The Burial

Posted on October 12, 2023 at 5:24 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Strong language, racial epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: References to violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 13, 2023

The old lawyer’s adage is: When the facts are against you, argue the law. When the law is against you, argue the facts. When the facts and the law are against you, pound the table. Willie Gary, a sharecroppers son who became one of the most successful litigators of all time, likes to do all three. In this enormously entertaining film based on one of his most satisfying cases, a Biloxi, Mississippi funeral home owner vs a gigantic funeral conglomerate.

Copyright Amazon 2023

It takes place in 1995. Tommy Lee Jones plays Jeremiah O’Keefe, a 75-year-old decorated WWII veteran, father of 13, and respected member of the community who served two terms as the town’s mayor. His one wish is to pass on the family funeral business, including burial insurance, as his father and grandfather did. When the bueiness falls on hard times and he is unable to keep the required amount in the insurance company’s bank account, he reaches out, through his lawyer Mike Allred (Alan Ruck), to an enormous Canadian firm that has been buying up funereal homes. O’Keefe flies to Canada, where he is entertained on the $22 million yacht of the conglomerate’s CEO, Ray Loenwen (Bill Camp). They shake hands on a deal for Loewen to purchase three of O’Keefe’s funeral homes, which will give him the cash he needs to satisfy the insurance regulators.

But months go by and somehow the deal never closes. Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie), a young lawyer O’Keefe has taken on because he is the son of an old friend, suggests that the Loewen offer was never serious, just a tactic to drive the O’Keefe homes into bankruptcy so he could buy them cheaply. Despite Allred’s qualms, O’Keefe decides to sue. Hal recommends a lawyer he’s seen on the television series, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” Willy Gary (Jamie Foxx), who loves to flaunt his mansion and his private plane, called “Wings of Justice.” O’Keefe flies to Florida to watch Gary in action and decides, over Allred’s strong (and admittedly racist) objections to make him lead counsel. They file suit in a county that is majority poor and Black, and that is where the judge and jury will come from.

And so, we sit back in happy anticipation because we know how this is going to end and we know it will be a lot of fun on the way there. Foxx is every bit as electrifying as the man he is portraying, whether at the pulpit or addressing the jury, and his fellow Oscar-winner Jones is superb in the quieter role of a decent man who will not allow others to treat him indecently. Some of the details are adjusted or ramped up for dramatic purposes. For example, the real-life lead counsel for Loewen was a white, male, former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice, not a young, beautiful Black woman, heading a team of top Black lawyers.

But it is much more fun to see Jurnee Smollett as the entirely fictional Mame Downes, who lives up to her character’s nickname, The Python, as the lead defense counsel hired by Loenwen because of her outstanding credentials, and also because, in the words of the plaintiff’s team, “she out-Blacked and out-womaned us.” Athie has great screen presence as the young lawyer and Amanda Warren is wonderfully warm and elegant as Gloria, Willie’s wife, who gives him some very wise advice. Pamela Reed, a favorite of mine for years, makes us see the relationship O’Keefe and his wife have created over the decades. But Camp, always watchable, is limited here by an under-written bad guy character so one-dimensional he is cartoonish.

Foxx and Lee have a crackling chemistry that makes me hope they work together again. Director/co-writer Maggie Betts keeps their developing friendship through shared values as the heart of the film, with a lively, energetic tone that had the theater audience cheering.

Parents should know that this film has some very strong language including racial epithets used by Black characters and some discussion of racist abuses in the past and in the present day of the film. Characters drink alcohol.

Family discussion: Would you hire Willie Gary? Why didn’t Jerry accept the settlement offer? What would you do with $175 million?

If you like this, try: “Marshall,” about a real-life early case for later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and read the article that inspired the film

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Strays

Posted on August 17, 2023 at 11:28 am

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, crude and sexual content, and drug use
Profanity: Constant very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Hallucinogen, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, animal and human mauled
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 18, 2023

Copyright 2023 Universal
“Strays” is about 90 minutes long, but if you removed every f-word and reference to genitals and their various properties and functions it would be about ten minutes long, and most of the remainder would be the characters’ mushroom-inspired hallucinations resulting in the fatal mauling of a bunny.

Those characters are dogs, with the voices of Will Ferrell as the ever-cheerful Reggie, Jamie Foxx as the street -smart Bug, Randall Park as the shy Hunter, and Isla Fisher as the olfactory-gifted Maggie. If you think hearing dogs talk dirty is hilarious, then this is your movie, because that’s pretty much all there is.

