King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some suggestive content and brief strong language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, hallucinogen
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and intense fantasy and human peril and violence, swords, arrows, explosions, torture, fights, characters injured and killed, monsters, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: May 12, 2017
Date Released to DVD: August 7, 2017

Copyright 2017 Warner Brothers
Copyright 2017 Warner Brothers
Director Guy Ritchie pretty much makes the same movie every time. Even when it is set in Victorian England (“Sherlock Holmes” with Robert Downey, Jr.) or Cold War-era Europe (“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.“), or based on a classic book (“Sherlock” again) or a remake of an Italian comedy (“Swept Away”), it’s really pretty much about corkscrew story-telling with tricked-up juxtapositions of quick cuts and slow motion, and flashbacks and side-cuts for emphasis and illumination. The characters are a motley crew of cheeky lower-class rapscallions taking on the rich and powerful. They range from wildly proficient to borderline incompetent, often damaged but usually pretty good with a quip, assuming you can understand the argot, and with their own kind of honor.

So, why not take that formula and set it in the Middle Ages, featuring some of the most enduring characters in the Western canon? What’s that, you say? Because it’s already been done by Monty Python? But they were using coconuts for horse clop clop, and we have all this lovely lolly for computers and explosions and fight scenes, that’s why! This begins with a riderless horse running from an exploding building and goes on to include a sort of three-headed mermaid octopus, a gigantic snake, and a therapeutic iowaska-style trip. Plus, of course, that sword gets pulled from the stone.

And that is how we come to have the ponderously, if generically, titled “King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword,” pretty far from the essential elements of the Arthurian legend, literally two pie slices short of a round table and no Guinevere or Galahad in sight, but per the title we do get a lot of Excalibur the sword and a bit of Arthur’s dad Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), plus, as noted, a lot of magic and fights and explosions, plus a very cool monster, all of which are a good bit of fun.

As the story begins, the longtime pact between men and mage (magicians) is coming to an end. Uther is King, but his brother Vortigern (Jude Law, lounging menacingly in what looks like disappated British rock star garb) is so jealous that he will destroy what he loves most to get the throne, unleashing the power of the mage, which in this case includes rampaging giant elephants.

Soon Uther and the queen are dead and young Arthur is sent off in a boat, ending up in a brothel, where we see him grow up in a kaleidoscopic flurry of images that show us that he is (1) very buff (ultimately ending up as Charlie Hunnam), (2) very canny at collecting coins, (3) learning how to fight, and (4) very loyal to his friends, including the prostitutes who raised him.

Arthur’s uncle has become king. He rules with fear, which he considers not a necessary evil but the primary benefit of his position. He says it is intoxicating, that it “takes you completely.” In video game fashion, he can only assume total power if he is able to prevent Uther’s true heir from touching Excalibur to some sort of altar and completes the building of a tower. To find and kill Uther’s son, he requires every man of the right age to try to pull the sword. Thus, Arthur is revealed, though he says and possibly means that he never wanted power.

With the help of his rag tag friends from his days on the street and a mysterious mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), Arthur takes on the king and his army of Blackleg soldiers. But this is exactly the problem; the one thing the audience must have in a fight is a good sense of the stakes and challenges. With magic on Arthur’s side, we never know what is really possible. And psychobabble about his not being able to access the full power of the sword until he is willing to confront his painful memories just sounds silly, in part because Hunnam, a true Ritchie not-so-anti-hero, never seems vulnerable enough to need any additional soul-searching.

It is kinetic, fast, and fun to watch, though the rumored prospect of five more in a projected series has me wishing for a mage to make it stop.

Parents should know that this film includes extended fantasy/action peril and violence, with explosions, swords, fights, arrows, torture, and monsters. Characters are injured and killed, including beloved parents, children, and spouses. There are scenes in a brothel, sexual references, and characters use some strong language, alcohol, and drugs.

Family discussion: Why does Arthur say he never had any desire for power? How do we know when is it time to face painful memories?

If you like this, try: “Excalibur” and “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels”

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Action/Adventure Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Epic/Historical Fantasy Remake

The Promise

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material including war atrocities, violence and disturbing images, and some sexuality
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and prolonged peril and violence including war and genocide, some graphic and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, suicide, execution
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 21, 2017
Date Released to DVD: July 17, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B0719XBL75
Copyright Open Road Films 2017
Copyright Open Road Films 2017

The massacre was so monumental, the attempt to wipe out an entire culture and ethnicity so savage, that a new word had to be invented to describe it. The word was “genocide,” and while it would be applied many times over the course of the 20th century, it was created to describe the murder of 1.6 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) during the first World War. It is difficult to acknowledge that “The Promise,” a love story set during this period is particularly timely, released the week of the annual observance of the annual day of remembrence and the week of a troubling referendum extending the powers of the current leader.

