Meet the Patels

(USA 2015)

Poking fun at cultural differences and the generation gap seems like an easy way to get a laugh, and maybe it is. Fortunately, it works in Meet the Patels, a genuinely funny documentary of one man’s search for love that becomes a family project. After breaking up with his Caucasian girlfriend of two years– a girlfriend he never mentioned to his immigrant parents– L.A. based comic Ravi Patel decides to try the traditional Indian system of hooking up: letting the parents arrange it. Why not? It worked for them, and his mother is known for her matchmaking skills.

Although we don’t see much of sister Geeta as she records everything, her presence is pervasive: she’s off-camera laughing mischievously, goading her brother and chiding him when he vacillates on dating matters. The real stars, however, are Patel’s parents, father Vasant and mother Champa, who fret endlessly over the fact that their children are approaching their thirties and are STILL single, as though this qualifies them as town lepers. Vasant goes so far as to declare, in all seriousness, that not getting married makes one “the biggest loser you can be.” They quickly put together Ravi’s “biodata,” which essentially is a dating resume, and forward biodatas of potential matches to him. They take him to weddings and give him pep talks. They send him all over the States to meet Indian girls. The results are amusing and illuminating. For example, I didn’t know “wheatish brown” is a thing to look for in a mate. I never heard that some skin tones and geographical areas are more desirable than others. I had no idea that many Patels prefer to marry other Patels.

Ravi’s deadpan “OMG” delivery is consistently fun, and animated bits interspersed throughout the film keep the mood light. In the end, it’s clear that no matter how disparate certain views may be, parents and their children can find a middle ground, adapt, and find happiness together. Meet the Patels is warm, relatable, and something pretty much anyone will find entertaining. I laughed a lot.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B

Janis: Little Girl Blue

(USA 2015)

Of several celebrity biography documentaries I’ve seen this year, two stand out: Amy (as in Winehouse) and Janis: Little Girl Blue. Interestingly, both performers had similar personalities, made similar music, and traveled similar roads that ended early (at the same age, no less). Both biographies also present their subjects in an imperfect albeit human light.

Narrated by Cat Power, director Amy Berg lets Joplin tell her own story through letters she wrote to her family after leaving Texas for San Francisco in the early Sixties. Interviews with her sister, former band mates, and even Dick Cavett, who famously discussed Joplin’s upcoming ten-year high school reunion on his show less than two months before her death (and who curiously disclosed in his interview for this film that he “may or may not” have been intimate with her), round out her story. What emerges is an ambitious outcast searching for love and acceptance. Two anecdotes are particularly telling and disturbing: a fraternity voted Joplin “ugliest man on campus” during her short tenure at the University of Texas at Austin during the fall of 1962, and footage from her aforementioned ten-year reunion suggests that her old classmates ignored her when she showed up. Weird, considering she was already famous by then. Janis: Little Girl Blue shows a vulnerable side of Joplin that I didn’t know she had.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) A

Gabo: the Creation of Gabriel García Márquez [Gabo, la creación de Gabriel García Márquez]

(USA 2015)

Despite a misleading title that suggests TMZ-like journalism, Gabo is a decent biography of one of the greatest authors from the Twentieth Century—and probably the best-known Latin American writer, ever. Justin Webster does a thoughtful and thorough job covering García Márquez‘s impressive life from his humble beginnings in Colombia to his lean days in college and his careers as journalist and then Nobel Prize winning author. He touches on major works and even gets into García Márquez‘s politics. Comments from celebrities like Bill Clinton are nice, but the best stuff comes from García Márquez‘s siblings, Aída and Jaime, and his friends.

Warning: those expecting an in-depth discussion of García Márquez‘s literary works or his “magical realism” will be sorely disappointed; Gabo is very much a factual account of the man’s life. It’s not a biography that humanizes its subject, nor does it mirror his work.

(Gener Siskel Film Center) C+


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+

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-

The Amazing Nina Simone

(USA 2015)

Amazing, indeed– both her talent and her life. This thorough documentary follows singer Nina Simone from her humble beginnings in a tiny North Carolina mountain town where she was Eunice Wayman through her death following a stroke in 2003. A piano prodigy early on thanks to her father– who her brother tells us is where her talent came from– Wayman’s dream of being America’s first black female classical concert pianist was dashed when the Curtis Institute rejected her application. She turned to nightclubs, changed her name to Nina Simone so her mother wouldn’t find out where she was working, and the rest as they say is history.

Director Jeff L. Lieberman touches on a lot of interesting stuff from every period of her life: Simone’s first marriage to a cute but lazy French sponge, her bisexuality, her association with Langston Hughes and MLK, her attitude toward the Black Panthers and Malcolm X, and her mental instability that worsened as she got older. He rounds it out with interviews of those who knew her, music and civil rights history, and academic commentary.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B