Cyrano

Posted on January 31, 2022 at 6:48 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some strong violence, thematic and suggestive material, and brief language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Sword fights and battles, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, but transphobic humor
Date Released to Theaters: February 4, 2022
Date Released to DVD: April 18, 2022

Copyright 2021 MGM
Cyrano” is a gorgeous film, a true labor of love. The basis, of course, is one of the great classic plays of all time, Edmond Rostand’s 1897 Cyrano de Bergerac, inspired by a real soldier/writer. Jose Ferrar won an Oscar for his performance as the title character in a 1950 film. The story of the man who cannot tell the woman he loves how he feels because of the way he looks has been adapted and rebooted many times, with probably the best known Steve Martin’s Roxanne and most recently set in a high school in “The Half of It.” Everyone can identify with a character who is afraid to approach the object of their affection and everyone would like to identify with a character whose wit is as ready and sharp as his sword. In the original and the Steve Martin version, the main character’s rapier-like comebacks to a thoughtless bully are a highlight.

In the original and “Roxanne,” the impediment is a nose so big that the Cyrano character believes no one can see him as a romantic partner. In this swooningly romantic new version, set, like the original, in the 17th century, the physical obstacle is size. Writer Erica Schmidt adapted the play as a musical to be performed on stage by her husband, actor Peter Dinklage (“Game of Thrones”) as Cyrano, and ravishingly lovely Haley Bennett as Roxanne. They play those parts in this film, directed by Bennett’s significant other, Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Pride and Prejudice”)

Roxanne is loved by three men: Cyrano, the handsome but better-with-a-sword-than-with-poetic-love-letters Christian (Kelvin Harrison, Jr. of “Waves”), and the selfish, predatory De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn). Cyrano has been her closest friend and confidant since childhood. De Guiche is pressuring her to marry him. Her maid reminds her that she has no money and no other options for supporting herself. But one night at the theater, she glimpses Christian, a newcomer to the military unit where Cyrano serves, and she loses her heart to him. Cyrano agrees to ghost-write love letters from Christian to Roxanne. He pretends it is to help the new recruit but in reality it is to have his one chance to tell the woman he loves how he feels, even if the letters are signed by someone else.

In a way, Schmidt is giving her words to the man he she loves so that we can see him the way she does, gallant, mordantly witty, a brilliant actor, and a person of deep and generous humanity. A scene where he is almost about to dare to hope that Roxanne will say she loves him, the emotions that flicker across his face as he is almost successful maintaining his composure is one of the most touching moments on screen this year.

With Schmidt and Wright creating the words and images for the people they love, in spectacularly beautiful costumes (Massimo Cantini Parrini and Jacqueline Durran) and settings (Sicily filling in as 17th century France) with music and even some dance numbers, the unabashed romanticism almost bursts out of the screen. Bennett makes a lovely Roxanne, clever and spirited but allowing her own romanticism to blind her to the love that is already hers. Mendelsohnn seems to specialize in bad guys these days, and this is another strong performance, De Guiche’s brutality glimpsed under a very thin veneer of suavity. Harrison makes a gallant Christian. But it is Dinklage who is in every way the heart of the story. Just as we get to see Cyrano finally use his own words under cover of darkness to play the part of the man whose outside matches his inside, in this film we get to see Dinklage take center stage, with a performance of heart-stopping vulnerability. Rostand would be proud, and so would the man who inspired the play that continues to capture us more than a hundred years later.

Parents should know that this film includes brief strong language, sexual references, sword fights, and battle scenes, with characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: Should Cyrano have told Roxanne how he felt? If so, when? Is there a time when you misjudged someone based on looks or when you were misjudged?

If you like this, try: “Roxanne” and the Ferrar and PBS versions of “Cyrano de Bergerac”

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It’s a Wonderful Life 75th Anniversary

Posted on December 21, 2021 at 10:56 am

Copyright Liberty Films 1946
I had so much fun talking about “It’s a Wonderful Life” on its 75th anniversary for the Christmas Movies Actually podcast, especially about my interview with Marguerite Stern Robinson, the daughter of the man who wrote the original story for the film, and what she had in common with George Bailey.

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West Side Story (2021)

Posted on December 9, 2021 at 5:33 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material and brief smoking
Profanity: Strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, references to drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Gang violence, knives, gun, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 10, 2021
Date Released to DVD: March 21, 2022

Why remake a 60-year-old movie that won ten Oscars and is still beloved, even while admitting its shortcomings and its being quaintly out of date on some of the issues it raises? Because Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have taken the best from the original and made the essence of the story even more powerful and meaningful. “West Side Story,” the original itself a remake of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” itself a reworking of an Italian story that had at least three different versions before Romeo compared Juliet to the sun and Juliet asked what there was in a name. The themes of love, loss, fear, and anger will always inspire our stories, and the incomparable music by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by then then-25-year-old Stephen Sondheim, are as thrilling as ever in this new version.

