‘Born to Play’ a Refreshing Reminder of Teamwork in the Face of Adversity

“Football is a physical sport. You’re gonna get punched in the face. It’s about how you respond. Punch back.” If anything sums up ESPN’s latest documentary Born to Play, it’s that. Director Viridiana Lieberman’s examination of women’s tackle football is inspiring not only for fans of the sport, but for anyone who feels like their dreams are unattainable. 

Following the Boston Renegades as they attempt to win the 2018 WFA national championship as redemption for falling short the season before, the film allows viewers to get to know the fierce competitors – women whose ages range from 19-49. These women have full-time jobs, relationships, families and other responsibilities that pull them from the field, but it never stops their unwavering passion for the game. 

In the words of a Renegade, “We have our goal. It’s not gonna happen because we want it to happen. It’s gonna happen because everyone grabs their oar and rows.” In this unprecedented time of a global pandemic, Born to Play can serve as a metaphor of where America is right now and where it could be, if we acted like teammates trying to win a championship. Although we might not get that with politicians, we get it here – and it’s refreshing.

These women put their hearts, minds and bodies into purpose, despite the obvious sexism they encounter as female football players. They are role models for any young girls, boys or anyone who feels different. There is a place for you, there is a space for you, you just have to find your team. 

Thankfully, the documentary will be receiving additional air dates throughout the summer and is available to stream through ESPN.


‘Anne’ Gets An ‘A’

Moira Walley-Beckett’s modern adaptation of Anne of Green Gables was ahead by a century.

Cancelled after three seasons on the CBC and Netflix, award-winning Anne with an E was a charming update to the classic novels first published by Lucy Maud Montgomery in 1908, inspired by her upbringing in a farmhouse on the Eastern Canadian province of Prince Edward Island.

Anne’s story of being adopted by siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert after an orphanage mix-up was great from the pilot: endearing, smart, thoughtful and beautifully-shot on the breathtaking Canadian landscape during all seasons. 

Images courtesy of Creative Commons

But the third and final season following her transition into young adulthood was especially enjoyable. As imaginative and headstrong Anne Shirley-Cuthbert found her confidence and developed her outlook on life, so did the delightful show – finding its stride alongside its protagonist as a modern and socially-relevant series that was not only appropriate for kids, but important for them to see. 

It seamlessly tackled timely topics within the framework of its narrative. Gender inequality, racism, the plight of indigenous people and the LGBTQ+ community are just a few issues encountered by Anne and the citizens of her adopted town of Avonlea. Walley-Beckett and more talented writers treated these not like “issues,” but people, with stories, whose perspectives aren’t portrayed often enough onscreen.

The best vehicle to learn a lesson is a story, and Anne with an E taught plenty of them in its 27 episodes – but it doesn’t quite feel like enough, as nearly 800,000 signatures on a petition to renew the show can attest, with the description: “Anne would want us to fight.” 

Anne and the show grew up together. Though both began their journeys with confidence and a clear identity from the start, the character-driven drama was gracefully expanding its circle to include an entire community – Avonlea with an e. The time period and small-town setting became characters themselves. 

The show subscribed to the truth that our circles expand as we get older. Later additions to the cast became as essential to the story as the Cuthberts: like farm-owner Bash and new teacher Miss Stacy. Even nosy Mrs. Lynde and belligerent Billy were proof that unlikable characters are sometimes even more realistic than the ones we love.

Anne with an E and its creators were of the opinion that not enough shows are these days – that people and places can evolve, that minds can change. That a female main character does not have to fight crime to be strong; she does not have to work in a lab to be smart; she does not have to run for office to make change. Anne is reminiscent of the heroines we used to see on the WB – the Felicity Porters and the Rory Gilmores. These were shows made for “teens,” but they took the time to create universal themes for any age. As a college professor told the Anne of the ’90s, Dawson’s Creek’s Joey Potter: “The problem with your story is that it ends at the exact moment it should begin.” 

That’s how Anne’s abrupt cancellation felt. It’s easy to see why people of all ages campaigned for the show’s survival – people in my own life love it for different reasons, from a seven-year-old neighbor to a 70-year-old father.

