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‘The Roosevelts’ a superior piece of documentary filmmaking

Date: 9/12/2014

Two home runs are featured in this week’s movie review column.

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

There are perhaps not enough superlatives in my thesaurus to describe my reactions to this new documentary production by Ken Burns. It is essential viewing for anyone who wishes to understand the history of this nation during the 20th Century.

The series will be broadcast on PBS starting Sept. 14. I’ve been binge watching the DVD set since it was sent to me.

The three principals in the 14-hour production are Theodore Roosevelt, his niece Eleanor and his fifth cousin Franklin, who married her. Burns started with Theodore and then introduces Franklin and Eleanor as soon as they are born. He then expertly weaves their stories together.

One advantage to telling Theodore’s story is that he was the first president who was filmed extensively. We get a true physical sense of the man through this footage.
I love history and thought I knew at least a fair amount about these three people, but the series goes into a depth that certainly and continuously surprised me. By using excerpts from letters as well as testimony from a number of historians and biographers, the viewer comes away with a complete view of these great people who were nonetheless very human.

We learn how Theodore, seen as sickly and fearful as a child, literally willed himself into being someone else: a man of action who overcame his own doubts by moving faster and doing more.

Franklin becomes the man who led his nation through the Depression and World War II through his bout with polio. Although he had an admirable history of public service prior to his illness, his outlook after polio definitely changed.

Eleanor, coming out of a very difficult childhood and full of doubts and insecurities, slowly but significantly becomes not just her own person, but a true leader recognized around the world.

Burns does not shy away from the darker sides of his subjects. Theodore’s egotism and bullying as well as his views on race are explored. Franklin’s infidelities and his need to be adored are also documented. Their frailties make them more compelling to me.

This is a superior documentary and one I hope people will embrace.

They were giants whose work molded this nation and I couldn’t help but wonder what they would think of this country in 2014.

Willow Creek

I’ve been a fan comedian and director Bobcat Goldthwait for years. As a stand-up comic he crafted a unique persona and was rather fearless in his comedy. As a director he has proven to be a talent to watch ever since his first feature film “Shakes the Clown” a movie that has been described as the “Citizen Kane” of alcoholic clown movies.

His new film has some laughs, but they are intended for relief. It is a well-crafted found footage horror movie in the  same vein as “Blair Witch Project.” The challenge for Goldthwait is to craft a movie in a now familiar genre but do so with some original elements, a task I believes he completes.

Bryce Johnson plays Jim, a Big Foot enthusiast who convinces his girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) to go to northern California to the site where the infamous Patterson/Gimlin film of a Sasquatch was filmed in 1967.  The idea is to find the actual location, deep in a national forest. Jim wants to make a movie of their trip.

Goldthwait cleverly mixes actors with non-actors – actual residents who are unaware of why they are being filmed. It gives his film a different perspective than any other found footage film I’ve seen.

Kelly is the more sensible of the two and is more than apprehensive of driving their car deep along timber roads to a place where they may get their throats cut by marijuana farmers. Jim, in the tradition of horror movie protagonists, is oblivious to such dangers. That all changes, though.

The pacing is slow to start but when stuff begins to happen, the film goes to a place that certainly punched my buttons. Goldthwait’s payoff at the end caused me to go back and view it several times to make sure my jaw dropped for the reason I though it did.

Much of the dialogue and action between the two leads is improvised and they turn in solid performances.

I liked this film a lot although I think Goldthwait should have delivered his two characters into the woods earlier in the film.