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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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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Downton Abbey: A New Era

Posted on May 19, 2022 at 5:27 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some suggestive references, language and thematic elements.
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: May 20, 2022
Date Released to DVD: July 4, 2022

Copyright Focus Features 2022
If the producers of “Downton Abbey” have become so fond of their characters after six seasons on television and a feature film that they can reunite them only for the most enticingly charming of storylines, well, that is fine with me and likely to be fine with the many, many fans who love to watch the residents of the fabulous title estate — both the upstairs Lord and Lady Grantham and their family (the Crowleys) and the downstairs staff who keep the place running. The title is “Downton Abbey: A New Era” but the story remains reassuringly retro.

The Crawley characters have survived the upheavals of world affairs from the beginning; the first episode begins with the family learning of the sinking of the Titanic, with the heir to the estate on board and later World War I brings enormous changes during the course of the series. And they have survived family upheavals as well, the marriage of one of the three Crawley daughters to a commoner, the family’s chauffeur, and her death following childbirth. The staff have had their challenges as well, and the attention to all of the residents of Downton is a critical part of the story’s appeal.

But so is the display of wealth, including the dozens of servants required for the many many changes of fabulous clothes and the dinners with exquisite china and silver. For all of the concerns about whether the Crawley family can afford repairs to the roof, they have generational wealth and privilege that has a fairy tale quality. “Cinderella” is a fairy tale, too, and the concerns, challenges, and relationships of the staff, all safely in the past, allow a measure of safety as we convince ourselves that there is more opportunity and equality today.

This latest update may be called “A New Era” but it is even more of an old-fashioned fairy tale than the last one because of the gentleness of its storylines. It begins with a wedding. The last movie ended with a strong suggestion that the family connections would be shored up further when the chauffeur-turned-son-in-law, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) was falling in love with Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), the illegitimate daughter of an estranged cousin, Maude Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton). This made the Crowleys happy because it would keep the property Lucy was inheriting from Maude connected to the Crawley family. Oh, and it would be nice for single dad Tom to find love, too.

And then the very large cast splits and goes in two different directions Dame Maggie Smith as the acid-tongued doyenne Violet Grantham has unexpectedly inherited a villa in the French Rivera from a man she knew when she was a young newlywed. His widow is considering challenging the will but his son has invited the Crowleys to visit.

Lady Mary, who is running things at Downton now, as accepted a lucrative offer from a film crew that wants to use Downton to make a movie about a high society romance. Well, they had to top the last film’s visit from the king and queen. Downton, as often happens, is caught between two traditions: the traditions of dignity, decorum, status, and remove from the activities of those without a title, and the tradition of keeping the roof from leaking and continuing to care for the family and the servants and as much of the way of life as they can continue to sustain.

Both stories take turns that range from melodramatic to preposterous, the film-within-a-film story landing somewhere between an early 20th century meta-verse and an audacious twist taken from one of the all-time-most beloved movies in history. But after all this time, the audience is not there for the plots. This is a film that has time for a full, rollicking jazz performance. We are there for the elegance and glamor, the costumes, the comfy familiarity. If you are not already a fan, this is not a place to start. But if you’re hoping for happy endings for almost every character — and if you are enough of a fan to know that when a member of the nobility and a servant are mistakenly thought to be a married couple that it is both a wink (the actors are married in real life) and a nod to the themes of changing times (like the jazz number and the movie production) and eroding class distinctions, then you will be as delighted as I was.

Parents should know that this film includes discussions of adultery and paternity and a sad death.

Family discussion: Which character do you enjoy the most and why? Were you surprised by the decisions made by Violet and Lady Mary?

If you like this, try: the “Downton Abbey” series and the other series from Julian Fellowes, including “Doctor Thorne,” “The Gilded Age,” and “Belgravia”

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Celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday with Great Family Films

Posted on February 12, 2022 at 6:00 am

Happy birthday, Abraham Lincoln!

lincoln photograph

Celebrate the birthday of our 16th President with some of the classic movies about his life. Reportedly, he has been portrayed more on screen than any other real-life character.  I was honored to be invited to participate in the 272-word project from the Abraham Lincoln Library in Springfield, Illinois.  Each of us was asked to contribute an essay that was, like the Gettysburg Address, just 272 words.  Here’s mine:

Two score and six years after the death of Abraham Lincoln, he was first portrayed in the brand-new medium of film. 102 years and over 300 films later, Lincoln has appeared on screen more than any other historical figure and more than any other character except for Sherlock Holmes. In 2013 alone there were three feature films about Abraham Lincoln, one with an Oscar-winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, directed by Steven Spielberg. In another one, he was a vampire slayer. He has been portrayed by Henry Fonda (John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” Raymond Massey (“Abe Lincoln in Illinois”), Walter Huston (D.W. Griffith’s “Abraham Lincoln”), and Bing Crosby – in blackface (“Holiday Inn”). The movies have shown us Lincoln defending clients, mourning Ann Rutledge, courting Mary Todd, and serving as President. We have also seen him traveling through time with a couple of California teenagers in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and granting amnesty to Shirley Temple’s Confederate family in “The Littlest Rebel.”

