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City Hall, MLK/FBI, Truffle Hunters

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When people insist that a movie must be seen in a theater, what they’re usually talking about are its visual pleasures, which do tend to be enhanced by the scale and clarity of the big screen. (That was, presumably, the crux of Christopher Nolan’s crusade to get Tenet into multiplexes during a damn pandemic.) But there are benefits beyond eye candy to the currently inaccessible or just inadvisable movie theater experience. One of the big ones is that when you sit down in an auditorium, you’re kind of locked into whatever you’ve come to watch, with no option to pause the feature and few of the usual distractions within reach of your couch. It’s just you and the film, for however long it lasts.

Movie theaters tend to be best for mammoth time- and focus commitments like City Hall (Grade: B), the latest installment in Frederick Wiseman’s career-long study of places, vocations, and institutions. Even more so than the average project from this legend of documentary cinema, Wiseman’s portrait of his hometown of Boston—and the machinations of the government that runs it—pretty much demands your undivided attention. Which, of course, poses a challenge to the virtual festivalgoer, who might find their eyes and thoughts wandering—and their fingers restlessly scrolling—during the seventh or eighth extended policy discussion captured in its near-entirety.

City Hall

City Hall
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

At four-and-a-half hours, this is Wiseman’s second longest (it trails only 1989’s six-hour Near Death), yet it arguably still bites off a little more than it can chew. Long passages take place within drab offices and administrative chambers. But just as his last film, Ex Libris, strayed from the main branch of the New York Public Library to chart the full cultural reach of that institution, City Hall looks beyond the walls of its eponymous setting—to drop by Red Sox games and fundraisers, crash school board meetings and press conferences, tag along on sanitation routes and animal-control calls. Given the vast sprawl of his interests, Wiseman could have chopped off the second word of the title.

In what qualifies as something of a first, Wiseman locates a protagonist of sorts: Democratic mayor Marty Walsh, whose multiple appearances throughout the movie might have something to do with the demands of the job. (If there’s a major public event happening in Boston, chances are good he’s expected to be there.) “We can’t solve the problems of the United States of America here,” Walsh says during one of several speeches, but he’s clearly positioned himself as an anti-Trump figure, standing on a platform of diversity initiatives and gun-control sound bytes. Wiseman, of course, has been studying the inner workings of American civics for too long to buy wholesale into any savior narratives. The structure of the film subtly underscores a disconnect between the rhetoric of change and the reality of how long it can take: While Walsh’s staff calmly, dryly debates how to address Boston’s high eviction rate, we meet a desperate man for whom the issue is far from theoretical.

As always, Wiseman’s approach guarantees memorable encounters. There is, for example, a contentious community meeting about the arrival of a new cannabis dispensary—a sequence that functions like a microcosm for the whole complicated business of running a city and trying to meet everyone’s conflicting needs. Yet the subject matter this time also results in both a smaller quotient of oddball personalities and a larger volume of scenes devoted to bureaucratic discussion. Is there such a thing as too much curiosity in a nonfiction filmmaker? Wiseman’s refusal to simplify—his allergy to easy conclusions—sometimes manifests itself as a reluctance to separate the conversational wheat from the chaff, or to cut away from anything. City Hall, in other words, may sometimes try the patience of even a Wiseman devotee. Still, there’s method to its patches of mild tedium, too: While Walsh makes his inspirational remarks, the real work of political progress, especially on the local level, is slower and much less glamorous; it happens around the table, not at the podium.

76 Days

76 Days
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

Wiseman, now in his 90s, has influenced whole generations of nonfiction filmmakers. Directed by a trio of clear disciples, 76 Days (Grade: B) applies his fly-on-the-wall shooting style and signature eschewal of talking-head interviews to the major global crisis of our moment and of many of our lifetimes. Chronicling the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, the film opens in a mad dash of panic, as medical workers in full PPE gear race down a hospital hallway to the entrance, where a mass of sick people have gathered, waiting to be ushered indoors one by one. The vibe is pure vérité horror, a Direct Cinema apocalypse. Yet directors Hao Wu and Weixi Chen quickly transition out of the blind chaos and into something like a new normal, as the staff settle into protocol for dealing with the virus, exuding a rather comforting competency and calm bedside manner.

