12 Strong

Posted on January 18, 2018 at 11:22 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for war violence and language throughout
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Portrayal of misogynistic regime
Violence/ Scariness: Extended wartime violence, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 19, 2018

Copyright 2017 Warner Brothers
If it was fiction, you’d dismiss it as too far-fetched. But this recently declassified military mission following 9/11, with a tiny Special Forces group, just twelve men, led by an officer who had never been in combat, were sent to Afghanistan to take out a Taliban outpost. They were vastly overmatched in terms of men and weapons. And, most improbable of all, they had to travel by horseback. Men trained to use the very latest of technology were riding the mode transportation used by knights and cowboys. These guys are the best of the best, nothing but courage, patriotism, skill, and determination all the way through. Think of them as The Clean or rather Sandy Dozen.

This film begins with a brief reminder of the terrorist attacks leading up to the airplanes that flew into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. And then, as in all films of men about to go into danger, we see happy families, just enough to make sure we care about these loving husbands and fathers. We know that Captain Nelson (Chris Hemsworth, back to being mortal after “Thor: Ragnarok” but no less heroic) is not going to be able to keep his promise to pick that adorable ladybug-drawing daughter after school, and pretty soon he knows it, too.

There are wives who bravely say that this is what they signed up for. One says, “Some wives cry; I clean,” as she scrubs her oven. Another looks at her husband grimly, insisting he give their son the bad news himself. Nelson has to undo his plans for a desk job to go back to his team. He also has to prove himself to his commanding officer, who selects him over five other teams because he seems to have the best understanding of the challenges, especially the weather that will make their mission impossible if they don’t complete it before winter makes the route impassable.

And then the twelve are on their way with just the briefest and sketchiest debrief from a CIA officer. There are three warlords in the area who all oppose the Taliban but otherwise are in mortal combat with each other. One of the challenges for the American team will be to keep that fragile alliance in place as they need the support of all of them to reach the outpost, liberating several locations along the way.

It is hard to follow at times. There are so many “the whole world depends on this next impossible thing” moments, so much bro talk, so much tech talk, so many reminders of how many days “in country,” so many similar-looking explosions and shoot-outs. But Hemsworth, Shannon, and Pena create real, relatable and yet heroic characters, and seeing them ride into battle on horseback against daunting odds is genuinely moving and inspiring. The most intriguing part is the developing relationship between Nelson and his local counterpart, General Dostum (Navid Negahban). The outcome revealed before the credits is appropriately both reassuring and disturbing.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive wartime peril and violence including guns and explosions with many characters injured and killed, some grisly and disturbing images, references to child abuse, strong language, and some sexual references.

Family discussion: What is the difference between a soldier, a warrior, and a warlord? How did Nelson and Dostum learn to trust one another? What can we tell about the man by the way they said goodbye to their families?

If you like this, try: the book by Doug Stanton and the movies “Act of Valor,” “Lone Survivor” and “Charlie Wilson’s War”

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Interview: Charlie Plummer on “All the Money in the World”

Posted on January 4, 2018 at 4:10 pm

Copyright 2017 TriStar
Charlie Plummer stars in “All the Money in the World” as John Paul Getty III, grandson and namesake of the wealthiest man in the world. When Getty III was kidnapped at age 16 in 1973, his grandfather refused to pay the $7 million ransom. In an interview, Plummer (no relation to Christopher Plummer, who plays the flinty oil baron), talked about the challenges of the role and what he learned from director Ridley Scott.

For a story like this, based on a real-life incident, is your performance based exclusively on the script or do you do outside research about the people and the times?

I did do outside research. I don’t have a lot of experience and this is certainly the first time I played a character who was at all based on a real person. So I did take full advantage of that and I did do as much research as I could. But I also didn’t want to overwhelm myself with research because I wanted to do my own interpretation. I thought if I was going to do it, it would really have to come from who I am as well. I then spoke to Ridley to really see his vision of the character and who this person was at this time in his movie; that was also really important for me. So I think all of those components really made up what my performance ended up being like.

Your character is somebody has had great wealth around him but he himself has not been super privileged because his grandfather would not give his mother any money. How did that affect him?

That was one thing that I think really sparked my interest. This guy who has this status, this name and what that means and when he walks into a room he knows that all people are talking about him is if he’s this person but then he goes home and he doesn’t have all of that wealth. By the end of the film you see who he is when he does have all this wealth.

