MVP of the Month: Real-Life Heroic Lawyers

Posted on December 16, 2019 at 9:21 am

Copyright Warner Brothers 2019
At awards season, we often get uplifting real-life stories and this year we have three that are about heroic lawyers fighting for justice against almost insurmountable odds. Here they are, with a little background on the real stories.

Mark Ruffalo as Rob Bilott in “Dark Waters

Billot was profiled by the New York Times, which dubbed him DuPont’s Biggest Nightmare. “Rob Bilott was a corporate defense attorney for eight years. Then he took on an environmental suit that would upend his entire career — and expose a brazen, decades-long history of chemical pollution.”

Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson in “Just Mercy”

Stevenson is a Harvard Law graduate who has spent his career in the town where the man who inspired the most beloved lawyer in movie history, Atticus Finch, practiced law. And like Finch, he defends those who have been unfairly accused and not had adequate access to counsel. He is also the Founder of the stunning Legacy Museum and National Memorial to Peace and Justice, sometimes called the Lynching Museum because of its extraordinary challenge to communities to acknowledge their past.

HBO has a documentary about Stevenson and his Equal Justice Initiative.

Sam Rockwell as Watson Bryant in “Richard Jewell

Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell” is based on the true story of the man who was initially hailed as a hero for discovering a bomb at a concert celebrating the Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, and then accused of planting it to make himself famous. Watson Bryant was the lawyer who represented him, proving that the FBI and the local and national media were irresponsible to the point of negligence and abuse.

The movie was inspired by a Vanity Fair article called “American Nightmare” by Marie Brenner. Here is what she said about the lawyer who happened on to Jewell because they had briefly worked together:

The simple fact was that Bryant had no qualifications for the job. He had no legal staff except for his assistant, Nadya Light, no contacts in the press, and no history in Washington. He was the opposite of media-savvy; he rarely read the papers and never watched the nightly news, preferring the Discovery Channel’s shows on dog psychology. Now that Richard Jewell was his client, he had entered a zone of worldwide media hysteria fraught with potential peril. Jewell suspected that his pickup truck had been flown in a C-130 transport plane to the F.B.I. unit at Quantico in Virginia, and Bryant worried that his friend would be arrested any minute. Worse, Bryant knew that he had nothing going for him, no levers anywhere. His only asset was his personality; he had the bravado and profane hyperbole of a southern rich boy, but he was in way over his head.

You can see the real Bryant here:

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The Real Story

Avengers: Endgame

Posted on April 24, 2019 at 10:42 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language
Profanity: A handful of swear words including one said by a child
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/fantasy/comic book action, peril, and violence, battle scenes, characters injured and killed, very sad deaths
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 25, 2019
Date Released to DVD: August 12, 2019

Copyright 2019 Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios sticks the landing with “Avengers: Endgame,” a completely satisfying conclusion to the nearly two dozen films, bringing together the stories of a wide range of characters with complex, varied mythologies extending back over decades of stories in comics and other media.

We need to all take a moment to pay tribute to Kevin Feige of Marvel Studios, who has produced them all with a deep understanding of the characters and the fans and a truly remarkable ability to find a nuanced balance between canon and innovation. His willingness to let the individual stories of the characters develop in such different genres and still bring them together when it is time for the Avengers to assemble is an essential element of the success of the series. It would be like having separate film series for Harry Potter, Hermione, Ron, Draco, Professor McGonagall, and Dumbledore, one a romantic comedy, one a thriller, one a crime drama, one a political allegory, and then brought them all together every so often to continue the core story.

I am going to do my best to continue this review without spoilers, but there is one I am sure no one will mind. You do NOT need to stay through the very end as there are no extra scenes following the credits. That seems right for a movie that is such a resounding conclusion and I know you will be happy to get those ten minutes of your life back instead of sitting through the names of the personal chefs of the stars. Now, if you want to see it without knowing anything more than whether I liked it, let me just say here that I thought it was great and you can come back and read the rest after you’ve watched it and want to let me know what you think.

