Posted on September 2, 2021 at 10:00 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language and thematic elements
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Terrorist attack, tragic loss of life and injury, tense and emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: Class issues are a theme in the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 27, 2021

Copyright 2021 Netflix
What is life worth? Who gets to decide? Most of us prefer not to think about it. For a few of us, mostly lawyers, insurers, and those in government, it is their job. I had that job for a while when I was in the government, looking at questions like: “Should we prohibit a particular pesticide if it will reduce the incidence of cancer by two people every year but increase the price of a bushel of berries by $1.00?” Law and society have been very inconsistent, spending far more in emergencies than on prevention.

Lawyer Ken Feinberg has made the job of assigning monetary value to human life his career. He comes into the most traumatic and tragic cases of incalculable loss, Agent Orange, asbestos, the financial meltdown, and tries to decide how much money to pay to compensate the injured and the survivors. Twenty years ago, it was Feinberg and his colleague Camille Biros who were called upon to determine how much money would be paid by the taxpayers to the families of those killed or injured on 9/11. Feinberg’s book about these cases has been turned into a film, with Michael Keaton as Feinberg, Amy Ryan as Biros, and Stanley Tucci as Charles G. Wolf, who challenged the original settlement proposal.

The film takes some dramatic license with the real story but it is all in service of making the abstract issues real, concrete, and meaningful, as well as protecting the privacy of some of the people involved. We first see Feinberg as a man of integrity and culture (he really loves opera, but not the new-fangled stuff), a bit formal and old-fashioned. He does not use a computer and he dictates a note to one of his children, emphasizing the importance of being on time, that until the “love, Dad” signature could be a letter to opposing counsel. But he skillfully negotiates himself into the position of Special Master with three disarming points. He foregoes any payment. He mentions that no one else wants the job. And he points out that if he fails, the Republicans can blame him for being a Democrat.

The dollar amount is not intended to compensate the families for their grief or for their loss. There is not enough money in the world to do that, and no way to value one individual more than another. It is based only on the value (“present value” in economic terms) of their future earnings. On that basis, a clerical worker’s family would get less than a stockbroker’s family.

Most of the survivors understand that. But Fienberg and Biros learn that for these shocked, grieving families, being heard is as important as being paid. And they learn that an algorithm based on the age and earning potential of the person who died and the applicable lows of inheritance may reach a result that does not meet anyone’s standards for fairness. Broadway star Laura Benanti makes an indelible impression as the widow of a fire fighter who went back into the building because he wanted to save people. Ryan is brilliant as always in a role of quiet power. She can say more by listening than many actors can by talking. And Keaton, who has constantly surprised us with his range, gives one of his best performances.

The eternal conundrum of the law is finding a balance between the fairness of a clear, consistent rule and the fairness of individual, discretionary judgment. This movie illustrates that wrenching dilemma in the most compelling terms, with much of the focus on the shell-shocked survivors whose grief is only eased by being given a chance to talk about them, to make sure that the people they loved for their very individual characteristics is not seen by those in charge of estimating the value of their lives see them as more than data points to plug into a formula. Money to pay the bills provides some comfort. But being heard provides solace, and this film is as much a tribute to those we lost as to those who tried to give them some small element of restorative justice.

Parents should know that this film includes very sad stories from the families and survivors of a terrorist attack and some footage of the aftermath. There is some strong language.

Family discussion: Who should decide what a life is worth? What was wrong with the way Ken Feinberg conducted the original meeting? Is it possible to create just rules that allow for all legitimate exceptions? Were the fund’s payments “fair?”

If you like this, try: Feinberg’s book and movies like “Metal of Honor” and “United 93” and read articles like this one and this one.

