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RBG Review: This Doc Shows Ruth Bader Ginsburg Giving Superhero Realness

I’m sure you all have heard about how audiences assembled for Avengers: Infinity War. The Marvel superhero movie has broken the record for the biggest opening weekend ever.  This weekend, another film, which features the closest thing to a real superhero we have in the US, is opening, and will make a great companion piece, especially if you crave an uplifting ending.  RBG, a biographical documentary on Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg, lands in theaters to remind people we should all aspire to be heroes in real life, and champions of truth, justice, and the American way come in all shapes and sizes.

Co-directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen go about showing how and why at age 84, Ginsburg has become such a pop cultural icon. A staunch supporter of women’s rights who helped change laws to promote equality between the sexes, the documentary follows the tenacious octogenarian from her struggles with sexism in college and as a young lawyer, to her current place on a right-leaning Supreme Court.  Showing examples of her influence through footage and audio recordings of a few high points of her career, viewers get a strong sense of how she helped create a safer, more welcoming environment for women in the workplace. The filmmakers also chronicle her life with her husband of 56 years, Martin, who supported her choices and celebrated her intelligence in a time when that was a far greater rarity among couples.

West and Cohen offer a view of her personal life and quirks, including Ginsburg showing the collection of collars she wears on the bench, many of which are sent to her by fans and well-wishers from around the country.  We see her determination and perseverance firsthand, as we watch her do planks and weights with her trainer, or hear her children talk about her penchant for staying up working through the night, often still getting only a few hours of sleep.

For inspiration, you can’t beat this film, or its subject.  It is also very gratifying to see the end credits filled with the names of women, who take the lead in every aspect of the production, from producing, to the score, editing, and cinematography.  Not only do the filmmakers highlight one of the most important figures in “herstory”, they embrace the opportunities she has expanded for working women by putting them in all documentary’s positions of power.  I challenge you to try getting through RBG without fan-girling.

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JACKIE Movie Review: Portman is Perfection in a Pill Box Hat

This image released by Fox Searchlight shows Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in the film, "Jackie." (William Gray/Fox Searchlight via AP)
This image released by Fox Searchlight shows Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in the film, “Jackie.” (William Gray/Fox Searchlight via AP)

Most Americans can remember exactly what they were doing when the towers fell on 9/11.  It is the national tragedy that connects us all.  Before that, though, there was another day of communal sadness and shock in this country.  For people of a certain age, it’s the day that John F. Kennedy was killed. Everyone old enough remembers that day vividly.  Director Pablo Larrain’s new release JACKIE brings into tight, painful focus the experience of the one person closest to Kennedy, his wife, not only in the moments after JFK’s assassination, but in the days and weeks that follow.  It is a portrait of the woman’s personal suffering that remains excruciatingly intimate throughout, yet somehow allows those in the audience to both connect to their own experiences of loss, as well as to their remembrances of that day or their understanding of it from history.  Elegiac, and mesmerizing, it grabs the heart and drags it into the whirlpool of numbness and terror that is the experience of the unexpected death of a loved one.

Camelot saw an abrupt end on November 22nd, 1963, and for the many who don’t know the events of that day and those that follow in detail, it is a fascinating look at a turning point in American history.  From the President and first lady’s landing at Love field, to the fatal moments in the motorcade, and the planning and staging of John Kennedy’s funeral, Jacqueline’s experience is cataloged and captured, as if to allow the viewer to walk with her through every unpleasant task and every fitful reminder of her sudden loss. Through her interactions with close friends and reporters, it also shows Jackie’s struggle to walk the line of existing as an icon or a figurehead and as a real woman of feeling.

Natalie Portman more than just embodies Jacqueline Kennedy.  She makes her suffering palpable for the audience.  It is a brave performance, beyond the sort that actors use to get noticed or finally scoop up awards, because not only is she playing a celebrity known all over the world, she is playing Jackie at her most vulnerable, up close, and from every conceivable emotional angle. This movie could have gone horribly wrong, had Portman not correctly hit every note. It was a huge risk as an actor, but one that payed off, as it is the role that eclipses every other Portman has done, including her Oscar winning turn as the mentally unstable ballerina in Black Swan.

