The Two Popes

Posted on November 26, 2019 at 5:01 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content and some disturbing violent images
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Images of violence, references to sexual abuse, illness
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 27, 2019
Copyright Netflix 2019

Sometimes history is made by groups of people in labs or courtrooms or legislative bodies or battlefields. Sometimes history is made by two people talking to each other quietly. We hear those stories less often. It may be that what makes those changes possible is keeping them secret.

We will never know what really happened when Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) became the first supreme pontiff to resign since 1294, selecting the man who became Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) as his successor. Everything about it was surprising. Popes have almost always served until death, and the selection process, gorgeously visualized here, is ancient and mysterious. We see with the rows of scarlet-clad cardinals clicking their bright blue pens to cast their votes and the two smoke options, black to show no decision yet, white to show that the new pope has been chosen. The idea of a pope resigning (creating the new position of emeritus pope) and guiding the selection of his successor was unprecedented (well, we don’t know much about what happened in the 13th century, but it was so long ago that “unprecedented” seems appropriate) and so there was no template to follow.

And yet, as it cannot help but be, it is political. The cardinals are only human. During the 2005 selection process, While many votes went for Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he was a long shot. There had never been a Jesuit pope, one from the Americas, one from the Southern Hemisphere. Almost all of the popes have been Italian and all have been from Europe since the Syrian Gregory III, who reigned in the 8th century. And so the one selected was a German cardinal named Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger.

More than geography and religious order separated the two men. Pope Benedict was conservative and traditional. Bergoglio is more liberal, more about Catholicism as a call to compassion and engagement with the community. He lived simply and wanted to return being a parish priest. After a few years, he wanted to retire. He wrote to Pope Benedict to ask for permission but before his letter was received, Pope Benedict wrote to ask him to visit. Bergoglio thinks it is to discuss his retirement. Pope Benedict has another career path in mind.

There are some flashbacks, particularly concerning their deepest regrets and most painful failings. But most of the movie is two of the greatest actors of our time playing two of the most formidable and consequential figures of our time, talking to each other about the most foundational issues of faith and philosophy. Sometimes they are indirect. Sometimes they clash in style and substance. But they always exemplify their commitment to their beliefs with grace and kindness. Pope Benedict plays the piano. Bergoglio orders pizza and Fanta. They develop an understanding and a kind of friendship. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be able to eavesdrop on this conversation, and inspiring, too.

Parents should know that this movie includes references to and brief depictions of historical atrocities and references to sexual abuse by priests.

Family discussion: What were the biggest differences in viewpoint between the two popes? What was more important to Pope Benedict than their differences in interpretation and commitment to tradition?

If you like this, try: the documentaries “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” and “Hesburgh”

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Posted on November 21, 2019 at 5:16 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some strong thematic material, a brief fight, and some mild language
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to substance abuse, drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Scuffles, punch, illness, sad death of a parent
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 21, 2019

Copyright TriStar Pictures 2019
The documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor is about Fred Rogers, the creator and star of the long-running PBS series Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” with Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, is about us. It is the very essence of heart-warming and inspiring. Anyone who watches it will be moved — and is almost guaranteed to be a kinder, happier, more open-hearted person at the end of the film. Rogers liked to ask people to think for a minute, a real sixty-second minute, about those who “loved us into being.” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” asks us that question, literally and in a deeply soul-searching way. And if we are honest, one of the people who comes to our minds will be Fred Rogers himself.

So, Rogers is not the story here. Instead, it is about the impact he had on one troubled adult, and what that means about and for each of us.

Based on the true story of journalist Tom Junod, who interviewed Rogers for a 1998 profile in Esquire, this film, by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster and directed by Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”), is about how the experience of interviewing, or, rather, attempting to interview Fred Rogers was transformational in the life of the reporter (here called Lloyd and played by Matthew Rhys).

