Interview: Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails of The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Posted on June 22, 2019 at 9:13 pm

Copyright A24 2019
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is stunning debut film from director/co-writer/co-producer Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails, who co-wrote the story, based on incidents in his own life, and who plays a character named Jimmie Fails in the film.

The exquisite lyricism and meditative, poetic images give a grand, elegiac quality to the story about Jimmie’s dream of returning to the grand Victorian mansion that was once his family’s home in a rapidly gentrifying San Francisco that is making it impossible for lower-income and middle class residents, especially non-whites, to continue to live there. Fails, with Jonathan Majors has his character’s closest friend, Montgomery, give deeply moving performances of quiet power, and it is one of my favorite films of the year.

In interviews, Talbot and Fails, lifelong friends, talked about what their home city means to them and why it was as important to them to tell the story of a friendship as it was to present loss and longing for the home.

Something we don’t see very often in movies is such a beautiful portrayal of a friendship so tell me a little bit about why that was something that you really wanted to have front and center in this story?

JF: I think it was important to see two males being gentle with each other and especially for black men because we always feel like you have to be this masculine tough guy or something or you can’t show your feelings to your friend so I think more particularly with black men that was important to show a friendship like that.

What inspired the beautiful, lush images of the film?

JT: I grew up watching a lot of old Hollywood films, pre-code and noir, with a particular interest in films in San Francisco from the 40’s and then obviously into the 70’s with movies like The Conversation. Actually sort of in getting ready for this film I dug for some lesser-known San Francisco movies that I hadn’t seen like Petulia, one that I love.

There is something about San Francisco that I think lives nationally in the imagination of filmgoers because it is a place that has been filmed for a very long time. But Jimmie and I felt like our side of San Francisco didn’t get that same cinematic treatment in film. We spent what feels like a lifetime walking around the streets of San Francisco. It’s strange because a lot of that’s disappearing. Our favorite places that Jimmie and I would go on these walks through the mission and Bernal and along those routes. Some of our favorite spots have been bulldozed and there have been new condos erected in their place and so as much as we wanted to make it a sort of valentine to San Francisco, the beauty of the city both in the architecture and the people, it was also just trying to document what we loved about it before it was all gone.

That obviously had a big impact on our approach to the way we wanted to show it as being sort of a magical place, and that also came from Jimmie and his character. He loved San Francisco very much and I think in his mind particularly when you meet him in the film it’s going to hold a certain romance for him as much as it can feel like it doesn’t love him back.

It was important to show the city as being lush and having these saturated rich colors partly just because that’s to me what the city feels like, what it looks like. The Victorians lend themselves to that and there’s also a regal quality.

When Jimmie and I first started talking about it we would say sometimes it felt like it’s the story of a deposed prince trying to get back the family throne and he’s on this odyssey-like journey. Every so often, he and Mont, as we see them do in the beginning, they take this journey from the outskirts of San Francisco, literally the furthest corner of the furthest point back into the heart of the city, to the old castle that he once lived in. That’s part of why we shot the scene when Jimmie’s yelling at the Segway tour led by Jello Biafra because that was supposed to show how he’s restored to the throne. Jonathan in his brilliance, when he comes out on the balcony and he says to him you look like King Jimmie each time he waved; that was all improvised by Jonathan but he really understood that scene on a deep level and it comes out in improv moments like that.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Mont essentially directs the guys who hang out on the corner all the time and essentially act as a counterpoint or Greek chorus in the film. He talks to them as though he’s a director giving actors notes on a scene.

JT: It’s funny you mentioned that because that’s another scene that was entirely improvised. Jonathan is wonderful to work with. He really studied the script and he’d quote it back to me, when I would try to change a line. He’d say, “No, we can’t change that line and this is why we can’t change it.” He really absorbs every word. Everything has so much conviction; every line he reads, and he gets very particular about them. But that was a scene where we felt like it just wasn’t working.

Originally he was supposed to cross the street and perform a magic trick as a distraction and on some level he did essentially the same thing. He took on the energy that was coming to Kofi but he always felt like Montgomery is observing the world as theater; everything is theatrical to him and of course an hour and a half of observations throughout the film all of that comes out then finally and expressed by him in his play.

