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Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul

Posted on September 1, 2022 at 5:21 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual content
Profanity: Very strong language
Nudity/ Sex: Sexual references including sexual abuse and predatory behavior of young people
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations, some shoving
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 2, 2022

Copyright Focus 2022
“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul” is a rare satire with some sympathy for its characters. We first see Trinitie Childs (co-producer Regina Hall) sitting in a pew, alone in a huge mega-church, talking to someone off-camera.It is instantly clear that Trinitie is used to performing for an audience, but that she is uncomfortable and not sure she wants to be filmed.

Trinitie’s husband is Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and we begin to understand that he and Trinitie, who has presided as First Lady at the church, have been wildly successful in building a congregation of 25,000, and richly rewarded in every sense of he word. We also begin to understand that there has been some very traumatic scandal. Lee-Curtis has brought in a documentary crew to film them as they try to come back from disgrace and return their church to its former glory.

This angle is wisely chosen because Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are essentially performers, even with each other. Lee-Curtis is certain that he can enlist the documentarian to be on his side and portray him as worthy of restoration to his previous position of prominence and respect. Trinitie is less sure of the filmmaker and less sure of Lee-Curtis’ ability to sustain the persona he thinks he can. She is even a little uncertain about herself. One of the most telling — and saddest — parts of the film is the way Trinitie tries to laugh when it is clear that she is anxious and scared. Why a laugh? She is trying to convey a lightness of spirit, the joy of being filled with the spirit, the sense that she is not ruffled, that Lee-Curtis’ transgressions are just jokes due to his own high spirits. She is exquisitely aware in every moment that they are not just preaching; they are or should be the best possible example of all that God can do for the followers.

We get a glimpse of what Lee-Curtiss and Trinitie might have been like in their early years with a young rival couple, both pastors, Shakura and Keon Sumpter (Nicole Beharie and Conphidance), their ambition and competitiveness not hidden behind their “praise the Lord” pieties. When both churches pick Easter Sunday for their big events, the Childs play a call on the Sumpters and, as with an encounter with a former church member in the mall, the result is a small masterpiece of simmering aggression bubbling up under a thin veneer of sweetness.

All of the performances are brilliantly conceived. Brown shows us a man whose entire life has been a performance. Lee-Curtis has deployed his natural magnetism to hide his true self from the world and to obtain the validation that he thinks will help him overcome his sense of shame. His near-frantic focus on surfaces is superbly realized by costume designer Lorraine Coppin, who created his designer looks. Hall gives another in a series of performances that show she can make any tone and genre work. The layers of emotion she shows us as Trinitie desperately tries to maintain an expression of confidence and joy in the spirit are heartbreaking. Near the end, as the script pushes too hard, she ends up in literal whiteface. The movie’s careful balance of satire while allowing for layered characters wobbles but even with the blankness painted over her features, we feel all of the suppressed anger and desperation she is experiencing. Her identity, her power, her reason for being is her position. Without that, who is she?

Beharie, who I called a breakthrough performer in 2009 gave what I picked as the top performance of 2020 in “Juneteenth,” continues to dazzle with her exquisitely precise work here as a pastor — not a First Lady — who understands the opportunity Lee-Curtis’ misbehavior has created. The scenes of the Childs and Sumpters are electric, the older couple seeing themselves in the younger and thus understanding exactly how much of a threat they are.

Writer/director Adamma Ebo, with her twin sister Adanne Ebo as producer, shows a strong vision and a gift for creating vivid, authentic characters. It is easy to make characters like these into caricatures, but she never lets them be less than fully human while never softening their flaws and failures. This is not a movie about a church scandal. It is a movie about people who struggle to find meaning and acceptance.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language and sexual references, including predatory behavior and abuse.

Family discussion: What is it fair to expect from church leaders? How can people begin to atone for serious mistakes?

If you like this, try: “Elmer Gantry” and “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and the documentaries “Say Amen Somebody,” “Marjoe” and “The Way Down” and the Henry Louis Gates miniseries “The Black Church”

Three Thousand Years of Longing

Posted on August 25, 2022 at 5:44 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexual content, graphic nudity, and brief violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Nudity/ Sex: Sexual references and situations, nudity
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Date Released to Theaters: August 26, 2022

Copyright MGM 2022
Like most children, I was fascinated by the power of wishes, and by the fairy tales where wishes never seemed to end with happily ever after. I was fond of a poem by Annette Wynne called “I Keep Three Wishes Ready,” which sensibly advised the readers to think ahead of time of what wishes we would want so we would be prepared and careful to avoid impulses and loopholes.

