List: Movie Nells

Posted on November 14, 2015 at 3:53 pm

I’m sorry Sandra Bullock’s film, Our Brand is Crisis, isn’t getting more attention. I thought it was smart and funny and loved Bullock’s performance. But I admit another reason I liked it was that the wonderful actress Ann Dowd played a character who shares my first name, Nell.

I often joke that my parents collect antiques, starting with the names they gave their daughters. I love my name — it is simple but rare. It has literary connections thanks to Charles Dickens, and musical connections, especially if you’re in a barbershop quartet. And I’m happy to share my name with my friend, the brilliant writer/director Nell Scovell, and with Nell Carter and Charles II’s famous love, Nell Gwynn.

Here are my other favorite movie Nells.

1. Debbie Reynolds in “The Gazebo.”

2. Jodie Foster in “Nell”

3. Julie Harris in “The Haunting”

4. Sarah Jessica Parker in “Dudley Do-Right” (I vastly prefer the original television series but have to mention SJP)

5. Eva Marie Saint in “Raintree County” (Elizabeth Taylor has the flashy role, but Eva Marie Saint as Nell is the woman whose love for Montgomery Clift provides him with some stability and peace.)

6. Marilyn Monroe in “Don’t Bother to Knock”

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Film History For Your Netflix Queue Understanding Media and Pop Culture


Posted on August 8, 2013 at 6:01 pm

elysium posterThe best science fiction acts like a narrative Rorschach test, taking specific elements of our current condition, extrapolating into the future (usually dystopically), and allowing the audience to project our assumptions — and our fears — onto it.  “Elysium” is a smart sci-fi thriller that bundles the action and visuals we want from big-budget sci-fi with some provocative ideas about the logical consequences of the decisions we make on some of today’s most contentious issues.

The word “elysium” means a place or condition of perfect happiness.  Imagine a place of no worries, no illness, no want.  There are endless, perfectly manicured green lawns and soft breezes lightly flutter the sheers on windows that look out on exquisite landscapes.  That is home to the wealthy residents of “Elysium,” the space station.  It orbits above the now-despoiled planet earth, where the 99 percent live Hobbesian lives that are brutal, nasty, and short.  In other words, the set-up is “Wall•E” for grown-ups, without the “Hello Dolly” dance number and cruise ship atmosphere.

Max and Frey meet as children on Earth, and he promises to take her to Elysium some day.  They grow up to be Matt Damon and Alice Braga, and meet again when he mouths off to a robocop, who breaks his arm, and she is a nurse in a health care system that provides only the most basic first aid for Earth residents while Elysians have access to a kind of tanning bed technology that cures all injuries and diseases and even reverses the effects of aging.

Max is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at the plant where he works, making more robots to wait on the residents of Elysium and enforce the brutal restrictions on Earth. A robot informs Max that he will experience catastrophic organ failure and die in five days.  The arrogant Elysian CEO in charge of the factory, John Carlyle (William Fitchner), is only concerned about whether Max will get the sheets dirty and how quickly he can be gone.

Max knows that breaking into Elysium and hacking into a med-bed is the only way he can stay alive.  And the only way for him to get there is to do a job for his old boss, Spider (Wagner Moura), capturing some data from Carlyle.  To keep Max strong, Spider’s henchmen surgically attach a cyber exo-skeletal device to his arms, spine, and skull.   He gets help from Diego Luna, a highlight as Max’s old friend from the car-stealing days.  It gives him extra power and a sort of USB plug in his brain.  And it turns out that Frey also has a desperate reason to get to Elysium.  And that the Secretary of Defense (Jodie Foster, dressed in spotless white) is in the midst of orchestrating a regime change, so the data downloaded into Max is of vital importance.  She sends a scary operative with a lot of firepower (“District 9’s” Sharlto Copley, scary good) to get Max.

As he did with “District 9,” director Neill Blomkamp adds just enough allegory to this story to give extra weight to the heart-pounding action.  Both of the worlds are thoughtfully conceived, especially the burned-out, graffiti-covered remains of Earth.  The details are evocative and compelling — a robot asking blandly whether Max is using sarcasm, Spider’s hodgepodge lair with its hobbled-together computers.  Foster’s recent performances have been disconcertingly mannered, with head-shaking to indicate the intensity of emotion.  But Damon is top-notch as Max, terrific in the action scenes and even better as we see him becoming more human.