“Art and Commerce is never an easy marriage. I often find it inexplicable. This is one of those times,” Walley-Beckett wrote of the cancellation in a December Instagram post, a heartfelt message to fans who fought to save the series. “But it’s impossible to argue with words like Economics, Algorithms, Demographics…But those words and others like them are the reason why the networks don’t want to continue. And we didn’t find a taker anywhere else.”

Because Anne grew up believing she was unwanted, she remained on a mission to share the kindness of the Cuthberts with others who might not feel seen, or wanted, or like their stories mattered. Including us. It’s fitting that the unfinished show now fits that category too: unwanted by the gatekeepers, but absolutely seen, and felt, and loved, by the people who matter.

It’s inspiring to see how genuinely beloved Anne with an E was – and will remain, despite an unfairly premature cancellation. “I know you’re upset and disappointed, sad and angry — I completely understand — because our beloved AnnE has been snatched away,” Walley-Beckett wrote. “I guess this is a tragical romance after all. But then again love is love is love is love is love. And love is not lost when it is nurtured. We will always love our Anne with an E. We will always love Green Gables with our whole hearts and everything it stands for. They can’t take that away from us.”

Anne and her family and friends were beginning an especially interesting new chapter at the end of season three – young adulthood, which provides so many lessons and hardships its younger audience might need to fall back on.

It’s a shame we’ll have to go without seeing her “tragical romance” with Gilbert Blythe unfold: a refreshing young love story built on friendship and shared experience, on a boy and girl who were smart and caring with dreams independent of one another, but who made a great t-e-a-m.

We won’t get to see her friends navigate the difficulties and new horizons of college, to witness the progress of women’s education at the turn of the century. We’ll miss out on watching Marilla as a town trustee, and Matthew adjusting to life at Green Gables without the red-haired girl who made it feel like home again.

But we just have to do what Anne would do if faced with the same heartache: use our imaginations.


‘Laurel Canyon’ Captures A Unique Time, Place In Music History

My mother was a child of the ‘60s, which means some of my earliest friends were Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Joni Mitchell’s voice filled my college years with the promise that it wouldn’t be long before I dragged my feet to slow the circles down, and she was right. 

It’s with an acknowledged bias and love for this era of music that I say Laurel Canyon is a fascinating new docuseries, now streaming on EPIX. From director Allison Ellwood, the captivating two-part film follows the distinctive group of musicians who wrote iconic songs while living in the notable Los Angeles neighborhood in the late 1960s. The dreamy and entertaining film is brimming with songs that aren’t really captured by their titles, but by their feelings: California Dreaming, Our House, and Both Sides Now. Songs we still hear on parents’ records or rock radio stations, or in the ending credits of Mad Men.

Groups from the Monkees and the Byrds to the Doors and the Mamas & the Papas are featured in the series, reminding viewers that they all lived in the same neighborhood at one period. Singer-songwriters like Linda Ronstadt, Graham Nash and Jackson Browne tell stories of this period of their lives in their own words, while fans, photographers and other unexpected voices like Steve Martin describe what it was like to live in such a creative hot-spot at a pivotal point in America.

Photos courtesy of the LA Times

Ellwood refreshingly shies away from the basic documentary talking-head trope. We see only old camera footage of these musicians living in Laurel Canyon at that special, specific time – never seeing them now, but only hearing their voices reflect on the importance of that period of music – and life. This only adds to the effect of the film: the idea that it was such a narrow window, an entire genre of music narrowed down to one special place and time.

But Laurel Canyon is especially timely in 2020, when comparisons to the 1960s are prevalent. Political turmoil and civil rights protests are just a few circumstances that led to this ineffable art. To everything there is a season, the Byrds and Bob Dylan and Ecclesiastes all say, and there’s no season quite like this one to escape into Ellwood’s docuseries. Though a dreamy and enjoyable look into a “music utopia,” these writers were using their hit songs to really say something – and we could use some of that right about now.

With two 80-minute episodes, Laurel Canyon is the rare documentary that feels too short – like there’s more to tell about this time, and place, and people who enriched it. The series wraps up at the end of the decade – a lesser-known concert hosted by the Rolling Stones tried to emulate Woodstock and failed miserably, ushering in a new decade and a new period of American tumult. Sound familiar?

