Family Movies for Martin Luther King Day

Posted on January 15, 2021 at 10:40 am

As we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, every family should take time to talk about this great American leader and hero of the Civil Rights Movement. There are outstanding films and other resources for all ages.

New this week is “MLK/FBI” with newly released material about the government’s surveillance, of Dr. King, including informants and wiretaps.

I highly recommend the magnificent movie Boycott, starring Jeffrey Wright as Dr. King. And every family should study the history of the Montgomery bus boycott that changed the world.

It is humbling to remember that the boycotters never demanded complete desegregation of the public transit; that seemed too unrealistic a goal. This website has video interviews with the people who were there. This newspaper article describes Dr. King’s meeting with the bus line officials. And excellent teaching materials about the Montgomery bus boycott are available, including the modest and deeply moving reminder to the boycotters once segregation had been ruled unconstitutional that they should “demonstrate calm dignity,” “pray for guidance,” and refrain from boasting or bragging.

Families should also read They Walked To Freedom 1955-1956: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Paul Winfield has the lead in King, a brilliant and meticulously researched NBC miniseries co-starring Cecily Tyson that covers Dr. King’s entire career.

The brilliant film Selma tells the story of the fight for voting rights.

The Long Walk Home, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek, makes clear that the boycott was a reminder to black and white women of their rights and opportunities — and risk of change.

Citizen King is a PBS documentary with archival footage of Dr. King and his colleagues. Martin Luther King Jr. – I Have a Dream has his famous speech in full, still one of the most powerful moments in the history of oratory and one of the most meaningful moments in the history of freedom.

For children, Our Friend, Martin and Martin’s Big Words are a good introduction to Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement.

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Mank

Posted on December 2, 2020 at 12:00 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol abuse and alcoholism
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 4, 2020

Copyright Netflix 2020
“Mank” is a big, breathtakingly ambitious, multii-layered story of Herman Mankiewicz, the man who wrote the original screenplay for what many people consider the greatest film ever made, “Citizen Kane.” This was a passion project for one of the most passionate and meticulous, film-loving directors in Hollywood, David Fincher, partly because the original script for this film was written by his late father, Jack, the sole credited screenwriter.

“Mank” is firmly rooted in its period, down to the black and white film with high ceilings and shadowy images, paying tribute to “Citizen Kane” and other films of that era, it is, like most films set in a different time, very much in conversation with and commentary on where we are today. So. the settings are re-created with exquisite precision and any old Hollywood cinephiles will be overjoyed to be able to visit the office of legendary producer Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) or sit in on a writers’ conference featuring the men who wrote films like Charles Lederer (the original “Oceans 11,” “His Girl Friday,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” played by Joseph Cross) and Ben Hecht (“Scarface,” “Gunga Din,” played by Jeff Harms. They will also get a kick out of the faux “cue marks,” the circles in the upper right-hand corners of the frame to let the theater projectionist know when it was time to get ready to change reels, long disappeared from movies in the digital era.

And then there is San Simeon, the unimaginably lavish Hearst castle built by the unimaginably wealthy William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). He was the heir to a gold mining fortune and a political dynasty. He became the owner of the country’s largest media empire, which he used to push his political priorities. Is the commentary on today coming into focus?

Herman Mankiewicz was brilliant, sardonic, cynical, and a raging alcoholic and gambler. He ruefully notes that his wife is always referred to as ‘poor Sarah” (“Downton Abbey’s” Tuppence Middleton). He was a real-life version of those journalists in the wild wild West days of newspapers, as often portrayed by Clark Gable. He famously sent a telegram to Ben Hecht (in the movie version to Charles Lederer encouraging him to come to Hollywood: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

A brilliant trouble-maker of an enfant terrible from radio and theater named Orson Welles (Tom Burke) has been given free rein to make a movie, what he would later call “the The biggest electric train set any boy ever had.” He asks Mankiewicz, recovering from a leg injury, to write the script and puts him in a remote cabin with a secretary (Lily Collins as Rita Alexander) to keep him away from “distractions,” meaning booze and gambling.

