REVIEW: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

1 05 2017

Norman Lear is, to borrow a term used by the President to describe Frederick Douglass, being recognized more and more these days. But unlike the abolitionist hero, Lear is still alive! Luckily for us, his work and enormous contributions to shaping American society by revolutionizing the sitcom are receiving their proper due. Lear himself is not content to go gently into that good night, either; the nonagenarian just kicked off a podcast this month!

A few years ago, however, Lear penned a memoir, and documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady came along for the book tour. Their observations on the journey form the backbone of “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.” It’s definitely a puff piece, though the halo is dim enough that it falls short of hagiography. Their film lands somewhere in Sunday morning news magazine segment territory, just at a feature length, which is a fine place to reside.

Ewing and Grady assemble an impressive array of talking heads to interview, ranging from obvious contenders such as comedic peer Mel Brooks and famous showrunners like Lena Dunham and Phil Rosenthal (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) to some genuinely surprising faces like George Clooney. For those who want to understand Lear’s importance and don’t have the time to binge-watch “All in the Family,” this documentary will provide an important primer to his historical importance and continued relevance. Ewing and Grady aren’t pushing the documentary form like Lear stretched the TV sitcom, though that’s hardly an issue. B

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REVIEW: Rosewater

10 11 2014

RosewaterTelluride Film Festival

It is fairly common for a director to choose a protagonist that they identify with to some degree – after all, why devote years of your life to telling someone’s story if you cannot connect to them?  Thus, Christopher Nolan directs films about obsessive heroes, David O. Russell has recently been looking at characters trying to reinvent themselves, and Woody Allen devotes movie after movie to sexually tense intellectuals (just to name a few).

At first glance, few similarities appear between Jon Stewart, the director of the film “Rosewater,” and its subject, Maziar Bahari.  Stewart is, of course, a wildly popular satirical newscaster who has left an indelible mark on American political discourse.  Bahari, on the other hand, is an Iranian-Canadian journalist who dared to document the tense 2009 elections in his home country.  They did happen to somewhat cross paths, though, as Bahari appeared on a segment for The Daily Show.

This humorous interview was entertainment for Americans and evidence for the Iranian government, which was looking to clamp down on dissidents in the wake of former President Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election.  Bahari spent nearly four months in jail there, much of it in solitary confinement, while being interrogated ruthlessly as an enemy of the state.  “Rosewater” may very well exist as a film to placate the guilt in Stewart’s soul for his small role in causing this pain.

Yet self-absolution is far too simplistic an explanation for the film, as Stewart clearly identifies a kindred spirit in Bahari.  They face remarkably different circumstances and stakes in their line of work, obviously, but Stewart and Bahari both speak truth to power by relying on principles of logic and reason.  In the face of resistance, neither is afraid to use to ridicule the institutional folly.  Whether Bahari actually embodies these characteristics is anybody’s guess.  It is not hard, however, to imagine Stewart standing in the holding cell delivering his lines.

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Telluride Film Festival Diary, Day 3

31 08 2014

8:30 A.M.: Up early to talk with Mike Leigh and then hit up one of my most anticipated films of the festival –  the Marion Cotillard-starring “Two Days, One Night.”

11:30 A.M.: Floored by “Two Days, One Night.” A fascinating look at the internal tussle between self-interest and self-sacrifice. Now headed to the noon panel!

1:00 P.M.: Ugh, nothing worse than having to leave an incredible panel that featured Jon Stewart, Gael Garcia Bernal, Bennett Miller (director of “Moneyball” and “Foxcatcher”), and Jean-Marc Vallee (director of “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild”). But now I’m about to see an obscure silent film with live accompaniment, which is certainly a cool thing. Even if the movie is a dud, it is certainly a unique experience to cross off the cinematic bucket list.

5:30 P.M.: Well, the silent film was a pretty neat thing to see. I was not entirely in the right mindset to watch that kind of a film, so I didn’t necessarily engage with it on a level I’d hoped.

Then we had student Q&A sessions with the Dardennes (who directed “Two Days, One Night”) and Morten Tyldum (who directed “The Imitation Game,” which I did even get to see). I told the French-speaking Dardennes bonjour, which was sadly all the interaction I had with them. I had a great question for them, but I didn’t get called on. The conversation with Tyldum was surprisingly interesting, considering that none of us saw the film.

Now, on to “Dancing Arabs,” an Israeli-Palestinian film that I know absolutely nothing about. And sometimes, that’s not a bad thing.

8:45 P.M.: GOT INTO “FOXCATCHER.” Festival = made. And James Gray, the director of my favorite 2014 film “The Immigrant,” is sitting two rows behind me!

Also, I ran into Ramin Bahrani, the director of “99 Homes,” while in line for the bathroom today. I told him how much I enjoyed the film, and he replied in astonishment that I was able to stay awake. I also chatted him up about Winston-Salem, where he filmed a short that played before the presentation last night. Pretty cool stuff!

Oh, and “Dancing Arabs” was mediocre, in case you were wondering.

12:11 A.M.:  Back from “Foxcatcher.”  What a cerebral, brooding film.  Definitely going to spend some time in deliberation on this one.  Reminds me of how I felt emerging from “The Master.”

Anyways, tomorrow is the day when the festival reprograms the films that had lots of turnaways – so wish me luck as I attempt to catch “Rosewater” and “Wild.”  So now I’m going to try to finish the book of the latter … which I doubt will happen.