MVP of the Month: What Do These Four Movies Have in Common?

Posted on October 15, 2018 at 8:00 am

Common is a successful musician and won an Oscar for the song he co-wrote with John Legend for “Selma.” But we are seeing him more often on screen as an actor, most recently in four movies out this fall that could not be more different.

Copyright 2018 20th Century Fox

In The Hate U Give Common plays the uncle of Starr, the teenage girl who is the movie’s main character. In a key scene, he speaks to her honestly about the way even he sees black and white suspects differently.

COMMON as the voice of Stonekeeper in the new animated adventure “SMALLFOOT,” from Warner Bros. Pictures and Warner Animation Group.

Smallfoot is an animated story about a community of Yeti who believe, because their leader has told them, that humans are only a legend. Common plays that leader, known as the Stonekeeper. He is not exactly a traditional movie bad guy because he just wants what is best for his community. But in trying to keep them safe, he has kept them from the truth.

Copyright The Orchard 2018

In “All About Nina,” Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays a talented but dysfunctional stand-up comic who wants to be on a “Saturday Night Live”-style sketch comedy television show. Common is the love interest who will challenge her to be more honest with him and with herself.

Copyright 2018 Summit Entertainment

Common is a two-star admiral in “Hunter Killer,” a Gerard Butler action movie about an American submarine and Seal team rescue the Russian president from a coup attempt. The admiral is the voice of reason from US military headquarters.

He has more movies coming soon including the fact-based “St. Judy,” about an immigration lawyer, “The Kitchen,” a crime story with Tiffany Haddish, Melissa McCarthy, and Domhnall Gleeson, and “Eve,” from director Tate Taylor (“The Help,” “The Girl on the Train”). Whether it’s a comedy, drama, romance, or thriller, whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy, he brings a natural presence and humanity to all of his roles, and I look forward to whatever he does next.

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Actors

The Hate U Give

Posted on October 4, 2018 at 5:42 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some violent content, drug material and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking, drug and drug dealing references
Violence/ Scariness: Intense peril and violence, teenager killed by a police officer
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 5, 2018
Date Released to DVD: January 21, 2019

Copyright 2018 20th Century Fox
The Hate U Give” is one of the best and most important films of the year. Angie Thomas’ best-selling novel about a girl named Starr has become a profound and profoundly moving film. It is an of-this-moment, vitally urgent story about race, culture, and America in 2018, but it is also a deeply human, deeply moving exploration of the most universal themes: family, identity, growing up, forgiveness, and finding your voice.

The incandescent young actor/activist Amandla Stenberg (Rue in “The Hunger Games”) plays Starr, the middle child and only daughter in a loving family. She is completely at home in their neighborhood of Garden Heights. But you can get “jumped, high, pregnant, or killed” at the local high school, and so she and her older brother attend a private school called Williamson, where most of the students are white and wealthy. She calls the version of herself they see “Starr version 2.” When the white kids sing along to hip hop or use black slang, she smiles politely but knows that if she does the same thing she will appear too “ghetto.” But she has a nice (white) boyfriend named Chris (K.J. Apa), and some nice white girl friends she can complain to when Chris tried to push her into having sex.

At a party in Garden Heights, she feels more at home, but some of the people there are suspicious of her for possibly “acting white.” She runs into an old friend, Khalil (Algee Smith) and he offers to drive her home. As children, they played Harry Potter together with a third friend, but they have fallen out of touch. Starr can tell from his very expensive, mint-condition shoes that he may be in trouble. Khalil has begun to deal drugs because it is the only way he can support his ailing grandmother.

They are stopped by a white policeman who thinks that Khalil is reaching for a weapon and shoots him. Starr sees it all. Starr is devastated. And she begins to see herself and her world differently. The Williamson students walk out of school to protest in support of Black Lives Matter — or to get out of school. Starr’s friend stops following her on Instagram because Starr connects the killing of her friend to tragic injustices like the murder of Emmett Till.

As we see in the opening scene, Starr has been told since she was a child how to respond to law enforcement. As we will learn later, this is not the first time she has lost someone close to her to violence. As she has to decide whether she will tell the truth about what she saw, putting her Williamson persona at risk and, because of Khalil’s involvement with a powerful neighborhood drug dealer, putting her family and her community at risk as well.

