Kinds of Kindness

Kinds of Kindness

Posted on June 27, 2024 at 5:15 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking, characters drugged for abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Explicit, disturbing violence including self-mutilation, suicide, and rape, very graphic and shocking images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 28, 2024
Copyright 2024 Searchlight

Director Yorgos Lanthimos is more interested in shock and sensation than story or character. He reunites with his “Poor Things” stars Emma Stone and Willem Dafoe and his “The Lobster,” “Dogtooth,” and “Killing of a Sacred Deer” co-screenwriter Efthymis Filippou for “Kinds of Kindness,” which is not about kindness at all but about obsession, dominance, and sacrifice. In its almost three-hour run time it features self-mutilation, suicide, murder, rape, a valuable broken tennis racket, and a cult centered around a notion of purity, a sweat lodge, and the possibility of reviving the dead. And it features a repertory cast of actors playing different characters in three otherwise unrelated stories, each appearing with a title referring to “R.B.F.”

Those initials are glimpsed onscreen just once, at the beginning of the film. “Sweet Dreams are Made of This” by Eurythmics intones on the soundtrack, telling us what is ahead: “Some of them want to abuse you. Some of them want to be abused.” There are many symbolic allusions throughout, though most gesture toward meaning rather than attempting it. Like these: There is a street named Perdido (lost). A close-up of two mouths kissing is so extreme it may make you wonder how humans ever got started with it. There is the novel Anna Karenina. That broken tennis racket was smashed during a game by John McEnroe. There’s also a cracked helmet worn in a race by Ayrton Senna. We see a blue pick-up truck, and then two more just like it.

The first story is titled: “The Death of RMF.” A man comes to the door of a luxurious home and is let in by a beautiful young woman (Margaret Qualley) wearing a very short silk robe. She describes what he is wearing to someone over the phone, including the monogram on his shirt: RMF, which she initially mistakes for BMF, explaining that the embroidery is poorly done. The person on the other end of the phone is Raymond (Dafoe), wealthy, powerful, and obsessively concerned with controlling the most intimate details of everyone around him. One of those is Robert (Jesse Plemons), an executive in Raymond’s construction business, who lives in a modern mansion with his wife, Sarah (Hong Chau). Robert receives a hand-written note card with a minute-by-minute description of his day, from the socks, shoes, and suit he must wear to when he must and must not have sex with his wife. Robert for the first time, after ten years, tries to say no to Raymond when his first attempt to complete a dangerous, possibly deadly, task, is unsuccessful. This is when we find out what Raymond is willing to do, how much he is willing to debase himself by pleading, lying, stealing, harming himself, and worse.

“RMF is Flying” is the title of the second story, with Plemons as a police officer named Daniel whose wife, Liz (Emma Stone) is missing with her colleagues who were on a marine research trip. Daniel cannot think of anything else, worrying about what she is eating, imaging that a suspect in the police station looks like her. His partner and best friend is Neil (Mamoudou Athie), married to Martha (Qualley). They do their best to provide comfort and support, but Daniel is inconsolable. And then Liz returns. But Daniel believes something is wrong, and this being who looks and sounds like Liz cannot possibly be his wife.

The title of the third story is “RMF Eats a Sandwich.” This time, Stone plays Emily and Plemons is Andrew. They are testing young women on behalf of a group we will learn about. This is so important to her that she has left her husband, Joseph (Joe Alwyn) and the daughter they just call The Little One (Merah Benoit).

The screenplay relies heavily on the shock value, the performances and the production design by Anthony Gasparro to make the movie seem weightier than it is. And when that’s not enough, it winks at the audience to let us know that it just doesn’t care.

NOTE: Stay into the credits to see a bit more. Stone’s dance is every bit as good as the one that was a highlight of “Poor Things.”

Parents should know that this movie has pervasive adult material including sexual references and explicit situations, nudity, very strong language, alcohol and smoking, and graphic and disturbing images including suicide, murder and police shooting an unarmed man.

Family discussion: Why does Robert do want Raymond tells him to do? Why do Emily and Andrew do what Omi and Aka tell them to do? Why does the tennis racket mean so much to Sarah and so little to the people who buy it? How do you decide who you trust? Who is RMF and why does he matter to these stories?

If you like this, try: “The Lobster” and “Poor Things”

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American Fiction

American Fiction

Posted on December 17, 2023 at 4:25 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, some drug use, sexual references and brief violence
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drugs, references to drug dealers
Violence/ Scariness: Brief graphic violence, reference to suicide
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 22, 2023

Copyright Amazon 2023
“American Fiction,” from first-time writer/director Cord Jefferson and based on the 2001 novel Erasure, by Percival Everett, is a biting satire of just about every aspect of American life, especially academia, publishing, and racism. It is also a heartfelt story about family connections and the conflicts that strain them. It is provocative, funny, and searingly smart. In my opinion, it is the best film of the year.