Reggie is so devoted to his horrifically abusive owner Doug (Will Forte) that he insists that he is loved and cared for. Doug despises Reggie and kept the dog only as revenge on his girlfriend for leaving him. He spends all day looking at porn and smoking weed. When he is evicted, Doug keeps trying to get rid of Reggie by driving far away and throwing the dog out of the truck. But Reggie thinks it is a game and keeps finding his way back home. Finally, Doug drives far enough from home that Reggie is lost.

Then he meets Bug, who tells him that life is much better as a stray. Bug introduces him to Hunter, a support dog in a hospice, and Maggie, whose owner prefers her newer, cuter dog. Reggie is so angry when he learns that Doug did not love him that he is determined to go back home and bite off Doug’s favorite body part, the one he spends so much time with in front of his laptop.

And so the four friends go on a journey, where they have various adventures and encounters. They even run into two of the stars of the vastly better dog movie, “A Dog’s Journey,” Dennis Quaid (as himself) and Josh Gad (as “narrator dog,” a joke which might be funny if it wasn’t so distasteful to see him trashing his earlier film).

The humor of hearing animals use four-letter words wears thin quickly, the gestures toward lessons about friendship and connection are less than half-hearted, more like 16th-hearted, and the resolution is worse than distasteful, with a superfluous mid-credit scene just to hammer in a “joke” about severe disfigurement. Overall, it lurches from gross to dull, not meriting the attention of humans or canines.

Parents should know that this movie is non-stop strong and crude language, sexual references, and potty humor.

Family discussion: Why was Hunter shy about sharing his feelings with Maggie? Why did he like the cone?

If you like this, try: “A Dog’s Journey,” “Homeward Bound,” and “Hotel for Dogs”

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Soul

Posted on December 22, 2020 at 4:18 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some language and thematic elements
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Issues of life and death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2020

Copyright Pixar 2020
Pixar likes to take big swings, not just artistically but thematically. In “Soul,” Pixar has its first adult male (human) and its first Black lead character in Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx. It has a less stylized look, set in a sepia-toned New York City. And it is about the most fundamental existential questions of all: Why am I me? What makes life meaningful?

We are human because we ask those questions. And the answer to that second one is: In part to make movies like this one, to explore what makes life worthwhile.

Joe is a jazz musician. At least, that’s what he is in his heart, what he wants to be, what he thinks he was born to be. But what he is at the moment is a high school music teacher trying to make teenagers’ instruments sound less screechy and more on key. And then (this is still in the first minutes of the movie) he gets the chance of his dreams. A former student named Curly (Questlove) invites Joe to to audition for saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Joe takes a risk by adding his own ideas to Dorthea’s music, and she agrees to let him join her on stage that night. It’s everything he ever hoped for.

That’s why he is not paying careful attention as he walks home, and so he falls into a sewer and dies. We’re still in the first minutes of the film.

Instead of The Great Beyond, Joe ends up in The Great Before, where young souls prepare to be born. Joe thinks this could be his opportunity to return to earth and become the musician he knows was his reason for being alive. The counselors who guide the little souls think he is a mentor, and assign him to their hardest case, known as 22 (Tina Fey). Mentors like Lincoln, Mother Teresa, and Gandhi have all failed to persuade her. So we have one character who will do anything to get back to life on earth and one who refuses to go because she doesn’t see the point.

Copyright 2020 Pixar

The counselors look like Calder wire sculptures. They are all named Jerry. And they have a diverse range of voices, including Wes Studi, Fortune Feimster, and Richard Ayoade. Why do they look and sound like that? Because they are too complex for humans to comprehend, they have created these simple, accessible forms.

That’s what all story-tellers try to do, what stories are for, and what Pixar has done here: they take very complicated characters and themes and make them accessible to us. When they do it right, we cry. And then we continue to think about what they illuminate for us. If they do it right, we are enlarged by it, as the characters are. This is Pixar, so it will make you laugh, think, and cry, and then think some more. And because it is Pixar the art, from the character design to the real and imagined settings are believable and enthralling. The sublime jazz music is from Jon Batiste and the score is from top team Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (also heard this year in “Mank” and “Watchmen”).

Co-writer/co-director Kemp Powers (screenwriter of one of December’s other best films, “One Night in Miami”) was one of many Black voices brought in to make sure the film is authentic to the lived experience of Black people for two reasons. First, they wanted Black audience members to recognize the characters and the experiences. Powers encouraged the addition of one of my favorite scenes in the film, the barbershop owned by Joe’s friend Dez (Donnell Rawlings). Co-writer/co-director Pete Docter is exploring what happens to us after we survive growing up, as in his now-classic “Inside Out.”

