About My Father

Posted on May 25, 2023 at 5:32 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for Language, suggestive material, partial nudity
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, references to drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, pet killed and eaten
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: May 26, 2023
Date Released to DVD: July 31, 2023

Copyright Lionsgate 2023
Sebastian Maniscalco’s stand-up routines about his immigrant father are very funny. The transition to a narrative feature for “About My Father” is mildly amusing, with all of the highlights in the trailer. What you have not seen already seems like filler, mostly exposition and a tacked on “meet the parents,” “aren’t our cultural differences a hoot” overlay.

Sebastian Maniscalco plays…Sebastian Maniscalco. That is his character’s name, and Robert De Niro plays Sebastian’s real-life father, Salvo, who left Sicily as a young man to emigrate to America, served in the US Army in Vietnam, and then established a successful hair salon in Chicago. In this film, Sebastian is not a performer but manager of a boutique hotel. Like most first-generation Americans, he has tried to separate himself from his heritage, and he is very much in love with a woman who is from a very different background.

Ellie is a sunny-tempered artist who grew up in a wealthy WASP family with several homes. She is played by Leslie Bibb, doing her best with her dazzling smile, trying to give some substance to a low-level manic pixie dream girl whose job is to be upbeat and supportive.

Ellie’s mother is Tigger (Kim Catrall), a US Senator. Her father, Bill (David Rasche) owns an international hotel company. She has two brothers. The first is heir apparent Lucky, nicknamed because he is the 13th generation to carry the ancestral name. He is played by Anders Holm, nailing the entitled frat boy. Then there’s Doug (Brett Dier), who is all about chakras and standing bells and healing meditations. If this is sounding a bit like “Wedding Crashers” and “Annie Hall” but not as good, you’ve got the idea.

Bill and Tigger are vaguely supportive of all three children, not usual for high-performing parents or for the kind of conflicts that hold an audience’s interest, but okay, this is not “Meet the Parents.”

When Ellie’s parents invite Sebastian for the first time to the annual 4th of July gathering, he is delighted, planning to propose to her. But Salvo makes him feel guilty — and won’t turn over the family ring if Sebastian leaves him alone. So, with a lot of trepidation, Sebastian brings Salvo along. And of course this leads to a lot of hijinks of various kinds, but they’re pretty low-level jinks, if you know what I mean. Salvo embarrasses Sebastian. Then Sebastian embarrasses himself. Then Salvo ingratiates himself. Then Salvo horrifies Tigger. Sebastian is not happy about any of this. It is sit-com-ish without much imagination in the sits or laughs in the com. There are a few good lines and it is funny to see how Sebastian and Salvo put on cologne every night before bed.

Stand-ups are often natural actors. When they tell stories on stage they act out all the parts. Maniscalco is especially good at this, with great physicality to assist in creating characters and showing reactions. But as an actor, he is more subdued and older than the character is written to be. The boy/girl and parent issues would be more fitting for someone in their 20s or 30s than for someone who is 50. A few guest appearances by TV stars and some wisecracks do little to brighten the various sit-com style incidents. We should not feel that the actors had more fun than the audience. Wait for streaming.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language, comic nudity (bare tush), some sexual references, social drinking and references to drug use, the killing of a family pet, and some tense family confrontations.

Family discussion: What do Sebastian and Ellie have in common? Have you ever been embarrassed by your parents or children?

If you like this, try: Maniscalco’s stand-up and “Meet the Parents”

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Amsterdam

Posted on October 6, 2022 at 5:20 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for brief violence and bloody images
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Very graphic bloody images, wartime violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 7, 2022
Date Released to DVD: December 5, 2022

Copyright 2022 20th Century
David O. Russell’s film, “Amsterdam” has a powerhouse cast, a wisp of a true story and a wildly uneven and overly complicated script. The results are, therefore, messy and mixed. As a fellow movie-goer told me, watching the movie was like bobbing for apples. Much of the time we felt like we were under water and then all of a sudden something good would pop up.

Amsterdam (the city) appears in the film only in a brief happy moment in the lives of the three main characters, who have sworn to be best friends and protect each other. They are two WWI veterans, Harold Woodman (John David Washington), who would become a lawyer, Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), already a doctor, and Valerie (Margot Robbie), a nurse who cared for them in a French hospital for wounded soldiers. Harold is Black and Burt is half Jewish and lower class than his high society wife, and bigotry is evident throughout the story. Indeed, as we see in a flashback, they met when Black US soldiers in France objected to their racist white officers — they were not even allowed to wear the uniform of their country — and Burt was assigned by the kind, honorable General Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.) to treat the Black soldiers with honor and dignity.

