The Glass Castle

Posted on August 10, 2017 at 5:41 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, alcohol and alcohol abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Domestic violence, child badly burned in a cooking accident, child neglect and endangerment
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 11, 2017
Date Released to DVD: November 6, 2017

Copyright 2017 Lionsgate
In her 1986 best-seller, Necessary Losses, author/poet Judith Viorst talks about the beliefs each of us has to give up in order to move forward. The first and in some ways the most difficult is the understanding that our parents are not all-powerful and all-knowing, and that they cannot kiss all of our hurts and troubles away forever. Some of those realizations are worse than others. Most of us, I hope, do not have to give up on the idea that our parents at least want to take care of us and that they do their best. But parents who neglect or abuse their children take away something worse than food and safety; they take a child’s senses of trust and pride.

And so “The Glass Castle,” based on the best-selling memoir by Jeannette Walls, begins with Walls, a sophisticated, elegant, and successful New York journalist (Oscar-winner Brie Larson) on her way home in a cab after dinner in an expensive restaurant with her fiance and his prospective client, seeing her parents dumpster diving. They were homeless.

And so, we go back in time to see her as a very young child, telling her mother, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) she is hungry. “Would you rather me make you some food that will be gone in an hour or finish this painting that will last forever?” It is a rhetorical question. Young Jeannette (Chandler Head) toddles over to the stove to make herself some hot dogs. But her dress catches on fire and she is badly burned.

When her father, Rex (Woody Harrelson) decides to take her out of the hospital, without doctor permission and without paying. At this point, Jeannette is still young enough to believe everything her parents tell her, like “our home goes wherever we go.” Rex, probably self-medicating for undiagnosed bipolar disorder, was immensely brilliant and charismatic. The glass castle of the title was the home he kept promising to build the family, and he spent years drawing plans for it. Rex and Rose Mary were less and less able to maintain any kind of stability at the same time that the children became more and more aware of what they were entitled to expect and unlikely to get. Instead of excitedly making plans for the castle, they began pleading with him to stop drinking. And then, when he could not, they decided to take responsibility for themselves and each other.

Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton worked with Larson in the outstanding “Short Term 12,” which also had themes of abuse, damage, and resilience. He is especially good here in dealing with the challenge of three different performers, some quite young, portraying Jeannette and her siblings, maintaining consistency as they grow up, but using the cinematography to help convey the journey from their glowing memories of childhood, believing in their parents’ view of the world as beneath them, to the grittier life of deprivation and uncertainty. The spot where the glass castle was supposed to be built literally becomes a garbage dump.

What’s wisest and most significant is that the film becomes more than the story of survival. It is really only when Jeannette stops being afraid to tell the truth about herself that she is able to accept the best of what Rex and Rose Mary brought to her life. As Walls — and Viorst — might agree, necessary losses are worth the pain when they lead to the freedom that only comes from being true about and to yourself.

Parents should know that this film concerns the neglect and abuse of children, parents with substance abuse and mental illness problems. It includes smoking, drinking and drunkenness, domestic abuse, a child burned in a fire, strong language, and a sexual situation.

Family discussion: Why did Jeanette decide to tell her story? What was she grateful for receiving from her parents? If there was a movie about your family, who would you like to play you?

If you like this, try: “Running with Scissors,” “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” (another real-life story with Woody Harrelson as a father with a drinking problem), and “Infinitely Polar Bear,” and the book by Walls

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Kidnap

Posted on August 3, 2017 at 5:02 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence and peril
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence including children in peril, guns, chases, crashes, many characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 4, 2017

Copyright 2017 Aviron Pictures
Maybe Halle Berry, who produced and stars in “Kidnap,” thought this would be her “Taken,” a big prestige star in an all-out action movie. Not so much. Instead, this is one of those movies where if anyone made a single rational decision it would be over in eight minutes, instead of the 80-some minutes that feel like 800.

Berry plays Karla, a single mom waitress in a diner who adores her six-year-old son, Frankie (Sage Correa), and has promised to take him to an amusement park. On the way there, we establish that (1) his favorite toy is a little voice recorder, and (2) Karla’s ex is now married to a doctor and Karla is doing her best to reassure Frankie that “everybody loves you” and that the grown-ups are all getting along. So, when she gets a call from her lawyer about the ex’s attempt to get custody, she tells Frankie to stay where he is and moves so that he cannot hear the discussion. When she gets back, he is gone.

At first, she thinks he is just hiding. But he has left the recorder on the bench, and then she sees him being hustled into a distinctive teal car. And so she races into her minivan, dropping her phone in the parking lot because (see above regarding the film’s duration), and chases after them.

And chases after them. And chases after them. Causing endless mayhem and at least two deaths along the way, but who cares about other people’s family members? This is HER SON and they picked a fight with the WRONG MOTHER.

