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Critic’s Notebook; Sundance: Some Surprises Amid the Frivolity


From the New York Times:

One of the most revealing, eloquent and well-received films at the festival, a documentary about two elderly women called “Martha and Ethel,” still sounds awful on paper.

The film, by Jyll Johnstone and Barbara Ettinger, is about the two nannies who raised them. Martha, a German refugee, worked for the Johnstones for 30 years, then retired to an apartment in Queens. Ethel, a black woman who brought up the Ettinger children, still lives with Mrs. Ettinger. This idea sounded so bad on paper that the film makers applied for more than 50 grants to help with the budget and were turned down every time.

But what sounds like a narrow view of a privileged world is ambitious and emotionally deep. An affectionate portrait of two completely different women — the stern, well-meaning Martha and the loving, self-assured Ethel — it deftly becomes a history of social change over 40 years, and a meditation on motherhood and family. Martha and Ethel themselves, interviewed in their late 80’s, are such rich screen presences that one viewer asked, in a question-and-answer session with the film makers here: “Does Ethel have an agent yet?”

Ms. Johnstone, a former actress, and Ms. Ettinger, a former photographer, may be first-time film makers, but they are not naifs.

Read the entire review here.

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An Aristocratic Look and a Powerhouse Personality


Mimi Wedell in “Hats Off”

Originally published in The New York Times
By JEANNETTE CATSOULIS
Published: March 28, 2008.

Widowed at 65 by a husband who left only unpaid bills and fond memories, the indomitable Ms. Weddell saw an opportunity to follow her passion. “I love illusion,” she says, describing an acting career that has paid her bills for almost three decades. From “Law & Order” to “Sex and the City,” from vampire movies to cheese commercials, this remarkable woman has compiled a résumé that defies the industry’s rampant ageism. And while her aristocratic looks and powerhouse personality — and an elegant way with a cigarette holder — have no doubt contributed to her success, so too has a willingness to work 14-hour days and fight for roles.

“Mimi’s driven,” says her son, Tom, who shares his mother’s East Side Manhattan apartment along with his sister, Sarah Dillon, and other family members. And as the filmmakers, Jyll Johnstone and Michael Arlen Davis, strive to keep up with their subject’s punishing schedule of dance lessons, gym workouts, auditions and even a sightseeing trip to Florence, their movie seldom flags. For Ms. Weddell, standing still may be life’s only remaining terror.

HATS OFF

Opens on Friday in Manhattan.

Directed by Jyll Johnstone; edited by Kate Stilley Steiner and Bill Weber; music by Frankie Spellman and Stevie Buzzell; produced by Ms. Johnstone and Michael Arlen Davis; released by Canobie Films and Abramorama. Running time: 1 hour 24 minutes. This film is not rated.