The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Posted on November 8, 2018 at 5:48 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, language and some sexual content/nudity
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, explosions, guns, fights, torture, parent killed in front of child, domestic and child abuse, incest, very graphic and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, suicide
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 9, 2018

Copyright 2018 Columbia Pictures
Remember in “League of Their Own” when Tom Hanks said, “There’s no crying in baseball?” Well, there’s no crying in Lisbeth Salander movies, or there should not be. As imagined by the late Swedish journalist and author Steig Larsson, Lisbeth Salander is a pierced, tattooed, bisexual, motorcycle-riding, 21st century Sherlock Holmes, cerebral, relentless, on the side of justice, and with a mastery of logic, observation, and detail that borders on a superpower. And good in a fight.

“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is the first film based on the authorized continuation of the series by Larsson’s family, and here she is played by “The Crown’s” Claire Foy, following Noomi Rapace (in the Swedish movie trilogy) and Rooney Mara (in the David Fincher English-language film based on the first book in the series). There’s a subtle difference in the title of the book that reflects a shift in tone. The first book’s title is descriptive: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, followed by The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, both references to risks taken by Salander, with the implication that it was intentional. The Girl in the Spider’s Web is not about a choice she made or a dare she braved. There’s no action verb here. There’s no choice to adorn her body with a symbol of strength and fire. This title suggests a girl who has been placed in danger. Salenger as a damsel in distress? I don’t think so.

And then, like those last seasons of “Bewitched,” when they had really run out of ideas, the movie presents us with a sister we knew nothing about who apparently has been just waiting through three books to show up. We get a flashback of the two girls playing chess with, yes, a spider crawling on one of the pieces, before some very, very nasty stuff begins to happen with the girls’ father, who we already know from the earlier books was a very, very, very evil guy.

We go to these movies to see Lisbeth Salander hack, be invincibly tough, and right wrongs. She hacks into the US National Security Agency mainframe and downloads their most dangerous file. In a brief prelude she goes after a domestic abuser and we learn that she has been avenging other abused women. And she repeatedly takes a licking and keeps on ticking. But here the McGuffin is a computer program that can access and activate any nuclear weapons in the world, created for NSA (Stephen Merchant) who now regrets it and wants it destroyed. So he asks Salander for her help, bringing his young son along (Christopher Convery), just to ramp up the threat element. Salander gets the file, to the considerable consternation of NSA’s Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield), who goes uses his considerable computing power to track down Salander, in a race with some very, very bad guys who want the file, too.

So, it’s your basic run with a gun stuff, ably staged if nothing particularly gripping, until the crying. Salander’s friend (and Larsson stand-in) Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) appears briefly for no particular reason. Foy does fine with Salanger’s thousand yard stare but the script lets her down by trying to have her be vulnerable and tough at the same time. Tbey’ve taken one of the most arresting characters in recent fiction and made her into just another sad girl. And they’ve taken what began as a superior series of action films and turned it into just another night-at-the-multiplex, sequel-heavy formula movie. If Salanger is caught in a spider’s web, it’s not the blah blah about the secret computer file, it’s the blah blah of the filmmakers.

Parents should know that this film has very intense and graphic peril and violence, disturbing images, characters injured and killed, death of a parent, torture, guns, explosions, severe spouse and child abuse, sexual abuse, very strong language, drinking, smoking and drugs.

Family discussion: What should Lisbeth have done for her sister? Why did they make different choices?

If you like this, try: the Swedish “Girl With a Dragon Tattoo” trilogy

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Bohemian Rhapsody

Posted on November 1, 2018 at 5:30 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material, drug content and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Medical issues, sad death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 1, 2018

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2018
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is a just-good movie with a great performance based on the life of a once-to-a-planet musician of endless talent and magnetism and a four-octave range of unmatched clarity and suppleness. In other words, it is entertaining, if not illuminating. Indeed, it is strange that a movie about fictional rock and pop stars, the 2018 version of “A Star is Born” is more insightful about what it is like to perform at that level than this movie based on the life of Freddie Mercury, the brilliantly genre-bending front man of power rock band Queen.

