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Unfinished Business
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating:
Rated R for some strong risque sexual content/graphic nudity, and for language and drug use
Release Date:
March 6, 2015

 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating:
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material
Release Date:
November 21, 2014

Chappie
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating:
Rated R for violence, language and brief nudity
Release Date:
March 6, 2015

 

Foxcatcher
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating:
Rated R for some drug use and a scene of violence
Release Date:
November 21, 2014

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating:

Release Date:
March 6, 2015

 

Horrible Bosses 2
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating:
Rated R for strong crude sexual content and language throughout
Release Date:
November 26, 2104

Running With Scissors

posted by jmiller
B
Lowest Recommended Age:Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating:Rated R for strong language and elements of sexuality, violence and substance abuse.
Movie Release Date:2006
DVD Release Date:2007

The appeal for actors of movies about hideously dysfunctional people is obvious. They’re fun to play, and always good for awards consideration. Which script would you go for, the umpty-umpth “meet cute” romantic comedy or the one where you play a wildly disturbed and pathologically self-centered character and get to say things like, “Let’s dig up the cat we buried. I can hear him saying he is not really dead.” The appeal for audiences of stories that teeter on the edge between horror, tragedy, and over-the-top comedy is less clear. And in this movie, brilliant performances are not enough to make up for a story that is no deeper than the perky 70’s hits on the soundtrack. The actors fill the characters with life and conflict. But they can’t fill the movie, which feels hollow.


There are movies where the heroes take on aliens or Nazis or fire-breathing dragons. And then there are movies where the heroes take on something really scary — family. Just about everyone at one time or another has rolled his eyes and confided to a friend that his family is really nutty. Perhaps that is why we are drawn to stories about families that really are crazy, whether benign and charmingly light-hearted (the Oscar-winning You Can’t Take it With You), mordantly funny (The Addams Family), profoundly tragic (The Glass Menagerie, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, both based on the authors’ own families), gothic (Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte), or downright deranged (Nothing But Trouble). This story seems to have a bit of all of the above. It’s based on writer Augusten Burroughs’ memoir of his childhood. While there have been some allegations and even a lawsuit filed by some of the people he wrote about alleging that some of the wilder stuff is not true, but it is hard to imagine anyone making this stuff up.


Augusten is raised by a distant father (Alec Baldwin) and a narcissistic mother (Annette Benning) who treats him as something between a co-conspirator and a lackey. As long as he tells her what she wants to hear (he assures her that her poem is just what the New Yorker is looking for), she allows him to skip school, polish his allowance, and fix her hair. But his parents’ marriage fractures and his mother becomes increasingly unstable — and increasingly in the thrall of a charismatic therapist named Dr. Finch (Brian Cox), who gives her drugs. She gives custody of Augusten to Finch.


Finch’s home is filthy. His family is a cracked parody of Augusten’s sitcom-inspired fantasy. They speak casually, even smugly, about the most deranged concepts and events. At one level, they enjoy trying to shock each other. Perhaps they enjoy trying to shock themselves; at least they will feel something. But other than Finch himself, who seems lost in delusions and denial (but not so lost that he can’t play power games), each of them wants desperately to be “normal.” But each of them feels so damaged that “normal” is out of reach.


Finch’s wife Agnes (Jill Clayburgh) is kindly but fragile and overwhelmed. One daughter, Hope (Gwyneth Paltrow) adores her father and is jealous of anyone else who has his attention or affection. She insists her cat talks to her. The other daughter, Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood), enjoys being outrageous. She is bitterly hurt and dreams of leaving to go to college. Another lost soul “adopted” by the Finches, Neil Bookman (Joseph Fiennes) seduces and abuses Augusten, who is so hungry for love and attention that he holds on.


Augusten keeps hoping one of his parents will come for him, but his mother is always caught up in a drug- or love- or grandiosity-induced haze and his father is distant. Ultimately, he has to discover on his own who he wants to be and how to get there.


Parents should know that this film is about very dysfunctional and abusive families and includes a great deal of inappropriate, narcissistic, and deeply disturbing behavior. Characters use very explicit language, smoke, drink, and abuse drugs in the presence of children. Underage characters have sex with predatory adults. A character attempts suicide at the direction of another character.


Families who see this movie should talk about the way that Burroughs turned the tragic events of his life into a work of art and a bridge to take him to a place of stability and satisfying work and relationships.

Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy the book and its sequels. This article discusses the lawsuit filed by the “Finch” family alleging that the book misrepresents them.

Catch a Fire

posted by jmiller
B+
Lowest Recommended Age:High School
MPAA Rating:Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving torture and abuse, violence and brief language.
Movie Release Date:2006
DVD Release Date:2007

A sizzling performance by Derek Luke ignites this story about Patrick Chamusso, a South African oil refinery worker who became caught up in the fight against apartheid.