Like “Citizen Kane,” the movie goes back and forth in time, the flashbacks illuminating the movie’s present, especially the inspiration for the title character, who would be played by the 25-year-old director himself. We see moments and characters and ideas sparking the ideas in the screenplay. And we see the painful and often self-destructive force of an intellect that is so deeply cynical only because at heart he is so deeply idealistic.

Mank’s warm friendship with Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) is at the heart of the movie. He can be honest with her because she is honest with him and because, unlike “poor Sarah,” he does not feel, at least in the earlier days of their relationship, that he is letting her down. Davies was the long-time romantic partner of Hearst, who was married to someone else. He ordered his newspapers to write about her frequently, leading to the joke that every story about a Hollywood event had the line “And Marion Davies looked lovely.” (Because of the Susan Alexander character in “Citizen Kane,” the second wife Kane insisted on promoting as an opera singer with disastrous results, people often think Davies was untalented, but she was a lovely light comedienne with a charming presence on screen.)

Because of Davies, Mankiewicz is often a guest at San Simeon and has a cordial relationship with Hearst, until Hearst’s opposition to the progressive California gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair (cannily played by Science Guy Bill Nye) and the movie studios’ anti-Sinclair propaganda “news” films lead to intolerable behavior in social gatherings — and to the corrupt, lonely former idealist Charles Foster Kane.

It is pure pleasure to see a film that respects the audience enough to take on big issues with complexity, humanity, and wit, every careful detail and layered performance providing much to think about and many questions about our own time and how it will be seen eighty years from now, if we are lucky enough to have filmmakers of this quality.

Parents should know that this movie includes strong language, alcoholism and other addictive behavior, some sexual references, and references to the Holocaust.

Family discussion: Who is most like William Randolph Hearst today? Most like Upton Sinclair? Why did Mank change his mind about wanting credit for the movie? Was he fair to Marion Davies?

If you like this, try: “Citizen Kane” and the book about the film by Pauline Kael, Mank: The wit, world, and life of Herman Mankiewicz, and other films by and about the Mankiewicz brothers and Welles. And see some of Marion Davies’ films like “Peg o’ My Heart” and “Show People.”

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Hillbilly Elegy

Posted on November 11, 2020 at 10:00 am

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some violence, language throughout, and drug content
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug abuse, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Domestic violence and family dysfunction
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie is economic diversity
Date Released to Theaters: November 13, 2020

Copyright 2020 Netflix
“Hillbilly Elegy” had just one job: to give us a sympathetic and relatable portrait of people we might dismiss as “rednecks” and, well, hillbillies, without being superficial or condescending. It fails, with a portrait of one dysfunctional Ohio family with roots in the Kentucky hill country that never knows what story it is trying to tell. It is closer to an episode of Jerry Springer than it is to an insightful portrait of the obstacles to opportunity that prevent people, with rare exceptions like Vance, to keep from repeating the same mistakes. (For genuine and meticulously researched understanding, try White Trash by Nancy Isenberg.)

The film is based on the best-selling memoir/anthropological study by J.D. Vance. The timing contributed to its success because it was thought to explain to book-buying, educated, urban voters the perspective of those who supported the election of a failed businessman turned reality TV star in 2016, including policies that seemed to be contrary to their own interests. As we see in this movie, that is consistent with personal choices that are devastating to their own interests, and the interests of the next generations.

The movie arrives at a different time. The resentful rural voters are no longer as exotic or unknown, and they have less political power. Nevertheless, as Democratic voters are still being urged to have empathy for the other side, to the extent there is curiosity about these communities, this is not a movie that is going to provide any enlightenment. It is most telling that it spends much too much time on the blandest and least interesting of the characters, the one based on the author of the book. And so it becomes about his struggle to accept and forgive his family and their history instead of being about them, their lives, their challenges, their choices.

We go back and forth in time with Vance, from the idyllic summers with his Kentucky “hillbilly” relatives to his life with an intelligent but overwhelmed single mother (Amy Adams as Beverly), who makes one catastrophically bad choice after another, and with his tough grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close), who left home, pregnant, at age 13 and scrabbled a life for herself and her family.

