Stillwater

Posted on July 29, 2021 at 5:10 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to alcohol and drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: The movie includes a murder investigation and imprisonment, abuse
Diversity Issues: Some themes of class and nationality differences and cultures
Date Released to Theaters: July 23, 2021

Copyright 2021 Focus Features
Even the best of intentions from the most talented people can sometimes go haywire, and “Stillwater” is a good example of a bad movie despite its sincerity and the powerful gifts of the people behind it. When the best performance in a Matt Damon movie comes from a little girl who barely speaks English, you know so many things have gone wrong that even the two Oscar-winners cannot find a way to make it work.

I’m not even sure what this movie is about. The story is clear, though. Oklahoma construction worker Bill Baker (Damon) regularly travels to France to see his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), who is serving a nine-year sentence for murder in Marseille. She insists she is innocent. Five years into her sentence, she learns of a possible clue to locating the real killer. When her lawyer says that there is no point in trying to re-open the case based on hearsay, Bill lies to Allison, telling her the lawyer is working on it, while he tries to find the killer himself. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because of its relation to the case of Amanda Knox, who spent four years in an Italian prison for the murder of her roommate until she was exonerated by the higher court.

The storyline, though, is not enough to sustain the film, careening awkwardly from Bill’s redemption following years of neglecting Allison as he struggled with substance abuse to the lukewarm, not-thrilling thriller and the zero-chemistry romance. The nearly 2 1/2 hour running time gave me plenty of room to consider whether the movie was trying to make some deeper statement about America, with Bill clearly coming from an economically depressed red state, representing America’s failures and sense of lost promise and Allison as the younger generation, rejecting her roots.

Leads Damon, Breslin, and Camille Cottin as Verginie, a single mother who becomes Bill’s translator, friend, and romantic partner have so little sense of connection to each other they seem to be performing via Zoom. It is like they are acting in three different movies. Indeed, the movie itself feels like three different movies and none of them work. In the last half hour, as the movie goes from not very good to are-you-kidding bad, they may have been trying to make a point about guilt and the consequences of bad choices. If so, it is un-earned and the worst kind of manipulative, the kind that has so little respect for the audience that it is more than a disappointment; it feels like an insult. At one point, we see a brief scene from Virginie’s performance in an avant-garde play, followed by a pointless scene where she tries to get Bill to talk to her about what he has just watched. I’d rather watch that entire play — in French — than see this movie again.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong language, violence, references to murder, sexual references and situations, and references to substance abuse and parental neglect.

Family discussion: What do you think of what we see of the French prison system and its differences from the US? How does Bill feel after his final discussion with Allison? Should they have told each other the truth?

If you like this, try: “Missing”

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The Green Knight

Posted on July 28, 2021 at 12:44 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R (Graphic Nudity|Violence|Some Sexuality)
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/adventure peril and violence, swords, battle axe, graphic and disturbing images including severed heads, reference to rape
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: July 30, 2021

Copyright 2021 A24
Looking at “The Green Knight” is like being immersed in a gorgeous, mysterious medieval tapestry. Watching it is like being immersed in a Jungian dream filled with Erik Erikson-style choices, enigmatic patterns and symbols.

It is based on one of the classic works of world literature, a 15th century poem by an unknown author about a knight from the days of King Arthur. While most tales of the Knights of the Round Table are about daring quests for a grand purpose like rescuing a maiden or finding the Holy Grail, Sir Gawain’s quest is stranger and more mythic, perhaps best seen as a metaphor for an internal quest. Gawain is as confused as we are, and his head is on the line. Literally.

Dev Patel follows his sensitive, compelling, and joyful performance as David Copperfield last year with another showing his unquenchable screen chemistry and fearless honesty in portraying characters who confront painful lessons of loss and defeat. As both actor and movie star, he is never less than completely authentic, and pure magic on screen.

David Lowrey (“The Old Man and the Gun,” “A Ghost Story,” “Pete’s Dragon”) wrote and directed this version of the story, at least the fourth filmed adaptation, indicated by the increasingly modern fonts showing the title. Lowery’s gift for exquisite images imparting a mythic quality to film is well-suited to this tale. The first image is so still it could almost be a medieval painting, with Gawain in royal robes and a crown that looks like the halos in icons of saints. It burns. The next image is so still it might also be a painting, with geese and horses in an old courtyard. It takes a moment to realize that there is a fire on a roof in the back.