In the movie’s present setting of 1933 New York, both Burt and Harold are devoting their lives to helping other wounded veterans. They themselves bear the scars of combat and Burt has a glass eye due to his injuries (second movie with Bale losing a glass eye after “The Big Short”). He is also experimenting with pain medication for his patients and taking a lot of it himself. The men are working on a gala dinner honoring their fellow veterans that will become of increasing importance.

Every role, even the smallest, is superbly cast, with Robbie as the high-spirited, dada-esque artist, Zoe Saldana as a sympathetic nurse passing for “Portuguese,” Beth Grant as a bouillabaisse-making devoted wife, Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola as police detectives, significantly one also a wounded vet and one who did not serve, Timothy Olyphant, almost unrecognizable in a role I won’t spoil, and Michael Shannon and Mike Myers — yes, that Mike Myers) as bird-loving “benefactors” who may not be completely forthcoming about their real interests. Every performance is outstanding, but so much so that they begin to throw the storyline out of whack. In films like “Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle,” and “Flirting with Disaster,” Russell made the mixture of bittersweet situations and some leavening humor work to reveal the characters and move the story. Here it just gets distracting.

The daughter of General Meekins (Taylor Swift, yes, that Taylor Swift), asks Harold and Burt for help. Her father died on a ship returning from Europe, and she suspects that he may have been murdered. The efforts to investigate result in another murder, with Burt and Harold as the prime suspects. This leads to a series of encounters, revelations, and twists that I will not spoil. Also, I’m not sure I understood all of them.

I did understand the last 20 minutes. Everyone understood the last 20 minutes, thoug. I’m pretty sure you didn’t even have to watch the movie to understand the point. Russell bangs on his message with a sledgehammer, and then, just in case he wasn’t banging hard enough, he shows us archival footage of the person who inspired the character played by Robert De Niro. Even those sympathetic to the points he is trying to make about the parallels between the political conflicts of the pre-WWII era and today will find it overly didactic. Too much water, not enough apples.

Parents should know that this film includes bloody, graphic images of an autopsy and wartime violence, bigotry, alcohol and drug use (portrayed as comic in some instances), and brief strong language.

Family discussion: What parallels is Russell drawing to the politics of 2022? Why is the movie called “Amsterdam?” Read up on General Smedley Butler and the “Business Plot.”

If you like this, try: “Keeper of the Flame” and “State of the Union,” both starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy

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The War With Grandpa

Posted on October 8, 2020 at 3:15 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for PG some thematic elements, rude humor, language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended cartoon-style comic peril and mayhem, some injuries, mourning, funeral scene
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 9, 2020
Copyright 101 Studios 2020

Sigh.

Robert Kimmel’s 1984 book, The War With Grandpa, is a lot of fun and also thoughtful about family, resolving conflicts, and war. The movie has tons of star power but it is just dumb slapstick, with escalating cartoon-style mayhem. It’s been on the shelf since it was originally scheduled for release in 2017 and even by pandemic shut-in standards it is barely watchable.

Which is not to say that some children won’t be amused by it because, see above re slapstick and mayhem. For the rest of us, it’s just sad and exhausting seeing Robert De Niro, yes that Robert De Niro, dropping his pants and flashing his son-in-law, plus sticking his hands down the pants of a dead body at a funeral. Then there’s Uma Thurman doing a spit-take and running around in a Christmas elf costume, plus a lot of predictable jokes about old people (they don’t understand technology! Hilarious!), married people (Dad feels diminished by his job, his father-in-law, and sometimes his wife), teenagers (they like to make out!), middle schoolers (puberty humor! bullies!), and little kids (precocious witticisms!).

The story is in the title. De Niro plays Grandpa, still mourning his late wife and not doing so well living at home since he can no longer drive. After he gets frustrated at the grocery store because they’ve switched to all self-checkout and, say it with me, old people don’t understand technology, he gets into a fight with the security guard. And so his daughter Sally (Uma Thurman) says he has to move in with her and her family, including her architect husband Arthur (Rob Riggle), teenage daughter who is always running off to “study” with her boyfriend (Laura Marano), middle school son Peter (Oakes Fegley of “Pete’s Dragon”), and youngest daughter Jenny (Poppy Gagnon).

Pete gets moved to the attic so Grandpa can have his room, and Pete is not happy. And so he slips a note under his old bedroom’s door signed “Secret Warrior.” It is not much of a secret, though, since he says he wants his room back. It is a declaration of war. At first, Grandpa doesn’t take it too seriously. After all, Pete is just a kid and he does feel back about taking the room. But then there is one prank too many and someone who knows what a real war is (“It’s not like a video game”) is in. But first, some rules of engagement. No collateral damage (no one else in the family can be affected, like that’s possible) and no tattling.

