Let Him Go

Posted on November 2, 2020 at 8:00 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and very tense peril and violence, sad death, characters injured and killed, guns, ax, fire
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 6, 2020

Copyright 2020 Focus Features
We think George (Kevin Costner) and Margaret (Diane Lane) Blackledge are dressing for a funeral. In the first moments of “Let Him Go” their adult son was killed in an accident on their farm, and their expressions and clothes are somber. But it is three years after their son’s death and they are dressing for a wedding, not a funeral. Lorna (Kayli Carter), the widow of their son James and the mother of his now-three-year-old son Jimmy, is getting married to a man named Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain) and leaving their farm to live with him. They reassure themselves that they will still see Jimmy. But then Margaret sees them when they don’t know she is there, and Donnie hits Lorna. And then, without any notice, Donnie, Lorna, and Jimmy disappear. He has gone home to his family, leaving no way to contact them. It is the 1960s, and it was easier to hide in those days, whether from grandparents or from law enforcement.

Margaret decides to go after them, to bring Jimmy home to live with them. George agrees to go along, but he does not think they can get Jimmy away from his mother and his new family. He wants to give Margaret a chance to say goodbye.

“Let Him Go” is based on a book by Larry Watson, adapted by writer/director Thomas Bezucha. He makes great use of the majestic scenery of the northwest, especially when George and Margaret encounter a lone young Native American named Peter Dragswolf (Booboo Stewart). Just as in the classic westerns, the landscape emphasizes the opportunity — and the dangers — of a world where there is so much land and people are so isolated.

Lane and Costner, who played a couple in two Superman movies, have an easy chemistry that makes us believe there is a long history between them. Neither George nor Margaret say much, in part because they know each other so well there is little more to say, and that includes understanding that there is no point in trying to persuade each other on issues that they know too well will never be resolved. “Sometimes that’s all life is, a list of what we’ve lost,” George says. But Margaret is not going to give up.

Bezucha knows how to create tension, even with seemingly simple comments or undramatic settings, which only adds to the sense of dread. You don’t find a Weboy, a relative tells them. “You let it be known you’re looking for a Weboy. They find you.”

And they do, at a place so far off the map they could never find it without being led by Donnie’s uncle. They are invited to dinner by Donnie’s mother Blanche, played by the unsurpassable Lesley Manville, in one of the year’s best performances. She can make the offer of pork chops sound ominous. And she does. She rips into the role and is absolutely electrifying. And terrifying.

Two solid citizens up against a family of feral outlaws, an updated western with good guys and bad guys leading to an intense and violent battle. The set-up is conventional, but the direction and performances make it memorable.

Parents should know that this film is an exceptionally tense thriller with peril, abuse, and violence that includes guns, an ax, and fire. Characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: Why did George and Margaret have different ideas about what they wanted to get from finding Jimmy? What do we learn from Peter’s story?

If you like this, try: “The Lookout” and “The Highwaymen”

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On the Rocks

Posted on October 22, 2020 at 5:49 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some language and some sexual references
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 24, 2020
Copyright 2020 A24

I admit that I was about to give up on Sofia Coppola. I admired her early films, “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation,” in part because of her exquisite framing and intriguing silences. But her later films made the framing seem precious and the silences seem empty. They were like precisely arranged bento boxes created for display only, beautiful to look at but not very nourishing or flavorful.

But now we have “On the Rocks,” a slight film but with more warmth and a more relaxed tone than her previous work. It’s bittersweet, but it is beguiling. Rashida Jones plays Laura, a writer in New York living with her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) and two young children, one still a toddler. Dean has been working hard at his job, which requires a lot of travel, and Laura has been feeling neglected, struggling with her writing, and she begins to worry that Dean might be having an affair with the beautiful and a bit intimidating colleague who travels with him (Jessica Henwick and Fiona). While he is traveling the world and making big deals, she says, “I’m just the buzzkill waiting to schedule things.” And then, for her birthday, he gives her a kitchen appliance.

