Till

Posted on October 13, 2022 at 5:18 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content involving racism, strong disturbing images and racial slurs
Profanity: Racist epithets

Copyright 2022 Orion Pictures
In March of 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching a federal hate crime. It only took 67 years.

It was in 1955 that a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago named Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. “Till” is his story, but it is more importantly the story of his mother, who responded to the greatest pain a parent can experience with determination to save other families from that kind of tragedy. I will give her the respect denied her by the white people of Mississippi and refer to Till’s mother, later known as Mamie Till-Mobley, as she was by the Black people who honored her during this period, Mrs. Bradley. She is played with infinite grace and dignity by Danielle Deadwyler in a performance that is one of the most thrilling of the year.

Emmett (Jalyn Hall) was a happy, friendly, high-spirited boy who was devoted to his single mother and thought the world was a safe place. We first see him with his mother at Chicago’s famous department store, Marshall Field’s, politely responding to a clerk who suggests that she shop in the basement, clearly a racist response. Mrs. Bradley tries to warn Emmett that things are different in the Jim Crow South, that he must be careful, ultra-respectful, and, if called upon, get down on his knees and beg forgiveness for any suspected slight. But Emmett is young and a bit of a show-off. His casual demeanor and his speaking to the 21-year-old white woman at the cash register was considered an insult. And so, Her husband and his friend banged on the door of Till’s relatives, took him from their home at gunpoint, and murdered him.

Mississippi wanted to bury him there, along with the story. But with the intervention of the NAACP, his body was returned to Chicago, so abused and mutilated that it was barely recognizable as human. The mortician urged her not to look and to close the casket at the funeral because, he says carefully, “He’s not in the right shape” to be seen. But Mrs. Bradley insisted that he must be seen, that what happened to him must be understood. The moments of her communion with her son’s body, the faces of those viewing him at the funeral, and Deadwyler’s description in court testimony of how she was able to identify him as her son are galvanizing. “He is in just the right shape. The world is going to see what they did to my boy,” she says. That legacy continues with this important, impactful film.

Parents should know that this movie is the true story of a brutal hate crime. The murder is sensitively handled, but we do see, as Mrs. Bradley would have wanted, his body and the reactions of the people who viewed the open casket. Characters smoke, drink and use racist language, including the n-word.

Family discussion: How does the experience of Emmett Till relate to the issues raised by Black Lives Matter today? What do we learn from her conversation with Preacher? Why did Mrs. Bradley’s decision to speak out make a difference?

If you like this, try: “The Murder of Emmett Till” from the PBS series “American Experience,” the “Eyes on the Prize” series, “For Us the Living,” about Medgar Evers, and “Ghosts of Mississippi,” about the lawyers who finally brought his murderers to justice. You can read about the 2022 decision not to charge the woman who wrongly accused Emmett Till here and contribute to the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation here.

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Amsterdam

Posted on October 6, 2022 at 5:20 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for brief violence and bloody images
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Very graphic bloody images, wartime violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 7, 2022

Copyright 2022 20th Century
David O. Russell’s new film, “Amsterdam” has a powerhouse cast, a wisp of a true story and a wildly uneven and overly complicated script. The results are, therefore, messy and mixed. As a fellow movie-goer told me, watching the movie was like bobbing for apples. Much of the time we felt like we were under water and then all of a sudden something good would pop up.

Amsterdam (the city) appears in the film only in a brief happy moment in the lives of the three main characters, who have sworn to be best friends and protect each other. They are two WWI veterans, Harold Woodman (John David Washington), who would become a lawyer, Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), already a doctor, and Valerie (Margot Robbie), a nurse who cared for them in a French hospital for wounded soldiers. Harold is Black and Burt is half Jewish and lower class than his high society wife, and bigotry is evident throughout the story. Indeed, as we see in a flashback, they met when Black US soldiers in France objected to their racist white officers — they were not even allowed to wear the uniform of their country — and Burt was assigned by the kind, honorable General Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.) to treat the Black soldiers with honor and dignity.

In the movie’s present setting of 1933 New York, both Burt and Harold are devoting their lives to helping other wounded veterans. They themselves bear the scars of combat and Burt has a glass eye due to his injuries (second movie with Bale losing a glass eye after “The Big Short”). He is also experimenting with pain medication for his patients and taking a lot of it himself. The men are working on a gala dinner honoring their fellow veterans that will become of increasing importance.

