Respect

Posted on August 12, 2021 at 5:10 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, strong language including racial epithets, violence, suggestive material, and smoking
Profanity: Some strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and alcohol abuse, drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Domestic abuse, scuffles, sad death of a parent, murder of Martin Luther King
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 13, 2021

Copyright MGM 2021
Let’s stipulate two incontrovertible truths: First, as dazzling as Jennifer Hudson is, she is not the once-to-a-planet gift that was Aretha Franklin, whose songs are so deeply embedded in our collective unconscious that we cannot help but hear it in our head and accept no substitutes. Long past her prime but every inch a diva of raise-the-rafters soul singing, the clip over the credits of Franklin singing “Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to songwriter Carole King (Franklin won her own Honor 21 years before), is breathtakingly thrilling. We see her bringing King and President Obama to tears, and I expect most will see that through their own.

Second, there are a lot of movies, many fact-based, with the theme: good woman, great songs, bad, bad men. For example: “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Piaf,” “Judy,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “The US vs. Billie Holiday”/”Lady Sings the Blues,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “A Song is Born,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” It is a challenge to make that story new, especially after the take-down of the inevitable cliches of singer biopics that is the excellent “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.”

Despite these obstacles and a 2 1/2 hour running time, the Aretha Franklin story simply titled “Respect” is absorbing and entertaining. Hudson may not sing Aretha’s songs as well as she did, but the Oscar she got for her very first movie role in “Dreamgirls” was an accurate assessment of her acting skills and screen charisma. Director Liesel Tommy and writers Tracey Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri have skillfully shaped a complex, even epic story to skip over many relationships and crises to focus on two key themes, the songs and their depiction of Franklin’s evolving voice, first in music, then in activism, then on her own behalf, and finally and most fulfillingly, to connect to God.

We first see her as a young girl, living with her father (Forest Whitaker), a prominent preacher, her grandmother (Kimberly Scott), and her sisters and brother. She is used to being awakened to sing at her father’s parties, which include prominent activists and performers. Her parents are divorced and she wishes she could spend more time with her adored mother (Audra McDonald), but overall she is happy and secure. In a wonderful scene, her mother gets her to express her feelings by singing them.

And then two cataclysmic events literally strike her silent. She is molested and gives birth to a son at age 12 and another one two years later. And her mother died.

Music is what literally gives her voice back to her. She sings, and that leads her first to tour churches with her father and then to make her first record deal, with a label that wants her to be a jazz singer. She marries Ted White (Marlon Wayans), who is threatened by anyone she wants to work with and hits her. She works with Martin Luther King. And then she starts to get the hits she has wanted.

Hudson is never less than dazzling and the film manages to give a sense of the scope of the story without getting caught up in details like the husband it just skips over. The film is ultimately, yes, respectful, just as Miss Franklin hoped.

Parents should know that this film includes domestic abuse and child molestation, sexual references and non-explicit situations, substance abuse, very strong and racist language, and some violence.

Family discussion: Who treated Aretha Franklin well? Why were hits so important to her? What made her able to start standing up for herself?

If you like this, try: “Amazing Grace,” the documentary we see being filmed at the end of this movie, the documentary “Muscle Shoals,” and of course listen to Ms. Franklin’s music

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Nine Days

Posted on August 5, 2021 at 5:29 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School

Copyright Sony Pictures Classics 2021
One of the most loved passages in English literature is in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” when a young mother who has died in childbirth has returned from a brief visit back to her life on Earth. She sadly realizes that no one living can truly appreciate the true pleasures of life on earth. That is partly because we are too busy worrying about what other people think of us and how we can buy some thing or achieve some goal that might impress them or worrying that someone might be more successful to notice the true bounty and beauty all around us. “Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers,” she says. “And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth,you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?” “No, Saints and poets maybe…they do some,” is the answer.

It is poets like Wilder who not only realize life, but help us to have moments of realizing it, too, and in “Nine Days,” first-time writer/director Edson Oda gives us an Emily-like reminder with a mystical allegory about souls who are applying for life on Earth. They are hoping to be deemed worthy so they can have a chance to not quite notice the clocks and the bread while they worry about all the things that people worry about. Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz, both so striking in heightened featured roles in comic book movies (“Black Panther” and “Deadpool”) are never less than extraordinary here, with subtle, complex performances that tells everything not just about their characters but about the world they are in. They make the allegory real, human, and utterly compelling and their final scene will live in my heart always.

