The Glorias

Posted on September 29, 2020 at 3:13 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for R brief lewd Images and some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Mental illness, family issues, sad death,
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 30, 2020

Copyright 2020 The Glorias
Director Julie Taymor has created a welcome remix of the standard movie biopic with “The GLorias.” It is spacious at nearly 2 1/2 hours and with four different actresses playing feminist icon Gloria Steinem (with the real Gloria herself appearing briefly at the end). At times Gloria is literally in conversation with herself, a lyrical depiction of the way we reflect on our past and our future.

Like the opening scene, these conversations occur on a bus, a literal and metaphoric representation of the experience of a woman who titled her memoir A Life on the Road. At one point in the film she admits she has spent no more than eight days at a time in her New York apartment, which she hesitates to refer to as her home. Her friends joke about staging an intervention just to get her to furnish it. This goes back to the beginning. There’s a reason she entitled her memoir, the inspiration for this film, My Life on the Road. She says in the book and slightly adapted for the movie, “When people ask me why I still have hope and energy after all these years, I always say: Because I travel. Taking to the road—by which I mean letting the road take you—changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories—in short, out of our heads and into our hearts.”

Taymor brings her remarkable visual style to the film. The scenes on the bus are gray-scale, with flickers of color outside the windows. In a breathtaking moment near the end, the interior of the bus is flooded with color, illuminating the immensely moving commitment to equality and opportunity that continues today. The four actresses portraying Steinem all have a quiet power rooted in empathy and integrity. Alicia Vikander plays her as a young women, told in her first interview for a job in journalism that only men write for the publication; women do research. She gets the editor to let her write, but when she asks to write a profile of the mayor of NY, he suggests she write about his wife. She goes undercover as a Playboy bunny waitress in the Playboy Club, but her expose (which did lead to the end of the practice of requiring the women to have gynecological exams in order to work there) made her colleagues think of her as a bunny, not an investigative journalist.

Her two great loves, writing and dancing, were both forms of communication without having to speak, a therapist tells her. But if the media would not allow her to write about the women’s movement (“What movement?” her editor asks), she would have to become its voice. Julianne Moore takes over as the older Steinem, and the film gracefully exemplifies one of the movement’s most-repeated slogans, “The personal is political,” as it weaves together key moments and characters on and off stage. Bette Midler and Lorraine Toussaint have just the right snap as Bella Abzug and Flo Kennedy. And Vikander and Moore bring great warmth to the role of a woman whose strengths were quieter.

The film achieves what is most likely Steinem’s greatest hope; it is both inspirational and reassuring in illuminating a path forward to a more just and inclusive world, and a powerful reminder that the most important ingredient for achieving it is to listen.

Parents should know that this film includes a brief crude caricature, brief graphic images and some strong language. There is a sad death and a character struggles with mental illness.

Family discussion: Why did someone call Gloria Steinem a “celestial bartender?” How was she influenced by her parents? Why did she decide to leave journalism? What has been her most significant influence?

If you like this, try: The documentaries Dolores, Gloria: In Her Own Words, “RBG,” “Sisters of ’77,” about the National Women’s Conference, and “Mrs. America,” about the backlash to the women’s movement. And read the biographies of Wilma Mankiller, Bella Abzug, and some of the other characters in the film

THE GLORIAS is available for purchase on Digital and Streaming exclusively on Prime Video starting September 30th.

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Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

Posted on September 22, 2020 at 5:52 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: References and some archival footage of illness and disability
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 23, 2020

Copyright Zeitgeist 2020
I wonder what kind of case study Oliver Sacks could write about himself. The author of many books about neurological issues including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat would make a fascinating subject for clinical assessment himself. It was that book that really transformed my thinking about the highly individualized ways we perceive and process information. While he wrote about extreme cases, from the man with brain damage who lived in an eternal present, with no capacity to create new memories to the post-encephalitic “locked-in” patients portrayed in the movie “Awakenings” and Temple Grandin, who has written so eloquently herself about her autism.

Oliver Sacks has, by any measure, an unusual brain. He has face-blindedness, for example, the inability to recognize even the faces of people he knows very well. And he has an exceptionally unusual combination of the kind of deep humanity that often accompanies empathy that can make it difficult to maintain observational objectivity. But what makes him unusual is that he also has the objectivity to be an exceptional clinician. The post-encephalitic patients had sad for years without any effort to help them before Sacks, who was coming for research, not clinical practice, came up with the idea of treating them with new medication that was being used to help people with Parkinson’s. He has, one commenter tells us, “the moral audacity to think something is alive in there.”