Every role, even the smallest, is superbly cast, with Robbie as the high-spirited, dada-esque artist, Zoe Saldana as a sympathetic nurse passing for “Portuguese,” Beth Grant as a bouillabaisse-making devoted wife, Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola as police detectives, significantly one also a wounded vet and one who did not serve, Timothy Olyphant, almost unrecognizable in a role I won’t spoil, and Michael Shannon and Mike Myers — yes, that Mike Myers) as bird-loving “benefactors” who may not be completely forthcoming about their real interests. Every performance is outstanding, but so much so that they begin to throw the storyline out of whack. In films like “Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle,” and “Flirting with Disaster,” Russell made the mixture of bittersweet situations and some leavening humor work to reveal the characters and move the story. Here it just gets distracting.

The daughter of General Meekins (Taylor Swift, yes, that Taylor Swift), asks Harold and Burt for help. Her father died on a ship returning from Europe, and she suspects that he may have been murdered. The efforts to investigate result in another murder, with Burt and Harold as the prime suspects. This leads to a series of encounters, revelations, and twists that I will not spoil. Also, I’m not sure I understood all of them.

I did understand the last 20 minutes. Everyone understood the last 20 minutes, thoug. I’m pretty sure you didn’t even have to watch the movie to understand the point. Russell bangs on his message with a sledgehammer, and then, just in case he wasn’t banging hard enough, he shows us archival footage of the person who inspired the character played by Robert De Niro. Even those sympathetic to the points he is trying to make about the parallels between the political conflicts of the pre-WWII era and today will find it overly didactic. Too much water, not enough apples.

Parents should know that this film includes bloody, graphic images of an autopsy and wartime violence, bigotry, alcohol and drug use (portrayed as comic in some instances), and brief strong language.

Family discussion: What parallels is Russell drawing to the politics of 2022? Why is the movie called “Amsterdam?” Read up on General Smedley Butler and the “Business Plot.”

If you like this, try: “Keeper of the Flame” and “State of the Union,” both starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy

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The Good House

Posted on September 29, 2022 at 5:40 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: NA
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and alcoholism, marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Reference to two suicides (off-screen), some scuffles, lost child
Diversity Issues: Neurodivergent child
Date Released to Theaters: September 30, 2022
Date Released to DVD: November 21, 2022

Copyright 2022 Lionsgate
Hildy Good (Sigourney Weaver) tells us she was “born three drinks short of comfortable.” She tells us a lot in “The Good House,” based on the 2013 novel by Ann Leary. Hildy and her ancestors going back to one Sarah Good, hung for being a witch back in the late 1600s, have always lived in a Massachusetts town on the shore of the Atlantic ocean. By nature, culture, and profession she is utterly attuned to the emotions and the stories around her. As a realtor, she has to be able to assess immediately the needs and dynamics of the prospective buyers and sellers. Divorce may be a personal catastrophe for the people splitting up, but for her it is a business opportunity. Hildy has to balance the necessity of being pleasant and supportive to everyone with the necessity of boundaries that keep her from getting too emotionally involved. But they also keep her from being as perceptive about herself as she is about others. Hildy narrates a lot and she is always charming, often a little wry, but as we go on we see what she is leaving out of the story.

The good news about a small town is that everyone knows everything about everyone. That can be a source of comfort and help people feel grounded. The bad thing about a small town is that everyone knows everything about everyone. That can be a source of claustrophobia and make people feel trapped. The local psychiatrist, for example, is Peter (Rob Delaney). Hildy will always see him in part as the little boy she used to babysit for. Even if she does not, he will always think she does.

There is an increasing gulf between the way Hildy wants to be seen in the community, the way she is seen, and the way she is. We learn that her daughters and ex-husband organized an intervention because of her drinking, and she has been to rehab. And she is still drinking. A lot. She believes it is important for her to appear successful, so she drives a car she cannot afford. She is struggling and feeling the pressure from a former assistant who has become a competitor.

