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White Noise

Posted on December 1, 2022 at 5:15 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some strong language
Nudity/ Sex: Sexual references and situations
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Apocalyptic themes
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters

Copyright 2022 Netflix
Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise won the National Book Award for fiction. It was an apocalyptic satire about a couple in an academic community who both have a sense of dread and fear of death, and what happens when a toxic cloud causes a massive evacuation. Pretty much everyone agreed that it was un-filmable because so much of its value depended on the book’s tone, which would be impossible to convey on screen. But Noah Bumbach decided that for his first time directed a script based on a book (he co-wrote but did not direct the adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox”) White Noise would be it.

It’s probably even more of a challenge to translate to film now than it was 27 years ago because some of the wildest exaggerations of the satire now seem to be commonplace elements of our daily life. And its reflections on consumerism and the way we separate ourselves from daily and existential considerations are too well-traveled to be meaningful without some freshness in their presentation.

Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) is a professor at the fictional College on the Hill, married to Babette (Greta Gerwig), a warm-hearted woman with intensely crimped hair. Each has been married three times before, and they blended family includes children from the previous relationships and one they had together. They have a loving, intimate relationship, though both are pre-occupied with a fear of death and talk about which one of them will die first.

Jack is a pioneer in Hitler studies, though he does not speak German. He has a new colleague, Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle), who lectures on popular culture themes like car crashes in movies and hopes to be the leading scholar on Elvis Presley. One of the film’s highlights is an almost rap battle after Murray asks Jack to help him by participating in his class.

Some kind of toxic cloud descends, triggering an evacuation. As families shelter in a gigantic warehouse, Jack learns that because he stopped to put gas in the car, his exposure may mean that he has only a short time to live. The bureaucratic obtuseness is briefly touched on, and then the story swings into trying to find out what medicine Babette has been taking.

Bumbach is skilled at intimate, complicated family dramas like “The Squid and the Whale” and “Marriage Story.” He is not able to find a heightened tone for this narrative with the different directions of its three stories and characters who are more symbolic than real. Driver and Gerwig both give excellent performances but they are too sincere and accessible for this brittle material. The credit sequence is the best part of the movie, coming closer to matching the themes than the two hours leading up to it.

Parents should know that this film deals with apocalyptic issues and family struggles over drugs and adultery. There is some peril and violence including guns and attempted murder. Characters use strong language.

Family discussion: How have things changed since this book was written and the era it depicts? Why didn’t Babette tell Jack the truth?

If you like this, try: the book by Don DeLillo and Baumbach’s other films

Family Movies for Thanksgiving

Posted on November 22, 2022 at 7:55 am

Copyright 1973 United Features Syndicate

There are some great Thanksgiving movies for adults. And here are some for the whole family to share.

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving This is the one with the famous episode about Charlie Brown trying to kick the football Lucy keeps snatching away from him. And Peppermint Patty invites herself to Charlie Brown’s house for Thanksgiving and he is too kind-hearted to tell her that he won’t be there because his family is going to his grandmother’s. When the Peanuts gang comes over for a feast prepared by Charlie Brown himself, Patty gets angry at being served toast and jelly beans. But when she realizes how hard her friend tried to be hospitable, she learns what gratitude really means.

Dora’s Thanksgiving Parade Dora the Explorer has to save the day when the parade float gets lost.

Squanto and the First Thanksgiving , Native American actor Graham Greene and musician Paul McCandless tell the story of Squanto’s extraordinary generosity and leadership in reaching out to the Pilgrims after he had been sold into slavery by earlier European arrivals in the New World.

An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving Jacqueline Bisset stars in this warm-hearted tale, based on a short story by Louisa May Alcott (Little Women).

My favorite Thanksgiving movies are “What’s Cooking?” with four families preparing for the holiday and “Pieces of April,” about a family, including a terminally ill mother, driving to an estranged daughter for Thanksgiving. Both are funny, touching, and wise. Wishing all of you a Thanksgiving filled with gratitude for being together, even the crazy parts.

Strange World

Posted on November 21, 2022 at 12:00 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action/perio and thematic elements
Profanity: None
Nudity/ Sex: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy peril
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: November 22, 2022

Copyright Disney 2022
Disney’s gorgeously animated, thrilling, and tender “Strange World” is a treat, with all of the fabulously imaginative artistry and all of the heart of Disney’s best. The world it shows us might be strange in some of its elements, but it is very familiar at its core to anyone who has ever been in a family while discovering identity, place, and meaning.

It begin with an introduction to the Clades, beautifully rendered in entrancing vintage comic-book visuals. Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) is a burly adventurer with an impressive mustache, exploring anywhere no one has ever been, not really noticing that his young son, aspirationaly named Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), would much rather stop and look at interesting plants than grab a machete or ice-ax to make it over the next obstacle. “We’re explorers, not gardeners,” Jaeger says.