At a slim and brisk 93 minutes, this is a film with the opposite problem as City Hall, in that it maybe could have stood to be a little longer and more exhaustive; it leaves plenty of gaps in our understanding of the hospital’s response plan, and never conveys the full scale of what the team is dealing with over three months. But that’s largely because 76 Days is more interested in capturing the human element of the pandemic’s earliest days than cataloguing its grim statistics. There’s quite a lot of poignancy and humor in the interactions between the doctors and patients; while one physician tearfully apologizes for not being able to save a woman’s mother, another hilariously urges a bedridden man to listen to his doctors instead of consulting the Chinese equivalent of WebMD… in a hospital, no les. At times, we might be watching a deadpan workplace comedy; that it’s possible to laugh at this subject matter at all is a testament to its matter-of-fact presentation and maybe also to the extent that this virus has completely seeped into every corner of life.

Martijn Luther King, Jr. in MLK/FBI

Martijn Luther King, Jr. in MLK/FBI
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

There are talking heads in MLK/FBI (Grade: B+), which is almost nothing but information and context. But most of the interviewees don’t appear on screen until the final minutes of the film, which otherwise lays their commentary over an elegantly, urgently assembled montage of archival footage. Director Sam Pollard, who edited several major films by Spike Lee, tells a kind of shadow history of the civil rights movement, recounting the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s actions in parallel with J. Edgar Hoover’s campaign to undermine them at every turn, through surveillance and some tactics so dirty that even James Comey is appalled by them. None of this is new information, exactly— one of the film’s points, in fact, is that it was basically common knowledge at the time that the FBI was trying to destroy King’s reputation. But it’s a useful reminder not just that this American hero was a widely vilified figure during his lifetime but also that he accomplished everything he did despite nonstop resistance from intelligence agencies, the media, and the public alike.

If nothing else, it’s hard to walk away from MLK/FBI without an even greater appreciation for King’s grace and patience, both plainly on display in the ripped-from-the-’60s material Pollard has combined. Look, for instance, at a news interview where the anchor browbeats the Reverend about the violence occurring at demonstrations, to which King calmly implores her to ask who, exactly, is committing that violence. Sound familiar? So will much of the film, which hints at all the ways American culture still attempts to discredit peaceful Black revolution. The film ends by wondering aloud how the public will react to the wiretap recordings the FBI made of King, which are set to become public record in 2027. One talking head speculates that whatever’s on the tapes, it may satiate a public hunger to know more about the man within the Great Man of history. MLK/FBI feeds that hunger with every glimpse of him it offers.

It’s been a good year for documentaries at TIFF, especially if you count Lee’s David Byrne concert film (and maybe the new Werner Herzog, which Katie Rife will cover soon). On paper, there was no reason to get especially excited for a doc about the business of Italian truffle harvesters, who dig up the fungal delicacy in the woods of Piedmont and sell their findings to restaurants and fine-diners with expensive tastes. But though that sounds like the toniest of blue-hair bait, The Truffle Hunters (Grade: B) is more eccentric and lyrical than its logline might suggest. The film’s subjects are all interesting characters: ornery, competitive, elderly experts in their field that dote on the dogs that help them do the job while hoarding their knowledge of fertile areas from each other, even when certain they don’t have much time left to devote to the profession or anything else. What’s more, directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw apply an actual visual identity to their footage, via impressively composed wide shots of the men against the splendor of nature (the opening image is a bird’s-eye doozy) and witty compositions, like the one that places a hunter and a buyer under a shadowy overpass, as if they were conducting an exchange of deadly secrets or hard drugs. All of which is to say, I understand now why the film has become one of the year’s festival favorites, selected not just by Toronto but also Sundance, New York, and the cancelled Cannes.

Entertainment

A Doctor’s Emergency

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Breen tested positive for COVID-19 in late March. She spent the week of March 22 alone in her apartment, exhausted and sleeping up to 16 hours a day, according to Feist. She was in touch with family, friends, and some coworkers who were also home sick with COVID-19. “At one point approximately 20% of our physicians were out on quarantine,” Mills said of Columbia University’s emergency medicine department, which staffs four of NewYork-Presbyterian’s nine emergency departments.

When Breen’s fever subsided she waited three days, then returned to work on April 1, when local infections—and deaths—were surging. That day, Breen called her sister. “She was saying, ‘It’s like Armageddon,’” recalled Feist. The city’s hospitals were overflowing. The emergency department at the Allen, which served hard-hit communities in upper Manhattan and the Bronx, was treating about three times as many patients as its usual capacity. Breen described supply shortages and staggering deaths.

One of Breen’s colleagues described the stresses of late March and early April as the layers of an onion. Staffing was short and constantly changing. Beds were in short supply. At times, there were lines of ambulances waiting to admit patients. Portable oxygen tanks were frequently deployed. To reduce the risk of accidental exposure, some workers avoided or lived separately from their families. Each stressor layered over the next. At the core was the disease itself, and the inescapable difficulty of treating an illness while experiencing and learning about it for the first time.

