Not Okay

Posted on July 27, 2022 at 5:54 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, drug use and some sexual content
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Pervasive references to violence including terrorism and mass shootings
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 29, 2022

Copyright 2022 Searchlight Pictures
The trigger warning cautions us that this film included flashing lights, themes of trauma, and an unlikeable female protagonist. They’re not kidding. The endlessly likable Zoey Deutch plays Danni and we are shown from the very first minute, a close-up of Danni’s splotchy, teary face, where this is going. Like Danni herself, Deutch deploys her weapons-grade charm to get what she wants. Danni wants to be a social media star. Deutch wants us to see exactly how empty Danni is, how her insecurity has made her more ruthless than she allows herself to see. It’s an excellent performance.

But the character and the script are still too thinly written to sustain an almost-two-hour film, especially one that tells us up front how it is going to end. And it is a story we know already because we live in the world of social media and cancel culture. You’ve heard the expression “live by the sword, die by the sword?” That could have been coined to describe the 21st century world of social media. Have you ever heard of the Milkshake Duck? It’s a description of the lightning-fast online progression from irresistible viral sensation to controversy to catastrophe to canceled.

And yet, like Danni, too many of us still measure ourselves in likes and clicks. Danni explains, “Have you every wanted to be noticed so badly you didn’t care what it was for?” She says she wants to be seen, wants to be important, wants to have some purpose, to matter.

It turns out, she doesn’t really want to be seen. She wants to be seen AS — seen as popular, seen as successful. But not as herself, awkward, insecure, needy. She does not understand that she will be more invisible seen as something other than her real self than she was when she was an overlooked, low-level photo editor and aspiring writer.

And so, she pretends she has been accepted at a writers retreat program in Paris. She takes a few days off from work and fakes a bunch of pictures that make it look like she’s wearing a beret, visiting the Arc de Triomphe, and enjoying a croissant. It works! Lots of clicks and followers! Then she wakes up to discover that there has been a terrorist attack in Paris, at a location she had pretended to visit and everyone thinks she was there. She leans into it, accepting sympathy, writing an article about surviving trauma and encouraging others to use the hashtag #iamnotokay.

She joins a support group for people who have experienced extreme violence. She is disengaged until she realizes one of the members of the group is a young survivor of a school shooting named Rowan (Mia Isaac) who has an impressive social media profile. Danni befriends Rowan to escalate her own profile. But she discovers that some people are not who they pretend to be online. Some are even more authentic and sincere, and Rowen, an activist and poet, is completely genuine, so much so that she assumes Danni must be, too.

This seems to be the year of the fake-it-until-you-make it stories, from fake heiress Anna Delvey and Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes to WeWork’s Adam Newmann and Uber’s Travis Kalanick. Danni is not based on a real person but she is based on a real phenomenon. But the characters here are just as superficially drawn as the presentational duckface posers on Instagram and TikTok. We do not have to like a character for a movie to be successful, or for the character to have a happy ending, but we do have to see a complete character and here Danni is just an idea.

Parents should know that this film deals with trauma from terrorism and mass shootings. Characters use strong language, drink alcohol and use marijuana, and have unprotected sex in an explicit scene (no nudity).

Family discussion: Who do you follow online and why? How are you different from your online persona?

If you like this, try: “Disconnect” and “The American Meme”

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NOPE

Posted on July 20, 2022 at 3:58 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some violence/bloody images
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, vaping
Violence/ Scariness: Extended science fiction peril and violence, characters injured and killed, very graphic and bloody images, jump scares
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 22, 2022

Copyright Universal 2022
Yep. This is one scary movie. Jordan Peele’s new film, “NOPE” does not have the depth of cultural commentary of his Oscar-winning script for “Get Out” or his follow-up, “Us,” but it is a smart, scary movie with a strong storyline, great performances, and clever details. Plus, it’s shot on IMAX and Peele, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Interstellar,” “Tenet,” “Ad Astra”), and production designer Ruth De Jong (“Twin Peaks”) know how to fill the screen and use every bit of it to tell the story.

OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya of “Get Out” and “Judas & The Black Messiah”) is a horse trainer, like his father, grand-father, and several greats. According to his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer of “Hustlers,” “Lightyear,” and “Akeelah and the Bee”), their family goes back to the very first moments of moving pictures in 1878, the two-second series of cards showing a man riding a horse. The family business is training horses for movies and television.

After a brief, terrifying preface on the set of a 90s sitcom, we see OJ and his father Otis (Keith David) working on the ranch, talking about the importance of making sure an upcoming job goes well and annoyed that Emerald has not shown up. Then something strange happens. There are disturbing sounds, like the zings and thwacks of arrows. The sound design by Johnnie Burn is creepy, evocative, and never less than outstanding. A key on a ring pierces a horse’s rump. Shrapnel hits and kills Otis.

The ranch is isolated, but nearby is a small cowboy theme park owned by former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yuen of “Minari”) and his wife, Amber (Wrenn Schmidt of “For All Mankind”). Pressed for money, OJ has been selling horses to Jupe, hoping to be able to buy them back some day. But Jupe wants to buy the entire ranch.

Meanwhile, both are beginning to be aware that the strange electrical disturbances and glimpses of something in the sky may be from another world. More important, Ricky, OJ, and Emerald see this as a potential for profit. Jupe wants to make the extraterrestrials an attraction at the park. If OJ and Emerald can get good, clear photos of aliens, they can get on Oprah!

Yeah, they’re going to need a lot more than a bag of Reese’s Pieces if they’re looking to find a cute little ET for Oprah.

That scary preface I mentioned comes back. Something went horribly wrong at a live taping of a silly sitcom starring a little Asian kid and a chimp. That child grew up to be Jupe. While he speaks smoothly about the “SNL” sketch based on the incident (Chris Kattan as the chimp!) and is happy to point out artifacts from his past, a theme about the relationship between animals and the humans who think they can tame them appears as unsettlingly as the odd sounds we hear. We see it again as the horse named Lucky misbehaves at that crucial job OJ’s father was concerned about. Or rather, the humans misbehave, giving an inadequate safety briefing. OJ mumbles until Emerald arrives and her presentation is more about her than it is about the horse. It is not a coincidence that both of these problems occur in the highly artificial performative environment of a show, the most heightened version of human life with the strange sounds and hot, bright lights and a deep gulf between reality and fantasy. There’s nice brief moment when someone reacts to OJ’s name as though he’s connected to OJ Simpson (it stands for Otis Jr.).

This ties in with the idea that the first reaction OJ, Emerald, and Jupe have to the idea of aliens is to make a show of them. How we present ourselves and how we are perceived is core to this story, going back to Emerald’s diversion in what is supposed to be a safety briefing to a description of her ancestor, the jockey in the prototype for moving images, where the horse’s name was identified but not the name of the human riding him. At June’s little theme park, Emerald inadvertently photobombs a group of visitors. And later, two more characters are added to the effort to document the aliens, Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) a blond-tipped sales and installation specialist from a big box store who sells surveillance cameras to the Haywoods and wants to find out what they want to surveil, and the fabulously named Antlers Holst, fabulously played by Michael Wincott, a cinematographer artiste who like to “make one for them, one for me” and considers capturing images without electricity a creative challenge.

There are a lot of ideas here, including some sly digs at Peele’s own industry that could fit in a Key and Peele sketch plus a dazzling series of visual images. The air dancers the Haywoods bring to the ranch, the wonderfully imagined, just tacky enough details of the theme park, the connection between Jupe’s cowboy hat blown away by the ship and the ship itself are all brilliantly designed. Every performance is superb. Schmidt and Yeun make us wish for an entire other story about their relationship. Kaluuya continues to be one of the most fascinating actors working today, bringing a rare sense of thoughtful gravity and stillness to the screen. Keke Palmer, always great, gives her best performance yet as we see Emerald become more grounded, more fierce, more aware of her connection to the brother who stayed when she left.

There are too many ideas, too many things to see to come together with the impact “Get Out” and “Us” had. But it is wonderfully entertaining and provocative enough to spark what I’m sure will be some fascinating online speculation, and to add to Peele’s reputation as one of the most significant filmmakers of his generation.

