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Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating:
Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence
Release Date:
October 24, 2014

 

Moms' Night Out
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG for mild thematic elements and some action
Release Date:
May 9, 2014

John Wick
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating:
Rated R for strong and bloody violence throughout, language and brief drug use
Release Date:
October 24, 2014

 

Begin Again
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating:

Release Date:
July 2, 2014

23 Blast
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG-13 for some teen drinking
Release Date:
October 24, 2014

 

Wish I Was Here
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating:
Rated R for language and some sexual content
Release Date:
July 18, 2014

Inside Man

posted by jmiller
A-
Lowest Recommended Age:High School
MPAA Rating:Rated R for language and some violent images.
Movie Release Date:2006
DVD Release Date:2006

Spike Lee’s brilliant direction and a clever and surprising script from first-timer Russell Gewirtz provide an ideal setting for four of the most watchable actors in the business in a heist film that transcends and tweaks its genre. It has brains, heart, and a sizzling fireball of sheer star power, and it is a dazzling tour de force.


Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) tells us his story and then we see it unfold from the beginning, with little forward glimpses of post-robber interviews by detectives Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Four people enter a bank dressed as painters. They take out the security cameras with powerful lights and then tell everyone to lie down. They are there to rob the bank and all of the employees and customers are hostages.


Even though he is dealing with his own problems at the office, including a matter of some missing money that may be a frame-up by an angry drug dealer, Frazier is sent to negotiate with the robbers. The police captain (Willem Dafoe) secures the area. And the chairman of the board of the bank (Christopher Plummer) makes his first call to a mysterious woman named White (Jodie Foster), as silkily menacing when asking a favor, proposing a bribe, or making a threat. Indeed, there seems to be no difference between the three. It seems that the chairman has some very important items in a safe deposit box in the bank that is being robbed. Those contents must be protected or destroyed and he must be assured of compete discretion. So she will have to find a way to negotiate with the robber, too.


Lee drives the film through the twists and turns of the plot as though it was a European sportscar. When he shoots his own scripts, it is easy to forget what a superb director he is because the stories are so provocative they distract from his skill in telling the story. But in this film, every choice of shot, every point of view, every edit serves the story and Lee’s superb control of tone, pacing, and setting are almost another character in the film. And so is the city. Lee’s obvious affection for the city’s structures and people is evident throughout, and many of its brightest moments come from the wide range of characters who are vividly realized even in brief appearances.


Denzel Washington may be the greatest movie star of our time. There is no one who can match him for sheer star power and charisma, and no one who comes close to the way he is as in control of that power in service of the story and the character. His Frazier is a man who takes his time in the midst of chaos to calm a witness, to ask a beat cop about a past experience, to pay attention to every detail and make them part of the narrative and part of the unraveling of the mystery. In their fourth film together, Lee shows once again that he knows how to use Washington’s confidence and natural charm to pull us into the story and the small moments as meaningful as the guns and all those piles of cash.

Clive Owen, who has to do most of his acting behind a mask, has a steely resolve, but in scenes with Washington and with a child who is one of the hostages, he shows self-assured wit that is completely engaging. Washington, Owen, and Ejiofor play off each other as though they are tossing off jazz riffs — it seems effortless and improvised but it all fits together like a jigsaw puzzle with no missing pieces. Only Foster disappoints, waggling her head as an attempt to show gravitas. And maybe the way it all comes together is a little too cute. There are a couple of “wait a minute….” thoughts on the way to the parking lot. Overall, though, it is the most satisying film of the year so far, by far.

Some people will complain that Lee has become an “inside man,” trading his tough, highly individual, fully engaged films about big issues for a genre piece. I don’t agree. What he has done here is show that he knows how to make a mainstream film that works on many levels, one of them being sheer entertainment. If that’s “inside,” so what? Let him take the money and the clout and do something else next time.


Parents should know that this movie has very strong and crude language, including racial epithets and sexual references. There is some violence, including shooting and apparent killing. A strength of the movie is its portrayal of intelligent and capable diverse characters who are honest about bigotry but do their best to work together.


