The Best of Enemies

Posted on April 4, 2019 at 5:30 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material, racial epithets, some violence and a suggestive reference
Profanity: Strong language including racist epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, cigarettes
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including racist attacks
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, including racial and disability issues
Date Released to Theaters: April 5, 2019
Copyright 2018 STX Entertainment

The biggest divide in this big, divided world is not between people of different races or religions or political beliefs; it is between people who have different ideas of who is “us” and who is “them.” “The Best of Enemies” is based on the true story of C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), a white supremacist and the Grand Exalted Cyclops (president) of the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan, and Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), a black woman who was a community activist working for civil rights and economic justice.

In 1971, Ellis and Atwater were appointed co-chairs of a charette, a dispute resolution mechanism used to resolve complicated community disagreements. Originally developed for land use debates among parties with multiple and varied interests, it was adapted for other kinds of issues by Bill Riddick, played in this film by Babou Ceesay.

Ellis and Atwater lived in Durham, North Carolina. Seventeen years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court that segregated schools were unconstitutional, the Durham schools were still divided. When the school attended by the black children burned down, the city had to decide whether to let them attend the school the white children were attending. The court did not want to deal with it, so they asked Bill Riddick to see if he could get the community to come to some agreement.

Ann Atwater worked for Operation Breakthrough but it was more than a profession; it was her calling. We first see her arguing on behalf of a young woman whose apartment is uninhabitable. And throughout the film we see that her entire life is one of advocacy and generosity. Everyone she meets is either someone to be protected or someone to help her protect others. Her sense of “us” encompassed the world.

C.P. Ellis ran a gas station. He loved his family, including a disabled son who lived in a residential facility.  The Klan made him feel respected and important. He created an outreach program to bring teenagers into the Klan. And he organized outings like the time they shot up the home of  a young white woman coming home from a date with a black man.

He agrees to co-chair the charette because he believes that anyone else who got the position would cave. And there are those in the town who would never associate with the Klan but who are glad to support them in private.

Rockwell and Henson make Ellis and Atwater into fully-developed, complex characters. There’s a world of history in the way Henson walks as Atwater, shoulders hunched, hitching her hips along.  In one scene where she reprimands young black boys for tearing down a KKK hood on display, and then straightens it herself after shooing them away, the expression in her eyes speaks volumes about what she has seen.  And when we see the patience and tenderness Ellis has for his disabled son, we get a sense of all he thinks has been taken from him and how much it matters to him to hold on to something that makes him feel powerful.

This is a thoughtful, sincere drama, beautifully performed with a touching conclusion, first of the story itself, and the small acts of kindness that make “thems” into “us-es,” and then with the footage of the real-life Atwater and Ellis. When she takes his arm to help him walk out of the room, our own us-es get a little larger, too.

Parents should know that this movie deals frankly with issues of bigotry and racism including attacks by the Klu Klux Klan. It includes some strong language with racist epithets and a sexual reference. Characters drink and smoke and there are violent, racially-motivated attacks.

Family discussion: What did Atwater and Ellis have in common? Why did she help his son? Why did she tell the boys not to take down the KKK hood? Who is the Ann Atwater in your community and what are the issues?

If you like this, try: the book by Osha Gray Davidson and the 2018 Oscar winner for Best Picture, Green Book

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The Aftermath

Posted on March 21, 2019 at 5:29 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content/nudity, and violence including some disturbing images
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Military violence with some disturbing images, brief Holocaust images, characters injured and killed, sad deaths
Diversity Issues: Post-war ethnic hostilities, Holocaust references
Date Released to Theaters: March 22, 2019

Copyright Fox Searchlight 2019
“The Aftermath” is the sort of soapy wartime melodrama people often think of when they complain that they don’t make movies like they did in the old days, except that it has more sex and, if you look past the steamy romance, a disturbing whiff of both sides-ism. The focus of the film is grief and the honorable work of rebuilding — literally, politically, diplomatically, personally after the tragic necessities of war, including demonization of the other side and the inevitable atrocities of country leaders sending young people to kill each other.

It takes place in Hamburg, Germany, five months after the end of World War II. The British are occupying the all-but-destroyed city. As residents comb through the rubble, still seeking thousands of missing people, and we are reminded that the Allies dropped more bombs in a week on the city than Germany dropped on the UK for the entire war, creating an uncomfortable parity. An elegant mansion is requisitioned by the occupying forces for its military leader, Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) and his wife, Rachel (Keira Knightley).

They allow the former owner of the home, architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) to live in the attic with his teenage daughter, Freda. Lewis is gone most of the time, trying to maintain order while many Germans are still loyal to Hitler and furious with the Allies and the occupation. Some have burned 88 on their arms (for Heil Hitler, because H is the 8th letter of the alphabet). Rachael spends some time with other Brits stationed there, but she is lonely and still grief-stricken over the death of her young son in a German bombing attack on England.

And then, she begins to see Stefan not as an enemy but as a human, a father, a man of culture, a man mourning his own losses, and also a man who looks very appealing as he chops wood wearing a blue sweater. They are drawn to each other because they are lonely and because each represents for the other a complete break with the past, almost a way to obliterate it.

