Smallfoot

Posted on September 27, 2018 at 5:52 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action, rude humor, and thematic elements
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, no one hurt
Diversity Issues: A metaphorical theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 28, 2018

Copyright Warner Brothers 2018
The Yeti, sometimes known as Bigfoot or the Abominable Snowman and akin to Sasquatch, is a mythical, or, shall we say, so far unproven creature of enormous size, something like an ape. “Smallfoot” takes a charming switch-up — here it’s the Yeti who don’t believe there is such a thing as humans — and turns it into a surprisingly thoughtful film. In between its colorful musical numbers, silly jokes, and action scenes, somehow manages to address some pretty big and complex issues like fake news, xenophobia, and personal integrity, and to do so in a manner that is accessible and nuanced.

Our hero in this movie is Migo (voiced by Channing Tatum), who is perfectly happy and wants everything to stay exactly the same. His home is “harsh, jagged, freezing, and awesome.” “It’s a day like any other,” he sings, “and I don’t want to change a thing.”

We can understand why. The gorgeously imagined tundra of the Himalayas is wonderfully enticing here, with a color palette of blue and white with sparkling snow and Prussian shadows, and the community has an inviting design of homes made from stone and ice. It is a close and cooperative neighborhood, led by the Stonekeeper (Common), whose robes made of stone lay out the immutable laws. The gong must be rung each morning to raise the sun. The mammoths that hold up the mountain must be fed. And, very important, no one may question the laws or traditions. “If there’s a question causing you to go astray, just stuff it down inside.” As Migo’s father, Dorgle (Danny DeVito) says, “Do what you’re told. Blend in.”

Migo and Dorgle have the very important responsibility of ringing the morning gong. With Dorgle’s head (explaining why it is so flat and he is so short). Each day, Migo launches his father like an arrow through a sort of giant bow. He dreams of someday having the honor of getting launched at the gong himself. He finally gets his first try, but misses the target and ends up out in the snow, where he witnesses a plane crash and sees a human, what the Yeti call “Smallfoot.” The pilot sees Migo, too, and is equally surprised and a lot more scared.

No one believes Migo, and when he insists that he is not lying about what he saw, he is banished by the Stonekeeper. That is when he discovers a kind of Yeti Resistance movement, led by the Stonekeeper’s spirited daughter, Meechee (Zendaya). She believes in curiosity, exploration, challenging assumptions, and testing hypotheses: “Questions lead to knowledge, and knowledge is power.” Migo sets off to go beneath the clouds in search of Smallfoot.

Below the tree line, a British television personality named Percy (James Corden) is “under pressure” (he performs a Karaoke version of the song) because his once-popular television programs about animals have been eclipsed by amateur cute animal videos on YouTube and Facebook (the musical number features floating Facebook “likes”). He tells his colleague, Brenda (Yara Shahidi) that he plans to fake a Yeti sighting, and then go back to having integrity afterward. But then Migo, a real Yeti, shows up. Migo wants to take Percy back to his community to show that he was telling the truth. And Percy wants to film Migo so he can make a lot of money.

Amusingly, they have no way of understanding each other’s form of communication. We hear what each of them sounds like to the other, Percy’s little squeaks and Migo’s growls. Migo wraps Percy in a sleeping bag, wears him on his huge hairy chest like a Baby Bjorn, and begins to climb back up to the peak of the mountain.

This is where most movies for children start to move toward the themes of friendship, home, and believing in yourself. But “Smallfoot” goes in a different direction, somewhere between “The Matrix’s” blue pill/red pill choice between being safe and knowing the truth and “Black Panther’s” choice between isolationism and, despite the risks, finding a way to help and learn from others. Migo learns the reason for the Stonekeeper’s insistence on perpetuating the myths of the Yeti world, and he has to consider carefully whether it is worth putting his friends and family at risk in order to learn the truth.

This is some pretty existential stuff. “If I’m not the gong ringer, who am I?” Migo asks. It is heartening in this era of fake news, when it is tempting to outsource our knowledge base to our devices, to have a movie about curiosity, critical thinking, and challenging the status quo.

