Mass

Posted on October 7, 2021 at 5:09 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content and brief strong language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended references to murder/suicide, school shooting, parental grief
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 15, 2021

Copyright Bleekeer Stelt 2021
“Mass” takes its time letting us know what is happening and who we are watching. With his first film as writer and director, Franz Kranz begins by giving us a sense of place. We are in a church and a woman named Judy (Breeda Wool) is bustling around, a little anxious, a little apologetic, the kind of community-spirited, good-hearted soul that houses of worship rely on. A young man (Kagen Albright) is washing dishes, and we can see she is helping him by letting him help. Judy is preparing a room for some kind of event, fussing about what kind of refreshments should be provided and how the chairs should be arranged. Then Kendra (Michelle N. Carter) arrives. She is in some kind of official capacity, but it is still not clear what her role is.

And then two couples arrive. They are the ones the room has been prepared for. They greet each other cordially, but awkwardly. Linda (Ann Dowd) has brought a gift from her garden. She and Richard (Reed Birney) are somehow both together and not together. They exchange uncomfortable small talk about their children, indicating that there is some history between the four and yet they are not exactly friends and not exactly enemies.

The other couple is Gail (Martha Plimpton) and Jay (Jason Isaacs). We slowly realize that what has brought them together is an incident of unspeakably tragic (and yet perpetual) violence.

Kranz has created distinctive, believable, complicated characters and the cast is one of the best ensembles of the year. Everyone grieves differently, and those differences can drive a wedge between couples or family members who do not understand each other’s way of mourning. We see all of that here, delicately but heart-wrenchingly delineated as the various social, performative layers fall off and there is nothing left but truth and the rawest of emotion. One moment shines through like a beacon as Gail admits her fear that if she lets go of anger and resentment she will lose the connection with the son who died. The conversation ranges from the mundane to the clinical to the most viseral pain, echoing the great Auden poem Musee de Beaux Arts, and it never feels less than real and vital.

Parents should know that this is a movie about devastating pain and loss with references to the murder of children and a suicide in a school shooting and to mental illness and its impact on a family. There is brief strong language.

Family discussion: How many different ways of grief do we see in this film? How many different kinds of forgiveness?

If you like this, try: “Elephant” and “Amish Grace”

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Together

Posted on August 26, 2021 at 5:01 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexual references and language
Profanity: Extended very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Themes include pandemic, sad death of a parent, grief, fear
Diversity Issues: Class issues are a theme in the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 27, 2021

Copyright 2021 BBC Film
This is a safe place, so let’s all admit it. This has been a crazy time and as someone once said, crazy times call for crazy solutions. And sometimes that means we have to go a little crazy to get through it. Some of us strengthened our ties with our families, some strained them, and most of us did a bit of both. We found new things to do (I was one of the millions baking bread) and some found new ways to do the things they have always done. Director Stephen Daldry (“The Hours,” “Billy Elliot,” “The Crown”) and writer Dennis Kelly (“Utopia”) wanted to find a way to keep telling stories in the pandemic, so came up with the idea of telling a story about what they and so many of us were experiencing: the claustrophobia, uncertainty, and stress of a global plague. Big, complicated, expensive productions shut down? Make one about a London couple stuck at home. Two people, one setting, two-thirds of the three unities of classical-era drama.

A strong script and outstanding acting talent make it work.

We can tell from the first thirty seconds that this long-time (but unmarried) couple have an acrimonious relationship. They cannot even agree on their son’s name. The boy’s mother (Sharon Horgan billed only as She) calls him Arthur. The father (James McAvoy as He) calls him “Artie.” But we don’t need to infer anything. They are delighted to tell each other and us in vivid detail how much they despise each other. Throughout the film, the couple addresses us as, who knows, in-house therapists or documentarians? Some imagined referee?

It does not matter. It’s just a way for us to stay engaged and learn everything we need to know. At times, the couple seem to be performing for an outside audience; at others they are alone, confiding in us what they do not want to teach each other. For me, the device ceased to be a curiosity or a distraction quickly, another tribute to the superbly talented stars.

She and He were on the brink of separating, when they found themselves scrambling for groceries and toilet paper as everything in the UK shut down around them. Perhaps it is the terror of that moment that leads them to try to top each other to tell us who hates the other one more. We see, if they don’t, that somewhere in there is a vestigial connection, that they still want one another’s approval. The opposite of love, is not hate, after all, but indifference.

Their differences are set up nicely to be intensified and tested by what is to come. He thinks of himself as a self-made man, a lower-class boy who became the founder of a successful business. He did it all on his own, he thinks, and has little compassion for anyone who hasn’t done the same. His right-wing politics annoy her.