Production designer Dan Hermansen and costume designer Fernando Rodriguez provide a setting that is at once strange and familiar. A house in a remote setting has a retro feel. Duke plays Will, whose wire rim glasses, suspenders, bow tie, and sweater vests give him an old-school academic vibe. And he seems to be a scholar, carefully studying and archiving videotapes that are playing on a bank of screens. We see lives from the point of view of the person whose story is being told, only glimpsing their faces when they look into a mirror or are reflected in a window.

Hands reach into a crib to cuddle a baby. Birthday candles are blown out. School bullies insult a classmate. One of particular interest is a young woman who is a gifted violinist. Will is visited by a neighbor (Benedict Wong as Kyo). We get a sense that they are friends but there is a difference in their status and experience, and we learn more about that later. But not a lot more. This movie is comfortable with ambiguity, allowing us to fill in the spaces.

Kyo and Will are looking forward to something special. The young violinist is going to perform. But there is a tragic loss, and Will is shaken. Later, a woman knocks on his door. She seems to be there for some sort of job interview. And it becomes clear that she, and a small group of others, are there to interview for the job of — being born on earth, in comfortable, supportive circumstances. The candidates, who will have up to nine days to complete a series of tests, include characters played by Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, and Beetz, as the warmest and most curious of the group. As Will tells them, their senses are dulled. When they get the news they will not be accepted, they are given a chance to live one experience that is especially meaningful for them. It is similar to “After Life,” a Korean film given four stars by Roger Ebert, but in this case the experience they will have is borrowed from someone else’s life.

The setting and the details are fascinating and provocative, though anyone who has ever lived on earth could only wish there were some tests for judgment and morality before allowing a soul to be born. What makes the film so enthralling, though, are the rich, complex, sensitive performances that make each character real and and, yes, alive, and the questions you will ask yourself later about how you would respond to Will’s tests and what you can do to better appreciate the life we have.

Parents should know that this film deals with issues of life and death, and there is a suicide. Characters have intense experiences and some confrontations.

Family discussion: What do these tests determine? Why is the character named Will? What does his experience as a human bring to his job that Kyo cannot?

If you like this, try; “After Life,” “Defending Your Life,” and “Soul”

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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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Soul

Posted on December 22, 2020 at 4:18 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some language and thematic elements
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Issues of life and death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2020

Copyright Pixar 2020
Pixar likes to take big swings, not just artistically but thematically. In “Soul,” Pixar has its first adult male (human) and its first Black lead character in Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx. It has a less stylized look, set in a sepia-toned New York City. And it is about the most fundamental existential questions of all: Why am I me? What makes life meaningful?

We are human because we ask those questions. And the answer to that second one is: In part to make movies like this one, to explore what makes life worthwhile.

Joe is a jazz musician. At least, that’s what he is in his heart, what he wants to be, what he thinks he was born to be. But what he is at the moment is a high school music teacher trying to make teenagers’ instruments sound less screechy and more on key. And then (this is still in the first minutes of the movie) he gets the chance of his dreams. A former student named Curly (Questlove) invites Joe to to audition for saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Joe takes a risk by adding his own ideas to Dorthea’s music, and she agrees to let him join her on stage that night. It’s everything he ever hoped for.

That’s why he is not paying careful attention as he walks home, and so he falls into a sewer and dies. We’re still in the first minutes of the film.

Instead of The Great Beyond, Joe ends up in The Great Before, where young souls prepare to be born. Joe thinks this could be his opportunity to return to earth and become the musician he knows was his reason for being alive. The counselors who guide the little souls think he is a mentor, and assign him to their hardest case, known as 22 (Tina Fey). Mentors like Lincoln, Mother Teresa, and Gandhi have all failed to persuade her. So we have one character who will do anything to get back to life on earth and one who refuses to go because she doesn’t see the point.

Copyright 2020 Pixar

The counselors look like Calder wire sculptures. They are all named Jerry. And they have a diverse range of voices, including Wes Studi, Fortune Feimster, and Richard Ayoade. Why do they look and sound like that? Because they are too complex for humans to comprehend, they have created these simple, accessible forms.

That’s what all story-tellers try to do, what stories are for, and what Pixar has done here: they take very complicated characters and themes and make them accessible to us. When they do it right, we cry. And then we continue to think about what they illuminate for us. If they do it right, we are enlarged by it, as the characters are. This is Pixar, so it will make you laugh, think, and cry, and then think some more. And because it is Pixar the art, from the character design to the real and imagined settings are believable and enthralling. The sublime jazz music is from Jon Batiste and the score is from top team Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (also heard this year in “Mank” and “Watchmen”).

