The Upside

Posted on January 10, 2019 at 5:49 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for suggestive content and drug use
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Marijuana, some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Severe medical issues, some peril, reference to serious accident
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 11, 2019

Copyright 2019 The Weinstein Company
First, it really happened. A wealthy French aristocrat named Philippe Pozzo di Borgo was paralyzed in a paragliding accident and hired an ex-con to be his aide. Their friendship and their adventures together inspired a French box office record-breaker called “The Intouchables.” And now there is an American remake called “The Upside,” set in New York City, starring Bryan Cranston as the man in the wheelchair and Kevin Hart as the “life auxiliary.”

Del did not want the job. He did not even know what job he was applying for. But his parole officer warned him that he would have to go back to prison if he could not show that he had been turned down by three potential employers. So, he takes the elevator to the penthouse thinking he was applying for a custodial position and barged into another candidate’s interview because he just wants to be turned down and get out of there and pick up his son from school. Instead, he ends up getting hired. Philip (Cranston) likes Del because he is so inappropriate. While the other applicants for the position spoke in low, soothing, deferential tones, Del was at home with saying whatever he was thinking.

Being at home with whatever the job required was another thing, however. Del is fine with lifting Philip into the chair and driving him around in his fancy cars. He is more than fine with his room in the penthouse, though the shower is very complicated and probably bigger than his prison cell. He is fine with Philip’s DNR orders. He is not fine with some of the more intimate aspects of the job.

It is about 15 minutes too long, and very much a studio product, burnished and focus-grouped. Philip teaches Del to appreciate opera and Del teaches Philip to appreciate Aretha Franklin. They each push the other out of their comfort zones. Del forces Philip to call his “epistolary” friend, a woman he has been corresponding with through old-school letters. Philip makes it possible for Del to resolve some of the issues of his past, including beginning to develop a relationship with his estranged son.

The three performers bring a lot of luster to a formulaic screenplay (opera/Aretha, TWO scenes high on weed, a breaking-everything-will-be-cathartic moment), especially Cranston, who brings warmth and depth to a character who is extremely patient and understanding (until he isn’t). Kidman is marvelous as Philip’s quiet and very proper executive assistant. And Hart has his best moments when he is slightly toned down, unsure, and disheveled from his usual high-energy, peppery persona, making us look forward to seeing him explore a wider variety of roles, maybe even something dramatic. If he listens to the advice Del gets from Philip, maybe that will happen.

Parents should know that this film features some strong and crude language, sexual references and graphic sexual humor and a mild situation, drug use and drug humor, and a severe medical condition.

Family discussion: What need can you find a way to fill? Who can you encourage? Why did Philip like Del?

If you like this, try: the original French version, “The Intouchables” and “Me Without You”

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If Beale Street Could Talk

Posted on December 27, 2018 at 12:08 pm

A
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual content
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Acohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence, references to rape
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2018
Copyright Annapurna 2018

When I interviewed writer/director Barry Jenkins about “Moonlight,” we talked about the movie’s haunting score, composed by Nicholas Britell. “Many directors would use songs of the era to place the audience in the film’s three time periods,” I said. “Two things,” he replied. “First, we could not afford the rights to those songs. But more important, I believe these characters deserve a full orchestral score.”