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Central Intelligence

Posted on June 16, 2016 at 5:22 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for crude and suggestive humor, some nudity, action violence and brief strong language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, scenes in bar
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action-style violence, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images and sounds and torture
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 17, 2016
Date Released to DVD: September 26, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B01H4FJQ2G
Copyright 2016 Warner Brothers
Copyright 2016 Warner Brothers

There’s not much intelligence of any kind, central or otherwise, in this silly spy comedy, but what did you expect from a movie based on the sight gag of pairing man mountain former WWE star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson with pocket-sized pepperpot comic Kevin Hart? But its good-natured script by Ike Barinholtz, David Stassen, and director Rawson Marshall Thurber and the pleasure of watching the appealing stars enjoying themselves make it work.

Hart, something of a straight man for a change, plays Calvin, a one-time high school all-star voted Most Likely to Succeed, now an accountant working in a building with a huge inflated gorilla in front of it, and just passed over for promotion. He adores his wife, Maggie (“The Game’s” Danielle Nicolet), but is disappointed in himself.  His wife wants him to go to couples therapy, but he is reluctant. “Black people don’t go to therapy.  We go to the barbershop.  Or we watch the movie ‘Barbershop.'”

Just before the 10th high school reunion he has refused to attend, he hears via Facebook from a classmate now known as Bob Stone (Johnson), who lists his “likes” as unicorns, cinnamon pancakes, and guns. In high school he was known as Robby. He was very overweight and awkward. Bullies grabbed him in the locker room shower and threw into the gym naked in front of the whole class. Calvin was the only one who was kind to him, handing him his letter jacket to cover up.

Now Bob is handsome and muscular, but not intimidating because he is wearing a unicorn t-shirt, a front-facing fannypack, and jorts.  It seems all he wants from Calvin is a chance to thank him.

But then he punches out some bullies in the bar.  He’s really good at it. And then he asks Calvin to help him with a “forensic accounting problem.”  He asks to spend the night on Calvin’s fold-out couch (Maggie does not seem to be around). It’s a little weird, but then it gets scary. The next morning the CIA shows up because, according to Agent Pamela Harris (Amy Ryan, playing it very straight), Bob Stone is a traitor and a threat to national security who is about to deliver some very dangerous computer codes to the highest bidder.

All of this is just to set up a zany series of chases, shoot-outs, captures, and escapes, with a terrified Calvin trying to figure out who is telling the truth and stopping in the middle for many, many pop culture references, a marriage counseling session, and a visit to the ringleader of the guys who bullied Bob in high school (Jason Bateman).

The good spirits and anti-bullying message are sullied by some uncomfortably unkind “humor,” especially concerning a surprise cameo appearance that consists only of her being swept away by Johnson’s body and having crossed eyes.  I’m pretty sure that punching a bully is not the message of empowerment that we should be getting here.  But they’re no more serious about the message than they are about the storyline.  This movie is about hanging out with Johnson and Hart as they goof on their own personas, and that is silly fun.

Parents should know that the film includes some comic nudity (bare tushes), potty humor, strong language, and extended action-style violence with torture and some disturbing sounds and images. Characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: What is the best way to prevent bullying? Why didn’t Calvin achieve what he thought he would?

If you like this, try: “Spy” and the original “The In-Laws”

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Exclusive Clip: Don Verdean

Posted on December 4, 2015 at 6:24 pm

“Napoleon Dynamite” co-writer/director Jared Hess has a new film called “Don Verdean” and we are delighted to present an exclusive clip.

Sam Rockwell, Amy Ryan, Jemaine Clement, Leslie Bibb, Will Forte, and Danny McBride star in a story about a small-town pastor who hires a “Biblical archeologist” to find sacred relics in the Holy Land.

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Trailers, Previews, and Clips

MVP of the Week: Amy Ryan

Posted on October 18, 2015 at 3:53 pm

Our MVP this week is one of my favorite actresses, Amy Ryan. I have been a huge fan since I saw her in “Gone Baby Gone,” where she played the mother of the missing child.

And she was wonderful with Paul Giamatti in “Win Win.”

I was fortunate to be able to interview her about “Jack Goes Boating,” co-starring and directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Here she talks to Vanity Fair about her role in “Birdman.”