The trailer may suggest that the focus of the movie is the romance as Hildy connects with Frankie (Kevin Kline), a contractor she loved when they were teenagers. But it is really the story of Hildy coming to terms with the loss and fear she has pushed away and refused to acknowledge since she was a child. Often it was alcohol that she used to make reality less painful. This is a gorgeous role for the endlessly talented Weaver, who gives a layered, deeply lived-in performance, one of the best of the year. She shows us Hildy’s cool, pulled together, ABC (Always Be Closing), performative self, the one she shows to clients, potential clients (that means everyone), even her two daughters. Her wry humor at first looks like some self-awareness, but as it goes on, we see it is just another way to avoid seeing the truth. The same with the details she confides in us. At first they seem disarming and candid. But we learn more about what she is leaving out. And her chemistry with her “Dave” and “The Ice Storm” co-star Kline is genuine and touching.

There’s an engaging shagginess to the story that reveals its origins as a novel. Directors and co-screenwriters (with Thomas Bezucha) Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky leave in some of the messy details of the novel that most writers would smooth over in a movie adaptation, where there is a limited time so that every aspect has to push the story forward. This gives the film a sense of atmosphere and community that we can believe goes beyond the edges of the frame.

Parents should know that this film deals with alcoholism, depression, and suicide. A child is in peril. Characters use some strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Hildy tell Rebecca she could not get involved? Do you believe Hildy had special powers of perception?

If you like this, try: “Dave” and “Our Souls at Night” and, by these same screenwriters, the excellent autobiographical “Infinitely Polar Bear”

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Catherine Called Birdy

Posted on September 22, 2022 at 5:27 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Some violence, discussions of forced marriage, references to battles, stillbirth, offscreen death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 30, 2022

Copyright 2022 Amazon
Lena Dunham is a remarkably talented writer and director and this loving, joyous adaptation of YA favorite novel Catherine Called Birdy is a passion project for her, as we can seen from her affectionate portrayal of a rebellious girl in the Middle Ages. Before I get to the details of the story, I want to take a moment to note Dunham’s exceptional talent in casting. One of the palpable pleasures of this film worth noting is the superb selection of performers. Even the smallest role is cast with care and beautifully performed. High marks to Dunham and to her casting directors Catriona Dickie and Nina Gold.

“Games of Thrones” actress Bella Ramsey is ideal as the title character, the 14-year-old daughter of a feckless nobleman (Andrew. Scott as Lord Rollo) and his kind-hearted wife (Billie Piper as Lady Aislinn). We are introduced to the family and household with brief written descriptions, video game style. They include Birdy’s nurse and confidant, Morwenna (Lesley Sharp), her brothers, one a monk she likes and one living in the castle with her she mostly ignores. Her friends are Perkin (Michael Woolfitt), who cares for the pigs, and another noble teenager, the beautiful Alis (Isis Hainsworth), who comes to visit once a month with her parents. She also adores her Uncle George (Joe Alwyn), who comes for a visit after fighting in the Crusades.

Birdy (nickname from the pigeons she keeps) is a fierce, independent young woman who describes her “lady lessons” as my two least favorite words in one terrible phrase.” She feels unfairly constricted by the norms of her time, and has a long lost of activities unfairly forbidden to women. She is mostly ignored by her father, until he is informed that (1) he is in need of money and (2) the primary asset he can use to get money is his marriageable daughter. In the calculations of the time. a young woman who carries a title is equivalent to a wealthy man without one. As soon as her father finds out that she has begun to menstruate and is therefore ready to bear children, he sends out word that she is ready to be sold into matrimony. She has a series of amusing encounters as she scares off would-be suitors. Finally, though, after Alis is “married” to a nine-year-old, Birdy is promised to the worst of them all.

Dunham gives us a Middle Ages compound that is suitably grimy, with evocative production design by Kave Quinn and costumes from Julian Day and a score from Carter Burwell. But the modern sensibility is evident through contemporary songs on the soundtrack and Birdy’s commentary. She may be ignorant about some of the basic facts of life, but the more interesting knowledge she gains over the course of the film concerns her increased understanding of people and their motivations.

Dunham, like the book’s author Karen Cushman, effectively uses the Middle Ages setting to raise not just contemporary but eternal issues of conflicts between independence and connections of our friends and family, between challenging traditions and allowing them to provide continuity. The humor and pop songs keep the more dire aspects of the story from distracting us when what she wants us to see is Birdy’s resilience and open-heartedness.