Musician biopics have a huge advantage over movies telling the life stories of writers, visual artists, and other public figures. It is, of course, the music. Whether the movie is highly fictionalized with Cary Grant as Cole Porter or Mickey Rooney as Lorenz Hart, in films that pretended they were not gay, or more honest, like Oscar winners Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn and Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, the highlight of the films will always be the music that made the real-life characters stars. “Bohemian Rhapsody” has Queen’s rousing masterpieces and Rami Malek channels Mercury superbly, especially in those performance scenes, with a breathtaking re-creation of Queen’s legendary Live Aid performance in the film’s climactic scene.

The biggest risk in a biographical movie about a musician, though, is avoiding “VH1 Behind the Music”-itis. Unfortunately, real life for future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers does tend to follow the same pattern, and that is why we see the same scenes over and over. The family wants them to get a respectable job and not waste time on music. The early struggles. The recording session where someone in the control room says, “Wait a second, these guys have something special! Let me call my friend in the music business to sign them up.” The Vorkapich montage of tour dates to increasingly enthusiastic crowds. Yay, success! Yay, EXCESS! The squabbles. The industry executive who does not want them to be innovative (in this case, a sly meta-joke as he is portrayed by an unrecognizable Mike Meyers, whose iconic head-banging to the film’s title song in “Wayne’s World” created another generation of fans). The breakups. The reconciliation. It’s very hard to tell that story again and make it specific enough to stand out.

And then there is the other risk. Either the surviving members of the band are not involved, so you risk authenticity, or they do participate, as Brian May and Roger Taylor did here, so we see their version, which may be spun, even sanitized.

Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara, to a Parsi family from the Zoroastrian community of the Indian subcontinent. We first see him in the film working as an airport baggage handler, being called by the (inaccurate) racist epithet “Paki.” Farroukh, already calling himself Freddie, is a fan of a popular local rock group called Smile. When their lead singer quits, he does an impromptu demonstration of his stunningly melodic voice, explaining that his overbite is caused by an extra set of incisors, which he credits for his range. The film then trudges through the steps outlined above.

The dramatic scenes are soapy and predictable — betrayed by a manager, estrangement from the band, too many cats, too many parties, learning that you can’t escape yourself, some reconciliation. Lucy Boynton (continuing her connection to 80’s music from “Sing Street”) is lovely as the ever-loyal Mary, who was Freddie’s closest friend, even after their romantic relationship ended because he was gay. The other band members barely register as individuals; more time is given to Myers’ stunt casting as the record industry guy who tells them that the six-minute “Bohemian Rhapsody” will never be played by teenagers in a car (get it? that’s what happens in “Wayne’s World!”). The “this is how we wrote that song” sections are especially weak. The songs themselves, though, are as captivating as ever and Malek, who struggles a bit with the overbite prosthetic, recreates them with all they buoyancy and flamboyance Freddie would want.

Parents should know that this film has the expected sex, drugs, and rock and roll in a story of a real-life rock star, with strong language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, and wild partying, along with medical issues and a sad death.

Family discussion: Who understood Freddie best? Why was Live Aid so important to him?

If you like this, try: the documentary “The Story of Queen: Mercury Rising” and YouTube clips of the Live Aid performance

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Boy Erased

Posted on November 1, 2018 at 5:20 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual content including an assault, some language and brief drug use
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic, disturbing rape scene
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 2, 2018
Copyright 2018 Focus Features

“Boy Erased” is the second major feature film released in 2018 about Christian “gay conversion” facilities (the documentary “Far from the Tree” touched on gay conversion therapy). It is based on the experience of and expose by Garrard Conley, “Boy Erased” might better be called “Boy Ineradicable” because it is the story of a college student who is at first genuinely grateful to be sent to the conversion facility to be “cured,” but there realizes, contrary to and because of that experience, that those who do not understand that he is healthy and love him as he is and for who he is — those are the people in need of conversion.

Home movies show us Jared (as he is called in the film, played by Lucas Hedges) as an only child growing up with devoted and loving parents. His father, Marshall (Russell Crowe) is a preacher and a prosperous owner of a car dealership. He is a sincere and honest man of faith, preaching redemption, not fire and brimstone. Jared’s mother is Nancy (Nicole Kidman), with blonde bouffant hair, perfect manicure, and sparkly sense of style. As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “For contemplation he and valour formed,
For softness she and sweet attractive grace; He for God only, she for God in him.”

