Motherless Brooklyn

Posted on October 31, 2019 at 5:37 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including guns, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 1, 2019
Copyright 2019 Warner Brothers

“Motherless Brooklyn” is the affectionate (really) nickname given to Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) by the only person to treat him kindly, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Lionel grew up in an orphanage where his odd tics and compulsions made him the target of bullies who called him a freak. Minna, a private detective, saw something in Lionel, saw that the same compulsions that others found jarring would make him valuable as a close observer who would not be able to rest until he solved the mystery. “A piece of my head broke off and keeps joyriding me for kicks,” he says. But”if there’s one thing my pain in the ass brain knows how to do it is how to listen and remember things.”

Writer/director/star Edward Norton adapted Jonathan Lethem’s prize-winning book, shifting its setting from the 1990’s to the 1950’s, with an intricate “Chinatown”-like storyline of betrayal, corruption, and money. Alec Baldwin plays Moses Randolph, a character clearly inspired by “master builder” Robert Moses, who remade the face, footprint, and culture of New York City. He was never elected to office but held as many as twelve titles in city government, overseeing the construction of highways, parks, and bridges. We first see Baldwin as Randolph striding into a meeting and contemptuously ordering the mayor to give him authority over pretty much everything. How this will all tie into the murder of Frank Minna is what Lionel will have to find out. And there’s a beautiful woman with a secret, as there always is in a noir story. Here is is Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), working to protect the people who are being displaced, with an unexpected additional connection to the story.

Norton’s narration and twitchy performance immerse us in what he sees and what he is looking for and the outstanding production design by Beth Mickle and superbly moody core by Daniel Pemberton immerse us in post WWII New York. We can almost smell the luxurious leather on the books and chairs in an office with a fabulous view of the city to the old Penn Station to a smoky jazz joint in a black neighborhood. And the murkiness of the settings and the sinuous, boundary-crossing music emphasize the ambiguities faced by the characters.

Unlike most stories distorted by power and corruption, Randolph is not lining his own pockets. He argues that he is doing what’s best for the city — building bridges that make it possible for employers to have access to people who live outside of Manhattan, parks and beaches to give residents something more than jobs to attract them. So, if he has to cut some corners, displace poor people, and bury some secrets and maybe a couple of bodies, isn’t that just what it takes to get things done? “As long as you’re the guy who built the parks, you’re with the angels.” At least to some people. Norton, whose grandfather was a developer with an excellent reputation for integrity and public spiritedness, is very aware of the conflicts involved in “gentrification” and choosing between protection and honoring the old and improving with the new, between an orderly process that gives everyone a chance to participate and a bureaucratic tangle that prevents any progress.

This has been a labor of love for Norton, who has worked on and off for 20 years to bring Lethem’s characters to the screen. In only his second film (after “Keeping the Faith”) as a director, he brings an assured understanding of structure and tone. In one especially compelling scene, Lionel finds that a jazz performance connects with the rhythms of his brain and we see what it is like for him to experience a sense of home. The story itself is like a jazz performance, improvisation based in deep understanding and skill.

Parents should know that this is a noir-esque murder mystery with extended peril and characters who are injured and killed, some graphic and disturbing images, bullying, strong language, drinking, smoking, drugs, and sexual references and a a non-explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: How does Lionel turn his challenges into a strength? What matters most to Moses Randolph? Who is referred to with the quote from Shakespeare about using a giant’s strength like a tyrant?”

If you like this, try: “Chinatown” and classic noir films like “The Woman in the Window” and “Touch of Evil”

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Posted on October 31, 2019 at 5:29 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets
Profanity: Strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Intense violence including brutal abuse of enslaved and free people, references to rape, guns, wartime violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 1, 2019
Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in HARRIET, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

There should have been a movie about Harriet Tubman decades ago. And yet, this moment is just right, because the story of the woman who led more than 70 enslaved people to freedom and was the first woman to lead an armed expedition for the U.S. Army was made at a time when it could be written and directed by Kasi Lemmons and star Cynthia Erivo, who is nothing less than electrifying in the role.

