Dune

Posted on October 21, 2021 at 5:21 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sequences of strong violence, and suggestive material
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Sci-fi drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, monsters, guns, knives, many characters injured and killed including major characters and sad death of a parent, some scary and graphic images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2021
Date Released to DVD: January 10, 2022

Copyright Warner Brothers 2021
If some of the elements of “Dune” feel familiar to you, it is because the book series it is based on was published in the 1960s and epics have been drawing from it ever since, just as it drew on Hero With a Thousand Faces legends of young heroes up against impossible odds and evil villains with the help of wise counselors and beautiful romantic partners, and sociopolitical history. If it feels incomplete to you it is because it ends not in the middle of the story but at the end of the beginning; it is something of an origin story that just begins to set up the bigger story to come. If it feels confusing to you it is because you have not read the long, dense, intricate books, in which case I suggest this very helpful background from New York Magazine’s Vulture website. It might also be because you saw the cult-y earlier movie version from cult-y director David Lynch. The one with Sting.

But while you may be pondering those ifs, you will be stunned and amazed by the astonishing worlds on the screen (please see it on IMAX if you can do so safely), one of the most remarkable examples of cinematic world-building magic ever made, thanks to “Arrival” duo director Denis Villeneuve and art director Patrice Vermette.

Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, the son of a powerful Duke (Oscar Isaac) who is loyal to the emperor and his beloved concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who is a member of a group called Bene Gesserit. They are a secretive, nun-like group with magical powers. Remember how Obi-wan Kenobi told the imperial guard “These are not the droids you are looking for” and the guard bought it? The Bene Gesserit has powers like that only to do it they have to use a low-pitched growly voice.

So Paul comes from political and financial power on one side and mystical power on the other, quite a potent mix and as a teenager he is still sorting it all out, especially some weird and possibly predictive dreams he has been having.

The emperor makes a controversial decision to remove one of the Duke’s rival houses, House Harkonnen, from the extremely lucrative desert planet Arrakis, where they have accumulated incalculable wealth from the planet’s precious resource, called spice, by exploiting the environment and abusing the planet’s residents, the Fremen, who are now mostly hiding out literally underground. He orders the Duke to take over, and the Duke and his family dutifully obey. Needless to say, House Harkonnen and its leader the Baron (Stellan Skarsgård in Jabba the Hutt mode) is angry. This means Paul has to contend with all the usual teenage angst and identity issues plus the angry Fremen and possibly some traitorous insiders.

A couple of other points: Arrakis has some indigenous animal life, including a cute mouse creature and some gigantic and extremely scary and lethal sand worms, with mouth-like openings the size of a circus tent. They are attracted to — of all things — rhythmic sounds, like…footsteps. And spice is extremely valuable and can turn users’ eyes blue.

Even if you are confused, you can still be drawn into the story because it is clear who the good and bad and good/bad characters are and who we are supposed to root for. And the visuals are so compelling that the confusing parts make us more curious than frustrated. It is overlong for an origin story, but made with so much thought and story-telling mastery that I’m confident the next chapter will be even better.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild language, some sexual references, and extended sometimes bloody violence including weapons and poison. Major characters are injured and killed, including a parent.

Family discussion: What historic events may have inspired this story? What elements of the story inspired later classic movies?

If you like this, try: The books by Frank Herbert and others like Stranger in a Strange Land and The Foundation Trilogy

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The Last Duel

Posted on October 14, 2021 at 9:49 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Very intense medieval combat violence, characters injured and killed, brutal rape, graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 15, 2021

Copyright 20th Century 2021
“The Last Duel” is well-intentioned but ponderous and pretentious. It wants to be about the different perceptions of its three main characters, telling the same story three times. But for the viewer it is about the different perceptions of its actor-screenwriters, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and its director, Ridley Scott, who seem to be making different movies. The screenwriters wanted to tell a story about honor, truth, misogyny, and justice. Scott wanted to tell a story about medieval combat. You can tell from the title which side won.

