Puzzle

Posted on July 26, 2018 at 5:08 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family confrontations
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 27, 2018

Copyright 2018 Sony PIctures Classics
Sometimes in life and often in movies, one object, one moment, one connection can make all the difference and take a character on a journey of purpose and self-discovery. In “Puzzle,” a woman who lives in a very small world discovers that she likes doing jigsaw puzzles because she is very, very good at it. As lovely a metaphor as puzzles are, it is not fitting the pieces together that changes her life. It is learning that she is good at something that has nothing to do with her family. Doing the puzzles and seeing the patterns makes her curious to learn more about the world and it makes her brave enough to find out.

Kelly McDonald is exquisite as Agnes, a Catholic woman who lives with her husband and their two sons in the house she grew up in. We first see her preparing for a party, and then we learn it is her own birthday party. She may be the guest of honor, but she is still doing all of the cooking, decorating, and serving. Her husband and sons love her without paying much attention to her.

One of her birthday gifts is a crossword puzzle. She completes it, and somehow, it completes her. And then it shows her how incomplete her life has been. She has spent decades in the same small, Catholic community. The puzzle inspires her to do something daring — take the train into Manhattan to buy another. And when she sees a notice that someone is looking for a “puzzle partner,” she does something even more daring. She lies to her family so she can find out more.

Screenwriter Oren Moverman (“Love and Mercy,” “The Dinner”) adapted the screenplay from Argentine director Natalia Smirnoff’s “Rompecabezas.” Director Marc Turtletaub gives the film a timeless quality. From the look of her home and her clothes, Agnes seems to be living a generation ago. It is a shock when one of her other birthday presents is an iPhone. She looks at it as though it was delivered by a messenger from the future. “I have a radio and a window,” she tells her son. “I know when it is going to rain.” She calls the iPhone an “alien robot.”

We see that this is a choice Agnes has made, to live in a cocoon of the past, to avoid questioning her choices because she does not want to think about the answers. Why is it puzzles, as her husband says, something for children, that inspire her to think for the first time that maybe she should look outside her home? Or make her speak up for herself and for her son? It could have been cooking difficult recipes like “Julie & Julia” or learning to drive as in “Driving Lessons” or gardening as in “Greenfingers.” It does not matter what it is that pulls characters out of themselves to take risks and learn more; what matters is whether it does and whether the story about how it does inspires that in us.

And what matters here is McDonald. Much of the movie is just her face, luminous, open, a little bit fearful, a little bit joyful. The film is wise in its exploration of the things we do to quiet our minds, even when the result is to hide from ourselves, not peace but numbness. It understands that people and even movies themselves are puzzles that, if we put the pieces together thoughtfully, give us connection, meaning, and purpose.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language, family tension, references to drug use, smoking, drinking, and a non-explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: Why did Agnes suddenly want to learn about the news? What will she do next?

If you like this, try: “Driving Lessons”

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Blindspotting

Posted on July 19, 2018 at 5:31 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, some brutal violence, sexual references and drug use
Profanity: Very strong, crude, and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including policeman shooting an unarmed man
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 20, 2018

Copyright 2018 Foley Walkers Studio
Copyright 2018 Lionsgate
More than ten years ago, longtime best friends Daveed Diggs (“black-ish,” “Wonder,” Tony-winner for “Hamilton”) and spoken word poet/academic Rafael Casal began working on “Blindspotting,” inspired by their experience growing up in the uneasily gentrifying Oakland, California area long before either became successful. It took about ten years before they got the financing, and when it premiered at Sundance it was immediately acclaimed as a remarkably assured first film with exceptional performances a gripping story, and a nuanced, sometimes poetic portrayal of issues of race, class, and friendship.

Collin (Diggs), who is black, has just three more days of his year-long probation, following a two-year sentence. As long as he meets every checkpoint and follows every rule for just three more days, he will be able to leave the closely supervised halfway house and regain his freedom.

