Amsterdam

Posted on October 6, 2022 at 5:20 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for brief violence and bloody images
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Very graphic bloody images, wartime violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 7, 2022
Date Released to DVD: December 5, 2022

Copyright 2022 20th Century
David O. Russell’s film, “Amsterdam” has a powerhouse cast, a wisp of a true story and a wildly uneven and overly complicated script. The results are, therefore, messy and mixed. As a fellow movie-goer told me, watching the movie was like bobbing for apples. Much of the time we felt like we were under water and then all of a sudden something good would pop up.

Amsterdam (the city) appears in the film only in a brief happy moment in the lives of the three main characters, who have sworn to be best friends and protect each other. They are two WWI veterans, Harold Woodman (John David Washington), who would become a lawyer, Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), already a doctor, and Valerie (Margot Robbie), a nurse who cared for them in a French hospital for wounded soldiers. Harold is Black and Burt is half Jewish and lower class than his high society wife, and bigotry is evident throughout the story. Indeed, as we see in a flashback, they met when Black US soldiers in France objected to their racist white officers — they were not even allowed to wear the uniform of their country — and Burt was assigned by the kind, honorable General Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.) to treat the Black soldiers with honor and dignity.

In the movie’s present setting of 1933 New York, both Burt and Harold are devoting their lives to helping other wounded veterans. They themselves bear the scars of combat and Burt has a glass eye due to his injuries (second movie with Bale losing a glass eye after “The Big Short”). He is also experimenting with pain medication for his patients and taking a lot of it himself. The men are working on a gala dinner honoring their fellow veterans that will become of increasing importance.

Every role, even the smallest, is superbly cast, with Robbie as the high-spirited, dada-esque artist, Zoe Saldana as a sympathetic nurse passing for “Portuguese,” Beth Grant as a bouillabaisse-making devoted wife, Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola as police detectives, significantly one also a wounded vet and one who did not serve, Timothy Olyphant, almost unrecognizable in a role I won’t spoil, and Michael Shannon and Mike Myers — yes, that Mike Myers) as bird-loving “benefactors” who may not be completely forthcoming about their real interests. Every performance is outstanding, but so much so that they begin to throw the storyline out of whack. In films like “Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle,” and “Flirting with Disaster,” Russell made the mixture of bittersweet situations and some leavening humor work to reveal the characters and move the story. Here it just gets distracting.

The daughter of General Meekins (Taylor Swift, yes, that Taylor Swift), asks Harold and Burt for help. Her father died on a ship returning from Europe, and she suspects that he may have been murdered. The efforts to investigate result in another murder, with Burt and Harold as the prime suspects. This leads to a series of encounters, revelations, and twists that I will not spoil. Also, I’m not sure I understood all of them.

I did understand the last 20 minutes. Everyone understood the last 20 minutes, thoug. I’m pretty sure you didn’t even have to watch the movie to understand the point. Russell bangs on his message with a sledgehammer, and then, just in case he wasn’t banging hard enough, he shows us archival footage of the person who inspired the character played by Robert De Niro. Even those sympathetic to the points he is trying to make about the parallels between the political conflicts of the pre-WWII era and today will find it overly didactic. Too much water, not enough apples.

Parents should know that this film includes bloody, graphic images of an autopsy and wartime violence, bigotry, alcohol and drug use (portrayed as comic in some instances), and brief strong language.

Family discussion: What parallels is Russell drawing to the politics of 2022? Why is the movie called “Amsterdam?” Read up on General Smedley Butler and the “Business Plot.”

If you like this, try: “Keeper of the Flame” and “State of the Union,” both starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy

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The Suicide Squad

Posted on August 5, 2021 at 5:40 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and brief graphic nudity
Profanity: Extremely strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely intense and gory violence with many disturbing and bloody, graphic images, characters injured and killed, comic book violence, guns, explosions
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 6, 2021
Date Released to DVD: October 25, 2021

Copyright 2021 Warner Brothers
Just to clarify: the 2016 film with Will Smith and Margot Robbie about the imprisoned DC Comics villains who are assembled into a “Dirty Dozen”-style team by a tyrannical official from a secret government agency is called “Suicide Squad.” This 2021 reboot is called “The Suicide Squad.” Got it?

