Let Him Go

Posted on November 2, 2020 at 8:00 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and very tense peril and violence, sad death, characters injured and killed, guns, ax, fire
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 6, 2020

Copyright 2020 Focus Features
We think George (Kevin Costner) and Margaret (Diane Lane) Blackledge are dressing for a funeral. In the first moments of “Let Him Go” their adult son was killed in an accident on their farm, and their expressions and clothes are somber. But it is three years after their son’s death and they are dressing for a wedding, not a funeral. Lorna (Kayli Carter), the widow of their son James and the mother of his now-three-year-old son Jimmy, is getting married to a man named Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain) and leaving their farm to live with him. They reassure themselves that they will still see Jimmy. But then Margaret sees them when they don’t know she is there, and Donnie hits Lorna. And then, without any notice, Donnie, Lorna, and Jimmy disappear. He has gone home to his family, leaving no way to contact them. It is the 1960s, and it was easier to hide in those days, whether from grandparents or from law enforcement.

Margaret decides to go after them, to bring Jimmy home to live with them. George agrees to go along, but he does not think they can get Jimmy away from his mother and his new family. He wants to give Margaret a chance to say goodbye.

“Let Him Go” is based on a book by Larry Watson, adapted by writer/director Thomas Bezucha. He makes great use of the majestic scenery of the northwest, especially when George and Margaret encounter a lone young Native American named Peter Dragswolf (Booboo Stewart). Just as in the classic westerns, the landscape emphasizes the opportunity — and the dangers — of a world where there is so much land and people are so isolated.

Lane and Costner, who played a couple in two Superman movies, have an easy chemistry that makes us believe there is a long history between them. Neither George nor Margaret say much, in part because they know each other so well there is little more to say, and that includes understanding that there is no point in trying to persuade each other on issues that they know too well will never be resolved. “Sometimes that’s all life is, a list of what we’ve lost,” George says. But Margaret is not going to give up.

Bezucha knows how to create tension, even with seemingly simple comments or undramatic settings, which only adds to the sense of dread. You don’t find a Weboy, a relative tells them. “You let it be known you’re looking for a Weboy. They find you.”

And they do, at a place so far off the map they could never find it without being led by Donnie’s uncle. They are invited to dinner by Donnie’s mother Blanche, played by the unsurpassable Lesley Manville, in one of the year’s best performances. She can make the offer of pork chops sound ominous. And she does. She rips into the role and is absolutely electrifying. And terrifying.

Two solid citizens up against a family of feral outlaws, an updated western with good guys and bad guys leading to an intense and violent battle. The set-up is conventional, but the direction and performances make it memorable.

Parents should know that this film is an exceptionally tense thriller with peril, abuse, and violence that includes guns, an ax, and fire. Characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: Why did George and Margaret have different ideas about what they wanted to get from finding Jimmy? What do we learn from Peter’s story?

If you like this, try: “The Lookout” and “The Highwaymen”

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The Craft: Legacy

Posted on October 28, 2020 at 5:54 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, brief drug material, language, and crude and sexual content
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief drug material
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy peril and violence, references to suicide, abuse, and murder, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 30, 2020

Copyright Blumhouse 2020
I’m a big fan of the 1996 original “The Craft” with Neve Campbell as one of four teenage witches who get up to mischief and then get into trouble, and then turn on each other. With “The Craft: Legacy,” writer/director Zoe Lister-Jones (“Band Aid”) has given us a smart and witty update that pays tribute to the original but is very much its own take on the subject, with a couple of delicious twists along the way.

Lily (Cailee Spaeny) and her mother Helen (Michelle Monaghan) are driving with a sense of fun and adventure, singing along to Alanis Morrisette’s “One Hand in My Pocket.” But they are not entirely carefree. We can see right away that they are very close but more pals than mother and daughter. When they tear up over some melancholy thought, is is the mother who turns to the daughter for reassurance and a touch-up of her make-up. They are starting something new, a new house, a new town, a new school, and a new family. Helen has a new love, Adam (David Duchovney), and they are moving in with him and his three sons. He welcomes them warmly. Lily is doing her best to be supportive, but she is startled by a striped snake, or perhaps it is just her imagination.

As she gets ready for school, Lily’s mother asks if she is looking forward to making new friends, and Lily answers, “That would imply I had old friends.” Her mother assures her, as she clearly has many times, that “your difference is your power.”