To answer the most frequently asked question: no, three hours does not seem long. It’s really three movies in one, and — fair warning — I could feel my objective critical faculties dissolving after about forty minutes when I realized that it was combining three of my very favorite movie genres in one. First is Marvel superhero stories, of course, with great effects and action, both one-on-one (and I really mean ONE) and big, BIG, battles. Then there’s getting the band back together, with a group of people who once worked together very closely but were not always in agreement (the “Civil War” debate comes back) seek each other out and try to form a team again. And then a heist, or rather, several heists, as the Avengers’ favorite McGuffin is very much a part of the story. There’s a fourth major theme as well, but that’s something I will not spoil except to say that even though they make delightful fun of the way that theme has been portrayed in many other movies, I strongly advise you not to think too deeply about whether the way it is portrayed in this one does any better in terms of consistency or logic.

To answer the second most frequently asked question: yes, you have to have seen the previous movie and as many in the series as possible to get the most out of it. This movie was made by fans for fans and there is tremendous depth that shows how thoroughly this world has been studied and imagined (though only one of the very knowledgable group I spoke to following the film could identify a briefly glimpsed teenage boy toward the end). To confirm the most frequent speculations of those anticipating the film, yes, we will be saying goodbye to some characters, every one of them in a supremely satisfying way, but bring a handkerchief. Yes, we will see some we thought were lost back again, sometimes in a flashback. One of the elements I loved most in this film was those flashbacks, which might give us a different look at scenes we thought we knew.

And the answer to a question that maybe fans forgot to ask, after all these movies: Yes, someone does say, “Avengers, assemble!” I admit it, my heart skipped a beat. It also thumped pretty hard several times and I cried more than once. The skill it takes to fight with Thanos is nothing compared to the skill it took to bring this series to such vibrant, thrilling life, and I am grateful to Stan Lee (yes, he gets a great cameo), Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Kevin Feige, Disney, the Russos, and especially to each of these actors, who bring their A game every time, for assembling this joyous finale.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/comic book peril, action, and violence with monsters, battle scenes, explosions, very sad deaths including death of a parent and fatal sacrifices and a handful of bad words, including one said by a child.

Family discussion: Did Cap make the right choice? What did the characters learn from their past experiences? Which Avenger is your favorite?

If you like this try: the other Marvel movies, especially “Black Panther,” “Iron Man,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and “Avengers: Infinity War”

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Avengers: Infinity War

Posted on April 25, 2018 at 1:10 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references
Profanity: About a dozen bad words
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and intense action-style peril and violence, chases, explosions, supervillains, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 27, 2018
Date Released to DVD: August 13, 2018
Copyright Marvel 2018

A two hour and forty minute movie can still feel too short when there are so many of our favorite characters, and that is the good news and the bad news about the much-anticipated “Avengers: Infinity War.”

The good news is that we get the ultimate mash-up of the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy. That means a whole lot of quippy action scenes. My greatest fear was that with so many characters most of them would not have enough time to do much on screen either by way of action or by way of drama, and the pretty good news is that screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Joe and Anthony Russo do a good job of giving everyone his or her own space — literally, by sending them off in different directions to keep the interactions manageable, and figuratively, by giving most of them individual character arcs, or, perhaps we should say arc-lettes as they are sketched in just enough to add a little substance sauce to the main course of the action.

The less great news is that the storyline is something of a let-down following the exceptional depth and complexity of “The Black Panther.” As I have said many, many times before, superhero movies depend entirely on the quality of the supervillain, and Erik Killmonger was the top of the line as bad guys go, nuanced, sympathetic, human, and utterly magnetic. Any movie, but especially a fantasy movie, has to be completely clear about the stakes, meaning that in a superhero movie we have to know exactly what the relative strengths and weaknesses of the opposing forces are and what they are fighting over. We don’t need a lot of detail; there’s a reason Alfred Hitchcock used to speak so dismissively about the “McGuffin,” whatever it was everyone in the story wants so badly. All we need to know is why it matters, how to get it, and how keep it from the wrong person.

The bad guy here is Thanos (Josh Brolin) a CGI-d Titan of enormous power who is seeing the ultimate power, which he can achieve via the six Infinity Stones. He has a handy glove with spaces for each stone, and once he has them all he can achieve his goal of wiping out half of the life forms in the universe with the snap of his gigantic fingers. Much of the movie consists of him beating up all of the superheroes, a couple of whom are quickly dispatched in the first scene. We hear a lot about how important it is that he be stopped but we do not get many specifics about how his powers work or what, if any, vulnerabilities can be used against him. And that makes the battles more set-pieces, exceptionally well-staged set-pieces than drama. And then, in the middle, almost quiet next to the supernova intensity of the star power, the dazzle to the saturation point of the action scenes, and the Hulk-level heavy lifting of the realignment of the movie MCU to accommodate some thoughtful and even subtle variations on whether it is right to sacrifice one life to save many others.