Very significantly, we learn in this film, Sacks revitalized the concept of the medical case study, which was considered outdated in a world driven by data. The case study is like a little novel. It is about the person, not the symptoms. Early in the film, Sacks tells us that he is equally a writer and a doctor, and we can see how each plays a part in his understanding of his patients. He says the primary diagnostic question is, “How are you?” He saw the symptoms as a reflection of cognition and perception, not just a reflection of brain damage or dysfunction. And framing the patient’s experience as a story is in itself therapeutic, making the case for sympathy and imagination. “His attention would release people.” They would be “storied back into the world.”

Sacks, who sees the patients with such wholeness and compassion, is compartmentalized himself. There is not only the writer/doctor split. His middle name is Wolf, and he sees himself as both Oliver and wolf, a yin/yang brain/body divide. He has been criticized for being an observer rather than a theorist, but as Grandin points out, without observation there is nothing to theorize about. Many people had the chance to observe the post-encephalitic patients, but Sacks observed something in them no one else did, and that observation included possibility of change.

In one of his books, Sacks wrote about a patient who could “hear” words spoken but not the inflections that reveal context and emotion, so very concrete and literal, and one who was the opposite, unable to comprehend language but acutely sensitive to tone and expression, who was thus in some ways better at discerning meaning. Sacks’ own superior observational skills were in part made possible by the deficits that eliminated distracting data.

Sacks relies on the support of others in his own life, outsourcing many tasks and even emotions and relationships. He has been in psychoanalysis for half a century. He took a lot of risks and abused drugs in his 20s. He gets help from his editor and close friend on some of life’s mundane details. After a one-night-stand on his 40th birthday, he did not have sex again for 25 years, and it was not until his 60’s that he had a close, intimate romantic relationship. And. we learn, early on in the film, he has been told he has only months left to live. With the same clinical distance he showed toward his own medical issues in A Leg to Stand On, he observes himself as a patient as he creates for us “a master class in how to die.” But it is also a master class in how to live, as he says, how to live with what can’t be changed and frame it as a story to give it meaning.

Parents should know that this movie includes frank discussion of drug abuse and sex as well as depictions including archival footage of people who have serious medical challenges. There is also a reference to Sacks’ own recovery from a serious accident.

Family discussion: How did Sacks’ experience as a child affect his decisions in his career? How did being a writer and a doctor help him be better at both?

If you like this, try: “Awakenings” and Sacks’ books

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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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The Broken Hearts Gallery

Posted on September 10, 2020 at 1:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual content throughout and some crude references, strong language and drug references
Profanity: Some strong and explicit language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Emotional confrontations, reference to a sad offscreen death
Diversity Issues: Exceptionally inclusive
Date Released to Theaters: September 11, 2020

Copyright 2020 TriStar Pictures
Maybe it’s my pandemic brain, but I found “The Broken Hearts Gallery” the most delightful romantic comedy in a long time, and I can’t wait to see it again. For all those who have been decrying the end of the romantic comedy because it is just too hard to come up with reasons to keep the lovers apart, let me make this Exhibit A for the defense. It turns out to be very simple. All you need is actors with enormous magnetism and chemistry, some banter that goes snap, crackle, and pop, a couple of misunderstandings and miscommunications, the all-important apology, and of course, spoiler alert, the happy ending. “The Broken Hearts Gallery,” written and directed by “Gossip Girl’s” Natalie Krinsky, is as refreshing and delicious as an ice cream cone on a hot day.

All credit to Krinsky, but the heart of this movie in every way is the adorable Geraldine Viswanathan (“Blockers,” “Bad Education”) as Lucy, who is every bit as endearing as any of the queens of romantic comedies from Doris Day to Meg Ryan and all of the various Jennifers and Jessicas with quippy best friends usually played by Judy Greer. Speaking of the essential role of the quippy best friends, A+ for the two in this film, played by powerhouses-who-deserve-their-own romantic comedies, “Hamilton’s” Phillipa Soo and “Booksmart’s” Molly Gordon as Lucy’s BFFs, support system, and Greek chorus.

Lucy has two passions. The first is art, especially the not-yet-discovered artists with something new to bring to the world. She has a low-level job in a high-level art gallery owned by a “Devil Wears Prada”-style terrifying boss lady, the film’s only under-written character and her name is too-on-the-nose Eva Woolf for goodness sakes. On the considerable other hand, she is played by Broadway legend Bernadette Peters. Lucy’s other passion is holding on to mementos and artifacts of failed relationships, which are more important to her than the relationships themselves. When she loses her current boyfriend, a colleague in the gallery (Utkarsh Ambudkar as Max) and her job in the same #epicfail, she tipsily climbs into a car she mistakes for a Lyft, the handsome guy who owns the car (Dacre Montgomery as Nick) decides to drive her home, and we can check off “meet cute” on our romantic comedy bingo card. Other boxes are checked off nicely, too as the couple bicker, develop grudging respect and then affection as they accomplish something together, get close, get less close, and then, well you know. Plus karaoke, exes, and, of course, wandering through an open market.

