Dream Horse

Posted on May 20, 2021 at 12:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for language and thematic elements
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, scenes in pub, alcoholic portrayed as cute and funny
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death of a parent, off-screen serious injury of a horse
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: May 21, 2021
Date Released to DVD: July 5, 2021

Copyright 2020 Bleeker Street
Dream Horse” is a fact-based underdog, or maybe under-horse story about an improbable equine champion. But the real thoroughbred in the movie is the endlessly talented Toni Collette, who plays Jan Vokes, a cashier at a big box store in Wales, who dreams of breeding a racehorse. This is a solidly constructed feel good movie, with performances and details that make it better than it needs to be.

Even those who do not know the story and have not seen the popular documentary, “Dark Horse,” about the real story, have a pretty good idea of where this is going. There will be an impossible dream, some early signs of success, setbacks, struggles, and a triumphant conclusion, with glimpses of the real people (and horse) in the final credits. Those credits, by the way, are one of the film’s highlights; don’t miss them, as the actors and the Welsh villagers they portray sing a classic song by Wales’ favorite son Tom Jones together.

It is Collette who helps to make the story feel fresh and authentic, along with the staging of the race scenes by Welsh director Euros Lyn, so exciting we lean forward in our seats, as though it will help our favorite be first over the finish line. She is called upon in the film to sit in various owners’ seats at various racetracks and make each expression of worry, excitement, fear, and ecstatic joy look different and real and she, well, crosses the finish line ahead of the pack every time.

Jan feels stuck as the film begins. Her husband, Brian (Owen Teale) snores at night and bores in the daytime, watching reality television shows about veterinary procedures and ignoring Jan except when absent-mindedly asking what’s for tea. She has two jobs, cashier at the store and barmaid at the pub. When she isn’t being ignored by Brian, she is caring for her elderly parents. There is nothing to make her feel a sense of hope or purpose.

And then she overhears a customer at the bar talk about his time as part owner of a racehorse. He is Howard (Damian Lewis), an accountant who nearly went broke when the syndicate failed. Jan realizes that if she can just get everyone to give ten pounds a week, she can breed a racehorse by buying a retired mare and paying the stud fee to get her pregnant. A lovably quirky group of people from the village and a couple of Howard’s friends agree to join. And they agree it isn’t for the money or for the craic (Celtic term for fun, but for the hwyl (pronounced hoyle, and a Welsh term meaning more than fun, fun plus enthusiasm, spirit, and purpose). The film’s wisest choice is making it clear that the miracle is not the horse. It is the chance to believe in something and to be part of a community.

The foal is born, but the mare dies. In some other versions of the story we might spend time on how the syndicate members care for the motherless colt, named Dream Alliance, but in this one we skip ahead to bringing him to the training facility of the country’s top racehorse trainers, played by Nicholas Farrell (“Chariots of Fire”). No training montage here. We skip right from his initial no to, the “wait a minute, that horse is really fast” to, well, being off to the races.

That leaves perhaps too much time with the overly cutesy townsfolk. I think we are past the time when the town drunk is supposed to be funny or adorable. And the resolution of Howard’s conflict with his wife, who is understandably worried about a repeat of his past losses, is improbably easy. But then there is another chance to hold our breath at the races, and to cheer for Dream Alliance, for dreams, and the alliances that make them come true.

Parents should know that this film includes some potty humor, scenes in a bar, a town drunk whose alcoholism is played for humor, a sad death, and a serious injury of an animal.

Family discussion: What dream would make a difference in your community? Why was it so difficult for Jan’s father to tell her he was proud of her? How did money change the way the group made decisions? What would you do just for the “hwyl?”

If you like this, try: “Dreamer” (also inspired by a true story), “Phar Lap,” and “The Black Stallion”

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Newton Minow’s “Vast Wasteland” Speech: 60 Years Ago Today

Posted on May 9, 2021 at 10:17 am

On May 9, 1961, my father, Newton Minow, delivered a speech that continues to inspire the conversation about media and has even been an answer on Jeopardy!

I interviewed him about the speech for Emmy Magazine. LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik interviewed him about media and the news.

He appeared on his favorite news program, the PBS Newshour, to talk to Judy Woodruff about television then and now.

