The Sun is Also a Star

Posted on May 15, 2019 at 6:15 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Accident with pedestrian injuries, family scuffle
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 17, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 19, 2019

Copyright 2019 Warner Brothers Studios
A pair of teenagers who happen to meet on a day of great pressure for both of them are riding on a New York City subway train that gets stuck. The engineer comes on the speaker to tell them a story reminiscent of the Taoist parable about the farmer, the son, and the horse. Sometimes the very thing that you think is an insurmountable obstacle to what you are urgently trying to achieve turns out to lead you to something you could not have imagined, or even to save your life.

That is a theme in “The Sun is Also a Star,” along with the divide and sometimes conflict between poetry and science, the left brain and the right, what we feel and what we can prove, and the needs and dreams of the individual versus what is best for the family or the group — and who gets to decide what “best” means. And at the center of it is the thrum of issues of immigration and assimilation. It might be easy to lose sight of the love story under the weight of all of this, but the star power of lead actors Yara Shahidi (“Black-Ish” and “Grown-Ish”) and Charles Melton (“Riverdale,” “Glee”) and the deeply romantic direction of Ry Russo-Young, the romance is in every way the heart of the film.

Natasha (Shahidi) is the daughter of Jamaican immigrants who are being deported following an ICE raid of the restaurant where he father works. The family moved to New York when she and her brother were young children, meaning that they are not American citizens in the family on which to base an appeal. As her parents pack up, Natasha goes to ICE to see if she can appeal their decision.

A compassionate case officer says it is too late for him to re-open the case but he gives her the card of a lawyer who might be able to help. Because he cannot see her until noon, later postponed to 4:30, she is stuck downtown, not enough time to go home, but, perhaps enough time to fall in love?

Natasha does not believe in love, or so she says. She dismisses it as romantic hogwash, just a distractingly poetic way to describe hormones. She is interested in data and science. If love cannot be measured and studied according to the strictures of the scientific method, she says, it cannot be true.

The person she says it to is Daniel (Melton), the son of Korean immigrants, who glimpses Natasha at Grand Central Station when he is on his way to a very important alumni interview for Dartmouth. He grabs her away from a careening car that has already knocked down one pedestrian and she accepts his invitation to go for coffee. He is a poet, a romantic, a believer in signs and omens. Natasha’s jacket has the same ancient Greek phrase that he had jotted down in his notebook that morning: deus ex machina. Literally, it translates to “god from the machine,” referring to the mechanical device used in Greek theater to bring the deity characters on stage. But it is a literary term meaning some extraordinary, sometimes supernatural or god-like force that suddenly changes the trajectory of a story, usually resolving it for the better.

Daniel tells Natasha he can make her believe in love. He begins with the famous 36 questions followed by a silent stare into each other’s eyes. She insists that it cannot possibly work, but as the day goes on, she cannot help but be drawn to him. As they watch a show at the Planetarium (perhaps a nod to “Rebel Without a Cause”), she reaches for his hand.

Their walk-and-talk courtship involves visits to each other’s families and some surprising, one might even say cosmic connections. Melton and Shahidi make a graceful transition from television to the big screen, with charisma and chemistry to spare. Their chemistry is almost tactile, with a deep sweetness. With all of their differences in outlook and situation, their shared bond as the children of immigrants, struggling with what they owe to the past and what they dream of for the future is so real to us that by the end we are holding our breath hoping for the magic to go on.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language and crude sexual references, a car hitting a pedestrian, and a scuffle between brothers, as well as some issues of family conflict and the prospect of deportation.

Family discussion: Daniel’s father says that Daniel should do what is best for the community. What do you think is best for the community in that context? Can you fall in love by asking each other questions? Was there a time where what you thought was something going wrong turned out to be right? Can tragedy be funny?

If you like this, try: “Before Sunrise,” “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist,” and “Everything Everything”

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The Best of Enemies

Posted on April 4, 2019 at 5:30 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material, racial epithets, some violence and a suggestive reference
Profanity: Strong language including racist epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, cigarettes
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including racist attacks
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, including racial and disability issues
Date Released to Theaters: April 5, 2019
Date Released to DVD: July 1, 2019
Copyright 2018 STX Entertainment

The biggest divide in this big, divided world is not between people of different races or religions or political beliefs; it is between people who have different ideas of who is “us” and who is “them.” “The Best of Enemies” is based on the true story of C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell), a white supremacist and the Grand Exalted Cyclops (president) of the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan, and Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson), a black woman who was a community activist working for civil rights and economic justice.