Berry is so much better than this. She makes competent terrified/determined faces at the right moments, but even she cannot sell the increasing preposterousness of the storyline or make sympathetic a woman who would abandon the critically injured people who got in her way or tried to help her. She’s the one who really needs to be rescued in this saga.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive peril and violence including kidnapping, knives, shotgun, car chases and crashes, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Karla leave the police station? Would the law and the news media really respond the way they did in this movie?

If you like this, try: “Without a Trace” and “Nick of Time”

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Detroit

Posted on August 3, 2017 at 2:10 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence and pervasive language
Profanity: Very strong language including racist epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Very intense and graphic violence including murder and brutal beatings, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 4, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 11, 2017

If a newspaper is the first draft of history, perhaps it is art that conveys the truth of the past with context, nuance, and power. And so “Detroit,” Kathryn Bigelow’s story of a horrifying, tragic murder of three black men during the Detroit riots of 1967, meaningfully begins with the paintings of Jacob Lawrence documenting the migration of black families from the rural South to northern urban centers and the unrest triggered by the fear and flight of the white residents. “The promise of equal opportunity for all turned out to be an illusion.  Change was inevitable.” And, for some people who were happy as things were, terrifying.

And so “Detroit,” directed by Bigelow’s and scripted by her “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker” screenwriter Mark Boal aspires aspires to be art that tells the story of one incident that illuminates not only its own time but ours as well. It is based on intensive research including court transcripts and interviews with people who were there.

Television news in the 1967 featured footage of riots, with looters smashing windows, even at stores with “Soul Brother” spray-painted in hope that being owned by black neighbors would keep them safe. There was not much, if any coverage of an incident at the Algiers Motel, where white cops abused a group of young black men and two white women and murdered three unarmed teenagers. This was before the time that a bystander could record the beating of a Rodney King, and so it had to wait for the Hollywood version.

The threat of anarchy and violence was so unsettling during the Detroit riots that Lyndon Johnson sent 1100 National Guardsmen — to protect the police. The state police were there, too, and we see one officer recognize that horrible abuse is taking place, but leave, saying, “I don’t want to get in any civil rights mixup.” The pervasive chaos and fear inspires one character to say, “Now everybody knows what it’s like to be black.”

Reportedly, Bigelow encouraged her actors to develop their own dialog so it would be more authentic to their own perceptions and experience. She has a gift for conveying urgency and putting the audience in the middle of the action. The characters who take us through the story include a mild-mannered security guard (“The Force Awakens'” John Boyega), a just-returned Vietnam vet (Anthony Mackie), and a young white cop in way over his head, who has no hesitation about planting a weapon on a murder victim (“The Revenant’s” Will Poulter). It is in no way excusing his behavior to say that his behavior here is as much based on fear, anger, and ignorance as in racism.

I hope the film will not always feel as timely as it does now. If that is true, it will be in part because films like this provide context that helps us understand not only the origins of Black Lives Matter but the lives of the parents and grandparents who were unable or unwilling to tell their own stories.

NOTE: I recommend the thoughtful responses to this film from African-American critics, including Angelica Jade Bastien, who found the portrayal of brutality exploitive (“It wasn’t the relentless violence inflicted upon black bodies or the fiery devastation of the riots ripping apart Detroit but the emptiness behind these moments that got under my skin.”)

Parents should know that this film includes explicit depiction of a real-life incident of police abuse and brutality including murder of three unarmed teenagers, with rioting and looting, many disturbing and graphic images, very strong language, drinking, smoking, drugs, sexual references and brief nudity.

Family discussion: What would make you believe that justice had been done in this case? How does this story help us to understand some of today’s conflicts?

If you like this, try: documentaries about this era including “4 Little Girls,” “Eyes on the Prize,” and “12th and Clairmount”

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Atomic Blonde

Posted on July 27, 2017 at 5:54 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, pills, and cigarettes
Violence/ Scariness: Constant peril and violence with stabbing, strangling, guns, explosions, murder, torture, and very disturbing images, many characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 28, 2017

Copyright 2017 Focus Features
Unlike its title character, “Atomic Blonde” keeps missing the mark. It tries for both the style of “John Wick” and the substance of the Bourne series, but each takes away from the other, with a story that is too familiar and too empty, punctuated by achingly obvious “Hey, remember the 80’s?” songs. Like “I Ran” for a chase scene, get it? Oh, and someone plays Tetris!

The film is based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City. Charlize Theron plays Lorraine, a British spy sent to Berlin in 1989, just as the Wall is about to come down. We see Ronald Reagan’s iconic “Tear down that wall!” moment and are told via title cards about the flowering of democracy in the Soviet bloc, then warned, “This is not that story.”

Most of the film is a flashback, as a badly bruised Theron cooly debriefs her MI6 boss (James Faulkner) and a representative from the CIA (John Goodman). A spy named James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) has been movie-killed during the opening credit sequence, meaning that he is handsome and has a chance to say some dashing spy stuff between being hit by a car and shot in the head.
Then we see Lorraine getting out of an ice bath, giving us a chance to see her bruises and her tush before going in for the debriefing, where she asks the CIA guy to leave, and he responds, “If it would make you more comfortable, I could stand behind the mirror but it’s a little crowded back there.”