Things do not get off to a good start at school. Lily’s period bleeds through her jeans in class and boys jeer and hoot at her. When she is crying in the restroom, three girls enter to provide some sympathy and support and a change of pants. They are Frankie (Gideon Adlon), Tabby (Lovie Simone), and Lourdes (Zoey Luna), three girls who have been experimenting with witchcraft. They need a fourth to call the corners, so they will represent all of the elements and directions, and they sense Lily may be the one they’ve been waiting for, especially after a boy named Timmy (Nicholas Galitzine) who taunts her with a vulgar whisper in her ear somehow gets slammed into the lockers.

Unlike the 20-something actresses in the original, these girls look like they are in high school and Lister-Jones skillfully and believably mixes their witchcraft with the other concerns of adolescence. They talk about telepathy, shape-shifting, and telekinesis and about boys and parties. When they get dressed up, they don’t need or resort to magic to look their best. But they aren’t above casting a spell on the boy who harassed Lily. In the original film, the girls used magic to make the boy who treated them badly fall in love, and to deceive him. In this one, they use their magic to make him…well, after the spell he talks about reading an interview with Janet Mock, loving singer/activist Princess Nokia, and identifying himself as cisgender male. He is nicknamed “woke Timmy.” His vulnerability makes him attractive to Lily and her acceptance attracts him as well.

But things go wrong and the girls blame Lily, believing she abandoned their rules by acting carelessly and selfishly. They abandon her and bind her powers just as she needs both the most.

It is not as intense or dramatic at the original and spends less time on the girls and their lives and motivations. But it has a strong grounding in the essential power of friendship and loyalty, some revelations that add suspense, a sly take on toxic masculinity, and strong performances by Spaney and Monaghan. It deftly borrows from haunted house films and from scary neighbor films as well. Most important, it gives the girls agency and a sense of responsibility and a much appreciated sweetness.

NOTE: My daughter worked briefly in the costume department on this film. Needless to say, the costumes are outstanding. I don’t always give her films good ratings, so it was an added pleasure to enjoy this one as much as I did.

Parents should know that this film includes bodily functions and sexual references, brief drug content, and extended fantasy peril and violence. There are references to abuse, suicide, and murder.

Family discussion: What rules should a group like this adopt and how should they be enforced? Should Helen have told Lily the truth? Why is Lily’s birth name Lilith?

If you like this, try: “The Craft”

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Knives Out

Posted on November 25, 2019 at 5:11 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violence, some strong language, sexual references, and drug material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Murder mystery with graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 26, 2019
Date Released to DVD: February 24, 2020
Copyright 2019 Lionsgate

You know those murder mysteries where a big rich family all gathers in a big gothic house and someone gets killed and everyone has a motive and we get a bunch of red herrings (often the initial suspect is the second murder victim) and then the detective gathers everyone in the drawing room at the end to lay out all of the possible scenarios and then point dramatically at the surprise perpetrator? Those mysteries are sometimes called “cozies.” “Knives Out” is both a loving tribute and a cheeky meta-take on this genre from writer/director Rian Johnson and an all-star cast clearly having the time of their lives. It is deliciously nasty, seasoned with some political jibes, a ton of fun and anything but cozy.

It takes place in a magnificently gothic mansion correctly described by a character as something out of a Clue game. The owner is wealthy mystery author Harlan Thromby (Christopher Plummer), his name a likely nod to the classic Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story. “Knives Out” is literal — there is a huge “Game of Thrones”-style ceremonial seat decorated with daggers — and metaphoric, as a family of unpleasant heirs needle each other as they strive for the patriarch’s favor, meaning his money.

Just after the family has gathered to celebrate his 85th birthday party, Thromby is found dead, his throat cut, an apparent suicide. The suspects are: his daughter Linda (Jamie Leigh Curtis), her husband Richard (Don Johnson), their son Ransom (Chris Evans), Thromby’s son Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs Thromby’s publishing company, Thromby’s daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), the widow of his late son and the proprietor of a pretentious “wellness” company, Thromby’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), the daughter of an undocumented immigrant. Other possible suspects include Harlan’s dotty mother Greatnana (K Callan), Walt’s wife Donna (Riki Lindhome), their alt-right teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Joni’s college-student daughter Meg (Katharine Langford of “13 Reasons Why”), and Fran the housekeeper (Edi Patterson). Thromby’s son, daughter, and daughter-in-law think of themselves as successful entrepreneurs but in reality they are subsidized by Thromby, who has no illusions about their business acumen or their expressions of affection.

