The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Posted on September 16, 2021 at 5:51 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual content and drug abuse
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and prescription drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Corruption, abuse, angry confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 17, 2021

Copyright 2021 Searchlight
Near the beginning of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” an off-camera make-up artist gently suggests that singer/puppeteer/televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain) remove her iconic, one might even say garish, cosmetics. She wipes off her lipstick but the dark lip-liner remains. She explains that it is permanent. Like her eye-liner and eyebrows, it is tattooed on. Underneath the glitz and fakery is more glitz and fakery and it never comes off.

Bakker and her husband Jim (played by Andrew Garfield) were huge in the 80s, first as hosts of the wildly successful PTL (Praise the Lord) channel, with Christian-themed children’s shows, talk shows, and variety shows. In today’s terms, they were influencers. They had millions of fans. And they had millions of people who made fun of them for being grotesque. Especially after they were in disgrace for financial fraud and sexual abuse. Jim Bakker was accused of having non-consensual sex and using $200,000 of PTL’s money to pay her off to stay silent. This led to an investigation which found him guilty of using the viewer’s charitable contributions for his lavish home and other personal expenses. He was found guilty of 24 counts of fraud and served eight years in prison.

2021 seems to be a moment for re-considering the lives of women reduced to national punchlines during scandals in the 80s-00s. “American Crime Story” is co-produced by Monica Lewinsky. Both she and Linda Tripp, the woman who betrayed Lewinsky’s confidences by recording their calls, are given a sympathetic treatment. Britney Spears’ efforts to end the conservatorship that gives her father control over her financial, medical, and professional life has led to a re-evaluation of the derisive jokes about her erratic behavior. A few years ago, we had “I, Tonya,” with a more layered look at skater Tonya Harding. And now Tammy Faye Bakker, portrayed in the media as a silly, helium-voiced nitwit with clownish make-up, is at the center of a story that portrays her as a vulnerable, sometimes struggling soul but a true believer who wanted to bring joy and spread the message of God’s eternal love.

In one key scene, despite the strong anti-gay beliefs of the other televangelists and the frantic fear of the early AIDS era, Tammy Faye insist on interviewing a gay preacher who is HIV-positive. Their conversation is heart-felt and warm. She interviews him remotely because he cannot travel, but she says she wishes she could put her arms around him.

Tammy Faye died in 2007. In her lifetime, she was dismissed as foolish at best, corrupt and hypocritical at worst. She was caricatured on “Saturday Night Live” and thought of as a real-life caricature. But millions of people loved her because she was utterly sincere and genuinely uplifted by her faith and the music it inspired. Chastain makes that side of Tammy Faye clear, as well as the growing disconnect between what she wanted the world to be and what it was. As we see at the beginning, she was shunned from her mother’s ultra-strict church as a child because her parents were divorced. She never lost the sense of looking through the window from the outside, wanting to be accepted. She found that with God, not so much with people. But as we see here, she always tried to be that for everyone else. Chastain and Garfield show us all of the excesses and follies of the Bakkers, but never let us see them as anything less than human, vulnerable, and yes, worthy of love.

Parents should know that this film includes substance abuse, sexual references and situations, anti-gay comments, and corruption, with strong language and some mild violence.

Family discussion: How do the characters’ ideas about the meaning of their faith differ? What mattered most to Tammy Faye Bakker?

If you like this, try: the documentary of the same name

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The Card Counter

Posted on September 12, 2021 at 12:41 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for for some disturbing violence, graphic nudity, language and brief sexuality
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and disturbing torture violence and some other peril and violence with graphic images, murder
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 10, 2021

Copyright 2021 Focus
“We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children,” said Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. “There’s a weight a man can accrue,” William (Oscar Isaac) tells us in “The Card Counter.” “The weight created by his past actions. It is a weight which can never be removed.”

And yet, William may think for a moment that the weight can be lifted. We hope so, even as we learn about the unforgiving weight he bears in the latest from the master of the stories of tortured, lonely men, writer/director Paul Schrader, going back to his screenplay for “Taxi Driver.”

He says his name is William Tell, as in the old story about the archer ordered to shoot an apple balanced on the head of his son. As in the overture to “The Lone Ranger.” And as in the word “tell,” which can mean the narration of a story or, in the poker world William lives in, it can mean the inadvertent gesture that reveals more about the opponent’s hand than he or she wants you to know. We later learn that it is not the name on his birth certificate and prison record. So the choice of the name is significant, though it may be more related to the second meaning of the word than the first.