NPR celebrates its 50th anniversary this week, and its official history gives my dad some of the credit. He also helped launch the first telecommunications satellite, helped get the original funding for “Sesame Street” and helped create the Presidential Debates, involved in every one going back to the original, Kennedy-Nixon, and designed the current bi-partisan commission, where he still serves as Vice Chair.

Today Dad was the Power Player of the Week on FOX with Chris Wallace.

In 1961, Dad was President Kennedy’s new Chairman of the FCC, just 35 years old, and in his first major address he told the National Association of Broadcasters that while there was much to admire on television, too much of it was a “vast wasteland.”

He told the audience about the day before the speech, when President Kennedy brought Commander Alan Shepherd, who had just become the first American in space, and his wife, to the National Association of Broadcasters event Dad would be speaking to the following day. President Kennedy invited Dad to come upstairs while he changed his shirt, to give him some ideas about what to tell the broadcasters. Dad suggested that he talk about the difference between the way Americans and the Soviet Union conducted their space program. In the US, we had all the television cameras there to show the American people, good or bad, what was happening.

At the time Dad called on the broadcasters to do better, there were just three national television networks. There was no PBS, just a National Educational Television which was not even available in most of the country, including Washington DC itself. My father told the broadcasters that as long as the airwaves were a scarce resource, they would have to do better to live up to their statutory obligation to serve the public interest, convenience, and necessity, especially with regard to coverage of news and programming for children.

Copyright Newsweek 1961

Dad worked over the next half-century to make more choices available, including cable and satellite as well as the creation of a robust public television station. He served as chairman of PBS and of the Chicago affiliate WTTW, served on the board of CBS, pushed for closed captioning to make television programming available to hearing-impaired viewers and those learning to read or speak English, and argued one of the only cases in history to have a broadcast license rescinded - a station that spewed hatred across the airwaves. In protest of his critique of television, the sinking ship on “Gilligan’s Island” was named after him, the S.S. Minnow! He is so proud he has a lifesaver from the SS Minnow on his office wall, a gift from his law partners for his 90th birthday. He was presented with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama, in 2016.

PBS has a great documentary about him which is free to watch online. He is also the world’s best dad and we are all so proud of him.

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Happy Mother’s Day! And Some Great Movie Mothers

Posted on May 9, 2021 at 7:00 am

The movies have given us warm, loving, mothers, evil, abusive mothers, even alien mothers. Some of my favorites are featured in my book, 50 Must-See Movies: Mothers, including these.

Claudia Before they went on to co-star in the luminous romance, “The Enchanted Cottage,” Dorothy McGuire and Robert Young played a young married couple in this sweet neglected gem based on the books by Rose Franken.  Claudia and David love each other very much and he finds her innocence very appealing.  But her immaturity leads to many problems.  A neighbor thinks Claudia is flirting with him and without consulting David she impulsively decides to sell their farm.  And she is very dependent on the loving mother she adores but takes for granted.  Claudia’s is about to face two of life’s most demanding challenges – her mother is dying and Claudia and David are going to become parents themselves.  So Claudia’s mother has to find a way to help Claudia grow up.  Watch for: a rare film appearance by the exquisite Broadway star Ina Claire as Claudia’s mother

Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner There are two great mothers in this talky, dated, but still endearing “issue movie” about inter-racial marriage from 1967.  Katharine Hepburn’s real-life niece Katharine Houghton plays her daughter and what Houghton lacks in screen presence and acting experience is less important than the genuine connection and palpable affection between the two of them.  The question may seem quaint now, but as filming was underway, inter-racial marriage was still illegal in 17 states.  The Supreme Court ruled those laws unconstitutional that same year.  Hepburn is electrifying in what she knew would be her final film with her most frequent co-star and real-life great love, Spencer Tracy.  And the distinguished actress Beah Richards is brilliant as the mother of a son who says his father thinks of himself as a “colored man,” while he just thinks of himself as a man.  Watch for: Hepburn’s expression as her daughter describes falling in love

Claudine Diahann Carroll was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as a single mother in this ground-breaking 1974 film, one of the first to portray a domestic employee as a real person with her own home and family, and one of the first to provide an honest look at the perverse incentives of the “Great Society” welfare programs.  Claudine is the mother of six who has to keep her work as a housekeeper and her relationship with a genial garbage worker (James Earl Jones) a secret from the social worker because they put at risk the payments she needs for her children.  Watch for: the very romantic bathtub scene