Parents should know that this movie has some schoolyard language, brief potty humor, action/cartoon-style peril (no one hurt), and discussions of past violence.

Family discussion: When did you find that curiosity led you to something you would never have expected? Why didn’t the Stonekeeper want anyone to know the truth? Who should decide what knowledge is available?

If you like this, try: “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and “Surf’s Up!”

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Fahrenheit 11/9

Posted on September 20, 2018 at 3:58 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some disturbing material/images
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some graphic and disturbing scenes of military violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 21, 2018

Copyright 2018 Briarcliff Entertainment
Maybe around the time that professional provocateur Michael Moore shows Donald Trump’s voice coming out of Adolf Hitler’s mouth in his latest film, “Fahrenheit 11/9,” you might think he has gone over the top. But Moore would probably tell you that it’s our world that’s gone over the top; he’s just highlighting it so that we can understand what is happening in the midst of a constant barrage of outrage and partisanship.

Fourteen years ago, Moore released “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the title inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, about the September 11 attacks and the aftermath. This film’s title is a reference to another event Moore considers pivotal, the election of Donald Trump in 2016. It begins with dozens of predictions by experts that Hillary Clinton would win the election, and then the stunned reactions when she lost. (Moore himself was one of the very few who predicted a Trump victory.) But he does not spend any time after that on the past. He is not interested in the Mueller investigation or whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. He is interested in the indicators of a weakening of our democracy, as, for example, when a survey of Republicans shows that a majority would support delaying the next Presidential election if President Trump says that it is an emergency, and, an even more sobering example, when so many Americans do not vote.

Moore’s 1989 film, Roger & Me was set in his home town of Flint, Michigan, a once-thriving community with lots of good jobs at the local General Motors plants. As the plants closed or replaced workers with non-US workers and robots (unforgettably, the film included footage of a animatronic display with a human worker singing to the robot that replaced him), the community was devastated economically and psychically bereft. The film, now on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, revolutionized documentary storytelling with its arch tone, quirky characters, and wild stunts, like Moore’s efforts to confront then-GM CEO Roger Smith about Flint.

Almost 20 years later, Moore returns to Flint in this film for an even worse disaster. A new governor, a businessman with no previous government experience, ordered that the water supply in Flint be redirected from Lake Huron to the toxic Flint River, according to Moore so that his business friends could build — and make money from — an unnecessary second pipeline. Lead levels spiked, putting the residents, especially the children, at great risk. Even those who have been following this story will be shocked by some of what Moore reveals here, including a nurse who shows the blood lead levels in the children she tested — before she was directed to alter the results to show them at an acceptable level. General Motors complained that the Flint River Water was harming its remaining production facilities, so they were switched back to Lake Huron while the residents were not. There is dispiriting footage of then-President Obama’s visit to Flint, when his efforts to be reassuring (Look! I’m drinking your water!) make him seem out of touch and condescending. Of course there’s a stunt, with Moore trying to see the governor and then spraying Flint water on the Governor’s grass.

But what hits home hardest is a story that had almost no national coverage, without any notice, the Army scheduled training exercises — with no notice to the residents — with shooting and explosions that made it seem that the town was under attack. Moore also points out that the heroic doctor who exposed the crisis is an immigrant who exemplifies the most aspirational American dream of opportunity and service. And he suggests that the lack of attention from politicians, including Obama, led to the poor voter turnout in a state where mere thousands of votes could have swung the election.

He also points to the one person who is ultimately responsible for electing Donald Trump. SPOILER ALERT: pop star and Voice coach Gwen Stefani.

Like all Moore movies, this one is uneven and polemical as well as illuminating, enraging, and — this is the great secret of Moore — ultimately hopeful. He spends time with young candidates of intelligence and integrity. He shows us the West Virginia teacher’s strike. It is deeply stirring to see the teachers, told to go back to work after their union leaders abandoned the school bus drivers and lunch workers, refuse to stop the strike until their fellow school workers were given a raise as well. We see the Parkland kids turn unthinkable tragedy into purposeful action. “We must have done something right,” Moore says, “We raised you.” “No,” one responds immediately. “Social media raised us.”

