Greyhound

Posted on July 9, 2020 at 5:10 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for war-related action/violence and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended wartime peril and violence, weapons, explosions, some disturbing images, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Historical issues, segregated all-male military
Date Released to Theaters: July 10, 2020

Copyright 2020 Apple
People always remember the wrong part of “The Caine Mutiny.” It’s understandable because Humphrey Bogart is mesmerizing as Captain Queeg, a career officer held in contempt by the junior officer draftees who think he failed so unforgivably in his command that, in this fictional story, there is a mutiny. (In reality, there has never been a mutiny on a US military ship.) One of the most iconic scenes in movie history is when Bogart as Queeg becomes so defensive on the witness stand he undermines his own credibility. Like Jack Nicholson as Colonel Jessup being cross-examined by Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men,” the short-term smart alecks show up the men who give their lives to the service. But do they? After Queeg decompensates on the witness stand, the mutineers feel vindicated. But the lawyer who argued the case tells them they are wrong. He could have given Nicholson’s speech about those who are smug in the luxury of their principles without having to test them in war. (Of course, SPOILER ALERT Jessup’s actions went far beyond Queeg’s paranoia and poor judgment; there is no possible justification for assaulting a soldier to force him to improve or quit.)

The WWII story “Greyhound,” written by and starring Tom Hanks, is something of a counterweight to those stories. It is based on a book called The Good Shepherd by Horatio Hornblower author C.S. Forester, whose specialty was thrilling naval stories. Hanks plays Captain Ernest Krause, commander of the USS Keeling, known by its callsign Greyhound. Like Queeg and Jessup, Krause was in the Navy before the war. We get a sense that he has been disappointed by not being promoted and perhaps, now that America’s entry into the war has prompted a promotion at last, he may have some doubts about whether he is ready. In a brief and probably unnecessary flashback, we see him propose to his lovely girlfriend, played by the lovelier-than-ever Elisabeth Shue. But she wants to wait. (In Forester’s book, Krause is divorced because his wife could not handle his by-the-book-ishness.). But unlike Jessup and Queeg, Krause is the very model of a decent, honorable, careful, officer. His first thought is for his mission; his second thought is for his men. He never loses sight of the consequences of his actions. As his men rejoice in the sinking of the U-Boat attacking them — “50 less Krauts!” — he says to himself as much as to anyone else, “50 souls.”

Other than that flashback, the quick 90-minute runtime is entirely devoted to a few days as Krause’s destroyer brings cargo ships across the Atlantic so they can deliver critically needed supplies and troops to England. Air cover at the time could not stretch all the way across the ocean, so there was a space in the middle known as the Black Pit. As the movie begins we hear the stirring voice of Winston Churchill describing the “hard unrelenting struggle” of the Atlantic fleet and Franklin Roosevelt, a former Secretary of the Navy, extolling the American spirit: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” “The price of the war has fallen on our sailor men,” we hear. And then we see what that means on Krause’s first crossing.

In addition to the vulnerability of lack of air cover, the equipment they have to work with is endearingly, and horrifyingly basic, analog, almost prehistoric. Their communication with their base is inadequate, even when it works, a critical message arriving two hours too late. The tracking system stops working. On board, Krause gets his intel by voice relay. A sailor has the job of just repeating everything coming from below so he can hear it. A sneeze at the wrong moment can be disastrous. The crew uses grease pencils and protractors. Krause uses binoculars. He uses a pencil-sharpener. They run low on ammo.

As admirable as the movie’s devotion to accuracy is, the tech talk is overwhelming. There’s a lot of “five minutes to course change” and language that is much harder to parse. Much less time is devoted to developing characters other than Krause; he may care a lot about the men but the movie does not seem to. An exception is Rob Morgan, in his third indelible performance of the year so far after “Bull” and “The Photograph.” As a loyal steward in the still-segregated military, he manages to convey infinite dignity and a movie’s worth of back story.

All of the tech talk and even some of the action are a distraction from what the movie is about: risk assessment under the direst circumstances, the responsibility for other people’s lives, both those on board and those they are fighting to protect at home, the wear on the spirit, the resolve to go on. At its foundation, beyond all of the tension and action, this movie is is a continuation of those same issues explored in Hanks’ recent films, especially “Captain Phillips,” “Sully,” and “Bridge of Spies.” Hanks, who often seems to play the role of America’s dad in real life, explores the existential questions that underly all of our choices.

Parents should know that this film includes extended wartime peril and violence, disturbing images, guns, torpedos, explosions, characters injured and killed, and brief strong language. Reflecting the reality of the era, the military is segregated and all-male.

Family discussion: What are some of the biggest differences between the military technology of WWII and today? Which was the most difficult decision Commander Krause had to make? If he had to do it again, what would he do differently?

