All the President’s Men

(USA 1976)

Hot off the heels of seeing Spotlight, All the President’s Men seemed an apt choice for another “investigative reporting” drama. And it was; depicting The Washington Post’s historical investigation into Watergate by reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), I definitely see its influence on Spotlight.

The best movies came out of the Seventies, and I’m aware of the Oscar buzz All the President’s Men created in its day. It’s a good film, don’t get me wrong; it just didn’t keep me glued to the tube to find out what happens next. I found myself more interested in spotting future sitcom stars like Polly Holliday, Valerie Curtin, and Meredith Baxter Birney and mentally ranking Hoffman’s roles from other films I liked better. I also found myself more in awe of the sets– that big, bright, colorful, open, and kind of disheveled newspaper office– than the story. Perhaps I wasn’t as in the mood for this type of drama as I thought I was.

In 2010, the United States Library of Congress deemed All the President’s Men “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (

(Home via iTunes) C+

Tab Hunter Confidential

(USA 2015)

Some may find it hard to imagine today, but it wasn’t long ago when being gay was not acceptable in America– not even in “Hollyweird,” as Tab Hunter’s autobiography demonstrates. Tab Hunter Confidential is an interesting and entertaining albeit innocuous slice of what life was once like.

Hunter (real name: Art Kelm) discusses with candor and good humor his rise, fall, and personal life in the closet. He is open but definitely guarded: he treads lightly, ostensibly in the interest of privacy. He’s rather gingerly, too: he doesn’t say he slept with anyone, he says he “went up to his room;” he doesn’t say he dated, he says “we were together.” You get the idea. Appearances from celebrities popular in his day– Debbie Reynolds, Connie Stevens, and Mother Superior Dolores Hart (yes, a starlet turned nun)– round out his story and convey how well-liked he was, and still is.

Co-produced by his partner of three decades, Allan Glaser, Tab Hunter Confidential is not exactly the tell-all the title implies. It shares some great anecdotes and Golden Age Hollywood gossip, but no bombshells. Those seeking salacious details will be disappointed. The many images of young Hunter, however, make up for the lack of sleaze.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C+

Heart of a Dog

(USA 2015)

At first blush, a film about a pet might sound funny, even stupid. Heart of a Dog, Laurie Anderson’s first feature-length in 29 years, is neither. The film’s center is Anderson’s rat terrier, Lolabelle, but don’t be fooled: there’s a lot more to this piece.

Focusing on “Lola”– who “fingerpainted,” “played” the keyboard, and apparently had a Facebook page– Anderson reflects on life, death, loss, grief, and love in an emotional yet restrained, objective way that probably only she can pull off. Drawing from her experiences growing up in the Midwest, life in Manhattan in the aftermath of 9/11, her dreams, and even topics she must have researched, she zigzags between personal anecdotes– both serious and goofy– and information and the topic of death. Death is clearly on her mind: she circles back to Lola, her mother, children in an intensive care burn unit where she was stuck for months as a child, and eventually her famous husband, whose presence hovers like a ghost in the love story she references– it’s fitting that he sings over the closing credits (“Turning Time Around”).

As one might (or should) expect, Heart of a Dog has strong visual and auditory sides. Visually, it’s a pastiche of drawings, paintings, animation, home movies, dramatizations, and natural scenes that blur and mix together. The soundtrack is cool, with bits and pieces of orchestrated sounds and Anderson’s soothing, robotic cadence. The effect is a dreamy, airy, semi stream of consciousness. In the end, it’s a touching elegy that struck a chord with me. Heart of a Dog is an art film that manages to be accessible without losing its impact.