When Searcher is 15, Jaeger leads an expedition with an urgent purpose. The community of Avalonia is no longer sustainable. They are hoping that the unexplored area on the other side of the mountains will give them a place to relocate. When Searcher notices a glowing plant that could be a power source to keep Avalonia vibrant, he tries to make Jaeger halt the expedition to investigate. Jaeger is impatient. “Don’t be distracted by sparkly plants.” He insists on continuing, while the rest of the group decides to bring the plant back home. Jaeger is never seen again, presumed lost forever.

25 years later Avalonia has become a thriving community, with the plant, called pando, its all-purpose energy source. Searcher is happily settled as a pando farmer with his crop-duster wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union). Their teenage son Ethan (stand-up comic Jaboukie Young-White) is grossed out when his parents smooch, loves the imaginative table-top card game Primal Outpost, and is tongue-tied around his crush, a boy named Diazo. They also have an endearing three-legged shaggy dog named Legend.

One day, the pando in Meridian’s plane mysteriously stops working. And then a spaceship arrives with Avalonia President Callisto (Lucy Liu), who was with Searcher on Jaeger’s last expedition. She tells Searcher that pando is not individual, distinct sprouts but one connected growth. If one part of it is dying, soon all of it will be and the source of Avalonia’s power will be gone. Callisto needs Searcher to do exactly what he said he never wanted to do again — go on an expedition. He reluctantly agrees, insisting that Meridian and Ethan stay home on the farm.

Soon we are in the very strange world they literally fall into. This is where the Disney artists had the chance to dream up wildly fantastical landscapes and creatures that are enthralling and delightful. As the group tries to find out what is killing the pando there are many surprises I will not spoil except to say that the movie is exceptionally insightful in weaving together themes of interconnectedness and individuality. It even ties in Ethan’s favorite Primal Outpost, a game I fully expect Disney will make available for future tabletop tournaments and just for collectors as the cards are extraordinarily beautiful. Like the original “Frozen” and its sequel (producer Jennifer Lee is “Frozen’s” co-director), it gently challenges some conventional fantasy storylines.

“Strange World” is Disney at its best, filled with excitement, fabulously imaginative visuals, and a deep understanding of what makes stories connect to us and connect us to each other. The surroundings may be strange, but the themes are universal, lovingly illuminated.

Parents should know that this movie has fantasy peril and violence including a flame-thrower and a knife. There are themes of environmental destruction. The movie has exceptionally diverse characters, all very well designed without stereotyping and all supportive of each other.

Family discussion: How are you different from your parents? How are you alike?

If you like this, try: “Encanto” and “Big Hero Six”

The Fabelmans

Posted on November 20, 2022 at 3:16 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, brief violence, some strong language, and drug use
Nudity/ Sex: Teen kissing, references to adultery
Alcohol/ Drugs: alcohol, marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Bullies
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 23, 2022

Copyright 2022 Universal
A small boy is about to see his first movie, and it is 1952, so it is in a big, dark theater, on a big, bright screen. His engineer father is explaining persistence of vision, the optical/neurological factors that make us think that still pictures shown to us 22 times a second are moving. “The photographs pass faster than your brain can keep up.” His artist/musician mother has a different description of what movies are: “They’re like dreams that we never forget.” And of course, both are right.

That boy will be dazzled by the movie, which would go on to win the Oscar for best picture in 1952, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” an exciting story of a circus. The train crash sequence was so big and so real that he could not get it out of his mind for days and days. He asks his parents for a train set for Hanukkah, and as he opened up a new train car each night he imagined re-creating — understanding — controlling — that crash. His father (Paul Dano as Burt) chides him for breaking the train. His mother (Michelle Williams as Mitzi) suggests that he take the family’s home movie camera and film one last crash, so he can watch it as many times as he likes.

As the title suggests, “The Fabelmans” has a touch of myth, of movie magic, as Mrs. Fabelman would say, a dream. But it is also as Mr. Fabelman would approve, grounded in facts and mechanical reality. Steven Spielberg co-wrote the film with Tony Kushner, based on his own life as a child and a teenager. It brims with love for his family, with the kind of understanding that it takes decades to achieve, if ever. And it is told with the true mastery of a brilliant filmmaker equally grounded in the mechanics of movies and the creation of big, engrossing dreams for us to watch together in the dark.

No one understands cinematic storytelling better than Spielberg, and seeing him tell his own story using the very techniques this film gives us a chance to see as they develop makes this one of the best films of the year and one of the best films ever from a master storyteller. Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski and music by Spielberg’s longtime favorite John Williams gorgeously evoke the past without making it seem musty or distant. Watching it feels like a gift.

As the movie begins, money is tight and Burt has to supplement his salary by fixing televisions. But his gift in designing the fundamentals that would lead to personal computers leads to a new job offer in Phoenix. The Fabelmans move, and Burt brings along his best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen), so beloved by everyone that he feels like family. Burt is a loving husband and father but very serious and methodical. Bennie is fun, always making everyone laugh.

