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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Cruella

Posted on May 26, 2021 at 5:13 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, character gets drunk in response to stress
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy-style peril and violence, murder and references to murder and attempted murders, child feels responsible for death of parent, characters are thieves and con artists
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 29, 2021

Copyright Disney 2021
“Cruella” has the same problem as “Maleficent.” Origin stories of iconic villains have to make the characters relatable enough to hold our interest but also damaged enough to lead them toward the most despicable cruelty. So it never decides whether Cruella is some sort of Jekyll and Hyde character or a “Bad Seed” struggle between nature and nurture.

“Cruella” has some pleasures, particularly the performances of the two Emmas, Stone and Thompson, as the title character and her own ultra-wicked nemesis. But it never resolves that problem, and it sits uneasily in the PG-13 space, too dark for children who are fans of the original animated film with Betty Lou Gerson as the husky-voiced Cruella or its live-action remake with Glenn Close. And it is too cartoony for most of the audience old enough to see it.

Our anti-heroine begins life as Estella, also the name of the Dickens character who is raised to be cruel by Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. But this Estella is raised by a loving, understanding single mother (Emily Beecham as Catherine), who recognizes that Estella is a bit different, and not just because of her striking hair: jet black on one half of her head and snow white on the other. The kids at school bully her, except for Anita, who becomes her friend. But Estella can’t stay out of trouble. She seems to like trouble. She gets kicked out of school, and her mother decides they should move to London. They stop on the way there so Catherine can ask an old acquaintance for some money. But she is killed in a fall, and Estella believes it is her fault. She is left with no one to care for her.

She makes it to London and meets up with a couple of Artful Dodger types, Horace and Jasper. They invite her to share their home in an abandoned building and soon they are picking pockets and, as they get older, coming up with more complicated ways to steal. But Estella dreams of being a fashion designer and when she turns 18 (now played by Stone) Jasper (Joel Fry) helps her get an entry-level job at the legendary Liberty of London, where the closest she gets to fashion is scrubbing the bathrooms. But some mishaps bring her to the attention of the country’s imperious fashion impresario, The Baroness (Emma Thompson). At first, Estella just wants to do a good job. But various developments and revelations bring out the fury and, it must be said, the megalomania and cruelty that does not necessarily make sense in the context of what we’ve seen so far but gets her where she needs to be for the original story. Cruella (as she now calls herself) goes from being somewhere between Little Orphan Annie and Oliver Twist to being, well, the meanest movie villain of all time.

And she has some pretty fabulous gowns along the way. The Disney design team never fails to bring their magic. And it was a very shrewd idea to set the film in the moment as the swinging London of the 60s is moving into the punk era of the 70s with a soundtrack that includes a bunch of bangers. The movie is not very good but much of it is fun to watch.

Thompson is clearly having a ball playing a character who could fit the description of the character she played in “Much Ado About Nothing,” “My Lady Disdain.” She is a kind of “Devil Wears Prada” boss known as The Baroness. (It’s not a coincidence that both films share writer Aline Brosh McKenna). The Baroness rules her fashion line with a ruthlessness that makes “Devil Wears Prada’s” Miranda Priestly look like Little Miss Muffet. (Gosh, I hope we don’t have to sit through any of their origin stories some day.) And Stone does her considerable best with a character who does not make much sense.

Many years ago, a poll of the most evil villains of all time put Cruella De Vil at the very top, ahead of Hannibal Lecter. It’s right there in her name! She wanted to murder 99 puppies to make a coat! (Dodie Smith, who wrote the charming book 101 Dalmatians, was inspired to create the character of Cruella by an actress friend who admired Smith’s Dalmatian puppies and jokingly suggested their fur would make an elegant coat.) Cruella was the most fun when that was all she was, a wealthy lady with a husky voice who wanted to make a coat out of puppy fur. What a shame that the original animated Cruella was a more vibrant character than anyone in this film.

Parents should know that this movie has some dark themes. A child sees the murder of her mother and blames herself. Orphans band together as thieves and never find homes. A character gets drunk to deal with stress. A character admits to murdering more than one person. The story includes toxic and cruel behavior.

Family discussion: If you were going to change your name, what name would you pick? Why do Jasper and Horace do what Estella tell them to? Why is Anita the only girl who is friendly to Estella?

If you like this, try: the original animated film and the book by Dodie Smith

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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

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 Outside Story

Posted on May 4, 2021 at 2:17 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild, including arrest of a Black Man
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 30, 2021

Copyright 2021 Samuel Goldwyn Company
It takes a long time to make a film, from concept to screenwriting to financing, casting, and shooting and distribution. Even the fastest, lowest-budget film takes months, if not years. You’re always creating something for an audience in a future you cannot predict. And yet the magic of the best films is that they arrive at exactly the right time. “The Outside Story,” a slim little gem under 90 minutes long, is about a man who leaves his apartment after a long time inside, and it comes just as many of us are venturing out of our homes post-vaccination, almost having forgotten what it feels like to be out in the world, blinking and disoriented like the returnees at the end of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” And here, gently encouraging us, is this love letter to its characters, its performers, its Brooklyn setting, and to going outside into the world.

