Mother’s Day: 3 Cinematic Moms Who Changed My Life & My Mother Who Shared Them With Me

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them on May 11th, 2014 by Jim Delaney

My mom did not support my early compulsion for movie-going to the degree that my dad did, but her support was nonetheless crucial. During a very formative era for both of us, Mom used to drop me off at the movies on Sunday afternoons while she went to the library to study for her law degree. There was a brief shining period where I got to see a lot of cool movies that no one else in my family wanted to see with me, purely because I was able to hop a ride into town with Mom. Among the early 80’s gems I saw solo were VICTOR / VICTORIA, TEMPTEST, BARBAROSA, MY FAVORITE YEAR, THE KING OF COMEDY and A CHRISTMAS STORY all because Mom & I were simpatico on our need to get the hell out of the house. We also saw some great movies together under similar circumstances, including a rerelease of LADY & THE TRAMP (we had those in the pre-home video days!), THE DARK CRYSTAL, INDIANA JONES & THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, and JFK.

Mom and I saw another Sunday afternoon classic together that turned out to be a watershed moment in my understanding of motherhood and how film expresses motherhood: Steven Spielberg‘s adaptation of Alice Walker‘s novel THE COLOR PURPLE. Whoopi Goldberg made her major studio debut as Celie Johnson, who grows from adolescence to motherhood to arbiter of her own destiny, all in the deep south in the years before and during the Great Depression. Even as a kid I was aware of this film’s detractors, most of whom took it to task for blunting the edges of Walker’s novel. What these folks failed to recognize is that a Hollywood version is a perfect gateway experience for a teenaged boy who might not have otherwise read the novel. Mom and I had seen more movies than I can easily recall, but never one that made both of us cry like THE COLOR PURPLE. This was such a new experience for both of us that we both kept impossibly still trying to keep each other from knowing that the movie had made us … weak? Meanwhile we heard the sniffling and whimpering and outright sobs of dozens around us. color_purple

There was one simple thing about Miss Celie’s odyssey, that I’d never seen in any movie, that made THE COLOR PURPLE unforgettable. We follow Celie from her early teens, abandoned into a young marriage by her own family, abused by her husband, ignored by those to whom she reaches out for help. The amazing thing is that Celie does not repeat any of her past upon her children. Growing up in the 80’s, I had friends whose parents raised them with echoes of the wholesome 1950’s or the free-spirited 60’s. I imagine the same is true today, with teens being raised by parents who grew up in the Gordon Gecko/Tony Montana Generation-X 80’s or the nothing-matters-and-what-if-it-did 90’s. In all if the kids I grew up with, and kids today, you can spot echos of their parents’ past that has manifested itself in their kids. Celie does not repeat the sins visited upon her in her past, she goes the complete opposite direction, providing the compassion and discipline that were missing from her own upbringing.

Celie Johnson rejects the “I raise you this way because it’s how I was raised” school of parental thought. She becomes the mother, sister, woman, friend who had been absent in her own life. I had never seen any movie character transcend his or her past to this degree. In doing so Celie fomented a conversation that continues to this day between my Mom & me, about how she and I were raised, and which aspects of our childhood were detrimental to our own happiness and well being. Sure this conversation between Mom & me may have come about organically some day, but thanks to the push from THE COLOR PURPLE, this reflectiveness came at a perfect time for both of us. For the record, I feel like Mom did pretty damn good, though she’d probably prefer I say “pretty damned well.”

Mom and I saw another, far more fantastic surrogate movie mother a few years later: Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in ALIENS. This was not the type on movie my mother would normally see. I saw ALIEN with my brother Ed and my dad in 1979; my first viewing of ALIENS was with Ed on opening weekend. That same night, my family watched Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert colorfully disagree over the film on their show Sneak Previews, with my folks becoming intrigued by Roger Ebert’s favorable impression. The following weekend we saw it as a family. Mom & Dad thoroughly dug it, and Ed & I found all new things to like about it.

