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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The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Posted on February 25, 2021 at 5:03 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Very strong language, n-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug abuse and addiction
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence including domestic violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 26, 2021

Copyright 2020 Lee Daniels Entertainment
Andra Day’s performance as Billie Holiday is never less than dazzling, one of those breakthrough moments that divide our lives as audience into before and after. The vulnerability, the courage, the utter commitment of her acting here, her first role, is simply stunning.

And nothing less could do for the portrayal of one of the most formidable performers of the 20th century. This movie could not work unless we saw what the audiences of the 40s and 50s saw, a singer who could break your heart and make you grateful for it.

In “Lady Sings the Blues,” one diva played another, with Diana Ross also outstanding in a traditionally-structured biopic, from childhood through her career, her struggles with drugs and alcohol, and abusive relationships. A recent documentary, “Billie,” used archival materials assembled in the 1970s by a biographer who died before she could complete the project. It has valuable insights from people who knew Holiday and saw her perform.

This movie, from Lee Daniels, is different because its focus is on just one part of Holiday’s life. Like “Judas and the Black Messiah,” this is the story of betrayal, and a conflicted source who cared about the person he was informing on.

Billie Holiday attracted the attention of J. Edgar Hoover because of a song. It was “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol, first published in 1937 as a poem called “Bitter Fruit.” He later added music. The “stronge fruit” hanging in the trees in the song’s lyrics are the dead bodies of Black people who have been lynched, murdered by a racist mob. “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.”

Holiday’s 1939 performance of the song is now a recognized classic and is included in the National Recording Registry, which “highlights the richness of the nation’s audio legacy.” But in 1939 lynching was considered so acceptable by government and media and culture they actually sold postcards showing bodies hanging. This was 15 years before the murder of Emmitt Till, a Black teenager from the North, led to calls for reform. And as of this writing, Congress has still been unable to pass an anti-lynching bill. So, telling the truth about lynching in a song was considered dangerous, and Hoover wanted to stop her.

One of the first Black FBI agents (“Moonlight’s” Trevante Rhodes as Jimmy Fletcher) is assigned to her case. The pressure he is under is almost as crushing as the pressure on Holiday. He has the all-but-impossible task of proving himself to skeptical and often racist colleagues. And he cannot help siding with what Holiday is doing and being mesmerized by her as well.

The storyline is murky at times. It is also soapy and melodramatic, but face it, Holiday’s life was as soapy and melodramatic as her songs. Through it all Day manages to be as magnetic as the formidable woman and powerful entertainer she is portraying. At any given moment, Day has to be precise about where Holiday is on her various journeys in and out of addiction to various substances, including the men in her life, and she makes it work every time. She shows us Holiday’s toughness and her vulnerability. And, with the help of glorious costumes from Paolo Nieddu (the hats!), she owns the screen. She owns her story.

Parents should know that this movie includes alcohol and drug abuse, nudity and sexual situations, domestic abuse, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Should the government get involved in artists’ songs, movies, plays, books, or tweets? What could Jimmy have done differently?

If you like this, try: “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Billie,” and “Judas and the Black Messiah”

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Silk Road

Posted on February 22, 2021 at 11:40 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language and drug content
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A theme of the movie is drug dealing, offscreen death due to drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Law enforcement-related peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 13, 2021
Copyright 2021 Lionsgate

Ross Ulbricht was a libertarian, a follower of Austrian school economist Ludwig von Mises who believed that “every action we take outside of government control strengthens the market and weakens the state.” He wanted to change the world. And so he created a website that was like Amazon or eBay except that it operated in the dark web and instead of being a place to buy consumer goods with credit cards it was a place to buy illegal goods, primarily drugs, with untraceable crypto-currency. The website was named for the ancient trading route linking China, India, and Rome. Ulbricht’s screen name was taken from a more modern source, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. He called himself the Dread Pirate Roberts after the character (spoiler alert) who passed his name on to a series of successors to keep the legend alive. And he learned, as so many theoretical libertarians have in the past, that the problem with giving people freedom is that they do things with it you might not approve of, including things that limit the freedom of others.

