Monthly Archives: October 2022

Women’s Work

Elizabeth Banks & Sigourney Weaver ignite a timely pro-choice tale

Elizabeth Banks fights for women’s rights in Call Jane.

Call Jane
Starring Elizabeth Banks & Sigourney Weaver
Directed by Phyllis Nagy
Rated R

See it in theaters Oct. 28, 2022

With abortion rights rolled back earlier this year by the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of the landmark legislation Roe v. Wade, the timing is perfect for this movie about a group of female activists who made it possible in the 1960s for women to safely terminate their pregnancies during a pre-Roe time when abortion was outlawed as a criminal act.

The film, the directorial debut of Phyllis Nagy (who received an Oscar nomination for her screenplay for the critically praised Carol in 2015), benefits greatly from the presence of two top-tier actors, Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver. They’re a dynamic duo whose interplay generates the sparks and the sizzle for the depiction of the proto-pro-choice organization known as the Janes, an underground Chicago collective run by women, for women.

Banks, whose impressive resume also includes directing and producing, again shows her versatility and comfort in any kind of genre or format, be it lite and fluffy or heavy and hefty—from the ribald comedy of Movie 43, Wet Hot American Summer and The Happytime Murders to the YA dystopias of The Hunger Games, playing Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s romantic interest in Love & Mercy or slipping into her recurring roles on TV’s Modern Family and Mrs. America. Here she stars as Joy, a suburban homemaker who becomes involved with the Janes after finding out her pregnancy has life-threatening complications. It could literally kill her to deliver another baby.

Costars Elizabeth Banks & Sigourney Weaver

Weaver, known to legions of moviegoers for her roles in the Alien, Avatar and Ghostbusters franchises, plays Virginia, the firebrand figurehead of the collective, who welcomes Joy as a client, then ushers her into deeper involvement with the group. Eventually, Joy is assisting the clinic’s cocky, somewhat creepy “doctor” (Cory Michael Smith, who played the Riddler on the Fox TV series Gotham) in the procedure room. Soon she’s performing the abortions herself.

Women all over Chicago come to know that when they are unable to get what they need anywhere else, they can “call Jane.”

Because abortion can put you in jail, the Janes operate as back-alley subversives, paying local mobsters for a place to work and for protection from police raids. Joy keeps her activities with the Janes a secret from her lawyer husband (Chris Messina), their teenage daughter (Grace Edwards) and her widowed next-door neighbor (Kate Mara). All that time she’s gone from the house? Joy says she’s taking an art class.

But what she’s doing—and hiding—becomes pitch-perfect clear when an undercover cop (John Magaro, from the movies First Cow, The Many Saints of Newark, The Big Short and Not Fade Away, and also in Carol) shows up at her home to ask a few questions.

Wunmi Mosaku might look familiar; the Nigerian actor has been featured in roles on TV’s Lovecraft Country, Loki, Temple and Luther. She plays the Janes’ only member “of color,” who pushes the group toward taking in more women who cannot afford to pay the steep procedure fees—and who often happen to be Black.

And mostly hidden under that nun smock, as Sister Mike, is Aida Turtoro, who played Tony’s sister, Janice, on all seven seasons of The Sopranos.

The movie is a tidy, trim, modest little tale about a very messy, moving-and-shaking time, back in 1968. Streets were roiling with Vietnam war protestors, women’s lib was gaining traction, the Black Panthers were on the move, and a room full of cigarette-smoking doctors could smugly dismiss a pregnant woman by telling her that her unborn baby’s life is more precious than her own, forcing her to find someone else—or some other way—to end her pregnancy. In Call Jane, we meet some of those women and hear about many more: rape victims, pregnant young teens, sexually harassed office workers coerced into sex with their bosses.

Thank goodness we’ve moved on from those dark, repressive days…right?

This cautionary ‘60s snapshot ends on a hopeful woman-power coda, where Virginia, Joy and the other Janes celebrate the 1972 Supreme Court decision that finally made abortion legal. But they note that there is still more work to do, other issues to tackle, other mountains to climb.

And sometimes, as we know, some mountains must be climbed again.

Call Jane is a pointed reminder that, like the old saying goes, women’s work is never done—alas.

