The Little Things

Posted on January 27, 2021 at 7:00 am

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violent/disturbing images, language and full nudity.
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Serial killer crime drama
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 29, 2021

Copyright Warner Brothers 2021
Three Oscar winners cannot save “The Little Things,” a crime thriller that starts out promisingly and about halfway through completely loses its way. It’s almost like the screenplay was created by two different people, or undermined by the director. But John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Highwaymen”), both wrote and directed, so he is responsible when the story veers into Gothika Rule territory.

It takes place in 1990, and we begin with a pretty young woman driving on the highway and singing along to the Go-Gos as a sinister motorist behind her makes her uncomfortable and then terrified. The first half sets up two mysteries. The first is the realization that the young woman who has been murdered is the victim of a serial killer, expanding and making more urgent the search to find the one responsible. The detective in charge is Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), who takes the job very seriously, even personally. “We work for her,” he says about the dead woman.

A lower-level officer named Deke Deacon (Denzel Washington) has been sent to Baxter’s police station to pick up some evidence. The second mystery is why the people there are (mostly) so hostile to him and why a clearly experienced, capable, and dedicated has not risen in rank. “And they say Black guys never return to the scene of the crime,” another detective says with acid in his voice. But the forensic pathologist seems more sympathetic, agreeing to spend some time with him when a delay in making the evidence available keeps him there overnight.

There’s “something like it up north,” Deke says, and soon he and Baxter are beginning to work together to find the killer. “Things probably changed a lot since you left,” says Baxter. “Still gotta catch ’em? Then nothing has really changed that much,” Deke says.

So far, so good. As long as Deke and Baxter are behaving like intelligent, dedicated professionals, the movie holds our interest as a police procedural with intriguing characters. But then Jared Leto enters the picture as suspect Albert Sparma and it all begins to fall apart. Baxter seems to have an inexplicable change of personality with a decision so monumentally stupid and contrary to day one of any kind of law enforcement training not to mention basic common sense that it takes us out of the story.

Meanwhile, what we learn about Deke’s past is not as meaningful as the movie clearly thinks it is, making the story’s primary mystery secondary to the point of almost inconsequential. Washington’s is the only performance that continues to hold our attention as Leto hits one creepy note and stays there and Malek is unable to overcome his character’s inconsistency. More important, the swerve in tone undermines the film’s aspirations for moral complexity. The title of the film refers to the little things that are important to get right, whether you are a killer trying to evade justice or law enforcement trying to achieve it. In the case of this movie, the little things are all right but the big thing, the screenplay, is a mess.

Parents should know that this movie is about a serial killer and it has some grisly and graphic images and strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Deke send the package to Baxter? How was that decision tied to his own experience? Why did Flo keep the memento on her keychain?

If you like this, try: “Inside Man” and “Silence of the Lambs”

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WandaVision — Unpacking Marvel’s New DisneyPlus Series

Posted on January 24, 2021 at 9:56 pm

Copyright 2021 Marvel

Have you taken a look at WandaVision? I’ve watched the first two episodes and I’m very intrigued. I am a fan of comics and superhero movies but I do not know much about the Wanda and Vision characters beyond what’s in the Avengers movies.

Here’s the series trailer.

And here, for those of us who are not fully immersed in the MCU, here is a deep dive into the meaning of the references in the first episode.

My friend and fellow critic Sherin Nicole wrote about Wandavision for Idobi. An exerpt:

A lot of what is most intriguing about the first three episodes of the new Disney+ series WandaVision, from Marvel Studios, is indicative of a lot of what’s wrong in America. WandaVision carries the veneer of classic TV, when everything was perfect and perfectly funny and yet we know those times weren’t great for everybody. There was something sinister beneath the surface. In that way, we suspect things aren’t so great for Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) either.

Something is very wrong in the idyllic new town they’ve moved to—we can tell because the series starts off in a The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961) world and it’s funny and it’s cute and it’s also a little bit creepy. Moments hitch, things go strangely askew, and red is the only spot of color (like a warning light or a bloody cut). The show purposefully uses one of the brightest TV shows ever made to contrast the suppurating ideology that gives “make America great again” power. And that’s what begins to make you uncomfortable—laugh track and all.

