Breathe

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including some bloody medical images
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Severe illness, medical situations with some graphic images, issue of assisted death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 20, 2017
Copyright 2017 Bleeker Street

“Plucky or pitiful?” a man asks his wife as they drive toward a grand British estate to beg for funding to provide wheelchairs for the severely disabled. They meet with a crusty old aristocrat (Diana Rigg, always a treasure) who says that normally she has no trouble turning people down but she feels she must say yes to them. And, because they are so dashed plucky, so do we.

Robin Cavendish called himself a “responaut,” a jaunty, adventurous term for a man who was completely paralyzed by polio in his 20’s. And this jaunty, adventurous, paralyzed man’s story is told, perhaps a little too lovingly, by his filmmaker son in “Breathe,” about Cavendish, who revolutionized the mobility and accessibility of the severely disabled in mid-century Britain.

But this film is less about his activism than it is about his love story. Robin (Andrew Garfield) married Diana (“The Crown”), and their unswerving devotion and determined spirits are the heart of the film.

Like “The Theory of Everything,” which it resembles, the movie opens with our hero doing something active. He races along in a car and then swings a cricket bat, trying to catch the attention of the bored beauty sitting by the tea table. Soon they are married and off to Kenya, where he is a tea broker and she goes along with him for the fun of it. They are blissfully happy until, just after she tells him she is pregnant, he becomes very ill with polio, paralyzed from the neck down, and given just three months to live.

She manages to get him back to England, where he is put in a ward with other paralyzed men. He cannot speak. He cannot move. He cannot think of any reason to see Diana or the baby or to try to live. When a priest comes by with platitudes, he manages to spit at him.

But Diana’s devotion and his restored ability to speak inspire him to insist on going home. Nothing like that has ever been tried before and the doctor in charge forbids it. Another patient bets him a fiver that he won’t last. But he does. And he works with a friend to invent a wheelchair with a respirator that gives him mobility.

First-time director Andy Serkis (the motion capture actor from “Planet of the Apes” and “Lord of the Rings”) has a disarmingly light touch. The escape from the hospital is accompanied by the kind of musical score we might expect in a heist film with more humor than tension. Plus, if there’s anything better than one Tom Hollander in a movie, it is two Tom Hollanders, utterly charming playing Diana’s affectionate but eccentric twin brothers. Most of the dialog is delivered with an understated smile, the kind of “Hullo, darling,” we used to get in movies of the 1930’s. I found that endearing. This is very much a love story, not just between Diana and Robin but between a son and his parents.

Parents should know that this film includes severe illness and paralysis, some graphic and disturbing images, some sexual references and situation, and the issue of assisted death.

Family discussion: What made Robin different from the other patients? Do you agree with his decision about when to die?

If you like this, try: “The Theory of Everything” and “The Intouchables”

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Based on a true story Illness, Medicine, and Health Care movie review Movies Movies Romance

Only the Brave

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some sexual references, language and drug material
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drugs, substance abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, many characters killed, snake bite
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 20, 2017
Copyright 2017 Sony

They literally fight fire with fire. Unlike “structure fires,” burning buildings doused with water, wildfires in non-residential areas are contained by setting a line of fire to stop them from spreading. Sometimes it does not work. “Only the Brave” is the story of the Granite Mountain hotshots, the “alpha” team of 19 Arizona firefighters who were killed in 2013. Like “The Perfect Storm,” this is a real-life story that spends three-quarters of its time making us love the characters and then heart-wrenchingly shows us how painful it was to lose them.

Josh Brolin, who has spent some real-life time as a firefighter, plays Eric, the leader of the group that, as the movie begins, is the second team, not allowed to set the fires on “the line.” “You guys are type two and we’re hotshots so why don’t you do what deucers do best, which is stay in the back and mop up our ?” sneers the leader of the alpha team. Eric and his group want very much to be certified as alphas and they train hard, the more experienced members of the team as the newcomer, Brandon (Miles Teller), good-naturedly dubbed “Donut” by the team for his zero score when quizzed on the rulebook.

