Knives Out

Posted on November 25, 2019 at 5:11 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Murder mystery with graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 26, 2019
Copyright 2019 Lionsgate

You know those murder mysteries where a big rich family all gathers in a big gothic house and someone gets killed and everyone has a motive and we get a bunch of red herrings (often the initial suspect is the second murder victim) and then the detective gathers everyone in the drawing room at the end to lay out all of the possible scenarios and then point dramatically at the surprise perpetrator? Those mysteries are sometimes called “cozies.” “Knives Out” is both a loving tribute and a cheeky meta-take on this genre from writer/director Rian Johnson and an all-star cast clearly having the time of their lives. It is deliciously nasty, seasoned with some political jibes, a ton of fun and anything but cozy.

It takes place in a magnificently gothic mansion correctly described by a character as something out of a Clue game. The owner is wealthy mystery author Harlan Thromby (Christopher Plummer), his name a likely nod to the classic Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story. “Knives Out” is literal — there is a huge “Game of Thrones”-style ceremonial seat decorated with daggers — and metaphoric, as a family of unpleasant heirs needle each other as they strive for the patriarch’s favor, meaning his money.

Just after the family has gathered to celebrate his 85th birthday party, Thromby is found dead, his throat cut, an apparent suicide. The suspects are: his daughter Linda (Jamie Leigh Curtis), her husband Richard (Don Johnson), their son Ransom (Chris Evans), Thromby’s son Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs Thromby’s publishing company, Thromby’s daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), the widow of his late son and the proprietor of a pretentious “wellness” company, Thromby’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), the daughter of an undocumented immigrant. Other possible suspects include Harlan’s dotty mother Greatnana (K Callan), Walt’s wife Donna (Riki Lindhome), their alt-right teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Joni’s college-student daughter Meg (Katharine Langford of “13 Reasons Why”), and Fran the housekeeper (Edi Patterson). Thromby’s son, daughter, and daughter-in-law think of themselves as successful entrepreneurs but in reality they are subsidized by Thromby, who has no illusions about their business acumen or their expressions of affection.

A cop (Lakeith Stanfield) accompanied by a state trooper (Noah Segan) starts asking questions. And then one of the suspects asks a question: Who is the man who has been silently sitting in the back, listening to everything that is going on? It is legendary “last of the gentleman sleuths” private Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), whose ridiculous name is matched by his honey-dripping Southern drawl, compared by one character to the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn (a caricatured rooster inspired by the caricatured Senator Claghorn on the old Fred Allen radio show). The first mystery is that he does not know who hired him to be there. He just received an envelope with cash inside.

We get a chance to see some illuminating flashbacks that let us in on some of what has happened before the detectives or the family know. And we get to know them better, especially Marta, repeatedly referred to patronizingly by the family as “one of the family” but no one can seem to remember which Spanish-speaking country she and her family come from. Marta is of special value to Blanc because she is a human lie detector, at least about her own truthfulness. If she does not tell the truth, she involuntarily projectile vomits. (Really.) She has a few secrets that she is desperate to conceal, especially after a motive is revealed. Characters make and break alliances as it seems no one can be trusted, and what is revealed just shows us how much more we don’t know.  The twists and turns will keep you guessing until the end and the unexpected barbs of satire make this as delicious as the fictional Thromby’s best-sellers.

Parents should know that this is a murder mystery with some grisly and graphic images, some strong language, family conflicts, drinking and drugs.

Family discussion: Which character did you suspect and why? Why did Thromby make that decision about his fortune?

If you like this, try: the original “Murder on the Orient Express,” “And Then There Were None,” and Rian Johnson’s other genre-bending films “Looper” and “Brick”

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Posted on November 21, 2019 at 5:16 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some strong thematic material, a brief fight, and some mild language
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to substance abuse, drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Scuffles, punch, illness, sad death of a parent
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 21, 2019

Copyright TriStar Pictures 2019
The documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor is about Fred Rogers, the creator and star of the long-running PBS series Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” with Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, is about us. It is the very essence of heart-warming and inspiring. Anyone who watches it will be moved — and is almost guaranteed to be a kinder, happier, more open-hearted person at the end of the film. Rogers liked to ask people to think for a minute, a real sixty-second minute, about those who “loved us into being.” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” asks us that question, literally and in a deeply soul-searching way. And if we are honest, one of the people who comes to our minds will be Fred Rogers himself.

So, Rogers is not the story here. Instead, it is about the impact he had on one troubled adult, and what that means about and for each of us.

Based on the true story of journalist Tom Junod, who interviewed Rogers for a 1998 profile in Esquire, this film, by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster and directed by Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”), is about how the experience of interviewing, or, rather, attempting to interview Fred Rogers was transformational in the life of the reporter (here called Lloyd and played by Matthew Rhys).