Families who see this movie should talk about how Frazier, Russell, White, the mayor, and Case decide what their priorities are. Who makes the biggest compromises? What will happen next?

Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy other heist movie classics, like $, Die Hard 3, the original Thomas Crown Affair, The Great Train Robbery, The Taking of Pelham 123, Dog Day Afternoon, and the underrated Bill Murray comedy Quick Change.

Akeelah and the Bee

posted by jmiller
A-
Lowest Recommended Age:4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating:Rated PG for some language.
Movie Release Date:2006
DVD Release Date:2006

“Prestidigitation.”


Akeelah (Keke Palmer) has just won her school’s spelling bee and everyone is impressed and proud. But Dr. Larrabee (Laurence Fishburne), who, like Keke, grew up in Compton, pushes her further, with this long word that means magic.


“Prestidigiation.”


And she knows it.


The movie has its own form of prestidigitation, not only in the transformation of its characters as they learn from each other and the experiences they share but on the audience as well. This is one of the best family films in a very long time and one of the best films of the year.


Oh, there are some meanies out there who may groan when the girl from Compton who loves words gets coached by everyone from the gruff but cuddly local drug dealer to the kind-hearted homeless guy. It takes a village, even in the Hood, the movie seems to say. And it all fits together just a little too neatly, so we’re not surprised when a girl with a missing daddy is befriended by a man who is dealing with his own loss as well. And yes, it follows the traditional underdog formula: a show of talent, a lack of confidence, an inspiring but demanding mentor, commitment at first uncertain, then whole-hearted, setbacks, unexpected friendships, an opponent who lacks our heroine’s heart and integrity, and then everything coming together at the big competition.


These themes are eternal, and eternally compelling and appealing, as long as the details are right and the characters are people we care about. And this is where “Akeelah” really delivers, with superb performances and a script filled with heart and humor. KeKe Palmer glows as Akeelah and Angela Bassett is marvelous as the mother who is loving but exhausted and terrified of risking any more loss. Laurence Fishburne is magnificent as Akeelah’s coach, Dr. Larabee, a man who has more in common with Akeelah than he wants to admit. The result is one of the best family films of the year and that spells: E-X-C-E-L-L-E-N-T.

Parents should know that the movie includes some tense family confrontations, references to sad deaths and marital separation, and a schoolyard scuffle. There is a subtle reference to local gangsters and a young woman has an apparently out of wedlock baby. There are sweet kisses on the cheek and a joke about sexual harassment. A strength of the film is its portrayal of dedicated, talented, devoted, accomplished women and minorities.

Families who see this movie should talk about what made Akeelah not want to enter the spelling bee and what made her decide to do it. Why did her friend not want to be her friend? Why did her mother not want her to participate? What was the most important lesson Akeelah learned from Dr. Larrabee, and what was the most important thing he learned from her?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Spellbound, the outstanding documentary about the national spelling bee. My interview with Fishburne is in Beliefnet.com. And every family should read the wonderfully inspiring quote from Marianne Williamson (often mistakenly attributed to Nelson Mandela):


Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we subconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

She’s the Man

posted by jmiller
B+
Lowest Recommended Age:Middle School
MPAA Rating:Rated PG-13 for some sexual material
Movie Release Date:2006
DVD Release Date:2006

It worked for Shakespeare, so why not for Amanda Bynes?


Shakespeare had female characters pretending to be male because they were all played by men anyway. While his prodigious heart and brain certainly understood the rich and delightful narrative and comedic opportunities involved in having some characters in on the secret while others were not, even he probably did not understand how subversive and revolutionary the material could be. In his play Twelfth Night, Viola survives a shipwreck and arrives in Illyria. Thinking her brother Sebastian has been drowned, pretends to be a man to protect herself in a world that is treacherous for women who do not have anyone to protect them. She goes to work for a Orsino, a duke, who asks her to press his suit on Olivia. But Olivia has no interest in the duke; she begins to fall for the disguised Viola. As a man, Viola so resembles her brother that when he returns, not knowing she survived, he is mistaken for her, adding to the confusion.