Maybe there will be another remake 60 years from now, but it is hard to imagine it being better than this one. Spielberg’s gift for visual story-telling, with brilliant cinematography from Janusz Kaminski, production design from Adam Stockhausen, and editing by Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn match and enhance the muscular electricity of the Bernstein score. There are star-making performances from the entire cast, especially Ariana DeBose as Anita, Mike Faist as Riff, and Rachel Zegler as Maria. Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her performance as Anita 60 years ago, all but steals the movie as Valentina, a new role, replacing Doc, the owner of the convenience store. In this version, she is his widow, their own marriage a symbol of what Tony and Maria aspire to.

Copyright 20th Century 2021

Kushner’s changes are subtle and judicious, making the story deeper and more urgent. The opening shots show us that the turf battle has already been lost. The wrecking ball is knocking everything down. The only home the Jets have ever known is being torn down “for slum clearance” to make way for a gentrification project that will include a high-end high-rise and the high-culture Lincoln Center for performing arts. When Anita sings in “America” about some day living in an apartment with a terrace, she is standing near a sign showing the glamorous building that will replace the town-down tenements.

The setting looks like a bombed-out war zone. This makes the the emotion more vivid and the stakes more concrete (in both senses of the word). When “West Side Story” was first written, juvenile delinquents were listed by a majority of Americans as one of their most important concerns, next to atomic weapons. In order to make the concerns of the gangs as visceral today, Kushner shows us why Riff and the Jets feel that everything is being taken from them. The detective tells them that all the white people in the community who were smart enough to get out are gone. They are, he says, “the last of the can’t make it out Caucasians.”

Everything that gave them a sense of power, belonging, and control (“little boy, you’re a man, little man, you’re a king”) is being reduced to rubble and replaced with spaces that would be alien to them even if they could afford them. There is dust everywhere, and everything is washed out, knocked down, and covered with grit. The Jets cannot fight City Hall. All they have left is their fury and what they use to assuage it — the feeling of brotherhood. They sing of the Jets as a family (“you’ve got brothers around; you’re a family man”) while Tony says he envies the Puerto Ricans’ strong, committed biological families. There is no one to take it out on but the newcomers who are even lower on the social hierarchy than they are, the Puerto Ricans. Riff says, “I wake up to everything I knew being sold or wrecked or being taken away by someone I don’t like.”

Their gang, the Sharks, is fueled by resentment at being treated like second-class Americans in their own country. And they, too, are worried about losing their sense of family. They want the opportunities available to white, native English-speaking Americans but they want to remain intact, insular, restricting their associations to those they can trust. Their internal conflict is shown in “America,” where the girls sing of what they can do and buy and the boys jeer at them for ignoring the bigotry they will face — while not being willing to go back to Puerto Rico.

Some changes reflect our more sensitive understanding of the very issues the original depicted. In this version, the Latinx characters are played by Latinx performers of different skin tones and no one wears brownface make-up. All of the performers do their own singing. In addition, the Spanish dialogue is not subtitled. Some gender/sexuality insults remain in the script but the character once derisively called “Anybody’s,” who we might now call non-binary, is portrayed with more depth. The dance numbers are less balletic, more a reflection of the energy of emotions the characters are feeling.

Kushner’s changes to the script are sometimes subtle but every one adds to the emotion and revelation of character. In this version, Tony has even more reason to be reconsidering his commitment to the Jets, and he has an example in Valentina, his employer and friend, of what is possible. The “Cool” song has much more of an impact here, sung by Tony to Riff when he discovers that Riff has bought a gun. “I Feel Pretty,” instead of a bridal shop, is sung in a department store, where Maria is an after-hours cleaner. The dance through the aspirational scenes of mannequins “enjoying” middle class life parallels the reference to the apartment with a terrace. And Tony takes Maria to see The Cloisters, a beautiful cathedral-like setting for “One Hand, One Heart” that evokes the timelessness of Romeo and Juliet.

This story is very much of its time but its themes, too, are timeless, and with this new version we can experience it with the deeper understanding of its themes, a new generation of performers making it as new to us as it is to them, and one nod to the past with Moreno reminding us that like the late Bernstein and Sondheim, brilliance is always forever renewing itself.

Parents should know that this movie includes strong language with some racist terms, sexual references and a non-explicit situation, drinking, smoking, references to drugs, and gang violence, with knives and a gun. Characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: If the story took place today, who would be in the gangs and how would it be different? What do we learn from the “Office Krupke” song? Why do Riff and Tony see things differently? What advice would you give to Tony and Maria?