Chamusso who did his best to stay out of trouble and care for his family. But as Trotsky said, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Wrongly accused of a terrorist attack at the refinery, he is captured and tortured. But it is when his wife Precious (Bonnie Henna) is also tortured that he becomes committed to doing anything he can — anything that is necessary — to bring down the racist regime. He leaves his family and goes to Mozambique to join the rebellious ANC forces and under their direction returns to plant a bomb in the refinery.


Tim Robbins plays secret police chief Nic Vos. Like Chamusso, fear for his family leads him to do terrible things. “Twenty-three million blacks to three million whites. We’re the underdogs. We’re the ones under attack,” he says. He has convinced himself that he is not a monster because he draws a line; he will not hold a man he knows to be innocent. But he is willing to torture people he knows to be innocent. He does not seem to do it because he thinks he will get information from them or frighten them away from fighting the system. He seems to do it to convince himself that these people are less than human. He does it to convince himself that he must do it.


If Vos is not a monster, Chamusso is not a saint. He has no alibi the first time he is captured because he was with an old girlfriend, the mother of his child, and his wife may leave him if she finds out. His pride and fear and her jealousy lead to imprisonment, torture, separation, and rebellion. Chamusso emphasizes that the acts he undertakes are designed to blow up equipment, not to injure anyone. But one side’s freedom fighter is the other side’s terrorist, and many people on both sides are killed. The worst betrayal Chamusso faces is not racism but something much more personal. And the biggest challenge he faces is not racism — or fear, or torture, or guns — but forgiveness.


Luke’s African accent is understated and his effortless grace shows real star power. He is utterly convincing and utterly compelling as an easy-going man devoted to his family who is transformed into someone who believes he has nothing left to lose. His performance is all the more wrenching because he resists the temptation to showboat. There are no heroics here, no grimaces of resignation and dedication. His emotions are complex, but they are pure.

Parents should know that this movie includes disturbing scenes of torture and terrorism. Many characters are killed. There is brief strong language and some drinking. A strength of the movie is its portrayal of the agonizing consequences of apartheid.


Families who see this film should talk about the origins of apartheid and the extraordinary story of Nelson Mandela and the non-violent transition to democracy. They should learn about South Africa’s pioneering Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a tribunal that focused on integrity and validation rather than retribution. What did Vos want most? What did Chamusso want? How did each explain to themselves and their families what they were doing? There is more information about the real-life Patrick Chamusso here.


Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Cry Freedom, with Denzel Washington as Steven Biko, Sarafina, Master Harold…And the Boys, and Hotel Rwanda.

The Prestige

posted by jmiller
B+
Lowest Recommended Age:High School
MPAA Rating:Rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing images.
Movie Release Date:2006
DVD Release Date:2007

As if we should believe him, Hugh Jackman’s character proclaims in “The Prestige” that magicians have a “circle of trust.” “The Prestige” takes that circle of trust and twists it into a Russian roulette, with Jackman betting on black and Bale on red, and both magicians playing the odds despite risk or consequence.


The film follows Robert Angier (Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) as they duel for supremacy in 19th century England, constantly trying to top or steal each other’s tricks. They strain to impress their audiences but agonize, at the end of the day, over what the other magician thought of the show. It seems as simple as pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but having been crafted by Christopher and John Nolan (the team behind Memento), the plot is, likes its characters, a master of misdirection.


The men’s entire circle of friends, family and colleagues is affected by their contest, and even as an audience we don’t realize how far the “circle of trust” extends until we see we’ve got chips on the table, too. The ball pings from magician to magician, heavy with our emotional investment; it all seems like a game of chance until it becomes clear that, like everything else in the film, it’s rigged: the magicians are passing the audience’s trust around in the same way that they manipulate and manhandle the people close to them. The effect is feeling at once cheated and invigorated by the film’s refusal to play by the rules.


Just as with “Memento” and “Batman Begins” (also directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Bale), the film is heavy on style and concept (deliciously so), but also keenly focused on character and personal motive. Although it’s never quite clear why either man is so enchanted with magic, the rivalry is so believable and well acted that in the end the magic is just a vehicle to get to the characters (much as it is for the magicians themselves).


Surfacing just as “The Illusionist” is leaving theatres, it’s worth noting that the two films are very different. They’re both tales of top hats, trickery and trench coats, but similarities could end there. Those still debating what happpened in The Illusionist will find the explanations here more satisfying. Where The Illusionist impresses with the magic (a funny concept in the CGI age), “The Prestige” goes beyond it, showing the on-stage tricks from the beginning — essentially diverting attention to what the audience thought it wanted to see — while an entire other sequence plays out side stage.


Parents should know that the film is suspenseful and at times horrific. There are deaths involving hangings and drowning, and a suicide, and there are startling gunshot injuries in addition to other shocking “accidents.” The two characters spend much of the film sabotaging each other’s illusions, and the consequences are often appalling.