Co-writer/co-director Kemp Powers (screenwriter of one of December’s other best films, “One Night in Miami”) was one of many Black voices brought in to make sure the film is authentic to the lived experience of Black people for two reasons. First, they wanted Black audience members to recognize the characters and the experiences. Powers encouraged the addition of one of my favorite scenes in the film, the barbershop owned by Joe’s friend Dez (Donnell Rawlings). Co-writer/co-director Pete Docter is exploring what happens to us after we survive growing up, as in his now-classic “Inside Out.”

We learn from Joe’s interactions with Dez and Curly that he is so caught up in music and his fear of not realizing his dream of playing “Black improvisational music” that he does not really listen to others. (An encounter later on with another student helps him begin to realize that even people who are not a part of his “real” life have something to tell him.) And we learn before Joe does that just because we have a dream does not mean it is the only dream or the best dream.

There are so many ideas and insights and so much music in “Soul” that it rewards several viewings. In The Great Before, each soul waiting to be born visits the Hall of You, to pick up individual personal qualities, like being excitable or aloof. They can give the soul the what and the who, but the why is something they have to discover for themselves. There is a sort of no-man’s-land for people who operate outside the rules of The Great Before, including a pirate shipped manned (so to speak) by people like Moonwind (talk show host Graham Norton) who is still alive on earth but through meditation communes with the universe. There are many lovely touches in the details, like the pre-credits “When You Wish Upon a Star” played by Joe’s students.

Joe and 22 end up back on earth, chased by a celestial accountant named Terry (Rachel House) trying to bring them back to The Great Before. Can Joe get to the performance after all? Can 22 find some reason to live as a human? (You don’t have to be an existential philosopher to agree with her that pizza is pretty great.)

We’ve all seen a lot of movies with heroes who seek and find their one true purpose. Many are based on real life, about people who became successful and famous ins spite of doubters. There are always those who nag them to do something else and we are supposed to see them as short-sighted and selfish. “Soul” wants us to see more than that, and it shows us how to begin.

Parents should know that this movie concerns life and death and a character is killed in an accident early in the film and then goes to The Great Before. There is some mild language and some cartoon-style peril.

Family discussion: What would you see in the Hall of You? What would you tell 22? How has this year made you think about what is important?

If you like this, try: “Inside Out” and “Everybody Rides the Carousel”

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Interview: Father Leahy on “Benedict Men”

Posted on September 30, 2020 at 11:45 am

copyright quibi 2020
Athletic competition is endlessly fascinating, not just because of the talent and skill but because no one becomes a champion without character and values: determination, courage, and the kind of teamwork that requires respect and responsibility. And because we love stories about underdogs who never give up and come from behind. Basketball superstar Steph Curry understands that, and so he is the producer of a superb new documentary series on Quibi called “Benedict Men,” the story of a small Catholic high school in New Jersey run by Bendictine monks, most of the students Black and from families struggling financially, with a basketball team that is consistently the state champion.

I spoke to Father Edwin Leahy about the school, the basketball program, and the documentary.

What defines the Benedictines? What makes them different from the Jesuits and other Catholic orders that run schools?

The Jesuits were created by St. Ignatius to be at the disposal of the holy father, the pope, to go wherever they needed to be in the world to evangelize. We on the other hand are the oldest order in the church because St. Benedict existed/lived in 480 or 530 more or less 540. The fundamental difference is that we take a vow of stability so we are vowed to a place. We have other vows as well but that is the distinguishing mark, that we don’t get moved around. We live in the same place for our lives until they carry us out of the church as they say in Spanish in pajamas of wood, in a box. We’re here to stay and that’s our great strength, it’s also our great weakness because if we don’t get vocations to come to our house there’s a problem because there’s no place else you transfer people in from.

So you’ve been at St. Benedicts for a long time.

I went to school here as a high school boy. My father wanted me to go to an all-boys school so I applied here. I got rejected and my father was not to be put off, he talked to the pastor of our church and the pastor interceded and I got in provisionally. The joke turned out to be some of the people who rejected me wound up working for me.

When I got here I loved it; I could take you to the place in the building where I stood the first and second day I was here. I was a 13-year-old at the time and I knew I was home; I have no idea why but I knew I was home and I belonged here and here we are fifty something years later.

I entered the monastery community here in 1965, professed vows in ‘66, took solemn vows in ‘69, was ordained a priest in ‘72. I’ve been living here in Newark at the abbey at St. Benedict’s Prep since 1969.

The school closed in 1972 after 104 years because of racism and we lost 14 men from our monastery; they went to another place and we were stuck with trying to live a community life with no common work. So, we decided we would try to do something in education which is what we had always done and what the city desperately needed. I was dumb enough to say I would try to do it in 1972 and I’ve been doing it ever since. For 48 years I’ve been doing this and loving it.

Copyright QUIBI 2020

We learn in the film that your school motto is “What hurts my brother hurts me.” How does that apply in the competitive world of sports?