“It’s not easy sharing a man with a fire,” a wife explains. The same qualities that make these men (they are all men) good at what they do can make it difficult for them to be the good husbands and fathers they strive to be.  For Brandon, the discipline and support of the team makes it possible for him to stay away from his past life of slacking and substance abuse.  But for some of the others, the intensity of the fire fighting experience is something of an addiction and it is difficult for them to go back to normal life with their families, who can never really understand what they face and what they do.

The moments of struggle are touching, as Brandon’s discovery that he is going to be a father inspires him to change his life and Eric’s wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) tries to stay close to a husband who is not ready to share what he has been through. The movie’s greatest strength is in its presentation of the music of man-talk, indirect, mock-aggressive, often crude, but always in service of the most profound commitment and loyalty.  For a moment, we get to be a part of that group of hotshots, and it is piercingly sad to lose them.

Parents should know that this is the true story of firefighters with a lot of peril and many sad deaths, some strong language, sexual references (some crude) and situations, pregnancy, drinking, and some drug use and references to substance abuse.

Family discussion: What qualities does someone have to have to be a hotshot? Why didn’t Brendan want painkillers at the hospital?

If you like this, try: “The Perfect Storm,” “Backdraft,” and “Ladder 49″

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Based on a true story Drama Movies

Goodbye Christopher Robin

C

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, some bullying, war images and brief language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence, post-traumatic stress
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 13, 2017
Copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight

This telling of the story behind the creation of some of the world’s most beloved books for children is sincere and well-intentioned but what Pooh might call a bit of a muddle. The movie is not at all clear about whose perspective it is giving us or what story it is trying to tell.

Author A.A. Milne, called Blue by his family and played by Domhnall Gleeson, was a successful playwright and humorist before the Great War, but came back badly shaken from the experience of combat and carnage. His wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) is affectionate but impatient. Neither one of them is very interested in their son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), who spends most of his time with his devoted nanny, Nou (Kelly Macdonald). Milne insists the family move to the country, where Daphne feels isolated from the parties and friends she enjoys. She goes back to London, saying she won’t return until Milne begins to write again, just as Nou has to take some time off to care for her mother. This leaves Milne alone with his son, called Billy Moon by the family, and for the first time they spend time together, playing in the woods with the child’s stuffed bear, named Winnie after the bear in the zoo. It is these days that inspire the two chapter books and two books of poems that have been read aloud to generations of children who have grown up and read them to their own children, plus, Disney movies and a television series (Disney now own the rights to the characters) and more books and toys.

And it is these days that are the best part of the film, especially when Milne’s friend, the illustrator Ernest Howard Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore) comes to visit, and we see the stories Milne and Billy Moon tell melting into the sketches that are as beloved as the writing.

The problem is the rest of the movie, which is really four movies fighting with each other, none of them very good. There is the story of a shattered veteran trying to find a way to return to civilian life and work that is meaningful to him. There is the story of a man and a boy who do not realize how much they need each other discovering a common language. There is the story of enormous success that benefits one family member but at great cost to another.  The stories lead to feelings of betrayal and bitterness when Billy Moon becomes famous, more famous than his father, and much more famous than his boarding school classmates.  And there is the story of estrangement and partial reconciliation.

It is never clear what the point of view of the movie is, or what the point of the movie is.  Is it that art can be healing and wounding at the same time?  Is it that behind tales of wonder and enchantment there can be pain and bitterness?  Fans of the Winnie the Pooh books may enjoy some of the classic biopic “ah, that’s where this part I loved came from” moments, but they do not provide any additional insight or depth to the work itself, not even an exploration of what the books have to say about childhood and whether they represent a child’s perspective or a parent’s.  Most of all, unlike Pooh, Piglet, Kanga, Roo, and Owl, these characters are not very interested or interesting.

