Air

Posted on April 5, 2023 at 5:45 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 7, 2023

Copyright 2023 Warner Brothers
A good movie will capture our attention even when we know, because it is a true story, how it turned out. How it happened can be an engrossing story itself, especially if it was a shift with consequences so pervasive we can hardly remember when things were different. Today, dozens of celebrities, even the biggest box-office actors and platinum-selling singers, make more money from their lines of cosmetics, fragrances, clothing and shoes, housewares, books, phone plans, liquor, and perhaps, someday, steel-belted radial tires and vacation time shares. But it began when a man named Sonny Vacarro, working for Nike, made a deal with an athlete who had not yet played his first professional basketball game. His name is Michael Jordan.

Matt Damon plays Sonny, with director Ben Affleck as Nike founder Phil Knight. As the movie begins, In 1984, Nike was known as a running shoe company. Converse and Adidas had most of the market for basketball shoes. Nike, with only 17 percent, was considering giving up entirely. Vacarro, whose life could easily fill a few more movies, wants to change the division’s approach, a poor (in both senses of the word) imitation of the vastly more successful competition. They would pay the top athletes a set fee to appear on posters and ads, representing the brand. Sonny and his colleagues discussed the lower-tier athletes they might be able to afford but no one thought that pursuing the same failed strategy would produce a better result. They just did not know what else to try, and the old system might not work, but it was safe.

Nike was an upstart company, and, as Sonny reminded Phil Knight, before they were a public company, with all of the bureaucracy and high profile disclosures that requires, they were the opposite of safe. The film cleverly uses the company’s real-life principles as commentary or chapter headings. “Our business is change” is number one.

Sonny decides that instead of hedging their bets by picking three basketball players and hoping one of them would excel, they should spend their entire budget on Michael Jordan a #3 draft pick rookie who has not yet set foot on a professional court. He has to persuade his colleagues (Chris Tucker and Jason Bateman, both excellent as always). He has to persuade Knight. He has to persuade Jordan’s ultra-alpha agent, David Falk (Chris Messina, nailing it like the real-life Jordan buzzer-beater). And when Falk refuses to give Sonny a meeting, Sonny has to persuade Jordan’s parents, more specifically, Jordan’s mother Deloris.

She is played by the magnificent Viola Davis because that was real-life Jordan’s one request for the film. And she is on fire. A scene near the end has a phone conversation between Deloris and Sonny that will be in the highlight reels for both stars forever.

Affleck is a fine actor and a better-than-fine director. As an actor since childhood, his skill at selecting the right actors and allowing them to do their best is to be expected. He also has an exceptional sense of narrative structure. The script from first-time screenwriter Alex Avery was chosen as Best Unproduced/Blacklist Screenplay of 2021. He gets sole credit, but Affleck and Damon, Oscar-winning screenwriters in their 20s for “Good Will Hunting,” worked with him on the final version. It is the way the story is shaped that allows each of the characters to make a contribution and keeps us somehow wondering how it will come together.

There is also a deeper meaning, a medium is the message connection. It is the first film from a new company formed by Damon and Affleck that hopes to do for the people who work on films what Sonny did for Michael Jordan, recognizing the contributions of below-the-line crew like cinematographers, designers, and sound technicians with a chance to share in the profits of the work they help to create. Let’s hope they all do as well as Jordan, who, according to the film’s ending updates, makes $400 million a year from the Nike products bearing his name.

Parents should know that this film has constant strong “locker-room” language

Family discussion: What made Nike different from its competitors? Which of the Nike principles do you think are most important? Would you buy something just because it had the name of a celebrity on it?

If you like this, try: “Sole Man,” the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about Sonny Vacaarro and some of the interviews with Vacarro on YouTube, especially the ones concerning his reversal from creating marketing programs that exploited amateur athletes to leading the Supreme Court challenge that recognized their right to be paid for the use of their images and names

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The Last Duel

Posted on October 14, 2021 at 9:49 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Very intense medieval combat violence, characters injured and killed, brutal rape, graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 15, 2021

Copyright 20th Century 2021
“The Last Duel” is well-intentioned but ponderous and pretentious. It wants to be about the different perceptions of its three main characters, telling the same story three times. But for the viewer it is about the different perceptions of its actor-screenwriters, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and its director, Ridley Scott, who seem to be making different movies. The screenwriters wanted to tell a story about honor, truth, misogyny, and justice. Scott wanted to tell a story about medieval combat. You can tell from the title which side won.

