Son of Saul

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MPAA Rating: Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity
Profanity: Racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and deeply disturbing Holocaust atrocities including shooting, gas chambers, graphic images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 15, 2016
Date Released to DVD: April 25, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B01BZBOA30
son of saul
Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures Classics

As we move past the time when there are living witnesses to the Holocaust who can tell us their stories, we need more than ever voices like first-time writer/director László Nemes to tell the stories. I know there are those who will shrug sheepishly and say that they just can’t handle another one.  But each story is about a singular individual who had a singular experience.  And this Oscar-winning drama is distinctively different in subject matter and in the form of storytelling. It deserves careful attention.

The Nazis took more than lives in the concentration camps. They took identities and they took souls. Saul (Géza Röhrig), the title character, is a Hungarian Jew in an unnamed extermination camp near the end of the war. Because Hungarian dictator Miklos Horthy cooperated with the Nazis but did not allow them to take the 800,000 Hungarian Jews until he could no longer prevent it in 1944 (see Walking with the Enemy), Saul has only been there a short time. Throughout the movie, the camera is close to his face or at his shoulder as he numbly tries to hold on to his life and to some sense of himself amidst the horrific slaughter and nightmarish chaos all around him. We get only glimpses.

In the very first moments, we see him standing silently as a reassuring German voice tells the new arrivals that there will be jobs and food for them, as soon as they clean off in a shower. They leave everything they brought with them, clothes, jewels, money, photos, in the outer room and then, naked, walk into the gas chamber, where they are killed.

What happens to Saul is worse than death. He is a Sonder-kommando, a prisoner forced to assist in this process, from making the new arrivals feel a little less hopeless to ransacking their belongings and removing the remains, which the Nazis will not dignify with the term “bodies.” They are called “pieces.” And he is forced to be a part of it.

Somehow, a boy, perhaps 10 or 11 years old, survives the gas chamber. He is still breathing. So he is sent to the doctor (another prisoner) to be killed and autopsied, to help make the killing process more efficient.

And that is Saul’s breaking point. He becomes convinced that the boy is his son, though it appears likely he never had a child. This may be manifestation of trauma-induced delusion, or it may be an adaptive mechanism to restore his shattered sense of the world. He knows he cannot save this both in life. But perhaps in death he can do one kindness and provide the boy with a religious burial, away from the discarded “pieces.” Increasingly desperate, contrary to his previous flat affect, Saul seeks a rabbi who can say the mourner’s prayer over the boy. Throughout the film, we see quick glimpses of the ways other prisoners hold on to some tiny element of control. For some, it may be keeping a record. For Saul, who seems to see very little of what is going on around him, it is giving a boy a better death.

This insistence on a sacred burial at any cost is a direct link to Sophocles’ 442 BC play Antigone, the final chapter in the Oedipus trilogy. Three thousand years of human history later, and someone is still finding meaning by refusing to make one final compromise.

Parents should know that this is a Holocaust movie with scenes of Nazi brutality and disturbing themes and images including gas chambers, shooting, suffocation, and dead bodies, some nude.

Family discussion: How does the style of this film help to convey the experience of the concentration camp? Why was this boy so important to Saul? What were the special issues faced by the Sonder-kommandos and the doctor?

If you like this, try: “Conspiracy,” “Schindler’s List,” and “Labyrinth of Lies”

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Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Tragedy War

The Fault in Our Stars

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some sexuality and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Teen drinking, adult alcohol abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Very sad themes of illness and loss
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 6, 2014
Date Released to DVD: September 15, 2014
Amazon.com ASIN: B00KAJ2K0Y

fault-in-our-stars-poster-largeJohn Green’s best-selling novel, The Fault in Our Stars is the story of kids with cancer, but it is not about dying.  It is about living.  This exquisite adaptation is that rare film based on a beloved novel that does full justice to the source material without being static or talky.  The screenplay is by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who showed exceptional sensitivity in the bittersweet love stories “(500) Days of Summer” and “The Spectacular Now” (also adapted from a beloved YA book and also starring Shailene Woodley), and it was directed by Josh Boone, of the underrated “Stuck in Love” (also starring Nat Wolff, who appears here as a friend of the central couple).  