J.D. (Owen Asztalos as a young teenager) tells us the summers in Kentucky were his happiest times, but as we see him with his cousins, we may wonder why. He finds a turtle with a wounded shell and wants to heal it, while his cousins tell him to tear off the shell or throw the turtle. J.D. explains that the turtle’s ribcage is connected to the carapace, which leads them to beat him up, which leads to everyone piling on. It might be worth exploring why there is so much suspicion of knowledge and institutions, why members of this family are unable to consider that the institutions that provide opportunities for economic stability and advancement, as imperfect as they are, may be a more reliable path. That they do not think it within the range of possibilities is rooted in innumerable factors and failures well worth exploring or even portraying, but this movie never tries. All it has to say is that these people think family comes first when it comes to faking drug test results or lying to the police but not so much when it comes to providing guidance, support, consistency, or a good example.

The shifts in time are more distracting than revealing. J.D. (now played by an expressionless Gabriel Basso) is a student at Yale Law School, after serving in the Marines and attending Ohio State. He is interviewing for summer jobs at tony law firms, essential to get the money he needs to pay the tuition for his final year of school. But he feels at a disadvantage compared to his Ivy League classmates, who have social ease. He has to make an emergency call to his girlfriend (Frieda Pinto in the thankless role of beautiful, endlessly patient and understanding support system) to ask which fork to use. This is not only an unforgivable cliche; it gives us no reason to feel sympathetic. A Marine Yale Law student is more than able to look that up before a fancy dinner or just watch what the host does.

J.D. gets an emergency call. His mother is in the hospital. She overdosed. On heroin.

He drives all night to get to Ohio. And we see incidents from the past as Bev struggles with drug abuse (once asking J.D. to pee into a cup to use for her drug test, another time impulsively marrying her supervisor and moving J.D. into his house, getting fired from her nursing job for taking a patient’s medication. If we learn anything it is that having an adult who is committed to keeping a child on the straight and narrow makes a difference. But why there was only one in this child’s life, why his sister seemed to do okay without going to live with Mamaw, and why Mamaw was able to learn from mistakes is all glossed over.

Even Amy Adams and Glenn Close are unable to make this work. They yell at each other with colorful countrified expletives (Close actually has to say at one point, “Kiss my ruby red asshole!”) sounding more like the caricatures on “Mama’s Family” than human beings with vulnerabilities and intimate connections. As we see home movies of the real characters over the credits, our only conclusion is that the filmmakers spent more time getting the outside right than the inside. The members of this community deserve better from the haves in our society, but they deserve better from this movie, too.

Parents should know that this movie includes extensive family dysfunction, substance abuse, and domestic abuse as well as constant strong language. Family members and teenagers use drugs. Domestic violence includes punching, dangerous driving, negligence, and setting a husband on fire.

Family discussion: Why was J.D. able to make a different life for himself? Should he have stayed with his mother when Mamaw wanted to take him? When he left for the interview?

If you like this, try: “White Oleander” and White Trash

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The Trial of the Chicago 7

Posted on October 15, 2020 at 3:40 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for drug use, bloody images, language throughout, and some violence
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Historical violence including riots, references to Vietnam War
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 16, 2020
Copyright Netflix 2020

They say that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. And that is how “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” based on events that occurred in 1968-69 and in development as a film more more than a decade, seems to have been made for exactly this moment of the fall of 2020. In an interview, Aaron Sorkin, first brought it to write the script by Steven Spielberg in 2006, said that he did not change a word. But he acknowledged that the world moved much closer to the issues in the film, based on the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago that led to riots, with then-mayor Richard J. Daley telling the police to “shoot to kill” and calling in the National Guard.

A year later, eight of the leaders of the protest were indicted for conspiracy and incitement to riot. The seven white defendants were represented by the activist lawyer William Kuntsler and Constitutional law expert Leonard Weinglass. The sole Black defendant, Bobby Seale, who was only in Chicago for four hours during the convention, was represented by civil rights attorney Charles Garry, who was in the hospital. Seale asked for a delay until his lawyer could be there, and the autocratic judge, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), clearly and vocally affronted by the protesters and their disrespect for authority, refused. Kunstler and Weinglass offered to represent him until Garry recovered, but he refused. Later, his case was separated from the others, which is why it is still known as the Chicago 7 trial.