I think in that moment it was a beautiful idea that Jonathan had that what if he cross the street and he treated them like performers because in a way we all in our own ways are performing something and in that moment it’s a toughness. I think those guys have more layers than what we see in that moment even though the guys were sort of leading the bullying of Kofi all have complicated feelings about that inside. Some of that confusion by them was somewhat genuine because there was no script to look to about what he might be doing.

Jimmie, your character wears pretty much the same clothes throughout the film. What does that hat and shirt tell us about the character?

JF: Joe made it. It grew on me. I didn’t necessarily like it but it was supposed to be reminiscent of a different era a little bit like kind of the old school sort of thing. I was very inspired by Brando in On the Waterfront with the beanie hat, the kind of longshoreman sort of look and there were a lot of longshoreman in San Francisco, black longshoreman, so it was kind of supposed to be like that sort of thing.

The magnificent Victorian house is so important to the film, really a character in the film. What was it like to be inside it?

JF: From the moment you step into that house it’s like everything outside doesn’t even exist. We were trying to find Victorian because we couldn’t use mine (the actual house the story was based on). It took us a while to find the house because all the places we went would be like Victorians on the outside and we go inside it would just look all new and it didn’t have the old sort of Victorian style inside. S o when we found that one and the owner was so nice to let us in.

Did you have a favorite room in the house or a favorite detail?

JF: The library for sure. The books he has in there — it’s insane. He has National Geographics that go back to like 1800 and something, like he literally has it’s insane what he has in there; I think it was like some of the original copies.

It must have been a challenge to take a story that is in part based on the real life of the person who is writing and performing it and then say, “Well, that may have happened but we can’t do it that way in the movie.” How did you navigate that?

JT: It’s interesting because I feel like everything I’ve ever made even going back to our first movies as teenagers came from something that happened in our lives. One of the first movies that Jimmie and I made with my younger brother Nat was about two friends who wind up in the suburbs for the weekend and they are lured out to the suburbs by two girls that they meet and I’m in it and Jimmie’s in it and it starts to go very wrong very fast.

It’s about two city kids who were very weirded out by the suburbs and we end up fleeing back to San Francisco in the end but that was basically something that had happened to me. So in a way it’s all natural that we would be talking about Jimmie’s life as we often did or with my life and then that would somehow end up being turned into a movie.

I think for this in particular some of the stories are pulled directly from Jimmie’s life; the scene with his mother is something that actually happened when he saw her on the bus after having not seen her for a long time and the character Mike Epps plays, Bobby, was a guy who drove off with the car that Jimmie and his dad was living in, they didn’t really acknowledge it.

Through a collective imagination, part of the film was not just retelling things that had actually happened but imagining different ways to tell them or to elaborate on them so thinking, “What if this guy drove off with Jimmie’s car never really acknowledged it even years later and still sort of said that he was just borrowing it and even if he picked Jimmy up and drove around town?” It was funny to think, “Who could do that so well?” Mike Epps is one of the funniest people in the world.

Even for the scene with Jimmie and his mom, it was like wanting to shoot that in a way that both felt honest and real. That was his real mother playing his mother in the movie. Part of what’s important about that is they look so much alike, he’s really his mother’s son in some ways, but also wanting to show in the way we shot them like that, shot reverse shot, a very stylized look, that there’s a distance between them as the world is sort of whirring past them both.

So I think that was actually from me and Jimmie as kids that first bonded on telling stories to each other, that was one of the most fun parts of this, how to take these real events and spin them into something that was partially fiction and partially true.

Jimmie always says for him every scene was emotionally true, even if the events and the characters were changed.

What has been the most gratifying of the reactions that you got from the film?

JF: Just people saying, “Thank you for being vulnerable.” It’s the best thing I could hear. People say a lot of beautiful things about the cinematography, about the actual art of it but when people thank me for that it means everything. It was hard for me to put myself out there, so that means everything to me.

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Women In Film 2019: Making Progress

Posted on June 16, 2019 at 1:27 pm

Women are making some remarkable, unprecedented progress on and off screen in film. Some recent examples:

Women showrunners, executive producers and creators open up about changing the narrative for women behind the lens in Hollywood and how they’re putting the “she” in call sheet.