Gawain is wakened with a splash of water on the face by Essel (Alicia Vikander), whose pixie haircut, rough clothes, and accent tell us they are not in the same class. There is genuine affection as well as a careless condescension in the way he grabs at her. But she reminds him that it is Christmas morning, and he is expected at the castle. When he arrives there, he lies to his mother (a majestic Sarita Choudhury), telling her he has been at mass all night. We can see that he is impetuous, a bit spoiled, and utterly untested.

As the courtiers gather for Christmas dinner, King Arthur (Sean Harris) unexpectedly gives Gawain the honor of sitting beside him, and invites him to share a story with the group. “Tell me a tale of yourself so that I might know thee.” As he looks out at the “legends” among the knights at the round table, Gawain has to admit he does not have a tale to tell. And so, when the castle door opens and a mysterious man who looks like an enormous tree enters the dining hall on horseback, Gawain realizes this could be the beginning of his story.

The tree-man, The Green Knight, proposes a “game.” He will allow any man in the room to strike him as he will, and then, in exactly one year, they will meet again to give the Green Knight the change to return the same blow. Gawain takes the challenge, and the King offers the use of his own sword. Gawain beheads The Green Knight, who cooly picks the head up from the floor of the dining hall and rides away. Gawain has a year to think about what will happen at their second meeting, amusingly conveyed in part through a Punch-and-Judy style puppet show for the local children. Gawain has, in medieval terms, gone viral, his portrait painted and the story of his beheading of the tree-man told everywhere.

It is the end of “a too-short year” and time for him to keep his promise to meet The Green Knight and receive his blow. His mother gives him a sash that she promises will keep him from harm. “Is it wrong to want greatness for you?” she says. “I fear I am not meant for greatness,” he answers.

And so he is off, with the adventures along the way the heart of the story. Barry Keoghan continues to be one of the best at creating a truly disturbing, creepy presence on film, able to make the battlefield strewn with dead bodies seem normal by comparison. Other people or simulations of people he meets include two who seem to welcome him but impose conditions like The Green Knight’s “game” that may be more freighted than they appear.

At one point one of the people he encounters asks what he will achieve from his second encounter with The Green Knight and he answers without hesitation: honor. But what does that mean? Why is the bargain they have made called a game? How does it “rhyme” with the bargain he makes with a generous host on his journey?

What is the meaning of the doubling of characters and experiences, evoking the intricate alliteration and rhymes of the original poem? What is “real” in the world of the film and what is imagined? Are they “real-life” events that we are supposed to think are actually happening to the character or are they the demons his spirit is wrestling with to achieve self-actualization?What is honor in his time and in ours? How should he answer Essel? What does he learn from each encounter and what is the significance of the possessions returned to him?

This is a movie to be not just watched but experienced, absorbed, pondered, and argued over. It challenges us in the way the Green Knight challenges Gawain, in the way the King challenges him, to tell our story and to make it one that is worthy enough to continue to intrigue us after seven hundred years.

Parents should know that this film includes violence with graphic and disturbing images, with beheadings and a reference to rape and murder. There are sexual situations, some graphic, and references, some nude characters, and a non-explicit childbirth scene.

Family discussion: What does honor mean to you and how does it compare to Gawain’s idea? What tale could you tell?

If you like this, try: “Excalibur”

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Jungle Cruise

Posted on July 27, 2021 at 3:15 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of adventure violence
Profanity: Some mild language and implied language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, animal gets drunk
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and aventure-style violence with grisly and graphic images, characters cursed and injured
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, themes of LGBQT and female empowerment
Date Released to Theaters: July 30, 2021

Copyright Disney 2021
Disney’s efforts to adapt theme park rides as narrative films have ranged from the genuinely entertaining (the original “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”) to the wildly uneven (“Tomorrowland”), to the almost unimaginably misconceived (“The Haunted Mansion,” “The Country Bears”). “Jungle Cruise,” based on one of Disney’s oldest and most beloved rides (despite some controversy over its updates due to racist and misogynistic displays), ranks among the second-tier “Pirates” movies. The best and the most problematic parts in the film are its efforts to replicate what made the first “Pirates” a huge hit. While it often captures the high-spirited energy of that film, it also comes across as an inferior copy.