Lloyd is a new father struggling with unresolved feelings of abandonment and anger at his own father (Chris Cooper). He is a hard-hitting, skeptical, investigative journalist, not accustomed to or comfortable with assignments to write fluffy features about the hosts of television shows for children. He is assigned to write about Mr. Rogers for the “heroes” issue of Esquire. But he is not someone who takes easily to the idea of heroes. Is his inclination to expose what prominent or influential people want to hide based in part on the father who let him down? Perhaps. But is that the right approach to Mr. Rogers? “Don’t ruin my childhood,” his wife warns. And when he asks Mr. Rogers about how he differs from the character he plays on television, the gentle clergyman-turned-unlikely-television-star genuinely does not understand the question. He cannot be anything other than what he is.

More important, he has a “compulsive intimacy” that prompted him to ask questions far more insightful and meaningful than the ones Lloyd was asking him to answer for the article.

Director Marielle Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster bring a lovely delicacy and an almost fairy tale quality to the story. At times it seems we are watching an episode of the series and then we see that the “real world” and the world of the show blend together — both the “real” home where Mr. Rogers changes into his cardigan and sneakers and feeds the fish and the “imaginary” world of the kingdom of Make Believe. Just as all of the characters on the show represent parts of Fred Rogers’ personality, the heart of the movie is integrating all of its worlds and emotions.

A story relies on some kind of change experienced by the main character. He or she has to lose something or learn something or complete something. Mr. Rogers was already so evolved that trying to make him the main character of a feature film would not have worked. So wisely the story here is about the effect Mr. Rogers had on one troubled soul, helping him to lose something, to learn something, and to complete something. And in doing so, it helps us locate some of the compulsive intimacy that makes Mr. Rogers’ viewers into friends who feel accepted, understood, and very lucky to be in his neighborhood.

NOTE: Look carefully at the other customers in the scene set in a Chinese restaurant, when Mr. Rogers and Lloyd are eating together. They are the real-life friends and family of Mr. Rogers, including his wife Joanne (played by Maryann Plunkett in the film) and his producer Bill Isler (played by Enrico Colantoni).

Parents should know that this movie includes frank depiction of family dysfunction with an adult son still resentful and angry about his father’s abandonment, drinking and drunkenness, a scuffle, terminal illness, and some mild language.

Family discussion: How would you answer Mr. Rogers’ questions? What did Lloyd learn from him?

If you like this, try; the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and the episodes of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” and my interview with the journalist whose article inspired the film and the men who wrote the screenplay.

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Midway

Posted on November 7, 2019 at 5:40 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of war violence and related images, language and smoking
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking
Violence/ Scariness: War-related peril and violence, characters injured and killed, guns, bombs, aerial battles, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Portrayal of historic events reflects the era's attitudes
Date Released to Theaters: November 7, 2019
Copyright 2019 Summit Entertainment

The shocking attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in December 1941 was not just a devastating loss, the “day that will live in infamy,” as President Roosevelt said. It was a humiliating failure of our intelligence operation. We were not prepared for war with Japan in terms of personnel, weapons, or planes. And we continued to suffer brutal defeats in the first months. If America could not start to win some battles, Japan would begin to invade our west coast.

Six months later, the three-day battle of Midway was a critically important victory for the United States. From June 3-6, 1942, American forces gave Japan its first significant defeat of the war, the result of strategy, tactics, better intelligence, and, most of all, the unimaginable dedication and honor of the Greatest Generation. This re-telling of the story has the bombast we expect from director Roland Emmerich, but the stirring story and appealing characters make it a worthy tribute for Veteran’s Day weekend.

Screenwriter Wes Tooke (television’s “Colony”) balances the big picture battles and tactical overlay with the stories of a small group of real-life heroes. At the heart of the story is Dick Best (Ed Skrein) as the cocky pilot who shuts off the engine before landing on an aircraft carrier, just for practice. His wife Anne (Mandy Moore) is as tough as he is. If this movie had been made in the 80’s, Best would have been played by Tom Cruise. If it had been made in the 40’s, it would have been Clark Gable. Skrein makes Best the quintessential American hero, cool under pressure, confident, a bit of a cowboy. Luke Kleintank plays Earle Dickenson, the first Naval pilot to be awarded three Navy Crosses. If this were made in the 1940’s, his character would be played by Spencer Tracy.