Parents should know that this film includes tense and scary sci-fi peril and violence with some graphic images. Characters are injured and killed. At one point in my notes I just wrote: “BLOOD!” There are jump scares and fake-outs. Characters use very strong language.

Family discussion: How does the relationship between OJ and Emerald change? Why are the sections of the movie named after the horses?

If you like this, try: “Get Out,” “Us,” “Coherence,” and the various versions — except the most recent — of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”

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Where the Crawdads Sing

Posted on July 14, 2022 at 5:25 pm

C-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for substance abuse, strong language, suggestive material, and smoking.
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Domestic violence, attempted rape, murder
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 15, 2022
Date Released to DVD: September 12, 2022

Copyright 2022 Sony Pictures
I have to begin by apologizing to the vast group of readers who adore the book, Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, a record-breaking publishing phenomenon that remains on the best-seller list four years after it was released. Those fans are hoping the film will deliver the essential elements of the book, the lyrical narration, supplemented with exquisitely filmed images of the natural world so beloved by the main character, and a diligent presentation of the storyline as it appears in the book, and it is fair to say that it does. The cinematography by Polly Morgan is exquisite and the song by Taylor Swift is evocative and haunting. But viewed entirely as a film, the translation to the screen does not work, and those who do not already have a strong emotional commitment to the story are likely to come away finding the film superficial at best and morally bankrupt at worst. While some of the book’s more troubling portrayals of race and class have been softened for the film, the characters and storyline are thinly conceived and it relies much too heavily on Owens’ poetic descriptions of the science she knows well. This is her first novel but she has had decades of experience as a zoologist and conservationist. The works better on paper, when the reader can fill in the blanks, than in a film, which cannot help but be more literal. The actors, production and costume designers, composer, and cinematographer can only try their best to create the same magic.

The book is a fantasy along the lines of Green Mansions or Tarzan, or Blue Lagoon or The Jungle Book, where beautiful children and young people live in nature, free from the corruption of the so-called civilized world.

Kya lives in a remote cabin in the marshes of North Carolina. Her father was drunk and abusive, and so her mother left, and then her older sisters, then her brother. Her father briefly cared for her, giving her his old army pouch to collect the shells and plants she was observing so closely, but then he left, too, and she was alone.

She supports herself by collecting mussels and selling them to the local store, run by a kindly couple. She leaves school after one day because the other children make fun of her and call her “marsh girl.” And she grows up to be movie-star gorgeous (Daisy Edgar-Jones of “Under the Banner of Heaven”) with shiny hair, robust health, and perfect teeth. She is befriended by a gentle boy named Tate (Taylor John Smith), who also lives on the marsh and loves the natural world. He teaches her to read and promises he will not desert her when he goes to college. But he does.

And then a young man from the town, romances her. His name is Chase (Harris Dickinson), and he, too makes promises. She is not sure how she feels about him but she is tired of being alone. HINT (this movie is not subtle): one of these young men supports her passion for drawing and writing about the nature around her and the other, when she sends her work to the publishers, the first one suggested and one accepts with enthusiasm, tells her not to get a big head about it. One is scrupulous about consent, one is not. Hmmm.

Kya’s knowledge of the world is very limited except when it is not. Never having seen a painting or illustration, she somehow creates exquisite drawings of plants and insects with an apparently endless supply of watercolor paints left behind by her mother. She is shy except when she isn’t.

As the movie begins, in 1969, Chase is dead. Kya is arrested for murder, based on circumstantial evidence and the town’s contempt for “marsh girl.” Her backstory is interlaced with the trial. I will not spoil the outcome, which is revealed earlier in the book than in the movie, except to say the coda at the end is both preposterous and, in my view, undermines everything that has gone before.

Parents should know that this has strong material for a PG-13 including explicit sexual situations, attempted rape, domestic abuse, alcoholism, abandonment, and murder. Characters use strong language and drink alcohol and get drunk.

Family discussion: What can you observe in the nature around you? Why did Tom Milton defend Kya? How did Tate feel about his discovery?

