The Prom

Posted on December 10, 2020 at 5:44 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive/sexual references, and language
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, homophobia
Date Released to Theaters: December 11, 2020

Copyright Netflix 2020
Irving Berlin was right. There’s no people like show people. And no one knows and loves show people as much as other show people, which is why “The Prom” is 20 percent sly satire and 80 percent love letter to the craziness that goes into entertaining audiences.

“The Prom” was a mildly successful Broadway musical about Broadway stars who want to restore their reputations after their new show has a disastrous opening night (a musical about Franklin and Eleonor Roosevelt). They see an injustice on Twitter. A small Indiana high school has cancelled its prom rather than allow a student to bring a same-sex date. And so, not even sure where Indiana is or what it is, they get on a bus, sure that their Broadway luster and can-do spirit will teach those people in flyover country about respect and inclusion. “This will be the biggest thing that’s happened in Indiana since..whatever the last big thing that happened in Indiana was,” one declares.

As you might guess, the Hoosiers are not impressed, even when Broadway leading lady Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) pulls out her two Tony Awards, which she apparently has on hand at all times, in case someone does not who Who She Is. The high school student at the center of the fuss is Emma (a star-making turn from Jo Ellen Pellman) has a bigger problem than the prom; the girl who would be her date is the daughter of the woman fighting to prevent same-sex couples from attending (Kerry Washington as Mrs. Greene). Caught in the middle is the high school principal, Tom Hawkins, who happens to be a fan of Broadway musicals, especially those featuring Dee Dee (Keegan-Michael Key).

The story adds some unexpected sweetness and reconciliation but really the entire production is just a change to have some fun with some inside theater humor and put on a big, colorful, splashy show with a bunch of Tony and Oscar-winners. Streep has a blast as a larger-than-life personality who is only at home on stage. After letting down someone who genuinely cares for her, the only way she can apologize is to reprise one of her career’s signature numbers. Andrew Rannells (a Tony Award winner for “Book of Mormon”) has a huge musical number with local kids in a shopping mall. Nicole Kidman plays the kind of chorus line hoofer who goes from show to show but never makes it into a lead role, and James Corden is a gay man who sees Emma’s problems in very personal terms because his parents rejected him after he came out.

You don’t have to understand the relative status of a Tony vs. a Drama Desk award or remember which musical had the most performances before “Cats” to sit back and enjoy the good-hearted fun, clever lyrics (by Chad Beguelin), and the jubilant dance numbers choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. It most important message is not inclusion but about the power of art itself, especially big, splashy, energetic, colorful musical, to bring us together and heal what hurts.

Parents should know that the theme of this movie is homophobia and inclusion. It includes some sexual humor and some sexual references, some alcohol, and some strong language.

Family discussion: What would you say to Mrs. Greene? What’s your favorite musical?

If you like this, try: “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Footloose,” “Hairspray,” and “High School Musical”

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The Laundromat

Posted on October 10, 2019 at 5:46 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, some sexual content and disturbing images
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Boat accident, electrical accident, murder characters killed, sad loss of spouse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 18, 2019

Copyright 2019 Amazon Studios
The numbers are unimaginable. The vocabulary is mind-numbing — and intended to be so. One of the biggest financial scandals of all time is known as the Panama Papers, a global money laundering/tax evasion/corruption-concealing scheme involving some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people, including politicians and crooks. They hid their money in what are called “shell” corporations — shell as in “shell game,” where the pea is always under the shell you don’t pick. The interlocking network of these companies was revealed with the help of a still-undisclosed whistleblower thanks to the tireless work of a group of non-profit journalists who had to comb through millions of arcane legal documents to understand and explain it all.

Great journalistic coup. But unlike a simple straightforward fraud like the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, which was depicted in two different and very watchable film versions, starring Oscar winners Robert De Niro and Richard Dreyfuss, the Panama Papers mess was so big and complicated it seemed impossible to put into dramatic form. That was the challenge faced by journalist Jake Bernstein, who wrote the sober, meticulously detailed book, and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”), who wrote the colorful, funny, and dramatic movie. Director Steven Soderbergh knows how to do a heist film following “Oceans 11” and “Logan Lucky,” and he wisely structures this as another story of clever thieves outwitting ordinary people. Except this time the people outwitting are not lovable underdogs and the people outwitted are us.

