This NBC series stimulates thought. Yet it moves the audience to experience powerful emotions. Parenthood (2010 to 2015) accomplishes this through intricate and intelligent characterization playing to an overarching theme that parenting can and ought to be both rational and rewarding.
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Family is not an end in itself, according to Parenthood. It’s a unit of unique individuals that exists primarily to serve as a rocket launch and refueling center. This is why a family can be integral to creating, making and forging the meaningful, purposeful, selfish life.
Parenthood, created and written by Jason Katims and based on the Nineties movie by Ron Howard (Frost/Nixon, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Apollo 13), essentially tells the tale of four children who choose to have children. Two sons and two daughters and their parents sputter, propel and revolve in multiple relationships, professional, romantic and otherwise. They do so with humor and poignancy in each of its six seasons.
These are the characters in the Braverman family, led by Bonnie Bedelia (Sordid Lives, Presumed Innocent) and Craig T. Nelson (Coach, Poltergeist) as the parents. Favorite son Adam (Peter Krause) is a buttoned-down establishmentarian; he lives to lead. Younger brother Crosby (Dax Shepard) is the free-spirited comic relief; he strives to achieve. Julia (Erika Christensen) is the perfectionist; she thrives on striking the ideal balance. Black sheep Sarah (Lauren Graham) is the single mother mess; she seeks to create and cash in.
Through her lens, the audience first sets sights upon this warm, intelligent and inviting family.
Bravermans are sharp, unpretentious and intellectual. They think about what they do before they “just do it”. They use words. They talk. They also listen. But these are depictions of humans that know how to communicate through verbal means. But they not only like communicating with each other—they thrive on it. They draw strength from it. They get powered by it. They refuel. This feeds the interplay that makes Parenthood go.
Bravermans think about how to love and raise a child, as well as how to tend to themselves. They are biting, flawed and competitive—in unhealthy and healthy ways—and they can be bitches and brats behind one another’s backs. Like your family.
This is what makes Bravermans go and do. They go for the gold in life, even when there’s less and less time left to live, too much that’s been said in anger, or too much alcohol involved, or too few moments together in plain, honest talk. Mother and daughter, father and son, sibling rivalry—the pretty one, the smart one, the responsible one, the overindulged one—it’s all here wrapped inside a series of gilded parenting fables.
With a neat timeline tie-in which pre-dates its thematically similar cousin, NBC’s excellent This Is Us, Parenthood depicts the child in the family and the inner child within each parent. It shows how each among us must guide and parent the self and it shows how parenting is properly done.
No problem goes unaddressed. No deficiency goes unnoticed.
The whole series is an enveloping, unfolding story of these Northern Californians (without the superiority complex) arcing toward a bittersweet resolution which reminds the viewer that life is finite, rich and breathtaking. But only if you choose to think first, put yourself first and go after what you want.
With baseball as a leitmotif, Parenthood’s is a distinctly American family orientation. Each Braverman works to play, plays to compete, competes as a whole person—playing more than one position—and each player aims for the grand slam. The show often hits and scores. But they are united.
This is family as it can and ought to be. Perhaps the one you’ve never had, always wanted, desperately miss, read about and long to have and hold.
Watch Parenthood for its fresh surprises. You’re likely to find yourself questioning and challenging your own ideas about parenting. The series depicts certain dilemmas, some that may be familiar and some that may not, that prompt you to think twice about your own upbringing, family and child rearing.
Whether it’s raising a kid with Asperger’s, starting over, fielding calls from police, making time for sex or parenting the child neglected for her ability, Parenthood covers it all. There’s a memorable call for help from a truck stop in Gilroy, marital strife and a son named Jabbar (Tyree Brown as the most honest and appealing child character).
There’s the kid that dyes her hair black, the dance audition, the hobbies, practices, rehearsals and nights climbing into windows and stumbling into sofas. There’s Craig T. Nelson hilariously memorizing and trying to remember why it’s important to invoke the line “I hear you and I see you”, the importance of getting credit and giving gratitude and saying ‘thank you’.
One of my favorite episodes occurs on Crosby’s houseboat. I like it because it dramatizes the character’s progression toward his choice to commit to being a parent. It is rare that any show tackles the abstraction of what Ayn Rand describes as man as a being of volitional consciousness.
Parenthood, filled with meaning, pathos and insight, does—from its theme that Crosby has the power to put what he loves up for sale by owner to how deftly it displays and honors the value of owning material possessions, whether a home or a piano. Other second season highlights include a character played by Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther) as an alcoholic, which dovetails into an ex-husband’s alcoholism and a daughter’s drug use.
