The Fall Guy

The Fall Guy

Posted on May 1, 2024 at 10:00 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for action and violence, drug content and some strong language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, jokes about getting tipsy, drug use, including hallucinations
Violence/ Scariness: Extended real and fictional peril and action, fights, guns and other weapons, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 3, 2024

“The Fall Guy” is a love letter to movie-making, to all of the work, all of the heart, all of the expertise from hundreds of people that goes into telling our stories. It is a love letter to the audience, filled with action, romance, comedy, impossibly gorgeous, magnificently talented ,and endlessly charismatic performers, and with joy. Most of all, it is a love letter to the unsung heroes who do the crazy daredevil stunts that make the world’s most beloved movie stars look athletic and courageous. It is pure popcorn pleasure and I cannot wait to see it again.

There’s just a tincture of the 80s television series that lends its name, its theme song, character name, and a brief cameo from its star, Lee Majors). This is the story of stunt man Ryan Gosling as Colt Seavers, who is the long-time substitute for one of the world’s biggest Hollywood action stars, Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) when the script calls for anything that might be dangerous. The job of the stunt performers is to do the crazy things that make audiences gasp and cheer: cars rolling over, falls from great heights, fighting with fists, feet, and weapons, dangling from helicopters, racing speedboats. Basically, they get paid a minuscule fraction of what the star is paid to get all of the bruises, burns. and broken bones, do to it over and over, to make sure their faces do not show and ruin the illusion, and to give a thumbs-up to show that they are fine after every take.

Colt has a crush on a cinematographer and would-be director, Jody Moreno (Emily Blunt). But when Tom insists on a re-do of a fall from the top of a skyscraper atrium because he thinks too much of Colt’s chin was showing, something goes wrong and Colt is badly injured. Over the next 18 months, as he slowly recovers, he works as a parking valet and his relationship with Jody ends in hurt and disappointment.

And then Colt gets a call from Tom’s long-time producer, Gail Meyer (“Ted Lasso’s” Hannah Waddingham). Tom is making a huge sci-fi film in Australia and Gail wants Colt to do the stunts. He says no. She says Jody asked for him. He says, “Get me an aisle seat.”

Once he gets to Sydney, Gail tells Colt that Tom has disappeared and she wants Colt to find him. He also finds out that Jody did not ask for him because (1) she is surprised to see him and not happy about it and (2) she fires him. Literally. Like, she has him do a stunt where he’s on fire and gets slammed into a rock — three times.

There is so much more I’m longing to tell you about what happens next but I want you to have the pleasure of discovering it all for yourselves. I will just say that Gosling and Blunt have chemistry for days and are clearly having a blast perfecting the balance between action, comedy, romance, and mystery, there are dozens of sly jokes about Hollywood and filmmaking, Winston Duke is a dream as the stunt coordinator (if you have not seen him in “Black Panther” and “Nine Days” and “Us,” three roles that could not be more different, watch them!), there’s a stunt dog who only understands French, and while you may expect the stunts to be amazing, they are amazing times amazing. Real-life stunt performer-turned director David Leitch likes to take Hollywood’s handsomest leading men (Brad Pitt in “Bullet Train,” Gosling here) and make them scruffy and in need of a comeback, always a choice choice. Be sure to stay through the credits for behind the scenes footage of the real stunt performers and an extra scene.

Parents should know that this is an action film with extended real and fictional (stunt) peril and violence, with guns and other weapons, fight scenes, characters injured and killed, drinking and jokes about being tipsy, drugs, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What’s your go-to karaoke song and why? Why is it hard to apologize? Would you like to see the movie Colt and Jody are making?