I thought of those words as I watched Jenkins’ latest film, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin, and my #1 film of 2018. There were moments when it did not feel like I was watching the film. It was more like I was immersed in it, as though I could feel it pulsing through my veins. The entire theme of the movie could be, “These characters deserve a full orchestral score” along with the highest level of every other creative and aesthetic element available to a filmmaker, from Baldwin’s lyrical words to the luscious cinematography of “Moonlight’s” James Laxton, another gorgeous score by Britell, costumes that carry the narrative and illuminate the characters, and performances of infinite sensitivity and humanity.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” succeeds brilliantly at one of cinema’s most central functions: a love story with sizzling chemistry between two impossibly beautiful people. Stephen James (“Race”) and newcomer Kiki Layne are 2018’s most compelling romantic couple, pure pleasure to watch. Their relationship is in every way the heart of this story, the reason we feel so sharply the injustice and, in some ways harder to accept, the resignation that is the most undeniable signifier of generations of institutional racism. We see that most powerfully when Regina King, as the girl’s mother, looks in the mirror as she prepares like a matador entering the bullring for a meeting that could make all the difference for the couple. She cannot expect much, but she has to try. Throughout the movie, there is resignation and diminished hopes but there is also resilience. And “Beale Street” reminds us that undiminished and imperishable love abide: romantic love, the love of parents and siblings, even an unexpected encounter with a warmhearted landlord. There is the love Baldwin and Jenkins have for these characters. And, most of all, it reminds us that this is a story that deserves to be told with the best of what movies have to offer, including a full orchestral score.

James and Layne play Fonny and Tish, childhood sweethearts who are young and deeply in love. He is wrongfully arrested for rape by a bigoted cop with a grudge and is in jail when Tish tells him that she is going to have a baby. We see what happened before and what happens after in a jazzy, non-linear form, luscious images and exquisite performances. This film is a masterpiece, like its characters of a time nearly half a century ago, “ready,” and exactly right on time.

Parents should know that this film includes explicit sexual references and situations, references to rape, unjust charges and abuse of the justice system, racism, and some peril and violence.

Family discussion: Why does Sharon take off her wig? Why do the mothers respond so differently to the news of the baby?

If you like this, try: “Moonlight” from the same writer/director and the books of author James Baldwin

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Ben is Back

Posted on December 6, 2018 at 5:40 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A theme of the movie, drug dealing, drug use, overdoses
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and threats of violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 7, 2018

Copyright Lionsgate 2018
Movies about families struggling with substance abuse, like real life struggles, generally follow the same pattern. A family member gets involved with drugs (or alcohol or some other addiction) and then there is the horrified realization of how serious the problem is, hope, betrayal, hope, back-sliding, incalculable damage to other family members, anger, recriminations, tears, hope, more back-sliding, maybe some more hope. We saw that most recently in “Beautiful Boy,” based on the joint memoirs of a father and son. But writer-director Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April,””What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”) wisely takes a different approach in “Ben is Back,” starring his son, Lucas Hedges (“Manchester By the Sea,” “Boy Erased”).

As he explained to me in an interview, Hedges has always been fascinated by the story of Orpheus, who followed the woman he loved into Hades to try to save her. As the title tells us, this movie begins when Ben (Hedges) unexpectedly shows up at home just before Christmas. We learn everything that the typical substance abuse movie takes two hours to cover in the first few minutes, from the very different reactions of his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts), who is overjoyed to see him and his sister, Ivy (Kathryn Newton), who is furious and horrified. (Nice Christmas-y names, there, Holly and Ivy). And then we see that Holly may be happy to have Ben home, but she has not forgotten who he is — she immediately empties out the medicine cabinet and hides her jewelry.

He says he got permission from the residential rehab program. It is probably not true, but what can a mother do? She wants it to be true so badly. She wants him to be home and to want to be home. And it is Christmas. Holly’s husband, Neal (Courtney B. Vance), the father of her two younger children, does not want Ben to be there. Holly persuades him to give Ben (another) chance.

And then, she must follow him into Hades. An incursion from Ben’s old life in the underworld of drug abuse means that Ben must visit many of his former contacts, and Holly insists on going with him. She may have thought she knew and had experienced the worst, that she knows how far she can go, how far she is willing to go, but she will learn that none of that is true.

Hedges, as always, approaches his characters with a deep, tenderhearted humanity. He is clear-eyed about the genuine villains in this story, including those who make and sell legal opiates, and he recognizes the mistakes even well-meaning, attentive, caring people make. He also understands how family dynamics curb and enable abuse, and how abuse distorts and damages everyone in the substance abuser’s orbit. But he has sympathy for addicts and their families, acknowledging their mistakes and their struggles but always wanting the best for them.