Jared is a high school basketball player with a pretty cheerleader girlfriend and a brand new car as a birthday gift. But he pushes her away when she tries to get physical, telling her he wants to wait. In college, a handsome student invites him to join him in running and come to his church — and then he rapes Jared. Afterward, he cries, confesses he has done it before, and begs Jared not to tell. And then he pretends to be a counselor, and calls Jared’s parents to tell them that their son has been engaging in homosexual activity.

Jared at first denies it, and does not tell them the truth about the rape. But then he confesses that he does think about men. Marshall consults with senior clergy, and packs Jared off to what begins as a twelve-day live-out program run by a group gruesomely called Love in Action,” run by Victor Sykes (writer/director Joel Edgerton). Sykes tells the young people sent to his facility to make a moral inventory and to list all family members who have sinned, helpfully giving a list of categories to assign, from gang activity to gambling, alcoholism and drug abuse, and homosexuality. “None” is not an acceptable answer.

At first, Jared tries to change. But as he witnesses the abusive tactics, from humiliation to “recommendations” that the participants be switched from live-out, short-term care to live-in care for an indeterminate period, he begins to understand that he is not the one with the problem. Later, we see how his mother and father diverge in their ability to accept him for who he is.

Edgerton’s writing, directing, and performance are all first-rate here. He has said that the issue of imprisonment has scared and fascinated him all his life, and he powerfully creates the sense of claustrophobia and abandonment of the Love in Action facility, and the inept but extremely damaging techniques that exemplify the experiences of almost 700,000 people. His fellow Aussies Crowe and Kidman create real, human portraits, not caricatures. Kidman has two outstanding scenes showing us how Nancy resolves the conflicts between what she has been taught and the love of her son. In his big scene, Crowe shows us a man who is struggling with that conflict. “I sought the counsel of wiser men,” he says, and really, that is what it is all about. How do we decide who is wiser? The information about the main characters at the end provides a powerful coda. Flea is fine in a small role as one of the instructors at the facility, who confesses his own sins and tries to teach the participants how to stand in a manly way.

Hedges continues to impress with his exceptionally thoughtful performances, following his work in “Manchester by the Sea,” “Lady Bird,” and the upcoming “Ben is Back.” He shows us Jared’s vulnerability but also his resilience, and the essential decency that leads him to be true to himself because of his empathy for what the others are going through. This movie should do that for us as well.

Parents should know that this film concerns “gay conversion” with abusive and homophobic activities, a brutal rape scene, sexual references, some strong language, and brief drug use.

Family discussion: Why did Jared’s parents have different ideas about what was best for him? Who are the “wiser” people you consult for advice and why?

If you like this, try: “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” and “But I’m a Cheerleader”

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Hunter Killer

Posted on October 25, 2018 at 5:44 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence and some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive military action, peril, and violence, guns, explosions, many characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 26, 2018

Copyright 2018 Summit Premiere
Submarines provide instant drama because they are as closed off from the rest of the world as it is possible to be in the era of instant global communications. The officers have to make life and death decisions not only for themselves but sometimes for the whole world with limited information and ability to get orders from their commanders. They are stuck with each other in a setting that combines the maximum of isolation with the highest of stakes. That is why there are so many memorable submarine movies, from “The Hunt for Red October” to “Crimson Tide” to “U-571,” “Das Boot,” and even “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” There are also often fascinating details about the technology involved. And that is why Gerard Butler‘s latest movie about saving yet another world leader from personal and geopolitical catastrophe holds our interest, despite the preposterousness of the plot.

The president of Russia has been kidnapped in a coup, and according to this film the only chance of rescue is up to the US Navy Seals and the captain of a US Navy submarine. If you can get on board with that idea, the mechanics and action should keep you on board through the end.

Butler plays Captain Joe Glass and we know he is a good guy because we first see him about to shoot a deer with a very manly bow and arrow but then decide not to when he sees the deer’s sweet mate and their baby. We see he is scrappy and tough but fair as he introduces himself to his new crew. He explains that he is not one of those fancy-pants Annapolis grads who learned what they do in a classroom. He’s an up-from-the bottom scrapper who will demand the best because he has had their jobs and knows what is possible.

