The Hater

Posted on March 17, 2022 at 12:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, vaping marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations, oblique reference to suicide
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 18, 2022
Copyright Verizon Entertainment 2022

Newcomer Joey Ally takes on the challenge of writing, directing, and starring in her first film, “The Hater,” the story of a far-left political speechwriter who ends up running in a Republican primary in her a right-wing community. She is better as a writer than a director and better as a director than an actor, but the screenplay is strong enough to overcome some rookie mistakes.

Ally plays Dorothy, as in Oz, who is fired in the film’s first few minutes after a viral video appears to show her burning a flag at a demonstration. She has to leave Washington to return to a place she could not wait to get away from, her home town in Texas. Her grandfather (Bruce Dern in grumpy mode) is not happy to see her, but she reminds him that she is half-owner of the house, and he lets her in.

She tries to find a job with a progressive candidate or cause, but no one wants her. Then she sees that there is a primary coming up, and her childhood nemesis, Brent Hart (Ian Harding), is running unopposed. His father is a Senator. He twice took the local high school football team to State. He is handsome and personable. The Democrat who will run against him is a woman who has already lost three times. There seems to be no way to beat him.

Unless.. .If Dorothy runs against Brent and defeats him and then withdraws, according to local rules the Republican party cannot nominate anyone else, and so the Democrat could win. So, she goes out to collect some signatures to get on the ballot. It does not go very well until she accidentally goes viral again, this time for defeating an armed robbery in a convenience store. She looks like a gunslinger, but really it was just muscle memory from color guard in high school.

Dorothy’s one-time high school friend (Meredith Hagner), whose husband is deployed in the military, opposes Brent because he plans to tear down the community center where she works. So, she signs on as Dorothy’s campaign manager. And Glenn (D’Angelo Lacy), Dorothy’s best friend and roommate from Washington, shows up for a Red State make-under. Off with the nose ring. On with clothes from her late grandmother, picked from boxes in the attic.

The best thing about the movie is its refusal to make any character one-dimensional or completely unsympathetic, especially when we find our own expectations challenged.

NOTE: I have a connection to this movie because my daughter, Rachel Apatoff, was the costume designer. Needless to say, the costumes, which are an essential element of the film, are brilliant.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong language, discussion of abortion, and some drug use.

Family discussion: How did Dorothy shade the truth in her campaign comments? How did her father’s death affect her choices? Which character would you vote for?

If you like this, try: “Dick” and “In the Loop”

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Belfast

Posted on November 11, 2021 at 5:53 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-3 for strong language and some violence
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, mobs, sad death of a family member
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 1, 2021
Date Released to DVD: February 28, 2022
Copyright 2021 Focus

“Buddy! Buddy!” A boy is outside playing with his friends when he hears his mother is calling him home for dinner. He does not think anything of it except perhaps that it’s too bad the game has to stop or that he is hungry, but it is the kind of moment he will look back on as an adult as a moment of perfect safety and comfort, a time of feeling completely at home, supported by the family and the community, a feeling that the world makes sense. It is the kind of memory we come back to when we miss those feelings very much.

Sir Kenneth Branagh came back to those last golden moments of childhood, as many people did, during the Great Pause of the pandemic, when so many of us, even well past childhood, felt a new sense of uncertainty. And so he wrote and directed “Belfast,” based on those moments in his own life, when he was nine, and began to understand for the first time that the world can be a dangerous place.

He hears “Buddy! BUDDY!!” again, but this is not a “come home, where dinner is ready invitation from his mother. This is a sound of pure terror. Nine-year-old Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) lives on what was once a peaceful street in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but it has. become a center for unrest and violence due to The Troubles, the struggle between the Catholics and Protestants.

Branagh skillfully shows us the world through Buddy’s eyes, though we understand more than he does. Sometimes that is amusing. Sometimes it is heart-wrenching. Buddy’s parents are almost impossibly glamorous and beautiful, as we see through his idealized perspective, and because they are played by the gorgeous (and Irish) Jamie Dornan (Pa) and Caitriona Baize (Ma). Also in the family are grandparents played with asperity and a twinkle in the eye by Dame Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds.