But, whether it’s camping with Grandpa for the purpose of studying bugs at dawn, cancer, being fired, adoption or enduring Parenthood’s most irritating characters — Max, Adam and Kristina and controlling Jasmine — there’s always an organic reason for each plot point, each character arc and every plot twist. Even when Adam dresses like a rapper to get new business.
The cast is excellent. Look for all-around good casting — recurring guest stars turns include Richard Dreyfuss, Ray Romano and Jason Ritter — forethought, screenwriting and carefully crafted arcs such as Sam Jaeger as a businessman, husband and father.
Flaws include that Sarah’s always apologizing, scenes don’t play out and overacting. Characters constantly talk over each other.
As the Bravermans’ family tale comes to a close, season five’s “Promises” episode is among Parenthood’s most profound. I’ll leave it at that. But know that this show presses every subplot into marvelous tales of redemption, letting go, dying, grieving, moving on and finding the goodness in each new day.
Ice skating with the kids—playing hooky to surf in the ocean—starting a school—opening a recording studio—running a political campaign—dating an Afghan war veteran—releasing the scream—coming out as gay—embracing moving day—leaving California—the meaning, memory and mining of road-tripping with Grandpa in a Pontiac GTO—meeting the other mother in Wyoming—accepting the marriage proposal—and, beautifully, leaving the 1972 Reggie Jackson baseball card in the rafters as a benevolent legacy for strangers, stressing the importance of chosen values over the importance of going merely by blood.
Enjoy Parenthood as a fully circular voyage of the child’s and parent’s—and grandparent’s—life. You will probably cry and laugh, often during the same episode. I did. But you almost assuredly will be provoked, if deftly and down to your core, to think.
The DVD’s deleted scenes often fill in gaps as important action sometimes happens offscreen; the extras’ flaws include a lack for original air date stamps and music that’s too folksy.
The granddaughter of Melvyn Douglas appeared this spring in the room where the first Academy Awards were held to moderate a discussion with Cary Grant’s, Charlton Heston’s and Ruby Dee’s adult children on being a child of Hollywood. It happened at the classic movies festival.
Douglas, Grant, Muhammad and Heston at TCMFF 2019
I wrote about the insightful panel discussion, dubbed ‘the descendants’ by Turner Classic Movies for their 10th annual TCM Classic Film Festival, for Flicker Alley’s online classic film journal. The Hollywood-based company, which creates, distributes and sponsors top caliber movie restorations and releases, kindly announced that “[o]ur Flicker Alley Team attended the TCM Film Festival in April, where we met the talented Scott Holleran who graciously shares his experience in this month’s blog.”
Read my article about surviving Hollywood parents — besides Melvyn Douglas, these include Dyan Cannon, Ossie Davis, Charlton Heston, Ruby Dee and Cary Grant — here.
One of my favorite summer movie experiences was seeing Grease when I was a kid in 1978. I think the Paramount film was my first major theatrical motion picture musical. I’d seen movie musicals on television. But Grease, which cast two major 1970s stars, a pop star whose songs I enjoyed on radio and a TV sitcom star, unleashed its sexual energy in a lush, bright but somewhat raunchy, colorful movie musical. It was extremely entertaining and not merely in a frivolous or mindless way. I write about why in a new, in-depth analysis of the 40-year-old film (read the article here).
Besides spring’s Love, Simon, which is still the year’s best movie I’ve seen, documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? merits 2018’s best movie consideration. The film impresses with an intelligent and poignant approach to its subject, the late Pittsburgh children’s television host Fred Rogers. His family and associates grant the moviemaker unprecedented access in what amounts to a timely, relevant and important, not flawless, non-fictional movie. Read my extensive new review of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? here.
Pixar’s satisfactory sequel, The Incredibles 2, also entertains, if by a lower standard than the forementioned movie. With a brief appearance by the designer character Edna Mode, who’s a kind of Q from the James Bond pictures in terms of gearing up the superhero, a role reversal and a subtle dig at Hollywood’s dogma du jour, this mostly manic, action-packed followup to a hit movie released 14 years ago fits the bill. Read my thoughts on The Incredibles 2, which opens this weekend, here.
Goodbye Christopher Robin means well. With gentle storybook strokes, the biographical motion picture about A.A. Milne, who created and wrote the Winnie the Pooh children’s books, plays from Milne’s traumatic soldiering in World War 1 to his books becoming a worldwide bestselling literary series and beyond. Shown through flashbacks of battlefields, courtship and an only child, with fear of war looming over England, her war veterans and their survivors, Milne’s reconciliation of his war trauma comes through writing what’s childlike.