As we feel this time period fading away, the subjects move out of Laurel Canyon and into newer, richer neighborhoods. They share less music and less spirit – but thankfully we still have the songs, and this fascinating documentary about the stories and streets behind them.


Anniversary of ‘Endgame’ Holds Special Meaning in Time of Coronavirus

Avengers: Endgame was released April 26, 2019. It is the highest-grossing film of all time, with Box Office Mojo reporting its lifetime gross as $2,797,800,564. Its first anniversary has a new relevance as people worldwide grapple with the global health crisis of coronavirus, and its far-reaching impact on healthcare, the economy and everyday life.

Millions of people are committed to the heroic act of staying home, which leaves time for thinking about and honoring the actual heroes fighting the real battles of this strange, scary war. 

The Internet is full of conflicting opinions about the value and merit of Avengers: Endgame, the last chapter of an 11-year saga of films spawning countless spin-offs and revivals of beloved Marvel characters. No matter how you feel about the film, it inarguably depicts universal themes of loyalty, passing the torch, and the idea that everyone has something unique to give. It’s almost biblical in its celebration of using your gifts to glorify something bigger than yourself, and making sacrifices for the greater good. 

Seeing the Russo brothers’ epic final chapter on opening night in a crowded theater was an unforgettable event, which might explain why videos of fan reactions to its most incredible moments were circulating on Twitter in early April. The cheers, laughs and excitement are still echoing in our minds in a time when the simple the simple joy of going to the movies feels far away – almost impossible. 

Now streaming on Disney Plus, Avengers: Endgame already feels prematurely nostalgic for a time when our biggest problem was finding tickets and avoiding spoilers. (Remember #DontSpoiltheEndgame?) Just because the CGI spectacle is chock full of the film industry’s most beautiful faces doesn’t mean they don’t have a special spirit. Sure, they might be a mere money grab, a slam dunk for the studio thanks to the forethought of outgoing CEO Bob Iger (whose book Ride of a Lifetime is a fascinating look into the last decade of Disney’s incredible acquisitions). 

But that doesn’t mean they’re without soul. The heart in these films is so huge, it makes sitting through long computer-generated fight sequences worth it – and gives the true comic book fans something to cheer for – even those who would usually prefer a small, character-driven independent film.

Once we emerged from that dark theater, the spectacle over, the questions answered, all of us returned to our own lives, not knowing this painful change was a year away. When Endgame came out, we were all on the same side for a few hours. Caring about these characters might have been the only thing we had in common, and watching our heroes win the war is extra comforting as we now face a common enemy far more personal than Thanos.

Now, being a hero means showing up for work at 7 o’clock in scrubs. A great costume.

It means ringing up groceries in rubber gloves, donating to food banks, delivering food to doorsteps. Avengers take care of sick people. Avengers teach classrooms of kids through a camera. Avengers keep neighbors and loved ones smiling with videos, notes, reminders that being isolated doesn’t mean being alone.

This time has brought out a whole new group of heroes who were always doing great work – but are now putting their lives on the line every day to keep other people safe. 

Maybe it’s a dumbing down of a complex crisis, a low-brow way to look at things. But hidden within these huge stories are deep themes – there, if you’re willing to look for them. To see the allegory, the parable, underneath the predictable. Before long there will be what feels like 15 million phases to the Marvel Universe – debates about its cinematic worth, talk of money and streaming and the changing face of film franchises, never-ending announcements about its developing projects. None of that really holds much importance these days, at least for those with perspective on this international pain and fear. 

Walt Disney said in the film Saving Mr. Banks that storytellers instill hope. These movies provide an even more meaningful escape than they did in theaters – hope, under seemingly impossible circumstances. Watching it might only lead to the simple joy of feeling better for a few hours – knowing that in some universes, things work out. And believing that they will, if we all do our part.

And it’s not without sacrifice. It’s not all joyful celebration and laughs and tied-up loose ends. It’s grief, pain, loss and change on a massive scale. Experiencing these same emotions as a collective human race weirdly makes this film more relevant than ever. Like Dr. Strange saw the future and knew that we would need it. 

There might only be one future where we win. But in the meantime, we have movies.