(Music Box) B+

In the Basement [Im keller]

(Austria 2014)

Ulrich Seidl’s In the Basement begins from an interesting idea: a documentary about all the strange things people do in their basements. Sign me up! In actuality, however, it’s a rather boring film. The subjects– an amateur opera singer who runs a firing range in his basement, a weird old lady who keeps ugly dolls she treats like real babies in her basement, a hunter of exotic animals who hangs their stuffed heads in his basement, a collector of Nazi memorabilia with a shrine in his basement, a masochistic woman who helps battered women by day but likes to be spanked by night in her basement, to name just a few– are drab and more pathetic than compelling. I found only two interludes intriguing: a dom/slave couple (the slave licks everything in the bathroom and on his mistress clean) and a homely gigolo who boasts of his ejaculatory prowess. My impression leaving the theater: “Really?” Overall, a snooze.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) D

70 Acres in Chicago

(USA 2015)

The title refers to the area between North and Chicago Avenues and Halsted and Orleans Streets, where the (in)famous Cabrini-Green housing project once stood. I remember when the last building came down in 2011. 70 Acres in Chicago is both an oral history and an essay on the rise and fall of “the CG” or “the Soul Coast,” which one speaker describes as “one mile from Downtown, yet in a whole ‘nother economic dimension.” Long before Cabrini-Green was built, the area was a depository for the poor– until the late 1990s and early 2000s when developers saw potential for something else. Today, a “mixed income” approach exists, which as this film demonstrates has advantages but presents a different set of problems.

Ronit Bezalel is pretty clear about her views on gentrification, but she’s not heavy-handed about them. The historical perspective is a nice backdrop. The many personal stories of those who lived in Cabrini-Green make this film special; they run the gamut from funny to poignant. One thing I did not expect was the amount of nostalgia that came through. 70 Acres in Chicago suggests that maybe someday race will no longer be an issue in America, but class is another matter altogether.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did

(UK 2015)

The trailer for A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did looks promising, asking “What if you grew up as the child of a mass murderer?” British-Jewish lawyer Philippe Sands answers the question by spending some time with two men, Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter, both sons of Nazi governors. Frank– whose father was convicted at Nuremberg and executed– doesn’t mince words when he condemns his father. Von Wächter on the other hand, is in complete denial that his father committed any wrong, in large part because he held a mainly administrative post and fled to Italy to die before he could be caputured. Naturally, von Wächter’s position does not sit well with Sands, whose relatives apparently were executed under the authority of Gov. von Wächter.

Subject matter and archival footage aside, I found A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did lacking. The focus on the conflicting views of von Wächter and Sands is initially interesting but ultimately overshadows any intellectual point: the former’s philistine refusal to face the facts and obvious inability to defend his position are both frustrating enough, but the latter’s supercilious browbeating makes a bad situation worse. With so much to work with, it’s a pity that what could have been an insightful commentary or debate degenerates into a pointless quarrel.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) D+

Paris, Texas

(USA 1984)

I wasn’t sure what to make of Paris, Texas at first. It opens with a twangy Ry Cooder slide guitar playing as some grubby dude in a tattered suit and a red baseball cap wanders through a desert in the American Southwest. Carrying only a plastic gallon water jug, he stumbles into a gas station bar and passes out. When he comes to, he’s in some town hospital– a sad, one-room affair staffed with a lone German physician (Bernhardt Wicki)– and refuses to speak. Insert eyeroll here.

This man, Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), has a brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), who comes from Los Angeles to a dubious rescue. Slowly, it is revealed that Travis has been M.I.A. for four years. He had a family and a life, and lost everything except a plot of land in Paris…Texas, that is. Walt reunites Travis with his son, Hunter (Hunter Carson). After an awkward adjustment, Travis and Hunter hit the road in search of wife and mom Jane (Nastassja Kinski), who sends Hunter a check each month from a bank in Houston even though she no longer speaks to him.

I love this film, and I can’t come up with anything negative to say about it. Written by playwright Sam Shepard, adapted by L.M. Kit Carson, and directed by Wim Wenders, it’s closer to perfect than any other film I’ve seen in a long time. The story is beautifully simple, and unfolds poetically (as corny as that sounds). The characters, on the other hand, are anything but simple; they’re flawed, searching, frustrating, and real. So much happens without a lot of action: the small, quiet events that transpire here are big, magic moments of truth. The desert scenery, highways, and big sky are more than just a stunning backdrop: they reinforce themes of loss, redemption, and sacrifice that surface throughout the story. Absolutely timeless and flawless.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) A+


(USA 2015)

The Roman Catholic Church sex abuse scandal of the early millennium shocked even far fallen Catholics like me. I remember the skeeves I got when I heard that one of the priests from my old parish was “involved”– and some of his accusers purpordedly were former classmates of mine. And it all came to light while we were still reeling from 9/11. O tempora o mores!

