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A Private War

Posted on February 3, 2019 at 4:33 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for disturbing violent images, language throughout, and brief sexuality/nudity
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Nudity/ Sex: Sexual references and situations, some explicit
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Brutal wartime violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 16, 2018
Date Released to DVD: February 4, 2019

Copyright 2018 Aviron Pictures
I reviewed A Private War for rogerebert.com. An excerpt:

The dramatic, personal story of Colvin herself is absorbingly told here, largely because of Pike’s dynamic performance, showing us a woman who was courageous enough to risk her life for a story on a daily basis but remained vulnerable enough to make the stories viscerally compelling. That combination took a terrible toll. She used sex and booze to numb her feelings but they could not stop the nightmares. “You’re not going to get anywhere if you acknowledge fear,” she says, but she admits that after the danger is over, she feels it. It is surreal to see her back in London at an elegant gala event, picking up another journalism award in between trips to war zones where she has to maintain enough distance from the carnage all around her to write about it – and keep from becoming part of it. The contrast in perspective and priorities between Colvin and her editor (an excellent Tom Hollander) makes a deeper point about the uneasy and sometimes conflicted relationship between editors trying to sell papers and reporters trying to get the story read.

To the extent we need to know why she had this compulsion and whether she missed having a home and family, those elements are present without being reductive or simplistic.

The Grinch

Posted on February 3, 2019 at 4:18 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for brief rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Nudity/ Sex: Brief potty humor
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 9, 2018
Date Released to DVD: February 4, 2019

Copyright Illumination 2018
My DVD pick of the week is “The Grinch,” which I reviewed for rogerebert.com.

An excerpt:

The visuals are delightfully Seussian, all curves and slants. I loved the mitten-shaped windows on one of the houses and the way that Whoville’s Christmas decorations make it look like a captivatingly intricate gingerbread village. In contrast, the Grinch’s mountain top lair is bare and cavernous, empty and solitary, far from the warmth of the Whovian homes.

While this is not especially inventive, there are some clever parallels as the Grinch and Cindy Lou each have to come up with a plan for Christmas Eve. They write out their schemes with the same two words alone on a huge surface: “Santa Claus.” And both must assemble helpers and equipment without anyone finding out.

The smaller details are the most fun, especially when the Grinch brings on an enormous, yak-looking reindeer named Fred to pull his fake Santa sleigh. Or when a relentlessly cheery Whovian (Kenan Thompson) with the fanciest Christmas decorations in town keeps insisting that he and the Grinch are best friends.

Miss Bala

Posted on January 31, 2019 at 5:33 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of gun violence, sexual and drug content, thematic material, and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Nudity/ Sex: Rape (off-camera), sex trafficking, prostitution, sexual references
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealing, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended crime and law enforcement-related peril and violence, guns and shoot-outs, knives, bombs, rape, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 31, 2019

Copyright 2018 Columbia Pictures
“Miss Bala” is a serviceable action thriller but very much the Hollywood version. In real life, a beauty queen named Laura Zúñiga (her title was “Our Sinaloa Beauty”) was arrested with seven members of a Mexican drug and weapons crime operation. Her story became a Mexican film, also called Miss Bala, which portrayed her as a kidnap victim, forced to work with the La Estrella gang to protect her family.

The American remake is closer to Pam Grier’s “Foxy Brown” or Tarantino’s “Death Proof” than to the real story, where the beauty queen did not fire a gun in stilettos and a red evening gown with a slit up the leg. The woman in the dress is “Jane the Virgin‘s” stars Gina Rodriguez as Gloria, a makeup artist from California, an American citizen who returns to her original home in Tijuana to help her best friend Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) look her best in the Miss Baja California beauty pageant. Gloria loves Suzu and her little brother Chava (Sebastián Cano), who are the closest she has to a family. And Suzu seems to be missing some red flags about the pageant, unconcerned about rumors that the local sheriff insists on droit de seigneur privileges with each year’s winner. A pre-competition party is interrupted by a shoot-out. Gloria is almost killed, but won’t take her opportunity to get away because she stays to look for Suzu. She tells a man in uniform that she can identify the killers, but he turns out to be working for them. He takes her to the leader of the group, Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova), who tells her that if she helps them, he will find Suzu for her.