She may not realize it, but she was raised by Moore as well, with films like this one.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language and some disturbing images, including violence and peril.

Family discussion: Who in this film do you admire and why? Is this film a form of journalism?

If you like this, try: Michael Moore’s other films, including “Roger & Me” and “Sicko”

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Tea With the Dames

Posted on September 19, 2018 at 12:00 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some strong and salty language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Champagne
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie (gender and aging)
Date Released to Theaters: September 21, 2018

Copyright 2018 IFC Films
Fair warning. It was about ten seconds into this film when the first “Hello, darling” dissolved any critical distance I could muster, and by the time about five minutes later when we got to a “How ghastly,” as only Dame Maggie Smith can say it, I melted into a little puddle of pure happiness. So if seeing four of the greatest actresses in the world talk about their decades of experience and friendship is not for you, then ignore my gushing about how much I love them and how much I loved this film.

Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Joan Plowright, and Dame Eileen Atkins all came of age in the late 1950’s, beginning in theater and then movies and television. Director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) gives us a chance to eavesdrop on one of their get-togethers “to gossip, to remember, and to laugh.” They talk about acting, of course, but also about navigating show business and what they think of critics, and about husbands (everyone agrees that Dame Joan’s husband, Lord Oliver, was the most difficult), beauty, fear, competition, awards (we see each of them being Dame-d, by either Prince Charles or Queen Elizabeth II), Americans, Shakespeare, and aging, with the advice each of them would give their younger selves, though Dame Maggie (I would not dream of any other form of address, given the disdain they show for American clumsiness with titles) admits that her younger self would never have listened. And they do it all with such impeccable diction and classically trained technique in the exquisite timing of le mot plus juste.

In the early days, “you went to reps and you stayed in digs and things,” Dame Judi remembers. And if the landlady was unkind, “you nailed a kipper under the table.” Dame Joan Plowright talks about joining her first company, where another actor warned, “She can’t play queens, you know,” and the director replied, “I should think the last thing we want in a theater for contemporary writers is girls born to play queens.”

The Dames began acting as the “Kitchen Sink” era of postwar Britain was evolving into the swinging 60’s. There are some knowing looks and nostalgic smiles as they recall that era. There is a marvelous camaraderie and warm memories of working together that is unmarred by a continuing competition. Everyone remembers that Judi Dench was the first to be Dame-d. (When Dame Maggie got the word of her award, Dame Judi assured her that “It won’t change anything; you can still swear.) And the octogenarian Dame Maggie makes the kind of pointed comment that only the portrayer of the Dowager Duchess can master; her agent assures her that “We’ll look around for a nice little cameo that Judi does not have her paws on.”

Dame Eileen is less well known in the US, and I hope very much that this film and the marvelous archival clips will inspire American audiences to learn more about her. All of the Dames are exceptionally well represented with a remarkable range of clips, showing once again that one of the key differences between US and British actors is the British actors’ willingness to weigh in with equal enthusiasm to everything from classic dramas to avant garde to sitcoms. The glimpses of their work also provide a subtle but clear contrast between their delicious inability to take themselves seriously in real life and their obvious, visceral commitment to their performances, their characters, and the scripts and screenplays they bring to life.

None of them was willing to play Cleopatra (Shakespeare’s version), though all were asked repeatedly. Dame Judi challenged the director Peter Hall: “Do you really want a menopausal dwarf?” (But she did it.) Dame Maggie did it, but in Canada. But Cleopatra is a rare role that is the center of the play. Dame Joan describes “that rare exhilaration when you know you’re in charge.”

They talk about aging, and about fear, not of illness or death but, endearingly, enduringly, about the very thing they have devoted their lives to, acting. “Are first days still scary?” Michel asks, off camera. “All days,” Dame Maggie says immediately. But it is their relish for exactly that challenge that keeps them so vibrant. “Fear is petrol,” says Dame Judi. “It generates such an energy. If you can somehow handle it, it can be a help.”

As marvelous as they are playing other people, it is pure delight to see them as themselves.

Parents should know that the ladies use some frank and salty language and there are some sexual references.

