The Glass Castle

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Smoking, alcohol and alcohol abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Domestic violence, child badly burned in a cooking accident, child neglect and endangerment
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 11, 2017

Copyright 2017 Lionsgate
In her 1986 best-seller, Necessary Losses, author/poet Judith Viorst talks about the beliefs each of us has to give up in order to move forward. The first and in some ways the most difficult is the understanding that our parents are not all-powerful and all-knowing, and that they cannot kiss all of our hurts and troubles away forever. Some of those realizations are worse than others. Most of us, I hope, do not have to give up on the idea that our parents at least want to take care of us and that they do their best. But parents who neglect or abuse their children take away something worse than food and safety; they take a child’s senses of trust and pride.

And so “The Glass Castle,” based on the best-selling memoir by Jeannette Walls, begins with Walls, a sophisticated, elegant, and successful New York journalist (Oscar-winner Brie Larson) on her way home in a cab after dinner in an expensive restaurant with her fiance and his prospective client, seeing her parents dumpster diving. They were homeless.

And so, we go back in time to see her as a very young child, telling her mother, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) she is hungry. “Would you rather me make you some food that will be gone in an hour or finish this painting that will last forever?” It is a rhetorical question. Young Jeannette (Chandler Head) toddles over to the stove to make herself some hot dogs. But her dress catches on fire and she is badly burned.

When her father, Rex (Woody Harrelson) decides to take her out of the hospital, without doctor permission and without paying. At this point, Jeannette is still young enough to believe everything her parents tell her, like “our home goes wherever we go.” Rex, probably self-medicating for undiagnosed bipolar disorder, was immensely brilliant and charismatic. The glass castle of the title was the home he kept promising to build the family, and he spent years drawing plans for it. Rex and Rose Mary were less and less able to maintain any kind of stability at the same time that the children became more and more aware of what they were entitled to expect and unlikely to get. Instead of excitedly making plans for the castle, they began pleading with him to stop drinking. And then, when he could not, they decided to take responsibility for themselves and each other.

Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton worked with Larson in the outstanding “Short Term 12,” which also had themes of abuse, damage, and resilience. He is especially good here in dealing with the challenge of three different performers, some quite young, portraying Jeannette and her siblings, maintaining consistency as they grow up, but using the cinematography to help convey the journey from their glowing memories of childhood, believing in their parents’ view of the world as beneath them, to the grittier life of deprivation and uncertainty. The spot where the glass castle was supposed to be built literally becomes a garbage dump.

What’s wisest and most significant is that the film becomes more than the story of survival. It is really only when Jeannette stops being afraid to tell the truth about herself that she is able to accept the best of what Rex and Rose Mary brought to her life. As Walls — and Viorst — might agree, necessary losses are worth the pain when they lead to the freedom that only comes from being true about and to yourself.

Parents should know that this film concerns the neglect and abuse of children, parents with substance abuse and mental illness problems. It includes smoking, drinking and drunkenness, domestic abuse, a child burned in a fire, strong language, and a sexual situation.

Family discussion: Why did Jeanette decide to tell her story? What was she grateful for receiving from her parents? If there was a movie about your family, who would you like to play you?

If you like this, try: “Running with Scissors,” “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” (another real-life story with Woody Harrelson as a father with a drinking problem), and “Infinitely Polar Bear,” and the book by Walls

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Kidnap

D

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence and peril
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence including children in peril, guns, chases, crashes, many characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 4, 2017

Copyright 2017 Aviron Pictures
Maybe Halle Berry, who produced and stars in “Kidnap,” thought this would be her “Taken,” a big prestige star in an all-out action movie. Not so much. Instead, this is one of those movies where if anyone made a single rational decision it would be over in eight minutes, instead of the 80-some minutes that feel like 800.

Berry plays Karla, a single mom waitress in a diner who adores her six-year-old son, Frankie (Sage Correa), and has promised to take him to an amusement park. On the way there, we establish that (1) his favorite toy is a little voice recorder, and (2) Karla’s ex is now married to a doctor and Karla is doing her best to reassure Frankie that “everybody loves you” and that the grown-ups are all getting along. So, when she gets a call from her lawyer about the ex’s attempt to get custody, she tells Frankie to stay where he is and moves so that he cannot hear the discussion. When she gets back, he is gone.

