The Courier

Posted on March 18, 2021 at 5:23 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence, partial nudity, brief strong language, and smoking throughout.
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and alcoholism, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and some violence, murder, torture
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 19, 2021

Copyright Lionsgate 2020
“Maybe we’re only two people. But this is how things change.” In this tense, engrossing, Cold War spy drama, based on a true story, things change because of two people. The set-up is like something out of Hitchcock, an ordinary man thrust into a geopolitical heist saga with fate-of-the-world stakes. But it happened.

Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) is one of the highest-ranking Soviet officials, a multiply-decorated WWII veteran, with access to the most sensitive secrets of the Soviet military and a growing uneasiness with the volatile, aggressive leadership of Nikita Khrushchev. Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a smooth-talking British salesman, in every way an ordinary citizen, with no background or interest in espionage. But what he does have is a relatively unsuspicious reason for an Englishman to visit Moscow. Representatives from the CIA (Rachel Brosnahan as Emily Donovan) and MI6 ask Wynne to try to set up some sales meetings in Moscow as cover for bringing back files from Penovsky. “Nothing dodgy, nothing illegal,” they assure him. Not true. “We want you to act like the ordinary businessman you are…If this mission were the least bit dangerous, frankly you’re the last man we’d send.” Also not true. They do warn him that everyone he meets will be spying on him, even some who may be too far to hear what he is saying but who can see him well enough to read lips.

He agrees. Maybe he is patriotic. Maybe he is looking for something more exciting than missing an easy putt to accommodate potential customers. But his business is a good cover. “No matter what the politicians are doing, factories still need machines and machines still need parts.” Penkovsky tells Wynne that there is one important question for anyone wanting to do business in the Soviet Union. “Can you hold your alcohol?” Wynne smiles and we see why he is a good salesman. “It’s my one true gift.”

The Soviets do not intend to do business. They hope to learn enough about British products from Wynne to copy them. And MI6 gives him some hard to get but not classified information to leak to them to bolster his credibility.

“You’re — I think the word is — amateur,” Penkovsky says. But the two men form a kind of friendship. They are both devoted fathers, each with just one child. And they realize that the future for those children may depend on what they are doing.

The script is smart but it is also wise, balancing intimate personal details with the tension of tradecraft. We see the strains on Wynne’s marriage from keeping the secrets, with Jessie Buckley excellent as his wife, especially their meeting after things go badly. Wynne’s last meeting with Penkovsky is heart-rending. Cumberbatch, who also co-produced, gives one of his best performances, as we see Wynne go from almost looking at what he is doing as a bit of a lark to having to call on unimaginable stores of courage and integrity.

Parents should know that this movie includes tension, peril, and some violence, including a man executed in front of his colleagues and torture of prisoners. There is some brief strong language and non-sexual nudity.

Family discussion: Would you accept a mission like Wynne’s? What was his biggest challenge? Who was right about how he should be treated by the British government?

If you like this, try: “Bridge of Spies” and “13 Days”

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News of the World

Posted on December 12, 2020 at 11:29 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material, some language, disturbing images, and violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, guns, references to war
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 12, 2020

Copyright 2020 Play-Tone
“News of the World,” based on the book by Paulette Jiles is filled with undeniable good intentions, but that does not always translate to the screen. Tom Hanks, who also produced the film, stars as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Civil War veteran who travels from town to town, charging crowds to read the aloud the news to crowds who otherwise would not know what was going on outside their community.

A young girl who was captured by Kiowa Indians needs to be taken to the only family she has, an aunt and uncle, but no one is available to get her there. The Captain agrees, even though the girl has forgotten anything about her earlier life and speaks only Kiowa.

So this is the story of a journey, with two very different people who will face many challenges and obstacles as they try to reach to their destination. That destination is not just a place. Both Captain and the girl, once known as Johanna (Helena Zengel) do not know whether any place will be home to them. As the Captain says, Johanna is a child who has lost her family twice. Her birth family was killed by the Kiowa and her Kiowa family was killed by the US Cavalry. And the Captain not only survived the unspeakable brutality of war; he was on the losing side, fighting for the Confederacy. So, two broken people may find that making a connection is, well, the way home.

