration and B&W recreated historical flashbacks – help break up the monotony of a talking head, but feel awkwardly out of place with the rest of the material.

When not exploring these two tangential areas, the bulk of the documentary directly concerns Pope Francis and his messages for everyone around the world, regardless of religion (or lack of it). These messages focus (not surprisingly based on the introduction) on aiding the poor, sick, and outcast members of society, loving everyone and embracing their differences, and cleaning up the environment. Shown delivering public addresses and in private interviews, he advocates all churches placing their hope on the people, not their money, and that work, land, and home are essential to a fulfilling life. Without a place to live, however, all other points are moot: “Protecting the planet is our most important task today,” he says.

We Are Not Machines

In many cases, exclusive footage shows Pope Francis visiting prisons, children’s hospitals, typhoon-ravaged areas, huge assemblies, and political meetings. He also flies in a private jet and rides in his Pope Mobile to wave to the people during scheduled appearances and official proceedings. We learn of the humble life he prefers to live and the small car in which he normally rides when not participating in an official capacity. Based on what this documentary chooses to reveal, Pope Francis is indeed a man of his word. “We are not machines,” he says, yet most of us “live with the accelerator down all the time.” He consciously chooses not to do this.

If Wenders’s only goal was to show the world how closely the current pope strives to emulate Saint Francis of Assisi, then we can rate this film a huge success. If the documentary is evaluated in terms of its artistic cohesion, balanced presentation, and overall enjoyment, then it’s far less successful.

Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

  • Exploring his message more than the man himself, this biographical documentary follows Pope Francis as he travels the world espousing integration, inclusivity, hope, and love.
  • Stars: Pope Francis, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, John Kerry, Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, Shimon Perez, Vladimir Putin, Donald J. Trump, Melania Trump, Wim Wenders (narrator)
  • Director-Writer: Wim Wenders
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Run Time: 96 minutes
  • Additional Information: Watch a trailer for this film.

I Feel Pretty – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

What do you get when you cross the movies Big and Shallow Hal? Something a lot like I Feel Pretty, Amy Schumer’s newest rom-com.

Amy Schumer stars in I Feel Pretty.Photo copyright 2018 STX Films.

Schumer portrays Renee, a plus-sized woman with low self-esteem who undergoes a transformative process after a head injury at spinning class. Shortly before the accident, she makes a wish into a fountain that she were beautiful (ala the boy’s wish to be big in Big) and hears a motiving pep talk from the fitness instructor that when she looks in the mirror she will see who she wants to see (similar to Hal’s hypnosis to see the beauty in others in Shallow Hal).

A Confidence Boost

Sure enough, after cracking her skull on the gym floor and having a clump of hair ripped out by its roots, she looks into the mirror and sees a supermodel, instead of her pudgy average-looking self. At first, this confidence boost is exactly what she needs to forget about being overlooked in the bar scene, body-shamed by store clerks, and ridiculed at the gym for her large feet and hefty size. She now flounces around in mini-skirts and heels and assumes that everyone likes her and all men want her. She even has the confidence to apply for a high-profile receptionist job at the elitist cosmetic company headquarters where she has toiled away in obscurity for years in its online sales division.

What could possibly go wrong? If you’ve watched many rom-coms, you already know the answer. Renee previously suffered from a lack of confidence, and now her newfound over-confidence will become her flaw. Her situation changes from bad to worse until she finds a warm happy place in the middle of those two extremes. And, of course, realizes that she was beautiful all along, and never physically changed during the transformation.

Feeling Invisible

Schumer delivers a consistently funny performance, accentuated by moments of sincerity. Most of us can relate to feeling invisible and marginalized at some point in our lives, and Renee endures many such cringe-worthy experiences. Her best friends (Aidy Bryant and Busy Philipps) get a little more screen time than the typical friends-in-the-thankless-sidekick-roles.

Renee’s new boss (Michelle Williams) has all the physical attributes most women desire, in addition to money, power, and prestige, yet her squeaky little-girl voice and out-of-touch business practices make her reliant on the brash new-hire working the front desk. Renee’s new love interest, Ethan (Rory Scovel), displays the appropriate emotions of someone dating a flamboyant kook with fluctuating self-esteem. Scovel reflects the inner conflict of a man who has one foot out the door ready to run and the other foot firmly planted to see what crazy shenanigans Renee will do next (a memorable bikini contest is one such example).

This is light comedy with a fine cast, but a well-worn message about recognizing one’s inner beauty – and even that tired message gets diluted by the cosmetics company subplot. It’s too bad that Renee wasn’t employed by a more inner-beauty-affirming company – a humanitarian non-profit, for instance. Oh wait a minute…that was Shallow Hal.