“Guardians of the Galaxy’s” writer/director James Gunn takes over the franchise, and this is even more insouciantly nasty than the first one, relishing the carnage and ebulliently transgressive. Even the Warner Brothers logo is written in blood.

Viola Davis returns as Amanda Waller, who demonstrates her ruthlessness up front by delivering on her threat to detonate a chip that explodes the head of one of her supervillains who disobeys an order. “I wouldn’t take such extreme measures if this mission wasn’t more important than you could possibly imagine,” she says. It is “potentially cataclysmic for America and the world.” In other words, the ends justify the ultra-destructive means, including giving her license to murder her charges, not to mention giving them license to murder as well.

There are some new characters this time, including some younger villains to make it possible to include some jokes about millennials, or stereotypes, depending on your perspective. This crowd is defined by their inability to play well with others, but that is intensified here by the animosity between two alpha males, the walking weapon Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and the walking heavy bag and ironically named Peacemaker (John Cena). Also on board for some or all of the mission are a shark with legs, a second-generation rat-master, a guy with some serious mother issues who emits lethal polka dots, and of course, in what she says is her last appearance in the role, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.

We can understand why. For all its many failings, the first “Suicide Squad” and “Birds of Prey” gave Harley Quinn what she has too seldom been given, an interesting character. She was damaged. And she was a villain. But a vestigial trace of her past life as a psychologist and a woman wronged gave her some complexity and even sympathy. She’s not as interesting here, more naughty than truly provocative. This movie is more interested in how many ways a human body can be exploded, beheaded, sliced down the middle, and otherwise dismembered than it is in anything else with the possible exception of a lot of macho posturing. It also fails to make the stakes meaningful with a worthy villain. Understandable, I suppose; it’s hard to out-villain the temporarily good bad guys. So, it’s is colorful and entertaining but lightweight and unmemorable.

NOTE: Stay for a mid-credit scene with an un-surprising surprise.

Parents should know that this movie ie extremely vulgar and gory with constant, extremely bloody peril and violence and many characters injured and killed. Characters use constant very strong language and the movie includes nudity and sexual references, and a sexual situation.

Family discussion:

If you like this, try: “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the Suicide Squad comic books

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Bombshell

Posted on December 12, 2019 at 5:38 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual material and language throughout
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sexual pressure and harassment
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 13, 2019
Date Released to DVD: March 9, 2020

Copyright 2019 Lionsgate
The word “bombshell” works both ways as the title of this film based on the true story of the #metoo moment that rocked the powerful leadership of Fox News and brought down its visionary founder Roger Ailes. “Bombshell” means a very attractive woman (check out the Jean Harlow movie of the same name, about a gorgeous movie star, and the documentary of the same name, about Hedy Lamar). And “bombshell” also means a shocking piece of news. Both are equally apt.

Those who watched “The Loudest Voice in the Room” on Showtime know that Ailes transformed the news media by creating a network that had two important innovations: gorgeous women in revealing clothes delivering news stories slanted toward white people who think their victimhood has been overlooked. As an executive puts it in this film, “You have to adopt the mentality of an Irish street cop. The world is a bad place. People are lazy morons. Minorities are criminals. Sex is sick, but interesting. Ask yourself, ‘What would scare my grandmother, or p— off my grandfather?’ And that’s a Fox story.”

The story is almost operatic in scope and drama and director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph (“The Big Short”) hit the tone just right, the heightened urgency of the newsroom, the millions of small and devastatingly large compromises at the top of the media food chain.

The performances are sizzling. Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is a fading star at FOX, relegated to off-peak programs. (I could not help thinking of this performance as a bookend with Kidman’s “To Die For,” with Kidman as a woman who was willing to do anything, including sexual favors and murder, to get a job on TV news.) Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is a rising star, and as this movie begins, she is horrified to find herself in the middle of a story as then-candidate Donald Trump makes ugly and crude accusations because she surprised him by asking him to comment on some of his insults to women (“You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals”) in an on-air interview. Margot Robbie plays Kayla, a fictional character based on the ambitious lower-level staff and what those who asked Ailes for on-camera opportunities were expected to do to show their “loyalty.”

