The Last Full Measure

Posted on January 23, 2020 at 5:41 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for war violence and language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, medication
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic and disturbing images of wartime violence, characters injured and killed, veterans with PTSD, medical issues
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 24, 2020

Copyright 2019 Roadside Attractions
The story of the exceptional valor of Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger in one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, and the story of the thirty-year effort by the men he saved to see that he received recognition with a posthumus Medal of Honor are plenty dramatic, so it really wasn’t necessary to ramp it up with fictional details about a cover-up. And even an AARP A-list in the cast, including Ed Harris, Christopher Plummer, Diane Ladd, John Savage, Amy Madigan, Samuel L. Jackson and Peter Fonda, each with a chance at a bravura star turn, cannot match the clips over the final credits of the real-life veterans who would not quit until his valor was acknowledged. He ie one of only three Air Force enlisted men to be awarded the Medal of Honor in military history.

So a documentary about what really happened would have been better. Instead we have a diligent, well-intentioned, if overheated story that is as much about the (fictional) Defense Department staffer who was assigned to investigate the application for the Medal of Honor, Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), and the lessons he learned from contact with the honor and courage of Pitsenbarger, his parents (Plummer and Ladd), and the humble but insistent men who would not quit.

The movie goes back and forth between 1966 Vietnam and 1995 Washington DC. In Vietnam, Pitsenbarger was an Air Force pararescueman, not in a combat company himself but part of a team that evacuated wounded soldiers via helicopter. In one of of the bloodiest days of the war (meaning highest US casualty count), when the Americans were being slaughtered, he rescued wounded men at great risk to his own life and then picked up a gun and fought alongside them, until he was shot and killed. These scenes are extremely violent and graphic and often hard to follow, especially since there is no effort to make the younger versions of the characters played by Fonda, Harris, Jackson, and Savage look or sound like their counterparts.

In 1995 Washington, DC, Huffman (a fictional character) is an ambitious Defense Department civilian bureaucrat with a young son and a pregnant wife (neither of whom serve any function in the story except to be adorable and supportive, with one brief pep talk. His career is in jeopardy when the political appointee who serves as Secretary of the Air Force (Linus Roache) announces that he is resigning (and yet somehow still in the job what looks like a year later at the award ceremony but okay). And when he is assigned to develop a record for the medal application, including interviewing eye witnesses and tracking down mysteriously missing paperwork.

None of this is true (and by the way, the wives of the veterans whose lives were saved also played a significant part in getting the medal), but it makes for good drama, giving each of the venerable co-stars a moment suitable for a lifetime achievement clip real. They fall at different points on the range of PTSD, but all of them end up confessing and achieving some kind of catharsis. It is poignant to see the clearly ailing Peter Fonda in his last role as the most fragile of the group. And it is a little bit surreal to see John Savage of “The Deer Hunter” back in Vietnam 42 years later. Not the “Kurtz-ian burnout smoking ganja under a bohdi tree” that Huffman imagined but someone who found peace by bringing peace to others. Ladd’s monologue about sending her teenage son to war is also a highlight, and a welcome reminder that when we say no to sending our children into battle it just means we are sending someone else’s children in their place.

It is artificial and awkward. but thankfully it does not try to make the purpose of Pitsenbarger’s story into a life lesson for a fictional civilian. A moving award ceremony at the end reminds that the purpose of any hero’s story is to give a life lesson to us.

Parensts should know that this movie includes scenes of the Vietnam war with very graphic wartime violence and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, veterans with PTSD, strong language, and smoking.

Family discussion: How did Scott change as he spoke to the veterans? What did he learn about listening from Kepper? What kind of medal would you like to earn?

If you like this, try: “Hacksaw Ridge” and “We Were Soldiers”

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Lucy in the Sky

Posted on October 3, 2019 at 12:34 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual content
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and threats of violence, gun
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 4, 2019

In 2007 a female astronaut furiously jealous because the male astronaut she was sleeping with was also sleeping with someone else, drove from Texas to Florida with the intention of attacking the other woman. “Lucy in the Sky” tells us it is inspired by a true story, and while it draws some of its details from what really happened, there is very little inspiration evident on screen.

