Authors Posts by Brooks Robards

Brooks Robards


A number of Island venues are offering regular film series, with a focus on vintage films.

The 1966 version of "Batman" will be shown at the Vineyard Playhouse on Feb. 16. – Photo courtesy Vineyard Playhouse

Island moviegoers will find plenty of opportunities this winter to see film classics on the big screen. In addition to Wednesday nights at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, the Vineyard Playhouse, and a number of Island libraries are offering regular film series, with a focus on vintage films.


Jamie Alley of Island Entertainment Video hosts a 7:30 pm Monday series at the Vineyard Playhouse. As well as being a theatrical venue, the Playhouse is also equipped as a movie theater, with a large screen and surround sound. Coming up are Shock Treatment, a 1981 satire on reality TV by the makers of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, on Feb. 9; the 1966 version of Batman on Feb. 16; and Mary Poppins on Feb. 23, which will be screened at 6:30 pm for a special family-night screening in conjunction with school vacation week. Mr. Alley draws on his extensive cinematic background to provide introductions to the films. The charge for these films is $5 cash at the door, and the series will continue through March.

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum has teamed up with the M.V. Film Center to screen films from the 1960s on Wednesday nights in conjunction with its current exhibit, “Sea Change: M.V. in the 1960s.” Historian and film buff A. Bowdoin Van Riper will discuss how films like Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), scheduled for Feb. 11, and Easy Rider (1969), which will play Feb. 25, reflect the climate of the Sixties. These films will be shown at the M.V. Film Center for a charge of $12 for members and $15 for nonmembers.

Now in its seventh year, the Tuesday-night film series at the Edgartown Public Library is currently screening films about war for an adult audience. The theme for upcoming movies shown in April is road films. The screenings start at 7 pm, and are free. The West Tisbury library is running a monthly series at the M.V. Film Center in honor of the late Jonathan Revere. The next movie will be Sullivan’s Travels (1941) on Wednesday, Feb. 18. Pianist Michael Haydn will play Cole Porter tunes during the hour before the screening, and champagne and cookies will be served.

Two winter movie series are underway at the Chilmark public library. Weekly on Wednesdays, the free Chowder and a Movie events begin at noon. Playing Feb. 11 is The 39 Steps (1935), The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945) follows on Feb. 18, and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is slated for Feb. 25.


Friday nights at 7 pm the Chilmark library offers water-themed movies, the next of which will be Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) on Feb. 6, Chocolat (2000) on Feb. 13, South Pacific (1958) on Feb. 20, and Mister Roberts (1955) on Feb. 27. Sponsored by Friends of the Chilmark Library, this free series provides moviegoers with popcorn and drinks.

In Vineyard Haven, the library has a Tuesday-night schedule of Oscar films. After the 2015 Academy Awards are announced on Feb. 22, the Vineyard Haven Library will select from the winners for its next series. These 7 pm movies are free, and popcorn and cider are served. The Chilmark-based Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival will hold its 15th annual festival March 19 to 22, with the schedule of films still to be announced. Check for additional details as the date gets closer.

by -
"Butter Lamp" ("La Lampe au Beurre de Yak"), is a French/Chinese co-production and features a series of blackout scenes of Tibetan families having their photos taken against a variety of backdrops. Photos courtesy of

The Oscar nominees for Best Short Film (Live Action) will play Friday, Jan. 30, at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. Sponsored by Shorts HD for the past 10 years, the five films represent Israel, Northern Ireland, China, Switzerland, and Britain.

Aya, the entry from Israel, opens at an airport outside Jerusalem, where a young woman named Aya is waiting to meet someone unidentified. She is enlisted by a driver to hold a placard for a Mr. Overby, and when he shows up, she spontaneously decides to drive him to his hotel in Jerusalem. Directed by Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun, Aya quickly establishes an intimacy that is characteristic of live-action shorts. Mr. Overby (Ulrich Thomsen), a Danish music historian, has come to Israel to serve as a jury member for the Rubinstein Piano Competition. He doesn’t know what to make of Aya (Sarah Adler), who objects when he puts on headphones to listen to a music CD.

“I feel closer to people I don’t know,” Aya confesses. She asks her passenger to tap along to the music with his fingers on her hand and then on her thigh. Once they arrive at Mr. Overby’s hotel, he invites her to join him. Her response, and the subsequent close to the film, take it in a strange and unexpected direction.

