The Nativity Play from The Bells of St. Mary’s

Posted on December 25, 2019 at 7:48 am

One of the sweetest Nativity plays of all time, from Bing Crosby’s “Bells of St. Mary’s” with Ingrid Bergman. You can tell that the children improvised much of it themselves — and that Bing knows and is charmed by it.

Merry Christmas!

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Spies in Disguise

Posted on December 24, 2019 at 5:05 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action, violence, and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Transformation potion
Violence/ Scariness: Action/cartoon-style violence, consequences of violence an issue in the film
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters and issues of diversity but includes the "bad buy with disabilities" cliche
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2019
Date Released to DVD: March 9, 2020

Copyright 20th Century Fox 2019
Will Smith is one of the most charismatic performers in movie history, and his confident physical grace and handsome face are movie magic. But it just might be that his highest and best use is as the voice of an animated character, For “Spies in Disguise” he plays super-spy Lance Sterling, as cool and crisp as a stirred-not-shaken martini, who never musses his impeccably tailored tuxedo as he takes on dozens of bad guys with an assortment of whiz-bang gadgets, an occasional well-placed karate chop, and a banging playlist. Like Robin Williams in “Aladdin,” only animation can keep up with Smith’s mercurial imagination (and help us forget Smith’s well-intentioned but short-of-the-mark efforts to re-create that character in this year’s live actin version). Smith does not cycle kaleidoscopically between dozens of characters as Williams did; he is always himself, but as we see here he contains rapidly shifting moods and thoughts that “Spies in Disguise” brings to life with visual wit and energy that match everything Smith brings to the film. “Spies in Disguise” is a stylish spy caper with heart and humor, an endearing friendship, and an equally endearing affection for Team Weird. Come on, you know you’re part of that team, too.

Lance is after some sort of MacGuffin thingamajig about to be sold by international weapons dealer Kimora (Masi Oka) to a mysterious buyer with a robot hand named (in case we didn’t know he was the villain) Killian, played by Ben Mendelsohn, who seems to own all the bad guy roles these days. (It is too bad this film could not avoid the tired convention of the evil guy with disabilities.) With astounding skill and panache — and some cool-spy quips — Lance saves the day and is greeted at home back in CIA headquarters as a hero.

Until….it turns out that the briefcase he so cleverly snatched away from Killian is empty. And it also turns out that surveillance footage shows Lance himself is the one who grabbed the whateveritis. Suddenly, the whole CIA is after him.

Meanwhile, Walter (“Spider-Man’s” Tom Holland) is a quirky, unashamedly weird gadget guy whose non-violent inventions include the “inflatable hug” protective device and “kitty glitter” that distracts the bad guys with adorable pictures of cats suspended in air. He was working out of tiny closet-like space in the CIA, until he was impulsively fired by Lance.

Lance likes to think he works alone and never needs anyone else’s help. But it is part of his job to know how to solve problems, and he has to admit that not only does he need help to hide from the agency while he tracks down whoever is pretending to be him, he is going to need resources he cannot get from the CIA any more.

Unfortunately, the only one who can help him is Walter, who is now pretty much off the grid as far as the CIA is concerned. Lance remembers Walter saying he could make spies disappear. So, Lance tracks him down and then discovers that it’s not “disappear” as in “invisible.” It’s “disappear” as in “bio-dynamic concealment,” transformation at the cellular level into someone, or something, no one will notice.

Lance learns too late that what he was been turned into is a pigeon. “Un-bird me!” he demands. But the antidote will take some time. And as much as Lance resists help, there are some things he cannot do as a winged creature who weighs about two pounds. So, Lance-as-pigeon and Walter with a backpack of gadgets and his personal comfort pigeon Lovey go off to find Kimora and Killian.

In the midst of all the action, Walter and Lance have a thoughtful conversation about the best way to resolve conflict. Lance believes in fighting fire with fire (“Evil doesn’t care that you’re nice”) and he never wants to depend on anyone. Walter believes in working as a team and does not think that hurting other people solves anything. This slightly mitigates the unfortunate reliance on the outdated cliche of a disfigured/disabled bad guy by making Lance face (literally) the consequences of his dashing “fire with fire” strategy.

Directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quade have created a film that is gorgeously designed with a swanky, stylish, slightly retro design, “Spies in Disguise” is visually bright, graphic, and engaging, and the characters and their interactions are vivid and appealing. Here’s hoping Blue Sky retains its quirky charm under its new ownership — and that we get to see Lance and Walter team up again.

Parents should know that the film has extended cartoon/action-style peril and action, with some characters injured and killed, chases, shoot-outs, and explosions. A theme of the movie is the consequence of collateral damage. There is some schoolyard language and some potty humor. Unfortunately, the movie relies on the outdated cliche of the disfigured/disabled villain whose injuries are a reason for his cruelty and anger.

Family discussion: Which of Walter’s gadgets would you like to have? Who is on your team and whose team are you on? What’s the best part of being weird?

If you like this, try: “Megamind,” “Robots,” and “Rio”

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Little Women

Posted on December 24, 2019 at 5:00 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements and brief smoking
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, brief smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Very sad death, references to other deaths including death of a baby
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2019
Date Released to DVD: April 6, 2020
Copyright 2019 Sony Pictures

You need to know where I’m coming from on this one. There is no book more central to my life than Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. My mother, Josephine Baskin Minow, has been Jo since she first read Little Women when she was a child, And now our children call her Marmee. I loved it so much that I read all the other Alcott books on the library shelf (I especially recommend Eight Cousins and An Old Fashioned Girl). Little Women has been central to the lives of young women for more than 150 years, inspired by its heroine, who was inspired by Alcott herself. Jo March is fiercely loyal, impetuous, impatient, and a writer, both eager and reluctant to find her own voice. Authors who name the book as a major influence range from Cynthia Ozick, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ursula Le Guin and Nora Ephron to “Twilight”‘s Stephenie Meyer.

Alcott’s semi-autobiographical story of four sisters has been adapted many times, including a Broadway musical, a 48-chapter Japanese anime series, an opera, and films starring Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Winona Ryder. The most recent BBC version (of four) was shown in the United States on PBS. One of two major adaptations last year was a modern-day retelling with a quartet of appealing young actresses, adapted with skill and understanding by writer/director Clare Niederpruem.

So, my standards and expectations could not have been higher and it is my very great pleasure to tell you that this new film from writer/director Greta Gerwig exceeded them all. Writer/director Greta Gerwig not only loves and understands the book, she also appreciates that in 2019 we are only beginning to catch up to Alcott’s vision of what is possible for young women and for all of us. Those who do not know Alcott’s work or have only seen the early versions may think that Gerwig has “modernized” the story. But every part of it comes from Alcott (some from other writings) and every part of it is entirely consistent with her fierce, independent, and devoted spirit and rebellious energy. And Saoirse Ronan is the best Jo March yet, her long-limbed coltishness not so much “boyish” as vitally engaged in a world that cannot always keep up with her.

The book was originally written in two parts, but the second volume (called Good Wives) has been a part of what we know as Little Women for more than a century. Gerwig begins the story in the middle of the second book as the now-adult Jo (a teenager in the first volume) meets with a newspaper publisher (a charmingly crusty and wry performance from playwright Tracy Letts, last seen as Henry Ford II in “Ford v. Ferrari”). In case we are not as quick as he is to see through her claim to be bringing stories written by a “friend,” Gerwig lets us see the ink that still stains her fingers. When her story is accepted (with the moralizing parts cut out), she exuberantly races home.