Lloyd is a new father struggling with unresolved feelings of abandonment and anger at his own father (Chris Cooper). He is a hard-hitting, skeptical, investigative journalist, not accustomed to or comfortable with assignments to write fluffy features about the hosts of television shows for children. He is assigned to write about Mr. Rogers for the “heroes” issue of Esquire. But he is not someone who takes easily to the idea of heroes. Is his inclination to expose what prominent or influential people want to hide based in part on the father who let him down? Perhaps. But is that the right approach to Mr. Rogers? “Don’t ruin my childhood,” his wife warns. And when he asks Mr. Rogers about how he differs from the character he plays on television, the gentle clergyman-turned-unlikely-television-star genuinely does not understand the question. He cannot be anything other than what he is.

More important, he has a “compulsive intimacy” that prompted him to ask questions far more insightful and meaningful than the ones Lloyd was asking him to answer for the article.

Director Marielle Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster bring a lovely delicacy and an almost fairy tale quality to the story. At times it seems we are watching an episode of the series and then we see that the “real world” and the world of the show blend together — both the “real” home where Mr. Rogers changes into his cardigan and sneakers and feeds the fish and the “imaginary” world of the kingdom of Make Believe. Just as all of the characters on the show represent parts of Fred Rogers’ personality, the heart of the movie is integrating all of its worlds and emotions.

A story relies on some kind of change experienced by the main character. He or she has to lose something or learn something or complete something. Mr. Rogers was already so evolved that trying to make him the main character of a feature film would not have worked. So wisely the story here is about the effect Mr. Rogers had on one troubled soul, helping him to lose something, to learn something, and to complete something. And in doing so, it helps us locate some of the compulsive intimacy that makes Mr. Rogers’ viewers into friends who feel accepted, understood, and very lucky to be in his neighborhood.

NOTE: Look carefully at the other customers in the scene set in a Chinese restaurant, when Mr. Rogers and Lloyd are eating together. They are the real-life friends and family of Mr. Rogers, including his wife Joanne (played by Maryann Plunkett in the film) and his producer Bill Isler (played by Enrico Colantoni).

Parents should know that this movie includes frank depiction of family dysfunction with an adult son still resentful and angry about his father’s abandonment, drinking and drunkenness, a scuffle, terminal illness, and some mild language.

Family discussion: How would you answer Mr. Rogers’ questions? What did Lloyd learn from him?

If you like this, try; the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and the episodes of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” and my interview with the journalist whose article inspired the film and the men who wrote the screenplay.

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Playing with Fire

Posted on November 7, 2019 at 5:46 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude humor, some suggestive material and mild peril
Alcohol/ Drugs: Schoolyard language
Violence/ Scariness: Extended mayhem and action-style peril, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: Why is only the male child considered a potential smoke-jumper?
Date Released to Theaters: November 8, 2019
Copyright 2019 Paramount

I would not have thought it possible for one short film to have so many poop jokes and so many opportunities for the leading character to take his shirt off. Take that, people who say Hollywood never teaches us anything!

Was anyone really waiting for another version of “Mr. Nanny” (7% positive ratings on Rotten Tomatoes). I didn’t think so. And yet, here we are, with another WWE star playing off his ultra-alpha-male vibe with a cuddly comedy about how a super-macho guy finds his tender side by bonding with adorable children. Not a bad idea. If only they had a better script.

John Cena is a gifted comic actor, as we saw in “Trainwreck” and “Blockers.” So it is near-criminal to put him in a movie like this and give him nothing to do but glower, do silly dances, take his shirt off, and jut that lantern jaw. But that isn’t enough. It also under-uses the immensely talented cast, including Keegan-Michael Key as the loyal second in command, Judy Greer as a nearby scientist who has been on two and a half dates with Jake, John Leguizamo as a smokejumper who cooks everything with spam and makes up weirdly inapposite quotes, and Dennis Haysbert as a commanding officer). Brianna Hildebrand as the oldest of the rescued kids has been given a character with less range than she has in the “Deadpool” movies as angsty adolescent Negasonic Teenage Warhead.

Cena plays Jake Carson, who leads a group of smokejumpers, specialized wildland firefighters, who parachute into remote and rugged terrain. (See “Only the Brave,” based on a tragic true story for a more serious look.)  He literally grew up in the smokejumpers’ remote outpost because his mother died and his father was the supervisor. It is all he has ever known and all he has ever let himself care about. And now he has a chance at his dream job, overseeing the entire region. The current holder of that position, Commander Richards (Haysbert) has encouraged him to apply and has scheduled an inspection visit.