That’s not to say that JACKIE is for everyone.  It is like being ushered through an emotional nightmare in highly stylized fashion. It is a nightmare that on some level many have faced already, and will recognize in their own life, and about which they may not want to be reminded. Whether president or simple everyday citizen, unexpected loss is catastrophic for those left behind.  As JACKIE, Portman reminds the audience of that, while Larrain and all his filmmaking partners come together to steep the viewers in the history of one of the most memorable and important moments of the 20th century.  Look for great production and costume design that have a hand in bringing a time already etched into many memories back to life on film, as well as a score by Mica Levi that is as haunting as the experience it accompanies.

As a teenager I spoke to Jacqueline Kennedy several times.  In the early 80s, she was only two cars down from my family on the members hill at the famous Virginia Gold Cup Races, so I was introduced to her and had a few short conversations with her.  I remember she had a beautiful laugh.  She also had a level of poise and grace I believed I’d never be able to achieve, but she certainly inspired me to try.  The film JACKIE brings to the cinema what must have been, for her, a living nightmare, but through it all we still see why she is an enduring representation of what we strive to be: at our best at the very worst of times.

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THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN review: Sweet Sharp-Edged Cinema

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If any of you people have more than five years in the rearview mirror of leaving yourself at seventeen behind, let me remind you.  It isn’t any kind of fun.  I mean, Janis Ian’s song says it all.  In case you’d like a refresher, this week’s release THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is ready and able to take you back to the discomfort, awkwardness, and heartbreak of being a late teen.  Gratefully, the film does it with the kind of humor, authenticity, and quirkiness that probably got us all through being that age in the first place.

First time feature film director Kelly Fremon Craig helms this angsty, coming-of-age dramedy from her own script. When asked what inspired her, she said, “I started this project in an effort to try to capture this particular age and generation as truthfully as I could, and with a respect for the complexity and messiness of it all.  Passing from youth to adulthood is intense and terrifying and beautiful, and in many ways the experience of anyone, any age, shedding their old self and becoming new.  I wanted to explore that.”

Central to that exploration is lead character Nadine, who is played by Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld.  She did so while she herself was still a teen.  Nadine, who offers insights via voice narration, has been getting steadily more awkward since elementary school, but is buoyed by her steadfast best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson of the indie horror film THE LAST SURVIVORS).  When Krista starts dating Nadine’s popular brother Darian (Blake Jenner of EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!), her life starts to completely unravel.  It doesn’t help that both Nadine and her brother have to play parent to their single mom, Mona (Kyra Sedgwick, vying for the “Most Negligent, Self-Indulgent Parent Award”).  One bright spot in her life is her teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), who listens to her daily dramas and plays the surrogate parent and voice of reason she sorely lacks.

Right here, I’d like to supply a trigger warning, however politically correct that may seem.  As someone who lost their parent to cancer as a teen, and someone who knows a number of friends who lost their dad to heart attacks, I’d like to mention that Nadine’s beloved father does indeed die of a heart attack in from of her early in the film.  That experience informs her perception of the world, as well as her relationship with her brother and mother.  It isn’t a long scene, but I like to make sure those of you with a history of parental loss, however distant or recent, are aware and prepared for that part of the story.

Nadine makes a lot of mistakes.  She sometimes sees the entire world as adversarial, and as such tends to, metaphorically speaking, shoot herself in the foot.  A lot.  However, almost all the scenes, however dark, are written and acted to show at least some humor.  The audience can laugh at the tragicomic aspects with which many can commiserate.

Hailee Steinfeld herself should be a major draw for of THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, because she brings an authenticity to her character, and the situations Nadine finds herself in that pulls viewers of every age completely to her side.  Even when she is making very bad choices, the script and her portrayal will have us rooting for her to survive the embarrassment, or actual physical danger, and learn from it.  By the time she makes her biggest mistake, we are so fully with her, so on her team, the audience will have to overcome a visceral desire to scream a warning at the screen.  We want her to be happy.  That’s the great partnership of Steinfeld as lead actress and writer/director Fremon Craig at work.  Co-stars Haley Lu Richardson and Blake Jenner also have the opportunity to show why they are both stars on the rise.  Woody Harrelson seems to elevate all the films he’s in, regardless of the genre or the character he plays.  As the cynical, yet compassionate teacher Mr. Bruner, Harrelson portrays the sort of role model that may seem a throwaway, but represents someone that many can point to from their teen years as having made the difference between survival and suicide.