“Silk Road” is the story of Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) and of Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), the FBI agent who tracked him down. Think “The Social Network” crossed with “American Gangster. A sharp, clever, script by Tiller Russell (“Bernie”) and David Kusher and Russell’s dynamic direction make this a gripping rise-and-fall, cat-and-mouse story with vivid and believably flawed characters.

“This story is true,” we are told at the beginning. “Except for what we made up or changed.” So if you want to know what really happened, read Nick Bilton’s book. As far as the Ulbricht side of the story goes, though, it sticks pretty close to what really happened. He was a bright drop-out — we see his father deride him for not following through on anything. But he has big ambitions for changing the world to make it work the way he thought it should, meaning as free from government control as possible. And then he comes up with an idea, combining two ideas — the Tor gateway to the dark web and cryptocurrency, a kind of dark money. He thinks of what he is doing as practically humanitarian, saving consumers from the risks and inconvenience of in-person drug buys. He thinks he is being clever when he leaks information about the Silk Road to a journalist.

You can buy illegal drugs on the internet. But you cannot deliver illegal drugs on the internet. Law enforcement picks up on an unusual uptick in the drugs being shipped. And Ulbricht will learn that one problem of working with crooks is that they are often…untrustworthy.

This is where Bowden comes in, and one of the least accurate but most interesting part of the movie is the contrast between the computer-savvy kid who sets up the Silk Road and the old-school FBI agent who tracks him down. The film cleverly cuts back and forth between them, as in one early moment when they both resort to instructional videos on YouTube for a little help.

Crisply edited and sharply written, “Silk Road” does not ask us to think of Ulbricht as a hero or, as some who have argued for clemency, a dupe. One pre-credit exculpatory claim and another character’s sympathy-provoking motive to break the law may go father than needed in softening the story, but we also get a look at some of the consequences of making illegal drugs freely available. And this is a smart movie about smart people doing some not-smart things and facing the consequences that keeps us absorbed and, probably, making a mental note to stay well on the right side of the law.

Parents should know that this film has some peril and violence including murder for hire that does not happen and a drug-related death. Characters use strong language and there is a non-explicit sexual situation. Themes include criminal behavior and law enforcement.

Family discussion: Do you agree with what happened to Ulbricht and Bowden? How were they alike and how were they different? How do we balance privacy and accountability?

If you like this, try: “The Social Network” and “Brick”

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Judas and the Black Messiah

Posted on February 11, 2021 at 5:22 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence and pervasive language.
Profanity: Very strong language including n-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 12, 2021

Copyright Participant Media 2021
“Know their names,” Black Lives Matter tells us. The ones we know now we know because of technology. We saw George Floyd telling the cop who had his knee on Floyd’s neck that he could not breathe. iPhones and social media have brought these tragedies into our homes and made it impossible for us to look away.

None of that was around in 1969, when young Black activists named Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed by the Chicago police. Hampton was Chairman of the Illinois Black Panthers and Deputy Chairman of the national organization. At age 19 he was identified by the FBI as a radical threat. At age 21, he was killed in his apartment when the police raided it before dawn. Police fired over 100 shots. The Black Panthers fired one.

There were no iPhones to record what happened that night. This movie begins to give Fred Hampton and Mark Clark the visibility they could not get in 1969.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is the second film in less than a year to show us Fred Hampton. In “The Trial of the Chicago 7” he is played by Kelvin Harrison, Jr., sitting behind Bobby Seale. This film, as the title suggests, is less about Hampton’s vision or activities than the story of William O’Neal, who was hired by the FBI to infiltrate the Black Panthers, and the conflicts he faced in betraying the trust of people he grew to respect.