Before James Cameron gave us ALIENS and Spielberg brought THE COLOR PURPLE to the screen, the 80’s gave us a few stand-out moms in other genre films, most notably two from Spielberg. In the Spielberg directed sci-fi themed family classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Dee Wallace stars as a single mom, which made her quite unusual amongst movie moms and more similar to many of the moms who brought their kids to see E.T. Wallace’s Mary was no superhuman heroine, just a doting and diligent mom in an era when single mothers were often portrayed on film as pariahs. My Mom not only took me to E.T, she also took me a second time with a few friends who’d come over to play after school. One of those friends was from a single-mom home. He had never seen a single mom portrayed in this even handed manner by a movie, which led to as introspective a conversation about Moms as a group of 6th grade boys could manage during our ride home.

In the supernatural horror film POLTERGEIST, produced by Spielberg, JoBeth Williams created in her character Diane Freeling what would soon become an 80’s cliche: the post-hippy mom facing middle-age in suburbia. Diane was only that for the first half of the film; in the second half she may as well worn a cape. In the nerdy notorious summer of ’82, we had never seen a mom do anything as brave and cool as following a rope into a spectral dimension, with the hope of rescuing her supernaturally abducted daughter.

aliens-crashHad it not been for ALIENS, nerds might still regard Diane Freeling as the most bad@$$ mom in speculative fiction. Ellen Ripley becomes a surrogate mom to Newt, a young girl who had managed to survive an alien invasion of a terraforming station on the planet LV-426. Ripley had been brought to LV-426 with a detachment of Marines to help rescue terraforming colonists, but by the time the Marines arrive, young Newt is the sole survivor. Under these circumstances, a maternal element of Ripley never hinted at in the first ALIEN film emerges, making her such a dynamic hero that she became the highest ranking woman in AFI‘s list of 100 Heroes & Villains.

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Ripley & Newt’s adventure is that their chief nemesis is a mother in her own right: a giant alien queen as ferociously protective of her eggs as Ripley is of Newt. Calling Ellen Ripley an ideal mom is a bit like calling the Cortez family from SPY KIDS and ideal family; no mom or dad or kids are ever going to face these situations, so it’s a little unfair to compare ones own family to these type of cinematic heroes. And yet, Ripley’s most heroic moment is how she protects Newt in that all-hope-is-lost moment that must come in all great adventures. Every parent will at some point need to explain death and all sorts of other terrible things to their children, and in those moments, moms & dads could do well to recall the resourcefulness and perseverance of Ellen Ripley.

A final movie mom who resonated deeply with me was Sarah Carraclough, played by Samantha Morton, in Charles Sturridge‘s deeply underrated 2005 adaptation of LASSIE. Most Americans know Lassie from a long running 1950’s & 60’s TV show wherein the noble collie belongs to a boy on an American farm. Few Americans under retirement age are aware that Lassie began as a 1940 novel by Eric Knight, which was set in Scotland, and previously filmed in 1943 under the title LASSIE COME HOME. The original cast featured a very young Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor, and the monster‘s bride herself Elsa Lanchester plays the same mother that Morton plays in this recent version. Lanchester’s credit in the 1943 film was credited merely Mrs. Carraclough, while her son Joe (McDowall) and husband Sam are graced with names. Sturridge’s LASSIE is notable for many reasons, including Morton’s mother receiving the name Sarah. Sarah and her family live in Yorkshire and make just enough of a living to scrape by. Another notable aspect of this film is that it remains set in the pre-WW2 era of the novel rather than being updated.