In 1971, Ellis and Atwater were appointed co-chairs of a charette, a dispute resolution mechanism used to resolve complicated community disagreements. Originally developed for land use debates among parties with multiple and varied interests, it was adapted for other kinds of issues by Bill Riddick, played in this film by Babou Ceesay.

Ellis and Atwater lived in Durham, North Carolina. Seventeen years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court that segregated schools were unconstitutional, the Durham schools were still divided. When the school attended by the black children burned down, the city had to decide whether to let them attend the school the white children were attending. The court did not want to deal with it, so they asked Bill Riddick to see if he could get the community to come to some agreement.

Ann Atwater worked for Operation Breakthrough but it was more than a profession; it was her calling. We first see her arguing on behalf of a young woman whose apartment is uninhabitable. And throughout the film we see that her entire life is one of advocacy and generosity. Everyone she meets is either someone to be protected or someone to help her protect others. Her sense of “us” encompassed the world.

C.P. Ellis ran a gas station. He loved his family, including a disabled son who lived in a residential facility.  The Klan made him feel respected and important. He created an outreach program to bring teenagers into the Klan. And he organized outings like the time they shot up the home of  a young white woman coming home from a date with a black man.

He agrees to co-chair the charette because he believes that anyone else who got the position would cave. And there are those in the town who would never associate with the Klan but who are glad to support them in private.

Rockwell and Henson make Ellis and Atwater into fully-developed, complex characters. There’s a world of history in the way Henson walks as Atwater, shoulders hunched, hitching her hips along.  In one scene where she reprimands young black boys for tearing down a KKK hood on display, and then straightens it herself after shooing them away, the expression in her eyes speaks volumes about what she has seen.  And when we see the patience and tenderness Ellis has for his disabled son, we get a sense of all he thinks has been taken from him and how much it matters to him to hold on to something that makes him feel powerful.

This is a thoughtful, sincere drama, beautifully performed with a touching conclusion, first of the story itself, and the small acts of kindness that make “thems” into “us-es,” and then with the footage of the real-life Atwater and Ellis. When she takes his arm to help him walk out of the room, our own us-es get a little larger, too.

Parents should know that this movie deals frankly with issues of bigotry and racism including attacks by the Klu Klux Klan. It includes some strong language with racist epithets and a sexual reference. Characters drink and smoke and there are violent, racially-motivated attacks.

Family discussion: What did Atwater and Ellis have in common? Why did she help his son? Why did she tell the boys not to take down the KKK hood? Who is the Ann Atwater in your community and what are the issues?

If you like this, try: the book by Osha Gray Davidson and the 2018 Oscar winner for Best Picture, Green Book

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If Beale Street Could Talk

Posted on December 27, 2018 at 12:08 pm

A
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual content
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Acohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence, references to rape
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2018
Date Released to DVD: March 26, 2019
Copyright Annapurna 2018

When I interviewed writer/director Barry Jenkins about “Moonlight,” we talked about the movie’s haunting score, composed by Nicholas Britell. “Many directors would use songs of the era to place the audience in the film’s three time periods,” I said. “Two things,” he replied. “First, we could not afford the rights to those songs. But more important, I believe these characters deserve a full orchestral score.”

I thought of those words as I watched Jenkins’ latest film, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwinmy #1 film of 2018, and winner of the Best Director, Best Supporting Actress and Best Film Spirit Awards. There were moments when it did not feel like I was watching the film. It was more like I was immersed in it, as though I could feel it pulsing through my veins. The entire theme of the movie could be, “These characters deserve a full orchestral score” along with the highest level of every other creative and aesthetic element available to a filmmaker, from Baldwin’s lyrical words to the luscious cinematography of “Moonlight’s” James Laxton, another gorgeous score by Britell, costumes that carry the narrative and illuminate the characters, and performances of infinite sensitivity and humanity.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” succeeds brilliantly at one of cinema’s most central functions: a love story with sizzling chemistry between two impossibly beautiful people. Stephen James (“Race”) and newcomer Kiki Layne are 2018’s most compelling romantic couple, pure pleasure to watch. Their relationship is in every way the heart of this story, the reason we feel so sharply the injustice and, in some ways harder to accept, the resignation that is the most undeniable signifier of generations of institutional racism. We see that most powerfully when Oscar-winner Regina King, as the girl’s mother, looks in the mirror as she prepares like a matador entering the bullring for a meeting that could make all the difference for the couple. She cannot expect much, but she has to try. Throughout the movie, there is resignation and diminished hopes but there is also resilience. And “Beale Street” reminds us that undiminished and imperishable love abide: romantic love, the love of parents and siblings, even an unexpected encounter with a warmhearted landlord. There is the love Baldwin and Jenkins have for these characters. And, most of all, it reminds us that this is a story that deserves to be told with the best of what movies have to offer, including a full orchestral score.