But, as Alithea (Tilda Swinton), a distinguished professor of stories (narrative) who specializes in fantasy, explains, there is no story about wishes that is not a cautionary tale. And thus, when she has the opportunity to use three wishes to fulfill her heart’s desire, she instead sits down with the djinn (genie) who has come out of her bottle, to hear his stories. As they sit, improbably, in white terrycloth robes in a luxurious Istanbul hotel room, he tells her of the wishes he has granted and the people who made them. And yes, they are all cautionary tales. Is wishing itself, the idea that we can escape the reality of time and the laws of physics and the limits of human power, so inevitably doomed by hubris?

Alithea tells us that the story we will hear is true, but that we will better receive it as fantasy. She also tells us that she is a solitary person, and happy to be so. That, in itself may be a fantasy, though she may not be willing to acknowledge it. I note here that the name Alithea is from the Greek word for fact or truth. And that this story is based on The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, the title story in a book of fairy tales for adults by A.S. Byatt. Alithea begins by telling us of magical-sounding wonders, humans hurtling through the air on metal wings or walking under water with webbed feet, with images reminding us of Arthur C. Clarke’s observation that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

On her way to the conference, Alithea sees, or thinks she sees, a small, possibly magical person. And then, when she is on stage, she sees another mythical being. Is she jet-lagged? Is she losing her mind? Or is she opening herself to what the rest of us refuse to see?

She buys an antique glass bottle, telling the seller that it looks like it has a story. Back in her hotel room, she begins to clean it with her electric toothbrush. The stopper falls out, smoke appears, and a giant hand reaches into the bathroom. It is a djinn (Idris Elba), and he has been inside the bottle for a very long time. Alithea would rather hear his stories than make a wish.

George Miller, the visionary writer/director behind the Mad Max and Babe movies, has a gift for wonder. Somewhere between the dystopian world of Fury Road and the endearing charm of “That’ll do, pig,” is this film, with striking, gorgeous images and swoon-worthy stories of passion — romantic, ambitious, angry, jealous, lustful passions.

The movie goes back and forth between the hotel room conversation and the stories of the wishes the djinn has granted, his repeated returns to confinement and how his adventures have forms his view of humanity, The djinn needs Alithea to make three heartfelt, personal wishes to gain his freedom. She insists that she has no wishes and certainly no wish to become ensnared as those who have tried to gain without effort.

The stories are dark at times, but always gorgeously filmed and resonant. And the end is surprisingly tender, perhaps reflecting the one wish all people share if we are brave enough to admit it.

Parents should know that this film has nudity and sexual references and situations, drinking and drunkenness, and violence, some grisly.

Family discussion: What would you wish? What is your favorite fairy tale and why?

If you like this, try: the book by A.S. Byatt, “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm”

Trailer: The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales

Posted on August 23, 2022 at 9:19 am

If full-time workers are below the poverty line, then the welfare recipient is the corporation. I’m looking forward to this film from Abigail Disney about the way the company that creates magic for its audience treats its employees like the stepmother treated Cinderella.

Spin Me Round

Posted on August 18, 2022 at 5:25 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
Profanity: Very strong language
Nudity/ Sex: Very explicit sexual situations, nudity, group sex
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril, characters injured, some graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 19, 2022

Copyright 2022 IFC Films
Director Jeff Baena is developing something of a repertory company and something of a genre all his own that could be called “high concept deranged farce.” He co-wrote one of my favorite films, “I Heart Huckabee’s,” a story about a department store, some environmental activists, complex existential philosophical concepts that was hilarious and bracingly smart. In his other films, wild, out of control behavior occurs in a medieval convent populated by highly impious foul-mouthed nuns (“The Little Hours”) and a dead girlfriend returns as a zombie (“Life After Beth”). Actors who have appeared in two or more of his films include his wife, Aubrey Plaza, and Alison Brie (her husband, Dave Franco appeared in “The Little Hours”), and “SNL” veterans Molly Shannon and Fred Armison. All of them are brilliant at exactly the combination of heightened circumstance and deadpan delivery he specializes in, and all of them clearly enjoy it.

His latest film, “Spin Me Round” does not just star Alison Brie; she wrote it as well. She plays Amber, who has worked for nine years at an Italian Garden-style restaurant in Bakersfield, California, called Tuscan Grove. As the movie opens, we see the industrial operations of the restaurant chain, with Alfredo sauce squeezed out of pre-packaged bags onto microwaved all-you-can-eat pasta. Amber is very professional and respected by her colleagues. Her boss, played by Lil Rel Howery, has a surprise for her; he has submitted her name for a special study session in Tuscany sponsored by their parent company. and she has been selected. Amber is thrilled. She has never been to Europe and it looks like a fabulous adventure, and, maybe, with the possibility of romance.

But this is one of those stories that starts out like a Hallmark movie and turns into a Lifetime movie.

