Lady Bird

Posted on November 28, 2017 at 10:04 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity and teen partying
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 3, 2017
Date Released to DVD: March 5, 2018

Copyright 2017 A24
“Lady Bird? Is that your given name?” the patient priest who is directing the high school play asks at an audition. “Yes.” “Why is it in quotes?” The sign-up sheet reads: Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan). “I gave it to myself,” she says. “It’s given to me by me.” Perhaps she selected the name because she is getting ready to fly away and the thought thrills and terrifies her.

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is a senior in high school, on the brink of that moment when we are heady at the notion of inventing ourselves. We meet her coming home from a trip with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) to visit colleges near their home in Sacramento. They weep silently together at the end of an audiobook and bicker about the things that mothers and teenage daughters bicker about. Lady Bird (as we will call her) wants to go to college in the East, “where writers live in the woods.” Her mother, a nurse, is trying hard to balance the need to be practical about finances — Lady Bird’s father is about to lose his job — with the parental instinct to protect her daughter from the most unpleasant realities of life, including her parents’ inability to make everything work out. Fortunately, if frustratingly, Lady Bird has retained the solipsistic luxury of tuning out most of what her parents tell her.

Writer/director Greta Gerwig captures with breathtaking precision that liminal moment when teenagers manage to mash-up grandiosity that stretches to infinity and soul-crushing insecurity. “Math isn’t something you’re terribly strong in,” a nun (Lois Smith) tells her diplomatically. “That we know of. Yet,” Lady Bird replies. “I just want you to be the best version of yourself,” her mother tells her. “What if this is the best version of myself?” she asks. Metcalf’s expression on hearing this question contains multitudes of sympathy and maybe a touch of envy at the endless possibilities spreading out in front of her daughter.

This is one of the best ensemble casts of the year. Metcalf and Tracy Letts, as Lady Bird’s parents, Smith and Stephen McKinley Henderson as her teachers, “Manchester by the Sea” Lucas Hedges and “Call Me By Your Name” Timothée Chalamet as boys she likes, and Beanie Feldstein and Odeya Rush as her friends are all superb. Gerwig never lets even the smallest roles be anything but specific and complex. The episodic storyline brims with telling, meticulously observed moments. Lady Bird and her mother stop bickering for a moment in the thrift store when they suddenly unite in the ecstasy of finding the perfect prom dress (inspired, Gerwig told me, by “Pretty in Pink”). Her father finds himself competing for a job with his own son, pride and support edging just slightly ahead of desperation. Lady Bird makes some bad mistakes in judgment but there are no bad guys here, just people trying to figure out who they are and connect without hurting or being hurt, still young enough to assume that it’s only a matter of time.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, sexual references and situations, teen drinking, and mild peril.

Family discussion: What name would you pick for yourself? Is Lady Bird more like her mother or father?

If you like this, try: “Frances Ha” and “Edge of Seventeen”

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Posted on November 27, 2017 at 6:37 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual references
Profanity: Very strong, explicit, and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Graphic violence, characters injured and killed, suicide
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 1, 2017
Date Released to DVD: February 27, 2018
Copyright Fox Searchlight 2017

I sing the rage of Frances McDormand, who plays Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother who is not so much consumed by righteous fury as filled with a desperate need for it to consume everyone else around her. There is no better actor to convey fury than McDormand. When she is good, she is very, very good, but when she is mad she is better.

It is seven months after Hayes’ daughter was raped and burned to death and there have been no arrests. There are three billboards near her home in Ebbing, Missouri that are crazy quilts of tattered leftover, shredded images from layers of advertisements brightly urging drivers to buy Huggies or visit the Ozarks. She visits Red (Caleb Landry Jones), who is responsible for renting out the billboards and gives him $5000 for one month. On oxblood-red backgrounds, the stark white letters now say, “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

That provokes a visit from the police chief (Woody Harrelson) who is compassionate and frank. There were no witnesses. The DNA does not match anyone in the system nationwide. He wants to find out who did it, but there is not much he can do.

The billboards are unsettling to the town, especially Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who is the kind of dim, resentful guy who expresses his insecurities by abusing others, especially African Americans. Only Willoughby sees that Dixon could be a better man. His angry, racist mother spurs him on to worse behavior.