Sticking to a period of about eight months with a methodical, deliberate pace that slowly bubbles to a boil, Spotlight tells all the twists, turns, obstacles, and setbacks The Boston Globe’s special investigations team faced in exposing the systemic coverup within the Boston Diocese, executed by Cardinal Law (Len Cariou). No one believed it at first– not even The Globe, which as we learn had information years before. Spotlight grabs you from the get-go and locks you in, letting bits and pieces of evidence mount. The setup is what you’d expect from a film about investigative reporting.

Spotlight is an actors’ movie: drab, colorless sets and straightforward camera work let the ensemble cast work the drama. So, what about the actors? Not a single bad performance here. Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiver, Mark Ruffalo, and Stanley Tucci particularly shine. It’s nice to see Billy Cudrup again. Jimmy LeBlanc (Patrick) is a small but wrenching role, and I swore he was a brother of Chris Evans (he’s not). Rachel McAdams and Brian d’arcy James both work their roles, but their characters are superfluous. John Slattery is amusing, as usual; but his character is essentially Roger Sterling from Mad Men. Minor flaws aside, I see some definite Oscar potential here.

Side note: this was my first visit to the brand new ArcLight Cinema at New City. Not bad, though I need to see another film there to decide whether I like it.

(ArcLight) B+


Radical Grace

(USA 2015)

Catholicism and feminism are unlikely companions, but Rebecca Parrish’s Radical Grace shows that this may be changing. Three American nuns with different agendas face censure by the Vatican for their “radical feminsim:” Sr. Simone Campbell, a lobbyist for the Affordable Care Act, which runs counter to the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception and abortion; Sr. Jean Hughes, a champion for women’s leadership roles within the Church; and Sr. Chris Schenk, a life coach for ex-cons on Chicago’s west side.

Radical Grace is interesting on many levels, but its depiction of the similar changes occurring in the Church and in the United States– and all the conflict and tension that goes along with them– struck me. It’s amazing that some people refuse to give up, no matter how hard their fight is– even when their opponents make it personal.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-


(USA 1975)

Nashville has all the elements of a Robert Altman film: a massive ensemble cast of well known actors, a bunch of interconnected subplots under a general overarching story, naturalistic plot development and dialogue, social commentary, sarcasm, humor, sadness, and even a few cameos by celebrities playing themselves. Just like The Player and Prêt-à-Porter much later, Nashville takes on “the industry”—here, country music.

I don’t know much about Grand Ole Opry and I was never a fan of country, but neither matters: Nashville is a hoot to watch. An awful lot of talent is present, but the performances I like best are Gwen Welles as Sueleen Gay, a wannabe star who can’t sing a note to save her life; Shelley Duvall (I didn’t recognize her until the credits rolled) as a skanky roller girl from L.A.; Henry Gibson as an old school George Jones (maybe?) star; Keith Caradine as Tom, a womanizing and opportunistic uber Seventies Kris Kristofferson type; and Lily Tomlin as Linnea, a session backup singer with two deaf sons. Jeff Goldblum has a very minor and silent part—probably one of his earliest. The songs, purportedly written by the actors, are great, arguably the best part of the movie. The ending comes out of left field, which scores big with me for being unpredictable.

Although I enjoyed Nashville, I had some problems with it. Like many Altman films, it’s gratuitously long; two hours and 40 minutes is more than enough time to tell this story. My mind wandered at times, mainly because of the meandering way the action plays out. It’s a lot of work to follow 24 characters. Many of the conversations take place over each other, forcing you to choose which ones to focus on—that gets tiring. The running gag with the BBC reporter (Geraldine Chaplin) goes on too long. I’ve heard some lofty praise for Nashville, some of it warranted. However, it’s not my favorite Altman film by any stretch—if you’re wondering, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean or the aforementioned The Player are in my humble opinion much more satisfying.

In 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed Nashville “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (

(Music Box) C+