It applies in every level of our operations here. It is the ability to understand the other’s struggle and the other’s sufferings. It’s hard to create community and it’s hard to create teams if you can’t understand each other’s reality and each other’s sufferings.

You see in the series it gets rough at the end because of difficulties in giving up “what I want” for “what we need.” That’s the nature of community because if you live in community you’ve got to give up what you want for what the community needs; not easy to do and none of us can do it consistently.

We have a tendency that we do it and then we slip, then we do it; that’s basically our life. Our Father Albert describes the life in the monastery this way. When people ask him what do monks do, he says, “We fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up; we fall down and we get up,” and that’s life basically. So, the hope is there are more of us on our feet than there are on the ground at a given time, and then we can help people up. That’s it. That’s the secret and that’s what we try to do in this place in school all the time. That’s what you have to do on a team. If you can’t do that it’s hard to be a success.

I was surprised to see how many decisions at the school are made by the students. You give them a lot of leeway and a lot of power.

Our job here as adults is to prevent them from making decisions that will either physically hurt them or long-term hurt them. We’re not going to let kids make decisions because they can’t see 10 or 15 years from now that are going to damage them. So anything short of that, they decide it.

Remember, this place has to be re-created every year. In a company the CEO usually has the job for several years but here the CEO changes every year because there’s a senior year group leader who runs the place and he graduates and leaves. Well it’s early in the year one year and they decided that kids had worked really, really hard and they were going to have only half a day at school and at 12:30 they were going to be over. But we go from kindergarten to grade 12.

They tell me this and I said, “That’s a bad idea,” and they said “No, no, no we’re going to do it, we want to do it, we think it’s a good idea.” I said “I think you’re making a bad mistake, here’s why. First of all, you can’t let the little kids out without parents’ permission.” They said, “They’re going to stay all day.” “Oh, okay so that’s fair the little kids are going to go all day with the older kids having a half day; how is that fair?” “Well, we’ll figure out another way to do something for them.”

So, I said, “If something goes wrong when the middle school kids get out, who’s going to explain it to the parents?” I thought I got them to back off but they sent an email saying that school was going to be over at 12:30. I had about 15 minutes to pull this thing back. They pulled it off. They got in touch with faculty members and called the whole thing off and then we found another day down the road when we could give them the whole day off and not half a day and inform parents and all that but it took hours of discussion.
If they’re going to make it without adult advice they had damn well better be right because no parent is going to go after the 18 year old senior group leader; they’re going to come after me.

The rule is: do not do for kids what kids can do for themselves. So, here’s another example. 152 years we’re an all-boys school, last year two Catholic schools announced they were closing. One was a girl’s academy, the other was a co-ed school.

The girls unbeknownst to me came over here and they had a meeting in the boardroom and they decided that they were going to have a girls division here at St. Benedicts. I’m standing at dismissal time outside my office, outside the trophy room which is where everybody walks by; it’s like Times Square, everybody goes by there to go out the door. So, I’m standing there and one of the leaders, one of the guys, comes out and he says, “You got to come to this meeting.” I said, “What meeting?” “Oh there’s a meeting in the boardroom.” “What are you talking about? I don’t know anything about a meeting.” “Just come in.”

They grabbed me the arm and dragged me into the meeting, I sit down and it becomes obvious to me in about two seconds that the meeting is just about over. I wasn’t being called in to participate in any decisions; I was being called in to be told what was going to happen and that I had to have girls division. I said, “We can’t have a girls division. (1) we’ve never had girls and (2) we don’t have any space.” “Well, let’s figure it out.” I put every roadblock up in the world that I could think of and nothing; they ignored me, none, zero, none of them worked. I couldn’t stop them and to make a long story short, we now have a girl’s division here; created completely by the girls and our guys. I had very little to do with it; it’s amazing.

It’s been a great blessing to have the girls here. It was all created by the kids; they did the whole thing.

What do you want people to learn from watching this series?

I want them to better understand the struggles and the suffering of not just basketball players (these kids happen to be basketball players) but the struggles and sufferings of our brothers and sisters of color in urban America. To have to put all your energy, your effort, as a 16 or 17-year-old as our student C.J. Wilcher said, “to try to help my family,” is not right; it’s just not right.

To have people living in poverty and some living in misery in the midst of the first world is a disgrace to the country. So, I hope people get a sense of the sufferings of kids and the anxiety that some have to live with. Even some parents fall into this. They begin to treat their kids as assets instead of like their children and that’s a disaster. There are a million people in the world that could be their kid’s basketball coach or could be his agent, but there is only one person in the world that can be his mother and only one person in the world that

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