Goodbye Christopher Robin

Posted on October 12, 2017 at 5:53 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, some bullying, war images and brief language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence, post-traumatic stress
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 13, 2017
Copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight

This telling of the story behind the creation of some of the world’s most beloved books for children is sincere and well-intentioned but what Pooh might call a bit of a muddle. The movie is not at all clear about whose perspective it is giving us or what story it is trying to tell.

Author A.A. Milne, called Blue by his family and played by Domhnall Gleeson, was a successful playwright and humorist before the Great War, but came back badly shaken from the experience of combat and carnage. His wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) is affectionate but impatient. Neither one of them is very interested in their son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), who spends most of his time with his devoted nanny, Nou (Kelly Macdonald). Milne insists the family move to the country, where Daphne feels isolated from the parties and friends she enjoys. She goes back to London, saying she won’t return until Milne begins to write again, just as Nou has to take some time off to care for her mother. This leaves Milne alone with his son, called Billy Moon by the family, and for the first time they spend time together, playing in the woods with the child’s stuffed bear, named Winnie after the bear in the zoo. It is these days that inspire the two chapter books and two books of poems that have been read aloud to generations of children who have grown up and read them to their own children, plus, Disney movies and a television series (Disney now own the rights to the characters) and more books and toys.

And it is these days that are the best part of the film, especially when Milne’s friend, the illustrator Ernest Howard Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore) comes to visit, and we see the stories Milne and Billy Moon tell melting into the sketches that are as beloved as the writing.

The problem is the rest of the movie, which is really four movies fighting with each other, none of them very good. There is the story of a shattered veteran trying to find a way to return to civilian life and work that is meaningful to him. There is the story of a man and a boy who do not realize how much they need each other discovering a common language. There is the story of enormous success that benefits one family member but at great cost to another.  The stories lead to feelings of betrayal and bitterness when Billy Moon becomes famous, more famous than his father, and much more famous than his boarding school classmates.  And there is the story of estrangement and partial reconciliation.

It is never clear what the point of view of the movie is, or what the point of the movie is.  Is it that art can be healing and wounding at the same time?  Is it that behind tales of wonder and enchantment there can be pain and bitterness?  Fans of the Winnie the Pooh books may enjoy some of the classic biopic “ah, that’s where this part I loved came from” moments, but they do not provide any additional insight or depth to the work itself, not even an exploration of what the books have to say about childhood and whether they represent a child’s perspective or a parent’s.  Most of all, unlike Pooh, Piglet, Kanga, Roo, and Owl, these characters are not very interested or interesting.

Parents should know that this movie includes wartime violence, PTSD, marital estrangement, sad offscreen death of a parent, apparent death of a child, and social drinking.

Family discussion:  What should Blue and Daphne have done differently?  Why did Christopher want to go into the army?  Is “the great thing” finding something to be happy about?

If you like this, try: the books of A.A. Milne

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Blade Runner 2049

Posted on October 3, 2017 at 1:59 am

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, some sexuality, nudity and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and explicit peril and violence, characters injured and killed,
Date Released to Theaters: October 6, 2017

Copyright Warner Brothers 2017
I’ve got a bit of a conundrum here. As has been widely reported, the filmmakers have asked the critics to avoid spoilers (no problem, we are always careful about that), but they have done so with a very specific list of topics/characters/developments they don’t want us to reveal, so exhaustive that it leaves us with little to say beyond: the camerawork is outstanding (please, give Roger Deakins that Oscar already) and the movie is magnificently imagined, stunningly designed, thoughtful and provocative, and one of the best of the year.

I hate to admit it, but I think they’re right. I really do want you to have the same experience I did, including all of the movie’s surprises. So forgive me for being oblique, and after you’ve seen it, come back and we can discuss it in detail, all right?