William says he was surprised to find that being confined to prison was more comfortable for him than he expected. He liked the routine. He liked the simplicity. And it was in prison that he learned the kind of concentration and focus that enabled his life after prison, as a highly skilled card player, blackjack and poker. Card counting is a difficult skill that can be learned and those who do it well can compensate for the odds that favor the house in blackjack. William goes from casino to casino, moving all the time and quitting each game early enough that his winnings do not attract anyone’s attention.

He does nothing else. He has so completely blocked out the normal distractions of life that he will not stay in the casinos. They are too filled with distractions and sensory overload. He stays in nondescript motel rooms. But he makes them even more generic, covering every lamp, every piece of furniture with white sheets, tied with twine. There is nothing in his life but the cards.

And then he meets two people. The first is La Linda (Tiffany Haddish in a beautifully understated but confident and layered performance). She is an intermediary between investors who stake top-level poker players as an investment, and she wants to add William to her “stable.” He is not interested.

That is, until he meets Cirk, pronounced Kirk (Tye Sheridan), a troubled young man who has a connection to the events that led to William’s prison sentence. William wants to help him, and that means playing poker in the high-end games La Linda can get him into.

Along the way, we learn about the disgraceful atrocities that Cirk’s father and William inflicted and the disgraceful injustice that had them bearing the responsibility while the instigators flourished. Schrader takes on an ambitious set of issues and understands the way to make it work is to give us believable, flawed but intriguing characters, with magnificent performances and stunning visuals. A scene where La Linda and Willam walk through an illuminated display is one of the most stunning of the year.

And can we just admit at last that Oscar Isaac is one of the finest actors in the world? He is mesmerizing here, the coiled control and the flashes of feeling, of longing, a simply gorgeous performance, one of the best of the year. This is a powerful film that fully earns its power.

Parents should know that this film includes some intense, disturbing and graphic violence, with torture of prisoners by US military, a prison fight, and murder, as well as very strong language, smoking, drinking, and sexual references and situations.

Family discussion: Why did William wrap the furniture? Why was it so important to him to help Cirk?

If you like this, try: “First Reformed” by the same writer/director

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Posted on September 2, 2021 at 10:00 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language and thematic elements
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Terrorist attack, tragic loss of life and injury, tense and emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: Class issues are a theme in the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 27, 2021

Copyright 2021 Netflix
What is life worth? Who gets to decide? Most of us prefer not to think about it. For a few of us, mostly lawyers, insurers, and those in government, it is their job. I had that job for a while when I was in the government, looking at questions like: “Should we prohibit a particular pesticide if it will reduce the incidence of cancer by two people every year but increase the price of a bushel of berries by $1.00?” Law and society have been very inconsistent, spending far more in emergencies than on prevention.

Lawyer Ken Feinberg has made the job of assigning monetary value to human life his career. He comes into the most traumatic and tragic cases of incalculable loss, Agent Orange, asbestos, the financial meltdown, and tries to decide how much money to pay to compensate the injured and the survivors. Twenty years ago, it was Feinberg and his colleague Camille Biros who were called upon to determine how much money would be paid by the taxpayers to the families of those killed or injured on 9/11. Feinberg’s book about these cases has been turned into a film, with Michael Keaton as Feinberg, Amy Ryan as Biros, and Stanley Tucci as Charles G. Wolf, who challenged the original settlement proposal.

The film takes some dramatic license with the real story but it is all in service of making the abstract issues real, concrete, and meaningful, as well as protecting the privacy of some of the people involved. We first see Feinberg as a man of integrity and culture (he really loves opera, but not the new-fangled stuff), a bit formal and old-fashioned. He does not use a computer and he dictates a note to one of his children, emphasizing the importance of being on time, that until the “love, Dad” signature could be a letter to opposing counsel. But he skillfully negotiates himself into the position of Special Master with three disarming points. He foregoes any payment. He mentions that no one else wants the job. And he points out that if he fails, the Republicans can blame him for being a Democrat.

The dollar amount is not intended to compensate the families for their grief or for their loss. There is not enough money in the world to do that, and no way to value one individual more than another. It is based only on the value (“present value” in economic terms) of their future earnings. On that basis, a clerical worker’s family would get less than a stockbroker’s family.

