Our Friend

Posted on January 21, 2021 at 5:35 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, medication
Violence/ Scariness: Illness and very sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 22, 2021

Copyright 2021 Roadside Attractions
“Friend” is a category that is near-endless in scope. We use it to describe a work colleague we have lunch with sometimes, someone we’ve seen at parties whose middle name we don’t know, someone we met playing tennis who never heard the story of how our two-year-old locked herself in the bathroom with the cat. We use that word for the people we deliver casseroles to when things get tough, and those who deliver them to us, never crossing the doorway into the house. And yet we use the same word to encompass a person who gave up his job, his home, and his relationship to help people he cares about through as excruciatingly painful and physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting experience as there is, the terminal illness of a young mother.

Dakota Johnson plays Nicole Teague, wife of journalist Matthew Teague (Casey Affleck), devoted and endlessly patient mother to Molly and Evangeline, and best friend of Dane (Jason Segel), a shy and sometimes awkward guy who has struggled with depression and with direction. But when Nicole’s diagnosis is dire, he leaves New Orleans to move in with the family, saying simply, “I just feel like I’m supposed to be here right now.”

He tells his girlfriend it will probably be just for a few weeks. But he stays as his vacation days get used up and he loses his job and as her patience gets used up and he loses her. He just stays, never asking how he can help, just quietly providing a sense of stability in the home.

“Our Friend” is based on Matthew Teague’s award-winning story in Esquire. In an interview, I asked Teague about Dane, who, as characters in the movie point out, is not successful in conventional terms but whose quiet and extraordinarily sensitive support defines the term “no greater love.” He said simply, “He is my hero. And it’s pretty great to have a best friend who is also your hero.”

Teague also spoke candidly about the two kinds of health care professionals families encounter in critical illness. The first are only about doing anything medically possible to prolong life. The second come in for hospice care, and will do anything they can to keep the patient comfortable and support the family.

We see both in this film, the second portrayed by the great Cherry Jones as the well-named Faith. Pointedly, as really happened, Dane arrives just as both Nicole and the family dog are diagnosed with cancer, and it is Dane who has to take the dog to the vet and be there for what we euphemistically call being put to sleep. Matthew exhaustedly says he wants to make sure the girls do not associate the two cancers.

We see the impact of the illness on Nicole. As the doctor warns at the beginning, the family will see her unlike anything in their past understanding of who she is. There will be confusion, anger, lashing out, and not just from Nicole. But the focus of the film, as the title indicates, is on the friend, who just shows up and says, “Would it help if I stayed with you for a while?”

The script by Brad Ingelsby (“The Way Back,” “Run All Night”) jumps back and forth in time, as though it is all from Matthew’s memory as he writes the story. It opens with Dane sitting on the porch with the girls as Matthew and Nicole rehearse what they will say to let their daughters know that their mother is dying. Though typed titles tell us where we are in time vis a vis the diagnosis, it is sometimes distracting. But director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who showed great compassion for damaged characters in “Meagan Leavy,” imbues the film with enormous compassion for its characters and the lead actors, especially Segel, bring endless warmth and humanity to their roles, which always feel fully inhabited. We feel their loss. And we feel the sustaining connections that help them through.

Parents should know that this movie is the story of the illness and death of a young mother, and it is very sad. Characters use strong language and there are references to adultery.

Family discussion: What made Dane different from the other friends? Who has been a Dane in your life? Who would you be a Dane for?

If you like this, try: “50/50,” with Seth Rogen playing a character based on himself in the true story of a someone who helps a young friend with cancer, and “My Life” with Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman

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The Marksman

Posted on January 13, 2021 at 8:00 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, violence, and some bloody images
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, scene in bar
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive peril and violence, brutal murders, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 15, 2021

Copyright 2021 Voltage Pictures
I can’t help saying that “The Marksman,” the 2021 entry in the annual Liam Neeson action film we usually get to start the year, is no bullseye. Neeson is always watchable and the Mark Patten cinematography makes the most of the southwestern landscape. The shoot-outs are well-staged. But the screenplay by
Chris Charles, Danny Kravitz, and director Robert Lorenz is underwritten and predictable.