Each party is advised by friends. Pete has his pals from school and Grandpa has his buddies Jerry (Christopher Walken) and Danny (Cheech Marin), and later a pretty store clerk (Jane Seymour). But none of it really makes any sense and some elements are unnecessarily sour. If Arthur is an architect, can’t he figure out a better way to use the space than sticking Pete in a rat and bat-infested attic? In fact, Arthur serves no role whatsoever in the story except to try to prove that he deserves some respect, which would be nice if he actually earned some. How can this family afford a crazily over-the-top Christmas-themed birthday party for a child including artificial snow? Even if it made sense for Grandpa to agree to a war, why would he let Pete pick the battleground for the supposed winner-take-all? It never gets past the idea that there is just something uncomfortable about a kid picking on his sad grandfather this mean-spirited and selfish way, while insisting that he loves him and expecting us to like him.

That’s a lot more thought than this movie deserves. Even the A-list cast can’t win the war with a dumbed-down script, awkwardly staged stunts, and lackluster direction.

Parents should know that this movie includes comic peril and mayhem with a lot of pratfalls and injuries but no one seriously hurt. There is also some potty humor, along with references to puberty, a school bully, crotch hits, teen making out sessions, some schoolyard language, and implied nudity.

Family discussion: Why did Pete declare war? Why did Ed agree? Were those the right rules of engagement? What would you advise that family?

If you like this, try: the book by Robert Kimmel Smith, “Spy Kids,” “How to Eat Fried Worms,” and the various versions of “Freaky Friday”

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Joker

Posted on October 3, 2019 at 12:42 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Prescription drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic bloody violence, murders, stabbing, guns, assaults
Diversity Issues: Some insults
Date Released to Theaters: October 4, 2019
Date Released to DVD: January 6, 2020

Copyright 2019 Warner Brothers
Joker” tries hard to be dark, disturbing, and meaningful. It is dark, but it is sour, superficial and gross, the darkness not especially significant and therefore not especially meaningful. Its call-outs to past and current real-life events and other movies are not illuminating in any way; they just seem like training wheels borrowed to keep the movie from falling over. And we’re stuck once again with the tired trope of disability leading to criminality.

One of the highest compliments an actor can give another actor is “committed.” And for sure Joaquin Phoenix is fully committed to the role of Arthur Fleck, a clown for hire and would-be stand-up comic who experiences repeated abuse and betrayal. After he is fired, learns a family secret, and then is cut off from counseling and medications, he spins out of control.

This is a non-canonical version of the origins of Joker, not connected to any of the previous depictions of the character in comics, movies, or television. In this version, Gotham resembles the New York City of the 70’s, when the city was teetering on financial insolvency. As it opens, they are in the midst of a garbage strike. Piles of trash are everywhere and large rats are running through the streets. Arthur is twirling an Everything Must Go sign in front of a store that is going out of business. Some boys grab the sign and, when he chases after them into an alley, they beat him with the sign until it shatters. Later, Arthur’s boss takes the cost of the sign out of his pay. Yeah, this movie is not subtle. The boys beat Arthur with the sign and the movie beats us with the metaphors.

Arthur lives in a squalid apartment building with his frail mother (Frances Conroy), and he cares for her tenderly. bringing her food, giving her baths, and sharing their favorite television shows including a late night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (a badly miscast Robert De Niro). Arthur dreams of being on the show.

Arthur’s mother always told him his purpose in life was to make people happy. And he tries hard. He makes funny faces to get a toddler to laugh on a bus, but the child’s mother snaps at him. He gets fired for bringing a gun to the hospital where he is entertaining sick kids. He struggles with mental illness that undermines his grip on reality and a nervous condition that causes grotesque involuntary laughter when he is under stress. He has a little laminated card he hands out to explain this unsettling symptom to bystanders.

His fragile support system unravels. He loses his job. The city cannot afford a social safety net, so even the haphazard counseling he has been getting is cut off and he no longer has access to the seven different psychotropic medications. He loses his job. He feels betrayed by his mother. And then, on the subway, he is confronted by three arrogant finance bros.

Crossing the line to breaking the law feels liberating to Arthur and to similarly resentful protesters throughout Gotham, leading to some expressions of concern that this portrayal itself could inspire copycats. It does draw from current conflicts in the news to attempt a gravitas that this film cannot sustain, leaving only sensation and a bitter sense of entitlement in those who consider themselves victims. It teeters on the brink of telling us that if only we were all nicer to (listening to, having sex with) people who weird us out, they wouldn’t be weird anymore. Director Todd Phillips’ bitter comments recently about how it’s no fun to be funny now because you have to be so sensitive all the time underscore the resentment on display here.

