Stronger

Posted on September 21, 2017 at 5:30 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity
Profanity: Constant very strong language, some crude
Violence/ Scariness: Drinking and drunkenness
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 22, 2017

Copyright 2017 Lionsgate
“Stronger.” As in the “Boston Strong” motto that the city claimed and earned following the terrible bombing at the finish line of one of the city’s most cherished annual events, the Boston Marathon. And “stronger” as in what that which does not defeat you makes you. “Stronger” is the real-life story of a man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and who became a symbol of hope in the midst of wrenching loss. It is also the story of that man’s struggle to acknowledge to himself, his family, and the media the darker reality of his struggles with post-traumatic stress caused by the bombing, the long, slow, painful rehab, and by the pressure put on him by everyone to be a hero.

Imagine you are standing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon to cheer on your estranged girlfriend and then wake up in a hospital bed to the news that your legs are gone. What would be the first thing you would say?

Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), still groggy from the anesthesia, shock and pain, unable to speak because of tubes, gestured for a pen. He wrote three messages. The first asked if the girl he was there to support was all right. She was. He then wrote “Lt. Dan,” as in the Gary Sinise character in “Forrest Gump,” who loses his legs in Vietnam.

And then he wrote: “I saw the bomber.”

Bauman’s description gave law enforcement essential details that helped them track down the Tsarnaev brothers.

Director David Gordon Green and screenwriter John Pollono, working from Bauman’s book are especially good at putting us in Jeff’s world, in the midst of his noisy, hard-drinking, combative, sports-loving, and fiercely loyal family. They travel as a pack.

Jeff’s divorced parents, Patty (Miranda Richardson) and Big Jeff (Clancy Brown), his brother and friends are there for him in the most literal sense, at the hospital. One of the movie’s best scenes is at the hospital just after the surgery, when Jeff’s supervisor from Costco (Danny McCarthy) arrives and they begin to yell at him and each other, partly because they are all frantic and need to let off steam and partly because they are the kind of people who yell a lot. When they discover he is there to provide insurance information and assure Jeff that he still has a job, it is deeply moving.

They are all there again when he returns to his mother’s apartment. They are more concerned about the party to welcome him home and the chance to show him all the letters and packages he has been sent than to consider the logistics of his having to maneuver up a steep staircase. Erin (Tatiana Maslany), who broke up with Jeff just before the marathon, becomes a full-time caretaker. He is under enormous pressure to be the resilient guy who came out of the hospital with a thumbs up sign for the cameras.

Gyllenhaal, who makes some of the most thoughtful and challenging choices of any actor his age, gives a performance of great sensitivity, capturing Jeff’s offhand, offbeat humor as well as his physical and emotional anguish. He shows us the integrity Jeff himself did not understand he had. In another exceptional scene, Jeff does very little talking. He finally agrees to meet Carlos (Carlos Sanz), the man in the cowboy hat who saved his life, and who was included with him in one of the iconic images captured that day. The story Carlos tells is a turning point for Jeff, and it is all in Gyllenhaal’s posture and expressions. There are huge cataclysmic events, but it is in the small details that this film has the most power.

Parents should know that this movie concerns a terrorist bombing with severe injuries and amputation, post-traumatic stress, drinking and drunkenness, nudity, a sexual situation, and constant very strong language.

Family discussion: What do the three comments Jeff wrote tell us about him? What did he learn from Carlos?

If you like this, try: “Patriot’s Day”

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Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Posted on September 21, 2017 at 2:54 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sequences of strong violence, drug content, language throughout and some sexual material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, drugs and drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive, very graphic peril and violence with many characters injured and killed, sad deaths, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 22, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 11, 2017
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2017

The ultra-elite and impeccably tailered Kingsmen are back, well, a couple of them, in this stylish and slightly less transgressive sequel from writer/director Matthew Vaughn, based on the graphic novels by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. A couple of stunning action sequences, a delicious villain named Poppy (Julianne Moore), and Elton John(!) make it a watchable entertainment, and the return of two characters who were killed in the first film makes the dispatching of many more characters more cheeky than tragic.