She came from a comfortably upper-middle class family and works for a non-profit that provides aid to refugees. He admits that he admires her for that. Each’s notion of what makes a “good person” and how each fits that description will arise again as we check in with them every few months, each segment beginning with a reminder of how many COVID-19 cases and how many deaths the UK has documented.

She experiences a loss that makes her question her faith in the way the government is handling the pandemic. Perhaps through a combination of her vulnerability, their shared grief, or sheer boredom with bickering, they start being intimate again, which reminds them that it was something that they were good at with each other. They share some hard truths, much harder than the trivial insults they exchanged in a whistling-in-the-graveyard opening scene that was more about impressing or outdoing each other than hurting each other.

Horgan and McAvoy make every moment of the film feel earned and worthy. It does not matter who they are talking to. What matters is that they are listening to each other, and we are listening to them both.

Parents should know that this movie has non-stop strong language and couple bickering, drinking and some sexual references. There is a sad off-screen death of a parent.

Family discussion: What have been the best and worst consequences of the pandemic for your family? Is there anything you want to change as a result?

If you like this, try: “Malcolm and Marie”

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Joe Bell

Posted on July 22, 2021 at 5:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including offensive slurs, some disturbing material, and teen partying
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Teen suicide, family member killed in an accident
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 23, 2021

Copyright 2021 Roadside Productions
Joe Bell and his son Jadin are on the road. Literally. They are walking along the highway, Jadin reminding his father to walk against the traffic and his dad responding with mixed amusement and irritation that he’s been doing this for a while and does not need advice from a teenager. They seem to have a mostly amiable way of handling the inevitable re-aligning of the father-son relationship that happens during adolescence.

It is more complicated than that, and music sadder. Jadin Bell was an Oregon teenager who was ruthlessly bullied for being gay. Feeling heartbroken and friendless, he took his life. And his father, Joe Bell, decided he would spend two years walking all the way across America, stopping wherever he could to talk to teenagers about bullying, and about what a difference they could make by being more accepting and kind.

The story of Joe and Jadin Bell is now a feature film with Mark Wahlberg as the grieving father, Connie Britten as his wife, Lola, and Reid Miller, in a winning performance of exceptional sensitivity, as Jadin.

Wahlberg struggles to bring to life a man who is taciturn and often gruff. His character has trouble expressing his feelings. When Jadin tells him he is gay, Joe is accepting but irritated at being dragged away from the television to hear about it. He is dismissive when Jadin tries to talk to him about being bullied. Joe loves Jadin, but cannot acknowledge to himself or anyone else that he is uncomfortable with anything that does not fit into his notion of what it means to be a man.

He is not much better at talking to the people he meets in his travels than he was in talking to Jadin. He wants very much to deliver the message but his inability to tell his own story and acknowledge his failure to support his son make it impossible for him to deliver the message he wants to deliver.

The movie has the same problem. It is well-intentioned but the abrupt shift due to the facts of the real story derails the message it is trying to deliver. There are some tender moments, especially when Joe share a Lady Gaga song and when Joe meets a sympathetic cop. But we do not get enough of a sense of what Joe learns as he becomes more honest with himself, or the impact he had, and that makes it more difficult for us to feel the impact on us.

Parents should know that the themes of this movie include teen bullying and suicide. A parent is tragically killed. Characters drink, including teen partying, and they use strong language.

Family discussion: Why do people bully? What is the best way to respond to a bully? What is the best way to support those who have been bullied?

If you like this, try: “Ride” and “Love, Simon”

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The Boss Baby: Family Business

Posted on July 1, 2021 at 5:59 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG (Rude Humor|Mild Language|Some Action)
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Potion
Violence/ Scariness: Extended cartoon-style action, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 2, 2021
Date Released to DVD: September 13, 2021

Copyright 2021 Universal
2017’s “Boss Baby” was a happy surprise. It took the classic theme of sibling rivalry to a hilarious extreme, revealing that the family’s new baby, Theodore (“Ted”), is literally a boss. He arrives complete with suit, tie, Rolex, briefcase, a job at Baby Corp, and the ultra-adult voice of Alec Baldwin. The older brother, Tim, is initially jealous and hostile, but ultimately joins forces with him to complete his mission.

In this sequel (following the interactive Netflix film, “Boss Baby: Back in Business”), Ted (Baldwin again) and Tim (James Marsden) are grown up. Tim is very happy as a devoted and imaginative stay-at-home Dad to Tabitha (Ariana Greenblatt), the brightest student at a fancy private school) and her baby sister Tina (Amy Sederis), but he misses Ted, who is now a very successful executive who works all the time and instead of spending time with the family just sends “inappropriately lavish gifts,” including a horse named Precious. Tabitha seems to be following in her uncle’s footsteps, telling her dad she is too old for bedtime stories and goodnight kisses.