Bryan Tyree Henry has been a standout in films like “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Widows,” on television in “Atlanta” and other shows, and on Broadway, where he was nominated for a Tony for his performance in “The Book of Mormon.” In his first lead role, he is never less than outstanding as Charles, a man whose ambitions have shrunk as he has been more and more homebound. Once working on a documentary about artificial intelligence and being a friendly and outgoing attendee at parties (where he brought homemade desserts), he now works for Turner Classic Movies putting clips together for pre-obituary tributes to filmmakers and actors who seem like they might die soon. A (fictitious) big star named Gardner St. James is reportedly near death and Charles’s boss is sending him a series of urgent texts insisting he send the tribute in immediately, but Charles is still tinkering with it, trying to get one last clip to convey the star’s career.

Charles is also distracted and depressed. He has just broken up with his long-time girlfriend Isha (a radiant Sonequa Martin-Green), because she cheated on him. He is waiting for her to pick up her stuff, but, per the central imperative that rules the lives of New Yorkers, he has promised to move her car to comply with the alternate side-of-the-street rules and keep her from getting a ticket. When his take-out food order arrives, he doesn’t have enough money on hand for a tip, annoying his regular delivery guy. Back in his apartment, he discovers some extra cash in a pants pocket, and goes running after the delivery guy in his stocking feet to give him a tip. He grabbed his keys on the way out of the door, but it turned out they weren’t his keys; they were his ex’s car keys. And he is locked out.

The guy who would not leave the apartment cannot get back in. And the rest of the movie is just his encounters as the day goes on with neighbors who mostly had never seen him before. Each one is a little haiku of a scene, gorgeously acted, especially by Sunita Mani (“GLOW”) as the cop issuing parking tickets, Lynda Gravatt as a feisty widow, and the superb Olivia Edward as a young girl living with a mother who is somewhere on the continuum between high-strung and disturbingly unstable. The smart script by writer/director Casimir Nozkowski unfolds with distinctive, illuminating details (I love his job) and subtle shifts in Charles’s attitude, as he begins to open up to the world. Henry is a knock-out in the role, utterly present for everything the outside world throws at Charle, adjusting o each situation initially in whatever way he thinks will help him get back inside, though not always hiding his frustration, and then starting to listen, to find ways to help others, to connect. It is like watching a flower bloom in time-lapse photography. When he is unexpectedly given a chance to hear some music, it is powerfully moving to see him so moved. Flashbacks give us insight into his relationship with Isha, and how it relates to where Charles is now and what he is learning.

Increasingly, some of my favorite films can be described as “Nothing happens. And everything happens.” That’s this film, and it is a joy to watch.

Parents should know that this film includes sexual references, including infidelity and polyamory, and some strong language. A parent appears to be unstable and abusive.

Family discussion: What changes for Charles during the day and why? Why didn’t Charles want to go outside? Have you ever been locked out? What did you do?

If you like this, try: “Columbus,” “Pieces of April,” and “The Day-Trippers”

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We Broke Up

Posted on April 15, 2021 at 5:40 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 16, 2021

Copyright Vertical Entertainment 2021
Relationships are complicated. That’s one reason we like movies, where they are generally less complicated, and give us the reassuring but inaccurate message that things work out the way we wish they would. The title of “We Broke Up” sets us a premise that looks like a romantic comedy but ends up as a bittersweet acknowledgment that relationships are, well, complicated, and sometimes it is hard to figure out what we want, much less figure out how to make what we want work with someone else’s wants.

Lori (Aya Cash) and Doug (William Jackson Harper of “The Good Place”) have been together for ten years. They have the affectionate verbal shortcuts of people who know each other well and trust each other without reservation. As far as Lori’s mother is concerned, Doug is part of the family.

And then, as they are waiting at a counter for a Chinese food take-out order, Doug impulsively proposes and Lori’s reaction shocks them both. She throws up. By the next morning, they have broken up. The timing is awkward, though, as Lori’s sister is getting married and they are expected at the destination wedding weekend. They are both in the wedding party and they decide to pretend that they are still together so Lori’s sister can have her perfect day free from any tensions or conflicts.

Of course, there has never been a wedding and very few family gatherings of any kind without tensions or conflicts. Lori’s sister is Bea (a radiant Sara Bolger), who, in stark contrast to Lori, is marrying Jayson (Tony Cavalero), a man she has known for just four month. While Lori and Doug seem stuck like bugs in amber, Bea and Jayson are impulsive, impetuous, and show no signs of stopping to think about what they are doing. The wedding is at a resort which was once the summer camp Lori and Bea went to as young teenagers, and there are elaborate plans that include a “Paul Bunyan Day” series of camp-style competitive events, except with lots of liquor. And like all weddings, there are chances to renew connections and meet new people. Doug and Lori, still pretending to be together, find themselves wondering about possible other partners.

The ambitions of the film, co-written by director Jeff Rosenberg with Laura Jacqmin (“Grace and Frankie”) are impressive, but the characters are too thinly written to support them, despite the best efforts of the actors. The contrast between the impulsive couple heading into marriage and the couple who have made no progress toward marriage or children or, in Lori’s case, a career, is intriguing but plays out awkwardly. There are moments that come across as genuine but they are surrounded by others that are uneven in tone and execution. Ultimately, like the couples in the film, we are not sure what we want for them.

Parents should know that this film has mature material including sexual references and situations, tense family confrontations, drinking, drunkenness, drugs, and references to underage drinking.

Family discussion: Are you more like Lori or Bea? What do you think will happen to them?

If you like this, try: “Plus One,” “The Five Year Engagement,” and “Table 19”

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