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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Blinded by the Light

Posted on August 15, 2019 at 5:35 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material and language including some ethnic slurs
Profanity: Some strong language including racist terms
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, racist attacks
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 16, 2019
Date Released to DVD: November 18, 2019

Copyright 2019 Warner Brothers
If we’re lucky, some time in August, as the big blockbusters of July taper off, we get a heartwarming little indie film to brighten the end of the summer. This year we are very lucky. The film is “Blinded by the Light,” set in Thatcher-era England, where the teenage son of Pakistani immigrants heard a song that seemed to explain the world to him. More than that, it explained him to himself. The song was by someone who was not British, Pakistani, or a teenager, but to Sarfraz Manzoor, New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen understood him better than anyone he knew.

Around the same time, Gurinder Chadha, the daughter of Indian immigrants in England, was also listening to Springsteen. Manzoor became a journalist whose memoir about his love for Springsteen (Greetings from Bury Park) then inspired Chadha, the director of films like “Bend It Like Beckham,” to make it into a movie.

The character based on Manzoor is Javed (newcomer Viveik Kalra), who dreams of being a writer. He writes poems that he does not share with anyone, even his sympathetic teacher (Hayley Atwell). The world around him seems bleak, unforgiving, and uncaring. An anti-immigration white supremacist group called the National Front is organizing protests and Javed and his family are subjected to harassment and racist graffiti. Javed’s father is strict, holding on to traditions as he is anxious about a lack of control when he is unable to support the family. His son’s sensitivity and inclination to assimilate into English culture makes him even more anxious. Javed’s mother is sympathetic but she has to work around the clock as a seamstress to earn money and does not want to put more pressure on her husband by challenging him. Javed has one friend who shares his love of music, but his freedom and ease only sharpens Javed’s sense of himself as isolated and ineffectual.

At school he meets a Sikh classmate named Roops (Aaron Phagura) who gives him a Springsteen CD. Chadha’s endearingly cinematic depiction of Javed’s reaction to the songs — the words as much as the music — beautifully conveys the jubilant, visceral reaction to truly connecting with another person, whether it is Gene Kelly splashing in puddles to celebrate falling in love or just knowing that somewhere in the world there is someone who has seen into your deepest secret heart and understands and accepts you. For Javed, who cannot fit into his father’s notion of who he should be but is not exactly sure who he will be instead, Bruce shows him the transformational power of putting feelings into words and music. A voice that means the world to him brings him closer to trusting his own voice.

As in “Bend it Like Beckham,” Chadha’s gift for kinetic storytelling reflects the turbulent emotion of the young protagonists. There are so many lovely details and moments — Rob Brydon (of “The Trip” movies) as the Springsteen-loving father of Javed’s friend, Javed’s discovery that his sister has found her own way to be herself, and of course a sweet romance, complete with a musical number that Gene Kelly himself would appreciate. Most important, the movie shows us that the feelings and the issues Bruce was singing about in the 70’s that spoke to Manzoor in the 80’s are still powerfully speaking to us today. Just as Springsteen let Manzoor know that his feelings were real and valid and understood and could be expressed, so Manzoor and Chadha tell us that with this lovely film.

Parents should know that this film includes racist language and attacks, some strong language, family tensions, mild sexual references, and kissing.

Family discussion: What was it about Springsteen’s music that made it so meaningful to Javed? How did listening to the music give him courage? What music is meaningful to you?

If you like this, try: “Bend it like Beckham” from the same director, and the music and autobiography of Bruce Springsteen

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The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Posted on June 13, 2019 at 5:34 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, references to drug abuse
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 14, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 26, 2019

Copyright A24 2019
The Last Man in San Francisco” is an exquisitely filmed story about love and loss, beauty and pain. The star of the film is a young black man named Jimmie Fails, played by a writer and actor named Jimmie Fails, and the script is based on a story by Fails and director Joe Talbot, friends since childhood, based on incidents in Fails’ life.