Based in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1978, Boogaloo and Graham, directed by Michael Lennox, opens with soldiers walking along a neighborhood street. Immediately afterward a man (Martin McCann) opens a box, leaving the viewer to wonder if perhaps he is about to produce a bomb or a weapon. Instead he takes out two fluffy chicks. They are presents for his two sons, Jamesy and Malachi. With the ’50s classic Why Do Fools Fall in Love by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers playing in the background, the two little boys are captivated by their new and unusual pets, and the viewer watches as the chicks mature. The boys’ mother (Charlene McKenna) is less enamored of the fowl, and lobbies to get rid of them, especially after a change in the family dynamics occurs. Set against a backdrop of the Troubles in Ireland, Boogaloo and Graham captures a charming and comic domestic anecdote.

"Butter Lamp" ("La Lampe au Beurre de Yak"), is a French/Chinese co-production nominated for an Oscar in in the Best Short Film (Live Action) category. — Photos courtesy of
“Butter Lamp” (“La Lampe au Beurre de Yak”), is a French/Chinese co-production nominated for an Oscar in in the Best Short Film (Live Action) category. — Photos courtesy of

Butter Lamp (La Lampe au Beurre de Yak), a French/Chinese co-production, adopts an unusual format by creating a series of blackout scenes of Tibetan families and groups who are having their photos taken against a variety of realistic-looking backdrops. Director Wei Hu utilizes a variety of comic details enlisted by the photographer (Genden Punstock) to evoke the characters and situations for each photo, including prayer wheels; a backdrop of Potala Palace, revered by a grandmother; a photo of a child held by an elderly family member; clothing props; and a motorbike. Although the film is essentially plotless, it captures a surprisingly rich portrait of Tibetan culture.

Oscar nominated "Parvaneh" is set at a refugee camp outside Zurich, Switzerland. — Photos courtesy of
Oscar nominated “Parvaneh” is set at a refugee camp outside Zurich, Switzerland. — Photos courtesy of

In what is perhaps the strongest entry, Parvaneh, set at a refugee camp outside Zurich, Switzerland, describes the plight of an Afghan teenager who wants to send money back to her family. When she arrives at the Western Union office in Zurich, her identity card is rejected, and Parvaneh (Nissa Kashani) starts looking for someone with a valid ID card who will send the money for her. A young punk teen (Jana Pensa) offers to do it, but the two arrive at the Western Union office after it has closed. Despite her tough appearance, Parvaneh’s new friend has a soft heart. She takes the Afghan immigrant to what is probably her first party and steps in to help her when Parvaneh loses her money. With particularly strong acting, Parvaneh, directed by Talkhon Hamzavi, effectively captures the immigrant experience in what seems like a threatening, alien world.

"The Phone Call", the British entry in the live-action-short Oscar contest, features Heather, a young woman who works at a crisis call center. — Photos courtesy of
“The Phone Call”, the British entry in the live-action-short Oscar contest, features Heather, a young woman who works at a crisis call center. — Photos courtesy of

The Phone Call, the British entry in the live-action-short Oscar contest, features two celebrated actors. Golden Globe winner Sally Hawkins plays Heather, a young woman who works at a crisis call center, and Oscar winner Jim Broadbent is Stan/John, the mystery man whose call for help she fields. Director Mat Kirkby deftly conveys the intimate nature of the conversation between Heather and Stan and the urgency underlying it.

Also opening this weekend are the Oscar-nominated documentary films, and the Oscar-nominated animated shorts will play the following weekend.

Oscar-nominated live-action shorts, Friday, Jan. 30, 7:30 pm.

Oscar-nominated documentaries, Saturday, Jan. 31, 4 pm.

All films at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, Tisbury Marketplace, Vineyard Haven. For tickets and information, visit

by -

"The Theory of Everything" premieres this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center.

Courtesy of Focus Features

English cosmologist Stephen Hawking, author of the best-selling book A Brief History of Time, is considered by many to be the most brilliant physicist since Albert Einstein. James Marsh’s film, The Theory of Everything, which plays this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, portrays Mr. Hawking less through his complex theories than his struggle with motor neurone disease and his 25-year marriage to Jane Wilde.

The Theory of Everything offers viewers an unusual and richly satisfying subject for a love story. The film has earned Oscar nominations for Eddie Redmayne, who plays Hawking, and Felicity Jones, who plays his wife Jane, along with a Best Picture nod. Based on Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, the memoir by Ms. Wilde, the movie explores the impact of Mr. Hawking’s struggle with a paralyzing disease that doctors predicted would kill him in two years. Viewers meet Mr. Hawking before the onset of motor neurone disease, a form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease, when he is a 21-year-old graduate student at Cambridge University.

