The Outpost

Posted on July 2, 2020 at 5:50 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for war violence and grisly images, pervasive language, and sexual references
Profanity: Constant very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Substance abuse, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense wartime peril and violence, very graphic and disturbing images, many characters injured and killed, possible suicide attempt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 3, 2020

Copyright ScreenMedia 2020
There are war stories that are about strategy and courage and triumph over evil that let us channel the heroism of the characters on screen. And then there are war stories that are all of that but also engage in the most visceral terms with questions of purpose and meaning that touch us all. “The Outpost,” based on the book by news correspondent Jake Tapper, is that rare film in the second category, an intimate, immersive drama from director Rod Lurie, a West Point graduate and Army veteran who knows this world inside out and brings us from the outside in.

The script by Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy wisely avoids the usual expository dialogue as a newcomer is introduced to the group. Instead, we get a crisp, military briefing-style scene-setting with on-screen text informing us that the military has set up outposts in areas that are impossible to defend and given the 53 soldiers there the impossible task of both befriending the locals and fighting off the Taliban. This one is Combat Outpost Keating, located in a near-indefensible mountain-enclosed area in Afghanistan 14 miles from the Pakistani border.

Lurie and his cast, including Orlando Bloom, Scott Eastwood, and breakout star Caleb Landry Jones, understand the small revelatory moments, the trash-talk and taunting that is the way people away from home and coping with unendurable uncertainty connect to each other. Then there are the brief calls home when they pretend to be normal and maintain those connections. As a sign nearby reminds them to keep the calls to 10 minutes, one soldier puffs away while assuring his wife that he stopped smoking. A series of new commanding officers each bring his own ideas and style of communication. Over the course of the movie, we see how much we expect from the military, from 21st century warfare to diplomacy. Over the closing credits, we get a devastating reminder of how heartbreakingly young these soldiers are.

There are telling moments in the interactions with the locals. The soldiers do their best to implement the policies they are there to carry out, which means “soft power” like paying them for their people who have been killed as collateral damage or even as enemy or possibly those who are dead by other means but maybe a way to get more money from the Americans. “I will lose my honor with my elders,” one explains via a translator. “I can regain my honor one of two ways. One way is for all of you to lay down your arms and watch as your communities flourish with the help of the US and Allah.” That support comes in the form of “money, contracts, projects.” The other way does not need to be explained to the Afghanis or to us. The outpost also has to develop sources of intelligence in a place where there is no reason for anyone to trust them and they do not speak the language. There is a local version of the boy who cried wolf, constantly warning of an attack but with no useful details. And then there are the attacks, always expected yet always unexpected because they never know when.

Impeccable camerawork from Lorenzo Senatore and editing by Michael J. Duthie give the film a documentary feel matched by understated, natural performances from the cast. We feel their exhaustion. And we feel their dedication, more important even than their training or their courage. Their loyalty to each other in the face of risk so dire the outpost is known as Camp Custer is itself the answer to the question the story raises about purpose, meaning, and why we are here. The question of why we are there it is wise enough not to try to resolve.

Parents should know that this is a war movie with constant, intense, and graphic military and terrorist violence, disturbing images, characters injured and killed, constant very strong and crude language, sexual humor, smoking and substance abuse.

Family discussion: Which was the best commanding officer of the outpost? How do the soldiers manage their stress?

If you like this, try: “Beaufort” and “1917”

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Four Kids and It

Posted on June 29, 2020 at 5:37 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, some rude/suggestive comment, fantasy violence, and language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy peril and some violence, guns, explosion
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 30, 2020
Copyright 2020 Kindle Entertainment

Let’s get one thing clear before we talk about “Four Kids and It.” We’re going to set aside our deep affection for E. Nesbit’s book Five Children and It for a moment. That classic has at best a homeopathic relationship to this film, which is based on a sort of inspired by, sort of sequel, touch of rip-off called, without much imagination, Four Kids and It. In both cases, the story is about children who discover a magical sand-dwelling creature called a Psammead who can talk and grant wishes. And in both cases, the wishes do not exactly turn out the way the wishers hope, creating a learning experience for the wishers and some fun for the readers/audience. I’ll take a moment to warmly recommend the truly classic original, preferably read aloud and with the Paul O. Zelinsky illustrations, and get on to this far lesser but still pleasantly entertaining version.