But Jake’s resolutely immaculate operation has been thrown into chaos. Half of his group has just defected to a more high-profile team. Jake has just rescued a teenager and her two young siblings and he can only release them to a parent or authorized guardian. And gosh darn it, those little nippers are always getting up to something, whether filling the garage with bubbles, or filling a diaper with, well, you know. Merry mayhem, followed by hugs. Did I mention that Jake says he never cried? And so he Googles “Is it bad if you’ve never cried?” This is not a movie that is going to let even the most inattentive audience member miss what it is telling us.   Key’s helpless responses to the teenager’s “Or what?”) smothered by clunky slapstick and lazy characterizations — the little girl has tea parties; all the smokejumpers are men and only the little boy is a potential fire fighter.  Even at 90 minutes, it drags, the few bright spots (some silly dances, Greer talking to the toads she has provided with a tiny lawn chair, the My Little Pony references until they over-do and then over-over-do it,

Parents should know that this is an action comedy with peril and action-style violence that may be too intense for younger children. There are references to the sad deaths of parents and the failures of the foster care system. Characters use schoolyard language and there is extended potty humor.

Family discussion: Why couldn’t Supe answer the question on the application? What is the toughest part about trying to balance work and family? Do you ever use sarcasm?

If you like this, try: “The Game Plan”

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JoJo Rabbit

Posted on October 24, 2019 at 5:46 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence, and language
Profanity: Strong and offensive language including anti-Semitic insults
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and disturbing peril and violence including a child injured in an explosion, wartime violence, bombs. guns, tragic deaths
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 25, 2019
Copyright Fox Searchlight 2019

The first thing you need to know is that writer/director Taika Waititi does not play HItler in “JoJo Rabbit,” and it does not portray the real Adolf Hitler as a comic figure. Waititi plays a child’s imaginary version of Hitler. He has more in common with Chris O’Dowd’s imaginary friend character in his very funny and endearing Moone Boy. In both, the adult male figure is a child’s idea of what a man is, or what he would like to be when he grows up. In the case of Jojo Rabbit, the nickname for the 10-year-old Austrian boy at the center of the film, he is especially in need of a role model because of the uncertainty in his own life and the upheavals that are all around him. So it makes sense that he would respond by clinging to something that seems strong and structured and certain. And that is why when we first see him, he is looking in the mirror to admire himself in his Hitler Youth uniform, very excited to learn all about becoming an active member of the Nazi party. His imaginary friend represents what he would like to be, but JoJo is a child, so to us, his version of Hitler is ten-year-old’s fantasy. Which means he is very silly.

I tell you all this because for the first half hour or so of “JoJo Rabbit” you might think you’re watching some sort of “Springtime for Hitler,” from “The Producers.” But it turns out that while “JoJo Rabbit” does portray the Nazis in a heightened, satiric, silly manner, this is not an insensitive or superficial film. But by the end, it wants to pack a wallop, as it should, and it does.

JoJo (Roman Griffin Davis, in a knockout of a performance) lives with his mother, Rosie (a career-best Scarlett Johansson, warm and witty). His father is off in the war but has not been heard from for a long while. JoJo and his best friend Yorki (Archie Yates) go off to Hitler Youth camp, led by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), assisted by Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). The other boys laugh at him when he cannot bring himself to kill a rabbit (prompting his derisive nickname), and so to prove his courage, urged on by the imaginary Hitler, he takes a risk that leads to his being injured in an explosion, leaving scars on his face. He cannot return to school, so Rosie takes him to the Hitler Youth office and insists that Klenzdorf give him a job.

And then something happens that turns JoJo’s ideas about strength, courage, and power upside down. His ideas about Jews, too, though that takes a while. Waititi handles the tonal shift with great skill, and by the end of the film, the heightened tone blends seamlessly with the surreal absurdity of war, making the conclusion as meaningful to us as it is to the characters.

Parents should know that this movie is set in the last months of WWII and has wartime violence including guns and bombs, portrayal of virulent and systemic anti-Semitism. A child is injured in an explosion and a parent is murdered. Characters use strong language, drink alcohol, and smoke.

Family discussion: Why did JoJo imagine Hitler as an imaginary friend? What made him change his mind about Elsa? Why didn’t Elsa tell him what she knew about the letters?

If you like this, try: Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows from the same writer/director. You may also enjoy satiric takes on war like “Oh, What a Lovely War,” “M*A*S*H,” and “King of Hearts.”

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The Addams Family

Posted on October 10, 2019 at 5:16 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for macabre and suggestive humor, and some action
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic/action peril and violence, car accident, explosions, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 11, 2019

Copyright 2019 MGM
My full review of this film is at rogerebert.com.

An excerpt:

There are about half a dozen bright spots in the new animated feature “The Addams Family,” but in between them is the unbright and unoriginal storyline about how the real monsters are the ordinary people, not the weird people.

Parents should know that this film includes monsters and peril. It is more funny-scary than scary-scary but there are some images that might disturb sensitive viewers, as well as comic/action-style peril with no one hurt, bullies, a neglectful parent, potty humor. Some may be disturbed by a casual portrayal of child who decides to live with a different family

Family discussion: Which characters are really scary? What does “assimilation” mean? What does your family do to recognize adulthood?

If you like this, try: “Hotel Translyvania,” “Igor,” and the “Addams Family” television books, series and films

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