Writer/director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges,” “Seven Psychopaths”) has a savage humor and an ear for the poetry in the way real people speak. In this film, he shows a warmth and humanity we have not seen before. In one scene, Hayes’ fury is instantly defused when a character shows unexpected vulnerability. In another, she has a conversation with a deer who wanders over to one of the billboards as Hayes is planting flowers. McDormand has always been one of our finest actors and here she gets a chance to inhabit one of her most complex characters and does it beautifully. Whether she is striding around like a warrior in a denim jumpsuit and a bandana wound around her head or unable to conceal a small smile at the ruckus she is creating, she is a force of a nature and a wonder to watch. Everyone in the cast is outstanding, with special mention of Harrelson and Rockwell and of newcomer Jones, a breakout this year in films including “American Made” and “Get Out.” Hayes’ fury is like a firework lighting up the sky, but it is only when it is out that we can see the stars in these deeply compassionate portrayals.

Parents should know that this film includes references to a horrific rape and murder of a teenager and it shows serious violence with severe injuries, as well as very strong and crude language, drinking, and smoking.

Family discussion: Did the billboards help? What else could she have done? What will happen next?

If you like this, try: “In Bruges,” “Fargo,” and “Olive Kitterige”

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Drama DVD/Blu-Ray movie review Movies

Coco

Posted on November 21, 2017 at 8:42 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Themes of death and loss, some peril
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 22, 2017
Date Released to DVD: February 27, 2018
Copyright Disney-Pixar 2017

Those of us who remember the 1995 release of Pixar’s first feature film, “Toy Story,” feel that we’ve all grown up together. It isn’t just the astonishing progress in the technology (the reason the first film’s characters were toys was that all they could animate were shiny smooth surfaces). It is the progression of the themes of the films, the first one literally about a child’s playthings, through stories that deal with increasingly adult concerns about aging, loss, and meaning. “Coco” is the story of a Mexican 12-year-old named Miguel, but the title reminds us that the central character is his great-grandmother Coco, struggling with dementia but beloved by her family. It has the dazzling visuals, expert tone and pacing, and the smiling-through-tears moments we have come to rely on from Pixar.

Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is the youngest in a big, close family that lives together and works together in the family shoemaking business. He tells us the story of the family through beautifully animated papel picado, the lacy paper cutouts that are a Mexican tradition. His great-great grandfather abandoned his wife and daughter, the then toddler Coco, to pursue a musical career and since then the family has banned any member from playing or even listening to music. But Miguel loves music and has a secret room where he watches old clips of the community’s biggest music and movie star, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) and plays his homemade guitar, painted to look like de la Cruz’s.

Miguel hopes to play in a talent show but his grandmother, Coco’s daughter, finds out and smashes his guitar. When Miguel tries to borrow de la Cruz’s guitar from his crypt, he is somehow transported to the Land of the Dead, just as the residents are making their annual pilgrimage over the marigold-strewn bridge to visit the families who have invited them with photographs and memories. There he recognizes his ancestors from the family ofrenda (shrine with photos, candles, food, and mementos). Like Dorothy in Oz and Alice in Wonderland, he has many adventures on a journey in an enchantingly imaginative world but wants to go home. If he does not return by sunrise, he will have to stay there forever.

The Land of the Dead is gorgeously imagined, filled with thousands of lights and the kind of fascinating details that are made for the pause button. The — I’m going to call them people, but they look like skeletons with eyeballs — live in a stratified world, where those who have extended families and are best and most lovingly remembered have beautiful clothes and homes while those who are alone and nearly forgotten live in a (still-picturesque) slum and call each other “cousin” and “uncle” to pretend that they are still connected to someone. Once they are no longer remembered, they just dissolve into dust. Miguel meets Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a loose-limbed, poorly dressed skeleton who is close to dissolving as he is being forgotten in the land of the living. Hector agrees to take Miguel to Ernesto de la Cruz, for help in going home, if Miguel will bring back Hector’s photo, so he can be remembered.