Family discussion: What advice would you give to your younger self? Why didn’t they want to play Cleopatra?

If you like this, try: the films starring the Dames

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An Actor Prepares

Posted on August 30, 2018 at 12:20 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug abuse, psychedelics
Violence/ Scariness: Mild peril, medical issue
Diversity Issues: Discussion of feminism
Date Released to Theaters: August 31, 2018
Copyright 2018 Gravitas Ventures

The third movie this year with an acclaimed older actor playing a selfish, negligent father who must be driven across country by an angry, estranged adult child has some familiar tropes, but also some distinct pleasures. Following “Kodachrome” (Ed Harris, Jason Sudeikis), and “Boundaries” (Christopher Plummer, Vera Farmiga) we have “An Actor Prepares,” with Jeremy Irons and Jack Huston. The title comes from the legendary book by Constantin Stanislavski that is a core text for method actors. The joke here is that Jeremy Irons plays a three-time Oscar-winning, substance-abusing actor named Atticus Smith who seems to have no method to his madness and does not really prepare for anything.

Atticus is a mess. His agent (Ben Schwartz) is trying desperately to keep him together so he can literally play God in a movie. Atticus is looking forward to the wedding of his “favorite child” (Mamie Gummer). But both the movie and attending the wedding are in jeopardy when he has a heart attack and his doctor says he needs surgery. She reluctantly agrees to delay it for a week so he can go to the wedding, but he has to take his medicine, refrain from sex, drugs, and alcohol, and he cannot go by plane. That is how Adam (Jack Huston) ends up on a road trip with the father he despises, as a favor to the sister he loves.

The road trip is one of the oldest of all stories, going back to The Odyssey and before. It’s a lovely metaphor of life’s journey and provides opportunities for characters to have many seemingly random interactions, from happy to scary to moving, that help them resolve their differences by working together and learning about one another. This one involves bickering and recrimination, many opportunities for Atticus to do or say wildly inappropriate things and Adam to disapprove, a switch of vehicles/drivers, a cellphone tossed out a window, an old love, jail, and an campfire-lit trip on the hipster psychedelic ayahuasca.

So, no big surprises and at least one too many plot contrivances and at least one too few reasons to believe in the resolution. Irons and Huston make it work. Irons is clearly overjoyed to have a chance to break out of Serious Actor mode and perhaps have some fun at the expense of some of the master thespians he has had the chance to observe. He makes the most of the silly scarves, the cluelessly self-involved constant stream of free-association, and the endless series of hilarious fake movie titles for Atticus’ resume, from “Throwdown at Bitch River” to “Cops and Slobbers.” And Huston is marvelous in what could have been a thankless straight man role. I counted at least a dozen different ways of looking exasperated. His reaction to the ayahuasca is funny and very specific to the character. Mamie Gummer and Schwartz make the best of small roles, and Huston and Irons remind us why all these reconciliation road trips are worth taking.

Parents should know that this film includes extremely strong and crude language, substance abuse, psychedelic drugs, smoking, drinking, very explicit sexual references, medical issues, and tense family confrontations.

Family discussion: Why was the car meaningful to Adam? Why did Adam and his sister have different responses to their father?

If you like this, try: “Kodachrome” and “Boundaries”

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Operation Finale

Posted on August 29, 2018 at 5:49 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and related violent images, and for some language
Profanity: Some strong and hateful language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 31, 2018

Copyright 2018 MGM
It is, perhaps, the ultimate conundrum, one that echoes throughout all of human history. How can good guys defeat the bad guys without becoming bad themselves? If the bad guys do not play by any rules at all, the good guys have two choices: to stay within the rules themselves, which can be high risk because it is like going into a fight with both arms tied behind your back, or decide that the ends justify the means and violate the rules to improve their chance of winning. Can it really be a win if you abandon your principles to get there?