Eddie Redmayne, who plays Stephen Hawking, and Felicity Jones, who plays his wife Jane Wilde in the "Theory of Everything." – Photo courtesy of Focus Features
Eddie Redmayne, who plays Stephen Hawking, and Felicity Jones, who plays his wife Jane Wilde in the “Theory of Everything.” – Photo courtesy of Focus Features

He meets and falls in love with his future wife in those early 1960s days, and once the disease manifests itself, tries to end the budding relationship. Jane, however, is determined to commit herself to this brilliant man, who in many ways is her opposite. A graduate student in foreign languages, she is an active member of the Church of England, while Stephen, with characteristically wry humor, says he has “a slight problem with the whole celestial dictator premise.” The doctors’ prediction of a death sentence proves wrong — Mr. Hawking is now 73 years old — and the couple marry and have three children. Ms. Jones creates a far subtler portrait of Jane than the usual cinematic, self-sacrificing wife.

With prosthetic teeth and ears and a 15-pound weight loss, Mr. Redmayne’s remarkable depiction of Stephen’s growing physical disability employs a contorted wrist, drooping head, stooped posture, pigeon toes and an unruly mop of hair that transform the actor. Mr. Redmayne kept a chart of Stephen’s debilitative progress and spent time with ALS patients. Equally compelling is Ms. Jones’ portrait of Jane, who struggles with her husband’s illness in ways that are as heroic as Mr. Redmayne’s. As hard as the two work to sustain their relationship, the marriage ends after 25 years. Jane finds emotional support from widowed choirmaster Charlie Cox (Jonathan Hellyer Jones). Emily Watson appears in a cameo as Jane’s mother Beryl. After a life-threatening bout with pneumonia, Stephen finds romance with his nurse Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) whom he eventually marries.

While a fuller explication of Stephen’s theories would have been a welcome addition to The Theory of Everything, the movie remains a rich and rewarding portrait of a marriage that goes well beyond most Hollywood romances.

The Theory of Everything, Thursday, Jan. 22, and Sunday, Jan. 25, 7:30 pm; Friday, Jan. 23, 4 pm. For tickets and information visit

by -


The late actress Patricia Neal, an Edgartown summer resident for over 30 years, will be honored on her birth date — what would be her 89th birthday, Tuesday, Jan. 20 — by Turner Classic Movies with showings of a number of her films. Ms. Neal, who died in 2010, won the first Tony Award for Best Actress in 1947, as the lead in Another Part of the Forestby Lillian Hellman, another longtime Vineyard resident.

The Kentucky-born Ms. Neal co-starred with Gary Cooper in King Vidor’s 1947 adaptation of the Ayn Rand novel The Fountainhead, and made headlines for her affair with Mr. Cooper, who was married. Ms. Neal’s career in Hollywood earned her an Oscar for her performance in Hud opposite Paul Newman in 1963. Other memorable screen roles came in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd in 1957 and in the 1961 film classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Ms. Neal’s marriage to writer Roald Dahl produced five children, and was followed by a series of tragic events in her personal life. In 1960 her 4-month-old son Theo suffered brain damage after he was hit by a taxi in his baby carriage, and Ms. Neal’s daughter Olivia died at age 7 from measles-induced encephalitis in 1962. During Ms. Neal’s fifth pregnancy in 1965, she suffered several incapacitating strokes that left her in a coma and confined to a wheelchair until she relearned how to walk and talk, and was able to continue her acting career. An Oscar nomination for The Subject Was Roses followed in 1968. In 1971 Ms. Neal won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in her role as Olivia Walton in The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, which led to the popular TV series The Waltons. In one of her last film roles, Ms. Neal starred in Robert Altman’s drama, Cookie’s Fortune. She published her autobiography, As I Am, in 1988.

Photo by Jaxon White
The late Patricia Neal with Playhouse artistic director MJ Bruder Munafo in the summer of 2009. – Photo by Jaxon White

On the Vineyard Ms. Neal provided a memorable and much-beloved presence at many cultural events over the years. She helped raise funds for the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society by appearing at screenings of A Face in the Crowd and Hudin the West Tisbury Grange Hall and by participating in question-and-answer sessions after the films. Following renovations in 2011, the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, one of Ms. Neal’s favorite summer haunts, showed their appreciation for her support by naming the stage in her honor. She was a staple at the annual Possible Dreams Auction for Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, and in 2006 the “dream” donation of cocktails and dinner with the actress garnered $6,000 for the organization. Her death came at her Edgartown home on August 8, 2010, from lung cancer. She was 84.