The opening of the film is a master class on how to introduce a large group of central characters. The leaders of each group talk about their hopes and plans for the convention. Lyndon Johnson, whose decision not to run for re-election was in part due to increasing national opposition led to the nomination of his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, as the Democratic candidate. Many people thought there was no real difference between Humphrey and Johnson and between Humphrey and the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon. This was the era of the “generation gap” as the baby boomers came of age wanting to see major changes in the treatment of what were still referred to as minorities, poor people, and women. But the different groups had very different ideas about how to be effective. Sorkin very effectively showcases the arguments for incremental vs. drastic change, for working within the system to replacing it with a better system.

Langella captures the frustration of a man who believes in the rules that got him where he is and fears that they all collapsing, with him all that stands between order and anarchy. Redmayne is perfect as the thoughtful, studious, thoroughly decent Hayden, and Cohen accomplishes the difficult balancing act of not turning the other Hoffman (the judge seems to take it very personally that they share a name) into the cartoon he sometimes seems to wish to be. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II gives Seale enormous courage and dignity and rising star Kelvin Harrison, Junior continues to impress with his performance as Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (whose murder is the subject of another rhymes with history 2020 movie, Judas and the Black Messiah). Also exceptional are Mark Rylance as Kuntsler (perhaps more thoughtful and even subdued than the real-life attorney) and Michael Keaton in two scenes as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

Sorkin continues to be the best there is with elevating the dialogue just enough that we can almost imagine real people might be that intelligent and articulate and, well, decent. In any year, this film would be outstanding. But as it arrives on what Sorkin called “a collision course with history,” it is both a cautionary tale and a guiding light out of the darkness.

Parents should know that this film includes constant very strong language, some drug use and alcohol, and historical peril and violence, including riots and references to the Vietnam War.

Family discussion: Which of the defendants best represents your view of tactics and communication strategies? What parallels do you see between this trial and the issues people are concerned about today? What are the most significant achievements from the 1968 protests?

If you like this, try: the animated documentary about the trial, “Chicago 10: Speak Your Peace,” Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool,” a fictional story filmed at the 1968 Democratic convention, with real scenes of the protest.

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Interview: Aaron Sorkin on “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Posted on October 14, 2020 at 8:00 am

Copyright Netflix 2020

Aaron Sorkin answered questions from a small group of critics about “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” premiering this Friday, October 16, on Netflix. The all-star cast play the eight men accused of conspiracy and incitement to riot at demonstrations during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. The highly unpopular Vietnam war and the frustration with candidates who seemed old and out of touch, the fury at the loss of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy earlier that year, led several groups to send protesters to the convention. Mayor Richard J, Daley called in the National Guard and gave the local police orders to “shoot to kill.” The battle between the police and the demonstrators became very violent and many were arrested and injured.

In the film, Nixon’s new Attorney General, John Mitchell (later sent to prison himself for crimes associated with Nixon’s re-election and the Watergate scandal) orders the District Attorney to bring charges. Among the eight defendants (later reduced to seven when one’s case was separated), the two characters that are the focus of the film are the flamboyant, outspoken Abbie Hoffman (Sasha Baron Cohen) and the quieter, more traditional Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne).

Sorkin told us that he first met with Steven Spielberg in 2006 to talk about the film. Spielberg asked Sorkin if he would be interested in writing a film about the Chicago 7. Sorkin said “It sounds like a great idea; I’d love to do it,” then “as soon as I left his house I called my father to ask who the Chicago 7 were.”

The trial, which was filled with colorful characters and memorable confrontations, exemplified and embodied many of the conflicts of the era, between old and young (this was the era when the term “generation gap” was popular), between tradition and upheaval in resolving issues of civil rights and social justice.