So Gloria finds herself getting more and more caught up in the terrifying world of warring drug dealers. At first, she is a numb patsy who follows Lino’s directions to park a car by a building, but then it turns out it was packed with a bomb and used to blow up a safe house operated by the US DEA. Desperate to find Suzu and protect Chava, the follows his orders, transporting drugs and cash across the border into California and bringing back guns. The DEA brings her in and threatens her with prison or worse if she does not cooperate. The pressure is intense and the consequences are immeasurably tragic. Lino is suspicious, but also drawn to Gloria, because he, too, has been considered too Mexican to be American and too American to be Mexican. Gloria has to try to navigate between fear and something approaching loyalty while keeping in mind the single driving force of her commitment to rescuing Suzu.

Rodriguez has said in interviews that she insisted on giving Gloria more agency, making her more active, doing whatever a male character in those situations would do, all of which is salutary, but it goes so far it becomes cartoonish.

Almost everyone who worked on this film on screen and off is Latinx, which is also salutary, though the fact that the first major studio film to make that a goal has to be about the most obvious possible stereotype of Latinx characters.

Parents should know that this is a close-to-R PG-13, with themes of sex and drug trafficking, intense peril and violence, guns, knives, bombs, shoot-outs, many characters injured and killed, rape (off-camera), and some strong language.

Family discussion: How did Gloria decide what to do in the parking lot? What do you think she will do next?

If you like this, try: the original Spanish-language version of the story with the same title, and “2 Fast 2 Furious”

Guillermo del Toro on “Roma” — One Amigo Pays Tribute to Another

Posted on January 24, 2019 at 9:02 pm

Copyright 2018 Netflix

They are called “The Three Amigos” — three Mexican directors who have risen to the top ranks in Hollywood and world cinema, all Oscar winners, Guillermo del Toro for “The Shape of Water,” Alejandro G. Iñárritu two years in a row for “Birdman” and “The Revenant,” and “Roma” director Alfonso Cuarón for “Gravity.” He’s now the front-runner for up to four Oscars this year for “Roma.”

I love what del Toro wrote on Twitter about “Roma.”

10 personal musings about ROMA.

1) The opening shot suggests that earth (the shit-infested ground) and heaven (the plane) are irreconcilably far even if they are joined -momentarily- and revealed, by water (the reflection). All truths in ROMA are revealed by water.

2) These planes of existence, like the separation within classes in the household cannot be broached. The moments the family comes “closer” are fleeting… “She saved our lives” is promptly followed by “Can you make me a banana shake?”

3) In my view, Cleo’s “silence” is used as a tool for her dramatic arch- that leads to her most intimate pain being revealed, by water – again- after the Ocean rescue: “I didn’t want her to be born” Cleo surpasses and holds her emotions in silence until they finally pour out

4) One key moment, precisely crafted is Cuaron’s choice to have Cleo’s water break just as the violence explodes and her boyfriend breaks into the store holding both a gun and a “Love Is…” T shirt. The baby will be stillborn.

5) In every sense, ROMA is a Fresco, a Mural, not a portrait. Not only the way it is lensed but the way it “scrolls” with long lateral dollies. The audio visual information (context, social unrest, factions & politics / morals of the time) exists within the frame to be read.

6) It seems to me that the fact that Cuaron and Eugenio Caballero BUILT several blocks (!) of Mexico City in a giant backlot (sidewalk, lampposts, stores, asphalted streets, etc) is not well-known. This is a titanic achievement.

7) The Class stratas are represented in the film not only in the family but within the family and the land-owning relatives and even between Fermin and Cleo- when he insults her in the practice field.

8) ROMA cyphers much of its filmic storytelling through image and sound. When viewed in a theatre, it has one of the most dynamic surround mixes. Subtle but precise.


9) Everything is cyclical. That’s why Pepe remembers past lives in which he has belonged to different classes, different professions. Things come and go- life, solidarity, love. In our loneliness we can only embrace oh, so briefly by the sea.