Parents should know that this film includes constant sci-fi peril and violence with some very graphic and disturbing images, many characters injured and killed, constant strong language, drugs, drinking, and smoking.

Family discussion: What elements of this story are based on current issues and controversies?  Why did Max say no to Frey?  Why was the story about the meerkat and the hippo important?  What will happen next?

If you like this, try: “Upside/Down” and “Mad Max”

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Action/Adventure Drama Politics Science-Fiction


Posted on January 12, 2012 at 6:23 pm

Some boys are arguing in a park but we are too far away to hear what it is about.  One of them whacks another in the face with a stick.

And then we are in a spacious apartment as the parents of the two boys are at the computer, finishing up a joint statement about what happened.  The parents of the boy with the stick are Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), who have come to the home of the boy who was hit, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) for a civilized conversation about what happened.  Everyone is polite, even gracious.  The Longstreets have decorated for guests with a vase of tulips and offer homemade cobbler.  The Cowans compliment their hosts.  There ar social smiles and reassuring comments all around.  The Cowans walk toward the elevator to go home.

And then — they don’t whack each other in the face with sticks.  It’s much worse than that.

Based on the Tony award-winning play by French playwright Yasmina Reza and scripted by Reza and director Roman Polanski, this is a sly and ultimately devastating story about the thin veneer of civilization and its uneasy co-existence with the savage spirit within us all.  If things had gone well, the Cowans might have made it to the elevator and as soon as its doors closed both couples would have immediately started talking about how impossible the other couple was and how superior their own child was.  But the Cowans just can not let that last statement go, so they march back into the Longstreets’ apartment to begin to attack, first with thinly veiled digs, then with stark, direct statements, then with insults, then with chaos.

This is not just about the social hypocrisy of privileged New Yorkers.  The play was originally French and the director is originally Polish and famously living outside the United States to avoid imprisonment for statutory rape.  Its treatment of its characters is as brutal as their treatment of each other.  Every shred of pretense is stripped away — the pretense of a loving relationship, of being good parents, of concern for the injured child, of concern for each other and for the world at large.  Everything politely overlooked in the first half hour (Alan’s constant interruptions to answer his cell phone to defend a drug in litigation over the adverse side effects, a cherished item, the tulips, the merits of the cobbler) comes back up (literally and graphically, in the case of the cobbler).  The Longstreets bring out the hard liquor and cigars and alliances shift from couples-based to gender-based to everyone for his and her self.  Reza makes it about more than the fatuous insularity of upper-class New Yorkers but does not go overboard.  When Michael trashes Penelope’s concern for the deprivations and injustice in Africa, both are portrayed as insular and unhelpful.  And a hopeful note in a coda shows her to be gentler with her characters than they are with each other.


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Based on a play Comedy Drama

Interview: Jodie Foster, director and star of The Beaver

Posted on May 3, 2011 at 10:00 am

Jodie Foster directed and co-stars in “The Beaver,” a movie notorious already for two reasons.  First, its script by newcomer Kyle Killen was on top of the famous “black list” of outstanding unproduced screenplays.  Everyone knew how smart and distinctive it was and everyone know it would be very tough to film and very tough to find an audience for a story about a severely depressed man who finds that he is able to communicate through a beaver puppet he finds in a dumpster.  Second, the lead role of Walter is played by  Mel Gibson, whose behavior in the past few years has ranged from volatile to profoundly offensive.  But one of Foster’s many outstanding characteristics is her commitment to her work and to her friends.  It was a deeply rewarding pleasure to speak with her about the challenges of making this film and what she has learned from the movies and the people she has worked with in making them since she was a child.

Unlike ventriloquists (seen most recently in the documentary, Dumbstruck), Mel Gibson continues to act even when he is “speaking” through the beaver puppet on his hand.  Do you as a director intend the other characters on screen and the audience to look at him rather than the puppet?

I was surprised that people didn’t watch the puppet more.  I liked that about it.  I never wanted the audience to forget that there was a man behind the puppet.  It was a widescreen format.  We used an anamorphic lens, and that allows you to do two things.  First, it lets you keep two people in the frame almost all the time, even in close-up.  And with depth of field you can switch the focus very quickly from the front of the frame, where the puppet is, to where he is, so there’s a real distinction to the field that allows you to keep them in the same frame at all times in the beginning of the film and yet separate them emotionally.  We’re always, always following Walter’s path.  Then, as time goes on, we change that and allow the beaver to start taking over about halfway through the movie.

