THE BOTTOM LINE: The sword and knife fights are highly choreographed and not bloody at all. Nor are Romeo and Juliet’s deaths graphic, though of course he does take poison and she stabs herself. Their one marital night together is not at all explicit — very gauzy and understated.
Captain Phillips. Not graphically violent but still too intense for middle-schoolers, this sharp dramatization of a 2009 incident will give high-schoolers more than just action-movie thrills. Tom Hanks adds a fine character study to his résumé as Richard Phillips, captain of the container ship Maersk Alabama, who faces a life-altering test when pirates board his ship off the coast of Somalia. He tries to get them to leave with just $30,000 from the ship’s safe, but the leader demands millions in ransom. The pirates, unhappy with the way negotiations are going on the ship (the crew cleverly evades the invaders for many hours), take Phillips hostage aboard a lifeboat and aim it toward the Somali coast. It is in that tight, podlike space that the drama plays out, to point-blank effect.
The bottom line: Throughout most of the film, the intensity comes more from a sense of menace than from actual violence. Guns are fired in the air and there is punching and shouting. At the end, there are lethal shootings and much spattered blood. The script includes rare use of the S-word.
12 Years a Slave. Based on the published memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was abducted and sold into slavery, this harrowing, stunning film offers a shattering insight into the South’s “peculiar institution.” Too disturbing and violent for middle-schoolers, it should perhaps be required viewing for high-schoolers mature enough to handle the material and who are studying American history. Two white men invite Northup, a successful musician in Saratoga, N.Y., to Washington to perform. There, they ply him with wine, and Northup awakes in shackles in a cell. Transported south by riverboat with other abductees, Northup is sold, first to a relatively nonviolent owner, then to a new master, the drunken, violent Edwin Epps. Epps grows jealous of Northup’s platonic friendship with the slave Patsey, whom Epps covets and, in one scene, viciously rapes.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The beatings, whippings and torture to which Northup is subjected are intensely disturbing. Epps’s rape of Patsey feels graphic but not sexual. Characters use the N-word often.