We learn from Joe’s interactions with Dez and Curly that he is so caught up in music and his fear of not realizing his dream of playing “Black improvisational music” that he does not really listen to others. (An encounter later on with another student helps him begin to realize that even people who are not a part of his “real” life have something to tell him.) And we learn before Joe does that just because we have a dream does not mean it is the only dream or the best dream.

There are so many ideas and insights and so much music in “Soul” that it rewards several viewings. In The Great Before, each soul waiting to be born visits the Hall of You, to pick up individual personal qualities, like being excitable or aloof. They can give the soul the what and the who, but the why is something they have to discover for themselves. There is a sort of no-man’s-land for people who operate outside the rules of The Great Before, including a pirate shipped manned (so to speak) by people like Moonwind (talk show host Graham Norton) who is still alive on earth but through meditation communes with the universe. There are many lovely touches in the details, like the pre-credits “When You Wish Upon a Star” played by Joe’s students.

Joe and 22 end up back on earth, chased by a celestial accountant named Terry (Rachel House) trying to bring them back to The Great Before. Can Joe get to the performance after all? Can 22 find some reason to live as a human? (You don’t have to be an existential philosopher to agree with her that pizza is pretty great.)

We’ve all seen a lot of movies with heroes who seek and find their one true purpose. Many are based on real life, about people who became successful and famous ins spite of doubters. There are always those who nag them to do something else and we are supposed to see them as short-sighted and selfish. “Soul” wants us to see more than that, and it shows us how to begin.

Parents should know that this movie concerns life and death and a character is killed in an accident early in the film and then goes to The Great Before. There is some mild language and some cartoon-style peril.

Family discussion: What would you see in the Hall of You? What would you tell 22? How has this year made you think about what is important?

If you like this, try: “Inside Out” and “Everybody Rides the Carousel”

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Just Mercy

Posted on January 9, 2020 at 5:26 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets
Profanity: Strong language including n-word and other racist terms
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: References to violent crimes, non-explicit depiction of an execution
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 10, 2020
Date Released to DVD: April 13, 2020
Copyright Warner Brothers 2019

The third 2019 awards season story based on a real-life lawyer stars producer Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Legacy Museum (sometimes referred to as the Lynching Museum) and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The movie shows him as a young graduate of Harvard Law School who moved to the small town where Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Lee’s Atticus Finch, Stevenson defends those who were unfairly accused. He established the Equal Justice Initiative. The only other staff was a local woman named Eva Ansley (Brie Larson). Stevenson began helping men on death row at no cost.

The local community, especially law enforcement, did not like having old cases re-opened and weaknesses of evidence and exposed. The hostility and obstruction seemed insurmountable. But Stevenson was undaunted. Unlike most heroic lawyers in movies (and real life), this story does not have family members complaining that he is working too hard or a love interest who feels neglected. Stevenson does not lose his temper or feel like giving up. The great gift of this movie is what sometimes, if you are not watching carefully, may make it seem like its pilot light is turned down too low. This movie does have some rousing moments (and some sad ones) but it does not follow the usual courtroom underdog stories that make the intricacies of the judicial system follow the beats of a feel-good sports story.

Jordan is that rare performer who is a superb actor and a full-on movie star. After his electrifying appearance in “Black Panther,” he shows his range as a lawyer whose only superpowers are his integrity and his constant courtesy toward everyone he deals with. client, friend, and foe. The quiet power of the respect he shows to his clients is critical to gaining their trust and to restoring their sense of dignity in a system that has done its best to take it from them. And it is wisely given as much weight here as any revelation of evidence or legal right left out of the original proceedings.

Director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton also treats Stevenson’s clients with respect, with an outstanding performance by Jamie Foxx as Stevenson’s first significant client. It’s a quieter role than we have seen him in for a while, and his subtle work here is extraordinary, telling us the whole history of a man who has never been able to expect fairness for himself or his family. Rob Morgan plays another prisoner, performed with heartwrenching simplicity and delicacy to bring home to us what brought Stevenson to devote his life to this cause.

Parents should know that this movie concerns men on death row and abuses of the justice system. It includes some strong language, including racist epithets, and references to sexual assault and violent crime an a non-explicit depiction of an execution.

