Mary Queen of Scots

Posted on December 6, 2018 at 5:31 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some violence and sexuality
Profanity: Some language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including armed battles and beheading
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 7, 2018

Copyright 2018 Focus Pictures
Gorgeous production values, magnificent costumes, a gripping historical rivalry that lasted a quarter century and ended with a beheading, and two fierce, beautiful, endlessly talented actresses giving it everything they’ve got — that takes us pretty far, but it cannot make up for a script that reduces the story of the class between two of the most powerful rules in history to a spat between mean girls over who has the cutest boyfriend.

Okay, not that bad. But it is a real shame to take the story of these two women and limit the focus to their rivalry. Queen Elizabeth gave her name to an age that included innovative and very successful economic policies, resolved irreconcilable religious divisions that began when her father, Henry VIII, left the Catholic church and established the Church of England and led to decades of bloody conflict, defeated the Spanish Armada, oversaw historical world exploration (and colonization), and presided over a golden age of culture that included the greatest author in the history of the English language. Mary, Queen of Scots was able to maintain her throne for a remarkable time given the constant attacks and efforts to undermine and betray her. But too much of this film is focused on their rivalry even though (or maybe because) they were facing very similar challenges.

Saoirse Ronan is superbly regal as Mary, fire to Elizabeth’s ice. She is fierce and fearless, leading her troops into battle and confronting those who would question her fitness or her right to serve as a matter of law, divine and mortal. Having been married off to another ruler, the king of France, who died, leaving her with no place in the French court, she makes a triumphant return to Scotland, kissing the ground as she arrives to take the throne that had been occupied by her half-brother.

Margot Robbie plays Elizabeth, canny, decisive, often imperious, but also afraid — of the threats within her own court and of her cousin Mary, whose legal claim, ties to the Catholic church, and personal appeal made her jealous and uncharacteristically insecure. Co-screenwriter Beau Willimon (“House of Cards”) has a feel for the ruthlessness of courtiers jousting for power and director Josie Rourke, with a background in theater, is well suited to the pomp and, well, theatricality of the courts. Mary’s looks like a castle version of the Scottish countryside, spare and craggy, while Elizabeth’s is luxurious and draped with tapestries. In real life, the two women never met, but that isn’t very cinematic, so there is a strikingly choreographed meeting here, the two queens separated by a maze of fluttering linens. If the substance of the story matched the look of it, this movie could have done justice to two of history’s most fascinating and transformative characters.

Parents should know that this film has peril and violence including armed battles and beheading, sexual references and explicit situations, and medical issues.

Family discussion: Who was the better leader? How did being women affect the way Mary and Elizabeth saw themselves? Why couldn’t Elizabeth trust Mary?

If you like this, try: “Anne of the Thousand Days,” “Elizabeth,” and “The Young Victoria”

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Bohemian Rhapsody

Posted on November 1, 2018 at 5:30 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Medical issues, sad death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 1, 2018

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2018
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is a just-good movie with a great performance based on the life of a once-to-a-planet musician of endless talent and magnetism and a four-octave range of unmatched clarity and suppleness. In other words, it is entertaining, if not illuminating. Indeed, it is strange that a movie about fictional rock and pop stars, the 2018 version of “A Star is Born” is more insightful about what it is like to perform at that level than this movie based on the life of Freddie Mercury, the brilliantly genre-bending front man of power rock band Queen.

Musician biopics have a huge advantage over movies telling the life stories of writers, visual artists, and other public figures. It is, of course, the music. Whether the movie is highly fictionalized with Cary Grant as Cole Porter or Mickey Rooney as Lorenz Hart, in films that pretended they were not gay, or more honest, like Oscar winners Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn and Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, the highlight of the films will always be the music that made the real-life characters stars. “Bohemian Rhapsody” has Queen’s rousing masterpieces and Rami Malek channels Mercury superbly, especially in those performance scenes, with a breathtaking re-creation of Queen’s legendary Live Aid performance in the film’s climactic scene.

The biggest risk in a biographical movie about a musician, though, is avoiding “VH1 Behind the Music”-itis. Unfortunately, real life for future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers does tend to follow the same pattern, and that is why we see the same scenes over and over. The family wants them to get a respectable job and not waste time on music. The early struggles. The recording session where someone in the control room says, “Wait a second, these guys have something special! Let me call my friend in the music business to sign them up.” The Vorkapich montage of tour dates to increasingly enthusiastic crowds. Yay, success! Yay, EXCESS! The squabbles. The industry executive who does not want them to be innovative (in this case, a sly meta-joke as he is portrayed by an unrecognizable Mike Meyers, whose iconic head-banging to the film’s title song in “Wayne’s World” created another generation of fans). The breakups. The reconciliation. It’s very hard to tell that story again and make it specific enough to stand out.

And then there is the other risk. Either the surviving members of the band are not involved, so you risk authenticity, or they do participate, as Brian May and Roger Taylor did here, so we see their version, which may be spun, even sanitized.

Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara, to a Parsi family from the Zoroastrian community of the Indian subcontinent. We first see him in the film working as an airport baggage handler, being called by the (inaccurate) racist epithet “Paki.” Farroukh, already calling himself Freddie, is a fan of a popular local rock group called Smile. When their lead singer quits, he does an impromptu demonstration of his stunningly melodic voice, explaining that his overbite is caused by an extra set of incisors, which he credits for his range. The film then trudges through the steps outlined above.

The dramatic scenes are soapy and predictable — betrayed by a manager, estrangement from the band, too many cats, too many parties, learning that you can’t escape yourself, some reconciliation. Lucy Boynton (continuing her connection to 80’s music from “Sing Street”) is lovely as the ever-loyal Mary, who was Freddie’s closest friend, even after their romantic relationship ended because he was gay. The other band members barely register as individuals; more time is given to Myers’ stunt casting as the record industry guy who tells them that the six-minute “Bohemian Rhapsody” will never be played by teenagers in a car (get it? that’s what happens in “Wayne’s World!”). The “this is how we wrote that song” sections are especially weak. The songs themselves, though, are as captivating as ever and Malek, who struggles a bit with the overbite prosthetic, recreates them with all they buoyancy and flamboyance Freddie would want.

Parents should know that this film has the expected sex, drugs, and rock and roll in a story of a real-life rock star, with strong language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, and wild partying, along with medical issues and a sad death.

Family discussion: Who understood Freddie best? Why was Live Aid so important to him?

If you like this, try: the documentary “The Story of Queen: Mercury Rising” and YouTube clips of the Live Aid performance

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Posted on June 7, 2018 at 5:23 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated, some thematic elements and language
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Discussion of difficult topics including assassinations, terrorism, prejudice, disability, loss
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 8, 2018
Copyright 2018 Focus Features

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is about Mr. Rogers, a kind, gentle star of PBS children’s programming who liked us us just the way we were and was the neighbor we would all love to have next door.

His story is told in a documentary that matches its subject. It is candid but respectful, utterly heartwarming, and a particularly timely reminder that we don’t have to be swept away in bombast and sensory overload. It is also a welcome reminder that children need us to help them understand themselves and the world around them, even when some aspects are painful and difficult. Indeed, Fred Rogers exemplified the idea that adults were here to protect children not by keeping information about tragedy and hardship away from them but by helping them learn how to respond. His advice to “look for the helpers” is always repeated when some terrible new story is in the news. And of course he was one of the greatest helpers of all. “One of my main jobs,” he said, “is through the mass media to help children through the difficult modulators of life.” These included world events and also family issues like divorce and emotions like anger. One of the film’s most remarkable archival scenes is Fred Rogers testifying before a skeptical Senator about the importance of funding PBS. Instead of reeling off statistics, Rogers recited the lyrics to a song about how to deal with angry feelings. When he was done, the senator, obviously not just moved but pretty much tamed, says quietly, “You just got $20 million.”

Fred Rogers was an aspiring Presbyterian minister when he realized that television had enormous influence on children and that most of children’s programming was loud, rude, and violent. He put his plans on hold to start a series for the new Public Broadcasting Service that would be quiet, low-key, and low-tech. As a producer of the show noted the theory of the series was, “You take all of the elements that make good television and don’t do any of them.” He says, “I never felt I had to wear a funny hat.” And he welcomes elements that are anathema to television, including silence. Mr. Rogers set a timer to show children how long a minute was and just sat there while it moved around the circle. There a lot of “slow space, but no wasted space.” He was patient. He listened.

The show’s first national broadcast was in 1968, a time when there were many difficult modulators to navigate. “What does assassination mean?” a frightened Daniel Tiger puppet asks? He gets an answer that is honest but presented in a way that helps him not just understand it but understand how to process it.

In each episode, Mr. Rogers would come into the house, change his shoes, put on his sweater (one is now in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American History), and have a little chat or sing a song to the audience. He would talk to the mailman or another friend from the neighborhood, and maybe interview a guest or explain something, from how biscuits get made in a bakery to how a young Yo Yo Ma plays the cello. Rogers himself never appeared before the camera in the other part of the show, set in a magical land, because he wanted a clear demarcation between the “real” and fantasy parts of the show. But he voiced the puppets, as many as ten characters, and we see more than once that those puppets allowed him to express parts of himself he could not any other way.

Director Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom”) had nearly 1000 hours of archival footage to choose from and, while he certainly could have made several movies based on Fred Rogers’ life, the clips and contemporary interviews are exceptionally well chosen and well matched. We learn that Rogers asked Francois Clemons, a black man, to play the policeman on the show in part to promote diversity. A scene from the show where the men soak their feet together to cool off on a hot day is juxtaposed with contemporary news footage of black swimmers being thrown out of a public pool. Clemons says he was reluctant to play a policeman because the experience of his own neighborhood with police was not good. But he took the job. And then we learn that Clemons is gay, and hear how Rogers’ response to that news changed over time.