Copyright Netflix 2020

It was front page news around the world in 1969 but not generally remembered today. “I had to go to school on this,” Sorkin told us. That included the many books on the trial and the 21,000-page trial transcript. But most valuable to him was the time he spent talking with the late Tom Hayden, one of the leaders of the group. “In my head, the film organized itself into three stories that would be told at once: the courtroom drama, the evolution of what was supposed to be a peaceful protest into a riot, a violent clash with the police and the National Guard, and the third story, one that wasn’t in any of the books or the trial transcript, and that I would only be able to get from Tom, was the relationship between Tom and Abbie , two guys on the same side who can’t stand each other, who each think the other is doing harm to the movement, but in the end they come to respect each other. I turned in the first draft and the next day the Writer’s Guild went on strike.”

So, everything was on hold and the film kept getting “kicked down the road for a while, until two things happened at once. One was that Donald Trump got elected. And he was holding big rallies where he would say of a protester, ‘In the old days they would have carried that guy out of here on a stretcher; I’d like to punch him in the face and beat the crap out of him,’ being nostalgic for 1968, and by that time I had directed my first film, ‘Molly’s Game,’ so Steven said, ‘The time is now and you should direct it.'”

“We thought the film was pretty relevant when we were making it last winter. We didn’t need it to get more relevant, but obviously, it did.” He spoke about seeing tear gas and nightsticks used at the Black Lives Matter protests “with Donald Trump in the role of Mayor Daley. We couldn’t believe our eyes; it was chilling, it was shocking.” He said he had been asked whether he made changes in the script to reflect the current conflicts, to make the parallels more explicit. “The answer is, not a word, not a frame. Events in the world changed to mirror the script…Ultimately, I feel like the film has been on a 14-year crash course with history.”

The only part of the story that could not be found in a book or the trial transcript was the relationship between Hayden and Hoffman, so that became the heart of the story. There was another key point he learned from Hayden that becomes significant in the film, which I won’t spoil here. “It’s a personal story. Most of the conflict in the story is about ideas, but it gets more personal than that. I was coming at these people and at this event with next to no knowledge at all…Coming at this with no preconceived notions turned out to be a blessing. I had a hard time getting fully on board with Abbie Hoffman…I found his antics counterproductive, the way Hayden does. I wanted to have my cake and eat it, too. But I wanted him to be a hero. Tom and Abbie kind of balance each other out. It’s a reflection of the Democratic party today, the intramural friction between the left and the further left, between people who want incremental change and want to work within the system and people who are tired of incremental change and want revolution. I have respect for both of those points of view and I have respect for both men as well as the others, and I thought that was an argument that belonged in this film and that the tension throughout between the two of them that was leading to an explosion in the third act was helpful for the film.”

Sorkin talked to “smart people” of the era, not necessarily involved but with strong, principled views about the issues and who was right and who was wrong, “to see how much of other people’s intelligence I could borrow and inject into the film.”

He talked about the challenges of shooting riot scenes on a budget, with help from the real-life locations, like Chicago’s Grant Park, which allowed them to blend new footage with archival images. “I don’t want to be glib, but the tear gas was helpful, too, having all that smoke, we could camouflage certain things, make it look like more people there than there really were.”

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (L to R) KELVIN HARRISON JR. as Fred Hampton, YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN II as Bobby Seale, MARK RYLANCE as William Kuntsler in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7. Cr. NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX © 2020

Sorkin talked about what it is appropriate to change in a story based on real life. “There’s a difference between what you are doing and journalism, just like there’s a difference between a painting and a photograph.” He gave an example from “The Social Network,” where in real life Zuckerberg drank beer, but Sorkin thought a screwdriver was “more cinematic.” Director David Fincher disagreed, and in the movie it is beer. Here, one departure from the real story was the look of the courtroom itself. The real-life courtroom was an unprepossessing mid-century design that “looked like a middle school multi-purpose room.” The grander one in the film better suggests the power dynamic in the force of the US government being brought to bear on the protesters. “Real courtroom scenes aren’t as entertaining and snappy and dramatic.” And the real trial went on for almost six months. “Your inner compass has to decide what’s an important truth and what’s an unimportant truth — and if yours is broken, the studio legal department will be glad to help you out.”

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