Family discussion: Why was it important for Stevenson to address his clients and their families as Mr. and Mrs.? What kept him from giving up?

If you like this, try: Bryan Stevenson’s book and TED Talk, and documentary

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Robin Hood

Posted on November 20, 2018 at 5:45 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive references
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended wartime and action-style peril and violence, arrows, fire, knives, beheading, references to torture, horrific child abuse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 21, 2018
Date Released to DVD: February 18, 2019

Copyright 2018 Lionsgate
There have been so so so so so many Robin Hoods over the years and a couple of them are as good as movies get, starting with Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, and Eugene Pallette as Robin, Marian, Gisbourne, Prince John, and Friar Tuck. Then there’s the Disney animated version with music by Roger Miller, and the parody version from Mel Brooks with Robin played by “The Princess Bride’s” Cary Elwes. We’ve also had genuinely terrible Robin Hoods, perhaps most regrettably Kevin Costner with a California accent. And now we have the international co-production version, clearly geared to the non-US market, with clunky, exposition-weighted dialogue, a drumbeat-heavy score and action sequences juiced with bullet-time and slo-mo. Can’t we talk about the Errol Flynn version instead? Directed by the guy who did “Casablanaca?” With one of the all-time best movie scores, composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold? No? Sigh. Well, all right.

This time, Robin is played by Welsh actor Taron Egerton, best known for the “Kingsmen” movies and “Eddie the Eagle.” This is not his fault. He is a fine actor and can handle action scenes and love scenes capably. It is also not the fault of Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and F. Murray Abraham, who do their best. Possibly, it is not the fault of Leonardo diCaprio, who shows up in the credits as producer. It is most likely this big, dumb movie is the fault of the big, dumb ways that movies get made these days. The more they cost, the more dumbed-down they have to be to make money overseas, and this one apparently cost a lot.

We’re there because the story of the dashing nobleman who stole from the rich to give to the poor and was the world’s greatest archer and hundreds of years later is still a symbol of gallantry and heroism. But this movie begins by telling us to forget everything we think we know about the story and many of its most familiar and beloved elements are missing. No archery contest, no ransom for the king, no plotting Prince John. Which would be fine if what it has instead was of equal interest, but it really isn’t. It’s just a first-person shooter game with live action.

In this version, as in most others, Robin of Loxley is a nobleman. As he tells us in the opening narration, his story begins with a thief but it is not him. He discovers a veiled young woman (Eve Hewson as Marian) stealing one of his horses. Moved by her pluck, her generosity (it is for a poor member of the community) and her lovely blue eyes, he allows her to take the horse and soon, well, let Robin tell you himself: “They were young and in love until the cold hand of fate reached out.” See what I mean? Robin is drafted to fight in the Crusades, where the British have arrows and the “infidels” have a sort of gatling gun for arrows. Robin is wounded trying to save the son of the captured “infidel” who tried to kill him. Robin objects to murdering prisoners. He is sent back to England, where he finds that both his home and Marian are gone. His home has been taken by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) and Marian, who was told that he had been killed, is now with Will (Jamie Dornan). Furthermore, the man whose son he tried to save stowed away on the boat to devote his life to vengeance. The English version of his name is John, and he wants to help Robin fight the people responsible for his son’s death. Cue the training montage. And the beating drums.

It’s not that it’s dumb. It’s that it is so much dumber than it needed to be. I do not expect the characters to speak the way people did in the 12th century, but Robin should not be asking someone “You okay?” of “I want to go big.” It isn’t just the drumbeats that are headache-inducing. It is the clunkiness of the expository dialogue, hammering contemporary parallels like the Sheriff’s “They hate us, our freedom, our culture, our religion.” I expected him to talk about sending troops to stop the caravans. “This thief is making you look like a damned fool!” That’s the kind of writing Mel Brooks wrote a whole movie to make fun of. I don’t know what’s worse, the dumb slang or the dumb pretentious/portentous pronouncements:”Fear is the greatest weapon in the church’s arsenal. It is why the church created Hell.”

It’s too loud, too long, and too dumb. What they’re stealing here is our money, our time, and our goodwill.

Parents should know that this film has pervasive near-R peril and violence with battle scenes, arrows, fire, explosions, chases, knives, beheading (offscreen) and many characters injured and killed, and brief strong language, and references to horrific child abuse and torture.

Family discussion: Why was Robin different from the other lords? What issues in this movie are still important today?

If you like this, try: “The Adventures of Robin Hood” with Errol Flynn and “Robin Hood: Men in Tights”

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