Brittany Runs a Marathon

Posted on August 29, 2019 at 5:35 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, sexuality and some drug material
Profanity: Strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, drugs, references to addiction
Violence/ Scariness: Injury, references to
Date Released to Theaters: August 30, 2019

Copyright Amazon Studios 2019
The title of this film, “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” is not really a spoiler. Yes, it is an inspiring story of a young woman named Brittany (Jillian Bell, outstanding in her first lead role) who has a sobering visit with a doctor, an equally sobering visit with an expensive gym. She decides that since running is free, she will start with just one block and see — literally — where that takes her. But the real story of the film is about what she discovers along the way about herself and the people around her. Her real problem was not being overweight. Her real problem was what being overweight helped her hide from.

Brittany feels that she is both stuck and drifting. As she approaches 30, her friends all seem to be settling into jobs and relationships while she is still living in college slacker mode, sharing an apartment with her BFF Gretchen (Alice Lee), and barely managing her internship-level job with a small theater group. Brittany is in debt, goes out partying nearly every night, goofs off at work, and makes fun of a neighbor they call “Moneybags Martha,” scrolls through social media to look at everyone else’s seemingly perfect lives, and tries very hard not to notice how awful she feels.

Brittany goes to a doctor because she says she cannot focus and asks him for Adderall. He tells her, as sympathetically as he can, that what she has to do is lose 50 pounds. She cannot afford a gym. The longest journey begins with a single step. And so, she begins with a run for just one block.

First-time writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo was inspired by the real-life story of his friend Brittany (glimpsed over the closing credits). It would have been easy and probably very popular for him to make a feel-good Cinderella story, with losing weight playing the role of the fairy godmother; makeover stories are hard to resist. But Colaizzo tells a smarter, subtler, more meaningful story here, with structural, symbolic, and character-based moments that illuminate Brittany’s growing understanding of herself and her world. Repeated incidents of Brittany racing for a subway as the door is closing are as important in marking the story’s development as the more conventional shots of the number on the scale as she weighs herself. The diverse cast is especially welcome, and Calaizzo balances the Lil Rel Howery character’s near-saintly level of advice and support with more flawed characters like her frenemy Gretchen, her new running buddy Seth (Micah Stock), and someone as lost as Brittany and almost as defensive, Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar).

We see that Brittany was not just heavy; she was numb. Any time she felt vulnerable or uncomfortable she made a silly joke or put on a silly accent. And that was most of the time. There were so many things she didn’t want to think about: being sad and scared as a child, feeling lost and unloved now. The reason she feels unfocused is not because she needs Adderall; it is because all of her emotional energy is put into not focusing on why she feels hopeless. Learning to be honest with herself is more painful and much more terrifying than running a little longer every day. And there is something even more terrifying: allowing herself to get close to other people, to allow other people to get close to her.

Bell has acknowledged that this story hit close to home for her. For us, as audience, we have known her as a comic performer with a gift for delightfully offbeat quips. Her fight scene with Jonah Hill in “22 Jump Street” is a loopy delight. Here, like Brittany, she has to let go of her natural reflex for comedy to allow us to see her character’s pain. Seeing Bell open up to show us how Brittany opens up as she learns to judge other people — and herself — less harshly is what makes this movie one of the summer’s sweetest surprises.

Parents should know that this movie includes some strong and vulgar language, sexual references, some crude, and sexual situations, drinking and drug use, reference to addiction, and references to family dysfunction and stress.

Family discussion: What upset Brittany about the couple at her brother-in-law’s party? Why was it so hard for her to accept help? What did she learn about Gretchen and why didn’t she see it before?

