Bell and Grammer are consummate pros. They cannot make this material surprising, believable, or even particularly moving, but they do their considerable best to hold our attention and are always watchable. Their scenes together are high points, even when the big speeches are thinly conceived. If the discussions about whether Rachel really needs to be on her phone at a gorgeous secluded waterfall and whether Harry has really confessed everything Rachel should know get tedious, the evident enjoyment that Bell and Grammer have in being together, especially in their silly karaoke number, make us happy to come sail away with them for a little while.
Comic peril and mayhem, reference to sad death of a parent, brief wartime battle scenes
Date Released to Theaters:
August 3, 2018
You can’t become a child again. But you can reconnect to the child who still lives within you, and when you do, it means even more because you know how precious it is. That is not just the theme of “Christopher Robin.” It is the experience of watching it. Enchanting production design from Jennifer Williams and cinematography from Matthias Koenigswieser make the 100 Acre Wood the place anyone would love to do nothing in.
Last year year we had the very disappointing “Goodbye, Christopher Robin,” a sour and unfocused film about the Milne family, the traumatized father, the distant mother, and the unhappy child who inspired the classic Winnie the Pooh books. This fantasy is far truer to the spirit of those books, and a most welcome late-summer pleasure. Those who know and love the books will be happy with the fidelity to the stories and characters. Those who do not know them will enjoy the film and, I hope, be inspired to read the books as well, and check out the Disney animated stories.
For those new to A.A. Milne: there are four books, two chapter books and two of poetry, about the life of young Christopher Robin (Orton O’Brien), and his stuffed toys, especially his best friend, a “bear of little brain” and unquenchable thirst for honey, Winnie the (or ther) Pooh, known affectionately just as Pooh. With his friends, the anxious Piglet, the gloomy donkey Eeyore, the devoted kangaroo mother Kanga and the baby she carries in her pocket, Roo, the bossy Rabbit and the occasionally wise Owl, he lives in the Edenic Hundred Acre Wood, where there is always time to pleasantly do nothing at all.
But the sad fact is that children grow up. “The day finally comes as it does to all children, to say good-gye.” Christopher Robin is being sent to boarding school. He has one last tea in the woods with his friends, and then he’s gone.
We follow his story with Ernest Shepard-like illustrations that match those in the books, but it is idyllic no more. Christopher Robin’s father dies. He grows up (now played by Ewan McGregor) and falls in love with Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), but he is at war when their daughter Madeline is born.
And then he is home, working as an efficiency expert in a luggage company that is feeling a post-war pinch, and he is under enormous pressure to cut costs. He is affectionate but distracted and neglectful. When Madeline (Bronte Carmichael) asks for a bedtime story he picks up the nearest book and ends up reading to her about the industrial revolution. Then he lets Evelyn and Madeline down again by telling them he cannot join them on a weekend in the country because he has to work.
And then Pooh shows up in London (voiced by Jim Cummings, who also provided the endearing slightly husky voice for the Disney animated Pooh). He needs to be taken back home to find his friends. Christopher Robin (called Christopher by his wife and Robin at work) packs his paperwork in his briefcase (and his brolly, of course), and takes the train, shushing Pooh and trying to find a way to cut twenty percent out of the company’s expenses.
But then he cannot help being beguiled by the charms of his old friends and their enchanted world. Children will enjoy Pooh’s simple questions as a classic comic ploy of having a character whose innocence makes them feel superior. Adults will realize that Pooh’s questions and comments may sound ignorant of adult life, as a bear of very little brain whose only concern has been finding honey might be, but in fact the very simplicity of them is what makes them profound. Christopher Robin tells his daughter that “nothing comes from nothing.” But “Doing nothing,” Pooh says, “often leads to the very best kind of something.” He asks Christopher Robin, “Is a briefcase more important than a balloon?”
Christopher Robin is split in two, like his name. He has lost touch with himself. He tells his boss that nothing matters more to him than his work and he tells his daughter she means the world to him, but he does not act as though either is true. He has delivered the message of efficiency so thoroughly that when Evelyn tells Madeline to go play, she solemnly assures her mother “I’m going to play better and harder than any child has before.”
Christopher Robin has to rediscover the pleasures of, well, pleasure before he can share it with his daughter, and it is pure pleasure to see McGregor’s face shine with the joy of remembering how to play. For all of his worry about taking care of everyone at the office and at home, he was doing poorly at both. His stuffed friends teach him how to take care of those you love with patience, by listening to them to understand what they really need. If his solution at the office is half “Mary Poppins” and half slightly skewed Keynesian economics, by then we are so sweetly beguiled, that seems just right.
Parents should know that this film includes comic peril and mayhem, reference to death of a parent, and brief wartime battle scenes.
Family discussion: Which questions from Pooh made Christopher Robin change his mind? Ask everyone in the family to describe a toy that they loved. What comes from nothing? Try playing “Say What You See” and see how different people’s answers are.