Writer/director Terry George, served time in prison during the time of The Troubles in Northern Ireland and has devoted his life to telling stories of courage in times of the direst periods of unrest and slaughter, including the Oscar-nominated “Hotel Rwanda” and “In the Name of the Father.” With “The Promise,” he tells an epic story of love and loss in wartime, with Oscar Isaac, channelling Yuri Azhivago as soulful Mikael Pogosian, a young Armenian medical student, Christian Bale as determined American journalist Chris Myers, and Charlotte LeBon (“The Walk”), lovely and stirring as Ana, an Armenian artist and governess and the woman they both love.

As it begins, Mikael has agreed to marry a girl in his village in exchange for a dowry that will pay for medical school in Constantinople (Istanbul), where he stays with his uncle’s family, including Ana, governance to his young cousins. In these early scenes, both in the village and the city, George immerses us in an ambiance of sophistication, culture, tolerance, and prosperity. Christians and Muslims, Turks and Armenians, mostly treat each other with respect and easy comfort, even affection.

But that changes quickly as World War I begins. The Ottoman Empire joins the Germans and begins ethnic cleansing, arresting and deporting the intellectuals, forcing able-bodied men into military service or slave labor, throwing everyone else out of their homes and sometimes outright murder. Mikael’s medical exemption from military service is revoked. He is sent to a labor camp but escapes and returns home to find everyone he knows in danger. Although he is by now very much in love with Ana, he goes through with the promised marriage. Meanwhile, Chris is trying to get the story out to the rest of the world and Ana is trying to protect and help her people. All three are swept up in the tumultuous events as people around them show cruelty they could never have imagined possible.

As devastating as the historic events of the film are, the most powerful moments for today’s audiences are the ones that evoke our current conflicts. The treatment of refugees, including an extraordinary rescue effort from France, is in sharp contrast to news footage of today’s refugees, stuck for years, even decades, in perilous limbo before they can find new home, underscored by a reference to the temporary destination for the Armenians evicted from their villages — Aleppo.

Parents should know that this film concerns war and genocide, with extended peril and violence and some graphic and disturbing images. Characters are injured and killed, including an execution, and there are very sad deaths. There is some strong language.

Family discussion: What does this story tell us about today’s treatment of refugees? About how quickly a country can shift its policies on diversity and inclusion? Is survival a form of revenge?

If you like this, try: “Nahapet,” “Ararat,” and “Map of Salvation”

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Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Epic/Historical Inspired by a true story Journalism Romance War

The Lost City of Z

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, brief strong language and some nudity
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including WWI battles and attacks by indigenous people
Diversity Issues: Class, race, and culture issues a theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: April 21, 2017
Date Released to DVD: July 10, 2017

Copyright Amazon Studios 2017
Copyright Amazon Studios 2017
From the early 19th to the early 20th century, the British Empire exemplified a spirit of adventure, devotion to duty, and confidence bordering on hubris that led to extraordinary achievements like the Oxford English Dictionary and the arrogant imposition of colonialism around the world. All of that is in this true story of Percy Fawcett, an officer in the British Army whose eight trips to South America in search of ancient ruins inspired characters in books by H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan-Doyle (The Lost World) (both friends of Fawcett’s) and in movies like “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Basically, if the hero wears khakis as he slashes through the jungle, he owes something to Percy Fawcett.

Writer/director James Gray based the screenplay on the book by David Gann and the letters of Fawcett and his wife, and shaped the story to make it more accessible, turning eight trips into three and reflecting a more contemporary understanding of race and gender. That is notable in Nina Fawcett’s attempt to insist that she should accompany her husband on an expedition and in the treatment of the natives, who are portrayed with dignity and agency, and treated as such by Fawcett.

He also helps us understand the pressures of the era that helped to motivate Fawcett’s journeys. The unlimited opportunities of the uncharted jungle were especially compelling. In addition to giving him the chance to earn money for his family, a major discovery would allow him to return to England in triumph and overcome the disgrace his father had brought to the family name. We first see him outracing his fellow officers, showing us his skill and determination. When he has the opportunity to go to Bolivia to map the country’s boundaries — to protect the British business interests in South America — he does not want to leave his family but he is eager to escape the restrictions of Edwardian social class. “He’s rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors,” one character sneers.

On the mapping expedition he hears about a place where there are artifacts of a prehistoric civilization and he is determined to find it and come home in triumph. He teams up with the loyal and capable Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, unrecognizable behind a thick beard).