James and Layne play Fonny and Tish, childhood sweethearts who are young and deeply in love. He is wrongfully arrested for rape by a bigoted cop with a grudge and is in jail when Tish tells him that she is going to have a baby. We see what happened before and what happens after in a jazzy, non-linear form, luscious images and exquisite performances. This film is a masterpiece, like its characters of a time nearly half a century ago, “ready,” and exactly right on time.

Parents should know that this film includes explicit sexual references and situations, references to rape, unjust charges and abuse of the justice system, racism, and some peril and violence.

Family discussion: Why does Sharon take off her wig? Why do the mothers respond so differently to the news of the baby?

If you like this, try: “Moonlight” from the same writer/director and the books of author James Baldwin

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Posted on December 13, 2018 at 5:10 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some references
Violence/ Scariness: Comic book/action peril and violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 14, 2018
Date Released to DVD: March 18, 2019

Copyright 2018 Sony Animation
The best surprise I got at a movie theater this year was “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse,” the all-around terrific new animated film that perhaps more than any superhero movie I’ve seen translates the jubilant experience of comic books to the screen. It has excitement, it has heart, it has humor, and it has a deep understanding of comics, comic culture, and Spidey himself. It also has an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. I was not excited about seeing yet another radioactive spider bite story, but this wildly imaginative film completely won me over and I can’t wait to see it again.

Just a bit of context: One fascinating element of comic books is that unlike any other story-telling in human history, they portray characters over decades, nearly a century in some cases, with different writers and artists telling their stories and alternative takes like “imaginary stories” with no canonic or precedential import. So, for example, Superman (and Clark Kent) began during the Depression, lived through WWII, the Cold War, the tumult of the 60’s, the yuppie years of the 80’s, went from being a newspaperman to a TV reporter to a blogger, has died and been brought back, has died and been replaced by an alternate version, and has been the subject of several television shows, movies, and even a Broadway musical from the people who brought another comic character to life in “Annie.”

Spider-Man has had one of the most successful superhero movie translations with three starring Tobey Maguire (the terrible third one is tweaked in this film), two with Andrew Garfield, and now another one plus the Avengers movies with Tom Holland. Throughout all of them, he has been the “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” the teenager from Queens who lives with his elderly Aunt May, has a crush on Mary Jane, gets bitten by a radioactive spider, and learns that with great power comes great responsibility. Spidey is at the heart of Marvel’s re-imagining of the superhero as young, irreverent, still learning, living in a real place rather than an imagined Gotham or Metropolis, and dealing with real-life problems as well as super-villains. Memorably, he once got paid by check but could not cash it because he had no Spider-Man ID. There are a bunch of alternate versions of Spider-Man, and we get to see many of them work together in this film.

We don’t need to go into the mumbo-jumbo here, do we? Let’s just agree that multiple universes exist and that it is possible that every action or incident splinters off another alternate timeline so that if we could just find a way to hop from one to another, we could find the one where, say, Hitler never assumed power in Germany or where the government regulated sub-prime derivatives and prevented the financial meltdown of 2008. A mob boss in New York known as Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) wants to find the parallel universe, not, for once a super-villain who wants total world domination but because he wants to find the world where his wife was not killed. But his efforts open up portals to other Spider-Men (and a Spider-pig and Spider-girls) who get catapulted into this universe just as our Spidey (Chris Pine) dies (!!!), telling the newest radioactive spider-bite victim, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) that he has to carry on.