If you have Disney+, you can see a terrific behind the scenes history of the original Jungle Cruise ride, overseen by Walt Disney himself. It takes park guests on a tour that covers some of the world’s great rivers, with guides who make a lot of corny jokes and scenes along the way of lost treasure, native artifacts, and animals. As noted, the ride has been updated over the years to eliminate the guns and caricatures of indigenous people and to emphasize naturalist explorers. The movie is set during the First World War but reflects contemporary sensibility as well, with references to colonialists, feminism, and homophobia.

Emily Blunt plays Lily, a PhD who is determined to find a legendary blossom in the Amazon that is said to be able to cure any disease. She believes it is more than a legend and has a map she thinks will take her to it. She is fearless about almost everything (we will find out one thing that scares her). Her brother MacGregor (British stand-up comedian Jack Whitehall) is not brave and feels very strongly about the luxuries civilization has to offer, but he agrees to go along with her. Before they can go, however, she will need to steal an ancient arrowhead that has the clues to the blossoms’ location.

While her brother speaks to the skeptical members of a London explorers’ club, she sneaks upstairs to the club’s archive to grab it. Someone else is trying to get it as well, Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), the youngest son of the German Kaiser whose army is currently at war with France, Russia, Great Britain, and the United States. He follows Lily to South America. When she hires Captain Frank (Dwayne Johnson) to take her to the tree with the blossoms, Prince Joachim chases after them in a submarine, launching gunfire and torpedoes. Also after the blossoms are some 16th century conquistadors who have been cursed and are now decrepit, zombie-like souls who come alive, or rather alive-ish only when they are near the river. They need the blossoms to end the curse so they can die.

Production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos and Disney’s unparalleled team of artists have done their usual spectacular job of creating the world of this film, filled with details worth hitting a pause button to absorb. The stunts and action sequences are all skillfully done and very entertaining. The script is uneven, borrowing one of its key twists from the original “Pirates” and under-writing the characters. It is criminal to waste Paul Giamatti in a small role as a rival boat operator trying to put Frank out of business, and Plemons as an underwritten villain. No one has more screen charisma than Johnson and Blunt, and they bring all of it to their roles despite some inconsistency in the way they are conceived that makes some developments abrupt, especially a decision at the end that merits more complexity than we get. Even Blunt and Johnson are not able to muster a lot of chemistry between their characters. It doesn’t help that Frank keeps calling Lily “Pants” (because she is a woman wearing trousers, get it?) or “Lady” and she keeps calling him “Skippy.” Believe me, even the intentional groaner puns are better than that.

Parents should know that this movie has extended action-style peril and violence with swords, fights, guns, and torpedoes. Characters are cursed and there are disturbing and graphic images. Dangerous animals include a panther and snakes. Issues of prejudice against women and GLBT people and the crimes of colonialists are raised. Characters drink alcohol and an animal gets drunk. There is some mild language and some implied or almost-bad language.

Family discussion: Did Lily make the right choice at the end? How do we balance what helps the world with what helps one person? What would you go searching for?

If you like this, try: “The Mummy” with Brendan Fraser, “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and “The Missing Link” from LAIKA

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Joe Bell

Posted on July 22, 2021 at 5:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including offensive slurs, some disturbing material, and teen partying
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Teen suicide, family member killed in an accident
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 23, 2021

Copyright 2021 Roadside Productions
Joe Bell and his son Jadin are on the road. Literally. They are walking along the highway, Jadin reminding his father to walk against the traffic and his dad responding with mixed amusement and irritation that he’s been doing this for a while and does not need advice from a teenager. They seem to have a mostly amiable way of handling the inevitable re-aligning of the father-son relationship that happens during adolescence.

It is more complicated than that, and music sadder. Jadin Bell was an Oregon teenager who was ruthlessly bullied for being gay. Feeling heartbroken and friendless, he took his life. And his father, Joe Bell, decided he would spend two years walking all the way across America, stopping wherever he could to talk to teenagers about bullying, and about what a difference they could make by being more accepting and kind.

The story of Joe and Jadin Bell is now a feature film with Mark Wahlberg as the grieving father, Connie Britten as his wife, Lola, and Reid Miller, in a winning performance of exceptional sensitivity, as Jadin.

Wahlberg struggles to bring to life a man who is taciturn and often gruff. His character has trouble expressing his feelings. When Jadin tells him he is gay, Joe is accepting but irritated at being dragged away from the television to hear about it. He is dismissive when Jadin tries to talk to him about being bullied. Joe loves Jadin, but cannot acknowledge to himself or anyone else that he is uncomfortable with anything that does not fit into his notion of what it means to be a man.

