Jun 29 2017

Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table is another Netflix biopic worth a look

maureen


As a foodie and lover of New Orleans, the documentary Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table was a great Netflix find. Oscar and Emmy nominated director Leslie Iwerks chronicles the life of Ella Brennan, owner of famed New Orleans restaurant Commander’s Palace. This documentary covers a lot of bases. It’s a clinic on success in the hospitality industry. It’s a feminist tale about women who excel and lead through dedication, confidence, and hard work. It’s a story about family relationships. It’s a revealing look at how cuisine evolves. It’s another powerful Katrina recovery story. It’s about starting over when life is a mess.

Told through a series of interviews and voice-over narration the documentary serves as an entertaining overview of Ella’s life. 18-year-old Ella Brennan started out working in her brother’s bar on Bourbon Street and became an international influence on cuisine and mentor to some great chefs including Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. So many of the sub-plots in Ella’s real life story could have been documentaries of their own.

My favorite thread running through this documentary was Ella Brennan’s self-education. She knew nothing about food when she got started. She read. She talked to people who knew. She traveled to places where popular cuisine was being developed. She tried out new ideas. She formed relationships with influencers and shared ideas. Success doesn’t seem to be about the fame or the money for her. Her motives appears to be that she wants to offer customers a great dining experience and nurture creativity and community among her employees. Ella Brennan, even an 91, seems to be genuinely interested in continuing to learn and grow. Anyone who wants to be successful in any field can learn from Ella’s example.

I loved the restoration cycle in her story as well. Brennan’s is a famous New Orleans restaurant. From the early 1950’s until 1974 Ella Brennan poured herself into making it one of the best restaurants in the world. Just as Ella was going through a painful divorce she was fired from the restaurant that bore her family’s name. She started over as a single mother in her 50’s with Commander’s Palace, which was far from a palace when she took it over. She built that into something even greater. It was heavily damaged by Katrina. Ella, then in her 70’s, was a driving force in rebuilding it with other family members. Eventually Brennan’s came back into the family and Ella walked back in after 40 years.

Where you stop telling a story determines its genre. So many people make tragedies of their own stories by setting themselves up for failure or quitting in defeat. Stop Ella’s story at being 18, uneducated, and a woman and you get a story about the path of least resistance. Stop Ella’s story at being fired and you get a story about failure and family villains. Stop at Katrina and you get a disaster story. Stop at the pinnacle of success and you get a shallow fable. It’s refreshing to watch a story in which someone’s attitude and choices tell a story about an abundant and successful life. The last scenes in the film show Ella, at 91 is still not through learning or telling her story.

 

 

 

 


Jun 2 2017

Life Itself

maureen


Life Itself a biographical documentary about Roger Ebert’s unique contributions and cultural significance. It’s also a hopeful look at the combination of choices and happenstance that make up any life. Steve James (Hoop Dreams) shoots the film, based on Roger Ebert’s memoir of the same name, in the end stages of Ebert’s battle with cancer. Responding to James questions, Ebert appears on camera, missing the bottom part of his jaw, typing his thoughts into a computer that speaks for him. Ebert’s wife Chaz, family members, and friends help tell his story.

Ebert, with fellow critic Gene Siskel made film criticism entertainment for the masses. I might not be teaching film today if it hadn’t been for their PBS series Sneak Previews and later, At the Movies. They give insightful, intelligent analysis of films. They were the ones who made me think about movies in the same way my English teacher taught me to think about books. This isn’t a dry, academic mental exercise. It’s exciting to understand the elements of film and to see how each filmmaker creates something unique using those elements. Siskel and Ebert helped make film accessible as an art form.

Out of college Roger was hired by the Chicago Sun Times and eventually became the film critic because the film critic quit. This became his life’s work. He received the only Pulitzer Prize ever issued for film criticism. Ebert continued writing on his blog to the very end of his life. It’s a treasure trove of years and years of his past film criticism. A group of  critics continue to post to Roger Ebert.com.

As much as Life Itself  is a tribute to Ebert, it’s also a contemplation on life itself, as the title states. Some opportunities in life happen through developing gifts and talents. Some are about attitude. Some involve being in the seemingly random right place at the right time. Some happen through willingness to change and grow, to take risks, and to embrace the good that comes out of the bad.

The film takes Ebert from his cocky twenties with skewed priorities to the gracious maturity that knows that love is the best legacy. Much of the film focuses on Ebert’s relationships, especially with his wife Chaz who he met at AA. Roger was 50 when he married Chaz and gained a family. They were married 20 years. Her influence helped him develop deeper friendships with others in his life.

Roger Ebert died before filming was complete. Near the end of the film Chaz talks about Roger’s last moments.  She tells about the family surrounding him, holding hands, and the room filling with incredible peace. It is such a familiar and real story.

 

 

 

 


Sep 13 2014

Reflections on Forrest Gump: Forrest knows what love is

maureen


Forrest Gump says “I’m not a smart man but I know what love is.” And he does. He loves his Momma, Bubba, Lt. Dan, and, most of all, Jenny.

Forrest shows his love for his mother by remembering and respecting what she teaches him. Mrs. Gump equips Forrest with an outlook that marks the way he processes the things that happen to him throughout his life. It is Forrest’s acceptance of whatever comes out of the “box of chocolates” that allows him to become a participant in historic events without questioning whether he belongs there. He accepts himself and believes he has something to offer because His mother instilled worth and confidence in him. He values other people in the way Mrs. Gump teaches him to value himself.

Forrest rushes into the Vietnam jungle to save his friend Bubba and ends up saving four other men. Forrest honors Bubba by following through with the plans they made to go into the shrimping business even though Bubba is dead. So deep is Forrest’s connection to his friend that he shares his fortune with Bubba’s family even though he doesn’t know them well and they think he’s stupid. Continue reading


Jan 28 2014

Sherlock unmasked

maureen


SPOILER ALERT
Season 3 begins with Sherlock and John Watson absorbing big changes in their lives. John finds out his best friend isn’t dead, gets married, finds out he’s going to be a father, and get his old job back. Death, birth, marriage, and career change are major life events. Watson has strong adaptability, perceptiveness, and relationship skills so its no surprise he’s handling it like a Hobbit.

Sherlock is dealing with change as well. His best friend is getting married; he’s picking up his life after a lengthy absence; he’s still dealing with life or death mysteries; and, oh yes, he lied to his best friend and nearly everyone else he knows. He let them think he was dead for two years and must now deal with the effects of that deception on all his relationships, even on Molly and Mycroft, who were in on the deception. In one way Sherlock’s return from the dead simply adds to his public mystique, but the press is focused on “how he did it,” an indication that his controlled image is unraveling further. Sherlock seems to be shedding some of his mystique in order to adjust to change, not only in his circumstances, but in himself. Continue reading