The Way I See It

Posted on September 18, 2020 at 11:01 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Historical events, including military action and school and church shootings
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 18, 2020

Copyright 2020 Jaywalker Films
Pete Souza proves and exemplifies two perennial adages: If a picture is worth a thousand words, the photographs of Pete Souza, are as eloquent as a whole library. And if journalism is the first draft of history, Souza not only reminds us of how much of our sense of events is formed by images like his, and in his new documentary, “The Way I See It,” like the photographs he took, reward a deeper look.

Pete Souza tells us he served as White House photographer to the most iconic Republican President, Ronald Reagan, and the most iconic Democratic President, Barack Obama, and that his inspiration was the work of his predecessors, including Cecil William Stoughton, John F. Kennedy’s photographer, and Yoichi Okamoto, who was Lyndon Johnson’s photographer. We see how revealing the photographs are, not just the images themselves but the way they reflect the Presidents, their personal style, their sense of history, their era, and what today we might call their brand. Presidents Reagan and Obama might both be iconic, but their approach to the photographs was very different. Reagan, coming from Hollywood, was acutely aware of image and messaging. In behind-the-scenes archival footage we see him with Nancy, coming up with what he thinks will be an appealing pose.

Obama, on the other hand, was more interested in an authentic portrait to bring Americans into his life. The one time he wanted to make sure a moment was captured for posterity was a very personal one; a successful block in a one-on-one basketball game with Reggie Love, his body man and friend, who was bigger and more experienced but not as competitive. Obama not only wanted a “jumbo” (the constantly updated photos selected for display through the White House); he wanted a signed admission from Love.

Souza did not think of himself as political, especially during his first stint at the White House. But after President Trump took office, Souza began responding to his most provocative tweets via Instagram posts from his archive of Obama images. He thus learned for the first time the term “throwing shade,” an understated but devastating counterpoint. His pictures took on a whole new meaning, leading to a book called Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents. A telling example is the well-known image of Obama and his advisors, including Hillary Clinton, in the situation room during the raid on Bin Laden’s hideout. The are all looking intently and with their full attention at the screen so they will not miss a second. The image Trump released from his situation room is posed, with him and his advisors facing the camera.

We hear from Obama-era advisors and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin but this is really Souza’s story, especially when we get to Obama’s pushing him to propose to his long-time girlfriend. “He wants everyone to be married,” Souza says, clearly reflecting on the warmth of the Obamas’ own relationship. Finally, the President made Souza an offer he could not refuse: a wedding in the Rose Garden, with Obama himself as an officiant. He does not say so, but he’s probably wishing he could have been the photographer as well as the groom.

This is a moving story of what it is like to be in the room where it happens, and to share that with the people who entrust the President with our lives and our freedom.

Parents should know that this film includes depiction of real-life tragedies, including school shootings and military actions.

Family discussion: What do we learn about each President’s personality and priorities in the photographs of the White House photographer? Did this movie change your mind about any of the Presidents it covered?

If you like this, try: Souza’s books

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Irresistible

Posted on June 25, 2020 at 5:21 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including sexual references
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: Cultural diversity a theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 26, 2020

Copyright Focus 2020
Jon Stewart swings for the fences with “Irresistible,” and you’ve got to respect that, even if he only hits a double. He has taken a whole bunch of what bothers him the most about our political system, not the fumbles, pettiness, missteps, and corruption of the individuals but the more systemic problems of money and messaging and he has tried to create a Preston Sturges/Armando Iannucci-style movie that uses humor to illuminate. Sharp one-liners and a top-notch cast come close to making the characters human enough to be interesting but they are still two-dimensional. And some uncertainty of tone throws the movie off-kilter when it shifts from slightly heightened to over the top. When it leaps so far outside the bounds of the real, it undermines its best scrutiny of what is actually happening. I live inside the Washington DC beltway and exposes of political abuse are my jam, so I enjoyed it, but even I thought it made some unfortunate blunders.

The opening is promising, with Steve Carell as Gary, a Democratic political strategist and Rose Byrne as Faith, a Republican political strategist, in the post Clinton/Trump “spin rooms,” where each team tries to explain to reporters why their candidate was brilliant and definitively trounced the other side. But what we get to hear is what’s inside their heads. Gary says he will persuade them “as long as I say it repeatedly and with confidence,” and Faith concludes, “I look forward to lying to you in the future.” We get it. They’re there to win, not to be honest. But Gary was probably being honest when he predicted that Clinton would win. He was just wrong. And so for his professional future and possibly for the good of the country, he has to get his credibility back and he has to figure out how to communicate with the “rust belt blue wall” he thought was “impenetrable” until Trump got a lot of those votes and won the electoral college.