Remember the hospital scene in “Terms of Endearment?”  This one will make you cry more.  But it is sad, not depressing.

Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, whose lungs have been badly compromised and who cannot breathe without a nasal cannula attached to an oxygen tank.  Pushed by her mother to attend a support group that meets “literally in the heart of Jesus,” with a guitar-strumming leader who is well-intentioned but unwilling to acknowledge the direness of the circumstances, Hazel catches the eye of lanky Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort, and yes, he played her brother in “Divergent”).

She’s the nerdy girl, he’s the basketball-player and cool guy, which is the classic high school movie romantic setup for opposite attraction except in this case what they have in common is more important than what table they would sit at in the school cafeteria.  He is not playing basketball anymore because his leg was amputated due to cancer.  What brings them together is not the cancer but the shared worldview they developed as a result of the cancer, with few illusions but an openness to hope, if not hope for a longer life, at least hope for a better life.  Hazel worries that she is “a grenade,” that the most significant impact her life will have is the devastating grief she leaves behind.

Hazel and Augustus exchange favorite books.  His is a novelization of a video game.  Hers is an ambitious, literary novel by a reclusive author named Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe, superb in a tricky role).  The book ends abruptly, in the middle of a sentence, when its main character dies, and Hazel is overcome with curiosity about what happens to the characters she left behind.  For all they have lost, they still have “cancer perqs,” privileges that come with the combination of pity and guilt felt by people around them.  Augustus takes advantage of his to help Hazel meet Van Houten.  But it is in the other parts of the journey that they find more important answers and better questions as well.

The characters in the movie like to say, “it’s a metaphor,” but their own story is a metaphor about the issues we all grapple with.  Watching people whose biggest problem should be what to wear to the prom confront the problem of making sense of life, finding meaning, risking intimacy is a heightened version for dramatic purposes.  But these are the core challenges for all of us, whether our lives will last for 16 years or 116.  These teenagers just do not have the luxury the rest of us do of being in denial about how little time there is.

Elgort is marvelous, but then he gets to say swoon-worthy lines like “You realize that trying to keep your distance from me will not lessen my affection for you. All efforts to save me from you will fail.”  On the other hand, he has the challenge of grandiloquent lines like. “It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you,” and he says them beautifully.  Woodley is in every way (except literally) the heart of the film, and once again delivers a performance of endless sensitivity, even with a cannula in her nose.  Fans of the book will find key scenes like the egging of a car and the ultimate romantic restaurant date exactly as they envisioned it.  Even the trip to the Anne Frank house, which could have been heavy-handed, is handled well.  Anne Frank is, in a way, the spiritual sister of Hazel and Augustus.  Like them, she had to find meaning in the midst of devastation.  As they walk through the hidden annex where she lived, her words of hope come out of tinny display speakers.  And Hazel’s climb up the steep steps to see it is itself a “shout into the void.”

I like the way they call each other by their full names.  Even though their time is limited, addressing each other with a touch of formality and grandeur is too important for short cuts.  I like the intensity and honesty of their talks; anything less they know they do not have time for.  The title comes from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”  The nobleman Cassius says to Brutus: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”  He is saying that it is we who determine how we live.  But the line that I think of when I see this film is from poet Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote, “The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.”

Parents should know that the theme of the film is teenagers with cancer.  Many characters are very ill and there is a very sad death, as well as brief strong language, sexual references and situation, teen drinking and adult alcohol abuse.

Family discussion: What questions would you like to ask an author about a book you like? How should you choose who will hurt you? What makes some infinities larger than others?