Dear Frankie Emily Mortimer plays Lizzie, the divorced mother of a young deaf son in this heartwarming story set in Scotland.  She is devoted and very protective.  She does not want him to know the truth about his abusive father (the source of his deafness), so she tells him that his father is a merchant seaman.  The letters he receives from all the ports of call full of details about all the places he has been are really written by Lizzie. When the ship comes to their town, she has to find someone to pretend to be his father.  Watch for: Lizzie’s explanation of the reason she writes to Frankie —  “because it’s the only way I can hear his voice”

Imitation of Life This melodrama about two single mothers, one white and one black, who join forces has been filmed twice and both are worth seeing.  The best remembered is the glossy, glamorous 1959 version with Lana Turner and Juanita Moore.  Lora (Turner) and Annie (Moore) are brought together by their daughters, who meet at Coney Island.  Lora, a struggling actress, needs someone to help look after her daughter and Annie needs a job and a place to live.  Annie moves in to be the housekeeper/nanny.  She and Lora have a strong, supportive friendship, though Lora and both girls take Annie for granted.  As the girls grow up, Lora’s daughter is resentful of the time her mother spends on her career and Annie’s daughter resents the racism she confronts even though her skin is so light she can pass for white.  Watch for: the most elaborate funeral scene ever put on film, with a sobbing apology from Annie’s daughter (Susan Kohner)

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies Doris Day stars in this film loosely based on Jean Kerr’s hilarious essays about life as Kate, the wife of a theater critic (David Niven) and mother of four rambunctious boys.  While most of the film’s focus is on the marital strains caused by her husband’s new job and the family’s new home, the scenes of Kate’s interactions with her children are among the highlights.  It is clear that while she tries to be understated about her affection and sometimes frustration, she adores them.  Watch for: Kate’s affectionate interactions with her own mother, played by Spring Byington

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The Water Man

Posted on May 6, 2021 at 5:38 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic content, scary images, peril and some language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, references to child abuse and neglect, critical illness of a parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: May 8, 2021

Copyright Netflix 2021
“The Water Man” is a rare film that exquisitely captures the liminal moment at the end of childhood when we are old enough to begin to understand some of the complications and unsolvable problems of life but still young enough to believe in magic. Lonnie Chavis (“Magic Camp,” “This is Us”) plays 11-year-old Gunner, who is very close to his loving mother (Rosario Dawson) but not aware enough to realize that she is very sick. He is creating a graphic novel about a detective who must solve his own murder and he is fascinated with clues and deductions, but cannot recognize what is heartbreakingly clear to us as we see an IV stand in the bedroom and suspect that the colorful turbans hide a bald head.

Gunner is less close to his father Amos, played by director David Oyelowo, a military officer just returned from a long detail in Japan. His mother loves his art; his father wants him to toss a football.

When he realizes how sick his mother is, Gunner is determined to save her by tracking down a mythic creature known as The Water Man, said to have eternal life. A slightly older girl named Jo (Amiah Miller of “War for the Planet of the Apes”) tells stories of The Water Man, pointing to a scar on her neck as proof that she has not just seen him but been close enough for him to wound her. Gunner does not realize, as we do, that Jo, who lives in a tent by herself, is not as confident and independent as she seems. He agrees to pay her to take him to The Water Man, who is thought to live deep in the forest.

Like the Halloween scene in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” this film lives in the perspective of a young character, while allowing us to understand more than he does. Oyelowo and his Director of Cinematography, Matthew J. Lloyd, use color to tell what Oyelowo describes as an “elemental” story. Gunner’s mother is swathed in warm yellows and oranges, echoed in the backpack Gunner carries on his quest. The inside of Jo’s tent is a deep red. The forest is lush green, but the colors get less saturated and more muted as he gets further from home.

The young actors are both exceptional, very natural and believable, and their scenes together are some of the best in the film. But there is also strong support from an outstanding cast that includes Alfred Molina as an adult who has spent years looking for The Water Man and Maria Bello as the local sheriff who helps Amos try to find his son. Oyelowo is clearly inspired by “ET” (note Gunner’s ET lunchbox), and does a good job of creating a sense of wonder and showing us how all of us, at any age, can struggle to adapt to the unacceptable. Being present for those we love, the families we create, learning to love others for who they are instead of who we want them to be, all come together in a scene as warm as the sun-colors that surround Gunner’s mother.