Images courtesy of Creative Commons

‘Last Christmas’ Gives You Its Heart – But Not Much Else

Emilia Clarke stars in Last Christmas, a sweet but contrived comedy from director Paul Feig, along with screenwriters Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings. Like a beautifully-decorated Christmas cookie in the window of a bakery, Last Christmas is lovely to look at, but doesn’t actually taste like much. 

Kate (Clarke) is a self-proclaimed “mess,” bouncing around London and sleeping on friends’ couches. Hoping to reinvent herself as a singer, she changes her name from Katarina in order to separate herself from family baggage and a past illness. But with strings of failed auditions, random hookups, and no real place to live, she feels stuck in her dead-end job as an elf at a year-round Christmas store owned by Michelle Yeoh’s “Santa”—a comedic highlight of Last Christmas. 

Enter Tom Webster (Henry Golding), a handsome and mysterious do-gooder who encourages Kate to “look up,” to get her life in order and to be kinder to others. He inspires her to make better choices, and she gradually gets into the holiday spirit of giving while dealing with her own family conflicts. 

Last Christmas (2019) – source: Universal Pictures

The photography is gorgeous, bringing London to life at Christmastime. Cinematographer John Schwartzman also worked on Feig’s A Simple Favor, plus Saving Mr. BanksSeabiscuit and The Rookie. As a result, Last Christmas is beautiful, save for its cluttered and unnecessarily complicated plot. Storylines involving Kate’s overbearing mother (Thompson), complicated relationships with her sister and friends, plus little nods to Brexit and British immigration politics make the story feel as overstuffed and unsteady as Kate’s life. It’s surprising considering Thompson’s track record of writing Sense & Sensibility, Nanny McPhee and Bridget Jones’s Baby

The best aspect of Last Christmas is its underlying message of goodness and giving. Ultimately, it’s about Kate figuring out the meaning of life and Christmas. But what could have been an admirable examination of life after overcoming illness and answering life’s big questions ends up feeling like a lost opportunity. Its loving message is executed sweetly, but it gets buried underneath other plot lines concerning her sister, mother, and love interest. Clarke has proven her versatility with her most notable roles in wildly popular franchises—Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones and optimistic Lou Clark in Me Before You being two to rememberShe is the biggest draw of Last Christmas, disappearing into Kate’s messy life and making her journey believable. Golding is equally compelling, but he ducks in and out of Kate’s life in frustrating fashion, making the film’s third act feel forced.

The underlying story of Last Christmas seems incredibly predictable from the marketing alone—but there were several people in my screening room who were visibly moved by the progression of the plot. Maybe Clark Griswold was right when he said Christmas “means something different to everybody,” in my favorite holiday flick.

Last Christmas is visually gorgeous, well-meaning, and well-acted. But its story falls short, at times feeling as messy and cluttered as Santa’s Christmas shop—a cozy place to be, but not for long. Part comedy, part family drama, part romantic Christmas film, Thompson and Kimmings admirably strove to tell a unique story. But there are just too many glittering ornaments on this tree, weighing it down with plot instead of heart.

Last Christmas (2019) – source: Universal Pictures

This review was originally published on The Simple Cinephile and is posted here with permission.


‘Mr. Smith Goes To Washington’ 80 Years Later

In an early episode of Dawson’s Creekprotagonist Dawson Leery is doing what he does best: watching an old movie from the comfort of his childhood bedroom. Dreamer Dawson is enthralled by what’s unfolding on the screen, but his more typically-teenage friend Pacey Witter voices his boredom. “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Dawson? Come on, it’s in black and white,” he says.

It’s a Frank Capra classic,” Dawson replies, speaking of the film—which marks its 80th anniversary today, October 19th. 

There’s a bunch of dead people in it,” Pacey moans. “You know, we’ve got this whole section at the video store, it’s called ‘new releases.’ You should check it out,” he continues (showing Dawson’s Creek’s own aging status).

Dawson goes on to call the movie about an inexperienced young senator “a timeless tale about a man faced with his heroic nature,” while Pacey says only the extremely morally-grounded could possibly see the merit in watching it. Since it was released in 1939, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington has appealed to all of the Dawsons of the world while eliciting cynical groans from the Paceys—but either side would agree: at 80 years old, the film still has remarkable relevance in American culture. 