The men are played by two of the most electrifying performers of our time, Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and LaKieth Stanfield as O’Neal, though both are substantially older than the real-life characters. Kaluuya (“Get Out,” “The Black Panther”) is a British actor who has the daunting challenge of playing a 1960s Chicagoan known for being a mesmerizing speaker. As a Chicagoan, I can certify his accent as remarkably authentic. And as an audience member I can testify to the magnetism he brings to the role, whether he is addressing a crowd of admiring students, a group of hostile competitors, or Panther members who need guidance. His Hampton understands the power of listening, and of speaking quietly. He knows how to tie what he wants them to do to recognizing the pain of the people he is talking to, and recognizing, too, how much they need to be shown a bigger, brighter version of what is possible and of the power they have to get there. And when it’s time to fire them up, he knows how to preach.

He is even better one on one. In one of the movie’s most powerful scenes, he sits at the kitchen table of a woman (a beautiful performance by Alysia Joy Powell) whose son has been killed. He gently, compassionately listens to her talk about how in her mind he is always seven years old, how he is more than what got him in trouble. In another highlight, he meets with the hostile members of a group called The Crowns that sees the Black Panthers as competition. The FBI has circulated a forged flier supposedly created by the Black Panthers that insults the Crowns. Hampton does not argue. He does not get defensive. He just reflects back to the Crowns the power they have and asks them to think of what they can accomplish together. His scenes with the activist and poet who became the mother of his child, played with tenderness, grace, and dignity by Dominique Fishback, are also beautifully done. He quotes Che Guevara to her, “Words are beautiful but action is supreme.” She responds, “You were using words, so maybe choose them more carefully. And just so you know, you are a poet.”

“I don’t need no mic,” he tells the students. He wants to speak to them intimately, conversation, not oratory. But he uses strong words when he needs to. “That’s the difference between revolution and the candy-coated facade of reform,” he tells them. “Reform is just the masters teaching the slaves to be better slaves.” He says his job is to “heighten the contradictions” because oppressed people cannot always see the shackles.

Hampton often speaks quietly, but some of his rhetoric is incendiary. He speaks of getting AK-47s and bandoliers. He quotes Che Guevara and Mao Tse-Tung. But his programs start with free breakfasts for hungry children and his plans are for a clinic and a school.

Stanfield (“The Photograph,” “Short Term 12”) as O’Neal shows us the anguish of a man caught between the FBI agent who alternately cajoles and threatens him. O’Neal was a teenager when he was arrested for impersonating an officer and stealing cars. Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) invites him to his apartment, buys him a car, and takes him to high-end restaurants. O’Neal says he saw Mitchell as a role model. But he sees himself as an activist, even years later when he was interviewed for the PBS series “Eyes on the Prize.” We see Stanfield re-enacting that interview at the beginning of the film and the footage of the real O’Neal at the end.

The conflict of compromise undercover operatives struggle with has been portrayed in other stories and films, from Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night to Johnny Depp and Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco. Writer/director Shaka King (writing with Will Berson from the original screenplay by Keith and Kenny Lucas) finds sympathy for just about everyone except for J. Edgar Hoover (played by Martin Sheen and a lot of make-up) and the Chicago cops. Even Mitchell, who manipulates O’Neal, shows some disgust at Hoover’s trying to goad him by asking how he would feel if his 8-month-old daughter some day brought home a Black boyfriend.

But O’Neal’s story is less interesting than the story of Hampton himself, what he read, who he was inspired by, and how he inspired others. The script is muddled and confusing in places. But the stirring story and the exceptional performances, and the score from Craig Harris and Mark Isham make this a powerful, important film, well worth seeing and learning from.

Parents should know that this film deals frankly with issues of racism, resistance, betrayal, and police brutality. Characters use strong language. There are sexual references and there is a non-explicit sexual situation. Violence includes guns and characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: What should we learn about leaders like Fred Hampton when we study American history? Why did the FBI consider him such a significant threat? How should the government treat activists like Hampton?

If you like this, try: the documentaries “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” and “Nationtime.”

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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
Date Released to DVD: March 29, 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. That is the real-life story of Our Friend.

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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