This is a challenge. His best friend Miles (Casal), who is white, is completely loyal to Collin but also impulsive and naturally resistant to any kind of rules. Collin finds himself with Miles and another friend who are smoking weed and playing around with guns. If he is discovered, it would mean an immediate return to prison. And then it gets worse. Collin, already running late getting back to the halfway house, knowing that missing curfew is a probation violation, stops at a red light and sees something he shouldn’t — a white cop killing an unarmed black man. The cop spots him and tells him to go. Terrified of getting shot or going back to prison, he does.

Collin and Miles work as movers, which gives us a chance to see the gentrification of Oakland, from the ten dollar “green juice” drinks suddenly appearing in local stores to the artist (Wayne Knight) who shows them his pictures of the trees that once gave the city its name but have now been cut down for development. A character wears a t-shirt that says, “Kill a hippie; save your hood.” The feeling of displacement is personal as well. Collin’s mother has remarried and her new stepson has moved into his old bedroom.

In some respects, the community is generously diverse. Colin’s black mother is now married to an Asian man. Miles is devoted to his partner, who is black, and their son. But racial divides persist, and this film navigates them and addresses them with a deep understanding of the history and complexity. When the friends finally get into a fight that could divide them forever, it is in large part because even the closest of friendships, even those who feel like family cannot truly understand what it is like to be black unless they are black.

At one point, a character asks Miles and Collin to stand quietly and look deeply into each other’s eyes. As much as these two men share, it is rare for them to look at each other. When they speak, they are often both staring ahead. This movie, conceived a decade ago but somehow coming out at exactly the right time, asks us to look deeply at both of them, and thus at ourselves.

Parents should know that this movie includes peril and violence, very strong, crude, and racist language, drinking and drunkenness, drugs, and family conflict.

Family discussion: What are the pros and cons of gentrification? What should Collin have done when he saw the officer shoot an unarmed man?

If you like this, try: “Do the Right Thing” and “Sorry to Bother You”

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Eighth Grade

Posted on July 12, 2018 at 3:02 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual material
Profanity: Strong and crude language
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional situations, sexual predation
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 13, 2018

Copyright A24 2018
Maybe this movie should come with a trigger warning. It is so viscerally authentic to the experience of being in middle school that for a moment I felt like I was standing in the lunchroom clutching my tray, desperately hoping that I would (a) be invited to sit with anyone and (b) become invisible, swallowed up by the ground, magically either five years older or younger, or all of those at once.

There’s a reason that even people well into their fifth and sixth and seventh decades still wake up at night after an anxiety nightmare about middle school. Those moments of hormonal, emotional, and cognitive upheavals that cruelly hit us just after we master childhood and make us certain that the adults around us are lame, that we are less lame but somehow lamer than we would like people to think of us as — for most of us, there is nothing as humiliating in any aspect of adult life that is as excruciatingly anxious as any given day in middle school.

Bo Burnham, who starting posting funny videos on YouTube when he was a teenager and became a very successful stand-up comic, is still in his 20’s, so his memories of the teen years are very accessible. Furthermore, he has been very frank about his struggles with anxiety including devastating stage fright. So he naturally turned to watching online videos of young teenagers, and realized that they may not be very sophisticated or articulate, but they are aspirational and brave.

And so we meet the movie’s main character, Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she is recording a very aspirational and very brave video about “being yourself.” She is not exactly herself in this video, but she is both the person she would like to be and the person she would like to listen to for guidance.

It is the last week of eighth grade, and there is agony after agony. She tries to talk to the alpha girls. She tries to talk to the boy she likes. She sits through a hilariously painful video about puberty, with a woman who assures them that this experience “is going to be lit!” She is invited to a pool party the hostess does not want her at by the girl’s mother, and she goes to it. Her loving but hapless single dad impinges on her life just by existing and even worse, he wants to TALK to her! And LOOK at her! And tell her she’s cool!!

