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Nell Scovell Talks About The Groundbreaking Sabrina, The Teenage Witch

Posted on October 4, 2021 at 12:13 pm

Copyright 1996 Viacom
It was 25 years ago that “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” premiered as a part of ABC’s “TGIF” line-up of family-friendly shows. The character was based on the Archie comic book series, but it was showrunner Nell Scovell who gave her a last name and a subtly but unabashedly feminist spin. In a 25th anniversary interview, Scovell told Elle that what made it fun for her was a twist on the magical female stories like “Bewitched” and “I Dream of Jeannie.” Those characters had to hide their powers. Sabrina, who only discovers her powers when she turns 16 and is thus still learning how to use them, is encouraged to make the most of her gifts. She had some of Scovell in her as well. “The revolutionary idea of Sabrina is she’s a good kid. She doesn’t want to be a cheerleader popular. She, like me, wanted to be good in school, and a good person.”

The Many Saints of Newark

Posted on September 30, 2021 at 5:45 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and graphic violence including crime violence, murders, and riots
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 1, 2021
Copyright 2021 Warner Brothers

On January 10, 1999, HBO audiences first met a New Jersey mob boss named Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini. He was a brilliantly written, even more brilliantly acted character, in 86 episodes over six seasons, winning every possible award and accolade. The conflicts he faced, and, even more compellingly, the conflicts he embodied as a ruthless killer who loved his family made him one of the most vivid, complex, fascinating characters in the history of television or even the history of fiction. In the show’s first episode, Tony meets with Dr. Melfi, a therapist. The struggle between the honesty, empathy, and accountability central to therapeutic resolution and the secrecy and ruthlessness necessary for survival in criminal operations provided the basis for the series.

But the show was not named “Tony Soprano.” It was named for the entire family, the biological family (Tony’s mother, uncle, cousin-in-law, and sister played central roles, along with his wife, son, and daughter) and the crime family, as mobsters are termed internally and by law enforcement. Six years gave us a deep dive into the life and internal conflicts of Tony Soprano, and now the people behind the series show us something about how he got there with “The Many Saints of Newark,” with Michael Gandolfini, sone of the late James Gandolfini, as the teenage Tony.

Any film based on a much-beloved work has to be evaluated on two levels. Let’s start with the audience who has little or no connection to the series. The film represents the same complex, layered story-telling as the series and stands alone as a powerful exploration of themes of nature and nurture, destiny and choice, that have been the source of powerful story-telling as long as there have been stories. Fans of the series, especially those who payed very attention to detail, will appreciate both the references that might be characterized as fan service (teenage Tony comments that baby Christopher always cries when he sees him, we get to see how Uncle Junior hurt his back) and those that deepen and enrich the story we already hold dear.

In the series there were a number of references to Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti, father of Christopher and cousin of Tony’s wife Carmela, though he died in the 1970s, before the series began. “The Many Saints of Newark” makes him a central character, played by Alessandro Nivola. He is so good at disappearing into characters that he has not yet been recognized as one of the most talented actors in Hollywood. Here’s hoping this movie is the one that finally makes that clear to everyone.

Like Tony will be 20 years later, Dickie is conflicted. And some of his conflict centers on the young Tony (still a child in the early part of the movie, played by William Ludwig. Tony’s father, Johnny Boy Soprano, (Jon Bernthal) has little interest in his children and is out of the picture for much of young Tony’s life because he is in prison. Dickie is the closest to a father figure that Tony has, and there is genuine affection between them.

Dickie has his own issues. As Tony will later, he is conflicted about the choices he made and he compartmentalizes, holding on to the idea of himself as a good man, or at least a not entirely bad one. And yet he destroys the lives of people he cares about. Like the adult Tony, he brings his conflicts to a counselor of a kind, in his case an uncle who is serving a prison term for murder, played by Ray Liotta.

Dickie’s associate is Harold McBrayer, played by the magnetic Leslie Odom, Jr., the heart of the film. The racial politics of the era simmer and then explode into the real-life riots of 1967, the events of the time reflecting and affecting what is going on in the country and in the world of Dickie and his crime family. There are people who do not play by rules at great harm to others and there are people who break the rules to change the rules to make them better for others.

