The Party

Posted on February 15, 2018 at 11:50 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Satiric violence including punches, gun
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 16, 2018

Copyright 2018 Rhodeside Attractions
“The Party” is a short, savagely funny, black and white film from writer/director Sally Potter with an all-star cast moving at light speed through a real-time gathering that goes very quickly from a celebration to a political and emotional bloodbath.

It does start out as a party. Hostess and honoree Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) has just achieved her professional goal by being appointed to the British cabinet position overseeing health care. She is busy in the kitchen making vol au vent, barely aware of her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), who is sitting dolefully in the living room, playing jazz on old-school analog LPs.

The guests start to arrive. Janet’s oldest friend April (Patricia Clarkson) is a sharp-tongued cynic, escorted by Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), a German believer in spiritual healing who calls Western medicine “voodoo.” April continuously demeans him, explaining that they are about to break up. Martha (Cherry Jones) is Janet’s political ally, but she will soon be distracted by news from her pregnant wife Jinny (Emily Mortimer). Everyone is so distracted that they barely notice Tom (Cillian Murphy), who works in finance and arrives ahead of his wife Marianne and immediately goes to the bathroom to snort some cocaine. Also, he has a gun.

As the vol au vent burns, a daisy chain of accusation, recrimination, confession, and betrayal rocks the group and challenges their most fundamental notions of who they are as individuals, as upholders of particular political views that they consider essential parts of themselves, and as people who thought they understood their connections to each other.

It’s in stunning black and white, but we imagine the shower of virtual crimson blood from the verbal rapier thrusts and real-life punches at this most savage of celebrations. What is intended to be a small gathering of close friends to congratulate the hostess on her important new cabinet position unfolds in real time as series of attacks, revelations, betrayals, and, yes, political metaphors. Brilliantly performed by some of the greatest actors from both sides of the Atlantic with dialog that crackles like static electricity, it is directed at the high speed of a drawing room comedy but with knowing, devastating impact by Potter.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong and explicit language and many tense and unhappy confrontations. Characters drink and use drugs and threaten gun violence.

Family discussion: Is Janet a hypocrite about healthcare when she responds to Bill’s announcement? Why is it hard for Martha to respond the way Jinny wants her to? Why did Tom come to the party?

If you like this, try: Potter’s other films, including “Yes,” “Orlando,” and “The Tango Lesson”

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Fifty Shades Freed

Posted on February 8, 2018 at 6:36 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including kidnapping, punching, knife, gun, chase
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 9, 2018

Copyright 2017 Universal
“The worse sin passion can commit is to be joyless,” wrote Dorothy Sayers. And this movie is Exhibit A. It’s more of an endless perfume commercial than a story, with beautiful people smooching (and more) in a series of increasingly luxurious settings and modes of transportation. Viewers may more likely to find their breath taken away by the Birkin bag Ana carries than the licking-ice-cream-off-Christian’s-chest scene, the “You own this?” about the fancy private airplane response, “We own this” more than “meet me in the Red Room of pain.”

These are people who are supposed to be exceptionally successful at their jobs who are somehow not especially committed to them or particularly good at them. Anna is a college drop-out now elevated to editor at the publishing company that happens to be owned by her new husband, but entirely on her merits, but the job itself is one of those cutesy Hallmark Christmas movie-type careers where all she has to do is congratulate her hunky author on his success and ask him gently about the next book and tell an assistant to increase the font size on a cover. More important, these are people who share a deep kink connection who are pretty, to use their term, vanilla. Anything at all interesting about the issue of the power dynamics between Ana and Christian is so soft-focus that it barely registers.

It seems Ms. James ran out of ideas about a book and a half ago. All they’ve got left is sex in this and that ultra-luxurious location (more shelter porn than porn porn here) interspersed with some very random thriller moments as a figure from the past wants to destroy the perfect prettiness of the romance. This gives us an opportunity for a chase scene on a mountain road that turns out to be, like so much in the film, foreplay, plus some not at all tense would-be thriller moments and one pretty funny joke.* The tedium is occasionally lessened by some pop song montages. The music is not that great, but it is better than the dialogue. And then, the final whack of the cinematic riding crop, the utterly unnecessary remix montage featuring highlights of the films that we were hoping to have forgotten.