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – source: Columbia Pictures

Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is appointed to the U.S. Senate by a governor who thinks he can’t possibly accomplish anything. He sets out for Washington, hopeful that he can make a difference and set an example for the young men he mentors. In a plot that could be pulled from today’s gridlocked Congress headlines, Smith quickly learns just how difficult that will be as his fellow senators turn against him.

Like many Frank Capra films that have unfairly been dubbed “Capra-corn,” the story has been accused of being overly sweet and cheesy. If Smith maintained his unwavering beliefs about liberty and justice, maybe it would be, but he doesn’t. His corrupt colleagues strip that naivete and hope away from him. “If it’s the truth you want, what are you doing in the Senate?” they ask him, literally jeering at his everyday honesty. He believes in the American dream and the beautiful country where he grew up, until he sees up close how ugly it can really be. 

The characters in this 80-year-old film somehow understood what we have a difficult time grasping today. Maybe because, since then, we’ve lived through countless brutal wars, economic ups and downs, a polarizing lack of bipartisanship and extreme frustration with our elected officials. But even in 1939, going up against the established American government felt like an impossible task. The overwhelming obstacles of corruption, dishonesty and the perpetual value of corporate greed over human life were just as relevant back then as they are today. It’s almost laughable to imagine now that an intelligent, engaged man like Smith could achieve anything in the face of such a hideously divided Washington. But Capra and screenwriter Sidney Buchman don’t simply trade cynicism for hope—they show that Americans have always had good reason to be cynical, but persist in the hope that things can get better anyway. 

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – source: Columbia Pictures

Early trailers touted Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as “the most timely film to ever come out of Hollywood…a portrait of democracy in action.” Exaggerated marketing or not, it did pave the way for later depictions of caring public servants. The people who called it “Capra-corn” are probably the same ones who called Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing “wish fulfillment” in the 1990s—the ones who didn’t understand Leslie Knope’s unwavering enthusiasm for small-town public service in the television comedy Parks and Recreation. Hopeful depictions of government don’t sugarcoat how difficult it is to get things done—they simply allow us to imagine what it would be like to have elected officials who behave like human beings, who actually care—a concept that only seems possible now in fiction.

In a film that otherwise pushes women to the side (telling the audience that “boys” need to grow up believing in the American dream), Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) is the character who brings Smith back to life. She is a refreshingly smart and capable female lead when you consider the time in which Mr. Smith was written. Saunders is a knowledgeable government aide who sets aside her understandable skepticism and grows to believe in Smith right when he is ready to give up.

He realizes that he can’t win against such an immensely powerful body of men determined to watch him fail—a feeling to which many Americans today can relate. “A lot of fancy words around this town. Some of them are carved in stone…so suckers like me could read them,” he says, mentioning the particular stinging betrayal of a man he’d previously admired, Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains). “And then when you find out what men actually do…well I’m getting out of this town so fast, away from all the words and the monuments and the whole rotten show,” Stewart says in that signature heartbreaking cadence that made his most famous collaboration with Capra, It’s A Wonderful Life, such a beautiful classic. But before George Bailey, before Stewart himself served in World War II, there was the wide-eyed and determined Jefferson Smith—a character who acknowledges his own naive optimism and forges ahead.

Saunders invokes the names of Lincoln and the founding fathers to encourage Smith to carry on. “The odds against them didn’t stop those men, they were fools that way. All the difference in this world came from faith like that. You know that, Jeff. You can’t quit now. They aren’t all Paines in Washington. Their kind just throw big shadows, that’s all.

At a time when our elected officials are throwing big, hideous shadows a year away from another presidential election, I’m with Saunders and Capra—and Dawson. “You didn’t just have faith in Paine or any other living man. You had faith in something bigger than that. You had plain, decent, everyday common rightness. And this country could use some of that.” 80 years later, we still could.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – source: Columbia Pictures
This piece was originally published on The Simple Cinephile and is shared here with permission.


This Isn’t Real: Simulated Fear In Modern Movies

I’m a sentimental cinephile. I have a tendency to find the metaphor in any film I see, applying it to whatever I’m experiencing in my own life. While some look at recent films like Spider-Man: Far From Home and It: Chapter Two and see headlines about box office records or think-pieces about the future of film, I see stories that are special to me. Stories with deep themes about loyalty, belief and the idea that we each have something to give.