If you like this, try: “Wild,” “Tracks” and the recent “Sword of Truth,” also featuring Bell and Watkins

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Blinded by the Light

Posted on August 15, 2019 at 5:35 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material and language including some ethnic slurs
Profanity: Some strong language including racist terms
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, racist attacks
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 16, 2019

Copyright 2019 Warner Brothers
If we’re lucky, some time in August, as the big blockbusters of July taper off, we get a heartwarming little indie film to brighten the end of the summer. This year we are very lucky. The film is “Blinded by the Light,” set in Thatcher-era England, where the teenage son of Pakistani immigrants heard a song that seemed to explain the world to him. More than that, it explained him to himself. The song was by someone who was not British, Pakistani, or a teenager, but to Sarfraz Manzoor, New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen understood him better than anyone he knew.

Around the same time, Gurinder Chadha, the daughter of Indian immigrants in England, was also listening to Springsteen. Manzoor became a journalist whose memoir about his love for Springsteen (Greetings from Bury Park) then inspired Chadha, the director of films like “Bend It Like Beckham,” to make it into a movie.

The character based on Manzoor is Javed (newcomer Viveik Kalra), who dreams of being a writer. He writes poems that he does not share with anyone, even his sympathetic teacher (Hayley Atwell). The world around him seems bleak, unforgiving, and uncaring. An anti-immigration white supremacist group called the National Front is organizing protests and Javed and his family are subjected to harassment and racist graffiti. Javed’s father is strict, holding on to traditions as he is anxious about a lack of control when he is unable to support the family. His son’s sensitivity and inclination to assimilate into English culture makes him even more anxious. Javed’s mother is sympathetic but she has to work around the clock as a seamstress to earn money and does not want to put more pressure on her husband by challenging him. Javed has one friend who shares his love of music, but his freedom and ease only sharpens Javed’s sense of himself as isolated and ineffectual.

At school he meets a Sikh classmate named Roops (Aaron Phagura) who gives him a Springsteen CD. Chadha’s endearingly cinematic depiction of Javed’s reaction to the songs — the words as much as the music — beautifully conveys the jubilant, visceral reaction to truly connecting with another person, whether it is Gene Kelly splashing in puddles to celebrate falling in love or just knowing that somewhere in the world there is someone who has seen into your deepest secret heart and understands and accepts you. For Javed, who cannot fit into his father’s notion of who he should be but is not exactly sure who he will be instead, Bruce shows him the transformational power of putting feelings into words and music. A voice that means the world to him brings him closer to trusting his own voice.

As in “Bend it Like Beckham,” Chadha’s gift for kinetic storytelling reflects the turbulent emotion of the young protagonists. There are so many lovely details and moments — Rob Brydon (of “The Trip” movies) as the Springsteen-loving father of Javed’s friend, Javed’s discovery that his sister has found her own way to be herself, and of course a sweet romance, complete with a musical number that Gene Kelly himself would appreciate. Most important, the movie shows us that the feelings and the issues Bruce was singing about in the 70’s that spoke to Manzoor in the 80’s are still powerfully speaking to us today. Just as Springsteen let Manzoor know that his feelings were real and valid and understood and could be expressed, so Manzoor and Chadha tell us that with this lovely film.

Parents should know that this film includes racist language and attacks, some strong language, family tensions, mild sexual references, and kissing.

Family discussion: What was it about Springsteen’s music that made it so meaningful to Javed? How did listening to the music give him courage? What music is meaningful to you?

If you like this, try: “Bend it like Beckham” from the same director, and the music and autobiography of Bruce Springsteen

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Where’d You Go Bernadette

Posted on August 14, 2019 at 5:44 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language and drug material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Family stress and loss, reference to serious illness of a child and miscarriages
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 16, 2019

Copyright 2019 Annapurna Pictures
The screen adaptation of Maria Semple’s charming book, Where’d You Go Bernadette is…less charming, though perfectly pleasant in a late summer comfort food kind of way. Semple, a sharp and witty writer for television (“Mad About You,” “90210,””Arrested Development”) moved from LA to Seattle and her sense of dislocation inspired the book, with a sharp take on the crunchy, self-consciously wholesome culture of the Pacific Northwest in contrast to the glossier, smugger world of Los Angeles. Note the title, a question without a question mark. And in this version, the question mark-less question is for no discernible reason, answered at the very beginning, followed by most of the film as a flashback.