“News of the World” touches on issues of history, identity, and reconciliation, a response to the classic western myth and movie. This is not about claiming and taming the land. It is about painfully won understandings. There are exciting confrontations along the way but the triumphs here are about relationships and honor. Like the classic westerns, the setting is magnificent, gorgeously photographed by Dariusz Wolski, and the peril is intense, especially a shoot-out when three ex-military come after the girl. The movie has bigger ambitions, but it is the moments between Hanks and Zengel that stand out.

Parents should know that this film includes peril and violence, including the threat of child rape. Characters are injured and killed and there are references to tragic offscreen losses including murder of parents and death of a spouse. Characters use some strong language and drink alcohol.

Family discussion: Why does the Captain become a news reader? How did Johanna change the Captain’s life?

If you like this, try: “True Grit,” “Silverado” and “The Searchers”

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Mulan (Live Action 2020)

Posted on September 3, 2020 at 1:08 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended battle sequences, fights, swords, explosions, falling
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 4, 2020
Date Released to DVD: November 9, 2020
Copyright Disney 2020

Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” is closer to director Niki Caro’s touching, both mythic and intimate “Whale Rider” than it is to the animated musical with Eddie Murphy as a quippy little dragon and Donny Osmond as a Chinese warrior.

Coming to us on DisneyPLus (for an extra $30) due to the pandemic, it gives us just a fraction — literally — of the grand vistas and meticulous framing Caro uses so beautifully in the film. This version of the classic story of a young woman who pretends to be male to join the military and saves the day with a brilliant strategic maneuver is more sober, ambitious, and grand in scope than the first version. Note that some of the characters and names are changed to further remove it from the original. And it is the first of the Disney live-action remakes of animated classics to get a PG-13 rating.

The movie recalls “Frozen” at the beginning, with two sisters, one with some special, almost magical skills. The young Mulan (Crystal Rao) shows determination and remarkable agility and skill as she chases down a runaway chicken with parkour-style acrobatics. Her father (Tzi Ma as Hua Zhou), is proud of the “qi” (life force) in her. But her mother knows that in their world the responsibility of the women is to attract a propitious husband. That does not require strong q. It is about modesty, decorum, and silence, almost the ability to disappear except when needed. Even Mulan’s father tells her that it is time to hide her qi so she can bring honor to the family.

Invaders come to China, led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), with the help of a shape-shifting witch (Gong Li). Every family has to supply a warrior for the military. To protect her father, Mulan (Liu Yifei) disguises herself as a young man and joins up with the soldiers who are in training. She quickly volunteers to cover night watch to avoid the group showers. And she begins to prove herself with skill and determination.

Then comes the battle, the revelation of her true identity, and then another chance to save the day when she realizes that Bori plans to attack the emperor (Jet Li).

Director of Photography Mandy Walker shows us breathtaking vistas (New Zealand standing in for China in much of the film) and stunningly staged battles. The scenes in Mulan’s village are colorful but gritty enough to be authentically rural. And the production design is everything we expect from Disney, meticulously researched and gorgeously imagined.

The shifting of the storyline to focus on the parallels between Mulan and the witch, two women who struggle to express their essential qi in a world that has rigidly limited expectations for women gives the film additional depth. They are on opposite sides, but they recognize all they have in common. As in the original film, we see the literal constrictions and distortions in the clothing and makeup Mulan must put on to meet with the matchmaker. She is far more comfortable in the armor of a warrior.

Niki Caro keeps the film brimming with heart and sincerity so that even in the middle of battle scenes the focus is on what makes Mulan special — her dedication and loyalty even more than her skill and her qi.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence with battle scenes, swords, explosions, and hand-to-hand combat. Characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: What is chi and how do you access it? Why did the matchmaker and the warriors have such limited ideas about women?

If you like this, try; the original “Mulan” and live-action remakes “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Jungle Book” along with Chinese films for older audiences like “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.”

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The Personal History of David Copperfield

Posted on August 27, 2020 at 5:51 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material and brief violence
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and alcoholism, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Brief violence including a fight scene and some abuse, sad offscreen death of a parent
Diversity Issues: Race-blind casting
Date Released to Theaters: August 28, 2020

Copyright 2019 FilmNation Entertainment
There is no higher praise than to say that Armando Iannucci (“In the Loop,” “Veep”) has adapted the book Charles Dickens said was his favorite of all the novels he had written, the book closest to his own history, in a manner as jubilant and shrewdly observed, as touching, as romantic, as exciting, as the novel itself.

