This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001



Documentary captures the long love affair between Harold and Lillian Michelson and Hollywood

Quad Cinema
34 West 13th St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Opens Friday, April 28

Burton and Taylor. Bogie and Bacall. Gable and Lombard. Michelson and Michelson? In Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story, documentarian Daniel Raim traces the sixty-year relationship between storyboard artist and production designer Harold Michelson and his wife, film researcher extraordinaire Lillian, and their roles in Hollywood’s Golden Age and beyond. New York City native Harold was a bombardier navigator in WWII who developed a talent for illustration. Lillian lived in a series of orphanages, seeking to be part of a family. She accepted Harold’s offer to move to Los Angeles to be with him mainly because she had no better plan for her life — and his mother didn’t approve. But soon their love blossomed, as did their impact on the movie industry. Harold had a natural ability for creating storyboards that incorporated camera angles and other technical elements that was a boon for directors; meanwhile, Lillian did extensive research for a myriad of films, doing whatever it took in order to make sure every possible detail was correct, from major plot points to clothing and household objects in backgrounds. Among those paying tribute to the happy couple, whose work was often uncredited, are Danny DeVito, Francis Ford Coppola, Mel Brooks, and such production designers as Gene Allen, James D. Bissell, Rick Carter, Richard Sylbert, and Tom Walsh. Raim, who wrote, directed, produced (with his wife, Jennifer Raim), and shot (with Battiste Fenwick) the documentary, includes clips from many of the films Harold and/or Lillian worked on, including The Ten Commandments, Full Metal Jacket, Rosemary’s Baby, Spaceballs, The Birds, Scarface, and Winter Kills, in which Harold discusses how his storyboards were turned into a gripping scene.


Patrick Mate’s storyboards follow relationship between Harold and Lillian

The film features new interviews with Lillian along with archival footage of Harold and Lillian, from photographs and home movies to old interviews as well as love letters they wrote to each other; animator Patrick Mate has also created numerous storyboards, in Harold’s style, about the Michelsons that are a beautiful homage. The film focuses on how Harold and Lillian, who were honored with the American Academy of Dramatic Arts lifetime achievement award last year, didn’t merely perform tasks given to them by producers and directors but used their unique skills to bring something extra to the projects they worked on, elements that no one else was capable of providing. Raim previously made the Oscar-nominated The Man on Lincoln’s Nose and Something’s Gonna Live, both about one of his teachers, production designer Robert Boyle, and he completes the trilogy with Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story, a classy film about a classy couple. Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story opens April 28 at the newly renovated Quad Cinema, with Raim participating in Q&As at the 7:15 shows on April 28 & 29.


record fair

Who: Live performances by Bloodshot Bill, the Atlantic Thrills, Baby Shakes, Ronnie Fujiyama, Matmos with Chuck Bettis, and Laurice and more than two hundred record and CD dealers
What: WFMU Record Fair
Where: Brooklyn Expo Center, 79 Franklin St. between Noble & Oak Sts., Greenpoint
When: April 28-30, $7 (weekend pass $25)
Why: Hot on the heels of last weekend’s tenth annual Record Store Day, independent, freeform, listener-supported, noncommercial radio station WFMU (91.1) is hosting its yearly record fair, taking place over three days at the Brooklyn Expo Center. In addition to the above live acts, there will be screenings of Brendan Toller’s Danny Says, followed by a Q&A with the director, Christopher Sullivan’s Consuming Spirits, editor Aaron Schimberg’s Triumph of the Il, and Barbara Kopple’s Miss Sharon Jones! WFMU will also be broadcasting live from the venue. For a two-dollar-off admission coupon — the equivalent of a pair of $1 LPS — go here.


Bruce Weber

Bruce Weber discusses the intricacies of writing obituaries in surprisingly charming documentary

OBIT.: LIFE ON DEADLINE (Vanessa Gould, 2016)
Film Forum, 209 West Houston St., 212-727-8110
Lincoln Plaza Cinema, 1886 Broadway at 63rd St., 212-757-2280
Opens Wednesday, April 26