Copyright Fox Searchlight 2019

Natalie Portman plays Lucy Cola, who has made up for the chaos and dysfunction of her family by being competitive and ultra-capable. Her mother drank, her father was a deadbeat, her brother is an irresponsible single dad who disappears now and then, leaving his teenage daughter with Lucy and her husband (Dan Stevens). Lucy is intensely competitive, always keeping her eye on triumphing over whatever challenge is next. “You’ll just have to work harder,” the grandmother who raised her (Ellen Burstyn) advises, and we can tell that is her standard advice. She has succeeded at everything because she refuses to stop until she does.

We first see her floating in space. Ordered to return to the ship, she insists on a little more time to absorb the vastness of the universe. (With “Ad Astra,” this is the second film in a month to show us a personal and existential crisis in outer space.)

On her return, Lucy is in that most mundane of ordinary tasks, waiting in the carpool lane to pick up her niece at school. She has a routine debriefing with a counselor (Nick Offerman) who gently asks her whether the experience was disturbing. He quotes Apollo 11’s Michael Collins, who wept as he piloted the rocket behind the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their historic landing. He was “consumed by darkness” and said he was profoundly alone. “It’s hard to put into words,” Lucy says. But she liked it and wants to go back.

He urges her to take a break. “Can you stop?” But she only knows how to achieve mission objectives. Without a fixed mission, her mind starts spinning.

And then, another astronaut invites her to go bowling with others in “the club” — those who have looked at Earth from outer space and have had their perspective permanently changed. He is Mark Goodwin (Jon Hamm), recently separated and a bit of a mess, unlike Lucy’s stable, sweet, hand-holding-grace-before-meals husband (Dan Stevens). They have an affair. And then things spin out of control. And so does the movie.

There might be an intriguing story here about how seeing things from a — literally — broader perspective could make someone rethink choices and priorities or how the pressure of being perfect can stem from deep insecurities which can cause distortion and collapse. This film touches on all of that but we keep being distracted by Portman’s efforts at a cornpone accent, some camera tricks with the aspect ratio of the frame, and shifts in tone. The actors do their considerable best, but at times they seem to be acting in different movies. The overly cutesy idea of naming the character Lucy so that The Beatles song can play on the soundtrack is jarring and out of place.

The story could have made a pretty good Lifetime television film, a soapy melodrama starring some third-tier actors. Instead, it is an awkward, wildly uneven film that shoots for the stars — quite literally — and falls far short.

Parents should know that this film include very strong language, some peril and threats of violence, sexual references and a brief explicit situation.

Family discussion: Why was Lucy so different from her parents and brother? How did being in space affect her? What did it mean to be “in the club?”

If you like this, try: “Ad Astra” and “The Martian”

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Hustlers

Posted on September 12, 2019 at 5:57 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive sexual material, drug content, language and nudity
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and scuffles, very risky behavior
Diversity Issues: Gender issues
Date Released to Theaters: September 13, 2019
Date Released to DVD: December 9, 2019

Copyright 2019 STX Films
I’m not excusing any crimes, I promise, but I have to begin with this: four strippers received harsher sentences for slipping mickeys to rich Wall Street guys and taking their money than any rich Wall Street guys got for crashing the economy.

Talented writer/director Lorene Scafaria (“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” “The Meddler,” “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”) has made an honest but warmly sympathetic look at the real-life story of small-time crooks who decided to design their own form of retributive justice and also steal some money. “Hustlers” is more about their friendship than their crimes, and she tells the story of women who are objectified as a job without letting us objectify them, which is not easy but which is very important.

That begins with a superb cast: producer Jennifer Lopez as Ramona, the maternal ringleader, “Crazy Rich Asians” star Constance Wu as Destiny, the vulnerable newcomer, “Riverdale’s” Lili Reinhart as Annabelle, the soft-hearted girl with the weak stomach, and Keke Palmer as Mercedes, who is practical except about her boyfriend. The supporting cast includes breakthrough singer Lizzo and stripper-turned-pop-phenomenon Cardi B. Julia Stiles plays the reporter who is interviewing Ramona and Destiny five years later.

At the club, the strippers must pretend to be fascinated by men who want them to be obedient fantasy figures, and they must pretend not to mind when the men who run the club insist on kickbacks. Their job is to get the men to spend as much money as possible, for drinks and for special services in the private rooms.