Lincoln is appealingly iconic as a movie character, instantly recognizable as a symbol of America’s most cherished notion of ourselves: unpretentious but aspiring for a better world and able to find both the humor and integrity in troubled times. In every film appearance, even the silliest and most outlandish, he reminds us, as he did in The Gettysburg Address, of what is most essential in the American character: the search for justice.

PS My husband and I waited for two hours outdoors on a frozen January 1 to view the Emancipation Proclamation on its 150th anniversary. When I saw it, I wept. A security guard whispered, “I know how you feel.”

The Steven Spielberg epic, Lincoln is based on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, with Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis.

Young Mr. Lincoln Directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda, this is an appealing look at Lincoln’s early law practice and his tragic romance with Ann Rutledge. Particularly exciting and moving are the scenes in the courtroom as Lincoln defends two brothers charged with murder. Both have refused to talk about what happened, each thinking he is protecting the other, and Lincoln has to find a way to prove their innocence.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois Raymond Massey in his signature role plays Lincoln from his days as a rail-splitter to his law practice and his debates with Stephen Douglas. Ruth Gordon plays his wife, Mary.

Gore Vidal’s Lincoln Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore star in this miniseries that focuses on Lincoln’s political strategies and personal struggles.

Young_Mr_Lincoln_Henry_Fonda

Sandburg’s Lincoln Hal Holbrook plays Lincoln in this miniseries based on the biography by poet Carl Sandberg.

The History Channel has both a documentary and a miniseries about Lincoln.

I’m a huge fan of the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois. So is Conan O’Brien.

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Cyrano

Posted on January 31, 2022 at 6:48 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some strong violence, thematic and suggestive material, and brief language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Sword fights and battles, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, but transphobic humor
Date Released to Theaters: February 4, 2022
Date Released to DVD: April 18, 2022

Copyright 2021 MGM
Cyrano” is a gorgeous film, a true labor of love. The basis, of course, is one of the great classic plays of all time, Edmond Rostand’s 1897 Cyrano de Bergerac, inspired by a real soldier/writer. Jose Ferrar won an Oscar for his performance as the title character in a 1950 film. The story of the man who cannot tell the woman he loves how he feels because of the way he looks has been adapted and rebooted many times, with probably the best known Steve Martin’s Roxanne and most recently set in a high school in “The Half of It.” Everyone can identify with a character who is afraid to approach the object of their affection and everyone would like to identify with a character whose wit is as ready and sharp as his sword. In the original and the Steve Martin version, the main character’s rapier-like comebacks to a thoughtless bully are a highlight.

In the original and “Roxanne,” the impediment is a nose so big that the Cyrano character believes no one can see him as a romantic partner. In this swooningly romantic new version, set, like the original, in the 17th century, the physical obstacle is size. Writer Erica Schmidt adapted the play as a musical to be performed on stage by her husband, actor Peter Dinklage (“Game of Thrones”) as Cyrano, and ravishingly lovely Haley Bennett as Roxanne. They play those parts in this film, directed by Bennett’s significant other, Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Pride and Prejudice”)

Roxanne is loved by three men: Cyrano, the handsome but better-with-a-sword-than-with-poetic-love-letters Christian (Kelvin Harrison, Jr. of “Waves”), and the selfish, predatory De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn). Cyrano has been her closest friend and confidant since childhood. De Guiche is pressuring her to marry him. Her maid reminds her that she has no money and no other options for supporting herself. But one night at the theater, she glimpses Christian, a newcomer to the military unit where Cyrano serves, and she loses her heart to him. Cyrano agrees to ghost-write love letters from Christian to Roxanne. He pretends it is to help the new recruit but in reality it is to have his one chance to tell the woman he loves how he feels, even if the letters are signed by someone else.

In a way, Schmidt is giving her words to the man he she loves so that we can see him the way she does, gallant, mordantly witty, a brilliant actor, and a person of deep and generous humanity. A scene where he is almost about to dare to hope that Roxanne will say she loves him, the emotions that flicker across his face as he is almost successful maintaining his composure is one of the most touching moments on screen this year.

With Schmidt and Wright creating the words and images for the people they love, in spectacularly beautiful costumes (Massimo Cantini Parrini and Jacqueline Durran) and settings (Sicily filling in as 17th century France) with music and even some dance numbers, the unabashed romanticism almost bursts out of the screen. Bennett makes a lovely Roxanne, clever and spirited but allowing her own romanticism to blind her to the love that is already hers. Mendelsohnn seems to specialize in bad guys these days, and this is another strong performance, De Guiche’s brutality glimpsed under a very thin veneer of suavity. Harrison makes a gallant Christian. But it is Dinklage who is in every way the heart of the story. Just as we get to see Cyrano finally use his own words under cover of darkness to play the part of the man whose outside matches his inside, in this film we get to see Dinklage take center stage, with a performance of heart-stopping vulnerability. Rostand would be proud, and so would the man who inspired the play that continues to capture us more than a hundred years later.

Parents should know that this film includes brief strong language, sexual references, sword fights, and battle scenes, with characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: Should Cyrano have told Roxanne how he felt? If so, when? Is there a time when you misjudged someone based on looks or when you were misjudged?

If you like this, try: “Roxanne” and the Ferrar and PBS versions of “Cyrano de Bergerac”

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