Wendy Whelan is a legend, described as an American treasure, America's greatest contemporary ballerina, and "the best" by Mikhail Baryshnikov. She danced for thirty years with the prestigious New York City Ballet, as principal dancer since 1991. In 2013, at forty-seven, she confronts what all athletes face -- the certainty that the body yields to the changes time visits upon it. 

Whelan acknowledges, "I do feel the ticking clock." But as directors Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger's captivating documentary Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan shows, Whelan is far from accepting defeat. In fact, because of her single-minded passion for dance, she has already triumphed over daunting challenges and will meet new ones. At twelve she was diagnosed with scoliosis, endured traction and a cast while still pushing her body to learn to bend gracefully. In the course of this film, Whelan will have orthoscopic surgery to repair a labral tear in her right hip and subsequent physical therapy. (Warning: though brief, the operation is graphically shown.)

Through all of this, her decision to dance one final new ballet before retiring from the New York City Ballet in 2014 drives her. As she says, "If I don't dance, I'd rather die." With the camera practically glued to Wendy, the film documents an array of events with her family, friends, choreographers, and other dancers. Whelan remains front and center, with footage (always too brief) from ballets by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, and Peter Martins, Ballet Master in Chief of the New York City Ballet. The directors could have left out some of the overhead ballet performance shots, but they have an uncanny ability to plant their camera well and choose revealing moments. Above all, their subject is wonderful to watch--accessible, honest, and full of life off stage and a marvel in practice and performance.

The title "Restless Creature" comes from Whelan's 2014 contemporary, touring dance project. The documentary Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan speaks not only to fans of ballet and elite athletes, but also to everyone captivated by determination, self-awareness, and a commitment to pursuing what they love in life, despite serious setbacks. It is showing at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

 

 

As profiled in Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, Tower defies easy characterization, a credit to this engrossing documentary. By any measure, Tower has led a fascinating, though often difficult, life. Beginning in the present, director Lydia Tenaglia immediately announces she will imaginatively integrate on-screen reenactments with contemporary interviews and archival, usually home movie style, footage. 

Blending poetic images with Tower's voiceover observations, direct to-the-camera comments by friends and notable food experts, the film opens with a montage that will be elaborated and explored throughout the next hour and forty minutes: Tower walking through Mexican ruins, an actor as Tower as a young boy on a beach, testimonials to Tower as a food legend, including from Martha Stewart calling him "a father of American cuisine." 

Dominating the entire chronology is the composed presence of Jeremiah Tower himself who says in his introductory comments, "I have to stay apart from human beings because somehow I am not one. Everything that is real for me is what is hallucination for others." Director Tenaglia approaches Tower with that in mind, showing Tower's appealing work ethic and likable friendliness combined with an inaccessible, elusive self. As Anthony Bourdain says, "There's a private, locked room inside Jeremiah Tower. I sure haven't been there."

It's no wonder given his dysfunctional parents' behavior forcing Tower to fend for himself and learn strategies to protect himself from boyhood on. And then in 1972, at 30, with a Masters in Architecture from Harvard but without money, Tower arrived at Chez Panisse. He put it on the map shifting its emphasis to local California food before walking out when owner and founder Alice Waters published a cookbook of his creations appropriated as her own. 

Tower started Stars in San Francisco where it soon became the place to be, but that didn't last. I won't spoil more astonishing details, but factor in involvement with New York's Tavern on the Green, the impact of the AIDS crisis, especially given Tower's gay status, and other culinary and non-culinary adventures. Food luminaries weigh in, along with Anthony Bourdain and Martha Stewart, including Samantha Talbott, Mario Batali, Ruth Reichl, and Wolfgang Puck. But Tower sums himself up best, "If anything is worth doing, it is worth doing in style and on my own terms."  Exclusively at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

 

The title is the name of a woman without direction. Leavey is treated poorly by her mother and step-father in a small New York town. She has no where to go. She's going there fast, fueled by drugs and alcohol. She joins the Marines to get out of town.

Once in the corps, even as she trains, Leavey continues making poor decisions. As punishment, she is sent to the kennels to clean dog poop. The German shepherds are being trained to be soldiers as well, soldiers who sniff out bombs. She's not very good at first. She seems to have no more connection with canines than she does with humans.