Missing the epistolary format of the book, which allows us to follow much of the storyline through the characters’ voices, the sharpness is softened in Richard Linklater’s film. Cate Blanchett plays Bernadette, a devoted mother of Bee (newcomer Emma Nelson). Clinically, she might be classified as struggling with depression or anxiety or agoraphobia, but as we will learn, the behavior that is un-social and non-productive is her way of responding to devastating personal and professional loss. She does not want to talk to anyone, except maybe Bee, with whom she has an easy, natural connection. Bernadette loves her husband, Elgy (Billy Crudup), but he has a demanding job at Microsoft, the reason for their move to Seattle, and is not around much. Bernadette ran from personal and professional loss by devoting herself to Bee. But now Bee will be going away to boarding school and she has nowhere to run.

Bernadette is an architect, but her house is a mess of unfinished repairs. When she spots a bump under the carpet that turns out to be a blackberry bush sprout from beneath the house, instead of pulling it up by the roots she neatly scores the carpet to bend the corners back and staple them to the floor so the bush can keep growing. She has contempt for the moms at Bee’s school who go on about their compost heaps. She refers to them as “gnats” and she is not above some passive aggression, including allowing one to create a lot of damage.

Elgy’s new assistant there is Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao), one of the gnats, who loves to gossip about how weird Bernadette is with Audrey (Kristen Wiig), one of those “Big Little Lies”-type school moms who likes to run everything, talks about her perfect life a lot, and has very strong views on how everyone should behave.

Bee reminds her parents that they rashly promised her a wish if she got perfect grades all through middle school. Her wish is a trip to Antarctica. Bernadette wants to give Bee her dream, but for someone who can barely leave the house, it is an insurmountable challenge — until other challenges of staying home become even more insurmountable.

This is disappointingly one-dimensional work from one of the world’s most talented and versatile directors, Richard Linklater. Instead of the innovative, perceptive work we saw in “Boyhood,” the “Before” series, “School of Rock,” “Waking Life,” “Bernie,” and “Everybody Wants Some!!” “Where’d You Go Bernadette” has all the depth of the Charlene song “I’ve Never Been to Me.”

Parents should know that this film has some strong language, some mayhem, some mild peril, and some discussion of miscarriages and serious medical conditions.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Bernadette tell her family where she was going? What problems are you good at solving?

If you like this, try: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” also starring Wiig.

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The Peanut Butter Falcon

Posted on August 8, 2019 at 5:38 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language throughout, some violence and smoking
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence, character injured
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 9, 2019

Copyright 2019 Roadside Attractions
The story behind the making of “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is as sweet and inspiring as the one on the screen. Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz met ZacK Gottsagen when they were working at an arts program for people with disabilities. Gottsagen, who has has Down syndrome, told them he wanted to be an actor, and asked them to write a movie for him. So they checked some books about screenwriting out of the library and came up with this script, which is not just about a character based on Gottsagen, but about their community of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The sense of place (though it was filmed in Georgia) is as important to the film as the characters on an unexpected journey.

It is remarkably assured for a first film, with an excellent supporting cast of talented pros and superb cinematography and music choices. The genuine affection and — especially — the respect Nilson and Schwartz have for the real-life Zack and the character he plays keep this story from being condescending or sugary.

Gottsagen plays a character also named Zack, a young man with no family and no resources who has been placed by Virginia authorities in the only facility they could find for him, a nursing home for the elderly. His roommate there is a retired engineer named Carl (Bruce Dern), who helps him escape, after watching Zack’s VHS tape of his favorite wrestler, the Salt Water Redneck for the zillionth time. Zack wants to be a wrestler, and his dream is to get to the Salt Water Redneck’s training facility in Florida. This is not one of those “there is none so cognitively impaired as those who will not think” movies.