Make Love, Not War

Frisky murder-mystery ensemble comedy ‘Amsterdam’ has a serious undertone of truth

Christian Bale, Margot Robbie and John David Washington star in ‘Amsterdam’

Starring Christian Bale, Margot Robbie & John David Washington
Directed by David O. Russell
Rated R

In theaters Friday, Oct. 7

A trio of friends from the waning days of World War I forms the hub of this freewheeling screwball yarn of camaraderie, conspiracy, art, beauty and making love, not war.

Director David O. Russell, who also wrote and produced the film, corrals an all-star cast for his quirky caper comedy, which unspools in 1933 as a pair of World War I veterans and a wealthy socialite artist find themselves drawn into a murder mystery, one possibly connected to a deeper, nefarious political plot.

Christian Bale is Burt Berendsen, a physician who served on the battlefields of World War I, now treating the pain and reconstructive needs of other veterans while planning a big WWI reunion of all the servicemen who returned to New York City. Things begin to get messy and mayhem-ic when he and his lawyer pal, Harold Woodsman (John David Washington), are asked to investigate the suspicious death of their highly decorated former commanding officer (Ed Bagley Jr.).

Then they get blamed for the murder—well, actually, for another murder. How can they clear their names?  

Soon enough, they are reconnected with Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), whom they met some 15 years earlier when Burt and Harold were both recovering in a Belgium war hospital where Valerie was working as a Red Cross nurse. The two GIs were awestruck to find out their gorgeous Florence Nightingale had an unusual hobby, using all the bloody shrapnel and bone fragments taken from their battered flesh to make pieces of art, transforming their brokenness into strangely beautiful curios.

Then the three of them ventured together to Amsterdam, on a mission to get Burt a glass eye to replace the one he’d lost in combat. The capital city of the Netherlands was a blissful, dream-like high, a respite of peace after war, one they didn’t want to end.  

Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy (with Margot Robbie) are part of the all-star cast.

You probably won’t see another movie this year with so many stars twinkling, twirling, popping and pinging around each other. There’s musical superstar Taylor Swift, as the hyper-paranoid daughter of the deceased officer. Zoe Saldana plays a coroner who opens Burt’s eyes (actually, his eye) to true love. Rami Malek is a suave, wealthy businessman whose huffy-stuffy upper-crust wife (Anya Taylor-Joy) becomes positively mushy at the thought of meeting a famous military hero (Robert De Niro). And hey—there’s Chris Rock, Mike Myers and Michael Shannon!

With a leading character who has only one real eye and a fake eyeball, we’re reminded that looks—what we see and choose to see—can be deceiving. We’re prompted to look carefully at people and things, to discern who’s who, who’s what and what’s really going on.

Viewers will see, when the film opens and then after it ends, that what’s going on in this lively, light-footed lark is based (somewhat) on something very serious—namely, a dangerous rise of fascism after World War I, which eventually seeded the horrors of Nazi Germany, the Holocaust and another world war. On that level, Amsterdam is a cautionary tale about extremists and anarchists looking to overthrow the government and subvert America’s democratic process—“patriots” who would sabotage the election process to install their own dictator-like leader. You only need one eye to see the contemporary parallels with today’s political turmoil.

Director Russell loves star-packing his movies, including American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook and Joy. This one reunites him with a couple of his favorite actors, Bale (who also appeared in American Hustle and The Fighter) and De Niro (also in Hustle, plus Playbook and Joy). Both screen veterans provide eccentric anchors for the colorful tale as it spins and weaves its rich tapestry of parasitic cuckoo birds, Aryan supremacy, Black history, American fascists, eugenics, high-ranking corruption and fat-cat industrialists, drawing them all into its dark-comedy swirl. It’s Robbie, however, who becomes the story’s heart-and-soul centerpiece, with her character reminding us that we’re all damaged in some way, everyone is hurting inside or out, and kindness, not hate, is the balm for our wounds, our scars and our brokenness.

At one point, she, Burt and Harold perform a French song, a little ditty that a puzzled listener has troubling following. “It’s not supposed to make sense,” Valerie says. “We just made it up.”

This mostly made-up period frolic has a kernel of harsh historical truth at the center of its merrily crowded, retro-rollicking tale of friendship, bonds that last a lifetime and places in the heart—not to mention extinct birds, body parts as reappropriated art, and an ensemble of endearing oddballs. It’s a lot, but it’s also a lot of frisky fun.

Just try to hold on to your glass eye.