The Party

Posted on February 15, 2018 at 11:50 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Satiric violence including punches, gun
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 16, 2018
Copyright 2018 Rhodeside Attractions

“The Party” is a short, savagely funny, black and white film from writer/director Sally Potter with an all-star cast moving at light speed through a real-time gathering that goes very quickly from a celebration to a political and emotional bloodbath.

It does start out as a party. Hostess and honoree Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) has just achieved her professional goal by being appointed to the British cabinet position overseeing health care. She is busy in the kitchen making vol au vent, barely aware of her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), who is sitting dolefully in the living room, playing jazz on old-school analog LPs.

The guests start to arrive. Janet’s oldest friend April (Patricia Clarkson) is a sharp-tongued cynic, escorted by Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), a German believer in spiritual healing who calls Western medicine “voodoo.” April continuously demeans him, explaining that they are about to break up. Martha (Cherry Jones) is Janet’s political ally, but she will soon be distracted by news from her pregnant wife Jinny (Emily Mortimer). Everyone is so distracted that they barely notice Tom (Cillian Murphy), who works in finance and arrives ahead of his wife Marianne and immediately goes to the bathroom to snort some cocaine. Also, he has a gun.

As the vol au vent burns, a daisy chain of accusation, recrimination, confession, and betrayal rocks the group and challenges their most fundamental notions of who they are as individuals, as upholders of particular political views that they consider essential parts of themselves, and as people who thought they understood their connections to each other.

It’s in stunning black and white, but we imagine the shower of virtual crimson blood from the verbal rapier thrusts and real-life punches at this most savage of celebrations. What is intended to be a small gathering of close friends to congratulate the hostess on her important new cabinet position unfolds in real time as series of attacks, revelations, betrayals, and, yes, political metaphors. Brilliantly performed by some of the greatest actors from both sides of the Atlantic with dialog that crackles like static electricity, it is directed at the high speed of a drawing room comedy but with knowing, devastating impact by Potter.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong and explicit language and many tense and unhappy confrontations. Characters drink and use drugs and threaten gun violence.

Family discussion: Is Janet a hypocrite about healthcare when she responds to Bill’s announcement? Why is it hard for Martha to respond the way Jinny wants her to? Why did Tom come to the party?

If you like this, try: Potter’s other films, including “Yes,” “Orlando,” and “The Tango Lesson”

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The Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Posted on January 24, 2018 at 2:23 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language, and some thematic elements
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Medical tests
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, zombies, guns, chases, crashes, and explosions, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 26, 2018
Date Released to DVD: April 22, 2018
Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox

These dystopian teen sagas generally run out of steam after the high concept of the first one. While this third and final chapter of “The Maze Runner” series is better than the muddled second one, it does not rise to the level of the existential drama original concept of teenage boys (and finally one girl), their memories wiped, forced to try to get through a booby-trapped maze.

Once they get out of the maze, thanks to the leadership of Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), then there’s just a “Hunger Games”/”Divergent”-style race to the center of operations for the evil and corrupt regime (sometimes involving a lab with white-coated scientists torturing people) to rescue characters we know, some who make it and some who don’t, and also rescue the whole world.

The Jeremy Bentham/Trolley Problem issue of having to decide between the greatest good for the greatest number versus saving the people you care about is raised, which is intriguing, but not in a particularly thoughtful way. It also briefly raises the intriguing issue of how you can reboot a civilization to prevent the mistakes of the past, but spends most of its time on chases, explosions, zombies, evil scientists, and, as in all movies of this genre, the idea that hot teens are all that can save us. “If there’s even the slightest chance to save him, we have to take it, no matter what the cost,” Thomas says, which sounds great, but can that really be true? Doesn’t it mean risking the lives of many to save one? You can’t count on the movie-standard running through the bullets to work every time. But we cannot expect too much from a movie where the bad guys work for a corporation called WCKD.

