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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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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The Foreigner

C

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, language and some sexual material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended, graphic, intense violence including terrorist bombings, guns, fighting, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 13, 2017
Copyright 2017 Sparkle Role Media

“The Foreigner” is in a genre I refer to as “Who is that chef?” movies. An actor with martial arts skills plays a role that has everyone else in the film saying, “Wait, how come that seemingly ordinary and unprepossessing guy has such mad special ops abilities?” It’s a bit like superhero movies, where mild-mannered Clark Kent turns out to have superpowers. And it gives all of us in the audience a chance to dream that someday those around us just might have that same highly vindicating realization that we are far cooler and more powerful than they think.

This film stars Jackie Chan, who also produced, so he was able to craft it around his persona and his priorities. This is not one of his light-hearted fun action films like the wildly popular “Rush Hour” movies and the early Chinese films like “Wheels on Meals,” where his poker face and split-second athleticism showed the inspiration of his idol, Buster Keaton. This is a “serious” (meaning pretentious) saga, based on the thriller by Stephen Leather about the owner of a Chinese restaurant in London who is devastated by the murder of his daughter in a terrorist attack and — say it with me — turns out to have special ops training that makes him the wrong guy to pick on.

As the movie opens, Chan’s character, Quan, picks up his teenage daughter at school and lets us know how protective he is just in time for her to get blown up. He visits the man he thinks knows who is responsible, an Irish politician and former IRA member named Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan, working with the man who cast him in “Goldeneye”). The plot here relates to The Troubles and some renegades who want to start them up again, so get ready for lots of whiskey in cut glass highball glasses. He patiently and politely refuses to leave until he can see Hennessy, so, once he’s been patted down (“He’s just carrying his groceries,” the security guys assure their boss), he is ushered into Hennessy’s office and given the brush off. It turns out the groceries are the ingredients for a bomb, which Quan installs safely in a place that is conveniently empty. “One old man running circles around us,” says Hennessy. “I won’t underestimate him again.” Oh, yes he will.

There’s not enough substance here to make its overall dreariness worth it. And too much “how to” to watch without feeling very uncomfortable that the ones we are underestimating in real life are the bad guys.

Parents should know that this film includes extremely violent peril and action with many characters injured and killed, terrorist bombings, torture, murder, assault weapons, traps, fights, graphic and disturbing images, sad deaths, sexual references and situations including using sex to get information or access, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Should the police torture witnesses to prevent terrorist attacks? How were Quan’s actions different from the people he was fighting?

If you like this, try: The “John Wick” films

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The Mountain Between Us

C

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Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, peril, injury images, and brief strong language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril, plane crash, animal attack, characters injured and killed, disturbing scenes
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 6, 2017

Copyright 2017 20th Century Fox
A surgeon named Ben (Idris Elba) and a photojournalist named Alex (Kate Winslet) have to find their way home after a charter plane crashes in the Colorado Rockies. Both of them were stuck at the airport after their flight to Denver was cancelled and both had an urgent need to get to their destinations as quickly as possible. He was scheduled to perform a critical brain operation on a child. She was on her way to her wedding after completing an assignment taking pictures of gang members. So Alex introduces herself to Ben and finds a pilot (Beau Bridges) who agrees to take them. When he tells them he didn’t have to file a flight plan because they were only going to be in the air during daylight, they might have shown some concern. But they were in a hurry. In fact, they were in so much of a hurry that neither one of them told anyone what they were doing either.

So when the pilot has a stroke and the plane crashes at the top of a mountain, no one knows where they are. They have almost no equipment and even less food. They do have the pilot’s dog. Kate is wounded, but Ben handily applies first aid, including a custom made splint fashioned from airplane shrapnel. As she is sleeping, he buries the pilot and assesses their situation.

The location footage is gorgeous and beautifully filmed. But the script, based on the book by Charles Martin, is so soapy you could wash a week’s laundry in it, with much more focus on the artificial differences (despite her injury, she wants to take action while he thinks it is safest to stay where they are) and under-imagined peril. What we want to see is the brave and clever ways they solve the problem of survival. What we get is bickering, hurt feelings, a non-surprising revelation, and a romantic encounter, with a coda that turns the whole adventure into a meet cute. Elba and Winslet don’t have much chemistry, in part because her character is immature and reckless, not nearly as charming as the movie thinks she is. Their conversations are not especially revealing or illuminating for them or for us. What should be an inspiring story becomes a weary slog.

Parents should know that this film includes constant peril, with a scary plane crash in the mountains, animals, ice, deprivation, a bear trap, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, sexual references and situation, brief strong language

Family discussion: How did Ben and Alex rely on their professional skills in evaluating their options? What were their biggest differences?

If you like this, try: “Touching the Void,” “127 Hours,” and “K2”

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