Like the classic “Rashomon,” this is the story of a rape and a death told from three different points of view. Damon and Affleck wrote the segments of the two male characters in the story, and the third segment, the point of view of the woman involved, was written by indie writer-director Nicole Holofcener.

It is based on real historical events, the last officially recognized “judicial duel,” meaning a battle to the death to determine the outcome of a trial, fought in France. The duel was fought in 1386, based on the notion that God would not let the combatant telling the truth lose the fight.

At one point the two men were friends, but they were very different. Jean de Carrouges (Damon) was a knight (he gets very angry when his hard-won title is not recognized). He was extremely brave and firmly dedicated to his ideals of honor. We first see him disobeying orders and going into battle to prevent the slaughter of innocent citizens. He was not educated and could not read or write his name. After his wife and son died, he married Marguerite (Jodie Comer) the daughter of a wealthy but disgraced (for supporting the losing side in the war) man. She was well-educated and they were genuinely affectionate and devoted.

Squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) was well-educated in languages, literature, and numbers. He was something of a libertine, encouraged by his patron (Affleck), Pierre d’Alençon, a powerful nobleman, after Le Gris ingratiated himself by straightening out the books and collecting the back taxes.

Marguerite tells her husband that when he was away Le Gris came to their home and raped her. Rape, at the time, was not considered an assault on the woman but a crime against the man in her life. She was seen as his property and it was he who was damaged by the degrading attack. Marguerite is encouraged not to tell anyone by her mother-in-law, who admits that she was once raped as well. To accuse a man so close to the nobility is dangerous. But de Carrouges has courage in life as he does in battle and a sense of honor — plus some more personal grievances against Le Gris — that will not allow him to pretend it did not happen. He knows Le Gris’ patron will protect him, so he takes the case to the king. And that is what takes us back to the joust we glimpse at the beginning of the film. If de Carrouges wins, that means God has protected him for telling the truth. If Le Gris wins, then he will be deemed to have told the truth and Marguerite will be burned for falsely accusing him.

Scott does a great job with the combat scenes and special credit goes to DP Dariusz Wolski and especially to the sound crew for some of the all-time great clanky sounds as swords strike shields and armor. Unfortunately, the dialogue is even more clanky. Affleck and Damon, whose Bahston townie talk in “Good Will Hunting” was both believable and exceptionally sharp, have made the dialogue in this film heavy with clumsy exposition. The reiteration of the story does not add as much as it thinks it does, and ultimately becomes tedious and heavy-handed. And the hair and make-up may be based on historic styles, but Affleck, as the louche embodiment of white privilege, has a blonde surfer look while Damon has an unfortunate mullet that goes with his unfortunately superficial character. This is the second time in a row that he has tried to convince us he’s an uneducated person of limited experience and both movies suffer from his efforts.

Parents should know that this film has strong, bloody violence with medieval combat and disturbing and grisly images. There is some strong language, explicit sexual situations with nudity and a brutal rape, and alcohol.

Family discussion: Why does de Carrouges decide to believe Marguerite? Given the ideas at the time, was his mother right?

If you like this, try: “Gladiator”

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The Green Knight

Posted on July 28, 2021 at 12:44 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R (Graphic Nudity|Violence|Some Sexuality)
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy/adventure peril and violence, swords, battle axe, graphic and disturbing images including severed heads, reference to rape
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: July 30, 2021

Copyright 2021 A24
Looking at “The Green Knight” is like being immersed in a gorgeous, mysterious medieval tapestry. Watching it is like being immersed in a Jungian dream filled with Erik Erikson-style choices, enigmatic patterns and symbols.

It is based on one of the classic works of world literature, a 15th century poem by an unknown author about a knight from the days of King Arthur. While most tales of the Knights of the Round Table are about daring quests for a grand purpose like rescuing a maiden or finding the Holy Grail, Sir Gawain’s quest is stranger and more mythic, perhaps best seen as a metaphor for an internal quest. Gawain is as confused as we are, and his head is on the line. Literally.