What’s interesting for me is at the start of the film where he doesn’t have it, though. He just has the name, the status. And so there is that emptiness inside of him. He had a certain emptiness in him and one that couldn’t be filled by status or wealth . John Paul Getty III got into this argument with a friend of his, actually the night he got kidnapped. He was drunk and they were fighting and the friend said “You’d be nothing without your name. No one would even care about you.” I think that that really does weigh on him in terms of who he is as a young person. At that age he was surrounded by these accomplished people, whether they were in politics or the arts, and really the reason why he was in those rooms was because of his name.

What was it like to inhabit the 70’s and what surprised you about that era?

Ridley is such a master for so many reasons and he had such a point of view on this decade and on this time. Janty Yates who did the costumes for the film and Ferdinando Merolla did the hair — all of that makes it a lot easier to slip into who that character was at that time. Janty was really the first person other than Ridley that I got to share ideas about the character with and so that was such an important relationship throughout. When that’s the first thing you see, it does have an effect on how the audience receives him and what they think his life has been like and so it definitely had an effect on my whole process. When you’re walking around and you see all the cars and the clothing and and it it all so iconic and it’s right at your fingertips — it really helped me slip into what that character was going through. At the end of the day it is not about the era. It is really is just about these people and what’s going on internally for them and that is certainly what it was for me.

What did you learn from your director, Ridley Scott?

I learned so much from him. Just being around him you learn so much and that was certainly the case for me getting to just be on set with him you and seeing how he speaks with people and how he works in his own environment I think was such a learning experience. Every time I see him he always asks what I’m doing and what I’m working on next. The way he is so interested in everyone and everything and the way that at age 80 how he’s still working as much as he is. I just saw him and immediately he started talking about the next thing he’s doing. For a young person especially that is such an important lesson to always keep moving forward and always keep fighting to learn and grow. He is such a good example of that.

Originally published in HuffPost

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The Post

Posted on December 25, 2017 at 11:01 pm

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
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 this film 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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I, Tonya

Posted on December 7, 2017 at 8:12 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity
Profanity: Extensive very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Some violence including attack
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 8, 2017

Copyright 2017 Neon
In one of “I, Tonya’s” most striking scenes, Margo Robbie as figure skating star Tonya Harding looks at herself in the mirror after applying her make-up for a competition. It is stark, garish, clown-like, and scary, less like beauty than like warpaint. Harding is trying to hide the heartbreak of her life when she is on the one place where everything is pretty and perfect, but in trying to make herself look pretty and perfect she has created a monster. That scene exemplifies the movie’s themes about public and private personas and the way they can crash into each other with terrible destructive force.

In 1994, Nancy Kerrigan, one of Harding’s rivals, was attacked by a Shane Stant (Ricky Russert), who had been hired by two of history’s most incompetent criminals, Harding’s estranged husband, Jeff Gilhooly (Sebastian Stan) and his dimwitted friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser). Though Harding was not involved or even aware of this plan, news reports of the era emphasized the contrast between ice princess Kerrigan, and blue-collar Harding. In reality, Kerrigan was also from a modest background, but her appearance and routines were more elegant and graceful, while Harding adopted a bad girl persona, calling herself the “Charles Barkley of figure skating.” The problem is that figure skating is not just about skill and technique. It is about the show, and it is about the persona. Judges and fans expect more than athletic achievement.
They expect elegance and grace on and off the rink. They want the ice princess.

Allison Janney is incendiary as Harding’s abusive mother, constantly pushing her and demeaning her, often hitting her, too. With no affection or approval at home, she was drawn to Gilhooly, the first male to pay any attention to her, and when he became abusive, that seemed normal, too.
Director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and screenwriter Steven Rogers (“Stepmom,” “Love the Coopers”), promise us at the beginning a story “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews,” and they deliver. Like “The Disaster Artist,” this film takes us behind the scenes of a real-life catastrophe based on dreams of stardom, hopeless miscalculation about their own abilities, and a distorted, media-fueled idea of reality. We may watch expecting to laugh and feel superior, but the prismatic approach, with characters speaking to us to explain their perspectives (or try to put the blame on each other) is surprisingly sympathetic, grounded, and insightful.

Parents should know that this film includes constant very strong and crude language, sexual references and situations, nudity, drinking, drugs, smoking, and violence, including domestic abuse.

Family discussion: Who was responsible for attacking Nancy Kerrigan? Why does the movie call itself “irony-free?” Do you agree that Americans “want someone to hate?”

If you like this, try: “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom” and “Tonya Harding: Anything to Win”

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