Every performance in the film is a gem, especially Regina Hall (“Support the Girls”) and Russell Hornsby (“Fences”) as Starr’s parents and Stenberg herself, who has extraordinary screen charisma and a remarkable control of detail to show us how Starr begins to integrate the separate versions of herself. The film brings in a remarkably nuanced range of perspectives, especially in two standout scenes: Starr talking to her police officer uncle (Common) about the ways he sees black and white suspects, and Starr talking to her mother about forgiveness. Every element of the story is handled with sensitivity, respect, and a deem humanity, from the specifics of Starr’s relationships to the big themes of how we interact with the world and how we work for change. This is a rare film that does justice to the characters and the themes as it reminds us that we can all do more to bring justice to the world.

Translation: Unarmed character shot by a police officer, peril and violence, protests, guns, vandalism, arson, some teen partying, drug dealing, some strong language

Family discussion: Should Starr speak out? What are the risks and how can she best make a difference? How can you?

If you like this, try: “Boyz n the Hood,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Blindspotting,” and the book by Angie Thomas

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Based on a book Drama DVD/Blu-Ray High School movie review Movies -- Reviews Race and Diversity Stories about Teens

Smallfoot

Posted on September 27, 2018 at 5:52 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action, rude humor, and thematic elements
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 28, 2018
Date Released to DVD: December 10, 2018

Copyright Warner Brothers 2018
The Yeti, sometimes known as Bigfoot or the Abominable Snowman and akin to Sasquatch, is a mythical, or, shall we say, so far unproven creature of enormous size, something like an ape. “Smallfoot” takes a charming switch-up — here it’s the Yeti who don’t believe there is such a thing as humans — and turns it into a surprisingly thoughtful film. In between its colorful musical numbers, silly jokes, and action scenes, somehow manages to address some pretty big and complex issues like fake news, xenophobia, and personal integrity, and to do so in a manner that is accessible and nuanced.

Our hero in this movie is Migo (voiced by Channing Tatum), who is perfectly happy and wants everything to stay exactly the same. His home is “harsh, jagged, freezing, and awesome.” “It’s a day like any other,” he sings, “and I don’t want to change a thing.”

We can understand why. The gorgeously imagined tundra of the Himalayas is wonderfully enticing here, with a color palette of blue and white with sparkling snow and Prussian shadows, and the community has an inviting design of homes made from stone and ice. It is a close and cooperative neighborhood, led by the Stonekeeper (Common), whose robes made of stone lay out the immutable laws. The gong must be rung each morning to raise the sun. The mammoths that hold up the mountain must be fed. And, very important, no one may question the laws or traditions. “If there’s a question causing you to go astray, just stuff it down inside.” As Migo’s father, Dorgle (Danny DeVito) says, “Do what you’re told. Blend in.”

Migo and Dorgle have the very important responsibility of ringing the morning gong. With Dorgle’s head (explaining why it is so flat and he is so short). Each day, Migo launches his father like an arrow through a sort of giant bow. He dreams of someday having the honor of getting launched at the gong himself. He finally gets his first try, but misses the target and ends up out in the snow, where he witnesses a plane crash and sees a human, what the Yeti call “Smallfoot.” The pilot sees Migo, too, and is equally surprised and a lot more scared.

No one believes Migo, and when he insists that he is not lying about what he saw, he is banished by the Stonekeeper. That is when he discovers a kind of Yeti Resistance movement, led by the Stonekeeper’s spirited daughter, Meechee (Zendaya). She believes in curiosity, exploration, challenging assumptions, and testing hypotheses: “Questions lead to knowledge, and knowledge is power.” Migo sets off to go beneath the clouds in search of Smallfoot.

Below the tree line, a British television personality named Percy (James Corden) is “under pressure” (he performs a Karaoke version of the song) because his once-popular television programs about animals have been eclipsed by amateur cute animal videos on YouTube and Facebook (the musical number features floating Facebook “likes”). He tells his colleague, Brenda (Yara Shahidi) that he plans to fake a Yeti sighting, and then go back to having integrity afterward. But then Migo, a real Yeti, shows up. Migo wants to take Percy back to his community to show that he was telling the truth. And Percy wants to film Migo so he can make a lot of money.

Amusingly, they have no way of understanding each other’s form of communication. We hear what each of them sounds like to the other, Percy’s little squeaks and Migo’s growls. Migo wraps Percy in a sleeping bag, wears him on his huge hairy chest like a Baby Bjorn, and begins to climb back up to the peak of the mountain.