I Feel Pretty

  • After a head injury, a woman with low self-esteem believes herself to be undeniably pretty.
  • Stars: Amy Schumer, Michelle Williams, Rory Scovel, Busy Philipps, Aidy Bryant, Naomi Campbell, Tom Hopper, Lauren Hutton, Emily Ratajkowski
  • Directors-Writers: Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein
  • Genre: Romantic Comedy
  • Run Time: 111 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, some partial nudity, and language)
  • Additional Information: Watch a trailer for this film.

 

 

 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Betty White: Myth, Mirth, and Merch

By Leslie C. Halpern

Although she has detractors, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has evolved into the Betty White of the legal system. Most people – even young people – lovingly embrace this living legend. Now 85 years old, the diminutive Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States is the subject of the documentary RBG, a full-length feature directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Tickets for the one-time screening at the 2018 Florida Film Festival on Saturday, April 14th sold out quickly after going on sale a couple of weeks before the show.

Myth

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in RBG. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a life-long crusader for women’s equality and basic human rights for all, and has a reputation around Washington D.C. as an outspoken liberal queen who, though reviled by many conservatives, is adored by nearly everyone else. It’s often assumed that she has an opinion on everything and sits on the edge of her chair eager to give the dissenting vote. In reality, her children and late husband, Marty, (interviewed in RBG) describe her as quiet, reserved, ladylike, and serious, not prone to emotional outbursts. In the documentary, she comments on her often-quoted observations about politics, “Never respond in anger because it’s self-defeating.”

Likewise, Betty White (now well into her nineties) has myths surrounding her. Although Ms. White gives the appearance of being the same adorable eccentric off-screen that we see onscreen, she’s actually an intelligent actress, comedian, and businesswoman who has proven herself willing to take on vastly different roles during a television and film career spanning more than 60 years. She’s also adaptable enough to change with the times in order to remain relevant with her loyal fans and younger generations just discovering her.

Mirth

RBG meme

According to the documentary RBG, Justice Ginsburg rarely cracks a smile or makes a joke. That was her late husband’s job – in addition to the cooking. Though she’s known for being erudite and articulate, there’s also something inherently amusing about the feisty 5’ 0½ ” octogenarian in her over-sized glasses and drab black Justice robes adorned with frilly collars.

Kate McKinnon’s impression of her is a popular character who shows up frequently on the “Weekend Update” segment of Saturday Night Live. McKinnon’s over-the-top version depicts the same philosophies of Justice Ginsburg, but the opposite personality, expressing sexual innuendo and biting barbs, often punctuated with an energetic dance and the taglines: “And that’s a Ginsburg” or “He just got Ginsburged.”

Betty White meme

Betty White also has a strong connection to Saturday Night Live. Older audiences grew up watching her on television, but younger audiences became aware of her after she starred in recent television series, such as Hot in Cleveland and Boston Legal, and films (The Proposal and You Again), and perhaps most notably in a Super Bowl commercial for Snickers.

Her newfound popularity with the younger generations of fans included a successful Facebook campaign launched to have her host Saturday Night Live. She claims to have been asked several times to host the show, but feared performing in front of a live audience. She eventually hosted the show in 2010 after the Facebook campaign.

Merch

Another similarity between the two women is the merchandise – the mugs, the tee shirts, the socks, the DVDs, and other items. Amazon.com even offers a “Dissent Collar Necklace” for sale in Justice Ginsburg’s honor. And books, there are lots of published books. There’s Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley, The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong…and You Can Too by Bryant Johnson, The Ruth Bader Ginsburg Coloring Book by Tom F. O’Leary, and others, including her best-selling memoir My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Mary Hartnett. Try Googling Ruth Bader Ginsburg and you’ll get more than 467,000 results.

The Golden Girls

Ms. White is no literary slouch either with several published books to her credit including her New York Times bestselling memoir If You Ask Me: (And Of Course You Won’t) and dozens of other books written about her by others, including the comic book, Female Force: Betty White by Patrick McCray and illustrated by Todd Tennant. Her image also is represented in a Funko POP TV action figure, mini cutout standee, celebrity mask, and posters, plus many more items where she’s joined by fellow cast members from The Golden Girls, Hot in Cleveland, You Again, and other productions.

Youth-Oriented Culture

With our youth-oriented disposable culture that promptly dismisses obsolete celebrities after their 15 minutes of fame, it’s amazing how these two significantly older women have captured the imaginations of so many and maintained this public interest over the long term. Perhaps even more curious is how the two women have overcome the initial surprise of their late-in-life popularity and accepted their status with grace and humor. In the documentary RBG, Justice Ginsburg (who recently celebrated another birthday) notes in disbelief: “I am 84 years old and everyone wants to take a picture with me.”

It’s anybody’s guess who’ll become the next non-traditional, over-age American icon who serendipitously captures the fluctuating zeitgeist.

For More Information

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg on IMDB
  • Betty White on IMDB