She is granted the right to handle Rex after the dog bites his first handler. And Leavey begins to connect. When Rex barks constantly on the transport to Camp Ramadi in Iraw, Leavey crawls under a blanket to sit with him and calm him. That link is so good that she and the dog become wonders at finding bombs and guns. They save thousands of soldiers' lives in 100 missions until both of them are injured by an IED.

The story does not end there. It continues through Leavey's determination to adopt Rex.

Kate Mara, from TV's House of Cards, disports herself well as Corporal Leavey, never giving in to sentimentality, a move supported by the sensible script by Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, and Tim Lovestedt. The fine supporting cast includes Edie Falco as Leavey's no-account mother, Bradley Whitford as her supportive father, and Common, amazingly good as her sergeant.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who produced the documentary Blackfish, balanced the violence with the depressions of war with cameras at dog and gun levels. She directed a heartfelt memorial to women and dog soldiers.

 

Everyone knows that twins are tight. They sometimes employ a private language, code words. They know each other better than they know others and often have trouble letting anyone else into their twin world. They know better than to exclude others, but they relate so well to one another.

That is the case with Donnie and Krystal. We meet them on their 28th birthday. Their code word for party emergencies is "watermelons." They live together with but a wallpapered wall between their two beds. Krystal has recently broken up with Scott, but Donnie is there to catch her as are her friends at work. She works for a software company, and he works at being a musician; however, his aged manager seems more interested in borrowing Donnie's car "to run errands" than in furthering Donnie's career. She hates her job.

Into their lives comes charming Andy, who flirts with both, which explains the title. But that love sets up a rift between the two, which raises the question of who ends up with whom.

I Love You Both is an independent film by the family Archibald. Director Doug Archibald plays the sober Donnie, he of the vision board; Kristin plays Krystal, a modern flibbertigibbet with Herman, the pug dog. They wrote the script. He edited well with montages of music and sights, including baby pictures. Mother Charlene Archibald plays the very amusing character of the twins' mother, her every scene a stealer, even to pronouncing "contemplate" as "condomplates." Lucas Neff from TV's "Raising Hope" is a wonderful Andy, and Artemis Pebdani is Krystal's bawdy friend.

I Love You Both shows the twins' development from being too close to finding a new way of being twinned as adults. It is unpredictable and delightful, an amuse bouche.

 

Israeli writer/director Avi Nesher introduces his absorbing Past Life with a jolt that propels the narrative. Sephi Milch is singing in West Berlin, 1977, with her Jerusalem-based choral group. At the reception following the performance, an elderly Polish woman, whom Sephi does not know, violently grabs Sephi's arm while shouting that she sees the daughter of a murderer.  

Thus begins for Sephi and older sister Nana a tortuous search into their father's past. A Holocaust survivor himself, now a gynecologist, Dr. Baruch Milch has inflicted a painful childhood upon Sephi and Nana. Some subplots offer counterpoints to their quest for truth, others reinforce the psychological and emotional impact of Baruch's wartime actions. For example, despite entrenched sexism and discouragement, Sephi composes uplifting music. By contrast, Nana, editor of a sexually exploitive political magazine, faces an illness, convinced it is divine retribution for her father's actions. In the political backdrop, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat works for peace with Israelis, positing contemporary themes of reconciliation and forgiveness in the face of troubling conflict.

Based on real events, Nesher draws from Baruch Milch's actual memoir, Can Heaven Be Void? and the daughters' experiences. He inserts philosophical observations, including the comment that when "Fathers eat sour grapes, the children's teeth are set on edge."

As Sephi and Nana, actresses Joy Rieger and Nelly Tagar present their characters' contrasting personalities beautifully, sparring like real sisters. A fine supporting cast adds texture as does Yishai Steckler's soundtrack. In press notes, he cites his decision to use a Jewish liturgical Hebrew piece from the 17th century in the introductory concert. Later he integrates music colliding with events, resulting in a multilayered mix of ideas and emotion. 

Past Life is the first of a trilogy in which writer/director Avi Nesher probes the legacy of the past for its profound impact on present lives. Based on this first installment, I'm eagerly awaiting the second chapter, Valley of Ghosts, in production. Until then, Past Life screens in Hebrew, German, and Polish with English subtitles and with some English at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

 

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