Harriet Tubman was a name she chose. Born to enslaved parents on a plantation in Maryland, she was called Minty, short for Araminta. Although her family was supposed to have been freed by the terms of the plantation owner’s will, his widow (Jennifer Nettles as Eliza) and son (Joe Alwyn as Gideon) refuse to acknowledge their right to freedom. Minty marries a free man she dearly loves. But when Gideon plans to “sell her down the river” to the Deep South, as he had sold her siblings, Minty decides she has to run away, no matter what the risk. She has no map, and if she did have one she could not read it. What she had was determination, the ability to run fast, the North Star, and an innate sense that helped her to elude her would-be captors.

That innate sense is part of Tubman’s legend. She had some kind of seizure disorder, probably the result of a horrific beating from the plantation owner. She thought it was a connection to God. Whatever it was, she was able to make it to safety in Philadelphia, where she met free black people of culture and accomplishment, including William Still, and Marie (the exquisitely gracious Janelle Monáe), a fictional character inspired by Tubman’s real-life friend. Her choice of a new name and her introduction to the possibilities of freedom are movingly portrayed.

But she cannot rest until her husband can join her. And so, she makes the treacherous trip back. That trip does not turn out as she intended, but it gives her a new purpose; giving other enslaved people a chance to be free.

Erivo is incandescent in the role, one of the great performances of the year in a story that is as vital as history as it is timely.

Parents should know that this is a film about slavery and escape and war, so there is extended peril and violence, including beatings, attacks, and abuse with references to rape. There is a Civil War battle scene. Characters drink and use strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Harriet Tubman choose that name? What name would you choose? Who is most like her today?

If you like this, try: “Glory” and Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation”

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Terminator: Dark Fate

Posted on October 31, 2019 at 5:15 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence throughout, language and brief nudity
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Pharmaceutical drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Extended very strong violence, many characters injured and killed, graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 1, 2019

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2019
Can we please send someone back from the future to suggest that we really do not need any more Terminator movies?

Okay, I have to admit it’s pretty entertaining. The action scenes are fun and there are some good characters. It’s nice to have the original Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) back. It’s not bad; it’s just unnecessary. And its very unnecessariness makes it ordinary and that retroactively diminishes the quality of the ground-breaking original and the first sequel.

It’s like they ran the first film through a slightly broken copier machine (not a scanner) and what came out was fuzzy and off-kilter. So, from the first movie: a terminator comes back to the present day from the future with immeasurable powers of strength, speed, and strategy, and, most important, total tunnel vision, complete, implacable, single-mindedness. There is no plea, no bribe, no argument possible. The only hope, and it is a slim one, is escape.

From the second movie: someone else comes back from the future to protect the vulnerable target of the new Terminator. This time, though, it is an enhanced or augmented human, a kind of souped-up cyborg. What makes this interesting is that we do not exactly know what her powers are (also interesting that she is a female), but we quickly learn that she has some significant vulnerabilities. Her name is Grace (a terrific Mackenzie Davis, outstanding both in the action and the acting departments). She is enhanced for a sprint, not a marathon; she is very powerful in short, intense spurts, but if the fighting or running away is too prolonged she will urgently need a collection of powerful pharmaceuticals.

And Grace will not tell us (until a crucial plot point) why the young woman she is protecting is so important. That young woman is Dani (Natalia Reyes). And, this chapter’s smartest and strongest element, our old friend from the first film is back, Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, and if there is ever an Oscar for being amazingly fit, they should give it to her and retire the trophy. Hamilton is the star of the show here, clearly enjoying being an action hero who is more than a little deranged (see “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” for this part of the origin story). She even gets to say, wait for it, “I’ll be back.”

On the other hand, you-know-who is also back, Arnold Schwarzenegger as our old friend the T-800 (I will not dwell on why a robot ages), and when he says, wait for it, “I won’t be back,” it is too much of a wink at the audience.

We do not really have time to object, though, because there’s another chase, another battle, another what-are-we-trying-to-be-Fast-and-Furious-umpteen-here set piece to enjoy. Davis is great. Hamilton is awesome. There are some thrill-ride moments. But if you go, you might wish someone came back from the future to tell you to rent the first one again instead.