This is where most movies for children start to move toward the themes of friendship, home, and believing in yourself. But “Smallfoot” goes in a different direction, somewhere between “The Matrix’s” blue pill/red pill choice between being safe and knowing the truth and “Black Panther’s” choice between isolationism and, despite the risks, finding a way to help and learn from others. Migo learns the reason for the Stonekeeper’s insistence on perpetuating the myths of the Yeti world, and he has to consider carefully whether it is worth putting his friends and family at risk in order to learn the truth.

This is some pretty existential stuff. “If I’m not the gong ringer, who am I?” Migo asks. It is heartening in this era of fake news, when it is tempting to outsource our knowledge base to our devices, to have a movie about curiosity, critical thinking, and challenging the status quo.

Parents should know that this movie has some schoolyard language, brief potty humor, action/cartoon-style peril (no one hurt), and discussions of past violence.

Family discussion: When did you find that curiosity led you to something you would never have expected? Why didn’t the Stonekeeper want anyone to know the truth? Who should decide what knowledge is available?

If you like this, try: “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and “Surf’s Up!”

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Animation DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week For the Whole Family movie review Movies -- format Talking animals

Megan Leavey

Posted on June 9, 2017 at 10:26 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for war violence, language, suggestive material, and thematic elements
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 9, 2017
Date Released to DVD: September 11, 2017
Copyright 2017 Bleeker Street

Devastated by the loss of a close friend, fired from a dead-end job, without any sense of worth or meaning, a young rural New Yorker enlists in the Marines and learns about honor, loyalty, and purpose, and finds unconditional love, too.

What makes that familiar story less familiar in this fact-based retelling is that the Marine in question is a woman and the love story is with her partner, a German Shepard.

Kate Mara is both vulnerable and determined as Megan Leavey, who was lost until she joined the Marines and got assigned to the K-9 division of military dogs trained to sniff out bombs and guns. Leavey had two tours of duty alongside Rex until they were blown up together by a bomb. The most significant part of her recovery came from a renewed sense of purpose in fighting for the chance to give Rex a home when he could no longer work.

The film, which has some dramatic (and romantic) heightening, shows Leavey being fired by a supervisor who tells her, “You don’t connect with people very well.” Her mother (Edie Falco, terrific as always) does not want her to go into the military but has nothing else to offer. After basic training, she gets drunk with friends and is sentenced to clean up the dog kennels. That is the moment when a part of her wakes up. Instead of resisting what she does not want, for the first time there is something she does want.

The Leavey equivalent in the K-9 corps is Rex, a handsome German shepherd described by the veterinarian as “the most aggressive dog I’ve ever treated.” The woman who does not connect with people very well is a perfect match for the dog who does not connect with people very well, either.

Leavey wants to become a part of the K-9 program, but in order to qualify she has to meet some very tough standards for her skills and behavior. She makes it in and the training includes learning how to bandage a wounded dog, a powerful reminder of the risks ahead.

The story has four distinct chapters: Leavey before the Marines, her training and getting to know Rex, their deployment, and her efforts to bring him home so she can care for him in his last months. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and star Mara wisely keep the focus on Leavey’s spirit-enlarging journey. Cowperthwaite is a documentarian (“Blackfish”) and brings a low-key naturalism to the storytelling, and Mara is excellent in revealing Leavey’s growing sense of confidence and purpose. “We were injured in Iraq,” she says, simply, compellingly. They are both wounded warriors and their best path to healing is to be together.

Parents should know that this film includes wartime violence with guns, bombs, explosions, characters injured and killed, drinking and drunkenness, strong language, sexual references and a non-explicit situation.

Family discussion: What was it about the dog corps that made Megan want to qualify to be a part of it?  Why did Gunny give her a chance?

If you like this, try: “Max”

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Based on a true story DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Get Your Handkerchiefs Ready War

Suicide Squad

Posted on August 3, 2016 at 12:00 pm

Copyright 2016 Warner Brothers
Copyright 2016 Warner Brothers

I always say that the success of a superhero movies depends on the bad guy. So, shouldn’t a movie that is all bad guys be really great? That’s the idea behind “Suicide Squad,” a sort of “Avengers” (all-star hotshots who don’t play well with others have to work together as a team to save the world) crossed with “The Dirty Dozen.” And it kind of works. On the one hand, it is an August movie, the cinematic equivalent of the shelf in the back of the grocery story with the dented cans, irregulars, and day-old bread. On the other hand, it approaches a nicely messy, authentically amateurish, form equals content vibe that suits the subject matter. If these guys made their own movie, they might overlook some of the fine points, too.