Destiny, who is caring for the grandmother who took her in when she was abandoned by her mother, asks Ramona for advice on how to be more successful in the club. Ramona takes her in — literally. In a sweet scene on the roof of the club, the kind-hearted veteran invites the shivering newcomer to snuggle inside her fur coat. After a few lessons on pole dancing and lap dancing, Destiny begins to do better, and she is happy with the new sisterhood that feels like a family. It is the go-go hears of the derivatives era on Wall Street, and there is a lot of money to be made from the finance types that the women shrewdly categorize by net worth and vulnerability.

After the financial meltdown, though, things get tough. By then, Destiny has a baby, and with no education or experience, her options are limited. And so, it seems smart, not wrong, to go just one tiny extra step over the line to get money from men who got away with so much more. And so, they start slipping a sprinkle of MDMA and ketamine into their drinks, then running up charges on their credit cards. Pretty soon, they decide, in Marxian terms, to own the means of production and stop giving so much of the take to the club. As Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin sang, the sisters were doin’ it for themselves. A very merry Christmas at Ramona’s apartment features luxury goods under the tree and the makeshift family as grateful and loving as any Hallmark movie finale, if Hallmark movies featured chinchilla coats and red-soled Louboutin stilettos.

Like any successful small business, the women face the challenge of scalability. They want more, so they bring in newcomers who create risk. All good things must come to an end, and usually that applies to bad things as well.

Scafaria gives us some glitz and glitter and thumping music to entice by (Lopez does a remarkable pole dance). But Scafaria wisely adds some classical themes to the score when the ladies are outside of the club, literally underscoring the bigger picture of this story. The focus here is on the characters and their relationships, doing their best to take care of their families, both the ones by birth and the ones by choice, and it is hard not to feel ourselves a part of their family by the joy in that once last dance.

Parents should know that this film includes male and female nudity and sexual situations, strippers, drinking and drug use, strong language, and some peril and violence.

Family discussion: What surprised you about these characters? How did they create the families they wished they had?

If you like this, try: “The Big Short” and the New York Magazine story about the real-life case that inspired this film

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The Mustang

Posted on March 28, 2019 at 5:45 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, some violence and drug content
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug dealing and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, animal abuse, discussion of domestic abuse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 29, 2019
Date Released to DVD: June 10, 2019
Copyright Focus Features 2019

Prisoner Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) uncomfortable in his orange Department of Corrections jumpsuit, uncomfortable in a room with another person, uncomfortable in his own skin, does not answer when the other person, Connie Britton as a counselor, asks him a hypothetical question about how he would respond to seeing a woman he loved kissing someone else. She tries something less hypothetical, asking for his thoughts about his years in isolation and how he feels about being re-integrated into the general prison population. “I’m not good with people,” he says, and we can see he is right.

And so, Roman is assigned to shovel manure. The prison participates in the federal government’s program to train wild horses so they can be sold. As we see in the film’s opening scenes, it is thrilling to see the wild horses race across gorgeous natural settings, the embodiment of the American spirit of freedom and like a whole verse of their own from “America the Beautiful.” But there are too many of them even for the 29 million acres across ten states, and so some are captured every year. Many of them are put down. But some are given to prisoners so they can learn skills that will help them after they leave. The prisoners tame the horses, which are then sold, many to the government itself for border patrol.

Nothing could be more natural than prisoners relating to angry, terrified wild horses in cages. Because he is so uncooperative, insisting that he does not get along with people, he is assigned the job of shoveling manure.  But that brings him to where the horses are, horses that once were wild and are now confined to cages.  Roman is drawn, naturally, to the angriest and most terrified of all.

Henry (Jason Mitchell of “Straight Outta Compton”) is one of the inmates who works with the horses, his superior status indicated in the privilege of wearing denim instead of prison orange. He and the civilian head of the horse training program, Myles (Bruce Dern in full grizzle mode) decide to give Roman a chance. But that means Roman will have to learn patience and gentleness. A man whose body and soul have been clenched for as long as he can remember has to learn to relax his shoulders to encourage the horse to calm down.

And that means he has to actually be relaxed, because the horse will know.  You can’t pretend. Just as Roman gentles the horse, the horse gentles him. And he goes from being a man who almost sat down at the wrong table when his daughter came to visit because he had no idea what she looked like to someone who for the first time is able to tell her how he feels.