We go backwards through Ben’s life (and Holly’s), meeting people who used with him and people who used him. We see how he first got hooked, one of the movie’s most powerful moments as Holly confronts the now-pathetic culprit in a shopping mall food court. We see the collateral damage, the grieving mother, the near-destroyed friend. And, paraphrasing the words of the old public service ad, we know what it did to Ben, but does Holly know what it is doing to her?

Roberts, who has always been one of the most expressive of actors, gives one of her all-time best performances here. From the film’s very first moment, as she persuades her younger children to do something with a small, seemingly harmless bribe, we see how much of her energy and focus is on managing the world for the people she loves. As she and Ben are driving through their own version of Hades, she keeps assuring her family that everything is fine and that she and Ben will be home soon. It is as though she thinks that if she can only persuade everyone, she can will it into being. The skill of this movie is that while it is clear she cannot, we wish she could.

Parents should know that this movie includes themes of drug abuse, overdoses, rehab, drug dealing, sexual references, sad offscreen death, and very strong language.

Family discussion: How is this different from other stories of substance abuse? What do we learn from the scene in the food court? Why can’t Holly tell her family the truth?

If you like this, try: “Beautiful Boy” and “Flight”

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Creed II

Posted on November 20, 2018 at 10:37 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic fight scenes, serious injury, fighter killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 20, 2018
Copyright 2018 Warner Brothers

Like a Timex watch and like Rocky himself, the Rocky franchise takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Here we are, four decades later, and Rocky Balboa is still going. “Creed,” written and directed by Ryan Coogler in between “Fruitvale Station” and “Black Panther,” was an unexpected upgrade, as Adonis Creed, the son of Rocky’s opponent in the original Oscar-winning film took over, angry, with a chip on his shoulder, and itching for a fight. Michael B. Jordan is a brilliant actor with sizzling screen charisma, and it was, well, a knockout. He was on his way to becoming a champ and to making a life with a beautiful hearing-impaired singer (Tessa Thompson).

Coogler produced this next chapter, written by the original Rocky, Sylvester Stallone, who returns as Creed’s coach and mentor, the guy you always want in your corner. And one thing Stallone knows how to do is step up the stakes. Entertainment Weekly once wrote that “It’s hard to find anything more 80’s than Rocky IV.” Just before the Cold War would draw to a close, “Rocky IV” had Stallone battling a Soviet fighting machine named Drago (Dolph Lundgren) with an ice queen of a wife (Brigitte Nielsen, who would be Mrs. Stallone briefly).  After Drago kills Apollo Creed in the ring, Rocky fights him on behalf of Apollo and of course on behalf of America and freedom, and Rocky-ism.

And now, in the eighth film in the series, Drago’s son, trained by his bitter, brutal father (Lundgren again), challenges Adonis, newly crowned heavyweight champion, to a fight on behalf of Apollo, America, freedom, and Rocky-ism.  One fighter is bigger and tougher, but he has been trained with hate. The other has been trained with heart . Time for the classic Bill Conti score again.

Michael B. Jordan is mesmerizing on screen and so completely authentic that he makes even the soapiest moments real and engrossing.  Is Rocky going to refuse to train Adonis to fight Drago’s son (Florian Munteanu) just to create an opportunity for extra drama? Will there be ten-counts? Will there be a proposal, a baby, a reconciliation? Maybe two? Cornerman pep talks about “this is your house” and commentary on the business side of boxing (“The belt ain’t enough — you need a narrative, something that sticks to the ribs”)?  Decadent Russian oligarchs in a dining room that looks like it belongs to Count Dracula?  A camera shot that makes us feel like one of Drago, Jr.’s fists is coming right at us?  Callbacks to “Rocky IV?”  (In that film, Lundgren said only 46 words. In this one, he says a few more but some of them are the same words. Nielsen, on the other hand, is in the film but her ex-husband did not give her more than a few words to say.)  Dramatic moments in the audience, as women watch the fights — or don’t?  All of that, plus, in case we miss anything, a lot of expository narration from the sports announcers. 