On April 4, Gianos texted Breen to ask how she was doing. “I’m doing better, but dealing with the devastation in the ER, struggling a bit,” Breen replied. She had insomnia, which was unusual for her. On April 9, Breen called Feist in despair. “She was saying things to me like, ‘This is the end of my career. I can’t keep up,’” said Feist. She said she wanted to die, a remark so out of character that Feist compared it to hearing someone speak in tongues.

“I hear these stories about pilots,” Feist told me in June. “When they’re in distress, they say, ‘My plane,’ and then they’re in charge. And the cocaptain says, ‘Your plane,’ to acknowledge who’s in charge.”

Feist took control. She arranged for two friends to drive Breen, in a relay, out of the city and to Maryland. Feist drove up from Virginia to meet them. Jennifer’s husband, Corey, called Mills, who offered to check on Breen in person. “It was clear to me that she needed help,” said Mills. “She was not the same Lorna.” That evening, Jennifer Feist brought her sister to the ER at the University of Virginia Medical Center. Breen spent 11 days in the hospital’s in-patient psychiatric unit. Breen’s mother worked in that unit as a psychiatric nurse for two decades until her retirement in 2006.

While she was in the hospital, Breen worried about her career. She texted Flom, who works in human resources, for advice about taking a leave of absence. Jennifer Feist called NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University to arrange for one on Breen’s behalf. The process went smoothly, Feist said, but Breen continued to worry.

“When she got out of the hospital, she kept saying, ‘This is a career ender,’” said Feist. Her sister was catastrophizing, which can be a feature of mental illness. But even among doctors, seeking psychiatric care can carry stigma: A number of state medical licensing boards require doctors to disclose their personal psychiatric histories in ways that may not comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act—and which, Feist argues, contributes to a culture that associates seeking help with weakness. “She didn’t want anybody to know what happened,” Feist said of Breen’s mental health crisis. She contrasted that with Breen’s experience, around five years prior, with suffering and treating a pulmonary embolism: “She didn’t hesitate to tell anybody.”

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Is Jimmy Kimmel Live new tonight, September 15?

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the end of guest hosts for this summer. So expect Jimmy Kimmel to be back on the job when the show returns.

Are you disappointed by this news? Will you still tune in to see the rerun? Let us know in the comment section below.

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Stephen Colbert counters Joe Rogan’s debate offer to Trump and Biden

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Stephen Colbert wants to moderate a debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden

We are just two weeks out from the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden in what should be an interesting night of television. Stephen Colbert has his own ideas on how to spice up the debates even more after hearing Joe Rogan offer to do the same.

Rogan recently stated he would be open to moderating a debate on his podcast between President Trump and former Vice President Biden. The president tweeted his support for the idea, indicating that he would be receptive to the unique format.

And while the debates have already been scheduled and the likelihood of the candidates getting the Joe Rogan experience are minuscule, that isn’t stopping other entertainers from making counteroffers. First in line is Late Show host Stephen Colbert.

Colbert outlined his plan for a debate that would blow Rogan’s out of the water. Knowing how much President Trump cares about ratings, he may find it hard to pass on Colbert’s offer.

Stephen Colbert goes all out in his debate offer to President Trump and Vice President Biden

A presidential candidate joining a popular podcast like “The Joe Rogan Experience” or “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend” isn’t a crazy idea. It is no different from appearing on a late-night show or any other media format. But for anyone who realistically expects President Trump and Vice President Biden to hold a debate on a podcast is in for a reality check.

That is the idea behind Stephen Colbert’s offer being so outlandish. In case you didn’t catch all of it, here is the Late Show host’s offer to the two candidates:

It would be eight hours, locked room, no names, no cameras, only one boardwalk caricature artist. Winner is whichever candidate has the biggest head. Let me sweeten the pot a little bit gentlemen. I’m talking one stage, one podium, on wheels, zips back and forth. Two competitors, two shields. One man has a sword, the other one has a net and a trident. One hungry lion in a Coloseum. Each man will get 30 minutes to make one meal from the ingridients found in our mystery basket.

The closest we’ll get to a scene like this is a parody from Saturday Night Live next month. Instead, we’ll see a debate that looks and sounds like all the others we’ve seen. Maybe in another four years Stephen Colbert and Joe Rogan will get a chance.

What did you think of Stephen Colbert’s monologue last night? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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