Poster for Civil War

Civil War

Posted on April 9, 2024 at 8:07 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violent content, bloody/disturbing images, and language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive very intense and graphic wartime violence, characters injured, tortured, killed, and executed, mass grave, disturbing and gory images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: April 12, 2024

Writer/director Alex Garland likes to present audiences with extinction level disaster, from the zombie apocalypse “28 Days Later” to the investigate-the-anomaly “Annihilation” and the AI-can- outsmart-us “Ex Machina.” In all of them, though, the story is not the causes or consequences of the unconquerable threats; it is us, and the way we respond to them. There is no zombie as terrifying in “28 Days Later” as the humans who betray one another.

Kirsten Dunst in Civil War
Copyright 2024 A24

“Civil War” is not about the issues or personalities that caused three states to declare war on the rest of the US. We learn in the first moments that two of the states are, in today’s politics, majority far-right Texas and Florida and far-left California (with strong opposite-leaning parts of the states), so there are no easy conclusions to draw. This movie is about the journalists covering the war by bringing cameras into the battles, being present as proxy, never making themselves part of the story by inserting themselves into even the most disturbing and potentially preventable carnage. The most important comment in the film, from a veteran war photographer to a 23-year-old newcomer is, “We record so other people ask.”

We will see, though, that other people do not seem to be asking. Both the veteran, Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and the newcomer, Jessie (Cailee Spaeny of “Priscilla”) are daughters of farmers they describe as pretending nothing is happening. Four journalists are trying to drive from the battleground in New York City to Washington D.C. to interview the President (Nick Offerman). They cannot take the highway that was the direct route because it has been destroyed. As they drive via back western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, they see shoot-outs and desolation, except for one small town that appears to be untouched by the war. It even has charming shops carrying items like party dresses no one has any more reason to buy. The store clerk explains that they prefer to pretend the war is not happening. As they leave, Lee sees that they are not in complete denial; there are snipers on the roofs.

The other two journalists are adrenalin junkie Joel (Wagner Moura, Pablo Escobar in “Narcos”), and elder statesman and mentor Sammy (the always-great Stephen McKinley Henderson of “Fences” and “Lady Bird”). If you get confused as they travel about who is on which side, that is the point. When they try to interview a soldier who is in the middle of a skirmish, he impatiently summarizes the situation as shooting and being shot at. Jesse Plemons has a brief scene as a terrifying figure who, though wearing a uniform, does not seem aligned with any side except his own sense of who is an authentic American.

Significantly, we never see anyone at a news organization receiving the images they send, much less a subscriber reading a news story. We are told that in Washington they are shooting journalists.

As Jessie points out, Lee’s career began with an image she took when she was still in college, a viral photograph of the “Antifa Massacre” (no indication of whether they were the killers or the victims). And she shares a name with legendary WWII photojournalist Lee Miller. Lee has a steely reserve, tempered with numbness, when photographing the most dire, dangerous, and disturbing situations. But she retains some empathy, even tenderness for Jessie, perhaps because she sees something of herself. She both wants to help her and protect her, understanding that she cannot do both.

Jessie insists on using an old camera, with film, not digital, perhaps a tribute to Lee Miller. She even carries a travel developing kit, keeping the fluid in a vial under her shirt so it stays warm. But Lee is there to tell the story, and Jessie is more like Joel, to feel the rush.

The final scenes, an attack on Washington DC, are horrifying. We’ve seen the iconic structures blown up in movies before, but the intensity and devastation of this film are unprecedented. This builds on the carefully chosen details we have already seen, a high school football field converted to a refugee center run by an international humanitarian aid group, a mass grave, those snipers on the roofs.

Garland’s words from a Daily Beast interview are the best conclusion to a discussion of the film: “More and more news organizations have become dominated by bias, so this is a throwback to an older form of journalism, which is reporting. Then, the film is attempting to function like a reporter. It’s about reporters, and it’s trying to be like a reporter itself.”

Parents should know that this movie includes intense and disturbing wartime violence with many characters injured and killed, some torture, murder, and many graphic and disturbing images including dead bodies and a mass grave). Characters use very strong language, smoke marijuana, and drink alcohol.

Family discussion: Should journalists ever intervene in the situations they are covering? What journalists do you trust and why? How are Sammy, Lee, Joel, and Jessie different in their reasons and approaches?

If you like this, try: Garland’s other films and “The Year of Living Dangerously”

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Dumb Money

Posted on September 14, 2023 at 5:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, sexual material, and drug use
Profanity: Constant very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 15, 2023
Date Released to DVD: November 13, 2023

Copyright Sony 2023
Crazy times create crazy events. There has seldom been a crazier time in the United States than the early months of the pandemic and there has seldom been a crazier series of events in the modern history of investing than the time a group of small individual investors with very little capital took on some of the wealthiest and most powerful people on Wall Street and they kind of won. Now that sounds like a movie, and, for the second time, it is.

