Joe Bell

Posted on July 22, 2021 at 5:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including offensive slurs, some disturbing material, and teen partying
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Teen suicide, family member killed in an accident
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 23, 2021

Copyright 2021 Roadside Productions
Joe Bell and his son Jadin are on the road. Literally. They are walking along the highway, Jadin reminding his father to walk against the traffic and his dad responding with mixed amusement and irritation that he’s been doing this for a while and does not need advice from a teenager. They seem to have a mostly amiable way of handling the inevitable re-aligning of the father-son relationship that happens during adolescence.

It is more complicated than that, and music sadder. Jadin Bell was an Oregon teenager who was ruthlessly bullied for being gay. Feeling heartbroken and friendless, he took his life. And his father, Joe Bell, decided he would spend two years walking all the way across America, stopping wherever he could to talk to teenagers about bullying, and about what a difference they could make by being more accepting and kind.

The story of Joe and Jadin Bell is now a feature film with Mark Wahlberg as the grieving father, Connie Britten as his wife, Lola, and Reid Miller, in a winning performance of exceptional sensitivity, as Jadin.

Wahlberg struggles to bring to life a man who is taciturn and often gruff. His character has trouble expressing his feelings. When Jadin tells him he is gay, Joe is accepting but irritated at being dragged away from the television to hear about it. He is dismissive when Jadin tries to talk to him about being bullied. Joe loves Jadin, but cannot acknowledge to himself or anyone else that he is uncomfortable with anything that does not fit into his notion of what it means to be a man.

He is not much better at talking to the people he meets in his travels than he was in talking to Jadin. He wants very much to deliver the message but his inability to tell his own story and acknowledge his failure to support his son make it impossible for him to deliver the message he wants to deliver.

The movie has the same problem. It is well-intentioned but the abrupt shift due to the facts of the real story derails the message it is trying to deliver. There are some tender moments, especially when Joe share a Lady Gaga song and when Joe meets a sympathetic cop. But we do not get enough of a sense of what Joe learns as he becomes more honest with himself, or the impact he had, and that makes it more difficult for us to feel the impact on us.

Parents should know that the themes of this movie include teen bullying and suicide. A parent is tragically killed. Characters drink, including teen partying, and they use strong language.

Family discussion: Why do people bully? What is the best way to respond to a bully? What is the best way to support those who have been bullied?

If you like this, try: “Ride” and “Love, Simon”

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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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12 Mighty Orphans

Posted on June 15, 2021 at 8:13 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some suggestive references, brief teen drinking, smoking, language, and violence
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Reference to alcoholic parent, alcoholic character, teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: WWI battle flashbacks and reference to sad deaths, brutal corporal punishment, beatings, injuries, some graphic images
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: June 18, 2021

Copyright 2021 Sony Pictures Classics
In the Texas dust bowl of the Depression era, the most under- of underdog football teams captured the hearts of people across the state, across the country, and even one fan in the White House. For them, the team of teenagers from a Fort Worth orphanage was a symbol of hope and courage. Oh, and along the way, they came up with an innovation that transformed the game of football.

Director/co-screenwriter Ty Roberts follows his previous two Texas-based films, “This Side of the Dirt” and “The Iron Orchard” with “12 Mighty Orphans,” based on a fact-based novel by Jim Dent.

Teachers Rusty Russell (a subdued but solid Luke Wilson) and his wife Juanita (Vinessa Shaw) arrive at the Masonic Home and School for orphans. They are committed and admittedly optimistic about giving the residents hope, opportunity, and a sense of belonging. That includes setting up a football team, even though the boys are smaller than the other players in the league, have no practice field or equipment, and literally have never held a football before. As we learn in brief flashbacks over the course of the film, Rusty is suffering from PTSD due to his experiences in WWI, including the death of the brother he promised to protect.

At he Masonic Home, there is a kind-hearted doctor with an alcohol dependency (Martin Sheen) and a brutal, angry man named Frank (Wayne Knight), who sees the boys only as free labor for his print shop. Frank beats the boys for the slightest infraction and considers every moment away from the shop for school or football, as stealing from him. He, by the way, is stealing from them, skimming money from the shop.