Like the classic “Rashomon,” this is the story of a rape and a death told from three different points of view. Damon and Affleck wrote the segments of the two male characters in the story, and the third segment, the point of view of the woman involved, was written by indie writer-director Nicole Holofcener.

It is based on real historical events, the last officially recognized “judicial duel,” meaning a battle to the death to determine the outcome of a trial, fought in France. The duel was fought in 1386, based on the notion that God would not let the combatant telling the truth lose the fight.

At one point the two men were friends, but they were very different. Jean de Carrouges (Damon) was a knight (he gets very angry when his hard-won title is not recognized). He was extremely brave and firmly dedicated to his ideals of honor. We first see him disobeying orders and going into battle to prevent the slaughter of innocent citizens. He was not educated and could not read or write his name. After his wife and son died, he married Marguerite (Jodie Comer) the daughter of a wealthy but disgraced (for supporting the losing side in the war) man. She was well-educated and they were genuinely affectionate and devoted.

Squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) was well-educated in languages, literature, and numbers. He was something of a libertine, encouraged by his patron (Affleck), Pierre d’Alençon, a powerful nobleman, after Le Gris ingratiated himself by straightening out the books and collecting the back taxes.

Marguerite tells her husband that when he was away Le Gris came to their home and raped her. Rape, at the time, was not considered an assault on the woman but a crime against the man in her life. She was seen as his property and it was he who was damaged by the degrading attack. Marguerite is encouraged not to tell anyone by her mother-in-law, who admits that she was once raped as well. To accuse a man so close to the nobility is dangerous. But de Carrouges has courage in life as he does in battle and a sense of honor — plus some more personal grievances against Le Gris — that will not allow him to pretend it did not happen. He knows Le Gris’ patron will protect him, so he takes the case to the king. And that is what takes us back to the joust we glimpse at the beginning of the film. If de Carrouges wins, that means God has protected him for telling the truth. If Le Gris wins, then he will be deemed to have told the truth and Marguerite will be burned for falsely accusing him.

Scott does a great job with the combat scenes and special credit goes to DP Dariusz Wolski and especially to the sound crew for some of the all-time great clanky sounds as swords strike shields and armor. Unfortunately, the dialogue is even more clanky. Affleck and Damon, whose Bahston townie talk in “Good Will Hunting” was both believable and exceptionally sharp, have made the dialogue in this film heavy with clumsy exposition. The reiteration of the story does not add as much as it thinks it does, and ultimately becomes tedious and heavy-handed. And the hair and make-up may be based on historic styles, but Affleck, as the louche embodiment of white privilege, has a blonde surfer look while Damon has an unfortunate mullet that goes with his unfortunately superficial character. This is the second time in a row that he has tried to convince us he’s an uneducated person of limited experience and both movies suffer from his efforts.

Parents should know that this film has strong, bloody violence with medieval combat and disturbing and grisly images. There is some strong language, explicit sexual situations with nudity and a brutal rape, and alcohol.

Family discussion: Why does de Carrouges decide to believe Marguerite? Given the ideas at the time, was his mother right?

If you like this, try: “Gladiator”

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Stillwater

Posted on July 29, 2021 at 5:10 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: References to alcohol and drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: The movie includes a murder investigation and imprisonment, abuse
Diversity Issues: Some themes of class and nationality differences and cultures
Date Released to Theaters: July 23, 2021
Date Released to DVD: October 25, 2021

Copyright 2021 Focus Features
Even the best of intentions from the most talented people can sometimes go haywire, and “Stillwater” is a good example of a bad movie despite its sincerity and the powerful gifts of the people behind it. When the best performance in a Matt Damon movie comes from a little girl who barely speaks English, you know so many things have gone wrong that even the two Oscar-winners cannot find a way to make it work.