Turner Classics programming of Ms. Neal’s films begins on Tuesday, Jan. 20, at 6 am with The Hasty Heart, co-starring Ronald Reagan; and Operation Pacific, co-starring John Wayne, at 11 am. Bright Leaf follows at 1 pm, co-starring Gary Cooper and Lauren Bacall; A Face in the Crowd with Andy Griffith screens at 3 pm; and The Subject Was Roses at 5:15 pm.

by -
"Foxcatcher" stars Channing Tatum as a wrestler trying to find success. — Photo by Scott Garfield

Foxcatcher, the gripping story of two wrestling brothers and their wealthy would-be mentor, comes to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center this weekend. Directed by Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher is based on the true story of Olympic gold medal winners Mark and David Schultz and their relationship with multimillionaire John du Pont.

Unlike many sports films, Foxcatcher makes wrestling the backdrop for an intense study of far more complex issues, like the controlling power of wealth and the nature of male camaraderie and familial relationships. The film opens with a capsule life of Mark Schultz, who won a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics in Los Angeles, played by Channing Tatum. In the aftermath of his Olympic success, Mark leads a solitary, sad-sack existence — working out, living on a diet of ramen noodles and occasionally giving pep talks to high school students. Trapped in his musclebound body as if it were a cage, Mark depends emotionally on his older, more easygoing, gregarious brother David, played by Mark Ruffalo.

While Mark remains damaged by his unhappy blue-collar childhood, David acts as his protector and father figure. David’s more normal life includes his wife Nancy, played by Sienna Miller, and his two children, in addition to his wrestling career, while Mark remains obsessed by the need for success as a wrestler.

More than any other sport, wrestling suggests an erotic-tinged intimacy underlying the action between two competitors. The director, also responsible for Capote and Moneyball, explores in Foxcatcher the relationship between the two brothers through close-up scenes of their workouts. Once this sporting world is established, it is turned sideways by the appearance of multimillionaire John du Pont, himself a would-be wrestler, who uses his money and influence to set up a training center for wrestlers at his Pennsylvania estate. As portrayed by comedian Steve Carell wearing a prosthetic nose, du Pont is a stunningly awkward eccentric who entices Mark, along with a group of other wrestlers, to live on his estate and train for the upcoming Seoul Olympics. With his proboscis perpetually in the air and his halting speech patterns, du Pont proves even more isolated than Mark. Vanessa Redgrave, playing du Pont’s disapproving mother who raises horses and dismisses her son’s wrestling as a “low” sport, fleshes out the intricacies of du Pont’s psyche.

Once du Pont replaces David as his brother Mark’s mentor, the more corrupting aspects of the relationship emerge. The millionaire introduces Mark to cocaine, and trains him to give speeches describing du Pont as his hero. Eventually du Pont transfers his obsessions to David, and persuades him to move his family to the du Pont estate. From there, the situation spirals out of control and into disturbing and destructive behaviors. Foxcatcher’s shocking finale brings into the foreground the dark undertones of a story that can only be described as heartbreaking. Mr. Miller’s capable direction, combined with accomplished and nuanced acting by all three of the principals, has created an exceptionally strong film.

Foxcatcher, Friday, Jan. 16, and Saturday, Jan. 17, 7:30 pm.; Sunday, Jan. 18, 4 pm. For tickets and information, visit  

by -

This week at M.V. Film Center and Entertainment Cinemas.

Photo by Anne Marie Fox

With a Golden Globe nomination and multiple regional wins under her belt, Reese Witherspoon strips away her movie-star image to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in “Wild.” Already playing at Edgartown’s Entertainment Cinemas, “Wild”opens at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center on Friday, Jan. 9.

Like “Tracks,”the story of a woman who crosses the Australian desert with four camels and a dog; “Into the Wild,”where a college grad hitchhikes to Alaska to live in the wild; and “All Is Lost,” about a shipwrecked sailor’s struggle to survive alone, the appeal of “Wild” comes from the challenge an individual faces to survive on her own in the wilderness. Adapted by Nick Hornby from Cheryl Strayed’s popular 2012 memoir of the same title, “Wild” follows the trek of a young woman grieving the loss of her mother, Bobbi, played by Laura Dern. Cheryl travels from the Mojave Desert near the Mexican border to Washington State.