Reference to a brutal murder, tense family situations, sad offscreen death
A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters:
August 3, 2018
All parents at some point look at children and think, “Who is this and how did they get to be part of my family?” Children think that from time to time about their parents, too, especially when they get to their teens. “Far from the Tree,” based on the award-winning book by Andrew Solomon, is a documentary about the most extreme versions of that sense of disconnection. Solomon tells his own story about growing up gay and the incomprehension and rejection he experienced from his heterosexual parents, who exemplified the conventions of their era. But most of the focus of the film is on other families: Jason, a 41-year-old man with Down syndrome and the mother who worries about how he will manage when she is gone, a young woman and a married couple who are Little People, a teenager with autism who is finally able to communicate with his family, and the parents and siblings of a teenager who committed an unthinkable crime.
The movie raises questions about nature and nurture, about what “normal” means, and about the different but both vitally important feelings of connection and support we get from the families we are born into and the families we find because we understand each other. Loini Vivao, a Little Person in an affectionate but otherwise average-sized family, wonders, “Is there anybody out there like me?” When she attends her first annual Little People convention, her sense of wonder and acceptance is breathtaking. When she is invited to appear in the convention’s fashion show, she immediately demurs. She is too shy. But then we see her glowing as she owns the catwalk. One of the other attendees explains why this gathering is so important: “They come to be seen. And to disappear.” No one looks away or stares. When everyone is little, everyone is the right size.
That makes a conference room discussion among the organization’s leaders especially poignant. The topic is an experimental new drug that could “cure” some forms of dwarfism. Like the controversy over cochlear implants, this raises the question of whether dwarfism is something that needs to be “cured.” “I don’t think I need to be fixed,” says Leah Smith, who, with her husband, Assistant Professor of Philosophy Joseph Stramando, show us just how “normal” their lives are, casually using various work-arounds, from a wheelchair to a flip-flop sandal to push a hotel light switch.
Jason Kingsley’s parents wanted to prove the experts wrong, and they were successful, to a point. When Jason was born with Down syndrome, the doctor told the parents, “We send them away before attachment is formed.” But “you don’t write off a person because of the label that he wears,” his mother explains. With a lot of support, Jason became a literal poster child for people with Down syndrome, appearing on television to show that he was keeping pace academically. Jason has a job, delivering mail in an office. He lives with two other men with Down syndrome and they call themselves “The Three Musketeers.” It is not what his mother envisioned for him and she is concerned about his fragile understanding of the difference between fantasy and reality. He thinks if he can go to Norway, he can meet Elsa from “Frozen.”
The most astonishing moment in the film is when Jack Allnut, severely impaired with autism and seemingly unable to communicate or even understand what is being said to him, is given a chance to use an alphabet board. His first message is stunning. His mother says, “My God, he’s in there. It’s like I was meeting him for the first time.” And the saddest moment is the family of the teenager who committed a terrible crime. In a way, it was like they were meeting him for the first time. The family continues to love and support him, but his two siblings say they have decided never to have children.
They may change their minds. This movie is not so much about the family differences we have to surmount as it is about the imperishable love that sustains us. As Norman Mclean says in “The River Runs Through It,” “we can love completely without complete understanding.” The true greatness of families — and of humanity — is that we choose to do so.
Parents should know that this unrated film includes discussion of a brutal murder, pregnancy and miscarriage, disabilities, sex, sad offscreen deaths, and family tensions.
Family discussion: What makes you most like the rest of your family? What makes you different? Who is your tribe?
Comic, cartoon-style peril and violence, weapons, fire, attempted murder
A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters:
July 13, 2018
“You have to be carefully taught,” according to the Rodgers and Hammerstein song in “South Pacific.” Lt. Cable and Nelly Forbush sing ruefully about the prejudices drummed into them as children: “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late/Before you are six or seven or eight/To hate all the people your relatives hate/You’ve got to be carefully taught.” That same sober theme is gently raised in the midst of the silliness and fun scares of this third in the animated “Hotel Transylvania” series about Drac, the doting-to-a-fault vampire dad voiced by Adam Sandler, his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez), and her very mellow human husband, Johnny (Andy Samberg).
In just about every other respect, it’s pretty much the same movie as the first two, with slightly less clever monster jokes than the first one and a slightly more appealing storyline than the second one. Basically, Adam Sandler gets to do his two favorite things: speak in a “funny” accent voice and be lazy, preferably in an exotic location (IRS, check to see if he deducted a cruise as a business expense in developing this one).
Drac is still over-involved in his daughter’s life, worrying way too much when you consider that it is very difficult to harm a vampire. In case we were not clear on that, it is spelled out for us in the movie’s opening flashback, set in 1897, where vampire killer Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan) is trying to destroy Drac. But he is no match for a vampire with nimbleness, courage, and imperviousness to any threat but garlic or a stake through the heart. The original story’s third weapon against vampires, a crucifix, is omitted in favor of cartoon secularism, as is the ickiness of subsisting on blood, the inconvenience of sleeping in sunlight, or the problem of marriage between someone with a human life span and someone who never ages. Any concerns about those issues are for Twihards.