At first, she thinks he is just hiding. But he has left the recorder on the bench, and then she sees him being hustled into a distinctive teal car. And so she races into her minivan, dropping her phone in the parking lot because (see above regarding the film’s duration), and chases after them.

And chases after them. And chases after them. Causing endless mayhem and at least two deaths along the way, but who cares about other people’s family members? This is HER SON and they picked a fight with the WRONG MOTHER.

Berry is so much better than this. She makes competent terrified/determined faces at the right moments, but even she cannot sell the increasing preposterousness of the storyline or make sympathetic a woman who would abandon the critically injured people who got in her way or tried to help her. She’s the one who really needs to be rescued in this saga.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive peril and violence including kidnapping, knives, shotgun, car chases and crashes, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Karla leave the police station? Would the law and the news media really respond the way they did in this movie?

If you like this, try: “Without a Trace” and “Nick of Time”

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Detroit

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence and pervasive language
Profanity: Very strong language including racist epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Very intense and graphic violence including murder and brutal beatings, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 4, 2017

If a newspaper is the first draft of history, perhaps it is art that conveys the truth of the past with context, nuance, and power. And so “Detroit,” Kathryn Bigelow’s story of a horrifying, tragic murder of three black men during the Detroit riots of 1967, meaningfully begins with the paintings of Jacob Lawrence documenting the migration of black families from the rural South to northern urban centers and the unrest triggered by the fear and flight of the white residents. “The promise of equal opportunity for all turned out to be an illusion.
Change was inevitable.” And, for some people who were happy as things were, terrifying.

And so “Detroit,” directed by Bigelow’s and scripted by her “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker” screenwriter Mark Boal aspires aspires to be art that tells the story of one incident that illuminates not only its own time but ours as well. It is based on intensive research including court transcripts and interviews with people who were there.

Television news in the 1967 featured footage of riots, with looters smashing windows, even at stores with “Soul Brother” spray-painted in hope that being owned by black neighbors would keep them safe. There was not much, if any coverage of an incident at the Algiers Motel, where white cops abused a group of young black men and two white women and murdered three unarmed teenagers. This was before the time that a bystander could record the beating of a Rodney King, and so it had to wait for the Hollywood version.

The threat of anarchy and violence was so unsettling during the Detroit riots that Lyndon Johnson sent 1100 National Guardsmen — to protect the police. The state police were there, too, and we see one officer recognize that horrible abuse is taking place, but leave, saying, “I don’t want to get in any civil rights mixup.” The pervasive chaos and fear inspires one character to say, “Now everybody knows what it’s like to be black.”

Reportedly, Bigelow encouraged her actors to develop their own dialog so it would be more authentic to their own perceptions and experience. She has a gift for conveying urgency and putting the audience in the middle of the action. The characters who take us through the story include a mild-mannered security guard (“The Force Awakens'” John Boyega), a just-returned Vietnam vet (Anthony Mackie), and a young white cop in way over his head, who has no hesitation about planting a weapon on a murder victim (“The Revenant’s” Will Poulter). It is in no way excusing his behavior to say that his behavior here is as much based on fear, anger, and ignorance as in racism.

I hope the film will not always feel as timely as it does now. If that is true, it will be in part because films like this provide context that helps us understand not only the origins of Black Lives Matter but the lives of the parents and grandparents who were unable or unwilling to tell their own stories.

NOTE: I recommend the thoughtful responses to this film from African-American critics, including Angelica Jade Bastien, who found the portrayal of brutality exploitive (“It wasn’t the relentless violence inflicted upon black bodies or the fiery devastation of the riots ripping apart Detroit but the emptiness behind these moments that got under my skin.”)

Parents should know that this film includes explicit depiction of a real-life incident of police abuse and brutality including murder of three unarmed teenagers, with rioting and looting, many disturbing and graphic images, very strong language, drinking, smoking, drugs, sexual references and brief nudity.

Family discussion: What would make you believe that justice had been done in this case? How does this story help us to understand some of today’s conflicts?

If you like this, try: documentaries about this era including “4 Little Girls,” “Eyes on the Prize,” and “12th and Clairmount”

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The Big Sick

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including some sexual references
Profanity: Strong and explicit language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Very serious illness
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 24, 2017
Copyright Amazon 2017

The more specific the story, the more universal. This is a very specific story. Indeed, you are unlikely ever again to see a romantic comedy with one of the pair spending half of the film in a coma. And that is not the couple’s biggest obstacle. Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”), plays a character named Kumail Nanjiani in a story based on his relationship to Emily V. Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan and called Emily Gardiner in the film), who is now his wife and the co-screenwriter of the smart, touching, heartfelt and very funny film. It is beautifully directed by Michael Showalter, as always unsurpassed in meticulous casting of even the smallest roles.