Cheryl has led a life of dissipation, taking drugs and having promiscuous sex, after her mother’s premature death from cancer. As the movie, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée — also responsible for “Dallas Buyers Club” opens, Cheryl has decided to change her ways by hiking the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Her goal is to recapture the person her mother believed her to be. She begins carrying a backpack so large she can hardly hoist it. Other hikers along the trail call her bag the “monster,” and eventually she is able to relinquish some of the paraphernalia that as an inexperienced hiker she has packed.

Filmed in Oregon, “Wild” follows Cheryl through breathtaking landscapes. Her hike brings plenty of challenges. She loses one of her too-small hiking boots down a ravine, throwing the other one after it in frustration. Using duct tape, she modifies a pair of sandals to wear until she’s able to get new boots. In the 94 days she spends on the trail, she meets a number of other hikers, mostly men. A reporter interviews her for his story on hobos, even though she insists she’s not one. A rancher who at first seems threatening takes her home for a hot meal provided by his wife. Two hunters she encounters come close to molesting her, but other hikers along the way are friendly and helpful. Her ex-husband, played by Thomas Sadowski, supports her by providing mail and supplies at prearranged sites. As Cheryl moves along the trail, she writes in her diary and enters fragments of poems by Emily Dickinson and others into the trail records. Flashbacks return the viewer to the life Cheryl experienced with her always cheerful single-parent mother and her brother as she grew up. Taking up almost a third of the movie, they also fill in details of her earlier drug-taking and sexual misadventures.

“You can always quit,” her best friend Aimee, played by Gaby Hoffman, tells Cheryl, but that is not a choice this determined woman wants to make. At times it is hard to ignore the movie-star sheen Ms. Witherspoon’s natural beauty evokes, and as her mother, Ms. Dern can be a little too perpetually positive. But as a journey of self-discovery, “Wild”is an entertaining and satisfying excursion for the moviegoer.

At M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven: Friday, Jan. 9, and Saturday, Jan. 10, 7:30 pm; Sunday, Jan. 11, 4 pm; Thursday Jan. 15, 7:30 pm.

For tickets and information,

At Entertainment Cinemas, Edgartown: Thursday Jan. 8, 4:00 pm and 7:00 pm.

For tickets and information,

by -

A retrospective in Island cinema.

"Freedom Summer" was a highlight of 2014. –Photo courtesy of the Martha's Vineyard Film Festival

Not many communities the size of Martha’s Vineyard are lucky enough to provide such a variety of films to moviegoers. In addition to the Entertainment Cinemas in Edgartown, which programs popular Hollywood blockbusters year-round, the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival (TMVFF) in Chilmark and the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center in Vineyard Haven, along with the Summer Jewish Film Series of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, now based at the MV Film Center, bring the Island the best in independent filmmaking. Another film event growing in popularity is the annual African-American Film Festival, held in August in Oak Bluffs. Across the board, 2014 was an especially good year for provocative and insightful films.

Film festival-goers. – File photo by Ralph Stewart
Film festival-goers. – File photo by Ralph Stewart

Chilmark’s TMVFF addressed a variety of gender issues, including bisexuality in Appropriate Behavior, and gay marriage in The Case Against 8, civil rights in Freedom Summer, and food-industry abuses in Fed Up. In addition to its annual March festival, Chilmark’s TMVFF expanded its venues, bringing movies to Entertainment Cinemas in Edgartown, and outdoors to Owen Park in Vineyard Haven and the Menemsha public beach, in addition to its regular screenings at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown and at its home base at Chilmark Community Center. Oriented toward documentary films, TMVFF brought a number of filmmakers and principals connected with the films being screened for discussions. Many films, including Stanley Nelson’s Freedom Summer, Compared to What: The Improbable Journey of Barney Frank with an appearance by Mr. Frank, Fed Up attended by producers Katie Couric and Laurie David, and Divide in Concord with plastic-bottle-ban advocate Jean Hill, earned standing ovations. TMVFF brought a number of free events to its members, such as Frozen, Mission Blue, E.T. the Extraterrestrial, and The Wizard of Oz.