Some early critics of the film object to the women being portrayed as feminist heroines. But they are not portrayed as feminist heroines; on the contrary. They’re not fighting courageously for justice like Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich. They are carefully calibrating how much abuse, how many humiliations, how much indignity they are willing to trade for the professional opportunities they want, even when it means ignoring abuse of other women. Answer: a lot. Ultimately, there is a limit, though, and watching each character locate that line is what makes this movie smart and engrossing. For Carlson, it is being fired. For Kayla, it is a painful realization after the fact, and after someone else has taken the almost unthinkably daunting step of going first. And the stakes are clear. “Once you go public, no one will hire you,” Carlson is told. Her post-lawsuit career has focused on sexual harassment issues either because she now recognizes the importance of the issue or because she cannot get any other job. The week of the film’s release she wrote an op-ed in The New York Times calling on Fox to withdraw the non-disclosure agreement she had to sign in order to settle her case. It’s unlikely, but if they do, maybe we’ll get another movie out of it.

The focus here is on Kelly. It is one thing to burn your bridges after you have been fired and have nothing to lose, but it is entirely another for a woman near the top of her profession who says, “I’m not a feminist; I’m a lawyer,” who does not want to be the story, who is in cutthroat competition with the other beautiful blondes and not one to raise a fist and proclaim that sisterhood is powerful. What will it take to get her to speak out and what price will she pay for saying something? Kelly is a complicated character and the way her dilemma is presented here is complicated and nuanced, more directed toward nods of recognition than standing ovations. Her career has been rocky (except for financially) since her decision to acknowledge the abuse, which makes this a cautionary tale that does not make the prospect of feminist heroine-ing look very appealing.

What is even more fascinating here is the setting. Is Fox a news organization as it has traditionally been understood? We get glimpses of other Fox personalities, including Bill O’Reilly, who left Fox following his own #metoo abuses. The way the organization responds to Carlson’s claims — handing out “Team Roger” t-shirts before any investigation even though it is generally known why there’s a lock on his door and a separate entrance to his office — says something about whether “loyalty” is more important than the truth, to them and to us.

Parents should know that this film is based on the real life #metoo upheavals at FOX News, with explicit discussions and some depiction of sexual harassment, abuse, and predation, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Why did the three women respond differently? How has coming forward affected their careers? What is the best way to prevent abuse by people in power?

If you like this, try: “The Loudest Voice” miniseries and “The Hunting Ground”

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I, Tonya

Posted on December 7, 2017 at 8:12 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity
Profanity: Extensive very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Some violence including attack
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 8, 2017

Copyright 2017 Neon
In one of “I, Tonya’s” most striking scenes, Margo Robbie as figure skating star Tonya Harding looks at herself in the mirror after applying her make-up for a competition. It is stark, garish, clown-like, and scary, less like beauty than like warpaint. Harding is trying to hide the heartbreak of her life when she is on the one place where everything is pretty and perfect, but in trying to make herself look pretty and perfect she has created a monster. That scene exemplifies the movie’s themes about public and private personas and the way they can crash into each other with terrible destructive force.

In 1994, Nancy Kerrigan, one of Harding’s rivals, was attacked by a Shane Stant (Ricky Russert), who had been hired by two of history’s most incompetent criminals, Harding’s estranged husband, Jeff Gilhooly (Sebastian Stan) and his dimwitted friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser). Though Harding was not involved or even aware of this plan, news reports of the era emphasized the contrast between ice princess Kerrigan, and blue-collar Harding. In reality, Kerrigan was also from a modest background, but her appearance and routines were more elegant and graceful, while Harding adopted a bad girl persona, calling herself the “Charles Barkley of figure skating.” The problem is that figure skating is not just about skill and technique. It is about the show, and it is about the persona. Judges and fans expect more than athletic achievement.
They expect elegance and grace on and off the rink. They want the ice princess.

