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My Little Pony: A New Generation

Posted on September 23, 2021 at 5:50 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some thematic elements
Profanity: None
Nudity/ Sex: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Very mild peril and tension
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 24, 2021

Copyright 2021 Hasbro
“My Little Pony: A New Generation” follows in the tradition of previous media from the world of MLP: candy colors, poppy music, gentle humor, warm-hearted lessons about friendship, and basically a way to sell merchandise. We know where we are when it begins by reminding us that it is produced by Hasbro, a toy company.

The MLP toys could have been designed by algorithm to appeal to children. Like Pokemon, Paw Patrol, and boy bands, they are all about reassuring messages of friendship and teamwork. They have an assortment of cheery colors, and personalities — well, attributes — allowing a child to pick a favorite and collect them all. They have lots of hair to play with and style plus magical powers and problem-solving skill to spark fantasy play. I remember the bride MLP that lived with a child in our house for a while, white, with glittery hair, a hair brush, a veil, a big diamond ring that fit on her hoof, and no sign of (or need of) a groom, either stable groom or bridegroom. The MLP handlers know what kids like. Improbably, the “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” series was popular with college students for a while and somehow there were groups of adult male fans who called themselves “Bronies” and attend BronyCons. There is a documentary about them called “A Brony Tale.”

I prefer the flat, 2D-style animation to this movie’s 3D CGI modeling and some young fans may feel the same, but other than that it fits the algorithm nicely, with top talent providing the voices, catchy songs, and a sweet message of, no surprise, friendship.

In this iteration, the MLP have lost their magic and their friendship. The world has divided and the three groups — ponies, unicorns, and Pegasi have been taught to fear and consider themselves superior to each other, except for Sunny (Vanessa Hudgens) a brave little pony whose father taught her that all the different little horse creatures should be friends. When a unicorn named Izzy (Kimiko Glenn) comes to the area where the ponies live, everypony runs away. “Are we playing hide and seek?” she asks joyfully. But they are just scared, except for Sunny. Soon the pony and the unicorn team up to bring friendship and magic back to their world. It is cheerful and colorful and sweet as candy, with just a little bit of excitement and just enough problems to be solved with courage and teamwork.

Okay? We good? Anything else you’d like to know? Let me unpack some of the semiotics of this story for you. It is as much a sign of the unprecedented high sensitivities of our times as it is the content of the film, but the characters and messages of the film are likely to raise some parental eyebrows and perhaps some hackles as well. The pony children are all told lies in school about the unicorns and the Pegasi. The unicorns are told that the earth ponies are lazy, smell bad, and not very bight. Ponies are taught in school that the unicorns can read minds and fry ponies with laser beams from their horns. One of the parents is a war profiteer whose motto is “To be scared is to be prepared.” She dismisses calls for friendship and cooperation as “hugs and cupcakes.” Terrifying the ponies is good for her business. Another parent is a tyrannical ruler who lies to her people, telling them that she and her daughters have retained the magical powers the rest have lost. When she is found out she is derided as “phony pony full of baloney.” A law enforcement officer abuses his power. The only kind and loving adult is dead (subtly and off-screen, but absent and missed). Also, because this is 2021, one of the characters is a social media influencer, another is a hipster, and there is some hip-hop.

So, there’s a lot going on here for an animated movie about magical horse creatures. I am not sure whether this film is a reflection of the divisiveness of our times or a response to it. I do know that either way, despite the touchy times, no adults should feel criticized or diminished. Instead, they should recognize that the only message here is the real magic of trust, understanding, cooperation, and generosity.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild peril and references to bigotry, and subtle references to the loss of a parent. The adult characters are ineffectual, tyrannical or scaremongering.

Family discussion: When have you been a good friend? When have you learned that what you thought or feared turned out not to be true? How should the characters respond to the queen’s lie? How sneaky are you?

If you like this, try: the other “My Little Pony” movies and the television series — and the episode of “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” where special guest Bill Clinton aces an MLP quiz.

Dear Evan Hansen

Posted on September 23, 2021 at 5:12 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
MPAA Rating: The PG-13 rating is for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive references
Profanity: Brief strong language
Nudity/ Sex: Kisses

Copyright Universal 2021
Adapting a play for the screen is always a challenge, especially when the play is hugely successful because fans are attached to elements of the play that might not work on screen. It is even more of a challenge when the play is a musical. “Dear Evan Hansen” is a multiple award-winning Broadway musical about a teenager struggling with anxiety and depression who impulsively tells a lie to comfort a grieving family. Its transition to film is uneven, sometimes clumsy, sometimes frustrating. One important change improves the original. One important decision not to change weakens the film. And it is too long.