The Viola in this story (Bynes) is a high school girl who loves soccer. The girls’ team is cut, and her boyfriend, captain of the boys’ team, won’t let them try out. So when her brother Sebastian (James Kirk) sneaks off to London with his rock group to play in a festival, she takes his place at at his new school, Illyria. Her plan is to try out for their soccer team as a boy and stay on long enough to beat their #1 rival, her school, with the team led by her now ex-boyfriend.


At first, the boys in the dorm think “Sebastian” is a little odd. But with the help of a friend, she gets a reputation as a hit with beautiful women. And she begins to get the hang of the guy thing, though there are still some challenges, like finding some time to take a shower when there’s no one around and explaining what the tampons are doing in her stuff.


Her roommate, Duke Orsino (Channing Tatum), captain of the Illyria soccer team, offers to help her become first-string if she will put in a good word for him with Olivia. But of course Olivia is attracted to “Sebastian,” especially after she reads the real Sebastian’s lyrics. Meanwhile, the twins’ mother expects them both at the Junior League carnival fund-raiser. Sebastian’s pushy girlfriend has to be kept at a distance so she doesn’t figure out what’s going on. And there’s that big game.


Bynes is a terrifically talented and appealing performer with the true fearlessness and lack of vanity of a born commedienne. This film doesn’t let her show off all she can do, but she handles the predictable complications well, from the quick changes in the carnival’s port-a-john to the faked grimace and moans when she gets hit in the crotch with a soccer ball.

First-time director Andy Flickman and a bright and able cast keep the energy high and the story moving. The opening credit sequence, a soccer game on the beach, sets a bright and brashly kinetic tone that keeps things bouncy as all of the characters and plot points come together for a happily ever after ending. Flickman and first-time writer Ewan Leslie wisely put a solid base of dignity and honesty under the pratt falls and close calls, avoiding the usual teen-movie gags (in both senses of the word). I hope they make a sequel, maybe an update of “Two Gentleman of Verona” set on a college campus?

Parents should know that the film includes some crude language (the b-word, etc.), and some comic implied nudity. There are a few punches and scuffles. But one strength of the film is that while the characters talk a great deal about who is “hot,” the film’s strong point of view is that the priority in relationships is emotional intimacy, not physical intimacy. Another strength of the movie is its casual portrayal of inter-racial relationships. While at first an unattractive character is played for laughs, ultimately, even she is treated with respect and affection.


Families who see this movie should talk about what led Viola to change her feelings about Justin and Sebastian to change his about Monique. What was the most important thing Viola learned? If you wanted to pretend to be the opposite sex, what would be the hardest part? Families should also talk about how important it was that Viola and Olivia valued themselves enough to make sure that they only spent time with boys who would value them, too. And they should compare this movie to Shakespeare’s version to find out, among other things, how Malcolm’s tarantula got the name “Malvolio.”

Families who enjoy this film will appreciate Disney’s High School Musical They will also enjoy the similarly themed gender-switching Just One of the Guys, and Tootsie (both with more mature material). And every family should enjoy the classic named as the American Film Institute’s top comedy of all time: Some Like it Hot. Families will also enjoy comparing this film to its source, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

V for Vendetta

posted by jmiller
B
Lowest Recommended Age:High School
MPAA Rating:Rated R for strong violence and some language.
Movie Release Date:2006
DVD Release Date:2006

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot. I see no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.”


Who says good-looking, brawny action flicks cannot also have brains to match? “V for Vendetta,” based on Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s ground-breaking comic books from the late ‘80’s, keeps the source’s gnarly moral issues, amps up the explosions and thins out the subplots to delight audiences looking for two-plus hours of solid entertainment who are willing to do some mental work to get there. Trust the combination of director James McTeigue and screenplay writers the Wachowski Brothers (all three of whom collaborated on the Matrix trilogy) to turn in another example of why monosyllabic action movie protagonists must blow things up to keep audiences riveted but their chatty, if insane, brethren can make the words themselves into explosions.