A cop (Lakeith Stanfield) accompanied by a state trooper (Noah Segan) starts asking questions. And then one of the suspects asks a question: Who is the man who has been silently sitting in the back, listening to everything that is going on? It is legendary “last of the gentleman sleuths” private Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), whose ridiculous name is matched by his honey-dripping Southern drawl, compared by one character to the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn (a caricatured rooster inspired by the caricatured Senator Claghorn on the old Fred Allen radio show). The first mystery is that he does not know who hired him to be there. He just received an envelope with cash inside.

We get a chance to see some illuminating flashbacks that let us in on some of what has happened before the detectives or the family know. And we get to know them better, especially Marta, repeatedly referred to patronizingly by the family as “one of the family” but no one can seem to remember which Spanish-speaking country she and her family come from. Marta is of special value to Blanc because she is a human lie detector, at least about her own truthfulness. If she does not tell the truth, she involuntarily projectile vomits. (Really.) She has a few secrets that she is desperate to conceal, especially after a motive is revealed. Characters make and break alliances as it seems no one can be trusted, and what is revealed just shows us how much more we don’t know.  The twists and turns will keep you guessing until the end and the unexpected barbs of satire make this as delicious as the fictional Thromby’s best-sellers.

Parents should know that this is a murder mystery with some grisly and graphic images, some strong language, family conflicts, drinking and drugs.

Family discussion: Which character did you suspect and why? Why did Thromby make that decision about his fortune?

If you like this, try: the original “Murder on the Orient Express,” “And Then There Were None,” and Rian Johnson’s other genre-bending films “Looper” and “Brick”

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21 Bridges

Posted on November 21, 2019 at 5:36 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence and language throughout
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, guns, chases, many characters injured and killed, disturbing and graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 22, 2019
Date Released to DVD: February 17, 2020

Copyright 2019 STX Films
The Russo brothers who wrote and produced some of the most stylish and exciting of the Marvel movies, (“Captain America: Winter Soldier” and the last two Avengers movies) are the producers behind “21 Bridges,” a stylish and exciting cops vs bad guys story, starring the Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman. It’s what is sometimes called a tick-tock, a tense drama taking place all in one night, as a police detective with a reputation for perhaps being too trigger-happy is trying to find two men who killed eight policemen in the course of a drug heist. There is nothing new about the story, but it is capably told and the cast, especially Boseman and Stephan James (“Race,” “If Beale Street Could Talk”) make it more than watchable.

Andre (Boseman) is a police detective, the son of a cop who died in the line of duty. In a flashback we see him as a child, weeping at his father’s funeral as the clergyman quoting Romans 13:4: “If you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” In the present day, we meet him at the most recent in a series of meetings with Internal Affairs, an automatic inquiry after an officer discharges a weapon. He is not apologetic. “Justice comes at a cost…I am the sharp edge of that determination.” His reputation is for being trigger-happy, but he insists that each time he shot someone it was justified and that he never drew first. He is cool under pressure, certain of his choices. At home, we see him caring for his fragile mother, and he is patient and tender when she is forgetful. But she has certainty, too, telling him to “look the devil in the eye.”

And then a robbery goes terribly wrong. Two guys (Taylor Kitsch and James) put scary scarves over their faces and bust into a wine cellar where something even more powerful is stored. “Only two of you?” the guy they are holding at gunpoint asks. They were told to expect 30 kilos of cocaine, but it Is 300, uncut, worth much, much more than they expected. In a shoot-out, they kill a civilian and seven cops and critically injure an eighth before escaping with tote bags full of cocaine. And that makes them targets of some very highly motivated people on both sides of the law.

“I wouldn’t mind if you were back at IA tomorrow,” says the precinct captain (J.K. Simmons) whose cops were killed. He urges Dre to “protect” the families of those who died from the agony of trials and the risk that the men responsible would not be convicted. It is clear what he means. Dre’s reputation for being quick on the trigger and his understanding of what families go through when a police office is killed could make him more inclined to quick revenge than slow justice.

The FBI says they will take over in the morning if the two fugitives are not captured. With the 21 bridges to Manhattan and all of the tunnels closed, Dre chases after the men as they try to sell the cocaine and get out of town.

There is nothing special about the script but the action is exciting and there are a couple of strong dramatic confrontations. Boseman and James elevate the material to keep us interested even when the storyline fails to challenge us.

Parents should know that this is a cops-and-robbers-and-drug-dealers story with extended, intense, and graphic peril and violence, with many characters injured and killed and disturbing images. There are chases and shoot-outs and betrayals and very strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Dre and the person he talked to in the house come to different conclusions? How did Dre’s losing his father affect his outlook?