Rusty and Doc start working with the boys. And the boys start winning games. When the other teams find they cannot beat them on the field, some of them start trying to beat them in other ways. Rusty has to make up for the smaller size of his players with a new strategy called the spread defense that would change the game of football at the most fundamental level.

Cinematographer David McFarland uses muted tones to evoke the era, a nod to the sepia images we associate with the era but also providing a context of dust, depression, and deprivation. Even though there are moments of intense emotion and struggle, Roberts maintains a quiet, deliberate tone that adds dignity to the storytelling, though it slows sections of the film, particularly when characters and incidents and issues start to pile up in a distracting manner. Sheen gives some wry sweetness to a thinly conceived role that balances Wilson’s subtle decency. The real triumph of the story is not in the goals scored but in the way that dedication, attention, and a good example can transform not just those who are inspired directly, but those who see in them possibilities not previously imagined.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language, crude sexual references, alcohol abuse, scenes of combat, and injuries with some graphic images.

Family discussion: Why did Rusty think football was so important for the boys? How do we treat parentless children differently now?

If you like this, try: “Remember the Titans” and the book that inspired this film.

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Dream Horse

Posted on May 20, 2021 at 12:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for language and thematic elements
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, scenes in pub, alcoholic portrayed as cute and funny
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death of a parent, off-screen serious injury of a horse
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: May 21, 2021
Date Released to DVD: July 5, 2021

Copyright 2020 Bleeker Street
Dream Horse” is a fact-based underdog, or maybe under-horse story about an improbable equine champion. But the real thoroughbred in the movie is the endlessly talented Toni Collette, who plays Jan Vokes, a cashier at a big box store in Wales, who dreams of breeding a racehorse. This is a solidly constructed feel good movie, with performances and details that make it better than it needs to be.

Even those who do not know the story and have not seen the popular documentary, “Dark Horse,” about the real story, have a pretty good idea of where this is going. There will be an impossible dream, some early signs of success, setbacks, struggles, and a triumphant conclusion, with glimpses of the real people (and horse) in the final credits. Those credits, by the way, are one of the film’s highlights; don’t miss them, as the actors and the Welsh villagers they portray sing a classic song by Wales’ favorite son Tom Jones together.

It is Collette who helps to make the story feel fresh and authentic, along with the staging of the race scenes by Welsh director Euros Lyn, so exciting we lean forward in our seats, as though it will help our favorite be first over the finish line. She is called upon in the film to sit in various owners’ seats at various racetracks and make each expression of worry, excitement, fear, and ecstatic joy look different and real and she, well, crosses the finish line ahead of the pack every time.

Jan feels stuck as the film begins. Her husband, Brian (Owen Teale) snores at night and bores in the daytime, watching reality television shows about veterinary procedures and ignoring Jan except when absent-mindedly asking what’s for tea. She has two jobs, cashier at the store and barmaid at the pub. When she isn’t being ignored by Brian, she is caring for her elderly parents. There is nothing to make her feel a sense of hope or purpose.

And then she overhears a customer at the bar talk about his time as part owner of a racehorse. He is Howard (Damian Lewis), an accountant who nearly went broke when the syndicate failed. Jan realizes that if she can just get everyone to give ten pounds a week, she can breed a racehorse by buying a retired mare and paying the stud fee to get her pregnant. A lovably quirky group of people from the village and a couple of Howard’s friends agree to join. And they agree it isn’t for the money or for the craic (Celtic term for fun, but for the hwyl (pronounced hoyle, and a Welsh term meaning more than fun, fun plus enthusiasm, spirit, and purpose). The film’s wisest choice is making it clear that the miracle is not the horse. It is the chance to believe in something and to be part of a community.