Our guide to this world is an irrepressible pair of lawyers played by Antonio Banderas (playing Ramón Fonseca) and Gary Oldman (as Jürgen Mossack). It is hard to say which is more charming, their impeccably bespoke suits, which get increasingly outrageous over the course of the film, or their cheerful frankness about their equally cheerful and highly lucrative lack of any shred of integrity or responsibility. The linked stories that illustrate different aspects of the scheme are introduced by Fonseca and Mossack who explain what is going on and tie the stories to “rules” that underly the legal and human realities that created this monster. They should have just quoted Pogo: We have met the enemy and he is us. Or, as one of them says, “The world does not want to be saved.”

“Think of them as fairy tales that actually happened,” they tell us. “They’re not just about us. They’re about you.” Their first rule: “The meek are screwed.”

And that is how we meet a nice lady named Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), devoted to her husband (James Cromwell). When the pilot of the tour boat ride they are on is distracted, there is an accident, it sinks, and her husband is killed. Ellen is devastated. And then she finds out that the tour boat’s insurance company will not pay, and then she finds out that it does not really exist. It exists on paper, but it is just a shell company used for money laundering, and it never pays out on claims. There are no claims officers, no offices. It’s a mail drop run by a man who gets paid $15 per signature for acting as representative for hundreds of shell companies.

We peek into other stories. A shakedown of a Chinese official does not go as planned. The literally shocking death of a low-lever functionary throws the whole system out of whack because she is — on paper — a director of 25,000 companies. And a betrayal leads to a brutal lesson in the value of values, which turns out to be less than we might hope.

It is briskly told, with a heightened, farcical tone that ends with not one smart twist, but two. Soderbergh knows how to entice us into paying attention, and entertain us until we are willing to think.

Parents should know that this movie concerns a real-life massive financial fraud, with many stories of betrayal and theft, peril, accidental death and murder, sexual references and non-explicit situations, personal and professional betrayal, drinking, drugs, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Who is in position to prevent this kind of abuse? What is the difference between privacy and secrecy?

If you like this, try: “The Big Short” and the books and documentary about the Panama Papers

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Coming Soon from Ryan Murphy “Prom” — With a Dream Cast Including Streep, Rannells, Key, Awkwafina

Posted on June 27, 2019 at 8:00 am

I am so excited about this! Ryan Murphy (“Glee,” “Versace,” “Nip/Tuck”) is bringing the Tony-nominated musical “Prom” to television with an all-star cast including Oscar-winner Meryl Streep, Tony-winner Andrew Rannells (“Girls,” “Book of Mormom”), “Key and Peele” star Keegan-Michael Key, “Oceans 8” and “Crazy Rich Asians” star Awkwafina, and pop princess Ariana Grande.

The story is about Broadway stars running away from terrible reviews of their new show who decide to get some good publicity by providing support to a girl who has been forbidden to bring another girl as her date to the school prom. Here’s a look at the show on Broadway.

Deadline writes:

Streep will play Dee Dee Allen, a two-time Tony winner who teams with Corden’s Barry Glickman in a flop musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. After career-ending reviews, they decide — along with Broadway babies Kidman as Angie Dickinson and Rannells (Book of Mormon) as Trent Oliver — to champion a cause to rehabilitate their careers. They find one in Emma, a high school senior in Indiana who isn’t allowed to go to her prom because she’s gay. A nationwide search led by casting director Alexa Fogel is on to fill the role of Emma.

Grande will star as Alyssa, a popular daughter of the head of the PTA. Awkwafina will play the group’s publicist Ms. Sheldon, and Key will play Streep’s love interest and Emma’s ally, Principal Hawkins.

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Musical Television

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Posted on July 19, 2018 at 5:40 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some suggestive material
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 20, 2018
Date Released to DVD: October 22, 2018

Copyright 2018 Universal
Pretty music, pretty scenery, pretty people – here they go again, my my, and how can we resist them? Lesser songs, better singers, higher platform shoes, more romance, a horse, a goat, a boat, a romantic last-minute wedding interruption, returning cast members and a whole new group to play younger versions of the older characters.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” finds the young woman with three fathers (Amanda Seyfried as Sophie) about to realize her mother’s dream of a luxury hotel on the idyllic island of Kalokairi (the Greek island of Skopelos in the original, in this one the Croatian island of Vis, which gave the production tax breaks).

