The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

Posted on April 17, 2024 at 8:08 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some language and strong violence throughout
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive wartime violence with guns, knives, arrows, explosions, many characters killed, many graphic and disturbing sounds and images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 19, 2024

It is a perfect match of story and director. Guy Ritchie is at his best in high-energy stories of very attractive men with mad fighting skills and no hesitation in using them. In between shoot-outs, explosions, and high crimes, casually toss off understated quips and references to the playing fields of Eton. This is a true story with exactly those components, plus a ton of nameless Nazis and one guy who is described as even worse than a Nazi, so killing them is as close to guilt-free as possible. He has a lot of fun with it.

Copyright Lionsgate 2024

The group of highly skilled renegades are described in the book that inspired this film as the first special forces military operatives. And we hear the British commanders explain that if Hitler isn’t following the rules, they won’t either. “They’re all bad,” warns one. “They’ll need to be,” responds another.

Of course that means they do not obey orders, either, but that’s what you get when you get a man out of prison to put together a group of cut-throats and renegades, one who is also in prison, but in his case being tortured in a German POW camp. Their mission is to go to the Ivory Coast and sink the supply ship that services the U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean.

On to the strategy, the revising of the strategy when things go wrong, the stunts, the shoot-outs, the action-banter, remix and repeat, plus a thumpy score with some cowboy twang by Christopher Benstead.

Cavill, formerly clean-cut and dashing as Superman and in the under-appreciated “The Man From UNCLE,” is even better in scruffy mode here as Gus March-Phillips. “Reacher’s” Alan Ritchson and “Crazy Rich Asian’s” Henry Golding also seem to be enjoying a chance to have some fun with their roles. The team needs some back-up help from undercover operatives, which is where we get to enjoy Babs Olusanmokun as Heron, who runs the local nightclub and “Third Body Problem’s” Eiza González as Majorie Stewart, sultry singer, sharpshooter, and, as a cover, gold smuggler.

And then there is the bad guy, described by Heron as “the only guy worse than a Nazi,” the cruel local commanding officer, (Til Schweiger), providing additional menace and urgency as the final operation becomes complicated and chaotic. Ritchie gets lost in the bombast and is too cheery about the carnage. He has no time for character or emotional heft beyond our feelings based on what we know about the history. There’s no substance, but it is entertaining.

Worth mentioning: a senior office in charge, played by “The Princess Bride’s” Cary Elwes, is known as M and one of the junior officers is a young Ian Fleming, played by Freddie Fox. Yes, that Ian Fleming, and the closing credits tell us that he got some of his ideas for James Bond from this experience.

Parents should know that this is an extremely violent film set in wartime, with a lot of guns, knives, arrows, and explosions, some torture, prostitutes and implied sexual abuse, with many disturbing and graphic sounds and images. Characters use strong language and there is drinking and drunkenness.

Family discussion: What rules work during a war? Why aren’t all military operations conducted this way? How is war today different from this story?

If you like this, try: the book by Damien Lewis (the writer, not the actor) and films like “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Guns of Navarone”

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The Color Purple

Posted on December 24, 2023 at 5:04 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexual content, violence and language
Profanity: Strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Domestic violence, attack, character beaten by police
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2023

Copyright Warner Brothers 2023
Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple is the acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning story of Celie, a young Black woman in the rural Georgia of the early 1900s. Through her letters, written to her sister Nettie, we learned the story of her horrific abuse, told in the simple language of someone who had no education and little sense that she deserved better.

The book was made into a dramatic film directed by Stephen Spielberg, with Whoopi Goldberg as Celie and Oprah Winfrey as Sofia, who becomes Celie’s step-daughter-in-law. It then became a successful Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, and a book by Marsha Norman. “American Idol” favorite Fantasia Barrino was a replacement Celie and Danielle Brooks played Sofia.

And now it is a movie again, with Barrino and Books repeating their Broadway roles. This version is unexpectedly joyous and heartwarming. That is in large part thanks to director Blitz Bazawule, who shows us the characters’ strengths with the musical numbers before the storyline does. It is also thanks to the raise-the-roof, powerhouse performances from Barrino, Brooks, and Henspn, any one of which would blow the doors of of a theater, and all three together lift our spirits like a gospel choir. Every note is pure and thrilling. Every one is a revelation. Henson has the showiest part and she brings her endless movie star charisma to Shug the performer. But she also brings infinite compassion and gentleness to the intimate moments. Any lesser performer might make us question why someone as flamboyant and apparently hedonistic as Shug would find what no one else in Georgia seems to see in Celie. But Henson makes us understand why she gives Celie two things she has never had before, respect and a sense that she is worthy of love. She makes Shug another character who has made choices for her own survival but maintains a core of warmth.

