The Last Full Measure

Posted on January 23, 2020 at 5:41 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for war violence and language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, medication
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic and disturbing images of wartime violence, characters injured and killed, veterans with PTSD, medical issues
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 24, 2020

Copyright 2019 Roadside Attractions
The story of the exceptional valor of Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger in one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, and the story of the thirty-year effort by the men he saved to see that he received recognition with a posthumus Medal of Honor are plenty dramatic, so it really wasn’t necessary to ramp it up with fictional details about a cover-up. And even an AARP A-list in the cast, including Ed Harris, Christopher Plummer, Diane Ladd, John Savage, Amy Madigan, Samuel L. Jackson and Peter Fonda, each with a chance at a bravura star turn, cannot match the clips over the final credits of the real-life veterans who would not quit until his valor was acknowledged. He ie one of only three Air Force enlisted men to be awarded the Medal of Honor in military history.

So a documentary about what really happened would have been better. Instead we have a diligent, well-intentioned, if overheated story that is as much about the (fictional) Defense Department staffer who was assigned to investigate the application for the Medal of Honor, Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), and the lessons he learned from contact with the honor and courage of Pitsenbarger, his parents (Plummer and Ladd), and the humble but insistent men who would not quit.

The movie goes back and forth between 1966 Vietnam and 1995 Washington DC. In Vietnam, Pitsenbarger was an Air Force pararescueman, not in a combat company himself but part of a team that evacuated wounded soldiers via helicopter. In one of of the bloodiest days of the war (meaning highest US casualty count), when the Americans were being slaughtered, he rescued wounded men at great risk to his own life and then picked up a gun and fought alongside them, until he was shot and killed. These scenes are extremely violent and graphic and often hard to follow, especially since there is no effort to make the younger versions of the characters played by Fonda, Harris, Jackson, and Savage look or sound like their counterparts.

In 1995 Washington, DC, Huffman (a fictional character) is an ambitious Defense Department civilian bureaucrat with a young son and a pregnant wife (neither of whom serve any function in the story except to be adorable and supportive, with one brief pep talk. His career is in jeopardy when the political appointee who serves as Secretary of the Air Force (Linus Roache) announces that he is resigning (and yet somehow still in the job what looks like a year later at the award ceremony but okay). And when he is assigned to develop a record for the medal application, including interviewing eye witnesses and tracking down mysteriously missing paperwork.

None of this is true (and by the way, the wives of the veterans whose lives were saved also played a significant part in getting the medal), but it makes for good drama, giving each of the venerable co-stars a moment suitable for a lifetime achievement clip real. They fall at different points on the range of PTSD, but all of them end up confessing and achieving some kind of catharsis. It is poignant to see the clearly ailing Peter Fonda in his last role as the most fragile of the group. And it is a little bit surreal to see John Savage of “The Deer Hunter” back in Vietnam 42 years later. Not the “Kurtz-ian burnout smoking ganja under a bohdi tree” that Huffman imagined but someone who found peace by bringing peace to others. Ladd’s monologue about sending her teenage son to war is also a highlight, and a welcome reminder that when we say no to sending our children into battle it just means we are sending someone else’s children in their place.

It is artificial and awkward. but thankfully it does not try to make the purpose of Pitsenbarger’s story into a life lesson for a fictional civilian. A moving award ceremony at the end reminds that the purpose of any hero’s story is to give a life lesson to us.

Parensts should know that this movie includes scenes of the Vietnam war with very graphic wartime violence and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, veterans with PTSD, strong language, and smoking.

Family discussion: How did Scott change as he spoke to the veterans? What did he learn about listening from Kepper? What kind of medal would you like to earn?

If you like this, try: “Hacksaw Ridge” and “We Were Soldiers”

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Just Mercy

Posted on January 9, 2020 at 5:26 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets
Profanity: Strong language including n-word and other racist terms
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: References to violent crimes, non-explicit depiction of an execution
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 10, 2020

Copyright Warner Brothers 2019
The third 2019 awards season story based on a real-life lawyer stars producer Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Legacy Museum (sometimes referred to as the Lynching Museum) and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The movie shows him as a young graduate of Harvard Law School who moved to the small town where Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Lee’s Atticus Finch, Stevenson defends those who were unfairly accused. He established the Equal Justice Initiative. The only other staff was a local woman named Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). Stevenson began helping men on death row at no cost.

The local community, especially law enforcement, did not like having old cases re-opened and weaknesses of evidence and exposed. The hostility and obstruction seemed insurmountable. But Stevenson was undaunted. Unlike most heroic lawyers in movies (and real life), this story does not have family members complaining that he is working too hard or a love interest who feels neglected. Stevenson does not lose his temper or feel like giving up. The great gift of this movie is what sometimes, if you are not watching carefully, may make it seem like its pilot light is turned down too low. This movie does have some rousing moments (and some sad ones) but it does not follow the usual courtroom underdog stories that make the intricacies of the judicial system follow the beats of a feel-good sports story.