If you like this, try: “The Stunt Man” (some mature material) with Peter O’Toole as the director of a WWI movie who impulsively hires an escaped convict as a stunt performer, and stunt-filled films like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Fast X” and another movie from this director, also with Taylor-Johnson, “Bullet Train”

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Drive-Away Dolls

Drive-Away Dolls

Posted on February 22, 2024 at 6:39 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for crude sexual content, full nudity, language and some violent content
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and very intense violence including beheading, guns, fire, torture, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: February 23, 2024
Date Released to DVD: April 23, 2024

Once there was a vibrant category of trashy, low-budget films for the cheap theaters and drive-ins. Sometimes called grindhouse films or exploitation films because they were designed to be shocking, they are so beloved by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez that they made a tribute film called “Grindhouse” that was a high-budget version of the kind of 50s double features that inspired them when they were growing up. “Drive-Away Dolls,” from Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke, is another tribute to the Grindhouse-era films. While the sex and violence that was so shocking in the 1950s that audiences did not care about the shabby the production values are no longer shocking today, “Drive-Away Dolls” captures the transgressive spirit of those films, with no air quotes or irony, just engaging and very sincere joy in the genre. Top-level actors, camerawork, music, and wipes (we’ll get to them later) are just a bonus. Coen and Cooke (an un-credited co-director) say this is the first installment of their planned “lesbian b-movie trilogy.” Cooke is queer and they have spoken about their non-traditional marriage, which they have said is reflected in the relationships in the film.

The foundation for the story is one of the oldest and most beloved in the history of human stories: two people who are very different take a journey with many adventures along the way that expand their understanding of themselves and their world. Those people are the very free-spirited, impulsive Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and the very conventional, wear a suit to the office and correct people’s grammar Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan). It is 1999, and they are queer women living in Philadelphia. Jamie’s girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein) has just kicked her out for cheating, and she has no place to stay. Her friend Marian is feeling stressed and wants to go to Tallahassee for a break. So, Jamie decides to come along, and suggests they get a drive-away car, through a service that matches up drivers with people who want their cars to be driven to another city. As it happens, Jamie and Marian show up at the drive-away company run by Curlie (a wonderfully dry Bill Camp) just as a car going to Tallahassee has been dropped off. Curlie, who has been told to expect a pick-up and assumes that they are the ones. We, on the other hand, know that they are not.

Jamie paints “Love is a sleigh ride to hell” on the trunk of the car, and the adventure begins. The car they are driving to Tallahassee is of great interest to some very bad people. We have already seen that they are prepared to kill and inflict all kinds of mayhem and that it relates somehow to, perhaps a nod to Tarantino and “Pulp Fiction” here, an aluminum briefcase with contents that, unlike “Pulp Fiction,” will eventually be revealed and, trust me on this, you are not going to guess correctly.

The film is stylized but stylish with wipes — the transitions from one shot to the next — that are amusingly old-school and surprising guest star cameos I will not spoil here. Jamie and Marian have a lot of adventures along the way, including a make-out party with a female soccer team that is skillfully filmed in a manner that is empowering rather than explotative. The goons (as they are credited) sent to get back the briefcase have their own adventures in between bickering with each other about whether finesse or brutality is the best way to get what they want. The film includes the characteristic Coen twisty-funny dialogue, and makes good use of the settings, including statues of William Penn and Ponce de Leon gazing down on the wild adventures below. Qualley and Viswanathan are two of Hollywood’s most engaging young stars and their performances are joyful and captivating, their imperishable freshness and high spirits making it impossible for the outrageous elements to seem tawdry. It’s not for everyone, but it will be an instant favorite for fans of the Coens.

Parents should know that this movie has nudity and explicit sexual references and situations, a lot of peril and violence including a beheading, guns, knives, and fire, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Where would Jamie and Marian be today and what would most surprise them about what has and has not changed since 1999? How did they see each other differently over the course of the trip?