The title comes from a letter high school senior Evan Hansen writes to himself on the advice of his therapist. Hansen is played by Ben Platt, who won a Tony award for his performance in the Broadway, turns 28 this week, and there has been a lot of commentary about whether he is too old to play a teenager. Probably, but the actors were too old to play teenagers in “Grease,” too. The bigger problem is that his performance does not translate completely to screen. He is far more effective as a singer than an actor here. In part that may be due to excessive deference to the performance that has been lauded for years on stage. In part, though, it is attributable to the inherent weakness of the material. The character is written as not much more than a collection of symptoms, longings, and frustrations, and the cinematic storytelling that literally takes us up close and very personal exposes the superficiality of some of the material.

Evan carries his pep talk of a letter to himself to school, where he is alternately ignored or harassed. There is Zoe, a girl he wishes he could figure out how to talk to (25-year-old Kaitlyn Dever). There is a classmate who has to be a little bit nice to him because they are related (Nik Dodani as Jared). There is the girl who seems to have it all together (the radiant Amandla Stenberg as Alana). And there is Zoe’s brother, a troubled, hostile classmate named Connor (Colton Ryan), who misinterprets Evan’s clumsy efforts to be friendly as insulting, and snatches the letter from him in retaliation.

Connor takes his own life. His shattered parents find the letter and think Connor was sending it to Evan, evidence that he had a close friend. Desperate to hold onto any comfort, they beg Evan to tell them about his relationship with Connor. He simply does not have the communication skills to tell them the truth and so he not only pretends that the letter was written by Connor, he makes up a series of stories about their close friendship and what a comfort Connor was to him. He tells Zoe, who is resentful of the trauma Connor’s mental illness inflicted on the family, that Connor cared deeply about her. His ability to comfort Connor’s family perversely gives him a sense of confidence and connection that does more to reduce his anxiety than medication or therapy. Instead of his overworked single mother (Julianne Moore), he spends time with Connor’s parents, Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino), and Zoe, almost accepted as one of their family.

But this cannot continue. I give director Stephen Chbosky (“Wonder”) and writer Steven Levenson, who adapted his script for the play, credit for correcting one of the play’s biggest weaknesses and allowing Evan to more fully accept the consequences of his lies. And I give them a lot of credit for making it clear that one way for Evan to begin to find healing for his own issues is to recognize the vulnerabilities of others. Alana’s honesty in reaching out to him is one of the film’s most powerful moments, and Stenberg once again shows us that she is past promising and already one of the screen’s most accomplished and appealing performers. Dever, also, continues to be a actor of unusual precision in expressing the most subtle and complex emotions. Ryan makes a strong impression, especially in the imagined scenes as Evan makes up stories about him.

It mitigates but does not eliminate the disconnect between the play’s expectation that we will sympathize with Evan more than we do. And I do not think any movie has ever successfully persuaded audiences that what they portray as viral would in the surreal world of social media, actually go viral. But the movie’s message about recognizing the vulnerability of everyone and the importance on empathy for others as a part of growing our own sense of agency, capability, and worthiness is important enough to make up for the uneven pacing and the way that the performances of the younger actors at time seem to be in different movies.

Parents should know that this film includes depictions of mental illness and (offscreen) teen suicide, brief strong language, and some suggestive references.

Family discussion: Reconsider some of the people whose behavior you have thought annoying or difficult to understand in light of this movie. How can you be more supportive of the vulnerable people around you?

If you like this, try: “Wonder” by the same director

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Posted on September 16, 2021 at 5:51 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual content and drug abuse
Profanity: Mild language
Nudity/ Sex: Sexual references and situations
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and prescription drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Corruption, abuse, angry confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 17, 2021

Copyright 2021 Searchlight
Near the beginning of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” an off-camera make-up artist gently suggests that singer/puppeteer/televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain) remove her iconic, one might even say garish, cosmetics. She wipes off her lipstick but the dark lip-liner remains. She explains that it is permanent. Like her eye-liner and eyebrows, it is tattooed on. Underneath the glitz and fakery is more glitz and fakery and it never comes off.

