You often hear the expression “feel-good movie” and it usually refers to a heart-warming romantic comedy or maybe something with penguins. This is a real feel-good movie because it is a real story. A man with a passionate commitment to children, to education, and to his community took a school on the brink of being closed down and made it into a place where teachers and students set, meet, and exceed the highest of standards for achievement in all categories, including character.
The students at Providence St. Mel do not have fancy computers or calculators. They live in a community that struggles with gangs, drugs, and poverty. But they have families who work several jobs to pay a portion of the school’s tuition (every student in the school has a scholarship) and they have teachers who feel lucky to be there and make the students feel lucky, too.
An unabashed valentine to the school, Providence St. Mel, and its driving force, civil rights activist Paul J. Adams III, and at times it feels more like an infomercial than a movie. But it is a genuine privilege to spend time with these passionate, committed students and teachers. We follow the principal through the halls. We sit in circle time with seven-year-olds whose teacher has them not just participating but conducting the session. We see a graduating class that is sending 100 percent of the seniors to top colleges. And we see graduates returning to talk about how Providence St. Mel gave them what they needed to succeed in college, grad school, and the working world. We see their genuine excitement in learning, their pride in their sense of mastery, and the way that the confidence their teachers and parents have in them inspires them to learn. And that may just be the most important lesson that Providence St. Mel has to teach, turning all of us who watch this film into students who want to learn more.
The foremost fashion designer of the last hundred years is Coco Chanel and her life story is almost as fascinating as her timeless designs. As its title indicates, this most recent film is a look at Chanel from her childhood until the moment when, with the help of some money from her lovers, opened her first business, designing hats. In this film, as Coco cuts up her lovers’ clothes to make creations for itself that were simple, elegant, wearable, and instantly classic. Amid all the flounces, corsets, and enormous hats, it was like watching the 20th century walk into the room. At the end of the film, when we get a glimpse of one of her fashion shows, every single item is as chic today as it was when she designed it.
Anne Fontaine, who co-wrote and directed, spoke to me about the endless interest in Chanel and how she selected an American actor to play a British character who spoke French.
NM: Why focus on Chanel’s youth and relationships instead of her work?
AF: She is the 20th century by herself, it is about fashion of course but deeply it is about a new way to be for a woman, very physical. She was not beautiful, she was very thin, very androgynous, she was not at all the criteria of beauty for this period, she was like a little boy. You can’t understand Chanel unless you know that she has a very different body. Because she was so different, because she was poor, it gave her freedom to move differently, physically and through society. She was creating clothes for herself that were less confining not just for the style but so she could do what she wanted to do.
NM: You cast one of my favorite actors, the American Alessandro Nivola, to play a British man who speaks fluent French. How did that happen?
AF: When I was looking for an actor to interpret Boy Capel, as you say he was a British businessman, who was the most important love of Chanel’s life. She always said he was the first and the most deep relationship she had, I tried to look in England, if there was a young man who could play the part in France. Many actors when they lose their language — it can be awful. If he does not think through the language and only thinks through the sounds he can lose all the qualities he had because it is very difficult to play a part in another language. In England, I didn’t find an actor who has the charm, the qualities that the part requires and they didn’t speak French at all. I was doing some casting in New York and someone mentioned Alessandro Nivola. I knew he had played an English part in a Kenneth Branaugh film, but that was not the reason. I made him a little exercise before the audition: “Can you read one scene of the script in French?” When I spoke with him on the phone I knew he could speak French, not fluently, but he was not afraid. I did a test with him to see how the face moved with the French and it was not only good but also very different from the other man who played the aristocrat. They were so different. The two men she was involved with showed different things and affected her differently.
Alessandro said it was very hard to be directed in French because I was always at his shoulder telling him to be careful with this word and that word. I wanted him to have an accent of course but not too much.
In every corner of the world, there’s one question that can never be definitively answered, yet stirs up equal parts passion, curiosity, self-reflection and often wild imagination: “What is God?” Filmmaker Peter Rodger explores this query in the provocative non-fiction feature “Oh My God.” This visual odyssey travels the globe with a revealing lens examining the idea of God through the minds and eyes of various religions and cultures, everyday people, spiritual leaders and celebrities. His goal: to give the viewer the personal, visceral experience of some kind of reasonable, meaningful definition of one of the highly individual but universal search for meaning and connection with the divine.
Rodger’s quest takes him from the United States to Africa, from the Middle East to the Far East, where such fundamental issues as: “Did God create man or did man create God?, “Is there one God for all religions?” and “If God exists, why does he allow so much suffering?” are explored in candid discussions with the various Christians, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and even atheists the filmmaker meets along the way.
“Oh My God ” stars Hugh Jackman, Seal, Ringo Starr, Sir Bob Geldof, Princess Michael of Kent, David Copperfield and Jack Thompson. It opens in November.
We seem to be in the midst of an epidemic of rude behavior, with three high-profile recent examples in three different fields of endeavor — though, interestingly, all involving people with last names starting with “W.” At the State of the Union address, Congressman Joe Wilson expressed his differences with the President not by writing an op-ed or giving an interview but by yelling out “You lie!” in the middle of the speech. Tennis star Serena Williams got into an argument with the line judge at the U.S. Open that included an ugly, profanity-laced threat. And at the MTV video music awards, rapper Kanye West interrupted teen country and pop star Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for best female video to tell her that hers was not as good as Beyonce’s.
Perhaps one key to this trend can be found in the fact that all three of these incidents and the round of awkward and grudging apologies received the kind of press coverage we used to reserve for a royal wedding, while an act of supreme graciousness and courtesy received almost none. West, who in the past has been notoriously rude at award shows when someone else won an award he thought should have been his, this time interrupted Swift to tell her that while her video was fine, “Single Ladies” by Beyonce was better. Beyonce, sitting in the audience, looked aghast. But then, in a moment that would have been considered too outlandish for a movie, Beyonce won the top award of the night, video of the year. She went up to the stage, impeccable in attire and bearing as always, and turned the stage over to Swift.
What do these incidents teach our children? In movies, on television, and in the media we see rude behavior rewarded with laughter, attention, and even plaudits for “honesty.” Manners and courtesy are words that seem old-fashioned these days and concepts that seem all-but forgotten.
I believe that one of a parent’s most important responsibilities is teaching children the importance of courtesy. Yes, that includes which fork to use and passing the salt and pepper together even when only the salt is requested. And yes, it includes a hand-written, prompt, and specific thank you note for any gift, hospitality, or special kindness. But mostly courtesy is about showing the kind of respect and dignity that will benefit not only the recipient but the person who provides it. The simple rules of courtesy are a road-map that will give children and teenagers confidence and poise. And a big advantage in interviews for school and jobs, too.
I’m going to be posting a list of good movies to help families initiate conversations about respect, manners, and courtesy. Stay tuned.