Oh sure, it’s cheese.  But it’s Rocky, and it still works.

Parents should know that this film includes extended and graphic scenes of boxing with severe injuries, references to a boxer who died following a fight, brief strong language, and a non-explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: How did the different goals Adonis and Viktor had for the fight affect them? What made Ivan Drago change his mind? What do we learn from Adonis’ night with the baby?

If you like this, try: the “Rocky” movies and “Warrior”

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Green Book

Posted on November 15, 2018 at 5:50 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language including racial epithets, smoking, some violence and suggestive material
Profanity: Strong language including racist epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 16, 2018

Copyright 2018 Universal
Before I tell you how good this movie is, let me tell you how many ways it could have gone wrong. First, it is based on the true story of a trip through the deep South in 1962, before the Civil Rights Act, taken by two men who were opposites in every way. One was Don Shirley, an elegant, sophisticated black musician with two PhDs who lived in an apartment filled with exquisite works of art above Carnegie Hall. The other was a crude, provincial Italian bouncer from Queens known as Tony Lips. It is almost impossible to make a story like that without falling into the White Savior trap or the Magical Negro trap.

Next, the movie is co-written by the real-life son of Tony Lips (real name, Tony Vallelonga), so there was a high risk of a lack of perspective, and probably a lack of experience. And the director, Peter Farrelly, is known for working with his brother, Bobby, on movies known for often-shockingly crude humor like “There’s Something About Mary,” “Dumb and Dumber,” and “Movie 43.”

And yet, they pulled it off. “Green Book” is wonderfully entertaining and guaranteed to warm even the hardest of hearts. The music is sublime, and the performances by Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lips are superb. Yes, lessons will be learned and racial harmony will be kumbaya-ed, but resistance is futile. This movie will win you over.

Tony needs a job, but not badly enough to accept an offer from some mob-connected friends. When he hears that a doctor needs a driver, he goes to the address for the interview and it is not a home but the legendary Carnegie Hall. It turns out that Don Shirley lives above the performance space, in an apartment filled with antiques and objects d’art. He is (twice) a doctor of music. He appears in a gold and white caftan and conducts the interview from an actual throne. He is sophisticated and a little effete. He is, as is usually the case in road and buddy movies and especially in buddy/road movies, the id to Tony’s unrestrained ego. He immediately knows that Tony is not the right guy and turns him down. But later, he offers him the job, even though when he tells Tony he is going South, Tony thinks he means Atlantic City.

It is 1962. The Civil Rights Act has not yet passed, meaning that the Jim Crow segregation laws are still in effect throughout the South, and there are very few hotels and restaurants that allow black customers. Don will be traveling with two other musicians (the group is called the Don Shirley Trio), and they are white and driving a separate car. The record label guy gives Tony a copy of the Green Book, a travel guide for black Americans who wish to “vacation without aggravation.” And he tells Tony that if Don does not make every single performance on the schedule, he will not get paid.

Tony, in an early scene put a glass in the garbage because a black plumber working in his kitchen drank some water from it, has lived a life as insular as Don’s has been urbane. Tony is expansive and chatty. Don is reserved and cerebral. Tony is devoted to his wife and family. Don is a loner. Tony loves food. Don loves music. Ahead are plenty of conflicts with each other and plenty of conflicts that will put them on the same side against pretty much everyone.

It teeters toward overly cutesy at times, as when Tony teaches Don the joys of fried chicken. But we see Tony’s spirit enlarge as he sees for the first time the beauty and brutality of America outside of New York, as he is touched by the music and Don’s artistry and horrified by the bigotry he faces. And we see Don open up a little to someone outside his world. Watching that opens our hearts a little, too.

Parents should know that this film includes depiction of Civil Rights Era racism with some peril and violence, strong and racist language, drinking, smoking, some sexual references and non-explicit situation.

Family discussion: Why did Don Shirley pick Tony? If you wrote a movie about your parents, what would it be?

If you like this, try: listen to the music of the Don Shirley Trio and watch “In the Heat of the Night”

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