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Our Friend

Posted on January 21, 2021 at 5:35 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, medication
Violence/ Scariness: Illness and very sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 22, 2021

Copyright 2021 Roadside Attractions
“Friend” is a category that is near-endless in scope. We use it to describe a work colleague we have lunch with sometimes, someone we’ve seen at parties whose middle name we don’t know, someone we met playing tennis who never heard the story of how our two-year-old locked herself in the bathroom with the cat. We use that word for the people we deliver casseroles to when things get tough, and those who deliver them to us, never crossing the doorway into the house. And yet we use the same word to encompass a person who gave up his job, his home, and his relationship to help people he cares about through as excruciatingly painful and physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting experience as there is, the terminal illness of a young mother.

Dakota Johnson plays Nicole Teague, wife of journalist Matthew Teague (Casey Affleck), devoted and endlessly patient mother to Molly and Evangeline, and best friend of Dane (Jason Segel), a shy and sometimes awkward guy who has struggled with depression and with direction. But when Nicole’s diagnosis is dire, he leaves New Orleans to move in with the family, saying simply, “I just feel like I’m supposed to be here right now.”

He tells his girlfriend it will probably be just for a few weeks. But he stays as his vacation days get used up and he loses his job and as her patience gets used up and he loses her. He just stays, never asking how he can help, just quietly providing a sense of stability in the home.

“Our Friend” is based on Matthew Teague’s award-winning story in Esquire. In an interview, I asked Teague about Dane, who, as characters in the movie point out, is not successful in conventional terms but whose quiet and extraordinarily sensitive support defines the term “no greater love.” He said simply, “He is my hero. And it’s pretty great to have a best friend who is also your hero.”

Teague also spoke candidly about the two kinds of health care professionals families encounter in critical illness. The first are only about doing anything medically possible to prolong life. The second come in for hospice care, and will do anything they can to keep the patient comfortable and support the family.

We see both in this film, the second portrayed by the great Cherry Jones as the well-named Faith. Pointedly, as really happened, Dane arrives just as both Nicole and the family dog are diagnosed with cancer, and it is Dane who has to take the dog to the vet and be there for what we euphemistically call being put to sleep. Matthew exhaustedly says he wants to make sure the girls do not associate the two cancers.

We see the impact of the illness on Nicole. As the doctor warns at the beginning, the family will see her unlike anything in their past understanding of who she is. There will be confusion, anger, lashing out, and not just from Nicole. But the focus of the film, as the title indicates, is on the friend, who just shows up and says, “Would it help if I stayed with you for a while?”

The script by Brad Ingelsby (“The Way Back,” “Run All Night”) jumps back and forth in time, as though it is all from Matthew’s memory as he writes the story. It opens with Dane sitting on the porch with the girls as Matthew and Nicole rehearse what they will say to let their daughters know that their mother is dying. Though typed titles tell us where we are in time vis a vis the diagnosis, it is sometimes distracting. But director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who showed great compassion for damaged characters in “Meagan Leavy,” imbues the film with enormous compassion for its characters and the lead actors, especially Segel, bring endless warmth and humanity to their roles, which always feel fully inhabited. We feel their loss. And we feel the sustaining connections that help them through.

Parents should know that this movie is the story of the illness and death of a young mother, and it is very sad. Characters use strong language and there are references to adultery.

Family discussion: What made Dane different from the other friends? Who has been a Dane in your life? Who would you be a Dane for?

If you like this, try: “50/50,” with Seth Rogen playing a character based on himself in the true story of a someone who helps a young friend with cancer, and “My Life” with Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman

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Family Movies for Martin Luther King Day

Posted on January 15, 2021 at 10:40 am

As we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, every family should take time to talk about this great American leader and hero of the Civil Rights Movement. There are outstanding films and other resources for all ages.

New this week is “MLK/FBI” with newly released material about the government’s surveillance, of Dr. King, including informants and wiretaps.

I highly recommend the magnificent movie Boycott, starring Jeffrey Wright as Dr. King. And every family should study the history of the Montgomery bus boycott that changed the world.

It is humbling to remember that the boycotters never demanded complete desegregation of the public transit; that seemed too unrealistic a goal. This website has video interviews with the people who were there. This newspaper article describes Dr. King’s meeting with the bus line officials. And excellent teaching materials about the Montgomery bus boycott are available, including the modest and deeply moving reminder to the boycotters once segregation had been ruled unconstitutional that they should “demonstrate calm dignity,” “pray for guidance,” and refrain from boasting or bragging.