Cinema Circus is a fun component to the Martha's Vineyard Film Festival. –Photo By Eli Dagostino
Cinema Circus is a fun component to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival. –Photo By Eli Dagostino

Also free for the first time this year was TMVFF’s signature children’s program, Cinema Circus, which expanded from Chilmark to include events in West Tisbury and Oak Bluffs. In addition to screening children’s films, Cinema Circus offered circus events and classes in filmmaking for kids. Managing Director Brian Ditchfield and Education Coordinator Hilary Dreyer will lead new education programs in 2015 at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and the West Tisbury School. TMVFF will also expand its outdoor film series in 2015.

MV Film Center

The MV Film Center screened 165 feature-length movies this year, as well as 60 to 70 shorts, and stayed open every week for at least five nights. The center’s most popular films were Boyhood, Chef, Whiplash, Gone Girl, Le Chef,Ida, Land Ho, Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, The Past, and Philomena. Guest appearances featured the late Mike Nichols with The Graduate,  Rory Kennedy with Last Days of Vietnam, and Kate Davis with Newburgh Sting.

People gathered to share drinks and music after a show at the film center in Vineyard Haven. – Photo by Michael Cummo
People gathered to share drinks and music after a show at the film center in Vineyard Haven. – Photo by Michael Cummo

Special events at the Film Center included the MV Hebrew Center’s Summer Jewish Film Series, a program of Oscar-nominated shorts, The Manhattan Shorts series, Wednesday-night classic films, Green on Screen films with the Vineyard Conservation Society, the The Charles W. Morgan with Sail MV, the NY Film Critics series, a New Year’s Eve party, and the annual Oscars party.

Two new events will join the MV Film Center roster in 2015: a documentary week, and a Memorial Day weekend mini-festival on the environment, with cooperation from the Vineyard Conservation Society.

by -
'National Gallery' and 'Force Majeure' premiere at the MV Film Center this week.

In his 39th documentary, Frederick Wiseman applies his considerable cinematic skills to interpreting art with a three-hour trip through one of the world’s great museums. National Gallery plays Friday, Dec. 19, at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. It’s an exhausting and exhilarating excursion. Opening this weekend is Force Majeure, a domestic drama about a Swedish family’s ski trip.

Throughout Wiseman’s career, this master of cinema vérité or observational film (terms he avoids) has used the camera to explore the nature of institutions. One of the earliest films of the Boston-born lawyer turned filmmaker, Titicut Follies (1967), portrayed Bridgewater State Hospital patients in such graphic detail that it was banned in Massachusetts. More recent films include Boxing Gym, Crazy Horse, and At Berkeley.

Now 84 years old, Mr. Wiseman opens National Gallery with a Rembrandt painting, then moves outdoors to a shot of the lions that grace the entrance to the world-famous London museum. A cinematic anatomy of the National Gallery follows, alternating cleaning staff, viewers, docent lectures, administrative meetings, and conservators at work with shots of individual pieces in the collection.

These cinematic images are selected with such care that the film audience can absorb far more than any three-hour excursion through the museum would offer. Mr. Wiseman taps all of the devices that film uses to communicate — cuts, montage (editing), close-ups, establishing shots, to name a few. The soundtrack is the one exception, with the filmmaker relying entirely on the natural sounds and dialogue occurring as the camera moves through the museum exploring its many facets as an institution.

Administrators debate how or whether to market the museum in ways that will draw a wider and different audience. Docents trained in art history talk about the symbolism of a distorted skull in a 16th century Hans Holbein painting and the background behind the 18th century painter George Stubbs’s choice of horses as a subject. The camera looks in on several live-model classes of artists drawing nudes. A group of blind visitors is given Braille-like reproductions of a painting to study and discuss. Museum staff explain the care that goes into hanging paintings in a new exhibit and the way paintings “talk” to one another.

If the film’s length seems taxing, National Gallery presents the audience with as much richness as an entire course in art appreciation. Not to be forgotten is the way Mr. Wiseman animates an essentially static subject through the many cinematic techniques at his command. He reinforces that message in the closing sequences by showing how other art forms, including video, poetry, music, and dance interact with art. And last but not least comes the capacity of film to find inspiration in an art museum.

Avalanche rules Force Majeure

A family on a ski vacation in France provides Swedish director Ruben Ostlund with the opportunity to poke fun at marital trials and tribulations in Force Majeure. The term in the title is a legal one. A little like “act of God,” force majeure is a contract clause that frees the parties from liability for an unavoidable accident. The force majeure in the film is an avalanche.