Eggsy (Taron Egerton) has come a long way from the unrefined street kid of the first film. He is now happily living with the Swedish princess (Hanna Alström), wearing elegant bespoke suits, and still happily hanging out with his old friends and his dog, JB. But he is kidnapped by Charlie (Edward Holcroft), the former rival he thought was killed in the mayhem of the first chapter. It turns out Charlie only lost an arm, now replaced with a prosthetic that has a mind of its own, and his voice, also with a mechanical replacement. There’s a terrifically kinetic fight and chase scene, suitably accompanied by Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” that starts the movie off with a bang.

Then just about all the Kingsmen are killed off and Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong, with a Scottish burr and a soft spot for John Denver) have to meet up with their American counterparts, the Statesmen to save the world from Poppy, a ruthless international drug dealer with the demeanor of a 1950’s TV commercial happy housewife. She responds to betrayal like it is ring around the collar or waxy yellow buildup, except than instead of finding a better cleaning product, she puts those who fail her through a meat grinder. Literally.

Poppy would like to live in the world of the 1950’s, or, rather, the 50’s as portrayed in nostalgic re-creations like “Grease” and “Happy Days,” and has created an adorable Disney-style replica in the midst of the South American jungle, where she directs worldwide operations of her highly successful drug manufacture and distribution business. But she wants more.

The filmmakers are clearly having a blast and that is fun for us, except when it goes overboard. It is much too long at nearly two and a half hours. Channing Tatum is a hoot but his section of the story is entirely expendable. And it is a shame that once again, Halle Berry is utterly wasted in a role that uses her for screen candy. Same with her fellow Oscar-winner, Jeff Bridges, whose appearance is all crag and chaw. But the third Oscar-winner, Colin Firth, also playing a character who was killed in the first movie except not because who cares, is a pleasure to watch, as he has to play his character as much younger and more benignly innocent, and then again as sophisticated and determined. Elton John is a hoot as himself and the movie has a bubbly, delirious quality that excuses almost as much as it hopes it will.

Parents should know that this film includes extended very explicit peril and violence with many characters injured and killed and some disturbing and graphic images including characters being put into a meat grinder and some gruesome deaths, strong language, drugs and drug dealing, sexual references and situations with some graphic images.

Family discussion: How are the Statesmen different from the Kingsmen? Why did Merlin make that choice?

If you like this, try: the first “Kingsman” movie and “Our Man Flint”

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Our Souls at Night

Posted on September 21, 2017 at 1:29 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drunknenness
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death, family troubles
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 29, 2017

Copyright 2017 Netflix
Our Souls at Night was the last novel written by best-selling author Kent Haruf, published after his death, and it has an elegiac quality. The film, the fourth pairing of Robert Redford and Jane Fonda and the first in 38 years, has a rare quality in film, quiet grace. Movies love to tell us the story of young love, impetuous, volatile, and thrilling. But there is something even more moving about last love, the love that happens when you are old enough to understand how precious it is and old enough to know how foolish it would be to waste any more time.

Addie (Fonda) and Louis (Redford) are longtime neighbors. They know each other a little in the way people in small communities do. He was her daughter’s teacher. Both widowed, they have been living alone. And then, one night, she knocks on his door to ask him a question: would he like to come over to her house and sleep with her? Not sex, she assures him quickly. It’s just lonely in bed, and it would be nice to have someone to talk to at the end of the day.

He asks for time to think about it, and then says yes, coming over to her house with his pajamas in a paper bag and going to the back door to keep the neighbors from gossiping. They get to know one another, in simple, spare, but profoundly honest conversations about their most painful experiences, told without rancor and told with a simple generosity of spirit.