Gorgeous black and white cinematography gives the film the quality of a timeless memory and there are flashes of color when the family sees some Hollywood movies like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Another film we get a glimpse of is more to the point, “High Noon.” Buddy’s family loves their home. But The Troubles are forcing everyone to take sides. Pa, whose travel for business has added to the strain has been offered a much better-paying job in England.

Branagh expertly mingles humor and drama, shooting us what Buddy sees but does not fully understand and the way that he gives equal curiosity and weight to all of the new information he is learning and all of the new emotions that he is feeling, including some romantic sentiments about a pretty classmate. The very gifted Hill conveys the purity of these first-time experiences with great simplicity and open-heartedness. Buddy’s story (and Branagh’s) is of a very specific place and time but the bittersweet end of childhood and beginning of deeper understandings is universal and told here with tenderness and compassion.

Parents should know that this movie includes scenes of mob violence with peril and injuries and the very sad death of a family member. Characters drink and smoke and use strong language.

Family discussion: Did the family make the right decision? If you made a movie about your childhood, what story would you tell?

If you like this, try: “The Journey,” about the two men who negotiated a resolution of The Troubles and “The Commitments,” about young Irish musicians forming a music group

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The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Posted on February 25, 2021 at 5:03 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Very strong language, n-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug abuse and addiction
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence including domestic violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 26, 2021

Copyright 2020 Lee Daniels Entertainment
Andra Day’s performance as Billie Holiday is never less than dazzling, one of those breakthrough moments that divide our lives as audience into before and after. The vulnerability, the courage, the utter commitment of her acting here, her first role, is simply stunning.

And nothing less could do for the portrayal of one of the most formidable performers of the 20th century. This movie could not work unless we saw what the audiences of the 40s and 50s saw, a singer who could break your heart and make you grateful for it.

In “Lady Sings the Blues,” one diva played another, with Diana Ross also outstanding in a traditionally-structured biopic, from childhood through her career, her struggles with drugs and alcohol, and abusive relationships. A recent documentary, “Billie,” used archival materials assembled in the 1970s by a biographer who died before she could complete the project. It has valuable insights from people who knew Holiday and saw her perform.

This movie, from Lee Daniels, is different because its focus is on just one part of Holiday’s life. Like “Judas and the Black Messiah,” this is the story of betrayal, and a conflicted source who cared about the person he was informing on.

Billie Holiday attracted the attention of J. Edgar Hoover because of a song. It was “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol, first published in 1937 as a poem called “Bitter Fruit.” He later added music. The “stronge fruit” hanging in the trees in the song’s lyrics are the dead bodies of Black people who have been lynched, murdered by a racist mob. “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.”

Holiday’s 1939 performance of the song is now a recognized classic and is included in the National Recording Registry, which “highlights the richness of the nation’s audio legacy.” But in 1939 lynching was considered so acceptable by government and media and culture they actually sold postcards showing bodies hanging. This was 15 years before the murder of Emmitt Till, a Black teenager from the North, led to calls for reform. And as of this writing, Congress has still been unable to pass an anti-lynching bill. So, telling the truth about lynching in a song was considered dangerous, and Hoover wanted to stop her.

One of the first Black FBI agents (“Moonlight’s” Trevante Rhodes as Jimmy Fletcher) is assigned to her case. The pressure he is under is almost as crushing as the pressure on Holiday. He has the all-but-impossible task of proving himself to skeptical and often racist colleagues. And he cannot help siding with what Holiday is doing and being mesmerized by her as well.

The storyline is murky at times. It is also soapy and melodramatic, but face it, Holiday’s life was as soapy and melodramatic as her songs. Through it all Day manages to be as magnetic as the formidable woman and powerful entertainer she is portraying. At any given moment, Day has to be precise about where Holiday is on her various journeys in and out of addiction to various substances, including the men in her life, and she makes it work every time. She shows us Holiday’s toughness and her vulnerability. And, with the help of glorious costumes from Paolo Nieddu (the hats!), she owns the screen. She owns her story.