In the original “Blade Runner,” based on the story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick, Harrison Ford played Deckard, a 21st century detective sent to find and terminate four “replicants,” humanoid robots created to perform physical labor but who somehow are evolving to the point where they want to be independent of human control. Replicants are so close to being human in appearance and manner (and, in the future, life is so dystopic that humans have become less feeling, less compassionate) that it is increasingly difficult to figure out who is human and what being human means. Like Deckard, K (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner, sent by Joshi, his human boss (Robin Wright), to find the older generation of replicants and terminate them. The new generation of replicants is more obedient, or at least that is the way they are programmed. “It’s my job to keep order,” she tells him. She gives him a new assignment and when he hesitates she asks, “Are you saying no?” “I wasn’t aware that was an option.” “Atta boy,” she says approvingly. K has uncovered something that Joshi believes is an extermination-level threat to humanity as what accountants call a going concern.

This film explores ideas of memory, identity, and, yes, humanity. And it does that through a detective story that is grounded in a Raymond Chandler noir world of deception and betrayal, taking place in a gorgeous, brilliantly designed dystopian future of perpetual rain where organic material is barely a memory and huge, Ozymandias-like ruins carry faint reminders of better times and grander ambitions. Most people have never seen a tree, even a dead one, and a crudely carved wooden toy is priceless. A woman creates pleasant childhood memories to be implanted so that replicants will be more stable, more empathetic, and easier to control. The trick about control, though, is that nature will rebel against it, and those who try to maintain control by sending people or replicants or anyone out to investigate and ask questions is going to find that knowledge can dissolve authority.

That’s about all I can say except to add that Gosling and Ford are outstanding and Sylvia Hoeks is a standout as a character I can’t tell you anything more about, while Jared Leto is the movie’s weak spot as another character I can’t tell you anything about. So I’ll end by saying that this is that rare sequel deserving of its original version, not because it replicates — for want of a better word — the first one, but because it pays tribute (note touches like the see-through raincoat) and then finds its own reason for being, and we are lucky enough to come along.

Parents should know that this film includes extended sci-fi/action violence with graphic and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, reference to torture, drinking, smoking, some strong language, sexual references and situations, prostitutes, and nudity.

Family discussion: What elements or concerns about today’s society are the basis for this vision of the future? What rules would you make about replicants? What is the most human aspect of the replicants?

If you like this, try: the original “Blade Runner,” “Terminator 2,” “Total Recall,” “Children of Men,” and the writing of Philip K. Dick

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Stronger

Posted on September 21, 2017 at 5:30 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity
Profanity: Constant very strong language, some crude
Violence/ Scariness: Drinking and drunkenness
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 22, 2017

Copyright 2017 Lionsgate
“Stronger.” As in the “Boston Strong” motto that the city claimed and earned following the terrible bombing at the finish line of one of the city’s most cherished annual events, the Boston Marathon. And “stronger” as in what that which does not defeat you makes you. “Stronger” is the real-life story of a man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and who became a symbol of hope in the midst of wrenching loss. It is also the story of that man’s struggle to acknowledge to himself, his family, and the media the darker reality of his struggles with post-traumatic stress caused by the bombing, the long, slow, painful rehab, and by the pressure put on him by everyone to be a hero.

Imagine you are standing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon to cheer on your estranged girlfriend and then wake up in a hospital bed to the news that your legs are gone. What would be the first thing you would say?

Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), still groggy from the anesthesia, shock and pain, unable to speak because of tubes, gestured for a pen. He wrote three messages. The first asked if the girl he was there to support was all right. She was. He then wrote “Lt. Dan,” as in the Gary Sinise character in “Forrest Gump,” who loses his legs in Vietnam.

And then he wrote: “I saw the bomber.”

Bauman’s description gave law enforcement essential details that helped them track down the Tsarnaev brothers.

Director David Gordon Green and screenwriter John Pollono, working from Bauman’s book are especially good at putting us in Jeff’s world, in the midst of his noisy, hard-drinking, combative, sports-loving, and fiercely loyal family. They travel as a pack.