These are cute and cuddly monsters, including the Invisible Man (David Spade), Frankenstein and his bride (Kevin James and Fran Drescher), Murray the Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key), and Mr. and Mrs. Wolfman (Steve Buscemi and Molly Shannon), with their dozens of wolf-babies. There’s nothing at all scary about them and they seem to spend all of their time hanging out with each other, first at the resort that gives the series its title and then at Mavis’ surprise vacation — a cruise ship with all the amenities. As Drac points out, that means it’s just his hotel except on a boat. There’s one other big difference, though. He’s not in charge, which is both worrying and a little bit relaxing as well. “You need a vacation from managing everyone else’s vacation,” Mavis tells him. And this will be a chance for them to have some quality time together as a family.
Drac insists that the cruise, headed for the Bermuda Triangle and the lost continent of Atlantis “is not the Love Boat.” But he is beginning to think he might be interesting in finding romance (the vampire term is “zing” for love at first sight), many years since the death of Mavis’ mother. He even tries to find someone he’d like to swipe right on on the monster version of Tinder, called Zinger. And then, he takes a look at the beautiful — and human — ship’s captain, Erika (Kathryn Hahn), and ZING.
There’s some “monsters gotta be monsters” stuff — “We’re here, we’re hairy, and it’s our right to be scary!” Though of course they’re not scary after all and as in the other films it is the humans and their unwillingness to look beyond the tentacles and fur to see that just like us, monsters love their families and don’t want to hurt anyone. There’s a lot of silly stuff, a cute dance number, some appealing if uninspired pop song selections (Bruno Mars, the Beach Boys, the ubiquitous Mr. Blue Sky), plus the one song no one can resist dancing to (I won’t spoil it, but the audience groans suggested no one was surprised). It turns out music does have charms to sooth the savage beast after all. And this movie has enough charm to soothe little savages on summer vacation for 90 minutes or so.
Parents should know that this movie has some schoolyard language, potty humor, peril and violence (including attempted murder of monsters and a character who is badly injured and ultimately almost entirely prosthetic).
Family discussion: Why did Van Helsing hate monsters? Which monster would you like to be and why?
Peril, injury, some disturbing images, family issues, military-related PTSD
Date Released to Theaters:
June 29, 2018
Author Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment was inspired by a news story reporting that a father and daughter were living off the grid but in plain sight, camping out in a Portland, Oregon public park. Writer/director Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”) has now adapted the story in a quiet wonder of a film called “Leave No Trace,” starring Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie.
Foster, who spent weeks learning survival skills, has said in interviews that with Granik’s permission he removed 40 percent of the words in the script, which wisely lets the images tell the story. We first see Will (Foster) and Tom (McKenzie) companionably doing their daily chores, completely at home with each other and the woods. They do not need to speak. Each knows exactly what to do and each motion is as familiar as a morning stretch but as precise and synchronized as an intricately choreographed tango. When Will calls a drill, Tom knows how to hide. Their world may be Edenic, just two human creatures in tune with nature, but they are also constantly on the alert. If they are spotted, they will have to leave and go to places where there are rules and walls and jobs and school.
They make regular trips to the world outside to get provisions. “Need or want?” Will asks when Tom hopeful shows him a candy bar. “Want,” she admits. But he gets it for her anyway. Their devotion to one another is deep and palpable. She trusts him completely. She is everything to him.
And then they are spotted. They are suddenly in the system. Social services does its best to respect their wish to be isolated, using the diplomatic term “unhoused” instead of “homeless,” and finding a place for them to live and a job that is as unobtrusive on their freedom as possible. But Will, who is a veteran and may have PTSD, chafes at being told what to do. Tom, on the other hand, finds that the world outside the park has some intriguing possibilities. Will engages in that most fatherly of tasks, teaching Tom to ride a bicycle. Tom gets a chance to talk to other people. There’s a boy who raises rabbits and tells her about the activities at 4H.
Will tells Tom they have to leave. In their efforts to find a new home, they encounter some obstacles, but also some people who respect the need for privacy and living off the grid.
Debra Granik has a great gift for finding extraordinary young actresses (she picked Jennifer Lawrence for “Winter’s Bone”) and guiding them through stories of subtle complexity and humanity. “Without a Trace” is on its surface a story of a father and daughter living off the grid, on the fringe of society. In reality, it is a heightened version of the relationship every parent has with a child, the irrational efforts we make to protect them from what we see as threats, and the bittersweetness of seeing them become their own people, with their own lives, destinies, and decisions. We see Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie’s character first as living entirely in the world her father has created for her, looking to him for everything she has to know. And then we see the small moments and realizations that lead her to believe in her own voice about her future. “Want or need?” is still the question, but they may have different answers.
Beautiful performances by McKenzie and Ben Foster, a compassionate screenplay co-written by Granik, and an intimate, naturalistic style of storytelling make this a thoughtful meditation on parents and children, on damage and courage, on communities we create, and on what we mean by home.
Parents should know that this movie’s themes include PTSD, family issues, loss of a parent, and some peril and off-screen violence.
Family discussion: What was Will trying to protect Tom from? If they had not been discovered, would Tom have made a different decision?
If you like this, try: “Winter’s Bone” and “Captain Fantastic”