If you like this, try: “Grindhouse” and “Bottoms”

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Lisa Frankenstein

Lisa Frankenstein

Posted on February 8, 2024 at 12:43 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violent content, sexual assault|, language, bloody Images, sexual material, teen drinking, and drug content
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, characters brutally killed, character sees her mother killed by an ax murderer, re-animated corpse, mutilation, murder
Diversity Issues: None
Lisa Frankenstein Copyright 2024 Focus

An uneven mash-up of 80s teen comedy and horror wisely relies on the terrific Kathryn Newton as the title character, a high school girl whose mother was hacked to death by an ax murderer. Her father quickly remarried and they have moved in with her new stepmother, Janet (Carla Gugino), and step-sister, Taffy (Liza Soberano), a sunny-spirited cheerleader.

Screenwriter Diablo Cody famously began her film, “Jennifer’s Body,” with Amanda Seyfried saying, “Hell is a teenage girl.” That is the theme of that film, this film, and even her sweet, beloved screenplay for “Juno.” “Lisa Frankenstein’s” best moments are the ones that play off of the idea that horror and high school are a lot closer than we like to admit. So when Lisa falls for a re-animated corpse of a 19th century musician who died young, she matter-of-factly explains to him that Taffy told her it’s a mistake to try to change a boy, so she is just going to accept him the way he is, rotted, foul-smelling flesh and all.

Well, she does clean him off. When he first staggers into her house, covered with mud from the grave, he looks like a golem. And he does not speak. Cole Sprouse plays a character who is just identified in the credits as “the Creature” (an allusion, like the title, to the original Frankenstein story — remember, Frankenstein is the doctor, not the monster). He worked with a mime to make his non-verbal character as expressive as possible. Once the mud is washed off, as he becomes physically and emotionally re-connected to the world of the living, he gives us a sense of who he was and what he is feeling.

Newton, who memorably starred in the body-switching horror comedy “Freaky,” playing a high school girl whose body is occupied by the 6’5″ deranged serial killed played by Vince Vaughn, brings just the right tone to Lisa, who begins the story still shell-shocked from the loss of her mother and her new home with the superficially welcoming Janet and the just plain superficial Taffy. She finds it comforting to visit the abandoned cemetery in the woods, and that is where she see the grave of the Creature, with the handsome bust on the headstone. She whispers that she wishes she was with him, and somehow that calls him to her. Luckily, her after-school job doing repairs in a dry cleaning ship has given her sewing skills that will come in handy when it turns out the Creature needs some replacement body parts.

Williams relies too heavily on 80s references to make her points. Those who did not come of age in that era will not have the instant emotional connection (or laugh) she is hoping for. The opening credits are a witty mash-up of 80s-era Lisa Frank designs and Victorian silhouette animation. It is a lot of fun to see Newton as Lisa become confident and brave, rocking those 80s, Madonna-influenced outfits, the 80s songs still hold up, and it is entertaining to see some switch-ups on the usual rom-com tropes. It’s the Creature who gets the trying-on-clothes sequence, for example. First-time feature director Zelda Williams (the daughter of Robin Williams) has some strong ideas but the tone wobbles when it tries to straddle.

Parents should know that this is a horror movie and many characters are murdered in a gory manner. It includes sexual references and teen partying.

Family discussion: What 80s touches are most important in this movie? Why was Lisa so drawn to the abandoned cemetery? What do you like best about horror movies?

If you like this, try: “Freaky” and “Young Frankenstein”

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Maestro

Maestro

Posted on December 17, 2023 at 4:30 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some language and drug use
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drugs, cigarettes
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations, serious medical problems, sad death
Diversity Issues: Some references to antisemitism and prejudice against LGBTQIA people
Date Released to Theaters: December 15, 2023

Copyright 2023 Netflix
There are moments in “Maestro” that are as stunning and bravura as the works of the brilliant man who is the subject of the film. It is the story of one of the formative figures of 20th century music, composer/conductor/musician/educator Leonard Bernstein. Bradley Cooper co-wrote, directed and stars as Bernstein, whose music provides every note of the score and sometimes commentary on the narrative. Some of his choices work better than others, but every frame of the film reflects his profound immersion in Bernstein’s life and his growing mastery of cinematic storytelling.

