Friday Night Seitz

The movies that truly understand motherhood

Slide show: From "Aliens" to "Fargo," the films that capture the terror and joy of being a mom

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    10. “Mother” (1996)

    Written and directed by Albert Brooks

    Beatrice Henderson: “I love you.” John Henderson: “I know you think you do, Mother.”

    After two divorces, science fiction writer John Henderson (“Lost in America” writer-director Albert Brooks) moves back in with his mother, Beatrice (Debbie Reynolds), hoping to get a handle on his life and understand his origins. What follows is a tartly funny and sometimes poignant tug of war pitting John, a self-conscious baby boomer and a product of the late 20th century therapy culture, against his mom, a World War II-era, cast-iron powder puff of a woman who is serenely set in her ways and has no interest in the type of confessional bonding that John believes is so critical.

    At first it seems that “Mother” is going to be a one-note comedy, with Brooks’ smart-mouthed, middle-aged son constantly scoring points off his stubbornly lovable but ultimately clueless mom. But it soon becomes clear that Beatrice knows herself — and her boy — much better than John thinks, and in the end it’s the hero who experiences a revelation that changes their relationship for the better. Mostly, though, “Mother” is a hilarious two-handed comedy, with Reynolds playing immovable object to Brooks’ irresistible force. While not quite on the level of Brooks’ earlier masterpieces, this movie features two or three of the funniest sequences in his filmography. My favorites are Beatrice and John’s trip to the supermarket, with John urging his mother to pamper herself by purchasing organic brands and chastising her for overbuying food (“I like my cheese in the ounces; when they start weighing as much as a Fiat, I get worried”), and the scene where the bewildered John surveys Beatrice’s freezer, which appears to be stocked with nothing but orange sherbet. Beatrice insists that he try some, and hauls out a container from the very back of the fridge. He takes a bite, rolls it around on his tongue, then issues his verdict: “It tastes like an orange foot.”

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    9. “Aliens” (1986)

    Written and directed by James Cameron

    On a desolate planet, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the sole survivor of a doomed interstellar voyage, returns to the planet that spawned her trauma, discovers that the creatures that killed her crew also slaughtered the inhabitants of a space colony, and befriends the lone survivor of the second attack, a resourceful little girl named Newt (Carrie Henn). Action filmmaker James Cameron has often been called feminist, but the term is usually an awkward fit; for the most part he just enjoys watching women kick ass, which, while commendable, isn’t the same thing. But here, the label makes sense. Cameron’s screenplay — a follow-up to the 1979 original — positions Ripley as the lone voice of tough, rational femininity in a testosterone-addled, laughably overconfident band of space marines. (The platoon includes a couple of super-macho female grunts who are portrayed as almost gender-neutral warriors.) In taking on Newt as her ward, Ripley becomes a mother figure, and even forms a makeshift nuclear family with soft-spoken Cpl. Hicks (Michael Biehn). But she doesn’t soften in the slightest. She’s a superb mom who breaks hard news in just the right tone without twisting the truth. And in the end, she goes to hell and back to save her girl.

    Ridley Scott’s “Alien” was an almost Cronenbergian horror movie in which sex and reproduction were depicted as forms of destructive bodily invasion, but in Cameron’s sequel, even the grotesque versions practiced by the beasts are biological acts, parts of nature. Cameron drives this home in the film’s final act, which pits Ripley against another fearsome mom, the glass-fanged, spider-legged queen mama alien. Ripley’s destruction of the queen’s eggs has an awesome primordial power: You threaten me and my child? Kiss your own babies goodbye.

    Intriguingly, Cameron’s original script gave Ripley a back story as a biological mom whose own daughter died during the 57 years that she was in hypersleep, which meant that Newt represented a replacement child, and that finding her reawakened familiar tendencies in Ripley rather than sparking unfamiliar ones. To reduce the running time of an overlong action film, Cameron cut the scenes establishing Ripley’s motherhood; Weaver was furious. Those scenes were restored in various alternate editions of “Aliens,” but I still prefer the original cut, because it makes the bond between Ripley and Newt more mysterious and instinctive, and suggests that one need not necessarily have given birth to have a maternal instinct.

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    8. “Fargo” (1996)

    Written by Joel and Ethan Coen; directed by Joel Coen

    “I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Lou.” That’s how policewoman Marge Gunderson (Oscar winner Frances McDormand) deflates a colleague’s analysis of a murder case — a far cry from the usual snarling macho dismissiveness you usually see in crime pictures. Besides being a bloody thriller and hilarious and often perverse comedy, “Fargo” is a rare film that shows a mature and hugely pregnant mother-to-be going on about her business without much fuss, untangling a bizarre kidnapping case and pausing to answer the call of nature. (At a crime scene, she bends over as if inspecting a bit of evidence. “You all right there, Margie?” her buddy Lou asks. “Oh, I just think I’m gonna barf,” she replies, then stands up and catches her breath. “Well, that passed. Now I’m hungry again.”)