First there was the documentary, Eat the Rich: the GameStop Saga. And now, the feature film, “Dumb Money,” with an all-star cast, a smart screenplay by Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo, and lively direction from Craig Gillespie. The movie does a good job of conveying the intricate details of investing and finance in the context of a movie that maintains a heightened tone through sharply executed editing, provocative needle-drops on the soundtrack (beginning with WAP), and minimal exposition.

In very sharp contrast to the music on the soundtrack, Paul Dano plays the central figure, mild-mannered Keith Gill, who lives with his wife, Caroline (Shailene Woodley), and their baby daughter in a modest home in Brockton, Massachusetts. Like a movie superhero, he has a secret identity. By day he was a financial analyst with MassMutual. By night he had not one but two personas, one on the subreddit r/wallstreetbets (DeepF***ingValue) and one on YouTube (Roaring Kitty). In both, he talked about stocks he liked and he revealed his own trades. In January 2021, he announced that he had invested in 50,000 shares and 500 call options for GameStop, the store that sells video games in malls. Most investors, including Wall Street billionaires, thought GameStop was going to go bankrupt. The US was still in pre-vaccine pandemic lockdown, though GameStop somehow got listed as an essential business because it sold some computer peripherals, so the stores were still open. But Keith explained his reasons for thinking the stock, trading at under $4 a share, was undervalued.

The Wall Street billionaires also put their money where their mouths were and bet against the company by going “short,” meaning they would make money if the stock went down. Normally, they would have succeeded. But nothing in this story was normal. It was a perfect storm. First, the pandemic shut everything down and made people feel even more mistrustful of big institutions than they were before. This was especially true of the people of Keith’s generation, who were in school on 9/11 and were entering the job market just as the financial meltdown hit the economy with no consequences for the people who caused it. Second, social media made it possible for anyone, like Keith for example, to express views on platforms that were as accessible as traditional media. And it made it possible for followers to support each other and bring in more. Gill went viral. Third, thanks to a new app with no fees, buying and selling stock and even complicated securities like puts and calls (options) was suddenly as easy as sending a text. And fourth, people were stuck at home. They felt stuck in an unfair world. They did not have access to complex investment securities analysis about big, complicated corporations. But they could understand Roaring Kitty, and they could understand GameStop.

And then, Roaring Kitty. People followed his recommendations because he showed them that he was using his own money, because he was an outsider and therefore more like them, because that trading app on their phones was called Robin Hood and trades were “free,” and, this is the key point, after a while, when it was clear that they were costing the Wall Street short sellers billions as their purchases made the stock go up, they were just as happy to be beating the mega-wealthy as they were to be making thousands, tens of thousands, and in Keith’s case, millions for themselves. The trading app was named Robin Hood, which sounded anti-Wall Street. These new investors came up with a new meme-able term: “stonks,” meaning “we’re doing it our own way and it is more about the fun than about making money.” Their loss is almost entirely limited to their modest investments while the short sellers risk losses one television commentator (in real-life archival footage) calls “infinity.”

Gillespe has a sure hand with a chaotic story, giving us just enough information to follow what is happening without weighing us down with the details of finance. Schuker Blum and Angelo have a sharp sense for telling detail. One of the investors is a GameStop employee (Anthony Ramos) with a bureaucratic boss. We get a glimpse of the gulf between the MBAs at headquarters sending out lists about which products have the highest profit margins (“push the loyalty card!”) and the reality of the tiny shop in the otherwise-empty mall. Other investors include a nurse and single mother (America Ferrara) and a pair of debt-ridden college students played by Talia Ryder and Myha’la. Sebastian Stan appears as Robin Hood co-founder Vladimir Tenev. He claims that they were inspired by Occupy Wall Street and his coyness about how they make money when they do not charge a transaction fee turns out to be very significant when Robin Hood’s connection to another player in this story comes out.

There’s an “Empire Strikes Back” element when the people with billions at risk start playing hardball. But Gill understands that Wall Street is overlooking the app investors the way they look the customers of GameStop and his followers, dazzled by their gains and thrilled by schadenfreude. If they had not felt that they were being treated like losers for so long, the win would not mean as much.

The superb cast includes Clancy Brown and Kate Burton as Keith’s parents and Pete Davidson as his slacker brother, whose job in the movie is to contrast and target for exposition. Nick Offerman is excellent as billionaire Ken Griffin and Seth Rogen is in top form as Gabe Plotkin, the guy whose highly leveraged bet against GameStop turns out to be a monumental mistake. In the beginning of the film, his casual entitlement in talking to a contractor who is supposed to be tearing down a house so Plotkin can have a tennis court is in sharp contrast to his unraveling as things go south. You can see the real Plotkin’s testimony here. (Don’t feel sorry for him. He’s now an owner of the Hornets.) There are a dozen clever details that give the story texture, from the recreation of the stonk memes to the coaching for the zoom testimony to a Congressional committee. (You can see Gill’s testimony here.)

It’s entertaining and thought-provoking. With any luck, it will inspire other Gills to find what the experts overlook, which is, after all, how capitalism works.

Parents should know that this film has non-stop strong and vulgar language, spoken by the characters and on the soundtrack, including the n-word. Characters drink alcohol and briefly smoke marijuana and there is a bawdy, sexualized game at a college party.