Jeff’s divorced parents, Patty (Miranda Richardson) and Big Jeff (Clancy Brown), his brother and friends are there for him in the most literal sense, at the hospital. One of the movie’s best scenes is at the hospital just after the surgery, when Jeff’s supervisor from Costco (Danny McCarthy) arrives and they begin to yell at him and each other, partly because they are all frantic and need to let off steam and partly because they are the kind of people who yell a lot. When they discover he is there to provide insurance information and assure Jeff that he still has a job, it is deeply moving.

They are all there again when he returns to his mother’s apartment. They are more concerned about the party to welcome him home and the chance to show him all the letters and packages he has been sent than to consider the logistics of his having to maneuver up a steep staircase. Erin (Tatiana Maslany), who broke up with Jeff just before the marathon, becomes a full-time caretaker. He is under enormous pressure to be the resilient guy who came out of the hospital with a thumbs up sign for the cameras.

Gyllenhaal, who makes some of the most thoughtful and challenging choices of any actor his age, gives a performance of great sensitivity, capturing Jeff’s offhand, offbeat humor as well as his physical and emotional anguish. He shows us the integrity Jeff himself did not understand he had. In another exceptional scene, Jeff does very little talking. He finally agrees to meet Carlos (Carlos Sanz), the man in the cowboy hat who saved his life, and who was included with him in one of the iconic images captured that day. The story Carlos tells is a turning point for Jeff, and it is all in Gyllenhaal’s posture and expressions. There are huge cataclysmic events, but it is in the small details that this film has the most power.

Parents should know that this movie concerns a terrorist bombing with severe injuries and amputation, post-traumatic stress, drinking and drunkenness, nudity, a sexual situation, and constant very strong language.

Family discussion: What do the three comments Jeff wrote tell us about him? What did he learn from Carlos?

If you like this, try: “Patriot’s Day”

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Our Souls at Night

Posted on September 21, 2017 at 1:29 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drunknenness
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death, family troubles
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 29, 2017

Copyright 2017 Netflix
Our Souls at Night was the last novel written by best-selling author Kent Haruf, published after his death, and it has an elegiac quality. The film, the fourth pairing of Robert Redford and Jane Fonda and the first in 38 years, has a rare quality in film, quiet grace. Movies love to tell us the story of young love, impetuous, volatile, and thrilling. But there is something even more moving about last love, the love that happens when you are old enough to understand how precious it is and old enough to know how foolish it would be to waste any more time.

Addie (Fonda) and Louis (Redford) are longtime neighbors. They know each other a little in the way people in small communities do. He was her daughter’s teacher. Both widowed, they have been living alone. And then, one night, she knocks on his door to ask him a question: would he like to come over to her house and sleep with her? Not sex, she assures him quickly. It’s just lonely in bed, and it would be nice to have someone to talk to at the end of the day.

He asks for time to think about it, and then says yes, coming over to her house with his pajamas in a paper bag and going to the back door to keep the neighbors from gossiping. They get to know one another, in simple, spare, but profoundly honest conversations about their most painful experiences, told without rancor and told with a simple generosity of spirit.

When Addie’s young grandson comes for an unexpected visit, she and Louis become even closer as they give the boy a chance to open up. They have an idyllic moment, almost as though it is a second chance for them to correct the mistakes they made in their first families, and learning more about each other through him. Then other ties and complications return.

It is a joy to see these two marvelous actors with their chemistry undimmed, performers with a deep understanding of craft and a deep trust in each other, take on these roles. Like the characters they are playing, they are beyond pretense, with the sureness of experience and the joy of cherishing each moment that only comes with age.

Parents should know that the film has references to sad and difficult family situations including the death of a child. Characters drink and one drinks too much. There are sexual references and a non-explicit sexual situation and characters use some mild language.

Family discussion: Why does Addie pick Louis? Why does Louis say yes?