Dev Patel follows his sensitive, compelling, and joyful performance as David Copperfield last year with another showing his unquenchable screen chemistry and fearless honesty in portraying characters who confront painful lessons of loss and defeat. As both actor and movie star, he is never less than completely authentic, and pure magic on screen.

David Lowrey (“The Old Man and the Gun,” “A Ghost Story,” “Pete’s Dragon”) wrote and directed this version of the story, at least the fourth filmed adaptation, indicated by the increasingly modern fonts showing the title. Lowery’s gift for exquisite images imparting a mythic quality to film is well-suited to this tale. The first image is so still it could almost be a medieval painting, with Gawain in royal robes and a crown that looks like the halos in icons of saints. It burns. The next image is so still it might also be a painting, with geese and horses in an old courtyard. It takes a moment to realize that there is a fire on a roof in the back.

Gawain is wakened with a splash of water on the face by Essel (Alicia Vikander), whose pixie haircut, rough clothes, and accent tell us they are not in the same class. There is genuine affection as well as a careless condescension in the way he grabs at her. But she reminds him that it is Christmas morning, and he is expected at the castle. When he arrives there, he lies to his mother (a majestic Sarita Choudhury), telling her he has been at mass all night. We can see that he is impetuous, a bit spoiled, and utterly untested.

As the courtiers gather for Christmas dinner, King Arthur (Sean Harris) unexpectedly gives Gawain the honor of sitting beside him, and invites him to share a story with the group. “Tell me a tale of yourself so that I might know thee.” As he looks out at the “legends” among the knights at the round table, Gawain has to admit he does not have a tale to tell. And so, when the castle door opens and a mysterious man who looks like an enormous tree enters the dining hall on horseback, Gawain realizes this could be the beginning of his story.

The tree-man, The Green Knight, proposes a “game.” He will allow any man in the room to strike him as he will, and then, in exactly one year, they will meet again to give the Green Knight the change to return the same blow. Gawain takes the challenge, and the King offers the use of his own sword. Gawain beheads The Green Knight, who cooly picks the head up from the floor of the dining hall and rides away. Gawain has a year to think about what will happen at their second meeting, amusingly conveyed in part through a Punch-and-Judy style puppet show for the local children. Gawain has, in medieval terms, gone viral, his portrait painted and the story of his beheading of the tree-man told everywhere.

It is the end of “a too-short year” and time for him to keep his promise to meet The Green Knight and receive his blow. His mother gives him a sash that she promises will keep him from harm. “Is it wrong to want greatness for you?” she says. “I fear I am not meant for greatness,” he answers.

And so he is off, with the adventures along the way the heart of the story. Barry Keoghan continues to be one of the best at creating a truly disturbing, creepy presence on film, able to make the battlefield strewn with dead bodies seem normal by comparison. Other people or simulations of people he meets include two who seem to welcome him but impose conditions like The Green Knight’s “game” that may be more freighted than they appear.

At one point one of the people he encounters asks what he will achieve from his second encounter with The Green Knight and he answers without hesitation: honor. But what does that mean? Why is the bargain they have made called a game? How does it “rhyme” with the bargain he makes with a generous host on his journey?

What is the meaning of the doubling of characters and experiences, evoking the intricate alliteration and rhymes of the original poem? What is “real” in the world of the film and what is imagined? Are they “real-life” events that we are supposed to think are actually happening to the character or are they the demons his spirit is wrestling with to achieve self-actualization?What is honor in his time and in ours? How should he answer Essel? What does he learn from each encounter and what is the significance of the possessions returned to him?

This is a movie to be not just watched but experienced, absorbed, pondered, and argued over. It challenges us in the way the Green Knight challenges Gawain, in the way the King challenges him, to tell our story and to make it one that is worthy enough to continue to intrigue us after seven hundred years.

Parents should know that this film includes violence with graphic and disturbing images, with beheadings and a reference to rape and murder. There are sexual situations, some graphic, and references, some nude characters, and a non-explicit childbirth scene.

Family discussion: What does honor mean to you and how does it compare to Gawain’s idea? What tale could you tell?

If you like this, try: “Excalibur”

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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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