It is bittersweet because her mother (Meryl Streep as Donna) has died. She and her step- and one of three possible biological fathers (Pierce Brosnan), conveniently an architect, miss her dearly. “It will get better,” she reassures him. “Yes, just not quite yet,” he answers. Working on the grand opening party makes her feel closer to her mother. But she also misses Sky (Dominic Cooper), who is getting training in hotel management and has been offered a dream job half a world away. She also wishes her other two fathers could be there for the opening, straight-laced British lawyer Harry (Colin Firth), who is negotiating a big merger in Japan, and Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), who is getting an award for being Sweden’s greatest person because this movie does not really care enough about minor details to Google an actual award or invent a plausible one. And why should it? This is a movie that asks us to believe Cher is Meryl Streep’s mother. And that someone could have a daughter in 1980 who would still be in her early 20’s.

While Sophie is planning “the most incredible party of all time,” the primary focus of the film is on filling in the dot, dot, dots of Donna’s origin story, from her college graduation in 1979 (the math does not really add up here, either), her friendship (and performances) with Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn as the deliciously acerbic younger version of the character played by Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Alexa Davies as the younger version of the tender-hearted character played by Julie Walter), and her encounters with Bill, Harry, and Sam (younger versions played by Josh Dylan, Hugh Skinner, and Jeremy Irvine).

Lily James (“Baby Driver,” “Cinderella”) plays the young Donna, wearing gold platform boots under her graduation gown as she strides to the podium to give the graduation speech, then tosses off the gown to reveal a wild mash-up of a costume that could only be found in an ABBA performance or perhaps on display at the Bad Taste Museum in the Hall of What Were They Thinking. Her friends join her on stage for a jubilant performance of “I Kissed a Teacher,” and then bid her farewell as she embarks on her adventure. In France, she meets a shy Englishman. It is Harry. In one of the movie’s highlights, they sing and dance to a rousing “Waterloo” in a restaurant. She next meets Bill, who gives her a ride on his boat

And then she meets Sam, who wins her heart and then breaks it. By then she is pregnant, and by then she knows that this island is where she wants to make her home.

There is more skill in the crystalline harmonies, rock star poses, screen saver vistas, and segues between time and space than in the storyline, which is both too sad and too silly. Pierce Brosnan still can’t sing. The script often sounds like it was badly translated from the original Swedish. But it’s a cool treat on a hot summer evening, and let’s face it — you couldn’t escape if you wanted to.

NOTE: Wynn is the latest in five generations of one of the most luminary of show business families, including actors Ed Wynn (“Mary Poppins”) and Kennan Wynn (“Dr. Strangelove”) and writer Tracy Kennan Wynn (“The Longest Yard”). And of course, be sure to stay through the end credits for a final musical number!

Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and non-explicit situations, questions of paternity, some sexual humor, childbirth scene, some mild language, and some alcohol.

Family discussion: How do you bolster your friends and family? What makes your soul shine? How do you make a complicated problem simple?

If you like this, try: the first “Mamma Mia” and “Walking on Sunshine” and read Susan Wloszczyna’s interview with Judy Craymer, who came up with the idea of turning ABBA’s songs into a play.

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The Post

Posted on December 25, 2017 at 11:01 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language and brief war violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking and drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Some wartime violence
Diversity Issues: Some sexist treatment
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2017
Date Released to DVD: April 16, 2018
Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox

Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), publisher of The Washington Post, is going over a list of financial and legal documents once again, rehearsing her answers to the questions she will be getting from bankers about selling shares in the company to the public for the first time. This job is one she never anticipated and never wanted. Her father had handed the business over to her husband and she had been perfectly content to be a mother and a socialite, hosting gracious parties and enjoying friendships with people who were important but never being important herself. But her husband has died — no, she reminds a colleague, he committed suicide. And so this is the job she has, even though the men around her are not sure she can do it and she is far from sure herself.

Daniel Ellsberg (“The Americans'” Matthew Rhys), a top aide to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), watches his boss tell reporters that the military was making progress in Vietnam, exactly the opposite of what Ellsberg had told him moments before. Later, working for the RAND Corporation think tank, he would take 47 volumes of reports on the government’s lies about the military efforts in Vietnam and send them to the New York Times. When the Nixon administration got a court order to stop further publication, it was shy, inexperienced Mrs. Graham who would have to decide whether she would risk her reputation, her family business, and even her freedom to continue to print the story.

And that, my friends in journalism, is why The Post, about the real-life publication of the Pentagon Papers, is not about the New York Times, which published them first, but about the then-considerably second-tier Washington Post and Mrs. Graham, who risked the collapse of the crucial deal to secure their finances, published second. This is about a woman who did not have greatness thrust upon her; she became great when greatness beckoned. And in playing Graham, we see a woman who began great and is still getting greater.

