Elvis

Posted on June 20, 2022 at 9:00 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material and smoking
Date Released to Theaters: June 24, 2022
Date Released to DVD: September 12, 2022

Copyright Warner Brothers 2022
Director Baz Luhrmann is a natural choice for the story of Elvis Presley, both known for the ultimate in showmanship, making excess into an asset. Right off the bat, the nearly-three-hour movie opens with a bedazzled version of the Warner Brothers logo, as though it was designed by the tailor who did Elvis’ late-career wardrobe. Unabashedly theatrical, even more unabashedly on the side of its title subject, “Elvis” is a love letter, not a history lesson. It celebrates excess; it almost wallows in it. But it does so joyfully.

It begins with Colonel or rather “Colonel” Parker (Tom Hanks in a fat suit, with a weird accent and fake nose. “Citizen Kane” style, on what could be his deathbed, reminiscing about what he has loved and lost. As we hear his narration, we see him, in his hospital gown, wandering through a deserted Las Vegas casino, telling us about his connection to the young singer from Tupelo.

Elvis (played as a boy by Chaydon Jay) lives with his parents Vernon (Richard Roxburgh) and Gladys (Helen Thomson) in a Black neighborhood, where he is thrilled by the music around him, the sacred (gospel) and the profane (down and dirty blues). He is also immersed in country music, and somehow he (played as a teen and adult by a terrific Austin Butler) finds a way to synthesize all three into proto-rock and roll. Colonel Parker, a carny promoter, hears his music and realizes that he has the opportunity of the century, a white singer who sounds Black. Elvis is on the bill with a country star. He’s nervous at first on stage in his flamboyant pink suit, but then, like the revival meeting attendees struck by the spirit, he is, well, all shook up. And so is the audience. It’s almost like the Conrad Birdie “Sincere” scene in “Bye Bye Birdie.” Luhrmann brings a palpable, kinetic energy to the scene that is cheekily over the top.

The musical numbers (all but the very early ones with Elvis’ own voice) are dynamic, and an extended section where Colonel Parker sells the television network and the sponsor on an Elvis Christmas special featuring Elvis in a Christmas sweater singing carols and “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Elvis, still true to his muse, insists on wearing a black leather suit (now iconic, as is that entire 1968 special. The world changed around him but Elvis was never less than a thrilling performer, as we see at the end of film, with a short clip of his last performance, clearly ill and impaired, but nailing one of the most difficult songs of all, “Unchained Melody.”

The musical numbers: great. The romance with teenage Priscilla: not given much attention. The relationship with Colonel Parker: the central focus of the movie and the weakest part of the movie. We get no real insight into the internal lives of either characters; there’s an emptiness to the film when Elvis is not on stage. That could be the point of the movie, but it never acknowledges it. Tom Hanks never disappears into Colonel Parker. Compare him to Paul Giamatti in the similarly themed “Love and Mercy,” where the individuals and the manipulative, enticing, and abusive elements of the relationship were much more clearly defined.

I enjoyed the film. But then I came home and watched a half hour of clips of Elvis, and I enjoyed that a lot more.
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Parents should know that this movie includes sex (non-explicit), drugs, and of course rock and roll, along with some bad behavior, relationship conflicts, and sad deaths.

Family discussion: Why was it so hard for Elvis to break off his relationship with Colonel Parker? How did Colonel Parker manipulate him? How is celebrity different today and how is it the same?

If you like this, try: Some of Elvis’ best movies like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Viva Las Vegas”

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Celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday with Great Family Films

Posted on February 12, 2022 at 6:00 am

Happy birthday, Abraham Lincoln!

lincoln photograph

Celebrate the birthday of our 16th President with some of the classic movies about his life. Reportedly, he has been portrayed more on screen than any other real-life character.  I was honored to be invited to participate in the 272-word project from the Abraham Lincoln Library in Springfield, Illinois.  Each of us was asked to contribute an essay that was, like the Gettysburg Address, just 272 words.  Here’s mine:

Two score and six years after the death of Abraham Lincoln, he was first portrayed in the brand-new medium of film. 102 years and over 300 films later, Lincoln has appeared on screen more than any other historical figure and more than any other character except for Sherlock Holmes. In 2013 alone there were three feature films about Abraham Lincoln, one with an Oscar-winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, directed by Steven Spielberg. In another one, he was a vampire slayer. He has been portrayed by Henry Fonda (John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” Raymond Massey (“Abe Lincoln in Illinois”), Walter Huston (D.W. Griffith’s “Abraham Lincoln”), and Bing Crosby – in blackface (“Holiday Inn”). The movies have shown us Lincoln defending clients, mourning Ann Rutledge, courting Mary Todd, and serving as President. We have also seen him traveling through time with a couple of California teenagers in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and granting amnesty to Shirley Temple’s Confederate family in “The Littlest Rebel.”