Two of the best streaming series on Netflix this year were stories about women, written and directed by women. And they were both mordantly dark stories about death: “Russian Doll” and “Dead to Me.” The women behind them, Leslye Headland and Liz Feldman, were interviewed by Variety.

Copyright Netflix 2019

An excerpt:

Let’s talk more about the tone because both of your shows deal in death, but in a half-hour format where people are expecting to be able to laugh and breathe a bit more.

Feldman: The show, in its conversation about death, came from a very real and personal place for me. Maybe because I’m a comedy person, I can’t help but look at things that are incredibly dark and find the quirky, weird, funny details about them — or experiences you have through them. For me, the only parameter there was was that it had to be respectfully authentic. For example, there’s a grief counselor in the show and his matter-of-fact tone is based on a grief counselor that I had a conversation with when doing research for the show, who told me about this incredibly horrific thing that had happened in his family, but he said it like he was just taking his son to a baseball game. It was so dark that I was trying not to laugh, but I think that’s often how we deal with things that are uncomfortable: in that slightly sophomoric way of laughter. If it felt authentic and grounded in the experience the character was having, we could make a joke about it, but it could never be making fun of the person going through the thing — because this show is just as much for people going through things as it is a general audience.

Copyright 2019 Netflix

Headland: Our death in the show is kind of a spiritual death. We talked about it as a character, basically. I guess what I thought was, in order for this premise to work, with that first car hit you have to really believe she’s dead. You don’t have to be scared out of your mind, but you have to know she didn’t imagine something. So we have to treat death extremely seriously there; it’s a little bit of the jump scare after she’s hit and going in close on her face and all of that stuff. And in Episode 2 is an opportunity to make death funny again. Now we need to kind of de-fang death for the series so every time she died it was less of a, “Oh no, she’s dying,” and more, “It’s part of my vocabulary now.” The real hard thing was to make death scary again, so by the time you came to the end of the story, you’d feel the stakes and that her dying would mean something — and that’s a big testament to the writers of Episodes 4, 5, 6 and 7 that they could move from something silly to her having internal deaths that can’t be explained.

Bazaar says that “The Best Movies of the Year Celebrate Female Nonconformists,” including “Late Night,” “The Farewell,” and “Selah and the Spades.”

There was a moment in the biggest movie of the year, “Avengers: Endgame” featuring the female characters that some audience members found exhilarating and affirming and others found pandering.

Copyright Marvel Studios 2019

The fact that there were enough female superheroes to create that scene was at the least a sign of progress. Co-screenwriter Christopher Markus told Variety:

We’ve been on this for so long, it’s pretty hard to attribute any specific ideas to any one person at this point. We had such an embarrassment of riches in that whole sequence. How do you make it not just a blur of people all the time? So, we found ways to sort of separate off certain units so you could focus. And Marvel fans, increasingly, with every movie, gotten these great female characters. Some people can call it pandering but it’s also like we have tons of shots of all men. Why not have a shot of all women and they’re so cool? It just seemed like “Let’s celebrate it!”

Copyright Disney 2019

My friend and fellow critic Roxana Hadadi wrote about this scene and other “feminism lip service” moments in the world of superheroes this year for Pajiba.

hese “Girl power!” moments are initially delightful but don’t hold up very well to scrutiny, not when we consider what else we know about these franchises. The Marvel Cinematic Universe took its sweet time giving us a female-focused story. The X-Men franchise has always been about McAvoy’s Charles and Michael Fassbender’s Erik/Magneto, and that’s fine because the actors are great as foils, but its female characters have always been shortchanged — so much so that even the Dark Phoenix storyline, one of the best from the comic books and the ’90s Saturday morning cartoon, lacks the necessary impact.

At the New York Times, Amanda Hess wites about women bosses on screen. It is telling that the current release “Late Night,” written by and co-starring Mindy Kaling, with Emma Thompson as a longtime talk show host with declining ratings who is often tyrannical in her dealings with the staff. It is, in its way, aspirational, as there are no women late night talk show hosts.

