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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Serenity

Posted on January 24, 2019 at 5:34 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, sexual content, and some bloody images
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, domestic abuse, murder
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 25, 2019
Date Released to DVD: May 1, 2019
Copyright 2018 Avrion Pictures

Even by the very low standards of January movies, “Serenity” is a dreary, dumb mess that makes the ultimate mistake of thinking it is smart.

At first, it wants us to think it is a throwback to the classic twisty noir thrillers like “Out of the Past” and “The Lady from Shanghai.” Matthew McConaughey plays a man called Baker Dill (note: I did not say a man named Baker Dill), a veteran who lives on remote Plymouth Island, where he takes out feckless tourists on a fishing boat called Serenity. We glimpse a Purple Heart medal in the corrugated metal shack where he lives, and we can see that he is bitter and struggling with psychological damage and maybe some physical damage as well. There’s a World’s Greatest Father mug in the shack as well. He pours his whiskey into it. Dill has an Ahab-like fascination with a giant tuna he has named….Justice. And he has a relationship with a local woman (Diane Lane, slumming), who pays him to “find her cat,” which is both literal and euphemistic. Same with the only bar on the island, which used to have Hope in its name but then switched to Rope.  This is not a subtle movie.  We also see a mysterious, very proper, precise man in a suit who carries a briefcase (Jeremy Strong), who seems to be looking for Dill. At one point, he removes his shoes to wade robotically across a stream.

And then, the second act complication arrives: femme fatale Karen (Anne Hathaway), honey blonde hair and dressed in white. She is married to Frank (Jason Clarke), a wealthy boor who abuses her and terrifies her son, who is Dill’s son as well. She says Frank will kill her if she tries to leave him, so the only way to protect her is to get Frank drunk out at sea and throw him to the sharks. If Dill will do that, he will not only save his son, but he will get $10 million in cash.

There are some hints that this is not the usual thriller story of seduction, betrayal, and murder, though all of those elements are there. Something is a little off, though. Dill has some sort of mystical mental Skype thing going with the son he has not seen in ten years.  Where is Plymouth Island? The music is Cajun and there are references to Miami but it is becomes increasingly clear that it is strangely isolated and insular. “Everyone knows everything,” we hear repeatedly. At first, it seems to refer to the gossip in any tiny community. But then we begin to wonder “What is Plymouth Island?” when it goes from “everyone knows everything” about the details of what Dill is buying and selling and catching and where he is at all times to “no one knows anything” when it comes to the choices Dill is facing and how he will decide. The best way to enjoy this film is to have a drinking game that lets you take a swig every time a character says either line.

The four leads do their best to persuade us that their stilted dialogue and increasingly artificial interactions are archetypal, not underwritten, but they never find a tone that will withstand the groaner of a twist, which I will be happy to spoil per my legendary Gothika rule*. Trust me, it’s a worthy addition.

*Gothika Rule: If is movie has a truly bad or dumb ending, I will happily give it away to anyone who sends me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com.

Parents should know that this film includes domestic abuse, murder, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, very strong language, explicit sexual situations, nudity, drinking and drunkenness, and smoking.

Family discussion: In what way did “everybody know everything” and in what way did “nobody know anything?” What were the clues that things were not what they seemed?

If you like this, try: “Out of Time,” “Body Heat,” “The Lady from Shanghai,” and “The Cafe”

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Adrift

Posted on May 31, 2018 at 3:36 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for injury images, peril, language, brief drug use, partial nudity and thematic elements
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, brief drug use
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 1, 2018
Date Released to DVD: September 3, 2018
Copyright 2018 STX Films

If I ever decide to pursue a PhD, I think I will go for a combined film/economics degree and study the correlation between the quality of a film and the star also being the producer. There will be plenty of data.

Shailene Woodley produces and stars in “Adrift,” based on the true story of a young couple sailing across the Pacific Ocean in the early 1980’s, who were caught in a deadly hurricane. There is obviously a lot of appeal for an actress in a story of the struggle to survive with the opportunity to show courage, resilience, and determination. But the back-and-forth flashbacks weaken the intensity of that struggle and a weak script with a Gothika Rule-worthy twist ending make even a story of survival more disappointing than inspiring.

Tami (Woodley) is a free spirit as we see when the immigration official in Tahiti asks her what her profession is and she replies, “Whatever job pays me enough to get me to the next place.” She has been traveling full-time since she graduated from high school five years earlier, most recently as chef on a schooner. She meets Richard (Sam Claflin), a British Naval Academy drop-out who worked in a boatyard so that he could build his own sailboat and has been on the water pretty much full-time ever since. Though he tells her that being at sea alone is mostly being “sunburnt, sleep-deprived, seasick, or all three at once. And after a few days, there’s the hallucinations.” But there is something both of them find irresistible in sailing into the horizon, and both have an unquenchable desire to see what the world has to offer. In one of the movie’s best scenes, she says a sunset at sea is red (as in “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight”), and he makes her see all the different shades and colors within the red. While she teases him about it later, she loves seeing the world through his eyes. And he loves her spirit of adventure.