Vanessa Gould’s surprising charmer, Obit., might primarily be about the documentation of individual death by the New York Times obituaries desk, but at its heart it’s a celebration of life. “It’s almost never depressing because we’re almost always writing about someone in his or her eighties or nineties who has died after a long, rich, creative, fulfilling life,” obituaries senior writer Margalit Fox explains. “In an obit of eight hundred words or so, maybe a sentence or two will be about the death and the other ninety percent is about the life. So it’s counterintuitive, ironic even, but obits have next to nothing to do with death and, in fact, absolutely everything to do with the life.” Inspired by an obituary the New York Times ran about a friend of hers at her urging, Gould spent about a week in the Times offices, capturing the obit writers and editors in action as they do extensive research (online and on the phone), work hard on the lede, carefully fact check, and get just the right photo for what they consider legitimate news stories, not simply memorials to the deceased. “It’s a once-only chance to make the dead live again,” obituaries writer (and former food critic) William Grimes notes. They are shown deciding whose life was newsworthy, keeping to a specific word count, and pitching for better placement of their story while attempting to capture the essence of the individual they are writing about. When researching the death of typewriter repairman Manson Whitlock, Fox hits the keys of an old Royal, attempting to incorporate the sound and feel of the instrument in her article. In addition to the obviously famous and influential, they also cover such people as Slinky creator Richard T. James, Bill Haley bass player Marshall Lytle, television remote inventor Gene Polley, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka plaintiff Zelma Henderson, aviatrix Elinor Smith, advertising executive Richie Rich, Skylab saviour Jack A. Kinzler, and William P. Wilson, the JFK aide who helped orchestrate John F. Kennedy’s critical televised debate win over Vice President Richard M. Nixon. Gould’s film includes archival photographs and film footage of many of the obituary subjects and the times in which they lived, although some of the clips are not completely relevant. Still, they are cool to see and flesh out the documentary with visual splendor and fun details.

archivist Jeff Roth OBIT.

Archivist Jeff Roth runs the massive New York Times archives known as the morgue

The film also features obituaries desk editor William McDonald, who points out that they are writers who never get to meet or speak directly with their subjects; former obituaries writer Paul Vitello, who refers to himself as an obituarist; assistant obituaries editor Peter Keepnews; chief pop music critic Jon Pareles; former deputy obituaries editor Jack Kadden; former obituaries writer Douglas Martin; and Jeff Roth, who for nearly a quarter of a century has overseen the morgue, the vast archives filled with tens of thousands of files of newspaper clippings and photographs as well as nearly two thousand advance obituaries. Gould often asks the writer to read the obituary they have written while she shows film footage and rare photos of the subject: one memorable scene highlights Fox and her poetic obituary of British rower and adventurer John Fairfax. “This was an obit that broke all the rules and proudly announced obits in the twenty-first century can be just as rollicking and swaggering as their subjects,” she says. And the discussion about how to cover sudden, unexpected celebrity deaths — Michael Jackson, Prince, David Foster Wallace, Philip Seymour Hoffman, attempting to get something up on the Times website quickly while battling the six o’clock deadline for the next day’s print edition — is downright exciting. The film primarily works because the writers and editors themselves are intellectual eccentrics who love what they do even as it makes them consider their own mortality. “Literally, I show up in the morning and I say, ‘Who’s dead?’” Weber explains. “And somebody puts a folder on my desk and that’s what I do that day.” Obit. opens April 26 at Lincoln Plaza and Film Forum; Gould will be at Film Forum for Q&As with Weber at the 7:00 screenings on April 27 and 28, with Roth after the 7:00 show on April 29, and with Grimes at the 4:45 show on April 30, in addition to several introductions, while at Lincoln Plaza Fox and producer Caitlin Mae Burke will discuss the film on April 26 and 28, followed by Gould and obituary writer Dan Slotnik on April 29.



Michal (Noa Koler) is determined to get married even if she doesn’t have a fiancee in THE WEDDING PLAN

THE WEDDING PLAN (Rama Burshtein, 2016)
Wednesday, April 26, Regal Cinemas Battery Park 11, 6:30
Thursday, April 27, Regal Cinemas Battery Park 11, 6:00