A central theme of both of these massively successful films is fear—a villain that can be a lot scarier than Mysterio and Pennywise. Bill Skarsgard’s killer clown and a jilted computer geek played by Jake Gyllenhaal are representations of something greater: a mounting sense of fear that feels all too real. But for what appears to be an R-rated horror adaptation and a fun superhero romp actually disguise hopeful messages about defeating personal demons.

Spider-Man: Far From Home presents Mysterio, a pathetic villain using illusion technology to convince Peter Parker what he’s seeing is real when it’s not. He doesn’t have infinity stones or venom, but something just as dangerous: the power to get inside your head. Peter busts through his illusions and breaks them open from the inside, creating a metaphor for how we come at our own personal conflicts—and whether they’re actually real, or something we made up in our minds. 

Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) – source: Sony Pictures Releasing

It: Chapter Two takes a more direct approach: 27 years after they first faced him, Pennywise quite literally transforms into whatever the adult “losers” are most afraid of. They see things that aren’t really there, and the more terrified they are, the easier it is for him to attack. Fear itself is the villain in the sequeland the beloved losers club must take away its decades-long hold over them before they can kill it.

There are plenty of meaningful metaphors to unpack in the lengthy running time—the way trauma can resurface after you think it’s long gone, years after you’ve left town and forgotten; the way it shows up in unexpected, less obvious places than it did when you were young. But the best aspect of It: Chapter Two is the way the losers diminish Pennywise’s power simply by belittling him. We might never be able to defeat our own doubts and anxieties, but they won’t be popping out of sewer drains to haunt us anymore if we recognize how small and insignificant they are. 

It’s not a new concept in modern cinema. Tris Prior looks fear in the face during simulated scenarios in Divergent and says, “This isn’t real.” Harry Potter asks Dumbledore if everything is happening in his own head, to which the venerated professor tells him, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” And in Far From Home, MJ uses the George Orwell quote, “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.” 

Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) – source: Sony Pictures Releasing

The beauty of using this truth-bending trope in film is the metaphor it creates. Sometimes, what you think you’re experiencing in your own life isn’t real. It’s manufactured—by someone else, by circumstances, by the doubts in your own mind. For Peter, it’s created by a villain with a powerful computer. For the losers club, a killer clown taunts them with past trauma or long-buried insecurities. For us, it might be something smaller—a different kind of villain using a different kind of keyboard. Words that seem very real but are far from it—just artificial simulations of the truth. In both cases, a threatening antagonist serves as a vehicle to make you believe something about yourself or your life that isn’t true. But in both cases, intuition is what separates the real heroes from the wannabes in costumes. 

Eventually, we become strong enough to differentiate between what we know to be true, and what others want us to believe is true. A “Peter tingle” for Spider-Man. An ancient ritual for the losers club. If we’re still figuring out what that thing is for us, maybe it’s as simple as a night at the movies. 

Maybe that’s a sappy way of looking at it. Maybe it’s all just an illusion created by Disney and Warner Brothers. Maybe these are just big popcorn box office hits designed to generate an audience, but they sure do feel real to me.

It: Chapter Two (2019): source – Warner Bros. Studios

This essay was originally published on The Simple Cinephile and is posted here with permission.


ATX Festival celebrates the power of female partnerships

Article first appeared on FF2 Media on June 10, 2019

The eighth season of the ATX Television Festival was held June 6-9 in Austin, Texas, celebrating all aspects of the television medium. The Power of Female Partnerships was one of the first panels on the four-day schedule, presented by Vanity Fair. 

Panelists included Good Girls creator Jenna Bens and star Retta, along with TV agents Cori Wellins and Lauren Whitney. Co-Presidents of NBC Scripted Programming Lisa Katz and Tracey Pakosta spoke about founding NBC’s Female Forward Initiative, a program that pairs female directors with an onset mentor.

“Tracey and I two years ago were like, ‘It’s embarrassing that we have no female pilot directors.’ And so, how do you change that?” Katz said of the program, in which less experienced directors shadowed on up to three episodes of an NBC show before directing their own episode. 

“It’s about seeing there’s an issue and creating an opportunity and doing something actionable to make a difference,” Katz said. “And I think you can do that with directors, you can do that with writers, you can do that with executives, you can do that with assistants. It’s just about making that conscious choice. It’s really not that hard.” 