10) The final image rhymes perfectly with the opening. Once again, earth and heaven. Only Cleo can transit between both. Like she demonstrates in the Zovek scene, only she has grace. We open the film looking down, we close looking up- but the sky, the plane, is always far away.

And the great ending of Gravity… The studio was pressuring Alfonso to “show” helicopters in the sky, coming to rescue Sandra Bullock’s character. He said “no”. Emerging from the water was the triumph, touching the earth-standing…

The studio then said: “Ok what about hearing the helicopters?” Alfonso, once more, said “no”. The studio then suggested adding a radio giving her coordinates, promising help. Alfonso said “no”. Once more an ending made of Air, land and water.

Serenity

Posted on January 24, 2019 at 5:34 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, sexual content, and some bloody images
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Nudity/ Sex: Nudity, sexual references and explicit sexual situations
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, domestic abuse, murder
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 25, 2019
Copyright 2018 Avrion Pictures

Even by the very low standards of January movies, “Serenity” is a dreary, dumb mess that makes the ultimate mistake of thinking it is smart.

At first, it wants us to think it is a throwback to the classic twisty noir thrillers like “Out of the Past” and “The Lady from Shanghai.” Matthew McConaughey plays a man called Baker Dill (note: I did not say a man named Baker Dill), a veteran who lives on remote Plymouth Island, where he takes out feckless tourists on a fishing boat called Serenity. We glimpse a Purple Heart medal in the corrugated metal shack where he lives, and we can see that he is bitter and struggling with psychological damage and maybe some physical damage as well. There’s a World’s Greatest Father mug in the shack as well. He pours his whiskey into it. Dill has an Ahab-like fascination with a giant tuna he has named….Justice. And he has a relationship with a local woman (Diane Lane, slumming), who pays him to “find her cat,” which is both literal and euphemistic. Same with the only bar on the island, which used to have Hope in its name but then switched to Rope.  This is not a subtle movie.  We also see a mysterious, very proper, precise man in a suit who carries a briefcase (Jeremy Strong), who seems to be looking for Dill. At one point, he removes his shoes to wade robotically across a stream.

And then, the second act complication arrives: femme fatale Karen (Anne Hathaway), honey blonde hair and dressed in white. She is married to Frank (Jason Clarke), a wealthy boor who abuses her and terrifies her son, who is Dill’s son as well. She says Frank will kill her if she tries to leave him, so the only way to protect her is to get Frank drunk out at sea and throw him to the sharks. If Dill will do that, he will not only save his son, but he will get $10 million in cash.

There are some hints that this is not the usual thriller story of seduction, betrayal, and murder, though all of those elements are there. Something is a little off, though. Dill has some sort of mystical mental Skype thing going with the son he has not seen in ten years.  Where is Plymouth Island? The music is Cajun and there are references to Miami but it is becomes increasingly clear that it is strangely isolated and insular. “Everyone knows everything,” we hear repeatedly. At first, it seems to refer to the gossip in any tiny community. But then we begin to wonder “What is Plymouth Island?” when it goes from “everyone knows everything” about the details of what Dill is buying and selling and catching and where he is at all times to “no one knows anything” when it comes to the choices Dill is facing and how he will decide. The best way to enjoy this film is to have a drinking game that lets you take a swig every time a character says either line.

The four leads do their best to persuade us that their stilted dialogue and increasingly artificial interactions are archetypal, not underwritten, but they never find a tone that will withstand the groaner of a twist, which I will be happy to spoil per my legendary Gothika rule*. Trust me, it’s a worthy addition.

*Gothika Rule: If is movie has a truly bad or dumb ending, I will happily give it away to anyone who sends me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com.

Parents should know that this film includes domestic abuse, murder, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, very strong language, explicit sexual situations, nudity, drinking and drunkenness, and smoking.

Family discussion: In what way did “everybody know everything” and in what way did “nobody know anything?” What were the clues that things were not what they seemed?

If you like this, try: “Out of Time,” “Body Heat,” “The Lady from Shanghai,” and “The Cafe”