If you like this, try: the book by John Green and the films “Harold and Maude” and “Restless”

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Based on a book Date movie Drama Romance Stories about Teens Tragedy

Pompeii

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences, disaster-related action and brief sexual content
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense fight scenes including gladiator fights to the death with swords and other weapons, many characters injured and killed, child witnesses the slaughter of his village and death of his parents, injured horse put down, massive destruction from volcano and seismic forces, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 21, 2014
Date Released to DVD: May 20, 2014
Amazon.com ASIN: B00J11U54K

pompeii posterIn 79 AD Mount Vesuvius erupted, wiping out the city of Pompeii. Director Paul W.S. Anderson, who gave us movie versions of “Resident Evil” and “Mortal Kombat,” presents the story as a video game. If what you are looking for is special effects and well-staged action, or even buff bodies, you’re all set.  But those who are looking for history, meaningful drama, character development, or good dialog — well, they weren’t paying attention a moment ago when I mentioned the director of game console-to-movie theater movies and Paul W.S. Anderson.  It is basically “The Legend of Hercules” with a volcano.

“Game of Thrones'” Kit Harington plays Milo, who as a child saw his entire community brutally slaughtered by the vicious and corrupt Roman soldier Corvus (an imperious Kiefer Sutherland).  Milo escaped by hiding in a pile of dead bodies.  He is later captured and sold into slavery, where his outstanding fighting skills bring him to the attention of a purveyor of gladiator battle-to-the-death entertainment.  He travels to the big city of Pompeii to compete in the arena there.  Along the way, he sees a beautiful young woman named Cassia (Emily Browning) and he impresses her by putting her injured horse out of its misery.  Cassia is returning to her parents (Jared Harris and Carrie-Ann Moss) after a visit to Rome, where she attracted the attention of Corvus, now a high-ranking Senator.  But Milo has attracted her attention.  In an example of dialog that could have come out of a middle school slam book, a character says, “I never saw you look at any man the way you looked at that slave.”

Milo is set to fight the enormous and powerful Atticus (“Thor’s” Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who can earn not just his life but his freedom with one more win in the arena.  They end up forming an alliance like that of Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode in the classic “Spartacus.”  Meanwhile Corvus is attempting to extort Cassia’s hand in marriage from her father, who needs the support of Rome for his building project.

And all of this is about to be trumped by a nearby mountain and some seismic movement of the earth.  There are huge sinkholes and then there is an ocean of burning lava and chokingly thick ash.  Every element of the lives of the Pompeiians is turned upside down as all societal restrictions are removed and all anyone wants to do is stay alive.  Well, you’d think that, but unfortunately the storylines that have already more than overstayed their welcome drag on, interfering with what we really want to see — the special effects — and jettisoning any possible remaining legitimacy of the plot.

Harington is very good as Milo and he and the excellent Akinnuoye-Agbaje make the fight scenes exciting and compelling.  Sutherland has a nice sneer (I could not help remembering his bully in “Stand By Me.”)  The special effects, especially in 3D, are impressive.  But the movie is dragged down by its cheesy storyline.

This is not the first movie version of the story of Pompeii and it will not be the last.  Pliny the Younger’s eyewitness description of what happened when the volcano erupted excerpted in the opening moments of the film, is still more vivid and powerful than any version yet put on screen.

You might hear the Shrieks of Women, the Cries of Children, the Noise of Men: Some called aloud for their Parents, some for their Husbands, and knew them only by their Voices; some bewailed their own Share in the Calamity; and others that of their Neighbours; some wished for Death from the Fear of Dying; many lifted up their Hands to Heaven; a Multitude disbelieved all the Gods, and looked upon the Time to be the last eternal Night, that has been prophesied. Some improved the real Dangers by feigned and imaginary Fears; others gave it out, that this House at Misenum was fallen, that was burnt; both falsely, but they met with Believers. A Glimpse of Light appeared, that did not show us the Return of Day, but the Approach of the Fire that threatened us: The Fire indeed, stood at a Distance; then the Darkness revived, and after that, a plentiful Shower of Ashes and Cinders: We rose up now and then and shook them off, otherwise we should have been covered and oppressed with the Weight of them. I could boast, that neither a Sigh, nor a complaining Expression dropped from me in the midst of these Alarms; but I was supported by this Consolation, not very Reasonable indeed, but natural enough, to think that all the World perished with me. 