I’m not even sure what this movie is about. The story is clear, though. Oklahoma construction worker Bill Baker (Damon) regularly travels to France to see his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin), who is serving a nine-year sentence for murder in Marseille. She insists she is innocent. Five years into her sentence, she learns of a possible clue to locating the real killer. When her lawyer says that there is no point in trying to re-open the case based on hearsay, Bill lies to Allison, telling her the lawyer is working on it, while he tries to find the killer himself. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because of its relation to the case of Amanda Knox, who spent four years in an Italian prison for the murder of her roommate until she was exonerated by the higher court.

The storyline, though, is not enough to sustain the film, careening awkwardly from Bill’s redemption following years of neglecting Allison as he struggled with substance abuse to the lukewarm, not-thrilling thriller and the zero-chemistry romance. The nearly 2 1/2 hour running time gave me plenty of room to consider whether the movie was trying to make some deeper statement about America, with Bill clearly coming from an economically depressed red state, representing America’s failures and sense of lost promise and Allison as the younger generation, rejecting her roots.

Leads Damon, Breslin, and Camille Cottin as Verginie, a single mother who becomes Bill’s translator, friend, and romantic partner have so little sense of connection to each other they seem to be performing via Zoom. It is like they are acting in three different movies. Indeed, the movie itself feels like three different movies and none of them work. In the last half hour, as the movie goes from not very good to are-you-kidding bad, they may have been trying to make a point about guilt and the consequences of bad choices. If so, it is un-earned and the worst kind of manipulative, the kind that has so little respect for the audience that it is more than a disappointment; it feels like an insult. At one point, we see a brief scene from Virginie’s performance in an avant-garde play, followed by a pointless scene where she tries to get Bill to talk to her about what he has just watched. I’d rather watch that entire play — in French — than see this movie again.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong language, violence, references to murder, sexual references and situations, and references to substance abuse and parental neglect.

Family discussion: What do you think of what we see of the French prison system and its differences from the US? How does Bill feel after his final discussion with Allison? Should they have told each other the truth?

If you like this, try: “Missing”

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Suburbicon

Posted on October 26, 2017 at 5:30 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, language and some sexuality
Profanity: Strong language including racist epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and graphic violence including multiple murders, many grisly and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 27, 2017
Date Released to DVD: February 5, 2018
Copyright 2017 Paramount

“Suburbicon” is like a beautifully gift-wrapped box that turns out to be empty or a shaggy-dog story that entices you with promising details and then it is supposed to be funny that there’s no ending. A script by the Coen brothers that plays like a correctly discarded early draft of “Fargo” has been tweaked by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, a long way from their brilliant “Good Night and Good Luck,” and directed by Clooney. Even full-on stars Matt Damon and Julianne Moore (in a dual role!) cannot outshine the real star of the movie, the ironic air-quoting production design. The only member of the cast who makes any real impression is Oscar Isaac as an insurance investigator who calls himself a “professional skeptic” and provides a too-brief jolt of energy and interest in a movie that is otherwise way to amused by itself.

“Suburbicon” begins with a cute commercial for a idealized 1950’s planned community that ends with a cheery, “The only thing missing is YOU!” It looks like Walt Disney, Norman Rockwell, Dick and Jane readers, and all those sitcoms with cheery moms who vacuum in pearls and full makeup got together in all of their mid-century, postwar, consumerist, idealized, sanitized, and claustrophobically conformist and Everyone is welcome, it tells us, whether you’re from New York, Ohio, or Mississippi. But all of the people in the ad are white and all of the people in Suburbicon are white….until the Myers family moves in. They are black. This is a pointed reference to the real-life experience of the real-life black Myers family who moved to the conformist, consumerist planned community of Levittown in in 1957, resulting in constant harassment, threats, and a three-week-long riot, which the family endured with grace and patience.

That goes on here, as we see Mrs. Myers (Karimah Westbrook) told by the manager at the grocery that for her the price of a gallon of milk is $20, neighbors build a fence around their yard, and a crowd gathers outside their house, taunting them and setting their car on fire.