If you like this, try: “Midway,” “Mr. Roberts,” “Destination Tokyo,” and “Band of Brothers”

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The Outpost

Posted on July 2, 2020 at 5:50 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for war violence and grisly images, pervasive language, and sexual references
Profanity: Constant very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Substance abuse, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense wartime peril and violence, very graphic and disturbing images, many characters injured and killed, possible suicide attempt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 3, 2020

Copyright ScreenMedia 2020
There are war stories that are about strategy and courage and triumph over evil that let us channel the heroism of the characters on screen. And then there are war stories that are all of that but also engage in the most visceral terms with questions of purpose and meaning that touch us all. “The Outpost,” based on the book by news correspondent Jake Tapper, is that rare film in the second category, an intimate, immersive drama from director Rod Lurie, a West Point graduate and Army veteran who knows this world inside out and brings us from the outside in.

The script by Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy wisely avoids the usual expository dialogue as a newcomer is introduced to the group. Instead, we get a crisp, military briefing-style scene-setting with on-screen text informing us that the military has set up outposts in areas that are impossible to defend and given the 53 soldiers there the impossible task of both befriending the locals and fighting off the Taliban. This one is Combat Outpost Keating, located in a near-indefensible mountain-enclosed area in Afghanistan 14 miles from the Pakistani border.

Lurie and his cast, including Orlando Bloom, Scott Eastwood, and breakout star Caleb Landry Jones, understand the small revelatory moments, the trash-talk and taunting that is the way people away from home and coping with unendurable uncertainty connect to each other. Then there are the brief calls home when they pretend to be normal and maintain those connections. As a sign nearby reminds them to keep the calls to 10 minutes, one soldier puffs away while assuring his wife that he stopped smoking. A series of new commanding officers each bring his own ideas and style of communication. Over the course of the movie, we see how much we expect from the military, from 21st century warfare to diplomacy. Over the closing credits, we get a devastating reminder of how heartbreakingly young these soldiers are.

There are telling moments in the interactions with the locals. The soldiers do their best to implement the policies they are there to carry out, which means “soft power” like paying them for their people who have been killed as collateral damage or even as enemy or possibly those who are dead by other means but maybe a way to get more money from the Americans. “I will lose my honor with my elders,” one explains via a translator. “I can regain my honor one of two ways. One way is for all of you to lay down your arms and watch as your communities flourish with the help of the US and Allah.” That support comes in the form of “money, contracts, projects.” The other way does not need to be explained to the Afghanis or to us. The outpost also has to develop sources of intelligence in a place where there is no reason for anyone to trust them and they do not speak the language. There is a local version of the boy who cried wolf, constantly warning of an attack but with no useful details. And then there are the attacks, always expected yet always unexpected because they never know when.

Impeccable camerawork from Lorenzo Senatore and editing by Michael J. Duthie give the film a documentary feel matched by understated, natural performances from the cast. We feel their exhaustion. And we feel their dedication, more important even than their training or their courage. Their loyalty to each other in the face of risk so dire the outpost is known as Camp Custer is itself the answer to the question the story raises about purpose, meaning, and why we are here. The question of why we are there it is wise enough not to try to resolve.

Parents should know that this is a war movie with constant, intense, and graphic military and terrorist violence, disturbing images, characters injured and killed, constant very strong and crude language, sexual humor, smoking and substance abuse.

Family discussion: Which was the best commanding officer of the outpost? How do the soldiers manage their stress?

If you like this, try: “Beaufort” and “1917”

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Irresistible

Posted on June 25, 2020 at 5:21 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including sexual references
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: Cultural diversity a theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 26, 2020

Copyright Focus 2020
Jon Stewart swings for the fences with “Irresistible,” and you’ve got to respect that, even if he only hits a double. He has taken a whole bunch of what bothers him the most about our political system, not the fumbles, pettiness, missteps, and corruption of the individuals but the more systemic problems of money and messaging and he has tried to create a Preston Sturges/Armando Iannucci-style movie that uses humor to illuminate. Sharp one-liners and a top-notch cast come close to making the characters human enough to be interesting but they are still two-dimensional. And some uncertainty of tone throws the movie off-kilter when it shifts from slightly heightened to over the top. When it leaps so far outside the bounds of the real, it undermines its best scrutiny of what is actually happening. I live inside the Washington DC beltway and exposes of political abuse are my jam, so I enjoyed it, but even I thought it made some unfortunate blunders.

The opening is promising, with Steve Carell as Gary, a Democratic political strategist and Rose Byrne as Faith, a Republican political strategist, in the post Clinton/Trump “spin rooms,” where each team tries to explain to reporters why their candidate was brilliant and definitively trounced the other side. But what we get to hear is what’s inside their heads. Gary says he will persuade them “as long as I say it repeatedly and with confidence,” and Faith concludes, “I look forward to lying to you in the future.” We get it. They’re there to win, not to be honest. But Gary was probably being honest when he predicted that Clinton would win. He was just wrong. And so for his professional future and possibly for the good of the country, he has to get his credibility back and he has to figure out how to communicate with the “rust belt blue wall” he thought was “impenetrable” until Trump got a lot of those votes and won the electoral college.