Two of the movie’s most powerful archival scenes are the interview Rogers said was his most memorable, with Jeff Erlanger a cheerful 10-year-old quadriplegic, and his time with Koko, who apparently indicated that he was her favorite visitor. Rogers’ palpable delight and boundless empathy have them end up in an embrace that is utterly endearing.

We hear from his family, friends, and colleagues, and from Ma (whose son is one of the film’s producers). But most of all, we hear from Rogers himself, who tells us, “I don’t think anyone can grow unless he is accepted exactly as he is.” Other than Fox News, who we briefly hear blaming Rogers for the entitlement of the millennial generation, we all feel lucky that Mr. Rogers was exactly who he was, and this lovely film reminds us that we cal all be more like him.

Parents should know that this movie includes discussion of difficult issues and some archival footage of tragic news stories and a brief humorous shot of a bare bottom.

Family discussion: What parts of Mr. Rogers did we only see through the puppets? What are your favorite television shows for children?

If you like this, try: “20 Feet from Stardom” and “Street Gang” (about “Sesame Street”)

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Darkest Hour

Posted on December 7, 2017 at 5:48 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 8, 2017
Date Released to DVD: February 26, 2018
Copyright 2017 Focus

A bitter debate is going on in Parliament. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has responded to Hitler’s invasion of other countries with appeasement and many of the politicians are with him. A combination of denial and sun-never-sets-on-the-British-Empire smugness of those who have colonized a quarter of the planet and are situated on the other side of the Channel makes them confident that they can work with Hitler. But it is increasingly clear to at least some of the politicians believe it is time to take a stronger stand. Is there someone they can call on to lead them in that direction?

There is, and he is still in bed, “insuring his fingerprints are not on the murder weapon.” He is Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman, disappearing into the character and giving a dazzling performance worthy of the real-life man he portrays). The very inevitability of Churchill’s selection, no one’s first choice, a man who “has a knack for drawing out the very worst in those who are trying to help him,” according to his devoted but perceptive wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), increases the frustration of the elected officials around him, who continue to plot to undermine his determination to to go to war, if necessary, to fight Hitler’s takeover of Europe. “I’m getting the job only because the ship is sinking,” he says glumly but grimly. “It’s not a compliment. It’s revenge.”

Earlier this year, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” gave us a bracing look at the turning point that ends this film, when certain catastrophic defeat was turned into a victory just by escaping, rescued with the help of a citizens’ armada of boats. That film paid tribute to the ordinary men who retreated to come back stronger. This film gives us another side of the story in a more traditional “great man” portrayal of history and it could not have a better subject. Churchill was a master of language, grandiloquent at a time when people needed to be inspired by a leader of vision, a deep knowledge of history, and shining integrity. The benefit of having a central character in Churchill is that he pretty much spoke in movie dialogue, hyper-articulate, wryly witty, and with an underlying patriotism rooted in compassion, not jingoism.

Churchill knows that it is not enough for him to be right about Hitler. He has to get the support of the other politicians and he has to get the support of the population. He knows what he will be asking them to do will involve unimaginable sacrifice. And there is no time. “We are looking at the collapse of Western Europe in the next few days,” says a general. “Should the public be told?” There is no time. And, as yet, there is no plan for a counter-attack and Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill’s good friend in the United States, tells him that Congress has prevented him from being of help.

Churchill also knows what it is to fail, publicly and miserably. Will he make mistakes again? Clementine assures him that he is wise because he has doubts. Even if Hitler wins, Churchill knows it is better to give him as much of a fight as possible. “Countries that go down fighting come back.”

The compressed time period and the urgent conversations with Clementine, member of Parliament, and the king (superbly played by Ben Mendelsohn) are riveting, bolstered by an urgent score by
Dario Marianelli and masterfully sinuous camerawork by Bruno Delbonnel and editing by Valerio Bonelli. The camera maneuvers through Churchill’s legendary wartime cabinet rooms (a must-visit for London tourists), showing us the cramped quarters and the fierce energy of what is going on.

Oldman disappears into the role, a performance like the famous Karsh portrait come to life. His Churchill is crafty, sometimes impatient, sometimes uncertain, but compassionate, and always sure of what his values are. The Churchills had a famously devoted love match, and Kristin Scott Thomas is impeccable in showing us Clementine’s elegance, and resolve.

“He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” a character says. And with this film, director Joe Wright mobilized the language of film and presents us with an uplifting reminder of what the right person at the right time can do even under the direst circumstances.

Parents should know that this is a wartime story with tense peril and reference to violence and loss, some strong language, and smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: What should be factors in deciding when to intervene and when to negotiate? Why did the king change his mind? Read My Early Life, Churchill’s autobiography of his youth. Which self will you be today?

If you like this, try: “The King’s Speech,” “Dunkirk,” and some of the other movies about this towering figure of the 20th century, including the “First Churchills” miniseries about his ancestors.

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