The movie Jimmie has a best friend named Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) who lives with his blind grandfather (Danny Glover). Jimmie has been sleeping on the floor next to Mont’s bed. Every two weeks, they visit the Victorian home Jimmie’s family once lived in. Over the strong objections of the middle-aged white resident couple (she objects more than he does, but she seems to be the one with a real ownership stake), they perform small touch-ups to maintain the trim, fixtures, and garden. The middle-aged white owners see it as intrusive (and possibly as criticism). But for Jimmie, who is determined to live there again some day, it is a chance to care for the house that is a legend in his family, built by his grandfather, and a symbol of an idea of home that seems to be gone for good.

The film creates a poetic, dreamlike mood that almost floats over the story, an astonishingly assured debut that trusts the story and trusts the audience to let us fill in the details and come to our own conclusions, especially refreshing in an era of multi-national financing where specifics are smoothed over and everything has to be explained two or three times to meet the expectations of an international audience.

Instead, here, we have the infinitely expressive faces of Fails and Majors, as eloquent as any performances you will see this year. We first see them waiting for a bus that never comes, as telling a moment as the entire text of “Waiting for Godot.” So they hop on Jimmie’s ever-present skateboard, the perfect freedom of their ride in tandem in sharp contrast to the restrictions they face everywhere else. We get glimpses of what has made the house so important to Jimmie in his encounters with his father and mother, each disconnected and making clear that those relationships are not able to give him any sense of home. We see Jimmie and Mont talking to a group of guys who hang out on the street tossing insults at each other and everyone else, their only way to create a sense of camaraderie and belonging. In one of the film’s highlights, he approaches the group with his own version of the dozens — some directorial notes about the meta-impact of what is quite literally their performances.

The residents have to move out of the house and, like the characters in the film, it falls into a kind of limbo. Jimmie knows this is his moment. He retrieves his family’s furniture from his aunt, who has been storing it, and returns to what he will always think of as his home.

In a film like this, the house itself has to be a character in the story, and this one is, a grand old place with a witch’s hat roof, a library filled with vintage leather-bound classics, an organ and a piano, and all of the original architectural finishings of the era perfectly preserved. We see a Segway tour go by (led by Jello Biafra), and Jimmie correcting him about the history of the house. This is a place for dreams to come true, including Mont’s dream of writing a play. Jimmie tells him the play will be performed in the house, and they invite everyone they know.

But a treasure like this house must go to someone who can afford it, and that is not the only terrible loss in the film. While Jimmie mourns what is gone, Mont mourns with him. The depiction of a deep and tender friendship between two men who are always sad, sometimes lost, seldom angry, and always open to love and beauty, echoes movingly throughout the story and the story-telling in this unquestionable cinematic masterpiece.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, some violence, family tensions and dysfunction, and graphic non-sexual nudity.

Family discussion: Why are Jimmie and Mont friends? How can communities prosper without pushing out lower-income residents? What do we learn from the guys on the street? Where will Jimmie go?

If you like this, try: “Blindspotting” and “Sorry to Bother You”

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Shaft

Posted on June 13, 2019 at 5:25 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material and brief nudity
Profanity: Very strong language including the n-word and many crude terms
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug dealing, drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and graphic crime-style peril and violence, characters injured and killed, graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 14, 2019
Date Released to DVD: September 23, 2019

Copyright New Line Cinema 2019
Cheerfully retro past the point of winking at us, through the point of smirking at us, up to the point of pushing back in favor of toxic masculinity, the new “Shaft” is an above-average summer chases, wisecracks, and shoot-out movie, thanks to its cast, its heritage, and of course the most memorable movie soundtrack theme of all time, a Grammy and Oscar winner.

Like two of the previous films in the series, this one is just called “Shaft.” The 1971 original starred Richard Roundtree, who also appeared in “Shaft’s Big Score” and “Shaft in Africa.” Then Samuel L. Jackson appeared in a 2000 film just called “Shaft,” playing the nephew of the Roundtree character. (In this film, it turns out the original Shaft was not his uncle but his father.) This “Shaft” brings the story up to the present day, with Roundtree and Jackson returning to their roles and the third generation, J.J. (for John Junior), played by Jessie T. Usher (“Survivor’s Remorse”).