One reason Laura might be suspicious is her father, a charming and utterly unrepentant man about town, who has never been faithful to a partner, including Laura’s mother. But he loves Laura, and thinks the best way for him to help her is to help her follow Dean to find out for sure. She isn’t sure whether it’s better to find out that he is having an affair or finding out he is not having an affair but she has just become boring. “Ehst if we find out he is just busy and I’m in a rut?”

Laura’s father, Felix, is played by Coppola favorite Bill Murray, who worked with her in “Lost in Translation” and “A Very Murray Christmas.” The fun of the movie is seeing Jones and Murray together as they take us to one fabulous Manhattan location after another, to the sounds of the lush score from Phoenix. They adore each other, but there is strain between them. He betrayed her mother — and the woman who came after her, and many others. “Why do women get plastic surgery?” Felix asks Laura. “Because of men like you,” she says. He tells her he prefers women who have not had work done and she says he prefers all kinds of women. When he is stopped for speeding as they are following Dean, he utterly disarms the policeman by telling him he knew the cop’s father and grandfather. “It must be very nice to be you,” she says. He smiles, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The plot barely exists, but like Laura and Felix, it is more about spending time together than answering the question about Dean. “On the Rocks” is like a lighter, sweeter Woody Allen film, a love letter to Manhattan, to music, to fathers and daughters, and to love itself.

Parents should know that the theme of this movie is adultery, including strong language and sexual references.

Family discussion: Why was Laura worried about Dean? Why didn’t she talk to him about her concerns?

If you like this, try; “Midnight in Paris” and “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” written by and starring Rasida Jones

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The Trial of the Chicago 7

Posted on October 15, 2020 at 3:40 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for drug use, bloody images, language throughout, and some violence
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Historical violence including riots, references to Vietnam War
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 16, 2020
Copyright Netflix 2020

They say that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. And that is how “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” based on events that occurred in 1968-69 and in development as a film more more than a decade, seems to have been made for exactly this moment of the fall of 2020. In an interview, Aaron Sorkin, first brought it to write the script by Steven Spielberg in 2006, said that he did not change a word. But he acknowledged that the world moved much closer to the issues in the film, based on the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago that led to riots, with then-mayor Richard J. Daley telling the police to “shoot to kill” and calling in the National Guard.

A year later, eight of the leaders of the protest were indicted for conspiracy and incitement to riot. The seven white defendants were represented by the activist lawyer William Kuntsler and Constitutional law expert Leonard Weinglass. The sole Black defendant, Bobby Seale, who was only in Chicago for four hours during the convention, was represented by civil rights attorney Charles Garry, who was in the hospital. Seale asked for a delay until his lawyer could be there, and the autocratic judge, Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), clearly and vocally affronted by the protesters and their disrespect for authority, refused. Kunstler and Weinglass offered to represent him until Garry recovered, but he refused. Later, his case was separated from the others, which is why it is still known as the Chicago 7 trial.

The opening of the film is a master class on how to introduce a large group of central characters. The leaders of each group talk about their hopes and plans for the convention. Lyndon Johnson, whose decision not to run for re-election was in part due to increasing national opposition led to the nomination of his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, as the Democratic candidate. Many people thought there was no real difference between Humphrey and Johnson and between Humphrey and the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon. This was the era of the “generation gap” as the baby boomers came of age wanting to see major changes in the treatment of what were still referred to as minorities, poor people, and women. But the different groups had very different ideas about how to be effective. Sorkin very effectively showcases the arguments for incremental vs. drastic change, for working within the system to replacing it with a better system.

Langella captures the frustration of a man who believes in the rules that got him where he is and fears that they all collapsing, with him all that stands between order and anarchy. Redmayne is perfect as the thoughtful, studious, thoroughly decent Hayden, and Cohen accomplishes the difficult balancing act of not turning the other Hoffman (the judge seems to take it very personally that they share a name) into the cartoon he sometimes seems to wish to be. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II gives Seale enormous courage and dignity and rising star Kelvin Harrison, Junior continues to impress with his performance as Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (whose murder is the subject of another rhymes with history 2020 movie, Judas and the Black Messiah). Also exceptional are Mark Rylance as Kuntsler (perhaps more thoughtful and even subdued than the real-life attorney) and Michael Keaton in two scenes as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

Sorkin continues to be the best there is with elevating the dialogue just enough that we can almost imagine real people might be that intelligent and articulate and, well, decent. In any year, this film would be outstanding. But as it arrives on what Sorkin called “a collision course with history,” it is both a cautionary tale and a guiding light out of the darkness.