Actress turned first-time director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre has a real eye for lyrical images and a gift for casting actors of exceptional skill.  Schoenaerts, a Belgian actor who has shown a rare gift for supporting performances of quiet power in films like “A Bigger Splash” and “Far from the Madding Crowd”  shows a great deal by seemingly doing very little. He is extraordinary in the emotional scene with Roman’s daughter (an excellent Gideon Adlon), but he is just as extraordinary in the scenes with the horse and when he is at last permitted the honor of wearing denim. Mitchell, in a small role, continues to be one of the most appealing performers of his generation with enormous charm.

The script wavers at times, and audiences should know that despite the involvement of Robert Redford, who played the horse whisperer, this is not the Hallmark movie version of the story. But Clermont-Tonnerre is a gifted filmmaker and the performances she whispered from her cast make Mustang an impressive debut.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, drug dealing and drug use, description of violence, including domestic violence, animal abuse, peril and violence.

Family discussion: Why was Roman drawn to Marquis?  How did working with Marquis make Roman want to talk to his daughter?

If you like this try: “Greenfingers,” starring Clive Owen and Helen Mirren, also based on the true story of prisoners who find purpose in a special program, this one gardening and the documentary “Dogs on the Inside” about a prisoners training guide dogs.

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Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Inspired by a true story movie review Movies

Miss Bala

Posted on January 31, 2019 at 5:33 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of gun violence, sexual and drug content, thematic material, and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealing, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended crime and law enforcement-related peril and violence, guns and shoot-outs, knives, bombs, rape, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 31, 2019
Date Released to DVD: April 29, 2019

Copyright 2018 Columbia Pictures
Miss Bala” is a serviceable action thriller but very much the Hollywood version. In real life, a beauty queen named Laura Zúñiga (her title was “Our Sinaloa Beauty”) was arrested with seven members of a Mexican drug and weapons crime operation. Her story became a Mexican film, also called Miss Bala, which portrayed her as a kidnap victim, forced to work with the La Estrella gang to protect her family.

The American remake is closer to Pam Grier’s “Foxy Brown” or Tarantino’s “Death Proof” than to the real story, where the beauty queen did not fire a gun in stilettos and a red evening gown with a slit up the leg. The woman in the dress is “Jane the Virgin‘s” stars Gina Rodriguez as Gloria, a makeup artist from California, an American citizen who returns to her original home in Tijuana to help her best friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) look her best in the Miss Baja California beauty pageant. Gloria loves Suzu and her little brother Chava (Sebastián Cano), who are the closest she has to a family. And Suzu seems to be missing some red flags about the pageant, unconcerned about rumors that the local sheriff insists on droit de seigneur privileges with each year’s winner. A pre-competition party is interrupted by a shoot-out. Gloria is almost killed, but won’t take her opportunity to get away because she stays to look for Suzu. She tells a man in uniform that she can identify the killers, but he turns out to be working for them. He takes her to the leader of the group, Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), who tells her that if she helps them, he will find Suzu for her.

So Gloria finds herself getting more and more caught up in the terrifying world of warring drug dealers. At first, she is a numb patsy who follows Lino’s directions to park a car by a building, but then it turns out it was packed with a bomb and used to blow up a safe house operated by the US DEA. Desperate to find Suzu and protect Chava, the follows his orders, transporting drugs and cash across the border into California and bringing back guns. The DEA brings her in and threatens her with prison or worse if she does not cooperate. The pressure is intense and the consequences are immeasurably tragic. Lino is suspicious, but also drawn to Gloria, because he, too, has been considered too Mexican to be American and too American to be Mexican. Gloria has to try to navigate between fear and something approaching loyalty while keeping in mind the single driving force of her commitment to rescuing Suzu.

Rodriguez has said in interviews that she insisted on giving Gloria more agency, making her more active, doing whatever a male character in those situations would do, all of which is salutary, but it goes so far it becomes cartoonish.

Almost everyone who worked on this film on screen and off is Latinx, which is also salutary, though the fact that the first major studio film to make that a goal has to be about the most obvious possible stereotype of Latinx characters.

Parents should know that this is a close-to-R PG-13, with themes of sex and drug trafficking, intense peril and violence, guns, knives, bombs, shoot-outs, many characters injured and killed, rape (off-camera), and some strong language.

Family discussion: How did Gloria decide what to do in the parking lot? What do you think she will do next?

If you like this, try: the original Spanish-language version of the story with the same title, and “2 Fast 2 Furious”

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Action/Adventure Crime DVD/Blu-Ray Inspired by a true story movie review Movies Remake
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