Parents should know that this movie includes alcohol and drug abuse, nudity and sexual situations, domestic abuse, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Should the government get involved in artists’ songs, movies, plays, books, or tweets? What could Jimmy have done differently?

If you like this, try: “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Billie,” and “Judas and the Black Messiah”

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The Way I See It

Posted on September 18, 2020 at 11:01 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Historical events, including military action and school and church shootings
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 18, 2020

Copyright 2020 Jaywalker Films
Pete Souza proves and exemplifies two perennial adages: If a picture is worth a thousand words, the photographs of Pete Souza, are as eloquent as a whole library. And if journalism is the first draft of history, Souza not only reminds us of how much of our sense of events is formed by images like his, and in his new documentary, “The Way I See It,” like the photographs he took, reward a deeper look.

Pete Souza tells us he served as White House photographer to the most iconic Republican President, Ronald Reagan, and the most iconic Democratic President, Barack Obama, and that his inspiration was the work of his predecessors, including Cecil William Stoughton, John F. Kennedy’s photographer, and Yoichi Okamoto, who was Lyndon Johnson’s photographer. We see how revealing the photographs are, not just the images themselves but the way they reflect the Presidents, their personal style, their sense of history, their era, and what today we might call their brand. Presidents Reagan and Obama might both be iconic, but their approach to the photographs was very different. Reagan, coming from Hollywood, was acutely aware of image and messaging. In behind-the-scenes archival footage we see him with Nancy, coming up with what he thinks will be an appealing pose.

Obama, on the other hand, was more interested in an authentic portrait to bring Americans into his life. The one time he wanted to make sure a moment was captured for posterity was a very personal one; a successful block in a one-on-one basketball game with Reggie Love, his body man and friend, who was bigger and more experienced but not as competitive. Obama not only wanted a “jumbo” (the constantly updated photos selected for display through the White House); he wanted a signed admission from Love.

Souza did not think of himself as political, especially during his first stint at the White House. But after President Trump took office, Souza began responding to his most provocative tweets via Instagram posts from his archive of Obama images. He thus learned for the first time the term “throwing shade,” an understated but devastating counterpoint. His pictures took on a whole new meaning, leading to a book called Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents. A telling example is the well-known image of Obama and his advisors, including Hillary Clinton, in the situation room during the raid on Bin Laden’s hideout. The are all looking intently and with their full attention at the screen so they will not miss a second. The image Trump released from his situation room is posed, with him and his advisors facing the camera.

We hear from Obama-era advisors and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin but this is really Souza’s story, especially when we get to Obama’s pushing him to propose to his long-time girlfriend. “He wants everyone to be married,” Souza says, clearly reflecting on the warmth of the Obamas’ own relationship. Finally, the President made Souza an offer he could not refuse: a wedding in the Rose Garden, with Obama himself as an officiant. He does not say so, but he’s probably wishing he could have been the photographer as well as the groom.

This is a moving story of what it is like to be in the room where it happens, and to share that with the people who entrust the President with our lives and our freedom.

Parents should know that this film includes depiction of real-life tragedies, including school shootings and military actions.

Family discussion: What do we learn about each President’s personality and priorities in the photographs of the White House photographer? Did this movie change your mind about any of the Presidents it covered?