Sarah Carraclough may not be the mom Joe wants, but she is the mom he needs. Faced with the starvation during the oncoming winter, Sarah and Sam make the unhappy decision of accepting the offer of a wealthy Duke (the inimitable Peter O’Toole), who wants to buy Lassie as a gift for his granddaughter. Lassie of course rejects this arrangement and makes relentless efforts to return home to Joe. Sarah becomes the mom Joe wants when he is able to show her that Lassie is not only his best friend, but also part of their family. When Joe makes it clear that he loves Lassie as he would a sibling, Sarah revises her priorities, and does all that she can to help him. A parent cannot always be expected to differentiate between what their child really really wants this hour, week, or season … versus what they need. Children have needs that are so great that they become a part of their identity. A child who will not back down from a sport no matter how many times it knocks them on their ass is a child who doesn’t simply want to play, they need to be a part of that team. Joe Carraclough’s team is his family, of which Lassie is an inseparable member.jef3fhux2z7tuh2f

Sarah comes to understand that Lassie is as much part of Joe’s identity as his folks are, that he is as much Lassie’s friend as he is their son, and cannot fully be one without the other. We’ve seen Samantha Morton play a similar mom, coincidentally named Sarah, in Jim Sheridan‘s IN AMERICA. She was also this devoted and protective a wife as Debbie Curtis, the wife of Joy Division front man Ian Curtis in CONTROL. Morton can so seamlessly inhabit her characters that she makes a reversal like Sarah Carraclough’s expanded understanding of her son’s needs seem like the speed of life unfolding before your eyes.

I watched Sturridge’s LASSIE last Thanksgiving with my Mom and my brother Ed after dinner. My great affinity for dogs, be they biggest & most beautiful or scrawniest and mangiest, comes from my Mom. We always had a dog when I was growing up, and in recent years she’s had 2 or 3 dogs at all times. Neither Mom nor Ed would want this photo floating around the internet: watching LASSIE on the most family oriented of American holidays with my family while Ed’s pomeranian Rachel and Mom’s papillon Millie begged for pumpkin pie, and Mom’s American Eskimo Daisy reacted to every dog sound coming from the TV was the closest my family has come in years to a Norman Rockwell holiday image.

My Mom is not a huge movie fan but there are a handful of movies that resonate with her. She has shared a few with me, and I have shared as many with her as I can get her to watch.

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Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on June 8th, 2011 by Jim Delaney

From Wednesday, February 6, 2008.

Written & Directed by Barry Levinson, starring Adrien Brody, Joe Mantegna, Bebe Neuwirth, Rebekah Johnson, Orlando Jones, Anthony Anderson and introducing Ben Foster (who got the gig during an open call!)

Between Rosh Hashanah of 1954 and 1955, the Kurtzman family of Baltimore is confronted with endings, beginnings and other upheavals. Nate Kurtzman (Mantegna), who runs a burlesque house and numbers racket, sees both of his businesses dying at the hands of television and a brand new state lottery. Older son Van (Brody) is off to college in the first non-Jewish school he’s ever attended. Younger son Ben not only experiences his first crush with Sylvia, an African American girl in his class, he also discovers rock-n-roll. When Nate makes a last-ditch attempt at financial solvency for his family, races and generations collide in hilarious, poignant and unexpected ways.

This is the fourth of Levinson’s semi-autobiographical “Baltimore Films” the others being DINER, TIN MEN and AVALON. LIBERTY HEIGHTS is set a notch above the others by some of the most intricate editing (by Stu Linder) to come out of a major studio in years. Without taking the focus away from the characters, the editing creates stunningly evocative layers of sound, image and music. Aside from the music (Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Elvis, Tom Waits) it helps to have Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle providing the images. Doyle, possibly the most underrated shooter alive, is largely responsible for the glowing signature look of most of Wong Kar Wai’s movies. Many films are described as “labors of love” — it’s rare to see this much love poured into every aspect of a movie.

It’ll finish Friday.
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 6.8.11
To this day LIBERTY HEIGHTS is the only movie that ever prompted me to write a fan letter to a filmmaker, primarily for the reasons mentioned in the above pitch to my agency coworkers: images in that playful 50’s color palette balanced with resonant music grabbed me within the first act and rewarded my attention throughout. I had witnessed a single song used well with a montage, but I had never seen montages of music paired with montages of images, with sound from one scene bleeding into the scenes that precede and follow. My actor and fellow writer pals will hate me for saying this, but certain elements of great movies can only come from the vision of a director, and must be controlled by the unsung creative forces of editors and composers.