He sees a chance to prove himself when a video of a Deerlaken, Wisconsin city council meeting goes viral due to an impassioned speech by a local farmer, a retired Marine named Jack (Chris Cooper), speaking out plainly but eloquently on behalf of immigrants in his community. Gary tells the Democratic party leaders that “this square-jawed paragon of Americana is our key back to the Forbidden City. He’s a Democrat, but just doesn’t know it yet.” He thinks if he brings his national-level political expertise to a small town in Wisconsin, he can persuade Jack to run for mayor, get him elected, and “road-test a more rural-friendly message” in a place he refers to as “the middle of nowhere” he can re-invigorate progressive messaging and, by the way, his own career. So, he fires up the private jet and checks out what Wikipedia has to say about Wisconsin. In real life, he would have a ton of data in a briefing package, but it’s more fun to make him look like a big city doofus.

Jack agrees to run, the race gets some national media attention, and so Faith arrives, to make sure that they do not break the city’s record of not electing a Democrat since Robert LaFollette (Governor 1901-1906). In Stewart’s view, the only issue anyone cares about is the power of the parties; any specifics are about leverage, with no more focus on reproductive health or even the immigration issue that Jack spoke about in the viral video than on gaffes and embarrassing secrets about opposing candidates. It’s just about votes. The weakest part of the film is the blaming of the consultants who are the symptom (okay, a truly unpleasant one), not the disease. The movie very briefly touches on the funding issue, with stand-ins for the Kochs and a generic, literally high-tech billionaire with just one issue literally half a world away from Wisconsin and a scene at a Manhattan fund-raiser but barely addresses the real and most democracy-destabilizing problem of dark money and Citizens United. The small reference to super PACS, with a winking nod to “non-coordination” deserved more attention.

It’s fun to watch because it has a great cast and clever dialogue and more substance than most feature films. But it is a disappointment that someone who has such a deep understanding of American politics goes for cheap laughs about clueless big city folks not understanding the folks in the heartland instead of looking at the less-examined obstacles at least equally rich in potential for satire. The movie has at least four different endings, and at least three of them seem to undercut the point the film is trying to make. Stewart makes the same mistake Faith and Gary do; he condescends to his audience.

Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language and very crude sexual references.

Family discussion: Which candidate would you vote for and why? Would you ever run for office? What changes in the system is this movie promoting and what changes would you suggest?

If you like this, try: the documentaries “Slay the Dragon” (about the fight against gerrymandering in Wisconsin and other states) and “Primary” (about John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey campaigning against each other in Wisconsin for the Democratic nomination for President) and “Welcome to Mooseport,” with Gene Hackman as a former President who runs for mayor in a small town in Maine.

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The Laundromat

Posted on October 10, 2019 at 5:46 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, some sexual content and disturbing images
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Boat accident, electrical accident, murder characters killed, sad loss of spouse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 18, 2019

Copyright 2019 Amazon Studios
The numbers are unimaginable. The vocabulary is mind-numbing — and intended to be so. One of the biggest financial scandals of all time is known as the Panama Papers, a global money laundering/tax evasion/corruption-concealing scheme involving some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people, including politicians and crooks. They hid their money in what are called “shell” corporations — shell as in “shell game,” where the pea is always under the shell you don’t pick. The interlocking network of these companies was revealed with the help of a still-undisclosed whistleblower thanks to the tireless work of a group of non-profit journalists who had to comb through millions of arcane legal documents to understand and explain it all.

Great journalistic coup. But unlike a simple straightforward fraud like the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, which was depicted in two different and very watchable film versions, starring Oscar winners Robert De Niro and Richard Dreyfuss, the Panama Papers mess was so big and complicated it seemed impossible to put into dramatic form. That was the challenge faced by journalist Jake Bernstein, who wrote the sober, meticulously detailed book, and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”), who wrote the colorful, funny, and dramatic movie. Director Steven Soderbergh knows how to do a heist film following “Oceans 11” and “Logan Lucky,” and he wisely structures this as another story of clever thieves outwitting ordinary people. Except this time the people outwitting are not lovable underdogs and the people outwitted are us.

Our guide to this world is an irrepressible pair of lawyers played by Antonio Banderas (playing Ramón Fonseca) and Gary Oldman (as Jürgen Mossack). It is hard to say which is more charming, their impeccably bespoke suits, which get increasingly outrageous over the course of the film, or their cheerful frankness about their equally cheerful and highly lucrative lack of any shred of integrity or responsibility. The linked stories that illustrate different aspects of the scheme are introduced by Fonseca and Mossack who explain what is going on and tie the stories to “rules” that underly the legal and human realities that created this monster. They should have just quoted Pogo: We have met the enemy and he is us. Or, as one of them says, “The world does not want to be saved.”

“Think of them as fairy tales that actually happened,” they tell us. “They’re not just about us. They’re about you.” Their first rule: “The meek are screwed.”

And that is how we meet a nice lady named Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), devoted to her husband (James Cromwell). When the pilot of the tour boat ride they are on is distracted, there is an accident, it sinks, and her husband is killed. Ellen is devastated. And then she finds out that the tour boat’s insurance company will not pay, and then she finds out that it does not really exist. It exists on paper, but it is just a shell company used for money laundering, and it never pays out on claims. There are no claims officers, no offices. It’s a mail drop run by a man who gets paid $15 per signature for acting as representative for hundreds of shell companies.