Tomas is taking time off from a demanding job to spend time with his wife, Ebba, and two children, Harry and Vera. A family-portrait photo op on the slopes opens the film and signals what the subject will be. Soon after, the camera watches Harry from behind as he pees into a bathroom waterfall, suggesting that the mood will be comic. After the scene has been set, day two of this Scandinavian vacation finds the family about to eat lunch on a deck overlooking the slopes. A massive avalanche arrives, looking as if it will bury everyone, and Tomas abandons his family to seek safety inside.

More than a little irritated with her husband’s cowardice, Ebba recounts to friends over dinner what happened. Tomas claims he saw events quite differently from his wife. The avalanche frames the battle of the sexes that follows and incorporates the two children.

Mr. Ostlund captures life at a ski resort and domestic strife with style and sophistication. He peppers the story with an understated humor that perhaps epitomizes a Swedish take on family life. If Force Majeure doesn’t inspire belly laughs, it does offer plenty of chuckles.

“National Gallery,” Friday, Dec. 19, 4 pm.

“Force Majeure,” Friday, Dec. 19, and Saturday, Dec. 20, 7:30 pm; Sunday, Dec. 21, 4 pm.

by -

In a true-to-life story that is as frightening as any fictional thriller, Laura Poitras’s documentary Citizenfour tells the story of how intelligence analyst Edward Snowden exposed widespread surveillance by the U.S. government. The film opens Friday, December 12, at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, and it is a must-see for anyone who cares about civil rights.

In the aftermath of 9/11, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have supported a wholesale spying operation — not just on foreigners, but on all Americans. The government’s justification is that it needs every piece of information it can acquire to prevent further acts of terrorism. Major corporations have cooperated by providing wholesale access to information most of us would consider no one else’s business. Issues of privacy were considered secondary to this massive gathering of intelligence.

The film tracks Edward Snowden’s decision to leave his position at the CIA, where he was on loan from the National Security Agency, and enlist the media to make public the extent of the government’s spying on its citizens. Aware of how retaliatory the government might be, Mr. Snowden took care to prevent his employers from locating him. He left his longtime girlfriend in the dark, saying only that he was away from their Hawaii home on business. He adopted the code name of “Citizenfour” and moved to Hong Kong, where he felt he might be safe from arrest.

He contacted Ms. Poitras because she was working on a film about surveillance, the third in a series about post-9/11 America for which she had already been subjected to government surveillance. With the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere of a spy novel, the two set up a series of meetings over eight days to transmit the evidence Mr. Snowden had gathered on how the government was collecting emails, cell-phone conversations, bank accounts, and other forms of private electronic communication. Ms. Poitras trains her camera on Mr. Snowden as he is interviewed by journalist Glenn Greenwald, the author and former Salon columnist whose series of articles on Snowden and surveillance for The Guardian subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize. British intelligence journalist Ewen MacAskill also participates in the interviews, and Ms. Poitras includes William Binney, another whistleblower, who designed NSA’s surveillance network before misgivings led him to quit.

The film raises crucial questions about whether the government’s need to protect the nation from acts of terrorism justifies the violation of the individual’s constitutional right to privacy. For those not fluent in the language of electronic communication, Citizenfour can be a challenge, but even if a viewer doesn’t always understand the details of what Mr. Snowden explains about how the government listens in on individuals, the larger message comes through loud and clear.

As well as riveting interviews with Mr. Snowden and others, Ms. Poitras builds a highly effective film through a subtle but powerful electronic soundtrack, and recurrent shots of buildings and skylines in the cities where the principals live that visually evoke the nature of the story. Ms. Poitras lives in Berlin, Mr. Greenwald in Rio de Janeiro, Mr. Snowden (currently) in Moscow. The interviews took place in Hong Kong.

Mr. Snowden emphasizes that he has no desire to become the focus of the information he is sharing with journalists, something he sees as a danger in our celebrity-obsessed culture. Nor does he wish to provide information that would compromise national security. He seeks the cooperation of Ms. Poitras, Mr. Greenwald, and other journalists in the belief that they can better judge what information should be released.

Ms. Poitras builds the case for Mr. Snowden’s sincerity by amassing facts that shock and surprise. The payments for rent of his home don’t arrive, and his landlord begins eviction proceedings. German leader Angela Merkel criticizes the U.S. government for listening in on her cell phone conversations. Mr. Greenwald’s reunion with his male partner is turned into a circus by scoop-hungry media.

Why would the government want to collect information on ordinary citizens, the viewer might ask. How could such masses of information be useful? Anyone of the wrong class, color or ethnicity who has been held for interrogation at an airport or arrested mistakenly knows that if mass surveillance takes place, the right to privacy has been violated, and with it goes the loss of freedom. Citizenfour tells a story that is one of the most important of our era. Don’t miss it.