Reconciling with the child upon whom his stories are based is the movie’s centerpiece. In the showing and telling, and parts of this uneven movie are magically shown and told, the audience gets a sense of the writer’s life. That living with a writer, as Mrs. Milne (Margot Robbie, The Legend of Tarzan) must do, is unbearable. That working for a writer, as the child’s nanny (Kelly Macdonald, Merida’s voice in Brave and Anna Karenina) does, is also a constant strain. That having a storyteller for a father, as the only child of Mr. and Mrs. Milne’s union does, both draws and repels his attention without ever fully gaining his guidance and love.
The child is the Pooh series’ basis, of course, for the character Christopher Robin. I’ll leave it to Goodbye Christopher Robin to spell out the complications of having that name and all it implies for his boyhood. Here, the boy is taken away with his parents to escape London’s triggers for his father’s post-war trauma to live in a cottage near the woods in Sussex. You can probably guess what follows, with stuffed animals, trips to the zoo, an imaginative mother and father, moonlight, sunrays and the wonder of them all blending into the woods. An origin story within the story satiates one’s interest in the Pooh tales; most details are dramatized here.
As Mrs. Milne, Robbie’s a bit overly dramatic or possibly miscast. Daphne Milne’s looks don’t age as persuasively as her husband’s (Domhnall Gleeson, Ex Machina, Star Wars, Brooklyn). As Milne, Gleeson is superb, catching the writer’s irritability, the soldier’s torment, the husband’s lament and the father’s pride. The script does not allow him to show the writer writing, which would have tethered Goodbye Christopher Robin to the tales in a way that director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold) apparently and understandably wants to avoid.
The result leaves loose ends. Daphne, for example, tenderly helps her future husband to heal when she guides him in how to lead and again later when she instructs him not to plead. Yet their bond never quite seals.
The books’ illustrator, one of the more compelling characters, trails off and disappears. The main two actors who portray the boy at differing ages, Alex Lawther and Will Tilston, are excellent, however, the screenplay does not fully account for the abrupt change in character which merely marks the boy’s progression. His emergence should be the film’s pivot point. Goodbye Christopher Robin contains insights about being the child of a creator — especially about being born to a talented creator whose creation becomes a commercial success — fathering, mothering and nurturing and, in the end, it suggests that parenting as an ideal simply and strictly means preparing the child to live, which is harder than it sounds, particularly for the walking wounded of the Great War.
As a war veteran-writer-father’s fable of how Milne made the most of his moments with his son, fencing and playing cricket in the forest, for the wonderful, childlike stories of Winnie the Pooh, Goodbye Christopher Robin leaves something unfulfilled. But there are also not many movies about sons of men who went to war and lived to write delightfully life-affirming tales. This movie’s lacking, but it hits sweet spots along the trail. It might be considered a must by fans of the books.
Written by the late Melissa Mathison (The BFG, The Black Stallion) and directed by legendary Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Jaws, Munich, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Sugarland Express, Lincoln), Universal Pictures’ E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (available this week on a limited 35th anniversary edition Blu-Ray disc) remains sublime. Upon the recommendation of the greatest living philosopher, Leonard Peikoff, who names E.T. as his favorite movie, I saw it long after the original release. I was enchanted.
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After this afternoon’s viewing (my first seeing it on the silver screen) at the ArcLight Hollywood, I’m happy to say that I still am. E.T. is not flawless, though it is close. What Mathison’s screenplay creates, Mr. Spielberg’s mastery recreates in moving pictures with wonder, humanity and deft courage to depict what it means to be kind and loving. E.T. does this with slow, deliberate lighting, scoring and multiple loops that bring characters, action and themes full circle.
The movie begins with a strong sense of fear and dread — Steven Spielberg uses horror in all of his films — in extended scenes of darkness after an alien spaceship lands on earth, dispatching the extra-terrestrial and accidentally leaving him behind. The largely unseen alien finds his way into a suburban California household’s backyard shed, where a middle child of a broken home (Henry Thomas) notices the disturbance. As he’d done with toddler Barry in Close Encounters and Chief Brody in Jaws, Mr. Spielberg in this way acknowledges the legitimacy of being frightened by a strange alien.