For those who made not be familiar with the story: David Copperfield is a Bildungsroman that begins with the birth of the title character to Clara, a sweet but naive weak-natured young widow (played by Morfydd Clark, who also plays David’s first love, Dora). They have a blissful life together until she marries the stern and cruel Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd), who, with his equally formidable sister (Gwendolyn Christie), takes over the household.

Murdstone sends David to work in a bottle factory, where he lodges with the impecunious Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi). Years later, he runs away to his only relative, the formidable Miss Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), who lives with a kind-hearted but rather vague man named Mr. Dick, who struggles with intrusive thoughts about King Charles I.

Miss Betsey sends David to school, where he meets the indolent Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard of “Dunkirk”) and is befriended by Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar). After graduation he goes to work for Mr. Spenlow, and is immediately overwhelmed with love for his daughter, Dora. During all of these adventures and more David changes names and positions in society several times, and the concerns he and others have about their status in society is a recurring theme.

David Copperfield is one of my favorite books of all time, and I well understand it would take a trilogy as ambitious as “Lord of the Rings” to fully do justice to all of its characters and events. But even I had to admit that it has been judiciously pruned (the characters of Rosa Dartle and Mrs. Steerforth have been combined, no Barkis or Miss Mowcher, Tommy Traddles only mentioned, etc.). I strongly concur with dropping the “Little” from Emily’s name, and quickly got used to the idea that she was nearly an adult when David was a child. And I even applauded some happier resolutions for some of the characters. After 170 years, they deserve it.

And the cast! Not since the grand 1935 MGM version with Freddie Bartholomew as young David, Lionel Barrymore as Daniel Peggoty, Edna May Oliver as Aunt Betsey Trotwood, and Basil Rathbone as Mr. Murdstone (no one has ever been as good at naming characters as Charles Dickens), has there been such fitting richness of acting talent. Iannucci’s decision to use race-blind casting, without regard to the genetic realism of biological connections only adds to the universality and ample bounty that is fitting for Dickens, who populated his works with more vivid and varied characters per page than any other author in the English language.

Dev Patel is a superb choice for David, who is thoughtful, open-hearted, and innocent but with a strong core of honor and optimism. We first see David, like the real-life Dickens who went on very popular speaking tours, reading the book’s famous opening line on stage before an appreciative audience. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” That framing, that self-awareness is fitting for an authorial voice that opens a book by challenging us to make up our own minds about what is to come. Iannucci’s theatricality and gift for telling stories cinematically shimmers through the film, with occasional images projected onto a wall, a hand reaching down into a model of the set, Patel talking to his younger self, played by Ranveer Jaiswal.

Class as it is perceived and as it is in reality is a theme of the film, but so is story-telling itself. Mr. Dick struggles to tell his story without reference to Charles I, and David comes up with an ingenious way to help him. Even as a young child, David wrote down memorable turns of phrase he heard on scraps of paper. His realization that those pieces of paper and pieces of memories are the basis for understanding his past, his purpose, and his future is a deeply satisfying answer to the question he poses at the beginning.

Parents should know that this film includes some tense and sad moments including an abusive stepfather and the offscreen death of a parent. There are financial reversals, confrontations (one fistfight), and a character embezzles.

Family discussion: Is David the hero of the story? Why is it so important to him to be considered a gentleman?

If you like this, try: The MGM version and the book, as as well as other film adaptations of Dickens books including the David Lean “Great Expectations” and the many, many versions of “A Christmas Carol” and a film about the writing of “A Christmas Carol” with Dan Stevens as Dickens, “The Man Who Invented Christmas.”