Parents should know that this movie includes wartime violence, PTSD, marital estrangement, sad offscreen death of a parent, apparent death of a child, and social drinking.

Family discussion:  What should Blue and Daphne have done differently?  Why did Christopher want to go into the army?  Is “the great thing” finding something to be happy about?

If you like this, try: the books of A.A. Milne

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Marshall

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Allegations of rape and attempted murder, fights and beatings, gun
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 13, 2017

Copyright 2017 Open Road
“It’s a real life Bigger Thomas,” says a character describing the new case assigned to a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman). Bigger Thomas was the young black protagonist who could not escape the fundamental racism of American society in Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, accused of rape and murder. In this real-life case, a black chauffeur named Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown of “This is Us”) was accused of rape and attempted murder of his employer, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), a wealthy Connecticut socialite. Marshall, then the entire legal staff of the NAACP, was going from town to town representing black defendants, many whom “confessed” after being beaten and starved, but, Marshall insists, only those who are innocent. They do not have time or resources to devote to those who did what they are accused of.

This case is unusual because it is in the North and because it is so high-profile. It has been a front page story in the newspapers and many white families are firing their domestic employees because they are so terrified.

Connecticut may not have the overt, explicit racism of the Jim Crow laws, but in some ways that makes fighting its version of bigotry more difficult. The judge (James Cromwell) refuses Marshall the normally automatic courtesy of allowing him to represent Spell in court without being a member of the state bar association. Instead, a local lawyer named Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) must argue the case, even though he has no experience in criminal trials and is very reluctant to get involved. “That must be difficult,” Marshall tells him wryly. “To have a reputation to think of.” Marshall may sit at the counsel’s table but may not address the judge or examine witnesses. He says that not being allowed to speak is the worst blow he has had as a lawyer, worse than having to enter the courthouse by the back door.

This is an absorbing drama on many levels, working purely as an “Anatomy of a Murder”-style courtroom mystery, as a historical depiction of the roots and mechanics of social change, and as the personal story of the two young lawyers facing enormous professional and personal challenges, developing a friendship, and becoming better at what they do.

The screenplay by father and son Michael and Joseph Koskoff is forthright in addressing the complicated ethics of preparing a defense for an individual client that many not always be consistent with the larger political imperatives. It also delicately if not always sucessfully skirts the complicated problem faced by contemporary films based on real-life events: if the white character teaches the black character, it’s condescending, but if the black character teaches the white character it’s “magical Negro.” In real life, Samuel Friedman was already active in civil rights cases before the Spell case, and he was slender and athletic. But for dramatic purposes, here he is played by Josh Gad and his character only takes insurance cases. We first see him winning for an insurance company on a technicality that leaves the disabled plaintiff without any damage payment. And Marshall’s character changes very little over the course of the film. He is sophisticated, tough, smart, and confident all the way through which is great as a tribute to one of the towering figures of the 20th century, but without some kind of character arc like the one given to Friedman, the risk is that he becomes a supporting character in the movie that has his name in the title. Fortunately Boseman is intensely charismatic and a gifted actor who is able to bring a great deal to the role, and he and Gad have a strong chemistry that benefits and is benefited by director Reginald Hudlin’s gift for understanding when comedy is needed to lessen the tension. Brown is also excellent in a role far removed from the high educated and successful characters on “This is Us” and “People v. O.J.” Indeed, the entire cast is outstanding, especially Hudson, Ahna O’Reilly as a juror, and Barrett Doss as Marshall’s host and friend.

The film balances the personal, the political, and the professional lives of its heroes and is frank about the opportunism — and the opportunity — of their choices. It places it in the context of its time, as Friedman’s family in Eastern Europe is captured by the Nazis and white thugs attack both lawyers. It makes its case as effectively as Friedman and Marshall make theirs — that courage and persistence bring change and that there are good people out there who will work, with all of our help, to make it happen.