If you like this, try: “On Golden Pond” and “Barefoot in the Park”

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Rebel in the Rye

Posted on September 14, 2017 at 5:50 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some language including sexual references, brief violence, and smoking
Profanity: A few strong and crude words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Wartime violence with disturbing images including holocaust images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 15, 2017
Copyright 2017 IFC

J.D. Salinger had three great losses and three great teachers, and “Rebel in the Rye” is the story of how those all came together to influence the author of one of the most popular and influential novels of the 20th century, The Catcher in the Rye, along with his shorter pieces, a few novellas and stories. Salinger is almost as well known for his decades of seclusion in New Hampshire as he is for his work. Reportedly, after publishing his last story in 1965, he continued to write full-time, but never showed it to anyone or allowed it to be published. It may be that the mystery is a better story than the writing.

Writer/director Danny Strong (co-creator of “Empire,” screenwriter of the “Mockingjay” films and actor in “Gilmore Girls” and “Buffy”) introduces us to Salinger before all of that happened, young, ambitious, and like Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield, a smart aleck who has left or been asked to leave a number of top schools. Nicholas Hoult (“About a Boy,” “Mad Max: Fury Road”) shows us the teenage Salinger, arrogant but insecure, especially arrogant when it came to writing and especially insecure when it came to girls. He meets Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, and they begin to date, though what makes her most attractive to him is her lineage and her admiration for his writing. And, after leaving NYU, he enrolls in Columbia, where he takes a class from the editor of Story Magazine, Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey). “There is nothing more sacred than stories,” Burnett tells the class. And he advises Salinger not to let his voice overwhelm the story, not to let his ego obstruct the emotional experience of the reader.

Burnett will be Salinger’s most important influence on the content of his stories, suggesting that Holden Caulfield deserves a novel. And O’Neill will be an influence, too, the first of the three great losses, when she leaves him to marry Charlie Chaplin.  Just as he is beginning to make progress as a writer, with his first published work in Burnett’s literary journal, Salinger joins the military in WWII, where he endures great peril and hardship and witnesses some of the worst events in world history, including the landing on Normandy beach and the liberation of a concentration camp.  These traumatic experiences caused great distress for Salinger, what would today be called PTSD (as Salinger movingly described in my favorite of his stories, “For Esme, with Love and Squalor.”  But it was these experiences that gave him the depth and scope to write his sole novel.

Burnett teaches Salinger that publication is incidental; what matters is doing the work of writing.  Salinger’s agent (Sarah Paulson, wry but sympathetic) tells him that “publication is everything” and urges him to “soften” his stories according to the “notes (comments) she gets back from editors.  Salinger, initially refusing to make any changes, finally does and even admits that they made the story better.

But the stress of success becomes too much for him.  “I’m shackled by my own creation,” he says as Catcher is seen as an invitation for readers to come see him.  The last loss and the last teacher are combined in a zen master who advises him to let go of his need for approval.  He moves to New Hampshire and never has anything to do with the literary world again. “If I can dedicate my life to writing and get nothing in return,” he says, “I think I might find happiness.”

Hoult is fine in showing us how Salinger changes, especially the effect of the war.  His scenes with his parents (Hope Davis and Victor Garber) and with the women he is trying to impress are especially effective.  Strong, as a writer himself, well understands the struggle to understand which voices to listen to, whether internal or external, in evaluating the work, and the complexity of needing approval even as we try to transcend that need.  The film evokes the mid-century era without being showy or distracting, and, an even more difficult challenge, explores the life of someone who wanted to be left alone without being exploitive.  Salinger insisted that there will never be a film about Holden Caulfield, and he was right as the value of that book is in the voice of its narrator more than in the incidents it portrays.  This is a better version of a story about someone who wants to catch children to keep them safe, at least in his own mind, or in the stories he will never show.

Parents should know that this film includes wartime violence with disturbing images including holocaust footage, drinking and drunkenness, constant smoking, and sexual references.

Family discussion:  Who was right about writing vs. publishing?  What makes Catcher in the Rye so compelling?  How was Salinger’s wartime experience reflected in his writing?

If you like this, try: the books of JD Salinger

 

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