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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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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Blade Runner 2049

A-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and explicit peril and violence, characters injured and killed,
Date Released to Theaters: October 6, 2017

Copyright Warner Brothers 2017
I’ve got a bit of a conundrum here. As has been widely reported, the filmmakers have asked the critics to avoid spoilers (no problem, we are always careful about that), but they have done so with a very specific list of topics/characters/developments they don’t want us to reveal, so exhaustive that it leaves us with little to say beyond: the camerawork is outstanding (please, give Roger Deakins that Oscar already) and the movie is magnificently imagined, stunningly designed, thoughtful and provocative, and one of the best of the year.

I hate to admit it, but I think they’re right. I really do want you to have the same experience I did, including all of the movie’s surprises. So forgive me for being oblique, and after you’ve seen it, come back and we can discuss it in detail, all right?

In the original “Blade Runner,” based on the story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick, Harrison Ford played Deckard, a 21st century detective sent to find and terminate four “replicants,” humanoid robots created to perform physical labor but who somehow are evolving to the point where they want to be independent of human control. Replicants are so close to being human in appearance and manner (and, in the future, life is so dystopic that humans have become less feeling, less compassionate) that it is increasingly difficult to figure out who is human and what being human means. Like Deckard, K (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner, sent by Joshi, his human boss (Robin Wright), to find the older generation of replicants and terminate them. The new generation of replicants is more obedient, or at least that is the way they are programmed. “It’s my job to keep order,” she tells him. She gives him a new assignment and when he hesitates she asks, “Are you saying no?” “I wasn’t aware that was an option.” “Atta boy,” she says approvingly. K has uncovered something that Joshi believes is an extermination-level threat to humanity as what accountants call a going concern.

This film explores ideas of memory, identity, and, yes, humanity. And it does that through a detective story that is grounded in a Raymond Chandler noir world of deception and betrayal, taking place in a gorgeous, brilliantly designed dystopian future of perpetual rain where organic material is barely a memory and huge, Ozymandias-like ruins carry faint reminders of better times and grander ambitions. Most people have never seen a tree, even a dead one, and a crudely carved wooden toy is priceless. A woman creates pleasant childhood memories to be implanted so that replicants will be more stable, more empathetic, and easier to control. The trick about control, though, is that nature will rebel against it, and those who try to maintain control by sending people or replicants or anyone out to investigate and ask questions is going to find that knowledge can dissolve authority.

That’s about all I can say except to add that Gosling and Ford are outstanding and Sylvia Hoeks is a standout as a character I can’t tell you anything more about, while Jared Leto is the movie’s weak spot as another character I can’t tell you anything about. So I’ll end by saying that this is that rare sequel deserving of its original version, not because it replicates — for want of a better word — the first one, but because it pays tribute (note touches like the see-through raincoat) and then finds its own reason for being, and we are lucky enough to come along.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/action violence with graphic and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, reference to torture, drinking, smoking, some strong language, sexual references and situations, prostitutes, and nudity.

Family discussion: What elements or concerns about today’s society are the basis for this vision of the future? What rules would you make about replicants? What is the most human aspect of the replicants?

If you like this, try: the original “Blade Runner,” “Terminator 2,” “Total Recall,” “Children of Men,” and the writing of Philip K. Dick

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Rebel in the Rye

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some language including sexual references, brief violence, and smoking
Profanity: A few strong and crude words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence with disturbing images including holocaust images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 15, 2017
Copyright 2017 IFC

J.D. Salinger had three great losses and three great teachers, and “Rebel in the Rye” is the story of how those all came together to influence the author of one of the most popular and influential novels of the 20th century, The Catcher in the Rye, along with his shorter pieces, a few novellas and stories. Salinger is almost as well known for his decades of seclusion in New Hampshire as he is for his work. Reportedly, after publishing his last story in 1965, he continued to write full-time, but never showed it to anyone or allowed it to be published. It may be that the mystery is a better story than the writing.

Writer/director Danny Strong (co-creator of “Empire,” screenwriter of the “Mockingjay” films and actor in “Gilmore Girls” and “Buffy”) introduces us to Salinger before all of that happened, young, ambitious, and like Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield, a smart aleck who has left or been asked to leave a number of top schools. Nicholas Hoult (“About a Boy,” “Mad Max: Fury Road”) shows us the teenage Salinger, arrogant but insecure, especially arrogant when it came to writing and especially insecure when it came to girls. He meets Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, and they begin to date, though what makes her most attractive to him is her lineage and her admiration for his writing. And, after leaving NYU, he enrolls in Columbia, where he takes a class from the editor of Story Magazine, Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey). “There is nothing more sacred than stories,” Burnett tells the class. And he advises Salinger not to let his voice overwhelm the story, not to let his ego obstruct the emotional experience of the reader.

Burnett will be Salinger’s most important influence on the content of his stories, suggesting that Holden Caulfield deserves a novel. And O’Neill will be an influence, too, the first of the three great losses, when she leaves him to marry Charlie Chaplin.  Just as he is beginning to make progress as a writer, with his first published work in Burnett’s literary journal, Salinger joins the military in WWII, where he endures great peril and hardship and witnesses some of the worst events in world history, including the landing on Normandy beach and the liberation of a concentration camp.  These traumatic experiences caused great distress for Salinger, what would today be called PTSD (as Salinger movingly described in my favorite of his stories, “For Esme, with Love and Squalor.”  But it was these experiences that gave him the depth and scope to write his sole novel.

Burnett teaches Salinger that publication is incidental; what matters is doing the work of writing.  Salinger’s agent (Sarah Paulson, wry but sympathetic) tells him that “publication is everything” and urges him to “soften” his stories according to the “notes (comments) she gets back from editors.  Salinger, initially refusing to make any changes, finally does and even admits that they made the story better.

But the stress of success becomes too much for him.  “I’m shackled by my own creation,” he says as Catcher is seen as an invitation for readers to come see him.  The last loss and the last teacher are combined in a zen master who advises him to let go of his need for approval.  He moves to New Hampshire and never has anything to do with the literary world again. “If I can dedicate my life to writing and get nothing in return,” he says, “I think I might find happiness.”

Hoult is fine in showing us how Salinger changes, especially the effect of the war.  His scenes with his parents (Hope Davis and Victor Garber) and with the women he is trying to impress are especially effective.  Strong, as a writer himself, well understands the struggle to understand which voices to listen to, whether internal or external, in evaluating the work, and the complexity of needing approval even as we try to transcend that need.  The film evokes the mid-century era without being showy or distracting, and, an even more difficult challenge, explores the life of someone who wanted to be left alone without being exploitive.  Salinger insisted that there will never be a film about Holden Caulfield, and he was right as the value of that book is in the voice of its narrator more than in the incidents it portrays.  This is a better version of a story about someone who wants to catch children to keep them safe, at least in his own mind, or in the stories he will never show.

Parents should know that this film includes wartime violence with disturbing images including holocaust footage, drinking and drunkenness, constant smoking, and sexual references.

Family discussion:  Who was right about writing vs. publishing?  What makes Catcher in the Rye so compelling?  How was Salinger’s wartime experience reflected in his writing?

If you like this, try: the books of JD Salinger

 

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