Andrea Morricone composed the score for LIBERTY HEIGHTS. In the final 42 seconds of the trailer you can hear echoes of his father Ennio’s work, particularly the romantic sweep of CINEMA PARADISO, on which Andrea assisted the maestro. During a Halloween party scene where Van meets both Dubbie and Trey, the girl of his dreams and her boyfriend, dialog is often replaced with a soundscape swinging from “Shake Rattle & Roll” to the roar of Trey’s convertible to “Rock Island Line.” James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please” and Morricone’s score trade partners as Ben and Sylvia attend a James Brown concert downtown, while uptown Van and Dubbie share a heart to heart at a party in the backyard of one of their classmates mausoleum like homes. Levinson’s seamless blend of sound and vision finds one scene informing another, one character speaking for another character’s dilemma, in a manner as unorthodox for a mainstream film as it is haunting and unforgettable.

I do not mean to imply that LIBERTY HEIGHTS is lacking in the engaging performances and impeccable storytelling departments. This film afforded me the unique experience of giving up on guessing where the story will go next. It’s a wonderful feeling when you realize your cliché based predictions and assumptions have been tossed out the window, that it’s best to sit back, and enjoy the company in which you have been placed. I can give you one glimpse that will not spoil any dramatic turns: before Ben takes Sylvia to see James Brown, he asks if he can borrow his father’s Cadillac. In any other movie set in the 1950’s Nate Kurtzman would be reading the newspaper, Ada Kurtzman (Bebe Neuwirth) would be darning socks or otherwise knitting, and “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet” would be on TV. Here when Ben yells down from the kitchen, we see Nate and Ada practicing the cha cha in a swank finished basement, hiding just how hip Mom and Dad Kurtzman are from passersby on the street. That’s a married couple still deeply in love and smoldering for each other, even as their son is old enough to go to college; when is the last time you saw that in an American movie?

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Posted in MOVIES TO REMEMBER: The ol' favorites that The Lunch Movie kids might have watched had the tradition continued... on December 20th, 2009 by Jim Delaney

Friday, December 9, 2009 at The Brattle Theater, Cambridge MA

Directed and co-written by Frank Capra, starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers and Gloria Graham.

It is convenient that The Brattle Theater offered IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE in the weekend right after I had seen Herzog’s THE BAD LIEUTENANT. This sequence enables me to stay on the topic of “movies I had strong hesitations about seeing.” For years I was way too impressed with my deep dark self to ever watch a movie with such a sappy title, never minding that I’d loved MIRACLE ON 34th STREET since I was old enough to barely begin wondering if Santa was real or not.

Wonderful Life, who are you kidding?! It did not matter if Mom or Dad loved it; it would take much more than that for me sit through a trip to Bedford Falls. When the challenge came in 1990, I was 20 years old in my senior year at Emerson College, so the deep dark (and pretentious) self was in overdrive. I was working at a Loews Theater in Copley Square, which is now sadly a Barney’s New York. We had three projectionists, all of whom taught film at local colleges and had made their own films. There was one fella named Phil who looked like Rasputin in Levis and an oil-stained t-shirt. Phil had earned the right to be as deep-n-dark as the rest of us students-by-day/ushers-by-night thought we were. If we mentioned Lucas, Phil would ask what we knew about Kurosawa; if we mentioned 2001 or CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, he would ask if we’d seen SOLARIS. It was this man who, when I mocked IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE simply for it’s title, informed me that he felt it was “one of the most important and purely American works of art in any medium that any artist has ever made.”

So I watched it. And I cried like a sap. Way before the end, and again at the end. And I have watched it at least once per year since then. In all those viewings, I have come to the conclusion that IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is not amazing for the tears and joy that it makes us all look forward to. Its greatness lies in the levels of hell that it puts poor ol’ George Bailey through before he earns that tearful ending. This is a man who just cannot catch a break. Every time things are going right, something will come along to ruin it. Hey George, you have Mary in a very interesting situation and needing her robe? Guess what, your father has fallen ill. Hey George, your brother Harry has returned from college to take over your job? His new wife and her father have other plans. You’re finally escaping Bedford Falls to see the world, and on your honeymoon no less? Not on October 29, 1928!