Technology plays an important part in THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, as it should.  It’s telling the story of gaining some of the wisdom of adulthood at a time when social media can make or break you.  Its part in how teenagers interact and grow wiser in today’s world aside, some things about becoming an adult never change. The first experience of loss, of heartache, first love, alienation, finding your tribe, making mistakes and admitting them, the standing up for yourself, or not standing for yourself or others, and what that means, these are universal, unchanging aspects of coming-of-age.  That’s what makes THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN worth seeing again and again, much like other examples of teens navigating the dark waters towards the shore of adulthood now seen as classics of the genre.  We want to see them grow, because we’ve all been there.  Oh Nadine, we have so been there.

Hollywood insider James L. Brooks was convinced to become one of the producers of the film when Fremon Craig said “No one will ever work harder than I do”.  This is something heard a lot from women both above and below the line in the film industry.  Women work harder.  Regardless of the success or failure of a film, or even if a film ultimately gets made that’s the rallying cry of so many women in film.  it’s a wonderful thing, then, that THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN promises to become, for many, a new favorite film.

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ARRIVAL Movie Review: Amy Adams Brings Home the Independent, Unwavering Spirit and Brainpower of All Women

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ARRIVAL is the science fiction film for people who avoid them because they see them as vapid, effects-driven, plot deficient time-drains.  Fans loyal to the genre will also embrace the film, which is about a linguist who is tasked with translating the language of recently landed aliens, in order to open inter-species communications.  Auteur director Denis Villeneuve of Oscar-nominated SICARIO and INCENDIES is at the helm.  He has begun, to the advantage of movie lovers everywhere, straddling the line between indie and blockbuster frameworks.  He is frequently in the press about his current project BLADE RUNNER 2049, which, even before its release, has made him the darling of sci-fi geeks the world over.   In ARRIVAL, there is a depth to the lead character’s personal journey, however, and larger messages about acceptance, tolerance, and compassion, that will bring the art house film devotees into his fold.

Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist who gets recruited by members of a military task force. They are attempting to make sense of what the twelve oblong-shaped spaceships are doing floating just above the ground in various locations across the world.  She and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are the American contingent trying to make contact with the aliens, and time is essential as other countries are deciding if the aliens pose a threat worthy of starting military action, which may lead to the destruction of the planet.

One of VIlleneuve’s best qualities as a director, is he can create meditative, deep, meaningful scenes that also build tension or intensity.  There is no lack of forward action in ARRIVAL, it’s just built from putting together moments of personal experience that build character, and the assembly of costars as they energize to solve problems, and try to save the world from self destruction.  ARRIVAL requires thought, concentration, and is more a brain teaser in the vein of MOMENTO, than any sort of sci-fi movie you might know other than perhaps SOLARIS.

The single most compelling and notable aspect of the film is the unwavering intelligence and insight, and the nerviness and instinct of the female lead character.  She has more than a little in common with GRAVITY’s Ryan Stone and Murph of INTERSTELLAR. Adams’s Dr. Banks is haunted, preoccupied, obsessive, and driven, and she is all that, as well as a genius, with a growing understanding of the aliens that goes beyond anyone else in the film.  She is the one who must solve the puzzle that saves humanity.  She does so without compromising her individuality or whatever gender-assigned qualities she may reveal as part of her personality.

The story does not unfold in a linear way.  Time is bent and manipulated to reveal the whole picture. It is done in such a way that only at the end is the true nature of the film, and what it says in terms of bigger messages, exposed. Audiences will be considering how it might speak to them personally, and how it speaks about humanity needing to work together in peace, for a long time after the lights come up.  In fact, there’s an argument to be made for repeated viewing.

In these post-election days, when women need to be reminded there are places they are represented in a powerful, truthful way, ARRIVAL offers them a story and character that does just that.

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