Most of the survivors understand that. But Fienberg and Biros learn that for these shocked, grieving families, being heard is as important as being paid. And they learn that an algorithm based on the age and earning potential of the person who died and the applicable lows of inheritance may reach a result that does not meet anyone’s standards for fairness. Broadway star Laura Benanti makes an indelible impression as the widow of a fire fighter who went back into the building because he wanted to save people. Ryan is brilliant as always in a role of quiet power. She can say more by listening than many actors can by talking. And Keaton, who has constantly surprised us with his range, gives one of his best performances.

The eternal conundrum of the law is finding a balance between the fairness of a clear, consistent rule and the fairness of individual, discretionary judgment. This movie illustrates that wrenching dilemma in the most compelling terms, with much of the focus on the shell-shocked survivors whose grief is only eased by being given a chance to talk about them, to make sure that the people they loved for their very individual characteristics is not seen by those in charge of estimating the value of their lives see them as more than data points to plug into a formula. Money to pay the bills provides some comfort. But being heard provides solace, and this film is as much a tribute to those we lost as to those who tried to give them some small element of restorative justice.

Parents should know that this film includes very sad stories from the families and survivors of a terrorist attack and some footage of the aftermath. There is some strong language.

Family discussion: Who should decide what a life is worth? What was wrong with the way Ken Feinberg conducted the original meeting? Is it possible to create just rules that allow for all legitimate exceptions? Were the fund’s payments “fair?”

If you like this, try: Feinberg’s book and movies like “Metal of Honor” and “United 93” and read articles like this one and this one.

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Posted on August 26, 2021 at 5:01 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexual references and language
Profanity: Extended very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Themes include pandemic, sad death of a parent, grief, fear
Diversity Issues: Class issues are a theme in the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 27, 2021

Copyright 2021 BBC Film
This is a safe place, so let’s all admit it. This has been a crazy time and as someone once said, crazy times call for crazy solutions. And sometimes that means we have to go a little crazy to get through it. Some of us strengthened our ties with our families, some strained them, and most of us did a bit of both. We found new things to do (I was one of the millions baking bread) and some found new ways to do the things they have always done. Director Stephen Daldry (“The Hours,” “Billy Elliot,” “The Crown”) and writer Dennis Kelly (“Utopia”) wanted to find a way to keep telling stories in the pandemic, so came up with the idea of telling a story about what they and so many of us were experiencing: the claustrophobia, uncertainty, and stress of a global plague. Big, complicated, expensive productions shut down? Make one about a London couple stuck at home. Two people, one setting, two-thirds of the three unities of classical-era drama.

A strong script and outstanding acting talent make it work.

We can tell from the first thirty seconds that this long-time (but unmarried) couple have an acrimonious relationship. They cannot even agree on their son’s name. The boy’s mother (Sharon Horgan billed only as She) calls him Arthur. The father (James McAvoy as He) calls him “Artie.” But we don’t need to infer anything. They are delighted to tell each other and us in vivid detail how much they despise each other. Throughout the film, the couple addresses us as, who knows, in-house therapists or documentarians? Some imagined referee?

It does not matter. It’s just a way for us to stay engaged and learn everything we need to know. At times, the couple seem to be performing for an outside audience; at others they are alone, confiding in us what they do not want to teach each other. For me, the device ceased to be a curiosity or a distraction quickly, another tribute to the superbly talented stars.

She and He were on the brink of separating, when they found themselves scrambling for groceries and toilet paper as everything in the UK shut down around them. Perhaps it is the terror of that moment that leads them to try to top each other to tell us who hates the other one more. We see, if they don’t, that somewhere in there is a vestigial connection, that they still want one another’s approval. The opposite of love, is not hate, after all, but indifference.

Their differences are set up nicely to be intensified and tested by what is to come. He thinks of himself as a self-made man, a lower-class boy who became the founder of a successful business. He did it all on his own, he thinks, and has little compassion for anyone who hasn’t done the same. His right-wing politics annoy her.

She came from a comfortably upper-middle class family and works for a non-profit that provides aid to refugees. He admits that he admires her for that. Each’s notion of what makes a “good person” and how each fits that description will arise again as we check in with them every few months, each segment beginning with a reminder of how many COVID-19 cases and how many deaths the UK has documented.