Brooks is bursting with life force as Sofia, until her insistence on respect from others brings her devastating repercussions from the only white characters we see in the film. We learn from her story about abuse from outside that creates ripple effects in their community. We also see with Mister’s relationship with his father, how abuse is passed on through generations. And, with his son (Corey Hawkins), how healing through generations is also possible.

Phylicia Pearl Mpasi as young Celie and Halle Bailey (“The Little Mermaid”) as the her sister Nettie show us that having one person care is enough to make a difference. Mister throws Nettie out and she leaves with a missionary family for Africa and their separation is more devastating to Celie than her abuse by Mister, again underscoring the critical importance of a sustaining relationship.

The movie is frank about Celie’s abuse, including repeated rape by the man she believes is her father and then by the man her father sells her to, known to her only as Mister. But this version is more about Celie’s growing understanding of her own power, including the power of forgiveness. We also see other characters show resilience, generosity, and remorse. If the conclusion, as in the book and the previous movie, seems to tie things up a little too quickly, by that time we are so happy for Celie and so moved by the music we are fine with it.

Parents should know that this movie includes extreme abuse of a very young woman including rape and battery and having her children taken away. The film also includes misogynistic and racist attacks, a character beat up by police, betrayal, drinking and drunkenness, and strong language.

Family discussion: What are the events that make Celie understand that she could say no and that she deserved better? Why did Shug see more in Celie than anyone else? What made Mister change his mind?

If you like this, try: the book and the Spielberg movie

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American Fiction

Posted on December 17, 2023 at 4:25 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, some drug use, sexual references and brief violence
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drugs, references to drug dealers
Violence/ Scariness: Brief graphic violence, reference to suicide
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 22, 2023

Copyright Amazon 2023
“American Fiction,” from first-time writer/director Cord Jefferson and based on the 2001 novel Erasure, by Percival Everett, is a biting satire of just about every aspect of American life, especially academia, publishing, and racism. It is also a heartfelt story about family connections and the conflicts that strain them. It is provocative, funny, and searingly smart. In my opinion, it is the best film of the year.

What’s remarkable is that Everett’s story is even more timely now than it was 22 years ago. Indeed, life imitates art, as Jefferson has spoken about how this story about a frustrated Black academic writes a satiric take-down of the kinds of Black representation that pander to white audiences had the same kind of difficulty getting this film made that the fictional professor had in finding a publisher for his book about classical Greek literature.

That professor, like the man who created him, has a literary name. He is Thelonious Ellison, nicknamed “Monk” after the musician Thelonius Monk. He likes to think of himself as living in a non-racial or post-racial world. He feigns ignorance when his class objects to his writing the title of a Flannery O’Connor story that includes the n-word on the blackboard, and frustrated when he gets in trouble for it. It infuriates Monk that his books about classical literature are shelved with Black books. It infuriates him even more when his agent, Arthur (a terrific John Ortiz of “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Ad Astra”) tells him publishers want him to write a “Black book.” “It is a Black book! I’m Black and it’s a book!” Monk says.

Monk’s relationship with his family is strained. His sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) is a doctor, exhausted from the stress of her job and caring for their mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams), who is experiencing cognitive decline. His brother Clifford (Sterling K. Brown), also a doctor, is dealing with his own domestic upheaval as he wife left him after she found him having sex with a man. After a shocking loss, Monk has to take responsibility for Agnes, and he needs money.

Impetuously, Monk quickly bangs out a book he titles My Pathology. No, he corrects it, or un-corrects it, My Pafology, presumably a first-person narrative by a gang member and drug dealer known as Stagg R. Leigh (the name inspired y the 19th century pimp described in the classic song). The book is immediately snapped up by thrilled white editors at a top publishing house who chirp at him that they hope to get it out by Juneteenth. And then a white Hollywood director is interested.

Monk, his mother, and the family’s long-time housekeeper Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor) visit the family’s vacation home on the water, and Monk meets the woman who owns the house across the street, a lawyer named Coraline (Erika Alexander). The film, like Monk’s book, has a heightened tone, but Alexander’s Coraline brings a grounding reality to the story as both the heart and the moral center. A scene with Coraline, Monk, and Clifford is one of the highlights of a consistently outstanding film.

Indeed, every performance is superb and Jefferson’s exceptional control of tone somehow makes the heightened portions and the more realistic elements work seamlessly together. Another outstanding scene has Monk talking to Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) as a sophisticated author whose “poverty porn” book, We’s Lives In Da Ghetto is a critical and commercial success. Taylor makes the loyal family retainer role fully complex, and we are grateful to see that the screenplay gives her a chance to have her own life and dreams.