It seems to me that making a film is a little bit like having a puppet on your hand.  Instead of telling your story through one imaginary character, you’ve got many.

Yes, that’s pretty accurate.  It’s not just the director’s and the actor’s voice but the writer’s, the costume designer’s, the props, production design.  They’re all different languages and each one contributes to telling this one story.  There are other experts and you make decisions.

Tell me about how you worked with the costume designer to tell the story.

I’ve made many movies with Susan Lyall.  I love her stuff because it’s really real.  She spends a lot of time combing through vintage stores and looking through bins.  She didn’t come up through theater, so she doesn’t do draping and all that stuff.  She has a little bit of a different bent and I think it is more authentic.  The idea that there is this perfect icon, valedictorian and a cheerleader — that’s just a delusion.  Not only do they not exist, but when it appears they do, there’s a whole other side to them.  So for the character played by Jennifer Lawrence, at first she has a lot of make-up and that perfect WASP-y cheerleader outfit.  But as you get to know her — as Porter gets to know her, she changes and becomes a deeper and truer person and becomes more informal.

Your cast is one of the movie’s great strengths, including Jennifer Lawrence, nominated last year for an Oscar for her role in “Winter’s Bone” and soon to star in the big budget film of “The Hunger Games” and the brilliant theater actress Cherry Jones.  How did you select them?

I’m always trying to get Cherry in movies.  I love her.  Anton Yelchin is also amazing and really shares the screen with Mel.  Casting is a long process for me.  I take a lot of time.  Some people you know right away.  Anton I knew right away.  I met with some other actors but I was never serious about anyone but him.  I’d seen a lot of his work.  I knew that he could handle the wit, the lightness of the character but also had the dramatic side.  Plus, he looks like a combination of Mel and me so I was pleased about that!  I knew he could hold the screen with Mel even though they don’t have many scenes together, just one at the end of the movie.  The rest of the time they are fighting each other from opposite corners.  I spend a lot of time just making sure that it’s true.  There’s really nothing else you can ask.

Everybody reads for me.  I was never weird about that.  I never minded coming in and reading.  They should know if I’m the right person and I should know if I want to do a movie.  Some of it is just to hear it.  When I’m casting I’m still in the process of figuring out what the movie’s about, making decisions about locations, photography, and all that.  When I can hear it, either around a table or at an audition, then I can really see how things are going to work.  If I don’t get that process with the actors I’m walking into a mystery and I don’t want to do it.

You have quite a challenge in having a clinically depressed person as your main character. Even more than other illnesses, depression makes a person inaccessible and disturbing.

The world is littered with movies about people that are depressed that either did not come out or are not successful.  I read this article in the New York Times that I thought was so smart about obsessive ruminators.  It’s a real phenomenon.  I thought, “I do that!”  People who are good artists don’t just type it into the typewriter and win the Pulitzer Prize.  It takes a lot of rumination and thought, a lot of time thinking, “Why did that happen that way?” “How do those two things fit together?” and waking up at 3 in the morning to think about it.  It’s a very depressive process.  You go over and over and over drama and it can be depressing and isolating.  But you come out the other side.  And people who don’t, who just go to the beach and play volleyball to cope with their problems don’t get to the other side of their issues.  So I see it as a gift, and essential for being an excellent artist.  But it does make you alienated from the rest of the population.

There’s a very delicate structure to the film.  We start out inside Walter’s head.  He’s so lost at that point he’s not even speaking.  The beaver is speaking for him.  It’s a light, witty, but removed voice.  It’s remote.  And that gets you through the first part of the movie.  And then when he starts to want to live again, you get that burst of vitality.  It really isn’t until the second half when reality sets in and the drama begins.

Is the puppet’s accent another way for him to be separate from Walter?

Yes.  Walter wants the beaver to be everything that he’s not — charming, quick-witted, blue-collar, decisive.  The beaver is somebody who is a leader.

There’s a fairy tale quality to the movie — the narration and the quick turn-around in Walter’s business.

It’s a fable.  It’s a dark fable at times.  I don’t see anyone walking around with a puppet on his hand in real life.  Puppet therapy is very common for children.  It’s not something that adults take on.  It should be seen as a fable, carrying through to the ending as well.