A month before her wedding, Michal (Noa Koler) finds out that her fiance, Gidi (Erez Drigues), doesn’t actually love her. Determined to not become an old maid, the thirty-two-year-old animal handler decides that she is going to go through with the ceremony anyway, that love — and the right man — are still out there waiting for her. “I believe God will help me find a groom by the end of Hanukkah,” she tells wedding planner Shimi (Amos Tamam), who is not so sure she is making the right decision. She then goes on a series of ever-more-silly dates with Orthodox men as her wedding day approaches, with no legitimate suitor in sight as her friends and family wonder about her sanity. And then she meets singer Yoss (Oz Zehavi), but is he Mr. Right? By then, you might not care. Written and directed by New York City native Rama Burshtein (Fill the Void, Venice 70: Future Reloaded), The Wedding Plan, which is called Through the Wall in Hebrew, is a Lifetime-like romantic comedy, trying too hard to be charming and funny, resulting in flat scenes that are predictable and trite. Michal’s wedding day is scheduled for the eighth day of Hanukkah, which holds special meaning at the end of the Festival of Lights, a time for rejuvenation; The Wedding Plan could use some rejuvenating of its own.



Nancy Reagan prepares to surprise her husband with a birthday cake to deflect attention from a potential media crisis in THE REAGAN SHOW

THE REAGAN SHOW: OUR COUNTRY WAS HIS STAGE (Sierra Pettengill & Pacho Velez, 2017)
Tuesday, April 25, Cinépolis Chelsea 4, 8:45
Wednesday, April 26, Cinépolis Chelsea 2, 6:45

Taking its name from The Truman Show, Peter Weir’s 1998 satire in which Jim Carrey plays a character whose entire life is a reality television program, The Reagan Show posits the fortieth president of the United States as the first full-time made-for-TV leader and his two terms as the height of performance art. The film opens with a December 1988 ABC News interview in which David Brinkley asks outgoing president Ronald Reagan, “Did you learn anything as an actor that has been useful to you as president?” Reagan responds, “There have been times in this office when I wondered how you can do the job if you hadn’t been an actor.” Writer-director Pacho Velez (Manakamana) and producer-director Sierra Pettengill (Town Hall, Cutie and the Boxer) gained access to archives that included what was known as White House Television (WHTV), raw footage shot by White House cameras that obsessively followed Reagan, reminiscent of how Richard Nixon audiotaped everything in the Oval Office. The WHTV clips go behind-the-scenes of the before, during, and after of major and minor events, depicting the cultivation of Reagan’s public image, molding him to look like a leader while choosing style over substance. “The White House has become more and more the stage, a theater, and the question has become, Are the television networks gonna manage that theater, are they gonna manage that stage, or is the White House gonna do that?” communications director David Gergen asks. The all-archival chronological film includes news reports and commentary by such journalists and political insiders as William F. Buckley, Andrew Young, Ted Koppel, Lyn Nofziger, Sam Donaldson, Chris Wallace, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, George Will, Tom Brokaw, George Shultz, Peter Jennings, Bill Plante, David Frost, Charles Kuralt, Joe Biden, and Howard Baker as they share their thoughts on Reagan the president and Reagan the media star.

All-archival documentary explores the creation of a public image for the fortieth president of the United States

All-archival documentary explores the creation of a public image for the fortieth president of the United States

The film, edited with a sense of humor by cowriter Francisco Bello, Daniel Garber, and David Barker, focuses on key aspects of Reagan’s two terms: his summits with new Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War, his development of the Star Wars SDI initiative, the arms-for-hostages crisis, and his relationship with the press and his wife, Nancy. The Great Communicator is seen rehearsing an endorsement for John Sununu in which he cannot pronounce Sununu’s name correctly, acting like a macho man on his ranch, meeting Michael Jackson and Mr. T, and pardoning turkeys for Thanksgiving. Pettengill and Velez also highlight telling scenes from some of Reagan’s films, explaining in a caption that he “was almost always typecast as the good-natured, all-American hero,” essentially preparing him for politics. In addition, there are numerous parallels to what is happening today, with a reality television star in the White House who plays hard and fast with the truth while the public grows concerned about nuclear war. “Together, we’ll make America great again,” Reagan declares at a rally. As White House deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver tells Barbara Walters, “It’s the staging, how you stage the message. It’s a game.” Five presidents later, it’s still a game we’re all playing, but who is winning and who is losing is up for debate.


