Motherless Brooklyn

Posted on October 31, 2019 at 5:37 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including guns, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 1, 2019
Copyright 2019 Warner Brothers

“Motherless Brooklyn” is the affectionate (really) nickname given to Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) by the only person to treat him kindly, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Lionel grew up in an orphanage where his odd tics and compulsions made him the target of bullies who called him a freak. Minna, a private detective, saw something in Lionel, saw that the same compulsions that others found jarring would make him valuable as a close observer who would not be able to rest until he solved the mystery. “A piece of my head broke off and keeps joyriding me for kicks,” he says. But”if there’s one thing my pain in the ass brain knows how to do it is how to listen and remember things.”

Writer/director/star Edward Norton adapted Jonathan Lethem’s prize-winning book, shifting its setting from the 1990’s to the 1950’s, with an intricate “Chinatown”-like storyline of betrayal, corruption, and money. Alec Baldwin plays Moses Randolph, a character clearly inspired by “master builder” Robert Moses, who remade the face, footprint, and culture of New York City. He was never elected to office but held as many as twelve titles in city government, overseeing the construction of highways, parks, and bridges. We first see Baldwin as Randolph striding into a meeting and contemptuously ordering the mayor to give him authority over pretty much everything. How this will all tie into the murder of Frank Minna is what Lionel will have to find out. And there’s a beautiful woman with a secret, as there always is in a noir story. Here is is Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), working to protect the people who are being displaced, with an unexpected additional connection to the story.

Norton’s narration and twitchy performance immerse us in what he sees and what he is looking for and the outstanding production design by Beth Mickle and superbly moody core by Daniel Pemberton immerse us in post WWII New York. We can almost smell the luxurious leather on the books and chairs in an office with a fabulous view of the city to the old Penn Station to a smoky jazz joint in a black neighborhood. And the murkiness of the settings and the sinuous, boundary-crossing music emphasize the ambiguities faced by the characters.

Unlike most stories distorted by power and corruption, Randolph is not lining his own pockets. He argues that he is doing what’s best for the city — building bridges that make it possible for employers to have access to people who live outside of Manhattan, parks and beaches to give residents something more than jobs to attract them. So, if he has to cut some corners, displace poor people, and bury some secrets and maybe a couple of bodies, isn’t that just what it takes to get things done? “As long as you’re the guy who built the parks, you’re with the angels.” At least to some people. Norton, whose grandfather was a developer with an excellent reputation for integrity and public spiritedness, is very aware of the conflicts involved in “gentrification” and choosing between protection and honoring the old and improving with the new, between an orderly process that gives everyone a chance to participate and a bureaucratic tangle that prevents any progress.

This has been a labor of love for Norton, who has worked on and off for 20 years to bring Lethem’s characters to the screen. In only his second film (after “Keeping the Faith”) as a director, he brings an assured understanding of structure and tone. In one especially compelling scene, Lionel finds that a jazz performance connects with the rhythms of his brain and we see what it is like for him to experience a sense of home. The story itself is like a jazz performance, improvisation based in deep understanding and skill.

Parents should know that this is a noir-esque murder mystery with extended peril and characters who are injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images, bullying, strong language, drinking, smoking, drugs, and sexual references and a a non-explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: How does Lionel turn his challenges into a strength? What matters most to Moses Randolph? Who is referred to with the quote from Shakespeare about using a giant’s strength like a tyrant?”

If you like this, try: “Chinatown” and classic noir films like “The Woman in the Window” and “Touch of Evil”

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Harriet

Posted on October 31, 2019 at 5:29 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets
Profanity: Strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Intense violence including brutal abuse of enslaved and free people, references to rape, guns, wartime violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 1, 2019
Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in HARRIET, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

There should have been a movie about Harriet Tubman decades ago. And yet, this moment is just right, because the story of the woman who led more than 70 enslaved people to freedom and was the first woman to lead an armed expedition for the U.S. Army was made at a time when it could be written and directed by Kasi Lemmons and star Cynthia Erivo, who is nothing less than electrifying in the role.