She experiences a loss that makes her question her faith in the way the government is handling the pandemic. Perhaps through a combination of her vulnerability, their shared grief, or sheer boredom with bickering, they start being intimate again, which reminds them that it was something that they were good at with each other. They share some hard truths, much harder than the trivial insults they exchanged in a whistling-in-the-graveyard opening scene that was more about impressing or outdoing each other than hurting each other.

Horgan and McAvoy make every moment of the film feel earned and worthy. It does not matter who they are talking to. What matters is that they are listening to each other, and we are listening to them both.

Parents should know that this movie has non-stop strong language and couple bickering, drinking and some sexual references. There is a sad off-screen death of a parent.

Family discussion: What have been the best and worst consequences of the pandemic for your family? Is there anything you want to change as a result?

If you like this, try: “Malcolm and Marie”

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Nine Days

Posted on August 5, 2021 at 5:29 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School

Copyright Sony Pictures Classics 2021
One of the most loved passages in English literature is in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” when a young mother who has died in childbirth has returned from a brief visit back to her life on Earth. She sadly realizes that no one living can truly appreciate the true pleasures of life on earth. That is partly because we are too busy worrying about what other people think of us and how we can buy some thing or achieve some goal that might impress them or worrying that someone might be more successful to notice the true bounty and beauty all around us. “Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers,” she says. “And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth,you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?” “No, Saints and poets maybe…they do some,” is the answer.

It is poets like Wilder who not only realize life, but help us to have moments of realizing it, too, and in “Nine Days,” first-time writer/director Edson Oda gives us an Emily-like reminder with a mystical allegory about souls who are applying for life on Earth. They are hoping to be deemed worthy so they can have a chance to not quite notice the clocks and the bread while they worry about all the things that people worry about. Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz, both so striking in heightened featured roles in comic book movies (“Black Panther” and “Deadpool”) are never less than extraordinary here, with subtle, complex performances that tells everything not just about their characters but about the world they are in. They make the allegory real, human, and utterly compelling and their final scene will live in my heart always.

Production designer Dan Hermansen and costume designer Fernando Rodriguez provide a setting that is at once strange and familiar. A house in a remote setting has a retro feel. Duke plays Will, whose wire rim glasses, suspenders, bow tie, and sweater vests give him an old-school academic vibe. And he seems to be a scholar, carefully studying and archiving videotapes that are playing on a bank of screens. We see lives from the point of view of the person whose story is being told, only glimpsing their faces when they look into a mirror or are reflected in a window.

Hands reach into a crib to cuddle a baby. Birthday candles are blown out. School bullies insult a classmate. One of particular interest is a young woman who is a gifted violinist. Will is visited by a neighbor (Benedict Wong as Kyo). We get a sense that they are friends but there is a difference in their status and experience, and we learn more about that later. But not a lot more. This movie is comfortable with ambiguity, allowing us to fill in the spaces.

Kyo and Will are looking forward to something special. The young violinist is going to perform. But there is a tragic loss, and Will is shaken. Later, a woman knocks on his door. She seems to be there for some sort of job interview. And it becomes clear that she, and a small group of others, are there to interview for the job of — being born on earth, in comfortable, supportive circumstances. The candidates, who will have up to nine days to complete a series of tests, include characters played by Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, and Beetz, as the warmest and most curious of the group. As Will tells them, their senses are dulled. When they get the news they will not be accepted, they are given a chance to live one experience that is especially meaningful for them. It is similar to “After Life,” a Korean film given four stars by Roger Ebert, but in this case the experience they will have is borrowed from someone else’s life.

The setting and the details are fascinating and provocative, though anyone who has ever lived on earth could only wish there were some tests for judgment and morality before allowing a soul to be born. What makes the film so enthralling, though, are the rich, complex, sensitive performances that make each character real and and, yes, alive, and the questions you will ask yourself later about how you would respond to Will’s tests and what you can do to better appreciate the life we have.

Parents should know that this film deals with issues of life and death, and there is a suicide. Characters have intense experiences and some confrontations.

Family discussion: What do these tests determine? Why is the character named Will? What does his experience as a human bring to his job that Kyo cannot?

If you like this, try; “After Life,” “Defending Your Life,” and “Soul”

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