Dune

Posted on October 21, 2021 at 5:21 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sequences of strong violence, and suggestive material
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Sci-fi drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, monsters, guns, knives, many characters injured and killed including major characters and sad death of a parent, some scary and graphic images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2021

Copyright Warner Brothers 2021
If some of the elements of “Dune” feel familiar to you, it is because the book series it is based on was published in the 1960s and epics have been drawing from it ever since, just as it drew on Hero With a Thousand Faces legends of young heroes up against impossible odds and evil villains with the help of wise counselors and beautiful romantic partners, and sociopolitical history. If it feels incomplete to you it is because it ends not in the middle of the story but at the end of the beginning; it is something of an origin story that just begins to set up the bigger story to come. If it feels confusing to you it is because you have not read the long, dense, intricate books, in which case I suggest this very helpful background from New York Magazine’s Vulture website. It might also be because you saw the cult-y earlier movie version from cult-y director David Lynch. The one with Sting.

But while you may be pondering those ifs, you will be stunned and amazed by the astonishing worlds on the screen (please see it on IMAX if you can do so safely), one of the most remarkable examples of cinematic world-building magic ever made, thanks to “Arrival” duo director Denis Villeneuve and art director Patrice Vermette.

Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, the son of a powerful Duke (Oscar Isaac) who is loyal to the emperor and his beloved concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who is a member of a group called Bene Gesserit. They are a secretive, nun-like group with magical powers. Remember how Obi-wan Kenobi told the imperial guard “These are not the droids you are looking for” and the guard bought it? The Bene Gesserit has powers like that only to do it they have to use a low-pitched growly voice.

So Paul comes from political and financial power on one side and mystical power on the other, quite a potent mix and as a teenager he is still sorting it all out, especially some weird and possibly predictive dreams he has been having.

The emperor makes a controversial decision to remove one of the Duke’s rival houses, House Harkonnen, from the extremely lucrative desert planet Arrakis, where they have accumulated incalculable wealth from the planet’s precious resource, called spice, by exploiting the environment and abusing the planet’s residents, the Fremen, who are now mostly hiding out literally underground. He orders the Duke to take over, and the Duke and his family dutifully obey. Needless to say, House Harkonnen and its leader the Baron (Stellan Skarsgård in Jabba the Hutt mode) is angry. This means Paul has to contend with all the usual teenage angst and identity issues plus the angry Fremen and possibly some traitorous insiders.

A couple of other points: Arrakis has some indigenous animal life, including a cute mouse creature and some gigantic and extremely scary and lethal sand worms, with mouth-like openings the size of a circus tent. They are attracted to — of all things — rhythmic sounds, like…footsteps. And spice is extremely valuable and can turn users’ eyes blue.

Even if you are confused, you can still be drawn into the story because it is clear who the good and bad and good/bad characters are and who we are supposed to root for. And the visuals are so compelling that the confusing parts make us more curious than frustrated. It is overlong for an origin story, but made with so much thought and story-telling mastery that I’m confident the next chapter will be even better.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild language, some sexual references, and extended sometimes bloody violence including weapons and poison. Major characters are injured and killed, including a parent.

Family discussion: What historic events may have inspired this story? What elements of the story inspired later classic movies?

If you like this, try: The books by Frank Herbert and others like Stranger in a Strange Land and The Foundation Trilogy

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Worth

Posted on September 2, 2021 at 10:00 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language and thematic elements
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Terrorist attack, tragic loss of life and injury, tense and emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: Class issues are a theme in the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 27, 2021

Copyright 2021 Netflix
What is life worth? Who gets to decide? Most of us prefer not to think about it. For a few of us, mostly lawyers, insurers, and those in government, it is their job. I had that job for a while when I was in the government, looking at questions like: “Should we prohibit a particular pesticide if it will reduce the incidence of cancer by two people every year but increase the price of a bushel of berries by $1.00?” Law and society have been very inconsistent, spending far more in emergencies than on prevention.

Lawyer Ken Feinberg has made the job of assigning monetary value to human life his career. He comes into the most traumatic and tragic cases of incalculable loss, Agent Orange, asbestos, the financial meltdown, and tries to decide how much money to pay to compensate the injured and the survivors. Twenty years ago, it was Feinberg and his colleague Camille Biros who were called upon to determine how much money would be paid by the taxpayers to the families of those killed or injured on 9/11. Feinberg’s book about these cases has been turned into a film, with Michael Keaton as Feinberg, Amy Ryan as Biros, and Stanley Tucci as Charles G. Wolf, who challenged the original settlement proposal.

The film takes some dramatic license with the real story but it is all in service of making the abstract issues real, concrete, and meaningful, as well as protecting the privacy of some of the people involved. We first see Feinberg as a man of integrity and culture (he really loves opera, but not the new-fangled stuff), a bit formal and old-fashioned. He does not use a computer and he dictates a note to one of his children, emphasizing the importance of being on time, that until the “love, Dad” signature could be a letter to opposing counsel. But he skillfully negotiates himself into the position of Special Master with three disarming points. He foregoes any payment. He mentions that no one else wants the job. And he points out that if he fails, the Republicans can blame him for being a Democrat.