    While Marge isn’t technically a mom yet, in its own eccentric way, “Fargo” is one of the more idealized portraits of classic maternal values in modern American cinema. Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen (“No Country for Old Men”) have always had a socially conservative, even moralistic streak, and it’s foregrounded in this movie, which starkly contrasts Marge’s “boring” home life with her burly, balding husband against the sleazy, rootless life of the kidnappers, who have no commitments, responsibilities or sense of ethics, and hence no value as human beings. To put it in terms of a classic western, they’re the wilderness and she’s civilization. “There’s more to life than a little money, you know,” she chastises one of the crooks. “Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.”

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    7. “All About My Mother” (1999)

    Written and directed by Pedro Almod

    Set in modern-day Madrid, Pedro Almod

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    6. “Hoop Dreams” (1994)

    Directed by Frederick Marx, Peter Gilbert and Steve James

    Although this epic documentary often shows up on lists of great nonfiction films and sports pictures, it’s equally valuable as a portrait of a poor community (Chicago’s South Side, mostly) and the indomitable mothers who hold it together. The story follows a couple of aspiring basketball stars, William Gates and Arthur Agee, from their freshman year of high school through their first year of college, following their hard adjustment to prep school (which they attend via athletic scholarship) and their families’ struggle to help them live a less difficult life than their parents experienced. Arthur’s mother, Sheila, asks the filmmakers, “Do you ever ask yourself how I get by on $268 a month and keep this house and feed these children? Do you ever ask yourself that question?” To its credit, the movie does ask that question, then answers it by showing Gates’ and Agee’s families enduring all manner of misfortune (including poverty, drugs and teen pregnancy) and somehow pulling through it, thanks in no small part to the tireless devotion of inner-city matriarchs.

    The documentary’s signature moment isn’t a game-winning dunk, but Sheila Agee’s achievement of her longtime dream of training to become a nursing assistant. As one of the film’s most dogged champions, Roger Ebert, wrote in 1994, the film is “about the daily lives of people like the Agee and Gates families, who are usually invisible in the mass media, but have a determination and resiliency that is a cause for hope.”

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    5. “Poltergeist” (1982)

    Written by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor. Directed by Tobe Hooper

    One of the first Hollywood movies to star a young hippie mom, “Poltergeist” is a sensationally effective horror movie that doubles as a maternal fantasy about a woman who’s more attuned to the non-rational and intuitive world than her husband, and who is able to rescue her daughter from evil forces precisely because she’s willing to take daunting leaps of faith. When I watched the movie again recently, I was struck by the fact that Jobeth Williams’ Diane Freeling is the only family member in the film who responds to the spectral visitations with as much curiosity as fear. It’s the earth mother in her.

    The first time the prankish ghosts stack up chairs in her kitchen, she’s terrified, but she immediately recovers and asks her daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) if the prank was the work of “the TV people.” And by the time her husband, Steve (Craig T. Nelson), gets home, she’s surprisingly comfortable with the situation, and has been treating the kitchen as a playground, goofing around with the unseen creatures as if they were lost, lonely kids who just wanted a playmate. Diane does the lion’s share of communicating with her abducted daughter, and when the time comes to tie a rope around her waist (like a makeshift umbilical cord) and step through the portal to save her baby, she’s up to the challenge. The image of an exhausted Diane lying in a bathtub after emerging from the Other Side — cradling Carol Anne like a newborn, bathed in ectoplasm that’s like otherworldly afterbirth — is one of the most moving depictions of maternal devotion in ’80s films.

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    4. “Mother” (2009)

    Written by Park Eun-kyo and Bong Joon-hoo. Directed by Bong Joon-hoo

    This quirky and striking thriller from South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-hoo is about a woman in her 50s, known only as Mother (Kim Hye-ja), who lives with her 27-year-old son, Do-joon (Won Bin). Actually, the phrase “living with” doesn’t begin to describe the quiet intensity of their relationship. Do-joon is mentally or emotionally arrested (we never really learn the details), and although he’s autonomous and has relationships with other people, he’s so dependent on her that he might as well be 8 years old. They even sleep in the same bed, and he snuggles up against her like an infant or … well, I don’t think anything untoward is going on, given the hard reality of their lives, but in the neighborhood it’s the subject of much speculation and many sniggering jokes.