Bakker and her husband Jim (played by Andrew Garfield) were huge in the 80s, first as hosts of the wildly successful PTL (Praise the Lord) channel, with Christian-themed children’s shows, talk shows, and variety shows. In today’s terms, they were influencers. They had millions of fans. And they had millions of people who made fun of them for being grotesque. Especially after they were in disgrace for financial fraud and sexual abuse. Jim Bakker was accused of having non-consensual sex and using $200,000 of PTL’s money to pay her off to stay silent. This led to an investigation which found him guilty of using the viewer’s charitable contributions for his lavish home and other personal expenses. He was found guilty of 24 counts of fraud and served eight years in prison.

2021 seems to be a moment for re-considering the lives of women reduced to national punchlines during scandals in the 80s-00s. “American Crime Story” is co-produced by Monica Lewinsky. Both she and Linda Tripp, the woman who betrayed Lewinsky’s confidences by recording their calls, are given a sympathetic treatment. Britney Spears’ efforts to end the conservatorship that gives her father control over her financial, medical, and professional life has led to a re-evaluation of the derisive jokes about her erratic behavior. A few years ago, we had “I, Tonya,” with a more layered look at skater Tonya Harding. And now Tammy Faye Bakker, portrayed in the media as a silly, helium-voiced nitwit with clownish make-up, is at the center of a story that portrays her as a vulnerable, sometimes struggling soul but a true believer who wanted to bring joy and spread the message of God’s eternal love.

In one key scene, despite the strong anti-gay beliefs of the other televangelists and the frantic fear of the early AIDS era, Tammy Faye insist on interviewing a gay preacher who is HIV-positive. Their conversation is heart-felt and warm. She interviews him remotely because he cannot travel, but she says she wishes she could put her arms around him.

Tammy Faye died in 2007. In her lifetime, she was dismissed as foolish at best, corrupt and hypocritical at worst. She was caricatured on “Saturday Night Live” and thought of as a real-life caricature. But millions of people loved her because she was utterly sincere and genuinely uplifted by her faith and the music it inspired. Chastain makes that side of Tammy Faye clear, as well as the growing disconnect between what she wanted the world to be and what it was. As we see at the beginning, she was shunned from her mother’s ultra-strict church as a child because her parents were divorced. She never lost the sense of looking through the window from the outside, wanting to be accepted. She found that with God, not so much with people. But as we see here, she always tried to be that for everyone else. Chastain and Garfield show us all of the excesses and follies of the Bakkers, but never let us see them as anything less than human, vulnerable, and yes, worthy of love.

Parents should know that this film includes substance abuse, sexual references and situations, anti-gay comments, and corruption, with strong language and some mild violence.

Family discussion: How do the characters’ ideas about the meaning of their faith differ? What mattered most to Tammy Faye Bakker?

If you like this, try: the documentary of the same name

Copshop

Posted on September 16, 2021 at 3:27 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong bloody violence and pervasive language
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Nudity/ Sex: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Apparent drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Constant, extended, and very. bloody peril and violence with extremely graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: September 17, 2021

Copyright 2021 Open Road
I’m going to take a controversial position here. I think writer/director Joe Carnahan is like Tarantino without the burdensome pretension. No fetishization of popular culture, no obsessive fixation on period detail, no pulpy re-imagining of historical facts, no pretense of deeper meaning. No, Carnahan says to us, “If you are a fan of dark humor, a twisty plot, and intense, bloody action, I am here to give it to you in a visually stylish, enjoyably nasty fashion.” That was the case with “Boss Level,” a very entertaining “Groundhog Day”-themed action picture starring Frank Grillo. And it is the case with the almost-as-good “Copshop,” also with Grillo, a contemporary action drama with a 70s vibe.

It has a great premise. Two men are separately arrested for being drunk and disorderly, put in opposite holding cells. It turns out that Teddy (Frank Grillo) wanted to be arrested because someone was trying to kill him and he thought the police station would be the safest place he could be. And it turns out that the man in the opposite cell is Bob (Gerard Butler) who is (a) not drunk and (b) the professional assassin who is trying to kill Teddy, and he got himself arrested with that end in mind. Bob is not the only one who wants to kill Teddy. It is an open contract, so another paid assassin will show up as well. That would be Tony (don’t call him Anthony), a star-making performance by Toby Huss.