When a wealthy friend offers Richard $10,000 and two first-class plane tickets to sail his yacht to San Diego, it seems like a perfect way for them to begin their life of adventure. But we know from the movie’s first shot that they are sailing into terrible trouble. We first see Tami submerged, and then we see her come to, disoriented, in the wrecked and waterlogged hull of the yacht, with Richard gone. Later we will see their tiny ship buffeted about by waves (the special effects are fine but nothing we didn’t see in “The Perfect Storm”) interspersed with scenes of their early romance and scenes of the 41 days adrift, with no way to get help or let anyone know where they were.

I don’t want to spoil the movie’s twist here, but per the Gothika Rule will be happy to share it to anyone who writes to me at moviemom@moviemom.com. I’ll just saw that while I am sure it was a deeply spiritual and sustaining experience for Tami, it comes across poorly on screen, leaving the audience, yes, adrift.

Parents should know that this film includes intense mortal peril with severe and graphic injuries, some strong language, sexual references, nudity, brief drug use, alcohol, reference to suicide and teen pregnancy, and a sad death.

Family discussion: How many ways can you think of to describe red? Why was the frangipani so meaningful? Why did Tami say she wouldn’t trade the experience for anything? What problem-solving skills helped her the most?

If you like this, try: “Touching the Void” and “The Life of Pi”

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“Gothika Rule” Action/Adventure Based on a book Based on a true story DVD/Blu-Ray movie review

Everything, Everything

Posted on May 18, 2017 at 5:57 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief sensuality
Alcohol/ Drugs: Medication
Violence/ Scariness: Theme of potentially deadly illness, reference to sad death, domestic abuse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 19, 2017
Copyright Warner Brothers 2017

“Everything, Everything,” based on the novel by Nicola Yoon, is an updated fairy tale about a princess trapped in a castle and the prince who does not exactly rescue her but gives her a reason to rescue herself.

It’s not an enchantment or a curse that keeps her inside. It’s an illness that means any exposure to bacteria or a virus could be fatal. Maddy (Amandla Stenberg, Rue in “The Hunger Games”) cannot remember a time when she was allowed to be outdoors.

Diagnosed at 2 with the immune deficiency SCID, Maddy lives in an irradiated and sterile environment. She has never left her home and has never met anyone other than her doctor mother (Anika Noni Rose), her nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera), and Carla’s daughter Rosa (Danube R. Hermosillo). She has books, she has an exercise machine, she has 100 identical white t-shirts, and she has an online SCID support group. She and her mother watch movies and play phonetic scrabble. Maddy studies architecture and builds model rooms, placing the figure of an astronaut in each one. This avatar is her opposite. Her world is measured in square feet; the astronaut’s is unlimited.

Maddy stands at the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the backyard and imagines what it would feel like to stand on grass or feel a breeze of unfiltered air. And she has a seat in the corner of her bedroom overlooking the house next door, which is how she peers down at a new family moving in, a new family with a boy who has a beautiful smile. He is Olly (Nick Robinson of “Kings of Summer”). He draws his phone number on his window opposite her bedroom, and soon they are texting each other, sweetly portrayed as a face-to-face conversation at a table in Maddy’s model diner, with the astronaut looking on. She wears white; he wears black. She says, “When I talk to him, I feel like I’m outside.” But when she talks to him, she wants to go outside. And both of them find their worlds getting less black and white.

The elements of a young teen romantic fantasy are all here, primarily the disapproving parent, the utterly devoted and hunky but not too aggressive young male, adoring and supportive, and the big reason that they cannot get too physical, except maybe one perfect time. In “Twilight,” he was a vampire who could lose control and kill her. Here it’s just his normal human germs. Anyone over the age of 15 may be distracted by impracticalities and plot developments that go from improbable to preposterous, but even people who know that you have to have ID to get on an airplane and money to pay a credit card bill might just enjoy the pleasures of watching Maddy wake up to the world and Olly, through her, wake up to a few of his own.

Parents should know that this film includes risky teen behavior, some strong language, serious illness, and a non-explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: Did Carla make the right decision? Why does Maddy put an astronaut in her model rooms?

If you like this, try: “My Sister’s Keeper,” “Before I Fall” and “The Fault in Our Stars”

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No Good Deed — A Twist on the Gothika Rule

Posted on September 11, 2014 at 10:10 am

The critics screening of this week’s release, “No Good Deed,” was cancelled just hours before we were supposed to see it.  The reason: “There is a plot twist in the film that they do not want to reveal as it will affect the audiences’ experience when they see the film in theaters.”

Translation: The movie is so awful we can’t risk having it come out without a single good review.  It’s hard to believe they would have been harsher than the reactions of the critics to being excluded from seeing it. Here’s my favorite:

A couple of times a year I invoke my legendary Gothika rule — if an ending is truly terrible, I will give it away to anyone who sends me an email to ask for it. Since I haven’t seen this one, I’m going to let you guess the twist and send it to me. Give me your best ideas at moviemom@moviemom.com — if I hear from you by September 14th, I’ll send you a free e-copy of my book 101 Must-See Movie Moments.

Here’s my guess: I’m going with the full Bobby Ewing. It was all a dream.

It may be that the good deed here was allowing us to skip the film. GOTHIKA RULE ALERT: I will be happy to spoil the twist for anyone who wants to send me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com.

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