It is really three movies in one as four Navy Seals enter Russia, first to get intel, and then, after their cameras reveal the coup, to rescue the kidnapped Russian president, the top brass in the Pentagon, including a skeptic (Gary Oldman), an intelligence officer (Linda Cardellini), and the decent guy trying to hold it together (Common), and then the attack sub led by Captain Glass. The other name for an attack submarine is hunter-killer.

The action scenes are powerfully staged, with outstanding sound and visual effects. And the film skillfully balances the big booms with the small moments between the (mostly) men. The film’s most compelling scene is when Glass has to find a way to gain the trust of a Russian captain (the late Michael Nyqvist, showing canny grizzled wisdom) very quickly and the two men recognize that they have more in common with each other than they ever will with the guys back home giving them orders based on politics and computer screens. Toby Stephens is also excellent as the leader of the Navy Seals.

There’s a lot of tech talk and tough talk and thousand yard stares. But there’s also some impressive action and a storyline that, let’s face it, is no more outlandish than current headlines and much more satisfying.

Parents should know that this film includes extended military peril and violence, guns, bombs, explosions, kidnapping, political coup, characters injured and killed, a brief crude reference, and strong language.

Family discussion: What difference did it make that Captain Glass had served as a crewman? What made the Russian and American captains trust each other?

If you like this, try: “Under Siege” and “The Hunt for Red October”

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Posted on October 25, 2018 at 5:23 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use
Profanity: Pervasive strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 26, 2018

Copyright 2018 Fox Searchlight
It is important to note that it is not Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) who is asking for forgiveness in the title of this film. It is the acerbically witty Dorothy Parker, author of a jaunty poem about the downsides of the various options for committing suicide that ends “You might as well live.” Okay, it is not exactly Dorothy Parker. It is Israel pretending to be Dorothy Parker. Lee Israel, best-selling author of popular and respected biographies of mid-century celebrities Dorothy Kilgallen and Tallulah Bankhead found herself desperate for money — and for some sense of a place in the world — when her next biography flopped and no one would work with her. The book’s failure with the critics and the public was only part of the reason. Lee Israel had become a bitter and unpleasant person and, both cause and effect, she had also become an alcoholic.

And so, instead of immersing herself in the lives of those more talented and successful to write about them, she immersed herself in the lives of famous authors to write for them. After a chance opportunity to steal and sell a genuine piece of correspondence, she began to forge others. Collectors love to own signed letters from their favorite writers, and Lee Israel loved writing them and getting away with it. She even went out and bought vintage typewriters and mastered the art of duplicating their signatures. At last, she is a successful writer again!

Well, for a while.

The movie is uneven, sometimes sordid, as Lee and her only friend, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) go from genteel poverty to near-squalor. Uncomfortably, the movie seems to suggest near the end that all of this had some merit as a way for Israel to find her own voice. After she was caught and after her guilty plea, she wrote another book, the basis for this film, finally in her own voice, telling her own story.

The performances are what make the movie worth seeing. Every one of them is a gem. McCarthy and Grant show us the flickers of raw honesty from near-feral people who mostly cannot bring themselves to acknowledge how far they are from where they think they deserve to be. Dolly Wells, as the trusting soul who purchases some forged letters, Jane Curtain as Israel’s businesslike but not unkind agent, and Anna Devere Smith in a knockout of a scene as Israel’s ex are all thoughtful, nuanced, committed, and compelling.

In Israel’s forged Dorothy Parker letter, “Can you ever forgive me?” is coy, self-consciously self-mocking, but mocking the recipient, too. That is the voice of Israel, too, and even an actor as irresistible as McCarthy cannot make us feel sympathetic for her.

Parents should know that this film includes pervasive very strong language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, drinking and alcoholism, drugs, and criminal activity including fraud and theft.

Family discussion: Why was Lee proud of the letters she forged? Why was it hard for her to get along with people? What do we learn from Elaine?

If you like this, try: Lee Israel’s books and “84 Charing Cross Road”

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