Kayla gets a glimpse of her past when the “time capsule” she created on the first day of middle school, addressed confidently “to the coolest girl in the world” contains a video she made with her hopes and predictions for where she’d be at graduation. And she gets a glimpse of her future when she “shadows” Olivia, a friendly high school girl (Emily Robinson). We can see that Olivia is not nearly as confident as she would like to appear, but she makes Kayla feel accepted and as though there is a path for her.

SPOILER ALERT: Normally I would not do this, because I try hard to avoid spoilers, but I feel in this case I can mention that while Kayla teeters on the edge of some very bad decisions, she comes out of this okay.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong and crude language and sexual references and a boy tries to pressure Kayla for sex.

Family discussion: If you made a video message to be opened in four years, what would you say? Has social media made middle school easier or harder?

If you like this, try: Rookie’s “Ask a Grown” series and my interview with Burnham, Robinson, and Fisher. There are actually a couple of real-life movies with kids interviewing their older selves, here and here.

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Sorry to Bother You

Posted on July 5, 2018 at 5:28 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use
Profanity: Very strong and crude language throughout
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 6, 2018
Copyright 2018 Annapurna Pictures

The title of “Sorry to Bother You” comes from the fake apology made by telemarketers. That’s the job the movie’s central character applies for in the first scene and finds himself unexpectedly good at, so good he gets a huge promotion as a “power seller.” This first film from musician Boots Riley shows Cash Green (short for Cassius, played by the limitlessly talented Lakieth Stanfield) literally crashing into the lives of the people he calls, showing us right away we are in the hands of a confident, provocative new filmmaker with a singular voice, and preparing us — almost — for a pointed journey into high social satire fueled by a sharp understanding of the politics of our time and the human nature of all times.

Cash and his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson of “Annihilation” and “Thor: Ragnarok”) live in a garage. Cash’s uncle (Terry Crews) owns the house, for the time being at least. Money is tight and he may lose it. Cash applies for a job as a telemarketer, lying about his qualifications. The boss doesn’t mind; in fact, willingness to lie is a better qualification for sitting in a cubicle trying to get people to buy a lot of dumb stuff they don’t need. Cash puts on the headset, and starts crashing into people’s lives.

The guy in the next cubicle (Danny Glover) gives him some important advice: “Use your white voice. I’m not talking about Will Smith white.” He means the kind of white that conveys unquestioned and unquestioning privilege, the ones W.H. Auden described as “the homes I warm to,/though seldom wealthy,/ always convey a feeling of bills being promptly settled/with checks that don’t bounce.”

Cash finds his white voice (nasally supplied by David Cross), and is soon a “power caller,” invited upstairs and even to a debauched party at the home of the CEO, Mr. Lift (Armie Hammer). In the meantime, one of the other telemarketers (Steven Yeun as Squeeze) is organizing the employees into a union to get better working conditions. Cash is conflicted. He sympathizes with the workers, even as he moves up the ladder. But he likes being successful. He likes having better things. He likes the money.

And so he doesn’t look too hard at what is going on around him, particularly the omnipresent ads for something called WorryFree, a company that promised to solve all your problems by giving you a job, a place to live, and food, even your clothes. They hope you don’t notice that it is basically a prison, and that you will owe your soul to the company store.

Lift is still not entirely worry free, though. Those human beings are just so pesky, wanting justice and freedom, and all that. He has a solution and he wants Cash to be a part of it.

Riley’s visual flair and brash and bracing screenplay and superb performances by everyone, especially by Stanfield, Thompson, and Hammer, keep us so engaged that we are deep into the story before we realize how much it dares.

Ever since his extraordinary breakthrough in “Short Term 12,” Stanfield has brought a soulful gravity to a wide range of performances. His posture and eyes are deeply expressive, and he makes Cash the right Candide-like figure to take us through this story, always keeping an essential humanity in the midst of the heightened reality of the storytelling.