It’s a fable in its facts but the underlying theme of finding a way to take a break from your negative elements is psychologically valid and dramatically compelling.

He adopts a survival tool.  People who go through tragic circumstances where they don’t have another option adopt a survival tool and any therapist will tell you it’s a good thing.  But you adopt and adapt these survival tools as a child — at a certain point, when you grow up, they can start to kill you.  You have to amputate them.  You have to get rid of your survival tool or it will take you over and destroy you.


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Actors Directors Interview

Nim’s Island

Posted on August 6, 2008 at 8:00 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for mild adventure action and brief language.
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril, reference to loss of a parent, character who is scared of everything
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 4, 2008
Date Released to DVD: August 4, 2008 ASIN: B001APZMJI
Copyright 2008 Walden Media

A pair of heroines on opposite sides of the world team up in an eye-filling and heart-warming story from Walden Media, the latest in its series of fine films based on popular children’s literature.

Eleven year old Nim (Abigail Breslin of “Little Miss Sunshine”) and her marine biologist father, Jack (Gerard Butler), are the only human residents of a remote but idyllic South Pacific island. While Jack studies nanoplankton, Nim makes the entire island her school, with the animals as her teachers and her friends. Every few months, a supply boat brings another book by her favorite author, Alex Rover, an international man of adventure.
But Alex is really Alexandra (Jodie Foster), a writer so terrified of just about everything that she lives on canned soup, constantly sanitizes her hands, and cannot get far enough outside her front door to retrieve the mail. Alexandra has created a hero who is everything she is not – fearless and always eager to go where he has never been and try what he has never tried.

To get information for her new book, Alexandra emails Jack for details about a volcano he described in an article for National Geographic. But he is away for two days obtaining plankton samples, so Nim answers, thinking she is corresponding with the dashing Alex (also played by Butler , as envisioned by both Alexandra and Nim). By the time Alexandra realizes she is writing to an eleven-year-old, Jack is missing and Nim is alone on the island. And the woman who was terrified to walk four feet to the mailbox must go halfway around the world to help her new friend.
Husband and wife directors Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, seamlessly combine adventure, drama, comedy, and fantasy as Jack, Nim, and Alexandra have to confront their separate but often parallel fears and challenges. As Nim tightens the rope around her waist so that she can climb the volcano, Alexandra is tightening the belt of her robe and gathering her resolve to walk out the front door. All three of them find their determination tested and creativity challenged. And all find assistance from unexpected friends.

Nim is an enormously appealing heroine and it is especially welcome to have a story about a resourceful and courageous young girl. The film wisely makes her the center of the story in a way that young audiences will find empowering and Breslin’s unaffected interactions with the creatures and natural screen presence are a pleasure to watch.

Of the three characters, Nim is closest to the imaginary Alex Rover, confident and capable. She navigates the island by gliding on zip wires like a modern-day Tarzan. She not only swims with the sea lion; she teaches it to play soccer and boogie. She can fix the solar panels on the roof to get the electricity and satellite uplink back in working order, protect the newborn baby turtles from predators, rappel down the side of a volcano, and make a dinner out of mung beans and meal worms. When the island is invaded by a pirate-themed cruise ship bearing pina coladas, beach chairs, port-a-potties, and chubby Australian tourists, Nim and her animal friends set up a “Home Alone”-style series of booby-traps to scare them away.

Butler is fine as Nim’s fond, if distracted father and as the heroic Alex. And it is a treat to see Foster enjoying a comic turn in her first film for families since her Disney days, when she was Nim’s age, and shared the screen with an Oscar-winning star, Helen Hayes in “Candleshoe.” Here’s hoping when it is time for Breslin to pass on the torch to a young actress 30 years from now it will be in a movie as good as this one.

Parents should know that this film features a child and adults in peril, a brief image of a wound, some gross-out humor, and a reference to loss of a parent. There is also some intrusive product placement.

Families who see this movie should discuss why Alexandra created such a brave hero when she was so afraid of everything? Would you like to live like Nim? What would be the best part? What would you miss?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Shipwrecked and the book that inspired this movie. They will also enjoy seeing Foster and Helen Hayes in Candleshoe.

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Family Issues For all ages Movies -- format
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