Family discussion: Who would you trust to give you investment advice? Why did so many people trust Keith?

If you like this, try: the “Eat the Rich” documentary, the book by Ben Mezrich, and “The Big Short” (Note a brief appearance by the real-life character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Jordan Belfort)

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Hearts Beat Loud

Posted on June 7, 2018 at 5:12 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some drug references and brief language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, references to drug use, scenes in a bar
Violence/ Scariness: Family and economic struggles, absent parent
Diversity Issues: Divers characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 8, 2018
Date Released to DVD: September 10, 2018

Copyright 2018 Gunpowder & Sky

Isn’t it nice that we get to go live in Brett Haley World every now and then? The gifted young writer-director of “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “Hero” always gives us characters who might be flawed, who might not be where they expected or wanted or deserved to be, but who are marvelously human and endearing. His latest is “Hearts Beat Loud,” the story of a single dad with a failing business (vinyl records) and a bright, beautiful daughter about to leave for college. It is nothing less than high praise to say these are nice people. We love spending time with them. One reason is that Haley writes roles that great actors want to play, and he creates a space for them to do their best.

An early scene is not the usual father-daughter dispute. The daughter is Sam (Kiersey Clemons), a high school senior planning to be a doctor, and she wants to study to get ready for pre-med courses about the human heart. Her father, Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman), wants to entice her away from her studies for “a jam sesh.” She is not interested. He wants them to be a band and asks her to name it. “We are not a band,” she says. “We Are Not a Band” it becomes, a Schrodinger’s Cat of a name that is both true and not true. Frank impulsively uploads Sam’s song to Spotify. Some attention to the song makes Frank think that they — maybe she — could have the chance he always dreamed of.

Is Sam a kid who had to be the grown-up in the relationship because her father never got over his dream of music? Well, maybe a little bit, but In Haley’s films, nothing is ever simple or formulaic. Sam respects and loves her dad, and even shares his love for music. She understands why he wants her to play with him. They won’t have many opportunities to do things together when she leaves. It is the prospect of her leaving that makes strengthening that bond even more important, though they both understand that having lived away from home will change everything between them, even when she comes back. There is another reason Frank wants to spend more time with Sam in the place that means the most to him, though he may not recognize it consciously at first. He gets to a point, though, where he asks: “Is there a girl? Or a boy?”

It is a girl. Sam is in love with Rose (Sasha Lane), an endearingly sweet first love. The mutual support and respect between the two girls is beautifully portrayed.

Sam has a mother who needs more support (“I’ll See You in My Dreams” star Blythe Danner) and he has a landlady (Toni Collette) who is almost a member of the family. When he tells her he can no longer pay even the discounted rent she generously allows him, she does everything she can to find a way to keep him there because she cares about him and she knows he cares about the store. She knows he cares about her, too, but she is in a relationship. And Sam has a buddy, a pot-smoking bartender played by Ted Danson (nice to see him behind a bar again).

Every performance in the film is a quiet gem. Offerman, so good at comic bombast in “Parks and Rec”is even better in a role that is not heightened but natural and understated. Frank is holding in a lot of his feelings, partly because he does not want Sam to see him worry about the store, his mother, or getting on after she leaves. But Offerman lets us see all of that and more, and he never for a moment lets us think that Frank is or thinks of himself as a loser. Clemons is a real find, radiant and completely believable as the braniac future doctor, the smokin’ singer, and the girl on the brink of first-time teenage love. Danson and Collette settle into their roles with infinite grace. The music in the film is fine. The music of the film sings straight to the heart.

Parents should know that this movie has references to pot smoking, some drinking, non-explicit teen sex, references to loss, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: What would you name your band? Did Frank make the right decision? What will happen next?

If you like this, try: “Danny Collins” and “Janie Jones”

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New from Audible: Nick Offerman Reads Mark Twain’s “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”

Posted on September 19, 2017 at 6:00 am

Nick Offerman reads one of the most beloved books by one of America’s most beloved authors for Audible, available today.  A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court pretty much invented the idea of time travel in fiction, and it has inspired dozens of adaptations.  As the title suggests, it is the story of a plainspoken American who finds himself back in the days of the knights of the round table.  I thought of it this summer because there is a very dramatic scene where the hero’s ability to predict a solar eclipse astonishes the courtiers.  There could not be a better choice for narration that Nick Offerman, whose rich tone and wry humor are perfectly suited to Twain’s prose.

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New from Audible: Comedy from Will Arnett, Weird Al Yankovic, Rob Delaney, Nick Offerman, and More!

Posted on November 11, 2016 at 7:00 am

Audible has announced a wide array of new exclusive and original comedy shows available free within the Audible Channels experience.

The Comedy Show With Will Arnett is an all-access pass to the hottest thematic comedy shows around the country. Other shows include “Bedtime Stories for Cynics Presented by Nick Offerman,” and audio series and specials featuring notable comedians including Eugene Mirman, Dan Savage, T.J. Miller, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Jim Gaffigan, Lisa Lampanelli, Rob Delaney, George Lopez, and many, many more.

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