The story is brilliant in its precision, ratcheting up George’s hope in equal measure with his dashed expectations. The winning decision that Frank Capra makes as a director is that he stands back and lets Jimmy Stewart become George Bailey. Camera movement and editing are, for the most part, spare. When George learns that Harry will not be taking over his job as planned, we follow George for a searching moment as he approaches Harry’s new wife. There is a similar pause when George and Mary are about to leave for their honeymoon, when they witness a mob gathering outside the Bailey Building & Loan. Yet another comes after Clarence has granted George his wish, where Capra closes in tight on Stewart’s face as George surveys what his become of Bedford Falls in his absence. Stewart’s eyes deliver soliloquies of greater despair than anything that could have been written for him to say.

Capra also loads the film with other little gems like the shot above: rather than belaboring George’s skepticism about Clarence with excessive dialogue, Capra simply inserts a physical barrier into the shot. We had already seen the clothes line earlier to know that George and Clarence’s clothes were drying from their fall into the river. We do not need to see it in this shot, except that it works to sever a lost man from his own salvation.

When I was younger and uninformed, I had expected IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE to be a blissfully ignorant denial of the very same hardships I had yet to experience. It is in the film’s embracing and transcending life’s slings and arrows that it finds its power and glory. Even for those of us who can only aspire to the destination George reaches, we can all relate to the road he travels. Capra is on record as saying he got more mail regarding the fate of old man Potter than he did any other topic in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. What those letter writers missed was that Potter’s punishment is that he has to be Mr. Potter for the rest of his miserable life. George Bailey reminds us that those hallmarks of America’s Greatest Generation — tenacity, ingenuity and generosity — can be their own rewards. Thanks for the push, Phil.

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Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on October 29th, 2009 by Jim Delaney

From June 20, 2008

Directed by Peter Weir, Produced by Saul Zaentz, Written by Paul Schrader, starring Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren & River Phoenix.

Allie Fox (Ford) is an inventor who loves America too much to watch it go down the tube, a direction in which he believes his nation is irrevocably heading. He moves his family from the American corn belt to the Amazon rainforest, with the goal of building a communal utopia. Allie’s biggest enemy in the rainforest is not a Christian missionary, with whom he clashes at every opportunity, but his own megalomaniacal tendencies. Can a family build Eden with their father thinks he is God?

THE MOSQUITO COAST was the second partnership of Weir and Ford, following WITNESS, which earned Ford his only Oscar nomination. As ambitious as WITNESS was for a star whom audiences expect to always play a matinee hero, THE MOSQUITO COAST is as far as Ford has ever pushed himself. Allie is an off-the-reservation, gone-native certified nut-case. Ford plays him as a man who is 100% convinced that he is right.

It’ll finish Thursday.
Love, Jim
It’s not a very good trailer, but it’s all IMDB offers.

AFTER THOUGHT from 10.29.09
I have not read Paul Theroux’s 1982 novel on which THE MOSQUITO COAST was based. As a story, the film could arguably seen as a reaction to Reaganomics and the decline of the working class. In one of the more memorably un-Ford moments, Allie bitterly and sarcastically berates the owner of a hardware store not only for carrying merchandise made in China, but for not even stocking the supplies Allie needs for his next invention. Allie reasons that, if Americans still respected innovation, the get-your-hands-dirty jobs where progress occurs would not be sent overseas.

While these concerns make for a very 1980’s story, the film would have been equally at home among the more character-driven movies of the 70’s. This is not so much a beginning, middle and end tale as it is a psychological and spiritual trip for a man at odds with everything he sees. Many films resort to devices like dream sequences to explore this territory. THE MOSQUITO COAST instead uses exquisite photography by John Seale, of a wide open jungle teaming with life but mostly barren of humanity, to make its metaphors.

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