This is less the “Taken” or “Cold Pursuit”-style action thriller where we get to enjoy Neeson showing off his special skills than it is a Clint Eastwood-style cranky old guy movie, perhaps because Lorenz is Eastwood’s longtime producer. There’s even a pause where the two main characters watch “Hang ’em High,” a 1968 Eastwood film that was the first from Eastwood’s own production company. In “The Marksman,” Neeson plays an Eastwood-like character who rails against his fate: “I’m trying to understand how you can work your whole life, serve your country, pay your taxes” and end up with nothing.”

Neeson plays Jim a Marine vet turned rancher on the Arizona border. He sometimes finds Mexicans who have been injured illegally crossed the border, and he always calls the immigration authorities, where his stepdaughter Sarah (Katheryn Winnick) is an official.

Wiped out by medical expenses, he is notified by a banker that his ranch is about to be auctioned in 90 days, but can be sold sooner if they get a good offer. The loan officer Jim knew — and who knew Jim — is no longer there at the bank. The fact that Jim’s late wife’s ashes are spread on the hill and that he is “no deadbeat,” does not mean he gets extra time. “You have yourself a good evening,” the banker says as he gets into his car.

Jim finds a Mexican mother and son who have sneaked through a hole in the border fence. He calls the authorities, but then cartel thugs led by Mauricio (Juan Pablo Raba) come after them and start shooting. Jim shoots back. “Sorry, Pancho, these illegals are mine.”

The boy’s uncle stole some money from the cartel. They killed him and now they want to send a message by killing his family. The boy’s mother is shot. As she is dying, she gives the boy a rosary and hands Jim a blood-soaked scrap of paper with an address in Chicago, where the boy’s relatives are. She asks Jim to promise to bring her son to them.

And so, Jim and Miguel (Jacob Perez) get on the road. Jim does not have a phone or GPS, so he buys a map, which an amused sales clerk lets him have at no charge. But the very high tech cartel thugs are able to trace him through his credit card. And so it is a cat-and-mouse road trip with the interactions, escapes, and confrontations you would expect. Which is the problem. This movie is so bereft of ideas that it telegraphs everything that is coming (I mean, the title makes sure we know what Neeson’s special skills are this time) and repeating too much of it.

I respect Neeson’s special skills. I just hope next time they include picking a better script.

Parents should know that this film is about a former Marine who tries to protect a young boy after his mother and uncle are murdered by members of a Mexican drug cartel. The film includes shoot-outs and fighting, with many injuries and deaths, including a parent and a dog, all witnessed by the boy. There is also some strong language and some drinking.

Family discussion: Why does Jim help Miguel? Why does he change his mind about helping Miguel? Why does he end things with Mauricio the way he does? Do you agree?

If you like this, try: “Let Him Go” with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane and “Taken” with Neeson

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Herself

Posted on January 7, 2021 at 5:33 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Brutal domestic abuse, illness, adult and child injured
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: January 8, 2021
Copyright Amazon 2020

Reflexive pronouns are used differently in the UK. In the US, we mostly use “himself” and “herself” to emphasize achievement: “He learned to ride his bicycle himself!” But in the UK those words are colloquially used as subjects, to refer to individuals. So, in “Herself,” a film co-written by and starring Irish actress Clare Dunne, a man who is helping her character with a big project hands her a tool to take the first step, saying, “We’ll let herself do the honors.” The title refers to both uses of the word, indicating agency and independence.

Dunne plays Sandra, who tells her daughters in the opening scene that the birthmark under her eye was God’s way of making sure he can always find her, because “there are a lot of Sandras in Dublin.” We can see immediately what a patient, loving mother she is, and then again as she dances with her daughters to Sia in their kitchen. But when her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) comes home, the mood shifts subtly but unmistakably. In what is obviously a pattern, he sends the girls outside and begins to beat Sandra brutally. But this time is different. She has made a plan and whispered the code word to her older daughter. Soon they are in shelter space in a hotel.

Sandra sees a video of a man explaining how anyone can build a tiny house. Without any help from the social service agencies, she decides to do it — by herself.

But what that means is getting the help of other people, including a local builder named Aido (Conleth Hill), neighbors, and the disabled doctor she works for as a cleaning lady (the always-marvelous Harriet Walter, mistress of the dry delivery). Like all abusers, Gary had cut her off from other people. But learning to trust and to reach out is as healing as the house itself.

