mother!

Posted on September 14, 2017 at 8:27 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong disturbing violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language
Profanity: Some very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drunkenness, cigarettes
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely intense, brutal, and graphic violence including murders of adults and a newborn, cannibalism, fire, many grisly and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 15, 2017
Date Released to DVD: December 18, 2017
Copyright 2017 Paramount

Over the next few weeks, maybe over the next few years, you will see some thoughtful analyses and interpretations of “mother!” (lowercase m at the beginning, exclamation point at the end), examining the Biblical references and exploring the metaphors.  I look forward to these discussions and hope I will be persuaded.  But I was unable to find anything more in the film than pretentious, self-indulgent images with, for a movie about in some sense creativity, very little to say.

It’s a warning sign of precarious pretension when a film’s characters are not named and listed in the credits only as archetypes: mother, man, woman, him, younger brother, oldest son, good Samaritan, fool, wanderer, idler.  It’s not that it can’t be done; it’s just that it’s a high bar to clear.  What might work as a horror story about a young, pure-hearted bride in a gigantic, isolated house who is confronted with various dread-inspiring elements both natural and supernatural in this case fails because it keeps telling us it wants to be more.  There’s some flashy cinematic flourish but very low octane.

Jennifer Lawrence is game and endlessly watchable as always, which is a good thing because most of the time the camera is close on her increasingly panicked face. She plays the title character, who is created out of dust as the house comes together from a wreck of ashes.  “Baby?” she asks tentatively and searchingly as she gets out of bed to look for her husband/partner, played by Javier Bardem.  He is a poet, acclaimed but currently blocked.  She is his endlessly devoted helpmeet, always working to restore the house or present him with wholesome meals or just encourage him.  

Their peaceful life is disrupted when a doctor with a bad cough (Ed Harris) arrives, later joined by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, mesmerizing and terrifying), a couple who have some very serious boundary issues, to the point of being predatory.  Basically, they are the world’s worst and most annoying houseguests.  mother wants them to leave and cannot understand why poet would not check with her first. He seems unable to recognize how destructive they are.  He seems flattered by having them there.

Then the bad stuff begins to happen.  And then the really bad stuff begins to happen and keeps happening.  Writer/director Darren Aronofksy, who has explored themes of creativity and the line between passion and obsession in films like “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fighter,” and “Black Swan” may be trying to reach for overarching Biblical concepts here (he also made “Noah”).  But with the arrestingly staged but horribly violent last act and it’s not-to-be-revealed ending, it communicates something more like a defensive argument in favor of the right of creators to abuse those around them.  Not true, whether it’s family members or people in the audience.

Parents should know that this film includes peril and violence, with murders of adults and a newborn infant, guns, fire, explosions, abuse, cannibalism, grisly and disturbing images, nudity, childbirth, brief very crude language, sexual references and explicit situations.

Family discussion: What does the ending signify?  Who do the couple represent?  What does the house represent?

If you like this, try: “Noah” from the same writer/director, “North Fork”

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DVD/Blu-Ray Fantasy Horror movie review

Rebel in the Rye

Posted on September 14, 2017 at 5:50 pm

B +
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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Crown Heights

Posted on August 31, 2017 at 5:54 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, some sexuality/nudity and violence
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, murder
Date Released to Theaters: September 1, 2017

Copyright Amazon 2017
The story of Damon and Pythias has exemplified friendship and loyalty since the time of the ancient Greeks. The story of Colin Warner and Carl King should stand beside it. King spent 21 years working to get Warner released from prison after he was unjustly sentenced for murder. A reporter for “This American Life” told their story, and now it has been adapted for the screen by former NFL player Nnamdi Asomugha, who plays King opposite the extraordinarily gifted LaKeith Stanfield (“Get Out,” “Short Term 12″) as Warner.

The friends met growing up in Trinidad and then reconnected when both emigrated to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Writer/director Matt Ruskin and Director of Photography Ben Kutchins evoke the lively but volatile and gritty atmosphere of 1980 Brooklyn. Warner is not even in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is nowhere near the spot where an apparent revenge execution-style murder is committed. But the cops are overwhelmed and under a lot of pressure to produce arrests and close cases. Archival footage of Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush promising crackdowns on crime provide context.

It is possible that determination to be fair to as many people as possible costs the film some dramatic momentum, especially as it stretches over decades, with setback after setback and complication after complication, plus the various family stresses, particularly with King as his wife understandably gets frustrated with the time and money he is devoting to Warner instead of their children. But the dignity and sensitivity of the performances by Stanfield and Asomugha hold the story together. But the time King takes a job as a process server in order to better understand what kind of legal help they need, things begin to pick up. A tender romance and a touching expression of forgiveness give the film a quiet power that I hope will not always feel as timely as it does right now.

Parents should knot that this story concerns a wrongful murder conviction and includes peril, violence, abuse, strong language, some sexual references and situations, and some nudity.

Family discussion: Why does this film title refer to the neighborhood, not the people involved? Why didn’t Carl give up? Listen to the story that inspired this film on “This American Life.”

If you like this, try: “Conviction” and “Hurricane”

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I Do…Until I Don’t

Posted on August 31, 2017 at 5:27 pm

C-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sexual material and language
Profanity: Very strong and explicit language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 1, 2017

Copyright 2017 Ways & Means
Hopes are high for Lake Bell after the delightful “In a World….,” which she wrote, directed, and starred in.  A terrific cast, a peek at the unfamiliar world of voice actors, and an endearing heroine made it an exceptionally promising debut.  Unfortunately, her sophomore effort retains only the superb casting and the affection for title ellipsis. “I Do…Until I Don’t” is more like an r-rated episode of the cheesy anthology series “Love American Style” than it is like “In a World.”