The foal is born, but the mare dies. In some other versions of the story we might spend time on how the syndicate members care for the motherless colt, named Dream Alliance, but in this one we skip ahead to bringing him to the training facility of the country’s top racehorse trainers, played by Nicholas Farrell (“Chariots of Fire”). No training montage here. We skip right from his initial no to, the “wait a minute, that horse is really fast” to, well, being off to the races.

That leaves perhaps too much time with the overly cutesy townsfolk. I think we are past the time when the town drunk is supposed to be funny or adorable. And the resolution of Howard’s conflict with his wife, who is understandably worried about a repeat of his past losses, is improbably easy. But then there is another chance to hold our breath at the races, and to cheer for Dream Alliance, for dreams, and the alliances that make them come true.

Parents should know that this film includes some potty humor, scenes in a bar, a town drunk whose alcoholism is played for humor, a sad death, and a serious injury of an animal.

Family discussion: What dream would make a difference in your community? Why was it so difficult for Jan’s father to tell her he was proud of her? How did money change the way the group made decisions? What would you do just for the “hwyl?”

If you like this, try: “Dreamer” (also inspired by a true story), “Phar Lap,” and “The Black Stallion”

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The Courier

Posted on March 18, 2021 at 5:23 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence, partial nudity, brief strong language, and smoking throughout.
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and alcoholism, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and some violence, murder, torture
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 19, 2021

Copyright Lionsgate 2020
“Maybe we’re only two people. But this is how things change.” In this tense, engrossing, Cold War spy drama, based on a true story, things change because of two people. The set-up is like something out of Hitchcock, an ordinary man thrust into a geopolitical heist saga with fate-of-the-world stakes. But it happened.

Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) is one of the highest-ranking Soviet officials, a multiply-decorated WWII veteran, with access to the most sensitive secrets of the Soviet military and a growing uneasiness with the volatile, aggressive leadership of Nikita Khrushchev. Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a smooth-talking British salesman, in every way an ordinary citizen, with no background or interest in espionage. But what he does have is a relatively unsuspicious reason for an Englishman to visit Moscow. Representatives from the CIA (Rachel Brosnahan as Emily Donovan) and MI6 ask Wynne to try to set up some sales meetings in Moscow as cover for bringing back files from Penovsky. “Nothing dodgy, nothing illegal,” they assure him. Not true. “We want you to act like the ordinary businessman you are…If this mission were the least bit dangerous, frankly you’re the last man we’d send.” Also not true. They do warn him that everyone he meets will be spying on him, even some who may be too far to hear what he is saying but who can see him well enough to read lips.

He agrees. Maybe he is patriotic. Maybe he is looking for something more exciting than missing an easy putt to accommodate potential customers. But his business is a good cover. “No matter what the politicians are doing, factories still need machines and machines still need parts.” Penkovsky tells Wynne that there is one important question for anyone wanting to do business in the Soviet Union. “Can you hold your alcohol?” Wynne smiles and we see why he is a good salesman. “It’s my one true gift.”

The Soviets do not intend to do business. They hope to learn enough about British products from Wynne to copy them. And MI6 gives him some hard to get but not classified information to leak to them to bolster his credibility.

“You’re — I think the word is — amateur,” Penkovsky says. But the two men form a kind of friendship. They are both devoted fathers, each with just one child. And they realize that the future for those children may depend on what they are doing.

The script is smart but it is also wise, balancing intimate personal details with the tension of tradecraft. We see the strains on Wynne’s marriage from keeping the secrets, with Jessie Buckley excellent as his wife, especially their meeting after things go badly. Wynne’s last meeting with Penkovsky is heart-rending. Cumberbatch, who also co-produced, gives one of his best performances, as we see Wynne go from almost looking at what he is doing as a bit of a lark to having to call on unimaginable stores of courage and integrity.

Parents should know that this movie includes tension, peril, and some violence, including a man executed in front of his colleagues and torture of prisoners. There is some brief strong language and non-sexual nudity.

Family discussion: Would you accept a mission like Wynne’s? What was his biggest challenge? Who was right about how he should be treated by the British government?

If you like this, try: “Bridge of Spies” and “13 Days”

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