Jordan is that rare performer who is a superb actor and a full-on movie star. After his electrifying appearance in “Black Panther,” he shows his range as a lawyer whose only superpowers are his integrity and his constant courtesy toward everyone he deals with. client, friend, and foe. The quiet power of the respect he shows to his clients is critical to gaining their trust and to restoring their sense of dignity in a system that has done its best to take it from them. And it is wisely given as much weight here as any revelation of evidence or legal right left out of the original proceedings.

Director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton also treats Stevenson’s clients with respect, with an outstanding performance by Jamie Foxx as Stevenson’s first significant client. It’s a quieter role than we have seen him in for a while, and his subtle work here is extraordinary, telling us the whole history of a man who has never been able to expect fairness for himself or his family. Rob Morgan plays another prisoner, performed with heartwrenching simplicity and delicacy to bring home to us what brought Stevenson to devote his life to this cause.

Parents should know that this movie concerns men on death row and abuses of the justice system. It includes some strong language, including racist epithets, and references to sexual assault and violent crime an a non-explicit depiction of an execution.

Family discussion: Why was it important for Stevenson to address his clients and their families as Mr. and Mrs.? What kept him from giving up?

If you like this, try: Bryan Stevenson’s book and TED Talk, and documentary

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Little Women

Posted on December 24, 2019 at 5:00 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements and brief smoking
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, brief smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Very sad death, references to other deaths including death of a baby
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2019
Copyright 2019 Sony Pictures

You need to know where I’m coming from on this one. There is no book more central to my life than Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. My mother, Josephine Baskin Minow, has been Jo since she first read Little Women when she was a child, And now our children call her Marmee. I loved it so much that I read all the other Alcott books on the library shelf (I especially recommend Eight Cousins and An Old Fashioned Girl). Little Women has been central to the lives of young women for more than 150 years, inspired by its heroine, who was inspired by Alcott herself. Jo March is fiercely loyal, impetuous, impatient, and a writer, both eager and reluctant to find her own voice. Authors who name the book as a major influence range from Cynthia Ozick, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ursula Le Guin and Nora Ephron to “Twilight”‘s Stephenie Meyer.

Alcott’s semi-autobiographical story of four sisters has been adapted many times, including a Broadway musical, a 48-chapter Japanese anime series, an opera, and films starring Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Winona Ryder. The most recent BBC version (of four) was shown in the United States on PBS. One of two major adaptations last year was a modern-day retelling with a quartet of appealing young actresses, adapted with skill and understanding by writer/director Clare Niederpruem.

So, my standards and expectations could not have been higher and it is my very great pleasure to tell you that this new film from writer/director Greta Gerwig exceeded them all. Writer/director Greta Gerwig not only loves and understands the book, she also appreciates that in 2019 we are only beginning to catch up to Alcott’s vision of what is possible for young women and for all of us. Those who do not know Alcott’s work or have only seen the early versions may think that Gerwig has “modernized” the story. But every part of it comes from Alcott (some from other writings) and every part of it is entirely consistent with her fierce, independent, and devoted spirit and rebellious energy. And Saoirse Ronan is the best Jo March yet, her long-limbed coltishness not so much “boyish” as vitally engaged in a world that cannot always keep up with her.

The book was originally written in two parts, but the second volume (called Good Wives) has been a part of what we know as Little Women for more than a century. Gerwig begins the story in the middle of the second book as the now-adult Jo (a teenager in the first volume) meets with a newspaper publisher (a charmingly crusty and wry performance from playwright Tracy Letts, last seen as Henry Ford II in “Ford v. Ferrari”). In case we are not as quick as he is to see through her claim to be bringing stories written by a “friend,” Gerwig lets us see the ink that still stains her fingers. When her story is accepted (with the moralizing parts cut out), she exuberantly races home.

Then, as we will throughout the film, we go back and forth between the two parts of the story, indicated by different color pallattes, the warmer hues for the earlier years, when the girls were all at home and their father (Bob Odenkirk) was a Union volunteer in the Civil War. There were struggles and growing pains, but there was also a sense of purpose and possibility that is not as clear in the cooler-hued older years, when Jo is in New York living in a boarding house, and Amy (Florence Pugh) is touring Europe and studying art. Pugh may be too old for Amy in the early scenes, but she and Gerwig give Amy far more depth than any previous portrayal (perhaps including Alcott’s). Emma Watson is lovely as oldest sister Meg (obligatory complaint about what was left out of this version — the scenes of Meg coming to John’s defense when Aunt March attacks him and the scene of her showing off her “new dress” to him). Gerwig’s script softens the professor’s critique of Jo’s more lurid stories-for-hire and his involvement in getting the book-within-a-book published, but the scene of his telling her that the melodramatic stories she is writing for money are not good is still an important turning point.