Lincoln is appealingly iconic as a movie character, instantly recognizable as a symbol of America’s most cherished notion of ourselves: unpretentious but aspiring for a better world and able to find both the humor and integrity in troubled times. In every film appearance, even the silliest and most outlandish, he reminds us, as he did in The Gettysburg Address, of what is most essential in the American character: the search for justice.

PS My husband and I waited for two hours outdoors on a frozen January 1 to view the Emancipation Proclamation on its 150th anniversary. When I saw it, I wept. A security guard whispered, “I know how you feel.”

The Steven Spielberg epic, Lincoln is based on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, with Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis.

Young Mr. Lincoln Directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda, this is an appealing look at Lincoln’s early law practice and his tragic romance with Ann Rutledge. Particularly exciting and moving are the scenes in the courtroom as Lincoln defends two brothers charged with murder. Both have refused to talk about what happened, each thinking he is protecting the other, and Lincoln has to find a way to prove their innocence.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois Raymond Massey in his signature role plays Lincoln from his days as a rail-splitter to his law practice and his debates with Stephen Douglas. Ruth Gordon plays his wife, Mary.

Gore Vidal’s Lincoln Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore star in this miniseries that focuses on Lincoln’s political strategies and personal struggles.

Young_Mr_Lincoln_Henry_Fonda

Sandburg’s Lincoln Hal Holbrook plays Lincoln in this miniseries based on the biography by poet Carl Sandberg.

The History Channel has both a documentary and a miniseries about Lincoln.

I’m a huge fan of the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois. So is Conan O’Brien.

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American Underdog

Posted on December 18, 2021 at 12:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some language and thematic elements
Profanity: None
Violence/ Scariness: References to child abuse and injury, tragic death of parents, family conflicts
Diversity Issues: Disabled character
Date Released to Theaters: December 17, 2021

Anna Paquin as Brenda Warner and Zachary Levi as Kurt Warner in American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story. Photo Credit: Michael Kubeisy
Kurt Warner dreamed big. He tells us that from the time he was a young boy watching Joe Montana on television, he wanted to be an MVP quarterback in a team that won the Super Bowl. Perhaps as much of a long shot, when he was in college he fell in love with Brenda, a divorced mother of two children, one disabled, and decided he was going to make a life and a family with her. Sometimes life is even cornier than the movies, and then they go ahead and make a movie about it anyway.

If there was ever a story to show that the difference between winners and quitters is that winners keep going just one day longer, it is the story of NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, who was not even drafted into the NFL after college. Even after the only job he could get was stocking the shelves of a big box store, he did not give up on his dream. He did become a Super Bowl MVP quarterback, and he did make a life with Brenda. And now he and Brenda have produced this movie about what happens when you don’t give up.

Okay, so it is corny, but sometimes corny is fine. So, yes, there will be a rousing locker-room pep talk (though perhaps not from the person you might guess), and yes, people will say things like, “If this is your dream, you have to fight for it,” and “By all accounts, my dream, my story, is impossible,” and “It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have someone to share it with.” Of course they will, because those things are true. It helps a lot when the talents in front of the camera are MVPs, too, “Shazam’s” Zachary Levi as Kurt and Oscar-winner Anna Paquin as Brenda, with a fourth quarter appearance by Dennis Quaid as Dick Vermeil, who had his own roundabout career path and thus was especially understanding. Levi is an immediately likable presence and he makes Kurt’s dream aspirational, not arrogant or selfish. Paquin brings strength and vulnerability to Brenda, showing us her fear of opening up her heart after a painful divorce and the essential support she gets from her faith in God. They keep us rooting for Kurt because it is clear his dream is based on giving the best of what he has. With any luck, this movie will do for some in the audience what Joe Montana did for Kurt, and inspire another generation to dream big and refuse to quit.

