The Little Things

Posted on January 27, 2021 at 7:00 am

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violent/disturbing images, language and full nudity.
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Serial killer crime drama
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 29, 2021

Copyright Warner Brothers 2021
Three Oscar winners cannot save “The Little Things,” a crime thriller that starts out promisingly and about halfway through completely loses its way. It’s almost like the screenplay was created by two different people, or undermined by the director. But John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Highwaymen”), both wrote and directed, so he is responsible when the story veers into Gothika Rule territory.

It takes place in 1990, and we begin with a pretty young woman driving on the highway and singing along to the Go-Gos as a sinister motorist behind her makes her uncomfortable and then terrified. The first half sets up two mysteries. The first is the realization that the young woman who has been murdered is the victim of a serial killer, expanding and making more urgent the search to find the one responsible. The detective in charge is Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), who takes the job very seriously, even personally. “We work for her,” he says about the dead woman.

A lower-level officer named Deke Deacon (Denzel Washington) has been sent to Baxter’s police station to pick up some evidence. The second mystery is why the people there are (mostly) so hostile to him and why a clearly experienced, capable, and dedicated has not risen in rank. “And they say Black guys never return to the scene of the crime,” another detective says with acid in his voice. But the forensic pathologist seems more sympathetic, agreeing to spend some time with him when a delay in making the evidence available keeps him there overnight.

There’s “something like it up north,” Deke says, and soon he and Baxter are beginning to work together to find the killer. “Things probably changed a lot since you left,” says Baxter. “Still gotta catch ’em? Then nothing has really changed that much,” Deke says.

So far, so good. As long as Deke and Baxter are behaving like intelligent, dedicated professionals, the movie holds our interest as a police procedural with intriguing characters. But then Jared Leto enters the picture as suspect Albert Sparma and it all begins to fall apart. Baxter seems to have an inexplicable change of personality with a decision so monumentally stupid and contrary to day one of any kind of law enforcement training not to mention basic common sense that it takes us out of the story.

Meanwhile, what we learn about Deke’s past is not as meaningful as the movie clearly thinks it is, making the story’s primary mystery secondary to the point of almost inconsequential. Washington’s is the only performance that continues to hold our attention as Leto hits one creepy note and stays there and Malek is unable to overcome his character’s inconsistency. More important, the swerve in tone undermines the film’s aspirations for moral complexity. The title of the film refers to the little things that are important to get right, whether you are a killer trying to evade justice or law enforcement trying to achieve it. In the case of this movie, the little things are all right but the big thing, the screenplay, is a mess.

Parents should know that this movie is about a serial killer and it has some grisly and graphic images and strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Deke send the package to Baxter? How was that decision tied to his own experience? Why did Flo keep the memento on her keychain?

If you like this, try: “Inside Man” and “Silence of the Lambs”

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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
Date Released to DVD: February 1, 2021

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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