But that is not what the movie is about. The movie is mostly about what is going on next door, where armed intruders tie up and chloroform a family, Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wife Rose, who is confined to a wheelchair (Julianne Moore), her sister Maggie (more Moore), and his young son, Nick (an excellent Noah Jupe). Rose dies in the attack and Maggie moves into the house to help take care of Nick and Gardner.

And then things get really tangled. They just don’t get interesting. The production design and camera work are excellent, but what actually happens on screen is just a pointless escalation of deranged violence with cutaways to the poor Myers family to show how dumb it is that the neighbors are terrified of the black family while the white family is what should terrify them. But just making that point as people run around doing terrible things to each other and to a child is neither insightful nor effective.

Parents should know that this film is filled with horrifying violence, some of it very explicit and bloody. There are many murders and other bad behavior. A child is in peril, and he witnesses violence, sex, and bad behavior by the adults in his life. Virulent racism is a theme in the movie and characters use strong language including racist epithets.

Family discussion: Ask members of your family for their memories of the 1950’s. Why did the Myers family stay?

If you like this, try: “Fargo,” “Blood Simple,” “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” and “Serial Mom”

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The Great Wall

Posted on February 16, 2017 at 5:39 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive, intense, military and fantasy violence with scary monsters, spears, arrows, explosions, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters but some insensitive portrayals
Date Released to Theaters: February 17, 2017
Copyright Universal 2017

I get that you need a big Hollywood star to get big Hollywood money. But in “The Great Wall,” that means that Matt Damon has to save the day in ancient China, and having him share the fight with a tough female military leader (Tian Jing) who is Chinese (and very beautiful) does not reduce the quease factor.

Damon plays William, a mercenary who has fought for and against armies of several European nations, now traveling through China in search of the “black powder” they have heard is a new weapon of massive power to destroy. (Gunpowder, the first explosive, was developed by Chinese alchemists in the 9th century.) All of his group are killed except for his closest friend Tovar (Pedro Pascal) in an encounter with a mysterious beast. William kills it and keeps the claw to help find out what it was. When they are captured by an enormous army, it is the claw that keeps them from being killed. The army, a part of the Nameless Order, is stationed by the Great Wall to fight off those creatures, called Tao-Tie. They are dragon-like predators who are learning and evolving, becoming more powerful and working together to develop what can only be called strategy. The Nameless Order has to stop them before they can no longer be contained and take over China, and, after that, the world.

The six people who wrote the film include top-level screenwriters including Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (“thirtysomething,” “Nashville”), Max Brooks (“World War Z”), and Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”) were not able to add any more depth than a videogame, and Matt Damon’s talent and charisma can only take his one-dimensional character so far, but the real star here is director Yimou Zhang, whose gift for visual imagery is always a pleasure to behold. In the grand tradition of Cecil B. DeMille or Busby Berkeley, his eye for epic scale, pageantry, and battle is superb. Blue-armored female soldiers leap off ledges to fight the Tao-Tie via military-grade bungee cords. Two interlopers are suddenly surrounded by a storm of red arrows, shot to keep them at the center of a perfect circle. A soldier accused of having a bow “not to the level of your skill” demonstrates what it — and he — can do with three arrows shot at once, one to adjust the trajectory of a tossed bowl and other two to pin it to a column. The film has no dialog about trust or what it means to risk your life, whether for money or for your community, no bromantic banter, and no discovery of the surprising secret to defeating the animals that comes close to the power of the endless row of faces, resolute, honorable, and determined it to whatever it takes to fight the Tao-Tie.

NOTE: Matt Damon and co-star Andy Lau both played the same character in the American and Chinese versions of the film that in the US was called “The Departed.” The Chinese version was “Infernal Affairs” and both are excellent.

Parents should know that this film includes extended military vs. monsters violence with many characters wounded and killed and disturbing images, arrows, spears, and explosions. While it features strong, brave female soldiers and officers and tries to balance the skill and courage of the Chinese and western characters, it is still disturbing to see in 2017 a movie where the indigenous people cannot solve the problem until the European arrives. You may wish to read the director’s statement on this issue.

Family discussion: Were William and Lin Mae alike? How did they earn each other’s trust?

If you like this, try: “House of the Flying Daggers” and “Curse of the Golden Flower”

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