Real-life Nanjiani and his movie alter ego are Pakistani immigrants from traditional families. Every time he visits his parents for dinner, an unmarried Pakistani woman “happens to drop in.” They have made it very clear that they expect him to marry a woman who is Pakistani and Muslim. Gordon is neither; she is white and from North Carolina. Just after they break up because he could not say that they could have a future together, she suddenly becomes critically ill and is placed in a medically induced coma.  He gets the call when she is hospitalized and has to be the one to call her parents. He meets them for the first time in the hospital waiting room, where they are understandably frosty (he broke their daughter’s heart) and preoccupied (she’s in a coma).

They would rather that he not be there. And his parents find out that he has not been honest with them and they tell him they cannot accept his feelings for Emily. So, in the second half of the movie there is another kind of love story, about the love between parents and their children and the partners their children choose.

It is also a story about a man learning to be honest with himself about who he is and what he wants. What lifts this out of the recent glut of arrested development movies is its compassion for all parties (the film nicely acknowledges that Nanjiani’s brother has a very successful and satisfying marriage arranged the traditional way and presents as one of the candidates a woman so seemingly perfect for him that we almost root for her) and Nanjiani’s thoughtful, self-deprecating but confident performance. The best stand-up comics mine their own lives for material, with observations that make us see our own lives, and especially our follies and irrationalities, in sharper relief — that’s relief in both senses of the word.

Best of all, the movie itself is proof that they lived happily ever after.

Parents should know that this movie includes strong language, sexual references and non-explicit situations, family conflict, and very serious illness.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Kumail tell Emily about his family’s concerns? How should you decide what traditions to keep and which ones to leave behind?

If you like this, try: “Ruby Sparks” (also with Kazan, who wrote the screenplay) and “50-50” with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, also based on a true story

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Maudie

B +

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic content and brief sexuality
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family confrontations, domestic abuse, illness, sad death
Date Released to Theaters: June 24, 2017
Copyright Sony Pictures Classics 2017

Maudie Lewis was severely disabled and abused. She lived in a tiny house with no electricity or running water in the unforgiving climate of Nova Scotia. And she decorated her tiny world with vibrant, joyful images that captivated the people who came to her door to buy them, usually for as little as $5. Her home, the walls covered with bright flowers and birds and cats painted over 35 years, is now seen by art lovers in the museum where it has been lovingly preserved, and she is recognized as one of the foremost “outsider” (untrained) artists of the mid-20th century.

In “Maudie,” the infinitely gifted Sally Hawkins gives an incandescent performance as the woman whose indomitable spirit shines through her art.

After her parents died, Maudie lived with an aunt who treated her with contempt. She left to take a job as a live-in housekeeper for Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), a fisherman taciturn to the point of being a recluse. “You walk funny. Are you a cripple?” he asks bluntly. And he tells her that she comes after the dogs and the chickens in importance. And that he expects her to sleep in his bed as a part of the job. When he wants more, she tells him that he must marry her, and he does.

With some leftover house paint, holding the brush in her arthritic fingers, she paints a flower on the wall. And surprisingly, Everett does not disapprove; he only tells her to leave one section of the wall alone. A summer visitor from the US spots one of her paintings and brings it back to New York. Vice President Richard Nixon buys one, too. Everett is glad for the income and worried that Maudie will become independent and leave him.

Director Aisling Walsh insisted on filming on location and created a meticulous replica of the tiny Lewis home, and the setting itself, bleak and beautiful, with minimal musical score becomes a character in the film. So do Maudie’s pure, simple paintings, expressing her unquenchable joy in observing the world around her and in expressing what she sees. Hawkins is a marvel in every scene; like Maudie herself, she commits herself completely to the creative spirit.

Parents should know that this film includes sexual references and situations, references to out of wedlock child, mistreatment of disabled character, and a sad death. Characters drink and smoke.

Family discussion: Why did Everett tell Maudie not to paint one part of the wall? Why did he change his mind about selling the painting she said was not finished? What was happiness to Maudie?

If you like this, try: “The Straight Story”

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