But, as in his other films, he shows that it’s also easy to be alienated from familiar beings, too. With a mother (Dee Wallace) still adjusting to divorce and an older brother (Robert Macnaughton) who is cruel and reckless, freckle-faced Elliott has his reasons to be drawn to an alien in spite of the risks. The wide-eyed child has an ‘enter’ sign on his room’s door, a clue that he’s actively seeking friendship. Simply, in perfect scenes of two young males earning trust, trading and cashing in, which starts when ET witnesses Elliott’s decision to run from an authority figure, boy and ET bond.
The bond first seals when they begin to sleep, as if the pair can really, only and deeply find peace in having found one another. Of course, the alien’s suddenly a fugitive from the United States government, and the boy’s gone rogue from his family, which mocks and repels him. From there, E.T. takes the friendship to a higher level, as Elliott tutors his new friend, whom he selfishly conceals from his siblings, mother and everyone else, first explaining to ET that he’s human, then that he’s a boy and, finally, that he’s Elliott. Hidden in Elliott’s room with posters, comics and figures such as the Incredible Hulk, Buck Rogers and Lando from the Star Wars serials, ET adapts. He refuels, recharges and overcomes his fear through Elliott’s sense of life.
All of this joy and enlightenment coming from the boy’s bedroom finally makes the middle child the center of the family’s home, sort of bringing the broken home together as the newly confident Elliott, as recharged as his friend, asserts himself in life for the first time. The boy draws a picture of the extra-terrestrial at school. He takes his younger sibling (Drew Barrymore) and, later, the older brother into his confidence, though Mom’s still too caught up in her new single parenthood to appreciate her growing children, let alone revel in her intelligent son’s emerging individuality.
Against this domestic setting comes the government, E.T.‘s villain as much as E.T. has one. While it’s kept in the backdrop for most of the movie, the threat of the state against their friendship creeps out in earnest — interestingly, fittingly — in the first scenes at a school. Amid a bulletin board about extinction and a teacher who remains essentially unseen, Elliott experiences a kind of telepathic communion with his friend back in his room. This entails Elliott’s dog, a can of beer and a clip of John Wayne sweeping Maureen O’Hara off her feet in The Quiet Man. The mayhem that ensues leads to Elliott’s coming of age. So, in a certain sense, does the teacher’s instruction in basic biology with frog dissection, which includes a lesson to “locate the heart and notice that it’s still beating.”
Elliott, melded with ET, acts so that it keeps beating. And this is one of E.T.‘s emblems; that what makes a heart beat, love and affection, is what keeps you alive. In ET, this vitality emits light.
The character suggested chiefly by dangling keys (Peter Coyote) represents the U.S. government, which, for 1982 when E.T. was released (the year Leonard Peikoff’s first book was published, in a happy coincidence), features an early depiction of the American surveillance state. For the state’s use of technology to violate rights, however, revitalized ET is one step ahead, devising and constructing his own machine, carefully using his friend’s possessions and lessons for electrical engineering.
Whose technology will triumph climaxes around Halloween in what’s probably Steven Spielberg’s most secular, individualistic movie — and, for this reason, his most American movie. Culminating as a contest of the byproduct of American culture, friendship and love and the state-sponsored result of government medicine, surveillance and coercion, ET explicitly embraces the former. “This is my home!” someone objects as the United States government violates property rights, as dishonestly and unjustly as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, stressing another subsidiary theme and planting one of many bookends in this intimate fable about friendship. E.T. unfolds in its own time, not in rushed, fast-cutting jumps, graphics and effects.
The state’s total invasion of one’s private life versus the power of shared values yields the film’s most searing scenes in a makeshift medical trauma in which the Peter Coyote character — a kind of older, alternate version of what Elliott might become if he loses his idealism and innocence — refers to the “miracle” of the extra-terrestrial. It’s the closest ET comes to getting and giving religion. Followed with a question about how the government can help, which begs to be answered to get the hell out of the way, government’s role in the miracle is totally, utterly repudiated.
Yet the government’s not a realistic villain because they do not act in accordance with their power and conviction, one of the movie’s flaws. We know what the state does to an unwanted alien and it’s the opposite of what happens here (remember Elian). It’s a forgivable error on E.T.‘s terms, though, as Melissa Mathison and Steven Spielberg focus on the love and light between the two young males. Other flaws include too many insider references to movies and other contrivances.
Light and love charge E.T. like one of its big, Ray-O-Vac batteries in the picture that all but created product placement. In this way, E.T.‘s as fabulously commercial as Christmas. This doesn’t mean E.T. doesn’t integrate matters of the mind with the power of a beating heart. In gentle, soft and mercifully slow scenes such as a boy’s breath on glass as he holds vigil for the one he loves, taking a solemn oath to be here — E.T. is a perfect example that it’s possible to dramatize soulfulness in secular terms — and expressing love both in physical and spoken affection, E.T. sustains its “heartlight” theme.
