Niceness is a wildly underrated quality in contemporary pop culture. Like everyone else, I enjoy stories about miscreants and creeps and ne’er-do-wells. But I’ve also come to treasure movies where good people are kind and tender to each other in ways that aren’t maudlin or phony. One of the reasons I enjoyed Obvious Child, which Noel covered yesterday, is because the characters in it were just so nice to each other. The same is true of the beautiful, wholesome, and freshly scrubbed Mormons in Mitt, a surprisingly intimate, casually revelatory documentary about Republican candidate Mitt Romney, his close-knit family, and his two unsuccessful presidential campaigns.
The film doesn’t dramatically alter the popular image of Romney so much as it enriches and deepens it. Romney is still the blow-dried, clean-cut child of wealth and privilege of the popular imagination. But in Mitt, he’s also a man who guffaws heartily at David Sedaris on This American Life, has a surprisingly sharp sense of humor and ability to laugh at himself, and clearly adores a family that reciprocates that affection three-fold. Mitt humanizes Romney and his lovely family. It’s easy to laugh at his wife Ann Romney and her penchant for fancy dressage horses; it’s a lot harder upon learning that the horses help Ann Romney cope with her multiple sclerosis.
Watching Mitt, I found myself in the strange position of rooting for a man whose politics and positions I abhor and whose lifestyle could not be more different than mine. This cognitive dissonance is most intense during the second 2012 presidential debate, when I went from delighting in Obama’s domination of his Republican opponent to feeling empathy for Romney’s family as they watch their father stumble. Is Romney’s wholesome, Mr. Clean persona an act? Mitt suggests not, and further suggests that Romney’s not just a Ken doll, he’s a Ken doll with a soul.
It would be difficult to imagine two more different, even antithetical, figures than Romney and Roger Ebert, and I suspect that Ebert, ever the firebrand liberal, might shake an angry fist down from Atheist Heaven at being mentioned in the same sentence as Romney. Ebert was a man of the people who never lost his common touch no matter how rich or revered he became. Romney is a child of wealth and privilege, the son of a governor. Ebert was famous for his Falstaffian appetites who wrote an X-rated movie five years before he became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize. Romney is a famously clean-living teetotaler. The blow-dried Romney looks like an evening newscaster, while before cancer, Ebert was known for his girth nearly as much as for his eloquence and insight.
Yet in a phrase that figures prominently in Life Itself, Steve James’ superb and heart-wrenching documentary about Ebert’s life and career (adapted from a 2011 memoir of the same name), Ebert prized movies, particularly documentaries, as “empathy machines” that engender tolerance and understanding by allowing audiences to experience lives, people, and beliefs that may be radically different from their own—even Mormon Republicans ready to write off 47 percent of the public as freeloading parasites.
I do not profess to be an objective viewer of Life Itself. Ebert was a personal hero of mine and I was lucky enough to share a city, a screening room, and a profession with him for many years. One of the happiest moments of my life was when he wrote a glorious blurb for my memoir. But part of the greatness of Ebert was that he seemed to have a personal connection with just about everybody. On television and in print, Ebert had a way of making people feel like he was speaking directly to them in a voice that was wise yet casual, unpretentious yet steeped in a deep and comprehensive knowledge of the arts. That voice—undeniably Midwestern, humane, and irreverent—dominates Life Itself, even though many of the film’s most poignant and moving sequences chronicle the end of Ebert’s life, after cancer had robbed him of his speaking voice and part of his face while imbuing his writing and thinking with new depth and profundity.
Even in the long, grey shadow of death, Ebert radiates life, whether he’s boogying to Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years” while having his jaw suctioned—a song whose title must have had special resonance for him as he looked back at a glorious past and a brief, uncertain future—or using his trademark thumbs up to convey a sense of childlike delight despite the pain wracking his body. Steve James’ film alternates between scenes from Ebert’s life and career and heart-wrenching recent footage of Ebert and his soulmate/wife Chaz wrestling with a series of ultimately fatal complications from his long, public battle with cancer. I attended Ebert’s memorial service, and it was anything but funereal. On the contrary, it was a riotous and electric celebration of life. The memorial and the film in which it’s prominently featured honor Ebert’s spirit not by turning him into a paper saint, but by acknowledging his ferocious humanity.
The interviews subjects in Life Itself are not too cowed by Ebert’s reputation to call him on his shit, to affectionately recall a man who was brave and brilliant but also once had terrible taste in women, fetishized enormous boobs, drank too much before embracing sobriety, was insanely competitive with rival and life partner Gene Siskel, and could be arrogant and full of himself as well as kind and generous. Ebert cherished fevered, informed debate, so he would have welcomed the film inviting critical voices like Richard Corliss—who held Siskel and Ebert responsible for dumbing down film criticism in a piece for Film Comment—and the curmudgeonly Jonathan Rosenbaum, who essentially accuses Ebert of being a cog in a studio-mandated machine to promote big mainstream films and destroy independent movies, a charge undercut by the many independent filmmakers who talk movingly about how Ebert embraced their passionate little movies and changed their lives in the process. Ebert asked James, whose work he had long championed, to make a movie about the man and not the icon, and that’s just what he did. Life Itself is a film worthy of Ebert, and that is just about the highest praise it can possibly get. At the risk of being cheesy, I give it—my enthusiastic recommendation.