When Addie’s young grandson comes for an unexpected visit, she and Louis become even closer as they give the boy a chance to open up. They have an idyllic moment, almost as though it is a second chance for them to correct the mistakes they made in their first families, and learning more about each other through him. Then other ties and complications return.

It is a joy to see these two marvelous actors with their chemistry undimmed, performers with a deep understanding of craft and a deep trust in each other, take on these roles. Like the characters they are playing, they are beyond pretense, with the sureness of experience and the joy of cherishing each moment that only comes with age.

Parents should know that the film has references to sad and difficult family situations including the death of a child. Characters drink and one drinks too much. There are sexual references and a non-explicit sexual situation and characters use some mild language.

Family discussion: Why does Addie pick Louis? Why does Louis say yes?

If you like this, try: “On Golden Pond” and “Barefoot in the Park”

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mother!

Posted on September 14, 2017 at 8:27 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language
Profanity: Some very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drunkenness, cigarettes
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely intense, brutal, and graphic violence including murders of adults and a newborn, cannibalism, fire, many grisly and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 15, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 18, 2017
Copyright 2017 Paramount

Over the next few weeks, maybe over the next few years, you will see some thoughtful analyses and interpretations of “mother!” (lowercase m at the beginning, exclamation point at the end), examining the Biblical references and exploring the metaphors.  I look forward to these discussions and hope I will be persuaded.  But I was unable to find anything more in the film than pretentious, self-indulgent images with, for a movie about in some sense creativity, very little to say.

It’s a warning sign of precarious pretension when a film’s characters are not named and listed in the credits only as archetypes: mother, man, woman, him, younger brother, oldest son, good Samaritan, fool, wanderer, idler.  It’s not that it can’t be done; it’s just that it’s a high bar to clear.  What might work as a horror story about a young, pure-hearted bride in a gigantic, isolated house who is confronted with various dread-inspiring elements both natural and supernatural in this case fails because it keeps telling us it wants to be more.  There’s some flashy cinematic flourish but very low octane.

Jennifer Lawrence is game and endlessly watchable as always, which is a good thing because most of the time the camera is close on her increasingly panicked face. She plays the title character, who is created out of dust as the house comes together from a wreck of ashes.  “Baby?” she asks tentatively and searchingly as she gets out of bed to look for her husband/partner, played by Javier Bardem.  He is a poet, acclaimed but currently blocked.  She is his endlessly devoted helpmeet, always working to restore the house or present him with wholesome meals or just encourage him.  

Their peaceful life is disrupted when a doctor with a bad cough (Ed Harris) arrives, later joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, mesmerizing and terrifying), a couple who have some very serious boundary issues, to the point of being predatory.  Basically, they are the world’s worst and most annoying houseguests.  mother wants them to leave and cannot understand why poet would not check with her first. He seems unable to recognize how destructive they are.  He seems flattered by having them there.

Then the bad stuff begins to happen.  And then the really bad stuff begins to happen and keeps happening.  Writer/director Darren Aronofksy, who has explored themes of creativity and the line between passion and obsession in films like “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fighter,” and “Black Swan” may be trying to reach for overarching Biblical concepts here (he also made “Noah”).  But with the arrestingly staged but horribly violent last act and it’s not-to-be-revealed ending, it communicates something more like a defensive argument in favor of the right of creators to abuse those around them.  Not true, whether it’s family members or people in the audience.

Parents should know that this film includes peril and violence, with murders of adults and a newborn infant, guns, fire, explosions, abuse, cannibalism, grisly and disturbing images, nudity, childbirth, brief very crude language, sexual references and explicit situations.

Family discussion: What does the ending signify?  Who do the couple represent?  What does the house represent?