This is a movie that cares about all of its characters and about the pernicious effects of racism, including the unacknowledged racism of people who consider themselves free from bigotry. Jefferson knows the hardest truths reach us through humor, and this movie is filled with wonderfully funny moments. It is only later that we realize just how compelling its messages are.

Parents should know that this film has constant strong language, sexual references, drinking and drugs and a fictional drug dealer, and a brief scene of graphic violence.

Family discussion: Which book of Monk’s would you want to read? Do you agree with Coraline about not judging people on their worst day?

If you like this, try: “Dear White People” and Percival Everett’s books. And for a real-life conversation about these issues, see the Jay-Z documentary, “Fade to Black.” As I wrote about it in my book 101 Must-See Movie Moments:

Backstage, aspiring young performers talk about the conflict they feel knowing that in order to be successful they must pander to stereotypes about “gangstas” instead of addressing a wider range of issues or exploring their own experiences and feelings.
Jay-Z begins by saying that he thinks the violence and drug problems of the inner city are not as bad as they were when he was younger and that it takes people speaking out against it to make a difference. But, he says, it is not his style to do so. “You’re not that type of rapper,” one of his friends agrees. “For two lines out of a 60-minute tape,” he says, “for 30 seconds, I felt like saying something, to speak on what’s going on in the hood, should I not do that? Should I ignore those feelings?”

Young hip-hop artists who want to be as successful as Jay-Z then talk about their conflicts. “You rapping on shooting and killing people,” Jay-Z says to one of them. “They the one who buy it. That’s what people want to hear,” the other responds. “Truthfully, it’s whack. I’ve been feeling that way, too. I don’t be wanting to do that. It seems that sometimes that’s all the n*** want to hear.” Another one advises him to “be you,” asking “Why would you write a rhyme that you don’t want to write?” But he does not think his music will sell if he tries something different, even if it is more honest.

Jay-Z tells the documentary cameraman to focus on him so he can speak directly to us in the audience. “See what you, the public, did to rappers? They scared to be theyselves. N*** don’t think that people gonna accept them as theyself.”

It is as powerful and telling a moment about art, mortality, culture, and identity as has ever been filmed.

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Posted on December 14, 2023 at 12:34 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some violence, mild language and thematic elements
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Candy with magical properties
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy peril and violence, character bullied and beat up, sad offscreen death of a parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 15, 2023

Copyright 2023 Warner Brothers
“Wonka” is the origin story of everyone’s favorite fictional chocolatier, the central figure in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Anyone who ever wondered how Willy Wonka got started, how he developed his incomparably delicious and deliciously magical candies, built a factory, and met the Oompa-Loompas, will find all of that here and more. As we might expect from the people behind the Paddington films, it is brimming with whimsy, charm, and heart, and that is movie magic. The production design, by Nathan Crowley (“Interstellar,” “The Dark Knight”) is wonderfully intricate and tactile, mixing Dickensian touches and Rube Goldberg fancifulness. It just about qualifies as a world of pure imagination.

Timothee Chalet plays the young Wonka, who grew up on a boat with his mother (Sally Hawkins), a brilliant chocolatier who experimented with recipes as they visited exotic locations. As the movie begins, she has died, and he has come to a big European city (touches of London, Paris, and Vienna) to share his chocolates with the world.

Things go badly. His chocolates have people floating on air. Literally. But the three chocolate CEOs who control the market do not want the competition and they bribe a chocolate-loving local cop (Keegan-Michael Key) to keep him from selling his chocolate (yes, families will get a little introduction to cartels and the importance of enforcing antitrust law). And Wonka ignores the advice to read the fine print before signing a contract (more worthwhile legal advice for families) for a night’s stay at a local inn run by the Dickensian-ishly named Mrs. Scrubbit (Olivia Colman). It turns out he signed away his services for her laundry, along with an orphan child named Noodle (Calah Lane) and several other colorful characters. He is a prisoner and it looks like he will be stuck for decades.

But Wonka is nothing if not optimistic and enterprising. He has a solution to the problem of the endless piles of laundry that gives him a chance to escape for until Mrs. Scrubbit’s daily check. Noodle becomes his sidekick as he continues to try to create and sell chocolates.

The Wonka in the original book and movie is not a nice person. Children enjoy his wicked streak, taking pleasure in the outrageous consequences for the young visitor who ignore his warnings. And even those who still love the movie are generally in agreement that what happens to Mike, Veruca, and Augustus is pretty drastic. In this film, a character does suffer consequences of his gluttony to an extent that feels like too much for the world they have created. This Wonka is not just younger but sweeter than the one we know. He takes a stand against stealing and faces some consequences for a thoughtless taking of some (but not all) of the candy ingredients he collects.