This week, she appears in two very different films, “Goosebumps,” as a recent widow moving to a new town with her son, and “Bridge of Spies,” where she is the devoted but concerned wife of Tom Hanks’ character. Coming soon: “Infiltrator” with Bryan Cranston.

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Actors Where You’ve Seen Them Before

Bridge of Spies

Posted on October 15, 2015 at 5:58 pm

Following World War II, Lord de l’Isle and Dudley was harshly criticized when he organized a legal defense fund for a Nazi general. He responded, “Had I met General Manstein during the war I would have shot him on sight. I am not concerned with whether von Manstein is guilty or not…I want Britain’s reputation upheld.”

Copyright Touchstone 2015
Copyright Touchstone 2015

Like the nobleman, American insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) understood that it means nothing to win a war against tyranny if we then become tyrants ourselves. Donovan, an assistant to future Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson at the Nuremberg Nazi war criminals trials who had been litigating insurance claims, was asked to defend an artist accused of spying for the Soviet Union. No one would have complained if he provided a less than vigorous defense. His wife (Amy Ryan) worries about the impact that his defense of an enemy spy will have on their family.

But Donovan had two fundamental principles. First, he recognized that the spy was doing for his country what others were doing for the US and he deserved to be treated as we would want our spies to be treated when they got captured. Second, he understood that if even one small rule was bent or one small step was skipped, it could do more damage to the essential principles of justice that define us than the theft of nuclear secrets.

Those secrets were hidden in a hollowed-out nickel. And the man who had them was a British artist named Rudolf Abel, superbly played by Broadway star Mark Rylance with wry resolve. There is a running joke in the film as he is repeatedly told he does not seem nervous or scared and he replies, “Would it help?” Donovan does his best to defend Abel, taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court to argue that the evidence against Abel was taken in violation of the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. He is unsuccessful in the appeal but does manage to persuade the judge (in a dramatic but highly unlikely and completely illegal ex parte visit to the judge’s home) not to impose the death penalty.

That comes in handy a few years later when American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over the Soviet Union in what the United States calls a mistaken detour by a “weather plane.” But he was flying a spy plane outfitted with special cameras for the CIA. The US wants him back. So they call on Donovan.

Meanwhile, as the Berlin Wall is being constructed, an American PhD candidate named Pryor (Will Rogers) found himself on the wrong side and was captured and accused of spying by the East Germans. Donovan’s government contacts tell him not to worry about Pryor, but Donovan is determined to get both young men home.

Spielberg and Hanks are an unbeatable combination, and their work here, with an unironic and sincerely gripping screenplay by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, is as good as it gets. Donovan’s time in Berlin, crossing back and forth over the dividing line as the wall is being built — and as people trying to escape are being shot — is so evocatively cold, physically and emotionally, you will want to button your coat and you will feel for Donovan, who loses his to thugs on the East German side. The nuclear age minuet of politics, statecraft, diplomacy, and ego is tense and compelling. As Donovan warns, any mistake they make could be the last one. Spielberg’s signature touches include scenes of American schoolchildren watching real-life “safety” movies telling them to duck and cover and a quick glimpse of a wrenching parallel as Donovan sees children at recess, climbing in a way that echoes the desperate escape attempts he had just seen. It is too bad to see Ryan underused in a “honey, I’m worried — maybe you better not go” role, with a superfluous coda scene at the end. But the movie is still one of the best of the year, with a stunning sequence when Powers is shot down and sheer masterful storytelling.

Parents should know that this is a cold war story of spies with threat of atomic bombs, shooting down a spy plane, and extensive tension and peril including guns and abuse of prisoners, drinking, smoking, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: What do we learn about Donovan from his negotiation over the insurance payout? Why did he insist on including Prior?

If you like this, try: “13 Days” and Donovan’s book about the negotiation, Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers

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Based on a true story Drama Spies
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