    Their routine is brutally interrupted when Do-joon is arrested as a suspect in a murder case; Mother is convinced that he’s being played as a patsy and turns into an Agatha Christie-style amateur sleuth, traveling all over the city, unearthing evidence that she hopes will vindicate her boy, and getting herself into all sorts of potentially fatal situations. Mother is a magnificent character — quiet, observant, tough as nails, and unswervingly devoted to her only child. The movie leaves Do-joon’s innocence in doubt all the way up to its final section, at which point we realize that it really doesn’t matter. “Mother” is only incidentally a whodunit; it’s really about a good mother’s instinctive and relentless dedication to defending her child’s honor and doing everything she can to keep him free, no matter what the rest of the world is saying about him.

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    3. “The Night of the Hunter” (1955)

    Written by James Agee. Directed by Charles Laughton

    Actor Charles Laughton’s only film as a director is one of the most original movies of the 1950s — an inventively photographed, genuinely magical fairy tale about good and evil. Evil is represented by Robert Mitchum’s “Preacher,” a darkly charismatic killer who marries a widow (Shelley Winters) to get closer to the $10,000 that her late husband supposedly hid after a robbery, and becomes a malevolent stepfather to her two children. When people talk about this film, they tend to fixate on Mitchum’s character, a smooth-talking, black-clad Big Bad Wolf character who has “love” and “hate” tattoos on his knuckles and is eager to tell you the story behind them. But good — or “love,” to use Preacher’s formulation — is just as powerful, and it’s represented on-screen by Lillian Gish. She plays Rachel Cooper, a tiny woman whose songs echo across the fairy tale landscape like a maternal siren song, calling the kids to safety and warning the devil away. Laughton photographs her as a benevolent angel of mercy, the sum total of all the mothers, grandmothers, aunts and big sisters who ever stepped in to defend neglected or imperiled children. She is the counterweight to Preacher’s seductive and hateful machismo — a rock of feminine strength.

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    2. “The New World” (2005)

    Written and directed by Terrence Malick

    This great epic romance by Terrence Malick, largely neglected during its initial release, has grown in reputation over the years, and it’s fresh in my mind because Malick’s latest movie, “Tree of Life,” is opening later this month. Oh, all right, who am I kidding? It’s one of my favorite films, frequently cited in these Friday slide shows, and with good reason: It’s a rich movie that contains multitudes of meaning. And it just so happens that motherhood and Mother Earth are at the heart of it all.

    Ostensibly the tale of the doomed romance between explorer John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Powhatan princess Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), “The New World” is ultimately more interested in Pocahantas’ slow transformation from innocent, pampered daddy’s girl to furtive lover to secret helper of the foolhardy and disorganized English settlers (a decision she and her whole tribe soon regret); by the end of the film she has been abandoned by Smith, married another Englishman, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), relocated to England and become the toast of Europe. But although she assimilates, she never loses touch with the sprite-like forest creature we met in the film’s opening sequence, and she never stops trying to connect her complex inner life to the timeless natural world — a world she characterizes in voice-over as “Mother.” “Mother, where do you live?” she asks, in the film’s opening voice-over narration. “In the sky? The clouds? The sea? Show me your face. Give me a sign. We rise … we rise.”

    Pocahontas eventually becomes a mother herself. But that’s only the film’s most visible and obvious manifestation of the word. Malick, an unironic disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson and an unabashed hippie Transcendentalist, treats her as a human nexus point connecting the exhausting business of everyday struggle with the magnificent ebb and flow of nature and the unknowable vastness of time and space. (If you thought that last sentence had an off-putting whiff of incense and patchouli oil, trust me, this movie is not for you.) The film identifies Pocahontas, a life-saver and life-giver, with water, grass, flowers and trees. As John Rolfe puts it, “She weaves all things together.”

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    1. “The Long Day Closes” (1992)

    Written and directed by Terence Davies

    One long nostalgic reverie, Terence Davies’ memoir of growing up in 1950s Liverpool doesn’t have a plot and doesn’t need one; it’s a collection of moments, some recollected, others fantasized, in which an 11-year-old boy’s life experiences and movie love intermingle and merge in a ceaseless flow of sound and image. Anchoring his thoughts (and more than a few embarrassments and traumas) is the hero’s overwhelming love for his beautiful and kind Mother (Marjorie Yates). Through Davies’ eyes, she somehow manages to be a real woman and an idealized figure, the nurturing mother-protector and eternal boy’s best friend. Young Bud (Leigh McCormack) has a hard life; he’s confused about his sexuality, his school days unfold beneath the constant threat of violence, and his family is so poor that they have to wash their hair with saucepans full of water (hot and cold). But he’s always got somebody in his corner. His mother centers him and makes him feel understood, valued and adored.