The first Shaft film, based on a tough with the bad guys/catnip for the ladies private investigator in the novels of Ernest Tidyman, was among the best of the “Blaxploitation” films of the 1970’s.

The character in the book is white, but director Gordon Parks cast Roundtree, to “see a black guy winning,” and, toward the end of the Civil Rights movement era, that gave audiences a hero that had not been seen before, a strong, confident, supremely capable black man who operated by his own set of rules and applying his own form of justice. This had enormous appeal in an era where pretty much the only black actor in films was Sidney Poitier, who nearly always played characters who were near-saintly, designed to appeal to white audiences. Shaft did not care about appealing to or appeasing anyone. In the words of a black politician of the era named Shirley Chisolm, he was “unbought and unbossed.” He exemplified Hollywood cowboy-style notions of masculinity, supremely secure in his own power and control, and in the context of the movie that included his relationships with women, if using them as sexual objects could be characterized as a relationship.

Director John Singleton’s 2000 version with Jackson was an affectionate tribute to the original. Shaft is first seen as working for The Man as a police officer, but he quits in disgust and sets up an office as a private investigator. As this film begins, it is 1989 and Shaft (Jackson) is arguing with his significant other (Regina Hall) in a car when a gunfight breaks out. “This time it’s different,” she tells him, after it is all over and he’s the last man standing. In the back seat of the car is a baby. She knows that in order to keep their son safe, she will have to leave him.

The ensuing years are amusingly zipped through in a montage with pauses for the occasional and always-inappropriate gifts Shaft sends to JJ, wrapped in plain brown paper, including a box of condoms when he is 10 and a collection of porn when he is leaving for college at MIT. After graduation, JJ works as a data analyst at the FBI, where he is frustrated at not being assigned to take the lead on big cases like a possible terrorist cell at a local mosque. He lives in a tastefully furnished apartment with a Lord of the Rings poster on the wall and lacrosse sticks over his bed. He treats women with respect — with so much respect he has not been able to get out of the friend zone with Sasha (Alexandra Shipp), a doctor he has known since he was a child. He does not like guns, but he has mad skills as a hacker.

When another childhood friend, a Muslim veteran named Karim, is found dead from an overdose, JJ thinks it is murder, and he visits his father for the first time to ask for his help. A naked stripper covered with glitter answers the door, and Shaft appears with glitter in his beard. This is supposed to be funny and to convey how manly he is. Anyway, he agrees to help, and we’re suddenly in a buddy cop movie, with senior bashing junior every step of the way for not being many enough and junior giving it back about his not having been there as a dad. Much of that happens as they are being chased, shot at, or fought with, including the inevitable scene at a nightclub, with a dance/fight that puts the “tip” in “tipsy” and is actually pretty fun.

Someday people will look back on this movie as an exemplar of its moment. The exaggerated masculinity of 1971 may have been humorous and empowering, but in 2019 it seems creaky and skeezy, especially when JJ finally picks up a gun and the strong, capable female character suddenly melts into a puddle of adoration. It’s too soon to be a parody, too late to be ignored. The exaggerated bravado makes them seem fragile and over-compensating.

I admit, though, that Hayes theme still makes me melt into a puddle, and it is fun to see the three generations striding without regard to the oncoming cars in their shades and long coats. While it does not succeed in the same terms as the original or as an affectionate update, there are moments when it is an entertaining popcorn movie with appealing performances, when I can dig it.

Parents should know that this film has a lot of intense, graphic peril and violence including shoot-outs fights, and torture, with many characters injured and killed and some graphic and disturbing images. Characters use strong and crude language, including the n-word and the p-word, and there are vulgar sexual references, homophobic and transphobic jokes, and nudity, with a casually exploitive attitude toward women and a prove-it notion of masculinity. The movie also includes drinking and drunkenness and drugs and drug dealing.