Parents should know that this movie includes some mild language, references to child abuse, and tragic deaths of parents.

Family discussion: What makes sports stories so inspiring? Why did Kurt join the Arena league and what did he learn there? What did Brenda learn from Kurt’s response to Zach? What is your most impossible dream?

If you like this, try: “The Engine” and “Rudy”

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Being the Ricardos

Posted on December 9, 2021 at 5:36 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 10, 2021

Copyright Amazon Studios 2021
Writer/director Aaron Sorkin takes three real-life potentially cataclysmic events in the life of America’s most famous celebrity couple and packs them into one high-intensity week for “Being the Ricardos,” with Oscar-winners Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz. As title cards take us through each day of the week of production for an episode of “I Love Lucy,” from the table read on Monday, through the rehearsals, to the taping at the end of the week.

We get to see what an intense, challenging, and serious business producing 22 minutes of comedy is. Lucy, who explains to a director she thinks is third-rate that she is not like Danny Thomas, whose “Make Room for Daddy” show he had been working on. “He tells jokes,” she says with palpable irritation, “I am a physical comedian.” All around her are people who seem to be getting in the way of her vision for the show, whether it is grumpy William Frawley (J.K. Simmons), who plays Fred, Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), who feels neglected, or the television network and sponsors, who seem to think they can tell her what to do. But nothing oppresses her more than her own perfectionism. She just knows that there is some key to a dinner scene that will take it from cute to hilarious, and she just has to keep thinking about it until she can lock it in. “She’s working through beats all the time,” a character says. It is clear she will sacrifice almost anything including damaging her professional and personal relationships if that is what it takes to get every minute of the show exactly where it needs to be. We see in flashbacks her struggles as a starlet, with studios who did not know what to do with her so her roles were limited to “sticking my head in a frame, saying something biting, and going home.”

That is more than enough to occupy her full attention, but she is also facing three terrible threats, one to her show, one to her career, and one to her marriage.

It is the height of the “Red Scare,” and even the child actor on “Make Room for Danny” has had to sign a loyalty oath. Walter Winchell, the most powerful journalist in the country, has accused Lucille Ball of being a communist. In this era, even an whispered, unsubstantiated accusation of communism could mean being blacklisted, so that no jobs in movies, television, or radio would ever be offered again. “I Love Lucy” might be the most popular show on television, but it could be canceled overnight.

Another possible reason for canceling the show — Lucille Ball was pregnant. It is hard too understand for today’s audiences, but in those days not only did even real-life married couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz have separate twin beds on the show (as did every other married couple on television). For the purposes of television, sex did not exist, and the idea that a pregnancy might make audiences consider how it came about was unthinkable for the television network and the cigarette company sponsor. They tell Lucy that she can just stand behind things and go on as usual, pretending that the pregnancy did not exist. But she rightly believed that the audiences would be thrilled to experience the real-life and television pregnancy. (They did decide that the show would never include the actual word “pregnant,” however, using the euphemistic but not fooling anyone term “expecting.” by the way, they were also not allowed to use the word “lucky,” because it was the name of a rival brand of cigarettes.)

And then there is the most painful of all. A gossip magazine has published photos of what they say is Desi fooling around with other women. That puts at risk not only Lucy’s career but her marriage to the father of the child she already has and the one she is expecting.

I would love a world where Aaron Sorkin wrote everyone’s dialogue. Every sentence is perfectly composed. But the British have an expression “too clever by half” which I think of when he is both writer and director with no intermediary. The script is dazzling. The brilliance of the lines tips over into a quippiness that distracts us from the real conflicts and emotions that are going on. And there’s always an uncanny valley risk when even the best actors play real-life people whose faces and gestures and voices we know almost as well as we know our own family. The issues presented are engaging in their own terms and as reflections of our time but because of the impenetrable glossiness of the script it never does what Lucille Ball was so good at — making us love her.

Note: It is interesting that three of the biggest end-of-year films were made by adults about their parents: “Belfast,” “King Richard,” and this film, produced by Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr.

Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language, frank sexual references, including adultery, and a sexual situation.

Family discussion: Which problem was the most difficult? Which relationship was the most functional?