If you like this, try: Souza’s books

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Irresistible

Posted on June 25, 2020 at 5:21 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including sexual references
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: Cultural diversity a theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 26, 2020

Copyright Focus 2020
Jon Stewart swings for the fences with “Irresistible,” and you’ve got to respect that, even if he only hits a double. He has taken a whole bunch of what bothers him the most about our political system, not the fumbles, pettiness, missteps, and corruption of the individuals but the more systemic problems of money and messaging and he has tried to create a Preston Sturges/Armando Iannucci-style movie that uses humor to illuminate. Sharp one-liners and a top-notch cast come close to making the characters human enough to be interesting but they are still two-dimensional. And some uncertainty of tone throws the movie off-kilter when it shifts from slightly heightened to over the top. When it leaps so far outside the bounds of the real, it undermines its best scrutiny of what is actually happening. I live inside the Washington DC beltway and exposes of political abuse are my jam, so I enjoyed it, but even I thought it made some unfortunate blunders.

The opening is promising, with Steve Carell as Gary, a Democratic political strategist and Rose Byrne as Faith, a Republican political strategist, in the post Clinton/Trump “spin rooms,” where each team tries to explain to reporters why their candidate was brilliant and definitively trounced the other side. But what we get to hear is what’s inside their heads. Gary says he will persuade them “as long as I say it repeatedly and with confidence,” and Faith concludes, “I look forward to lying to you in the future.” We get it. They’re there to win, not to be honest. But Gary was probably being honest when he predicted that Clinton would win. He was just wrong. And so for his professional future and possibly for the good of the country, he has to get his credibility back and he has to figure out how to communicate with the “rust belt blue wall” he thought was “impenetrable” until Trump got a lot of those votes and won the electoral college.

He sees a chance to prove himself when a video of a Deerlaken, Wisconsin city council meeting goes viral due to an impassioned speech by a local farmer, a retired Marine named Jack (Chris Cooper), speaking out plainly but eloquently on behalf of immigrants in his community. Gary tells the Democratic party leaders that “this square-jawed paragon of Americana is our key back to the Forbidden City. He’s a Democrat, but just doesn’t know it yet.” He thinks if he brings his national-level political expertise to a small town in Wisconsin, he can persuade Jack to run for mayor, get him elected, and “road-test a more rural-friendly message” in a place he refers to as “the middle of nowhere” he can re-invigorate progressive messaging and, by the way, his own career. So, he fires up the private jet and checks out what Wikipedia has to say about Wisconsin. In real life, he would have a ton of data in a briefing package, but it’s more fun to make him look like a big city doofus.

Jack agrees to run, the race gets some national media attention, and so Faith arrives, to make sure that they do not break the city’s record of not electing a Democrat since Robert LaFollette (Governor 1901-1906). In Stewart’s view, the only issue anyone cares about is the power of the parties; any specifics are about leverage, with no more focus on reproductive health or even the immigration issue that Jack spoke about in the viral video than on gaffes and embarrassing secrets about opposing candidates. It’s just about votes. The weakest part of the film is the blaming of the consultants who are the symptom (okay, a truly unpleasant one), not the disease. The movie very briefly touches on the funding issue, with stand-ins for the Kochs and a generic, literally high-tech billionaire with just one issue literally half a world away from Wisconsin and a scene at a Manhattan fund-raiser but barely addresses the real and most democracy-destabilizing problem of dark money and Citizens United. The small reference to super PACS, with a winking nod to “non-coordination” deserved more attention.

It’s fun to watch because it has a great cast and clever dialogue and more substance than most feature films. But it is a disappointment that someone who has such a deep understanding of American politics goes for cheap laughs about clueless big city folks not understanding the folks in the heartland instead of looking at the less-examined obstacles at least equally rich in potential for satire. The movie has at least four different endings, and at least three of them seem to undercut the point the film is trying to make. Stewart makes the same mistake Faith and Gary do; he condescends to his audience.

Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language and very crude sexual references.

Family discussion: Which candidate would you vote for and why? Would you ever run for office? What changes in the system is this movie promoting and what changes would you suggest?

If you like this, try: the documentaries “Slay the Dragon” (about the fight against gerrymandering in Wisconsin and other states) and “Primary” (about John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey campaigning against each other in Wisconsin for the Democratic nomination for President) and “Welcome to Mooseport,” with Gene Hackman as a former President who runs for mayor in a small town in Maine.

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