We Broke Up

Posted on April 15, 2021 at 5:40 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 16, 2021

Copyright Vertical Entertainment 2021
Relationships are complicated. That’s one reason we like movies, where they are generally less complicated, and give us the reassuring but inaccurate message that things work out the way we wish they would. The title of “We Broke Up” sets us a premise that looks like a romantic comedy but ends up as a bittersweet acknowledgment that relationships are, well, complicated, and sometimes it is hard to figure out what we want, much less figure out how to make what we want work with someone else’s wants.

Lori (Aya Cash) and Doug (William Jackson Harper of “The Good Place”) have been together for ten years. They have the affectionate verbal shortcuts of people who know each other well and trust each other without reservation. As far as Lori’s mother is concerned, Doug is part of the family.

And then, as they are waiting at a counter for a Chinese food take-out order, Doug impulsively proposes and Lori’s reaction shocks them both. She throws up. By the next morning, they have broken up. The timing is awkward, though, as Lori’s sister is getting married and they are expected at the destination wedding weekend. They are both in the wedding party and they decide to pretend that they are still together so Lori’s sister can have her perfect day free from any tensions or conflicts.

Of course, there has never been a wedding and very few family gatherings of any kind without tensions or conflicts. Lori’s sister is Bea (a radiant Sara Bolger), who, in stark contrast to Lori, is marrying Jayson (Tony Cavalero), a man she has known for just four month. While Lori and Doug seem stuck like bugs in amber, Bea and Jayson are impulsive, impetuous, and show no signs of stopping to think about what they are doing. The wedding is at a resort which was once the summer camp Lori and Bea went to as young teenagers, and there are elaborate plans that include a “Paul Bunyan Day” series of camp-style competitive events, except with lots of liquor. And like all weddings, there are chances to renew connections and meet new people. Doug and Lori, still pretending to be together, find themselves wondering about possible other partners.

The ambitions of the film, co-written by director Jeff Rosenberg with Laura Jacqmin (“Grace and Frankie”) are impressive, but the characters are too thinly written to support them, despite the best efforts of the actors. The contrast between the impulsive couple heading into marriage and the couple who have made no progress toward marriage or children or, in Lori’s case, a career, is intriguing but plays out awkwardly. There are moments that come across as genuine but they are surrounded by others that are uneven in tone and execution. Ultimately, like the couples in the film, we are not sure what we want for them.

Parents should know that this film has mature material including sexual references and situations, tense family confrontations, drinking, drunkenness, drugs, and references to underage drinking.

Family discussion: Are you more like Lori or Bea? What do you think will happen to them?

If you like this, try: “Plus One,” “The Five Year Engagement,” and “Table 19”

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Comedy Drama movie review Movies Movies Romance

A Week Away

Posted on March 25, 2021 at 5:39 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: References to offscreen deaths of parents
Diversity Issues: Christian themes, diverse cast
Date Released to Theaters: March 26, 2021
Copyright Netflix 2021

An unhappy teenager gets into trouble and is given a choice: juvie or a week at a Christian summer camp. He takes the second option, planning to run away. But, and I am pretty sure this is not a spoiler, he finds acceptance and hope there and a bit of romance, too. Plus a ton of music. Some of the people behind “High School Musical” (which I unabashedly love, don’t @ me) are behind this one, too, and the musical numbers are filled with “I could do that” accessibility and enthusiasm that makes them especially inviting.

Will (Kevin Quinn) was devastated when his parents were killed in a car accident that he survived. He has no one in his life looking out for him and no direction. The openheartedness and good spirits at the camp connect to him in a way he did not expect, and he is drawn to Avery (Bailee Madison), the daughter of the camp’s director (David Koechner).

The campers are divided into teams that will be competing throughout the week. And there is a campfire, an eating hall where campers are selected to answer questions about who their heroes and crushes are, and is “The Blob,” a huge inflated raft to jump on. I mean, the kids do about three months worth of activities and interactions in one week, but then people don’t randomly break into Broadway-style music numbers, either, so let’s not get picky.

What we do have here is something there just isn’t enough of: genuine kindness. The faith themes are presented very lightly and the primary messages are universal: acceptance, honesty, and connection. Avery, whose mother died some years earlier, talks to Will about “choosing to believe” and the help she gets from her father, making clear that faith and earthly support go together. Insiders and church camp veterans will recognize some of the songs and rhetoric and the Biblical references of the names of the four teams, but newcomers, those of other faiths, and non-believers will either miss them or ignore them. They will catch some movie references, including “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” And they will enjoy the exuberance and old-fashioned fun of the cast, clearly having as much fun as the teens they are portraying.

Parents should know that the story includes two teens who discuss the loss of their parents.

Family discussion: Why did Will and Avery respond to loss differently? How did each of the characters learn something about acceptance? What advice would you give George?

