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
Date Released to DVD: March 29, 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. That is the real-life story of Our Friend.

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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Wonder Woman 1984

Posted on December 21, 2020 at 8:00 am

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and sequences of action
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2020
Date Released to DVD: March 30, 2021

Copyright 2020 Warner Brothers
You may wonder why Wonder Woman is not as wonder-ful this time around. Part of that is attributable to shrinking it from big-screen theatrical release to home screens. We feel that right away in the bravura opening sequence, a flashback with Diana Prince as a young girl competing with adult Amazonian women in an athletic event like the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course if it was also a triathlon. But the bigger problem is in the fundamentals, the storyline and characters.

The first Wonder Woman was exceptionally well-conceived and executed, a triumph for director Patty Jenkins after some lackluster films from DC Comics. The WWI setting added interest, especially seeing Diana’s response to learning about the world outside of her idyllic woman-only community of Amazonian warriors. The stakes were clear and compelling and the villain was genuinely scary.

This sequel, set in 1984 for no particularly compelling reason, has entertaining moments and fun action sequences but the stakes are not as visceral and the villains are not as interesting.

As a resident of the Washington DC area, I got a special kick out of the re-creation of the 1980’s look of Georgetown and some of the other locations and tried not to pay too much attention to the details they got wrong. I can promise you, no one who works at the Smithsonian would think of touching any of their artifacts without gloves and other protective equipment, much less letting anyone, even a major contributor who knows how to flirt, take one home. But that is what happens when an item with crystals ends up at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where Diana (Gal Gadot) is now working as an expert.

Now, I’m not asking for realism in a genre that includes radioactive spider bites and infinity stones, but ideally the McGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for whatever it is the story is about — the formula, the gold, the nuclear codes, whatever) has to be simple enough not to interfere with the plot but specific enough to make the threat interesting, and that means we have to understand a little bit about how it works, why it is important, and what it takes to defeat it. It’s more fairy tale than comic book, a wishing stone crystal thingy more like “be careful what you wish for” stories like The Monkey’s Paw (which gets a shout-out in the film) or King Midas’ power to turn all he touched to gold.

That’s not a very good McGuffin and the villains are disappointing, too. There is a guy who has informercials about how to be rich on television, Maxwell Lord played by guy-behind-the-Mandelorian-helmet Pedro Pascal, who wants, well, pretty much everything. Making him in the oil business is a nice 80’s touch. And there’s the mousy museum curator Barbara Minerva (Kristin Wiig), who wants to be just like Diana. The muddled elements of their storylines are reflected in an absurd flashback that is supposed to make us, what, feel sorry for him? Understand his “Cat’s in the Cradle” problem? And the Capra-esque conclusion is not the “we are the world” moment they hope for.

Then there’s Chris Pine as Steve Trevor. As you may remember, he died heroically in the first movie. So there’s a real “Bobby Ewing in the shower” moment (another 80’s reference?) to bring him back. I’m all for putting Chris Pine in every movie ever, but again, the way this happens is not thought all the way through and it is impossible not to feel uneasy about the way the characters overlook the real-world consequences of his return for so much of the storyline. I did get a kick out of having the guy do the trying on clothes montage, though, for once. And the post-credit appearance from a most-welcome addition to the cast.

Gadot is an enormously appealing screen presence but this storyline is not a good fit with her abilities as an actress or a movie star. This is a sadder, wiser Diana, more than 60 years after the first film, but at times she just seems emptier.

Maybe it’s just been too long since I’ve seen a comic book movie, but I found it entertaining despite all of the narrative shortcomings. Just hoping the next chapter is more wonder-ful.

Parents should know that this movie has extended comic book/action-style peril and violence and a sad death.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Max spend more time with his son? Did Diana envy Barbara?

If you like this, try: “Wonder Woman” and the DC Comics. Adult fans will enjoy Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman, about the remarkable story of the man who created the character.

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The Croods: A New Age

Posted on November 23, 2020 at 2:06 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for peril, action, and rude humor
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Cartoon-style peril, minor injuries
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 25, 2020
Date Released to DVD: December 29, 2020
Copyright Dreamworks 2020

The Croods: A New Age is the sequel to the animated film about the prehistoric family is sharply funny, exciting, warm-hearted, and a great watch for the whole family.