If you like this, try: the original 1961 film, “In the Heights,” the wonderful documentary about Rita Moreno, and “Romeo and Juliet”

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Little Women

Posted on December 24, 2019 at 5:00 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements and brief smoking
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, brief smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Very sad death, references to other deaths including death of a baby
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2019
Date Released to DVD: April 6, 2020
Copyright 2019 Sony Pictures

You need to know where I’m coming from on this one. There is no book more central to my life than Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. My mother, Josephine Baskin Minow, has been Jo since she first read Little Women when she was a child, And now our children call her Marmee. I loved it so much that I read all the other Alcott books on the library shelf (I especially recommend Eight Cousins and An Old Fashioned Girl). Little Women has been central to the lives of young women for more than 150 years, inspired by its heroine, who was inspired by Alcott herself. Jo March is fiercely loyal, impetuous, impatient, and a writer, both eager and reluctant to find her own voice. Authors who name the book as a major influence range from Cynthia Ozick, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ursula Le Guin and Nora Ephron to “Twilight”‘s Stephenie Meyer.

Alcott’s semi-autobiographical story of four sisters has been adapted many times, including a Broadway musical, a 48-chapter Japanese anime series, an opera, and films starring Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Winona Ryder. The most recent BBC version (of four) was shown in the United States on PBS. One of two major adaptations last year was a modern-day retelling with a quartet of appealing young actresses, adapted with skill and understanding by writer/director Clare Niederpruem.

So, my standards and expectations could not have been higher and it is my very great pleasure to tell you that this new film from writer/director Greta Gerwig exceeded them all. Writer/director Greta Gerwig not only loves and understands the book, she also appreciates that in 2019 we are only beginning to catch up to Alcott’s vision of what is possible for young women and for all of us. Those who do not know Alcott’s work or have only seen the early versions may think that Gerwig has “modernized” the story. But every part of it comes from Alcott (some from other writings) and every part of it is entirely consistent with her fierce, independent, and devoted spirit and rebellious energy. And Saoirse Ronan is the best Jo March yet, her long-limbed coltishness not so much “boyish” as vitally engaged in a world that cannot always keep up with her.

The book was originally written in two parts, but the second volume (called Good Wives) has been a part of what we know as Little Women for more than a century. Gerwig begins the story in the middle of the second book as the now-adult Jo (a teenager in the first volume) meets with a newspaper publisher (a charmingly crusty and wry performance from playwright Tracy Letts, last seen as Henry Ford II in “Ford v. Ferrari”). In case we are not as quick as he is to see through her claim to be bringing stories written by a “friend,” Gerwig lets us see the ink that still stains her fingers. When her story is accepted (with the moralizing parts cut out), she exuberantly races home.

Then, as we will throughout the film, we go back and forth between the two parts of the story, indicated by different color pallattes, the warmer hues for the earlier years, when the girls were all at home and their father (Bob Odenkirk) was a Union volunteer in the Civil War. There were struggles and growing pains, but there was also a sense of purpose and possibility that is not as clear in the cooler-hued older years, when Jo is in New York living in a boarding house, and Amy (Florence Pugh) is touring Europe and studying art. Pugh may be too old for Amy in the early scenes, but she and Gerwig give Amy far more depth than any previous portrayal (perhaps including Alcott’s). Emma Watson is lovely as oldest sister Meg (obligatory complaint about what was left out of this version — the scenes of Meg coming to John’s defense when Aunt March attacks him and the scene of her showing off her “new dress” to him). Gerwig’s script softens the professor’s critique of Jo’s more lurid stories-for-hire and his involvement in getting the book-within-a-book published, but the scene of his telling her that the melodramatic stories she is writing for money are not good is still an important turning point.

Laura Dern plays Marmee, a woman of character, courage, and intention. The private moment she takes in the foyer of the house to make sure she can greet her daughters with good cheer on Christmas morning after caring for the impoverished Hummels is a small master class of acting. When Marmee tells Jo that she still struggles with anger every day, we see where Jo got her inner fire and how inner fire can become the foundation for determination and principle.

And then there is Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, the sensitive boy whose temperament is protected from becoming headstrong and careless by the example of the March family, their attitude toward work and also their attitude toward fun. Like Laurie to Jo, Chalamet is a perfect match for his “Lady Bird” co-star Ronan, and we could happily watch a whole movie of them putting on plays, attending riotous meetings of the Pickwick Society, and skating on the pond.

It is still one of the all-time great coming-of-age stories of a family and an artist finding her voice. By putting making the early year portion of the film flashbacks that comment on, provide context for, and deepen the “present-day” storylines, Gerwig makes us ready for a perfect ending that brings Alcott, her fictional avatar, and the story of all of us who have tried to tell our stories together.

Parents should know that this film includes a sad death and reference to other deaths including the death of a baby, family stress and conflict, and brief smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: Which sister is most like you? Was the publisher right about the ending to the story? Why do so many women, especially writers, say that this story was their most important inspiration?

If you like this, try: the book by Louisa May Alcott and the other movie and miniseries versions of this story

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