A single dad (Matthew Goode as David) and a single mom (Paula Patten as Alice) decide for no reason whatsoever other than being idiot adults in a movie about kids, that what they should do is not tell their children that they have been dating, it is serious, and both sets of children will be staying in the same remote house along the Cornwall coast.

The children do not consider this a good surprise, especially David’s bookish daughter Ros (Teddie-Rose Malleson-Allen), who has brought a copy of Five Children and It along with her, and Alice’s daughter Smash (Ashley Aufderheide), a sk8r grrl with a massive attitude problem. Both girls miss the parents who abandoned them. Ros hopes her mother will come back and Smash hopes her father will let her come live with him. The two younger children are David’s son Robbie (Billy Jenkins), who spends all day on his gaming device and five-year-old Maudie (Ellie-Mae Siame), who just wants everyone to get along.

On the beach, the children discover the Psammead, delightfully voiced by a perfectly grumpy Michael Caine. He agrees to grant one wish a day, but each one will expire at sundown.

The house they are staying in is owned by a wealthy and eccentric man named Tristan Trent III (Russell Brand with a beard). He seems very interested in Ros and puts a tracking device on her shoe. While the children are making their wishes and the parents remain clueless, he is trying to find the Psammead.

The fantasy elements and fending off Trent are fun. What matters, though, is the way that Ros and Smash begin to understand how acknowledging they cannot have what they really want makes it possible for them to begin to move forward, starting with developing a friendship. That’s the real magic.

Parents should know that this movie has fantasy peril and some violence, including guns, falls, and an explosion, though no one is badly hurt. There are family issues and confrontations, including two parents who walk out on their families, causing a lot of distress. Characters use some schoolyard language and are rude to parents. There are some mild sexual situations involving adults and there is some potty humor.

Family discussion: If you saw a Psammead, what would you wish for? If you could go back in time, when would you pick?

If you like this, try: Five Children and It and its sequels by E. Nesbit

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My Spy

Posted on June 25, 2020 at 5:42 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for action/violence and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mayhem and spy-related action violence, many characters injured and killed, off-screen death of parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 26, 2020

Copyright 2020 Amazon Studios
“My Spy” does not try to conceal the sources it relies on for its storyline — other movies. This is a movie about a CIA agent who refers to “Notting Hill” twice, once in the first five minutes. It is also a movie that thinks it is okay to copy one of the best sequences from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” because it makes a weak joke about doing so. There is even a reference to the wedding scene in “Shrek.” The whole movie is propelled by pieces from other movies, from Melissa McCarthy’s “Spy” to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Kindergarten Cop” to Richard Dreyfuss and Madeleine Stowe in “Stakeout,” director Peter Segal’s own “Get Smart” and star Dave Bautista’s “Stuber.” The best I can say is that it does not lift any of its storyline from lesser films along the same lines like “Mr. Nanny” or “Stop or My Mom Will Shoot.”

So, no surprises here but that does not mean it’s not mildly entertaining along the way. Unfortunately, it is too violent for the elementary school audience most likely to enjoy it.

Bautista plays J.J., a special forces veteran now working as a field agent for the CIA. He is still better at shooting people than at spycraft. When he kills a bunch of bad guys instead of obtaining the information he was supposed to bring back to Langley his new assignment is designed to keep him out of trouble. He and Bobbi (Kristen Schaal), a tech specialist, will be on a stakeout, watching Kate, a single mom (Parisa Fitz-Henley), and Sophie, her 9 year old daughter (Chloe Coleman of “Big Little Lies”), from the apartment down the hall. They are new in town and Sophie is having trouble making new friends at school. The CIA thinks that Sophie’s uncle, who has the information they need about a possible nuclear weapon, may show up there.