If you like this, try: “16 Blocks” and “Fort Apache the Bronx”

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Joker

Posted on October 3, 2019 at 12:42 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Prescription drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic bloody violence, murders, stabbing, guns, assaults
Diversity Issues: Some insults
Date Released to Theaters: October 4, 2019
Date Released to DVD: January 6, 2020

Copyright 2019 Warner Brothers
Joker” tries hard to be dark, disturbing, and meaningful. It is dark, but it is sour, superficial and gross, the darkness not especially significant and therefore not especially meaningful. Its call-outs to past and current real-life events and other movies are not illuminating in any way; they just seem like training wheels borrowed to keep the movie from falling over. And we’re stuck once again with the tired trope of disability leading to criminality.

One of the highest compliments an actor can give another actor is “committed.” And for sure Joaquin Phoenix is fully committed to the role of Arthur Fleck, a clown for hire and would-be stand-up comic who experiences repeated abuse and betrayal. After he is fired, learns a family secret, and then is cut off from counseling and medications, he spins out of control.

This is a non-canonical version of the origins of Joker, not connected to any of the previous depictions of the character in comics, movies, or television. In this version, Gotham resembles the New York City of the 70’s, when the city was teetering on financial insolvency. As it opens, they are in the midst of a garbage strike. Piles of trash are everywhere and large rats are running through the streets. Arthur is twirling an Everything Must Go sign in front of a store that is going out of business. Some boys grab the sign and, when he chases after them into an alley, they beat him with the sign until it shatters. Later, Arthur’s boss takes the cost of the sign out of his pay. Yeah, this movie is not subtle. The boys beat Arthur with the sign and the movie beats us with the metaphors.

Arthur lives in a squalid apartment building with his frail mother (Frances Conroy), and he cares for her tenderly. bringing her food, giving her baths, and sharing their favorite television shows including a late night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (a badly miscast Robert De Niro). Arthur dreams of being on the show.

Arthur’s mother always told him his purpose in life was to make people happy. And he tries hard. He makes funny faces to get a toddler to laugh on a bus, but the child’s mother snaps at him. He gets fired for bringing a gun to the hospital where he is entertaining sick kids. He struggles with mental illness that undermines his grip on reality and a nervous condition that causes grotesque involuntary laughter when he is under stress. He has a little laminated card he hands out to explain this unsettling symptom to bystanders.

His fragile support system unravels. He loses his job. The city cannot afford a social safety net, so even the haphazard counseling he has been getting is cut off and he no longer has access to the seven different psychotropic medications. He loses his job. He feels betrayed by his mother. And then, on the subway, he is confronted by three arrogant finance bros.

Crossing the line to breaking the law feels liberating to Arthur and to similarly resentful protesters throughout Gotham, leading to some expressions of concern that this portrayal itself could inspire copycats. It does draw from current conflicts in the news to attempt a gravitas that this film cannot sustain, leaving only sensation and a bitter sense of entitlement in those who consider themselves victims. It teeters on the brink of telling us that if only we were all nicer to (listening to, having sex with) people who weird us out, they wouldn’t be weird anymore. Director Todd Phillips’ bitter comments recently about how it’s no fun to be funny now because you have to be so sensitive all the time underscore the resentment on display here.

Similarly, it litters the film with pieces (I’m sure they would call it homage, but it’s just stealing) from two Martin Scorsese classics, “Taxi Driver” (the descent into madness triggered by the despair and corruption around him) and “The King of Comedy” (the descent into madness triggered by a distorted obsession with acceptance and celebrity). Significantly, in case we miss the unmissable point, the star of those two movies, Robert De Niro, plays someone very much like the talk show host his “King of Comedy” character was obsessed with. As we saw in “Comedian,” De Niro, for all his immeasurable gifts, is not able to convey the oily geniality or vocal rhythms of a stand-up comedian, even if this one were far better written.

This movie wants to be daring and provocative but it is just depressing, less for the degrading, sordid storyline than for the failure of all of the time and effort and money that went into making it to produce anything worthwhile.

Parents should know that this film includes very disturbing and graphic images, peril and violence, mental illness, murders, stabbing, guns, strong language, sexual images

Family discussion: Could anyone have helped Arthur? What stories in the news or history or other movies inspired some of the plot developments? How does this Joker compare to other depictions of the character?

If you like this, try: Tim Burton’s “Batman” and “King of Comedy” and “Taxi Driver”

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