Like the 1976 “Assault on Precinct 13” and its 2005 remake, the tension is heightened because almost everything happens in just one location, inside the police station and because there are shifting loyalties. Alexis Louder plays Valerie Young, the only woman police officer in the precinct and with endless competence and integrity. At times both Bob and Teddy do their best to persuade her to trust them — and not the other one. And there is one person on the police force who is less trustworthy than he seems.

Carnahan expertly balances tension, action, and thrills with understated humor and the character of Valerie is immensely appealing, thanks in part to Louder’s charismatic performance. Fortunately, some open questions at the end suggest the possibility of a sequel.

Parents should know that this movie has extended and very graphic and bloody violence including guns, knives, fire, and explosions with many characters injured and killed and disturbing images. Characters are paid assassins and there are references to the off-screen murders of innocent people, including a child. Characters use constant very strong language.

Family discussion: What did Valerie notice that none of the other police officers did? Do you agree with her that “it’s not the brush; it’s the artist?”

If you like this, try: “Boss Level” and “Assault on Precinct 13”

The Card Counter

Posted on September 12, 2021 at 12:41 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for for some disturbing violence, graphic nudity, language and brief sexuality
Profanity: Very strong language
Nudity/ Sex: Sexual references and situation
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and disturbing torture violence and some other peril and violence with graphic images, murder
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 10, 2021

Copyright 2021 Focus
“We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children,” said Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. “There’s a weight a man can accrue,” William (Oscar Isaac) tells us in “The Card Counter.” “The weight created by his past actions. It is a weight which can never be removed.”

And yet, William may think for a moment that the weight can be lifted. We hope so, even as we learn about the unforgiving weight he bears in the latest from the master of the stories of tortured, lonely men, writer/director Paul Schrader, going back to his screenplay for “Taxi Driver.”

He says his name is William Tell, as in the old story about the archer ordered to shoot an apple balanced on the head of his son. As in the overture to “The Lone Ranger.” And as in the word “tell,” which can mean the narration of a story or, in the poker world William lives in, it can mean the inadvertent gesture that reveals more about the opponent’s hand than he or she wants you to know. We later learn that it is not the name on his birth certificate and prison record. So the choice of the name is significant, though it may be more related to the second meaning of the word than the first.

William says he was surprised to find that being confined to prison was more comfortable for him than he expected. He liked the routine. He liked the simplicity. And it was in prison that he learned the kind of concentration and focus that enabled his life after prison, as a highly skilled card player, blackjack and poker. Card counting is a difficult skill that can be learned and those who do it well can compensate for the odds that favor the house in blackjack. William goes from casino to casino, moving all the time and quitting each game early enough that his winnings do not attract anyone’s attention.

He does nothing else. He has so completely blocked out the normal distractions of life that he will not stay in the casinos. They are too filled with distractions and sensory overload. He stays in nondescript motel rooms. But he makes them even more generic, covering every lamp, every piece of furniture with white sheets, tied with twine. There is nothing in his life but the cards.

And then he meets two people. The first is La Linda (Tiffany Haddish in a beautifully understated but confident and layered performance). She is an intermediary between investors who stake top-level poker players as an investment, and she wants to add William to her “stable.” He is not interested.

That is, until he meets Cirk, pronounced Kirk (Tye Sheridan), a troubled young man who has a connection to the events that led to William’s prison sentence. William wants to help him, and that means playing poker in the high-end games La Linda can get him into.

Along the way, we learn about the disgraceful atrocities that Cirk’s father and William inflicted and the disgraceful injustice that had them bearing the responsibility while the instigators flourished. Schrader takes on an ambitious set of issues and understands the way to make it work is to give us believable, flawed but intriguing characters, with magnificent performances and stunning visuals. A scene where La Linda and Willam walk through an illuminated display is one of the most stunning of the year.

And can we just admit at last that Oscar Isaac is one of the finest actors in the world? He is mesmerizing here, the coiled control and the flashes of feeling, of longing, a simply gorgeous performance, one of the best of the year. This is a powerful film that fully earns its power.

Parents should know that this film includes some intense, disturbing and graphic violence, with torture of prisoners by US military, a prison fight, and murder, as well as very strong language, smoking, drinking, and sexual references and situations.

Family discussion: Why did William wrap the furniture? Why was it so important to him to help Cirk?

If you like this, try: “First Reformed” by the same writer/director