Chalamet is just right in the role, and he has great chemistry with Hugh Grant(!) as the Oompa-Loompa (with what is probably the only funny joke about economy plus travel in history). Like Paddington, Wonka brings out the best in the people around him, and in the delighted audience, too.

Parents should know that this film has a sad offscreen death of a parent, a child and adults held captive, fantasy-style violence (Wonka’s face pushed into water, bonked on the head), and some mild language.

Family discussion: What makes Willy Wonka good at solving problems? What is your favorite kind of chocolate and what Wonka treat do you wish you could try?

If you like this, try: The Roald Dahl books and the Gene Wilder movie

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Killers of the Flower Moon

Posted on October 19, 2023 at 5:34 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, some grisly images, and language
Profanity: Strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence including murder, guns, explosions
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 20, 2023

Copyright AppleTV 2023
Martin Scorsese brings everything he knows to the fact-based epic “Killers of the Flower Moon,” everything he knows about filmmaking and everything he knows about the conflicts and betrayals in American history, despite all efforts to remove them from curricula and libraries, continue to pulsate through our culture.

The film is based on the prize-winning book of the same name by David Grann, set about a century ago in Oklahoma. America forcibly relocated the Osage tribal members to a part of the country they thought was valueless. Times change. Technology changes. And it turned out that what was under that land was suddenly accessible and valuable: oil. The bounty the Osage never sought brought them riches they never dreamed of. The money brought the kind of people who will do anything to get it. That includes bending the law to the breaking point, with the government placing severe restrictions on Osage access to the money, appointing white “guardians” to oversee every expenditure and getting paid to do so, exploitation and con artists, price gouging, getting access to the money by marrying Osage women, and murder.

As the film begins, the approximately 2000 Osage are among the most prosperous communities in the world. They live in gracious, beautifully appointed homes. They have white servants. The women wear the latest fashions and expensive jewelry. Their towns are vibrant and modern. They go to a white church but retain many of their tribal traditions.

The most prominent white member of the community is William King Hale (Robert De Niro). “Call me King,” he says genially but meaningfully to his nephew, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a WWI veteran who has just arrived in town. Ernest swiftly moves from driver to husband to Mollie, one of the Osage sisters who are prominent holders of “headrights” to the revenues from the oil, yet still needing permission to spend the money. Those rights cannot be sold or given away, but they can be inherited. So, many white men, like Ernest who candidly admits that he loves money and liquor and hates to work, marry Osage women, putting them in line to inherit. Even better if they can accelerate that transfer by accelerating their deaths.

Spectacular production design by Jack Fisk and cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (who also did “Barbie,” so he’s having quite a year), editing by Scorsese favorite Thelma Schoonmaker, and music from The Band’s Robbie Robertson (who grew up on a native reservation) create a world that is vivid and specific but also a metaphor that resonates with America’s founding themes and failures to live up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence. Mollie and her sisters are doubly restricted as Indians and women and Mollie is additionally vulnerable because she has diabetes. At the sometimes poisonous heart of the film is the Ernest/Mollie relationship. From their first magnetic conversation when Mollie accurately but somehow also fondly calls Ernest a coyote who wants money, the themes of love and betrayal intertwine. Ernest’s increasing corruption shows on DiCaprio’s face, disintegrating like Dorian Gray’s portrait. De Niro shows us Hale’s smooth veneer, as he pretends to be devoted to the Osage, especially Mollie and her sisters, and as he speaks of murder as though he is making plans for a picnic. A white man is asked to kill someone and instantly refuses until he is told the target is an Indian. That alters the transaction. And it makes clear the othering that expands as the envy of the white Oklahomans distorts their thinking.

The book focuses on the pre-FBI investigator (Jesse Plemons, genial, implacable, incorruptible, and determined) working under J. Edgar Hoover, the movie, with a script by Scorsese and Eric Roth, wisely makes Mollie the center. Gladstone is a wonder, showing us her mingled love for her husband and her people, her devastating grief over the loss of her family, and her growing recognition that she has been betrayed. The film calls on us to keep watching her face, calm to the point of stoicism as she sits with her grief and her shrinking options.

The film takes its time, over 3 1/2 hours, but every minute is earned. This is a rare film that is not just excellent, but important.

Parents should know this is a fact-based story of racism, plunder, murder and exploitation. Characters are in peril and are murdered by guns and an explosion and fire. There is an attempted murder by poison and references to suicide. There are intense and graphic images. Characters use strong language, drink, and smoke.

Family discussion: Is there a way to find justice for these abuses? Who should be responsible? What does the relationship between Mollie and Ernest symbolize about the relationship between the US and its people?

If you like this, try: the book and the documentary, and read this piece by Sarah Knight Adamson

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