Copyright 2019 Amazon Studios

The culture is creeping with tales of seasoned female bosses torturing their young assistants and cynical mentors undermining their idealistic mentees. The women who opened doors are shown slamming them closed.

These are anxious projections. There are arguably more powerful women on screen than there are in real life. A woman has not commanded the desk of a major-network late night show since Joan Rivers got booted from Fox in 1987. Three women have become the president of the fake United States on “Veep” alone. The powerful women of fiction are born of both hope and fear, of how women will ultimately seize power and how they’ll wield it.

Mean girl female bosses have been frequent nemeses on screen, from the evil queen in “Snow White,” evil stepmother in “Cinderella” (who treats her stepdaughter more as a servant than a family member), evil fairy in “Sleeping Beauty,” evil octopus-creature in “The Little Mermaid,” and the woman selected by at least one source as the worst villain in the history of movies, Cruella de Vil in “101 Dalmatians,” who wants a coat made out of puppy fur. Then there’s Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada,” Regina Hall in “Little,” Melissa McCarthy in “The Boss,” and Olivia Pope in “Scandal,” Wilhelmina in “Ugly Betty” and the ruthless and unapologetically self-centered Selina Meyer in “Veep.” The others may be mean on behalf of high standards and professional achievements. Selina has no actual policy goals other than benefiting her own career to the detriment of those she feels threatened by or judged by.

Hess is perceptive about the dynamic between the older generation women who perhaps had to be ruthless to move forward and the younger women in the story who tend to be more of an afterthought, just a sketched-in figure to give the anti-heroine someone to play off of.

It is probably not a coincidence that the role of the powerful woman tends to be deliciously complex while that of the up-and-comer is comparatively thin. The bad boss, whether in business or politics, is jumping with social tensions. Executives and senators are curious avatars for feminism, after all: Feminism is a movement bent toward equality, while power necessarily accrues to a select few. Often, powerful women are upheld as agents of feminist change when all they have changed are their own circumstances. Efforts to insist that such power “trickles down” are not incredibly convincing; millions of women are left competing for droplets.

No one is expecting these films to achieve parity or solve problems. But it is unquestionably a step forward that they have brought us further in this discussion, with so many new examples to ponder.

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Interviews About My #1 Film of 2018, If Beale Street Could Talk

Posted on January 7, 2019 at 8:00 am

Copyright Annapurna 2018
I had the great pleasure of speaking to two of the people behind my favorite film of the year, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” breakout star Kiki Layne and writer/director Barry Jenkins, who adapted the film from the James Baldwin novel.

My interview with Ms. Layne was for the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. She spoke about the support her character gets from her strong, devoted family.

The love in that family is just so, so powerful. We see the beauty of having those people to lean into and having those people around that are nurturing you and nurturing your growth. Tish has some growing up to do. Her family encourages that but it’s not all, “You’ve got to get over this.” It wasn’t that type of energy. It’s just like, “Hey, this is a situation that you’re in but really we’re all in it together,” and I think that was the beauty of the family dynamic in this film.

And I spoke to Barry Jenkins for rogerebert.com. He described the one scene where he augmented Baldwin’s story.

Another one of my favorite scenes is the one where they’re in the loft with the young landlord after so many rejections. It is so delicate and charming.

The character was in the book but it’s one of the few places in the translation that I’ll say I felt it didn’t go just far enough for me and so as I was walking around the space I just had this thought in my head like, “How in the hell could you possibly see a way to turn this into a home?” Then I realized, “Oh, but what says love and faith more than a lover saying, ‘I promise I can do this’ and you say ‘Okay, yes I believe you,’” So that’s when we added this whole thing of how we’re going to make this into a home and then him showing where he’s going to put all these things and then I was like, “Oh, it feels kind of cute let’s just go all the way with this pantomiming with the fridge,” and when we did it, there was something so lovely about watching Dave Franco and Stephan James perform this kind of joke in a certain way which was rooted in love and faith that when we got to the roof it also seemed like, “Okay, and now these characters feel connected. How can we take it one step further?”