Roland Emmerich knows how to make the battle scenes tense and exciting. He shows us just how fragile and vulnerable the planes were; it feels like they’re up in the air in an orange crate. He shows us how all the pieces came together, including the quirky code-breaker Joseph Rochefort (Brennan Brown) and Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), who had served in Japan, and whose warnings were ignored. Bull Halsey (Dennis Quaid) struggled with excruciatingly painful illness as he became America’s most acclaimed fighting admiral. Mandy Moore as Ann Best shows us the spirit of the home front. And Nick Jonas will break your heart as a machinist captured by the Japanese.

We look back at history and we cannot help taking it all for granted. Movies like this remind us how close we came to disaster and how many lives were lost to keep us safe.

Parents should know that this film includes WWII battle footage with bombs, explosions, fire, and guns. Characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: Why is this film dedicated to the military on both sides of the Midway battle?  How were Best and Dickenson different and how were each one’s strengths reflected in their choices?

If you like this, try: Books: The Battle of Midway, by Craig L. Symonds, and The Flying Guns: Cockpit Record of a Naval Pilot from Pearl Harbor Through Midway, by Earle Dickenson, played by Luke Kleintank in the film. There is also a 1976 film starring Charlton Heston and Henry Fonda.

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Motherless Brooklyn

Posted on October 31, 2019 at 5:37 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including guns, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 1, 2019
Copyright 2019 Warner Brothers

“Motherless Brooklyn” is the affectionate (really) nickname given to Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) by the only person to treat him kindly, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Lionel grew up in an orphanage where his odd tics and compulsions made him the target of bullies who called him a freak. Minna, a private detective, saw something in Lionel, saw that the same compulsions that others found jarring would make him valuable as a close observer who would not be able to rest until he solved the mystery. “A piece of my head broke off and keeps joyriding me for kicks,” he says. But”if there’s one thing my pain in the ass brain knows how to do it is how to listen and remember things.”

Writer/director/star Edward Norton adapted Jonathan Lethem’s prize-winning book, shifting its setting from the 1990’s to the 1950’s, with an intricate “Chinatown”-like storyline of betrayal, corruption, and money. Alec Baldwin plays Moses Randolph, a character clearly inspired by “master builder” Robert Moses, who remade the face, footprint, and culture of New York City. He was never elected to office but held as many as twelve titles in city government, overseeing the construction of highways, parks, and bridges. We first see Baldwin as Randolph striding into a meeting and contemptuously ordering the mayor to give him authority over pretty much everything. How this will all tie into the murder of Frank Minna is what Lionel will have to find out. And there’s a beautiful woman with a secret, as there always is in a noir story. Here is is Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), working to protect the people who are being displaced, with an unexpected additional connection to the story.

Norton’s narration and twitchy performance immerse us in what he sees and what he is looking for and the outstanding production design by Beth Mickle and superbly moody core by Daniel Pemberton immerse us in post WWII New York. We can almost smell the luxurious leather on the books and chairs in an office with a fabulous view of the city to the old Penn Station to a smoky jazz joint in a black neighborhood. And the murkiness of the settings and the sinuous, boundary-crossing music emphasize the ambiguities faced by the characters.

Unlike most stories distorted by power and corruption, Randolph is not lining his own pockets. He argues that he is doing what’s best for the city — building bridges that make it possible for employers to have access to people who live outside of Manhattan, parks and beaches to give residents something more than jobs to attract them. So, if he has to cut some corners, displace poor people, and bury some secrets and maybe a couple of bodies, isn’t that just what it takes to get things done? “As long as you’re the guy who built the parks, you’re with the angels.” At least to some people. Norton, whose grandfather was a developer with an excellent reputation for integrity and public spiritedness, is very aware of the conflicts involved in “gentrification” and choosing between protection and honoring the old and improving with the new, between an orderly process that gives everyone a chance to participate and a bureaucratic tangle that prevents any progress.