I know, I know, we’re all kind of over how great Meryl Streep is. She has given us so many decades of impeccable performances and inevitable awards nominations that we just take her for granted. But Streep’s performance in “The Post” is worthy of special attention because it shows us exactly what makes her the best actor of her generation. There’s nothing especially flashy about it. She did not have to learn a new language or transform herself as she has done in the past. Yet she is, as always, astonishingly precise in this film as Katharine Graham, a very private 1970’s socialite who is not yet aware of how fundamentally she is changing to become the leader of a major media outlet.

The very best actors convey a mixture of emotions. In “The Post,” the play of thoughts and feelings in Streep’s face as she seeks the courage to stand up to the men who are telling her what to do is like a master class in acting. She is nervous but resolute, insecure about her ability, unsure of her role, but certain about her commitment to the paper. We see how devoted she is to her family and her friends, the tribute she pays to the guest of honor at a cocktail party in the garden of her Georgetown mansion, her concern for her good friend Robert McNamara as he cares for his ailing wife, the way she softens in the middle of a tense conversation when a grandchild chases a ball into the room. But we also see her growing in the realization of the power of The Post and her own power as well.

Streep is not just superb at creating characters. She is a true ensemble player, never showboating but always seamlessly matching the rest of the cast, whether she is playing a notoriously awful singer in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” a house band front woman in “Rikki and the Flash,” or a British Prime Minister in “The Iron Lady,” to mention just a few of her most recent roles.

In “The Post” she once again blends into the ensemble and she plays a character who is used to deferring to men. So it is easy to overlook how specific and layered she is in showing us a woman who was quiet, unsure, and, frequently condescended to by the men she worked with. As the shy heiress who unexpectedly became the publisher of The Washington Post when her husband committed suicide, Streep shows us the struggle, the spirit, and ultimately the determination of the woman who took the paper from a small local publication to fearless coverage of Watergate that brought down the Nixon administration.

As the movie begins, Graham is practicing for the biggest challenge she has had since taking over the paper that her father had given to her husband. The company is going to go public and she will have to persuade the bankers that even with the family maintaining control it is going to be a good investment. She is hyper-diligent; as one of the men points out, she is the only one who has read through all of the technical financial and legal documents, and she has made extensive notes for herself. We see her rehearsing her answers and when the time comes and she cannot get the words out, we see how hard she is trying and how much she wants to be the business executive the company needs. Watch Streep as Graham becomes in each scene less of the shy socialite who was unfailingly gracious to the paper’s sources, subjects, and rivals. Watch her become not just an executive but a journalist and a passionate defender of freedom of the press as she spars, first tentatively and then hitting her stride with Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) over his own blind spots in putting friendship before reporting the story. Watch her as her close friend, whose reputation she is about to help destroy, shocks her by showing her his own fundamental integrity, and just try to look anywhere else as she reads aloud a note from her daughter and as she quietly but firmly and authoritatively does at the end of the film what she could not do at the beginning – thinks for herself and makes a decision based on her own sure sense of what is right for the paper and the country.

This movie brings us back to a time when trust in government and media was high. The Pentagon Papers was the first major leak of the modern era, followed by the Cointelpro documents revealed which revealed abuses by the FBI and led to major reforms and increased oversight. The discovery that three Presidents and their administrations had lied about the prospects of success in Vietnam was the political equivalent of “the call is coming from inside the house.” It had a seismic effect on Americans already in the midst of one of the country’s most tumultuous periods of protest and upheaval.

This movie makes it clear that the press had its own credibility issue at the time. Mrs. Graham points out to Bradlee that his close friendship with President Kennedy compromised his integrity as a journalist, as he asks her not to let her close friendship with McNamara compromise hers.

On top of all that, and its uncanny timeliness, it is whalloping good story about secrets and honor and Bob Odenkirk all but steals the film from two of the biggest stars in Hollywood history with his performance as Ben Bagdikian, the reporter with a hunch and a Rolodex who tracked down the papers for the Post. The last scene cheekily sets it up as a prequel to “All the President’s Men.” We can hope both are a prequel to future films about reporters dedicated to telling the story.

Parents should know that this film includes brief footage of the war in Vietnam, reference to suicide, and some strong language.

Family discussion: How did Mrs. Graham change and why? What did Ben Bagdikian mean about being part of a revolution?

If you like this, try: “All the President’s Men” and Mrs. Graham’s superb autobiography

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