The action scenes are dynamic and exciting, but there are too many of them and as the film edges past two hours it all gets numbing. There isn’t much help from the grim dialogue, which has a numbing effect as well: “We started this thing together. Maybe we’ll end it that way, too.” “They can only poke the hornet’s nest do long before they get stung.” “It’s amazing what people can accomplish when their survival is at risk.” This movie plays less like their survival is at risk than that they were just trying to make it to the end.

Parents should know that this movie has extended peril and violence with many characters injured and killed and some graphic and disturbing images involving zombies, guns, chases, explosions, and medical torture, as well as some strong language.

Family discussion: Who should decide whether a few get sacrificed to save the rest? What is important about the way Thomas is different from the others? In these films, “Hunger Games,” and “Divergent,” how did well-intentioned efforts to solve past problems create bigger problems?

If you like this, try: the earlier “Maze Runner” films and “The Hunger Games”

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The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Posted on September 17, 2015 at 5:51 pm

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2015
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2015

The first Maze Runner movie had an arresting premise and a solid structure, literally and metaphorcally. Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), with his memory wiped, arrived at a mysterious facility called The Glade, populated entirely by teenage boys. It turned out to be an enormous maze that re-arranged itself every night, when horrible monsters called The Grievers came out and one sting from them caused madness.

Thomas figured out how to escape from the maze at the end of the film, but the triumph was tempered by indicators that his worst problems were just beginning and by our knowledge that there were two more books in the series by James Dasher scheduled to be made into movies. “The Scorch Trials” is the second.

This sequel is very much a transitional film, with non-stop action and not much story. It’s as though Dasher decided to throw just about every bad thing possible at Thomas and his small band of escapees from The Glade.

They are greeted warmly by a man whose first indicator of untrustworthiness is that he does not introduce himself. When asked, instead of saying his name, he says, “You can call me Janson” (Aiden Gillen). But the teenagers are so happy to have a shower, food, and real beds that they are not inclined to question the bleak, prison-like structure with high security doors. And Janson’s promise to send them to a place free of the virus and blight that wiped out most life on earth sounds so good that they believe it, especially when they see the other teenagers in the facility cheering each night as another group is selected to leave for the haven he described.

But Thomas is skeptical, and when Aris (Jacob Lofland), a boy who has been at the facility for weeks, takes him on a tour through the air ducts, they discover that instead of being brought to a wonderful new home the teens who have a genetic immunity to “the flare” disease that wiped out most humans are being taken to a medical facility to be drained of their blood for doctors working to find a cure, even at the expense of the kids’ lives. Thomas leads yet another escape, though Janson taunts him that no one can survive the Scorch, the wasteland conditions outside the bunker. Thomas and his friends, including Aris, battle sandstorms and lightning, zombies, and outlaws.

So much happens that it gets repetitive. If a major character appears trapped and you hear a bang, you can bet the bang is a last minute save from behind the bad guy. Some red shirts don’t make it and there are some twists of alliances and betrayals, but eventually it is more video game than story, raising questions that are more “how does this make sense?” than “looking forward to the answers in part three!”

Parents should know that the film has constant very intense peril and extensive violence including zombies, lethal medical procedures, guns, and explosions, suicides, some very disturbing images, many characters injured and killed, a kiss, some strong language, and teen substance abuse.

Family discussion: How is Thomas different from the other characters in the way he evaluates his options? Why did Teresa make her controversial decision?

If you like this, try: the books and the first movie in the series, the “Hunger Games” and “Divergent” movies

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Interview: Patricia Clarkson on “Learning to Drive”