If you like this, try: “I Love Lucy” and the TCM podcast about Lucille Ball, “The Plot Thickens,” season three. This is the episode about the accusations of communism. Watch “The Big Street,” the tragic drama where she plays a showgirl loved by a busboy played by Henry Fonda. My favorite of her movie performances is in the Tracy-Hepburn film “Without Love,” where she plays a whip-smart Washington liaison.

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King Richard

Posted on November 18, 2021 at 5:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence, strong language, a sexual reference and brief drug references.
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug references, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some violence including a drive-by shooting and assaults
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2021
Date Released to DVD: February 7, 2022

Copyright Warner Brothers 2021
The first thing you need to know about “King Richard” is that it was produced by three of the daughters of the title character, Richard Williams, and it is an unabashed love letter to their father. And two of those daughters are tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. Richard Williams has been a controversial character. Unconventional does not begin to cover his approach to his daughters’ careers in tennis and the royal appellation was not intended as a compliment. But no one can argue with the results of the 78-page plan he famously prepared, with step one having two more children so he could start from the beginning. “King Richard” is the story of the Williams sisters’ early years, first when they are little girls in Compton, California and then a few years later when they are being coached at a large facility in Palm Beach, Florida, ending as Venus competes at age 14 in her first professional tournament.

Will Smith plays Richard Williams, and as he did in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” playing another real-life devoted and determined father, he gives a complex, layered performance. He makes it clear that Richard’s determination is as much the result of trauma as of ambition, as much the result of frustration and resentment over the opportunities he did not have as of his commitment to making sure his daughters had opportunities, especially opportunities no one else thinks are possible.

Actors, like tennis doubles partners, need to be a team, and Aunjanue Ellis as the girls’ mother Oracene ‘Brandy’ Williams matches Smith at every turn, just as Oracene was a full partner in parenting and coaching their daughters. Their scenes together show us a deep and sometimes difficult connection, whether she is comforting him as she treats his wounds or confronting him about his failings.

We have all seen a lot of biopics, and they don’t make movies about real-life characters unless they did something big and important. And that is why those films always have some scene where the main character is either being pushed to succeed and another where he or she is being tearfully accused of neglecting an important relationship. This film is unusual because the girls, including their three older sisters (one of whom, Isha Price, also served as a producer of the film) never complain about the training and practices, even in the pouring rain. Richard is supporting them as much as he is leading them. The scenes of the family together, in their tiny Compton home or riding in the family van, are — the only word that applies is joyful. Richard and Oracene are dedicated to excellence in school and in tennis but it is clear that what matters most to them is giving their girls good values and the skills and confidence to achieve whatever they want.

Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton are excellent as the younger Venus and Serena, and there are solid supporting performances from everyone else in the cast including the young girls who play the other Williams sisters and the older girls who play Venus and Serena in the later part of the film. Tony Goldwyn as the taciturn Paul Cohen, a coach who agrees to take on Venus but not her younger sister, and Jon Bernthal as the more excitable Rick Macci, who brings the whole family to his training compound and puts Richard on the payroll for a percentage of the girls’ future earnings.

Smith says that seeing the video of Richard Williams protecting then-14-year-old Venus from an intrusive reporter — and the look of pride and relief on her face, the confidence that he would always have her back — had an enormous impact on his notion of what it means to be a parent. It inspired him to be both a protector and a supporter of his children’s ambitions.

Smith does not go for the easy win here. He tones down his endless charm and screen charisma and tendency to charm to let Richard shine through. In his sensitive performance, we see that Richard is damaged and vulnerable. He knows he is dealing with people who are unimaginably more powerful than he is and that they will find his manner and appearance discomfiting. These are people who like being comfortable. He knows he does not have the luxury of getting angry when they open doors he knows his daughters deserve to go through. He is insistent, not confrontational, and always polite, though he knows that holding back is demeaning and unfair. “You’re wrong but I won’t hold that against you,” he smiles, and it is a Richard smile, not a Smith megawatt grin.

Like all champions, he keeps his eye on the ball and he leads with his strengths. He did something even more important and even more difficult than raising “two Mozarts” — he raised daughters who love him enough to want the world to see him the way they do.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language, drug references and alcohol, sexual references that are crude and predatory, and some violence, with assaults and a drive-by shooting, and some family conflict.

Family discussion: Would you want to be part of this family? What would be in your 78-page plan?

If you like this, try: “Venus and Serena,” an excellent documentary

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