As it does, each character within Elliott’s family is also touched, moved and, ultimately, exalted (even Harvey the dog). Here, its two-point circles illuminate like fireflies. Mother reads J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan to her daughter — activating the sense of belief that arcs into a mother-daughter wish affirming life in reality. An angry boy lays down with imaginary friends, curls into a fetal position and awakens as an enchanted hero. In the most obvious example of the two-point loop, two friends’ flight by moonlight comes back around as the sun (and friendship) sets as E.T. rolls with a boy’s bicycle — backed by a band of boys’ bicycles — into one final, pulsating glow capped by the colors of a rainbow. With cinema’s most symbolic use of the sunflower as a metaphor for love as a matter of life and death since David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965), E.T. charms, brightens and radiates.
This December 1, 1981 CBS television movie starring Cicely Tyson (Roots, Sounder) as pioneering Chicago teacher Marva Collins, who died this week while in hospice care at the age of 78, is very good. The 100-minute Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, co-starring Morgan Freeman (The Dark Knight, An Unfinished Life, Last Vegas) as her husband, was filmed on location in Chicago.
Hers is an untold but grand and heroic story. The classical education teacher, who wrote several books about her essentially Socratic pedagogical and motivationally-driven method, focused on the individual in her teaching. As I wrote in 2009 (read the post here), she was passionately anti-deterministic and pro-free will in her approach to reaching a student’s mind. In short, Collins did not think poor, black students were destined to play basketball or languish in poverty, illiteracy and despair. She held to the idea that each individual has merit and potential and that the young must be nourished, taught and loved.
The Marva Collins Story dramatizes the initial part of her epic struggle to break free from being a government education worker in Chicago’s dreaded public school system and creating her own school in her own home, all while married to a man (Mr. Freeman) who loved her and mothering three children.
In scene after scene, the Chicago Public School teacher refused to settle for less than the best quality for her Garfield Park ghetto students. Collins taught the classics in literature, emphasizing key themes as lessons for living in poverty and achieving self-reliance. When the classroom is vandalized by thugs, leaving her homeroom deflated and demoralized, Collins, who dresses smartly and expects the same of her young elementary schoolers, singles out one child who asks why? for a warm, loving explanation that life is hard for those who are of superior ability. She basically tells the boy to expect to be envied by those who are jealous. This is a lesson well learned and well played by Ms. Tyson, one of the best actresses of her time.
The woman the kids call Mrs. Collins is remarkable in her steadfast dedication to demanding that the fundamentally bankrupt institution matches her ability to teach her students. Collins mutters about the “bureaucrats” and finally strikes out on her own, opening her own school, Westside Preparatory School. Attracting the most deeply victimized students in the government-controlled educational system, few rally behind her. She pleads for help in the form of sponsorship from Chicago-based businesses. She writes to the media. She seeks the proper government approval, which only frustrates her efforts more because the government’s arbitrary rules are in constant self-contradiction. In one scene, when a bureaucrat comments on her behind her back, Marva Collins swings back into action and puts him—and, really, the whole damned state-sponsored educational system—in its lowdown place. She is indefatigable.
But The Marva Collins Story is about her free enterprise, not merely her character. It dramatizes the painstaking process one must undertake to defy the traditional, the expected, the status quo, especially if you’re a lone, black woman from whom others irrationally expect less. Add the fact that even less is expected of poor, black students and there you have the mindset of the welfare state, which Marva Collins identifies, defies and puts to shame. That she lines up students one by one—a boy who is fascinated with flight, a girl who’s been told she’s mindless, other outcasts lost in government’s ghetto schools—and praises them with love and encouragement for their ability, not scorn and indifference to the use of their reasoning minds, is the point of her story. Marva Collins climaxes with an example in capitalism, as the children take a field trip which is earned, not used as an excuse to indulge sloth and mediocrity, when Mrs. Collins takes her Westside Preparatory pupils to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
Whatever flaws in her approach, which is sort of a catch-all immersion in the basics and classics, she is honest and straightforward about her limitations to parents, students and family. Her devotion to her task is rewarded with a visit from a newspaper reporter and an epilogue explains how she turned down an offer from President Reagan to serve as a government cabinet secretary (of a department he’d pledged to abolish, a promise he never did keep). Marva Collins’ story is exceptional for its vision, nerve and entrepreneurialism and, with a powerful rendering of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If—, The Marva Collins Story shows and tells what’s essentially heroic about her tale as it is and ought to be.