Families should also read They Walked To Freedom 1955-1956: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Paul Winfield has the lead in King, a brilliant and meticulously researched NBC miniseries co-starring Cecily Tyson that covers Dr. King’s entire career.

The brilliant film Selma tells the story of the fight for voting rights.

The Long Walk Home, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek, makes clear that the boycott was a reminder to black and white women of their rights and opportunities — and risk of change.

Citizen King is a PBS documentary with archival footage of Dr. King and his colleagues. Martin Luther King Jr. – I Have a Dream has his famous speech in full, still one of the most powerful moments in the history of oratory and one of the most meaningful moments in the history of freedom.

For children, Our Friend, Martin and Martin’s Big Words are a good introduction to Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement.

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The Marksman

Posted on January 13, 2021 at 8:00 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, violence, and some bloody images
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, scene in bar
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive peril and violence, brutal murders, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 15, 2021

Copyright 2021 Voltage Pictures
I can’t help saying that “The Marksman,” the 2021 entry in the annual Liam Neeson action film we usually get to start the year, is no bullseye. Neeson is always watchable and the Mark Patten cinematography makes the most of the southwestern landscape. The shoot-outs are well-staged. But the screenplay by
Chris Charles, Danny Kravitz, and director Robert Lorenz is underwritten and predictable.

This is less the “Taken” or “Cold Pursuit”-style action thriller where we get to enjoy Neeson showing off his special skills than it is a Clint Eastwood-style cranky old guy movie, perhaps because Lorenz is Eastwood’s longtime producer. There’s even a pause where the two main characters watch “Hang ’em High,” a 1968 Eastwood film that was the first from Eastwood’s own production company. In “The Marksman,” Neeson plays an Eastwood-like character who rails against his fate: “I’m trying to understand how you can work your whole life, serve your country, pay your taxes” and end up with nothing.”

Neeson plays Jim a Marine vet turned rancher on the Arizona border. He sometimes finds Mexicans who have been injured illegally crossed the border, and he always calls the immigration authorities, where his stepdaughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick) is an official.

Wiped out by medical expenses, he is notified by a banker that his ranch is about to be auctioned in 90 days, but can be sold sooner if they get a good offer. The loan officer Jim knew — and who knew Jim — is no longer there at the bank. The fact that Jim’s late wife’s ashes are spread on the hill and that he is “no deadbeat,” does not mean he gets extra time. “You have yourself a good evening,” the banker says as he gets into his car.

Jim finds a Mexican mother and son who have sneaked through a hole in the border fence. He calls the authorities, but then cartel thugs led by Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba) come after them and start shooting. Jim shoots back. “Sorry, Pancho, these illegals are mine.”

The boy’s uncle stole some money from the cartel. They killed him and now they want to send a message by killing his family. The boy’s mother is shot. As she is dying, she gives the boy a rosary and hands Jim a blood-soaked scrap of paper with an address in Chicago, where the boy’s relatives are. She asks Jim to promise to bring her son to them.

And so, Jim and Miguel (Jacob Perez) get on the road. Jim does not have a phone or GPS, so he buys a map, which an amused sales clerk lets him have at no charge. But the very high tech cartel thugs are able to trace him through his credit card. And so it is a cat-and-mouse road trip with the interactions, escapes, and confrontations you would expect. Which is the problem. This movie is so bereft of ideas that it telegraphs everything that is coming (I mean, the title makes sure we know what Neeson’s special skills are this time) and repeating too much of it.

I respect Neeson’s special skills. I just hope next time they include picking a better script.

Parents should know that this film is about a former Marine who tries to protect a young boy after his mother and uncle are murdered by members of a Mexican drug cartel. The film includes shoot-outs and fighting, with many injuries and deaths, including a parent and a dog, all witnessed by the boy. There is also some strong language and some drinking.

Family discussion: Why does Jim help Miguel? Why does he change his mind about helping Miguel? Why does he end things with Mauricio the way he does? Do you agree?

If you like this, try: “Let Him Go” with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane and “Taken” with Neeson

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