It turns out that it is Tina who is really following in her uncle’s first tentative toddler footsteps. She is a boss baby in a pantsuit, and on behalf of BabyCorp, she is there to bring her father and uncle back together and, while they are sorting things out, to save the world.

In the first film, Baby Corp had to save the world from a villain who was trying to make puppies cuter than babies. This time it is Dr. Armstrong (Jeff Goldblum), the founder and principal of Tabitha’s school who is plotting a baby takeover by zombie-fying the adults, starting with the parents of his students when they are all together at the school recital. Ted and Tim drink a potion that will return them to babyhood (Ted) and childhood (Tim) so they can infiltrate the school and stop Armstrong’s evil plot.

Like the first film, this one has a delightful mix of understated humor (wait until you see the holiday pageant song about climate change), wild fantasy, cheeky needle-drop songs and pop culture references (from “Rocky Horror’s” “Time Warp” to Flock of Seagulls, “Norma Rae,” and a “comfort plant”). Plus some of the best-constructed action scenes in animated films, exciting, fun, and funny, and then exciting again. And there are some great moments with my favorite character, Wizzie the Wizard toy, magnificently voiced by James McGrath in tones usually heard only in Shakespeare’s plays or “Lord of the Rings” or supervillains. It’s fast, fun, and funny, but it is the heartfelt sense of joy in family, however different we may be, that keeps me hoping for another sequel.

Parents should know that this film has extended cartoon-style peril and action including chases, ninjas with swords and throwing stars, and vertiginous climbs. Characters use some schoolyard language and there is potty humor. A theme of the movie is sibling rivalry and family estrangement.

Family discussion: Is Tina a different kind of boss than Ted? Why are Ted and Tim so different? Why didn’t Armstrong like grown-ups? What name would you choose for your secret identity? What do you think is more important than money?

If you like this, try: the other “Boss Baby” movies and “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”

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Fatherhood

Posted on June 17, 2021 at 5:32 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language and suggestive material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death of a parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 18, 2021

Copyright Netflix 2021
Matt Logelin became a father and a widower at the same time. His wife died suddenly after their daughter was born and he told the story of his life as a single dad in a book called Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss & Love. And now his story has been adapted into a film, with Kevin Hart as Matt, the sometimes terrified, often-befuddled, frequently exhausted, and always devoted father of an adorable little girl.

Anyone who has ever raised a child or seen a movie has a pretty good idea of where this is going. See the reference to terror, befuddlement, exhaustion, and devotion above, which every parent knows well, along with the daunting challenges of many, many diapers, installing a car seat, and trimming an infant’s fingernails. Matt also has to face the well-meaning strangers who ask, “And where is her mother?” And the most daunting challenge of all: “You just have to do what’s best for her for the rest of her life.”

Like all parents do, he makes mistakes. Probably not too bad that he has Maddy play poker with his friends. On the other hand, letting her watch an animated series because he figures all cartoons are safe is not a good idea. “If you could have had one parent,” he sighs, “I wish it could have been your mom.” And while Maddy adores her dad, sometimes she wishes for more. “Other people have more people,” she says.

Kevin Hart gives a sincere and heartfelt performance as Matt, who gives his baby Maddy two kisses every night, one from him and one from her mother. He is clear that Maddy is is number one priority and that he will not allow her well-meaning grandmothers to take over just because they do not think he can take care of her.

But he can. Yes, he has a lot to learn. He shows up at an otherwise all-female “parent” support group because he cannot get Maddy to stop crying. And then there is the issue of her hair. He talks his boss into letting him bring her to the office. And he backs her up when she wants to wear pants instead of the skirt of her parochial school uniform.

Matt has two close friends who provide some encouragement, played by Lil Rel Howrey and Anthony Carrigan, who might as well be named Comic and Relief. Hart, who usually has that role, is not an actor of wide range, but his distinctive delivery works well here, especially with the irresistibly charming Melody Hurd as the school-age Maddy. Almost as irresistible is DeWanda Wise as a charming animator who provides the possibility of some adult companionship for Matt, a prospect that is appealing and scary.

The fact that everyone who has ever had or even spent serious time with a child can predict the touchstones in the film is not necessarily a bad thing. These events are touchstones because they are universal. Matt does not struggle with them because he is a man bu because he is Matt, and because these are things every parent finds difficult, the heartwarming depiction of in this film will be touching because it is familiar and resonant.

Parents should know that this film deals with the very sad death of a mother and the struggles of a single father. The film includes potty humor, some sexual references and non-explicit situations, a child being injured, family conflicts, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What was Matt’s most difficult moment? Who gave him the best advice and support?

If you like this, try: “Three Men and a Baby” and the Bryce Dallas Howard documentary “Dads”

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