We left the Croods at the end of the first film with Grug (Nicolas Cage) finally welcoming in a new family member, Guy (Ryan Reynolds). The family, which sleeps in a pile every night and can form a kill circle in an instant is, Grug thinks, situated as well as possible to find food and to avoid becoming food. But then the climate changes and they have to find another place to live. On the other side of a wall, they discover a kind of paradise, with plenty of food conveniently growing in rows. It is the home of the Betterman family (“emphasis on the Better“), Hope (Leslie Mann), Phil (Peter Dinklage), and their daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).

The Bettermans, who have discovered tools and simple machines, have an elaborate tree-house, cultivated crops, and the wall, which keeps them safe. They have the concept of “privacy,” sleeping in separate rooms. They also have the concept of “rooms.” Also “windows,” and an amusing running joke is the way Grug’s son Thunk (Clark Duke) is mesmerized by the “screen” that’s just a hole in the wall.

The Bettermans are aghast at the lack of refinement of the primitive Croods and gently try to urge them to move on. Except for Guy, who they knew when he was a child. Guy is happy to be reunited with them, especially his childhood friend Dawn. He starts dressing like Phil Betterman.

We might expect Grug’s daughter Eep (Emma Stone) to be jealous of Dawn. But this movie wisely makes Eep and Dawn instant best friends in a funny and sweet scene where they discover what it means to know another girl. It also wisely does not make the Bettermans or the Croods all right or all wrong. Balancing the wish to protect your children from any possible harm with the importance of their learning to be independent and developing a sense of curiosity and adventure.

Basically, there are just two jokes here, but they are funny every time. It is funny when we see that the Croods are just like us (parents want to take care of children and children want to try new things, teenagers have a lot to say to each other but do not always have the words, girlfriends’ voices sometimes get a little screechy when they’re excited), and it is funny to see them discover for the first time in human history what we take for granted (privacy, screens). But what makes this movie worth a rewatch is the constant invention of its visuals, the exceptional detail in the characters, animals, and landscapes, its superb voice talent, and its touching depiction of the foundational ties of family and community.

Parents should know that this film includes some peril and mild injuries and some potty humor.

Family discussion: Is your family more like the Croods or The Bettermans? What would you pick for your tribal name? What is your family’s motto? Ask family members for the stories behind their scars.

If you like this, try: “The Croods,” and the “Ice Age” movies and my interview with this film’s director, Joel Crawford.

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Freaky

Posted on November 12, 2020 at 5:51 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking, mother abuses alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Constant very intense and graphic horror violence, many grisly murders, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: November 13, 2020
Date Released to DVD: February 8, 2021
Copyright Blumhouse 2020

If you read my reviews, you know I usually skip the horror movies. So, forgive me if my thoughts on “Freaky” reflect my ignorance. But I was intrigued by the premise of a large male serial killer switching bodies with a blonde teenage girl. And I like the cast, so I watched it, and it’s pretty fun.

But I don’t know enough about horror films to tell you whether the pedestrian set-up and stock characters are just a shortcut because the filmmakers don’t care — and know the audience doesn’t care — and everyone just wants to get to the good stuff, or because they are making some sort of meta-commentary on the whole idea and genre of teen slasher movies. Maybe both. Probably it does not matter. So, let’s just get to the good stuff.

Certainly, the movie wastes no time in getting there. It begins, as all good self-aware teen slasher movies should, with teens in a luxurious but still somehow creepy setting, outside a mansion, trading stories about a legendary serial killer known as the Blissfield Butcher. Some say he’s just a legend. Some say he re-appears every year. We have just enough time to see how arrogant and obnoxious these overprivileged kids are (that’s how we feel better about their horrific murders, right?) before the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) arrives, killing them in various creative but grisly and very bloody ways.

Then we meet Milly (Kathryn Newton of “Big Little Lies”), who lives with her recently widowed and therefore vulnerable and clingy mother and her older sister, a police officer. Milly is in high school. She has two devoted best friends, Josh (Misha Osherovich) and Nyla Celeste O’Connor. But she also has bullies, including tiny but fierce mean girl Ryler (Melissa Collazo), some guys, and her shop class teacher (Alan Ruck, yes, Cameron in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”).

After the homecoming football game (which does not get cancelled even though a group of students have all been horribly murdered, but okay), Milly is left alone waiting for her mother to pick her up. The Butcher attacks her with a mysterious knife he stole from the mansion. And it turns out to have magical powers or a curse or whatever. When the Butcher stabs Milly, their bodies switch. And, as they will later find out, if they don’t switch back by midnight the next day, they’ll be stuck that way.