Thompson’s graceful Detroit is much more than the usual movie girlfriend. She is observant and thoughtful. She is really the stand-in for Riley because she makes everything around her art with a political message, from her earrings (all music lyrics) to the way she tosses the sign on the street corner for her day job.  We see her gallery show, including a performance art piece where she invites people to throw things at her. Her life, art, and politics are all one, yet she loves Cash because he is not a part of the art world, the part that she considers snobbish and commercial. She has views on honor and meaning, however, and there comes a point where she has to leave.

It gets so outrageous you may not realize until later how sneaky it is, delivering a powerful message about power, money, race, art, family, property, and having something that matters in your life. The film itself is its own answer — tell your story, make art, and don’t forget to “Épater la bourgeoisie.”

Parents should know that this film has very strong and crude language, explicit sexual references and situations with male and female nudity, alcohol, drugs, and peril and violence, including body horror.

Family discussion: Why would someone join WorryFree?  What companies are most like that?  Should Cash have stayed with the workers who were protesting?

If you like this, try: “School Daze” and “Downsizing”

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Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Posted on June 28, 2018 at 5:54 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence, bloody images, and language
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive and intense peril and violence involving children, teens, and adults, terrorism, guns, chases, explosions, grisly and disturbing images, many characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 29, 2018

Copyright Columbia Pictures 2018
The first Sicario movie had stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins, a character with integrity and courage, in a performance of equal integrity and courage from Emily Blunt, to bring us into the complex, layered story of moral quagmires around drug smuggling.

This sequel, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” has none of that. While the first film thoughtfully explored issues of whether the ends justify the means and how to fight for the rules when the people on the other side do not abide by any, this one starts out with all the nuance of ultra-partisans screaming at each other on cable news and then, even worse, gets smug about it. The movie begins with stark claims about drugs and people crossing the border from Mexico, and then a couple of suicide bombers blow themselves up. Just to make sure we GET THE POINT, we see law enforcement discover Muslim prayer rugs out in the desert and we see a mother with a young child plead with a suicide bomber to let them leave before he blows them all up.

And so the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine, pretty much relegated these days to seedy bad guys who direct tougher types to do the bad stuff) declare drug smugglers terrorists, which literally triggers a new range of strategic responses. “No rules this time.” Blunt’s character is gone (understandable, considering where we left her), so our focus is on two other characters from the first film, lantern-jawed, whatever-it-takes Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and attorney turned revenge-seeker Alejandro Gillick (Benecio del Toro).

Part 2 is also written by Taylor Sheridan, but director Denis Villeneuve has been replaced by Stefano Sollima (television’s “Gomorrah”) and Deakins has been replaced by Dariusz Wolski. And subtlety has been replaced by a storyline just a notch above “The Expendables.” Graver (what a name) warns SecDef that “If you want to see this through, I’m going to have to get dirty.” “Dirty is exactly why you’re here,” the Secretary replies.

Actually, it’s deniability, as we will learn to no one’s surprise. Deniability with an unlimited budget. The plot is straight out of “Mission: Impossible” the 1960’s television series, the ones with the “As always, should you or any of your Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.” Lotta take-out, lotta staring at screens barking orders, lotta thousand yard stare-offs.

Graver goes off to hire a bunch of Erik Prince-style black ops mercenaries for $10 million a month. “Now you’ll be able to afford that hockey team,” Graver congratulates him. If they kidnap the 16-year-old daughter of the head of one of the biggest drug cartels, he will blame the rival cartels, and they can save us all a lot of bullets by wiping each other out. What could go wrong?

Yeah, pretty much everything, with a mountain-high body count along the way, and very little to show for it, not carnage about the numbing impact of fighting an implacable, amoral, insurmountable foe, just carnage for the numbing effect of being in a movie that has run out of ideas.

Parents should know that this film includes constant crime and law enforcement peril and violence involving adults and teens, terrorism, suicide bombers, chases, guns, explosions, many characters injured and killed, disturbing images, moral, legal, and political issues, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Is it possible to fight people who break the law without breaking it ourselves? What should voters know about these kinds of operations?

If you like this, try: the original “Sicario,” Traffic,” and “Sin Nombre”

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