Parent should know that this story concerns a real-life trial for rape and attempted murder with sexual references and situations, themes of racism including beatings and police brutality, some strong language, domestic violence, and some strong and racist language.

Family discussion: Why did Marshall represent only innocent clients? Did Spell have a fair trial? What has improved since that time? What has not?

If you like this, try: “Separate But Equal” and “Mr. Civil Rights: Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP”

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Based on a true story Courtroom Drama movie review Movies Movies Race and Diversity

American Made

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealing, alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence including guns, explosions, plane crash, murders, corruption
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 29, 2017

Copyright 2017 Universal
Director Doug Liman is not just the man behind stylish, politically savvy, exceptionally well-constructed action films like four “Bourne” films, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and the under-appreciated “Edge of Tomorrow.” He is also the son of the late Arthur Liman, the legendary Washington lawyer who was chief counsel for the United States Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition, better known as Iran-Contra. His new film, “American Made,” is stylish, politically savvy, exceptionally well-constructed, and a smarter, more compelling take than the media on the real-life events his father helped uncover.

And he could not have chosen better than his “Edge of Tomorrow” star Tom Cruise, back from the dreary “Mummy,” and doing what he does best as the charming bad boy with a gift for flying and a need for speed, Barry Seal.

Even as the youngest pilot in TWA history, Seal is bored taking planes full of passengers back and forth to Bakersfield and Vancouver. So when a red-headed man with a beard named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) who seems to know everything about him shows up and asks if he’d like to do some flying for his country, and shows him the super-fast plane they’d let him fly, he accepts. “We’re building nations!” Schafer tells him. “All this is legal?” Seal asks for the first and last time. “If you’re doing it for the good guys,” Schafer tells him. “Just don’t get caught.” At first it is just reconnaissance, but then he starts some deliveries: cash in exchange for information. His contact is a Panamanian Colonel named Noriega. The CIA does not exactly mind. When Seal asks if a bag filled with cash in the hanger is his, Schafer smiles, “What bag?”

Word gets around about “the gringo who delivers,” and Seal is conscripted by three young, ambitious drug dealers to help them ship their product to the United States. One of them is named Pablo Escobar. Eventually, he is also delivering guns, as the CIA decides they should arm peasants to help them fight communists, though the peasants would rather sell the guns for money and, after Seal begins to bring them to the US for training in military operations, escape to live in America.

Like his antihero, Liman has great energy and panache, with a cheeky storytelling style that matches Seal, who can say (twice) “I tend to leap before I look” without an atom of ruefulness. “Do you trust me?” he asks his skeptical wife (Sarah Wright), with that Tom Cruise grin. “No!” she says, quite reasonably. So, she packs up in the middle of the night and moves with him when he tells her they have to go. He does not tell her it is because they are going to be arrested at dawn, but she gets the picture.

Seal is a cheerful rascal, but the movie shows us that he is more honest than the politicians and intelligence community. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan appear in archival footage, and Robert Farrior appears as Oliver North. Guns go back and forth from the Soviets to the PLO to the Israelis to the Contras to the drug cartel, and Seal gets paid, in cash, at almost every stop. Even after a family member is assassinated, “Godfather”-style, he “just keeps delivering that pizza.” And it is in no one’s interest to stop him. The community appreciates his business (the bank gives him his own vault), his job creation, and his generosity (there’s a Seal baseball field for the kids). Until it doesn’t work.

This is a smart, exciting, funny, and surprisingly sharp story, very much of its era, and very much of ours as well.

Parents should know that this film has extended peril and violence including guns, explosions, murders, plane crash, drugs and drug dealing, corruption, some strong language, reckless behavior, explicit sexual situations and nudity.

Family discussion: Who are the worst criminals in this story? Who, if anyone, is the hero?

If you like this, try: “Blow” and “Kill the Messenger”

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