What’s remarkable is that Everett’s story is even more timely now than it was 22 years ago. Indeed, life imitates art, as Jefferson has spoken about how this story about a frustrated Black academic writes a satiric take-down of the kinds of Black representation that pander to white audiences had the same kind of difficulty getting this film made that the fictional professor had in finding a publisher for his book about classical Greek literature.

That professor, like the man who created him, has a literary name. He is Thelonious Ellison, nicknamed “Monk” after the musician Thelonius Monk. He likes to think of himself as living in a non-racial or post-racial world. He feigns ignorance when his class objects to his writing the title of a Flannery O’Connor story that includes the n-word on the blackboard, and frustrated when he gets in trouble for it. It infuriates Monk that his books about classical literature are shelved with Black books. It infuriates him even more when his agent, Arthur (a terrific John Ortiz of “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Ad Astra”) tells him publishers want him to write a “Black book.” “It is a Black book! I’m Black and it’s a book!” Monk says.

Monk’s relationship with his family is strained. His sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) is a doctor, exhausted from the stress of her job and caring for their mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams), who is experiencing cognitive decline. His brother Clifford (Sterling K. Brown), also a doctor, is dealing with his own domestic upheaval as he wife left him after she found him having sex with a man. After a shocking loss, Monk has to take responsibility for Agnes, and he needs money.

Impetuously, Monk quickly bangs out a book he titles My Pathology. No, he corrects it, or un-corrects it, My Pafology, presumably a first-person narrative by a gang member and drug dealer known as Stagg R. Leigh (the name inspired y the 19th century pimp described in the classic song). The book is immediately snapped up by thrilled white editors at a top publishing house who chirp at him that they hope to get it out by Juneteenth. And then a white Hollywood director is interested.

Monk, his mother, and the family’s long-time housekeeper Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor) visit the family’s vacation home on the water, and Monk meets the woman who owns the house across the street, a lawyer named Coraline (Erika Alexander). The film, like Monk’s book, has a heightened tone, but Alexander’s Coraline brings a grounding reality to the story as both the heart and the moral center. A scene with Coraline, Monk, and Clifford is one of the highlights of a consistently outstanding film.

Indeed, every performance is superb and Jefferson’s exceptional control of tone somehow makes the heightened portions and the more realistic elements work seamlessly together. Another outstanding scene has Monk talking to Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) as a sophisticated author whose “poverty porn” book, We’s Lives In Da Ghetto is a critical and commercial success. Taylor makes the loyal family retainer role fully complex, and we are grateful to see that the screenplay gives her a chance to have her own life and dreams.

This is a movie that cares about all of its characters and about the pernicious effects of racism, including the unacknowledged racism of people who consider themselves free from bigotry. Jefferson knows the hardest truths reach us through humor, and this movie is filled with wonderfully funny moments. It is only later that we realize just how compelling its messages are.

Parents should know that this film has constant strong language, sexual references, drinking and drugs and a fictional drug dealer, and a brief scene of graphic violence.

Family discussion: Which book of Monk’s would you want to read? Do you agree with Coraline about not judging people on their worst day?

If you like this, try: “Dear White People” and Percival Everett’s books. And for a real-life conversation about these issues, see the Jay-Z documentary, “Fade to Black.” As I wrote about it in my book 101 Must-See Movie Moments:

Backstage, aspiring young performers talk about the conflict they feel knowing that in order to be successful they must pander to stereotypes about “gangstas” instead of addressing a wider range of issues or exploring their own experiences and feelings.
Jay-Z begins by saying that he thinks the violence and drug problems of the inner city are not as bad as they were when he was younger and that it takes people speaking out against it to make a difference. But, he says, it is not his style to do so. “You’re not that type of rapper,” one of his friends agrees. “For two lines out of a 60-minute tape,” he says, “for 30 seconds, I felt like saying something, to speak on what’s going on in the hood, should I not do that? Should I ignore those feelings?”

Young hip-hop artists who want to be as successful as Jay-Z then talk about their conflicts. “You rapping on shooting and killing people,” Jay-Z says to one of them. “They the one who buy it. That’s what people want to hear,” the other responds. “Truthfully, it’s whack. I’ve been feeling that way, too. I don’t be wanting to do that. It seems that sometimes that’s all the n*** want to hear.” Another one advises him to “be you,” asking “Why would you write a rhyme that you don’t want to write?” But he does not think his music will sell if he tries something different, even if it is more honest.

Jay-Z tells the documentary cameraman to focus on him so he can speak directly to us in the audience. “See what you, the public, did to rappers? They scared to be theyselves. N*** don’t think that people gonna accept them as theyself.”

It is as powerful and telling a moment about art, mortality, culture, and identity as has ever been filmed.