Importantly, Zack is not a narrative convenience for the other characters to learn lessons and feel better about themselves. Zack (the character) is a real person with some limitations but a cheerful disposition and a true heart. His view of the world is as constrained by the restricted environment he was put in as by his cognitive ability. “The state has to put you somewhere and this happens to be that place,” he is told. You do not have to have a PhD to know that does not make much sense. And you don’t have to do higher math or be able to explain the metaphors in Moby Dick to know that people want to be with friends and follow their dreams. This movie is very much his story and he is very much at the heart of it.

The nursing home administrator does not want to report Zack’s escape to the police, so he sends a sympathetic aide (Dakota Johnson as Eleanor) to find him. Zack’s lack of planning (he escapes wearing nothing but underpants and has no money) helps in a way because he is seen as vulnerable and non-threatening. Tyler (Shia LeBoeuf) is a tidewater fisherman who has fallen on hard times, in part due to his bitterness and grief and guilt over the death of his brother (Jon Bernthal, glimpsed in wordless flashbacks). His own poor judgment escalates a fight with another fisherman (John Hawkes), who comes after him. Tyler does his best to avoid taking responsibility for Zack, but gives in when he sees how much Zack needs help. On the road, they have adventures, encounter interesting people, and begin to first trust and then like one another.

One of the highlights of the film is when they meet a blind man who insists on baptizing Zach. Tyler refuses, saying he prefers baptism by fire. It is presented with sincerity and a delicate lyricism that helps elevate the folkloric tone, as does the exceptional soundtrack and the exquisite cinematography, all of which set the tone for the satisfying conclusion.

Parents should know that this movie has some peril and violence, including arson, shooting, and an attack with a tire iron and an off-screen fatal car accident. There is some strong language, a character runs around in underwear, drinking and drunkenness, and a kiss.

Family discussion: What made Tyler change his mind about helping Zack? Why did the Saltwater Redneck encourage Zack to fight? What will happen next?

If you like this, try: “Little Miss Sunshine” (rated R) from the same producers, “Where Hope Grows,” and “Up Syndrome”

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Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Posted on July 25, 2019 at 12:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references
Profanity: Pervasive very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Very intense and graphic violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 26, 2019
Copyright Columbia Pictures 2019

Quentin Tarantino is a brilliant filmmaker who does not have anything to say. If you are looking for surface, you cannot do better. His camera placement and editing are impeccable. His attention to detail is unsurpassed. Remember the great Jack Rabbit Slim restaurant setting in “Pulp Fiction,” with wait staff dressed as 50’s celebrities? (“That’s the Marilyn Monroe section that’s Mamie Van Doren… I don’t see Jayne Mansfield, she must have the night off or something.”)

This is an entire movie of that scene, set in 1969, with a slavish, bordering on fetishistic, attention to the details of that era. Or a very specific slice of the era, more created by than reflected in the movies.

Tarantino bonded with the films of that era when he was working in a video store and watching as many movies as possible. This film is more than a love letter to that era; it is his effort to live in it, not as it was, of course, but as it was portrayed in some of the movies whose titles we see in the film like “Three in the Attic” and “Don’t Make Waves” (which featured Tate as a character named Malibu who wears a bikini and jumps on a trampoline).

I was in high school at the time this movie takes place, and those details went straight to my bloodstream. It goes far beyond the markers we still associate with that era and into the deep cuts. I was especially taken with the fake magazine covers from MAD and TV guide which perfectly captured the Jack Davis/Norman Mingo styles. We see a party at the Playboy mansion with dancing Bunnies and Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) chatting with Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker) and the Manson “family” on Spahn Movie Ranch (itself, like Dalton, no longer in its show business heyday). Mike Moh plays a bantam-like Bruce Lee. We hear songs by the Mamas and Papas and Neil Diamond, and Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Good Thing” (co-written by Terry Melcher, former resident of the Polanski/Tate home, the son of Doris Day, and an acquaintance of Charles Manson). We glimpse a billboard for the long-forgotten film “Joanna,” starring Genevieve Waite (who would later marry a member of the Mamas and Papas). And Timothy Olyphant plays actor James Stacy, a star of the 60’s who was badly injured in a motorcycle accident in 1973. He was once married to Connie Stevens. It’s a small Hollywood world, and this movie keeps it even smaller.