Sammy keeps making movies, casting his younger sisters and later his Boy Scout troop in remarkably ambitious and creative films (you can see the real ones, meticulously re-created here, on YouTube). As a teenager, now sensitively played by Gabriel LaBelle, his movies get more complex. In one lovely moment, a hole punched in sheet music by a high heeled shoe inspires a brilliant and very analog special effect only the son of both an artist and an engineer could concoct.

Form and content follow each other and intertwine, especially with a sensational final shot, as Sammy/Steve begins to understand the potential and the power of story-telling. When his mother is sad, his father asks him to make a movie to cheer her up. When he is editing one of his family films, he sees on celluloid what he missed when he was standing there. When he cannot tell his mother why he is upset, shows her a film to explain. In an agonizing moment, he cradles the camera like a teddy bear. Through chance, he is able to use a professional camera and through a combination of determination and chance he meets and gets some surprising advice from one of the all-time movie greats.

He is confronted with the challenges of family conflict and adolescence. He is bullied for being Jewish. He wants to kiss a girl. He feels betrayed by two people he loves. An uncle in show business (a terrific brief role for Judd Hirsch) tells him that he will always be torn between love and art — and that he will choose art.

Williams and Dano are superb as the Fabelmans. As Mitzi watches the movie Sammy made for her and as she tries to explain a difficult decision to Sammy we see clearly the range of emotions she is feeling, including the perpetual struggle of all parents between her needs and the wishes of her children. Spielberg and Kushner bring compassion to these characters that they themselves struggle to find.

They also convey the exceptional ability to observe and analyze that is the great gift of any artist, to be cherished and nourished by imagination, but that must be reined in to allow for personal connection. Only the rarest of talents can bring both to their work and that is what makes this film a joy.

NOTE: My daughter worked on some of the costumes of this film which are, of course, outstanding under the direction of Oscar-winner Mark Bridges.

Parents should know that this film includes family tensions, adultery, and divorce, some strong language, alcohol and marijuana.

Family discussion: Why could Sammy see things more clearly through the camera than he could without it? Why was Logan upset by the Ditch Day movie? How did each of his parents influence Sammy?

If you like this, try: “Belfast” and Spielberg movies like “E.T. the Extraterrestrial” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”

Sam & Kate

Posted on November 10, 2022 at 5:01 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and drug use
Profanity: Strong language
Nudity/ Sex: Non-explicit sexual situation, crude references
Alcohol/ Drugs: Marijuana and alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 11, 2022
Copyright 2022 Vertical Entertainment

The movie is called Sam and Kate, but it is equally about Bill and Tina. And it is about the actors who play them. Bill is played by Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman. and his son Sam is played by Hoffman’s real-life son, Jake Hoffman. Tina is played by Oscar-winner Sissy Spacek, and her daughter Kate is played by Spacek’s real-life daughter, Schuyler Fisk. That real-life connection gives the film extra interest and extra grounding. There is a palpable sense of trust in the scenes of Sam and Kate interacting with their parents that lets them show frustration without making us for a moment doubt their love.

It will take a while for Sam and Kate to learn that they have a lot in common. They each lived somewhere else and have returned to a small town to help care for their parents. Bill is cranky and demanding. We first see Sam resignedly sitting on a chair in a huge big box store as Bill rides around on a scooter annoying the staff. Tina and Kate have a warmer relationship, but we will learn that Tina is more dependent on Kate than she seemed.

Sam loves to draw but he is stuck working at a chocolate factory. His Kate owns a bookstore. Both are feeling isolated and lost, though Sam has hoped that Kate will help him feel less lost. He awkwardly tries to ask her out in her store but she says she is not dating at the moment.

On Christmas, all four attend the same church service. When Tina’s car stalls in the church parking lot, Bill tries to help, and the four get acquainted. Bill takes Tina on a date and Kate agrees to let Sam take her out.

First time feature riter/director Darren Le Gallo is better with the in-between moments than the plot developments, which is often the case with beginners who have not yet learned to trust the audience. When the chaacters are just interacting quietly they convey a great deal and the events interrupt the delicacy of those scenes. Jake Hoffman, very impressive in small roles in “The Wolf of Wall Street” (as shoe designer turned felon Steve Madden) and in the otherwise disappointing “Otherhood” moves smoothly into a central role. And Fisk, an engaging screen presence going back to 1995’s “Babysitter’s Club,” has a lovely, expressive light. Watching them together as Sam and Kate begin to open up despite all of the baggage and self-protective distance and fear of vulnerability is touching and a reminder that it is those in between moments that can matter most.

Parents should know that this film has a non-explicit sexual situation and some crude sexual references, strong language, alcohol and marijuana, and a sad death.

Family discussion: Why did Sam and Kate change over the course of the film? What kind of help did they give their parents?

If you like this, try: “”Kalbuey,” “Laggies,” “Maggie’s Plan,” and “A Little Help”