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Greyhound

Posted on July 9, 2020 at 5:10 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for war-related action/violence and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended wartime peril and violence, weapons, explosions, some disturbing images, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Historical issues, segregated all-male military
Date Released to Theaters: July 10, 2020

Copyright 2020 Apple
People always remember the wrong part of “The Caine Mutiny.” It’s understandable because Humphrey Bogart is mesmerizing as Captain Queeg, a career officer held in contempt by the junior officer draftees who think he failed so unforgivably in his command that, in this fictional story, there is a mutiny. (In reality, there has never been a mutiny on a US military ship.) One of the most iconic scenes in movie history is when Bogart as Queeg becomes so defensive on the witness stand he undermines his own credibility. Like Jack Nicholson as Colonel Jessup being cross-examined by Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men,” the short-term smart alecks show up the men who give their lives to the service. But do they? After Queeg decompensates on the witness stand, the mutineers feel vindicated. But the lawyer who argued the case tells them they are wrong. He could have given Nicholson’s speech about those who are smug in the luxury of their principles without having to test them in war. (Of course, SPOILER ALERT Jessup’s actions went far beyond Queeg’s paranoia and poor judgment; there is no possible justification for assaulting a soldier to force him to improve or quit.)

The WWII story “Greyhound,” written by and starring Tom Hanks, is something of a counterweight to those stories. It is based on a book called The Good Shepherd by Horatio Hornblower author C.S. Forester, whose specialty was thrilling naval stories. Hanks plays Captain Ernest Krause, commander of the USS Keeling, known by its callsign Greyhound. Like Queeg and Jessup, Krause was in the Navy before the war. We get a sense that he has been disappointed by not being promoted and perhaps, now that America’s entry into the war has prompted a promotion at last, he may have some doubts about whether he is ready. In a brief and probably unnecessary flashback, we see him propose to his lovely girlfriend, played by the lovelier-than-ever Elisabeth Shue. But she wants to wait. (In Forester’s book, Krause is divorced because his wife could not handle his by-the-book-ishness.). But unlike Jessup and Queeg, Krause is the very model of a decent, honorable, careful, officer. His first thought is for his mission; his second thought is for his men. He never loses sight of the consequences of his actions. As his men rejoice in the sinking of the U-Boat attacking them — “50 less Krauts!” — he says to himself as much as to anyone else, “50 souls.”

Other than that flashback, the quick 90-minute runtime is entirely devoted to a few days as Krause’s destroyer brings cargo ships across the Atlantic so they can deliver critically needed supplies and troops to England. Air cover at the time could not stretch all the way across the ocean, so there was a space in the middle known as the Black Pit. As the movie begins we hear the stirring voice of Winston Churchill describing the “hard unrelenting struggle” of the Atlantic fleet and Franklin Roosevelt, a former Secretary of the Navy, extolling the American spirit: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” “The price of the war has fallen on our sailor men,” we hear. And then we see what that means on Krause’s first crossing.

In addition to the vulnerability of lack of air cover, the equipment they have to work with is endearingly, and horrifyingly basic, analog, almost prehistoric. Their communication with their base is inadequate, even when it works, a critical message arriving two hours too late. The tracking system stops working. On board, Krause gets his intel by voice relay. A sailor has the job of just repeating everything coming from below so he can hear it. A sneeze at the wrong moment can be disastrous. The crew uses grease pencils and protractors. Krause uses binoculars. He uses a pencil-sharpener. They run low on ammo.

As admirable as the movie’s devotion to accuracy is, the tech talk is overwhelming. There’s a lot of “five minutes to course change” and language that is much harder to parse. Much less time is devoted to developing characters other than Krause; he may care a lot about the men but the movie does not seem to. An exception is Rob Morgan, in his third indelible performance of the year so far after “Bull” and “The Photograph.” As a loyal steward in the still-segregated military, he manages to convey infinite dignity and a movie’s worth of back story.

All of the tech talk and even some of the action are a distraction from what the movie is about: risk assessment under the direst circumstances, the responsibility for other people’s lives, both those on board and those they are fighting to protect at home, the wear on the spirit, the resolve to go on. At its foundation, beyond all of the tension and action, this movie is is a continuation of those same issues explored in Hanks’ recent films, especially “Captain Phillips,” “Sully,” and “Bridge of Spies.” Hanks, who often seems to play the role of America’s dad in real life, explores the existential questions that underly all of our choices.

Parents should know that this film includes extended wartime peril and violence, disturbing images, guns, torpedos, explosions, characters injured and killed, and brief strong language. Reflecting the reality of the era, the military is segregated and all-male.

Family discussion: What are some of the biggest differences between the military technology of WWII and today? Which was the most difficult decision Commander Krause had to make? If he had to do it again, what would he do differently?

If you like this, try: “Midway,” “Mr. Roberts,” “Destination Tokyo,” and “Band of Brothers”

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