Parents should know that this film has extensive sword and sandal-era violence including the slaughter of a village, a child seeing his parents get killed, a horse put down, and many gladiator fighting scenes with many characters injured and killed. Also, natural disaster violence destroys an entire city with some disturbing images and there is a brief sexual situation (slaves as prostitutes) and reference to a brothel.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Milo want to say his name? What kind of culture finds gladiator fighting entertaining?

If you like this, try: read up on the real history of Pompeii and watch classics like “Gladiator,” “Ben Hur” and “Spartacus”

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3D Action/Adventure Drama Epic/Historical Inspired by a true story Tragedy

Out of the Furnace

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MPAA Rating: Rated R For strong violence, language and drug content
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Abuse of legal and illegal substances, fatal drunk driving accident, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and disturbing violence, guns, murder, fatal drunk driving accident, some grisly images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 6, 2013
Date Released to DVD: March 11, 2014
Amazon.com ASIN: B00HOGBXTU

out of the furnace“Out of the Furnace” gets no credit for its good intentions because it collapses under the combined weight of pretentiousness and condescension. This is Hollywood’s idea of a searing drama about life in recession-era heartland, as phony as a painted backdrop.  It is clearly intended to be a sympathetic portrait of two brothers betrayed by America. Russell (Christian Bale) lost his job when the steel mill closed down. His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) went into the military and came home shattered by what he saw in four tours in Iraq. With no alternatives, their problems get worse. Rodney makes money in bare-knuckle fights, but keeps getting into trouble because he cannot bring himself to take a dive when told to do so by the fight promoter, Petty (Willem Dafoe). As their situations become more desperate, Rodney insists that Petty introduce him to meth dealer DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), so that he can make more money.

Co-writer/director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) tries to convey a sense of relentless pressure, crumbling infrastructure, and ever-constricting choices that force Russell and Rodney into making decisions with catastrophic consequences. But the film could easily be used to make the opposite points. Over and over, the brothers are told not to do something — like get involved with a murderous meth dealer — and they do it anyway. Russell is losing his job because the economy is bad. But he loses the girl he loves (Zoe Saldana) because he goes to prison. He goes to prison because he goes to a bar, gets drunk, drives, and causes an accident that kills two people. He has a lot of strong feelings and sense of loyalty for his brother and he is very upset about the death of his parents and his girlfriend leaving him for another man. When it comes to the innocent people he killed, he does not seem to have a sense of responsibility. We are supposed to be on his side because he is a decent guy who loves his brother, cares for his dying father, and misses his girlfriend, who married the decent local cop while Russell was in prison. But it is hard to be sympathetic when he — and the film — make no distinction between the limits imposed on him and the bad choices he made. Indeed, the movie ultimately becomes condescending, even contemptuous, in ignoring one of the core principles of narrative, which is respecting just that distinction. We are supposed to be on Rodney’s side because something in him, some core integrity, will not allow him to lose a fight he knows he can win. The metaphor is off-base and heavy-handed.

These are all great actors, and they all work hard to give good performances, but that in itself finally seems distancing. If they understood the essential humanity of the people dealing with these circumstances, the veterans struggling with PTSD, the factory workers whose jobs are gone, they would not distance themselves with such obvious artifice. Harrelson’s over-the-top sociopath seems to be from another movie entirely. Only Dafoe and Forest Whitaker as the sympathetic policeman create characters with any sense of authenticity, with Zoe Saldana relegated to a sad girlfriend role, doubly dreary because it is so tiresomely predictable.  The real Russells and Rodneys deserve better, and so does the audience.