Our scrappy little band of anti-heroes live in one of those “lock them up, throw away the key, throw away the Constitution, and any record of their existence while you’re at it” sort of prisons. Will Smith plays Deadshot, an assassin with a young daughter he loves. Margot Robbie is Harley Quinn, a psychiatrist turned psychopath with the demeanor of a school girl, locked in a romantic tangle with the Joker (Jared Leto) so twisted it makes Sid and Nancy look like Dick and Jane. Somewhere behind full-face tattoos, Jay Hernandez is Diablo, a gang-banger with the power of fire. Somewhere inside a reptilian rubber suit (maybe it is CGI, but it looks like rubber) is Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Killer Croc, and I never quite figured out what he could do besides fight and swim. Jai Courtney plays the Aussie thief Boomerang. Neither one of them is intelligible.

They get a chance to escape the abuses and isolation of prison life when national security expert Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) says that their special skills make them the world’s only hope against the terrorism threat that entities with supernatural powers will pose. “The world changed when Superman flew across the sky. It changed again when he didn’t.” (Cut to super-coffin)

Waller is certain she can control them. Whether she can or not, there is no alternative. And so they are assigned to Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), who informs the motley crew that each of them has an explosive injected into his/her neck, and that he will not hesitate to blow their heads off if they disobey or even if they vex him. “I’m known to be vexing,” Harley Quinn pipes up helpfully, well aware that saying so she proves her point. And then it’s off to the big confrontation with some moments for (1) some bad behavior, (2) some exchanges of confidence and bonding to let us see that these guys may be bad but they have their good points and while they may have made some poor choices, they have feelings, too, (3) a few reminders that these are the bad guys, (4) some setbacks and death of a tangential character to show us how serious this is, and (5) weaknesses becoming strengths, strengths becoming weaknesses, a chance to see that some of the good guys aren’t so good and some of the bad guys aren’t so bad (and deaths are not necessarily deaths).

Here is what the movie gets right: B**** please. Margot Robbie is a huge movie star who owns this film and every moment she is on screen in “Suicide Squad” you get your money’s worth and then some. Anything else that works in the film is an extra cherry on the sundae. #imwithharley so give HQ her own movie PDQ.

Smith and Kinnaman are also excellent. Most of the best of the rest was in the trailer including one exchange which inexplicably was cut from the film. In fact, given the many evident recuts and reshoots, Warner Brothers should just have turned the footage over to whoever made the trailer and let them control the final print.  The soundtrack veers into Spotify playlist mode but there are some good choices.

Here is what it gets wrong: Writer/director David Ayer, whose speciality has been military and law enforcement stories, does not understand the right tone for a comic book movie. Compare Marvel/Disney, which managed to create distinctive and right-on-the-money tones for Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Deadpool and yet make us believe they could exist in the same universe, and made that work in the “Avengers” movies without shortchanging anyone. Second, note the reference to the evidence of reworking above. Third, note the very first thing I said. Comic book movies are all about the villain. In this case, with villains as the the good guys, they really need someone specially evil for us to root against. The villains in this film are terrible in every category, starting with the special effects, which should be primo, right, Warner Brothers? But most importantly, a movie that spends too much time introducing us to the Z-team’s backstories never provides us with the basics about the powers and threat of the bad guys so we have no way of knowing what we are hoping for (other than obliteration) from the final battle. Wait, so this and that didn’t work but this and that do? Really? And what happened to those SEALS?

It is good to see more than one female character and this film has four strong and powerful women of different races. But the gender politics of the film are less than one might wish.  Both female Suicide Squad members are there because of the men they love, and the female villain is alternately weak around the man she loves and strong but not as strong as her brother. Viola Davis, as always, is sublime as a woman who may be only human but is in every way a match for anyone, superpowered or politically powered.

It’s better than “Batman vs. Superman” and “The Fantastic Four,” but it falls frustratingly short of what it could have and should have been.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for an extra scene, but you don’t have to stay after that.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/fantasy violence with some graphic and disturbing images, torture, abuse, many characters injured and killed, skimpy costumes, sexual references, some strong language

Family discussion: Who was the worst villain in the movie? Who caused the most harm? What could “bad guys” do that the “good guys” could not?

If you like this, try: “The Avengers” and “The Dirty Dozen”

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