If you like this, try: “Noah” from the same writer/director, “North Fork”

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Rebel in the Rye

Posted on September 14, 2017 at 5:50 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some language including sexual references, brief violence, and smoking
Profanity: A few strong and crude words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence with disturbing images including holocaust images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 15, 2017
Copyright 2017 IFC

J.D. Salinger had three great losses and three great teachers, and “Rebel in the Rye” is the story of how those all came together to influence the author of one of the most popular and influential novels of the 20th century, The Catcher in the Rye, along with his shorter pieces, a few novellas and stories. Salinger is almost as well known for his decades of seclusion in New Hampshire as he is for his work. Reportedly, after publishing his last story in 1965, he continued to write full-time, but never showed it to anyone or allowed it to be published. It may be that the mystery is a better story than the writing.

Writer/director Danny Strong (co-creator of “Empire,” screenwriter of the “Mockingjay” films and actor in “Gilmore Girls” and “Buffy”) introduces us to Salinger before all of that happened, young, ambitious, and like Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield, a smart aleck who has left or been asked to leave a number of top schools. Nicholas Hoult (“About a Boy,” “Mad Max: Fury Road”) shows us the teenage Salinger, arrogant but insecure, especially arrogant when it came to writing and especially insecure when it came to girls. He meets Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, and they begin to date, though what makes her most attractive to him is her lineage and her admiration for his writing. And, after leaving NYU, he enrolls in Columbia, where he takes a class from the editor of Story Magazine, Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey). “There is nothing more sacred than stories,” Burnett tells the class. And he advises Salinger not to let his voice overwhelm the story, not to let his ego obstruct the emotional experience of the reader.

Burnett will be Salinger’s most important influence on the content of his stories, suggesting that Holden Caulfield deserves a novel. And O’Neill will be an influence, too, the first of the three great losses, when she leaves him to marry Charlie Chaplin.  Just as he is beginning to make progress as a writer, with his first published work in Burnett’s literary journal, Salinger joins the military in WWII, where he endures great peril and hardship and witnesses some of the worst events in world history, including the landing on Normandy beach and the liberation of a concentration camp.  These traumatic experiences caused great distress for Salinger, what would today be called PTSD (as Salinger movingly described in my favorite of his stories, “For Esme, with Love and Squalor.”  But it was these experiences that gave him the depth and scope to write his sole novel.

Burnett teaches Salinger that publication is incidental; what matters is doing the work of writing.  Salinger’s agent (Sarah Paulson, wry but sympathetic) tells him that “publication is everything” and urges him to “soften” his stories according to the “notes (comments) she gets back from editors.  Salinger, initially refusing to make any changes, finally does and even admits that they made the story better.

But the stress of success becomes too much for him.  “I’m shackled by my own creation,” he says as Catcher is seen as an invitation for readers to come see him.  The last loss and the last teacher are combined in a zen master who advises him to let go of his need for approval.  He moves to New Hampshire and never has anything to do with the literary world again. “If I can dedicate my life to writing and get nothing in return,” he says, “I think I might find happiness.”

Hoult is fine in showing us how Salinger changes, especially the effect of the war.  His scenes with his parents (Hope Davis and Victor Garber) and with the women he is trying to impress are especially effective.  Strong, as a writer himself, well understands the struggle to understand which voices to listen to, whether internal or external, in evaluating the work, and the complexity of needing approval even as we try to transcend that need.  The film evokes the mid-century era without being showy or distracting, and, an even more difficult challenge, explores the life of someone who wanted to be left alone without being exploitive.  Salinger insisted that there will never be a film about Holden Caulfield, and he was right as the value of that book is in the voice of its narrator more than in the incidents it portrays.  This is a better version of a story about someone who wants to catch children to keep them safe, at least in his own mind, or in the stories he will never show.

Parents should know that this film includes wartime violence with disturbing images including holocaust footage, drinking and drunkenness, constant smoking, and sexual references.

Family discussion:  Who was right about writing vs. publishing?  What makes Catcher in the Rye so compelling?  How was Salinger’s wartime experience reflected in his writing?

If you like this, try: the books of JD Salinger

 

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