The dialog snaps, the humor is dry, and the acting is superb. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a fading television actor who once starred in his own western series (“Bounty Law,” a combination of “Wanted: Dead or Alive” and a bunch of other cowboy shows), now guest-starring as the bad guy in pretty much every series on television, including real-life shows “The FBI,” “Mannix,” and “Lancer.” You can see how much fun Tarantino had making it look like DiCaprio was in those shows. Dalton’s stunt double, and friend who does everything for him and gets paid for it is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton is insecure and easily upset; Booth is understated and resolved. But both are in, if not career slumps, heading that way.

Dalton lives next door to director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). The story begins in February of 1969, when an agent (Al Pacino) encourages Dalton to revive his career with some spaghetti westerns. (The title of this film is a tribute to a pair of films by legendary spaghetti western director Sergio Leone.) And then it skips six months to August of that year, when Tate is very pregnant and her husband is out of the country. And when the Mason “family” is making plans to kill some of the rich and powerful.

Tarantino is as good as it gets when it comes to surfaces, and since this is a movie about surfaces (to the extent it is about anything), and thus it is very pretty and entertaining to watch. So audiences may not notice or mind that, as Gertrude Stein said about another California city, there is no there there. The episodic individual scenes are often absorbing and the characters, even those we might not respect, are people we enjoy spending time with. In addition to outstanding work from DiCaprio and Pitt, the cast features a number of excellent performances including Margaret Qualley as one of the Manson girls, Tarantino regular Kurt Russell as a stunt coordinator who does not want to hire Cliff, Julia Butters as a precocious child star, and the late Luke Perry as an actor.

There is some commentary about fantasy and reality — the weak actor who plays not just a tough guy but the archetypal western icon, and lives in a fancy house in the hills while the real tough guy lives in a trailer and can’t afford dinner. The adults who act like children and the child who acts like an adult. The hippies who speak of love and plot to kill. And the beatific madonna Sharon Tate, who shyly tells the girl at the box office that she is in the movie playing in the theater, the Dean Martin Matt Helm spy movie, “The Wrecking Crew.”

She is almost a dream figure like the blondes in “American Graffiti” and “Stardust Memories,” especially compared to the shrewish female characters in the film the stunt coordinator married to the Kurt Russell character and the unnamed character married to Booth. Tate smiles with happy pride in the theater as the audience laughs at her comic scenes as a beautiful but clumsy girl (the clips we see are of the real Sharon Tate in the film). Our knowledge of her real-life fate in one of the most notorious murders of the 20th century is an example of Tarantino’s appropriation of historical atrocities rewritten for pulpy pleasures to provide dramatic heft his screenplays otherwise cannot sustain (“Inglorious Basterds,” “Django Unchained”).

The episodic structure and narration that does not add anything from a character who has no reason to know the things he is describing show that as meticulous as Tarantino is about getting the details he cares about exactly right when it comes time to having them mean something, all he can do is create an extravaganza — although a watchable one — of violence and altered history.

Parents should know that this film includes extreme bloody violence with graphic and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, very strong and crude language, sexual references, drinking, smoking, and drugs.

Family discussion: Why did Tarantino want to make this film accurate in some of the details and depart from what happened in others? Why did Cliff insist on seeing George? Who is the narrator and what do we learn from him?

If you like this, try: the movies and television series glimpse in the film, including “Lancer,” “Mannix,” and “The Wrecking Crew

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