I can’t count how many times I’ve seen “That Thing You Do,” one of the most purely delightful films of all time. The key may be in one of the comments of writer/director Tom Hanks (who also appears in the film) in this oral history on Ringer: “No bad guys in my movie.” The behind-the scenes stories are wonderful and what really comes through is the appreciation of everyone involved in the movie for Hanks’ talent and his kindness.
Panel on “Worth” with Ken Feinberg, Michael Keaton, Laura Benanti, Max Max Borenstein, Camille Biros, and Caroline Kennedy
Posted on September 2, 2021 at 9:30 pm
It was an honor to serve as moderator for a panel discussion of the Netflix film “Worth,” with Michael Keaton as Ken Feinberg, whose pioneering work on allocating compensation following major national tragedies led to his appointment as Special Master for the fund set up for the victims of 9/11 and their families. The film is a powerful story of the importance and the limitations of justice as Feinberg learns that it is as important for the people he is trying to help to be able to tell their stories as it is to pay their bills. He also learns about the limitations of the law as he has to find a way to compensate undocumented workers and then-not-legally-recognized same sex partners. Our discussion was sponsored by the John F. Kennedy Library, where Feinberg served as board chairman, and we were introduced by Ambassador Caroline Kennedy. The discussion included ethics, empathy, acting, and opera.
The Filmmakers on “The Mitchells vs. The Machines”
Posted on April 27, 2021 at 11:17 am
I was lucky enough to attend a press event featuring the producers Chris Miller and Phil Lord (the “LEGO Movie”) and producer Kurt Albrecht, along with co-writer and co-director, Michael Rianda. The moderator was my good friend and fellow Washington DC film critic Kevin McCarthy. Some highlights:
“Despite not having gone through a robot apocalypse, it’s a very personal story for me,” said Rianda, who also provides some of the voices in the film. “The dad is based on why day who would always say, ‘Put down your Gameboy! There’s a sparrow!’ My dad loved nature to a degree that is haunting.” He said everyone on the team brought their own family histories and experiences to the film, and that is why it was important to him to have not just the names but the photos of the filmmakers and the families in the closing credits. Miller said his dad was also a nature nut who loved to stop in the middle of family car trips to have a snowball fight or enjoy the outdoors.
The main character in the film is Katie, voiced by Abbi Jacobson, an aspiring filmmaker. In her room she has a Mount Rushmore of filmmakers. So McCarthy asked the panel who they would pick for their own Mount Rushmore. All of them agreed on Hal Ashby (“Shampoo,” “Harold and Maude,” “Being There”), which is probably how he ended up on Katie’s wall. Rianda also picked Studio Ghibli animation giants Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata along with Martin Scorsese. Lord said that at Katie’s age he would have added Tim Burton, Spike Lee, Chuck Jones (bold and inventive) and Mel Brooks. Miller picked the Coen brothers, Billy Wilder, and Akira Kurosawa. Albrecht would select Steven Spielberg and Pixar’s Brad Bird.
A theme in the film is social media and the feelings of inadequacy and competitiveness it can entail. “Everyone thinks their family is nuts,” Rianda said. And when you finally admit it, the response is always, “Mine, too!” He said they wanted the Mitchells to be dysfunctional but loving. Casting real-life husband and wife and social media stars Chrissy Teigen and John Legend as the impossibly aspirational Instagramers the Mitchells envy turned out even better than he expected because they were so warm and accessible and eager to improvise. “Even though they seem perfect, they are very relatable.”
Another theme audiences will recognize is the Mitchells’ tendency to be on their phones instead of looking at what is in front of them. Rianda said that in his own life he has experimented with putting his and his wife’s phone in a safe at night and “in eight minutes you’re having the deepest conversation you’ve had in years. ‘What was your childhood like?’ You have to fill the silence somehow!” Miller’s family has a no-screens-at-the-table rule.
Lord talked about technological innovation in the film, and the fun of “taking it for a spin to see what it could do.” He wanted a “handmade, hand-painted, textured” look to the film, a “watercolor, ramshackle vibe.” The 1:85 ratio of the image also made it feel more intimate, as though you were in the Mitchells’ home.
Interview with My Dad, Newton Minow, about the FCC, the SS Minnow, Saying No to JFK, and Media Today
Posted on April 22, 2021 at 11:22 am
One of the great pleasures and honors of my life was the chance to interview my wonderful dad for Emmy Magazine in honor of the upcoming 60th anniversary of his famous speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, calling television “a vast wasteland.”
Sixty years ago, on May 9, 1961, the 35-year-old Chairman of the FCC, Newton Minow, made three significant appearances. In Washington, he gave his famous “vast wasteland” speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, telling them that while “when television is good, nothing is better,” he expected them to do more to uphold their statutory obligation to serve “the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” Then he went back to the FCC office, where he met with Elizabeth Campbell to sign the original license for WETA, the first educational television station in the nation’s capital, now the producer of the Ken Burns documentaries and the nightly Newshour. And then he flew to Chicago to attend the father-daughter dinner for my Brownie troop.
I often thought about how those three events defined his character: inspiring those around him to do better, supporting the visions of people making enriching cultural content and reliable news sources widely available, and always putting his family first. Over the next decades this was reflected in his efforts as a founder and board chair of PBS, a director of CBS, helped create the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), where he served as vice chair until this year, worked to require the V-chip and closed captioning, helped get the start-up funding for “Sesame Street,” and argued for the rescission of the radio license of a station that broadcast virulently racist and anti-Semitic programming. And he and my mom will celebrate their 72nd wedding anniversary this spring.
Best Picture nominee “Nomadland” has an intimate, documentary tone. In this peek behind the scenes we can see how writer/director Chloe Zhao (also nomainated) and her production team mingled actors and real nomads to let us see the world of people who choose to live their lives on the road.