Parents should know that this film has very strong and disturbing violence with graphic images, fatal drunk driving accident, murder, brutal fight scenes, guns, description of wartime violence, constant very strong language, substance abuse, and non-explicit sexual situations.

Family discussion: What does the title refer to? Why do the characters constantly ignore advice that will keep them out of trouble? What does this movie want to say about our economy and political system?

If you like this, try: “Killing Them Softly” and “October Country”

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Crime Drama Tragedy

Romeo & Juliet

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements
Profanity: Some bawdy talk
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Swordfighting, suicide, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 11, 2013
Amazon.com ASIN: B00CZ1TMWE

William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is the most-filmed play of all time, with dozens of versions and variations from the sublime (the Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann versions, “West Side Story” and “Shakespeare in Love”) to the outlandish (the cute Gnomeo and Juliet, the robot short “Runaway Robots! Romie-O and Julie-8”) and the downright ridiculous (Norma Scherer and Leslie Howard were in twice the age of the characters they were playing).  The story of the “star-cross’d lovers” has immediate appeal — impetuous teenagers, disapproving parents, missed messages, and swordfights.  All it needs to succeed is leads with a lot of chemistry and the ability to adapt to the rhythms of iambic pentameter and the glorious language of the greatest writer in the history of English.  This movie fails on all three.  The leads have no chemistry with each other or with the glorious poetry of the dialog.  And “Downton Abbey’s” Julian Fellowes has mangled the adaptation, changing some of the lines and scenes.  It is not a terrible movie, but it is not an especially good one and with so many better alternatives it is an unnecessary one.

It begins with a useless added scene in which the Prince (Stellan Skarsgård) holds a tournament to settle once and for all the dispute between the feuding Montagues and Capulets.  It doesn’t work.  Soon a fight breaks out between the servants of the two houses that are “alike in dignity” (the play’s first scene) and the Prince is furious.  If they cannot keep the peace, there will be trouble.  Romeo (Douglas Booth), a Montague, is in love with a Capulet cousin named Rosaline.  When he finds out that the Capulets are having a masked party and Rosaline will be there, he and his friends attend the party so Romeo can see her.

Romeo-and-Julliet-romeo-and-juliet-2013-34909054-500-333But Romeo sees the Capulet daughter, Juliet (“True Grit’s” Hailee Steinfeld), and they are instantly struck by love.  In the play, their perfect unity is demonstrated by their first conversation, witty flirtation in the form of an exquisite sonnet.  It is one of the best-loved pieces of writing in history.  Yet this version mangles it by ramping up the intensity of the attraction right from the beginning so there is no sense of build-up.  More important, the utter lack of chemistry between the very pretty but bland Booth and the game but not up to the task Steinfeld makes us long for Bella and Edward or even Bella and Jacob.

There are some strong performances, unfortunately just making the two main characters look worse by comparison.  Lesley Manville (“Topsy Turvy”) give the nurse a warmth that is often lost in the usual caricatured portrayals.  Natascha McElhone is a sympathetic Lady Capulet and Paul Giamatti is superb as Friar Laurence.  The standout, though, is Christian Cooke as Mercurtio, whose energy is much missed once he is out of the picture.

Most appallingly, Fellowes has decided to make the text more “accessible” with some trims and edits to the language.  The slight gains in “accessibility” are overwhelmed by the loss of the music in the words and the poetry of the rhythm.  I bite my thumb at him.

Parents should know that this movie includes Shakespearean sword-fighting with many characters injured and killed, sexual references and non-explicit situations, and suicides.

Family discussion:  Did the novice make the right decision?  Why couldn’t Romeo and Juliet tell their parents the truth?

If you like this, try: the other versions by Baz Luhrmann and Franco Zeffirelli and adaptations like “West Side Story” and “Warm Bodies,” a zombie romance where the characters are named R and Julie)

 

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Based on a play Classic Date movie Drama Remake Romance Stories about Teens Tragedy
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