*New variation of the Gothika rule: I will give away the joke to anyone who sends me an email at to save you the time and money of seeing the film.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive and explicit sexual references and situations with some BDSM activity, nudity, some strong language, alcohol, and peril and violence including kidnapping, a gun, knives, and punching.

Family discussion: Why did Ana object to Christian’s behavior in the red room on one occasion? What made each of them jealous?

If you like this, try: “9 1/2 Weeks”

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Peter Rabbit

Posted on February 8, 2018 at 11:11 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude humor and action
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and violence, explosions, electrocutions, references to sad parental deaths and killing animals, human character collapses and dies
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 9, 2018

Copyright 2017 Sony
We’re only six weeks in, and we’ve already had two live action/animation adaptations of beloved British classics of children’s literature, both starring members of the Gleeson family. One will go down in history as an example of how to do it right and the other, if it must remembered at all, will be the example of how to do it wrong. For the record, Paddington 2, starring Brendan Gleeson, captured the gentle charm of the stories because it trusted its source material and it trusted its audience. But “Peter Rabbit,” based on the books and paintings by Beatrix Potter, tries to make the classic story of a bunny who ignores his mother’s warning and almost gets caught by the farmer when he steals into the garden into a hyped-up, wink-at-the-crowd mess of slapstick, meta-narrative, and story of love and redemption. By trying to be contemporary, it loses the very qualities that have made it beloved in generations of nurseries.

As in the original book, before the story begins Peter’s father was captured by Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill) and eaten in a pie. Unlike the book, Peter’s mother is gone, too, and he is responsible for his sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail and his cousin, Benjamin Bunny. Peter (voice of James Corden) is reckless and over-confident, leading Benjamin into the garden, which McGregor has covered with scary-looking steel traps. “There are other ways to get a meal,” he’s warned. “But not as fun!” Peter says, happy to risk not just his own life, but the others’ as well.

Peter deftly avoids the traps, but almost ends up in a pie himself, escaping by slipping out of his denim jacket, which McGregor uses on a (tiny) scarecrow. Aiding his rescue is McGregor’s neighbor, Bea (as in Beatrix Potter), a sweet-spirited artist who lives next door and is a friend to all of the local animals.

When Peter goes back to retrieve his jacket, McGregor catches him. It is almost too late for him to save himself when suddenly McGregor, like Don Corleone in “The Godfather,” has a sudden heart attack in the garden, collapses and dies. Though Peter takes credit for vanquishing his foe, the narrator (Margot Robbie) assures us that his death is attributable to “78 years of bad lifestyle choices,” with a merry little montage of McGregor inhaling asbestos and eating high-fat food. Really?

This, of course, is not in the book, is completely unnecessary to the storyline, and is likely to raise concerns in some of the young viewers, especially after Peter brags that he made it happen.

The property is inherited by another Mr. McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), a persnickety control-freak of a great-nephew who barely knew he had a great-uncle with a farm and never met him. Thomas McGregor works for the famous Harrods department store, where he has a complete meltdown after being denied a promotion due to nepotism. If all of this seems superficial and unnecessary, that is because it is.

His arrival at the farm brings mayhem as he battles Peter and the rest of the local critters for the vegetable garden and the house, trying not to let his pretty neighbor know that he is not as much of an animal-lover as she is.

The movie opens with soaring birds singing an uplifting ballad — and then getting smushed, which becomes a repeated gag. So from the beginning, this film undercuts itself, winking at the audience and then trying to take it back. A joke about today’s parents’ oversensitivity to allergies is followed by “just kidding; don’t write letters!” “Don’t explain the joke,” Benjamin Bunny says. But that’s just what the movie does, constantly unsure of its focus and tone. Some sweet moments and lovely animation cannot make up for a film that is, to use a food metaphor, overstuffed and yet undernourished.

Parents should know that this movie includes some comic peril and violence, but a human character collapses and dies and there are references to the sad loss of Peter Rabbit’s parents, including his father’s being made into a pie, brief potty humor, some body shaming, and schoolyard language.

Family discussion: What did the characters learn about apologizing? Should farmers let animals eat their crops? What is your character flaw?