He is not much better at talking to the people he meets in his travels than he was in talking to Jadin. He wants very much to deliver the message but his inability to tell his own story and acknowledge his failure to support his son make it impossible for him to deliver the message he wants to deliver.

The movie has the same problem. It is well-intentioned but the abrupt shift due to the facts of the real story derails the message it is trying to deliver. There are some tender moments, especially when Joe share a Lady Gaga song and when Joe meets a sympathetic cop. But we do not get enough of a sense of what Joe learns as he becomes more honest with himself, or the impact he had, and that makes it more difficult for us to feel the impact on us.

Parents should know that the themes of this movie include teen bullying and suicide. A parent is tragically killed. Characters drink, including teen partying, and they use strong language.

Family discussion: Why do people bully? What is the best way to respond to a bully? What is the best way to support those who have been bullied?

If you like this, try: “Ride” and “Love, Simon”

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Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins

Posted on July 22, 2021 at 5:23 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 (Sequences of Strong Violence|Brief Strong Language)
Profanity: Some strong language, one f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended , intense, sometimes graphic violence, martial arts, guns, swords, hand-to-hand combat, fire, many characters injured and killed including a child seeing his father murdered
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 23, 2021
Date Released to DVD: October 18, 2021

Copyright Paramount 2021
Paramount is trying to Avenger-ize the G.I. Joe story, starting with origin films for the characters, and that is how we get the awkwardly titled “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe” origins. Of course the real origin of G.I. Joe is a 1960s Hasbro doll, I mean action figure, and now, following the animated television series, comic books, and two movies, it is described as a media franchise. That franchise has a number of characters. Snake Eyes is the mysterious human weapon, a black belt in 12 martial arts disciplines and a master of all kinds of small arms including guns and swords. Following injuries in a previous mission he could no longer speak and he had facial scars which led him to wear a helmet that covered his face most of the time. Little was known about his background because it was “classified.” Until now.

“20 years ago, Washington State” we are told as the movie begins with a young boy and his dad walking through the woods. “Is there a safe in the house?” the boy asks. He overheard his father saying something about a safe house, referring to a cabin where they were staying. But it was not a safe house. Bad guys arrive and kill the boy’s father after forcing him to roll the dice for his life. They came up with two ones: snake eyes. The boy is left alone.

We then move to present day, when the fighter only known as Snake Eyes is in the middle of a no-holds-barred underground bout. Henry Golding (“Crazy Rich Asians”) takes over for Ray Park, who played Snake Eyes in the previous “G.I. Joe” movies. After the fight, a man offers Snake Eyes a job with an offer he cannot refuse, the only thing he wants — the man who killed his father.

His new boss is a weapons smuggler. Things go very wrong, and he ends up saving the life of Tommy (Andrew Koji), the wealthy heir to the Arashikage family, a Japanese klan of ninjas. They escape together and in gratitude Tommy brings Snake Eyes to the Arashikage compound and says they will train him as a ninja — if he can pass three tests, administered by the Hard Master (Iko Uwais) and the Blind Master (Peter Mensah). If Snake Eyes does not pass, he will die.

The tests are among the films highlights, along with some wow-worthy chases and action sequences. The martial arts scenes are dynamic and a lot of fun, with split-second timing and astonishing skill. I also enjoyed the shifting loyalties, depending on the demands of the moment, and the other iconic G.I. Joe characters, Scarlett (a performance of verve and wit from Samara Weaving) and the Baroness (Úrsula Corberó having a lot of fun).

Notice I did not mention the acting or the dialogue, neither of which are worth mentioning. There are some fortune cookie-isms like “If your heart is pure, our secrets will reveal themselves to you.” And I am not persuaded that the G.I. Joe-iverse can match the range of the MCU. But when it comes to summer action blockbusters, this one does the trick.

Parents should know that this is a very violent film with many characters injured and killed, featuring martial arts, guns, swords, fire, chases and explosions. It is what is called “action violence,” meaning not much gore or graphic images. A child witnesses the murder of his parent. There is brief strong language (one f-word).

Family discussion: How did the characters decide what their loyalties were? What did Snake Eyes learn from the first two tests? Do you agree with Sen’s decision about Tommy?

If you like this, try: the G.I. Joe movies and comics

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