On his second visit, he brings along a veteran explorer, James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), who had been with Shackleton on his expedition to Antarctica, which turns out to be a very bad decision. But it is also the final proof for Fawcett that class and reputation are not determinative. On the third trip, after Fawcett’s return to military service in WWI, he brings his once-estranged son (Spider-Man Tom Holland) and reaches a new understanding and reconciliation.

Gray ably conveys the curiosity and wonder of the journeys and the passions that impel the adventurers. Pattinson’s performance is especially thoughtful and Hunnam does well, especially in an impassioned speech to the skeptics at the Royal Geographical Society and in showing us how his journeys change his views of himself and his world, perhaps inspiring us to imagine our own.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence including wartime battle scenes, sad deaths, some graphic and disturbing images, native nudity, brief strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Percy keep returning to his search? What did he learn from his experience with Murray?

If you like this, try: “The Man Who Would be King,” “The Lost World,” “Mountains of the Moon,” and the books by H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan-Doyle inspired by Fawcett’s adventures

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Based on a true story Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Epic/Historical

The Zookeeper’s Wife

A+

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Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking
Profanity: Some strong and bigoted language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime and holocaust violence involving humans and animals, characters injured and killed, rape of a young girl (off-camera), sexual abuse
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 30, 2017

Copyright Scion Films 2017
Copyright Scion Films 2017
Jessica Chastain is luminous in the real-life story of Antonina Zabinski, a Warsaw zookeeper, who, with her husband and son, saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust. Director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) brings her love of the natural world and her gift for telling stories of courage and triumph over bigotry to give us a timely reminder that the direst circumstances can inspire the greatest acts of courage and generosity. It also reminds us that there are still new stories to be discovered, even in a period of history that has inspired hundreds of films and thousands of books.

The movie opens on scenes of Edenic paradise. Antonina looks lovingly at her sleeping son — and at the baby lions sleeping beside him. She leans over and holds his foot, but it is the lion cubs she nuzzles. We then see her opening the zoo for the day, riding her bicycle through the magnificent Belle Epoque zoo, with the young camel loping along behind her, lovingly greeting each of the creatures. We will later learn that she is a refugee from Russia, and her childhood hardships left her more willing to trust animals than people. Animals trust her, too. Her skill at “whispering” even the most frightened and frightening wild thing will prove essential once Germany invades Poland.

Antonina is married to Jan (the Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh), and the zoo is in every way their home. They live on the premises, but it is more than that. There is no distinction between the rooms they live in and the rest of the zoo. Animals wander in and out of the house and Antonina feels that the animals are her treasured guests — that is the term she uses.

And then Germany invades Poland, and the zoo is destroyed. A German zookeeper, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl of “Rush” and “Captain America: Civil War”) offers to take the best of the surviving animals to his zoo in Berlin, promising to care for them and return them after the war. Later, as an officer in the German army, he returns to shoot the animals left behind. The Jews of Warsaw are moved into the Warsaw ghetto. Antonina and Jan figure out a way to smuggle some of them out of the ghetto, and soon they are living in underground cages once used to house animals. Once again, Antonina refers to them as her guests, and each night, after the patrol has gone home, she has music and serves food on elegant trays to remind them that there is still civilization in the midst of madness and kindness and courage in the midst of brutality and terror.

It would be easy to mistake the gentleness of Caro’s approach as not sufficiently harrowing to convey the horrors of the Holocaust, especially after the Oscar-winning “Son of Saul.” But that would be wrong. Caro, who made a film about sexual predation in “North Country,” understands that an unwanted touch of a hand or coming a few millimeters too close can feel soul-destroying, especially when it is misunderstood by someone whose trust and respect mean everything. She understands that a drawing, a bunny, a chance to create, a moment of sympathy can begin to heal a ravaged heart, and she presents Antonina’s story with as much grace and humanity as Antonina showed her guests.

Parents should know that this movie takes place during WWII and the Holocaust, and there are disturbing and violent images including scenes of bombing, the Warsaw uprising, and execution of Jews. A young girl is raped (off-screen) and a woman faces a sexual predator. There is some bigoted language and human and animal characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: How did Antonina’s love of animals help her in taking care of her “guests?” Why was it important to her to treat her “guests” to gracious entertainment in the evenings? What should she have said to her husband about Heck?

If you like this, try: the book by Diane Ackerman

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Based on a book Based on a true story Drama Epic/Historical Movies War

The Great Wall

B-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
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
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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3D Action/Adventure Epic/Historical Fantasy Movies
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