This is where everyone starts to have some fun. Vaughn is a hoot trying to persuade Nyla and Josh that it is really Milly inside that 6’5″ middle-aged male body. And Newton has a blast with her new bad self inside the body of a high school girl. Milly is not able to muster the courage to stand up to her shop class teacher or the bullies or to talk to her crush, Booker (Uriah Shelton), but Milly on the outside, Butcher on the inside usually does. Let’s just say that there’s a reason it’s the SHOP class teacher who has been so mean to her.

And of course it all ends up at a big teen party.

In between all of the murders and mayhem, there is room for some sly humor and some genuine warmth as Milly-in-the-Butcher’s-Body hides out in a discount store dressing room and talks to her mom on the other side of the door, and some romance as she and Booker have a quiet, very sweet conversation in a car. There’s a vicarious thrill at seeing the Butcher-in-Milly’s-body stand up (even if it is in a murderous manner) to the people who treated Milly badly.

I’m still not a horror fan, but I enjoyed this one, and if you are a horror fan I’m pretty sure you will, too.

Parents should know this is a full-on horror movie with many disturbing images and grisly murders. Characters use strong language and there are references to sex (some crude) and to alcohol abuse.

Family discussion: What did Milly learn about her mother in the dressing room? How would you convince someone that you were you if you suddenly looked completely different?

If you like this, try: “Jennifer’s Body” and “Shawn of the Dead”

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Mulan (Live Action 2020)

Posted on September 3, 2020 at 1:08 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended battle sequences, fights, swords, explosions, falling
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 4, 2020
Date Released to DVD: November 9, 2020
Copyright Disney 2020

Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” is closer to director Niki Caro’s touching, both mythic and intimate “Whale Rider” than it is to the animated musical with Eddie Murphy as a quippy little dragon and Donny Osmond as a Chinese warrior.

Coming to us on DisneyPLus (for an extra $30) due to the pandemic, it gives us just a fraction — literally — of the grand vistas and meticulous framing Caro uses so beautifully in the film. This version of the classic story of a young woman who pretends to be male to join the military and saves the day with a brilliant strategic maneuver is more sober, ambitious, and grand in scope than the first version. Note that some of the characters and names are changed to further remove it from the original. And it is the first of the Disney live-action remakes of animated classics to get a PG-13 rating.

The movie recalls “Frozen” at the beginning, with two sisters, one with some special, almost magical skills. The young Mulan (Crystal Rao) shows determination and remarkable agility and skill as she chases down a runaway chicken with parkour-style acrobatics. Her father (Tzi Ma as Hua Zhou), is proud of the “qi” (life force) in her. But her mother knows that in their world the responsibility of the women is to attract a propitious husband. That does not require strong q. It is about modesty, decorum, and silence, almost the ability to disappear except when needed. Even Mulan’s father tells her that it is time to hide her qi so she can bring honor to the family.

Invaders come to China, led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), with the help of a shape-shifting witch (Gong Li). Every family has to supply a warrior for the military. To protect her father, Mulan (Liu Yifei) disguises herself as a young man and joins up with the soldiers who are in training. She quickly volunteers to cover night watch to avoid the group showers. And she begins to prove herself with skill and determination.

Then comes the battle, the revelation of her true identity, and then another chance to save the day when she realizes that Bori plans to attack the emperor (Jet Li).

Director of Photography Mandy Walker shows us breathtaking vistas (New Zealand standing in for China in much of the film) and stunningly staged battles. The scenes in Mulan’s village are colorful but gritty enough to be authentically rural. And the production design is everything we expect from Disney, meticulously researched and gorgeously imagined.

The shifting of the storyline to focus on the parallels between Mulan and the witch, two women who struggle to express their essential qi in a world that has rigidly limited expectations for women gives the film additional depth. They are on opposite sides, but they recognize all they have in common. As in the original film, we see the literal constrictions and distortions in the clothing and makeup Mulan must put on to meet with the matchmaker. She is far more comfortable in the armor of a warrior.

Niki Caro keeps the film brimming with heart and sincerity so that even in the middle of battle scenes the focus is on what makes Mulan special — her dedication and loyalty even more than her skill and her qi.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence with battle scenes, swords, explosions, and hand-to-hand combat. Characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: What is chi and how do you access it? Why did the matchmaker and the warriors have such limited ideas about women?

If you like this, try; the original “Mulan” and live-action remakes “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Jungle Book” along with Chinese films for older audiences like “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.”

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