We peek into other stories. A shakedown of a Chinese official does not go as planned. The literally shocking death of a low-lever functionary throws the whole system out of whack because she is — on paper — a director of 25,000 companies. And a betrayal leads to a brutal lesson in the value of values, which turns out to be less than we might hope.

It is briskly told, with a heightened, farcical tone that ends with not one smart twist, but two. Soderbergh knows how to entice us into paying attention, and entertain us until we are willing to think.

Parents should know that this movie concerns a real-life massive financial fraud, with many stories of betrayal and theft, peril, accidental death and murder, sexual references and non-explicit situations, personal and professional betrayal, drinking, drugs, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Who is in position to prevent this kind of abuse? What is the difference between privacy and secrecy?

If you like this, try: “The Big Short” and the books and documentary about the Panama Papers

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1776: A Broadway Musical About the Signing of the Declaration of Independence

Posted on July 2, 2019 at 9:33 pm

Celebrate the 4th of July by watching the entertaining and inspiring “1776,” based on the Broadway musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The movie does not shy away from the terrible compromise on slavery that the founding fathers agreed to in order to make this country one nation, with a fault line that would shatter our deepest convictions enumerated in the very document our country was established on. The characters are really brought to life with all of their courage and hope as well as their faults and fears.

EHere’s a glimpse from a recent Broadway staged version, with Santino Fontana of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”

And from the movie, with William Daniel as the “obnoxious and disliked” John Adams.

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Long Shot

Posted on May 2, 2019 at 5:50 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content, language throughout and some drug use
Profanity: Constant very strong and vulgar langauge
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, including drinking to deal with stress, drunkenness, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, some wartime violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 3, 2019
Date Released to DVD: July 22, 2019
Copyright 2019 Lionsgate Entertainment

Remember in “Say Anything” when high school valedictorian who had done everything right and won every prize Diane Cort was described as a brain “trapped in the body of a game show hostess?” Well, imagine her character grown up and in Washington.

In “Long Shot,” Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) is Secretary of State for a dimwit TV-star-turned President (Bob Odenkirk). She is still head of the class, doing extra credit homework while she’s on the treadmill, taking brief eyes-open standing power naps, and reading summaries of popular television shows so she can make smooth, diplomatic chit chat about media she has no time to actually watch. Needless to say, she is single. And, because she is played by Theron, she looks like a supermodel, very much appreciated by the American public which, her pollster tells her, gives her their highest ranking for “elegance.” This is the American public that elected an actor who played the President on television to the actual White House, so elegance — and a possible romance with the swooningly handsome Prime Minister of Canada (Alexander Skarsgård) are real plusses with the voters, who probably think that if they get married the two countries will merge, as though they are Sleeping Beauty and Prince Charming.

But the fairy tale here is more like Beauty and the Beast, if it was an extremely raunchy romantic comedy. Charlotte used to babysit for Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), who is now a shlubby but passionate Brooklyn journalist who has just quit on principle because his lefty alternative paper has been bought by media mogul and all-around bully Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis, so unrecognizable that he might as well be CGI). Charlotte sees Fred at a reception (featuring Boyz II Men, for whom they both stan). She impulsively offers him a job polishing her speeches to make them less Cabinet-officer-formal and careful and more “I’d actually like to run for President and I’m both super-competent and relatable!”

And so the out of work but highly principled Fred joins the team. Charlotte feels safe with him because they literally come from the same place, and he is able to remind her of a time when she was not as careful and not as isolated. He makes her speeches warmer and more personal. And they…like each other.

It’s funny and occasionally even sharp, but most of all it is really quite sweet. Theron is captivating as the good girl who longs to be a little less elegant and there is actually some genuine chemistry with Rogen, whose shambling demeanor she sees as refreshingly authentic. The film touches more lightly on subjects like political compromises and media pressure that we might think from an early scene of the idiot President watching himself on television in the good old days, when he only had to pretend to be the Chief Executive. The supporting cast includes O’Shea Jackson Jr. (“Straight Outta Compton”) as Fred’s loyal best friend, and their scenes together are some of the movie’s best.

There is enough sharp interplay on both current affairs and relationships to keep things moving briskly. Improbable as the pairing may be as characters and performers, Theron and Rogen have a nice easy rhythm, and it is heartwarming to see Charlotte and Fred each learn to relax a bit, her being less careful, more vulnerable, and more true to her less-than-perfect self and him being less sure of his opinions and more sure of his value.

Parents should know that this movie has very explicit and gross-out sexual humor, references and situations, very strong language, drinking and drunkenness, and some slapstick and military-style peril and violence.

Family discussion: Could a candidate like Charlotte get elected?  What does she like about Fred?  Would you want to read a journalist like Fred?

If you like this, try: “50/50,” also with Rogen, from the same director

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