But they are almost immediately busted by Sophie, who threatens to expose them unless J.J. helps her out, first by taking her to the skating rink, then by coming to school for “parents and special friends day.” He agrees, but he warns her that “This ain’t gonna end up like some movie with you and me sitting in little chairs having a tea party with dolls.” But what Sophie wants is to learn important spy stuff like lying and walking away from an explosion without looking back. And what J.J. needs is to learn how to develop actual relationships with anyone other than his fish, Blueberry and his affection for “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”

Both the action scenes and the “J.J. learns how to be vulnerable and talk to people” scene are generic and there is a lot of carnage for a movie about an endearing child. But Coleman is a gifted performer who knows how to deliver lines that are too grown-up for her age without sounding overly precocious, and her scenes with Bautista have some real warmth. The understated diversity of the cast is a plus. Ultimately, the reason we see this kind of set-up so often is that we are programmed to enjoy it.

Parents should know that this movie has a lot of violence for a PG-13 with shoot-outs, chases, and explosions, and a child in peril. There is a reference to a sad off-screen death of a parent and the issue of learning upsetting news about what he may have done. A crotch hit is portrayed as comic. There are some school mean girls and brief cyber-bullying. Lying is portrayed as an enviable skill. Strong language includes the b-word, the s-word, and more.

Family discussion: What does J.J. learn from Sophie? Why doesn’t Sophie tell her mother about J.J.? What facial cues are you good at reading?

If you like this, try: “The Game Plan,” (PG) and the PG-13 rated “Kindergarten Cop” and “Spy”

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Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

Posted on June 25, 2020 at 5:30 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for crude sexual material including full nude sculptures, some comic violent images, and language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic mayhem and violence, characters killed, murders, explosions, some grisly images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 26, 2020
Copyright Netflix 2020

Will Ferrell, who co-wrote and stars in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” knows that it is impossible to exaggerate the sheer nuttiness of the annual song competition, so he does not even try. He just puts us in the middle of it, almost reassuringly bittersweet in the year of the pandemic, which has canceled the real-life Eurovision for the first time since it began in 1956.

Ferrell plays Lars, an Icelander who has been obsessed with winning the song of the year competition since 1974, when he watched the not-yet-world-conquering ABBA win with “Waterloo.” (Do not think too hard about the math. Or the plot. Or anything else.)

ABBA’s stunning appearance had an even more profound impact on another child in the room, Sigrit (Rachel McAdams), who was mute until “Waterloo” inspired her to speak and sing. Now Lars and Sigrit have formed a duo called Fire Saga, and through a combination of events, including having all of the other Icelandic competitors get blown up, they are Iceland’s representatives in the competition, located this year in Edinburgh.

“Wedding Crashers” director David Dobkin keeps things moving briskly, with the highlight of the film a delightfully staged riff-off at a party for the top competitors featuring real Eurovision stars. Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) has a blast playing the contest’s flamboyant front-runner, the Russian Alexander Lemtov. Just like the real Eurovision, the musical numbers are wildly over-the-top, with klieg lights, gyrating dancers, and outrageous costumes. I mean, Eurovision makes Las Vegas look like a third grade piano recital.

McAdams does not get to show her comedy skills as she did in “Game Night,” but she is always an enormously appealing performer and provides some balance to the goofiness of the Lars character. If Sigrit believes in him, we do, too. Will there be betrayals? Romantic conflicts? Live performance mishaps? A race to the airport? Is Ferrell getting too old for these boy-man roles? And for playing a romantic interest for Rachel McAdams? Are the songs goofy fun? And what about bringing biscuits to the elves? (Ah, surprised you with that one.) All of that, plus the fun of the only Eurovision songs we’ll get this year make this a treat for the pandemic summer.

Parents should know that this film has strong language, sexual references and sexually explicit statues, comic mayhem including murders with some graphic and disturbing images including a severely injured ghost.

Family discussion: Why was Erik so hard on Lars? Why was it hard for Lars to show his feelings for Sigrid? Which song would you vote for?