He sees a chance to prove himself when a video of a Deerlaken, Wisconsin city council meeting goes viral due to an impassioned speech by a local farmer, a retired Marine named Jack (Chris Cooper), speaking out plainly but eloquently on behalf of immigrants in his community. Gary tells the Democratic party leaders that “this square-jawed paragon of Americana is our key back to the Forbidden City. He’s a Democrat, but just doesn’t know it yet.” He thinks if he brings his national-level political expertise to a small town in Wisconsin, he can persuade Jack to run for mayor, get him elected, and “road-test a more rural-friendly message” in a place he refers to as “the middle of nowhere” he can re-invigorate progressive messaging and, by the way, his own career. So, he fires up the private jet and checks out what Wikipedia has to say about Wisconsin. In real life, he would have a ton of data in a briefing package, but it’s more fun to make him look like a big city doofus.

Jack agrees to run, the race gets some national media attention, and so Faith arrives, to make sure that they do not break the city’s record of not electing a Democrat since Robert LaFollette (Governor 1901-1906). In Stewart’s view, the only issue anyone cares about is the power of the parties; any specifics are about leverage, with no more focus on reproductive health or even the immigration issue that Jack spoke about in the viral video than on gaffes and embarrassing secrets about opposing candidates. It’s just about votes. The weakest part of the film is the blaming of the consultants who are the symptom (okay, a truly unpleasant one), not the disease. The movie very briefly touches on the funding issue, with stand-ins for the Kochs and a generic, literally high-tech billionaire with just one issue literally half a world away from Wisconsin and a scene at a Manhattan fund-raiser but barely addresses the real and most democracy-destabilizing problem of dark money and Citizens United. The small reference to super PACS, with a winking nod to “non-coordination” deserved more attention.

It’s fun to watch because it has a great cast and clever dialogue and more substance than most feature films. But it is a disappointment that someone who has such a deep understanding of American politics goes for cheap laughs about clueless big city folks not understanding the folks in the heartland instead of looking at the less-examined obstacles at least equally rich in potential for satire. The movie has at least four different endings, and at least three of them seem to undercut the point the film is trying to make. Stewart makes the same mistake Faith and Gary do; he condescends to his audience.

Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language and very crude sexual references.

Family discussion: Which candidate would you vote for and why? Would you ever run for office? What changes in the system is this movie promoting and what changes would you suggest?

If you like this, try: the documentaries “Slay the Dragon” (about the fight against gerrymandering in Wisconsin and other states) and “Primary” (about John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey campaigning against each other in Wisconsin for the Democratic nomination for President) and “Welcome to Mooseport,” with Gene Hackman as a former President who runs for mayor in a small town in Maine.

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Miss Juneteenth

Posted on June 18, 2020 at 3:47 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug references, alcoholism
Violence/ Scariness: Criminal activity
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 12, 2020

Copyright Vertical Entertainment 2020
Nichole Beharie is incandescent as a former beauty queen determined to create a different outcome for her daughter in “Miss Juneteenth,” inspired by the Texas holiday commemorating the date more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation when word came through that slavery was no longer legal.

The Miss Juneteenth pageant is central to the Black community in the small Texas town near Fort Worth where Turquoise Jones (Beharie) works as a waitress and all-around staff in a tiny barbecue restaurant. The pageant participants are drilled on what it means to be “ladies,” and elegance, poise, graciousness, and deportment determine which girl will wear the tiara and win the scholarship. Great things are expected of the winners, and most of them have gone on to become women of achievement and contribution. “We are expecting greatness,” the head of the pageant explains in dulcet tones. They have strong ideas about what it means to be “successful young ladies” and it includes knowing the difference between a salad knife and a dinner knife. “One would surely not eat the main course with that.”

Turquoise takes her place at a pageant event in the seats reserved for former winners, who know how to use those dulcet tones and gracious words to make it clear they consider themselves superior and want her to know that. “How wonderful that you’re looking to replicate your success,” one murmurs. “It slipped my mind that you had a daughter old enough to compete,” says another one. It is never stated, but we understand that the reason Turquoise’s path toward greatness was sidetracked was her pregnancy with Kai (Alexis Chikaeze), now almost 15. Turquoise is determined that Kai will win the crown and go on to college with the scholarship money.

But teenagers have their own ideas about what success means. Kai checks her phone during the inspirational opening remarks about the pageant. She does not want to memorize the Maya Angelou poem her mother read as her talent when she competed. Turquoise gets little support from Kai’s father (Kendrick Sampson as Ronnie) and none from her own mother, who says, “You won that thing. What good did it do you?”