Similarly, it litters the film with pieces (I’m sure they would call it homage, but it’s just stealing) from two Martin Scorsese classics, “Taxi Driver” (the descent into madness triggered by the despair and corruption around him) and “The King of Comedy” (the descent into madness triggered by a distorted obsession with acceptance and celebrity). Significantly, in case we miss the unmissable point, the star of those two movies, Robert De Niro, plays someone very much like the talk show host his “King of Comedy” character was obsessed with. As we saw in “Comedian,” De Niro, for all his immeasurable gifts, is not able to convey the oily geniality or vocal rhythms of a stand-up comedian, even if this one were far better written.

This movie wants to be daring and provocative but it is just depressing, less for the degrading, sordid storyline than for the failure of all of the time and effort and money that went into making it to produce anything worthwhile.

Parents should know that this film includes very disturbing and graphic images, peril and violence, mental illness, murders, stabbing, guns, strong language, sexual images

Family discussion: Could anyone have helped Arthur? What stories in the news or history or other movies inspired some of the plot developments? How does this Joker compare to other depictions of the character?

If you like this, try: Tim Burton’s “Batman” and “King of Comedy” and “Taxi Driver”

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The Comedian

Posted on February 2, 2017 at 5:32 pm

Copyright 2016 Sony Pictures Classics
Copyright 2016 Sony Pictures Classics

They say all clowns want to play Hamlet, and often they turn out to be outstanding dramatic actors, from Mickey Rooney to Robin Williams. But it does not always work the other way. Dramatic performers want to be clowns. Robert De Niro is one of the greatest actors in the world and he can be very funny (“Analyze This,” “Midnight Run,” “Silver Linings Playbook”). He does not always choose the best material (“Dirty Grandpa”), but like his fellow Oscar winners Tom Hanks and Sally Field, that doesn’t mean he can play the part of a stand-up comic. It is generally understood that stand-up comedy is the most difficult and terrifying of all in show business professions because they go out on stage with nothing but their ideas and a microphone — no script, no other performers, no sets, no music — just the comic and his or her ideas, and an audience expecting to be amused. Comic and comedy writer Dylan Brody told me that stand-up comics who want to be on television have to be able to deliver four laughs a minute.

In “The Comedian,” De Niro plays Jackie, an “insult comic,” whose humor is based on his ability to fire off quick, punchy, provocative responses to the people around him, to be outrageous by saying what people might think but would never admit to. Jackie was once the star of a popular “Honeymooners”-style television show and is constantly annoyed when fans of the show ask him to repeat his character’s catch phrase.

The problem is that Jackie is never as funny as the movie thinks he is and needs him to be. De Niro makes us see Jackie’s frustration at constantly being confronted with having his most popular work over long ago and not something he was especially proud of even at the time. (See Ricky Gervais in “Extras” for a much better exploration of this theme.) But when it gets to the crucial moments of his performances, he never gets the rhythm of the jokes or shows us the mental imperatives that keep comedians punching. Cloris Leachman (another Oscar winner) does better as a 95-year-old stand-up being “honored” with a Friar’s Club roast. Though she is old and frail, we see in her the fearlessness that made it possible for her to do the one thing tougher than being a make stand-up; being a female stand-up. Her character, a Phyllis Diller/Joan Rivers type, still has the reflexes and gutsiness of someone who has spent decades, going back to the 50’s, relying only on her wit, proving herself in front of audiences. And the cast includes real stand-ups, like Billy Crystal and Hannibal Buress, who remind us what comedians really sound like.

Jackie gets into trouble punching a heckler — not because he insults him but because he appropriates Jackie’s routine for his web series. He is sentenced to 30 days in jail plus community service and it is at the homeless shelter where he is putting in his hours that he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann), also working off an assault charge (her ex and his new girlfriend). Not the greatest of meet-cutes. He brings her to his niece’s wedding where he makes a toast that is profane and insulting but everyone, including Harmony and the bride, thinks it is hilarious (except for his sister-in-law, a terrifically furious Patti LuPone). He then does stand-up at a nursing home where once again, he is profane and insulting but everyone thinks it is hilarious (except for Harmony’s father, a what-is-he-doing-in-this-movie Harvey Keitel). The greatest acting challenge in this movie is pretending Jackie is funny.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong and crude language with insulting epithets, bodily function and sexual humor, intentionally offensive and provocative jokes, sexual situation, references to drug overdose, assaults, and discussion of a sad death of a child.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Jackie enjoy hearing from fans of his television show? Was Jackie funny? Why?

If you like this, try: “Sleepwalk With Me,” “Punchline,” “Mr. Saturday Night”

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Comedy Drama
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