Sometimes there is ambiguity about who exactly are the good guys and the bad guys. That is not the case with the Nazis in WWII. Among the worst of the worst, certainly the worst to survive the war, was Adolf Eichmann, the head of the “Department of Jewish Affairs” and the man responsible for creating the system that led to the murder of millions of people, including six million Jews. The other top Nazi leaders, Hitler, Himmler, and Goering, killed themselves at the end of the war. Then there were the Nuremberg trials for many others. But Eichmann and a few others escaped to Nazi-friendly Argentina. Fifteen years later, agents of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency captured him and brought him back to Israel for a trial that was broadcast around the world. This is the story of how that happened, so tensely presented that we hold our breath even though we know that Eichmann made it to Israel, where his “man in a glass booth” (for security) trial was broadcast as it happened throughout the world, giving most people their first chance to hear testimony from Holocaust survivors.

Director Chris Weitz and screenwriter Matthew Orton skillfully portray the people of the young state of Israel, just 12 years old, still defining itself internally and still justifying its existence to the world. When someone approaches Mossad with evidence that Eichmann has been identified in Argentina, the first reaction is that the atrocities are old news, and they don’t have the resources to go after him because they are too busy fighting for the right to exist now. They ultimately decide to get him less from a sense of justice or even revenge than from the notion that at this stage, everything they do is definitional; every choice they make shows the world what it means to be a Jewish state after the Holocaust, an atrocity so unprecedented that the term was not even in widespread use for several more years.

We see what it is to have a country made up of displaced people, each of whom has suffered unthinkable trauma and grief. In one scene they almost start to have a grim “who lost the most” conversation before they stop. Their focus has to be on what happens next, and that is the risky, complicated plan to get Eichmann out of Argentina, even though there is no extradition and they don’t have access to military aircraft capable of transporting him.

Sir Ben Kingsley plays Eichmann, living under an assumed name, working at a Mercedes factory, living with his wife and sons, and speaking often to groups of other escaped Nazis about his wartime experiences. Oscar Isaac plays Peter Malkin, the Mossad agent who actually tackled Eichmann, and who, with his colleagues, had to keep him captive until he could be extracted and put on a commercial flight to Israel.

There is a wisp of a love story, and there is some exploration of the moral dilemmas. But it is the electrifying scenes between Kingsley and Isaac that are even more riveting than the “can they get him” and “will they be caught” moments of spycraft.

It was Eichmann himself who inspired Hannah Arendt’s term “the banality of evil,” and disconnect is jarring between Eichmann’s deeds in overseeing the mechanics of rounding up Jews and transporting them to their execution and torture and the bland, civilized factory foreman who loves his wife and children. Eichmann is not bothered by the slaughter of millions, even when a murdered baby’s brain was splattered over his coat. Malkin is still deeply wounded by the loss of one person, his adored sister, who was killed with her children. He is still anguished by a fatal mistake on a previous mission. We see that the very conscience that keeps Malkin from “putting a bullet between eyes,” as he said he would gladly do, can make it much harder to bring him to justice.

Eichmann, a master manipulator, tries to put them both in the same category of following orders to save their country. Malkin tries to manipulate Eichmann into signing the necessary consent form for leaving the country. Each tries to gain ground over the other, usually through appearing to be conciliatory, to find some point of vulnerability. The action scenes, especially toward the end, have a ramped-up “Argo” rhythm, but what is far more engrossing is when two people talk to each other.

The stakes are incalculable and inherently dramatic, but Kingsley and Issac take it to another level as characters and as actors, and it is fascinating to see them challenge each other. Two of the greatest actors alive, each with endless screen magnetism, superb control of acting technique, and the ability to tell a lifetime with an almost imperceptible shift of the eyes or slight additional huskiness in the voice, put all of that to show us a massive historical event can come down to two people in a room.

Parents should know that this film includes footage of Holocaust atrocities, including mass murder, with some graphic and very disturbing images, some peril and violence, drinking, smoking, and some strong language.

Family discussion: Why is it important to give someone a fair trial when the crime is unimaginably big and the evidence against him is overwhelming? Is it possible for a trial under those circumstances to be fair? Why did Eichmann sign the agreement?

If you like this, try: “Argo,” “Munich,” and “The Eichmann Show,” a film about the trial, and read Peter Malkin’s book, Eichmann in My Hands.

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