The movie opens in a cemetery, to the murmurs of the dead. A voice rises above the others, and he tells us that “the little fat kid,” Tony Soprano, killed him. And so, while Tony may think he has choices, we see him being pulled ineluctably to that moment when he will sit down with Dr. Melfi. At one point, Dickie tells Tony, “I understand you want to be a civilian and I respect that.” But in making a painful choice to try to help him go in a different direction, Dickie just makes it more difficult for Tony to do so. The drama is engrossing, the consequences are terrible, and these themes, of destiny and choice, provide emotional heft and a connection to the oldest and most enduring stories we know.

Parents should know that this is a movie about mob criminals and so it includes brutal violence, with many characters injured and killed. It also includes scenes of riots and looting, sexual references and situations and nudity, and constant very strong language.

Family discussion: Could Tony have become a “civilian?” Why didn’t he? What do we learn from the meeting with the school counselor?

If you like this, try: “The Sopranos” and “Goodfellas”

My Little Pony: A New Generation

Posted on September 23, 2021 at 5:50 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some thematic elements
Profanity: None
Nudity/ Sex: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Very mild peril and tension
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 24, 2021

Copyright 2021 Hasbro
“My Little Pony: A New Generation” follows in the tradition of previous media from the world of MLP: candy colors, poppy music, gentle humor, warm-hearted lessons about friendship, and basically a way to sell merchandise. We know where we are when it begins by reminding us that it is produced by Hasbro, a toy company.

The MLP toys could have been designed by algorithm to appeal to children. Like Pokemon, Paw Patrol, and boy bands, they are all about reassuring messages of friendship and teamwork. They have an assortment of cheery colors, and personalities — well, attributes — allowing a child to pick a favorite and collect them all. They have lots of hair to play with and style plus magical powers and problem-solving skill to spark fantasy play. I remember the bride MLP that lived with a child in our house for a while, white, with glittery hair, a hair brush, a veil, a big diamond ring that fit on her hoof, and no sign of (or need of) a groom, either stable groom or bridegroom. The MLP handlers know what kids like. Improbably, the “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” series was popular with college students for a while and somehow there were groups of adult male fans who called themselves “Bronies” and attend BronyCons. There is a documentary about them called “A Brony Tale.”

I prefer the flat, 2D-style animation to this movie’s 3D CGI modeling and some young fans may feel the same, but other than that it fits the algorithm nicely, with top talent providing the voices, catchy songs, and a sweet message of, no surprise, friendship.

In this iteration, the MLP have lost their magic and their friendship. The world has divided and the three groups — ponies, unicorns, and Pegasi have been taught to fear and consider themselves superior to each other, except for Sunny (Vanessa Hudgens) a brave little pony whose father taught her that all the different little horse creatures should be friends. When a unicorn named Izzy (Kimiko Glenn) comes to the area where the ponies live, everypony runs away. “Are we playing hide and seek?” she asks joyfully. But they are just scared, except for Sunny. Soon the pony and the unicorn team up to bring friendship and magic back to their world. It is cheerful and colorful and sweet as candy, with just a little bit of excitement and just enough problems to be solved with courage and teamwork.

Okay? We good? Anything else you’d like to know? Let me unpack some of the semiotics of this story for you. It is as much a sign of the unprecedented high sensitivities of our times as it is the content of the film, but the characters and messages of the film are likely to raise some parental eyebrows and perhaps some hackles as well. The pony children are all told lies in school about the unicorns and the Pegasi. The unicorns are told that the earth ponies are lazy, smell bad, and not very bight. Ponies are taught in school that the unicorns can read minds and fry ponies with laser beams from their horns. One of the parents is a war profiteer whose motto is “To be scared is to be prepared.” She dismisses calls for friendship and cooperation as “hugs and cupcakes.” Terrifying the ponies is good for her business. Another parent is a tyrannical ruler who lies to her people, telling them that she and her daughters have retained the magical powers the rest have lost. When she is found out she is derided as “phony pony full of baloney.” A law enforcement officer abuses his power. The only kind and loving adult is dead (subtly and off-screen, but absent and missed). Also, because this is 2021, one of the characters is a social media influencer, another is a hipster, and there is some hip-hop.

So, there’s a lot going on here for an animated movie about magical horse creatures. I am not sure whether this film is a reflection of the divisiveness of our times or a response to it. I do know that either way, despite the touchy times, no adults should feel criticized or diminished. Instead, they should recognize that the only message here is the real magic of trust, understanding, cooperation, and generosity.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild peril and references to bigotry, and subtle references to the loss of a parent. The adult characters are ineffectual, tyrannical or scaremongering.