Then, as we will throughout the film, we go back and forth between the two parts of the story, indicated by different color pallattes, the warmer hues for the earlier years, when the girls were all at home and their father (Bob Odenkirk) was a Union volunteer in the Civil War. There were struggles and growing pains, but there was also a sense of purpose and possibility that is not as clear in the cooler-hued older years, when Jo is in New York living in a boarding house, and Amy (Florence Pugh) is touring Europe and studying art. Pugh may be too old for Amy in the early scenes, but she and Gerwig give Amy far more depth than any previous portrayal (perhaps including Alcott’s). Emma Watson is lovely as oldest sister Meg (obligatory complaint about what was left out of this version — the scenes of Meg coming to John’s defense when Aunt March attacks him and the scene of her showing off her “new dress” to him). Gerwig’s script softens the professor’s critique of Jo’s more lurid stories-for-hire and his involvement in getting the book-within-a-book published, but the scene of his telling her that the melodramatic stories she is writing for money are not good is still an important turning point.

Laura Dern plays Marmee, a woman of character, courage, and intention. The private moment she takes in the foyer of the house to make sure she can greet her daughters with good cheer on Christmas morning after caring for the impoverished Hummels is a small master class of acting. When Marmee tells Jo that she still struggles with anger every day, we see where Jo got her inner fire and how inner fire can become the foundation for determination and principle.

And then there is Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, the sensitive boy whose temperament is protected from becoming headstrong and careless by the example of the March family, their attitude toward work and also their attitude toward fun. Like Laurie to Jo, Chalamet is a perfect match for his “Lady Bird” co-star Ronan, and we could happily watch a whole movie of them putting on plays, attending riotous meetings of the Pickwick Society, and skating on the pond.

It is still one of the all-time great coming-of-age stories of a family and an artist finding her voice. By putting making the early year portion of the film flashbacks that comment on, provide context for, and deepen the “present-day” storylines, Gerwig makes us ready for a perfect ending that brings Alcott, her fictional avatar, and the story of all of us who have tried to tell our stories together.

Parents should know that this film includes a sad death and reference to other deaths including the death of a baby, family stress and conflict, and brief smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: Which sister is most like you? Was the publisher right about the ending to the story? Why do so many women, especially writers, say that this story was their most important inspiration?

If you like this, try: the book by Louisa May Alcott and the other movie and miniseries versions of this story

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Interview: Anthony McCarten, Screenwriter of The Two Popes

Posted on December 20, 2019 at 7:22 am

My interview with screenwriter Anthony McCarten (“Bohemian Rhapsody,” “The Theory of Everything”) about “The Two Popes” has been published by the Association of Women Film Journalists. An excerpt:

Sometimes history is made by groups of people in labs or courtrooms or legislative bodies or battlefields. Sometimes history is made by two people talking to each other quietly. We hear those stories less often. It may be that what makes those changes possible is keeping them secret. Perhaps that is what makes imagining them so irresistible. That is what screenwriter Anthony McCarten has done in fact-based films like Bohemian Rhapsody, The Darkest Hour, and his latest, The Two Popes.

For the first time in nearly 700 years, a pope (Sir Anthony Hopkins as the more conservative Pope Benedict) resigned instead of serving until death. That made it possible for him to play an unprecedented role in encouraging and supporting the choice of his successor, Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce as the first pope from the Americas).

Copyright Netflix 2019

In an interview, McCarten talked about what “great directing” by Fernando Meirelles added to the film, and why this is his “most adventurous” film…..Minow: In some of your other films based on real-life characters you had tremendous amounts of information about what went on even in their private moments. You had correspondence and diaries as well as a lot of documentation of their public moments. But here you really had to imagine conversations that no one knows anything about.

McCarten: You’re quite right. This is probably the most adventurous of the films I’ve done. There’s some artistic license but, I hope no less responsible than anything that I’ve done and ultimately, hopefully, no less truthful. These conversations that I imagined are based on deep research. In fact I did so much research that there’s an accompanying nonfiction book that you can buy in all good bookstores which shows how I really went into their pasts and looked at all the circumstances surrounding the resignation of Pope Benedict. It’s essential in all these ventures that you get it right as much as possible and in this particular case it is literally sacred ground. So, it cannot be careless and it cannot be flippant in any way. It has to be embedded in known truths. In fact, even when I create these long dialogues between these two, those dialogues are reflections of their stated positions about the future of this 2000 year old institution.

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