Parents should know that this film is frank about puberty and has sexual references and childbirth scenes, including a sad stillbirth. There is off-screen violence, with references to the Crusades and the death of a child, and a sword fight with one participant wounded.

Family discussion: Why did Birdy and Alis have different ideas about how to behave? Why didn’t she agree to go with Ethelfritha? The screenwriter changed the ending from the book. Which ending do you prefer?

If you like this, try: the book and the book series by Tamora Pierce

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Spin Me Round

Posted on August 18, 2022 at 5:25 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril, characters injured, some graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 19, 2022

Copyright 2022 IFC Films
Director Jeff Baena is developing something of a repertory company and something of a genre all his own that could be called “high concept deranged farce.” He co-wrote one of my favorite films, “I Heart Huckabee’s,” a story about a department store, some environmental activists, complex existential philosophical concepts that was hilarious and bracingly smart. In his other films, wild, out of control behavior occurs in a medieval convent populated by highly impious foul-mouthed nuns (“The Little Hours”) and a dead girlfriend returns as a zombie (“Life After Beth”). Actors who have appeared in two or more of his films include his wife, Aubrey Plaza, and Alison Brie (her husband, Dave Franco appeared in “The Little Hours”), and “SNL” veterans Molly Shannon and Fred Armison. All of them are brilliant at exactly the combination of heightened circumstance and deadpan delivery he specializes in, and all of them clearly enjoy it.

His latest film, “Spin Me Round” does not just star Alison Brie; she wrote it as well. She plays Amber, who has worked for nine years at an Italian Garden-style restaurant in Bakersfield, California, called Tuscan Grove. As the movie opens, we see the industrial operations of the restaurant chain, with Alfredo sauce squeezed out of pre-packaged bags onto microwaved all-you-can-eat pasta. Amber is very professional and respected by her colleagues. Her boss, played by Lil Rel Howery, has a surprise for her; he has submitted her name for a special study session in Tuscany sponsored by their parent company. and she has been selected. Amber is thrilled. She has never been to Europe and it looks like a fabulous adventure, and, maybe, with the possibility of romance.

But this is one of those stories that starts out like a Hallmark movie and turns into a Lifetime movie.

Amber is still in “please the customer” mode and determined to bring the same upbeat, can-do spirit that made her successful at the restaurant. So when things begin to go wrong after her arrival she is sunny and helpful. Another attendee is Deb (Shannon), pouting over a lost bag, and Amber offers to loan her anything she needs, modestly assuring Deb, “I overpacked.” It turns out they are not staying in the beautiful villa pictured on the website but in a generic little motel with no locks on the doors nearby. When asked to turn over their passports and stay within the compound, she agrees. The promised lessons on Italian culture and cuisine are dull and basic. One of the other attendees is an ambitious chef (Tim Heidecker) who wants to teach the others about haute cuisine and molecular gastronomy, but no one cares.

The founder of the Tuscan Grove is Nick (Alessandro Nivola, always great), a dissolute yacht-owning zillionaire with surface charm and, clear to us at least, no interest in anything but pleasure. His assistant, Cat (Plaza) wakes Amber up and takes her to Nick’s yacht. While the others are in a boring class about herbs, she is living a Cinderella dream.

But then things start to get weird. Some of the other participants disappear. Amber starts to investigate and the storyline and tone take a swerve.

The last 20 minutes and he ending do not make a lot of sense. It’s pretty random. The script may be more a role Brie wants to play than a story she wants to tell. But the performances are excellent, especially Shannon, Plaza, and Brie herself, all precise and consistent despite the shifts. Shannon is funny and scary as the volatile over-sharer, both with confidences and with Amber’s clothes. Plaza, as always, is a master of deadpan with an underlay of recklessness. She and Brie play off each other beautifully as Amber tries hard to be a “good girl” and is scared and a little thrilled at finding her tendency to go along leading her to cross some boundaries she would never have considered in Bakersfield. I hope Baena keeps this repertory company going.

Parents should know that this movie has very explicit sexual situations and nudity, including group sex, and very strong language. Characters drink alcohol. There is some peril and there are some graphic and disturbing images of injuries.

Family discussion: Is there a point where Amber should have asked more questions? Why was the kind of restaurant so important to the story?

If you like this, try: Baena’s other films

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