But mostly, there’s a lot of action. Remember that refugee spaceship at the end of “Thor: Ragnarok?” And the feud between Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, no longer the clean-cut WWII poster boy)? We pick up both as Thanos, the most powerful creature on the planet and the adoptive father of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) arrives in search of the five remaining Infinity Stones he needs to complete the set and wipe out half the universe. It’s time to get the band back together, with some of the team who have been missing in action, like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), having a bit of trouble getting his Hulk on. And the team now includes a high school intern, Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), who is so new and so in awe that he still calls Iron Man “Mr. Stark.”

Thanos has some nasty henchmen and henchwomen and hench-creatures who show up to help him find the stones. And the Guardians of the Galaxy, including Gamora, join on, with a sulky, now-adolescent Groot who can’t be pried away from his hand-held game device.

There are some very funny moments as the group gets to know each other, a few cheeky pop culture references, and an extended section in Wakanda gives us a chance to spend some more time with some characters who are already fan favorites (How about giving Shuri her own movie, Kevin Feige? And the Dora Milaje?) A few non-Avengers make a strong impression in their brief screen time, especially Peter Dinklage as a giant weapons-maker. But after nearly three hours (and only one after-credits scene?), with some savagely painful losses, it is unsatisfying to leave on the biggest cliffhanger since they freeze-dried Han Solo. There’s a point past which you stop topping yourself and just run out of breath — and that point is when you inform us several times that Thanos has ultimate power and then take us to a planet where there is a weapon that can stop him. There’s an infinite regression/irresistible force-immovable object paradox issue.

This movie is so big it has three superheroes played by superstars named Chris, and I haven’t even gotten to Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange, Winston Duke as M’Baku, Paul Bettany as Vision, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Sebastian Stan as Bucky, and Anthony Mackie as Falcon, all of whom get a chance to make an impression that leaves us wanting more. At times it feels like the Fellowship of the Infinity Stones, even approaching the grandeur of the Tolkien trilogy in its scope and the depth of its world-building. Or, I should say, worlds-building. There’s even time for some very sweet romance, and we see how those romantic complications present complicated challenges in the midst of battle. Also, dog monsters.

I trust the Russos to bring it all together with the next chapter. I hope it’s soon.

Parents should know that this film features extended comic-book action-style violence with many characters injured and killed, brief crude humor, and about a dozen strong words.

Family discussion: How many times did someone in the film have to decide whether it was worth sacrificing one life to save many others? Which superheroes were better at cooperating and why? Why does Thanos think he is right?

If you like this, try: the other Marvel movies, especially “Iron Man,” “The Avengers,” “Thor: Ragnarok,” and “The Black Panther”

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Now You See Me 2

Posted on June 9, 2016 at 5:40 pm

now-you-see-me-2The first “Now You See Me” was a deliciously entertaining heist film with “the Four Horsemen,” a team of magicians, engaged in a diabolically clever combination of misdirection and triple-cons for the purpose of revenge, Robin Hood reparations, and showmanship. We know what that means for part 2 — the Empire strikes back, and it is a popcorn pleasure. The Horsemen stole from billionaire Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) and framed the magician turned debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) so he ended up in prison.

At the end of the last film, the surprise twist revealed FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) as the brains behind the operation. As this one opens, the FBI, with Deputy Director Natalie Austin (Sanaa Lathan) in charge, does not know and thinks Rhodes is still looking for three of the Horsemen. They believe Jack Wilder, played by Dave Franco, was killed. They’re wrong about both. Rhodes is working with the Horsemen, including Wilder. But there is a new member of the group: Lula (Lizzy Caplan, replacing Isla Fisher). And they immediately run into a snag involving someone who knows a bit about magic in the movies: Daniel Radcliffe as Walter Mabry, a mysterious, mega-wealthy guy who wants the Horsemen to steal something for him. It’s the usual MacGuffin — some sort of computer thing that would give him access to everything/control of everything blah blah, and it’s locked away in a place with the kind of crazy security reserved for heist movies. All the world’s biggest, richest baddies are after it, and so the Horsemen have to find a way to get in there before one of them gets it.