Family discussion: When have you been a good friend? When have you learned that what you thought or feared turned out not to be true? How should the characters respond to the queen’s lie? How sneaky are you?

If you like this, try: the other “My Little Pony” movies and the television series — and the episode of “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” where special guest Bill Clinton aces an MLP quiz.

Dear Evan Hansen

Posted on September 23, 2021 at 5:12 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
MPAA Rating: The PG-13 rating is for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive references
Profanity: Brief strong language
Nudity/ Sex: Kisses

Copyright Universal 2021
Adapting a play for the screen is always a challenge, especially when the play is hugely successful because fans are attached to elements of the play that might not work on screen. It is even more of a challenge when the play is a musical. “Dear Evan Hansen” is a multiple award-winning Broadway musical about a teenager struggling with anxiety and depression who impulsively tells a lie to comfort a grieving family. Its transition to film is uneven, sometimes clumsy, sometimes frustrating. One important change improves the original. One important decision not to change weakens the film. And it is too long.

The title comes from a letter high school senior Evan Hansen writes to himself on the advice of his therapist. Hansen is played by Ben Platt, who won a Tony award for his performance in the Broadway, turns 28 this week, and there has been a lot of commentary about whether he is too old to play a teenager. Probably, but the actors were too old to play teenagers in “Grease,” too. The bigger problem is that his performance does not translate completely to screen. He is far more effective as a singer than an actor here. In part that may be due to excessive deference to the performance that has been lauded for years on stage. In part, though, it is attributable to the inherent weakness of the material. The character is written as not much more than a collection of symptoms, longings, and frustrations, and the cinematic storytelling that literally takes us up close and very personal exposes the superficiality of some of the material.

Evan carries his pep talk of a letter to himself to school, where he is alternately ignored or harassed. There is Zoe, a girl he wishes he could figure out how to talk to (25-year-old Kaitlyn Dever). There is a classmate who has to be a little bit nice to him because they are related (Nik Dodani as Jared). There is the girl who seems to have it all together (the radiant Amandla Stenberg as Alana). And there is Zoe’s brother, a troubled, hostile classmate named Connor (Colton Ryan), who misinterprets Evan’s clumsy efforts to be friendly as insulting, and snatches the letter from him in retaliation.

Connor takes his own life. His shattered parents find the letter and think Connor was sending it to Evan, evidence that he had a close friend. Desperate to hold onto any comfort, they beg Evan to tell them about his relationship with Connor. He simply does not have the communication skills to tell them the truth and so he not only pretends that the letter was written by Connor, he makes up a series of stories about their close friendship and what a comfort Connor was to him. He tells Zoe, who is resentful of the trauma Connor’s mental illness inflicted on the family, that Connor cared deeply about her. His ability to comfort Connor’s family perversely gives him a sense of confidence and connection that does more to reduce his anxiety than medication or therapy. Instead of his overworked single mother (Julianne Moore), he spends time with Connor’s parents, Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino), and Zoe, almost accepted as one of their family.

But this cannot continue. I give director Stephen Chbosky (“Wonder”) and writer Steven Levenson, who adapted his script for the play, credit for correcting one of the play’s biggest weaknesses and allowing Evan to more fully accept the consequences of his lies. And I give them a lot of credit for making it clear that one way for Evan to begin to find healing for his own issues is to recognize the vulnerabilities of others. Alana’s honesty in reaching out to him is one of the film’s most powerful moments, and Stenberg once again shows us that she is past promising and already one of the screen’s most accomplished and appealing performers. Dever, also, continues to be a actor of unusual precision in expressing the most subtle and complex emotions. Ryan makes a strong impression, especially in the imagined scenes as Evan makes up stories about him.

It mitigates but does not eliminate the disconnect between the play’s expectation that we will sympathize with Evan more than we do. And I do not think any movie has ever successfully persuaded audiences that what they portray as viral would in the surreal world of social media, actually go viral. But the movie’s message about recognizing the vulnerability of everyone and the importance on empathy for others as a part of growing our own sense of agency, capability, and worthiness is important enough to make up for the uneven pacing and the way that the performances of the younger actors at time seem to be in different movies.

Parents should know that this film includes depictions of mental illness and (offscreen) teen suicide, brief strong language, and some suggestive references.

Family discussion: Reconsider some of the people whose behavior you have thought annoying or difficult to understand in light of this movie. How can you be more supportive of the vulnerable people around you?

If you like this, try: “Wonder” by the same director

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
Nudity/ Sex: Sexual references and situations
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