Bell clearly wants to explore the challenges of monogamy and marriage, a topic well worth exploring because most movies about romance end with the wedding, the “happily ever after” to be imagined.  Where “In a World…” benefitted from the sharp, vivid observations of a person who thoroughly understood a world that the audience had never seen before, in “I Do…Until I Don’t,” the barely-out-of-the-newlywed-stage Bell (she and her husband were married in 2013) is trying to explain marriage to an audience who have all literally lived in or with the experience of marriage as husbands, wives, children, and family members.  Her portrayal of three different couples is immediately apparent as superficial and unrealistic.

The entire premise is artificial.  Bell imagines a cynical documentarian named Vivian (Dolly Wells) who is determined to expose the essential impossibility of the idea of marriage.  Her theory is based on the tired theory that the idea of lifelong monogamy was developed in an era when the average lifespan was less than four decades and is therefore unrealistic when we are living twice as long.  Of course when the lifespan was three decades marriages were more likely to be based on alliances of property and money than romantic love, which might have played into the expectations of the participants, but that has nothing to do with Vivian’s premise.  And of course she has a villainous British accent just to remind us that she’s the bad guy.

Three couples become the focus of her film.  Two of them are so unpleasant it is impossible for us to care very much whether they prove Vivian wrong, except to keep them off the market so they can’t marry someone nicer.  All three of them are so thinly conceived that even the very able work of an outstanding cast cannot give them any depth or reality, even in a heightened comic setting.

Bell plays Alice, married to Noah (Ed Helms).  Their business is failing. So are their efforts to become parents.  Alice tells Noah Vivian will pay them a lot of money to be in her film. It is a lie. She has to find the money somewhere, so she agrees to provide “happy endings” at a massage parlor run by Bonnie (the terrific Chauntae Pink).

Harvey (Paul Reiser) and Cybill (Mary Steenburgen) are middle-aged and constantly snipe at each other, especially Cybill, who puts real effort into it while Harvey is mostly playing defense.

The third couple is not married and has an open relationship because why not.  They are Fanny (Amber Heard) and Zander (Wyatt Cenac), free-wheeling hippie stereotypes.  Alice thinks Noah is into Fanny for no particular reason other than her own insecurity over not being honest with him about pretty much anything.

These people are not interesting and their realizations are completely unfounded.  My advice: don’t.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong and explicit language, explicit sexual references and situations, prostitution, drinking, and marital problems.

Family discussion: Why is it so important to Vivian to be right about marriage? Which couple changes the most?

If you like this, try: “In a World…” from the same writer/director/star

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Comedy movie review Movies Movies Romance Satire

Leap!

Posted on August 24, 2017 at 5:25 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some impolite humor, and action
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril and comic violence, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 25, 2017
Date Released to DVD: November 21, 2017

Copyright 2017 The Weinstein Company
“Leap!” would be amiable if a bit dull, a mediocre-grade filler if not for a crucial misjudgment about the main character’s choices and consequences and a storyline that depends on two key characters having completely unfounded total changes of personality.

The premise is a generic “kid with a dream” story about a boy and girl who run away from an orphanage to pursue her dream of becoming a dancer and his dream of becoming an inventor (and his other dream of becoming her boyfriend) in Paris of the late 19th century, as both the Eiffel Tower is being built. The spirited Felice (Elle Fanning) and awkward Victor (Nat Wolff) are best friends who are the closest thing to family in the orphanage run by stern Mother Superior (Kate McKinnon), and grumpy Luteau (Mel Brooks), a cross between a janitor and a truant officer.

With the help of mechanical wings invented by Victor, they finally make it to Paris, where Victor becomes an apprentice to an engineer and Felice lies her way into the prestigious ballet school, using the acceptance letter of a snooty rich girl named Camille (real-life dancer and Sia muse Maddie Ziegler). She actually does not know anything about ballet, but a mysterious cleaning lady with a limp with the name of one of ballet’s most famous roles, Odette (singer Carly Rae Jepsen) agrees, Mr. Miyagi-style, to give her some lessons. Jump up to ring a bell tied to a tree branch and land in a puddle without making a splash. And yes, wax on and wax off — but with her feet.

We know where this is going. Strong voice talent and some imaginative visuals, especially in the dance scenes, cannot make up for tedious detours (a handsome and charming young male dancer who makes Victor jealous, a dragon lady meanie a la Cruella de Vil, a visit to the in-progress Statue of Liberty with a recitation of the Emma Lazarus poem that we have all just been reminded was not added until later), and, as noted, plot developments that depend on two characters having complete changes of personality for no reason. Most troubling is that Felice makes repeated serious mistakes, breaking promises and telling lies, with almost no consequences, giving a sourness to the storyline. It’s one thing to imagine that a young girl could learn several years of ballet training in a few days; it’s another to show her hurting the people around her, and then have her easily forgiven without any effort to make amends.

Parents should know that there is some reckless and irresponsible behavior with only minor consequences; they will want to discuss Felice’s choices and their impact on the people around her. There is also some potty humor.

Family discussion: Why did Felice break her promise to Odette? How did helping Felice change Odette’s ideas about herself?

If you like this, try: “An American Girl: Isabelle Dances into the Spotlight” and “A Ballerina’s Tale”

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