The first movie had sensational performance showpieces. This one is more “Mission: Impossible” (the television series, not the Tom Cruise movies) until the final scene. But it keeps the sly twists coming, using all the magicians’ favorite ruses, from misdirection to an almost-balletic slight of hand. Just like “The Avengers,” it is a lot of fun to see each of the Horsemen use their skills — mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), lock wizard Wilder, card master Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg). We learned in the first film that McKinney’s brother stole all his money and disappeared; it turns out he was an identical twin brother, and he shows up, played by Harrelson with hair that looks like that awful perm Mike Brady had in the last season of “The Brady Bunch.”

It has all the twists and reveals and surprises we were hoping for, including one saucy switch that is not about magic, just social conventions that have not caught up to reality, some very old school means of communication, and a touch of movie magic in giving us a glimpse of one character’s past with some CGI that looks a little more realistic than the “work” that has ruined so many Hollywood faces. Director Jon M. Chu (the “Step Up” movies) has a superb sense of space and movement, giving the story exuberance and flair. It’s a fitting encore and I hope we will see them all again in part 3.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language, and some action-style peril and violence.

Family discussion: Would you want to be selected by The Eye? Which magic trick would you like to be able to master?

If you like this, try: the original film and “The Sting”

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Crime Series/Sequel

Spotlight

Posted on November 12, 2015 at 5:30 pm

“Spotlight” is about the ultimate betrayal of trust from an institution that literally represented the Word of God to many people. And it is about whether we will continue to have institutions that serve the essential function of monitoring the gap between aspiration and actuality, between what people say they are and do and the reality.

Copyright Open Road Films 2015
Copyright Open Road Films 2015

Spotlight is the name for the investigative group of journalists working for the Boston Globe. While their colleagues reported on stories that could be reported and written in days, the Spotlight group had the luxury and the responsibility of taking as much as a year to do the kind of in-depth original research necessary for more complex and difficult subjects.

The staff at Spotlight was let by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and included Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James).

Like most of the members of the Globe staff they were Boston born and bred, Red Sox fans to the end, and raised Catholic. They had just finished work on a long-term piece when their new editor arrived. He was not Boston born and bred, not a Sox fan, and not Catholic. And perhaps most important, he was not a Boston Globe lifer. He was Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), most recently from Miami. He was an outsider in every way and they correctly suspected that the Globe was just a stop on his career trajectory. (He is now at the Washington Post.) They were not inclined to follow his idea of what stories they should cover.

But when he asked them about following up on a story about a priest who abused young boys, they could not come up with a reason not to other than it was too awful to imagine that it might be true. They begin to investigate. It turns out it was not one priest. It is a city-wide problem. A priest abuses children, is put on “medical leave” and transferred. The families of the boys are paid off and silenced. Then it happens again.

Director Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “Win Win”), writing with Josh Singer, really captures the culture of a newsroom, the stale coffee, the stale-er jokes, but the passionate curiosity that drives them all. This film will be compared to “All the President’s Men” because they are both true stories about young reporters getting huge stories everyone else missed. But the more important comparison is the way both movies capture the numbing work that goes into reporting. The doors knocked on. The doors slammed. And in this case, the nine years worth of diocese phone directories gone over, line by line (this was one of the last of the eras of off-line, analog document searches) to follow the “medical leave” priests took weeks of meticulous checking. It shows us reporting on the cusp of monumental technological change as well, when the paper makes the then-innovative decision to make the underlying documents available to readers online.

The reporters face enormous obstacles, starting with overcoming their own assumptions and then the powerful people who try to stop them. The church is an overwhelming force, politically and culturally. Do readers really want to know? Will the paper lose subscribers and advertisers?

There is no betrayal more devastating than to have the most trusted of institutions, the one most intimately involved in family joys and sorrows to be countenancing the abuse of those most deserving of its protection. But by the end of the film, that atrocity, already known to us, is not as troubling as the idea that news organizations may not be able to bring us the next one.

Parents should know that the theme of the movie is the investigation of widespread child sexual abuse and its cover-up, with sexual references, some graphic, and some strong language.

Family discussion: How did the arrival of an outsider affect the decision to do this story? Do today’s newspapers have the resources and support they need to do in-depth investigations like this one?

If you like this, try: “All the President’s Men” and “Truth” and the documentaries “Deliver Us from Evil” and “Twist of Faith”

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