The lives of Ebert and George Takei, the ebullient subject of the crowd-pleasing documentary To Be Takei, are both defined by almost inconceivable tragedy and incredible triumphs, though the timelines are reversed. Tragedy struck Ebert at the end of the glorious life chronicled so movingly and entertainingly in Life Itself. Takei’s period of trauma occurred at the beginning of his stranger-than-fiction life, when, as a 4-year-old, he and his family were rounded up and placed in an interment camp during World War II. Takei talks of the bitter irony of being made to say the Pledge Of Allegiance to a country that had imprisoned a small child for the crime of looking like America’s current enemies. That would have instilled many with a distinct bitterness toward American society as a whole, especially when coupled with the bigotry and intolerance Takei faced as a gay Asian actor at a time when both groups were largely invisible in pop culture, if not openly mocked. Yet Takei radiates an infectious joy throughout To Be Takei. He clearly loves being George Takei, and has lustily embraced a distinctly William Shatner-esque second life as a cult icon known for his social-media tomfoolery, activism, and eagerness to spoof his image.
Takei is a wonderful subject, a handsome man who could easily pass for someone 20 years younger and who speaks in a deep, sonorous voice, with a leering inflection that makes everything he says sound vaguely smutty. Much of the film is focussed on Takei’s odd-couple marriage to a nervous fuss-bucket whose neuroses and attention to detail nicely complement Takei’s flash and ribald good humor. To Be Takei is a warm and loving portrait of an enduring marriage between two very different men who nevertheless seem perfect for each other.
To Be Takei is almost too blithely entertaining. Takei is such a delight in the present-day and recent scenes that the pain of his interment doesn’t register as strongly or as painfully as it should, especially considering that part of the film documents his efforts to put together a musical named Allegiance based on his experiences. Then again, if To Be Takei isn’t quite as deep or as substantive as it could be, that might just be a tribute to its lovable subject: Takei refuses to be defined by his traumatic childhood or the bigotry he endured earlier in his life, so why should his film?
We now travel from affectionate portraits of good men to muckraking exposés that take on not just a single miscreant, but an entire corrupt system that allows terrible people to commit crimes for decades with relative impunity. On paper, Whitey: United States Of America V. James J. Bulger should be a sure thing. Director Joe Berlinger, co-director of Brother’s Keeper and the Paradise Lost series, returns to another fascinating true-crime story, this time that of James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger, who reportedly killed at least 19 people during a decades-long reign of terror as the most powerful and feared mobster in Boston. At the beginning of the trial it is clear that, barring some unforeseen miracle, the elderly Bulger will be going to jail for the rest of his life for his endless string of crimes. So the real stakes aren’t a question of guilt or innocence so much as legacy. Was Bulger an FBI informer who used this cover as an excuse to eliminate his enemies and operate above the law, as the government alleges? And did the vicious Bulger personally murder two women?
Bulger has no problem being thought of as a killer and a mobster, but he can’t stand people thinking he’s a government snitch or a murderer of women, two accusations that violate his self-styled moral code. It should be a fascinating story, but the film quickly gets bogged down with accusations and cross-accusations as more and more figures enter picture. Bulger ends up all but disappearing from the narrative, and the film gets murkier and murkier in a way that doesn’t elucidate the ambiguity of the case so much as confuse the narrative.
Amir Bar-Lev’s Happy Valley boasts a resemblance to Whitey in theme, tone, and subject matter. Both films hook audiences in with luridly sensationalistic subject matter (the horrific crimes of Whitey Bulger and Jerry Sandusky, respectively) only to present a muckraking exposé of systematic corruption in which the ostensible subjects fade into the background. Happy Valley is like Bar-Lev’s excellent two previous films, My Kid Could Paint That and The Tillman Story, in examining the conflict between a lie that provides an emotionally satisfying and tidy narrative versus an ugly truth.
In Happy Valley, the lie is that Penn State defensive coach Jerry Sandusky committed horrible crimes for which he alone is responsible and has been punished accordingly. The ugly truth is that Sandusky’s crimes implicate a broad swath of people at the upper echelon of the school’s administration, including Joe Paterno, who occupied a god-like position as the savior of Penn State football for decades before the revelation that he had heard that Sandusky was sexually abusing a boy in a locker room. Paterno did not report that information to the police, only an administration with a vested interest in ensuring that its reputation and powerhouse football program be protected at all costs. Happy Valley is a powerful and convincing indictment of a campus culture that prioritizes the success of its football team above all else, including the welfare of vulnerable children. It’s just as awash in ambiguity and complexity as Whitey, but not at the expense of gripping drama, and Bar-Lev gives the film a lyricism and feverish intensity that makes the story even more disturbing.
Also seen: All that really needs to be said about the painfully generic 1980s throwback nostalgia comedy Ping Pong Summer is that it prominently features a scene in which a clueless dad fails to understand that sometimes, when young people say “bad” it’s actually slang for “good.” The film is constructed crudely and shabbily from shopworn elements: the bland protagonist coming of age during a summer vacation at a shitty seaside resort, the popular dream girl, the nerdy best friend, bullies, the vaguely goth sister, the spooky neighbor everyone whispers about (a role not even Susan Sarandon can redeem). It’s not without its merits, though. There’s a nice specificity to a gag involving the family listening on a road trip to a characteristically maudlin and sentimental dedication on “American Top 40” with Casey Kasem, and I liked how a panning shot of a stomach-churning all-you-can-eat buffet seems to spread out into eternity, all but daring audiences not to vomit while gazing at one greasy, fried culinary monstrosity after another. But for the most part, Ping Pong Summer is a one-size-fits-all coming-of-age nostalgia-fest that sets out to tell everyone’s 1980s coming-of-age story and ends up telling no one’s.