If you like this, try: “Babe,” “Paddington” and “Paddington 2,” and “Miss Potter,” with as Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter and Ewan McGregor as her publisher

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Posted on February 7, 2018 at 7:04 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler

Copyright 2017 Dark Star Pictures
How often we look back on our lives and think, “If I had just made one other decision, if I only had someone to help me, if just one thing had come out differently, everything would have gone better for me.” In “Entanglement,” a young man struggling with mental illness finds out that he almost had a sister. His parents were about to adopt a baby girl when his mother became pregnant with him and the adoption was canceled. She was adopted by another family. He decides to track down the woman who could have been his sister because he thinks that if he had just grown up with someone who could understand and look out for him, his whole life could have been better. It could have made sense to him. He might even have found a way to be happy.

Thomas Middleditch plays Ben, who is interrupted by a package delivery as he is trying to commit suicide. After he is released from the mental hospital, he is despondent and unmoored. When he hears the story of his not-sister, he decides that he should try to find her. Maybe she can still be the companion and confidante of unique understanding whose unquestioning appreciation would give him more confidence. He does not consider whether he is interested in or capable of providing that same unquestioning appreciation and support, but that’s pretty much the problem. As is often the case, mental illness makes it difficult for him to relate to others, even the compassionate neighbor Tabby (Diana Bang) who comes over to his apartment to clean up and check in on him.

Ben finds Hanna (Jess Weixler), who seems to be the usual movie manic pixie dream girl, but (1) Weixler, an exceptionally appealing and talented actress, makes her more than that, and (2) that is what writer Jason Filiatrault and director Jason James want us to think so they can surprise us with a twist of that tired concept at the end.

Middleditch is a talented actor too often relegated to shy nerd roles like the one he plays in “Silicon Valley.” As he showed in “The Bronze,” he is thoughtful and honest and the movie has a more nuanced understanding of mental illness than most, and an optimism and empathy that nicely balances its bittersweetness.

Parents should know that this movie has a frank but optimistic portrayal of mental illness, including a suicide attempt and medication. There are sexual references and situations and characters use strong language.

Family discussion: How did Hanna help Ben? What does entanglement mean to you?

If you like this, try: “Harold and Maude”

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Illness, Medicine, and Health Care Movies

A Fantastic Woman

Posted on February 6, 2018 at 2:12 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler

Copyright 2017 Sony Pictures Classics
Chile’s Oscar-nominated “A Fantastic Woman” is a modern twist on the kind of Douglas Sirk or Joan Crawford movies of the 1950’s about women in torment. Those were stories of women forced to suffer indignities but who never lost their own dignity and glamour. In the mid-century, “the problem that has no name” described by Betty Friedan had not yet led to the women’s movement, and women in film and in real life often felt invisible, as though all women cared about was keeping the house clean and the children happy. In this film, our heroine is a trans woman named Marina, played by a trans actress, Daniela Vega. The story is about her struggle to be seen for who she is and for all that she is.

“I didn’t think anyone was here,” says the son of Marina’s lover, who has used his key to barge into the apartment they shared without knocking and announces he is taking their dog. For Marina, still in shock from the sudden death of the man she loved, this is just one of a series of encounters intended to do more than ignore her — they are intended to erase her. It is not just that her lover’s adult children and former wife are embarrassed to acknowledge that he was in love with a young trans woman. They do not want to acknowledge that she existed. They do not want her at the funeral. They want her to vacate the apartment immediately. The police, the doctor at the hospital, the social worker and the doctor she insists must examine Marina for evidence of abuse — all find a way to diminish and misgender her. Even someone close to her has to be reminded to put on his glasses so he can see her clearly.

Throughout it all, Vega suffers exquisitely. Others try not to see who she is, but Marina is entirely secure in herself and in the love she shared with the man who died. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, Marina uses the refusal of the world to see her as a protective cloak of invisibility, to allow her to pass from one strictly gendered sanctuary, the women’a locker room of a sauna, to another: the men’s. In order to reclaim something that means a great deal to her, she will temporarily erase the core of her being, an essential self she has fought very hard to claim. Vega’s face as she makes her way from the towel-under-the-arms women’s locker room to the towel-around-the-waist men’s locker room is a brilliantly layered mix of emotions.

In more than one scene, reflections show us characters as doubles. This movie is a double of its own, with art and life reflecting one another so that we see not just Marina but also Vega for the fantastic women they are.

Parents should know that this movie includes mature material, with nudity, sexual references and situations, bigotry against a trans woman, strong language, peril and violence, and a sad death.

Family discussion: How does the movie show us characters who are unable to or refuse to “see” Marina? What do we learn from the fantasy sequences?

If you like this, try; “Volver” and the Amazon series “Transparent”

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