First-time feature writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples creates an exceptionally evocative sense of place and community in this film. We really believe the deep and complicated history of this group of people. Beharie shows us that pushing Kai is as much about a second chance for herself as it is about Kai, and that she is bringing that same sense of determination that won her the crown to make it happen. Even the smallest parts are layered, sympathetically portrayed, and real, especially Sampson’s Ronnie and Lori Hayes as Turquoise’s mother. The issue of “success” defined as emulating upper-class white traditions and of the eternal struggle of parents to provide guidance to adolescents while allowing them to be themselves are explored with delicacy. The heart of the film in every way is Beharie, who makes Turquoise every bit the phenomenal woman her pageant poem describes.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language, family conflict, alcoholism, criminal activity, struggles with money, sexual references and non-explicit situations.

Family discussion: Why was the pageant so important to Turquoise? What did she learn about herself? About Kai?

If you like this, try: “Miss Firecracker” and “American Violet”

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The King of Staten Island

Posted on June 11, 2020 at 3:13 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and drug use throughout, sexual content and some violence/bloody images
Profanity: Constant very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Some violence, fires, sad death, suicide attempt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 12, 2020

Copyright 2020 Universal Pictures
Here we go again. Another too-long Judd Apatow movie about an arrested development, failure to launch man-child we are expected to find far more endearing than we do. “The King of Staten Island” shares these essential ingredients with earlier films like “The 40-year-old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” and one more: the main character played by a charismatic comedian or comic actor. In Apatow’s earlier films, those actors have included Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, and Seth Rogen. This time, it is stand-up comedian and SNL cast member Pete Davidson.

But there are a couple of significant differences between the sunny sensibility of those glossy Hollywood confections and “The King of Staten Island,” with the significance of its setting reflected in the title. It’s not sunny. It’s dingy and gritty, with the help of superb cinematography from Robert Elswit, and very little music on the soundtrack. And the reasons that the main character is stuck in a perpetual directionless funk of helplessness, sorrow, self-pity, resentment, self-harm, numbness, and weed, are darker, much darker because we know the story is semi-autobiographical.

Normally, I might describe a film like this as the co-writer/star working through some issues (as, say, in Shia LeBoeuf’s “Honey Boy,” where he played his own abusive father). But it is not clear that Pete Davidson is working through much here, except to the extent he is re-enacting some of what has happened to him. Davidson is currently living at home with his mother, as we see (literally) in his appearances, some with her, in the videos he shoots for the pandemic-era SNL episodes. Davidson was seven when his fireman father was killed on 9/11. In this film, his character’s name is Scott, after his real-life father, to whom the film is dedicated. Scott’s father, also named Scott, was a fireman who died trying to rescue someone. As the film begins, Scott’s sister (played by Apatow’s daughter Maude) is leaving for college. And his mother (Marisa Tomei, in another wonderfully warm and radiant performance), 17 years after his father’s death, is beginning to date someone new, also a fireman (Bill Burr). Seeing the people closest to him taking chances, moving on, and accepting responsibility are deeply unsettling. But what he is most threatened by is allowing himself to feel the feeling he has numbed with weed, denial, and tattoos that are more like self-mutilation, mortification of the flesh, and self-inflicted pain to reduce feelings of worthlessness than aesthetics or self-expression. He says he wants to be a tattoo artist and practices on his friends (and briefly on a child). He says his dream is to have a combined restaurant/tattoo parlor. What he really wants to do is erase himself.

Davidson is an exceptionally appealing performer, and it is clear he is trying to blend art and life here, using the film itself to become more vulnerable and more present. But there is a reason one of the most frequent characters he plays on SNL (other than himself) is a teenager whose only reaction is a shrug. He is still operating within a pretty narrow range, in contrast to Tomei and Burr, and Pamela Adlon, who briefly appears as a bitter ex-wife, all excellent. Making the most of an even briefer appearance is Steve Buscemi, a real-life fireman playing one on screen.

There are touching moments, and some scenes have a satisfyingly authentic impact, especially those with a group of guys showing their ride or die support for each other by ragging each other mercilessly, an Apatow speciality. It could have been half an hour longer, first by cutting the weird scenes where restaurant waiters and bus staff literally fight for tips. But we keep rooting for Scott, and especially for Pete.

Parents should know that this movie includes constant very strong, explicit, and crude language, sexual references and situations, alcohol and drugs, including the use of both to numb pain, risky and foolish behavior, including a possible suicide attempt, criminal activity, a gun, and discussions of the death of a parent and divorce.

Family discussion: Why did Scott and his sister respond to the loss of their father differently? Why was it so difficult for Scott when he mother dated another fireman? What made him decide to change?

If you like this, try: Pete Davidson’s stand-up special, “Alive from New York”

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