Laura Dern plays Marmee, a woman of character, courage, and intention. The private moment she takes in the foyer of the house to make sure she can greet her daughters with good cheer on Christmas morning after caring for the impoverished Hummels is a small master class of acting. When Marmee tells Jo that she still struggles with anger every day, we see where Jo got her inner fire and how inner fire can become the foundation for determination and principle.

And then there is Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, the sensitive boy whose temperament is protected from becoming headstrong and careless by the example of the March family, their attitude toward work and also their attitude toward fun. Like Laurie to Jo, Chalamet is a perfect match for his “Lady Bird” co-star Ronan, and we could happily watch a whole movie of them putting on plays, attending riotous meetings of the Pickwick Society, and skating on the pond.

It is still one of the all-time great coming-of-age stories of a family and an artist finding her voice. By putting making the early year portion of the film flashbacks that comment on, provide context for, and deepen the “present-day” storylines, Gerwig makes us ready for a perfect ending that brings Alcott, her fictional avatar, and the story of all of us who have tried to tell our stories together.

Parents should know that this film includes a sad death and reference to other deaths including the death of a baby, family stress and conflict, and brief smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: Which sister is most like you? Was the publisher right about the ending to the story? Why do so many women, especially writers, say that this story was their most important inspiration?

If you like this, try: the book by Louisa May Alcott and the other movie and miniseries versions of this story

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Richard Jewell

Posted on December 12, 2019 at 5:42 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief bloody images
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Bombing, explosions, characters injured and killed, brief disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Portrayal of female professional using sex to manipulate men
Date Released to Theaters: December 14, 2019
Date Released to DVD: March 16, 2020
Copyright Warner Brothers 2019

Erik Erikson said that at each stage of life we have a choice between growth, learning, and compassion and fear, immaturity, and self-absorption. The final choice he posed was for old age, when people have to choose between ego integrity (satisfaction and completeness at the end of life, a sense of having made a difference) or despair (being lost, lacking a sense of purpose). (I highly recommend “Everybody Rides the Carousel,” an animated film from John and Faith Hubley, illustrating Erikson’s theories.) Two big end-of-the-year releases by two men, one in his 70’s, the other almost 90, seem to come down on different sides.

Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” is a movie by old men about what it is to be old, to be looking back on the choices you’ve made and the consequences they have had. The characters in the film, based on real people and their sometimes questionable stories, committed brutal crimes. The movie never excuses their behavior, but it portrays them in a complex, humane, elegiac manner.

89-year-old Clint Eastwood has made “Richard Jewell,” also based on a true story, this one about a man who was accused of a crime he did not commit. Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) was pudgy and his social skills were uneven. He was fascinated with order and authority and wanted very much to be a police officer. He lived with his mother and he had a lot of guns (“This is Georgia,” he shrugs.) He fit the profile and was an easy target in a city desperate to keep the international athletes, IOC officials, and media confident that everything was under control.

One of three films this month about real-life heroic lawyers who fought near-insurmountable odds to bring justice (the other two are “Dark Waters” and “Just Mercy”), this could have been a heartwarming story, but Eastwood’s cranky “get off my lawn” perspective cannot resist overdoing it as though he was talking to an empty chair. Instead of a movie about a guy who was the victim of the FBI under pressure to find a culprit and the media frantic to find a story. Eastwood is so sure we will not be able to figure out who the bad guys are that he all but has them wear signs.

It isn’t just this FBI agent who is wrong; it’s the government. And it isn’t this reporter or this newspaper that is wrong; it’s the media. It is not enough that the reporter’s first reaction on hearing that there has been a bombing is to hope that the bomber is story-worthy. Eastwood has to make her trade sex for information. (She is dead now, but her newspaper has demanded that the movie make clear it is not an accurate representation.) Our hero, meaning the lawyer, played by the always-great Sam Rockwell, has a bumper sticker in his office that says, “I fear government more than I fear terrorism.” JUST IN CASE WE DON’T GET THE POINT.

It’s a shame because the story has an even more important lesson in this era of social media, citizen “journalists” and milkshake ducks. But the shrill tone of the film gets in the way, especially in its portrayal of the reporter as not just irresponsible about the facts but willing to trade sex for a story. Pro tip: if you are going to make a movie about how terrible it is that the media exaggerates and lies, try not to do that in the movie itself.

Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language and a bombing with some brief disturbing images. Characters drink alcohol and a woman use sex to get information.

Family discussion: Why was Richard Jewell a suspect? Why did Watson believe him?

If you like this, try: “Sully” and “American Sniper” from the same director

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Bombshell

Posted on December 12, 2019 at 5:38 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual material and language throughout
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sexual pressure and harassment
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 13, 2019
Date Released to DVD: March 9, 2020

Copyright 2019 Lionsgate
The word “bombshell” works both ways as the title of this film based on the true story of the #metoo moment that rocked the powerful leadership of Fox News and brought down its visionary founder Roger Ailes. “Bombshell” means a very attractive woman (check out the Jean Harlow movie of the same name, about a gorgeous movie star, and the documentary of the same name, about Hedy Lamar). And “bombshell” also means a shocking piece of news. Both are equally apt.

Those who watched “The Loudest Voice in the Room” on Showtime know that Ailes transformed the news media by creating a network that had two important innovations: gorgeous women in revealing clothes delivering news stories slanted toward white people who think their victimhood has been overlooked. As an executive puts it in this film, “You have to adopt the mentality of an Irish street cop. The world is a bad place. People are lazy morons. Minorities are criminals. Sex is sick, but interesting. Ask yourself, ‘What would scare my grandmother, or p— off my grandfather?’ And that’s a Fox story.”

The story is almost operatic in scope and drama and director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph (“The Big Short”) hit the tone just right, the heightened urgency of the newsroom, the millions of small and devastatingly large compromises at the top of the media food chain.

The performances are sizzling. Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is a fading star at FOX, relegated to off-peak programs. (I could not help thinking of this performance as a bookend with Kidman’s “To Die For,” with Kidman as a woman who was willing to do anything, including sexual favors and murder, to get a job on TV news.) Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is a rising star, and as this movie begins, she is horrified to find herself in the middle of a story as then-candidate Donald Trump makes ugly and crude accusations because she surprised him by asking him to comment on some of his insults to women (“You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals”) in an on-air interview. Margot Robbie plays Kayla, a fictional character based on the ambitious lower-level staff and what those who asked Ailes for on-camera opportunities were expected to do to show their “loyalty.”

Some early critics of the film object to the women being portrayed as feminist heroines. But they are not portrayed as feminist heroines; on the contrary. They’re not fighting courageously for justice like Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich. They are carefully calibrating how much abuse, how many humiliations, how much indignity they are willing to trade for the professional opportunities they want, even when it means ignoring abuse of other women. Answer: a lot. Ultimately, there is a limit, though, and watching each character locate that line is what makes this movie smart and engrossing. For Carlson, it is being fired. For Kayla, it is a painful realization after the fact, and after someone else has taken the almost unthinkably daunting step of going first. And the stakes are clear. “Once you go public, no one will hire you,” Carlson is told. Her post-lawsuit career has focused on sexual harassment issues either because she now recognizes the importance of the issue or because she cannot get any other job. The week of the film’s release she wrote an op-ed in The New York Times calling on Fox to withdraw the non-disclosure agreement she had to sign in order to settle her case. It’s unlikely, but if they do, maybe we’ll get another movie out of it.

The focus here is on Kelly. It is one thing to burn your bridges after you have been fired and have nothing to lose, but it is entirely another for a woman near the top of her profession who says, “I’m not a feminist; I’m a lawyer,” who does not want to be the story, who is in cutthroat competition with the other beautiful blondes and not one to raise a fist and proclaim that sisterhood is powerful. What will it take to get her to speak out and what price will she pay for saying something? Kelly is a complicated character and the way her dilemma is presented here is complicated and nuanced, more directed toward nods of recognition than standing ovations. Her career has been rocky (except for financially) since her decision to acknowledge the abuse, which makes this a cautionary tale that does not make the prospect of feminist heroine-ing look very appealing.

What is even more fascinating here is the setting. Is Fox a news organization as it has traditionally been understood? We get glimpses of other Fox personalities, including Bill O’Reilly, who left Fox following his own #metoo abuses. The way the organization responds to Carlson’s claims — handing out “Team Roger” t-shirts before any investigation even though it is generally known why there’s a lock on his door and a separate entrance to his office — says something about whether “loyalty” is more important than the truth, to them and to us.

Parents should know that this film is based on the real life #metoo upheavals at FOX News, with explicit discussions and some depiction of sexual harassment, abuse, and predation, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Why did the three women respond differently? How has coming forward affected their careers? What is the best way to prevent abuse by people in power?

If you like this, try: “The Loudest Voice” miniseries and “The Hunting Ground”

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