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Rogerebert.com’s New Gender-Balanced Critics Line-Up

Posted on August 3, 2018 at 9:16 am

Copyright rogerebert.com 2014

I’m thrilled to announce that I am  joining Rogerebert.com as its first female Assistant Editor, and will be contributing reviews regularly to its newly gender-balanced roster of critics.  I am deeply grateful to Editor in Chief Chaz Ebert and to Matt Zoller Seitz, Brian Tellerico, Matt Fagerholm, and Nick Allen for giving me this opportunity.  It was reading Roger Ebert’s reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times that first made me want to be a movie critic and his support for my work meant the world to me. Rogerebert.com is the finest movie site on the Web and I am thrilled to be able to contribute to it.

My other reviews and features will continue to be published at moviemom.com and I’ll continue to add links here for the pieces I do for rogerebert.com, thecredits.org, medium.com and others.

Christopher Robin

Posted on August 2, 2018 at 5:50 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action
Profanity: None
Nudity/ Sex: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and mayhem, reference to sad death of a parent, brief wartime battle scenes
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 3, 2018
Copyright Disney 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.

If you like this, try: the books by A.A. Milne and the Disney animated Pooh films

Far from the Tree

Posted on August 2, 2018 at 5:39 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Mild language
Nudity/ Sex: References to fertility, pregnancy, sex, and "cures" for homosexuality
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Reference to a brutal murder, tense family situations, sad offscreen death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 3, 2018
Copyright Sundance Selects 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?

If you like this, try: “A Kid Like Jake” and the book by Andrew Solomon