Allison Janney is incendiary as Harding’s abusive mother, constantly pushing her and demeaning her, often hitting her, too. With no affection or approval at home, she was drawn to Gilhooly, the first male to pay any attention to her, and when he became abusive, that seemed normal, too.
Director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and screenwriter Steven Rogers (“Stepmom,” “Love the Coopers”), promise us at the beginning a story “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews,” and they deliver. Like “The Disaster Artist,” this film takes us behind the scenes of a real-life catastrophe based on dreams of stardom, hopeless miscalculation about their own abilities, and a distorted, media-fueled idea of reality. We may watch expecting to laugh and feel superior, but the prismatic approach, with characters speaking to us to explain their perspectives (or try to put the blame on each other) is surprisingly sympathetic, grounded, and insightful.

Parents should know that this film includes constant very strong and crude language, sexual references and situations, nudity, drinking, drugs, smoking, and violence, including domestic abuse.

Family discussion: Who was responsible for attacking Nancy Kerrigan? Why does the movie call itself “irony-free?” Do you agree that Americans “want someone to hate?”

If you like this, try: “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom” and “Tonya Harding: Anything to Win”

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Goodbye Christopher Robin

Posted on October 12, 2017 at 5:53 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, some bullying, war images and brief language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence, post-traumatic stress
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 13, 2017
Copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight

This telling of the story behind the creation of some of the world’s most beloved books for children is sincere and well-intentioned but what Pooh might call a bit of a muddle. The movie is not at all clear about whose perspective it is giving us or what story it is trying to tell.

Author A.A. Milne, called Blue by his family and played by Domhnall Gleeson, was a successful playwright and humorist before the Great War, but came back badly shaken from the experience of combat and carnage. His wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) is affectionate but impatient. Neither one of them is very interested in their son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), who spends most of his time with his devoted nanny, Nou (Kelly Macdonald). Milne insists the family move to the country, where Daphne feels isolated from the parties and friends she enjoys. She goes back to London, saying she won’t return until Milne begins to write again, just as Nou has to take some time off to care for her mother. This leaves Milne alone with his son, called Billy Moon by the family, and for the first time they spend time together, playing in the woods with the child’s stuffed bear, named Winnie after the bear in the zoo. It is these days that inspire the two chapter books and two books of poems that have been read aloud to generations of children who have grown up and read them to their own children, plus, Disney movies and a television series (Disney now own the rights to the characters) and more books and toys.

And it is these days that are the best part of the film, especially when Milne’s friend, the illustrator Ernest Howard Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore) comes to visit, and we see the stories Milne and Billy Moon tell melting into the sketches that are as beloved as the writing.

The problem is the rest of the movie, which is really four movies fighting with each other, none of them very good. There is the story of a shattered veteran trying to find a way to return to civilian life and work that is meaningful to him. There is the story of a man and a boy who do not realize how much they need each other discovering a common language. There is the story of enormous success that benefits one family member but at great cost to another.  The stories lead to feelings of betrayal and bitterness when Billy Moon becomes famous, more famous than his father, and much more famous than his boarding school classmates.  And there is the story of estrangement and partial reconciliation.

It is never clear what the point of view of the movie is, or what the point of the movie is.  Is it that art can be healing and wounding at the same time?  Is it that behind tales of wonder and enchantment there can be pain and bitterness?  Fans of the Winnie the Pooh books may enjoy some of the classic biopic “ah, that’s where this part I loved came from” moments, but they do not provide any additional insight or depth to the work itself, not even an exploration of what the books have to say about childhood and whether they represent a child’s perspective or a parent’s.  Most of all, unlike Pooh, Piglet, Kanga, Roo, and Owl, these characters are not very interested or interesting.

Parents should know that this movie includes wartime violence, PTSD, marital estrangement, sad offscreen death of a parent, apparent death of a child, and social drinking.

Family discussion:  What should Blue and Daphne have done differently?  Why did Christopher want to go into the army?  Is “the great thing” finding something to be happy about?

If you like this, try: the books of A.A. Milne

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