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Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Posted on December 23, 2022 at 5:41 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, strong language, and thematic content
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkeness
Violence/ Scariness: A murder mystery with peril, homicide, and fighting, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 23, 2022

Copyright Netflix 2022
I have very conflicting ideas about this review. Part of me wants to tell you all about “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” but a bigger part of me wants you to find out all of its secrets and surprises on your own. So bear with me if I lean too far in that direction. I’m doing it for your own good. “Glass Onion” is an enormously entertaining delight and I want you to enjoy it fully. In fact, go ahead and watch it and then come back here if you want to see what I think about it.

Like its predecessor, “Knives Out,” it is a deliciously twisty remix of the classic British-style murder mystery, with a fabulous location and a group of suspects who all have motive and opportunity. Also like its predecessor, it has an all-star cast clearly enjoying themselves enormously.

The very large cast is efficiently and wittily introduced as each of them receives an elaborate invitation to a party at a fabulous glass mansion on a remote island, the home of a billionaire named Miles Bron (Edward Norton). In a brilliantly edited sequence, we see each of the characters trying to open the box, telling us a lot about who they are and how they think. Jackie Hoffman, as one character’s mother, is hilariously bored and sharp at the same time.

Receiving the astonishingly crafted puzzle box with the invitation:

Kate Hudson as Birdie Jay, a flamboyant, selfish, famous-for-being-famous celebrity whose outspoken remarks are often offensive.

Kathryn Hahn as Claire Debella, the governor of Connecticut.

Dave Bautista as Duke, an obnoxious, gun-toting social media star. He brings his girlfriend, Whiskey (Madeline Cline).

Leslie Odem as Lionel, a scientist working with Miles on a secret project.

Janelle Monae as Andi, formerly Miles’ girlfriend and partner.

These people were all friends before Miles became wealthy and they get together once a year. This year, Miles has something special planned, a murder mystery game.

Also arriving on the island — the one carry-over character from the earlier film, the brilliant detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig).

We learn about the connections that tie this group together, with some hilarious cameo appearances (two very touching from huge stars we recently lost) and celebrity references. Miles’ glass palace is filled with the kind of gauche art displays you would see in the home of an ultra-rich guy who wants bragging rights. (Genuine art lovers will notice that the “Rothko” is hanging upside down.) Amidst the twists and turns of the story are some clever digs at those we consider “influencers” and “disrupters.”

The performances are all spectacular. Hudson nails the selfish, superficial fading star desperate for attention, pretending that she does not know the difference between being outspoken and having something to say. Norton is just right with the false geniality of of a man who has given up everything to think of himself as a winner. Craig is a hoot (one of the movie’s best surprises is the reveal of his romantic partner). Monae masters a role that requires a lot of subtlety as the estranged member of the group and looks like a billion bucks as she does so.

What song will Johnson pick for the next one? Which superstars will appear? I can’t wait to find out.

Parents should know that this is a murder mystery with homicides and betrayal. There are some graphic images, characters use strong language and drink and get drunk. The movie also includes sexual references and a sexual situation.

Family discussion: What was the biggest surprise in the movie? How does the Beatles song “Glass Onion” relate to the film? Who should star in the next chapter?

If you like this, try: “Knives Out” and “See How They Run” as well as some of the stories that inspired them: “And Then There Were None,” “The Thin Man,” and the original “Murder on the Orient Express”

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White Noise

White Noise

Posted on December 1, 2022 at 5:15 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Apocalyptic themes
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters

Copyright 2022 Netflix
Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise won the National Book Award for fiction. It was an apocalyptic satire about a couple in an academic community who both have a sense of dread and fear of death, and what happens when a toxic cloud causes a massive evacuation. Pretty much everyone agreed that it was un-filmable because so much of its value depended on the book’s tone, which would be impossible to convey on screen. But Noah Bumbach decided that for his first time directed a script based on a book (he co-wrote but did not direct the adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox”) White Noise would be it.

It’s probably even more of a challenge to translate to film now than it was 27 years ago because some of the wildest exaggerations of the satire now seem to be commonplace elements of our daily life. And its reflections on consumerism and the way we separate ourselves from daily and existential considerations are too well-traveled to be meaningful without some freshness in their presentation.

Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) is a professor at the fictional College on the Hill, married to Babette (Greta Gerwig), a warm-hearted woman with intensely crimped hair. Each has been married three times before, and they blended family includes children from the previous relationships and one they had together. They have a loving, intimate relationship, though both are pre-occupied with a fear of death and talk about which one of them will die first.

Jack is a pioneer in Hitler studies, though he does not speak German. He has a new colleague, Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), who lectures on popular culture themes like car crashes in movies and hopes to be the leading scholar on Elvis Presley. One of the film’s highlights is an almost rap battle after Murray asks Jack to help him by participating in his class.