The plot is a complex knot that requires lots of dialogue to frame the scenes of action, which might try the patience of those looking for simpler, shoot-‘em-up fare. The opening scenes give a helpful but brief sketch of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Conspiracy and how on November 5, 1605, Fawkes attempted unsuccessfully to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Fast-forward to a near-future Britain locked down under elected-fascist “Chancellor” Sutler (John Hurt), who came to power after biological weapons reduced the country to chaos. Evey (Natalie Portman, delightfully far from her “Star Wars” role) is a young professional, orphaned by the state when the crackdown on political protesters resulted in mass disappearances of anyone the government considered “different” or rebellious, including her parents.


On Evey’s foray into London after curfew the eve of November 5, she happens across government officers who threaten her. Enter a knife-wielding man in black wearing a Guy Fawkes mask (Hugo Weaving) who saves her then treats her to a rooftop view of the fireworks and explosions as Old Bailey, London’s famed criminal court, goes up in smoke. He is V.


The duration of the movie tracks V as he exacts revenge, Evey as she is hunted for associating with V, and the police officers, Finch (Stephen Rea, as circumspect and jowly as always) and Dominic (Rupert Graves) as they try to sort out V’s history and uncover state secrets in the process. Popular television host, Dietrich (Stephen Fry, stealing scenes with ease and humor) tumbles into the mix but the driving force at the heart of the movie is Evey’s relationship with V, the man and the mask. The ticking bomb of a backdrop is V’s promise to blow up Parliament the following November and the growing rebellion that he incites along the way.


Some audiences will not like the political implications, blurred lines between “revolutionary” and “terrorist,” and the horrific means-to-an-end approach taken by government and V alike; however, there is ample beauty, dangerous ideas, special-effects fairy dust, intelligence and wit to transform the story from a “Phantom of the Opera” meets “Brazil” type melodrama into a high-caliber thinking person’s action film. With a goal that ambitious and the style to back it up, this V will be a victor to many fans.


Parents should know that this movie has mature themes including torture, terrorism, anarchy, fascism, intolerance, hypocrisy and demagoguery. Characters are killed, held in concentration-camp like prisons, tortured and persecuted. Scientific experiments are performed on foreigners, homosexuals, protesters and others. There are fight scenes resulting in much gore, scenes of mass burials of emaciated naked bodies, and vomit-stained corpses. A character is threatened with rape, a committed same-sex couple kisses, and a bishop implicitly hires child prostitutes. There is social drinking, cigar-smoking, and references to a character’s addiction to prescription medication.


Families who see this movie have a lot to talk about. Beyond the theme of fascism versus democracy or even anarchy, there is a deeper question here of whether the ends justify the means in the personal and the political realms. V sees himself as a “revolutionary” and a man looking for vengeance; however others use the term “terrorist” for him.


The original comic books were released during Margaret Thatcher’s second and third terms as Prime Minister and were seen as commentary upon the Tory government’s intolerance of dissent or difference. In them, the very common British comic book theme of chaos versus order is played out with a decidedly more sympathetic than usual approach to anarchy. How does this movie fit itself into the current political environment? What do V’s actions reflect and how would you assess his choices? The dialogue where he calls what was done to him “monstrous” and that he became a monster as a result reflects the belief that actions have equal reactions. Do you think this is true? What do you think happens the day after the last scene in the movie?


Families who enjoy this movie might be interested in the graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. The drawing and colors now might seem a little dated but this late 1980’s comic book series milestone, along with “The Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon (now in pre-production), catapulted the reclusive Moore to fame and fundamentally shook up the graphic novel world. Parents should know that the graphic novel contains mature themes and is harsher in tone than the movie.


Families might want to see the 1934 version of The Count of Monte Cristo with Robert Donat, which is a motif throughout this movie. They might also want to see Brazil or Nineteen Eighty-Four (also starring John Hurt, only this time as the victim), two British movies delving into the struggle of the one against a futuristic, powerful state where the individual has no rights. Finally, it would be impossible not to mention the Wachowski Brothers and not to mention and recommend The Matrix.


Thanks to guest critic AME.

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