If you like this, try: “Green Mansions” and “The Jungle Book” and the book by Owens

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Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

Posted on July 14, 2022 at 3:20 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol and tipsiness
Violence/ Scariness: References to wartime deaths and injuries
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: July 14, 2022

Copyright 2022 FOCUS
“To be possessed is an admirable reason for possessing,” wrote Dorothy L. Sayers. Blaise Pascal said, “the heart has its reasons which reason does not know.” Those who are lucky enough to want some special object not for prestige but purely for love and a deep connection to the item’s artistry or history will understand the story of a shy Cockney woman who develops a passion for an haute couture dress.

“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” is a sweet Cinderella story about a cleaning lady who dreams of a Dior gown. It is based on the book by Paul Gallico, an author who was determined to work in a variety of genres, and so films based on his work include the classic disaster film “The Poseidon Adventure,” the charming fantasy musical “Lili,” and an earlier version of this story starring Angela Lansbury, Omar Sharif, and Diana Rigg. (NOTE: the original book and the first movie are called “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris,” to reflect the dropped h’s of the Cockney accent.)

It is set in post-WWII London. Mrs. Harris (exquisitely played by Lesley Manville) and her best friend Vi (Ellen Thomas) are close friends who spend their days cleaning up the careless messes of people who have enough money to be careless. Through them, Mrs. Harris glimpses lives bigger and more colorful than her own. One of her clients is Lady Dent, who somehow never seems to have the cash on hand to pay her (Anna Chancellor, “Duckface” from “Four Weddings and a Funeral”). There is also is a high-strung aspiring actress, and a rakish, derby-hatted bachelor (played with a cheeky wink by Christian McKay) who has an endless stream of “nieces” leaving in the morning wearing their dresses from the evening before.

Mrs. Harris still has a small unopened package sent to her by her husband when he was in the military in WWII, the last communication she received from him. It is now more than 10 years later and she has not been able to bring herself to open it. Finally, she does and sees what she did not want to see before. He was killed in action. It is not a coincidence that this happens just as she becomes mesmerized by an haute couture gown Lady Dent has bought for 500 pounds (about $15,000 in today’s dollars). It is the most beautiful thing she has ever seen and she decides she must get one for herself.

She assembles 500 pounds through scrimping, doing extra work, including “invisible repairs” sewing, and an assortment of unexpected windfalls. She has just enough for a one-day trip to Paris to get the gown. But once she gets there she learns first that their haughty director (Isabelle Huppert) does not want a shabby little Englishwoman anywhere near their brand and their other customers, and second, even if she is able to purchase a gown it will be made to order for her and require two weeks of fittings. And so, her adventures in Paris begin. (NOTE: Dior participated in helping to re-create some of their stunning fashions.)

It is not just her mending that is invisible. Mrs. Harris herself begins to learn that she has felt invisible, not worthy of being seen. Like the contents of the package, Mrs. Harris has been hidden and enclosed for a long time. Acknowledging her yearning and insisting that she deserves to own an item of beauty and artistry helps her locate a new openness to others and determination on other issues. At first, she relates to her new acquaintances with what she knows, cleaning and cooking. But she discovers through their responses to her that she has more to contribute.

Manville is a perfect choice for this role (and for pretty much any other, too — see her Mike Leigh performances and her appearance in a very different haute couture film, “The Phantom Thread”). While Mrs. Harris may not always see herself that way, Manville shows us in every moment that the character’s discovery of her courage and value is as much a work of art as the meticulously constructed gowns of Dior.

Parents should know that this film has mild rude humor and references to wartime injuries and death.

Family discussion: Have you ever wanted something the way Mrs. Harris wants the gown? Why was it so important to her? How did her experiences in Paris change the way she saw herself? How to the references to Sartre‘s existentialism relate to her story? Did you notice the “zoom dolly” shots made famous by Stephen Spielberg in “Jaws?” What do they tell us?

If you like this, try: the earlier version with Angela Lansbury and Gallico’s books, including The Snow Goose, and look up some of Dior’s classic designs

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