Here is what is not on the bingo card but should be from now on: like “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” this movie is casually, un-self-consciously, and joyfully inclusive in a way that feels bountiful, generous, and heart-warming. Krinsky does not waste time worrying about whether related characters look like they share DNA or have names to match their ethnicity, or whether a romantic comedy lead should be blonde and blue-eyed and size 00, and that allows us the luxury of freedom not to worry about it either. Romantic comedies may be aspirational with a dream of perfect understanding and intimacy and witty dialogue, but this one is understatedly aspirational on a whole other level.

Just as revolutionary, this movie gives us a romantic comedy heroine who is not insecure and clutzy. Lucy has issues but she also has confidence and a sense of where she is going. She is coping with loss in some ways that are more constructive than others, like everyone else, but understanding that is what life and movies are all about.

Nick is trying to open a boutique hotel, still under construction and running out of money. He impulsively hangs one of Lucy’s mementos, Max’s tie, on a nail and that inspires her to create the title art installation, which becomes hugely popular, and hugely cathartic for the broken-hearted people who come by to share their stories. The loss of a love is, Lucy says, the loneliest feeling. Sharing the story makes it less lonely. So does a charming romantic comedy that opens up all kinds of new possibilities, including looking for more from its talented writer/director and cast.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language and explicit sexual references that might earn an R if it were not a comedy. Characters drink and get tipsy and there is a drug reference.

Family discussion: What mementos are meaningful to you and why? What art installation can you create?

If you like this, try: “The Personal History of David Copperfield”

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Mulan (Live Action 2020)

Posted on September 3, 2020 at 1:08 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended battle sequences, fights, swords, explosions, falling
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 4, 2020

Copyright Disney 2020
Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” is closer to director Niki Caro’s touching, both mythic and intimate “Whale Rider” than it is to the animated musical with Eddie Murphy as a quippy little dragon and Donny Osmond as a Chinese warrior.

Coming to us on DisneyPLus (for an extra $30) due to the pandemic, it gives us just a fraction — literally — of the grand vistas and meticulous framing Caro uses so beautifully in the film. This version of the classic story of a young woman who pretends to be male to join the military and saves the day with a brilliant strategic maneuver is more sober, ambitious, and grand in scope than the first version. Note that some of the characters and names are changed to further remove it from the original. And it is the first of the Disney live-action remakes of animated classics to get a PG-13 rating.

The movie recalls “Frozen” at the beginning, with two sisters, one with some special, almost magical skills. The young Mulan (Crystal Rao) shows determination and remarkable agility and skill as she chases down a runaway chicken with parkour-style acrobatics. Her father (Tzi Ma as Hua Zhou), is proud of the “qi” (life force) in her. But her mother knows that in their world the responsibility of the women is to attract a propitious husband. That does not require strong q. It is about modesty, decorum, and silence, almost the ability to disappear except when needed. Even Mulan’s father tells her that it is time to hide her qi so she can bring honor to the family.

Invaders come to China, led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), with the help of a shape-shifting witch (Gong Li). Every family has to supply a warrior for the military. To protect her father, Mulan (Liu Yifei) disguises herself as a young man and joins up with the soldiers who are in training. She quickly volunteers to cover night watch to avoid the group showers. And she begins to prove herself with skill and determination.

Then comes the battle, the revelation of her true identity, and then another chance to save the day when she realizes that Bori plans to attack the emperor (Jet Li).

Director of Photography Mandy Walker shows us breathtaking vistas (New Zealand standing in for China in much of the film) and stunningly staged battles. The scenes in Mulan’s village are colorful but gritty enough to be authentically rural. And the production design is everything we expect from Disney, meticulously researched and gorgeously imagined.

The shifting of the storyline to focus on the parallels between Mulan and the witch, two women who struggle to express their essential qi in a world that has rigidly limited expectations for women gives the film additional depth. They are on opposite sides, but they recognize all they have in common. As in the original film, we see the literal constrictions and distortions in the clothing and makeup Mulan must put on to meet with the matchmaker. She is far more comfortable in the armor of a warrior.

Niki Caro keeps the film brimming with heart and sincerity so that even in the middle of battle scenes the focus is on what makes Mulan special — her dedication and loyalty even more than her skill and her qi.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence with battle scenes, swords, explosions, and hand-to-hand combat. Characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: What is chi and how do you access it? Why did the matchmaker and the warriors have such limited ideas about women?

If you like this, try; the original “Mulan” and live-action remakes “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Jungle Book” along with Chinese films for older audiences like “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.”

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