Parents should know that this film includes constant very strong language, some drug use and alcohol, and historical peril and violence, including riots and references to the Vietnam War.

Family discussion: Which of the defendants best represents your view of tactics and communication strategies? What parallels do you see between this trial and the issues people are concerned about today? What are the most significant achievements from the 1968 protests?

If you like this, try: the animated documentary about the trial, “Chicago 10: Speak Your Peace,” Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool,” a fictional story filmed at the 1968 Democratic convention, with real scenes of the protest.

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The Glorias

Posted on September 29, 2020 at 3:13 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for R brief lewd Images and some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Mental illness, family issues, sad death,
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 30, 2020

Copyright 2020 The Glorias
Director Julie Taymor has created a welcome remix of the standard movie biopic with “The GLorias.” It is spacious at nearly 2 1/2 hours and with four different actresses playing feminist icon Gloria Steinem (with the real Gloria herself appearing briefly at the end). At times Gloria is literally in conversation with herself, a lyrical depiction of the way we reflect on our past and our future.

Like the opening scene, these conversations occur on a bus, a literal and metaphoric representation of the experience of a woman who titled her memoir A Life on the Road. At one point in the film she admits she has spent no more than eight days at a time in her New York apartment, which she hesitates to refer to as her home. Her friends joke about staging an intervention just to get her to furnish it. This goes back to the beginning. There’s a reason she entitled her memoir, the inspiration for this film, My Life on the Road. She says in the book and slightly adapted for the movie, “When people ask me why I still have hope and energy after all these years, I always say: Because I travel. Taking to the road—by which I mean letting the road take you—changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories—in short, out of our heads and into our hearts.”

Taymor brings her remarkable visual style to the film. The scenes on the bus are gray-scale, with flickers of color outside the windows. In a breathtaking moment near the end, the interior of the bus is flooded with color, illuminating the immensely moving commitment to equality and opportunity that continues today. The four actresses portraying Steinem all have a quiet power rooted in empathy and integrity. Alicia Vikander plays her as a young women, told in her first interview for a job in journalism that only men write for the publication; women do research. She gets the editor to let her write, but when she asks to write a profile of the mayor of NY, he suggests she write about his wife. She goes undercover as a Playboy bunny waitress in the Playboy Club, but her expose (which did lead to the end of the practice of requiring the women to have gynecological exams in order to work there) made her colleagues think of her as a bunny, not an investigative journalist.

Her two great loves, writing and dancing, were both forms of communication without having to speak, a therapist tells her. But if the media would not allow her to write about the women’s movement (“What movement?” her editor asks), she would have to become its voice. Julianne Moore takes over as the older Steinem, and the film gracefully exemplifies one of the movement’s most-repeated slogans, “The personal is political,” as it weaves together key moments and characters on and off stage. Bette Midler and Lorraine Toussaint have just the right snap as Bella Abzug and Flo Kennedy. And Vikander and Moore bring great warmth to the role of a woman whose strengths were quieter.

The film achieves what is most likely Steinem’s greatest hope; it is both inspirational and reassuring in illuminating a path forward to a more just and inclusive world, and a powerful reminder that the most important ingredient for achieving it is to listen.

Parents should know that this film includes a brief crude caricature, brief graphic images and some strong language. There is a sad death and a character struggles with mental illness.

Family discussion: Why did someone call Gloria Steinem a “celestial bartender?” How was she influenced by her parents? Why did she decide to leave journalism? What has been her most significant influence?

If you like this, try: The documentaries Dolores, Gloria: In Her Own Words, “RBG,” “Sisters of ’77,” about the National Women’s Conference, and “Mrs. America,” about the backlash to the women’s movement. And read the biographies of Wilma Mankiller, Bella Abzug, and some of the other characters in the film

THE GLORIAS is available for purchase on Digital and Streaming exclusively on Prime Video starting September 30th.