Little details add a lot of richness to the story, showing us instead of telling us. Sandra meets Aido when he rebukes a sales clerk for being rude to her. And we see Aido change his mind about saying no to her when his son Francis (Daniel Ryan), who has Down syndrome, quietly hands Sandra his old work boots to help her get started. Gary’s mother has a poignant confession. A sympathetic social worker (Cathy Belton) helps Sandra when Gary sues her for custody. And the scenes with the neighbors, many of them immigrants, who help build the house are charming and engaging. Dunne’s performance is deeply moving and the story is genuinely heartwarming.

Parents should know that this film includes domestic abuse. Adults and children are injured. There is some strong and crude language.

Family discussion: Why did Sandra tell the judge she was asking the wrong questions? What can we do to provide better support for people like Sandra?

If you like this, try: “Still Mine” and “Places in the Heart”

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If Not Now, When?

Posted on January 7, 2021 at 3:18 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Addiction
Violence/ Scariness: Fight scene, angry confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 8, 2021

Copyright 2020 Vertical Entertainment
Meagan Good and Tamara Bass co-produced, co-directed, and star in “If Not Now, When?” with a screenplay by Bass. It is the story of four friends who come together as one of them is facing a crisis, and then support each other as each of them faces difficult decisions about life, work, parenting, and romance. Sound soapy? It is, but not because those issues should be dismissed as, in the words of Stephen H. Scheuer’s 1958-1993 guide to movies, “for the ladies.” Plenty of films make clear that those are foundational life questions that everyone struggles with. But the script is the weak point in this film, with exposition-heavy dialogue that too often tells instead of shows.

As we might expect, the strong point of the movie is the performances. Bass and Good understand actors, starting with the casting, and they give them the space to bring more life and emotion to the script than it merits.

In a brief prologue, we see the four friends in high school, working up an elaborate dance routine for a promposal — which is quickly declined. But they’re not bothered. It is clear that they are just as happy going with each other. Tyra (played as a teenager by Li Eubanks), asks them to wait while she goes to the bathroom. It turns out she is in labor. She has not told anyone she is pregnant, not even her friends. They stay with her and promise their support.

Fifteen years later, Tyra (Good) is being discharged from a hospital following an accidental drug overdose. Her friends and her husband, Max (Kyle Schmid) stage an intervention, telling her she needs to go to rehab because she is dependent on opioids. She refuses until she sees her 14-year-old daughter Jillian (Lexi Underwood), who found her unconscious and had to call 911. She reluctantly agrees to go, though at first insists that she does not have a problem.

While she is in rehab, we spend time with the three friends. Suzanne (Mekia Cox) is married to a bitter, unfaithful, alcoholic former football player. She loves another man but won’t leave her husband because she is pregnant, and, more important, because she wants everyone to think her life is perfect. Patrice (Bass), a nurse, is drawn to a doctor at her hospital, but is afraid he will reject her when he learns more about her. Jillian thinks of Patrice as a second mother, and is living with her while Tyra is away.

And Diedre (Meagan Holder), a gifted dancer, is weighing two offers, a dream job choreographing a pop star’s tour and a chance to reconcile with her ex (McKinley Freeman as Jackson), the father of her son. Other than the football player, the men are all gorgeous and pretty much fully devoted to supporting the ladies they adore. With over four different stories and ten characters, including children, there is not enough time to give enough depth to most of them to make us invest in their stories. Much of the film has no score other than some on-the-nose needle drops. Oddly, the lyrics of one say “you are what you choose to be” but another says, “I’ll be different for you, baby.”

Trya’s story gets the most attention, and the most interesting relationship in the film is between Tyra and her counselor at rehab, an exquisite performance by Valarie Pettiford. But the movie really comes to life only when the women are talking to each other, renewing their connections and providing the support that only those ride-or-die friends for decades can give. Good and Bass clearly share that connection, but it is only intermittently that it comes across in the film.

Parents should know that this film includes drug addiction and alcoholism, infidelity, some violence, sexual references and situations, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Why was it so difficult for these women to admit their problems? What made Tyra change her mind about cooperating with treatment?

If you like this, try: “Waiting to Exhale” and “Now and Then”

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