Miles can’t even manage carrying on his regular life. He’s the son of a black cop (Brian Tyree Henry) who considers Spider-Man a lawless disruption and a Puerto Rican nurse mother (Luna Lauren Velez). Miles is under a lot of pressure because has just started at a new magnet school for gifted kids and because he knows his parents would not approve of the time he spends with his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) tagging walls with graffiti.

The style of contemporary animation is usually hyper-reality, with every hair on every head moving and shining just as it does in real life. The style of this film is exuberantly stylized, comic-book style, and it is thrilling to see it translated to screen so skillfully. The interactions with the variations of Spidey are clever and exciting and the movie is serious about its world and its story and characters, but never about itself, which is very comic book-y, too. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is the happiest surprise of this season, a gift that will tingle Spidey-senses in the audience.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and action/comic-book style violence, with characters injured and killed (it would be a PG-13 if live action), and some brief schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Which version of Spider-Man do you like best and why? What do you imagine would be your parallel in an alternate universe?

If you like this, try: the live action Spider-Man movies and the comic books

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The Hate U Give

Posted on October 4, 2018 at 5:42 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some violent content, drug material and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking, drug and drug dealing references
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril and violence, teenager killed by a police officer
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 5, 2018
Date Released to DVD: January 21, 2019

Copyright 2018 20th Century Fox
The Hate U Give” is one of the best and most important films of the year. Angie Thomas’ best-selling novel about a girl named Starr has become a profound and profoundly moving film. It is an of-this-moment, vitally urgent story about race, culture, and America in 2018, but it is also a deeply human, deeply moving exploration of the most universal themes: family, identity, growing up, forgiveness, and finding your voice.

The incandescent young actor/activist Amandla Stenberg (Rue in “The Hunger Games”) plays Starr, the middle child and only daughter in a loving family. She is completely at home in their neighborhood of Garden Heights. But you can get “jumped, high, pregnant, or killed” at the local high school, and so she and her older brother attend a private school called Williamson, where most of the students are white and wealthy. She calls the version of herself they see “Starr version 2.” When the white kids sing along to hip hop or use black slang, she smiles politely but knows that if she does the same thing she will appear too “ghetto.” But she has a nice (white) boyfriend named Chris (K.J. Apa), and some nice white girl friends she can complain to when Chris tried to push her into having sex.

At a party in Garden Heights, she feels more at home, but some of the people there are suspicious of her for possibly “acting white.” She runs into an old friend, Khalil (Algee Smith) and he offers to drive her home. As children, they played Harry Potter together with a third friend, but they have fallen out of touch. Starr can tell from his very expensive, mint-condition shoes that he may be in trouble. Khalil has begun to deal drugs because it is the only way he can support his ailing grandmother.

They are stopped by a white policeman who thinks that Khalil is reaching for a weapon and shoots him. Starr sees it all. Starr is devastated. And she begins to see herself and her world differently. The Williamson students walk out of school to protest in support of Black Lives Matter — or to get out of school. Starr’s friend stops following her on Instagram because Starr connects the killing of her friend to tragic injustices like the murder of Emmett Till.

As we see in the opening scene, Starr has been told since she was a child how to respond to law enforcement. As we will learn later, this is not the first time she has lost someone close to her to violence. As she has to decide whether she will tell the truth about what she saw, putting her Williamson persona at risk and, because of Khalil’s involvement with a powerful neighborhood drug dealer, putting her family and her community at risk as well.

Every performance in the film is a gem, especially Regina Hall (“Support the Girls”) and Russell Hornsby (“Fences”) as Starr’s parents and Stenberg herself, who has extraordinary screen charisma and a remarkable control of detail to show us how Starr begins to integrate the separate versions of herself. The film brings in a remarkably nuanced range of perspectives, especially in two standout scenes: Starr talking to her police officer uncle (Common) about the ways he sees black and white suspects, and Starr talking to her mother about forgiveness. Every element of the story is handled with sensitivity, respect, and a deem humanity, from the specifics of Starr’s relationships to the big themes of how we interact with the world and how we work for change. This is a rare film that does justice to the characters and the themes as it reminds us that we can all do more to bring justice to the world.

Translation: Unarmed character shot by a police officer, peril and violence, protests, guns, vandalism, arson, some teen partying, drug dealing, some strong language

Family discussion: Should Starr speak out? What are the risks and how can she best make a difference? How can you?

If you like this, try: “Boyz n the Hood,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Blindspotting,” and the book by Angie Thomas

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