Parents should know that this film includes extended very strong violence, many characters injured and killed, graphic and disturbing images, strong language, pharmaceutical drugs, and brief non-sexual nudity.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Grace tell the truth about Dani earlier? How do Sarah Connor’s actions change the future and what does not change? How are Sarah and Dani different?

If you like this, try: the other Terminator movies

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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 Current War: Director’s Cut

Posted on October 24, 2019 at 5:35 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some violent content and thematic elements
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Flashback to Civil War scene with guns, animals and humans electrocuted, discussion of "humane" executions, sad death of wife and mother, tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: Anti-immigrant prejudice
Date Released to Theaters: October 25, 2019
Copyright 101 Studios 2019

There’a a saying usually attributed to Balzac: “Behind every fortune is a crime.” There is a fairy tale quality to stories of people who have exciting new ideas that change our lives and are rewarded with unimaginable fortunes, from the grad students who created Google to the garage tinkerers who founded Hewlett-Packard and the college dropouts who created Microsoft and Facebook.

But as any business school student knows, it takes more than a brilliant or even a monumentally disruptive idea to create a business. That requires the ability to execute. It is one set of skills to jot down great thoughts in a notebook but another set entirely to bring it all to life. It takes courage, because ordinary people are afraid of anything new and people who are invested in the old ways will try to stop you. And it takes a singular purpose that looks a lot like ruthlessness. That is the story “The Current War,” which is not as much about the inventions that transformed America from being lit by gas lamps and candles to being lit and powered by electricity as it is about the control of those inventions and the fortunes they made.

The three major players are America’s greatest inventor, Thomas Alva Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), entrepreneur and engineer George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), and visionary Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult). Also in the mix is one of the wealthiest men in the world, J.P. Morgan (Matthew McFayden) and the current Spider-Man, Tom Holland, as Edison’s aide Samuel Insull.

At the center of their battle is the fight over what kind of electricity will be used, Edison’s lower voltage direct current, which was safer but more limited in range, and the Tesla/Westinghouse alternating current, which travelled over longer distances, was powerful enough to fuel machinery as well as light bulbs, but was also more dangerous, potentially fatal. (Now you know what AC/DC means and how the Australian rock group got its name and why their first album was named High Voltage.)

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon avoids the too-often stuffy quality of prestige historical dramas with refreshingly dynamic camerawork from DP Chung-hoon Chung (“The Handmaiden,” “Stoker”) and editing by Justin Krohn and David Trachtenberg. The opening shots are as striking as any you’d find in an art-house or superhero movie, blowing the dust off of the idea that movies set in the past have to be stodgy to be taken seriously. The script by Michael Mitnick packs a lot of developments and details into the story, from the illness of Edison’s wife to the conflicts (and jealousy) between the talent and the money to the shifting loyalties and various strategic maneuvers (legal and illegal), some as complex as the engineering specs for the various contraptions. One fascinating detour reminds us that as soon as new technology is invented, someone will try to figure out a way to use it to kill people (it was still so new there was no word for electrocution). Another reminds us of the connection between the characters on screen and the very technology we use to tell their story.

“The Current War: Director’s Cut” places the human drama in the midst of cultural and technological shifts and shows us how they affect and are affected by each other. Vivid, compelling characters, smart, witty dialogue, and a cherry-on-the-top ending making this film not just enjoyable, but, yes, illuminating.

NOTE: The official title of this film includes the words “Director’s Cut” because after it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival its release was put on hold because Harvey Weinstein (the distributor) was caught up in the #metoo accusations. The version shown at the festival was re-cut by Weinstein and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon was not happy with that version. Martin Scorsese came on as a producer to make sure he was able to release the version he wanted.

Parents should know that this film include the sad illness and death of wife and mother, offscreen murder and execution, electrocutions of people and animals, Civil War scenes with shooting, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What is a bigger factor in success — having the best idea or being able to put it into practice — or wanting to win above all? What is Edison’s most important invention? Why did Elon Musk name his company Tesla?

If you like this, try: two biopics about Edison, “Young Tom Edison” with Mickey Rooney and “Edison the Man” with Spencer Tracy

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