Families who see this film should discuss the themes of revenge and obsession. They might talk about what drives the magicians’ duel, and what types of sacrifices they make and whom they hurt in their attempts to get back at each other. At one point, Bale’s character professes a wish to end the rivalry. What did it take for that character to get to the point where too much had been lost? Scarlett Johansson as Angier’s assistant, Olivia Wenscombe, is also a complex character worth exploring. Why did she react the way she did to Angier’s request? In what ways did she succeed in maintaining dignity as a person? In what ways did she fail?


Families who enjoy this film might also enjoy Houdini starring Tony Curtis, or the 1998 made-for-television version. Adults and children interested in history of the supernatural might enjoy 1997’s FairyTale: A True Story based on the renowned “Cottingley Fairies” hoax committed by two young girls in England during the first World War. As the movie shows, the real-life Houdini was one of the first to say it was a fraud.

Flags of Our Fathers

posted by jmiller
B+
Lowest Recommended Age:Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating:Rated R for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language.
Movie Release Date:2006
DVD Release Date:2007

Clint Eastwood’s first of two films about the WWII battle at Iwo Jima is sincere, competent, and respectful. He powerfully conveys the madness and brutality of battle and the conflicting feelings of thosw who fight — dedication, loyalty, patriotism, fear, courage, compassion, callousness, sacrifice, self-preservation. If these issues are not as well-presented as in other films, especially co-producer Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” they are still important, meaningful, and moving.
The story shifts back and forth in time between the experiences of the men credited with raising the flag in the iconic photo, who were used to inspire support and raise money for the war effort. We see explosions overhead. Sometimes they are gunfire; sometimes they are fireworks. The three men are sometimes not sure themselves what they are doing or why they are doing it. But their orders are to raise that flag again and again, even if it’s at halftime on a football field. Suddenly, the New York Yankees are applauding for them. A replica of the men raising the flag in white chocolate has bright red strawberry sauce poured over it, creating an image that is anything but delicious.
The men were John “Doc” Bradley, a Naval Corpsman (Ryan Phillippe) and two Marines, Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes, Jr., a Pima Indian (Adam Beach). They happened to be the ones who raised the flag the second time (when the cameras were rolling). Americans at home, sick of the war loved the triumphant picture, and loved saluting real heroes. But the men did not feel like heroes. They felt guilty staying in luxury hotels and being the center of attention. The picture was not true. One of the Marines was mis-identified, which made them feel even more hypocritical and guilty, especially Hayes, who begins to crumble with survivor guilt as he remembers those who died and what he did to stay alive. But they knew that without their help, the government would not be able to raise the money it needed to support the war effort. Meanwhile, back at tiny 5-mile-long, 2.5 mile wide Iwo Jima, the battle continued for more than a month, with 6891 Americans killed.
“When the legend becomes the truth, print the legend,” says The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. “We like nice and simple, good and evil, heroes and villains,” says this film’s narrator.
War stories always reflect the times of their telling as much as they reflect the times they depict. Compare two films not just about the same battle but with the same script, the jingoistic WWII-era “Henry V” with Laurence Olivier and the peacetime version with Kenneth Branaugh. World War II was the first major conflict to be depicted on film as it was going on. The movies of the early 1940’s were as much propoganda as drama. After the war ended, there were more complex, even cynical stories, some written by men who were there, not just about heroism but about issues that spoke to the struggles of the post-war years (The Caine Mutiny, Stalag 17, Crossfire). A movie about the Korean War (M*A*S*H) reflected the concerns about the then-current Viet Nam war.
This film, or, perhaps we should say, this first half (Eastwood is working on a second film telling the story from the Japanese point of view) raises very contemporary issues about illusion and reality, about what we expect in and from heroes, about how wars are always about politicians sending young men (and now women) to be killed. Yet it fails to meet its own standards, killing off all of the characters who are pure of heart and leaving only the complicated and flawed ones alive. It keeps us curiously remote from its characters, the images more powerful than the story in an unintentionally ironic case of form over content.

Parents should know that this movie has extremely intense, brutal, and graphic battle violence, including torture. Many characters are killed and there are very graphic and disturbing injuries. A character apparently commits suicide. Characters use strong language, drink (one abuses alcohol) and smoke. A strength of the movie is its portrayal of the racism of the era and of some characters who are not bigoted.

Families who see this movie will want to learn more about the battle for Iwo Jima and the men in the famous photo. They should talk about who in the movie were the real heroes and why. Will we be making films about the War in Iraq 60 years from now? What will they say?
Families who enjoy this movie will also appreciate the many superb films about WWII and other famous soldiers and battles, including Saving Private Ryan (very intense violence), The Longest Day, To Hell and Back (with Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of the war, playing himself), and A Bridge Too Far. Movies that raise some of the issues posed by this film include The Americanization of Emily, The Caine Mutiny, The Right Stuff, and Gardens of Stone. John Wayne starred in Sands of Iwo Jima, with Hayes, Bradley, and Gagnon appearing as themselves, and Tony Curtis played Ira Hayes in The Outsider.

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