It begins with a brilliant introduction to Bernstein as a character and to his story at an early turning point. Bernstein answers the phone. His voice is measured. Someone is ill. He expresses concern. But that means a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the second he gets off the call his ecstatic jubilation bursts from him as he kisses the man in his bed and races down to the theater, still in his robe. Conductor Bruno Walter is ill and Bernstein will conduct that night’s concert. To call it a triumph is an understatement. It was a sensation. And Cooper the director makes us not just see but feel it.

One of Bernstein’s early compositions was the music for what would become the musical and later Gene Kelly film “On the Town.” Cooper makes a very daring choice by having Bernstein and his date and future wife Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan) attend a rehearsal that becomes something of a dream ballet. The characters interact with the dancers to show us the developing dynamic of their relationship.

In another extraordinary scene, Bernstein and Felicia, now married and middle-aged, are having an argument in their Manhattan apartment. It is staged with a deep understanding of the characters, their deep but sometimes toxic connection, and of how we as the audience take in the setting. Felicia sits by the window, still but furious. Leonard hunches over in a chair, talking quickly, deflecting rather than engaging. Surreally, outside the window, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is passing by and in the next room the Bernstein children are calling out to their parents to come see Snoopy. Every detail of pacing, composition, and emotion is superb.

And one more unforgettable scene — Cooper re-enacts Bernstein conducting Mahler’s 2nd that does more than copy the physicality of Bernstein’s version as it was filmed; he inhabits it, showing us the passion, the depth of understanding, and the way Bernstein was able to communicate the most delicate nuance to a huge number of musicians and singers.

This movie is not about Bernstein as the musician and composer. There are documentaries and scholarly analyses and archival clips for that. This is about Felicia and how their relationship reflected his conflicts but made possible his achievements.
This is the story of the marriage of two people who loved each other deeply and loved their children. Felicia knew that Leonard was gay or bi-sexual (as indicated by the “On the Town” scene) before they were married and she was confident that her acceptance would make their connected impenetrable in any meaningful way. But it is much harder than she expected. It is not just about who he is physically attracted to. It is that seduction is as core to him as music. Cooper at times, especially in scenes that re-create archival material like the Edward R. Murrow television interview, seems to be replicating Bernstein. But in much of the film, especially those moments when he is thrilled by someone new, we see it is all of one piece with his furious engagement with music, with creative partners, with romantic partners, with his children and his environment — to him, with all of life.

Parents should know that this film has extended mature material including sexual references and situations, very strong language, drinking, constant smoking, tense emotional confrontations, serious illness, and a sad death.

Family discussion: What should Leonard have said to his daughter? What held Leonard and Felicia together? Do you have a favorite of his compositions?

If you like this, try: Bernstein’s music in “Candide,” “On the Town,” and “West Side Story” and his wonderful Young People’s Concerts. And learn more about the years of study that went into this performance.

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Finally! A Terrific Hallmark Hanukkah Movie!

Finally! A Terrific Hallmark Hanukkah Movie!

Posted on December 13, 2023 at 10:47 pm

Hallmark has justifiably been criticized for its all-white, all-Christmas winter holiday movies, and then it was justifiably criticized for its first attempts at a Hanukkah movies, with problems that ranged from insensitivity and ignorance to outright failures (captioning describing a Hebrew prayer as Yiddish, for example).

Copyright Hallmark 2023

But “Round and Round,” written by Tamar Laddy of “Pretty Little Lies” is one of the best Hallmark movies ever, smart, funny, and romantic, with terrific chemistry between stars Vic Michaelis and Bryan Greenberg. The “Groundhog Day” story of a woman who gets stuck repeating the seventh night of Hanukkah is delightfully self-aware, with clever references to other time loop films and cultural touchstones. And the details of Hanukkah celebrations are grounded in experience and appreciation.

Highly recommended!

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