She is sent to Berlin, her cover to pick up Gascoigne’s body (she cleverly inserts an error in the paperwork, knowing that will delay her return). Her contact there is a libertine named David Percival (James McAvoy). We know he’s a libertine because he looks scuzzy, plies people with expensive liquor from the west, and wakes up bleary with two naked women in his bed. And we know he can’t be trusted because Lorraine has been sent off with the stunningly original, “Don’t trust anyone.” And yet, on arrival she gets into a car with a guy who tells her that David sent him, but guess what? He turns out to be a bad guy, which gives Lorraine a chance to show us how the term stiletto heel can be literal. And everyone is after the movies’ most overused McGuffin, the crucial master list of spy names. Zzzzzzzzz. Why don’t they just stop compiling them?

The action scenes are well staged, as you might expect from a director who used to be a stunt man. But they are undermined by the lack of control of the movie’s tone and the relentless plodding through every spy movie convention, from the “You don’t know who you’re dealing with” speech and the “Who are you to judge me?” speech, to the stop everything to get all dressed up to go clubbing and sex with someone who is either there to betray you or to be killed because you were getting too close. Bill Skarsgård is a bright spot (can every movie please have a Skarsgård?). But the ultimate revelations about who is and is not to be trusted are unsurprising and unilluminating. Mostly, this film is a lot of smoking, strangling, shooting, and stabbing, with Charlize looking great and fighting like a badass. Because it tries to be more, instead of a stylish thriller it becomes a soggy mess.

Parents should know that this film has constant extremely graphic violence, stabbing, choking, shooting, punching, many characters injured and killed, many disturbing images and sounds, very strong and crude language, sexual references and explicit situation, nudity, and themes of betrayal.

Family discussion: Who is the most honest character in the movie? Do you agree with Lorraine’s decision about David?

If you like this, try: The “Bourne” movies, “John Wick,” and “Hanna”

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Despicable Me 3

Posted on June 29, 2017 at 5:33 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended cartoon-style peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 30, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 4, 2017

Copyright 2017 Universal Pictures
It does not achieve the delirious delight of the first in the series, but it is better than the second. “Despicable Me 3” is meandering and uneven.

The problem with making the title character into a happily married good guy who loooves his three girls is that he is not despicable any more. He is therefore much less interesting than the actually despicable villain of the movie, Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker, co-creator of “South Park”), an 80’s child star embittered because he has been forgotten. Whenever Bratt is not on screen, the film deflates. It is a cute, fun, and sweet-natured family treat, but overstuffed at just 90 minutes with too many distracting detours.

Formerly despicable Gru (Steve Carell) is now working with Lucy (Kristen Wiig) at the AVL (Anti-Villain League), and Lucy is also trying to learn how to be a mother to the three girls, serious middle-schooler Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), mischievous Edith (Dana Gaier), and sweet, unicorn-loving Agnes (Nev Scharrel).

Gru and Lucy stop Bratt from stealing the world’s largest diamond, but he gets away, and the new, very ambitious, head of the AVL (Jenny Slate) fires Gru. Lucy quits in protest. As they begin to think about finding new jobs and Agnes sells off her beloved fluffy stuffed unicorn to help out, Gru finds out for the first time that he has an identical twin brother. “Parent Trap” style, when their parents split up, they split the babies up, too. An emissary from Gru’s brother, Dru (also Carell) invites them for a visit to Freedonia, presumably the country responsible for their accents and certainly the country where the Marx Brothers created memorable mayhem in “Duck Soup.”

Dru is identical to Gru except for luxuriant blond hair. And it turns out he wants to be despicable, like their late dear old dad. The brothers go for a wild joyride in Dad’s crookmobile. Bratt has now successfully stolen the world’s biggest diamond, and so Gru tells Dru they will steal it from him. Dru thinks they will keep it, but Gru plans to return it so he and Lucy can get their jobs back.

Meanwhile, the minions are performing Gilbert & Sullivan on a TV reality show and being thrown in prison. Lucy is still not sure how to connect to the girls. Agnes thinks she can find a unicorn. And Bratt is getting ready for the ultimate revenge on the Hollywood that rejected him.

The film flags whenever Bratt is off-screen. He is an inspired creation, with lots of 80’s references for the parents and just the right touch of whiny entitlement to seem quite timely. He just about makes up for the slow patches. The snatches of the terrific Pharrell Williams score from the first film serve as a reminder that this, too, is mostly just an inferior copy, we hope, the last.

Parents should know that this film includes cartoon-style peril and violence, mostly comic, crotch hit, some potty humor, and brief minion nudity.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Lucy know when to say no? What made Margo trust her? Why did Gru’s parents tell their sons they were disappointments?

If you like this, try: the other “Despicable Me” movies and “Megamind”

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