The 5 Browns: Digging Through the Darkness
Every once in awhile I see a documentary that is so good I think that no narrative fictional film can tell as compelling a story. This film is that good.
The 5 Browns are a Utah family of three girls and two boys growing up glued to a piano bench. They become virtuosos. All five go to Juilliard. Then comes concert tours, TV appearances and recordings. But this is more than a success story of child prodigies. The full title of the movie is The 5 Browns: Digging Through the Darkness. That darkness is more than just the usual story of over-bearing parents who sacrificed their kids’ childhood. It’s more than just the usual story of a father manager who is over-aggressive in booking and promoting his kids and profits handsomely from it. This father sexually abused the three girls, did so thousands of times, and started at age 11.
Once the three girls as women shared their story with each other they went to the police and had their father eventually put in jail. The film is the story of their courage, strength and honesty. Two of them came to the screening and answered all the questions they were asked. They have also created a foundation which is working to promote laws that allow the statute of limitations to be waived or extended in abuse cases.
The story is told amidst a backdrop of the 5 Browns recording an album of music about their childhood. The music is beautiful. They are amazing pianists. They’re even better human beings.
On Chesil Beach
The classical music of the 5 Browns is full of energy and vitality. The music of the string quartet in On Chesil Beach is somber and moody. And that reflects the movie it is a part of. A newlywed couple, at a beach resort on their wedding day, are awkward in conversation, awkward at the dinner table, and above all else awkward in bed. Through flashbacks their love story is told. And through flashbacks we get a hint of how things could go wrong. And wrong is indeed how it goes. The movie is based on an Ian McEwan novel and McEwan did the screenplay himself. Florence, half of the newlywed couple and one-fourth of the string quartet, is played by Saoirse Ronan, the actress who was nominated for an academy award for her performance in Ladybird. If you think Ladybird was a little awkward, wait until you see Florence. On the positive side the movie is beautifully filmed and I’m glad to have seen it on a big screen. I found it dreary at first, but it grew on me.
I thought American Animals was brilliant. It seamlessly blends narrative fiction with documentary footage. The story of four college kids who plan a heist of rare books in the school library is based on a true story. While that heist is reinacted with actors the story is supplemented by interviews with the actual participants 15 years later. The movie tells you up front what’s going to happen but then manages to be suspenseful as it heads toward that conclusion. Too many things go wrong with this heist to count. These are not cold-hearted criminals or thoughtless teens. The story is about their conscience, their self-doubt, even their concern for hurting their parents. It’s also a story about the powerful inertia of groups.
The Misogynists takes us into the hotel room residence of a coke-snorting gun-toting asshole of a businessman on election night 2016. He enthuses over the result as a triumphant return of the paternalistic society. Just about every negative, degrading thing that you could say about women is said here, repeatedly. Even the two sex workers that he is forking out $3k apiece for throw his money on the floor and bolt. There are more than a few laughs along the way. The movie is really too overdone to take much of it seriously. There can’t really be too many guys who are this awful. Except maybe in the White House. There are also some regrettable liberals in the movie, the kind that display all the attributes the Trump folks hate. The only good guys in this saga are the hookers, and even they become ‘good guys’ reluctantly.
Sons of the Desert
A restored version of the 1934 Laurel and Hardy classic provided by the Film Foundation. There was enough laughter in the film festival audience to add an authentic feel to the big-screen slapstick. The plot isn’t too far off the Honeymooners. Henpecked husbands lie to their domineering wives in order to sneak away to a goofball men’s social group convention. Of course, they get caught and of course there’s hell to pay. In fact the “girls” make a little bet as to which one flips and tells the truth first. I’ll let you guess whether it was Laurel or Hardy.
Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me
A black man in a white man’s world. Never fully accepted there nor from whence he came. Perhaps nothing exemplifies the contradictions in Sammy Davis Jr.’s life better than the fact that he marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, but a decade later supported and embraced (literally) Richard Nixon. He never attended school and had no childhood. Instead he was on the segregated “chitlin circuit” with his father and uncle at an early age. He is best known as a member of the “rat pack” with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. They were at the very top of the entertainment world in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Martin and Sinatra were close friends with Davis but that didn’t stop them from making Davis the butt of some racist jokes as part of their stage act.
All of these issues aside, this documentary shows how enormously talented Davis was. He could sing and dance and act. He did impressions, he tapped and he played several instruments. And he crossed several racial barriers. While appearing in “Golden Boy” he was the first black man to kiss a white woman on a Broadway stage. It’s perhaps a little hard to realize in this day and age what a big deal that was. There are just too many issues to allow us to celebrate Sammy Davis Jr. the way we would someone like Jackie Robinson. But overall the documentary is sympathetic and that’s the feeling I walked away with, even a little teary-eyed as Davis, near the end of his life, does a little tap dance and sings “Mr. Bojangles.”