Some kind of toxic cloud descends, triggering an evacuation. As families shelter in a gigantic warehouse, Jack learns that because he stopped to put gas in the car, his exposure may mean that he has only a short time to live. The bureaucratic obtuseness is briefly touched on, and then the story swings into trying to find out what medicine Babette has been taking.

Bumbach is skilled at intimate, complicated family dramas like “The Squid and the Whale” and “Marriage Story.” He is not able to find a heightened tone for this narrative with the different directions of its three stories and characters who are more symbolic than real. Driver and Gerwig both give excellent performances but they are too sincere and accessible for this brittle material. The credit sequence is the best part of the movie, coming closer to matching the themes than the two hours leading up to it.

Parents should know that this film deals with apocalyptic issues and family struggles over drugs and adultery. There is some peril and violence including guns and attempted murder. Characters use strong language.

Family discussion: How have things changed since this book was written and the era it depicts? Why didn’t Babette tell Jack the truth?

If you like this, try: the book by Don DeLillo and Baumbach’s other films

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Rosaline

Rosaline

Posted on October 12, 2022 at 9:52 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some suggestive material and brief strong language
Profanity: Strong language (s-words, one f-word)
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some swordplay and fight scenes
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 14, 2022

Copyright 2022 20th Century
Most people do not remember that before he met Juliet at the masked ball and instantly fell in love with her as they communicated not just by iambic pentameter but by sonnet, Romeo was in love with Juliet’s cousin Rosaline. She was also a Capulet and a part of the family of his family’s sworn enemies. It’s easy to forget her because Romeo did. Though the whole reason he snuck into the party was to see the girl he described as “the all-seeing sun ne’er saw her match since first the world begun,” as soon as he sees Juliet, it is as Benvilio correctly predicted: “Compare her face with some that I shall show, and I will make thee think thy swan a crow.” Next thing we know he’s telling Friar Lawrence, “I have forgot that name, and that name’s woe.”

Ever wonder how the story might look from Rosaline’s perspective? Author Rebecca Serle did, with her novel, When He Was Mine, now the basis for a witty romantic comedy starring the wildly talented Kaitlyn Dever (who also executive-produced) as the woman scorned. It is sly, clever fun on its own, but the better you know Shakespeare’s play, the more you will enjoy it.

it begins on a balcony. Rosaline’s balcony. Romeo is telling her about his feelings, in words that will seem familiar. And, as will also seem familiar, their secret tryst is interrupted by a call for her from inside. Like Juliet, she has a nurse/confidant (a terrifically dry Minnie Driver), and a father who is eager to marry her off (Bradley Whitford). Rosaline believes that she and Romeo are meant to be together (though she is not quite ready to say, “I love you”).

And then, while on a boat with one of the suitors her father has foisted on her, she misses that Capulet masked ball, and, well, we know that part of the story. That suitor is Dario, played with full Shakespearian dash, wit, and gallantry by Sean Teale, and in true Shakespearian fashion, when not writing about instant true love, they begin as hostile combatants. He even calls her a shrew. This is a reference, of course, to another Shakespeare play, but no one gets tamed in this one.

But, in this version, Rosaline, the woman scorned, does go all-out “My Best Friend’s Wedding” on her cousin, and tries every way she can think of to get her boyfriend back. She even enlists Dario’s help. Like the recent “Catherine Called Birdy,” much of the humor comes from a very modern sensibility, with contemporary language, pointing up some of the absurdity of the canon.

Juliet is played by sweet-faced Isabela Merced. At first, she is intrigued by what Rosaline has to show her about the bigger world. When she realizes that Rosaline has not been honest with her, she pursues the relationship with Romeo and comes up with a plan to pretend to be dead. Rosaline says what audiences have been waiting to say for centuries. It is a dumb plan. And those audiences will appreciate what Rosaline and Dario work out as a better ending, especially with a mid-credit. sequence harking back to Dario’s description of what he thinks love is. Romeo may be great at poetic speeches on balconies, but you need more than that on life’s journey.

For the record, this movie does not “ruin” or even disrespect “Romeo and Juliet.” The play and its many versions and variations are still with us, from the Franco Zefferelli and Baz Luhrmann films to the Gounod opera and “West Side Story.” They are all still there, intact, and easy to access. What this does is remind us that even minor characters in our stories can have value and agency, that exploring other perspectives can increase our understanding and empathy. And that it can be a lot of fun.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language and swordplay violence.

Family discussion: What story would you like to re-tell from a minor character’s perspective? What made Rosaline and Dario change their minds about each other? What do you think of Dario’s description of love?

If you like this, try: “Ophelia,” a smart and serious version of “Hamlet” from the perspective of the young woman, “Catherine Called Birdy,” another sharp modern take on a medieval story about a young woman, and “A Knight’s Tale”

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