If you like this, try: “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” and watch some of the real-life Eurovision songs on YouTube

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Comedy movie review Movies Movies Musical

Irresistible

Posted on June 25, 2020 at 5:21 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including sexual references
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: Cultural diversity a theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 26, 2020

Copyright Focus 2020
Jon Stewart swings for the fences with “Irresistible,” and you’ve got to respect that, even if he only hits a double. He has taken a whole bunch of what bothers him the most about our political system, not the fumbles, pettiness, missteps, and corruption of the individuals but the more systemic problems of money and messaging and he has tried to create a Preston Sturges/Armando Iannucci-style movie that uses humor to illuminate. Sharp one-liners and a top-notch cast come close to making the characters human enough to be interesting but they are still two-dimensional. And some uncertainty of tone throws the movie off-kilter when it shifts from slightly heightened to over the top. When it leaps so far outside the bounds of the real, it undermines its best scrutiny of what is actually happening. I live inside the Washington DC beltway and exposes of political abuse are my jam, so I enjoyed it, but even I thought it made some unfortunate blunders.

The opening is promising, with Steve Carell as Gary, a Democratic political strategist and Rose Byrne as Faith, a Republican political strategist, in the post Clinton/Trump “spin rooms,” where each team tries to explain to reporters why their candidate was brilliant and definitively trounced the other side. But what we get to hear is what’s inside their heads. Gary says he will persuade them “as long as I say it repeatedly and with confidence,” and Faith concludes, “I look forward to lying to you in the future.” We get it. They’re there to win, not to be honest. But Gary was probably being honest when he predicted that Clinton would win. He was just wrong. And so for his professional future and possibly for the good of the country, he has to get his credibility back and he has to figure out how to communicate with the “rust belt blue wall” he thought was “impenetrable” until Trump got a lot of those votes and won the electoral college.

He sees a chance to prove himself when a video of a Deerlaken, Wisconsin city council meeting goes viral due to an impassioned speech by a local farmer, a retired Marine named Jack (Chris Cooper), speaking out plainly but eloquently on behalf of immigrants in his community. Gary tells the Democratic party leaders that “this square-jawed paragon of Americana is our key back to the Forbidden City. He’s a Democrat, but just doesn’t know it yet.” He thinks if he brings his national-level political expertise to a small town in Wisconsin, he can persuade Jack to run for mayor, get him elected, and “road-test a more rural-friendly message” in a place he refers to as “the middle of nowhere” he can re-invigorate progressive messaging and, by the way, his own career. So, he fires up the private jet and checks out what Wikipedia has to say about Wisconsin. In real life, he would have a ton of data in a briefing package, but it’s more fun to make him look like a big city doofus.

Jack agrees to run, the race gets some national media attention, and so Faith arrives, to make sure that they do not break the city’s record of not electing a Democrat since Robert LaFollette (Governor 1901-1906). In Stewart’s view, the only issue anyone cares about is the power of the parties; any specifics are about leverage, with no more focus on reproductive health or even the immigration issue that Jack spoke about in the viral video than on gaffes and embarrassing secrets about opposing candidates. It’s just about votes. The weakest part of the film is the blaming of the consultants who are the symptom (okay, a truly unpleasant one), not the disease. The movie very briefly touches on the funding issue, with stand-ins for the Kochs and a generic, literally high-tech billionaire with just one issue literally half a world away from Wisconsin and a scene at a Manhattan fund-raiser but barely addresses the real and most democracy-destabilizing problem of dark money and Citizens United. The small reference to super PACS, with a winking nod to “non-coordination” deserved more attention.

It’s fun to watch because it has a great cast and clever dialogue and more substance than most feature films. But it is a disappointment that someone who has such a deep understanding of American politics goes for cheap laughs about clueless big city folks not understanding the folks in the heartland instead of looking at the less-examined obstacles at least equally rich in potential for satire. The movie has at least four different endings, and at least three of them seem to undercut the point the film is trying to make. Stewart makes the same mistake Faith and Gary do; he condescends to his audience.

Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language and very crude sexual references.

Family discussion: Which candidate would you vote for and why? Would you ever run for office? What changes in the system is this movie promoting and what changes would you suggest?

If you like this, try: the documentaries “Slay the Dragon” (about the fight against gerrymandering in Wisconsin and other states) and “Primary” (about John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey campaigning against each other in Wisconsin for the Democratic nomination for President) and “Welcome to Mooseport,” with Gene Hackman as a former President who runs for mayor in a small town in Maine.

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