This idea of mothers in the film is so important. Tish has a mother and she is pregnant, Fonny has a mother, Victoria Rogers, the woman who’s been sexually assaulted, she’s pregnant. She’s not showing but she’s pregnant. It’s all this idea of mothers. I thought, “Oh, here is something that I can see uniting these characters,” and that’s when we gave Dave Franco the line, “I’m just my mother’s son.” Sometimes it’s that idea that makes the difference between us and them; not black and white but people who have been loved and the people who haven’t.

This was adapted with I think much respect and deference to Mr. Baldwin, but that was one of the places where I’m really proud of how I was able to fuse my voice and his.

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One of the Best Screenplays of 2018 Free Online

Posted on January 6, 2019 at 9:53 am

Copyright 2018 Sony Animation
The best surprise I had at the movie theater last year was “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and I am delighted that the filmmakers have made the screenplay available online.  Take a look at the fresh, clever, jubilant writing that made this movie such a delight.

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Interview: James R. Hansen, Author of the Neil Armstrong Book “First Man”

Posted on October 28, 2018 at 4:27 pm

Courtesy James R. Hansen
James R. Hansen wrote the book that inspired “First Man,” the new Ryan Gosling movie about Neil Amstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, and I had the great pleasure of talking to him about the time he spent with Armstrong and his family, what he learned from the biodata NASA kept on the astronauts during their journey, and what he thinks about the film’s depiction of Armstrong leaving something very meaningful on the moon before he returned safely to earth.

Where were you when you watched the moon landing?

I was on the floor in front of our television set, back in the day when television sets were these console units where the exterior was built into the TV. I was right in front of the TV set on the floor, in Fort Wayne, Indiana between my junior and senior year of high school. I was taking the college aptitude test that summer, working at a golf course mowing grass. I think I watched every minute. I think I was there probably from noon until midnight, so probably 12 straight hours of watching the coverage of Apollo.

So you grew up with the space program.

I was a second grader when Alan Shepherd flew the first space flight. We went down into the gym and took off our shoes and they had a big boxy TV right at the mid-court circle of the basketball court. That flight was just a sub-orbital flight that lasted maybe 15 minutes but I remember very clearly where I was on the floor. There was just something about the age and the era and the promotion of space exploration that grabbed a lot of people. I didn’t do a whole lot between the launches or between the missions but when it did happen I usually found my way to a TV set one way or the other.

One thing that will surprise people when they see the movie is that the space capsule is so small and vulnerable. Is that the way that Neil described it to you?

The vision of the director, Damien Chazelle, was to make the experience immersive for all of the movie viewers and to make it very visceral as well and so I think as a result there’s an emphasis on the sound. If you recall just the shutting of the hatches and everything, it’s almost like they’re being entombed in these things. At one point I went to the museum with Neil where the Gemini VIII spacecraft was still located. The Gemini in particular is just for two men. It’s just such a small space. The Apollo was rather roomy in comparison. I don’t think I did in my book as much as what Damien does in the film to communicate the almost claustrophobic aspects of being in these capsules and so I think the audience will experience this in a way that is in a lot of ways different than it’s been portrayed in earlier movies where you don’t experience the sounds and the vibrations. Damien went out of his way to try to put the viewer in to see it through Neil’s eyes, to feel it in a very direct kind of way, and I think that’s one of the really incredible things about the film.

What made Neil the right guy for that job?

In terms of his general training and experience for astronaut selection, here is a guy that had flown as a test pilot virtually every advanced experimental flying machine that the country was testing between 1956 and the time he became an astronaut in 1962. He was in fact in the second group of astronauts, which was an incredible group with James Lovell and John Young and Frank Borman and Ed White. Neil was the only one who had any experience for flying a rocket-powered airplane, the X-15, which is shown in the very first scene of the film. In terms of him becoming the commander of Apollo 11, one thing I try to do in a lot of my lectures is make clear that there was nothing preordained about him being the one selected. The approach to putting teams together the key was choosing good commanders and he had a feeling deep down that any of the commanders could have done any of the missions.

So Neil always made sure people understood that his opportunity to command Apollo 11 was really a matter of contingent circumstances. He was in the right place in terms of the order of the rotation. Still, he was really an outstanding person to end up doing it — I don’t think there’s any question about that. He had had the major problem with the Gemini VIII flight. There was some second-guessing about it, but in the end everybody felt like he and Dave Scott had handled that emergency extremely well under unbelievable pressure. So I think all of that’s relevant. On one hand it is important to make clear that he was really well trained and a good person to do this particular mission, on the other hand there were other good men as well that probably could have done it as well as he and I think the other commanders could have done the missions.