Richard Rasmussen

Richard Rasmussen swims with the pink river dolphin in A RIVER BELOW

A RIVER BELOW (Mark Grieco, 2017)
Tuesday, April 25, Cinépolis Chelsea 3, 4:15
Wednesday, April 26, Regal Cinemas Battery Park 11, 6:15

In A River Below, director Mark Grieco set out to document the plight of the Amazon pink river dolphin, but the film soon became about so much more, including the very nature of truth on celluloid. Making its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, A River Below follows two men as they try to bring international awareness to the potential extinction of the extraordinary pink river dolphin, which is no mere unicorn-like fantasy. Also known as the boto, the largest freshwater dolphin in the world is under attack in the Amazon, where fishermen capture and cut up the mammal to use it for bait to catch piracatinga, a type of bottom-feeding catfish that exists in huge numbers and is a popular food fish. Dr. Fernando Trujillo is a marine biologist and environmental scientist from Colombia who founded the Omacha Foundation, an NGO dedicated to research and conservation. He’s spent more than twenty-five years working with indigenous communities along the Amazon, educating them about subsistent consumption and focusing on the boto, which he calls “one of the most clever, intelligent, and charismatic mammals in the world; even for the indigenous people, they are a kind of sacred animal. They are people like us, but underwater.” In fact, some locals believe Dr. Trujillo “was a dolphin that became a human to protect the dolphin.” Richard Rasmussen is a Brazilian television star, an animal rights activist, and a biologist who has hosted such popular NatGeo programs as Wild to the Extreme. “I don’t know any natural interaction with wild animals that are so profound and so beautiful. They just come to you” he says as he feeds and swims with a boto. “I would say that anyone that has had this experience will turn into a better person, will understand better what we’re talking about, you know? We don’t want to save the dolphin because the dolphin is part of the chain; we want to save the dolphin because the dolphin is us.” When a Brazilian show airs controversial footage of a boto being butchered on the river, the ensuing outrage seems destined to save the dolphins — but perhaps sink Rasmussen.

Documentary follows the plight of the pink river Dolphin in the Amazon

Documentary follows the plight of the pink river dolphin, known as the boto, in the Amazon

The documentary takes a radical turn when truth goes on public trial as an angry Rasmussen defends his actions while the fishermen claim he is a manipulative, heartless liar. Grieco himself becomes part of the story when he returns to the village, which has been banned from hunting dolphins, severely impacting their economy, to find that many members of the community have their smartphones out and are filming him and Rasmussen to make sure they cannot edit out important information and twist the facts. It’s an extremely powerful moment, no matter where you stand on the central issue of whether the fishermen are entitled to use the dolphin as bait. “Just by chance, I had stumbled upon a story that dovetailed perfectly with my own concerns with the truth in images, media influence and distortion, performance for the camera, and my role in all of this as a documentary filmmaker,” Grieco (Marmato) explains in his director’s statement. “The question begs to be answered: If the film is asking what is the truth behind the camera, shouldn’t the filmmakers themselves be suspect?” Gorgeously photographed by Helkin René Díaz with numerous shots of the winding yellow-brown river snaking through the lush green rainforest, accompanied by an often ominous score by Tyler Strickland, A River Below might be specifically about the boto in the Amazon, but it also raises more general issues about the future of the planet.



Shady Srour wrote, directed, and stars in HOLY AIR

HOLY AIR (Shady Srour, 2017)
Friday, April 28, Regal Cinemas Battery Park 11, 6:15
Sunday, April 30, Regal Cinemas Battery Park 13, 2:45

The opening scene of Shady Srour’s Holy Air, making its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, is utterly charming, as married couple Adam (Srour), a businessman, and Lamia (Laëtitia Eïdo), the head of the Sexuality Center, are stuck in ridiculously heavy traffic. Lamia decides to use the extra time to take a pregnancy test, urinating right there in the car. That is shortly followed by one of the film’s most splendid images, of Adam in the bathtub, his heavily bearded face above the back edge, a glass of alcohol at the ready as the camera stays still. Unfortunately, the film is shaky the rest of the way, too repetitive and fussy with subplots that don’t feel natural. Whereas Lamia is pregnant, Adam’s father is a tough old guy, fighting cancer. Adam’s partnership with his friend Mahmoud isn’t going well, so, soon after encountering a priest singing the holy praises of Mount Precipice, Adam decides to bottle the air on the mountain and sell it as a tourist souvenir. The film takes on the Christian faith, capitalism, road rage, local gangsters, and growing old, but it works best when it focuses on Adam and Lamia together; just about everything else is overly sentimental, too goofy, or just plain nonsensical, which is too bad, because Srour (Sense of Need) and Lamia (Cleopatra in The Destiny of Rome) make for a lovable couple, caught up in the travails of modern-day Nazareth.