“There is room for all of us if you really want it,” Pakosta said. “Raise your hand and say ‘I want it,’ and then we can help you.” 

“It truly to me feels like there’s an infinite amount of opportunity, more than ever before,” Wellins added. “So you don’t feel like there isn’t room for both of you or all of you – it’s just actually putting forth the effort to take that next step.”

TV agents Lauren Whitney and Cori Wellins with Co-President of NBC Scripted Programming Lisa Katz spoke about founding NBC’s Female Forward Initiative, a program that pairs female directors with an onset mentor.

Bans praised the work of Female Forward class member Lee Frielander, who directed an hour of Good Girls. “That was our favorite episode,” she said. “It was someone who, looking at her resume, I would never have hired. I would have passed her over in favor of probably a more experienced guy because there are so many guy directors. But then we get the episode back and it’s so good and she so deserved that opportunity. To go from someone with barely a directing resume to being booked in television for a woman is insane.”

Whitney spoke to networks’ interest in employing female directors in recent years. “There’s been this focus on female directors because that was the place where it still felt quite inequitable,” Whitney said. “In the last three years it’s been, if you have an order of 12 episodes or 22 episodes, can half of them be female directors? And then all of a sudden what happened was, you couldn’t find a female director who was available to save your life. You wanted to hire every last one you could. That’s fantastic. That never would have happened another five years ago.” 

Other topics prompted by panel moderator Sonia Saraiya included balancing work with motherhood, the Bechdel-Wallace test, mentoring younger women and the need for more female friendship to be represented on screen. Bans mentioned the importance of employing female writers and directors on Good Girls, a series with three female leads and nine women in the writer’s room. “It’s just so much easier and there’s a lightness and there’s not a stress to it,” Retta said of working with other women. 

A discussion centered on female partnerships was a fitting start to the festival, an annual event co-founded by two women: Caitlin McFarland and Emily Gipson. This year’s lineup also featured panels on the female gaze and the anniversary of Lifetime, a female-driven network. Mutual support in a competitive industry was a common theme at each discussion. 

“There are so many women in this room who are so clearly interested in talking about this topic which makes me so happy,” said Whitney, who pitched the idea for the panel to festival programmers. “The part that I find so exciting is that for young women who are coming up now, they will see all kinds of examples ahead of them of women working together and not being pitted against each other and understanding that makes them stronger. And it just feels important to me to be talking about it as much as possible.

  “If somebody close to you has something wonderful happening for them…I don’t know if it’s biological or evolutionary or just how we’re socialized, but somehow the default response seems to be, ‘that’s happening for somebody else and not for me,’” she continued. “And if we can talk ourselves out of that mindset and really celebrate the things that are happening for each other, it just shifts the way that you look at other women and it shifts the way that you look at yourself and your own future. And if you start from there, I think it’s incredibly powerful.” 

TV agents Lauren Whitney and Cori Wellins, Co-Presidents of NBC Scripted Programming Lisa Katz and Tracey Pakosta, Good Girls creator Jenna Bens and star Retta spoke about founding NBC’s Female Forward Initiative, a program that pairs female directors with an onset mentor.

‘The Kids’ Were More Than Alright

ABC boasts an impressive lineup of family comedies, from Emmy winners such as Blackish and Modern Family, to newcomers like Bless This Mess and Schooled. The network seems to specialize in series that share a slice of American life from unique family perspectives, like the children of Taiwanese immigrants (Fresh Off the Boat) or the family you find in unlikely places (Single Parents).

But the most promising freshman comedy on network TV this year is The Kids Are Alright, based on creator Tim Doyle’s 1970s upbringing in a crowded Irish-Catholic household.

The Kids Are Alright (2018) – source: ABC Studios

Audiences follow Timmy Cleary (Jack Gore) and his seven brothers growing up in suburban Los Angeles. Doyle narrates in the present day, looking back on his childhood ambitions to make it big in show business – and the reluctant audience he found in his ever-growing family.

Mary McCormack and Michael Cudlitz anchor the show as Peggy and Mike Cleary, rough-around-the-edges parents who love their kids but don’t always like them. They’re far from stereotypical, though Mike is a brusque veteran who works nine to five and Peggy is a homemaker specializing in boxed dinners and hand-me-downs. 