Amber is still in “please the customer” mode and determined to bring the same upbeat, can-do spirit that made her successful at the restaurant. So when things begin to go wrong after her arrival she is sunny and helpful. Another attendee is Deb (Shannon), pouting over a lost bag, and Amber offers to loan her anything she needs, modestly assuring Deb, “I overpacked.” It turns out they are not staying in the beautiful villa pictured on the website but in a generic little motel with no locks on the doors nearby. When asked to turn over their passports and stay within the compound, she agrees. The promised lessons on Italian culture and cuisine are dull and basic. One of the other attendees is an ambitious chef (Tim Heidecker) who wants to teach the others about haute cuisine and molecular gastronomy, but no one cares.

The founder of the Tuscan Grove is Nick (Alessandro Nivola, always great), a dissolute yacht-owning zillionaire with surface charm and, clear to us at least, no interest in anything but pleasure. His assistant, Cat (Plaza) wakes Amber up and takes her to Nick’s yacht. While the others are in a boring class about herbs, she is living a Cinderella dream.

But then things start to get weird. Some of the other participants disappear. Amber starts to investigate and the storyline and tone take a swerve.

The last 20 minutes and he ending do not make a lot of sense. It’s pretty random. The script may be more a role Brie wants to play than a story she wants to tell. But the performances are excellent, especially Shannon, Plaza, and Brie herself, all precise and consistent despite the shifts. Shannon is funny and scary as the volatile over-sharer, both with confidences and with Amber’s clothes. Plaza, as always, is a master of deadpan with an underlay of recklessness. She and Brie play off each other beautifully as Amber tries hard to be a “good girl” and is scared and a little thrilled at finding her tendency to go along leading her to cross some boundaries she would never have considered in Bakersfield. I hope Baena keeps this repertory company going.

Parents should know that this movie has very explicit sexual situations and nudity, including group sex, and very strong language. Characters drink alcohol. There is some peril and there are some graphic and disturbing images of injuries.

Family discussion: Is there a point where Amber should have asked more questions? Why was the kind of restaurant so important to the story?

If you like this, try: Baena’s other films

13 the Musical

Posted on August 12, 2022 at 12:01 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some thematic elements and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Nudity/ Sex: Kissing
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 12, 2022

Copyright 2022 Netflix
There’s lyric in a song in the lively and tuneful “13 the Musical” that the main character and his mother sing together that pretty much sums up the most stressful parts of life. And there’s nothing more stressful in life than middle school. The mother and son sing ruefully, “It would be funny if it didn’t suck.”

Evan Goldman (a terrific Eli Golden) is studying for his upcoming bar mitzvah, or, as he says, “the Super Bowl of Judaism.” Like many b’nai mitzvot, he is more focused on the party than the significance of being called to read from the Torah and being recognized as an adult. He believes the party will establish his status, either cool or not.

Evan’s parents have just split up, and he and his mother (Debra Messing) are leaving New York to move in with his grandmother (Rhea Perlman) in a very small town in Indiana. There is no synagogue; his New York rabbi (a warm, wise, and witty Josh Peck) will fly in to conduct the service in a church. Evan faces all the pressure of starting a new school in 8th grade multiplied by the pressure of figuring out who the cool kids are and how to make sure they come to his party. This leads him to make a lot of mistakes, hurting the feelings of the not-cool but loyal friends he abandons for the popular crowd, and then digging himself in deeper when he betrays the new friends, too.

In other words, it’s middle school. Actually, it’s middle school with terrific musical numbers. The 2012 Broadway show was entirely performed by kids, even the musicians. Ariana Grande was in the cast. This version smooths out some of the storyline, making it more family-friendly and a bit sweeter. Messing and Perlman are welcome additions, but the focus is still very much on the 8th graders and their efforts to begin to navigate relationships, friend and romantic. Given the heightened emotion of that age, this film is reassuringly low stakes. A couple wants to have a first kiss. A jealous third party wants to make sure it does not happen. Evan is in the middle because either way he will not be able to have the party he wants. Kids make some poor choices but they learn to do better, starting with an apology.

A lot of the film is the energetic, witty musical numbers from writer/composer Jason Robert Brown (“The Last Five Years”), energetically choreographed by Jamal Sims. Every one of the young performers is a triple threat, acting, singing, and dancing, with songs set at cheerleader practice and on the football field bleachers. The storyline lightly but sincerely and authentically addresses the real issues of adolescence but it is seeing real-life kids singing and dancing with such jubilant energy and showing the skill and hard work they have devoted to the performance that are the greatest reassurance that adolescence can be survived and triumphed over.

Parents should know that this movie includes a painful divorce and parent-child estrangement and discussion of kissing.

Family discussion: How does Evan help his friends solve their problems? Why was it hard for Brett to tell Lucy he did not like the way she was treating him? Why did Archie go along with Evan’s plan?

If you like this, try: “Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueburger,” “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah,” and “Better Nate Than Ever”