It is good to see Mexican culture portrayed in such a straightforward manner, not exotica-sized or othered. There are some exciting adventures and some very funny moments along the way, involving Miguel’s sidekick, a Xolo street dog named Dante, a wild talent show/concert, a still-pushing-the-edge-of-the-artistic-envelope Frida Kahlo, and a psychedelic-colored flying lion-headed creature, one of the alebrije who guide the dead to where they are supposed to be. The skeletons are brilliantly animated, each with a very individual personality and a lot of fun with bones that, without tissue, do not always hold together. Moments of warm humor keep the story from getting maudlin, and moments of true-heartedness make us feel as connected to the Land of the Dead as Miguel is.

Parents should know that much of the film takes place in the Land of the Dead (heaven) filled with skeletons, and it has themes of loss including memory loss, and murder and alcohol.

Family discussion: When is the right time to seize the moment? Ask your family for some stories of your ancestors. What stories do you want people to remember about you?

If you like this, try: “Finding Nemo,” “Inside Out,” and “The Book of Life” — and learn about Frida Kahlo and about the real-life Day of the Dead celebrations

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The Man Who Invented Christmas

Posted on November 21, 2017 at 5:24 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Ghosts, some scary surprises, child labor and abuse
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 22, 2017

Copyright 2017 Bleeker Street
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is as much a part of the holiday as Santa Claus and decorating the tree. It was written in just six weeks and the entire first printing was sold out in five days. There are innumerable performance versions, plays, audio, and movies, even operas. It has not just become a part of Christmas celebrations; it has influenced them as well, as we see from “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” based on the best-selling book by Les Sanford.

The story is so deeply embedded in our culture that it is difficult to recognize how revolutionary it is. The idea of time travel was considered an enormous innovation in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published more than 40 years later, but Dickens had Scrooge go back in time to see his past. It is based on the idea that a man could change and would want to change based on an honest look at his childhood trauma and choices made over the years, half a century before Freud. “The Man Who Invented Christmas” gives us a sometimes light-hearted but always warm-hearted look at the man who created Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. We see how the story came together based on what Dickens saw and felt and how writing the story helped him to understand and reconcile his own past.

Dickens (Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” and “Beauty and the Beast”) is one of the most critically acclaimed and popular authors in the world, touring America to cheering audiences. Or he was, until he had three flops in a row, just as bills are mounting for renovations on his house, his wife tells him their fifth child is on the way, and his charming but feckless and irresponsible parents arrive for a visit. He desperately needs money, but worries that he is completely out of ideas. His hand remains poised over the paper, its only mark a blob of ink that drops from the feather pen to reproach him because no words are appearing.

It is always difficult to portray the work of a writer because it is all internal and you run the risk of boring the audience with scenes of someone sitting at a desk. Director Bharat Nalluri, working from a script by Susan Coyne, wisely takes our hero out into the world and we have the pleasure of seeing the hyper-alertness artists bring to the world. Whether it is jotting down the name of the waiter (Marley), eavesdropping on the new maid telling ghost stories to his children, watching his young nephew, whose leg is in a brace, or listening to complaints about the poor from a wealthy man exiting the theater, Dickens is constantly creating his characters from life. And when he conjures them up, he makes them real for himself before he makes them real to the reader. Christopher Plummer first appears as a lone mourner at a burial, sharply reminding the clergyman that he isn’t paying by the hour so there’s no reason to drag out his remarks. And then he reappears in Dickens’ wonderfully vivid imagination as Scrooge.

This is not the gritty, grimy Victorian world we have seen in many films, including those based on Dickens’ books. Nalluri echoes the magic lantern shows Dickens’ father enchanted him with as a child in the glowing colors of wintry London. As he did in “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” he shows a deft skill in moving a large, colorful cast in and out of the story, maintaining a slightly heightened, romantic, but still grounded tone. Stevens holds the center together ably, often on the edge of being frantic but with a joy in storytelling. One especially sweet scene has him delighting his children with the same imagination that continues to thrill audiences and makes this lightly fictionalized peek at him filled with charm and delight.

Parents should know that this movie includes some mild language, mention of pregnancy, drinking and drunkenness, and some child labor and abuse and bullying.

Family discussion: What people and situations around you can inspire your stories? Why did he change his mind about his father? Whose burden can you lighten?

If you like this, try: the many films of the story, especially the Muppet, Mr. Magoo, Alastair Sim, and MGM versions.