Despite its large ensemble, each brother maintains consistent qualities we can find in our own families: the brown-nose, the bookworm, the troublemaker and the lovable doofus. But these characters never feel like they’re fulfilling one-dimensional roles. The first season expertly balanced and developed their quirks, while remaining incredibly fast and funny.

Doyle and his writers nail the Irish-Catholic lifestyle, and the references to The Waltons and Rodney Dangerfield are delightful for fans of television in that era. Thanks to Cudlitz’s dry delivery, McCormack’s snappy comebacks and a strong cast of sons, The Kids Are Alright manages to be sincere without being sentimental. It has all the middle-class humor of The Middle with the heart of The Wonder Years, but is carving out a tone of its own. The Clearys go to church on Sundays because that’s what they’re supposed to do – but they’re also Dodger fans who watch Carson and mercilessly mock other families on the block. They’re the sort of family that reuses melted birthday candles and talks all through Sunday Mass – the sort of family you don’t really see enough on TV.

Mark Hamill, who made headlines last spring for his pleas to save Brooklyn Nine-Nine from cancellation, tweeted in support of the series: “As one of seven kids from a Catholic family I might be biased, but funny is funny and everyone who sees it comes away a confirmed fan. It’s more than ‘alright’ – it’s the best family comedy in years!

The ABC comedy lineup is almost as crowded as the Clearys’ dining room during dinner, with an equally hilarious and diverse blend of perspectives. The Kids Are Alright deserves a spot at the table.

This piece was originally published on The Simple Cinephile and is posted here with permission.


‘About Time’ Nails the Time Travel Trope

Time travel is a staple in cinematic storytelling, from Marty McFly’s famous attempt to reunite his parents in Back to the Future to our favorite superheroes racing through the past to collect infinity stones in Avengers: Endgame.

Writer-director Richard Curtis puts a contemporary spin on the time travel concept with his underrated feature About Time. Curtis is known for British romantic comedies such as Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill and Love, Actually. His upcoming film Yesterday follows a struggling musician who wakes up in a world where The Beatles never existed. About Time has a similarly dreamlike plot that takes a personal approach to going back in time.

Domhnall Gleeson stars as Tim, a dorky law student who has little luck with women. His father (the always-exceptional BIll Nighy) lets him in on a family secret: the male members of his lineage can time travel. All Tim has to do is enter a dark room and think of a specific moment in his life, and suddenly, he’s there.

About Time (2013) – source: Universal Pictures

But it’s the other secret his dad tells him that makes About Time so memorable: that Tim can use this gift not to manipulate his past, but to relive it.

Though Tim initially uses his power to find love with Mary (the ageless Rachel McAdams in her second role as a time traveler’s wife), he eventually takes his dad’s advice: “He told me to live every day again, almost exactly the same. The first time with all the tensions and worries that stop us noticing how sweet the world can be, but the second time, noticing.

Though the film has several high points, from Tim’s romance with Mary to the special bond he shares with his dad, it’s these moments of “noticing” that set About Time apart. We see Tim appreciating the smallest things, like the mundanity of office meetings and the simple joy of coming home at the end of a long day.

Curtis created a wholeheartedly sincere film with a thoughtful, reflective approach to time travel through the eyes of a regular man. He’s not looking to save the world; just his memories. Tim’s life is ordinary, like most of ours – but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t love the chance to go back and relive some of it.

About Time begs the question: What would you do with the ability to go back in time, without a special mission in mind? No infinity stones to track down or sports almanacs to recover, just the chance to make different choices, either 15 minutes or 15 years ago. To read more books, to be a little bit kinder. To skip rocks or look up from your phone or go back to that concert.

About Time (2013) – source: Universal Pictures

Though time travel is always an exciting element in film, Curtis uses it as a device to help audiences appreciate the past without having to change it. About Time serves as a funny, refreshing reminder that we can’t really change our choices or relive our finest moments, but we can do a better job of noticing the good stuff while it’s happening. Tim is proof that even without Pym particles or DeLoreans, we can time travel every day.

This piece was originally published on The Simple Cinephile and is posted here with permission.