The dollar amount is not intended to compensate the families for their grief or for their loss. There is not enough money in the world to do that, and no way to value one individual more than another. It is based only on the value (“present value” in economic terms) of their future earnings. On that basis, a clerical worker’s family would get less than a stockbroker’s family.

Most of the survivors understand that. But Fienberg and Biros learn that for these shocked, grieving families, being heard is as important as being paid. And they learn that an algorithm based on the age and earning potential of the person who died and the applicable lows of inheritance may reach a result that does not meet anyone’s standards for fairness. Broadway star Laura Benanti makes an indelible impression as the widow of a fire fighter who went back into the building because he wanted to save people. Ryan is brilliant as always in a role of quiet power. She can say more by listening than many actors can by talking. And Keaton, who has constantly surprised us with his range, gives one of his best performances.

The eternal conundrum of the law is finding a balance between the fairness of a clear, consistent rule and the fairness of individual, discretionary judgment. This movie illustrates that wrenching dilemma in the most compelling terms, with much of the focus on the shell-shocked survivors whose grief is only eased by being given a chance to talk about them, to make sure that the people they loved for their very individual characteristics is not seen by those in charge of estimating the value of their lives see them as more than data points to plug into a formula. Money to pay the bills provides some comfort. But being heard provides solace, and this film is as much a tribute to those we lost as to those who tried to give them some small element of restorative justice.

Parents should know that this film includes very sad stories from the families and survivors of a terrorist attack and some footage of the aftermath. There is some strong language.

Family discussion: Who should decide what a life is worth? What was wrong with the way Ken Feinberg conducted the original meeting? Is it possible to create just rules that allow for all legitimate exceptions? Were the fund’s payments “fair?”

If you like this, try: Feinberg’s book and movies like “Metal of Honor” and “United 93” and read articles like this one and this one.

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Trailer: Cinderella — A New Musical With Idina Menzel and Camila Cabello

Posted on August 3, 2021 at 7:35 pm

Amazon Prime has a new musical Cinderella story coming in September. Camila Cabello plays the girl with the evil stepmother (“Frozen’s” Idina Menzel) and Billy Porter is the fabulous fairy godmother. But this one has a different spin. Cinderella has ambitions that have nothing to do with marrying a prince. She is a talented dress designer who dreams of a career in fashion. Written and directed by “Pitch Perfect’s” Kay Cannon, it looks like a lot of fun. (Also, I bet there’s some romance as well as all the empowerment stuff.)

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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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Fatherhood

Posted on June 17, 2021 at 5:32 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language and suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death of a parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 18, 2021

Copyright Netflix 2021
Matt Logelin became a father and a widower at the same time. His wife died suddenly after their daughter was born and he told the story of his life as a single dad in a book called Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss & Love. And now his story has been adapted into a film, with Kevin Hart as Matt, the sometimes terrified, often-befuddled, frequently exhausted, and always devoted father of an adorable little girl.

Anyone who has ever raised a child or seen a movie has a pretty good idea of where this is going. See the reference to terror, befuddlement, exhaustion, and devotion above, which every parent knows well, along with the daunting challenges of many, many diapers, installing a car seat, and trimming an infant’s fingernails. Matt also has to face the well-meaning strangers who ask, “And where is her mother?” And the most daunting challenge of all: “You just have to do what’s best for her for the rest of her life.”

Like all parents do, he makes mistakes. Probably not too bad that he has Maddy play poker with his friends. On the other hand, letting her watch an animated series because he figures all cartoons are safe is not a good idea. “If you could have had one parent,” he sighs, “I wish it could have been your mom.” And while Maddy adores her dad, sometimes she wishes for more. “Other people have more people,” she says.

Kevin Hart gives a sincere and heartfelt performance as Matt, who gives his baby Maddy two kisses every night, one from him and one from her mother. He is clear that Maddy is is number one priority and that he will not allow her well-meaning grandmothers to take over just because they do not think he can take care of her.

But he can. Yes, he has a lot to learn. He shows up at an otherwise all-female “parent” support group because he cannot get Maddy to stop crying. And then there is the issue of her hair. He talks his boss into letting him bring her to the office. And he backs her up when she wants to wear pants instead of the skirt of her parochial school uniform.

Matt has two close friends who provide some encouragement, played by Lil Rel Howrey and Anthony Carrigan, who might as well be named Comic and Relief. Hart, who usually has that role, is not an actor of wide range, but his distinctive delivery works well here, especially with the irresistibly charming Melody Hurd as the school-age Maddy. Almost as irresistible is DeWanda Wise as a charming animator who provides the possibility of some adult companionship for Matt, a prospect that is appealing and scary.

The fact that everyone who has ever had or even spent serious time with a child can predict the touchstones in the film is not necessarily a bad thing. These events are touchstones because they are universal. Matt does not struggle with them because he is a man bu because he is Matt, and because these are things every parent finds difficult, the heartwarming depiction of in this film will be touching because it is familiar and resonant.

Parents should know that this film deals with the very sad death of a mother and the struggles of a single father. The film includes potty humor, some sexual references and non-explicit situations, a child being injured, family conflicts, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What was Matt’s most difficult moment? Who gave him the best advice and support?

If you like this, try: “Three Men and a Baby” and the Bryce Dallas Howard documentary “Dads”

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