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Wonder

Posted on November 16, 2017 at 5:46 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements including bullying, and some mild language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some bullying and peril
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2017

Copyright 2017 Lionsgate
Wonder is more than a book — it is a movement. R.J. Palacio’s book, Wonder, and its follow-ups, including Auggie & Me, have become hugely popular with middle schoolers and their teachers. That is because it is not a story about disability, even though its hero is a 10-year-old with craniofacial deformity who is starting school for the first time after 27 surgeries. It is a story about friendship, family, and above all, kindness. As the 5th grade teacher writes on the blackboard, “When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”

Auggie (“Room’s” Jacob Tremblay) lives with his loving parents (Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson), his devoted older sister Via (for Olivia) (Izabela Vidovic), and their dog in a comfortable New York brownstone. With medical treatment to help him see and hear, Auggie’s face is misshapen and scarred. School principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) tries to put Auggie at ease by joking about his name (everyone has something people make fun of) and recruiting three students to give him a tour of the building before school starts. Scholarship student and all-around boy next door Jack (Noah Jupe), self-centered but not mean Charlotte (Elle McKinnon), and nice-to-grownups-but-a-bully-to-anyone-who-makes-him-uncomfortable Julian (Bryce Gheisar) show him around, alternating between rude questions and pretending he’s not there.

And then school begins. Palacio has taken the most fraught period of life, when friendships are most vital and the tiniest panic about not fitting in can be devastating and heightens it even more by creating an extreme case. Auggie has already triumphed over his disability, which he barely notices. It is triumphing over middle school that is the near-impossible challenge. Palacio and this film understand that it is this time above all, with so many volcanic physical, emotional, and cognitive changes, it seems so desperately important to fit in, to seem, in the narrowest terms, “normal.” And, unfortunately, because they are still so young, it can seem that the best way to do that is to call attention to the ways that other kids are less normal than they are.

So, anyone who’s ever been in middle school will understand why Auggie comes home after the first day and cuts off his padewan braid, not with a light saber because he’s been made a Jedi knight but with his sister’s scissors because kids made fun of him at school. And that doesn’t even have anything to do with his face.

That comes later. The kids spread a rumor, even though none of them really believe it, that touching Auggie will give you “the plague.” And then Auggie does two things that made Julian lash out even more. He is smart in school. And he becomes friends with Jack and then some of the other kids, too, including Summer, a popular girl who joins Auggie’s table in the cafeteria not because she feels sorry for him but because she correctly senses that he is nicer than the catty girls she had been sitting with.

There are setbacks, as when Auggie’s favorite holiday, Halloween, where he gets to look like everyone else, means that he has a chance to overhear what people say when they think he’s not around.

What elevates this film, though, is its recognition that kindness begins with empathy. By leaving Auggie’s point of view to let us know what is going on with some of the other characters, we understand more about why they behave the way they do. Via tells us what even her parents do not know, that it is difficult to be the sibling of a child with a problem, and that the most difficult part is feeling that there’s no space left for any problems from anyone else. When she is abandoned by her closest friend, we think we understand, until we get to see things from the friend’s perspective as well.

Director Stephen Chbosky (writer/director of another story about young friends, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and screenwriter for another movie about a character feared for his looks, “Beauty and the Beast”) has made a wise, warm-hearted film that is a balm for troubled times. It also just happens to have one of the most beautiful performances of the year by Julia Roberts, who wanted to be in the film after she read the book to her children. Look at her face as she sees that Auggie is bringing a friend home for the first time. It contains so much love, relief, surprise, and effort to contain all of that and more it serves as a one-minute master class in screen acting.

“I’m an ordinary kid,” Auggie tells us. “I just don’t look ordinary.” This is a movie that might look ordinary but is a quiet gem of insight and inspiration.

Translation: Story deals with challenges faced by a boy with craniofacial deformity attending school for the first time, bullying, some scuffles, mild schoolyard language

Family discussion: What can you do to choose kindness? How do you know when it is time to be right and when it is time to be kind? Why did Jack make fun of Auggie? Why did Summer sit with Auggie?

If you like this, try: Auggie & Me, the book by Wonder author R.J. Palacio that expands the story

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