Posted on September 11, 2015 at 9:53 pm

Copyright 2015 Broad Green Pictures
Copyright 2015 Broad Green Pictures

Patricia Clarkson stars as Wendy in Learning to Drive, the story of a New York writer who has to get her first driver’s license after her husband of 21 years leaves her for another woman. The license is just a symbol of all she has to do to learn how to pay more attention to what is going on around her and to become more independent. In an interview, Clarkson explained why this small story resonates so deeply. “I think it’s not unique to women. Men have to go through growth experiences too. They do, they do, we all have to. As we age we have to encounter strife and change and that’s to me what interests me about making movies, it’s to reflect the things that we as adults are really going through. I mean I love to play fantastical characters really but it’s also nice a play people who have real life problems.”  It seems that in every scene she is at a different stage, from denial to acceptance and transcendence, so I asked how she kept that all straight while filming out of sequence.  “I spent a lot of time with the script. It’s part of acting, it’s part of learning, taking the journey and so as we work on a script, actors have to do homework and we have to really do homework or we’ll be caught up short. And so I had to just kind of chart her levels of denial and rage and anger and acceptance and love and I think at the end that’s where she lands.  She’s able to love herself and other people and that’s the beauty of this journey. This is a woman who finds a better self, not a new self, a better self, a less surface self, which is a great journey for all of us to be on. More engaged, present. In this world of selfies and computers, we forget to actually be present in life, to actually take others in, to actually hear other people’s troubles, joys, to know anything. We forget to actually look right in front of us or look right beside us. That’s the beautiful metaphor of this film in that through driving she learns so much more about life. You have to pay attention, you have to look, you have to be present, you have to care. You have to be absorbed in something other than yourself.”

Clarkson herself learned how to drive without any drama.  “I was born and raised in the great city of New Orleans and my father taught me to drive at 16. I was actually a pretty good driver but as I slowly became more and more of a New Yorker, as I slowly become more and more like Wendy, my driving abilities waned. So the glorious Sir Ben Kingsley had to trust in me that I had enough abilities left over to drive him in our scenes.” Unlike a real driving instructor, he did not have a passenger-side brake.

She was especially proud of the women behind the movie. “It’s extraordinary. I would say I have many, many proud moments on this film struggling to get it made and actually the first day of shooting was an extraordinary moment. But a couple of weeks ago we had a New York premiere and I took a photo. You know a picture says more than 1000 words. In that photo is the great Katha Pollitt who wrote the essay, Sarah Kernochan who did the adaptation, Isabel Coixet our extraordinary director, Thelma Schoonmaker the great one and only, greatest living editor of all time, myself, I’m okay, and Dana Friedman, our producer, it is a remarkable moment in cinema history that these six women came together. We had great men in front of the camera, it doesn’t get any better and two remarkable young men who started a production company and this was the first film they made and they were young men which is why I call them visionary. But this particular film, to have the six women at the helm, women who were not 25, 35, none of us were even 50. That’s a beautiful moment in this industry, it’s a proud moment for this industry. It’s a moment I shall cherish for a very very very long time.”

That may be why this movie has a sex scene that is more from a woman’s perspective than we usually see in films. “Sex scenes in movie are always not what they appear but I loved the scene. I thought it was funny, true, necessary, valuable to the story. Which you don’t get all the time and it’s nice that women my age are naked on film, it’s nice to see young women naked on film. But we have to continue to see women of all ages naked on film. We certainly see men of all ages naked on film.” She also spoke about the brief nudity in a flashback domestic scene with Wendy and her husband. “We know each other; it’s just a moment but it’s what she reflects on, which is what we do reflect on. When we miss someone we reflect often on the most ordinary.”

Clarkson also loved the cross-cultural friendship Wendy has with her Sikh driving instructor, an immigrant from India played by Sir Ben Kingsley. “At the end of the day what I honor most about this film is that we are obviously from different cultures, Sir Ben and I, our characters Wendy and Darwan, but at the end of the day we are just two people and we are grown-ups. It is about how true friendship can have a profound effect and change on one’s life. I hold most high and most dear those relationships. I have exquisite friends and I must say at the end of the day when I’m feeling blue or feeling fraught or feeling less, then I remember the remarkable and extraordinary friendships that I have. And this film is I think at the end of the day an ode to friendship, to adult friendships. And we can get a lot out of a relationship that is chaste, that is that is pure and that’s a nice thing. Purity is a beautiful quality. So having a pure friendship is a beautiful thing, when it’s not all muddled.”

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