What is it that makes someone able to stay calm under that kind of pressure?

One thing that the movie can’t show that the book can and does is that in the movie we only see Neil in three flights, in three flying machines; he’s in the X-15, he’s in the Gemini VIII and he’s in Apollo. The guy made hundreds of flights in hundreds of different machines and he’d been flying since he was 16 years old, so he had experienced so many different flying machines and experiences in airplanes and there have been tough challenging moments in a lot of those flights. He flew 78 combat missions over North Korea and had half of his wing clipped off in one of them and he had to eject from the plane.

If you fly that many times, you are going to run into problems and things that are not working quite right. So the one thing that you can’t communicate in the film is that this guy has been in these things hundreds and hundreds of times. They’re engineers and test pilots in the plane so they really know the systems as well so that is an element that sort of explains their confidence in what they’re doing.

He was calm, but we know from the telemetry data that Neil’s heart rate was one of the highest if not the highest heart rates in almost all those flights and I talked to Neil about it. Neil’s own take on it was that if you really see when his heart rate peaked, it was always when he was in anticipation of some high-performance moment that he was going to have to execute. So really his take was that it wasn’t a representation of stress or anxiety about the flaw but just the body and the mind together getting ready for something that was going to have to be done out of the ordinary. He does have other instances of high heart rates too when he was over at Little West Crater during his lunar EVA. He had to get over to Little West Crater and get back to the lunar module pretty quickly because that wasn’t really a scheduled thing for him to do and there wasn’t much time and mission control was kind of nagging him to get back to the lunar module. When he was over at the crater his heart rate was over 180. Again it’s a question of how you interpret that, but I’ve always been a little bit reluctant to describe him as this cold, calm, collected person what nothing unnerves when a man is running such a high heart rate at the same time.

The movie focuses quite a bit on the way that Neil dealt with the death of his daughter. What did he tell you about it?

Typically of Neil, it was hard to get him to talk about it. I probably got him to talk about it more than anybody else ever had. As the movie makes it clear, he didn’t even talk to Janet about it and Janet told me the same thing. He just would not talk about it and Janet needed him to talk about it. She needed a husband that was comforting and supporting and she needed to be able to express her own grief. That’s one of the really sad things in their relationship and I think the movie captures that in some beautiful ways, especially that last scene. I got most of my information about the effect of the death on Neil from Neil’s sister June and from Janet because they observed it first-hand. June, who really loves her brother, was very understanding and she told me stories about in the aftermath of the death, stories that reinforced for her what a special love Neil had for that little girl and how it affected him not only in the immediate aftermath of the death but in her eyes how he never got over it.

The line when he responds to a question in his interview for the astronaut program in the movie comes from my book. I asked, “Did this affect your flying in any way?” and he said, “I think it would be unreasonable to assume that it would have no effect.” That’s just classic Armstrong speak. It’s an answer but it’s not terribly direct.

He didn’t really bring her baby bracelet to the moon and leave it there, did he?

There’s certainly no evidence that he did. The thing is there’s also no complete evidence that he didn’t. We don’t know what he took to the lunar surface because the manifest of the contents of his PPK (the personal property kit) where they took personal items has never been seen. Neil apparently had it. I asked him if I could look at it and he was going to try to find it and never found it and the boys don’t have it and Purdue University archives doesn’t have it so we don’t know where it is and even if we do find the manifest was what he took/the personal items that he took if something was really, really private he wouldn’t have necessarily even listed it.

Another part of this is that the visit over to the Little West Crater was not scheduled. It was not part of the mission plan. He just decided to go over and do that himself and what he did over there we really don’t know for sure because the TV Camera wasn’t on him at that point in time so it was a completely private moment. Sometimes the power of poetry prevails over the uncertainty of fact. I’m okay with it because there’s just enough degree of uncertainty about this that it’s not necessarily counterfactual, we just don’t know for sure.

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