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Misbehaviour

Posted on September 24, 2020 at 5:52 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Scuffles
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 25, 2020

Copyright Pathe 2020
Let’s start with a little context. In 1970, when “Misbehaviour” takes place, my high school hosted two events, a father-son dinner with a presentation by our Congressman, later Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and a mother-daughter dinner with a presentation by a representative from a cosmetic company with an update on the latest looks and products for sale. No one raised any objections. This was at the very beginning of what was being called the women’s liberation movement. Two years before, protesters staged an event near the Miss America pageant (the urban legend is that they burned bras, but in reality they threw bras, girdles, false eyelashes, and other symbols into a garbage can). “Misbehaviour” (note British spelling) is the story of a 1970 protest, endearingly mild by today’s standards, at the London-based Miss World competition.

Miss World is the oldest televised international beauty pageant, founded by TV host Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) and first broadcast in 1959. So it began just as the tumult of the 1960’s was about to happen, and an all-white beauty pageant with a master of ceremonies making jokes like “I care about women’s feelings; I like feeling women” was very shortly going to be something of a target for protests from the increasingly vocal protesters about racial and gender equality. That collision is already the subject of a documentary, “Miss World 1970: Beauty Queens and Bedlam,” and it is now a feature film, with Keira Knightley as a single mother working on a history degree, Jessie Buckley as an activist, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a contestant. Also: Greg Kinnear as Bob Hope, the man who made the joke about feeling women.

Production designer Cristina Casali evocatively creates the earth-toned era of the early 1970’s and writers Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe bring a nuanced and empathetic approach to the story and the real-life characters, heartwarmingly glimpsed with updates over the final credits. Knightley plays Sally Alexander, who explains to a clearly disapproving admissions committee in the film’s opening scenes that she is divorced and has a child but promises that if she is admitted she will be able to keep up with her classes. She believes in women’s rights but her view is to achieve equality by getting “a seat at the table.” Jo Robinson (Buckley) is a radical who spray-paints protest slogans and lives in a commune. She wants more than a seat at the table; she wants to knock it over and stomp it to smithereens.

Change is already underway at the pageant. The threat of protests over yet another white contestant from South Africa, still operating under apartheid, leads Morley to insist on two candidates. So Miss South Africa is the white contestant, and there is a black contestant with the title Miss Africa South. There is another Black contestant as well, Miss Ghana (Mbatha-Raw).

And there is Bob Hope, who accepts the emcee job as he flirts with his new teen-aged secretary, breaking a promise to his wife, Dolores (another exquisitely delicate performance by Lesley Manville). He does more than joke about feeling women, and the last time he hosted the show, he brought the winner back to LA with him.

Sally becomes less moderate as her advisor tells her that her proposal to study women is too “niche” and she sees her young daughter prance around in imitation of the beauty queens. And so she and Jo come up with a plan to disrupt the pageant.

Director Philippa Lowthorpe skillfully balances all of the different stories and themes. In one (apparently fictional) meeting between Sally and the winner of the competition, we see that the images that bothered Sally when her daughter was imitating them could be seen by some young girls in marginalized communities as opening up opportunities for them to think of themselves as beautiful and powerful. On the other hand, this was a competition where the measurements of each contestant were announced as she walked across the stage and they were all lined up in bathing suits and turned around so the audience at home and in the theater could closely examine their rear views. And their rears.

Americans are likely to wonder what might happen in the US if protesters used water pistols. But in England, where even police don’t carry guns, the response is as low-key as the protest. That leaves breathing space for us to consider all of the experiences that went into the protest and what it represented to the women involved, including, in a lovely moment, Dolores Hope.

Oh, and, ten years later, Miss World rebranded itself as “Beauty with a Purpose.”

Parents should know that the subjects of this movie include racism and sexism. There is some mild language and sexist humor, and there are some scuffles during the protest.

Family discussion: Do you watch beauty pageants? How have they changed over the years?

If you like this, try: “Pride,” the true story of gay activists who supported the miner’s strike in Thatcher-era Britain and “Made in Dagenham,” the true story of women striking for equal pay in 1968

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