Harriet Tubman was a name she chose. Born to enslaved parents on a plantation in Maryland, she was called Minty, short for Araminta. Although her family was supposed to have been freed by the terms of the plantation owner’s will, his widow (Jennifer Nettles as Eliza) and son (Joe Alwyn as Gideon) refuse to acknowledge their right to freedom. Minty marries a free man she dearly loves. But when Gideon plans to “sell her down the river” to the Deep South, as he had sold her siblings, Minty decides she has to run away, no matter what the risk. She has no map, and if she did have one she could not read it. What she had was determination, the ability to run fast, the North Star, and an innate sense that helped her to elude her would-be captors.

That innate sense is part of Tubman’s legend. She had some kind of seizure disorder, probably the result of a horrific beating from the plantation owner. She thought it was a connection to God. Whatever it was, she was able to make it to safety in Philadelphia, where she met free black people of culture and accomplishment, including William Still, and Marie (the exquisitely gracious Janelle Monáe), a fictional character inspired by Tubman’s real-life friend. Her choice of a new name and her introduction to the possibilities of freedom are movingly portrayed.

But she cannot rest until her husband can join her. And so, she makes the treacherous trip back. That trip does not turn out as she intended, but it gives her a new purpose; giving other enslaved people a chance to be free.

Erivo is incandescent in the role, one of the great performances of the year in a story that is as vital as history as it is timely.

Parents should know that this is a film about slavery and escape and war, so there is extended peril and violence, including beatings, attacks, and abuse with references to rape. There is a Civil War battle scene. Characters drink and use strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Harriet Tubman choose that name? What name would you choose? Who is most like her today?

If you like this, try: “Glory” and Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation”

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Terminator: Dark Fate

Posted on October 31, 2019 at 5:15 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence throughout, language and brief nudity
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Pharmaceutical drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Extended very strong violence, many characters injured and killed, graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 1, 2019

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2019
Can we please send someone back from the future to suggest that we really do not need any more Terminator movies?

Okay, I have to admit it’s pretty entertaining. The action scenes are fun and there are some good characters. It’s nice to have the original Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) back. It’s not bad; it’s just unnecessary. And its very unnecessariness makes it ordinary and that retroactively diminishes the quality of the ground-breaking original and the first sequel.

It’s like they ran the first film through a slightly broken copier machine (not a scanner) and what came out was fuzzy and off-kilter. So, from the first movie: a terminator comes back to the present day from the future with immeasurable powers of strength, speed, and strategy, and, most important, total tunnel vision, complete, implacable, single-mindedness. There is no plea, no bribe, no argument possible. The only hope, and it is a slim one, is escape.

From the second movie: someone else comes back from the future to protect the vulnerable target of the new Terminator. This time, though, it is an enhanced or augmented human, a kind of souped-up cyborg. What makes this interesting is that we do not exactly know what her powers are (also interesting that she is a female), but we quickly learn that she has some significant vulnerabilities. Her name is Grace (a terrific Mackenzie Davis, outstanding both in the action and the acting departments). She is enhanced for a sprint, not a marathon; she is very powerful in short, intense spurts, but if the fighting or running away is too prolonged she will urgently need a collection of powerful pharmaceuticals.

And Grace will not tell us (until a crucial plot point) why the young woman she is protecting is so important. That young woman is Dani (Natalia Reyes). And, this chapter’s smartest and strongest element, our old friend from the first film is back, Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, and if there is ever an Oscar for being amazingly fit, they should give it to her and retire the trophy. Hamilton is the star of the show here, clearly enjoying being an action hero who is more than a little deranged (see “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” for this part of the origin story). She even gets to say, wait for it, “I’ll be back.”

On the other hand, you-know-who is also back, Arnold Schwarzenegger as our old friend the T-800 (I will not dwell on why a robot ages), and when he says, wait for it, “I won’t be back,” it is too much of a wink at the audience.

We do not really have time to object, though, because there’s another chase, another battle, another what-are-we-trying-to-be-Fast-and-Furious-umpteen-here set piece to enjoy. Davis is great. Hamilton is awesome. There are some thrill-ride moments. But if you go, you might wish someone came back from the future to tell you to rent the first one again instead.

Parents should know that this film includes extended very strong violence, many characters injured and killed, graphic and disturbing images, strong language, pharmaceutical drugs, and brief non-sexual nudity.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Grace tell the truth about Dani earlier? How do Sarah Connor’s actions change the future and what does not change? How are Sarah and Dani different?

If you like this, try: the other Terminator movies

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