Citizenfour, Friday, Dec. 12, 7:30 pm; Sat., Dec. 13, 4 pm; Sunday, Dec. 14, 7:30 pm; Thursday, Dec. 18, 7:30 pm.

by -
A scene from "Dear White People." —Photo courtesy of Sundance Films

Opening this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center is Dear White People, a college satire that hits home for all ages as accurately as a stealth missile. Also opening this weekend is Awake: The Life of Yogananda, a documentary about Paramahansa Yogananda, who introduced yoga and meditation to the West.

The setting for Dear White People is Winchester, an Ivy League college where Sam White (Tessa Thompson) blogs her thoughts about race relations. Forget about her last name for the time being or the double entendre of her blog’s and the movie’s title — Sam is a black activist. The pleasures of first-time writer/director/producer Justin Simien’s film come in the contradictions its characters are busy exploring.

For starters, Sam’s black ex-boyfriend is Troy (Brandon Bell) who yearns to improve his position as BMOC (Big Man on Campus). Troy’s dad is Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert), whose long-time rivalry with Winchester’s white President Fletcher (Peter Syvertsen) echoes his son’s ambitions. Sam’s latest squeeze is Gabe (Justin Dobies), the white teaching assistant in her film class. It’s a relationship that contradicts her activist black politics as well as acceptable teacher-student relations. Just to complicate matters further, Sam also has a semi-romantic relationship with the more acceptably black activist Reggie (Marque Richardson).

Is your head spinning yet? Add to the confusion that Troy’s current girlfriend is Sofia Fletcher (Brittany Curran), the President’s very white daughter. This rich conundrum of relationships fits perfectly into the world of Winchester’s college campus. Plot, however, takes a bit of a back seat in Dear White People. A clueless President Fletcher insists that racism doesn’t exist at Winchester and decides to randomize housing assignments, eliminating the all-black enclave of Parker/Armstrong. An angry Sam runs against Troy for house president, and to everyone’s surprise, wins.

When Kurt Fletcher, the President’s snarky son, and his honchos try to stake out territory in Parker/Armstrong’s dining hall, Sam ousts them. Meanwhile Lionel (Tyler James Williams) a friendless black gay with an over-sized Afro, bounces around a number of dorm settings, puzzling blacks and whites alike because he doesn’t fit any of the usual stereotypes. The same can be said for Coco (Teyonah Parris), the black wannabe who straightens her hair and eagerly seeks to do whatever is necessary to star in a reality TV show. This cast of college kids slips in and out of traditional stereotypes, raising questions about the way we all categorize each other.

Once Kurt and his fraternity brothers decide to hold a black-face Halloween party — much like a real-life party that took place at UC/San Diego in 2010 — campus unrest reaches a boiling point. Viewers will find themselves challenged to think about how American culture deals with racial issues on both sides of the color line, as well as with issues of media, capitalism, and class. Dear White People, which premiered at Sundance, won a Special Jury Prize for Mr. Simien and was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize there. Like life itself, the film is messy and complex, an invitation to think seriously.

Awake: The Life of Yogananda

Directors Paola Di Florio and Lisa Leeman sketch out the life of the man responsible for introducing the spiritual teachings of the East to the West, the U.S. in particular. Archival footage, reenactments, and interviews with a variety of Yogananda advocates ranging from the Beatles’ George Harrison and Ravi Shankar to Deepak Chopra and Harvard scientist Dr. Anita Goel. That Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi was handed out at the memorial service for Apple founder Steve Jobs suggests the kind of influence he has had.

Living in the U.S. from 1920 to 1952, Yogananda founded the Self-Realization Fellowship at Mt. Washington in Los Angeles and in India a school for boys that combined education with yoga training. He died in 1952 after giving a speech at a dinner in Los Angeles for the Ambassador of India.

It’s a challenge to try and cover all the bases in Yogananda’s life, and at times Awake feels as if it glosses over too much. But viewers who are interested the spiritual aspects of yoga and meditation will still find it informative and can move on to Autobiography of a Yogi.

“Awake: The Life of Yogananda,” Friday, December 5, 4 pm; Sunday, December 7, 7:30 pm. “Dear White People,” Friday, December 5, and Saturday, December 6, 7:30 pm. All films screened at M.V. Film Center, Tisbury Marketplace, Vineyard Haven. For information and tickets, see