Author Rhidian Brook based the story on the experiences of his grandfather, which he first sold as a screenplay idea, and then made into a novel while he worked on the script. The issues of transitioning from war to peace, with awkward, useless official inquiries to try to make impossible assignments of guilt, basically asking, “Just how much of a Nazi were you?” are intriguingly raised but not very thoughtfully explored. Lewis is an exemplar of decency and yet cannot comfort his wife. He admits that he has seen and done unspeakable things but cannot talk to his wife about that, either.

There is so much potential here for tying together the issues of the broken city and the broken world and the broken marriage, but instead the focus is on the forbidden romance. As enticing as the steamy love story may be (did I mention the log-chopping scene?), its failure to recognize and address the issues it passes through leave the film, like the home at the center of the story, pretty but empty.

Parents should know that this film includes military and rioter/protest peril and violence with characters injured and killed, some grisly and disturbing images, brief Holocaust photos, some strong language, explicit sexual situations, nudity, non-explicit teen sex, and drinking and drunkenness.

Family discussion: What is the right way to treat citizens of a conquered country? How did Stefan, Lewis, Freda, and Rachael handle grief differently?

If you like this, try: “The Exception” and “Operation Finale”

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The Grinch

Posted on February 3, 2019 at 4:18 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for brief rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 9, 2018
Date Released to DVD: February 4, 2019

Copyright Illumination 2018
My DVD pick of the week is “The Grinch,” which I reviewed for rogerebert.com.

An excerpt:

The visuals are delightfully Seussian, all curves and slants. I loved the mitten-shaped windows on one of the houses and the way that Whoville’s Christmas decorations make it look like a captivatingly intricate gingerbread village. In contrast, the Grinch’s mountain top lair is bare and cavernous, empty and solitary, far from the warmth of the Whovian homes.

While this is not especially inventive, there are some clever parallels as the Grinch and Cindy Lou each have to come up with a plan for Christmas Eve. They write out their schemes with the same two words alone on a huge surface: “Santa Claus.” And both must assemble helpers and equipment without anyone finding out.

The smaller details are the most fun, especially when the Grinch brings on an enormous, yak-looking reindeer named Fred to pull his fake Santa sleigh. Or when a relentlessly cheery Whovian (Kenan Thompson) with the fanciest Christmas decorations in town keeps insisting that he and the Grinch are best friends.

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A Dog’s Way Home

Posted on January 10, 2019 at 5:29 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, some peril and language
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, death of human and animal characters, characters with disabilities and PTSD
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: January 11, 2019
Date Released to DVD: April 8, 2019

Copyright 2019 Columbia Pictures
I laughed and I cried and I said, “Aww,” watching A Dog’s Way Home and that is not a bad way to begin the year.

Bryce Dallas Howard provides the voice of Bella, a pit bull pup living under an abandoned house in Denver with a bunch of homeless cats. She is loved and happy until animal control comes and takes her mother away. The mother cat adopts Bella, who is comforted and at home until the arrival of two animal welfare volunteers, who come by to leave cat food every day. Lucas (a warmly appealing Jonah Hauer-King) is a Veterans Administration employee studying for the MCATs and living with his mother, an Army vet struggling with depression. He is instantly taken with Bella and adopts her, even though his lease does not allow dogs.

Pit bulls are not allowed in Denver. It is up to the individual animal control officer to decide which dogs are covered by the ban, and one has it in for Bella. He picks her up once and Lucas pays the fine. But if he picks her up again, she will be killed. The developer who owns the property with the abandoned homes will do anything to get Lucas and the other animal lovers to stop interfering with his permits.

Lucas brings Bella to New Mexico to stay with friends so she will be safe while he moves to a new apartment outside of the Denver city limits. But Bella does not understand. She remembers that Lucas taught her how to go home, and so she runs away and begins a 400 mile adventure that will take more than two years.

Bella has encounters with humans and animals along the way, some kind, some predatory. She makes some friends and has the opportunity to find new loving homes but she wants to be with Lucas.

Having Bella as our narrator adds some charm to the movie because her understanding may be limited in some respects, but she never loses sight of the essentials. The individual encounters introduce us to a range of human characters, some worth a movie of their own, like the disabled vets who are able to experience joy and purpose through Bella (especially when they have to hide her from the doctor in charge of the VA hospital in one of the film’s best scenes). She saves one man’s life and becomes the last friend of a homeless man (Edward James Olmos). And she mothers “big kitten,” an orphan mountain lion who will someday return the favor. The footage here is heartwarming and genuinely astonishing, especially after they meet again when the majestic cat is fully grown.

This is a nice way to start the year, a story of love and loyalty, canine and human.

Parents should know that this film features humans and animals in peril, injured and killed, animal hit by a car, animal killed by hunters, character dies and the body is discovered by children, and characters who struggle with PTSD and depression.

Family discussion: What did Bella understand better than the humans did? Why did Bella make such a difference for the veterans?

If you like this, try: “The Incredible Journey” and “A Dog’s Purpose”

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