Family discussion: Why wasn’t JJ a field agent? Why was his father so dismissive of his clothes and apartment? How do the Shaft movie’s attitude toward women and masculinity hold up today?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Shaft” movies and “Jackie Brown”

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Late Night

Posted on June 6, 2019 at 5:01 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some sexual references
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Reference to deaths of parent and co-worker, tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 7, 2019

Copyright 2019 Amazon Studios
“Late Night” is a festival favorite written by and starring Mindy Kaling, who created just the right role for herself as an Indian-American woman who gets her dream job as a comedy writer, working for a tyrannical late night talk show host played by Emma Thompson. Kaling, who has often talked about her love for romantic comedies played a character in her television series who imagined herself as the heroine of one (understanding them only on the most superficial and self-involved level), has created what is in essence a rom-com about a work relationship between two women, one hopelessly optimistic, one relentlessly cynical.

Kaling plays Molly, a quality control specialist in a chemical plant who gets a one in a million shot at the job by winning an essay competition. Katherine (Thompson) has just imperiously ordered her long-suffering producer (Denis O’Hare) to add a woman to the all-male, all-white writing staff, so he gives Molly a chance. What the writers do not know is that the new head of the network (Amy Ryan), who likes to talk about “four-quadrant” audiences (males and females over and under 25 years old) and ROI (return on investment), thinks Katherine, despite her multiple Emmys and other awards, has become out of date and out of touch with her audience. Ratings are down, and Katherine is unlikely to boost them as long as she insists on having guests like Senator Diane Feinstein and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Katherine demands “excellence” from everyone around her, and that means total dedication. Her manner is abrupt and imperious and she fires staff like she’s the Queen of Hearts calling “Off with their heads!” She refuses to capitulate to what she considers the dumbing down of the media (and the world). When her producer persuades her to have a viral YouTube star who makes videos of her sniffing her dog’s butt on the show, the withering contempt she cannot hide alienates her shrinking audience further. She is pushed onto social media, but her first joke about Twitter bombs, perhaps because she calls it “Twittah” but also because she has not taken the time to understand what it is.

There are just two things she cares about, her husband (John Lithgow), who is in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, and her show. Both are being taken from her, and she does not have the resources to respond.

Katherine literally does not know the names of her writers, many of whom have never even met her. She has no interest in learning their names, and when she finally sits down in the writers’ room, she assigns them all numbers.

Kaling, who was both writer and actress on the US version of “The Office,” has a good feeling for the “He Man Women Haters”-Our Gang-style dynamics of the all-male writer’s room. They are so used to having no women around that they use the ladies’ room. And her being there doesn’t stop them. At first, she brings her quality control perspective, analyzing what’s missing from the show, until one of the writers gives her some good advice: write something.

Kaling has said that (until “Wrinkle in Time”) every part she has had is one she has had to create for herself. Her strength as a writer is giving us characters who are three-dimensional, vivid, and smart. Both Molly and Katherine filter Kaling’s experiences and perspective in writing for television, the relentlessness of sifting through jokes to put together a polished monologue of perfectly crafted comedy only to have to start over again the next day, the treacherous balancing act between giving enough of yourself to connect with the audience while keeping enough private to keep your sanity and sustain relationships, the even more treacherous challenge of staying on top while people who are every bit as ambitious try to topple you.

She shortchanges Molly a bit here, particularly when she lets herself get hurt by someone her character would be instantly wary of. We get the sense that it is the Katherine character who interests her more, and it gives Thompson one of her all-time best roles. In the first half, she effortlessly tosses off Katherine’s most devastating take-downs, a woman who insists on excellence in a world that does not seem to want it. But in the second half, when Katherine has to be unsure and vulnerable, Thompson gives a performance of exquisite depth and precision. “I hope I have earned the privilege of your time,” Katherine tells her audience. Kaling and Thompson make the privilege ours.

Parents should know that this film includes substantial strong language, sexual references, some potty humor, smoking, and infidelity.

Family discussion: Would you have hired Molly? Why didn’t Katherine change sooner? What was Katherine’s funniest joke?

If you like this, try: “Dancing in September” and “The Mindy Project” and “Larry Sanders Show” television series

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