If you like this, try: “High School Musical,” “Camp Rock,” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”

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movie review Movies Movies Musical Romance Spiritual films Stories about Teens

Coming 2 America

Posted on March 4, 2021 at 5:51 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, language, and drug content
Profanity: Strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Threats of violence, guns seen but not used, martial arts combat
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, but transphobic humor
Date Released to Theaters: March 5, 2021
Copyright 2021 Amazon Studios

I’ve got nothing against fan service, content created just for people who are already devoted to the characters or stories or performers. But it is fair to ask whether it can be more than that, or if it is even trying for more than that. “Coming 2 America” looks like its primary priority was a fun project, with the secondary side benefit of pleasing the fans and making some money. It’s lazy but pleasant and occasionally funny even if you don’t appreciate all of the inside jokes. In other words, by pandemic standards, it’s a mildly entertaining watch.

“Coming 2 America” is made 33 years after the original film starring Eddie Murphy as Akeem, an African prince from the fictional and idyllic country of Zamunda, who goes to New York to find a bride. In “Coming 2 America,” Murphy and many of his co-stars return. Akeem is happily married to the woman he brought back from Queens, Lisa (again played by Shari Headley), and they have three daughters. Lisa’s father, Cleo McDowell (again played by John Amos) has moved his fast food restaurant to Zamunda and is still insisting it is not a rip-off of McDonald’s.

But Akeem’s father, the king (James Earl Jones) is dying, and Akeem’s daughters cannot inherit the throne because Zamudan law and tradition requires a male heir. And the king is not above suggesting that fathering daughters is an indication of Akeem’s lack of manliness. The daughters have warrior training and are loving, thoughtful young women who care deeply for their country. But they cannot inherit the throne. General Izzi (Wesley Snipes), who heads the neighboring country of Nextdoria (this name gives you some idea of the level of humor in the film), wants Akeem’s oldest daughter to marry his nephew, to unite the two countries. Her new husband would become king.

Akeem discovers that when he was in Queens, in a one-time encounter he has no memory of (because it did not exist in the original film, but let’s just ret-con it into being), he fathered a son. And he decides to go back to Queens to bring that son back to take over as heir to the throne.

All of which is just an excuse for a lot of references to the first film, not just meeting up with many of the characters played then and now by Murphy and Arsenio Hall as Akeem’s sidekick, Semmi. That means we see updated versions of the guys at the barber shop (both the barbers and the elderly white alte kackers and the preacher for hire, and more. It also means we get an entirely unnecessary recap of the original film, inserted as filler, and even more unnecessary references to other Murphy films for which additional unnecessary sequels are apparently underway. It’s the MCU (Murphy Cinematic Universe)!

Akeem’s son is Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler), who agrees to go to Zamunda, bringing his mother, played by the redoubtable Leslie Jones. Will he be able to pass the “prince test?” Will Akeem’s daughter get over her resentment? How about her mother? Will Lavelle agree to marry General Izzi’s compliant and extremely beautiful and limber daughter?

You know the answer to that as well as you know that there will be a lot of silly stuff along the way, including some very crude humor and vulgar language for a PG-13, and some outtakes over the end credits (stay all the way to the end). It’s all done with good humor and panache. If the energy behind the fabulous Ruth Carter costumes and choreography by Fatima Robinson are in sharp contrast to the “let’s do it in one take” vibe of Murphy’s performance (presumably the obviousness of the insertion of the stunt double was intended to be funny), and the “let’s not think too hard about the plot” (really? Girls can’t inherit the throne? Date rape? A trans joke in 2021?) the movie’s unequivocal endorsement of true love based in respect and friendship (and of the ability of women to fill any role that appeals to them) makes it easy to overlook its failings.

Parents should know that this movie has martial arts combat and guns are shown but not used. Characters drink and get drunk and smoke marijuana. There is extended crude humor and language, possible date rape, and a transphobic joke.

Family discussion: What have been the most significant changes in culture since the first film and are they reflected in the sequel? What test would you give a prince?

If you like this, try: “Coming to America”

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Comedy movie review Movies Movies Romance Series/Sequel

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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Based on a true story Drama movie review Movies Movies Politics Race and Diversity Romance

Valentine’s Day with Real-Life Movie Romantic Couples

Posted on February 12, 2021 at 8:00 am

I love to recommend romantic movies for Valentine’s Day. This year, how about some movies starring real-life movie sweethearts?

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward made several films together, including “The Long, Hot Summer” and “Rachel Rachel” (he directed, she starred).

Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn met on “Woman of the Year” and you can see them fall in love on screen.

Their last movie together was “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” This speech, filmed just before Tracy’s death, feels as though Tracy is speaking about his love for his co-star.

Carole Lombard and Clark Gable were not yet a couple when they made “No Man of Her Own,” but it is fun to see them together.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall famously fell in love making “To Have and Have Not.” I think the rest of us fall for her every time we see it.

Director Taylor Hackford met his wife, Helen Mirren, when they made “White Nights” together.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had a passionate, tempestuous relationship, including two marriages and divorces, that was reflected in their films together.

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