Parents should know that this film concerns the critical illness of a parent. There is some peril and a creepy fantasy character along with some jump-out-at-you surprises, some schoolyard language, and shoplifting, and there are references to child abuse and neglect.

Family discussion: What are some of the myths or folklore of your community? Where do these stories come from?

If you like this, try: “Bridge to Terabithia,” “Time Bandits,” “Finding ‘Ohana,” and “The Odd Life of Timothy Green”

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Wrath of Man

Posted on May 6, 2021 at 5:34 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexual references, pervasive language, and strong violence throughout
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extreme, visceral, bloody violence, many characters injured and killed, lots of blood
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 7, 2021
Date Released to DVD: July 5, 2021

Copyright 2021 MGM
So, some guy applying for a job has to score at least 70 percent on his weapons test gets exactly 70 percent. Now, that could be because he can only hit the bullseye two-thirds of the time. Or it can mean that he is so good he can make it look like he can only hit the bullseye two-thirds of the time. If Jason Statham is playing that guy, you’d be wise to bet on the latter.

Teaming up with Guy Ritchie, writer/director of the film that was a star-maker for both of them, “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” Statham stars as the job applicant who is more than he appears in “Wrath of Man,” based on the French crime drama “Le Convoyeur” (“Cash Truck”). The film features Ritchie favorites: brutally violent lowlife characters who like to steal and don’t mind killing in a time-twisting storyline. Statham is fine, as always, but this is second-tier Ritchie, a faint echo of what made his early films distinctive and surprising.

I’m going to minimize spoilers here, but if you don’t want any, stop reading now and come back after you’ve seen the movie.

We will call Statham’s character H. That is what he is dubbed by “Bullet” (Holt McCallany) when he applies for a job as a security guard for a delivery truck service that may carry as much as $15 million a day. We know how dangerous it is because in a pre-credit sequence we saw a robbery where the guards were all killed. So, this is the kind of environment where let’s just say there’s pervasive toxic masculinity (even the woman), a lot of tough talk, macho posturing, and cocky attitude. Part of the fun of Ritchie’s Britain-based crime films has been the delightfully audacious dialogue (remember Brad Pitt’s impenetrable accent in “Snatch”), and maybe it is the American accents or the heightened awareness that make the difference but in this film the insults and bragging are, well, a little dull.

H does not stay low-profile long. Very soon after he is on the job there is a robbery. Among the many un-surprising surprises in the film, one of the toughest-talking, most aggressively competitive security guards turns out to be not very cool under pressure. But we know H because he is played by Jason Statham and he is always cool. He surprises his new colleagues by being very very good with defending their cargo — and defending them. The big boss (Rob Delaney, last seen with Statham in “Hobbs & Shaw“) is very impressed. And the next robbery is even more impressive. Literally all he has to do is show his face, and the would-be robbers run in the other direction. This is what I call the “Who is that chef?” moment, as discussed in my “Under Siege” chapter in my 101 Must-See Movie Moments book. Those are always fun.

And this being Ritchie, now we get some backstory, seeing what happened five months earlier that led to this moment. Given the title, I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that revenge is involved. Or that you do not want Jason Statham coming after you.

Chapter titles for the flashbacks add nothing and it is a shame to see Eddie Marsan, another Ritchie regular, and Andy Garcia barely have a chance to make an impression, along with actors who can do much better given the right circumstances, Scott Eastwood, Jeffrey Donovan, and Josh Hartnett. The bang-bang is all well-staged, but it is barely enough to make up for a storyline that thinks it is more innovative than it is.

Parents should know that this film is extremely violent with shoot-outs and explosions, automatic weapons, knives, torture, a lot of spurting blood and other graphic images, and a very sad death. Characters use strong and crude language and misogynistic insults. There is a suggestive situation.

Family discussion: What made H’s team different from Jackson’s? Would you take a job working for Fortico? Why do Terry and the boss have different ideas about how to treat H following the first incident?

If you like this, try: “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” and “The Transporter”

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