This has been a labor of love for Norton, who has worked on and off for 20 years to bring Lethem’s characters to the screen. In only his second film (after “Keeping the Faith”) as a director, he brings an assured understanding of structure and tone. In one especially compelling scene, Lionel finds that a jazz performance connects with the rhythms of his brain and we see what it is like for him to experience a sense of home. The story itself is like a jazz performance, improvisation based in deep understanding and skill.

Parents should know that this is a noir-esque murder mystery with extended peril and characters who are injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images, bullying, strong language, drinking, smoking, drugs, and sexual references and a a non-explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: How does Lionel turn his challenges into a strength? What matters most to Moses Randolph? Who is referred to with the quote from Shakespeare about using a giant’s strength like a tyrant?”

If you like this, try: “Chinatown” and classic noir films like “The Woman in the Window” and “Touch of Evil”

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Terminator: Dark Fate

Posted on October 31, 2019 at 5:15 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence throughout, language and brief nudity
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Pharmaceutical drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Extended very strong violence, many characters injured and killed, graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 1, 2019

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2019
Can we please send someone back from the future to suggest that we really do not need any more Terminator movies?

Okay, I have to admit it’s pretty entertaining. The action scenes are fun and there are some good characters. It’s nice to have the original Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) back. It’s not bad; it’s just unnecessary. And its very unnecessariness makes it ordinary and that retroactively diminishes the quality of the ground-breaking original and the first sequel.

It’s like they ran the first film through a slightly broken copier machine (not a scanner) and what came out was fuzzy and off-kilter. So, from the first movie: a terminator comes back to the present day from the future with immeasurable powers of strength, speed, and strategy, and, most important, total tunnel vision, complete, implacable, single-mindedness. There is no plea, no bribe, no argument possible. The only hope, and it is a slim one, is escape.

From the second movie: someone else comes back from the future to protect the vulnerable target of the new Terminator. This time, though, it is an enhanced or augmented human, a kind of souped-up cyborg. What makes this interesting is that we do not exactly know what her powers are (also interesting that she is a female), but we quickly learn that she has some significant vulnerabilities. Her name is Grace (a terrific Mackenzie Davis, outstanding both in the action and the acting departments). She is enhanced for a sprint, not a marathon; she is very powerful in short, intense spurts, but if the fighting or running away is too prolonged she will urgently need a collection of powerful pharmaceuticals.

And Grace will not tell us (until a crucial plot point) why the young woman she is protecting is so important. That young woman is Dani (Natalia Reyes). And, this chapter’s smartest and strongest element, our old friend from the first film is back, Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, and if there is ever an Oscar for being amazingly fit, they should give it to her and retire the trophy. Hamilton is the star of the show here, clearly enjoying being an action hero who is more than a little deranged (see “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” for this part of the origin story). She even gets to say, wait for it, “I’ll be back.”

On the other hand, you-know-who is also back, Arnold Schwarzenegger as our old friend the T-800 (I will not dwell on why a robot ages), and when he says, wait for it, “I won’t be back,” it is too much of a wink at the audience.

We do not really have time to object, though, because there’s another chase, another battle, another what-are-we-trying-to-be-Fast-and-Furious-umpteen-here set piece to enjoy. Davis is great. Hamilton is awesome. There are some thrill-ride moments. But if you go, you might wish someone came back from the future to tell you to rent the first one again instead.

Parents should know that this film includes extended very strong violence, many characters injured and killed, graphic and disturbing images, strong language, pharmaceutical drugs, and brief non-sexual nudity.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Grace tell the truth about Dani earlier? How do Sarah Connor’s actions change the future and what does not change? How are Sarah and Dani different?

If you like this, try: the other Terminator movies

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